Tag Archives: Horror Films

A Close Call, Boskone, Samhain, and The VVitch

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A Close Call, Boskone, Samhain, and The VVitch

My day job as an academic librarian provides plenty of access to resources in the humanities and sciences. I come from more of an arts and literature background than a scientific one, which I often lament because so many of the speculative fiction writers I admire (H.G. Wells, Caitlín R. Kiernan) apply their knowledge of the sciences to their work, and to great effect.

I see the sciences as a form of alchemy, an application of precepts and formulae that can, if used properly and carefully (no accidental explosions), enrich imaginative literature. I apply my background in library science towards cataloging, preservation, and providing public access. There are templates to work from, and I like having such standards to help guide me on my way.

I also often write a librarian into my stories at least as a secondary character. For example, Meredith Magnuson, the former child slave-turned general in Terror Lizard, holds eons of the world’s archives through a device grafted into her right hand.

There is, of course, no formula for success in writing and publishing. Full disclosure = I’ve been writing for decades but have only begun submitting work fairly recently. I value my days and nights playing in punk and metal bands throughout the 1990s and 2000s–sure, I was doing what I wanted to do creatively at the time. However, I also feel wistful for some of the lost time that might have been spent working, crafting, honing, improving. Recently I heard a reasonable estimate: it takes a million words of bad writing before we one can even get close to proficiency. Blogging doesn’t count towards that.

And part of this process is in dealing with rejection.

I need to admit something: I almost hung it all up a few weeks ago. I totally decided to give up writing. We work, we send, we watch, we fall short of expectations.

Submitting out invariably means the rejections pile in with just as much frequency, and there’s a reason for this—the writer’s skin thickens, the technical points of why a piece may have been rejected become less opaque, and it galvanizes you to roll out the next duck for the soup. I keep calling these rejections ‘fun coupons’** because each one might redeem towards a better grasp on the process, and hopefully we break through to the other side, covered in sweat, blood, and chalk. Persistence matters, as does learning from mistakes (with a degree of wariness–one person’s mistake is another person’s breakthrough).

But yeah, when it happens, rejection just sucks the life out you. You spent hours, days, weeks, years on that story–but you did it all wrong. Luckily, my defeat-fugue state only lasted a day or so until—

My first Boskone! Since I retired from playing the metal (as far as live sets go, anyway) I’ve been to Anthocon, Readercon, Necon (all of which are amazing, and RIP Anthocon 2016). Writing is a solitary activity, but these gatherings are a tactile experience for us to connect with people who love the process, the literature, the films, the art as much as we do on our own. You never know whom you will meet by chance. My friends list in social media increased by at least a third over the past year, just by putting myself out there and networking. Anyone who knows me can see that I’m a total introvert, but there’s a good trick to meeting people: just smile, for crissakes! Mind your body language, as well, and respect space.

Boskone was so awesome, I was surprised I hadn’t known of it before. Here was a chance to reconnect with friends and make new ones. I shouldn’t go into a super amount of detail (because I can only convey so much awesome) but suffice it say that the experience infused me with a new sense of belonging and purpose. I decided to not give up just yet.

I will tell one quick story, though. On the last day, I participated in my first Rapid-Fire-Reading (RFR) with Broad Universe, an organization I belong to that helps promote and advance women writers of speculative fiction. I had rehearsed my excerpt at home to try and make sure I ran under the requisite four-minute limit (that’s why they’re rapid, and you can have about ten readers). I got up there, and after a wonderful introduction by L.J. Cohen I took my glasses off (I’m nearsighted, so with glasses on I cannot see text close to my head) and began reading an excerpt from the tail end of The Night Faith.

So people were filtering in and out, as is normal at any con with multiple tracks. This excerpt of mine in particular has some potty language. It’s urban-horror-noir. When I reached the end of the excerpt I put my glasses back on and was horrified to find a young child had entered the room! I don’t know how many F-bombs this kid heard me speak unwarily in front of her, but I was also surprised by my reaction–I am a Gen-Xer, child of the 1970s/1980s. Now as I reach middle age, am I becoming so proper and prim? I’d written the F-bombs and horror content to begin with. But as I get older, am I becoming old-fashioned? I’ll answer my question with another question–is it so wrong?

I think it’s pretty funny, because sometimes I’ll just blurt out “FUCKIN’ SLAYER!!!” for no good reason.

At any rate, I apologized to her mother, who told me that her daughter had heard worse from her, and no harm no foul.

So yes, Boskone invigorated me when I most needed it. In retrospect, I think it’s rather funny that I’d wanted to give up. I think perhaps the main frustration for the day worker/early-morning-and-late-night writer is that we are spending so much time creating, planning, agonizing over craft, but when our efforts fall short after weeks of steady toil, the primal human response (for some) is to curl up and doubt. On a side note, Boskone held a “Dealing with rejection” panel that really helped me understand what others can go through. A little perspective goes a long way.

There is a wonderfully simple solution to this: find the writer’s group that is right for you.

The Friday following, I read the surprising report that Samhain Publishing would be shutting down. I had a hunch something may have been amiss when they canned their horror editor Don D’Auria. [For the record, Samhain had started in 2005 as a romance line]. Brian Keene can give a much better overview, but I was still surprised to hear of such a thing happening within a few months. And when the shock wore off, I understood one of the prime causes a little better: Amazon.

~~[although I must say I’m a bit mystified about why Samhain front-burnered social media marketing to such an extent–that seemed to backfire, and I almost never saw them in my feed, anyway]~~

We love the biz! To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson – Buy the ticket, take the ride AND FASTER FASTER until the thrill of speed overcomes the Fear of Death!!!

The story affects me, because it impacts some cool people I’ve met during the course of the year. It also goes to show how tentative the publishing world can be, not so unlike politics. This is the wild west, indeed. Come on into the saloon—we have really awesome dresses, weapons, tons of booze.

Okay, and on to the TEN TON MEAT.

Go see The VVITCH (2015). I’ve not been as affected by a movie since “There Will Be Blood” (2007) or the reboot (by its own director) of “Funny Games” (also 2007). I’ve already blathered on for way too long but I hope to continue to speak about this very important film. And like “The Exorcist” (1973), the film has garnered very mixed reactions. Actually opinion seems evenly divided: plenty of horror fans say it did absolutely nothing for them, others thought it was the most effective work of horror they’ve seen in years. But only you can decide for yourself.

I need to see it again to understand a little better, but the film traces the downfall of exiled family trying to eke out an existence in the cold, stark wilderness of 1630s New England. They have only their faith, their livestock, their crops, and really their familial bond. All hell begins to break loose when their youngest goes missing and we witness a terrifying descent into doubt, religious paranoia, and spiritual possession. There are themes and rich characterizations (warts and all, especially the partriach) that, as Brian Keene again indicates, are likely to be completely lost on the majority of mainstream movie audiences who have been conditioned to torture porn, shaky cam, and jump scares by a tone-deaf film industry.

About a fortnight previous to the screening we saw, there had been a free showing at The Brattle Theater with the director Robert Eggers. I didn’t think that the average moviegoing public would be at all interested in the film, despite the growing buzz. I gave myself about an hour buffer zone. I didn’t get in, because that line snaked all. around. the. block. It would have been nice to hear Eggers’s insights but I really also wonder how this young, relatively hipster audience reacted to the film. Maybe there is hope? My guess is that they may be a reliable sampling of the VVITCH audience: at least half of them likely hated or didn’t get it, and the other half may have thought they’d just had an experience that made “The Exorcist” seem like “Mary Poppins” by comparison.

The VVITCH is also big on atmosphere, and its final beat was so harrowing (and exhilarating) to witness. When the credits rolled, I totally stood up and gave it the fuckin’ APPLAUSE IT DESERVES.

**fun coupon is a term I appropriated from the only truly enjoyable scene, other than the foot scene of course, in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” This is the clip. You’ll have to look elsewhere for the foot scene.

Postscript: Whenever I feel like hanging it up for good, I open to any random page of the green bible, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. After a minute or two of reading I bounce right back from the edge. Thankfully I keep two copies: one at home, one at work. It’s been that helpful for me.

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Let the Bad Guys Win!

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Let the Bad Guys Win!

Finally back!

And just in time for Women in Horror Month!

Much like NaNoWriMo, this celebration of womens’ contributions to the SF/H field provides me with bonus incentive to get as much reading and writing done in relatively short time period (erm–and WiHM celebrations take place during the shortest month of year). But 2016 is a leap year, so that gives me an extra fucking 24-hours to finish the  Rabies draft! I know–whoosh! Stadium lighters in the air, right?

Haha, no seriously, it’s nice to have the month of commemoration, but we can all uphold the same visibility and appreciation during the entire year. Mary Shelley lays a wholly legitimate claim to the most auspicious origins of our genre, after all. And don’t forget that Gamergate tripe from last year–it seems to have accelerated–the same flaccid, sexist bullshit still wheezes right along, egregiously in some SF/H circles like some New [Old] Right Warrior principle-crusade. Pfffffft lame.

So keep the legends alive, discover and share new ones, contribute reviews of authenticity, and kick ass moving forward. Women destroy, men destroy, queers destroy, trans destroys, metal destroys, ALL DESTROY.

I spent part of January 2016 enrolled in my first LitReactor class “The Choreography of Violence” with John Skipp, an auspicious workshop experience that provided some clear-cut, indispensable tech pointers I was able to apply towards the next installments of Imperator–Terror Lizard along with the new Rabies project. I don’t know long the latter will be–with the scope of WTF I’ve been plotting for her ladyship, she’ll likely exceed 10K. We’ll see–there’s the Cut 10% [MINIMUM] rule, all told.

So while I was away (sort of), I was hardly idle in late 2015. I was grinding edits and heavy macro-development into my novel, submitted it around a bit. I’ve decided moving forward I’m changing the title to The Night Faith, because that fits in much better with the newly-accelerated cult violence and mortal trauma I put my narrator through. I’m hoping to put him through even worse for the next two books. Be careful what you wish for.

Writing a narrator of the opposite gender is always a fun voice to summon. I like to throw chainsaws at his flailing arms. It’s nice character building–after all, we are what we do in reaction to fucked-up things.

I also think Night Faith sounds much appropriate for the evil forces in the story–I kept thinking of perfect soundtrack accompaniment and that Melvins classic “Night Goat” kept coming back at me. That bass riff just oozes atonal filth, evokes wide vistas of corrupt and diseased flesh/spirit, and somehow just makes me keep thinking of the lengths kids might go to stave off their boredom in suburbia. I was a suburban kid who got into my share of River’s Edge mischief, but never to the extent of ritual sacrifice (not even in my nightmares, trust me folks). But looking back at that time, I kept thinking about how things could have gone differently, had I fallen in with a hypothetical group of kids who actually wanted to act out some of those Slayer lyrics –“hey why not just kill that whole family next door and hold their souls captive? Spark up a fatty behind the K-Mart afterwards?”

That’s the level of crassness, viciousness, recklessness I was going for with these kids. Oh, and speaking of which, they do of course have their Pied Piper — multiple edit passes also made me see I had to really also crank up the Iago-maliciousness of the book’s main antagonist, and when I realized that anger and envy motivated many of the enemy actions against my main character, that evil became much more fun to pin down. Anger and fear makes people do shitty (and stupid) things, then the cycle of victimhood revolves as the main character seeks retribution. Icelandic sagas are stacked with this revolving moral ambiguity.

But even as any neatly-wrapped story of good vs. evil will come out with one on top, I’m so tempted to let evil win. Like I said, The Night Faith is first book of a trilogy, and I’ve got the series plot nailed pretty tight, but I’m also harboring a lingering doubt as to who will (or should) really win this fight in the end.

So okay then, let’s say I decide to give evil the day—why would I even be tempted to let the bad guys win? Perhaps because there’s a part of me that finds an evil victory oddly satisfying, and wanting more to come back for more and eventually achieve the goodness of true justice (perhaps in the hopes of eventually arriving at a Purple Wedding moment, a less morally ambiguous conclusion?).

I admit my favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is when Sauron ultimately topples, and he realizes he fucked up BAAAADLY because it hadn’t even occurred to him that by investing all of his power, greed, and hunger into The One, he effectively murdered himself. But another part of what makes the buildup to that so awesome is that he almost wins several times over! Part of me wants evil to prevail even in my most extravagant fantasy, because in real life, we don’t live in a reliable meritocracy. The vicarious satisfaction through fiction is such a relief, because we observe from a fairly safe distance.

Sometimes the worst evil is rewarded, encouraged. Tolkien’s saga is often criticized, rightly so, for having an ingenuously binary view of good vs. evil.

We are all capable of good or evil, degrees of both, intentionally or not. Simultaneous attraction and revulsion. Horror at its deepest, roiling, wonderful core.

So in lieu of anymore pedantic reflection on why evil in literature and film is, in its own devious way, very appealing even to the best angels of our nature–here is a list of my Top Five Bad Guy Wins in film.

I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. Still–if you haven’t seen any of these, look away, close this window, watch them and then please come back, comment, contribute your own lists also. Life is a motherfucker so I don’t like to flinch from the realities (and appeal) of letting the bad guys win. Often, these victories border on the heroic, and that is pretty fucking disgusting. Nom nom.

1.) The Vanishing a.k.a. Spoorloos (1988)
This story is glorious in its portrayal of obsession and the psychology of a murderer. Most people who have seen “The Vanishing” tend to agree it’s one of the most messed up, glorious endings in the history of horror. Based on Tim Krabbé’s 1984 novella The Golden Egg, the story centers on a man who, after years of public campaigning to find out what happened to his girlfriend (she’d gone missing during a petrol stop), finally meets and confronts her kidnapper. The man only wants to know what happened to her. The suspect agrees to show him what she experienced.

2.) Arlington Road (1999)
At first, “Arlington Road” follows a somewhat pat, milky “Rear Window” scenario. A widowed history professor, played by Jeff Bridges, greets new neighbors (played wonderfully against type by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) and comes to suspect by degrees that they are planning to bomb the FBI headquarters in Washington. The story becomes increasingly more compelling, however, as false threads are unraveled, re-strung, tightened wherein Bridges’s girlfriend and son are drawn into the domestic terror web. As the story becomes more frenetic, and drenched with even more distrust and paranoia, Bridges falls victim to a ploy of “Wicker Man”-like proportions and the final beat made me sit back and exclaim “Holy Shit!” And then history is written by the victors, and that freaked me out even more. It’s worth seeing at least once. Evil walks!

3.) The Collector (1965)
William Wyler directed two overwrought, mewling melodramas that I love dearly–“Ben Hur” (1959) and “The Children’s Hour” (1962). He also directed one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. “The Collector” is so beautiful, and so infuriating.

The main character Frederick (Terence Stamp) is the real deal–sociopathic, self-absorbed, cold, and so unpredictable he makes the pathology of that boring cisgender dingleberry Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs” seem like a feminist icon.

After coming into a sudden, fateful torrent of fortune, Frederick buys a fortified estate and kidnaps a young art student Miranda (Samantha Eggar, who you MUST also see in “The Brood”) whom he’s obsessed over for years. A duel of wills, propriety, manipulation, and abject cruelty ensues. It is very uncomfortable to watch.

“The Collector” is gendered horror is its most profane and malignant form–“I’m going to make you do want I want, because that’s what I want, and you have no say in the matter. I know I promised to let you go. I changed my mind. That’s my right, and not yours.”

4.) Chinatown (1974)
Noah Cross = Father of the Year?
Vomit–the horror of that final girl Katherine Cross’s fate after the police “deal with” her mother, the very person they should have been protecting, sets this story apart from the rest. Polanski has his personal baggage, of course, but that soul-sucking ending belongs to Robert Towne. I should add, in fairness, that “Chinatown” also offers some of the funniest moments in 1970s cinema, carried brilliantly by Jack Nicholson. These interspersed clown-penis jabs at the expectations of the audience are another caustic element of Polanski’s work that, despite his obvious character flaws and the disturbing nature of his subject matter, makes his accomplishments in eliciting horror difficult to deny.

5.) A Clockwork Orange
Alex doesn’t just get away with it all–he becomes a scion of the state. No ill deed goes unrewarded. Alex’s journey grinds him through the gears, to be sure, but his ultimate triumph is a modern dystopian fairytale, and of course Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) also gives me the shudders, but IMHO he is a lightweight by comparison.

I welcome information on anything you know of–any character trajectory that’s more fucked-up than that of Alex. Because I think I would like to get away from him, even if that means falling out of the frying pan and into the fire. Comment away.

Pleasant dreams.

Top Five Scariest Classic Horror Film Scenes, 2015 edition

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The ancient air of New England shifted, and the winter leggings are readied. What better time than the first week of Autumn to lay out my Top Five Horror Film Scenes? Most of my selections are from the classics–overplayed perhaps–but there are reasons why they’ve endured. I assume most of you have seen these films already, and please do chime in with your own choices (and tell us why you love them).

1.) “The Exorcist” (1973, dir. William Friedkin) – Crucifuck

When this carnage of terrifying hidden forces, spiritual redemption, and pea soup was first released not long after the Watergate Scandal, it was the first horror film many “ordinary” people had gone to see. The United States has never been a stranger to anxiety, but for various reasons William Peter Blatty’s story hit a raw nerve in our collective psyche, became a smash box office hit, and popularized the horror genre exponentially.

What makes the Crucifuck scene work for me is not the scene itself but the buildup towards it–the scene of Lieutenant Kinderman’s interview with Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil. It’s a quiet conversation in which Kinderman is playing “good cop” to fulfill his duty as an homicide investigator whilst also being delicate with a mother agonizing over her daughter’s illness. So far he’s made useful contact with Father Karras but has turned up few details surrounding the death of Burke Dennings. The circumstantial evidence leaning toward young Regan’s value as a primary witness to Burke’s murder is plain to him. But Chris makes even more plain to Kinderman that Regan is in no condition to be interviewed until her health improves, Kinderman decently relents and attempts to diffuse her resistance with small talk. However, as Kinderman relays more details of the case, Chris grows increasingly nauseous with the realization that Regan has definitely murdered Dennings. She offers Kinderman more coffee and when he accepts gratefully, she turns to us with repressed hysteria etched on her face (“Why the hell did I offer?!?“). This is the role of her lifetime–keep cool until the cop leaves.

Once Kinderman departs and Chris MacNeil closes the door behind him, she looks like she’s about to shatter into a zillion screaming pieces. She paces towards her daughter’s room, traumatized and in shock. The demon plays on states of mind (especially dread and regret) of its nearby victims. So the best is yet to come, right then in the broad Georgetown daylight, and that’s when we all get slaughtered, and devoured. Then the real screaming begins.

“She screamed until she fainted.”

This is the final breath of free air for Regan until the ultimate martyrdom of Fathers Merrin and Karras.

2.) “Salem’s Lot” (1979, dir. Tobe Hooper) – Open the Window

I was eight years old, watching the newscaster announce the evening schedule, and qualified the premiere of “Salem’s Lot” with something to the effect of “If you think horror movies are just movies, tonight’s movie might just change your mind.” I was intrigued, hooked, and destroyed in fairly short order. Our nightmares and nocturnal fears can’t be written off so easily, especially during our pre-teen years. I still sleep with at least one ambient light on.

There are so many damn terrifying scenes in the 1979 original miniseries, but Ralphie Glick’s post-transformation window visit to his brother Danny in the middle of the night takes the prize. This sequence has no dialogue, just a subtly pulsating soundtrack and searing inevitability as the two brothers, both dressed in their PJs, reunite in the clouded darkness of Barlow’s corruption. I remember Clive Barker mentions during his  introduction to a later edition of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot that the town effectively commits suicide through its own corruption. This resonates, because I don’t think Straker nor Barlow are foreign, invading forces–rather they are from and of the township, the Marsten House, latent malignancies hatched out and giving the little petty world exactly what it is asking for (and deserves). They were summoned, and one could even say they’re on a mission of mercy.

The worst part of this? The scratching. Tell me you haven’t look at your window during the nighttime, briefly registering the deep darkness beyond, and half-expected to see this vampire child slowly approach in a shroud of vapor, fixating you with the terrible hunger of its eyes, and begin scratching, summoning.

3.) “Alien” (1979, dir. Ridley Scott) – Kane’s Son

Horror most certainly affects the body, a source of semi-automated natural processes and the most penetrating anxieties. We steer these apparent accidents of organismic evolution that give rise to both miracles of imagination and ingenuity along with the lowest depths of depravity. And none of us have an great shelf life, to begin with.

This is why I love body horror the most–we can entertain the idea of fleeing some bogey or maniac chasing after us with a weapon, but how do you escape your own body when it assaults itself [and I most certainly do include the mind, which seems to be the cause of most WTF]?

“Alien” is widely considered the most successful fusion of science fiction and horror, hence its canonical longevity. In this scene, all body hell breaks loose and from there on in, Ridley Scott’s film stands on the dread-accelerator pedal. Kane is first to wake, first to volunteer, first to discover, first to die. Ash doesn’t quite know what’s coming, but we can see him quietly observing Kane, cold and “still collating” during the small talk that precedes the beginning of this extended clip (which I am seeing for the first time, myself). Parker is so elated at the prospect of returning home, he’s bullshitting with his superiors rather than grumbling at them. Lambert, who throughout the film looks like the embodiment of crestfallen defeat, cracks a little smile. Kane is even jovial despite the coma. Ripley is quite deftly understated here, virtually a non-player.

A recent book-length study of “Alien” by Roger Luckhurst reveals many valuable insights into the film’s background. The actors, with the sole exception of John Hurt as Kane, had no real idea of what was about to happen in the scene–they knew about as much as the first-time audience. The script simply states, “The alien exits from Kane.”

And blood sprays into the face of Lambert, most vulnerable, and doomed to embody the ravening anxieties of the audience, the final crew member to perish in the clutches of this “perfect organism.”

4.) “Maniac” (1980, dir. William Lustig) – A little inconvenient

Although this film may be seen as dried-up grindhouse jizz, Frank Zito (played by Joe Spinell in the role of his life) is one creepy eek-a-zoid. Not only does he embody so many of the antisocial tendencies so prevalent in this day and age (oh hai Gamergate), he’s physically massive–Patrick Bateman has nothing on Frank Zito. Written and released not long after David Berkowitz “The Son of Sam” terrorized New York City, “Maniac” is the most authentic and terrifying portrayal of derangement, eclipsed only by a certain later movie with the name “Henry” in the title.

There’s no earthly need to waste time speculating on ideology, Frank’s inner world, mommy issues, or even the gratification of watching Tom Savini blow up his own head. While that subway scene with the nurse-chase is fairly absurd, Frank’s “conversation” with his victim’s scalp at 45:15 continues to give me the willies. Death at the hands of someone like Frank Zito is considerably more than just a little inconvenient.

5.) “The Evil Dead” (1981, dir. Sam Raimi) – The whole damn film

My filter. The first and final. Seeing the first “Evil Dead” film was like hearing Slayer “Reign in Blood” for the first time. You don’t recover. If aliens land and ask to be shown the quintessential horror film, this is the one I would show them.

Even though some of violence in this film plays out like “The Three Stooges” or “The Young Ones,” the imprint is undeniable. Anything can grab out at you, anywhere at any time, and swallow your soul. These are not just ghosts when they take possession of both living and dead flesh. They level-up to shit-spewing fear of what lurks beyond every navigable corner, the damnation layers of the woods, the latent energies that still make me afraid to do laundry in my basement at night.

Sure, the franchise turned funny and goofy. There is even a highly enjoyable musical adaptation of “Evil Dead.” But I’d say this first film was the first real horror of my childhood, and remains my filter until the bitter, tormented end.

I wanted to post the final scene, when Scott suddenly rises as Ash is battling Cheryl by the fireplace, but it doesn’t seem to be currently available. So let’s work with Cheryl’s card-guessing game and sudden talents of levitation.

Sweet dreams.

Alone in the Dark (1982)

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Martin Landau as Byron 'Preacher' Sutcliff

Martin Landau as Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff

“There are no crazy people, doctor. We’re all just on vacation.”
—Jack Palance as Frank Hawkes, “Alone in the Dark”

My first exposure to “Alone in the Dark” came from “Terror in the Aisles” (1984), a pseudo-documentary about the then-nascent 1980s horror boom and America’s cultural love of fear as pop-entertainment. “Terror” is essentially a compilation of horror clips interspersed with some adorable if dated commentary by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen. “Terror” may not have stood the test of time, but it’s laudable for having been one of the first American feature-length documentaries to slice horror film up the belly and study the creamy filling (as in, ‘What makes this stuff tick?’)

One “Terror” clip intrigued me especially: a slowly cruising white van pursues a bike messenger. It is broad daylight on a quiet New Jersey residential street. A POV shot within the van reveals the stalkers from behind, silhouetted in darkness, the victim in their sights: “I want the hat…” someone says from the passenger seat.

The van nudges aggressively from behind the cyclist who then swerves and falters along the curb into dry autumn leaves. The random violence that unfolds from there is difficult to fathom, mostly due to the sheer randomness of the assault: the maniacs in the van want to kill, simply because that is what they enjoy during that particular moment.

Why? Why not?

“In the end [the villains] simply don’t distinguish between right and wrong.
Perhaps they don’t know the difference. Perhaps they just don’t care.”
—Donald Pleasance, “Terror in the Aisles”

The main story of “Alone in the Dark” involves a psychiatrist whose entire family endures a nighttime home invasion by a group of three escaped convicts during a citywide blackout. Doctor Dan Potter, played by Dwight Schultz (‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch of “A-Team” fame!), has taken a new post at “The Haven,” a beautiful manor converted into pysch-wards. We then meet the chief psychiatrist Dr. Leo Bain played by Donald Pleasence, and it soon becomes quite plain why he enjoys his work a little too much: he’s loopy as any of the patients, even the ones on “the third floor.”

Bain gives Potter a tour of the hospital, and explains the third-floor security system that keeps the “most dangerous” patients under lock and keycard: it is state-of-the-art, foolproof, and runs completely on electricity. And so Bain is an enormous fuckup—we can see where this is all going.

The third-floor patients are, in fact, even more ABC-List actors: Jack Palance, Phillip Clark, Erland van Lidth (Dynamo in “The Running Man”), and Martin Landau. Once Bain introduces Dr. Potter to this tribe, their reactions range from cold to hyper-aggressive. Their previous doctor, Harry Merton, had apparently earned their trust and reliance, and they see this newcomer as a disruption at first, then they conclude in a paranoid reverie that Potter has murdered Merton, and will soon murder each of them. They decide to retaliate, to counterattack at the first opportunity.

This sets into motion one of the most enjoyable horror classics of the 80s “slasher” era. At turns subtle, hilarious, self-consciously low-budget, genre-baiting (especially during the babysitter scene), and gleefully excessive, “Alone in the Dark” is definitely worth seeking out. There is even an amazing music club sequence brought to you by the real New York horror-punk band The Sick F*cks (which included Snooky and Tish Bellomo, the two founders of Manic Panic).

Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Bain like a deer in the headlights, and yet with an adorable enthusiasm, as if he’s channeling the screenwriter/director (which makes sense, since this was Jack Sholder’s feature film debut).

But highest praise is due for Martin Landau’s portrayal of the Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff. There are completely deranged psychopaths in horror film, and then there are totally rabid, post-Aftermath, Defcon-One hell-toads full of malignancy, wrath, and flair. Landau gets the hat.

CAUTION:

Do your utmost best to steer clear of Uwe Boll’s “Alone in the Dark” (2005), which is not a remake.

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