Oct 3 2015

Guest List: Stephen Jones’ Top 5 Horror Stories That Also Have Been Adapted for the Screen

artofhorrorFew know horror quite like Stephen Jones. Therefore, he’s a natural to compile The Art of Horror: An Illustrated History for Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, just in time for Halloween! Also just in time for Halloween: this list of four screen-adapted terror tales, which we’ve whittled down from the renowned anthologist’s full list of 10 favorite spooky short stories of all time on our sister site, Bookgasm.

warningcurious1. “A Warning to the Curious” by M.R. James
adapted as A Warning to the Curious (1972)

No horror anthology would be complete without a contribution by M. (Montague) R. (Rhodes) James (1862-1936), that English master of supernatural fiction. The Cambridge Provost invented the modern ghost story as we know it, replacing the Gothic horrors of the previous century with more contemporary settings and subtle terrors. Although his tales have been much imitated, they have never been surpassed, and amongst the very best is “A Warning to the Curious,” which, with its cursed object and doomed protagonist, perfectly exemplifies everything that is memorable about the author’s fiction. I was proud to compile Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James, a definitive collection of James’ fiction beautifully illustrated by Les Edwards, for Jo Fletcher Books a couple of years ago.
callcthulhu2. “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft
adapted as The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Next comes that dean of cosmic horror, H. (Howard) P. (Phillips) Lovecraft (1890-1937). A life-long antiquarian and resident of Providence, Rhode Island, most of his work appeared in the cheaply produced pulp magazines that he despised. He’s best remembered for his creation of the much-imitated Cthulhu Mythos, his tales of ancient and unimaginable creatures seeking to reclaim the Earth; they are as powerful today as when they were first written. The author’s key story in this sequence, “The Call of Cthulhu,” contains all the elements that set Lovecraft’s half-glimpsed horrors apart from most other contributors to the pulps. Despite recent, misguided attempts to re-define the author’s standing in the genre by people who have probably never read him, Lovecraft remains possibly the most influential author in horror after Edgar Allan Poe. I included this story and all the author’s other macabre fiction in the definitive two-volume set Jo Fletcher and I put together for Gollancz some years ago, once again illustrated by the incomparable Les Edwards. The first volume, Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, has now sold more copies than any other book I’ve ever been involved with.
thriller3. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch
adapted for Thriller (1960)

Best known as the author of the original novel Alfred Hitchcock based his 1960 movie Psycho on, Robert Bloch (1917-94) was equally at home writing supernatural and psychological horror fiction. In his later years he became a much-respected film and TV scriptwriter in Hollywood, but his stories also appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” skillfully combines both of the author’s fictional styles while casting the historical serial killer as an immortal being. Bloch’s story was adapted by Barré Lyndon for a memorable episode of the TV series Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, and the author returned to the “Ripper” theme a number of times — not least for his own Star Trek script, “Wolf in the Fold.” I recently included “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” in my anthology Psycho-Mania!, which also features a previously unpublished introduction by Robert Bloch.
danceofdead4. “Dance of the Dead” by Richard Matheson
adapted for Masters of Horror (2005)

Although widely regarded as a science fiction writer, Richard Matheson (1926-2013) was published in most genres during his lifetime. I have no hesitation in claiming him as a horror author — if only for his novels I Am Legend and Hell House, or his quartet of Shock! collections. Like his friend and contemporary Robert Bloch, Matheson also had the ability to add a psychological twist to his darker tales. I guess its futuristic setting makes “Dance of the Dead” SF, but with its experimental style and grim subject matter, it wouldn’t be out of place in any horror anthology. In fact, I included it in Don’t Turn Out the Light, the third of the new “Not at Night” anthologies that I edited for PS Publishing.
talestomorrow5. “Homecoming” by Ray Bradbury
adapted for Tales of Tomorrow (1953)

Like his friend Richard Matheson, most people probably think of Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) as a science fiction writer, and they would not be wrong in that assessment. But while as a young man Bradbury was cutting his teeth in the SF pulp magazines, he was also contributing an equal number of tales to such periodicals as Weird Tales. To read Bradbury is to read imaginative prose at its very best. His fiction can transport you to other worlds or far futures, or just as easily bring you back to Earth with a shudder and a bump (in the night). I would recommend his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes to any young reader as an introduction to the horror genre, and I adore his stories about the Eternal Family — a sort of literary precursor to The Addams Family and The Munsters. Collected together in From the Dust Returned, these stories are in turns lyrical, poignant and chilling. I would happily choose “Homecoming” or “The October People” or “Uncle Einar” — take your pick; they are all as wonderfully macabre as each other. —Stephen Jones

Get them at Amazon.

Oct 2 2015

Cop Car (2015)

copcarOn pretweens’ pie-in-the-sky wish lists, somewhere between “have a candy tree” and “travel back in time to assassinate the guy who created school,” is “drive around in a police vehicle.” In Cop Car, two troubled 10-year-olds (natural newcomers Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) get the chance to do the latter when they come upon a Quinlan County Sheriff’s cruiser in the middle of a field. While a beer bottle sits on its hood, no cop is to be found inside — but his keys and weapons are.

The reason it’s abandoned is because small-town Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, Black Mass) is off a little ways, busy burying a dead body under nobody’s nose but his own. Returning to find his car missing, our corrupt cop panics, assuming (wrongly) that whoever stole it also stole a glimpse at his criminal misdeeds. Kretzer gives chase, once he’s able to put two and two together, thanks to communications with dispatch (Bacon’s wife, The Possession’s Kyra Sedgwick, unrecognizable in a voice-only cameo).

copcar1Although arguably a supporting player in the film that bears his name above the title, Bacon rules in one of his best roles yet. Long underappreciated, perhaps due to an unshakable Footloose teen-idol factor, he’s a rock-solid actor who continues to get even better with age. His Kretzer — a bogeyman in beige, above the law and beyond reproach — lets Bacon play several shades, most of them black and bleak. As confident as he is in his menace when warning and threatening the boys over the radio, he’s fallible to the point of cracking when glimpsed alone and then both cocky and Chicken Little in the film’s well-orchestrated climax, in which surprises await each participant.

As directed by Jon Watts (who co-wrote with Clown compatriot Christopher D. Ford), the movie makes excellent spatial use of the Colorado landscape, giving him a canvas across which his scant few characters maneuver like chess pieces toward an inevitable endgame. Starting as escapist fantasy before a cruel reality sets in, Cop Car is a ball of fun until it’s suddenly (but bravely and appropriately) not. Be careful what you wish for, kids. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Oct 1 2015

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

goingtopiecesSlasher films are targets of scorn from critics and other high-minded pillars of the community, yet a nonstop source of fun for movie buffs. Adam Rockoff’s 2002 critical study, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986, stands as the definitive guide to this subgenre — extremely well-written and well-researched, with neither a dry spot nor scholarly leaning within its pages.

The same can be said for the resulting documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, whose title drops the text’s range of years addressed.

In the book, Rockoff (more recently, author of The Horror of It All) is quick to defend his beloved slashers, making a good point about how tame they are violence-wise when compared to the body count of the 1980s’ testosterone-overdosed actioners like Commando and Rambo III.

goingtopieces1Better yet, he’s honest; as willing as he is to call John Carpenter’s Halloween a classic (and it is), he’s just as willing to call a stinker a stinker (and there are more than a few). By interviewing some of the principals behind the screen’s seminal slashers — and even some comparatively fringe ones — Rockoff gives us a detailed and eye-opening all-access pass into some juicy, behind-the-scenes stories. And who knew there were any such tales to be told regarding Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me or My Bloody Valentine?

The documentary seems practically lifted from the pages, with the added benefit of bloody footage from the films being discussed. (It’s one thing to read about Sleepaway Camp’s disturbing twist ending, but another thing altogether to see the damned thing.) In addition to the heavy-hitters, the B- and C-titles like those above are given equal time, making them appear even more watchable than they actually are in full. Although the filmmakers — that includes Rockoff, who scripted — deserve credit for seeking out so many on-camera participants, I only wish they wouldn’t have employed the annoyingly pretentious device of having them walk while talking to us viewers.

From the slashers’ early days of Psycho to its post-modern parody days of Scream and Scary Movie (and, in the doc, the then-current revival with the likes of Saw and Hostel), Rockoff has all the gory bases covered. If Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are your idea of a good time, his book was written just for you. Oh, and ditto the doc. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Sep 30 2015

Area 51 (2015)

area51Given Area 51’s title and creative pedigree, there’s no question of if aliens will be seen, but how long, and will the wait be merited? The short answer is “no,” which you might have guessed to judge from the film’s six-year sit on the Paramount shelf. The sci-fi/horror hybrid marks one of the more significant sophomore slumps for a 21st-century director — in this case, Oren Peli, creator of the record-shattering smash Paranormal Activity. Even with audience expectations calibrated to realistic levels, Area 51 emerges as close encounter of the worst kind.

The movie finds Peli again toiling in found footage (whose second wave he ushered in with his 2007 from-nowhere debut), as an otherwise seemingly intelligent young man named Reed (unknown Reed Warner) ropes in his two best buds to embark on a ridiculous quest to break into Nevada’s titular U.S. Air Force base, long rumored to house proof of extraterrestrial life. Exercising an unhealthy obsession with UFOs and their related government conspiracies, Reed is the kind of anomalistic kid who earns straight As in school, yet treats The X-Files as something of a documentary.

area511Peli does his follow-up film no favors by telling us right away that Reed has vanished; we guess his fate (correctly, because it’s the most obvious choice) nearly 90 minutes before Area 51 gets around to it — and with some laughably bad CGI effects that ruin any illusion of the subgenre’s authenticity. As in the creditless Paranormal Activity, Peli painstakingly goes for that facade, which is the only legitimate reason we’d willingly watch so much of a movie through the limited, circular frame of night-vision goggles.

The main reason Paranormal clicked, I think, is because Peli really dug into our universal vulnerability while in a state of sleep; even if you found them annoying, Katie and Micah could have been you and me. Area 51 has no such relatability; it clicks only when you turn it off. Its measure as a disappointment cannot be overstated, as the project not at all boldly goes where every alien-conspiracy picture (and TV series) has gone before. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Sep 29 2015

Turkey Shoot (1982)

turkeyshootEscape 2000 may be the “cooler” title, but Turkey Shoot is the most apt. This Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks this bird exists, no matter the moniker. It is one insane Aussie exploitation export.

In the near future — well, 1982’s idea of such — democracy is, like the careers of this film’s leads, a thing of the past. Any people “The Society” deems as being among “malcontents or deviants” (read: freethinkers) are thrown against their will into a concentration camp for “re-education and behavior modification” tantamount to torture.

One of these tight-ship facilities — Camp 47, to be precise — is where Paul (Steve Railsback, The Stunt Man) and Chris (Olivia Hussey, Stephen King’s It) find themselves dumped so unceremoniously at Turkey Shoot’s start. The place is lorded over by the unsubtly named Thatcher (Michael Craig, Mysterious Island), who relishes the chance to espouse Camp 47’s credo: “Freedom is obedience; obedience is work; work is life.” And life here is short!

turkeyshoot1Catching me off-guard (no pun intended), the movie undergoes quite a change at its midpoint; not unlike a caterpillar emerging from its butt-spun cocoon as a butterfly, Turkey Shoot becomes a The Most Dangerous Game redo, now with a special blend of Australian seasoning. Paul and Chris are part of a tiny group of campers chosen to take part in a “hunt,” with them being chased by Camp 47 guards and their rich, equally well-armed Society friends. Thatcher gives them a three-hour head start and a promise: Survive until sundown and freedom is theirs.

Then director Brian Trenchard-Smith (Leprechaun 3 and Leprechaun 4: In Space) makes things get weird.

For one thing, the Camp 47 hunters bring in a ringer: a hirsute, wolf-eared circus freak who eats human toes. He/it looks like something mail-ordered direct from The Island of Dr. Moreau. For another thing … hell, with that, who needs additional incentive? Not for nothing did Mark Hartley devote a significant amount of his 2008 Ozploitation documentary, Not Quite Hollywood, to fete Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey; it’s intentionally and outrageously over-the-top in its violence, yet too campy to approach being labeled nihilistic. As one of the snooty hunters quips correctly, “Beats the hell out of network television.” —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.