VIY

VIY

VIY is the first- and as far as I know the only – Soviet Union horror movie in existence. It’s an obscure film that’s available streaming on Shudder. When I say ‘obscure,’ I mean obscure to me. Before watching this, I’d never heard of it, and I’ve seen a lot of horror movies.

The plot: Khoma is a Russian monk granted time off for the holidays. He and his two traveling companions get lost and end up at a farm. The old woman of the house lets them stay the night, but they all have to sleep in different places. The fact that she tells them that her house is full of people and she’s alone except for the farm animals is a tip-off that she might not be on the up-and-up.

Sure enough, the old woman turns out to be a witch. She hag-rides Khoma, flying him all over the countryside. When dawn breaks, the spell wears off. Khoma beats her half to death and is shocked when she transforms into a beautiful young woman.

Khoma races back to the monastery, but when he arrives there’s more bad news. The daughter of a rich landowner has been found beaten half to death, and wants him to say prayers for her soul. ‘Want’ is a misleading word, because Khoma is going whether he wants to or not. The landowner’s men make sure of that.

The landowner’s daughter dies before Khoma arrives, which means he’s forced to spend three nights locked in a church with a dead body, saying prayers for her soul. Except this young woman isn’t as dead as she seems…

I liked VIY a lot. Khoma isn’t a particularly likable guy, so I didn’t feel sorry for him. The animation is very late 60’s, reminding me of Disney movies I saw as a kid, but still looks fine. The makeup is great. Overall, a fine horror movie that’s as much fantasy as horror. And I still can’t figure out why I’ve never heard of it.

Timecrimes

Timecrimes

Timecrimes is a sleazy little thriller/scific/horror flick. It’s a Spanish movie, so subtitles. The plot isn’t easy to summarize, but I’ll give it a try. Hector is a middle-aged guy who just bought a home in the country. When the movie starts, he and his wife are in the process of moving into their house. It’s late afternoon, and Hector is unwinding. Hector’s idea of relaxation involves binoculars, and as the movie’s events will show, that’s not because he’s a birdwatcher.

Hector sees a woman in the woods, who proceeds to take off her shirt. He doesn’t say anything to his wife, which is a good character moment. I would tell my wife – hey, there’s a woman running around the woods with no shirt on – but Hector is made of different stuff. He wanders into the woods, binoculars around his neck, searching for the Woman of the Woods.

He finds her, naked and unconscious, propped against a rock. Before he can react, and one of the interesting things about this movie is that I wasn’t sure how he WOULD react, he’s stabbed in the arm by a maniac wearing a pink bandage over his face. Hector runs like hell, and ends up in a nearby scientific facility. Pursued – one might even say herded – by the pink-bandaged man, he ends up inside the facility’s time machine, where he’s transported an hour and a half into the past.

That’s as much summary as I’ll give. I don’t want to say anymore because spoilers, but most people will guess some – not all – of the plot twists. Timecrimes is tough to classify, because it has elements of three genres. The script is well-written enough to pass the believability test. For me, anyway. Things get a little loosie-goosie in the third act, but in general the movie holds together very well.

Hector himself is a creepy protagonist. At best, he’s a voyeur. That didn’t mar my enjoyment of the movie, although Hector’s creepiness and the semi-nudity may be off-putting to some. Bottom line: I liked Timecrimes, but it might not be to everyone’s tastes.

Comic review: House of X/Powers of X

House of X/Powers of X

The main players of the latest X-reboot are Charles Xavier, Magneto, and Moira MacTaggert. Moira, whose mutant power is reincarnation, rallies the mutant population around Charles Xavier and Magneto. Using the sentient island (?!?!) of Krakoa as their base, Xavier & company seeks sovereignty from humankind.

Shit gets real when a band of human scientists calling themselves Orchis seek to bring a Master Mold AI online, which will lead to the apocalyptic human/machine/mutant war. We see the results of that war, a hundred years from now, when the two remaining factions (mutant and machine) resort to breeding mutants as cannon fodder.

Moira, who is on her tenth (and final) life, fades from the spotlight halfway through this graphic novel. The creation of a new mutant society leads to all sorts of interesting factions: Apocalypse, the Hellfire Club, Mr. Sinister, Mystique, but the biggest wild card of all is the island of Krakoa, which in the future acts as a mutant breeding center.

This is foreshadowed when a group of X-Men die supposedly destroying the Master Mold, which is in orbit around the sun. Except they don’t die: Krakoa produces clones of the fallen heroes and Xavier has backed up their minds, so they are reborn. Thus, mutants are now immortal.

This graphic novel is as much science fiction as it is superhero comic, because Jonathan Hickman (the writer) is so good at blending the two. We learn about the Marvel Universe’s different galactic civilizations, and he even manages to make it sort of interesting.

The other interesting aspect of this book is the cult-like aspects of Xavier’s new civilization. Magneto dresses like Jim Jones, and Xavier himself – who is even more overtly messianic – wears a helmet with no eyes. The blind leading the blind. It’s an open question as to whether the X-Men are the heroes here, or if they are even meant to be.

A must-read for X-Men fans.

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House is the greatest haunted house novel of the 20thcentury. You can make a case for Stephen King’s The Shining, of course, but Shirley Jackson’s book came first. Another contender is Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco, which shares The Haunting of Hill House’s nasty sense of humor but isn’t read much anymore. I’ll get into Richard Matheson’s Hell House in another post, but suffice it to say that I’d take The Amityville Horror over Hell House any day of the week.

I read the Penguin version of The Haunting of Hill House. I also read the introduction, wherein Eleanor (the book’s protagonist) is referred to as odd. The author of this introduction misses the point. Eleanor is a parody of a gothic heroine, a cloistered young woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother. Unlike a gothic heroine, Eleanor is realistic. She possesses rudimentary social skills and an active fantasy life, which she’s developed as a self-defense mechanism in order to cope with her awful life.

I am not being sarcastic here. I sympathized with Eleanor, who has lost years of her life caring for an unpleasant old woman. Ms. Jackson’s portrait of the family unit is refreshingly unsentimental, but not in an overt way. Too many writers tend to hammer that sort of thing home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, whereas the damage Eleanor’s mother has done to her daughter is psychological and thus permanent. There are echoes of Eleanor’s mother throughout this book, which is jam-packed with unpleasant people, from Eleanor’s sister to the woman who says she’ll pray for Eleanor to the Dudleys to – you get the idea. The Haunting of Hill Houseis full of petty, mean people.

What struck me on this reread is that The Haunting of Hill House is a parody of a gothic novel, right down to the walled-in nun and the sturdy tower piercing the sky. Except it isn’t really a gothic novel. A gothic heroine would be rescued by a handsome suitor, but the only suitor Eleanor has is Hill House. What makes this book so sad is that in the end Hill House is the only thing on earth that does want Eleanor.

The Haunting of Hill House’s middle drags a little, but the ending – which is inevitable – delivers. The book drags in places because Eleanor doesn’t have a desire line, as such, but her stakes are high. She’s spent her entire adult life caring for her mother and she wants a life for herself. Luke is a parody of a gothic hero. He and Theodora are having an affair, which explains why Theodora stays. What do you think Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Montague are referring to when they’re talking in the kitchen? By the way, Mrs. Montague’s approach to the occult is a lot more sensible than her husband’s. I will note that Mrs. Montague goes to the trouble of calling Eleanor’s sister. She also suggests that Arthur drive Eleanor home two or three times, an act of kindness that Eleanor’s companions – who only want to get rid of her – lack. After all, they all have their lives to go back to. Of course, if one believes in Hell, they’ll be in trouble…

Unlike Mr. Matheson, Ms. Jackson resists the urge to explain her ghosts. She understands that the power of ghosts lies in the fact that you can’t explain them. Anyway, I’ve read this book before and after rereading it I still like it. I thought it might be fun to keep a running tally of how many of the books I liked vs. what I didn’t like this semester. So here it is!

LIKED: 1, DIDN’T LIKE: 0.

Tourist Trap

I saw Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In, a twenty-four hour movie marathon that I highly recommend. Tourist Trap is a weird movie that borrows its look from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but without that movie’s fabled grit.

No, Tourist Trap has a bizarre vibe all its own. It stars Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts along with a group of attractive roadkill – er, I mean youths. Seeing Tanya Roberts before she became famous is a real eye opener, sort of like watching Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, the best movie you’ll ever see about a homicidal leprechaun.

The plot: six young people get stranded at a roadside wax museum run by friendly weirdo Chuck Connors. Unfortunately, Chuck’s crazy telekinetic brother isn’t as friendly and the attractive youths get picked off one by one. I will say that the killer wears some pretty freaky masks. Our youthful revelers dress in cut-offs and t-shirts, but the final girl wears a white dress paired with a white sunbonnet and looks like she’s going to church. The subtext, it burns my eyes!

Tourist Trap gets an A-plus for its creative use of mannequins. Chuck’s house used to be a roadside wax museum, and Chuck’s wacky brother uses his telekinetic powers to animate those mannequins – at points, he goes way beyond animating the mannequins. He thinks the final girl looks like his dead wife, even though she looks nothing like her, but he’s crazy so we should cut him some slack.

Tourist Trap sure isn’t boring. I don’t know if it deserves the title of a cult classic, but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. It’s well-made and it has a bizarre vibe that I liked. If possible, watch Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Drive-In, as his commentary will add to your movie-going experience!

The Sculptor

The Sculptor reminded me of the work of James Patterson, one of the most successful authors of the past twenty years. I’ve enjoyed reading a few of the authors Mr. Patterson has worked with. For instance, Michael Koryta’s The Ridge is a great, spooky read. If you like James Patterson, give The Sculptor a try. It’s a fast-paced mystery/thriller with plenty of action and romance.

Spoilers ahead.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

Okay, here’s my unvarnished opinion. I did not like The Sculptor, but I see that the author is a contemporary, as it were. Robert Bloch has passed away. Stephen Dobyns is off teaching and Bret Easton Ellis is off being Bret Easton Ellis. A bad review doesn’t mean anything to them. In addition, there are many people who enjoy books like The Sculptor, which are often quite successful. I myself used to read forty to fifty mysteries per year. My tastes changed, as you will see by reading this review.

The Sculptor reminded me of a movie called Blood and Black Lace, a famous giallo by Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. I did not appreciate Blood and Black Lace on my first watch because all the characters were incredibly shallow and the movie’s look and music reminded me of an episode of Charlie’s Angels. Later, I realized how influential Mr. Bava must have been to have so many directors imitate him (this movie came out in 1964). I also realized that the characters were incredibly shallow on purpose; indeed, they worked in an amoral field that almost required it.

The Sculptor has no such excuse. Saddled with unrealistic characters, multiple inconsistencies and a cliched plot, this book reminded me of a bad TV movie. It wouldn’t be a Lifetime movie, because Lifetime movies can often be quite gritty. Maybe a movie of the week?

The Sculptor’s problems can be narrowed down to three issues, believability, predictability and agency. This book has multiple believability issues – how did the Sculptor get in and out of prison to cut off and make a sculpture of Stanky’s penis? Did Stanky wear a full-body hazmat suit when having sex with the Aussie woman? Why did the college’s housing department make Jesse and Mara roommates? A serial killer is preying upon exchange students, but apparently that’s not a big deal because it’s business as usual. The grad students like to drink and carouse – wait, that part’s realistic. College students love to party.

The characters are – look, real cops don’t act like Enzo. Good-looking guys like Jesse aren’t secretly vulnerable. ‘Secretly vulnerable’ is a bad pick-up line, replacing ‘I used to work for the CIA.’ The only character I liked was Stanky, mostly because of his magnificent nickname. He also does a great job of cock-blocking Jesse. When your readers start pulling for the villain, your book has problems.

Second, predictability. There isn’t any suspense. I knew Mara wouldn’t be in any real danger until the book was almost over because the author isn’t going to maybe kill off her heroine until the final act. I knew Mara and Jesse’s relationship would have its share of bumps, because that’s what the plot requires. These plot requirements aren’t bad things, mind you, but it’s the author’s job to make the reader lose herself in the book and not think about such things.

My biggest problem with The Sculptor is agency. Mara has no agency; the killer does. To put it another way: it is the killer, and not Mara, who drives the plot. Many movies and books are structured like this, but at this point in my life I don’t read those books or watch those movies anymore.