Thursday, December 23, 2010

Just in Time for Christmas (Barely)!

My new publisher E-Reads is in the process of releasing most of my back list. They have just published two of my books that, until now, have been available only as expensive limited editions.

Murder Was My Alibi is a noirish crime novel about private investigator Myron Foote and what happens when he takes on a job for a gorgeous redhead named Cynthia Thacketer, who wants him to pose as her uncle Percy. It sounds simple, but it’s not, of course – nothing is simple when it involves more than a hundred thousand dollars, which soon turns into more than a million dollars. The book includes a cast of characters ranging from shady to quirky, some of whom pose big problems for Foote.

I set this book in the northern California town of Redding, where I was born and raised. I’ve fictionalized a bit, though. There is no “red light district” in Redding, so I had to invent one. But for the most part, the depiction is accurate.

Murder Was My Alibi was originally published in what has come to be known as “the Darknell Double.” That book also included the novel Loveless (coming soon from E-Reads), and both were written under the name Arthur Darknell, a pseudonym under which I’d planned to write crime fiction. I have since abandoned that idea and am releasing the books under my name.

The Girl in the Basement is the story of 15-year-old Ryan Ketterling, a boy who has been bounced from one foster home to the next and endured a great deal of abuse in the process. Now in the home of the Preston family, he meets and falls for fellow foster child Lyssa and thinks perhaps his luck has changed. But something strange is going on in the Preston house. Maddy is a slow girl who is kept in the basement who sometimes speaks in a gravelly, adult voice. Sometimes she knows things about other people she could not possibly know and makes predictions that come true. And there are mysterious people from the government who come to visit Maddy down in the basement. As Ryan delves deeper into the mystery, he begins to see that his luck has not changed after all.

While they are not as common as vampires, werewolves, and other horror themes, the story of possession is a tradition in the genre and has been covered pretty well. But this one doesn't include the usual elements -- Catholic priests, exorcism rituals, that sort of thing. Here's an excerpt from a review by award-winning writer Gary A. Braunbeck:

“(The Girl in the Basement) is definitely not the story you are expecting. ...Think you know what's going to happen and how it's going to happen? Forget it. ...What makes this ... one of the most accomplished pieces of Garton's career is not just the remarkable restraint he exercises when dealing with the more overtly horrific elements ...but the depth of emotional realism he displays when dealing with the characters. ... This is hands-down the single most compassionate piece he's ever written; every character is fully fleshed out, both their strengths and weaknesses, their pettiness and kindness, their courage and cowardice, are on display here, and as horrific as this 'possession' of the little girl is, it pales in comparison to the portraits Garton paints of how this horror affects the characters. There is a scene near the end of the story where Ryan has a meal of cookies and juice with his drug-addict mother that is one of the most heartbreaking things you're likely to read this year, simmering as it is with a palpable sense of desperation, loneliness, terror, and tragic inevitability. ... (T)hose readers like myself who look to Garton to always challenge himself as a storyteller and us as readers are going to come away feeling like we've just left a feast."

Originally published in 2004 by Subterranean Press, this is the first time The Girl in the Basement has been available in a mass market edition. Like Murder Was My Alibi, it is available as a paperback and an ebook.

To read an excerpt from Murder Was My Alibi or The Girl in the Basement, please follow the links.

You can order Murder Was My Alibi and The Girl in the Basement at these links. E-Reads also has several other titles of mine available to order as paperbacks and ebooks. To find out more, go to my E-Reads page.

E-Reads will be releasing more of my books in the coming months, including The New Neighbor, Biofire, 'Nids, Crawlers, Ravenous, Bestial, Shackled, Dark Channel and two brand new never-before-published suspense novels, Meds and Trailer Park Noir, among others.

Remember ... every time you give the gift of a book, an angel gets its library card. Merry Christmas and have a wonderful 2011!

Friday, November 12, 2010

LOT LIZARDS: The Story Behind the Book

After Live Girls was released, a lot of readers urged me to write a sequel. Back then, I vowed I would never write sequels. I have since learned never to say never. Nearly 20 years after Live Girls, I wrote a sequel called Night Life. I’ve written other sequels as well (Bestial, the sequel to Ravenous, and The Folks 2). But that’s a topic for another blog. Rather than write a direct sequel to Live Girls, I ended up writing a kind of vampire follow-up.

I spent a lot of time writing at the coffee counter of the restaurant at the 76 Truck Stop in Redding, California, back in the 1980s. That's where I met my wife, in fact. She was the night manager of the gift shop, and once I discovered her, I found myself spending a lot of time in that coffee shop trying to come up with reasons to talk to her. When I wasn't there, though, I was seated at the counter in the coffee shop. I sat there during the wee hours writing in my notebook, drinking coffee, eavesdropping on conversations. I listened as waitresses complained to each other about their husbands and boyfriends (some had both); as locals complained about how the liberals and Mexicans and homos were destroying the country; as cops flirted with and shamelessly groped waitresses (membership has its privileges); and as truckers chatted with each other about anything and everything under the sun.

Truckers talked about where they were headed, where they’d been, politics, music, women and the romance audiobooks they’d read — they were all addicted to romance audiobooks, with Nora Roberts being the most popular author among them. One night, I overheard two truckers talking and I perked up when I heard the phrase “lot lizard.” What on earth could a lot lizard be?

“Uglier’n a jar a warts,” one trucker said to the other. “And she was wasted. Just lookin’ for money to buy more drugs, like most of ‘em.”

As I listened closely to their conversation, I began to figure out that a lot lizard was a prostitute who worked the parking lot at truck stops, offering sexual favors to lonely truckers tired after a long stretch on the road listening to Nora Roberts novels. The definition of a lot lizard is a lot more mundane than the name itself. Those two words seized my imagination and sent it spinning. Whatever it was I’d been working on that night was forgotten.

I used the Redding 76 Truck Stop as my location in the novel, but I moved it farther north into the mountains where it was likely to be socked in by snow now and then during the winter months. I don’t outline. It just doesn’t work for me. I might make a few notes, some brief character sketches, but nothing too organized. I prefer to discover a story while I’m writing it. As I had done with Live Girls, I started writing as soon as the idea hit me. Actually, it wasn’t so much an idea as the ingredients for an idea. I had a snowed-in truck stop with truckers, truck stop waitresses and other employees ... and traveling truck stop vampire hookers. Add sex, violence and stir well.

Lot Lizards was published by Mark V. Ziesing in 1991. It was a beautiful hardcover edition, but although it was well received, it had a limited print run and its steep cover price only got steeper as the years passed and it became more collectible. For a long time, the novel was only available in that edition, so its readership has been limited.

Now Lot Lizards is finally available in an affordable mass market edition. It's available for Kindle from Amazon and for Nook from Barnes and Noble. It's also available as an audiobook, read by Ray Sizemore — which makes a perfect gift for any truckers you might know!
If you enjoyed Live Girls but haven’t read Lot Lizards, now is your chance to give the book a read. If you enjoy novels about vampires who are bloodthirsty and predatory — as opposed to sensitive and angst-ridden and prone to sparkling in the sunlight — you might enjoy this book. If you do, I hope you'll write a review on the Amazon or Barnes and Noble website or on your blog or website. To keep up on news and new releases, visit my website, RayGartonOnline.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Vicious Circle: A Rant

I was watching The Big Bang Theory last night – which, by the way, is one of the funniest shows on television and if you haven’t seen it, you should remedy that posthaste – and a young woman appeared who looked familiar. I frowned, wondering where I’d seen her before. For about five minutes, it drove me crazy because I just couldn’t figure out who she was. Suddenly, it hit me. That’s Eliza Dushku! I thought. Then I thought, Oh my god, she’s dying of cancer.

I remember Eliza being a little more plump, curvier, more voluptuous. Dawn said I was mistaken, but I wasn’t. I quickly Googled her and found pictures of a much softer Eliza. But the Eliza on The Big Bang Theory was not soft. She was ... well ... rather unsettling. “You’re just remembering her babyfat,” Dawn said. No, I’m sorry, that’s not true. I’m remembering a healthier looking Eliza, that’s what I’m remembering. I’m remembering an Eliza whose bones were not vividly apparent. The Eliza I saw last night had a jaw that could cut glass. I could play pool with one of her legs. And win.

If your jaw can cut glass? I’m sorry, but you’re not hot. If I can play pool with one of your legs? You’re a woman in crisis and you need to eat some goddamned sandwiches.

What in the hell has happened to us? I’m going to be 48 soon, and in my lifetime, I have watched as the popular image of the female form has gone from one of voluptuous curves to ... well, to Keira Knightley. I was channel surfing not long ago and I came across a movie in which a scary skeleton was flailing about. For a moment, I thought it was the Nicolas Cage movie Ghost Rider. But no. It was a Keira Knightley movie. I’m not even sure which one. All I know is that as soon as I realized what I was watching, I wanted to make that poor girl a plate of spaghetti. Don’t get me wrong – Keira Knightley is a beautiful young woman. It’s just that she’s not a whole beautiful young woman. She looks like she’s been animated by Ray Harryhausen and should be crossing swords with Jason and the Argonauts.

Back in the 1980s, a handful of Alfred Hitchock movies that had been out of circulation for decades were finally rereleased to theaters. One of them was Vertigo starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. I saw it in the Liberty Theater in St. Helena, California. Back then, the Liberty was an art house that showed foreign films and old black-and-white movies that featured genuine movie stars from another time. It had a snack bar that offered bagels and unusual coffees with the usual theater snacks. I had never seen Vertigo – or Rear Window or The Man Who Knew Too Much or Rope or The Trouble with Harry, which were also rereleased around that time – and I was giddy with excitement. Kim Novak was a jaw-slackening, eye-popping goddess with an hourglass figure, an image of soft, strokable femininity. There were no rigid tendons in her neck, no angular bones poking out, none of the things that had become the norm by the mid-‘80s. This was 1958, just a few years before I was born, a different world, when women in movies had curvy, definable shapes. I remember thinking as I sat in the theater, She probably would be considered overweight today. Sure enough, a few minutes later, someone a couple of rows behind me said, “My god, she’s such a cow.” I nearly tossed my popcorn.

Kim Novak? A cow? What the fuck?

It’s happened to so many women in movies and television – gorgeous, voluptuous women who apparently begin listening to all the wrong people and suddenly show up looking like they should have little numbers tattooed on their forearms. Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Connely, Minnie Driver, Christina Ricci – the list is too long.

What is the purpose of this unrealistic, unhealthy female image that the media has been bludgeoning us with for so long? All you have to do is look around to see that most women simply do not look like that – which is fortunate for all of us. What’s unfortunate is that so many women have been made to feel that they should look like that. Why? Who benefits? Doctors? Eating disorder clinics? Jenny Craig? Morticians?

I’ve known so many women throughout my life who are beautiful, desirable, but who are ashamed of their bodies because they’ve been made to feel that their asses are too big or their thighs are too thick or their belly isn’t flat enough or their breasts aren’t big enough. At the same time, most of the men I’ve known have been put off by the media’s malnourished, skeletal female ideal. Bones are not sexy. Women who look like they puke on a regular basis are not a turn on.

It seems to be changing a little here and there, but not without resistance. In April of 2010, ABC and Fox balked at airing a commercial for Lane Bryant lingerie. The commercial featured a drop-dead gorgeous full-figured model in lingerie. ABC and Fox said it was just too hot for primetime. Fox refused to show it during American Idol and ABC wouldn’t show it during Dancing with the Stars until the very end. There was too much skin in this ad, too much cleavage, they claimed. As we all know, American television networks do all they can to avoid showing things like bare skin or cleavage during the primetime hours. No one ever wears anything revealing on American Idol. You never, ever see any exposed skin on Dancing with the Stars, where all the dancers are always completely covered from head to toe. Right? So that must be the reason Fox demanded some serious editing on this commercial and ABC refused to show it during one of its most popular shows. Right? It probably had nothing to do with the model’s size, which didn’t exactly fall within network television’s norm. Or maybe the networks thought they were doing their viewers a service. I can imagine some network suit saying, “Nobody wants to see that!” Or, “We certainly don’t want to give women the impression that it’s okay to look like that!”

It seems a big part of the media’s job is to make us unhappy with our lot. We need this car, that gadget, this TV, that video game system, and if we don’t get them, we are somehow failures as human beings. It’s one thing to do that with material goods. But it’s quite another to set an unrealistic standard for the human body and hold it up as the ideal so that those who do not meet that standard are made to feel inadequate.

According to the website of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, about eight million Americans suffer from eating disorders. That in itself is alarming, but what’s more alarming is the breakdown – one million men ... and seven million women. Alarming, yes, but not too surprising, if you ask me. One in 200 American women are anorexic. Two to three in every 100 American women suffer from bulimia. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. According to research by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 5% to 10% of anorexics die within 10 years of the onset of the disease and 18% to 20% of anorexics will die after 20 years. Only 30% to 40% ever recover fully from these diseases. reports that Americans spend $40 billion a year on weight loss programs and products. Of course, obesity is a growing problem in America and I’m not trying to suggest that being fat is a healthy lifestyle choice. It’s not. Take a trip to Walmart on any given day and you’ll see an abundance of people who are not only morbidly obese but who, judging by their wardrobe choices, seem to be unaware of this fact. Yes, that’s a problem, too. But how much of that yearly $40 billion is being spent by people -- let's face it, by women -- who really don’t need those programs or products but spend the money on them out of a desire to meet that unrealistic standard?

Of all the women I’ve known throughout my life, not one – not a single one, not ever – has said, “I’m too skinny.” And there have been some who were too skinny. Instead, they talk about the parts of their bodies that are too big, too flabby, too round. These are not fat women I’m talking about. These are perfectly lovely women who feel inadequate because they are the targets of cultural demands that are not only unrealistic but are unhealthy and even dangerous.

I was saddened to see what Eliza Dushku has done to herself. I used to think Angelina Jolie was the most beautiful actress to come along in years until she wasted away to a pale, hollow-eyed stick figure. It’s said that the camera puts ten pounds on the human body. If that’s the case, holy crap, what do these women look like in person? These are gorgeous women who are damaging themselves because they think they’re ... what? Too fat? Seriously? And the skinnier they get, the more pressure they put on the millions of women who watch them, who see them as some kind of ideal – an ideal they will never attain. This is a vicious circle of emotional and physical damage that we seem to be aware of but, for some reason, cannot step out of, even though we all know we should.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween Ramblings: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

When I was a kid, Halloween was the only time of the year when I felt normal. The rest of the year, I was that weird boy who liked horror movies and monster magazines, the guy my Seventh-day Adventist friends liked but still viewed askance ... as if I might, at any moment, reveal fangs and hiss at them. But when Halloween rolled around each fall, everyone became as weird as I, and for one night, I blended in.

Whenever someone knocked at our front door, my mother would immediately run – not walk, but run – to my bedroom and pull the door closed. Sometimes, she wouldn’t wait for a knock at the door. If a car slowed to a stop in front of our house, off she would go to shut that door. Even if it wasn’t someone stopping to see us – maybe they were lost, or stopped to light a cigarette, or something, I don’t know – and drove away a moment later, by then my bedroom was closed and Mom wore an expression of relief. She closed the door so no one could see the posters on my wall, or the issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland lying on my bed, or the Aurora model kits of Frankenstein’s Monster or the Wolf Man that stood on my shelves. There was always the chance that it might be someone from the church dropping in to see if they could catch us sinning. If they were to see the horrors in my bedroom, word would get out, and everyone at church would know what an abysmal failure my mother was as a Seventh-day Adventist parent.

Even more frightening for my mother was a knock at the door while I was watching or Dark ShadowsThe Twilight Zone or Outer Limits or Batman (my grandpa feared that Adam West’s betighted cavorting would turn me into a Satan-worshiping homosexual). Somehow, the idea of someone from church seeing me in the act of watching one of my favorite shows on TV terrified her more than the possibility of someone getting a glimpse of the Dracula poster in my room. Sometimes while I was watching one of those shows – or, even better, a horror movie double feature on Creature Features, which I never missed on Saturday nights – she would ask, “What would you do if Jesus walked in here right now and saw you watching that?” I quickly learned that smartass responses like, “Make him some popcorn,” or, “Catch him up on the plot,” did not elicit positive responses. That’s when my dad – who usually didn’t bother much about what I watched because he was usually angry and brooding about something – would get involved and ask me, “You gettin’ funny? Huh? You want me to get the belt?” He would always start to unbuckle his belt when he asked that second question. So I learned not to respond at all and told myself Mom was simply being rhetorical (although to this day, she has no idea what “rhetorical” means).

Today, my life is much, much different. I was fortunate enough to fall in love with a woman who shares my taste for the macabre. The first thing you see when you walk through our front door is a faceless Grim Reaper oozing ghost-like out of the wall and reaching out to you with both hands. On the wall beside the door are two bony hands; Dawn hangs her purse from one and the other holds keys. There’s a mummy on our living room wall. Also hanging in the living room are two holographic portraits of Dawn and me; as you walk by them, we change from our normal smiling selves into monsters – I into a werewolf and Dawn into a vampire, both with blood dribbling down our chins.

The house is filled with bats and gargoyles. In the front bathroom, a winged Nosferatu hangs upside down on the wall holding a black candle, and small skeletal hands are attached to the four corners of the mirror on the medicine cabinet. The white shower curtain is smeared with blood, some of it in the shape of hand prints. The back bathroom has two framed posters on the wall – The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Lair of the White Worm. My office is ... well, it’s what my bedroom would have looked like when I was a boy if I’d had the money to buy what I wanted and had my parents not been in the thrall of a deranged religious cult. There are movie posters on the walls – Magic, Return of the Living Dead, The Blob (the 1958 original), Curse of the Demon, Mars Attacks, and an autographed photo of the man who helped keep me sane when I was growing up, the late Bob Wilkins, host of Creature Features. On the wall behind me, the large head of a tyrannosaurus rex hangs on the wall. Also behind me, the shelf above my U-shaped desk holds a host of monsters, including a replica of the Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror and an alien from Independence Day. There are so many books in here, it looks like the room collided with a library. Monsters and dinosaurs are everywhere, as well as action figures from Star Wars, Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Batman, an alien skull beside the TV, a King Kong lunchbox on a book shelf. The walk-in closet holds three large bookshelves that are overloaded with books, top to bottom, as well as more action figures, a large tarantula, and a “Bumble” doll – the abominable snow monster from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The room next to my office is filled with movies – we call it the movie room – about a third of which are horror and science fiction films, as well as more horror and science fiction memorabilia. In the bedroom, Christopher Lee looms above our bed in a framed poster from Horror of Dracula, and a giant spiderweb made of yarn stretches out in front of the round mirror of Dawn’s vanity. There are a couple of other posters – Lee again, dining on a beautiful, bloody throat in Taste the Blood of Dracula, and House of Dark Shadows.

When people visit, they come inside, look around and inevitably say, “I see you haven’t taken down your Halloween decorations.” One of us always replies, “Yes, we have. It always looks like this.” Guests reveal a lot the moment they come into the house because they do one of two things. Either their eyes widen and a big grin slowly spreads over their faces, or their eyes narrow and they pull in their chins as they look around with frowning disapproval. Both reactions occur in varying degrees. Some people try to hide their disapproval. But they can’t. Two different people have actually screamed when they noticed our faces change in the portraits. Not unlike the Spanish Inquisition, nobody ever expects it. That always makes me happy.

Mom almost never comes over. If she does, she seldom comes inside. And if she comes inside, she doesn’t stay very long.

When I was a boy, I was taught to be ashamed of myself because of the things I enjoyed. I was taught that so well that it took decades to get over it. I’m over it.

Given the house we live in, it probably comes as no surprise that Dawn and I love the month of October. We don’t wait for Halloween – we celebrate all month long. In October, we take the horror movies off the shelf and start watching them. To be honest, we have so many that sometimes we start late in September, and even then, we don’t get through all of them by Halloween. As I write this, I’m watching Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and last night I watched The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Earlier this month, I made my way through the old series of Universal Frankenstein movies and watched a few other Universal classics like Werewolf of London and The Wolfman and The Black Cat and The Raven. It’s a month of Poe movies, like The Pit and the Pendulum and Masque of the Red Death; Lovecraft movies, like Re-Animator and From Beyond; Stoker movies, like the many versions of Dracula and Ken Russell’s insanely funny Lair of the White Worm; Stephen King movies like Carrie and The Dead Zone and The Night Flier; Val Lewton movies like Cat People and I Walked with A Zombie. The vampires in The Hunger and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat; the werewolves in The Howling and Wolf and An American Werewolf in London; the ghosts in Poltergeist and The Legend of Hell House and The Haunting; the mad killers in Halloween and Psycho and Chamber of Horrors; the creepy aliens in Alien and It Came From Outer Space and the first two versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (sorry, not a fan of the two that followed); the terrified kids in Monster Squad and Invaders from Mars and Parents; the puppets in The Mad Monster Party and The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which also works as a Christmas movie); and the freaks in Freaks and the thing in The Thing! Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas – but when it comes to variety, Christmas has got =nothing on Halloween!

The older I get, the more I feel a sense of sadness when I watch the old horror movies I loved so dearly as a boy. Back then, they scared me. I mean, they really scared me. I watched lengthy segments of them with my hands over my eyes, peeking between my fingers, and sometimes I had to cover my eyes completely. They made me afraid of the dark and often gave me nightmares. As a child, vampires and werewolves and ghosts and mummies seemed threatening, a genuine possibility in a dark room or while walking around outside at night. All of that is gone now. Today, I find none of those things frightening. A good example of a movie I find scary now is Requiem for A Dream. Vampires and werewolves are fantasy. But drug addiction? Mental illness? Dying alone and abandoned? That’s some scary shit. But I still have a sentimental attachment to those old horror movies, and even if they don’t affect me in the way they used to, many are admirable simply for their cinematic qualities.

For my money, Bride of Frankenstein belongs right up there with Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard and other titles that are considered among the best American movies ever made. It has such a broad emotional range – horror, pathos, comedy – and James Whale had a grand old time slipping gay themes and jabs at the church past the censors. If all it had going for it was Ernest Thesiger’s performance, that would make it worth seeing, but it’s a treasure chest of cinematic gems and movie gold.

Horror movies don’t get much respect, and yet some of the most memorable moments in movie history come from them. Nosferatu rising from his coffin or the Phantom being unmasked are among the most well-known and enduring iconic images from the silent film era. All of the Universal monsters – Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the wolf man, the mummy, the gill man from Creature from the Black Lagoon – are still a vivid part of our culture more than half a century after they first appeared on movie screens. Those movies feature scenes that have been burned into our consciousness: Colin Clive shouting, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”; Dracula’s “Listen to them ... the children of the night,” as he stands on that enormous staircase in his castle; Larry Talbot’s first transformation into a werewolf. These movies set the mold for cinematic horror in Hollywood and continue to be influential today. In the ‘50s and ‘60s in England, Hammer Studios put its own stamp on these horror icons, casting Christopher Lee as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy, Peter Cushing as the mad scientist or the monster-vanquishing hero, and Oliver Reed as the tragic title character in Curse of the Werewolf. But these were still reflections of the original visions that began at Universal.

In the 1950s, Hollywood replaced two-legged monsters with giant multi-legged monsters as the nuclear bomb turned harmless little bugs into giant nightmares. Then in 1960, Janet Leigh took a shower and there was a wave of twisted psychopaths. After Rosemary Woodhouse had a devilish time with her first pregnancy in 1968, Satan and his servants became the popular menace, possessing a little girl in The Exorcist, melting William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine in The Devil’s Rain, taking over a New York brownstone in The Sentinel, and generally raising hell all over the place. While Satan was doing his job, nature was going crazy in movies like Frogs and Sssssss and, of course, Jaws. The 1980s was a wonderful grab bag of horror. Werewolves and vampires made a comeback in movies like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Fright Night and The Lost Boys; there was a killer dog in Cujo, a killer family man in The Stepfather, demon-possessed zombies in the Evil Dead movies. It was a great decade. Things began to go downhill in the ‘90s, and only got worse after that.

Horror movies get less respect now than ever before. Part of the reason is that the genre has decayed in recent decades. There have been bright spots – movies like 2001's Session 9 and 2006's Pan’s Labyrinth spring to mind – but the genre seems to have dug a hole for itself, and rather than climbing out, it keeps digging.

I think a big part of the problem is that too many horror movies are made by people who don’t really understand why horror works when it works. The first mistake that trips most of them up is setting out to make a horror movie. They approach making a horror movie as if it were like making a cake, which requires certain ingredients in certain quantities. As strange as it sounds, I think horror filmmakers have seen way too many bad horror movies. They seem to think they need a certain amount of this, a bunch of that, a dollop of another thing. Horny teenagers, gore, sex – that kind of thing. That’s putting the horse-drawn hearse before the horse. It results in the kind of bland sameness that infects so many horror movies these days.

Director William Friedkin has said that he refused to approach The Exorcist as if it were a horror movie because he didn’t want to make just another horror movie. He approached it like any other movie. Shoving all thoughts of the horror genre aside, he decided to focus instead on the core elements of the story it told. He once said about himself, “I tend to be attracted to characters who are up against a wall with very few alternatives. And the film then becomes an examination of how they cope with very few options. And that's, I guess, what interests me in terms of human behavior.” That’s what happened with The Exorcist. It was a story about a woman horrified by what was happening to her daughter and helpless to do anything about it, a woman who quickly exhausted all her options and found herself up against a wall. That doesn’t sound like a horror movie, not at all – and that’s part of the reason why it works. Friedkin didn’t try to make a horror movie, and he ended up making one of the greatest horror movies ever made. One of the reasons it’s so scary is that we believe and care about the characters. Friedkin made a movie with a gripping, grueling story about people for whom we cared. If we hadn’t cared for them, the story wouldn’t have mattered much because we wouldn’t have cared about what happened to those people.

This attitude, I think, is absolutely essential in making a horror movie or writing a horror novel that works. Rather than setting out to write a horror story, start with story and character and let the horror evolve out of that.

The best horror movies – the ones that stay with us long after we see them – tend to be products of their time and to comment on or reflect those times in one way or another. In the 1930s, Universal Studios employed a lot of European immigrants, many of whom had fled the rise of Nazism in Germany. Glimpses of this can be seen in Universal’s horror films, especially the Frankenstein series. In those movies, we identify with the monster. He’s not only an outsider who doesn’t fit, he is despised by everyone. Even as a child, some of the most frightening images from those movies for me involved the angry, torch-bearing mobs out for blood. When they chase the monster, they are chasing us. Replace the creature made of cobbled-together corpse parts with a person of Jewish descent and suddenly, all fantasy melts away from these movies and they become vivid reflections of a very real time and place.

The big scares in the 1950s and onward were the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and fear of the communist boogieman. At the time, the general public was pretty ignorant of the true effects of a nuclear bomb. If they could be convinced that their children would be safe in an atomic blast by hiding under their school desks, then it’s pretty obvious they were in the dark. And they were afraid. The movies of the time reflected that fear. Who knows WHAT the bomb might do? they asked. Then they answered that question by exposing everyday insects like ants and spiders -- things we see around the house on a regular basis -- to nuclear bombs and growing them to monstrous sizes. These movies may not have the same effect today that they had then, when the mystery posed by the ominous bomb opened up all kinds of nightmarish possibilities.

When The Exorcist was released in December of 1973, it was a phenomenon, a blockbuster that created lines around the block. It made the news when moviegoers were so horrified by the graphic images that some of them became sick or even fainted. But people kept going back for more. The Exorcist tapped into something that many people recognized from their own lives. Parents were confused and frightened by the changes they were seeing in their children; drug use, sexual openness, political activism and a general angry anti-establishment attitude were making their children unrecognizable to them. When Regan MacNeil began spewing profanities and pea soup and going through frightening physical changes, those parents saw their own children, their own lives up there on the screen. To them, a child possessed by Satan made perfect sense, and they reacted to it strongly.

Jaws and the other “nature fights back” movies of that time period reflected a growing environmental consciousness. People were becoming aware of the damage we were doing to our environment and worrying about what the consequences of that damage might be. In the movies, the consequence was some pretty pissed off animals that were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. Jaws tapped into that so effectively that it made people afraid to get into their own bathtubs.

In 1979, Alien plugged into a timeless fear that spans all eras. It was set in outer space well into the future, but the discomfort and dread it aroused were as immediate as if the movie were shot yesterday in your own neighborhood. Is there anything more terrifying than the idea of some malignant thing growing inside you? Something you are unaware of and helpless to combat? Something that will kill you no matter what you do?

No matter what they are about on the surface, the best horror movies – like the best movies of all kinds – are those that touch us in a familiar and recognizable way. Whatever monsters or supernatural threats they may contain, they are about our lives right now, today, and the things that disrupt or threaten our lives. I don’t see horror movies doing that today. Instead, we get endless Saw sequels, or remakes of movies that weren’t any good the first time, like Friday the 13th or My Bloody Valentine. Who gives a damn about horny teenagers being slaughtered? Hell, spend a couple of hours with some of them and you might want to slaughter them yourself! Horror movies today are disconnected from us, from our lives and our experiences. They reflect nothing but the desire to have a blockbuster opening weekend that will make enough money to feed a small Third World country.

Another thing missing from horror movies today are horror movie stars. What comes immediately to mind when you hear the names Karloff or Lugosi? What images fill your head when you hear the names Christopher Lee or Vincent Price? The closest thing we have today is Anthony Hopkins, who not only gave us one of the greatest movie monsters in recent memory, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, but also starred in the haunting 1978 film Magic, played Van Helsing in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and turned in a chilling performance in the recent remake of The Wolf Man.

Nobody worked harder to keep those old horror movie stars alive than Forrest J. Ackerman. As a boy, I got far more comfort and spiritual enrichment from Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine than I ever got from the bible. When I met Ackerman at a science fiction convention in 1984, it was like meeting Santa Claus – the real Santa Claus – and visiting his museum-like home a couple of years later was liking touring Santa’s toy factory at the North Pole. I was a boy the first time I read an interview with Ackerman, and I was dazzled when he said he’d created Famous Monsters of Filmland so fans could have Halloween all year long. What a concept! Halloween all year long! That was what I wanted. Most kids looked forward to getting married and having children and a white picket fence when they grew up. But when I grew up, I wanted to have Halloween all year long.

When Forrest J. Ackerman died in 2008, I was struck by how much he had influenced my life. All you have to do to see that influence is look around my house. It’s Halloween all year long here.

I suppose I’ve rambled enough. But I’ll leave you with a few suggestions. Even if you don’t have kids, carve a pumpkin, do a little decorating. If you do have kids, dress up along with them when you take them trick-or-treating. Turn out the lights and watch a scary movie with them – don’t forget how much kids love to be scared in a safe way (something adults do all too often in an effort to protect their children). This Halloween, frighten someone you love.

Friday, May 14, 2010

20 Years ...

In 1987, I found myself living with my parents. This was not an ideal situation. It was never an ideal situation, but being 24 made it even less ideal than ever before. I was raised in a very tiny house. A crackerbox, really. You can stand in one spot in the living room and see into every room in the house. That wasn’t so bad when I was a little kid, but as an adult ... no, thank you. I’ve always been a night person and during that time, I got into the habit of going out at night, sitting in all-night coffee shops and writing. I killed two birds with one stone – I got out of that claustrophobic little house where I had to be very quiet while my parents slept, and I got some work done. Then I’d come home and type up my scribblings (this was back in the stone age when I used an electric Brother typewriter). One of the all-night restaurants I frequented was the nearby 76 Truck Stop.

It had a gift shop that sold surprisingly elaborate merchandise for a truck stop. The shelves were crowded with pricey tchotchkes like Windstone dragons and Willits carousel horses. I was surprised to learn that this stuff sold like hotcakes to truckers looking for gifts to take home to their wives. Some of those truckers, I’m sure, were feeling guilty about the lot lizards they’d spent time with, and their wives were lucky if tchotchkes were the only gifts their husbands brought home to them.

During the night, the gift shop was run by a beautiful woman with long red hair who caught my eye immediately. I’m not as shy as I used to be (as Craig Ferguson said, “I find the older I get, the less I give a fuck.”), but at the time, I was terribly shy. I was a bit of a mess then. In more ways than one. To get to the coffee shop, I had to walk through the gift shop and I found reasons to take my time doing that. This gave me a chance to be near the lovely redhead. I was working my way up to speaking to her. When I finally mustered the courage to do that, I began stopping at the gift shop register nightly to chat with her. Her name was Dawn Millhouse, and she was friendly, funny, and a voracious reader and lover of movies, like me. I liked her. A lot.

I was pleasantly surprised when Dawn began to spend her breaks with me in the coffee shop. When I learned that she loved vampires – vampire movies, vampire novels, all things vampire – I told her about my new vampire novel, Live Girls. Her eyes widened in surprise.

You wrote that?” she said. “I just read that book!”

“You did?” I was skeptical. “You didn’t know I’d written it? My name’s on the cover, you know.”

She waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, I never pay attention to who writes the books I read.”

An avid reader with no interest in writers, I thought. You know how to pick ‘em, Ray.

In 1987, Dawn’s mother died of a blood clot after having surgery. The Millhouse family was devastated. I didn’t see much of Dawn for a while. I didn’t know her well enough to insert myself into the family tragedy, so I just sent her a card with a note letting her know I was thinking of her and telling her to let me know if I could do anything. I missed her a lot during that time.

When she returned to the routine of her life, I asked Dawn out. The first movie we saw together was Fatal Attraction. We saw more of each other after that. I moved slowly, cautiously, like someone in a park trying to coax a deer to eat out of his hand. I didn’t want to blow it.

Dawn had a cat named Murphy. When I visited Dawn at her house, Murphy paid a lot of attention to me, and I always left with bloody claw marks on my hands and arms. Murphy played rough. During one of those visits, as we stayed up late watching movies, Dawn introduced me to tequila. It’s not that I wasn’t a drinker. I was. In fact, it was a problem – I just didn’t know it yet. I was an alcoholic, but not really a drunk in that I didn’t get slurry, falling-down drunk. For some years, I’d been maintaining a level of inebriation, drinking at home, while I wrote, remaining so functional that even people who knew me were unaware of my condition. My beverage of choice was vodka. I had not tried tequila until that night at Dawn’s house. I had a few drinks, and then woke up on the bathroom floor hours later, wrapped around the base of the toilet, with Murphy sitting in the doorway giving me a very suspicious glare. I was terribly embarrassed. I told myself I wasn’t that kind of drinker – I didn’t black out and wake up on bathroom floors. No, I was another kind of drinker, but a serious drinker nonetheless, and I would have to deal with that soon. But that night, my biggest concern was that Dawn would be horrified by my behavior – whatever my behavior had been while I was on my little vacation from consciousness – and never want to see me again. She just laughed and said, “Boy, you really aren't used to tequila, are you?”

Dawn and I began to get to know each other better. It turned out we had a connection that went back a lot farther than the truck stop. I attended a small Seventh-day Adventist junior academy in Redding from grades one through ten. The school was next door to Lawncrest Cemetery. I remember sometimes seeing a group of older kids playing in the cemetery when I was in the school playground. I learned that Dawn was in that group (she’s five years older than I). They used to make fun of the weird Adventist kids. They themselves were weird kids who liked to play in a cemetery – Dawn was “goth” long before anyone knew what it was, before it was ever called that – but we seemed even weirder than they.

In 1988, Dawn said she wanted me to move in with her. She lived in a house that was – impossibly, it seemed – even tinier than the house in which I’d been raised. But it had a big advantage over my childhood home: Dawn lived there and my parents didn’t. I told my parents of my decision. Mom and Dad were very religious Seventh-day Adventists and I assumed the idea of me living in “sin” with a woman would not go over well. I was surprised by my mother’s casual reaction.

“What’s her house like?” Mom asked.

“Very small. Just one bedroom.”

Mom frowned. “One bedroom? But where are you going to sleep?”

Then it occurred to me that her reaction was casual because it had not yet occurred to her that “sin” would be involved. That’s my mom.

I moved in with Dawn on June 30, 1988. Murphy was not at all pleased with the new arrangement. Until I came along, he’d been the only other resident in the house. Being a cat, he’d been under the impression that he was the most important resident in the house. I invaded his personal space, and he didn’t like it. He frequently hissed at me if I got too close. That stopped, though, when we moved to another house. The change in environment seemed to alter his attitude toward me. I was home all day writing, and he seemed to realize suddenly that he had company. I became his buddy.

There was no official proposal of marriage, which was not like me, because I’d always been a hopelessly sappy romantic. We discussed marriage, but I think we were so comfortable together that we both already felt married. In 1990, rather abruptly, we decided to have a double wedding. Dawn’s dad Bill was going to marry his high school sweetheart Suzy. The four of us were married in a suite at the Red Lion Hotel in Redding, California, by Judge Richard Eaton, a living part of the area’s history, a little old man whose grandparents were early pioneers in Shasta County. We were surrounded by a small group of family and friends, and experienced none of the hassles or pressures of a big formal wedding, which neither of us wanted.

As of Friday, May 14, 2010, Dawn and I have been married for 20 years. At the end of June, we will have been living together for 22. And it really doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. I’ve spent almost half my life with Dawn, and I’m more in love with her now than I was 22 years ago. Like any relationship that’s lasted that long, it hasn’t always been an idyllic picnic by the lake. I know I haven’t always been a walk in the park.

I was raised in a family of very religious, irrational people in which the primary emotions were anger, fear and guilt. Physical violence was as common as hugs, and not knowing which was coming made life ... tense. Something was always wrong. Plans never worked out, there was always something about which to be upset. Dawn and her sisters were raised in a family of quiet, rational, easy-going people who respected each other. It was a household in which, for the most part, things went pretty smoothly and everyone got along. As she got older, Dawn was surprised to discover that all families weren’t like that. Then she married a guy who’d come from a family that was, in a sense, from an entirely different planet than hers. I was so unaccustomed to things going well that when they did, I was immediately suspicious and looked for problems. Dawn never got angry and was uncomfortable with people who did. Her easy-going nature was so foreign to me that sometimes it drove me crazy. And my angry outbursts and my conviction that something always had to be wrong with things somehow no doubt did the same to her.

She quietly supported me when it came time to deal with my addiction to alcohol. When my doctor asked me in 1990 exactly how much I was drinking, I answered honestly. He rolled his eyes and said, “If you keep that up, you’ll never see middle age.” Then he told me, in clear layman’s terms, what the vodka was doing to my body and precisely how I would die in the not-too-distant future if I didn’t stop. He scared the piss out of me. I stopped cold turkey and had an attack of the DTs that I thought was going to kill me. I ended up in an emergency room vomiting like Linda Blair and shaking as if I had a fully operational jackhammer up my ass. I went to an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting, where I was told that surely someone as clean and well-dressed and apparently “together” as I didn’t have a problem, but I was welcome to join in. All the people at the meeting talked about was liquor – what they liked to drink, when they liked to drink it, how they liked to drink it, what they did while they were drinking it, when they last drank it, and how very, very, very much they missed drinking it. This seemed counterproductive to me. I wanted to get my mind off booze, not obsess over it. Then I was told that I was absolutely incapable of dealing with my problem and had no hope whatsoever of getting off the sauce unless I turned to an imaginary friend. I decided I was not a friend of Bill W., told them to have a nice day, then drove home and went about the business of stopping drinking without the help of an imaginary friend.

Dawn stood by me the whole time. She was there when I needed her, but she didn’t prod me about it. It was a difficult process -- to put it mildly. I was cranky, morose, self-pitying and at times panicky. I had relapses, but a few years later, I suddenly realized how long it had been since I’d had a drink. A few years after feeling sheer terror at the idea of never drinking again, I found that I had become a non-drinker. I could not have done that without Dawn.

In 1999, my right hip began to hurt, and for the next eight years, I was virtually useless as I required countless medical procedures, three operations (including two hip replacements), and consumed a mountain of narcotic painkillers. I spent most of that time in a chair, where I bitched, whined, grumbled, groaned and bitched some more. During those years, Dawn did everything – cooking, housework, yardwork, taking care of me and holding down a job. If she went out, it was almost always alone – knowing I was lousy company because I was in so much pain, I tended to stay home. She never complained, she never threw up her arms. She did, however, quietly go out and buy herself a $350 wind chime she loved as a reward to herself for putting up with me – a reward she deserved countless times over.

And don’t forget, I’m a full-time writer. Along with being neurotic and often self-involved, we writers rarely get rich, and our income tends to be sporadic. Dawn has not exactly lived in the lap of luxury. But she’s never complained about that.

I have not been a fairytale husband, and I have not provided Dawn with the stable, quiet, easy-going atmosphere in which she grew up. But she’s still here. And I’m simply not a good enough writer to express how grateful I am for that.

Thank you, Dawn, for 20 wonderful years. I will spend the rest of our lives thanking you, and it still won’t be enough. I love you more than ever.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Night of the Lepus: Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

There was a lot going on in the 1970s. People hit the disco, dropped acid, laid back and mellowed out; Tricky Dick was so tricky, he ended up tricking himself right out of office; Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were the reigning kings of the box office and Jack Tripper was the pretend queen of TV; the drugs were so good that some brilliant entrepreneur was able to convince people that rocks were pets; President Gerald Ford became a comedy sensation on Saturday Night Live; and the animal kingdom went apeshit crazy. Fortunately for all of us, that last one only happened in the movies.

It was a trend that spanned the entire decade – the “nature strikes back” genre, in which animals turned on humans, sometimes after growing to gigantic sizes. Most of the citizenry was safe, fortunately, because these animals tended to attack only actors and actresses who specialized in B-movies or one-time stars whose glory days were behind them – although there were a few exceptions. Many people mistakenly assume this genre was started by Steven Spielberg’s megahit Jaws, but that was in 1975, midway through Hollywood’s crazy animal phase.

I might have overlooked a few, but I’ve managed to come up with 20 titles in this genre between 1971 and 1979, a few of which were made-for-TV movies. It all started with the very modest a-boy-and-his-rat tale, Willard, starring Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Borgnine. It was such a surprise runaway hit that it required a sequel, Ben, the following year, and inspired the animal-themed horror trend that lasted the entire decade. If watching rats eat peanut butter that’s been slathered on Ernest Borgnine’s writhing body sounds like a good time to you, then you must see this movie.

Ben was followed by Frogs in 1972, starring Ray Milland. In her review in Andy Warhol’s Interview, Fran Lebowitz called it, “The best bad movie I have ever seen in my life.” Many others followed. Strother Martin turned Dirk Benedict into a big cobra in 1973's Sssssss. Robert Culp and Eli Wallach dealt with creepy, murderous chimpanzees in the 1973 TV movie A Cold Night’s Death. Ants got pretty cocky in Saul Bass’s brilliant and little seen 1974 thriller Phase IV, probably the most intelligent and creative movie of this entire lot. 1975 saw both the genre’s zenith and its nadir. The zenith, of course, was Jaws, the A-list blockbuster shark movie that so frightened audiences that some people actually switched from baths to showers because they were too afraid to sit in the water. The nadir was the $250,000 home movie The Giant Spider Invasion (my apologies to home movie-makers everywhere). Shot in the glamorous hot spots of Wisconson, like Gleason and Merrill, it featured Volkswagen Beetles dressed up to look like giant spiders. The genre seemed to escalate after that. Titles like Squirm, Grizzly, Day of the Animals and Kingdom of the Spiders stampeded across America’s drive-in screens. In 1977, producer Dino De Laurentis joined the fun with Orca, in which Richard Harris tried to forget how respected he was and Bo Derek’s leg was chomped off. The genre wrapped up in 1979 with Prophecy, directed by the great John Frankenheimer and written by The Omen scripter David Seltzer. It brought more quality to the genre than usual. Critics attacked it, but I enjoyed it.

Two beloved purveyors of schlock got involved. William Castle produced Bug in 1975, in which Joanna Miles’s head was set ablaze by fire-starting cockroaches on the set of the Brady house from The Brady Bunch, which had been canceled the year before. The king of movie gimmicks, Castle wanted to equip theater seats with little brushes that would scrape moviegoers’ legs to simulate the feeling of a bug crawling on them, but nobody would go along with that idea. Bert I. Gordon certainly wasn’t going to be excluded from a trend so ripe with schlocky potential. Known as Mr. BIG both for his initials and for his 1950s movies about giant people and giant bugs, Gordon holds the record for having more movies shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000 than any other producer-director. In 1976, Gordon directed Food of the Gods, in which former faith healer Marjoe Gortner went head-to-head with a giant cock (what is it with these evangelists?). The next year, he followed that with Empire of the Ants, featuring giant ants and an angry Joan Collins (I’m not sure which is scarier). Both movies were allegedly based on books by H.G. Wells, but the resemblance ended with the titles.

The award for the most popular crazy creature in the 1970s eco-horror movie fad goes to the humble bee, starting with the genuinely creepy 1974 TV movie Killer Bees starring Kate Jackson and Gloria Swanson. 1978 brought two more bee movies. The Bees was an ultra-cheapie starring John Saxon and John Carradine (both of whom have probably appeared in more bad movies than any other Johns in the history of cinema). Of course, The Bees was so cheap that one glance at it told you it was going to be bad. Really bad. The other bee movie that year was a different animal entirely. It was glossy and slick with big-studio cache and an all-star cast – and yet it almost makes The Bees look like a respectable effort. Disaster king Irwin Allen gathered together some big Hollywood names and threw bees at them in the fat-budgeted turd The Swarm. It starred – get comfortable because this will take a while – Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Bradford Dillman, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda, Cameron Mitchell and a swarm of bees so powerful that it blows up buildings and knocks a train over a cliff. Michael Caine had to deliver groaners like, “That’s a complicated story. It begins years ago. But let’s skip that.” And my favorite, “We've been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years, but I never thought I'd see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They've always been our friend.” If you’ve never seen this movie, watch it as soon as you can. I promise you’ll swear it was made by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker.

But I want to focus on one particular movie in this genre. Released in 1972, it was an early entry, but it stands out simply because it’s so ... well, unlikely. Mention the title in a group and you’ll get a lot of laughs as people remember it and discuss how absolutely awful it was. But I disagree. And so do they – if you press them a little, you’ll find they probably saw it as children and that they remember being frightened by it. It is by no means a great movie, but when you consider it in the context of the animals-gone-bad movies of the 1970s, you have to admit that it was different, even bold, and if you set aside its reputation long enough to take a serious look at it, you’ll probably see that it was better than it had any right to be. I am referring, of course, to the only movie ever made about giant man-eating bunny rabbits, Night of the Lepus.

Not many people are familiar with the novel upon which this movie is based. It was Russell Braddon’s 1964 Australian political satire The Year of the Angry Rabbit. No, you didn’t misread that – political satire. I’ve never read it, but as far as I can tell from what I’ve read about it, there are no giant rabbits in the novel. In fact, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the monster movie it became. The website Trash Fiction, which provides the following description:

“This is great fun, a wild political satire set in the late-1990s that spirals off into all sorts of odd directions. We start with the emergence of myxomatosis-resistant rabbits posing a potential threat to Australian farming. The government decides to research a more powerful virus to put an end to the problem once and for all, and the scientists come up with Supermyx. Unfortunately it doesn’t harm the rabbits, but is instantly fatal to humans. At which point the Aussie Prime Minister realizes he has the most powerful biological weapon ever on his hands, and quite reasonably decides that it’s time for his country to take over as the rulers of the whole world.”

Somehow, this became a story of biologists Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh trying to help a farmer get rid of a destructive horde of rabbits and inadvertantly turning them into giant bloodthirsty monsters. Imagine you’re director William F. Claxton and screenwriters Don Holliday and Gene R. Kearney and you’ve been given the job of making a horror film about giant killer rabbits. How would you approach it? How would you make such an idea work on the screen?

Claxton was a veteran director of movies and TV shows, mostly westerns. Kearney had written mostly for television, and Holliday had written nothing before Night of the Lepus and never wrote anything ever again. His IMDb entry contains no information at all. It’s almost as if he didn’t really exist. Maybe they made him up so they’d have someone to blame.

If Night of the Lepus were made today, I imagine it would be very self-conscious and jokey, filled with snark and probably more than a few references to “fucking like rabbits.” In fact, I’m kind of surprised the 1972 version wasn’t made that way. But Claxton, Holliday and Kearney did something that I think was kind of ballsy. They decided to play it straight. There are no gags, no smirking asides. Just giant rabbits, their screaming victims, and the people desperately trying to solve the problem.

The cast certainly was game. Stuart Whitman was a busy actor who’d been working for 20 years and had appeared in nearly a hundred movies and TV shows by the time he signed on to fight giant bunnies. Not all of those movies and TV shows were blue-ribbon projects, so a low-budget monster movie didn’t make him flinch. But Janet Leigh had been a big movie star in the studio system during the ‘40s and ‘50s. She once said of Night of the Lepus, "I've forgotten as much as I could about that picture." But she added that she’d agreed to do it only because it was close to her home in California and wouldn’t keep her away from her family for long. DeForest Kelly was on hand, too, in his final non-Star Trek performance. They remained straight-faced for the cameras, but I wonder how many times either of them said between takes, “You’re kidding, right?”

I’ve found that horror movie fans are among the most forgiving human beings on the face of the earth. All the Christians I’ve ever known could take a lesson in forgiveness from horror movie fans. If you love horror movies, the fact is you have to sit through a lot of garbage to find the good stuff. Given the nature of horror movies – where far too many people think it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be horror – the good stuff is rare and the garbage is overflowing. It’s kind of like panning for gold, except instead of water and sand and gravel, you’re mostly sifting through shit. This is one of the reasons I seldom watch horror movies anymore. The older I’ve gotten, the more aware I’ve become of the fact that life is short – too short to waste time sifting through shit. The genre exhausted me, and one day I decided I’d seen enough. When enough people whose opinions I trust tell me a new horror movie is good, I give it a look. Now I judge movies – all movies – by the same standard. When you’re a forgiving horror movie fan, the bar is set lower for horror movies than it is for movies outside the genre. It’s not uncommon to hear a horror movie fan say something like, “Well, it was a lot better than Friday the 13th 4.” When you judge all movies by the same standard across the board, you realize that hemorrhoid surgery is a lot better than Friday the 13th 4. But for the sake of this article, I am going to revert back to my old ways and do exactly that.

When you focus only on the fact that Night of the Lepus is about giant bloodthirsty man-eating rabbits, it’s pretty hard not to laugh your ass off. I mean ... rabbits? Bunny rabbits? Where’s the threat? Even if they were gigantic, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything but eating foliage and dropping pellets. It’s the idea of the movie that trips everyone up. It’s hard to get past the fact that it’s about giant killer bunnies. But if you can do that, you’ll see that it’s really not so bad after all. Not great by any means, but not the awful dreck so many claim it to be. It certainly wasn't as bad as much of the awful dreck released in that genre during the 1970s.

The special effects are pretty good. Rabbits storm through miniature sets, slowed down enough to give them weight and size. Occasionally, a guy in a rabbit suit is used, but very infrequently, and he’s never shown clearly enough to spoil the illusion. The movie was made with some care, with an occasional attempt to build tension. One of my favorite scenes shows a woman peering through a window curiously when she hears a strange sound. Outside, we see rabbits stampeding toward her, we see her horrified reaction, then they burst through the window and one of them attacks her, making her bleed 1970s movie blood, which was always too bright. There was an effort to generate suspense and fear in that scene. These guys took their story seriously and I think that seriousness translates well to the screen given the fact that it’s a low-budget drive-in “animals go batshit crazy” movie – if you can get past the idea of giant killer rabbits.

In movies of this kind, a trick often employed is to avoid giving the audience a good look at the monster until the climactic scenes. This has been a staple in movies with limited budgets and even in big-money movies like Jaws. But Claxton did not take this route. The rabbits are revealed early on. They aren’t a secret. While this may have been a miscalculation on Claxton’s part, I see it as a rather brave move. He seemed to think that people would either buy it or they wouldn’t, and had no desire to screw around with keeping the creatures from the audience as if they were too dumb to figure things out. So he said, Here they are, folks – take ‘em or leave ‘em.

MGM knew it had a very tricky movie on its hands. They suspected that if moviegoers knew it was about giant killer rabbits, it would become a joke before anyone saw it. So they tried to conceal that fact. It was played down in the trailer and there were no rabbits in the poster art. The original title was Rabbits, but somebody at MGM wisely nipped that in the bud. Night of the Lepus sounds much creepier and was much more effective because few people knew that “lepus” was Latin for “rabbit.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Night of the Lepus is a great movie. It’s not even a particularly good movie. While made with more care than one would expect in such a movie, it wasn’t enough. There are moments that could have been milked for suspense and tension but instead are passed by almost dismissively. There’s no conflict between the characters – everyone pretty much agrees they’re dealing with giant killer rabbits and they have to do something about it, and that’s it. And there are lines like this: "Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!" Night of the Lepus was absent at the Academy Awards that year, and its absence was eminently inconspicuous. You won’t find it on Roger Ebert’s list of great movies.

But I’ve always thought it’s gotten an undeserved reputation over the years. It’s often called “campy,” which it most definitely is not. There’s no camp in Night of the Lepus. The whole enterprise is approached with a straight face, with no wild overacting or tongue-in-cheek flourishes. It is the subject of much derision, while truly crappy fare like The Giant Spider Invasion and Irwin Allen’s godawful The Swarm are given a pass – mostly because, unlike our killer bunny movie, they have been completely and deservedly forgotten.

Night of the Lepus made the leap to television pretty quickly. After its theatrical release in 1972, it hopped directly to The CBS Late Movie, which is where I first saw it the following year. I spotted the movie in the TV listings, and while I didn’t know what the hell a lepus was, a whole night of them sounded interesting and possibly scary. I was a faithful viewer of The Tonight Show, but that night I switched over to CBS to give the movie a look. When I realized what was happening – that rabbits had grown to enormous size and were wreaking havoc across the countryside – I laughed. Out loud. Even at the age of 10. But I kept watching, and I got involved, and after a while, my grin dissolved and I was hooked, thinking, Holy shit, they’re serious ... and this is kinda scary. I loved the movie. Loved it! The next day, I wanted to talk about it with others who’d seen it, but I didn’t know anyone who’d seen it because all my fellow 10-year-olds were pussies who were in bed by nine. When I tried to describe the movie to them, they laughed. When I told them it actually had been scary at times, they laughed harder. I alone knew that I had seen something totally unique and wildly entertaining. Goofy, yes, no doubt. But unique and entertaining.

And that, I think, is the secret to the success of Night of the Lepus. Go ahead and roll your eyes if you want, but yes, I said success. It’s a success because we’re still talking about it 38 years later. Most of the other movies I mentioned – the yawnfest that was Frogs, the slapped-together turkey Grizzly, the silly and overblown Orca, the cinematic abominations The Giant Spider Invasion and The Bees, and that big-budget all-star shitstorm The Swarm – have faded into obscurity. But mention Night of the Lepus in almost any group and you will get an immediate and enthusiastic reaction. Everyone remembers it. How could they not? It’s the only movie ever made about giant man-eating bunny rabbits! And aside from the fact that, yes, it’s about giant man-eating bunny rabbits, it’s really not as bad as most people think.

It’s on DVD. Grab some carrots and a bowl of lettuce, pull up a nice comfortable pile of sawdust and give it a look. It’s not boring, it’ll make you smile, and it’s better than it has any right to be.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Let loose the Kraken!"

I’ve been experiencing a bit of a movie trend lately. A couple of months ago, I had a hankering for a giant monster movie, so I watched one of my favorites, 20 Million Miles to Earth. Then in February, actor Lionel Jeffries died and I decided to watch my favorite Jeffries performance, First Men in the Moon. Last night, I watched the 1981 movie Clash of the Titans because I’ve been seeing the trailer for the upcoming remake and hadn’t watched the original in many years. All of these movies have one thing in common – Ray Harryhausen, the special effects master who is a beloved icon to people who, like me, grew up watching science fiction, fantasy and horror films.

A good deal of buzz preceded the release of Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen’s previous two movies had been 1974's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Clash of the Titans would mark Harryhausen’s return to Greek mythology, the subject of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), the movie that many people agree contains his very best work. That, combined with the simple fact that it was a new Harryhausen movie (no matter who directs, writes, produces or stars, any movie that features Harryhausen’s special effects is a “Harryhausen movie”), created a great deal of anticipation.

I saw it the week it opened, and while I didn’t think it was his best work and the movie itself, aside from Harryhausen's effects, was rather weak, I was still entertained. Most of the critics were not and didn’t hesitate to express their disdain. It felt a little like they were attacking a member of my family and I kind of took those reviews personally – probably more personally than I would have taken them if they had attacked a member of my family. Although it was not Harryhausen’s best work, Clash of the Titans unfortunately turned out to be his last.

Watching it today in 2010 is a very different experience from watching it the week it was released in 1981. For one thing, my high school graduation had taken place only days before – I was a teenager and still had a teenager’s perceptions and tastes. For another, a lot has changed in nearly 30 years. Harryhausen’s effects, left in the dust by the digital age, now seem stiff and antiquated. The memory of how mind-blowing they appeared to me in my childhood makes the reality of how they look today rather ... melancholy. But in spite of that, in spite of the movie’s weaknesses, it still delights the 12-year-old boy in me, the kid who used to drop whatever he was doing when a Harryhausen movie aired on TV.

Clash of the Titans has the biggest cast of any Harryhausen movie: Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Undress – er, um, I mean Andress, and Harry Hamlin five years before he donned a suit for L.A. Law. Unfortunately, the script by Beverley Cross gives them some pretty creaky dialogue to recite. They do their best, but still, it’s not much to work with.

As I mentioned earlier, Harryhausen’s effects don’t hold up well these days. If you didn’t grow up watching his work and don’t have the sentimental attachment to it that so many of us do, it might make you wince. Even by 1981, it was a bit outdated. But if you’re like me and have childhood memories filled with his Cyclops, his seven-headed hydra, the giant octopus that destroyed the Golden Gate bridge, the Ymir’s rampage in Rome, flying saucers over Washington, D.C., the giant bees on Mysterious Island, the tyrannosaurus rex that menaced a scantily clad Raquel Welch, that army of angry, sword-wielding skeletons – if these are some of the threads that make up the fabric of your childhood, and if you haven’t seen Clash of the Titans in a long time, then I suspect that, also like me, you’ll be pretty forgiving, and you’ll smile a lot.

While watching this movie for the first time in many years, I made some observations I hadn’t made before:

- Why can’t human beings concoct gods that act like gods instead of like human beings? They don’t even act like well-behaved human beings! That has been the case with all of our gods, from the ancients to those worshiped today.

- Is that really Ursula Andress or a somewhat lifelike mannequin?

- This is the only movie ever made in which you can hear Sir Laurence Olivier say, “Let loose the Kraken!”

- Oh, my god, bare breasts in a Harryhausen movie! Where were they when I was a kid?

- Perseus isn’t very bright. But I doubt that gets in the way of his social life.

- Medusa’s tits look fake.

- Calibos bears a disturbing resemblance to a younger, beefier Larry King.

Harryhausen said of his retirement from filmmaking, “The thing that finally persuaded me to quit was that I saw that the nature of the hero was changing. When I was growing up we had heroes such as Cary Grant, Ronald Colman and David Niven, real gentlemen on the screen. Now, all you have is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and all those people who solve problems with their fists. It's a different world and I sometimes feel I'm not part of it. Say what you like about Hollywood in my time, but they were in the business of happy endings, of escapism. Now, you have to sit through two hours of people dying, you know. Today, everything's so graphic it's rather unnerving.”

This June, Ray Harryhausen will turn 90. I don’t know if he’ll see the remake of Clash of the Titans, but if he does, I hope it’s a pleasant experience for him. Personally, I don’t hold much hope for it. Hollywood has not been making me a happy camper in recent years. I suspect it will be achingly loud, dizzyingly fast-moving, and take itself way too seriously.

There is a conversation with Harryhausen on the Clash of the Titans DVD in which he discusses the influence his work has had on so many. I’m glad he’s aware of it and that it brings him joy. His work has fed the imaginations of Hollywood heavyweights like Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron and Mirren. But those are only the famous guys. It also enriched the childhoods of countless millions of regular, non-famous folks who are better people because of it.

Gone are the days of “Dynamation,” which looked so eye-popping back then but now appears stiff and jerky. The new Clash of the Titans will feature seamless CGI in skull-cracking 3-D (soon, everything will be in 3-D -- even you and me!) and will probably do blockbuster business. I wonder if it will lead to a remake of Jason and the Argonauts. If so, I hope they don’t use motion-capture technology to create an army of angry, sword-wielding Keira Knightleys.