Daily Horror History, August 12th: Dan Curtis, ‘Black Sunday’, and More

In my still ongoing research (seemingly endless, in fact; this idea may be my self-made purgatory), there are dates that are stacked with horror history. Some are full of little oddities, and others have a couple of standout, major events rising like dark stone spires above the rest of the field.

Starting with a birthday, as I am wont to do whenever possible, today marks the birth of Dan Curtis, the prolific producer and director who gave us the television series Dark Shadows, the TV-film Trilogy of Terror (one of the more memorable made for TV horror flicks from an era that was full of them), the TV-film The Night Strangler (which eventually begot the beloved series The Night Stalker), the cinematic adaptation of Burnt Offerings, and several others.

While we’re on the subject of monumental, possibly even underrated influential factors in horror history, August 12th, 1960 saw the initial release of Mario Bava’s Black SundayThe grand matriarch of Italian horror films, the mouth from which the bloody river and many red tributaries of Italian horror would flow for decades, to say nothing of the films and directors who’ve directly paid homage to its style and storytelling, its influence has been rightly described as “almost incalculable” by Tim Lucas in his book on Bava. At the time of its release, it was, as its trailer professes, not quite like anything that had come before, and it can proudly walk along with Psycho (well, just maybe a half-step behind) as one of the game-changing horror films birthed by the summer of 1960.

And August 12th still isn’t quite finished with us. On this day in 1983, Cujo came home to theaters in the states, a few days after its release in France.

The story of a demonically rabid St. Bernard that really wasn’t a bad dog if you discount that time it went on a rampage and murdered a bunch of people, it was the first of three Stephen King adaptations released in the back half of 1983, followed by The Dead Zone and Christine. This would mark the beginning of a 5-year run in which at least two King adaptations would come to the big screen annually, lest any younger readers out there think that the current apparent rush to adapt as much of King’s work as possible in a short space of time is a newer phenomenon. A solid film, it can sometimes feel half-forgotten in King’s oeuvre, despite introducing the world to a name that’s up there with “Damien” in the “instantly associated with as evil” moniker pantheon.

Closing on a bit of a sad note (about as melancholy as I’ll get for the foreseeable future, as I’m deliberately avoiding death-dates), today marks the release date four years ago of P.T.

A stealth teaser for a new Silent Hill project, P.T. was a pretty good, eerie little first-person horror game in its own right, but became far more notable for its ending revelation that it was bringing possibly the best horror gaming series of all time to the latest generation of consoles. Horror mastermind Guillermo Del Toro was working on it, . Alas, the project wouldn’t even survive into the following summer, being officially canceled by Konami in April of 2015, and P.T. was taken off the Playstation Network, never to be made officially available again. Konami indicated it would continue the series nonetheless, but as of 2018, there still isn’t a new installment even in the formative stages of development. The longest drought in Silent Hill series history sits at six years and counting,

 

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Daily Horror History, July 25th: Happy Maximum Overdrive Day (And Birthday to Mike from The Blair Witch Project)

Stephen King’s directorial debut turned out to be his directorial swan song. Maximum Overdrive, released twenty-two years ago today, is based on King’s short story “Trucks,” in which the motorized vehicles of the world spontaneously become self-aware and hostile toward humans. The short-story is more dour and ends with an impractical apocalypse in which the vehicles have enslaved humankind, forcing the survivors to pump gas, a power dynamic that the narrator believes could last until the vehicles rust over and fail to run, but could last beyond that if the cars and trucks and motorcycles and even planes somehow coerce humankind to build replacements.

The doomsday implication of the ending doesn’t hold up to an ounce of scrutiny, and is sensibly abandoned for the adaptation, along with any hint of self-seriousness. Even the trailer for Maximum Overdrive is trying to push its tongue clean through its cheek, and unlike the short story, the movie features levitous killer arcade machines, profane ATMs, and even crotch-“punching” vending machines to go along with its Green Goblin Grilled primary menace. King hasn’t spoken very favorably of this adaptation over time, but given the ludicrous premise, I think horror-comedy was the only option; it was either going to generate intentional laughs or unintentional ones.

Today is also the birthday of Michael C. Williams, one of the stars of The Blair Witch Project, where he played, you guessed it, Mike. While The Blair Witch Project isn’t the sole credit to his career, he hasn’t shown up in much since then. Still, even if he never gets another role, he’s earned a place in horror history as the guy who kicked that probably-worthless map into a creek, and ended up having to stand in the corner as punishment.

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I’m Just Gonna Leave This Here

When discussing horror stories, very few things (if any) irk me more than people being so scared of (or having such disdain for) the dreaded “h-word” that they try to re-categorize a successful horror story. The wild financial success of It has put it in the crosshairs of horror-haters who apparently want to christen it a thriller or even a drama so as not to give credit to any movie associated with that damn h-word. Brian Collins at Birth.Movies.Death rails against this as well as I ever could, so I’m gonna go ahead and leave a link to his article here. Suffice to say, I couldn’t agree more with everything he has to say.

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The new “IT” Trailer isn’t half bad

The new full trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It came out today, and it’s a reasonably solid trailer. Nothing exceptional or new, no surprises, but we get some glimpses of some solid set pieces and what could be some effective scares. The carousel slide projector scene is the rightful centerpiece of this trailer, and I like that the trailer (and possibly the scene in the film, that remains to be seen) ends without a full reveal of Pennywise’s face. It maybe should have cut off just a bit sooner, leaving it as more of a hint in the trailer, particularly if that’s also how the scene plays out (I doubt that, but it’s possible), but I’m nitpicking there.

There’s also a scene involving hands trying and failing to break through a door that ties directly to one of the more harrowing moments from the book that I don’t believe was in the TV mini-series adaptation of It (been a while since I’ve seen that series, so I could be mistaken).

Some people are fond of saying that it’s pretty easy to come up with a good trailer, even for a bad movie, but I disagree with this. Perhaps it should be easy, but I’ve seen enough trailers that are either pitiful or forgettable to disbelieve that churning out a solid trailer requires little thought or effort. This trailer has its shortcomings and is fairly predictable, and as horror trailers go, it’s nowhere near as horrifically, hideously memorable as the first trailer for Sinister, for example. And its conventional approach means it can’t get within sight of the legendary, bizarre trailers for The ExorcistThe Shining and Alien. But it’s a solid trailer, nonetheless, and gives me at least an ounce of hope for the film, which means it’s doing its job.

Update: And now that a few weeks have passed and I’ve had a Pennywise-related nightmare, I might have to reconsider how memorable this trailer is. Something triggered the dream, after all. So well done, trailer-makers, well done.

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Favorite Book Covers: JOYLAND

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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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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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Stephen King’s ‘Night Shift’

Stephen King Night Shift book cover

Stephen King’s first collection of short horror stories might still be his best. Then again, I might be a bit biased, since Night Shift is the first Stephen King book that I read. As a young horror fan I was, of course, already familiar with King’s work through film and television adaptations of his stories. I considered myself a fan of his, but at twelve-years-old I hadn’t actually read any of his books yet.

My folks had a copy of Night Shift sitting on the bookshelf . I had never looked twice at that book until the summer before I entered Junior High. I’m not sure why I had avoided it until then. Given that I was already exceptionally susceptible to nightmares, it’s likely that I feared that reading stories coming straight from King’s brain–as opposed to stories delivered from page to screen by some other party–would be more harrowing than I was ready to endure. That summer, I decided to take the dive.

Instead of starting at the beginning, I decided to read the story “The Boogeyman” first. [Insert joke about me thinking the story would be autobiographical here.] It’s a lean, vicious tale that flattened me like a stampede. At that point in my life, I had read my share of “adult” horror stories, but I wasn’t one of these guys who had read the complete works of Lovecraft and Matheson by the time he was ten. The only story I can recall having a bigger impact on me at a younger age was Robert Bloch’s excellent “Sweets to the Sweet,” but while Bloch’s story–with its lovely, gruesome ending–felt clever and sinister, “The Boogeyman” felt earnestly brutal. Almost malicious. It wasn’t the kind of story that wanted to frighten you because it could, or because it was showing off, or because it was trying to make some sort of commentary on society, or because it was reveling in its own shock value. It simply wanted to frighten you because “screw you, you picked up the book; yes you deserve to be afraid, and I hope you never sleep again.”

I’m a grown-ass-man, and I still have trouble sleeping if the closet door in my bedroom is even slightly open. Coincidence? Maybe not.

boogyeman
Ah dammit… I shouldn’t have kept my gun in there.

Reading “The Bogeyman” wasn’t like going from the kiddie-coaster to riding the latest, fastest steel roller coaster. This felt like leaving the state-of-the-art theme park that has thoroughly safety-tested thrill rides to go to a traveling carnival that’s only open at night and full of dilapidated deathtraps operated by part-time madmen.

I decided to press on, choosing “Children of the Corn” next. The logic being, “I’ve already seen the movie; how much scarier can the original story be?” I could have sworn that about midway into the story, I actually read the sentence “This much scarier,” but upon recently re-reading the story I can’t seem to find that sentence anywhere. Suffice to say that King’s original vision is much grimmer than the 1984 film version, which de-emphasizes the “evil inspired by a perverse incarnation of the Old Testament God” overtones and… well… let’s just say that some of the survivors in the film don’t have the same luck in the short story.

Then there are the quieter stories that all but eschew traditional horror commodities. There are no monsters, ancient demon-gods, knife-wielding serial killers or anything of that ilk in “Night Surf” or “The Woman in the Room.” Both stories helped to reinforce my appreciation for restrained, potentially cathartic horror. The word horror, after all, describes a feeling. A sensation.  Horror, as a genre, can be just as effective when focusing on human emotion as when focusing on carnage and the supernatural.

As with just about any anthology–even the very best–there will be some stories that don’t work for some people. “The Lawnmower Man” is still too weird for my personal tastes, so you can imagine how the 12-year-old me was confounded by the utter (but impressively imaginative) aberrance of the storyline. “Strawberry Spring,” conversely, is defanged by its predictability. The premise to “Trucks” is an interesting experiment, but ultimately the idea of vehicles gaining sentience en masse and slaughtering / enslaving everyone in sight never scared or entertained me.

But the stories that do work for me more than make up for minor missteps. King brings a macabre touch to the pulp noir story “The Ledge.” “Quitters, Inc.” is an exemplary lesson in mining horror from the mundane. “Battleground” takes an ostensibly silly premise and injects it with the intensity and energy of a Bourne action scene. “The Mangler” makes better use of the “machinery come to life” idea than “Trucks” does, perhaps because it doesn’t overextend itself; instead of a full-fledged laundry press revolution, we just have one demonic mechanical monstrosity amok. How many more do you need? And “I Am the Doorway” is a gruesome invasion tale in which a man’s body is gradually transformed into something between a Stargate and a star-window. It’s exactly as grotesque and horrifying as it sounds.

Stephen King Night Shift book cover
A visual aid. Shame they don’t make many paperback covers like this anymore.

I’m not not sure if early King was necessarily “better” than present day King, but I do think his work was scarier back then. But again, I might also be looking back on those stories through a nostalgia filter. All I know for sure is that the stories in Night Shift– just like those damn Greasers in “Sometimes They Come Back”– have found a way to defy time and continue haunting me long, long after they first terrorized me.

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