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.

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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.

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.

Three Faces of Hannibal Lecter (plus one of Hannibal Lecktor, whoever that guy is)

About 5 years ago I watched The Silence of the Lambs.  I was bored and was in the mood for something a little dark.  I didn’t know much about Hannibal Lecter– I had just heard that he was a cannibalistic fictional serial killer.  I think a friend had described a scene (I didn’t then know what movie it was from– it turns out it’s from Hannibal) in which Hannibal offers a child sitting next to him some human flesh on a flight for a snack.  Anyway, it was around that time that I decided I really wanted to see– or at least find out if I wanted to see– a majority of the most iconic horror films, so the Hannibal Lecter films were on the list.  I didn’t know what order they were in, so I just went with the one that I was pretty sure was the oldest and that had a cover image that had haunted me in video rental stores as a child (which, of course, has one of the creepiest hidden images of all time in it, with the dead women in the skull on the butterfly).

Yes, I was years behind on this whole thing.  I’ll kindly refer you to my previous post Waiting for Pyramid Head if you have any questions as to why I knew so little about something so big in the horror world.

Needless to say, The Silence of the Lambs blew me away.  It was easily one of the best films I had ever seen– and not just because of the compeI wondered about this image for years.  No lie.lling story, but in general quality (it did win Best Picture, after all).  The way it was directed, with methodical pacing that unceasingly drew me in deeper and deeper, was incredible (the director won Best Director that year).  The script was exceptional, each line of dialogue perfect.  And there cannot be enough said of the acting in the film– the whole cast was incredible, with Jodie Foster making Clarice Starling a character that somehow manages to be distant while you still cheer for her (while winning Best Actress), or Ted Levine bringing a truly unnerving realism to the film’s main monster, the serial killer “Buffalo Bill,” or most of all, the legendary, award-winning (with the smallest amount of screentime) portrayal of the famed Dr. Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins.  I cannot forget how truly unnerved I was made by that performance.  Every tiny face muscle seemed to be giving its all for acting perfection as Lector first turned his head toward Clarice, and it just got better from there.  I had seen some truly exceptional films before, but to have one which such high caliber in every way was eye-opening to me.  I simply didn’t know that a film could be so flawless (after all, even my favorite film of all time, The Dark Knight has a number of elements that are imperfect).

So, by the time I finished the film I had come to the conclusion that I had gotten myself into something incredible.  I knew that there was more to be had of this Hannibal Lecter, and so I set to figuring out what direction I needed to go next to get the most out of pursuing the series further.

A cursory search on Wikipedia quickly revealed that the brilliant film I had just seen was adapted from a book, actually the second book in its series.  I wasn’t too surprised– after all, Hannibal is first seen in a cell– and I decided that before I watched any more Hannibal movies I would read the books.

I decided to start with what I was already familiar with– The Silence of the Lambs.  I was so enchanted with the film that I couldn’t resist.  I immediately plunged into the masterful writing of Thomas Harris that was just as tantalizing as the film that drew me to it.  Now, usually I prefer books to film adaptations (I mean, who doesn’t?) but this one was a rare exception to the rule.  The film wasn’t better than the book (though that does happen, and I’m sure it’ll make it onto this blog as a post eventually), but I felt like it was equal.  I found that the film was, essentially, a perfect adaptation of the novel, following the plot very well, even using much of the dialogue directly, and even capturing the very tone, the very essence of the base work.

In all of the Lecter novels, Thomas Harris writes in a way that is beautiful and dark, and the greatest strength is the way that he paints his characters in ways that are very real, very human– even (maybe especially) the monsters.  The serial killers– “The Tooth Fairy,” “Buffalo Bill,” and, of course, “Hannibal the Cannibal–” are the most fascinating element of his writing.  They are their own blends of crazy (well, is Hannibal crazy?  Can’t really say), but their internal logic is strong, and as you read the sections of the novels that get into their heads you can’t help but sympathize, a little, with them.  This was especially true for me as I read Red Dragon, the first Hannibal novel to be written.  My heart still aches a little for the titular “Red Dragon,” when, in the course of the novel, his more human side begins to have things go his way, just to have the monster inside of him rise up and take control of his life again.  It was one of the most emotionally evocative pieces of writing I have ever read.

I unfortunately think I read the Lecter novels in the worst order possible.  As I’ve already stated, I read The Silence of the Lambs first, which was really starting off with the best of the best, which made the others not quite as good as they may have seemed had I not been prone to compare them to it.  The second book I read is the most recently written, the prequel novel Hannibal Rising.hannibal rising  Now, it’s a good book, but it is extremely different from the rest of the series.  Instead of telling a relatively contemporary serial killer story, it follows a young Hannibal, surviving (in the most horrible of ways) World War II in Lithuania and afterward moving to France.  It’s a very strange story, filled with the dark context for Lecter becoming a monster, but failing to ever begin to tell the story that one expects from a story named Hannibal Rising.  I figured it was the story of how he got to be in the insane asylum that Clarice finds him in, and was a little disappointed that it was not.

It is a beautiful piece of writing, in spite of very peculiar thematic elements including cannibalism, not-quite incest, racism, war, survival, revenge, and more.  The imagery of young Hannibal making himself into a samurai of sorts was very evocative.

So, a good book, but one that I should have saved for last.

Next, I read Red Dragon.  It was extremely good, but once again I was disappointed to find that it was not the story of Hannibal’s serial murders.  I, as with The Silence of the Lambs, found Lecter sitting, a serene hurricane, in his asylum cell, contributing to the story as a strange consultant-of-sorts on another serial killer case.  The story was littered with hints of what had happened before, especially since its protagonist, Will Graham, was the man who had put Hannibal there, but I wasn’t satisfied.  That again didn’t keep me from being drawn into the dark world of the story’s main serial killer and the surprisingly equally dark man who was hunting him.  I really was fascinated with the character of Will and his incredibly strong empathy that allows him inside the mind of the man who was killing families and putting shards of mirror in their eyes.  I was haunted by Hannibal’s words to him, telling Graham that the reason he had caught his was that they were just alike.

This idea, and similar ones, have been teased out a number of times since Red Dragon— the popular Dexter series comes to mind– but none have come close to so interesting an execution as Harris managed in his first Hannibal novel.  I love that the idea is being brought out even more with the new TV series, which I’ll get to later.

I finally got to the remaining book– Hannibal— with a fervor, having ridden a wave of great, scary writing to it.  Maybe it was that I had just read the intense ending to Red Dragon, but as I started what I thought what would serve as the opus of the series– with the titular Hannibal finally escaped, free to resume his monstrosities– I immediately became bored.  Not with everything in the book, but I could definitely tell that Harris had again allowed himself to really dig into the story, which, unlike with his other novels, caused the pace to slow.  I felt distanced as a reader from the story, when I was used to being drawn into the world of Harris’ writing.  Finally, as murders began and the story moved forward, I felt a little more drawn in– but not as much as I expected.

There was one particularly interesting thing about the book– the way it described Hannibal’s mind.  Harris finally shows his audience the private, queerly beautiful thoughts of his pet monster.  He shows us how they are neatly ordered, that his very mind– not just his actions– screams of his genius.  We see hints of his awful childhood and his beloved late sister, Mischa, whose death plays such a key role in his shaping.

And yet, in spite of that inspired element of the book, there seemed to be abundant problems.  Harris seemed to be trying very hard to re-cast his protagonist as something that is less of a monster and more of a thing of beauty.  While I had been fascinated by the complexity of the character– he was even more dark and frightening and brilliant than the other killers that the series had showcased– I could not have undone what the other books in the series had done to me.  I had made up my mind that Hannibal was a monster.  Yes, a genius, cultured, gentleman monster (not unlike my perspective of Satan), but still a monster nonetheless.  The “villain” of the piece was another issue– a surviving victim of the original Lecter murders who is a disgusting, crippled, pedophilic troll.  It was immediately clear, upon  his introduction, that he was the one the reader was not supposed to like, while the handsome, clever Hannibal was to be the one you root for.  It is an interesting idea to set the story as a monster setting a trap for another monster, but everything moved too slowly.  There wasn’t the opportunity that the other books had to move things along– another fresh homicide scene to be appalled by, more clues to follow.  Instead, there is Lecter, who seems to be tamed from the necessity to hide (he’s still dangerous, but only when necessary), narrowly dodging trap after trap to find and catch him, and Mason Verger, whose scenes just seem to be either disgusting shows of what a horrible person he is, or scenes of him being pissed that he isn’t torturing Hannibal yet.  The only character I could find myself caring about was Clarice Starling, but she, too, seems comparatively lifeless in comparison to her role in The Silence of the Lambs.

And then there’s the biggest issue of all with the story– it’s ending.  [SPOILERS, DUH.]  The ending of the story, after Hannibal is saved by Clarice from Verger, then in turn saves her, is the problem.  He attempts to brainwash her in really weird ways into thinking she’s Mischa, or that he’s her dead father, or something like that.  I don’t really know, the writing style gets very purposely trippy to imitate the drug-haze and, unfortunately, ends up becoming near-unreadable.  And then, there isn’t even the payoff of a good ending.  Instead, Clarice breaks free of the haze and still maintains her identity– which seems good, right?– but then choses to submit to Hannibal as his accomplice and lover, and they eat some annoying jerk’s brains and run away together. [End spoilers.]

What the frick, right?

Instead of a brilliant conclusion to the story, the audience is presented with some high shock factor twist-ending bullcrap that feels totally untrue to the characters involved.  I put the book down, pissed off, declaring to all in the room, “That sucked.”

I wish I could end my discussion of the books in some other way.  Blame Thomas Harris for me ending the discussion of his writing on such a negative note.

Anyway, after that disappointment, and allowing myself a couple weeks to distance myself from how mad I was about it (it still elicits feelings of anger from me), I returned to the medium that had introduced me to Hannibal Lecter.

I quite enjoyed the film version of Red Dragon.  I thought that Edward Norton was a pretty good choice for Will Graham, and I liked Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde as well (a much better performance than him as Voldemort– it’s refreshing to learn that he actually could act, even though he hid it so well in the disappointing Harry Potter films).  It was no surprise that Hopkins was still the star of the show, even still with a relatively minor role.  I don’t have too much to say about it other than it was a solid, quite faithful film adaptation, though it did not draw as strong an emotional reaction from me as the book did.  In other words, it was good, but it was definitely no The Silence of the Lambs film good.

It was with reluctance that I moved on to Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.  Hannibal_movie_posterAfter all, the other two Lecter-related films did such a solid job of closely following the source material and, frankly, I didn’t want this one to follow suite.

It didn’t.  Thank heaven.

It was a pretty okay movie.  I didn’t feel nearly as awed by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but I suppose that even the best of actors can struggle a bit when they’re given material to work with that is not of the same caliber as their acting abilities.  Let’s be real, though– Anthony Hopkins at his worst is still better than many other actors at their best.  I liked Julianne Moore as Clarice, though I prefer Jodie Foster.

The story seemed to work better as a movie, though.  The pacing issues largely disappeared as, by virtue of being an entire piece in 131 minutes rather than that amount of time spent reading equaling pretty much nothing happening, it moved along at a brisk clip.

Oh, and they didn’t ruin the ending.  Did I mention that?  The ending went the direction that may have (partially) redeemed the book.  I finished the movie not wanting to throw things at the screen.  That helped out a lot.

Finally, I watched the Hannibal Rising movie.  I thought it was very visually striking and was a very entertaining adaptation of the book.  I liked the performance of Gaspard Ulliel as the young Lecter, though I felt it did struggle at times in that it occasionally slipped into mediocre imitation of Hopkins rather than standing on its own.  I understand that it was panned by critics, but I honestly don’t feel like any such negative press is warranted.

With that movie watched, I thought that I had a complete Hannibal Lecter experience (unless, that is, Thomas Harris ever gets around to finishing another Lecter book– which, based on his average of 7.75 years to finish a book, seems a due around now).  I didn’t think much on the character other than to show my wife The Silence of the Lambs.

But then I caught wind of an NBC TV series called Hannibal.  Of course, I was instantly intrigued.  Hannibal_key_artI looked up a teaser trailer on Youtube, but because I wasn’t instantly blown away by the 45 seconds of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting as the titular character, I forgot all about it for a few months.

I saw a blurb about the show on IMDb while looking up some actor or show or the like (something I spend way too much time doing) and decided to give it a shot.  If it sucked, I could always turn it off.  A cursory look at the character list on the page seemed to indicate Red Dragon to me, so I found it streaming online.

It was good.  Extremely good.  I watched four episodes that night.  I very quickly felt ashamed that I didn’t instantly recognize Mikkelsen’s performance as Hannibal for the brilliant performance (and more ethnically correct) it is.  Hugh Dancy is Will Graham to me.  The way that Graham’s mental process of getting into the mindset of murderers is portrayed is brilliant.

I’ve seen every episode to date (so, the entire first season) and every one of them immersed me into its fictional world.

It is quite dark and, at times, difficult to watch for its gruesome factor.  Fairly akin to the special effects of The Walking Dead.  Really cool, but messed up, stuff.  Like a human string instrument.

The series (so far) serves as the prequel to Red Dragon that I’ve long wanted.  Hannibal is a serial killer at large, though that serves more as a common thread through the episodes rather than the sole focus of the season.  From what I’ve read (on Wikipedia, the knower of all), the idea is to have 3 seasons before Red Dragon, then a season of each of the subsequent books in the series.  If the show continues to be as incredible as it thus has, that idea makes me very happy.  Well, the last season maybe not so much, but even still I expect good things.

It is of note that they make some changes to the established canon to make the show work.  The gender of several characters are changed (Dr. Bloom, Freddy Lounds) to allow for some romance and, I think, some general balance to the story.  Also, Lecter and Graham work together to solve serial killer cases instead of what is suggested by Red Dragon, which is that Graham meets Lecter when he interviews him about one of his dead patients and gets attacked by him.  But trust me, even though it deviates from the “real” story, this is much more compelling.

Just watch it.  I don’t want to spoil it.  I can’t wait for season 2 to start.

Looking up something on Wikipedia about the show, I discovered something interesting– I had missed a movie.  I learned that five years before The Silence of the Lambs would appear in theaters there was a film adaptation of Red DragonManhunter_michael_mann_film_poster called Manhunter.  Having seen and read everything else in the Hannibal Lecter universe, I decided to give it a shot.

This movie is the reason for the parenthetical face of Hannibal Lecktor.  They changed the spelling of his last name.  I hate it when things do this when adapting a story.

I don’t have too much to say about the movie.  Brian Cox’s performance is the least impressive of the four actors to play Hannibal.  It was interesting to see a young William Petersen (who I really only know from CSI) as Graham.  Tom Noonan did well with the role of Dolarhyde.  The movie does pretty well with the source material, not deviating in annoying ways.  I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for the mediocre ’80s synth soundtrack and for the fact that the later film adaptation is overall better.  I felt like the pacing was a little off, and there were too many random scenes that just didn’t seem to contribute to the story as effectively as they could have.  I think my biggest issue with the film was how it mentioned Will Graham’s empathetic ability to get into the minds of killers, but did very little to show the audience that fact.

Wow, that was a veritable treatise on Hannibal Lecter.  I hope to get comments with all of your thoughts on all of these books and shows and movies.

 

P.S. This post has a sequel, discussing Hannibal season 2!

Mama

Anybody who is half as serious about Halloween as my friends are watch horror movies all throughout October.  Well, all throughout the year, but October brings a concentrated dose of the scary.  That said, a few nights ago I Redboxed Mama as part of a double date as one of my many Halloween-appropriate film choices.  From looking at reviews on IMDb I could tell that feelings about the film were mixed, the critics feeling pretty lukewarm about it, the users more positive.  The top five or so user reviews very articulately explained very positive (eight to ten stars) feelings about the film, so I decided to give it a shot.

As a whole, I liked it.  I’m going to break it down more than that, but I fear that my critique may give an unduly negative feel about the film, Sadly, this poster is slightly scarier than the film itself.so I just want to be clear that as a whole this is an enjoyable film that doesn’t make for a wasted evening.

For starters, just a brief blurb on the gist of the plot, as free from spoilers as I can manage: Mama is the story of a young couple, Annabel and Lucas, the latter of whom having a recent family tragedy in which his brother went nuts and shot a bunch of people, kidnapped his young daughters, and disappeared.  The broken family has a car crash, ends up in the woods, and the father is killed, leaving two very young girls to be cared for by a supernatural entity known as “Mama.”  For years Lucas funds a constant search for his brother and his nieces, and finds them– shaped by the years in the forest.  The plot then takes off with all these pieces in place.

That was surprisingly difficult to explain.  Let’s just say it sets all this up very nicely.

The most impressive element of this film is the acting.  The adult cast’s performances were all very solid, but the real stars of the show were the little girls.  They capture the broken social skills of the girls, really showing off in a tangible way (their movements) how inhuman living in the woods made them.  The differences between the two girls– with the younger, who has no memories of civilized life– being so distinct when they are reintroduced to society is also impressively portrayed.  In many ways the girls are the most frightening element of the film.

The story is also quite strong in the piece.  It progresses quite naturally, with strong characters whose interactions very naturally progress the story.  There is unfortunately one or two bits of Mama that relied on some deus ex machina (such as the non-Mama dream– you’ll see if you watch it) that bothered me, especially since there really could have been more plot-conducive reasons the related character performs a certain action, but the rest of the story flows quite smoothly and realistically.  I like that it used many conventions of the horror genre, and of ghost stories in particular, but did so in a way that manipulated audience expectations, using those expectations to form a sort of thrill ride viewing experience.  The story’s conclusion is surprisingly thought-provoking and sparked a fairly lengthy conversation among those I watched with, managing to be both satisfying and unsettling– which I feel is a rare and powerful thing in the genre.  I don’t always need that blended feeling, but it is refreshing that it mixes things up.  I feel with horror generally, and especially in film, [SPOILERS FOR 1408, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE FOURTH KIND, AND CABIN IN THE WOODS] that too often everything is wrapped up too nicely  (1408, where everything is A-okay after he gets out), or wrapped up nicely but then with an unexplained shock ending (Jason surfacing at the end of Friday the 13th), or is just depressing, or with nothing gained or explained (The Fourth Kind, which resulted in both my wife and I just saying “What?” and vowing to never watch any movie with Milla Jovovich again) or extremely catastrophic (Cabin in the Woods and the destruction of the ENTIRE WORLD) [END SPOILERS].

And now to my beef with Mama.  Mama.  As I’ve stated, I’m pretty good with the story, and that, of course, extends to Mama.  She is pretty creepy in concept, and for about half the film, pretty creepy in execution.  The problem is that, in the latter half of the film, they show her.  A lot.  She looks pretty weird, yes, but stereotypical cartoon alien weird, which is not what I wanted for a freaky, angry maternal poltergeist.  And it isn’t so much that I’m disappointed with the effects people not making her creepy enough, it’s that I did not want to get a good look at her at all.  Just as the terrifying nature of Samara vanishes when you properly see her in The Ring, Mama loses the mystique of the unknown.  Honestly, if they didn’t show her face for the entire movie I would have found it twice and scary, easily.  When she’s being a floor shark, only her hair visible moving through the carpet, she’s solid.  When you can’t see her properly because the camera is showing the older sister’s vision without glasses, I shuddered wondering what she could be.  The director really missed something good with her.

I’d say pretty much everything else was pretty solid.  The score was good, contributing to the atmosphere while avoiding distraction.  The visuals (except as I’ve noted) were dark in a good way.  The opening credits, which made use of children’s drawings to tell the story of the girls’ lives with Mama, were very unsettling.

 

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