Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is absolutely delightful. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, the 2010 Finnish comedy-horror film has a sly sense of humor, a creepy troupe of monsters, and a youthful sense of wonder. Based on his somewhat grimmer 2003 and 2005 shorts, the full-length version of Rare Exports plays like a children’s movie that took a left turn at Albuquerque and just kept on going.

rare exports

***

Rare Exports’s plot is quite simple, resembling nothing so much as a strange, silly fairy tale. It is set just before Christmas, on Korvatunturi Mountain at the Finnish-Russian border. Legend has it that the mountain is a vast grave where ancient Laplanders buried the frozen body of a gigantic demon.

A foreign mining company is excavating there, looking for the legend. They uncover something big, and dangerous–especially if you misbehave. Pietari, a young boy who still believes in Santa Claus, accidently sees what the miners have dug up and realizes that he will need to work fast to keep his family safe.

No-one believes Pietari’s warnings. But when his father captures a bloodthirsty, not-so-jolly old elf and tries to sell him back to the mining company, they discover that the elf is not the real problem at all. And so Pietari takes control of the situation, ordering his father and the other men around according to his own clever plan and ultimately saving the day.

rare exports***

The cast is outstanding. Onni Tommila and his father, Jorma, play the heroic Pietari and his father, Rauno. Ilmari Järvenpää plays Pietari’s slightly older and cooler friend, Juuso, while Tommi Korpela plays Juuso’s English-speaking dad Aimo. Rauno Juvonen rounds out the group as Piiparinen, Rauno’s friend and sometime village Santa Claus–the traditional kind.

rare exports***

Rare Exports’s horror element is not exactly horrifying. The dirty, feral, naked old elves are as ridiculous as they are dangerous. They are Santa’s helpers, all right, eating gingerbread, sniffing the air for children, killing anyone who curses, drinks, or smokes, and working to release their master from his imprisonment. Wisely, Rare Exports’s monster-Santa is left to our imaginations, showing up as illustrations in various old books and as a huge pair of curved horns jutting out of an enormous block of ice.

The comedy is rather gentle, as well. Pietari, his father, and their friends tend toward goofiness rather than cruelty, and they are all basically honest people. But that does not mean there isn’t a lot of blood. Pietari’s dad butchers reindeer for a living. Somebody loses an ear. The elves do their killing with shovels and pickaxes. Gore happens, but somehow the movie manages to keep the mood light and playful.

I think the never ending supply of gingerbread has something to do with it.

***

Will Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale become a holiday staple like It’s a Wonderful Life, or Gremlins? Maybe. It certainly has plenty of family warmth, charm, and the magic of the season to go with its murderous elves and commercial aspirations.

And really, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

nightflyers

Nightflyers is a beautiful and ambitious ten episode series currently unfolding on SyFy. Unfortunately, while the show is visually striking it is extremely derivative, without the focus or attention to detail to be a proper pastiche.

***

The titular ship looks like a blend of inspirations from Alien, Event Horizon, and Silent Running. Various flourishes from Don’t Look Now, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, and Psycho are also pressed into service. It does not entirely gel.

Plotwise, we are confronted from the beginning with a plague, quarantines, overpopulation, genetic engineering, body modifications, murderous telepaths, first contact, memory recordings and memory wipes. Nightflyers is stuffed to the gills with details meant as world-building, but they lack the context and connections that would make them work. Instead, we end up with a fairly standard horror movie drifting serenely through outer space.

***

Based on George R.R. Martin’s novella (which I haven’t read, so I cannot make a comparison), the series is unsatisfying. Set in 2093, Nightflyers takes place aboard a colony ship whose captain has agreed to bring a scientific crew into an area of space known as the Void with the hope of making first contact with an alien species. Things, predictably, go wrong.

The science fiction aspects of Nightflyers are frustratingly mushy. Genetically engineered for space seems to mean stunningly attractive, grossly self-absorbed, and able to withstand high doses of radiation for up to four minutes. Cutting edge psychology appears to be cutting out any unwanted memories and everything attached to them. Memory recordings are a thing, even if you don’t want the memories erased. Computers appear to be just this side of magic. Which would all be excusable, if the characters were compelling.

Alas.

***

Three of the actors in this ensemble manage to breathe life into their rote characters. Maya Eshet brings a convincing vulnerability and wariness to her portrayal of the cyber-enhanced Lommie which made me want to follow her every twitch. Angus Sampson’s Rowan, the xenobiologist, resembles a heavier Tim Curry and comes across as both charmingly irreverent and deeply committed to the mission. And Sam Strike’s performance as the tortured telepath, Thale, conveys depth and layers to the character that the thin writing does not.

However, not all the characters fare as well. Eoin Macken plays Karl D’Branin, a scientist with an overstuffed backstory now leading a team toward possible first contact. I think he is supposed to be driven, but he comes off as kind of a jerk. As Dr. Agatha Matheson, Gretchen Mol spends entirely too much time asking everyone around her to just trust Thale. Agatha, conveniently, both the overinvolved psychologist responsible for keeping the dangerous telepath in check as well as Karl’s ex lover.

Rounding out the main cast, Jodie Turner-Smith’s Melantha is manipulative and arrogant and without any explicit purpose on the mission, David Ajala’s Captain Roy Eris is intense yet clumsily motivated, and Brian O’Byrne’s Chief Engineer Auggie is written in a way that makes his role in the storyline obvious.

There is no sense of a chance of getting to know these characters. They exist to get the plot from beginning to end, with a few not-terribly-surprising twists along the way.

***

In the end, Nightflyers is no worse than many other science fiction shows. But its unmitigated seriousness wears thin very quickly. Characters and story this self-important belong in a sweeping epic, not in derivative space-horror.

My opinion of Nightflyers is based on the five episodes released over the course of last week. I will more than likely watch the second five, as well, if only for completeness’s sake. I don’t actually dislike the show. Aspects of it are quite good. I simply don’t find enough there to grow attached to.

don't look now

don't look nowNicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now has long been considered a classic of the horror genre. But it was the director’s recent death that inspired me to finally watch it. I’m glad I did. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s chilly short story, Don’t Look Now is not just a grim, ghostly tale. In fact, the supernatural elements are background to the central agony. Don’t Look Now is a study in two people crumbling under the weight of grief, and watching their pain is disturbing in a way that monsters cannot be.

Nothing Is What It Seems

Don’t Look Now is driven by the painfully direct performances of Donald Sutherland as John Baxter, and Julie Christie as Laura Baxter. Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania are more collected as the sisters Heather and Wendy. The rest of the cast manages a consistent, cool disconnectedness from the Baxters’ pain.

don't look nowThe story begins with a tragedy. John and Laura Baxter have moved to Venice temporarily, following the accidental drowning of their daughter, Christine. John is preoccupied with his work restoring an ancient church, while Laura is left at loose ends.

Laura is on the verge of a breakdown. John is distant. Their marriage is fraying.

When they meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be clairvoyant, Laura attaches herself to them. They tell Laura that her daughter is there, with her parents, and happy. They also warn her that John is in danger, and needs to leave Venice.

Laura is thrilled to know her daughter is happy, and actively chooses the comforting fantasy while still urging her husband to go home until the threat is past. John believes the sisters are running a scam of some sort, yet he begins to notice a small, cloaked figure that he conflates with his daughter. As the film progresses, John’s and Laura’s beliefs see-saw between what is true, what is imagined, and what they want to be real.

don't look nowThe sense of dread in Don’t Look Now comes from the reactions John and Laura have to their daughter’s death. While Laura is heartbreakingly fragile, John too is coming apart at the seams. He tries to appease his wife, indulging her growing friendship with the sisters. But when he snaps at her that their daughter is “dead, dead, dead” she places the blame on him so blithely, so matter-of-factly, that its impact is stunning.

A Study in Scarlet

Don’t Look Now has few secrets after forty five years, but its impact is still profound. Stylized and portentous, the story is doled out in intercut scenes and flashes of memory. Roeg’s technique keeps the viewer off-balance without confusing the narrative. The once-shocking sex scene has become tame over the years, but the graphic pain of Christine drowning will never dim.

don't look nowThe use of the colour red throughout is already well-known, as is the recurring motif of water–flowing, spilling, dripping. Onscreen the juxtaposition of colour and texture is absorbing, pulling the viewer into the subtly threatening world of the film. Close-ups of the actors create an uncomfortable effect. Rather than inspiring intimacy, they become alienating. We are shown things that may or may not exist outside the characters’ imaginations. We are left as lost as they are.

The muddy ugliness of the child’s death is echoed by the dank loneliness of Venice. The city is filmed as dim and full of echoes, with too many dark, empty alleys to get lost in. And although Laura and John are familiar with Venice and its old ways, they remain outsiders. There is a distance between the English visitors and the native city dwellers expressed through unreadable expressions and dismissive questions, and attitudes that treat the Baxters as difficult and troublesome.

Dead, Dead, Dead

Roeg’s film is a classic for a reason, and I recommend it for what it reveals. The horror infecting Don’t Look Now is not the supernatural. It is the inescapable pain of loss. Loss drives the characters to believe in the impossible, to follow leads they know are lies, to pretend everything is finally all right. None of it works. The only escape is, at last, to break with the real world and accept the ghosts.

art & arcana
art & arcana
Just getting started

Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a huge, gorgeous compendium of what helps make Dungeons &Dragons so wonderful. Leafing through it brings up so many memories that I can’t gush adequately about it. The art is all so familiar, evoking the glorious campaigns our DM ran, the several editions I played, and the characters I created. I recognized the covers of the paperbacks my friends and I read, and the box art for the coveted miniature sets which I still have, and still use.

***

“It all started with one thousand curious boxes marked with unfamiliar symbols and verbiage.”

***

This is not merely a coffee-table art book.  Art & Arcana fully lives up to its subtitle as a rich and thorough history of Dungeons & Dragons. Interspersed with and guided by the lavish artwork is the narrative of the rise and fall of Gary Gygax and TSR and the game’s renewal under Wizards of the Coast.

art & arcana
All you need to know

Art & Arcana incorporates the several attempts to portray D&D as some sort of Satanic cult into its history, and the changes made to the game’s art and advertising in order to counter those smears. This leads into the many attempts TSR made to branch out into the mainstream.

D&D was adapted into handheld electronics in the early 1980s, with all the wonders of that era’s graphics. Somewhat more sophisticated computer versions followed in the late 80’s. Along the way, Dungeons & Dragons ventured into records, candy, coloring books, Viewmaster slides, Colorforms, a Saturday morning cartoon that spawned a board game, and even a pinball machine.

***

Of course Art & Arcana is thick with profiles of the artists, from the early, often teen-aged illustrators to the professional artists TSR and later companies eventually hired as D&D grew. Some examples of my favorites include Erol Otus and his classic cover of the original Dieties & Demigods; Clyde Caldwell’s iconic original art for 1983’s Ravenloft; and Darlene’s epic map of Greyhawk. In addition to the instantly-recognized classic art, the beautifully realized D&D variations found in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and Spelljammer are all included here as well.

art & arcana
Tiamat through the years

The development of the classic sets and modules, and how the maps and character sheets became refined over time, are explained as well. Two-page spreads detail the changes in how orcs, dragons, beholders, mindflayers, and other terrible beasts were drawn over the years, from the amateurish early versions to the vivid, polished monsters of today.

Even the influence of the indispensable miniature is covered, from the first cheap plastic monsters to the original MiniFigs and Grenadier figures, and on to TSR’s own official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures. There is nothing about how hard it is to paint the eyes, though.

***

“This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”

***
art & arcana
Behold! The Beholder

Authors Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer have done a spectacular job of showing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in all its colorful glory. Anyone who has played any of the editions or variations will find something in Art & Arcana to reminisce over. It is a beautiful book that I will be going back to, over and over again.

 

fledgling

fledglingFledgling, Octavia E. Butler’s final novel, is a disconcerting read that takes on vampires, racism, and cultural creation myths in one long gulp. Told entirely from the viewpoint of an amnesiac child of a symbiotic species, Fledgling challenges the reader to accept an alien physiology and culture and its unusual intersections with human lives. While imperfect and at times jarring, it still has vital points to make.

***

Butler’s version of the familiar vampire is faithful to the folklore without embracing the supernatural. Her blood-drinkers are the Ina, an ancient, separate species that are not simply predators. The Ina are nocturnal, photosensitive, and long-lived, and do require human blood to survive. But the Ina need their humans alive and healthy, for more than just food.

The connection between Ina and humans is complex and symbiotic, with the depths of it only partially revealed over the course of the narrative. To ensure a steady food supply, Ina bind chosen humans to them using the venom in their bites. After several such bites, a human becomes physically dependent on its Ina and will die if separated. The Ina’s bite also confers exceptional health and extended life on the human recipient. In return, the Ina requires an intimately physical, as well as nutritional, relationship.

***

Part of what makes Fledgling so intriguing to me is its in medias res quality. It begins with a mystery, and ends with potential about to be tapped.

The novel is the story of Shori, a genetically altered Ina whose very existence is considered an abomination by certain other Ina families. Shori’s mothers, skilled scientists, inserted human DNA into the genetic code of Shori and her siblings with the hope of giving them the ability to withstand the sun and to function during the day–and to be able to pass those traits on to their own offspring.

Fledgling begins with Shori awakening without her memory, a result of an attack that wiped out her entire maternal family–mothers, grandmothers, and sisters, as well as all their symbiots. When she finds her paternal family, they are assassinated as well. The rest of the novel is Shori’s ongoing recovery and relearning of Ina culture–and how her existence threatens to change it– in order to bring her family’s murderers to justice.

***

shoriA great deal of information is funneled to the reader through Shori’s inquiries and explorations. We learn along with her that Ina culture is an intricate thing, with social, sexual, and symbiotic norms that predate humanity’s by millenia. Her amnesia is a fine tool for all the exposition, and is balanced with enough recovered knowledge to keep her from being simply a babe in the woods and her relearning merely an info dump. Shori knows things. She doesn’t always remember that she knows them.

Shori is revealed as an ethical, caring keeper of her human symbiots, with no memory of having learned ethics. But even though she tells her own story, Shori remains at a distance. She is, after all, not a human, as much as she may resemble one.

Which brings me to my visceral discomfort with the novel.

Shori appears to be a prepubescent child, but that doesn’t matter to our Ina heroine or the twenty-something man she first feeds from. He wants to have sex with her, and she is happy to have him. She and her human symbiots engage freely in mutually consensual sex throughout the novel, with varying levels of euphemism to explain it. But the frequent descriptions of Shori as “a lovely little thing”, and the desire of multiple adult males to pull her onto their laps is far too reminiscent of Lolita for me.

While objectively it shouldn’t be an issue for a 53 year old child of an unrelated species to have sex with an adult human, from this adult human’s perspective it feels very wrong.

***

Ocatvia E. Butler died too soon, and Fledgling strikes me as a beginning to something that would have been larger if she had enough time. The novel is transgressive and open-ended, with the poisons of racial purity and prejudice laid out in clear and unsentimental language. In the end Fledgling left me unexpectedly and deeply uncomfortable. But I still wish there were more of the story.

automata

automataAutomata, a bit of Spanish-Bulgarian science fiction from 2014, begins in familiar territory. A post-apocalyptic world. A monolithic city with the remains of humanity huddled inside. A vast, radioactive wasteland. And, naturally, sentient robots.

Many films have made these components work. But despite some talented actors, dramatic scenery, and the best of intentions, Automata does not manage to bring its vision fully to life. After a strong start, Automata falls into the trap of easy sentimentality and loses its way.

***

Automata is set in 2044, after the world has effectively ended. Humankind has been reduced to a only few million, living in fortress-like cities and served by ROC Corporation’s Pilgrim 7000s–humanoid robots designed for protection and manual labor. The robots operate under two immutable protocols: They cannot cause harm to any living thing, and they cannot repair or modify themselves or any other robot.

And then, one is discovered making its own modifications.

Insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan is assigned to find out who broke the robotic protocols and enabled the robot’s new ability. His search leads him deep into the remains of society’s underbelly, where he encounters dirty cops, dirtier corporate enforcers, child assassins, robotic sex slaves, black market “clocksmiths,” and, eventually, evolving, self-determining robots.

***

automataVisually, the cityscape is very much Blade Runner, right down to the rain, but without all the teeming people. The depopulation aspect spoke more to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, while the dull cubicle apartments hearkened back to Brazil.

Yet despite its obvious derivativeness, Automata’s worldbuilding is pretty good. The aged machinery, the old cars, and the ancient tech all contribute to the weariness of the world. What is left is either industrial and dirty, with monolithic structures and walls, piles of garbage, or a bleak, dusty wasteland. The culture is adapted to the conditions without becoming outlandish. The slang seems unforced, with the bulky robots nicknamed “clunkers” and the radioactive desert called the Sandbox.

But Automata is less successful with building its characters.

***

automataThe cast, overall, is overqualified and quite good, but many of the roles are flatly written or simply stock-types, too underdeveloped to be fully alive.

Antonio Banderas stars as Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator sucked into the heart of a mystery. He is as brooding and mournful as ever, bringing a believable jadedness to his character. Dylan McDermott is threatening, cynical, and wasted as the corrupt cop, Wallace. Robert Forster plays Jacq’s supervisor Robert Bold believably as a worn-down but still compassionate company man. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen plays Jacq’s pregnant wife, Rachel, with convincing frustration and fear. Melanie Griffith, on the other hand, fails to convince as the robot-altering clocksmith, Doctor Dupré, with her baby voice and painfully slow delivery. She is more credible as the voice of the modified robot Cleo. 

The remaining cast is filled out by Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, David Ryall, Andrew Tiernan, Christa Campbell, Bashar Rahal, and, surprisingly, Javier Bardem. The actors’ talents far outshine the scopes of their roles.

***

automataAutomata’s plot also has problems. The film wants us to believe it is deep, but it is more stylish than substantive. The story builds steadily until Jacq leaves the city and enters the desert with a group of robots. From there, the plot loses its focus enough that at a reasonable 109 minutes, Automata felt padded. The long, sweeping scenes of desert and sky, the multiple flashbacks to the sea, the lingering close-ups of automata, all add length without contributing any needed development of the characters or story.

For all the visual grandeur, Automata is far less philosophically nuanced than Ex Machina or even Chappie. The robots are credited with incredible intelligence that far outstrips humanity’s. Unfortunately this intellect is expressed in soppy platitudes like, “Surviving is not relevant–living is,” and in creepy human-robot interactions that fail to highlight the intelligence of either species. Characters frequently toss out the idea that someone thought a robot was alive, but the implications of a living robot are addressed in a cursory, melodramatic way. The idea that the automata have become autonomous remains unexplored. The attempted religious overtones are not supported by the underlying themes, and the predictable action and sentimentality of the ending feels lazy rather than revelatory.

***

Automata is no classic, but it is not entirely a waste of time. While the plot is thin and the story stretched, the film is still quite beautiful. Banderas turns in one of his reliably lovely, melancholy performances, and the supporting cast is polished. In the end, I enjoyed it for what it is–an average film that wants to be more, but never does figure out how to get there.

Stan Against Evil season 3

 

Stan Against Evil season 3
Not quite the Scooby Gang

Stan Against Evil came back for a third season on Halloween night, and boy, am I glad. The enthusiastically silly and low budget show continues to be a bright spot on IFC’s schedule. It has embraced its humble status and run with it, cementing its place as a goofy and sometimes sweet horror comedy well worth watching.

The show still looks as if all the special effects come from Party City. It still careens cheerfully from one joke to another with only a nod at coherence and character development. But I can’t hold that against it. Because Stan Against Evil is still escapist fun with an occasional dose of sentimentality, and the cast pulls it off without missing a step.

***

Former Sheriff Stan Miller (John C. McGinley) and his replacement, Evie Barret (Janet Varney) have become the best of friends, with his curmudgeonly snark nicely balanced by her occasionally off-kilter practicality. Deputy Leon (Nate Mooney) is more loopy and oblivious than in season’s past, but is still a core team member. And Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.), Stan’s daughter, still presents as a thirty year old going on thirteen, crafting, fan-girling, and inappropriately attaching at every turn. Her romantic interest from season two hasn’t reappeared yet, but the season is young. Evie’s daughter, never being much more than a prop, has pretty much disappeared from the show. But Evie’s boozy ex-husband seems to be a recurring character when a random monster is needed to give a plot a boost.

***
Stan Against Evil season 3
Romero would be proud

The overarching storyline from season one remains in place: Tiny, rural Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire is cursed. Back in 1693, the evil Constable Eccles burned 172 witches at the stake. Since then, every constable the town has ever had has died in office. Except Stan. Stan Against Evil’s unexpected second season introduced a lot more information about Stan’s late wife and her coven, the Black Hat Society, who protect the town from the worst attacks by Eccles and other evils. And now the even more unexpected season three has the crew still fighting off demons as Constable Eccles’s victims keep returning to exact revenge. Stan is still trying to find a way to bring his dead wife back to life. And the writers still keep everyone off-balance and well-armed with one-liners.

***
Stan Against Evil season 3
Nobody wants to believe

Stan Against Evil launches into the new season with its usual verve. Episode one features an undead Stan and an institutionalized Evie in their own private hells (which look remarkably like someone just threw garbage around in the street), learning to work through issues together. There is a bit of random time travel, and some wonderful bedside manner from the resident psychiatrist. Episode two features lessons in how to use evil for the greater good, a knock-off Mulder and Scully, and even Kolchak running around snapping pictures as Stan and Evie try to figure out how most of the Black Hat Society died. Apparently, bringing your own rubber gloves is important in investigations.

***

Each season is only eight half-hour episodes broadcast over the course of four weeks. A few episodes are free on IFC, and seasons one and two are available for binging on Hulu. I highly recommend it. Stan Against Evil is a far better treat than leftover candy.

 

Dark City

dark city Dark City, Alex Proyas’s 1998 follow-up to his legendary The Crow, is an ambitious, overfull classic in its own right. I had not seen it since it was a new release on VHS, and wondered about how well it would hold up twenty years on. It did not disappoint.

Dark City remains gorgeously noir, infused with cyberpunk and steampunk elements as well as touches of horror and romance. Although its inspirations are often obvious, it twists them together into an ambitious homage that provided its own inspiration to later films.

“I feel like I’m living out someone else’s nightmare”

The story moves at a fast pace, opening in the middle of a mystery and immediately taking a series of sharp, strange turns. The only difficulty I have with it is a too-sentimental conclusion.

John Murdoch wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He doesn’t know the murdered woman he stumbles over, or who the people chasing him are. With the help of a mysterious psychiatrist, Murdoch begins to piece together what has happened to him.

He discovers that the world is run by the Strangers, alien creatures who inhabit dead humans and psychically control the city and everyone in it. The Strangers reconfigure the physical world every night–and the population, as well. People are changed out for each other, their memories stolen and reassigned, their social roles and relationships altered. It is all a grand experiment. The Strangers want to understand what it is to be human.

But part of the experiment has gone wrong, and now Murdoch has the same psychic powers as the Strangers.

“The city is ours. We made it”

Dark CityProyas’s highly stylized vision is a wonder to behold. The effects are familiar now because they have been used in many films since (most notably The Matrix, which even filmed on some of the sets used in Dark City, and Inception–I’d even say Doctor Strange felt its influence). But they are still effective, and carry the story along rather than overwhelming it.

Beside the special-effect wonders of a city in motion through frangible time and space, more traditional techniques are just as vital to the film’s style. This is where the impact of film noir on Proyas’s work truly shows. Lighting is used to great dramatic effect, with fragments of jewel tones standing out sharply from the dull, dark world, mimicking the bright fragments of memory the characters try to hold on to. Light is constantly framed and limited by swallowing darkness. The smoky nightclub, the shadowy pool, the bright but dingy automat all contribute to the interplay between the seen and unseen.

“A cure for their own mortality.”

Dark CityWith the exception of Rufus Sewell’s John Murdoch and Colin Friels’s Detective Walenski, the performances are all also highly stylized in a way that highlights the unreality of the situation.

Murdoch awakens in confusion and panic, while Walenski slowly comes to his realization–but their actions and reactions make sense as they discover the instability of the world and their memories of it,

Kiefer Sutherland’s Doctor Schreber already knows what is going on, and he is played with a strange, strained, out of breath speech pattern that manages to convey the moral agony of the man. Jennifer Connelly’s Emma is acted entirely at a remove, as if her very real passions were being felt from a distance. William Hurt’s Inspector Bumstead shares Emma’s distant affect, with the undercurrent of knowing there is more to his life but unable to remember it.

But the Strangers are the most stylized of all. Visually, the alien hosts are constructed from a multitude of cultural references, from Nosferatu to Bat Boy, with a dash of the dying, unhelmeted Darth Vader for good measure. Their physical sameness reinforces the idea of the insectile hive mind driving them.

“The only place home exists is in your head”

dark cityDark City won both the Saturn and Bram Stoker Awards in 1998, and was nominated for the Hugo. But then it sort of slipped away from wider recognition. It barely earned back its production cost, but the film’s lack of box-office success belies its resonance. While hardly the first film to present a world where reality is an illusion, Dark City did it with an emotional center that still connects.

That much, I remembered.

 

Ghost Stories

ghost storiesGhost Stories is a low-key movie that blends the supernatural and the mundane into a genuinely eerie episodic tale. In structure Ghost Stories is a loose anthology, with the traditional three short stories surrounded by the framing story. But instead of tying everything neatly together, the framing story becomes more and more disjointed until it finally falls apart entirely. What is revealed is frightening, but not in the way you would expect.

Ghost Stories uses all the trappings of traditional supernatural fare, with revenants, wild devils, and irresistibly spooky places creating the chills. There are well-placed jump scares, but no blood and little violence. It doesn’t need it. The fine cast and mysterious episodes are quite terrifying without any gore.

“Like everyone else I presumed you were dead.” “How do you know I’m not?”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories begins with Phillip Goodman, a professor who has devoted his life to debunking claims of the paranormal. He is summoned to a remote seaside caravan by Charles Cameron, a fellow debunker who disappeared many years earlier. Cameron gives Goodman three cases he has not been able to disprove, and challenges him to show that the cases can be explained as ordinary events.

The first is a night watchman at an abandoned asylum, tormented by the ghost of a young girl. The second is a teenaged boy who ran into the Devil on a lonely road. The last is a successful businessman haunted by a poltergeist, who may be his wife who died giving birth to a monstrous child.

It soon becomes clear that Goodman is somehow connected to these cases. For him, that is the scariest thing of all.

“No frayed edges, no loose ends, all straight, all smooth”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories is full of strange cuts and stutters in the visual flow, building the sense of unreality. The colors are rich but diminished by a wintery, overcast light. Scenes are set in desolate, run-down places full of trash and broken things, or in spaces so sleek and spare there is no human warmth to them. The atmosphere these techniques create is one of loneliness and threat, with no safe place to run to.

The film loses some of its sharp edge when it borrows too obviously. Ghost Stories lifts the rushing-over-the-ground effect straight from Evil Dead, and the tearing of the fabric of reality is a familiar trick from multiple films. Still, though, the obvious cribbing can’t weaken the overall sense of dread.

“I don’t want anyone thinking there’s anything wrong with me”

Ghost StoriesThe film is written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, based on their play of the same name. Nyman also stars in it as the brittle, troubled Phillip Goodman. Martin Freeman plays the overachieving businessman Mike Priddle, with his usual likability buried under arrogant cynicism. Alex Lawther is heartbreaking as the fragile, terrorized teenager Simon Rifkind, while Paul Whitehouse is effectively blunt as the beleaguered watchman Tony Matthews.

Watching these characters suffer as they try to understand their experiences is as disturbing as the horrors themselves. 

“The brain sees what it wants to see”

Ghost Stories sets itself in the vast grey area between supernatural phenomena and a mind’s tricks on itself to craft its sad and spooky narrative. Objective truth doesn’t matter, here. The twist in the tale makes the anthology’s conclusion a moral tragedy. But it doesn’t lessen any of the fears–real or imagined.

Here are more October chills—enough to fill all thirty-one days several times over.

Year's Best Horror Stories I
Year’s Best Horror Stories I

The Year’s Best Horror Stories was a twenty-two volume annual anthology series that ran from 1971 through 1994. Its creator, Richard Davis, edited the series from 1971-1973, with Christopher Lee himself writing the introduction to 1972’s Volume II. After a few years’ pause, Gerald W. Page revived the series in 1976 and edited it until 1979. Then, the inimitable Karl Edward Wagner took over, editing The Year’s Best Horror Stories from 1980 until his death in 1994. Since then, the series has been dormant.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories was an introduction to some of the most consistently dread-inducing authors I have ever encountered. Ramsey Campbell’s work appeared a remarkable 26 times in the 22 volumes, lending some support to my (and Mr. Wagner’s) opinion that he is one of the most frightening horror author working today. Other authors who appeared multiple times were Dennis Etchison (14 stories), Charles L. Grant (12 stories), Brian Lumley (11 stories), and Wayne Allen Sallee (10 stories). Other authors who appeared often in the series were David Drake, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Tanith Lee, David J. Schow, Robert Bloch, T.E.D. Klein, Manly Wade Wellman, Kim Newman, and Lisa Tuttle.

While there is considerable overlap of authors, only one entry in The Year’s Best Horror Stories was adapted for the previously-mentioned TV series Tales from the Darkside. That was “Slippage” (1982), by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, from volume XI, about a man whose life is slowly being erased.

More than four hundred stories appeared in the series. I recall many of them, if not always clearly. But there are a few that still stand out vividly for me (and some I read over and over for fresh thrills):

The Year’s Best Horror Stories, 1971

“Prey” (1969), by Richard Matheson, which also ended up in his anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, concerns a woman hunted through her apartment by doll possessed by an ancient Zuni warrior’s spirit.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories II, 1972

“The Events at Poroth Farm” (1972), by T. E. D. Klein, an unsettling novella of love, possession, and death among the New Jersey Mennonites.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories III, 1973

“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (1973), by Harlan Ellison, based on the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese, makes a monster of the city and the demands of an urban life.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories IV, 1976

“Something Had to Be Done” (1975), by David Drake is absolutely one of my favorites. In it, a terminally ill Army sergeant pays a notification visit to the family of a soldier who “died in battle”, in order to tie up some loose ends. Short, sharp, and scathing.

Year's Best Horror Stories VI
Year’s Best Horror Stories VI

The Year’s Best Horror Stories VI, 1978

“At the Bottom of the Garden” (1975), by David Campton is a slightly loopy but ultimately tragic story of a woman, her daughter, and the creature that might make things right for them.

“Undertow” (1977), by Karl Edward Wagner is classic dark sword and sorcery featuring Wagner’s antihero, Kane, in a love story gone very, very wrong.

“The Horse Lord” (1977), by Lisa Tuttle, in which a family moves to a farmhouse in the country and an old, hungry god is resurrected by the children. The imagery was visceral. I refer to this story often as an example of staying power.

“Winter White” (1978), by Tanith Lee is a dark fantasy set in a barbarian kingdom. A warrior makes his own end with a magic pipe, a silent witch, and the invisible child he fathers on her.

“If Damon Comes” (1978), by Charles L. Grant, is one of his Oxrun Station stories. Grim, and, sad, and terrifying, a winter’s tale about a poor father haunted by his dead son.

“Within the Walls of Tyre” (1978), by Michael Bishop is an unconventional horror story about a woman’s private tragedy being commercially exploited by a man she thought she could trust. There are no monsters, only pain.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories IX, 1981

“Black Man with a Horn” (1980), by T.E.D. Klein, once more, is a Lovecraftian novella that takes the Cthulhu mythos very effectively to the modern day swamps of Florida.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories XI, 1983

“The Show Goes On” (1982), by Ramsey Campbell is set in an abandoned movie theater, and is superbly Campbell—disorienting, suggestive, decaying, and utterly frightening.

“Mrs. Halfbooger’s Basement” (1982), by Lawrence C. Connolly concerns an old woman, the living children who torment her, and the dead children who haunt her.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories XIII, 1985

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” (1984), by Stephen King is possibly my favorite King story. Mrs. Todd discovers a shortcut that takes her out of this world into one she likes much better.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories XV, 1987

“The Yougoslaves” (1986), by Robert Bloch, in which a pack of young gypsies meet their maker in the Paris sewers.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories XVII, 1989

“Fruiting Bodies” (1988), by Brian Lumley details the end of a seaside town and its last inhabitant as they are slowly devoured by the sea on one side and dry rot from the other.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories XVIII1990

“Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” (1989), by David J. Schow is a particularly vivid gore-fest about a survivor of the Zombie Apocalypse who eats the walking dead himself, and a small time televangelist whose faith is renewed by the zombies’ resurrection.

The tone of the anthologies changed over the years, as the style of horror itself became more graphic and early, traditional creepiness gave way to more explicit shocks. What remained consistent, though, was the ability of the selected stories to make you look behind you. I have pointed out the stories that still scare me, even after all this time. I’m sure there are plenty of unmentioned others in The Year’s Best Horror Stories that will have the same effect on you.