Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Restorer (Book Review)

"Because what the dead want more than anything is to be a part of our world again, They're like parasites, drawn to our energy, feeding off our warmth. If they know you can see them, they'll cling to you like blight. You'll never be rid of them. And your life will never again be your own."

Generally, I don't write reviews about the vast number of books I read.  I have no idea why. Maybe because this is not specifically a book blog, and if I were to write about all the tomes in my library, I'd never get time to write about anything else. But once in awhile, a book impresses me enough to make it here, when I can't help myself but to announce it's greatness.

I tend to read a lot of paranormals, and sometimes people balk at the sub-genre as if a book within this category is not worthy of discussion.  As if a book that includes some romance and/or sex isn't a quality read. Well I'm here to tell you that not only is that general assumption wrong (because I've read plenty of paranormal/fantasy books that run rings around much of the dreck in the generic fiction aisles) but it is also a shallow opinion.
What would our favorite books - and the classics, no less - be without a bit of longing and passionate inclinations?  What would Jane Eyre have been without Mr. Rochester?  Dracula without Mina?  Sookie without Bill? And Eric? And Alcide? And... well, you get the picture.

The Restorer, by Amanda Stevens, is categorized as a paranormal romance, but I'm not entirely buying that description.  Yes, there are some elements of romance within it, but at its heart it's a ghost story, pure and simple. And it is done well.  Very well.  Some truly chilling moments lie within this novel, and I seriously couldn't put it down.  I'm not saying it's The Woman in Black - but for a modern tale, it succeeds thoroughly.

Amelia Gray has an unusual occupation. She is a cemetery restorer, which is exactly what it sounds like. She is paid to restore graveyards to their formal glory.  She also sees ghosts.  The daughter of a cemetery caretaker, she has been seeing spirits from the time she was nine years old.  Her father too, sees ghosts, and once he finds out his daughter does as well, he lays down some rules that are imperative when dealing with specters.

1) Never acknowledge the dead.
2) Never stray from hallowed ground.

3) Never get close to the haunted.
4) Never, ever tempt fate.

It is his belief that if you let the ghosts know you see them, they will attach themselves to you and never leave.
A frightening thought.  And for many years, Amelia did fine following those rules.  But when a gruesome murder victim turns up in the cemetery she is restoring, the lines between the rules get a little blurry.

Because of her particular skill, she is called upon by local law enforcement, Detective John Devlin to be exact, to help distinguish clues left behind. Epitaphs and headstone symbols & markings are all they have to go on, and no one knows tombstones better than Amelia.  Thankfully, Devlin is one hot property, so working together would be all wine and roses - if he wasn't haunted himself. The ghosts of his dead wife and young daughter surround him, even though he isn't remotely aware of it.  Amelia feels them suck the energy out of the living, herself included, and tries to convince herself getting too close to Devlin is a mistake.

But as we all know, that is never the case.  She gets so wrapped up in the investigation that the more clues that pile up and the more murders that are discovered, the more bound to Devlin she becomes.

Romance is truly not top priority here.  Chills and thrills come through regularly, instead.  There is always the thought that the two leads will get together though, which makes the danger more exciting and the various plot points much more interesting.  Tragic accidents, wandering spirits, secret societies, backwoods witchcraft - along with morbid crypts, dank mausoleums, cryptic warnings, and ghostly really has it all.

Amelia is a first-rate heroine and easy to like.  She has her own little idiosyncrasies that flourish within the story, sometimes getting her in over her head.  She's very realistic and down to earth despite believing in ghosts and the supernatural.  John Devlin is written as an afflicted man, somewhat despondent - with heartbreaking tragedy in his past and no real intention of getting over it.  Amelia realizes she is tempting fate by getting hooked up with him, but somehow is drawn to his enigmatic and tattered soul like a moth to the flame.
She's opening doors that are best left closed, which is indicative of the unsettling scares you're in store for.

Sometimes with ghost stories, you are unable to really connect with the characters or the tale they are trying to tell.  But with The Restorer, you never feel like the story is heading in a ridiculous direction, nor does it seem trite or prosaic. It's a realistic novel even though being about the supernatural, and there are some truly spooky moments within it.  It's set in Charleston, South Carolina - known to be one of the most haunted cities in America, so it already had that going for it.  The fact that Amelia is a cemetery restorer, well that was way too enticing for me.  I've always loved cemeteries, have spent a lot of time in them in fact, so to read more about them - and have a ghost story to boot - well, it made the book purchase a no-brainer.  It is also the first book in a trilogy, and I love a good series.  A greater portion of the books I read are series. I love knowing that there is more coming after the end.  Future story lines are hinted at in The Restorer, and the end of this book kind of leaves you hanging...and salivating for more.

In a sea swimming with paranormal romance after urban fantasy after romantic thriller, Stevens writing stands out and cannot be ignored.  Lush descriptions of bleak, shadowy graveyards and encounters with vengeful spirits whose cold fingers slither through your hair and whose breath chills your neck will certainly keep the lights on while you're reading.
With a quality of writing far above most of her peers lining the shelves at the bookstores, this author knows how to tell an atmospheric tale and keep you thoroughly enthralled.  I really could find no fault with this book.
{Wait!  One fault! Three-fourths of the way through, I was on page 272, and the next page was 305! There were over thirty pages missing from my copy. I was furious. But also utterly anxious. So anxious that I downloaded the book to my Kindle just so I could keep reading.  And yep, it was worth it.  I would have missed out on some very pertinent information.  Damn publishers.}

The Restorer is book one in 'The Graveyard Queen' series.  Book two, The Kingdom, is also available now and the third book, The Prophet, is right on its coattails, releasing April 24. 

"Drawn by the surge of energy, the woman drifted to my side. She placed her hand on my arm, mimicking Devlin. The heat of the day still lingered on my skin, and she slid her fingers up my arm, savoring the warmth, as she floated around me. I could feel her hands in my hair, her breath in my ear. Her lips against my neck. Her touch was like the coldest of whispers, and it came to me that she wasn't just drawn to my warmth. She was taunting me."

*Photo at right by James Gracey. For more like it, do visit his blog - Behind the Couch - for more fantastic cemetery pics.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wishing And Hoping: Rant # 271

It's been awhile since I've had an honest to goodness rant on here.  I think it's high time that changes.
Having been a horror fan for decades, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have some expectations of the genre. I've been thinking about how unsatisfied I've been with horror as of late, and I've come up with a laundry list of things I’d love to experience in the horror genre.
So without further adieu, things I’d like to see…in a perfect (horror) world.

How about some more Michael Myers-esque scares? And no, not the Rob Zombie one. Anyone can bash in a head with a baseball hat. I want more hiding behind clotheslines and hedges. More heavy breathing (yes, I said it). Throw in some stalking for me. Some creepy theme music cues while a knife shockingly hits home.

I want filmmakers to stop using so many ridiculously stupid means of death. To me, it’s infinitely more impressive it you just use a knife well, rather than taking the time to devise elaborate ways to off someone. I know a lot of people live for movies where people get trampled by sheep or stomped to death by a pogo stick, but honestly – I just want someone to get shot or stabbed for a change. Maybe pushed off a cliff, even.

I’d like to see more cats. Dogs always get all the play in horror. Usually the cats end up on the wrong side of a serial killer’s knife, or just utilized to strike fear into the hearts of man simply by being black and crossing the road in front of our lead character’s SUV. I say, give me a cat like the one in Alien. That cat had a real role. He probably got a salary. Maybe even more than the key grip.
And by the way, QUIT KILLING CATS, dammit! Just watched The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the other night...grrr!  If you've seen it you know what I mean. Not cool.

Can we have some more voodoo?  There's just not enough voodoo! It's creepier than pretty much anything else in my book.  Take The Serpent and the Rainbow.  That snake slithering out of that mummified corpse-like bride?  Yep, I'm still having nightmares about that.  How about Angel Heart? God that was a great story. From the dank alleys of Harlem to the seedy and depressing slums and back roads of New Orleans, that film embodies all the macabre aspects of one of the most feared religions. In fact, voodoo (or hoodoo, vodoun, vodou - whichever folk magic you may have) just doesn't get enough play in horror, despite how famously frightening it can be.  So, more films like the The Skeleton Key, okay?  Or maybe one comparable to The Believers.  We could use some more Santeria in horror, don't you think?

I want real ghosts. Not this slinking down the stairs all covered in blood, mouth ajar, making strange clicking noises a ‘la The Grudge. While that was all well and good (and completely over-used), I want ghosts. Like in The Others. Her hubby back from war. The gardener and kitchen staff. And you know who else. Or maybe specters more similar to The Devil’s Backbone. Yeah! Where are the freaky floating corpses? The Woman in Black (2012) was a grand start, but let's keep this specter train a rollin'!  What we need are more films like The Innocents. Or like the '89 version of The Woman in Black. Let's go old school. Can we get on this, people?

Giallo. Now I know this is asking a lot. For one, I don’t live in Italy. Two, I realize giallo saw its heyday come and go back in the 70′s. But sue me, I’m having a purist moment. I want a mystery, I want black gloves, I want gratuitous nudity, I want excessive violence, I want scattered plots, and I want knives hitting flesh. I’d like Barbara Steele but we can’t have everything we want… (I can say thank you to everyone involved with Amer, though. That was much appreciated. More, please...)

How about a few stars that look like actual humans and not Victoria Secret clones and Abercrombie and Fitch models. I want to see “real” people die horrible deaths. Even the nerds are too good looking in most films. News flash, everybody can’t look like Cerina Vincent. I’m tired of everybody appearing like they just walked off the set of The Vampire Diaries (but regardless, thank you for that cast, oh television gods).

I want quiet horror. Subtle scares and tranquil moments of trepidation.  I want Session 9.  I want Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.  I want Ghost Story. I want Lake Mungo. Get it?

Here’s a thought. How about a good old-fashioned monster movie? Something on the lines of Frankenstein? A decent Godzilla-type flick? Now I’m not saying remakes, per se, more like an original idea. Hard to come by these days. I honestly can’t think of the last really legitimate monster movie I’ve seen. Yes, you could say The Wolfman was a monster movie, but it didn’t exactly give me the chills I got from watching late night horror like Universal and Hammer were so famous for.

I’d like a movie set at a creepy, run-down carnival or theme park. No, I don’t know why I want that, but I do. I love Carnival of Souls right down to my size 8's, so something of that caliber is what I’m looking for, okay? The Funhouse is alright, but I'm looking for more subtle scares that crawl under my skin and stay there.

Is it too much to ask for a good score? I’m talking music here. The last exemplary horror score I heard was Let The Right One In by Johan Söderqvist. I realize that wasn’t really that long ago (2008) but besides that one, I’m hard pressed to find something that impresses me as much as the soundtracks of yore. Like the awesome scores for Psycho, Jaws, and Halloween – all of which rely on a few singular notes to set a terrifying scene. Or how about a gorgeous score like Candyman by the outstanding Philip Glass, or my personal favorites…Ghost Story by Philippe Sarde or Psycho II by Jerry Goldsmith. I’m tired of all these electronic, one-man scores these guys punch out in a few days.

Stop making zombie movies dammit! If you're not The Walking Dead, I'm walking, so to speak. I’m so ever-loving tired of the living dead I could puke. Now I know a lot of people feel the opposite and are dying (forgive the pun) to see what’s next after Survival of the Dead…but I say give it a rest. Put it to bed, please.  Leave the zombies up to prime time, for now.
And while we’re at it, just to show you I’m not biased, cut it out with the vampires, too.
Okay, that was a blatant lie.
Johnny, come May you'd better not disappoint me...

What happened to movies like April Fool’s Day and My Bloody Valentine? Oh yeah, the eighties ended. Well we need an authentic revival of this type of unabashed horror. The House of the Devil was a stellar start, a real throw-back to the movies from that era. I grew up watching these films, and have yet to find films that make me feel the same way I did then – sitting on my couch eating Chef Boyardee pizza and sipping Cherokee Red with my best buds while we freaked out over Jason Voorhees. Then again, maybe there’s no bringing nostalgia back once you’ve left it behind for the responsibilities of adult-hood.
 Bah! I say bring it on!

A few things we really don't need (besides half-hearted remakes)? Movies that include any of the following:  killer sharks, long haired vengeful Japanese ghosts, sparkling vampires, apocalyptic destruction, matricide, women strung up in basements, barns or attics, and/or killer kids.
One last thing. Stop making movies that make me vomit. And no, I don't mean the new Piranha 3DD coming soon to a theater near you.  Though 3D films need to go away as well, what I am talking about is the expansive catalog of 'found footage' films.  They make me sick.  No, literally.  Like, take a Dramamine sick. And haven't we really had enough of shaky cam for now?  I reject any more Blair Witch wannabes and am certain to toss any 3D DVDs out my Jeep window at a high rate of speed. Just. Stop. It. (Literally stop moving the camera.)

So, am I just not watching the right films?  Should I stay out of multi-plexes? I'm looking forward to a whole heap of movies this year...let's hope my soul isn't crushed by lack of memorable horror.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Apt Pupil: The Darkness Within

Nothing I have ever seen has ever affected or scared me as much as when I saw my first Holocaust pictures.  I was probably in the eighth or ninth grade and was sitting in a library doing research for a WWII term paper.  I wonder if those books are even still in libraries today, because they are such a powerful reminder that the world sucks sometimes. You don't need to see The Exorcist to get your fix of pure evil, it exists in our history. Hell, it still exists today.  But without a doubt, the Holocaust has to be the greatest tragedy in all of mankind.

I was both enthralled and aghast at the atrocities that were inflicted by the Nazis during their "Final Solution". One cannot look away, when shown pictures of such heinous crimes. Men, women, and children, murdered simply because they were a certain religion or because they looked and lived differently than the almighty Hitler did. 
But like I said, it is so interesting - so compelling - that I had to learn more.

Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) wanted to learn more too.  But I suspect his desire for knowledge was a slight bit more demented than my own.  While I was intrigued because I simply cannot believe it was allowed to happen, Todd was a little more interested in the logistics of it all.  The hows, not the whys. 

Apt Pupil (1998) is a film based on a Stephen King novella of the same name, from his book Different Seasons (which also produced The Body {basis for the film Stand By Me} and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and I'm pretty sure you can figure out the film it inspired).  The plot of Apt Pupil is tampered with a bit in the film version, cutting out a greater portion of the violence in favor of a more psychological feel to the film. But it is still a powerful piece of film making, one of the best King adaptations that is also probably one of the most forgotten.

Todd's class at school is studying the Holocaust, prompting him to seek further information at the library.  He becomes genuinely obsessed with Hilter and his systematic disposal of the Jewish population in WWII.  When he discovers that his neighbor, Arthur Denker, is really a Nazi war criminal evading justice, he takes it upon himself to meet the man and threaten him.  He explains that he knows just who he is, and that he will turn him over to the authorities in a snap if the older gentleman doesn't agree to his wishes. 

Unfortunately, Todd's wishes lean a bit more towards the unbalanced side of his psyche.  He is desperate to know just what vile and despicable things Denker has done.  He persuades Denker (who is really Kurt Dussander, Nazi Obersturmbannführer - a rank just below Hitler himself) to tell him ghastly tales of what it was like to exterminate hundreds - no, thousands - of human beings, be it by shooting them in the head, starving them to death, or in the gas chambers. At first, Denker is reluctant to describe his dreadful and reprehensible crimes, but after a bit of prompting (and blackmail), he becomes as engrossing a storyteller as Todd is enthusiast. Perhaps Denker is starting to enjoy enlightening his "pupil".

Todd begins to have bad dreams - including day-time visions - seeing emaciated Jews in the showers with him at school and the likes.  Denker doesn't hold anything back, describing in great detail what it was like at the camps, and in an especially tense moment he recalls when the gas chamber didn't work - and how the victims had seizures and stumbled around until they eventually died when the Nazi officers had to shoot them in the head. It's a disturbing piece of storytelling on film, made all the more real when you consider things like that actually happened.  How could we have let things go this far? How could it have went down in the first place? It boggles the mind.

Going one step too far, Todd buys Denker an SS uniform for Christmas, and demands he put it on.  In probably the most chilling moment of the film - one that had me on the edge of my seat - Denker comes down the steps and into the kitchen in full dress uniform, and casts a terrifying visage.  When Todd makes him put on his cap and then start to march, he is in for more than her bargained for when Denker once again becomes Dussander, caught up in a moment in time.  He begins to march faster and faster, and even when Todd tells him to stop, Denker continues until ending abruptlym raising his right arm in a heil Hitler salute.
Disturbing, to say the least.

Events escalate from there, with Denker reverting back to his Nazi mindset, making sure no one from the neighborhood cats to the bum stealing liquor bottles out of his trash is safe.  Todd, having made a mess of his academic career by spending so much time hearing Denker's tales of horror, sees his grades slip low enough that he receives deficiency notices from his teachers and is called in to the guidance office.  But who should he see talking to Mr. French (David Schwimmer)?  His "grandfather", Victor Bowden, who also happens to be the same former SS officer hiding out in the palm trees of So Cal and making an indelible impression on a teenage boy.

The ruse comes to a head when Denker reveals to Todd that he has a letter in a safety deposit box that details all of Todd's knowledge of Denker's Nazi involvement and crimes.  He states he had to do it to make sure Todd wouldn't turn him in to the authorities.  Todd has maintained all along that he had the same kind of letter in his possession as well as fingerprints and other telling methods that would send Denker to prison for the rest of his life.  So because the two have each other cornered, they resign themselves to keeping quiet.
But as is usually the case, lies eventually unravel and come back to bite you in the ass. And that is exactly what happens.

Many Stephen King adaptions are crap, that's just common knowledge.  But for every Maximum Overdrive, there is a Misery; for every Dreamcatcher, a Shawshank Redemption.  His work has been hit or miss, and though Apt Pupil may be a less popular and less recognized film, I believe that on the strength of the acting of the two main characters, it is a worthy addition to the list of decent King adaptations. If anything, it is a stark reminder of the horrors of years gone by: one of the darkest and most shameful times in history.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Vital Viewing: The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man is a stand-out classic of cult proportions - one that every horror fan should see, regardless of the fact that it plays as a strange and unconventional mystery throughout most of the film up until its startling ending. 

Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) has come to a small off-shore island from mainland Scotland to look into the disappearance of one Rowan Morrison.  What he finds when he gets there is a full-on Pagan community that takes their beliefs quite seriously and are not afraid to show it.  Naked women dancing around Stonehenge-type monuments, young men dancing around maypoles, Christopher Lee dancing in a parade of heathen sacrifice.  Everybody's dancing! 

Locals are quick to dismiss the young girl's disappearance, claiming she never even existed.  He starts his search at The Green Man Inn, where he is introduced to the landlord's daughter, Willow (Britt Eckland).  Rooming at the tavern, he is tempted beyond belief when Willow uses all her feminine wiles (albeit in an adjoining room) to tease him into joining her for a little romp.  Writhing naked to sensual music and thrashing herself against the walls and doors, Willow sings a fertility song designed to make Howie forget about his girlfriend back home and his (!) virginity.  How he keeps his chastity is anyone's guess.

As he continues his exploration of the town, no one is fessing up to having knowledge of young Rowan.  He checks the post office, school, library, even the chemist's shop; but no Rowan.

Sgt. Howie is aghast at the blatant religious disregard in the isolated island town that has apparently never embraced Christianity and prefers to spend its days growing apples and having sex (and why the hell not?!).  And when they are not actually procreating, they are discussing the act - even the school children are taking lessons in 'celtic' sex-ed.  Besides all the sex, some of the other unorthodox rituals he is witness to tend to lean towards the bizarre - like when he sees a woman making a young child put a toad in her mouth to rid her of a throat infection, among other things.

After discovering a grave marker in the local cemetery that bears Rowan's name, and because the townsfolk are unwilling to admit Rowan ever existed (even the girl's own mother denies her!) and keep rambling on about their gods and their religion, Howie seeks out their enigmatic leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).  At once a charismatic and charming man, he tries to lay Howie's fears to rest and ends up taking him on a tour of the island, explaining to him the foundation of their Pagan religion and revealing that they believe that the gods of old shine on them and their orchards and fields because they worship them and offer them sacrifices to ensure this happens.  Of course Lord Summerisle assures Sgt. Howie that the sacrifices are of the animal variety, and only when necessary. 

Howie doesn't seem too sure of this or anything else after witnessing naked women performing some kind of peculiar ritual, young boys singing songs about "planting their seeds", school girls discussing how the maypole is a phallic symbol, and a night-time orgy that sends a sweating and turned-on Howie back to his room at the inn to try to recover.

He concedes defeat and tells himself he has no choice but to leave in the morning, to get as far away from the sacrilegious bunch of nut jobs as he can.  Unfortunately, morning brings a plane that won't start and Howie determined to at last find young Rowan, as he has a sneaking suspicion that she has been tucked away in hiding somewhere to be used as the sacrifice during the May Day celebration that day.  The inn has photos of each yearly celebration, but the most recent picture is missing.  When Howie sneaks around searching, he does indeed find the absent photo, which shows a young girl (Rowan?) in front of failing crops and orchards.

Certain that Rowan is still alive, he accosts the innkeeper and steals his May Day costume, resolute in his decision to stop the sacrifice of the child.  He joins in the ensuing parade (led by Lord Summerisle in a creepy black wig and snazzy yellow turtleneck) and proceeds to the shoreline where the grim festivities are culminating. Because this movie really needs and deserves to be seen, I can't disclose the finale, except to say it hits you like a ton of bricks. 

The Wicker Man is not your typical horror movie.  In fact I'm really not sure there is any blood at all.  But it gets under your skin like no film I have ever seen.  While in some places it can seem almost comical, there is an underlying sense of doom that permeates throughout.  It is a fascinating and mostly true look at the Pagan lifestyle (sans sacrifices of course).  The film is highlighted by several traditional folk tunes and original songs by Paul Giovanni which add to the mystery and enchantment of the Pagan society.

I think people that don't like this film don't really get what the filmmakers were striving for.  Regardless of how religious you may or may not be, for most people it is an intriguing thought (no matter how lewd or nefarious it may seem) to be utterly devoid of morality and just do what you feel.  Modern Christianity and the other religions of the world demand that we conform to the standard views and doctrines that are set before us. To imagine frolicking in the woods naked or teaching our children about the birds and bees in classrooms seems unthinkable, let alone having orgies or worrying more about the apple harvest than your tax return. As a society, most people are way too judgmental and far too ethical to allow themselves to be that capricious.

What The Wicker Man does is present us with a premise that seems like a simple missing person's case, but in actuality it is a much darker film.  The impending May Day celebration gives Summerisle a hint of jubilation, a sense of 'all is right with the world'. Alas, we soon find out it is not. There are more malevolent forces at work here - an occult underbelly of aberrant life-styles and eccentric beliefs.
The best way to see The Wicker Man is to come into it completely unprepared and with no prior knowledge of the film. It will make the biggest impact this way, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

*Do not read the comments section if you haven't seen the film, there are spoilers...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Bloody Sunday

We Are What We Are
The Dead

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

*Men who make my heart pound: Fifteen of my favorite male horror performances

John Amplas in Martin – Not your typical vampire, Martin (Amplas) is an unsure, faltering, nerdy kind of anti-hero who uses syringes and razor blades to procure the blood he needs.  As one of the undead, he shuffles aimlessly about the wasted streets of Braddock, wondering aloud who should be next. Amplas is so unintentionally subdued here, like he could be the neighbor next door.  If you didn’t know it first hand, you’d never suspect him of a thing.  Which of course, is the entire point.  An unnerving representation of irrational behavior – or is it?  Because we’re never really privy to the truth, we draw our own conclusions of whether Martin is truly a ‘nosferatu’ as his family insists on labeling him constantly – or just a sad, depressed man who’s made a unique and disturbing world for himself that only he can belong to.  The ending speaks for itself, as does Amplas’s acting.

Griffin Dunne in An American Werewolf in London – Most people look at David Naughton as the hero in John Landis’s classic tale of what not to do while traveling in Europe. But I am quite fond of Jack, played by Griffin Dunne. Essentially the comedic relief in the film, Jack is almost immediately compromised by an unfortunate werewolf bite, but his humorous appearances throughout the movie in various stages of decomp are one of the main reasons to check this one out.  And hey, he was the cute one.

Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart - The first time I saw Angel Heart I was blown away. Fresh off his controversial hit 9 1/2 Weeks, I was rather obsessed with Mickey Rourke (yeah, back when he had a face). The story is based on ‘Falling Angel‘, a book by William Hjortsberg, and while this is one time when I saw the movie first, I can’t imagine a better Harry Angel than Rourke. In a period film that takes place in the mid-fifties, Rourke exudes seediness as a somewhat corrupt private detective, and is no more perverse than when he starts a sordid affair with a girl half his age who turns out to be more than she lets on. He’s really spot-on with his character development and though you’re really rooting for Harry to uncover the truth, there’s a part of you that just knows it’s not going to end well.

George C. Scott in The Changeling- Let’s face it, pretty much everything Scott does sounds over the top, with his gruff voice and his penchant for getting louder and louder as the tension climbs. But despite being seemingly too old to be the father figure in this film (grandfather seems more appropriate), he really plays frightened well. As a man who is recovering from the shocking death of his wife and child, he moves into a sprawling estate that has dealt with a few deaths of its own. Scott takes care with the role, never letting John Russell seem too sissified or gullible.   His determination to get to the bottom of the mystery keeps the film rolling on to its satisfying conclusion. This is a man who never gives up, and we wouldn’t want him to.

Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II – Of course I could have mentioned the first Evil Dead, but truly to me, Campbell’s work in the second one is pure genius. The physical comedy aspect of the film, with Ash falling all over the place, punching himself out while fighting with his own hand…can we really say that isn’t just fantastic stuff?  Billed as a sequel but really more of a re-vamp, Evil Dead II showcases Campbell’s knack for hilariously exaggerated faces of gloom and doom and his talent at carrying an entire movie. The chainsaw-for-an-arm scene where he simply says: “Groovy” – classic. I love him unconditionally, and to me he’d be my number one nerd freak-out if I’d ever meet him in person.

Keith Gordon in Christine – I’m not sure a lot of people would mention this name on a list like this. More likely to be forgotten, Keith Gordon shines in his role as a textbook nerd, complete with taped up eyeglasses and bad hair.  He spies a 1958 Plymouth Fury in the front yard of an old geezer and buys that classic up. The near-schizophrenic transformation he goes through as Christine affirms her influence over him is startling. When he becomes so intensely obsessed with the car that his girlfriend nearly dies and his best friend has to reluctantly intervene, you can see all the degrees of madness materializing right before your eyes. It’s terrifyingly well played.

The men of JAWS – Yeah, I know. This is cheating. But when I tried to separate the performances of the three male leads in my favorite movie, I found it just couldn’t be done. Each one does such an impressive job, from Quint (Robert Shaw) as the crotchety old sailor to Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) as the scientist who knows what they face, to Brody (Roy Scheider), a man fearful of the water yet heroic in the paramount moment of the film. It’s just too hard to decide between them. Though my love of Quint’s Indianapolis speech definitely gives him the upper hand, all three actors were superb. Besides Shaw’s shining moment, I give kudos to Dreyfuss when he’s examining the body of the first victim (“Do not smoke in here!”) and to Scheider for his tender moment with his onscreen son (“Give us a kiss”). Good, no…great stuff.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth – Talk about carrying a film. Vincent Price did just that back in 1964 when he played a man on the edge, seemingly alone in the world after a plague of epic proportions has turned everyone into vampires. Every day he sharpens new stakes and wanders the streets, finding undead to dispose of. His melancholy shows through though, and his desperation for contact with any living being (even the dog he finds) renders him nearly mad. The first time I saw this I was quite young and impressionable, and it caused me to have a life-long love of all things Price.  It’s really not to be missed.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968) – By now I think everyone realizes what a statement it was when George Romero selected an African-American as his lead in the zombie classic, so I’m going to set that aside and just proclaim Jones’ performance in this movie as certainly one of the best in horror. While dealing with a nervous wreck of a temporary house-mate, he takes charge of the situation at hand and makes formidable, well thought-out decisions in the wake of the bizarre events that are unfolding. I love Jones in this, portraying the cool, level-headed protagonist seemed as easy as breathing for him.  And just when you think he’s going to make it through as our ‘final guy’….

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs - I’m sure many have heard that this movie was partially filmed right here in my tiny hometown, so of course I was bound to like it just on that justification. But to witness such a tour de force depiction of Hannibal Lecter was simply put, entertaining.  Anthony Hopkins, while only on screen a mere 15 minutes or so, strikes fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned horror fan. The scene with the fava beans is most recognized and quoted, but my favorite scene is when Jodie Foster finally gives up the goods and tells Lecter about her ruined childhood and that damn lamb. His gentle prodding scored him the confession, and the look of sheer ecstasy on his face speaks volumes. Stellar.

Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes - Just because this film got pushed into the shadows of the mighty juggernaut that was The Sixth Sense, Kevin Bacon’s performance shouldn’t. I’ve always liked Bacon, and this film is certainly proof positive that the man has acting chops.  I love that he gets so involved in the mystery that he digs up his entire backyard and then trashes his (rental) kitchen by digging a massive hole right through into the basement and beyond with power tools, including a jackhammer.  He is so believable in the role that he sends shivers down my spine due to his palpable fear.  Chronic insomnia, psychic visions, and a ghost who’s commanding his every move make for a tense, obsessive portrayal of a man who just very well could be descending into madness.

Jack Nicholson in The Shining – I’d get about a thousand protests (maybe more) if I left this man off my list. Again I say, these are men whose performances just blew me away – not necessarily everyone else. But I doubt anyone would disagree with my inclusion of Jack here. While Stephen King states that Kubrick messed his book all up with Jack’s bombastic acting, I say it’s a classic that stands by itself, with Nicholson creating one of the most celebrated characters in horror. There’s really not much that can be added to the immense amount of accolades Nicholson has gotten over the years for his portrayal of Jack Torrance, so I won’t even try.  But the moment when he is staring down at the miniature hedge maze – that look in his eyes? Chilling. And perfect.

George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn – Can I just say I love Clooney in this role? Yes, Tarantino and Keitel are good, but Clooney is great.  At first you think Seth (Clooney) just a thug, but it’s not long till you see his feelings run a bit deeper than that.  His love for his brother Richie (Tarantino) causes him both confusion (at seeing what he did to the female hostage) and pain (when Richie succumbs to the beautiful Salma Hayek).  And he does indeed, turn out to be the good guy when he simply hands Juliet Lewis a wad of cash and wishes her well, instead of corrupting not only her virginity but her life. Favorite line? “Did they look like psychos? Is that what they looked like? They were vampires. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are!”

Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd – For those of you who don’t know me well, I’m telling you now, Johnny Depp is by and far my favorite actor, ever. I love his choices, and he has always been known to head to the dark side as a frequent contributor. I fancy just about any of his roles in the horror genre (yes, even The Ninth Gate, which I think is underrated) but Sweeney Todd was quite frankly, divine. His cold attitude, vengeful deeds, and apathetic moods all make for a splendid display of indifference and murderous intent.   His nonchalant attitude about the deaths of the townspeople by his hand is at once chilling, but near-comedic at the same time.  Oh, and his singing wasn’t too bad either.

Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Psycho II - As expected, Norman Bates is of course on my list. He will always be my first true love, climbing the ladder of my heart and hanging off the top rung precariously. It’s well known that Perkins was unable to escape Norman’s clutches and found it hard to step out of the circle of madness fans had placed him in. Obviously, this can only mean that his display of sheer perfection as the demented mama’s boy was just too good. And it is. You know when people say things like “I can’t imagine anyone else in that role”, well – this is perhaps the biggest offender. No one but Perkins can be thought of as the sadly pathetic motel proprietor, stuffing Mother full of sawdust and ogling beautiful women through peep holes before slashing them to death. Movie antagonists have been killing people on screen for decades, but really – has anyone ever done it with such panache? I rest my case.

*Previously posted elsewhere.