Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Walking Dead--Midseason Report

(a putresecent Tom Petty?)

AMC's The Walking Dead had an inglorious offseason, which included the replacement of its writing staff and the subsequent firing of executive producer Frank Darabont.  Heading into Season 2, then, the future of the show was looking as grim as the post-apocalyptic scenario it dramatizes.  Admittedly, I came to the new arc of episodes worried about a precipitous drop-off in overall quality.  Well, the series' midseason finale aired this past Sunday, and at this point I have to say that The Walking Dead isn't what it used to be.

It's even better.

The show obviously qualifies as horror (Greg Nicotero's special fx makeup for the title corpses is eye-popping), with plenty of carnage oh-so-graphically splashed across its canvas.  But perhaps the true secret to The Walking Dead's success is its science-fictional sensibilities: its thorough extrapolation of what existence would really be like for human survivors in a world overrun by the undead.  This series takes its subject matter seriously (which makes the pop cultural frivolity--for instance, all those silly zombie-themed TV commercials appearing nowadays--that has followed in its wake quite ironic).

For all the behind-the-scenes shake-up, the show's creative vision has been astounding.  The storyline has been stocked with "holy shit!" moments, such as the shocking bit of gunplay at the end of the season premiere and the scene of Otis's demise a few episodes later.  The plot twist at the climax of Sunday's midseason finale literally made me gasp (it continues to haunt me even as I sit here typing).  But the finest aspect of The Walking Dead is without a doubt its cast of characters.  Thankfully, the show's writers don't serve up generic heroes and villains but rather multifaceted figures rife with moral complexity.  Even a seemingly genteel old-timer like Herschel proves to be the embodiment of American Gothic (never trust a farmer who owns a dilapidated barn!).  And Shane has evolved not only into the series' most intriguing character but the best good guy/bad guy combo on cable TV since Tony Soprano.

Let me state it bluntly: there is no better drama series on television right now than this one.  If you haven't been following along, I encourage you to use the hiatus (the second half of the season kicks off on February 12) to catch up with the episodes.  On a gut-level you will be horrified by the gruesome violence, but you'll also find that there's a slew of intellectual stimulation in store.  The Walking Dead is the mindless-braineater narrative for the thinking man.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names: The Top 5 States

With my national survey now complete, I decided to go back through all the posts for the "Most Gothic Place Names" Feature and choose the upper-tenth of Macabre Republic.  My final selections were made based on that state's complete batch of cited appellations--not just the one singled out for the weekly honor of "Most Gothic."  Anyhow, here are my Top 5 picks, in alphabetical order:




4.New York


[A word of thanks to placenames.com for providing such a handy database for my searches over the past year.]

Think I short-changed a certain state?  Then feel free to leave a Comment to this post.  Also, what would you vote for the single Most Gothic Place Name in all of the United States?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Wyoming

[For previous entries, click the "Most Gothic Place Names" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

The final stop on the Republic-wide tour is Wyoming, which includes such arresting place names as Devils Tower (has sinister leanings), Murke (sounds gloomy to me), Skull Creek (the residents are really struggling to keep their heads above water), Little Medicine (and lots of mortality), Owl Creek (Bierce-ly loyal?), Camel Hump (apparently unabashed about bestiality), Point of Rocks (is that they wound more assuredly than words do), and Recluse (outstanding spot for shut-ins).  But when it comes to macabre monikers, Wyoming's finest offering is...

Crimson Dawn.  This sounds like a town in the sway of some strange cult.  Or a place where the gutters run red before the bloodletters finally settle down for the day.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

Pedophiliac coaches who'll find out what it's really like to be on the hot seat once they land Down Below...
--6:14 P.M., November 24th

Shoppers who redden Black Friday by callously trampling their fellow bargain-hunters when the store doors open...
--6:10 P.M., November 24th

Deranged dads who get carried away with the carving during the family dinner...
--6:08 P.M., November 24th

Holidays that pay homage to the Deadly Sins (Gluttony in late-November)...
--6:05 P.M., November 24th

These are the kinds of things for which I give thanks:
--6:04 P.M., November 24th

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Palm Tree

Granted, my imagination gravitates toward the dark side, but to me this tree looks like a giant, eldritch hand reaching up out of the earth.  In fact, when I first passed by it one night late last month, I thought it was a Halloween decoration!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Wisconsin

[For previous entries, click the "Most Gothic Place Names" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

And then there were two states left to survey.

Wisconsin gives us such incredible appellations as Black Earth (shadowed grounds), New Diggings (leads down to Gravesville), Siren (a city in a constant state of alarm), Twin Town (a.k.a. Doppelgangland), Pulp (Tarantino territory), Spirit Falls (anomie guaranteed), New Munster (Herman's hermitage?), Embarrass (a community bent on humiliation), Bundy (a bunch of Ted-Heads), and Horseman (no abode for Ichabod).  Nevertheless, the stand-out name in the Badger State comes from...

Marlands.  A site of utter blight.  A place where the respect for others' property is nonexistent, and the dedication to uglification unsurpassed.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 (Film Review)

[To read last year's review of Paranormal Activity 2, click here.]

Paranormal Activity 3 (Paramount, 2011; Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)

The strength of Paranormal Activity 2 lay in its ability to adhere to formula while also offering original twists.  PA2 presented more characters, more characters, more mayhem, and ingeniously altered viewers' understanding of the events of the first film.  Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't quite have the same revisionary power, but nonetheless succeeds as a vehicle of terror.

Recapturing the intimate feel of the original, PA3 takes us back into the bedroom (of the children and their parents, respectively).  This strategic camera placement intensifies the frisson by reminding us that sleeping is a state of personal vulnerability--to lie down is to let our guard down.  The cleverest viewpoint PA3 furnishes, though, is a slow-moving scan of the living room and kitchen, achieved by the rigging of a video camera atop an oscillating fan.  Dread inevitably builds during the perpetual pendulating between rooms, as viewers anticipate the appearance of something awful ahead as well as the sound of something unnerving behind.  Veterans of the film series know full well the gotcha! moments are coming, yet these incidents still manage to prove truly startling (I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say there's a kitchen scene here even more jolting than the one in PA2).

While the scares are skillfully delivered, they are hampered by a certain lack of narrative logic.  There was a determined malev-olence and aggressiveness to the unseen demon's acts in the first film that made the scenario even more frightening.  Here in the third installment, though, the motivation of the paranormal entity has grown murky.  At times it seems to be messing with the family just for the hell of it.

The other shortcoming of PA3 stems from its framing as a prequel that hearkens back to Katie and Kristi's childhood. It's hard to really fear for the girls' safety, knowing that they will both survive into (an albeit troubled) adulthood.  That realization, in turn, makes it fairly obvious which characters will meet a dire fate in PA3's climax.  Most regrettably, the film's setting leaves little room for Katie Featherston, the series' most recognizable figure.  The actress--who's given about as many lines as the Teddy Ruxpin doll in the girls' bedroom--is limited here to an appearance in a limp prologue scene.

As reflected by the lack of plot summary in this review, PA3 is short on storyline--what little backstory that is given here comes mostly through quick snippets of expository dialogue.  But the film is long on suspense and ominous atmosphere, and I admittedly left the theater flush with the adrenalin rush that a good horror movie provides.  I also left with a sense that the series' premise has been stretched to the limit at this point.  Thrill-seekers (and fans of the first two films) certainly will not be disappointed by PA3, but our worst fear going forward should be of further Activity next October.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Gothicism of American Gothic: "To Hell and Back"

[For the previous entry, click here.]

The dashing Dr. Matt is forced to face the ugliness from his past when a drunken-driving accident involving a married couple in Trinity stirs the memory of the doctor's tragic loss of his own wife and daughter.  Naturally, the supernatural sheriff of Trinity, Lucas Buck, is the driving force behind the recent accident--part of a fiendish plot to send the doctor on a terrible guilt trip.  The ever-tempting Buck then tries to detour Matt (a recovering alcoholic) from the road of sobriety by proffering a bottle and promising
him "oblivion."

Meanwhile, young Caleb fixates on his creepy neighbor Mr. Emmett (shades of Boo Radley), who is spied digging a conspicuously rectangular hole in his yard and howling the name "Omar" at the moon.  To the impressionable Caleb (just returned from watching a horror movie), Mr. Emmett seems to be burying a dead body in his pumpkin patch.  Caleb ultimately is proven right, but Mr. Emmett is not the nefarious figure he seems, as the episode emphasizes the gap between appearance and reality.  This American Gothic theme is further sounded when Caleb's cousin Gail tutors him about gardening: a plant with a sinister-sounding name like "snakeroot" isn't actually poisonous, whereas "the ones with the pretty names, they can kill you."

"To Hell and Back" ends on a seemingly heartwarming, all-dogs-go-to-heaven note, but Mr. Emmett's love for, and loyalty toward, his deceased pet is overshadowed by the act of small-town malice that caused the canine's death in the first place: someone put lye in Omar's food!

Once again, the small details form a large part of American Gothic's allure: as Dr. Matt experiences a ghostly flashback to the scene of his family's car accident, the audience is given a close-up of a Massachusetts license plate lined with the phrase "The Spirit of America."  Of course, in the context of this television series, that slogan connotes much more than patriotic pride.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Choke Hold

Choke Hold by Christa Faust (Hard Case Crime, 2011)

Ex-porn-star Angel Dare, having been flushed out of the Witness Protection program, now lives under a new, fake name, but she is still the same kick-ass heroine in this sequel to 2008's Money Shot.

Once again author Christa Faust expertly captures the voice of the (traditionally male) hard-boiled narrator.  Angel's follow-up story is well-stocked with wild similes, critical catalogues of character traits, and generally sarcastic observations.  Some cases in point:
He was clearly the brains of the operation, which didn't bode well for whatever plans these three had made.  (20)
He had a face that looked like something the tribe who made those stone heads on Easter Island might have come up with if they'd attempted a portrait of Chuck Norris.  (45)
The cylinder was open and beside it was a single bullet standing upright on its flat end like a tiny hard-on.  (50) 
The landscape was mostly dull, agricultural.  We passed the Kikima Casino that Cody had mentioned, a squat, glittery building that had the used-up, shabby glamour of a hooker in the morning. (75)
As loose as [his shorts] were, it still looked like he was trying to shoplift a Mexican papaya inside his athletic cup.  (116) 
Where we were going turned out to be one of those soulless cookie-cutter suburban developments on the outskirts of Vegas, the ones that look like fake human habitats created by aliens for an interstellar zoo.  (234)
Angel, though, has more to offer than mere attitude.  Her narration brims with insight (such as when she ponders the similarities between the adult film industry and the sport of MMA-fighting) and self-analysis (e.g., Angel's admitted fear of intimacy, her longing for the life and career she left behind, and her struggles to define her true identity amidst a fugitive existence).  In other words, Angel's character is no less rounded than her legendary figure.  Her complexity is matched by that of her love interest in the novel--Hank "The Hammer" Hammond, an aged pugilist with iron fists and a heart of gold; a man who has suffered too many blows to the head and is now prone to migraines, memory loss, and outbursts of rage.

The inciting moment of Choke Hold strains credulity (what are the odds that Angel's ex-lover and former co-star, Vic Ventura, would be meeting up with the son he never knew in the very same desert-Arizona diner where Angel now works?), but the bloody shootout that ensues gets the book off to a rip-roaring start.  Angel assures the dying Vic that she will look after his boy Cody, a promise that will entail delivering the 18-year-old mixed martial artist to Las Vegas for the taping of an Ultimate Fighter-type reality show.  Matters are quickly complicated by the fact that Cody has run afoul of his old boss, a crooked promoter and drug smuggler.  Angel has her own dangerous pursuers to worry about as well; she is being hunted down by a group of Croatian gangsters, the remnants of the sex-slave ring that she helped topple in Money Shot.  (Incidentally, Choke Hold works just fine as a stand-alone, but will be better appreciated when read in tandem with the first Angel Dare novel.)

Faust has crafted a classic page-turner, replete with clinchers that propel the narrative toward the start of the next chapter.  The pacing here is superb, and the scenes of violence as sudden and savage as the strikes of the combatants in a UFC title fight.  I can't think of a novel more aptly titled, not just because throttling maneuvers figure prominently in the climax, but because this action-packed narrative leaves the reader breathless.  Fans of crimson-splashed noir will eagerly submit to Faust's Choke Hold.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--West Virginia

[For previous entries, click the "Most Gothic Place Names" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

This week I went mining in West Virginia, and came up with these gems: Pickaway (all the scavengers will have at you), Burnt House (born and razed), Shock (to every visitor's system), Moatsville (really digging the whole "a-man's home-is-his-castle" idea), Dahmer (devotees of Jeffrey?), Booher (a community filled with scorned women), Racy (high on impropriety), Gage (no doubt precedes Creed).  West Virginia also sports a Poe, a Faulkner, a King and a Bachman, but the peak name in the Mountain State is...

Grave Creek.  Sounds like a place where everyone ends up doing the dead man's float at the local swimming hole.  Or: where the bodies are buried with a shove overboard rather than with a shovel.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On the Road with Silver John: "Nobody Ever Goes There"

[For previous ballads about the balladeer, click the "On the Road with Silver John" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

"Nobody Ever Goes There"

Trimble is no doubt a simple place,
A town with a mostly prosaic history.
But the fact that everyone shuns the far side of Catch River
Is for some people an all-too-tempting mystery.

Across the river's a ghost town, with a derelict mill
And the houses of a populace that abruptly disappeared.
As John discovers, however, when forced to venture yonder,
There's worse than mere ghosts there to be feared.

Manly Wade Wellman's short story "Nobody Ever Goes There" can be found in Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Welcome to the Murder House

It's been a banner year thus far for dark fare on television, with the launch of shows like Death Valley and Grimm and the return of The Walking Dead.  But the darkest, edgiest series of all without a doubt is American Horror Story.

In a nutshell, this is a haunted-house narrative set in a California mansion in the modern-day.  But the show offers more than just standard horrors; there are some truly and uniquely weird happenings in the Harmon family's recently-purchased home (not the least of which is the repeated appearance of a menacing figure in a black latex bodysuit). 

American Horror Story hooks its viewing audience masterfully, opening each week with an unnerving flashback scene (that typically dramatizes the long and bloody history of the so-called "Murder House").  The start of last night's episode ranges
beyond the mansion but arguably constitutes the show's most disturbing scene to-date: a Columbine-like school massacre that leads to the teenage character Tate's ghostly presence in the Harmon household.

I've never been a huge fan of Dylan McDermott's acting, and his turn here as cheating-husband Ben Harmon isn't likely to dissuade me of that viewpoint.  Other players, though, give some incredible performances.  Denis O'Hare, the scene-stealing Vampire King from Season 3 of True Blood, is much less flamboyant here but no less terrific as a grotesquely disfigured former resident of the Murder House.  And Jessica Lange's role as next-door neighbor Constance--a decadent Southern belle with a sharp tongue and a shady past--positively screams Emmy nomination.

My major concern with this series is sustainability.  How long, for instance, before the ongoing dramatic irony (the Harmons' failure to realize that they are interacting with ghosts) causes the audience to grow frustrated with, and lose sympathy for, the protagonists?  More importantly, how much horror can occur in one home before absurdity begins to set in?  For now, though, the imagery is creepy
enough and the storyline complex enough to make American Horror Story a must-see every Wednesday night at 10 on FX.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


[For the previous game of Hangmany, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 20 seconds, or are you going to choke?


E   __   __   A   __          __   __   __  T   L   __

__   __          __   __   A   __   L   E   __

__   __   __   __   K   __   E   __          __   __   __   W   __


HINT: somnambulism propels the plot

Answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Most Gothic Place Names in the United States--Washington

[For previous entries, click the "Most Gothic Place Names" label under Features in the right sidebar.]

Halloween Season put this feature on hiatus, but it's back to close up its run this month.  We begin today with Washington, which presents names such as Marketown (confidence man Disneyland), Stuck (leaving this town's easier said than done), Chumstick (home of the macabre kabob), Possession (9/10ths of the law-abiding citizens are demon-ridden), Darknell (the church bells toll mournfully every morning), Bickleton (don't talk to the taxi drivers), Lake Ketchum (wildest in the Off Season), and Thrall (where your servitude will be ill-deserved).  But the pinnacle of Evergreen-State appellations is found in...

Geiger Heights.  I love the assonance here, but even more than that, the suggestion of a place plagued by radiation.  And of a community filled with mutants, where giant ants clog the sewers and fifty-foot women rumble down the streets.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Short Story Spotlight: "Trick or Treat"

"Trick or Treat" by J.G. Faherty

Much like the recent film of the same title, this short story features a quintessential crank devoid of holiday spirit.  Old Man Daniels hands out mostly pennies to the costumes children who ring his doorbell on October 31st; he also slips in the occasional tainted candy bar as he sneakily palms goodies from the kids' treat bags.  Eventually the spurned Halloween celebrants catch wise to the old man's tricks, and while their vengeance the following year isn't as violent as Sam's assault on Brian Cox's character in Trick 'R Treat, it still makes for a sweet bit of comeuppance.

Faherty's entertaining tale of ironic comeuppance can be read in full over on the Fenderstitch website.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Night of the Pumpkin (short film review)

A quick review of a short Halloween film that premiered over on Fangoria this past week:

The acting?  Lame.  The dialogue?  Stilted at best.  But that still doesn't spoil the fun of Night of the Pumpkin, a 17-minute short directed by Frank Sabatella and scripted by Ted Geoghegan.  Tongues are definitely pressed into cheeks in this tale of a demon-possessed pumpkin that goes rampaging like a Muppet from Hell as it is driven by an insatiable appetite for human flesh (I loved the scene when the delinquent knocking jack-o-lanterns off of their fence-post perch gets a snap on the wrist).  If all this sounds campy, wait until you get to the castration scene, where coitus is gorily interrupted and a guy's genitalia ends up poking from the pumpkin's saw-toothed rictus like some lurid cigar.  Perhaps the film's true highlights, though, are (cue the Joe Bob Briggs accent) a pair of naked breasts and some cool animation during the opening credits.

As brain food, Night of the Pumpkin is about as nutritious as a chocolate bar, but hell, the filmmakers weren't gunning for profundity here.  This low-brow short is the perfect way to pass the time as you gobble down the remainder of your Halloween candy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Universal Monsters in Our Midst

Every year I start getting ready for Halloween in late August, yet the season always seems to come and go too quickly.  Alas, another 31st has ended, but here at Macabre Republic I decided to let the Halloween-related posts bleed over into the first week of November (business will return to usual next week).

As evident from these images that I culled from the Internet, at Halloween time the Universal Monsters can be found not just on Turner Classic Movies but also on the very pumpkins decorating people's homes: