31 Days of Halloween (2019): Songs of Horror

Every Friday this month, I’ll be posting songs from the dark side. We’ll kick it off with a song I include every year during this event: “Dixie Drug Store.” Enjoy, and then enjoy a more classic telling of the story of Marie Laveau–with a New Orleans jazz flavor.

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31 Days of Halloween (2019): Horror Pet Peeves

Few genres call for the audience to suspend its disbelief more often than horror. Some of this is understandable–we’re dealing with the supernatural, after all. But some of them are just lazy, and they happen so often that they’ve become standard fare in horror parody’s. The car that won’t start, the heroine who runs up the stairs instead of out the front door, the amorous couple who insists on getting frisky in the abandoned field/house/road/cemetery/amusement park/slaughterhouse…you get the picture.

Here are three of my personal horror pet peeves. Let me know yours in the comments.

  1. The people who refuse to react properly to a paranormal event.

This one happens all the time. Something really crazy weird happens, the scene or chapter ends, and then the next chapter opens with the characters just going on about their business. Maybe they mention it in passing, maybe they talk about that really weird thing that happened, but they never react the way normal people would. Take any haunted house movie. How many of you would stay after even one of the creepy things in Insidious or Sinister or The Conjuring? Some ghost lures me into the basement and claps next to my head, I’m out, and I don’t care if I have to declare bankruptcy and live in my parents’ house for the rest of my life. A close corollary to this is the people who don’t call the police when they obviously should.

2. The people in a zombie movie that don’t kill every zombie they see.

You’re living in a zombie infested wasteland. There’s not going to be a cure, but you’ve got a pretty good setup in the local prison. But for some reason, you don’t kill the zombies gathered at the fence. You don’t kill the random zombies you see wondering down the roads when you go out on a run. You just leave them. Cause…why? This thing ain’t ending. So why not kill every single zombie you see? It might take a while, but eventually you and your group are going to at least thin out the herd a little bit. And hey, every zombie you kill is one less zombie that might kill you. So get to killing zombies. If we can wipe out the wolf and the buffalo, we can wipe out the undead.

3. The people who never listen to their significant others.

Don’t know why, but this one I especially hate. I read a book once where a husband and wife moved into a haunted house. Each chapter was told from one of their perspectives. Crazy things were happening to both of them. They didn’t tell each other at first (which also annoys me), but worse than that, when one would open up about some strange thing that was happening, the other would act like they must be going crazy. This happened again and again and again until finally I got so sick of it I stopped reading. You can make this trope work–if it’s only one of them hearing noises or seeing ghosts and that one happened to have had some mental breakdown in the past. But otherwise, spare me.

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31 Days of Halloween (2019): The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

No, that is not a typo.

A few months ago, I was on a flight to Salt Lake City from Atlanta, GA. Normally I read on the plane, but this was a long one, so I decided to watch a movie instead.

You know how sometimes you’re scrolling through a list of titles and you see one that that catches your eye in such a way where you just have to watch it? Well let me tell you–when you see a movie entitled The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, you will stop. I guarantee it. And when I saw it starred Sam Elliott as the eponymous man, well, I was hooked.

Yes, it’s real.

So there aren’t a lot of surprises in the plot of The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot. Before the film ends, Sam Elliott’s character will kill Hitler. And then the Bigfoot. But this movie isn’t going to go the way you think. It’s not a farce or a clever send up of horror. It takes itself very seriously, and there are only a couple of scenes where the filmmakers tongue is planted firmly in cheek (the swastika hands on a wrist watch springs to mind).

Otherwise, the movie plays it straight, presenting a serious story of a highly trained military asset, sent into deep enemy territory to kill Hitler, only to be called back into action decades later when the Bigfoot needs too be taken down as well. There’s a story of love lost, of brothers estranged and reconnected, of a life of regret and the creeping desire to end one’s own life. In fact, the movie plays better as a drama than it does anything else. There were times when I almost had tears in my eyes.

Seriously. In a movie called The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot.

I’m . . . conflicted. On the one hand, I actually liked this movie. It was slow at times, and overlong, but it had some real highlights. The weird aside where the creepy Russian dude shaves the beard of a younger version of Sam Elliott’s character? Great. The execution of the plot to kill Hitler? Excellent. And the movie is, frankly, star-studded. In addition to Sam Elliott, there’s Aidan Turner, Ron Livingston, and Larry Miller.

But it feels like there’s a missed opportunity here, too. A movie about killing Hitler and Bigfoot needs more humor. It needs more satire. It at least needs some. In the end, TMWKHATTB falls short of what it could be. It’s good, but not great. And sadly, it does not live up to the promise of its name.

3 Stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2019)

Ah, October. The one time of the year most people actually like horror. (Seriously, if you’re a horror writer, the number of times people tell you they’d read your books if only they liked scary stories becomes crushingly depressing). This October represents a bit of a rebirth for me. After two years in an extremely demanding job that left no time for life out of work, I’ve moved back to Alabama and started to think seriously about writing again. I’ve got a new book coming out in November, an anthology I edited and contributed to that I think you are gonna like. I’m doing a few interviews soon, and I’ll make sure to post about those here.

And then there’s this little demon.

Starting her early.

Am I typing this post with one hand while holding a baby? Yes, yes I am. Like I said, it’s a time of new beginnings. And guess what? I have another book I’ll be reading to her, a book I read every year, a book with a chapter for every day of October.

This whole fatherhood thing is going to work out.

So Happy October to you all. Let’s have some fun.

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October Comes

I’ve decided there’s a reason that the best writers are poorly adjusted recluses. Life takes time, and that’s time you don’t get to dedicate to writing–or updating websites, for that matter. So, once again, I’ve neglected this site. More on that later, but for now, let’s talk about October.

For the last few years, I’ve done a 31 Days of October series. I’m going to do it again this year, but many of the posts will be in the nature of a “Best of” series. I just don’t have the time to dedicate to the project this year that I have in the past. Moreover, I’m sure many of you have never seen some of these posts. That’s the thing about posting for 31 straight days. Post quickly get pushed down the queue. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity to see something old for the first time.

Which is not to say there’ll be nothing new this year. I’ll sprinkle some new stuff throughout. I hope you enjoy.

Brett

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Under the Shadow

I’ve seen a lot of horror movies over the years, and the lesson I’ve learned is that if your kids or your spouse tell you there’s an evil spirit haunting the house, believe it. Under the Shadow is yet another example of that principle in action.

Shideh is a mother in the war-torn Tehran of the 1980s. Not only are the Iraqis threatening to destroy the city with Scud missiles, the Revolutionary Guard is everywhere, enforcing the strictest version of Islam imaginable. That fact has cost Shideh her chance at becoming a doctor, and when her husband is drafted to the front lines of the ongoing war, she is left broken-hearted and alone to protect their daughter. Every night, the threat of death by missile strike hangs in the air. When supernatural beings begin to threaten her sanity and her daughter’s safety, Shideh reaches her breaking point.

The best horror tells a story beyond the surface scares, and there’s no other genre more readily suited to addressing society’s problems and injustices. Iran, a modern state ruled by unpopular religious zealots, presents a deep well from which to draw. One of the best horror movies in recent memory, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, takes place in the same setting.

But while Iran adds color to that unique vampire flick, it is a very real character in Under the Shadow. The tension is palpable from the first moment, and you can feel the stress and strain as Shideh sees her dreams vanish because of her political opposition to the revolution, as her husband is forced to leave her to go to the front, as her daughter begins to see things in the night. The scariest scenes in this movie are not supernatural; they are scenes of war engulfing a city already under the thumb of tyrants.

Under the Shadow is, in some ways, a fairly standard haunting flick. It’s the setting that elevates it and makes the film well worth watching for anyone who likes their horror with depth.

3.5 Stars

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Walpurgisnacht

The veils between the worlds may be at their thinnest on Samhain, but the darkest night of the year is now upon us. Walpurgis Night. The Eve of Beltane. The Night of the Witches, when those dark beings meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with their gods.  Bar the door and shutter your windows upon this May Eve.  For tonight, the darkness takes shape.

Each night, the people of Arkham cowered behind their flimsy wooden doors, terrified of what lurked beyond. But it was the the Beltane Eve, the night of Walpurgis, that the old men of Arkham still speak of in whispered words and phrases. They say that the hills burned with an unnatural glow that night, that satanic psalms floated down to the town below, as creatures of darkness danced and gibbered in the moonlight.

Read more in my book, That Which Should Not Be.

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Butterfly Kisses

After the explosion of popularity in found-footage style horror following the release of The Blair Witch Project, the genre became oversaturated to the point that new releases elicited little more than an eye-roll. I know cameramen are dedicated to their craft, but would they really keep filming when the witches or the zombies or the werewolves were tearing their faces off? Probably not. And yet, there’s something about found footage that is different. It grabs the viewer and pulls them in in a way that can’t be replicated in traditional films.

Butterfly Kisses is a found-footage film within a documentary within a documentary. It tells the story of a filmmaker, Gavin, who discovers a box of old films in the basement of his in-law’s home. No one really knows where the films came from, but when Gavin begins to watch them, he realizes they are the rough footage of a documentary some students shot about a local urban legend. The story goes that if you stare down a train tunnel for a full hour without blinking, a demon named Peeping Tom will appear in your distant vision. Why would that be the case? Who knows. Don’t think about it too much. But every time you blink, he gets closer…and closer…and closer. Until he’s right up on you and then…he gives you butterfly kisses.

OK, so that’s probably the dumbest, least frightening twist possible. But hear me out. This is a good movie. It’s not Lake Mungo good, which may be my favorite of this type of found-footage film. But it is consistently engaging, with a plot that sucks you in. The acting is great, the movie in a movie in a movie setup works. Does it sorta sputter to an end? Do people do really dumb things? Does the central conceit violate the rules set up in the beginning? Yeah, and that’s why it’s not a perfect movie. But it’s one you’ll enjoy and one you’ll think about well after the final credits roll.

3.75 stars

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Us

When Jordan Peele’s Get Out hit theaters, it was a revelation. A film that was equal parts horrifying and hilarious, Get Out was also the latest in a long line of horror movies that addressed the shortcomings of our society. It’s hard to think of a movie that more trenchantly tackled the racism that still exists today, particularly prejudices that aren’t as pronounced or overt as in decades past. I loved Get Out unreservedly, and I could not wait to see Us. Although not as impactful as Get Out, Us confirms Peele’s place as the most exciting director in the genre today.

            Get Out was a pretty strange movie at times; Us is insane. It’s difficult to describe the storyline without giving too much away, so I’ll keep it simple. A family goes on vacation to a seaside town where the main character had a disturbing encounter when she was a very young girl. Then another family shows up in their driveway, and everything goes to hell.

            Us is one of those movies where you shouldn’t necessarily turn off your brain, but you also shouldn’t think too deeply about what is going on. This is fairytale level crazy, and when you’re reading a fairytale, you don’t ask too many questions about why the animals can talk or where the fairy godmother gets her powers. Same here. The movie is at its weakest when it tells too much, and I would have been happier with less exposition. But that’s a minor gripe, and it’s one that is overcome by the shear freakiness of the movie.

            Us is deeply unsettling. It hits at something fundamental, something at the core of your being. It plays in places that most horror movies do not go, and it does it while maintaining a sinister tone of dread, lightened in all the right places with Peele’s trademark humor.

I’m sure Us has deeper meaning, but I’ll let other people worry about that. I enjoyed Us for what it was. You will too.

4.25 out of 5 stars

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Review: Overlord

Sometimes you just want a movie that does what it does and does it well. Overlord is one of those movies.

Overlord begins the day before the invasion of Nazi Germany by the Allied Expeditionary Forces. Our heroes are members of the 101st Airborne, and they’re on a plane ready to jump behind enemy territory to prepare the ground for invasion. They must destroy a radio tower, and if they don’t, the allied air force will be unable to take control of the skies. But when the team reach their target, they find a Nazi lab bent on building super soldiers who will win the war for Germany—whatever the cost.

Overlord is tense from the word go, setting the stage for what is to come by a thrilling segment where allied planes are maneuvering through enemy flack so thick you can’t believe any of them can make it. When the team reaches the ground, the tension doesn’t let up. The SS soldiers who are running the research station—and providing unwilling test subjects from the local populace—make delightfully unambiguously evil villains. Being unambiguously evil is the only thing Nazis are good for, and the filmmakers use them to full effect.

Overlord is far from a perfect movie. If you let yourself think about it for too long—more than a couple minutes, actually—you’ll note some glaring anachronisms and some plot threads that are never tied together. Still, this is a solid horror flick, good for more than a few scares. Well worth the viewing.

4 Stars

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Review: The Meg

We’re in the midst of a horror renaissance, and in the last several years, dozens of new classics of the genre have hit theaters. With so many to pick from, I recently decided to choose…The Meg.

People love a good shark movie. Jaws is a classic. Deep Blue Sea isn’t perfect, but it has some incredible moments. And there’s always Sharknado. I-V. Meg won’t be joining that list.

Jonas (I wish they’d just gone full own and called him Jonah) is a rescue diver who experienced something he couldn’t explain in a deep-sea dive to save the crew of a submarine. He lost two members of his team, and for the last five years, he’s lived in self-imposed exile in Thailand, drinking Chang beer and pretty much having a good time wallowing in his own misery. He’s supposed to be washed up and tortured, but Jason Statham plays the character like he plays all his roles—tough guy with the heart of gold, quick with a one-liner and always willing to save the day. When a deep sea research team, led by his ex-wife, experiences trouble exploring a heretofore unknown part of the ocean, he rides in to save the day. This is much to the chagrin of the doctor on the research station, the same doctor who declared him unfit to dive after the last tragedy. Oh, and the doctor also happened to be on the submarine Jonas saved five years before. The coincidences are just amazing. Anyway, the research group is led by a father and daughter team, and the billionaire who finances their research. When it becomes clear that a megalodon is on the loose, they must figure out a way to stop it.

There’s a lot going on in Meg, too much. The doctor storyline plays out pretty quickly and seems unnecessary. As does the ex-wife storyline. You might expect them to get back together, but the whole notion of these two ever having been a couple in the first place is utterly implausible. Instead, Jonas is interested in the daughter of the father-daughter team. They have no chemistry, whatsoever. Meanwhile, most of the tension is generated by people doing really, really dumb things. How many times do people have to fall off the back of a boat before they stop standing on the edge of it, or, I don’t know, holding on? And man, does this movie drag on. It’s at least twenty minutes longer than it should be. At least.

Meg works best, when it works at all, as a comedy. If it embraced it fully, it would probably be at least arguably worth your time. But it doesn’t, and it’s clear the actors don’t take it all that seriously. Or at least, I hope they don’t take it seriously. Otherwise, I fear for their careers.

Here’s the thing—if you love shark movies, need to see them all, and you have absolutely nothing else to do with your time, Meg is moderately entertaining. Moderately.

2 Stars

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The Kirlian Frequency

Go watch it on Netflix. Go watch it now.

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A Head Full of Ghosts, Revisited

A reader named Stephanie sent me an email about my earlier post on A Head Full of Ghosts, and I found it so interesting I thought I’d post it and my answer here. Warning: Major Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read the book, don’t read the question. Once you do, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Here’s the question.

If Marjorie has access to the poison, why didn’t she just poison the family herself? She knew Merry wouldn’t eat the tomato sauce, so she could have quietly added the poison to the sauce without involving Merry at all. Especially since one theory is Marjorie truly cared for Merry and was attempting to spare her life. I do not see much kindness in tricking Merry and thus having her live with the potential guilt and trauma. What are your thoughts?

This is an excellent question that I never really considered. It’s possible that I enjoyed the ending so much that I never thought about it. But looking back, why did Marjorie do that? There’s a couple possible answers I can think of. One is superficial, while the other fits more squarely in the narrative.

  1. It’s just an homage to We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Ghosts is full of homages to other horror novels, none more obvious than Merry being named after Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And if it wasn’t obvious, it becomes so when Merry poisons her family, just as Merricat did in Castle. Under this theory, she doesn’t do it for any particular reason; it just made for a handy homage and shocking ending. Like I said, superficial, but certainly possible. Theory 2 is more satisfying, albeit much darker.

2. Because Marjorie is filled with hate for everyone, including Merry.

Whether Marjorie is possessed by a demon or a paranoid schizophrenic, she’s been through hell and is filled with anger and hate. Her father allowed the most traumatic time of her life to be televised for the world to see. Her mother abandoned her and let it happen. That explains why she kills them, but why put Merry in the middle of it?

Because, deep down, Merry was the person she despised the most.

Oh there was some conflict, and we see that in the confused and inconsistent way that Marjorie treats Merry. But at the end of the day, Marjorie subjected Merry to some of the worst of her psychotic episodes. And why not? Merry was normal. She wasn’t troubled. She was fine. Is it any surprise that Marjorie’s envy would get the best of her? And that it would drive her to the ultimate act of revenge? If Marjorie could never be normal and well-adjusted, if she could never be happy and untroubled, then she was going to make damn sure that neither could Merry.

And I would say she succeeded.

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Veronica

When Veronica hit Netflix, it did so with quite the buzz, with some people asking if it was the scariest movie of all time. FoxNews reported that it was so scary, people were turning it off half-way through. So of course, I had to see it.

I finally got around to watching it, and you’ll be shocked to learn that it doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

Veronica begins with the police responding to a 911 call. We hear the call (or should I say we read it as the whole movie is in Spanish). Whatever the police find is horrifying, but we don’t find out immediately what that is. Instead, we are taken back in time three days. It seems our eponymous lead character has decided to hold a séance–on the day of an eclipse, no less. We learn later that she is something of an expert on the occult, although, spoiler alert!, she doesn’t actually read the instructions on how to conduct a séance, leading to a few problems down the road. Now something is hunting her, and her family.

Veronica does many things well. It’s beautifully shot—check out the scene where everyone is moving backward—and well-acted, even by the children. The practical effects are well done, and the suspense is built nicely over the course of the movie. It drags a bit in the beginning, but as the movie goes along, it gets better and better. And to top it off, it’s based on a true story.

Is Veronica the scariest movie ever? That would be a big fat no, and I can offer you some proof. The movie’s director, Paco Plaza, also directed the terrifying REC. Not only is Veronica not the scariest movie ever, it’s not even Plaza’s scariest.

But that’s no reason not to watch it. Please do, but do so with your expectations properly calibrated. And if you are going to use a Ouija board, read the instructions first, OK?

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A Different Kind of Horror: 3 Netflix Documentaries

Hello all. Apologies for the delay between posts. I’ve had a busy couple months. First the holidays and then a trip to central and eastern Europe–lots of potential stories there–along with a move can take up most of your time. I’ve also been working on the sequel to That Which Should Not Be and He Who Walks in Shadow. By all rights, that book should have been done a year ago, but I ran into a bit of a wall that I only really broke through in Bratislava. So yay to Slovakia, right?

Anyway, if you know me at all you know that I’m a sucker for documentaries. Good thing we are in a bit of a documentary golden age, with Netflix leading the way. Out now are three documentaries, all horrific in their own way, that I want you to go check out. The first is

Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes

Ted Bundy is the all-American psychopath. Suave, intelligent, and yes, some would say attractive, Bundy set the stereotype for the murdering psychotic who feels no remorse and no emotion. Just as disturbed as Dahmer or Gacy, Bundy hid that madness behind a telegenic, engaging personality that made him all the more dangerous. In this documentary, Netflix tells the story of Bundy’s multi-state murder spree with an assist from Bundy himself. Historic footage is overlaid with Bundy’s voice, narrating the story as it goes along. There may be times you even start to buy some of Bundy’s BS. But then you see his eyes, those awful, soulless eyes. The documentary also serves as a strong argument for the death penalty, at least in extreme circumstances like these, and demonstrates that defense attorneys truly believe that no one should be found guilty of anything.

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

Now for something completely different though perhaps equally insane, albeit with no body count (by the grace of God). Fyre tells the story of the infamous Fyre Festival, that absolute disaster of a music festival that unfolded in the Bahamas in the spring of 2017. More than anything, the Fyre documentary encompasses the notion of magical thinking, the idea that things will just work out, somehow, and everything will be fine, even without a plan or any conceivable path to success. The film interviews many of the people involved behind the scenes of the disaster, and everyone of them says, at least once, that they just kept doing what they were doing and hoped it would be OK. Why would it work out? Well it’s a mystery. The only guy who seemed interested in solving problems was the random pilot who got fired for suggesting they would need a lot of toilets. Another thing that struck me is how everyone in film kept referring to a mysterious “they” or “them” that were responsible for everything going wrong at the festival. Obviously Billy McFarland deserves much of the blame, but so do the people on our screens, people who consistently enabled him for the same reason he kept the fraud going–money.

Murder Mountain

Murder Mountain is a documentary that enlightened me to something I had no idea existed–Humboldt County, California, a county in rebellion against all forms of government where apparently a large portion of the nation’s marijuana is grown. Alongside do-gooder hippies are the more ruthless and cutthroat growers, those who stay on the black market even as legalization spreads. These hard core drug traffickers act like it, and because of their actions, the number of people missing in Humboldt County is far higher than the norm. The documentary focuses on one missing person in particular, and how the locals handled the situation when the sheriff’s office seemed uninterested. And by the way, if there’s one group of people who stumbled into the viral villain of the month category, it’s the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. I assume that as more people see Murder Mountain, you’ll be hearing a lot more about them as well.

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