Sunday, March 31, 2024

Gothic Noir, Horror Companion, Fire Blades From the Tomb, and More

Things that brought me delight in March, 2024:

Gothic Noir

Criterion has a collection of "Gothic Noir" films up on their streaming site. I knew I'd enjoy them, but I had no idea that once I started watching them I wouldn't be able to stop. Here's a run down of my thoughts on all twelve of them:

  • The House on Telegraph Hill: This was a strong start, with a woman assuming an identity not her own to enrich herself and getting herself in over her head.
  • The Sign of the Ram: This was a clear stand-out to me; a woman confined to a wheelchair schemes to keep her family close; real sense of unease here.
  • Lightning Strikes Twice: Love the psychosexual elements in this tale of a man who may have killed his first wife and may now be compelled to kill her.
  • The Seventh Veil: Another one with twisted psychosexual vibes, a woman raised by a second cousin to be a concert pianist loses her ability to use her hands and must turn to hypnotism to confront her trauma.
  • The Ministry of Fear: This is the only one I had seen before; it's a two-fisted spy story.
  • Woman in Hiding: A woman is indeed in hiding from her murderous husband.
  • The Upturned Glass: A surgeon takes it on himself to avenge the death of his beloved; really liked the downer philosophy that permeates this one.
  • Kiss the Blood Off My Hands: Tense thriller about a man drawn to violence.
  • My Name is Julia Ross: Another great one; this is perhaps the most "Gothic," what with its premise of a woman abducted and forced into a role in an insolated manor house.
  • Lured: Weird hybrid crime story and comedy starring Lucille Ball (!!!)
  • Undercurrent: Katherine Hepburn falls for the wrong scientist.
  • When Strangers Marry: A whirlwind marriage to a man who may be a murderer--and the weirdest part is how ride or die the heroine is.

Savage Worlds: Horror Companion

I got the printed book of the Horror Companion for Savage Worlds in early March from the crowdfunding campaign. I had access to the pdf for quite some time, and had already gotten a ton of use out of it in my ongoing Krevborna campaign. There's a lot of stuff to use in this book, no matter the subgenre of horror you're exploring or the era your setting takes inspiration from: tons of monsters, magic items, powers, new edges and character "species," and genre-specific rules that will definitely help you round out your game. If you're running a Savage Worlds game with dark elements, this book is practically essential.

Ponte del Diavolo, Fire Blades From the Tomb

Fire Blades From the Tomb is the debut album from Ponte del Diavolo, an Italian band deftly combining doom-y metal with deathrock-style vocals. If that heady mix wasn't enough, they also spike the punch with some occasional unexpected instrumentation such as synth, theremin, and clarinet. This is a very exciting, vital album, and the band is certainly one to watch; it would be crazy if this ended up as my album of the year this early on, but I'm nuts for Fire Blades From the Tomb right now.

Luke Dumas, The Paleontologist

I had picked up Luke Dumas's The Paleontologist last year when it was on sale, but when a friend on my Discord started reading it and had positive things to say about it I decided it was this novel's turn in the reading pile. She was right, this is a fun book. Written in a somewhat breezy style, this is my idea of a beach read: a paleontologist takes a job at the run-down museum his kid sister traumatically went missing from in their youth. Besides being haunted by the memories of his missing sister, the museum itself may be harboring the primeval ghosts of the bones it has on display. Ghost dinosaurs! Can you dig it?

Hannibal, Season One

Hannibal has long been on my list of things to watch, especially given how popular it is among my extended circles, and it really has lived up to the hype so far. That said, I wasn't prepared for how silly and fun the show is due to how seriously a lot of people seem to take it. From Hannibal's serial-killers-as-superhuman-predators to its grotesquely beautiful set piece crime scenes, there is a a lot of improbable camp in the show. You've just got to roll with it and enjoy the ride.

Ashes of Malifaux

Ashes of Malifaux is the new supplement for my favorite miniatures wargame that I may never get to play again. Still, the expansions for Malifaux are always worth it to me for the art and the ideas alone. There's a lot to love here, like a six-armed robot shootist, a giant albino alligator, and a gremlin-based Fury Road riff. Not going to lie, I wish I had come up with the Leech King and Sightless Snow. No matter, I'll simply swipe the ideas and throw them into my campaign; forget this admission.

Rotting Christ, A Dead Poem and Triarchy of the Lost Lovers

In early March I decided it was time to revisit two classic albums from Rotting Christ's back catalog: A Dead Poem and Triarchy of the Lost Lovers. Both are generally mid-tempo records and both are crucial moments where Rotting Christ was adding Gothic aesthetics to their standard extreme metal sound. These records are classics for a reason; they have definitely earned their status as stand-outs in the Rotting Christ discography.

Dune: Part Two

I have DUNE THOUGHTS. The second half of Dune is pretty incredible. It's even more visually stunning than the first installment. It feels epic. Costume design is on point. The run time is long, but I didn't even feel it. You know the effects are good when I'm not even thinking about the fact that I'm seeing effects on screen.

That said, and I hate to say it, but the two leads just aren't very good actors. I also understand the need to condense the plot, but choosing to reduce the story from unfolding over years to what felt like a month or two was weird; this also means that Paul and Chani don't have a kid in this and Alia hasn't been born by the end. (And the cameo of Anya Taylor-Joy as Alia felt a little pointless.) Maybe Dune is the thing I'm a purist about because I found some of the changes mystifying or even a little galling. It's me, I am the Dune grog.

Soska and Flaviano, Black Widow: No Restraints Play

I don't want to alarm anyone, and this isn't a cry for help, but I read a Marvel tpb in March. It's kinda off the chain. I don't know what kind of content Marvel is putting out these days, but I assume this is on the more extreme end of things. Black Widow heads to Madripor because she feels like killing some bad guys and she's tired of Captain America giving her shit for it on US soil. And boy does she find some bad guys. The "No Restraints Play" of the title is a dark web site where rich sickos pay to watch kids being tortured, mutilated, killed, and (it is implied) sexually abused. Black Widow goes after them with a vengeance, feeling very few compunctions about dispatching lethal justice. This is grottier stuff than I expect from Marvel, but they must have known what they were in for when they hired the Soska Sisters to write this comic.

Mark Dawidziak, A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe

A Mystery of Mysteries is a book that admits that we will never know as much about its subject as we would wish to. Although Edgar Allan Poe was a known figure in American letters during his lifetime, his own biographical fabrications, poor documentation, and a literary executor out to paint him as an utter blackguard conspired to render Poe's death an essentially unsolvable mystery. That said, Mark Dawidziak's book pulls together what we do know about Poe's life and death, busting myths along the way while allowing a few of the stronger theories to hang in the air for consideration. The book's structure shifts between the events of Poe's life in chronological order and an examination of the final days of his life. I'd definitely recommend this book as a go-to biography of Poe.

Monica Brashears, House of Cotton

Monica Brashears's House of Cotton is a strange modern Southern Gothic novel that really makes you feel the sweat and grit of desperate existence. The protagonist is a teenager who is on her own after her grandmother's death. She's particularly vulnerable: her landlord immediately takes advantage and her convenience store job is a dead end. She engages in a lot of casual sex to fill the void and finds herself drawn to the troubled misfits of the world. To extricate herself, she takes a gig that is too good to be true; a chance encounter leads her to an aunt and nephew who operate a funeral home and who have a side hustle in which she is tasked with pretending to be various dead or missing people for their relatives and friends who want to talk to their absent beloveds on a livestream. This eventually gives way to live performances for the bereaved and her life becoming tangled with the funeral home owners. 

Call of Cthulhu: Arkham

I'm generally a bit skeptical of city-based supplements for role-playing games, mostly because there are so many bad ones out there. I was pleasantly surprised by the new version of Arkham for the latest edition of Call of Cthulhu. This book both makes a compelling case for why city supplements are worth the trouble and provides a great example of how this kind of supplement can be done right. There's a wide variety of information here: new skills and optional rules that make sense for an urban environment, nefarious cults, the history of the area from settlement to urban hub, etc. The essential part: everything is dripping with potential plot hooks. All that and it comes with a fake Arkham newspaper!

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francaville, Afterlife with Archie

I re-read Afterlife with Archie in March. It's not just good for an Archie comic, it's honestly kinda great for a horror comic. What makes Afterlife with Archie great is that it takes full advantage of the comic format. For example, the scene in which Archie has to beat his zombie-fied dad to "death" with a baseball bat is told in panels intercut with panels of Archie and his dad sharing golden times in his childhood. That shit works visually in a way that only comics can really do. It also, forgive me, goes for the jugular. The stuff with the dogs falling victim to the zombie outbreak really gets to me. Of course, the weak point of the Archie horror comics lies in completion--or lack thereof. It's a shame that this title and the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina never got wrapped up.

Dimmu Borgir, Inspiratio Profanus

Cover albums usually aren't my bag at all, but Dimmu Borgir's Inspiratio Profanus is pretty fun. None of the tracks are that surprising, as this is Dimmu Borgir paying tribute to their inspirations, yet you really can't go wrong with Dimmu Borgir turning in populist black metal covers of Venom, Twisted Sister, Celtic Frost, Bathory, etc.

L'amante del Demonio

This Italian Gothic horror flick is an odd duck. The heroine, played by the ever-lovely Rosalba Neri, falls asleep in a castle rumored to be haunted by the Devil. In her dream (or is it?), she's transported back in time to a dreamlike tapestry of all the medieval Gothic hits: vampires, witches, diabolic temptations, etc. (The teleporting hooded swordsmen are a novel touch, though.) Essentially, L'amante del Demonio has a gimmick that feels quite similar to The Undead, though when Neri's character awakens--there's curiously no real payoff. Our heroine simply wakes up, leaves the castle, gets in her car with her friends, and speeds away!

Ed Piskor, Red Room: The Antisocial Network, Trigger Warnings

I initially wrote Red Room off as a comic with somewhat weak storytelling that mostly existed to be a vehicle for gory art in the splatterpunk tradition that sometimes veered into adolescent edgelord-ism. And I still don't think I was entirely wrong about that; there's something weirdly puritanical in this exercise in excess, where bodies are torn apart in preference to a mix of carnality and carnage. If you're just in it for the gross-out gore gags, you'll be pleased, but if you want something more compelling those first issues probably won't hit. 

That said, you can see the storytelling chops improve in real time. The second batch is much stronger; the "Pumpkinz" story in the second collection is actually pretty clever and I really liked the folk horror riff. Red Room has risen in my estimation when considered as an artistic response to the dark early days of the pandemic; the anxiety of that moment is captured on the page in overt and subconscious ways that are truly fascinating. But one thing still bugs me about the collections: why don't they include all the cover art, especially the dope variants by other artists?

The Gorgon

You could put just about any Hammer Horror joint with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on the tv and I'd sit and watch contentedly. In The Gorgon, instead of the usual Gothic monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and mummies, we have a snake-haired lady who turns people to stone as the central figure of terror. There’s a fun wrinkle with the monster here too–an otherwise normal looking woman becomes a gorgon on nights of the full moon! You will have no trouble figuring out who the gorgon is (there just aren’t that many women in the movie), but you’re sure to enjoy the schlocky thrills of a Hammer movie made from a story submitted to the company by one of their fans.

J. Michael Straczynski and Colleen Doran, The Book of Lost Souls

I kept hitting up the bins at the comic shop like a complete addict in March. Anyway, I got The Book of Lost Souls from some dusty, forgotten corner. I knew nothing about it, but I'd been wanting to check out more of Colleen Doran's art. The art is generally pretty good in this, with some moments of greatness. The color palette is a bit dark, but I think that's down to the tone of the book. It's hard to believe that this is a 2006 book because it really does feel like a vintage Vertigo riff. The main conceit is that a suicide is brought back to life and entrusted with the task of turning people who are at a pivotal moment in their lives toward taking the better path. There's a talking cat and also an eyeless character that really feels like a rip of Sandman's The Corinthian. Icon, the imprint that published it, is actually a Marvel subsidiary, so it really feels like Marvel wanted their own Sandman--predictably trying way too late to jump on that train.


Apparently the far right is saying that Immaculate "debases the Mother of the Christ," which to be perfectly honest is exactly what I liked about the movie. I went into Immaculate with fairly low expectations, which were completely blown out of the water; generally, I find "Catholic horror," especially the many Exorcist knock-offs, to be watered down--but that is not a problem that Immaculate shares. Immaculate goes hard and pulls no punches. We have an early contender for movie of the year on our hands, so don't miss out on seeing this is the theater.

Frank Frazetta

I've got an idea for a sword & sorcery story brewing, so of course that's a great excuse for going back to the wellspring of inspiration that is Frank Frazetta's art. I'm actually hoping to make it to the Frank Frazetta museum this summer, but for now I will content myself with drinking in all the mighty thews, buxom maidens, and primordial beasts. 

Stephen King, Wizard and Glass

My attempt to re-read Stephen King's Gunslinger saga continued in March with Wizard and Glass, though if I'm honest I have to admit that I got bogged down in its ~700 pages. The meat of the story is great; King is really on a tear as he takes the story back in time to a pivotal moment in Roland's life. The Weird Western aspects of Wizard and Glass bring the heat and the tragedy. The end of the Weird Western bit evolves into folk horror territory, but those are two flavors I think work really well together--and I'd love to see more in that vein. But I had forgotten that the end does a weird Wizard of Oz riff that feels like an insane tonal shift.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, aka Jekyll's Inferno or House of Fright, was a pleasant surprise. This movie has some really strange elements in it. For example, there is an extended snake dancing scene. The dancer puts the snake's head in her mouth, simulating fellatio, and you should see the look on Mister Hyde's face. Dude is loving what he's seeing. Speaking of Hyde, usually he's just a brute in films based on Stevenson's novel, but in this one he's a charming maniac, not unlike Alex from A Clockwork Orange, just absolutely gleefully evil.

Frank Beddor (with Liz Cavalier) and Ben Templesmith, M Hatter Volume One

My addiction to painted comics continues without cure. M Hatter is about an agent of Wonderland, festooned with blades and a hat that just won't quit, who is traveling through space and time to find Princess Alyss--who escaped from a coup in her kingdom. The Hatter's quest puts him into conflict with a secret society that wants to sap all creativity and imagination from the world. There are hints of greater schemes afoot, but I suppose those will be unveiled as I dig further into the series' six volume run.

Vampire: The Masquerade, Blood Sigils and Blood-Stained Love

I picked up two supplements for Vampire: The Masquerade: Blood Sigils and Blood-Stained Love. Blood Sigils provides mechanical expansion for people who want a lot more blood sorcery in their chronicles. Blood-Stained Love is geared toward ways of adding themes of sex and romance into your chronicle. The latter is particularly interesting, as in my experience that particular focus was the big draw for a lot of people when it came to Vampire: The Masquerade in the first place, though its long been the case that the game hasn't really acknowledged that in any official capacity. 

Bodies Bodies Bodies

I was really expected to not like Bodies Bodies Bodies, but I was pleasantly surprised by it--though perhaps I shouldn't be too shocked that I enjoyed this horror film about clueless zoomers dying off one by one when the power goes out during a storm and they're holed up in a mansion. This is one of those movies where you get to sit back and feel like a Roman emperor saying shit like "Yes, kill any of them, it will amuse me." Fun movie? Yes. Hate crime against Gen Z? Probably also yes. And that's fine by me.

Shin'ichi Sakamoto, #DRCL: Midnight Children 01

#DRCL: Midnight Children is manga artist Shin'ichi Sakamoto's take on Bram Stoker's ubiquitous vampire novel. The art is exhilarating; every other page has an image, if not a full-page spread, that is absolutely jaw-droping. The writing is...weird. Weird as hell, actually. For some reason the main characters are made younger and all attend the same school. The "John Seward" character is a Japanese photographer, and he keeps Renfield, who is inexplicably a nun, as a sort of pet in his dorm room. There's a fuckton of bullying subplots in the first volume. Let's be real, the draw here is the art so all the strange interventions in the familiar story are really just the price of admission.

Yellowjackets, Season One

Yellowjackets follows two timelines: in the past, we follow the survival horror-meets-folk horror travails of a high school soccer team stranded in the wilderness after their plane goes down, while in the present we see how the adult survivors from the incident try to deal with the trauma of it. There's a lot of clever writing in the first season, and the production features some stellar performances. For the record, I am #teammisty all the way. Can't wait to start the second season--I badly need to fill in the narrative gaps, though I suspect that the second season still won't hold all the answers.

The Silver Bayonet: Canada

I also picked up the Canada supplement for The Silver Bayonet miniature wargame. Taking place during the War of 1812, this supplement has solo, cooperative, and competitive scenarios. It has new military units, new foes drawn from Canadian folklore, new wartime equipment--everything to get you going with a fresh regiment. Canada has never seemed so interesting. Luckily, it also has rules for recruiting American units, so maybe Canada isn't a lost cause after all? I kid, I kid.

The Three Musketeers: D'Artagnan

I love Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, so I'm pretty picky when it comes to film adaptations of the swashbuckling classics. (To be honest, many of them are straight corn dog in execution.) But this recent French version is fantastic. It plays up the darkness inherent in the original, the fight scenes thread the needle being flashy and brutal, and it preserves the "everyone is horny and it's fucking their lives up" throughline of the original novel. Much like Dune, a two-part feature film is a pretty big ask, but I will happily line up to see Milady when I can.

Caitlin R. Kiernan, Dean Ormston, and Sean Phillips, The Girl Who Would be Death

I read the four issues that comprise the Girl Who Would Be Death miniseries over the course of a lazy Easter morning; perfect time for a story about coming back from the dead, right? I'm a mark for this era of Vertigo anyway, but I do think these were some pretty excellent issues. It's a shame they were never collected in a tpb because between the art (the style of which lingers in between Mignola and Ted McKeever, somehow) and Caitlin R. Kiernan's writing (and I don't think she's ever gotten her due as a comics writer), this is a great adjunct to the Sandman universe. Sort of hard to believe that I hadn't picked them up before, given how hard they advertised them in all the goth mags back in the day, but I'm glad I finally got around to them.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Tarot

Big fluffy candy corn models the newest addition to my collection of oracular devices: the Legend of Sleepy Hollow tarot. 

Calico Critter blind bag

The cute kitten I got in a Calico Critter blind bag came with an extremely creepy folk horror-looking mask, which is fantastic.

Vampiress Carmilla and Shudder

I have continued to keep current with both Vampiress Carmilla and Shudder, as well as continuing to work my way through the back issues. The cover for issue #20 of Vampiress Carmilla is yet another piece worthy of framing.