Flynn Gets Creepy in Dark Places

I gulped this book down in about two days, completely unprepared for it. I loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, such a nasty treat, and meant to read her other novels, but the wait list is long at the Brooklyn Public Library. I didn’t even know what Dark Places was about, but when I started flipping through the opening pages listing the reviews that compared it to In Cold Blood, I knew the novel had to go to the top of my book pile. In Cold Blood has to be one of the most reread novels in my house. I had to retire a copy because the cover came off and it started flaking off pages one by one.


While I don’t know much about Kansas and the area where the Clutters were killed (the murder that’s the focus of In Cold Blood), I do know Kansas City, Missouri, and the low-rent satellite communities that surround it. I did a year of high school in Grandview, Missouri, and it was terrifying. I can remember the mean poverty surrounding me in a land of plenty, and it was a marked contrast after coming back from Germany, where my father had been stationed. Flynn recreates this setting in the most creepy and delicious of ways, and I think she gets it right: “He led me around the corner and down a hallway of former offices. I crunched broken glass, peering into each room as we passed: empty, empty, a shopping cart, a careful pile of feces, the remains of an old bonfire, and then a homeless man who said Hiya! cheerfully over a forty-ounce.”

The characters populating the story are as much of a knockout as how Flynn captures the Missouri setting. Unlikely protagonist Libby Day is in a precarious position. She’s now in her early thirties, the only other survivor besides her brother of her family’s brutal murder that happened one night in January 1985. Libby’s brother was accused of murdering her two sisters and mother; only Libby survived, after running away, though she sacrificed some toes and half a finger to frostbite.

Charlize Theron will play the adult Libby in the movie version of Dark Places.

With Libby’s testimony, her brother is now serving a life sentence in prison and she has been living on money put up by strangers long ago in a fund in her name. Not having a job for most of her life, she’s burned through almost all of it, even when supplemented by a ghostwritten self-help book capitalizing on her story.

Libby has incomplete memories of the time the murders happened, but she starts thinking back on those events after a strange man approaches her, offering money for any mementos or recollections. She’s made her apartment and bed a cocoon from the rest of the world and would rather go back to that defining moment of her life and make money from it than to acquire new skills and go out into the world. Libby is still a brat as an adult, seemingly stuck at the age when tragedy struck, but she has her sweet moments, too.

Flynn is a master of suspense and skillful at balancing the two story lines of Dark Places. She alternates going between the events that built up to the multiple murder in 1985 and what is happening to the adult Libby as she starts recovering her memories of that time while going outside of her comfort zone and meeting new people. Flynn’s able to keep the tension mounting in both story lines until they meet and the mystery is revealed. The smallest details contribute to the major revelation at the end, but they’re not clumsy and never give the story away. I never saw the real story behind the multiple murder coming, yet it didn’t come off as implausible.

Still from the movie Dark Places , with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.
Still from the movie Dark Places, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.


Flynn is one of the authors that I try and press friends to read, and when my sister was looking for a good book, I insisted she read Dark Places. She couldn’t guess the ending either, and she’s usually really good at it. We have a game we play when watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU where she has to guess the perpetrator in the first five minutes, and she almost always pegs it right. Not this time.

I really think 2014 is going to be Flynn’s year. Both Gone Girl and Dark Places will appear as movies (according to IMDb), with excellent casts attached, exposing more people to her work. Now, if only I had another Flynn novel to look forward to because I’m down to the last one.

Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn

Hunger Games Catching Fire: the Marketing of a Girl

Catching Fire picks up a few months after the Hunger Games left off. Katniss and Peeta have arrived home to District 12 and now live in elegant digs compared to what they had before taking part in the Hunger Games. Peeta’s sulky because the romance he dreams of with Katniss has not taken place offscreen, and Katniss is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. President Snow, the creepy and elegant Donald Sutherland, visits Katniss right before her Victory Tour, telling her she has to sell this romance and make it believable. Signs of dissent have spread throughout the Capitol and surrounding districts, and Snow is even seeing the results in his own household, when his granddaughter (Erica Bierman) appears at the breakfast table in Katniss’s trademark braids, telling him, “All the girls wear their hair like this.” This girl from District 12 has become a symbol of something he doesn’t want, but everybody else likes, even loves, her.


For going against the rules and inspiring others to question their drudge of a life, Katniss must be punished. And Jennifer Lawrence’s acting is a gem here, as she pretends to be a bad actress while on the Victory Tour, all hammy, SNL skit-like with eyelash batting and fake smiles, alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). President Snow is not pleased with the results, and with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he decides she must be eliminated. The Quarter Quell is upon them, a special edition of the Hunger Games that comes about every twenty-five years, and the twist this year is to reap past Hunger Game winners from each district and make them repeat the games with the best of the best.

I found this installment of the movie much more emotional than the first, now that the main characters have been established and people have gotten over their Fatniss fixation. There were so many times I felt my heart in my throat, especially in the scenes with Katniss and Peeta showing real love for each other, in contrast to what they faked during the Victory Tour. Though Katniss doesn’t have the love connection with Peeta that she does with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), he is the only person who understands what happened to her during the Hunger Games. And he loves her desperately, though she doesn’t understand why.


There are very few changes between the book Catching Fire and the movie, and most are those of omission. Peeta tries to save Katniss from entering the arena again by dropping a baby bomb, which isn’t described as such in the novel but the term is adopted in the movie, and I like how parallels are drawn between our celebrity-driven culture and these bloody games. A baby bump becomes a complete game changer, and while Katniss cannot avoid the Quarter Quell, she’s able to manipulate the sympathies of viewers and possible sponsors.

The omissions, I think, help heighten the tension, so viewers aren’t bored and easily able to figure out what’s going to happen in the end. And maybe that’s good for those who have read the trilogy as background before going in to the movie, but I watched it with two who had not read the books, and they both felt like they were missing important information. Then I watched Catching Fire again with my nine-year-old niece when I was visiting for Christmas, and she needed information to process what was going on on-screen. I answered her questions in whispers, trying not to piss off the people in back of us, and when she got it, her face lit up with pure pleasure, enjoying the story of tough ladies and guys trying to make it out alive.


Afterward, she wanted to play Hunger Games, using characters from the movie Catching Fire. She didn’t want to be Katniss, who she deemed too nice. Instead, she invented her own character Catty, who had Katniss-like traits with a little bit of Johanna mean. Johanna’s mean streak intrigued her (a standout performance by Jena Malone), but my niece didn’t feel like she could act out those parts so I was assigned her character. It made me happy that instead of one girl part, my niece had several female roles to choose from—a healer, a genius, a warrior, etc.—to see what fit her personality.


Our playacting brought to mind one of the press junkets the Hunger Games cast did for the first movie. One of the questions given was which character would the other actors liked to have been, and Jennifer Lawrence mentioned how nobody ever chooses Katniss. I think it’s because we already envision ourselves as a Katniss, a hero who is brave and loyal, but we would like to try on brutishness or vulnerability, traits that aren’t usually interpreted as heroic.

Obsession Grows Tedious in Room 237

Being a Shining fan—of both the book and the movie—I was curious to see Room 237, the documentary about the many theories spawned by Stanley Kubrick’s movie. I’ve seen Kubrick’s version of The Shining more than five times—maybe even more than that—and never read too much into it. I always thought it was a damn fine movie, and I particularly liked the device of Danny’s index finger being his imaginary friend Tony (sometimes simpler is scarier) and Scatman Crothers’s performance as Dick Hallorann. After seeing the movie, I can never imagine anybody else as that character.


I’d been waiting a couple of weeks to see the movie and was grateful that the IFC Center was still showing it. After buying my ticket and entering the theater, I was thrilled to recognize it as the one where I saw Ron Perlman in The Last Winter several years before, and I remembered a nice red-and-black bathroom tucked away in the basement. I never made it down there, though, sidetracked by a display of T-shirts that at first glance appeared to be logos of heavy metal bands. Looking closer, though, the names were of arty directors in the style of heavy metal bands—there was Fassbinder, Herzog, and my personal favorite, Carpenter. I’m not sure about the trademark issues for this, but it’s a fun idea.


We went upstairs to a theater that I hadn’t been in before and waited…and waited…and waited for it to open. After being seated in the lobby for more than twenty minutes, the crowd had grown large and people actually formed a line to get into the movie theater. Reluctantly we joined them, but it didn’t make a difference as to better seating choice. The theater was full of overstuffed purple-and-white seats that were all sprung, and my chair felt like my father’s broken-down La-Z-Boy. My friends and I got four seats together, and all felt the same way about the chairs. Such a shame, it’s getting harder and harder to find a good, comfortable theater in New York.

Smart-people shorts were shown before the movie—one about politics and another about how Iraqi citizens who had risked their lives to help the U.S. armed forces during the war were now not being allowed promised refuge in the United States (as a result of their help, they were being assassinated by enemies). A woman came in late during these shorts and took the aisle seat next to our group—I knew we should have shifted over one more to close the gap. She had the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, and I didn’t think anything of it, except That should go rather quick.

The documentary Room 237 starts out strong with one man’s theory about what the Calumet baking powder means in a few scenes of The Shining, where the cans are prominently displayed. The theorists’ faces are never shown. Instead, the movie’s visuals are clips from the The Shining that have been slowed down to a crawl so each and every detail of a scene can be analyzed; some behind-the-scenes footage and stills of the movie are also shown. This part I really enjoyed, as I could appreciate how much really goes into building a scene. It was mesmerizing to see Jack Nicholson psyching himself up for his famous ax-wielding scene off camera and almost whacking one of the film crew in the head, and there are so many in-jokes in The Shining that I had never picked up on before because the images fly by so fast.


The faceless theorists of Room 237 started to get on my nerves, though. A speaker starts out with a theory on the movie—some are very strong and hold up—but then after you’ve started down the path with them, quite a few veer off into Crazytown. It reminded me of being in a bar, where you meet somebody for the first time and think, Wow, this guy seems really nice and smart, but then the conversation takes a turn and you realize the person is batshit crazy. The problem becomes how do you extricate yourself from this conversation?

With Room 237, I had paid $13 to be part of these conversations, so I was damned if I was walking out. I tried to tune out the annoying theorists, but then I ended up picking up on the peccadilloes of audience members around me. Like the woman with the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, which she made last for forty-five minutes by eating it kernel by kernel, all noisy, openmouthed chewing. After that, she took out her iPhone and made Facebook status updates before leaving, bored. Not to worry, a guy behind us started up being annoying once she left, with big, rumbling snores.

I think my threshold was very low because the theorists were annoying me, and I didn’t feel like I could trust any of them, and that in turn dialed up the annoying quirks that I can usually tune out.

Evil Dead Reboot: Only the Strong Need Apply

So far, 2013 is shaping up to be a great year for horror. Both a Stephen King and a Joe Hill book are coming out this year; the Stephen King miniseries Under the Dome comes out in June; and Donna Tartt, who I consider gothic horror, is putting out a new novel this fall. This last weekend I had choices about what to see out in the theaters—two! That almost never happens. Granted, one was a documentary on theories behind a very famous horror movie, but still, the diversity.

My horror-loving friends and I debated which movie to see, and we finally decided on Evil Dead at the Union Square movie theater, planning on drinks and food afterward to dissect the movie. I was excited because I saw Diablo Cody’s name attached to the screenplay on IMDb. A lot of people have bagged on her work after Juno, like Jennifer’s Body and United States of Tara, but I really like her. She writes strong, complex female and male characters, and the lady really likes her horror.

The Union Square movie theater’s gem is a man in a wheelchair who greets customers as they enter the theater. One of my friends was running late, so as two others saved seats, I waited downstairs for the straggler. Me and the greeter started talking about what movie I was going to see, and he said he’d seen it and that it was scary.

“How scary is it?”

He gave me a mischievous smile and said, “If I’m still working after you see it, come tell me what you thought.”

Another woman, a lover of the original Evil Dead trilogy, joined in the conversation, and we talked about our favorite Evil Dead movies and moments, and the greeter told us which were the best theaters in the complex and that I didn’t have to worry about being late for my 4:30 p.m. movie—it wouldn’t really start until 4:45 p.m.

I’d received e-mails telling me about how one woman, a movie critic, walked out of the theater because of a self-mutilation scene, and I started to get a little worried. I do not like torture movies—that’s why I had to quit the Saw franchise after the second movie. I draw the line at torture and animal cruelty, and guess what? This Evil Dead reboot hits on both.


I knew the filmmakers of the Evil Dead reboot would have to take a much different direction from the original, which is a classic. You can’t touch the zany mix of humor and over-the-top grotesqueness that are the original Evil Dead trilogy. The filmmakers decided to go with gore, and I knew I was in trouble, with the first scene establishing the story of the evil cabin in the woods, when I saw the torture instruments lying out on a wooden table in the basement, where all the bad juju happens.

It’s an interesting premise how the young group is gathered in the woods in the first place—to stage a drug intervention, where everybody promises to stay through to the end, no matter how crazy it gets, in order to help and support their friend/sister. When shit starts to go down, nobody’s able to really scream at the screen, Leave! Go! Get in the car and drive. Instead, it’s understandable when the character Mia (Jane Levy), going through withdrawal, is not believed after saying there’s something in the woods.


Her friends bumble through the cabin, trying to clean up the place, and come across the Book of the Dead locked up in the basement. One ends up releasing the demon complete with my favorite, the Raimi effect. Who knew that a camera strapped to a two-by-four would become such a legacy? I’m sure the footage was shot more artfully in this Evil Dead reboot, but it looks the same to me, and it’s an important link to the original trilogy.


The problem for me with this version of the Evil Dead is the too-realistic gore that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. I saw at least five people get up and leave the theater, not able to stomach any more, and at the end, reading credits and waiting for the legendary Bruce Campbell’s cameo, I didn’t see Diablo Cody’s name go by for screenplay. It made me wonder if her efforts were rubbed out.

I guess this is a great movie for some, but not me. The acting is good, the story makes sense, but I just don’t like torture films. I was counting down the bodies, knowing only one would be left standing and it was just a matter of time. Because the characters were all dying in such grisly ways, I didn’t grow attached to any of them. I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie again when it’s released on DVD, though the small screen might make the gore more tolerable. I prefer the goofy fun of the original Evil Dead.

An Alligator Easter

We have an Easter tradition of eating exotic meats, but I’m not really sure where it started. I can remember Easters where we had duck a l’orange, bison, ostrich. Last year, we had lamb, which was a bit pedestrian for us. Maybe that’s why Kristi decided this year that we must have alligator. She called me up special at work to let me know, and with a gulp, I said okay. That was the whole point of our exotic meat Easters: to challenge our palates.

The day before Easter, I accompanied Kristi and her boyfriend Ed to Chinatown to shop for our exotic meats. In Chinatown, you’ll find food in its rawest form. One time I left a studio after drawing dancers in rehearsal and saw a truck open with five pigs being unloaded, their heads, legs, and tails perfectly intact, along with their pink color. The cooks acted like it was no big deal, but I think I’m permanently scarred. Walking down the streets, you might see duck carcasses strung up by their necks in shopwindows, like some kind of bizarre meat garland, and it was no different when we walked into the Chinatown meat shop.

While Kristi and Ed browsed the alligator claws, picking out the best ones, I looked inside strange aquariums and buckets to find frogs and live swimming eels. Food feels very primal in Chinatown, like when you eat something, it means a little bit more than just filling up the breadbasket.

Once Kristi and Ed purchased the alligator claws, they stored them in a handy cloth cooler bag that they brought along for just that purpose, and I was able to forget about them for the evening. Sunday came and Kristi and Ed came over at around 4 p.m. to start preparing the grand alligator meal. I bought wine, a little puzzled about what would pair nicely with alligator (I chose a white that didn’t taste too much like cat pee), and a lot of beer, which we all decided would be just fine. Kristi said it would take a few hours to make the meal and that worked well for me since I was knee-deep in edits for a Regency romance.

While Kristi and Ed chopped and sautéed, I read about breeches, redingotes, and heaving bosoms, looking up such things as the time period when condoms were invented and if the word touchy-feely existed circa late eighteenth century (it didn’t). At a certain point, Kristi called me to look at the alligator claws in our kitchen sink, and I was super-creeped out as I took pictures, filled with a combination of both repulsion and awe, thinking, I’m going to eat this; I’m really going to eat this.


Kristi told me she would be blackening the alligator so it would be done rather fast. I returned to the Regency romance, but I couldn’t get back into the world of whether this married couple would stay together or not. I had a real problem on my hands. I had to eat alligator.

I started googling things like What does alligator taste like? The answer came back that the best meat of an alligator is its tail (unavailable in Chinatown) with a taste like spongy chicken. Okay, I thought I might be able to handle that. Then I remembered how some ancient warriors would defeat their enemies in battle and eat their hearts in order to take on their fierce traits. We were on the precipice of April, my special month of transformation and spring, renewal, and hopes for the next year. By eating alligator, I decided I would take on the qualities of an alligator. Fearlessness, silence while lying in wait for prey or enemies, amazing strength, and cunning would be mine.

I could hear coughs coming from the living room, and then Kristi came knocking on my door to say that dinner was ready. Steeling myself, I opened the door and found the house filled with smoke from the alligator blackening. Ed set up a fan in the living room to direct the smoke out the windows, and after pouring some cold ones for us three, I sat down to a plate full of stew, collard greens, olive bread, and something that looked like chicken nuggets. I was so relieved that the alligator was somewhat disguised and looked nothing like the claws I saw in the sink.


We gave each other significant looks and took up our nuggets. The first one tasted brackish to me, like drinking tank water, but I was determined to take on my alligator qualities. I experimented by eating the alligator nuggets plain, dipping them in stew, and wrapping them in collard greens. The last worked the best, and I was able to wolf most of my nuggets that way. At a certain point, though, I had to stop. Ed had called it quits way before me, declaring, “I don’t like alligator.” Of the three of us, it was only Kristi who really had a taste for it.

After our dinner, so stuffed we could barely bend, we put in our carefully selected Easter movie, The Great Santini, featuring a couple of the best smart-asses to ever grace the screen: Bull Meechum and my personal favorite, his redheaded daughter Mary Anne Meechum. Of course, I forgot about the soup scene at the beginning of the movie, but despite that, it ended up being a perfect choice. The Meechums embody the qualities of alligator and alligator came up twice in the movie, causing everybody to drink.


Now it gets me thinking about next year. I think I might need a lion’s heart.

Chan wook-Park Goes English with Stoker

The movie Stoker snuck up on me. I didn’t even know it was coming out until a few days before opening weekend. I was first introduced to Korean director Chan wook-Park’s work when I saw part of his Vengeance trilogy Oldboy, one of my first exposures to K-horror. It was a tense, scary movie, one of those where I sometimes had to put my hand up and block parts of the screen from my vision, especially when a hammer came into play. After that movie, I was so glad to walk out of the dark theater and come into sunlight on a smelly, garbagey New York street. That movie smashed my preconceptions of what horror should be—so often I was truly shocked and horrified by what came onto the screen because the clichés, the rules, were not followed. But that’s also what made it so wonderful—it wasn’t a predictable movie.


I can see those same sensibilities in Stoker, Chan wook-Park’s first English language production. Right away, it’s apparent that there’s something off in this story, but it’s so subtle, you can’t put your finger on it right away. The protagonist India (Mia Wasikowska) fills the screen, gallivanting around the trees and garden areas of her family’s country estate. From a distance she looks like a child, all long limbs and gangly while climbing a tree, but as the camera focuses in on her, it becomes apparent that India is almost a full-grown woman who aggressively keeps herself childlike.

The audience finds out that this particular day happens to be the funeral for her father, who passed away in a terrible accident when he was two states away from the family home, unbeknownst to them. India is afflicted with a mysterious disease, where her senses are hyperacute. She has X-Men-like powers of hearing and can’t stand to be touched. She also has incredibly morbid tastes, and I couldn’t help but see India as a teenaged Wednesday Addams.


India lives in a beautiful house, wears beautiful clothes, and has a beautiful mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), but there is an austere, cold quality to her life. She has no friends and keeps everybody at a distance—perhaps in memory of her father, who appears to have been her best friend.

Her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up at the house on the day that her father is buried. India and Evelyn have never met him since Charlie has been abroad with business, but with the tragedy, he returns. Charlie does his best to ingratiate himself with India, bringing her treats, trying to give her rides, etc., but she’s a hard sell. Evelyn, on the other hand, is ridiculously easy to persuade, and she does whatever Charlie wants. He seems intent on replacing his brother in this very strange household—no matter what it takes.


Evelyn has romantic designs on Charlie, but India tries to hide her curiosity (she wants to know who he is and where he came from, but she doesn’t want him to see her interest). At school, India is subjected to some bullying by boys, mostly sexual in nature, but it doesn’t get to her at all. She brushes them off like flies. She’s a pretty girl, but it’s her ice queen exterior that seems to bring about the unwanted attention. When the bullying intensifies, India becomes the aggressor after she is provoked. I found it refreshing to see a female who could more than take care of herself and pull a few surprises when in the middle of packlike behavior that could turn quite dangerous.

This is an odd little horror movie and very nuanced, so I’m glad I saw it on a big screen and could really take in all of the details. If you’re looking for broad splashes of blood, monsters in the basement, and other familiar horror tropes, this is probably not the movie for you. But if you want to see horror as Stravinsky might have visualized it, Stoker delivers.

Trick or Treat: the Movie That Got Me through My Sophomore Year

For about a year in high school, Trick or Treat (a low budget horror movie dealing with heavy metal) was the most important movie in my life. My family had moved to a one-horse town where the main activity for teenagers was “cruising,” driving around aimlessly in cars and grouping in parking lots, trying to arrange meeting spots or procure alcohol.

I was a heavy metal kid, and there was a very small contingent of these people at my new school. They were harder to pick out than at my last high school, where there was a definite heavy metal uniform and no way of mistaking your affiliation. In this new town, I might see some longish hair and a T-shirt for a heavy metal band. But this might just mean that they liked the band. What I was interested in was did they live for the music? No-compromising dress and hair was an indicator for me that they did. It took awhile to get to know people, and I was called a few names and even told point-blank by one junior girl in study hall (who I’m sure had the best intentions) that I would have to change my hair and dress if I wanted to get along with people.

I don’t know anyone who comes out of that age unscathed. It’s the cruelest time, I think, because you are ruled by your peers. You haven’t learned how to behave or think in nuances yet and are controlled by galloping hormones to boot. Junior high and high school seems to be one big Lord of the Flies, and I congratulate anyone who makes it out alive—really, it feels like a war sometimes. Luckily we are given a few tools to make those years more bearable—music, books, and movies, and the heroes that are born of them.

In those dark days of being the new kid in a place that didn’t see this too often, I was dependent on my stereo and a stack of black VCR tapes on which me and my sister had recorded horror movies from cable channels. Our favorite movie at this time was Trick or Treat starring Marc Price (of Family Ties fame) as Eddie Weinbauer, the awkward heavy metal kid at his high school. He’s a fuckup and teased mercilessly by the popular clique, but that’s okay because he’s got his rock god Sammi Curr, who happens to come from the exact same town but got out. Looking a lot like Nikki Sixx circa mid-1980s, Sammi Curr has made it big in heavy metal and taken on legislative groups similar to the PMRC—remember that one?


It’s easy to forget that heavy metal once scared the shit out of people and that’s what Trick or Treat plays on—those long-ago fears that if you played a Judas Priest record backwards you would be compelled to commit suicide or sell your soul to the devil. Eddie understands what heavy metal really is, though—it’s borrowed power for when you’re feeling weak and vulnerable.


Eddie writes to his hero Sammi Curr and is able to minimize his high school bullying because Curr gets him through it. He signs off his letters with Ragman, the heavy metal identity he’s created for himself, but then he discovers that Curr has perished in a hotel fire.

There are a few cameos in Trick or Treat by heavy metal icons, and to look at the DVD cover you might think that Ozzy Osbourne (as a reverend) and Gene Simmons (as a DJ named Nuke) are the stars of this movie. Between the two of them, though, they share maybe seven minutes tops. They are funny minutes with Osbourne mimicking the groups that came after him, parsing his lyrics to show the moral depravity in them. And Nuke helps to put the plot of Trick or Treat in action.


Nuke is friends with Eddie, and out of fan love, he gives him Sammi Curr’s unreleased record, which he plans on playing publicly for the first time on Halloween eve. Somewhat consoled, Eddie takes it home and falls asleep listening to it. That’s when he discovers that there are hidden messages on the record that tell him how to get even with the kids that pick on him. Within a week of listening to and following those messages, Eddie goes from powerless to powerful.

The role of Sammi Curr (both pre-fire and after he is conjured by the backward-playing record) was originally supposed to go to Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. It ended up going to Tony Fields instead, a former Solid Gold dancer of all things—how un­–heavy metal is that? He’s not bad as the satanic rocker—there’s a real sense of evil and menace that comes off him in the early part of the movie, but by the end, the movie’s devolved into camp and that scare is over.


That wasn’t what appealed to me that sophomore year, though. It was the idea that I could make heads roll when I felt least able.


30 Years Later and Cujo Still Scares Me

I was afraid to rewatch Cujo because when I saw this movie as a kid it terrified me and holds a special place in my mind, filed under “scary.” Some of the things I was enamored with at that age don’t stand the test of time, but I’m happy to report that Cujo still scares as a movie.


I first saw this at my next-door neighbor’s house when my family was living in Landstuhl, Germany. Our house had a color TV tuned to the military station with about twelve hours of news programming on per day; the only commercials were for recruitment—about “Be all you can be.” Certain neighbors, though, had VCRs and connections in the United States who would tape movies from the premium cable channels. That’s what I used to think was rich, walking into somebody’s living room—which was the same exact size and in the same location in every base housing apartment—and seeing a dark wood shelving unit loaded with VCR tapes and the boxy apparatus that would take them. Some people had both tape brands and equipment—Betamax and VHS. That was really rich.

Cujo takes some mundane elements and combines them brilliantly, and most of that is because of its excellent source material, Stephen King’s novel of the same name. What if the friendliest dog in the world (and one of the biggest) got bit by a rabid bat and developed rabies? What if the owner went away, but somebody came by and was trapped by the dog? What would happen? A tense little horror movie, that’s what.


In Cujo, there’s an American family of three—a mom (Dee Wallace), dad (Daniel Hugh Kelly), and son (Danny Pintauro as a wee boy)—and on the surface everything looks okay. But the mother is having an affair with the handyman—out of boredom it appears—threatening to destroy the family. When her husband needs quick work done on his car and goes out to see a man who’s good with engines, they run into another family. This is a country family of a different class, where everybody has a job to do, even the dog Cujo.

The mom’s affair is discovered, or rather suspected, and she chooses not to lie about it. The way this is played out is very quiet but well done—more like what an affair really does in a family, I think. There’s incredible tension between the husband and wife that the kid picks up on, and when the wife’s car is acting up before her husband has to take an emergency business trip, he’s not inclined toward helping her out any. This keeps the plot humming along, and when the mom takes her broken-down Pinto to the farm where the rabid dog lives and gets trapped with her son, the audience isn’t surprised that she’s left alone there. Her husband doesn’t freak out because he can’t get a hold of her; no red flags are sent up. After all, he’s just discovered she’s having an affair and isn’t sure what he’s going to do about it.

The music soundtrack is a bit bizarre, ranging from something that sounds like what played during the Little House on the Prairie opening credits—this is used when Cujo does his running and leaping about as a normal dog—and then when Cujo turns rabid and dangerous, the music changes to something like what the band Tangerine Dream specialized in, a particular kind of eighties soundtrack for genre movies.

I could tell during the dog-fighting scenes that some sort of a stand-in was being used, either a huge puppet or somebody dressed in a dog suit, spliced in with shots of a dog that was probably going for bologna held up behind a door. That didn’t distract me; rather it reassured me that no harm came to any dogs during the making of the movie. Standards were more lax back then, and after hearing about how the children’s classic Milo and Otis went through countless numbers of orange kitties and pug dogs to film all the stunts, I’m suspicious of animal movies.

As the mother, Dee Wallace does a great job playing the mama bear, doing everything in her power to protect her son from the monster and sometimes even snarling at him in frustration because of their situation and her fraying nerves. She is the hero in this movie, and she’s a very human hero with lots of flaws. A Pinto station wagon is a very small space to set most of a movie, but Cujo does exceedingly well with this plot device. You can feel the claustrophobia and fear, and the first time Cujo makes himself known to the mother and son—well, it still makes me jump almost thirty years later, reminding me that a car can be freedom, but sometimes it can be a trap, too.

Go, Go, Guillermo!

Guillermo del Toro is probably my top horror director—if not the top, he’s definitely in my horror trinity. One of the things I like best about del Toro is how generous he is with other artists. He saw this short by Spanish filmmaker Andres Muschietti in 2008 and helped the artist develop it into the full movie Mama, which will be released January 18.


The short is terrifying, as is the trailer for the movie that will be coming out in three weeks.


I’m excited and plan on seeing the movie opening weekend to show my support. The last time Guillermo del Toro helped out a Spanish filmmaker, I was introduced to The Orphanage, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. Hopefully, Mama will hold me until del Toro’s own feature, Pacific Rim, comes out on my dad’s birthday, July 12. Maybe I’ll go visit my dad in Iowa to see that one.


Silver Linings Playbook Is Excelsior!

Manic depression runs in my family, so I was curious to see Silver Linings Playbook, which has a bipolar protagonist. For a long time people didn’t know what manic depression/bipolar disorder was—my mom says they just always called it “the family illness” when she was a kid. But now mental health professionals do and there are a lot more civilized treatments for it—drug therapies that really work—rather than institutions, shock treatments, and lobotomies. Bipolars can be the most fun, charismatic people that you will ever meet, but if they are going through one of their manic/depressive phases, the other people around them can feel like they’ve been hit by a train, even starting to question their own sanity—Am I going crazy, or…?

Watching the first part of the movie Silver Linings Playbook, I was very uncomfortable because it follows the main character Pat going through a manic phase, and I guess it just hit too close to home. The movie opens with Pat (Bradley Cooper) repeating his mantra to himself, “Excelsior!” He’s locked up in a mental institution after experiencing a psychotic break. Eight months earlier, Pat had come home from his teaching job to find his wife exchanging sexual favors in the shower with another teacher, who Pat then proceeded to beat the shit out of, almost killing him. The courts gave him two choices: psych unit or jail.

Pat’s mother decides to spring him for the holidays, without consulting anybody else, and once Pat is home, it’s easy to see where the bipolar gene comes from. His dad, also named Pat (Robert De Niro), has to be dancing on the edge of the illness. He’s obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles and has little rituals associated with the team such as holding onto an Eagles handkerchief and assigning “lucky” people to hold the remote control while a game is playing. He’s also convinced that Pat Jr. has serious magic and is constantly trying to get his son to watch games with him, assured that if he is there, his team will win.


Pat is trying to get his life together while back home with his parents, but his unmedicated mania keeps getting the cops called to the house. His wife has a restraining order against him, but Pat has made her into his holy grail. His obsessions all turn toward winning her back, which is a bit difficult when he has to always maintain a distance of five hundred feet. Leave it to a manic depressive to find a way, though.

In his quest to get his wife back, Pat sets up a dinner date with an old friend and his wife Veronica, where he’s introduced to Veronica’s sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has her own issues. They immediately bond over the meds they’ve been on and their side effects, and it’s hilarious watching this play out over the dinner table, where the normals are the ones left feeling weird and left out while the loonies laugh it up.


This dinner scene also marks the turning point in the movie—shortly after, Pat starts taking his meds. He’s been resisting for so long because he says the drugs make him foggy and not sharp. But he can’t be arrested again if he wants to get back together with his wife. Also, Tiffany had offered to help reunite them if Pat will do one little favor for her, and he takes the bait. The relationship between these two not-quite-right people, Tiffany and Pat, make up the rest of the movie, and that’s what makes it shine.


Cooper does fine as Pat, and I think he gives a realistic portrayal of a bipolar, based on the many I have known. I could feel my teeth grinding as he went on some of his rants in his early unmedicated state, but then rooted for him when he tried to restrain his unsavory impulses. The movie gets a little tense at times, but fellow mental patient Danny (Chris Tucker) makes well-timed appearances throughout, moving the story forward and bringing good comedy.

The real heart of the movie is Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany. When she comes on, the scenes just have a more realistic, authentic dimension to them—she has a Streepish quality to her acting and presents a character with so many facets to her personality, showing vulnerability, sexiness, a tendency toward self-destruction, and great comedic instincts. There’s one scene—probably the one that an audience at the Cannes Film Festival rose and gave a spontaneous ovation to—where she interrupts Pat’s family arguing during what looks to be their downfall. The outcome looks bleak, but by the time Tiffany is done, she gets what she wants, as well as taking a crazy scheme and making it even more bizarre, all while making the family love her. And the audience too. That’s some pretty genius acting and somewhat bipolar, I think.