De-tech-tives

detechtives

Recently I’ve noticed that television detectives’ detection skills have been replaced by technology. Between cell phones, email, tracking devices and the multitude of cameras that cover every nook and cranny of the earth, it’s nearly impossible for a modern TV criminal to operate in anonymity. This is a strange and drastic change from Dragnet days when phone dialing, ledger collation, footwork and thinking were involved in any arrest.

The YardThe Yard by Alex Grecian
What fascinates me is that, before modern techniques and technologies were created, police could catch criminals at all! In the novel The Yard author Alex Grecian portrays a squalid, horrifying London of 1890 where five-year-old children work dangerous jobs, living conditions for many are abysmal, and human life is held in little regard. Scotland Yard’s murder squad consists of 12 detectives who have roughly 400 murders per year to crack, and after the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 public opinion of the police force’s skills is extremely low. Then the unthinkable occurs. A member of the murder squad, one of the men attempting to keep London safe, is brutally slaughtered. The team’s newest member is put in charge of the investigation, but there seems no hope in unearthing the crime’s perpetrator. Even after the Ripper murders, the idea of killing for pleasure is foreign to the detectives and they don’t know where to begin to find this new type of killer. But with the aid of Dr. Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist (and somewhat of a Sherlockian figure) the squad makes slow progress, although the murders do continue. This is crime solving at its most basic – follow paltry clues, cogitate, and find a killer.

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These 1890’s were a time when it was relatively simple to be a successful murderer. Police had few tools-of-the-trade and criminals were able to easily disappear in obscurity. Here are a few titles that examine various aspects of the infancy of crime fighting.

Devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
While examining the amazing feats that went into constructing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson also describes the activities of H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer who used the draw of the World’s Fair to murder somewhere between 27 and 200 people in relative anonymity. In fact, it wasn’t until he left Chicago, continuing to commit homicides and other crimes, that Holmes was finally arrested in Boston a year later. His Chicago killings, however, remained unknown until the custodian of Holmes’s Chicago murder castle (you’ll have to read the book for those details) tipped off the police and Holmes’s murder victims were found. This true story shows how easy it was to operate as an invisible killer in the days before advanced technologies.

Great Pearl HeistThe Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This non-fiction account of an early 20th-century jewel heist details both the plans of the thieves and the methods used by Scotland Yard to catch them. In addition to being an engaging read, Crosby’s book highlights the importance of this case to the future of British crime fighting.

Poisoner's handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
This entertaining book looks at the careers of New York’s first medical examiner and toxicologist. Surprisingly, these positions didn’t even exist until after World War I. Blum makes a potentially dull topic intriguing and understandable.

police corruption

As police forces moved into the 20th-century, corruption came to be accepted as a normal facet of law enforcement.

Breaking blueBreaking Blue by Timothy Egan
In 1935, during the dust bowl years, a spate of dairy robberies in the Spokane area resulted in the shooting death of Marshal George Conniff. Decades later, Sheriff Tony Bamonte of Pend Oreille County tried to shed light on the robberies and Conniff’s death. Author Timothy Egan paints a vivid picture of Spokane’s dirty underbelly and the role that law enforcement played in these crimes.

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential
This Oscar-winning movie portrays a shady LA police force that is rife with injustice and brutality. At a time when Hollywood was king, justice was elusive (put that on your movie poster!) and criminals often dwelt on both sides of the law.

victorian police

Certainly TV policing has little in common with reality, but then again, reality is far more interesting. So set aside your new-fangled DVDs and give an old-timey police investigatory book a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an appreciation for the accomplishments that were made with minimal means in less-than-hospitable conditions.

Movie’s Better IX: Rebecca

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rebecca book“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Opening lines from a much-beloved text & instant classic when it was released in 1938, Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca is a favorite of many and considered one of the finer Gothic romances. But this was Alfred Hitchcock’s second du Maurier adaptation in a row.

Hitchcock had just cranked out Jamaica Inn to disappointing effect, even though it featured the powerhouse actor Charles Laughton, of whom he had famously said “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.” The reason this is forgettable, though still worth seeing (even his flops are fun), is that Hitch was busy shopping himself to Hollywood. Tired of a crumbling British film industry, he wanted to work at a major studio with all the modern tools at hand. The only one of those who’d hire him was the famously fussy perfectionist David O Selznick. So 1939 sees Hitchcock fulfilling his contract with this quickie.

affiche-rebecca-hitchcockSelznick green lights Rebecca, but rejects Hitchcock’s adaptation outright, preferring more of a straight adaptation, and a long battle begins where Hitchcock is forced to rewrite the screenplay and learn how to shoot and produce in a more modern studio style. Selznick was exacting. Selznick and Hitchcock would butt heads.

Trouble was, Selznick was busy with exactly adapting a little picture called Gone with the Wind. So, the rascal Hitchcock decides to merge his style (setting up each shot exactingly, shooting with one camera, moving on) with the studios’ (shooting “master shot” style, with several cameras, getting different angles and distance of framing, then sorting it out in the editing room later). Our favorite director gets to play with alternate takes and different outcomes to elements in the story. In other words, rather than shooting one scene from several cameras, he shoots one scene different ways several times. Selznick’s too busy pouring all of his efforts into his reputation-making adaptation across the lot to notice.

The end result? When it premiered, Frank Nugent of the New York Times enthused that Hitchcock’s “famous ‘touch’ seems to have developed into a firm, enveloping grasp of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel.” Later on, Donald Spoto said that Hitchcock worked closely with the screenwriters to “fashion a script with breadth and nuance, with wit and universality beyond the straightforwardness of du Maurier’s plot.” Better than? You be the judge.

The Evergreen Branch Library screens and discusses our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, Rebecca, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

Movie’s Better VIII: The Lady Vanishes

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Back again for another adaptation argument! This one conveniently coincides with The Evergreen Branch Library’s screening and discussion of our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, The Lady Vanishes, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

wheel spinsI have to level with you, dear library readers: I haven’t had the opportunity to read the original source material, mostly known by the movie’s title, but originally called The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (1936). Few have read this incredibly hard to find book, which is not in the public domain due to the movie (which is in the public domain, ironically). As I checked review sources, found none, and eventually ended up trolling the Internet, I decided to go with a clever blogger’s description of the book as “vintage crime at its best.”

LadyVanishesLobbyCardBThere ara a couple reasons I (maybe, incredibly) contend Hitchcock’s adaptation to be an improvement over an original I haven’t read:

1.) Hitchcock’s track record. Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca (which we’re showing March 26th), and on and on, all terrific improvements over thier source material.

2.) Alma Reville. We all know his wife served as go-between, edited the films, and still cooked the big man dinner. But she was also a terrific screenwriter and script doctor, immeasurably improving his many adaptations.

3.) I’ll add a third. Frank Launder joined forces with Sidney Gilliat here, and together they wrote, directed and produced over 40 terrific British films, but this is one of their best.

Also, two poor adaptation/updates stand in instructive contrast. The Lady Vanishes (1979), starring Cybill Shepherd and The Lady Vanishes (2013), starring Tuppence Middleton continued to hold onto Hitchcock’s title while apparently ruining the core story. Lastly, The Lady was also serialized in six weekly 15 minute parts on BBC Radio 2, which is supposed to be OK, but no match for the original…film that is, which was a favorite of both Orson Welles and Francois Truffaut.

Will it be a favorite of yours? Come see for yourself this Wednesday! And check out the rest of our film series, Dial H for Hitchcock.

Byzantium Or 2013’s Interview with the Vampire

byzantiumI went through a HUGE Anne Rice phase as a teenager. This was when vampires were cold-blooded (hahaha) killers and didn’t sparkle when the sun came out. They couldn’t go out into the light.

Here we are almost 30 years after the publication of Interview with the Vampire and Stephanie Meyer has decimated any coolness cred vampires earned over the last 250 years. Now vampires hiss like a cat that’s been stepped on. They sparkle in the sunlight. They don’t kill for the simple pleasure of it, but because they want to keep that last part of humanity with them. They kill because it is their job. Wonder what the benefits package on that job looks like? Oh yeah. Immortality. No need to go to the doctor.

Okay, let’s talk about immortality. Who wants to live forever? Teenagers who haven’t realized they’re mortal, pop stars, actors. It’s the little things about daily life that I find exhausting: wondering why my underwear feels so weird and then figuring out I’ve had them on backwards all day, looking in the mirror and noticing that gravity has been harder on my left boob than my right and having to take a few minutes every evening to up the girls so they don’t look like they’ve had a stroke. Why on earth would I want to do that until the end of time? Vampires have to watch everyone they love (and hate) die. Immortality means having to watch wars blossom and unfold, cultures destroyed, entire species eradicated. And having to watch it over and over and over again.

Well that was a little trip to a dark place.

In the film Byzantium, Neil Jordan (who also directed Interview with the Vampire) brings us a seemingly ordinary vampire movie about two women who have been alive for over 200 years. Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) is a stripper. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, Hannah, The Host) is an introspective “teenager.” They live together in London. The movie opens with Eleanor writing in a journal (because after being alive for over 200 years a vampire needs to tell her story since there’s only so many Golden Girls reruns to sit through before jumping out a window), tearing out the pages and crumpling them up and throwing them away. An old man finds a page and reads it. He invites her to his house. He is dying and he believes she can help him.

Clara, meanwhile, is giving a private lap dance to a man in the strip club where she works. She invites her customer home with her because she knows she can get a little more money out of him. Over the years she’s run several brothels. But she’s taken the wrong man home. He works for the vampire Brethren. The movie doesn’t explain what that is until almost the end. I’ll just say they don’t like having women in the vampire family. The man tries to kill Clara. She cuts off his head and burns down her apartment. She finds Eleanor and they go on the run. 

Eleanor and Clara run to a small coastal town. Eleanor meets Noel, a man whose mother just died and left him a rundown building called the Byzantium Hotel. They move in and Eleanor turns the Byzantium Hotel into a brothel. Hey, you find something you’re good at, you stick with it. Carpentry and prostitution are two of the world’s oldest trades. If you can find a hooker that can build you a bookcase, your life is complete. Eleanor falls in love with a boy in town but since she’s immortal what’s the point of falling in love if it’s not going to last?

Eleanor and Clara’s lives begin a ripple effect, drawing people, both good and evil, into their lives. This isn’t a fancy art house vampire movie. It boils down to time and how it can become a burden and how even if we feel that our bonds to other people are suffocating, in the end when you have someone who knows you’re a monster and they still love you, well, hold onto that suffocation. For another 800 years.

Nostalgia, or, Whatever Happened to Beany and Cecil?

I don’t know if it’s a common progression in the first-world aging process, but I seem to have hit the part of life where I crave things from my youth, perhaps to reconnect, perhaps for comfort. In the world of books this translates into re-reading favorites, something I’ve seldom done in the past as I’m always seeking out new treasures. Perchance I’m searching for old friends to see if our relationships have changed. Whatever the reason, I’m firmly entrenched in a tour of previously-read books.

So here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to.

Old FoxThe Old Fox Deceiv’d by Martha Grimes
I think the first mysteries I read were by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, but the first series I really connected with was the Richard Jury mysteries by Martha Grimes. I discovered these books about 25 years ago, and since then I’ve read every Jury title (with a new one due out this June!). The Old Fox Deceiv’d is the second in the series and contains the many elements that I so enjoyed when first encountering Grimes’ writing. Early Jury books often focus on the characters from a small town that Jury’s sometime amateur assistant, Melrose Plant, calls home. These people and their goings-on are at least as interesting as the mysteries themselves. As the series has progressed, the bit players have appeared less and the focus of the mysteries has turned much darker. I still love the books, but I do miss my “friends” from the earlier stories. Anyone who enjoys British cozy mysteries (even though Grimes is from Baltimore) should check out Richard Jury.

Dirk Gently bookDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
On the heels of the fabulous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams introduced a strange detective, Dirk Gently, who appeared in two books. Not as uproariously funny as Hitchhiker’s Guide, these books are still quirky, dry and hilarious.

Dirk Gently DVDThe BBC recently produced a short series based on the character of Dirk Gently, and this inspired me to re-examine the books. I’m not too far into this one yet, but what I have discovered so far is a profound lack of Dirk Gently; it’s taking a while for him to find his way into the story. Whereas Hitchhiker’s Guide is a knee-slap-a-minute, Dirk Gently is a much more, well, gentle and abstract humor. One has to work a bit harder to get one’s money’s worth with Dirk.

TekWarRon Goulart, a writer not widely known, is perhaps one of the most prolific American authors of recent times. I discovered his quirky, humorous sci-fi in high school, and went on to read every title of his I could find. Recently Calling Dr. Patchwork (the first of his books I ever purchased) found its way onto my Kindle. Sadly, I’m not as taken with Goulart’s unique style as I once was, but I am enjoying analyzing his writing techniques (for example, conversations where every single sentence is interrupted by the other participant) to discover tricks I can borrow. While EPL does not have any of his entertaining pulp novels, we do carry books from the TekWar series which were credited to William Shatner but are quite obviously penned by Goulart.

My nostalgia has manifested in many other ways, leading me to watch old movies such as Rear Window, Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope and That Touch of Mink. Or to delve into finales and conclusions of TV shows such as The Office and The Mentalist. Pulp readings from young-adult years revisit me, including works of John D. MacDonald and Robert Sheckley. It’s a strange phenomenon, and I’m not enjoying everything of old as much as I once did, but overall the experience is positive.

I’m not sure what the next step or phase of life will be, but I do know that I’m not ready for pants that go halfway up my chest.

Yet.

Movie’s Better VII: The 39 Steps

books_arrow_film_reelOn Wednesday, January 29th, we screen and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s terrific thriller The 39 Steps here at the Evergreen Branch Library, at 1:30. At 6:30, we repeat the screening.

For Hitchcock, books were simply a basis for the film; and his adaptations usually wildly changed (and often far surpassed) the source material. Psycho is one of many examples. Hitchcock: “Well, for me, it all starts with the basic material first…you may have a novel, a play, an original idea, a couple of sentences, and from that the film begins.”

buchan-thirty-nine-steps-bookcover

It all began in  1915, when John Buchan wrote the book on vacation, the steps down to the beach inspiring the title to this classic British thriller. The plot concerns a man in London who tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top-secret information.

Is the movie better? Total Film calls it the second best 39_stepsadaptation ever, period. How are they different? The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organization, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps. By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with the town circled) Hitchcock avoids the plot hole in Buchan’s book where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.

Hitchcock made his best films from pulp or mediocre works: “I have always maintained that it is supreme foolishness to take any book and film the whole of it, just because one angle of it is really worth screening.”

So, the film closes a plot hole and certainly isn’t one of his usual pulp derivations. But is Hitchcock’s first masterpiece better than this classic British novel? Too close to call, but you can make you own judgment when you attend our screening this Wednesday at 1:30 (we repeat it at 6:30) at the Evergreen Branch Library. Be sure to check out our yearlong series Dial H for Hitchcock as well.

Books to Read before the Movie Premieres

I’d like to augment Alan’s series on books which have been made into movies with this list of 2014 movies which are based on books. This is going to be an awesome year at the movies and you’ll enjoy the them even more if you check out these books from the library and read them before viewing the films. Here they are in order of release date.

index (34)1. The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. The book: The true story of art historians who joined the armed forces during World War II to try to track down and save as much fine art as possible before and after Hitler got his hands on it. The movie: Will be released February 7th and stars a fantastic cast including: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray.

index2. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. The book: Takes readers on a journey to New York of the Belle Époque, where Peter Lake attempts to rob a Manhattan mansion only to find the daughter of the house at home. Thus begins the love between the middle-aged Irishman and Beverly Penn, a young girl who is dying. The movie: This romantic fantasy comes out February 14th and stars Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and Jessica Brown Findlay.

index (1)3. Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. The book: Try to read at least the first book in this series. There are way too many sexy vampire books out there, but with a mythology different from your typical vampire story, a novel this dark is definitely worth your time. The movie: Will also be released February 14th and stars Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, and Sarah Hyland.  It was made by the directors of Mean Girls.

index (2)4. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. The book: Tells the story of four people who encounter one another on the roof of Topper’s House, a London destination famous as the last stop for those ready to end their lives. It is told in four distinct voices and manages to be humorous and somber at the same time. The movie: Stars Aaron Paul, Rosamund Pike, Imogen Poots and Pierce Brosnan and will be released March 7th.

index (3)5. Divergent by Veronica Roth. The book: Set in a world where you’re placed in neat little categories called factions, it’s dangerous to be someone like Tris — someone who is Divergent. Being Divergent means you don’t just belong in one category, and it also means you can’t be controlled. This is a frightening world, but a must-read book. The movie: Stars Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley and Theo James and will be in theaters March 21st.  Scary!

index (4)6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The book: Will have you laughing and crying and then crying some more since it is a beautifully written romance between two terminally ill young people. It is a beautiful story about life and death. The movie: Also stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort and will be out June 6th. Remove your mascara and take tissue with you to this emotional movie based on the book.

index (5)7. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais. The book: The story starts with a tragedy in Mumbai, India and follows the family around the world until they land in Lumiere, France where they open an Indian restaurant one hundred feet from a fancy french restaurant. The movie: Helen Mirren will play Madame Mallory who is initially infuriated when the new restaurant is such a success, but then softens and takes the young man under her wing. Release date is August 8th.

index (6)8. The Giver by Lois Lowry. The book: The Giver,  the 1994 Newbery Medal winner, follows the story of a boy who is given the responsibility of remembering the history of the world that existed before the establishment of the Utopian society in which he now lives. Profound and full of important messages, this is definitely a novel that should be on your ‘To Be Read’ list. The movie: Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep make this a highly anticipated movie and Taylor Swift tries acting. The release date is August 15th.

index (7)9. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The book: This is a dark twisted tale with despicable characters and a sometimes harrowing, but well developed, plot which some readers may find just too uncomfortable to read. It’s not a happy story or a feel good book. On the other hand, if you like a little of the above, then Dark Places will keep you turning the pages and have you sitting up and reading long into the night. The movie: To be released September 1st with Charlize Theron.

index (8)10. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. The book: Simultaneously mourning the death of his father and the end of his marriage, Judd joins the rest of the Foxmans as they reluctantly submit to their patriarch’s dying request to spend the seven days following the funeral together. In the same house. Like a family. The book is hilarious. The movie: With Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Enough said. To be released September 12th.

index (9)11. The Maze Runner by James Dashner. The book: The Maze Runner is the first book in the trilogy of the same name by James Dashner. It is the story of Thomas, who wakes up in a strange place and can remember nothing more than his name. Set in a mysterious place surrounded by a maze that changes every night and contains hideous monsters within its walls, this is a sci-fi thriller that’s a little bit Lord of the Flies and a little bit The Hunger Games.The movie: With the release date of September 19th, features Dylan O’Brien and Kaya Scodelario.

index (10)12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The book: Amy mysteriously disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary and it’s looking more and more like her husband Nick was involved. This thrilling book will translate into a great suspenseful movie. The movie: With Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, it will be out on October 3rd just in time for the Halloween season.

index (11)13. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The book: the true story of Louis Zamperini, a track star from the 1930′s who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then became an airman in WWII.  His plane went down in the Pacific Ocean and the story is fascinating. The movie: To be released on Christmas day, directed by Angelina Jolie, and starring Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, and Domhnall Gleeson.

index (12)14. Wild by Cheryl Strand. The book: Chreyl lost both her mother and her marriage in quick succession, so with nothing left to lose, she decided to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is a story of wilderness salvation and survival, both internally and externally. The movie: Will be released sometime in 2014 and will star Reese Witherspoon.  

index (13)15. Serena by Ron Rash. The book: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena learns that she will never bear a child, and sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. The movie: A must-see since it stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. To be released sometime this year.

Well, there you have it. Read the book first so the movie will be all the better. Enjoy! Go Seahawks!

American Horror Story

american horror storyI’m in charge of finding things for my mom and me to watch. Sometimes I panic. What if I pick something that is right up my alley while Mom is on the couch, looking at me and thinking “We are not related. I found you underneath a rock and took pity on your horrible soul.” My mom’s not into decapitation/cars getting blown up/ or the occasional brain eating zombie. However, she’s one of those cool moms who’ll sit down and watch something because her kid is into it. And by kid I mean her 36 year old daughter who sleeps with a night-light on. Because of shows like American Horror Story.

Ben, his wife Vivien and their daughter Violet make a cross-country move for a fresh start. Vivien is fragile from a miscarriage and from her husband’s infidelity. They move to Los Angeles, buying a beautiful mansion to strengthen their bond as a family. It’s the kind of house you might lose a kid in for 45 minutes because it’s so big. Ben Harmon, a psychiatrist, is over eager to get a new start since it’s his infidelity that has toppled the family. Typical man, thinking if he puts a thousand miles between his family and the affair everything will come up roses.

Ben runs his office out of the new home and he’s a real “How did your father dressing up as a woman make you feel?” kind of shrink. Having his office inside the house means that his family is eventually going to run into a patient, which is weird because hey, what if you’re going through some bitch of a healing session and you go to use the rest room because you used up all the Kleenex and you walk in on Ben’s 15 year old daughter slicing up her skin with a razor blade? Awkward.

AMHasylumLiving next door to the Harmons is Constance (Jessica Lange) and her Down syndrome daughter, Addy. Addy is forever finding ways to get into her neighbor’s house. Every time Violet or Vivien turn around, Addy has somehow made her way into the house, hiding under beds and talking about the formerly living people who occupied the house. I adore Jessica Lange’s roles in all three of the American Horror Story anthology (there’s American Horror Story: Murder House, American Horror Story: Asylum, and the most recent American Horror Story: Coven). Before, I saw her only as that ditsy broad in the King Kong remake. But in American Horror Story she plays an aging Southern belle who came to Los Angeles years ago to be a movie star. When that didn’t happen she remained in La La Land and had children. Lang plays Constance as a real “As God is my witness I’m making a dress out of curtains!” type of gal. And a real cuckoo-ca-choo, if you get my drift.

Apparitions start popping up in the house and you don’t know if they’re really ghosts or just people who have wandered in, curious to see the house where so many deaths have occurred. There’s even a Hollywood tour bus that rolls through the neighborhood, all the seats filled as the guide points at the house and calls it the Murder House because some baaaad stuff went down inside. Cameras and cell phones are whipped out as tourists take pictures of the house that witnessed so much brutality.

I have one word of advice to anyone going near that house: don’t go into the basement. I have no idea why people insist on going into the basement. It’s dark down there. When you reach up to pull the lamp cord there’s always a snap and a burst of light as the light bulb dies. But instead of racing upstairs to get a flashlight you decide it’s a good idea to feel your way through the dark. Touch the sweaty walls; drag your feet through the dirt floor. Get a face full of cobwebs and try not to think of the spiders setting up camp in your hair. Eyes really do adjust to a lack of light. But why are there jars of deformed babies on shelves? Why aren’t there any jars of preserved peaches and raspberry jam? And just what exactly is that thing in the dark that’s been stalking you since it came out of hiding from beneath the basement stairs?

What was I talking about? Oh yeah. The basement is terrifying.

Eventually, the Harmons start to figure out that there’s something REALLY wrong with the house. Duh. Sometimes there’s a dream-like quality to the scenes so you don’t know if something’s really happening or if someone’s having a really bad dream. There’s a huge reveal at the end, something that sent me face down into the couch cushions.

You like originality? You like screaming at the television, maybe even stomping out of the room because those idiots on TV didn’t listen to you and now they’re stumbling down to the basement? You don’t mind sleeping with the lights on? Good. Watch this series. And for God’s sake, stay out of the basement.

Dexter: Serial Killer With a Heart of ?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been cheering for a serial killer. Not a real one but Dexter Morgan from Showtime’s Dexter series. I think I kinda have a crush on him. Is that wrong? Or is it so wrong that it’s right?

dexter-season-1-episode-guide

Bless the library and Netflix. Both have the Dexter series available. I binged on a Dexter marathon over the holiday weekend but now I’m hoarding episodes because I don’t want it to be over with. It’s that good. And I run away from people who have seen all 8 seasons, my hands over my ears, shouting “SPOILERS!”

This is how I sold the show to my mom when she sat down to watch a couple of episodes with me.

Me: Well, Dexter is a serial killer in Miami. But he’s a good serial killer. 

Mom: He’s a good serial killer? Is that a thing?

Me: Yeah, he only goes after bad guys like pedophiles, murderers, and people who don’t recycle.

I threw that last part in there. I don’t think he’d kill someone who doesn’t recycle. Unless it’s a wife abusing psycho who constantly tosses his Pabst cans into the paper bin.

Dexter was 3 when Harry Morgan adopted him. Harry was a Miami cop and a good one.  When he began to see signs of what Dexter was destined to become (animal corpses buried in the backyard and other behaviors that pointed to the fact that there was something not right with Dexter) he sat Dexter down and explained “the code”. Go after the bad people, Harry told him, do something good for those who are left grieving and whose lives are destroyed. Dexter can’t change what he truly is: a serial killer. Harry tells him he has to hide his true self, act normal, paste a smile on his face and pass as an everyday human being.  

And Dexter passes. He joins the Miami Metro Police as a blood spatter analyst (how perfect, right?). Dexter even finds a girlfriend named Rita. She has two children and was repeatedly raped and beaten by her ex-husband. She’s in no rush to get serious with Dexter. Her idea of a perfect night is pizza, a movie, and nothing else. She feels safe with Dexter and he likes that what they have passes for normal. He’s attracted to Rita because she’s broken in a way that he can understand.

Miami looks like Hell’s waiting room. In every scene that’s shot outside there’s sweat. Most times Dexter (and everybody else) goes around wearing a sweat-soaked shirt. Sometimes it’s all I can concentrate on. Is Dexter going to kill that pervert who’s been diddling kids? I don’t know. Because all I can see is sweat: sweat like there will never be a cooling down period, sweat that melts your whole body and pushes a fever into delirious heights. Man, I could never be a serial killer in Florida. My DNA would be all over the place.

The first episode opens with Dexter kidnapping a man who has killed several children. Dexter injects him with a tranquilizer and takes him to an abandoned building. Dexter has covered the walls and floor with saran wrap (I wonder if he buys it in bulk at Costco?) and when the man wakes up the bodies of the children he killed and buried are laid out on the floor where he can see them. I’ll admit it: I was bouncing up and down in my chair saying “Cut that douchebag up!”

Dexter has a rival in a fellow serial killer dubbed The Ice Truck Killer who has been killing local prostitutes. He bleeds the bodies dry and then cuts them up while they’re frozen and displays them with a weird mix of taunting and flirting. The killer is sending Dexter a message: “I know what you are. Do you want to play?” Dexter sees artistry in the kills, how the victims are perfectly bled and cut up by someone who knows what he’s doing.

And Dexter answers “Yes, I want to play.”

DOLLFACE

There are nail-biting moments ( a couple of times I pulled a blanket over my head like an old world grandmother) when it seems that Dexter is going to get caught since he hasn’t been clever enough or cleaned up the crime scene well enough. I’m only on season 2. There are 8 seasons. I’m at work as I write this, sitting at my desk, doing my job and all I can think of is “How many episodes of Dexter can I watch tonight before I go to sleep?” And another thought: “Will he cross the line between killing bad guys, being a vigilante, and taking an innocent life?” 

Well, just watch an episode. See how you feel at the end of it. Do you feel guilty for thinking of Dexter as a hero? Do you want to shut off the television because of your mixed feelings?

Or do you want to play?

Please Talk During the Movie

inthepeanutgallerySometime in the early 1990′s I found Mystery Science Theater 3000. Friends told me tales of a show with movie theater seat silhouettes on the screen, a human shadow bookended by 2 robot shadows, and wise cracking directed at very bad movies. I tuned in and was hooked. They said things I was thinking, as well as things I wish I’d thought of.

In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000, edited by two librarians at Texas Tech University (Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba), is a book containing scholarly essays about the show. It covers such topics as fandom, satire, and the culture and history of ‘riffing’, which is defined in the book as “…the process of creating a running satirical commentary concurrent with the presentation of a film.”

First, a brief explanation of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 (often referred to as ‘MST3K’) is, from the out-of-print guide to MST3K, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide:

…mad scientists Dr. Forester and his assistant, Dr. Erhardt … work away in Deep 13, which is in the subbasement of Gizmonics Institute.  They have shot a man into space … aboard the Satellite of Love (SOL) and, as one of their evil experiments, they force him to watch bad movies while they monitor his mind.  Together with his robot pals Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, they watch the movie and make with the quips while another robot, Gypsy, maintains the higher functions on the ship.

The show ran for one year on the Minneapolis UHF channel KTMA, 7 years on Comedy Central, and 3 years on the Sci-Fi Channel (Now SyFy.)

Some directors and actors have reportedly been less than happy after their movies were riffed by MST3K. It’s rumored that the actor Joe Don Baker threatened bodily harm to the  crew after they skewered his film Mitchell.

Hobgoblins1One director, however, has confirmed his happiness with the exposure his film received from the show in an essay called “There’s Been an Accident at the Studio: How We Made Hobgoblins” by Rick Sloane, the producer/director of the movie Hobgoblins.

Hobgoblins was made for a mere $15,000 in 1988. Sloane was inspired by the 1980′s puppet creature films such as Gremlins and Ghoulies. For $1,500, Kenneth J. Hall, who made the puppets for Ghoulies, made four Hobgoblin puppets for the film. On that budget, Hall was only able to make one puppet with a mouth that moved.

Hobgoblins has acquired the status of one of the worst movies of all time, thanks, in part, to MST3K. As of this writing, the movie was number 25 on the worst movies list on the Internet Movie Database. It is one of nine films listed on Wikipedia’s ‘List of Films considered the Worst of the 1980s‘. The movie’s newly found ‘fame’ inspired Sloane to make Hobgoblins 2 in 2009.

Another essay that caught my eye was titled “Cinemasochism: Bad Movies and the People Who Love Them” by David Ray Carter who writes for Film Fanaddict Magazine. Carter defines cinemasochism as “…finding pleasure in cinema that others have deemed too painful to endure.”

Many viewers have been exposed to painful movies like Monster A-Go-Go or The Amazing Colossal Man thanks to locally hosted shows popular in the 1960′s and 70′s such as Seattle’s Chiller Theater, Chicago’s Shock Theatre, Nashville’s Creature Feature or the syndicated Elvira’s Movie Macabre, which featured the ‘Mistress of the Dark’ presenting low-budget horror films and occasionally appearing in a box in the corner of the screen to make a witty comment about that evening’s film. MST3K widened the audience for cheesy horror and science fiction movies, as well as movies that defy categorization.

MST3K was cancelled in 1999, but the riffing continues with live shows, on-demand or downloads via internet, and direct-to-DVD releases from Cinematic Titanic, a troupe led by MST3K original host/creator Joel Hodgson (which is sadly ending this year), and Rifftrax, a trio led by MST3K’s second host/head writer Michael J. Nelson.

The MST3K scholarly essay parade continues with another book of essays, Reading Mystery Science Theater 3000published in May 2013 and edited by Shelley S. Rees, an associate professor of English at The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. We can only hope that this book will turn up on Everett Public Library’s shelves in the not too distant future.

David