Two More Killer Burton Works

In yesterday’s post, I counted down Tim Burton’s Ten Best Directorial Efforts, limiting the list to films (both short and feature-length) directed (not simply produced) by Burton. What many fans might not realize, though, is that Burton has also served as a director of music videos–most notably for a pair of songs by The Killers. In 2006’s “Bones,” the drive-in meets the danse macabre, resulting in some very special skeletal effects. And 2012’s “Here With Me” presents a wax horror museum (Winona Ryder plays a mannequin-turned-animate) and a seaside amusement park with some dark carnival overtones. Terrific tracks both, whose videos are enhanced by Burton’s signature macabre style.

 

 

Dark Turns: Tim Burton’s Ten Best Directorial Efforts

Today is the 62nd birthday of the Macabre Republic”s preeminent filmmaker. In honor of the occasion, here is a countdown of Tim Burton’s top ten directorial efforts (i.e. the list excludes works for which he was only a producer, most notably The Nightmare Before Christmas).

 

10. Beetlejuice (1988)

The effects are now quite dated, and I’ve always found Michael Keaton’s performance more grating than entertaining. No film, though, has ever made more inspired use of Harry Belafonte, Jr. Charmingly cartoonish, Beetlejuice brims with mordant wit, and puts Burton’s fertile imagination on full display.

 

9. Vincent (1982)

This short film from early in Burton’s career is long on greatness. The stop-motion animation ranks with any of of the director’s later feature-length efforts, and Vincent Price’s narration is pitch (black) perfect. The story–centered on the Price- and Poe-obsessed, morbidly imaginative seven-year-old Vincent Malloy–has a fullness, and resonance, that belies the narrative’s six-minute runtime.

 

8. Dark Shadows (2012)

This film tends to be underappreciated, perhaps because it’s not quite what people expected. While adapting the characters and main plot points from the popular Gothic soap opera of the late 60’s and early 70’s, it presents a much different tonality. But the quirky wit that Burton infuses is fantastic, and the Collinwood Manor setting is astounding.

 

7. Batman Returns (1992)

No colorful shenanigans from Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and no Prince-ly “Partyman” playing in the background here; this sequel is much darker (and more adult-humored) than the original Batman movieNot since The Nightmare Before Christmas has there been such a dark carnivalization (courtesy of the Red Triangle Gang’s strategic attack on Gotham) of the Christmas season. Batman might get title billing, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman forms a fine feline femme fatale, but one senses that Burton considers Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (an unforgettable grotesque embodied by Danny DeVito) the main attraction of Batman Returns.

 

6. Ed Wood (1994)

Any lover of Monster Culture can’t help but be enthralled by the portrayals here of such figures as horror hostess Vampira and Tor Johnson (played, in a brilliant bit of casting, by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele). And Martin Laundau gives a career-defining, deservedly-Oscar-winning performance as a long-in-the-tooth Bela Lugosi. Burton’s black-and-white biopic presents an endearing portrait of the oddball director Wood and the outre troupe who assisted him in creating some of the most legendary bad films in the history of cinema.

 

5. Corpse Bride (2005)

While no doubt overshadowed by The Nightmare Before Christmas, this film arguably features sharper animation, more memorable songs, and a stronger storyline than its popular predecessor. The foray into the Land of the Dead is quintessential Burton, a vibrant vision of a realm populated by a slew of offbeat characters. Underworldly nuptials have never made for a more rousing ceremony.

 

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

A Universal monster movie reset in a retro California, Edward Scissorhands offers both a cutting satire of suburban banality and an amazing array of sight gags. It is also the most moving of Burton’s films, with its message of overlooking difference and embracing otherness. Hands down, the best (if most understated) role of Johnny Depp’s career.

 

3. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Never before or since has Burton put together a more stellar cast (Jack Nicholson even plays dual roles). But the film–a hilarious spoof of Golden Age sci-fi/horror–trots out its cast of human characters only to do most of them in, in spectacularly violent fashion. Delivering yuks and “acks” aplenty, Mars Attacks! splashes black humor across the screen in bright comic-book colors.

 

2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

What at first sounds like a recipe for disaster (Johnny Depp doing showtunes?) ultimately turns out to be a smash hit as both a musical and a horror film. Thanks to the source material’s rooting in revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd constitutes the darkest and most relentlessly grim of any of Burton’s cinematic narratives. (For further discussion, see my piece published in the 2011 volume Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film [reprinted as a Free Read here on my website].)

 

1. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I have written extensively on what I believe to be the crowning achievement of Burton’s career as an auteur (check out my essay commemorating the 20th anniversary of Sleepy Hollow‘s release). So there’s not much more left to say here, other than the fact that Burton takes Washington Irving’s legendary story (the best known and most renowned spook tale in all of American Literature) and reworks it into an ultra-atmospheric film that proves just as enchanting and widely influential.

 

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.

Trains of Thought

The subject of this week’s Lore episode has got me thinking: what are the most unnerving trains to appear in the horror genre throughout history? In terms of fiction, these works immediately come to mind: Robert Aickman’s “The Trains,” Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train,” Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass (featuring that riddle-loving pain, Blaine the Mono), and Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.”  Aside from the film adaptation of that Books of Blood story, there’s also Terror Train and Train to Busan in the cinematic realm. But the most memorable engine of terror might be the locomotive that delivers Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show to Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The sounds of that funeral train’s whistle are not soon forgotten:

 The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests  of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, bursting over the earth!

The carnival’s late-night arrival also forms a signature scene in the 1983 film version:

 

Any great train narratives in the horror genre that I failed to track here? Let me know in the comments section below.

Lore Report: “Off-Track” (Episode 149)

But not all advances are good for us. Every now and then, changes arrive on the scene that look shiny and new. They seem to solve a whole list of problems and become incredibly popular as a result. But in the process they build a brand new stage for history to be played out on, a stage where the most human characteristic of all–our desire to make and build and invent things–also unlocks our potential for something darker: tragedy, suffering, and death.

Episode 149 of the Lore podcast explores the dark side of a superficially bright development: the American railroad. Beginning with the legendary figure of John Henry, host Aaron Mahnke quickly moves to a discussion of an actual historical figure, Casey Jones. The story of the locomotive engineer’s heroic death is recounted with all of the grisly details left out of the popular ballads. The bulk of the episode, though, is devoted to the famous funeral train that conveyed the body of the assassinated President Lincoln home to Illinois (with several detours to accommodate American mourners along the way). This narrative makes for a great listen, not just to hear Mahnke wax poetic (“That dark metallic beast that seemed to be dragging Lincoln into the underworld, mile by mile”), but also to learn of the various supernatural occurrences that allegedly followed in the funeral train’s wake over the years.

My only issue with this latest offering is that I wish it were longer; Mahnke seems to use the episode mostly to promote the new podcast, American Shadows (in lieu of a concluding segment, he presents an excerpt from the just-launched show). Nevertheless, the content of this bit of Lore proves fantastically fascinating. When it comes to delivering tales of the macabre byproduct of American progress, “Off-Track” is right on the mark.

 

A Rebuttal to Lovecraft Haters

H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, simple and plain.

H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of the horror genre.

Both of these statements can coexist. To be disgusted by the fact of the former does not necessitate a disavowal of the latter.

This notion does not seem to have been given much consideration these days, in the midst of a rampant “cancel” culture with its rush to politicize/ostracize/erase. Case in point: the recent stoking of the flames of controversy by those who were offended by the awarding of a Retro Hugo (a retroactive honoring, in this instance, of fiction from 1944, a chosen year predating the existence of the Hugo Awards) to Lovecraft. I was alerted to this ostensible issue by a recent essay (more like an op-ed piece) posted by Meghan Ball on the Tor Nightfire website, entitled “Stop Giving Awards to Dead Racists: On Lovecraft and the Retro Hugos.” I have no intention of defending Lovecraft–whose indisputable racism is indefensible–here, but I do feel that there are problematic aspects of Ball’s rhetoric that need to be addressed.

Ball takes unabashed umbrage at Lovecraft’s posthumous win:

Literally the most racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist jerk in the entire history of horror as a genre got an award. Even more galling, somehow, is that apparently he won for “Best Series” which is a thing he never even really wrote. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Haven’t we suffered enough?

First, it needs to be clarified that this Retro Hugo was awarded to “The Cthulhu Mythos, by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others.” The distinction was not given to Lovecraft alone, yet Ball is quick to cast Derleth and others aside here. Such singling out of Lovecraft (who, as the original creator of what has come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos, no doubt deserves prime recognition) suggests someone eager to take shots at the genre’s easiest target.

The grouse that Lovecraft never wrote a series is mere semantics. What I find more relevant is the competition that the Cthulhu Mythos was grouped against for the Retro Hugo. Looking at the other nominees in the “Best Series” category, I don’t think this qualifies as an upset win. Nor do I think the award is the result of any sort of reactionary conspiracy by the voters.

Ball’s lament about suffering is a bit much, smacking of the hyperbolic and melodramatic. And before anyone accuses me of writing from a position of privilege, let me just say that as an Italian-American, I would have been tossed by Lovecraft into the same cauldron of nauseating vitriol. Personally, though, I don’t feel particularly damaged by the choosing of Lovecraft (and others) for the Retro Hugo, or deem it some torturous development for writers in the horror genre.

In the subsequent paragraph of her piece, Ball’s struggle to come to terms with the acknowledgement of Lovecraft continues:

This literally did not have to happen. The point of these awards is to highlight achievements in the genre that never got awarded. I imagine there was a group of very well-meaning people who thought maybe they could uncover lost gems or highlight authors who never really got their due in their lifetime.  Instead, they appear to be a way to give the same few names more accolades, and seem rather alarmingly unconnected with what is going on right now in the genre. The phrase “read the room” comes to mind.

The operative phrase here is “I imagine”: Ball speculates on the intended spirit of the Retro Hugo awards. Her view skews toward the honoring not merely of the overlooked, but to the under-represented. Her comments speak to a seeming resentment of Lovecraft’s enduring popularity (honestly, would anyone be so outraged over him had he faded into obscurity along with his pulp brethren?), and implicitly interrogate anyone who dares to contribute further to it in any way. Even more bothersome is Ball’s complaint that giving such award to Lovecraft represents a dangerous disconnect with current goings-on in the genre. Does the citing of work circa the mid-1940s have anything to do with what is transpiring in 2020? Is it the obligation of the Retro Hugo Awards to “read the room”? I am reminded of the politicizing of the Oscars in recent years, where the recognition of intrinsic artistic merit has been eclipsed by the desire for gestures toward social justice.

Next, Ball professes:

I love Cthulhu as much as anyone else. That’s why I am here to say: enough is enough with Lovecraft. He has become the racist albatross around the neck of cosmic horror, and I am so sick and tired of it. It’s not “Lovecraftian horror,” it’s “cosmic horror,” because one man does not have a copyright on wondering what horrors lurk beyond the stars.

After having herself just focused exclusively on Lovecraft as the awardee (ignoring the other contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos), Ball proceeds to call for a broadening beyond him. More off-putting is Ball’s arrogating to herself the responsibility for being the conscience of, and mouthpiece for, the genre.

Indeed, time and again, Ball enacts a disconcerting slippage between “I” and “we”:

As a community, we have outgrown Lovecraft. We’ve moved beyond him. While his influence will always be there, cosmic horror is undergoing a diverse and powerful transformation into something way beyond what ol’ Howard ever envisioned. […] Cosmic horror is being turned into something wonderful and new in the hands of talented women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ authors. It would have made Lovecraft hide under his bed, quaking in his boots, and I love that. That is what should be celebrated now, yet we keep picking at Lovecraft like someone picking at a scab, never letting it heal.

There is some vagueness here as to what Ball wants to celebrate: the emergence of new voices in cosmic horror fiction, or the imagined (in vindictive mindset) causing of distress to Lovecraft? That scab analogy is also interesting, considering that it’s the denigrators of Lovecraft who appear the most compelled to pick away and keep the putative wound fresh.

And allow me to digress slightly here to address what I believe to be a disturbing trend in the genre: the systematic discrimination against writers of perceived advantaged background. I am talking about the calls for submissions to anthologies and magazines that strictly limit the demographic; straight white males need not apply. This exclusionary measure offends on several levels, not the least of which is the suggestion that such writers are incapable of creating characters of different ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation than their own (these same writers doubtless would be excoriated for a lack of diversity in their cast if they failed to offer such representations in their work). These days, the author’s identity seems to supersede the fictional product itself. But as another genre giant once asserted, “It’s the tale, not he who tells it” (although, I am sure that today Stephen King would be loudly rebuked for employing such a masculinist pronoun).

Returning to Ball’s bouncing of Lovecraft:

I think everyone who considers himself a fan of horror or science fiction or fantasy is just tired. I know I am. […] We’ve also been going through so many terrible things the past few years, with revelations within the genre space of sexual harassment, racism, ableism, and homophobia. It has been a very long few years. That’s why the act of giving H.P. Lovecraft an award feels even worse: it’s just another step backwards. I’m not saying that you can never read a Cthulhu story again, you just shouldn’t be giving an award to the person everyone uses as the ultimate example of racism in the genre at a time when we are still very much dealing with racism in the genre.

Again, Ball problematically assumes that she can speak on behalf of “everyone.” Making Lovecraft the figurehead for everything that is wrong with the modern genre doesn’t seem very fair, either. The man has been rotting in his grave for nearly a century now; he shouldn’t be implicated in acts of sexual harassment, ableism, homophobia or even racism currently being committed by other genre figures. And how gracious of Ball to grant that we can still read Cthulhu stories (one suspects, though, that she does so grudgingly).

The disgruntled Bell, meanwhile, wonders whether the Retro Hugos shouldn’t just be dismantled as an awards program. She points out that “these awards seem to be doing further harm to a genre already reeling, and we do not need to keep flagellating ourselves like this. We don’t need to keep contorting ourselves and bleeding out on the altar of ‘proper canon’ created by dead white guys to show fealty to our chosen genre.” Earlier, Ball championed the positive developments in the genre; here she posits a “reeling” genre in serious crisis. The tendency appears to be to tout empowerment or alternately play a victim (admittedly, I find that elaborate masochism conceit a bit of a head-scratcher) whenever it best suits the narrative. Ball’s scornful dismissal of “dead white guys,” reducing genre history to a convenient, pejorative catch phrase, speaks volumes about her antagonistic perspective.

Ball concludes with the denouncing pronouncement that the “Retro Hugos, as well as the 2020 Hugo Awards themselves, were a massive step backwards, awash in the glorification of a past that was primarily white and male, dismissive of anything new, and borderline hostile to changes made for the better. How many people saw Lovecraft’s win and decided this wasn’t the genre for them?”

My immediate response to Ball’s overreaction is, how many people saw Lovecraft’s win (at a conference set in New Zealand, no less), period. How many genre fans really care about this year’s Hugo winners, let alone a retroactive award for the year 1944? I would venture that more–by which I mean a select cadre of–writers (determined to build their own platform by climbing up on a soapbox) than readers were chagrined by Lovecraft’s win.

In any event, the keyword here is “decided.” It links back to Ball’s opening paragraph, where the author declares it an “abomination” that “a group of people decided to give H.P. Lovecraft an award.” Ball clearly cannot accept that this award was the product of a popular vote–that others might actually hold a viewpoint different from her own.

I’ll say it again: Lovecraft was a flat-out racist. I regret his bigoted ignorance, and pity him for whatever biological/environmental forces warped his outlook so terribly. But I am quite capable of deciding for myself, without the influence of self-appointed genre spokespeople, whether or not Lovecraft’s benighted perspective taints my enjoyment of his fiction, or stymies my willingness to engage with his weird tales altogether.

Ultimately, Ball’s essay–emblematic of the Lovecraft bashing that has grown so fashionable, and so tiresome in its rehearsal of the same racism argument–ends up promoting the very intolerance of others that it bemoans. Perhaps the author should be more careful going forward about throwing Lovecraft statuettes from her own glass house.

 

The Only Good Indians (Book Review)

The title of Native American horror writer Stephen Graham Jones’s latest novel is an appropriate one. It alludes to the notorious quote by General Philip Sheridan back in 1869 that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” So right from the get-go, Jones raises the specter of historical injustice, but does so without being too on-the-nose. Such approach sets the stage for the subsequent narrative. The Only Good Indians tackles all the salient issues, addresses the various exigencies of Native American existence in the modern-day United States–racial discrimination, police profiling, poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse–but always in a manner that is organic to the story being told. Jones’s narrative never devolves into bitter lament; the author’s barbs are often delivered with wry humor. An influx of cash, for example, causes the character Cass to ponder: “In the old days, which means up until last month, forty dollars extra would have turned itself into a cooler of beer. Just, poof, Indian magic, don’t even need any eagle feather fans or a hawk screeching, just look away long enough for it to happen.” A few paragraphs later, Cash considers his own virility: “What he figures is that he’s shooting blanks, just like all the Indians when they’re fighting John Wayne.” Later, when told mid-ritual that a sweat lodge is the safest place in the Indian world, thee teenager Nate snickers and sardonically retorts, “Safest place in the Indian world? That means we’re only 80 percent probably going to die here, not ninety percent?”

This being a horror novel, many members of the predominantly Native American cast of characters do end up dying (the story centers on a group of young men who engage in an illegal and ill-fated elk hunt on tribal ground, and who are forced to face the consequences of their transgression a decade later). Jones is careful, though, to first build a sense of creeping unease–glimpses of a shadowy menace, disquieting creaks on a staircase–that makes the subsequent eruptions of graphic violence all the more stunning. The author is unflinching in his depiction of gruesome demise, painting mayhem in vivid imagery marked by precise yet unique detail. For instance, let’s just say that Jones is the hands-down winner of the award for Most Harrowingly Original Death-on-a-Motorcycle Scene, and leave it at splat.

The Only Good Indians is masterfully structured, with minor, seemingly throw-away items ultimately proving integral to the overall plot (this is definitely a novel that will be appreciated even more upon a second read). If I had one complaint, however, it’s that Jones’s chapter titles sometimes are a bit spoiler-ish.

Throughout his career as a fiction and nonfiction writer, Jones has established himself as an unabashed fan of slasher cinema. Such love, as many reviewers have noted, is also evident here, as Jones applies many elements of the slasher-film formula (one basketball-star character is even nicknamed, quite suggestively, “Finals Girl”). But at the same time, reviewers have universally overlooked The Only Good Indians‘ engagement with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Both novels involve a devious female shapeshifter hellbent on vengeance against a group of males (each, hardly coincidentally, including characters named Lewis and Ricky) who wronged her years earlier. While Straub utilizes (less euphemistically: “culturally appropriates”) the mythological figure of the manitou as antagonist, Jones offers more of an insider’s perspective onto a frightful (yet not merely demonized) creature from Native American lore, Elk Head Woman.

The Only Good Indians is a haunting novel, one that stays with the reader not just because of the horrific events transpiring within, but also due to the beautiful language employed throughout. It might not be Jones’s best book (for me, that remains the ingenious Demon Theory), but it is a strongly representative work by an important Native American voice, and a damn fine writer, period.