As usual, here is my list of my favorite films from 2017, just in time for tonight's Oscars ceremony.
There are a bunch of movies I didn't get a chance to look at before making this list — Mudbound, The Post, A Ghost Story, Darkest Hour, I Tonya, Call Me By Your Name, etc. I make no argument that the following films constitute a definitive list of the "best" films of 2017. These are just the ones that had the greatest impact on me.
So from least to most, here they are:
20. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
I had a hard time deciding whether or not this should go on my list. Not only did I not love mother!, I'm not even sure I really liked it. But I do admire the hell out of what Darren Aronofsky is trying to do here, and I've got to give him props for somehow conning Paramount into giving this thing a wide release. RESPECT.
mother! falls into my Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans/Neon Demon category of batshit crazy movies that I can't decide whether they're misunderstood masterpieces or utter pieces of self-indulgent shit. My guess is that they're probably a bit of both. What can't be denied is that mother! is an experience, and Aronofsky and his cast (most notably Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer) commit to it with absolute sincerity. I don't think the movie is half as smart as it thinks it is — I found all the various "allegories" to be pretty fucking obvious — but I appreciate the way Aronofsky hurled himself headlong into whatever antisocial impulse compelled him to make it. Love it or hate it, mother! is a work of art from a committed visionary (i.e. total weirdo).
19. The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour)
The post-apocalyptic "town" of Comfort in Ana Lily Amirpour's The Bad Batch is kind of what I always imagined Burning Man would be like... which is why I've never been all that interested in going to Burning Man.
I found Amirpour's oddly amoral film (her second, after A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) equal parts fascinating and frustrating. The ill-defined future America of The Bad Batch makes George Miller's Mad Max universe seem like a Carnival cruise. Populated by body-building cannibals and limbless 90s rave kids, it's a deeply immersive world, and Amirpour has a real eye for the kind of exploitation-laden cinematic decadence this genre requires. The whole thing unfolds as a languid fever-dream punctuated by moments of startling (and exhilarating) violence.
But as much as I enjoyed all the details, I was left with an overall feeling of "that's it?" by the end. This is largely due to the wooden performances by the film's two leads, Suki Waterhouse and Jason Momoa. It's supposed to be a sort of love story, I think, but the absolute lack of chemistry between the two of them leaves that a pretty open question. The glorified cameos from various movie stars (including Jim Carrey as a mute drifter, Keanu Reeves as a combination Jim Jones-style cult leader/creepy 70s uncle, and Giovanni Ribisi as... whatever the hell he's supposed to be here) were fun but more than a little distracting. Worse, the racial dynamics are (to be kind) ill considered, and end up creating a few moments that are cringe worthy for all the wrong reasons.
It's got a killer soundtrack, though.
18. Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)
Sexy, stylish, and gloriously violent, Atomic Blonde could have been a tasty chunk of cinematic eye candy and nothing more. But Charlize Theron somehow manages to ground her performance as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton in some real pathos, and James MacAvoy nearly steals the show as David Percival, a shady British operative who may have gone native in Cold War 1980s Berlin.
The absurdly labyrinthine plot — something about smuggling pro-Western spies out of East Germany — is flimsy as hell, but it hardly matters. The cat and mouse game between Broughton and her ostensible ally Percival is wickedly entertaining, and the exquisitely choreographed action sequences (scored to propulsive 80s soundtrack) are as good as any I've ever seen.
This isn't the female James Bond we've been waiting for. It's a lot better than that.
17. It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults)
It Comes at Night was deeply divisive amongst horror fans this year, and much of the debate seems to revolve around the terrible title and the false expectations it created. Nothing actually comes at night in this movie, except for maybe a mounting sense of existential dread. Those primed for yet another post-apocalyptic monster movie (see I Am Legend, Cloverfield, etc.) were instead treated with a grim character study and a relatively quiet slice of psychological horror.
But if you're able to adjust your expectations, Shults's vision needles its way under your skin. The movie creeps along, lulling you into a false sense of comfort, before exploding into a descending spiral of brutality that's as uninflected as it is unnervingly realistic. Not a whole lot happens in this movie, but what does is pretty chilling.
16. A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski)
The Ring director Gore Verbinski goes gothic and vaguely Lovecraftian in this throwback of a horror film. Dane DeHaan plays an ambitious corporate executive sent to a "wellness center" deep in the Swiss Alps to retrieve the apparently crazy CEO of his company. Jason Isaacs portrays the center's vaguely sinister chief administrator, and Mia Goth plays a strange young woman who lives there.
A Cure for Wellness is a slow burn, and at times it nearly drowns itself in all its moody stylishness. But there's something charmingly old-fashioned about it, and Verbinski crafts a few sequences that are legitimately terrifying. Until it goes off the rails in its final act, it's pretty damn effective.
The movie bombed at the box office, unfortunately. It's a bummer that horror movies like this struggle to find an audience. But for fans of classics like Don't Look Now, Rosemary's Baby, and Suspiria, you can do a lot worse.
15. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
I stand by my (probably not all that controversial) assertion that Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight remains the greatest comic-book movie ever made. But for at least two-thirds of its runtime, Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman gives it a real run for its money.
Like almost everyone, I've not been all that taken by most of the DC-universe films post Man of Steel. But Jenkins brings something new to the table here. Wonder Woman is far more than a simple superhero movie or a feminist parable; it's a deeply felt examination of the psychological impact of war, and a clarion call for idealism in an ever more cynical world.
It's also a lot of fucking fun. The action is great, Gal Gadot is a radiant badass, and the movie handles all of its heavy themes with a surprisingly light touch. The last twenty minutes or so are a pretty serious letdown — in particular a truly godawful Big Bad Reveal — but not enough to knock the movie off my list. Even if it's not quite The Dark Knight, it's more than earned its place in the pantheon.
14. It (Andy Muschietti)
I have some pretty big issues with Andy Muschietti's take on one of my all-time favorite novels, but none of them have to do with Bill Skarsgård's Pennywise. This is the Pennywise I've been dying to see my entire life. I appreciate Tim Curry's iconic portrayal from the original miniseries, but he never quite captured the truly alien menace of the character from the book. But Skarsgård's Pennywise is truly fucking terrifying.
The rest of the movie is pretty good, some questionable character choices aside (don't get me started on what they do to my favorite character, Mike Hanlon). The 80s update works remarkably well, and the relationships between the kids is mostly pretty great — particularly the raunchy buddy-cop dynamic between Ritchie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazier).
13. The Belko Experiment (Greg McLean)
By rights this probably shouldn't be anywhere near anybody's top 20 list. But if I'm to be entirely honest, I don't think I had more fun with another film in all of 2017. This is the type of pure, dumb, thumb-in-the-eye antisocial pulp that I live for.
A sort of mashup between Office Space and Battle Royale, this movie is utterly ridiculous and totally awesome. Ably directed by Wolf Creek's Greg McLean, it was also written by James Gunn — the berserk weirdo James Gunn of Tromeo and Juliet, not the lovably impish A-lister of Guardians of the Galaxy. I love Guardians, but it's nice to see Gunn going back to the well here.
12. Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)
Objectively, Wonder Woman is probably the better film. But Thor: Ragnarok is just so much giddy fun that it earned a couple extra spots on my list.
The epic greatness of Black Panther notwithstanding, I tend to enjoy Marvel's films most when they lean into the silly, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. And Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Eagle vs. Shark) is absolutely the right filmmaker to do that. Shadows is, for my money, maybe the funniest film of the last decade. Waititi took that sensibility and rescued what may be Marvel's least beloved franchise. It's not quite as brilliant as Guardians, but it's up there.
11. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
I'm sadistically tempted to have friends over some night to do a mother!/ Phantom Thread double feature. If there were ever two movies more malignantly in conversation with one another, I don't know what they would be. Both films explore the troubling relationship between the much-older male artist and his younger female muse. The conclusion? Don't, for the love of God, ever marry an artist.
But where mother! is all bombast and overt menace, Phantom Thread is quiet, precise, and sneakily devastating. One is a bludgeon, the other a scalpel.
Phantom Thread is also in conversation with an earlier Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece, The Master. Anderson is better than almost any living filmmaker at carving into the rotten meat of a relationship where the balance of power is dangerously uneven. Here, his vision is almost too claustrophobic for its own good, but he finds just enough moments of wicked humor to give us some breathing room. As always, Daniel Day Lewis is remarkable, but Lesley Manville and relative newcomer Vicky Krieps more than hold their own.
10. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
If mother! and Phantom Thread explore the dynamic between male creator and female muse, Personal Shopper shows that dynamic in action... hopefully in a manner that is far less toxic. French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was rightly taken with Kristen Stewart's performance in his previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria... so taken that he wrote his next film specifically for her. In doing so, he weds an actor's distinct talents to a particular subject more perfectly than just about any film since Raging Bull.
Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper for a temperamental movie star in Paris. Maureen is alienated and isolated from the world of the living — instead yearning for a connection to her dead brother, who promised her he would find a way to contact her from the beyond. Whether he manages to do so or not is left open to interpretation.
You could describe Personal Shopper as a ghost story, but it's haunting in much more complicated and unexpected ways. And Stewart's quiet, interior performance is deeply affecting. Stewart is often dismissed as bland or wooden, but that's only because most filmmakers aren't able to capture the steam that's ready to explode beneath her placid exterior. Assayas does so wonderfully. This isn't quite as good as Clouds of Sils Maria, but it's an impressive collaboration between two unique artists at the top of their game.
9. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
I don't have a whole lot to say about Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk beyond that it was probably the most visceral experience I had at the movies all year. This is pure cinema in a way that demands to be seen on the big screen, and I fear that it probably won't hold up entirely in the transition to television.
Regardless, Dunkirk is a master class in how to fully immerse your audience. From the cinematography to the sound design, Nolan puts you on that fucking beach. My legs were literally shaking from adrenaline as I left the theater.
8. Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer)
On one level, Ingrid Goes West is a vicious black comedy about social media, selfie-culture, and the way we curate our lives online.
But on another level, it's a surprisingly moving depiction of mental illness, and the loneliness and isolation that can come from the resultant social stigma. Aubrey Plaza walks that tightrope effortlessly, moving from funny to scary to utterly heartbreaking all within a single scene. This is perhaps the most note-perfect performance I've seen all year, and it's a crime that Plaza wasn't nominated for an Oscar.
Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., and Billy Magnussen also turn in solid performances. But Plaza owns this movie from start to finish.
7. 1922 (Zak Hilditch)
2017 was the year of Stephen King at the movies (although the less said about The Dark Tower the better). But while It was the movie that literally everyone and their grandmother saw (to the tune of a $700 million box office), the better movie was to be found on Netflix.
Zak Hilditch's 1922 may take the prize for being the most faithful King adaption ever (except for maybe Frank Darabont's The Green Mile). It's also one of the bleakest and most disturbing. Like A Cure for Wellness, 1922 is an old-fashioned slice of gothic melodrama with surprisingly sharp teeth. Thomas Jane's Wilfred James takes my prize for the most unnervingly broken onscreen King protagonist (take that, Jack Nicholson). A few of you may have a hard time getting past his dialect, but as someone whose Okie grandfather died at the ripe old age of 102, I can confirm that it is indeed flawless.
Combine all this with an unsettling score by my boy Mike Patton, and you've pretty much ensured that this movie would be a hit with me.
For the record, I haven't yet had the chance to see the other Netflix/King movie from last year, Mike Flanagan's Gerald's Game. That one got a bit more press than 1922. I'm sure I'll catch it soon, but in truth Gerald's Game is one of my least favorite King novels, whereas the novella "1922" (from the collection Full Dark, No Stars) was a welcome return to form by my favorite writer.
6. I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (Macon Blair)
This is a remarkably assured debut film from Macon Blair, better known for his performances in Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin and Green Room. Saulnier's influence is evident throughout (all the way down to the soundtrack, which includes a track from Green Room's terrorized punk band The Ain't Rights), but Blair has a much lighter touch with similarly dark material.
Effortlessly shifting back and forth between quirky observational comedy and brutal crime thriller, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore is, like Ingrid Goes West, a powerful depiction of the nihilism of clinical depression. Why bother playing by the world's rules, this movie asks, if the world doesn't give a shit about you? Melanie Lynskey's Ruth is a woman on the verge of spinning out into chaos, and all it take is the indignity of a home break-in to push her over the edge. Lynskey plays the truth of that while never losing sight of the comedy; Ruth is ferocious and funny in equal measure.
Elijah Wood is also great as Tony, a head-banging, nunchuck-wielding, God-fearing neighbor who appoints himself her sidekick in her quest for vengeance. And eagle-eyed noise/punk fans will be excited to see The Jesus Lizard's David Yow in a pivotal role.
5. Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)
Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) might be my favorite screenwriter working today, and he smashes another one over the wall with his directorial debut, Wind River.
Sheridan is playing in the well-trod rural noir sandbox of writers like Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men) and films like Red Rock West and One False Move. It would be understandable to want to dismiss him as yet another white guy lamenting the existential condition of the white American male. But that would be selling him short. What sets Sheridan apart is the deep well of empathy he has for all his characters, as well as his ability to balance the operatic against the grubbily prosaic.
Wind River is no different. It centers on Cory (Jeremy Renner), a Game and Fish official in rural Wyoming who takes it upon himself to track down the murderers of a young Native American woman near the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Wind River works wonderfully as a gritty crime thriller, but it's also a powerful examination of grief, misogyny, and exploitation. There's a wounded human core at the center of this film that a pulpier filmmaker would have missed.
4. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Leave it to a filmmaker primarily known for comedy to make one of the most profoundly important horror films in a generation. Jordan Peele uses his satirist's eye to peel back the layers of some really ugly racial truths in America today. But rather than lean into the absurdity for comic effect, he twists it into something genuinely terrifying.
Don't get me wrong; the movie is funny too. But Peele isn't interested in letting us off the hook with laughs. This film goes for the jugular. It doesn't quite sustain itself all the way through, slipping into some unfortunate B-movie clichés in the back third, but that mild misstep does nothing to dispel the overall effect... which is an absolute punch to the gut.
I hope Peele doesn't quit comedy altogether, but I'd be happy to see him continue to mine this darker vein of creativity for as long as he wants to. He's the filmmaker I'm most excited to watch develop over the next few years.
3. The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro)
Honestly, this movie should really be tied with Get Out on this list because I can't decide which one I'm rooting for more at tonight's Oscars. But I'm giving the (very slight) edge to Del Toro, because — as someone who's had my own lifelong love affair with monsters — I just found this movie startlingly beautiful.
A spiritual companion to Del Toro's earlier films The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water is more fairy tale than horror movie. The whole thing might have been a bit too twee for my taste if not for the remarkable central performances from Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, along with equally solid supporting turns from Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg (the only false note for me came from Richard Jenkins, who I usually love but who felt a bit lost here).
And Del Toro's visual acuity is unmatched anywhere in cinema today. Watching this makes me weep for his abandoned adaptation of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.
2. The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
This one caught me completely off guard. I'd been hearing about it for months, of course, but I didn't actually sit down to watch it until the other day. And, holy shit, if there's been a better romantic comedy since When Harry Met Sally, I haven't seen it (to be fair, I don't watch a lot of romantic comedies).
The mostly true story of star/co-writer Kumail Nanjiani's tumultuous early relationship with his wife, Emily Gordon (they wrote the screenplay together), The Big Sick works so brilliantly because it feels so rooted in lived experience. The character of Emily (played in the film by Zoe Kazan) could easily have tipped over into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but Nanjiani, Gordon, Kazan, and director Michael Showalter never let that happen. She's as fully realized as Nanjiani — even though she spends the lion's share of the movie in a coma.
Equally powerful are the depictions of the various family members. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are note perfect as Emily's parents. More tricky is the depiction of Nanjiani's rigidly traditional Pakistani family. The risk of slipping into an ugly stereotype is ever-present... but again, this is all rooted in Nanjiani's true life, and the film never once fails to maintain the family's humanity. It sucks that this should be counted as an achievement, but there we are. Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff are deeply affecting as Nanjiani's mom and dad — barbed when they need to be, but always full of life and love. And Adeel Akhtar, as Nanjiani's brother Naveed, quietly steals nearly every scene that he's in.
And, let's not forget, this movie is a fucking laugh riot. Nanjiani himself is hilarious, as is Kazan, and Showalter rounds out the cast with some amazing comic performers (Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and Bo Burnham) and just lets them go. There's not a single frame of this movie I would change.
1. The Blackcoat's Daughter (Oz Perkins)
And from the nearly sublime we move to the literally profane.
With The Blackcoat's Daughter, Oz Perkins (yes, son of Anthony) has delivered one of the most unnerving and unexpected horror movies I've ever seen. It didn't knock my knees out from under me quite the way 2016's The Invitation did, but it came close.
I don't want to say too much about it, because to spoil the movie would be an unforgivable sin. So I'll just say this: possession stories are exceedingly hard to pull off because they're all living under the shadow of The Exorcist. I had given up on ever expecting to see an original take on the premise... but within a couple years, we got both Paul Tremblay's remarkable novel A Head Full of Ghosts and Perkins' The Blackcoat's Daughter, both of which take your expectations for the genre and turn them completely upside down.
So when the announcement came a couple weeks ago the Perkins will be doing the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts, my brain literally imploded onto itself. I'm still picking through the rubble.
Here's the thing about Harvey Weinstein: he sure makes a convenient villain, doesn't he?
I mean, just look at him:
He's like a central-casting mafioso. And the stories that have emerged about him are SO gross, so over the top in their sheer awfulness, that they become almost abstract. It's like the concept of a trillion dollars: it's so big I can't even wrap my head around it.
Or what about James Toback? Just look at this fucking weasel:
I mean, here's a guy who's assaulted and harassed more than 200 women. Women he would approach on the street or in Central Park (he would show them press clippings about his shitty 20-year-old movies just to convince them he was a legitimate filmmaker). Women who he subtly/not-subtly threatened to kidnap or murder if they ever told what he did to them during their "audition."
Or how about Roy Moore?
This guy's the very definition of a degenerate Southern redneck. A guy who thinks that 9/11 was God's punishment for sin and that gay people should be in prison, all the while creeping on teenage girls outside court houses.
As a man, these guys are what I want my sexual predators to look like. To act like. Because I can look at them and I can say "well, shit, that's not me."
But look back at that Al Franken photo at the top of this post. That's... harder for me to deal with.
A lot harder.
Because that could be me.
I never thought of myself as a harasser. I really don't think I am a harasser. But looking at that photo has made me feel a little unsteady.
• When I was in high school I grabbed my friend's boob on a dare. I felt shitty and weird about it the moment I did it, but we all laughed it off so I thought it was fine. But when I talked to her about it years later, I got the impression she felt shitty and weird about it too. I tried to apologize, but honestly I didn't even know what to say.
We're still friends, and she might be reading this right now (not going to name her), and if she is... I really am sorry. And I still don't know what to say.
• I used to like to annoy girls by poking them incessantly in the side, giving them wet willies, even snapping the occasional bra. I'd like to say this was all just dumb high school behavior long in my past, but anyone who's been around me in a bar or at a party knows that's not the case. Now, I never grabbed a butt or a breast, and I restricted myself to women I'm friends with. I always just thought of it is playful teasing, sort of big brother stuff, and usually the girls would laugh right along with it. And I think most of the time the laughter was genuine.
But it started to occur to me a couple years ago that maybe I shouldn't assume the laughter is genuine. Because here's the thing: I'm 6'4 and over 260 pounds. I'm usually very aware of my size and take pains not to use it to intimidate. I didn't ever connect it to my "playful" behavior. But I also know that there've been dozens of studies showing how our society pressures and conditions women to go along, to "be cool," to not rock the boat. And when you've got a giant like me giggling like a moron and trying to stick his wet thumb in your ear, are you going to hit him or tell him to fuck off, or are you just going to go along and hope he cuts it out? Or, at the very least, doesn't push it any farther?
I know that a few times I did push it too far, and good-natured annoyance tipped over into genuine exasperation. I felt bad and knocked it off. But it didn't occur to me until way more recently than I would like to admit that that exasperation might have been a mask for another emotion... fear.
No one has ever explicitly told me that.
But I wonder.
At any rate, I've tried to stop doing that shit.
• I also like to annoy dudes in similarly juvenile ways. And that does include boob and butt grabbing. It honestly never even occurred to me that it could be seen as anything other than general fucking around. But, when the #metoo thing happened a few weeks ago, I posted about how once at a party some dude grabbed my dick. And that got me thinking.
The idea of male-on-male sexual harassment is not new to me. But, again, it never even crossed my mind that I could be doing just that very thing. To be fair, I've been the recipient of many a boob or butt grab myself, and I never felt harassed (the dick-grabbing incident was different). It's just kind of the way me and my friends tend to act around each other.
But can I say with one hundred percent certainty that I've never made anyone genuinely uncomfortable? No. I can't.
In fact, there's one friend in particular I feel like I probably did make uncomfortable. Again, not going to name him here... but I am going to offer a private apology.
After Leeann Tweeden went public with that Franken photo, Senator Franken issued a brief statement, followed by a longer one:
• "I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it."
• "Over the last few months, all of us — including and especially men who respect women — have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.
For instance, that picture. I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. There's no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it — women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me."
Here's the thing: I believe Senator Franken. I think he feels terrible. And I don't believe him because I'm a fan of his comedy, or his politics (I am, of both). I believe him because I look back on my own actions and I think to myself the exact same thing.
It was meant to be funny.
And maybe it was funny. I don't know. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe some of the men and women in my circle of friends have felt intimidated or violated by something I've done, and that makes me sick to my stomach. I mean literally, physically nauseous.
Before I go on, I just want to make clear I'm not trying to make this about me, or to do some performative fake-woke bullshit act of self flagellation. I know I'm not Harvey Weinstein, and I know I'm not Louis CK, and anyone who tries to tell me that I am is wrong.
But I've been watching with some interest the reaction on social media to the Louis CK revelations and some of the initial reaction to the Franken story. And I've seen too many men getting real defensive real fast. I can only imagine they're looking back on some of their own behavior and feeling the same nausea that I'm feeling.
Here's the thing, guys. We have two choices here. We can be part of the problem, or be part of the solution. We can get defensive, cocoon ourselves from criticism, or we can stop being assholes and ask ourselves some hard questions.
This shit isn't a game, and it sure as hell isn't a game to the women in our lives. We'll never know the terror of walking down the street at night and having some guy catcall us out a car window and wonder if he's just going to keep driving or if he's going to pull over. We'll never know the betrayal of having a trusted friend assault us after a party. We'll never feel the shame and powerlessness of being told "lighten up, it was only a joke."
We need to do better.
We may not always succeed, but we need to try.
And a good first step is being honest with ourselves.
So, to anyone I've ever made feel frightened, or violated, or bullied, or harassed...
From the bottom of my heart.
This is my favorite quote about what it means to be a horror fan:
"The relationship is not entirely masochistic ... A film like Alien or Jaws is, for either the true fan or simply the ordinary moviegoer who has a sometime interest in the macabre, like a wide, deep vein of gold that doesn’t even have to be mined; it can simply be dug out of the hillside. But that isn’t mining, remember; it’s just digging. The true horror film aficionado is more like a prospector with his panning equipment or his wash-wheel, spending long periods going patiently through common dirt, looking for the bright blink of gold dust or possibly even a small nugget or two. Such a working miner is not looking for the big strike, which may come tomorrow or the day after or never; he has put those illusions behind him. He’s only looking for a livin’ wage, something to keep him going yet awhile longer."
— Stephen King. Danse Macabre (p. 222). Pocket Books. Kindle Edition.
In honor of Halloween, I wanted to highlight a few horror films that, it seems to me, have been overlooked or under-appreciated over the years. These aren't necessarily masterpieces (although I'd mount an argument for my top four picks), and they don't really fall into the so-bad-they're-good category either. They're not really cult films. Some of them are, frankly, not very good. A few of them are pretty close to great. But they're just sort of cruising under the radar, not much discussed or recalled with any particular fondness.
But they're each in some way — even if it's just a quick scene here or an unsettling image there — better than you probably remember.
20. The Guardian (1990)
I can't mount much of a defense of The Guardian — William Friedkin's 1990 film about a homicidal Druidic tree nanny — because, frankly, I barely remember it. It's widely considered to be a disaster, and it's often cited as Friedkin's worst movie (which is saying a lot). But it had significant impact on me when it came out, which was right around when I started getting serious about horror. My memory, such as it is, is that the movie is batshit crazy. It features all sorts of really weird imagery involving having sex with trees and being eaten by or otherwise murdered by trees that, for whatever reason, 12-year-old me found profoundly disturbing. The above clip looks pretty goofy now out of context, but it's one of those sequences that lodged itself in my consciousness at an impressionable age and sunk some pretty deep roots (pun intended).
19. Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)
The 80s was a real heyday for anthology-based horror movies (Tales From the Darkside, Twilight Zone: The Movie, etc.) , and Stephen King was the creative force behind what was probably the best of them with Creepshow, his gleefully corny 1982 paean to classic EC Comics (directed with a sly nudge and a wink by George A. Romero).
1985's Cat's Eye (directed by Lewis Teague) was an attempt to follow up on that film's success. It's based on two short stories from King's 1978 collection Night Shift, along with an original tale starring Drew Barrymore and a heroic cat. My memory is that the original entry, "The General," was kind of lame. But the adaptations of "Quitters Inc." (starring James Woods and Alan King) and "The Ledge" (starring Robert Hays and Kenneth McMillan) are surprisingly dark given the format, and pretty effective. They both have an oddball noir tone that is completely at odds with the almost fairy-tale framing story involving the cat. This film definitely has its fans, but it seems mostly forgotten today.
18. The Johnsons (1992)
Much like The Guardian, this is a movie I don't remember very well and suspect isn't very good. But certain images stick in my head (particularly the bald kids, which seem to be a riff on the murderous tots in David Cronenberg's The Brood), and — in its own raw, Id-based way — it gets at something weird and queasy about the sexualization of teenage girls that I remember finding pretty distressing at the time. It's one I'd like to go back and rewatch with a more mature sensibility. It got a bit of buzz in the horror press in its day, then basically disappeared without a trace.
17. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
This will be a controversial pick, but hear me out. The film utterly failed when it was released and was deeply reviled by both audiences and critics, but I think that's mostly because it just didn't deliver what people expected. When acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Some Kind of Monster) signed on to direct this movie, people thought he would expand on the found-footage format established by the original film. Instead, he made a strange little Polanski-inspired chamber piece that tried to be a postmodern meditation on the whole "Blair Witch" zeitgeist.
The movie is deeply flawed, in no small part because Artisan Entertainment took Berlinger's unique take on the subject and hacked it all up in an attempt to turn it into a standard blockbuster and shameless cash grab. But there's a glimmer of a real artistic vision that shines through the mess, and Berlinger had some interesting things to say about the nature of belief, urban legends, and insanity.
For all its problems, it's certainly a more interesting movie than last year's already forgotten sequel.
16. The Seventh Sign (1988)
I'm probably way out on my own on this one.
The Seventh Sign is an odd little film. It's slow, talky, and so frankly religious in its outlook that it could fit in nicely with more standard faith-based fair like the Left Behind movies. But it's also pretty smart in its examination of apocalyptic theology, well acted by Demi Moore, Jurgen Prochnow, and Michael Biehn, and ably directed by Hungarian filmmaker Carl Schultz. Audiences and critics HATED this thing when it came out, but it's long been a secret favorite of mine — which to this day kind of surprises me, considering its unapologetically Christian perspective. It's got more stylistic polish than you would expect, and there's a subtle feeling of impending doom hanging over the entire movie that gets under your skin if you let it. I watched it again earlier this year for the first time in a couple decades, and I was surprised at how well I thought it held up.
15. Lake Placid (1999)
I would guess that between this and Book of Shadows a lot of you are ready to revoke my horror-fan credentials. To that I say pull the stick out of your ass and stop taking yourself so seriously. This movie is just a lot of stupid fun, and the David E. Kelly-penned dialogue cracks me up every time I watch it, which is maybe once every five years or so. It's almost like a monster movie written by a slightly stoned Aaron Sorkin, and Oliver Platt's scenery chewing performance alone makes it worth the price of admission.
I was also pretty wasted the first time I saw it, so the moment where the crocodile suddenly eats the bear pretty much made my brain explode.
14. Altitude (2010)
This isn't a great film, but I found it to be an oddly affecting and strangely personal movie by Canadian comic-book artist Kaare Andrews. It's got shades of Lovecraftian cosmic horror splattered all over it, but in the end it manages to be a fairly well-considered and mind-bendy examination of wish fulfillment and the dangerous power of imagination. And the ending packed an emotional punch that I did not expect, considering its direct-to-video origins.
13. Flatliners (1990)
I sort of put Flatliners in the same category as The Seventh Sign: a moderately stylish Hollywood horror film from the same time period, featuring major stars and dealing with overtly religious themes. Flatliners was nowhere near as reviled as the aforementioned movie — and it can hardly be said to be forgotten, considering it was remade just this year — but its reception was pretty mixed and it never quite achieved cult status. I've always had a soft spot for this film, though, even though it was directed by Joel Schumacher, one of my least favorite Hollywood filmmakers. It has a sleek coolness to it that I found really intriguing at the time. The movie's depiction of the porous border between life and the afterlife is both matter-of-fact and deeply trippy, and serves as a nice companion to Adrian Lyne's much more effective Jacob's Ladder from that same year.
12. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
I suppose 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie isn't exactly forgotten, and it probably does qualify as a cult film at the very least. But I'm going to include it here because it seems like whenever anyone talks about it these days, they talk less about the movie itself and more about the notorious onset accident that killed star Vic Morrow and two children and very nearly derailed director John Landis's career.
This is the most prestigious of the 80s anthology-horror boom (its infamy notwithstanding), considering that the individual segments were directed by some of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the era. Ironically, the entries by the two biggest directors of the time (Landis and Steven Spielberg) are the two most forgettable. Landis's "Time Out" is preachy and nearly incomprehensible (understandable, perhaps, considering the production was cut short by the fatal helicopter crash), and Spielberg's "Kick the Can" is nothing but treacly fluff. The true standouts reimagine episodes of the original series, both of which are based on beloved short stories by sci-fi/horror luminaries. My favorite is Joe Dante's truly bananas "It's a Good Life," based on the 1953 story by Jerome Bixby. But the one everyone remembers most is probably George Miller's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," based on Richard Matheson's 1961 classic.
One gets the feeling that Spielberg felt like he was slumming, and Landis was just trying to show off. But Dante and Miller clearly understood the appeal of the original material, and they manage to bring a real modern (for the time) edge and energy to their installments. This is only half of a great anthology film, but the half that's great is legitimately great.
11. Christine (1983)
I almost went with John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness here, but that's a film that — while nowhere near as beloved by genre fans as Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, or The Fog — definitely has some cult-classic legitimacy. Christine, however, was a director-for-hire job and an adaptation of one of the more unloved Stephen King novels of the era. Carpenter himself has roundly dismissed the movie over the years.
I think it deserves another look. It's a brooding love ballad to cars, greasers, and 1950s rock and roll, and an unconventional examination of teenage rage and lust. Keith Gordon's sneering take on bullied loner Arnie Cunningham is genuinely unnerving, and his slow descent into madness as he falls under the malign influence of the titular demonic 1957 Plymouth Fury is deeply convincing. The filmmaking is solid, even if the movie is oddly paced — somehow managing to be both rushed and a little too staid for its own good. It's not a perfect film by any means, but this image of a burning Christine roaring down the highway (to a Carpenter-penned synth soundtrack) after bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) has haunted my dreams for nearly three decades.
10. Lord of Illusions (1995)
Novelist/artist/filmmaker Clive Barker possesses maybe the most singular voice in the horror genre since H.P. Lovecraft. And, like Lovecraft, his ideas don't always translate to the screen. His achievements as a novelist and a visual artist are nearly unparalleled, but he's only directed three feature films. His first two directorial efforts — Hellraiser (based on the novella "The Hellbound Heart") and Nightbreed (based on the novel Cabal) — are solidly canonized by horror aficionados. But his third (and last) film Lord of Illusions (based on the short story "The Last Illusion") somehow never really caught fire with the fans.
While Hellraiser is the undisputed masterpiece I'd actually argue that Lord of Illusions is a stronger film than Nightbreed (which I like a lot), thematically richer and more in control of its tone. It's an odd mashup of hardboiled Hollywood noir, cosmic cult paranoia, and theatrical fantasy, all filtered through Barker's warped and transgressive sensibilities.
Barker has been beset by serious health problems in recent years, so I think it's unlikely we'll see him return to the director's chair. It's been a long while since I've seen Lord of Illusions, but just thinking about it now makes me want to go back and give it a rewatch.
9. Land of the Dead (2005)
George A. Romero invented the modern zombie movie with his original trilogy, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985). Everything that has come after — from Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979) to AMC's The Walking Dead -- has its roots in Romero's original vision.
Land of the Dead was originally supposed to come in the 1990s, long before the modern zombie resurgence. But Romero was plagued by development and financing problems, so by the time it finally arrived in 2005 — a year after Zach Snyder's remake of Dawn — it had the creaky feel of anticlimax. To be sure, it's probably the weakest of his original zombie cycle and is clearly an abridgment of Romero's original epic vision for the film. But it's a better movie than it's usually given credit for. Like its predecessors it holds up an interesting mirror to its time, coming just a few years after 9/11 and falling right in the middle of George W. Bush's presidency. Dennis Hopper's memorable villain tells us everything we need to know about what Romero thought of the politics of that era, and seems disturbingly predictive of the rise of Trumpism more than a decade later.
8. Dagon (2001)
Director Stuart Gordon is mostly known for his bonkers 1985 adaptation of Lovecraft's "Herbert West: Re-Animator" — a film remembered primarily for the scene in which a severed head performs cunnilingus on a screaming woman. He's returned to the Lovecraft well a few times throughout his career, most notably in this loose 2001 adaptation of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."
Re-Animator definitely has its campy charms, but I much prefer the more serious-minded Dagon. For one, the source material is stronger; "Herbert West: Re-Animator" is one of Lovecraft's weaker stories, whereas "Shadow" might be his best. Transplanting the narrative from coastal New England to a Spanish fishing village was an inspired choice, not-so-subtly alluding to the bizarre (and cheerfully offensive) Basque/Reptilian hypothesis popular amongst some conspiracy theorists. No matter what you think of that bit of insanity, Gordon's film manages to be legitimately spooky throughout the bulk of its runtime, only going somewhat off the rails in the final act.
Lovecraft is notoriously hard to adapt, but Dagon is definitely one of the better attempts. Until we finally get the movie version of At the Mountains of Madness that has been breaking our collective hearts for decades now, this will have to stand as my favorite official Lovecraft movie (John Carpenter's The Thing and Ridley Scott's Alien are generally cited as the two best non-Lovecraft Lovecraft films ever made).
NOTE: I was lucky enough to catch a retrospective screening of Dagon at the 2013 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival/CthulhuCon in San Pedro (as Innsmouth-like a city as you'll find in SoCal). Gordon was in attendance for a Q&A, and hung out with the fans afterwards. He's seriously one of the nicest people I've ever met.
7. The Others (2001)
This movie by Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes) was pretty well received at the time, but it doesn't seem to have had much staying power. Like Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, it might have been too dependent on the third-act twist for its impact, and doesn't necessarily reward a second viewing. But it's as solid a ghost story as mainstream Hollywood has made in the last two decades, and I found Nicole Kidman's performance extremely affecting. But Fionnula Flanagan's creeptastic housekeeper is the character that still sticks with me to this day.
6. Triangle (2009)
This British film by director Christopher Smith is a headfuck and a half, and I suspect it's the type of movie a lot of more traditional horror fans will find frustrating. It's hard to pull off an intellectual puzzle film that also manages to be viscerally terrifying on a gut level. But Smith succeeds admirably. Like Jacob's Ladder, he wisely anchors the film with a solid central performance (by Melissa George here) that brings genuine emotion into a movie that could have been overly cold and schematic in its intricate plotting. The violence and gore is shocking without ever feeling gratuitous, and Smith uses it to put the audience into a grimy and suffocating headspace that clings to you like cobwebs. It's a bit of a hard movie to take, but it's worth a watch if you've got the stomach for this sort of thing.
5. Honeymoon (2014)
I've mentioned this movie by Leigh Janiak before as an example of the rise of an exciting new wave of female horror directors, which includes The Babadook's Jennifer Kent, The Bad Batch's Ana Lily Amirpour, and The Invitation's Karyn Kusama. Janiak's film has been warmly received overall, but it hasn't had near the exposure that some of its contemporaries have. It's a quiet, precise little movie that slips a scalpel almost unnoticed between your ribs and then cuts deep when you least expect it to. The final ten minutes is among the most haunting sequences I've seen in cinema in a very long time.
4. Martin (1978)
This is another one that probably does qualify as a cult classic, but it's far less renowned than it deserves to be. George A. Romero released two movies in 1978, but this strange and profoundly upsetting little flick has long been overshadowed by the towering masterpiece that is Dawn of the Dead.
For my money, Martin might be my favorite vampire movie of all time. Romero very purposefully eschews the standard tropes of the genre and instead approaches the film with an understated kitchen-sink realism that feels more Ken Loach than Hammer Horror. It's ambiguous and character based, quiet until it explodes into unexpected sequences of brutal violence. John Amplas' sensitive portrayal of the titular character is all the more disturbing because of the sympathy it invokes in the viewer. We're rooting for Martin in spite of ourselves... until quite suddenly we're not.
3. The Signal (2007)
I really don't know why this movie isn't more beloved than it is. An ultra low-budget indie out of Atlanta, it took everything that was happening in the mid-aughts zombie renaissance and turned it all completely on its head. It's a powerfully gritty view of the apocalypse and a startling peek into the weird logic of insanity. It's full of energy, alternately terrifying and surprisingly funny. Written and directed by three filmmakers (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry), it works both as an anthology film and as a cohesive whole. It's one of the most startling and original horror movies of the century, and it needs to be seen by more people. This is independent horror at its absolute best.
2. Exorcist III (1990)
All horror fans have that one forgotten movie they constantly evangelize for, and for me that movie is William Peter Blatty's 1990 adaptation of his novel Legion, which — while technically a sequel to his classic The Exorcist — works quite brilliantly as a standalone work of horror fiction.
Likewise, Exorcist III can be watched without any knowledge of the first film (although familiarity with the original is definitely helpful). Personally, I find it much more frightening than the William Friedkin classic. Novelists don't always make good directors, but Blatty has the instincts of a real filmmaker and he crafts some sequences of genuine terror and intensity. It's got maybe the spookiest long-take in the history film, capped by the single best jump scare I've ever seen.
The dueling yin-yang of George C. Scott's grounded portrayal as Kinderman and Brad Dourif's batshit, scene-stealing performance as the Gemini Killer is the real heart of the movie. It's not easy to make extended dialogue scenes scary, but Blatty presents several. If you've dismissed this film as nothing but an unnecessary sequel, think again. But feel free to skip 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic. Nobody will blame you.
1. Candyman (1992)
British director Bernard Rose's loose adaptation of Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden" was successful enough to launch a mediocre franchise, and it certainly has its fans. But Candyman is one of those films that, whenever I bring it up, seems to be greeted with an ambivalent shrug. I can't tell you how often I hear "oh yeah, I never saw that," or "it was okay, I guess," or "I think maybe I saw the second one." I don't know why people dismiss it so readily. I love everything about this movie, from the smarter-than-it-deserves-to-be screenplay to the performances to the atmosphere to the Phillip Glass score.
I think the timing of the film's release might account for some of the collective apathy that seems to cling to it. It came at the tail-end of the 80s slasher boom, but before the subgenre's post-Scream resurgence in the late 1990s. To a lot of people, Tony Todd's Candyman might seem like just another Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees knockoff. I assure you, he's not.
This is a rich, rewarding horror movie that has a surprising level of intellectual rigor, examining issues of belief and modern folklore as well as presenting a truly searing indictment of race and class in America. It's also really fucking scary, and it holds up remarkably well. If you've never given this movie a fair shake, now's the time. Do yourself a favor and watch it. But do so with the lights off... and then I dare you to look into a mirror afterwards and say his name five times. I promise you won't be able to do it.
Why does Stringer Bell want to beat up David Copperfield?
This is Part 2. Part 1 is a very SPOILER-FILLED look at the book series.
So let's just get this out of the way right now: Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation of/quasi-sequel to Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is not a particularly good movie.
I can't say I'm shocked by this; the early reviews have been atrocious and it's currently sitting at a not-so-comfortable 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. I also don't really blame Arcel. He's a solid filmmaker, and everything I've read about him makes me think that his heart was in the right place and that he really wanted to do the series justice.
But the movie just screams "too many cooks" from almost the very first frame. You have Sony teaming up with Media Rights Capital, who Variety reports had somewhat competing visions for the film, along with veto power over each others' input. You have Stephen King himself, who also had veto power (although, after watching the film, it's hard for me to believe he used it very much). Lost in the shuffle is Arcel, who's working from a script cobbled together out of the old Akiva Goldsman draft and a bunch of new material.
The end result is a movie that just never really clicks. All the requisite parts are there, but somehow it just stays in neutral and pretty much idles its way toward an ending.
But here's the thing. I didn't hate it. And if the 63% RT audience score is any indication, maybe fans are enjoying this thing a bit more than the critics might expect.
I'm not going to go so far as to say I liked it, and maybe this is just my low expectations and my overriding desire to see a Dark Tower movie — ANY Dark Tower movie — talking, but there's some good stuff in there, and if it does just well enough at the Box Office, there's some real narrative potential if Sony decides to keep the franchise going.
First, the good:
1) Idris Elba as Roland. When Elba was announced, some of the more racist fanboys freaked the fuck out over a black man being cast as Roland. And, to be fair, I kind of get it, at least on a superficial level. Roland is King's riff on Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" character from the Sergio Leone films, and so he's quite explicitly described in Eastwoodian terms. He's tall, pale, and chisel-featured, with striking blue eyes ("cold bombardier's eyes," as King frequently puts it).
But here's my thing: the Leone/Eastwood riff is literally the least interesting thing about Roland, and once you're past The Gunslinger it hardly figures into the character at all. He's not just some lone mercenary wandering from town to town, growling one-liners and chomping on a cigar, but rather the last in a line of gunslinging knights that once ruled a strange alien land called Gilead. Narratively speaking, there's absolutely no reason he can't be portrayed by a black man. And Elba is quite simply one of the best actors of his generation. When his name was first floated, I had maybe fifteen seconds of going "but wait, he doesn't look like Clint Eastwood" before I realized how perfect a choice he actually is. I've loved Elba since The Wire, but it was his turn on the British cop show Luther that convinced me. He's got the right combination of stoic masculinity, seething rage, and aching vulnerability.
And after finally watching the film, I just can't imagine anyone else doing Roland (as written) any sort of justice. I can't think of another actor who could take in those clunky boulders of exposition that the script keeps hurling at him and deliver them back to us with such quiet conviction and panache. He feels like Roland, moves like Roland, shoots and kills like Roland. The movie that surrounds him is more than a bit of a mess, but it was an absolute thrill to watch him in action.
His best scene is actually one of the silliest. After arriving in New York and suffering from an infection, Jake takes him to an emergency room. The doctors are, shall we say, not quite sure what to make of him. The movie plays the whole fish-out-of-water thing for laughs, but even so I was stunned at how perfectly Elba embodies the spirit of Roland in that moment. This is the slightly bemused character from The Drawing of the Three who develops a fondness for "astin" and "popkins" (aspirin and hoagies, respectively). It's probably the least consequential scene in the entire movie, but it still had me bouncing up and down in my seat with glee.
2) Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers. Taylor's been taking a bit of a drubbing from the critics, but you know what? I thought he was actually pretty good (his somewhat dodgy American accent notwithstanding). He felt like Jake to me, and I believed the growing bond between him and Roland. I would happily watch these two continue their quest if we're lucky enough to get a second movie. The script doesn't give him a lot to work with, but he pretty much holds his own against Elba, so you've gotta give him some credit. It's not a mind-blowing performance by any means, but it does the job.
3) The cinematography/production design. This doesn't look exactly like the Mid-World I pictured, but Arcel and his visual team — cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk and production designers Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl — do a commendable job of taking the spirit of King's vision and putting their own spin on it. I really liked their take on the Devar Toi, and their New York feels suitably scummy to me. The Dixie Pig has a fun "Beyond Thunderdome" feel to it (although I kind of missed the claustrophobia from the book version), and the Mani village (or is it the Calla? Unclear) felt like a proper representation of a world that has "moved on."
The bummer is that I just don't think they were allowed to go as far as they wanted to. The lighting gets a little muddy at times, and a part of me wonders if that wasn't an intentional choice to cover some things up. You can feel the constraints of the minimal budget, not in what appears on screen but what doesn't. More on that in a minute.
4) The easter eggs. I mean, who doesn't love a good easter egg? Eagle-eyed King fans will see nods to It, The Shining, Christine, Cujo, and more. And there's a nice little nugget right in the last shot (I didn't notice it until my friend elbowed me and pointed it out). Allusions and references to other works does not a good movie make, but I did have fun with them.
5) The gun fights. There aren't enough of them, but the two we get is pretty great. We first really see Roland in action when the Man in Black's minions attack the Mani village (the trailer showcased most of this), but it's the penultimate shootout with all the Taheen in the Dixie Pig that had me grinning ear-to-ear. I can't stress enough how long I've been waiting to see Roland take care of business with those ancient sandalwood-grip revolvers of his — and even in an overall mediocre movie like this, it was just glorious to watch. The movie pisses that all away with the showdown between Roland and the Man in Black, but I'll take what I can get.
Okay, now on to what's bad:
1) McConaughey. I mean, hoo boy. What to say about this performance. There's not a goddamned thing that works about it. The character of the Man in Black was just misconceived at every level. Why the decision to put him in a 70s leisure suit and give him a waxed chest and spiky Billy Idol hair? Why is he constantly referring to his "magicks?" When he breaks into Jake Chamber's home and decides to grill up some chicken, why does he feel the need to put on an apron? Those aren't things you can blame Matthew McConaughey for, but rather than find a way into the character he just leans right into the script's rank absurdity.
At least since the McConaissance we all know that Matthew McConaughey is a really good actor. And he should have been great in this role. Anyone who knows the Man in Black's true identity and who watched the first season of True Detective would agree. But Walter O'Dim is a creature of shadows, and watching McConaughey peacock and strut his way through this performance is just painful. To be fair, the dialogue he's given is next-level terrible, but whereas Elba was able to mostly make it work, McConaughey never rises above laughable. His Walter is like a five-way love child between Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman, McConaughey's own Wooderson, John Holmes, the Night at the Roxbury guys, and either Siegfried or Roy. He pretty much single-handedly ruins the final confrontation with all his prancing and swishing about, making the whole thing feel less like an action climax and more like a second rate magician trying to channel David Copperfield during his Saturday matinee in Reno.
2) The script. This thing is a fucking disaster, and it's really to Arcel's and Elba's credit that the movie works as well as it does. Originally penned by Akiva Goldsman, one of my least favorite screenwriters, the final script is just a weird Frankenstein's monster of bad dialogue, weird flashbacks, and incomprehensible pacing. It's pretty clear that Sony never really believed in this property, because rather than actually develop any idea for more than thirty seconds they just keep hurling in elements from all seven books in the vain hope that fans would be satisfied. Nothing really lands with any emotional weight, because we don't get to spend enough time with anything to figure out what's important. The geography (or lack thereof) of Mid-World is completely opaque. We're not there long enough to get any sense of place.
I'm sorry, but Mid-World is one of the richest, weirdest, most fascinating fantasy landscapes ever created. So why is most of the movie set in New York?
One word: budget.
3) The CGI. Thankfully, there's not actually all that much of it, but what's there is pretty dodgy. The movie is at its best visually when it leans on its practical locations, production designers, and cinematographer. When it does employ CGI, it quickly starts looking like one of the less-good episodes of Sliders. The Doorway Demon near the beginning is a joke. But the worst is some sort of lizard that tries to eat Jake. It's supposed to be scary, but it kind of reminded me of the baby monsters from the 1998 Godzilla.
4) Every time someone talks about Jake having "the shine." I mean, Jesus. We get it already.
I had mostly resigned myself to a bad adaptation of The Dark Tower, but what's frustrating about this film is that you can see the good film that it wanted to be peeking out from between the curtains. Arcel had a vision, but it's clear that Sony and MRC just never trusted him. This movie needed another half hour and a solid dialogue polish to even begin to work. It's obvious as you watch it that a lot of connective tissue ended up on the cutting-room floor. Why, I can only guess — Sony test-screened the film with ominous results, and then insisted that Arcel get the thing down to 90 minutes. I hope there's an extended DVD version just waiting to be released in a few months.
What's good about The Dark Tower is actually quite good, and most of that can be credited to Arcel and Elba... but what's bad is legitimately terrible. The whole thing kind of evens out to a solid meh.
Still, I hold onto some hope. This first film is a bit of a shaky foundation for a franchise, but I think it's solid enough to build upon if they want to. Last I read, the producers are still committed to the Wizard and Glass prequel series. If this movie does just well enough and then the show catches fire (the source material is so good that they'd have to actively work to fuck it up), we might yet see a continuation of Roland's quest. I'm onboard, as long as they keep Elba involved (and assuming they bring in Aaron Paul to play Eddie Dean, which is something the fans have been screaming for for years).
As far as I'm concerned Elba is Roland, and I'm not interested in anyone else's take on the character.
Art by Michael Whelan
Here there be SPOILERS!!!!
This is about the book series. Part 2 will be my review of the movie.
I recently finished rereading Stephen King's Dark Tower series in preparation for the movie, which opens this weekend (I'll be seeing it this afternoon). I've read the first four books I don't know how many times. This would make it my third time through both Wolves of the Calla (Book V) and Song of Susannah (Book VI) but only my second time reading The Dark Tower (Book VII).
I also finally read the first two of Marvel's comic-book series, which starts with an abbreviated version of Wizard and Glass (Book IV), and then moves into a pretty stunning depiction of the fall of Gilead, from Roland, Cuthbert, and Alain's return from Mejis all the way up through the Battle of Jericho Hill. The second series portrays the beginning of Roland's lonely quest for the Tower, including adaptations of the prequel novella "Little Sisters of Euluria" and The Gunslinger (Book I).
As far as I know, the only things I haven't read yet are the third and last Marvel series (an adaptation of The Drawing of the Three (Book II), and King's own followup The Wind Through the Keyhole (Book IV.5) — which was published in 2012, well after the conclusion of the series proper. As far as I know, I've read all the non-Tower books that are related (such as Insomnia, Rose Madder, and Hearts in Atlantis). Hell, I even bought and read the Charlie the Choo-Choo kid's book. I'm not yet a Dark Tower completist, but I'm getting close.
I hadn't read Book VII since it first came out in 2004, and I was startled to find how much of it had fled my mind. I remember not much liking it at the time — in fact, being actively angry at Mr. King for writing it — but I hadn't quite remembered why. Over the years I had ascribed my animosity to fairly superficial things — King's over-reliance on "ka" (i.e. fate) to plug certain plot holes, his weird choice to write himself into the narrative, and an ending that (at the time) struck me as a cop-out.
But rereading it now, I can see exactly why I was so angry, and why I had pushed so many of the actual plot details from my brain. It was because King gave us the only ending the story could have. And, at the time, it was simply too bitter a pill to swallow.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
I know I talk about sai King a lot. It seems like one out of every three of my Facebook posts is about him, and if you've spent more than twenty minutes in my company, you've probably heard me quote him obnoxiously and pretentiously. But you've gotta understand where I was at when I discovered his writing; I was an angry, lonely preteen nerd who instinctually knew I wanted to be a writer but had no idea what that meant, who I was, or what I wanted to write about. I pretty much just knew that I liked monsters and that the other kids thought I was weird.
In his books, it all crystalized at once. I found everything I wanted to be.
Even when I was way too young to read him, I was fascinated by Stephen King. He was everywhere. My mom had figured out that the best way to keep me occupied when we went to the mall was to park me in the Waldenbooks and just leave me (this was the 80s, when parents still did that kind of thing). I would look through the kids' or fantasy books for awhile (I was super into Dragonlance at the time), but eventually I would always find myself drawn, as if by a magnet, over to the horror section. All those cheesy 80s book covers just entranced me. I don't remember all the books that were on the shelf back then, but a few stick out in my memory. There were the John Saul books, of course, along with Brian Lumley's Necroscope series, Robert McCammon's Stinger and Swan Song, and — of course — Clive Barker's Books of Blood.
I didn't know what any of these books were about, and I wasn't sure I wanted to. No matter what infernal delights the authors had in store, I suspected even then that they'd never match up to whatever terrors I had already cooked up in my own imagination, just based on the covers alone.
But mostly, there was Stephen King. His books were the ones I gravitated to the most, partly because his was the name I recognized and partly because there were just so goddamned many of them. I had no idea what It was about, but that cover with the scaly hand reaching up through the sewer grate fulfilled me in ways I couldn't wrap my head around. Same with Carrie, with her flowing hair and cold blue eye; 'Salem's Lot, with the embossed black face and single droplet of blood; and Cujo with those snarling big-dog teeth.
It all seemed so evocative. So forbidden. I learned somewhere along the way that Cujo was about a rabid dog and that Christine was about a haunted car, but those book covers seemed to promise mysteries that went far deeper than the simplistic plot synopses might suggest. I couldn't wait to be old enough to read them.
One of the most intriguing, though, was The Gunslinger.
It was in the horror section with all the rest, but instead of some monster on the cover there was this real handsome guy, looked like a cowboy, a big black bird sitting on his shoulder and a castle or something rising out of the mist behind him. What the hell was this? Was it a western, or some weird girly romance book? Did someone shelve it in the wrong section?
It was an illustrated trade paperback, so when I thumbed it open I saw it was full of pictures. Not on every page, but maybe every 50 pages or so. And they were so odd, so incongruous, that my imagination just lit up like a candle. This WAS a western. But it also looked super violent. And it had monsters. Maybe.
Art by Michael Whelan
At the time, I didn't know that The Gunslinger was part of a series. When I finally began reading King I started with Pet Sematary, thinking because of the odd spelling of the title and the relatively monster-free book cover that it was more YA-oriented than the others... like Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, maybe, or R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books. I didn't make this decision because I didn't want to read the harder stuff, but because I thought I'd be more likely to con my parents into letting me read it if they thought it was for kids. As it turned out, I needn't have bothered with any of that because A) my parents didn't care, and B) Pet Sematary is decidedly NOT a kids' book. In fact, it's long been determined by the fans to be the darkest and scariest book in his entire canon (or maybe just behind The Shining). I tried to wade into the kiddie pool and instead fell head first into the deep end. Whatever. I was thoroughly traumatized, and I loved every minute of it. I was hooked.
I don't remember what was next (maybe The Dark Half, which at the time was his most recent), but The Gunslinger came not long after. I can't recall exactly what I made of it at the time, but I know I was sucked in from that epic opening line: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed" — which, to this day, is right up there with "It's the tale, not he who tells it" and "That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die..." for quotes I want to get tattooed on my body someday.
It's such a weird, perfectly simple little book, and even way back then it suggested so many more possibilities than it contained. It isn't horror, exactly, but it's scary. And scary in a way I could never quite define. Roland has never been my favorite King character (he's a pretty hard guy to love, when it comes right down to it), but he's the one I've always found the most intriguing. And the world King created — an apocalyptic landscape where time has grown soft and the points of the compass can no longer be trusted — is just so eerie and so haunting. There's that evocative phrase about the world having "moved on," which just seems to encapsulate so much sadness and futility.
And there's a real heart at the center of the book's quiet nihilism. Roland's relationship with Jake is surprisingly gentle... until it's not. And the hints of Roland's long abandoned life — his dead friends Cuthbert, Alain, and Jamie DeCurry; his lost love Susan Delgado, the girl in the window — are heartbreaking. You feel the absence of these people weighing on his soul. If there's another book that captures the long drought of loneliness better than this one, I just don't know what it is.
And what kind of imagination can dream up a world where the ancient Knights of the Roundtable wear cowboy boots and carry six shooters, and a tribe of degenerate "slow mutants" sit around masturbating in the desert and worshipping a Mobil gas pump?
I dove right into The Drawing of the Three (Book II), and was immediately confounded. The series started with an existential western in an alien landscape, and now we've got all these weird doors on a poisoned beach, time travel, and gunfights with gangsters on the streets of New York. Plus there's that incongruous 80s buddy-movie dynamic between Roland and Eddie, which is so different from the lyrical and tragic father-son relationship between Roland and Jake in The Gunslinger. It works (Eddie is probably my favorite character in the entire series, and in the top five of my favorite King characters ever), but it hardly feels like the same series at all, which just made it even more fascinating. In cinematic terms, we've gone from something that felt like it could have been directed by Antonioni to King's version of a smart-ass Hollywood action movie.
And Odetta/Detta... what did I make of her back then? On this most recent reread, King's attempt to parrot a kind of ostentatiously jive-talking black patois was pretty fucking jarring. It's an unfortunate habit he has fallen into over the course of his career, all the way up through his recent Mr. Mercedes trilogy, and I wish he'd just quit it. It's downright embarrassing.
But Odetta/Detta is still one of the most compelling fictional characters I've ever encountered. The idea of someone being psychologically cleaved in two is singularly horrifying to me... the idea that there could be this other malevolent, chaotic person lurking in the back of your mind, just waiting for you to let down your guard so she can jump forward and wreak all sorts of havoc. Even after Detta/Odetta are reconciled into the person of Susannah, I've always loved how Detta will still occasionally spring forward, sometimes for the good but too often for the bad. There's a looming sense of danger that hangs over Susannah throughout the series that comes from the knowledge that she's only ever a half-step away from losing control. Fake-ass jive talk or no, Detta's a fantastic character, and I particularly love the way King uses her in Books V and VI.
The rest of the series only gets weirder. The Wastelands (Book III) came out not long after I started reading King, and I still remember my excitement upon receiving it for Christmas in 1991. Here, King introduces us to the concept of the Beams and their twelve ancient guardians — including an eighty-foot thousands-year-old cyborg bear named Shardik with maggots in its brain and murder in its rotting mechanical heart. We also get the Doorway Demon and Susannah's rape in the speaking ring (to this day, one of the most horrifying sequences King has ever put to the page), the rose, the ruined city of Lud with its decadent and warring tribes... and, of course, Blaine the Mono.
Blaine is one of the most controversial aspects of the entire Dark Tower universe. Again, you have to marvel at the imagination that can wrap an entire story around a psychotic A.I. monorail with a split personality and an addiction to riddling contests. Where the fuck does that even come from? And, from what I've read, many fair-weather fans believe Blaine is the point where King kind of loses control of his narrative.
I disagree. For my money, Blaine is the single best thing about the entire series, and he typifies how deeply eccentric (and probably unfilmable) the story really is. This is King's peculiar genius — taking a truly batshit notion like Blaine and, through sheer force of will, making it work. Blaine showed me, at a very impressionable age, how important it is to write fearlessly, and with no concern for anyone else's potential misgivings; how crucial it is to never to be afraid of chasing your weirdest idea right up your own ass and trying to catch it by the tail. Even at thirteen, I could imagine King pitching Blaine to his agents and publishers. I could just see the way the color probably drained right out of their faces, and how he probably went "no, no, really, it's gonna be GREAT!" with a big shit-eating grin on his face.
And it was.
Blaine the Mono
Art by Ned Dameron
When I was writing Dead Billy, I suffered countless moments of self doubt where I caught myself thinking "this is way too weird, nobody's going to get it." Then I'd think of Blaine the Mono and I'd be okay. Likewise for the novel I'm currently working on, The Darks, where one of the main characters has been repeatedly eaten and then shat out of a trio of demons' buttholes.
Be weird, Blaine tells me, and own it. So I am. And I do.
The Wastelands is also where the full scope of the King macroverse really starts to reveal itself. Because it's in this book, at the very end, where we finally meet the evil wizard Marten, who comes to the wounded Tick-Tock Man in the guise of Richard Fannin... and who bears an uncanny resemblance to one Randall Flagg. Sure, Flagg pops up in The Eyes of the Dragon, which very likely takes place in the same world as The Dark Tower. But that felt like a one-off, more a gag than anything else. But when King's biggest bad guy jumps into the heart of the main The Dark Tower storyline, that's when I started to realize what King was doing. The Dark Tower is the hub of all his novels, and everything else spokes off of it the way the Beams spoke off of the Tower itself. It's his ur-narrative, and several non-Tower books (Insomnia, Rose Madder, and Hearts in Atlantis) over the next decade confirmed that.
Now you had to go back and re-evaluate everything. Were the monsters in "The Mist" related to the creatures in the Wastelands? Is Pennywise from It another manifestation of the corruption at the heart of the Tower? Even the demon Tak in Desperation and The Regulators seemed to tie in somehow.
Wizard and Glass (Book IV) came out my sophomore year of college, and I devoured it in maybe two nights. When I first read the description of the plot, I was unsure. It was to be a flashback to Roland's early teen years, and it would be where we finally learn about how he got his guns and about his friendship with Cuthbert and Alain. And, most important, we would finally see the story of his doomed relationship with the girl in the window, Susan Delgado.
I was still pretty wet behind the ears, but in my own writing I had begun to learn the concept of "less is more." What we don't know is often so much more powerful than what we do. And I loved how Susan and Roland's dead friends had flitted through the first book like ghosts. I was afraid that getting the full story would ruin it somehow.
Boy was I wrong.
Wizard and Glass is BY FAR the best book in the series. It's fairly contained, especially when compared to The Drawing of the Three and The Wastelands. It takes us back to the sci-fi Western motif that dominated the first book, but King fleshes it out evocatively. The world that was merely hinted at in The Gunslinger comes roaring to life in this one. It's also a fantastic noir and an expertly paced detective story. I fell in love with the near-idyllic little seaside village of Hambry in the southern Barony of Mejis (an obvious analogue to 19th-century Texas), but King lets us know almost from the start that there's something wrong, and when the true nature of the rot at the center of the town is revealed, my heart simply broke. Not just for Roland, but for everyone there. All at once I felt the loss not only of Roland's friends and family, but of the entire life he should have had before the Good Man John Farson (never seen, but still one of the scariest creations in King's universe) burned it all down.
King introduces us to a whole slew of new characters. There's Cuthbert, Alain, and Susan, and there are also the Hambry townsfolk, the Big Coffin Hunters, and the witch Rhea of the Coos. Rhea in particular is a truly vile character, but I just couldn't get enough of her.
The center of the story, though, is the at-first innocent and then fully tragic romance between Roland and Susan. I really didn't expect it to work — thought it would be clunky and would drain the mystery out of Roland's backstory — but you can tell how deeply and for how long King has been thinking about these characters, and how well he knows them. King isn't always great at writing romance, but the Roland/Susan relationship reminded me of the bittersweet melancholy at the center of King's other great tragic coupling, Johnny Smith and Sarah Bracknell in The Dead Zone. Susan is perhaps King's most fully realized female character, and she practically leaps off the page. All the characters do, really. King is often knocked for his occasionally clunky dialogue, but virtually every line rings absolutely true here. Perhaps it's just the fact that he's working in a dialect, but I don't think so. I think he's been hearing these characters in his head for decades.
Wizard and Glass isn't just the best book in The Dark Tower cycle; it's one of the maybe the best three or four books he's written, period. My only quibbles are with the present-day bookends. The hinted-at connection to The Stand is confirmed in the first few chapters, but it doesn't land with quite the power I expected it would when I finished The Wastelands. And the final showdown with Marten/Flagg/Fannin... well, frankly, it's a little lame. King isn't always great with his endings, but he wraps up the Hambry flashback perfectly. What comes after feels like an afterthought.
Wizard and Glass marked the rough halfway point for the series. It came out in 1997 following a six-year gap between it and The Wastelands. I remember the fans beginning to agitate in those six years. What was King, doing? Why was it taking him so long? Why was he wasting his time with all these other books when we still don't know what's going to happen to Roland and his ka-tet?
I think the furor was due in no small part to the fact that he had ended The Wastelands on a cliffhanger, with our ka-tet stuck inside Blaine, hurtling toward either Topeka or certain death at the hands of the homicidal monorail train (who had just murdered all the citizens of Lud). The only thing that could save them would be besting Blaine's supercomputer brain in a Fair Day riddling contest. If they won, Blaine would let them continue on their quest for the Tower. If they lost, he would kill himself and take them with him:
"There was a moment of silence, broken only by the steady hard throb of the slo-trans turbines, bearing them across the wastelands, bearing them on toward Topeka, the place where Mid-World ended and End-World began.
'SO,' cried the voice of Blaine. 'CAST YOUR NETS WANDERERS! TRY ME WITH YOUR QUESTIONS, AND LET THE CONTEST BEGIN.'"
Wizard and Glass didn't end on such a note, but the fans were still worried about how long it would take for King to get back to the series.
And then that worry turned into sheer panic on June 19, 1999.
Big Steve recuperating after the
1999 accident that nearly killed him
That's the day that King, who was out walking near his family's summer lake home, was run over and nearly killed by a guy named Bryan Smith, who was driving into town to pick up some "Marses bars." He happened to turn around to yell at his two rottweilers, who were trying to break into his meat cooler and eat his steaks, when he drifted onto the shoulder and ran King down. As King himself observed later, it was like he had been nearly turned into roadkill by a character in one of his books.
I remember that I was driving up I-25 between Castle Rock, CO (for real) and Denver, listening to the Howard Stern show when I got the news. Robin Quivers broke into whatever bullshit they were talking about that morning and announced the accident. At the time, King's condition was reported as "grave," and it seemed that there was a real question as to whether he would survive.
Stephen King was my idol. It was he who helped me realize that writing was something that I was not only good at, but maybe really good at, and that it was something that was worth pursuing. Before him, I didn't have much in the way of self esteem. He was the person who, more than anyone else, gave me the confidence to continue. I honestly don't know where I would be today if I'd never discovered his books.
So I remember my eyes flooding with tears at the news, and I damn near drove off the road myself. But, as important as he was (and remains) to me, it wasn't his well being that jumped first into my mind.
No, my first thought was: "he's never going to finish The Dark Tower."
But he did, of course. His first book after the accident, Dreamcatcher, is probably the worst book he's ever written, but it's easy to forgive because I was just happy to see that he wasn't giving up. That he was still grinding away at it. He followed that with Black House — co-written by Peter Straub and their sequel to their 1980s classic The Talisman — and From a Buick 8. I hated just about everything about Dreamcatcher, but both Black House and From a Buick 8 are really pretty great. From a Buick 8, in particular, is criminally underrated.
And then the word came out: King was going to finish The Dark Tower. And soon. The next three books would be released back-to-back and in quick succession.
Whenever fans (including myself) complain about how long George R.R. Martin is taking to complete his Song of Ice and Fire series, I flash back on King's decision to just blaze through the rest of The Dark Tower in 2003 and 2004, and it reminds me to take a deep breath and leave GRRM alone. I think the last three Tower books are undeniably flawed, and I think many of those flaws are probably because, on some level, King got sick of all the fans howling and just said "fuck it!" and rushed through them to get everyone off his back.
When I read them back when they first came out, I was not happy. Of the three, Wolves of the Calla (Book V) is the one I've always liked the best. It felt like a mostly worthy successor to Wizard, although King writes himself into a bit of a corner with so much of the story being occupied by a real-estate deal. And, while in theory I like the idea of bringing in 'Salem's Lot's Father Callahan, I never liked how he took the irrational Gothic horror of the original novel and turned it into quasi sci-fi by breaking the vampires down into "type one, type two, and type threes." Imposing any sort of logical structure onto horror almost inevitably kills it; our reaction depends on our reptile selves, and so it rarely survives when you intellectualize it. It's like humor: the best way to destroy a joke is to explain the punchline. That's what King does to his vampires in Wolves, and to no real purpose. The vampires don't really do anything in these books, and King could have easily had Callahan's story just be about him discovering (and being discovered by) the can-toi during his years of wandering, and simply left the vampires out.
Still, like Wizard, it's a fairly contained story and King's vision of small-town life in Calla-Bryn-Sturges is as compelling as that of Hambry. I love the specific eccentricities of the town, from the uniqueness of their dialect to all the "roont" twins and the introduction of the Mani Folk and their peculiar ideology. I also deeply enjoyed the riff on Kurusawa's The Seven Samurai (and, of course, its American cousin The Magnificent Seven). The Wolves themselves are a nicely threatening presence throughout the book, and the ticking time bomb of their impending arrival adds some really great suspense. There are many wonderful sequences throughout, from Jake's discovery of the Dogan across the river to the Sisters of Oriza demonstrating their skills with the plates.
And then there's Andy: Messenger Robot, Many Other Functions. Perhaps my favorite recurring theme throughout the series is King's notion of how technology — once the civilization that created it has gone — doesn't die, but rather goes quite literally insane. Andy isn't as fantastic and weird an example of this as Blaine, but he's close. In some ways he's scarier, because there's nothing more terrifying than the idea that the fool who you laugh at and dismiss is actually laughing at you.
I also love how Wolves of the Calla finally shows the gunslingers being gunslingers. They're not just the wanderers searching for the Tower that we've come to know, but rather the noble knights we've been hearing about for five books. The idea that they're not going to protect the town for payment or for glory, but simply because it's what they do, and that they're going to do it whether the townspeople want them to or not... well, something about that is just incredibly moving to me. This is Roland as he was meant to be — the Roland that died when Susan died and he became lost in Merlin's Rainbow. Seeing him finally have the chance to be that man is nothing short of glorious.
Song and Tower really felt like the shark jumpers to me at the time. I still struggle a bit with them, but after this last reread I feel like I'm finally making peace. They've got their problems, but I think King had a more grip on his story than I originally wanted to give him credit for.
Song of Susannah (Book VI) is one of the shorter books in the series, and it's undeniably the least standalone of all of them, bookended as it is by TWO separate cliffhangers. The first, at the end of Wolves, sees Susannah — pregnant with the speaking-ring demon's baby and possessed by a malevolent (but ultimately tragic) force called Mia — going into the Doorway Cave and being transported to 1999 New York. The rest of the ka-tet splits up. Father Callahan and Jake are supposed to go back to the 1970s to finish the real-estate deal that will protect the rose, while Roland and Eddie mean to go after Susannah. Something goes wrong, of course, and Jake and Callahan end up in 1999, while Roland and Eddie find themselves dumped into the middle of a gun battle with Balazar's gangsters outside a Maine general store.
The rest of the book alternates between these two timelines, and ends with Susannah in a haunted End-World town called Fedic, trapped in another Dogan at the base of Castle Discordia and about to give birth to Mia's baby; and Jake and Callahan in the Dixie Pig ("Best ribs in New York!") about to face off against an army of vampires, low men, and animal-faced Taheen.
There's a lot that annoys me still about Song of Susannah, mostly as it relates to Roland and Eddie's story, where they're conveniently rescued by one of those patented Stephen King "real folk" Mainers named John Cullum, who believes their entire story without question and decides, after just a couple conversations, to devote his entire life to building the Tet Corporation and protecting the rose. He's just way too convenient a character, and King knows it. King wrote himself into a corner with the real-estate subplot, and Cullum is a handy deus ex machina to get Roland and Eddie back on the path of the Beam. Just hand it all over to John Cullum and let him take care of it.
But on this last reread, I discovered there's a lot in Song of Susannah I actually like. Most of the story is occupied by Susannah's relationship with Mia, who we met in Wolves and were led to believe was simply another one of Susannah's fractured personalities. But Mia is real, and as she takes over Susannah's body and forces Susannah to take her to the Dixie Pig so she can be transported to Fedic, we come to realize that she's as much a victim of the Crimson King's machinations as anyone else. Blackmailed into giving up her immortal existence for the chance to be mother to a monstrosity (her "chap," as she calls the baby), she is so blinded by her obsession that she cannot see what is plain to the rest of us: she's disposable. A means to an end. Susannah herself sees it, but can't get through to her.
Susannah's relationship with Mia is oddly touching, as Susannah both tries to help Mia and undermine her at every turn. She's desperate to get back to Eddie and the others, but that desperation never turns into panic. She remains coolly resourceful throughout, leaving breadcrumbs for Callahan and Jake to follow.
Susannah has a lot going for it (the gunfight in the general store parking lot is one of the best action sequences King has ever devised), but it's still probably the weakest of the series. But as a chance to really spend some time in Susannah's head and as a narrative bridge to the final volume, it works fine.
And now we get to the last book, The Dark Tower (Book VII), which I found so upsetting back in 2004 that I mostly blocked it from my mind and refused to read it again until just this year. I'm glad I gave myself that distance, though, because going through it again was sort of like discovering it for the first time. And now I think I see what King is doing.
The problem is, he didn't give me the book I thought I wanted. I'd been living with these characters for about 15 years when it came out (now it's closer to 30, as impossible as that is to believe). I liked Roland, but I loved the ka-tet. I wanted them all to get to the Tower together, and I wanted them all to live happily ever after. I thought they deserved it. Hell, I thought I deserved it.
But that was never what King had in mind, and now it seems so obvious to me that he was right. Because this is Roland's journey. Not Eddie's, or Jake's, or Susannah's, or even Oy's. Roland started it by losing everything and setting out alone. It's only fitting that that's how he had to finish it.
The ka-tet first breaks on the eve of the battle of Algul Siento — another powerfully weird idea from King. Algul Siento (also known as the Devar-Toi) is the prison where the Crimson King's forces have been holding the Breakers, and it's located somewhere past the Callas out in the poisoned land of Thunderclap. I expected it to be a sort of sci-fi/Western answer to Tolkien's Isengard, but King knew that and is one step ahead of me. Algul Siento is a gilded cage, full of all sorts of creature comforts, and resembling the campus of a New England liberal arts college more than it does the Gothic steampunk prison I had been picturing. The low men and Taheen who guard it are basically middle management, not demons or soldiers. It's all a lie, of course, but King upends our expectations so thoroughly that the whole sequence almost plays like black comedy. The strange friendship between human administrator Pimli Prentiss and Taheen security officer Finli O'Tego is genuine, and almost mundane in its particulars. These guys could be office drones at an insurance company in Pittsburgh, getting together on weekends to go fishing or watch the Steelers game — except Pimli is rotting from the inside out because of the "bad air" in Thunderclap, and Finli has the head of a weasel.
When the ka-tet finally raids Algul Siento to free the Breakers (most of whom, we discover, are sociopaths who don't want to be freed), you almost feel bad for Pimli and Finli. They're just two regular guys trying to do their job.
But then Pimli puts a bullet into Eddie's head, and our entire world shatters.
I don't know why I let myself think this way, but I just never believed any of the ka-tet would die. Even when King explicitly tells us that the tet is broken, it was just inconceivable to me that they wouldn't walk up to the gates of the Dark Tower together, arm in arm. They're just too good at what they do ever to be touched; the way the Wolves are so easily dispatched and the gunfight outside of the general store seem to confirm this. But Eddie — our main point of identification throughout most of the series — gets killed, and in the dumbest way possible. Pimli should have never gotten the drop on him. That's when you realize how cocky these newbie gunslingers have become... and how cocky we've become right along with them.
Jake gets it a few chapters later, rescuing "the wordslinger" Stephen King from Bryan Smith's van (more on that in a minute), and the crush of grief at his ugly death is overwhelming. Roland lost everything before, and I don't think I realized how much it meant for him to have formed this new ka-tet so many years later. Jake was the son he should have had with Susan. When he lays the boy's body to rest in the woods near Turtleback lane, my heart bled for him.
And for Oy, too. I haven't mentioned Oy much in this blog post, but let me just take a second to acknowledge how important the little Billy Bumbler is to this series. Sure, the trope of the cute animal sidekick is pretty tired, and Oy seems at first glance to slot right in there. But King makes him such an integral part of this ersatz family that we just don't ever question it. And his and Jake's devotion to each other is something that anyone who ever had a dog growing up will understand.
When Jake dies something breaks in Oy, and we watch the Bumbler grieving right up until his own demise near the end of the book. Oy's grief serves to make Jake's absence through the rest of the book that much more concrete, because Roland has to sit there and watch the little animal's spirit steadily drain away. Oy stops talking, becomes both more stoic and more animal-like as they get ever closer to the Tower. He sticks with Roland (we discover why later), but there's none of the warmth he shared with Jake. And Roland knows it. I kept wanting Oy and Roland to comfort each other, but King is having none of that. Oy stops being a sidekick and instead becomes something of a revenant of doom. The shift in the Bumbler's personality is deeply disturbing; Oy, like Eddie, is often a comic-relief character throughout the books, and King uses that sense of comfort against us here. Seeing the change in the Bumbler makes the deeper tragedy that much more poignant.
I was shocked when Eddie died, and I had a lump in my throat when Jake died. But I was gutted when Susannah abandons Roland to go back to New York (or, at least, a New York) right before they get to the Tower. I understand why she leaves, but seeing Roland drop to his knees and beg her to stay is one of the most painful things I've ever experienced in a work of fiction. Now it's just Roland, a brooding Oy, and the odd mute artist Patrick Danville (who, I must say, is a piss-poor substitute for Roland's shattered ka-tet, and is meant to be).
Looking back on my first read, I think Susannah's betrayal (and, I'm sorry, but there's just no other way for me to think about it) is the moment where I actively turned against this book. It's only a few short chapters later that Oy himself is killed — impaled on a tree branch after defending Roland from Mia's demon spawn, Mordred. I remember wanting to quit reading. No, not just quit reading — I wanted to take the book and burn it in the fireplace of my Boston apartment. It felt like, after everything I had experienced with these characters for so long, King was holding up both middle fingers and screaming "FUCK YOU!" at the top of his lungs.
This time, though, it didn't hit me that way at all. I understood that King felt the loss as much as Roland did, and as much as I did. But he knew what I didn't: ka is not our friend. Ka is like a wind, and your plans will stand before it no more than a barn before a cyclone.
I wasn't angry this time when Susannah left (okay, maybe a little angry, but at her, not at King). And I wasn't angry when Oy is killed. But I cried.
Holy shit did I cry.
I've got to take a second, before I get to the ending, to talk about King's decision to write himself into the narrative. Back in 2004, I thought the whole thing was just impossibly self indulgent. The idea that King himself was one of the Guardians of the Beam, and that Roland and Jake had to save his life to preserve the Tower — I mean, come on. Talk about a God complex.
But the thing is, King is God. Or, at least, he's God of this world. And in our world (or the Keystone World, in Dark Tower parlance) he had very nearly died in the dumbest road accident you can imagine — run down by a guy who shares his middle name (Edwin), a pill popper with two rottweilers named Pistol and Bullet who told King he was just running to town to get "some Marses bars." King must have felt like his fictional universe had just collided head-on with his real life, and that had to have fucked with his head. And he couldn't have escaped the fan reaction, which was — like my own — shockingly proprietary. We weren't concerned about King as a human being, a man with a wife and kids who love him. No. We wanted him to finish The Dark Tower.
I'm still not sure writing himself into the books entirely works in a strictly narrative sense. It's distracting and comes kind of out of nowhere. But this time through, I realized that hardly matters. This has never been a series that's been about clockwork precision in terms of its plotting. There's a raw honesty to King's choice to include himself. Suddenly this multi-volume fantasy epic becomes the weirdest sort of autobiography, and we get to watch King wrestle in real time with the implications of his own mortality, and with what it means to be the most popular writer to have ever worked in the English language (I hear all you Shakespeare fans getting ready to howl at me, but I'm sticking by that statement).
This goes back to the lesson I learned from Blaine when I was a kid. Write fearlessly. Chase those weird ideas up your asshole and grab them by the tail. Apologize to no one. I'm not sure he quite got this one by the tail — but he sure grabbed hold of meaty chunk of it.
Self indulgent? Sure. But absolutely necessary. I wouldn't have it any other way.
And then there's that ending. King fakes us out by giving us a version of the ending we had all wanted. We see Roland finally approaching the Tower, the Crimson King reduced to a pair of glowing eyes on the second-floor balcony. We hear him announce:
"NOW COMES ROLAND TO THE DARK TOWER! I HAVE BEEN TRUE AND I STILL CARRY THE GUN OF MY FATHER AND YOU WILL OPEN TO MY HAND!
I come in the name of Steven Deschain, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Gabrielle Deschain, she of Gilead!
I come in the name of Cortland Andrus, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Cuthbert Allgood, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Alain Johns, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Jamie DeCurry, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Vannay the Wise, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of Hax the Cook, he of Gilead!
I come in the name of David the hawk, he of Gilead and the sky!
I come in the name of Susan Delgado, she of Mejis!
I come in the name of Sheemie Ruiz, he of Mejis!
I come in the name of Pere Callahan, he of Jerusalem's Lot, and the roads!
I come in the name of Ted Brautigan, he of America!
I come in the name of Dinky Earnshow, he of America!
I come in the name of Aunt Talitha, she of River Crossing, and I will lay her cross here, as I was bid!
I come in the name of Stephen King, he of Maine!
I come in the name of Oy, the brave, he of Mid-World!
I come in the name of Eddie Dean, he of New York!
I come in the name of Susannah Dean, she of New York!
I come in the name of Jake Chambers, he of New York, whom I call my own true son!
I am Roland of Gilead, and I come as myself; you will open to me."
Then we hear the sound of the horn, and the hollow boom of the doors swinging shut behind him. King then takes us back to some version of New York, where we see Susannah — alone, free finally of Roland's quest — at the Central Park Zoo. And it's there that she meets the brothers Eddie and Jake Toren, twinners (in Talisman-speak) to Eddie Dean and Jake Chambers. So at least one member of the ka-tet gets to live happily ever after.
King dares us to quit reading there, but of course he knows we will not. Like Roland, we need to see the Tower for ourselves, and we need to climb it to its top.
And so, the final horror: Roland ascends of the Tower, as he's dreamt of doing for so long. But ka is like a wind, and as he steps through the door and into the final chamber, he is whisked bruskly back to the Mohane Desert of The Gunslinger, and he's permitted one moment of terrible clarity before his memory is wiped clean — he has been here countless times before, and will be here again. He's stuck in a loop, driven ever forward by his obsession and powerless to make it stop.
The saga ends as it began: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
When I first read it, as a kid in my mid 20s, it was like somehow King had found a third middle finger to aim my way. It felt like a stunt, a long shaggy dog joke with a terrible punchline. But now I see how perfect it is. Because now that I'm pushing 40, I get it. The Tower isn't a goal to be conquered, and it never was. It's obsession itself; specifically, it's the obsession that any creative person feels every time they try to create. It's the thing I feel every time I sit down to write, and I'm sure it's the thing that any actor feel when they step on stage, or any musician feels when the pick up their instrument, or any painter feels when they take the brush into their hands.
Because the thing is... you'll never make it. You'll never get there, no matter how hard you try. I may finish this story I'm working on, but it'll never be good enough. It'll never be right. Each time I think I'm going to finally finish climbing my own Tower, but I never do. So I go back to the beginning with the next story, and I start all over again.
This is why Roland had to ascend the Tower alone. Because creating something is, at heart, a solitary thing. And I found this final book so disturbing when I first read it because I saw something that I just didn't want to recognize: Roland is me, just as much as he's King. His loneliness is my loneliness, and it's the loneliness every artist feels when they're trying to go up their own assholes and grab those ideas by the tail again... and again... and again. It never stops. And it never should.
If that sounds pretentious, fuck it.
There are so many wonderful details in this series I was barely able to mention. There's the demon baby Mordred and Randall Flagg's final ugly death. There's the beach with its doors and its chattering lobstrosities ("dad-a-chum... did-a-chee?"). There's the horrifying journey through the old train tunnel under the Cyclopean Mountains. There are the harvest stuffy guys and that ominous phrase "charyou tree." There's Shardik. There's Lud, with its endless and petty war between the Grays and the Pubes. There's the strange creature Dandelo, who may be cousin to our favorite dancing clown Pennywise, but who feeds off of laughter instead of fear.
The Dark Tower is a flawed, sprawling masterpiece, and where it maybe suffers in some of its scattershot plotting, it more than makes up for it with the sheer scope of its twisted imagination. It's raw and deeply revealing in a way that so few works in this genre ever are. King's all over the place with this story, and there are times where the buoyancy of the narrative threatens to just float off into the ether and get lost . But King tethers it with Roland's relentless quest for the Tower, and with his grim philosophy.
And that's where I'll end this ridiculously long blog post, with some of that philosophy:
"I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.
I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind.
I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart."
Like everyone, I've been listening to a lot of classic grunge over the last few days, ever since word came that Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell killed himself in a Detroit hotel room on May 17.
I was born at the very end of 1977, which — depending on which demographer you read — makes me either the oldest millenial or the youngest member of Generation X. For my part, I've always identified much more strongly with the Gen Xers. Grunge was largely the soundtrack of my middle and high-school experience. The songs — Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," Alice in Chains' "Them Bones," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Come As You Are" — were everywhere, as inescapable as Def Leppard and Poison had been just a few years before.
I actually came to it all a bit late, having spent the earliest part of the 90s listening only to classic rock and jazz and completely ignoring whatever it was my contemporaries were into. Still, I wasn't living under a rock. I couldn't help but absorb at least some of what was going on. I became interested in early 1994 when my parents finally broke down and decided to pay for cable TV. MTV was a revelation to me, and one of the big eye openers was Soundgarden's video for "Black Hole Sun."
I've talked a bit about this before. By the time I really started paying attention, the whole "Seattle sound" thing was on its way out. Kurt Cobain killed himself right around that time, and grunge began its long, slow decline as a relevant movement. I swam around in the grunge kiddie pool for a little while, mostly sticking to the mainstream stuff, before diving into the murkier waters of metal and industrial and finally finding myself washed up on the surreal sun-blasted beach of more genuinely bonkers music like late-period Faith No More and Mr. Bungle. I had a genuine appreciation for a lot of what had been lumped together under the grunge label, but overall I remained pretty grunge-adjacent as a music fan. It all just felt a bit too turgid, too self-serious, too all around earnest for my tastes.
It wasn't until a few years later, when the airwaves had been thoroughly conquered by the likes of Limp Bizkit, Sugar Ray, and Staind that I really started to see how pioneering the best grunge bands were. But even then, Soundgarden was never a favorite. When I was younger, my tastes went toward the more straightforward quasi-thrash of Alice in Chains and the punk nihilism of Nirvana, and when I got a little older I learned to appreciate the stolid musicality and adventurousness of Pearl Jam (who I had previously dismissed as sellouts, because that's what all my friends were saying). With the exception of some specific songs ("Black Hole Sun, "Outshined," and "Jesus Christ Pose,"), Soundgarden just never quite did it for me. I liked them well enough, but I never loved them.
Chris Cornell, though. Even I wasn't dumb enough to miss what a powerhouse singer he was. I actually preferred the one-off Temple of the Dog to Soundgarden, and later I became a fan of a lot of his solo work. When I was in college, "Seasons" (his mostly acoustic track from the "Singles" soundtrack) became a staple on various mix tapes on my many drives between Colorado and New Mexico.
After the announcement of his death last week, I decided to go back through the Soundgarden catalogue and see what I had been missing. And, by the Gods, the faithful had been right all along. I've had "Louder Than Love" and "Badmotorfinger" on almost constant rotation for the last few days, and it's like I'm hearing them for the first time. These are, quite simply, two of the best rock and roll records I've ever heard. They're bruising, complex, ferocious, and darkly beautiful in all the ways only early grunge could be.
I think where I went wrong is starting with their megahit "Superunknown." There's some great stuff on there ("Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman" are as good as we remember them), but overall it just doesn't have the sparkle that the earlier records do. It was their big commercial breakthrough, but you can feel their ambivalence throughout — the way they stubbornly work against their better instincts and end up a little stuck. There's a constant glower to the record, a sort of relentless drone, that — while interesting — sucks up most of the energy. I'd always thought of Soundgarden as the most lugubrious of the Big Four Seattle bands, but after really diving into the earlier stuff I think that impression was based almost entirely on an initial meh experience with what I think is their weakest record. I even like 1996's much derided "Down on the Upside" better.
I know that most of the bands who were saddled with the "grunge" label always bristled against it, and it's true that it became a bit of a joke as the decade wore on. "Flannel" became a code-word for the sort of brain-dead stoner who would drone on about Sylvia Plath and recite bad poetry at dorm parties. But what's gratifying about listening to the best of the genre now (not just Soundgarden, of course, but other classics from Nirvana and Pearl Jam down to lesser-known albums like TAD's "Inhaler" and Screaming Trees' "Uncle Anaesthesia") is how well the music has aged. I've loved Pearl Jam's "Vs." and "Vitalogy" for years. Both of those records sound to me like they could have been recorded yesterday. It's a bit harder to listen to Nirvana with objectivity because the music became so iconically connected to that time period... but if you can manage it, both "Nevermind" and "In Utero" are as viscerally affecting today as they were when they were released (their weirdo noise compilation "Insecticide" might be even more so).
Unfortunately my earlier favorite Alice in Chains hasn't stood the test of time quite as well. It's hard for me to quantify what the difference is, but outside of a few specific tracks ("Them Bones," "Would?" and pretty much the entire "Jar of Flies" EP), to me their music seems more dependent on nostalgia for its continued power. Maybe it's just because I was such a huge fan at the time that I can't quite separate my experience of listening to them now from what it was like back then. For some reason, listening to Alice in Chains makes me feel old in a way the other bands don't.
Grunge has been kissed by tragedy since the very beginning, when Andy Wood died of an overdose before Mother Love Bone could have the breakthrough they deserved. There's a reason why people are joking about putting Eddie Vedder in a vault right now; it's pretty stunning to consider that the lead singers of all the biggest grunge bands are now dead (including, of course, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots). Pearl Jam was always the least grungy of the grunge, but those of us who still want there to be something left in the genre are clinging to Vedder like a life preserver.
And yet, what's most surprising to me about going back and listening to the music now is how fundamentally joyful so much of it is. Yeah, the guitars are downtuned and the lyrics are all about death and drugs, but on the best stuff you can hear the joy cutting through the darkness like a buzzsaw. I think that's what I'm responding to so powerfully with "Badmotorfinger" and "Louder Than Love" right now. The pleasure the band is taking in what they are creating is visceral. Whether they liked it or not, those guys were fucking rock stars, and it was evident right from the beginning.
As far as Cornell's suicide goes, I don't have anything too profound to say about it, other than to say that when his wife expressed shock and a belief that it might have simply been triggered by taking too much Ativan, I totally buy it. People are trying to make sense of it. Here's a guy who seemed to have everything, who had been honest about his struggles with depression and drug addiction and seemed to have come out the other side, who had a loving wife and family and a resurgent career to look forward to. There must be some reason why he would do something like this. It must have been premeditated, people seem to think, and I've seen no shortage of posts analyzing cryptic comments he made, or looking back at lyrics from 20 years ago ("Fell on Black Days" has come up more than once), or discussing the fact that the band played Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" just a couple hours before he died (something they'd apparently done a bunch of times). People just don't want to believe that the final act could have been spontaneous or arbitrary or simply because he maybe took three little pills instead of two.
But when I almost killed myself, it was completely spontaneous and arbitrary. To be fair, I'd been spiraling down for awhile and had been hiding it from my friends and family. I was caught in a feedback loop of formless anger and gnawing depression that was scary because it was so unrooted in anything actually going on in my life. I had just graduated with an MFA, and I was interning at a major Hollywood studio. Things were going pretty well. And yet, I had this sadistic asshole in the back of my head whispering at me that it was all a lie, that I was a fraud, a bad person, that everyone hated me, and on and on and on. There were no legitimate reasons for me to feel the way I was feeling, so that asshole made up a whole bunch of fake reasons and I couldn't get him to stop. When I look back now, those reasons are as alien and incomprehensible to me as I'm sure whatever might have been going on in Chris Cornell's head would be if we were able to hear them now.
And then, in the middle of one of my many sleepless nights that fall, I found myself standing on a third-floor exterior walkway/balcony of the apartment building I was staying in. I wasn't planning to kill myself. I just needed some fresh air. But, as I stared out over the churning gray-green fog of nighttime LA, listening to the drone of far-off traffic and watching the sick glow of the streetlights below, the asshole in my head spoke up. "Just jump," he said. "Why not?" And in that moment it made total, perfect sense to me. So I climbed up on the railing, balancing precariously on the last bar and holding onto the wall as I flexed my ankles and prepared to leap.
The only thing that stopped me was my talent/curse for always being able to imagine the worst-case scenario of any situation. What if I don't die? I thought. What if I just break my neck and end up stuck in a chair and taking in all my food through a tube?
"Shut up!" the sadistic asshole yelled. "Just do it!" But by then it was too late. I'd had the moment of clarity I needed to realize what the fuck I was doing. I climbed down, shaking from the soles of my feet to the top of my head, and lit a cigarette. I stood there smoking and shaking and realizing that I needed to do something. I needed help.
If that clarity had come a half-second later, I wouldn't be here now.
It's been over a decade since I've felt that way or come anywhere near doing what I almost did that night. But the asshole is still there, whispering at me from the bottom of a well, and I know I need to be in constant conversation with myself to keep his voice in check.
This is why I have trouble with a show like Netflix's "13 Reasons Why," because — as good as it is at showing the horror so many teenagers are experiencing every day — it still posits that there ARE reasons, and that those reasons are real. I think I get what the show is trying to say, but that's still a dangerous road to go down. Because no matter what is going on in someone's life, those reasons are always lies (keep in mind, I'm NOT talking about euthanasia or assisted suicide, which — regardless of what you feel about it — is a different animal altogether).
I suspect Chris Cornell had his own sadistic asshole whispering lies at him in the back of his head. I suspect whatever his final thoughts were, whatever his supposed reasons, they'd make no sense to us. If this makes it seem like I'm saying his death was just sad, dumb, and meaningless, it's only because depression itself is sad, dumb, and meaningless.
And sometimes it wins.
Man, I really wanted to like The Void.
I was sold from the first trailer months ago. The second trailer only sank the hooks in deeper. All the early buzz has been good, giddily comparing the film to Carpenter, Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and Lucio Fulci. And then, earlier this week, i09 posted a bunch of retro-themed posters that hit all my horror-nerd happy places like a good massage.
I really wanted to see the movie these people were selling me. I still do.
Unfortunately, The Void is a fucking mess.
Aaron Poole plays Daniel, a small-town cop whose night of sleeping in his cruiser is interrupted by the sudden appearance of an injured young man running out of the woods. Daniel runs the poor fellow to a nearby hospital, conveniently near-deserted due to a recent fire. Also convenient (for the narrative, if nothing else) is the fact that his ex-wife (Kathleen Munroe) works there.
Then one of the nurses goes all stabby, turns into a giant bug or something, and a bunch of weird dudes in white sheets with triangles over their faces show up and won't let anyone out. It's at around this point that the movie stops even trying to make any fucking sense.
Writer/directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski (I should have known things wouldn't go well when I saw that their previous collaboration was something called Manborg) have a decent handle on the mechanics of a horror movie. There are more than a few genuinely disturbing images here, all begging to be part of a better film. The creature effects are pretty good, and I did appreciate how much of it was done practically, with rubber and latex rather than CGI. And their hearts seem to be in the right place. It's clear how deeply influenced this film is by Lovecraft and John Carpenter (particularly The Thing and Prince of Darkness). There's also a healthy dash of Clive Barker's Hellraiser thrown in for good measure.
Unfortunately, none of it really adds up to anything. The storytelling manages to be both incomprehensible and way too on-the-nose. From an image-to-image basis the movie almost works, but when it's all strung together the muddled direction and lack of focus make its spare 90 minutes something of a slog to get through.
There are a lot of ideas here... something about a doomsday cult, dark medical experiments, dead fathers, dead babies, and — of course — the titular "void." Too many ideas, in fact. It's all scattershot and undeveloped. You'd think the bad guy's constant expository monologuing would help, but it sure doesn't. I wish I could tell you how it all links together. If it's any consolation, though, I'm pretty sure Gillespie and Kostanski have no idea what's going on here either.
Lovecraft-inspired "cosmic horror" is one of my favorite literary genres, but it's also one of the hardest to pull off on the big screen. Ridley Scott's original Alien and Carpenter's The Thing probably do it better than anyone else. I was really hoping I'd be able to add The Void to that list.
Better luck next time, I guess.
I just posted a review of The Gits' seminal 1992 album Frenching the Bully in honor of International Women's Day. Now here are five more amazing women — working all across the artistic spectrum — whose work has inspired me in many different ways.
Filmmaker — Kathryn Bigelow
Until the last few years — when women like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), and Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) — began dominating the genre, there had always been a serious dearth of women out there directing horror movies. Mary Lambert has a pretty strong entry with Pet Sematary, but overall the horror world (like most of cinema) has remained kind of a boys' club.
Kathryn Bigelow made a mark on the genre early with her 1987 neo-noir vampire classic Near Dark. It's one of the best horror movies of the 80s, rivaling acknowledged classics like The Thing, Alien, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's sleek, stylish, and scary as fuck. The bar scene remains one of the best exercises in cinematic suspense.
Bigelow bounced out of horror pretty quickly, but she continued to make "boy" movies all through her career. She's maybe most known for Point Break and (in more recent years) the Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker, but Near Dark and her underrated cyberpunk classic Strange Days are still my two favorites. The influence of both of those movies on my own work is incalculable.
Actor — Sigourney Weaver
Sigourney Weaver was probably my first real onscreen crush, because little 7-year-old Scotty kind of fell in love with Dana Barrett in Ghostbusters. Even as a kid I could recognize there was something different about her take on the classic damsel-in-distress; Dana was caustic, funny, and wouldn't take any of Peter Venkman's shit. When she kisses him at the end, it's less a moment of moony-eyed love and more one of "okay, I guess you earned it."
But it was the first two Alien films that cemented her as one of my all-time favorite actors. Ripley is, to me (and pretty much every film-lover of my generation), the ultimate badass woman on screen. Even the gratuitous shots of her in her panties in the first film can't take away from the no-nonsense ferocity of her performance. The character was ill-treated by the later sequels — but Weaver never gave an inch, always gripping tight to the core of what made Ripley so special.
Writer — Shirley Jackson
"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."
That's one of the four or five most famous opening paragraphs to a horror novel — indeed, any novel — of the last century or so, and it sums up everything I love about Shirley Jackson's prose. Her writing was both precise and quietly forceful, and she had a tendency to sneak up on you, burying the knife between your shoulder blades when you were least expecting it. The Haunting of Hill House was one of those books that rewired my brain, made me realize exactly how much you could do without showing anything. It's one of the quietest ghost stories of all time... and quite possibly the scariest.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is just as good, if a little less personally revelatory to me. And, of course, "The Lottery" is among the most perfect short stories ever written.
Musician — PJ Harvey
I just posted about Mia Zapata of The Gits, who is probably overall my favorite female rock singer. But PJ Harvey is way, way up there. When I first became aware of her in the mid 1990s with "50 Foot Queenie," I had no idea what to make of her. I knew I was intrigued, but I found her combination of ferocity and raw, unapologetic sexuality frankly a little bit scary. And I like things that are scary.
When she released her classic To Bring You My Love and its single "Down By the Water" not long after, I realized what an all-around powerhouse she is. The music on that album is stunning — dark, smart, sexy, equal parts alluring and threatening in a way I could never quite define. Her lyrics are poetic and confrontational in a way that my metal-addled brain can't quite wrap itself around.
She's remained a strong musical force in the years since, releasing a number of incredible albums. She's also had a few amazing collaborations with male contemporaries like Tricky, Nick Cave, and Thom Yorke.
Artist — Kim Myatt
U.K.-based horror artist Kim Myatt is a pretty recent discovery for me, and I don't know a whole lot about her. I also don't have much in the way of vocabulary to talk about the visual arts, so it's hard to know what to say about her paintings aside from the fact that I just find them really fucking unnerving in a way no artist has since I first saw H.R. Giger. Her work is truly nightmarish in the very literal sense of the word; I've had actual nightmares that look like this.
My secret dream is to get her to do the book cover for my novel when it's finally finished.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Seattle was the Mecca of the rock-and-roll world. The many disparate scenes (heavy metal, punk, bluesy bar rock, etc.) would all quickly get lumped together under the "grunge" label and then credited with singlehandedly destroying all the regressive cock-rock of the 80s. Practically overnight, platinum-selling artists like Poison, Motley Crüe, Warrant, and RATT were swept aside by a tsunami of soulful, tortured artistes like Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Chris Cornell (Soundgarden), Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), and the scene's very own John Lennon-figure, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana).
As fresh as this new wave was, though, it was still pretty male dominated, at least as far as the mainstream was concerned. The adjacent "riot grrl" scene got a bit of ink at the time, but it was largely ignored in favor of what the boys were doing. The only woman who really broke through in a big way was Courtney Love (Hole), and for as many albums as she sold she was still mostly portrayed as a possibly homicidal Yoko, blamed for either driving her husband (Cobain) to suicide or perhaps even having him murdered.
Progress was, shall we say, limited.
But that doesn't mean that there weren't a lot of women in the alternative rock scene of the time, and that they weren't making music every bit as rad as the dudes were. From all-female riot grrl bands like 7 Year Bitch and Bikini Kill to woman-fronted, mixed-gender groups like The Breeders, the 90s was one of the most vital decades for women in rock.
One of those mixed-gender bands was The Gits, and they were perhaps the group most thoroughly poised to crack the mainstream before Hole did it a couple years later. Originally from Antioch, OH, they relocated to Seattle in the late 80s and then proceeded to destroy basically every other band in their path. Alternately labeled a riot grrl group (a label they resisted) and a grunge band (a label that didn't mean anything to anyone actually involved in it), what they really were was simply one of the tightest, most powerfully cathartic punk bands of their time. Like Nirvana, their influences were varied and eccentric, from full-on hardcore to Patti Smith and old-school R&B, but they threw it all into a thresher and produced music as crackling, aggressive, and alive as anything The Sex Pistols or Black Flag had made in the decades previous.
The element that tied it all together for them was lead singer Mia Zapata, who — on the night of July 7, 1993 — became the scene's most tragic figure when she was accosted, beaten, raped and murdered by a stranger while on her way home from her local bar. The killer wasn't caught for a decade, and her death — along with the cloud of suspicion that descended upon the Pacific Northwest music scene — was the first nail in the coffin for the waning Seattle juggernaut.
But in the short time she had, her effect on the Seattle scene — and by extension, the rock music as a whole — was seismic. The band wasn't able to go on without her, but they did manage to leave two full-length albums, 1992's Frenching the Bully and 1994's posthumously released Enter: The Conquering Chicken.
Frenching the Bully is one of those records I stumbled on in late high-school (probably 1995 or 1996) that didn't quite leave a mark at the time. I liked it, but at that moment I was just too caught up in metal, and my tastes were leaning steadily more toward the extreme. The Gits' abrasive but still pop-inflected punk just didn't quite resonate.
It wasn't until a few years later, maybe around 2001 or so, that I gave the record another spin. And it knocked me the fuck out. Of all the records saddled with the "grunge" label, I think it's maybe second only to Nirvana's In Utero in terms of raw, high-octane power.
Zapata is simply one of the best singers that punk rock has ever produced. She's like an unholy cross between Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith, and a lawnmower. Her rough-hewn vocals are both melodic and abrasive, and she had an instinctual sense of how to perfectly modulate between those two poles. On a straight-ahead hardcore assault like "Here's to Your Fuck," her lacerating vocals are like barbed-wire on the skin. But she had the ability to turn right around on a track like "Second Skin" and very nearly croon.
The rest of the band — guitarist Joe Spleen, bassist Matt Dresdner, and drummer Steve Moriarty — are a solid unit, playing a pretty straightforward brand of punk that's both tightly controlled and always feels like it's on the verge of spinning out of control the way the best punk rock should. Musically, the band always makes me think of The Clash, who on their first album stuck pretty close to punk's basics while at the same time showcasing the kind of chops that would allow them to experiment so radically on their later records. The Gits displayed a similar control over the music's dynamics, performance, and songwriting that, while not breaking any new ground, made their music just better than most of their peers. They're adventurous enough on both of their albums to make you wonder what could have been if Zapata had not been killed.
But they were all smart enough to realize that Zapata was their not-so-secret weapon. Spleen, Dresdner, and Moriarty wisely stay out of her way. The music is electric, but it always serves to support the whirlwind of energy and charisma that she was harnessing.
The best song on the album is "It All Dies Anyway," an epic, bristling, rage-filled paean to suicide and early death that manages straddle the line between punk fury and the kind of arena-rock fullness that many of the band's contemporaries were so afraid of. Listening to Zapata snarl "death is the sickest way for attention" and "they cut the cord/it cuts everything that's living in me/well it all dies anyway" is more than a little painful, considering what happened to her and what would happen to Cobain less than a year later. She could be singing about herself, or someone who she knew, or about the entire Seattle scene.
Unfortunately, The Gits are very often treated as a footnote these days, remembered more for the tragedy of Zapata's murder than for the music itself. This is a shame, because the music was pretty fucking great, and Zapata deserves to be regarded not just as a martyr but as the full-throated rock-and-roll frontwoman that she was.
In a sense, the horror movie and the social-issue movie are two genres that really should not work together. Social issue/political movies are designed to make you think. The successful horror movie, on the other hand, deals fundamentally with all sorts of lizard-brain irrational anxieties and fears. By its very nature, to be effective it needs to bypass our capacity for thought altogether.**
And yet, the world is rife with amazing movies that marry politic commentary with gut-level terror. From the original Godzilla up through the recent Purge trilogy, the genre has shown a unique capacity to bash its way through all the noise and wield social criticism like a cudgel. I'm not sure why it works, but it does. Satire in horror doesn't tend to be subtle, but it can be stunningly effective when the balance is right. By marrying the supposedly "irrational" fears of horror to astute social observation, the best political horror movies manage to suggest — and sometimes even prove — that those irrational fears are maybe not so irrational after all.
Into this stew steps Jordan Peele, one half of the comedy team Key & Peele, with his new film Get Out. It's about Chris (Daniel Kuluuya), a young black man dating Rose (Allison Williams), a fetching and seemingly too-perfect white girl. He and Rose are on their way to visit her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) for the first time.
"Do they know I'm black?" he asks.
She scoffs: "Mom and dad, my black boyfriend will be coming up this weekend. I just don't want you to be shocked that he's a black man."
And therein lies the heart of both this film's horror and its social commentary. Rose immediately tells Chris that he's being silly — that his fears are, in fact, irrational. But Chris lives in a different America, and he knows better.
And so does the film. Its central dramatic question is simple: what if all the supposedly "irrational" fears that African Americans have about even the most "liberal" whites in this country are not just true, but so so SO much worse than anyone could ever have imagined?
Peele shows an incredible facility for building suspense around these fears, particularly for a first-time director known mostly for comedy. And he starts right from the very opening frames of the film, where another young black man, Dré (Lakeith Stanfield), finds himself lost in a tony white neighborhood. A car starts following him. He puts his head down, trying to ignore it. But the car keeps pace, like a cougar stalking a deer through the underbrush. It's a scene that is probably familiar to most young African American men in this country — the flurry of questions that tumble through the head in a moment like that, about just what, exactly, does this person want? And, in the post-Trayvon Martin world, it should really be familiar to white people as well.
Is this standard-issue suspicion and harassment, or are things about to turn really catastrophically ugly? It's a real question, lived every day by African American men and women throughout the nation.
Nine times out of ten, maybe, the car just keeps going.
This film, however, is about the tenth time.
Rose assures Chris that his fears are unfounded. "My dad would have voted for Barack Obama for a third term if he could have," she says, as if that's supposed to mean something. When her dad gives Chris a wholly inappropriate hug upon their first meeting and then repeats the line almost verbatim a little later, we know what Chris knows — that this show of tolerance, inclusion, and reassuring white liberalism is just that... a show.
And then things get really weird.
I don't want to say too much more about the plot for fear of spoiling the experience. From the raw power and emotional vulnerability undergirding the film, it's clear that Peele is pulling from a certain amount of personal experience here. But he also knows his movies, and he dips liberally into two of the great 70s paranoid horror satires — both not so coincidentally adapted from novels by Ira Levin. The first, of course, is Rosemary's Baby (1968). The second, The Stepford Wives (1975), seems an even more direct source of inspiration.
As in those two films, one of Peele's greatest directorial moves is in his choice of casting. Both Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives played their villains against type, depicting people whose very innocuousness becomes the vehicle for the horror. In Rosemary's Baby, the idea that a Satanic coven might be headed up by an adorable elderly couple (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) only heightens the paranoia, and every seemingly innocent act becomes increasingly freighted with menace. Likewise, the many men of The Stepford Wives are a threat to Joanna (Katherine Ross) exactly because they seem so flabbily domesticated.
In Get Out, Catherine Keener is quite good as Rose's mom Missy and Williams is great as Rose, but it's the choice of Bradley Whitford (of The West Wing) as Rose's seemingly clueless dad Dean that turns out to be the purest stroke of genius. You can't listen to Dean's superficially well-meaning pronouncements without thinking of The West Wing's Josh Lyman, the blowhard 1990s liberal doofus that everybody just can't help but love.
As in Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, Peele also managed to find a lead who is supremely relatable. Kuluuya is a real discovery for me, one of the most organically expressive and intelligent young actors I've seen in a long time. We immediately buy into the film's premise because he buys into it. When things start getting hinky, we trust Chris's instincts without question.
For the first two thirds of the film, Peele is remarkably assured as a director. He's got a strong sense of how to use the camera to build suspense, and he ratchets up the tension with patience, only once or twice hitting the horror a little too hard (there's one musical sting that I really wish had just been deleted altogether). The film is sleek and stylish without ever being showy. The moments of genuine weirdness, when they come, are so unexpected that they solidly knock both Chris and us off kilter, and we never regain solid footing.
It's only in the final third that the wheels begin to come off the bus a little bit. Up to that point, Get Out is a very nearly note-perfect film. But Peele is a bit clunky in the way he handles the final reveals. He never lost me completely, but he does make a few choices that caused the entire foundation of the film to begin to feel a little creaky. I suddenly found myself questioning the basic plausibility of the scenario in a way I hadn't for the previous hour, not because of what Peele is saying but because of a somewhat hamfisted execution. I was willing to go where he was leading, but he never quite got me across the finish line. The film tries to go full Grand Guignol at the end, but it kind of lands somewhere between Dr. Giggles and The People Under the Stairs. The sudden detour into an almost retro B-movie landscape is jarring because so much of what had come before is just so damn good, and it's disappointing because Peele comes close to finding his iconic "He has his father's eyes" moment but never quite does. Instead, there are a couple lines of dialogue toward the end that are so bad I audibly groaned and got the stink-eye from the old lady sitting in the seat in front of me.
Still, even with its flaws, this is one of the best and most thought-provoking political horror films in a long time. It's no sin to swing for a homer and hit a two-run triple instead. I fully expect Peele to return to straight comedy soon, but I hope he's not quite done with the genre just yet. I think he's got a full-fledged masterpiece still in him.
**There have been a couple different discussions on Facebook about whether Get Out is a horror film or a thriller. I fall solidly in the camp that it's a horror film through-and-through. The distinction may seem a bit arbitrary, but I was asked to expand on my theory of the difference between the two genres. So here goes.
Horror and fear aren't quite the same emotion. A suspense film can engender a fear response, but true horror is deeper, more primal, more elemental. It really is about the lizard brain, and about digging through the subconscious soup of our id for all the dark creepy crawlies that live inside. On its most basic level this can mean gore — as Stephen King said, "if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud" — but it's really more fundamental than that. Horror movies horrify because they trigger our deepest, most animal fears of "the other" and "the unexplained."
This is why the Uncanny Valley effect is so crucial to the horror film; things are more terrifying when they are just a a little bit off. A little bit WRONG. Get Out spends most of its time in the Uncanny Valley, and Peele mines it brilliantly.
A suspense film or a thriller, on the other hand, tends to deal in a more superficial kind of fear. This isn't a knock; I love a good thriller. But it's the proverbial "rollercoaster ride" critics like to talk about. The fear is not designed to stick to your spine the same way it should in a good horror movie. It's not the stuff of nightmares.
Thrillers often do a lot of other things — All the President's Men, for example, is a fantastic newspaper procedural, whereas Rear Window is a great character study. But the fear created is often just a narrative tool meant to get us from point A to point B. It's rarely the point in-and-of itself.
The fundamental difference, I suppose, is that if the fear you feel while watching a movie is fun, then it's a thriller. If it shakes you up and disturbs you in a more profound way, then it's a horror movie. It's an imperfect distinction, I know, and there certainly is a lot of crossover between the two. But that's what I've got.