2017 Supreme

Along with a certain sphere in Times Square, a whole host of best-ofs, top __ countdowns, and retrospective summations drop at year’s end. Perusing these innumerable lists/articles/videos, though, can be a tremendous time suck, draining away from the pleasurable hours that might be spent consuming the actual items identified. So for those looking for a quicker 2017-in-review fix, I offer the following listing of some of the year’s best look-backs on the world of horror:

Barnes and Noble: The Best Horror Books of 2017

Chicago Review of Books: The Best Horror Books of 2017

Vanity Fair: Why 2017 Was Such a Big Year for Horror

PopSugar: 11 Truly Masterful Horror Films That Came Out in 2017

Bloody Disgusting: These Are the 13 Most Disturbing Horror Movie Moments of 2017

Bloody Disgusting: Here Are the 15 Best Monsters of 2017!

Entertainment Weekly: Stephen King Q&A: Pennywise’s Creator on Scaring the Hell Out of 2017

WatchMojo: Pennywise 1990 vs. 2017

 

Looper: The Most Underappreciated Horror Movies Released in 2017

 

Finally, to round out this out post, I’ll add a list of my own to the mix. I put this one together because Fright-Rags is the pinnacle of macabre fashion (and perhaps because I’m pining for t-shirt weather at this time of year!).

The Top 10 T-Shirts On Sale at Fright-Rags at Year’s End

1.Goosebumps

Horripilation Compilation

 

2.Creepshow

This one’s a Keeper

 

3.Halloween III

If only the movie was as good as what’s depicted here

 

4.The Silence of the Lambs

Watch out for Chianti stains

 

5.Groovy

Dead-on

 

6.The Shower Scene

Murderin’ Marion

 

7.I Am the Way

That’s my pleasure, sir

 

8.Predator

Smiling for a head shot

 

9.Trick ‘R Treat

Sam and ensemble

 

10.London After Midnight

Beware of what this guy’s drinking on New Year’s Eve

 

Hill of the King: A Review of Strange Weather

Stephen King (Different Seasons; Four Past Midnight) isn’t the only horror writer to publish thematically-grouped novella quartets (cf. Charles Grant’s Dialing the Wind; The Black Carousel), but he is undoubtedly the most popular. Joe Hill, though, might soon threaten his father’s reign, as evidenced by his latest collection Strange Weather.

The opening novella, “Snapshot,” appears to pick up right where the finale of Four Past Midnight left off. Much like “The Sun Dog,” Hill’s story deals with a young protagonist’s encounter with a paranormal camera, which in this case doesn’t capture moments but actually erases the subject’s memories. This alien technology from another reality could have come straight from the Dark Tower multiverse. A coming-of-age tale, “Snapshot” even references Stand By Me (not coincidentally, Will Wheaton narrates the audio version of the novella), but such invocation only throws the loneliness and “adolescent sadness” of the obese thirteen-year-old Michael Figlione into starker contrast. The narrative’s mysterious and perfectly nasty villain, the Phoenician, is perhaps vanquished too easily and too early on, but the long anticlimax does a fine job of establishing the American Gothic elements of the figure’s photographic endeavors (which trace back to a heinous act of domestic violence). For all its fantastic elements, “Snapshot” reminds us of the natural ravages of senescence; it is a haunting tale that won’t fade from consciousness anytime soon.

“Loaded” is the longest of the four pieces collected here, and the most frighteningly realistic (arguably that Hill has ever written). Mall security guard Randall Kellaway is hailed as a hero when he stops a potential mass shooting, but the circumstances of his intervention set off a chain reaction of events that culminates in an explosive climax. Hill makes poignant points about racism and gun violence, but without ever climbing up onto a soapbox. With its large cast of diverse characters whose storylines inevitably intersect, “Loaded” forms the author’s literary equivalent of Crash, and is just as award-worthy.

In “Aloft,” a parachuting mishap renders Aubrey Griffin a “Robinson Crusoe of the sky”–stranded in cumulonimbic limbo, on a sentient and wondrously protean cloud island. The scenario is a prime example of the soaring flights of fancy Hill is so apt to produce, and allows him to flex his writing muscles via passages of astonishing description (e.g. “Ohio lay beneath him, an almost perfectly flat expanse of variegated squares in shades of emerald, wheat, richest brown, palest amber. […] Ruler-straight ribbons of blacktop bisected the fields below. A red pickup slid along one of these black threads like a bright steel bead on an abacus.”). “Aloft” is at once humorous and profoundly human (in its meditation on unrequited–and also unrecognized–love). With its glimpses of both the exhilaratingly beautiful and the awful (the unworldly flying object doesn’t lack a Lovecraftian aspect), the narrative epitomizes the sublime. This one reads like a lost masterpiece from the glory days of Amazing Stories.

Fans of Hill’s last novel, The Fireman, will revel in “Nails,” a post-apocalyptic epic condensed into a novella. The weather is at its strangest here, as crystalline slivers rain devastatingly from the sky. This deadly downpour, though, doesn’t represent some latter-day Biblical plague, isn’t presented as meteorologically-themed magic realism. Instead, the tale posits an act of terrorism that is made to sound terrifyingly plausible. Hill has a grand time describing the bloody mayhem created by the unnatural hail, but for all the chaos that ensues, it is order that ultimately impresses most. The narrative is as tightly plotted as a murder mystery (which in a certain sense it is), where even the smallest and seemingly most incidental detail proves integral. Heart-pounding and heartbreaking, filled with stunning set pieces and touching character moments, “Nails” needs to be made into a feature film quicker than a wicked thunderstorm rolls in.

While its structure recalls the work of Stephen King, this book also testifies to what a unique and incredible talent Joe Hill is. The local forecast for the reader of Strange Weather: captivation, with unremitting entertainment.

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

In my last post, I focused on Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, a novel that is undoubtedly indebted to the work of Stephen King (not coincidentally, Hex‘s main character is named Steve). The strongest echoes are of King’s Pet Sematary, but the town-meeting scenes bring to mind Storm of the CenturyThinking back on that King-scripted miniseries has led me to re-post the following piece (from my old Macabre Republic blog). It is the text of a paper I gave years back at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. 

 

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

Meandering through four hours of melodrama and not-so-special effects, the 1999 miniseries developed from Stephen King’s teleplay Storm of the Century hardly gets off to a compelling start. The arrival of the evil Linoge as Maine’s Little Tall Island is battered by a massive winter storm seems but a tedious rehash of the Randall Flagg plotline in The Stand: a supernatural antagonist manifests just as disaster threatens the breakdown of social order. Linoge’s endlessly reiterated demand in Storm of the Century–“Give me what I want, and I’ll go away”–creates perhaps less a sense of suspense than of irritation and impatience. The faithful viewer (the telematic analogue of King’s Constant Reader) is almost tempted to hold up the TV remote like Linoge’s cane and intone, “Give me what I want, or I’ll go away.”

On its third and final night, though, the miniseries takes a gripping turn. Linoge finally reveals the motivation behind his menacing: the sinister sorcerer wants Little Tall to hand over one of the town’s children to him, a boy or a girl whom Linoge subsequently will raise in his own image. At first, King might seem to have fallen back on familiar territory once again, considering that the parental anxiety over child welfare forms a leitmotif in the author’s works. But what proves particularly striking in this case is the moral dilemma Linoge creates (he threatens to kill all the children and all the parents if Little Tall does not give him what he wants) and the sociopolitical forum Linoge has Little Tall adopt when making its torturous decision: a good old-fashioned New England town meeting.

In his introduction to the published teleplay version of Storm of the Century, King attests that the Little Tall setting does not merely offer a convenient atmosphere of claustrophobia as the island is cut off from the mainland by the snowstorm and forced to fall back on its own resources: “The final impetus was provided by the realization that if I set my story on Little Tall Island, I had a chance to say something interesting and provocative about the very nature of community…because there is no community in America as tightly knit as the island communities off the coast of Maine. The people in them are bound together by situation, tradition, common interests, common religious practices.”  King’s climactic town meeting thus might be viewed in light of Sacvan Bercovitch’s critique (in his 1993 study, The Rites of Assent) of the rhetoric and rituals of American consensus. These “strategies of symbolic cohesion” inform the American Gothicism of Storm of the Century: “Is the result of pulling together always the common good?” King wonders in the introduction. “Does the idea of ‘community’ always warm the cockles of the heart, or does it on occasion chill the blood?” When King broaches the subject of communal formation and revitalization in Storm of the Century, he affords himself the opportunity to say something interesting and provocative about the poetics and politics of the horror genre itself.

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He Got Gamey

A quarter-century after its first publication, Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game has finally streamed its way onto Netflix. The film adaptation is no small feat, considering the challenges presented by the source material (with its inciting moment of a bondage game gone awry): protagonist Jessie Burlingame spends the bulk of the novel mostly naked and left handcuffed to the bedpost after a mule kick to her jackass husband’s crotch leads to the titular Gerald’s death by heart attack. Director Mike Flanagan deftly sidesteps issues of nudity and related sordidness by working details of a new negligee and a little blue pill into the plot, but he arguably drops the ball when attempting to execute a similar modifying maneuver.

I can appreciate that King’s novel–where Jessie is not only chained to the bed but locked up inside her own head–is fundamentally unfilmable without certain liberties being taken. Nevertheless, the movie’s decision to personify the voices in Jessie’s head as hallucinations proves problematical on several fronts. The almost darkly-comic note struck by these figures as they move around the bedroom somehow mutes the horror of Jessie’s solitary confinement. Streamlining eliminates the “Goodwife Burlingame” and “Ruth Neary” inner voices so prevalent in the novel, and the assertive/acerbic Jessie alter ego visualized in the film ends up lacking rationale. Most troubling of all is the reanimation of Gerald as recurring hallucination. While I did like that this allowed him to toss a couple of verbal Easter eggs (alluding to other King works), I soon found myself wishing that Bruce Greenwood’s character would just shut up and play dead already. Gerald spends too much film time posthumously dictating to his wife (for better or for worse), which seems to short circuit many of the feminist impulses of King’s novel.

Gerald’s lingering presence also eclipses another masculine antagonist; the film’s so-called “Moonlight Man” is both underutilized and misused. This dreadful apparition is drawn out of the shadows way too soon, missing a tremendous opportunity to develop extended psychological suspense. The Moonlight Man then haunts the film via a few nightmarish yet fleeting images that fail to capture the tormenting effect he has on the book version of Jessie. Also, in the adapted concluding scene in which Jessie confronts her monstrous voyeur, the film eschews the visceral (she spits right in his face in the book), opting for an expression of defiance that comes off as more trite than empowering.

Make no mistake, Carla Gugino gives a strong and believable performance as Jessie. Perhaps inevitably, though, the film lacks the immediacy, the intensity, of King’s novel.  As a viewer, I felt distanced, and (excepting the excruciating handcuff-escape scene) struggled to be be drawn into the experience of Jessie’s physical and mental ordeal. Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) is a fine director, but ultimately appears shackled here by the circumstances of King’s narrative. While it provides a few hours of solid entertainment, this version of Gerald’s Game isn’t destined to be called a classic.

The Mist Revisited

Stephen King’s 1980 novella The Mist has since inspired an incredible theatrical film version (2007), and a decade later, an entertaining, if somewhat divergent, TV series. However faithful these adaptations might prove to be, they nonetheless exist as different forms of media and are inevitably forced to discard elements of the source text. The strong imagery of these more recent cinematic/televisual translations also has the capacity to eclipse the actual words of King’s narrative and leave a deeper imprint on the modern audience’s imagination. After viewing the first season of the TV series, I decided to return (after a long readerly absence) to the King novella for a refresher course in dread.  Some observations from that now-completed reread:

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It’s Incredible

Twenty-seven years after the TV miniseries, Stephen King’s monster epic has hit the big screen at last. Both savvy marketing and advanced critical praise have generated tremendous buzz, and the film does nothing to pop the lofty balloon of viewer expectations.

Admittedly, one of my biggest concerns going into It involved the cinematic shifting of the era of the characters’ coming of age, from the novel’s 1950s here to the 1980s: would the film just come off as a retread of the obviously King-influenced Stranger Things? The update, though, is made seamlessly, with no felt loss of the earlier decade’s particular cultural context (and famous movie monsters). An overwhelming sense of nostalgia never undermines the naturalness of the 1980s setting; invocations are made in a light-hearted rather than heavy-handed manner, such as a running joke involving New Kids on the Block and one hilarious mention of a certain red-headed femme of Brat-Pack fame.

The film’s settings are impressively dreadful: the shadow-soaked basement of the Denbrough home, the eerily-unquiet public library, the sewer system serving as Derry’s It-lodged bowels.  But it’s the decrepit house on Neibolt Street that looms largest, featuring enough frightful rooms to shame every haunted attraction nationwide. Overall, Derry is brought to remarkable life. Perhaps the single regret is that the town’s ugly history tends to be glossed over, referenced mostly by newspaper clipping. I would have loved to see incidents like the razing of the Black Spot and the Kitchener Ironworks explosion visualized via flashback.

One of the most admirable aspects of the film is its willingness to devote the time to develop each of the members of the Losers Club, to allow us to care about these young characters (imagine that in a horror movie!). Finn Wolfhard’s Richie nearly steals the show with his string of raucous one-liners, and along with Beverly tends to eclipse (the somewhat-underused) Ben and Bill (looking here like a latter-day Gordie Lachance), but the actors are excellent across the board.  Populated with endearing characters, It proves adept at eliciting “awws” as well as “ahhhs!” from its audience.

Make no mistake, though: this movie is genuinely terrifying. There are jump scares galore, all skillfully orchestrated. Expected set-pieces from the book make arresting appearance, including scenes involving the predatorial leper and Beverly’s blood-geysering bathroom sink. Director Andy Muschietti also concocts some fresh horrors, such as a painting-escaping grotesque that bedevils Stan–and forms the creepiest contorted female since Pet Sematary‘s Zelda. The film grows relentless in its onslaught, placing viewers in the same exhausting position as the continually evil-done protagonists.  For me, an added theater-going pleasure was getting to observe tweens in the audience shrieking and practically bouncing out of their seats in sheer terror–a perfect reminder of just how effective King’s original novel was when I first experienced it as an adolescent.

No film review of It can conclude without discussion of Pennywise, who is subject to a stunningly unsettling makeover (vs. the more garish figure cut by Tim Curry’s miniseries incarnation). Pennywise here is so undeniably frightful-looking, It almost defies belief: rather than being lured in, any kid with a lick of sense would turn and haul juvenile hiney at the first distant glimpse of such sinisterness. Nonetheless, Bill Skarsgard gives an amazing performance, whether posing as a static menace or launching into acrobatic act; this Dancing Clown has some jaw-dropping–and heart-stopping–moves. Pennywise’s signature line about floating is also given some wickedly inventive turns (I won’t spoil with specifics). It’s no hyperbole to claim that Skarsgard’s character is destined to be ranked among the greatest horror villains of all time. Nor would it be terribly bold to predict that a whole new generation is about to be afflicted with coulrophobia.

Much like the titular It, the film itself is richly-detailed, multifaceted, and given to frenetic action, and accordingly is sure to reward the repeating viewer.  While the end title promises a second filmic chapter, I am already counting the days (which hopefully won’t feel like an agonizing twenty-seven years) until It resurfaces on DVD.