Friday, November 29, 2013

On the Ocean Floor, No One Can Hear You Complain About Lousy Movies

In 1989, for reasons known only to the gods of Hollywood, we were treated to no fewer than three suspense movies that took place at facilities on the ocean floor.  The first two were billed as straight-up horror movies, which, of course, caught my attention.  Plus, I had to admit, there had not been a whole lot of movies in that setting.  So, my curiosity piqued, I had to check them out.
The first was Deep Star Six.

I actually like the one-sheet.  That's a pretty cool image and tells you a lot about the setting and genre of the movie, so kudos for that.  I also like the title.  It's mysterious and cool.  The story was about some Navy people in a rig at the bottom of the ocean who encounter a heretofore-unknown sea creature that goes about terrorizing and eating them.  If that sounds cheesy, well, I'm not doing it justice because it was god-awful.
Who greenlit this piece of shit?  The writing sucks, the directing sucks, the acting sucks (well, most of it.  See below.), the sets suck, and the creature itself makes the rubber Godzilla outfits from the 60s look like Industrial Light and Magic-caliber CGI.  I'm not kidding.  This is what the thing looks like:

Did I lie?  There are a few recognizable actors running about in this piece of shit and they should all be ashamed of themselves.  Matt McCoy and Greg Evigan (yes, from BJ and the Bear!) are probably the two at least some of you will recognize.  They suck in this movie.  Big surprise there.  If not for I wouldn't even know the other people in this movie, and I'm sure they'd be happier that way.  Awful.  Just awful.
But there was one bright spot in this underwater piece of shit.  I don't know how they convinced him to do it, but they somehow got Miguel Ferrer to show up.  Granted, he's not a Nicholson-level star, but he's damned talented and he should have had a much more successful career than he's had.  I hate to say it, but maybe if he made better choices than this he would have had more success.  I like him as an actor, truly, and I've yet to see him give a bad performance.  He's even decent in this.  God knows how.

Screw this bullshit.  I'm calling my agent!
Aside from Mr. Ferrer, the rest of this movie sucks.  And I don't mean in a Plan Nine From Outer Space good kind of suck, either.  That movie can be very entertaining.  I've watched it myself many times and laughed at every viewing.  This movie makes me want to cry.  Avoid this at all costs.
The second movie taking us to the ocean floor wasn't as bad as Deep Star Six.  That's not saying much.  In fact, it's saying nothing at all.  It's not a great movie, it's not even a good movie, but it has a few moments that are not-shitty and we'll have to settle for that.  The title is Leviathan

This one, at least, has some decent actors on the screen.  The lead character is played by Peter Weller.  Like Miguel Ferrer, I wish someone could explain to me why he hasn't had a Brad Pitt-type career in Hollywood.  This man can act.  Talent-wise, he's better than a lot of the actors collecting $20 million salaries.  In a better world, he'd be up there with Clooney and Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson.  He's not, though, and we'll have to be okay with that.
We also see Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo (!), that hot chick from The Flash TV show, Richard Crenna and, somehow, Daniel Stern. 

Weller and Hudson ain't lookin for no ghosts.
Some undersea miners encounter a sunken Russian ship nearby and recover a chest that happens to have some tainted vodka in it.  Drinking it infects the individual with mutant DNA that turns them into fishmen.  Okay, I know that sounds bad. The movie is even worse.  It's a cross between Alien (see the pic above) and John Carpenter's The Thing.  Both those movies rock to perfection.  This one just plain sucks.
I almost forgot, it does have one other thing going for it:  Meg Foster.  She's an actress who could only have been successful in the 80s.  She's known the world over for her creepy/sexy/they-come-in-that-color-? eyes.  See for yourself:

She's also widely known for her role in John Carpenter's They Live!  And while she didn't participate in that movie's infamous fistfight over putting on a pair of sunglasses, she pretty much dominated the movie, anyway.  She doesn't get a lot to do here but she's still cool and, wow, those eyes!  'nuff said.
Leviathan sucks but it's not a total loss.  It could have been better, should have been better, but it isn't and this is what we're stuck with.
It was with heavy heart that I went to the theatre to see the third underwater movie of the year.  It was written and directed by the same guy who did The Terminator and Aliens, so I was desperately hopeful.  Those are two of the greatest movies I've ever seen.  Still, when the houselights went down and the movie was about to start, I kinda cringed and thought, Please don't suck.  Please don't suck.  Over and over again, like a mantra.

I didn't have to worry.  The Abyss rocked from start to finish.  Here's what you can do with a talented writer/director and a budget and a cast full of decent actors.  Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Biehn all kick ass in this movie.  Frankly, they had me at Ed Harris; I consider him one of the ten best actors alive right now.   
More undersea hijinks, only this time everything makes sense.  Imagine that!  The people at an underwater drilling platform are sent to aid the crew of a downed American submarine.  They're too late to save the poor bastards but they encounter something else while they're down there:  a (possibly) alien race and city that, in the extended version, at least, are getting annoyed with how the human race is always one heartbeat away from nuclear war.  A perfect theme for the time when the Cold War was coming to an end. 
The pseudopod was created by ILM's Pixar system. 
I think this is the movie that cemented my opinion of James Cameron.  It was here that I really started to like him.  I'm a  fan to this day, even if Avatar was a bit overblown.  I go to his movies now based entirely on the strength of what he's done before and I haven't been disappointed yet. 
Is The Abyss great?  I don't know, probably not.  Is it good?  Hell, yes!  Of all the bottom-of-the-ocean movies from 1989, it's the only one that wasn't straight-up horror, and thus it should have been my least-favorite of the three.  In fact, I like it the best.  It's not even close.
We're going on twenty-five years since Hollywood mugged us with two shitty movies (and one good one) that took us to the ocean floor.  Isn't it time for some remakes?  Or at least better efforts to make us forget about these assaults on decency?  Both Peter Weller and Miguel Ferrer are still acting and still doing it well.  Give them a shot at redemption.  Give Ed Harris anything he wants.  Let's get some decent underwater movies on the screen. 
If you want, I can be talked into the movie rights for The Last Battleship.  Anything for a seven-figure payday to help the cause.



Sunday, September 29, 2013

Judging a Book By Its Cover

For some authors, the really big names, the cover image simply isn't important. I'm sure they want a decent cover for their new novel but I'm willing to bet they don't stay awake at night hoping the artist comes through. The authors who succeed by name recognition simply don't need to concern themselves with that. Is a fan of John Grisham's really going to pass on his latest book because they don't like the cover? Doubtful. Did JK Rowling agonize over each and every Harry Potter cover? Unlikely. Frankly, the next Stephen King novel could have a pile of rubber dogshit on the cover and people would still buy it. The big guns have the freedom to concentrate on telling their story and most probably don't give much thought to the cover.
Then there's every other author on earth.

When it came time for a cover to be created for my first novel, I was a bit nervous. Okay, that's not entirely true. I was terrified. My terror came from two facts that I hadn't spent much time contemplating before then: 1) I can't draw worth a shit so someone else would have to do it; and 2) Someone else would have to do it. Allow me a moment to explain.
I spent almost two and a half years writing The Last Battleship. No one knew I was writing it, not family, not friends, no one. I spent uncountable hours getting the story to where I wanted it to go. Endless editing and rewrites, sometimes to the point of deleting entire chapters because they didn't work. I consulted no one, answered to no one. During those two and a half years it was just me and my characters.
And then came the professional editing. No matter how great your manuscript is, the editor is going to want changes made. No editor is going to go to the publisher and tell them your manuscript is flawless and requires no changes. Editors who do that quickly become ex-editors. So they're going to make you change things. Not huge, story-altering changes, but changes nonetheless. That's an odd situation in which to find oneself. Haven't you spent a lot of time with these characters? Don't you know them best? Who does this editor think he/she is, demanding you make changes? But they do. And you have to roll with them. I've been lucky. I've worked with editors who have made very minimal requests of me (for the most part) and the changes have been easy to swallow (again, for the most part).

It's still such an odd situation to let someone else touch your baby in so intimate a manner. But that pales in comparison to turning your baby over to a complete stranger and trusting them to whip up a great cover for you.
Publishers will send over something called the Cover Art Form. This is the author's opportunity to paint a mental picture of what he/she thinks would make a great cover. Sometimes the artist will even read it. The rest of the time they'll read the cover blurb and whip up something they think best captures the spirit of the work based on those few short paragraphs the author used to tell prospective readers about the plot of their novel. That's where the terror part comes in. There is no way, no way, an artist completely unfamiliar with the nuances of the story can create a drawing that captures the spirit of the novel. But that's what you have to deal with as an author with no measurable artistic ability.
I got lucky. Right out of the gate I learned the cover duties for The Last Battleship were assigned to Taria A. Reed. Never heard of her. But what she did was create a cover image that wasn't very far off from what I was picturing in my head. Here it is:

I asked for a few minor changes to the original image. For one thing, I had her ditch all the little fishies she had swimming around. I believe I even said something along the lines of, "This is a horror novel, not Finding Nemo!" She removed all the critters and the end result is what you see here. Pretty damned good, if you ask me.
I became friends with Taria on Facebook and we chatted back and forth a few times. When I was going to New Jersey last year I arranged to meet up with her. I started talking about my second novel, Moon Dust, which had sold in a preposterously short amount of time. I knew Taria was working for this publisher as well and I really wanted her to be the cover artist. I mentioned it to the publisher but had received a noncommital response. I was worried I'd get some hack who didn't know anything creating a cover that sucked. The way I looked at it, I'd been lucky once. No reason to push it now. So I told Taria about the image I had in my head for Moon Dust. That same day she whipped up a preliminary design that wound up close to the published version. This is it right here:

That is as close to humanly possible to the image I described to her that day in Red Bank. I was overjoyed. The publisher, less so. Oh, they liked the cover, liked it a lot. But they weren't crazy about me doing an end-run around them and consulting with the cover artist myself. Tough titties. All I cared about was having a kick-ass cover on the novel I spent a year and a half of my life writing. And I got it. Bully for me! And for Taria, who seems incapable of creating a bad cover.
I think perhaps I'll always be nervous when it comes time to hand over the novel, story and characters I've spent so much time with to someone else. That's just how I am. Either that, or I'll have to learn how to draw. But since that's never going to happen I guess I'm stuck with the nervousness. It's a small price to pay for being able to do what I love, and to make a few bucks doing it.
The cover for novel #3, Dark Annie, was not created by Taria A. Reed, much as I tried to talk the publisher into making it happen. As the novel's publication date drew nearer and I had seen no preliminary artwork my nervousness ratcheted up quite a bit. Then I received the "first draft" of the cover. I asked for a few small changes. The artist obliged. Here's what she created:

Her name is Clarissa Yeo and she's from Shanghai and she knocked this one so far out of the park even Mickey Mantle would be impressed.
It's not the cover image I had in my head, not even close. In fact, other than my description of Dark Annie herself there's virtually nothing on this cover that came from me. And I like this one better than the one I had in my head. Loads better. I think it sets the tone perfectly. I doubt anyone knocking around Barnes and Noble will see this and mistake it for a nonfiction firsthand account of a Ferris wheel being built next to a woman's dilapidated schoolhouse.
(Don't laugh. Some idiot blasted me on Amazon because he thought The Last Battleship was a historical account and was deeply disappointed when he discovered it's sci fi. He never bothered to read the description or any of the reviews, and he obviously didn't read the novel, either, because he labeled it sci fi when it doesn't even come close to being a sci fi story.)
So I'm pretty happy with this cover. And I'm pretty happy with the previous two covers as well. So far I've been lucky. I've been gifted some pretty good cover artists who know what they're doing and they've come through for me every time. I cannot thank them enough.
Until the next time. When I'll be nervous all over again. But for now, you're looking at a content author.   

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Spreading the Sunshine

I'm gonna try something different this time around.  I'm going to review a movie, and a damned good one, if you ask me.  You didn't, but since you're reading this I'm gonna assume you take my opinion as gospel.  I'll try to live up to your faith in me. 
In 2007, Danny Boyle, director of brilliant movies like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, tried his hand at sci fi with this little-seen and hopelessly-neglected movie titled Sunshine.  Admittedly it doesn't sound like great sci fi with a lame title like that, which might possibly explain why genre fans have never heard of it, much less seen it.  I think "Sunlight" would have been a better title but no one asked me.  Regardless, I'm about to lay some knowledge on you about this awesome and brilliant movie in the hopes you'll give it a go.  You won't be disappointed.

This is the opening voiceover from Cillian Murphy's character: "Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago the Icarus Project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa, and a crew of seven left earth frozen in a solar winter. Our payload, a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose, to create a star within a star.  Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to the Icarus II."
It's written by Alex Garland, who has worked with Danny Boyle on the two movies mentioned above as well as The Beach and other worthy endeavors.  The story and screenplay are airtight.  I wish I had written this.  For an author, that's the highest compliment possible.  This is what I refer to as "smart sci fi."  By that I mean the situations and the technology in this movie are not the stuff of fantasy.  There's no warp drive or lightsabres to be found.  This could happen.  It's easy enough to believe mankind is even now capable of building a ship like the Icarus II.  Here's a look: 


The bulky and heavy spacesuits were based, in part, on Kenny from South Park!
The only real technological conceit the filmmakers made was the artificial gravity aboard the ship.  I can live with that.  It was certainly cheaper than attaching wires to every actor in every scene in order to simulate weightlessness.  That aside, and, I suppose, the stellar bomb itself, there is no technology presented in the movie that we either don't already have or we believe we can create.  To me this puts it in the same category as 2001 and, to a lesser extent, Alien.  That's right, I just compared this movie favorably to two of the best sci fi movies ever made.  It's that good.
The cast is awesome.  The captain of the Icarus II is Kaneda, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, known as "the Harrison Ford of Japan."  Fans of Lost will recognize him as Dogen, the leader of the Others at that strange temple on the island.  He kicks ass in this movie.

The rest of the crew is made up of great actors perfectly cast.  They are:

Troy Garity as first officer Harvey; Cillian Murphy as payload specialist Capa; Michelle Yeoh as Corazon; the gorgeous-beyond-words Rose Byrne as Cassie; Cliff Curtis as Dr. Searle; Benedict Wong as Trey; and Chris "Captain America" Evans as Mace.  Each and every character in this movie has a distinct personality and you believe they would have been chosen to carry out a mission as important as this one.  Kudos to the casting director.
As the Icarus II prepares to slingshot around Mercury (the planet, not the lead singer of Queen) they pick up an automatic distress signal from the Icarus I, lost seven years earlier.  The crew are split on whether or not to go to their aid but circumstances force them to do just that.  They locate their sister ship:

 and go to their rescue:

This is the part where I put in a giant SPOILER ALERT.  If you plan to see the movie you might want to stop reading here and skip to the end. 
The Icarus I is powerless although life support is functioning.  The interior of the ship is covered with dust.  The boarding party finds the crew in the observation room, burned to death.  A cryptic log entry made by the Icarus I's captain, Pinbacker (played to the hilt by perennial bad guy Mark Strong) indicates the crew abandoned their mission because they felt God intended for mankind to die and it was not their place to question His will.  And then the shit hits the fan.  An explosion separates the two ships, stranding Mace, Capa, Searle and Harvey aboard the derelict Icarus I

They come up with a daring plan to make it back aboard their ship.  The results are mixed, to say the least.  Once back aboard their own ship the survivors continue their mission.  But a lethal stowaway has other plans for them.  When Capa realizes there's someone on the ship with them he tracks their mystery guest to the observation room.  It doesn't go well.

The intruder finds a way to shut down the Icarus II.  Realizing the only way they can complete their mission and save mankind is to separate the payload and force it into the sun, Capa sets about doing just that, even though it will kill him and the rest of his crew.  It is a thrilling sequence.  See for yourself:

Capa flies between the Icarus II and the payload.

 The payload boosters fire, destroying the Icarus II's heatshield.

When Capa finally boards the payload, he sees this:

Trapped aboard a giant bomb falling into the sun and stalked by a psychotic religious nut, can Capa survive long enough to activate the stellar bomb?  What do you think?

This movie kicks one hundred different kinds of ass.  It is whip-smart, character-driven (after you get past the reason for them being out in space) and one hell of a great ride.  Seriously, you owe it to yourself to check this out.  I rate this movie 5/5 stars.  It's as good as is humanly possible.  Go see it and get back to me.  You'll be glad you did.
And before we end this review, one more shot of the beautiful Rose Byrne.

You're welcome.  

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Things You Shouldn't Say To An Author

Being a professional author is a pretty sweet gig and I won't claim otherwise.  Since the publication of my premiere novel, The Last Battleship, I seem to have entered into a hitherto unknown social paradigm wherein poeple, both those I know well and total strangers, fell free to hit me with some of the following statements/questions.  They range from the innocent-but-no-less-insulting to the truly bizarre.  While there are any number of things one can say to an author, they aren't on this list.  If your intent is to insult or anger the author, however, here's where you start.
1)  "I'd like to write a novel but I don't have the time."  This might be the most common statement I hear and it's a double-whammy insult.  First, it implies that anyone can write a novel; second, it also implies the author has nothing better do do with his/her time.  Both statements are equally untrue.  If I sound harsh or condescending, well, I don't mean it that way. 
The fact is writing a full-length novel is not easy.  If it was, everyone would do it.  To paraphrase another author, "You look at a blank computer screen and take the same twenty-six letters of the alphabet and combine them and recombine them tens of thousands of times until they make a coherent and publishable story that people actually want to read."  If that sounds easy you clearly have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. 
The second part of that statement is just as bad.  It makes the author sound like someone who leads a life empty of anything meaningful.  After all, if you check off the hours of the day doing nothing but writing, you must not have anything better to do.  I suppose if I didn't write novels I could work on that cure for cancer but I guess I'm just too lazy.  Hence the writing.
2)  "I have a great idea for a novel.  If I give it to you, can you write it and we'll share the byline?"  No.  The idea itself is no big deal.  It's the easiest part of writing a novel.  And it changes constantly during the writing process.  Of the three novels I've written, only the latest, Dark Annie, kept its original idea intact from start to finish.  Both The Last Battleship and Moon Dust experienced major plot changes during the writing process.  So the idea itself is less important than most people think.  Giving me the idea and then expecting me to do all the work so you can share a byline is not going to happen.  Ever.  With any author.  So don't ask.
3)  "I've written a novel.  Can you read it and critique it for me?"  Again, no.  It's sad to admit but the fact is people today are way too litigious.  Let's say you hand your manuscript to an author and they read it and the plot happens to be close to something they're working on.  When their work is published you think they stole your idea and you go apeshit.  There's a lawsuit, there are cries of plagiarism and outright thievery, the author's name is dragged through the mud in a very public way.  Sure, which author wouldn't want to subject themselves to all that?  Critique your own work or hire somebody to do it for you.  No author in their right mind would agree to do this.
4)  "My life story would make a great book." No, it wouldn't.  Why, because you suffered through some adversity?  Newsflash:  Everyone has gone through adversity in their life.  What makes yours so special?  Unless you lived through some major disaster and came through it in some extraordinary way, no one cares.  If you're a celebrity, someone will publish your memoirs, I suppose.  Professional athletes, war heroes, political leaders, someone will greenlight their books.  Yours?  Not likely.  This probably sounds a bit harsh but it's a fact.  If you don't believe me try to get an agent or publisher interested in your life story and see what happens.
5)  "Can I be a character in your novel?"  Sure.  I stick mostly to the horror genre and I'm always looking for names for the people who get bumped off.  Once you put this forward you'd better be prepared to accept how the author uses your character.  You can be the victim of a serial killer, or a very minor character that gets clipped to show the readers just how dangerous the situation is for the other, more important characters.  You can be painted in a very unfavorable light.  Or you can be the hero of the whole piece and save the day.  This is a very clear cut example of caveat emptor.  Keep that in mind if you ask this question of an author.

There are more, I'm sure, but these are the ones that get thrown my way the most often.  I never make it a point to call anyone on their bullshit when they say these things to me.  I know they're not being insulting intentionally.  Or maybe they are and I'm just too dense to realize it.  My usual response to this is to nod politely and smile and resist the urge to strangle them and hide the body. 

Or to write them into the next novel with a brutal death scene. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Unconventional Zombies

I am all about zombie movies.  I have been ever since I saw the original Night of the Living Dead by the brilliant George A. Romero.  Like many fans of the genre I can't quite put my finger on why I love zombies so much.  I acknowledge the idea that they're a metaphor for our culture and attitudes, the us vs. them mentality, the consumerism of modern society, etc.  And I can appreciate them on that level.  But mostly I just love a good zombie flick.  But as more and more movies are made there's a push to make your zombies distinctive from the rest of the bunch and that can lead to some weird variations on the theme.  Hence the zombie movies and books we're gonna look at in this blog.
I thought the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) was okay but it was no match for the original.  My biggest complaint is the introduction of fast zombies.  I hate this idea.  Not just because it treads on Romero's rules but because it also eliminates the one physical advantage the survivors have over the dead.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's a metaphor for how we're losing all our freedoms and quality of life at a (perceived) much faster rate than ever before.  Whatever.  Fast zombies suck and I blame director Zack Snyder for this and for every movie made after DotD that featured fast zombies.
                                                              Wal-Mart's having a sale!
The exception that proves the rule about how fast zombies suck is 28 Days Later (2002).  The zombies in this Danny Boyle flick are not zombies in the traditional sense.  In fact, they're still alive.  An artificial virus escapes a lab and infects the citizens of London.  Don't you hate when that happens?  Cillian Murphy wakes up in a hospital with no knowledge of what's going on.  The deserted London streets are suitably creepy and the "infected" are everywhere.  This is really a very good movie and you should check it out.
                                           The creators of Where's Waldo aren't even trying anymore.
In 2005 Marvel Comics produced a series called Marvel Zombies.  The term "Marvel Zombie" had been around since the 70s and it referred to someone who bought only Marvel comics, regardless of quality.  Marvel turned the title on its ear when they called Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, and asked him to come up with a story wherein all the Marvel heroes become zombies.  Kirkman's story concerns an alien virus that strikes earth's heroes and turns them into canabalistic monsters with a twist:  They still possess their powers and intellect.  They know they're doing wrong but they can't help themselves.  Spider-Man, upon turning, eats his wife and beloved old aunt!  Arthur Suydam took classic Marvel covers of the past and "zombified" them, like this one from Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #1:    
It wasn't a bad story if you threw continuity out the window.  Since this took place in an alternate universe it did not affect the "real" Marvel Universe.  It was something of a What If...?.  It was as good as it was simply because Robert Kirkman knows how to tell great zombie stories and he knows the Marvel characters.
Marvel's chief rival, DC Comics, came up with their own zombie story in 2009, titled Blackest Night.  Spinning out of events in Green Lantern, writer Geoff Johns created the Black Lanterns.  Dead (or formerly dead) heroes and villains returned to life as Black Lanterns.  This concerned nearly every character in DC's universe, since most of their major characters had died at some point in their career and come back to life.  (Death in comics is something of a revolving door.)  The Black Lanterns then went about trying to kill the living heroes and villains, who would in turn become Black Lanterns themselves.  It wasn't a bad story but DC really ran with it and it eventually became too convoluted to follow easily.  Still it was a pretty creepy sight to see undead versions of Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman (among many others) actively trying, and sometimes succeeding, in killing their former collegues. 
                                                              They're behind me, aren't they?

The last one I want to being to your attention is 2004's Shaun of the Dead.  Written by star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, this is a super-entertaining movie.  It's a comedy, kinda.  It's a romance, kinda.  It's also a solid zombie flick.  What makes this so great is that Shaun and his crew are just plain funny.  The zombie holocaust that overtakes London is played straight, but the dialogue and actions of Shaun and his best bud/roommate, Ed, are anything but.  Their big plan to escape the zombies is to go to their favorite pub and drink and have a good time until the whole situation blows over.  This movie has several laugh out loud moments, but keep in mind, it's a horror movie and people die.  Some of them, horribly.  Fans of Pegg's TV series Spaced will spot lots of actors from that series, and even a few of the jokes but I can't recommend this movie enough.
                                                            Shaun and Ed, zombie slayers!

This movie is a love letter to George Romero, who loved it so much he invited Pegg and Wright to be zombie extras in his Land of the Dead in 2005.  They're the photo booth zombies, in case you didn't catch them before.
I likes me a good zombie flick, especially anything by Romero.  But I also like the idea of people trying a different approach to the genre.  It doesn't always work (have I mentioned how much fast zombies suck?) but I have to applaud the effort, if not always the end result.  There are plenty more I haven't gotten to.  Like the WTF Return of the Living Dead movies, the they-get-worse-with-each-sequel Resident Evil movies, etc.  Have I missed any that you think should be included here?  Let me know.  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Mash Em Up!

I am a huge fan of genre mash-ups.  I think it's because they're so rare these days and also because they're almost always fish-out-of-water stories.  There's nothing wrong with a straight-up horror story or a comedy or western, or whatever.  But mix them together and the result can be very entertaining.  It can elevate a so-so story if done correctly.  My novel The Last Battleship was something of a mash-up in that I tried to blend war and horror together.  Hopefully I succeeded.  We don't get enough of these type of stories and I think we're the poorer for it.  The commercial entertainment industry is too wimpy to take many chances.  Oh, we get the sci fi/horror mash-up all the time but beyond that...not too much.   
This isn't a new idea but it's done so rarely it seems like it is.  I think that's why Cowboys and Aliens (2011)  did so well at the box office. 
The pitch must have been something like this:  "Take a western and mix in some sci fi."  It was okay.  It had some genuinely entertaining scenes.  And there's no arguing with the awesomeness of uniting Indiana Jones and James Bond to battle some ridiculous alien gold prospectors.  But from a storytelling standpoint the movie was horrible.  That didn't seem to matter and I hope its success will at least make more producers less skittish about crossing genres. 
Look what James Cameron did with Aliens (1986).  It's a sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all time but it's not quite a horror movie.  Oh, it's scary as hell, don't get me wrong; but it's difficult to categorize it as a straight-up horror movie.  It takes place on another planet and deals with an alien adversary.  So is it sci fi?  To me it's always been a war movie with horror undertones.  I think it qualifies as a mash-up of war and horror with a bit of sci fi added in for flavor.  I mean, does this image make you think "horror" or "war"? 

For me this is a war movie that makes use of horror movie tropes.  This does not diminish anything about it as far as I'm concerned.  It's probably in my top ten favorite movies of all time.  On paper it could have been just as effective if the aliens were replaced by a superior (human) enemy force.  I don't know if that would have been as good but I can see how it could have been done.
As I'm writing this it occurs to me that, next to sci fi/horror, the next most popular genre mash-up must be war/horror.  You can make the point that all war stories are horror stories and I would not argue.  It's difficult if not impossible to watch the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or most of Black Hawk Down (2001) and not be scared shitless.  But those movies/books don't use supernatural horror and that's where I draw the distinction.  There are still a few examples I can point to where someone got their war mixed with somebody else's horror and discovered two great tastes that taste great together.   
In a previous blog I talked about horror comic books.  Some of these, like Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider, mixed horror and super heroes together.  There are other examples.  Sticking with war/horror one last time, DC gave us Weird War Tales.  It ran longer than I thought it did, from 1971-1983.  A solid twelve years and 124 issues.  Not bad.  I have some of them, including #1.  The issues in my collection are entertaining and I wouldn't mind completing my collection of that title.  By and large they got it right. 

I'm less enthusiastic when genres I don't care about are combined, although I applaud the creators for trying something different.  Romcoms, paranormal romance, dramedies, etc.  Not really my cup of early grey but at least someone's taking a chance.  I can respect that even if the genres don't interest me.
A couple more examples before we get out of here and hit the local watering hole. I want to mention two examples of genre mash-ups that not many people think of as such.  They're both quite famous, actually.  I'm talking worldwide famous.  The first is Superman, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and published ever since by DC Comics. 
Of course everyone knows Superman is a super hero.  That's where the term "super hero" comes from.  You probably even knew that.  But he mashes super heroes and science fiction better than any other character in literature.  In fact, in terms of money generated over time, I'm willing to bet Superman is the all-time champion of genre mash-ups.  He is a "strange visitor from another planet!" as the opening naration in the old TV show with George Reeves informed us.  An alien visitor?  What's more sci fi than that?  What enables Superman to be super is the yellow sun of earth.  On Krypton he would have been no more super than Jimmy Olson is here.  Yes, the science is a little on the iffy side but that's okay.  So are warp drive and lightsabres and we accept those.
And the last example is one I guarantee not many people would consider a genre mash-up and I'm about to prove how wrong they are.  I'm talking about that most beloved of holiday classics, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Stay with me.  It was first published in 1843 and it is ostensibly a story about personal redemption that happens to take place during the Christmas holiday.  But it's way more than that.  Take, for instance, the title page of the novel:

It says it right there:  "A ghost story of Christmas."  Since ghosts belong squarely in the horror/supernatural genre, it has just become much more than a simple holiday fable.  Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his old partner and mentor, and then he sees three more ghosts before the story ends.  But there's more.  It is also undeniably a sci fi story.  I'll prove it. 
The three ghosts employ a plot device that is 100% science fiction:  time travel.  They take Scrooge into the distant past and the far future.  The Ghost of Christmas Present is the most sci fi of them all because not only does it take Scrooge ahead 12 hours to Christmas morning at Bob Cratchett's house, it even takes Scrooge a full year into the future to the following Christmas.  And this is where the sci fi elements of A Christmas Carol become in-yo-face.  It shows him an alternate future.  Scrooge discovers that Tiny Tim has not survived the year.  But at story's end, when Scrooge has his change of heart and joins the Cratchetts for Christmas dinner, Dickens flat-out tells us Tiny Tim will survive.  Time travel, alternate realties and ghosts define this novel as way more than a run of the mill drama.  It's a genre mash-up of the first order.  Good job, Mr. Dickens.
Now onto that watering hole I mentioned.  First round's on you. 



Friday, May 3, 2013

Funny Books? Not Always

I started reading comic books when I was 5 years-old, maybe even earlier.  I'm not entirely sure.  I also don't know which comic book I read first.  It was most likely a mainstream super-hero title like Superman, Amazing Spider-Man or maybe Justice League of America, bought by one of my grandfathers.  Again, I have no clear memory of this.  What I can tell you is whatever that first comic was it sparked an interest in the art form that has never abated.  I've been reading and collecting comics ever since.  How many do I have?  Glad you asked.  I'm closing in on 18,000.  What's the collection worth?  No idea.  I'm not interested in selling it so the question is irrelevant.  Moving on...
Comics encompass all genres.  Most people think of super-heroes when they hear the term "comic book" but that's selling the art form short.  Comics have included romance, western, sci fi, crime, funny animal, humor, war and, of course, horror.  The greatest of the horror comics were published in the 1950s by EC Comics, the brainchild of publisher William Gaines.  EC's horror output included classic titles like Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.  Sadly, I possess only a handful of these titles in collected form.  The originals are almost impossible to find and cost more than my car. 

In 1954 the Comics Code Authority was formed.  It was a self-censorship entity that decided, all on its own, that horror comics were no longer allowed.  This was in response to charges brought by Dr. Frederick Wertham that comics caused juvenile delinquency.  His findings, compiled in the book Seduction of the Innocent, were based on nothing more than his opinions.  (He demanded to know, for instance, why Batman, Robin and Alfred lived in the same house without any female companions.  Were  DC responded by actually killing Alfred and replacing him with Aunt Harriet!  Now that's horror!)  And yet the United States Congress went right along with him.  It helps if you remember this was the era of McCarthyism and Communist witch hunts.  Americans were seeing enemies in every shadow and the rise in teen crime had to be blamed on something.  Comic books proved to be an easy target.  So the Code did away with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc.  It also did away with EC, more or less.  With the significant exception of Mad Magazine they were pretty much gone from the shelves.     

                                          Looks like good old-fashioned harmless entertainment to me.  
A quick digression:  The decade of the 1950s really was a great time to be a horror fan.  In addition to the brilliance that was EC's line there were literally dozens of wonderful horror movies to take in.  Most of the monsters/bad guys in these movies had some connection to science gone awry or outer space.  They had great titles like The Magnetic Monster and It! The Terror From Beyond Space and the like. We can enjoy these movies now but I wish I could have seen them first-run in the theatre.  It must have seemed like a new one was coming out every week.  End digression.

Fast forward to 1971.  The Comics Code, for reasons known only to them, decided horror comics were okay.  There were still restrictions on content but the first cracks in the dike had appeared.  The two biggest publisher at the time, Marvel and DC, leaped with both feet into the horror market, with mixed results.  Since this was around the time I started reading comics these titles hold a certain nostalgic charm for me so I can't badmouth them too much.  Objectively I can say some were very good and some sucked.  It happens.  But I like them all, even the lousy ones. 
DC had titles like Swamp Thing and The Witching Hour.  Marvel countered with Ghost Rider and Tomb of Dracula, among others.  Marvel even whipped up their own swamp monster, the gloriously named Man-Thing.  In 1975 when Marvel started putting out Giant-Size issues of most of their series, we were treated to the single greatest title in the history of comics:  Giant-Size Man-Thing.  And no one at Marvel seemed to think anything of it.  Or maybe they did and laughed when no one was looking.  See for yourself:
                    Yes, that's number FOUR.  As in, there were 3 issues with the same title published before this.
Here are some of the other horror titles from the era.  Some had a superhero slant to them, especially Ghost Rider but I don't blame the publishers for hedging their bets a little.  The fact is super-heroes were selling and not many people were sure this new wave of horror titles would catch on. 

A lot of these horror-based characters operated in their own dark corner of their respective universes.  Some, like Morbius the Living Vampire, first appeared in the mainstream Mavel Universe by showing up to fight Spider-Man in his first appearance.  This was both common and rare at the same time.  It was common because Spidey was Marvel's most popular character at the time and meeting him was a rite of passage for most new characters.  It was Marvel's way of letting the readers know this character was officially part of their shared universe.  It was rare, however, because horror characters did not usually show up in super-hero titles.

                                                  Yes, Spidey has six arms here.  Don't ask.     

I don't know what comics readers at the time thought of these new entries in the genre.  Like I said I was a newcomer when these were being published.  As far as I knew there had always been horror comics.  I didn't learn until years later that they were all pretty new concepts at the time.  So my timing was excellent.  Bully for me!

Once the Comics Code Authority opened the door a little they were never able to close it again.  Horror comics didn't last too long, though.  By the late-70s most of them were already gone.  A few titles soldiered on but for the most part the horror renaissance in comics was over.  Which is a shame because the Comics Code Authority itself gave up the (ahem) ghost a few years ago.  And it couldn't have died soon enough for me.  Some of the horror characters remain and they continue to pop up in stories from time to time.  Swamp Thing has his own monthly title again but it's not remotely a horror comic.  There are, however, several quality horror comics being published right now.
Avatar has the comics rights to Romero's Night of the Living Dead and they're having a blast with it.  The cover of this issue would fit right in with what EC was doing 60 years ago:
The stories are definitely not for children.  These are as R-rated as you can get.  Nothing wrong with that, just pointing it out in case you're considering letting little Johnny or Suzi read this.  It's probably not a good idea.  There's lots of blood and gore and lots of profanity.  Just like the movies.
Of course, the current champion of horror comics is The Walking Dead.  Created by Robert Kirkman and published through Image Comics, it's the success story of the early-21st century in terms of horror comics.  Everyone knows about the AMC series but not everyone knows it's based on a comic book.  The show's credits say it is "Based on the graphic novel", as if linking it to the term "comic book" somehow diminishes it.  Nonsense.  If the comic was good enough for Frank Fucking Darabont it's good enough for you, too. 

(I'm pretty certain Frank Darabont's middle name isn't "Fucking" but I capitalized it anyway.  My editors are shaking their fists at me and twirling their handlebar mustaches as you read this.)  Fans of the show should really give the comic a shot.  It's different enough from the series that you won't know what's going to happen everytime you turn the page.  Some characters who died on the show are still alive in the comic, and some who are still alive on TV shuffled loose the mortal coil long ago.  And some characters from the show have never appeared in the comic at all.  And (GASP!) Daryl Dixon is one of them!  It's as unpredictable as the AMC series and it deserves your attention.

The good news is that most of these series have been collected into trade paperbacks.  They're easy enough to find and not terribly expensive.  Marvel publishes their Essentials line of black-and-white reprints and some of the horror series actually look better that way.  Check them out if you're so inclined.  
There is a perception that comics are an inferior form of entertainment and they are often looked down upon.  Sometimes it's deserved but not always.  While the horror comics of the 70s and 80s weren't always of the highest quality there were others that came before them and after them that are truly wonderful.  If you're a fan of all things horror you should try to track down some of these titles.  The Crypt Keeper will appreciate it.   


Monday, April 29, 2013


I don't believe in ghosts.  There, it's out.  I'd like to.  Most of my favorite horror novels and movies are about ghosts.  I've written stories about ghosts and I've tried to make them scary and entertaining.  But in terms of personal belief, yeah, I can't buy into it.  I admit that sometimes freaky shit happens and the explanation is elusive.  You know someone who claims their dog stares into an empty corner of the house and barks and whines.  It's weird and it can creep you out and it's difficult to explain.  Maybe their house is haunted.  Or maybe their dog is just stupid.  I don't know. 
There are any number of "reality" shows that feature people on the hunt for ghosts.  I admit I've watched a few episodes myself.  It's either a psychic who wandewrs around the house and then "senses" something in the atic or the basement; or it's guys with infrared cameras wandering around an abandoned sanatarium or prison and they hear weird noises and down the corridor a shadow passes in front of the camera.  Then at the end of the show it's always the same thing.  "Well, Mr. Jones, we found some interesting stuff here.  You might have a ghost but we can't be sure."  Gee, thanks for the help. 
Here's the thing about these reality shows and why I don't believe anything they say.  If they caught real footage of a ghost it would be all over the news.  The news networks would run the clips ad nauseum and the super religious would flock to the spot and hold prayer vigils.  You'd have psychics all over the place vying to be interviewed by CNN.  And of course you'd have the opportunists vowing to exorcize the ghost.  For a fee, naturally.  And all this would happen six months before the episode aired.  Since that breaking news never breaks why would anyone waste their time watching the show itself?  If they had actually found concrete evidence of a ghost you'd know about it already.
A quick digression:  This is precisely the same reason I never bother with shows about the search for bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or werewolves or whatever else they're searching for that week.  If someone had footage of bigfoot we'd know about it instantly.  Hence there's no reason whatsoever to watch these shows.  They have failed at their stated goal and you know that before you even tune in to the thing. 
All this is not to say that ghost stories aren't cool.  They are.  Or they can be if handled properly.  Dorothy Macardle's 1942 novel Uneasy Freehold is excellent.  It's the basis for the 1944 movie The Uninvited starring Ray Milland.  The movie is great, too. 
Peter Straub wrote the too-obvious-to-be-a-title novel Ghost Story in 1979.  Two years later it was made into a movie with John Houseman, Doughlas Fairbanks, Jr. and Fred Astaire(!).  Both the novel and the movie are excellent. 
And of course we have the mother of all ghost stories, Henry James's masterpiece The Turn of the Screw.  Numerous adaptations have made it to the screen, almost all titled The Innocents.  The best is the one with Deborah Kerr from 1961. 
The Overlook Hotel is crawling with ghosts in Stephen King's The Shining.  Both the novel and the movie are fantastic.  The TV miniseries from a few years ago is okay but simply not in the same class as either the Kubrick film or the source material.
There are more.  The Sixth Sense (1999) is brilliant with a twist ending worthy of Rod Serling.  And speaking of Serling there were numerous episides of The Twilight Zone and a few from Night Gallery that dealt with ghosts.  I'm not gonna list them all here but suffice to say Serling knew how to spin a good ghost yarn. 
My novel The Last Battleship featured (SPOILER ALERT!) a kind of hybrid ghost/zombie menace in the form of the crew of the USS Louisiana.  My third novel, Dark Annie (release date to-be-determined but should be sometime in October 2013) is a straight-up ghost story.  Why?  Because I really do love a good ghost story.  With all due respect to zombies my favorite type of story in horror fiction is the ghost story.  I think it's because ghost stories are just so cool.  I just wish I could believe in ghosts.