Sunday, March 31, 2019

'Self' Progress: First-Quarter Report

Those of you who follow me on social media know that every year—at least for the past few years—I compose an annual New Year’s themed blog post in which I lay out my resolutions for the coming year. Why do I do this? Mainly, to hold myself accountable in the public square. I’ve learned over the years that resolutions kept to oneself are easier to take shortcuts around, gloss over, or just conveniently forget altogether. Each year, I establish at least three goals, laid out within the holistic framework of mind, body, and soul. This year’s post can be found here.

For this year’s mind-centric resolution, I set out to drastically limit political postings to my Facebook wall and have tried to refrain from commenting on political threads elsewhere. Three months in to 2019, and I’d deem progress on this goal well underway. One scroll through my social media feeds and you’ll see a tremendous (dare I say, “bigly”?) reduction in the number of posts about our current administration. Yes, there are a few—times when I simply can’t contain the myriad thoughts that pour out of my mind onto the keyboard, times when I feel like I really have something of value to add to the conversation. And, yes, I’ve succumbed to the demonic pull of commenting on others’ political posts on occasion, try as I might not to. But, overall, vast improvement noted in this area. I’ve also continued the strides made in the year-prior’s slate of resolutions, continuing to limit my news sources, filtering out biased sources in favor of more unbiased, legitimate ones.

After tanking both of my 2018 body-related resolutions—re-gaining forty of the fifty pounds lost in 2017 and failing miserably to decrease my psychological reliance on Starbucks coffee—I’m proud to say that Stella’s got her groove back in this area. After a shaky start in January, I’ve now dramatically decreased my Starbucks consumption—the iced Cinnamon Dolce latte and accursed bacon, egg, and gouda breakfast sandwich were my mainstays—to once per week, down from daily. I went cold turkey, suffered through the psychological withdrawal and am now no longer dependent on that daily fix. In addition, after failing last year to recalibrate following Oprah’s tinkering with the Weight Watchers’ successful SmartPoints program by adding the nonsensical “freestyle” element, I’ve finally found my way through the program’s changes and lost just over 15 pounds over this first quarter (and, really, more like since the middle of February when I finally re-grouped enough and got serious). That puts me at 25% of my 60-pound year-end goal—exactly where I should be. More than enough to declare first-quarter success on my “body” goals for 2019!

Lastly, regarding those soul/spirit-centric goals I’ve set for myself in 2019, I’m also off to a solid start there as well. I’ve already accomplished my priority this year: Completion of my first poetry collection(!). While it resides with a select handful of beta readers who I trust to offer unflinching feedback, I will next begin to scout out an appropriate publishing home for it. I will now commence completion of that handful of unfinished short stories I mentioned in my New Year’s post and find fitting homes for those while I await word on the one that was submitted to a very cool themed anthology earlier in the year. I also set out to perform more acts of kindness this year, with a goal of performing one random act of charity/kindness per month. Although the acts have been small, I’ve kept kindness on my mind through the first three months of the year—and will continue to do so. Good progress on the “soul” goals!

So, enough about me. How are YOU doing on your goals for 2019?

Friday, March 8, 2019

Revisiting 'Amityville'

Among the sequel craze that started in the 1980s with Halloween and Friday the 13th, many might be surprised to learn that the modern-day horror film franchise with the most films to its name is The Amityville Horror. With a canon of 21 associated films (including sequels, reboots, and in-name-only knockoffs), The Amityville Horror franchise has eclipsed both Halloween (with 11) and Friday the 13th (with 12).
So it might come as a bit of a surprise when noted genre veteran Daniel Farrands—whose credits include screenplays for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers and the 2007 adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, directorial work on a number of notable documentary features on film franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Friday the 13th, and numerous producer gigs—would mine the Amityville archives for his feature film directorial debut.
The Amityville Murders, which Farrands also wrote and produced, goes back to the real-life events that led to the original horror: The six gunshot murders at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, carried out by Ronald DeFeo on the night of November 13th, 1974. DeFeo, in court testimony, claimed that voices coming from within the house drove him to kill every member of his immediate family. Although DeFeo was sentenced to (and remains in) prison, a mythos developed around the house itself when the Lutz family, who moved into the titular residence in late 1975, fled after less than a month because of the alleged supernatural events that served as the source material for Jay Anson’s bestselling 1977 book of the same name, which was based on about 45 hours of tape-recorded recollections from the Lutz family. The book became the ’79 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger that went on to gross $86.4 million on a $4.7 million budget. In one of the longest-running acts of source material cannibalism, The Amityville Horror story has been artistically excavated, twisted and reconfigured, retold, and expanded upon for nearly four decades—with varying results.
Enter Farrands. Wisely, he opts to return to the scene of the crime—literally and creatively. Rather than add to the convoluted Amityville mythos, he chooses to revisit the story of Ronald DeFeo in what amounts to a proper prequel to the ’79 film. Diehard Amityville aficionados will note that 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession also attempted to loosely prequelize the pre-Lutz events, but Farrands’ outing is a more faithful retelling, coated with a nice period piece sheen.
The 1974 DeFeo’s are a suburban Long Island family whose outward picture-postcard success belies the dysfunction within. Patriarch Ronnie (an excellent Paul Ben-Victor) is the quintessential abusive husband and father, offering intimidation and beatings in private and paternal hugs in public. Wife and mother Louise (Diane Franklin) is that typical abused spouse who walks a fine line between trying to keep Ronnie’s rage at bay while facilitating some semblance of normalcy for her children. Eldest son Ronald (nicknamed “Butch”) is a directionless slacker and drug user while eldest daughter Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts) is smart, pretty, and protective of her older brother. There are three other siblings—Alison, Marc, and Jody—but they’re largely relegated to the periphery here, with Farrands choosing to focus his narrative on the DeFeo parents and their two oldest offspring.
Farrands spends time painting his cinematic picture of the DeFeo’s and their dysfunction—from Ronnie’s shady mafia dealings to Ronald Jr’s drug use and the especially volatile relationship between the two. At some point early on, both Lainie Kazan and Burt Young (who, in a nice wink to franchise fans, was also in Amityville 2 with Franklin) show up as Louise’s parents—with grandpa Brigante gifting Ronald and Dawn new cars on their shared birthday and Nona getting her hackles up when Louise casually mentions a possible West Coast relocation. “You’re going to sell my house?” she asks, practically drooling ill-omen. These early scenes are outstanding, even if the Long Island accents are a tad too exaggerated and the family’s Italian-Americanness bordering on caricature at times.
It’s revealed that Ronald Jr. and Dawn also mess around with the occult down in a little basement crawlspace with red cinderblock walls (aka the infamous “Red Room”). At some point, the dark forces within the house (it’s purported to be built upon land where the local Shinnecock Indian tribe had once abandoned their mentally ill and dying, an idea rejected by local Native American leaders) start their whispering through the walls and take possession of Ronald Jr. that culminates in the murders. The supernatural foreplay is effective although most of the visuals and set pieces will ring familiar to anyone who’s seen a Paranormal Activity film. Recycled but competent scares abound as the tension escalates.
Overall, The Amityville Murders hits its marks. Caveat: I’ve not seen a single Amityville film since the three-dimensional third so I may not be as jaded or franchise-weary as many reviewers seem to be. Farrands’s direction is solid, his pacing tight, and he really knows how to strikingly frame his shots. He also gets some major props for giving Diane Franklin a role befitting her talent. She’s been too-long relegated to shorts and subpar material in recent years for an actress of her stature and talent.
The standout here is John Robinson who does most of the film’s heavy lifting as Ronald Jr. He convincingly portrays a man slipping into madness, seamlessly shifting from anger and rage to vulnerability and melancholy with all the requisite raw emotion. It’s actually in considering Robinson’s performance where one might realize that Farrands missed a golden opportunity to muddy the waters a bit and aim higher with his franchise contribution. Instead of presenting the audience with a predetermined supernatural origin to Ronald Jr’s slip down the rabbit hole, layer in some ambiguity to suggest it might have been the drugs or PTSD from years of mental and physical abuse or even an undiagnosed mental illness like schizophrenia (the onset of which would correspond with the character’s age)—perhaps a combination of all these internal and external factors. When you make a movie based on real-life events and your audience knows the story’s ending from the outset, you need something else to make your mark. Leaving the audience pondering—and ultimately deciding for themselves—the origin of Ronald DeFeo’s eventual murderous snap would have added a decidedly cerebral element that would have elevated The Amityville Murders beyond the limits of its well-trodden zip code. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Hell Hath No Fury (Like Women in Horror)

February marks the annual celebration of women’s contributions to the horror genre, aptly dubbed “Women in Horror Month.” This international, grassroots initiative is now in its tenth year of encouraging support and recognition of the underrepresented work of women in the horror field.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to celebrate “Women in Horror Month” by focusing on horror in its written forms by showcasing 51 female horror writers and 49 of their works—10 poetry collections, 13 single-author short story collections, 12 novels, 10 non-fiction books, and even a trio of anthologies for good measure. With no disrespect intended, I’m purposefully omitting the obvious suspects like Shirley Jackson and Mary Shelley in favor of exposing readers to some names they may not be immediately familiar with. I’m also limiting mention of each author to a single representative work (with the exception of one whose scope of work garners mention of three titles), noting that several of these gifted writers have written and published in numerous forms and formats. 

Since poetry is my new jam, I’m beginning here with ten of my favorite dark poets of the female persuasion and a representative collection from each:
·         Helen Marshall – The Sex Lives of Monsters

·         Claire C. Holland – I Am Not Your Final Girl

·         Saba Syed Razvi – In Crocodile Gardens

·         Stephanie M. Wytovich – Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare

·         Angela Yuriko Smith – In Favor of Pain

·         Daphne Gottlieb – Final Girl

·         Charlee Jacob – Heresy

·         Linda Addison – Being Full of Light, Insubstantial

·         Rain Graves – Barfodder: Poetry Written in Dark Bars and Questionable Cafes

·         Marge Simon – The Mad Hattery

Let’s move on to short-form prose by highlighting a baker’s dozen of exemplary fiction collections by female writers:
·         Joyce Carol Oates – Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque

·         Helen Oyeyemi – What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

·         Gemma Files – Drawn Up from Deep Places

·         Yōko Ogawa – Revenge

·         Caitlín R. KiernanThe Ammonite Violin & Others

·         Daphne du Maurier – The Birds and Other Stories

·         Carmen Maria Machado – Her Body and Other Parties

·         Tananarive Due – Ghost Summer: Stories

·         Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove

·         Lisa Morton – Monsters of L.A.

·         S.P. Miskowski – Strange Is the Night 

·         Fran Friel – Mama’s Boy and Other Dark Tales

·         Livia Llewellyn – Engines of Desire: Tales of Love and Other Horrors

As a bonus, I’m also going to include here this generation’s preeminent horror anthologist—Ellen Datlow. Datlow consistently draws from the abounding talent pool of women writers to populate her award-winning anthologies. Personally, I think Datlow shines when she curates themed collections. Three recent favorites to get you started include Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales, The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea, and Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Her tables of contents include a number of talented female contributors including Seanan McGuire, Pat Cadigan, Catherynne M. Valente, Genevieve Valentine, Alison Littlewood, and Priya Sharma, among others.

Next up, we move onto novel-length works. Following are ten outstanding horror (horror-adjacent, in one or two cases) novels by female writers that I’d highly recommend:
·         Sarah Langan – The Missing

·         Sarah Schmidt – See What I Have Done

·         A.J. Colucci – Seeders

·         Alexandra Sokoloff – The Harrowing

·         Mariko Koike – The Graveyard Apartment

·         Ania Ahlborn – Within These Walls

·         Liz Nugent – Unraveling Oliver

·         Sarah Lotz – Day Four (which is a sequel to Day Three)

·         Lauren Beukes – The Shining Girls

·         Kathy Koja – Under the Poppy

·         Alma Katsu – The Hunger

·         Marisha Pessl – Night Film

Last, but certainly not least, I’d like to point out some of the notable academics amongst the female set who have contributed some invaluable non-fiction to the horror genre. Below are a handful of must-have genre reference books written by women—beginning with my all-time favorite academic tome:
·         Carol J. Clover – Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

·         Stacy Schiff – The Witches: Salem, 1962

·         Lisa Morton – Ghosts: A Haunted History and Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween

·         Margee Kerr – Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear

·         Alexandra West – The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula

·         Amanda Reyes (as editor) – Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999

·         Lucy Chase Williams – The Complete Films Of Vincent Price

·         Barbara Creed – The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis

·         Kier-La Janisse – House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films

·         Stacie Ponder – Death Count: All of the Deaths in the Friday the 13th Film Series, Illustrated
I hope at least a few of these titles—and the literary virtuosos behind them—have piqued your interest enough to have found their way into your online shopping carts. My hope is that you’ll expand your reading repertoire to consciously incorporate more female dark scribes. Their unique perspective, creativity, and abiding talent will no doubt enrich your reading experience ten-fold.

Now, go forth and celebrate women in horror.

“It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.”
― Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories

Friday, February 1, 2019

‘Suspiria’: An Exercise in Arthouse Existentialism

Director Luca Guadagnino’s interpretation of Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 cult-classic, supernatural horror film, is ambitious, overstuffed, and dazzlingly convoluted—in other words, it’s brilliant. The film—as an overarching metaphor for insurrection and the transference of power—works on almost every level and establishes itself as less a remake and more a companion piece to Argento’s classic.
Guadagnino’s take is set against the riotous backdrop of a wall-divided, post-war Germany circa 1977, terror-ravaged by Red Army Faction bombings and background news reports chronicling the hijacking of a commercial airliner. Into this sociopolitical bedlam—which is largely superfluous to the film’s narrative—enters Susie (Dakota Johnson), a talented but inexperienced dancer (and former Mennonite) from Ohio who shows up at a legendary all-female dance company in Berlin for a long-shot audition. As luck would have it, a roster spot has opened up after another dancer goes MIA, and her subsequent impromptu audition draws both the attention and tacit approval of the company’s enigmatic artistic director Madame Blanc (the unrivaled Tilda Swinton in yet another memorable role…or three). The preternaturally gifted Susie quickly ascends the ranks as Blanc's protégé, earning her the role of the protagonist in the company’s upcoming recital of Volk, which we quickly surmise has all manner of consequential otherworldly implications.
While most of the hallmarks of Dario Argento’s original giallo are present and accounted for, Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich add a new character named Dr. Josef Klemperer, who is introduced in the updated film’s first few minutes. One of the elderly psychotherapist’s patients is a student from the dance academy named Patricia (whose mania is played well by Chloe Grace Moretz) who rants about a coven of witches that controls Markos Dance Academy and the evil of “the Three Mothers”—a witch mythology Argento refashioned from the writings of Thomas de Quincey—in a nice meta-tribute to Argento’s original trilogy. Klemperer—haunted by the wife he lost in World War II and stricken with an all-consuming survivor's guilt—is particularly invested in helping Patricia. The character is played by a first-time actor credited as Lutz Ebersdorf—but it’s largely known now that the role is played by Swinton in drag. There could be much said here about Guadagnino’s choice with this bit of stunt casting in terms of feminist themes and gender fluidity, but the casting largely misfires because he’s generously peppered the entire film with so much thematically elsewhere. One legacy of the reimagined Suspiria that’s a given: The film will give film scholars and other academics years of material to dissect.
On the surface, Suspiria is an odd choice for the Italian director after the blockbuster success of his plaintive coming-of-age romance of last year’s sublime Call Me by Your Name. Trading in the sun-dappled Italian vistas of his previous film for the darker muted tones of the grittier, concrete jungle of post-war Berlin here, Guadagnino—aided by the superb camerawork of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom—creates a purposeful contradiction to the Technicolor palette and deep jewel tones of Argento’s original. He opts for a severe and dispiriting look, its colorlessness periodically punctuated by vivid slashes of blood red to excellent dramatic effect. Mukdeeprom’s abrupt, purposefully clumsy whip-zooms charging toward the actors and the unexpected acceleration of cuts during otherwise unhurried scenes lends the film an authentic 1970s aesthetic that unites the two set design approaches.
Argento’s original Suspiria vision established tone largely through set design; Guadagnino opts to use dramatic choreography (mad props to choreographer Damien Jalet) to establish mood and escalate tension. Early on in the film, there’s a gut-churningly intense set-piece in which Susie’s feverish Salome-esque dance for Madame Blanc is juxtaposed against another dancer—whose attempt to flee the academy is thwarted by witchery—whose body is tossed around an adjacent dance studio and contorted in the most unearthly ways until she’s nothing but a protuberance of broken, misplaced bones. Aided by Walter Fasano’s precision-point editing, the scene is a strikingly gross yet captivatingly poetic bit of body horror.
Likewise, Guadagnino opts to choose his own fork in the road instead of following Argento down the same path he took with the original film’s score. That score—by Italian prog-rock band Goblin—was an intense wall of sound that blended screaming guitars, synthesizers, and wordless vocals to create an almost-deafening sound that matched the off-kilter, horror-schlock ambiance and garish visuals of Argento’s film. For his Suspiria, Guadagnino counters by engaging Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who ably captures the idea of descending into madness with his intricately languorous and brooding updated score.
Suspiria ’18 is a bold revisionist interpretation of Argento’s unassailable masterpiece, a refreshingly challenging film infused with an almost existentialist sense of dread. It’s a hypnotic exploration of the catharsis of female rage in which witches cast their spells through dance and, in the end, the ugliness of destruction is offset by the beauty of unexpected absolution. It’s a film that demands repeat viewings, if only to unpack its layers of themes. Loyalists are certain to appreciate Guadagnino’s inclusion of a touching cameo by Jessica Harper (the original film’s heroine) but fans expecting jump scares and a clean, linear narrative should look elsewhere; Guadagnino’s modern re-telling is a dense and cerebral slice of arthouse that’s as satisfyingly trippy as the original in its own right.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Curtis Anchors 'An Acceptable Loss'

It’s hard to compete with the real-life drama coming out of Washington D.C. these days, but Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss attempts to do just that with this thought-provoking political thriller in which decisions made with the noblest of intentions still help pave the road to hell.   
Former top U.S. security adviser Elizabeth "Libby" Lamm (Tika Sumpter) is a woman haunted by just such a decision—one made during her tenure working for and at the bequest of then-Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis). As draftswoman of a plan that led to America dropping a nuclear bomb on a Syrian city that resulted in mass causalities numbering in the tens of thousands, Libby knows that parts of an influential report that led to the aerial strike against a suspected terrorist stronghold were falsified. And, although she initially fulfills her role as a dutiful soldier by helping Burke convince the American public of the legality of the administration’s actions, her conscience is getting the best of her as the full ramifications of her decision play out in the ensuing five-year period. Reduced to a moral and political pariah, Libby takes a teaching position at a Chicago university where her very presence is protested by students and some faculty alike despite the support she receives from the kindly Dr. Willa Sipe (THE VISIT’s Deanna Dunagan). In a scene-stealing cameo, SEX AND THE CITY’s David Eigenberg—here as an unnamed drunken colleague—confronts Libby at a faculty mixer, demanding to know how many innocents she helped murder. It’s no surprise then when a guilt-ridden Libby starts scribbling down a full account of what went down leading up to execution of the Burke Doctrine on yellow legal pads in anticipation of owning up and coming clean. The convenient fact that her father (the always-solid character actor Clarke Peters) is a prominent newspaper editor seems like the logical means to do so. 

But—like all good political thrillers—there are complications. Libby’s take the form of a sullen graduate student named Martin (Ben Tavassoli) who’s stalking her for reasons that are as apparent as his obvious national origin and her old boss, who’s now gearing up for a run to become a second term President. Thrown into the mix is Adrian (Jeff Hephner), Burke's ruthless chief of staff and Libby’s former lover, who makes it clear during his own surveillance activities that Libby is either with them or against them. Cue ominous music. 

Marketing tags are everything, and An Acceptable Loss—as political thriller—will come up short for some since two-thirds of the film is decidedly more political drama, a key distinction. In fact—although Chappelle (who also penned the script) ably ups the thriller quotient in the film’s third act with twists and turns that deliver a strong one-two punch—it’s what precedes the action-packed finale that provides both the film’s strongest asset and biggest missed opportunity: The relationship between Libby and Burke. Indeed, the best moments in the film come via flashbacks between Sumpter and Curtis’s characters—an escalation of the power dynamic between a woman in power who’s seeking more and a woman just beginning to ascend the ranks who sees the real possibilities ahead of her. At first, Burke makes a passionate, hardline case for what she wants to do to the reluctant Libby, attempting to justify the collateral damage by appealing to the younger woman’s sense of “for the greater good” and patriotism; later, we see Burke’s steely resolve as she manipulates Libby using guilt and fear to bring her around. These are magnificent scenes—especially for Curtis—in which the power dynamic between educated women in positions of authority and influence is explored.  Unfortunately for An Acceptable Loss, these scenes and that driving dynamic are relegated to these expository sidebars when they had, in fact, the potential to drive the entire film into interesting and far more dramatic territory.
Sumpter, although appealing as an actor, seems miscast here. At first I thought it was an age thing—that she might have been too young to be playing a seasoned political advisor—but the actress is actually approaching forty, just the right age for the character and her level of accomplishment. Tavassoli, as Martin, is engrossing despite not being given much to do through two-thirds of the film but skulk around Libby’s empty house and act creepy. When he is given something meaningful to do, he ably rises to the occasion. Curtis is the crown jewel of the ensemble and the best part of An Acceptable Loss, taking what could have been a one-note villain role and layering her character’s outward fierce determination and ambition with a tragic sense of misguided nobility and, later in the film, even a note of remorse. It’s interesting that while Christian Bale is garnering accolades for his portrayal of Dick Cheney in another film, Curtis may embody the former VP’s hawkish calculations and puppet-master political persona even better here.
Curtis has entered an interesting phase of her career where her maturity grounds her performances in a captivating gravitas, elevating her dramatic chops into the provinces of the Frances McDormands and Glenn Closes of the acting world. Her chilling portrayal of a politico hell-bent on seeing her vision through at all costs—her reasoning for changing U.S. policy regarding first-strike attacks alone should resonate against the backdrop of today’s geopolitics—is easily one of the best performances of her career. Yes, we know she’s a veteran scream queen and an accomplished comedienne; but let’s hope that the roles coming her way in her own third act take full advantage of this newly-engaged aptitude for drama.   

Watching An Acceptable Loss, one can easily lament Chappelle’s misdirection in opting for straight-forward political intrigue over a nuanced character study of two powerful women—one in a position of authority, the other in a position of influence—and how the subtleties of this power dynamic impact and affect the world around them, but Curtis’s first-rate performance should make that bitter pill easier to swallow. Come for Curtis, stay for Curtis, and be surprised by the third-act tricks Chappelle’s got up his sleeve.