Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Mrs. Davis, Nocebo, Shiki, and More

Things that brought me delight in May, 2023:

Mrs. Davis

Mrs. Davis star Betty Gilpin described the show as "a Rubik's Cube meets a haunted calculator." That's as good as any description because this show is definitely off-kilter and unlike anything else out there right now. A nun is on a quest to get ahold of the Holy Grail and destroy an omnipresent AI algorithm--that's the gist of it, but the story takes a radical turn in just about every episode. I haven't absolutely loved a show this much in a long time, so Mrs. Davis was a very pleasant surprise.


Based on the trailer, I was keeping my expectations for Nocebo low as the idea of a good horror movie starring Eva Green is almost too much to ask for. I ended up surprised at how much I enjoyed Nocebo. The film is about a children's fashion designer, played by Green, who suffers from a mysterious ailment in the wake of receiving a disastrous phone call--the content of which we aren't privy to until the end of the film. Along comes a Filipino woman who enters the designer's household as a helper, and who seems to have mystical powers that conquer her illness. Of course, not all is what it seems and the new caretaker is a obviously a little too good to be true. There's some startling imagery and effects in this one; it's not a knock-down, drag-out scarefest, but the creeping dread inherent in the protagonist being forced to confront her complicity with the dark side of her business works particularly well.

Jonathan L. Howard, A Long Spoon and Other Tales of Johannes Cabal

It's one of the great injustices in publishing that the Johannes Cabal short stories were never collected in a printed volume. It's particularly galling, as they add so much context and texture to the novel series--especially the final book. To rectify that, in my own small way, I made my own printed collection of Jonathan L. Howard's stories so I could re-read them again in my preferred format. Really good stuff here, from malevolent weather to the machinations of the Fay. My personal favorite is "A Long Spoon," in which Cabal traipses through the Abyss with a succubine devil in search of a supposedly dead Chinese wizard--I like the story so much I've elected to make it the title story of the collection!

Sigh, Shiki

I've heard Sigh called "the Mr. Bungle of extreme metal," but if you're going into Shiki expected wild experimentation you may be disappointed. Despite their reputation for being totally out there, at its heart Shiki is a fairly straightforward metal album. It's got great riffs and a steady level of aggression. There are unexpected moments, but they're used as a hit of hot sauce rather than the main event--and frankly, I think Shiki is all the better for it.

Kenzie Jennings, Red Station

I think this is month three of reading my way through the Splatter Western series. First up for May: Kenzie Jennings's Red Station, a short novel about stagecoach passengers who make a stop at the wrong waystation. And boy is it the wrong house to stop at, as it's full of Evil Germans. (Seemingly inspired by the infamous Bender family, though the spiritualism aspect is absent here. In fact, this is the only Splatter Western I've read so far that doesn't have any supernatural elements to it.) What I enjoyed about Red Station is that it leaves you with as many questions as it answers; the mysterious "woman in red" keeps her violent, blood-soaked mysteries all the way to the end. 

The 69 Eyes, Death of Darkness

Death of Darkness is a good time album through and through. Although The 69 Eyes feel like a lab-grown hybrid of The Cult and Sisters of Mercy, they manage to be more fun than those bands have been for a long time. A little bit glam, a heaping helping of rock 'n' roll, and a whole lotta goth, The 69 Eyes pack a lot of record into Death of Darkness. Maybe too much, in fact, but it's all that and a guest appearance by Kat von D.

Snyder and Cupullo, Batman: Last Knight on Earth

For reasons I cannot fully explain, I had a hankering to read some Batman comics. I grabbed a bunch and couldn't resist the idea of Batman wandering around a wasteland with the Joker's head in a jar. That's all I knew about Batman: Last Knight on Earth going into it.

There's a pretty effective bait-and-switch in the comic's opening sequence that's pretty fun. And more than anything, Last Knight on Earth has some interesting ideas--even if they don't all fully pay off. The climax could have used a little more knock-down, drag-out drama, but at least I got Batman carrying the Joker's head around in a jar as promised.

Ad Infinitum, Chapter III: Downfall

It's hard to believe it, but Ad Infinitum are on their third album with this release. Chapter III: Downfall apparently has an "Egyptian theme," but you wouldn't really know that from the music. The record is undeniably on the poppy side of symphonic metal, which is actually my biggest critique of it; I'd love to hear the band get a but more grandiose (or even occasionally gaudy) with the symphonic elements and I wouldn't mind them pushing the aggression every once in a while either. Still, those quibbles aside, Melissa Bonny still has one of the freshest, most compelling voices in the game--rendering the whole thing a worthwhile listen single-handedly.

Seeley, Leister, Englert, Hack/Slash: My First Maniac

Now that I've finished all the omnibus volumes of Hack/Slash, I'm picking away at all the stories that weren't collected in those books. Which has led me to My First Maniac. My First Maniac is an early Hack/Slash story, detailing Cassie Hack's first encounter with a slasher after the death of her mother. (Second death, that is.) It's a little odd that this one didn't make it into the omnis, but apparently Tim Seeley wanted to preserve it as a stand-alone story with a low price point as a way to onboard new readers. I'm not entirely convinced that this is a great introduction to Hack/Slash, but it's got some interesting moments and it's nice to return to a young Cassie Hack for a bit.

Hideyuki Kikuchi, Vampire Hunter D: Twin-Shadowed Knight (Parts One and Two)

I made it through another double helping of Hideyuki Kikuchi's Vampire Hunter D series! In Twin-Shadowed Knight, "D" stands for doppelganger because our gorgeous vampire hunter meets his exact duplicate. Well, almost exact; this version of D calls women "baby," so that's an interesting variation. Other than that, this is yet another installment in the ongoing series that suggests that being anywhere near D is a terrible idea; he's generally untouched by the fallout from his adventures, but everyone else who comes into his orbit really gets fucked over.

Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain

The Open Curtain is a Bad Books for Bad People read, so you can get the whole picture on our forthcoming episode on it. Prior to this novel, I had only read Brian Evenson's short fiction. His short fiction is absolutely harrowing, and it turns out that his novels have much the same effect. The Open Curtain is about a young man who gets obsessed with William Hooper Young's murder of Anna Pulitzer--a real historical crime that has been linked to the alleged secret Mormon doctrine of "blood atonement." Evenson has a real talent for crafting truly unsettling horror that is all too human--no supernaturalism needed to open the door to terrors untold.

Powerwolf, Interludium

Interludium is one of those "odds & sods" records partly comprised of new songs and partly comprised of b-sides, orchestral versions, and the obligatory covers. It feels a bit more girthy than an EP, but maybe not quite earning the full honors of an LP. For me, the standout track is "Sainted by the Sword," which verges on pirate metal but still manages to kick ass. Wonders never cease.

Vampiress Carmila

I had to kill a few hours in a Barnes & Noble in May, which was a mixed blessing. The combination lemonade and green tea I had at the cafe sucked, but I did discover the existence of Vampiress Carmila while I was there. Vampiress Carmila is a throwback horror anthology that hits all the marks. Beautiful painted cover? Check! Black and white interior art on cheap newsprint? Check! Sexy horror hostess? Check! Tales of the macabre, each with their own unpleasant twist? Check! I'm tempted to buy the back issues now.

B'Twixt Now and Sunrise

B'Twixt Now and Sunrise is quite a strange film. It clearly had a low budget and feels like the project of a passionate amateur, yet it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It's a bit Lynchian, but it isn't clear if its surreal qualities are intentional or a by product of odd choices made in the creative process. Still, I enjoyed it as a singular oddity.

The story concerns a down-on-his-luck horror author who stops in a weird little town for a book signing event that no one shows up to. While there, he learns of a local tragedy--a mass murder--that the sheriff hopes will inspire his next book. (And inspire the author to sign the sheriff up as a collaborator!) There's a ghost, vampires (maybe), and goths partying out by a lake. Oh, and Edgar Allan Poe plays the part of the author's Virgil, leading him to something like redemption against the overwhelming guilt he feels. 

Blood Ceremony, The Old Ways Remain

It's hard to believe that it's been something like seven years since the last Blood Ceremony album. And they've come back in fine form. Although I'm usually a little disappointed when a band sands down their edge, I'm not disappointed in the least that The Old Ways Remain isn't one of Blood Ceremony's heavier excursions. You won't miss it because Blood Ceremony's satanic take on a variety of 70s pop styles is pitch perfect on The Old Ways Remain. Easily a contender for albums of the year.

Chris Miller, Dust

Chris Miller's Dust was my second Splatter Western of the month. This one features a character who makes a brief appearance in Hunger on the Chisholm Trail--a magic-wielding gunslinger out to kill Cthulhu-esque monstrosities and save the universe. Despite the big heroic premise, Dust stays true to the Splatter Western ethos of blood and thunder. So, you can expect plenty of violence, assault, and in this case, some especially compelling and grotesque monster descriptions. The stuff about the town of Dust being hidden from outsiders, and requiring some occult shenanigans to reach, was also a very fun idea. Overall, I would say there's room for the further adventures of this protagonist. I'd read 'em.

Daniel Schaffer, Dogwitch

Even though I only read a few single issues of Daniel Schaffer's Dogwitch back in the day, it exerted an outsized influence on PLANET MOFO. You can see that influence in the Satanic Witch "class" specifically, but bits and pieces from the comic have filtered into other areas as well. (Some of which won't be evident until the first supplement hits.) That being said, it was super cool to be able to read the entire run in snazzy omnibus format. The black and white art really pops--it's the perfect medium for a story about an insane shock rocker and outcast witch who uses black magic to look for love in all the wrong graveyards. The comic is extremely idiosyncratic, but if you want the grindhouse auteur experience, Dogwitch is something you should at least take a look at.

The Outsider

The Outsider is a miniseries that adapts the Stephen King novel of the same name. While I haven't read the novel itself, and thus can't compare the two directly, I can say that the miniseries was pretty good. There's a nice mix of police procedural thriller and supernatural horror here: investigators are on the trail of a killer who has the ability to mimic others like a doppelganger. It uses its uncanny identity theft to implicate them in its disturbing crimes so that they take the fall and it can move on to its next prey. It sags a bit in the middle, but there a few strong performances that rescue it in the end.

Leanna Renee Hieber and Andrea Janes, A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America's Ghosts

A Haunted History of Invisible Women is a nonfiction book that examines real-world ghost stories through a lens of women's history in America. The book breaks its subject into discreet sections that deal with ghosts who fit a particular, confining feminine archetype: mothers, fallen women, witches, spinsters, etc. The authors alternate storytelling duties throughout the book and sometimes collaborate on a section. I found their analysis of the ghost stories included in the book insightful enough and quite fair, but the most fascinating part was how the authors have to grapple with the exploitation inherent in the "ghost business" and their own place in it--aside from authoring this book, both work in the ghost tour business!

The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time is a film that revels in the Southern Gothic tradition; a fairly wide-ranging cast of characters, each grotesque and traumatized in their own way, get their own separate narrative strands until the movie pulls them all together into a tapestry of shared pain and darkness. It all barely holds together under the weight of all the violence and degradation--not one, but two corrupt preachermen feature in the film, to say nothing of the disturbing "prayer log" and the wartime atrocity it is patterned after--but hold together it does. The voice over narration borders on the hokey, but maybe we need that lighter touch to make the whole thing bearable.

Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson, Dracula, Motherf**ker!

Dracula, Motherf**ker! is a fun little graphic novel that pits Dracula against his iconic three brides in Los Angeles circa 1974. The art style is bold and striking, making interesting use of period-appropriate color palettes. The story is admittedly a little on the slight side, but I've come to appreciate a one-and-done comic that doesn't overstay its welcome. I wouldn't have minded the comic leaning even more heavily on the "swinging 70s" vibe, even the title makes more of a gesture toward exploitation film vibes than the comic proper attempts, but that feels like an intentionally pulled punch here.