Archive for science fiction

Family-Friendly Horror in GRAVITY FALLS

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Last night witnessed the finale of television’s greatest modern kid’s show, GRAVITY FALLS. Had someone pitched this to me and said “it’ll be a massive hit for Disney,” I would have laughed at them. How can a family-friendly Twin Peaks with hints of X Files and Lovecraft become a hit? As awesome as that sounds, today’s market for kids has become so PC and watered down that we would never expect Disney to greenlight such a dark premise. And yet, here we are.

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One of the contributing factors to this show’s success was its older audience. Millennials, people in their twenties, latched onto Gravity Falls and made it their own. In addition to attracting the Disney demographic, its intelligence and darkness widened the audience ingeniously. I think that’s a great sign.

I fell in love with this show because it was clear that Alex Hirsch loved the same things I did. He offered a part to David Lynch, references Lovecraft and John Carpenter all the time, and was not afraid to make things freaky. I’ll never forget the Summerween Trickster or Bill Cipher’s horrible laugh. Seriously, how did those things get into a kid’s show? Didn’t it traumatize people? Yes, it probably did – but I forget that I had my own traumatic content as a kid, too. And I loved it.

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Kids are far more resilient than we tend to believe. My generation grew up with safe  bubblegum shows too, but we also had Tim Burton, Scooby Doo, Snow White, Harry Potter and much more – all brands targeted at children, but featuring some seriously messed up shit. And I’m pretty sure we turned out fine. Being frightened in this controlled way taught us about darkness, and also taught us how to overcome it. Sure, we were still protected by a TV screen, but we understood what fear meant. That’s vital.

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Gravity Falls finds its boldness in its willingness to frighten, to thrill, and to break hearts. The monsters in this show are not easily defeated – the lead villain manipulates people’s minds and reveals their darkest desires, for God’s sake. Even I, a horror film maniac, got chills from some of these episodes. Carpenter’s The Thing makes an appearance, ghosts turn people into trees, and a dimension of nightmares opens to wreak havoc on a town that we’ve come to love.

And through this, Hirsch builds a story about growing up, familial bonds, and the prevailing strength of friendship. He couldn’t tug at our heartstrings so painfully without raising the stakes. So, against the normal child-safe mold, the Falls finale becomes a life-or-death fight for humanity. The plot structure is brilliant and the unfolding is shockingly terrifying. Without giving away the denouement, though, I’ll say this – Hirsch does not play it safe. He ends his show with tenderness, but also tough truth. And through that realism, the viewers feel what it means to grow, to change, and to celebrate those things. It’s not hackneyed or cheap – Hirsch earns these themes.MABEL, DIPPER

I could ramble on for several posts, but I’ll leave this one here. I hope that the success of Gravity Falls allows children’s media to explore the dark, the serious, and the scary – because it is important to encounter those emotions. Let this usher in an era of smarter and deeper content. Kudos to you, Alex Hirsch, for giving us this amazing series.

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Film Review: SOUTHBOUND

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Anthology films are notoriously difficult. Balancing the tone, theme, characters, and transitions can overwhelm any director, let alone four at once. When done well, though, these works are brilliantly entertaining – especially in horror. We’re lucky to have another classic in 2016. Take a ride to Hell in this year’s SOUTHBOUND.

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Fresh from Toronto’s Midnight Madness section and helmed by four different directors (most veterans from 2012’s VHS), this collection of stories is all set on a mysterious road deep in the Southwest. Each of the tales revolves around this strange netherworld, and their characters all find themselves trapped there – two men on the run from wraiths, a rock band who ask for help from the wrong family, a man who has to save a woman’s life in an abandoned hospital, a crazed man searching for his lost sister. These unwitting souls confront all manner of demons, monsters and madness, just off the map.

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The world of this film is astoundingly creepy and fun. It’s a deformed lovechild of Rod Serling, John Carpenter, and perhaps a dash of Flannery O’Connor – brewed in a pot of metaphysical, weird-fiction terror. “Carnival of Souls” plays on several screens throughout the stories, which gives a hint of the rules in this world – there are none. It’s unapologetically weird, and it oozes uncomfortable dread, something most horror films can’t claim. The filmmakers know how to make the viewer feel just a little bit off. So you’re scared before the mayhem even begins.

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It helps, too, that each of the stories features a character who we care about (at least, I did). The writers create authentic humans with flaws and quirks, and they develop them with rapid skill. Cliches are also hard to find. That is part of the weirdness – whatever a ‘normal’ film would do, this one blatantly swerves around, or does with such bravado that it’s shocking anyway. Horror cinema rarely sees such a unique, insane universe.

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I am not surprised to find out that the folks at Dark Sky Films, who brought us modern classics like “The House of the Devil” and “We Are Still Here,” are involved in this release. Larry Fessenden himself voices a sinister radio host who introduces each segment a la Mr. Serling. Like many of their offerings, this one feels retro, but it’s also rooted in our modern world, cleverly using cell phones (that actually work) and avoiding gender stereotypes. The characters are contemporary, but the nightmare is an amalgamation of 70s strangeness, 50s music and 40s wardrobe. It fits into the Dark Sky canon beautifully – and we can only hope that company will continue to make such brilliant genre pieces.

Though it is a limited release, if you can’t find it in a theater, get to it through the Internet – it’s a must-see for fans of classic horror from any decade. It’s bizarre, funny, ultra-bloody, and legitimately frightening. Turn on the ignition and drive down this dark road.

Forbidden Tomes: DAWN by OCTAVIA BUTLER

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Science fiction and horror often find a cozy home together, typically using a futuristic setting to comment on some nebulous terror of the present-day reader. One of the most realistic and harrowing examples of this pairing comes from the criminally underrated Octavia Butler, in the form of the first entry in her Xenogenesis series, DAWN.

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This corporeal nightmare begins with a woman trapped in a room without doors – she is one of the sole survivors of a nuclear war on Earth, and should be dead. But her situation becomes even more horrific when her captors reveal themselves: a tentacle-covered race of aliens who have saved the last remaining humans from death, but at a horrible price. Though the race is benevolent, Lilith knows that she has no hope of escaping. Trapped in a world vastly more advanced than her own, Lilith tries to retain her humanity – but the true monsters, aliens or humans, are hard to define.

Like all the best science fiction, Butler creates an intricate and astonishingly detailed world in which her moral dramas play out. The aliens are repulsive, yet so seemingly kind, and their abilities are at once exciting and terrifying. Butler gives them ultimate power over the humans, but they never use it to inflict pain. This is where the fascinating dilemma comes into play – questioning what it means to be human, and if that is something worth fighting for.

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At the center of this inner battle is Lilith, whose passion and intelligence carry the narrative terrifically. She is a strongly ambivalent character, stubborn but not stupid, given the task of cultivating the human survivors and helping them adapt to their new environment. The disturbing meat of the story really comes from these survivors and their responses to Lilith’s alien claims. Butler is extremely adept at dissecting human relationships and examining why they go wrong.

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And on top of all that recognizable drama are the aliens, who are all the more unsettling for their calm demeanors. There are several subtle moments in the book when Lilith (and the reader) realizes that their control over the humans is complete. They have become the lesser species, no better than animals to be bred. Butler, however, forces the reader to consider: is this such a bad price to pay for survival? Or is this fate worse than death? Especially because it isn’t black and white, with explosive species-on-species battles, this quandary becomes deeply haunting. It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table rule: don’t let it explode, or you’ll release the tension with shock, and lose your audience. Butler does not give the reader that release, instead tightening the noose slowly and imperceptibly until the damage is irreversible.

Because of this, the book isn’t exactly terrifying – it sits in the realm of disturbing allegory, transcending scariness. It’s the concept and the way it is explored that lends the book its horror. This one will stay with you, creeping up to ask its questions again and again, never satisfied with a comforting answer.

Forbidden Tomes: THE WATCHER by CHARLES MACLEAN

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

I came across this tome completely by accident, while working in development at a production company. After completing it, I was baffled that it was not more well-known, even in the more obscure horror circles. For that reason, today I’ll discuss Charles Maclean’s THE WATCHER.

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What draws me to this book is its undeniable 70s/80s atmosphere, and its classical weird-fiction plot. Most of the novel is narrated by Martin Gregory, a successful businessman and devoted husband who gives his wife a special present on her birthday… something utterly horrific and damning. This incident, which he does not recall, begins a descent into an otherworldly fabric of dreams and past lives as Gregory struggles to discover what drove him to the unforgivable act. He begins to suspect that his life is caught up in something cosmic and eternal – perhaps not one life at all. Or is he really just insane?

It’s impossible to say more about the book without ruining the surprises it contains. There are so many brilliant twists and massive detours that it almost feels like the book is creating itself between the covers as you read. Gregory is the pinnacle unreliable narrator, constantly being questioned and even questioning himself – the reader is unable to trust him, but also unable to stop listening. As his story deepens and explodes into something Lovecraftian, it’s impossible to turn away. Though it is quite clear that it all may be a lie.

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Maclean crafts a story here that echoes many classics – “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by Lovecraft and “Xeethra” by Clark Ashton Smith are clear influences – but also subverts them with its psychological slant. The reader is never sure who to believe, and becomes less so as the book hurtles on toward a wild ending. That is a nearly impossible feat to accomplish, but Maclean does so beautifully, rising to the level even of Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw” in the way he tricks his readers.

Because of this, I think “The Watcher” will appeal to a range of horror fans – those who like their frights grounded in reality, and those who prefer to be transported to otherworldly environs. Both aspects of the novel are handled with intensity and intelligence. It’s one of the most excitingly mysterious horror stories I’ve read in a while, especially because its answers are not all divulged. Authors are so often afraid of being misunderstood that they give away too much. Maclean is the opposite.

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Its only significant flaw is its obscurity – I never would have found it if it hadn’t been for that production company. If you come across a copy, don’t hesitate – it’s worth a read no matter what. Just hold onto your sanity while you do. And maybe just get your wife a gift card for her birthday.

Forbidden Tomes: CLARK ASHTON SMITH

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As this is the first post of its kind, I’ll give a little introduction – in addition to the “Films That Haunt Me” section, I will be writing articles called “Forbidden Tomes,” discussing horror fiction that sometimes goes under the radar. For our first foray into the dark world of words, I’ll talk a bit about Lovecraft’s great contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith. 

The Penguin edition of Smith's best stories.

The Penguin edition of Smith’s best stories.

The name H.P. Lovecraft is synonymous with weird fiction, stories of uncanny and otherworldly horrors. I only recently began exploring his contemporaries and discovered the wealth of bizarre stories that lurk beyond Lovecraft – particularly the stories and poetry of Clark Ashton Smith.

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I entered into Smith’s world with only a vague notion of his style and the knowledge that he and Lovecraft were friends. There is no way to prepare for the entrance into his allegorical and surreal creations. From ruined temples to forgotten gods that are still hungry to vengeful necromancers destroying their rivals’ countries, Smith weaves a variety of disturbing fables with exquisite and Baroque language. Once I got used to his style I was fully entranced.

These alien worlds full of sorcerers, labyrinths, catacombs, and horrific spirits are wholly original and powerful. Smith is credited with the invention of several creatures in the Cthulhu mythos, most recognizably the toad-god Tsathoggua. As a major fan of everything Gothic and monstrous, his populations of ghouls and mummies and blood-thirsty vault-creatures are an absolute dream. The walking corpses and evil wizards particularly touched on childhood fantasies that I hadn’t acknowledged in years.

Smith's sculpture of the toad-god Tsathoggua.

Smith’s sculpture of the toad-god Tsathoggua.

What gives Smith’s fantastical tales their power are not only their imagination, but their focus on deeply human themes. Stories like “The Dark Eidolon” and “The Maze of the Enchanter” explore the consequences of people’s jealousy when granted the ability to act on their greed; while “The City of Singing Flame” and “The Weaver in the Vault” display the psychological wonder of unknown, uncanny encounters.

By grounding his writing in these recognizable emotions, Smith transcends mere entertainment, and his stories make a strong impact because of it. One in particular haunts me the most – “Xeethra,” a parable about a peasant boy who is allowed to live as a king so long as he never shirks his privileged position due to the pressure; the ending is, you can imagine, poignant and tragic. I did not expect to experience such a variety of emotions, going beyond simple fear. That is the power of Smith’s mind and fiction, and why it endures so strongly today.

Smith's own artwork - titled 'Racornee.'

Smith’s own artwork – titled ‘Racornee.’

My copy is the Penguin edition, called The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, edited by wonderful weird fiction scholar S.T. Joshi. While far from complete, it represents his work well, and includes a lot of his poetry, too – also beautiful. There is a spectrum of horror, fantasy and science fiction here that will please fans of any genre.

Clark Ashton Smith is a voice from another time, echoing Lovecraft but even transcending him with his fable-like themes that resonate deep. Light a candle and enter his world on a dark summer night while the dreamy wind blows outside. It is guaranteed to transport you.