SHUnlike the cartoon I reviewed in last week’s post, this isn’t a simple adaptation of the Washington Irving story. It’s a “reboot” (although I don’t think that term was used in that sense in 1999) directed by Tim Burton, the go-to director for weird horror-comedies. 

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now not a school teacher, but a police detective, investigating a series of murders committed in the town of Sleepy Hollow, supposedly by the Horseman. Brom Bones (Casper Van Dien) is just a mook who gets killed off early on. Katrina (Christina Ricci) is still a wealthy farmer’s daughter, but she also becomes Ichabod’s sidekick in solving the “mystery.” 

Okay, I put mystery in quotes because there’s some tangled conspiracy where, for some reason, Katrina’s stepmother Mary (Miranda Richardson) has summoned the ghost of the Hessian soldier to avenge her family and also kill off a bunch of people relating to some land dispute among the families of the region.

And this is where I have to stop the review and say that if you’ve written a story about people who have summoned demonic ghosts from Hell in order to win some petty Hatfields-and-McCoys feud over who owns a piece of land, you should stop and think very carefully over whether this makes any sense whatsoever. The Headless Horseman is supposed to be the spirit of a soldier seeking revenge for his death in a strange and foreign country, to which he most likely was sent against his will.  He is not some hired gun to be enlisted for the purpose of settling real estate disputes.

This cheapens the Horseman irrevocably, and turns him into nothing more than a Final Boss that Johnny Depp must defeat by finding the right McGuffin. Not good, not good at all. The Headless Horseman is literally a part of the haunted, bewitching landscape of the glen, with its dreamy atmosphere and pervasive sense of history. He must be treated as such; not as something which can be controlled or seduced—no, not even by you, Miranda Richardson!

MR SH

You’ve probably figured out by now that I don’t like this movie, and you’re right. I wanted to like it. It’s creepy; it’s got a macabre sense of humor, and it has a great cast. I’m not a huge Depp fan, but look at some of the supporting players! Besides Richardson, you’ve got:

-Christopher Walken is the Horseman. Walken is a great actor to play villains and a famed cinematic weirdo. His performance is fine, but the Headless Horseman is not a villain! He’s a spirit! A dream! An embodiment of the unknowable and mysterious rift in the fabric of time and reality itself that seems to exist in the haunted region! Not bloody Max Zorin!

As if that weren’t enough, we also have not one, not two, but three Sith Lords:

-Ray Park is the Horseman during action/stunt sequences. He’s most famous as the guy who played Darth Maul and participated in one of the best cinematic duel sequences ever. His talents are used to minimal effect here.

-The late, great Christopher Lee as the Burgomaster. I forget what he does or why he’s there or what a Burgomaster is. (Maybe it’s what you do before you become a Count, since this was shortly before he appeared as Count Dooku in Star Wars. ) This is indicative of the problem with this film: you have Christopher Lee, legendary melodramatic villain, veteran of Hammer horror, contemporary of Vincent Price, and you waste him in a throwaway role. 

-Ian McDiarmid as the town doctor. “Hey, let’s get the man who played evil emperor Palpatine, the iconic arch-villain in the most famous film series of our time, and have him do absolutely nothing in a bit part!”

I hate it when talent gets wasted, and this movie is like a monument to wasting talent. There are so many good elements here that could have worked, but they didn’t because they weren’t used correctly. It’s supposed to be a ghost story, but the ghost isn’t scary when you know he’s just a goon who can be employed as mafia-style muscle. What we’re left with is a bunch of grisly murders committed for vague and emotionally-uninteresting reasons. 

Oh, one more thing—because let’s face it, I’ve got to get on my hobby horse—this film is a forerunner of the now abominably-common practice of making all movies set in the past in hideously washed-out shades of blue-grey. Look at this:

Sleepy Hollow 1999 washed out2

Ugh.

Well, that’s all for now. Remember this image though for next week, when we conclude the series, hopefully on a better note.

Colors of the DeadI picked this book up after Kevin Brennan blogged about it. I assumed it was about a planet of zombies or something. I don’t like zombie stories much, but I figured I’d give it a whirl.

My initial impression was kind of off. I was picturing explorers being chased by zombies on a remote planet, and that’s not exactly what happens. There are space explorers, and there are zombies, and there is a remote planet… but it all combines in a surprising and interesting way.

What really stands out to me about this book are the characters: the space explorer Derek Rain, leading an expedition to the distant world of Draconis IV. His girlfriend Lydia Torch back on Earth, trying to cope with the guilt she feels after surviving a horrific space exploration accident of her own. A young orphan boy named Kito being raised by nuns. Prisha, the sister of one of Rain’s expeditionary crew, stuck back on Earth caring for her elderly mother.

Each of these characters’ threads gradually draw together, beginning with Rain and his crew making an unsettling discovery on Draconis IV. Soon, apocalyptic events begin to erupt back on Earth. I wasn’t entirely off-base with my assumptions about this book, and there are some gory zombie apocalypse scenes. There are really two different styles of horror here: the undead-armageddon scenes on Earth and the Alien-esque sense of isolated dread on Draconis IV. There’s also another sequence in the desolate badlands of Earth that has a vaguely Mad Max feel to it. 

The plot is perfectly-paced, with tension escalating in every chapter, and the different strands of the story are expertly balanced. I could picture the action unfolding as I read, and I found myself feeling almost as though I were watching a movie. 

Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say the ending struck just the right note–a satisfying resolution that also leaves the reader pondering what comes next. And it even raises some existential and philosophical questions to think on, in the vein of classic Arthur C. Clarke-style sci-fi.

Now, as I said, I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre in general, and some of the violent and gory scenes I could have lived without. Not that they were bad; just not to my taste. But the story and characters were so good I could deal with it. And fans of that brand of horror will undoubtedly find this story a real treat. 

Simply put, this is a fantastic book. It has great characters and a magnificently constructed plot. Fans of horror, science-fiction and action-adventure alike can all find plenty to enjoy here. It deserves to be widely-read, and frankly, I’d love to see it adapted for the screen. In addition to Alien and Mad Max, it also had parts that evoked Predator, Jurassic Park, Annihilation and The Mummy. It’s an absolute masterpiece of sci-fi horror.

Summer's OverI’ve had this book on my TBR list for some time, but it was Lydia Schoch’s review that motivated me to read it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long—this is a fantastic collection of creepy short stories centered around California amusement parks.

Let me give you an idea of the strange and disturbing worlds the book presents: There are cultists who ride roller coasters. There’s a creepy family of Disney fanatics trailing people around Disneyland. (I may be in the minority here, but I think almost everything about Disney is creepy anyway, so this seemed quite plausible.) A trip to Knott’s Berry Farm and an attraction that transports visitors into an apocalyptic nightmare. A young man whose father takes him to a mysterious section of Seaworld with a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour. And finally, an opening day at Universal Studios that takes immersion in the world of movies to an extreme.

All the stories are short and engaging, with narrators who are instantly interesting and relatable. There is a smattering of typos, but nothing that obscured the meaning or detracted from the story.   

These are exactly the kind of short horror tales I enjoy: weird, mysterious, eerie and—with the exception of the Universal Studios one—not too gory. Think The Twilight Zone and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. While the stories are short, I felt each one gave me a good sense of who the characters were, while leaving a bit of a mystery to ponder as well.

Highly recommended for fans of weird fiction. And now is the perfect time to read it!

I’ve talked before about the story that first made me love horror–the “Wishbone” children’s adaptation of Sheridan le Fanu’s Green Tea.  But there was another book I got for Halloween that same year that was probably just as important: Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe.

Bunnicula is the first in a series of children’s books. All the books are narrated by “Harold,” a pet dog whose owners find a small rabbit at a cinema showing of the original Dracula film–hence the name. Harold sees Bunnicula as simply a sweet little bunny, but the family cat, Chester, begins to suspect there is more to the little creature when he finds vegetables lying around the house, strangely drained of their juices.

Chester comes to believe that Bunnicula is a vampire, sustaining himself by draining the vegetables. Harold believes his friend simply has an over-active imagination. Throughout the series, the major conflict is between the practical Harold trying to keep the peace, and Chester, who sees, or thinks he sees, supernatural danger lurking everywhere.

Yes, these are books for children, and they’re not even meant as “scary” books for children–they’re just humorous tales that reference classic horror tropes. But even though it’s a children’s series, it has some concepts that I love. The opening of the first book: a showing of Dracula, in an old movie theater on a rainy evening, is a perfect beginning for a scary story. And it was never settled whether Bunnicula really was a supernatural being, or if it was all in Chester’s imagination. Even when the conflict gets resolved, there are differing explanations as to why. Chester always has his own idiosyncratic reasons for ceasing to threaten Bunnicula.

Oh, and there’s also a dachshund who might be part werewolf later in the series. That in itself is a brilliant concept.

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Look at this–it’s almost like a Hammer Horror film poster!

But I think the illustrations by Alan Daniel are the biggest part of what makes the series so good. They are done in a realistic, sketch-like style that feels grittier than the tone of the writing–in a good way. The whimsical prose works well with the serious sketches. (Admittedly, it might also be due to my personal memories as well–when I see those drawings, I turn back into a nine-year-old boy reading by himself at the library on a gloomy autumn night. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.)

While looking up the relevant facts about Bunnicula for this post, I discovered that it has been adapted into a series on the Cartoon Network. I have to say, I don’t care for the style of those drawings. Not that they’re bad, and indeed the series may be fine on its merits, but to me, a key thing about Bunnicula is how normal, even mundane, the basic setting feels. The inherent weirdness of a vampire rabbit has to be balanced by ordinary and unremarkable circumstance.

I vividly remember when the family dentist asked nine-year-old-me what I was reading and I answered: “A book about a vampire rabbit.” “That sounds weird!” he exclaimed in reply. He was a nice guy, but pretty conventionally-minded, and I think the idea of a vampire rabbit was just too crazy for him. I think I recall this so clearly because it was the first time in my life that someone wrinkled their nose at me and said, with a mix of incredulity and suspicion, “Why are you reading such weird stuff?” (Unsurprisingly, it was not the last.)

I hadn’t thought about it in twenty years, but I’ll bet you Bunnicula was where my love of weird fiction started.

I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.

It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)

The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.

This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.

My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.

Thoughts?

It_Comes_at_Night
Poster for “It Comes at Night” (Image via Wikipedia)

It Comes at Night is a highly misleading title for this film. Actually, everything about the marketing campaign is misleading. It’s not really a traditional horror film at all. Aside from a few disturbing images and jump scares, its primary focus is horror of the psychological and atmospheric sort, rather than any physical monsters.

Of course, this brand of horror is very much to my taste. The most frightening things, I’ve always believed, are not what we see, but rather what we imagine. Ultimately, the root of all horror is the unknown, because in it the human mind traces all the most terrible threats.

And from this, it should follow that It Comes at Night would be a truly terrifying film after all, because it certainly provides the audience with plenty of unknowns. But in spite of that, it’s not as scary as one might expect.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll begin by summarizing the plot–don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know the spoilers.

(more…)

thingprequelfairuseI have a tradition of watching a horror movie around Halloween.  This year, I selected The Thing because Joel Edgerton is in it, and I’ve thought he is one of the best actors around ever since I saw him in Jane Got A Gun earlier this year.

The Thing is a prequel to a 1982 film of the same name.  I haven’t seen that one, but from what I have read, the plots of the two films are the same: a team of researchers in the Antarctic are terrorized by an alien life-form that can disguise itself as a human being.

It is a strong setting.  The isolated Antarctic has potential for an eerie atmosphere, and the shape-shifting monster attacking the trapped team could have made for a tense, Alien-like horror picture.

I say “could have” because it squandered its potential.  The biggest flaw was the wildly inconsistent behavior of the monster. It would attack people, replicate them exactly, and seemingly copy all their memories and knowledge. Sounds pretty smart, until you realize that in its normal form, The Thing was powerful enough to just wipe out everyone there with brute force.

Also, it was a major plot point that The Thing could only copy organic material; not artificial stuff like fillings in teeth.  Again, this was a cool idea, but it was completely contradicted by the fact that The Thing apparently could copy the clothes its victims were wearing, because whenever it appeared in disguise as another human, it was always dressed identically to the real person prior to their demise.

None of the characters were especially memorable–Edgerton’s was probably one of the better ones, but that may have just been because he was the only actor with whom I was familiar. The heroine of the movie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is not bad, but the script is muddled as to whether she is supposed to be just a regular scientist fighting to survive or an Ellen Ripley type of character.

In the end, The Thing suffered from the most common problem in all horror fiction: it showed the monster too much, instead of relying on characters and atmosphere to create a mood of fright and tension.