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Creature Features in Review: Alien (1979)

By now we must have realized, this subgenre, this oddly obscure realm we call “creature features,” that blends science fiction and horror together, is fantastically intelligent as it is perspicacious, understanding the needs of the times, the questions that demand to be (not necessarily answered) dragged out into the light. Questions of ecology, science, naturalism, humanism, and even biology, questions of our own innate taxonomy. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Which ultimately brings us to the chef d’œuvre question of all humanistic endeavor, what else is out there? Today’s movie up for review on Creature Features in Review is one of those rare gems that combined thrilling storytelling and special effects and atmosphere to have the most impact in raising those eerily human questions. While the sequel, Aliens, may have been the bigger blockbuster, some of the thrills had been lost, the question had already been answered. In Aliens, we knew what was out there. In Alien, storyteller Dan O’Bannon, and director Ridley Scott, not only forced us to question our place in the cosmos but also in the cosmos of our own flesh.

Alien: You’ll Get Whatever’s Coming to You…

by William D. Prystauk

In 1979, after much print-based-hype, especially if one was a fan of science fiction and read “Starlog” on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN hit screens that summer. It wasn’t hard for sci-fi and horror geeks to get worked up because many publications ran some of H. R. Giger’s conceptual art, which rocked many readers. Other conceptual drawings, from the look of the Nostromo, to space suits, and even land vehicles, kept those readers intrigued about what was to come.

The late, great Dan O’Bannon penned the script from a story he developed with Ron Shusett. Written with a budget in mind, he never expected the screenplay to get A-list support from 20th Century Fox – but they were hungry. After the unexpected blockbuster success of 1977’s STAR WARS, they wanted something else in a galaxy far, far away. And as the story goes, when O’Bannon said ALIEN was “JAWS in space,” that sealed the deal (O’Callaghan).

Originally entitled STAR BEAST (thank the stars they changed it), the story features the crew of the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”), a barge in space hauling megatons of ore across the cosmos, who are in hibernation as they await orders from “Mother,” their onboard computer, to wake them up once they get closer to Earth. Mother picks up a supposed distress signal, and the crew’s awakened prematurely to check it out. Landing on a cold dwarf planet, three members of the seven-person team head out to find the vessel to see if they can save any souls. Instead, they return with an infected crew member, and in short order, their souls need saving.

Although Dan O’Bannon said, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” the film stands as an original (Macek). Many have made comparisons to PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and even THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, but ALIEN brought audiences many new elements they had never seen before in a science fiction horror.

Here’s why ALIEN (including material from the 1979 theatrical release and 2003’s director’s cut) is one of the greatest films of all time…

A Stellar Cast, an Out of this World Director

It’s hard to find films in any genre where every cast member is a standout. Other than David Mamet’s remarkable GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, ALIEN ranks at the top: Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sigourney Weaver. (Helen Horton gave us the firm and foreboding, yet oddly seductive voice of Mother, and Bolaji Badejo, in his only film role, became Giger’s alien entity). Cartwright, Holm, Skerritt, and Stanton had been building their reputations on the small and silver screen since the fifties, Hurt and Kotto since the sixties, and after a couple of lesser roles, ALIEN proved to be Weaver’s breakout role as Lieutenant Ripley.

This acting foundation alone said much about the script’s value as well as 20th Century Fox’s commitment to the production. Some may say they were taking a chance with Scott, who only had his feature directorial debut two years before with THE DUELLISTS, but the film had received critical acclaim in short order – and all this after Scott had taken an eight-year hiatus from directing television episodes.

Galactic Feminism

If STAR WARS were one of the first science fantasy films to feature a woman who didn’t scream, hide behind a manly-man, or faint thanks to Carrie Fisher’s strong-willed and determined Princess Leia, ALIEN’s Lieutenant Ripley took the liberation to a whole new level.

Third officer Ripley and Cartwright’s Lambert are the only female team members, and they are simply a part of the crew. Lambert’s the co-pilot/navigator, and Ripley’s a communication’s officer, and the third in charge after Captain Dallas (Skerritt) and Kane (Hurt). The women are on equal terrain and respected, other than an innuendo from Parker (Kotto) because he may have been in space without a partner for too damn long.

Although Lambert may come undone in the film, this is because of her character and the traumas she’s experienced, not because she’s a woman. After all, even Parker’s waylaid by the death of his friend Brett (Stanton), and his strong exterior waivers on a couple of occasions regardless of his anger and determination.

Ripley, on the other hand, has several facets to her character: She’s logical and pragmatic, and respects command, even with her role in the officer food chain. When that rank is challenged by Ash, the science officer, she visits him in his lab for a private meeting to lay down the law. Though that turns out to be a wash, Ripley stands her ground and left nothing to the imagination. Later, when the issue of quarantine comes up again, Ripley’s passive-aggressive comment is her version of an “I told you so.” To make certain Parker and Brett are working on ship repairs, she once again walks into that crew member’s domain to make certain she’s heard and understood. When Lambert slaps Ripley for wanting to keep her, Dallas, and Kane in quarantine for 24-hours, Ripley goes to war, and Parker and Brett must break up the pair.

Even with all the hell from an attacked crew member to the whereabouts of the face-hugger, when Ripley’s freaked out, she pulls herself together in short order. When she finally takes command, instead of trying to define her role with a new idea to destroy the alien, her logic and pragmatism shine through. Since Dallas’ plan is a viable one, Ripley goes with it. However, as a leader, she’s comfortable enough to ask if there are any other suggestions. If anyone thinks this represents a lack of confidence on her part, Ripley’s quick and loud in drowning out an overly frustrated Parker, and she has no problem telling Ash that he hasn’t been doing a damn thing to help. (If she hadn’t asked Ash earlier for suggestions about capturing or killing the alien, he may not have done anything at all.)

Ultimately, Ripley has to be her own savior and to do so, she must overcome her fear of an unyielding enemy while under the strictest of deadlines, and even with that pressure and need for self-preservation she has enough humanity to try and save the Nostromo mascot, Jonesy the cat.

Atmosphere

Nothing works like isolation in a horror film. ALIEN features a small crew packed into the heart of a smaller ship, which is equivalent to a tug boat. And if that tugboat starts to capsize, there’s a small escape ship – a life raft – that can only fit three.

Even worse, the Nostromo is akin to being lost at sea. Due to the early wake up from Mother, they’re 70 million miles from the Milky Way and would have to go back to the old “freezerinos” for another ten-month sleep. There are no other ships in their part of the void. They are as alone as a group of people can get. And to add an exclamation point to the Nostromo crew’s predicament, ALIEN’s tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream.”

Right from the beginning, from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, as well as Ian Whittaker’s set decoration, it’s clear the Nostromo is an all work and no play environment. Seating’s cramped at the front of the ship. And everything’s cold and dark. There may be light and white in the dining and sleeping quarters, but the remainder of the ship is either cavernous, though still encroaching, and the passageways are reminiscent of catacombs. Due to the small crew and the workload, the Nostromo is far from ship-shape. The equivalent of equipment based debris seems to appear at every turn, the lighting’s questionable in spots, and the nether regions of the vessel are cold and dank.

The only time we truly have any sense of peace and hope is at the very beginning and at the very end. Before ALIEN’s story gets underway, the hibernation area is all white with a center cylinder with each crew member extending from that “stem” to form the petals of a flower that blooms once they awaken. They each wear white undergarments, and they arise as if newborns from the bassinet of a hospital’s maternity ward. And they are born anew on a journey they never saw coming.

At the end, Ripley hibernates with Jonesy. A white glow emanates from her protective pod, another womb to nurture her, and we have the sense that she will awake as a new, stronger, and virtually fearless person. To add an exclamation to Ripley’s rebirth: Upon the annihilation of the Nostromo at her own hand, she bears witness to her own “Big Bang” and recreates herself. She becomes her own mother and gives birth to her new self as both creator, destroyer, and preserver, much like the Hindu goddess, Kali Ma. Once transformed, she not only overrides her fear in strong fashion but quickly forms a solid plan to vanquish her foe.

Space Relations

The status quo continues in ALIEN. Providing a dim look of the future, the white and blue collar mix of the crew remains stuck in the doldrums of working for “the company.” Regardless of the manual Ripley tries to cling onto, Captain Dallas is quick to point out that one does what the company tells one to do. This also means the object of fairness doesn’t hold up either. Both Parker and Brett signed on, but with their contracts, especially when it comes to “the bonus situation,” the pair won’t receive full shares.

Better still to make certain the Nostromo crew checks out that distress beacon, the fine print in their contract has a “full forfeiture of shares” clause if they decide to skip the alarm and head back home. (Mother, acting like Big Brother, would undoubtedly show through report tracking that the crew never left the vessel to check for survivors.)

We understand that as the crew is screwed by their employer, most of us have similar stories where the company that gives us a check every two weeks undermined us in some way, shape, or form. And when it comes to a cafeteria, and according to Parker, the only good thing on the ship is the coffee.

Parker wants to get home and party, but as team leader, Dallas has had it. At different times, he tells both Lambert and Parker to “knock it off” because as middle management, he’s just done. As he sits in the escape ship and tries to relax to classical music, we can imagine him trying to determine how the hell he’s going to write a report about this mess. But he has nothing to fear because a mole is amongst the crew who will help fulfill a different set of obligations for the company.

By not giving “the company” a name, it can be any entity we may work for on our little blue ball. Plus, with Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, we see the trouble of putting sponsors’ names on video phones and space ships, because Pan Am and The Bell System are long gone – though Hilton could build a space station in the next century.

Due to these items, and the wearing of many hats – those mining vehicles aren’t going to move themselves – the crews’ dissatisfaction may mirror our own.

Intercosmic Dialogue

Before ALIEN, most science fiction films were built on the backs of conservative, military-like communication full of boring conversation or scientific mumbo-jumbo or stiff reporting full of salutes. Right from the beginning, we can relate to the crew as “regular people” due to the dialogue and their exchanges. They curse, they rub each other the wrong way like children – “That’s not our system,” says Ripley, and Lambert almost sings her response as if a kid who doesn’t want to be bested, “I know that” – and Parker wants to get back home, with bonus in hand, and “party.”

However, the film goes one step further to make the dialogue and exchanges ring true. When the dead facehugger falls to the lab floor, Ash asks if it came from the overhead. Traumatized by the experience in his own way, Dallas peers down at their deceased guest and says in an annoyed fashion, “It was up there somewhere.”

When four crew members remain, a stressed out and now in command Ripley lays down the plan, which is a continuation of the old one. Parker’s also stressed and angered, and says, “Let’s hear it” as Ripley tries to speak, causing her to raise her voice and yell at Parker. Anxiety and frustration take their toll:

Ripley (to Parker): …We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered, and then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you?

Parker: If it means killing it then it’s acceptable to me.

Ripley: Obviously it means killing it.

Having characters joke, speak over each other, and go from being ticked off to being accepting, serves as one of the best reflections of genuine dialogue and speaking patterns. This realness allows the audience to better connect with the characters due to this relatable and grounded communication. The crew may reside in the future, may live on a space vessel, but the audience knows exactly where they’re coming from.

The Universal Other

Like John Carpenter’s THE THING, ALIEN not only introduces “the Other,” the alien that must be assimilated or destroyed, but the Nostromo crew is “the Other” as well. Humans are not natural to space and the dwarf planet they land on is as alien to them as it is to the alien. Neither belong. But what Ash calls, “the perfect organism,” the creature’s as fearless as a honey badger and there’s no negotiation or assimilation. It’s kill or be killed. At no point does Parker try to sit down with the monster in a weak attempt to get the alien to help with the bonus situation.

No other monster from another planet in all the early science fiction fair has a life cycle like this one: From a leathery egg comes a spider-like facehugger that unleashes another egg through the mouth and down the throat of a host. Serving its purpose, and after the internal egg is protected and ready to hatch, the facehugger dies. Soon after, the young creature bursts from its host, killing the animal it leaves behind in the process and takes off on its own. In short order, the little monster that bleeds acid becomes a bipedal giant ready to kill, consume, and get the cycle up and running again. This means the Nostromo crew is left to fight an extraterrestrial endoparasitoid, which is an alien parasite that lives inside another creature and kills it. Wow.

Macrocosmos of Mysteries

ALIEN certainly has its mysteries. This doesn’t mean O’Bannon’s writing had flaws or that Scott overlooked things, but what follows are points to consider.

“Better break out the weapons”

Before heading outside to check on the distress beacon, Dallas uses that line before the away party suits up. Inside the Space Jockey’s vessel, Kane holds up a gun-like weapon right before the facehugger greets him with a kiss. The company supplied weapons are never mentioned again, and only primitive ones make from scratch are used. Why? Maybe the weapons were garbage, or more logically since the alien bleeds acid, which could burn through the hull, forcing it into the airlock with a flame thrower to send it into outer space is probably the best solution.

First Contact

If the company sent up a robot to protect the alien and bring it back to Earth, how did it know about the creature in the first place? Maybe another expedition came along, and unlike Kane, those miners in space suits decided not to break that layer of mist and get up close to those eggs. Then again, maybe they did. Maybe they lost a crew member (or two or three), but won in the end and made it home to give a full report. That report became the catalyst to send out another crew in that general area to unwittingly bring the creature home.

Ancient Computers

Often forgiven by fans and critics since the movie was made in pre-personal computer 1979, Mother, her special “Eyes Only” room, and the computer graphics raise questions. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, regardless of space flight, HAL 2000, and major technological advances, the astronauts still had to use clipboards as they sail towards Jupiter. When it comes to predicting what the hell we might have or create in a future world can prove daunting (follow the haircuts and clothing styles, as well as social interactions to help date films even more). Maybe the best reason one can use is that the Nostromo is an absolute worker bee of a ship, which means it doesn’t have state of the art anything. However, maybe as an homage to Kubrick, Scott created Mother and her room in HAL-esque style. Too bad the crew couldn’t speak to Mother, and she never even sang them a song.

The Signal

Why would Dallas and company venture out into the unknown when Mother hadn’t deciphered the beacon? If they had waited another hour or two, they would have had a better clue about what was awaiting them. The answer may be Dallas’ grumpiness, which on some level mimicked Parker’s, as well as that old favorite feeling that can bring fortune or failure: curiosity. And maybe due to their ho-hum mining drudgery, no one puts the breaks on the “rescue mission.”

“Why don’t you just freeze him?!”

Curiosity also reigns supreme when Kane and facehugger come on board. Parker says the “freeze him” line on several occasions, but Dallas and Ash take no heed or pay him no mind. The nature of discovery has taken them over.

Locked Up

How did Jonesy end up in that closed locker? Since this is the first time we see the Nostromo mascot, and Brett, Parker, and Ripley certainly didn’t expect to find him there, one of the others must have put him in there, which would have been cruel. Or, he could have been accidentally locked in when someone was working or getting some supplies by the locker.

How old are you now?

Interstellar space travel will either leave aging astronauts to die aboard ship with the next generation to take over the journey, or some sort of hibernation will exist. After returning from the dwarf planet, a ten-month journey remains for the crew. We don’t know how long they’ve been out there or how long their mining assignment has taken, but that had better be some pretty expensive or rare ore to send a crew so far out into the cosmos. Does this mean their families are in hibernation as well? If not, their spouses, partners, and children, if they have any, of course, are going to age every time they head out to gather some ore. Check out “The Long Morrow” from “The Twilight Zone” to see what will happen if you don’t get it right.

Space Rape

This thematic dynamic may not be the reason ALIEN is at the top of the science fiction horror list, but it’s quite notable. In an interview, O’Bannon made this frightening comment:

“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number’” (Dietle).

And O’Bannon does just that. Not only does the facehugger do the above, but the adult alien sports a phallic like head and behind its silvery, dripping teeth exists a phallic juggernaut of a secondary mouth that juts out in erect fashion to tear apart flesh and bone as it penetrates the heads of both Brett and Parker. Its phallic-esque tale rips into Lambert.

When searching for the facehugger, Ash and Dallas do so with long-lighted prods. As Ripley looks about, Ash tells her not to do so without “one of these,” and holds up his prod. Ripley doesn’t grasp one.

But the crew fights phallus with phallus from the cattle prods to give the creature “incentive,” to the pointed motion detector, to the flame throwers, and to the gun and its respective grappling hook. (Both Ripley and Lambert wield the phallic detectors – Ripley does this with ease, but Lambert has issues.)

Feminine imagery exists as well. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert enter the Space Jockey’s ship through a hole. And the Jockey has a hole in its chest, as Kane will soon have. Dallas enters the duct system with his flamethrower, and the round hatches shut him off as he enters the hollow shafts within the ship. Finally, when Ripley squares off against the creature, she uses that phallic grappling hook to propel her foe through the open hatch of her escape craft, and when the creature tries to enter through one of the open engine exhausts, Ripley turns on the afterburners and blows him away once and for all.

Celestial Conclusion

The story, acting, direction, music, dialogue, set and setting, make ALIEN a film to be reckoned with. Due to the realism of the characters, their emotions and reactions, Scott’s film transcends genre labels. In this sense, O’Bannon, Shusett, and company created a remarkable tale to capture the imagination – and fear – of any audience.

Sources
Dietle, David. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. Cracked, 02 Jan 2011. Web. 06 May 2017.
Macek, J. C., III. “Deconstructing the Star Beast: How the ‘Alien’ Saga Went
Wrong.” PopMatters. PopMatters.com, 04 May 2015. Web. 06 May 2017.
O’Callaghan, Paul. “Ridley Scott: Five Essential Films.” BFI. British Film Institute, 28 Nov 2014. Web. 06 May 2017.

William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.

You DO NOT want to miss a single episode of his award-winning podcast, The Last Knock!

 

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Come to the Feast

What would you do for family? I’d say most of us would do anything for family. However, we can imagine of certain situations in which we couldn’t do everything for family. We couldn’t betray our core values, or moral obligations, or our principles…or could we? I think for the most part we follow something similar to Issac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics when it comes to the lengths we’ll go or will not go for family. The law is as follows, with some tweaking on my part to adjust to our question of family.

A family member may not injure another family member or, through inaction, allow a family member to come to harm. A son/daughter must obey orders given by their parents except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A person must protect their own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Something kinda like that, though not perfectly fitting, of course, this is just a thought exercise. And in actuality, the First and Second Laws typically conflict with each other, as demonstrated in the cartoon on the side.

And why do the Laws come in conflict? Because people are beautifully horrifyingly imperfect. Imperfection invites conflict. Anyone with mothers or fathers or brothers or sisters or really close cousins know all too perfectly how imperfect people can be. And yet, we cannot escape our families, though I am sure some have tried and succeeded in some measure, but overall our love remains for our sisters who are still our sister, our brothers still our brother, etc. etc. This brings us back to my original question: What would you do for family?

This question over the lengths we’re willing to go for family is what inspired the story in my latest book. FEAST is the story of a family, dysfunctional perhaps, but in the end, still family. Titus Fleming is a father and a businessman, and as the story progresses his dual nature between the two conflict. Is he a father more or is he a businessman? His surviving son, Luke, is going through a transformation in his life, becoming who he has always been, Lavinia. but when tragedy and scandal-beset his family, an arrangement will be made that will conflict with who Lavinia (Luke) really is.

And then there is the barbarous Lange family. Tamora and her two sons, Chad and Drake, and her employee Aaron. Who are they in this story? Victims? Perpetrators? Accomplices? Allies? What are these sons willing to do for their mother?

FEAST will ask those questions.

I am very excited for this release! FEAST is an extreme horror story inspired by Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, one of my favorites from the famous playwright. Maybe a bit twisted to admit, but I had a lot of fun writing this book. The story and the characters pushed me into worlds and situations I have not dared to go before. While I do enjoy conjuring fantastic creatures, FEAST reminded me of the most horrifying of all horror monsters, humanity. Big shout out to my friend Travis Eck who came up with the design for the cover. I simply gave him a concept and he ran with it. Producing his own creation and artwork. Totally blew me away, as always, with his work and talent. Also, some thanks are in order for Jeffery X. Martin for editing my horrible use of the English language. Shout out to my favorite Canadian, Duncan Ralston, for not only helping me with the formatting of this book but also inspiring me to delve into a subgenre of horror I have only previously flirted with.

To help introduce the characters in Feast, here are some “character cards” that will provide a sort of visual representation:

FEAST

What would you do for family?

Between the rural Texas towns of Bass and Sat is one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in America. Big Butts Bar-B-Que has been the seat of power for the Fleming family since the Great Depression, but when tragedy and scandal-beset Titus and his surviving transgender son Lavinia, deals are made to keep control of the restaurant. An arrangement that will put a father at odds with his legacy. As the table is set, is it just the keys to the barbecue kingdom some are after, or something else entirely?

An extreme horror story inspired by Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus.

Get YOUR copy today!

$2.99

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, and his newest release, The Hobbsburg Horror. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange events by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

 

 


Double Feature Review: Get Out/ The Belko Experiment

I don’t think I’ve seen so many new horrors as I have this year. AND IT’S ONLY MARCH!!! I’m not going to list off all of them, as at this time in the morning hours with only one cup of coffee to keep my brain functioning, cannot recall. Though some honorable mentions are due. XX, a 4 film horror anthology directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusama, was a stellar performance, despite some notes falling flat. Another one that was actually listed as a 2016 movie, but I saw in January, so it counts on my list for this year, and that flick was Split…which split critics while still bringing in rather respectable ratings from audiences, not just because it released (late Dec?) in January (the month movies go to die), but also because it was a return of sorts for M. Night Shyamalan. This last movie brings up a point that I’d like to address. Maybe I haven’t really been paying close enough attention, but when did Blumhouse start producing good horror movies? And back to back, mind you. As per our double feature review here of Get Out and The Belko Experiment (more on those to follow), add in Split, and that’s two out of three money making horror movies for the apparently expanding horror flick producer. No complaints here. Blumhouse’s wheelhouse has added a sort of balance for me and my comic book movie obsession. So…lets get into this and take a look at two horror flicks, both of which I had the pleasure of screening on back to back weekends.

Let’s kick things off with The Belko Experiment.

Produced by, you guessed it, Blumhouse, directed by Greg McLean. From IMDb, “In a twisted social experiment, 80 Americans are locked in their high-rise corporate office in Bogotá, Colombia and ordered by an unknown voice coming from the company’s intercom system to participate in a deadly game of kill or be killed.” I think it’s important to note that the screenplay was written by Guardian of the Galaxy director James Gunn who was originally asked to direct this movie but decided to step back for personal reasons. This was the most recent horror flick I’d gone to theaters to see, mostly out of having some free time come up and why not, right. I had a good feeling the theater would be empty and it pretty much was. Not for lack of trying for the producers. I’d seen a share number of advertisements both on the radio and on TV. And judging by said previews, the plot wasn’t hard to decipher. This wasn’t one of those kinds of movies. Here, there was no twist ending, and if the ending was supposed to be one, well…sorry buddy, I believe Joss Whedon already pulled it off in Cabin in the Woods. Not to get spoilerly here, as this is still showing in theaters. But you’ll get it when you see it, a very Cabin in the Woods kinda vibe. And that’s also not to say that Th Belko Experiment was bad. I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t have to think too much. It was a dark humorous action thriller with plenty of gore to please most horror fans. There were a few aahhs and ohhs from the audience when someone’s face got split in two with an ax, or when someone who’d been doing all the right things in a horror movie suddenly without much warning gets killed.   

That can kinda sum up The Belko Experiment. A boiling pot of other movies and mixtures such as Office Space meets Battle Royal meeting Cabin in the Woods. People who came looking for a mystery to solve probably left feeling disappointed, as it seems many other movie critics and audiences had, given the poor showing on Rotten Tomatoes or how it was pretty much cast into the back of the theater on opening day. Hell, the theater I normally go had stopped showing it, forcing me to drive an extra five miles to the next theater. Bastards! For me, I knew before the movie started what it was going to be. I knew there’d be one or no survivors. I came for the nihilistic violence and nihilistic violence is what I got. The Belko Experiment wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. The story seemed to falter against the easy to predict concept of the film. Too much attention was given to certain officer works battling internally over the dilemma of their humanity. I think if producers and director had turned the volume up on the violence, making it a sort of hyper-violent nihilistic movie, it would have been a shade better.

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Now…how about we Get Out.

It’s been two weeks since I saw Get Out. And while the movie had been out for at least a week if not more before I journeyed to the theater, if there were any doubts as to its popularity, let me say…my theater was not empty. Not at all. I’m rather certain it was plum full. The same happened to me when I saw Split. Packed theater. And for a horror movie no less, whether you liked the movie or not, should make you a little optimistic about the future of the genre, if you’re a genre fan, that is. Get Out was directed and written by comedian Jordan Peele (from Key & Peele and Wanderlust fame). And this was Peeles first go at directing, or directing a horror flick at the least. I can say without question that I wish upon a star that he returns to the director’s chair for another romp. For those who do not know, Get Out is about “a young African-American man who visits his Caucasian girlfriend’s mysterious family estate.” And that’s pretty much all you need to know. The plot is rather simple, actually. But the twist…oh my, it is almost too good.

Don’t worry. No spoilers here. I’d wouldn’t do that to you. But let me say for those who were told or believe that Get Out is an anti-white movie, you are DEAD WRONG. They (or you) couldn’t be furthest from the truth. In fact, I’d say this movie pokes more fun at white liberals than staunch racists. Racism is there, you can’t avoid it, just as you cannot avoid it in everyday life. But the real gem of this movie is the natural way it highlights the awkwardness between African Americans and Caucasian Americans. The scenes dealing with this phenomena are quite brilliant. And there are layers are weirdness that can only be described as such. And there are scenes that make little sense and/or do not add to the quality of the movie, nor do they take anything away. They’re kinda just….well…there. I’m assuming Peele’s way of appealing to traditional horror flick fans.

Also, don’t be fooled by those espresso hipsters, those fascist wannabes who think they know everything. Get Out is a horror movie in every definition. Just as there are multiple ways of horrifying audiences, when Get Out pulled out its heart-stopping end, I was truly terrified. When I allow myself to be put in his shoes and those who came before him, well…it kinda reminded me of some terrifyingly strange classic sci-fi flicks from the late 50s and 60s, with perhaps a touch of H.P. Lovecraft. Not to show my hand or anything, I’m trying not to spoil as the movie is still showing in theaters. You really do need to see this for yourself. Trust me. I had the assumption of what was going on and when I found out I was wrong, I was very surprisingly pleased. And it’s one of those surprise endings that make you think back over the course of the movie, and when you do, you’ll nod your head and say, “Oh, that’s why…” etc. etc. Get Out is by far my favorite horror movie of the year, thus far.

My rating: 5 of 5

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, and his newest release, The Hobbsburg Horror. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange events by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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Creature Features in Review: Critters (1986)

Watch the skies! Keep your family close. A new terror is invading our world. They are…KRITES…no wait, sorry, CRITTERS…yeah, definitely that! If you’re a nerd, such as myself, then you are probably aware of such a movie called “Critters,” and the three other sequels that followed. Critters is not the first horror-comedy to grace this Creature Features series, but at the same time, it is something quite unique. When you think “monster movies” you kinda assume something like gigantic lizards that breath fire, or mutant genetically altered insects, or maybe even meteor shit that turns out to be some sort of alien slug that turns people into a mess of zombified conglomerated flesh. But when we get catch phrases like, “They bite,” and “When you got Critters, you need all the help you can get,” we sort of don’t know what to think. Is this movie serious? Or is it pure spoof comedy? Is it even horror? On one spectrum, you’ve got Roger Ebert giving this flick a thumbs up back in 1986 while on the other hand sporting a meager 43% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics have called Critters “Gremlins on acid,” (MovieHole) while others have said that “Critters [is] a franchise [that] has nothing on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but it’s proven popular enough with Gen X-ers who forward ‘You know you’re a child of the ’80s if…’ emails to all their office mates” (Slate Magazine.) So what is it about Critters that appeals to some while turns away others?

Let’s take this one step at a time.

To get us started, here is a wonderful synopsis by our friends over at IMDb:

“A race of small, furry aliens make lunch out of the locals in a farming town.”

BRAVO!!!! Okay, well, my work here is done, folks. Furry aliens make lunch…oh, you can’t get any better than that people, that is pure gold. Well, as pure usual, they aren’t wrong. Here’s what I got while watching the movie for the…jeez…I don’t know, maybe twentieth time maybe? Somewhere around there. As our heroes over at IMDb pointed out, yes, furry aliens do make lunch, but as the New Line Cinema bold red screen appears, one Nightmare on Elm Street fans should recognize with a sense of glee, the screen opens on a giant space rock that so happens to also be a prison. We don’t really get to see much here, just a bunch of dialogue going on off screen. Supposedly, a violent criminal species known as Krites are being transported to the facility. Right away we’re told they “eat everything.” Just as my Magic 8-Ball predicted, the Krites escape the facility by stealing a space vessel and take off toward planet Earth. Here we get little (get it?) glimpses of the Krites, their claws and hear their language which has been thankfully translated for us via closed captioning.

The warden on this highly secured prison, who looks like the Caterpiller from Alice in Wonderland, hires “the bounty hunters” to track down these fiendish hungry villains and dispatch them. And it’s around here when the screen opens on a quaint small farm in a quiet small town. Nothing much to hate about this place. We’ve got our A typical American breed family. Pa and Ma and big sister and little mischevious bro Brown. A stark difference to the science fiction space opera going on in the beginning. Here we’ve got one of the most overused and iconic of horror and sci-fi backdrops, the American farming town. But given the opening, there’s already a feeling of helter skelter. What are we watching? Horror or sci-fi? Is this ET or “Gremlins on acid?” I have no idea, but I do know one thing, we’ve got  Dee Wallace, ET’s Henry Thomas’s mother in nearly the same dubious role as the harried Ma Brown of young Brad Brown (played by Scott Grimes who I believed was actually a younger Judd Nelson), our plucky kid hero who goes to battle against these Krites; Critter invaders.

Several scenes play out as we patiently wait for what we really came here to see. Aliens eating people and GORE. Spoiler: the latter you’re not going to get much of, sorry. My biggest concern watching this film was regarding young Brad. Now, yes, we all adore the stereotypical young boy who loves fireworks and plays with M-80s, whistlin’ bungholes, spleen splitters, whisker biscuits, honkey lighters, hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts, cherry bombs, nipsy daisers, scooter stick, and whistlin’ kitty chasers. But good God man, this kid is packing more than your typical firecracker. This thing is a bomb. His father reprimands him, also looking a bit weary about his son’s interest in explosives. Later, we see Brad sent to his room where he has a workbench of destruction and assembles what looks a lot like a stick of dynamite. Seriously, where are this kid’s parents?

Two highlights soon follow. Billy Zane and Bill Zane’s death. More on that to follow. Zane must have been just starting out acting when Critters came along. He looks quite young and only has a few lines. I did like that they made the big sister and girlfriend of Zane’s (played by Canada’s sweetheart Nadine Van der Velde) as the promiscuous one. She’d practically dragging young Zane up into the loft where she has prepared a sort of love nest, complete with 80s jams. Earlier, when Pa learns of his daughter’s new New York city boyfriend, he quickly asks his wife if they’ve had the talk on “how things are.” Jeez, I can only imagine what that talk as about consider sister Brown’s later behavior. But hey, who am I to judge the phenomenal romance of teenage love?

As far as horror movies go. I do not think this is such. This wasn’t horrifying. Even the going into the basement scary scene wasn’t really scary. It’s hard to be scared with Gremlin sized furballs cracking jokes in some strange intergalactic language. That’s not to say Critters wasn’t good. Critters is actually a fun movie to watch. The characters are not deep or complex, but their motivations are easy to understand and thus we do not have to invest a lot of brain power with them. Just as with the plot, though seemingly complex with the beforementioned space opera, it’s actually an oversimplification of several movies that came out in the space of 1986. Critters is without a doubt “Gremlins on acid,” it’s also got a touch of The Terminator with the machine-like bounty hunters and the garb they wear. And director Stephen Herek (director of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is not shy poking fun at ET. There’s a great scene with one of the Krites talking with a stuffed ET doll, yelling “Who are you!” And then ripping the doll’s head off. Looking back at Herek’s resume, it’s easy to see that he is mostly a fan of light hearted-humored movies. He wants to have fun and that mood is clearly carried throughout the film.

One of my favorite scenes involves Dee Wallace versus one the Critters that attack the family while they are retreating back into their house from the porch. The family gets back inside, and out on the porch one Critter turns to the other and warns that they “have weapons.” His Critter buddy replies, “So what?” Dee Wallace sticks out the barrel of her shotgun through the door and blows the “so what” Critter into goo. his buddy turns to his dispatched friend and screams “Fuck!” in his own intergalactic language, shown to use again by that marvelous closed captioning. It’s little moments like this sprinkled throughout the movie that makes Critters fun and funny to watch.

Oh, I also forgot. This town, as the sheriff (played by the fantastic M. Emmet Walsh) was quick to say, is a circus, and just like any good or decent circus, it comes complete with its very own town drunk/alien conspiracy nut/minor-leaguye baseball washout by the name of Charlie (played by Don Keith Opper). Charlie is quick to predict the arrival of the aliens, either by the feelings in his fillings or by dumb luck, the latter more like, and fumbles his way throughout the entire movie, stepping up at the very end by lofting a molotov cocktail into the alien spacecraft, destroying it and the creatures inside, thus saving the day. What I liked more about the end was the utter “fuck you” given by the Krites as they attempt to flee, firing a laser on the American Dream, portrayed in this movie with the Brown’s farm house, blowing brick and wood and shingles to smithereens. It’s usually in moments like this when I begin to formulate any possible meanings or questions the movie and or director are trying to convey. Seeing the destruction of the “American Dream” begs the question of what’s most important to us, was the “Dream” a lie all along? Was keeping the family together the most important part and that even when you’ve done everything right you will not necessarily get to ride off into the sunset?

Well…as I was pondering these questions I had believed the movie was asking, the preverbal reset button was pushed and the house rebuilt itself via a device given to Brad as a “thank you” from the aliens. In seconds, the house is restored to its original glory. Watching this and then seeing the credits roll I was left somewhat dumb stuck. Did the director just punk me, as I image he punked countless over movie reviewers before me? Maybe.

Regardless, Critters is certainly a classic film, one that kids of the 80’s without a doubt share in email and threads on social media as one of those flicks that defined an era. The mood was lighthearted, and despite certain scenes with F-bombs being dropped, I’d say Critters is family friendly. Could they have upped the gore and blood and violence and made this sucker even more of a satire than what it turned out to be? I think I would have loved it even more! But the lack of blood and guts doesn’t deter me from enjoying some 1980s nostalgia.

My rating: 4/5

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmo, and his latest release, THE HOBBSBURG HORROR. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon) are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelor’s in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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Book in Review: FEED by Michael Bray

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Tyler Matthews is desperate for change. Sick of his life and plagued by alcoholism, he makes the decision to divorce his wife, sell everything he owns and travel the world to try and find focus and rid himself of his addiction. Eventually arriving on the sun-drenched shores of Australia and still plagued by his demons, he has spent all his savings and is facing the prospect of having to return to his old life.

It is here that he meets two men with an outlandish story about a horde of sunken drug money in an area known as the Devil’s Triangle – Australia’s answer to its Bermuda namesake and said to be the lair of a terrifying monster of the deep. Offered a share of the fortune if he helps retrieve it, Tyler agrees to go with the men to the location, skeptical and thinking only of prolonging his journey of self-discovery.

He will learn, however, that this particular urban legend is real, and they encounter a giant of the seas, the previously thought to be extinct Megalodon which makes its home within the area of the Devil’s triangle.

Barely escaping with their lives, the three men wash up on an isolated island – no more than a rocky outcrop with no vegetation, fresh water of food sources. As desperation to survive intensifies, horrifying decisions will be made that will illustrate how man is sometimes the most violent predator on earth and when left with no option will do anything, even the unthinkable, in order to survive.

You may or may not know this, but I’ve got a bit of a phobia towards ocean water. I don’t mind heading to the beach, especially Flordia’s white sand, clear water beaches of Pensacola. That’s not really the problem. The problem is the deep. Or better yet, what lives in the deep, what’s hunting in the deep. Perhaps blame for this phobia can be placed directly on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week specials I’d watched as a kid. Seeing those Great White’s launching themselves, razor teeth and all, up out of the water to snag a morsel of meat. I also clearly remember watching another show on either TLC or Discovery about an old fisher man’s tale about being out at sea and hearing a thudding noise against the bow of his ship. Taking a lantern (because this is late at night, mind you), the captain goes to investigate. Peering over the side of the boat he stares down at something he doesn’t quite understand, and then suddenly it dawns on him…he’s staring down at a giant eye, the looks at him, and then disappears back into the deep. Most likely, the tale was about the infamous Kraken, a so-called giant squid with massive tentacles. Nonsesnse, perhaps, but still…these were the emotions I carried with me while reading Michael Bray’s new book, FEED.

FEED starts off with the main character, Tyler Matthews, who, as the reader will quickly discover, is tired of his ho-hum ordinary life. To escape he must exsponge his controlling misses (soon to be ex-wife), his banal job (of which she helped him get as means of controlling him), and all his meaningless worldly possessions. Tyler is set on exploring the world. His separated wife seems to think he’ll just burn all his money on booze. I really enjoyed the go between here, between Tyler and Amy (the soon-to-be-ex). And you can see where Tyler is at this stage, that they’ve been here before, and how he had failed to purge his life in the past, succumbing apparently to her controlling ways. I found myself easily rooting for Tyler and relieved that he finally stood up for himself. The one thing that stood out as odd was the separation and divorce, and perhaps seeing how Bray is an English chap and I a mere American is the hang up here, but I was questioning how Tyler ended up with everything from the divorce. He sold all his possession. His house, car, everything. And kept the proceeds…or maybe I missed the part where they were going to split everything 50/50. Amy did confess to having an affair, which drove this separation and eventual divorce, but still…

Throughout FEED we’re able to jump from chapter to chapter into various perspectives. Moving to where the majority of the story takes place, Australia’s Devil’s Triangle, I enjoyed the early setup between Scott and his “buddy” Karl, in which Karl informs Scott of an old legend of sunken gold, the only problem being that there’s a guardian of the gold, a giant monster that lurks in the deep. Scott doesn’t believe his stoner buddy’s story but decides to jump in and take a look anyhow. Why not, right? He soon discovers his friend was right, but instead of telling Karl that there is gold down at the bottom, he simply resurfaces to tell him there was nothing but sand, marking the GPS coordinates so he can return later and keep the prize for himself. This was a fun little scene, setting up what will be the eventual motivator of the story, getting that gold, but also being shown that getting said prize will most likely cost something, something very dear more like, as Scott definitely senses something down there stalking him. Or was it just his imagination?

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Somewhere around here, we’re introduced to Nash, a very scarred, very “Ahab” trope character. His face and most of his right side of his body are in ruination. His flesh horribly drafted and pieced back together and over twenty years or so has healed in a not so pleasant on the eyes kinda way. Nash looking into the mirror is constantly reminded of what happened to him out in Australia’s Devil’s Triangle and has his heart set on revenge.

I don’t want to get into too many spoilers here. Understandably, reviews tend to reveal more than a few things about a book. Yet, we need to slow things down here, as around this point in the book, the pace begins to pick up. Needless to say, Scott returns to retrieve what he left at the bottom of Devil’s Triangle, and he brought his older, convict brother with him, Paul. I really enjoyed the go-between with Scott and Paul, and this highlights one of many awesome things about FEED, the dialogue is just about spot on, the reactions feel real, and the motivations, no matter how grotesque or horrifying, are justifiable. Even later on when certain characters are stranded on an “island,” which is basically nothing more than rock, with no food and no water. This scene with Scott and Paul also introduces us to the antagonist of the book, though Bray makes mention a few times, through his characters, that the shark is not malicious or anything, its particular species happens to be very dominate and very protective of its territory, and its territory so happens to cover the Devil’s Triangle. Due to the shark’s size, it needs to FEED quite often, which drives its more violent tendencies. Scott and Paul soon discover how real the legend is…

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Things progress, time goes on, and we catch up with Tyler in…you guessed it, Australia. He’s been all over the world now, adapted to his new lifestyle, and burning through his funds rapidly, mostly due to his alcoholism. He claims “near-alcoholism,” but come on, a spade is a spade. If Tyler wishes to continue his pilgrimage, he’ll need to replenish his bank account. And as fate would have it, he runs into the most unlikely of people, Nash and his son, Liam, as they discuss things over a few pints of bitter. He overhears their conversation and is quickly swept up in a bid for unimaginable riches. My only hang up here is how easily diving underwater seems. I liked the detail with the equipment, knowing the names of parts I’ll never look up, and though I’m not a “diver” myself, I would assume there would need to be some sort of training involved. I could be wrong here. I’ve only ever been snorkeling, maybe any joe schmoe can put on a wetsuit and some flippers and tread deep water. But regardless, this IS a detail easily ignored and doesn’t really effect the overall story. And so, Nash recruits Tyler to join him and his son, Liam, on a mission to get rich by finding the treasure left behind on the seabed of the Devil’s Triangle.

For the rest, you’ll simply have to read the book…

FEED works in many ways because it is and isn’t a traditional monster story. Sure, we’ve got the Megladon that is very protective of its territory. But we’ve also got a cast of characters that are not in the least two-dimensional. Tyler, the main protagonist, has his flaws, but he’s also very human and real and because of that, he is relatable. As are the many other characters, even the ones that don’t last very long on “screen.” Nash would be another great character I liked reading, a very “Ahab” prototype, hell bent on revenge, even at the risk of his own son and Tyler. Survival and the lengths we’re willing to go to survive are strong motivators of the story, some of which play out in very grotesque ways. This highlights that FEED isn’t just a story about a shark gobbling up people, in fact, for most of it, there are other predators and demons one has to watch out for. My own personal phobia of the ocean no doubt played into my reaction to the story Michael Bray has cooked up for his readers, but it also says something of the quality of the writing, to be able to play on those phobias, the isolation, and claustrophobia, the unknown aspects of what’s really out there in the black depths of the water. FEED is definitely a read fans of horror will not want to miss.

You can get your copy of FEED for $3.99 on Amazon!!

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bray

Michael Bray is a bestselling horror / thriller author of several novels. Influenced from an early age by the suspense horror of authors such as Stephen King, Richard Laymon, Shaun Hutson, James Herbert & Brian Lumley, along with TV shows like Tales from the Crypt & The Twilight Zone, his work touches on the psychological side of horror, teasing the reader’s nerves and willing them to keep turning the pages. Several of his titles are currently being translated into multiple languages and with options for movie and Television adaptations under negotiation for others, he will look to continue his growth as a full time professional writer long into the future.

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Creature Features in Review: PHENOMENA (1985)

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The further we get into this new series, the more I realize just how versatile creature features really are. I’m not afraid to admit, though I love the sub-genre, I kinda always pigeon-holed them as simple monster movies. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So far we’ve seen the echoes of Hiroshima through the lens of Godzilla. We’ve walked the mythological soil of Midian in The Night Breed and we’ve walked the eco-horror swamps in Frogs. We bunkered ourselves in Outpost 31 in The Thing. We witnessed the destruction of New York City in Cloverfield. We were chased by the Creeper in Jeepers Creepers. And we’ve witnessed the birth of a new species of humanoid insect in Mimic, not to mention the transformation of a lonely scientist into a fly in The Fly. In each and every one of these, we’ve discovered that they are not just simple monster flicks, there’s something else going on behind the scenes. And we’ve only just begun. This is March. The last review for Creature Features in Review doesn’t post until December. So, in the words of doomed Ray Arnold, “Hold on to your butts,” cause this show is just getting started.

PHENOMENA (1985)

Kim McDonald

 

The supernatural is a factor in many of Dario Argento’s films. SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, and MOTHER OF TEARS all deal with witchcraft and, in DEEP RED, a psychic senses a serial killer. In PHENOMENA, Jennifer Corvino, (Jennifer Connelly,) uses her unique ability to communicate with insects to solve the disappearances and murders of several young girls in a remote part of the Swiss Alps. Jennifer, the daughter of a famous actor, is sent to the Richard Wagner School for Girls and immediately begins having nightmares and episodes of sleepwalking in which she is able to psychically witness the murders.

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The film is confusing at times, and it gets hard to keep up with all of the jumping around, but it’s still a good story. It begins with a young tourist, (Fiore Argento,) who gets left behind by the bus in the countryside. She goes to a local house for help and is speared by the killer and decapitated by a pane of glass, a typical Argento death.

PHENOMENA borrows elements from SUSPIRIA. There is a voiceover as Jennifer arrives at the school, and she must explain a delayed flight made her late. The Headmistress, (Dalila Di Lazzaro,) seems to take an instant dislike to her, and all of the girls think she’s odd, except her roommate Sophie, (Frederica Mastroianni,) The area around the school is eerie. There is a constant high wind that supposedly has driven people mad. Jennifer is told it is known as “The Swiss Transylvania.”

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During her first sleepwalking episode, in which she sees everything glowing and finds herself in a hallway of doors, Jennifer wanders to the house of entomologist, Professor John McGregor, and his chimp Inga, who is fascinated by her gift. After the disappearance of Sophie, he encourages Jennifer to help him investigate the disappearances using a peculiar insect called The Great Sarcophagus, which is attracted to corpses. With its help, Jennifer finds the house of the tourist’s murder but is scared away before discovering the truth.

Jennifer’s behavior after Sophie’s death convinces the HeadMistress and other girls that she is bizarre. They gang up on her and she calls down a swarm of flies on the house. The Head Mistress convinced that Jennifer is an evil “Lady of the Flies,” tries to have her committed. Jennifer runs away to the Professor, only to find he has been murdered. She is taken in by a teacher Frau Brukner, (Daria Nicolodi,) claiming to have been sent by her father’s agent.

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Jennifer quickly realizes the Frau has it in for her and ends up finding her way into an underground tunnel where the Frau has been keeping her deformed and deranged son, Patau. In a scene reminiscent of POLTERGEIST, Jennifer falls into a pool of rotting corpses and has to claw her way out. She tries to escape by boat but is attacked by Patau and has to call upon her insect friends to save her. It is never entirely clear if Patau or his mother are the ones who have been killing the girls.

Sound is important in PHENOMENA, directed, co-produced and co-written by Argento. The sound of the wind and of the different insects are pronounced. He also uses shots from the insects’ multi-lense perspective. Along with music by The Goblins, Argento uses songs by Iron Maiden and MotorHead during the murder scenes. PHENOMENA is cited as one of Argento’s favorite films. Perhaps he felt like a misfit like Jennifer growing up. The story she tells Sophie about how her mother left is based on Argento’s life. Unfortunately, it is uneven and often confusing. The ending feels pulled out of nowhere. The audience is left not knowing who is the real killer.

kim

Kim McDonald is no stranger to Machine Mean, having reviewed for us during our Fright Fest series back in October, The Thing (1982). And we here at Machine Mean hope to have her back on again soon! Kim lives in Charleston and loves all things horror, especially foreign horror. Kim also publishes reviews for LOUD GREEN BIRD, tackling some of horror’s greatest treasures, giving readers a deeper retrospective and often introspective on films like “The Iron Rose,” “Baskin,” “The Conjuring 2,” “The Witch,” and much more. As you can see, she is no stranger to the art of movie reviews. You can follow Kim @dixiefairy on Twitter and you can follow her blog, Fairy Musings, here.

The Hobbsburg Horror…NOW AVAILABLE for purchase!

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Creature Features in Review: The Thing (1982)

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Thirty-five years. On June 25th, we will be celebrating thirty-five years since the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The review you are about to read, written by the incredibly talented William D. Prystauk, aka Billy Crash, not only the second half of the infamously awesome The Last Knock podcast, but also a teacher, director, screenwriter, and loving husband and friend, has carefully crafted what I believe to be the definitive review of The Thing. I’m glad Bill decided to take on this “creature feature.” For those who know me will be quick to understand, The Thing is by far my most favorite movie.  Not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite overall film in its entirety. From score to cast to dialogue and landscape to practical effects and most of all its unabashed fearlessness towards nihilism. Disney has spoiled generations of audiences by spoon feeding them a resolution to the conflict and the always dominant hero. But in The Thing, we are denied those expectations, wonderfully so. Not everything has to have a resolution. Not every story must end with the hero defeating the monster. Ambiguity exists in nature and thus should representation on screen, at least sometimes, right?

The Thing

by William D. Prystauk

Introduction

When I first saw The Thing on the big screen, I was overwhelmed by the oppressive nature of John Carpenter’s film as well as its mystery, music, cinematography, and remarkable special effects from Rob Bottin and company, as well as the gripping writing from Bad News Bears scribe, Bill Lancaster. Unfortunately, 1982 was a banner year for strong movies so The Thing didn’t make the final cut when it came to earnings, and Carpenter is supposedly still bitter about his film’s poor performance in theaters. Today, however, the film’s considered a masterpiece by many horror cinephiles, and rightfully so.

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This is not a Remake

Carpenter’s version is not a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World with James Arness playing the alien version of Frankenstein’s monster. In this case, the movie deviates from the original tale, “Who Goes There?” a short story spun by John W. Campbell Jr., and leaves fighting the creature to the military still deservedly basking in the glow of a post-World War II world right before the horrors of The Korean War. In the story, scientists resolve the alien issue, though Lancaster’s script calls for scientists and military veterans to try and figure a way out.

Carpenter stayed closer to Campbell’s tale with its shape-shifting monster and the paranoia it caused. The director chose to have a much smaller staff at National Science Institute Station 4 instead of a larger component of men, but he kept most of the major characters’ names. As for Campbell’s tale, it’s actually a bad read due to repetition (he must have referred to MacReady as being “bronze” a hundred times) and from a sad overuse of “to be” verbs. For his part, Carpenter and Lancaster made Campbell’s story shine like gold.

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Who the Hell Are These Guys?

For a science station, the men who work there don’t really fit the bill. Sure, Billings (Peter Maloney) is a meteorologist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a broader mind beyond his geology degree, Windows (Thomas Waites) serves as the radioman, lumberjack looking Clark (Richard Masur) handles the dogsled team, Nauls (TK Carter) feeds the crew, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) does his best to keep everyone healthy. The man who keeps the team in line is Garry (Donald Moffat), who for some reason has a six-gun strapped to his side with a gun belt to match and serves no other purpose than a security guard. Childs (Keith David) is one hell of a mechanic, who can obviously juggle boilers, tractors, and helicopters with ease. The pilots of the choppers are Vietnam vets Palmer (David Clennon), a stoner who one wouldn’t trust to fly a remote control whirlybird, and MacReady (Kurt Russel). Both men suffer from PTSD in their own way, and while Palmer socializes and engages in marijuana, MacReady isolates himself and indulges in scotch. The final part of the troupe is Blair (Wilford Brimley) and his understudy assistant, Fuchs (Joel Polis). At one point, Doc Copper orders Blair “… to start an autopsy right away.” In Campbell’s story, Blair’s a biologist, which makes sense for the movie version, but why would he be a master of autopsy? Since the dogs have no veterinarian, he may also play that role and could have performed necropsies on animals in the past.

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When witnessing the game room scene, it’s clear the men are often “standoffish.” Nauls, who a second ago was resting in his cot and watching TV with Palmer, plays pool with Clark. Windows fumbles with the newspaper from the couch, while Norris, Bennings, and Garry play poker. There’s no banter, no noise, and clearly no fun. It’s as if all these guys did something heinous and were sent to Antarctica to cool down for the “first goddamn week of winter.” Yet, they not only have handguns and shotguns at the ready, and at least one German rifle from a Norwegian, but they also have three flame throwers and dynamite. Doesn’t sound like a science station. Could it serve as some Cold War outpost? If so, this expansive complex can certainly support more men, and one wonders if abandonment of the facility looms on the horizon thanks to budget cuts.

The Thing Itself

The boogeyman in The Thing differs from the average creature feature antagonist. Each monster has a weakness, or so it seems, and once the human hero figures that out, the monster will be destroyed. In this case, the alien can replicate someone’s cells, absorb their language and mannerisms, and apparently the knowledge they have stored in their brains. Worst of all, it can seemingly infect anyone at any time (more about that later).

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Our intrepid crew doesn’t know which part of space the creature came from, but thanks to Norris, we know it’s ship crashed down onto the continent about 100,000 years ago. Beyond the being’s extensive hibernation, the ship proves to be a massive one, unlike the smaller craft in the 1951 film. What we don’t know is if this was a ship built by the Thing and his or her people, or if the creature got onboard and overwhelmed the entire crew with its cellular replication. Later in the narrative, we learn that the creature tries to recreate his craft on a smaller scale with the same look as the original. Since the Thing can absorb knowledge, and since we don’t know its age or where it’s been, this may be the optimal ship design it had discovered from its journeys across the cosmos.

Oddly enough, the creature ends up away from the ship on higher ground. This can certainly happen because the topography changed due to plate tectonics and maybe volcanism, but what did the Norwegian team actually dig up? If the creature crashed in Antarctica and went into hibernation after a short walk, it certainly didn’t overtake a human at the time. Too bad the Norwegians hadn’t filmed what this Thing actually looked like. But they did videotape the outline of the ship, and they unearthed the craft thanks to thermite charges. In the movie, one may think they blew up a massive hole the size of Rhode Island, but that would have displaced tons upon tons of ice and rock – and would have certainly registered on Norris’ seismograph at the station (there has to be one). The point is that MacReady and company, for some reason, land on a ridge above the ship and rappel down.

And once the creature thawed, it went to work on absorbing the Norwegians and its dogs.

The Other

The greatest element to the short story and both films is the element of “The Other.” As we discover in many science fiction and horror movies, the other is a xenomorph (“a strange form” by definition or an “alien” or “monster”) that either must be assimilated or destroyed. What is fantastic about this tale is both creature and human are “The Other.” Humans don’t belong in Antarctica and neither does that Thing. Since the “human others” can’t determine what the monster is, it can’t be assimilated and must be killed. The “alien other” wants to assimilate the humans, yet destroys them in the process.

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To see something like this in cinema is rare, though one finds such a human-xenomorph “other” combination in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The human component doesn’t thrive naturally in space, and though the alien creature comes off as the bad monster, the humans did bring this entity upon themselves in a “curiosity killed the cat” theme, though Jonesy lives to hiss another day. Unlike The Thing where destroy versus assimilate comes into play, Alien is all about kill or be killed.

Communication’s Down

Windows couldn’t connect with McMurdo (where he refers to the outpost as number 31 just like MacReady, instead of 4). The men of the station are in conflict about who should lead and who shouldn’t be trusted. But there is absolutely no communication between human and Thing.

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This horror turns into a cat-and-mouse game between human and alien. Yet, if the creature just wants to survive and escape in a ship, why didn’t it simply ask for help? When MacReady addressed the members of the camp and realized they all weren’t infected because they would have jumped him, why didn’t he ask what the creature wanted? After all, it’s a stranger in a strange land, and “probably not in the best of moods” after portraying a xenomorphic popsicle for too many centuries.

Without any women on the station, one may think the crew was being macho or stubborn, but the reason runs deeper than an emotional state and posturing, though both of those elements certainly exist in the narrative. Like the alien, the humans are also predators, and that’s why communication between them never took shape. It’s a fight to the end, pure and simple. Think of it as any competition where one squares off against an opponent – to the death.

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Even so, a little communication could have gone a long way, but that would have made for a different kind of film, and one that wouldn’t be worthy of review for this category. By the way, ET phoned home in 1982 on June 11, and Carpenter’s film came out two weeks later as Spielberg’s friendly alien continued to captivate little kids and their parents nationwide.

Getting Infected

This has been a point of contention for many The Thing fans: Who got infected when, how, and even why? A meme showed Blair tapping a pencil against his lips after the autopsy. Hmm… However, the answer is far simpler: They were all at risk of infection the moment they unwrapped the creature with two faces, akin to the theater masks of comedy and drama, looking outward with one connected tongue. Doc Copper in all his medical expertise asked, “Is that a man in there?” when he and MacReady dug up the monster and brought it home to infect everyone else. Clearly, no quarantine protocol was in effect.

When they unwrapped the frozen creature, with the heat of the room, water evaporated from the body and Blair backed off from the stench. After all, the Thing began to defrost once inside the warmer helicopter. Now, as MacReady proved later with another item from the book, that each cell was a creature on its own, who knows what flew into the air and made its way through the mouths and nostrils and into the lungs of the crew. Yes, some became infected (though we really don’t know when), and others did not (though we really don’t know why), but airborne infection seems to be just as likely as bloodborne in this case.

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Due to each component of the Thing being its own individual entity, this creature may be its own entire civilization. In 2015, Robin Corey, a biochemist, wrote that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, not including bacteria. This means that once the Thing takes over a human host, that can make for one hell of a population. Blair had calculated that we’d all be infected in 27,000 hours, which is a little over three years, but there’s an excellent chance that infection, or assimilation, would happen much faster.

The End

There are many more mysteries packed within Carpenter’s amazing horror, but that’s for another time. The important thing is to watch the film and become a prisoner like the others, trapped “a thousand miles from nowhere” without a radio, and a heavy storm that prevents anyone from escaping even on foot. This is what the horror genre is meant to be: isolated and frightening with a sense that there’s no way out.

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Carpenter tips his hand that there’s little hope for our characters right from the beginning. The opening shot after the credits is that of a sheer rock face. The camera lingers there as if to say it’s too foreboding and not scalable. We see the Norwegian helicopter flying over the rock as it heads towards its own doom, but it’s clear that our “science” crew won’t make it out of the station alive.

In the film, we’re left with a couple of characters waiting for what might possibly come next. We don’t know if one is infected or if either one of them is. We do know, however, that they’re both not infected because an alien greeting most definitely would have been different. And in the brownish light of a fiery night, the camera pulls back from the pair and we fade to black. In the television version, after the camera pulled back, we see a dog leaving the station, bookending the film in excellent fashion. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who was infected since all is lost.

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Thankfully, The Thing survived its poor and undeserved theatrical showing and keeps bringing the scares and incredible in-camera effects to new generations of horror fans. Whether you’ve seen the film once or a thousand times, keep your eyes peeled for the multitude of little mysteries that neither the characters nor the audience can answer (Who got to the blood anyway?). Revel in ambiguous horror that delivers on every level, including bottom end gloom from the renowned Ennio Morricone’s doom-ridden composition, and the excellent cinematography from one of the best, Dean Cundey. Carpenter created something for the ages, and for fans – human or otherwise.

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William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.

Keep up with Billy Crash’s many exploits by following his site!

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Creature Features in Review: Mimic (1997)

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During the 1990s it felt as if horror movies had descended into the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling, such as In the Mouth of Madness, or Jacob’s Ladder, or Candy Man, or even Freddy Krueger exploring the realm of mythology in New Nightmare. Some monster flicks kept to their proverbial roots. The payout, of course, is what typically happens with most creature features, when the directors, producers, screenwriters turn on the cheese factor and make the movie a satire, such as Arachnophobia or Gremlins 2 or The Faculty. Seldom do we find anything that’s actually haunting. Anything that makes us sit on the edge of our seats. Anything that forces us to watch even though we want to look away. The horror pickins are slim. There is one director, however, who, up until this point in his career at least, did not bow to cheese in order to make a monster movie. Of course, I’m talking about 1997’s cult hit creature feature, MIMIC, directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro. Before del Toro was pitting giant robots versus behemoth sea monsters, his work was subtle and carefully crafted, honing in on character building and turning on the suspense until the deluge spilled over into a wonderfully cataclysmic conclusion. Thus was the work of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and also what we get with Mimic.

Before we begin, here is a classic IMDB synopsis:

“Three years ago, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler genetically created an insect to kill cockroaches carrying a virulent disease. Now, the insects are out to destroy their only predator, mankind.”

Bravo IMDb, bravo. Yet again another astute generalization of one of my favorite creature features. You’re not wrong, IMDb, it just feels a tad oversimplified. For starters, if you’ve seen Mimic, but haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, stop now and go rent/buy/whatever you need to do to see this edition. Let me tell you, I was happy with the original version, but I LOVE this Director’s Cut. And sure, it really only adds about nine minutes or more of footage, but those added moments really help make the story shine all the better. I especially love the added bits at the beginning, the extended opening sequence that shows us this ravaging disease called Strickler’s, that is decimating a huge percentage of New York City children, and then we get Dr. Susan Tyler, played fantastically by Mira Sorvino . She genetically creates a new species of insect called the Judas breed. They target the city’s cockroach population, releasing an enzyme which causes the roaches metabolism to speed up and starve themselves to death. The Judas breed was created to be all-female with a short life expectancy. The last opening clip (from the Director’s Cut) shows Dr. Tyler releasing the Judas breed into the sewers. She kneels and watches as her “children” begin their work as she is stylistically swarmed by roaches. And a moment later we see a river of dead cockroaches and an announcement from the CDC that they have eliminated the “Strickler’s” disease.

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Cut scene. 

Fade to black.

Now we find ourselves three years after the release of the Judas breed. Just three years. What can happen in such a short span of time? Well, if there is any indication from the name of the insect, Judas, well…historically things have never really worked out with things named Judas. Not to mention any species introduced into the wild trusting that a genetic “all-female” plug will hold, I mean, haven’t these people seen Jurrasic Park? To quote Ian Malcolm, “Life will find a way.” And life certainly did find a way, as our scientists are soon to find out. After the fuzzy “all-is-well-with-the-world” moment, the movie opens again on a man being chased onto a roof at night in the rain. Here we get our first glimpse at what has become the Judas breed. Strange clicking sounds and an odd shadowy face and the outline of what looks like a man in a black trench coat. The movement of this mysterious “man” and the design are incredibly creepy, and no wonder, as legendary The Thing and The Howling practical effects master/guru Rob Bottin had a hand in the development of the creature.

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Let me stop here for a moment. I have a confession. Bugs freak me out. I think this is a well-known fact if you’ve read any part in my Subdue Series books you should know. I’m not sure why. I don’t recall being traumatized as a child, not with insects at least. The My Buddy doll my folks got me for Christmas is another subject entirely (thanks, Sis!). I think people have their own thresholds for fear. Some hate clowns. Others hate anything to do with eyeballs. Some teeth. For me, big nasty arthropods are what tickles my medulla oblongata (technically the amygdala, but medulla oblongata sounds cooler). Too many legs. Nightmare mouths. Multiple glass eyes. Ugh!!! And as the movie, Mimic, was so kind to point out in Dr. Tyler’s lab of horrors, certain species of insects can do some rather impressive stuff, such as certain warrior ants that even when injured will continue to attack. Wasps that turn prey into zombies. Spiders that lay eggs inside a host to be consumed as a snack when the babies hatch. It’s not evil in the sense of good or morality. There is no morality when it comes to insects. To quote another Jeff Goldblum line, “Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise.” And here perhaps is what trips my fear sensor the most, the absence of compassion, compromise, especially in something as large as what the Judas breed becomes.

Continuing…

Soon after the death of the man on the roof and some cut scenes of Dr. Tyler and her husband, Dr. Mann, and their on-screen hopes of becoming parents, solidifying again the overarching theme of Mimic, fertility, some well-meaning “hood-rat” children out to make a quick buck bring Dr. Tyler an “interesting” find they discovered below ground near one of New York’s many metro tracks. Dr. Tyler soon realizes just what this large bug really is. Though “just a baby,” as she says, the creature is as large as the palm of her hand. But Tyler isn’t alone in her lab. There’s a shape at the window, a mysterious “man” in a dark trenchcoat. Okay, pause. I have to once again give a nod to both Rob Bottin and the original author of the creature in this flick, Donald Allen Wollheim who came up with the short story, titled, “Mimic,” a first-person narrative about a dude who notices a strange “man” in a trenchcoat standing on the streets in his town but never says anything to anyone. Following the sound of screams, the narrator discovers the “man” dead in his apartment, but upon closer examination, he unveils that the mysterious “man” isn’t a man at all, but a large bug imitating a man. This, for me, adds to the creep factor here. Not only are we dealing with larger than normal insects, but we’re dealing with an insect that has evolved to “mimic” us.

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Stories begin to collide at this point. All leading back deep underground onto some abandoned metro tracks that would inspire curious urban spelunkers to explore. Dr. Tyler, Dr. Mann, officer Leonard (played wonderfully by Charles S. Dutton) and Manny (a father searching for his lost autistic son who “followed” the Judas breed into their underground metro hive). All these motivations would seem to make the movie feel too complicated, but in actuality, they add to the movie’s believability. That they happen upon each other, sure, could be a stretch, but otherwise getting a glimpse at their personalities and motivations actually benefits how audiences feel towards them. I wanted them to survive. There were no “villains” here. Even Dr. Mann’s doomed assistant, Josh (played by Josh Brolin), though kind of cocky and moronic, you don’t hate the guy and you felt something when he was killed off, fairly horribly I might add. All this was accomplished without a bunch of unnecessary backstory. At this stage in del Toro’s career, he had made a name for himself for interweaving likable heartfelt characters into his story, not through exposition, but dialogue and interaction.

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Mimic is not without some cheese. 

This is, after all, a creature feature. 

Whoever came up with the genius plan to get the old boxcar trolley operational is…a moron. Seriously. But, not altogether unrealistic. People come up with horrible ideas all the time. Consider the Shake Weight exercise dumbells. Yup. Someone thought that was a good idea too. No, though the trolley idea was moronic, it was not out of the realm of what someone in that situation would probably do. The real cheese for me was what the “King” Judas bug was doing at the end. But, let me explain the entry of this “new” character. Nearing the climax, we discover that part of the genetic code used to create the Judas breed came from a species of insect that has one male as the only fertile member of the colony. Of course, they had created the species as “all-female,” thus supposedly limiting the lifespan of the Judas breed exponentially. However, as fans of Jurrasic Park should know, “life finds a way,” and thus the species adapted. Part of the enzyme that gave Judas the ability to eliminate the cockroach infestation by accelerating the roaches reproduction rate, essentially burning them out, in turn, gave them the ability to mass reproduce at an alarming rate. Consider how in just three years the Judas went from cockroach size to human size, developing the necessary biology in order to grow. Reproduction, fertility and natural childbirth seem to be a motif in Mimic.

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Back to the cheese.

A big creep factor in this movie was the fact that these insects were not acting in any personal way. Insects do not have politics, remember. They simply…are. They do as their genetic makeup implies for them to do. They attack when provoked. They feed and breed for survival alone. There is no pleasure, “no compassion, no compromise (I’m telling you, Jeff Goldblum should have been cast in this movie as Dr. Mann).”  That said, in the end, the “King” Judas bug didn’t seem to be following the movies preestablished rules of insect politics. The “King” acted mightily pissed off. Before being mowed down by a subway car, that sucker “looked” like he wanted blood. Half-burnt, limping after Dr. Taylor. But, that’s just a small blip on an otherwise decent and definitely creepy creature feature flick. My only other “WTF” is the last line in the movie when Dr. Taylor and her bo Dr. Mann reunite, both are happy the other survived the subway fire that wiped out the Judas colony. Dr. Mann whispers in his wife’s ear, “We can have a baby,” or something to that extent. As the last line, this kinda has me in a loop. After everything they survived, the ordeal, that’s what he tells her? This, of course, brings the circle around regarding the theme of natural childbirth and fertility. But what did it answer? Or better yet, what question did it raise? Unnatural fertility will breed monsters? Seriously? Maybe I’m missing something.

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Regardless, Mimic was an excellent escape from the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling that seemed to dominate the 1990s. And Mimic was definitely one of del Toro’s best pictures if you ask me. This flick could have very feel come off as a cheap B-movie, it had the trappings for such a disaster, but it didn’t. Mimic came out as a genuinely creepy monster movie. If you haven’t seen this one, you need to, but be sure to watch the Director’s Cut. It’s only really nine minutes of added footage, but those added moments make the movie all the better.

My rating: 4 out of 5 

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

You can get Reinheit for $2.99 on Amazon!

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Creature Features in Review: Cloverfield (2008)

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Note: The below is written based on the assumption that you’ve seen Cloverfield. If you haven’t yet, go and see Cloverfield. Or be both spoiled and confused. Your choice.

I tried to resist the obvious pun. I really did. But I can’t do it. So, with apologies…

Cloverfield is a very odd beast.

Sorry.

But it is.

I mean, on the one hand, it isn’t, at all. Giant monsters have destroyed Manhattan Island since forever, after all. Like London, New York is one of those rare cities whose ‘centre of the universe’ mentality is actually somewhat borne out by reality (Tokyo is the other one that immediately jumps to mind, and oh, look…). So, I mean, of course, the aliens and monsters are going to start there. Why wouldn’t they? It’s where, as they say, the action is.

In that regard, Cloverfield is part of a long established tradition – none more trad, arguably, in the giant creature feature genre.

Similarly, found footage? It’s rare as a horror fan you’ll go through a month without someone complaining either on your Facebook feed or in a blog post about the ubiquity of the found footage movie and it’s disastrous impact on the genre – such complaints are almost a sub-genre themselves, at this point. Ever since the not-universally-popular-but-at-least-successful-and-then-somewhat-original Blair Witch Project rattled our tents and planted in our ears 17 years ago (yes, you’re old, get over it), seems like every indie wannabe superstar has been chasing that found footage Bigfoot, trying to recreate the magic. In musical terms, it reminds me of the rap/metal explosion that followed Rage Against The Machine – people trying to combine the same mechanical elements (hip-hop singer with a metal band) without the slightest clue as to what made Rage so damn special in the first place. Gifting the world Limp Bizkit and a million behind them that were even worse. Thanks, recording industry.

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But hang on, though, because we may just have stumbled over the point, there, while getting on our self-righteous nu-metal-bashing hobbyhorse (yeah, you were up here with me, don’t deny it). Because prior to Rage, there had been both Hip Hop and Metal (obviously), and both movements were, by ‘91, well established enough to have had mainstream successes, even while remaining musical subcultures as a whole. But aside from one-off songs like Aerosmith/Run D.M.C’s Walk This Way, nobody had thought to combine the elements – and certainly not in a fully functioning band unit, where neither style held obvious supremacy.

So, to finally get on topic, found footage movies weren’t unusual. Neither were giant creature features.

But a found footage giant creature feature?

That’s new.

And we might as well get this out of the way; one of the principle reasons it’s new is because it’s also an insane idea. If you’re making a giant creature feature in 2008 and wreaking Manhattan in the process, you’re doing it largely with CGI. However, if you’re making a found footage movie, especially with an in-fiction non-professional camera operator (as you are in Cloverfield) then you’re talking strictly handheld.

And to be fair, for your indie horror filmmaker, that’s an enormous plus, for the obvious reason that it’s dirt cheap. Slap cheap digital cameras into the hands of your actors, and then let loose the mayhem, and hilarity and awards ensue, right? And all the auto-focus fails, and blurry shots of the maybe-thing-maybe-person stalking or whatever, that all just adds to the atmosphere, right?

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Except, now, with Cloverfield, your shaky-cam is filming a skyscraper exploding, or your shutter speed is blurring the head of the Statue Of Liberty as it bounces down the street, or the autofocus is failing to decide which piece of the 200-foot monster to focus on.

And, of course, none of those things actually exist, outside of some computer whizzes laptop.

.That is what, frankly, blows my mind about Cloverfield, and why I wanted to write about it.

Because I do sometimes find myself wondering (outside of the total movie geek circles I am proud to inhabit) how many people really understand just what a staggering achievement this movie represents. I wonder if the average movie goer, benumbed as they must be by massive digital spectacles, fully appreciates how complex, how difficult, and how special Cloverfield is, in terms of what it achieves. How tough it is to integrate digital effects with handheld footage in such a way that the unreal appears so naturalistic that the only reason you know the creature isn’t really there is because it would be impossible to build.

It is, in the parlance of our times, fucking awe inspiring.

Of course, director Matt Reaves pulls every trick in the book to make it work. In 1975, a malfunctioning robot shark inadvertently forced Spielberg to the genius realisation that having the monster mostly be off camera made it WAY scarier, and while Reaves in a found footage format doesn’t have the luxury of cutting to the monster’s POV, accompanied by a John Williams score, we do see far more of the creature’s handiwork than we do the creature itself, in the scarred streets and skyline of the city. There’s also a return of the good old ground tremors from Jurassic Park, and a ton of similar tricks employed throughout to both build tension and, by happy coincidence, save money (another brilliant example is when the creature passes by the store our protagonists are cowering in – before it passes, the air outside becomes so full of brick dust and ash from a collapsing building that the monster itself is only heard and felt, not seen).

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It’s smart, savvy filmmaking, selling us on the scale and power of this thing without providing even a glimpse. Similar brilliance announces itself elsewhere in the storytelling. One of the central strengths of found footage is also its central weakness – you’re stuck with one perspective, one window on the world. This is compounded in Cloverfield by also ostensibly being unedited footage, the only cuts being when the camera operator turns the device off for some reason (during which segments we’re treated to bleed-through from the previous recording that is being overwritten – a cute device for delivering back story, albeit not one I’m convinced makes sense in a digital age – sure, a videotape would work this way, but digital files?).

Horror fans and writers will immediately grok to the appeal and strength of such an approach, but it can cause problems, not least when trying to transmit a sense of scale, or hints at a wider world response to events. There’s a superb moment where Rob, desperate to restore his mobile phone charge, runs into an electronics store that’s in the process of being looted. Our camera man follows him in, huffing and puffing (one of the funniest lines in the movie is his exclamation early on that ‘I don’t really do this running stuff!’) only to be pulled up short by the TV coverage. Via his camera pointing at the TV, we get a glimpse of how the news coverage is panning out, at least until he’s pulled away by his friends and off into the next part of the story.

Similar brilliant flourishes abound, from the camera perspective on the Brooklyn bridge as a tentacle (actually tail, we later learn) smashes into it, knocking the cameraman off his feet, to flickering or emergency lighting creating a dramatic, nightmarish strobe effect, to a brilliant sequence in the subway in which first the camera torch is employed, and later the night vision, in what is for my money one of the best jump scares of the last ten years – without cheating with some dramatic score or jump cut.

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And then there’s the creature.

The beast itself is on camera rarely – I’d bet less than five minutes of the total running time feature any glimpse of it, and most of that is exactly glimpses – a tale, an arm, and a stunning in motion underneath shot as our heroes plunge into the subway and the army engages in a fierce firefight. Even seen on the news footage or from the evacuation chopper, it’s partially obscured by buildings, or smoke, or just the trembling of the camera man. But in the closing minutes of the film, we’re finally treated to a full, uninterrupted view, and it’s just glorious – huge, organic, monstrous both in size and features, raining grotesque parasites – it really is brilliantly realized, the stuff of nightmares.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to recommend Cloverfield, and I think it’s a brilliant movie – or at least, near brilliant. There are some elements that don’t quite hang together, for me. There’s the technical stuff – I’ve already mentioned in passing how the ‘bleed-through’ of the old video footage only really makes sense in the analog age and given that mobile phone networks were disconnected across New York throughout 9/11, Rob’s suspiciously functioning mobile is, well, suspicious.

And as we’ve brought it up.. So, there’s the 9/11 thing.

Because prior to 2001, there were a lot of movies that indulged in disaster porn and specifically blowing up New York. And let’s be honest – it felt like good clean fun at the time. I vividly remember being utterly thrilled at the destruction of the Empire State Building and The White House in Independence Day when it came out – not even slightly in a ‘fuck America’ way, to be crystal clear, but in a totally generic ‘wow, big badda-BOOM!’ way.

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And I similarly vividly remember watching ID4 for the first time post-9/11. And it felt different. A lot less fun. Kind of a bummer, actually.

But, you know, historical artifact, innit? Like any seismic historical and cultural moment, there’s just a pre and post-9/11 divide in art, and you can’t judge one by the standard of the other.

Except then, there’s Cloverfield.

And it kind of explicitly plays with the imagery and atmosphere of that day. When the attacks first start, and all people can see is explosions, one of the voices at the party says ‘Is it another attack?’. The police evacuating people in the street, clearly well drilled in massive disaster response. The moment I talked about earlier, with the group hiding out in the store as the smoke and dust rolls past – that could almost be footage from the day.

Now, I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist, to be clear. This isn’t about what people should or shouldn’t be allowed to say or write or film. At the end of the day, the same rights that protect your right (hypothetically speaking) to be a racist fuckhole are the rights that protect me calling you out on your racist fuckhollery and telling others about it. That’s how it works, and, IMO, the only way it CAN work. Social change powers political change, not the other way around. So be the change you want to see in the world and all that.

So I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t make a piece of popcorn entertainment in 2008 that evokes the imagery of 9/11. Of course, you can. Equally, though, as Dr. Malcolm might say, it might be worth thinking about whether or not you should.

Not just because 9/11 was an event of global trauma, the repercussions of which are still shaping lives and getting people killed – though it is. But because… well, look – you can make a movie like World Trade Centre, which is a pretty straight telling of the events of the day. That’s one thing. But to take imagery and iconography from the day and chuck them into your, let’s face it, popcorn monster movie… well, it is, at least, a little uncomfortable, and at worst smacks of being tasteless, even exploitative.

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Again, to be clear, I’m not saying the movie shouldn’t have been made, or anything like that. And I can even sympathize with the filmmakers in some ways – with the found footage vibe, it’s all about verisimilitude, after all. And damn, now we’ve got real footage of what a demolished Manhattan skyline looks like at street level – how could you not use that information?  At the same time, as much as I like Cloverfield (and I do, a great deal) this aspect of the film always leaves me feeling a little queasy.

And you know what, that’s okay. It’s okay – healthy, even – to have ambiguous or conflicted reactions to art. It’s okay to like or even love a movie (or album, or book) even as it’s flawed make you sad, or angry, or uneasy. To climb back on the free speech soapbox one more time, that’s almost the point. Conversation, discussion, argument – that’s how we improve our understanding, refine our opinions, and yes, sometimes, learn something new that changes how we see the world or a facet of it.

Cloverfield is a very good movie, that for me edges on greatness (and in a technical sense, it is unambiguously great, I think). Far from flawless (aside from the above, the plot that drives the characters is as hack and obvious as it’s possible to be, and the actors, while solid, don’t quite manage to elevate that into something more), but the things it does well it does SO damn well that, especially first time through, it’s a total thrill ride of a movie, a classic popcorn rollercoaster.

And yeah, it’s a brilliant giant creature feature. Maybe even the best post-2000 one, what with the intelligent and expertly realized use of the found footage format and a brand new monster that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

And if parts of it make me uncomfortable… well, how bad is that, in the final analysis?

After all, beats the shit out of being boring.

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Kit Power is no stranger to Machine Mean. He was reviewed for us both The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the forever classic Monster Mash Pinball Game. And participated during Fright Fest with a review on Parents. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as the frontman (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as,GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can read Kit’s review of Bride here.

You can get Breaking Point, Kit Power’s newest release, for $2.99 on Amazon!

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BREAKING POINT – THE LIFELINE TRILOGY

A Cyclist is knocked unconscious on his way home and wakes up in a nightmare…
A devoted husband begins to suspect all is not well with his marriage…
A desperate family man, running out of time and options, turns to an old schoolmate from the wrong side of the tracks – looking for work – any work…
A young man’s world is thrown into chaos as his father is abducted…
Four tales of people pushed to BREAKING POINT.

For ‘The Loving Husband’ – “Gripping, compelling and utterly nerve-wracking.” – DLS Reviews.

For ‘Lifeline’ – “More savage than Rottweiler on meths with its nads caught in barbed wire.” – zombiekebab, Amazon reviewer.

“One of the best novellas I’ve had the pleasure to read.” – Duncan Ralston – Author of Salvage.

“a sliver of sheer brutality and nastiness that is unbridled.” John Boden, author of DOMINOES.

“Power gets splatterpunk in a way that few do.” – Bracken MacLeod, author of Stranded and Mountain.

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Creature Features in Review: Jeepers Creepers (2001)

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Maybe I’m a bumbling fool to have forgotten to post this most excellent addition to Creature Features in Review…or perhaps a certain kind of mad genius. For those State-side and for those abroad, our neighbors to the north and our neighbors to the south, from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and it’s not all that terrific), the world awaits the inauguration of our (America’s) 45th President. Controversy. Disunity. Anger. Resentment. Strife. Uncertainly. It all feels at the moment to seep from the fabric of our country. That hidden fear of the unknown, the same fear H. P. Lovecraft spoke of in his many works, has captured, or should I say strangling, our attentions. This same mood thrives in the electrical grid of most Creature Features, especially Jeepers Creepers. There may be some criticisms and creepiness surrounding the infamous director Victor Salva, but separating the art from the artist, Jeepers Creepers (for me) is a perfect example of a modern American gothic tale. You can literally watch this movie in black and white and still enjoy it, probably more so. The moral compass of puritanism and rational versus irrational is present throughout the entire film. And it’s one of Justin Long’s best performances. Here to help us navigate these precarious times and this very precarious movie is our esteemed guest writer, Chad Clark.

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By: Chad Clark

When Jeepers Creepers came out in 2001, the cinematic horror landscape seemed to be in an interesting place, and not all of it was necessarily good. My memories of this time period were of mainly reboots and PG-13 horror films. Other than Final Destination, there seemed to no longer be such a thing as horror franchises anymore and even in the case of FD, there had only been one installment. So it was within this environment that I was generally suspicious of Jeepers Creepers. The way it was marketed and the vibe I got from it was that this was just another glossy, hollow interpretation of what made horror movies great. I remember seeing ads for this while it was in the theaters but I wasn’t sold and gave it a pass.

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Spoiler alert: that was a mistake.

I finally took the plunge with Jeepers Creepers, via the newly created online rental company at the time, Netflix. There wasn’t any streaming, only waiting for the physical DVD’s to arrive in the bright red celebratory envelopes. I was skeptical but to be honest, the first half hour or so of the film is one of the best openings I have ever seen. It starts out so innocently with a brother and sister leaving for the long drive home from school. Before they can get there, the movie takes a turn for the dark side and they quickly find themselves the target of a powerful creature that they don’t fully understand.

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The monster in Jeepers Creepers is fantastic and it seemed like they took a lesson from Jaws in that we don’t see it in its full glory until late in the film. What is great though is that even seeing quick flashes of it early on, it’s still scary as hell. I love the image the brother and sister arguing and then the brother (Justin Long) sees this thing dumping what looks like human bodies down a huge pipe in the yard of an old church. By all appearances, it’s just a tall guy wearing an overcoat and a large, wide-brimmed hat, but the design of that costume is incredibly creepy and evocative.

The pacing of the movie is very well done as the monster proceeds to chase the two of them across a rural landscape. Along the way, they get some bits and pieces of information that may give them some insight into the thing and how powerful it is. But mostly, I think we just gradually figure out how screwed they really are. I can tell you this, before seeing this movie, I would have never guessed that the song, Jeepers Creepers would ever feel foreboding. That said, they managed to accomplish that very thing, to the point that I can’t help but think of the film whenever I hear that song.

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The movie also has some pretty good acting, something that is occasionally glossed over in the horror franchise as being less important. The cast of actors was pretty much unknown at the time but I thought they all managed to fit in together pretty well. This was especially true with the main players, in that they managed to create two characters that I genuinely cared about and rooted for.  It’s a cliché, but I felt like I was on the edge of my seat for these two all throughout the movie, all the way up to the ending, which was brutal and brilliant. I don’t want to give anything away but the movie ends with a slow zoom out to a point and a perspective that left me with my jaw hanging open. It really was that good.

I’m not normally a viewer who pays a lot of attention to things like costume and makeup but I thought they did a phenomenal job making the monster authentic and scary. In a world that was increasingly becoming about CGI, this was a monster that felt physically present and the makeup department did a great job bringing a feeling of grittiness and gore to the monster.

In short, if you are looking for a great example of the modern monster movie, I would definitely start with this one. Jeepers Creepers is a fun film that gives you all the visceral escapism that great horror movies should provide. I can’t recommend it enough.

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There is an elephant in the room here, namely that of Victor Salva. He was the director of Jeepers Creepers.  Salva was convicted early on in his career for child molestation. I am not going to go into the specifics of his crime. If you are already aware of it, I don’t want to take column inches rehashing common ground. And if you happen to be unaware of what he did, Google can get you there in less than a minute.

The reason why I bring it up is because it has been commonly argued that Salva’s movies should be boycotted. And I want to make sure one thing is clear before I go on to state my position on this. I think that what Salva did was despicable. In no way would I ever want to imply support for or endorse that kind of behavior. I want to make sure that is absolutely clear before I move on. I also believe that he should have received a harsher punishment. The sentence passed down by the court was laughable and that doesn’t even take into consideration that he didn’t serve the full sentence that he was given. I think that a reasonable case could be made for not allowing him to work in movies, mostly due to the fact that he used his power and position as a film director in order to do the things he did.

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All that said, he was convicted in a court of law and he served the sentence that was passed down to him by our judicial system. I don’t think that this was right. I don’t think it was justice. And I absolutely support the victim and everything he does to try and make himself healthy again.

Still, I cannot bring myself to support the notion of a boycott, and my reasoning is as follows.

If there was a way to financially hurt Salva and only him, I think that would be one matter. But the fact is that when you were talking about a big budget Hollywood film, we aren’t talking about just Victor Salva anymore. There are literally hundreds of people employed in the process of developing and releasing a feature-length film. Obviously, there are the actors but also all the individual departments that are responsible for the physical look of the film as well as the process of filming. You have the people who spend countless hours with the actors in their studios applying makeup and costumes. There are the people who take the time to set up and dress the sets, keeping things in motion as production moves along. There are the musicians who develop a score for the film, one of the most important parts and record all of that music. Even the caterers who provide food and the marketing firms who promote the movies. There are a lot of people here.

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I have always thought that directors got a little too much credit for what ends up on the screen. They function as an organizing force with a global perspective, but there are a lot of different people who work hard at the ground level to make that finished product. The director is responsible for the totality of the thing but it is rarely their hands actually on the product, crafting it. So if I felt like a boycott would be destructive to Salva and only Salva, I might be more inclined to go along. But because of the countless other people who worked their butts off in order to create this film, I can’t support it.

Jeepers Creepers is a brilliant film, and my compliments go to all the cast and crew that dedicated themselves to the creation of it.

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Chad Clark is a frequent flyer here on Machine Mean. He has reviewed for us before with commentary on House of Dracula (1945) and House of 1000 Corpses. Mr. Clark is a midwestern author of horror and science fiction. His artistic roots can be traced back to the golden era of horror literature, Stephen King, and Robert McCammon being large influences. His love for horror began as well in the classic horror franchises of the eighties. He resides in Iowa with his wife and two sons. Clark’s debut novel, Borrowed Time, was published in 2014. His second novel, A Shade for Every Season was released in 2015, and in 2016 Clark published Behind Our Walls, a dark look at the human condition set in a post-apocalyptic world. His latest book, Down the Beaten Path, released in September 2016. You can keep up with all of Mr. Clark’s works by following him on Amazon here.

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