A Farewell to Art

Having not written about any movies here in 2019, I was planning to rectify this with a roundup of some of my favorite horror/monster films of the past three or four years, just in time for Halloween. But something more urgent has come up.

On Friday afternoon, I checked my email and promptly felt my heart break.

The Art Theater, a historic movie theater operating in downtown Champaign since 1913, and a regular haunt of mine since late 2010 or so, is closing its doors.

 

I can’t remember with absolute certainty which movie I saw there first, but I think it might’ve been Metropolis (1927). It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, but it was the first time in a theater, and a period-appropriate one at that. There was also an astounding feature-length documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage (2011), about the rediscovery and restoration of a hand-colored print of A Trip to the Moon (1902), the first-ever science fiction film, culminating in a screening of the restored film itself.

The first of many horror films I saw there was the classic Universal Frankenstein (1931). It was the first time I’d ever seen it, and of course it immediately became an all-time favorite. It’s the first movie-going experience I remember at the Art that was exactly that: an experience. It’s quite something to witness this scene for the very first time on the big screen, no matter how old you are. It was the first of many such memorable, sometimes life-changing moments within the Art Theater’s walls.

It was where told an ex I loved her for the first time, during a screening of House (1977). Perhaps it was just the first time she said it back, but in any case the memory of love blooming in the back row in the light of that sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious fever dream of a film is one I will always treasure. That ex and I would return to the Art many times before the relationship ended, including for a memorable screening of Miranda July’s whimsical drama, The Future (2011), a screening of Crispin Glover’s film It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. at which we met Glover himself (and got his autograph!), and on a double-date to a screening of the iconic Nosferatu (1922) accompanied by a live orchestra. It was like traveling back in time.

My first kinda-sorta date with my current partner, Shelby, way back in 2014, was to an Art Theater screening of Willow (1988).

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We laughed aloud at Warwrick Davis’s repeated cries of “Madmartigaaaaan!” and I hesitantly put my arm around her. She shrugged it off, but now it’s almost 2020 and we’re still together. She’s accompanied me (sometimes reluctantly) to countless Art outings, including such horror hits as Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Midsommar (2019), which she liked, as well as Re-Animator (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987), which she liked less. We even caught a showing of The Exorcist (1973), which frightened her but left her not wanting to see it again. Perhaps the most surprising Art Theater experience with Shelby was a group venture with my sister and brother-in-law to see the unsurpassed urtext of American slashers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in September 2017. None of us had seen it, and while I expected to enjoy it, I did not expect to love it as much as I did, let alone for Shelby (not generally a big fan of horror films) to love it as well. But she did, and does to this day. It’s one of my favorite little discoveries about her, and it might not have happened without the Art Theater. Another we both loved was Border (2018), a dark Swedish fantasy based on a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In.

 

Though I did drag her to quite a few horror and weird fantasy flicks, we also saw romantic movies. Two Valentine’s Days in a row we made the Art our primary destination, first with Casablanca (1942), which I hadn’t yet seen, and then with Dirty Dancing (1987), one of Shelby’s favorites and one I was happy to rediscover.

 

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Some of my most poignant memories of the Art are also solitary ones. Alone, I attended a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) that reduced me to silent, shaking tears. Likewise, to a slightly lesser extent, with a screening of Stalker (1979), part of a month-long celebration of Soviet science fiction films in 2017. And again, with You Were Never Really Here (2017), an earlier, less derivative Taxi Driver-influenced psychological thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix that few seem to talk about anymore. And again, with Hagazussa (2017), a profoundly disturbing German take on The Witch that really deserves its own review here. And yet again, with Climax (2018), a largely improvised horror film that rivals both Black Swan and the recent Suspiria as a dance-centric descent into hell. And so on, and so on. The number of times I was moved before that screen, either alone or with company, are too many to mention, but here are a few other standouts:

  • Battleship Potemkin (1925): one of the greatest films of all time. I had no idea what I’d been missing until I decided to check it out at the Art one day. If you ever get a chance to see this in a theater, do yourself a favor.
  • Eraserhead (1977): sometime between 2012 and 2016, I saw this movie for the first time at the Art. Prior to this, I’d only dipped my toe in the David Lynch oeuvre with Dune and The Elephant Man, falling in love with both for different reasons. They did not prepare me.
  • Possession (1981): part of the October 2016 lineup, I had only heard of this movie a few months before and had become obsessed with the idea of tracking it down. Then, lo and behold, it came to the Art, and I was absolutely blown away. One of my favorite explorations of the surreal horror of a crumbling relationship, and another film that deserves its own discussion here.
  • Terminal Island (1973): a special one-night-only showing in July 2017 with a post-show discussion hosted by a University of Illinois film professor. I’d never heard of this one, but I’m so glad I went. A feminist action/exploitation film featuring a very young Tom Selleck!
  • Monterey Pop (1967): a special one-night-only showing in August 2017, I’d never seen this one before but had long considered purchasing the Criterion release. I adore the music of this era, and concert films like Woodstock are always a pleasure to watch. Seeing this on the big screen was almost transcendent. The Mamas and the Papas had me grinning from ear to ear, Janis Joplin’s performance of “Ball and Chain” made me cry with joy, and Jimi Hendrix’s almost ceremonial burning of his guitar was like a real magic ritual caught on film.
  • An Evening with Linnea Quigley, featuring Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Devotion (2016): part of the October 2017 lineup, this double-feature was the first time I’d seen Return of the Living Dead, which promptly became one of my favorite ’80s horror movies and my favorite zombie movie after the original Night of the Living Dead. The second film, Devotion, was directed by one of the Art Theater’s own staff and programmers, Jessie Steitz, and co-starred Quigley. The best part of the night? Being able to meet Linnea Quigley herself during intermission!
  • Empire of the Ants (1977): part of a “Science on Screen” series in 2018, featuring a post-show Q&A with entomologist May Berenbaum. A fun, cheap throwback to the giant bug movies of the 1950s, with a lot of neat discussion afterwards. I’d previously met Berenbaum at her annual Insect Fear Film Festival at the University of Illinois.
  • The Night of the Hunter (1955): another of the greatest of all time, another I’d been wanting to see for years, and another Criterion release I’ve always come this close to buying. I remember this was a matinee show, which was nice because I desperately needed some sunshine and fresh air after sitting in the dark with Robert Mitchum’s corrupt minister for 90 minutes.
  • Plus a slew of more recent movies that, without the Art, I would never have been able to see in a theater. Movies like Hard to Be a God (2013), Theeb (2014), The Void (2016), Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017), The Endless (2017), Filmworker (2017), Have a Nice Day (2017), and many, many others.

The Art is where I first witnessed the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, first with Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), and later with Santa Sangre (1989). Just recently, I attended a pair of screenings with my mother, Echo in the Canyon (2018) and Sword of Trust (2019), that blew both our emotional socks off.

Just walking back to my car at night after a late movie became a cherished ritual, a rich little slice of time in my favorite part of town after, usually, a good sit. That little walk was best when I was by myself, to reflect on what I’d just seen or caw at the gigantic murder of crows that almost invariably gathers near the Busey Bank parking lot in certain months of the year.

One of the Art’s greatest contributions to the Champaign-Urbana community was its annual New Art Film Festival, a showcase of locally-made films at all levels of budget and experience. In 2017, one of the featured shorts was an eleven-minute black-and-white called “I Was a Teenage Nosferatu,” co-written and produced by Shelby Koehne and myself, and directed, shot, and edited by Jeff Kacmarynski on a total budget of approximately $1,000. The screening itself was less than perfect: the MC forgot to credit Shelby in his intro and, at the film’s pivotal moment, a local news cameraman BARGED INTO THE DARKENED THEATER WITH A GODDAMN SPOTLIGHT, immediately distracting half the audience (I still have absolutely no idea why that was allowed or even considered, but it did happen). In spite of those hiccups, the singular experience of a film I had a hand in creating premiering at my favorite theater was a joy I won’t soon forget. You can now watch the film in its entirety on YouTube.

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In its final years, the Art hosted an all-night horror movie marathon as part of its annual “Shocktober” Halloween program. I attended two of these: the first in 2017, and the last earlier this month. In 2017 I went in costume, only to find myself the only one there who’d dressed up. I sat in the back, somewhat self-conscious, and sipped iced Irish coffee through the small breathing hole of my latex Brundlefly mask (eventually, of course, I took the mask off, but for a little while it was kind of fun sitting in a crowded theater as a composite of André Delambre and Seth Brundle, sucking alcohol through a tiny straw with the cup clutched carefully in one thick-gloved hand). The movies were Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), The Last House on Dead End Street (1977), Eaten Alive (1976), and Nightmare Sisters (1988). I ducked out right before Dead End Street to change out of my costume, but returned in time for Eaten Alive and Nightmare Sisters.

I missed the marathon in 2018, but I did manage to see Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988) for the first time, and loved it every bit as much as the original.

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The last movie I saw at the Art was the original Village of the Damned (1960), the third of five films chosen for Shocktober 2019’s all-night marathon. It was preceded by The Evil Dead (1981) and It Follows (2014), the former of which I’d never seen until that night, the latter of which was already among my personal favorites. By the end it was well after 2 A.M. and my eyelids were getting heavy, so I decided to go home early. If I’d known it would be my last time there, I would’ve powered through for the final two films. But if there had to be a last time, that’s not a bad triple-feature to end on.

I hope the Art is somehow able to return and continue, but it doesn’t seem likely. Champaign-Urbana is far poorer without it, and my life a little emptier.

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Artwork from Champaign-Urbana’s Adventures in Time and Space escape rooms.

 

A Brief Coda to This Elegy:

As of this writing, the Art Theater’s management has, somewhat controversially, not elaborated on the precise reasons for shutting down, beyond a vague reference to “systemic challenges” brought about by a changing film industry. Despite whatever else may or may not have been going on with management behind the scenes, this rings true to me in the face of Disney’s ever-expanding monopoly and draconian handling of that which it has purchased. The Art would not be the first or last victim, and whether or not it bounces back under new management (as I sincerely hope it does), I’ll not be paying to see any more Disney-owned films until they change their policies.

Gene Wolfe: “I Still Remember the Goldfinches”

And now Gene Wolfe.

This is something I’ve feared for a little while now: the knowledge that I’ll never see Gene again at a convention. I first met him at Chicon 7 (the 70th World Science Fiction Convention) in Chicago, my first Worldcon. He was on a panel called “Learning to be Dangerous” with Liz Gorinsky, David G. Hartwell, and Connie Willis. He was the last panelist to arrive. I can’t remember much of the panel itself, although I do recall a woman in the audience coughing loudly throughout.

Afterwards I nervously approached Gene as he made his exit and we exchanged brief hellos, but I wouldn’t have my first real interaction with him until WindyCon 41 in Lombard, two years later. He wasn’t on any panels, or even listed as an official guest, but I spotted him and his daughter Teri in the dealer’s room, perusing some silver-headed canes. I watched them from a distance, hemming and hawing over whether I should approach or just leave them alone, and one of the dealers, noticing my distress, told me to just go ahead and go up to them.

“Gene’s a sweetheart,” the dealer said.

So I went ahead and went up to them, clutching a copy of the October/November 2004 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in my trembling fingers. I had brought it to be signed by another writer, my friend Richard Chwedyk (author of the beloved “saur” stories), and had actually just left a reading of Richard’s to hunt out paperbacks in the dealer’s room.

I introduced myself and asked if Mr. Wolfe would be kind enough to sign the magazine for me. Beaming proudly, Gene said of course he would, and as I offered him my pen Teri asked, “Would you like a picture?” Of course, I said yes, and without hesitation Gene linked arms with me.

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He then suggested we take one with Teri as well, for the sake of fairness, and so I did my best to take a decent group selfie:

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I didn’t remember until later that Gene had lost his wife, Rosemary, less than a year prior. And yet he laughed and quipped, welcoming fans like me with a big, gracious smile. He was indeed a sweetheart.

I saw him next only a couple of weeks later, at ChamBanaCon 44 in Champaign. He spoke on a panel with S. M. Stirling and Jean Rabe about novel-writing. I sat near the front and scribbled down notes. I found out that Gene was a regular guest at ChamBanaCon, and since the convention was both very close and very inexpensive, I decided to become a regular attendee.

Of course, then, I missed ChamBanaCon 45.

I made it to #46, though, and by this time I’d finished reading The Book of the New Sun in its entirety. Prior to that, I’d only read a smattering of his short stories, but by 2016 I’d been deeply bitten by the Wolfe. I brought the books for Gene to sign, and was able to catch him almost alone in the consuite. He seemed to remember me from our previous encounters, and we chatted for over an hour about The Island of Dr. Moreau and its various film adaptations, famous science fiction fans of years gone by, the origin of my last name, and writing in general. I was almost finished with an early draft of Nightbird then, and I briefly summarized the plot.

“That’s a good story!” Gene said. I contained my euphoric grin and back-patting until later in the hall, but only just.

Writer and musician Nathan Carson (yes, that Nathan Carson) flew over from Portland, Oregon to interview Gene at ChamBanaCon 47. It was wonderful to witness, and I’ll let the interview speak for itself (I was sitting just behind the camera). It was my first time meeting Nathan in person, though we’d been friends on Facebook for a couple of years, and we had a wonderful time hanging out, talking shop, and/or shooting the breeze over Chinese food. He signed some stuff for me and even joined me on my first-ever convention panel, on short stories. I was able to sneak in another consuite chat with Gene, this one shorter and a bit more crowded (more on that conversation can be found in my interview with Arm Cast Podcast, starting just after the 11-minute mark).

ChamBanaCon 48 was the last time I saw Gene. I hadn’t been planning to attend that year due to some recent changes in my home life, but on very short notice I was asked to co-host an interview with Gene similar to the one Nathan had conducted. I agreed, and began hastily coordinating questions with my co-interviewer, Andrew Busam. Andrew was a longtime die-hard fan like Nathan, while I was still a fairly recent convert and not as well-read in Gene’s bibliography. The interview went well, though I think I floundered a bit here and there. See for yourself.

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After the interview, I gave Gene an inscribed copy of Nightbird in exchange for one last autograph, this time in my recently-acquired copy of Peace. I chatted a bit longer with him and Andrew in the consuite, and then quietly excused myself to go home.

And then, some five months later, on what will surely go down in history as one of the worst Mondays on record, I read the news online:

Gene Wolfe was dead, and Notre-Dame was burning.

Given Gene’s Catholic faith, it struck me as a peculiar pairing of tragedies. Of course, I knew he’d been ill for some time without knowing the details. And, as was the case when Harlan Ellison passed last year, many others will have more intimate remembrances of both the man and the body of work he left behind. I’m just thankful that I not only got to meet Gene, but become a repeat acquaintance of his. I’m thankful for his brilliant work, and even more so for his personal grace and humor. I’m more thankful than ever that I decided to go through with that last interview.

I’ll let Gene have the final word. During Nathan’s interview, he shared an anecdote (beginning at the 17:35 mark in the video) about driving to a formative writers’ conference and seeing a multitude of yellow dots on the road:

“As I got nearer, all the yellow dots flew up into the sky. They were goldfinches. And I don’t know what they had been doing with a flock of twenty, thirty goldfinches on the road, but that’s where they had been, and as I came toward ’em in the car they flew up. And I had the feeling, ‘I’m starting on a new life, this is a whole new thing that’s opening up in front of me.’ And I was right! It was! Y’know, I was gonna slowly give up engineering and move into being a pure writer, and that’s what happened. And I knew a whole different set of people, I was subject to a different set of rules and so on and so forth. I still remember the goldfinches. My favorite bird, by the way. They weren’t until they flew up in front of me, but once they had done that I clasped them to my heart.”

Sighs from the Depths of My Local Arthouse

I’ve known the name Dario Argento since I was in high school, but I hadn’t seen any of his films (unless you count Once Upon a Time in the West, my favorite Spaghetti Western, on which he has a story credit) until May 1st, 2018. On that day, I saw the original 1977 Suspiria at the local Art Theater in downtown Champaign.

Without spoiling anything for fellow latecomers, Suspiria stars Jessica Harper as an American ballet student who transfers to a prestigious German dance academy only to get caught up in a brutal supernatural conspiracy. It’s considered one of the most influential horror films of the late 1970s, and is actually the first of a trilogy (I haven’t gotten around to seeing the rest, but I hope to eventually).

For me, the original Suspiria didn’t quite live up to the years of hype surrounding it, but it came damn close and I enjoyed it a lot. It struck me as perhaps a little more style than substance, but MAN, what style! Those colors! That music! It all combined to form a beautifully creepy atmosphere unlike anything I’d seen before. The University of Illinois Press had a table in the theater lobby, selling copies of L. Andrew Cooper‘s critical text on Argento’s films (titled simply Dario Argento). I bought one enthusiastically on my way out, and sighed Goblin’s iconic Suspiria theme under my breath all the way back to my car.

Then, in September, I saw my second Argento film: 1975’s Deep Red (a.k.a. Profundo Rosso, a.k.a. The Hatchet Murders), also at the Art.

If you don’t count Suspiria as part of the genre (and many of my better-versed acquaintances don’t, though some do), Deep Red was my first-ever giallo film. Like Argento’s name, I’d known the term for years, but had never seen (at least not knowingly) an example of the form (I was attracted enough to the concept to ask my dad for a copy of Ross E. Lockhart’s Giallo Fantastique anthology for my birthday in 2016, but that had as much to do with the authors featured as it did with the theme).

Anyway, I really dug Deep Red, even more than I expected to. It’s the complex story of a British jazz pianist investigating the murder of a psychic medium in Rome, while the mysterious black-gloved killer tries to thwart him. Another fantastic score by Italian prog-rockers Goblin, a camera that never seems to stop moving (but in a good way, not like the lame shaky-cam bullshit found in some recent films), and some genuinely creepy moments beyond the merely gruesome (that scene with the doll!). It almost feels like a gorier, more over-the-top version of something Hitchcock might’ve made, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Finally, in early November, I saw what many consider the high-water mark of giallo cinema: Argento’s first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).

This one is also the first in an Argento trilogy, and takes its plot (loosely and without credit) from the Fredric Brown mystery novel The Screaming Mimi (1949). Like Deep Red, this one drops a foreign artist (this time an American writer) in the middle of Rome for a stylishly horrific thrill ride. This one features a score by Ennio Morricone, most famous for composing the music for practically every Sergio Leone film (including Once Upon a Time in the West) but also deservedly admired for his work on films like The Thing (1982) and The Mission (1986). Seeing the movie in an old art-house theater, rum and Coke in hand, and sporting at the time a period-appropriate mustache, sideburns, and leather jacket, I felt like a character straight out of the first season of The Deuce. It was an excellent finale in my backwards journey through three of Argento’s most celebrated films.

But there is a coda to this minor art-house odyssey.

Last weekend I turned 27, a prime age for death by misadventure. To celebrate, my dad took me out for sushi and then to see a film at our beloved Art Theater.

The film, of course, was Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria.

Since its production was widely announced in 2015 or 2016, I already knew about the new Suspiria before I saw the original. Some of my friends were outraged over the idea of a remake, and I rolled my eyes at the addition of yet another title to the recent glut of remade films, but I wasn’t actually upset by the notion. First, I hadn’t even seen the original, and therefore had no strong feelings about it that a new version might potentially mar. Second, I’d much rather see a remake of a 40-year-old semi-obscure foreign film done by a talented director than a watered-down, focus-grouped rehash of a still-popular ’80s or ’90s nostalgia item made by a committee of hacks (I could list some examples here, but they don’t need more publicity and I’m sure you can think of at least three on your own).

Anyway, I was mostly ambivalent about it until I saw the first teaser, about a month after seeing the original film. That teaser pretty much hooked me, and every trailer following only got me more pumped to see it. When I saw it was coming to the Art on my birthday, my plans were made.

I was a little anxious about bringing my dad. He has a tendency to doze off in dark theaters during long movies, and when I discovered Videodrome (1983) in college and made him watch it with me, he told me afterward, “Don’t show this to [your girlfriend]. She doesn’t need to see this.” On the other hand, he’d previously hosted a screening of Antichrist (2009) for me and some friends a few years earlier, and hadn’t seemed too fazed by it. So, after a delicious sushi dinner, both a little tipsy on sake and beer, we subjected ourselves to a headily ornate audiovisual assault.

Where Argento’s Suspiria might be accused of garishness for its use of color, Guadagnino’s might be accused of the same for its apparent complexity. Again telling the story of an American woman (this time played by Dakota Johnson, transcending the Fifty Shades films with impressive conviction much like post-Twilight Robert Pattinson) who enrolls in a prestigious German dance academy that is more than it seems, this remake swaps Argento’s outrageous palette for more muted tones, and stretches the runtime from the original’s brisk 98 minutes to a slightly bloated 152. It’s a much bleaker film than its originator, but like the best remakes (Cronenberg’s The Fly, for example) it remains spiritually faithful to the source while exploring new themes and aesthetics. The score, this time by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, is far less memorable than Goblin’s, but still appropriate and effective.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria seems to share much of its themes, structure, and tone with Von Trier’s Antichrist, so if you’ve seen that you might have a better idea of what to expect than if you’ve only seen the original Argento version. Both Suspiria ’18 and Antichrist left me wondering, “What the fuck did I just watch?” and both are divided into clearly-marked chapters. But, while Antichrist‘s epilogue provides an effectively chilling and ambiguous final note, Suspiria‘s seems to wrap things up almost a little too neatly to be completely satisfying. Considering that, along with the slightly unjustified length of the film as a whole and the impact of the gloriously disturbing “Mutterhaus” sequence preceding it, I felt most of the epilogue could have been cut to little or no ill effect.

Upon leaving the theater I wasn’t sure what to think of it, though I’m fairly certain I enjoyed it more than my dad. With each passing day, though, my appreciation grows a little. In my heart of hearts I think I still prefer the relative simplicity of the original, but Guadagnino’s version is well worth seeing.

Especially on a big screen in an old arthouse theater.

Mandy

Last week I attended a late-night screening of Panos Cosmatos’s new film Mandy.

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Mandy sort of came out of nowhere for me. I’d heard almost nothing about it and wasn’t very interested, and then all of a sudden my Facebook feed was flooded with hype and raves and Cheddar Goblins, and I decided I had to check it out. Set in a surreal 1980s California, it details the fantastically violent revenge quest of a logger whose girlfriend (the eponymous Mandy, played beautifully by Andrea Riseborough) is murdered by a deviant hippie cult. The movie is like a live-action segment of Heavy Metal made under the influence of Clive Barker, Terry Gilliam, and Tobe Hooper, punctuated with brief animated interludes that feel straight out of a Conan music video. It’s easy to imagine Alice Cooper in the role of the Manson-esque Jeremiah Sand, had this been made in 1983 (Linus Roache, previously best known to me as Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins, is appropriately menacing and sleazy). But Nicolas Cage is the star of the show, delivering not only the wild-eyed, Crazy Cage explosions we’ve come to expect, but also some chillingly grounded emotional moments. Mandy embraces the ’80s nostalgia craze without leaning too heavily on it, and it’s a must-see for anyone who likes weird action/horror/dark comedies and doesn’t mind some gore. It makes me even more eager to watch Cosmatos’s previous film, Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), which has been highly recommended by several friends and sounds even more up my personal alley.

While I’ve got your attention, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t take the opportunity to talk up some recent/pending publications.  My story “From the Dusty Mesa,” originally published in Walk Hand in Hand into Extinction from CLASH Books in 2016, has found a second home in Unnerving‘s new anthology Haunted are These Houses, edited by Eddie Generous and Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi.

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The theme is Gothic with a capital G, and I share a table of contents with not only some of today’s neatest horror voices like Gemma Files, S. L. Edwards, and Stephanie Wytovich, but also old legends like Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, the latter of whom immediately follows my story in the book (insert giddy shriek of joy)! I consider “From the Dusty Mesa” one of my best stories, but even if you’ve already read it you’ll want to check this one out.

Also, now that contracts and money have been exchanged, I can announce that my Christmas crime story “Don’t You Play Your Games with Me” has been accepted by Crimson Streets for publication sometime in November/December, smack in the middle of the holiday season. This is a loose sequel to my previous Crimson Streets story, “Massacre,” but it’s also another story of the Midnight Witch (her third so far, for those keeping track). I’ll be sharing links to that as soon as it’s published.

Finally, my buddy Jeff Kacmarynski is working on his first feature-length film, and could use your help. If you like weird, surreal horror (and if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you do), please consider donating a few bucks: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/essence-a-psychedelic-gothic-thriller#/backers. Full disclosure, I lend my voice to a talking cockroach in this thing, so if you wanna see that you really oughtta give us some support.

 

I’ll be reading/signing at Bob’s Bookstore in Charleston, IL on October 28th! If you’ll be anywhere near the Central Illinois area that afternoon, I encourage you to stop by and say hello! More info can be found on Facebook.

The Continuing Adventures of the Midnight Witch

If you’re reading this, you may already know that I wrote a story called “The Midnight Witch Goes West,” which found its home in the pages of the Norwegian American in March of this year.

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This is not horror or fantasy, but straight-up hard-boiled historical crime fiction. Not my first foray into the genre (for that, see my Prohibition-era gangland piece, “Massacre,” in the archives of Crimson Streets) but I think my best…until now!

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That’s right, the Witch is back, but this time she’s not the one telling the story. The title is “A Gator We Should Turn to Be.” It’s a bit weirder than the previous story, a bit more abstract, and, I’ll cop, a fair bit creepier, to the point that some may consider it borderline horror. But horror and crime go together like cookies and cream, so I hope you dig it. If you’re already a reader of my stuff, you probably will, especially if you liked my more modern horror/crime story “From the Dusty Mesa.”* As you can see, it is once again beautifully illustrated by the incredible artist known as InkShark. I couldn’t ask for better. The NA doesn’t mess around (the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, Emily C. Skaftun, also happens to be one of the most pleasant and enthusiastic editors with whom I’ve ever had the chance to work; if you’re reading this, Emily, I hope to send more your way soon!).

So check ’em out already! I’ve got a lot more Midnight Witch stories in the works, and I hope to keep the momentum going and sell at least one more by the end of the year. Not crossing my fingers, though…I need those for typing!

 

*Itself a loose companion to Nightbird.

YOB/Ladies of the Fright

Last night I went to see doom metal legends YOB at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago. I had heard of YOB but was not very familiar with their music until repeated recommendations from Nathan Carson (of Witch Mountain and Starr Creek fame) drove me to seek out some of their stuff. I liked what I heard, and, when I saw that the band would be playing in Chicago for only $20, I decided to check them out live.

This was not my first time at Reggie’s. Last year I had the immense pleasure of seeing The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, supported by the ever-great Electric Citizen and another, lesser-known trio whose name escapes me. Brown, at 74, was a manic sorcerer on stage with multiple elaborate costume changes, an infectiously energetic stage presence, and a passionate vocal performance to rival Rob Halford. I stood in the front of the crowd, at the lip of the stage, the entire time. At one point Mr. Brown reached out and grasped my hand, and I felt the magic in the room. It was possibly the best rock show I’ve ever attended.

YOB’s openers were Seattle doomers Bell Witch and another band I’d never heard of called Indian. Indian had been touted as a “super special mystery guest,” kept secret right up until the doors opened at the club. People in line were hopefully speculating that the special guest might be Sleep, while I entertained fantasies of seeing Electric Citizen again or, possibly, even Nathan’s own Witch Mountain (turns out they’re playing at Reggie’s in August, so I was only a month off; hope to make that one, Nate!). Maybe even, I dared to dream, The Sword. But it was Indian, and most people seemed okay with that. They got their share of applause, and I can’t say they weren’t good at what they did, but they just weren’t my thing. I hate to say it was too loud, but for the first time ever at a rock show I abandoned my enviable position near the stage almost immediately, retreating back through the pressing masses, and procured a pair of earplugs from the bartender. Maybe I’m getting old already. I’m more of a Judas Priest/Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin kind of guy. I also love Rammstein. And Alice Cooper.

But I digress.

Bell Witch was better, a little closer to my style, with some creepy black-and-white imagery projected behind them from various old public-domain horror films like Carnival of Souls. For those unfamiliar with the band, it’s just two guys: one on bass, one on drums, each doing vocals. No guitar. It’s actually pretty neat to hear what they can do with such a minimal setup. But, eventually, their low-energy gloom started to overstay its welcome a bit, at least for me. Thankfully, they were done within a minute or so of my first pangs of boredom.

And then, YOB.

YOB was everything I’d been missing in the first two acts. Singer/guitarist Mike Scheidt delivered the goods with fun stage presence, skillful playing, and powerful, impressively-ranged vocals. After either tuning out or just sort of nodding along to the first two bands, I found myself pushing back toward the stage, ripping out my earplugs, throwing up the horns, and headbanging with the rest of them…

…until, after a particularly high-flying song, technical difficulties imposed an intermission that, I swear, lasted at least twenty minutes. Twenty minutes of relative silence right at the peak of a killer set. Talk about blue balls.

They did get it going again, and Scheidt was entertainingly good-humored about it all, but they never quite regained the momentum they’d lost. I left near the end (I think) of the last song, after buying a couple of CDs from YOB’s merch girl (whaddya want from me? It was midnight and I was tired!).

All in all, not a bad night. YOB alone was worth the price of admission, even with the technical snag, and Bell Witch was pretty cool for a while. Indian I could’ve done without, but to each their own.

On an unrelated note, while I’ve still got your attention, allow me to point you to the Ladies of the Fright podcast. They did an episode on vampires, and spend a good twenty minutes or so discussing my novella, Nightbird, in some detail (minimal spoilers, if you haven’t read it yet). There are some flattering comparisons, perceptive observations, and interesting contextualizations. Check it out!

Harlan Ellison: The Beast that Shouted Love

Harlan Ellison has died.

I read the news online, just over two hours ago, before his Wikipedia page even updated. I sat in stunned, disbelieving silence for a moment, and then burst into loud, sobbing tears in the middle of my day-job office. Thankfully, my boss is out for the day.

I’ve admired Harlan for a long time, but I don’t mean to claim some sort of personal relationship with him, and I don’t intend to write an obituary here. Those who actually knew him will have much more to say. I just need to get my feelings down, and I wanted to briefly summarize my experience with the man and his work as I mourn his passing.

As is unfortunately the case with many of my favorite writers, I can’t quite remember when I first discovered Harlan Ellison. I can’t remember when I first heard/read his name, or what story of his was the first I read (it might’ve been “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” but I’m really not sure; I know I saw his episodes of The Outer Limits before I read any of his prose). I just remember that somewhere along the way I fell in love with the guy’s voice, his style, his ideas, his obvious passion, his attitude.

Because it was always difficult to find more than one or two of his books at my local stores, I asked for Ellison books for Christmas and upped my online shopping game. I hunted out Ellison stories (either by or about him, sometimes both) wherever I could find them, and was always excited to dig up an old issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or a similar digest with his name on the cover. Which is not to say that I’m even particularly well-read in Ellison’s bibliography; I’m fairly certain I’ve barely scratched the surface, even now, and I must admit that I own more of Ellison’s books than I’ve actually read (though I intend to correct that very shortly).

In any case, as brilliant and cool as I thought he was, I didn’t think I’d ever get to meet him. He stopped going to conventions not long after I started, so I resigned myself to admiring him from afar as I’ve been content to do with most of my heroes.

And then, in the summer of 2015, I just happened to be searching for more nearby conventions and found Archon. It was one that I’d barely heard of, but it was only a day’s drive away and (HOLY SHIT) Harlan Ellison was listed as a special guest of honor!

I told my dad (my frequent partner-in-cons) that we were going to Archon that year, and immediately dove into Ellison Wonderland. I binged every interview I could find, watched every clip on his YouTube channel, listened to several audio performances (both of his own work and others read by him, including a spoken-word appearance in a heavy metal song), and that October, lumbering toward Archon in Dad’s road-hazard of a van, I sat in the passenger’s seat and read aloud from Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled for most of the trip. I was so excited to meet Harlan but also terrified of coming across as the sort of mindless, worshipful fanboy he so obviously detested.

At the con, he was scheduled to participate in two panels: one on the future of science fiction, the other on anthologies. Both panels were being held in the same room, and were virtually back-to-back. Dad and I slipped in early and got front-row seats; a moment later the room was packed.

Finally, Harlan entered in a wheelchair to a smattering of applause, coming down the aisle like Moses through the Red Sea, pushed along and followed by his friends and fellow panelists.

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This was almost a year after his stroke, of course, and he looked frail, but when he spoke his voice was clear and loud. I don’t remember everything he said. Somebody was recording both panels for his Kilimanjaro Corporation, but to my knowledge the recordings haven’t yet surfaced anywhere online.

Between the panels, he had a book signing. Anyone who knows much about Ellison knows that signing books was one of his least-favorite parts of the writing profession, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must’ve been for him to sit at a long table for two hours signing book after book and shaking hand after hand. He had a limit of I think two books per person, and one of those had to be purchased directly at the table for him to sign anything. Having brought two books, I gave one to my dad, and we each bought one. While we were waiting in line, a guy (clearly part of Harlan’s group and with his permission) was running up and down selling more signed paperbacks, and I think we bought a couple from him as well.

When it was my turn, I presented Harlan with the books and nervously introduced myself.

“It’s a real honor, Mr. Ellison,” I think I said. Something like that. “My name’s David Busboom.”

“Pleased to meet you, David.”

“Your work means a lot to me. I’m a writer.”

“Published anything?”

“Just a couple of short stories.”

“Good.”

We shook hands, he gave me my signed books, and I thanked him before making way for the next person in line.

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Afterwards, Harlan and his wife Susan were browsing the convention’s art show (located in a broad hallway) at the same time as my dad and I. They stopped a few times to admire a particular piece or to complement an artist, and at one point they got separated in the sea of people moving from one panel to another. Harlan didn’t seem to mind much at first, as he’d stopped to chat with somebody, but after a moment my attention was seized by a howl of “SUSAN! SUSAAAAAAN!!

The crowd was thinning now, and Susan had somehow gotten rather far from Harlan, who’s wheelchair was caught on something. None of his usual entourage was anywhere to be seen, so Dad and I wheeled Harlan over to Susan, and he thanked us.

Then came the second panel, immediately after which Harlan and Susan retreated to their hotel room and from there to the airport.

All told it was a rather brief encounter, but one that I’ll never forget.

Harlan’s passing is especially painful given the current state of the world we live in; there’s one fewer voice of reason in the madness, one fewer light in the dark. Except that’s not really true, because Harlan’s voice, like every writer’s, lives on in his work. He, more than most, has earned the posterity for which all writers strive.

When Leonard Cohen died, I drowned my tears in alcohol and sat in the dark with his music. I won’t do that for Harlan. Instead, I’m going to honor him the best way I know how: I’m going to write.

I’m part of a writing group that meets every Thursday at a local cafe. We say hello, and then sit in silence working for two or three hours before saying goodbye and going home. Though I try to write most evenings anyway, these Thursday nights always give me a little boost. They often help me get over whatever writing-related hump I’m currently facing. I haven’t gone for about a month due to life getting in the way (moving sucks), but tonight I’m going to go and I’m going to write my ass off.

I’m pretty sure that’s what Harlan would do.

Fallen Kingdom, Indeed

 

My bio states that I love dinosaur movies. This is true. In fact, in this era of nostalgic franchise loyalty, I have repeatedly told family and friends that only two film series hold enough personal sway to keep me coming back for every single entry, regardless of mediocre trailers or bad reviews from trusted critics.

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“The park is gone.” Truer words were never spoken.

Jurassic Park and Godzilla.

Jurassic Park was my first exposure to dinosaurs, and remains my all-time favorite film. In the summer of 1993, some six months before my second birthday, my mom took me to see it in the theater. She claims she hadn’t seen the trailer and had originally intended to take me to another, more age-appropriate movie that had sold out. Neither of us is sure what that other movie might have been, but I’ll always be grateful we didn’t see it.

From then on, I was The Dinosaur Kid. Last year I even maintained a short-lived blog under that name (from which, I’ll admit, I’m cannibalizing a bit for this post). I only stopped updating it because I realized, to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, that I was standing on the shoulders of those who’d come before and not really saying anything new. I’d read what others had written about dinosaur films and was basically just regurgitating it online with some personal anecdotes and opinions thrown in here and there. It was largely a waste of time and energy, interesting only to a small niche audience who were quick to correct any factual errors (for which I was grateful, don’t get me wrong, but it only made the whole endeavor seem more pointless; even if the world does need a new encyclopedia of dinosaur-related films, literature, video games, etc., I don’t currently have the credentials, the resources, or the patience to write it).

But, even though the blog is defunct, I still want to talk/write about dinosaurs and dinosaur pop culture. And since, I guess, my Hereditary post set a bit of a precedent for talking/writing about movies here, I’ll address the Triceratops in the room.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom just hit theaters. And, for the first time in my life, I’m not all that excited to return to the world of InGen and Isla Nublar.

I think it’s pretty much accepted by most that Jurassic Park is loads better than the franchise it hatched. It’s one of those rare action-heavy science fiction films in which the writing, the performances, and the special effects are all near-perfect. Watching it as an adult for the 65 millionth time, I can still feel remnants of the true awe and terror it inspired in my childhood. I have similar fond memories of The Lost World, and though I revisit it far less often I do think it’s a pretty good sequel. But, let’s face it, it’s not great. As a kid I ate up Jurassic Park III like a pack of Procompsognathus on an injured John Hammond, and even today I can’t bring myself to hate it, but there’s a reason it’s the black sheep of the trilogy.

Jurassic World came amid a meteor shower of remakes, reboots, and sequels acting like reboots, so I should’ve recognized it earlier as the cynical nostalgia-fueled cash-grab it turned out to be. But the kid in me was just so damn excited to see dinosaurs on the big screen again; and not just any dinosaurs, but specifically the ones I’d grown up loving. See how they got me?

Don’t get me wrong, Jurassic World is…fine. It’s a competently-made adventure/monster movie with mostly likable (albeit rather bland) characters, fun (and in one or two cases surprisingly violent) dino-action set-pieces, and an interesting idea or two. And it is sort of neat to see the park actually open, however briefly. But the parts that got to me the most upon that first watch were the deliberate, pointed callbacks to the first film. I teared up upon hearing the old theme music again, upon seeing the ruins of the original park, upon seeing the original T. rex back in action (even though in most shots she looked less real in 2015 than she did in 1993). Thanks to all this nostalgia-pandering, I left the theater on a high, proclaiming that it was the second-best film in the series. Only later did I realize how bland the characters actually were, how run-of-the-mill and ubiquitous the CGI was (only one animatronic dinosaur? Really?!), and how bloodless the film really was (in more than one sense).

The film’s saving grace, the one aspect that almost-but-not-quite elevates it above an enjoyably passable popcorn flick, is the kinda-sorta meta nature of the story. But even if that self-reflection is intentional it lacks the necessary bite (!) to make it really effective, so in the end it still plays neatly into the very pattern it seems to be criticizing.

So, in short, I like Jurassic World fine, I guess. The major set-pieces are a lot of fun, and the ending is pretty much everything four-year-old me would’ve wanted in a movie despite being incredibly cheesy. The bad doesn’t quite outweigh the good, but the blatant nostalgia-baiting puts a bad taste in my mouth. I’d put it more-or-less on-par with Jurassic Park III.

Which brings us to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. For the first time in this franchise’s history, I almost decided to skip its theatrical run altogether. Which is kind of a big deal, for me.

I’m not all that picky when it comes to dinosaur movies. You’re reading the words of a guy who kept watching Barney & Friends a good six months or so after realizing he was too old for it, just because it starred a theropod. I appreciate some level of scientific rigor but it’s not absolutely necessary, and a unique premise and great story can often overcome bad acting and effects. It is much more difficult for great acting and effects to overcome the weight of a poorly-written story; not impossible, but very rare.

The trailers for Fallen Kingdom seemed to suggest that it had neither great performances nor great effects, and what I could glean of the story seemed underwhelming, to say the least. It looked like a by-the-numbers rehash of the last movie, with a couple of minor new gimmicks. So I didn’t rush out to see it opening night. Or the night after that. It felt like a betrayal of my childhood self, but the notion of just waiting for a cheap rental or free stream became easier and easier to accept.

Yesterday, I was invited to see Fallen Kingdom after a stressful afternoon of unsuccessful curtain-shopping. I decided to go, with low expectations and an open mind, hoping that at least the dinosaurs themselves would entertain me enough to lift my spirits.

For a few brief moments, they almost did. There was at least one halfway decent (albeit short) dinosaur fight early in the film, between a Carnotaurus and a Sinoceratops, and an (admittedly manipulative and not totally earned) emotional moment that stirred my inner child involving a stranded Brachiosaurus. Otherwise, the dinosaur action was just so-so at best. And, unfortunately, the rest of the film is pretty much what the trailers led me to expect.

Part of the buzz for Fallen Kingdom has been that it’s correcting at least one of the mistakes of the previous film: more practical-effect dinosaurs than any prior Jurassic sequel! The most since Jurassic Park! I spotted three, maybe four, and none were used as creatively or effectively as in Jurassic Park or The Lost World. They looked pretty good, though; certainly more believable than the middling CGI, which (I wish I was joking) included the film’s latest mutant monstrosity, the uncreatively-conceived and less-creatively-named Indoraptor, LITERALLY WINKING AND GRINNING AT THE AUDIENCE LIKE A GODDAMNED LOONEY TUNES CHARACTER!

The Indoraptor itself has a mildly interesting design, but its deployment as the film’s Big Bad is weak. Director J. A. Bayona (a Spanish director known for horror and fantasy, whose film The Orphanage is deep, unnerving, and so much better than this) treats it like a good-ole’-fashioned movie monster, complete with a full moon and a big spooky mansion for it to creep around. This is actually kind of neat in a fun-horror sort of way, but isn’t nearly as awesome or frightening as the movie’s overblown score tries to convince you, and feels oddly out-of-place in this movie. The Indoraptor‘s ultimate defeat, in particular, feels downright lame compared to Jurassic World‘s silly-but-spectacular climax (let alone the genuine thrills of the original film’s ending). Don’t even get me started on Blue.

The famous old T. rex, marketed as the mascot of the series and pushed as a major star of this film in particular, makes only a couple of brief appearances that don’t really belong in the story except as ham-fisted callbacks to the original Jurassic Park (ditto for the much-touted return of Jeff Goldblum, by the way). And, speaking of which, I actually lost count of such callbacks; there are so, so many little moments lifted straight out of that first great film, reproduced at lower quality and peppered throughout Fallen Kingdom‘s 128 minutes as if to say, “Hey, remember when Jurassic Park did this? Remember how effective and original it was? Don’t you wish you were watching that movie instead, sucker?” The film doubles-down on the nostalgia handicap rather than moving forward, though I’d bet the studio and producers are more deserving of blame for that than Bayona.

I could go on about the insultingly idiotic and lazy script (it selectively ignores not only the continuity of the first three films, but even that of its immediate predecessor! And the director of that film co-wrote and co-produced the damn thing!) and the nobody-giving-a-shit performances (even veteran actor James Cromwell couldn’t be bothered maintain a consistent English accent; but maybe it’s unfair to blame the actors when the characters themselves are so wooden and unchanging they could’ve been swiped from Geppetto’s mistake bin), but I don’t have the energy or the inclination to devote more time to picking this apart. I can’t say I regret seeing it, but neither did I enjoy myself.

There’s plenty of setup for the next film, in which dinosaurs will presumably be widespread across America. Seeing a Dinotopia-esque integration of dinosaurs and humans come to pass in the Jurassic universe actually does pique my interest, but if the first two installments of this soft-reboot trilogy are any indication, it won’t live up to the promise of the premise.

Unless, of course, we can bring Michael Crichton back from extinction and get him to write it?

Hereditary

On Monday night I saw Hereditary at the Goodrich Savoy 16 theater, alone except for the smattering of fellow twenty-somethings behind me and the lone elderly pair two rows ahead.

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Having loved A24’s previous horror films The Witch and It Comes at Night (no, I haven’t yet seen Green Room, The MonsterThe Blackcoat’s Daughter, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but all four are high on my watch list), I’d been looking forward to Hereditary since seeing the trailer in late January/early February. As the release date neared and the buzz intensified, my excitement grew and I talked more and more about it to my girlfriend, who generally doesn’t enjoy horror films.

Having been unceasingly busy with moving and other obligations for over a week, we decided to go to the movies on Monday to give ourselves a bit of a break. I wanted to see Hereditary. She wanted to see Ocean’s 8. We both sort of wanted to see the new drama Disobedience. Ultimately we decided to embrace our inner septuagenarian married couple, as my girlfriend might say, and go together to see separate movies. We ran a few quick after-work errands, got dinner at the nearby Dairy Queen, and bought our respective tickets. Hereditary is almost twenty minutes longer than Ocean’s 8, so I went to a 7:20 show and she went to a 7:30 show, hoping we would emerge within a few minutes of each other.

I settled into my seat with a small root beer (no ice) and a box of Cookie Dough Bites, and rolled my eyes through the trailer for the god-awful-looking Unfriended: Dark Web before the familiar A24 logo appeared onscreen and the film began.

Before tonight I’d watched the initial Hereditary trailer a couple of times, and read a small handful of brief, spoiler-free reviews, but otherwise I’d made it a point to go in with as little information as possible. All I knew was that the film seemed to revolve around a deceased reclusive grandmother and her creepy granddaughter, with Toni Collette suffering some sort of emotional breakdown in the middle of it all.

I expected a very good but more-or-less standard haunted house/haunted family movie. I expected Grandma’s Ghost and/or Creepy Kid to serve as the primary horror element(s), but with those stock characters enriched by the upsetting imagery and powerful performances glimpsed in the trailer. I expected to be mildly disturbed and highly entertained. No more, no less.

I got more.

I got genuine (jump-scare-free) shocks, harrowing emotional moments, squirming-in-my-seat unease, and wide-eyed, hand-over-my-mouth horror.

Sometimes I almost kind of hate seeing new movies in the theater, especially horror movies, because I’m hyper-sensitive to the whispering and texting and giggling of other moviegoers. There’s always somebody who laughs or groans or overreacts at just the wrong time, or even worse carries on conversation throughout entire scenes. I’d braced myself for this going into Hereditary, hoping it would be minimal and determined to ignore all but the worst infractions. A few people behind me did chuckle at several points in the film, but rather than annoyance I felt relief to remember where I was and that, to paraphrase the tagline of The Last House on the Left, it was only a movie.

Afterwards, I sat through about half of the credits before I remembered that my girlfriend was probably waiting for me in the lobby and went out. I emerged with my heart still pounding, and proceeded to babble about the movie to her for the rest of the night. At home I found myself peeking warily at dark corners and shadowed rooms until I was able to fall asleep. Even last night, more than twenty-four hours later, I found myself eyeing the half-closed closet door with unreasoning dread.

The most effective horror films make you afraid of the dark like you were as a child. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist did that for me when I saw it in 2011, and The Witch did it again in 2016 (much to my girlfriend’s chagrin). Now there’s Hereditary, fairly aptly being called the Rosemary’s Baby of 2018. Like Alex Garland’s Annihilation adaptation, it’s not perfect, but the more I think about it, the more I love it. As was the case with Robert Eggers, Ari Aster’s first feature is a real masterpiece, and I look forward to his next project.

So go see Hereditary, but don’t expect “fun” scares or a cathartic ending like in the recent It or A Quiet Place. This is not a feel-good film. But then, at least in horror, the best ones rarely are.