Wednesday, December 03, 2014

A look at The Babadook

Since The Babadook's been scaring a small army of film critics and The Exorcist director William Friedkin, I started to search for local showtimes. Wasn't even at the local indy venue, but I happily discovered it on streaming on Amazon and sprung for a rental last night.

It didn't absolutely terrify me. Perhaps I wasn't able to get into quite the right mental place while sitting in my living room, but it manages some sustained creepiness, delivers just enough on the monster front and mixes in psychological thriller elements and strong characterizations.

I think the fact that it ventures out of safe and cookie-cutter horror territory is responsible for much of the hoopla. I aslo think the accolades are well earned.

The tale's not template free. A middle section bears some resemblance to Roman Polankski's Repulsion, as critics have noted, and there's a touch of The Exorcist and other terrors, but it stirs the mixture enough to make things new and different.

Directed by Jennifer Kent, who's also an actress, the tale focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who works mind-numbing shifts in a nursing home to support her son, Robbie (Daniel Henshall). The performances are incredible. Really.

Amelia's husband was killed in an accident while driving her to a hospital for the boy's birth, and she's never allowed a party on the child's calendar birthday. As the story begins, Robbie's acting out at school and amid relatives, and Amelia's struggles and challenges are clear.

A wonderfully creepy pop up book turns up to complicate things or perhaps reflect the state of affairs. Mr. Babadook literally leaps off the page to become a boogie man who haunts the shadows and the imagination. He's a great, understated figure.

Is it all real or is Amelia snapping from the pressure? The tale treads that grey territory deftly, and things grow more and more jittery as Amelia seems to become possessed and thus more threatening to Robbie than Mr. Babadook.

The story becomes at once a creepy tale and a metaphor for family difficulties.

Will it scare everyone? Probably not. Will its subtleties be lost on some audiences? Probably so.

Does it represent the new face of horror? Maybe not totally, but the genre could do with more films that attempt what The Babadook does. More Amelia's, fewer dead teens!

I'd definitely say it was worthy my time and the rental fee.  






Thursday, November 27, 2014

Family Affair Hosts Oklahoma on Thanksgiving

I don't find much information about it on the web, but once upon a time the debut of a 15-year-old movie on network TV was a big deal. Things didn't turn up on TNT 15 minutes after a run on HBO in those days.

One Thanksgiving, Wikipedia says it's 1970 and that I believe, CBS rolled out Oklahoma, hosted by the cast of Family Affair.

The memory's not green, as Isaac Asimov might have phrased it. In fact, the memory's a little fuzzy, but it's not completely lost. While I can, I'd like to set the record straight on a few things.

Wikipedia by way of IMDB trivia contends that the cast hosted in character. That's not how I recall it, and I think I'm right.

First of all, they weren't on the Family Affair set, playboy architect (Christine reminded me he was a civil engineer, I knew he was always building stuff) Bill Davis's Manhattan apartment. I think it was supposed to be Sebastian Cabot's house. He played Uncle Bill's gentleman's gentleman, Mr.
French.

I don't recall why he was baby sitting Johnny Whitaker and Anissa Jones in the scenario, but that seemed to be the case. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recall that things seemed off to my young brain because he wasn't referring to them as Buffy and Jody. We'll call that Roman numeral II in the case of Wikipedia being wrong.

As the movie progressed, and commercial breaks ensued, Cabot popped pop corn for the kids and they settled in for viewing Rodgers and Hammerstein with the rest of America.

Then on another commercial break, there came a knock at Sebastian Cabot's door. He urged Johnny Whitaker not to answer, wanting to watch Rod Steiger perform Pore Jud without distraction, I guess.

Johnny was already up with popcorn bowl in hand, and who should be at the door but Kathy Garver, Cissy on Family Affair?

She'd been watching in her own home when her TV blew out. If she was in character, she wouldn't have had her own place. "When the `Surrey with the Fringe on Top' went `clip flop' my TV went flip flop," she said. Or something like that. Letter C in the case against Wiki accuracy.

IMDB and Wikipedia also claim Brian Keith, Uncle Bill, was on hand as well. I don't recall that being the case, unless he dropped by Seb's crib late and I'd dozed off or something. I didn't usually doze off watching TV then.

Since I believe the whole Family Affair show worked around his movie schedule, it would make sense that he wouldn't have signed for the Thanksgiving special, but I have not proof.

That's about the extent of what I recall. Anyone else with recollections, feel free to send me a message. Or, if anyone interviews Kathy Graver or Johnny Whitaker anytime soon, ask them for the record and for history. 'til then that will have to do.

Coming soon to my blog: The differences between Johnny Whitaker's Napoleon and Samantha the film and the Gold Key movie-tie-in comic book.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad - An Audible Holiday Ghost Story

The British tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve isn't quite as well realized on the U.S. side of the pond. 

Sure, about a million versions of A Christmas Carol get air time over the holidays, but otherwise it's not really a familiar practice as we yanks gather around the fireplace on December 24. 

Audible may raise a little more American awareness of holiday chills with their free holiday download of David Suchet reading "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Land" by M.R. James.

(A free e-text version is here.)

I like to tell my students James (1862-1936) was sort of the Stephen King of his day, offering up tales of ghosts, demons and curses set in the everyday world of his time rather than say, the Castle of Otranto.

"Oh Whistle" from 1904 provides a great taste of James with building mystery and menace. Suchet's most famous for his Hercule Poirot portrayal of course, but it's his more natural British voice and not his affected Belgian accent here. 

Assuming multiple characters while narrating, he seems the perfect voice for a James story. If you can settle back and shut out the world around you, he'll take you softly and subtly along with young Professor Parkins. 

At the request of a fellow teacher, Parkins agrees to inspect local ruins in the little seaside town of Burnstow, where he takes a room at the Globe Inn, in spite of warnings that ghosts might be about.

He makes interesting discoveries as he prowls the ruins and grows more engrossed in historic finds. Of course he finds a whistle. 

What happens when you blow an ancient whistle? If you listen carefully and with imagination unleashed, you'll scary things.

Happily this is just one of several recordings of Suchet reading James. Great tales including "The Ash Tree" and "Casting the Runes," basis for the classic Night of the Demon, are also on hand. 

Get into the holiday spirit with a listen, and for more on the Victorian ghost traditions check out this Guardian article



Tuesday, November 04, 2014

What Serial Has to Teach Writers of Fiction

The This American Life Spin Off, Serial, has hooked a lot of listeners, and I think it can remind all writers of an important point.

Its longform focus on a 1999 Baltimore-area murder case and the teen convicted of the crime has fans watching the clock on Wednesday nights as they anticipate each new Thursday download.

A sub-Redditt devoted to analyzing the evidence and exploring ancillary articles has become an expansive resource for discussion and second-guessing. Slate has launched a special Spoiler Special series to discuss the storyline and the journalistic decisions of each episode.

Did Adnan Syed kill his girlfriend Hae Min Lee in a Best Buy parking lot midday in January 1999, or is someone else responsible? Who do you believe?

Once I discovered the show, I binge-listened, and I was struck by how the podcast illustrates well something all writers know in theory. Character is important. Every character textbook states it. We need characters we care about.

Serial is like a refresher course on that front, a reminder or a near perfect example of that point. Since it's real, there are no stick figures. Everyone's almost painfully quirky and unique.

Sure, whodunit is important in a crime story. I think the audience engages heavily in a did-he-do-it? game with Adnan, who Serial's reporter and narrator Sarah Koenig puts on stage through recorded phone interviews.

But mingling with the minutiae of timelines, cell tower pings and alibis are details about Syed and Lee's worlds in 1999, about the lives of friends, witnesses, cops and even minor players.

First of all Syed and Lee are from immigrant families. Syed's from a strict Muslim family, while Lee's Korean. They're sort of star crossed at the outset and drawn to each other in part from their understanding of family cultures and the need to slip around them. Getting caught together at a homecoming dance is a cause for turmoil and upheaval.

Adnan and Hae aren't the only ones who are fully realized as individuals as the story unfolds, Friends, witnesses, bit players all emerge and are revealed.

The guy who finds Lee's body buried in Baltimore's notorious Leakin Park has a complex history of his own. I won't spoil the way Serial doles out the secrets of Mister S, but suffice it to say he's more than a walk on.

Then there's Adnan's original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, a powerhouse litigator plagued by health problems. Eventually they shattered her career.

The finger is pointed at Adnan by Jay. He calls himself the "criminal element" of the kids' high school, and he may have helped bury Lee's body. But there are nagging little variations in his re-telling of things.

There's a girl who's almost an alibi,  Hae's friends, Adnan's pals, and you get to know almost all of them as individuals.

The true life tale is like a road map for the kind of characters that need to populate fiction as well as non-fiction stories.

While it's a tragic story that deserves reverence, it's a picture of the same landscape fiction must explore in its attempts to replicate and contemplate the world.

In fiction, why have a guy with no back story wander through your tale if he can have a history that makes him suspect too, at least for a while.

Why not shade the motives of peripheral characters and build in quirky contradictions as the complexity of the heart is probed?

Give Serial a listen, and learn.


Sunday, November 02, 2014

Godwin's Law

(I received a review copy of Godwin's Law, the second book in the Internet Tough Guys series by Bernard Maestas as part of the prep for our interview for The Big Thrill newsletter.)

Godwin's Law is a page turner that follows its bantering protagonists from a first stop in Germany on a globe- hopping run to keep a young woman out of a dangerous cult's clutches. 

Interestingly-paired ex-commando Alex Kirwan and hacker Ted Reagan have been hired as the tale opens to extract a young American woman from a powerful cult that has its own paramilitary arm. 

Freeing her is just the first hurdle in a really trying trip home for the two as they realize the cult's not willing to give her up easily. In fact, the villainous cult leader's ready to channel powerful resources to get the girl back. 

What's so special about Gwen Kane? The answer to that's the heart of the book and giving too much away would spoil part of the mystery that fuels all of the mayhem the tough guys traverse. 

Maestas has a real knack for funny banter and fast-paced action. As I mentioned in my article for The Big Thrill,  Law is an action film in print with a relentless pace and fabulous set pieces.

The title is a tip of the hat to author Mike Godwin's contention that if online conversations go on long enough, Nazi comparisons will result, regardless of the topic.

If you enjoy rollicking adventure thrillers, Godwin's Law should be of interest. 


Saturday, November 01, 2014

Horror Writing Guest Post

I did a guest post over at the Five Writers blog for Halloween.

I offered a few thoughts on turning readers' imaginations against them.

Check it out here.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Netflix streaming titles that have scared me lately


I've found a couple more Netflix titles disturbing of late. You know, in a good way.

I've learned that for horror films to be most effective for me, it helps if I watch in the dark without distractions, other than the nagging demands of my brain for sleep.

So propped on my pillow with my iPad recently, I screened In Fear and Mr. Jones, both 2013 releases.

Modestly budgeted, they made great use of suggested peril and creepy atmosphere to give me a shiver. The storylines are quite different. The buttons they push are similar.

In Fear, from Ireland and featuring Downton chauffeur Allen Leech, had the biggest impact. Ever get lost on a road trip? The film suggests one of the worst possible scenarios for what might happen when an Internet printout map fails you.

Of course there's no mobi coverage once Tom and Lucy (Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert) leave the main road and follow the signs toward the inn they're seeking. Soon they're driving in circles, and as darkness settles, they grow increasingly nervous while their situation seems to grow more and more bleak.

Occasional stops, to don parkas or make other car checks, begin to suggest someone might be lurking in the shadows.

The ambiguity, for me, produced a growing sense of unease mingled with flashes of real eeriness as a figure in a white mask lurked in the shadows, never quite fully defined.

Tom and Lucy aren't quite as interesting as characters as Leech's Max, who might be a savior or might be more sinister, and the tale may wind up in familiar territory for horror viewers, but the journey's dark and chilling enough to make the trip worthwhile.



The first hour or so of Mr. Jones also delivers some chills coupled with an intriguing premise tied to a Lovecraftian dreamscape.

Another young couple here, Scott and Penny (Jon Foster and Sarah Jones of Alcatraz), head to the wildness to work on a documentary. That sets up found footage possibilities with one twist. Scott's rigged his camera for a FaceTime-like view of the operator's face.

Shocked expressions mingle with what the camera's main lens sees. Just as Scott's plans and inspiration begin to crumble, he stumbles on odd nature sculptures by his neighbor, a shadowy and trench-coated figure who never quite comes into focus. Makes him scarier, just like the guy in white mask, though he prefers black.

Penny recognizes the sculptures as the work of Mr. Jones, an unknown artist who once shipped nine of his odd totems to various art dealers and others across America. Clearly she and Scott have stumbled on his studio.

Scott heads to New York to conduct interviews with Mr. Jones authorities including David Clennon who plays a gallery owner, recipient of one of the first sculptures. A more cynical recipient warns strange things transpire once a sculpture is received.

Meanwhile Penny's exploring Mr. Jones' studio and taking note of new work plus strange nooks and crannies. She gradually develops a theory that Mr. Jones sculptures may have a purpose.

When Scott returns, things begin to get more and more surreal. Whether it's because he's stopped taking medication or because something mystical is afoot, the final third of the film kind of explodes into an open-to-interpretation excursion.

Does the conclusion live up to the tantalizing possibilities the mysterious sculptures pose? Perhaps not. Maybe the last half hour's a little too overwhelming, but the building creepiness and the intriguing look of a scene created in Mr. Jones' underground lair kept me engaged for much of the film's length.

Above all, in spite of my jaded and desensitized perspective, a few ripples of fear crept through me. That made the films stand out.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Insidious Chapter 3 Trailer

The new Insidious Chapter 3 trailer raises lots of questions like "Can a prequel be Chapter 3?" and "Does Tucker really have a Mohawk?"



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