Now Fear This: Pumpkinhead

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He never holds a pumpkin in the entire movie.

Stan Winston should be a household name. He should have a star on Hollywood Boulevard. If you ask me (and most genre fans) his birthday should be a holiday, and people should be required by law to name all male twins “Stan” and “Winston.” Why is this person, whose name might be vaguely familiar in the same way that you sort of know Chester A. Arthur, but can’t for the life of you remember exactly what he did? Well, Stan Winston created vast swaths of the coolest shit on the planet.

Do you like any science fiction or horror from the ‘80s? Okay, if you answered “no” what the fuck are you doing here? You’re clearly lost. Go find the nearest adult and tell them you finally escaped the cave that weird guy with all the good candy put you in. If you answered “I don’t know,” well, I have some movie recommendations for you. For everyone else, Stan Winston was one of the defining creators behind some of the greatest movies ever made.

If you liked a creature or special effect in the 1980s, chances are Stan Winston had a hand in it. The Alien Queen? Yeah, that was Winston. What about the Terminator? Also Winston. Predator? Yep, still Winston. He even did uncredited work on the greatest creature feature of all time, the 1982 John Carpenter masterpiece The Thing (Winston designed and built the dog-thing). This is a man who made nightmares a reality. Without Winston, a litany of the best genre films the most genre-defining decade in history had to offer, would not work.

But could the guy direct? The 1988 creature feature/slasher flick Pumpkinhead answered that with a definitive yes.

Pumpkinhead feels like a legend to the point that I assumed it was one. My warm feelings for the movie should be obvious to anyone who read my novel City of Devils, as I included pumpkinheads as a species of monster, with one of their number being an unexpected breakout character. I had seen this movie when young, and later on had read urban legends which I can only assume have their origins with this film. The filmmakers themselves were cagey, claiming to have based the movie on an evocative poem by “Ed Justin,” but he might very well not exist.

The monster has the ineffable qualities of good folklore. A demon or possible spirit of nature (these two things were conflated by early Christians, and any meaningful distinction exists now only in urban fantasy novels), Pumpkinhead is more a curse than a creature with agency. When a man is wronged and he has no other recourse, he can travel out to a pumpkin patch that’s also a haunted cemetery (because these locals go all the fuck out for Halloween) and invoke Pumpkinhead to take revenge.

The film opens in the midst of one of Pumpkinhead’s hunts, when a terrified man bangs on the door of a neighboring shack, begging to be sheltered. This is when young Ed Harley, our protagonist (played as an adult by the great Lance Henriksen), sets eyes on the monster and sees that it’s more than just a local ghost story. When, years later, careless tourists kill Ed’s young son, desperation sends Ed out to invoke the spirit. First he has to find the semi-legendary local witch, who in turn sends him to the cemetery, where he must exhume and return with a tiny mummified corpse. Some black magic and bloodletting later, and Pumpkinhead has been invoked, his life force linked to Ed’s

As one would expect from a Winston film, Pumpkinhead is a triumph of ‘80s area puppeteering and costuming. The design is distinctive enough to separate it from other beasts of its ilk, but also simple enough so that when it is shown in flashes of lightning, it is instantly recognizable. It has a pleasing weight and presence that CGI has never been able to master, and has aged far better than many more modern films could ever hope to. While the name is a touch goofy, it was part of one of the odder ‘80s traditions of slapping would-be horror icons with silly monikers, like Chucky or Pinhead. Rest assured, despite the name, Pumpkinhead does not have a literal pumpkin for a head.

The film operates in an interesting place in ‘80s fiction as well. At the time, violence was considered the answer to pretty much any problem, from crime to teen dating. Pumpkinhead creates a world in which careless teenagers kill a little boy, shattering the life of his father. When Ed invokes the creature, we are on his side, but as Ed begins to see the actual cost, he rapidly comes to the correct conclusion that vengeance is a bad thing. By linking Ed’s life force with that of the creature, the film draws an explicit line between the two: vengeance, even ostensibly righteous vengeance, turns a man into a monster. The victims are shown though Ed’s eyes as well, introduced as little more than slasher movie archetypes, which is exactly how a grief-stricken father would see them. But as the film progresses, they gain depth and layers, making them, in Ed’s eyes, human.

The film highlights the differences between the locals and the interlopers as well. Ed’s community is never named, beyond nicknames for a few local “hollers.” This place is so depressed that a meth infusion would qualify as an economic boom. Ed lives on a tiny farm with his son, and the much larger Wallace clan, clad in filthy rags, lives on the next one over. From the looks of the barren ground, no one is growing anything other than misery. Meanwhile, the tourists are rich, beautiful, and young, at first treating the locals with either contempt of condescension. It’s an outlier to the larger hicksploitation subgenre, as it ends up siding with Ed and his son. We’re meant to feel sympathy for the victims, but only after Ed himself does.

Winston shoots the film like Halloween itself. Many of the interiors are flickering orange, calling to mind the inside of a jack-o’-lantern. The outside hews closer to late ‘80s night, with deep blues standing in for the stygian blacks of the ‘70s, and the occasional massive light behind a small rise, making it look like a land of crashed UFOs.

No one would ever say Pumpkinhead should have swept the Oscars. It remains a cult movie, and a worthy one, on the edges of so many horror subgenres, taking what it can from each. Most tantalizingly, it manages to create a sense of folklore: Pumpkinhead is much bigger than his movie, because, if he doesn’t really exist, he feels like he should.

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Yakmala: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

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“Hang on. There’s a chunk of Krypton that’s eyeing me.”

How bad does a movie have to be before a guaranteed cash cow is put out to pasture? How many clueless executives does it take the strangle the promise out of a character? How painfully stupid does the writing have to get, despite pretensions of intellectualism, before the audience and critics revolt? Superman as a character/property/whatever seems intent on answering these questions. While it sounds like I’m ready to wind up and take another whack at Zack Snyder’s nutsack, presumably in hopes of re-starting his thinking pieces, I’m actually talking about the 1987 Golan-Globus production Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Tagline: Nuclear Power. In the best hands, it is dangerous. In the hands of Lex Luthor, it is pure evil. This is Superman’s greatest battle. And it is for all of us.

More Accurate Tagline: Superman’s sick, son. We’re just going to have to take him out behind the barn.

Guilty Party: This absolutely kills me to say it, but Christopher Reeve. I am an enormous fan of Reeve’s iconic performance as the Man of Steel. He is the only actor who ever successfully captured Superman’s towering but not jacked physique, his matinee looks, the duality of his alter egos, and the essential decency of his nature. Divorced from the quality of the films, Reeve’s Superman might be the best superhero performance in history. The problem is this movie. It wasn’t going to get greenlit without Reeve signing on, and Reeve wouldn’t sign on without making this movie as a soapbox. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment having a political agenda. The problem is when political agendas try to be entertaining.

Synopsis: Superman (Christopher Reeve) is doing Superman stuff. No, that doesn’t mean causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people for no reason. He saves lives and averts catastrophe.

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Or, as Zack Snyder might say, “Being a total pussy.”

Superman’s life is getting a little more complicated. He’s selling the family’s Smallville farm, though insists it be sold to someone who will use it as a family farm and not a land developer. The Daily Planet has also been purchased by Rupert Murdoch (okay, his name is Warfield, but still), and he’s turning the paper into a tabloid. His daughter Lacey (a high-powered exec in her own right), instantly falls head over heels for Clark Kent, finding him to be a sweet, decent man. This is while ostensible love interest Lois has this weird starfucking power fantasy with Superman. Yeah, at this point, I’m pretty much an anybody-but-Lois guy.

Superman gets a letter from a kid asking him to do something about nuclear weapons. Hilariously, the letter is delivered to the Daily Planet. There’s a handwave explanation, but I prefer to think that everyone knows Superman and Clark Kent are the same guy, but they’re just humoring him. Superman is basically the subject of a worldwide catfishing.

Superman decides that the only way to deal with nuclear weapons is to gather all of them up and throw them into the sun. Everyone is super-psyched about this, too. You know, rather than at least a portion of people being terrified that a godlike alien has decided to permanently alter the balance of power on earth on some kid’s whim. What happens when some brat wonders if there’s a Santa? Is Superman going to kidnap a bunch of dwarfs and force them to make toys in the Fortress of Solitude? You don’t know! This guy’s crazy!

Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) breaks out of prison with the help of his possibly developmentally disabled nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer). As part of a scheme to sell more nuclear weapons… okay, I need to pause here. That’s too much for just the opening clause of a sentence. Because… seriously? I mean, at least it’s not another fucking real estate scam, but come on. At this point, Luthor’s criminal schemes play like something Frank Reynolds would blurt out in the middle of a night terror.

Okay, so Luthor steals a piece of Superman’s hair from a museum, and using the genetic material in it, makes some protoplasm. He attaches it to a nuke and when Superman hurls it into the sun, it creates Nuclear Man, a nuclear-powered supervillain and possible Adult Contemporary musician.

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There’s no way that hairdo doesn’t know its way around an alto sax.

Nuclear man only has to scratch Superman with his radioactive Lee Press-Ons to give him radiation sickness. It works once (which Superman cures using the last relic from Krypton), and then Nuclear Man never tries it again. He has Superman on the ropes several times, and he could so easily give him a rake across the face, but he never does. Superman eventually gets tired of waiting for Nuclear Man to remember he has an I Win button and throws his nemesis into a nuclear reactor. Nuclear Man dies and powers the city… wait, I thought this was an anti-nuke screed?

Then, Superman delivers Lex back to his work gang and Lenny to this creepy Catholic priest who looks the young man up and down and is like, “There’s always room for boys here.”  That’s sort of the end.

Life-Changing Subtext: Solar power is a form of nuclear energy and thus inherently dangerous. I should probably explain. Nuclear Man, aside from being just stunningly stupid, is intended as the physical manifestation of the evils of nuclear power. Fair enough, right? Well, what’s his weakness? Since he was born in the sun (which the movie correctly identifies as being a nuclear reaction), he needs constant sunlight or he powers down and is helpless. So he’s really more solar-powered than nuclear-powered, isn’t he? Doesn’t that make him green?

Defining Quote: “Destroy Superman!” This is said by Lex, Lenny, and Nuclear Man multiple times. Based on what this film did to the Superman brand, they weren’t far off.

Standout Performance: Lenny Luthor needs to be set on fire. Right now. If I had a time machine, I would go back to 1987 with a flamethrower and do it myself, but science has not caught up. He’s sort of this new wave valley guy abomination, and is the only reason I wished Metropolis had a C.H.U.D. problem, because those guys would sort that shit out right away.

What’s Wrong: The movie is rightly dinged as a lesser copy of the original Superman, but The Force Awakens made all the money in the universe doing more or less the same thing, so I’m letting it off the hook for that. Other than Reeve, though, nobody cared. The great vulgarians at Cannon Films had bought the rights from the increasingly disinterested Salkinds, and slashed the budget to the bone. So a movie built on some verisimilitude (that was the source of the oft-mocked catchphrase “You’ll believe a man can fly!”) now looked chintzy and fake. Cannon Films didn’t employ writers so much as dump out entire boxes of Alpha-Bits and then sign Chuck Norris to star in the result.

Flash of Competence: Christopher Reeve will always be Superman.

Best Scenes: It’s sad that I even have to say this, but Superman saves innocent lives. These are always a highlight, and the incidental scenes are better than the bizarrely Rube Goldbergian disasters in Superman III. The film opens with Superman saving a Russian cosmonaut before giving him a totally Superman-chiding in Russian. This is during the Cold War when the entire plot hinges on that power being one of two to end the world. Superman doesn’t give a fuck: if he can save your life, he’s going to do it. Because that’s what a hero is.

Nuclear Man sees a picture of Lacey in the paper (as the Planet’s new publisher) and decides he has to have her, so he goes on a mini-rampage. Superman shows up out of nowhere, and when Nuclear Man demands to be taken to her or he will hurt people. That’s the exact threat. Then he proceeds to do just that. And the scene keeps going. And going. Nuclear Man using his weird nuclear telekinesis and eyebeams wrecking shit. And presumably Superman is just standing there, waiting patiently. What feels like five full minutes later, it cuts back to Superman and he’s like “No, the people!” Dude. You could have stopped him at any time, but you had to take a leak, and getting out of that leotard is a bitch and a half.

Transcendent Moment: Because Superman acts like a hero (albeit a dumb one) for most of the movie, his one act of superdickery is that much more jarring. He goes to ask Lois for advice about whether or not to listen to this kid’s letter, then casually reveals he’s Superman. They do a quick re-enactment of the “Can You Read My Mind” scene from Superman, (this time, Superman just drops her, I guess to fuck with her), then he lands. And what does he do? Gives her the Rufie-kiss that might be the worst part of Superman II, and that movie features a cellophane-S ninja star. This begs the question: how many times has Superman wiped Lois Lane’s mind? Does he know what that does? He could be giving this woman brain damage for all he knows.

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Every movie has a moment where you’re like, “The fuck, Superman?!”

Quest for Peace was long considered the worst Superman movie ever. Make no mistake, it’s absolutely terrible. Still, its reputation is beginning to fade, if only because this movie remembers that superheroes are still fundamentally heroes.

 

 

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Lifetime Theater: Killing Daddy

Spend enough time reviewing Lifetime movies, it’s inevitable you’re going to have to discuss Hitchcock. His troubling history of misogyny would be the obvious track to take, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my Very Special Journey, it’s that the obvious choice is seldom the correct one. Because of this week’s baffling film, the Canadian melodrama Killing Daddy, we have to discuss the basics of storytelling. Mostly because it’s clear the writers never did.

Hitchcock’s favorite thing in the world was fucking with people, mostly because he took the second syllable of his name literally. His favorite targets were his actors (especially poor Tippi Hedren), but that was in the service of mass dickery. He really wanted to mess with audiences. To that end, he employed the thriller scale, where on one end you have surprise and on the other suspense. The classic example is two characters sit down at a table that has a bomb under it and the characters have no idea. In the surprise scenario, the audience doesn’t know there’s bomb either and it just goes off. In the suspense scenario, the audience knows there’s a bomb and gets the deliciously tense sensation of watching it tick down to zero.

In prose, which one you go with tends to align with the format of what you’re writing. Short stories are almost required to have a twist ending, which necessitates surprise. The longer the format, from novella to novel and so on, the more you’re shifting toward suspense. Surprises are still welcome, but most book-length fiction leans on suspense.

Suspense, at least in the early days of the film industry, was considered to be the superior form of the two options. Hitchcock regarded surprise as somewhat cheap. After all, surprise is easy. Anyone can do it; at its lowest form, it’s jumping around a corner and shouting “Boo!” Suspense takes some skill to set up and even more to keep going. Prolonging suspense is basically cinematic edging. You’re getting almost all the way there until it’s unbearable. Also, Sting is there for some reason.

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The suspense lies in how he’s keeping those art deco drawers on.

Then along came Shyamalan. I’ve gone on record that The Sixth Sense is a good movie, and I will defend Unbreakable as flawed but fascinating. The problem was, Shyamalan thought he’d hacked the human brain. In many off-putting interviews, he talked about how The Sixth Sense was some rosetta stone to entertainment, and what it taught him was that his entire movies should hinge on one big twist. Two problems. One, if you’re known for your twists, people know they’re coming, making them less twisty and more inevitable. It’s essentially become suspense in service to surprise, and none of that is for your story. Two, no one is actually watching your movie. They’re playing an imaginary chess game — or checkers, in the case of Signs and The Happening — against you, never letting themselves be immersed in the story.

The key for a writer is to know which one to use. Shyamalan fell in love with surprise and ended up a laughingstock. A super wealthy laughingstock who can basically work or not work as much as he wants. Yeesh. Well, no one went broke underestimating people’s intelligence.

The writer of Killing Daddy, Trent Haaga, is no M. Night Shyamalan. Man, I don’t even know who I’m insulting anymore. It would be tempting to claim that Lifetime’s overlit and underwritten Cinematic Universe isn’t equipped to build a movie on the back of a twist, but they totally did. The problem is that when the twist is telegraphed from the opening bell, it’s not much of a twist. Pretending it is just makes everyone look like an idiot. Then again, this entire movie seems designed for precisely that purpose.

About halfway through watching it, my wife wandered in and wanted to know who everyone was. I did my best to explain before realizing that this family unit is complex enough to belong in a Russian novel. Okay, there’s the titular Daddy (he has a name, but it literally could not matter less), who has recently been incapacitated by a stroke. He can understand language, but he’s paralyzed and can only make sad faces. He has two daughters by different mothers, the overachieving blonde businesswoman Laura, and the trainwreck runaway and possible part-time hooker Callie (short for Callista because fuck it why not). Dad lives with Emma, who in a confusing note, is the mother of neither young woman. She’s just the loyal assistant who Daddy is also banging.

Got it? There will be a test.

Callie is the main character, and she’s introduced as harboring a righteous anger at her father. Problem is, not enough is revealed to buy her story in the slightest. She blames Daddy for her mom’s suicide and for later having Callie committed to a mental institution. In real life, yeah, maybe Callie’s got something, but this is Lifetime. She vows to destroy the lives of not just Daddy, but Emma and Laura as well. So we’re supposed to buy her as a hero? Sorry, Lifetime, no. Especially not when she’s wearing heavy eye makeup and leather pants. That’s pop culture code for Sith Lord.

When she gets a tweaker ex to smother her dad with a vorpal pillow, her plan quickly goes awry. She ends up awesomely shooting the tweaker and burning his hotel room down, although sadly not to the strains of Evanescence. Eventually Emma (assisted by the family lawyer that Callie seduced and blackmailed) help convince Callie that she’s like, super fucking insane, and she should knock it off. She ends up in a mental institution and the final shot is of her grinning. Which… what’s the implication here? That she’s going to break out? That this is setting her up as the Joker of the Lifetime Cinematic Universe (hereafter called the LCU)? What’s going on here?

So what did we learn? Well, if you get committed there might just be a good reason. Also, tweakers do not make reliable employees, especially (and ironically) for criminal enterprises.

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Tread Perilously — Lizzie Borden Took An Axe

tpaxTread Perilously returns to the beginning to celebrate its one year anniversary! A year ago, the show began as “An Axe to Grind” as Erik and Justin decided to do a podcast centered around Lifetime‘s limited series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. They continued on to Doctor Who, Attack on Titan and a number of other series, but never returned to the TV movie from which the whole thing began: Lizzie Borden Took an Ax.

Lizzie begins her murder spree with her father and step-mother, but the baffled police of Fall River, Massachusetts cannot connect the dots without the help of Payback’s Gregg Henry. Can The 4400‘s Billy Campbell get her acquitted on a Miranda technicality which will not exist for at least another fifty years?

Erik and Justin recount their fascination with the series and the early steps to its madness in the TV movie. They also consider the difficulties of the courtroom drama, the missing Lizzie Borden Chronicles characters and Lifetime’s intended audience. Erik also tries to figure out his beef with The 4400‘s Billy Campbell.

Click here or subscribe to The Satellite Show on iTunes.

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Now Fear This: Bone Tomahawk

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Starring Kurt Russell and his mustache.

Too often, understanding of the western genre begins and ends with, “People talking like cowboys while using six-shooters to resolve their differences.” Unfortunately, this reduces a thematically rich and uniquely American genre to the level of a pantomime, the rough equivalent that deciding anything with a vampire in it has to be horror. Westerns, at their best, are about the line between civilization and savagery, about lawless communities that nonetheless possess order, and about hard men and women compelled, by honor or survival, to undertake tasks they don’t want to do. For me, the most evocative aspect of the western is the central question/paradox, “Can a place be civilized without destroying it?” So important to me is this theme, I will dismiss out of hand any western that doesn’t at least have shades of it.

Manifest destiny spurred western expansion, and with it came the romanticization of the west. Many writers used terms like “virgin” and “unspoiled” to describe it; sexist terms commonly employed to describe desirable brides. The implication, though, is that when men — white men, it should be noted, since Native Americans had been there for thousands of years — showed up, the west would be made lesser. It would be “tamed” — another term often used in a sexist manner — by towns, by law, and by the harbinger of the east, the railroad. The west was desirable, but built right into the concept was the acknowledgement that such desirability was ephemeral, and would be gone the minute it was “civilized.”

The most tragic victims of manifest destiny, are of course the Native Americans. The western genre’s big flaw in its early days turning them into the equivalent of orcs, Nazis, or Stormtroopers to be slaughtered by the bucketload by its heroic all-white cast. The revisionist westerns tended to overcorrect, showing them as principled stewards of the land tragically butchered by white barbarians carrying the veneer of civilization. Too rare are the films that showed Native Americans as they were: people. Complicated, conflicted people with concerns of their own. 2015’s excellent horror-western Bone Tomahawk doesn’t quite correct this, as the heroes are as white as can be and the villains are at least ethnically Native American, but hidden within is the awful choice confronting the natives of the frontier.

When the small town of Bright Hope wakes up to find their horses stolen, a stableboy brutally torn apart, and three townsfolk (including a deputy) abducted, their only evidence is a bone-tipped arrow. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) summons the Professor (Zahn McClarnon) to question him about the culprits. The Professor represents one survival tactic of a Native American in this world: he can try to assimilate. The Professor keeps his hair long and seems to be a respected member of the community, but he does have to put up with a bit of casual racism and seems to be the only Native American around. When he fingers the ones responsible, he outlines the other option, though he angrily insists that they are not Indians, instead referring to them as Troglodytes.

The Professor calls them an inbred family group of cannibals. They have no language, no culture. They sound like a version of the mutants in the Wes Craven classic The Hills Have Eyes, and when they finally appear on screen after more than an hour, they more than live up to the description. Though the Professor knows at least roughly where they are, he refuses to accompany the posse on the rescue, as anyone going along is pretty much guaranteed to be horribly killed. If anything, the Professor was underselling the menace of the Troglodytes. At first, they appear to be nearly supernatural, communicating only with unearthly, inhuman howls, and covered in white paint like nudist War Boys. They move like ghosts and strike with sudden, visceral violence.

Hunt, though, has no choice; duty compels him to undertake this task. Accompanying him are Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a local cowboy hobbled by a broken leg whose wife has been taken, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the absent-minded backup deputy, and John Brooder (Matthew Fox) a dandy who casually mentions, in front of the Professor, that he’s “killed more Indians than anyone here.”

The deliberate pacing of the film makes the violence hit much harder than it might otherwise. The knock against westerns, especially from modern audiences, is that they are almost perversely slow. They are environments to get lost in as much as they are movies to watch. Bone Tomahawk utilizes this slow pace, giving us time to meet the people of Bright Hope, including all three of those abducted, before putting them on the trail, so that we as the audience are attached to those who will inevitably die. Arthur’s broken leg takes up a lot of time, especially after their horses are stolen away in the night. It’s Arthur, the symbolically broken man, hobbled by his body and by his emotional attachment to his wife, who must play the role of the cavalry.

When the violence does arrive, it is beyond shocking. Bone Tomahawk features one of the most brutal murders I have ever seen, and I have watched the entire Saw series. The Troglodytes approach violence with the blunt-fingered ingenuity of a cruel child, and to them human beings are the flies they pull the legs off of. Their attacks often feature rape imagery, specifically bone weapons being forced into mouths for no discernible purpose. The females in their cave — the Troglodytes are always referred to as “male” or “female” rather than “man” or “woman” to underscore their bestial natures — are pregnant, dismembered, and blinded, with bones jutting from their eye sockets.

Carol Clover, in her incredible book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, dissects this kind of imagery in rape revenge films. It’s often forgotten that in the ur-example of the genre, Deliverance, the men are only on that canoe trip because a dam will obliterate the river entirely, “civilizing” it. The hillbillies are the natives who strike back against the figurative rape of their home with literal sexual assault against Ned Beatty. The Troglodytes are no doubt feeling some of the same pressure. They can’t hide forever, and as the land they live on disappears to white settlements and steel track, they reassert their robbed masculinity by penetrating flesh with bone.

The eventual showdown brings the film back to the themes of civilization versus savagery. Markers of civilization are shown as weakness, with the most “civilized” characters suffering the most egregiously. The only character who can help is one who commits a subtle act of cannibalism, extracting the bone device the Troglodytes embed in their throats to shape their bizarre cries. To arrive, he has already sacrificed the ability to walk upright like a man, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t see men — well, males — as prey.

Bone Tomahawk is an absolutely stunning film. Horror westerns are such a rare treat it’s tempting to embrace them just because of that rarity. With this one, there’s no need to grade on a curve. It’s an excellent movie featuring a great cast, and deserving of a wide audience.

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Liner Notes: The Dark Price of Ahriman

Dark Price 6x9I don’t quite know what people imagine a writer’s process to be. Some probably think we retire to book-stuffed studies and write while classical music wafts ethereally through the air. Some probably think we roll out of bed, slam a fifth of whiskey, and vomit onto the page. The short answer is every writer is different. What works for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else. I bring it up now because when I was writing The Dark Price of Ahriman, the second book in the Ahriman Trilogy, I faced some unique challenges based on my personal process.

I like to be working on something constantly, mostly because without forward momentum, the worst parts of my relentlessly self-critical psyche start picking the house of cards I call my self-image apart. So when I finish a draft of a project and send it somewhere, whether it’s to readers or to submit it to a press, I immediately switch gears and work on another one, and if I have nothing in progress, I start something.

Additionally, to keep things moving with publishers, I do my best to juggle the various series I have in progress, from the open ended ones like Fill in the Blank, to the ones with definite endpoints in mind like the Ahriman Trilogy. The idea is that I don’t want to write a sequel before I sell the first one to a publisher, so I don’t end up with a twelve book series I can’t sell anywhere. So when a book is sold, I put the sequel on the queue to write, and I do my best to write them in the order that they were picked up by publishers. In this way I can do my best to make sure fans of the series don’t feel stranded.

The Last Son of Ahriman was the fifth book I finished, sandwiched between my darkest horror, The Dollmaker and Everyman. While those two books, which I had thought were nearly unpublishable, quickly found homes, Last Son did not. This shocked me, as I had assumed it was the most commercial thing I’d written thus far. Young adult, paranormal, shades of superheroic action, this is the stuff that blockbusters are made of. When I sent it out, it was greeted with lackluster shrug after lackluster shrug. It found a home quite late in the game, to the point that I wasn’t able to write Dark Price until after Daughters of Arkham. This was a gap of around three or four years, I believe.

Many writers keep what is referred to as a “series bible,” which is a document tracking little bits of continuity you might need. A character’s eye color, say, or their mother’s name, or an important bit of history from their past. The kind of thing that a writer might forget when the muse is on them, but that a reader — a fan — will never miss. Because I was blessed (or cursed) with a phenomenal memory for this kind of thing, most of my series bibles exist in my head. When I don’t know something, I look it up. Fortunately, I have great editors as well who can correct some of my most egregious errors. Still, with Ahriman, I had to jump back into a world that I had left a long while back and was beginning to think would never be finished.

I already had the beginnings of a document, written concurrently with Last Son detailing my plans for the series. While I can’t talk about those, or the major plotline of Dark Price without massive spoilers, I had already foreshadowed it in the first book. I had the broad strokes, and what I needed was to craft an entire plot, and then make sure it felt like the first book.

That’s the toughest part of longform fiction and switching gears like I do. My books tend to have very different feels — you can’t get much more dissimilar than Mr Blank and The Dollmaker — and when you go back for a sequel after rambling through some other genres, it can be hard to recapture it. After all, “feel” is an ineffable quality, yet undeniably important to the series as a whole. It’s a combination of character moments, plotlines, dialogue, tone, and even word choice that unites in this vague quality that’s hard to define but easy to see when it’s done wrong.

Immersing myself into a series after a long absence has kind of been my thing lately. I recently finished a cycle of book twos (books two?) that of which Dark Price was the second-to-last. It’s only because of the vagaries of the publishing industry that it’s one of the first (behind Get Blank by two years) to come out. Rereading the first book helps (especially for issues of continuity), but to capture the feeling, I like to review my outline of the first book, any notes I took about it or a potential sequel, and even listen to some of the same music I was listening to when I wrote it. Whether or not I succeeded is up to the readers, and I suspect some will say yes, others no, but it’s been working to my satisfaction.

As for the story itself, I will say that this is my attempt to do right what a relatively recent and very famous trilogy did spectacularly and famously wrong. I also wanted to use this book to really explore the idea of Ahriman’s influence on the mages who bind themselves to it. If I never show temptation or fall, then those become informed characteristics. I’m telling you they exist, but you never see it in the actual story. The same goes for the concrete effects the Order of Ahriman had on the world.

The good news is that there’s not going to be as big a wait between this and the final book. I know exactly where this is headed, and what has to happen to bring the trilogy to its conclusion. It might get a little weird, but hey, when you’re talking about a boy that uses the power of a planet-god to fight that planet-god, weird is a feature, not a bug.

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Yakmala: Superman III

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“I still don’t understand why I’m here.” “Shut up, Chris.”

Making a good Superman movie is apparently only slightly easier than convincing a clown to sterilize his chainsaw before he gives you a makeshift vasectomy. There have been six live action attempts, and by my count, we have a grand total of one and a half good ones. While far from the worst Superman movie ever made, Superman III just might be the strangest.

Tagline: Superman vs. the king of computerized crime!

More Accurate Tagline: Superman vs. dignity!

Guilty Party: While Richard Lester fucked up Donner’s vision for Superman II (which, if allowed to happen, would have been the best Superman movie of all time), you can’t really blame him for this. Sure, his weird racism, devotion to unfunny comedy, and conviction that Superman is basically a character from a Monkees sketch, are all on display. But the reason he was given the keys to the Superman franchise are the Salkinds. I don’t want to be hyperbolic or anything, but the Salkinds basically sodomized Superman’s character on top of a Willie Nelson pinball machine.

Synopsis: When you’re making a movie about an all-powerful alien who likes to save people from huge natural and manmade disasters, you really want to open on a grimy early ‘80s unemployment office. Gives audiences that sense of existential despair so integral to escapist cinema. Anyway, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor, yep, Richard Pryor) learns he’s no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. Ooo. I’m getting fucking chills from all the childlike wonder.

Gus happens to see an ad for computer programming training, and it turns out he’s a super genius at it. He goes to work for Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) who is basically the non-union Mexican equivalent of Lex Luthor. Why they didn’t name him Lexo Lutherez qualifies as one of the great missed opportunities of civilization. Gus, unsatisfied with his paycheck, writes a program that steals the leftover fractions of a cent from company transactions. This brings him to the attention of Webster, who wants to use Gus’s computer know-how to hijack the weather.

Yeah, computers are basically magic in this world.

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It’s like this rainbow is shooting straight up into your large colon.

Meanwhile, Lois ducks out of the movie (actress Margot Kidder was in a beef with the Salkinds over Donner’s firing, which basically means a legitimately mentally ill person had a better handle on reality than the fucking Salkinds), while Clark Kent heads to Smallville for his class reunion. There he runs into Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), the woman he was in love with back in high school, now a single mom in a dead end job. He also runs into jerk jock Brad, who is played by one of the actors who played Chuck Cunningham in Happy Days. That had to be intentional.

Gus breaks into a wheat thresher sales office in Smallville to use their computer to network to a weather satellite. This is a plot point in the film, and not evidence that I’m being held hostage right now and am trying to get your attention by typing gibberish. Gus successfully uses the weather satellite to destroy the coffee bean harvest in Colombia, allowing Webster to corner the market.

Webster gets the bright idea that he should corner the oil market too by stranding all the tankers in the middle of the Atlantic. Remember: computers=magic. To get Superman out of the way, Webster has Gus attempt to synthesize kryptonite. There’s a percentage of it that’s unknown, so Gus substitutes tar (the idea came to him while looking at a pack of cigarettes, because fuck it, that’s where we are now) and plants the stuff on Superman while pretending to be General Patton. Look, I can’t explain everything or we’ll be here all day.

The synthesized kryptonite doesn’t kill Superman, but it does turn him into a total asshole. He grows some five o’clock shadow, breaks mirrors, does some daytime drinking, wears a darker costume, causes an oil spill (might have buried the lede there), and straightens the leaning tower of Pisa. He also allows himself to be seduced by Webster’s moll Lorelei who is totally not Miss Teschmacher, so stop asking.

So then Lana’s son Ricky gets Superman to do some self-reflecting, but this is man stuff. So Superman is going to reflect with his fists. He flies to a junkyard, which inexplicably has an open pit of acid in the middle, and has a fistfight with himself. He duplicates into Clark, and it makes exactly as much sense as it sounds like it does. Clark beats Superman and he’s good again. He zips around fixing things up, and we’re spared a scene where he uses supervision to heal Lorelei’s shattered pelvis.

Gus asks to be paid with the construction of a supercomputer that can beat anything. Computers=magic. Webster agrees, and they stick it in a canyon. Superman gets the info about where they are from a video message and goes to punch some goodness into them. Both Gus and Lorelei have second thoughts about being evil, but only Gus actually does anything, smashing the computer’s weapons with a fire axe. Superman takes the computer out with some acid from earlier in the film (not the junkyard acid… there’s just caustic acid like… everywhere in this universe).

Superman heads back to Metropolis, getting Gus a job offer at a coal yard, and Lana a job at the Daily Planet.

Life-Changing Subtext: Computers are straight-up magic.

Defining Quote: Gus Gorman: “I just don’t believe a man can fly.” Superman’s famous tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly!” has become an obsession in shitty superhero movies. It’s not one for one — there are bad superhero movies that never mention it — but if one does, you know you’re looking at a bad one.

Standout Performance: Christopher Reeve will always be Superman. Even when the movies sucked, he was always reliable. His scenes with Annette O’Toole, who is also as good as you could ask for, are the highlight of the film. They have such effortless, lived-in chemistry, they pretty much instantly turned into a Clang shipper. That’s what we’re calling ourselves, right?

What’s Wrong: This is two movies awkwardly grafted onto one another, like if Victor Frankenstein tried to make a monster made entirely out of two different kinds of crap. You have a shitty Superman movie, a shitty Richard Pryor movie, and the connective tissue is that computers are full of tiny wizards who make dreams come true.

Flash of Competence: To be fair, it’s more than a flash in this one. While the movie is terrible, it still has moments that recall what a Superman movie can and should be. For one thing, Superman consistently goes out of his way to save innocent lives, even if it’ll inconvenience him. An early sequence when he puts out a fire at a chemical plant almost recaptures the magic of the first two films, and when the Superman theme kicks in, I can’t deny getting some chills.

Best Scenes: This scene has to be mentioned somewhere, because it traumatized me as a child, which is something that many actual horror movies failed to do. The computer drags Webster’s sister into it and replaces her flesh with electronics. It’s horrifying, and it’s happening in a lighthearted Richard Pryor movie. It’s literally one of the scariest things ever put on film.

Superman going bad is arguably the defining sequence in this installment. His most famous moment is when he straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s the kind of vandalism that could only be thought up by small children and grouchy New York animators. And apparently Kryptonians, because Superman flies all the way the fuck to Italy to do it. He’s not there on business and decides, what the hell, that shit has been bothering me for years.

When he flies over to bang Lorelei after causing the oil spill for her, he basically barges into her place like Will Ferrell in Step Brothers. “I have polluted mother earth and now will fill you with my seed!” As he grabs her, and he just straight up grabs her with hands than can fold steel like notebook paper, she has this flash of terror over her face. Then the screen fades to black. I felt like I was watching snuff. This is not something anyone needs in their Superman movie.

Transcendent Moment: Superman III opens with Lorelei, who possesses this Barbie-meets-Cabbage Patch Kid kind of beauty that was prized in the ‘80s, walking down the street. Things promptly go apeshit, as all of civilization unravels with Rube Golbergian precision. Soon blind men are wandering traffic-choked streets while painting figure eights onto the asphalt, rollerskaters are plowing into hot dog carts, penguins are on fire, and before long, a man is literally drowning in his car.

Now, this is a chance for Superman to save an innocent life, which is good. But on the other hand, what the fuck is wrong with these people? Is Metropolis just covered in slow gas leaks? Are these people morons who would die awful slapstick-related deaths if Superman wasn’t monitoring them 24/7? Is Idiocracy just the Superman movie universe without Superman?

idiocracy

Camacho of Krypton

If this thing were a half hour shorter, I’d be recommending it far and wide. As insane as it is, that insanity gets parceled out gradually, so there are stretches of labored comedy where not much is happening. Still, it’s nice to be reminded that bad Superman films are hardly a new phenomenon.

 

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