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Archive for October, 2011


Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Ok, it’s probably not fair to call Grimm and Once Upon a Time rivals, exactly. There’s definitely room in the fairy tale universe for multiple retellings; indeed, that’s part of what’s kept the form vital and relevant for hundreds of years.  But in the days of hotly-contested ratings shares and limited viewer time (and attention spans), one can’t help pitting one series against the other.

First, both are watchable. NBC’s entrant, Grimm, is a supernatural crime drama set in the misty Northwest, and, coming from former Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel producer/creator David Greenwalt, it sits squarely in that urban fantasy niche. ABC’s Once Upon a Time is a frothy fantasy bedtime story, spinning a “what if” story of fairy tale characters trapped in our world, and still duking it out with their ancient enemies.

I enjoyed elements of both series, but if I only had time for one, I’d watch Grimm. From the opening sequence, I was hooked.  Filmed in Portland, Oregon in early spring, among bare-branched trees and chilly overcast skies, the show just looks amazing, in that spooky-yet-beautiful way we loved in The Dead Zone and The X-Files.  The premise is also fun—a homicide detective discovers he’s the latest in a long line of Grimms, or… well, we’re not entirely sure what those Grimms do, yet, as Nick Burkhardt’s (David Giuntoli) mentor inevitably falls into a coma before getting a chance to explain Burkhardt’s new destiny.  But Episode One gave us enough clues to play along, as destiny and day job collide when a serial killer strikes local girls in red hoodies, and turns out to be a “Bludbad,” or big bad wolf. It’s a familiar setup, but it’s handled beautifully, and Episode One of Grimm was one of the best pilots I’ve seen in ages, with smart writing, smart characters, and a tantalizing premise.

Giuntoli is likeable as the not-so-hapless ordinary guy thrust into a strange, otherworldly adventure, both a caring family man and a sharp detective, and we sense he’ll handle the burden of his new role just fine. Borg.com editor C.J. Bunce praised the show’s special effects, particularly the startling transformation of ordinary passers-by into demonic entities that only Nick can see. The rest of the cast is likewise enjoyable, from Bludbad C.I. Eddie (Silas Weir Mitchell, Burn Notice), to Nick’s partner on the force, Hank Griffin (Russel Hornsby), to a fantastic appearance by Tim Bagley (Monk) as the Big “I do my own needlepoint” Bad hunting Little Reds.  Though this is unabashedly paranormal, it’s nice to see a show that respects both the genre and viewers’ intelligence–Nick’s special abilities lead him to the perpetrator, but the crime is ultimately solved by smart (wholly natural) police work.  It’s this combination of the normal and the para- that will make Grimm a standout this season, and two moments in particular characterize the smart, surprising elements that have me hooked. When Nick first meets wolfish Eddie, we see him walk out his back door to mark his territory. My immediate reaction was an exasperated, “Why would anyone leave their house to… oh, right.” Subtle, and spot on. The other was the chilling glimpse inside Bagley’s armoire full of red hoodies. It’s just the perfect amount of creepiness, without descending into horror.

Once Upon a Time time also features lavish production values and is (mostly) lovely to look at.  The writing is capable, if nothing special, and the actors—particularly leads Jennifer Morrison, Jared Gilmore, Lana Parilla, and Robert Carlyle (in a creepy turn as an impish Rumpelstiltskin)—give solid, enjoyable performances.  The trouble comes when you look closer.  First, the concept is nothing new—we’ve seen fairy tale characters trapped in our world before, and done better, in Bill Willingham’s landmark Fables comic book series, and Sarah Beth Durst’s award-winning novels Into the Wild and Out of the Wild.

More bothersome is the handling of the source material—instead of acknowledging the richness of the fairy tale tradition, Once is stuck firmly in the Disneyverse, populated with characters straight out of the Disney versions of fairy tales (and, confusingly, stories that aren’t fairy tales at all, like Pinocchio), but without the charming irony and acknowledgement of the inside joke that made their similar offering, the 2007 film Enchanted, work so well. Instead, the world feels oddly proprietary, as if, Evil-Queen-like, they’re clamping down on the traditional stories and adhering only to their own canon.  Sadly, this won’t bother most viewers, but the show would be more fun for everyone if the nods were more obvious and played up (a sherrif named Woody, perhaps?).

Though each series shows promise now, unfortunately both networks have a history of failing to follow through on great setups (Lost and Heroes), so neither show really has an edge in that respect.  Once has the better timeslot (the 8 pm Sunday night slot that has performed historically well for Disney), but hopefully Grimm can pick up enough of Chuck’s loyal fan base to encourage a better move for next season.  Grimm has the better premise and payoff, but Once boasts familiar actors that will draw viewers. All things considered, it’s definitely a great time to be a fairy tale fan.

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Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

The challenge for any long-running series is keeping it fresh, without sacrificing the heart of the show, the things that keep fans tuning in week after week, year after year.  Of course, that presupposes that writers, cast, and crew all know and understand what that heart is—how the magic works.  Final seasons are especially tricky: how to round off the characters’ storylines in a way that feels complete and satisfying, while still giving viewers a reason to watch.  We’ve seen shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer suffer disappointing decline, while shows like Monk turn in final seasons that rivaled any good year in the show’s history.

And so we arrive at the final season of Chuck, the pop culture phenomenon that pays affectionate homage to pop culture phenomena.  And if the Season Five premiere is any indication, the gang over at Chuck has no intention of letting things slide off into the sunset.

In “Chuck vs the Zoom,” we join our heroes in the middle of their latest mission as independent contractors, spies-for-hire.  Things have changed for Chuck; he’s a married man now, free of CIA oversight, and running his own business.  And, oh yes, he’s lost the Intersect, the computer in his brain that turned him from Nerd Herder to superspy, … to lifelong best friend Morgan Grimes.  In lesser hands, these developments might have felt contrived or strained, but the Chuck gang pulls it off with the same humor and heart that have made the show what it is.  A guest spot by genre legend Mark Hamill in the opening sequence declares the show’s intention to continue with its hallmark stunt casting.  And a subplot involving Chuck’s efforts to surprise Sarah with a dream house provides the emotional throughline, proving that no matter how much Chuck’s life may change, his commitment to his family remains at the heart of everything he does.

This emotional storyline has been a key element of the series from the start, and while it has occasionally bogged down episodes in the past, it’s part of what makes the series and its star, Zachary Levi, so lovable.  But the series never loses sight of the fact that it’s also an espionage adventure show, and “Chuck vs. the Zoom” is no exception.  A solid story about newly-minted Carmichael Industries’ mission to bring down a corrupt investment banker offers lots of opportunity for spy stuff, not to mention capitalizing on the comedic potential of Morgan-as-Intersect.  From fumbling the payoff in the Mark Hamill job, to a classic tango sequence, one senses that Morgan just might be an even more entertaining Intersect than Chuck (which, of course, is the source of Chuck’s anxiety in this episode, and likely season-long, as well).

If there looks to be any shortcoming to this season (coughJeffLestercough), it’s in the notable absence of Ryan McPartlin as Captain Awesome, Chuck’s aptly-named and ever-enjoyable brother-in-law.  To be sure, that storyline has been relegated more and more to the sidelines as the Chuck-Sarah romance took over, but perhaps we can still hold out hope for a guest spot or two this year…?  Teasers hint at more great guest appearances to come, including Matrix buster Carrie Ann Moss and former Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd.  Inevitably, this will be a bittersweet season, but you want to miss a show when it’s gone, and if this first episode is representative of what’s left for the show, I think we’ll be mourning the loss of Chuck for a long time to come.

By C.J. Bunce

The focus of my creepy movie list is mood and surprises and re-watchability, as the setting and ambiance is what calls to me when it’s time to pull out some movies every October when each day gets darker and the wind starts kicking up the leaves.  I don’t like slasher flicks, and over-the-top shock horror isn’t my thing.  Movies like Hellraiser II and Phantasm may be flat-out scary, but they don’t give you much else entertaining.  I like the “modern classics,” the original Friday the 13th and Halloween, but ultimately they didn’t make my list because I don’t re-watch them as much as other movies.  I really liked The Ring and Donnie Darko, but ultimately they didn’t make it to the Top 10 for me, only because I haven’t had time to watch them over and over as much as most of those that made the cut.  On another day the ceiling hopping raptors in Jurassic Park, non-fantasy horrors of Coma and The China Syndrome, the creepy terror in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the stylish suspense in Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Otto Preminger’s Laura, the sheer panic in Steven Spielberg’s Duel, the nervous tension in Blair Witch, as well as the “Zuni fetish doll” segment of Trilogy of Terror and one of my favorites–the “oil spill attacking kids at a lake” segment of Creepshow 2–could have made this list for me.  Every one of the shows above will make you jump when you least expect it.

So here’s where I did end up:

10.  Young Frankenstein (1974).  I figured any list I’d create for creepy/suspense/Halloween watching would have to reflect the classic Universal monster movies in some way.  My favorite is the parody of all of them, made by the master of parody, Mel Brooks.  Brooks held the classic horror films with such reverence that he re-created the original design for the Frankenstein laboratory for Young Frankenstein.  Yes, I know it’s not scary.  But as dark, gothic ambience is concerned, I know of no other film that did it so well, and in black and white this movie could have been made 40 years earlier–it feels like a 1930s film.  It’s also a movie all ages will enjoy–kids won’t understand the innuendo in most of the comedy, but the physical humor will have them laughing out loud.  I’ve watched this one so many times I have it practically committed to memory.  One of the best ensemble casts I can think of performed in this one.  Look for Gene Hackman in a great cameo, too.  Like a funhouse, there are startling jumps here, but they are all cloaked in humor.  Pull out the humor and you have a ghoulish Frankenstein story where off-camera you know the monster, with an inside joke-like smirk to the audience, is going to launch that little girl into the well after the last flower petal is gone.  Not a scary film, but Transylvania never looked creepier.

9.  28 Days Later (2003).  In a tie as the most recent film on my list, this is a rare occurrence where zombie-like people are actually interesting, creepy, and scary.  A few weeks after an outbreak engulfs Great Britain, a handful of characters try to find sanctuary away from the sub-humans that have resulted from the disturbing virus.  It doesn’t get much creepier than the plague in the single drop of water falling into Brendan Gleeson’s eye in 28 Days Later.  The movie is full of characters who look like they really are feeling the panic you would feel when there is no hope left and it’s left to every man for himself.  An opening scene with Cillian Murphy playing a patient who finally awakens to find an empty London was instantly a classic piece of cinema, reminiscent of the Australian film The Quiet Earth or The Day the Earth Stood Still.  With the feel of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creepy UK film Lifeforce, and a little An American Werewolf in London, the filters and UK setting for the American viewer adds to the strangeness of this movie’s vibe.

8.  Prince of Darkness (1987).  My addiction to the TV series Simon and Simon and series star Jameson Parker is what caused me to rent this one back in the late 1980s.  It is John Carpenter’s approach that makes this one plain scary.  It is almost a scientific view of what university types would do if they were encountering an invader entering our world.  This time the invader is the devil, and the gateway is via a “hellmouth” of sorts made of gelatinous green goo.  Forget about any prior appearance you’ve seen of Alice Cooper.  He’s the coolest right here as one of the zombies creeping about to usher in the evil and trapping the researchers in their building with some very bad happenings.  The classic Carpenter crew is here, too, with Donald Pleasance as the priest, Peter Jason as the doctor, and Victor Wong as the professor.  The ultimate form that the “prince of darkness” takes at the end of the film is the big shocker.  And, yes, there’s some gore, but ultimately this film tries to be a lot better film than straight horror, and like all Carpenter flicks, manages to succeed.

7.  Final Destination 2 (2003).  Although this film certainly brings in the latex blood and gore by the boatload, this movie takes the concept of “death stalking those who cheated it” further than the original film and is actually a lot more fun.  It’s the first Final Destination mixed with some more carefully concocted Rube Goldberg-inspired chain reactions.  Ali Larter, co-star of the first film, gets a bigger role here, trying to help the cast of “lucky” survivors.  Suspense is amped up in this film, and non-stop angst, as you wonder just who and how the next guy is going to get eliminated by the seemingly random events.  Lots of red herrings, but all are fun, with plenty of opportunity for you to jump out of your seat.

6.  They Live (1988).  I saw the premiere of this film in 1988 and the name Roddy Piper went by in the credits.  I never made the connection the star was THE Rowdy Roddy Piper of WWF fame til years later.  The guy could act an dhe is very cool as this character.  They Live has a number of cool elements for a genre film:  an outsider-type fringe hero, a sci-fi twist, surprises around every corner, a feeling of paranoia seeps in, a big revelation that makes you question what is going on around you as you walk from the theater, and cool gimmicks–contact lenses and sunglasses that let you see the truth, including some creept subliminal messages.  My bias toward John Carpenter is evident on this list, but his movies are so dissimilar I just can’t help it.  Oppressive government, unfair economic advantages, sell-outs–this movie is much more than another horror flick–it’s part horror, part sci-fi, part political thriller, part action flick.

5.  The Birds (1963).  Like John Carpenter’s The Fog and Spielberg’s Jaws, this movie takes place on the seacoast, one of my favorite locations for an eerie thriller.  Alfred Hitchcock’s direction in this movie makes you feel claustrophobic, like you’re almost choking on the birds that inexplicably attack this little seaside village.  In the end it all comes down to being trapped again, this time in a house.  As a kid this one caused its share of jumps out of bed in the middle of the night.  It must be scary if it causes nightmares, right?  Some of the imagery will stick with you forever.  And check out the sultry and creepy character played by a young Suzanne Pleshette.  Compare The Birds and Jaws and you can see common themes and approaches the best masters of suspense use.  As Tom Petty says, “the waiting” is the hardest part, and sometimes you don’t really want to see what’s coming next.

4.  Silver Bullet (1985).  A series of deaths in Tarker’s Mill promps a town to band together to flush out the killer.  A fog shrouded forest, men splitting up, and one by one the men don’t make it out of the woods.  The town becomes paranoid of the night, canceling Independence Day festivities.  Enter cool uncle Gary Busey, who gets his wheelchair bound nephew Marty, played by a young Corey Haim (Lost Boys), a rocket and surreptiously fire it off despite all the adult fear.  An old covered bridge, a sheriff played by Terry O’Quinn (John Locke in Lost), a preacher played by Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), and a lot of creepiness.  The killer isn’t human.  Hey, sheriff, don’t go snooping around in there.  And a bat named Peacemaker.  Probably the quietest creepy thriller in the Stephen King adaptation arsenal, that quiet makes the gotchas all the better.   A perfect autumn night movie, not too much gore or irrelevant gross-outs, but the surprises are guaranteed to make you jump.  Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables) plays Marty’s older sister, who sells a good portion of the fear through her powerful expressions.

3.  The Fog (1980).  I was 10 years old when I saw this at the drive-in theater.  It was a double feature with Phantasm and my brother and sister smuggled me in.  I got no sleep that night.  At the time both movies were blurred together, and I don’t know which movies the nightmares came from.  Years later I realized Phantasm was just another cheesy slasher flick, but I have re-watched John Carpenter’s original The Fog too many times to count.  This is my favorite ghost story movie.  One hundred years ago, Antonio Bay’s founders weren’t quite as honorable as the townsfolk see them today at the town’s centennial celebration.  It’s setting makes this an old sea tale of sorts.  Sultry-voiced Adrienne Barbeau (yes, I like sultry brunettes in my scary flicks) plays Stevie Wayne, who works in the lighthouse as a radio jockey, also warning boats about this strange fog… inching closer to the bay.  Hal Holbrook is the preacher who is slowly losing it as he realizes the truth of the town’s past.  Jamie Lee Curtis is a drifter who stumbles into the wrong town on the wrong night.  And there are a lot of ghosts that, despite looking like giant ticked-off Jawas, deliver sufficient creepiness.  Check this out for some great atmosphere.

2.  Jaws (1975).  Thinking I would quickly fall asleep my folks took me to this one at the drive-in theater.  I did fall asleep, but not before the opening scene.  How many movies can claim all that Jaws has accomplished?  Where Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made everyone check behind the shower curtain, Jaws has kept people on the beach.  There are generations now who still feel a little nervousness whenever they put on fins and take that first step in.  The defining tuba theme alerting us to when the shark is really coming is forever apart of everyone’s musical vocabulary.  John Williams’s score is so brilliant because most of it is a light-tempo, summer frolicking medley, so when the clashing violin scare themes arrive the contrast makes the music its own character.   The fear is underscored by Robert Shaw’s ominous USS Indianapolis speech.  One of the best films of all time in any genre.

1.  Watcher in the Woods (1980).  When I was in junior high, as a treat to students, the school would play movies on Friday afternoons, each movie split over two Fridays.  I saw this movie on a full size screen in our huge auditorium, which roughly looked like the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot.  My friend Jeff lived literally next door to the woods…you could see them out his window.  Jeff held his hands over his eyes for the first hour of the show and didn’t come back the next Friday for the rest.  Twenty-five years later my co-worker asked me for a recommendation because he was hosting a Halloween party for his kid’s group of 10 12-year-old boys.  I recommended Watcher in the Woods instantly.  The following Monday he thanked me and said the boys, and he, were glued to the entire movie.  Watcher was one of Disney’s first forays into something new.  It’s probably my favorite Disney movie.  Imagine you fall into a creek, what would be creepier than Bette Davis standing above you trying to push you down deeper with a stick?  Look for a lot of ambience and mood in this one, and a few things that go bump.  Bette Davis is scary here, even compared to her prior frightening performance in make-up in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?   She was made for creepy roles.  And, hey, that strange little girl, Kyle Richards, has her own TV show now.  Note:  Stay away from the original director’s cut or expanded version as it was so bad it almost canned the film in pre-production.  Stick with the theatrical release.

And that’s it!

So where did the four of us end up? 

Jaws gets the highest ranking, making three of our lists, and The Shining, The Exorcist, The Exorcist 3, Watcher in the Woods, The Ring, and Paranormal Activity seem to rise above the rest, showing up on two lists.  Seaside locales are the favorite location for scares, with Jaws, Rebecca, The Birds, The Ring, The Fog (both the original and remake) all taking place there, and creepy little girls are the favorite subject of–count ‘em NINE–of our haunts (The Ring, The Exorcist, Let Me In, Paranormal Activity 3, Watcher in the Woods, The Sixth Sense, The Shining, Turn of the Screw, and The Others).  And the supernatural wins out over monsters, saws and axes.  Four movies were by John Carpenter, three by Alfred Hitchcock.   The oldest movie was Rebecca from 1940, the newest came out this year, Paranormal Activity 3.

I hope you like our lists and they prompt you to check out something you haven’t seen before.  Look for other lists here in the future.

And let us know what is on your list!

By Art Schmidt

People are funny.  Different things mean different things to us all: songs, pictures, movies, books.  Art.  It’s all interpreted by the individual, but even more so by the place in life that the individual is in at the time the art is experienced.  People cling to old songs like gold; a song from high school not only sounds good, but refreshes the happy memories associated with the song in the listener’s mind.  A one-hit wonder band from the mid-eighties may have written the best song you’ve ever heard, but no one else even remembers who they were.

Fans of the original Star Wars Trilogy of the 70s were appalled when Lucas made his infamous modifications to the film, especially the scene in the Tatooine bar in Episode IV where Han Solo shoots Greedo.  ‘Artistic license,’ said Lucas.  ‘Blasphemy,’ the fans screamed.  ‘My movie,’ Lucas retorted.  ‘Our childhood!’, the fans wailed.

Halloween always brings out the focus on all things macabre, and will generate ‘Top 10’ lists as long as kids dress up as Darth Vader and adults go to costume parties as politicians (there’s a moral lesson in there somewhere, BTW.  I am sure of it).  Every Top 10 list is different, and that’s the way it should be.  We all experience things in our own way, our own time, and through our own filters.  So rather than attempt to list an absolute ‘Top’ 10, predestined for failure, I have listed my own personal favorites.  Doubtless others will have vastly different opinions, and some of the things I found terrifying may have barely elicited a small gasp from others.

And that’s ok.

My personal list is not in order of preference or fondness but rather experience, from my earliest memory to the present day.  Obviously, my early years contain the larger amount of my personal favorites; the younger we are the more accepting we are of the impossible and the more susceptible to suggestion, therefore media designed to have a strong emotional impact will generally be felt more so by the young.  After all, you can only read a Stephen King novel for the first time, or watch Jaws without knowing what’s going to happen once.

Which of course leads me to one of the stories on most people’s lists…

Jaws (Movie)

The movie that changed movies, the blockbuster that defined blockbusters, the summer event movie on which the term ‘summer event movie’ was coined.  When it came out it was truly a phenomenon, one most people who did not experience it can never truly appreciate.  My parents were no less caught up in the feeding frenzy of the movie’s release than anyone else.  At the time it was rated a solid PG (there was no PG-13), so taking elementary school children to see it was not a big deal.  After all, most Disney movies of the time were rated PG, weren’t they?  So along with a large contingent of my aunts and uncles, I was taken to see the movie that would strip me of all my eight-year old innocence and leave me strangely wanting more.

My mother shrugged off the initial shock of the opening scene; it was just an attention-getter, right?  Then the child being eaten off of his inflatable raft started her worrying about me.  When the head popped out of the boat, my mom literally threw her box of popcorn all over the row of people behind us; she apologized profusely while my dad laughed his head off.  My eyes were glued to the screen, what I could see of it between my tiny fingers.  By the time the ORCA launched to sea with its two unprepared passengers and doomed captain, my parents had forgotten I was there; everyone was entranced by the story.  By the time the greatest and most re-used horror movie joke of all time came, (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”), the entire audience needed that release of nervous laughter.

Viewed today, Jaws is much more an adventure movie than a horror film.  Contrasted against the majority of horror films, the comedy of Jaws is heart-felt and sophisticated rather than flippant; the characters are dense and alive rather than stereotypical caricatures; the story is fun and adventurous rather than weighted and dark.  And for all those reasons (thank you Mr. Spielberg!) Jaws remains my earliest, most heartfelt and yes, one of my favorite ‘horror’ movies of all time.

Trilogy of Terror – Part 3 “Amelia” (Made for TV Movie)

It was a classic horror story setup: a babysitter, a dark night, a quiet house, a child in front of a television, a killer on the loose. Except, in this case, the babysitter was our next-door neighbor, the house was mine, the kid was me and the ‘killer’ was a little doll on television.  My parents were out, my sister was asleep and the babysitter let me watch whatever I wanted.  Which in the mid-seventies meant a horrifyingly narrow selection of channels, none of which had the potential for cable profanity or pay-per-view violence.

However, on that fateful night, as I sat in front of the television a bright-eyed eight year-old, I watched a movie that I honestly believe to this day physically altered my DNA.  Trilogy of Terror was a made for television movie containing three short stories, all starring Karen Black in varying and un-related roles.  The first two I can honestly say I have no memory of whatsoever.  I’ve since read about them in IMDB and Wikipedia, but I can’t picture any of it in my head.

The third story, however, I remember in vivid detail.

A woman buys a gift for her boyfriend; a Zuni fetish doll with a gold chain around its neck and a warning.  If the chain comes off, the doll will come to life.  Of course, the chain came off, the doll came to life, and the ensuing fight for survival within the small apartment left me breathless and terrified.  The angry patter of tiny feet throughout the apartment, the monster unseen by the viewer, was brilliant.  I put all of my G.I. Joe action figures and army men in my closet, inside a shoebox, then put a small chair in front of my closet door, but I still didn’t sleep a wink that night.  The image of Karen Black crouching down in a dark corner bearing the doll’s sharp teeth still makes me shudder.

Sure, it was kitschy. But it was also scary as hell.

The Shining (Novel & Movie)

I read my first Stephen King novel in the summer of 1979, a paperback of The Stand.  It was long and brutal and opened up my adolescent mind to all sort of things I had never heard or dreamed of before.  It was good, but it didn’t really scare me.  There were people and events in it that were big and apocalyptic and scary, and I got all of that, but they didn’t creep me out or make me want to hide under my bed.  My second King novel, Salem’s Lot, was also good but didn’t really scare me, either.  Then I read Carrie, which creeped me out, and then I read The Shining, and I was blown away.  The slow burn of the Jack Torrance character from out-of-work recovering alcoholic to raging failure seeking vengeance on the world is a thing of beauty and horror.

All of King’s powers as a storyteller of horror and tragedy come to bear in The Shining.  The huge hotel, empty of people but full of their tragedies, claws its way out of every page, and the Torrances in the novel are among King’s more well-conceived and believable characters.

As far as the movie goes, well, I have to admit that I’m not a big Stanley Kubrick fan.  I respect 2001: A Space Odyssey for its vision, but I don’t particularly care for the movie itself.  A Clockwork Orange wasn’t my cup of tea, and Eyes Wide Shut made me want to shut my own.  But The Shining was nearly as brilliant as the book, despite the changes to the plot and devices and the difference in feel from King’s book to Kubrick’s film.  As a horror movie, it stands firmly on its own.  The movie captured perfectly not only the demise of the man inside Jack Torrance but also the eerie hotel, the crazy loneliness of the long, cold winter, and the strain on the family that the hotel creates.  Despite decades of stand-out horror films ever since, from Paranormal Activity to Scream, for my dollar The Shining is still among the best horror movies ever made.  It’s not the best (IMO), however, as that title belongs to another film from the Seventies…

The Exorcist (Movie)

I’m not one for slasher movies, or serial killer movies, or vengeful spirit movies.  The first Friday the 13th wasn’t bad, nor was the first Nightmare on Elm Street, but all that followed were tired re-treads of the same old idea: a supernatural killer that you can’t stop who wants to kill you and all of your friends.  Lots of blood, lots of deaths, lots of shock.  Lots of yawning, IMO.

Then there’s The Exorcist, the horrifying movie from William Friedken that set the bar, that made you think, that grabbed you by your heart and made you really, emotionally believe in Hell.  Statistics (and opinions) vary, but The Exorcist was arguably the first movie after Gone with the Wind to gross over $100 million in its initial box office run, and its psychological impact is still rarely matched even in modern times.  You have to experience it to believe it.

I know that for me, as a struggling young man with questions about everything, it shook my faith in my beliefs about the larger world around me.  That’s the thing about well-crafted characters and dialogue; once you buy in to those people and their world, you buy into their problems and their actions, and then you are affected by what affects them, whether on the surface you find it particularly believable or not.  I used to tell people, when they asked, that The Exorcist was my favorite movie of all time.  After years and years of odd looks, I began replying Reservoir Dogs, The Empire Strikes Back, or, more recently, The Lord of the Rings.  All three of which are in my Top 5.

But I always smile when I think of the chills I got from watching adorable little Regan MacNeil in all of her pea soup-spewing, head-spinning glory.

DOOM & DOOM 3 (Video Games)

When DOOM originally came out in the early 90s it created a sensation throughout the entire video game industry for its unprecedented software engine, evolutionary 3D rendering, and take-no-prisoners play style.  It was derided by parental groups for its depiction of blood and carnage, and use of the word ‘demon’ to describe most of the player’s enemies and for the fact that you could play in the previously unheard of mode of ‘Deathmatch’, which virtually every other first-person shooter has implemented since.

Of course, all of these advances in rendering technology and gameplay chutzpah overshadowed one of DOOM’s best qualities: a game that was truly scary as hell.  Forerunners in the ‘horror’ video game department were admirable, most notably the ‘Alone in the Dark’ and ‘Resident Evil’ series.  But whereas Alone relied heavily on psychological horror and RE on stock horror movie themes, DOOM delivered something new.

The lighting was dark, shot through with spotlights and spinning emergency lights right out of Alien; the monsters popped up out of nowhere and chomped on your character with gleeful abandon; and nothing, I mean NOTHING compared to being extremely hurt, low on ammunition, and hiding in a dark corner with hungry alien/demons prowling around just a few feet away.  Playing at night with low-lighting and headphones on, DOOM is more an experience than just a game.

A rash of copy-cats and money-making follow-ups came flowing forth, all adding their own little bits to the new genre and making advances in lighting, sound, and graphics engine technology.  None could knock the original from its perch, however.  Then, in 2004 the makers of DOOM came out with DOOM3, a completely re-vamped gaming engine with even scarier-looking monsters and genuine leap-out-of-your seat moments than any other game in the medium.  The story was nothing special, and the game-play was not ground-breaking enough for the die-hards, but the game sure kept me jumping and looking frantically around my bedroom whenever I played it.

The Exorcist III (Movie)

Little seen, under-appreciated, and largely panned by critics and audiences who had given up after the absolutely terrible trash of The Exorcist II: The Heretic, I loved this movie.  It’s doubtful that anyone else will even consider it on any Top-Anything list, but it worked for me.

It ignores the second installment of the Exorcist movies completely and places itself as a sequel to the original classic.  George C. Scott plays a detective who was friends with Father Damien Karras of the original movie, and is currently investigating a series of murders in Georgetown where The Exorcist took place.  The film draws from the original, having been written and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of the original Exorcist novel.  Despite the studio-mandated addition of an exorcism near the end of the movie, where none existed in the screenplay or Blatty’s novel Legion on which the movie was based, and despite the complex plot of demonic revenge against both the catholic church and an abusive father, there are scenes in the film that horrify, and the reconciliation between old friends, one dead and one alive, is a satisfying end to the movie.

There are scarier movies out there, however much I loved this one, and one of the best that came out around ten years later was…

The Ring (Movie)

As previously mentioned, I don’t particularly like revenge spirit movies, but The Ring was so much more than that.  It was a mystery movie as well, as the mother races against the clock to save not only herself but her son from the supernatural killer that no one can stop.  Much like The Exorcist, the fact that the spirit was a little girl made it all the scarier.

The video tape within the movie is a neat twist as well, creepy on its own and adding to the subtle nuance of the movie’s overall disturbing nature.  It doesn’t come right out and scare most of the time, though those moments are there, too.  But the little things all add up; the short film, the father’s ranch, the fly coming out of the film, the horse’s reaction to our heroine.  The movie is more disturbing than out-right scary, which just makes it all the more horrifying.

The Road (Novel)

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was unexpected recommendation from a friend, not something I knew much about or was really jazzed about reading.  And it hit me square in the gut.  The Pulitzer Prize winning book is a lonely, desolate tale of a nameless father and son struggling to survive in a savage, hopeless post-apocalyptic world.  I identified myself so strongly with the father character that when he would make a bad decision I felt personally guilty.  I saw in the son my own son, completely dependent upon his father to provide him food, shelter, and protection from the horrible people crawling the ashen landscape.

That novel stuck with me for months after I read it in a way that no book ever has.  Movies are visual and visceral, images stick with us for years or even our whole lives, but books generally do not have that affect.  I have always heard people talk about being ‘haunted’ by something; a movie, a book, a chance encounter.  Having been a horror fan since birth, I always thought of the expression in the literal sense, and largely dismissed those notions as silly and melodramatic.

After The Road, however, I understood what that really meant.

McCarthy spun a tale at once so deceptively simple and unbelievably complex, so innocent and so wicked, so hopeless and yet so rooted in the need for hope, that it’s mesmerizing.  Some parts made me physically squirm, and not in the good-to-be-scared way.  Nor did I want to finish it because it was exciting or thrilling; actually, there are long portions of the novel where not much at all happens, and then when something does it’s kind of… plain.  Simple, even.

When I first saw No Country for Old Men, based upon another McCarthy novel of the same name, I spent the first half of the movie trying to figure out why there wasn’t more action in it.  Once I settled back to the understanding that the guns were just metaphors, and the movie itself wasn’t about money, or greed, or even good and evil, I was able to focus on the dialogue.  Re-watching it, I now appreciate all of the interplay between the characters; the slow, steady, knowing march of Anton Chigur and the moral decay of western civilization that he represents; the lament of the older lawmen who just can’t understand that the people they have sworn to protect have abused that security by evolving into the very things that the lawmen held at bay.  “The rising tide,” one of them called it. “The dismal tide.”

The savagery and violence of the novel The Road, when it does appear, does so in the same vein.  It’s not the focus of the story, it’s just part of life, not actions but rather the consequences of actions or inactions.  For good or ill, it has its place.  To be fair, I have to say that my wife read The Road and she didn’t particularly care for it.

But then, she’s not a father struggling to protect his innocent child against the dismal tide.

Paranormal Activity (Movie)

I pride myself on being able to predict where movies are going, what’s going to happen to the characters, which ‘type’ of story it is and how it will end, and what details are provided that play into the movie later on.  And for Paranormal Activity, this was mostly the case.  The low budget and low quality of The Blair Witch Project left me wanting; wanting something better from that type of movie.  I was disappointed in that effort to say the least, so when the buzz started up about Paranormal I was frankly not interested.  Recent offerings in the horror genre like the Saw series, Hostel and the recent slew of vampire movies left me wondering if there was anything that would really scare me again.

I sat through the first three quarters of this movie and was only slightly impressed.  It was a neat take on the haunted story, had some clever ideas, and the night-time recordings of the goings on in the couple’s bedroom was ingenious and carried a few frights with it.

However, it was the last ten minutes of the movie that landed it on my personal Top 10 list.  The end of the movie kept me guessing, and when the loud footsteps climb the stairway the last time… and what follows… made me leap off of my seat for the first time in years.  If you haven’t seen it, and want to be scared, you should definitely give it a try.

By Elizabeth C. Bunce

To be honest, this was a challenging list for me.  On the one hand, there is nothing I love better than a really great ghost story, so you’d think I’d be able to rattle off a list of ‘em just like that.  But that’s the thing—the really great ones, the ones that well and truly conjure up that perfectly spooky atmosphere and transport me wholly to the Hallowe’en, ahem, spirit… well, they’re pretty rare, actually.  I’m a little bit critical; I acknowledge that.  But that’s another reason to love these lists: I’m always on the lookout for the next The Others or Watcher in the Woods.

For me, atmosphere is everything.  Strike the right spooky ambience in a film, and you can overcome any number of shortcomings—including the total lack of an actual ghost in the story.  So here’s an assemblage of ten films that get the mood right, at least, making them excellent viewing when the lights are off and the late October wind howls outside.  In no particular order…

1.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Ok, I hear you.  A Harry Potter movie on a Hallowe’en list?  Well, bear with me here.  Everything franchise-related aside, Azkaban has everything you’d want in a Devil’s Night creep-fest: the redesigned, gothic Hogwarts; the ghostly manifestations of the dementors haunting the castle and campus; the homicidal maniac on the loose; and oh, yes, the werewolf!  The film also drips with backstory and dark secrets, another element paramount to a great spook story.  And did I mention the werewolf?

2.  The Others (2001)
This one is creepy almost without trying.  Nicole Kidman plays the harried and pathologically overprotective mother of two light-sensitive children, occupying a remote English manor house in the days following World War II.  Though the scares here are primarily psychological, skin-crawling elements abound (what is up with those creepy kids? And those servants! Egad!), and the story has one of the best twist endings you’re likely to find.  So pull the blinds, get away from the windows, and watch for the seriously unsettling appearance of The Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, as Kidman’s estranged (or something) husband.  I can almost guarantee you’ll want to watch this one again, straight through from the beginning, when it’s over.

3.  Watcher in the Woods (1980)
For me, this film is the archetype of everything I want in a ghost story (erm, absent the actual ghost, I mean).  This 1980 Disney offering was based on a young adult novel by Florence Engel Randall, but this is a rare case of the film eclipsing (no pun intended!) its source novel.  It follows a pair of young American sisters who are renting a haunted English manor house for the summer, and who awaken the property’s chilling secret—and its chilling landlady, Mrs. Ayelsworth (Bette Davis).  Many years ago, Ayelsworth’s daughter disappeared from the estate, in a secret ritual her now-grown friends have sworn to keep silent.  But the past won’t be buried, and the apparent ghost of Karen Ayelsworth tries desperately to communicate with our heroines.  The setting here is pitch perfect, from the foreboding house to a murky lake, to the chapel ruins with ravens stirring through the dead leaves.  I loved this movie as a child, and it’s lost almost none of its wonder, atmosphere, and suspense. (Extended DVD scenes notwithstanding.)

4.  Rebecca (1940)
This 1940 Best Picture Oscar winner is a faithful rendition of the Daphne du Maurier novel by the same name. Du Maurier’s writing, Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, and George Barnes’s Academy Award-winning cinematography are so skillful and subtle that you will swear you’ve seen the ghost of Rebecca de Winter haunting Manderley yourself—though she makes no actual appearance in the film.  While the entire cast (particularly stars Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier,) turned in top-notch performances, the disturbing heart of the film is the unforgettable performance by Star Trek alumna Dame Judith Anderson as the first Mrs. de Winter’s devoted lady’s maid, Mrs. Danvers—the archetype for every creepy British servant to come.  This is psychological horror at its best; an exploration of how our own memories are the most frightening ghosts to put to rest.

5.  Skeleton Key (2005)
I’ll admit that I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I wanted to, but the fact that someone in our house bought the DVD, and our TV is mysteriously tuned to this movie every time it airs on late-night cable, should count for something.  Set in rural Louisiana, Skeleton Key drips with Southern Gothic creep-factor: Spanish moss, an old plantation dank with rot, an aging Southern belle, evocative voodoo set-dressing, and the unmistakeable tinge of old racism.  Add a smart heroine in over her head in something she doesn’t understand, plus a satisfying twist ending, and you’ve got a solid haunter with staying power.

6.  The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shamaylan’s career has been so utterly panned by now that it’s hard to remember that we all loved The Sixth Sense, and couldn’t stop talking about one of the best Gotchas! in horror film history.  Debate all you like, but this measured, thoughtful story of a boy with a problem, and the child psychologist who goes to unparalleled lengths to help him, is a mastery of mood, pacing, and misdirection.  You can watch it as a straightforward drama, and it’s a perfectly solid film.  The characters are skillfully drawn and acted with sincerity and subtlety, and you feel for the plight every single one of them is going through: the haunted boy, the caring therapist who can’t understand that his marriage is over, the lonely wife, and the desperate mother struggling to understand her troubled son.  But it’s in the moments we peek inside the child’s terrifying world that the horror of this story comes home, and whether or not you see dead people (or saw the ending from a mile away), you know you were a little skittish walking into your kitchen alone.

7.  The Ring (2002)
In the immortal words of Bravo’s Hundred Scariest Movie Moments, “There’s nothing creepier than a decrepit eight-year-old.” And while the combined lists on borg.com seem to bear that out, this is the decrepit eight-year-old you definitely don’t want to see climbing out of your TV late at night.  It’s not immediately obvious why this adaptation of the classic Japanese thriller is so frightening—is it the disturbing iconography in the underground video?  The ghoulish backstory?  The jarring cinematography and special effects?—but it all adds up to seriously unsettling viewing.  Bolstered by a strong mystery, a determined and believable lead, and the chilling ordinariness of her investigation, the contrasting horror seems all the more convincing, no matter how far-fetched a haunted videotape may sound.  Trust me: you’ll be glad you ditched your VCR.

8.  The Turn of the Screw (1999)
Henry James’s dark, “are they or aren’t they?” tale of two haunted siblings and the devoted governess desperate to protect them has been baffling audiences for 123 years, but that hasn’t stopped people from making movies out of it.  1961’s The Innocents, penned by no less a scribe than Truman Capote, is considered a modern classic, but this 1999 BBC version starring the brilliantly-cast Jodhi May in all her sloe-eyed anxiety captures all the frightening bewilderment of the original.  It’s never entirely clear what’s bothering the children in her care.  It could be ghosts, it could be pedophiles, or it could be the overactive imagination of the governess herself—but it’s from that uncertainty that the horror emerges.  With no true resolution to the tale—no laying to rest of the ghosts, no cozy denouement now that the danger has passed—The Turn of the Screw is ultimately unsatisfying, leaving you vaguely uncomfortable yet somehow wishing for more.

9. The Fog (2005)
At first glance, there really wasn’t an obvious reason to remake John Carpenter’s classic tale of a seaside town getting a belated and ghostly comeuppance.  But unlike ill-considered remakes before and since, The Fog loses nothing in translation—and even manages to surpass the original.  One of the most vital elements of a ghost story is arguably its backstory—the chilling past that rises to menace the present—and this 2005 adaptation gets it absolutely right.  The story of a town’s ill-gotten fortune at the cost of a doomed ship of lepers comes alive (or undead, at least) in rich period details, elaborate sets and costumes, and a powerful enriched storyline, all of which combine to create a pretty much perfect ghost story.

10.  Dead Again (1991)
This may seem an odd choice for a Hallowe’en list, but this 1991 Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film deftly blends film noir, gothic romance, and the paranormal in a gripping, genre-bending mystery thick with atmosphere and suspense.  In two parallel storylines, Dead Again explores a post-war Los Angeles murder mystery that continues to haunt two people into the modern age.  Playing dual roles, both Branagh and Thompson excel, first as doomed lovers Roman and Margaret von Strauss, and as their modern counterparts, trying to unravel the secret of how that epic romance ended in a gruesome murder.  With its edgy, atmospheric soundtrack racing to a shocking twist ending, Dead Again is another film that will have you hitting the “replay” button on your remote as soon as the end titles roll.

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

Just like comedies, I find horror movies easy to judge.  For comedies, the question is, “Did the movie make me laugh?”  If yes, it was a good comedy.  The more laughs, the better.  For horror movies, the question is, “Did the movie scare me?”  If it is yes, then it is a good horror movie.  Now, there are “horror” movies that are good but aren’t scary.  In this category are some of the greats by Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds and Psycho come immediately to mind) as well as fun movies (Scream, Dawn of the Dead (the original and the remake) and Shaun of the Dead) that are enjoyable, but don’t raise the goose flesh on my arms or the back of my neck.

For me, the scare is usually not found in physical entities.  Zombies, well, you can devise a plan for zombies.  A lot of time it will fail, but you can come up with a plan.  Sit on a rooftop with boxes of ammunition.  Create distractions.  Run or drive really fast and don’t trip or crash into a tree.  Same for crazy people and homicidal maniacs like Jason Voorhees, Leatherface or Michael Myers.

However, what in the name of H.P. Lovecraft do you do about supernatural entities?  What can you do about things that are already dead and have no corporeal form so that you can at least shoot them in the head?  What can you do with things that can’t be touched but can hold you in the air by your own head of hair?

Well, you die and it’s not pretty when it happens.  But, before you die, your mind is filled with all the possible ways you could die, and dread lies around every corner.  You don’t want to move.  You don’t want to look around.  You want to sit, with your eyes closed and hope that all the bad things will go away.  They rarely do.

Of course, you can’t help but have exceptions in life and I’m sure you’ll figure out which movie it is in my list of my ten scariest horror movies.

10.  Drag Me to Hell

This movie is a bit different than most of the movies on my list.  In it, there are the supernatural dangers like most of the rest, but in this movie they come from an old crone.  Old crones are always trouble and they seem to like to curse people.  But, this kind of danger is easily avoidable.  Don’t talk to old people.

9.  Let Me In

Forgive me.  I have yet to see Let the Right One In, but I know that I liked this one and I can tell you why.  There’s something about creepy little girls that want to eat your soul that make me want to run and hide.  I think I just came up with the name of a movie I plan to write, “There’s Something About Creepy Little Girls.”  It will be a comedy/horror/romance for the tween crowd.

8. The Exorcist 3

One of the best scare moments ever in a movie happened in this one before it got talky.  As viewers, we were just looking at one of the characters with a hallway leading to a room in the background when all of the sudden, something dark spider-walks across the ceiling.  That image still makes me shudder.

7.  Jaws

You found the exception!  You win the fear of going into the deep end of a swimming pool where of course the sharks lurk.  I mean, they can’t survive in the shallow end of a pool, that would be silly.  As an added bonus, you get to wear a mask whenever you go snorkeling in the ocean that blocks your peripheral vision!  So, you’ll always want to look where you can’t see because that’s where the 50-foot shark will be.

Oh, Steven Spielberg, you’ve made swimmers afraid of any water for thirty-five years now.  Congratulations?

6.  Paranormal Activity

I think you either love these movies or hate them because they don’t offer much in the way of production quality.  But, when you spend only $15,000 on a movie, you don’t get much in the way of special effects.  That’s what makes this movie so beautiful.  Your imagination does all the work.  A couple of cameras filming different parts of the house and the filmmakers cut to one, cut to another, cut back to one and there is something changed.  It’s so subtle but immediately you question your senses.  Did I see that right?  How did that just happen?  Then you start to feel that something is off, the hairs on your neck start to rise and you wait.  The waiting allows the tension build and you scan every inch of the video to make sure you see everything and then a door creaks open.  The sound and motion of such an ordinary action all of the sudden fills you with such dread and even after the movie ends, that sound still makes you look around as you tell yourself that ghosts and demons don’t exist.  Do they?

5.  The Exorcist

The original creepy girl horror movie as Linda Blair talks like a demon, spider-walks across ceilings and hurls bile.  I would like to posit a theory: Chinese families subject to the one-child policy that the Chinese government enacted in 1978 wanted their one child to be male because they all saw this movie.

4.  Paranormal Activity 3

How do you improve on Paranormal Activity?  You set up a camera that oscillates.  So, it moves in a direction, everything is fine and then moves back and OHMYGOSH there’s something weird.  Then, every time that darn camera angle appears on screen you expect it to find scary stuff in the background.  When it doesn’t you can’t relax because you know it will the next time or the next time or the time after that.  Add on top of that two little daughters that like to talk to demons and say “Bloody Mary” three times in dark bathrooms and you have another movie with especially creepy girls.

3.  Paranormal Activity 2

How does the second Paranormal Activity top my list?  Well, the first just has a couple.  Adults generally should have enough sense to leave the house.  The third, as much as I liked it and as it added new tricks and creepy girls, still has a bit of the novelty gone.  That leaves the middle movie and the presence of a toddler that can’t talk and a dog.  My tip to you: if you ever see a dog freaking out at a closet, you’re probably royally screwed and you should just curl up in a ball and start crying.

2.  The Shining

The basis of my fear of creepy little girls is this Stanley Kubrick movie based on the Stephen King novel.  After I saw it, I dreamed of those damn twin girls asking Danny to come play.  So, when I hear guys with their scantily clad twin girl fantasies I nod and smile and try to keep myself from running out of the room screaming.  I also don’t know if I can really ever fully trust a bartender.

1.  The Blair Witch Project

Easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.  Why?  It’s the only movie that made me question every skeptical bone in my body.  I went to see this movie at a theater in Denver, Colorado.  The Mayan, I believe.  I had heard just a little about it and I saw it in a packed theater with a bunch of other people hanging on the edge of their seats.  I left the theater a bit scared and happy that I had a fantastic movie going experience.  I climbed into my car and started to drive.  Then it hit me.  I had planned to go camping that night in the Rocky Mountain National Park.  I was going to go and drive up there in the dark, find a secluded campsite, strap on my head lamp, set up my tent and somehow go to sleep all by myself as the sounds of the night closed in around me.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.  Ghosts don’t exist.  I kept telling myself there is no such thing as the Blair Witch.  Then, instead of driving for an hour and a half, I drove four hours to just go home and sleep behind four walls, making sure that no one was in my apartment standing in a corner.

So, the moral of the story: don’t plan on camping after watching scary movies and for the love of all that is holy, avoid creepy little girls like the plague.  How can you tell if they’re creepy?  I don’t know.  Just avoid them all.

Don’t… look…now…

Starting tomorrow we will be featuring the top ten recommendations from each of the writers at borg.com for our favorite scary/creepy/horror/suspense films–good stuff to get you in the mood for All Hallows’ Eve next weekend.

What would your list look like?  Let us know!

Our selections are made and I had a blast reading these so I hope you do, too.  What do the lists have in common?  A few overlap, but you’ll definitely see some strange themes in common, from seaside locales to nine films featuring…creepy little girls.  I can tell you what standard horror list fare didn’t make any of our lists of recommendations:  Friday the 13th, Halloween, Saw, Scream, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Amityville Horror.

Check back here tomorrow for the first of our lists, from writer Jason McClain.

C.J. Bunce

Editor

borg.com

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

One thing every woman knows, from childhood, is not to watch movies about serial killers when you are home alone.  It’s as basic as “don’t talk to strangers” and “don’t wear socks with sandals,” but it’s hard to manage when October wanes, spookiness abounds, your husband has gone to visit his parents for the weekend… and Lifetime airs Alphabet Killer, which the DVR cable guide announces stars Eliza Dushku, Carey Elwes, Timothy Hutton, and Michael Ironside.  Had I read in advance of this film’s dismal box office showing and even worse reviews, I might have passed it over for Haunted Hotels or a Psych rerun, but I was nevertheless drawn in by that intriguing combination of genre favorites.

Although critics and viewers panned the film on its tiny (No, really–all of two theaters, according to Wikipedia) theatrical release in 2008, it’s actually entirely watchable, if you come at it as if it’s a made-for-TV movie (which is what I thought. Eventually the bleeped-out curse words gave it away, but by then I was committed).  The story is more or less loosely based on a true crime from 1970s Rochester, NY, when three young girls with “double initial” names (i.e. Melissa Maestro, a character in the film) were murdered, their bodies dumped in local towns also starting with the same letter.  I say “more or less,” because the details of the crimes are very similar to the real case, but the story is set in the present day, and all of the characters and circumstances of the plot are entirely invented.

The film follows unstable homicide detective Megan Price (Dushku) as she works the case, all the while losing her grip on reality, due to adult-onset schizophrenia.  Elwes plays her superior officer and fiance, in a casting move that really ought to be creepy (especially in a movie about a pedophile), and yet somehow works.  We don’t mind Elwes and Dushku together, thanks to Dushku playing a bona fide adult with no trace of the teenaged characters that made her famous.  Hutton appears in a nice role as the head of Price’s mental health support group, and the only character who seems to consistently believe in her.  Ironside’s role is small, as the stock, uncooperative small-town sheriff, but he’s always fun to watch.  Overall, the film (at least the edited-for-TV version) shies away from gore and horror, instead relying on psychological suspense and an incredibly moody setting.  While the identity of the killer is somewhat predictable, in the tradition of films like Clint Eastwood’s Bloodwork, it still plays out well, treading the tricky path between Price’s efforts to solve the mystery, and her efforts to hold onto her sanity.

If the film succeeds, which I think it does, it’s mostly because of the cast.  I wouldn’t seek out the film, necessarily, but if you have a gap to fill in your Carey Elwes marathon, it’s worth a view.  Luckily Netflix has Alphabet Killer available as streaming video, should you find yourself alone on a late October evening with nothing spooky to watch.

   

Review by C.J. Bunce

(with spoilers)

One of the most anticipated titles of DC Comics New 52 is Wonder Woman, and its tight writing by Brian Azzarello is only slightly eclipsed by the brilliant artistry of top artist Cliff Chiang.  Chiang’s style alone is enough to make the new Wonder Woman series a title to keep reading.  But Azzarello’s developing story steeped (if not fully submerged) in Greek mythology is enticing and leaves you looking for what’s next.

In Issue #1 we meet Wonder Woman in in her London apartment, sleeping naked, of course (she’s a woman superhero in the new DCU so what else would you expect?) shortly after Zola, the soon-to-be mother of an illegitimate daughter of Zeus is pursued by a pair of bow and arrow and mace-toting centaurs released in a Virginia barn by a peacock feathered Hera.  (Phew!)  The “release” itself is disturbing but that’s where the negative part of Issue #1 ends.  The rest is akin to a pretty rousing episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.  Not a bad thing at all.

Even if we don’t know what’s going on, Wonder Woman, or Diana, as she prefers to be called, is confident and comfortable as a determined and skillful warrior in the DCU.  Apollo, perched high atop his new temple in the tallest building in the world in Dubai, is a modern sleazy type, quick to expend three hanger-on-ers as oracles to catch a glimpse of what transpires as Diana saves Zola, who escapes the Virginia farm with the help of a magic key handed to her by Hermes.   Inexplicably Zola lands in the dark of Diana’s London apartment and we’re off on a Xena and Gabrielle-esque ride from then on.

Issue #2 picks up with Diana returning to Mount Olympus carrying the wounded Hermes, stricken by the centaurs before Diana eliminates them.  There Diana meets up with her mother, Queen Hippolyta and has a few nice panels of combat with another Amazonian princess in the tribe.  A rather punked-out looking daughter of Hera named Strife, sister to Ares the God of War, arrives with a surprising claim on our eponymous superheroine.

The story of Issue #2 may be short and sweet, but the fan is had with Chiang’s art again.  If you have seen Chiang’s original artwork before, you will know his work is pristine with not a lot of sketching, just bold lines.  Despite all the chatter in advance about Wonder Woman’s new costume, ultimately it does not matter as this Diana is drawn beautifully, as you’d expect a stunning Amazon princess to look in the comic pages.  Her characterization as bold, brash, outspoken and brassy is right where Wonder Woman should be.  Expect to see Chiang in the next few years emerge as the next Frank Cho.

Review by C.J. Bunce

An unprecedented volume was released this month: Batman: Hush Unwrapped, an exclusive and rare original art look at an entire comic book mega-hit series.  Kudos to DC Comics for not only releasing a complete compilation of a pencils-only view of the comic book process, but for releasing the one and only Batman: Hush mini-series by the current premier Batman artist, Jim Lee.  For the diehard Jim Lee fan, or the hundreds of thousands of fans that bought Batman: Hush in its original single issue form or trade paperback compilation formats, it will be hard not to rip the shrink wrap off the book standing right there in the bookstore.

Batman: Hush was originally printed in the ongoing Batman series as Issues #608-619, written by Jeph Loeb.  It is the story of Batman sleuthing out a criminal called Hush.  Everyone who is anyone in the Batman storyline makes an appearance in the series.  The art is top notch and is what propelled Jim Lee forward as the key go-to guy for Batman work.  Not since Neal Adams re-imagined Batman in 1969 has anyone had this kind of impact on the character.  After Hush came out I stood in line for an hour at a Midwest convention to get Jim to scrawl his signature across the covers of my own stack of the series.  He was so busy he hardly looked up the entire day.  Jim has been the featured talent at each comic show he has appeared at since.  Hush is a series that was well hyped before I read it, but it is the rare occurrence in the past several years where the hype was warranted.

From a story standpoint, the inner-thought narration of Batman as he progresses through the first page will have anyone hooked immediately.  There is a great surprise, a big reveal, and a pay-off that although not perfect, is still worth the voyage.  Beyond Jeph Loeb’s solid writing, however, is the consistently brilliant panels rendered by Jim Lee.  You will not look at a boot tread the same way again.

But if you haven’t read Batman: Hush yet, don’t read this new edition.  This edition is for the diehard fan that darned-near knows the original series by heart.  It includes every page of art before it was inked, before color was added.  It does keep the lettering, so you can still read and follow the entire storyline as with the original published edition.  For the first time reader, check out either Batman: Hush in paperback, or in the two volume hardcover edition (Batman: Hush Vol. 1 or Batman: Hush, Vol. 2), or the oversized Absolute Batman: Hush, which is coming out in December, but available for pre-order now.  Again, there is a good reason why this book has been reprinted so many times.  It’s that good.

If you are an artist or art enthusiast, you can’t do much better than study the style and strokes of a master at his best.  As a study piece, I can see art classes assigning this book as required reference material.  Mark my words, this will be in a college bookstore next semester (post here if you see it happen first!).  If so, it would be in good company, as Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was regularly found as an economic text book in colleges back in the 1990s.

Stepping back from looking at this work in this seemingly stark form as a study piece or target of critique and analysis, the black and white treatment of the Hush story is a new view of the story in its own right.  The pencil work, along with some periodic pages in shades of gray watercolor, has a certain film noir aspect to it that is quite appropriate.  The Dark Knight Detective in his own film noir thriller itself is a great concept.

I for one hope the Unwrapped series concept catches on.  Even non-hero original art pages from Jim Lee easily fetch a minimum of $1,000 per page today.  Other than catching an artist at a convention who happens to have kept his entire series (good luck finding that!), you’re not going to get access to something like this any other way.  A series that reproduces other great storylines and great artists would be an entry point for most of us into the world behind the scenes of comic book creation.  The hundreds of hours of exhaustive efforts to create such a work are evident in every stroke, in every panel.  At $39.99 retail this type of book won’t appeal to the masses, but if enough uber-fans pick this one up maybe DC Comics, and other publishers, will issue more compendiums in this format in the future.  To quote the other famous comic book Lee, “Excelsior!”

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