Loving Lovecraft Country

Perhaps the show I have been most eagerly anticipating this year is HBO’s Lovecraft Country (adapted from Matt Ruff’s terrific 2016 novel). High expectations can often lead to bitter disappointments, but after watching this week’s season premiere, I am already mesmerized.

“Sundown,” the pilot episode, presents a great cast (the always-stellar Michael Kenneth Williams hasn’t even appeared yet), portraying likable, believable, stereotype-defying characters. The costume and set designs are first-rate, bringing mid-1950’s America to vibrant life. And the plot appears quite faithful to the source novel (save perhaps for a scene involving the transformative effect of a “shoggoth” bite).

Most admirably of all, the series reflects Ruff’s skillful handling of racially-charged subject matter (as the real, historical horrors of slavery, segregation, and discrimination are juxtaposed with imagined cosmic nightmares). The worst aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s racism are bluntly acknowledged, via character reference to the writer’s notorious poem, “On the Creation of N—ers.” But Lovecraft Country engages with its eponymous weird-wordsmith (and pulp-era genre fiction in general) in a way that is critical without ever turning tendentious and entertainment-ruining. The protagonist Atticus Freeman sounds a telling note when his reading choices (specifically, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars) are questioned early in the episode: “Stories are like people,” he asserts. “Loving them does not make them perfect. You just try to cherish ’em, overlook their flaws.” Such a perspective is no doubt refreshing, especially in the current (cancel-)cultural climate where Lovecraft-bashing has become oh-so-fashionable, and expressed readerly appreciation of the classic Cthulhu Mythos tales can easily serve as an open invitation to indictment.

For fans looking to drive deeper into Lovecraft Country, there’s a companion podcast, Lovecraft Country Radio, that is well worth the listen.

Lovecraft Country airs Sunday nights on HBO.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Unlike Christmas

No doubt these have been trying times during the past few months of the pandemic, but at least there is now something to celebrate: the return of the series NOS4A2 on AMC. It’s time for strong creatives to grab their “knives,” cut through the fabric of reality, and trek to Christmasland–that uncanny combination of Santa’s North Pole and Cooger and Dark’s carnival.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations of favorite novels, and am easily irked by radical changes to the book’s characters and plots. This series, though, has remained quite faithful to Joe Hill’s original vision, and any changes from the source material have seemed organic and unjarring. This is due in large part to the writers’ commitment to developing believable characters, whose realism makes the show’s flights of dark fantasy seem all the more natural. NOS4A2 is blessed with stellar performances across the board, starting with Zachary Quinto as the vampiric child predator Charlie Manx. Quinto presents a perfect mix of suave and sinister, of charm and underlying harm; his portrayal of Manx makes for a classic American Gothic hero-villain.

Following suit from the novel, Season 2 opens with an eight-year time jump that leaves us feeling like we haven’t skipped a beat with these characters and their strange situations. Thankfully, in last night’s premiere, “Bad Mother,” not a lot of time was wasted on reestablishment (or the introduction of new characters). Like the Wraith gliding along the St. Nicholas Parkway, the episode keeps the narrative driving forward, showing that the troubles of protagonist Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) with Manx and his horrific “inscape” Christmasland are far from over.

Judging from the first episode, it appears Charlie’s daughter Millie will have a much larger role this season, and the creepily fanged Mattea Conforti looks like she will be up to the task of playing a pint-sized Big Bad. In Hill’s novel, Vic’s parents Linda and Chris get pushed mostly to the background in the latter part of the narrative, but if the show is smart it will find a way to keep these characters front and center. Virginia Kull’s and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s respective performances formed one of last season’s brightest highlights, so it would be a shame to see their contributions lessened (and to hear less of their townie accents).

One episode into Season 2, I’m already as excited as a kid at Christmastime. For sure, I’m looking forward to where the ride takes viewers–both this season and hopefully beyond.

 

Mob Scene: “The Shelter” (The Twilight Zone)

In this 1961 episode from season 3 of The Twilight Zone, a birthday party for a beloved doctor is interrupted by a sobering report on the radio: the government has detected unidentified objects rocketing towards the U.S. A state of yellow alert is promptly declared, and citizens are advised to take shelter. Soon thereafter, Doctor Stockton’s frantic friends and neighbors return, begging him to admit them into the bomb shelter in the cellar of his home (the very refuge they previously ridiculed him for building). Regretfully, the doctor cannot oblige them, since the shelter is designed for three people only (Stockton, his wife Grace, and son Paul). And thus the fallout begins before any bomb drops.

Turned away, the desperate neighbors quickly turn on each other. One of them, Frank, exhibits an ugly anti-Semitic streak, railing against “foreigners” like his friend Marty Weiss, “pushy, grabby semi-Americans.” The line between self and other gets sharply etched; when the idea of obtaining a pipe (to use as a battering ram) from a man on an adjacent street is raised, the group bristles at the thought of letting anyone else know about the existence of the shelter. “We’d have a whole mob to contend with,” one neighbor forewarns, “a whole bunch of strangers.” Ironically, these people don’t realize that they have already degenerated into a mob themselves, acting irrationally and violently amidst their fear. Knowing they all can’t fit inside the shelter doesn’t stop them from trying to bust it open (and ensuring that nobody ends up protected).

In a not-unexpected twist, a second news report (sounding just as the group savages its way into the bomb shelter) announces a false alarm: those were satellites, not nuclear warheads, that had been picked up by military radar. The tension diffused, the group recovers from its momentary lapse into lunacy. The neighbors offer to pay for the damages to the doctor’s property, and even propose throwing a block party the next night to celebrate the return to normalcy. The shell-shocked-looking Stockton, though, scoffs at the notion:

I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once. I don’t anymore. […] I wonder if any one of us has any idea of what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re “normal.” The kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us. A lot of naked, wild animals, who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder if we weren’t destroyed even without it.

“The Shelter” is certainly a period piece, addressing the dread manifested by the Cold War. But it also illustrates the timelessness of The Twilight Zone. The episode is just as relevant six decades later, in these chaotic–and sometimes seemingly apocalyptic–times. Right now, we need to take heed to Rod Serling’s concluding comments: “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”

 

Mob Scene: The Stand (2)

Last month, I covered a mob scene from early on in Stephen King’s apocalyptic epic, The Stand. Today I would like to return to that novel, which climaxes with a very interesting variation on a mob scene.

Late in chapter 73, Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner are delivered to the front lawn of the MGM Grand, where they face a gruesome execution (being torn limb from limb by a rigged apparatus). Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas minions have all gathered for the impending bloodletting:

They spread out across the lawn in a rough circle. They were standing in the casino parking lot, on the steps leading up to the lobby doors, in the turnaround drive where incoming guests had once parked while the doorman whistled up a bellhop. They spilled out into the street itself. Some of the younger men had hoisted their girlfriends on their shoulders for a better look at the upcoming festivities. The low murmuring was the sound of the crowd-animal. (1077)

Such set-up has the making for a quintessential mob scene, but the demeanor of the crowd-animal proves surprisingly subdued: “Larry ran his eyes over them, and every eye he met turned away. Every face seemed pallid, distant, marked for death and seeming to know it.” Scattered catcalls and a small cheer when Larry spits on the chains presented to him give him a momentary hope that the crowd might rise up against Flagg, “[b]ut his heart didn’t believe it. Their faces were too pale, too secretive. The defiance from the back was meaningless. […] There was doubt here–he could feel it–and disaffection. But Flagg colored even that. These people would steal away in the dead of night for some of the great empty spaces that the world had become” (1078). For Flagg, these violent public spectacles are less an administration of justice than an exercise in crowd control; he keeps his people in line by keeping them cowed by fear. Even as things start to fall apart in Las Vegas here at novel’s end, Flagg’s terror still creates restraint. When Larry shouts a warning to the crowd that next time it might be their turn to die this way, he can’t quite bring the crowd’s energy to critical mass: “That low murmur again, rising and angry…and the silence” (1079).

Whitney Horgan, one of Flagg’s own underlings, picks up the cause for Larry, decrying the barbarity of the ritual. But Whitney, too, fails to stoke a response: “Dead silence from the crowd. They might all have been turned to gravestones” (1081). When Whitney is dragged forward by Flagg’s black magic (“His sprung and mushy black loafers whispered through the grass and he moved toward the dark man like a ghost”), the witnesses to this evil marvel remain mute: “The crowd had become a slack jaw and a staring eye.” Flagg’s graphic destruction of Whitney with a “blue ball of fire” similarly elicits only quiet amazement: “The crowd released a long, sibilant sound: Aaaahhhh. It was the sound people had made on the Fourth of July when the fireworks display had been particularly good” (1082). Rather than a rabbleroused mob, Flagg’s people have been left utterly agog.

All this, though, is King’s means of setting the stage for a stunning reversal. Suddenly, the crowd does in fact turn unruly: “There was a scream, high, clear, and freezing. Someone broke and ran. Then someone else. And then the crowd, already on an emotional hairtrigger, broke and stampeded” (1083). All hell breaks loose upon the last-minute arrival of the irradiated, warhead-lugging Trashcan Man: “He looked like a man who had driven his electric cart out of the dark and burning subterranean mouth of hell itself” (1084). Dread of nuclear annihilation detonates crowd chaos: “They ran, scattering to all points of the compass, pounding across the lawn of the MGM Grand, across the street, toward the Strip. They had seen the final guest, arrived at last like some grim vision out of a horror tale. They had seen, perhaps, the raddled face of some final awful retribution” (1083). Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is thus reenacted on a grand scale.

Curiously, Mick Garris’s 1994 miniseries adaptation presents an exact reversal of King’s mob scene. When Larry and Ralph arrive, the crowd is a vibrant throng, barely controllable in its bloodthirstiness. These Las Vegans push and chant and brandish their guns; they cheer Flagg like a rock star when he takes the stage. Then, when Trashcan Man crashes this Times-Square-type party, the crowd just stands immobile, rooted in predominantly mute place.

The climax of King’s horror epic has always been somewhat problematical. The “Hand of God” (1084) that triggers the warhead is too much of a “deus ex machina” plot-resolver (and also appears lame when visualized by the ostensible special fx of the miniseries). But hearkening to the deliberate beats here–as King continually diffuses a mob scene and then allows it to explode at last–does make the ending of The Stand much more appreciable.

 

Work Cited

King, Stephen. The Stand. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Missouri Macabre: A Review of Ozark (Season 3)

I was thrilled when the third season of Netflix’s drama series Ozark was first announced, and–I must admit–somewhat wary. Could the show possibly continue to develop its complex storyline and maintain its level of excellence? After a marathon bout of housebound bingeing (here in the time of the coronavirus pandemic), I am happy to report that Ozark has come back better than ever.

Part of my initial trepidation stemmed from the fact that a slew of characters, both heroic and villainous, did not survive last season’s bloodbath. Fortunately, plenty of viewer favorites return, starting with money-launderer extraordinaire Marty Byrde, a mostly understated figure whose pressure-cooker of a life leaves him prone to some explosive outbursts. Good as Jason Bateman is in the role, he is eclipsed by Laura Linney’s utterly brilliant turn as Marty’s cunning yet caring, formidable but vulnerable wife Wendy. Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore once again exhibits spunk in spades (dropping enough f-bombs to make George Carlin blush), but the tenderer side of her character is much more evident here in Season 3 as she is given a love interest. Local sociopath and hillbilly Lady Macbeth Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) remains unfailingly unnerving, while stone-cold cartel lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer, in a welcome extension of her role from last season) forms a no-less-chilling adversary. The real season-stealer, though, is cast newcomer Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s lovable but combustible brother Ben. Subsumed into the Byrde family drama, Pelphrey’s Ben transcends secondary-character status and proves integral to the story arc.

The action picks up six months after the events of Season 2, with the Byrdes working to keep their new riverboat-casino venture afloat, amidst an intensifying drug war in Mexico (whose violence spills over onto American soil) and the intrusive presence of Kansas City mobsters and F.B.I. agents alike. Ozark offers a master class in plot complication, as the web of deceit grows ever more tangled and the protagonists’ predicaments more dire. Forget Breaking Bad; this show could be called “Breaking Worse and Worse.” Thankfully, though, three seasons’ worth of relentlessly escalating stakes has not caused a loss of plausibility. This is prevented by a refreshing sense of self-awareness–Wendy even goes so far to admit a certain addiction to the perennial chaos swirling around the Byrdes. Also, Ozark takes pains to demonstrate the inescapable and soul-crushing toll of the road the characters have chosen to travel, of the regrettable, if necessary, decisions they have made all along the way.

Safe to say, Ozark is not for the faint of heart. Savage cartel attacks are dramatized here, and the season opens and closes with scenes of shocking violence. This third iteration of the series might not be quite as grisly as seasons past, but the show still furnishes a perfect example of how easily noir crime can shade over into the macabre.

Season 3 of Ozark is at once gut-wrenchingly tense, wickedly funny (its black humor is pitch perfect), and heart-breakingly tragic. There aren’t enough Emmys to be awarded to this amazing Netflix effort.

 

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood (Macabre Republic Imports)

My previous post inspired me to import this 2012 book review from my old blog, Macabre Republic…

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood by Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson (Pomegranate Press, 2012)

Published in anticipation of this weekend’s release of the Tim-Burton-directed film, Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood is a glossy, oversized paperback collecting topical essays, anecdote-rich reminiscences by former cast members, a chronology of the 45-year history of the beloved Gothic romance, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the latest cinematic Shadows, and even a postscript poem by David Selby.

The book brims with insider information (which is to be expected, considering that Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans/Josette DuPres on the series). Some of the intriguing insight offered: the genesis of the idea for Dark Shadows in series creator Dan Curtis’s mind; how those involved managed to shoot a feature film and a daily soap simultaneously; the reason Jonathan Frid refused to reprise his role as Barnabas Collins in the second film, Night of Dark Shadows; the impact of the Gulf War on the 90’s primetime version of the series; what it was like when Johnny Depp met Jonathan Frid on the Burton set.

The actors’ enduring love for Dark Shadows shines through the pages. Despite the grueling five-episodes-per-week production schedule, players such as Scott, Frid, and Lara Parker (Angelique) admittedly found it a joy to go to work each day. This remarkably positive attitude in turn makes Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood a pleasure to read.

Long-time fans will treasure the insider’s perspective here, while newcomers will appreciate the opportunity to learn all about Dark Shadows before seeing the film. Lovely as it is timely, the volume is lavishly illustrated with color and black-and-white photos. It makes for the perfect coffee table book for Gothic-aficionados throughout our Macabre Republic.

 

Dark Shadows Illuminated

Dan Curtis (1927-2006) had a long and distinguished career in television as a producer and director, both within the horror genre (The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, Burnt Offerings) and beyond (the epic miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). Nevertheless, he will always be best remembered as the creator of the American Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, so it is only appropriate that the biographical documentary Master of Dark Shadows devotes most of its attention to Curtis’s still-beloved brainchild.

Narrated by Ian MacShane, and featuring interviews with Curtis, his family, and the cast and crew of Dark Shadows, the documentary traces the history of the ABC series, starting with its origins in a strange dream Curtis experienced. The early struggles for ratings–and near cancellation of the series–are acknowledged, which makes Dark Shadows‘ evolution into a pop culture phenomenon (subsequent to its turn to storylines centered on supernatural elements) that much more remarkable. A convincing argument is made for the revolutionary aspect of the series, which not only changed the nature of the daytime television drama but also transformed “an international archetype for horror” via its introduction of the reluctant, sympathetic vampire Barnabas Collins. The documentary also offers some interesting contextualization, suggesting that the show’s fantastic plots offered an escape from the grim realities of Vietnam-era America.

I recognize Dark Shadows as a formative influence; the series undoubtedly shaped my love for all things Gothic and macabre. When the show returned for a syndicated run on NBC in the early 80’s, it numbered me among that next generation of kids who rushed home from school each afternoon to tune in to its atmospheric horrors. Master of Dark Shadows brought those fond memories flooding back to mind as it furnished deeper insight into the hit series. This wonderful documentary (currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime) is highly recommended for every Dark Shadows fan of any age.

 

Castle Rock Reaction

Some thoughts on the second season of Hulu’s series Castle Rock, which concluded today with episode 10, “Clean”…

The plotting in Season 2 was much stronger than that in the show’s inaugural run, where obtuseness tended to produce lingering confusion. Here in Season 2, the puzzle pieces steadily fit together into a more perfect assembly–no small feat, considering the multiple plotlines unfolding and telling quite disparate stories (psychological vs. supernatural horror).

There are a couple of “holy shit” twists woven into the narrative, starting with the end of the first episode (I don’t think I will ever look at an ice cream scoop the same way again). The reveal at the end of episode 7, which hearkens back to Season 1 and gives viewers a new perspective onto those proceedings, was positively staggering.

Without a doubt, the highlight of Season 2 was the performances by the cast, led by Lizzy Caplan. Playing a younger version of Annie Wilkes, the actress has no trouble filling Kathy Bates’s formidable shoes, and gives a no-less-award-worthy performance. She easily convinces viewers that this is Annie Wilkes, via both nuances of body language/voice inflection and more histrionic outbursts. There are levels of complexity here to the character that aren’t present in the Stephen King novel or the Rob Reiner film, and the season-long interaction with her “daughter” (a terrific Elsie Fisher) was magically dramatic (my one quibble: naming the counterpart to Annie from Misery “Joy” came off as just a bit too cutesy). Thankfully, the show’s producers don’t simply appropriate one of King’s most iconic characters for mere cachet value; Season 2 works to demonstrate what ultimately turned Caplan’s Annie into the deadly fanatic immortalized by Bates on the big screen. Annie’s 10-episode arc on Castle Rock proves supremely satisfying (yet also heartbreakingly tragic).

Alas, the same cannot be said for the show’s other thread involving the reincarnated cultists. The sinister body-snatching of Castle Rock’s citizens makes for some chilling scenes (the group’s use of the Marsten House as the home base for their unholy crusade also forms a fine toward Salem’s Lot), but this plot doesn’t pay off as well as it might have. For starters, the cultists’ expressed goal of global conquest seems too grandiose, in the sense that it reduces the significance of the town of Castle Rock (such apocalyptic stakes seem more associated with other King locales like Derry and Haven). As if not quite sure how to handle this material, Castle Rock resorts to a series of bad action-film clichés. Yes, there’s a lot of noisy gunfire and booming explosions, but what the audience really wants to hear more about is that mysterious moaning of the schisma that began in Season 1. “Clean,” though, abruptly washes its hands of any explanation, leaving Castle Rock in a literal cloud of dust (shifting across the border into Canada for the remainder of the episode). The fact that we aren’t granted any further insight into the enigmatic Kid/Angel yet again makes me want to channel my inner Annie and call the show’s writers a bunch of dirty birds.

Castle Rock can be frustratingly uneven at times, but the series is never less than entertaining. I do hope it returns for a third season, one that finally answers the questions that have been raised over the past two years.

 

Flanagan and Garris Chat

In case you missed it…

Mike Flanagan was the guest on last week’s (#68) episode of Mick Garris’s podcast Post Mortem. The two directors renowned for their respective adaptations of Stephen King works discussed the recently-released Doctor Sleep, the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining, the Kubrick film, as well as the source novels. This hour-long interview is a terrific listen, brimming with interesting details. Some of the highlights:

  • Flanagan discusses his plan for navigating the Room 237 vs. Room 237 conundrum, and the reason he made his final choice as to what to put on the hotel room door in the film.
  • Flanagan reveals the aspects of King’s novel that so “desperately” made him want to direct a film version of Doctor Sleep.
  • Garris explains why King nearly pulled the plug on the miniseries just before shooting was set to begin.
  • Flanagan cites his favorite scene from the finished film version of Doctor Sleep–a scene, he says, that convinced King that returning to the Overlook (still standing at the end of the Kubrick film) was a good idea.
  • The directors discuss the salient differences between the novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep, and consider both books in the context of King’s biography.
  • Flangan identifies the specific scene from King’s The Shining that he has been “honoring” throughout his filmmaking career.