Monday, October 31, 2016

The Haunted for Halloween

Supernatural hauntings are a source of endless fascination for me. Not that I even remotely believe in ghosts, marauding spirits, demons, or other inhuman entities, but there's something about the prospect of them that have, since I was a little kid, sent the most wonderful shiver down my spine. I generally prefer stories rooted in the supernatural to those based on the mundane, regardless of twists, turns, and degrees of probability. It's when the improbability of the supernatural is portrayed as ultimately believable that I most tend to stand up and take notice.

A good many years ago, I found myself watching a TV movie called The Haunted with my ex-wife, initially drawn in because it starred Jeffrey DeMunn, whom I've always admired as a character actor. At first, I took it to be just another low-budget, cringe-worthy melodrama, the kind that dominated the Lifetime network and its ilk in the 1990s. But as I continued to watch, I found myself feeling less contemptuous and more unsettled. And when it comes to movies, unsettling is a pretty admirable quality.

The story, supposedly based on actual events, is commonplace enough: the Smurl family moves into a new home and strange things begin happening to them, such as household items disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, unplugged appliances catching fire, light fixtures crashing down on unsuspecting children, and — finally — formless apparitions frightening family members and then vanishing. At first, the weirdest events only happen in Janet Smurl's (Sally Kirkland) presence, so that her husband, Jack (DeMunn), is initially skeptical. But one night, while they're lying in bed, Janet hears whispered voices seemingly coming from her pillow, and when Jack lays his head on her pillow, he hears them as well. Being devout Catholics, they seek help from their church, but the best that good Father Larson (John O'Leary) can offer them is marriage counseling and an offer to bless their house. He comes to perform his blessing ritual, only to discover there actually is some dark presence in the house. After reporting his finding to the church, he is forced to inform the Smurls, with some obvious personal relief, that the bishop will not allow him to help them with their spirit problem.

Not knowing where else to turn, the Smurls make contact with paranormal investigators Ed (Stephen Markle) and Lorraine Warren (Diane Baker), who agree to check out their claims. The Warrens, who came to prominence as investigators in the case of The Amityville Horror (and have since appeared in numerous other fiction-based films, such as The Conjuring and Annabelle) confirm the Smurls's worst nightmare — that an actual demon has latched onto them with the intent of destroying the family. The Warrens attempt to drive the demon and its minions out, but this endeavor appears only to anger the supernatural visitor, for after a brief period of silence, just long enough to make the Smurls believe it has been defeated, the entity returns with a vengeance.

A sympathetic priest from an Episcopal church attempts a full-fledged exorcism, but this attempt also backfires. Having alerted the press to their plight — in hopes of finding someone who can vanquish the force that seems determined to overwhelm them — the Smurls are dismayed when, instead of assistance, all they receive is an onslaught of reporters, cranks, and vandals, who allow them not a moment's peace. At last, a group from the Sacred Heart Society comes for a visit and, in a vast show of love and affection for the family, appears to be successful in driving away the evil spirits.

The Smurls, no longer able to live in their house due to endless invasions of their privacy, move to a new community, seemingly free from any further supernatural torment. As they are settling into their new house, however, they receive a rude reminder that escaping a demon's wrath may not be as easy as all that.
Jack (Jeffrey Demunn) and Janet Smurl (Sally Kirkland)
The fact that The Haunted doesn't rely on a big-budget special effects or lavish sets works measurably in its favor. Over the first hour of the movie, tension rises because of the increasing transformation of the familiar and safe into the unfamiliar and dangerous. One of the best moments in the movie is an early scene of Janet hearing the voice of her mother-in-law, Mary (Louise Latham), calling her from another room. When Janet replies that she is in the kitchen, the voice calls out again, louder and more plaintive. Impatient, Janet repeats her call to her mother-in-law, but now Mary's voice comes from inside the otherwise empty room. A reprise of this scene at the end of the film makes for perhaps an even more chilling effect, since we now understand the disturbing significance of this fakery.

Another effective scene takes place in the Smurls's bedroom, while they are asleep. Janet wakes up hearing whispering voices, seemingly from her pillow. At first incredulous, Jack insists that she is merely imagining things, but when he places his head on her pillow and a soft voice whispers something indecipherable to him, he reacts with near-violent fear. Shortly afterward, Janet feels cold fingers touching her leg. Jack places his leg over hers and then he feels the questing fingers, prompting another strong, fearful reaction.

The first apparition of the demonic force is its best — it's merely a dark, formless shadow that creeps across the screen, only briefly revealing contours that appear more or less human. In a couple of scenes, we see very typical, translucent human figures that are not particularly scary, though it's rather refreshing, even for the film's time, that they are not accompanied by garish light shows or other spectacular, over-the-top special effects. The only true physical manifestation of the entity comes when a rather maniacal-looking young woman spontaneously appears on the stairway and assaults Jack Smurl. The woman transforms into a heavyset, ogre-like brute who seems intent on sexually molesting a disbelieving Jack.

The actors in the production are uniformly convincing, with DeMunn and Kirkland standing out in their parts (Kirkland received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in this movie, though she lost to Judy Davis for One Against the Wind). Granted, the whiter-than-white, 1980s middle-class characters might ring less true for today's audiences than they did at the time, but the verisimilitude of characters, setting, and events in The Haunted outshines that of most far bigger productions of similar theme, such as The Conjuring and Annabelle, which I mentioned above. These characters are people you know — perhaps they're your family — and the fact they are not exaggerated, as is too often the case, makes them both believable and sympathetic, traits too rare in too many horror movies. You don't have to be religious — or a believer at all — to understand the natural compulsion for these people to seek assistance from the church, which proves itself not only impotent but irrelevant. Even paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who may in real life be seen only as opportunistic frauds, are portrayed with respect and depth, which for the purposes of this fiction adds another, agreeable layer of verisimilitude.

The Haunted was based on the book by the Warrens, along with Jack Smurl and Robert Curran, supposedly the true chronicle of events at the Smurl house. I don't believe the movie is available on DVD, though it can be viewed in its entirety for free on YouTube.

The Haunted makes for some mighty fine Halloween viewing, I can tell you. Four out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis (at least one of which I am currently due for).
The first apparition of the demon — a dark, moving stain in the air that passes through walls
A face only a mugger could love? A sex-starved demon appears to menace hapless Jack Smurl.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Haunting of Stonewall (Episode 4)

Every fall season, the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia are subject to some extremely frightening visitors — specifically, Ms. B. and me —  and this year we made another of our Halloween pilgrimages to Stonewall Bed & Breakfast, not far from Floyd, VA, that we might spend a couple of nights in the cozy, secluded View Cabin, pictured above, some distance up a winding trail from the main house. If I'm counting right, this was our fourth visit, all but one of which have been during the Halloween season — our second was over New Year's 2011/2012 (see "Stonewalled") — and there's no better place to spend our favorite holiday than in the remote, spooky woods, with several scary movies at our disposal. The cabin itself is a rustic little place: just a single room with a bed, a wood stove, TV and DVD player, and a nearby outhouse for taking care of personal business. Proprietors Scott and Sally Truslow do a wonderful job of managing the property, providing the best, most opulent breakfast spreads one could imagine, a full bathroom for those times you might prefer not-so-primitive facilities, and several dogs and cats that make you feel like one of the family. I hope it is not sad news for us that Scott and Sally are looking to retire and sell the place in the not-too-distant future, as they've been at it for quite a long while. It would be great if someone should purchase and maintain the place so we can continue our favorite tradition, but for now we must leave that for the future to decide.

Kimberly and I headed out early on Friday, 10/28, and after stopping for a geocache near the NC/VA state line, we made our way to Villa Appalaccia on the Blue Ridge Parkway for some first-rate local wine and a picnic lunch. It would not be out of line to say the weather proved a little too perfect — for our entire sojourn, we suffered the most ungodly, un-Halloweenish weather I have ever experienced, with nothing but clear, sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s. Awful, just awful for this time of year. Give us chilly days and nights, with lots of fall colors and the distinctive smell of autumn. Except for the relatively cool nights, this weekend was just another few days of summer. Bah, humbug, bunkum, and tommyrot.
The hidden terrace at Villa Appalaccia Winery
Old fellow at overlook above Rock Castle Gorge on the Blue Ridge Parkway

For our first evening's dinner, we hied our asses to Chateau Morrisette, several miles down the Parkway, for some all-around excellent fare, with a bottle of their Archival I red blend, bison meat loaf with smashed potatoes and collard greens for me, wild mushroom and arugula flatbread for Ms. B, topped off with a glass of their rather potent Heritage port wine. Upon our return to the cabin, for some light entertainment, we put on The Houses October Built, about a group of thrill seekers searching for the most extreme haunted attraction in the country. Not exactly a modern classic, but props to the movie makers for offering a few genuinely chilling scenes and disturbing characters. Most apt, given the current spate of supposed creepy clown sightings, that one of the scariest characters in the movie was indeed a clown.

The next morning, following one of Scott's classic breakfasts featuring eggs, sausage, broccoli quiche, biscuits, coffee, and orange juice, Ms. B. and I decided to work off at least the orange juice with a long hike through Rock Castle Gorge, which we've done several times in the past, though this time, sadly for me, there was no geocaching involved in the gorge itself, since I have already claimed all those that have been placed there (happily, there were a couple of other caches in the vicinity to hunt, which I did find, and we met a pair of friendly local geocachers in the process). Kimberly and I did put a couple of calories back on when we stopped for a trail lunch, comprising the remains of the previous day's chicken salad picnic. One of my favorite locations along the trail is the Austin House, the only private property remaining in the gorge, exactly one century old this year, and still inhabited by family members of its builder. The place truly looks to be straight out of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness," but I recently based a short story of my own, titled "Willow Bend," on this precise location. Yes, rest assured that I will post a notice if and when it gets picked up and published. Here's hoping, as I believe it turned out to be an effective, rather eerie ghost story. I finished it just a couple of weeks ago, anticipating visiting the actual location again.
On the trail in Rock Castle Gorge

Following the gorgeous gorge hike — in unseasonable, disagreeable 80-degree temperatures — we returned to the cabin and spent a leisurely afternoon on the premises, me banging on me guitar, Kim working on some pen-and-ink and watercolor renderings until the sun went down, when we built ourselves a blazing hot campfire (also made damn near disagreeable by the ugly temps of the day) and roasted hot dogs and marshmallows — mind you, just to add a few extra calories after having been so drained of these things by our strenuous hike. To help bring us back into the Halloween spirit, for our evening viewing we put on It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Guillermo Del Toro's The Orphanage, which neither of us had seen. While the latter film wasn't particularly scary, it was quite well done and possessed of eerie overtones that qualified it as a decent choice for Halloween viewing.

I might mention here that, as with past visits to Stonewall, we have been advised to make noise when on the trail hiking to and from the cabin, as bears are sometimes known to frequent the area. Well, true to our established form, we warned potential interlopers of our presence by occasionally hollering "Bear!", which for the most part seemed to keep them away. I did see one bear hanging around yesterday afternoon, though. He was very small, gray, with a fuzzy tail, and appeared to be enjoying himself leaping from tree to tree, but since he never really bothered us, I didn't begrudge him his fun. Now, sometime during last night, Kim rolled over and her toenails bit into my leg, at which point I sat up and yelled "Bear!", figuring it was the only sensible thing to do. As you may infer, the View Cabin, as nice as it may be, doesn't come without its unique dangers.

This morning, Scott outdid himself with breakfast — eggs, bacon, bacon & broccoli quiche, pancakes, apple cobbler, more orange juice and coffee. Sadly, it was that time again, to pack up and head back to Greensboro. Coming home, I satisfied myself with hunting a single cache on the aptly named Goblintown Creek Road, though the cache itself was not particularly scary. Unless to you birdhouses are scary, and then it would be quite the fright.

Our Halloween retreat for another year is ended, though there's still another day before actual big event. I will be celebrating hard tonight, working in as many scary things as I can before it's all over and done with. Be afraid, my friends; be slightly afraid.

And don't forget to yell "Bear!"
In the foreground, a little rock cairn in Rock Castle Creek, a second one visible in the distance
The Austin House in Rock Castle Gorge, ostensibly the setting for my new ghost story, "Willow Bend."
A spectacular view from Rocky Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Our parting view of the cabin this morning, a place at which I hope to yell "Bear!" again very soon.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Creepy Company

It's always good to see people making new friends, and the Sandy Level Creep seems to attract some mighty fine company. A while back, after minding the Axton Road all by his lonesome for several years, a very attractive and very horny little devil showed up to assist. When I passed by him this morning, he'd been joined by yet another happy chap, and just in time for Halloween!

I noticed a FOR SALE sign on the property — I do so hope this does not mean the end of the Sandy Level Creep. He and his buddies have given me many smiles in recent years, and I'd hate to see him move to new digs. Stick around, Sandy Level Creep (and friends)!

Friday, October 21, 2016

I Can Dare Myself

I was looking up some lyrics the other day, and on one online forum or another, I came upon some a singularly bemusing comment about a song I'm especially fond of — "By My Side," from Godspell. The spiritual message of the production aside, it really is a beautiful piece of music, with lyrics (written by original cast member Peggy Gordon, prior to the soundtrack being composed by Stephen Schwartz) that are not directly taken from Biblical narrative, like most of the rest of the production. The lyrics are not what I would call opaque — from my first listening as a teenager, it seemed pretty clear what they were about. But the comment in question came from an individual who believed that messages in lyrics (and, by extrapolation, one could conclude from literature in general) ought to be straightforward and easy to understand, rather than open to various interpretations.

I had to re-read the comment to make sure I hadn't misinterpreted it. Nope. And though the comments in the forum may have been many years old, I found it all too tempting to jump in and offer my two cents' worth. So, as my consolation, I'll offer my two cents here instead, if you've a mind to bear with me.

It is a creator not spelling out every detail, spurring the audience to engage its collective imagination, its intuitive senses, its powers of deduction, thus becoming an interactive player in the experience, that makes a work transcendent. Multidimensional. Not flat, even. Music, fiction, movies... it makes no never mind. In the realm of dark literature, T.E.D. Klein, in his collection Dark Gods, offers several tales that suggest he knows exactly what's happening and why — but it's up to the reader to fill in the blanks he intentionally leaves. If you've ever read a word of this blog or any of my posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc., you might infer that I'm a David Lynch fan. You would be correct. There are volumes of analyses of Lynch's work out there, and I've spent more time and energy than ought to be allowed by law watching, re-watching, reading about, and mentally wrestling with his films. (The prospect of a new incarnation of Twin Peaks is, to me, fucking orgasmic.)

No, I don't always want to have to work a puzzle when I'm reading or listening or watching something for pure enjoyment. But the idea that complex themes ought to be spelled out, that a work should leave little to naught left to the imagination, or that — God forbid — one might have to engage in critical analysis, draw individual conclusions, or deduce something altogether different than the next consumer, well... perhaps you can infer my opinion.

This attitude, this laziness, is symptomatic of a consumer base accustomed to being spoon fed every idea in miniscule, easy-to-digest doses via memes, click-bait headlines, and editorials masquerading as news. It's the heyday of short-attention-span theater. In the same vein as the original example of shallow thinking, I can't count how many times I've seen thoughtful, well-researched, fact-based editorials summarily dismissed — almost exclusively by adherents to a socially conservative school of thought — with this quip: "Too long, didn't read." My god, you dolts. You are our downfall.

As an author, I aspire to engage readers of superior intellect, those with keen powers of insight, those who might even say, "you dink, you have some ways to go, for your prose is shallow." Yeah, that can be harsh. But one doesn't grow without challenge. And if you're not daring to grow, you're stagnating, and if you're stagnating, you may be starting to reek. Let none of us do this thing.

I shall call the pebble Dare.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Getting the Boot

Team Two and a Half Men

Actually, we only got part of the boot. The geoart you see in the photo is in Wake County, NC, along the American Tobacco Trail. To get the coordinates for each individual cache in the boot print pattern, you must answer a question on the cache listing page about Wake County Parks. Once done, you hike out the trail to claim the caches. There are 40 caches in the pattern, and today, Rob "Robgso," Debbie "Cupdaisy," and Old Man Rodan headed out after a bunch of them. We picked up a dozen in the series, as well as a fair number of other caches along the trail. It was another damn near 80-degree day in October, so we got pretty warm out there, but at the end of it all, we'd put in about six miles, with numerous side trips and some backtracking (thanks to old people leaving their hiking sticks behind); logged 18 caches; and found things like jewel-shelled turtles, giant spiders, horses in pine trees, and pigs in lamp posts.

Most notably, on our journey, we engaged ourselves in a spirited discourse about whether a hissy fit or a conniption ranks higher in the hierarchy of tantrums. We fairly readily came to the conclusion that the conniption is certainly of higher caliber than the mere hissy fit, and our results were confirmed by a Google search, which indicated the question was actually settled about nine years ago. Well, sometimes there's something to be said for reinventing the wheel.

Our final destination before returning home was Carolina Brewery in Pittsboro, where we procured satisfying vittles and liquid refreshment. While I was driving us back, I told Rob that if I fell asleep to wake me up when we got home. Happily, he did this thing.
A very old tobacco barn out in the woods, not far off the trail
Sparkly sea turtle in the woods
L: Cupdaisy finds a butterfly; R: a long stretch of the American Tobacco Trail
Little bacons in a lightpole

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shin Godzilla

Nope, I've not been so geeked about going to see a Godzilla movie at the theater since I was a kid. Yes, partly because there have been very few Godzilla movies to see at the theater since way back when, but the looks of Shin Godzilla hooked me from the get-go, and I must say I was thrilled to learn that the limited theatrical release in this country included Greensboro. However, for a time this evening, the universe appeared to be conspiring to prevent me getting to the show. Ms. Brugger and I headed out with time to spare, only to find that the main road through town had been shut down — possibly due to the President coming for a visit. Gee, thanks, Obama. Anyway, after a lot of fuming and realizing that we were going to be stuck in one spot, likely for the duration of the evening, we managed to turn around and take the long, long way around to the theater. We got there a few minutes late, but we hoped we might squeak in at the end of the trailers. Now, I'd bought advance tickets via Fandango, but as soon as we arrived, my phone locked up on me, requiring a restart. That done, when I pulled up the ticket on the Fandango app, it was marked as already used. Judas Priest, really? Really?

Long story short —success! — we made it just as the last trailer was running, and got the last two available seats in the jam-packed theater. The seats were actually good ones, near the center, close but not too close to the screen. Then... but of course.... there's the three-year-old kid behind us who yammered through the entire movie, his dullard parents not only not stifling him but egging him on. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why God invented babysitters.

All righty then. There be spoilers here.

Shin Godzilla opens, appropriately enough, with the distinctive footsteps, roars, and theme by Akira Ifukube from the original 1954 Godzilla. The early part of the narrative unfolds quickly, with the discovery of an abandoned boat near Tokyo Bay and a series of huge, steaming waterspouts. Then a section of tunnel under the bay collapses, leaving evidence that something alive — and big — may have caused the disaster. The prime minister (Ren Osugi) and various branches of government convene, discuss, plot, plan, and argue, doing everything but coming up with a viable solution to this most mystifying problem. Just as the bureaucratic wheels begin to grind, a gigantic, half-seen creature bearing ever-so-familiar dorsal fins begins making its way inland via the Tama River, causing massive property damage and loss of life.

The government is forced to switch gears, and attempts to determine whether the Self-Defense Force can be legally mobilized under these dire conditions. But the invading creature, caring not for human timetables and red tape, begins to mutate before our shocked onlookers' eyes — changing from an eel-like creature with gills to a crouching, bipedal, reptilian-looking beast that can walk on dry land, albeit with some difficulty. A half-hearted attack by the SDF only irritates the monster, but after a time it decides on its own to return to the ocean, leaving the government scrambling for a way to return life in the capital to normal with the least amount of economic turmoil.

Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Yutaka Takenouchi) is put in charge of a team to study the creature, and after analyzing its physiology, the team concludes that the monster feeds on fissionable materials — and that its body is, in part, a nuclear reactor. A special envoy from the US, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), reveals that a certain professor named Goro Maki, in his study of radiation-based mutations had predicted the appearance of such a creature, but his theories had been discredited. He had named the creature Godzilla, based on a legend from Odo Island — his original home — and this is the name by which the authorities decide to call the monster.

Then — undergoing yet another mutation, the beast emerges from the ocean twice as big as before, bearing Godzilla's somewhat more traditional countenance. The SDF attacks it in earnest, with helicopters, cannons, missiles, tanks, and jets, but Godzilla, quite unstoppable, enters Tokyo and wreaks havoc. The government now enlists the aid of the American military, which initiates an aerial attack with B2 bombers. The first bomb strikes appear to injure the creature, but now, exhibiting previously unseen powers, Godzilla unleashes massive nuclear-powered emissions from both its mouth and its dorsal fins, destroying the bombers as well as a substantial portion of Metropolitan Tokyo — and killing the prime minister and his cabinet, who are attempting to flee the city via helicopter. However, this attack has drained Godzilla's energy, and it goes temporarily dormant so its body can recharge.

Yaguchi's team, using samples of Godzilla's blood and tissue left behind in the attack, as well as encrypted clues left by Professor Maki, determine that Godzilla may be slowed down and frozen by way of a special blood coagulant, which his team believes they can manufacture, given enough time. However, they are now in a race with the US government, who has decided that Godzilla must be destroyed via a thermonuclear blast before it continues its path of destruction, which they fear might reach the US itself. As the countdown for the nuclear strike begins, the government begins its attempt to evacuate Tokyo, only to find the job so huge that the city essentially collapses into chaos. Yaguchi appeals to world leaders for more time, and — thanks to timely intervention by Ms. Patterson — gains 24 hours, which is just enough to complete the blood coagulant project.

As Godzilla once again becomes active, The SDF puts Yaguchi's plan into action, using numerous means to goad Godzilla into expending its energy again. The coagulant is delivered, and....

The film winds down to its finale.
Shin Godzilla departs radically from the Godzilla tradition, from whatever era. Strong central characters are mostly absent, the film constantly switching focus between several groups of government officials, tarrying for any appreciable length only with Yaguchi's team and, occasionally, with US envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson. Plot-wise, the fantasy element that has been a hallmark of the series since its inception has been replaced by the stark drama of real-life politics. Even Godzilla 1984 and Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera films, in which we get more than the typical insight — at least for daikaiju films — into governmental procedures during a disaster, don't come close to immersing the viewer in the multiple tiers of bureaucracy, which very likely mirror their real-life counterparts, as in this film. From the outset, directors Hideako Anno (Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (best known for his work on Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy) focus, in agonizing detail, on the complexities of the governmental machine, poking fun at its inefficiency, clearly drawing parallels between its response to the devastation wrought by Godzilla and the real-life horrors of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima meltdown.

The political scene is more than just a backdrop for Godzilla, the monster — it remains at the forefront, and Godzilla manifests itself as a natural force that jolts the establishment to the point it must either adapt or fold. Adaptation does not come easily. The old prime minister and his cabinet are summarily wiped out during Godzilla's rampage, and the provisional PM and cabinet, shown to be no more decisive or innovative than their predecessors, cave to the United Nation's demands — spearheaded by the US — to launch a thermonuclear weapon to eliminate a perceived global threat. Only Yaguchi and his devoted team, portrayed as youthful, energetic, and insightful, stand a chance of thinking outside the proverbial box sufficiently to devise a means of stopping the horror. Of the characters, only Ms. Patterson, a privileged young Japanese-American woman who has political aspirations of her own — in the US, her ties to her family's homeland being negligible — shows any appreciable maturing over the course of the movie, initially coming off as materialistic and generally shallow, but finally realizing the gravity of the threat and owning up to her responsibilities as a public servant not only to the US but to her ancestral homeland.
L to R: Yutaka Takenouchi as Hideki Akasaka, aide to the Prime Minister; Hiroki Hasegawa as Deputy Chief
Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi; Satomi Ishihara as US Envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson
At the end of the day, this is a giant monster movie, and while Godzilla's screen time isn't as extensive as I would have preferred, the monster rampages are a cinematic treat, more breathtaking than any daikaiju film in my experience. Godzilla exhibits raw power beyond any previous incarnation's, and its slow, inexorable march forward through the city generates a deeper sense of dread than in any Godzilla movie since the original 1954 film. There's a majesty in its statue-like appearance, and its physical proportions are just off enough to be unsettling to the senses. In its earlier stages, the monster actually appears rather whimsical and, perhaps strangely, more believable because of it. It's worth noting that the script takes on the critics of daikaiju physics, with scientists early on declaring that such a creature would be too huge to move, that it would collapse under its own weight. Of course, Godzilla does not collapse under its own weight, and we the fans get to have a little chuckle at the expense of these clearly unimaginative know-it-alls.

Unlike the unabashedly fun entries in the Showa Godzilla years, in this one, there are no miniature missile misfires, no tiny rockets shooting willy-nilly across the screen. The military's assault on Godzilla is precise and tactically sound. Bullets and bombs visibly bounce off of the monster's armor-like hide, rarely getting so much as a moment's notice from the seemingly purpose-driven creature. And when Godzilla does eventually counterattack, it is, in the words of Tsukioka from Godzilla Raids Again, "a sight to crush the hearts of men."

While I have always been a diehard fan of the traditional man-in-suit Godzilla, I have nary a complaint about the digitized version of the monster in this one. The CGI effects, with only a few exceptions, come off as superb, superior in almost all respects to the Legendary Godzilla of 2014.

Composer Shiro Sagisu (Evangelion, Final Fantasy) provides a generally effective musical score, particularly the operatic themes that embody not only the terror but the tragedy of the monster's onslaught. Several Akira Ifukube pieces accompany Godzilla's appearance, including the attack theme from King Kong vs. Godzilla, the title motif from Terror of MechaGodzilla, the Battle in Outer Space March, and others. While vastly different from Sagisu's score, even at its most varied, these mostly blend in without seeming too anachronistic. Using Ifukube music in films scored by other composers can be dicey, such as in Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla and Godzilla 2000 (both scored by Takayuki Hattori) where the insertion of the traditional Godzilla theme seems nothing more than an obligatory, half-hearted attempt to bring some gravitas to the respective properties. The musical suite over the end credits, though, is all Ifukube and all impressive, with more themes from Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1993), and others.

In the overall, Shin Godzilla breaks quite a bit of new ground in the Godzilla franchise, mostly good, some not so much. While the staccato punches at the government's impotence work well early on, the directors try too hard to sustain the momentum, and it simply falls apart. In the middle third of the film, the repetition of theme becomes all too noticeable and eventually tiresome. This would have been the perfect opportunity to a) better develop individual characters or b) show more freaking Godzilla, preferably the latter. It would not have hurt to simply edit down the film by about 15 minutes, specifically in those areas where government meetings drag on and on, covering ground already well covered.

Regardless of its problems, Shin Godzilla mostly succeeds, and often in royal fashion. This movie presents some of the Godzilla franchise's best-ever cinematic moments, the monster proving meaner, darker, and deeper even than in Kaneko's Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Granted, Shin Godzilla ought to be a one-off shot — whatever might come afterward, it cannot simply duplicate any formula ostensibly established in this movie. This one took the old bar, threw it away, and generated a new one for itself. Admirable indeed. But I hope — assuming there are new Godzilla films someday in the offing — the producers do understand there are lessons to be learned from Shin Godzilla's shortcomings and act on them accordingly.

Shin Godzilla has performed well in Japan, and from early indications, seems to be hitting the mark with American audiences. Though the movie is so focused on issues unique to Japan, those issues didn't appear to be whooshing over a bunch of disinterested gaijin heads. People are getting it. And how good that is to see.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Yet Another Return to Boggy Creek

Given that the summer of 2016 hasn't much cared to depart, even into October, the customary Halloween spirit — which usually sets in of its own accord come late September — seems to be struggling a bit. And I hate it. Damn you, summer of 2016! To help compensate for the intemperate temperature, I've ramped up the already substantive number of October horror movie showings at Casa de Rodan, mostly to fine effect. Growing up, I was a big fan of all things cryptozoological, and movies such as The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Creature From Black Lake, et. al. rated highly on my Halloween-o-meter. Not much has changed in that regard.

Over the years, there have been more movies than God could shake a stick at either directly or tangentially related to the Fouke Monster, the subject of the original Boggy Creek flick, and quite honestly, I've never been able to keep track of them. I own the original and its goofy second sequel, Boggy Creek: The Legend Continues, which was produced by, directed by, and stars Charles Pierce, who directed and produced the original. I've seen the first sequel, Return to Boggy Creek, but I don't own it (from what I recollect, it sucked). I think there are a couple of others. In 2011, Boggy Creek: The Legend Is True entered the fray, though I never got around to watching it until today — partly because I read the novelization of the movie by Eric S. Brown, and the whole business seemed a yawner. But, hey, since it's the summer of Halloween, I figured I'd go ahead and give the movie a look.

And what do you know, I was not bored out of my skull, as I confess I expected to be. As a writer, in my fiction and nonfiction alike, I have made it abundantly clear that if a work lacks character development, no matter how spectacular it might otherwise be, it is an organism lacking a skeleton (exo or endo, it makes no never mind). And in this movie, it was kind of nice to get to know a group of young people, stereotypical though some were, who were not altogether worthless piles of crap, √† la [insert cheap horror movie title here]. However, there comes a time when the process of getting to know folks ought take a breather and make way for some some bona fide forward progress. In this department, Boggy Creek: The Legend Is True falters — quite a lot really. For a while, I had the impression I was looking at a millennial-era TV soap, with an occasional nod to something a tad out of the ordinary lurking in the nearby woods.
Once in a while, this movie does get to be a drag.

As the movie opens, we get glimpses of our favorite bigfoot-type creature doing bigfoot-type things, such as stomping around through the woods and occasionally dragging hapless victims away in the darkness.

Sometime later....

Two young female friends, Jennifer (Melissa Carnell) and Maya (Shavon Kirksey), out for a weekend of relative solitude at a remote cabin that Jennifer inherited from her late father, find themselves playing host to several friends — Dave (Damon Lipari); his bitchy girlfriend, Brooke (Stephanie Honor√© ); and Tommy (Texas Battle) — who arrive unexpectedly, anticipating a major party weekend. An enigmatic, perpetually shotgun-wielding young man named Dustin (Cory Hart), who lives in a nearby cabin, warns them that they might ought to leave because, years earlier, something in the neighboring woods killed his wife. When they ask him why he thinks they ought to leave when he plans to remain, he merely brandishes his weapon.

Needless to say, Dustin's warning goes unheeded. For the next hour or so, we are treated to Jennifer moping about her father's death and her poor relationship with her mother; Maya's troubles with boyfriend Tommy, whose immature antics threaten to end the world as we know it; Dave becoming exasperated with Brooke, a city girl who hates the rustic life; and Brooke having a drunken tantrum when she believes Dave is flirting with Jennifer.

Fortunately, after a while, the Boggy Creek Beast makes the requisite appearance and relieves some of the young folks of their troubles. We come to find out that there is not just one Boggy Creek Beast but several — and since we get to see them in all their glory, it's gratifying that they're actually pretty scary-looking.

I'll say no more regarding the plot, but I will go so far as to compliment the young actors in this film, who generally give their roles valiant efforts. Melissa Carnell — who looks to be about ten years old — gives up the longest, broadest, and saddest smiles I think I've ever seen. Damon Lipari, whose character is fairly colorless, comes across as so real that you don't get the feeling Dave's colorlessness is due to bad acting. From the visual standpoint, the movie features some gorgeous backwoods scenery, framed to accentuate its creepiness, much as in the original Legend of Boggy Creek. Now, unlike the other entries in the Boggy Creek mythos, which are set in and around Fouke, Arkansas, this movie takes place near the fictitious town of Boggy Creek, Texas. I suppose if one is a consistency nut (yeah, I border on being a consistency nut), it wouldn't be a stretch to figure that this Boggy Creek actually exists across the state line, just on the other side of Texarkana.

Boggy Creek: The Legend Is Real makes for a reasonably fun outing in the realm of cryptozoological horrors. For the summer of Halloween, I'll surely take it. Three out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
Les temps de bonheur: Tommy, Maya, Dave, Brooke, and Jennifer on a scenic river excursion.
Maya (Shavon Kirksey) and Jennifer (Melissa Carnell)
Damn, man!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Dark Was the Night

Dark Was the Night is a 2014 monster/horror flick that I had never heard of until the other day when it popped up on my Netflix rec list. The description sounded interesting enough, so I decided to check it out. After all, it's October, and the horror movies are rolling at Casa de Rodan this month, as is good and proper.

As it turns out, Dark is a swell little film, which relies mostly on atmosphere, suspense, and character interaction to deliver the chills. On that count, it mostly succeeds. The cinematography is gorgeous and puts you right in the middle of a small town on the edge of a forest, about to be socked in by a snowstorm of epic proportions. Wisely, director Jack Heller relies on suggestive shadows, weird noises, and odd events — such as birds making a massive exodus from the locale — to build suspense, accompanied by an occasional jump scare, which can often be naught but annoying; however, in this case, these instances are relatively few in number, well-timed, and actually integral to the action rather than mere ploys meant to startle the poop out of the unsuspecting viewer. The score (by Darren Morze) and sound effects come together to weave an eerie mood, maintained relentlessly over the course of the film. As far as atmosphere goes, I'd give Dark Was the Night my highest marks.

The story opens with a logging crew clear-cutting a forest, and before you know it, there are missing persons — at least partially missing. In the nearby town of Maiden Woods, people are disturbed by the appearance of strange tracks, apparently belonging to some unknown animal, that go from the woods, all the way through town, and back into the woods, only to disappear. Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his deputy, Donnie Saunders (Lukas Haas), investigate, but initially take the tracks as the work of a prankster. Soon, however, there are missing animals, bizarre claw marks on buildings, and photographic evidence of something that appears to be anything but an ordinary woodland creature.

Then a trio of hunters in the woods are attacked by said something, which kills two of them. The survivor convinces Shields and Saunders that there is, indeed, something horrible in the woods and it is now lurking around the town. Shields learns about the ill-fated logging crew and surmises that, whatever the creature is, it has been disturbed by the loggers and is on the move in its search for food and shelter. His suspicion is proven correct when the big bad something comes out of the woods and actually attacks his house. It flees into the night before Shields can unload any buckshot into it.

As the snowstorm hits the town, the roads become impassable and most of the townsfolk gather at the central church to ride out the storm together. There's no peace to be found in the house of worship, though, because — once again — an unknown thing comes stomping and banging and bashing in doors to get to the huddled delectables inside. Shields and Saunders herd the townspeople into the basement, which was designed to be a fallout shelter in the 1960s. The two lawmen then go out to face down the oncoming, deadly menace.

Dark is essentially a modernized version of the ubiquitous scary drive-in shows of the 1960s and 70s, such as The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Creature From Black Lake, Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot, and others. The characters are generally well-drawn and better-than-adequately portrayed by the cast. Things do bog down a bit with Sheriff Shields too frequently flagellating himself over having failed to save his son Tim from drowning sometime in the past, but that's really the only stumbling block as far as the characters are concerned. Kevin Durand plays the part capably and comes across as generally sympathetic. There's a hint of romance between Deputy Saunders and exceptionally attractive diner waitress Clair (Sabina Shields), which is given just the right amount of emphasis — it provides Saunders with a bit of motivation without becoming saccharine.

In too many monster movies, what should blow the film out of the water but the monster itself. In this case.... well, that almost happens. The more subtle manifestations of the creature — the footprints, the deep thump of its hoofed feet, the occasional glimpses of movement within the shadows — do it far more credit than its ultimate revelation. The CGI is a little too obvious, the design a little too streamlined. The critter could have been scarier. It should have been scarier.

However, the ending, which again hearkens back to its drive-in forebears, manages to at least partially make up for whatever disappointment might accompany the appearance of the beast's beastly countenance. Then the end credits, with a rousing techno score and images from the film, offer something a little out of the ordinary and close the movie on a positive note.

Unfortunately, Dark Was the Night has enough frustrating issues to prevent it being a great horror movie. Regardless, it's still a good horror movie, with numerous aspects that I must rate as superb.

Four of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and Deputy Donnie Saunders (Lukas Haas)
Strange tracks lead from the woods, through town, and back into the woods.
An inexplicable, mass migration of birds out of the threatened town

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

My Bump Into The Thing

Writer Ben R. Williams, of The Martinsville Bulletin, from my old hometown, offers some of the best editorials around, on a host of subjects — everything from local events to entertainment to national and world politics. His recent article, "Defining Moments Look Different to Everyone," struck a nerve with me because it's about his meeting Wilford Brimley, his favorite actor in John Carpenter's The Thing, which is also his favorite horror movie. It just so happens that it's mine too — well, to be quite accurate, it's tied with Jacques Tourneur's Curse (Night) of the Demon; for me, both are required viewing just about every October, when I start pulling out more than the customary number of horror movies to watch.

My personal encounter might not as dramatic as Ben's (read his story, linked above), but it was so damned unexpected you can bet it left a lasting impression on me. It was around 1990, and my (now ex-)wife Peg and my brother Phred were visiting Atlanta on one of our regular trips to Georgia. The three of us were having dinner at a sushi bar on the north side of Atlanta when a tall, rather ordinary yet distinguished-looking gentleman wandered in and sat down at the bar next to my brother, who was seated on the other side of my wife. I recognized the man immediately, and though I knew exactly who he was, my brain let out an exceptionally powerful fart, and his name simply would not come to me. I very subtly nudged Peg and said, "Look, that's an actor from The Thing. He's been in a bunch of stuff. He played President Johnson in The Right Stuff. I can't think of his name!" Peg looked at the man and shook her head. "I think you're right," she said. "But I don't know his name either."

My brother, who could sort of hear what we were talking about, shook his head and softly said, "No, it's not. You're full of it."

"But it is!" I insisted. "You know, he's in a bazillion movies — a character actor."

"No. Not him."

"Is too."

Finally, a little exasperated, Phred turned to the gentleman and said, "Excuse me, but my brother is convinced you're a familiar actor, but can't think of your name."

The man smiled and said, "Donald Moffat."

At the same volume and level of excitement as Charlie Brown responding to Lucy's diagnosis of Pantophobia, I hollered out, "THAT'S IT!"

My brother's face kind of fell, but all proved well. We sat and chatted with Donald Moffat for quite a while, finding him quite amiable and full of entertaining stories. He informed us he was in Atlanta filming a movie with "that blond kid — Ricky Schroder." (I later determined the movie must have been A Son's Promise, which I have never seen, though I suppose I should check it out someday.) We did discuss The Thing in some detail, as it was even then probably my favorite horror flick. I asked him if people often recognized him when he was out in public.

"All the time," he said, "but they always think I'm their insurance man."

At that time — Deathrealm was in its heyday, so I was frequently going to conventions all over the country — I had met plenty of big-name authors, a number of movie stars, and a few other persons of note (when I lived in Chicago, I once literally ran into Tommy LaSorda — he was coming out a revolving door while I was going in. BOOM. At least he laughed about it), but more often than not it was at a con or someplace where you might expect to encounter such folks. I think this was the first time I'd met a "star" just having dinner, and, as you might expect, for the rest of that evening, I was floating on Cloud Nine.

I do still have a memento of that evening — a chopsticks wrapper that Mr. Moffat very kindly autographed, since, at the time, it was the only piece of paper I had on hand.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Old Haunts

I think these may be Ents

I woke up to a hot sunny October morning — not as in an Indian summer morning, but just another freaking hot summer morning, since cool weather has not come close to setting in here — and it dawned on me that I had no geocaching plans, which is almost unprecedented for a Sunday. I have a long way to travel to find any caches I've not already claimed, but the day was just begging me to go on a decent hike, so I decided to hit the Osprey Trail, up along Lake Townsend, figuring I could do maintenance on a few of my caches. I had found all the others along the Osprey back in 2008 and 2009, but once I got hiking, hunting them again just seemed the thing to do. Those old caches predated me keeping detailed notes about them, and I had absolutely no recollection of the hides themselves, so a couple of these were anything but easy to re-find. It did make for an enjoyable trip down memory lane, revisiting these places I haven't seen for seven and eight years. The Osprey Trail is one of my favorites in Greensboro because bicycles are not allowed on it, so you rarely encounter other human beings on the trail, and that makes for a much more pleasant hike. Today, my only close encounter was with a great blue heron, which I surprised as I came around the trail next to the lake. It fairly exploded from its resting place beside the trail and sailed out over the lake, honking its displeasure in no uncertain terms.

At "The Horror at Red Hook" (GC69WZY), one of my semi-treacherous, tree-climbing caches, I discovered that the lower branches of the tree have been trimmed away. Future hunters are going to have their work cut out for them getting up to cache (a red bison tube). So far, no deaths have been reported here, which I guess is a good thing. I also paid a visit to my night cache, "The Tripods" (GC690XE), to see if any of the Martians had escaped their confinement, but all appeared to be well. I've heard there may be an expedition coming up next week to this one, so I wanted to make sure it was in good order and properly booby-trapped.

At the end of it, I had put in a good four miles today. I could just about make a habit of this, but I sure do miss those days of having plenty of new caches on the watershed trails. Hopefully, someday, there will be more.
Old Rodan out in the marshland
Some logbooks that I signed in 2008/2009, and a sparkly mushroom I found near one of the old caches
Other old things found in the woods, a long, long way from anything
The Elder Sign, perhaps?