Friday, October 24, 2014

7 Days 'Til Halloween: And the autumn moon is bright (The Wolf Man)

It’s a special Halloween-inspired edition of the 1001 Movies Blog Club, reaching back into the vaults for a horror icon from Universal's monster movie glory days: 1941's The Wolf Man. Despite my early efforts as a lad to familiarize myself with the classics, I had never seen The Wolf Man before this month. Blame the limited availability of home formats of the film when I was a kid, and the ever-ready excuse of limited availability of time in my adulthood. But the omission has been corrected, so let the reviewing proceed!

The interesting thing about The Wolf Man, to my mind, is that on the one hand it is usually thought of as part of a triumverate of archetypes along with Dracula and Frankenstein, but on the other hand if you start to break down the stories and the characters, The Wolf Man really follows its own path. That shouldn't be surprising, all things considered, especially source material: Dracula and Frankenstein both originated as novels written in the 19th century, whereas The Wolf Man jumps straight from werewolf folklore to screenplay in the 20th. If Curt Siodmak, who penned the film, was trying to craft a Gothic companion piece to the tales of the vampiric count or the mad scientist and his unholy creation, he did so only by preserving the elements of setting and a few key plot points, while subverting almost everything else.

Maybe the most telling difference is that while Count Dracula and Victor Frankenstein are decidedly European figures, Larry Talbot is American. Sure, he's the heir to an estate in Wales, where the entire movie takes place, and his father (played exquisitely by Claude Rains) is the lord of the manor, but Lon Chaney Jr. was from Oklahoma and plays prodigal son Larry as aw-shucks as he possibly can. Larry Talbot is (mostly) likable and relatable, and his non-lycanthropic struggles come down to pining for the girl next door who happens to already be engaged, and mending his relationship with his father after the tragic death of his brother. He's not a symbol of old world superstition, or the menace of unchecked and voracious sexuality, or the folly of hubris in the name of science. He's a regular guy, trying to find his way and maybe win the lady's love. He has no idea that his own story is going to become a tragedy.

And neither does the audience, at the outset, nor are we given any clues. I feel like I can't state this enough: Larry doesn't do anything wrong. He's a bit unserious, and a little aggressive and entitled in his initial pursuit of Gwen Conliffe (cultural mores have changed since the 40's, so what seems stalkerish to modern eyes is probably meant to be charmingly confident and essentially harmless). Ultimately Larry finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he and Gwen and Gwen's friend Jenny go to have the fortunes told by a gypsy (Bela Lugosi!), who unbeknownst to them has the curse of the werewolf. The gypsy transforms and attacks Jenny, and Larry rushes to her aid. Too late to save Jenny, he beats the wolf to death with his silver-headed walking stick, and is bitten during the fight. There's no real insinuation that Larry was too late coming to Jenny's aid through any punishable fault of his own, and the killing of the gypsy werewolf is treated as a mercy. Nevertheless, Larry is cursed, and becomes an unwitting and unwilling killer before finally being set free by death.

That makes The Wolf Man much more of a horror story than Dracula or Frankenstein, both of which are essentially morality plays in which events unfold but no one really undergoes growth or change, until inevitably evil is punished. Horror stories scare us because they imply that bad things happen for no real reason, and therefore could conceivably happen to us. I have never experimented in the realms beyond death where man was never meant to meddle, nor have I sold my soul to become a blood-drinking immortal. But could I be bitten by a wild animal while trying to help someone? If so, I could end up paying a disproportionately high price, and that is the genuine stuff of nightmares.

The sets used in The Wolf Man are all very Hollywood, but I think that actually serves the movie well in this case. Stepping away from the literal story about a man who becomes a savage beast, The Wolf Man is really a psychological drama about a man who feels he's losing touch with himself, or outright control over himself, and fears the uncertainty of the future. Most of the daytime shots are interiors, where everything is framed in straight lines, and the scenery stays properly out of the way. The nighttime exteriors, on the other hand, are chaotic, with dry-ice fog constantly swirling around the actors' feet, and gnarled tree trunks and branches making the spaces feel more claustrophobic, often interposing dark snaking shadows between the camera lens and the actors. It's a fantastic dichotomy that underlines the inner turmoil and mental tug-of-war Larry is going through.

And of course it's Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance as Larry that really makes or breaks the film. Despite the fact that he's the tallest, most broad-shouldered actor in the ensemble he projects such intense vulnerability and desperation that the woeful tale of his brief, terrifying time as a werewolf is heart-wrenching. The horror buffs who wrote the books I devoured as a kid praised Lon Chaney Jr. for the sheer mental and physical endurance it took to have the werewolf makeup applied, only to then skulk and lurch across the movie sets in an animalistic gait that sold the concept completely, but while all of that praise is deserved I think it shortchanges the humanistic acting the man delivered as Larry Talbot, the reason we care in the first place. Whichever side you come to the movie for, the wolf or the man, it's unlikely you'll walk away disappointed.

Fight Club Friday! (4)

- Hey, even the Mona Lisa's falling apart.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

8 Days 'Til Halloween: Grandma’s coat closet

(I am cheating and back-filling a Thursday post. I spent Wednesday and Thursday of this week at home with my 6-year-old and 3-year-old, both of whom had varying symptoms which were later either lab-confirmed or professionally-suspected to be strep. They're both on antibiotics and on the mend now, but they were kept home for two days for overabundantly cautious quarantine. Wednesday they were both able to abide by the "keep still and rest here watch some movies" rules but on Thursday it was obvious they both felt fine and needed to tear around the house. Hence, I can only make batter-late-then-never blog amends here and now.)

One of the vivid memories from my youth which illustrates the general principle that kids are dumb enough to be their own worst enemies (and believe me, my childhood recollections may be spotty but those particular stripe of self-recriminations are in seemingly inexhaustible supply) is set during a visit to my grandmother (on my mother's side) who often took Little Bro and I for a week in the summer for no reason other than to give our parents a bit of a break. Grandma's house was not particularly big, nor was it located someplace cool like on a beach or near an amusement park of whathaveyou, and we never befriended any of the other local kids, if there even were any. (NB: this story references my paternal grandparents.) Grandma would make up for the lack of environmental entertainments by straight up buying us new toys to keep us occupied for the week. And one year, my brother chose a small glow-in-the-dark plastic skull filled with rubber creepy crawlies.

I couldn't say why he made that particular selection at the toy store that particular visit. It just struck him as cool and fun, I imagine. It wasn't specifically associated with any name-brand toy line, just a generic cheap novelty that my grandmother was willing to indulge him in. So into the cart and back to grandma's it went.

My grandmother's house had a large walk-in closet on the ground floor which was used mostly as a coat closet, as well as a storage place for the numerous puzzles and board games that my uncles had collected over time. It was a square room, small but still spacious enough that Little Bro and I could both step in and close the door and stand in the center without touching each other and without touching any of the coats, either. Since it was enclosed and windowless, it seemed like a good place to test out just how glowy the glowing skull really was.

So we went into the closet and closed the door turned off the light. I was the one holding the skull, doubtless having invoked some nebulous form of big brother privilege, the upside for Little Bro being that he could just stand back and appreciate the spectacle. And for some reason it got into my head that I should hold the skull up and make it nod while giving a menacing laugh, there in the pitch black depths. Which of course freaked Little Bro OUT and in no small measure freaked me out, partly because Little Bro's reaction was so immediate and terror-filled but also just in and of itself, the nodding glowing floating skull laughing at both of us, even though I was the puppet-master behind it, it still evoked some primal fear of things that could come out of the dark and get us, gloating and snickering all the while.

For a brief horrifying second Little Bro and I were both so freaked we couldn't even find and open the doorknob to get back out of the closet, but then we were back in the sunlit living room again, crisis averted. Still, the self-inflicted mental wounds had been dealt. The scars are relatively tiny today, but they're there, thanks to a dumb kid who liked a good scare a little too much.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

9 Days 'Til Halloween: Genre rules (Green Lantern Annual)

I would be a bit remiss if I let an entire month-long countdown go by and didn't at least try to tie one geeky Wednesday post in to my favorite comic, Green Lantern. Of course, when the protagonist of a heavily sci-fi influenced series has a weapon so advanced it can do just about anything, it's hard to tell a proper horror story. Nonetheless some writers feel compelled to try (or are so compelled by editorial fiat). And thus I turn to Green Lantern Annual #7, from the summer of 1998, when all the DC Comics annuals were united by a storyline entitled GHOSTS, and heroes were forced to confront physical manifestations of their failures, as represented by unquiet spirits of old friends (or sometimes enemies) who had died.

Of course, in superhero comics death is something a revolving-door proposition, so on some meta-level it was almost as if DC were pulling out a bunch of references in order to say "Look! Here's some characters who died and actually stayed dead and can slot into stories about revenants and bad memories!"

In the case of Green Lantern circa the late 90's, it was even more complicated. The whole title had been retooled around 1994 or so with a massive housecleaning involving foremost GL Hal Jordan going crazy, wiping out the rest of the thousands of aliens in the Green Lantern Corps, and then disappearing (presumed dead), which allowed Kyle Rayner to then step up as the sole inheritor of the GL legacy. All well and good, but by 1998 they had already started playing around with bringing perennial favorite Hal back, and in fact when the GHOSTS annual was published, the regular monthly series was in the middle of a storyline where young Hal traveled forward from the past to hang out in a world that had buried him.

But for GHOSTS, which was supposed to be creepy, Kyle dealt with literal undead aliens:

Long story short, he defeats them by treating them exactly like zombies, and not letting his conflicted feelings about how his actions reflected on his slaughtered predecessors slow him down.

And then, to the surprise of no one, less than 10 years later almost all of those "dead" alien Green Lanterns were brought back to life, or revealed never to have actually died, or some plot-convenient craziness along those lines. (Comics, everybody!) But for a brief moment there, Green Lantern was an interesting ongoing story about doing good after a cataclysmic systemic failure, and all the uncertainty and struggle that goes along with that. I kind of miss following that particular chapter of the saga.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

10 Days 'Til Halloween: Trading Card Tuesday (Marvel Universe)

Marvel Comics started putting out sets of trading cards when I was in high school, which on the one hand was also right around the time my comic-collecting habit was getting its second wind, but on the other hand means I was arguably way too old to be helpless before the allure of opaque packets of mysteriously concealed cardboard rectangles. And yet, out of some misguided sense of loyalty to Marvel and any product they might care to license, not to mention residual fondness for card-collecting itself, I ended up acquiring tons of Marvel Universe cards. Most of them ended up getting glued collage-style to the longboxes I stored my comics in, so that the big, heavy oblongs in the corner of my room were less plain white and more funky and decorative. The rest sat in rubber-banded stacks on my dresser, serving absolutely no purpose whatsoever until they eventually got thrown away in an unsentimental purge.

At any rate, in keeping with the Halloween theme, what better Marvel character to highlight than the comic universe's own version of the Devil Himself: Mephisto!

Marvel Universe cards were more like baseball cards than just about anything else I ever collected, right down to the reverse of each card reading like a career overview for a journeyman athlete:

The front picture, though, is pretty non-dynamic. It gets across the idea that Mephisto is a ruler of the underworld, I suppose, and maybe hints at the themes that most of his appearances played around with: that whoever's in charge of Hell is a study in contradictions: gleefully sadistic in pursuing plans of others' ruination, yet also lonely, tormented, self-loathing; a cosmically powerful entity, yet at heart a coward and a bully who prefers to pick on the weak, dealing in lies and exploiting trickery. He might occasionally engage in epic physical battles, since we are talking about comic books here:

But he's just as likely to be scowling and sulking in some dark stygian corner, deeply dissatisfied with his place in the grand scheme of things, and unable to do much about that, other than distract himself with another attempt at corrupting a hero or somesuch.

Still, not trying to conjure up too much sympathy here. Being the devil in a superhero universe is a pretty good gig if you can get it. And to be honest, Mephisto knows theatrics, and how to look very bad and very cool making an entrance:

Can't beat the fire and brimstone for getting psyched for Halloween!

Monday, October 20, 2014

11 Days 'Til Halloween: Overdue books (Danse Macabre)

I've been wracking my brain trying to remember what the first Stephen King book I ever read was. Clearly I was not as obsessive way back then about cataloging my own consumption habits (and honestly, even if I had been I'm sure those quarter-century old lists would have long since been lost) and in my memory the whole "getting into Stephen King" process is a big 0-to-60 blur. I think IT is a likely candidate, for a few different reasons. I went through a phase (fueled mostly by the pretentiousness of early adolescence) where I was trying to read extremely long novels, just to prove I could. And a friend of mine (Boomer) had read it and talked it up a lot; I'm positive at the time the Boomer was devouring it and unleashing spoilers on me daily in the middle school cafeteria, I wasn't yet into King myself, but rather hung up on fantasy and sci-fi novels with all my forays into horror still ahead of me. When I did finally make the jump into King's works, I can see IT being top-of-mind. But then again, it could have been Pet Sematary, or Salem's Lot, or Misery. I read all of those in rapid succession, one way or the other.

All I know is that I got into Stephen King right around the beginning of high school, and at that time, late 1988, his body of work consisted of these novels: Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, The Gunslinger, Christine, Pet Sematary, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Talisman, IT, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Drawing of the Three, Misery, and The Tommyknockers. There were also a couple of short story collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, as well as the four-novella compilation Different Seasons and the quartet of short pseudonymous novels published in one volume as The Bachman Books. That's about 21 books altogether, and it really doesn't matter where I jumped in exactly, only that I dove in somewhere and was immediately hooked and proceeded to tear through (almost) everything as fast as I could.

Of course, Stephen King continued to write and publish just about as fast as he could, and I have distinct memories of receiving a hardcover copy of The Dark Half, the first novel published after my addiction kicked in, as well as the hardcover of The Stand - Complete and Uncut shortly after that (probably birthday and Christmas of 1990, respectively). I hadn't exhausted King's earlier works as I got into the habit of picking up his newer stuff on or close to release dates, nor did I necessarily give up on reading material by authors other than King, so eventually my consumption leveled off. At any given time I might be reading the latest Stephen King, or a cheap paperback reprint, or something else entirely.

Back in those early 90's days I used to spend a lot of time at the mall, and most of that time at the various bookstores. Stephen King was a hot enough property by then for there to usually be a pretty substantial amount of shelf space dedicated to him. Some of the older books, like Cycle of the Werewolf, proved weirdly elusive, and others proved almost as weirdly overabundant (I remember picking up a remaindered hardcover of Eyes of the Dragon super-cheap one idle summer afternoon). No matter how long it had been since my last Stephen King fix, though, I remember there was one book that I would see on the shelves all the time, one book I didn't mention in my mini King bibliography above but which was published in 1981, and yet I would never, ever (at the time) be remotely tempted to pick up: Danse Macabre.

The absurdly simple explanation for skipping over that particular paperback every time the opportunity to pick it up presented itself is that I knew it was non-fiction, not King writing a tale of characters confronting horror but King ruminating on horror as a genre across various formats and time periods, and that held no interest for me whatsoever. I roll my eyes at my younger self now, of course, but the truth is as a teen I only read fiction for pleasure, with zero exceptions. I did well enough in school, reading the assigned texts on historical events and scientific facts and whatnot, but I would never willingly choose to read something fact-based in my free time when there were so many works of pure imagination out there waiting for me. The irony, of course, is that nowadays I read plenty of non-fiction, partly because I don't draw such hard and fast distinctions about what constitutes pleasurable reading anymore, partly because I've made a conscious effort to balance my mental diet now that I'm so far outside the bounds of school. And within the walls of non-fiction, pop culture analysis in particular is something I happily eat up with a spoon. So here we have a book of pop-culture analysis, specifically addressing one of my favorite genres, and written by one of my all-time top authors. I just had to get over some youthful prejudices in order to appreciate it.

So I FINALLY got around to reading Danse Macabre this month. And of course I enjoyed it immensely, but the amount of time that I waited to correct the oversight means that the whole endeavor is now incredibly dated. Danse Macabre conducts a King's-eye overview of thirty years of horror history, from 1950 to 1980 (give or take a few highly influential classics from the previous century that more than merit serious consideration), and Danse Macabre is now thirty-three years old itself. Some of the references are quaint, some judgments are hasty, and some of the unintentional ironies are downright chilling. A couple of quick examples:

1. King is sneeringly dismissive of Wes Craven, which makes a lot of sense in context. As of 1980 Craven was best known for trashy exploitative horror films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. He hadn't yet unleashed A Nightmare on Elm Street into the world, let alone Scream. It's pretty much a given now that Craven belongs in the Horror Hall of Fame. I have to assume Steve has moderated his contempt somewhat over the past three decades.

2. The biggest recent tragedies in the news at the dawn of the 80's were the mass suicides at Jonestown and the hostage crisis in Iran. The word "terrorist" has a decidedly pre-9/11 flavor when King (frequently) drops it. But pushing the envelope even further, King considers a novel entitled The Fog by James Herbert, written in 1975, and notes how eerie it is that one of the chapters, about a town full of people who are driven insane by the titular miasma and commit mass suicide by stampeding lemming-like(*) into the sea, seems like a rehash of what happened in Guyana except that Herbert wrote his book first. During the same consideration King off-handedly references how another act of insane self-destruction is a commercial airline pilot crashing a jumbo jet into a downtown office building in London ... but of course to King in 1981 that's an example of Herbert's wicked imagination with no bearing on reality. Shudder.

(* = yes I know lemmings don't really run off cliffs and that's a lie propagated by Disney nature films.)

I can only imagine what King would be capable of producing if he were asked to produce a Danse Macabre volume 2, covering the 80's and 90's and new millennium in horror. I'm honestly a bit shocked that no publisher has asked him to do just that, given how many units it would move. Actually, chances are numerous publishers have already made the request and King has declined, citing that he's had his academic-ish non-fiction say on the genre and that's enough for a lifetime. Fair enough.

But there are plenty of good nuggets in Danse Macabre, and I'm still in the process myself of trying to figure out exactly how to parse them all. Especially helpful are the appendices, one for novels and one for movies, where King lists about 100 or so of each he recognizes as modern classics and then helpfully asterisks the ones which are also personal favorites. Clearly at some point I'm going to have to go through these lists and build out some reading/viewing lists of my own. Perhaps another Class Not Taken, with an imaginary syllabus of suspense and supernatural novels as selected by Professor King? Or maybe a large chunk of next year's Halloween Countdown will consist of a horror flick marathon curated by the man from Bangor? We shall see, my friends, we shall have to wait and see.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

12 Days 'Til Halloween: Candy Sunday (3)

Some kids are perfectly happy to eat their Halloween candy straight out of the plastic pumpkin, sticking their hands in blindly and unwrapping whatever comes out. And some kids prefer to dump the contents onto the kitchen table or the dining room floor and inventory their haul, the better to formulate some kind of optimized consumption strategy.

Clearly, given which approach could be described as "unthinking" and which might qualify as "overthinking", I fell (read: fall, who do I think I'm kidding) into the latter category. So, speaking as an insider, I know there are a few different motivations that lead to this kind of careful candy accounting.

One possibility is that the kid in question has one or two favorite candies, and the kid wants to first find out how many of those favorites he or she actually managed to score, and second ration those favorites accordingly. (Corollary: if there is a surplus of someone else's favorite candies and a deficit of one's own, some reciprocal candy exchange may be brokered.) It's dispiriting to discover without warning that there aren't any Peanut M&M's left in your stash, and simultaneously realize that you didn't properly appreciate the last of them, whenever past-you happened to gobble them down. I do have my favorites, and I do try to savor them, but this isn't really my main rationale.

Another possibility is that the kid has come to the sophisticated realization that not all candy goes together perfectly. It is gustatorially jarring to chase a mini Mounds with a strawberry Starburst (or any flavor of Starburst, at that). Laying out and tallying up the candy allows the kid to, at the very least, identify the chocolate/non-chocolate divide and proceed with some kind of flavor-profile coherence. This is getting closer to where I'm coming from ...

All right, look, the thing is, I like to eat Halloween candy in a very specific order. I enjoy smooth transitions from one combination of ingredients to the next. So I like to know exactly what I have on hand in order to arrange things in their proper order. If I can form a taste bridge between a fun-sized Milky Way and a Hershey's Special Dark by way of a fun size Milky Way Midnight, why wouldn't I obey that simple logic? Or start with a Milky Way, proceed to a Snickers (essentially a Milky Way plus peanuts), follow that with a Snickers PB Squared (the "PB" is for peanut butter), and stick the landing with a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup?

Don't judge me. I can't be the only person who does this. I'm just willing to admit it.