Cravenous: Vampire in Brooklyn

After his success with The People Under the Stairs, it was time for Wes to come home. Time for him to reclaim his greatest creation and put the dream demon back into his proper context. And so, in 1994, Wes Craven went back to Elm Street, and he brought several members of the original cast with him. The end result?

Magic.

I’ve already written here about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, so I don’t necessarily want to make a new post for it. However, I will reiterate that it was a brilliant return to Elm Street for Craven and a beautiful denouement to Freddy Krueger. Yes, I know that they brought him back for his battle with Jason, but I feel as though that’s an incidental addition. An appendix, if you will. This film felt like a solid conclusion to Freddy’s journey as well as Craven’s homecoming and reconciliation with Bob Shaye and New Line Cinema.

So what could possibly be next for Craven now that he had come back into his own as a “Master of Horror” and taken back his dream demon?

A comedy, of course.

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Well. Kind of. A comedic horror? A horrific comedy?

Truthfully, the only thing horrifying about 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn is how it both failed at horror and funny. Based on a story idea from Eddie Murphy and producer friend Vernon Lynch, and a script written by Murphy’s brother Charlie (along with the guys who wrote Mulan II), the movie tells the story of Maximillian, the sole-surviving Caribbean vampire, who comes to Brooklyn to find the half-vampire mate who will help him keep his line from ending.

I know what you’re thinking: Don’t vampires just make more vampires by biting someone and turning them into a vampire? That’s kind of what I thought. I also stand by my theory that vampires can’t procreate the way humans can. It’s the whole freaking point (pardon the pun) of why they have to penetrate their victims with their teeth after roofying them with their sexeh stares.

I know what else you’re thinking: Half-vampire? What the hell is that (besides Blade or Vampire Hunter D)? I’ve always questioned the idea of “half-vampire” because I question the procreation efforts of vampires. Also, it’s always sounded a bit silly to me (even though I do enjoy some of the genre stories that use such a creature). Do they only burn really badly in sunlight? Have slightly pointy teeth? Do they have a translucent reflection? Whatever it’s supposed to be, Angela Bassett plays the half-vampire, so I’m okay with letting some of those questions go.

Really, it’s Murphy who is the problem for me with this movie. I’ve never really enjoyed him as an actor. I loved his time on Saturday Night Live and I respect what he did during his stand-up days. However, most of his movie career has left me utterly cold. This movie wasn’t an exception.

Plus there is the fact that you can tell that Murphy is not really all that interested in giving a compelling performance in this role. He later stated that the only reason he agreed to this movie in the first place was because Paramount agreed to release their hold on the rights to The Nutty Professor to Murphy if he finished his contract with them. He also had the audacity to blame the wig he wore in the movie for why people didn’t like it. I totally disagree. That wig worked for Eriq La Salle in Coming to America! You just didn’t try hard enough, Eddie.

Problems compounded with the fact that Craven was excited to finally have a shot at directing a straight comedy only to find out that Murphy wanted him on board because he wanted to do something other than comedy and thought taking a crack at horror would be fun. And when your leading man is also one of the producers on a movie he came up with the story for and his brother wrote the script? There’s not a whole lot you can do besides say, “Good idea, Mr. Murphy.”

They did try to meet in the middle, and there are a lot of comedic moments to the film. We also get Murphy doing his shtick of putting on a lot of make-up and playing other characters. This time, he played a perpetually perspiring preacher and a failed Wise Guy. They were kind of funny, but also kind of stereotypical and cringe-worthy. I’ve always had a problem with a lot of the dress-up roles that Murphy did. If he were punching up with the joke, as he did on SNL, then it might be different. However, most of the time, he was only playing up stereotypes for comedic effect. That’s kind lazy comedy for no real effect other than to make fun of groups of people for assumed shared behavior. But whatever.

It was lovely getting to see Angela Bassett in this film. Craven must have appreciated her participation in his short-lived television series Nightmare Cafe (and by “short-lived,” I mean it lasted six episodes…but they featured actors from Craven’s many films, including Bassett, Brandon Adams, and Robert Englund. Oh, and Trinity, Cigarette Smoking Man, and Ishara Yar show up as well, for you genre fans). Bassett’s career at this point was starting to really pick up, with her Oscar nod securely in place for her turn (heh) as Tina Turner and Strange Days helping to secure her as a player in the genre fiction realm.

[Loba Tangent: Sad trivia, really. Sonja Davis, the stunt woman who doubled Bassett on Strange Days, followed her to this film only to die during a failed stunt that put her in a coma for almost 2 weeks before she passed.]

Her performance as Detective Rita Veder in this film was absolutely one of the standouts. She clearly was willing to embrace the ludicrous lunacy of the story and her role, and she played every moment with a refreshing dedication that I’m sure pleased Craven, particularly on this film. Other than Bassett, I’d have to say that Kadeem Hardison was probably the best part of this movie. Playing Julius Jones, the Maximillian equivalent of Dracula’s Renfield, Hardison brought a zeal to his role that was (sadly) unmatched by his main foil. Also, he did quite well in a role that was both a throwback to and departure from his most iconic role, Dwayne Wayne.

In addition, we see several actors who played parts in previous Craven films, including Wendy Robie, fresh from playing Mommy in The People Under the Stairs; Mitch Pileggi, who was Horace Pinker in Shocker; Zakes Mokae, who played Dr. Zeko in The Serpent and the Rainbow; Nick Corri, Rod from A Nightmare on Elm Street; and, even all the way back to Joanna Cassidy from Invitation to Hell!

Remember, I did say that when an actor impressed Craven, he made sure to be loyal to that actor. Just ask W. Earl Brown, who appeared in this film and may or may not appear later on in this blog series. Isn’t that right, Kenny? Now get off my windshield.

Even though it wasn’t the complete break from horror that Craven had longed for, this still was probably the first of his films to integrate other-than-horror elements into the story blatantly (rather than subtly, as Craven had often tried to do with other films) without getting blow-back from producers or the movie company in charge. Of course, the movie didn’t even make back what it cost to make it, so I’m sure that wasn’t the resounding success that Craven had hoped for with his first non-horror horror movie.

Guess there was really only one way to go at this point. Back to horror…

Cravenous: The People Under the Stairs

Remember the time that Wes Craven decided to make the most absurdist, Lynchian, unhinged, over-the-top, satirical, this-is-your-acid-on-acid social commentary in the guise of horror movie? No? Clearly, then, you have not seen his 1991 classic magnum opus to all things WTF, The People Under the Stairs.

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Oh, yes. I have been waiting to reach this film in Craven’s oeuvre. And while a couple of films that I held in fond remembrance didn’t really survive the light of reality that my re-watching shone upon them (sorry, Kristy, Bill, and Mitch, but your movies did not hold up well at all), revisiting the Robesons and their freakish clan beneath the stairs did not disappoint.

For those needing a refresher: We start by meeting our protagonist, Poindexter “Fool” Williams, who lives in the L.A. projects with his mom and sister and his sister’s kids. His mother has cancer but barely enough money to pay their rent…which doesn’t matter at this point anyway, because the landlord of Fool’s building has evicted them. Fool’s sister’s boyfriend decides to draft Fool on a…fool’s errand to rob the landlord of a rumored coin collection as a means of helping Fool and taking back some of what the landlord has been taking from the tenants he is summarily evicting from all his properties.

Once Fool is inside that house, though. Oh, that’s when Craven just lets it all go. The shit? It gets supremely real.

I feel as though this film was Craven finally returning to and accepting the fact that, for better or for worse, he was a master of the horror genre…while also introducing into his regimen even more of his sublime gallows humor as well as some incredible allegorical outlook on the state of affairs. Craven, who had made a career of examining the most uncomfortable truths about humanity, clearly decided to do this once more. However, the horror scene had shifted its dynamic away from the intense and inescapable realism of those late 70s films that Craven and his counterparts had made. As I wrote in my review of Shocker, shock had given way to schlock by this point. Making a film akin to Craven’s early offerings would have been a death knell to a story that Craven obviously felt was important enough to get out there. So, rather than fire his missive directly at viewers, Craven took it over the top.

WAY over the top.

He also had a great deal to say about the state of affairs at that moment in our history. We were coming out of the era of divided decadence known as the 80s, where the Haves ruled the realm while the Have Nots slipped further and further into the class chasm that Reaganomics helped excavate. We’d just gone through the Persian Gulf War at the beginning of the year this movie released. In fact, if you check out the televisions running throughout the house that Fool breaks into, you’ll notice they’re showing footage from that war. Oh, and did I mention that the house belonged to two supremely demented and disturbingly inbred people who are hoarding loads of money and harboring even more secrets within the confines of their home? But we’ll get further into that in a moment.

Oh, and clearly Craven found the public’s televised participation in warfare horrific in its own right. This was the second movie in a row into which he integrated televised images of war and destruction. Whereas this film made it part of the background motif, Shocker brought it well and truly to the forefront, with Craven having his protagonist and antagonist fight each other while running through some of the more infamous images broadcast from war zones. I’ve talked about this before in various places, but the televised impact of the brutality of war helped to shift the focus of horror in many ways. While for some horror makers, the actual participation in war was what shaped their ideas, others like Craven only witnessed what was shown to them via news reports from the front lines. And that was more than enough.

Now, back to our review, already in progress.

Yes, there are elements of class warfare and racial warfare. The Robesons are White while the majority of their tenants are…not. The Robesons are extremely wealthy. The kind of wealthy that exists for those privileged enough to be born into the (debatably) right family. They inherited wealth and property and the ability to abuse those with less than them because of this privilege. They also inherited some supremely deteriorated genes thanks to the family clearly not allowing outside guests into their gene pool.

Yeah, the Robesons, who refer to each other as “Mommy” and “Daddy” are actually siblings. And apparently years (decades?) of inbreeding have left them unable to have their own kids (evidence that there might actually be a deity out there, balancing out the universe), so they steal children and try to mold them into suitable heirs. Unfortunately, that obstinate vein of free will that humans possess and cherish so deeply leads to inevitable failure with nearly all the kidnapped kids. So what do the Robesons do? First, they eradicate the “problem” areas (Have a habit of talking back? We’ll just lop off that pesky tongue!). Next, they lock the children up.

Under. The. Stairs.

This ain’t no Harry Potter fairy tale, kiddies. And this ain’t no drill. There are literally people under the stairs. Placed there by this dynamic duo of debauchery:

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Genre fans will instantly recognize these two as Ed and Nadine Hurley, those crazy kids-in-love from Twin Peaks. Well, maybe not instantly…unless Nadine were wearing her eye patch and working on her completely silent drape-runners.

[Loba Tangent: Damn, I need to re-watch that show.]

Craven specifically sought out actors Everett McGill and Wendy Robie to play Daddy and Mommy. He could not have been more on-point, as both McGill and Robie brought with them the quirky chemistry they had developed together during their tenure in Twin Peaks as well as a frenetic, unstable energy and an ability to devour the scenery around them in massive, heaving gulps. Simply put, it’s primarily because of McGill and Robie that Craven’s story played with the level of success that it did. Not to say, of course, that the rest of the cast didn’t bring their A games as well. Brandon Adams was wonderfully cast as Fool, it was great getting to see an early era Ving Rhames, A.J. Langer brought a certain degree if discomfiting fragility to her role as Alice, Sean Whalen amused as Roach (although I wonder how this would have played out had Hilary Swank won the role instead), and it was fun to see Craven pilfer from an NOES sequel for Kelly Jo Minter.

Still, McGill and Robie. Those two relinquished all pretense for their roles in this movie and the end result was magic. In fact, I would rank The People Under the Stairs as one of Craven’s best offerings to the horror altar, thanks in large part to their delivery of his story to audiences. Solid insanity, every step of the way. May they burn in hell. Forever and ever in hell.

And while their performances are almost beyond absurdist, there always is a level of fear and danger to their characters’ actions that keep them rooted to the truth that these two are the villains of the day for more than just horror-related reasons. They are what is wrong, not just with the deteriorating neighborhoods surrounding their gated, secured home, but with everywhere and everything. Craven’s commentary? IMHO, it’s that the greed and deranged decadence of the preceding decade had deepened the class and race divides to an unbelievable level. No, the wealthy were not eating their victims or getting away with debaucheries that would make Buffalo Bill blush, but they were getting away with a certain degree of disconnectedness to what the rest of the nation was enduring. Craven’s Mommy and Daddy epitomized the dearth of sympathy that swelled within the hearts of those who had no idea what it was like outside their enclave of entitlement.

Sadly, this all still sounds disturbingly familiar…perhaps even more so now.

Mommy and Daddy might have been satirically unhinged, but not by much. Neither possessed compassion for those with lesser means. They instead viewed them as threats to be contained or eliminated. Out of sight, out of mind. They hoarded their wealth and cared only about acquiring more…simply for the purpose of having it. Not spending it. Not sharing it. Just keeping it locked away. They behaved with utter assumed impunity, which local police reinforced simply by reason that these were well-established, upstanding (read: wealthy and White) members of the community; and don’t forget that Daddy oozed a sexual predatory nature that left no doubt that young Alice was most assuredly not safe in Wonderland.

With this film, Craven was castigating the upper classes for their lack of compassion while reminding the rest of us that things would only change if we became more aware, stopped turning a blind eye to one group or judging another because of appearances and assumptions. Neither is a true bellwether. Craven’s talent in getting this message across with these characters was in being able to make us laugh at their behaviors up front, but to cringe as the reality of their existence and actions settled into our brains. These were deplorable monsters, made that much worse by their attempts to hide their insatiable deviance from an outside world that, honestly, wasn’t really trying all that hard to spot it because of their assumed upstanding positions in the community.

Conversely, young Fool proved his merit by returning to the house he barely escaped, to save Alice and the other children hidden within, thus tipping all assumptions right on their ass. And that moment when Mommy gets ready to launch a racially explicit invective against Fool’s family, who have come to find him and help him, and is instead forced to face the residents she and Daddy were summarily sticking it to on a regular basis? That’s such the perfect encapsulation of Craven’s wish to force a similar face-to-face between the wealthy and those they have disenfranchised. And her subsequent “eat the rich” moment would have made Steven Tyler so very proud.

It had been a slow slope downward in Craven’s oeuvre since A Nightmare on Elm Street, with Craven wanting to explore other cinematic genres and fighting unsuccessfully against a tide of consensus from critics, production companies, and fans alike to keep him locked into horror. However, I truly believe that this film was a successful return for him to that insightful prowess into the human condition that put him down the horror path in the first place. I’ve also realized that I don’t yet own this film. Thank you, Cravenous, for bringing this to my attention so that I can rectify it post-haste.

BookBin2016: The Girl on the Train

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I’ve done it again. I’ve gone and bought into hype and found it to be sorely lacking in satisfaction. So it goes with Paula Hawkins’s novel The Girl on the Train, which reviewers and fans led me to believe was a cracking page-turner with surprise twists left and right.

I twigged to the killer in the first quarter of the book, so that wasn’t compelling. Also, the novel lacked any sympathetic characters. There was a character I felt sorry for, but pity does not equal likability. I didn’t like any of the characters in this novel, and honestly found most of them utterly contemptible examples of humanity. Perhaps this is what we could dub Gone Girl syndrome. Talk about a book filled with utterly horrid, valueless people. This book wasn’t quite as bad, but I feel that Hawkins was perhaps striving to give us a similar level of questionable humanity. Guess she’s hoping for a movie deal.

Oh. Oh, look. They’re making a movie out of The Girl on the Train. And, wow, I would never have cast Emily Blunt in that role after having read the book. She is the antithesis of what that character should look like. But we can’t have an unattractive person anchoring a movie, now, can we? I do believe I shall avoid this with the same vigor with which I avoided the movie version of Gone Girl.

Final Verdict: Disappointing story. Satisfactory writing. Nice English flavour. Would never own this though. Back to the library.

BookBin2016: Career of Evil

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And J.K. Rowling has done it to me yet again. It wasn’t enough to lure me on through year after year of eagerly anticipating the next Harry Potter novel. Oh no. That wasn’t enough. Now, she has to do the same to me, this time as Robert Galbraith, spinning the continuing adventures of her latest fictional heroes, Detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott.

This time, with Career of Evil, the primary case is far more personal than the previous two, which lends itself to much more personal revelations about and between our protagonist and deuteragonist. I’m not quite sure how I feel about a lot of the backstory we learn for Robin Ellacott, but it wasn’t really all that surprising. Rowling alluded to such revelations throughout the previous two Strike novels, particularly The Silkworm. I think I’m okay with it, simply by how beautifully Rowling handled it. Ultimately, it has made Robin Ellacott that much more multifaceted, that much stronger, that much more able to complement Cormoran Strike’s own complexities and strengths.

Strangely enough, I don’t even really care that these are detective/crime novels. I’m beginning to find that element of the tales secondary to what I believe has always been Rowling’s primary talent: building a compelling world into which her readers can enter and become blissfully, rapturously, exquisitely, holistically lost. Seriously, her books are so long for a few reasons, one of which is the care she gives to making the worlds she invites you to explore actually worth exploring. Also, her Cormoran Strike novels are unabashedly, unapologetically British to their very core, which I admit makes me love them that much more. Whereas I know that many British novels get rewrites for American audiences, if for nothing more than to keep American readers from having to ponder foreign locations or figure out foreign phrasing (because Murhka), I feel as though Rowling set about to root these novels so deeply into the soil of her homeland that no amount of rewriting could deracinate them.

Thank you for that, Ms. Rowling. I love the flavour and feel of Strike and Ellacott’s language and behaviour, their destinations, their locales, their foods, their drinks, and by all things holy under the British crown, I need to find some Doom Bar on this side of the pond soon, so that I can experience the beer that Rowling either must love herself or knows of someone who loves it deeply. Honestly, Cormoran must drink a bottle or pint of it every chapter!

Final Verdict: I love Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott immensely. I love their development, both singularly and together. I love their chemistry. I love their interactions. I love their existence. I even love their cases and the care in which Rowling leads them through investigations. I feel slightly guilty in revealing that I find the actual cases less compelling than the characters, but I also still find the cases at least interesting. And the reveals, while somewhat anticlimactic still, are well-considered and quite well-played. I would expect nothing less from Rowling. Or Galbraith. Or Strike and Ellacott. I can’t wait for the next novel. The question is, when will they release a set of novels so that I can buy them all together?

Cravenous: Shocker

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Oh. Oh, Wes. You just…you made…it’s all jumbled…and there’s so much going on…and there’s dreams and death and sorcery and puns…and…oh.

Oh, Wes.

I feel like this was a crossroads moment in Wes Craven’s career. He was now into the double digits for horror movies he’d directed. He was a viable name in a genre he knew nothing about when he first started, but that now held him tightly within a death grip that he couldn’t shake. He’d written into existence one of the most memorable horror villains of modern cinema, and had subsequently lost all control of said villain to a slew of sequels that he continued to view as chipping away the validity of that villain. He kept trying to do different things, but there is little opportunity for movement once you’ve found yourself stuck in a niche. Craven was a master of horror, whether he liked it or not.

Shocker definitely makes me think that at this point, he did not like it. At all.

I honestly believe that Craven didn’t intentionally set out to make a laughable movie with this one. I know from interviews he gave later that he wanted to create a new horror villain that would sort of be the antithesis to what Freddy Krueger had become in the NOES sequels. Craven was quite displeased with how his child murdering dream demon had become a vaudevillain, to coin a phrase, cracking puns as he killed and playing up a level of likability among his fans that Craven found perverse.

With his new villain, Craven wanted to return to that raw, unfiltered fear that he conjured at the beginning of his career. There was to be nothing likable or kind or appealing within the heart of Horace Pinker. He was meant to be a cold-blooded bastard whose only sense of joy came from the lives he stole in murderous, violent fashion.

Instead, Craven clearly took a wrong turn back at Albuquerque.

Again, this movie screams of external meddling. As evidenced with his early films and with the original Freddy (as well as the original script that Craven wrote for the third NOES movie), Craven had no problem entering the darkest depths of horror and mining from it what he knew he would need to truly frighten and unsettle his viewers. Left to his own devices, I have a feeling that Horace Pinker would have been the second successful original villain of Craven’s creating.

Instead, TPTB interjected with what I’m sure they viewed as “helpful” or “useful” recommendations, which were far, far, far from helpful. “Hey, Pinker is kind of a jerk. Make him funny. You know, like Freddy.” “Hey, make him get his powers through some kind of voodoo. You know, like from your last movie.” “Hey, remember how you had that girl able to enter her dreams to seek out Freddy, and pull things out of her dreams? Why don’t you make the football player in this movie have the same ability? You know, because it worked in that other movie that everyone loves.”

Yeah. Hot, jumbled mess this turned out to be by the time everyone was finished. Simply put, there are so many things going on simultaneously throughout this movie that it feels discordant and discombobulated the whole time you’re watching it. What Craven needed to do was streamline the ideas…leave out what he had already used and stick with what he wanted to use for this film. It would have made for a far better film instead of the mismatched jumble that this movie ended up being. Plus, the era of true shock horror had turned into the era of schlock horror by this point, and not even Craven was safe from the cheese of the times. I guess that’s the best way to describe some of the elements of this film, like the horrible jokes or having Timothy Leary play a televangelist or having a little girl use profanity while possessed by foul-mouthed Pinker. Seriously, the man who gave us (The Last House on the Left spoilers whited out now) a woman seducing a man into letting her give him a blow job so that she could bite off his penis after she realized that he was one of the men who raped and killed her daughter trying to shock us with a little girl dropping the F bomb? Puhlease.

[Loba Tangent: Also, make note of this filmmakers: Never use a little kid using profanity in your movie or show as a way of being controversial. It’s not shocking. It’s a transparent plea for someone to think you’re shocking.]

Craven had hoped to turn Horace Pinker’s exploits into a series of at least three films. However, the general response to the mucky mess of Pinker’s world was so subdued that future plans were abandoned. It’s probably for the best. Mitch Pileggi would soon have his hands full with keeping two FBI agents in check. He didn’t have time for this! And, yes, no matter how many roles Mitch Pileggi has played and no matter that he was ADA Skinner on The X-Files, I always call him Horace Pinker.

BookBin2016: Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted

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I debated whether to add this to the BookBin2015 set or use it to start off my 2016 reads. Technically, I did begin Eric Nuzum’s Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted in 2015. However, I had barely finished a quarter of it by the time 2016 rolled around. I think it’s fair game to place it in this year since I read most of it in this year, eh?

I picked up Nuzum’s book at the library after reading the description and feeling intrigued by the possibility that it would be a compelling ghost story. I’m always up for those. I was surprised, instead, to discover a truthful, powerful, and oftentimes painful accounting by Nuzum of a time in his life when emotional and mental crumbling led him to believe many things, including that he was haunted. Interspersed with his revelations concerning his youth are modern-day attempts on his part to face the things that scare him, to prove to himself that his expectations are far scarier than what he will encounter in reality. Each chapter intertwines to reveal truths that you suspect are on the horizon but still feel substantial and satisfying when they finally arrive. And it all builds toward a few solid story pinnacles that lack the conclusive weight they might have carried were this a fictional story. However, the truth rarely falls so squarely in line with “happy ending.” Still, it’s a tale perfectly encapsulated by the rather lengthy subtitle…but also surpasses the boundaries of those descriptive yet still insufficient words.

Final Verdict: Nuzum’s book was nothing like what I was expecting, but I felt compelled to continue following Nuzum through his halting, stumbling journey, both of discovery and reflection. I don’t think I would ever add this to my library, but I was pleased to have found it and delighted at how it surprised me with a story I had not anticipated but deeply appreciated.

A Grief Interlude

It seems so strange to interrupt an ongoing tribute to a now deceased famous person who impacted my life significantly…to talk about recent deaths of similarly significant celebrities. And yet here I am, writing this post rather than writing one of my Cravenous reviews as I continue to make my way (very slowly) through Wes Craven’s oeuvre.

There have been several deaths recently within the celebrity circuit. It’s rather alarming, actually, how many famous people have departed the realm in the past month or so—and not celebrities who we might have anticipated leaving us. It’s one thing when someone tips the scales into the upper 80s or even 90s and then leaves us still wanting more but grateful that they were there to inspire and entertain us for as long as they were.

No. These have been wholly unexpected (at least by the general public) and wholly depressing. These have been the deaths of people still active in their crafts, be it music or acting or writing or art. These were early deaths. Painful deaths from an illness far too prevalent among us all. For me personally, I find that the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman have been almost as upsetting as Craven’s unexpected death in August of last year. Both were 69 years old. Both succumbed after lengthy yet quiet battles against cancer.

For Bowie, I confess that I didn’t start actively getting into his music until a few years ago. To me, he was first Jareth the Goblin King.

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I’ve already written about the significance of Jim Henson and his Muppets to my early years. Make no mistake that I consider Bowie to be a crucial part of that significance. His performance as the Goblin King to Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah is what made Labyrinth as captivating and memorable as it was. Plus, Bowie wrote all the music for the movie, which he of course performed.

It was his appearance as Jareth that I found most compelling, with the whimsical (though slightly lewd) costumes, the magnificent hair, and the most stunning makeup, made all the more ethereal by his one eye with the forever-dilated pupil. He was beautiful. It wasn’t until later that I realized that it wasn’t just Jareth who was beautiful. It was Bowie himself. Androgynous, feather-light, stick-thin, snaggle-toothed, and stunning. Whether as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, any of his movie roles (several of which are standouts among my beloved genre fiction, such as The Hunger or The Man Who Fell to Earth, which seems as though it was written with Bowie in mind), or simply Bowie, he was always gorgeous.

David Bowie (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
David Bowie (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

(Also, from the look of this photo, Tilda Swinton owes him significantly as well…do you think she knows? Oh. Yeah, I think she does.)

As I learned more about his career, I realized that Bowie also was one of the most influential artists within the rock world to which I was first introduced. Even when I didn’t realize his impact, I was feeling it. Every time I turned on a Culture Club video and swooned at the sight of Boy George in all his early gorgeous glory or fell under the spell of similarly androgy-gorgeous Eurythmics-era Annie Lennox, I was reaping the benefit of Bowie’s influence. Any time I fell in love with an artist for being unabashedly, defiantly unique, what I was really falling in love with was how Bowie burst through the doors that continued to remain open for all these subsequent acts who fell within the purview of my growing attention to music. Bowie showed that it was all right to be different. It was okay to be flamboyant, to be a “Space Oddity” and not fit in. He showed the way for so many artists who walked the peculiar path whose bricks Bowie helped lay.

Even when I had no idea who or what Ziggy Stardust was, I was enjoying his short existence that continued to benefit all of us who were, just as he was, delightfully left of left of center. And even in my nascent naivete toward music and musicians, I was grooving to songs laid down by the Thin White Duke. I didn’t know who sang the songs (I predate the ease of holding up a smartphone to a radio and having the ghost in the machine tell me what I’m listening to), but I knew I liked them.

I liked David Bowie. His creativity was immense (almost as immense as Jareth’s cod piece) and left an indelible mark upon the creative spaces of sound and image. His influence shaped the musical landscape to which I arrived in all my unknowing glory and continues to enthrall and influence even now.

Many of these same sentiments can extend to how I feel about Alan Rickman’s equally unexpected passing. Rickman, with that striking singular voice. That voice will always, to me, be the Voice of the One True God (beware, NSFW for language):

Whether he was telling you to “shoot ze glass” or threatening to carve your heart out with a spoon or trying to teach you a new spell to protect you from the Dark Lord, Rickman’s dulcet timbre was always captivating and instantly recognizable. His performances were always satisfying, his range always astounding. By Grabthar’s hammer, he could bring gravitas and pathos to any character he played. He also breathed life into some of the most momentous genre fiction characters we’ve had the pleasure to meet on screen, be they Metatron, Dr. Lazarus, the Sheriff of Nottingham, or that most infamous Death Eater of all, Professor Severus Snape.

severus_snape

For me, while it was all about these larger-than-life roles (of which, I do believe the Metatron was my favorite) to some degree, I think I loved Rickman most of all in a couple of his quieter, lesser-known roles: Dr. Alfred Blalock in Something the Lord Made and Alex in Snow Cake, which paired him once more with Sigourney Weaver.

Regardless of his role, Rickman was always watchable (or listenable, if it were one of his voice-only roles). His talent made many a movie more enjoyable and it will be sorely missed. He will be sorely missed as well, for his humor, his kindness, his depth of care and compassion for other actors. From what I have gleaned from recent words of kindness spoken of him and Bowie, both men were exceptionally generous with their time, attention, and advice. They were solid, solicitous souls who brought light to all they did. Both he and Bowie have left irreparable holes in the fabric of creativity as well as in the hearts of many a fan, including this humble and sorrowful wolf.

Cravenous: The Serpent and the Rainbow

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[Loba Tangent: I’ve skipped a couple of things from Wes Craven’s career that occurred between Deadly Friend and this film. First was the fact that New Line Cinema CEO Bob Shaye came to Craven and asked if he would come back to the Nightmare franchise for the third film, both to write and direct. Craven was still working on Deadly Friend, but was intrigued by the possibility of going back and redirecting the path of Freddy Krueger. He pitched the overarching idea of the “Dream Warriors,” stating in later interviews that he believed that a group would have been needed to defeat Krueger by that point because the dream demon’s strength had grown stronger from the souls he’d taken. Shaye and New Line liked that idea, and so Craven and Bruce Wagner wrote a script for the third film, which Shaye and New Line immediately put through a massive rewrite process with Chuck Russell (who was hired to direct the film) and Frank Darabonte. Russell and Darabonte rewrote probably 70 percent of the script that Craven and Wagner had penned (and which was, according to Russell, far darker and far more profane than either the original movie or the third film that ended up going to print), and Craven once more ended up on the outside looking in for his most famous original creation. Nightmare On Elm Street Films.com has more on this as well as Craven and Wagner’s original script plus the final version, if you’re interested.

Also during this time, Craven directed a few episodes of the rebooted Twilight Zone. I’ve probably seen them since I did watch the reboot of the series, but I honestly don’t remember anything from that series. Perhaps this will be something to look up for a future entry…]

There seems to be a theme starting at this point in Wes Craven’s career, and not the expected theme. Instead, we find ourselves faced with another movie that Craven didn’t set out to make as a straightforward horror movie. Instead, he wanted his 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow to be based more closely on the same-titled book on which Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman based their screenplay. The book, written by Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, details Davis’s experiences in Haiti while investigating the poisons used in making “zombies” during voodoo ceremonies. The book is far less titillating than the movie that ended up getting studio approval, playing out more like an academic journal piece than a horror movie (probably because it was more of an academic work than a gore fest).

Craven’s desire was to make a thoughtful drama/thriller with this film, something that I’m sure Davis wanted as well (he originally tried to sell the rights to his book with the caveat that it could only be turned into a movie if Peter Weir directed and Mel Gibson starred). Again, though, Craven was a gore master. Gore masters don’t get to choose “thoughtful” for their next project. We need scares, Craven! SCARES! Just look at the poster art for this film if you don’t believe me. Does this scream thoughtful to you? So scares arrived in the shooting schedule, appearing in somewhat discordant ways throughout what ended up being a stuttering, clumsily timed film. Oftentimes the more horror-heavy moments come across as shoe-horned in rather than organically planned, but they at least looked solid in comparison with the gore of Deadly Friend. Still, it’s depressing to realize that here was yet another film that Craven had such a different vision for but felt compelled to capitulate to the demands of those financing the film. I’m pretty sure by this point he must have been tempted to return to his more guerrilla early days as a filmmaker, scraping together funds in any way he could.

Don’t get me wrong: This is not a terrible film in its final form. It’s just not a great film. I hadn’t seen this movie in nearly 20 years, so my recent re-watch was a bit eye-opening as to how poorly paced the movie is, but also how great it could have been. It’s an interesting story in its own right, without all the forced, fake gore and scares. Also, I had forgotten that Bill Pullman sometimes fancies himself a serious actor. I’m so used to seeing him in silly or comedic roles; it was nice to be reminded that he also does drama and horror rather well.

I wish that Craven could have made the more serious film he initially intended to make with The Serpent and the Rainbow. Even more than Deadly Friend, which still holds pride of place as one of those fantastic horror movies that are fun to watch because of how bad/silly they are, I feel as though Craven could have made an exceptional thought piece with this film had he been given the chance.

BookBin2015: The Art of War

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One final entry for the 2015 Book Bin. I knew, even as I was writing the reviews I posted on the last day of last year, that I was forgetting a book. It frustrated me to no end that I could not recall even that it was a graphic novel. Thankfully, during a trip this weekend to the library, I ended up seeing the book I knew was missing from my 2015 reading list, happily tucked back on the graphic novel shelf where I first found it.

The Art of War is, of course, based on the same-titled ancient military philosophies of Chinese General Sun Tzu. This novel, however, takes Sun Tzu’s teachings and filters them through a two-color rendering of the philosophies as they apply to this futuristic (but still stunningly violent) thriller.

To be honest, the power of this graphic novel doesn’t reside in writer Kelly Roman’s rendering of Sun Tzu’s philosophies. Instead, the strength rests squarely in the hands of artist Michael DeWeese. Stark, stunning, bloody, visceral, and all with a little red thrown in for good measure to a purely monochromatic palette. DeWeese made me continue to turn the page, even when I had long lost interest in Roman’s tepid tale.

Final Verdict: I wish I had remembered this novel before now. I would have much rather ended 2015’s BookBin reviews with the one-two Harper Lee review I posted than this dud of a read. I also wish I had read more than 29 books last year. My track record has continued to drop with each year I do this. Competitive streak aside, reading has always been incredibly important to me. Watching my record for reading plummet with each passing year means that I’m slipping in time put aside to enjoy something that has brought me endless hours of joy my entire life. That’s just not acceptable. I need to fix that this year.

BookBin2015 Final Tally: 29

BookBin2015: The Mockingbird Next Door / Go Set a Watchman

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I’ve been putting off this double review for a while now, although I’m not quite sure why. I’ve been mentally mulling over what I would like to say here for a few months, but whenever I sit down to write something at the lair, it always ends up being about something other than this review. It’s not for lack of love for either book. In fact, I already own one and have added the other to my wish list as necessary to the Harper Lee portion of my library.

The reason that I wanted to review both of these books together is quite simple: If you fall into the camp of those who continue to doubt as to whether or not Harper Lee was, indeed, the author of Go Set a Watchman, then you need only read Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door as its instinctual companion piece.

I say this as a matter of logic. There are so many parallels between Mills’s recounting of stories and truths told to her by Harper Lee and her sister Alice Finch Lee, and what Lee wrote in the original manuscript that she ultimately would transform into To Kill a Mockingbird that I can only deduce that Go Set a Watchman either is clearly Lee’s work or Mills has helped to perpetuate one of the greatest literary hoaxes in modern history. And while I am quite jaded on the surface, it’s just protection for the fragile, squishy goo of trust inside me.

Ew.

I deeply enjoyed Mills’s book on what it was like living next door to the Lee sisters and befriending both of them. It’s no secret that Harper Lee has lived a reclusive, mercurial life. She has little tolerance for sycophantic adoration or simple-mindedness. Mills portrays her as equal parts roughly hewn and Southern genteel. Some might find her to be abrasive, but Mills proves repeatedly that Harper Lee simply wants back from others what she feels is her obligation to give: honesty and forthrightness. And brilliance. Both Lee sisters were incredibly well-read, well-bred, and brimming with eloquence and intelligence.

Yes, there was controversy with this book when Lee pronounced it positively untrue and unapproved (and once more earning her standing as one of literature’s more mercurial players). However, sister Alice refuted those accusations, opening up speculation that the mercurial was perhaps becoming tinged with a bit of dementia. True enough, not long after the release of this book both Lee sisters ended up in separate nursing homes, no longer able to live on their own. Alice sadly passed away late last year. Harper continues to show signs of intellectual ferocity and engagement, but with increasing bouts of mental decline.

As for the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, I see so much of Harper Lee in the character of an adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as revealed by Mills’s book. There is no doubt in my mind that she wrote this book and that it slowly morphed into the seminal book we cherish so much still. To those who claim that this book has somehow ruined or tainted that first novel or the character of Atticus Finch, I say it’s okay. I view this as two sides, not of Atticus, but of Scout herself: the young girl from TKAM who sees only the hero her father is to her, versus the adult from GSAW who sees him finally and fully as what he has always been: human. A decent, complex, struggling, earnest, human. I think these are beautiful bookends to a character that goes from revered to flawed, but still essentially admirable. Atticus still is Atticus, and nothing can ever take away the heart and soul of this character.

Final Verdict: Again, I own Lee’s “latest” novel already, and I would love to own a copy of Mills’s work on the Lee sisters. Both are compelling in their own rights and worthy of revisiting.