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.

 

 

 

M.R.James
M.R. James
The Antiquary himself

M.R. James is perhaps the most reliably frightening author I can think of. Although Montague Rhodes James only published 34 stories over the course of his life, each one is a polished gem of unwise inquiries, lurking supernatural threats and terrible ghostly vengeance. What could be better, with Halloween looming?

Published between  1895 and 1936, James’s ghost stories are slightly stuffy, off-handedly erudite, and almost impossibly creepy–the kind of creepy that makes locking all the doors and looking behind the furniture a rational reaction. His tales were influenced by his scholarly work as a medievalist and antiquarian, with many of them featuring archaic manuscripts and bookish protagonists, with the setting being often a small village or a country estate.

M.R. James also incorporated a subtle humor into his terrors, with side comments about social obligations and domestic disagreements. The contrast between the prosaic and the threatening unknown makes the effect all the more intense and hard to shrug off.

Although there are several collections to choose from, for the full M.R. James experience the Complete Ghost Stories is the way to go. This collection, which has never been out of print, contains all but the four stories he wrote after Complete Ghost Stories was published in 1931.

***

Of, course, I have my particular favorites.

M.R. James“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” begins with the discovery of a small flute.

It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion.

“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” contains a trove of stolen, rare documents.

Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by the appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.’

M.R. James“The Mezzotint” is a still life that is not so still.

It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Finally, “Lost Hearts”, which I have always found the most tragic of M.R. James’s stories.

His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, which possess the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.

***

While M.R. James exerted plenty of influence in the literary world (inspiring H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as John Bellairs, Ramsey Campbell, and Stephen King), his work had less impact on movies and television. The only full-length film version of one of his tales is the adaptation of  “Casting the Runes”, filmed as Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the US) in 1957. James’s stories were adapted for television several times over the years, from a 1951 version of “The Tractate Middoth”, to the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series in the 1970s that used five of James’s works,  to a chilling 2010 adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” starring John Hurt.

***

M.R. James’s Complete Ghost Stories has no scaly cosmic horrors, no carnage, and precious little blood. What it does have is an undeniably unnerving atmosphere that has held up for over a century. And whatever form you find them in, M.R. James’s stories can be counted on to make you look over your shoulder–just to be sure.

 

Mandy

MandyMandy isn’t the kind of movie that can be ranked on a scale of good to bad. It it horror? Action? Satire? There is too much of everything going on to pin it down. It has a seventies-style murder cult. It has early eighties Satanic monsters. It has timeless, Z-grade movie revenge fantasy. And it has Nicholas Cage in a star turn, chewing the scenery to shreds with unwavering passion and enthusiasm. And still, so help me, this goofy, dreamy, blood-spattered mess pretty much works.

“So, what you hunting?”

Mandy is at its heart that old story of love and revenge. It begins with Red smoking, scowling, and cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. He returns home to his girlfriend Mandy, who is oblivious to the world as she creates her fantasy art. In a tidy bit of foreshadowing, Red wants to move away from their isolated house in the woods. Mandy wants to stay.

It isn’t long before the leader of a religious cult notices Mandy and becomes fixated on her. Naturally, the cult summons a demonic biker gang, captures Mandy and Red in their isolated house in the woods, and does some very bad things. Unfortunately for the cult, killing Red isn’t one of them. They make the mistake of leaving him wounded, bereaved, and alive–which sets the stage for vengeance, mayhem, and a whole lot of Nicholas Cage grimacing like a maniac.

“Bikers and gnarly psychos”
mandy
A quiet night at home

The cast does a remarkable job with some very strange material, and the performances are balanced between the absurd and the sublime. Nicholas Cage is the center of the film as  as Red, muttering and screaming in anguish, in pain, in battle, pulling out all the stops in a riveting orgy of overacting. 

In contrast, Andrea Riseborough turns in a beautifully underplayed performance as Mandy. Riseborough resembles Shelly Duvall in The Shining, and her Mandy seems to exist half in this world and half in her own imagination. Her flattened inflection is hauntingly realistic when she speaks–which makes her mocking laughter all the more devastating when she lets it out.

mandy
Gotta have a religious cult

Linus Roache plays Jeremiah Sand, the charismatic cult leader, with the depraved mania of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. His Jeremiah is intense, crazy, dangerous, and musically-inclined, just like Charles Manson. Also like Manson, his followers refer to their victims as “pigs”.

Filling in the rest of the characters are Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, and Hayley Saywell as cult members, Bill Duke as Red’s well-armed friend Caruthers, and Richard Brake as a psychic drug maker with a pet tiger.

“You’re a special one, Mandy”
mandy
Enough said

For all its weirdness, Mandy is a deliberate, artful piece of movie-making. Each component supports the precisely off-kilter whole.

Live action is interspersed with psychedelic animated segments, turning Mandy into a spacey and hallucinogenic experience. The pacing of the entire film is slow, with elongated scenes and fantastic imagery that make watching it feel like seeing a video for a concept album. The music certainly helps build that feeling, with a dirgelike opening song and a creepy synthesiser soundtrack.

The dialogue manages to be off the cuff, over the top, deadly serious, and pure pulp snark nearly simultaneously. There is plenty of intentionally garbled mysticism tossed in from all directions, creating an air of ironic self-importance and pseudo-profundity. Characters veer between deep thoughts and bad jokes and back again.

The whole film feels at once familiar and alien, using recognizable references to other horror/thriller movies but giving them a very wry twist. In addition to the hints of Charles Manson, there are the Black Skull bikers that look like cousins to the Hellraiser crew, an image like the vampire boy at the window in Salem’s Lot played in reverse, and a location named Crystal Lake.

Mandy is the kind of film that flatly dares you to try to categorize it.

Oh, Mandy
mandy
More than enough said

Mandy’s strange vision is hard to process. The action doesn’t really start until nearly three quarters of the way through the movie, when Nic Cage’s Red is covered in blood and coked to the gills, with a crossbow and a battle axe in hand. There are stagey, cartoonish kill scenes any slasher film would be proud of, spectacular and cheesetastic gore, and one of the oddest chainsaw duels I’ve ever seen.

But I enjoyed this movie far more than I ever thought I would. Mandy is a tour de force for Cage, and a hell of a ride for the rest of us.

 

dragon prince

dragon princeThe Dragon Prince is quite simply wonderful. Netflix’s new epic fantasy is intended for kids, but like all great literature it is able to speak to everyone.

There are often facile lessons, or missing nuances, in young adult fantasy (okay, in adult fantasy, too). But not so The Dragon Prince. The balance of light and dark rings true. There are unlikely alliances, unbreakable oaths, and awakening magic. The action is exciting and the world-building immersive.

And while The Dragon Prince is an unabashed, sweeping saga, it is also warm and funny. There are elements of Heavy Metal, hints of ElfQuest, a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings, and even a bit of Archer in the character renderings. Snarky and self-aware, the dialogue slips in plenty of pop-culture: “I was trying to sweep the leg”, “Winter is coming…eventually”, and “Say ‘hello’ to my little friend” are all uttered at various points.

It’s been a long time since I so thoroughly enjoyed an animated series the way I enjoy this one.

The Background

dragon princeLong in the past, humans discovered dark magic and were driven to the edge of the continent by elves and dragons. The story begins a few years after King Harrow murders the ancient dragon king and destroys his egg, bringing the humans and the elves to the brink of war. Elvish assassins infiltrate the kingdom to kill Harrow and his heir, Prince Ezran. Rayla, a young elvish assassin, finds she cannot take an innocent life. Instead, she helps Ezran and his half-brother Callum escape the assassination attempt after Ezran discovers the dragon’s egg hidden in the castle dungeons. The three then embark on a dangerous, epic quest to return the dragon’s egg to its mother.  

The Details

Created and written by Aaron Ehasz (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Futurama) and Justin Richmond (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception), The Dragon Prince is richly imagined and beautifully presented, with gorgeous artwork, a soaring score, and a full magical world.

Like many fantasy sagas, The Dragon Prince is stuffed with creatures borrowed from the classic, but they have been tweaked to fit their new world. The huge worm is a mountain dweller. The giant spider is an illusion. The dragon-slayers are not the good guys.

The characters are fully developed, diverse and inclusive, with their own complicated relationships and internal lives. The emotions behind their actions feel honest. The moral lessons are clear but the story refrains from hitting viewers over the head with them. The characters are almost entirely normal people–or as normal as elves, mages, and royalty can be. Some are clearly the bad guys, but they have recognizable reasons for what they do. There are, so far, no real caricatures among them.

The Actors

dragon princeThe three main characters are strongly drawn without falling back on genre stereotypes. Jack De Sena plays Callum, the fourteen year old half-brother to the heir apparent, with an excellent blend of adult responsibility and adolescent insecurity. Paula Burrows portrays the elf-assassin Rayla with terrific conviction and a charming, thick Scottish accent. Sasha Rojen plays the child-prince Ezran as a thinking, feeling, learning person with convincing agency and autonomy.
The secondary characters are also well done. Luc Roderique is King Harrow of Katolis, stubborn, proud, and trying his best to protect his people. Jason Simpson plays Viren, the King’s treacherous advisor, who may or may not be a good man underneath it all. Viren’s children Claudia and Soren are portrayed convincingly as close siblings by Racquel Belmonte and Jesse Inocalla. And Jonathan Holmes gives the elvish assassin leader Runaan a fierce and enduring code of honor.

The Conclusion

It’s rare to find something so well-done, so dedicated to its vision, so vibrant and enjoyable.

The Dragon Prince is that something. I recommend it without reservation.

ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

maiden voyage

maiden voyageThe Maiden Voyage and Other Departures by Jessica McHugh is a collection of six loosely related stories that hinge on a promising steampunk concept. In McHugh’s take on the early nineteen-tens, the world is polluted by industrial pollen technology and humanity shares the stage with apisthropes–bee/human hybrids living in disguise among humans. There is intrigue. There are power struggles. There is still a lot missing.

McHugh’s style is vivacious and energetic, but there is no nuance to her storytelling. The hybrid idea is full of possibility. However, the driving conceit quickly loses its steam to superficial characters, thin plots, and a lack of historical context. The collection oscillates between four fairly-convincingly related tales and two weak vignettes that have to name-drop to create any connection. The big picture simply isn’t there.

***

This is not a particularly well-crafted book. Worldbuilding is cursory, with little detail to anchor us to the locations. The dialogue is frequently anachronistic, with profanity thrown in for shock value. And the characters are stereotypical (even the apisthropes), underdeveloped, and drawn with a heavy hand.

My two immediate issues with The Maiden Voyage are the slapdash writing and sloppy editing:

“Mama opened the door and hollered for the nursemaid, Helga, but she was outside with the butler overseeing the installation of a beeswax and jellyglass fountain the Goswick’s had rented for the evening, and it had only just given its first spurt when Edith’s Vagnerian voice tugged her inside.”

Another example:

“The gentle voice that cooed from behind him didn’t look like it belonged to the raven-haired woman standing in the doorway.”

I know mistakes happen. Typos and misspellings get missed. But this inattention to detail is found throughout the book, and is the kind of distraction that keeps me from caring about the characters or their fates.

***

Each story in the collection happens in the same alternate past, and is meant to connect to the others if only tangentially.

The Maiden Voyage

The title novelette fumbles an opportunity to provide exposition and context for what comes after. The protagonist is a newborn apisthrope, a drone born without any memory or history of his kind. This information is bestowed by a female shortly after he is born. Apparently, apisthropes have existed for eons. But instead of giving the reader access to any background information, McHugh glosses over it.

Large Blue, Little Darling

The second story expands on another variety of hybrid creature (butterfly/human) to no real end. The piece is more a vignette than a full story, and a sloppy throwaway of a vignette at that. The editing is atrocious, with dropped words, incomplete rewrites, and muddled points of view.

maiden voyageThere’s Nothing Between the Sky and Sea

While this moves the general storyline to America and introduces the Wright brothers (and sister Kate), the historical connection is once again tenuous and the story fails to build on what it has. The existence of a pantheon of bee-gods is mentioned in passing, as is a human who is able to channel other personalities like a medium. There is more included here than can be effectively addressed in one short story.

Pain Like Honey Wine

This introduces a tragic hero, London slums, and human-hybrid S&M to the mix without stirring many emotions. I felt as if this story could have been a broad parody, but the blend of sentimentality and undercover rebellion is too strong for that reading.

Forgotten in El Paso

This one is an inconsistently moody ghost story that neither adds nor subtracts from The Maiden Voyage’s  general concept. It takes place in the West, and expands oddly on the human/spider hybrid introduced in the first tale.

America or Bust

The final piece has a preternaturally gifted teenaged heroine, incomprehensible motivations for the villains, and one character who seems to exist only to reveal that another is gay. It also revives an antagonist from the first story, and teases more to come.

***

McHugh clearly has a good sense of humor, and, despite the editorial issues, an engaging style. Perhaps if the tales comprising The Maiden Voyage had been played more for laughs rather than for drama, the whole enterprise would have worked. As it is, The Maiden Voyage comes across to me as a fast and loose draft of a good idea rather than a fully-fleshed world.