The Delectable Second Season of NBC’s Face of Hannibal Lecter

Just a heads up: this post is going to contain quite a few Hannibal spoilers.  If you haven’t watched through season 2, I don’t recommend you read this.  Instead, watch every episode.  It’s so good.

Last week I watched the season 2 finale of Hannibal.  Incredible.

As you already know, I really enjoy the books and films that feature the character Hannibal Lecter, and I have a particularly passionate love for the television series.  After watching the first season I felt that it was easily some of the best television I’ve ever seen– some of the best television ever to have aired, honestly– and it was with great excitement that I watched the second season, excited each week when Friday brought both the advent of the weekend and a new episode.  I felt that it brought a very wonderful new direction to Thomas Harris’s characters.  I find Hugh Dancy to be a wonderful Will Graham, Lawrence Fishburne to be a powerful Jack Crawford, and of course Mads Mikkelsen to be an absolutely incredible Hannibal Lecter.  I’m on the verge of just giving in to my temptation to say that he’s better as the character than Anthony Hopkins was.

Blasphemous, I know.  But he’s so good.

On that matter my wife says that Hopkins is a better Hannibal, but Mikkelsen is a better Dr. Lecter.  A very good way to look at it.

Okay, so in my last “Faces of Hannibal” post I basically just said that the series is a piece of art.  Let me dig a bit deeper this time around, because I’m writing this more for people who already have a great appreciation for the show rather than to give a teaser of what makes it different from the other iterations of Dr. Lecter.

For starters, I just want to gush over the story for a little while.  Hannibal-season-2-posterThe arc of the first season felt very full– we see Will Graham kill a serial killer– the Minnesota Shrike– become a surrogate father for the Shrike’s daughter alongside Hannibal, and then get framed by Hannibal for that daughter’s death, which is done in a way that Will himself questions his own innocence.  So we see a good man be forced into madness– or at least what appears to be madness– by Hannibal.  The characters are very vivid, as are their motivations.  Will has a very powerful, very real sense of empathy.  This makes him an extremely sympathetic hero to cheer for because his life is full of pain and compassion for the monsters he hunts.  Hannibal Lecter is a monster in the truest sense, viewing his own power as making him a god– a power that he exerts as both a slayer and one who gains influence as others give it to him.  He is controlling and manipulative, and he loves nothing more than to set horrible things in motion to see what happens, or to set things in motion to get outcomes that change people to being monstrous.  He takes this monstrosity as a sort of worship.  (I’m sorry this is coming out in a rather stream-of-consciousness sort of way, but I have to jump from idea to idea because every element– plot or cinematic– of this show is so perfectly crafted to form a cohesive, powerful piece of art).  So, in the framing of Will Graham we see Hannibal finish the first season by showing just how powerful he truly is.

The second season then begins with Will Graham being incarcerated in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a place familiar both from previous episodes (such as the involvement of Eddie Izzard’s brilliant character, Abel Gideon) and from all other things Hannibal as where Will Graham and Clarice Starling eventually stand outside of the cell of Hannibal Lecter to get his advice in dealing with the Tooth Fairy (Red Dragon) and Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs).  It is rather shocking to see heroic Will laid so low.  The first section of the season then deals with the evidence and legal proceedings against Will while he rebuilds his own memories and realizes who is responsible and how the framing was done.  Will begins to become darker, going to any lengths to try to bring down Hannibal– and in so doing he starts to become a monster himself.  This idea of his empathizing with the serial killers is taken in the direction the show has been hinting at from the beginning: that to defeat the monsters you must become one of them.  The show continues to deal with other killers, but from the first episode of the season these are clearly less significant to the story, in spite of how compelling they are.  Things get very intense as Jack Crawford’s assumed-dead protege is found alive and has been psychologically programmed to point the finger of blame for the Ripper murders on the head of the Hospital, Dr. Chilton, who has been framed in other ways as well.  She even pulls the trigger on him– which surprised me very much because Chilton plays a significant role in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.  This was the first major break from the established Hannibal Lecter canon (other than the premise that Will and the FBI all know Hannibal before he is caught).  Finally, Will is set free as it becomes clear that he was not responsible for the murders and Hannibal steps up his game, putting Will in monstrous circumstances and trying to mentor him to become what he is.  So, all of this is sublime, and then the stakes get heightened as Alonna Bloom begins sleeping with Hannibal as Will meets one of Hannibal’s other patient’s, a character familiar from the novel Hannibal, whose twisted brother is the key force trying to bring down the titular character in the novel.  We see the introduction of many major elements of that book– obviously the Vergers, and the man-eating pigs, but they are done in a way that is much more compelling than the novel that they’re based off of.  Then things get really crazy as it appears that Will has murdered the ever-annoying Freddie Lounds (even featuring a nice tribute to Lounds’ death in Red Dragon) and brought a cut of her to enjoy with his new mentor.  The conclusion of that episode left me really shocked, struggling to believe that the show was going in such a midnight-dark direction.  It was interesting, but it wasn’t anything I expected.  Of course, the next episode revealed her death to have been staged, all part of an intricate plan between Will and Jack to take down Hannibal.  Finally, Hannibal and Will try to force each other into killing Mason Verger but Verger escapes very damaged but alive (as he is familiar in Hannibal the novel/film) and Will unconscious.  Will and Jack try to force Hannibal into attempted murder in an entrapment sort of situation, but that plan gets shut down leaving the desperate men to proceed without a SWAT backup.  Of course, this leaves the pair bleeding out in Hannibal’s house with Alonna Bloom broken after being pushed out a window and the twist that Abigail Hobbs was alive but has just had her throat slit by Hannibal.  Cut to black, return with Hannibal drinking wine in a plane next to his psychologist, who previously fled an attempt on her life.

What?  How did all that happen?

Okay, so this show is very complex.  There are a lot of interesting threads that come in, leave the show for a while, then turn up later as very important to the story (example, Jack’s cancer-riddled wife).  I’ve never seen a show where every line of dialogue, every character, every detail turn out to be so important.  It’s phenomenal storytelling that really demands the audience’s attention at a level that no other show I’ve watched has done.

The filmography of the show is just beautiful.  The way that every shot is framed, the camera effects, everything furthers the story and gives the series a very powerful tone.  It contributes to the piece rather than just being the way that the story happens to be captured.  It really deals with filmography in such a serious, artful way that is rarely matched in the finest of cinema let alone in television.

The special effects are unbelievable.  The CGI stuff with the stag and the horned man are really cool, but the murder scenes are both beautiful and horrifying.  tumblr_inline_n3mke3fY0Y1rnite0Take the tree murder– it is both terrible and lovely.  It’s the kind of thing that can give you nightmares because you just can’t stop thinking about it.  The same applies to almost all of Hannibal’s kills.  It’s no wonder that Stephen King joked on Twitter, “After watching two seasons of HANNIBAL, I think a new license plate motto is in order: MARYLAND, HOME OF EXOTIC MURDER SCENES.”

I really just can’t gush over this series enough.  It’s killing me that I don’t know what day season three will begin (if anybody knows, please comment), though I love that it has been officially renewed.  I honestly think that between Hannibal and the upcoming Constantine series, NBC is becoming my new favorite network.

Transcendent and Terrifying Collective Storytelling – A Love Letter to the Bioshock Series

Anyone who has been in my house can tell you that I have a great love of video games.  There are four consoles plugged into my TV, several handhelds floating around my apartment, and there are video game characters incorporated into decor.  This love for video games has spanned much of my life– initially on a very limited basis through playing games at the houses of friends and relatives, and expanded as I bought my first handheld, the GameBoy Pocket.  In spite of years of owning it and its more advanced brethren, it took a good deal of persuasion to get a plug-into-the-TV console in my home.  My first was the GameCube, and it kindled my already-sparked love of Nintendo’s franchises.  In years to come, I acquired more consoles as I could afford them on my own, though I tended to be about half a generation behind, buying consoles such as the PS2 just as the PS3 was about to come out.  So, I continued to enjoy the newest games at friend’s houses well into college.

At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was hanging out at a friend’s house.  I arrived late to find gaming in progress, though it was a little abnormal: it wasn’t a multiplayer shooter being played.  Because I didn’t know what it was, I ignored the screen in favor of socializing.  After a while the controller was passed over to me, the game restarted.

I only played for ten or fifteen minutes, but it was one of the most incredible gaming experiences I had ever had.  I then didn’t have any way to continue to play it on my own, but it was regardless placed very high on my list of games to play.

The game, which should be obvious by the title of this post, was the first Bioshockbioshock1The brief brush I had with its rich world, buried under the sea in a city called Rapture, triggered a great deal of curiosity on my part.  While perusing its Wikipedia page I saw a reference to a book called Atlas Shrugged, which I had seen in libraries and homes for years.  I had long been curious to find out what it was, so learning it was connected to Bioshock was all I needed to pick up a copy.

Now, before I go any further, I want to state that I do not subscribe to Objectivism.  I find its principles and implications fascinating the same way that I find anything intellectually challenging fascinating.  I can see where Ayn Rand is coming from, but I feel that her perspective is far too radical to possibly achieve anything.  I feel that her philosophy stems from a bitterness toward communism more than from an honest worldview.

That said, I found cde8619009a083d7b5fe5110.LAtlas Shrugged to be a surprisingly compelling read, especially considering the fact that there is a monologue that exceeds a hundred pages that honestly just restated (and then restated again… and again) the points that everything prior to it in the novel had already made with abundant clarity.  Okay, I skimmed that part.  But regardless, the ideas were fascinating and the Objectivism-minded characters were fairly interesting.  The most important thing to glean from the fact that I read the novel is that I became quite familiar with Rand’s philosophy that praises selfishness as a virtue, endorsing the idea of a totally free market where individuals succeed based on their ability and nobody is carried on the back of another.  My proper interaction with Bioshock had that background, and I don’t regret that it took so long because I had built up my understanding of the groundwork of its universe.

I got to play through Bioshock properly because a friend lent myself and a mutual friend (my first college roommate) his Xbox 360 and a number of his games for about 9 months– he was going on his LDS mission.  Bioshock was fortunately among the games, and was the first to be consumed by both myself and my roommate.

Simply put, Bioshock is a masterpiece.  It brilliantly paints a city beneath the ocean’s waves that is built on the principles of Objectivism.  Rather than to praise this selfish ideal, we see that the city that its citizen hoped would be a paradise, their Rapture, has instead become a crumbling dystopia.  It has advanced rapidly in terms of science, art, medicine and has done so because there is no conventional governmental, social or religious morality placing restrictions and slowing growth.  The most notable advancement is the one from which the game draws its’ title: genetic modification.  The scientists of Rapture have created, by using a chemical found in sea slugs, ways to modify the human body to make it more powerful.  Now, by modification and subsequent injection of EVE, the slug byproduct, a person can perform amazing feats, from telekinesis to pyrokinesis, from creating electricity to growing bees from your own flesh.  Of course, these slugs are extremely valuable and rare, but a process was quickly developed to allow them to grow much more rapidly: my introducing them into the body of a human host.  Suddenly, there are little girls growing slugs inside them, guarded by biologically altered supermen in diving suits, and attacked by an increasingly dependent population of genetic splicers who will do anything to get a fix.  Throw in an all-out war in the streets between two masters of commerce, Andrew Ryan (note the Ayn Rand anagram) and Frank Fontaine, and we have the setting for the game.  The viewpoint character, simply known as Jack, explores the city as an outsider, with the confusing bits filled in over a radio by a man, begging for your help, who calls himself Atlas (also no coincidence there).  On top of it all, you are forced to make moral decisions yourself as you come in contact with the Little Sisters because you, too, quickly become a splicer to survive.  Do you save the slug-host children or do you harvest their bodies to boost your power?

There’s a lot there.  There’s even more to it than that.  That’s just the background.  Suffice it to say that Bioshock is one of the most well-written (yet refreshingly subtle), scary, action-packed, and brilliant video games ever.  It made bold strides for the medium to receive its rightful inheritance as an art form, not just mindless entertainment.  And that’s a point that I want to make here: video games are art, particularly when they are approached so masterfully as with the Bioshock series.  This actually was the subject of a college art-appreciation class project I did my first semester at Utah State.  Any video game is packed in with storytelling (in an interactive medium, which has such incredible implications!), characterization, visual design, landscape and architectural design, music composition, and much more.  The Irrational Games team (so unfortunately no longer in existence as of about a month ago) took their medium very seriously and made a masterpiece of video gaming.  I am very glad that the game received the acclaim it did– it really deserves it.

It was a few years before I had another chance to interact with Bioshock_2_boxartthe Bioshock series.  The first sequel came out while I was on my LDS mission, so I had to wait until I got home to play it.  Fortunately, shortly after I returned I purchased a laptop that was part of the “get a free 360” deal, so I quickly had the means to play it.  Also nice for me was the fact that Bioshock 2 dropped in price very quickly.

I’ve heard statements that Bioshock 2 is a crappy game.  I’d like to offer a contending opinion: though it is not as mind-blowing as the first one (primarily because it, logically, continues to explore the world the original set up) it is very good, and it’s equally stimulating on an intellectual level.  It’s no surprise that it has a smoother control and combat system, though those are the biggest boasts for the game.  I love the premise of the game, though– you are playing as one of the earliest models of Big Daddy, defender of Little Sisters, looking for a specific former-Little Sister who you are very close with, trying to free her from her socially powerful mother (who the ex-Little Sister, Eleanor, does not want to be with).   Eight years after the events of the first game’s good ending, Rapture has been reshaped, with some of the Little Sisters who escaped returning as young adults as Big Sisters working for the Rapture Family, run under the direction of a woman known as the Lamb, which is essentially the political backlash of the Objectivist ideals the city was founded on (and crumbled beneath).  Basically, the Family is communist, which really is about as far from Objectivism as any political ideal can be.  The Family has goals to totally eliminate the idea of the self, trying to become a totally united, internally selfless unit.  So, just from that brief description of the plot premise (it gets more complicated but all works quite nicely), it’s clear that Bioshock 2 is a very complicated game.

I loved revisiting Rapture in such a different context.  I loved being a Big Daddy, and thought that the powers and challenges of filling that role in the game were quite balanced and fun.  I loved the sections in which I had to defend Little Sisters as they harvested as they provided a unique challenge for the series to that point– defense and not offense.  When I finally became fully powered near the end of the game, I loved the waves of difficult enemies that I was able to face, though I had to often think outside of the box.  I think that’s what really shined Minervasden1with this game as opposed to its precursor– instead of just using a couple guns and plasmids in combat I had to come up with ways to make use of my full arsenal.  This wasn’t a chore, it was a blast, and really showed off what the game designers had in mind for the players in terms of creativity.  I love that they expected me to play with my brain, not just accuracy and a quick trigger-finger.

There is DLC for Bioshock 2 called Minerva’s Den.  It’s a unique Bioshock story that I’ve heard referred to as the best part about Bioshock 2.  I, unfortunately, am yet to play it.  I’ll make sure to update this post (and draw attention to the fact that I have) in the future when I have played it.  It’s high on my list, I just have a 360 with a small hard drive and limited gaming time in general.  I figure it’s safe to assume that it’s kick-awesome in every way, like the rest of the series.

Next up in the parade of amazingness is Bioshock Infinite.  Let me state this simply: it isOfficial_cover_art_for_Bioshock_Infinite easily one of the best video games ever made.  It’s in my top three of all time.  Depending on the day, it sometimes tops the list.  It’s up there with The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Chronotrigger for me.

It’s so, so good.

Okay, so I’ll give you a bit about this pinnacle of glory.  It is set in 1912 in a city that flies above the clouds called Columbia.  The protagonist is a man named Booker DeWitt, a private detective who is a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion and of the Battle of Wounded Knee.  He has been sent to the mysterious city to find and retrieve a woman known simply as Elizabeth, who is locked up in a tower and guarded by a creature called the Songbird.  Elizabeth, by the way, has supernatural powers that allows her to interact with alternate dimensions and other periods of time.  The game also features more widespread powers, quite similar to plasmids of the earlier games, called vigors.

Columbia is a fascinating piece of work, very unlike Rapture in many ways.  It’s based on the historical Columbian World Exposition from the 1890s.  It is built on principles of hyper-patriotism (having left the United States because the US wasn’t American enough) and religious leadership.  Essentially, Columbians worship the founding fathers of the US and are ruled by their prophet, Zachary Comstock, who receives revelations about everything from politics to industry to race relations.  Though initially seemingly quite paradisiacal, the rotten underbelly quickly is manifested with rampant racism and an angry, rebellious working class uniting as the Vox Populi.

I really don’t want to ruin the magic of this for you at all if you haven’t played it.  The world is breathtaking in terms of beauty, game mechanics, theoretical science, and philosophy.  The characters are compelling and their journey is difficult and wonderful.  The story ties to the other games in the series very well and in unexpected ways.  The tone is less horror than the others, though it’s scary moments are even more terrifying (when you get to the Boys of Silence you’ll understand).

Also, a pro tip– look for the more modern songs adapted into older styles throughout the game.  They’re wonderful.  [NON-PLOT MILD SPOILER] For example, while first walking the streets of Columbia you can hear a barbershop quartet singing for the festivities of the day…[END SPOILER]

IBSIDLC-Burial_at_Sea_Episode_One_KeyArt cannot recommend it highly enough.  But play the others first.

Then, there’s Burial at Sea.  It’s DLC for Infinite, in two episodes.  Using a rationale that works perfectly in the series (but that I won’t explain for the sake of avoiding spoilers) the story features the two protagonists of Infinite but is set in Rapture years before the first game, just before an event that started the all-out war between Fontaine and Ryan.

The episodes have a very different feel from Infinite, or from the Rapture games.  The visual and storytelling style is very film noir, which is likely apparent by the image to the left.  In episode 1 you play as Booker, who is a fedora and trench coat-wearing private detective.  A femme fatale Elizabeth knocks on your door and hires you to find a little girl– a little girl that you lost.

It’s fascinating as the first half of the episode shows Rapture at its highest point– brilliantly lit shops, parties, abstract art.  You interact with characters from previous games and see them as what they once were, before the war and splicing drove them into the darkness.

Just from the perspective of having played the other games, it was really interesting.

The second half took a turn toward the darkness that is more familiar in the series as you travel to an area of Rapture that Ryan has separated from the rest of the city as a prison for traitors to his ideals.  You fight men going mad as you seek out the child, a Little Sister, who you lost.

I’m not going to go any further into what happens, but suffice it to say that it is brilliant and made me really want the next episode when I finished it.

Episode 2 CN3gnwPis incredible and somehow managed to tie together everything in the series very neatly and very unexpectedly.  I thought that the story already worked pretty well, but Episode 2 really drove it home.  It’s a masterpiece.

This game is quite different from all of its precursors.  Rather than being action-horror the gameplay shifts to survival-horror.  You play as Elizabeth, who, due to having significantly less upper-body strength and less ammo than Booker or Jack or Subject Delta, has to sneak up on enemies to kill them or often has to flee.  It changed the way I saw plasmids and the arsenal it gave me and made for a very fun and challenging playthrough.

I don’t dare tell you anything about the story other than that it amazed me, scared me, and gave me a strong desire to give everybody at the now-defunct Irrational Games a high-five.  I didn’t expect anything that happened to happen, but everything was perfect.

Just perfect.  It made me fall in love with the series yet again.  It made me appreciate little things in all of the games that came before it.

So, the question I’m left with: what is to become of Bioshock in the future?  Irrational Games has been disbanded (I’m assuming that after finishing Burial at Sea they had to disband as a sort of “drop the mic” sort of thing), but the franchise is officially owned by 2K, who has stated that the series will be continued under different management in the future.  Is that going to be a good thing?  Can such a thing really work, with the story so perfectly completed in Burial at Sea episode 2?  Those who have completed the series, let me know in the comments what you think about the idea of future Bioshock games without Ken Levine and Irrational involved.

Finally, let me state again just how incredible a piece of storytelling this series is.  And the best part is that I was able to play a role in the telling.  I made decisions and experienced the story.

I love it so much that the guy in these pictures is me:

bioshock_cosplay_1_by_fae_falor-d4esqwu

bioshock_cosplay_2_by_fae_falor-d4esr4a

Now I guess I just need to get around to playing Minerva’s Den, and then move on to Bioshock‘s spiritual precursor, System Shock

Paranormal Activities

Warning: This post contains spoilers.  I tried to keep plot points fairly light but found that I wasn’t saying anything interesting.  So, I’m going to delve into the plot a fair bit.  If you want just my general thoughts on the series, stop reading this post in two paragraphs.

A couple months ago I promised I’d write a comprehensive post on the Paranormal Activity series. Paranormal_Activity_poster  It’s one of the biggest horror franchises right now, and due to some surprisingly effective scares brought about from the earlier entries in the series, there is soon to be a sixth entry.

In very broad strokes, I quite enjoy this series.  No, it’s not a masterpiece of horror, but it’s very effective with its light, minimalistic approach to the genre.  Many successful horror films rely on a heavy budget for special effects and costuming, but this series features primarily ordinary people in situations that would genuinely scare anybody given they were in the same scenario.  For the most part, the found footage really works to the series’ advantage and brings very realistic scares to the screen.

The first film is very sharp.  The very small cast is very believable– Katie and Micah are very real-to-life and their reactions to the mysterious and frightening events are believable.  The story unfolds very organically– we see a couple in their 20s living together who start setting up cameras around their house when some weird things start happening.  My wife and I did something similar to figure out how our cat kept getting underneath a couch he shouldn’t fit under.  Then, the weirdness escalates.  It goes from weird noises and things being misplaced to more violent acts– furniture being thrown about by an unseen force, doors flying open.  There is clearly a malicious, angry incorporeal creature in the house.  Micah goes from curious– setting up the cameras and using an Ouija board– to angry– openly challenging the entity, which just worsens the problem.  Katie goes from curiosity to denial to fear.  I also like that the mystery is also very natural– for example, when we see the burned picture of young Katie and her sister, we are as confused as the characters, and their discussion of it isn’t campy “What does this mean in the context of this current situation” dialogue.

Because the film does so little to give the typical polish that most film has, the found footage style works very well.  I felt like I could believe that this would be real footage– there’s no subtle score, the dialogue flows naturally, awkward pauses and broken sentences and inappropriately timed outbursts.  But, as I’ve touched on, the terror is real.  We can see it in how the characters move, how they speak.  It’s visible in their faces.  We have the blind rejection of what happens, we have the stupid curiosity, we can see the desires to run and the desires to fight back.  That is what I feel elevates this film over many other horror films: I believed their reactions.  I almost never yelled at the screen, “Run, idiot!” or “Stab him!”  Admittedly, Micah’s challenges to the being are pretty stupid, but when as pissed off as practically anybody would be in that context, stupid tends to happen.

Paranormal_Activity_2_PosterI’m also just going to throw out there that one of the alternate endings (no, it obviously doesn’t work to continue the series) is just exceptional.  Watching Katie stare at the camera, slowly smile, then slit her own throat… Haunting.  For some reason the version of the film I first watched actually had that ending, and it still sticks with me.  If it had somehow worked in conjunction with the remainder of the series I would have loved for that ending to stay.  Instead, we have Katie’s possession and murder of Micah, followed by fleeing to do… something.

The second film was also quite good.  It isn’t nearly as scary as the first– we know what sorts of horrible things to expect, after all– and we spend most of the film wondering how on earth the story is going to connect properly.  After all, it’s the story of Katie’s sister’s family being haunted by a demonic presence, presumably the same one that haunts the first film.  The story is clearly a prequel, and even though I was satisfied by how the connection to the earlier film ended up working out– it’s quite clever, actually, and quite dark– I feel like my first viewing’s confusion resulted in me being distracted by what I thought was inconsistency (even though, it turns out, it wasn’t).  This film also just moved at a slower pace, which took away from some of the scariness.  The characters also just didn’t interest me quite as much.  The baby was really the only family member that made me care about them at all.  I didn’t love Katie and Micah, but I sympathized with them more than I did with Kristi, Daniel, and Ali.

Essentially, we have the same formula again.  This time, instead of just weirdness it appears that there was a break-in– something was angry and destroyed a bunch of the family’s stuff– that leads to the filming.  The filming this time is primarily through security cameras set throughout the house, so that really does work quite logically.  Then we have things slowly get weirder and weirder in the house, from strange noises to furniture being suspended on the ceiling and then being dropped all at once.  So, a few new tricks mixed in with the old ones.  We also have another affirmation that whatever is happening is demonic in nature as the Hispanic housekeeper is very superstitious and states that she senses the devil in the house before the bigoted Daniel fires her for lighting religious candles.

So, it’s not to say that the build-up is boring, just familiar and a bit slower than ideal.  It still is quite compelling, though.

The final act of the film is very good.  The scares quickly brought up to a higher level than we have in the first film.  Watching Kristi getting dragged away by an unseen force, her nails scraping against the walls, is truly frightening.  As with the first film, what happens off camera relative to demonic possession is terrifying because we don’t know what happened.  There is so much that is left unseen, but unlike Greek tragedies, this just makes the unseen things all the more disturbing.  And it makes it harder to stop thinking about.  Also, to see what the events of this films lead the characters to do (and to a member of their own family) is shudder-worthy: they move the demon that is possessing Kristi to the home of Katie and Micah, which leads to the events of the original film.  The final scene was very well done, definitely making me want to continue to follow the story, as we see weeks later the results of Katie’s possession as she walks in, swiftly kills Daniel and Kristi, and kidnaps baby Hunter.

That is an effective ending when there are sequels to be had.

Paranormal Activity 3 is my favorite of the series.  ParanormalActivity3PosterAdmittedly, the constant cameras does feel a little forced by this point in the series, but I felt that the inventiveness in how the cameras were used made up for that.  This was especially true of the camera attached to the rotating fan mount, which really made for some powerful scenes.  Also, the story significance of this addition to the series was particularly interesting and important.  Once again, we have a prequel film, this time set back in the childhood of the sisters.  We have a good deal more context provided to us as to why there are angry demons haunting this family throughout their lives, and the reason is refreshingly believable: a coven of witches.  Yes, the later films kind of make the coven less interesting, but to get just the snippets Paranormal 3 provides is pretty awesome.  Simply, as a deal to gain more evil power, the coven of witches made a deal with some demons that they would sacrifice the bodies (for possession, presumably) of the firstborn males in their lines.  There is a lot of implication that the daughters are raised to be brides and worshipers of the demons.  So, we have a lot there to work with.  We are given the context for why the demon needs to stay in the family and keeps getting involved, and we have why Katie, possessed by a demon, steals Hunter.

Part of what made the third film so great besides filling in interesting and important plot points is that everything about the production is true to the era in which it is set.  No, it’s not like the 80s is super difficult to reproduce, but I loved that the quality of film and the technology available and the clothing and toys the girls play with all are very much true to that decade.  Also great is that the involvement of children in the peril is really interesting.  How the girls react to the scares and to the imaginary friend persona the demon initially tries to perpetuate, Toby, is very compelling to watch because it is so different than how adults do.  Also, with this film you care about the family quite a bit more than the families in the predecessor films because we have the mom, Julie, who is trying to do her best for her children, a live-in boyfriend, Dennis, who genuinely cares about the girls as well, and of course Katie and Kristi, who have lovable personalities.  Dennis’s quirky friend is also pretty fun on-screen.

The “Bloody Mary” scene is the film’s biggest gem.

The only downside to the film is that it fails to fill in the fire that is referenced several times in 1 and 2 and the trailer for 3.  I wanted to get a little more context for that.

Unfortunately, after 3 came 4.Paranormal_Activity_4_Poster

Ugh, what an awful movie.  The film isn’t scary, interesting, or even consistent.  It makes the coven seem cheesy and makes the writers for these movies seem like drunken buffoons.  I was honestly bored through most of my watching of the movie.  I’m kind of surprised I managed to get through it.

The titular activity in the film was stale at best.  The scariest scene was when the audience knows there is a knife in the ceiling but the character in the room doesn’t so we think it’s going to drop on her and kill her.  Turns out, it falls when she isn’t under it.  Booooooring.

The found footage aspect kind of stopped working this time around as well.  Instead of normal video cameras, we have webcams and an Xbox Kinect.  Having most of the creepy things happening in the context of stupid Skype conversations of a teenage girl with her boyfriend was almost painful to watch.  The Kinect had a few cool ideas (night vision on it which let us see all of its projected dots which sometimes moved where nobody was) but overall just felt like an interesting gimmick rather than a believable method for capturing the events.

Oh, and the story?  We’re in for a turd!

Basically, seven or so years after the end of Paranormal 1 and 2 we have a family who has a lady (Katie) who moves across the street from them who has a weird little boy.  We are to assume this is Hunter until otherwise informed (which happens later in the film).  Said lady gets mysteriously ill and calls to ask if the family who has the annoying teenage girl and a young son of their own if they can keep an eye on the little boy for a few days.  Then, weirdness begins, but all of it is tame in comparison to the previous films.  Also, the weird boy teaches the family’s son to draw weird symbols and crap.  Then, the boys go to play across the street at Katie’s house, the teenage daughter follows (still Skyping for some reason– and presumably with long-range wi-fi) and Katie is home from the “hospital.”  The house is creepy and totally undecorated, which wouldn’t seem that weird were it not for the fact that it’s the size of most grocery stores.  Katie says something odd about the girl’s brother– that he looks just like his mother.  We quickly learn through forced revelatory dialogue that it’s weird for two reasons: one, because Katie never met the mom of the family, and two, because the boy is adopted.

Yeah, the boy in the family is Hunter.  Because apparently the demon’s course of action immediately after kidnapping the baby was to put him up for adoption, wait seven years, then put things into place to steal him again.  I guess it’s the thrill of the hunt that motivates it, not actually getting what it wants.

Head in Hands

Anyway, after a day or two Katie sneaks in, kills the mom and steals Hunter (deja vu?).  The dad and the teenager run across the street, dad gets killed and the film ends with the whole coven with demonic faces coming at the girl.

Notice I didn’t bother with names at all with that family?  That’s because I didn’t care.

Then finally we have Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.  This film Paranormal_Activity_-_The_Marked_Ones_2014_posterwas overall pretty okay, definitely a step-up from number 4, but still nowhere in the league of 1-3.

This film is a spin-off of the main series.  The story follows an 18-year-old boy, Jesse, and his friends.  Jesse’s downstairs neighbor, who had long been rumored to be a bruja is murdered, presumably by a mild-mannered classmate.  Then, weird things start happening to Jesse and he starts to become darker in personality.  There is an unseen force that is protecting him– keeping him from falling, pushing away street thugs– as he gets more and more violent and meanspirited.  Then, after a couple of thrillseeking forays into the crime scene apartment, the family chihuahua disappears.  Somehow it gets into the trapdoor basement of the crime scene apartment, and Jesse follows the barking down to discover the chamber where there is pictures of both himself and the boy who killed the witch throughout their lives.  Suddenly, a dark figure appears and the film switches to focusing on Jesse’s friends, who are trying to make sense of Jesse, whose dark moods have intensified to the point of pushing everyone in his life away.  He then murders his grandmother, making it look like she fell down the stairs.  The friends do some research in the life of the boy who killed the witch, who I failed to mention later commits suicide, and see clues that lead them to get in contact with Ali, the daughter in Paranormal 2.  She tells them that the coven is making an army of possessed young men, and tells them where the final ritual takes place.  They get in contact with the witch-killer’s brother, a Mexican gangster, and head to the location Ali gave them.  It’s Kristie and Katie’s grandmother’s house, where the final act of 3 took place, where they proceed to look for Jesse.  The place appears empty, but they are quickly attacked by the witches who, disappointingly, show now sort of powers but instead just come at them with knives.  After taking out a number with shotguns Hector, who has done most of the filming, follows a demonic Jesse through a magical door that transports them through space and time to the final scene of Paranormal 1.  Presumably Hector is killed by Jesse.

Okay, so that’s a lot of stuff to take in.  In some ways, the idea of an army of possessed young men takes the edge off some of the more annoying plot elements from 4.  It appears that most of the young men are kidnapped as children and placed into families in close proximity to witches in the coven.  It still doesn’t fix the problems with 4, but it is moving things toward the right direction.  The last scene was a bit much, ending up in a different time, and for no apparent reason.

My biggest critique is that the entire film being found footage was quite forced.  The characters seemed to be filming for the sake of there being a spin-off to the series, not because they feel like filming is logical.

I did particularly like one element of the film– communicating with the demon via a Simon game.  Pretty good stuff.

I don’t know how I feel about what the future holds for the series.  They have announced Paranormal 5, which is coming out in October of this year, and I had some hope for it in the past (it had been stated that the director/writer of the first film was returning to the series for it, which later was amended to the series’ editor being the new director), but now I do not know how to feel about it.  I figure I’ll go see it, but set my expectations low.  I am glad that they’ve stated that there is an end-game coming, but it sounds like that’ll be in Paranormal 6 or 7.

Locke & Key

I love the idea of horror in the comic book medium.  It used to be quite prevalent, but has in recent decades mostly faded to the backdrop of the industry, so it is quite refreshing to have recently read and enjoyed a horror comic series.  This is particularly the case with how disappointed one of the most popular horror comics made me.

I first caught wind of Locke & Key the way I Joehilllockekeyfind out about a lot of things– through Wikipedia, specifically on Joe Hill’s page.  I fairly recently read several of his books– to date, I’ve read all but his most recent book, N0S4A2— and really enjoyed the strong writing.  I was very pleased to see that his writing is very strong and was worthy of publishing on his own merits and not his father’s (Stephen King).  He was scary, funny, sad, and compelling.  His characters were vibrant, his plots unexpected and exciting.  As a side note, I particularly recommend his collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, especially the titular story from that collection.  Anyway, I was curious if he had done even more good writing for me to enjoy, and when I saw that he had written a comic series, my interest was piqued.

A few months after that I stumbled upon the first four collections in the comics section at my local library.  I was looking for Batman (which the library satisfied my craving for) but also came home bearing a stack consisting of far more comic titles than The Dark Knight’s adventures.  Volume 1 of Locke & Key was actually the first graphic novel I picked up from the stack, and I consumed it very quickly and was glad that I had brought home the second volume as well.

The idea of the Locke & Key is fairly easy to explain without lockekey_vol4tpbany notable spoilers.  Basically, it’s the story of the Locke family who, in the wake of tragedy, move to their father’s childhood home where they find numerous keys with magical powers that can do everything from changing a person into an animal to lifting off the top of their head to put in knowledge or remove unwanted memories of character traits.  So, much of the story is the adventure of discovering more keys and their purposes.

But, as I said before, this is a horror comic, so it isn’t all a big whimsical fantasy adventure.  There  is also a dark force at work in Keyhouse, who seeks to serve their own vile purposes through manipulation and force and, of course, the keys.

Pretty much everything about the series is very strong.  All the characters are very well thought out, dynamic, with believable motivations and powerful action.  The story careens in unexpected ways at a breakneck pace.  The dialogue is strong and drives the story forward.  The art– well, actually, I didn’t care for the art while reading the first couple of volumes of the series, but over time it grew on me.  Gabriel Rodriguez definitely paid a great deal of attention to details, and it really shows while you read it.  He very meticulously planned out the house, the grounds, the appearance of the keys and characters.  He really filled the world and vividly breathed life into Joe Hill’s scripts.

One thing I also LockeKey_KeystotheKingdom05loved is that the details of the plot spanned over generations, and was presented very seamlessly– the storytelling and presentation of key concepts is subtle, and subtlety is a rare commodity in comics.   We have the magic explained historically and as the characters learn about it through trial and error.  Each character’s personality is shown through sections of the comic– for example, there was a tribute piece to Bill Watterson that showcased the perspective of the youngest member of the Locke family, Bode, flying around as a sparrow that was drawn in Calvin and Hobbes style.  We get a feel for Bode’s humor, innocence, personality, and vibrancy with how that piece was presented, all while it very interestingly furthered the plot.

To get to the point, I highly recommend the series.  It was recently completed and the first 4/5ths of the story is available in graphic novels.  It’s a great series for lovers of comic and/or horror fantasy.

Why I’m (Continually) Thankful for Brandon Sanderson

In the last few weeks, I’ve become even more grateful for the great writer Brandon Sanderson.  I’ve already given a brief dissertation on why his writing is awesome and why I find him to be an inspiration to my writing.Brandon_Sanderson  I’m going focus on two points here: firstly, I’m just going to talk about some of his other writing I’ve read in the past few weeks, and also I’m going to talk about Writing Excuses.

At the job I recently left I listened to a lot of books.  This was really my first notable experience with audiobooks instead of print books, and I must say that it can be an enjoyable way to experience good writing.  Overall I still prefer the convention medium, but audiobooks have really been great for making long stretches of repetitive activity much shorter and more interesting.  As I’ve mentioned in my other Brandon Sanderson-related post, I listened to the audiobook of his recent novel Steelheart, which was pretty well done, and to his novella Legion, which I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.  More recently I listened to another of his novels, this particular book a fantasy novel targeted for the YA audience.  Though I highly enjoyed this book, The Rithmatist, in its content, I wasn’t as pleased with the reading thereof.

As usual, hisrithmatist story and magic system for the book were both rich and unique.  The magic system, rithmatics, is based on chalk drawings and geometry, somewhat reminiscent of things like alchemical circles in Fullmetal Alchemist, though certainly more clear in what it does.  It uses circles drawn around the rithmatist, which serves as both a defense measure as well as the framework for additional lines or drawings which can be used to defend or attack.  One of the most intriguing elements of the system that tends to differ from other drawing-based systems is chalkings, which are combatant two-dimensional drawings that can to damage to rithmatic lines or living beings, and that there are numerous wild chalkings that are engaged in constant combat with the military.  The story is, naturally, closely tied to rithmatics.  Sanderson is thorough in how he deals out the implications of the magic system and how it has shaped the world in numerous aspects, including military, education, and religion.  I also liked the characters, even though they were clearly written for an audience a decade or so my junior.  I felt that they were pretty solidly presented in their youth.  I didn’t have the usual urge to roll my eyes that comes with much of YA literature, with writers clearly out of touch with what it actually is to be adolescent.  The setting was also one of the most compelling aspects of the novel, both in the school where most of the action takes place and in the world in general.  It is set in a turn-of-the-century America that, instead of being a single landmass, is a cluster of islands.  The sociopolitical history of the world is cleverly demonstrated in ways that are refreshingly subtle– for instance, to indicate a heavy Asian influence throughout Europe, the characters eat “Italian food,” which is noodles covered in a tomato-soy sauce and eaten with chopsticks.

So, as I’ve stated, the book itself is a pretty good read.  It seemed pretty clear that Sanderson intends to write subsequent novels, and I welcome that.  I almost certainly will not be partaking of them via audiobook again, however.

My qualms with the audiobook are fairly simple.  First, the reader wasn’t particularly compelling.  He sounded like a tired older man, which really didn’t work as the voicing character is a young teenager and also just made the story kind of boring.  Also, the book featured diagrams that served to explain elements of the magic system more clearly.  The reader partially explained what was in the diagrams, and there was a PDF with them all included, but it was a pain to stop what I was doing to look at them.

Next up I’m just going to touch on 01_elantris_ukanother of his books– Elantris.  I’m only at the beginning of the book, but I bring it up now because of how I’m experiencing it.  I’m listening to the GraphicAudio version of the book, which is a very different sort of audiobook than what I’ve grown accustomed to in the past few weeks, in a way that I feel is mostly positive.  Instead of just having a reader or two read the book aloud, the GraphicAudio version features a full cast recording.  Every character is voiced separately, as is the narrator, and things like dialogue tags are dropped.  There are also sound effects and implied dialogue, such as a person babbling on as the narrator states that the person wouldn’t shut up.  They claim it’s “like a movie in your mind,” and for the most part, it’s true.  It’s interesting to have a book presented almost like an old-school radio show.  There are a couple little problems I’ve had in the listening to this particular book, but they are relatively minor drawbacks when compared to how much more interesting the book is in this format than conventional audiobooks.  Specifically, I don’t like a couple of the voice actors (they sound too old or the like), and there are times when there is a crowd shouting or something that wasn’t mixed well enough to keep the narrator’s words clear above the din.

The last thing I want to mention in my discussion of the-hero-of-ages-by-brandon-sandersonmy recent reading is the final novel of his Mistborn trilogy.  I’ve already raved about how good the magic system and world is generally, but I just wanted to comment that the series’ conclusion is very impressive.  Everything comes together in unexpected ways that are, simply, brilliant.  He set up a number of very critical elements from the very beginning of the first book that stayed beneath my radar until he wanted to skillfully pull back the curtain and show what he’d been doing the entire series.  I even more highly recommend reading this series now that I’ve finished it.  Even the most careful reader is going to be surprised, and it’s simply delightful.  I am very eager to read The Alloy of Law, which is set hundreds of years later, in part because the original series is so good and also because I can’t wait to see how the important events that conclude The Hero of Ages have an impact on future generations.

I’m going to say it again: read Mistborn.  It has an incredible magic system, dynamic characters that you actually care about, interesting creatures, and vast (but not overwhelming) scope.

Okay, I’m done foaming at the mouth fromwriting excuses how good he is at writing.  Now, on to how good he is at teaching.

Writing Excuses, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast about writing.  Brandon contributes, along with other Utahn writers Howard Tayler and Dan Wells.  So, a fantasy novelist, a sci-fi cartoonist, and a horror novelist.  There is also another regular contributor later, but I haven’t gotten to her contributions yet, as well as numerous guests including Pat Rothfuss, Brandon Mull, Tracy Hickman, and Steve Jackson.  In each 15-minute episode the podcasters discuss some aspect of writing, specifically focusing on helping new and aspiring writers improve their craft.  It’s a lot like listening to college-level creative writing class lectures, but I honestly think they are frequently better than the classes I’ve taken in that they bring in multiple perspectives.  These are all genre fiction writers as well, so the advice is targeted at the kind of writing that I do (and is thankfully free of the judgmental tones that often accompany professorial discussion of anything that isn’t “literary”).  I can’t understate how wonderful this podcast has been for my writing.  First of all, they talk about a lot of topics that are important to take into consideration in writing– everything from specific aspects of worldbuilding to how to brainstorm to giving characters individual voices– and also about the business side of professional writing– that it is being a small business owner, the importance of cons, what publishers look for.  The most I ever got about the business of getting published in college was essentially “always be submitting.”  That’s it.

Not every podcast has been super-relevant to my writing, but every podcast has been at the very least interesting to listen to.  I’ve never had any interest in writing card or board games, but I still was fascinated when they had Steve Jackson on.

The most important thing about Writing Excuses is that it has provided me a regular opportunity to think about my writing.  I’ve listened to it during my commute to and from my last job (total two hours of driving, which is why I no longer work there), so I spent two hours in which I usually did nothing thinking about my writing from numerous angles.  I’ve learned a lot about my characters and what I need to do in my current revision process of my novel– and I’m not talking just about line edits, I mean big-picture changes and refinements.  It’s been invaluable to me, and I’m already seeing that my writing is improving because of it.  It’s also good in that it reminds me, frequently and in no uncertain terms, that I need to set aside time to write.  I need that reminder and I’m thankful that the Writing Excuses guys have gone out of their way to provide it and their experienced advice to anybody who wants to download it.

Found Footage: Horrifying or Horrible

In concept, found footage is a brilliant idea that really does a lot to further much of film, especially in the horror genre.  When done properly, it lends a great deal to the believability of the story, making the story feel real in its presentation as well as in the events that happen.  There are many who complain that it has a low-budget feel, or that it is often nauseating to watch, but I can’t help but love much of what I’ve seen.

I love the idea of a story being told in a way that is true-to-life.  This isn’t exactly a new idea– Bram Stoker’s Dracula was told as a series of diary entries and letters, and in that day it makes sense that the events of the story would honestly be recorded in those formats.  My horror novel in the works is written in a similar fashion, using news magazine articles and journals, because I love how the story can come to life in the imperfect hands of multiple narrators with different motivations.  It’s really worked for me thus far.  It likewise makes sense that in the case of some sort of horrifying event or global calamity that people would whip out their cameras and cell phones and start recording.  One only needs to go to a concert to know that often people prefer to record big events rather than spend time experiencing them.  So, in many instances, I can really believe what I am watching when it is through the lens of an amateur cameraman.

My first contact with found footage was actually a film that only had horror elements rather than being a straight-up scary movie: CloverfieldCloverfield_theatrical_poster.  I saw it in theaters, and thankfully I didn’t have the nausea issues that several people had indicated they had.  One friend told me they had to leave the theater because the shaky camera made them quite ill.  Instead of any displeasure, I walked out of the theater feeling quite exhilarated.  I loved how the cameraman was part of the story (though admittedly a quite annoying contributor) and how the action was so chaotic and raw– not what you’d expect from a film where a giant monster attacks a major city.  I had enjoyed other films of that vein– Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong— but Cloverfield just resonated so much more strongly.  I cared about the characters and their survival instead of just the spectacle (which you only catch snippets of) because of the format of the film.  No, it is far from perfect, particularly as the guy filming has little reason to keep the camera rolling in sections where everybody is just running and nothing is visibly happening, and when the camera is on and off seems to be rather haphazardly thrown together.  But, it caught my imagination and my excitement.

My next experience with found footage was… pretty bad.  Horror legend George Romero made a zombie film DiaryofDeadPoster2using the technique and, like most of the other films he directed that I’ve seen, it failed to live up to the epic status of his name.  I actually have never been very impressed by any of his films, though I can at least see why his first three Living Dead films are so iconic.  Instead of reaching anything near the quality of those films, Diary of the Dead felt like the creation of a washed-up director trying to capitalize on his name by making the shoddiest low-budget film he could throw together.  The zombies were pretty uninteresting, the characters were flat, and the reason for the found footage was pretty forced.  The idea of college film students making a movie just as the zombie apocalypse is okay, but the fact that they’re making a bad horror movie just before everything that follows turns into a bad horror movie was just a little bit too much.  I later learned (as you’ll see further down in this post) that it was much too similar in concept to The Blair Witch Project, and definitely not as good as that precursor.  I just felt like the filming was inexcusably poor, especially since it is being done by a character that is allegedly wanting to become a professional cameraman.  The scares were almost nonexistent.  The only positive thing I can really say about it is that it was nowhere near as awful as Land of the Dead.  To my understanding this film garnered a sequel called (laughably) Survival of the Dead that, from everything I’ve heard about it, I have been wise to avoid.

Thankfully, my next experience with horror found footage was much more positive: Quarantine.  I’ve heard many of the same arguments against this film that I heard about Cloverfield— that it was difficult to watch, that it was unbelievable that the camera would still be rolling. Quarantineposter  I can’t help but laugh at these claims, because I thought the film was simply brilliant, easily one of the scariest films I had ever seen– most because of the camera being part of the action.  I love that the cameraman character was a professional, which excused how good much of the film work is.  There are, of course, intense moments where the camera shakes, but as a whole it is much more watchable without taking a dramamine than other found footage films.  I loved that the main characters were reporters, because it made their continual, persistent filming of the hellish events very real to me.  Plus, the film brought some great moments as the camera was used in some very refreshing ways, particularly as it is actually used to bash in the head of a zombie (yes, I’ve heard the argument for the people in this not being zombies, but I’m in the camp that this is, in fact, a zombie film).  It doesn’t get much moreRec_poster intense than that.  I also loved the intensity of the situation for the film– basically, to be quarantined in a building by the government while dealing with a crazy zombie virus outbreak inside an apartment building.  The how of the story was told much more subtly than most horror films, presenting the back story as a series of clues that the audience actually had to pay attention to fully put together.  There were no “Ah, so this thing that was said ties into this thing we found and thus means this” moments in the dialogue, which was more true to life than most stories told in any format.

I found out later that Quarantine was the American version of the Spanish film [REC].  Because I loved Quarantine so much, I made a point to seek out the original, which I loved even more.  The acting was more realistic to me, though beside that it was almost frame-for-frame the same.  If you haven’t seen either, I’d recommend just watching [REC].  It also has a sequel that picks up immediately after the intense conclusion that I haven’t watched yet, but have heard good things about.

Remembering the buzz it garnered in my youth, I next watched one of the most famousBlair_Witch_Project examples of found footage horror: The Blair Witch Project.  This film came out when I was in elementary school, and some of the other kids whose parents apparently were much more lax than mine in terms of allowing their children to watch mature films (my parents wouldn’t let me watch The Sixth Sense) took turns telling the other kids about how it was a true story, that the movie was found and that the people who made it were probably dead.  Having no idea what the film was other than the awkward poster, these claims of my classmates were filed away in the “I Have No Idea What These People Are Talking About” section of my brain.  It wasn’t until I watched the film that I realized that the marketing campaign had so successfully suckered a bunch of nine-year-olds.

Other than the laughable snotty nose scene, I really enjoyed the film.  I actually liked that it didn’t show the monster (what I assume is the titular Blair Witch).  I liked its use of two cameras.  I felt like it was quite successfully scary while doing only minimalistic things to achieve those scares.  I felt like I would be just as terrified in that situation.  I liked that they didn’t make tons of obvious mistakes, and that the mistakes they made were things that many people would have done.

Finally, a few years later I watched the first three installments of the Paranormal Activity series, all of which I thought were  excellent found footage filmsParanormal-Activity-3.  Since my next horror post is going to actually break down my feelings for the series, film-by-film, I’m not going to go into too many details about how I feel about the plot and the like.  I’ll primarily stick to my thoughts on how it works with found footage.

I feel that it is reasonable that somebody would set up cameras to see what is going on when there are unusual happenings in the house.  This works for the first three films very well, though the later installments are admittedly forcing the idea a little too much to achieve what I feel is key to the genre– realism and believability.  By Paranormal Activity 4 I stop believing that the cameras are rolling relative to the continuing story.  The first film worked on its own merits and by centering the action on only a few rooms in the house was very effective in using the filming for the storytelling.  The second film was almost as effective as it primarily used security cameras to tell the story, which after early events looking like a break-in, I also had very little difficulty in believing.  Finally, the third film, though seeming a little forced in the mother’s boyfriend editing film for a living, was superb.  The film quality and style was very true to (high quality) home movies, and the fresh film techniques really made the story pop.  I loved every scene that made use of the camera mounted on a fan swivel system.  The filming made the movie very intense, easily the most frightening for me in the series.  However, Paranormal 4‘s use of webcams and the Xbox Kinect just didn’t work.  The technology was believable, sure, but I just had a hard time being drawn into the story because much of it is told beside a teenage girl flirting via Skype.  The Marked Ones thankfully abandoned the constant use of new technology, but we have very little reason for the characters to be filming all of this, which I’ve stated is the original argument for most of the naysayers, which I couldn’t help but agree with for this particular instance.

Finally, I’m Apollo_18_Postergoing to touch on two more found footage films, one a flop, the other a surprising gem (and it’s not even horror!).  The former is Apollo 18, which used extremely grainy footage that is deliberately reminiscent of the Apollo moon landing.  This footage simply did not work.  It’s fine to have something grainy like that when seeing the historical moment, but for a feature-length film it is extremely dull and exploits the fact that the audience can’t tell what is really happening at pretty much any given moment, particularly in the “scary” parts.  I was badly bored because, well, it’s hard to  be drawn in by bad acting that, in near-cue card fashion, indicated when I was supposed to be frightened by unintelligible shouting.  Simply, I had no idea who the characters were, why I should care about them, or what was actually happening.  I managed to get halfway through before muttering “screw it,” and telling Netflix to give me something better to watch.

Speaking of something on Netflix that is TrollHuntermuch more worthwhile, we have Troll Hunter.  Yes, I was skeptical when I was first told about it, but I assure you that it is simply a wonderful film.

Let me be clear on one thing– the trolls are kind of mediocre by most Hollywood special effect standards, but this isn’t a Hollywood film.  It’s Norwegian!

The film is pretty much exactly what it sounds like– a group of people who are hunting for footage of trolls.  However, this isn’t a bad idea– it’s very compelling, with good acting, interesting characters, and good action.  The mythology surrounding the trolls is very unconventional for American audiences, which lends to its authenticity.  I felt like I was having an adventure while learning about northeastern European legends.  See it!

Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Doctor Sleep + Three Faces of The Shining

This post is going to contain spoilers for The Shining.  The book is 37 years old, and the Kubrick film of the same title is 34, so deal with it.  I’m not going to go crazy spelling out every little plot detail, but just expect that some major elements– including the story’s conclusion– are going to be mentioned.  And I’m not going to wait until I get to the Three Faces of The Shining section of the post to start spoiling.  Any spoilers for it’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, are as minimal as I could manage in a review.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a Constant Reader of Stephen King.  I’ve read almost everything by him (I’m probably just a few months away from having read all of his books, at which time a big post will inevitably result).  Like a good portion of his readers, one of the first books I read by him is inarguably one of his most famous– The Shining.  I enjoyed it a great deal (as will be detailed later in the post).  It’s lingered for years in my mind as one of King’s scariest works, which, wanting to write horror myself, has meant that I’ve tried to break down what makes the story so unnerving, which has actually been quite tricky to do.  It’s a very impressive, well-crafted amalgam of supernatural and psychological horror.

While perusing the Stephen King Wikipedia page a few years ago, trying to decide which of his works to read next, I noticed a blurb about upcoming books, specifically that on his site he had voting for what book to do next– either an intermediate Dark Tower book (a series which I love dearly) or a sequel to The Shining.  With how often I had ranted about how beautifully unusual The Dark Tower is, I was surprised to find myself being more enthralled with the idea of the latter book.  The listed title was particularly alluring: Doctor Sleep.  Thus, I was pleased to see that the vote slightly favored Doctor Sleep.

It turned out that The Dark Tower: Wind Through the Keyhole ended up coming first in spite of the election of the other novel (not that I was too disappointed, it was a compelling yarn).  I made myself content by reading another slew of his other books while waiting the additional two and a half years to find out just what happened to Danny Torrance, and what kind of man he had become in the years after his father tried to kill him and his mother with a croquet mallet in a haunted hotel.

As a reader, it was easy to see how special of an experience it was for Stephen King to revisit one of his earliest novels.  It’s unusual for a writer to write a sequel so many years after an original work (the only other example I can think of being Joseph Heller’s Closing Time following up Catch-22), and it makes for an especially wonderful treat as a reader (particularly an avid follower) in that it is clear to see how the writer has matured and grown with the character, even though the character has only been living in the back of their writer’s mind.  It’s been fun to see how King has revisited some of his other characters by way of The Dark Tower series, but this was something altogether different, something more.

For starters, I’m going to just give my basic, back-of-the-book sort of synopsis so people who haven’t read this excellent book have some idea what I’m talking about.  Essentially, Doctor Sleep is a novel about Daniel Torrance, who we knew as the little boy in The Shining, who now is an adult, a recovering alcoholic who works in a hospice, using his “shine” to help patients at the close of their lives.  It’s also about a little girl who has an incredible amount of the shine, and a group of creatures who feed on psychic energy.

So, not quite as cut-and-dried as its predecessor, and it really helps to know the original pretty well, especially making sure one has a grasp of the whole idea of what the titular shining is.  Let me just say that if you haven’t read the original, don’t touch Doctor Sleep.  Pick up The Shining (and no, watching the Kubrick film doesn’t count– I’ll get to why later in the post), and then pick up the newest King book.  You haven’t earned it yet.

The first element of the book I want to get into is Dan.  386px-Doctor_SleepIt was fascinating to see a character that I previously only knew as a child now as a middle-aged man.  It was actually quite impressive, because King transitioned the character into the present day very seamlessly.  I felt like his choice to begin with a young Danny, a few years after the events at the Overlook Hotel, eased the transition (while also helping to re-cement in my mind a plot element that had been muddled a bit by the film– specifically that a character did not die in the book).  Then, I loved that Danny, who I thought was fairly lovable in his youth, grew up in a way that showed a great deal of complexity.  I loved that we could see his emotional scars as he first resented his father and his alcoholism, then mimicked it.  We see Dan at the lowest of his lows, but can’t help but identify with him, sympathize with him, ache in our hearts to see a character of innocence turn into a broken man– and, as the novel progresses, a good man who is haunted by ghosts, literal and figurative, from his past.

I do take issue with one element of Dan in this novel, however.  It by no means ruined anything, but I had a hard time getting a solid grasp as to what he exactly he does as “Doctor Sleep.”  I got the gist of it, but I didn’t feel like the things that were described in the novel were enough to warrant the title being Doctor Sleep.  It’s certainly a catchy title, but the book’s main story wasn’t about Dan’s “Doctor Sleep” actions.  I just needed more of Doc and Azzie.  It’s really my one complaint with the novel, particularly as a real-life version of Azzie the cat, which knew when people were about to die, is what inspired King to revisit The Shining characters.

King described Doctor Sleep as “a return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror.”  Though the book was quite scary at moments, I actually felt like this wasn’t quite an accurate description of the feel of the book.  It’s certainly a horror novel, but I didn’t feel as though it was anywhere near as frightening as some of King’s older works, such as The Shining, Misery, or Gerald’s Game.  I would even go as far as to say that his implication that his more recent work isn’t as scary as it doesn’t even apply– I felt like the darker sections of Duma Key (my favorite King novel) were notably more frightening.  That said, I do feel like the monsters of this novel– The True Knot– are very chilling, especially because in that outside of their supernatural element they are just as horrible– and quite plausible.

As with most of King’s works, his writing shines for a variety of reasons.  Most notable in my mind for this particular book is his characters.  The two most notable characters are Dan (who I’ve already discussed so no need for more) and Abra Stone, the little girl who also has the shining.  Even though the story is told in blocks of time that move forward in a way that almost seems haphazard (though that is the wrong word, really, because King gives us the snapshots of time with a master’s hand) he deftly paints the characters through the years the novel fills, giving the reader a love of their personalities and genuine concern for who their well-being.  Rose the Hat, the main villain of the piece, is terrifying yet very graspable– the reader can see and believe her motivations, even while reviling her.  The remaining cast, all of whom are comparatively minor characters, are all very alive in the piece.  His dialogue definitely has always been the key to bringing his characters to life, and it is very apparent here as most of the gaps in time are filled very seamlessly with the words spoken by the characters.

King’s prose, as usual, is wonderful, filled with language that somehow manages to be awful and beautifully perfect at the same time.  His storytelling is tight, excellently paced.

And, as usual, there are some of the ever-fun connections to his other works.  Mostly just references to places, and interestingly enough there also are references to Joe Hill’s book NOS4A2 (Hill is his son).

It’s really just a wonderful read (but again, make sure you’ve read The Shining first, otherwise you’ll spend much of the book wondering what is being referenced).

And now, onward (and backward) to the three faces of The Shining.  Properly, I’ll now begin with the beginning– the novel.

I’ve already revealed some of my feelings about this book.405px-Shiningnovel  In fact, I feel like this section of the post isn’t going to be too horribly long, as I’ve already had to cover a fair bit of the material I wanted to.  Also, I apologize, but I’m apt to repeat myself a bit.

The Shining is potentially one of the best books you could pick up if you want to start reading Stephen King, or if you just want to read a good old-fashioned scary story.  It’s King’s third published novel, and, as I’ve stated probably too many times already, it’s one of his most frightening.

As I stated at the beginning of the post, this book is very strong at bringing the scares because King doesn’t rely on just one or two tricks to keep his readers cowering.  Instead, there are layers upon layers of scares.  There is the horror of the broken (or inevitable-to-break) family, of alcoholism, of child and spousal abuse, both verbal and physical.  There is the terrible difference between perspectives of individuals.  There is isolation, the fury of nature.  There is the darkness of a place that has been filled for years with selfishness and depravity.  There are ghosts and things with teeth (the topiary animals scene is my favorite).  There are lies, secrets, and love that isn’t shown in return.

So, something for everybody.  Hopefully lots of things for each reader.  Having so many diverse scare tactics creates a very interesting tone in reading the piece– simply, I felt overwhelmed by it all.  And that was a good thing.  With a situation as overwhelming as the events of The Shining, the fact that my reading experience imitated that is a very good thing.  It shows that Stephen King knew what he was doing.

And he really did.  The alcoholism of Jack Torrance is by far one of the most prevalent elements of the story, and King was (unfortunately) writing from a position of personal experience.  The setting, too, feels so very real because King spent time researching the novel in the Stanley Hotel.  This, I feel, serves as a testament as to what good research can do for a novel.  Especially hands-on research.  It’s something that I want to be able to replicate for my own writing in the future (to clarify, good research, not alcoholism).

The are (and had to be) strong.  With only three characters filling most of text, each had to be well-developed, and it was clear that Mr. King was very well-acquainted with each of them.  I definitely felt that Jack was the most powerfully written of the family, but that worked for what happened in the story.  I felt Danny was a very realistic child, though I did want even more of him as the book was named after his talent.

So, all-in-all, one of King’s better novels.  Probably not quite in the top ten, but only barely missing that mark.  I’m sure that I’ll make a list of my favorite Stephen King books in order when I get around to that exhaustive post in a few months.

I have very split feelings about the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of The Shining.  Part of me sees the masterful filmmaking, the iconic moments, and Kubrick’s deliberate, beautiful detail, and wants to love the film.  The_Shining_posterAnother part of me– one that is much louder and passionately opinionated– really can’t help but hate how unfaithful it is to the source material.

As a piece of its own, it is wonderful.  It is on almost every list of the greatest films of all time, after all.  There is no denying that Stanley Kubrick is one of the most talented filmmakers of all time.  Every moment of every scene has been constructed, framed, acted, and filmed according to his precise instructions, and his work really shines (no pun intended).  His set is beautiful and unnerving.  In Kubrick’s hands, the film is meticulously filled with themes and idea that are furthered by everything in the film– from barely visible props and scene dressing in the background to the dialogue.  He also is very talented at creating iconic moments that are unforgettable– especially the big wheels scenes.

There is no denying that Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance is brilliant.  He really captures the complexity of the character, from the man who wants a fresh start to the axe-wielding drunk maniac.

The effects in the film are also very good.  It’s a scary film in how it shows you the monsters of the Overlook Hotel.  I felt like Danny’s encounters, such as with the iconic twin girls at the end of the hallway, or the woman in room 237, were particularly powerful.  In terms of making the supernatural elements of the story very realistic and frightening to viewers, Kubrick did a great job.

But, as I said, I still don’t feel like the film was a faithful adaptation of the novel.  In fact, Stephen King shares the same feelings, having openly reviled the work numerous times since its release.  It’s almost funny in a way– in terms of general quality it is far from the worst adaptation of one of his stories, but it seems that he has a special store of venom set aside for it.  I’ve puzzled over what it was that made it seem so off to me, and it actually took watching part of a documentary, Room 237 (it’s terribly putRoom_237_(2012_film) together, with no semblance of editing– at one point one of the people voicing their ideas actually has to pause to kick their noisy kid out of the room), that discusses a variety of interpretations of the film for me to be able to place what it was that I didn’t like.

The film version of The Shining isn’t about the same things that the novel is about.  The themes are totally different.  As my viewing of Room 237 showed to me, the movie was possibly actually about early American treatment of the Native Americans, or the Holocaust, or the authenticity of the moon landing– but it wasn’t really The Shining at all.

Additionally, I really hated Shelly Duvall as Wendy Torrance.  Wendy Torrance was never supposed to be the happiest character in fiction, but she just made her seem like a contestant in the misery olympics, even when things weren’t going to hell.

There were also some changes to the story that didn’t seem to have any logic, such as the death of Dick Hallorann.  What did that change possibly contribute to the film?

And, most disappointing of all, Stanley Kubrick replaced the wonderful, chilling topiary animals with a hedge maze.  I wasn’t sure what exactly he was doing with it, but it was clear that it was to pursue one of his off-the-wall themes.

Also, I actually don’t like the “Heeeere’s Johnny!” line.  I acknowledge that I may be the only person who has seen it who doesn’t, but it totally threw me out of the movie.  This may be in part because it is so iconic, but it felt unnatural in the scene.

I think when I want to enjoy Kubrick’s talents, I’ll go a different route, maybe 2001, A Space Odyssey.  He worked with the author on that one, and it shows.

I’m only going to briefly touch on the latest iteration of Stephen_King's_THE_SHINING_(mini-series_intertitle)The Shining— the 1997 TV miniseries.  Honestly, I’m actually fairly limited on what I can say about it, because I haven’t gotten myself motivated to watch the second and third episodes because it suffers very badly from pacing issues.  It’s definitely very thorough in its presentation of the story, and quite accurate for the most part (King wrote the teleplay, so that kind of goes without saying), but the director was definitely squeezing sections for all the time he could.  The acting was pretty mediocre (though I did like the guy who played Dick quite a bit).  The effects are really bad (and I hadn’t even gotten to any of the big supernatural scares).  The choice to portray Tony– Danny’s imaginary friend that serves as a sort of manifestation of certain elements of the shining– seemed a poor idea, and was even poorer in execution in that it was played by a guy who was either in his late teens or early 20s.

I’ll probably sit down and force myself through the remaining three hours soon (if I could get through The Stand miniseries I can get through just about anything) and I’ll update to have my evaluation to be more exhaustive, but for the time being my biggest thought is that the miniseries by no means served as a redemptive filmed version of the book, though it at least shared the same story and themes as the original.  It’s just hard to do justice to a book as complex and subtle as The Shining.

Insidious+Chapter 2

I’m just going to get this out of the way now– this post has a lot of spoilers for Insidious.  I made a point to mark the spoilers for Insidious Chapter 2.  I need to spoil things for my review to really work at all.  If you don’t want it ruined at all, then go watch it first– but not that my saying so is really a recommendation.

Two and a half years ago, I sat down with a group of my friends, dimmed the lights, and turned on a horror film insidiousnamed Insidious.  I didn’t know too much about it in advance– several friends had told me they loved it, and I had seen a teaser ad with a line, spoken in ominous tones, stating “It’s not the house that is haunted–” so I was really excited to find out what it was about.  Furthering my excitement was that several of my friends who usually did not watch horror with me were able to share in the experience with me– these friends have a personal rule about avoiding R-rated films, and this was in the clear.

I immediately liked the direction the film was going.  From the beginning, there was a lot that made it genuinely unnerving and scary.  A spectral child danced to Tiny Tim.  A Manson-like figure hulked over a baby.  And most creepy of all, a little boy wouldn’t wake up.

I liked the characters pretty well.  I felt like I really believed in the familial relationships of the main characters, and I felt like the panic of Josh and Renai seemed very true-to-life as Dalton lay in bed, unable to be awoken in spite of medical and less-conventional attempts to rouse him.

The first half of the movie really drew me in.  I was quite certain that I was watching what would become one of my favorite horror films.

And then, it happened.  Lipstick-Face.

I wish I was making that name up.INSIDIOUS_still3_large.ashx_  I really do.  I actually thought that it was a ridiculous nickname my friends gave him for a very long time.

From the moment the demon that seems the love-child of Darth Maul and a salamander lizard-crawled away from Dalton’s bedroom, I stopped being able to take the movie seriously.  The first half of the movie was riveting, scary, and just generally excellent.  I laughed out loud when he appeared on the screen (getting glares from several friends).  Each subsequent time this key villain in the film appeared, I just had to roll my eyes.  When his lair was revealed,  complete with “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” blaring on a record player (which threw me off– the song seemed to be tied to The Dancing Boy up until that point) and a vanity mirror, I was wincing.  He really killed things for me.

Well, that, and the astral projection stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, astral projection is a fascinating idea, and really could work very well for a horror film, but it didn’t quite make sense in the movie.  From my understanding of it, astral projection involves sending one’s self to other places while asleep.  Now, that happened in the movie, but it seemed to be that the projector was either right outside their body, or in a weird nightmare world.  There didn’t seem to be anything else to it.  I think I would have bought it if Dalton’s projection was captured someplace while he was out, flying through the world in search of dream adventures, but when everything in the astral realm seems only to be hellish– well, I think just about anybody would hang out by their sleeping body, not explore further and further out every night.  Just sayin’.

It’s unfortunate that the second half of the movie is such a downgrade from the first in that I actually think the characters that were introduced for that section of the film, Elise, Tucker, and Specs, were all pretty well done.  The latter two were fairly silly characters, but they were fairly believable and all three weren’t the typical hyper-overdone medium team that most haunting horror films tend to feature.

Another thing I didn’t like about the second half of the movie was how the direction went from very natural scares to jump-scare tactics.  The showing of the story of the family of the Doll Girl was all jumps (and didn’t seem at all conducive to the plot).

I guess I just felt like the second half was just a poor attempt to tie how varied the spookiness of the first half was, plus, all new to horror movies, astral projection!

The conclusion, with its quick introduction to Josh’s past and some creepy old ghost-woman and Elise being killed, felt very sloppily thrown together to keep the audience gasping.  For me, it seemed the punchline of a bad joke.  Plus, there existed a very sizable hole– allegedly, Lipstick-Face had to break down some sort of barrier to be able to possess Dalton, hence a lot of the weirdness that made the first half of the film great.  This explanation brought two big issues– firstly, why are these other beings helping Lipstick-Face, when apparently everything in that realm really wants physical bodies?  There is clearly a big connection between all of these creepy things and beings and the demon, so what are they getting as minions?  If it offered some sort of explanation, I’d have been okay with them working for him– maybe he’s enslaved them because he took their bodies in the past or the like.  I’m okay with mystery remaining in the conclusion of a story, but sometimes it just leaves questions bigger than the sense of resolution, which I see as a problem.  The second issue with the idea that Lipstick-Face had to break down barriers is that when Josh is in the Further for a very short period of time, it is clearly at great risk of being possessed– his body is actively assaulted, and the conclusion leaves us unclear as to if it is truly him in his body or if it is something else.  So, why is there even a risk of him being possessed?  Dalton is unconscious for much, much longer than Josh, and his body remained quite secure from possession still.

I made fun of it to my friends, throwing in some jabs at those who thought it was still scary, and called it a night.

Then, earlier in the year I caught wind of Insidious Chapter 2.  Initially I just shrugged indifferently, remembering my dislike of its predecessor but realizing that the genre is riddled with bad sequels, especially with bad sequels to bad movies.  For some reason, the most mediocre of horror movies still sell, particularly when released in October, but that’s just the way of the world.  After all, I couldn’t force myself to get through A Nightmare on Elm Street, and that film spawned near-innumerable sequels and remakes (I might be able to get through it eventually, but I have my doubts as my threshold for awful acting in things I’m supposed to be taking seriously is very low).  But, as time went on and the film made its way from theaters to Redbox, I decided to give it a shot.  After all, I already had pretty low expectations for it, so I doubted it would manage to disappoint me.

Well, I’m pleased (okay, pleased it too strong of a word) that it didn’tInsidious_–_Chapter_2_Poster disappoint me in that respect.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a good movie, but because the first one did get me accustomed to the universe’s ideas of astral projection (disappointing and internally inconsistent as they may be), I was able to find some enjoyment in the movie.

I did like a lot of the elements that carried over from the previous film, notably the story of the old woman specter featured at the end of the film.  Learning the context for the old woman and the desire to possess Josh was very interesting, and learning about the character in life was quite compelling.

I will say, before I go any further, that it continues to be littered with internal inconsistency.  The beginning of the film furthers the contradiction that bothered me at the end of the first one.  We see a young Josh, who was endangered by his astral projecting and who is made safe by forgetting about his ability.  Now, this provides some nice plot patching about his ability to go to retrieve his son in the first film, but it also re-affirms that there should have been no risk of his being possessed.

[SPOILER] And there’s the biggest problem for this film, right up front.  Because eventually we find out that he is possessed by the “old woman” that haunted him in his youth, and he is still trapped in the Further. [END SPOILER]

Now, the film has two main stories going on– one following the main family members trying to figure out why there is still weirdness happening around them, and one of Josh’s mother and Elise’s paranormal investigation team trying to figure out the nature of Elise’s death.  Out of these plots, the latter is far more compelling.  It is unfortunate that they overplayed the comic relief element of Specs and Tucker, but thankfully it wasn’t to a point that it detracted too much from the film.  Their investigation process and the things uncovered and really interesting and quite creepy at points.  The other story did keep me questioning what was happening– in part because I was so resistant to accepting that the writer’s would contradict themselves so much, though.

The conclusion of the story, all the plot elements converged, bothered me again.  [SPOILERS] I didn’t feel like the inclusion of Elise’s ghost really made sense.  We have a feel that the Further is a place for tormented souls, yet she is there as well, traveling freely with power and authority over the dark spirits.  It was a kind of feelgood element of the film, but I had trouble following the line of logic behind it beyond tonal lightening.  Also, Josh’s body being freed from Parker Crane’s possession made no sense– why would knocking out his mother boot him out?  How does Parker Crane have multiple entities– the child him and the old man– at the same time?  Also, I’m willing to accept that time travel is possible with astral projection, but it does seem quite… advanced… for a person who has only been doing so for a few days. [END SPOILERS]

So, as a whole I enjoyed the second film more than the second half of the original, but it still fails to live up to the expectations the first half of the first film.  It was fun, but nothing to really be taken too seriously.

Why I’m Thankful for Brandon Sanderson +Steelheart

A few years ago I first caught wind of the writing of Brandon Sanderson.  It was in one of Gabe’s posts on Penny Arcade, briefly praising a fantasy novel he’d recently read called Mistborn: The Final Empire.  The title of the book, as well as Gabe’s words, piqued my interest.  I made a mental note, which I quickly Brandon_Sanderson_signfiled away in the back of my mind because I was obsessively reading through the complete library of Stephen King (a task that I’m still working on, now with the end in sight).  I also had then-recently fallen mostly out of love with the fantasy genre because of a number of mediocre books that I had read over the year previous– the exceptions to my genre abandonment being King’s The Dark Tower series and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.  So, when I later heard that Sanderson had been selected to finish The Wheel of Time after Mr. Jordan’s unfortunate passing, I felt hope that the series might be given the conclusion it deserved.  A quick glance at Sanderson’s Wikipedia page stated that he was selected for the Herculean task after Robert Jordan’s wife had read Mistborn and had, like Gabe, been impressed.  I moved the novel up a few notches on my to-read list.

It was not long after this that I went on my LDS mission, so all of my fiction reading was halted for a couple of years.  When I got home, Sanderson was about to release his second of the three Wheel of Time books he is responsible for, so I quickly set myself to acquiring and reading the continuing adventures of the Dragon Reborn and his companions.  I was, of course, overjoyed at how 9781429997171seamlessly Sanderson picked up the series.  His style for the books was very similar to Jordan’s, and the story picked up with almost the same momentum it had left off.  I felt like Sanderson knew the extensive collection of characters almost as personally as their creator had.

So, there’s my first reason to be thankful for Brandon Sanderson: he finished The Wheel of Time, and did a dang good job doing so.  I was distraught the day that I learned that Robert Jordan had died– I needed to know how the story concluded.  Now, some people may think that selfish of me, thinking only of how much of a cliffhanger I’d been left on, but I think that’s one of the greatest honors that I could pay him.  I was upset because I just had to know how the wonderful story I had been reading for around 10,000 pages ended.  I loved the world he created, and I wanted his legacy– one of the greatest of all fantasy series– to be complete.  Brandon Sanderson honored Jordan’s legacy, praise the light.

Between the time Mr. Sanderson released Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light, my wife-to-be and I visited some extended family in Arizona.  My favorite uncle and I were chatting about books and our discussion turned to The Wheel of Time, and how happy Brandon Sanderson’s handling of it was making us.  My uncle mentioned that he had read a number of his other books, and that they were excellent.  He mentioned that one of Sanderson’s books, Warbreaker, is a free PDF on his website, so I quickly downloaded it (you can acquire it here).  I put it on my kindle.

A few months later, I got married.  While waiting in the airport to head off to our honeymoon, I dug my kindle out of one of my bags warbreakerand suggested to my new wife that give it a read.  She is also a big fan of The Wheel of Time, and had read a little of Sanderson’s other writing already, liking what she had thus far read, so she was excited to agree.  She had already indicated to me that his writing would be fun for us to pursue.  We silently read the prologue in the terminal, then the first chapter or two in the air, nodding to each other for page turns.  Soon, taking turns reading Warbreaker aloud to each other became a nightly ritual, with additional large chunks being knocked out whenever a lengthy car ride occurred.  We fell in love with the characters (Lightsong is my personal favorite) and with the vivid, fascinating world of the novel.  The magic system was especially spectacular– and refreshing– because of how unique yet logically sound it was.  With how impressive the system is, it was no big surprise to me that he has published laws for writing magic systems in fantasy.  The story is wonderful, with some very intricately set traps for the reader.  I recommend it to anybody who loves good fantasy lit– plus, it’s free if you don’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

After finishing Warbreaker, my wife and I decided that reading Brandon Sanderson’s writing at night was a ritual that should remain unbroken, so we quickly moved on to the first book in the Mistborn trilogy, The Final Empire.  This time we weren’t just drawn into the world he had created, but were yanked in.  The series (which we are reading the third book of currently– we’re taking our time to really savor its wonderfulness) is simply some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read.  The characters, especially Vin and Kelsier, are compelling, strong, complex.  Sanderson also boasts three mistborn(three!) magic systems in the series, all of which are based around metals.  Just explaining the main system, allomancy, has caused a number of friends to immediately purchase all three books in the main series (there is also a novel set hundreds of years after the trilogy that I look forward to reading).

So, the second reason I’m thankful for Brandon Sanderson is for his magic systems.  They both make for some refreshingly different fantasy reading and have helped me as a writer.  I’ve been working on a fantasy novel off and on for years.  Actually, for just about as long as I’ve been wanting to be a writer– since sixth grade (and I’m now a college graduate).  The ideas I have for the story are pretty decent, I think, but the story was always missing something that could make it have something that made it distinct from the numerous small group of good vs overwhelmingly powerful evil stories that tend to make up most of the fantasy genre.  By reading Sanderson’s books, I’ve come to realize that my magic system was a mess– an amalgam of pretty much all of the typical magics I’ve read over the years.  The only way I can save the story is to start yet another draft, this time with a solid system of magic drawn out.  Mr. Sanderson’s laws will really help me do so.

The third reason I’m grateful for Brandon Sanderson is that his writing is an example to me as a writer.  As I’ve noted before, I’m LDS.  I’ve been long trying to figure out what that means to my writing.  I want to write in a wide variety of genres, focusing on horror, and sometimes the material I want to write, that I have great ideas for, has resulted in extended periods of time staring at a blinking cursor, pondering what to do next.  I often find that my characters do not have the same moral perspectives that I do, or find themselves in extreme situations, which leaves me wondering where the line is.  How do I balance being true to the story and characters against my own views on profanity, violence, and evil?  I have no desire to go the direction of LDS literature (that is, lit specifically written for a Mormon audience), as I find most of it tacky at best.  I’m glad to have two popular literature writers who are LDS– Sanderson, and Orson Scott Card– whose work I both enjoy and can learn from.  I haven’t found the most absolute footing in this conundrum yet, but looking at Warbreaker and Mistborn have helped point me in the right direction.

Plus, he just brings me lots of joy. I really want to go to one of his workshops. And just be as awesome as a writer as he is.

Since it doesn’t 13452375quite fit in with the “thankful” motif (I can’t think of any solid ways to tie it in to that seasonal idea) I’m just going to break to talk about some of Brandon Sanderson’s other writing that I’ve acquainted myself with.  The first discussion will be brief– his novella, Legion— while the second will be a bit more extensive– Sanderson’s newest novel, Steelheart.

I became acquainted with Legion as the result of some ad I came across for Audible.  For most of my life I’ve tended to pay audio books no mind, but the ad caught my interest as it featured the name of Sanderson– next to the word “free.”

Free will almost always catch my attention, and will manage to hold it if I can quickly determine that free is actually free.  So, I clicked on the link, saw that Audible would actually allow me to download Legion, in its entirety without taking my credit card information, if I set up an account with them.  A few hours later, in a car ride of moderate length, I was listening to it.  I was pleased, I’d like to note, that the reader for the novella was very good.  He has a voice that kept my interest and I liked that he gave each character their own unique feel.

The basic premise of the novella is that a protagonist is able to see and interact with a titular legion of vivid, unique people, most of whom are brilliant experts on different subjects– but all of whom are actually just in his head.  Working with them, he’s able to solve the most baffling of mysteries– if any catch his interest.  I must say, I really enjoyed the idea, and felt like it was well-executed.  I would really love to see more with the character (or should I say characters?) in the future.

Now, on to Steelheart17182126The idea of this book is also very fun– when I read a little promotional card for the book in my local bookstore a few months before it came out, I was immediately enthralled.  Basically, the book is about a world where people begin to get super powers– but, every person who gets these powers is evil.  One of these Epics– as these superhumans are called– named Steelheart has declared himself the emperor of Newcago.  Steelheart is virtually invincible, having defeated any challengers to his power.  The story follows a young man, David, who has sworn revenge on the dictator of his city for killing his father years before.

I really like this idea, though I do have one concern with it.  Essentially, the idea of a believed-invincible emperor being challenged by a small, specialized group who theoretically has no chance of standing against him does feel a lot like the basic story of Mistborn: The Final Empire, and was a little difficult to shake in my listening to it (I listened to the audio book at work– it was also very well done, and it is my understanding that it’s been nominated for Audible audio book of the year).  But this feeling of similarity is really my only criticism of the story.  It does a lot to stand on its own, and I especially loved how the powers of the Epics worked.  Instead of all following a set system, each had its own rules with strengths and weaknesses, giving the story a feel quite different from Sanderson’s fantasy novels.  Instead, the world felt an homage to the universes of comic books, though in many ways having a wide variety of powers and abilities in a way that worked much more seamlessly than the worlds of Marvel or DC, which seem to be inconsistent in how balanced their universes are when attempting to blend the stories and abilities of their heroes and villains.  For example, in the DC universe, I always feel like writers really struggle in bringing the tone of Batman and his associated allies and villains into the universe as a whole, especially when he has no superhuman powers himself, and many of his foes tend to be a little more plausible than that of Wonder Woman or John Constantine.  There are plenty of good stories that manage to blend Batman in, but with a story like Steelheart Sanderson has already set himself up for success in that the world is set up with many heroes already in mind, rather than trying to mediate between very different backstories and general atmosphere.  The origin for all of these Epics is the same– the arrival of the star Calamity.

Many of the Epics had powers that I thought were particularly excellent.  The idea of one of Steelheart’s generals, Nightwielder, was particularly compelling, with his incorporeal nature and his ability to bring darkness upon the city.  How he fights, flying and stabbing with tendrils of darkness, is, simply, very cool.  The technology present in the novel, such as gravitonics and the tensors, is also very cool and contributes to the world.  It’s great to see everything that Sanderson does with the sci-fi genre instead of fantasy.  It’s great to see one of my favorite writers change things up.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the future books of the Reckoners series.  I also look forward to reading the other novels that Sanderson has written.  I’ve been curious about Elantris, and I’m eager to see what The Stormlight Archive is going to hold.

P.S. – This post has a sequel!

Sharknado and the Joys (and Pitfalls) of B Horror

Over the past few years, I have developed a great love for B horror films.  Not the occasional gems that are actually just a good film wrapped in a small budget (though I tend to really like those for the obvious reasons– that they’re good— and I must admit that I’m actually quite surprised and how many pleasant, spooky surprises I’ve found while expecting junk food movies), but rather the kind that are weakly plotted, with monsters that elicit laughter instead of screams, and acting so awful it warrants a standing ovation.  The sort of film that Mystery Science Theater 3000 made money making a mockery of.

So, when I first heard the title of Sharknado, I immediately opened up YouTube in my browser and watched the trailer.  I knew, as I caught my first glimpse of a shark inside a tornado, that it was Sharknado_postergoing to be something one typically only finds in dreams.  I immediately added it to my watch list on IMDb.  I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at the tagline “Enough Said!” feeling that so true of words were rarely printed next to such bad CGI graphics.

Unfortunately, the movie was still several months away from its premiere on Syfy, so I let thoughts of whirlwind-borne sharks slip to the back of my mind.  This, combined with a lack of cable television in my home (Netflix is much more viable on a college budget) resulted in me being unaware of the first airing of wonderful swirly, bitey destruction, or even of its two encore showings (which, I understand, grew in ratings each time).  No, I didn’t think of my brief zeal for the idea of the film until one day, while looking through new additions to Netflix, I spied the marine predators that can be seen above and gasped with joy.

Now, my first reaction was to immediately hit the play button and begin my revelry, but I knew I had to constrain myself.  Films like Sharknado are not the sort you watch alone.  You have to have friends, and you have to be ready to bask in craziness.  I had to save it for the perfect time.  I’m glad I did.

One evening, a couple of weeks ago, a group of some of my funnest friends and I were trying to come up with a good movie to watch.  It was proposed that we watch a horror movie, so we began looking through the applicable section on Netflix.  The group was busy laughing and chatting and barely paid attention to the titles that scrolled past on the screen, so when I saw it, I knew the timing was perfect.  I insisted, and we hit play.

From the first cheesy line delivered I knew that the film was gold.  We laughed harder and harder as the plot went from a storm pushing thousands of sharks into a frenzied swarm to tornadoes hurling the razor-toothed beasts through Los Angeles.

The characters have weak back stories and are acted with as much cheese as anybody could dream for.  One of the characters is Australian, and had an accent we all mocked incessantly– until the IMDb app on my phone informed me of the fact that he was, in fact, actually from Australia.

And then this, one of the greatest things in all of film, happened.  Click on that link.  You won’t regret it.  I tried to include it in the post, but for some reason the GIF didn’t work.

Sorry for the spoiler, this is was just good to not share.  I laughed.  A lot.  We all did.  I laughed so hard that I almost shed tears.

Yes, that’s a man, a character the writers unabashedly named Fin, cutting a shark hurled at him from a tornado in half with a chainsaw.  And this was just one of many wonderful spectacles in the film.

The group’s solution to the sharknadoes is simultaneously delightfully whimsical and hysterically funny.

It’s just a magical film.  I love it.  If you like B horror movies, or if you want to find the right one to get you into the, this is likely the right one to watch.

And, for me, it also managed to avoid what I consider to be the biggest pitfall of B horror movies– lots of sex and nudity.  This had none.  Which is good, because I wouldn’t have watched it if it had any.

Most B horror movies seem to have gratuitous amounts of nudity and sex.  Especially many of the more contemporary ones.  Often, they seem to be made with just the tiniest hint of plot as an excuse to show a bunch of naked people (who have no discernible amount of acting ability whatsoever) running around, and also, gore.  Let me be clear that I have no interest in those kinds of B movies, no matter how alluring they would be to me otherwise.  For example, I was deeply saddened when I learned that another movie that is clearly very much in the same vein as Sharknado was about half sexual content: Mega Piranha.  A film with giant piranhas jumping out of the ocean to explode upon impact with skyscrapers (which is a scene I have viewed) seems to be right up my alley.  It’s a real shame that only a half hour or so of the movie was such bliss.

I suppose that, from the responses I’ve gotten to this post on Reddit, I should go a little further into my desire for B movies to not have sex and nudity.  Part of this does come from a moral standpoint– I am very religious and feel as though inclusion of such is immoral and generally degrading to the human body.  Many do not share my views and are welcome to disagree with me on from that standpoint.  However, there is more to it than that, from perhaps a more widely-accepted perspective.  Simply, I feel that the inclusion of such both fails to contribute anything more than the most base of thrills– and not of any level of fear.  Surprisingly, making low-budget horror effectively entertaining seems to be quite tricky to accomplish, so the inclusion of naked bodies tends to show a total inability to keep the audience’s interest any other way.  Simply, it’s cheap, and seems a desperation move.  I’ve had the fact pointed out to me that nakedness does bring an added element of exposure and weakness of a character, especially when confronted with something dangerous or frightening.  This obviously can be quite true– hence the “shower scene” idea that has been used almost constantly since Psycho (and maybe before).  I agree that nakedness– or any sort of physical exposure– can bring a powerful element of frailty and weakness, but it has to be done well.  If it truly being used for heightening tension and scares, it must be done with a careful hand.  Unfortunately, many films that may be defended in such a light are only making the weakest of excuses for sexual reveals of their actresses or actors.  It seems to me that B movies are almost universally quite ham-handed in their use of the exposed human form.

So, to get my fix of the silliness in spades I have come to love, I often have to turn to black-and-white era horror films, such as cult classic The Giant Gila Monster, which could also feature the “Enough Said!” tagline, though mayhap with “Also, A Scene Where Some Kid Badly Plays a Song on His Guitar and Sings That is Like Three Times Longer Than It Should Be!” tacked on, as well.  One of my personal favorites (much better than The Giant Gila Monster) is the 1959 film Att220px-Giantleechesack of the Giant Leeches.  The titular leeches were so tremendous in size, of course, as the result of radiation, but then again, what huge movie monsters wasn’t that way because of something nuclear in that era of Cold War paranoia?  I suppose that I launch into a discourse on how horror movies and books tend to reflect the biggest social fears and issues of their times, but I suppose I should save that scholarly of discussion for a post that doesn’t include a GIF of a man cutting a flying shark in half with a single swipe of a chainsaw.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is another notable monochrome film that just screamed to be watched.  A mad scientist keeping a brain (and assorted other dismembered body parts) alive, a mutant, telepathy, picking victims at a burlesque bar– what’s not to love?

And how about The Killer Shrews, which featured dogs as the shrews and lots of terrible racial stereotypes that were fun to mock incessantly.  For example, the Hispanic servant on the shrew island pretty much only said “Si senor,” the one black character seemed the model for Jar-Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and was, as what almost seems to be a law in horror movies, the first to die.  The female lead did an exceptional amount of swooning and fainting.  Fun for everybody.

KillershrewsIt’s no surprise, with the MPAA regulations being so strict in the 50s and 60s, that this era brought out so many of the B horror films that I’ve come to love, but I am sad that it is such a rare thing to find comparable horror films that are worth my time (as a time-waster) now.

A note– one of the most famous B horror films of all time is Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I tried to watch (and mock) this with friends, but it was just too bad and too weird to even come up with sarcastic quips about.  Pretty much anything we said during the film instead was “What is going on?” or disinterested chitchat.  It’s something about aliens, zombies, and a murder (I think).  It was really hard to follow.  I really, really wanted to love it, but it was just awful.  I know many other B horror lovers have a passion for it, but I felt like it was really just unwatchable.  So, I guess a lot of these older films are just as intolerable as many new ones, just for less promiscuous reasons.

At least I can have some hope for the future of B horror films because I happily just found out that Sharknado 2: The Second One is going to coming out next July.

So, what are your thoughts about B horror movies?  Which ones do you like, which ones do you hate, which ones changed your life?  I would really love to get more comments from my readers, make this blog more of a forum of horror (or whatever else I post about), rather than just my thoughts.  I would love to watch some great B movies from what you have to share– especially modern ones that fit my criteria for a good B movie.

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