"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, October 29, 2012

Son of Danse Macabre

It’s the sequel no one thought would happen. Danse Macabre is the popular Stephen King book where the legendary writer examined the horror genre from1950-1980, taking a look at literature, movies, radio and television. It was a fantastic rumination of what works best and what doesn’t in the horror genre. However, King never wrote a follow-up to cover the next 30 years, leaving fans that loved his book wanting more. Well, someone has stepped up and taken on this ambitious task. One my favorite bloggers Bryce Wilson, he of the Things That Don’t Suck blog, decided that he would be the person to pen a sequel to King’s book, entitled Son of Danse Macabre, utilizing the structure of the original book while making a few changes here and there to really make it his own. He started it on a blog of its own and now has it available to purchase on Amazon.com for the Kindle. So, why should you pony up your hard earned $$$ for something you can read for free online? Well, he has revised and expanded the book, included three Appendices and nine essays. I’ve read ‘em all and they are excellent.

First of all, I’d admire Bryce for having the cojones to take on this daunting task and then actually completing it. As someone who is also writing their own book but has yet to finish it I know how hard it is to do it, so my hats off to anyone who has the dedication to see it through to the end. Here are a few highlights I’d like to mention.

Early on, Bryce defines what a horror film is – “a film whose main purpose is to inspire fear” – and what it isn’t – “a film can bring in all the Demons, Vampires, and assorted creatures of the night it wants. If the main purpose of them is to give someone something to aim a shotgun at, it’s not a horror film.” That certainly works for me. From there, he follows King’s lead by discussing three important authors of horror literature in the last 30 years, chief among them H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson and King himself. All admirable choices and Bryce certainly makes a solid case for the towering influence each one of them has had on the genre in the last three decades. What I like is that he’s not afraid be critical of each man’s work. For example, when discussing King and the differences between The Shining novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation, he writes:

But King’s story is at its core one of a family tearing itself to bloody pieces and Kubrick’s is an abstract experiment. There is never for a single frame a feeling of bond between Nicholson and the other Torrances, so there is not an ounce of feeling when that bond breaks. An accurate adaptation of The Shining would need the kind of performance that Shelley Duval, and Danny Lloyd frankly aren’t capable of giving. And a performance that Jack Nicholson is capable of giving but for reasons known only to Kubrick’s ghost, didn’t. King and Kubrick simply don’t share the same concerns.

Ouch. The crap mini-series version doesn’t escape Bryce’s criticism either, which he deals with in this rather amusing passage:

The detractors of the novel love to point to Mick Garris’s infamously botched made for TV remake as “proof” of the novel’s inferiority. Look guys, the made for TV Shining isn’t bad because it followed the novel, it’s bad because Garris is one of the most staggeringly untalented filmmakers ever to scrape out a career for himself. I’m shocked he knows which end of the camera to point at things.

In this quote, Bryce succinctly savages Garris and his style of filmmaking in a way that had me nodding in agreement and green with envy that I hadn’t thought of it putting it that way.

I found it interesting to see where he deviates from King’s original template, tossing out the autobiographical chapter, which he actually covers at the beginning, and the chapter on radio – for obvious reasons. In its place, he tackles the horror genre in video games and horror comics – two of my favorite mediums so I was looking forward to what he had to say about them. When it comes to video games, I’m glad he singled out Alan Wake, definitely one of the better horror-themed games to come out in some time. To close out the chapter on video games, Bryce points out what a good one should do: “Dread instead of jump scares, a real sense of place instead of generic space holders, serious thought in its design instead of empty iconography, fear not of the maniac in the shadows but stemming from an entire environment and the self.”

In his chapter on comic books, he skips over the classic EC comics and takes a look at titles in the last 30 years, rightly pointing out key ones from the 1970s, like Marvels’ Tomb of Dracula and DC’s Swamp Thing. Naturally, he discusses Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and makes this bold statement: “No if you want to talk about great horror in Sandman you need look no further than the first volume and the chapter entitled “24 Hours” which is one of the most perfect horror stories of which I know in any medium.”

Moving on to television, he takes a look at Tales from the Crypt and one of my personal faves, Friday the 13th – The Series. No discussion of the horror genre on T.V. would be complete without mentioning Twin Peaks, which he rightly observes, “Unlike the other shows of the era Twin Peaks is ultimately a work of horror first and foremost. Its images of dark cathedral forests, bodies wrapped in plastic, and cryptic messages encoded in crimson and flame still have the power to unsettle.”

From there, Bryce moves on to the modern American horror film and sets his sights on A Nightmare on Elm Street, pointing out that it “works because it taps in a very direct way into a very potent area of unease.” His analysis of what makes it work is spot on:

On one hand it’s not hard to read it as a story of generational distrust. As the upper middle class suburban teens of Elm Street find that there are some serious skeletons hiding behind the “Just Say No” squeaky clean suburbs that their parents have delivered to them.

As he mentions, it is a point that isn’t talked about enough in relation to Wes Craven’s film and is why, among many reasons, it is vastly superior to any of its subsequent sequels. Although, I disagree with him when he calls Craven’s return to the franchise with New Nightmare, “profoundly miscalculated in practice.”

Bryce also champions Day of the Dead, the most under-appreciated of the George Romero zombie films:

Day Of The Dead is an abrasive film, slow paced, claustrophobic, filled with people who are difficult to like. And while its certainly feels allegorical, it doesn’t break down as neatly into metaphor as Dawn or Night. Yet it is these very elements that arguably make Day Of The Dead the ultimate expression of the Apocalypse through dysfunction that Romero has spent his entire career making movies about.

He really nails what makes this film work so well and sums it up perfectly when he says, “In it Romero does what he had been threatening to do for two films and takes us to the ultimate end of our world. And the most subversive thing about it is when he arrives there; he breathes a deep sigh that sounds very much like one of relief.”

However, I have to take Bryce to task with his assessment of the underrated horror film from the 1990s, Candyman, which he writes, “Unfortunately while all the elements are brought together for something great, the execution is ultimately lacking.” But fortunately, he gets it right with his assessment of Larry Fessenden’s vampire film, Habit: “Even if Fessenden’s version of the vampire wasn’t exactly original, his naturalistic 16mm blood sucker was certainly a bracing piece of counter programming when compared to the gauche, baroque aesthetic of Jordan’s and Coppala’s films.” But then he gets it wrong again, IMO, with Jacob’s Ladder, which he describes the experience of watching: “Yet the sensation I walk away with every time I watch the film is one of being profoundly annoyed.”

Bryce zeroes in on what makes Scream a film “that it starts with the promise of being a great horror film and ends up being a good horror movie instead” because “after such a promising beginning it is disappointing when Scream shifts into a much more familiar genre exercise.”

As he moves into the new Millennium era of horror films, Bryce does a good job defending the merits of the Hostel films, which I’ve never cared for and have no desire to see but I do give them a bit more credit after his excellent argument for why they should be taken seriously. He also takes dead aim at the glut of unimaginative remakes, pointing out that they are “united in their uniformly dull dark filtered look, young cast of blanks and an almost willful misunderstanding of their source material. They were on the whole about as bland, tasteless and dispiriting as a wad of chewed paper.” He wisely cites Rob Zombie’s take on Halloween as one of the few that work because “Love it or loath it, Rob Zombie’s take on Halloween is the only exception to that rule. It’s the only one of this disreputable lot to feature an actual authorial voice. The only one that feels like the product of a filmmaker and not a gaggle of risk adverse studio execs.”

So, there’s a taste of Bryce’s book. There are still a smattering of spelling and grammatical errors throughout but nothing that took away from my enjoyment of reading the book and something that can be easily fixed. I can’t recommend this book enough. It is written with passion and a real love for the horror genre but it is not a fanboy love letter either. He is willing to skewer sacred cows that deserve to be savaged and champion films and filmmakers that often exist on the margins or have been unfairly derided. I can’t think of a more appropriate gift to treat yourself or someone else for Halloween.

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