Saturday, May 26, 2012

Gothic Eye Candy: Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder's fabulously bizarre Gothic Noir

Glora Swanson as the godmother of psychobiddies, Norma Desmond

Karl von Stroheim as Max tickles the ivories (Bach's Tocata and Fugue)

The Desmond home on Sunset Boulevard, and others like it, was the model for La Casa Del Mar (bka The Abernathy Clinic) in my novel, Night of the Pentagram.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

When the Autumn Moon is Bright: The Tragedy of Lawrence Talbot

Like a lot of horror fans of my generation, one of my earliest exposures to Gothic Horror was through the classic Universal monster films. For kids growing up in the 1960s, the monsters were readily available on Saturday afternoon TV shows and were routinely trotted out for double and triple features at local theaters and drive-ins at Halloween. We went to the movies, waited impatiently for them to show up on horror shows on TV, bought Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and assembled Aurora model kits.

Today, it’s easy to see the allure of these old movies. The wizardry of combining studio sets and matte paintings was revolutionary in the 1930s, the stories mesmerizing in their power of suggestion, and the actors, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and others, delivered some of the best performances ever committed to film. To me, Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster compares to Brando’s Don Corleon as one of the greatest performances of the 20th Century.

I can’t say the same for Lon Chaney, Jr. His name is as well known as those of Lugosi and Karloff, but his acting is clumsy and awkward. Which is exactly what makes his reading of Larry Talbot so poignant. Larry Talbot is the 1940s equivalent of the All American Guy. He is Everyman, horror filmdom’s Henry Fonda. He’s a loveable schmuck who snitched apples when he was a kid, is handy with tools, and a snappy dresser. Girls go crazy for a sharp dressed man, and in The Wolf Man (1941), Talbot gets not one, but two… the alluring Gwen Conliff and her good-times gal pal Jenny Williams.

If Chaney was a second rate actor, what makes The Wolf Man my all time top favorite of the Universal Monsters franchise? Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is at once dreadfully seductive and horrifying in his ruthless desire for human blood. Karloff’s Monster is an unloved child with an abnormal brain. He has no sense of right or wrong. When it is time to kill, he kills without remorse. But what happens to Larry Talbot could happen to anybody. His tragedy is as much bad luck as is being struck down by cancer or being killed by a drunk driver. And who better to represent this sort of hapless victim of circumstances than a loveable lug, a bumbling, happy-go-lucky Everyman?

While Universal’s The Wolfman (2010) remake scores high on the Gothic Eye Candy scale, the character as written, and Benicio  del Toro’s lifeless performance of Larry Talbot, are one of the movie’s many shortcomings. The script is more or less the same with a bit of visceral updating, but here Talbot has more of a cynical edge, as is evident in the opening scenes showing Talbot backstage after a performance of Hamlet. (Here he is an actor, not a mechanic who works on astronomy equipment.) It’s well documented that del Toro is a huge fan of the original film and was eager to play the part, which leaves me curious why he would turn in such an uninspired performance.

I enjoy watching the 2010 remake. It’s not uncommon for me to watch both films back to back. While the early version presents a more precise story and is single handedly responsible for creating a specific mythology that carries on in werewolf stories to this day, the remake excels on the production values, from the location shots of Chatsworh House standing in for Talbot Hall, to the misty woods and the Victorian interiors bathed in dusty shafts of filtered sunlight. Some days I can’t get enough eye-candy, and both movies deliver in spades.

The good news is that, while the 2010 version under performed (with good reason) at the box office, Universal realized they were onto something, and in 2011 announced that they would reboot the story, meaning they would return to the 1941 source film rather than create a direct sequel to the 2010 film.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist returning to the misty, gypsy infested forests surrounding the Talbot estate… especially when the autumn moon is bright.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gothique a la Tim

No one does Gothic quite like Team Tim. For a guy like me, that’s the deciding factor. In visual terms, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows tips the Gothic scale, from the crumbling majesty of Collinwood Manor to the shots of Widow’s Hill and the raging sea below, to the seacoast village of Collinsport, and the Collins family graveyard that makes its appearance in the final frames of the film, this IS the world of Dark Shadows.

For the most part, the movies takes the plot of the first year and a half or so from the original TV show and compresses it into 115 minutes: young woman with mysterious past comes to Collinwood to be governess to troubled little boy and runs afoul of morose family in a dank mansion which has seen better days. Enter vampire whose presence sends the ratings through the roof, and the writers send the entire cast back to the 18th Century to explore the beginnings of the vampire’s curse. All of this is dispatched in the first twenty minutes or so of the film. It is easily the best part.

But what about the Collins family themselves? Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and Chloe Mertz’s scene-stealing Carolyn Stoddard remain the most faithful to the series’ characters while riffing and expanding on the original ideas. On the show, little David was a cross between a brat and a true creep (mostly, I think, due to the fact that the actor, David Hennessy, who allegedly does not have fond memories of being a child actor, must have loathed every excruciating day of it). Gulliver McGrath’s David is a sweet natured child with alleged psychiatric problems, but the character as written is sadly underdeveloped. The writers missed a terrific opportunity to riff on that other classic dark haired five-year-old, Damien Thorne. And then there is Roger Collins whose written character and performance by Jonny Lee Miller are so far off the mark he should have been one of Barnabas’s first victims.

Which brings us to the star of the show, Mr. Depp. Johnny IS Barnabas Collins, even with the Nosferatu hands (which are one of the best additions to the character). He is handsome, pasty, stylish, courtly, bewildered, romantic, sexy, and ruthless… everything the character of Barnabas Collins should be.

Out of the extended family, I enjoyed housekeeper Mrs. Johnson the most. She’s only onscreen in a few short scenes and speaks not a word, but every time I saw her I burst out with a robust guffaw. Jackie Earle Haley turned in a fun performance as Willie Loomis but, like other characters, wasn’t given enough to do. John Karlen’s reading of Willie on the original show was one of the most nuanced performances, especially when compared to the relentless scene-chewing of Grayson Hall’s Dr. Julia Hoffman. Helena Bonham Carter looks the part, but she would have turned in a better performance if she had watched several week’s worth of Hall’s TV version and expanded on that hamminess. Even her drunk scenes (which are most of them) are uninspired. I’m a big fan of HBC, but this is one of her least interesting performances.

But the biggest misstep of character reinvention is Angelique Bouchard. The power struggle between witch Angelique and vampire Barnabas is the core of the movie’s plot, as well it should be, but here the producers decided to turn her into a high camp vamp straight out of True Blood. That’s fine in Bon Temps, but this is Collinsport. I’m easily bored with special effects fight scenes in movies, and the final showdown between Elizabeth’s shotgun and Angelique was too much for me… and was a poorly executed steal from Death Becomes Her to boot.

There were two drafts of the script, the first by John August who shares the “story by” credit with final script writer Seth Grahame-Smith. The production would have benefited from a bit more fleshing out of the minor characters and less emphasis on Hollywood spectacle FX. Dark Shadows does not require explosions and car crashes, but that, metaphorically speaking, is exactly how this movie ends. A third script might have given this viewer more satisfaction.

Other hard core Dark Shadows fans are hating all over Tim Burton for “ruining” their sacred cow. I’ve run through lists of current directors who could possibly do the series justice. Robert Altman is dead, that leaves someone like Paul Thomas Anderson who excels at the type of ensemble story telling the tale of Dark Shadows requires.

Ten years ago I made a wish list for a big screen adaptation, and it always was a Tim and Johnny Show. In reinterpreting the Gothic world of the Collins family for a new generation, they have succeeded. Tim just needed a better script. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

No Big Deal at Creaky Hall - One Star

A few weeks ago while trolling the internet for signs of the Gothic Revival, I learned that the BBC is shooting a mini-series based on a James Herbert novel, The Secret of Crickley Hall. The premise sounds right up my Gothic alley: family moves into creaky old house, mysterious manifestations ensue, family discovers decades old secret; all is well (or not well, depending on the outcome.)

But what a god-awful piece of crap this book is. I normally would not review a book on this blog if it doesn’t have anything to offer readers jonesing for a Gothic fix. Have you ever seen those one star reviews on Amazon where customers rant about how much they hated the product? That’s what this is going to be, but I’m doing it here, instead of on Amazon. If you’re not into that sort of thing, check back next weekend when I will have something to say about Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows (in theaters May 11). If you’re down for some bestseller bashing, read on.

James Herbert is trumpeted as Britain’s Number One Bestselling Horror Author. Really? I thought it was Clive Barker. Whatever. The Secret of Crickley Hall reads like a John Saul novel – middle class, white Anglo Saxon family, Mom and Dad, two kids and a dog, move into a “haunted” house. Slightly nerve-wracking events happen. The characters have no depth, no issues, no character. The prose is heavily padded with repetitive information (how many times do we have to be reminded that Dad is an engineer in scene after scene that have nothing to do with the fact that he is an engineer? Same with Lili the psychic. She’s a psychic.) Any suspense is created mechanically by switching scenes at the next chapter. When the mystery of the past (and reason for the haunting) is gradually revealed, it’s more disgusting than horrifying. Overall, The Secret of Crickley Hall is a young adult novel (as are John Saul’s) but the events of the past are adult in nature, and would not be appropriate for most readers under the age of sixteen. It’s just not scary, and it’s certainly not horror. It’s set in an old house and there are lots of thunderstorms. That makes it Gothic. But just a little. And Lili is psychic. 

Here’s what really pisses me off. The Secret of Crickley Hall is in dire need of a content editor. There just aren’t 600 pages of story in its 600 pages. As a struggling writer who can’t get an agent to request a full or partial, I can’t help but feel if I had submitted The Secret of Crickley Hall and was lucky enough to have an agent or editor read the entire manuscript, it would have been sent back for cuts and rewrites.

Which brings me to this point: in the writing business, the publishing houses that control 99% of what you see on bookstore shelves (and include every name brand author you can think of) are referred to as The Big Six. This includes folks like Random House and Simon and Schuster, names even a casual reader is familiar with. One of the many problems with Big Six publishers is they apparently are no longer insisting on content editing for their authors, meaning that authors as diverse as James Lee Burke, Jonathan Kellerman, and Anne Rice are turning in manuscripts inferior to their early output. The books are proofread, backed with million dollar marketing campaigns, and people go to the bookstores and pay upwards of $30 USD for a name brand product. It’s no different than buying the new Nickleback CD just because you still hear a ten year old song on the radio that you like.

The Secret of Crickley Hall could have been so much better and worth the $20 USD trade paperback price ($8.99 mass market is due in August). But neither Mr. Herbert nor Macmillan Publishing care about presenting a quality product to their target market.

In all fairness, while reading The Secret of Crickley Hall I see a decent story desperate to be let out. The producers of the forthcoming BBC film see it too. Film adaptations can often be an opportunity to improve upon the source material. Here’s hoping the BBC seizes that opportunity.