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Films That Haunt Me: THE IRON ROSE

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2016 by smuckyproductions

For some years now I’ve been a fan of Eurohorror, but I always stayed away Jean Rollins – though I saw his name pop up around every corner – because of his reputation. Thankfully, having gone through most of the horror canon already, I had no other option but to try him out. And I am ashamed to have waited so long. At his best, Rollins is a Gothic master – and we have a fine example of this in THE IRON ROSE.

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The plot is so simple, it surprises me that it hasn’t been done a hundred times: a couple gets lost in a cemetery after having sex in one of the crypts. It could have been a Tales from the Crypt episode, or a good zombie movie – but Rollins takes a more interesting approach. Certainly, it starts out like a good ol’ B movie… until the psychological effects kick in.

The cinematography trapped my attention from the beginning. Rollins finds the most fascinating locations and the camera knows how to showcase them. Whether it be the beach, an abandoned train yard, or the cemetery itself, each image is enthralling. This is good, because most of the film crawls along at a snail’s pace. One of my favorite attributes of Eurohorror is its patience. This will be an instant turn-off for many viewers, but for those who can withstand it, the slowness becomes hypnotic. With a gorgeous (and seldom-used) score to back up his images, Rollins creates a delicious Gothic atmosphere.

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It is the atmosphere that allows for the psychological fear to come through. Unlike most films of its kind, “The Iron Rose” features fairly decent acting and dialogue, and no violence. Good thing, too, because the two characters carry almost the entire film. You might expect zombies or ghouls to come into play at some point – but Rollins opts for a more truly Gothic story. The only supernatural element is the graveyard itself, which goes on forever like a labyrinth. Everything else come from the characters.

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Once the plot kicked in and I realized there would be no traditional horrific elements, I was pleasantly surprised to still find myself afraid. It is the mental degeneration of these characters that is so unsettling. Rollins pulls this off without subtlety, but the effect is strong. His images emphasize the morbid trap that these people have fallen into. They are innocent for the most part, and yet they are dealt a disturbing punishment. It plays out like a realistic nightmare – who isn’t afraid of being lost in such an awful place? And the ending, while not as climactic as some might like, is genius to me – and haunts me still.

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While I am sure that most of Rollins’ work will not reach these heights for me, I am thrilled to have unlocked a new corridor of Gothic cinema for myself. The emphasis on image and mood, pertaining to psychological chills, is an art that I hope will not be lost. If patience is one of your virtues, indulge in this moody piece of the grotesque – you might get lost, too.

Forbidden Tomes: THE ACCURSED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Happy March, ghouls – we’re beginning to get a taste of spring in the air. It’s a time of reawakening, good weather, and fertility. Unless you’re in a Joyce Carol Oates book. In one of her only outwardly supernatural works, Oates weaves a disturbing portrait of historical Princeton as it falls under the power of demons. Things get weird in the sepulchral spring of THE ACCURSED.

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It’s 1905 and we’re in Princeton. While some actual figures appear in the background, like Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair (who were at Princeton then), the main story depicts the Slade family as the daughter – set to be married – is targeted by a vampiric demon. When the demon takes young Slade as his unwilling wife, the surrounding characters (accurate and fictional alike) fall into madness, betrayal, and violence. It really sucks when demons walk into history; they tend to ruin things.

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Having read a few other works by Oates, I expected this one to be like those – psychological, grim, and very disturbing. While it is all of those things, this novel sports a wonderful, crooked sense of humor as well. Like Shirley Jackson’s work, there is social satire to spare here, stemming from these real people’s responses to demonic activity. And though it may be funny, it also tends to get nasty. Oates has created a synthesis of the macabre, the grotesque, the political, and the tragic. It’s pure literary fun to watch Mark Twain, Jack London and Sinclair interact in a world where demons roam.

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Being a part of Oates’s Gothic series (which includes “Bellefleur” and “The Mysteries of Winterthurn”), this novel is written in high language and spares no detail. It moves slowly, which for some is a turn-off. But for those who are willing to wait for the Gothic nightmares to begin, the payoff is all the better for what is established before. The imagery and manifestations are suitably bizarre – possessed babies, toad-demons in a bog-castle, snakes ejecting from men’s throats – and, even better, visually represent the neuroses of the characters. Oates is brutal with the psychological dissection of her creations, and this is no exception.

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In spite of its slow pace and its ultimate focus on satire over horror, “The Accursed” is a wicked ghost story – more so because the supernatural elements explore the human characters. The period setting and springtime aura give the uncanny occurrences an air of elegance, almost loveliness. Oates’s universe is pleasant… until it’s not. The madness and horror that seep (or explode) through the historical trappings is of the highest order. It’s a hellish tale, poking through the fallacy of human belief and their sureness in themselves, finding corpses instead.

For an old-fashioned but gruesome epic of phantoms and broken minds, Oates has given us a gift. She is a craftsman of the highest order, as long as one has the patience. So take the vow and enter this work of nightmares – but know that those vows are binding.

Short Story: DREAM-BLADE

Posted in Original Writing, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2016 by smuckyproductions

A piece of flash fiction that introduces an entity I mentioned in a few short stories. Intended as a player in the Red Door mythos. More on that soon…

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Above the blue sphere it could feel all. The dark pulse of sound and thought shred through it, washing over its invisible parts, the touch of strangers. It shuddered and began to whirl.

Mmmmvvvvvvvvvvvhhhhhhhhhhhh…

The blue sphere dimmed. It sensed infinite voices sigh in unison. Their thoughts muddled, confused with other things, and melted altogether. It trembled its blades and prepared. Yet, nothing rose from the sphere. There was no word for resistance in its vocabulary. It spun faster.

Mmmvvvvggggghhhgggg…

As always, some thoughts congealed and screamed. It had lost those minds. They would either wake and deem it a nightmare or self-destruct. The sleeping ones were its prize. It sensed their thoughts twitching, lifting, and responding. Their blue sphere turned grey. Humming with hunger, it quickened its vibrations and began to harvest.

The grey shape of their world faded, turned black, and then burst forth with a multitude of awful colors, spraying through the frequency, screaming with forms that deliquesced when the vibrations found them. Shapes emptied and thoughts became monsters as its frequency surrounded the sphere. Calling. Consuming. Whirring at a speed that destroyed.

Mmmmvvvvhhhhhh.

Mvh ghhhbbtyyyyyyg.

The last of the colors died out, and it was finished.

Some time later, perhaps in seconds or in eons, the blue sphere awoke. It would acknowledge its emptiness, but without thought, it could not despair. As the abandoned vessels wandered and wondered they would at times turn to the sky, the infinite blackness, where they could still hear the whirring of the dream-blade retreating in space.

Forbidden Tomes: BELOVED by TONI MORRISON

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

America’s past is full of horrors. Red stains that we have tried to expunge. But while scrubbing away the colors may dull them, it only embeds them deeper into the fibers, where they fester. It is rare to find a book or a film that honestly and completely explores these stains; and it’s no surprise that one of the greatest examples comes from Toni Morrison, in her powerhouse novel BELOVED.

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Set in the years just after the Civil War, this novel acts as two things: a historical thriller and a ghost story. It occupies two times, weaving the narrative of a woman who escaped slavery, and the aftermath of her family some years later. They live in a house haunted by the ghost of the woman’s baby. When a man whom the woman knew before she escaped comes to visit her, along with a mysterious young girl who may not be human, the woman is forced to confront the horrific past that she may not be able to reconcile.

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Morrison is an undersung genius in the art of the metaphorical Gothic. Her novels are populated by strange, but deeply human, characters – people like Milkman and Pilate in “Song of Solomon,” Sethe and her haunted family in this story. These slightly surreal elements are intriguing from an entertainment perspective, but by the time the reader has become interested, Morrison has already unleashed the full blow of her disguise. Her fantastical elements always stand for something else. She never undercuts them by retracting from their reality, though – in the world of the story, they exist, but they also represent something in our physical world.

The ghosts in this novel, amongst things both literal and nebulous, stand for past trauma. Sethe and her living daughter, along with the supporting characters, are haunted by the horror that their mind cannot escape: the nightmares of slavery. Morrison doesn’t spoon-feed these metaphors to the reader, though. She embeds them in the terror, making the reader feel every wrong done until they can’t deny it. Her vivid details serve a more horrifying purpose because, to many people, they were reality.

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This is a deeply important novel. Morrison’s ghosts are those of our own history – and they are not at rest. ‘Beloved’ is far from a traditional scary story, but it embodies the truth of horror so completely, and digs up terrifying graves that were never really buried. The aura of doom that pervades the characters’ lives is a doom that exists. For that reason, it is impossible to look away, or to forget. This book’s truths are more haunting than any phantom.

Films That Haunt Me: RAVENOUS

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As December approaches and the air grows cold, it’s time to start talking about those chilly horror classics best consumed in front of a fire while the wind howls outside. What better time to talk about the Wendigo? This elusive and freakish beast is little scene in film, which is unfortunate – it appears to great effect in one of the more unique horror offerings of the last 20 years, Antonia Bird’s RAVENOUS.

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Like an unfortunate number of 90s films, this one got misrepresented by its marketing team. While trailers make it look like an action-packed gore-fest, Bird has actually created a bizarre but terrific mix of pitch-black comedy and ruthless horror. The film follows a U.S. soldier who, disgraced during the Spanish-American war, is sent to a remote California post where nothing happens… until an unknown man stumbles in from the wilderness, half-frozen to death and terrified. He claims that his traveling group got lost in the mountains and had to resort to cannibalism – an act that possesses the eater with an ancient vampiric evil. When the soldiers go to search for the man’s crew, they realize the story is truer than they expected… and far more hideous.

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There is a veritable melting pot of genres in “Ravenous.” It’s a war epic, a vampire movie, a bloody slapstick routine, and a grand horror story straight out of Blackwood. This may have been what drove many critics and audience members away – but for those who are open to the originality, Bird mixes the genres amazingly well. It’s one of the most original films to come out of that era of horror – and possibly one of the bloodiest. When it isn’t busy being a riotous satire, it actually gets pretty frightening – there were more than a few scenes that unsettled me to my core.

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It’s fascinating, too, for its brilliant evocation of American legend. The images of the army fort and its ragtag team of soldiers are straight out of “Dances with Wolves,” but far more interesting, as Bird soaks them in gallons of guts. The Wendigo myth – something pilfered from Native American culture as a symbol of starvation and desperation – is used to comment on the nature of the American Dream: devour before they devour you.

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Sure, this theme is drawn a bit too boldly in the film – they say various versions of the above about twenty times – but it pairs the overt message so powerfully with brutal images of man eating man. The film is so ironically masculine, loud and proud about its violence, that it ends up tearing down those ideas in the same way that characters rip each other apart. Whatever patriotism the film might have had is mauled, slaughtered without mercy. It may be one of the more honest depictions of the pioneer myth. These soldiers are animalistic, and they kill like animals.

If this all sounds too crazy, then this film isn’t for you. But its gory humor and horrific statements about Americana are worth exploring. Especially as the winter sets in and the snow seems to call out, scratching hungrily at the window, begging to be fed.

Happy Thanksgiving from Smucky’s Grave!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 26, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As the dark of winter descends, we gather today to feast on flesh and the spoils of our labor. Enjoy the festivities and the people whose blood you share. Give thanks to the gross and spooky things that brighten our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving from your favorite ghouls at Smucky’s Grave!

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Forbidden Tomes: THE KING IN YELLOW by ROBERT W. CHAMBERS

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by smuckyproductions

This collection of stories has gained much-deserved attention after its cited influence on the first season of “True Detective” – the source, along with stories by Ambrose Bierce, of the nightmare that is Carcosa and the Yellow King. A work that precedes Lovecraft and even Machen, delving into the madness that is cosmic horror, there is little that surpasses the power of THE KING IN YELLOW.

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Most of the stories in the collection have nothing to do with the title – referring to a centuries-old play written by an unknown author destroys anyone who reads the second act. In the four stories that apply, the play acts as either a threat or as a catalyst, lurking both corporeally and spiritually as a terrible evil. Its words – detailing the nightmarish realm of Carcosa, where the Yellow King presides – bring paranoia, insanity and death to those who encounter them. Chambers’ four works pay witness to the horrors that rise from the play, horrors that predict awful fates for the human race.

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Chambers plays brilliantly at perceptions of reality. The first story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” gives us one of the best unreliable narrators in horror fiction – a man who believes he is going to be crowned king after he murders his brother. The final two, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” (the most famous of all), characters are haunted by grotesque figures that watch them from afar – by all accounts human aside for their evil expressions. Similar to Lovecraft, but perhaps even more powerfully, Chambers creates a universe in which nothing is stable, and anything can succumb to the powers of madness.

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The style and aesthetic of these stories is distinctly decadent, a fascinating contrast to the terror that occurs within them. Chambers pays homage to Wilde’s school of poets with sensuous images of flowers, golden crowns, and ivory sculptures (see “The Mask,” the second story) – lush imagery and youthful, vigorous characters, until they come into contact with the dreaded play. His Bacchanal settings and delicate environments become subject to decay and destruction as the madness takes root.

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He is most notable, of course, for his ingenious creation of the titular play and mythos. I have always been fascinated by the idea of pieces of art – books, film, paintings, et cetera – that can affect people solely by coming into contact with them. “The King in Yellow” is the most formidable example of this. Its presumably fictional terrors root in the mind, making them real, with agents of the madness lurking around every corner to torment the narrator until death. The evil has a more profound mental effect because of its interiority, compared to the devils of Lovecraft that exist so distantly from our physical world. The Yellow King makes his home close to us, inside of us. It is harder to escape a horror like that.

While it is regrettable that Chambers did not write more about the world of Carcosa, the four stories that he did present are powerful enough to create a lasting impression on horror fiction. His luxurious writing style infuses the reader with a sense of paranoia and insanity that is dreadfully tangible. The King in Yellow has cast his shadow over a century of fiction, and lasts just as long in the reader’s mind.