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.

disenchantment
disenchantment
Bean, Elfo, and Luci

Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s new series for Netflix, certainly has its own unique charms. It is no Futurama. It is certainly not The Simpsons. While there are, of course, similarities to Groening’s earlier work, this new show is something that aspires to be a heartfelt, ongoing saga while still capturing the goofy spirit of the other series.

So far, Disenchantment has had some difficulty in finding its direction. The first season is a rather uneven journey, but it’s definitely on the right track.

***

The series follows the adventures of Princess Tiabeanie Mariabeanie De La Rochambeaux Drunkowitz of Dreamland, known more economically as Bean. She is a boozy, rebellious teenager who is constantly at odds with her father, King Zøg, her stepmother, Queen Oona, and her half-brother, Prince Derek. Bean’s only friends are her nursemaid, Bunty, Elfo the renegade elf, and Luci, Bean’s very own personal demon. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother, Queen Dagmar, who died when Bean was just a baby.

There are arranged marriages, diplomatic debacles, political machinations, crusades, curses, enchantments, and the occasional tavern brawl. There are witches, wizards, debauched fairies, transformed princes, giants, griffins, and three-eyed counselors. Castles, dungeons, and side-quests abound. There is also a whole lot of family drama.

disenchantment
Zog and Oona, Rulers of Dreamland

I think Bean’s relationship with her father is well-done. King Zøg has what may be a good heart inside his crusty royal shell. And for all her push-back, Bean loves her dad. I also find Queen Oona refreshing as the not-actually-mean stepmother, who manages to be both bizarre and boring in her stepdaughter’s eyes.

***

The characters are portrayed by Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, Nat Faxon, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Matt Berry, David Herman, Maurice LaMarche, Lucy Montgomery and Billy West, with great enthusiasm and thoroughly random accents.

Unfortunately, the main characters’ personality traits are also somewhat random from one episode to the next, which makes it harder to become fully invested in them. Bean’s scattershot behavior is at least excusable for a confused teenager, but the writers don’t seem to have a good handle on Elfo and Luci. Both of these characters are frequently out of character, with Elfo in particular swinging wildly from innocent to cynical and a number of points in between.

On the other hand, the minor and incidental characters are wonderful, my favorites being the King’s two pages (who I suspect are Akbar and Jeff) and a knight’s overprotective mother.

***

Disenchantment is not quite a sitcom like Groening’s other shows. It is a sharp comedy with a lot more going on inside the jokes. It mocks the conventions of the whole fantasy adventure genre while embracing the threats and dangers inherent in it. Disenchantment is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and other times quite sentimental. The show has already taken a few serious turns. There have been several on-screen character deaths (some more permanent than others), played for comedy and for genuine tragedy.

The initial impression I get of the series was that it is still feeling its way. The thread connecting all the scattered plot points was too obvious to ignore, but still hard to follow. Then the final few episodes managed to not only tie most of the story together, but to take it into unexpected and promising territory. That sudden turn is one of the strongest reasons I can give to watch.

With all its inconsistencies and slightly blurred focus, I like Disenchantment. A lot. There is an unexpected and welcome warmth to it, and what I hope is the promise of something more substantial to come. 

 

castle rock
castle rock
Scenic downtown Castle Rock

Castle Rock is Hulu’s finely-crafted ode to Stephen King’s intricate world-building. The series is faithful to the author’s voice and deep sense of nostalgia, and brimming over with familiar names and references. Originally released on July 25 and with the first season still unfolding, it has already been renewed for a second season. If it can grow past the limits of the familiar and the nostalgic, I am heartily behind it.

“People say, ‘It wasn’t me. It was this place.’ And they were right.”

So many threads from King’s mythos are knit together here that anyone familiar with his work will have no problem finding their bearings. The show is built layer upon layer, with a deeply felt sense of the community and its people. It highlights the skill King has always had of making his world big enough for his characters to have lives outside the confines of any particular story.

castle rock
Henry meets …someone

Castle Rock also evokes all the familiar themes of King’s work. It features good, decent, damaged people fighting their dark sides and often failing. There are the expected flashbacks to twelve-year-olds facing the origins of coming horror, godly true believers and evil incarnate, pedophiles, and magical African-Americans. And, of course, there is well-placed classic rock and blues.

“Nothing stays dead in this town.”

The cast is outstanding. André Holland plays Henry Matthew Deaver, death-row attorney and prodigal son at the heart of the unfolding mystery. Bill Skarsgård is…unnatural…as The Kid, a nameless prisoner discovered in a pit at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Scott Glenn gives retired sheriff Alan Pangborn a determined vitality, while Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand shows a quiet desperation beneath her ambition. Rounding out the main cast are Jane Levy as Jackie Torrance, writer and font of local knowledge, and Noel Fisher as Dennis Zalewski, a Shawshank prison guard who sets the story in motion while trying to do the right thing.

Assorted minor characters are well represented by the talented likes of Ann Cusack, Terry O’Quinn, Frances Conroy, and Rory Culkin, among many other.

castle rock
Sissy Spacek, the Once and Future Queen

But the absolute standout is Sissy Spacek. She brings the same convincing blend of fragility and strength to Ruth, Henry’s fierce and failing mother, as she did to her portrayal of Carrie in 1976. Episode 7, “The Queen”, is a star-turn.

Castle Rock‘s Needful Things

As good as Castle Rock is, it isn’t perfect. It takes itself very seriously, and the portentousness does wear after a while. At times the plot twists broadcast themselves, as when Alan teaches Ruth how to do sleight-of-hand. And a few characters have (so-far) opaque or non-existent motivations. This ends up creating inconsistencies in otherwise beautifully drawn characters. One false note is Jackie Torrance’s actions upon meeting the Kid. Another is Alan Pangborn’s wild goose chase. Both are clearly the needs of the plot, and not natural reactions from the characters. The sudden addition of Henry’s son to the goings on also feels like a set-up rather than a character-driven decision.

And just and aside:  While this is definitely a show for adult audiences, the graphic depiction of animal deaths surprised me. Human carnage? Not a problem. But I didn’t expect the Mr. Jingles stand-in to meet that particular fate on-screen.

The emerging evil in Castle Rock is signaled by wildfires, mass shootings, suicides, and ugly family conflicts. But while all the trappings and affected characters are comfortably familiar, the show has not so far taken that familiarity in a new or challenging direction. Castle Rock is a wonderfully done pastiche of all things King, but I am interested in seeing it grow beyond that. There are still three more episodes for Season One.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.

evolution

evolutionThe odd and resonant Evolution is a beautiful and seductive slice of art-house horror. Written and directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the French-language film circles around its central mysteries without addressing them directly. Its elusive nature is one of its greatest strengths. Evolution left me wondering what the rest of the story could be, but it was satisfying all the same.

***

Evolution is told through the point of view of Nicolas, one of several young boys being raised on a barren, rocky island. The island is populated solely by the boys and their respective mothers, and the nurses and single doctor of the island’s clinic. The boys all resemble each other, as do the mothers, as do the nurses. Their lives are a monotony of the mothers taking the boys to the sea, washing them, dressing them, feeding them, medicating them. At intervals the boys are brought to the clinic. While the boys are allowed to play they are not permitted to swim.

But Nicolas does swim, one day, and sees what he believes is a boy’s body tangled among the rocks far beneath the surface. His mother brushes Nicolas’s story away as imagination after she investigates. But her denial only raises Nicolas’s suspicions, and he begins to doubt what he has been told. His experiences at the clinic deepen his misgivings about what is happening to him and the other boys. A sympathetic nurse reveals some of the secrets of the island’s inhabitants, allowing Nicolas to recognize that his mother has been lying to him all along.

***
evolution
Nicolas, Mother, and Stella

The cast is tiny, with the focus almost entirely on only three actors. Their restrained performances carry the film easily. Max Brebant is fascinating as the main character, Nicolas–a strange, impassive child who conveys emotion with blinks and sharp intakes of breath. Julie-Marie Parmentier plays the character known only as Mother with the kind of cool, dutiful, detached affection reserved for other people’s pets. And Roxane Duran portrays the kind nurse, Stella, who actually does love Nicolas–although we can only speculate why.

***

Evolution is also an incredibly subtle film, and watching it is like watching a dream unfold. The dry landscape of the island is grey and stark, while the world beneath the sea is rich with color and life. The film moves slowly, and with a finely-controlled sense of what will be left unknown. There are lingering scenes of the ocean, closeups of the characters’ pale faces, repeated, ritualized scenes of the children’s daily routines and of the women taking lanterns to visit the sea at night. The susurrus of the sea, the crunch of feet on sand and gravel, and the murmur of soft voices make up the soundtrack, with only the barest synthetic tones added to certain scenes.

evolution
The clinic

But the film is also ripe with nightmare images. There are shelves full of malformed fetuses preserved in jars. The dim and decayed hospital where the boys waste away drips with water and sagging paint. Food is grey and muddy, and looks as if it is filled with worms.  Even blood takes on a greenish tone when it is spilled.

And the distortion of reproductive roles creates powerful discomfort. There is the bizarre birth ritual enacted by the mothers, the rapt faces of the nurses as they watch and rewatch a film of a caesarian section being performed, the experiments on the boys that echo the way male seahorses carry their young. The intimate interactions between the boys and the women around them are not exactly sexual but are still deeply uncomfortable to watch.

***

Evolution haunts me as a blend of folklore, fairy tale, and exquisite body horror. At first glance it seems a superficial story, but Nicolas’s naivete underscores how much more to this film lies below the surface. This is not a case of an underdeveloped plot stretched to movie length. Evolution is instead a rich, convoluted tale which we can only glimpse through the eyes of someone who is unaware of the bigger picture. It is artful, and disturbing, and quietly horrifying. I highly recommend it.