Archive for the literature Category

The Fearful Vampire Hunters

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2021 by dcairns

I’ve been writing limericks for the run-up to Halloween — you can read them here.

Despite, or maybe in part because of, the outrageous lifts from PSYCHO, part two of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot TV adaptation satisfied and startled. Fiona screamed several times. It’s fashionable to disparage jump scares, and with the modern soundtrack’s capacity they might seem too easy, somehow, but I think they still have a place in the horror film. I can respect a movie that’s too clever and disquieting to need them, for sure, but for the kind of thing SL is, they absolutely belong.

Stephen King has said that horror comes in three basic shapes — (1) is the subtlest and noblest, the suspense/dread kind, (2) is shock, the jump-scare or startle effect introduced by Tourneur (usually associated with dread and suspense but he liked to mix things up) and (3) is the gross-out. King states that he aims for (1) for preference, but resorts to (2) when necessary, and then to (3) when he has to. The trouble always seemed to me that (2) and (3) can push out (1). But I note that Hitchcock pushed graphic violence in PSYCHO and it HELPED with the dread and suspense, and that the Lewton-Tourneur school purveyed not only subtle psychological tension, but shocks AND had more blood than other ’40s horrors.

The acting in Salem’s Lot helps hugely. Reggie Nalder, as noted by David Ehrenstein, is a formidable living special effect who didn’t even need all the makeup he’s given to be alarming. When you’ve hired Reggie, youdon’t have to paint him blue. As Simon Kane notes, they’ve taken away all his dialogue and that makes him scarier, less human. James Mason’s Mr. Straker is basically playing Renfield, but a Renfield hugely empowered and elevated, suave and cunning and not loony at all, whereas Nalder’s Mr. Barlow is a Dracula degenerated, pure animal will, a semi-sentient walking plague.

Small-parts supporting vampires add to the general mood of abjection: Mason’s real-life wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason (whom he met while casting for a Miranda to his Prospero in Michael Powell’s never-made THE TEMPEST) gets probably her best onscreen moment; Geoffrey Lewis is fantastically creepy, the screen’s best blue-collar neck-biter; the two kids, Ronnie Scribner and his recruit, Brad Savage are legit terrifying.

Credit also to David Soul, who plays a hero who can actually be terrified. The way you or I would be. I don’t know why this obvious bit of realism isn’t used more often in horror films, other than that you need good actors and you need to spend time showing their reactions. Leading man vanity may also be a factor. But David Soul, rarely discussed as an acting talent, wets himself with real conviction.

Who keeps a drawer full of rats and eyeballs?

The show is peppered with instances where Hooper clearly just didn’t have time for a second take or reshoot, but it succeeds where it counts. It’s impressive that he was able to make the haunted house a memorable, beautifully-designed set that lives up to the two-hour build-up: production designer Mort Rabinowitz does a grand job. The place seems alive with mould. And Barlow’s lair is, magnificently, reached by descending an absent staircase and passing through a tiny, scary door. These bits of architectural surrealism enhance the terror in hard-to-analyse ways. They do make us feel like we’re leaving the domain of the human.

Fiona was much taken with the way Barlow’s recruits are just lying around in the dirt around his coffin. Only he gets a box. Stephen King probably deserves some credit for the way the film makes vampirism seem really grubby and nasty and degraded, a new development in the genre. True, both the Murnau and Herzog NOSFERATUs (from which Nalder’s makeup is derived) associate their head vamp with vermin, and he doesn’t look as sexy as Chris Lee. But at least he has a nice coat. Barlow’s black robe makes him a shapeless mass with a little blue head and hands grafted on, a shred of midnight torn loose and apt to pop into frame from odd angles, and he’s maybe the first screen vampire you gotta assume must smell really bad.

Maine Arteries

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2021 by dcairns

Why is Ralphie Glick in his pajamas?

He disappears in the woods, walking home from a friend’s house with his brother Danny. The vampires have got him. But then he appears, hovering in the fog at his brother’s window. In his jim-jams. What’s that all about?

I turned to Stephen King’s book for answers, and learned that the window-floating scenes (it happens again, when Danny’s in hospital: kid just can’t catch a break) aren’t in it. So I have to take my hat off to Tobe Hooper and screenwriter Paul Monash (THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE). The scariest thing in the show, possibly; certainly the thing everyone was talking about at school the next day. And it’s pure filmic invention, born out of the inference that the vampires must have gotten at Danny somehow.

I put my hat back on again so I can take it off to Ronnie Scribner, who plays the littlest vampire. Good work, kid! You’re terrifying in that show.

This might be a question best put to regular Shadowplayer Scout Tafoya, whose book on Tobe Hooper is here.

Salem’s Lot stars Original Hutch; Prof. Humbert Humbert; Ramey Holvak; Holly McClane; Dr.James Kildare; George Peatty; Mr. Creepy; Father Dyer; Brisbane Bird; Eddie Goody; Baron Vladimir Harkonnen; Ed Harken; Sherry Peatty; and Needles, Yellow Jacket Assassin.

Florida Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2021 by dcairns

I first read John D. MacDonald’s stuff in short story form in the pages of those neat paperbacks “edited” by Alfred Hitchcock, culled from his Mystery Magazine (I’d love it if such publications were widespread and cheap today). He wrote great little minimalist Marlowe knock-offs. Now I’ve started on his Travis McGee novels, of which there are plenty. They’re all very short, very snappy, very loosely plotted (MacDonald seems to embody the same traits Donald Westlake found in Jim Thompson: his novels, Westlake said, have moments when you sense he needed to go back and fix something to make it all come out right, but he didn’t have time. The first four McGees came out in 1964, and MacDonald was writing other stuff too).

I only realised later that MacDonald also wrote The Executioners, which became CAPE FEAR, twice.

All the McGee novels have colour-coded titles, many of them absurd: Bright Orange for the Shroud features a villain transparently a version of CAPE FEAR’s Max Cady, ported in, renamed, and described as having a Robert Mitchum quality.

McGee is a beach bum who lives on a houseboat won in a card game, and specialises in “salvage” — getting things back for people who’ve been robbed. His fee is half of whatever it is. It’s a clever variant on the private eye set-up, and an added wrinkle is that often the victim/client has been robbed in a way that’s basically legal, and McGee extracts reparations in a way that isn’t.

Given the Floridian setting I was on the alert for signs of wingnut tendencies in the author and his character. McGee is a self-aware white knight, an anachronistic romantic, and that probably chimes nicely with how right-wingers see themselves. Lefties of the modern era are perhaps less likely to see themselves as romantic heroes. In fact, MacD and McGee sometimes speak, with their one voice, about the harm done to Florida by crazy rightwingers, but on the other hand there’s an unpleasant vein of homophobia that surfaces only occasionally but enough to creep me out. And he one time refers to “the war between the states” which is a big red flag (with a blue X and white stars).

This bigotry dates the books more than any other aspect — the attitude to women isn’t too far off-base, racial questions are curiously absent so far (itself a faint warning sign?). McGee usually gets laid at least once, but he’s nearly always in love with the girl; some contrivance will prevent him “getting” her in a permanent way at the novel’s end. And he unfailingly gets horribly injured once per book. There’s a format, but the variations MacDonald executes are impressive.

Another amusing aspect is most apparent in Nightmare in Pink: MacDonald was writing science-fiction stories for the pulps, like Westlake, at the same time as his early thrillers, and the SF bent of his mind comes through in unexpected places. In this one, McGee, in New York to help a friend’s sister, finds himself musing on the city and his thoughts are more those of a science-fictioneer than of a “salvage specialist” — he regards the hostility New York’s citizenry and speculates that “New York is where it is going to begin, I think,” running a scenario in his head that plays like a zombie apocalypse fuelled by anomie. Relaxing in his soulless modern hotel room he imagines the room piping happiness directly into the guests’ brains in the not-so-distant future. Best of all is this bit about poodles:

“You could almost hear the dogs sigh as they reached the handiest pole. There was a preponderance of poodles.

“This is the most desperate breed there is. They are just a little too bright for the servile role of dogdom. So their loneliness is a little too excruciating, their welcomes more frantic, their desire to please a little more intense. They seem to think that if they could just do everything right, they wouldn’t have to be locked up in the silence — pacing, sleeping, brooding, enduring the swollen bladder. That’s what they try to talk about. One day there will appear a super-poodle, one almost as bright as the most stupid alley cat, and he will figure it out. He will suddenly realize that his loneliness is merely a by-product of his being used to ease the loneliness of his Owner. He’ll tell the others. He’ll leave messages. And some dark night they’ll all start chewing throats.”

Nightmare in Pink‘s plot hinges on psychiatric abuses involving LSD, and this was written in 1964 (the year Trav first appeared in print), which suggests MacDonald was pretty switched on. His anxiety about social change, undoubtedly tinged with conservatism, also seems genuinely alert — The Quick RedFox, which was the first TM I read, plays like countercultural 1968, but was published in ’66.

If you’re looking for 270-page potboilers, I recommend John and Travis. I haven’t seen the TV movie with Sam Elliott but the feature film with Rod Taylor, DARKER THAN AMBER, is impressively vicious, although it does FEEL like an installment in something, rather than a standalone film. Which is a drawback, and probably what stopped it becoming a bigger hit, and thus a series. Perhaps they should have started with the first book. James Bond is the only movie franchise to get away with starting on the wrong book, isn’t it?