Sunday, September 18, 2011


1981’s Wolfen is not a very good film, but I love it anyway. I find myself throwing it on once a year and enjoying the hell out of it despite its leaden pacing and preachy storyline. It was released the same year as two similar but far superior films—The Howling and An American Werewolf In London dazzled audiences with breakthrough transformation effects, witty, postmodern approaches to the werewolf legend, and buckets of gore. Comparatively speaking, Wolfen seems like the stuffy older cousin of these films, opting for environmental themes and a sober police-procedural approach that doesn’t quite coalesce into a fully satisfying movie. And yet, I always come back to it.

Based on Whitley Streiber’s novel of the same name, Wolfen isn’t strictly a werewolf story. The movie opens as a wealthy New York developer, his wife, and their bodyguard are violently killed by something off-camera in Battery Park, something that moves low to the ground before ripping out throats and tearing off limbs. Boozy detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is assigned to the case, reluctantly teaming up with younger investigator Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora). Tons of red herrings are thrown their way; were the murders actually committed by the terrorist group whose Patty Hearst-like spokesperson claims responsibility? Do the bodyguard’s Haitian Voodoo connections have any bearing on the case? What about outspoken Native American troublemaker Eddie Holt (a shockingly young, yet still craggy-faced Edward James Olmos) who seems to know a lot about the killings? The real culprit, it turns out, is a pack of godlike superwolves from Native American myth who have been forced out of their native habitat by encroaching development, hiding among the concrete canyons of Manhattan to feast on the rich and poor alike. As I said, not really a werewolf story, but what else do you call it?

The pacing of Wolfen is seriously out of whack, spending way too much time on those aforementioned red herrings when it’s obvious to the audience from the opening scenes that something supernatural is afoot. Finney’s detective character is enjoyably cranky, but not the most compelling lead, and the romantic subplot between Wilson and Neff is pretty farfetched. Far more interesting are the supporting characters, like Olmos as the Native activist, Gregory Hines as Wilson’s wisecracking cop buddy, and notable weirdo Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Monster Squad) as a zoologist who is sympathetic to the Wolfen’s plight. In addition to the memorable supporting cast, director Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) makes innovative (at the time, anyway) use of tracking shots for the Wolfen POV sequences, as well as heat-vision photography of the kind that would be popularized by Predator a few years later. The score by James Horner is suitably exciting, although he would go on to cannibalize parts of it for later projects like Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Aliens. Wolfen’s real strength, though, comes from its urban setting, shot for maximum creepy impact by cinematographer Gerry Fisher. The central horror behind Wolfen—the idea that, even in a modern-day metropolis of technology and civilization, you could be hunted and torn apart by creatures straight out of folklore—doesn’t really come alive until Dewey and Neff’s final confrontation with the Wolfen on Wall Street. Wolfen doesn’t completely succeed in selling its premise of modern man vs. ancient myth, but it comes pretty close at intermittent moments throughout, and I love it for trying.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The ALIEN Vault

Alien is one of those movies where I couldn’t possibly say how many times I’ve seen it. I’ve owned it in four formats now—taped off a late night CTV airing, store-bought VHS, DVD (twice—as a single disc and again as part of the Alien Quadrilogy box set), and now finally again in the Alien Anthology Blu-Ray box set. Fans can endlessly debate the dubious merits of the third and fourth films in the series, and the Alien Vs. Predator franchise is probably best ignored altogether, but we can pretty much all agree on one thing—the first two installments are an unbeatable combo of outer space terror. However, my first love will always be Ridley Scott’s 1979 original, a beautiful and terrifying fusion of down & dirty sci-fi and Lovecraftian horror. It hasn’t aged a day, and I suspect it never will. So for a fan like myself, Ian Nathan’s new book from Voyageur Press, The Alien Vault, offers an indispensable peek behind the curtain of a classic.

The Alien Vault details the making of the film in all its lurid detail, all the way from Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script (originally titled Starbeast) to the scribes’ battles with producers Walter Hill and David Giler, and all the way on into the torturous production that saw director Ridley Scott fighting tooth and nail with the studio over budget excesses and design elements, right on up until the early test screenings that reportedly had audience members running to the restrooms to vomit. Nathan seems to have had unprecedented access to archival materials—the book contains scores of fascinating photos from the set as well enough production art and creature design illustrations (including some pretty goofy early attempts to envision the monster as a sort of fleshy, bipedal space lobster) to fill a derelict space cruiser. These production illustrations underscore one of the most fascinating elements of the Alien experience—how the filmmakers charged two separate designers with creating the warring aesthetics of the movie. The visions of H.R. Giger (responsible for the alien creature’s life cycle, as well as the mysterious Space Jockey and his shipwrecked craft) and Ron Cobb (the artist behind the movie’s human elements, like the Nostromo and all the technology within) gave Alien an indelible originality, highlighting the gulf of difference between the film’s vision of spacefaring humanity and the interstellar horrors it encounters. Nathan was also able to interview nearly everyone involved in Alien, unearthing some choice bits of set gossip along the way (Yaphet Kotto got so into character as the abrasive Parker that, when it came time to film his death scene, he got up in the director’s face, insisting that his character was going to survive his alien encounter, despite what the script said).

The coolest thing about The Alien Vault, though, are the many “enclosures” found within—envelopes containing reproductions of design schematics, foreign one-sheet designs, Ridley Scott’s original storyboards (or “Ridleygrams”), script pages with handwritten revisions in the margins, and even a Nostromo crew patch in the form of a sticker. If you’ve seen The Marvel Vault or The DC Vault from Running Press, or the more recent Transformers Vault from Harry N. Abrams, then you’re familiar with this “Museum-In-A-Book” approach. It’s sort of like being allowed to hang out on the production lot of 20th Century Fox Studios after hours, sifting through the most exciting film memorabilia imaginable. More appropriately, it’s like landing on a strange, exotic planet and finding the wrecked hulk of a starship filled with fascinating artifacts of genre film history rather than hostile xenomorph eggs.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes

Between this summer’s excellent cinematic reboot (and surprise smash hit) Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Boom! Studios’ solidly entertaining Planet Of The Apes ongoing comic series (and its recently-announced spinoff miniseries, Betrayal Of The Planet Of The Apes, co-written and illustrated by Hulk & Atlas artist Gabriel Hardman), it’s a good time to be an Apes fan. It’s hard to detect where this sudden new surge of interest in the property is coming from—when most of these projects were being planned, the box office outlook for the new film was looking pretty grim—but I’m personally happy to reap the rewards, such as the intriguing new illustrated novel from Archaia Entertainment, Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Written by Andrew E.C. Gaska and sporting an absolutely dynamite cover painting by comics legend Jim Steranko, Conspiracy takes place in and around the events of the original 1968 Planet Of The Apes film. The plot diverges from marooned astronaut Taylor’s plight and instead centers on his colleague, Landon, following the events that resulted in his eventual lobotomy courtesy of Dr. Zaius. Gaska spins a suspenseful parallel adventure to the more familiar storyline of the original film, one that features flashbacks to an earlier space mission gone awry (which makes surprising use of simian imagery to slyly suggest that the whole adventure on the ape planet might all take place in Landon’s mind during cryosleep), while folding in elements from assorted Apes sequels, like the psychic mutants from Beneath The Planet Of The Apes and sympathetic chimp scientist Doctor Milo from Escape From The Planet Of The Apes. Gaska’s plot helps set up elements from the sequels, laying the groundwork for the war between the mutants and the apes in Beneath, while showing how Milo learned of, and eventually retrieved, Taylor’s sunken spacecraft so he could use it to flee his doomed world in Escape.

It’s not easy to maintain suspense when you know the story’s outcome courtesy of a 43-year old film, but that’s not really what Gaska is up to with Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes. Aimed squarely at diehard Apes fans, who know not only the first film intimately but are familiar with the mythology of the sequels as well, Gaska is more interested in unifying the various strands of plot into more of a companion piece to the overall Apes experience. I can’t imagine it’ll be of much interest or use to the casual fan, but having just revisited the entire film series over the summer (check out my series overview at The Coast’s website), I definitely admired the scope of the project and was able to appreciate his knowledge of Apes lore. Gaska’s gritty prose thankfully doesn’t update the Cold War roots of the original movie (Taylor, Landon, Dodge, and Stewart still left Earth in 1972, hoping to conquer deep space before the Communists). A subplot about chimp surgeon Galen and his unfaithful wife doesn’t really go anywhere, and a last-act revelation about the fate of Ape City’s political dissidents is potentially interesting, but the book ends before we can learn more about it (maybe a sequel is in the works?). Archaia has put together a sharp package here, with some beautiful, occasionally nightmarish, paintings by Chris Moeller, Erik Gist, Joe Jusko, Barron Storrey, punctuated by Struzan-esque character illustrations by Matt Busch, although some proofreading was definitely needed before this book went to press (horse instead of hoarse, faired instead of fared, it’s instead of its). Still, as companion pieces to film projects go, Conspiracy Of The Planet Of The Apes takes a surprisingly old-school approach to fleshing out a familiar storyline and melding it with a larger established tapestry, one that Apes devotees would do well to explore.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Attack The Block

This October, I’m planning to watch 31 horror movies throughout the month for the second year in a row. I did it last year and it was a blast—check out my reports on it at my friend Carsten Knox’s movie blog, The Flaw In The Iris. As I’ve been stockpiling movie ideas for this month-long blowout, I’ve been trying to avoid watching any horror films…which, unfortunately, makes it a bit tough to maintain a blog largely dedicated to horror films. I am, however, always on the lookout for loopholes in the sketchily-defined boundaries of this blog, and since the new UK release Attack The Block contains a lot of elements of other genres—sci-fi, action, and comedy, specifically—I feel justified that, in watching it, I wasn’t draining a movie away from my October stockpile. It does contain enough elements of a horror movie that I think I can get away with writing about it.

Attack The Block comes from across the pond via writer/director Joe Cornish (one of the scribes of the upcoming Tintin feature) and producer Nira Park (pretty much everything Edgar Wright has ever been involved in). It concerns a group of underage South London street toughs—along with the off-duty nurse they rob early on in the film—who do battle with a swarm of toothy, furry monstrosities from space that descend on the city during a meteor shower. There’s not really a whole lot else to the plot other than that; within the ninety-minute running time, the kids and their mugging victim have to join forces against both the beasties and a pissed-off drug dealer, mostly within the confines of an apartment complex called Wyndham Towers (presumably named after British SF giant John Wyndham, author of The Chrysalids and Day Of The Triffids).

The tone of Attack The Block is decidedly in the gosh-wow vein of a 1980s Amblin Entertainment flick, but with a darker edge—most of its protagonists are, after all, teenaged criminals, and some of them meet with bloody demises before the credits roll. Describing the movie as Goonies Vs. Critters wouldn’t be far off. It’s also a bit like the kids from Season Four of The Wire fighting for their lives against toothsome alien yetis, only in South London instead of West Baltimore. The young cast, led by a charismatic and believably tough John Boyega as Moses, is superb. It seems at first that it might be hard to rally behind a group of unrepentant criminals as the film’s heroes, but as the movie progresses, the kids gain more dimension and, with it, more sympathy. The design of the monsters is a refreshing change-of-page from the usual CGI ghoulies; the pitch-black, furry “gorilla wolf motherfuckers” with neon green fangs look to have been achieved through a mix of guys-in-suits and rotoscope animation. It’s a refreshingly low-tech solution that gives the beasts real presence and weight on film. Not everything works—the subplot about the murderous drug dealer Hi-Hatz feels a bit extraneous, born out of some misguided need for a human villain, and an awful lot of the film’s climax hinges on an extremely well-placed nature program playing on TV early on that provides a vital clue about the creatures’ behaviour. There isn’t ever much of an explanation as to why these alien nasties settled on South London for their rampage, but then again, Tremors never bothered to explain why the Graboids decided to suddenly spring up around the town of Perfection either, and it never impeded my enjoyment. Attack The Block races through its running time with loads of style and wit, buoyed by a strong cast and a cool new kind of monster. See it before the inevitable American remake.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Swamp Thing #1, Animal Man #1

Apologies up front—my updates here at the House Of Haunts have been pretty scarce lately, mostly due to the run-up and recovery from this year’s Fan Expo convention in Toronto (where I was off selling copies of my Eighties Pro Wrestling comic, Slam-A-Rama). I failed to score autographs from Robert Englund, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, and Tom Savini—the lineups were too damn long—but I did snag an original 1979 poster for Prophecy: The Monster Movie for a measly twenty bucks, so there’s that. Anyway…

It’s old news to comics fans by now that DC is relaunching their entire line all September with 52 brand new number one issues, spanning a wide variety of genres—okay, mostly capes-and-tights stuff, but classic non-superhero titles like All-Star Western and Men Of War are getting a spit-and-polish too. Of course, DC has a proud tradition of publishing titles that straddle the line between superheroes and horror; it’s from out of this tradition that the venerable Vertigo label was born in the early Nineties, as titles like Sandman and Doom Patrol graduated from the DC Universe to deluxe format, mature readers-labelled books. So naturally, two of the most fondly-remembered comics from the Vertigo inaugural class—Swamp Thing and Animal Man—are once again part of the DC Universe, kicking off a horror-edged sub-imprint of the so-called “New 52”. Both of these titles have an intimidating legacy to live up to—after all, they did kick off the American comics careers of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, respectively, ushering in a new era of “Sophisticated Suspense” (this tagline adorned Moore’s Saga Of The Swamp Thing for much of its run) and selling strongly in collected editions for years, even to this day. With such a frankly terrifying precedent, how do these new interpretations hold up?

Quite well, as it turns out, thanks to each book’s energetic creative teams and a surprising mix of both new and old ideas. Animal Man, written by Canadian superstar Jeff Lemire (Essex County), works as either an entirely new series, or as a continuation of the character’s previous incarnation, depending on your level of familiarity. The title hero, known publicly to be former stuntman-turned-superhero Buddy Baker, is a mostly-retired crimefighter when the story begins—he’s more interested in acting (he plays—what else?—a washed-up superhero in a gritty indie drama) and spending time with his wife Ellen and their two kids, Cliff and Maxine. Still, he occasionally pulls on the tights to help when needed, like when a grieving father takes a bunch of kids in a cancer ward hostage. During this crisis, Buddy’s powers—which involve siphoning animal abilities from the “Life Web”—start acting strangely, causing him to bleed from his eyes. Things get weirder still Cliff wakes from a horrific nightmare about Maxine and some monstrous apparitions called the Hunters Three, only to find Maxine playing in the backyard with some creepy new four-legged friends. Lemire’s homespun approach to the fantastical, honed to perfection in the Vertigo monthly Sweet Tooth, fits nicely with the balance of the domestic and the horrible established in Morrison’s Animal Man. The art by Travel Foreman (The Immortal Iron Fist) is startling and nightmarish, in the mold of New Mutants-era Bill Sienkiewicz. His work really comes alive in the more outlandish set pieces, such as his depiction of how Buddy’s powers work (and their strange new consequences), the gray-and-red dream sequence, and on the super-weird last page cliffhanger.

While new readers can come to Animal Man pretty much cold—there’s a passing reference to the Justice League, but that’s about it for acknowledging the larger DCU—the relaunched Swamp Thing may prove a bit more intimidating as a first issue. That doesn’t mean that new readers who only know the character from the 1982 Wes Craven film or its soggy sequel should be put off, even if they haven’t read Brightest Day or The Search For Swamp Thing. I haven’t, and I still was taken with/thoroughly creeped out by this new take on the classic muck-monster. A mysterious rash of animal deaths catches the attention of various Justice League members, causing Superman to seek out Alec Holland, formerly known as the Earth Elemental called Swamp Thing (well, sort of—it’s a bit complicated). Recently returned from the dead, the scientific genius is now a humble construction worker who knows nothing about any supernatural mysteries of either the dead animal kind or the one where a strange twister carried a mastodon skeleton out of an archaeological dig a few pages earlier. Where his swampy alter ego was a living avatar of the plant world, Holland now believes that Swamp Thing’s precious “Green” is a place of violent nature run amok, and he wants no part of it. Of course, The Green isn’t quite done with him yet. Writer Scott Snyder (American Vampire, Detective Comics) gets off to a shaky start with all those superhero cameos and references to previous series and crossover events, but when the horror stuff kicks in, Swamp Thing takes off. A group of archaeologists, discovering that their mastodon fossil is missing, are attacked by something pretty awful; whatever it is, it involves flies and backwards-turned-heads, both of which are callbacks to Alan Moore’s legendary run on Saga Of The Swamp Thing. However, you don’t need to get the reference to be seriously unnerved by this sequence. Yanick Paquette (another Canadian!) wouldn’t have been my first choice to draw this book, as his work has been previously…er, rooted in more realistic depictions of the human form; it also usually involved a fair bit of T & A. However, the more realistic elements of his art style provide a striking and effective counterpart to the supernatural craziness of whatever the hell the book’s antagonist is (Paquette brings a bit of classic Bissette-and-Totleben to his rendering of it), and his Swamp Thing, unseen until the final page, has just the right mix of noble and monstrous. I’m still not totally sold on the “New 52”, but the creepier corners of the DC relaunch are most definitely off to a solid start.