Children of the Night by Dan Simmons – Review

August 9, 2009 at 7:24 am (Books, Horror)

Before I begin this review I want to mention that there will definitely be spoilers for the first third of the book. For those of you who want to enter this with a clean slate, let me just say this, “it was scary, go read it.”

William Jones, editor for Chaosium and Elder Signs Press recently posted a blog entry (at http://www.williamsramblings.blogspot.com/ ) in which he said:

“It has been argued by a few that Stoker created a creature of his time. A metaphor representing aristocracy ( The Count), and that metaphor was seen to also be a parasite – the landed/gentry living off the life energy (labor) of the common folk. Certainly the political and social atmosphere of the time viewed the aristocracy as a dying or dead social class. And that is part of the basis for such a reading.

Now, if we were to read the Stoker vampire in that fashion, it begs the question: How has it changed? Is it still tied to classism? Or has it become something different?”

In the following review I will attempt to show how, at least for Mr. Simmons, the theme of classism has not changed, but simply matured to fit our modern world.

The first book I read by Dan Simmons, The Song of Kali, I had mixed feelings about. It was certainly a successful exercise in horror and managed to employ an exotic setting to full effect, evoking ideas of disorientation and ignorance as powerlessness in ways that H.P. Lovecraft could only have hoped to achieve. Yet, because of that, I was unsettled by The Song of Kali. There was a racism inherent there, a fear of “foreign-ness” that did not sit well with me. I was impressed with Simmons, without a doubt, but I did not know if I liked him.

Children of the Night dispelled these concerns for me, while also being a novel that concentrated on the horror of being hunted in a remote third-world hell, much like The Song of Kali. Simmons novel takes place in Romania directly after Ceauşescu’s reign was ended in the ’89 revolution. For those of you unfamiliar with Ceauşescu, Simmons fills in a lot of the gory details but suffice it to say that he gave ol’ Vlad a run for his money on brutality and horror.

As Simmons sets the stage for the novel, I felt like I was in for a very similar ride to The Song of Kali. Bombed-out streets, despicable living conditions, a dangerously lean and hungry populace. Life is scary outside the US, got it. However, I realized that Simmons had something more ambitious in mind when I read the following exchange between an American entrepreneur and his Romanian liaison:

****

He held his hand out toward the factory. The lines in his palm were already black with soot, the cuff of his white shirt a dark gray. “Ceauşescu gone now. Factory no longer have to turn out rubber things for East Germany, Poland, U.S.S.R . . . you want? Make things your company want? No . . . how do you say . . . no environmental impactment states, no regulations against making things the way you want, throwing away things where you want. So, you want?”

I stood there in the black snow for a long moment and might have stood there longer if the train had not shrieked its two-minute warning. “Perhaps,” I said. “Just perhaps.”

****

It was at this moment the narrative began to truly click with me. I’m certainly not the first person to note my discomfort over The Song of Kali. Here, Simmons responds to his critics with a searing commentary: “Yes, the third world is horrible. However, it horrors exist because we demand them. Global industry desires these conditions to maximize profit margins. You shouldn’t be so repulsed, Dr. Frankenstein. It’s your monster.”

This theme is further reinforced when it turns out our industrialist-narrator is, in fact, Vlad Dracul himself returned to his homeland after years away in the United States, an immortal blood-sucker turned business mogul. Now, while Vampire: the Masquerade would popularize the idea of the bourgeoisie-vampire over the next several years, it is important to note that Simmons here is taking a radical new approach to make a commentary on global capitalism.

If Children of the Night was a one-trick pony, however, it wouldn’t have much to recommend it. Luckily, this is not the case. Simmons carefully divides the novel into three sections, each of them with a distinctive feel all their own without ever seeming disconnected from one another. The first third, setting the stage for the rest of the novel, concentrates on setting a black mood of horror and despair, focusing on how “vampires” have managed to turn the once-beautiful state of Romania into one of the most brutal places to live on Earth.

Once the novel returns to America, the tone changes rapidly. Here, Simmons takes a radically different approach to vampirism and provides a welcome respite from the bleak atmosphere that permeates the first third of the book. Instead, we have a medical drama that zeroes in on a scientific cause for the vampiric condition. Now, I can hear some of you in the bleachers groaning already, and I want to assure you that this has nothing to do with “midichlorians” or other types of hokey pseudo-science. Instead, Simmons delivers a credible and interesting theory on how the blood-suckers could exist while managing to stay at a level that most readers could follow.

Of course, Simmons knows that while we might find political commentary and medical mysteries interesting, his audience signed up for a vampire novel. Which means we expect some pulse-pounding action and some bloody frightening horror. In the final third of Children of the Night he delivers on this implicit promise, and in spades. The last hundred pages becomes a case of “endurance horror”, where the protagonist (like those in Inside and High Tension) is faced with so many frightful trials that you wonder if she could go on any longer. Yet, Simmons shows a masterful hand, ratcheting the tension steadily but allowing for interludes of relative stability in which we (and the characters) are allowed a chance to breathe. Throughout, our heroine undergoes a harrowing series of fights, chases, and betrayals in an unbelievable journey for vengeance that pushed all my geek buttons just right.

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The Tsathoggua Cycle (edited by Robert M. Price) – Review

May 16, 2009 at 10:50 am (Books, Games, Horror, Yog-Sothothery)

If you’re reading this blog entry, you’re probably already familiar with Chaosium’s fiction anthologies. If so, go ahead and skip to the second paragraph. For the rest of you, Chaosium (publishers of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game) has been publishing short story collections for over a decade that concentrate on authors and concepts of the Cthulhu Mythos, the majority of which have been edited by Robert Price. The Tsathoggua Cycle continues this tradition, concentrating on the toad-god Tsathoggua.

The Tsathoggua Cycle is, in many ways, a typical anthology by Chaosium, i.e. a mixed bag. While the introductory essay by Price is not one of his most mind-blowing pieces, he has done a sound job compiling a variety of tales of the toad-god, from both professional publications and the amateur press, tracing Tsathoggua’s literary origins to modern stories of St. Toad.

Unfortunately, the first full story is the over-anthologized “The Seven Geases” by Clark Ashton Smith, the inventor of Tsathoggua. Although I understand it’s relevance in this particular anthology, I cannot understand the attention this rather pat allegorical tale has engendered over the years. In fact, it is the weakness of this particular tale that kept me from exploring the works of Clark Ashton Smith until much later.

Smith more than redeems himself with the following stories, “The Testament of Athammus”, “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, and to a lesser extent, “The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles”. These are certainly some of the best stories of his that I have encountered, and especially “The Testament of Athammus” actually rivals Lovecraft, which is rare amongst both his contemporaries and imitators. “The Testament of Athammus” shows off Smith’s strength of ironic narration, and manages to deliver some genuine chills.

“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, on the other hand, isn’t quite a horror story, but more along the lines of a rollicking adventure story of a pair of larcenous ne’er-do-wells in the style of Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber. A blast to read, “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” also features a fantastic monster. The sequel, “The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles”, is amusing as well, although it seems to lack some of the verve that propelled the original story so well, and perhaps it was best that he decided to leave it there.

In the next story, however, James Ambuehl decides to resurrect the protagonist of the previous two tales in “Shadow of the Sleeping God”. Like many of Ambuehl’s stories, this narrative is passable if somewhat disappointing pastiche of Smith’s style. Unfortunately, when laid side-by-side with stories such as “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” it pales in comparison. Following it are three equally as uninspired tales, “The Curse of the Toad”, “Dark Swamp”, and “The Old One”, and I won’t waste your time reviewing them other than to say I can barely recall their contents.

The next tale of note is “The Oracle of Sadoqua”, by Ron Hilger, which is a clever piece taking place during the Roman occupation of France and set within Smith’s Averoigne. Hilger is to be lauded for an intriguing admixture of elements and styles which work nicely together, as he takes cues from Robert E. Howard’s Bran Mak Morn stories and synthesizes them with Smith’s trappings. A difficult task to be certain, but Hilger’s story does not strike a discordant note.

“Horror Show”, by Gary Myers, the following piece, is perhaps the greatest disappointment of the bunch. Not to say that “Horror Show” is bad, necessarily, in fact it is quite evocative at times. Yet, considering the brilliance of Myers’ earlier Dunsanian stories, the bar is set so high that he is simply unable to live up to his own reputation. While this story may be an interesting modern spin on the “moral degeneration” of worshippers of Tsathoggua (as the K’n-Yani were so corrupted), it is by far not his most effective tale. Although I have yet to read his collection “Dark Wisdom”, I can only hope that this story is Myers simply kicking off some of the dust before he returns to form.

“The Tale of Toad Loop” by Stanley Sargent will likely please many, as it is well-written, thoughtful, and provocative. Moreover, the creature in this piece is well-conceived, and the narrator is one of the few fully realized characters to be encountered in a Lovecraft pastiche. Unfortunately, I was not pleased. Being from rural country in the American Southeast, I’m particularly sensitive to Southern or “country” accents and I found that the narrator’s accent, while not as comical as some, was a tad bit “off”, and could never fully engage in the story. I was reminded of the uncanny valley theory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley) and found the experience jarring. Still, for most this story should not be overlooked, and Sargent is a promising talent.

After three relatively strong stories preceding it, “The Crawling Kingdom” by Rod Heather is sadly less engaging. Heather attempts to evoke ideas of the primacy and sinister mystery of the natural world just beyond our reach, but his ham-handed attempts to do so bring on no real chills. Not to say that there’s nothing to recommend this story, however, as he does have an occasional strong turn of phrase (my favorite being “this bustling amphibious orgy”). Moreover, and most interesting to me in regards to this tale, is his use of the town of Beckham, which is a creation of Stephen Mark Rainey. This sort of cross-pollination amongst modern Mythos authors is, in my mind, something that should be actively encouraged as far too often they only make reference to the founders of the subgenre and not to their contemporaries. Lovecraft and company not only recognized the accomplishments of their forebears but also each other, which is a lesson lost on many of his descendents.

Finally, the anthology is rounded out by a solid Smith pastiche by Henry J. Vester III, “The Resurrection of Kzadool-Ra”. Mr. Vester manages to capture both the whimsy and the fatalism of Smith’s style in this satire set in Zothique.

Like most the Chaosium’s anthologies the overall quality of The Tsathoggua Cycle is questionable. While certainly indispensible to would-be Mythos authors or fans of Call of Cthulhu who are looking to get a greater understanding of Tsathoggua, and to Mythos collectors who enjoy Price’s plundering of obscure and out-of-print fanzines, the majority of the pieces are fair to middling at best. The stand-out here is, of course, Clark Ashton Smith and the best stories in this anthology are those that best pay him homage. To the casual reader I suggest you pick up a collection of Smith’s works, but for those who have enjoyed other entries in Chaosium’s Cycle Series, or Mythos collections in general, you’ll find exactly what you expect here.

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Satanis (1970) – Review

April 16, 2009 at 5:34 am (Film)

Ever wanted to get an idea what Anton LaVey and his band of Merry Blasphemers were really up to in the late ’60s?

Well, so did I.

Full disclosure: back in my wayward youth I was extremely interested in LaVey and ate up all of books, from The Satanic Bible to Satan Speaks! Although it’s been many years since LaVey held any allure to me, when I discovered there was original documentary footage from the early days of the CoS (Church of Satan) it instantly moved to the top of my Netflix queue. Satanis was enlightening, that’s for sure, though it’s not quite the propaganda effort that LaVey may have been hoping for.

The film’s style is frenetic, jumping between interviews with LaVey and his cronies, people from the neighborhood, and a handful of religious authorities in the San Francisco area (where the CoS was based).  These interviews are interspersed with long sequences where we see the actual rituals being performed. The camera work, although serviceable if static shots during interviews, is amateurish when it requires more finesse during the rituals, giving them a juvenille quality that does not do the Satanists in question any favors.

This is not to say that the rituals themselves are not juvenille, because they certainly are. In fact, in comparison to other examples I’ve seen of ritual magic (especially the OTO) they come off as completely ludicrious. When exposed to the harsh reality of the camera the glamorous and secretive mystique of the Church of Satan, which LaVey worked so hard to create in his books, reveals itself to be a complete sham. While this is probably a surprise to very few, our Satanists in question turn out to be primarily comprised of drunks, misfits, and crass rednecks.

Not to say that the other “stars” of this film come out much better. The director, Ray Laurent, seems to have a masterful eye for capturing people at their worst moments and exploits this talent for all it’s worth. Laurent manages to find the most intolerant and small-minded Mormon missionaries, fundamentalists, and incorrigible gossips in the neighborhood and gives them every opportunity to make fools of themselves for our entertainment.

And, in the end, that’s what this film is: entertaining. While far from the most informative documentary, there were plenty of laughs to be had. From unintentionally hilarious ritual nudity to absurd hand-wringing by neighbors and clergy, no one is spared. If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it is: “Don’t take any of this too seriously.”

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Teeth (2006) – Review

April 8, 2009 at 9:45 am (Film, Horror)

This horror film enjoyed a pretty significant hype machine, and the reviews were mixed. The gimmicky premise (for those of you who missed it, a vagina with teeth) was enough to draw in some moviegoers, while scaring off others. Although I had my personal reservations, I was curious if they could pull this off without it being total schlock.

So, is it truly horrible? No. It’s fairly well shot, and genuinely funny at parts (although not at the parts you might think, but for those of you who are looking for it, don’t worry – there’s severed penises galore). The actors are fairly competent, and the script was not half as hammy as I imagined it would be.

In fact, what really surprised me is that it’s clear the writers had a message they wanted to convey. While the film has been billed as a “cautionary tale for men”, this is clearly not the case. Instead, Teeth is actually a criticism of the mystification of female sexuality and the Madonna/Whore complex that is pressed upon them at an early age. It concentrates primarily on fundamentalist Christian sexual morality imposing itself on the sexual education of our children, and the lampooning of the unrealistic expectations placed on our children is where the film truly shines.

Unfortunately, despite good intentions, Teeth relies too heavily on Old Testament morality itself, using horror tropes of “evil men get what they deserve”. In other words, the female protagonist delivers gory justice to perverts with the use of her Teeth. This becomes especially problematic early in the film, in which there’s a disturbing rape sequence. Due to the fact that Teeth‘s a horror-comedy, there’s even a joke cracked during this scene. This is so jarring, and the ugliness of rape so disturbingly real, that it took me completely out of the film at that point, and I never fully managed to immerse myself again. While the director tries to handle this with some gravity, spending several minutes of the movie showing her looking disturbed, it even further alienates the audience and makes it difficult for us to find a lot to laugh about.

There are good things about Teeth, and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. However, slasher film ethics and feminist critique do not mix well, like male genitalia and teeth.

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Paprika (2006) – Review

April 7, 2009 at 9:28 pm (Film)

Satoshi Kon’s animated film on dreams, Paprika, is a film I find myself torn about. Frankly, I’m biased against anime. I find the majority of work in the field to be puerile, and the conventions of the genre annoy the hell out of me. Yet, in some ways the mind-bending effects of this film supercede these flaws, while at other times the movie degenerates into the most annoying of these tropes.

Visually, it’s a stunning piece. Without giving too much away, there’s a twisted parade sequence that recurs throughout the film that manages to be both disturbing and beautiful, and in Paprika’s best moments the movie can be quite unsettling. The director should be lauded for his fantastic rendering of a very strange and twisted dream-world.

On the other hand, all of the characters are straight out of central casting, and their interations are tediously predictable. Moreover, the ending is the sorriest kind of semi-mystical deux ex machina that anime often lapses into, i.e. through personal revelation the protagonist gains god-like super-powers in which they can defeat the nigh-unstoppable antagonist.

In the end, I’m going to hesitatingly recommend this film. If anime conventions don’t bother you, you’ll love this. For the rest of us, as long as you’re willing to ignore these flaws, it’s a fair bet that you’ll still enjoy the surreal weirdness of it all.

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Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) – Review

March 31, 2009 at 1:56 am (Film)

Here’s the premise:

Takashi Miike directs this frenetic spaghetti western that celebrates the cross-cultural influences of Japanese and American films on one another. Guest-starring Quentin Tarantino, what Kill Bill was to the martial arts genre, Sukiyaki Western Django is to westerns.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? In fact, you could be forgiven for hoping that this will be the greatest genre flick of all time.

You would be wrong.

This movie is a miserable failure, giving you everything it promises but failing to be in the slightest bit entertaining. On an intellectual level, I felt like I was going down a checklist of shout-outs:

1. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is alluded to, as the bard clearly had a tremendous impact on…

2. Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo is directly name-dropped in the film, and whose central premise it is based upon. Yojimbo, of course, was adapted for an American audience in the film…

3. A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, which basically rewrote the western genre when it came out in 1964. It also spawned the “spaghetti western” subgenre, many of which starred Clint Eastwood. One of his most famous films in-genre would be …

4. High Plains Drifter, which is most famously known for the scene in which the protagonist literally paints the town red and renames it “Hell”. In Sukiyaki Western Django, one of the two rival groups of brigands paints the gateway leading into town red in an obvious homage.

If this sounds like it might be too “meta” for you, you’re right. Although exploring the complex exchange of ideas between the two cultures should be rife with potential, Miike has managed to suck the life out of both cultures and deliver something that, while technically proficient, is bland and sterile.

Shakespeare, ’60s samurai epics, and the spaghetti western all manage to engage us in a very direct, visceral way. The reason why all three are studied so intensely is because we seek to understand how they manage to do so. This, perhaps the most important aspect to any genre work, seems to be what Miike forgot to employ.

In the end, while Sukiyaki Western Django sounds like an interesting premise for a thesis paper, it fails to deliver any thrills and should be avoided.

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Inside (2007) – Review

March 20, 2009 at 8:09 am (Film, Horror)

For those of you who haven’t heard of this film, Inside is one of the new wave of French horror cinema that first came to American audience’s attention with High Tension. Although I have not seen High Tension, I can tell you I was positively shocked by the level of brutality delivered by this film. For those of you who live for ever-more extreme levels of gore, this is the movie you’ve waited for.

I, however, am not a gore afficiando. Frankly, movies like Saw and Hostel fail to titillate me. Instead, (especially in the case of Hostel II) I’m sickened by them, but not because of any disgust caused by the physical violence or the volcanic eruptions of blood and organs. What bothers me is that these films do not seem to seek to horrify the audience, to bring on any actual scares. Indeed, they do not even encourage us to actively care about the lives of the victims. We are there to immerse ourselves into the role of the killers, to live out our fantasy lives in all their sadistic, voyeuristic glory.

Luckily, this is not the case for Inside. You are, without a doubt, horrified. Standing in stark contrast to the recently-reviewed remake of Black Christmas, the makers of Inside understand fully the art of mounting tension in a horror film, relentlessly driving us to the brink and pulling us just far enough back to keep us from becoming desensitized.

Watching this with a friend earlier today, we both found ourselves screaming mercilessly, and at certain points we actually were forced to turn it off due to sensory overload. At the film’s end my cohort perhaps summarized it best, “I feel as if I’ve been raped by the devil.”

Beyond the actual effectiveness at horror, Inside is also remarkable because of the complexity of the craft that went into it. While the horror genre is glutted with the worst examples of inept filmmaking, this is a gem that truly shines. The lush cinematography, the masterful lighting, and the soundtrack – this is art house, not drive thru. And, let me assure you, you won’t miss the lack of nu metal. You’ll be too busy screaming.

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Loose Joints – Tell You (Today)

March 20, 2009 at 7:38 am (Music)

Recently I have stumbled upon what is one of the best, if not the best, dance tracks to come out of New York in the early ’80s: Loose Joints’ “Tell You (Today)”. While there are certainly a wide mix of contenders (most notably the oeuvre of Kid Creole & Coati Mundi), few tracks can match the pure joy this song positively exudes. Although normally I’m a bit cool on Arthur Russell’s voice, the ecstatic build-up to the actual verse, as well as the actual message, creates an emotional high that few songs of the era could manage. A notable exception to this was “Only Men Fall In Love” by Home Service, but I can see little evidence that this track saw much play on Atlantic shores.

Russell, of course, is a phenomenal producer whose experiments at the time cannot be overstated for their elegant arrangements, but this certainly ranks as his true masterpiece. If you want to hear dance music that will leave you smiling for the rest of the day, find a copy of this single.

For more information, go here: http://www.discogs.com/artist/Loose+Joints

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Review – Blasphemies & Revelations by Robert M. Price

March 20, 2009 at 7:34 am (Books, Horror, Yog-Sothothery)

Fair warning for Mythos fans who will be coming to this with a predisposition against Price for his editorial essays – I love his post-modern religious deconstructions, so I won’t be holding it against him.

Blasphemies and Revelations is a titanic tome of eldritch lore, with over 500 pages of hard-bound Lovecraft pastiche at what may be its finest. While Price is certainly not a “new voice” who steps away from the crowd of Lovecraft imitators, such as T.E.D. Klein or Ramsey Campbell, he is certainly a master craftsman in recreating those stories that we loved so well.

My own love-hate relationship with pastiche is not, in fact, the very derivative nature of many Mythos authors, but the inability of said authors to reproduce what they’re promising us. Too often they seem to more closely imitate Lin Carter than H.P. Lovecraft, and the only horror to be derived is watching the narrative train wreck unfold.

Price, however, delivers something entirely different. Over his years of analyzing Lovecraft he has clearly “got it”, understanding what makes certain stories resonate with the audience so well. For example, in his story “An Antique Coffin”, he manages to recreate that sense of loss that Lovecraft evoked in his Dunsanian stories, primarily “The White Ship”, and to a greater effect than any imitator has done.

Moreover, in certain cases he is capable of taking tropes and actually improving on them, such as the hilarious “Dope War of the Black Tong”, which features a brilliant team-up of Robert E. Howard’s Steve Harrison and Lin Carter’s Dr. Anton Zarnak. Now, as I’ve previously expressed, I have a low opinion of Mr. Carter’s fiction, and likewise I think little of Howard’s oveure. However, by reveling in the sheer joy of their awfulness, Price is able to create something sublime. Following is a brief sample of that piece:

“The narcotic Nirvana served up a counterfeit peace, one with a heavy price, but even heavier than usual tonight. The tablueau held for a moment; then the heavy oak door burst inward as if suffering the impact of a medieval siege engine. Of course not even this disturbance could retrieve the attention of the far-gone dope victims in the place, but the sudden noise, like an explosion, galvanized several of the man who must have been feigning their drugged stupor. Throwing off concealing blankets and shawls, a handful of powerful, armed Orientals, their nationalities obscure in this rich gloom, sprang like Siberian tigers to meet the challenge of whatever army it was who had invaded their secret privacy. And it was an army: an army named Steve Harrison.

The one-man posse of River Street set his feet squarely, while the blue steel of twin automatics leaped into his fists and began to discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs.”

If there was any doubt from the preceding paragraph, Price is playing it to the hilt and loving every minute. This enthusiasm for the work, as well as his deep familiarity with it, comes through loud and clear through the entire book, carrying you through to the end, even in those stories that tend to drag a bit.

And, admittedly, there are parts that drag. Although one of the strongest anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction to be produced in some time, occasionally they can seem a bit overly similar. This is especially the case when Price relies too heavily on religious and academic tropes, a field that he is very familiar with. Not to say that all of his stories featuring these themes suffer because of them, in fact, many are better for them (especially “The Deprogrammer”, in which Price shows off his wellspring of knowledge on modern cults, and “The Devil’s Steps”, which has one of the best closing lines in the book). However, occasionally one finds themselves wondering if they haven’t read this before.

Overall, though, this book is easily worth the somewhat hefty cover Price. Let’s hope that if this collection sells well we will see Mr. Price return fully to the field. We certainly need more of him.

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Black Christmas: Worse Than You Think

March 3, 2009 at 9:29 am (Film)

With three years and no critical acclaim between myself and Glen Morgan’s remake of Black Christmas, I finally sat down with this little “gem” and I don’t believe it’ll surprise anyone that it was awful. The only real shocker is just how awful it is.

I have fond memories of both Michelle Trachtenberg in her role as Dawn on Buffy and of Andrea Martin in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Yet whatever prowess they have displayed previously was not to be found in this tepid “thriller”. Of course, little blame can be set on either actress, as they were not so much protraying characters, but only the scantest impressions thereof, underdeveloped echoes of stock characters in the slasher genre. The average Friday the 13th sequel’s cast possessed richer characterization

Except, that is, for the killer. Like Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, we get into the “psychology” of the killer, Billy, which is (surprise!) created by a series of horrific childhood experiences. Yawn.

The principal thing that made movies like Halloween and the original Black Christmas so unnerving was they tapped into the brutish, unknowable nature of the faceless killer, the unknowable and unnameable threat that is reflected in the face of the world outside our own experience. These ham-fisted attempts to bring these characters to life only rationalize, and therefore demystify, the iconic nature of death personified.

Of course, if characterization was the only flaw of the movie it could have still be quite serviceable, but the film serves up no chills. This has more to do with the bungled pacing then anything else, in which tension is never built nor maintained. The director decides to spend too much time extending all of the wrong moments and trimming the essential bits. The first half of the film jumps back and forth between the introduction of the cast and the backstory of Billy, but since we never become emotionally engaged in the characters, this serves primarily as filler.

Although during this period the characters begin to recieve threatening phone calls, their lack of concern in regards to this development (or when the power fails, or when members of the cast begin to go missing) cause us, as viewers, to also be unconcerned. By failing to acknowledge that there is a threat until it is glaringly obvious, there is no sense of impending doom, none of that dread that causes the audience to suspend their disbelief and become engrossed in the reality of the film. Therefore, when the killing starts it is difficult to really care, just as (I suspect) Glen Morgan doesn’t, either.

Perhaps that is why he seems to be rushing to murder the cast as quickly as possible, as nearly everyone dies in very rapid succession. Here, too, do we see Morgan doesn’t have the slightest understanding of how to direct a horror film – the tension/release dynamic, so integral to suspense of any kind, is completely absent. They die, and I’m forced to say, “Who cares?”

Following the initial defeat of the killer(s), we get their inevitable return, but they fail to deliver even the remotest shocks even in this, as the overlong second climax (which is at least 15 minutes) is akin to the last half of an hour of The Return of the King – at this point you just want it to be over.

And, thankfully, that’s the one solid thing about Black Christmas. At only 84 minutes, it ends mercifully quickly.

Final verdict: 0/5 stars. If you want a decent slasher remake, this isn’t it. It’s called When A Stranger Calls, and even that isn’t really worth your time.

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