Monday, October 16, 2017

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"IT" Knows What Scares You

2017; written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman ; directed by Andy Muschietti

When he set out to write IT, Stephen King says he considered the book his "final exam in horror."

By that point in his career King had already published twelve novels and numerous short stories, putting a contemporary spin on many well-established horrors (vampires, werewolves, psychic phenomena, haunted places) as well as creating many new ones (possessed cars, apocalyptic epidemics, rabid dogs) that would go on to terrify and influence two generations and counting of writers, comic book artists and filmmakers.

IT's 1138 pages are a compendium of horror tropes we've come to know and fear--a small town with dark secrets, an ancient evil that preys on children, a gang of bullies, a gallery of monsters, torrents of gushing blood, a weird old house, a giant spider, and a creepy clown named Pennywise who orchestrates the whole thing from his home deep in the sewers of Derry, Maine.

Capturing this sprawl on screen was first attempted in a two-part television mini-series that turned out to be more fondly remembered than it was received in 1990. Now, twenty-seven years later (coincidentally the same time between IT's fabled appearances) comes a new incarnation: the big-screen, big-budget adaptation.

Awareness for the remake has been intense, thanks to anticipation on the part of King's and the book's fans, and a clever marketing plan that's been doling out sneak peeks and advance notices since at least this spring. And it's worked. During IT's first four days in theaters the film has already scared up $117 million, making it the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, with the biggest single-day ticket sales. IT is now on track to become the highest-grossing Stephen King film of all time.

So, yeah. Big book + big movie = big money. But should you see it if you already haven't been shoveled in by all the hype and excitement?

IT's screenwriters wisely cut King's epic right down the middle, severing the first half--which covers the origins of the teenaged Loser's Club and their first showdown with Pennywise--from the second--when they return to face the horror again as adults. Had the film turned out to be a box office dud, it could have existed perfectly well without a sequel, though that's almost assured now, given the early success.

Director Andy Muschietti has updated King's 1950s setting to the late eighties, though the nostalgia reads as more timeless than period-specific. Interiors have an aged and dingy feel, and the props (especially the ever-present bicycles) look like holdovers from a much earlier time--appropriate for a film and town where more than a hundred years of dark history is ever-present.

Where IT feels completely up to date is in its technical details. The sound design places odd effects throughout the auditory space, creating the uneasy sense that something is coming without ever revealing where it's going to appear. The visual effects support the story without calling undue attention to themselves, and give Pennywise several awful, imaginative entrances and forms.

About Pennywise the dancing clown: the makeup and Janie Bryant's costume design conjure up a tattered Victorian-era Bozo that pays respect to Tim Curry's memorable TV portrayal. Bill Skarsgard ably handles a showy but precarious role that could have easily descended into ludicrousness, dragging down everything else with it.

The young cast (adults, when they appear, are oblivious, threatening and even monstrous) all turn in brave and sophisticated performances. Each member of the Loser's Club is a specific, identifiable type. But special praise goes to Sophia Lillis, who's luminous as Beverly, the group's sole female member, and Jeremy Ray Taylor, who emerges as its hopeful romantic.

Those familiar with King's canon--and who isn't?--will catch nods to it throughout the film. The Loser's Club and Derry's town bullies are reminiscent of Stand By Me's two warring groups of adolescent males; the geysers of blood that terrify Beverly call to mind both Carrie and Kubrick's gushing elevator in The Shining; the old house that sits atop the well to hell could moonlight as the Marsten mansion in 'Salem's Lot.

And that's where any complaints I might have about IT come in. King's work--on both the page and screen--is so well known, its mastery and popularity so universally acknowledged, that any elements of novelty and surprise go missing. IT feels familiar, in ways that are both wonderful and predictable. As King himself said, it's the final exam of horror, and as such, it necessarily represents material that he and a lot of us have already covered.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Big Mistake That Small Towns Make

The following news story has me a bit agitated, because I grew up in a small town not unlike--or that far from--Creston, Iowa.

Photo of 5 males in KKK hoods leads to discipline against students in Creston, Iowa

These high school students--presumably football players, based on the local high school's response--staged a KKK-themed photo shoot in someone's field. To nobody's surprise--except, perhaps, the five males'--the damned thing went viral. Which brings us here, now.

I saw it when a fellow former Iowan shared on Facebook and asked, "What do you make of this?"

Well, since you asked, fellow former Iowan, here's what I make of it.

I don't think this is necessarily an Iowa thing. It's much more of a small town thing. Having grown up in a small Iowa town, I can say that small towns historically have been closed-off places. Once you get past the surface hospitality you'll find hostility to outsiders and even their own who might be perceived as smart, creative, ambitious or non-conforming in even the most harmless way. A kid with even one of those qualities soon learns at the hands of his or her contemporaries that it's best to get out and go where they can find opportunities and like-minded souls.

Until recently the disapproval and banishment was only a strong undercurrent in small towns. But in Trump's America hate has become the new country-chic, and its subtle expression a lost art.

Here's what I think is at the heart of this: small towns suffer from deep-seated inferiority complexes. They see the rest of the world competing and creating, they know they don't measure up, and this drives them crazy. They'd be much happier if the rest of us would just sit down, shut up and accept the status quot. Or, barring that, get out of town and stop rubbing their faces in it.

It's classic bully behavior.

It's classic bullshit, too.

There's a great documentary on Netflix (and YouTube!) that sidles right up to these issues--If You Build It. Here it is.

Watch it--I promise it's well worth your eighty-five minutes. You'll see how a small, down-on-its-heels North Carolina town lures an idealistic young couple (an architect and product designer) to help revitalize their struggling burg and its education system, then systematically cuts them off at every turn. And yet the couple persists, and in the end the town takes everything they have to offer before making it impossible for them to continue their work there.

It reminds me of certain advertising clients I used to work with, who said they were all for "innovation" but just didn't have the stomach for new ideas.

The result is that smart, creative, ambitious people flee small towns in favor of places where they can live and work in peace. And who, with a brain in their head and a dream in their heart, wouldn't?

Meanwhile, these little towns are left to jockey for a few handfuls of small manufacturing and meat-processing jobs, wondering where all their strength and vitality went.

It went with those smart, creative, ambitious kids when they left for college and the world's greener, more welcoming pastures.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Both Sides Now

On Monday Vice News and reporter Elle Reeves released Charlottesville: Race and Terror, pulling back the curtain on the rallies in Charlottesville this past weekend.

It's a fascinating, must-watch examination of the events leading to and following the car attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others on Saturday afternoon. It also provides an in-depth look at the rally's participants, their philosophies and motivations.

Foremost among them is rally architect Christopher Cantwell, an alt-white (my own catch-all term) organizer who makes no apologies for his racism or attempts to soften its edges. He's comfortable both calling names and calling for violence in support of his goals, and seems especially proud of his mini arsenal and the rally's results, up to and including the death of Heyer.

Now. You've probably also seen Donald Trump addressing the nation on Saturday to say the violence in Charlottesville came from "many sides," amending his statement on Monday to denounce the alt-white, then doubling down on the "both sides" angle during a press conference on Tuesday.

There's a lot I could say about Trump's comments, but many have already said it far better than I'm able to. Instead, I'll just ask you to watch the video--if you haven't already--and then ask yourself: Which side scares you more?

On Wednesday the following video from Christopher Cantwell hit the internet. In it, a tearful Cantwell reveals his feelings about the reactions to both the Charlottesville rallies and his appearance in the Vice News episode.

"Our enemies just will not stop..." he says. "They've fucking assaulted us, they are threatening us all over the place." A few moments later: "I do not want violence with you. I'm terrified, I'm afraid you're going to kill me." And finally, "Everybody and their mother wants to fucking ruin my life."

Suddenly, Cantwell finds himself on the other side of hate-filled words and actions. I hope it will bring him to an understanding of how it feels to be threatened, persecuted and endangered.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

It's Here

It's always an exciting day when the contributor copies arrive. I've had the pleasure of opening those boxes a few times now, and I don't think it will ever get old.

Here's something else that happens: I start looking through the book, and am always excited and humbled at the same time that one of my stories is appearing alongside all those other great tales.

In this case, it's a short that got its start back in 2009 called "The Night Crier." In it, a recent widower is awakened in the middle of the night by a bird's cry. When he's finally had enough of the constant screeching he goes out to hunt the thing down and finds... something quite different from what he expected. Reviewer Irene Cole called it "simply brilliant," for which I'm grateful.

When I was a kid, this was the kind of book I'd save my allowance for the next time we drove to the mall in Des Moines. And once I had it in my hands, I'd start reading it the minute we got in the car to go back home.

I tore through those things, and though I enjoyed all the stories--why else would I be doing this now if that weren't the case?--there were always a few that stuck with me like a bad dream. But in a good way.

Though I haven't yet finished them all, it's not too soon to give a shout-out to those that have already made an impression. Among them are Thomas P. Balazs's "Waiting for Mrs. Hemley" and Josh Rountree's "Snowfather." Oh, and editor Eric J. Guignard's intros are pure Twilight Zone goodness.

The Horror Library, Volume 6 is available at Amazon.comBarnes & Noble and wherever fine nightmares are sold.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What Went Wrong with Flight 3411, by the Numbers

1. Federal law allows United Airlines -- and other air carriers -- to routinely overbook flights. This practice ensures that flights are full, or nearly so, maximizing airline profits.

2. If more passengers show up than there are available seats, the airline can ask for volunteers to be bumped to a later flight.

3. Bumping can also occur when an airline needs to transport employees needed on flights elsewhere.

4. Correction: Flight 3411 was not overbooked, as many outlets have reported. United simply needed the seats for four of its employees who were scheduled to work on flights originating from Louisville the next day.

5. United first offered the passengers $400, then $800. By law, United could have increased its offer by another $550, but did not.

6. In exchange for being bumped, passengers may receive a flight voucher worth up to $1350 and a hotel room, if they'll be delayed more than four hours.

7. Flight vouchers often carry numerous restrictions and blackout dates, making them difficult to use later and therefore, worth less.

8. Bumps typically happen before passengers are allowed to board the plane.

9. If not enough passengers volunteer to be bumped, United -- like other air carriers -- will select passengers for a later flight.

10. Passengers are not selected at random, but by a system that takes into account a passenger's age and any disability, the ticket price paid, their check-in time, frequent flier status and flight class.

11. This practice is buried in the small print of the carrier contract, which each passenger agrees to -- but rarely reads -- upon purchase of their tickets.

12. On Sunday night, April 9, at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, United required four seats on a sold-out flight to Louisville.

13. Passengers had already been seated when the request for volunteers was made.

14. The seats were required for United employees needed on flights leaving from Louisville.

15. United should have known those four seats were needed before -- not after -- passengers had boarded.

16. None of the seated passengers volunteered, so United selected four passengers using its age/disability/price/check-in/status/class formula.

17. Two of the selected passengers left without complaint. One left under duress. The fourth refused to give up his seat.

18. The fourth passenger was a 69-year-old doctor from Louisville, who said he needed to be at the hospital the next morning in order to see patients.

19. Update: The fourth passenger has been identified as Dr. David Dao, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

20. Update: Dr. Dao's medical license was suspended in 2005 following multiple convictions in a sex-for-prescription-drugs case involving one of his patients; it was provisionally reinstated in 2015.

21. United called for assistance from the Chicago Police Department and airport security.

22. Two Chicago police and an airport security officer in street clothes boarded the plane. The security officer forcibly removed the fourth passenger.

23. Update: The non-uniformed officer has been placed on probationary leave.

24. At least two other passengers recorded the incident on their phones, and later posted the videos to social media.

25. The videos show the passenger screaming, being removed from his seat, and dragged up the aisle, his mouth bloodied.

26. Several passengers can be heard protesting the passenger's treatment, though none moved to stop the passenger from being removed or volunteered to give up their seat for him.

27. Other passengers are shown doing their best to ignore the situation.

28. A later video shows the man re-entering the plane and running back toward his seat. He appears visibly disoriented, repeating, "I have to go home."

29. Yet another video shows the man at the cabin entrance, blood now streaked across the lower half of his face. In this one he repeats, "I have to go home. Kill me now."

30. A number of news outlets reported the incident on Monday morning, and the videos began going viral on social media.

31. Also on Monday morning, the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, released a statement apologizing for the need to "re-accommodate" these passengers, and stating that the airline was "reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."

32. Update: Ironically, Munoz was named PR Week's "Communicator of the Year" this past March, 17.

33. Update: After his first statement was criticized and an internal memo released in which Munoz stated that he stood behind United's employees, he made a second, more sincere apology to Dao and the flight's other passengers. In it, he promises an examination of United's policies with a report to come on April 30.

34. Update: A second story has emerged of a United flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. The first-class, full-fare passenger was told to give up seat in favor of a higher-priority passenger, and threatened with handcuffs if he didn't agree to move.

35. Since 2010, United, American, Delta and Southwest have earned more than $20 billion in profits annually, and own 80 percent of seats on domestic flights.

36. Passengers who find themselves in a similar situation have little recourse. According to The Atlantic, "In the last decade, class-action lawsuits have become endangered thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings that have undercut consumer rights. Disputes over fine-print regulation are increasingly likely to be settled in arbitration, without a judge or jury, where the deck is stacked against the individual plaintiff and the decisions are practically impossible to appeal."

37. Neil Gorsuch, formerly a justice for the United States Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit, has a record of siding with corporate interests over consumer rights in similar cases. He was confirmed as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court today, Monday, April 10, 2017.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Alien "Life"

2017; written by Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick; directed by Daniel Espinosa

Due to a happy confluence of a good friend's career worries and a free Friday afternoon, I found myself among Chicago's first regular Joes and Janes to see Life.

We came to the film with competing agendas. I was hoping for something that would recreate those sick feelings of dread unleashed by the original Alien. My buddy was simply hoping the storyline wouldn't step all over certain elements in his own upcoming project.

Based on the trailers and early reviews, we had plenty of reason to anticipate both. In Life, a group of astronauts aboard the International Space Station capture a probe returning with the first soil samples from Mars. The discovery of a single-celled organism first intrigues and then excites them, along with their eight billion fellow humans below. But the crew's enthusiasm soon turns to alarm when the organism begins to grow, attacks a fellow researcher, and escapes the confines of the lab. Making matters worse, the creature is basically a fast-moving bundle of extraterrestrial stem cells, making it all muscle, all nerve, all brain -- "a tough little son of a bitch," to quote Alien's science officer Ash.

But for all its homages to Alien (and there are plenty of them) Life doesn't quite hit all the hot buttons that its predecessor thumbed so well. Where each of the Nostromo's crew members is unique, with plenty of psychological and physical quirks to distinguish one from the other, the crew in Life is basically a good-looking bunch of polite space professionals whose biggest disagreements play out in exchanges of good-natured bickering. Even Jake Gyllenhall's character, a haunted-looking misanthrope who's been aboard the space station longer than anyone and is in no hurry to leave, decides to do the right thing for the sake of humankind.

When it comes to the monster, Life's semi-transparent starfish fails to stir the same Freudian anxieties that made H.R. Giger's penis-headed xenomorph famous -- even though it seeks to penetrate the human body just as much. (In addition to the trailer's shot of it slipping into Ryan Reynold's mouth, it's suggested in the film that the slimy little bugger will take any opening it can find.) The gore it unleashes is all courtesy of CGI, and lacks the visceral punch of Ridley Scott's practical effects.

I will give Life credit for not dishing up a happy ending. Not only does it end with a twist, but it's a dark and nasty one that only the most aware viewer will see coming -- and then only a few minutes before it arrives.

As we discussed things afterward over a beer, we were both happy we'd seen it. This film is fast-paced science-fiction fun. The visuals are stunning, with a which-way-is-up style that increases the claustrophobia; the music and sound design never let up, keeping the tension high. Though it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, it wasn't as bad as my friend had feared, either.

Monday, February 27, 2017

These Things Happen

Maybe you saw it last night, or maybe you saw it today when your social media feeds blew up with the news.

La La Land won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2017. Until it didn't and Moonlight was named the actual winner.

History was made, once again, right before our disbelieving eyes. It's one more improbable event in a century that's already seen more than its share. Bush v. Gore. 9/11. Steve Harvey's mistaken crowning of Miss Universe. The Cubs' World Series win. Trump's presidential election. The Patriots' Super Bowl upset.

This article from the New York Times does good job of explaining what happened, and this one from does an equally fine job describing how. If you watch the full video, keep your eye on the background action -- it's where all the interesting stuff happens as the truth slowly dawns on everyone involved. You can see the La La Land producers look around with increasing urgency; at one point Emma Stone mouths the words "Oh my god." There are howls of disbelief and celebrities pulling out their phones to take pictures, just like those tourists host Jimmie Kimmel invited to visit the show. Despite a great deal of awkwardness, everybody involved handled the situation with tremendous honor and grace.

What I have yet to see is anyone discussing the increasing frequency of events like these. I don't know what it means. It might not mean anything. All I can say for sure is that it feels like history is getting really good at hitting holes-in-one, and now it can't stop itself from showing off.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Unhappy Endings

A Cure for Wellness, 2017; directed by Gore Verbinski; written by Justin Haythe

Get Out, 2017; written and directed by Jordan Peele

Spoiler alert: In each of these films good triumphs over evil.

And that, in a nutshell, is my major complaint about A Cure for Wellness and Get Out. Both are good (and in the case of Get Out, great) films. But both would have benefited from darker endings.

More and more, it seems otherwise fine, dark-tinged films are abruptly switching gears in the third act for the sole purpose of delivering an upbeat ending with no lingering questions. No matter how dire the circumstances, in the end the main character(s) will breathe a happy sigh of relief, glad that that's finally over.

I call this phenomenon the Tyranny of the Happy Ending, and it's led to the downfall of several otherwise satisfying thrillers and horror films over the years.

Here's a short list off the top of my head: The young girl in The Monster defeats the titular terror with her mom's Zippo and an aerosol can of antiseptic spray. In It Follows, the teens dispatch the creeping menace using a combination of small electric appliances and a public pool. Mia Wasikowska walks away from all the horrors of Crimson Peak. The heroine of Hush corkscrews her assailant. The Visit concludes with a freestyle rap. The aliens in Signs are undone by a glass of water, on a planet that's 75% covered with the stuff.

Notice the trend? No matter how powerful the antagonist seems or how desperate things have become, good must prevail. I understand the reason: audiences, supposedly, prefer happy endings. But a happy ending is not always a satisfying one, especially when it requires the storyline to tie itself in knots or blow holes in the plot.

I'm not saying this always happens, but the exceptions are rare. Yes, Anya Taylor-Joy survived every vexation of The Witch and gave herself to Satan. The couple who decided to attend The Invitation survived only to see red lamps illuminating the California hillside. Elle Fanning was literally consumed in The Neon Demon. And Thomas Jane drove himself to the bitterest of ends at the conclusion of The Mist. 

I think A Cure for Wellness and Get Out would have done themselves -- and audiences -- a favor if they'd opted to join the latter group. Instead, each one pulls its punches. Rather than striking a mortal wound that would have stuck with their protagonists -- and audiences -- they allowed us to walk away relatively unscathed, breathing a sigh of relief, glad that that's finally over.

There's a moment in A Cure for Wellness, 15-20 minutes before the final frame, that would have made for an ideal ending. I can almost imagine an earlier version of the script concluding then and there, before a Hollywood overseer demanded both more spectacle and absolute neatness. Dean DeHaan is sitting on a bench, gazing emptily at the sun as it sets on the valley below and the mountains beyond. He's been through eighteen different kinds of hell at this point and the experience has changed him forever. "Why would anyone want to leave?" he asks his companion, something horribly absent in his voice. It's a chilling moment, and such a fitting end I was literally gathering my empties, sure the credits were about to roll.

Instead the film served up a fourth, superfluous act in which DeHaan's character somehow pulls himself together, conquers the villain and escapes with the film's heroine practically on his arm. Get Out, despite all its intelligence and nerve, finishes in much the same way.

And in my book, that's a mistake.

Here's why: I once had a playwriting teacher who told us never to end something with the old It Was Only a Dream! ploy. "You might as well tell your audience they've wasted their time," he said.

The Tyranny of the Happy Ending is the 21st century version of It Was Only a Dream! It doesn't matter how bad things get, how grim everything becomes, how impossible the situation seems. The hero will prevail in the end. He or she always does. Fear not. It was all a dream. Everything will work out just fine. You've wasted your time.

One of the great things about stories, one of the reasons they exist and endure at all, is that they teach us how to deal with life's challenges. And a story that so easily defangs its villain does us a disservice. Because life's challenges aren't always so easily defanged. Real life doesn't work that way, and and neither do some of the best stories, the ones we remember long after they're done.

The couple at the end of Cloverfield don't beat the monster that's laid waste to Manhattan; they die in a last-ditch effort to stop it. Mia Farrow doesn't turn her knife on all the devil worshippers in Rosemary's Baby; we watch as some dark maternal instinct takes control of her. Katherine Ross doesn't burn down the men's club at the center of The Stepford Wives; she stares at us blankly from a supermarket aisle. Duane Jones doesn't kill the zombies and save the girl in Night of the Living Dead; a Pennsylvania militia shoots him in the head. Joan Crawford doesn't concoct a plan to kill Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; she bakes in the hot sun while her mad sister dances for a camera that's no longer there.

As a result, we remember these films, long after they left the theaters. They stick with us -- you might even they haunt us -- not because everything worked out fine at the end, but precisely because it didn't.

There's a saying that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. Maybe that's why I prefer one type of ending over the other. Both teach us lessons. But the ones from unhappy endings stick around far longer than the others.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Your Winter Horror, as Ranked by the Geniuses at Thrillist

This is the kind of post that will have doubters claiming I'm secretly on the Thrillist payroll.

In truth, it came from clicking on a random Facebook post, compulsively reading the whole thing, admiring its accuracy and level of detail, then deciding to stop my work on an important project just so I could tell you about it here.

Before you click that link, know that this is not one of those articles you scan for your own state and then ditch. It's worth reading word for word, because the authors have put so much love and humor and well-observed detail into each entry. You'd swear both of them (and a few guest editors from specific locales) had endured a winter in every state.

So take a look. Read through the list. Feel superior to those beneath you (unless you're in Hawaii) and tremble in fear at those above (unless you're in Minnesota).