Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sontaran Therapy

Can one love a Sontaran?

Can affection transcend repulsion?

I did.

And of course it can.

My initial attraction to horror was that it was populated with people who were as ugly as me. I fitted in with them. Their problems were possibly worse than my own. There was comfort in that.

Between the ages of four and eleven, I wore a grotesque, oversized, cloth eye patch. It went on when I rose and came off when I retired. Its purpose was to cover my right eye (the good eye) entirely so that my left eye, which was yielding just 25% vision, would be forced to pick up its game. To help it do that, I was fitted with thick, black-rimmed spectacles with the magnification properties of an observatory telescope.

My name was promptly changed to "Cyclops" and my preferred fashion accessory became a blue, plastic Batman helmet that was all the rage at the time and is now a collector's item.

I was no junior beefcake.

In our house, Dr. Who was a Sunday afternoon tradition. I joined the show when Patrick Traughton was coming to the end of his doctoring. The first time I saw him, he was fighting Sea Devils. My immediate dilemma was that I supported The Doctor, but sympathized with the monsters, even when they were taking lives on a grand scale.

No matter what villainy these so-called "devils" embraced, they had my unconditional backing.

And so did The Doctor, of course.

The Time Warrior marked the introduction of Elizabeth Sladen as "Sarah Jane Smith" (now going strong in The Sarah Jane Chronicles); she was The Doctor's new companion (after Jo).

It also marked the first appearance of a Sontaran, one of the first Dr. Who creatures since the Cybermen and the Daleks to possess real staying power. The Sontaran to beat in this episode announced his hideous credentials in a dramatic headwear removal scene that may have given Darth Vader ideas.

This fellow's name was -- wait for it -- Linx! (rhymes with sphinx). Sure that nobody was watching him, the shy spaceman ducked into a corner and took off his bulky, steel helmet, revealing a grotesque mug that could best be described as Humpty Dumpty Gone Terribly Wrong.

What made Linx special to me was his attitude. His optimism. His self-confidence. I had none of the latter at the time, so Linx became a square screen mentor to me, at least for the four weekends this episode took to play out. Finally, I was watching an ugly guy on TV who had plans, intelligence, a spaceship, cool facial scars, and a rude head that he'd learned to live with.

At eleven years of age, I was having a shocking time living with my own head, my eye patch, and those gruesome glasses, so it was enormously comforting to watch this Sontaran warrior give the humans a run for their money.

And NOT be concerned with his appearance.

That's the part that worked for me. You could be ugly and still have a life. In the Middle Ages. In space. Or, as in my case, in a small, quiet suburb of Melbourne.

When Jon Pertwee's Doctor defeated Linx, I was bummed, but I was happy for the human race, too. I was sure that the Sontarans would return again one day.

My optimism was rewarded two years later when one of Linx's countrymen, Field Major Steyr, arrived on Earth to get right what poor old Linx had gotten wrong. This would be Tom Baker's first but not last encounter with the outer space Humpty Dumpties (which I write with the greatest respect, of course), and it was a classic.

The Sontaran Experiment, just a two-parter, takes place entirely on location, giving the Sontaran military man a chance to appreciate the windy British countryside.

In a clever development that keeps the gene pool pure, the same actor who portrayed Linx (Kevin Lindsay) also portrayed the Field Major.

One wouldn't think it possible, but the Field Major was even uglier than his compatriot. His head looked like a semi-punctured dirigible and he had dark circles under his eyes. I worried that he'd been spending too much time talking to his Sontaran mates back home on the interplanetary TV screen he'd installed in a rock face.

Like Linx, Steyr could give two shits about his appearance. He had bigger and better things to focus on than his hairstyle or acne. Admittedly, acne was becoming a focus of mine, but thanks to TV mentors like Linx and Steyr, the demons of teenage stress never did manage to wrestle me to the canvas of self destruction.

A bunch of Sontarans returned to avenge the annihilation of their brothers in The Invasion of Time. They didn't count on meeting a guy (Tom Baker) who'd already tangled with their kind, so they failed miserably in their effort to do wrong once again.

These jokers were also butt ugly, confirming once and for all that there was something nasty in the water on their distant planet.

Today, I have Linx and his brethren to thank for the self confidence I do possess.

I never did get a whole lot better looking, but I certainly got a whole lot of free therapy to deal with that reality from those homely, Sontaran go-getters.

As a token of thanks, I'm prepared to send each of them a stolen set of sonic screwdrivers for Xmas.

If anybody has their mailing address, please PM me.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A New Book of Lists Walks Among Us

I find lists endlessly fascinating.

Do you?

Even lists of stuff I'm not really into.

I recently read a list of the top ten Russian ballerinas who have suffered from bulimia. I didn't need that information, but I was glad to have it.

What is the appeal of lists?

Is it the way they cut to the chase?

Is it their ability to distill intriguing information?

Or is it the fact that they answer the common question: "What do you think?"

I'm sure it's all three, and more.

The Book of Lists - Horror, edited by Del Howison, Amy Wallace, and Scott Bradley, distills over a century of anything horror-related and allows us to discover what a bunch of true horror practitioners really think.

It's heaven for horror fans.

We get Bob Burns's list of "Eight Worst Monster Movie Costumes" (The Creeping Terror wins), Bob Murawski's "Twelve Greatest Grindhouse Horror One-Sheets (Blood Feast takes the prize),
Anthony Timpone's "Ten Movies I Wish I'd Never Put On The Cover Of Fangoria (King's Maximum Overdrive comes in first), Barry Lost Highway Gifford's "Fifteen Favorite Late Night Tinglers" (Island of Lost Souls scores the touchdown), Johnny Ramone's "Top Ten Favorite Horror Movies" (in 1st place is Bride of Frankenstein), David Wallechinsky's "Six Overlooked Horror Films" (the Japanese Page of Madness gets the richly deserved top spot), Melissa Mia Hall's "Ten Favorite Horrifying Artists" (Paul Delvaux's The Village of the Sirens hits the finish line first) and Nacho Cerda's "Ten Most Profound Horror Experiences" (Jaws and George Grau's Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue don't go unnoticed).

There are hundreds more lists from names such as Gary Brandner, Leisure Books' Dan D'Auria, Victor Salva (who ruminates on the top ten things we have learned from horror movies), JF Gonzalez, Stephen King (naturally), Bentley Little (who shines a light on one-hit wonder writers such as Joan Samson and her amazing The Auctioneer).

The three editors, who also contribute lists, have done an amazing job of gathering a diversity of opinion and fitting it snugly between two paper covers you're going to flip open a lot.

It now joins my own dubious list of "Non-Fiction I Can't Live Without":

Killing For Culture (Kerekes/Slater)
Hitchcock (Truffaut)
Grammatically Correct (Stilman)
A Trip To The Light Fantastic (Hickman)
The Sex Films (Weisser)
The Misfits (Wilson)
Porn Gold (Hebditch/Anning)
A World of Imponderables (Feldman)
A Criminal History of Mankind (Wilson)
An Evil Love ( Wansell)
The Aurum Film Encyclopedia - Horror (Hardy)
Eros in Hell (Hunter)

The Pick of Piccirilli

The stunned mug above does not belong to Tom Piccirilli, the genre-jumping, terribly underrated author of the amazing Fuckin' Lie Down Already, a classic of revenge...

The Dead Letters, a brilliant, twisted thriller about a child killer with Good Samaritan tendencies...

and A Choir Of Ill Children, one of my favorite novels of all time.

If Piccirilli were to write ABOUT writing, you'd listen to him, right?

Well, he has... and you'd better.

He did it in 2000, actually, but I've only just caught up with the Fairwood Press "Revised Edition" (2007) of Welcome To Hell: A Working Guide for the Beginning Writer.

It might be a thin volume at sixty-eight pages, but it contains a fat lot of knowledge that Piccirilli kindly shares with us about the process of writing and the business.

If nothing else, Piccirilli is a realist. He's an Asian film enthusiast, too, and he's partial to pinky violence and horror movies. I wonder if he's free for dinner tonight.

He states up front that writing can't be taught, but he does believe that it can be learned. By that I guess he's saying that the process can be understood, even by someone who can't stitch a sentence together.

Chapter 4, titled SURE, I COULD BE A BESTSELLER BUT I JUST DON'T HAVE THE TIME, is a reality check that will give the slacker in everybody a hard kick up the ring.

"You have the same twenty-four hours in the day as everybody else in the world. If you're looking for an easy trick to somehow squeeze an extra forty-five minutes in here or there, you won't find one. There is no secret. The only truth is that if you want to find the time to write badly enough -- if you need to write -- then you won't push that next story to the back burner. It'll stay in the front of your mind, forcing itself out, and when you get a free thirty minutes to work on the tale, you will."

You tell 'em, Tom!

This little bible of the blackest of arts (writing) is cheap at U.S.$9.99 and deserving of bi-annual re-readings.

Other subjects covered include grammar, syntax, repetition (and how to avoid it), conflict, atmosphere and narrative voice.

It leaves you inspired, but with a pragmatic view on the difficulty of writing well and for profit.

"Never let anyone steal your faith," Piccirilli concludes. "Have fun."

Hopefully, an encounter with this book will spawn you into digging out his literary thought crimes and devouring them.

Although his work is available in abundance on-line, a recent inventory of local bookstores turned up no Piccirilli titles at all. Shame on the lot of 'em!

Bonnie, where are you?

Definitely an exhibit of a long gone era...

The Godsend at EIGHT suburban drive-ins.

Now, it'd be lucky to see a DVD release.

Where the hell did they find Wilhelmina Green, who played the scary as all fuck "Bonnie", the story's female villainette? As a Creepy Kid, she was a keeper. Her only other credit is an episode of the Hammer House of Horror TV series: Children of the Full Moon. This kid should have been given her own series!
Unlike Last Rites, the appalling vampire flick that it was paired with, The Godsend ('80) is a reasonably interesting fright film. It is faithful to Bernard Taylor's excellent '76 novel and is technically polished; the writer previously penned the chilling Sweetheart, Sweetheart.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Leatherface And A Glass Cage

In 1988, the LA Times film critic Kevin Thomas wrote a glowing review of a disturbing new Spanish film I'd never heard of : In A Glass Cage (Tras el Cristal) . I read the review three times as I ate my breakfast, my enthusiasm growing. By the time I'd washed up and dried my oatmeal bowl, I was anxiety-ridden. My need to see this was positively alcoholic.

I had a full day of work ahead, so I'd have to wait until tomorrow (Saturday).

The film was screening at one LA theater only, the AMC Century City. Today, the complex is still in operation, and they've added a fifteenth screen. Times have changed radically, though. If Augustin Villaronga, the film's director, took a pistol, broke into the projection booth, and demanded that they screen his film today, they'd take the bullet instead. The conservatism that has infected the big exhibition corporations is frightening. It's probably fair to add that the film itself would not be funded today, not with its focus on the abuse and killing of children.

I made an important and much-appreciated phone call around noon that day to Brad Shellady, the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait. I read Kevin Thomas's review of the film to him at an exasperated pace while failing to gag my own enthusiasm and ridiculous expectations. Not surprisingly, Brad signed up on the spot and we agreed to meet on the following day for the 1.40 afternoon session.

I'd met Brad recently at a Fangoria convention when my brother was in town. He'd gotten himself strangled by the The Tall Man (Angus Scrim) before heading back to Australia.

Brad and I became fast friends, bonded by our addiction to horror.

Originally from Chicago, Brad was living in Whittier, a serious hike from LA, and was in the process of securing a distribution deal for his doco. It also turned out that he was on very good terms with Gunnar Hansen (the original Texas Chainsaw's "Leatherface").

Gunnar turned out to be a gentle, bear-like guy with an embracing, easygoing manner. While we were chatting, though, I kept flashing back to Stephen King's description of meeting him in Danse Macabre. Gunnar had bounced the writer's son up and down on his knee, and King had experienced a quiet moment of dread. I'd grown up with images of Leatherface myself, but none correlated with the man with whom I was enjoying a friendly chinwag.

Brad and I met twenty minutes before the screening in Century City. I was studying the one-sheet when he tapped me on the shoulder. He paused and studied it, too. "Nice," he said.

The theater, which was fairly small, was three-quarters full by the time the trailers ended. There was a definite air of expectation present. I noted that half the audience were elderly. Strange. Had these people read the reviews? Perhaps they were Jews expecting a film of a very different nature?

The film opens with a powerful sequence, elevated by Javier Navarrete's profound synth score, in which Klaus (Gunter Meisner), the film's villain, beats a young, semi-camatose boy who is suspended from the rafters of an abandoned building.

The ex-Nazi doctor is watched by an unseen man. When, moments later, he throws himself from the roof of the building, the hands of the man gather up his personal belongings, setting the stage for an incredible, future confrontation.

A grueling title sequence, comprised of concentration camp photographs, follows. Villaronga leaves us with no uncertainty that we are in for a mind-blowing experience.

From the outset, we're in the hands of a master filmmaker.

We discover that Klaus didn't die; he was paralyzed by his suicide attempt and rendered incapable of breathing independently. He now lives inside an iron lung in a chateau in rural Spain. His wife Griselda (Marisa Parades) and daughter Rena (Gisele Echevarria) cater to his every need. They are unaware of the experiments he carried out on children during the war, and his fascination with death.

When the youthful, unqualified Angelo (David Sust) arrives at the house and offers to nurse the inert Klaus, Griselda's opposition to the offer is quashed by Klaus. Seeds of tension and resentment are sewn between Griselda and Angelo while Klaus regains some of his much diminished power.

Although Angelo constructs an odd relationship with Rena,

...his focus is definitely on his patient.

When the boy offers to revive Klaus's past by bringing him children, the film enters grim territory indeed, and asserts an incredible, cinematic grip.

The sequence in which Angelo tricks an orphan into visiting the "sick man" in the iron lung is one of the most grueling, dread-filled chapters in the history of cinema. After it had unspooled, the theater began to empt. They couldn't get out those doors fast enough.

When the second death of a child occurs, the remaining audience, with the exception of Brad and myself, headed for the exits.

Now we were alone.

Ironically, the film's more visceral horrors dissipate after the second murder. The narrative takes several interesting twists and embraces surrealism when Rena's character takes a stand against Angelo's brutality.

The climax, though unexpected, finds grim beauty in transference. It is stunning.

The last image, which is encased in a glass snow globe, surely inspired the final shot of Michel Soavi's brilliant Dellamorte Dellamore ('94).

Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil ('98) also borrowed heavily from Villaronga's masterpiece, whether he'd like to admit it or not.

Brad and I were very different people when we stepped into the Century Century sunshine almost two hours later. We'd been shaken awake by an original, brave, aesthetically perfect work of dark art, one of a dramatic force that hasn't been equaled by any other director or even by Villaronga himself.

Expectations weren't met. They were eviscerated.

Unfortunately, Javier Navarette's incredible score for In A Glass Cage has never been released on LP or CD. The composer did go on to score Pan's Labyrinth, Villaronga's 99.9 (which is available) and The Devil's Backbone.

The Dirty Bird

Small, succinct, chilling novel in the Poe vein (St. Martin's Press, 1986).

Set on the Welsh coast, a man inherits a strange, dirty bird (a cormorant). His relationship with the beast becomes an obsession, and it drives his loved ones away.

Gregory's writing is evocative and hypnotic. When I first stumbled across this book and its beautiful cover, I sensed that it was something special.

I had no idea that, twenty-three years later, its horror would still remain with me. It is an extraordinary piece of work.

I didn't know what a cormorant was until I read this. When I was done, I was repulsed by the very idea.

The writer's skill is convincing us that the destructive bird has a purpose in our hero's life. When everything around him starts disintegrating, this repulsive creature, the cause of the chaos, becomes a savior of sorts.

Clearly, someone at the BBC liked the book, too, because they went into production on a TV movie that earned a brief theatrical run in the US. It starred Ralph Fiennes.

The movie does not convey the putrid horror of the book, but director Peter Markham does manage to capture the source's tenor of obsession.

In '88, Gregory returned with another impressive tale of obsession and depression, The Woodwitch. It is a textbook example of how to conjure dread and paranoia with as few words as possible.

Even Ramsey Campbell raved about it, and rightly so.

In a previous post, I discussed the troubling, deceptively elegant work of Jessica Hamilton/Ken Greenhall (Elizabeth, Baxter). Gregory's work is in the same vein. TM Wright wouldn't be uncomfortable in the company of these writers, either.

And Poe, wherever he is, is probably toasting his students (I hear he liked a drop or two).

Virtually unknown in the US, Stephen Gregory's nightmarish tales of psychological horror are well worth tracking down.

In the 70's, there was a British TV series called Thriller (created by Brian Clemens). The Cormorant and The Woodwitch would have been perfect subjects for the show.

Not long after reading The Cormorant, I experienced a bizarre incident with a bird.

I was living in an old house with an open fireplace. Winter was approaching. During the Autumn, my ex-wife and I would often hear flapping in the chimney. Birds would nest in there for a while and move on. Most were small birds; they needed to be because the chimney was narrow. When their business in there was done, they would fly up and out. I made a habit of checking the chimney now and then. I'd slide myself in backwards and upside down to take a look. If I could see the sky, I was satisfied that nothing had jammed itself in there.

On the first cold night of Winter, I placed some wood in the opening and sprinkled some gasoline accelerant around to get the wood to ignite. I know that sounds like overkill, but the recommended synthetic fire lighters never did the job properly because an ungodly wind blew down the chimney, extinguishing small flames . Earlier that day, I'd inspected the space for birds. The sky was visible. It was clear.

I threw one of those oversized matches onto the gasoline-soaked logs. There was a sudden poof! as the logs flared. Great! We'd have some serious heat soon.

The flapping and SCREECHING started immediately. Ash and debris were being belched from the fireplace onto the wooden floor.

At first I didn't even comprehend what was happening; it all happened so fast.

Something was in the fireplace, and it was being consumed by flames.

With all the ash and crap that was being spat out of the opening, I couldn't see a thing.

The flames were leaping high and bending as they were fanned by the thing in my fireplace.

Its SCREECHING became banshee-like, hellish BELLOWING.

I'd never heard anything so sad.

Then it dropped onto the logs and stood there for a moment.

It was a large, burning bird. Its wings, flapping frantically, were on fire. They were such large wings that they were preventing the creature from escaping its tomb.

I'll never forget it looking directly at me as it burned to death.

Strangely, its tiny head was untouched by the fire. Its eyes communicated sheer helplessness.

I couldn't even look at the thing.

It was horrible.

I ran to the kitchen and filled a saucepan with water. I raced back and hurled the water at the bird. By then, it had given up hope. It rested on its black, roasted wings on the logs, its head slightly tilted. It was still looking at me.

In the months that followed the incident, I kept seeing the bird staring at me and I wondered if there was blame in those eyes.

Had I let this creature down?

Should I have checked the chimney again before lighting the fire?

I picked the bird up and wrapped it in newspaper. Its charbroiled wings were still smoking. Its thin bird face was black.

I buried it before my wife got home.

After I'd spent an hour mopping up the mess, I walked into my study and took out The Cormorant.

I studied the cover and ran my finger across the raised graphic of the bird.

I immediately understood something about the relationship between man and bird.

Like the cormorant in the story, my bird, even in its dying flurry, desired a brief connection with me.

That's what Stephen Gregory's book was about. A connection. A connection so strong it turned a blind eye to evil.