Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mile 81

by Stephen King
(New York: Scribner, 2011)
eBook, 80 Pages, 213 KB, Short Fiction

At Mile 81 on the Maine Turnpike is a boarded up rest stop on a highway in Maine.  It's a place where high school kids drink and get into the kind of trouble high school kids have always gotten into.  It's the place where Pete Simmons goes when his older brother, who's supposed to be looking out for him, heads off to the gravel pit to play "paratroopers over the side."  Pete, armed only with the magnifying glass he got for his tenth birthday, finds a discarded bottle of vodka in the boarded up burger shack and drinks enough to pass out.  Not much later, a mud-covered station wagon (which is strange because there hadn't been any rain in New England for over a week) veers into the Mile 81 rest area, ignoring the sign that says "closed, no services."  The driver's door opens but nobody gets out.  Doug Clayton, an insurance man from Bangor, is driving his Prius to a conference in Portland. On the backseat are his briefcase and suitcase and in the passenger bucket is a King James Bible, what Doug calls "the ultimate insurance manual," but it isn't going to save Doug when he decides to be the Good Samaritan and help the guy in the broken down wagon. He pulls up behind it, puts on his four-ways, and then notices that the wagon has no plates.  Ten minutes later, Julianne Vernon, pulling a horse trailer, spots the Prius and the wagon, and pulls over. Julianne finds Doug Clayton's cracked cell phone near the wagon door — and gets too close herself. By the time Pete Simmons wakes up from his vodka nap, there are a half a dozen cars at the Mile 81 rest stop. Two kids — Rachel and Blake Lussier — and one horse named Deedee are the only living left. Unless you maybe count the wagon…

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again … I feel like I am in an abusive relationship with Stephen King.  Things started out so good when we first met.  His stories were scary and interesting and funny and engrossing (sometimes with an emphasis on the grossing part).  We had fun together, stayed up late together, went everywhere together: Castle Rock, Derry, two winters in Colorado, ‘salem’s Lot

Then, things started to get a little—strained.  We stopped going to the same old places.  Castle Rock was gone, Derry just didn’t have the same shine, Colorado was out of the question … we started visiting places like Dark Score Lake, Little Tall Island … the MidwestNevada.  It just wasn’t the same anymore.  He became needlessly violent, he treated me like I wasn’t smart enough anymore, he beat me over the head with his morals.  So I left.

But I never really did.  He kept a little part of me with him.  A little part of my heart.  He would whisper into it saying things like That was just a phase, I’m over it now.  Come, see what I can do.  Want to go to the ends of the world and back?  We can.  Want to see how literary and metafictional I can get?  Come with me.  And, like a fool, I did.  I went.  Some of it was good, most of it wasn’t.  Sometimes we tried to recapture our old spark and did the same old things in the same old places, but really, the gloss was off the relationship.

But now I was hooked.  I kept coming back.  I was entirely co-dependent.  He said he had changed, that it could be like old times, but it wasn’t.  I kept getting my heart broken, kept getting hurt, and then thanking him for doing it.  I couldn’t stop.  I kept trying to believe he had changed, believing it would be different this time, but…

So, I thought maybe I would just take it one step at a time.  Start off with baby steps again.  A series of quick rendez-vous.  That worked for a time.  Not all of those get-togethers were fun.  Only about three or four were, to be totally honest, but they allowed him to wedge his way in to my life again and entice me into a long term relationship.

And here I am.  Reading Mile 81.  Another quick tryst (at only 80 pages long) between King and I, and it was just as unsatisfying as some of the others have been, especially those in Just After Sunset.  There is nothing particularly exciting about this story, rather it seems as if King is simply rehashing his stories—again—and in the end, Mile 81 is simply an amalgamation of Christine and From a Buick 8 with a healthy dose of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby thrown in for good measure.  The resulting mash is a story that is unsatisfying and riddled with characters that are not very believable, especially 10-year-old Pete Simmons who is the most world-weary and wise pre-teen I have ever met and functions more as a deus ex machina than a main character/hero.

My emotions regarding this book (novella?) (short story?) are so over the map that I’m not even sure I can articulate how disappointing this entry is.  And the worst part of it?  I read it.  I read it because it was written by Stephen King and I am desperately trying to recapture the spark of our relationship.  Even worse than this?  I’ll pick up 11/22/63 even though the MacGuffin of this book (available November 8, 2011) is a time-travelling English teacher who, through the magic of an enchanted diner storeroom (yes, you read that right), heads back to 1963 IN ORDER TO STOP THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION.  No really (and if it sounds more than a tad familiar, that’s because—minus the time travel—it is).  That’s what this one is going to be about (there is a teaser at the end of Mile for 11/22/63).  Will I read it?  Damn me, but yes I will.  Why?  Because I hope it will be better than Just After Sunset, Duma Key, Lisey’s Story and Mile 81, and a host of others that have been disappointments.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A History of Horror

by Winston Wheeler Dixon
(Piscataway: Rutgers UP, 2010)
eBook, 224 Pages, 3993 KB, Nonfiction

Ever since horror leapt from popular fiction to the silver screen in the late 1890s, viewers have experienced fear and pleasure in exquisite combination.  A History of Horror, with rare stills from classic films, is the only book to offer a comprehensive survey of this ever-popular film genre.  Chronologically examining over fifty horror films from key periods, this one-stop sourcebook unearths the historical origins of legendary characters and explores how the genre fits into the Hollywood studio system and how its enormous success in American and European culture expanded globally over time.

Now, I have read a lot on horror, and not just recreationally.   I have done a lot of serious academic reading, studying and writing on the horror genre both in literature and in film.  In fact, I’ve pretty much made an academic career for myself writing about horror.  Believe it or not, it is viable academically.  (It even got to the point where I was known as “the Horror Guy” among both my cohort and the department.)  Amongst my rummaging in the academic discourse surrounding the horror film, I have come across the writings of Professor Winston Wheeler Dixon more than once, so when I discovered that he had a book length study of the horror genre, I knew I needed to read it.  I probably should have known better…

In my past readings, I have taken issue with some of the points in Dixon’s articles, but that is part of academic discourse, you don’t always agree with what you have read, in fact, that is usually a good jumping off point for your own writing.  Yet, in A History of Horror, Dixon seems to be missing the forest for the trees in his “overview” of the horror genre.  While the book does a good job of covering the history of the genre from its beginnings to the current era (or at least current as of the writing) there is a distinct tone of dismissal hiding amongst Dixon’s writing when he begins a discussion of the era of New Horror (more or less 1968 to the present).

The bulk of Dixon’s book focuses mostly on the pre-Night of the Living Dead era (Romero’s film being a universally-recognized turning point in the genre) and does so with a distinct air of nostalgia; a why aren’t films as good as they used to be wistfulness.  There is a distinct feeling of fondness for the Universal monsters (as well as a clear sense of despair that they, to paraphrase Dixon, were reduced to broad burlesque players in films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which, for the record, I like!) and even a tone of respect for the Hammer films of the 50s and 60s.  However, his tone shifts once he reaches the 70s and the directors behind the New Horror.

George A. Romero and his Dead films barely get two paragraphs.  Wes Craven is dismissed as a sequel generating hack.  Tobe Hooper is written off as a sensationalist and one-hit wonder.  Only John Carpenter gets more than two cents of Dixon’s time, and Halloween is given its due, but as with all of these men who changed the face of the horror film, Dixon spends more time dwelling on their failures than on their successes.  By lamenting the change that occurred in horror including the increase in violence, the lack of origins—for the most part—of the monsters/killers, and an emphasis on nihilism, and wondering why the films of the late 60s and 70s (and beyond) could not be more like those of the 30s, 40s and 50s, Dixon misses the point.

There was a significant shift in the American cultural landscape, socially, politically and aesthetically.  With the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, the social despair and unrest caused by the seemingly endless conflict in Vietnam as well as a distrust of political leadership in the wake of Watergate America was changing.  Add to these the Civil Rights Movement, Second-Wave Feminism, as well as growing unemployment, a perceived assault on “manhood,” and an energy crisis America and Americans (as well as the rest of the world) would (and could) not be content with the horror film in its classic form where good wins and  the monster/threat is vanquished in the end.  Yes, there are films that still follow that formula in the post-1968 era (in fact they are among the most formulaic films produced by Hollywood) but the directors that changed the face of the genre embraced the shift in the American landscape and it was reflected in their films.

Dixon, to my mind, compounds his error by first addressing the very real fact that the events of September 11, 2001 created a shift in the horror genre (much in the way that Vietnam did) but then discusses films that really have nothing to do with this change.  While I realize that in the last 40 years or so the horror film has become transnational in nature and Japan, France, Italy, Spain and Korea are creating some very interesting and provocative films Dixon all but ignores the fact that American horror experienced another shift as well.  Sure the slasher genre is still there, each one trying to be more explicit than the last, but other films such as 30 Days of Night, The Hamiltons, and especially The Strangers are investigating questions of identity, the sanctity of the home as well as family and the self in a post-9/11 landscape.  Instead Dixon chooses to focus on those films that, in his mind, are derivative and serve no purpose other than to spawn sequels and generate money for the studios.  This is a short-sighted view at best and only serves to strengthen Dixon’s erroneous proposition that horror films “aren’t what they used to be” and that they should revert to the classical storytelling that was embraced in the 30s and 40s in a petitio principii fashion.

In the end, for the casual viewer of the horror film there are better books out there that chronicle the history of horror and discuss its impact on the cultural landscape (add to this the fact that Dixon gets some basic plot points of some modern films wrong, most notably the identity of the killer in the first Friday the 13th film … seriously, how do you mess that one up?).  I would recommend, just off the top of my head, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (very accessible and readable), Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (academic in tone, but a fascinating read) Steffan Hantke’s anthology American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium (an insightful and broad overview of the genre) and Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (a fascinating and accessible read that better lays out the transitional period in horror between about 1968 to 1979).  Dixon’s book, while occasionally interesting and insightful, is just too one-sided for me to recommend unconditionally.  Get it at the library if you must, but don’t shell out money for it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fright Night

directed by Tom Holland
starring Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowall
Columbia Pictures, August 2, 1985, 106 minutes
Rated R

When a teenager learns that his next door neighbor is a vampire, no one will believe him.

So, with the upcoming release of the Colin Farrell-David Tennant remake of Fright Night (it releases this Friday, on August 19), I decided that I had better refresh my memory of the original (not that I have any plans to see the remake in the theaters, being unemployed and having kids does have its drawbacks), so we queued the original up in the ol’ Netflix and sat down to watch.

Alisa walked out after about 20 minutes and went to do other things.

In the interest of fairness, I sat through the whole thing.  While it is nowhere near as bad as Dracula 2000, Fright Night has not aged well in the last 26 years.  However, if aging is the worst of the films’ faults, then it is still worth seeing.  I think that the last time I saw this film was some time in middle school at a sleep over (it was the same sleepover where we had also rented House II: The Second Story (I still remember the zombie-cowboy-grandfather) and Critters) and I had forgotten much of it, so it was like I was coming to the film anew.  While there were some hokey moments (I’m pretty sure I saw a string on the vampire bat-thing at one point) there are still some genuine chills, especially as the story gets going and Charley (William Ragsdale) is still trying to figure out if his new next door neighbor Jerry (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire or not.  I find that this is a problem with many films of this ilk, that the suspense and tension that is created in the initial ambiguity surrounding the monster/killer/antagonist of a horror film is often dissipated once the monster/killer/antagonist is revealed.  John Carpenter calls this the “Monster Problem” and it is something that horror directors struggle with (at least the good ones do).

Fright Night has the Monster Problem, and while it does not have a perfect solution it does stretch it out as long as possible.  Jerry as a monstrous vampire thing in the end of the film that is threatening to disembowel Charley is not as scary or threatening as the Jerry who is stalking Charley and his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) through the streets of their town and into a dance club.  That predatory vampire is much scarier than the grotesque bat-creature.

The true saving grace of this film is Roddy McDowall’s performance as the aging and fading horror film star.  As Peter Vincent, McDowall is brilliant and steals every scene that he is in.  Really, it is worth it to see the film just for McDowall’s performance.

In the end, I would classify this film more as a “cult horror classic” than a “horror classic,” and it is far from the best vampire film ever made, but it does have its moments, and it is worth the time.

Official Trailer

Fright Night at IMDb

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dracula 2000

directed by Patrick Lussier
starring Christopher Plummer and Gerard Butler
Dimension Films, December 22, 2000, 99 minutes
Rated R

A group of thieves break into a chamber expecting to find paintings, but instead release the Count himself, who travels to New Orleans to find his nemesis’ daughter, Mary Van Helsing.

Ive been sick lately, and as the kids were downstairs playing with the neighbor kids and my wife and the baby were taking a nap, I was languishing on the couch scanning through Netflix trying to decide what to watch. This film was in our InstaQueue and since I had 90 minutes to kill, I decided What the hell and clicked on play.

Let me just say, that even though I was sick and my face felt like it was going to explode at any minute, these are 99 minutes that I want back. Sinus pressure and all. I dont know whos idea this film was, and who held a gun to Wes Cravens head to get him to sign on as producer (though I have to say that I have been increasingly disappointed with Mr. Cravens entries into the horror genre in the last twenty years or so (wow, that makes me feel so old to put it that way) and perhaps there is a future blog post in that somewhere...) but this is, perhaps, one of the worst entries into the family of Dracula films that has been perpetrated on the film going public, and that includes Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

Anyway, the script is horribly stilted, though I do give them credit for having assistant Simon Sheppard (Jonny Lee Miller) beheading a vampiric Omar Epps and declaring NEVER ... ever FUCK with an antiques dealer! Thats just good writing. Though, it is followed up with such dreck as Dracula (Butler) declaring I never drink ... coffee (ugh!) and Were all so much more complicated than our names. (blerk!). Plus, the plot was so ridiculous:

Matthew Van Helsing (Plummer) is the grandson to the real life Abraham Van Helsing who inspired the character from Stoker's novel, and Matthew is an antiques dealer in London who has a taste for the esoteric. One of his first purchases that we see in the movie is a medieval crossbow that shoots silver bolts. Matts secretary Solina (Jennifer Esposito) is soon revealed to be the inside man in a heist of Matt's high security vault that surely hides something valuable. After a number of deaths of the heist crew (headed by Marcus (Epps)) they flee with the only object in the vault: a silver coffin, reasoning that it must be filled with something extraordinarily valuable.

It's soon revealed to be Draculas coffin (shocker!) and the undead Count is imprisoned therein and the unwitting crooks let him loose, causing their plane to crash in the swamps outside of New Orleans (yawn) ... just how many vampire films have to be set in New Orleans before they leave that poor city alone? Leave it to Louis and Lestat and every other vampire find somewhere else to live, please? Chaos ensues ... Dracula hunts, turns sexy women (Esposito, Jeri Ryan and Colleen Fitzpatrick) into his Vampire brides and eventually confronts Matthew Van Helsing who, it turns out is actually Abraham in a weird plot twist that seems quite improbable when you stop and look at it for too long.

From there, the film takes a weird, hanging left turn into the kooky as the true twist of the film is revealedDracula's real identity. I wont spoil it for you if you havent seen it, but while I will give the filmmakers credit for having the balls to completely retcon the Dracula mythos, in the end, it is very unsatisfying.

Add to all of this the fact that Butler struts through the film like a rock video reject with his black leather, wind-blown locks and pale skin and his lines are garbled due to his elongated fangs and Scottish brogue. Plummer chews the scenery as Van Helsing and really it is only Miller who is able to bring anything resembling dignity to his role.

All around, this film is a real mess that is muddled by the addition of a soundtrack that probably made more money than the film did. It is an emo/rock mishmash that is played too loud and too often, usually overshadowing the action of the film. The film actually gave me a headache.

Overall, a very poor entry into the Dracula canon, and a film that underuses its actors, misuses its location and source material and absolutely wastes 90 minutes of your time. Its not even really bloody enough to be a good vampire film in that respect. The grossest scene is Nightshades (Danny Masterson) encounter with a leech that actually made me cringe. I cant imagine paying for this film in the theater, let alone having used up valuable time and resources in my Netflix queue for this film. Let my experience serve as a warning: skip Dracula 2000 and spend your time with a better vampire film ... and really any vampire film would be better than this one.

Official Trailer

Dracula 2000 at IMDb