4 More Days til Halloween – presenting Kathe Koja

Posted: October 27, 2013 by StayFrosty in Books, Reviews

frostyKathe Koja is the author of The Cipher (1991), one of the books I read on random internet recommendation.  I am very glad I did, because it’s one of the weirdest, most interesting books I’ve devoured in a long time.  Koja won the Bram Stoker Award and the Locus Award for her first novel The Cipher, which was also nominated for the Philip K Dick Award.  It hasn’t been available for a long time, but is now available on e-book with a new forward by the author.

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Trust me when I tell you that The Cipher is difficult to explain.  See, there’s this hole in an apartment building, where would-be poet Nicholas lives, which has fascinated both him and his sometimes lover (and super-strange lady) Nakota.  The hole, which is dubbed “The Funhole”, is not living but alive all the same.  Whoever comes into contact with it is changed, has already lost their control.  It attracts more people, things get weirder.  I really can’t say much more than that.

Koja isn’t a straightforward horror author – many people say she isn’t a horror author at all.  But whatever she is, it’s exciting and interesting.  She’s been compared to a poet, and I can see where those comparisons are coming from.  The language in The Cipher isn’t straightforward, and there is a lyrical sense/nonsense to it.  But it’s such beautiful, terrifying lyrics.

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Kathe Koja

Koja’s works are divisive – I’ve seen glowing and scathing reviews for the same novel right next to each other, which only makes me want to read her work more.  We are lucky that Koja’s older works are coming back in e-book editions.  Her 1993 novel, Skin, was just released last month.  I am downloading it right now.  Books not yet in digital format can be purchased used on Amazon.

It’s not an easy read, but The Cipher – and Koja – are worth your time.

frosty         Mary SanGiovanni’s works are a fast read, and I mean that as a compliment.  They’re like a roller coaster, the one that shoots you out at 60 mph – strong starts, fast, intense ride, sometimes ends too soon, but looking forward to the next one.  As I haven’t read everything by SanGiovanni and am currently reading her novel Thrall (set in Jersey!), I’ll concentrate most of my attention on her Hollower trilogy, which encompasses The Hollower, Found You, and The Triumvirate, respectively.

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The works of Mary SanGiovanni

In the Hollower, something alien is stalking residents of Lakehaven, New Jersey. It can’t see them, hear them, or touch them, but it knows them — their fears, their insecurities, and their secrets. It knows how to destroy them from the inside out. And it won’t stop until each of them is dead. Dave Kohlar has never felt like he was good for anything. But when his sanity, his life, and the safety of his only family and friends is in danger, he has to look inside himself for a strength that his otherwordly enemy can’t touch — strength that can hopefully save them all. (plot synopsis shamelessly borrowed from Amazon).

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One of SanGiovanni’s strengths is that she’s not afraid to put her characters through the wringer – and what a wringer it is.  She doesn’t pull punches on the red stuff, the monsters, or in describing the mental and emotional toll fighting evil can take on normal people.  And that’s one of the things that make these novels so interesting to read.  These people pay a price, they suffer, they die to fight this thing.  Some of the characters return for the sequel(s), and I remember feeling so bad for them – haven’t they been through enough?!?!  But that’s the sign that the writer is doing their job, and she does it very well.  By book three I felt exhausted for some of these poor people, but I still wanted to keep reading.

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Mary SanGiovanni

She’s also not afraid to kill off major characters, which keeps the reader engaged, since they have no idea who may or may not be around by the end of the chapter, let alone the end of the series.  With so many books and movies telegraphing their every move, SanGiovanni keeps us guessing.

Mary SanGiovanni’s official website:  http://www.marysangiovanni.com/ (you can purchase all of her available novels and short stories here)

frosty       I remember the first time I saw Lewis Allen’s excellent 1944 ghost story The Uninvited – I was a young kid, around 10, I watched it on VHS and it scared the shit out of me.  Other than The Spiral Staircase (which scared me more than any other film ever, with the possible exception of Jaws, but that had extenuating circumstances…) I was so unsettled even long after the credits rolled.  And while the memory of that fear kept me from rewatching The Spiral Staircase until after college, I didn’t have the choice to rewatch The Uninvited – the movie vanished and was only available overseas.  It’s a crime that it took this long for such a quality film to make its way to the States, but I am so glad that it did.

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The story of The Uninvited (based on Dorothy Macardle’s novel “Uneasy Freehold”) starts in 1937, when London composer/music critic Roderick “Rick” Fitzgerald (Ray Milland, Dial M for Murder, The Premature Burial) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story) fall in love with Windward House, an abandoned seaside house. They purchase it for an unusually low price from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp).

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Pamela (Ruth Hussey) and Rick (Ray Milland)

Rick and Pamela meet Beech’s 20-year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), who lives with her grandfather a nearby town. Despite the fact that her mother died within its confines and her grandfather forbids her to enter it, Stella is deeply attached to the house and the sale of it upsets her greatly.  However, when Rick begins to fall for her, she finds her way into Windward House.

The Fitzgeralds’ are initially excited by the house and enjoy exploring all its nooks and crannies.  But it doesn’t take long to ruin their joy when they find an artist’s studio that’s much colder than the rest of the house and hear the heart-wrenching sobs of an unseen woman.  Though skeptical at first, Rick and Pamela soon accept that Windward House is haunted.

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I won’t reveal any more of the plot here, I want you to experience it for yourself.  What makes The Uninvited so different from the other ghost movies of its era is that it’s among the first Hollywood movies to show a haunting a supernatural event.  In this era ghosts were usually played for comedy or as misdirection for very human crimes.  Director Allen chooses to bring the ghosts out into the light – Pamela and Rick meet the ghost(s) head on.  There’s no doubt that the house is haunted.  It was an innovative choice for that time, and it still works today.

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The Uninvited retains the beautiful long shadows and dark contrast lighting common to the films of that era – DP Charles Lang was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Black and White Lighting in 1945.  Also much like the films of that period, the gore is essentially nonexistent.  But that doesn’t lessen the beauty or the quality of the film in any way.

I can’t overstate how excited I am that everyone can finally see this film!  And with Criterion behind the DVD and Blu-ray release, what a way to see it for the first time – or even the 10th time!  You need to see this movie, and you need to see it now.  You won’t be disappointed.

7 More Days til Halloween – presenting Joe Hill

Posted: October 24, 2013 by StayFrosty in Books, Reviews

frosty         At this point I assume most people in the horror field know about Joe Hill, and I hope everyone appreciates just how good he is at his craft.  The man knows how to write a story.  Short, long, graphic novel, whatever, he can do it all.  Hill currently has one short story collection (entitled 20th Century Ghosts) and three novels: Heart-Shaped Box (the first book of his I read), Horns and the recent release N0S4A2.   And I can say each one is worth reading.  I’d even go so far as to say they are all required reading for horror lovers.  I admit I didn’t think Horns was as incredible as the others, but it’s definitely still worth a read.   Hill can create such well-developed characters and stories, but it wasn’t until N0S4A2 when I saw he could create worlds with such scope and depth.

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Joe Hill, rocking the wind

So listen – I read a lot.  A lot.  And I’ve read tons of terrific stuff, but I can’t remember the last time I actually exclaimed aloud while reading a book.  Until N0S4A2.  As I neared the end of the novel, I reached a certain part (which I won’t reveal here, it’s too good to spoil) where I was so tense that when this particular event ended I gasped out loud with relief.  I didn’t even realize I was saying anything (or that I was so damned tense in the first place).  This sounds like nothing, but for me that’s huge.  And that’s the kind of novel this is.  One that makes you gasp aloud even when you’ve read so many things.  Hill isn’t afraid to make characters with major flaws, and yet you still want them to succeed, despite some unlikable/questionable choices they make.  But unlike other books and movies, I don’t feel that Hill used the plot hammer to say “EMPATHIZE WITH THIS CHARACTER”!  I just did.  Each character has so many complexities, and the places they’re taken to (both physically and emotionally) are devastating, beautiful, terrifying.

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READ. THIS. BOOK.

It’s no secret anymore that Hill is the son of Stephen King, and I’m calling shenanigans on the level of talent within that family.  That is ridiculous in the best way.  As JennyD wisely stated, this might be the first family where the lineage of literary terror can be passed down by bloodline and is totally legit.

Regardless of lineage, Hill is a kickass author in his own right and should be read as soon as possible.

8 More Days til Halloween – presenting Evil Dead (2013)

Posted: October 23, 2013 by Jenny Dreadful in Film, Reviews

jennyd              Since I saw Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead early, I totally could have had a review ready a long time ago. Look at me! I’m on top of things! I’m professional. Ughhhh I’m so lazy. Or busy. Let’s go with busy. Though I’m also a little surprised by the irrational levels of bile and praise folks were slinging back and forth since the film hit theaters and that’s given me pause. I’m sure I occasionally fail, but I have strong beliefs about not being that film critic that judges viewers with differing opinions, talks down to their audience, needs to be better than everyone else… get over yourself and enjoy the medium… but I would love to urge horror fans to calm down, accept the fact that the film isn’t perfect, and enjoy the blood-soaked practical fx wonderland that is Evil Dead. Together. Like a family.

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That’s a tough tagline to live up to

Evil Dead, a remake/sequel/homage/whatever to Sam Raimi’s 1981 original, had been in development hell for years. In 2011, Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures finally announced their choices of Alvarez (known for the short film Panic Attack) to direct, Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body, Juno) to work on the script, and a tentative lineup of good-looking twenty-somethings to play the leads. Oh yeah. And there’s no Ash.

People. Flipped. Out.

If you don’t know who Ashley “Ash” Williams is, I fear you’ve stumbled into the wrong blog, but let me help you out. Beloved genre icon Bruce fucking Campbell, won our hearts as Ash with his campy performances and one-liners in The Evil Dead and its over-the-top 1987 remake, Evil Dead II (the favored version for most fans). His transformation from frightened vacationer to chainsaw-wielding badass (to hilarious jerk in the third film Army of Darkness) is a delight. Ash is the heart of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. No doubt. So I can understand this reaction… if there’s no Ash, it’s not Evil Dead… but I strongly feel that leaving him out of the new film was the right decision. Go ahead. Just imagine them recasting the character. Pick an actor in their 20s working today, put him a blue shirt, cover him with fake blood and mud, and call him Ash. We would not accept him. We would tear this poor kid apart. Having Bruce Campbell, at 55, reprise the role is no good either unless it continues Army of Darkness (which IS in the works). No. Without even going into the remake vs sequel issue, this was the right call.

There was also the–at this point– predictable fanboy outrage about Diablo Cody’s involvement, which as a hardcore female horror fan, I find almost offensive. Although Megan Fox is usually blamed, I feel that Jennifer’s Body was a massive failure due to bad marketing choices. This wasn’t your typical T&A gory horror film aimed at dudes. This was smart insightful horror aimed at–HORROR OF HORRORS– high-school girls. (Unfortunately, the advertising was deceiving, chasing that “default” straight male audience, and the results were box office disaster.)  With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of a female writer and I was looking forward to seeing what her perspective would lend to Evil Dead. As it turns out, so little of her work appears in the final film that she doesn’t appear in the credits. So much for that.

Deep breath.  Now the review…

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This is probably going to turn out just fine…

frosty          The story doesn’t stray far from the plot of the original – kids in the woods find a cabin, a creepy book, read some words, bad shit goes down.  The only change is this time the story is played completely serious, without the wild, creepy but wacky fun that is a Sam Raimi film.  It’s an interesting choice, and I think a smart one.  Trying to replicate Raimi’s original would have been folly – that film is lightning in a bottle, and that can’t be remade.  Choosing the same exact story but an entirely different tone – that got my attention.  More remakes/re-imaginings/whatever the kids are calling it these days should think about this instead of just copying.

Instead of following Ash (as JennyD discussed earlier), our main character is Mia (Jane Levy), a former drug addict trying to go cold turkey.  To help her with this, her friends and brother take her to a cabin in the woods where she won’t be able to get a fix or leave to find one.  Not a bad reason for the isolation that is so often contrived in these films.  Once in the cabin, things go pretty much the way you’d expect.  A book is found, words get read, trees come to life, things get all sliced up and cut off and slashed – shit gets real.  To avoid spoilers from the few horror fans left who haven’t seen this movie, I won’t give away who’s possessed and who survives (hint – not too many people).

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Yep, totally normal behavior.

Evil Dead could be in the dictionary under “Grand Guignol”.  It is the goriest horror film in a theater that I’ve seen in a long time.  And that’s not a bad thing at all.  Even better, every drop of blood, splat of internal organs, or monstrous facial distortion is done practically, in camera.  Props to Fede Alvarez for choosing to go that route, because it definitely adds to the sense of realism.  I won’t say what’s in the last 15 minutes, but damn, gore lovers will rejoice.  It is insane.  I mean, you’ll be happy the whole time, but that ending will just warm your little blood-splattered hearts.  Production design is another strength, as is use of color, especially once things go nuts.

So much red stuff!

So much red stuff!

As a shout out to long-time fans, there are little touches from the original film in this movie, both hidden and overt.  I thought they were fun touches which also added a potential larger scope to the film, but I know others found it distracting or annoying.  Same with the after credits scene (which I will not reveal).

I’ve heard things like this movie is going to change the face of horror itself.  Do I think that’s the case?  No.  Do I think it’s a quality flick that I enjoyed, would watch again and can recommend?  Definitely.

9 More Days til Halloween – presenting American Mary

Posted: October 22, 2013 by StayFrosty in Film, Reviews

frosty       Ever since I saw the Soska sisters’ first feature, Dead Hooker in a Trunk (sometimes the title can also be the plot), I couldn’t wait to see what they did next.  These ladies knew horror, they weren’t afraid of gore or difficult subject matter and in every interview I read, I really respected their philosophy and their openness about the genre and their personal experiences working in it.  DHiaT was funny, gory, made on  the very cheap and showed so much potential.  So when I heard that they had made another film, titled American Mary and starring the very talented Katharine Isabelle, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.   I looked forward to seeing what they could do with some more money and some more time.

Oh man, was I not disappointed.

Trust me, I'm the doctor...

Trust me, I’m the doctor…

That American Mary is an incredibly accomplished film, which should be obvious to most anyone who watches it.  Before we even talk about the acting, the atmosphere and look of the film should be mentioned.  The film is beautiful to look at – the lighting and the cinematography are just gorgeous.  It seemed to me that the lighting would change when Mary changed.  The film starts out in with the bright whites and more traditional color palettes, and as Mary descends into madness, the light becomes grimy and sallow.  As Mary vacillates between confused and wounded student, badass doctor and sociopath, we get many shots that alternate between natural sunlight and ones lit only in stark neons. Purposeful or not (and with those ladies, I’m betting it was a plan), it’s impactful.

The Soska sisters cameo in American Mary

The Soska sisters cameo in American Mary

Our doctor is played by Katharine Isabelle, and she – as well as the rest of the cast – acquit themselves well, though Isabelle deserves special mention.  She’s in nearly every minute of the film, and had the actress chosen not been able to handle the subtle shifts within Mary that eventually explode into violent tendencies, the film would have been in major trouble.  Lucky for us all, Isabelle’s talent shines in all of her scenes, and she plays Mary on the razor’s edge of sanity without letting the character ever become a cliché or a caricature. And neither the Soskas nor Isabelle are afraid to show that Mary does become a monster, which is a pretty brave choice.  Lady slashers are very rare (Inside being perhaps the best recent example), and I’m so pleased that the Soskas allow Mary to become a villain.  Even though slashers like Mary are almost always played by men, all of these ladies make it clear that gender has nothing to do with being scary, crazy or intimidating.  Mary is all of these and more.

Katharine Isabelle as Mary

Katharine Isabelle as Mary

If it wasn’t clear by now, I thoroughly recommend American Mary and the Soska sisters.  It’s a very strong genre work by smart, fun, talented directors.  The learning curve for these ladies is incredible – the rise in quality from DHiaT to American Mary is pretty amazing.  I never thought I would say that I can’t wait to see See No Evil 2, but with the Soskas in charge, I’m totally in.

10 More Days til Halloween – presenting Evidence

Posted: October 21, 2013 by StayFrosty in Film, Reviews


      Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one before:  A group of rowdy young people go on a camping trip for one of a variety of reasons (in this case, making a documentary).  They drink, do a little pot, have some sex, but that’s all fun!  What could possibly go wrong?  Suddenly, there are noises in the woods!  Some want to investigate, some want to go home.  Noises continue, then escalate.  Mistrust, fear and death tear apart this group of friends.  WHAT’S IN THE WOODS?  WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THESE MILDLY LIKABLE TEENAGERS????

Chances are you’ve seen this premise about a thousand times.  And you’re probably groaning right about now, thinking about how this shit is played out.  And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.  When JennyD and I chose the found footage flick Evidence, to be honest, we chose it because it was free.  And I don’t think we would have grabbed it at all if we didn’t have a get-one-free deal going on.  The cover and the description just didn’t make it seem interesting at all.  But hey, free is free, so we took it home figuring if it sucked, we didn’t lose anything.

After about 10 minutes, we were pretty sure this movie was crap.  We were bored, the characters were unlikable, the plot not moving.  We talked about changing over to something that had a better chance of being more interesting.  But we decided to give it 15 more minutes in case it magically turned around.  And by the end of that 15 minutes, we were hooked.  Lucky for us, our first impression was entirely incorrect.  While not perfect, Evidence is a creepy, original take on the found footage genre, handling major plot twists without seeming false and making a variety of smart choices to overcome its lower budget.

Directed by Howie Askins and written by Ryan McCoy,  Evidence takes us on a first-person journey with a cast of relative unknowns, much like modern verite films such as The Blair Witch Project and Pararnormal Activity.  Our unknowns play characters that share their first names, (as in The Blair Witch Prject).  As previously stated, this group of four doomed campers (Ryan McCoy, Brett Rosenberg, Abigail Richie and Ashley Bracken) are not a likable crew – they range from jerk to bigger jerk to other kind of jerk.

What really helps to make this film is that you really think you know where it’s going (into the crappy pit of tropes that are many of today’s found footage movies), but around the halfway mark it takes a sharp left turn that I’m sure divided audiences.  Those of us here at FGSG found it an interesting choice, and a refreshing change from the norm.  The film is not without its mistakes, but on the whole is thoroughly watchable and a strong attempt to try something new in a played out sub-genre.

frosty     Welcome to The Haunting of Helena, directed by Christian Bisceglia and Ascanio Malgarini.  The story concerns Sophia, a single mother, and her daughter, Helena, who move into a new house that they later discover has a murderous history.  Don’t they all? When Helena loses her first baby tooth, strange events begin to occur in the house, and around Helena in general.  Her mother tries to protect her, but she is no match for the ghostly Tooth Fairy.

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No seriously, that’s what our villain is called.  There’s a fairly reasonable explanation, but I think the movie’s first failing is to use the silliest name for a ghost ever (aside from maybe The Easter Bunny.  Or, like, the Flag Day monster).  The Tooth Fairy moniker has been used before to represent a malevolent spirit, and it wasn’t scary then either.  Aside from that, the actual ghost figure in The Haunting of Helena is somewhat effective, particularly in the scenes where there aren’t any CGI additions.  That can be said for most of the effects in general – the best ones in this film are practical.

Helena and many, many teeth.

Despite the ridiculous name, the movie itself is interesting – it diverts from the traditional ghost story on a few occasions and brings in the possibility of mental illness in a believable way.  The actors portray their characters well, especially Sophia and Helena (yes, Helena looks like Sadako from The Ring series, but that annoyed me less than usual here).  There are some truly creepy setpieces – not everything works, but it’s worth a watch.  Just put that whole Tooth Fairy name out of your mind and enjoy the story.

frosty    Before I even start to review this movie, let’s all take a moment to reflect on titling your film “The Last” anything.  See, once you call something “the last (insert thing here, preferably scary), you’ve kind of given up your right for a sequel.  Hey, you called it the last, right?  Not in Hollywood, my friends!  There, you can have another Last Exorcism – which then makes the first one The Second-to-Last Exorcism?  What if there’s another sequel?  Sorry, We Really Thought That Other One Was the Last Exorcism?  I don’t mean to beat a dead (possessed) horse, it’s certainly not the only movie in the world with an unwieldy title.  So let’s talk about the actual film, and leave this title behind us.

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The Last Exorcism 2 follows returning character Nell (played again by Ashley Bell) as she tries to move on from the ordeal she experienced in the first film.  She moves into a halfway house with a shrink and a few other girls and tries to begin a normal life.  But Abalam, the demon who impregnated her in the first film (maybe with her consent, maybe not???), isn’t done with her yet.  Nell is hounded by Abalam and his followers at every turn.  They thwart her attempts at a normal life (including a possible love interest) and implore her to let Abalam back into her, because only he loves her.  Racy stuff, people.  Nell tries to resist, but she still has a small piece of the demon inside her, so she tries another exorcism (because the last one worked out really well).

The hilarity of this movie is that it’s essentially a will they/won’t they comedy, except it’s horror and one of the “theys” is a demon.  Let me into you, only I love you, only I have ever cared for you – if these words were spoken by a dude and not a demon, we’d totally be in a rom-com.

Ashley Bell as Nell

The movie doesn’t have much going for it.  The plot is wafer-thin (WAFER-thin?  Get it?  Get it????), the supporting characters are undeveloped, and really, not much happens until the last 10 or so minutes of the film.  What it does have is Ashley Bell, and she is the saving grace of the film.  Bell has real talent – we’d already seen her knock it out of the park as Nell in the first Last Exorcism, and she brings just as much depth to this second last exorcism.  Nell has a sweet fragility about her, which makes her moments of temptation that much more affecting.  Her shaking hand as someone offers her a kindness, her terror mixed with desperate desire as she confronts Abalam in several forms – Bell makes all facets of the character believable.

In short, Bell is the reason to watch The Last Exorcism 2.  Pretty much the only reason.  But she’s a good reason.

13 More Days til Halloween – presenting Laird Barron

Posted: October 18, 2013 by StayFrosty in Books, Reviews

frosty        Just a quick note on this countdown before we begin.  To get into the spirit of Halloween, FGSG is counting down the 13 days til Halloween.  Each day we’ll cover a different movie, author, director, composer, whatever.  They may not always be things that are recent (I’m betting some 70s movies are gonna get a mention), but they will be things/people we love or at least think are interesting enough to check out.  Sometimes these write-ups will be on the short side, but we’re doing the best we can to get some content out there.  As for the headline, just imagine the song from Halloween III for the next 13 days…

My knowledge of Laird Barron is due entirely to JennyD, and man, do I owe her major thanks for introducing me to this amazing author.  Even after reading only one of his novels, I knew I had to read everything I could get my hands on.  Barron has written several collections of short stories and two novels (many of which are available on Amazon in both hard copy and for the Kindle).  I started with his excellent novel “The Croning”, but really, I can recommend everything of his I’ve read.  Everything.  I haven’t read all of Barron’s work yet, but I suspect when I do I’ll be able to recommend each one with the same amount of enthusiasm.

Cover of The Croning - a great place to start your Barron adventure.

Cover of The Croning – a great place to start your Barron adventure.

Barron has so many skills it’s hard to know where to start.  Whether a short story or a novel, his work immediately pulls you in.  He’s able to create intense atmospheres just dripping with dread that immerse you in whatever world he decides to create.  Best of all, he does this without having that much disliked “long-pages-of-explanation-as-to-why-the-world-is-the-way-it-is-and-then-back-to-the-story” device.   He takes plots places you wouldn’t expect without it seeming contrived.  And the way he can turn a phrase…gorgeous.  Some of his work definitely brings Lovecraft to mind, but Barron’s stories are his own.  In short, he’s quality goods.

Barron’s most recent collection of short stories is The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All – it was originally supposed to release in April 2013 and then was held all the way to August!  But it’s here now and I am eagerly devouring every incredible page.  And, as I’d already known, this new book doesn’t disappoint.

Barron's most recent work

Barron’s most recent work

Laird Barron official site:  http://lairdbarron.wordpress.com/