Sunday, May 22, 2022

Shudder Folk Horror Movies Thumbnail Reviews Batch Two

I’m not sure how much longer the Folk Horror collection on Shudder will be available, since Shudder rotates its titles fairly frequently. In any case I’ve enjoyed watching all these movies, even the ones I didn’t like much. It was a fun project. The term “folk horror” feels pretty broad at times as a descriptor for all these films, but nothing I watched seem to fall outside the concept, which ultimately makes it pretty effective as a term for thinking about the subject matter and themes of these films.

The Wicker Man, British, 1973 (5 stars): Still often called the best British horror movie ever made, and I’ve not seen anything that makes me disagree. I have a DVD box set of this movie. Nearly every moment is beautiful; nearly every moment is eerie and disquieting, and the pervasive discomfort just keeps building. As a viewer, you always know something’s wrong, but the film is so surprising and original that you never know what it is. By the way, the hugely popular 2019 film Midsommar borrows tons from this movie and I haven’t seen anybody else note that. And I can say this and viewers still won’t know what to expect from this movie.

Il Demonio, Italian, 1963 (4 ½ stars): Surprisingly and effectively, this movie splits the difference between an Italian neorealist film and a horror movie. Set in a convincingly disturbing rural environment, the movie depends on Daliah Lavi’s outrageous and compelling portrayal of a out-of-control character who often turns out to be less disturbing than the more ordinary people around her. The movie’s not scary really, but it sure is disconcerting. Also, there’s a scene in it that’s the basis of an infamous scene in the director’s cut of The Exorcist. The scene was probably cut from The Exorcist for good reason, but the original in Il Demonio is riveting.

Kill List, British, 2011 (4 stars): This movie is even more brutal than its brutal trailer would lead you to believe. But it’s also a much better movie than the brutality might lead anyone to suspect. The situation is off-kilter and disturbing, the characterizations are effective, and even if one has a general sense of what way the mysterious elements of this film are going, I myself didn’t really see the ultimate turns coming. There’s more than a little Tarantino influence here, but this movie is really doing its own thing. I’m not kidding about the brutality though, so consider yourself warned.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw, British, 1971 (3 ½ stars): The term “folk horror” was originally used by reviewer Rod Cooper in describing this movie. It’s quite enjoyable although much of the story is ridiculous and the psychology of it paper thin. Good atmospherics and tone carry the day so that the action doesn’t become too ludicrous to bear. The atmospherics of this movie are quite foundational in terms of many horror movies that follow it, including The Wicker Man, so it’s an essential folk horror watch despite moments that might make you laugh derisively.

La Llorona, Guatemalan, 2020 (3 stars): There are some things to like about this movie and a lot not to like so much. Director Jayro Bustamante borrows heavily from Guillermo Del Toro, but as much as I like the idea of setting a horror movie in a rich historical and political context, the movie takes the worst part of Del Toro (and the reason I’m not a fan of Pan’s Labyrinth): a heavy-handed political moralizing that precludes much surprise. At every moment, this movie tells us exactly who is bad and for what reason and in what degree and then proceeds to sledgehammer its agenda into place. There’s a good sense of mood, good acting, and some memorable and at times chilling visuals, and those things help lift it above its dull and obvious moral lecture.

Dark in August, American, 1976 (3 stars): The first hour of this movie is quite good, a four star effort that establishes intriguing characters and a striking rural setting. J.J. Barry is an original presence as the main character. But then there’s the rest of the movie.

Clear Cut, Canadian, 1971 (2 ½ stars): Graham Greene is such a compellingly watchable actor that he almost pulls off the two-dimensional character he plays He also overwhelms the mediocre performances by the other actors. The plot, about a land struggle between white Canadians and indigenous people, has all of the expected features but not much more. I like it when horror gets political, but that like anything else needs to be done well. The film is supposedly controversial because of the stand it takes that sometimes violence might just be the best response to oppression, but I didn’t care enough about the white characters to be concerned at how badly they were beating treated. Don’t more conventional slashers also suggest that it’s tremendous fun to see stupid arrogant assholes get sliced and diced and that the world is a better place when they’re gone?

Tilbury, Icelandic, 1987 (2 ½ stars): The flat acting and lack of convincing action were on some level an important part of this odd little film, which tries to combine the presence of an ancient horror with a historical drama of World War II Iceland during a period of occupation by supposedly friendly British and American troops. The disjointedness made the action difficult to care about, so this movie survives on its weirdness mostly, and it was often weirder than I was expecting, with some scenes that are surrealist not in a loose sense but truly.

Roh, Malaysian, 2019 (2 stars): Sigh. I was rooting for this movie when I started watching it. But the story was verging on absent, and the mythology was general and vapid: bad things happen to bad people, and even the possible twist that everyone might be bad couldn’t save the slow scenes, the barely comprehensible narrative turns, and the lack of strong atmosphere. A lot of the story revolves around a mother failing her children, or supposedly failing her children, but I’ll be darned if I could ever figure out what it was she was supposed to have done. Apparently she became a bad mother right when her husband died, or was being accused of being one from that moment, not that the story ever resolved or even really approached an answer to what had created the problem.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Last Time I Saw These Copies of Thomas Pynchon


These rank among the most life-changing books for me. Now that these copies are falling apart, I wanted to photo them and comment on them before the copies (not the books themselves) exit my life.

I first found out about Thomas Pynchon in a graduate class taught by William Spanos (RIP) on Postmodern Fiction at SUNY-Binghamton. We really did read Gravity’s Rainbow, over at least two weeks if I recall, although I don’t recall, not entirely. Other books we read in that class included Calvino’s On A Winter Night a Traveler, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and Borges’ Labyrinths. I loved most of the books in that class, but right now I don’t remember the others.

But Pynchon, wow. Gravity’s Rainbow sent me into another universe of possibility entirely. The politics, the open-ended quality, the nearly impossible combination of humor and seriousness, the huge geographical and historical worldview. Not long after, I published my first work of fiction on the graduate level (I had published some stories in undergraduate magazines). It was called “The Last Time I Saw Thomas Pynchon,” a series of vignettes in which I as narrator encountered Pynchon as character in a series of absurd, urban, postpunk environments (I was very much a postpunk at the time) and he told me things I needed to know.

I picked up and soon read V and The Crying of Lot 49 as well. At that time, Pynchon hadn’t published a new novel in more than 15 years, so this was the era when these three books, and the short story collection Slow Learner, were all the available Pynchon fiction there was, the later avalanche still unforeseen. He was sometimes referred to in print as a 60s satirist whose half-earned moment of fame was long gone.

Anyway, I’m wishing these near-pulp editions goodbye. They have long since pulped themselves. I suppose, human or book, sooner or later we all pulp ourselves, although some pulp gets under our skin a lot deeper than others. In fact it’s just as I write this that I remember one scene from my now lost story “The Last Time I Saw Thomas Pynchon”: he as character and me as narrator met at a garbage dump, where he told me that I could learn more about people’s lives by going through their garbage than by looking at the objects they kept in their houses.

To prove his point, here’s some garbage of mine.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Folk Horror Collection on Shudder


Photograph from Psychomania

I’ve been enjoying the Folk Horror collection of movies on Shudder with its fun mix of national and international pictures. Here are my thumbnail reviews on a five-star scale of the ones I’ve seen so far (will maybe add to this list and post it again at a later time)in the order of my preferences.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, American, 1973 (5 stars)
Still one of a small handful of the best and most terrifying horror movies ever made.

Lake Mungo, Australian, 2008 (4 stars).
Easily the best of the movies I’d never seen before. Tense, creepy, surprising, and subtle, and because of the subtlety, the moments that are not subtle are very effective. Some underdeveloped or missing psychological elements bring this one down just a little.

Psychomania (also known as The Death Wheelers), British, 1985 (4 stars). There are few horrors movies this fun and this ridiculous and this unique. It’s not great except for the fact that it’s so great. “The greatest British zombie biker ever made”: for once, the hype is true.

Black Sunday, Italian, 1960 (4 stars). Mario Bava’s first horror film is legendary for a reason. I can’t say that this movie is great, exactly, but it’s very very satisfying horror, a mix of British and Italian elements and starring Barbara Steele, who’s just as good at this sort of movie as everybody says.

Black Sabbath, Italian, 1963 (3 ½ stars). This three-part horror anthology follow-up meant to capitalize on Black Sunday isn’t as great as that one, but it has Boris Karloff in it and the action is a lot of fun if not particularly scary. The effects are ludicrous but only make the movie more of a pleasure.

Wake Wood, Irish and English, 2009 (4 stars). This movie has a lot of great moments and others that aren’t as great as they could have been. Still, it’s the best of the recent horror movies from Ireland that I’ve seen.

Impetigore, Indonesian, 2019 (3 ½ stars). The first 30 to 45 minutes of this movie: wow. As frightening as any recent horror movie I’ve seen. After that, some of the key characters start becoming really dumb, which means that when the horror effects come on full bore it mostly seems like the idiots are getting what they deserve.

Alison’s Birthday, Australian, 1981 (3 ½ stars). The acting and effects are very B movie but they also work in the favor of this surprisingly enjoyable movie. Good claustrophobic tension. The characterizations are no more than expected but still fun. The action is often ridiculous but somehow still both fun and tense.

Rawhead Rex, British, 1986 (3 ½ stars). Sure, the special effects are exactly as terrible as everyone says, but for me at least that didn’t take away from the enjoyment I felt at this movie. I may be biased because it’s based on a Clive Barker short story and because its premise is basically that of classic M.R. James ghost stories: an ancient, pagan evil is lurking in a graveyard. It’s not slow, and there are some great surprises, some of them very unpleasant.

Pyewacket, Canadian 2017 (3 stars). The characterizations aren’t subtle yet this portrayal of a distressed teenager stuck in her relationship with her nasty mom does have some good scenes and good tension. As many reviews say, the movie is as much character study as horror, and while both elements show some promise, the movie doesn’t do as much with them as it might.

A Dark Song, English, 2016 (3 stars). This movie has an effectively tense pace at the start, with interesting characterizations and surprising scenes, but like so many horror movies it doesn’t always know what to do with its premise or the complexities it wishes to set in motion but can’t.

The Hallow, Irish and English, 2015 (3 stars). Essentially, this movie is the same story as Wake Wood with some small differences. Strong atmospherics at the start, and surprisingly interesting dialogue. At a certain point the characters get stuck in a permanent state of non-development and the well done but standard visuals take over with very little surprise.

Lake of the Dead, Norwegian, 1958 (3 stars). A historical curiosity, this black and white, low budget movie has some engaging characters and dialogue (some of it tense) and benefits from its rural setting. The mystery being uncovered is worth it, although the characters are much more frightened than viewers will be.

Children of the Corn, American, 1984 (3 stars) No, I didn’t bother to watch it again. Not the best Stephen King-based movie by any means, and not the worst either. This movie is not as bad as the people who think it’s bad like to think, but it’s also not as good as people think when they try to argue for it as underrated.

Lokis, Polish, 1970 (3 stars). A bit long and rambling, this movie has good atmosphere and tension and some surprises. As much a character study as horror, this movie’s main draw for me is that it’s based on a 1869 French gothic novel by Prosper Mérimée. The pace of the movie is slow so prepare to settle in.

Jug Face, American, 2016 (3 stars). Another of the movies in this collection whose opening parts are the best ones, this movie has some intriguing performances by women but, women-centered or not, it doesn’t do all that much beyond the expected with its dangerous backcountry hick premise.

Eyes of Fire, British, 1983 (2 ½ stars). This one has some moments of genuine strangeness and effective gore. Decent characterizations. The effects are goofy but sometimes enjoyable. Ultimately it settles for flatness and dreamy vagueness instead of really developing its core conflicts and concepts.

Viy, Russian, 1967 (2 ½ stars). Based on a novella by Nikolai Gogol, the main reason to watch this movie is that it’s billed as the first horror movie ever made in Russia. It’s a horror comedy that’s not scary and barely funny except when it’s most trying not to be. The visual effects as the movie goes on are really quite enjoyably strange, but this movie is mostly of historical interest only. Sidepoint: Russians probably don’t need a horror film tradition because their own history gives them all the horror anyone could want.

Messiah of Evil, American, 1973 (2 ½ stars). This is a standard low budget American horror of its era. A few compelling moments, but none of it is ever any better than it looks like it’s going to be. B movie fans might find a lot to enjoy.
Dark Waters, filmed in Ukraine, 1993 (2 stars). Great scenery, and at moments some of the characters are truly weird, but mostly the story is boring and obvious and never frightening or much of anything else, although Louise Salter as the main character is fun to watch.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Publishing and Book Availability (Part two of a conversation that began on Facebook)


I wasn’t expecting quite so lively a discussion regarding my suggestion on Facebook that more small presses might try producing print-on-demand books, but since I got it, the responses made me realize I had more to say.

What everyone on that thread probably knows is that the publishing world continues to change, inevitably, and what was true 20-30 years ago has become something else now. Of course, it’s easier to know something than to understand the implications of knowing it.

When I was first aware of it, what was great about Small Press Distribution was that it was unlike nearly everything else: a great online bookstore of otherwise hard to find small press books. 20-30 years ago, it was already true that there weren’t many on-the-street bookstores where one could find a range of interesting small press literature. In Buffalo when I lived there I had Talking Leaves nearby, and when I lived in D.C. I had Bridge Street Books.

I relied less on SPD than other people might who lived in towns or cities where finding a range of books was difficult or impossible, and even then SPD had things hard for me to get elsewhere. SPD was an early online book goldmine. It served an alternative literary culture that was spreading out to more and more places and becoming less defined solely by people in the few major urban areas in the U.S. that had a thriving literary scene and lots of local readers of literature.

Having physically limited spaces, bookstores have never stocked everything. They’ve always had to choose what is relevant to give space to. An online distribution store like SPD still needs to have a warehouse and so has space and employee limitations as well. In any case, no one distributor can possibly distribute everything and so decisions have to be made about what to include and why.

What we see now is an age of the internet very different than 2002. There are more small presses, and smaller presses (“micropresses,” if you think providing micro labels will help) than ever. They have an internet presence and are capable of making well-produced books using online production methods (sorry, don’t know what else to call them) much more sophisticated than in the past. Some people buy directly from these small presses through their websites, while these presses often still want and need other options for distribution.

We also live in an environment of overwhelmingly large online corporate entities that provide more distribution than an organization like SPD can and can cause serious harm to the very concept of an independent press or bookstore even while providing useful distribution services. Obviously, these corporate behemoths have made the survival of great independent local bookstores more difficult, even in the urban environments that used to support them, and they threaten the independence of an organization like SPD as well.

What I think is often difficult for everybody is learning how to handle an evolving situation (which of course is what all situations are, says a voice in my head). Newer small presses need new outlets, older small presses also may need new outlets but also feel new pressures threatening the degree of independence they fought hard for in the past and are still fighting for now. And readers want to be able to get books.

Evolving publication realities combine with an ever-increasing diffusion of literary cultures which are oddly enough both more localized and more homogenized at the same time. People anywhere are now more easily in touch with people anywhere else, and an urban literary scene defining itself in relative isolation so that “schools of poetry” develop is becoming more and more a thing of the past. We don’t even have to imagine what would happen now if if there was a group of surrealists trying to decide stridently who’s in and who’s out, because we can see it all around: they would be criticized instantly and precisely for their exclusivity on the grounds of race / class / gender / culture and various other aspects of their lack of equal access.

I don’t know any more than anyone else about how this publishing environment will continue to evolve. New presses and publishing options will keep arising and some will stick around longer than others. Massive corporate conglomerates will keep trying to own all that can be owned and to turn every existing possibility into something ownable. There will continue to be writers and presses and bookstores and even distributors resisting corporatizing and homogenizing forces. Some things will work better and longer than others, and that includes the vicious ones. Books in whatever form will continue to be produced. The specifics are beyond me, obviously. “You can’t step in the same river twice” wasn’t created as an advertising slogan.

I’m posting this on Facebook though I know it’s long, and putting it on my blog too so it won’t disappear (vain hope, huh?) quite so quickly. I remember when live literary conversations had to happen in person or over the phone and when the most interesting (to me) published conversations were happening in publications that existed only in a few hundred copies.

Then conversations like that moved to email and then to listservs and online group discussions and then to blogs where individuals had more control and then to social media and probably through some available formats I never even noticed. With increased opportunity comes increased ephemerality. At the same time, more books covering those conversations continued and continue to be published, calling into further question the idea that it’s even possible to be fully informed about a conversation.

By the moment anybody stops talking, the situation they were talking about has already changed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

I have poems in the March 2022 issue of the Brooklyn Rail and will be reading a few on March 11, 2022


I’m pleased to have some poems in the March 2022 of The Brooklyn Rail. Thanks to Anselm Berrigan and the other editors and workers who do such a great job with that publication. Here’s the link.

Also, I’m reading a few minutes of poetry this Friday March 11 around 11:10 or 11:15 a.m. Pacific Time for The Brooklyn Rail at the conclusion of an discussion roundtable on the art of Ad Reinhardt. The event is free although you do need to sign up beforehand. The discussion begins at 10 a.m. Pacific Time. Scroll to the bottom of the event page to sign up.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Brief Review: Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya


Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection of short stories Aetherial Worlds (in translation, published 2018) contains some of the most interesting new fiction I’ve read in a while. It twists along on the boundaries between realism and fantasy, between more conventional narrative and postmodern-like narrative surprises.

The stories are set mostly in Russia but sometimes take place in the U.S. The lives of the characters are as intriguingly mixed as all the other elements of the stories; they are usually women living their lives in believable combinations of more traditional, contemporary and feminist ways. The situations are often both ludicrous and frightening and the characterizations are complex and convincing. The terror and absurdity of insitutions seems both very Modernist and very right now. The style is high energy, funny, sarcastic, serious.

I can see the connections between the stories while each one is not much like the one before. This book will have a lot of appeal both for people who like innovation and for those who like a good story. There’s not much work out recently in any literary genre that I like as much as Aetherial Worlds.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Doomsday (a synoptic novel)


Here’s one of my pieces that explores the concept of doom, and I thought I would make it available because of the big response (positive, negative, and mixed) currently happening to the Netflix blockbuster Don’t Look Up.

"Doomsday" is from my 2009 manuscript of short fictions called The Measure Everything Machine and Other Stories. It has never been published as a collection, although a number of the pieces appeared in various literary magazines (like Madhatter’s Review and Joyland) and even more ephemeral publications as well as being pieces I have read many times at public readings.

The pieces in The Measure Everything Machine are more what Hazel Smith and others have called “synoptic novels” rather than simply flash fictions generally. The goal is to present something in only a few lines that features the narrative stretch of a novel, something in theory very long that has been compressed into something very short.


When the populace of an obscure planet believes that Doomsday for the planet is at hand, arguments begin in earnest about what has caused it. Some blame this or that system of government; others blame the enemies or decay of this or that system of government. Some say deadly investment practices are the cause and blame investment in A; others agree that investment is the problem, but argue that more investment in A will save the planet and instead blame investment in B. Still others point out that governments and money can’t really end the world; since the world is ending, it has to be because people have destroyed the planet’s environment. Others say people haven’t really done that much to damage the planet; if the planet is being destroyed, the cause must be physical celestial forces far beyond control. Some say destruction is being visited on people because of their empty, soulless lives and point to the lack of religion; others say destruction is coming because of people’s empty, soulless lives and point to the meaningless fantasy of religion. For every cause of Doomsday that someone proposes, someone else proposes a countercause, and another countercause is proposed after that and so on.

When Doomsday does arrive, a few people’s theories are proved right, but they have little time or reason to congratulate themselves, and none at all to berate or convince anybody else, who wouldn’t have believed them anyway. On the day of destruction, the claims and counterclaims continue to go back and forth until the last possible moment and would have done so unceasingly had the planet not been destroyed and life on it ended.

The other conclusion to this story is suggested by other people on another obscure planet. They say that actually Doomsday never did arrive for the populace on that first planet. According to this story, the populace of the first planet continues to this day endlessly debating a Doomsday that they expect to arrive any moment. As the story goes, they do very little to notice the rest of the Universe. And as if turnabout really is fair play, in this story the Universe does similarly little to notice them.