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.

 

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.

Growing Rank: A Creepshow Film Segment Countdown

Creepshow debuts as a streaming series on Shudder today, but before reviewing the premiere episode (which, appropriately, features a segment based on a Stephen King story), I’d like to take a look back at the film series. Here’s a countdown of the eight segments included in Creepshow and Creepshow 2 (I will willfully neglect the nominal, non-King-related sequel, Creepshow 3), from the downright rotten to the positively putrid.

 

8. “Old Chief Wood’nhead” (Creepshow 2)

Tooth-achingly sentimental (uggh, that theme music) and painfully melodramatic, this slow-developing segment is by far the worst offering of the series. The uncanny effects of a cigar store Indian coming to life to take vengeance on the storeowners’ murderers is undercut by the resort to blatant cultural stereotypes (the bloodthirsty chief’s warpath leads to arrow-shooting, tomahawking, and scalping). Perhaps most dismaying of all, though, is the use of a glaringly white actor to portray Native American villain Sam Whitemoon.

 

7. “The Crate” (Creepshow)

Adrienne Barbeau gives an over-the-top performance as a boozy shrew of a wife, and the ostensible suspense is overdone (the initial opening of the mysterious box seems to take forever). The carnivorous creature released (dubbed “Fluffy” on the film set) looks like a cheap Halloween costume someone might rent. Filling up nearly one-third of Creepshow‘s runtime, “The Crate” proves terribly overlong.

 

6. “They’re Creeping Up on You” (Creepshow)

No doubt the most notorious and nauseating segment in the series (I’m sure that a significant portion of my present-day bug phobia can be traced back to its swarming scenes). Ultimately, though, there’s just not much to this piece, whose somewhat-nonsensical story strikes a singular note: a jerk of a germaphobe is overrun by myriad cockroaches.

 

5. “The Hitch-Hiker” (Creepshow 2)

The premise here is a strong one (a woman is haunted by the revenant of her hit-and-run victim as she speeds home from an adulterous tryst), and the increasingly grotesque deterioration of the hitch-hiker is well done as a practical effect. But the stricture of the situation (a single actress alone in a car for much of the segment) forces a jarring directorial decision–Lois Chiles’s continuous thinking out loud soon grows obtrusive, reducing the sense of verisimilitude.

 

4. “The Raft” (Creepshow 2)

The scene of Randy perving on Laverne naturally dominated my attention as a teenager, but now I am able to appreciate other aspects of this segment. When the sentient slick sucks Deke down through the slats in the raft, the jock’s violent sacking causes his leg to be bent gruesomely (a sight every bit as horrifying as that of the initial victim in the opening of It Follows). Based on the nature of the monster, this King story adaptation could have made for a tough sell visually, but the filmmakers succeed in creating a convincing float fatale.

 

3. “Father’s Day” (Creepshow)

The ranting, cane-rapping old man in this holiday-themed segment is terrifying even before he rises from the grave as a moldering ghoul. “Father’s Day” features some of the best kills in the series, including Ed Harris’s devastation by a toppled headstone. The closing image of a frosted, candle-crowned head on a platter makes for a garish graphic that might have been ripped right from the pages of a horror comic.

 

2. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (Creepshow)

I love King’s comedic riff (starring the author himself as the titular yokel) on H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic-horror classic, “The Colour Out of Space.” Jordy’s steady, weedy decline is played jokingly, yet the story also jabs a primal nerve: the dread of contagion and terminal disease, and the anxiety of discovering signs of bodily breakdown breaking out. The verdant Verrill’s Hemingwayesque final solution to his human-Chia-Pet status certainly is no laughing matter, and makes for a sobering conclusion.

 

1. “Something to Tide You Over” (Creepshow)

This tale of marital infidelity, criminal revenge by a cuckold, and ultimate supernatural comeuppance plays like a quintessential E.C. Comics story. Leslie Nielson gives a strikingly chilling turn as the villain here (who knew Lt. Drebin could be so dreadful?!). His sadistic set-up (beachfront premature burial) creates a form of torment as relentless as the ocean’s breaking waves. The scenario is so harrowing, it almost renders the inevitable resurfacing of the waterlogged zombies anti-climactic.

IT’s Just Too Much

I am of two minds about IT: Chapter Two. There are aspects of the film I really enjoyed, but also a lot more elements I found problematical.

The opening scene involving the gay-bashing of Adrian Mellon (and Pennywise’s eventual noshing on him) marks a harrowing return to Derry’s unfriendly confines. The violence on display is vicious and unsettling, and bears an immediacy lacking from the corresponding scene in Stephen King’s novel (which is presented via a series of ex post facto statements to the police by the perpetrating punks). Director Andy Muschietti makes a wise choice starting with this hate crime, which inaugurates Pennywise’s next cycle of predation. In this scene, we get a glimpse of the evil influence that has permeated Derry; the problem is that Muschietti fails to sustain this idea. The town’s haunted state is largely absent from the rest of the film, as the streets and edifices of Derry are reduced to mere backdrops and the townspeople to virtual spear-carriers in the ongoing battles between Pennywise and the Losers Club.

The monsters mashing their way through the film (as Pennywise dons his various terrorizing disguises) are undeniably top-notch. Particularly memorable (by which I mean: scarringly nightmarish) here are the witchy Mrs. Kersh (the most unnerving nude in a King adaptation since the woman in Room 217 in The Shining) and the animate, bat-spewing statue of Paul Bunyan. The film boasts a menagerie of impressive antagonists; this is one area where the follow-up manages to surpass IT: Chapter One (which I reviewed here).

I don’t think it’s a terrible spoiler to write that Stephen King has a cameo in the film. Readers of this post who have yet to venture out to their local cineplex will be happy to learn that this is arguably King’s best cameo work to date. Muschietti, though, typically pushes matters too far by including a second cameo by a Hollywood luminary (seemingly playing himself), whose appearance here is completely out of left field and serves to jar the viewer out of the onscreen world.

Time is not on the side of It: Chapter Two; a generation has passed and the members of the Losers Club have all grown up. It’s simply not as easy to root for–and fear for–the adult versions of these characters. Personality traits that proved endearing in the young can seem tiresome in the post-pubescent. I found James Ransone’s adult Eddie especially grating, and thus had a hard time investing in his character arc. James McAvoy as adult Bill is miscast and unconvincing–he lacks stature (he’s dwarfed by most of the other Losers) and the commanding presence that led the others to look up to him as the group’s leader in King’s novel. Jessica Chastain gives a solid performance as the adult Beverly, but her character is bogged down by the burgeoning romance with the hunky yet utterly uninteresting Ben (Jay Ryan). Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is a muddled mess; rather than forming the conscience of the group, he comes across more as a borderline madman verging on a heel turn. Just as Finn Wolfhard stole the first film as young Ritchie, Bill Hader stands out as the adult counterpart. A professional stand-up comedian, Hader’s Ritchie’s delivers laugh-out-loud-funny lines throughout (almost too many of them, threatening to compromise the tonality of the film). The much-ado about Ritchie’s personal secret, though, was somewhat off-putting. This aspect of his character was nowhere present in the source text, the alteration made here seemingly just to be different.

The film hardly floats through its bloated 170-minute runtime. A significant part of the drag no doubt stems from the insistence on re-establishing the juvenile ensemble from the preceding chapter. As the adult Losers are sent off on a silly treasure quest, viewers are subjected to a series of flashbacks to the troublesome summer twenty-something years earlier. But these scenes of further dreadful encounter with Pennywise strike a vague note of anachronism. I found myself asking: why didn’t any of this come up before (at least as a point of discussion between the young Losers)? Muschietti might have benefited from adopting a more self-contained approach here, minimizing the recurrences to the characters’ childhood.

Bill Skarsgard reprises his role as the coulrophobia-inducer extraordinaire Pennywise, and once again entertains with a combination of bloody malice and maniacal wit. Thankfully, though, Pennywise doesn’t only reach down into the same old bag of tricks. There are new nuances to the character, such as when the clown lures Its prey by feigning loneliness and painting himself the victim of ostracism. It’s in these quieter moments that It terrifies the most, not when the Dancing Clown launches into hyperkinetic attack mode. Perhaps my favorite part of the movie is when Pennywise sulkingly insists that It is an “eater of worlds” even as It is bested by the Losers.

That being said, the film’s climax frustrated me on a couple of fronts. First, the Ritual of Chud from King’s novel is grossly mishandled, turned hackneyed (a mystical routine learned from some token Native Americans conveniently living right outside the Derry town line). Also, while certainly not lacking for action, the climax is just too protracted. Amidst the epic battle, the Losers are split up individually, with each member having to deal with personal demons and negotiate a dark funhouse scene. Pennywise is juggling a lot of balls here, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the clown managed to pull off all these frightful mind-games simultaneously.

A running (and not particularly funny) gag throughout the film is that the horror novelist Bill sucks at scripting endings to his books. I’m almost tempted to think that the screenwriters were anticipating the audience’s own negative response to the film, whose denouement isn’t very moving. The voiceover reading of a missing Loser’s missive felt terribly contrived, and the quintessence of schmaltz. It had me pining for a scene of Bill and catatonic wife Audra on a bike ride through the beleaguered streets of Derry.

For all its prodigious length, It: Chapter Two paradoxically falls short. The film lacks scope: there are plenty of tentacles whipping around, but the sense of It as a Lovecraftian horror from beyond space is sadly absent. I don’t doubt that the film will benefit from a second viewing in the comforts of home–when I’m not physically assaulted by AMC Theatres’ thunderous sound system, and when I can rewind and rewatch key scenes with attention to the details that might have slipped by amidst all the chaotic goings-on. Still, I don’t think I will ever consider the sequel the equal of its precursor. It: Chapter Two bursts its own balloon with over-inflation; its impressive parts end up being too much of a good thing, yet nonetheless outnumbered by the film’s creative missteps.

 

O. Boy, Oh Boy!

I am doing a happy dance, on the heels of some incredibly exciting news. Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel Dark Harvest–an instant classic of Halloween fiction–is finally being adapted as a feature film.

Set in 1963 in an archetypal Midwestern town, Dark Harvest features a legendary bogey called the October Boy–an animate scarecrow with a jack-o’-lantern head. He attempts to run a gauntlet of teenage boys armed like angry villagers, as part of an annual Halloween ritual that is integral to the fate of the community. I would describe the novel (my favorite book by one my all-time favorite writers) as Ray Bradbury meets Shirley Jackson, yet nonetheless a tale of stunning originality presented in Partridge’s unique prose style.

The film is slated to be directed by David Slade, whose work on 30 Days of Night appears to make him an appropriate choice for this project. Dark Harvest‘s compact narrative, fueled by hard-charging action, also makes it the perfect vehicle for a cinematic adaptation. If visualized correctly (and not scythed down by bad CGI), the October Boy has the chance to grow into a horror icon.

Production details are limited at this point, and the film probably won’t be released until next Halloween season, but whenever Dark Harvest does crop up in theaters, rich rewards stand to be reaped by viewers.

 

 

Superbly Subterranean: 8 Great Cave- and Mine-Based Works of American Gothic

Earlier this week, I reviewed the recent episode of Lore that covered the legends and superstitions associated with mines and caves. This got me to thinking about how such underground sites have served as recurrent settings in works of American Gothic horror. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why writers and filmmakers have turned again and again to the subterranean. Places of pitch-black darkness, caves and mines can be filled with threats both natural and otherwise; they can be populated with our own subconscious dreads as well as supernatural terrors. The history of cave- and mine-set scenes is a rich one, tracing all the way back to the origins of the American Gothic genre (the title character’s frightful battles with a panther and a tribe of Indians inside a cave in Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel Edgar Huntly). Here’s my choice of eight exemplary works from books, film, and TV. This survey is admittedly subjective, and should not be taken as an attempted ranking of the eight greatest (I am well aware that classic texts by Poe, Lovecraft, King, and Ketchum are not included here).

 

*Gargoyles

This 1972 made-for-TV movie plays at times like a bad riff on a Planet of the Apes film (why would a winged gargoyle resort to riding on a horse?), and most of the eponymous antagonists look like outcasts from a Land of the Lost episode. But the makeup (done by the then-unknown Stan Winston) for the head gargoyle is amazing, and the Arizona-desert cave that forms the den for the devilish creatures is wonderfully creepy and labyrinthine. I remember being mesmerized by this movie when I saw it televised one weekend afternoon as a kid, and have no doubt it was a formative influence on my interest in the macabre.

 

*First Blood

Wait, I can hear you saying, isn’t Rambo an action-adventure hero? Anyone, though, who has read David Morrell’s novel knows that First Blood (1972) demonstrates a flair for the Gothic. The scene of the fugitive Rambo’s descent into a mine and forced traverse of a chamber teeming with bats and beetles is as harrowing as any ever featured in a horror film or book. Morrell immerses the reader in the grotesque muck and disorienting darkness right along with the viewpoint character, expertly chilling the blood.

 

*The Descent

“You can get dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deteriorations, a cave can collapse, you can drown.” One of the characters reels off this list of potential dangers as her all-girl group of adventurers heads toward an uncharted cave deep in the Appalachians. Unfortunately, they will soon be able to add to the list, after they run afoul of a group of gruesome, carnivorous Gollums prowling within. Savagely scary, The Descent (2005) does for spelunking what the opening scene of Jaws does for skinny dipping in the ocean.

 

*My Bloody Valentine 3D

This 2009 remake relocates the 1981 Canadian slasher squarely to small-town America (the ironically-named mining community of Harmony) and offers some nice twists for those familiar with the plot of the earlier movie. Filmed in 3D, and concerned with the exploits of a homicidal, pickaxe-wielding coal miner, My Bloody Valentine 3D stages some eye-popping (literally, in one case) kills. Some of the graphics here do prove a bit cartoonish, but the underground scenes nonetheless possess a stark realism, thanks to their being shot on location inside a former working mine.

 

*”The Dark Down There”

Don’t be fooled by the author’s trademark grotesque humor and bawdy dialogue here. Joe R. Lansdale is also a master of crafting tremendously frightening scenes, as can be seen in this 2010 Weird Western story collected in Deadman’s Road. The gunslinging protagonist Reverend Jebediah Mercer battles a horde of Kobolds that have overrun a mine, and man, these are some nasty goblins. When they are not chewing off people’s heads and feet, they enslave humans and put them to backbreaking work in the mine. And their reigning queen, a bloated Kobold “pile of living flesh,” is so repulsive, she makes Jabba the Hutt seem like he belongs on the cover of GQ.

 

*”Lost in the Dark”

John Langan’s title suggests an exercise in primal fearmongering, and the ensuing novella (first published in the 2017 anthology Haunted Nights) certainly delivers the goods. The tale centers on Bad Agatha, a possibly inhuman predator who, according to Halloween lore, has made an old cement mine in the Hudson Valley her lair. The extensive scenes leading a set of hapless characters down into said mine demonstrate the terrifying heights that horror fiction can reach. With its thematic blurring of Blair-Witchy documentary filmmaking and make-believe monstrosity, Langan’s narrative begs to be brought to the big screen.

 

*Meddling Kids

Edgar Cantero’s 2017 novel (which I reviewed here) is an incredibly witty postmodern mash-up of Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing and Cthulhu-Mythos-alluding horror. When a group of former teen detectives reopen the case that made them famous, their investigations take them deep into an Oregon mine containing a mother lode of bogeys: the carbon-dioxide-breathing “wheezers.” How richly eldritch does the tale get? Well, these creatures are merely the hench-things of a monstrous chthonic deity out of Lovecraft waiting to ascend to earthly supremacy.

 

*The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

There are plenty of terrifically eerie settings in this 2018-2019 Netflix series, but none outstrips the mine in the Greendale woods. The place is the site of a deadly cave-in triggered by a malicious witches’ spell (Chapter 7), and in the second-season finale (Chapter 20), demonic hordes are ready to break through the Gates of Hell located within the mine and inaugurate the End Times. For my money, though, the show’s best venture into the tunnels comes in Chapter 2, when a prank against the bullying jocks of Baxter High takes an even darker turn with a game of “Devil in the Dark.”

 

 

The Creature Featured

The latest issue of HorrorHound (#78, July/August 2019) takes an in-depth look back at my favorite Universal Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In a thirteen-page article (“Rising from the Amazon’s Forbidden Depths: Celebrating 65 Years of the Universal Monster!”), John Kitley sketches the cultural context for Creature trilogy, and presents a plethora of details about the making of the films. Accompanying Kitley’s text are hundreds of wonderful color photos–of movie posters, lobby cards, book covers, and seemingly every piece of tie-in merchandise ever created. The article is immediately followed by “Spawn of the Creature,” in which Josh Hadley offers a critical survey of the various film and TV successors (in some cases, shameless rip-offs) of the original Universal trilogy. One particularly fascinating aspect of this survey is Hadley’s consideration of how the Creature films themselves and their numerous cinematic offspring intersect with the aquatic terrors made famous by H.P. Lovecraft.

As gorgeous-looking as it is informative, this Creature-featuring issue will be cherished by any fan of the Gill Man.

Say Hello to Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino has never been known for strictly linear plotting, and his latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, to no surprise unfolds in a slow-burning and circuitous manner. No doubt there will be plenty of viewers who grouse that the film is self-indulgent and frustratingly digressive, but I certainly do not count myself part of that camp.

There’s undeniable artistic purpose to the proceedings here. Tarantino takes the time to establish the various characters whose lives are destined to intersect spectacularly. Start with the male leads: a wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio as the flawed, past-his-prime actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt (who oozes charisma, and gives one of the best performances of his career) as his stunt-double/driver/buddy Cliff Booth. Margot Robbie’s starlet-next-door Sharon Tate is developed as a full person (although the camera does tend to linger fetishistically on her legs/feet), not just some cinematic celebrity made more famous by her eventual savage demise. Even seemingly minor figures are woven deftly into the tapestry: the Hollywood hangabouts who prove no mere hippies, but the dangerous constituents of the Manson family.

Outstripping his thorough commitment to character development is Tarantino’s determination to establish the film’s titular setting. The Hollywood scene of the late Sixties is brought to life in stunning detail, from filmings on studio back lots to parties at the Playboy mansion. Clearly this is a loving recreation on the director’s part, a relishing of not just a time and place but a cultural moment just prior to its tarnishing by carnage.

Versed in the bloody details of what transpired on Cielo Drive in early-August 1969, the viewer has to wonder if Tarantino has built up this Hollywood scene merely to burn it back down. Yes, there’s a plethora of era-evoking movie magic on display here, but a palpable sense of dread also hangs over the film. And for all its concern with the Western (which helps further the thematic exploration of the nature of heroism and villainy), the film aligns just as much with the horror genre. The scene in which Cliff visits–and then investigates–the Manson-family-infested Spahn ranch is an interpolated masterpiece of squalor horror. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much sweat-wringing dread, so much fear for a character’s well-being.

Likewise, the film’s extended climax is rife with suspense and deadly menace. Yet it offers a surprising twist in its handling of one of the most shocking, Gothic moments in Hollywood (and American) history. Defying audience expectation and refusing to devolve into an exercise in exploitation, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood concludes on a more cathartic than horrifying note. While veering from the historical record toward the realm of the fairy tale, the film’s story is gloriously well-told, and in the end, epically satisfying.

 

Book vs. Film: Eddie and the Cruisers

 

(It’s officially beach season, and the masses have begun the sun-and-fun-minded migration to the Jersey shore, so I thought it would be a good time to re-post this piece first published on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2011.)

 

Eddie and the Cruisers was the first movie I ever watched when my family purchased a VCR back in the mid-80’s. Today, I own the DVD, and have watched it countless times. For all my familiarity with the film, though, I was oblivious to its literary source. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally purchased and read the 1980 novel by P.F. Kluge that inspired the movie. So how do the two versions stack up against one another? Read on… (caution: plot spoilers).

The novel is narrated by Frank “Wordman” Ridgeway (Tom Berenger’s character in the film), so Eddie and the Cruisers is literally and figuratively his book. He forms the central character, even as he plays Nick Carraway to Eddie Wilson’s Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel is referenced several times throughout the book). The narrative thus proves much more personal/confessional than the film version. Frank’s voice–inflected with world-weary cynicism–also creates distinct echoes of hard-boiled detective novels (cf. the work Raymond Chandler).

Like the film, the book shifts back and forth in time, moving back through the decades to the Cruisers’ heyday, and contrasting that golden age with the tarnished nature of the band members’ modern lives. Kluge’s scenes, though, take time to unfold, whereas the film (thanks to jump-cutting) often offers smoother–and more poignant–transitions.

The cast of characters is more fully developed in the novel, which helps elevate them from background figures to major suspects in the mystery stemming from the popular resurgence of the Cruisers’ music. For instance, Wendell, who doesn’t deliver a single line of dialogue in the film (and is killed off midway through), is integral to the plot of the novel.

The book does a much better job of establishing Eddie’s dream, the musical goal he is trying to accomplish (something more complicated and significant than in the film version). On the other hand, director (and co-screenwriter) Martin Davidson more skillfully handles the subject of Eddie’s death: the question of whether the nascent rock star’s demise was an accident, a suicide (a consideration the book seems to shy away from), or possibly even a faked death.

While the film wonderfully captures the vibe of the Jersey shore scene of the mid-20th Century, Kluge’s novel extensively details the sights, sounds, and smells of the Garden State. Readers travel with the Cruisers from Newark to Camden, Asbury Park to Atlantic City. In effect, Kluge (a native of Berkeley Heights) has penned a Springsteenian ode to New Jersey.

The film’s major advantage, however, is its musical aspects. In the novel, Frank has to resort to quoted lyrics and his own paraphrasing narration (he acknowledges his struggles to depict the Cruisers’ performances: “How can I recapture that night? I can’t sing it, play it, or relive it. All I can do is recall bits and pieces.”).The film’s viewers, meanwhile, get to see the Cruisers in action, get to listen to the soundtrack (which I would rank as one of the top five in film history) furnished by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Indeed, it’s doubtful that Eddie and the Cruisers would have struck such a chord with its audience if not for its interpolated songs–the enthusiastic anthem “Wild Summer Nights,” the haunting ballad “Tender Years,” and, of course, the bar-rocking classic “On the Dark Side.”

Perhaps what most distinguishes Kluge’s Eddie and the Cruisers is its dark, sinister tone (as it slips into the dark side of American Gothic). A derelict Quonset hut forms an eerie yet integral setting; the book climaxes with a series of bloody murders. The film opts for a milder air of spookiness, but its final scene raises goosebumps for a whole other reason. The music builds to a shattering crescendo, the documentary footage of the Cruisers fades to black, and suddenly the reflection of an older, bearded Eddie Wilson (he’s alive! he’s alive!) appears in the storefront window. A delightful twist ending, especially for anyone who happened to have read the novel (where Eddie’s fate is much different) first.

I absolutely loved Kluge’s novel, and have cruised through it twice since obtaining a copy. For all its strengths, though, the book is hard-pressed to match the film version for sheer, affective power. That’s why, using the 10-point divvy system, I ultimately give the edge to the 1983 cinematic incarnation:

Film: 6  ⇔  Book: 4

 

Mob Scene: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (book and film)

Shirley Jackson was no stranger to angry villagers. As Jonathan Lethem has noted, “the motif of small-town New England persecution” runs through Jackson’s fiction, filtered from personal experience: “It was [Jackson’s] fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid insular village [North Bennington, Vermont], to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college” [where Jackson’s Jewish husband worked as a professor]. Life in North Bennington would lead Jackson to draw up the classic story “The Lottery” (which I covered in a Mob Scene post last year). The author’s most extensive depiction of angry villagers, though, occurs in her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (whose long-overdue film adaptation arrived in theaters and on demand last week).

In the novel, Jackson’s Blackwoods (the narrating Merricat; Constance; Uncle Julian) live isolated in their fenced-off family home, ostracized by the community. They are the object of scorn, the subject of a dark nursery rhyme that is often tauntingly chanted at them. Some of the hostility stems from class resentment, of a wealthy family perceived to set itself above and beyond the common folk. No small part, though, is played by fear, for dark scandal haunts the Blackwood name: six years earlier, most of the family was killed off, and Constance accused (but found innocent in court, at least) of poisoning them at dinnertime by lacing the sugar bowl with arsenic. Six years later, the Blackwood home is a largely shunned place, and the survivors inside treated like witches by the lore-building locals.

The burning resentment and dread of the Blackwoods flares out of control when Merricat sets fire to the home (in the attempt to cleanse the place of her intrusive, duplicitous cousin Charles, a true American Gothic hero-villain). Along with the fireman battling the conflagration, the villagers arrive at the scene, but act less like concerned onlookers than joyous witnesses of an auto-da-fe. “Let it burn!” the uncaring refrain resounds outside the blazing walls. In a shocking twist, the flames are brought under control, but the crowd goes berserk after the fire chief turns around and throws a rock through one of the tall windows of the home. The act inaugurates an orgy of destruction: looting, vandalizing villagers promptly wash over the home like a “wave.” One of the more respectable townspeople denounces the rioters as “crazy drunken fools,” but intemperance isn’t an adequate explanation for such a transgressive outburst. Long-held inimical feelings have flooded to the surface, resulting in a deluge of unneighborly behavior.

As dramatized in the film, this mob scene is even more stunning. The Blackwood home is torn apart by a pack of wild men and women, its furnishings strewn across the lawn like viscera. The mob’s persecution of the Blackwoods is made even more poignant by Merricat’s voiceover: “The sound of their hate is another kind of fire moving through the bones of our house. I know now that all of my [protective] spells are broken. What was buried here in this village, their want for our ruin, has come to the surface at last.”  There’s one salient difference between the book and film versions of the scene. In Jackson’s novel, the villagers are wary of actually touching Constance or Merricat, but in the film the pair of sisters are roughly manhandled. A lynching seems very well in the making, until the crowd is cowed by the announcement that Uncle Julian is dead inside the house.

Further outrage against the Blackwoods is thus avoided, but plenty of damage has occurred. The alleged high-and-mighty have been brought low, their denigrated den of eccentricity devastated. The shock troop of American Gothic, the angry mob, has reduced the Blackwood home to a Gothic ruin: “Our house,” Merricat narrates in the novel, “was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Ironically, this violent transformation really hasn’t changed much, only obviated the circumstances of the Blackwoods’ existence all along (as also signaled by Jackson’s book title). The House of Blackwood has fallen into decrepitude, and the weird sisters now shuttered up inside are shuttered at all the more. “We fixed things up nice for you girls, just like you always wanted it,” the mocking villagers proclaim during the sacking of the manse, but Merricat and Constance were fixed in their situation of ugly Othering long before their unfortunate fort was stormed.