Of Mice and Simple Plans

Twenty years ago a high school buddy and I went to see A Simple Plan. We went into the theater with short sleeves on and, leaving through the windowless stairwell exit, we were shocked to discover everything had been covered in snow by the time we came out. It was as if the movie had literally transported us to its dreadfully claustrophobic winter land.

Weather coincidences aside, A Simple Plan is an extremely effective crime thriller. It may even be my favorite book-to-film adaptation. The most you can hope for from a typical adaptation is it won’t change too much. Scott Smith, who has only published two novels, didn’t write an adaptation so much as he wrote a leaner, meaner draft of the original story. (His second novel, The Ruins, is one of the few long books I’ve read in a single day.) In the movie, his characters became a lot more human and sympathetic.

I chose the short trailer because the long one gives too much away. Do not—I repeat: do not go looking at related Youtube videos if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Bill Paxton plays Hank Mitchell, a man of average intelligence and, in the beginning, of average morality. He’s the smart one compared to his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thorton) whose literary cousin could very well be Lennie Small. Though Hank is the smart one, at times snobbishly so, there are key scenes in which Jacob reveals he knows a lot more than Hank suspects, particularly regarding family matters and accurately reading the cards life dealt ’em. (There’s a scene in which Jacob talks about the only girlfriend he’s ever had and it’s at once funny and heartbreaking.)

While searching for their dog in the snowy Minnesota woods, the brothers discover a crashed plane containing millions of dollars. Unfortunately for Hank, Jacob’s dimwitted buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe from Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise) is also wrapped up into the plot; he plays the wild card who’s integral to these types of movies and he’s scarily good at the job. Described as “a forty year old high school dropout who’s proud of people calling him the town drunk,” he can cause the whole thing to come crashing down at any moment.

The plan, as it should be, is simple: Hank will sit on the money until spring, at which point the snow will melt and the plane will be discovered by the authorities. Then they’ll know who’s looking for the money and adjust the plan accordingly. Hank warns Jacob and Lou not to tell a soul. Hank proceeds to race home and blab about the money to his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda).

The expression on Sarah’s face, when Hank dumps the money on the kitchen table, is pure movie magic. No matter how good a person you think you are, nothing can prepare you for staring at a load of cash like that. And nothing can prepare you for how it changes everything. Sarah is the dutiful wife who becomes the mastermind of the increasingly complex plan, acting as the puppet master for everything that follows. She becomes so immersed in the plan she becomes sinister in her tweaking of it; even as the nurse hands her her firstborn child, she immediately whispers conspiratorially about what Hank should do next.

Naturally, the plan is never as simple as it seems and, a mere twenty minutes into the film, Hank finds himself helplessly cornered by unforeseen consequences. In that regard, the film is a lot like Fargo (my favorite film of all time) and Blood Simple, and it’s no wonder the directors of those films and the director of this one have had their careers cross paths at times. Listen, I’m a guy who grew up watching the Evil Dead franchise about a billion times so I don’t say this lightly: this is Sam Raimi’s best movie, period.

The similarities it shares with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men didn’t occur to me until recently, when I happened to read one and watch the other on the same day. Those comparisons can’t be said of Smith’s source material, which is yet another reason to cherish this movie as something special. And when you learn it was a commercial flop, a double whammy on the heels of Raimi’s disappointingly goofy The Quick and the Dead, you can kind of see how such a visionary movie director eventually got lost in Hollywood mediocrity.

This is what you get: a suspenseful plot, an excellent cast, and wonderful dialogue. I adore crime movies and consider this one among the best.

Aging Warriors and Knowing Shadows

Do you know how much I love The Shadow? In general, he’s just about the baddest ass character I can think of, not to mention the reason I spent so much time on “The Silver Shroud” missions in Fallout 4. The 1994 movie isn’t the greatest adaptation in the world, but it’s certainly not as bad as a lot of people think (my girlfriend included). Besides, I would kill to own the pinball machine which came out for the movie.

I do see the problems, however, and I agree: you’d think the screenwriter of Jurassic Park and the director of Highlander would produce something a lot better than this. Jonathon Winters does absolutely nothing for the plot, Tim Curry seems to have been told to “yuk it up,” and the romance between Cranston and Margo Lane is entirely uncooked. The lab sets are laughably unscientific, even by Hollywood standards (When was the last time you saw a Jacob’s Ladder in a modern movie?) and they even do the ol’ ticking time bomb routine. (Red wire or green wire? Just shoot me now so I won’t have to decide.)

TheShadow

But even if the exceptional cast is wasted (John Lone, who plays the last living decedent of Genghis Kahn, should be in a lot more movies while Penelope Ann Miller is more believable in the time period than anyone else), you get a rousing adventure with awesome music and some exceptional visuals. Besides, it’s the freakin’ Shadow. The last time I heard Hollywood talking about a Shadow movie, Sam Raimi had dropped out and the director of a Twilight sequel had stepped in… so, yeah, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get anything better in the foreseeable future. (Which reminds me: Doesn’t the recent news of a Gremlins reboot just churn your fuckin’ stomach?)

So I’ve always wanted to read The Talisman. I finally did and now I don’t know what to think of it. I suspect I just read it at the wrong time in my life. Considering everything else I’ve ever enjoyed, I should have loved this book. I didn’t. I didn’t dislike it, either, but I found it a bit hard to pick up at times, particularly after the Sunlight Gardner’s School subplot wrapped up. The older I get, the more I have trouble getting into “epic” fantasy (I hope this is just a phase I’m going through).

Legend

David Gemmell’s mostly self-contained Legend, on the other hand, is one of my favorite fantasy stories. It’s not long, it’s certainly not epic, and you don’t have to read the entire series to get a satisfying conclusion. This is what happens in Legend: good guys are in a great fortress. Bad guys want to get into said fortress and kill everybody. The bad guys have some pretty mean mofos on their team, but the good guys have this legendary warrior on theirs. The problem is the legend is aging and he’s not quite what he used to be.

I later learned Gemmell wrote Legend when he believed he was dying of cancer (it later turned out to be a misdiagnosis). When you read the story it’s not at all apparent that’s what he’s writing about, but it is kind of apparent in retrospect. It’s one of the purest stories I’ve ever read in the sense that it primarily exists to entertain, but you sense it’s about something bigger than what it purports to be even though you can’t quite put your finger on it. I love that kind of stuff. I typically find it much more satisfying than a story with obvious metaphors and morals.

In other news, I’m stoked to learn Joe Bob Briggs, one of the most authentic and intelligent people I can think of, is FINALLY returning to host silly movies for a 24-hour movie marathon on Shudder. They haven’t released an official date, but Briggs said, “It’ll start on a Friday in June, although we don’t know which Friday yet.”

Hellspawn and Creep Shows

A three-chapter sample of Corpus Evil is coming soon. I expected to have it online this week, but I decided to get a mailing list set up so that anyone who reads it can choose to be notified when the novel releases. The problem is setting up mailing lists is much more complicated than I expected. (It’s probably not complicated at all, but it is boring if you’re expecting a set-it-and-forget-it solution.) That and I really don’t know what my newsletter would entail, other than: “Hey, the novel’s out. Um, bye now.”

So I’ve been reading a ridiculous amount of Spawn lately in an effort to catch up. I don’t give a damn what people say, I still love 90s comics and I even like (fight me) Rob Liefeld because his stuff reminds me of what I tried to draw when I was a kid. (On second thought, this connection is probably a chicken-and-egg situation.) I never cared much for moderation and 90s comics were gloriously excessive.

Todd McFarlane was the king of this stuff. I drew Spawn and Violator about a million times growing up and I still doodle ’em to this day (uh, that sounded raunchy but you know what I meant). As much as I love McFarlane’s art, I keep thinking the same thing whenever I read his writing: I wish Spawn comics didn’t take themselves so seriously. (For context, I’m currently working my way through the Jim Downing issues and his name might as well be Debbie Downer.)

Then I crawled out of bed this morning and discovered RLM uploaded a serendipitous video (see above) in which they review Faust, a Brian Yuzna film about a “superhero” who’s suspiciously similar to Spawn. I quite like Yuzna and special FX wizard Screaming Mad George, but I somehow missed this pairing. In other words, I know what I’m watching this evening.

If you live anywhere near The Circle Cinema in Tulsa, you should probably check out their 35mm showing of Creepshow this June. Creepshow is a huge influence on Corpus Evil; I listened to John Harrison’s soundtrack for the film more than anything else while I was writing it. In fact, I think Creepshow is a more enjoyable Tales from the Crypt adaptation than HBO’s Tales from the Crypt.

Horror Talk (via an /r/horror post) drew my attention to an unproduced script for a Friday the 13th sequel. Here’s the direct link. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m keeping it open in a spare tab for light reading.

The weather here is stupid. Clouds are stupid. Chances of rain are stupid. Everything is stupid.

Pig Demons and OH NO, NOT THE BEES!

My three years of 31 Days of Gore is a testament to the fact I rarely met a horror movie I didn’t like or, at the very least, admire for one reason or another. The Amityville Horror was among the very few I didn’t like at all. For all I remember it could have been the very first horror movie I ever hated. Now, something like thirty years later, I decided to return to 112 Ocean Avenue. This time I gave the book a try despite the despicably genius way its publishers billed it as a true story.

Amityville

The verdict? I haven’t enjoyed a dumber book more than I enjoyed this one. It’s remarkable how much happens in the novel without telling an actual story. The “spooky stuff” begins immediately and never lets up—in fact, spooky stuff is the only thing on the menu here. Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror is endlessly entertaining, ultimately empty, and the fact it’s told as if it’s a true story disguises its shortcomings as a novel. I’ve always disliked the term “guilty pleasure,” because I’ve never felt guilty about enjoying anything, but Anson’s book is like the Weekly World News of long form fiction.

The Wicker Man is one of my favorite movies. The 2006 remake starring Nicholas Cage? Not so much.

What hurts is it kind of sounds like a good idea on paper. I mean, why not remake an insane movie with a fearless actor? Because movies in the 2000s sucked, that’s why. The PG-13 rating is especially telling of the misguided sentiments behind its production. Some studio genius saw Robin Hardy’s sex-laden picture and thought, “Hey, I know! Let’s remove everything even remotely interesting and repackage it for the multiplex audience!”

I try to imagine Nicholas Cage in the original and it just doesn’t work. The entire reason that movie was effective was because the main character was an insufferably prude but otherwise normal person. You gotta have contrast for a movie like The Wicker Man to work. In other words, your protagonist can’t out-weird the movie’s weirdos.

Shut-ins and Shiners

I’m on a haunted house kick. Last week it was Kill Creek. This week it’s Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings. In it, a young couple rent an idyllic vacation home at a stupefying price. The catch: the owners’ elderly mother lives in a bedroom on the top floor and refuses to come down. Anyone who rents the house is required to prep her food, three times a day, and leave it in the hallway at her door. Sometimes she eats it, sometimes she doesn’t.

BurntOfferings

There’s not a lot of surface action in Burnt Offerings and, in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like anything “crazy” happens for the majority of the book. Yet it’s a pleasantly short novel and its characters are lively and real (enough). Meanwhile, the big question (What the hell is really going on?) urges the reader forward even if the final destination will probably seem a little old hat to many readers today.

Stephen King said it was one of the inspirations for The Shining. I preferred that book. Very few novels “get to me,” but that one did it with its late night footsteps and phantom elevator rides. The sequel, Dr. Sleep is… well, I’ve rarely been so hyped and ultimately disappointed. I loved the idea of an older Danny facing off against the not-vampires known as The True Knot. Everything I’d heard about it during the long months leading up to its release sounded perfect. Things weren’t perfect, though.

It still hurts to this day.

Five years ago, the Evil Dead remake left me unimpressed. I’ve come around. The movie still has plenty of things I dislike (horror directors really need to stop doing “creepy” shit with mirrors), but it’s an achievement in terms of pacing and gore. Fede Álvarez strikes me as the director Rob Zombie thinks he is while Jane Levy is utterly believable in portraying terror, which is something 90% of horror movies get wrong.

I’m excited for Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe 2, but I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those movies which gets talked about and never made, like his plans for a sequel to Evil Dead. Oh well.

Haunted Houses and Hell Cops

I love a good haunted house yarn. Nowadays there’s this delicate balance you have to strike: you gotta give people what they’ve come to expect, but if you give ’em too much of it you’ll end up writing Just Another Haunted House Novel. Scott Thomas’s Kill Creek gives us what we want and happily dodges the usual pitfalls. If I told you why it’s so different (or more accurately: just the right amount of different), I’d be giving away too much.

It’s about Sam McGarver, a horror novelist, who’s invited to an allegedly haunted house as part of an internet stunt. Early on, Sam stumbles into the interview room and gazes over three other authors’ books which have been put out on display next to his own. Thomas uses the moment to flesh out his other characters, merely by describing their book covers and writing styles. That’s pretty clever. Soon after, the writers realize the house has some sort of power over them.

Kill Creek

I had expected something fluffier, along the lines of Peter Clines’ 14 (a novel I enjoyed very much), and because I wasn’t in the mood for lite horror at the moment, I held the story at arm’s length until it slowly but surely dissolved its facade. I would have finished the second half in one sitting if it hadn’t been for my antihistamine-induced drowsiness. It manages to take what could have been an extremely hokey element (“What’s behind the sloppily bricked wall inside the house?”) and turn it into a genuine lever for suspense.

Kill Creek sort of reminded me of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, another debut novel which is less about a haunted house and more about a haunted object. At one point the main character sees the otherworldly entity that’s tormenting him, which (if memory serves me correctly) appears as an old man standing at the end of a hallway, legs fading out of the visible spectrum. The presence gives the hero a sinister smile as it dangles a razor blade from a necklace, the significance of which the reader won’t learn until later. I have 0% belief in the paranormal, but damn. Chills, my friend. Chills.

Sometime in the 90s, I saw Highway to Hell and absolutely adored it. More than twenty years later I finally ordered the Blu-Ray to see what my inner child has been yapping about for decades now. Kristy Swanson and Chad Lowe play a couple of eloping teenagers who happen upon a literal highway to hell. Satan, who takes a special liking to Swanson, agrees to let the teenagers return to the land of the living if they manage to win a car race.

The premise is all kinds of awesome, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. They really could have tightened the movie up in editing, as tons of shots go on just a little too long. Still, you can’t accuse the movie of not being ambitious, even if “hell” is just a plain ol’ desert full of lame sign gags. (The roadside casino in hell is called Hoffa’s. Funny? Not really.) Satan’s right-hand man is The Hell Cop, a surprisingly effective villain whose handcuffs are severed zombie hands which are linked by chain. A young Ben Stiller and three of his family members make cameos, while Gilbert Gottfried plays Adolf Hitler. Like the sign gags, the cameos aren’t as funny as they want to be, but they’re amusing nonetheless.

My biggest complaint is probably asking too much of a 90s B movie: I would have preferred it if they explained the setting more, which very spottily incorporates Greek mythology. Like, what’s the hierarchy in this version of hell? What are the rules? Why are biker gangs allowed to roam at will, mingling with Cleopatra and hex-protected cage dancers, while many others are ground up and used as road pavement? And what, exactly, happens when people “die” in hell? Do they go to… hell?

Doesn’t matter. I can’t dislike this movie, even if it is a little slower than I remembered.

Two more movies I enjoyed tremendously this week: The Killing of Sacred Deer and Raw. Neither one of these movies are what I would call crowd pleasers, but that’s what makes ’em special. Both are insidiously funny and pleasantly disturbing in entirely different ways. Raw will definitely make some viewers gag, and the soundtrack is killer (I’m listening to it right now, in fact).

Steer clear of Sacred Deer if you weren’t a fan of The Lobster, which was also directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. His movies seem to be abrasive to some. What I loved about his newest film is it seems to really take its time, but in retrospect it goes from absurd to flat-out insane pretty quickly.

In case you didn’t see my last post, Corpus Evil has been postponed. I thought it would be on sale by April 1st, but it looks like that’s around the time beta readers will get it, starting with my girlfriend. It’s pretty much as polished as I can get it without reader input, I just want to go through it a few more times and hopefully uncover some more mistakes.

I’ve finally started working on my next novel. I’m having trouble finding the tone, but other aspects are working out nicely.

Cold Moons and Back-Alley Abortions

I’ve got some bad news which is probably good news in the long run: I’m pushing back the release date for Corpus Evil. There are a hundred reasons for doing this, but the best reason is it’s simply going to be a lot better. I think I was also on the road to a nervous breakdown.

So consider the bevy of memorable characters Michael McDowell has introduced to me so far: the dimwitted Dean Howell, whose rifle explodes in his face shortly before he’s shipped off to The Vietnam War; he somehow becomes a dreadful presence in The Amulet even though he spends the entire novel in a coma, his face wrapped in bandages. His wife Sarah, who was too good for Dean to begin with, has to suffer the wrath of her lazy, gluttonous mother-in-law, Jo Howell. Jo blames everyone but herself for what has happened to Dean and it just so happens she has the means of making them pay.

Cold Moon Over Babylon introduced Jerry and Margaret Larkin, downtrodden siblings who were raised by their tired grandmother after their parents happened upon a sack of rattlesnakes. The family dynamics here feel like McDowell Lite, as if he were practicing for the larger and much more endearing cast of characters he would put on parade in The Elementals, which includes the comically cynical Luker McCray and his mischievous teenage daughter, India; I especially enjoyed the moments in which India’s foul-mouthed nature conflicted with her alcoholic grandmother, Big Barbara McCray, a southern aristocrat who dazzlingly skims the surface of Predictable Stereotype.

Gilded Needles

So it was inevitable I would read Gilded Needles this week, having no idea who or what McDowell would introduce next. (Summaries be damned, I’ve been going into his stories blind ever since I read the first one.) How do you top the Howells and the McCrays? How could it possibly get any better?

For the first time in my experience, McDowell moves his setting out of Alabama and into the dark, depressing streets of 1800s New York. Opium dens. Whorehouses. Highly illegal abortion operations. It’s the characters who live in this fully realized squalor who become the morally ambiguous heroes of Gilded Needles. The story pits Black Lena Shanks against Judge James Stallworth, the latter of whom has sentenced three of Lena’s family members to death. In retaliation, Lena’s family of misfits send the judge and his family invitations to their own funerals.

The supernatural elements are gone, but the gleeful absurdity of The Amulet kind of returns as the two families square off. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as fun as The Elementals, but it’s pretty damn close and it’s a helluva lot darker. There’s something especially satisfying about the huge cast of ruthless characters and how far they’ll go to exact their revenge on people who simply disliked them because they weren’t born into the same social class. Why so many of McDowell’s books stayed out of print for so long, I’ll never know, but let’s hope they’re here to stay.

Because I read and unexpectedly enjoyed Michael Crichton’s Sphere last week, I thought I’d check out the movie which was based on it. This was a mistake. I can’t remember the last time I watched such a dull, mediocre movie. I find it amazing that an actress as talented as Sharon Stone can appear in movies like this and appear to be both bored and incompetent. Samuel L. Jackson, who’s almost always interesting, also disappoints.

How do you make a story about a giant squid boring? By reducing the squid’s role almost entirely, that’s how. I’m sure it was probably because of budgetary reasons, but the film supposedly cost around $80 million, long before that kind of budget was the norm, so it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that it should feel so cheap and small. This is The Abyss re-imagined without any of the awe, excitement, or groundbreaking special effects.