We know the adage that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. But you can judge cover art by whether it complements the book, or stands alone as excellent art in its own right. Some covers are arresting, creative, provocative, or otherwise appealing, while others exist only because you can’t have a book without a cover, and still others are simply awful.
There’s never been a shortage of bland, middling book covers, and given the volume of self-published / fledgling-press books available today we’re not lacking for amateurish covers either. I’m not looking to pick on blatantly bad book covers, though. There are sites, blogs, tumblrs and more already devoted to that, for starters, and the worst covers really need no words to describe what’s wrong with them. I’d rather take a look at covers that I think work–or that I at least find interesting–and offer an explanation of why I think they work, while contrasting them with other covers that strike me as lacking, lesser or lifeless.
One of my favorites from the past few years is the first edition cover art to Stephen King’s novel Joyland. Created by the late Glen Orbik, it evokes the best of the artwork from pulp novels and magazines of decades past. In addition to the visual flair, what makes this cover effective is how it captures a micro-story of its own that sells a potential reader on how much more the novel contains.
The story shown on this cover is straightforward, but nonetheless intriguing. Here we see a young woman investigating an amusement park who appears to be frightened, looking up at someone with bad intentions. How do I know she’s investigating? Well, frankly, I don’t. Not for sure. For all I know the camera in her hand was just for sightseeing, not for sleuthing. But her facial expression, physical posture and position doesn’t just register surprise or fear. It’s the look of someone who’s been caught in the act. There’s no reason for her to back herself up against the fortune teller’s tent, unless she was already near it, using it as an obstacle to remain unseen. For more “on-the-nose” evidence of what she’s up to, the type of camera she has is the classic, old-school “I’m with the press” cameras. A different type of camera could have been painted, or the camera could have been left out, if there was no intent to depict her as a snoop.
Presenting her as an investigator in trouble gives the story of the cover details that would be absent if she was just your everyday distressed damsel in a thriller. The titular Joyland isn’t just a dangerous place, it’s a place that has something to hide, and whoever she’s looking at is one of the parties interested in helping Joyland keep its secrets, by whatever means necessary. Instead of being content to show a character in peril, this cover adds elements that suggest backstory and tickles your curiosity. Who is this woman? What did she see or notice before that prompted her to investigate the park? Who is menacing her, and what secret are they protecting? The cover teases a story that can compel interest in what the novel actually contains.
Contrast this with two alternate Joyland covers that are artistically fit, but altogether uninteresting.
Let’s start with the illustrated edition cover art, which was also painted by Orbik in his characteristic pulp-noir style. We have a near-naked woman holding a rifle, leaning against a rail, looking over her shoulder at the park in the distance. It’s pulpy, well-painted, and yet, compared to the first edition cover, it elicits indifference. Whereas the first edition cover presents a story and raises questions that suggest a mystery, the illustrated edition cover simply offers a character in pose and raises questions that suggest what you’re looking at is a little absurd. Why is this woman outside (on a deck presumably) barely covering herself with a towel? Why does she have that rifle? Why is she looking at the park with no particular emotion? Why should I care about any of this?
The same goes for the limited edition cover above, painted by another talented, prolific pulp artist, Robert McGinnis. Many of McGinnis’ paintings fit the description of “character(s) in a pose” as well, but he was also capable of capturing a small story or clear emotion when needed. For Joyland though, he basically gives us the same odd scene that’s found on the illustrated edition. Scantily clad woman holding a rifle near a body of water, amusement park in the distance. As art, it’s competent. As cover art, it’s uninteresting, especially in comparison to the original cover design.
The conceptual similarity between the illustrated edition and the limited edition leads me to speculate that the artists were working from a general instruction of what to paint and, as professionals, were just making the best of what they were paid to paint. Joyland is one of the relatively few Stephen King novels I haven’t read (though I have read the blurb), so I can’t say how relevant the near-nudity, rifle and house by the water are to the story, though I have to imagine the gun and the location–if, perhaps, not the cheesecake–have to play at least some part in what takes place. But even if those elements of the limited and illustrated editions are more relevant than anything shown in the first edition, the original cover is still far more effective.
Beyond showing a more interesting story than the two other covers, the first edition feels more inspired. The red, orange and yellow lights behind our protagonist–but not too far behind her–make it look like the park is burning. The slight dutch angle of the painting adds to the sense of menace coming from the confrontation between unseen threat and the discovered sleuth. The painting gives the viewer the perspective of whoever means to do her harm, and the tilt provides a sense of movement. There is action in this painting, and urgency.
The motion and emotion of the first edition painting frees the tagline to be a fun imitation of a carnival barker’s taunting pitch. Conversely, the tagline of the limited edition–“Beyond the lights, there is only darkness”–is a sort of standard statement of foreboding that you can find on any number of horror or thriller novels. It’s not an ideal fit for a supernatural murder mystery set in an amusement park written by perhaps the most famous and successful horror author to ever live. McGinnis’ painting feels moody, chilly and lonely, but not especially dark, so the tagline doesn’t fit with it either. Meanwhile the illustrated edition cover abandons a tagline in favor of promoting the book as a best-seller, with a pull-quote from the Washington Post, as if anyone needs a reminder that a Stephen King novel hit the New York Times bestseller list, or that it has been lauded by at least a few prominent reviewers.
In the end, the first edition cover is magnetic and alive. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a more static cover, and of course there will be people who prefer the limited edition or illustrated edition. To me, even as inoffensive as the alternate covers are, there’s no competition here. I wish more covers would seek the dynamism of the first edition to Joyland, not for the sake of making the books more appealing, but for the art of it.
It’s been a while since I’ve sold a story, and it always feels good to see your work pay off, so many thanks to Iulian Ionescu and the other editors and readers at Fantasy Scroll Magazine for finding my story “The Genie and the Inquisitor” worthy of publication. For any who’d care to read it, it’s available now in Issue #10 of Fantasy Scroll Mag, so feel free to use either of the preceding links to check the story out. Much obliged, in advance.
Have you ever seen something that you believed only you could see? Something that should have been seen by others, but somehow was not?
In the fall of 1992 I was thirteen-years-old, feeling increasingly ostracized at school, and feeling homesick away from school. The cause of my homesickness helped keep my pain in perspective, though. Hurricane Andrew had slammed into the Florida coast in August. In September, my mother and one of my brothers, both in the Air Force at the time, had been called down to help with relief and rebuilding of the demolished Homestead Air Force Base. Living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with the specter of hurricane season hovering every August–a specter darkened and magnified by the local mythology of Hurricane Camille–my sympathies were with the people of Florida.
My father was already stationed overseas at the time so there weren’t many options for where I could stay. All of my other relatives lived in Texas and my mother was only supposed to be gone for a month or two. One of my mother’s friends–a married woman with three kids–volunteered to keep me for the time being.
The family I stayed with through September and October was pleasant. They took me to church with them, brought me along to a couple of family functions, and I somehow ended up joining them on an awkward hospital visit to see one of their elderly family members. They treated me well, but I was a slightly odd kid, often stuck in my own head, a bit sickly, shy–when I wasn’t feeling clumsily talkative–and prone to occasional, unconscious obnoxiousness. I shared a bedroom with the son, who was two or three years older than me and a player on football team of the small Catholic School we attended. I was on the JV team at the time, but to call me a “player” would be generous. We had little in common. I had even less in common with the two other kids, sisters, one about three-years-old, the other maybe twelve. I don’t think I could have been anything more than an intrusion to any of them, and I was aware of it, but didn’t know how to minimize it. Gradually, I started asking if I could just stay home instead of joining them when they went to the son’s games or went to dinner with relatives, and they would let me.
I had no friends at school at this time, just a circle of kids who kept me around for easy jokes at my expense, which I accepted. A year prior things had been different, and many of these same kids had seemed to regard me well, so a part of me figured I could flip back to being “cool” again if I just rode out this wave of unpopularity. My best friend went to a different school and lived down the street from my house in Ocean Springs, and where I was staying at the time was too far away from me to visit, being on the other side of the Biloxi Bay Bridge. I wouldn’t say that this was a difficult stage of my young life, just a very strange one.
All of this left me even more mentally vulnerable to bizarre, intense or terrifying sights and stories than I already was. So when the night came that I first saw an ad for an upcoming film about a hook-handed nightmare who haunts a housing tenement, my mind was all too eager to pass my imagination like a relay baton and let Candyman sprint away with it.
I can’t remember the specifics, what night of the week it was, why I was alone that evening, or what show I was watching when I saw the ad. I know the weekend was looming, so it was either a Thursday or Friday, and I want to say I was watching Martin, which debuted that year and was the popular show among the group of kids I orbited. More than any of that, I vividly remember the queasy, visceral sense of being drawn toward and into the television as I watched the commercial, like a basic rule of gravity had shifted, gone horizontal instead of vertical. What wants to retreat must come forth. I remember being mesmerized and frightened by the dreamlike scene of Virginia Madsen crawling out of the open-mouthed mural. The quick glimpse of the hook hand. The suddenness of a man crashing backwards through a window. And, right from the jump, the damned mirror summoning.
I think I will always feel a unique, almost nostalgic dread at the thought the summoning a spirit by saying its name while staring into a mirror. When I was a first-grader, having been in Mississippi for barely a year, a classmate of mine told me that Bloody Mary lived in a dilapidated two-story house a few blocks from my own, right behind the neighborhood Hardee’s. Being a gullible six-year-old, I believed him. I’ll save the details of my schoolboy obsession with Bloody Mary for a later Confessions entry, but she was the first bogeyman to plague me. By thirteen, I had outgrown that particular obsession, but the Candyman commercial resurrected that first critical fear.
I remember sleeping poorly that first night, seeing the painting of the Candyman’s face in a feverish, disjointed dream. But what happened the next day at school, simple as it was, made the fear more personal and affecting.
Again, the kids I hung out with at school weren’t my friends and weren’t above ridiculing me, and every so often shoving me around. But they weren’t cruel. In hindsight, it was a simple matter of convenience and lack of imagination. People in general, and adolescents in particular, love an easy target, and there I was, a tall, lanky, underachieving, socially inept, brainy black kid living in the Deep South who “talked white.” At the time, fitting in simply wasn’t an option for me. Still, I spoke with them as though we were friendly, even though anything I said or did might open me up to a flood of jokes. So I asked the people I knew at school if any of them had seen the commercial for a cool, creepy-looking horror flick called Candyman last night. None of them said they had.
This was peculiar. Again, I can’t remember what I was watching when I was introduced to Candyman on the small screen, but I know it was something reasonably popular. Something that at least a few other people must have been watching as well. How had I been the only person to see it? Well, everyone else had just been doing something else during the commercial breaks, of course. Or hadn’t paid any attention to it. Or hadn’t been impacted by it the way I had, so they’d forgotten about it. But you couldn’t have convinced my thirteen-year-old self this. Nor could you have convinced me that it was some sort of small-scale prank. Their answers were too nonchalant, and such a ruse, though simple, would have required more spontaneous imagination than I thought any of these kids possessed. A lie is a story, after all.
I tried to shrug it off, and by the end of the day, the cloud of dread from the Candyman movie that only I could confirm existed had dissipated. But I found myself alone in my host’s house again that evening, in this place where I didn’t think I belonged, and again I saw it on the television.
Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman…
I called my best friend. The person I felt I could trust. I called under the pretense of just wanting to chat because we hadn’t spoken to each other in a while, hadn’t seen each other in a longer while. But really I wanted to know if he had seen it. I asked. He said it sounded cool, but no, he hadn’t seen it. I was unreasonably incredulous–“Really? It’s come on two nights in a row.”–but he couldn’t tell me anything other than the truth. He hadn’t seen it. Only I had.
Melodramatic, I know. Foolish, too. Of course other people had seen it, just not anyone that I knew or had spoken to. But by then the obvious answer rang false to me. This thing had found me on my island and latched onto me. It knew I couldn’t turn to anyone. It knew that it could silence me, because silence would be the only way I could obtain a semblance of refuge. If I stopped asking other people about it, then I wouldn’t have to hear again that I was the only one who had seen it. Who could see it.
For the next few days I avoided the television, afraid the commercial would come on while I was accompanied in the room, and the person with me wouldn’t acknowledge it, and then it would be undeniable. I tried not to look directly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. In the dark, in the space between wakefulness and nightmares, I saw chaos, hooks, and a painted, hungry face with its mouth wide and eyes indifferent. Flat eyes that exemplified the attitude expressed in the film’s opening quote, which I thankfully hadn’t heard Tony Todd say yet, otherwise I might have melted down completely.
They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for, if not for shedding?
My mother’s friend, who’d volunteered to take care of me, worried about me. I wasn’t sleeping. I was quieter than usual. I was making myself sick as the weather chilled and asthma hugged my lungs. And I couldn’t tell her what troubled me. It would sound absurd to her and do me no good.
Were this a work of fiction, I suppose it wouldn’t end so anticlimactically, but well, it is what it is, so brace yourself. Days went by, the next weekend came and went, and I thankfully managed to avoid seeing another Candyman spot on television. Then school came and in the midst of the standard morning routine, someone mentioned to me that they finally saw the commercial for the horror flick I had asked about, and that I was right, it did look pretty cool. Soon enough, Candyman became one of the it topics for October among my classmates. The more people spoke of him, the less terrifying he became. He wasn’t my own demon anymore. He belonged to everyone, and I couldn’t have been happier to share him.
A few years later, when I finally saw the movie and could admire it for the classic it is, I noted the irony that, in the film, Candyman draws his power from the collective belief and whispers of the community. He is brought to life because his name is on the lips and minds of so many.
In my experience with the character, he could never be more real than he was when I first encountered him and believed he was unknown to another soul.
Bears are mankind’s most beloved incredibly dangerous animals. We’ve made the world’s most famous stuffed toy out of them. We’ve made several lovable cartoon characters out of them. We’ve tamed them to do circus tricks. We named an embrace after them that’s supposed to be a wrestling hold, but do a Google image search for “bear hug” and it’s 95% cuddly friendliness. Bears are great, except for when they remember that they’re unstoppable, overpowering mounds of muscle, jaws and claws that would easily win the 100-meters in the Olympics.
45-seconds into the latest trailer for Alejandro Inarritu and Leonardo Dicaprio’s upcoming The Revenant, we get a nice display of how terrifying bears can be. Granted, I don’t exactly live a life of thrills and adventure, so this could probably be taken with a grain of salt, but this new trailer for The Revenant is one of the most intense things I’ve seen this month. Perhaps the best quote to capture the feeling you might get while watching this trailer comes from a friend of mine who just texted me, “Was that a real bear attack?” As brutal as it apparently was to shoot this film, I’m pretty sure Inarritu wouldn’t have called “Cut!” had it been genuine. I’m anticipating that the full-length version of the mauling on the big screen is going to be a bit tough to sit through.
To make matters worse, DiCaprio then gets buried alive by a grizzled man played by what appears to be Tom Hardy Lee Jones, right after Tom murders Leo’s teenaged son. Naturally, once DiCaprio finds the strength to crawl out of his ridiculously shallow grave, revenge is in order. And I’ll be happy to witness that revenge, as the Lee Hardy TomJones character already strikes me as a massive asshole, what with his murderous pursuits and such. Still, that is the kiddie-pool of graves. Shoddy, lazy workmanship, that. I’m pretty sure all he did was keep DiCaprio warm. Might as well put a blanket on him.
The original House on Haunted Hill is one of those horror classics that’s more famous than it is genuinely “good.” It has a 96% rating over on Rotten Tomatoes, but even many of the good reviews are quick to deploy adjectives such as, “cheesy,” and “campy.” Most people who’ve seen the movie probably come away with the same impression. It’s fun, even memorable, and has some good, spooky ideas and moments, but for the most part it’s also shamelessly silly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; not every horror flick should be an earnest affair. House on Haunted Hill was one of William Castle’s many gimmick-driven fright flicks, and it’s perfectly fine with being a morbid joke.
Fitting with that vibe is the above poster I came across that’s up for sale now on Mondotees.com. The suggestion of the woman hanged by a skeleton is certainly grim, but it’s actually an homage to the original poster, which was far more macabre, as you can see below.
The new poster–created by Jonathan Burton–is more coy about presenting the actual hanging, which makes it a bit grimmer by suggestion, though not as directly gruesome. The stiff woman in the original poster looks more like she’s just posing on her tip-toes. The partial view we get of the woman in the new poster has a sort of weightlessness to it that makes her look like she might be either a swinging body, or a floating spirit reliving its demise.
I prefer the look of the skeleton in the original, with its dingy bones. Its outsized scale also calls to mind the giant skeleton specter of a famous Japanese woodblock print. The skeleton in Burton’s new poster is just a little too “friendly,” clearly smiling right at us. But I think the knowing, calm expression of the seated Vincent Price is just about perfect. He looks like he’s expecting you to come in and take a seat so he can interview you for a job. “Oh, the living skeleton who appears to be killing someone to my left? Don’t mind him. That’s just Larry. He’s mostly harmless, I assure you.”
This new House on Haunted Hill poster also comes in black and white. I’m not really the type to decorate my home with movie posters, but I appreciate them, and were I the type, I think I’d go for the black and white version.
Details can be vital to a story. Details allow worlds to feel lived in, characters to breathe. But details needn’t be intricacies.
In Philip K. Dick’s science fiction short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” the details enrich the story’s future, planets and technologies with plausibility, but eschew needless complexity. This isn’t to say the story is “simple” (hardly) or basic, just that it’s direct. I’m also not saying that complexity and intricacy are inherently bad. They can be misplaced, however. Or abused to mask story flaws, like an overly complicated cologne might be an attempt to overwhelm your sense of smell, trying to hide that the fragrance simply isn’t appealing.
Reading “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” I was struck by the small details that fleshed out the universe where this story takes place. The extended age of the lead character, the casual mentions of artificially extended youth, the unsurprising existence of a “robot doctor.” (I love that it’s just called a robot doctor by the way; no need to give it some futuristic, acronymic name. Just call it what it is.)
One of the best compliments to pay a story–in my opinion–is that it displays an earned confidence. Confidence in itself and in the reader. “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” has much that makes it well worth your time. From the computer’s humorously frustrated personality to the protagonist’s heartbreaking psychological erosion, it is layered and interesting even as it moves with brisk efficiency.
“I Hope I Shall Arrive” soon can be read in the short story collection that shares its title.
And I’m not going to argue with them. I’m not quite as high on the show as they are, but it’s still a very good crime drama, set in the interesting times immediately following World War I. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for any story surrounding the First World War, in part because the history of that conflict is so complicated. World War II is often oversimplified, but it’s easy to do so when you have such clear villains with the Axis powers. World War I is considerably less black and white. I digress.
“Peaky Blinders” is the name of a familial gang of British criminals who, in the story, come to dominate the town they’re based out of, and eventually look to establish a foothold in London. Cilian Murphy stars as the de facto patriarch of the otherwise fatherless clan, running things alongside two brothers (one older, one younger) and his mother. On the opposite side of the law–though largely in title only–is Sam Neill’s Inspector Campbell, whose harsh, violent stance against the Blinders almost immediately careens over into corruption. In the first few episodes there appears to be a third party at play, a local Communist labor movement leader who is at odds with the authorities and the gangsters, but that plot goes absolutely nowhere and gets abandoned pretty early, unfortunately.
The show is relentlessly bleak, which is one reason why I don’t think as highly of it as the Mike Newman on Cool Material does. I wouldn’t say I’m over the “anti-hero protagonist” thing, or that I’m averse to grim storytelling–I’m a horror writer, after all–but the perpetual dimness of Peaky Blinders can wear you down if you’re digesting it two or three episodes at a time on Netflix. There’s a sort of static hopelessness to it. Instead of descending into or struggling with darkness, these characters are all trudging forward through an unending fog. Eventually they know that they’ll walk themselves right off a ledge that they can’t see coming, but they walk on anyway because it’s what they do and who they are. Not a bad story or theme, but when it applies to just about every character it can be wearying.
Still, the overall execution of the show is excellent. It looks great, the acting ranges from good to stellar, and even the different uses of the theme “Red Right Hand” in each individual episode’s opening is frequently a sliver of mood-setting brilliance. If you haven’t seen Peaky Blinders, season 3 is coming. Take some time soon to hop on Netflix, and treat yourself to an uncommon and entertaining (if melancholic) gangster saga.
Over on the BNC, I wrote about the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the bottom of this post). Having rewatched it now, I feel like there a few more things I want to mention.
This cast is interesting. It occurs to me that I’ve only seen Hiddleston as Loki and in Midnight in Paris. So while my initial reaction is to say he’ll be great, I don’t have a very large body of work to personally base that opinion on. Jessica Chastain is a force. First thing I saw her in must have been Take Shelter, and she’s been good to excellent in everything since. Charlie Hunnam has a presence to him. I’m not going to hold the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy against him, any more than I’m going to hold Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland against Mia Wasikowska. I don’t know how big of a role Jim Beaver will have in this–in a way he feels like the odd man out–but he might be my favorite actor in the cast. All in all, if the film doesn’t live up to its potential, it doesn’t appear that performances will be to blame.
Speaking of Tim Burton, I think his Dark Shadows might have been the last big budget, major studio release to take on the Gothic horror genre. That was a parody of the genre though, and between now and October, the recently released (and critically well-received) What We Do in the Shadows, which also has some fun at the expense of Gothic fiction elements, should reach a wider audience. I can’t remember the last time a notable, serious and unabashed take on Gothic Horror hit the big screen. The recent remake to The Woman in Black comes close, but doesn’t fully commit. Crimson Peak looks more reminiscent of films such as Black Sunday and House of Usher, both of which came out over fifty years ago. It’s hard to predict how audiences will receive Crimson Peak based on this. I’m hoping that people will appreciate it for something different from what they’ve grown accustomed to in horror movies.
And hey, speaking of October, am I wrong in thinking that this trailer seems to have a very early official release for a horror film? Last year at this time, Annabelle was still filming, and still received an October release. Its first teaser didn’t come out until July. Granted, that was a very different film, far less ambitious, but nonetheless highly anticipated. Two years back, The Conjuring had its first trailer officially drop in February as well, but that was in advance of a June release. We’re over half a year away from Crimson Peak coming to a theater near you. I actually find this promising. Somebody at the studio has faith in this picture; they’re giving it the blockbuster marketing treatment, at least in terms of building anticipation well in advance.
Overall, the Crimson Peak trailer has me eager to see it, but I’m even more excited by the talent surrounding the film, and the potential it has to be something unique in today’s film and horror fiction landscape. More often than not, studios use October as a dumping ground for quick-buck horror flicks–some of which are still good, but most of which are crafted specifically to capitalize on the Halloween season. This time it looks like we’re getting a picture that has every intention of being truly magnificent.
At this point, almost any horror story featuring vampires is a reclamation project. I don’t need to rehash it here, but what the hell, I’ll do it anyway.
Vampires have become many things. Stylish, moody, desirable, heroic, even enviable. But they haven’t been proper horror villains–at least not consistently–for a long time.
Partly due to the setting, I think, the vampires in Salem’s Lot weren’t black-garbed, urbane charmers who happened to drink blood, but monstrous sub-humans with a hunger so unchecked they’re likely to kill off or convert their entire food supply before they realize what they’ve done. Salem’s Lot is not a perfect novel, and isn’t Stephen King’s best, but it still might be my favorite of his. Vampirism as presented in this novel isn’t merely a burden or disease; it’s not something you can struggle against. Its communicability seems less bite-related and more like it’s riding on a general miasma of malfeasance that has settled over a small town already nurturing its share of unpleasantness.
In short, what came to Salem’s lot was classic, old fashioned evil. A level of evil so incontrovertible and palpable that even after the head vampire is killed, Jerusalem’s Lot is rendered a permanent ghost town. There’s no going back to the way it was. And it’s not just about the heavy death toll, damage, or the lingering presence of a bloodsucker here or there. “The Lot” is effectively cursed. In King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “effectively cursed” becomes “literally cursed,” which might be why I’m a little bit biased against that story. Salem’s Lot doesn’t need a backstory featuring an ancient, Lovecraftian presence as the forgotten source for all of its future perils. All it needed was the pestilence of vampirism to turn it into a fallout zone. And that’s how it’s presented in King’s short story “One for the Road,” from the Night Shift collection.
Dread Central broke the news last week that “One for the Road” is being developed as a short film. This gave me incentive enough to make “One for the Road” my short story read and write-up for today. The story is strong, but flawed. The opening is straightforward enough: in one of The Lot’s neighboring towns, a desperate man comes barging into a bar just before closing time. A blizzard rages outside, and the man, an out-of-towner who had underestimated the Maine winter, has accidentally run his car into a snowbank–wife and daughter still inside–near Salem’s Lot. The man thinks the biggest danger to his family is the unforgiving cold, but the two older locals know better. There’s a reason why the Lot was abandoned, after all, and why people who venture into it tend to go missing.
“One for the Road” does a good job of selling the recent history of Salem’s Lot effectively. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you’ll have a clear enough idea about what transpired within it to understand the threat faced by the protagonists of this short story. The idea of living within short driving distance of a town known to have been overrun by vampires, a limited but unknown number of which may still be lingering there, is chilling. And I’m an unabashed sucker for a horror story set in snowy conditions. Top all of that with a no-frills premise and you can understand why I would call this a solid micro-sequel to my favorite Stephen King novel.
But, again, the tale has its flaws. King’s first person narrator gets sidetracked by wistful remembrances of deceased wives and the history of the bar that don’t add color to the setting or characters, and show up just in time to temporarily stifle the story’s momentum. There are also a few too many instances of clever dialogue that don’t mesh with the urgency that should be present in the story. When our hapless out-of-towner, Lumley, scared for his family and demanding answers, imprudently but understandably grabs one of the two men who can help him by the shirt, the latter man responds, “Mister…I think your hand just ran away from your brains, there.” In a vacuum, or in a more fitting story and moment, that’s a pretty good tough guy line. But with these characters and what’s at stake, it feels stilted. Lastly, King’s affinity for stand alone, on-the-nose closing lines gets the better of him here, and he wraps “On the Road” with a pair of superfluous and sentences that are, again, trying a little too hard to be too clever, and don’t really match the established voice of the narrator.
Still, if nothing else, the simplicity of the story keeps it moving briskly enough to give little time for significant missteps. When the seemingly doomed impromptu rescue mission gets underway and the vampires start making their presence known, dread and the sense of inevitability become all that matter or exist in the story. Things escalate quickly, and the vampires in Jerusalem’s Lot are once again shown to be deceptive, gluttonous monsters.
I know the reaction to any remake among people who are fond of the original is often universal derision and histrionic declarations of a defiled childhood. Well, I’ve never been one of those people to instinctively dismiss a remake (though, admittedly, most of them are pointless and / or lousy) and my childhood had a lot more going for it than some pop culture entertainment I enjoyed (and which, by the by, will continue to exist regardless of being remade), so I’m not one to go with that trend.
Still, on the surface, I can understand why the idea of remaking Poltergeist might rub people the wrong way. It can sometimes be overlooked when people discuss the horror movie “classics”–particularly of the 80’s–because it’s far from the most hardcore brand of horror you’ll find. In a decade dominated by slashers and films that took onscreen violence to new extremes (most notably The Evil Dead), Poltergeist is a bit of an outlier. It’s more theme park horror; family-centric and family friendly. By the standards of the genre anyway. Its special effects were far less concerned with gore than colorful spectacle. During the climax, when countless skeletal corpses start popping up in the family’s backyard, it feels more Raiders of the Lost Ark than Return of the Living Dead. This is no accident. Though Tobe Hooper is credited as director, it’s commonly held that Spielberg had a lot of involvement in Poltergeist beyond writing the screenplay.
That’s pretty important to remember here, because often times the complaints about remakes–horror remakes in particular–focus on how slick the newer film will look compared to its predecessor; how much more reliant the new film is on special effects. This complaint makes sense when remaking a subtle horror story such as The Haunting into a cruddy CGI extravaganza. Other complaints about remakes focus on how the updated version of the film locks in on one element of the predecessor, but loses sight of what actually made the original film so good. This criticism makes sense when comparing Rob Zombie’s ultra-violent, overly grimy and brutal vision of Halloween to John Carpenter’s far more restrained and tense original (sequels of either notwithstanding).
Poltergeist is a little different. There are parts of the original that have the pace and feel of an adventure movie, just with ghosts and possessed clown dolls and the like. It’s still a horror flick, and a damn good one, but it’s a different brand of horror. It’s one of the least threatening horror classics you’ll ever see, leaving you with next to no doubt that things will turn out fine for the family in the end (again, sequels notwithstanding). That’s why I called it “theme park horror” earlier. Poltergeist is a ride complete with lap bar, seat belt and shoulder-harnesses. It has its thrills and jolts, but you expect it to end pretty much as it began, with everyone safe and smiling. Rebuilding a newer version of a roller coaster doesn’t ruin the memories we had of the old ride, but it does provide an opportunity to see if better technology can replicate those familiar thrills. Poltergeist had excellent special effects for its time, but they can be improved upon. Of course, the film wasn’t all spectacle, but I’m not expecting it to even try to match that Spielbergian 80’s movie sense of magic and the unknown. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a well executed retelling for the modern family audience.
With that in mind, this remake may indeed be unnecessary, but unless they make the inexplicable decision to go too dark and make it a hard-R-rated kill-fest, I think it has potential to be a reasonably decent update. The trailer features some solid special effects and familiar scenes featuring an animated clown doll, and an inter-dimensional rope rescue. The cast, with Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie Dewitt and Jared Harris, is better than you might expect for a horror remake.
I’m not saying that I think that this new Poltergeist is going to be good, much less as good as the original. But I’m more than willing to give it a chance.