Sometimes A-Feared, Sometimes Not.

Those who write, direct, and act, do; those who don’t, talk shit about those who do. This here is the latter.

The Passage (2010) – Anyone who comes to The Passage expecting a vampire novel (as I did, thanks to NPR) probably gets disappointed, because it's not – not in the traditional way, and not within the world the novel creates, either. Yes, the "virals" in the book subsist on blood, shun the light, and may even be immortal, but that's about it as far as the vampire trappings go. This lack of tradition could be a real boon – after all, who needs another bloodsucking-by-the-numbers? – but the book doesn't focus on the virals enough to get any mileage out of them. And that, quite simply, is the problem: The Passage doesn't focus on the virals enough. Some of this lack of focus seems to come from the Jaws phenomenon run amok. You know how the mechanical problems with the fake sharks during the making of Jaws forced Spielberg not to show the shark in the movie as much as he intended, and how the tension resulting from the presence of a mostly unseen killer is the true reason for the film’s legendary status? I got the distinct impression while reading The Passage that Cronin went into writing this novel with that less-seen = scarier tactic firmly in mind and it got away from him. Not seeing the virals is sound strategy, but we DO need to see them or brush up close to them often and opportunely enough for us to know what we need to be afraid of, and this just does not happen. In addition to this bungled strategy, the book is also woefully unbalanced. It's far more preoccupied with the story's surviving humans and their scary new world, which is unfortunate because the pre-apocalyptic first third of the book is infinitely more compelling than the post-apocalyptic latter two-thirds, meaning you spend 500-plus pages wandering the ruined western U.S. with a colony of survivors waiting for a payoff that never comes, precisely because said payoff (such as it is) happened in the first 200 or so pages. Even when the survivors encounter virals, the scenes happen so fast they seem to end before they really get going, and this is true even of longer battle-type sequences, like the one in post-virus Vegas; this moment could have been a blockbuster, a fat and juicy, viral-rich payoff toward which much of the story could have been building, but instead, somehow, it just goes “poof.” The non-viral scenes, on the other hand, are allowed to stretch out and breathe for page after page, full of ultimately pointless character development and hackneyed, Rambo VI-style warrior dialogue. Goofy as it sounds, it's almost like Cronin himself is scared of the virals, which robs us of our chance to be affected by them at all, and that, again, is a shame, because if the bloated latter part of the book were closer to the terrific first third, I’d be writing a much different review right now.

Plus, The Passage tries a stylistic flourish that fails as horribly as a doughy Halo kid trying his sweaty hand at stand-up comedy: it tries awful hard to create a new interjection – “Flyers!” – for its post-apocalyptic world, without once so much as hinting at the origin or relevance of this goddamned word. I think I encountered it four or five times before I even recognized its role in the sentence AS an interjection, after which I became confused and then irritated beyond reason at its usage ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Psycho (1998) – This reputed shot-for-shot remake languished in my Netflix queue for years until I was finally compelled to bump it up to the top. I’d heard / read nothing but awful things about Psycho redux, but guess what? I liked it. Against all odds, I liked it. Or maybe it’s not so surprising. Consider the facts: (1) I generally like Gus Van Sant, the galactically pretentious Elephant not withstanding; (2) I like Vince Vaughn in just about anything; (3) I think Anne Heche is a talentless, star-fucking, faux-lesbo, climber clinghound……so it was AWESOME seeing her get hacked on in color; (4) I like Viggo Mortenson in just about anything; (5) I like William H. Macy in just about anything; (6) I like scary movies. Maybe what’s against all odds is that this movie is scary, or at the very least creepy, or at the very, very least an exercise in look-how-big-MY-balls are that turns out not to be awful. I agree with Roger Ebert that the vermin-like Jeremy Davies would have made a slimier-looking and more Perkinsian Norman Bates 2.0, but for me Vaughn pulls it off.

Something about his wide eyes, his freak-show height, his generally sweaty- or cold-and-clammy-looking pallor, and his punctuation of every awkward sentence with a genuinely nervous little laugh made my skin crawl. Then there’s the matter of that turtleneck (a nod to Tony, no doubt), which PROVED his insanity, since no sane 6’6” man would don a second skin that stretches what does not need stretching. One big bumble, though, is the supposed sound of masturbating added to the voyeur scene early on (woman in bathroom, Norman on other side of wall peeking through hole). Even as a mostly asexual not-yet-ten-year-old, I remember seeing that scene in the original – sans squirty-sucky sound – and thinking, “Ooh-wee, that’s dirty and he shouldn’t be doing it.” Like most Hitchcock, the scene is subtle and suggestive and unnerving; the Van Sant version resembles a Naked Gun-style joke, using a sound so stereotypical it’s like an autoerotic Wilhelm scream. Which reminds me: since nothing on my body has ever made anything close to that sound, is it possible I’ve been doing it WRONG for 30 years? (If so, I don’t want to be right. Rimshot!)

Hell House (1971) – Well, it’s my own fault. I was scouring the card catalog and Amazon’s used wares for scary books, stumbled upon this one, and fell for its jacket copy, which essentially calls Hell House the template for haunted-house lit. Maybe – I’d think Poe or Shirley Jackson should get that honor – but if true, it goes to show that “template” need not mean “scary” or “good” or even “worthy of being called a ‘template.’” You know how watching a classic ‘50s black-and-white “horror” movie gives you that feeling of “Man, this ain’t scary, but it’s fun and I can totally see how it was groundbreaking / noteworthy at the time?” Yeah, this book is nothing like that. It’s just boring. Despite the righteous cover art (MAN, do I wish ol' Cloaky Skull was in this book) and a few scenes that work (especially the figure rising beneath the sheet on Florence’s bed), most of it is tepid build up and too-little follow-through. And the end just flat pissed me off, mainly because it squandered the potential created by the Reversor and all its electromagnetic hugger-mugger. So the secret to Hell House is just an old corpse with some ambiguous power to……well, to do WHAT, exactly? Look like a really tall man? Incite lesbian tendencies? (Fine by me, this one.) Inhabit cats? Toss forks? Pretend to have a son? Good thing it’s not a long book, because if it was, I’d have done something I rarely do in this situation: give up. (Side note: after I got the book, I put its movie adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, in my Netflix queue, and its presence there lasted until the day I finished reading.)

Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009) – I consider myself a Halloween OG. I saw the original I and II way too early as age-appropriateness goes, and I also read each movie’s novel adaptations several times. Michael Myers and his mute unstoppability (along with that peerless theme music) scared the shit out of me, and even now, long past the point of truly being scared by these films, I find it nearly impossible to pass them by when they pop up on AMC or IFC. All this idol worship usually spells doom for remakes, but nothing could be further from the truth for what Rob Zombie’s done. Bottom line: in my opinion, both Zombie remakes kick an enormous amount of ass, accomplishing something very, very tricky in the process, and that’s remaining true to and augmenting the spirit of the originals even as they obviously don’t try to follow the originals closely (or at all, in the case of II). I believe this M.O. is borne out of necessity – simply put, the original Halloween is a masterpiece of everything it attempts to do and most especially mood, which surely must be the hardest thing to get right. When the spooky-as-fuck ambience of the original stems from an innovation brought on by inadequate funds, inadequate technology, and the fact that no one’s ever really made a movie like this before, how could a remake with (I imagine) 10 times the budget and 100 times the special-effects arsenal AND a groundwork-laying collective memory created by the original’s status as a cultural touchstone hope to approximate the initial magic? The answer, for me, is that it creates its own magic. I don’t really know how to explain why they’re able to create this magic, because, as I say about the Psycho remake above, a whole bunch goes against it. The bigger budget as manifest on screen; the jumpy, quick-cut editing; the bludgeoning musical score; the enhanced violence and gore, so different from the relatively bloodless original it’s like steroids are now involved; the attempted explication of that which, in the original, is approached in a much more sidelong fashion (i.e., Michael’s past); the very concept of remakes, especially with a film that’s one of my longtime favorites – all of this should turn me against the movie, and much of it does turn me against other modern movies. Yet Zombie’s remakes are fantastic. They’re MASSIVE. It may well be that the key is the newer incarnation of Michael. Importantly, in the novel adaptations of the original films, the inner-book movie stills (remember those? Ah!) refer to Michael as “The Shape,” and that’s an apt name for how he exists and moves in the films; the new Michael, though, is a grotty behemoth who’s just as devoid of emotive spark but who moves infinitely more quickly and malevolently (without running, which is kind of rad). He also kills several victims in both movies by repeatedly slamming their bodies into hard surfaces or by stabbing them with what looks like superhuman ferocity, a stark contrast to the old Mike’s cool, vicious stab, typically one per customer. Again, this shouldn’t work, but it does. For example: I watched the new Halloween II again two nights ago, and, throughout the film, my skin crawled, and I stayed primally worried about the empty space behind me (the darkened kitchen, the darkened hallway, the window-blinds I forgot to close). I crave movies (and books, and music) that prompt that reaction, and there just aren't enough of them, goddammit. Props to Rob Z. for getting it so right, and also for casting his walking aphrodisiac of a wife in both movies.


  1. Excellent post, as always. :)

    I still haven't read The Passage. Fangoria gave it a really excited review and said it "might be better than The Stand because it's going to be a trilogy," but I looked at it and saw too many fantasy elements... it looked like there were tribes or clans and characters known as "The _____" (fill in the blank with anything and it'll usually set my hackles up) and so I haven't tried tackling it yet. I heard Guillermo Del Toro's _The Strain_ was good but haven't tackled it yet, either, 'cuz it's also a trilogy. Why can't anything be a stand-alone anymore?

    I liked Hell House when I read it, but that was some time ago. The movie is well-worth seeing. Usually Matheson is genius, but I'll have to re-read it to see if I think it still stands up. Peter Straub's _Ghost Story_ kinda didn't when I re-read it... it was still good, just not as brilliant as I'd remembered. I remembered being a little ticked that Hell House's was a steal from Shirley Jackson, though. O' course, that plot's been stolen at least a dozen times since... Shirley should be getting royalties, or at least have her books kept in print! It's criminal how little of her stuff is still available.

    I usually avoid remakes, so I still haven't seen the Psycho or Halloween remakes, but I'll have to look for those now. And, yep, Sherri Moon Zombie is great eye-candy. Rob Zombie definitely knows what kind of girl he likes, because she resembles Sean Ysuelt a good bit. (I love Sean, too... and Sean was super-nice to me when I wrote White Zombie once - I still have a handwritten letter (on the back of a flier for a show they did with Prong and Raging Slab) she sent me.)

  2. And I can attest to that, since Z showd me said handwrit note, lo these many years ago...

    And I nominate the super-subtle, mood-driven ghost story The Changeling (the one with George C. Scott) for excellent Halloween mooby-viewing!

  3. OK, so now Legend of Hell House is back in my queue along with The Changeling, which I've somehow missed. And I vaguely remember hearing about Del Toro's book(s), so I'm definitely going to get that/those.

    Haven't y'all mentioned Drood on here at some point? (Too lazy to go looking.) I'm about 125 pages into that, and boy is it good so far. There is some CREEPY shit in that book ALREADY.

    As for handwritten letters, remember the Jello Biafra letter? I still have it. Gonna scan and post here eventually.