The Black Stranger and Other American Tales, 2005, Robert E. Howard
The nice thing about this collection is that it doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of Howard’s work, which, given that pretty much every story here is set in the US, there are plenty of opportunities to showcase.
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Our cold open this week is Jack sitting on a bench, feeling sorry for himself while he ruminates silently on how twisted up the differences between good and evil seem to be lately on their quest to retrieve cursed antiques. Then we flashback to 1969, and see Kurt Bachman and his new bride Michelle on their honeymoon, when she’s abducted by a vampire (which are totally a thing independent of curses in this universe).
We cut to the present day (of 1989), as Jack continues to narrate the story of how Kurt became a vampire hunter, with some rather heavy handed comparisons between Kurt and those he hunts, leading to him returning bit player Jill Hennessey vamping on a club goer. He stakes her, which upsets a group of flying vampires who conveniently stay off-screen, and is chased into a church. He steals an antique crucifix from the altar, stabbing the priest accidentally with the blade hidden inside the cross, before leaving. The next day, Jack and Micki are at the church, the dead priest being yet another occult friend of Jack’s, and the crucifix turns out to be a relic from the Crusades, the Cross of Fire, so, yeah, clearly something Lewis Vendredei got his hands on at some point. Meanwhile, Kurt has tracked the vampire who abducted his bride to a club, and discovers the power of the Cross of Fire, which is basically to be a holy flame thrower, when he incinerates a bouncer who let’s just say was a vampire. The death makes the news, confirming the gang’s suspicions, and leading Jack to arrange a talk with the head vampire, club owner Evan Van Hellier, and getting only elusive answers from his human henchman.
That night, Kurt breaks into the Van Hellier mansion, killing a security guard in the process to power up the cross, but Van Hellier escapes before being incinerated. Kurt does manage to barge in on a pair of Stock Lesbian Vampires, incinerating one and discovering that the other is his long-lost wife, Michelle. He takes her to his completely inconspicuous abandoned factory covered in crucifixes lair, which is almost immediately raided, unsuccessfully, by Van Hellier. Van Hellier turns to Jack for help in dealing with the Cross of Fire, who notices that Van Hellier is a vampire when he casts no reflection in a mirror at the shop, while Kurt goes and gets a prostitute to feed to Michelle. While Kurt and Michelle are distracted, the gang breaks in and steals the cross, and Michelle agrees to make Kurt a vampire to protect him from Van Hellier, now that he has no protection. When Micki and Johnny see Van Hellier arrive, they go in to help Kurt, unaware of what has happened, and refusing to listen to Jack’s insistence that the only thing they should concern themselves with is recovering the cursed object. Kurt and Van Hellier get into a a vamp fight, during which Van Hellier is staked, and Kurt is splashed with holy water by Jack, having overcome his reservations out of concern for Micki and Johnny’s safety. Michelle he leaves to her fate, finding himself unable to bring himself to kill her. And then he goes and spends some time on a bench feeling sorry for himself.
Hoo, boy, this is rough. The main cast is almost completely side-lined during the story, and the cursed object is something of an afterthought; visually impressive, but not even the main focus on the story. The story itself is mostly concerned with Kurt and Van Hellier fighting over Michelle in some form or another, with Michelle herself pretty much something of an afterthought as well. The soft theme of the season, with characters pondering the morality of their actions, is present, but it’s hard to give much sympathy to Jack’s concerns when the people who prompted them were all pretty killing other people throughout the story.
A Very Robey 80s
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Mixing comedy with horror is, as I’ve talked about in the past, a tricky business. But people keep going to the well, probably because when it’s done well, it is extremely satisfying. There’s just something about those two primal emotions, joy and fear, playing off each other. For some peculiar reason, New Zealand seems to be one of the few countries that really excels at making the combo work.
What We Do In The Shadows is a faux documentary focused on Viago, Vladislav, and Deacon, three centuries old Eastern European vampires living in a run-down house in a Wellington suburb. Also living with them is Petyr, an almost completely feral Nosferatu-type creature, in the basement. Wellington, for inexplicable reasons, is home to a host of supernatural creatures, including a large vampire community, but the three room-mates are, clearly, not adjusting well to 21st century life, spending most of their time in petty squabbles, nostalgia, and utterly failed attempts to find victims. Until one night Jackie, Deacon’s human servant, brings some victims over and one, Nick, is turned into a vampire by Petyr. Nick, along with his very human computer programmer friend Stu, prove to be what the vampires needed to jump-start them into adjusting to the new century and moving on from their past regrets, much to the annoyance of Deacon, who finds his place as the cool, upstart bad-boy vampire taken by Nick. Unfortunately, Nick’s modernity also leads to a lack of care that endangers those around him, leading ultimately to the (re)death of Petyr and the mauling of Stu by a pack of werewolves. Ultimately, though, a kind of happiness is found for everyone.
Much of What We Do In The Shadows is straight comedy. It’s very character driven, establishing the three leads, their particular neuroses, and letting them play off each other and the world around them in a naturalistic way. So, when the film does shift gears into horror, as it does dramatically on at least two occasions, the contrast is jarring. The horror sequences are genuinely tense, and don’t shy away from the inherent monstrousness of the characters. This is actually a recurring feature of the film; it never lets you forget that these three men, as quirkily appealing as they are, are all mass murderers (Deacon even casually mentions that he was a Nazi, just to drive the point home). Yes, there is a pathos to them (the joy they all experience when Stu shows them sunrise videos on YouTube is palpable), but at the end of the day they’re monsters. It’s hard to classify them as evil, though; the only truly evil character would appear to be Jackie, who is quite happy to lead innocents to their death if it means she can get what she wants out of Deacon. The contrast with her and Stu, who actually does seem put off by the supernatural but stays with it because of his friendship with Nick, keeps the film from the now insufferable cliche of “humans are the real monsters” though.
The film also deserves credit for almost aggressively shying away from the trend in modern vampire stories to make the creatures “not vampires” in some way, or to dismiss the accumulation of vampire lore as mere fictions. These vampires die in the sun, avoid crucifixes, are burned by silver; in general, they conform to all the major elements of classical vampire lore. A lot of this ties into the overall themes at play in the film, specifically the conflicts between the present and the past. Each of the characters, in some ways, is unable to reconcile themselves to their place in the modern world. Even Nick, the very modern and contemporary character, is challenged by the realization that he is going to ultimately outlive everyone he knows and that the future ahead of him is one of constant loss, that he is going to become just as much a relic of the past as the others. Sticking to the vampire lore gives the film the grounding it needs that ultimately allows the characters to move forward and find some kind of reconciliation with the present.
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You know how long I’ve waited for a good new entry to the werewolf film canon? It’s been decades since An American in London came out, and even Dog Soldiers is pretty long in the tooth now. So…this isn’t the next great werewolf movie we’ve been waiting for, no, but it does somehow manage to be an interestingly flawed indie horror comedy.
In the small rural town of Woodhaven, Sheriff’s Deputy Lou Garou is an all around embarrassment; not only an incompetent cop but the town drunk as well, which is saying something given the not at all hidden drug cartel essentially running the town. Lou is given the thankless task of investigating local gun shop owner Willie’s claim of a lead in the ongoing investigation of missing pets and animal attacks that are casting a pall over the upcoming “drink and shoot” event, and this leads to the ritual sacrifice of a reforming politician and a pentagram being carved into Lou’s chest. As such things do. Lou awakens the next day with no memory of the preceding night, but strangely heightened senses and a new competence, which surprises Tina, the other deputy, since previously she was pretty much the only person in this town who ever seemed to do her damn job. That night Lou turns, gorily, into a werewolf in the bathroom of the town bar, operated by local temptress Jessica, and kills a couple of drug dealers that were sent to kill him for…reasons? Anyway, turning into a werewolf lends Lou an unanticipated competence that leads him into violently cleaning up the town, as well as attracting the sexual attention of Jessica. Which, unfortunately for Lou turns out to be a trap laid for him by the group of shape-shifters that have been secretly running the town for centuries, and enacting a “turn some poor sap into a werewolf and then sacrifice him to retain our power” ritual every 32 years. Luckily Tina comes to Lou’s rescue and the two manage to clean up the town of criminal and supernatural menaces both.
Wolfcop really wants to be a brisk comedy, and though most of the humor is really terrible and off-putting puns (at one point Wolfcop Lou describes himself as “the fuzz”), there are moments where the film-makers are clearly playing with the absurdity of their deliberately silly high-concept premise. Most obviously this is in the recurrent three robbers in pig masks, but there’s some extremely unsubtle Red Riding Hood imagery tossed into the mix as well. The problems with the film basically come from the concept not really coming with enough plot to stretch a film out to more than 90 minutes, and the efforts to correct that not really making sense. The notion of shapeshifters secretly running the town ties several disparate elements together, but as the characters point out, running a small meth-addled town is pretty low ambitions for a supernatural menace. And while “everyone was shapeshifters” goes some way to glossing over some of the more blatant plot holes, so would “everyone was corrupt” and that’s a hell of a lot simpler an explanation. Despite these issues, Wolfcop is, marginally, better than most of the other films making up the “high absurdity” trend in indie film horror these days. If that’s damning with faint praise, well…
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The Monstrumologist, 2015 ed., Rick Yancey
Well…it finally happened. I got tricked into reading a Young Adult series by a publisher reissuing it under an adult fiction imprint. In all fairness, I probably would have read it anyway, as a series about an asshole scientist in late 1880s America tracking down monsters of the classical variety, in this case some anthropophages straight out of Herodotus, is the sort of thing that is just weird enough to interest me.
I don’t remember kids books being quite so gorey when I was the target audience for YA books, though…
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