Monday, October 31, 2016

Writing Roundup: Two Cult Classics for Halloween

Now would be a good time to turn around, followed by a better time to run.
Before October 31st comes and goes, I might as well share a couple of recent cult classic reviews I wrote for The After Movie Diner. I recently rewatched and thoroughly enjoyed both The Return of the Living Dead and The Slumber Party Massacre. Both are highly recommended from this cult classicist. Enjoy them tonight in between handing out candy to the scary little monsters at your door.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Barely Making a Dent: October 2016 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

I've always been a big fan of Nick Hornby's regular feature in The Believer, "Stuff I've Been Reading." I used to read it regularly but have fallen off in recent years. Still, writing this reminds me I need to check it out again. It also reminds me that I need to read some more of Hornby's books too, always having loved High Fidelity and the few other books of his I've read. Herein lies my problem: when I discuss writers or read articles on or interviews with authors, my first thought is usually, "I need to read more of his/her work." You can imagine how this will lead to acquiring many books, while exponentially growing the stacks of unread books in one's house, can't you?

So I'm starting another regular feature here and calling it "Barely Making a Dent" because that seems right on the nose. I'm usually barely making a dent in my various reading piles. I work in publishing, which includes the perk of free books—either from my own office or from other publishers, at festivals and conferences. I also write the occasional book review online so I'm sent the occasional review copy. This is how I amass some newer or recent books in my collection. Then there are the books I pick up at used book stores or sales, you know the kind: three old paperbacks for a dollar. This is how I often acquire old musty trade paper editions of classic science fiction novels like The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (read it), Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (haven't read it yet), or Triton by Samuel R. Delany (read it), to name only a few. Then of course there are books, both old and new, that I buy at bookstores or online. I still try never to pay full price if I can help it, because when you read as much as I do you need to be frugal about it, after all. Still, I'll pay full price for an affordably priced book to support a local business, no question. And I'm a big supporter of the local library, so that never fails to add more books to the pile, even if only temporarily.

So the stacks are high and wide, spread across various rooms in our small house. At times I think my wife feels like they're crowding in on us, almost as if they're sucking up the oxygen we need to live. She's as avid a reader as I am (and a much faster one too), but does most of her reading on a tablet now. I like reading on a tablet too, but I feel peaceful with so many books around. They give a home a real lived in quality. That said, I cannot deny the fact that I have a lot of books. The main stress that derives from this is that I can't seem to read them as fast as I'd like. And by constantly finding new stuff to read, books are always leapfrogging each other in the "to read" piles. Speaking of Sam Delany, who I mentioned earlier, I've had a copy of his science fiction masterwork, Dhalgren, sitting on a shelf for at least five years now. Maybe more. I fully intend to read it. In fact whenever I spot it on the shelf I get excited, my heart skips a beat, because I know this will be a time consuming and immersive read. The best kind! But, you know, I just need to find that time in between reading all of the other stuff.

This feature will be my attempt at something similar to Hornby's column. From time to time, I'll list the books I'm reading, the books I've just read, and the books I've either acquired recently or plan to read very soon. Chances are good that at least 50% of the books I plan to read soon will in fact not be read soon at all, but instead will be read several years from now. I need a better system for organizing my reading piles, certainly. In the meantime, I'll just muddle through with my current system, which is to have no system.

Recently acquired

Heller's Catch-22, Dave Egger's Zeitoun, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, China Mieville's Kraken, and Stephen King's It.

Yes, It is somewhere around 1,200 pages long. Having read a lot of Stephen King in my lifetime, it's probably the most popular King novel I haven't read yet. That book will be a monster (har har) to read and I'm looking forward to every minute of it. Only problem is, when do I bite the bullet and start it? Because doing so requires me to mostly set aside everything else I'm reading for at least a few months, I'd guess. I used to have more time to read than I do now (you know we have twins, right?), so a novel this long may take me a while. I'm thinking I'll start it soon because the anticipation is killing me. Plus I haven't read a King novel since earlier this year and I'm finding myself itching to get back to his pulpy yet authentically honest prose. A late, great former coworker of mine used to describe particularly exciting works of popular fiction as "ripping yarns," and I think that's as succinctly apt a description of King's work as I can imagine.

Currently reading

William Gibson's Neuromancer. This is one of those science fiction books I've long wanted to read yet for one reason or another never got around to it. It's terrific so far. One thing that's become apparent so far is that The Matrix was heavily inspired by this book. The cyberpunk jargon can be hard to follow at times, but much easier when I get into a good groove and read thirty or forty pages at a clip. Last season on Halt and Catch Fire, I spotted Gordon reading a copy and now it all makes sense why he'd read this, the first cyberpunk novel. That reminds me, I need to on-demand the third season of Halt. Damn I love that show. See, this also happens to me with television. Or movies. Or music. Apparently I'm highly suggestible.

Sequart, whom I write for now and then, also publishes some incredibly thoughtful and thoroughly researched tomes on sequential art. My editor kindly sent me a PDF of their latest, The Best There is at What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont's X-Men. I'm about 100 pages in so far and Jason Powell is to be commended for this important work, which explores and contextualizes Claremont's unprecedented seventeen-year narrative on the X-Men. I'm at the point in the book where Powell's looking at the post-John Byrne years, when Dave Cockrum returned as artist and the Alien-inspired "Brood Saga" was the dominant story arc. Powel's examination of "The Dark Phoenix Saga"—my favorite comics story of all time, as well as one of my favorite stories across any form of literature—reaffirmed what I love about the definitive X-Men story while also shining new light on aspects of it that I hadn't considered previously. Powell's book is absolutely essential reading for any serious X-Men devotees.

The Flash by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar. This is a library find and it's fantastic. Classic Morrisonian Silver Age riffing with the quintessential Silver Age character, equal parts mind-bending science fiction and epic superhero adventure.

Recently read

Sinner Man, by Lawrence Block. This is the latest from Hard Case Crime, a wonderful imprint specializing in stories you'd classify as pulp, noir, and crime fiction. If you're a fan of the genre, you'll enjoy this one. My full review is here.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Happy Halloween

October is horror movie month, with an assortment of marathons running on several cable channels at any given time. I realize the kids these days stream everything (get off my lawn!), and while I also stream most of what I watch now, there's still nothing quite like stumbling upon a random horror movie on cable during the lead up to Halloween. I spend an inordinate amount of time every October wondering when cable will start broadcasting the Halloween movies over and over again. I can't wait to plunk down on the couch and bliss out to the elliptical line readings of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. As should be obvious based on my eternal and gushing love for Elvira, I also love Halloween and all things horror. I love it so much that I write about cult classics—including a good number of horror films—at The After Movie Diner. What follows is an informal list, one that is not meant to be definitive; instead it's simply a very small sampling of some of my favorite horror films. These are a few of the movies I most look forward to viewing this time of year.

Don't rest now, Laurie.
Let's get the most obvious choice out of the way first, the one I mentioned above: John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) is mandatory October viewing for everyone, horror and non-horror fans alike. While it may not have been the first slasher film, it remains the one by which all others have been compared since. Every year we tune in to watch the Shape terrify Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and those annoying kids she's babysitting, see promiscuous teenagers with gloriously natural 1970s hair styles get stabbed repeatedly, and most entertainingly revel in Donald Pleasance's unabashed scenery chewing. Very few characters in horror are as memorable, or quotable, as Pleasance's Dr. Loomis. And Curtis, full of youthful innocence and with golden curls cascading down to her shoulders, sets the tone for all future "Final Girls" with her performance here: she may be terrified when Michael Myers breaks into the house, but she fights back fiercely. No Halloween movie marathon is complete without at least one viewing of Halloween. After that, chances are you'll want to watch the sequels too. Although they're not masterpieces like Carpenter's original, they're highly watchable Halloween fare.

Blowing off steam behind the scenes of Re-Animator.
Re-Animator (1985) might not be easy to find on television during this or any time of year, but it's certainly available for streaming and on Blu Ray, of course. Stuart Gordon's comedy-horror film is deservedly regarded as one of the finest films of its kind. Its subversive and perverse humor, unforgettable moments of real terror, and exceptional practical effects have aged extremely well. The movie will always work for horror fans because it's a smart and perceptive take on the genre—it's simultaneously riffing on long-standing horror tropes (dating back to H. P. Lovecraft) while also contributing its own lasting impact on horror. The cast is phenomenal, with particular credit going to Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, both of whom contribute career defining performances. Combs is impossible to take your eyes off of here in one of the finest mad scientist acting jobs you'll ever. Like Combs, Crampton went on to become a horror and b-movie legend thanks in no small part to her iconic role in Re-Animator. She's the perfect amount of sweet and innocent as young Megan, the character we the audience most ache to see survive the film's insanity. I won't spoil the ending, I'll just say it's a doozy.

Shelley Duvall deserved an Academy Award for her performance in The Shining. There, I said it.
The Shining (1980) is a film whose shadow looms large, having haunted me since first viewing it as a teenager. I was immediately hooked; years later I finally read Stephen King's book and loved it equally, if for different reasons. I even own an "Overlook Hotel" t-shirt, for goodness sake. Few films continue to haunt me after all these years in quite the same way. It seems unfathomably deep, as if you could spend your entire life unpacking the various layers of hidden meanings and still never reach the bottom. On the surface it doesn't seem particularly complex: a husband, a wife, and their son are the only residents of a big creepy (and haunted) hotel for the winter season—but are they actually alone? Beyond that simple premise lies an extraordinarily sprawling narrative, one that mirrors the vastness of the Overlook Hotel itself. The Torrances are clearly not a happy family but how deep do the wounds go? Who is the woman in the bathtub? Whose blood cascades like a tidal wave out of the elevator doors? We know Danny and Hallorann can shine, but can Jack also? And what about Wendy? The questions continue to mount as we watch Stanley Kubrick's eerily cerebral rumination on King's story of familial dysfunction set against the backdrop of impending doom. Check out my article from earlier this year on the book and the movie. That'll give you a longer and more detailed summation of why I love both so much.

Abel Ferrara''s moody and intense meditation on the vampire film.
Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995) might seem like an outlier on this list but that's only due to its relatively low profile since it's mid-1990s release. It shares more in common with these other classics than you might think: like Halloween it's a low-budget, independent film; like The Shining and The Thing it's full of both looming dread and intense psychological horror. The film presents vampirism as a metaphor for the rigors of academia. It's a moody, black and white drama with a tremendous performance by Lili Taylor as a philosophy student turned vampire, and featuring Christopher Walken as a vampire attempting to control his addiction to blood. A film with the line, "Self revelation is annihilation of self" is going to appeal to a certain set of horror fans, the kind who are prepared to think critically and deeply about what's happening on screen.

John Carpenter certainly deserves two spots on this list.
An argument can be made that The Thing (1982) might be the best film of John Carpenter's long and storied directing career, and that's saying something from the man who gave us Assault on Precinct 13Escape from New YorkBig Trouble in Little China, and the film I discussed earlier that basically influenced modern horror more than any other, Halloween. Carpenter is a master at building tension and then releasing it in quick, scary bursts, then building it right back up again. The Thing is riveting; you feel as if you're stranded right alongside Kurt Russell and the other men inside the research station in the barren cold of the Antarctic. Carpenter spins the story so that its possible each man is the alien creature terrorizing the station. The film keeps you off balance throughout, and is without question one of the finest films of both the horror and science fiction genres.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Wonder Woman Stands For More Than Her Fashion

The United Nations declared today, October 21, Wonder Woman Day. They've recognized the Amazon as a fitting representation for female empowerment. In these harsh political times, that's something we can all get behind, right? Um, maybe not. Familiar cries of "But she wears a bathing suit!" and "She's not a real person!" are echoing 'round the Internet. In this other New York Times piece from yesterday, Vanessa Friedman argues:
On the one hand, allowing girls to revel in their physicality and femininity is a good thing. I am not saying they should dress like nuns or adopt a pantsuits “r” us mentality. They should own their womanhood and all that is special and different about it. You can argue that refusing to apologize for or hide your body under a sackcloth is a feminist act.
But most women, I would guess, would not choose to display their allure while wearing a star-spangled maillot and cape, which is to say an outfit that no one could actually wear to work, unless she were working as the impersonator of a comic book character.

I lean towards arguing that refusing to apologize for your body is a feminist act, myself. Friedman's reasoning that most women likely wouldn't choose to dress as Wonder Woman does seems to be besides the point. Women can love what Wonder Woman stands for—empowerment, compassion, strength, intelligence, to name just a few—but not desire to dress like her. I think admirers of her are able to simultaneously love Diana and choose not to replicate her fashion choices. Because, you know, she's a fictional comic book character residing in a highly exaggerated fictionalized world where garish and uncomfortable-looking costumes are the norm. Why is everyone so focused on what she wears, as opposed to what she stands for? I realize you can show concern for the former while still appreciating the latter. But I think trying to fit Wonder Woman within the framework of reality is a mistake. She's a fictionalized representation of the best qualities in all of us, or at least those qualities we aspire to possess. To me, that means she's held to a higher standard and needn't be reduced to her clothing choices.

Besides, today she's being portrayed more often within the comic book world (and in the upcoming film starring Gal Gadot) as wearing more of a figure-flattering armor than a bathing suit. Arguing about her classic bathing suit costumes seems retrograde and reductive to me in 2016. Then again, while I'm a feminist I'm also a man and its likely my perspective on this isn't one anyone really cares to here. That's fine. Personally I'm just happy we have Wonder Woman in the world for my daughter—and son—to discover soon. She's a popular culture icon who is awfully important to so many people, generation after generation, that she'll endure no matter what she's wearing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Odds & Sods: Halloween, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Writing as Therapy

Not surprisingly, I find myself more excited about Halloween than any other holiday. The first posts of the month here were Elvira-related, definitely in the spirit of the season. Interestingly enough, because of that post I may (I emphasize may) have the opportunity to review her new "coffin table" book. It goes without saying that would be a blast, so let's hope it winds up happening. The plan would be to review it for a website but I'll definitely link to it here. If it happens. Please, Pagan gods of Halloween, make it happen.

Outside of reveling in Halloween-related activities and watching as many horror films as I can this month (which admittedly with two toddlers around is not nearly as many as I'd like), I've also been working on another post for quite a while now. I started it in the summer and it just keeps growing and morphing into something bigger, something more sprawling yet more intimately personal than anything else I've written here. Its scope encompasses the last five years (and occasionally farther back than that), but its taken on the shape of a nonlinear present-tense journal, almost. It seems close to finished and now I'm struggling with the fear of sharing it here. That's because I'm not exactly good or comfortable with exposing my feelings—and I mean really exposing them, not my usual approach of revealing bits of myself through humor and cynicism. We'll see what develops, and how brave I'll be about sharing it. Part of me thinks its too navel-gazing and narcissistic to share here, while another part of me thinks its just therapy through writing. And really, isn't all writing some form of therapy?

I feel the need to write about something incredible that I read recently. Sunday while the kids napped I spent some time reading this amazing author profile of author Ursula K. Le Guin at The New Yorker. I haven't read much of Le Guin's work, in fact I've only read a short story or two and her seminal novel The Left Hand of Darkness during college, but this piece made me vow to seek out more of her work and even reread The Left Hand of Darkness. Julie Phillips has what seems like unfettered access to Le Guin (she's writing a biography on the author) and this leads to an incredibly insightful and thoughtful profile of the living legend. She hates being called that, but I'm going with it anyway because it's the truth. Through discussions with Le Guin and analysis of her work, Phillips does a fantastic job of expressing what makes Le Guin so special. Her work is concerned with taking a hard look at ideas surrounding gender, humanity, freedom, isolation, and politics. She does what all of the best science fiction writers do: she explores the very core of human emotions through dazzlingly creative and inventive metaphors and motifs. I can't recommend this profile enough, so please set aside some time and read it slowly. At 87, Le Guin seems like an amazing person, one who is aware of not only our collective shortcomings but also her personal ones, and her writing is an attempt to make some sort of sense of it all. I'm definitely adding some of her books to my wishlist.

In the meantime, I'd love to fill this space with more Halloween and horror writing as the month rolls on. If that doesn't wind up happening, blame my utter lack of free time. Never fear though, I'll still be enjoying the lead up to Halloween, which is a good thing because it helps ground me while engaging with the sort of memories and emotions I'm wrestling with every time I take a crack at that other, more personal and long-simmering post. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Rhonda meets Elvira

Rhonda Shear and Cassandra Peterson, together in one room: hearts and minds everywhere melt.
This photograph warms our horror-hosts-loving hearts: Rhonda Shear and Elvira herself, Cassandra Peterson, together. For kids in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Elvira was our foremost educator in the school of cinematic snark as host of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, while Rhonda continued our education during the '90s with USA Up All Night! Rhonda and Elvira are, without question, two of the most formative ladies in the childhoods of pre-adolescent and teenage geeks during those years. Those of us with encyclopedic knowledge of bad movies, sarcastic senses of humor, and a serious appreciation for low culture, wouldn't be who we are today without these two women. 

Joe Bob Briggs, host of Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater and later MonsterVision, and Gilbert Gottfried, Rhonda's Saturday evening counterpart on Up All Night!, were also important to our developing bad movie aficionado tastes. To young boys like me, though, there was something special about Rhonda and Elvira. I'd had plenty of young pop culture crushes as a kid—Chrissie Hynde, Bailey from WKRP in Cincinnati, and even fictional women like Jean Grey from Marvel Comics—but Elvira was definitely one of the first that seemed approachable. She was talking directly to us, bringing us in on the joke of it all. Rhonda brought that same approachable sense of humor to her hosting duties, meaning they've both endeared themselves to legions of Gen Xers, to this day.

I've written about Elvira quite a bit recently, including right here and elsewhere, so you might ask, why more? Well, this photograph was simply too good to pass up an opportunity to comment on and archive here. If you'd shown thirteen- or fourteen-year-old me this photo, my head would've exploded. It's also wholly appropriate that my second post of October is more gushing about famous horror hosts like Elvira and Rhonda. This time of year, with Halloween right around the corner, it's worth remembering the legends that made celebrating horror movies such a blast for so many of us growing up.

Elvira, the Queen of Halloween

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

The After Movie Diner is now running my appreciation for the one, the only, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I'm excited to be included as part of their "Horrortober" series this October, and doubly excited that I got to write about the Queen of Halloween herself. It's been thirty-five years since actress Cassandra Peterson first donned the bouffant wig and low-cut, high-slit black dress and became Elvira, our most cherished of horror movie hosts and icons. Through Peterson's good humor and easy charms, Elvira has become a national treasure. I was originally intending to simply share the link to that article, but Elvira is so iconic that a little more fawning from this fan is not only warranted, but practically necessary. How can you ever say enough about Elvira in just one article? I can't, so here's a little bit more for the truly devoted.

But you love guys without hairy chests too, right?!?
Asking for a friend.
Elvira, the cult movie horror host know for her rather large, um, personality, first introduced countless other kids (including yours truly) and young adults to the weird worlds of horror and b-movies. Elvira's Movie Macabre ran movies most of us had never heard of before, and we quickly became fans—of both cult movies and Elvira herself. Her self-deprecating and campy style continues to endear her to legions of fans. She never takes herself or the films she's presenting too seriously. She's in on the joke, and she wants you to be in on it with her. It's those qualities that make her as popular as she remains today. Of course, some of her other, um, attributes also attract fans. Her sex appeal is a huge part of her act, of course. You first notice Elvira because of her looks and that body, but you keep coming back for her wit and style. Okay let's be honest, you come back for the body also. Men, women, children, family pets, garden gnomes: everyone and everything takes notice of Elvira. But let's try to set aside her physical assets for a moment—good luck!—and get back to what fans love most about her: the sense that she's welcoming you into her living room to watch movies together, chat about them, and have a few laughs along the way. We watch horror movies to experience frightful and dangerous events in a safe and controlled manner on screen. It's a healthy way to process our daily feelings of fear and anxiety. Peterson understands this and as Elvira acts as our constant and cheerful companion through the twisted and strange landscape of horror.

Elvira, speaking for legions of horror fans.
Peterson's crafting of that magnetically accessible personality over the years has made fans feel like they know Elvira personally. Spending time with her is always entertaining and uplifting. It's hard to watch Elvira doing her thing and not walk away with your spirits lifted. Some might groan at her puns and campy humor, but those of us who appreciate it do so because of how it makes us feel. Life is hard enough, sometimes relentlessly so, and we turn to entertainers like Elvira to help us find comfort and relaxation. Of course most of us don't really know Peterson or Elvira, but growing up watching her has helped us to feel like we do. It's like I say in the article, she has the same gift that Fred Rogers had, which is to make people feel at home, and safe. Her style may be vastly different than Mr. Rogers', but the substance behind both of these icons is very similar. Elvira accomplishes the same things that Mr. Rogers did, which is to make her audience feel welcome and in the company of someone who enjoys spending time with them. She simply does all of this while wearing stilettos and showing enough leg and bare flesh to make a Vegas showgirl seem conservatively dressed.

Elvira is our guide through the darkest depths of horror every October.

October has long been my favorite time of year for a number of reasons, including the crisp, cool, and comfortable autumn air; all manner of pumpkin treats; and the countdown to Halloween that begins October 1 and intensifies as the month progresses and horror movie marathons start to dominate cable TV. It's during this time of year that Elvira is most in the popular culture spotlight, and this October Peterson is releasing a thirty-fifth anniversary celebration "Coffin Table Book" titled, fittingly, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. It appears to be an over-sized monster of a book, containing more than 350 photographs, including various pieces of art and ephemera. It will look splendid on your coffee table, right next to that enormous art history tome you like to leave out to impress guests. You'll separate the wheat from the chaff with Elvira's book: people with a good sense of humor, who enjoy pop art that takes the piss out of life, will nod in recognition at a fellow connoisseur of culture. Others will be appalled, and hopefully these visitors will never darken your door again. The folks who get it are in on the joke that Elvira has been in on for thirty-five years now: life is too short to take all of its accompanying nonsense too seriously. Long Live Elvira!

Frighteningly great: The back cover of Elvira's new book.