Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Well, when the bizarre meteorite falls on the Gardner farm, we discover that it is in fact a color not currently found on earth, so maybe it was Octarine. If so, then thanks to the work of Sir Terence Pratchett we can now know quite a bit more about the place from when the meteorite came, and it is indeed a very different world from our own (it's much flatter, for one thing).
But the color itself (sorry, the colour itself) is not the scariest part of this story. It's what the colour does - first spreading itself, then sucking out the life from everything around it - that gets pretty upsetting. I won't give away the specifics, but I will say that this story is the kind of thing that Twilight Zone episodes want to become.
I made the mistake of trying to read this story in pieces while on breaks from work. This was a very, very, very bad idea. Read this story in one or maybe two sittings, while in a darkened room with nothing to distract you. This is the most accessible of the Lovecraft stories I've read so far, with characters you can grab on to and one consistent story to follow. It also has the least antiquated, technical language and the most attempts at complete descriptions. This is in part, I think, because the narrator is not a scientist or an antiquarian. Rather, he is a land surveyor* who's just in town to help with a new reservoir they're putting in for the neighboring city of Arkham (That's right - Arkham, just like the asylum from Batman/the DC Universe. Lovecraft is everywhere!). And our narrator is relating the tale of a humble, stolid farmer. Between the two, things stay about as grounded as they can under the circumstances.
There will still come moments when your imagination has to fill in the blanks, and frankly you might not be happy that it did. Poor Ammi the farmer comes across some pretty disturbing stuff even before the dramatic climax, and you just have to go along with him. Nonetheless, if you want to know more about scary, dreary, unearthly, non-fun colors, then you need to read this one. Don't worry though, it's probably only real if you believe that it's real.
And even if it is, at least it isn't puce.
*much like the lead character in Kafka's The Castle, which I've incidentally been referencing with disturbing frequency in my off-blog life lately. Hm.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Now, if you've ever looked into classic horror in any aspect, chances are you've seen him before as he's included in basically any collage on the subject. This exposure may lessen the impact of the moment, halfway through the film or so, when the Phantom is suddenly unmasked. So imagine, please, being a young person back in 1925. You've just spent your hard-earned nickel (or however-much) on the rare opportunity to sit in a darkened theater and watch a "motion picture" on the big screen. Remember that you don't have a TV at home or any access to moving images other than what you occasionally get to see at the theater. You are not inundated with fantastic images dancing in and out of your home for several hours a day. You're just a kid in a theater, chewing on some peanuts (or whatever), and you're watching the story of the young opera singer and the haunted opera house and you're enjoying the new-fangled tinting technology on this film and then the young opera singer is in the Phantom's lair and she reaches up to remove that creepy mask and suddenly you see -
and OH MY GOODNESS HIS FACE IS FILLING THE SCREEN AND HE'S WALKING TOWARD YOU AND THERE ARE NO REAL SPECIAL EFFECTS SO YOU KNOW THAT THAT'S A FACE, THAT'S A REAL MAN'S REAL FACE AND HOW IS THIS HAPPENING AHHHHHHHH!!!
And I think you can imagine why this movie was pretty much one of the scariest things that had ever happened to anyone.
It's not totally un-scary today, either. You never quite get used to Lon Chaney's face in this one. His makeup job (which he did himself, by the way - that's pre-union vaudeville-trained acting for you) is as usual for him nothing short of awesome. We're talking wire-hooks-in-your-nose, excrutiating-pain-during-filming awesome, here. When you consider that this is the same face we just saw in THE UNKNOWN, it's pretty amazing. It is also, according to my sources, the closest film approximation to the novel's Phantom, who was never really intended to have a pretty side. The story is put together nicely, as well - the same basic storyline as most other versions of Phantom, though each version has a slightly different ending. This one has Raoul and the Mysterious Stranger saving Christine, while some hordes of angry villagers destroy the Phantom and throw him in the Seine.
Ah, angry villagers. Is there any menace you cannot conquer with the aid of a couple of torches and some serious mob mentality?
This film has a decidedly gothic feel as opposed to the sweeping grandeur of certain stage musicals. It's the sort of scary story people sit in parlours (spelled with a 'u', of course) and read on long, rainy autumn nights. There's also some great, moody cinematography and color-tinting on display, as well as a very early use of technicolor(!) for the opera and especially the Bal Masque sections. Being intermittent, the color really, really pops. It's beautiful stuff.
Norman Kerry also appears in this film, playing Young Lover vs Chaney's Demented Freak as he does again in THE UNKNOWN (and before that in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME). He is once again quite dashing, looking excellent in a suit and appearing as though he is, in fact, an excellent lover. In fact, I bet he looks like just the sort of person to come back in around 70 years to teach us once again about how frenchmen do love...
I'm just saying.
Anyway, obviously I've got to recommend this film. Especially if you are, like me, any kind of a silent film nerd. It is beautiful, and moody, and one of the most influential horror films ever. You can hardly talk about classic film horror without mentioning it. So I say, give it a watch.
And I guess if you wanted to be a great big musical theatre nerd and periodically break into song throughout, you could do that too. It is a silent film, after all.
OK, so that's a little more like the Cthulhu you meet in Lovecraft's story. He's much bigger than his Scribblenauts counterpart ("A mountain walked or stumbled," the narrator says of his appearance) and probably a lot scarier. I think his wings actually work, too.
THE CALL OF CTHULHU is short, to the point, and dripping with horrified fascination. It makes an extremely effective introduction to the character of Cthulhu, whom I would guess figures prominently in Lovecraft's other "Cthulhu Mythos" stories. It's basically the account of a young man whose investigation unearths a horrible, human-sacrificing Cult of Cthulhu lurking in the forgotten corners of every part of the world. This cult worships an ancient, world-destroying being who sleeps beneath the ocean (OMG JUST LIKE IN SCRIBBLENAUTS), manipulating the dreams of the sensitive and waiting for his cult to come unleash him upon the world. Since the "sensitive" includes almost exclusively artists and poets, naturally no one believes that Cthulhu is real. But our intrepid protagonist (I don't believe he was ever named, unless I missed it) soon uncovers a first-hand account, proof that the terrible Cthulhu has walked upon the earth and waits to walk again.
Now, since monster-based horror is pretty much dime-a-dozen at this point, let me point out what sets Lovecraft apart. It's not just that Cthulhu is a gigantic, bloodthirsty monster, you see. He is an actual living nightmare. The real horror of Cthulhu is rooted in his strangeness, in the sheer awfulness of a rational brain confronting the irrational. Cthulhu's city, R'lyeh, is consistently described as "non-Euclidean," with a geometry that is "all wrong." This bears out in the described encounter with the place. The sailors exploring the recently unearthed island try to open a door that may or may not be horizontal, which they either climbed on top of or simply stood upon. As they run away, one man trips over an angle which "shouldn't have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse." This is not a nice, clean, geometrically-sound alien world like you find in Star Trek. This is the sort of sticky, slimy, incomprehensible hellscape you find yourself hopelessly trapped in during a fever dream.
It's no real wonder that there's never been a successful visual adaptation of THE CALL OF CTHULHU, though there have been several attempts at movies and video games and the like. R'lyeh and Cthulhu are meant to be so alien that a human mind can't even comprehend them, much less create them. A character-based investigative tale set away from R'lyeh itself would probably play better (even an original spin-off like the Interactive Fiction game Anchorhead, which I also played through this weekend). But if you really want a good look into the horror of Cthulhu and his city at R'lyeh, then you should just go ahead and read this one.
Beware the Cthulhu Cult, though! I thought they probably weren't real based solely on the unpronounceability of their chant, but then I came across one of these while driving home on Friday:
They are among us, I tell you! And their merchandise is available online!
PS: Now that you know about Neil Gaiman and Cthulhu, you should probably read Gaiman's delightful short story, I Cthulhu, which is available for free on his website.
PPS: I don't know who created the second Cthulhu image I posted above. If you know who the artist is, please please tell me so I can give credit where it is so evidently due.
PPPS: Super Scribblenauts, featuring the ability to add adjectives to objects, is available now! Buy it for me today!
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Anyway, as an addendum/companion to my post about AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, here's an informative video about Antarctic exploration:
Next up for Halloween: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925 film) and THE CALL OF CTHULHU (1928 story).
- The Weakerthans, Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)
AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, my first reading experience with HP Lovecraft, got off to an admittedly rocky start (no pun intended, though it would be a pretty good one since the main character is a geologist). This is Sci-Fi Horror, heavy on the Sci-Fi, even heavier on the Sci. The story is written from the perspective of a professor of geology chronicling an expedition to Antarctica gone horribly, horribly wrong, who is telling his story solely to dissuade other scientists from repeating his expedition. As he is meant to be a scholarly fellow writing to other scholarly fellows, who only divulges salacious details because he must, there's a lot of fairly technical information included in the first 2/3 of this novella. This means of course that I, having failed the same 100-level Physical Science class at least twice in college thanks to lack of interest and/or attendance, found the beginning part a bit...laborious. And you know I don't find many things difficult to read - I'm a fan of Kafka, for heaven's sake. Now, this is not to say that it's a bad novella. It gets really, really good and quite fascinating as it goes along. It just takes a bit of time to match the story's tempo, to become accustomed enough to the narrator's dry tone to start noticing the undercurrent of horror that he's keeping carefully suppressed. And once you've got that, you're in. So while in the end I found myself staring at the page in ever-eye-widening breathlessness, even going so far as to put a hand to my mouth when the really scary part came along, I probably would've gotten to that absorbing state of mind more quickly had I had a few basic references under my belt. Therefore, in order to help future readers, I provide a handy list of
REFERENCES IT'S NICE TO HAVE BEFORE READING THIS STORY:
A basic understanding of different pre-historic ages.
The terrifying things that this professor and his friends discover in Antarctica are very, very old. How old I'm not entirely sure, because I don't know when the Pleistocene, Comanchian, and Pre-Cambrian ages were, or if they're all the same thing. I know some of them were pre-dinosaur, but were they also pre-troglodyte? Who can say?
The work of Nicholas Roerich.
The narrator references Roerich frequently in describing the titular Mountains of Madness. Now, Lovecraft references a lot of "sources" who are not real people (more on that later), so it took me a while to bother googling Roerich's work. I regret that fact, as it would've been very nice to have had these images to call to mind when Lovecraft evokes them. Bad Julie. Never ignore an artist. You always end up paying for it when you do.
The ancient buildings found beyond the mountains of madness (is that a spoiler? I mean, it happens like halfway through) are continuously described as "Cyclopean." I had to look up the Wikipedia entry on Cyclopean Masonry about five times before I could keep a picture in my head that corresponded with the word appropriately. Basically it's an ancient method of building walls from rough, stacked stones which need not be of any regular or uniform shape.
A variety of architectural terms.
Most importantly, you need to know what an arabesque and a cartouche are, but it's good to also find out about basic architectural and sculptural concepts and geometry. It will help you, trust me.
Seriously, buy a dictionary or keep a good online dictionary handy. He will throw out technical terms such as you've never imagined.
Don't worry if you don't know some of the references, because they aren't all real.
That's right, many of Lovecraft's references are fictional. He makes frequent mention of the Necronomicon, an ancient book containing extensive arcane and occult knowledge, which was written by the "Mad Arab," Abdul Alhazred. He also references things found in the Necronomicon, such as a region called Leng. None of these things are real (OR ARE THEY??????), so while you can look up lots of interesting information about how they're used in stories, you won't find the real book anywhere (OR WILL YOU??????). There is said to have been one copy of the Necronomicon at the fictional Miskatonic University from whence our hapless explorers come, but even it was kept under lock and key, and only one of the characters ever dared read through all of it, and this knowledge did not cause him to fare well. So it's probably good for us all that it doesn't actually exist (OR DOES IT??????).
Similarly, Lovecraft's narrator frequently alludes to information or materials he assumes that the reader has available, such as radio transmittals sent out during the original expedition and attached photographs. This nicely allows him to sidestep the inexplicable and create an even deeper sense of mystery. It has the added effect, as well, of leaving the reader feeling out of the loop on very important information, forcing our overactive imaginations to fill in the blanks based mostly on vague, creeping suspicion and feeling. It's simultaneously frustrating and frightening.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you like claustrophobic narratives with a heavy dose of ever-deepening dread (and I do), then AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is definitely worth the effort. This story includes some truly disturbing and horrifying elements, and a lot of sick fascination throughout. Lovecraft really creates (OR DOES HE DISCOVER??????) a fully-realized world and culture with an expansive back story, and it's worth immersing yourself in it even if it kind of repulses you and creeps you out. Especially if it kind of repulses you and creeps you out.
There are even penguins. Huge, horrible penguins. That's got to count for something.
There's been some talk of Guillermo Del Toro - of Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies, among others - tackling a Mountains of Madness movie. That I would definitely love to see. In the meantime, I've got the book, a darkened room, and my overactive imagination. Yikes.
- The Weakerthans, Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)
Friday, October 15, 2010
Now, I'm not completely sure why this movie is called THE UNKNOWN. It should probably be called THE ARMS - or, more accurately, A FAREWELL TO ARMS (though of course then I don't know what Hemingway would've done). This thing is all about arms - specifically, who has them, who doesn't have them, who appears not to have them but in fact does have them, and who is afraid of them.
The film takes place in a gypsy circus, where Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, an apparently armless knife-thrower. He's desperately, deeply in love with Joan Crawford's character, Nanon, who is acutely afraid of men's arms and hands because of the pain and abuse they've brought her. She, in turn, is being pursued romantically by Malabar, who uses his muscular arms to perform various feats of strength (so the relationship is not going so well, naturally). Oh, and then there's Alonzo's vaguely creepy, little person assistant, Cojo.
Now, we learn pretty quickly that Alonzo doesn't actually have no arms. In fact, he has two arms, three thumbs, and a very criminal past. The main reason Nanon trusts and feels safe with him, however, is because she thinks he has no arms. It's pretty much the basis of their entire relationship. So he can't tell her the truth. Oh, and she saw his double-thumb (but not his face) when he killed her father. So he really can't tell her the truth. What is a lovesick degenerate to do?
What follows, of course, is one of the all-time great examples of dramatic irony. And some seriously dark and demented decision-making, of course.
Alonzo does what he considers the reasonable thing: he abruptly leaves and blackmails a doctor into amputating both his arms. There are no word-titles telling you that's specifically what he's after, by the way - the awful realization just sort of dawns on you over time. Now, in a way this a great sacrifice for the woman he loves. In going, however, he commits one of the cardinal sins of love stories: he leaves before he tells the woman he loves her. This is something that almost never works out in movies. Leave just after declaring your love, and you can usually pull of an 'enduring long-distance love' situation. Leave without doing so, however, and it's anybody's game. In this case, the very day that Alonzo leaves, Malabar discovers Nanon mooning over some flowers that he gave her. He's confused by her mixed signals, goes to hold her, and finally realizes why she keeps recoiling. Unlike Alonzo, however, he is somewhat grounded in reality (and he's never killed any of her family members), so he decides to just spend quality time with her, keep his hands away from her, and wait for her to overcome her fear. It's actually very sweet and romantic. And it works. Alonzo returns to find himself on one half of a pretty awful Gift of the Magi. He's given up his arms only to find that Nanon no longer fears them - and that she and Malabar are ready to get married. Lon Chaney gives exactly the reaction one might expect: hysterical laugh-crying. It's actually gorgeous. Then he decides to exact his revenge in a climactic scene I shall not reveal. I will say that horses on treadmills are involved.
[END SPOILER SECTION]
This movie isn't a traditional horror story of the "fill it with zombies and set it on fire" variety. It's more of an extremely dark, tragic love story (just the way I like 'em!). There's a particularly well-functioning love triangle in play here - Alonzo loves Nanon, Malabar loves Nanon, Nanon's attracted to Malabar but repulsed by his arms, Nanon clearly cares for Alonzo but the relationship is unclear. Everybody has compelling, conflicting reasons to be together that are initially overridden by the things keeping them apart. Classic love story. Still, plenty of appropriate Halloween elements are there - the circus (territory director Tod Browning explores again in the more-famous and oft-banned FREAKS); amputations; murder; medieval punishment methods; attempted murder; wild, uncontrollable laughter. What more do you need, really?
Plus it's a great time to watch, of course. I'm a long-time and openly-acknowledged fan of Lon Chaney, and he gives one of his best and most heartfelt performances here. And of course you have to see Joan Crawford. I have to confess this was the first time I'd actually seen her on film. Famous aversion to wire hangers aside, she's entrancing and visceral and ravishing and believable in a way that's definitely ahead of her time. Norman Kerry's Malabar is unexpectedly nuanced and lovable when he could so easily have been as flat and boring as the "love-interest-by-default" usually is, even today. Even Cojo is emotional and interesting. These actors take a group of "types" and turn them into honestly engaging people. It's fascinating work.
What really sets this movie apart, though, is the foot acting. Chaney has an actually-armless body double for the film, Paul Desmuke, who I believe plays the feet. And he plays them splendidly! Alonzo smokes with his feet, gestures with his feet, throws knives, shoots off a girl's dress (for his circus act), even drums his toes together evilly. Never knew your feet could express nuance and pathos? Well, see THE UNKNOWN, and realize just how much untapped potential you've been ignoring.
So, what have I learned? First of all, scary-creepy is best when it comes with a scary-creepy story. Second, arms are...good? Bad? Overrated? More dramatically interesting than I used to think, anyway.
Type of Scary: Twisted.
Recommended for: Anyone with a foot fetish.
Not recommended for: Apotemnophobics.
I gasped, sighed, smiled, gritted my teeth, and did a lot of horrified staring with my mouth hanging open. Oh, horror/romance. Why isn't there more of you out there these days?
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Now, I know this has been a difficult time for all of you, waiting in daily, ever-maddening anticipation for the day when I would once again blog. For that, of course, I apologize. But worry not! I have allll kinds of things to talk about, like...
Now honestly, I haven't been a big fan of Halloween in the past. Somewhere around the end of junior high school I became disenchanted with wearing costumes outside of a performance situation. I don't particularly enjoy gory horror films, and I tend to find haunted houses kind of embarrassing (for me...the houses themselves vary in quality). So ever since I freed myself of the Thanksgiving Restriction and therefore allowed the Christmas Season to extend into November, Halloween has just been the holiday I have to wait through before I get out my Christmas music (and a good excuse to watch Nightmare Before Christmas in order to signify the change). Last year I pretty much got out of the holiday altogether, thanks to a septo-rhinoplasty undergone just three days before Halloween. I was quite proud of that at the time. Major nose surgery comes with a particularly gross healing process, though, and I don't know that I want to go through it again just to get out of some costume events. Besides, this year the Berkeley Institute of Religion is hosting a GINORMOUS haunted house/Halloween dance, and many people I know are involved, which means I'll feel bad if I'm not there. And I guess that means I might as well enjoy it, right?
- Sidebar: is it weird for an Institute of Religion to host a Halloween celebration? Discuss.
So this year I've decided to make an effort. To that end, I've selected a theme. From now until the end of October, I'm indulging in 1920's HORROR, with an emphasis on the works of Lon Chaney (film) and H.P. Lovecraft (literature). Basically I'm going to watch some silent films and read some great sci-fi horror stories and then post reactions, analyses, or other content about them here. I'll display the current list of films and stories in the upper right-hand panel on this page, for anyone playing along at home. Trust me, you won't regret it if you do. The Lovecraft stories are all available through Project Gutenberg (click the links in the list), though I always recommend having a physical book to hold, preferably in the dark. Many of the films are available instantly via Netflix. You can also check your local library.
Now, I should state upfront that my content choosing rules aren't 100% strict. For example, not all of the films feature Lon Chaney. And I don't think all of the Lovecraft stories I've chosen were actually written in the 20's. Nonetheless, it's close enough. Listen, the point is that they knew how to craft some great, often intense stuff back in the early 20th century - and most of it was a lot of fun! Watch this space in the coming weeks (if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook then you won't have to, because I'll post the links as they come up).
Listen guys, I'm very excited about this Halloween project. This is my first experience with many of these films, despite being a huge fan of Chaney's work in general, and it's definitely the first time I've read any of Lovecraft's work. I'm anticipating a lot of vaguely creepy fun in the near future.
First up: THE UNKNOWN (film) and AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (novella). Which I post about first will largely depend upon the folks at Netflix.
BONUS CLIP! Because one thing I have always secretly liked about Halloween is novelty music (and one thing I openly love about life is watching 30 Rock):
Hey look guys - new layout! I'm getting the Halloween spirit already! Let me know if it's impossible to read or otherwise annoying, and I'll happily change it.