"The Lurid Files"—Gemma Files' Lurid Musings

Absentia

Sometimes, even in this meta-saturated genre of ours, things just go right. Absentia, funded by Kickstarter and shot in fourteen days on a hand-held hi-res digital camera which also takes video footage, was conceived less as “a horror film” than as an excuse for writer/director Mike Flanagan to work with and showcase his favourite group of friends/actors, one of whom also happened to be his massively pregnant wife. According to the DVD's documentary feature, no one involved seems to be a horror buff, so the scenario's trope-o-meter is not exactly cranked up high. Instead, what they were interested in was giving a full-bore display of not-so-simple human emotion under extremely odd pressures, and boy howdy, do they succeed.

When we first meet Tricia (Courtney Bell), she's making her ponderous way around the neighbourhood, replacing dog-eared flyers which inform us that her husband, Daniel, is still missing. Daniel disappeared over seven years ago, which means he can't possibly be the father of her impending baby, and Tricia is still haunted by the apparently insoluble questions of not just what happened to him, but why. Nevertheless, her pregnancy has finally provided her with a perfect reason to move on, which is why she's asked her little sister Callie (Katie Parker)—a slightly flaky free spirit, not to mention cross-country rehab centre tour veteran—to help her through the emotionally draining process of having Daniel declared officially “dead in Absentia”.

Wisely, Flanagan allows Tricia and Callie to spend Absentia's first five to ten minutes feeling around each other's sore spots, revealing a sisterly relationship that's both deep and contentious. The next morning, Callie goes for her usual run through that slightly sinister concrete underpass...

The Asphyx vs. Photographing Fairies

A blue ghostlike creature floats in the air between a coffin-like device and a man strapped into a chair with a bowl-like contraption on his head

I recently picked up The Asphyx in its most recent re-release form—on Redemption DVD and Blu-Ray—for a combination of reasons, not the least being that I had (mostly) unwittingly referenced its central concept in my novelette “each thing I show you is a piece of my death” (co-written with Stephen J. Barringer), by dubbing the image supposedly found burnt into a murder victim's eye after death an “asphyx”. I say “unwittingly” because my mind is both a garburator and a box of cats, a gravity well from which very little genre-oriented trivia seems to escape, so I know I must have heard of this film somewhere previously...indeed, even before I put it in my DVD player, I had a very specific idea of what it was going to be like—Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Xperiment) without Nigel Kneale, eerie in that very early Doctor Who episode sort of way, with dialogue trumping action, and lots of bad 1970s hair on slightly familiar-looking British actors.

And yes, pretty much all of the above, along with an amazingly syrupy main musical theme that almost derails the whole business. Yet there's a lot to love about The Asphyx nonetheless, at least for me, seeing how it combines a bunch of stuff I find endlessly fascinating: Mad science with a vague steampunk slant, Things Men Were Not Meant to Eff With, a horrid sense of predestination only recognizable after the fact, in hindsight, when nothing can be done to alter our protagonist's self-destructively hubristic mistakes.

Made in 1973 and set in 1875, the film spins around aristocratic inventor Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), the kind of guy who routinely whips up alternative light-sources powered by weird blue crystals, as well as unexpectedly inventing the motion picture camera twenty years ahead of both...

Beyond the Black Rainbow

The story goes like this, potentially apocryphal as all anecdata, but it's still a fun one: When Beyond the Black Rainbow writer-director Panos Cosmatos was a kid in the early 1980s, he spent a lot of time inside a store called the Video Attic, looking at VHS boxes of R-rated horror and science fiction films and daydreaming about their covers and plot descriptions on their backs. Born in Rome, he'd lived all over by that point, following his father—also involved in the film industry, mainly working on Hollywood projects—from movie set to movie set (Sweden, Greece, London, Mexico) before finally returning to Canada, and he became obsessed with the idea of an imagined film, one which only existed inside his head.

In 2005, after following up his second unit video assist credit on Tombstone (1993) with some work on various music videos and short films, his father's death finally jump-started Cosmatos on the path to realizing at least one of those movies directly. Cosmatos says, of his debut film: “The whole thing was put together in a stream-of-consciousness way. I was dealing with the grief and regret of losing my parents”—his mother, an experimental sculptor, died in 1997—“[, and] I was also looking at the '80s and what happened to the baby-boomer generation, its connection to to the '60s, because there is a connection there.”

The result is the sort of movie that might have been made the year it's set in (1983), but probably never would have, at least not for mainstream consumption … hermetic, ultra-stylized, apparently informed by everything anhedonic, trippy and alienating you can think of, from Kubrick and Cronenberg to Ken Russell and Andrei Tarkovsky. It's got a visual aesthetic which marries Scanners' overall sensibility to Space:...

Black Curiosities: the Work of Adam Nevill

You may have noticed that I don't have to talk about anything I don't already like in these columns, and today's subject—my heartfelt appreciation for and passionate envy of rising U.K. horror star Adam Nevill—will be no exception. Whenever I start to talk about Nevill, even to my friends, I tend to get a bit star-struck. Recently I was reading his website and when I got to the part where he admitted that one of his formative frights was listening to Steeleye Span's cover of the murder ballad “Long Lankin” (from their seminal British folk-rock album Commoner's Crown) on repeat and trying to figure out just why it freaked him out so much, my first thought was literally: OMG, me TOO! We're like mental twins, hee hee!

Putting it a slightly more professional way, however, what I like most about Nevill is his M.R. Jamesian propensity to play out a pattern I personally find particularly appealing: that of twinning and echoing current horror, i.e. a modern-day series of dreadful events, with something far older and more hidden, some ancient evil which our protagonists will be basically forced into decoding. At the heart of each narrative lies an inciting incident boiled down to its most contaminating qualities and often distributed sidelong, sometimes through a series of antique yet poisonous objects and other times through traditions, through rumours, through artistic interpretations. What he wants to show you comes in shreds, shadows and snatches, always reflected obliquely rather than straight on, as if taking its cues from the title of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's classic short story collection In A Glass Darkly.

I began my tour through Nevill's eerily distorted world with his first novel, Banquet For The Damned (2004, Random House), which takes place...

Dark Shadows

Barnabas

As a vampire-obsessed young adult, I found myself in the odd position of having the gatekeepers for my interest in the genre often be slightly older women whose first/imprinting experience of Yes, THIS Is The Thing For Me came through the medium of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Winds of War creator Dan Curtis's now-legendary supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows (recently reinterpreted in movie form by Tim Burton with a not-exactly-winning combination of smirky 1970s fetishism and sub-par Johnny Depp freaktitude, in such a way as to neatly alienate the original fanbase almost completely while failing to snag any new fans worth speaking of). Having never seen the show myself, in those dark pre-YouTube years, I was forced to rely on vague descriptions of Canadian actor Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas Collins)'s unaccountable hotness in order to parse out its appeal, which often didn't seem exactly borne out by whatever stills of him I occasionally happened to trip across.

I also learned a fair deal from Stephen King's coverage of the show in the first edition of Dance Macabre, his ambitious and enthusiastic mid-1980s survey of horror in popular culture; my favourite aspect of King's commentary was his glee at the way Curtis had managed to trump most soap operas' “kid trick”—ie, any child born onscreen tends to attain adulthood at a speed roughly three times that of a normal human being, often becoming a parent themselves maybe two years later—with an even more exciting “ghost trick” that allowed him to kill characters off with maximum emotional trauma, then bring them back as monsters! More shows in general should do this last thing, IMNSHO, if canon allows for it; hell, even overtly horror-identified nighttime soaps like The Vampire Diaries...

Daughters of Darkness: Director's Cut

The Countess, Stefan and Valerie

In the years since its initial release, Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness has become a bit of a legend—a cheerfully perverse riff on cinematic vampire mythology (its four-word promotional slogan was: “Vampirism, lesbianism, homosexuality, sadism!”, which is...accurate, as far as that goes) that made almost nothing at the box office, yet still managed to amass enough of a following to get it into the second volume of critic and film historian Danny Peary's Cult Movies book series just a mere twelve years later.

Kümel has said his intention was to create “a Gothic fairytale for full-grown adults,” and to say the resultant film is somewhat odd would be a distinct understatement; it's full of strange thematic shifts and has that particular surreal tone specific to foreign-shot English-language films, not to mention undercutting itself badly by apparently casting key actors on the basis of their willingness to do nudity, rather than any other skill-set. Yet it also has verve, charm, chutzpah, an hypnotic score and an equally hypnotic central performance by Delphine Seyrig (Last Year At Marienbad), who pulls off the slightly insane concept of a version of Erszebet Bathori channelled through the iconography of von Sternberg-era Marlene Dietrich so completely that she makes total artifice seem utterly natural.

Like most classic monster movies, Daughters of Darkness begins with a honeymooning couple—Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), married for only a few hours, who we first meet while consummating their union on a train speeding from Switzerland to Belgium. Already, we see cracks forming in the facade of two chic, cosmopolitan young people united against the big, bad world; Valerie can't figure out why every time she...

Les Daniels' The Black Castle

Cover of The Black Castle

When I was a kid, I collected almost anything to do with vampires—not memorabilia, not objects, and this was long before the very idea of owning copies of actual movies, unless you wanted to buy a 16mm/Super-8 camera system (thus risking the attention of the child-stealing demon Bungool, according to recent horror film Sinister)—but short story collections, comics, nonfiction books, magazines . . . and, of course, novels. Few books remain in my library from that period, though I'd give a surprising amount of money to once more track down a copy of Crimson Kisses, an insane hybridization of a fairly accurate historical recounting of Vlad Tepes Dracula's career as Romanian freedom fighter/serial mass murderer with a full-bore para-rom that saw him turned into a vampire by a sexy Roma witch on the orders of Satan himself . . . but I made sure to retain my absolute favourite of the crop, Les Daniels's The Black Castle, pilot book in a subsequent series of tales starring Don Sebastian de Villanueva, “the vampire horrified by man.”

Daniels, who died in 2011, was a polymath and a scholar, probably far better known for his work in nonfiction than his stories. He was the author of a seminal survey of narrative art, for example—1971's Comix, “the first critical study to take the art form seriously,” according to Bob Booth's 2012 obituary essay, which twenty years later led to him being tapped by both Marvel and DC to write their official histories. He also wrote studies of “the big three,” DC's iconic superheroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. His 1975 book Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media was the first book to recognize that horror fiction and horror film didn't have to be treated as two separate genres, but would benefit (especially in an...

Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Jessica making a rubbing of a gravestone

I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don't know which is which. —Opening voice-over narration of Let's Scare Jessica to Death.

We're first introduced to Jessica (Zohra Lampert), right as she jumps from her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman)'s hearse and runs off into a roadside cemetery to take an impromptu tombstone-rubbing. “I'll just be one minute!” she yells back, happily. As Duncan and his friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) lean against the hearse, waiting for her to return, Woody assures Duncan that Jessica seems fine, recovered, especially now that they've removed her from New York … “I mean, that apartment was starting to scare me.” But even as Duncan agrees, Jessica has already looked up from her rubbing to find an odd-looking girl in an archaic sack-dress, her throat circled with what looks like a bandage, gesturing to her from a nearby rock. Whispers mount on the soundtrack, along with a phantom wind, and Jessica shuts her eyes and warns herself: “Act normal. Don't tell them. They won't believe you … ”

This is how the misleadingly titled Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)—a true treasure-from-trash sleeper/keeper directed by John D. Hancock from a script by Hancock and Lee Kalcheim (both using pseudonyms), which in turn claims to be derived from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's, “Carmilla”—begins: with a daylight apparition witnessed not only by an unreliable narrator, but one who knows herself to be unreliable. Jessica has recently been released from a six-month stay at a mental hospital, having suffered from some sort of nervous breakdown brought on by the pressures of modern life, and her propensity to see things that aren't there. There's a...

Locke & Key

The Wellhouse

You can't understand. Because you're reading the last chapter of something, without having read the first chapters  . . . Kids always think they're coming into a story at the beginning, when usually they're coming in at the end.
—Dodge, aka “Echo,” in IDW's Locke & Key 1: Welcome to Lovecraft, written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez.

Making a sharpish turn from one stream of horror culture (film) to another (graphic novels), I've decided to use my time this week to talk about my favourite current comic series, Locke & Key, which—with the release of its latest collected volume, number five (Clockworks)—claims to be finally moving into the home-stretch. Since the series began back in 2008, this means the culmination of a surprisingly streamlined five-year plan, when one takes the guiding narrative's dark, oblique, often spectacularly surreal complexities into consideration.

Given who we're talking about here (is anyone actually still unaware of Joe Hill's true parentage, at this point?), it may seem a bit reductionist to say that from the outside, and especially in its initial stages, Locke & Key plays like a classic Stephen King-esque story about small town horror rooted in secrets and lies coming home to roost which pivots on a network of well-observed family dynamics and solid character work. As things continue, however, we find ourselves being dragged hither and yon into some truly odd flights of fancy; the tale slides from horror-inflected Afterschool Special to New Weird fable to multi-level Lovecraftian epic without skipping a beat, folding unapologetically back and forth through time and letting us literally look inside the protagonists' heads, while also often modifying both its...

Marvel Comics' Essential Tomb of Dracula

Tomb of Dracula 7

If one happens to be of a certain age (as one/me certainly is), one cannot long peruse the Hammer Horror film canon without being forcibly reminded of the insane charms of Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula and Dracula Lives! series, both of which I collected, off and on, when I was somewhere between eleven and fourteen. (I also had an almost-complete run of Marvel's Master of Kung-Fu, which chronicled the vaguely James Bond in pyjamas-style adventures of Dr Fu Manchu's son Shang-Chi, but that's a whole 'nother story.) Marvel's version owes a great deal to Hammer, combining as it did that studio's general blood-and-boobs ethos with a full-throttle riff on Sir Christopher Lee's Dracula characterization, as seen in such films as Horror of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (“obviously,” as the tag-line went, superimposed across a headless lady with both an incredibly plunging, classically heaving-cleavage neckline and a band-aid prominently displayed on her jugular), Taste the Blood of Dracula and the like.

Previous to 1971, anti-horror Comics Code Authority strictures had actually made it virtually impossible for Marvel (or any other comics company) to structure a series around an explicitly vampiric character, though they'd tested those waters with the reasonably successful introduction of Morbius, the Living Vampire. Their choice to use Dracula to spearhead a genuine vampire title was, as usual, mainly contingent on the fact that Dracula is universally recognizable yet firmly in the public domain, and original writers Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin and Gardener Fox chose to back the Bram Stoker's Dracula connection with legacy characters like wheelchair-bound centagenarian vampire hunter Quincy Harker (son of Mina and Jonathan...

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