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Jad Chambers Blog

Posts from October 2012


And a Little More
There are a few more things that go with the Halloween/October theme that I can recommend.  I won’t go into them in great detail (like I’m apt to do most of the time,) just assume that if something I mention makes this list it’s worthy of a look.

MOVIES

Event Horizon – Better at being “Hellraiser in space” than “Hellraiser: Bloodlines,” which WAS actually “Hellraiser in space.” Stars Lawrence Fishburne and Sam Neil.

The Watcher in the Woods – If you want something scary that’s OK for young kids… this will freak ‘em out plenty.  And some of the scares will get to adults too. Look for Bettie Davis in a very creepy role.

Pitch Black – A decent Vin Diesel action/horror movie.

Cabin in the Woods – Sends up many other horror movies while being a great one itself.  Written by “The Avengers” Joss Whedon.

Ringu or Ju-on (original Japanese versions) – Nothing against the American versions of Japanese horror movies, but if a horror movie is based upon a Japanese movie AND you can stand subtitles… get the original version because they are usually much better.

And that’s not knocking great classics like Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, The “original 3” horror classics (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man,) or any of the other big names.  Those are great, I was just trying to bring up some titles people may not be familiar with.

TV

Netflix has the full run of “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”  For the former, don’t miss episodes “A Game of Pool,” “The Hitchhiker” and “Shadow Play.” And for the latter I suggest “And So Died Riabouchinska,” “The Waxwork,” and “A Nightmare in 4-D.”

The X-Files is also on Netflix, and had some good scary episodes.  I recommend “Humbug,” “Grotesque,” “Ice,” and “Die Hand Die Verletzt.”

BOOKS

You can’t go wrong with the classics.  Mary Shelly and Frankenstein, Bram Stoker and Dracula, H.G. Wells and “War of the Worlds.” All great in their original forms.  And horror hit a new benchmark with H.P. Lovecraft. As far as anything a little more current, well…

“Storm Front: a Novel of the Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher.  This is not horror, it’s being called by some “urban fantasy.”  But it’s a good time to start on the Dresden Files, as the next book in the series (book 12 I think) is coming out soon.

“Regina’s Song” by David and Leigh Eddings. David Eddings was an author who has written several books I like. Most of them were parts of larger series, but “Regina’s Song” was a standalone effort that was pretty entertaining.

And of course Stephen King is kind of “King of Modern Horror.”  But I really suggest his short story collections over any of his long form novels.  “Night Shift,” “Nightmares and Dreamscapes,” and “Everything’s Eventual” are all full of great scary, funny, and above all good short stories. Don’t miss “The End of the Whole Mess” in “Nightmares and Dreamscapes, one of my favorites.

VIDEO GAMES

I went into detail about “Silent Hill 2,” but for a (soon to be not) current generation console you could do a lot worse than “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.”  It’s basically a remake (or in this case Wiimake) of the first Silent Hill.  But it’s not just the first one with better graphics.  It’s actually a pretty good entry in the series in its own right, kind of the first one from a different perspective.  And the Wii hardware use of the Wiimote as a flashlight to look around and also as you cellphone works really well.

“Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.” A very dark and Lovecraftian game.  It uses some cute 4th wall breaking tricks to make the player not only doubt the character’s sanity… but maybe his own as well.

And I hope I can suggest “Amnesia: The Dark Descent.” It got good reviews.  People whose opinions I respect have said it’s good and very scary.  And I bought it last night for PC on Steam.  It’s on a 75% off Halloween sale on Steam and I have little doubt it will be worth the $4.99 sale price.

Feel free to suggest your favorite Halloween themed bit of entertainment.  Maybe someone will suggest something I haven’t seen yet.

I’d like that.
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It
They all float down here.  –Pennywise the Dancing Clown

I apologize if the pictures trigger some kind of clown-fearing flashback… but for people my age who were just kids in 1990 when the T.V. miniseries based upon Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It” came out, that is actually a possibility.  The book is frightening enough and in many ways more disturbing than the miniseries.  But, if you haven’t experienced “It” yet I suggest tracking down a copy of the miniseries first.  First of all it’s terrifying.  If you (like me) enjoy being frightened this is a huge plus for watching the miniseries. But what makes it truly GOOD is its frightening for all of the little intangible things it gets right, rather than the big and splashy “horror movie scenes” which it kind of gets wrong.

There’s not much of the “blood and gore” that makes the horror genre frightening because of the grotesque scenery.  It only uses “surprise jump” scares a couple of times, and each time it really telegraphs the scare. So much so you could almost do a countdown. “I’m gonna scare you in 3 - 2 - 1… BOO.” And even though I advocate that this is a mistake, you see Pennywise kill a kid in the first scene of the movie.  Partially defining the bad guy which (like I said in the previous post) can really decrease how frightening the monster or villain can be.

But what it gets right are so many of the little things that you don’t even really notice any of those criticisms.  The casting was very good.  Starring Richard Thomas (famous for his portrayal of John ‘”Boy” Walton on The Waltons) as the “main” character Bill Denbrough.  And backed up by a solid cast of actors including Harry Anderson (of Night Court fame) and the late John Ritter. But the casting was actually more difficult than that, because half of the movie is a flashback to the childhoods of the adult characters.  So for most of the main cast, there had to be and adult and child version of each character.  And relying on child actors to deliver a comparable performance to such a good cast for half of the movie was a risky move.  But it paid off, they did a great job.  Starting with the late Jonathan Brandis as the young Bill Denbrough, and backed up by a young Seth Green (known for roles in Austin Powers and Family Guy.)

And the cast worked in tandem with a fantastic script.  It was well adapted for T.V. from one of the GOOD Stephen King books.  But no matter how well a screenplay is written, it can only really “come alive” when read by a good actor.  And the REAL star (to me anyway) of “It” was Tim Curry in his amazing and pants-soiling terrifying portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  Lots of writers could write great lines like “Let go. Be afraid. You all taste so much better when you're afraid,” and, “Oh you are priceless Brat! I am eternal, child. I am the eater of worlds, and of children. And you are next! I'm every nightmare you've ever had. I'm your worst dream come true. I'm everything you ever were afraid of.”

Beep, Beep Richie.

But none of that dialogue would be as effective without the amazing delivery from the super-expressive Tim Curry.  Don’t take my word for it, just watch here. The “early 90’s pre HD” slightly grainy television look is a little dated, as well as the 4:3 Television aspect ratio (as opposed to the more usual 16:9 widescreen format of today.)  But because half of the movie is a flashback… that actually works somehow.  And if you are reading this… you can watch the entire thing for free on youtube here.  That’s part 1, just follow the link on the page for part 2.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.  The look may have “aged” a little, but the scares are very real and have not diminished with time.  I’ve actually seen grown men pull the “hands over their eyes” move during this movie.  It’s memorable, scary, and very, very good. But it’s not for the faint of heart or people who don’t like a good scare.

I’ve gone over a movie, TV miniseries, book, and videogame.  I’ll drop one more October themed blog next week.
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Phantoms
Once again I have to clarify… not the 1998 movie “starring” Ben Affleck, but the 1983 Dean Koontz novel that inspired the movie.  Even though the credits say that Koontz himself wrote the screenplay, he obviously did not and DO NOT WATCH that movie.  I find it hard to believe that any author would miss the point of HIS OWN novel so much.  Or perhaps he did write it, and Disney (well thru Miramax and Dimension Films) hit it with the edit razor so hard that it didn’t seem like Koontz wrote it.  Either way, all of the good things I’m going to say about the book do not apply to the movie and were totally mishandled or overlooked for the terrible film.

First things first, I’m not a big Koontz fan.  Don’t let that sound too much like an insult though, I’m also no Koontz novel expert.  I’ve read fewer than 10 (I think 7 or 8) of his over fifty novels.  Why I’ve not read more is because I’ve only really liked 3 of the ones I’ve read.  I did enjoy “Twilight Eyes” and “Dark Rivers of the Heart” and recommend them for fun and thrilling reads.  But his 1983 novel “Phantoms” is VERY dark, VERY frightening, and gets several of the “rules for writing effective horror” EXACTLY right.

The story set up is pretty simple.  Our main character Dr. Jenny Paige is taking custody of her 14 year old sister Lisa after the death of their grandparents (or something like that.) Upon arrival to Jenny’s home (and practice) in Snowfield Colorado, the sisters find the town totally silent and devoid of life.  In some houses, bodies with strange injuries and no normal cause of death are found.  In others, Jenny’s neighbors have simply vanished without a trace.  And in a couple of cases a person vanished or died inside a locked and sealed room, sometimes leaving cryptic and creepy messages that were cut off by whatever took them.  The character cast is added to when Jenny manages to call the next town over for help from the county sheriff’s department and the search for answers continues.

And that’s one of the “horror rules” Koontz gets right with Phantoms… three fourths of the book is spent trying to figure out what the “monster or bad guy” even IS.  That’s one thing many horror novelists and screenwriters seem to forget.  What you DON’T see is more frightening that what you do.  Too many times a movie (generic example) will show what a monster looks like (or reveal the identity of a villain) much too early.  When that mistake is made you change from the horror aspect of facing the unknown, to the usually more action oriented aspect of “defeating the bad guy.”

Another plus is the character of “little sister” Lisa. Lots of times horror, suspense, or action authors use children as a crutch.  They exist only as a plot device to be saved, rescued, or protected and don’t have to be likeable or well defined characters because “they are just kids and need to be saved, rescued, and protected.”  Well, maybe you have to be a parent to “get it,” but personally I hate child characters who are just empty plot devices lazy authors use to tug at heart strings and to add motivation to a character that does not have to be explained.  And (in the book only) Lisa rises above that. She’s vulnerable, sure; but she’s also more than just a whiny boat anchor around a protagonist’s neck. She’s insightful, calm under pressure, and mature for her age when she needs to be. It makes you WANT the other characters to protect her instead of just EXPECTING them to. And it makes the scenes where she is in danger just that much more disturbing.

A few of the other strengths of Phantoms.  It “makes it more real” by referencing actual historical events similar to the events in the novel.  It layers on “hopelessness” as a theme thick at the start and only dumps on more and more as the story continues.  It’s only in the last couple of chapters that there’s any glimmer of hope that somebody could survive.  And even though the monster IS similar to monsters that have been written about in stories already, it isn’t “just a rip-off.”  The book spends so much time with the characters and readers clueless about the nature of the villain that by the time you could draw the comparison between it and another story… it’s three quarters over.

And no, I won’t say what it’s similar to.  Read and find out for yourself, I highly recommend it.

Next week, It and more.
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Silent Hill
Not the 2006 film version, I’m going to focus on the video game series that inspired that movie.  Not that the movie is THAT bad mind you.  Lots of fans of the video game series were pretty vocal in their hate of that movie.  But I’m not one of those fans, I realized the video games set the bar kind of high for a movie to try and emulate.  But that’s one of the advantages a video game has over other non-interactive forms of media.  With a video game, you are most often personally responsible for the health and well-being of a story’s protagonist.  It helps to create that connection between reader/viewer/player and character that is helpful in creating a good narrative.  A person is just more likely to enjoy a story if he likes and cares for the characters.

And that’s why I’m going to focus on Silent Hill 2.  There’s nothing wrong with the 6 or 7 (depending on who you ask) other full installments of the series (ok a few of them were pretty terrible, but I won’t get in to that here) but the true jewel of the series is without question Silent Hill 2.  And the reason it’s so well thought of and so often mentioned in lists of “best video game ever” is it’s story.

Atmosphere, pacing, characterization, hook, plot, subplot, anything that makes a good novel or well written screenplay good… Silent Hill 2 has it all.  Which is good because from a purely technical standpoint… it’s not a very good video game.  The controls are at best barely functional and the graphics, while good for a game made for a console almost 2 generations old, haven’t held up very well.  But even in those faults there is a kind of mad genius.  The controls ARE bad and frustrating when you have to fight off some of the… well things you have to fight (we’ll get to that.)  But the main character James Sunderland is not an ex-military, mercenary, mma fighter, SWAT, special forces, (you get the idea) typical video game hero.  James is just a normal guy (a writer or accountant I forget and it really doesn’t matter) so it makes sense that he’s not a great fighter.  The graphics limitations of the console kept the developers from rendering anything more than 20 to 30 feet away from the camera for most of the game.  However the developers (TEAM Silent, I should give them proper credit) washed out everything further than that in darkness (indoors) and a persistent fog (outdoors) adding to the atmosphere which was dark, unforgiving, and desolate.

And that’s where Silent Hill 2 shines and really comes alive.  To set up the story, our hero James gets a letter from his wife Mary telling him she wants him to come and see her in the little town of Silent Hill where they spent their honeymoon.  Which James agrees to do even though Mary has been dead for the better part of 2 years.  Silent Hill (in the previous game) had been established as a town where some evil cult had done some fairly terrible things.  But even though the cult had been vanquished (sort of) there was always the idea that the cult settled there because the town ALREADY HAD some sort of dark past, not the other way around.  And in 2 you continue to get the idea that the town is sort of a “hell” for James which brings him face to face with his own dark past.  And even though James (if he weren’t being controlled by a video game player) could just walk back to his car, drive away, and try to forget it ever happened… you also get the impression that he wouldn’t.  He might just believe he deserves what he’s going through.  You meet a small number of other characters in the game.  They all have their own dark pasts and problems.  And they behave oddly sometimes… as if they may not be seeing the same “reality” that James is experiencing.  Making you wonder if they are insane.  Or maybe JAMES is the crazy one.

No need to spoil it further.   I’ll add some praise for the fantastic music used in the game written by Akira Yamaoka.  Here is the intro to the game, featuring the game’s iconic “Theme of Laura.” And so, if you are a video game player… chances are you have already heard about Silent Hill 2.  Well, I urge you to give it a chance.  And for those of you who aren’t into games… well here is the game with all of its cutscenes and some of the more important game elements in a movie format.  It suffers from having you “sit through” some of the things that a game player is actually interacting with.  But it’s still better than most of the “scary” movies you could watch.

Next week… Phantoms.
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Pontypool
So, Pontypool…

Yeah, a weird sounding word.  Kind of sounds like the brand name of the fictitious chemical you put in a pool to create a cloud of red dye that will identify someone who pees in the pool.  “Wanna know who whizzed in the deep end? Use Pontypool! By Johnson and Johnson.” 

But I’m talking about Pontypool, a zombie horror movie released in 2009 based upon the novel “Pontypool Changes Everything” by Canadian author Tony Burgess.  Burgess wrote the screenplay for the movie himself, and according to the film’s director Bruce McDonald (a Canadian Director best known for 1996’s “Hard Core Logo”) the story was adapted from novel to screenplay in less than 48 hours.  Pontypool is the name of the fictitious Canadian town in which the events of the book and movie take place.  And those events are worth watching, I can’t recommend Pontypool enough. 

Now you might be saying to yourself “but Jad… ALL zombie movies are exactly the same.  A group of characters are the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, get trapped in a building surrounded by zombies, shotgun and chainsaw their way thru zombies, some of them get eaten or turned into zombies, and the main characters either survive or everyone dies. The end.”

And while Pontypool begins (after a bizarre, seemingly un-connected nude scene incident) exactly that way, the story goes sideways zonking crazy before anyone can even ask “Where’s the chainsaw.” If the stereotypical zombie movie is what you are craving (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then go check out “28 Days Later” which does the job pretty well.  If you want a movie that spoofs the zombie genre, then Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” will keep you laughing.  But if you want to watch something original, well-written, and genuinely creepy… I gotta suggest Pontypool. It would be far too easy to talk about it here and spoil if for you, so I’ll just describe my introduction to the film.

I work midnight to 9 AM (I leave right after the Steve and Ted show) and generally go to bed when I get home.  However, on Fridays I stay up so I can “turn my weekends back around.”  So by the time 8 or 9 PM rolls around on a Friday, I’m usually pretty dead tired.  But since my friends are “stay up late and party on the weekends” types, I sometimes push past that to hang out with my pals.  The Friday (or by then Saturday) I first saw Pontypool, I was just getting to bed at 2 AM Saturday morning when another of my friends called me.  He needed a ride from a bar (where he had been working as a bouncer/bartender) and a place to crash for the night.  And I’m a guy that’ll do most anything for my buddies (no matter how bone weary I might be) so I went and picked him up.  We got back to my house just before 3 AM, and he kicked on the TV and brought up Netflix.  I figured he’d choose a TV show to watch and I could sit thru one episode and then go to bed.  But instead he picked a movie he’d heard good things about.  I figured I’d fall asleep after a few minutes…

5:30 AM Saturday morning rolls around (remember, after not having slept since waking up at 10 PM THURSDAY) and I am still GLUED to my chair.  Falling asleep was not possible; I NEEDED to keep watching that movie.  As far as “scary” goes… it really only qualifies as “creepy.” Basically Pontypool evokes the fear of a virulent infection of a type no one has ever seen before (or even theorized could be possible.)   But it’s fresh and original.  Even in a genre as oversaturated as “Zombie horror” Pontypool manages to be totally unlike ANY other zombie movie ever made. And if you don’t think it’s crazy enough, watch until the end of the credits for an extra scene that totally waves goodbye to any sanity that movie might have had left.

Pontypool stars Stephen McHattie (best known for portraying Hollis Mason in Watchmen, or his role as Elayne’s boyfriend Dr. Reston in 4 episodes of Seinfeld) as Grant Mazzy, a Don Imus style morning radio host who had a Don Imus style incident in big market radio and has been banished to Pontypool (the middle of nowhere.)  The Zombiepocalypse happens while he is live on the air, and we get to see the story from the backdrop of a radio station as Mazzy keeps Pontypool and the world updated on the bizarre happenings in his little Canadian town.

Yes I know… It happens in a radio station.  No wonder it “speaks to me,” right?  That doesn’t mean I’m wrong about the movie though, the setting makes it a great place to infodump the happenings surrounding the movie, and yet maintain a high level of dramatic tension.  And it provides a pretty good bunker for the “spam in a can” zombie movie cliché, after all you need at least one zombie movie cliché or you can’t really call it a zombie movie.

So that’s Pontypool.  It got a pretty lukewarm 54 on Metacritic, but there were only a few reviews (it was an independent Canadian release) and the naysayers couldn’t have missed the point harder. My suggestion, don’t go into it with an idea of an action/horror zombie bloodfest.  This is a thinkin’ man’s zombie movie, available to view if you have a membership on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Otherwise you can download it from Amazon or try to track down a DVD.

Feel free to make a comment about Pontypool below, or just chime in to suggest your own favorite scary bit of entertainment.  Next week… a trip to Silent Hill.
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