Category Archives: Review

Return to the Dark Century – 2010 – Let Me In

2010 continued our collective journey through the financial crisis, and while our politicians ratcheted up the rhetoric and demonstrated a shortage of leadership, the American people tried to rise out of the muck and remake themselves.  It only seems fitting that horror movies also seemed to find meaning in remakes.  Breck Eisner took on the George Romero classic The Crazies, Samuel Bayer raided Wes Craven’s closet and remade Nightmare on Elm Street, Joe Johnson cast Benicio Del Toro as The Wolfman, and Steven Monroe remade Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave.  Besides being noted for the remakes, 2010 gave us Cropsey, a creepy documentary by two filmmakers exploring the urban legend of their youth, Splice fed our need for a genetics-gone-wrong story, and Paul Bettany played a sexy fallen angel trying to prevent the End of Days in Legion.

But it was the remake of the amazing Swedish horror film Let the Right One In that hands down won our 2010 race for best horror film.

We approached Let Me In skeptically. As mentioned in our 2008 post, Let the Right One In left an indelible mark on our expectations not only for vampire films, but for horror films as a whole.  Combine that with our lack of faith that such a rich story could be transplanted without killing the roots, and we feared the worst.  Obviously, we were pleasantly surprised by this high profile production from the reborn Hammer studios.  Let Me In moved the story from Stockholm, Sweden to Los Alamos, New Mexico, but still did a wonderful job of making the girl vampire Abby, both sympathetic and terrifying.  The chemistry between actress Chloë Grace Moretz and actor Kodi Smit-McPhee rivaled that of their Swedish counterparts (Lina Leadnersson and Kåre Hedebrant) and gives this movie an amazing tension. Outcast and bullied Owen befriends Abby at night in a local playground, and eventually he learns her true nature. Let Me In reminds us that vampires are terrifying creatures, predators of the first order, and even though Abby appears as an “adolescent” and is in need of a guardian, she is a monster.  The relationship between Owen and Abby has a sexual charge, but it is subtle and sweet, and has more to do with mutual understanding and respect than sex.

Another surprise of Let Me In was Richard Jenkins as Father, Abby’s guardian, and in some ways, her prisoner.  His performance does an amazing job of portraying his devotion to Abby, but also his jealousy as Abby and Owen grow closer. His unwavering loyalty is tested and tortured as he tries to provide for his charge, and his inevitable end leaves Abby vulnerable.

Let Me In beat the odds by staying remarkably true to Let the Right One In, and it paid off.  This remake won several awards including Best Horror Film and Best Performance by a Younger Actor (Chloë Grace Moretz) from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.  There is no doubt this film qualifies as a new classic horror film and redeems the vampire as an object of smart horror.

Return to the Dark Century – 2008 – The Burrowers

2008 was an election year, which made the year horrible enough all by itself. The US was dealing with potential economic collapse as well as the ongoing threat of terrorism and adjustment to the idea of a more multilateral future in the world. Maybe all that tension is what made it such a fantastic year for horror films.

Of the four years we will be considering, 2008 was by far the most challenging from which to pick a favorite. Apart from traditional movies or DTV productions, 2008 saw a boom in web-based horror with such efforts as Beyond the Rave, an online serial from the newly resurrected Hammer Studios. The burgeoning age of instant media also inspired Cloverfield, a truly innovative take on kaiju stories. From Sweden, Let the Right One In told a new kind of vampire story, and vampires were everywhere in 2008, so this was no mean feat. Zombies were pretty common too, though their numbers would increase in the following years, and no zombie tale was more innovative or entertaining than the Canadian Pontypool.

But our pick was a 100% American film, rooted in the country’s eternal fascination with the epic of westward expansion. “Post-colonial” in every sense of the word, respectful of Native American culture without dancing with wolves, and genuinely horrific, no other fright film in 2008 was quite as effective as The Burrowers.  Directed by rising star J.T. Petty, who may be the smartest horror director currently working, The Burrowers owes debts to John Ford and to countless monster movies from the last half of the 20th Century, while also managing to be spectacularly original. Whether viewed as allegory or as straightforward horror, The Burrowers is relentlessly entertaining, even when it’s hard to watch.

Like Ford’s The Searchers, Petty’s script tells the story of a band of white men in search of a stolen girl, and plays with all the familiar trappings of classic Westerns before turning them inside out like a gutted deer. Making the very best use of a small budget and full of great touches, The Burrowers may be the best horror film of the entire decade. All of Petty’s movies are worth seeking out. His 2001 debut, Soft for Digging, is probably the best horror movie ever made for less than $10,000 (no, that’s not a typo). He has a new film, Hellbenders, which should be out any day now.

Drake and I will be the ones at the head of the line.

Review: Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy

Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy
By Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste
Side Real Press
300 copies

Thanks to the wonderful and unique Side Real Press, one of the seminal artifacts of Weimar decadence is back in print after 90 years. I’ve written about Anita Berber here before, but I never expected to see a reprint of her notorious book, Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy, co-authored with her dancing partner/husband/partner-in-debauchery Sebastian Droste. The original booklet was probably sold at their performances and surviving copies are rare and expensive, if they can be found at all.

Fortunately for anyone with an interest in Ms. Berber, naked dancer and pioneering celebrity bad girl, Side Real has recreated the booklet in a glorious new edition, translated into English by Merrill Cole and including the original photographic and artistic illustrations. Side Real continues to be one of the most interesting small presses, and I am very honored to have been featured in one of their books, Delicate Toxins, a collection of short stories inspired by Hanns Heinz Ewers, notorious author of dark fantasy and horror stories in the decades before World War II. One of Droste’s poems name checks Ewers, so it’s safe to say that Berber and her lover either knew the author or admired his work:

Villiers de l’Isle Adam
Edgar Allan Poe
E. T. A. Hoffman
Hans Heinz Ewers
And 1922
Rooms long left
Suicide, by Sebastian Droste

The poetry is honestly pretty awful stuff, but it may have been effective when recited over two near naked bodies writhing in an Expressionist dance against hallucinatory backdrops. Alas, I don’t think there is much surviving film of Berber and certainly none from the performances where this exceedingly dark little book was offered for sale. We are left to interpret exactly what the  numbers Cocaine or the Byzantine Whip Dance must have looked like.

My favorite part of this delightful little volume is the section of color sketches at the end, showing concepts for sets and costumes. These drawings, even more than the photos of Anita and her grotesque lover, are windows into a world we will never see, but that we can touch in our own flights of erotic imagination.

Forgotten Fear in Four Colors

Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s , edited by Greg Sadowski
Fantagraphics Books
320 pages. softcover

Drake here again. First up in the horror review queue is this wonderful collection of vintage horror comics, an unrefined ore of grisly graphics presented in glorious, restored color, looking better than they did almost 60 years ago. Beautifully designed, the book is a bloody treasure.

Four Color Fear reprints 40 entire stories from the goriest of the forbidden comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as well as a selection of mind-blowing covers from legendary titles like Mister Mystery, Web of Evil, and Weird Thrillers. The choice and presentation of covers and stories is superb, a real aficionado’s smorgasbord of utterly depraved entertainment.

By design, this is not a comprehensive collection. There are literally thousands of horror stories from the era and Four Color Fear avoids the comics published by EC, Marvel, DC, and other well-known houses in favor of obscure imprints that are not likely ever to be reprinted in any other format. The original material is extensively annotated with regard to artist, writer (where the writer is known – writing credits were evasive in this era), and publisher. The historical material will be of interest to hardcore fans of these comics but may not catch the attention of a casual reader. Little attempt is made to frame these stories in the social or larger historical context of their times, or to analyze them beyond the mechanical details of art and production. They stand garishly on their own.

I was certainly struck by how really awful much of the writing in these old comics is, by any objective modern standard, but I was also impressed by how effective some of the stories are in their imagery and imaginative, nightmarish power, in spite of the quality of the prose. The plotting often feels like a child’s narration of a more complex story, one perhaps not clearly understood by the narrator. Character motivations are bizarre and frequently silly, and the effect is almost expressionistic, as though the characters are there to act as emblems of sensations and demonstrate the outcome of morality plays rather than as portrayals of real people in horrendous situations.

But one doesn’t read these comics for their stories, really, but rather for an insight into what entertained the youth of the time, while outraging authority. They are, in every sense of the word, dark and subversive of conventional values, something that must have been intolerable to the enforcers of crushing conformity in postwar America.

And then there is the art, crazy exercises in style and mastery by artists like Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, and Howard Nostrand, comic art from a time when styles were far more varied than in today’s comics, with traditions of illustration and Sunday comics that brought diversity and vitality to the form. The art will probably strike readers who only know modern comics as grotesque and cartoonish, but there is no denying its power.

Roots of later horrors are evident all through these comics, a topic I will get into more in the review of another book, but the conventions of modern spook stories like True Blood and The Walking Dead crawl through these old tales like veins in the arm of a resurrected corpse.

For someone newly interested in pre-Comics Code horror, I would recommend one of the EC volumes over this book – the writing is much more accessible and the art overall better – but, as an introduction to the genre, and as a glimpse into a lost world of terrors, Four Color Fear is a superb second step and, for a fan, the collection is like a breath of ghastly air issuing from the recesses of a time-rotted tomb.

Review: Secret Identity – The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster

Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster
By Craig Yoe, Stan Lee, and Joe Shuster
160 pages
Abrams ComicArts

Review by Drake

“Comic Books are junk.”
-Jules Feiffer

Craig Yoe, artist and author, is fast making a new reputation for himself as the historian of comics’ hidden erotic history. Last year he edited and compiled a fascinating volume called Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings that featured unlikely, sexy work from many of the giants in the comic strip and comic book field, rescued from obscure magazines, private collections, and under-the-counter sources, a compilation of drawn images that would suit being included in Fantastic porn movies streaming at fulltube xxx. This year, he has topped that achievement with the truly amazing Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster. The book is a collection of astonishing comic book style art produced for a series of near amateur periodicals in the early 1950s wrapped in an essay on the publications (most of which were called Nights of Horror), the career of the artist, and a fascinating legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Secret Identity is like a cutaway diagram of the weirdest elements of American graphic culture and an exploration of an unknown side of artist Joe Shuster, best known as the co-creator of Superman. The introductory text is an enthralling mini-history of censorship, do-gooder hysteria, private obsession, and public attitudes and does a great job of putting these drawings into perspective.

There are many who enjoy exploring different parts of the Dom & Sub culture, from BDSM to DD & LG with places similar to growing in popularity. Some people explore these fetishes on their own or with their partner, whereas others go to groups or meetups with people who have similar fetishes they’d like to explore. Others hire escorts, like those on the lausanne, so that they can play their fantasies out with someone experienced. So, it’s no surprise that this culture is coming over to comic books. Sadomasochism is a pervasive element in American popular culture and D&S elements were part of comic books almost from the beginning, but to see those elements reduced to these iconic depictions of bondage, flagellation, and sexual humiliation is startling and oddly appealing. That the characters are rendered in the clean, familiar style of early Superman comics (and, in fact, many of the characters look a great deal like the Superman cast!) adds considerable interest to them.

Although Yoe does a great job of presenting this material, without leaping tall buildings to any conclusions about Joe Shuster’s reasons for creating these little masterpieces of smut, some of the comments from his interviewees and in the introduction by comics’ graybeard Stan Lee are amusing in a judgmental way. It’s clear that some of these folks see something a little shameful about this work when, in fact, it seems to me nothing less than an appealing distillation of a widespread, quite common American kink.

If I have any criticism of the book, it is that the text doesn’t include at least one example of the stories in Nights of Horror. As it happens, I have seen and read one issue of this rare magazine and the stories are awful, amateurishly told versions of the same sorts of things you can find in countless internet repositories, which involve innocents falling into the sadistic hands of villains and villainesses, so there isn’t much lost here by not including them. Without an example though, they appear more forbidden and interesting than they actually are. I’m always in favor of a good tease though, so perhaps this isn’t entirely a bad thing!

Highly recommended for anyone with an eye on the seamier (more interesting!) elements of American culture, the history of censorship in America, or early comic book art. I can’t wait to see what Craig Yoe does next!

(Angela here! Timing really is everything… This
book hit the store just as I was finishing up a sexy superhero tale for
submission. Now that I’m done pouring steel bar-bending words onto the
screen, I’ve started reading this book with special interest. AC)