Thursday, October 22, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Evil Dead II (1987)

For our podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we decided to watch the movie Evil Dead II, the second film in the Evil Dead series for of our usual horror-themed month of October. It's been a long time since I saw this one--I think I saw it in high school, as part of a Hollywood Video double feature with the original, in the late 1990s. I remember enjoying the film then, especially in comparison to the execrable original film with its gouts of oatmeal-gore. Considering how Starz is putting out a new television series called Ash vs. the Evil Dead, this was a rather appropriate time to do the movie...

How did it hold up? Well, here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda visit a seemingly abandoned cabin in the woods for a romantic weekend, but it turns out a professor of ancient history was using it as a site to translate an ancient evil book bound in human skin. Ash plays a recording of the incantation and unleashes all sorts of slapstick-undead horrors just as the professor's daughter, her boyfriend, and a couple locals show up completely coincidentally. All of them must now survived the murderous (and sometimes hilarious) horrors of the Deadites...

The Good

*The movie avoids the "a bunch of friends go to the cabin in the woods to smoke weed and have sex" cliche of 1980s horror films. Instead it's Ash and his girlfriend basically breaking into someone else's cabin for the weekend and then the actual owners (or at least their relatives) show up, not knowing the craziness Ash accidentally unleashed.

*Ash's first encounter with the undead is a mildly-effective "Jump Scare." Given how inured I am to most horror films, it's probably a lot scarier for most people.

*At times Ash is remarkably genre-savvy. He knows sticking around a haunted cabin where a scientist recited incantations from a book bound in human skin is a really bad idea and at first chance he gets the hell out of there. Or let me rephrase that--he tries.

*There's a fair bit of good slapstick humor in this one, including a lengthy sequence involving Ash's hand getting possessed. Who's laughing now indeed? :)

*Who knew the book A Farewell to Arms could be so amusing? You'll laugh when you see the context.

*I never really thought about what might happen if you soak a room's sole light source in blood...

*There's a nice bit of Reality Ensues when Ash starts blasting around with the shotgun. Sometimes you don't know where the shells will end up.

The Bad

*The first twenty or thirty minutes of the film really aren't that entertaining. To be blunt, a lot of the film just isn't entertaining, although there are certainly some good moments.

*Ash's first killing of a possessed character could be played for either horror (it's a brutal necessity that traumatizes him) or comedy (slapstick violence, hammy overreaction to the deed). It doesn't really work as either.

*The film's sense of time is wonky. It doesn't take long for Ash and Linda to get to the cabin from the Scary Ominous Bridge (TM), but Ash leaves the cabin the morning after they arrive and arrives there just in time for the sun to set?

*In the scene where Ash sees a character reanimated after having been possessed and killed, they've only been dead a day or two, if not just a few hours. It would have been better (and likely much cheaper) to have the original actor wearing zombie makeup reviving and misbehaving rather than having a mediocre claymation monster.

*For someone who starts out showing some intelligence, Ash displays some fairly stupid behavior at times, especially later in the film.

The Verdict

Not as funny as I remember and it hasn't aged very well. I wonder if the remake is more technically adept, although a friend of mine tells me it's really, really gory. Unless you really like 1980s horror, 1980s comedies, or combinations thereof, don't bother with this one. 5.0 out of 10.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Thinking of Starting a Newsletter...

I've been reading some advice on writing and marketing's ones books (like Your First 1,000 Copies) and listening to the Sell More Books Show podcast. Something that's come up a lot is to have an e-mail newsletter. My writing-group cohort Alex Hughes has a newsletter, as does small-press rock star (I didn't come up with that moniker) William Meikle.

I worked with MailChimp for a film-company internship and later for a client not long ago, so I've created an account with them. However, I have not yet sent anything out via said newsletter, in part due to a bunch of real-life obligations.

(I had the first inklings of the idea months if not years ago, but never got around to it. Let this be a life lesson--if there's a period in your life where you've got a lot of free time, don't waste it. I could have had the template set up by now and just plugged in new stuff as I went along.)

So, dear readers, I've got a question. What kind of content would you like to see in a hypothetical e-mail newsletter from me? The only ideas I've got so far are news articles gleaned from Twitter or from my blog (probably lots of movie reviews), and links to the film podcast I'm part of when new episodes appear. Alex has included original short fiction in her newsletter, which is certainly an option. Your First 1,000 Copies recommends I focus on what's in it for the reader, but a lot of the ideas there (like free workout tips) don't seem relevant to the content I can easily produce or the audience I'd like to build.

Let me know. I can take suggestions via comments on this post or via Twitter at @MatthewWQuinn.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Congo (1995)

Well, for the latest episode of the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 1995 film Congo, adapted from the Michael Crichton novel. Yours truly served as the humble defendant. So did this adventure in diamond prospecting in the heart of Africa hold up? Listen to the podcast here and find out...

The Plot

After an expedition to find blue diamonds that could revolutionize the communications industry is mysteriously massacred, TraviCom head honcho R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker) dispatches Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney) to search for survivors--including his son Charles (Bruce Campbell)--and find the diamonds too. Along the way she joins forces with Dr. Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) and the gorilla Amy, whom he taught to speak using a bracelet that translates sign language. Also on the expedition is Herkemer Homulka (Tim Curry), a Romanian philanthropist who is much more than he seems, and Charles Munro (Ernie Hudson), "a great white hunter...who happens to be black." They make their way to the lost city of Zinj, only to encounter grisly horror...

The Good

*Although I've complained about film and television adaptations of books deviating from the source material many times before, simplifying the book's complicated plot actually made sense. If they wanted to keep the entire storyline--which included a race with a rival European-Japanese team and some material about white mercenaries in Africa--it would have made more sense to make it a one-season-and-done television series the way some British shows are. Either that or it'd be something resembling The Lord of the Rings, which they might not have had the budget for.

(Oh but that would have been cool, especially if the two rival expeditions physically clash with each other the way the Fellowship of the Ring and the Uruk-Hai do and the perils of man and nature were cranked up to 11.)

*The actors generally do a good job. Ernie Hudson is the most entertaining as Munro, while Linney and Walsh performed well too.

*The opening is generally well-done and gets to the "expedition gets massacred" pretty quickly. The eyeball sequence is straight from the book.

*There are some good quick bits of exposition, including Dr. Ross's and Charles' previous relationship--they were engaged ("I almost married him!"). If it weren't for the melodrama afterward, that would have been great. Amy's nightmares are also explained quickly without undue info-dumping, as well as a tribal revolt breaking out in Zaire.

*There are some nice little bits of comedy, including an African security official who doesn't know who Kafka is (and gets very upset), a corrupt African soldier, the "great white hunter" joke, and, "I don't have a price. I'm not a pound of sugar, I'm a primatologist." Yes, I liked that line. Here's a YouTube video of the detention scene, which has a lot of the comedy.

*The film has a very good orchestral score.

*Amy is played by a person in a suit, but she generally looks good and not, well, fake. The gorilla suit can even manage facial expressions.

*Once they actually get to Africa, everything moves along at a nice quick pace. It's never boring.

*Instead of Checkov's Gun, we have a Checkov's airplane. :)

The Bad

*The National Geographic-style opening of the film in which we see a bunch of picturesque shots of the African savanna and are gradually introduced to the original expedition rolling in aboard their vehicles got to the vehicles a little too slowly. They could've saved a couple minutes depicting the vehicles from the get-go.

*Although the opening is generally well-done, Bruce Campbell's scream of terror was not well-delivered.

*Back in Houston when the TraviCom head people learn about what happened to the expedition and decide to send a follow-up team, things get melodramatic. Dr. Ross is apparently still touchy about Charles and since she was engaged to him, she's probably privy to a lot of father-son issues, but it didn't come off well. Openly berating and threatening one's employer doesn't seem like a good way to stay employed, let alone get sent off on an important expedition. Maybe if the senior Travis had thrown some zinger about how he wouldn't put up with that if she weren't almost his daughter-in-law that might be better. Dr. Ross is a cool character (in both senses of the word) generally, but on the subject of Charles she gets really irrational and destructive.

*The senior Travis is a cranky jerk with few to no redeeming qualities. A bit two-dimensional.

*There's what comes off as an obvious product placement for the game Doom--yes, the original--pretty early in the film.

*Tim Curry's Romanian accent sounds rather annoying. Fortunately you get used to it pretty quickly.

*Why is the ape flying in the passenger area with everybody else? Maybe it was a private charter and so the ordinary rules don't apply, but I would think animals would generally go with cargo.

*The scene where some natives perform a ritual to recall the soul of a catatonic man goes on for too long. The point--a nice bit of local color and "we're not in Kansas anymore"--is made pretty quickly, but the ritual goes on for at least twice as long as it needs to.

*A character is wounded but dies for no apparent reason. Another character who survives in the books dies in the film. Not sure why they needed the change--either way, he's still not going to be joining the group, nor would the group stop for him.

The Verdict

A nice jungle adventure to see once. 8.0 out of 10.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: The Hellbound Heart (1986)

I've recently become interested in the Hellraiser franchise after many years, writing a review of the first movie and how I would have done the movie. The first movie, for those not familiar with the franchise, was inspired by the novella The Hellbound Heart. Recently my friends James R. Tuck and Danielle Tuck started a new podcast and they gave a glowing review to The Hellbound Heart. Danielle strongly recommend I buy it, so here goes...

The Plot

A solid but boring man named Rory (Larry in the film) and his bored wife Julia move into a house previously owned by Rory's late grandmother and now jointly owned by Rory and his brother Frank. Frank, however, has been missing for some time. A selfish hedonist, Frank had grown bored with the usual debauchery and sought out a certain puzzle box rumored to contain wonders and pleasures beyond human comprehension. Unfortunately, he should have been careful what he wished for, because the demonic Cenobites' idea of pleasure and his don't really overlap.

Freed from Hell by an accident--albeit as a skeletal skinless monster--Frank manipulates Julia (with whom he had a brief affair before her wedding to Rory) into murdering people for him to feed on and regenerate his body. Unfortunately for him, Rory's friend Kirsty is onto them...

The Good

*Barker is very good at writing vivid, descriptive scenes. The story opens with Frank solving the mystical puzzle box has a lot of really good descriptive imagery, including a bare light-bulb pulsing with the mournful toll of the bell that heralds the Cenobites' arrival. Another scene from Frank's point of view in which he recounts his year of sensual torment at the Cenobites' hands is also well-done.

*The multiple scenes from Frank's point of view confirm my earlier observations from my film review. Frank is so totally depraved that even a year of torment in Hell by beings he summoned thinking they'd bring him new extremes of pleasure hasn't turned him from his course. Rather than being sobered by the experience and wanting to turn over a new leaf, Frank definitely intends to resume his immoral lifestyle once he's freed. And some of his thoughts toward Julia suggest that the whole "pleasure that becomes pain and pain that becomes pleasure" that this story's Hell is full of have given him some ideas about what to do with her.

I'm reminded of the distinction commentators on 2 Corinthians 7:10 make over "godly sorrow" vs. "worldly sorrow." Frank regrets his bad decisions that lead to him being kidnapped by a bunch of extra-dimensional leather freaks but has no sorrow for his bad behavior generally. This behavior, among other things, caused great grief to his parents, included him cuckolding the brother from whom he was once inseparable, apparently caused him to run up a lot of debt, and even involved smuggling heroin and doing "small favors" to get his hands on the puzzle box. These "small favors" are implied to be immoral or criminal in nature, but he doesn't regret those even though he clearly regrets getting involved with the Cenobites. He is clearly, totally 100% selfish.

*I saw many scenes, concepts, etc. that I recognized as the nuclei of scenes from the movie. Obviously they'd be there since the movie is an adaptation of the book, but Barker, who was in charge of the whole movie, was able to develop his imagery, story, ideas, etc. more fully.

*The book introduces the idea that the prisoners of the Cenobites are aware of and interact with each other. Frank apparently learned of the possibility of escape from "whispers" of other inmates. I don't remember this in the original film, although you see a bit of in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (the only sequel Barker was involved with).

*At 164 pages long, it's a pretty quick read.

The Bad

*Some of the scenes are far more bony and could easily be elaborated on. This is especially disappointing considering the vivid description he employs elsewhere in the story. Contrast the opening damnation of Frank Cotton with Kirsty's initial confrontation with the Cenobites in the hospital. The former scene is very vivid and well-described, but the latter is, well...

“You can’t do this,” she insisted. 

It moved toward her nevertheless. A row of tiny bells, depending from the scraggy flesh of its neck, tinkled as it approached. The stink it gave off made her want to heave. “Wait,” she said. 

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.” 

“The box,” she said in desperation. “Don’t you want to know where I got the box?” 

“Not particularly.” 

“Frank Cotton,” she said. “Does the name mean anything to you? Frank Cotton.”

The Cenobite smiled. “Oh yes. We know Frank.” 

“He solved the box too, am I right?” 

“He wanted pleasure, until we gave it to him. Then he squirmed.” 

"If I took you to him . . .”

"He’s alive then?” 

“Very much alive.”

"And you’re proposing what? That I take him back instead of you?” 

“Yes. Yes. Why not? Yes.” 

The Cenobite moved away from her. The room sighed. “I’m tempted,” it said. Then: “But perhaps you’re cheating me. Perhaps this is a lie, to buy you time.”

“I know where he is, for God’s sake,” she said. “He did this to me!” She presented her slashed arms for its perusal. 

“If you’re lying”— it said—“ if you’re trying to squirm your way out of this—” 

“I’m not.” 

“Deliver him alive to us then . . .” 

She wanted to weep with relief. 

“. . . make him confess himself. And maybe we won’t tear your soul apart.”

Compare the above, in which I only got the vaguest notions Kirsty was frightened or the Cenobite was something terrifying, with the movie adaptation below. The Cenobites make their appearance at around five minutes in...

The movie scene displays Pinhead in his dark grandeur and shows Kirsty's visceral terror. The sequence in the books is so monotone, especially in comparison.

*It has some of the same flaws of the film, including a lack of on-screen confrontation between the undead Frank and his brother.

*The e-book is rather expensive for a novella, around $6 or so. I've gotten full-length novels like Marko Kloos' FRONTLINES novels Terms of Enlistment, Lines of Departure, and Angles of Attack for a fair bit less. Is Barker's talent worth the higher price? It's good, but worth that much? The Hellbound Heart isn't even a full novel.

*I liked the film's dynamic of Kirsty as Larry's daughter and Julia as her stepmother better than Kirsty as a platonic friend of Rory (who seems to have romantic feelings for him) who doesn't like Julia. Kirsty knowing Frank as her uncle is a lot less forced than Kirsty having met Frank during the preparations for Rory and Julia's wedding four years before. The familial dynamic also makes Frank even more revolting, as in the films he seems to have incestuous intentions toward his own niece.

The Verdict

Generally good and a worthy seed for which the very creepy tree known as the film Hellraiser grew. However, it's not as good as its reputation, even though it does have a surprisingly high amount of reread value.

8.0 out of 10.