Twofer The Horrorshow: A Personal Tour

When I had this post in mind, I thought I had five of those things: the bargain solution for entertainment that keeps my shelves from occasionally running red…er, black with horror DVDs. It turns out I never got around to buying the original  House of Wax on a twofer with the original Night of the Living Dead, because I hate Romero-style zombies and didn’t want it in my house—and if that meant pre-pseudonym Bronson had to stay out too, so be it.

Nonetheless, with Halloween drawing nigh, I’ve been thinking about these four a lot, each in a category all its own.

THE LITERARY: Tales of Terror/Twice-Told Tales

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(Pardon my flash on the photo.)

Like most of the twofers, this stars the amazing and wonderful Vincent Price: in this case in two anthology movies, one with Poe stories and one with Hawthorne. The stories themselves are hit or miss (personally, I’d have preferred House of the Seven Gables to be as soapy when I read it in tenth grade as it is in this reincarnated-lovers-heavy adaptation), but with additional talent including Sebastian Cabot, Peter Lorre, Beverly Garland and Basil Rathbone, it’s a lot of fun.

THE ONE-SIDED—TO ME, ANYWAY: The Haunted Palace/Tower of London

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More Price, this time in Corman’s Poe/Lovecraft unholy hybrid, The Haunted Palace, and as Richard III in Tower of London. I’ve owned this DVD for years, but since Haunted Palace is my favorite Vincent Price horror movie, every time I try to watch the other side, I just end up watching Haunted Palace again.

THE UNFORTUNATE: The Oblong Box/Scream and Scream Again

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Did you know that Christopher Lee and Vincent Price cancel each other out? I didn’t when I bought this, but it soon became apparent. Possibly nothing could redeem the whacked-out Scream and Scream Again, a movie with serial killers and amputations and mad scientists and fascists in uniforms and lots of Mod clothing. (You will notice I didn’t mention a plot. When you find it, please let me know.) But The Oblong Box is a perfectly nice little voodoo/burial alive movie that should be great with those two stars in it, but isn’t. While I’m not about to throw away a Price/Lee twofer, I’m not about to watch it, either.

THE INEXPLICABLE: The Relic/Pet Sematary 2

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It’s no exaggeration to say the only reason I own this is that its existence as a twofer baffles me: Who looks at a monster-in-a-museum movie (incidentally, a Pendergastless adaptation of Preston and Child’s first Agent Pendergast novel) and thinks, “You know what would go great with this? That movie where Edward Furlong is creepier than a devil dog and zombie Clancy Brown combined, even when he’s just standing there.” In fairness, both of these movies were better than I remembered when I rewatched them, but the combination remains bizarre.

 

Next time: “…when they met, it was murder.”

Three Kinds of Complicated Relationships With Books

This post comes with a couple of caveats: the first is that I am not, by using specific examples, trying to say that any book I mention here is bad. When I am trying to say that, I will leave you in no doubt.

The second is that the title probably doesn’t mean what you think it means: there’s been a lot in the media lately about the perils (if any) of liking things that are problematic in terms of, say, race, gender treatment, violence, etc. But this isn’t about that. This is living-room stuff.

 

1. The Masochist Read

Three things I find unnerving: frogs, eyeballs, the end of the world.

One thing I love: Hellboy comics, in which characters I adore are basically wallowing 24/7 in the entire list above.

These are the books you keep going back to and it sort of torments you, not necessarily because of the kind of problematic material I mentioned above but because, strictly considered, reading them is not you. You don’t read the book where they kill the dog for a cheap scare. You don’t read the romance where it’s A-OK for the heroine to end up with someone who appears to be an alcoholic. You don’t read the techno-thriller with details so transparently flimsy you start mentally adding scare-quotes to the narrative. Except you do.

2. That Series Book You Hate

The very first Terry Pratchett novel I ever read was Small Gods. My least favorite Pratchett book: also Small Gods. In theory, one of the marvelous things about the Discworld novels is that the world of the series is big enough for readers to only follow the characters they want to, but try telling that to Me Circa 1994–2004, who just couldn’t bring herself to stick the book in the Goodwill bag. For series readers, completism can be like a sickness, and you end up giving shelf space/device memory to things you’ll never read again.

3. Discreet Dalliances

Now more than ever, e-books have made it possible to hide away the books you don’t want anyone to see you reading: the pop-lit, the young-adult books, the steamy romances, the improbable thrillers with equally improbable heroes. (15 days till the next Pendergast novel comes out, but don’t say I’m the one who told you). In some ways, this one is the opposite of number 2 above, in that shame is causing you to not use bookshelf space. Wouldn’t want anybody seeing that you have Roger Moore’s autobiography, would we?

 

What are the books you have complicated relationships with?

 

Next time: A seasonal meditation on two-movies-on-1-DVDs…because I have no non-horror two-movies-on-1-DVDs.

 

There Can Be Only Monday! Talking About Highlander… A Lot, Part 2

Notes: It occurs to me that last week’s introduction neglected one detail, which is that I will be trying, as much as possible, to take the movie as it comes. I’ve listened to the DVD commentary—though not for a long time—and turned in confusion to the movie’s Wikipedia entry a few times before deciding to do this project. As the sort of person hardwired to turn into a research monkey when I encounter something I like, this will likely not be as easy as it sounds.

I’m also going to skip over the initial swordfight between Connor and Fasil, even though a) Why the backflips, really? and b) If I were 500 years old and nonetheless dressed like Lt. Columbo, I like to think I’d be begging somebody to cut my head off. Instead, we’ll head for one of the best parts of the movie: the Highlander’s origin story. We’ll be spending a bit of time here, so make yourself comfortable.

 

PART 2: “WANTED: MERCENARY. WILL ACCEPT SKULL ARMOR IN LIEU OF REFERENCES.”

In flashback to the 16th century, young Connor rides off with the other MacLeod clansmen to do battle against the Frasers, who seem to have a few advantages:

  • High ground;
  • Superior banners and a better-looking tartan (hey, it could affect morale);
  • THE FRIGGIN’ KURGAN.

I assume that last one will definitely affect morale.

If you haven’t watched the movie for a while, I suggest at least checking out our first glimpse of the Kurgan, silhouetted against the sky, because it’s pretty transcendent—YouTube has the battle scene here, with Spanish subtitles, but as the precise moment itself is silent, that should work fine.

The armor is magnificent. You hear Wagner playing where there is no Wagner. (You also suspect he mugged Zorro and stole his horse.)

Once the Kurgan ceases posing ominously and joins the MacLeods’ enemies, things begin to get both exciting and odd. I’ll save the fact that he somehow not only knows the MacLeods have an immortal around somewhere, but knows his name! for next week. What I find myself wondering, as the clan leader re-confirms their deal, is how the hell do you hire the Kurgan anyway? Did he approach the Frasers because he knew about Connor—for that matter, is he in Scotland because he knows about Connor—or did they somehow manage to ask for help without the Kurgan singlehandedly wiping out their best fighting men? I find myself trying to imagine this, and the death count is always at least one:

RANDOM FRASER 1: Our leader wants to know if—

KURGAN: * stab*

RANDOM FRASER 2: We could pay you maybe—

KURGAN: * kick, followed by stab *

RANDOM FRASER 3: I like your armor?

At some point, however, an accord seems to have been reached.

Read the next one: The Kurgan: not a detective.

Next time: Complicated relationships with books.

Next time on TCBOM: Where everybody knows your name, but especially that one guy with the skulls and the sword and the voice.

Found-Again Friday: Altered States

This week’s Found-Again Friday, like last week’s, is a cheat—though in the case of Altered States, the joke is on me. Twenty minutes into rewatch, I turned to my companion and said with dawning horror, “There’s no point in revisiting this! It’s a Ken Russell movie!”

Why Found-Again? Let me clarify: I have a strange affection for the movies of the late Ken Russell, a man who seemed to share a lot of my offbeat interests—poetry, Pre-Raphaelites, folklore, ballads—but who had a truly funhouse-mirror way of looking at all those things. In his case, I’m pretty sure “batshit” is the clinical term, and if you don’t believe me, revisit the dream sequences in Lair of the White Worm until you do. “Like” or “dislike” doesn’t really enter into it, so giving Altered States a second chance ends up being moot.

Nonetheless, rewatch it I did.

Premise: Academic who believes himself the center of the universe gets temporary endorsement from said universe.

William Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, who defies character-naming conventions by being a scientist rather than a Western henchman. He meets a fellow academic, marries, and has a family, all while chasing the ultimate nature of human consciousness. Will a series of sensory-deprivation experiments reveal what he’s looking for, or will they threaten to destroy his life while giving Ken Russell a chance to crank his Symbol-o-Matic up to 11?

I stand by my belief that there’s no point in judging Russell films by normal standards, but Altered States has always drawn my particular ire for having such a rich premise and then Not Living Up To Its Full Potential in a welter of psychedelic hooha. It’s a perfect role for William Hurt, and Blair Brown is excellent as his occasionally estranged wife. In short…

The Verdict? …it’s a perfect example of why the failure of a movie that could, should go right is a hundred times worse than that of one that just goes wrong.

Might go well with: Gothic, Jurassic Park, intoxicating beverages.

 

Next time: More Highlander. Yeah.

There Can Be Only Monday! Talking about Highlander…A Lot, Part 1

Going back to the old hometown to take care of a relative is, in movies, usually a time for personal growth: you realize you’re on the wrong path, reconnect with a long-lost love, and generally point your life in a better direction.

In my case, I spent my time in the swamp working on stories, running errands for said relative, and watching the movies I’d brought with me over and over. I did uncover a new superpower, however, and one I am going to share with readers: years after initial viewing, I can still talk for hours about the first Highlander movie. This is not necessarily more useful than my other superpower—the ability to fill a Downy Ball to the line without looking—but it is a good deal more bloggable.

My History with the Methos…er, Mythos: That’s the other reason I thought this might be a fun topic to tear into: I didn’t see the movie till the late ’90s, by which time I’d spent years surrounded by people, including my mother, who were fans of Highlander: The Series. I’d watched the series quite a bit. (I’d also seen perhaps ten minutes of the second movie, which, like many right-thinking Highlander fans, I have decided does not actually exist.) Yet I can’t remember the moment I first came into contact with the premise, or the line “There can be only one”: like Star Wars, it’s one of those things that seeped into the collective unconscious of the culture, which I find even more interesting.

When I finally did watch the movie, I became an instant and mildly obsessed fan. I’ve always loved anything with a lot of swordfighting in it—Zorro, Robin Hood—so there was no real chance Highlander would disappoint. And though it still doesn’t, repeated viewings suggest to me that the film has got…issues. In some cases, issues that resist what is popularly known as fanwank; in some others, issues that delightfully adapt themselves to it. And here we are.

A Word of Warning: This is in no way intended for people who haven’t seen the movie: a lot of the things I want to talk about involve patterns, so while I’ll be roughly chronological about bringing things up, there will be references to later scenes. Probably a lot of them. Anyway, why haven’t you watched Highlander? It’s fun. There’s a Queen soundtrack. Go do it.

 

PART 1: WHAT’S CONNOR’S DEAL, ANYWAY?

This is something it took me several years to notice, in part because the conventions surrounding heroes in a movie like this are so strong that you fill in details that are never made clear. When we first meet our protagonist, he is sitting in the audience at a professional wrestling event, looking as if he’d just seen a bus filled with puppies drive off a cliff. (I could instantly relate: this is the exact face I make when I’m at a party I don’t want to attend.) He senses another immortal, and they abscond to the parking lot and have a swordfight that involves pointless back flips. Naturally, the Highlander prevails.

Through the rest of the movie, there’s a sort of implication—during his training with Ramirez, for example—that Connor is at best a reluctant participant in the whole Gathering process, and certainly not someone who stabs first and asks questions later. So what is he doing there? Is he torturing himself by going to watch wrestling that gives him origin-story flashbacks? Does he have an appointment with Fasil for some sort of showdown? Or is he actually hunting the guy?

Read the next one: More intro + our villain.

 

Next time: Stealth Ken Russell.

 

 

 

 

 

Found-Again Friday: Cast A Deadly Spell

Found-Again Friday is a feature for rediscovering things and, in many cases, giving another chance to movies/television/books I disliked the first time around. ‘Tis the season, however, so I’ll cheat a little and write about the 1991 HBO movie Cast A Deadly Spell, which I  hadn’t watched since my VHS tape stopped having a place to play.

Why Found-Again? It’s available on YouTube, the place I constantly forget to check for entire films. In that respect, it’s the media equivalent of the back seat of my car, which is the storing-things equivalent of Narnia.

Premise: Even living in an alternate universe where magic and the Necronomicon are real can’t stop the residents of 1948 Los Angeles from noiring up the place.

One of the problems with this movie is convincing other people to watch it, in part because the chief difference between fans and detractors talking about Cast A Deadly Spell is tone of voice. For example, try reading the following in tones of either joy or disgust:

“Fred Ward plays a detective named Lovecraft.”

“There’s an oatmeal demon!”

“And on a night when the stars are aligning…”

In other words, if you already love this movie, your best bet for convincing others to watch lies in heavy use of the phrase “early role for Julianne Moore.”

 

And I really do love this movie, which takes a number of things I like—noir, the Elder Gods, David Warner chewing scenery, torch songs, egregious literary riffs, villains played by Clancy Brown—and combines them into an interesting stew. I’ve spent the past year listening to a lot of old-time radio mystery podcasts, and hearing the source material has only given me more respect for Cast A Deadly Spell’s handling of noir tropes. (It also had me persistently hearing Ward’s lines in the voice of Pat Novak-era Jack Webb, but even that isn’t the deterrent you’d imagine.)

The Verdict? As I said, I’m cheating with this one. I’ve always loved this movie, though you do need a high tolerance for silliness. There will be gremlins.

Might go well with: The Haunted Palace; The Maltese Falcon; the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio or Mean Streets OTR podcasts.

 

Next Time: Down and dirty with a weirdly classic movie?

 

Introduction/Navel-Gazing

Welcome to Our Cynical Omelet, the site that’s been rebooted so often I might as well have named it Dracula.

Yesterday I began rereading Stephen King’s The Shining. This is something I do perhaps quarterly, but this time lines up with the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. I read The Shining maybe twenty years later than most bookish people my age—they tended to devour everything up to Tommyknockers, whereas I kind of liked The Dark Half, wasn’t fond of Thinner, and hated every single character in ‘Salem’s Lot so much that I gave up long-form King for years. So finding out The Shining is an amazing book was both a relief and a glorious surprise when I finally tucked into it.

The book is also, I’m sorry to say, a favorite of mine because it echoes a lot of the problems in my own family, which is why I found myself getting ready for work this morning and thinking, “The Overlook would have got to my dad much faster.” My father was almost certainly an honest-to-god narcissist, an idea I had trouble with until the night last year when he called to yell at me for spending too much time with my mother on Mother’s Day weekend. I thought, till I began doing research on the subject, that to be one of those you had to be a high achiever, and Dad had spent my whole life—maybe not his, I hope— as a schemer on the level of maybe Daffy Duck.

Shortly thereafter, I tremulously took this new-gathered information to my mother, to friends who knew him, and was met with a resounding “Duh!” I was literally the last to know. Perhaps when you grow up being called “little [Dad’s name]” when you get in trouble, it’s harder to think that big [Dad’s name] might be broken in some fundamental way.

After the funeral, my friend said, “I’ve never seen anything like it: nobody cried.” It was true: all his friends from the old neighborhood, all his old tennis buddies, even his reluctant child, all had Dad’s number at last.

Which is why, when I say I read The Shining and am reminded of my own family, I don’t wholly mean it in a bad way. Jack Torrance clearly loves his wife and child; he just can’t resist the voice that tells him they’re standing in his way, the voice that tells him he’s too special for all this boring stuff.  And that reminds me that Dad probably couldn’t either.

 

Next Time: Gosh, anything more cheerful than this.