Thursday, 5 May 2022

More Favourite Horror Movies, Alphabetically: X


Dir: Ti West. Cast: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure. 2022.

The newest movie on this list has also become something of an obsession for me. Just what is it about this movie that I connected with so strongly?

Set in the 1970’s, X follows six Texans to a rural rental property owned by a very elderly couple. There, the sextet plans to shoot a porn movie. This, however, unleashes a killing spree fuelled by sexual frustration. 

X suggests the horror films of the 1970s (and to a lesser degree, the 1980s) without unimaginatively ‘paying homage’ to them by ripping off key scenes. For instance, the setting, both era and location, suggests The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The alligator mayhem and bayou locale suggest Tobe Hooper’s wild Eaten Alive. A scene of ocular trauma suggests the Lucio Fulci flicks of the 1980s. They bring us back to the time period in which X is set, but they don’t just ape what’s come before. 

The cast, especially Goth, Ortega, Snow and Campbell, are outstanding. They manage, with an immeasurable assist from director West’s script, to create memorable, surprising, and endearing characters. Goth, in particular, stands out by taking on two substantial roles here. 

I was really impressed with a scene in which Campbell, as the porn flick’s ‘auteur’, has a breakdown in the shower after discovering that there is more to his girlfriend than his naivety can process. That West included this scene illustrates one of the things that I love about this movie. There are characters and ideas here to care about. There is something on West’s mind, even if it’s just to let us see that there is more to people than what their archetype suggests.

And that shot of the alligator 
 if you've seen X, you know which one  sublime.

There is also more than one way to interpret the film’s treatment of the elderly. I think whatever interpretation a viewer brings to the film says more about the viewer's thoughts about sex and aging than it does about the filmmaker's take on the matter.

To some, the idea of sex between people in their 80s is grotesque, it’s black comedy, it reflects a fear of the elderly. I don’t see it that way here. I was shown a too often neglected side of aging, bloodily awakened by assumptions that sexual needs and desires disappear as we age. It’s not (always) so, and to assume so is dangerous. 

In the end, what I love about X is that, for me, it delivered. It’s a horror film with thrills, ideas, surprises, and interesting characters. It’s a film that communicates the connection between sex and death — one of horror’s key themes — without having to hit the nail on the head with lesbian vampires drooling blood down their cleavage (not that there’s anything wrong with that). 

Reportedly, West has two more X films in the works. The next, Pearl, is set before the events that unfold in X, and I’m guessing the third will take place in the present day. Whatever the case, you can be sure that I’ll be there, anxious to experience more of what West has to show us. 

Thursday, 28 April 2022

POW! ZAP! BAM! I Co-Created a Comic Book!

Why haven't I blogged about this before now?

A couple of years ago, I self-published Monster Man: Tales of the Uncanny by Dave Stewart, a collection of short horror stories I'd written. Shortly after it was released, artist Sandy Carruthers sent me a couple of quick sketches he'd done illustrating moments from two of the stories contained within. You can see them below. These illustrations set me to thinking.

I'd long had an idea for a story about a modern day mummy who, like Fagin from Oliver Twist, has assembled a gang of young criminals to do his bidding. Suddenly, this seemed like a great idea for a comic book, and so I arranged a meeting with Sandy. 

Sandy is the owner of Sandstone Comics, a comic book creator/publisher located here in Prince Edward Island. For anyone who might be unfamiliar with Sandy and his work, check out his Wikipedia page. Beyond Men in Black and Charlton NEO, Sandy was a student of my father in the Commercial Design program at Holland College - ahem - a few decades back - end ahem - and I've known him casually for years. 
Fortuitously, Sandy liked the idea; in fact, we were both excited about collaborating on this particular project, and so we set about making it happen.

Somehow, we settled on the DARK|Sanctuary title, and then I went to work on the script while Sandy went to work creating illustrated renditions of our characters. I had never written a comic book script before, and although I'm sure I don't follow proper format, the way I write seems to work for Sandy, at least in this instance. I don't like to tell the artist how many panels a scene requires, or to dictate the composition of a panel. As I see it, my job is to create story and dialogue, and Sandy's is to bring it to life on the page. DARK|Sanctuary is very much a collaboration in the purest sense. 

Out of necessity, the focus of the story shifted somewhat, but more often than not, I find that this opens up an idea in ways the original concept never could. Our mummy, an ancient evil that moves from body to body as the old one crumbles, got a name - Pharaoh - and as all villains worth their salt need a sidekick, Pharaoh was given Suma, a hairless Egyptian cat.

What was missing was an accessible way into Pharaoh's world, and so Cassie was born. Cassie is a 14-year-old runaway whose father, ostensibly, has a hard time accepting that she is a lesbian. Cassie has made contact with Sanctuary, the dorm/centre of operations that Pharaoh has built, and it's her story that is the throughline of our series.
Key to Sandy's and my ability to collaborate, I think, is that we trust each other to do our jobs, and leave each other alone to do them, with only the occasional but absolutely necessary suggestion for each other. Another key to our successful collaboration is that we both share a love of Warren Publishing's CreepyEerie, and Vampirella magazines, as well as the horror comics of the 1960s and 70s. This gives us a sort of reference shorthand when discussing the look and feel of a scene or a character. Perhaps the latter makes the former easier to do. There's an innate trust there. I assume that's why Sandy lets me surprise him with the twists and turns that I present for each issue, and it's why I leave the artwork and comic book business decisions to him; he knows his stuff. 

To that end, Sandy landed on a 20-page per issue, four-issue run plan for DARK|Sanctuary, and it's been really fun working to the beats that each issue requires, and cutting out all the fat that doesn't get us where we need to be, story-wise, by the end of each issue. Believe me, each issue is thoroughly thought out before the final artwork is ready to go to print. 

So far, two issues have seen the light of day. You can pick them up at your local comic shop, and if they're not there, you can order directly from Sandstone Comics, where you can check out all the comics in their roster, including other work from Sandy, Robert Doan, Gregory Webster, and Brad Seymour.

Presently, I've written the script for the third issue, and Sandy is at work on its thumbnails and layout. We know where issue four is going, we just hope we get to complete this story and get it out there. To that end, we'll be hosting another Kickstarter campaign when issue three is ready to go. Please consider supporting our work when we do. This is truly a labour of love. Stay tuned!

A favourite moment from DARK|Sanctuary #1.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

More Favourite Horror Movies, Alphabetically: The Witch

The Witch

Dir: Robert Eggers. Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw. 2015.

”Wouldst thou like the taste of butter… wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

If you haven’t seen The Witch, please don’t read what follows, as it’s spoiler laden. 

The Witch is a movie that divides audiences. The major complaint its detractors seems to have against it is that ‘it’s not scary’. Whatever that means. 

When I hear that complaint, my first thought is, “I wonder how they watched this movie? Did they watch it on a computer monitor or some little screen? Were they absent of distractions? Did they have excessive expectations of what they were about to see?”

Regardless of the answer to the above, I honestly believe that The Witch is a movie best seen in the theatre where the image and sound overtake you, where the experience is bigger than anything else around you. Regardless, I get that The Witch isn’t a movie to everyone's tastes. No movie is. 

From my perspective, The Witch illustrates how a belief system forces someone to become what its adherents believe her to be. I can relate to that, and the notion, to me, is scary.

The Witch is, first, a horror movie that is propelled by a sense of isolation and fate, heading, with moments of false hope, towards its seemingly predestined conclusion. Though this was director Robert Eggers first feature film, he has such a command of what he’s doing that it’s hard to believe.

It is also a film with extraordinary performances, unnerving music by Mark Korven, and intense attention to detail. Its dialogue is written and spoken in Olde English, and its language is as dense as the forest that surrounds the farm of the outcast family, and hides not just one witch, but perhaps a coven. In that regard, the dialogue can sometimes be difficult to discern, but that rarely detracts for long.   

And Poor Thomasin; she gets it from all sides. As the family begins to lose, first, hope and then their grip on reality, we fear for what is in store for her. Whether her ending is a release or a role she’s forced to take on is open for interpretation. 

More Favourite Horror Movies, Alphabetically: Videodrome


Dir: David Cronenberg. Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky. 1983.

I saw Videodrome when it was first released to theatres in 1983. I was (and am) a fan of both Cronenberg and Debbie Harry. When I walked out of theatre after that first viewing, however, all I could think was, ‘What the hell was that?’ 

The fact is, Videodrome was years ahead of its time. It’s a metaphor-heavy movie that uses body horror to expand upon Marshall McLuhan’s notion that ‘The medium is the message’, and in this case, we become the medium.

Max Renn manages an adult content cable TV station. His tech guy introduces him to Videodrome, a show comprised of only sex and torture that he’s discovered via short bursts of glitchy transmissions. Max becomes obsessed with tracking the show down for his network, and along the way becomes ‘the new flesh’. 

Gory, surreal, visceral and intelligent, Videodrome is a brilliant piece of work that becomes more and more prescient as time passes. 

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

"A Small Fortune"

Kevin (Stephen Oates), running from his bloody destiny in A Small Fortune.

A Small Fortune

Writer/Director: Adam Perry. Cast: Stephen Oates, Liane Balaban, Andrea Bang, Joel Thomas Hynes, Matt Cooke, Bill McFadden. 2021.

When you live in Prince Edward Island, it can be difficult to receive an Island-made film without preconceived notions, for better and for worse. Happily, in the case of Adam Perry’s A Small Fortune, it fits neatly into the 'pleasant surprise' category. 

What struck me first after a viewing of A Small Fortune was how engrossed I became in the plot and how invested I became in the characters. For most of the film’s 91 minutes, I forgot that I was watching an ‘Island film’ (actually a PEI-Newfoundland co-production), no matter how much the place and its people are at the heart of its story. And that’s a very good thing. It’s a film that, first and foremost, is interested in fulfilling the requirements of a thriller. And it’s that commitment to genre that is key to its success. 

A Small Fortune gives us antihero Kevin Doucette (Stephen Oates), an Irish moss farmer in Skinner’s Pond, Prince Edward Island (the film was actually shot in French River, PEI), finding it hard to make ends meet, not surprisingly. Kevin’s wife Sam (Liane Balaban) is pregnant and not making much money working as a home care worker. One day, while mossing (did I just make up that term, or is it a thing?), Kevin stumbles upon an answer to the couple’s prayers — a bag of big money washed up on the shore.

Being a thriller, the not-so-rightful owners of the money come looking for it, guns at the ready. And while avoiding the bad guys, Kevin also has to sidestep his suspicious spouse and a couple of local cops. True to the demands of a PEI neo-Noir, destinies are preordained, people die, and characters learn uncomfortable truths about themselves. 

The notion of ‘traditional versus contemporary’ is also ever-present throughout A Small Fortune. It’s there in the outdated nature of Kevin’s work, and it’s there in local law enforcement, which is made up of by-the book Susan Crowe (Andrea Bang), who is both new to the police force and new to the community, and Jim Bradley (Matt Cooke), a local who knows how to local. 

It’s also there in the character of Omer Tom (the late Island icon, Bill McFadden). He’s an Irish moss dealer, among other things, who knows that his time, and his kind, are coming to an end. After all, as he asks Kevin, what are you going to do when I’m gone?

Although it’s a question that resonates for the duration of A Small Fortune, the answer, of course, is in Kevin’s connection to PEI. Whatever your experience of Canada’s smallest province, it’s hard to deny its magnetic pull that is hard to escape for many. It is, in the end, a place that feels like “home” perhaps as only an island can, even if what you make of that connection is not necessarily logical. 

That sense of place plays a large role in A Small Fortune, and the connection to it is reflected in the film’s spent fall setting. It’s a side of Prince Edward Island we don’t often see on film, one that is typically reserved for the lived experience of Islanders who reside in-province year round, long after the tourists have packed up and gone home. 

What this means is that the Island is presented here in a way I’ve not seen it represented on film before. You won’t find any scenic drone shots of shoreline in A Small Fortune. Instead, the brittle, long grass of fall and the frigid shoreline set the atmosphere and the stage for what’s to come. Cinematographer Jeff Wheaton introduces Prince Edward Island as a fresh character — no mean feat, that — one that both hints at the beauty of the place and showcases its ruggedness.

The human characters in A Small Fortune fare just as well. Oates, Balaban and Hynes (the bad guy with the most screen time) create a tension-filled triangle, and at least two characters you care about. Hynes is absolutely terrific, but you don’t exactly root for him, after all.   

Bang and Cooke are also excellent as, respectively, a fish-out-of-water cop trying to learn the ropes of small town policing, and the long-time cop who has the chops his new deputy desperately needs to develop. The casting of Bang is particularly inspired as her timbre belies the true nature of her character and emphasizes that fish-out-of-water quality. 

There’s also nice work from Celia Owen and Sophia Bell as sisters Gussie and Josie. Comic foils at first, and perpetually mounted on ATVs, they also act as the eyes of the community, observing much of what takes place in Skinner’s Pond.

What can be said about Bill McFadden? Locally, he’s an icon, a larger than life presence that will be felt in the streets of Charlottetown, and throughout the province, for some time to come. A Small Fortune was McFadden’s last film (it’s dedicated to him), and he certainly brings life to Omer, though I wasn’t always convinced by his performance. When he nails it, however, there’s no doubt that anyone seeing A Small Fortune will come away remembering him. His turn as Omer Tom is absolutely a fitting tribute. 

As Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock knew and frequently proved, a plot hole doesn’t matter if you’re wrapped up in the story, and like most thrillers, A Small Fortune has a couple. Almost a trademark of the genre, chances are that your engagement with the film won’t allow you to dwell there, with some pop psychology reasoning giving you enough of a rationale to ignore it. 

Behind it all, I’ve been privy to some of the work that writer/director Adam Perry has put into realizing A Small Fortune, and it’s a testament to his belief in the project, and that of producers and Perry cohorts Jason Arsenault and Jenna MacMillan, as well as Newfoundland-based producer Mary Sexton, that this film haas made it to screens. Perry has some web work to his credit, including the 2009 feature-length web series Jiggers, but here, Perry has strived for more and achieved it. The evolution of his script and his direction are as solid as they come. He has made a film that we can point to and say, “This is what we’re doing in PEI.” On a personal level, it is absolutely a film I wish I’d made.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

"Let’s Go Play at the Adams’" by Mendal W. Johnson (1974)

Mendal W. Johnson had only one novel published - Let’s Go Play at the Adams’. Two years later, he died as a result of alcoholism. 

Based very loosely on the real life case of Sylvia Likens, Go Play tells a story that, quite honestly, based on description alone, is anything but appealing. 

Barbara, a twenty-year-old college student, takes a job babysitting the two Adams kids — 13-year-old Bobby and 10-year-old Cindy — for two weeks while their parents are in Europe. One morning, she awakens to find herself the captive of the Adams kids and three of their teenage friends. 

At the age of 56, while I still like reading things that push the envelope, I’ve had enough of this kind of story. For those of us looking for something shocking, The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave are rites of passage, for better or worse. Hopefully, we come away from them with empathy, or some sort of catharsis, maybe just the feeling that “we made it through”. 

After being there though the post-9/11 advent of Torture Porn movies (Hostel, Saw), enough was finally enough. The fact is, after awhile the only sane response to these kinds of stories, for me, was to laugh at how over the top they’d become, or to feel depressed. 

What will get me to risk feeling that human beings are shit for a few days, however, is the reputation of the work in question, and that was the case with Go Play. 

Out of print for many years. Grady Hendrix and Valencourt Books have brought Go Play back into circulation via their Paperbacks from Hell imprint. Since it was first published in 1974, the book has been one of those holy grail publications that wasn’t always easy to get your hands on, and that had a reputation for being both a difficult read, but well worth it. After having finished it just last night, I agree that it’s both.

The beginning of the novel very much has the feel of the time it was written. It’s almost like an S. E. Hinton novel co-written by a sociopath. 

I don’t want to say too much about what happens in Go Play — it’s pretty much a single scenario that plays out over a few days and gets progressively worse — but I will say that it’s the manner in which it’s written that gives it its true power.

It's horrific without being exploitive. The cruelty, the nudity is not there to titillate, it's used to describe, to add pathos. Johnson also very much gets into the heads of all six of his primary players, and makes them seem very real, both as individuals, but also when the young captors act as a unit under the guise of the Freedom Five. This makes the scenario, the dynamics, and everyone’s actions all the more believable. 

It’s also very much a story about hope, despair and the apathetic (fatalistic?) nature of cruelty. In fact, it was this hope-despair dynamic that had me hooked by the novel’s midpoint, and led me to cram-read the second half of the book in one sitting. Much like the captive Barbara, I just had to know what her fate was going to be. 

At its end, the book transcends everything that’s come before it. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense that many people use when writing about horror novels. I mean that it veers into a type of poetry, almost taking the reader into the realm of Kubrick’s 2001 ending. 

As a result, Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is absolutely that difficult but nastily worthwhile read that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to the right people. You know what I mean. This is a novel that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.  

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

More Favourite Horror Movies, Alphabetically: The Thing

 The Thing

Dir: John Carpenter. Cast: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, David Clennon, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, Thomas G. Waites, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Joel Polis. 1982.

John Carpenter’s version of The Thing is an argument in favour of the power of special effects. Though all the elements of filmmaking are firing on all cylinders and absolutely doing their jobs here, it’s the SFX that overwhelm and horrify. 

I saw The Thing twice in the theatre during its initial release in the summer of 1982. I don’t remember that first screening, but I do remember the second. Lured back into the theatre by what I’d already experienced the first time around, I convinced a friend who hadn’t seen it to accompany me. At some point during the movie she leaned over and whispered to me, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to hold my hand.” 

The Thing features an all-male cast, save for Adrienne Barbeau as the voice of a computer. I really think, intentional or not, this serves not to reinforce the machismo of the 80s action movie, but rather to add to the coldness and hopelessness predominant in the frigid atmosphere of the film. 

The Thing is about an American research station located in Antartica that has to defend itself from a shapeshifting alien that sometimes looks like some of the crew. It’s a full on jump into the depths of paranoia. But the practical special effects here, by a very young and not overly experienced at the time Rob Bottin, show us things that we truly haven’t seen before, and maybe since. It’s the closest we’ve come to putting onscreen the sort of creatures writer H.P. Lovecraft imagined. 

That’s not to say that The Thing is all effects and nothing else, but I can’t think of another film, with the exception of possibly The Exorcist, where its effects matter so much, and at times, all the other aspects of filmmaking seem to be in support of the SFX with the primary purpose of getting the story onto the screen.