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. 

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

More Favourite Horror Movies, Alphabetically: Targets


Dir: Peter Bogdanovich. Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich. 1968.

Targets is a remarkable film, and no less so for how it was made. Producer Roger Corman allowed director Bogdanovich to make a film if he would use Boris Karloff during the two days the actor owed the producer, if he would incorporate footage from Corman’s The Terror, and if he came in under budget. What Bogdanovich was able to create adhering to these guidelines is not only a clever achievement, but it resulted in an under-seen horror classic. 

Like Hitchcock’s Psycho eight years earlier, Targets announces the death of classic horror and the birth of its contemporary counterpart. Here, rather than modern day murder in the shadow of a gothic mansion, it takes the form of a gothic horror personality making an appearance at a drive-in where contemporary horror muscles in in the form of a hidden snipper, poised to kill as many as possible. 

In part inspired by the real life horror of sniper Charles Whitman, who found his victims street level while hidden atop a tower at the University of Texas, Targets itself fell victim, though to bad timing. Released shortly after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. was in no mood to see this reality reflected on the screen, and it was not a box office hit. Pity, as it's both an extraordinary movie, and a warning of things to come.