Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Biggest Debate Since Evolution: "Harry Potter" or "Twilight"?

Twi-hards. Fanpires. Officially, Twilighters.

Oh Em Gee, another tween book craze has taken over the country. Years ago, Harry Potter ruled the       best-seller lists, with people old and young rushing out to the bookstore to read the next installment in the saga of the boy wizard.

Then the Twilight books came along and shit all over everything that Harry Potter built.

Okay, maybe that was too harsh. I have such great respect for J.K. Rowling and what she created with HP, that it's almost insulting that this Stephanie Meyer chick and her goddamn sparkly vampires have made her almost obsolete. If they would hurry up and get the seventh HP movie out, perhaps people would remember what they are missing. Instead, we have to deal with repetitive, gag-me-with-a-spoon romantic, vegetarian vampire stories with the totally NOT CUTE Robert Pattinson as the lamest vampire in the history of vampires.

I was against the HP craze at the start, not thinking those books were for me or that they could really be THAT good. Then the first movie came out and I decided I would give the book a chance before I saw it, even though most of the time I would rather waste two hours on a stupid movie than a few days on a stupid book. But you know what? I loved it. I LOVE HARRY POTTER. After the first one, I devoured all the other books, sometimes having to wait a painful amount of time for the paperback to come out because I'm too cheap to buy hardbacks and I wanted my collection to be all the same format. Yeah, I'm a dork.

Then the Twilight craze started. I was mildly curious because of the whole vampire thing it had going on, but also because I wanted to see what the big effing deal was. So I read the books and saw the movie. I wasn't impressed. Especially once I got to the second book, which was full of so much teenage DRAMA and angst that I wanted to puke. Edward left and Bella turned into this zombie - it wasn't sad, it was just really annoying. But what annoyed me the most when I got to the second book and then the third book was how repetitive Meyer can be. Every time Edward and Bella kiss, we have to read the same g-darn description of how kissing him makes Bella weak in the knees and how she can't remember her name even anymore because Edward's face is just so PERFECT and he's the most gorgeous thing on the planet. Those who've read it, you know it's true. You've read this same description over and over. 

I will admit that the story is interesting enough to make you at least want to finish the book to find out what happens. It's not the most original take on the vampire or werewolf lore (vampires that sparkle in the sunlight is I'm sure one thing we will not see copied by any other person), and I've never heard of vampires that were so hard to kill. Having to go to Italy to commit suicide must be a real inconvenience. 

I must agree with critics in that the books are not that well written. The style is immature, with repetitive descriptions as I mentioned, plus some people also talked about the heavy use of adjectives and adverbs in dialog, which I seem to remember there being a lot of that as well. They're easy to read, and that's okay for the target audience of young, annoying teenage girls but not for me. 

And perhaps I'm not the best to review a novel that's mostly romance - I hate romance novels, and especially the idea of vampires as romantic figures. Sure, they're hot and immortal and all that sexy stuff but they're monsters, vegetarian or not. And why are they presented in these novels as so much better than their monstrous counterparts, the werewolves? Bella is constantly pissed at Jacob for being all macho and werewolf-y, but I always thought she should be with him than Edward anyway. It's like a teen version of Phantom of the Opera - the Phantom or Raoul? Who will she choose? Of course, she chooses the vampire, with whom, as we learned from Buffy, she could never have a normal life. Unless she becomes a vampire, too...

Okay, I hate to say it, since I've been railing on the series this whole time, but I really need to read the last book. Hey, after 3 books you want to find out how it ends! Whether or not Bella becomes a vampire, or I even heard that she was going to end up pregnant or something. Don't spoil it for me.

And then we have Harry Potter. These books are, if I may, about 100 times better than the Twilight books. I love stories that create their own whole new world for the reader (or watcher) to get into and that is exactly what we get with HP. A world that takes all the cliches of witches and wizards - like cauldrons and potions and familiars and flying on broomsticks - and makes it fun and funny. These books are so clever in the writing and so immensely well thought-out that it really just baffles me. This is Rowling's world and she could make up whatever the fuck she wanted to, but she took it seriously and thought of every minute detail having to do with the characters and especially the plot.

That's what gets me the most about these books. I know Rowling spent like 20 years or something writing them, which gave her plenty of time to plan them all out it, but it's like she knew every major or minor plot point that was going to happen in each book. There's lots of foreshadowing, but there's also weird little details that show up in one book and turn out to be majorly important two books later. Like when Harry hides his Potions book in the Room of Requirement, and he puts that crown on top of the statue's head to remember where it is, then the crown turns out to be Ravenclaw's diadem which Voldemort made into a horcrux that Harry must destroy. Sure, Rowling could have made that shit up in between the books, but based on how everything ties together in the end, I don't believe she did. These books were her life for two decades, so I would imagine that nothing in them is there without reason.

And though the books get more serious and darker as the series progresses, they are still so funny to read. The dialog is hilarious and has a lot of British wit to it that I love. The books also don't seem to dumbed down for their audience, so adults can, and obviously do, enjoy reading them just as much as their 10-year-old kids. The names she gives objects and people alike are also very clever, although to some they may seem too obvious. I can't believe that I never figured out that Remus LUPin was a werewolf.  

Referring back to how serious the books get, however, I'm not sure if that's exactly a good thing or not. The first couple of books and their movies were fun and perfect for kids and adults. But then people started dying. The series really took a turn with the end of The Goblet of Fire and Cedric's death (who, strangely, is the sparkly vampire Edward Cullen from Twilight!). Whoa, is this still a kid's book? Reading the first book, you would never imagine that this is how the story of the cute boy wizard would play out. I mean, the story is amazing and I love how the plot progresses right until the end of the last book, but Rowling was dangerously close to losing her target audience. I don't want to know what the hoards of 11-year-old wannabe wizards out there would have done if Harry had actually died at the end!

The books teach a good lesson about many things: the bonds of friendship, loyalty, doing what's right even when it's dangerous or hard, never letting evil win. What do we learn from Twilight?  Hang on, lemme think for a minute ...............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Okay I got nothing. But see? HP is a phenomenon that I think will last. It leads itself to discuss so many different topics, both plot-wise and in the way it is written, whereas Twilight doesn't have anything to say. 

But also in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter if the books are good or bad if people enjoy them. Heck, I absolutely love those MEG books, the ones about the giant prehistoric shark that attacks and eats a bunch of people. There is nothing even remotely clever or scholarly about these books but they are a good time, and that's what is important when it comes to reading. Twilight is no classic, but is has kept people, young people especially, interested in books. This is my plea to all: Read books, have fun reading them, read more books, and then teach your children to love books, too.

On a side note, I helped throw a Harry Potter party. I was working at Gerbes and our GM manager got news that she had to throw a midnight release party for the final book in the series. We set up a cute little table, had a cake walk to the HP theme music, asked some trivia questions for prizes, had a guy from our store dress up like Harry so kids could take pictures with him, and had a little Easter egg hunt type thing with these coins I found and little gold trophies that I called Triwizard Cups (if you found those, you got a bigger prize). There were only about five kids that showed up, but it was fun, they were totally into it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

My All-Time Favorite Horror Movie

Damn, I'm a slacker!

So, having seen as many horror films as I have and proudly proclaiming to all that will listen that I am a huge horror buff, a question I get asked a lot is pretty obvious - "What is your favorite horror film?"

For a while, I honestly didn't know. My mind would go blank at hearing this question and I'm sure my credibility as a true horror fan seriously came into question. If you love something so much, how could you not have a favorite?

Other favorites are easy - favorite color: green, favorite time of the year: autumn - but this one required a little bit more thinking. The horror genre itself is actually pretty complex, with lots of subgenres from which to choose. If there isn't a definitive list of subgenres out there, here's some that I can think of off the top of my head:
Slashers (Halloween, Friday the 13th)
Creature features (TremorsGhoulies)
Man vs. Beast (Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea, Primeval)
Anthologies (Creepshow, Trick 'R' Treat)
Serial killer (different from slasher)

So then I had to break this list down into the stuff that I like. I freaking love zombie movies, and they're my favorite out of the classic triumvirate (Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies - most people would say Frankenstein here but there aren't enough Frankenstein monster movies out there for me to include it in my triumvirate), but sometimes you want to see more than just slow-walking dead guys eating somebody's intestines. Creature features and killer animals are okay, but usually high on the hokey meter. Slashers and serial killers usually contain the most cliches and are hardly ever that original. Again, there aren't enough anthologies out there really to have a favorite, although Trick 'R' Treat was freaking sweet.

That leaves supernatural. And I thought, yes! I see it now, because that is totally my favorite genre. Stories of hauntings and stuff has always interested me, and ghost movies are the ones that ALWAYS make me squirm in my seat like a little girl when I watch them, if they're effective.

So once I decided that I loved supernatural horror, my favorite became easy. It's an absolute classic haunted house film from 1982 that I believe still holds up well against any modern horror film. What is it? Have you guessed?


This movie just kicks ass. No doubt about it. You wanna talk haunted house? Here you've got poltergeists, which I like to think of as the "really pissed off ghosts." They're the ones that like to move stuff around and really cause a disturbance, which there are plenty of in this film.

But this movie is also very different from other haunted house movies. It doesn't take place in a dark and creepy castle or mansion, and it's not about finding out how someone died or something, it's just that there are evil spirits in the house and we gotta get rid of them. Plus this movie can be funny as hell at parts, which I think is so clever. Tobe Hooper (director) manages to mix in some very subtle funny moments with some not-so-subtle creepy moments.

The film starts out rather oddly for a horror film, with "The Star Spangled Banner" playing loudly over the credits. We soon find out it is coming from the TV (stations used to play the song when they signed off), which has been left on while everyone in the house is asleep. Little Carol Anne wakes up and discovers "the TV people," which she can hear coming from the static. This is a creepy little scene itself, with Carol Anne smiling while she talks to the TV people. I think it's because of her Village of the Damned reminiscent hair and creepy little girl's voice. But, later scenes show us that this is your typical happy suburban family with three cute kids and two loving parents. How could anything bad happen to them?

When Carol Anne utters the famous line "They're here!", that's when the crazy shit happens, starting the next morning at breakfast, which is my favorite scene of the whole movie. The bottom of Robbie's milk glass explodes and his utensils go all bendy, but the best part is when the mother, JoBeth Williams, pushes in all the dining room chairs, walks into the kitchen with the table out of frame, and the next second she turns around, all the chairs are stacked up on the table. See now, this is what makes for some scary and unexpected stuff. Why? Because it's happening during the day. They're not hearing voices or banging noises or footsteps on a dark and stormy night, which is when you expect that stuff to happen. Ghost movies are all about expecting the unexpected, and Poltergeist takes the unexpected to a whole new level.

Human-eating trees, little girls that disappear into closets, and gross hallucinations of people tearing the flesh off their face (probably my second favorite scene, with the meat sliding across the counter - yeesh!) all make for a movie that starts off creepy and never lets up, often escalating to strange new levels at points. When the ghost hunters show up to help the family rescue Carol Anne, the movie lightens up a bit again like in the beginning - I love the part where they're all talking at the table. Dr. Lesh says that determining that their house is actually haunted is not very easy - just as the coffee pot slides across the table on its own.

Another great thing about this movie? When Dr. Lesh brings some help in the form of Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina. Nuff said. Oh wait, except for, "This house is clean!" Haha.

I really think this movie has it all, almost. It's scary, it's a mystery, it's got great actors, it's funny at times, it's even a little gory at times. This is no slow to action haunted house movie like The Haunting or The Others, but it's still creepy and probably ten times more entertaining. The special FX are not as primitive as you might think, and I believe they still are effective after all these years. The greatest special FX is of course at the end.

Carol Anne is rescued from TVPeopleLand and little Tangina says all is well again.


The TV people are still around and now they're uber-pissed! But first, they're going to scare the shit out of you via your already scary toy - the clown doll. Now, we saw this eerie little bastard at the beginning of the film when Robbie got scared and threw a jacket over him. Nothing happened there, and the audience thought they were safe. Oh no. First, nothing's really supposed to happen because the disturbances are over. Then there's a faint noise, and when Robbie looks at the chair where the clown was sitting, it has disappeared. Crap. Then the kid actually has the cajones to look under the bed! I would've been screaming for mama at this point. So of course the clown attacks, giving us yet another reason we didn't need to think that clowns are scary.

Then all hell breaks loose and the mother confronts this thing:

I mean, what the hell is that? And it growls at her like a lion, too. Anyway, the closet tries to swallow the kids again, coffins and skeletons come out of the ground, and the family finally gets the f*%$ out of the house before it implodes on itself. And when they go to the hotel the dad pushes the TV out of the room. Awesome ending to an awesome movie. I never get tired of it and I hope I never will. It's the subtleties of classic haunted house films mixed in with the amped-up manifestations of the poltergeists (with great 80s FX) that makes this movie a special classic.

The film is also fairly accurate according to paranormal experts. Carol Anne communicating through the TV static is the now more well known phenomenon of EVP. The word poltergeist comes from the German for "noisy ghost," so that covers the ghosts stacking the chairs and throwing all the stuff around in the kids' room. They also might physically assault people in the house and cause electrical disturbances, all present in the film. So yeah, all the crazy stuff that happens toward the end is not exactly well documented in the real world, but the basic things that usually identify a poltergeist as opposed to a regular haunting are all there.

So there you have it: my favorite horror film of all time, Poltergeist! And it only made No. 80 on Bravo's list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments. I call bullshit. Here's a YouTube video of it: 100 Scariest Movie Moments - 80 - Poltergeist.

And yes, I know a remake is possibly in the works. I don't want to talk about it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Girl Next Door - a descent into Hell

I got really into true crime novels many years ago when I read Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, her true story of her friendship with Ted Bundy. I've read books about Bundy, The Boston Strangler, the Black Dahlia, Ed Gein, Albert Fish (who is the freakiest, most f-ed up person you will ever read about), and Dr. H. H. Holmes. Their crimes are unbelievable, horrific, and disgusting. However, the only true crime story that has truly haunted me since I read it was the slow torture-murder of Sylvia Likens by her boarder, Gertrude Baniszewski, Gertrude's children, and some neighbor children. 

The details of this crime are best described in the only book about the case, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying, written by a newspaper reporter covering the story shortly after the crime and subsequent trials of the offenders. Almost all comments I've read about this book and about the case in general say something along the lines of the fact that this is the most horrible crime of which they've every heard. 

A more in-depth and mostly accurate description of the crime can be found on Wikipedia here (although I'm not sure it's the best source - some facts are contradictory to what is written in House of Evil), but I'll give a short summary of events here.

In Indianapolis, 1965, Sylvia Likens and her sister Jenny (16 and 15 years old, respectively) came to live with a woman from their neighborhood, Gertrude Baniszewski (bani-SHEF-ski), while their parents held jobs traveling with a carnival. Lester and Betty Likens agreed to pay Gertrude $20 a week to board their two daughters, without ever really examining the house where they would be living. Gertrude was a sickly woman who already had seven children. She was depressed and stressed from having lived such a hard life. She began taking her frustrations out on the Likens girls, and eventually Sylvia was the main target. 

The story can get a little complicated with all the people involved. Gertrude started the abuse with punishments by paddling with a fraternity-type paddle or a belt. Gertrude soon encouraged her children and other kids from the neighborhood who often visited the Baniszewski house to also abuse Sylvia under the guise of "punishment" for various acts. The abuse escalated. Cigarettes were put out on Sylvia's body (she had over 100 burns on her when she died); Gertrude twice roughly kicked Sylvia in the genitals; she was denied food; had the baby's dirty diaper shoved in her mouth; was kicked and/or thrown down the basement stairs several times; was given baths in scalding hot water; had salt rubbed into her open sores; and was twice forced to stand naked in front of Gertrude and other children and shove a Coke bottle into her vagina. The words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" were carved into her stomach with a needle and a crude "3" was burned above this with a hot branding iron. Sylvia never received real medical treatment for her numerous burns and sores, and accompanied with the malnourishment, shock, and repeated blows to the head causing subdural hematoma (brain bleeding or hemorrhaging), Sylvia finally succumbed to her injuries and died on October 26, 1965, only 4 months after arriving at the Baniszewski house. 

I cried while reading the book about Sylvia and what she went through. But as horrible as this crime is, and not to diminish Sylvia's death, I had to ask myself: Why does the murder of this one girl affect me so much more than reading about the 53 murders committed by Andrei Chikatilo? Or all the young women that Ted Bundy raped and murdered? What is it about Sylvia Likens' case that gets to me? I believe it is several factors. The fact that an adult gave children permission to beat this girl; that some of her abusers were barely teenagers; that no one ever did anything to stop the abuse; that one girl could be the target of so much hostility and rage; and also that Sylvia herself apparently lost her will to live after suffering so much torture and was not able to save herself. It absolutely blows my mind that something like this could have happened. Many, many children out there are victims of abuse, I know, but this was no behind-closed-doors abuse case. Kids in the neighborhood went over to the Baniszewski house just to abuse Sylvia - it became a game to them. And not one of them had the heart to see the evil that was going on and tell somebody about it?

Author Jack Ketchum (discussed in the previous blog) was also haunted by this case and he used it to inspire his novel The Girl Next Door. His story is fairly similar to the real-life case - Meg and Susan Loughlin come to live with their aunt Ruth Chandler and her three sons after their parents die in a car accident. Ruth starts to show some resentment toward the girls (and goes a little mad) and starts to abuse them, trying to teach her boys a lesson in the process. Meg is eventually tied up in the basement, where Ruth and her sons, and other boys and girls from the neighborhood, beat and torture her. 

Spoilers ahead.

The torture is a little more extreme than what happened with Sylvia - an incident of sexual assault and a hot tire iron to the clitoris are the penultimate events in the story - but that is really immaterial. This book spoke to me because it is written from the point of view of David, the Chandlers' next-door neighbor and long-time friend of the Chandler boys. He meets Meg before most of the other kids do and falls for her. He witnesses her torture and abuse and though he feels horror at what he sees (he never commits any of the acts himself), he also feels what the other kids feel.

The reader will often find themselves hating David more than Ruth or any of the others that torture Meg simply because of his selfish inaction. I remember one part of the book where David talks himself out of telling somebody about the abuse. He says something about how he'd be an accessory to the crime and get in trouble himself. I hated David after that - who cares what happens to you, you little shit! Save this girl's life! But by giving us insight into the mind of someone witnessing the abuse, Ketchum seems to be trying to explain to the reader how a crime like this, and in essence the crime against Sylvia, can occur. It's the repressed society that encourages keeping secrets; mob psychology; the fear that children have of disobeying or otherwise going up against adults; and the responsibility of adults. David and the other kids are fascinated by the things they can get away with, with the all-powerful credo of "We have permission!" ringing in their ears. They have permission from an adult, so that makes it okay. Kids are powerless compared to adults, and to be given permission to exert the highest form of power, the power over another person's life, must have been a high for those kids. I understand that now - even though the whole concept is sick and twisted and totally wrong. But I do understand it, and this is another theory on how such young children could have tortured Sylvia and not feel guilty about it.

In the end, David tries to help Meg escape. But you know what? I don't even care that he tried to help her, and I don't believe he redeemed himself when he killed Ruth by pushing her down the stairs. To me, it was too little too late. He never hurt Meg himself, but he never helped her either. He had the conscience to do the right thing but never followed through. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," right? Ketchum says that Meg is the hero of the piece and I couldn't agree more. She tries to keep her dignity during all the atrocities committed against her and when she has the chance to escape, she ruins it for herself because she refuses to leave without taking her sister with her. Perhaps this was part of Sylvia's psyche, as well. Her younger sister Jenny was crippled from polio and would have been the next likely target for Gertrude's abuse if Sylvia was gone. 

Even with the books and the two movies made about the case (An American Crime, with Ellen Page of Juno fame playing Sylvia, and an adaptation of The Girl Next Door) there is still no definitive answer how this crime could have happened. Gertrude Baniszewski was found by many to be sane at the time of the crime, but there is no psychological evaluation out there to read that says, "This is why I hurt Sylvia." And with the major perpetrators of the crime long dead, this question will never be answered. We can speculate all we want and we can blame it on the family's poverty and anger at their life situation, but that's just not good enough for me. Sylvia deserves more than that.

My aunt lives in Indianapolis. If we ever make a family trip there again, I will make it a point to visit Sylvia's memorial and leave her the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I can find. 

Rest in peace, Sylvia Likens. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Jack Ketchum - the horror author that Stephen King loves

Enough about movies, let's talk about books. I have recently discovered an amazing, if not somewhat neurotic, horror author by the name of Jack Ketchum (a pseudonym - his real name is Dallas Mayr, which doesn't sound as horror-y). He is successful in his genre but not so crazy famous that he's completely inaccessible to fans. He has an official website where you can leave comments or questions for him, and get this - he actually responds to them. Within a couple of days. It's amazing. I told him how one of his novels seriously affected me and he actually took the time to show his appreciation for my comments. How cool is that?

Anyway, maybe you're wondering why I say he's somewhat neurotic. I call him that because most authors have a style of writing or general theme in their writing that transcends all their books. Pick any three Jack Ketchum novels to read, and you would swear that they were all written by different people. There is some element of the horrific in them all, sometimes though, it is not what most would consider horror.

Ketchum first made an impression on readers with his very first published novel, Off Season. In this gruesome novel, a group of friends staying at a coastal house in Maine are attacked by a feral family living in the caves on the coast and feeding on human flesh. Reminiscent of The Hills Have Eyes, both stories are based on the legend of the Sawney Bean family (an interesting read - check out the story here).

Off Season can be described as a gore-fest. It's a fairly quick read, but there is so much blood and guts and incestuous cave-people sex packed into this tiny novel that it is not something you'll forget soon. We even get a recipe on how to cook human flesh. Nice. But it's totally awesome. Gorehounds like me love this shit - if it makes you do that dramatic thing of putting her hand to your mouth in shock, then I'd say the story is a success. Well done, Jack. (There's also an equally disgusting sequel to Off Season that is worth a read, Offspring.)

Okay, so we have a gore-fest like Off Season, and then the next Ketchum book I read is Old Flames. Whuh? This is by the same guy? Old Flames is this incredibly simple story of a woman meeting up with an "old flame" (oooh, clever title, eh?) and she either still loves the guy or is just a wacko because she becomes friends with his wife just to kill her. It's not that Old Flames is badly written or a bore or anything, it's just so weird that this is the same guy that wrote a scene in Off Season where the cannibal girl stabs her brother in the ass, then takes the blood from the wound, rubs it on his penis and then has sex with him. So I don't know if this difference in the general theme of the writing is really neurotic as I said earlier, or some kind of proof of a mad genius.

Also, in the copy of Old Flames that I read there was another novella in there called Right to Life. Holy crap. Just look at the picture over there. This was about a couple who kidnap a pregnant woman on her way to an abortion clinic. They want the baby so they decide to hold her hostage in their basement until she gives birth - there's some sadomasochistic torture and other fun stuff here, but again, it's another example of this writer seemingly not knowing in what genre he wants to be. It's good that he's got such range, but you probably wouldn't think much of this author until you read The Girl Next Door.

It is one of my new favorite novels. You wanna talk real horror? This novel GOES THERE. I mean, it goes to places that are so dark they can't possibly be something that could ever really happen. But The Girl Next Door is based on a crime that occurred in the 60s in Indianapolis. I'm eerily obsessed with this story - the true crime, the book, and the movies - and have much too much to say about them. Will leave for the next blog.

Another Ketchum novel I recommend is probably The Lost. Great story with some unforgettable characters. Ray Pye is this nihilistic, egotistic, evil person who shoots two girls he sees in the woods because he thinks they are lesbians. He drags his two "friends" into the act as well, and manages to not get caught for the attack, even though one local cop is sure that he committed the crime. The novel is a rather slow burn as the reader gets to know Ray and the other characters around him. The big question throughout the novel though is, Where is this going? How is it going to end? Is Ray just going to get caught? Will there be a big shoot-out or something? These characters have gotten themselves into some serious stuff and with Ketchum, you're not really sure what to expect.

Everyone seems to love Red as well, but it didn't really affect me as much as it did others. Perhaps I have no heart. I'm very curious about several other Ketchum novels, but I find he's a little hard to come by at chain bookstores. Go for or a used bookstore to find some of his more obscure novels.