Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween Ish - Books & Movies Worth Sinking Your Teeth Into

Like every other blogger, I thought about doing a list of my favorite horror movies since the holiday is upon us. Then I realized that I have a very small list of horror movies that I think are even worth watching, much less that are good. Then I thought about making a list of my favorite horror/suspense novels, but I realized that I didn't have a huge list of books that fit into that particular trope either. Maybe the horror/suspense genre just isn't my thing. I don't know that I've come across a lot of books or movies that have really confounded and exceeded expectations or weren't mired in some kind of cliche that we've seen a thousand times before.

For me, the true horror is both a psychological and realistic one. Ghosts and vampires and the supernatural don't really frighten me the way they do for some people. I like a good ghost story, but I'm more terrified of the stories where the events that take place could actually happen to someone. Blood and gore are fine when used right and not to excess, but it's usually the things you don't see or the fracturing of psyches that end up being scarier for me.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) - Directed by Michael Bay

I tend to dislike Michael Bay's over-the-top directing, and though I'd never seen the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre from the late '70's, I really enjoyed this revamp. Since the original story is loosely based off real events and the original was released almost 40 years ago, it's easy to overlook the "kids travelling in unknown territory/get car troubles/shack up in creepy house/get hacked apart" cliche. Either way, there's not much about this that's supernatural, so it speaks to me on a more visceral level. The fear is the possibility of this happening in real life, even if the killer(s) may be slightly on the ridiculous/near unbelievable side of things.

I Am Legend (2007) - Directed by Francis Lawrence

Most people don't realize that this movie was based on the book of the same name by Richard Matheson. Matheson also wrote several other wonderful pieces that got turned into movies, namely "What Dreams May Come" (a phenomenal screen adaptation starring Robin Williams) and "The Box" (starring Cameron Diaz). Matheson is a solid writer and does some great work on the page that translates easily to the screen. "I Am Legend" has been turned into several different movies over the years: "The Last Man on Earth" (1964), "The Omega Man" (1971), and this current (and I believe, closest adaption of the book) by the same title. The problem is that all three movies (while fun to watch), completely miss the entire point, and really, the title, of the book. I'd rather not spoil the ending of the book, as I believe it's worth it when the reader arrives there, but the movie fell flat in this regard. In true Hollywood fashion, the happy ending precludes the credits and people in the theater leave with a warm feeling. The reader, once done with the novel, finds themselves in a vastly more interesting ethical and moral debate that is infinitely more enjoyable. Had Lawrence actually included the book's ending in the movie, it may have pissed off viewers, but it would have been one of the more interesting movies of that year guaranteed.

"House of Leaves" (2000) - Mark Z. Danielewski

As you can see by the picture above, this book is NOT to be trifled with. This is not your typical horror/suspense novel and it works on about 15 different levels all at the same time. I've reviewed this book on the blog before (part I HERE and part II HERE), but it's really one of those cult classics among readers. If you're looking for a good, truly scary book, pick this one up.

Danielewski was here in San Francisco last week performing his story "The Fifty Year Sword" with live musical accompaniment by Christopher O'Riley. Like "House of Leaves," it was another story inside a story that, when read aloud and with the music alongside it, creeped me right the hell out. I was fortunate enough to have my friend Karen (from over at Conceptual Reception) join me. A huge fan of "House of Leaves" herself, we both enjoyed ourselves immensely and got books signed by the author. A haunted house story is certainly nothing new, but the way Danielewski plays with text and formatting on the page, the way he weaves so many different threads and hidden things within the text, makes this one of the most fascinating and suspense-filled books I've ever read. No hyperbole at all.

"There Is No Year" (2011) - Blake Butler

Blake Butler is one of my favorite new authors in recent years. When I had finished "There Is No Year," I wrote him an email via Facebook simply stating that while I didn't always understand his prose or his plots, I was thoroughly engrossed by the style and color of his prose. The imagery that he evokes is strong, but not always clear. It is almost always dark, but not necessarily oppressive. While this book could've been shorter by a good chunk of pages, the story of this strange nuclear family-gone-surreal is worth reading if only for passages like this one:

"They purred secret sentences in silent rising spiral until the sky at last had drunk so much it sunk to night - the night not out of cycle but in insistence, demanded in the skin, the unseen smoke of body after body sewn surrounding until the mother, at least, could not see—could not feel the air even around her, or her other—could not feel anything at all—and in the dark the mother stuttered—and in the dark again the mother walked."

I would also highly recommend checking out his collection of post-apocalyptic short stories called "Scorch Atlas." Not only are the stories themselves phenomenal, but the formatting of the entire book fits the mood of the writing in ways we don't get to see all that often anymore. Read the actual book; don't do the e-reader thing. This and "House of Leaves" are the kinds of books that are not only becoming more frequent, but are the primary reason the e-readers aren't the final answer to reading. Though I will say this: most readers tend to either love or hate Butler's work. There's not much fence-sitting when it comes to his writing.

"Pedro Paramo" (1955) - Juan Rulfo

Before getting to grad school, I had no idea how prolific and wide-spread the Latin American authors had become within the literary world. What is now sad to me is that most of these phenomenal authors are dead, and have been so for a very long time, thus never seeing how much their works have spread to the more English-speaking countries. Roberto Bolano, Juan Rulfo, Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia on and so forth, all heavy hitters of the strange, surreal, and the fabulist way of writing.

"Pedro Paramo" is one of those fantastic ghost stories that isn't about the frights or scaring you down to your bones. Containing dual narratives of different times, the story is more about making promises to loved ones and standing firm to one's belief systems during great times of duress. This is a short book (only about 128 pages long), but packs a big punch that sits with the reader long after putting it down. This one, I admit, was a surprise to me. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.

Antichrist (2009) - Directed by Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier makes incredibly patience-shredding movies. He is slow, he is deliberate, and at times he can be abstract to the point of not making much sense. However, the final product that he places on the screen is typically gorgeous (see my review of his movie "Melancholia" HERE).

"Antichrist" is one of his darker movies, and that's saying something considering how dark his others are. "Dancer in the Dark," which starred Icelandic pop singer Bjork, was about as depressing and soul-crushing as a movie could be. In this 2009 film, Willem Dafoe and his wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, take flight to their cabin home after the accidental death of their son months previous. What follows is Dafoe's attempts to bring Gainsbourg out of her depression, leading to dark hallucinations and a sexual violence I had never seen in film before. While an incredibly heavy movie (and not necessarily considered horror), it's dark enough to make your skin crawl and leave you shaking for days afterwards.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Directed by Robert Wiene

Thankfully, the video posted above is the actual full version of the 1920 classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," so you can watch it in its entirety from here or via Youtube. It's one of the earliest surrealist silent films and utilizes German Expressionism to its fullest. The thing that struck me about this movie upon first viewing was the myriad number of sets that felt more Picasso or Dali-esque in nature (though the movie's style pre-dated both of the painters' more cubist and surrealist techniques respectively). Each set was distinctive and highlighted a jagged, nightmarish quality that remained throughout the hunt for a serial killer.

Another bit of patience is needed for the silent film; we've become so used to the need for soundtracks and speaking roles that the silent film has almost become a relic many have forgotten about. I could rattle off a host of famous movies that utilize the same kind of surprise ending, but then I'd basically be ruining this one for those you of you that haven't seen it. While the ending would be considered cliche these days, in 1920, it was considered to be the first example of the "twist ending." And please don't look it up on Wikipedia. You'll really do yourself a disservice by not watching the movie in its entirety. This is a quick and easy classic that takes less than an hour to watch and has recently been remade with speaking parts. I found both versions to be entertaining.

Fear(s) of the Dark (Peur(s) du Noir) (2007) - Directed by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire

It appears that this movie, a collection of dark and twisted animated tales, can also be viewed in its entirety on Youtube, much to my happy surprise. I had never heard of any of these comic/graphic artists before, but watching these digital shorts was a bit like finding myself inside the lore and legend of some of my favorite magical realists. While there were elements of American horror throughout, I also felt a wonderful and vibrant foreign feel to many of the stories, themselves spliced and separated by the strange cartoon of a man walking several violent dogs throughout a city; each splice finds another stranger killed by one of these dogs.

The entire movie is done in black and white. I can't say that this is the wrong way to do it, but in some shorts, a little color/clarity would've gone a long way. My favorite happened to be the final one where a stranger caught out in a blizzard finds himself struggling to keep his sanity in an abandoned house full of photo albums with the faces cut out of all the pictures. The stories here were incredibly interesting and more than a couple had me genuinely afraid of what might have come next.

"Outer Dark" (1968) - Cormac McCarthy

For those familiar with McCarthy's work, this choice will seem pretty bizarre for this list. McCarthy, however, is one of those fabulous maximalist writers that does the best kind of justice to, not only the landscapes surrounding his characters, but the backgrounds of the characters he writes about. If he's not writing about a kind of cowboy/desert story, he's delving into the underbelly of the Appalachian Mountain area, reaching in deep to find the darkest corner he can find. "Outer Dark" disturbed me to no end. Being Cormac's second novel, it's hard to believe that this one was even published at the time, much less that it led to several other novels that drowned in incredibly dark subject matter.

The novel starts off with a woman having her brother's baby. The baby arrives and the woman falls asleep. The brother heads off into the woods and buries the screaming baby, still alive, where it is found later by a traveling tinker. The novels splits off into two separate story lines: that of the brother and that of the sister. The brother leaves his sister after she finds out about his deception, but can't seem to shake the shroud of suspicion regardless of whatever town he ends up in while looking for work. He becomes an inherently distrusted person despite having done nothing beyond trying to rid himself of the child. His story becomes tragic in a traditional Grecian way.

I place this one last purely due to the nature of McCarthy's body of work. There aren't a lot of living authors left that have such a grasp of language (or create their own, in some instances) and still retain the talent of painting such desolate situations and landscapes so beautifully. There's no supernatural terror or bloody gore making the cogs of this story revolve, but it is nonetheless an intensely disturbing novel that will tug at the reader long after the book has been shut.