BookBin2015: If You Were Here


It would seem that BookBin2015 is the Year of Alafair Burke here at the lair. I wrote back in June all about discovering Burke’s Detective Ellie Hatcher series and how I had finally found a detective/mystery series that I enjoyed (other than J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith efforts).

Therefore, it was with great joy and gratitude that I discovered If You Were Here, a new-to-me Burke novel, at the B&B we recently stayed at out in California, and was told by one of the staff that I could take the book with me if I liked it enough to want to finish it. Generous B&B is generous.

So in this novel, we meet a new character from Burke’s growing pantheon of strong, inquisitive women: McKenna Jordan, a former NYC ADA who is now a features reporter as a result of making a poorly considered choice early in her legal career that blacklisted her from that profession. In this new role, she comes across an incident in which a woman saved a young man who fell onto the subway tracks right before he was struck by an incoming train, and then bolted from the scene before anyone could identify her. Turns out, the woman was chasing the young man because he had just stolen her phone. It also turns out that McKenna thinks she knows who the woman is: a friend who disappeared nearly a decade ago and had been presumed by police to be dead.

Not one to be put off her gut instinct, McKenna latches on to trying to discover the mystery woman’s identity, which takes McKenna back through the tumultuous events that led to her leaving the ADA’s office and that McKenna realizes might somehow relate to her friend’s disappearance.

It all becomes tightly woven into an intricate pattern that only drops a stitch every now and again. It was a compelling enough story, even if a few times I grimaced at the perfect way certain things aligned. This is ultimately what always pulls me out of a mystery novel: I like coincidence to a point. For certain mysteries to pan out successfully, they require a level of coincidence that I often simply cannot buy into. Those instances in this story were enough to allow me to slip out of the zone of suspended disbelief enough to lose me from its grip.

Final Verdict: While I enjoyed reading the book and greatly appreciate the generosity of the B&B that allowed me to take it with me to finish it, I do believe that I shall be returning this on our next visit. I don’t see the need to keep it, but I think it could make a nice diversion for a future guest.

BookBin2015: Love and Other Wounds


Fast review of a fast read. I’ve been trying to give short story collections a better go. I have always loved short stories, but sometimes they get lost behind the larger-scale worlds of their full-length siblings and I end up neglecting them. I decided to rectify that during one of my recent library trips by picking up a couple of short story collections. First on my list to read was the shorter of the two, Jordan Harper’s Love and Other Wounds.

According to his dust jacket bio, Mr. Harper is a producer and writer for the Gotham television show. I haven’t seen the series, so I don’t know whether this is good or bad. I do know that his short story collection is a little bit of both. All of the stories are dark, which I typically like. Some of them are exceptional for their imagery or their inventive plot deviations. Others are kind of okay, while some left me feeling distinctly apathetic.

I suppose that’s not a terrible review. Truth is, if you’re looking for something to keep you company on a flight or a cold winter evening when you’d rather just stay in, then this cavalcade of characters could provide you with what you seek. Just be sure that you enjoy dark topics.

Final Verdict: Not a terrible way to pass time, but not really a book that demands revisiting.

BookBin2015: 99 Days (Vertigo Crime)


I think the thing that struck me the hardest about Matteo Casali’s graphic novel 99 Days was the mention of how most people in this country heard more and remember more about Kurt Cobain’s suicide than the atrocities that occurred around the same time in Rwanda.

For the record, Kurt Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994. Beginning two days later, from April 7 to July 15, 1994, the Hutu-led government of Rwanda targeted the Tutsis for extermination, killing between 500,000 to 1 million Tutsi—almost 70 percent of the Tutsi population. And yet, in this country, the suicide of one rock star right before that stretch of time is what many people here remember as one of the “biggest news stories” from 1994.

I’m by no means belittling the seriousness of suicide. I am, however, pointing out a disappointingly xenophobic history of reporting global events in this country. Things have improved now that we can access other news outlets from other countries through the Internet—but this still doesn’t change the fact that our news outlets too often take an isolationist approach to what we deem worthy to report to constituents. It shouldn’t be this way. We should know what is transpiring around the world and how it relates to our global history.

Say it again. Say it until you can’t speak any more. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. This is a history that will never remain in the past so long as we ignore it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, with the attacks last week in Paris. The attack the day before that in Lebanon. The attack going on in Mali right now as I type this. Right. Now. The total destruction of the Russian Airbus A321 leaving Egypt. The unrelenting terrorist violence throughout Africa. In fact, more attacks this year alone than I want to list here, but that should be known.

Why? It’s not new. Genocide, new? Bosnia. Bangladesh. Arbeit macht frei. Religious war, new? Onward, Christian soldiers. Allahu Akbar. And, yes, it’s easy to blame religion. I confess that my first response to these instances is to think that if we could just disband all religion, then we might have a chance. But that’s a lie. It’s not religion. It’s not politics. It’s not culture or morality or skin color or ethnicity.

It’s us.

We are the fuel to this fire. We are genetically hard-wired to behave this way. I’m going to bogart something I wrote elsewhere recently:

We are hard-wired to fear. Fear kept us alive as a species throughout millennia of evolution. Fear drove us to kill or be killed. That hard wiring is still there, only now we have no real reason to kill. So we just make shit up. We need to figure out how to rewire our genetic responses.

At one point, that fear saved us. Now, it’s destroying us. It’s no longer necessary to our survival as a species, so we simply make up reasons to continue to justify it. At the moment, religion is the excuse and absolution for our inborn fear of “the other.” If there were no religion, then we would simply make up another reason. But how do we reprogram something so deeply rooted within us? How do we rewire what became an evolutionary necessity? Kill what we fear. Kill what is not us.

I’m not going to say love is the answer. That’s trite and schmaltzy. It’s also not true. I don’t have to love you to know that I shouldn’t kill you. And I know I shouldn’t kill you for one simple reason. It’s at the heart of what France once said to us as a country, and what we have in turn said to them in recent days.

Aujourd’hui, nous sommes Américains Parisiens humains.

Now if we can just figure out how to embrace that truth, we might actually get somewhere.

Final Verdict: You probably forgot that this was a book review, didn’t you? I apparently did. It’s just, the book itself wasn’t all that great, but the thematic elements were incredibly provocative, especially right now. The artwork was solid but the story itself was a bit spotty, although I did like the focus on the traumatic effects that the events in Rwanda continued to have upon the main character. War does not end when the white flag goes up or the enemies are all vanquished. War comes home inside every soldier who fought. We’d do our soldiers far more honor remembering that truth than in having a holiday to “remember” them with discount sales on TVs and refrigerators. But I digress. Anyway, the overarching power of the novel’s topic for me is clear. Still, I don’t foresee adding this to my collection.

Cravenous: Invitation to Hell


The next directorial project that Wes Craven took on after mucking through the swamps of South Carolina was 1984’s Invitation to Hell, a television movie-of-the-week made for ABC for the financial equivalent of a pack of playing cards and a pouch of Big League Chew.

Okay, it wasn’t that cheap, but the production values were definitely much smaller than Craven’s previous two films. However, since Craven began his career in a low-rent fashion, this was somewhat of a homecoming in ways, I suppose. Plus, he had solid backing from a legitimate production source as well as some relatively high-rent names when it came to television. We get Robert Urich as protagonist Matt Winslow and Susan Lucci as Jessica Jones, AKA “You’re the Devil!” (trust me, I’m not spoiling anything with that statement), plus post-Blade Runner Joanna Cassidy, Joe Regalbuto (soon to be known as Frank Fontana on Murphy Brown), kiddie actors Barret “Neverending Story” Oliver and Soleil “Punky Brewster” Moon Frye, instantly recognizable genre character actor Kevin McCarthy, the Bad Seed herself Patty McCormack, and a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Michael Berryman (see, I told you Craven was faithful to his actors).

Seriously, not a bad collection of talent there. Plus, any time you get to watch Susan Lucci chew scenery like a pit bull who hasn’t been fed for a week? Who the hell doesn’t want to watch that? In fact, you can watch it on YouTube right now rather than reading any further, if you’d like. I won’t be mad. Promise.

The story itself isn’t terribly complex. Jessica Jones runs a spa and club in the lustrous (and deliciously named) town of Steaming Springs. It’s really a front for her cult of worshipers, to whom she grants unlimited wealth and power, so long as they join her club. Literally. Matt Winslow and his family play the happy but unknowing new residents who move to town so Matt can take a job finishing the programming on his latest and greatest invention: a space suit that can withstand extremely hot conditions.

Wow. Do you think that might come in handy at some point in a movie that takes place in the town of Steaming Springs?

This was such a slice of nostalgia to watch. I feel as though the era of the prime-time MOTW is well behind us. However, there was a time when movies like this were a cheesy joy to behold. And this particular offering actually is solid little gem. The script, written by Richard Rothstein, is somewhat pedestrian. Rothstein’s greatest contribution as of this writing, beyond this script of course, was coming up with the story for Universal Soldier. So there you go.

However, Craven kept a tight directorial rein on the story, moving the action along at a satisfying pace. Don’t expect a whole lot of gore. This was regular television, after all. Craven always battled with censors throughout his career, but you can bet that they were in full attack mode whenever they knew he was dabbling in television work. Also, this was the Reagan-era 80s. Milquetoast was considered offensive before the watershed hour.

Even without the excessive gore of Craven’s previous horror fare, he still does give us a lovely trippy end sequence when Matt Winslow goes into the depths of the underworld to save his family. I feel as though this whole sequence would be AMAZEBALLS with some narcotic assistance. Not that I’m condoning that kind of behavior in any way. Still, it’s solid visual craziness that drops on you in a most unexpected but delightful way.

I definitely wouldn’t consider this as one of Craven’s top offerings, but it’s still an enticing offering from him to the horror genre.

Cravenous: Swamp Thing


I’d never seen Wes Craven’s 1982 film Swamp Thing prior to taking on this project. I honestly don’t know how I never saw it, since it seems like it would be my bailiwick. I wasn’t as into comics when I was little, however. I went straight for the jugular when it came to genre fiction and immersed myself from an early age in horror. I didn’t start seriously taking note of the comics world until my teens. Also, by the time I did start showing an interest in comics, Swamp Thing wasn’t necessarily the comic hero I was looking for.

Interestingly, Craven knew nothing of the character when he agreed to take on the movie. He stated in a commentary on the movie that this was because the church in which he grew up didn’t permit comics. Perhaps he meant that, because he grew up not reading comics as a child, he never saw the value of doing so as an adult, since Swamp Thing didn’t debut until 1972—around the time that Craven was baptizing himself in the horror genre with his first film. However, when you get offered the chance to direct another (mostly) well-funded film? You at least show an interest.

And so it was that Craven dove into the Swamp Thing mythos, emerging not only with a keen desire to direct the film but also to write the script. Perhaps he learned his lesson with the co-writing duties on Deadly Blessing. Or perhaps he simply could not resist the inspiration he found submerged in the depths of the creature’s swampy abode. Whatever the reason, the end result was campy and fun and exuding that charmed naturalistic interaction among characters that easily was one of Craven’s greatest writing skills. Plus, as Roger Ebert wrote of this film, Craven “betrays a certain gentleness and poetry” within his script.

It was, in fact, no secret that Craven wanted to be more than a director of horror movies. In truth, he’d never intended on choosing this genre as his ultimate path. However, there was a clear vein of fascination within him when it came to exploring the darker elements of humanity. As someone who experienced a slice of Baptist living through my schooling, I would attribute this to being constantly surrounded by the discussion of sin, the damning of souls, images of crucifixion and torture in the afterlife. I don’t think that people truly understand the torment that is religion upon a young mind. It can be brutal and warping, especially when force-fed upon a child with no counterbalance.

With this film, Craven got to remove himself from that darkness and explore a (slightly) less traumatic world, and to do so with the consideration and erudition of a mind that never seemed to cease exploring, questioning, examining, or creating. Craven’s creature is gentle and patient, and even capable of finding laughter and joy in his unexpected and rather dismal situation. That’s not to say he isn’t capable of causing pain or even killing, but it’s as a last resort rather than as an only solution.

Again, there is a delicious element of camp all through this film—that sense of “mad scientist” storytelling, wrapped in an adventure caper, and tied together with a gory little bow for good measure. Just a little gore. Because Craven. There’s also a bit of what even Craven described as gratuitous nudity. There was a prevailing and persistent notion throughout the 80s that genre movies needed to shoe-horn in as many gratuitous shots of naked breasts as possible, to entertain the young male demographic they knew was their target audience. Because, clearly, boys lack the ability to be entertained unless there’s the promise of BEWBS.

[Loba Tangent: Interestingly, there were even more BEWBS in the European release of this film, and when Warner Home Video released the film on video here in the States, they “accidentally” released the European version. I’m sure there were lots of happy boys getting way more than their parents assumed would be in a PG-rated movie.]

In addition to the persistence of pointless female nudity in this film (and genre fiction in general), we also get something that has always irritated me: the “Tripping Heroine” trope. Yes, the lead female character, Alice Cable, trips and falls a few times in this film—enough times that Craven’s daughter Jessica called him on using such a tired trick. Her disappointment would later lead Craven to sit down and consider merits for a new heroine he was already working on…but that’s for another discussion.

Quite a few recognizable names appear in Swamp Thing, including Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, Louis Jourdan, David Hess (Krug from Craven’s The Last House on the Left,) and Craven’s future second wife, Mimi Meyer. Interestingly, Dick Durock pretty much stumbled into the role of the Swamp Thing in a fluke that would serve him quite well throughout a good portion of the rest of his career. Craven hired the stunt man to don the Swamp Thing costume to perform a lot of the more rigorous action scenes that Ray Wise’s character would need to do. However, he looked so different in the costume from Wise that Craven couldn’t get the scenes to blend convincingly enough. In the end, Wise appeared only as the human version of Dr. Alec Holland and Durok became the eponymous character. When the inevitable sequel came along in 1989, Durok reprised his role and then proceeded to play the character for all three seasons of the television show. Not bad for unplanned.

BookBin2015: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Book of Scary Urban Legends


I picked up Jan Harold Brunvand’s book Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid completely on a whim. I happened to notice it on a shelf near a section in the library I usually don’t visit. I saw it was about scary things. I like scary things. I threw it in my basket.

Yes, I load a basket when I go to the library.

The book was pretty much what you would expect it to be: a compilation of urban legends in their various iterations through the years. However, I didn’t learn anything from this book that I hadn’t already learned from the Internet. I kind of feel as though books like this are pointless now, with so much information online about urban legends. Want to know if something is true or a legend? Go to Snopes like everyone else.

Sorry. I feel terrible for pointing people to online rather than a book, but sometimes online is better.

Final Verdict: Back to the library with you, urban legend book.

BookBin2015: Batwoman Volume 5: Webs


This, sadly, is going to be both my shortest Batwoman review and my last Batwoman review. At least for now. They’ve ended her solo run and, while there is one final graphic novel out there, I have no intention of buying it. I couldn’t care less how Marc Andreyko ended this series. By the time I finished this graphic novel, I was left so apathetic that I couldn’t even muster the energy to be furious that the last two pages pretty much seemed to imply that Batwoman was about to be raped by her new nemesis, Nocturna.

Okay, not completely bereft of fury. Seriously, DC? It’s not okay for Batwoman to marry her girlfriend but it’s okay for her new enemy to mentally Roofie her as she’s trying to fall asleep and trick her into believing she’s someone else so that Batwoman won’t fight her off? Oh, and really subtle artwork in that last panel, of Nocturna, who is apparently a vampire or vampire-like character, penetrating Batwoman with her fangs while Batwoman arches back against her while wearing just a camisole and undies. And with a look on her face as if she were enjoying what was happening to her. Great message there. Absolutely.

What utter bullshit. Sorry, but there’s no tactful way to put it. The whole novel was just example after example of piss-poor writing and some of the most mediocre artwork to ever grace a Batwoman comic. There was nothing satisfying about any of this collection, starting with Andreyko’s terribly anticlimactic ending to the story arc that Williams and Blackman started (and should have been allowed to end, dammit). And then to end the novel on that so-not-kosher, rapey WTAF were you thinking note? Allow me to be thoroughly clear with this sentiment, DC Comics. Fuck. You.

So utterly disappointing. Thanks, DC, for ruining my current favorite character from your comics line. Oh, and it looks like you’ve turned Batgirl into a character I don’t really want to follow anymore either. Thanks. For nothing.

Final Verdict: The only redeemable thing about this collection is the clean copy of that great WWII-era artwork of Batwoman as one of the ball players from the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. I think I’m probably just going to slice that out and then get rid of the rest of the book. Not even going to donate it. Just going to toss it in the recycle bin. That’s how much I hated this collection.

Cravenous: Deadly Blessing

The next film in the Cravenous line-up is Wes Craven’s 1981 offering, Deadly Blessing.


Could your poster be any more sexualized?

[Loba Tangent: Here’s a treat that might not be around for a while. I couldn’t find this Wes Craven movie on DVD, but the whole thing is currently on YouTube. Go now. Watch it while it’s still available, denizens.]

Right off the bat, you’ll notice several differences between Craven’s first two mainstream films and this one. First, it looks far more stylish and professional. Pays to have a far larger budget. Whereas The Last House on the Left came in around $90,000 and The Hills Have Eyes edged closer to $230,000, this one clocked in at an impressive $2.5 million. Switch up from 16MM to 35MM film, get yourself a big-name star with Ernest Borgnine, get yourself a big-name composer with James Horner (this was actually one of his first composing gigs), and, hell, while you’re at it, treat yourself with a couple of newly minted actresses: Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman.

Craven actually got this movie after impressing one of the producers from his previous directing gig, a 1978 made-for-television movie called Summer of Fear (or Stranger in Our House, depending on where you look). Unfortunately, the only way I could find to watch this one is to buy the DVD, which is currently ridiculously priced because clearly people want to make money off the fact that Craven is now dead. Because people suck. It’s a shame, though, because this sounds like a movie I would totally dig, if only for that movie-of-the-week nostalgia. Based on a Lois Duncan novel, it stars Linda Blair as a young woman coming to terms with the fact that her recently orphaned cousin who moved in with the family might possibly be a witch. I’ve seen a couple of clips from it. Totally groovy late 70s style. Also? A beautiful classic Dodge Charger. Clearly, someone had reason to have some spare Chargers setting around, waiting for some screen time. Luckily, this one hadn’t been painted safety orange just yet.

Anyway, Max Keller decided he wanted Craven to direct the next picture he produced, which ended up being this somewhat sleek yet somewhat clunky “religious horror” tale set among a fictional fundamentalist religious sect known as the Hittites. This time, Craven was only a co-writer, working on revising a rather messily composed screenplay by Matthew Barr and Glenn Benest, the latter of whom was responsible for adapting Duncan’s novel for the Linda Blair MOTW. Even though Craven was only a co-writer, there’s little room for doubt that he took this script as an opportunity to this time explore some of those fundamentalist demons that haunted his own past. You also can recognize Craven’s aptitude for naturalistic dialogue. That was always one of the beautiful things I loved about Craven’s writing: He had this enviably innate sense of rhythm when it came to character dialogue. Even when dealing with the stilted delivery of green actors, that rhythm still made it through.

Ultimately, I would consider this movie the first major disappointment from Craven’s directorial oeuvre, thanks to several factors that were completely out of Craven’s control. First, of course, was the script, which he fixed but clearly did not write. Second was the too-late realization on Craven’s part, which he discussed in later interviews, that basically this film’s larger budget came at a much larger cost to his creative freedom. The linchpin evidence of this truth? The ending of this movie. It’s appalling. Seriously, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Slight spoilers ahoy: The movie, which as I have already mentioned, was a religious horror akin to movies like Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel, and moves along at a fairly logical pace, playing out more like a mystery thriller but with some solid scares and some appeasing horror gore. The ending, though? It’s like it came from a completely different film. It suddenly veers off onto some bizarre supernatural horror tangent, complete with cheesy demon rising from the pits of hell to capture our heroine in the final scene. It’s such a ludicrous moment that swings in so far from left field, you’d think Pluto was closer in orbit than this ending. It was shockingly ill-conceived and jars you completely out of the movie, which might not have been spectacular but was at least tolerable up to that point.

I get what the producers wanted. They wanted a purely shocking surprise ending that none of the viewers would expect. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it’s done with some modicum of logic. Even the most fantastical stories need to have some kind of logical structure or you’re going to lose your audience. Supernatural horror, when done well, can be incredibly frightening and satisfying. Craven would prove this point more than adequately when he finally decided to venture on his own terms into the realm of the supernatural with his greatest solo contribution to horror mythology. This, however, misses the mark in a surprisingly ludicrous fashion.

Besides, this film already contains a twist that works in context with the story laid out before its reveal. This is the tricky part though. This particular reveal is pretty significant and one that is telegraphed ahead of the reveal to the audience but in a way that some might miss. There’s another horror movie that came out a few years after Deadly Blessing with a similar, though more tantalizing, version of this film’s surprise reveal. I don’t really want to say more. Suffice it to say, this could have passed as the one mostly satisfying surprise of the movie.

As I mentioned previously, this time we get more familiar faces, with Ernest Borgnine pulling a quick “Dr. Loomis” guest role for Craven and Lisa Hartman and Sharon Stone in one of their earliest movie roles. Stone would never physically appear in another Craven movie, but we’d encounter her in mention many years later in another iconic Craven-directed movie—made all the more humorous thanks to those titillating rumors about Stone’s role in Craven’s divorce from his second wife, Mimi; Craven even confirmed part of the rumor but denied that it was entirely true…and that’s all that I’m going to say about that piffle. Best Sharon Stone moment from this film? Craven having a live spider dropped into her mouth during a pivotal dream sequence. Stone insisted the spider be de-fanged first, but still…mayhaps this is what drove her to such later animosity toward Craven?

Additionally, we see the return of Michael Berryman to the Craven fold, this time playing a rather lackluster character who doesn’t really contribute much to the story before being quickly snuffed out (spoilers). Oh, and Jeff East, who was most recognizable to me as the young Clark Kent from the 1978 Superman film. Finally, Craven cast as his lead actress Maren Jensen, who will be recognizable to sci-fi fans as Athena from the original Battlestar Galactica. Random, pointless trivia moment: This role was Jensen’s last before she retired from acting.

There’s not really a whole lot of substance to this film the way there was for the previous two movies. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to have seen Craven delve more into his own religious upbringing for this story. I also would have loved to have seen his solo take on the schism between the patriarchal religious clan and the secular, independent women depicted in this movie. We get a bit of this examination through the Borgnine character’s rejection of his son for marrying outside the sect and the subsequent shunning of his widow and her friends. Plus, there are some interesting conversation starters about how the religious sect views female sexuality versus female acquiescence.

Clearly, however, Craven was not really driving this train even though he still brought a great deal of technical acumen to the actual filming. Once more, he delivers a nicely paced film with excellently timed scares. I’d also like to point out one scene in particular that will be instantly recognizable to fans of Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a bathtub scene, this time involving a serpent rather than a knife-gloved hand. The setup and execution of the introductory moments of the scene are almost identical between these two movies. My vote is for the latter version being more compelling, but it was a joy to see the spark of the idea catching fire in Craven’s mind.

Cravenous: The Hills Have Eyes

First, some full disclosure: I’ve skipped a Craven-directed movie, but some of you might not realize it. Remember what I wrote in my first Cravenous entry about the relationship between horror and porn during the late 70s and 80s? Well, Craven’s next documented movie after 1972’s The Last House on the Left was a 1975 Swedish-cocreated “arthouse porn” called The Fireworks Woman. You might have never heard of it as a Craven film because he wrote and directed it under the name “Abe Snake.” Gee, wonder why. He appears in the film as well. See?

The Fireworks Woman

Doesn’t he look groovy?

The movie is available online if you’d like to watch it. It’s about a brother and sister’s sexual obsession with each other. I decided to skip it, but you feel free to tackle that one, denizens. I’m holding out for the other Craven movie that features a canoodling brother and sister team.


[Loba Tangent: Oh, and just in case you’re wondering about the interconnections between these two genres? It’s because a lot of horror movies received X ratings from the MPAA, and the only theaters that would go anywhere near such a rating were…you guessed it: adult movie theaters. See? Travis Bickle could have taken Betsy to see a nice Wes Craven movie on their first date…]

So next in the horror line is Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes.

We get some recognizable faces this go, with Horror Queen Supreme Dee Wallace in one of her first film roles. Also making one of his earliest appearances in movies is Michael Berryman, the gentleman whose unique visage graces this movie’s poster. Berryman, whose Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia causes his odd appearance and leaves him with no sweat glands, hair, fingernails, or teeth, has bankrolled a full career from horror and science fiction movies, thanks in part to appearing as Pluto in this movie. We’ll even see him a few more times in future Craven films, as the director was often quite loyal to his actors.

As with his first film, Craven clearly still was fascinated by the exploration of humanity’s depravity and breaking points. He also was still fascinated by exploring the superficiality of our “civility.” No matter how refined we imagine ourselves to be, we still are animals—just scrape the surface a little bit and you’ll see. With this film, Craven wanted to explore exactly how much (or little) we’d need to scratch to find that ferocity. His test subjects?

A nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.

Fairly straightforward setup summed up perfectly in the movie’s tagline. We’ve got the all-American family extreme, traveling together across the country, camper in tow: Father, Mother, Three Siblings, One Son-in-Law, One Baby, and Two Dogs. What could be more white-bread, middle-class idyllic? The patriarch of the family, a recently retired Chicago cop who barely tolerates the simpering simplicity of his wife and two daughters, establishes himself as the cock of the walk right from the start.

Talk about foreshadowing.

He’s also on a mission, to locate a long-abandoned silver mine that he and his wife have jointly purchased for each other to celebrate their “silver anniversary” the next day. Even after being warned by the local gas station owner (who’s caught by the family in the middle of packing his own truck in preparation to leave the area) not to travel the dusty, dangerous dirt roads that strike off from the main highway, Mr. Retired Cop treats the warning as he must treat anything that doesn’t gel with what he wants: He ignores it.

Hilarity. It’s watching and waiting to ensue.

Also watching the camper is a band of hill people with questionable hygiene, even more questionable breeding, and supremely disturbing culinary tastes. All that tasty meat traveling along their roads? Too tempting to resist.

Just as Craven drew inspiration for his first horror movie from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (which, in turn, drew inspiration from a 13th century Swedish ballad), this time he drew inspiration from the Scottish folklore of Sawney Bean. Mr. Bean and his clan lived in a sea cave, subsisting off the belongings and flesh of travelers who ventured too near Sawney’s domain. Who says studying folklore is a waste of time? Craven’s impressive knowledge of mythology and folklore served him quite well throughout his career, indeed.

Once this movie kicks off, Craven again offers us no reprieve from the action unfolding on-screen—or from the violence. This is a fight for survival, and as such, there are no time-outs or moments to catch our breath. Once our protagonists realize the dire nature of their predicament, it’s almost too late. Well, definitely too late for several members of the family (spoilers). However, when that survivalist mentality that Craven very obviously loved to explore so much finally kicks in for the remaining protagonists, it’s go time. We get a couple of great traps, including one that uses…disturbingly interesting bait.

We also get a, pardon the phrasing, bleak-as-fuck ending. Serious spoilers from this point forward: Some of the crimes that the cannibalistic clan perpetrate upon our wholesome American family are the sexual assault of one sister (though far less disturbing than anything from The Last House on the Left, it’s still troublesome that Craven felt the need to include it and the resulting tipple into the rape revenge trope), the murder of the other sister, and the kidnapping of that sister’s baby for the purpose of holding a baby barbecue. Because I heard they taste like chicken. When the baby’s father realizes that his wife is dead and his daughter is missing, nothing could stop him from going out into the hills to bring her back.

Admittedly, the ending could have been far worse than it actually was. Craven initially contemplated having the clan go through with killing the baby. His own crew threatened mutiny, however, if he chose to go that route. Instead, he went with having the baby’s father succeed in capturing the kidnapping cannibal and murdering him in one of the most high-octane first-person death scenes to appear in movies up to that point. Placing us in the position of the cannibal, we witness the utter loss of control…of civility…by the baby’s father, Doug, as he repeatedly plunges the dagger into his captive, well past the point of death. Logic, however, cannot penetrate the control of “fight-or-flight” evolutionary programming to which Doug has completely succumbed. Craven is almost purely focused on forcing us to watch Doug’s unraveling, cutting away only to show the knife plunging in every now and again or the emotional distress of the cannibal’s sister as she watches her brother’s murder. The camera and the audience, however, is captured by the pure descent of Doug into that most primal survivalist mode. We hear his guttural grunting, we see the way spittle flies from his mouth, hangs from his lips, spews downward onto the camera. And when Doug finally stops? The movie ends.

Literally, the last thing we see is Doug, the realization of his actions just beginning to register on his face before the scene freezes and fades to red. Even with The Last House on the Left, Craven gave us a moment of decompression before fading to black, perhaps to regroup alongside the protagonists as they begin to process their actions. Not so in this case. The original ending that Craven filmed was far less dystopic, with Doug returning with his daughter and the cannibal’s sister (who had helped him rescue his daughter) to meet up with the rest of the survivors and begin their journey back to civilization. Craven opted for the more shocking and bleak ending, forcing us to process Doug’s actions and contemplate on our own the ramifications of all that had just transpired.

Doug’s devolution isn’t the only one we witness within this film. Two of the siblings, Bobby and Brenda, when encountering the patriarch of the cannibal clan after their trap failed to kill him, both quickly embrace their more primal responses. Both siblings have been running on fear and adrenaline for many hours—Bobby being the first to know something was wrong with where they were stranded after finding one of the family dogs disemboweled in the hills (yeah, Craven took the low blow by killing one of the dogs; he also used an actual dead dog in the scene, having collected the body from the sheriff’s department), and Brenda being the sister who was raped a few hours earlier—and so their violent response is almost synchronous and definitely autonomic.

Even the surviving dog plays a role in Craven’s character study. Beast in many ways seems not only intent on protecting his human family but also in seeking revenge for the death of his mate, Beauty. Some of Beast’s actions seemed somewhat anthropomorphic, but Craven drew nice parallels between his primal predatory instinct toward the cannibals and the human protagonists’ similar instincts: Want to survive? Then kill.

Craven’s insatiable need to examine the primal undercurrent of human civility is a fascinating one that continues to be relevant today. What are the factors that contribute to our standings in society? Are we born with intrinsically good or bad intentions? Or are there external circumstances that contribute to our choices? Craven seems to argue a bit in favor of both points with this movie (kind of). We learn through secondhand exposition that the cannibal family’s patriarch was born with evil intent in his heart (as secondhand information, however, we must extrapolate our own opinions of this information). Craven also once more focuses on class and education standing as influencing certain aspects of the story (the well-heeled American family with their college-educated children versus the uneducated hill people who have turned their survival into a bloodsport), as well as an underlying current of misogyny. The retired cop character ignores the thoughts of the women around him. The sister from the cannibal family is chained because she wishes to leave the hills and find a better life. The mother of the cannibal family is almost incidental to the story beyond the fact that she was a prostitute in her earlier years. And, of course, there is the continued use of sexual assault as the ultimate attack against women in horror films. Combine all these elements together and they equal another offering from Craven in which he posits that, yet again, we are the ultimate horror monsters.

BookBin2015: Still Alice


Remember in my last book review how I wrote that I was going to be writing again soon about a book that I enjoyed less than the movie? That would be Lisa Genova’s Still Alice.

Right off the bat, however, let me clarify some things about that statement. First, I think Genova’s story of well-respected linguistics professor Alice Howland’s decline from early onset Alzheimer’s disease is unflinching, devastating brilliance. I couldn’t put down the novel, no matter how haunting or painful it was to continue. As I’ve mentioned here before, Alzheimer’s took my grandmother from us slice by brutal slice, so this story was particularly upsetting at points. However, it also bore a message of determination and survival as well as a plea that we not shut out those with Alzheimer’s as though they were no longer a worthy part of our lives or the world in general. They cannot halt what is happening to them, but they continue to need the same things we all do: interaction, acceptance, love, strength, kindness.

That all being said, I don’t necessarily think I would use the word “enjoyed” in reference to this book. It’s like saying you enjoyed Sophie’s Choice. You can appreciate the craftsmanship of the story, the power of the narrative, the thematic impact. But enjoy? I don’t know about that, although I suppose the somewhat open-ended conclusion of the book and movie provide a final bit of silver lining to Alice’s admittedly ever-darkening cloud.

Finally, I would place the movie version of this book higher than the book. Why? Two words: Julianne Moore. A sublime actress, Moore brings Alice to life in ways that will destroy you. Few have deserved an Oscar more than she did for this performance. I believe she also is the reason that I ultimately rate the movie higher than the book. She lifted this character from the page and pushed her into existence honestly, eloquently, and with purest humility. She released all inhibition and gave herself to the role in a way that few can truly and convincingly do. If for Moore only, I recommend the movie more than the book, although I’m all for tackling both and doing your own comparison.

Final Verdict: In both book and cinematic form, this is a story whose value I can acknowledge. It also is a story I don’t particularly ever want to revisit.