This guy is mowing his back yard. He sees something moving in the tall grass: a big turtle! He doesn't want to run it over, so he picks up the turtle, carries it to his neighbor's fence, and gently tosses it over.
Two weeks later, there's a knock at the door. Guy opens the door, looks around, but doesn't see anybody.
Then he looks down and sees: the turtle.
The turtle says: "What ... the hell ... was that ... all about?"
(Rim shot! I'm here all night, folks! Tip your waitress!)
Speaking of horror on TV: don't forget Desperation tonight on ABC (if you're not one of the brainwashed masses tuning into American Idol). It's a 3-hour shocker that features an excellent scenery-chewing role for the great Ron Perlman, so I know where my TiVo will be tuned.
Stephen King proclaims this to be the best TV movie adapted from his work (and Lordy there have been many). It's a good novel helmed by a good director, Mick Garris, who's come a long way from his days as a studio publicist and director of such B-movie fare as Critters 2. I was recently reminded just how long Garris has been around while watching the Criterion DVD of David Cronenberg's Videodrome, which includes a PR panel from 1982 that Garris moderates between Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and John Landis.
I'd like to see Garris use the Desperation cast to tackle The Regulators, which King published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. It came out simultaneously with Desperation, and the two novels are fascinating mirror images of each other. The Regulators grew out of an unrealized film project King was scripting for director Sam Peckinpah. Where Desperation is vintage King -- average American joes facing off against a seemingly invincible horror -- The Regulators takes some of the same characters (and the evil entity known as Tak) and throws them into a creepy landscape of dreamlike, surreal menace. His fan-base didn't respond with the enthusiasm they showed for Desperation, but in many ways I find The Regulators to be the better, braver book.
It’s a bunch of writers and editors and fans who like horror. They get together in a big hotel. Drinks and hijinks ensue.
Apparently, the WHC split off from the World Fantasy Convention in the late 1980s because horror writers felt they were overlooked by the prestigious WFC awards. Yes, that's right, the best in-fighting will always be found in the ghettos. We also happen to live in an age when you can never flood a market with too many awards, as I see evidenced in Hollywood every time I turn around.
And you may be wondering: what the heck’s the World Fantasy Convention? An annual gathering of professionals and fans whose tastes run from the horrific to the fantastical, and everything in-between. You see a lot of the same people from one con to the next, so it’s becoming less important what these things are called than where they’re held. Different regions bring out different people, no matter which organization is sponsoring the event.
About 500 people attended this year’s WHC in San Francisco. In addition to panels on writing and movies, there were pitch sessions where aspiring novelists could shop their books to editors and publishers. If you’re extra-nervous about that prospect, you can sign up for a coaching session with an established editor or writer to iron out your wrinkles. I think this is a very cool idea, and I’d like to see figures on how many books are actually sold this way.
Now, this is not your average genre con. Go to most any science-fiction convention and you’re bound to see lots of people decked out in elaborate costumes. Here at WHC, there was nobody dressed as Freddy or Jason. Maybe I did see a couple of zombies and a few folks gothed out … but it was certainly nothing like the Atlanta WHC I attended in 1999. That city’s die-hard goth scene commanded the evening entertainment with great aplomb, with crowds of leather-clad locals filling the ballroom as several big goth bands blasted walls of sonic nihilism. And who can forget that half-nude lady who subjected herself to over a hundred piercings onstage? As the surgical needles were quickly withdrawn by the nimble needle-master, I swear she shuddered a dozen orgasms.
Now that was a convention, my friends. This most recent one, while fun, lacked any such grandeur. Basically, WHC is now just a big industry party. Circulate among the various nighttime parties (sponsored by publishers and bookstores) and you’ll eventually meet everyone. Liquor and conversation flow in thick rivers, books are sold and stories told. I caught up with a few old friends, made some new ones, and overall had a very good time.
And oh yeah, some kind soul even asked for my friggin' autograph. It was the Winter 1984 issue of The Horror Show, a fondly-remembered, much-missed small press magazine, and apparently something of a collector’s item now. This issue contains my first sale, a wretched poem about a werewolf. I sold the stanza for a dollar and still have the uncashed check somewhere. I’m tucked into pages with Brian Hodge, Beth Massie, Joe Lansdale, and lots of other folk. It’s a good place to be, and I signed it happily and with much nostalgia.
Other digressions of note: the maple-flavored moonshine of Brian Keene (not to mention his inspiring/daunting work ethic of three novels per year), and the hair-raising revelation that, upon discovering a three-AM rerun of Bosom Buddies, Brian Hodge will know every single line of dialogue.
The panels I did were especially fun. I moderated a panel on Horror Films, and a welcome surprise addition to the roster was Koji Suzuki, author of the original Ring series of novels that have permeated both Eastern and Western culture through various film adaptations.
Suzuki spoke through an interpreter, but he’s so animated and charming that people nodded their heads in understanding before they even knew what he’d said. Panelist Bill Moseley, a horror actor most recently seen in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, was so captivated I wondered if he was fluent in Japanese.
Prior to my panel, Suzuki spent an hour in public conversation with writer Peter Straub. Straub’s insights into the difference between Eastern and Western culture were impressive, and he engaged Suzuki on many levels. Suzuki is confident and focused in his approach to writing, and he never faltered in explaining his grasp and understanding of the craft. Following this hour-long conversation certainly made my panel easier and more fun, since I could follow up on many interesting facets of horror Suzuki had mentioned to Straub.
Newsweekreports that young women are the fastest growing audience segment for horror movies. We chalked this up to two major catalysts. The first: stronger female protagonists, an abrupt switch from the powerless victims of so many 1970s and 1980s slasher movies. We traced this trend as far back as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien saga, followed by warriors like Xena and Buffy. Films derived from Suzuki's novels feature major female characters, although the protagonist of his 1991 novel Ringu was male. However, many other Japanese works influencing Western culture feature school-age girls whose very innocence allows them to deal with supernatural adversaries.
The other reason young people are flocking to horror movies: the psycho-cultural landscape that’s emerged in the wake of 9/11. It’s a dangerous planet right now, so it should come as no surprise that we’re seeking not only refuge in works of art, but safe exposure to those fears. Seeing a horror movie can be like riding a roller coaster: you scream and cower and your adrenaline surges … but you know it’s a controlled experience. You give yourself over to the terror in the full knowledge that the ride will end, the credits will roll, and you’ll emerge safely back into the world. Processing fear is a form of control and survival.
Teenagers trying to make sense of a scary and changing world are of course drawn to horror movies. The big drive-in draws of the 1950s played on Cold War and nuclear fears, often in a silly, ridiculous manner. As horror films grew more serious in the 1970s, they reflected the growing cultural and political unease of the era.
Many have noted that the market for horror movies and novels is better when a Republican administration is in office. The numbers seem to bear that out.
Moseley recounted an uncomfortable press tour in Europe to promote The Devil’s Rejects. The movie premiered in the midst of allegations that the U.S. had been rendering detainees to foreign countries where they could be tortured for information, and the film's cast was often questioned on the subject. If you haven’t seen The Devil’s Rejects, suffice to say it contains scenes of extended torture. Moseley of course didn’t defend torture, but responded matter-of-factly that the film was fiction. While it may be an uneasy fiction, it was trying to tell a story and make a statement, albeit one that resonated morbidly with current events.
We talked a lot about the increasing trend of torture porn as seen in films like Rejects, Hostel, and the Saw franchise. I said that while I’d been baptized into splatterpunk with the exploding head in David Cronenberg’s seminal Scanners, I was not just repulsed but honestly curious about these current popular films that feature extended sequences of gratutitous torture. Again, it may be nothing more than a grisly roller-coaster ride for young people, a safety valve that lets them check their fears at the door. Certainly the French showed the masses would gobble up Grand Guignol-styled excursions that, while gory and sensationalistic, in the end proved harmless.
I found it fascinating when panelist John Shirley admitted he was having an increasingly tough time watching the new violence. Shirley’s a tough one, the co-screenwriter of The Crow and a founding cyberpunk writer who’s carved a distinctive and frightening niche for himself in dark fiction. Whenever I see a former punk rocker tilting toward a slightly more conservative stance on cultural issues, I’m reminded that we all grow and change over time. Shirley looked absolutely dapper in a black suit and hat , a far cry from the leather-clad author photos on his earlier novels. Wandering into our panel a full half-hour late was the most punk rock thing he did that weekend.
Ultimately we conceded that Time is the equalizing factor in judging art, and that often genre movies need that perspective for proper judging. Where will torture porn lead? What will it reflect about us to future generations? Stay tuned, the answers may surprise us.
Later that weekend I met a few indy filmmakers showcasing their films at WHC. The film component of the convention seems to be growing, which is healthy. I didn’t catch any of these films, but the promotional materials showed a lot of dopey-humor type stuff – one short piece bore the unforgettable title, Aborted Shit Baby. Um, okay. Very few feature-length works were slated for presentation, but I did meet Pennie Orcutt, producer of Death by Engagement, a black comedy slasher pic that looks promising. It’ll be interesting to see if this programming bloc grows in the future.
The next day I was on a panel about the state of horror on TV. There’s a fair selection of stuff out there now, so it’s surprising (pleasantly so) that most of us pine for programming of yore: The Twilight Zone, Night Stalker (the original), and Dark Shadows. Maybe it’s because we grew up on the stuff. Whatever hits you during those formative years, that’s no doubt what you’ll remember with the most affection.
When it came to current TV shows, I pointed out that while torture porn is the current popular trend in horror films, at least two hit TV shows are taking a different path. Medium and The Ghost Whisperer are sometimes violent, but they deal with issues of the afterlife and seem more intent on exploring the journey of a person’s soul and not just the evisceration of their flesh. Both feature strong female protagonists, and both have been renewed for new seasons, meaning they've connected with wide audiences.
Three expensive, highly-touted genre shows were quickly axed this year: Threshold, Surface, and Invasion, with one common reason being they never appealed beyond their genre base. In the case of Threshold, it didn’t help that the show kept changing its premise from week to week, an example of too many cooks in the kitchen. And with Invasion, it didn’t help that the cook only fired up his burners every 8 episodes or so.
Also noted: Masters of Horror, the Showtime anthology series that’s been renewed for another season. Like most anthology shows, it’s uneven in quality, but stands as proof that this tried-and-true format can still draw viewers.
Thanks to sites like Shouting Into the Wind and The Futon Critic, I was able to give a brief rundown of new shows we can expect to see next fall, including Raines (Jeff Goldblum solving murders with the help of the victims’ ghosts), the David Kelley revamp of the BBC hit Life on Mars (involving time travel and serial killers), and the upcoming Nightmares and Dreamscapes mini-series anthology, based on Stephen King short stories. And although I'm still unclear if they'll air or go straight to DVD, I mentioned the Hellboyanimated movies.
"The reason given was that the burlap bag over the guy's head was depicting torture, which wasn't appropriate for children to see," said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, which is distributing the film in North America. The film will open on June 23, advertised by another poster, approved by the MPAA, which shows only a pair of shackled hands and arms.
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Although [MPAA spokesperson Gayle] Osterberg says that torture is not specifically cited in the guidelines governing print materials, the proscription against violence, blood and disturbing scenes "would probably encompass" it. Thus, the MPAA's decision puts it at odds with the U.S. government, which has repeatedly defended techniques, including hooding prisoners, as not legally torture, and not inconsistent with the basic American values the MPAA tries to uphold.
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Kirby Dick, director of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," a new film devoted to the MPAA and its ratings system, said that's not the only irony in the MPAA's decision. He compares the MPAA's secrecy to the secrecy that has governed so much of what has happened at the prison in Guantanamo and other U.S. facilities where suspects in the war on terror have been held.
"It's also interesting that the image is of someone whose vision is being blocked -- and that's the image that they're blocking," Dick said. "When you get into censorship, the irony never stops."
You want irony? Consider these tasteful, non-offensive posters the MPAA did approve. Besides the viscera and dried blood, they have one very interesting thing in common: they are in no way critical of King George.