October 31, 2011

Critters: a guest post by Dylan Duarte

The guest posts aren't quite over yet. I have one more bonus post from a blog reader who contacted me at the start of the marathon asking to take part. Who am I to refuse when the subject is Critters, one of my guilty pleasures. Enjoy.


by Dylan Duarte

I grew up in the 80s without any cable. The rabbit ears we slapped on top of the television gave us a few channels, but most of my time in front of the television was spent re-watching old VHS tapes that we acquired from God knows where. Pee Wee's Big Adventure was on one of those tapes, which explains my undying love for the Paul Reubens character. Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive was on another tape, or maybe even the same as Pee Wee, so that was another film I watched repeatedly. There are certain scenes ingrained into my memory. I'll never forget the scene where the vending machine shoots a soda at the baseball coach's crotch, or the driver-less ice cream truck, or Stephen King's cameo, where the ATM calls him an asshole. I don't know how I knew who Stephen King was way back then, but I did.

These films shaped me, for better or worse, but none of them had an impact like the 1986 science fiction horror Critters. Like a lot of horror films, especially from that era, the main protagonist was a kid, Brad Brown. Brad was played by actor Scott Grimes, who was fifteen years old at the time. Grimes's biggest roles to date have been Dr. Archie Morris on ER, Will McCorkle on Party of Five, and Tech Sergeant Donald Malarkey on the critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. I was never a fan of ER or Party of Five, but when I spotted him on Band of Brothers, I immediately jumped on the internet to see if he was the kid from Critters, which he obviously was.

Despite the impact the film had on me, there are bits and pieces I don't remember, but I do remember plenty. I remember Brad, I remember Charlie, the town drunk, I remember the Critters themselves, and I remember the shape-shifting bounty hunters that were sent to clean them up. And I even remember Billy Zane, though at the time I didn't know who he was.

Critters were the reason that I never watched my back for monsters, I watched my feet. And there small size was deceptive. It made them harder to spot and ultimately harder to kill. They were wily, fast, and while you were focused on killing one of them, a dozen more would make their move.

There's a moment in the film in which Helen Brown (Dee Wallace-Stone) is watching dishes in the kitchen. Their sink, like most, is situated in front of a window, and Helen peers out into the night as she cleans. Suddenly, she spots something moving and becomes frightened. She might've screamed, I'm not sure. She thinks it's an animal, we know it's a critter. To this day, I grow slight uneasy when looking out my kitchen window at night. It could be for a multitude of reasons, but that scene in Critters will always stick in my mind.

And then there's the matter of my childhood bed. When I was a child, my bed was very low to the ground. It had a frame, but one that barely lifted it. I imagine a lot of kids had similar beds, for accessibility reasons. My bed was adjacent to the door, which stayed open at night. I would lie in bed, facing the doorway, and peer out into the hallway. We had night lights in the hallway, but they only made it worse. A lot of kids prefer night lights, and I'm sure I did to some extent, but they were not without their downside. The light is great, but it's where the light stops that's truly terrifying, that wall that fades into darkness. So there I was, every night, at Critter feeding level, staring out across the carpet into the outskirts of the light, watching for those glowing red eyes.

Guest author Dylan Duarte is crazy about film, the written word, and potted meat. He writes on a variety of subjects, including Halloween costumes. He can be reached at dylnduarte@gmail.com.

My Five Favorite Monsters from Childhood

Oh what a month it's been here on the blog with a slew of great contributions from authors and bloggers. Look, if you haven't had a chance to pore over the Monster Movie Marathon guest posts, I urge you to do so because everybody did a fantastic job. So many aspects of monster movies were covered, and monsters in general, and because of that I kind of feel like I should apologize for taking the tone to a kindergarten level. But it is my blog after all, so if I want to reminisce about my childhood some more, I will.

I didn't become a big fan of monsters until probably my teen years, but the seed was sewn way back when I was a little boy. Looking back there were a slew of monsters I saw in movies and on television--not to mention the children's books--so I thought I'd offer up a fave five list of my favorite monsters from childhood. Don't tell me there aren't at least a couple from your childhood too, that you hold dear.

5) Gizmo (Gremlins): I was probably ten years old when I first saw Gremlins and lemme tell ya, when those cuddly critters ate after midnight and metamorphosed they freaked me right out of my own skin. I think Jim Henson's Workshop worked on the character design for these guys (correct me if I'm wrong). In any case, Gizmo was absolutely adorable. I mean come on, don't tell me you didn't want one just like him when you were a kid. Sure, they were higher maintenance than a prize poodle, but what dog could compete with such a cute little face.

And if you consider Gremlins 2 the cuteness factor only skyrockets. Remember the scene where he straps on the red bandana like Rambo and starts fashioning his own bow and arrows. Effin' sweet. Yes, the movie was kind of crap--but in a good way.

4) Beast Man (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe): When I comes across the occasional episode of He-Man while channel surfing, I have a hard time figuring out just what the heck I loved so much about that show. The animation was recycled to a ridiculous degree, the plots were utterly silly, and talk about an unrealistic setting of the bar for a boy with body image issues. The entire male cast of this show had to be on some magical form of steroids.

Anyway, one of the many thugs under Skeletor's employ was Beast. He was an orange, musclebound halfwit that got thrown around by He-Man probably more than any other villain--maybe Lockjaw took more thumpings per episode, but it'd be a close call. Still, the character design was great, and despite being an ineffectual villain the guy struck an imposing image when on screen. Of course, he'd open his mouth and the intimidation factor went out the window, but the same could be said for every character on that show. I have a soft spot for the orange galoot though, so I had to put him on the list.

3) The Tazmanian Devil (Looney Tunes): Less monster than marsupial perhaps, but I say the adorable holy terror counts so he's on the list. He's dumb as a post with sharp claw and teeth, and a ravenous appetite for destruction. Honestly, Daffy Duck has long been my favorite WB cartoon character, but I've got a soft spot for Taz. He was one of the villains that I rooted for as a child. Him and Wile E. Coyote.

My memory is a bit foggy, but I don't think there were many vignettes made with Taz. I should hit YouTube and see what I can find. Lord knows there are a ton of Coyote sketches. But they'd have to be from the early era of WB for me to enjoy them. All the cartoons they did after 1960 really lost their appeal. It's those ones from the 40s and 50s that are really special to me, in terms of animation style and tone. Sigh, now I really need to go find a Tazmanian Devil cartoon.

2) The Wolfman (Hilarious House of Frightenstein) - I'm not sure if anyone outside of Canada even got this show. Maybe a couple New England stations. Anyway, this was one of my absolute favorite kids shows when I was growing up. Hosted by Vincent Price--yes, THE Vincent Price--it was basically a sketch comedy and variety show. There was Dracula, Igor, Frankenstein, the Witch, and a few other zany characters. The vast majority of which were played by one man. But the character I dug the most was the Wolfman

I don't know who was doing the make-up for this show, but the Wolfman was one of the most convincing jobs on the show. And for a campy Canadian children's show that's a remarkable achievement. The Wolfman was the house DJ of sorts, spitting out a whole lot of radio disc jockey cliches with some punny monster gags, then he'd play a classic rock song. Maybe there was some disco thrown in--it was an old show--but I've blocked those memories out. Throw in a psychedelic backdrop as he and Igor danced to the songs, and the sketch was just mesmerizing for a kid like me.

1) Super Grover (Sesame Street): I could have populated this entire list with Jim Henson's Muppets, but I forced myself to keep it to one. Just about everything I loved about Sesame Street had something to do with monsters. There was the two-headed monster who fought with itself, the aliens who beamed into homes and marveled over household objects, and Cookie Monster of course. Picking one that was a constant joy to watch though, I gotta go with Grover. Not just Grover. Super Grover!

Grover had to be the most artless and likable characters on Sesame Street. He was a dimwit and a clutz, but so genuine a personality it was impossible not to smile when he was on TV. The little sketches where Grover talked to little kids were surreal in that I could easily suspend disbelief, ignoring it was just some guy with a hand puppet. That was Jim Henson's magic, though. Those Muppets, more often than not, felt as real as the people on the show. So when Grover put on a red cape and a steel helmet to become Super Grover, my eyes were glued to the screen.

Well, there's my list. I'm interested to know what you're list might look like, so feel free to leave a comment and share what your favorite monsters were when you were a little kid.

October 30, 2011

Rabid Reads: "Benjamin's Parasite" by Jeff Strand

Benjamin's Parasite
223 pages
ISBN 9781934546123
Purchase via: Amazon / Book Depository

It's been a little while since I read a book that nearly made me retch. If I was keeping a daily tally on how long it's been since the last time a book managed to make me a bit queasy, I'd have to set it back to zero now. It's not a gore fest, mind you, but there were just a couple scenes that really made me cringe. Body horror has a way of doing that to me. What kind of horror fan am I?

So, this is a novel about Benjamin Wilson--and his parasite. Well, technically it's not his, so much as it's the property of a top secret project, and it just happens to wind up inside Benjamin after a tangled series of events, which is capped off with him having to shoot one of his students in self-defense when the boy goes on a seemingly random psychotic rampage. After that traumatic event, he begins to experience some strange cravings and inhibitions are lowered. Basically his every latent compulsion and desire is coming to the surface, sometimes when he's not even aware of it.

Then there's that searing pain in his stomach.

This novel is a quick, crazy read. And, it's not just a horror novel, as there is a wild kind of road story to it, too. That's because Benjamin is saved early on from certain death by a femme fatale bountyhunter who abducts him and tries to get him to the folks responsible for the parasite, so they can get it out of him. There are others who are aware of the parasite too though, and will stop at nothing to get it--whether Benjamin lives or dies in the process. Gunfights, car chases, double crosses, etc.

Benjamin is an amiable character and easy to root for, but there are moments when he is hip deep in the action and it feels like he is just taking it all in stride. Like, he's in such an incredibly unheard of onslaught of circumstances and he still maintains an aloof sense of humor at times. Most of the time he is freaking out and scared shitless, so that helps, but his wisecracking feels overdone once in a while.

Other than that gripe, this is great pulpy horror/action novel, and it served as a great sample of Jeff Strand's work. I'm eager to read more of his work down the road.

October 29, 2011

How Christopher Lee Made Me Cry for My Mummy!

The Mummy
starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, and Felix Aylmer
directed by Terence Fisher
Hammer Films (1959)

I have never found the Mummy that horrifying. He's just not a scary cat, you know, he's always been the toilet paper zombie to me. Well, Christopher Lee has helped change that.

I was trying to think of a classic monster movie to watch for the Monster Movie Marathon, and when someone on Twitter suggested Hammer Films, I figured it was a good idea. I've not seen any of the Hammer films, at least not that I can recall. Chances might be good I saw a couple in college, but watching old movies then involved drinking games, so memory retention ain't that great. So, I hit up my local library and found The Mummy.

Now, one of the things I always hear about Hammer films is how great the set designs are for the historical backdrops. It's true, despite being dated by today's standards. The staging for the Egyptian excavation and the small England town may very well have been filmed on the same sound stage, but each really had that golden age of film feel. The costumes were something else that I found exceptional in the film, but I'll go into that a bit later.

So, Peter Cushing plays a globetrotting archeologist, bedridden with a broken leg, while his father and uncle lead the dig that uncovers the lost tomb of Princess Ananka. As the old codgers are about to go inside the tomb for the first time, they're warned to abandon what they're doing by a dapper stranger in a fez. Of course, old white men of the time aren't in the habit of heeding the local ethnic community, so they kindly tell him to sod off and carry on with their exploration. Inside, they find an astonishingly tidy crypt ornamented by various artifacts and the tomb of Princess Ananka. It becomes apparent very quickly why Cushing's character is laid up: so he can't save his father from an encounter with whatever was waiting for him in the tomb.

Turns out it was the Mummy, a condemned priest entombed with the Princess to protect her for eternity, as punishment for his amorous feelings for her. I was really worried this would be the point where the movie would go right off its own rails, and Christopher Lee would look like a lumbering drunkard who fell into a janitor's closet and came out swathed in toiletries. Fortunately, the costume design was near perfect. There's an inexplicable menace to see that thing just standing there. Maybe it's Lee's height and physical stature, or perhaps it's the eyes as close-ups on his face carry the torment and near-instinctual malice to anyone who offends the object of his love.

An interesting factoid about the film surrounds a scene where Cushing's character fires a gun at the Mummy after it breaks into his home. The Mummy is unphased as it trudges off, getting shot in the chest and back, but Christopher Lee actually suffered burn marks from the squibs used for the effect that left marks for weeks. Ouch! Talk about staying in character. If I got burned like that, I don't think I could stay in character--more likely I'd lay down a tirade on every stage hand within shouting distance.

The movie ends on a bit of a predictable note, but it's all built up to the final scenes very well. Lots of drama, lots of suspense, and even a bit of romance for good measure. If the other Hammer films are this good, then I need to track them down.

October 28, 2011

That Halloween Spirit: a guest post by Michael West

Michael West is the critically acclaimed author of Cinema of Shadows, The Wide Game, and Skull Full of Kisses.  A life-long fan of all things horror and Halloween, he lives and works in the Indianapolis are with his wife, their two children, their bird, Rodan, and turtle, Gamera.  Fans can keep up with him and his writing by visiting his website: http://www.bymichaelwest.com

After reviewing Michael's Cinema of Shadows recently, I thought he'd be a perfect author to coax into writing a little something for the Monster Movie Marathon. Well, boy howdy, did he go the extra mile in writing a testimonial to Halloween and the monsters who revel in it. Enjoy.

That Halloween Spirit
by Michael West

I’ll admit it: I’m a creature of habit…of tradition, if you will. Every year, I must watch It’s A Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original cartoon, thank you very much!) sometime on or shortly after Thanksgiving. Call me sappy, but it just doesn’t seem like the Christmas season unless I’ve seen those flicks at least once. The same is true about my beloved All Hallow’s Eve. Sure, I can carve a pumpkin and put graves in my front yard, but I’m just not fully into the festive spirit of the holiday until I watch some Halloween-themed movies.
If you look up the “Greatest Halloween Movies” on-line, you get a lot of wonderful lists.  But if you look closely, most of the films they talk about really have nothing to do with Halloween.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, they’re some great Horror flicks: The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, American Werewolf in London…all required viewing for everyone who considers themselves a fan of the genre, but by in large, they’ve got nothing to do with the holiday itself.  It seems, unlike Christmas movies, which are all set on or around December 25th, to be considered a “Halloween movie,” you just have to be scary.  
Well, I can (and do) watch scary movies all year long, so when October rolls around, I want something a little more, something specific to the season.  

First up has to be John Carpenter’s Halloween.  This film is terrifying from the very first frame. The camera slowly pushes in on a Jack-O-Lantern—the only light on an otherwise black screen. Names flash around the blazing pumpkin, and we hear music. Chilling music. Carpenter’s main theme is one of the most memorable in motion picture history and sets the stage for the terror that follows. After the last credit appears, we are welcomed to Haddonfield, IL. It is Halloween night, 1963, and the camera rushes toward an innocent looking house—beginning a single, continuous POV shot that rivals Orson Welles’ opening to Touch of Evil. We see what Michael Myers sees as he grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen, creeps up the stairs, and slips on a clown mask. We then watch helplessly through the eyeholes of the mask as he walks into his teenage sister's bedroom and stabs her repeatedly. His act of murder complete, Michael walks out the front door and onto the lawn where a man and a woman wait. They remove the mask and we see that this killer has been a six-year-old boy. 
Fast forward to October 30th, 1978. Myers is now an adult and must appear before the court. When his psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) arrives to escort him, Michael steals the car and heads back to Haddonfield. He arrives on Halloween, finds three teenage friends to stalk—Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie (Nancy Loomis), and Linda (P.J Soles), and picks up where he left off 15 years before.
John Carpenter’s Halloween was a terrifying experience in 1978 and it remains just as frightening today. If you have never seen it in the widescreen format, however, you have never truly experienced it. Carpenter knows how to use the scope aspect ratio to the fullest. Characters will be walking or talking calmly in the foreground while something lurks off to the side or in the window behind them. Sure, the slasher films that followed have copied this technique, but none have been able to duplicate the artistry and execution Carpenter achieves here.
The writing in the film is also key to building suspense. Debra Hill and Carpenter have fashioned real teenage girls with strong friendships and real-life problems. We grow to care about them, and that makes the danger they are in far more palpable.
Acting is often the sore spot in a horror film. Not here. Despite the fact that Christopher Lee was originally offered the role, it is impossible to imagine anyone but Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. He delivers Carpenter and Hill’s long soliloquies on the nature of evil with a soft voice that draws you in. Like Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis story in Jaws, you are riveted to every spine-chilling word. Pleasence also uses his eyes to great effect. They are always looking—always searching for his elusive foe. And Jamie Lee Curtis is perfect as Laurie. She is shy and vulnerable, but she is strong when she has to be. There have been countless “virginal” heroines in slasher movies. They are all trying to be Jamie Lee, and they all pale by comparison.
John Carpenter's Halloween is simply flawless. This is what every horror movie aspires to: atmospheric, fun, frightening, and relentless.  But as good as the film is, it isn’t really about Halloween, is it?  Sure, the holiday makes for a great setting, but like so many films on those Halloween lists, this movie could have happened at any time of the year.  
Not so with the third film in the franchise.

After the Michael Myers storyline seemed to end with Halloween II, John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill had a brilliant idea to keep the series going.  They proposed creating a new stand-alone Horror story each year, every one of them centered around the Halloween season.  And so they tapped writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace to craft Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  Had the film been a success, we could have looked forward to a new and exciting Samhain-oriented Halloween movie each October.  But audiences came away angry, upset that the film was so different from its predecessors, and so we now get stuck with the latest Saw or Paranormal Activity as our only big screen options this time of year instead.  
For me, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has remained a perennial favorite because it is its own imaginative, original story.   And what a diabolical story it is!   A modern warlock, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), plans to kill the majority of the world’s children with their own Halloween costumes.  His insidious plot begins, as insidious plots often do, with an advertising jingle: "Eight more days 'til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween. Eight more days 'til Halloween, Silver Shamrock!"  The infectious tune is repeated over and over, counting down the days in radio spots and television commercials, drawing children in like a Pied Piper to their doom.  O’Herlihy is amazing here, making Cochran swing naturally and effortlessly from grandfatherly to sadistic, but always remaining just plain creepy.  His speech on the true nature of Halloween is simply mesmerizing, and one of the best moments of any Halloween film. 

The film is visually striking.  Director Tommy Lee Wallace works with Carpenter’s long-time cinematographer Dean Cundey to compose wonderful anamorphic widescreen shots: the deserted town of Santa Mira, where Cochran’s mask factory, Silver Shamrock Novelties, is based; trick-or-treaters silhouetted on a hill at dusk, the lights of the city below; armies of robotic Silver Shamrock employees moving in like zombies from a Romero film.  It is all wonderful, atmospheric, and eerie stuff!  
In a homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film builds to an open-ended finale, with actor Tom Adkins (The Fog) screaming to anyone who will listen, trying to warn them of the coming apocalypse; a bleak, chilling climax that may be another reason viewers were left cold upon its release in 1982.  Too bad.  I for one would love to have seen more entries in a Michael Myers-free anthology series.      
Speaking of anthologies, we have just enough time for one more Halloween-themed film, and in my humble opinion, I’ve saved the best for last...

Trick ‘r’ Treat isn’t just set on Halloween, and it’s not just about the day itself.  No.  Michael Dougherty’s directorial debut is a full-fledged love letter to the entire season. In fact, the movie is so full of Halloween spirit that it actually appears incarnate: Sam (short for Samhain, of course), a disturbing little villain (or is he the hero?) who, like the movie he stars in, is brilliantly conceived.
There’s really not much I can tell you about the plot of Trick ‘r’ Treat, as part of the joy of this movie is having it unfold before your eyes, like some cryptic puzzlebox you solve bit-by-bit as you go.  What I can tell you is that the movie deals with the rules of Halloween.  Like Cochran from Halloween III, Sam is here to remind us of the age old traditions that we seem to have forgotten along the way.  It features four intertwined stores, all taking place on the same Halloween night, and each one demonstrating the consequences of not following these traditions to the letter, and man…the consequences are steep!
Michael Dougherty deserves more praise than I can possibly give him here.  His writing is crisp, his characters instantly engaging, and his plots are tied together so effortlessly, so completely, that it truly is amazing.  And his eye for visual storytelling is every bit as good.  He fills every frame with so much atmosphere, you can actually smell the dead leaves, feel the late-night chill, and taste the candy.  
Trick ‘r’ Treat just gets better with each repeated viewing.  Details missed the first time around become clear, only adding to the awe you feel for Dougherty and his cast (including Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, and Brian Cox, who modeled his look after photos of John Carpenter).and what they’ve been able to accomplish here.  I don’t think it’s too bold a statement to say that this may be a perfect film, and once you see it, I’m sure you’ll agree.
And there you have it boys and ghouls:  the ultimate Halloween trifecta.  So fire up the DVD player, light the Jack-O-Lantern, grab a bowl of candy corn, turn out the lights, and let the season begin!

October 27, 2011

Lake Placid: a guest post from Jennifer at Book Den

Jennifer's blog Book Den might be one of the most deceptively embracing of the horror genre. But make no mistake, once you start reading her blog you realize she has a strong appreciation for dark fiction in all its forms, from straight-up horror to the dystopian YA.

I asked her to write a little something for the Monster Movie Marathon, and she wound up choosing a movie I think goes under a lot of people's radars. I'll admit I didn't care for the movie when I first saw it, but it's kind of grown on me as the years accumulate. And it's got Oliver Platt, so how bad can it really be.

Lake Placid
by Jennifer

Growing up on the Louisiana coast, I had my fair share of alligator encounters. It wasn't until one particular nightmarish encounter that I became as terrified of reptilian beasts as mother nature probably intended. (You'd be amazed how far an alligator can torque its body mid-air.) Despite my fear - or maybe somehow because of it - Lake Placid is one of my favorite monster movies.

When a diver is torn in half in front of the local sheriff (Brendan Gleeson), a game warden (Bill Pullman) and a paleontologist (Bridget Fonda) are brought in to help investigate. Rounding out this enjoyable ensemble is an eccentric crocodile guru (Oliver Platt) and a resident of Lake Placid (Betty White). If you haven't seen Lake Placid and you are a fan of Betty White, she's worth the price of admission.

We discover early on there is a giant 30-foot crocodile in the lake, so like any predictable horror movie the characters need to swim, hang out on the water, and stand on the shoreline. There are a few things, however, that make Lake Placid unpredictable and one of my favorite monster movies. One is the level of humor. The chemistry of the cast and the humorous frights give Lake Placid a strong comedic element. It's nice to see people get dismembered and want to laugh about it. Secondly, Betty White. And lastly, I love how much I wind up rooting for the crocodile.

If you come across a copy of Lake Placid and you enjoy comedy in your monster movies, it's a fun little flick.

October 26, 2011

The Inner Animal: a guest post by Zoe Whitten

I should not be surprised that the author of Peter the Wolf might have something to say about werewolves. Zoe Whitten writes all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff, so when I asked her to write a guest post for the Monster Movie Marathon, she was generous enough to talk about the fur-bearing fascination she has. Pay Zoe a visit at her blog or check out her profile on Smashwords.

Before you do that, be sure to read what she has to say about a couple of cult favorites in the werewolf genre. I've only seen one and hope to see the other someday.

The Inner Animal
by Zoe Whitten  

I’m a big fan of werewolves, and of most shapeshifters of the furry kind. But for as cool as werewolves are, I think they don’t get as much love as vampires in movies. It’s not just that vampires are cooler, temperature-wise. (Sorry.) They’re cheaper to depict on film with a few prosthetics and a less physically demanding transformation from human to monster. With a good werewolf film, you either have to get by on a few glimpses of the monsters in a flash, or you have monsters spending too much time on camera, resulting in people recognizing that they’re looking at a puppet or a guy in a suit. This is a major problem with some of the Howling later movies, for instance.

For my Halloween guest post, I wanted  to talk about two of my all-time favorite werewolf movies, American Werewolf in London and Dog Soldiers. I first saw American Werewolf in London when I was eight. We’d just got a VHS recorder for the first time, and my dad took to renting films like a crack addict would in later generations. Dad loved to rent horror films, and this was one of the first I’d ever seen. (Funny story: now in his old age, Dad can’t watch horror, and he’s rather fond of chick flicks. Yes, really.) I’ve seen it many times since that first viewing, it has stood the test of time well, perhaps because actor David Naughton does such a great job convincing me of his struggle to stay in control. Then again, this film stays fresh in my mind because of David’s first transformation. In an age before computers made everything easy with CGI and blue screens, filmmakers struggled to make a sequence that conveyed the grueling agony that a human would go through turning into a wolf. And they succeeded, I think, because to this day, I recall David’s hand stretching and shiver.

You don’t really see the werewolf often in the film, but you don’t have to. That first transformation has so much visual punch, it carries you through the cheesier parts of the film. Then there’s the dream sequence with the Nazi monsters killing David’s family to keep the tension going. I admit, the film loses a bit of tension with the final act taking place in a porn theater. So there’s all these moans killing the tension even while the grisly ghosts are giving David ideas on how to kill himself. But as you can see, this blend of morbid humor and violence influenced me quite a bit, since it shows up in a lot of my work.

David’s character is a wolf cursed recently, and he fights against his animal nature, which is the exact opposite of the wolf pack in Dog Soldiers. The pack in this film revel in being hunters, and they’ve got a bunch of their favorite food cornered in a cabin. Despite taking place in the middle of nowhere, it still feels a bit claustrophobic. This is due a lot to the camera technique making you feel like you’re standing too close to everyone and everything.

But you don’t really see much of the wolves until later in the film, not even in their untransformed human forms. Here, the stars of the show are a group of Scottish soldiers on what they think is a routine training operation. Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee both play soldiers fighting against the wolves, and what sucked me into this movie is Pertwee’s gruff sergeant character telling the story of a deceased friend’s tattoo. This has nothing to do with the wolves, but it’s just so creepy that it helps set the tone for the rest of the film. It also make Pertwee one of the easiest to identify with, second only to McKidd’s character. But McKidd cheated because he refuses to shoot a dog right at the start of the movie. That would instantly win cool point with me, even if I can recognize it as a cheap trick. Pertwee gets me liking him while he’s telling a scary story that has nothing at all to do with the movie. That’s talent.

Both films share the technique of flashing the camera around their monsters, which I think helps strengthen the fear factor. Visually, everything happens so fast that you don’t have a chance to process it all. Your brain even adds scarier details that may not have been there because the blurriness is something our mind doesn’t like. So we need to add detail to fill in the blurs. And what we see in our heads is most likely scarier than what was really on screen.

The movies chose to look at the wolf from slightly different perspectives. Dog Soldiers looks at the victims of a wolf pack, and while the soldiers are brash, there was not a one among them besides the evil commander who I was hoping would get eaten. With every other soldier, I was in classic horror movie viewer mode, yelling out, “No, dude! Run!” at all the times when obviously, someone failed to run fast enough.

American Werewolf in London looks at the monster itself and finds that some are victims of the curse rather than gleeful agents of evil. The transformation strips away David’s humanity in a painful way, and he cannot control his urges to change. In the aftermath of every attack, David is left with visions he doesn’t understand, and he is haunted by people claiming that he killed them. He’s struggling with his sanity, and so even if he is the monster eating people, when the police shoot him, I feel just as upset as Nurse Price with his fate. In fact, the ending upsets me so much that years later, I developed a kind of denial that it wasn’t “fair” because no one had used silver bullets.

Which I think is why I like werewolves so much as a story vehicle, because there’s the possibility to look at the monster and see their struggle against their inner animal just as much as there is to find a story with their victims. Which lends the mythos a more tragic aspect because you know how most werewolf movies will end. But a film like Dog Soldiers is no less entertaining for looking at the victims, even if they’re also meeting a similar grisly fate. It’s still tragic, and both films share similar themes. But writers are able to make either point of view sympathetic with the right tweaks.

Of course, both films share a sarcastic sense of humor, and I think that helps sell the horror better, and it makes the characters easier to like, even when they’re doing things I should feel uncomfortable with. Both films juggle dark humor and scares well, and both employ similar filming techniques with their monsters to keep me perched in my seat. Which is why both films are high on my list of films to check out for Halloween.

October 25, 2011

Brotherhood of the Wolf: a guest post by Ryan from Wordsmithsonia

 Ryan has a great blog called Wordsmithsonia, which features reviews on books, movies, and one of my favorite features: Favorite Fiction Characters (anybody with an appreciation for Paddington Bear is alright in my book). When I asked Ryan to contribute a guest post this year, he chose a often-overlooked werewolf movie. If you can handle the subtitles--I say skip the dubbed version--it's an engaging film. Here's Ryan's take ...

Brotherhood of the Wolf
a guest post by Ryan Groff 

Is it bad of me to say I normally like foreign movies over American made films?  Does that make me some sort of snob with pretentious aspirations?  I guess it would make me sound even worse if I think most modern day "horror" movies just don't cut it for me.   They tend to go in more for the gore and less for the storyline, at least a storyline that makes sense.  Because of all this, when Gef asked me to participate in his Monster Movie Marathon, I found myself panicking a little bit.  At first I thought I would go for one of the classic monsters; Godzilla, Rodan, Dracula, well you get the point.  For whatever reason, I found myself straying from that idea though.  I found myself thinking of something a little more human, the monster that resides within the human body.  I didn't think that was what Gef was looking for though, so I set my sites on one of my favorite movies that looks at both the literal and metaphoric monsters.  The reality of it being a French movie that looks back at a small piece of real history makes it that much cooler, at least for me.

Brotherhood of the Wolf, is a 2001 French film directed by Christophe Gans.  When I saw it in the theater for the first time, I fell in love.  I'm not going to go into too much detail about the plot points or characters.  I won't bore you with who starred in the movie, though the gorgeous Monica Bellucci does costar as a prostitute on a mission from the Pope.  What I want to talk about instead in the literal monster that slaughtered hundreds of victims and the human monsters that created and controlled him.

The movie takes inspiration form the Beast of Gevaudan, an unidentified creature(s) that ravaged the French countryside from 1764 to 1767, claiming 113 fatalities.  Other than the creature being vaguely lupine, nobody really knows what it was, or why it stopped.  The monster in the movie though is a little different.  He isn't seen for quite a while, though his handiwork is.  He tears his victims apart with the jaw belonging to an animal that weighs at least 500lbs.  He kills with no distinction between man, woman, or child.  The countryside is in constant fear of where he might strike next.  Once we do get a look at him, he's like nothing I've ever seen.  He's vaguely wolf or lion in shape but is covered in some sort of strange armor.  Not really metallic, though his outer teeth and claws are made from steel.  He has metal spikes rising from his back and the armor seems to move with him like a second skin. Bullets don't seem to harm him and he disappears as if he's a ghost.  He's truly a magnificent creature with a grace all his own.  He is a true monster though, he is savage and seems to enjoy his kills.  Even though it's all do to training through pain and cruelty, the Beast of Gevaudan is a truly frightening creature.

Now we come to the truly monstrous aspect of this movie.  Much like Dr. Frankenstein or the scientists who create The Other in Dean Koontz's The Watchers, I feel the real monsters are the humans that have created and controlled him to further their own ends.  He is a pawn in their misguided quest for power, a quest that has brought them down a treasonous path.  It's a path led by a truly depraved priest who wants to bring the country and king back to the church, he's willing to kill as many "peasants" as it takes to achieve his end.  He isn't the only human monster in this, most of other aren't as bad, but one is even worse.  He's the creature that brought a strange creature back from Africa.  He's the depraved human being that killed all the creatures cubs but one, the most powerful one.  He's the monster that raised it with an iron hand to be the savage Beast of Gevaudan.  He's the inhuman thing that kills his own sister when she refuses his sexual advances.  He's the one that is brought down like the savage he is by the end of the movie.

For those of you who have seen the movie, you know there is so much more to this movie than what I've seen. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, know that if you ever watch it, you will be treated to some of the coolest fight scenes ever filmed, camera work that is out of this world, and a group of characters that will have you enraptured from the beginning.

October 24, 2011

An Interview and Giveaway with Lisa Mannetti, Author of "The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn"

First thing's first. Contest time! Award-winning author Lisa Mannetti was gracious enough to not only answer a few interview questions to promote her new novel, The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but she's also provided a signed paperback copy to go out to one lucky winner. Plus, a second winner will receive a digital copy of the novel in the e-book format of their choice. This giveaway is open worldwide!

To enter, simply fill out the form(s) at the very bottom of this post. The giveaway will remain open until midnight on Halloween night, then I'll announce the winners on November 1st.

Also, be sure to check out all of the other great giveaways that are going on as part of the Spooktacular Giveaway Hop. Plus, I am currently hosting three other book giveaways right now as part of this blog's Monster Movie Marathon. Each of those contests will remain open until Halloween night as well.

Giveaway #1: audiobook of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
Giveaway #2: trade paperback of Cthulhurotica
Giveaway #3: a "monster" book of your choice via Book Depository (up to $15 US)

In the meantime, however, I encourage you to read my interview with Lisa Mannetti and learn a little more about her, her work, and the two cats who inspired her latest novel. Enjoy.

An Interview with Lisa Mannetti,
author of The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn

I recently had a chance to ask Lisa Mannetti a few questions regarding her new novel. After reading Lisa's debut novel, The Gentling Box, two years ago she has quickly become one of my favorite horror authors. But unlike The Gentling Box and Deathwatch with their historical horror elements, this new novel shows Lisa's lighter side. But don't take my word for it, let's read what she has to say.

Gef: Okay, The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn: Mark Twain, reincarnation, witches, werewolves, a haunted bed & breakfast--and cats. Where in the heck did the impetus for a book containing this motley crew come from?

Lisa: Well, I actually owned a pair of twin white cats named—you guessed it, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. And you’ll have to trust me on this, but never ever were two cats more aptly named. Tom, the big smoothie, was the ringleader—he could convince Huck to try anything: including jumping from the floor to the top of the doors in the house. Huck, who was scruffier, even had what looked like freckles on his nose. Huck wasn’t very good at jumping to the top of the doors (he was smaller and heavier) but they both had a whale of a time trying. Never have I had cats that were as smart (okay, I know you aren’t going to believe they understood English, but they did) and as much fun.
So, I started to do these little playlets for the outgoing message on my answering machine featuring Tom telling the latest—replete with a Southern accent. I had phone calls from telephone solicitors who would call back laughing, and then apologize for calling back, then call again and this time you’d hear the entire office laughing. Mostly they had to do with imaginary hijinks—like throwing my other cat, Charlotte Bronte (whose twin had died) into the dryer, or asking people to send them catnip, or their plans to ambush mice and eat all the lights off the Christmas tree...my friends would complain if I didn’t change the message at least every few weeks.
Then one day, the concept of the book came to me. I started writing and the thing just wrote itself and I think it was because Tom already had a voice...after that I started a website which is named for the Inn, the cats run: The Chancery House. It’s had 4 million visitors over the years. (www.thechanceryhouse.com)

Gef: Aside from 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave Your Lover, I don't recall finding a whole lot of humor in your fiction when I've read it. The majority of what I've read has been some very darkly-themed historical horror. Do you find humor a more challenging attribute than horror--especially with characters originated by Mark Twain?

Lisa: Yes, but that’s because you haven’t known me my whole life... I’ve always written both horror and satire—even as a kid. I’m also hugely attracted to humor in writing, as well. I’m a huge fan of Jean Kerr, J.P. Donleavy, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh—to name a few. Horror and humor are both skewed versions of reality, exaggerations to give stories more dramatic impetus and in my mind, though they appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, they’re actually closely related.
Humor is slightly (and I emphasize the word slightly) more dependent on pacing, but not by a great deal—after all, once you’ve got the heroine in a horror novel running up the stairs as if someone is chasing her with a big stick, so to speak, eventually she’s going to have to open the attic door.
I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was in third grade, so I’ve been a lifelong fan. Over the years, I’ve read—and reread—just about every thing he’s written, so again, it felt very natural to me to write the book. Plus, let’s not forget our most beloved humorist (and clearly one of the best American writers over the centuries) was fascinated with twins (as I am) and loved cats (as I do).

Gef: Bringing famed literary characters into your own sandbox, as it were, and re-imagining them, where do you find the biggest challenge in making them your own? Or do you even try?

Lisa: I think my characters are a blend of Twain’s original Tom and Huck, and my cats, and my imagination. They were a lot of fun and very gregarious animals and very smart and always into mischief, so in a way, it wasn’t hard to extrapolate from the stunts they pulled on an everyday basis and think up harum-scarum situations. They’d play fight, but they were also completely devoted to each other and they were hell on wheels when they ambushed mice—I mean they had battle plans and flanking maneuvers, no kidding....By the way, did you know mice scream? I found out the hard way when the terrible twosome cornered some poor field mouse in the downstairs laundry room and I was up in my office (writing Deathwatch at the time and heard it shriek. Loudly.) We will pass over further mention of this poor unfortunate for those who are squeamish. Anyway, I absolutely wanted the book to feel familiar (and the more one knows Twain, the more inside jokes you’re likely to get) but I also wanted it to be unique—not just in terms of the premise—but also in terms of the adventures my Tom and Huck experienced. My book is a little more poignant than Twain’s works; but I’m more sentimental than he is, I think.

Gef: There are actually two versions of this book: one for younger readers and one for mature readers. Why did you feel the need to create a "family friendly" version of this book? Or is it the other way around, and you felt the need to create a "grown-up" version?

cover for YA edition
Lisa: The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is a lot milder than any of my previously published novels; but since I loved Twain (and he’s written some pretty irreverent things) I wanted adults to feel they could come to it on their own terms. However, my publisher and I agreed, there were certain passages that were too strong for younger readers. I remember actually being really embarrassed as a kid when the king prances out naked and painted all over ring-streaked-and-striped during the Royal Nonesuch scenes, but I didn’t want to bowdlerize my book; so the publisher and I agreed I’d give it a scouring and we’d have two versions. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that’s ever been done before, so that’s something—hopefully a creative solution to what might have been material that was too mature for the barrettes and paintball gang.

Gef: Do you have a particular animal in mind should you be reincarnated?

Lisa: I’ve actually had people in pet stores (on seeing me load up on all kinds of cat toys and gizmos) tell me they want to come back in their next life as one of my cats, but I have never wanted to be any kind of animal....now, if I could switch back and forth from human to smart, persnickety feline, that might be okay, but basically, I can’t stand the idea of eating smelly canned food out of a dish stuck on the floor, or never taking a bath in a tub with lavender oil, never wearing high heels, or flaying mice as part of a food and exercise regimen. I love cats—and honestly, Tom and Huck were smart as hell—but I’d really miss reading and writing, too.

I'd like to offer a big thanks to Lisa for her time and this interview. I'd also like to thank her for offering the two books I'm about to offer to two lucky winners.

If you would like a chance to win a copy of The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, we've got both a signed trade paperback and an e-book copy up for grabs. For the e-book prize, the winner will specify which format they'd like to receive (i.e., epub, mobi, PDF, etc.). Fill out the corresponding form of whichever format you'd like to win, then pay a visit to the plethora of blogs participating in the Spooktacular Giveaway Hop by clicking HERE.