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.

Doomed Boy Scouts and Alien Objects

Here’s everything I knew about Nick Cutter’s The Troop when I started it: it was a horror novel which people seemed to like. That’s pretty much it.

I thought it was going to be about a viral outbreak and, without giving too much away, it kind of is, but it’s more parasitic in nature… and kind of gross, too. In other words, it was right up my alley. It was a bit of a stretch to believe such a thing could find itself on the same island as a character like Shelley (this little fucker deserves a cell next door to Hannibal Lecter), but it was worth suspending my disbelief. If, like me, you had trouble enjoying Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, this is a much better version of that story.

The Troop

Growing up, I was inexplicably drawn to the cover of Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Rama Revealed when I saw it sitting on the shelf of a book store one day. When I realized it was a sequel, I convinced my mother to order the first in the series, Rendezvous with Rama, at Steve’s Sundry (R.I.P.). The rest is history: I annihilated the series and I’ve been a fan of Clarke and science fiction ever since. I even loved the sequels as a kid (though I’ve never been able to get into them as an adult) and I’ve been forever chasing the high that first book gave me.

I love superstructures and I love big science fiction. The harder the better. I’m increasingly turned off by the self-aware geek-chic SF of today, which seems to be suffocated by pop cultural references and nostalgia. I want academic characters talking about real world theories and all the known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and everything in between.


Over the years, the itch has been scratched here and there. Asimov’s Foundation (though I somehow never read beyond the first book) did the trick. Larry Niven’s Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers did okay, too (let’s just pretend the series ended there). More recently and unexpectedly, however, Michael Crichton’s Sphere kicked all kinds of ass for me, mostly because I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Crichton’s work… also because I have no idea what possessed me to read it. It’s kind of like Rendezvous with Rama if it had been written by James Cameron.

I’ll take it.

The Last Jedi (2017) [Midnight Movie]

A lot of people thought The Force Awakens was too derivative of the original trilogy. Starkiller Base notwithstanding, I disagree, but I can see where those people are coming from. I just thought it was a smart move to give us a healthy dose of familiarity in order to make sure the new trilogy got off to a solid start. (But yeah, I could have easily checked out during that final assault.)

Despite my enjoyment of Awakens, I went into The Last Jedi hoping for a lot less familiarity. The good news is I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie that looks like this outside the expected space battles. The bad news is I was seventeen minutes late (the first time I’ve been late to a movie since 1997) due to the fact I’m kind of a complete idiot. I’ll tell you this, though: I never knew how important the opening crawl was until now.

So yeah, I was a little too annoyed with myself (and the theater playing it at a criminally low volume) to really lose myself in the movie. There’s not a whole lot I can say until I see it under proper viewing conditions. I will say the visuals topped the previous movie.

Oh, and I was neutral on porgs before the movie, but they seemed kind of pointless. I’m kind of glad JJ’s coming back because he leans towards the weird more than the cute.

December 16th update. I’ve seen the movie again, distraction-free, and confirmed what I already suspected: this isn’t a great Star Wars movie. It feels like JJ had a good idea where the story was going and Rian Johnson abandoned it all in the interest of making sure all of the fan theories were wrong. The problem is the fan theories were working with what had been established. This movie doesn’t.

One or two (or even three or four) of these surprise moments would have been perfectly acceptable, but the movie’s plot takes numerous hard turns and, in doing so, fails to give us anything we would want or expect from a Star Wars film. Meanwhile, Finn’s subplot ends up nowhere, the new characters fall embarrassingly flat, and although there are sparks of excitement, they’re nowhere near as potent or sustained as they were in previous films.

I can’t say I saw any of the surprises coming, but none of them felt very… surprising. In fact, it was more like unwrapping a gift and discovering socks inside. When the twists fly in the face of what you’ve established, isn’t that just cheating? This feels like a child telling a story: “And then this happens, and then, and then….” It just doesn’t really connect.

Some of this playing with expectations would have worked in a different kind of movie, particularly the adult-oriented movies Johnson is known for, but hardened sentiments do nothing positive for a fairy tale set in space. Fairy tales work because of the tropes, but most of all because they ultimately give us what we want to see. Jedi is a remarkably pulpless fantasy for a series about laser swords and princesses, good and evil. It feels like fan fiction written by someone who genuinely loves the source material, but now I’m left with the desire to see the official version.

And what they’ve done to Luke is probably the blandest, most disappointing aspect of it all. Unfortunately, this is a canon Disney will stick to like glue, which means there are no redos. There were blips, in the beginning, in which he felt and acted like the Luke we know and love, but those moments were brief. It’s funny that a movie that blabbers on and on about hope would effectively kill the hope for future films.

I think the biggest takeaway from The Last Jedi is that the honeymoon period is officially over. Now we’re stuck with Disney til death do us part. I can’t believe we’ve waited two years for this. I would have rather gotten Star Wars 1313 than one good movie and two mediocre ones. And that’s yet another reason to resent Disney’s acquisition of the property: we almost got a game which looked like a masterpiece, but instead we got EA’s Battlefront 2.

I still think it’s one of the best looking movies of the year and some of the new locations were more appealing than anything in Force Awakens. But, as with the prequels, I think the hardcore fans are going to be pretty disappointed when the new wears off. I’m not the biggest fan of the prequels myself, but I appreciate ’em a helluva lot more than this one. Come to think of it, I don’t think any of these bad guys are as interesting as General Grievous. (Speaking of which: why are there so many bad guys in the new trilogy?)

Even after writing all this I feel like I’m still in the denial I was in after seeing it the first time. I can’t help but think, “Maybe I’ll like it when I see it again in the future,” and “maybe it’ll all make sense after the third one’s out,” but I think it’s more likely that JJ’s going to have an even harder time getting the series back on track than he did the last time.

Blade Runner 2049 is the best belated sequel I’ve ever seen

This isn’t really a review, I’m just stoked I finally saw the movie.

I just saw Blade Runner 2049 and even though I’m deep into 31 Days of Gore, I’ve kinda gotta talk about it. Luckily, I knew next to nothing about the sequel and was surprised almost immediately. I knew Ryan Gossling was in the movie and he played a blade runner, and I knew Harrison Ford showed up for at least a cameo, but that’s pretty much it. I saw the teaser trailer, but nothing beyond that.

I’m not going to spoil anyone else on the minor plot or character details, either. I will say I love what was revealed two or three minutes in and it’s something I’m guessing the more recent trailers gave away. It’s also nice how they handle the question at the end of the original. I wasn’t in the mood for a three-hour movie when showtime came around tonight, but it certainly didn’t feel like three hours. I somehow completely forgot just how tired I was until the credits rolled and I stood from my seat.

So many modern sequels look at odds with their 80s counterparts. This one not only looks like it was cut from the same cloth, there’s about thirty years of technology added to the futurism we got the last time around, which is so well done it makes the world seem that much more convincing. I’m also glad they kept the Atari billboards in, too… there’s just something appealing about that logo. As far as belated sequels go, this one’s the absolute best. (Yes, I even enjoyed it more than Fury Road.)

The original Blade Runner wasn’t an instant favorite for me; it took several years and multiple versions until The Final Cut unexpectedly blew my mind one night. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, is an instant favorite. I may not like it quite as much as the original, but it’s pretty damn close and seems to incorporate more Phildickian themes than Ridley Scott did.

The best part is I’ve got a few years to let it grow on me. I’m dead tired right now, but if I could, I’d drive back to the theater and watch it a second time. I guarantee I’ll be speaking about it more in depth in the near future.

Okay, back to the regularly scheduled blog feature… my Chucky marathon went live about an hour ago and I’ll be featuring Two Evil Eyes at midnight tonight, Central Time.

The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996) [Midnight Movie]

I recently featured The Lawnmower Man, which was so far removed from the short story it was allegedly based on, Stephen King sued to have his name removed. (It turns out the script existed prior to the producers acquiring the rights to King’s story, so they amended his name and title to the project in order to sell tickets.) It only makes sense I would check out the sequel this week, right? Well, now that I’ve seen it I’m not sure anything about this movie makes sense.

Spoilers for the original film follow….

Jobe, whose digitized consciousness escaped the lab explosion in the original film, is inexplicably human again. Even though we saw his abandoned body wither away and catch fire, the corporate characters of this sequel have managed to recover it from the debris and employ him as a super sophisticated hacker in cyberspace. This time Jobe’s played by Max Headroom’s Matt Frewer, which has gotta be one of the laziest typecasting decisions in the history of film.

Pierce Brosnan is nowhere to be found, either. That’s fine. I have no problem with a sequel continuing the story without the original actors. After all, that was par for the course with these genre films back then. What I do have a problem with is the fact the only returning character is Brosnan’s kid neighbor, who was so insignificant to the original film I didn’t need to mention him when I explained the plot of the previous film two weeks ago.

See, actor Austin O’Brien was a no-name when the original Lawnmower Man came out, but in the following year he co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero. There’s no reason for the kid to be in this movie, but some executive likely thought they could bank on his newfound fame. That might have worked in more capable hands, but the filmmakers obviously wanted to take the story far into the future. Instead of setting the movie a reasonable amount of time into the future, they set it only six years after the first one (because O’Brien’s character would have been all grown up otherwise) and ask us to believe the world became a dystopian future practically overnight.

Worse, the adult nature of the original film has been sabotaged by a PG-13 rating and a cast of annoying children. I knew I was in trouble as soon as the kids flew around cyberspace via the magic of green screen. It looks like one of those totally radical 90s commercials for Kool-Aid or sugary cereal.


In the lead role you have Sleeping with the Enemy’s Patrick Bergin who more or less looks like Tommy Wiseau. That’s not a complaint. He’s a lot more interesting to look at than Brosnan was in the previous film. He’s also more interesting than Fewer’s portrayal of Jobe, which is a major step back from Jeff Fahey’s nutty take on the character.

What’s amazing about The Lawnmower Man 2 is how far CGI progressed in the four years since the original. I complain about the overuse of CGI quite a bit, but it’s perfectly suited for films with this subject matter. I just think it was a mistake to insert the actual actors into the cyberspace sequences rather than digitize them the way the first film did, if only for continuity’s sake.

If you enjoy cheese as much as I do, this movie isn’t terrible. It’s entertaining enough and the production value is much better than expected—perhaps better than the first—but there are some serious flaws contained within. Again, that’s par for the course when you’re dealing with these kinds of movies.

I honestly don’t remember this movie getting a theatrical release. I always assumed it was a cheap, straight-to-video sequel, but it turns out it was actually a theatrical release which was a lot more expensive than its predecessor. Too bad it’s nowhere near as good.

The Lawnmower Man: The Director’s Cut (1992) [Midnight Movie]

The Lawnmower Man might just be the first movie which fueled my lifelong obsession with virtual reality (I’m writing this mere minutes after an Elite Dangerous session in a VR headset, an experience I’ve been dreaming about for decades). The movie’s obviously significant to me, but is it any good? I guess it depends on where you’re coming from. (I don’t think I’ve ever featured a 90s cyberpunk movie unfavorably on this blog, so if you’re looking for an objective review, you’re not going to find it here.)

I love this kind of shit. I don’t see past the glaring problems so much as I embrace them. The motion-controlled chairs I thought were so awesome when I was a kid? Today it’s obvious they’re cheap recliners, which the actors are lying on backwards while off-screen stagehands buck them back and forth. What looked so cool in the 90s now looks awkward and impractical; Jeff Fahey is clearly struggling to hang on.

The movie begins in a top secret laboratory where a research team is using a combination of drugs and virtual reality to train chimpanzees for war. Naturally, one of the chimps escapes the lab and goes on a killing spree. When it seeks refuge at a church it bumps into Fahey’s character, Jobe, a mentally challenged groundskeeper who mistakes the chimp for a comic book character. Whoever suggested actors shouldn’t go full retard was obviously ignorant of Fahey’s Jobe, which is probably the most entertaining aspect of the movie. Blue collar actors like Fahey will never win an Oscar, but his performance here is contextually perfect.

Then the police show up and murder the chimp. Jobe is traumatized by the shooting, as is the head researcher on the project, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan). Angelo decides to take a break from top secret military research and spends most of his downtime chilling in virtual reality while drinking himself silly. It’s there he concocts a plan: he’ll continue conducting his research, but he’ll do it without the government breathing down his neck. And instead of a chimp, he’ll use a human test subject this time. Jobe is the perfect candidate because there’s no need to have him sign a NDA as he has no idea what’s going on anyway. He just thinks he’s there to play Angelo’s awesome games.

The research, however, has the unintended consequence of improving Jobe’s mind well past the boundaries of a typical human. Later in the movie, he’ll develop the ability to soak up entire encyclopedias in minutes. Angelo, who seemed to have no real ethics to begin with, is frightened by Jobe’s progress, but it’s too late to pull the plug now that his subject is developing disturbing thoughts and inhuman powers.

From the beginning, it’s absolutely clear where all this is headed. Many characters are unnecessarily mean to Jobe because those characters were born to die. We’ve seen this formula many times, especially slasher films. This movie just does it better than most. You can’t help but like Jobe so you root for him.

I am a little disappointed in Brosnan’s performance because, even though he’s the biggest name in the movie, he just doesn’t get the material as well as his lesser known co-stars (Jenny Wright and Geoffrey Lewis are perfect for a movie like this, and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris understands what he’s gotten himself into as well.) I wonder if there was a version of the script which explored Angelo’s unethical side rather than completely ignoring it so that he could become the flawless hero who saves the day by the end of the movie.

If you weren’t impressed by the theatrical cut of The Lawnmower Man, you’re not going to be thrilled by this one, either (Scream Factory is releasing the film on Blu-Ray in June… all versions are currently unavailable on VOD services, unfortunately). It doesn’t radically alter the story like The Assembly Cut of Alien 3, it just makes it longer. But considering I was legitimately entertained throughout, I’m going to recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of the original.