Friday, October 20, 2017

The Halloween List: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Bay of Blood, and Blood and Black Lace


The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)

These movies have been my first exposure to Italian Giallo, a sub-genre that feels like an evolutionary link between Murder Mysteries and Slasher Films. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage follows Sam Dalmas, an American writer living abroad in Italy, who one night stumbles across an attempted murder inside a museum. Although he’s trapped in the antechamber, he manages to call the police, and then has to wait, just feet away from a woman he can’t help further.

Shockingly, the victim survives passing out from her injuries. More shockingly: she isn’t the only assault victim to live through the movie. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage doesn’t view death like a contemporary film. People survive reasonable injuries, and people like the writer are haunted by what they see. Death isn’t easy to achieve, and it’s also too weighty to shrug off. Sam can’t forget the horrible imagery, and spends the rest of his time in Italy trying to track down the attacker where the police have failed.

So it sounds like a 70’s Murder Mystery, right? A guy outside the system who can’t let an injustice stand. But this is mixed with scenes of the killer stalking other people, which culminate in Slasher Movie-like deaths. These attacks are like a ticking clock, making us root for Sam all the harder. You’d call it a successful hybrid, except the Slasher sub-genre didn’t exist yet.

Another funny takeaway is that if this movie were made in 2017 instead of 1970, Conservatives would get huffy over how political it is. Sam and his girlfriend have a poster labeled “BLACK POWER” next to their front door. When a transvestite is put in a line-up of suspected perverts, the lead detective yells to get him out of there because transvestites aren’t perverts. One of Sam’s first leads in the case is interviewing an art dealer who is quite gay, such that he can’t go thirty seconds without hitting on him. For an allegedly low type of film, it’s socially progressive in ways American cinema still isn’t.

Bay of Blood (1971) (AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Odor of Flesh, Thus Do We Live To Be Evil, Before The Fact, Ecology of Crime, Chain Reaction, New House on the Left, and I'm seriously not kidding you, Last House on the Left Part II)

I love how many ridiculous titles this movie picked up, including the audacity of someone to try to pass it off as a direct sequel to Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. At a certain point, false advertisement becomes entertainment.

This is widely cited as an inspiration for my beloved American series Friday the 13th, I had to check out this Italian classic eventually. And while my coverage of Italian film is thin this year, I’ve created quite a list to check out in 2018. Already I can see a wide range in what fits in this sub-genre.

Bay of Blood follows four teenagers who go on vacation to a secluded bay and break into an empty house. As they flirt, dance, and swim, they stumble across a dead body, and soon, the killer is after them. It’s a bunch of things American cinema imported a decade later, but grounded inside a real estate deal turned wrong, with locals swarming around, some perishing, other promising they’d make great suspects. It’s almost a hybrid of the American Slasher and the European Murder Mystery, except the former genre hadn’t been formalized yet.

The biggest impression is how obviously the early Friday the 13th films lifted material from Bay of Blood. There’s one particular scene where lovers are impaled by a spear in the middle of sex that isn’t just in Friday the 13th, but is one of the most popular deaths in the series.

At closer examination, both films have a similar double-layered morality: both are obviously about carefree teens enjoying the pleasures of life that audiences are supposed to sympathize with and root for, and both are easily interpreted as punishment narratives. Without knowing the culture of Italy at the time, I couldn’t intuit how much was intentional in my viewing, but after American Horror’s hunted teen tropes calcified into a series of punishments based on backwards values, it’s impossible to watch this without the same interpretation.

The movie even has that one jerk friend who gets jealous when his girlfriend likes someone else better, and tries to push and bully them into his vision of how things should go. Definitely, Bay of Blood has the DNA of Slasher films. But its chase scenes and kills are awkwardly shot, sometimes difficult to follow, and at one point in particular, laughable as a dead victim’s actor clearly keeps breathing on the ground. Depending on your personality, that’s either obnoxious, or charming for exactly the reasons you’d want to watch B-movies.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)
You know how I said Giallo begat Slasher movies? Blood and Black Lace literally opens with a guy in a creepy mask following and killing a woman in the middle of the night.

Blood and Black Lace is a movie that’s very proud to be shot in color – it was Mario Bava’s second color picture, after Black Sabbath. Our characters work in high fashion, producing and wearing bold dresses, and when they don’t wear them, they appear on bright mannequins. The most striking is a cherry-red mannequin wearing stark black fashion. More than aping commercial thought, the movie is showing off what it’s able to show. Characters are often dressed to profoundly match or clash against their settings – both by fashion designer characters, and by the happy director. I love the idea that pink silk could be a special effect.

This is the most Who Dunnit of the Giallo films I watched this year. Valuables have been stolen, riches are somewhere in this broad estate, and over the course of the film we watch a masked figure stalk them, while various characters follow clues trying to discern the identity. There’s fear to the stalking, but never anticipation that they need to solve this now or they’ll die. It’s obvious very few if any characters will survive the film, so anyone in the killer’s clutches is probably gone. Any remaining urgency drained out of the story when one character fall off the roof while scheming to go from window to window, and, unceremoniously fell out of the movie at the same time.

Such a plot is full of intrigue, infidelity, and double motives. It fits better with the Mysteries of the 60s than with anything I enjoy in Horror. It was worth watching to further appreciate the taxonomy of a sub-genre, but gets the lowest recommendation out of today’s three.

Coming Monday: Dog Soldiers and Area 51

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Halloween List: Final Destination and "Death Note"

Final Destination (2000)

This is a series I utterly missed out on in the 2000s because I was stuck-up. How lazy was it to ditch a proper Slasher killer and use an invisible hand of Death itself?

Not lazy at all, actually. The movie follows a teen whose vision of his flight exploding causing him and a few friends to leave. The plane does explode, and our teen becomes a suspect of the bombing. Meanwhile, the teens begin to die in a series of ludicrously complicated coincidences. The first features a kid slipping on water from a leaking toilet, falling into a bath tub where his neck catches on wire, and spilling shampoo under his feet so he can’t stand up. It quickly becomes apparent that Death itself is after the survivors, seeking to fix what went awry in its plan.

It’s a fun idea that fits right into the classic Slasher formula with one major change. Slashers historically thrive on either having a killer with a strong personality, or on having the identity of the killer be a mystery. Here instead we have a killer that is as absent as it is present, and one that uses entirely unconventional.

A friend called it “Rube Goldberg’s Death Traps,” and that’s apt, because the fun lies in trying to guess what things in a room are going to wind up being dangerous. Is turning on the record player going to lead to her demise? Is the electrical outlet going to short out at the right moment?

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Halloween List: The Devil's Candy, The Disappointments Room, and Lake Mungo


The Devil’s Candy (2015)

A family of Metal Heads move to a remote farm house and run into the same demon that killed the previous tenants. It’s a demon that loves the arts; it manipulated the love of music of the previous tenants’ son, and now works its way into the new tenants’ father.

My favorite facet of the movie is that the Metal Heads aren’t hard-drinking freaks; they’re misfits, sure, but they love each other, drive a cheap station wagon, and screw up in relatable ways. As they move into their idyllic little house, our soundtrack is screaming Metal. What they do is make their aesthetic feel mundane and human. It’s delightful to see the music culture applied to different life styles.

Metal Heads are people, too. And like all people, they occasionally have to repel the assault of a serial killer who hears the same voices as their father. 

The movie ramps up well after they family sets down their roots. The father, a painter of morbid art, starts feeling “the inspiration” – but an inspiration all too close to what led the previous tenant to go murderous. As the father paints disturbing scenes that even his family thinks are weird, the old killer reappears, confused how anyone else could live there. There’s high tension as both the killer and father stir up, like two kettles on one stove, and you just hope for the sake of the family that they don’t both boil over.

I’ve been harsh on most of the IFC releases that I’ve seen, but between this and Apartment 143, I’m going to have to give their catalog another look.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Halloween List: Raw and The Void


Raw (2017) (AKA Grave)

Julia Ducournau’s gift to us from French-Belgian cinema, a riveting and intimate portrait of a vegetarian who has her first bite of meat and suddenly can’t stop craving more. It’s an abrupt addiction, not a satire mocking vegetarians, but a pathological Horror story about her descent.

Justine is just starting at a veterinary school with harsh hazing rituals. Her bed is tossed out her window, and she has to crawl on her knees through the courtyard, and her seniors force her to swallow a rabbit kidney. Ever afterward she finds herself ravenous, and biting into meat on a shish kabob makes her forget the rest of the world exists. Those cravings quickly darken as she watches boys around campus. As a vegetarian, she argued human life wasn’t any more sacred than that of animals. If anything, she’s consistent.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Halloween List: It Comes at Night and The Autopsy of Jane Doe



It Comes at Night (2017)



No movie in 2017 more understands what film doesn’t have to do than It Comes at Night. It opens on a family putting down their terminally ill grandfather and burning his body in the wilderness. We don’t know what his disease is, but he is in awful shape and they are terrified of touching him.

Then we follow the family back to their boarded up house in the woods, seemingly with no one else around. They only go outside in pairs. They have strict protocols for locking and unlocking their doors. When a stranger shows up at their house in the middle of the night, they treat it with a terrified coolness, both clearly rattled that someone is out there, and forcing themselves to focus.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Halloween List: A Trip to the 70s with Duel, Frenzy, and Picnic at Hanging Rock


Duel (1971)

That Steven Spielberg sure earned his career. This was the movie that earned him Jaws, but rather than the tale of a shark, it’s one long car chase that’s truly harrowing. A salesman is out trying to make a meeting in another state when he tries to pass a slow moving truck; the truck responds by pulling ahead of him, then slowing down again. It’s a moment of impatience and tension a lot of us have driven through, but it begins a game of cat and mouse, out in the middle of nowhere, where no one can help him.

Especially for a 1970s made-for-TV movie, Duel is masterful. How do you keep such a simple film from getting visually boring? He films the cars from all angles, and ___ gives a riveting performance as a man falling behind the wheel. The use of music is sparing, often subtle, elevate the rumble of engines and the wind of the wilderness. The movie always knows when to take you in closer to our driver, or when to focus on the enigma of the truck. We never see the man that’s chasing us. There’s only his titanic vehicle.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Halloween List: Killer Dolls! Annabelle: Creation and The Cult of Chucky



Annabelle: Creation (2017)

A serious step up from the first Annabelle, and a film that generally feels closer to the universe of The Conjuring. This is a prequel explaining the tragedy in a doll maker’s family that led to the creation of the eponymous toy, and why it was possessed. After the loss of their daughter, the family opens their house as an orphanage, and we follow Janice, a disabled girl who keeps finding clues that something is amiss in their house.

One of the biggest differences between the first and Creation is that so much more happens in this movie. Both the exploration of the house and creepy events fill much more of the film, giving the kids and their loyal nun attendant agency and investment. It also holds just enough back, such as the creepy well in the back of the property, which merely has to exist in the background of a few scenes and leave you waiting for something awful to come out of it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Halloween List: The Transfiguration and A Dark Song


The Transfiguration (2017)

I was utterly unprepared for this movie. It was an amazing get for Netflix, which scooped the film up from Cannes and recently released it on its streaming service. It’s the sort of highly poignant thing we can’t get enough of in Horror.

Milo is many things. A high school student. A son whose mother died when he was young, and whose father is long gone. He’s a serial killer who has no idea what to do with his compulsions.

Most of all, Milo is a fan of vampires. He thinks he is one, and uses their sanguine lore to rationalize his impulses and how strange he feels. He doesn’t fit in anywhere; his older brother offers no empathy, and he can’t communicate with the gangs that dominate his block. Instead he hides in his room, watching Nosferatu and Lost Boys. His notebooks are full of diagrams and lists of lore, figuring out how different vampires worked, as he tries to figure out why he is the way he is.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Halloween List: Get Out and Gerald's Game


Get Out (2017)

Surely you’ve heard of Get Out by now. The movie about an African American dating a white girl, and going to visit her parents in their creepy gated community? Where black people have been disappearing, and later reappearing as meek  community members without any memory of their old identities?

If you didn’t know, it’s good.

I was unfair to Get Out at the cinema. I made the mistake of reading writer/director Jordan Peele’s artist’s statements about how this movie would subvert tropes like why protagonists never leave the house. Artist’s statements are dangerous, and the movie doesn’t give compelling reasons for its hero to not get the hell out of there.

But there’s no reason to get hung up on details like that unless you’re holding a grudge against a film’s creators, and Jordan Peele did a hell of a job on this movie. Even in the theater, with my petty biases, I was utterly won over by the end of the movie, which has one of the most satisfying series of reveals and knockdowns in Horror history. It keeps unfolding all its mysteries and gives people some necessary receipts.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Halloween List Returns

If you felt September was too quiet around the Bathroom Monologues, then good news! October is going to be noisy. We're watching scary movies.

Like last year, I'm going to wring every last drop out of October. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and one of the best parts is watching the best in Horror. I'll be coming in at least twice a week with fresh reviews of recent and classic films. Hitchcock and Spielberg? You bet. But also Netflix's latest offerings, indie hits, and my first taste of the Italian Giallo genre.

Here's a loose idea of the posting schedule. Let me know what you think.

OCTOBER 2 Get Out, Gerald’s Game
OCTOBER 4 The Transfiguration, A Dark Song
OCTOBER 6 Annabelle: Creation, Cult of Chucky
OCTOBER 9 Duel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Frenzy
OCTOBER 11 The Autopsy of Jane Doe, It Comes at Night
OCTOBER 13 Raw, The Void
OCTOBER 16 Devil’s Candy, Disappointments Room, Lake Mungo
OCTOBER 18 Final Destination, Death Note
OCTOBER 20 The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Bay of Blood, Blood and Black Lace
OCTOBER 23 Area 51, Dog Soldiers
OCTOBER 25 Sadako Vs. Kayako (The Ring Vs. The Grudge), Hell House LLC
OCTOBER 27 Creep 2, 1920
OCTOBER 30 Stranger Things Season 2

Naturally I'm ending the month with the return of my favorite Netflix show. But it all starts tomorrow with two of the best-reviewed scary flicks of the year: Get Out and Gerald's Game.

Join me. We're going to have some fun.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"You Can Adapt to Anything" at Daily Science Fiction

I wrote you a new story! It's live over at Daily Science Fiction, and it's called "You Can Adapt to Anything."


It follows Juniper and Miguel, two engineering prodigies who dream of being the first people to set foot in a parallel universe. The two were so alike they were almost destined to fall for each other. When they finally open that portal, they find another Juniper and Miguel, who've been working on the same project. The Junipers accidentally switch, and are stranded in alternate realities. But this isn't a bizarre land where the dinosaurs still roam over the North lost the Civil War. Our nearest neighboring universes are nearly identical to our own, just one probability variation away. So Juniper is stranded on earth just like hers, with a life that's nearly identical, trying to get back to her Miguel, and trying to ignore the identical man working beside her.

The reactions have been amazing. Thanks to everyone who's already read and shared this story. It's something I've wanted to write since I was 15.

Thanks as well to the small army of alpha, beta, and final readers who joined me in Juniper's journey. Thank you to A.T. Greenblatt, Cassie Williams, Janice Smith, Phil Margolies, David Twiddy, Laurence Brothers, and Katherine Hajer.

And thanks to Daily Science Fiction for publishing me for the third time. I do so enjoy being in their digital pages.

You can read the entirety of "You Can Adapt to Anything" for free by clicking this link.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Rarely Asked Questions 2017

Happy birthday to people who were born on the same day as myself! Today I'm celebrating by playing the RAQ: the Rarely Asked Questions. Everything here was submitted by people who swear they've never asked these to anyone else before. I will do my best to give them an adequate first answer. Feel free to judge my adequacy in the Comments.

Mris asked, "What is your favorite kind of roof?"

I like the Heroic Shingle package myself. The shingles seem sturdy enough for people to run across, but in case of antagonism, slide conveniently to a steep fall. This would be unappealing if it ever killed a noble soul, but such souls always catch the lip of the roof or a ladder, whereas villains fall to serious spinal injury. It’s a fine trope and it keeps your attic dry.

Mary Garber asked, "Which Firefly character would you want reincarnated into your pet cat? The one who would be watching you sleeping?"
Recognizing that I have a highly dangerous allergy to cats, I doubt I’ll be spending more than one night in the same room as any of the Firefly reincarnates. But Alan Tudyk is a very versatile actor, so I think he’d do the most dynamic job playing the animal whose dander kills me. Hopefully he gets nominated for some award over it.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Great Things I Read in July and August, 2017 Edition

I'll miss you, Summer 2017! Fun as it was to see people at so many cons, it's nice to have the weather cool down and be able to stay home for a while. While I can't tell you some of the projects I'm working on yet, I am happy to share some of my favorite free reads from over the last two months. As always, everything here is free to read. Just click the link. If you like what you read, please consider donating to the author's Patreon, or subscribing to the related magazine. So many places are struggling to get it done right now.


Fiction

"Skills To Keep the Devil In His Place" by Lia Swope Mitchell at Shimmer Magazine
-This is somewhere between a possession story and Slipstream. Slipstream usually bends towards the Fantastic, so seeing it wax toward Horror intrigues. Here a girl is going through the typical pains of adolescence - how to bond with people while protecting her psyche, conflict with a mother who seems alternately ambivalent and overbearing. But at the same time, she feels like the Devil himself is sometimes in her eyes, or sitting in her lap, sometimes in disgustingly vivid detail. The story teases us with how this sort of possession will overlap with the person she's turning into simply as a teenager, and whether she'll do right by anyone in her life - her mother, her BFF, or even Satan. The most poignant part is when she's so horrendously bullied at school that the strange demon slithering out from under her bed at night feels like a viable companion. Possession stories don't examine human isolation often enough, but Mitchell gets it.

"Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree" by Nibetida Sen at Anathema Magazine
-A literally and figuratively spirited story! Dating advice is usually awkward, but especially when it comes from a ghost you accidentally swallowed. Our interloper here is a pret, which fell from a banyan tree and into our narrator's gullet. The pret thinks our narrator could do better than her current romantic prospects, and kicks off a delightful series of events that I don't want to spoil. But I've re-read this story three times over August, just to smile to at certain bits.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Two Story Sales! And more questions for my big RAQ

Happy Tuesday, Earth!

You may have noticed my birthday is coming up on September 4th. I'm celebrating with a custom called the RAQ: the Rarely Asked Questions. I'm asking you to ask me whatever you've never asked anyone else, no matter how silly, personal, or profound. Drop your unusual questions off on that post through this handy link.

But I also have two two story sales to share with you. I'm so excited for both of these to go out into the world.

The first is "The First Stop is Always The Last." This is a Groundhog's Day-like time loop story, following a bus driver who can't seem to make it to the second stop on her route. It might have to do with her single eccentric passenger. This story sold to Flash Fiction Online, and will be my fifth (?!) story in their magazine.

Many thanks to my beta readers on this one: Leigh Wallace, Ariel Harris, and Cassie Williams. It's another stretch for me, expanding what I can do with my fiction, though I don't want to spoil how just yet!

The second story is simply titled "Tank!" This one was the result of joking around with Max Gladstone at 4th Street about how tough it would be for a tank to attend a convention. So, it's literally about the exploits of a sapient tank that just wants to make some friends at Comic Con. Being about a tank, there's a surprising amount of my own lived experience at cons in this story.

Thanks to my beta readers on this one: Alison Wilgus, Paul Starr, Samari Smith, Max Gladstone, Merc Rustad, Leigh Wallace (hi again!), and Cassie Williams (hi again, Part II!). "Tank!" is expected over at Diabolical Plots in June of 2018. It's funny to already have a story set for next summer!
Counter est. March 2, 2008