Camino Royale

Can I get a “Yeah, bitch!”?

El Camino, the feature-length sequel (now streaming on Netflix) to the Breaking Bad series, had a lofty standard to live up to, but thankfully manages to do just that. The film steers viewers right back into the seedy world of Albuquerque, whose sun-drenched streets have been the setting for some extremely dark doings over the years.

In a strict sense, the film picks up where the series finale left off–with Jesse’s escape (courtesy of Walter White) from enslavement by Uncle Jack’s outlaw gang. The title El Camino actually refers to the getaway car, formerly owned by Todd, that Jesse (the sensational-as-always Aaron Paul) drives as he speeds away from the carnage at the compound. He isn’t able simply to ride off into the sunset, though (otherwise there would be no need for this follow-up); much of the narrative thrust here comes from Jesse’s labors to avoid a prompt re-capturing by the local authorities now hunting him.

Yet mimicking the workings of Breaking Bad, the film does not unspool its story in a merely linear fashion. There are a series of flashbacks employed, which also gives director Vince Gilligan the opportunity to bring back a host of characters from the TV series (some of whom were killed off along the way) in new, never-before-glimpsed scenes. These revisits with old friends and enemies are skillfully done, filled with poignant moments and smoothly sequeing into earlier points on the BB timeline. The one exception I would note involves psycho Todd (played by Jesse Plemons), who appears inexplicably and conspicuously chunky in his flashback scenes (seriously, dude, you couldn’t have dieted for this role?).

Perhaps the greatest gain from the back-and-forth cutting of the film’s narrative is the light shed on Jesse’s character. Even though he is no longer locked in a cage like a filthy animal, Jesse isn’t necessarily free. El Camino does a fine job of demonstrating the psychological trauma that lingers after the physical ordeal has ended. The presentation of additional scenes from the former captivity narrative chillingly evokes the torture and torment Jesse was forced to suffer, and his present-day recall of such Gothic experiences clearly reveal a haunted figure.

There is undeniable darkness here, but again in keeping with the precursor series, also terrific instances of humor. The hysterical banter between Badger and Skinny Pete alone makes this film a must-see for fans. At the same time, El Camino features a fine shading of crime noir, especially as Jesse crosses paths with some dangerous con men after the late Todd’s stash of illicitly-gained cash.

With a two-hour drive time, El Camino can’t adopt the same deliberate storytelling approach of Breaking Bad, but the pacing of the film nonetheless feels pitch-perfect. Scenes of frantic action and sweat-wringing suspense are balanced with quieter, more tender moments. While the film doesn’t quite achieve the same gravitas as the series, it does make for a quite satisfying sequel. Jesse Pinkman (basically a good kid who found himself partnered with a bad man) has always been the show’s closest thing to a moral compass, and it is undoubtedly rewarding as a viewer to watch Jesse finally get the ending he deserves.

One final thought: the stories for two of the major characters from Breaking Bad (Walt and Jesse) are now complete, but there is still another loose thread remaining. Even as El Camino furnishes a strong sense of closure, it also spurs anticipation, and curiosity about the ultimate fate of everyone’s favorite shady lawyer (turned Cinnabon manager). The new season of Better Call Saul cannot come soon enough.

 

Personal Pennywise

In conjunction with last month’s theatrical release of IT: Chapter 2, BuzzFeed posted a fun little piece titled “Everyone Has One Great Fear: This ‘It’ Quiz Will Reveal Yours.” My photo selections from the various prompts resulted in the Magic-8-Ball-like answer of “Fear of Flying.” While I am no white-knuckler, I’m hardly a relaxed traveler of the friendly skies, so I suppose this was an appropriate designation (although, technically, it’s not the flying, but rather the fiery crashing, that concerns me).

But if I were ever to encounter the terribly shifty It from Stephen King’s epic novel, I have no doubt what fearful, me-tenderizing shape the monstrous entity would assume.

With questionable 70’s aesthetics, my parents furnished a corner of our living room with a life-size lamp of a topless, onyx-skinned native woman standing on a gold pedestal. I am told that as a toddler, I would look at this figure and scream hysterically, to the point where my parents would have to drape a sheet over the lamp in order to quiet me down (in hindsight, it’s interesting that I found this ghostly alternative relatively comforting). As I sprouted up and my imagination ripened, my toleration of this horror did not grow at all: the Lamp Lady starred in a series of bad dreams, and formed a childhood-long source of dread.

Here’s an old photo that I somewhat-reluctantly dug up that shows the lamp in the background. Perhaps mercifully, the figure’s head is cut off in the picture, since it was the part about her that spooked me the most. Her glaring white eyes and stoic (to me: stern and menacing) expression seared their way right into my psyche.

So to all the (non-dancing-clown) denizens of the Macabre Republic, I say: Welcome to my nightmare. You can keep it for yourselves; I don’t want to have it anymore.

 

Remembrance of Trick-or-Treatings Past: Halloween in a Box

Writer/director Rob Caprilozzi’s documentary Halloween in a Box is filled with wonders for viewers of a certain age and a lasting fondness for autumnal merriment. Anyone who can recall once picking out one of the titular costume kits (complete with rubber-banded plastic masks and colorful vinyl smocks) at the local five-and-dime store and decking out on October 31st will slip quite easily into this film.

The documentary traces the rise (and falling fortunes of) the three giants in the boxed-costume industry: Ben Cooper, Inc, Collegeville, and Halco. Extensive interviews with the owners of, and employees within, these companies provide copious insight into the business end of the trick-or-treating enterprise. Looking back over several decades of ventures (mainly, the quest to secure licenses for character likenesses), the film forms a veritable tour of 20th Century pop culture. Halloween in a Box is perhaps most enlightening when it notes how the annual effort of fantasy role-playing was affected by various historical realities (e.g., the post-World War II lifting of the sugar ration, the rise of the automobile in the 1950’s, the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963). Covering the paranoia spawned by the Tylenol scare of the early 80’s, the documentary shows how the costuming competitors came together and endeavored to save the holiday by publishing an important booklet entitled 13 Great Ways to Celebrate Halloween.

To no surprise, Caprilozzi includes countless stills and home-video clips of children in the holiday gear of yesteryear (my one complaint is that these segments of the documentary are all scored by the same wearying piece of instrumental music; not since Creature form the Black Lagoon has a riff been so overused). I was delighted to catch glimpse of the Mork outfit that marked my own foray into boxed-costume territory as a pre-teen (the subject of one of the offerings in my collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season). Brimmingly nostalgic and equally informative, Halloween in a Box is a real treat of the nonfictional kind this holiday-viewing season.

Angry Villager Vocals

My 2014 collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season consists of two sections gathering 31 selections each. The first, “Miscellaneous Praise,” features various Halloween-themed poems, while the second, “Angry Villager Anthology” is structured as a sequence (think of it as a long, 31-part poem). Here’s the brief introduction I wrote for the second section, along with a sampling of poems from throughout the anthology.

Nearly a century after its first publication, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) remains the premier collection of American Gothic verse. This sequence of interconnecting and sometimes contradicting monologues (presented as epitaphs voiced by the deceased inhabitants of Spoon River’s cemetery) sheds life on the dark underbelly of everyday life, exposes the secrets and scandals of a small Midwestern town. Angry Villager Anthology forms my autumnal answer to Masters, an attempt to show that when it comes to dark-heartedness, Spoon River has nothing on the community of Grantwood.

 

Mischievous

The Mob

C’mon Tom, Charlie, Emory, and Frank,
Rupert Daugherty’s caught our October bogy!
That semi-human Quasimodo won’t be tormenting us anymore.
Only fitting the thing’s been snared here on the eve of Halloween,
After it transformed Mischief Night into a month-long campaign.

C’mon Kate, Lizzie, Ellen, and Rebecca,
You’ve just as much right to punish the monster’s wrongs.
Sneaking in our yards, peeping in our windows,
Desecrating the cemetery, smashing Jeb Llewellyn’s pumpkins,
Preying on our animals, fraying our nerves with its elusiveness,
Scaring more than the bejesus outta Cyndi Anders earlier today.
It’s time that wretch met Grantwood’s Unwelcoming Committee.

C’mon Tyrus, Juan, Gunther, and Angelina,
We’re all coming together tonight to celebrate.
Capture puts an end at last to apprehension.
So let’s seize the moment, and march this nemesis through the streets,
The very thoroughfares it made us wary of traversing after dark.

C’mon everyone, come outside and join in.
Grab whatever’s available–knife, pitchfork, lead pipe, wooden bat.
When we get to the town square you can each take a turn.
We plan on lashing the bastard to the Founder’s statue
And then bashing it open like an animate piñata.
Huzzah! Our vengeance is going to be sweeter than all of
The candy handed out to the oddly costumed tomorrow night.

 

Patchwork

Jeb Llewellyn

Every night for the first third of October
The monster snuck inna my patch and smashed open a pumpkin;
Come morning I’d find the pieces of partially-gnawed rind.
So I rigged a motion sensor, hoping to spotlight the late-night snacking–
Somehow he never set the dang thing off.
I brushed paint thinner on the most attractive-looking specimens–
He kept selecting an untainted gourd.
Rankled to no end, I set up traps all over my land–
And he never came back again.
But neither did my customers, fearing I might’ve forgotten
Where ‘xactly I hid all those toothy steel jaws.

 

Sketchy

Charlie Ehrenhardt

I never saw who it was that snuck up behind me,
And nothing evermore after the bat struck my head.
But I always figured Len Saunders for the slugger,
For my alleged leering at his wife as she strutted to the bank
Each morning while I painted the mural on Kemp’s storefront.
Now as I sit on my front stoop, sketch pad in my lap,
I can hear Len’s voice in the beehive buzz of the passing crowd.
I imagine flaming torches and bobbing pitchforks,
Some local variation on a Universal horror movie.
I work my charcoal, trying to link mind’s eye and muscle memory.
Yet when I press my fingertip to the paper as if it were Brailled
I detect only smoothness, my creation doomed to vagueness.
Meantime the mob rumbles on, noxious with animosity.
I’m guessing that come morning, I won’t be the only one
Here in Grantwood wondering just what have I done.

 

Doggone

Bob Mendenhall

Whether in self-defense or some beastly sense of territoriality
The monster snapped the neck of Virgil’s German shepherd Kendra
Way back when on the fourteenth of this month.
For two weeks straight the dog’d been bent all out of shape,
Barking seemingly non-stop throughout the night.
Virgil and me had been neighbors for nearly twenty years,
But he wouldn’t listen to me when I kept trying to tell him
He’d best bring the dog inside when it got dark out.
“She watches o’er,” he insisted, and look what happened:
One permanently silenced canine.
Now we’re herding the perpetrator toward the town square;
I happily jab it in the back with the steel fingers of my hoe.
Had the damned thing snuffed out the mutt a day sooner
It would’ve saved me the cost of strip steak and strychnine.

 

Tome Reader

Heyward “Stacks” Calhoun

Here in the shadowy bowels of Grantwood’s Library
Lie the various volumes to scandalous for circulation,
Such as Ben Thompson’s incendiary slave diary,
And a highly unauthorized biography of Jeremiah Healey.
Not to mention a certain kid-skinned grimoire,
Whose curious lore served as a perfect lure for a lone bibliophile.
That perusal had been on the first night of October,
And so now I shiver as I overhear the shivaree outside.
I take no joy in the passing crowd’s raucousness,
Because I have to wonder if it was my own clumsy pronunciation that
Unwittingly summoned the town’s cthonian antagonist to begin with.

 

Revival

Abigail St. Clair

“Miss Abby? Whatcha doing over there?” Phil Wheatley calls from his car
When he spots me setting up shop in the middle of the town square:
Thin-legged card table, carafe of cider, plastic cups and cinnamon sticks,
Basketful of the pumpkin muffins I just happened to have been baking.
“Oh, just figured the people in the parade would appreciate some refreshments.”
“Parade?” he echoes, incredulous. Distance and darkness eclipse
Everything but the whites of his teeth, tiny floating ghosts.
“Ma’am, do you understand what’s going on here in town tonight?”
“Well,” I tell him, “I gather there’s going to be a public ceremony held.
So you best move that jalopy outta the way before everyone gets here.”
“Daffy old bat,” he proclaims before stomping the gas pedal.
But I pay him no mind, just settle into the lawn chair I’ve unfolded,
And sit here waiting, anticipating the start of the festivities.
God, it’s been ages since Grantwood hosted a good lynching.

 

Balloon Quotes

Phrases such as “We all float down here” and “You’ll float, too” have entered the pop culture lexicon, and red balloons have risen to horror-icon status. In Stephen King’s magnus opus IT, though, there is a lot more clowning around with balloons than most people might recall. Time and again, Pennywise wages psychological warfare and terrorizes the Losers Club with balloons emblazoned with messed-up messages. Here’s a quick quiz for Constant Readers, to see how many of these flashes of malefic wit they can identify. Answers appear in the comments section.

 

1.What appears scripted on each of the myriad of balloons that appear following the mauling of Adrian Mellon?

2.At the end of “Derry: The Second Interlude,” Mike awakens to find a balloon tied to his reading lamp. What does he see on the balloon?

3.Fill in the blank: When grownup Ben returns to the Derry Library, Penywise manifests and displays a pair of balloons with phrases written on them. They read “HAVE A GOOD DAY! __ __ __!” and “I KILLED  ___ ___!–PENNYWISE THE CLOWN.”

4.What Pennywise p.s.a. “COMPLIMENTS OF CENTER STREET DRUG” is an adult Eddie subjected to while visiting the baseball field?

5.After chasing an adult Beverly from her childhood home, Pennywise is seen holding a bunch of balloons bearing what legend? (hint: it’s the title of a 1953 science fiction horror film)

6.Fill in the blank. Appearing in place of the Paul Bunyan statue, Pennywise stands holding a balloon that reads “RICHIE TOZIER’S ‘___ ___’ ___ ___.”

7.Fill in the blank. Perhaps Pennywise’s greatest quip is delivered in Chapter 14 “The Album,” when Mike enters the library’s staff lounge and discovers a balloon that reads “THE LOSERS ARE STILL LOSING, BUT ___ ___ ___  ___ ____!”

BONUS: What is written on the back of It’s varsity jacket when the Teenage Werewolf attacks the Losers Club in the house on Neibolt Street?

Seize the Season

At long last, the calendar has flipped to the most important time of year in the Macabre Republic: the High Holiday season, in the merry month of mayhem. These thirty-one days always seem to fly by faster than a witch late to a sabbath, so I encourage you to start celebrating early. Here’s hoping that your October is stocked with autumnal treats and attractive haunts, and that your Halloween proves a harvest of horror.

Speaking for myself, I am to be in the spirit all month long here on this blog. There will be plenty of Halloween-related posts to follow. Thanks to the recent release of the second cinematic chapter, this isn’t just the season of the witch but also the season of IT. I accordingly have a lot of items planned relating to Stephen King’s epic novel that should float the boat of Constant Readers.

First, for all those who can’t get their fill of fall, here’s a poem to kick off the season. It is from my collection Autumn Lauds (for a closer look inside this book, click the designated heading in the menu above).

 

Octoberzest

Apple cider
Perfectly perfumery bottle, eau de orchard

Candy corn
Fairy horse of sweet tricolor bicuspids

Yankee Candle
Flaming aromatic–earthy wood, sere leaves

Pumpkin pancakes
Limited time: we all bound to IHOP

Decorative hay bales
Squarely redolent of rural remotes

Cinnamon-sugared doughnuts
Dessert worthy of the Van Tassel banquet table

Not just of mists and mellow fruitfulness
(as Keats asserted)
But a season of scents and tastes to savor