Creative Cover Art: Stephen King’s Joyland

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.

joyland-cover-first-edition

 

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 show us more than surprise and fear. She has 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 one of those 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.

joyland-cover-Illustrated Edition

 

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?

joyland-cover-Limited-Robert-McGinnis

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.

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 nonetheless 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 the unseen threat and the discovered sleuth. The painting gives the viewer the perspective of the threat, and the tilt provides a sense of movement. There is action and urgency in this painting.

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’s painting feels moody, chilly and lonely, but not especially dark, so the tagline doesn’t fit in that regard 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.

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DiCaprio Gets Bear Mauled and Buried Alive in ‘The Revenant’

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.

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And Now a Perfectly Morbid ‘House on Haunted Hill’ Poster

House on Haunted Hill color poster Jonathan Burton

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.   House-on-Haunted-Hill-original-poster

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.

House-On-Haunted-Hill-print

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Today’s Short Story: “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” – Philip K. Dick

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.

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CoolMaterial.com Recommends You Watch “Peaky Blinders”…

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.

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About That Crimson Peak Trailer…

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. 

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Today’s Short Story: Stephen King’s “One for the Road”

Image from "The Secretary of Dreams" published by Cemetery Dance

Image from “The Secretary of Dreams” published by Cemetery Dance

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 sentences that are a little too clever and don’t 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.

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Today’s Short Story: Ramsey Campbell “Call First”

Ramsey-Campbell-Call-FirstHis mind was backing away faster than he was…”

That’s one hell of a line (well, hell of a half of a line). Lean, efficient, and brilliant. As a horror writer, you sometimes face the issue of trying to come up with yet another semi-fresh way of saying, “this person is really, really scared.” It’s easy to overthink it, overdo it, and often harder to just summon a direct, fat-free line like this.

“His mind was backing away faster than he was…”

I won’t spoil what has the character’s mind retreating too fast for his feet to keep up in Ramsey Campbell’s excellent, compact short story “Call First.” But I will say that the rest of Campbell’s horror story is as terrifically composed and confident as the quoted line above. Call first begins with a “mystery” that is less mystery than curiosity born of annoyance. The story very easily could have been derailed by lingering on the insecurities and idiosyncrasies that prompt the protagonist, Ned, to put himself in the kind of perilous position that characters in horror stories often wind up in. Sometimes an author goes overboard in trying to sell you on why a character behaves a certain way, particularly if that charcter is doing something that will put himself or herself in danger.

Campbell keeps it moving, obeying the show-don’t-tell “rule” of writing without cluttering the story with junk details. Here’s Ned; here’s where he works; here’s what’s eating at him; here’s what he decides to do about it; here’s the result. Even as the claustrophobic conclusion creeps nearer, Campbell keeps the story focused and tight.  By the end, the story provides a swift, coldly creepy answer to the element of the mystery that is at once the most mundane and the most vital. Again, I’m not here to give away too many details, but by the end it’s apparent that of all the questions surrounding the mystery that stirs the story’s progress–“who?” “what?” “why?” and so on–the criticality of one renders the others unimportant. It’s an effective way of reinforcing the writer’s right to leave some questions unanswered.

“Call First” can be read in Ramsey Campbell’s collections Dark Companions and Alone With the Horrors, or in various other anthologies. Go find it and treat yourself.

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Horror Films “The Witch,” “Knock, Knock” and “It Follows” Made a Splash at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival has, in the past, been something of a showcase for a variety of genre flicks. Reservoir Dawgs, The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Primer, El Mariachi all became notable at least in part due to the attention they received at Sundance. This year horror films have had a pretty strong showing at the festival, with three in particular standing out receiving high praise and/or considerable attention.

The Witch: A New England Folktale has been lauded as one hell of a scary flick at The Dissolve, Indiewire, Variety and elsewhere. It was apparently attracting quite a crowd, already a decent sign. The fact that it has apparently lived up to the expectation that such crowds would suggest is a better sign. Headline terms such as “Impressively Eerie” and Uniquely Spooky” all but certify that this is one to watch for when it reaches a wider audience.

The premise is as straightforward as the title. A period piece set in the 17th century, it concerns an isolated family in a rural area dealing with evils that are the result of malevolent witchcraft.

The-Witch-movie-sundanceWhile we’re on the subject of stories featuring witches, I figured I’d chime in briefly on the discussion about whether stories exploiting, focusing on or otherwise incorporating the real, murderous offenses that were witch trials are “troubling” or what have you. While I think it’s a fair issue to bring up, I also think it’s pretty easy to shoot down. Witchcraft, as presented in most works of genre fiction, is an element of lore. Witches are akin to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies; they are staples of horror. Actual, organized murders committed against innocent people during witch trials are obviously an appalling piece of history, but fiction is obviously a separate thing. Any halfway reasonable person shouldn’t see a movie where fictional, evil witches are presented as legitimately threatening and frightful as a justification for horrible shit that happened in the real life. Just like any halfway reasonable person wouldn’t see the actions of the fictional characters in the movie The Skeleton Key as justification for lynchings. And I think I’ve already laid out my stance on this blog that art and criticism shouldn’t cater or bend to zealots and lunatics who can’t qualify as at least “halfway reasonable.”

Moving on, It Follows has been on the radar for a little while already, having debuted to enthusiastic reviews last May in Cannes. The enthusiasm hasn’t waned: Slashfilm claims it is “the scariest horror film in years,” which, granted, is one of those phrases that seems suspiciously pre-made for blurb quote. It’s also generic enough to nearly be meaningless. (How many years? Two, three? Twenty-three? And “scariest in years” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually scary if nothing within the unknown number of years referenced has been all that scary to the reviewer.)

With that said, the unusual premise is already enough to bring it attention. It Follows concerns a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that causes the recipient to be, well, followed by an entity disguised as a human. It simply pursues you, patiently and relentlessly, never resting, with a brutal death being the end result of it catching you, and the only way to be rid of it is to have sex with someone else, but even that comes with a catch. On paper, it’s a little difficult to say whether this premise is silly or avant garde. It sort of sounds like The Ring with the videotape replaced by coitus. But regardless of your initial impression of the story idea, the execution has garnered almost universal praise, the horror and setting being described as “dreamlike,” “panic-rousing,” and “arresting.” And I have to admit, the trailer really sold me on it as an unconventional, highly unnerving horror flick.

So that makes two horror movies from Sundance that I’m eager to catch when they get an official release.

And that leaves us with Eli Roth’s Knock, Knock. Truth told, I’m not the biggest Eli Roth fan. I haven’t hated his movies, or even strongly disliked any of them, but I’m pretty indifferent to his “old-school, exploitative gore” aesthetic. I’m not averse to gore, but if you’re going to go Grand Guignol and showcase it in a manner that makes the gore the primary reason for the film to exist, then everything about it and the rest of the film needs to be amazing. To quote the Wu-Tang’s late, great ODB, “[You] wanna perform a massacre, [you] better be coming with some motherf*ng sh* that’s spectacular.” Color me critical, but I’m going to stop short of saying Cabin Fever or Hostel qualify as grand spectacle (I haven’t seen Green Inferno, so I can’t comment on that).

Now that I’ve just spent a paragraph waxing negative regarding Eli’s reliance on gore, here’s where I tell you that Knock, Knock apparently marks Roth’s first foray into psychological horror. This seems odd, considering it’s a remake of an obscure, 70’s exploitation home-invasion film titled Death Game, which inexplicably isn’t also the title 1,000 Bruceploitation movies, but that’s what we have here. The film stars Keanu Reeves as a successful everyman, the good father and good husband sort, who ends up being put in “fresh, difficult and exceedingly awkward situations” after opening the door one night, while the family’s away, to let in two young seductresses who claim to be lost and need to use the phone. So… what sounds like the setup to a purely comedic sex romp, is supposedly a “glorious taboo thriller.”

knock-knock-Reeves

Or is it? The reviews for Knock, Knock aren’t nearly as effusive as those for It Follows and The Witch, but the discord among reviewers makes the film seem promising in a different way. Roth is said to “[add] elegance” to Death Game’s set up, according to Variety. Alternatively, Shock Til You Drop, calls it an exercise in “absurdist psychocomedy” whose psychological torture elements cause it to bend toward tonal disarray as it progresses. While SlashFilm says it’s scary and thrilling, while Eric Walkuski at Joblo called it straight up camp along the lines of Nicholas Cage’s Wicker Man, and says Reeves horribly miscast. (Reeves, for his part, considers the movie to be a “morality tale,” which gives insight into what he thinks of his role and the tone of the film.) So what we potentially have here is an elegant, psycho-comedic horror / thriller slice of camp featuring a star in a role and type of film he’s never been in before, who may or may not be up to the task, and helmed by a director who sees this as film as a professional “turning point.” I’m not saying that adds up to a must-see movie experience, but it definitely has me curious.

Lionsgate is banking on their being people more people like me out there, as they’ve picked up distribution rights for a nice $2.5 million. The Witch was picked up for distribution by A24, and It Follows already has a theatrical and VOD release scheduled for March 27th. So again, that’s three genre flicks for fans to definitely look out for, and that doesn’t even count the Irish creature-feature The Hallow, the Canadian Hellions–set on Halloween–or the horror documentary The Nightmare, none of which received as much fawning or attention as the others, but all of which look pretty interesting in their own right.

While horror, like any other genre, is never at a dearth for subpar fare, there seems to have been a resurgence for more thoughtful, carefully crafted, well executed, and critically acclaimed fright films in the past five years or so. If the early word coming out of Sundance is any indication, 2015 looks to continue that trend.

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Traveler’s Book Review: Nightfall by John Farris

Odds are this premise will sound familiar to you.

An enigmatic homicidal psychopath makes a daring, impossible escape from a mental hospital. His sole objective is to hunt down and murder a female family member. Along the way to his goal he murders a number of other people who get in his way and proves to be all but unstoppable, and there are vague allusions to him even being supernatural.

Playing “spot the similarities” between two works of fiction is often a mug’s game; paint the picture broadly enough and any story can be made similar to any other, but the details will usually belie the notion that the stories genuinely mirror one another. Nonetheless, if you’re a horror fan who likes movies as much as literature, then that description in the first paragraph probably brought John Carpenter’s Halloween to mind. It’s also an apt (albeit broad) description of the plot to John Farris’s novel Nightfall.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nightfall at a small, well-stocked indie bookstore in Universal City, Texas (a suburb of my home city of San Antonio) called The Book Rack. [footnote]Yes, I know that I’m sort of cheating on the whole premise of the “traveler’s” book review by going with a book from a store that’s right here at home.[/footnote] The cover caught my attention with its Southern Gothic simplicity. Dark swampland, plantation home in the background, mother and son frightful and on the run. Given my relatively recent affinity for the fiction of Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, it’s little wonder that such cover imagery drew me in. The straightforward blurb on back brought me in a little deeper, mostly by not overselling its fairly direct premise.

“His heritage is violence and terror. A creature of nightmare, shunning all that is good in mankind, he kills without warning, without mercy. Only once has his prey survived.

Scarred emotionally and physically, Anita fled to the sanctuary of Lostman’s Bayou. But the quiet of the swamps holds no peace–she cannot escape the terror.

Angel will find her. Then she will die.”

Woman on the run; killer on the hunt; bayou as the scene. That’s all I needed to read. So, out of the many John Farris novels available on the shelves, I chose this one and cracked into it less than a half hour after purchase.

The novel opens with the aforementioned daring, impossible escape from the mental hospital, executed by the villain of the story, Angel, aka “Dark Angel,” aka “the Angel of Death,” properly known as Dominic. Though his real name and identity appear to be a source of mystery throughout the first few chapters, that mystery is dropped less than a third of the way through the book. It’s just one of many things that seem to be cast aside as the book progresses. Initially, Angel’s actions suggest that something supernatural is at work here. He wakes from a catatonic state by projectile-vomiting on command in order to stun his first victim, whom he’s strong enough to pick up off the ground and throw out of a room with one arm. He also seemingly hypnotizes said first victim into giving him some halfhearted manual stimulation before delivering the coup de grâce. He then moves quickly to promptly dispatch of three more individuals on his way out of the hospital. Throughout the book he’s referred to as being something other than human, but the initial chapter is the only time where he’s shown to be that. For the rest of the book he resorts to traps, stealth, knives and guns to do his killing. No weaponized projectile vomit, no hypnosis. Less inhuman in the literal “not of this Earth” sense than in the “morally bankrupt psychopath” sense.

There’s a chapter early on devoted to Angel’s rather disturbed mother, who has hallucinations of the Virgin Mary and literally smothered her son on occasion when he was younger to keep him from going wayward, at least in her fractured mind. This seems important, but it’s one more thing that gets cast aside as though it were nearly nothing. She’s reduced to one of many hints Farris drops in regard to Angel’s motives: mommy issues; wife issues; sexual issues. Basically the guy has pretty screwed up views in regard to women as a whole. But none of this really connects or adds up. And the thing is, it wouldn’t really have to add up if Farris hadn’t set up the arithmetic before abandoning it.

I’m going to go back to John Carpenter’s original Halloween for some more comparison here. Michael Myers is made out to be beyond human in that story, but all of that “pure evil” talk comes from one man at first, Doctor Loomis, who appears so obsessed with Michael that his take on the situation can be justifiably questioned. By the end, though, it’s apparent that Michael is no ordinary man. He’s revealed later in the story to be obscenely strong–pinning a victim to a wall with a kitchen knife would take a hell of a lot of power. He also takes a ridiculous amount of physical punishment and keeps trucking, culminating with the sequence of him taking multiple gunshots, falling out of a second story window, then (off-screen) getting up and leaving from the spot on the lawn where he landed. In case anyone needs it spelled out, Loomis confirms that Myers is “the bogeyman” just before that infamous, chilling final shot of the film.

Farris’s Nightfall “tries” to work in reverse. I put tries in quotes, because it doesn’t feel like Farris–who, if we’re talking about straight up writing prose, is actually damn good–was actually trying to do anything with that aspect of the story at all. In the end, whether or not Angel is more than human isn’t left as a mystery or even a contradiction so much as a, “meh.”

In fact, much of Nightfall feels like the work of a guy who was trying to power through this book on his way to material he actually cared about. Again, Farris can write. That at least makes Nightfall a fast read. But it comes across as a wasted setting and opportunity. You have Louisiana swamps, mobsters and a relentless killer to work with, and yet the story is wildly uninspired. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned the hero, Tomlin, yet. (No, the female lead–Anita–doesn’t get much to do beyond be scared for herself and her son, and immediately fall in love with the good guy, who likewise immediately falls in love with her.) He’s the reason for the novel’s title: he suffers from crippling night-blindness that doesn’t just hinder his vision at night, it obliterates it. So of course you expect this to be a major factor in his final confrontation with Angel, but it isn’t. Sure, the finale takes place at night, but Tomlin’s approach to the situation is barely impacted by his inability to see. In short, the night-blindness plot doesn’t add any tension to the climax. It’s just there.

As a whole, Farris’s Nightfall is exactly that: just there. Not awful, but not anything you’d recommend either. Which actually says a lot for Farris as a writer. It should probably be worse than that, given its flaws, and its sappy, “Everything’s okay because romance has won the day!” / “Uh, may I remind you that people have been horribly murdered!” happy ending. But the dashes of excitement, the swift pace and the solid prose make for a read that, at least, isn’t regrettable.

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