Friday, January 11, 2019

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2018

The following represent my favorite new crime flicks I saw in 2018 (in alphabetical order). Since there's no way I can get to everything the year it comes out, I leave some wiggle room in eligibility for little films and foreign language offerings that sometimes take longer to surface and find an audience.

Asura: City of Madness Kim Sung-su - Jung Woo-sung is a dirty cop caught between the filthy mayor Hwang Jung-min and an anti-corruption task force led by the pitiless Kwak Do-wan in this potent, nihilistic, runaway train of a thrill ride. Woo-sung spends his time inciting riots, manipulating witnesses and covering up murders for Jung-min while getting squeezed into calculated betrayals by Do-wan and he only wants to stay alive and out of prison long enough to take care of his dying wife. Once the bonds snap that kept his life, and seemingly the entire machinery of the city, together the whole house of cards against humanity is gonna fall and kill everybody inside. Buckling in is only strapping yourself to the wreckage. There's plenty of tension along the way, but holy fuck the final showdown is full of the kind of hatchet-wielding, brutal gang-fighting that comes frequently and not near often enough out of wildly exciting Korean cinema these days.

Bad Day For the Cut - Chris Baugh - A middle-aged sad-sack bachelor who lives with his mother and spends all his best moments and all of his meager monies at a local pub comes home one night to find his dear old ma murdered and not in some half-assed home invasion gone wrong kind of way. No, seems she was worthy of somebody hiring professionals to do it right, but it goes just wrong enough to send hapless Donal (Nigel O'Neill) off on a seek and destroy mission with results as unexpected as the whole thing is ill-advised. Plenty is revealed about Donal's roots and latent character - when pressed he finds that bottomless determination and a sprinkling of intelligence will take him further than anybody would have guessed - and the pervasive melancholy mood is punctured by surprising moments of brutal violence and gallows humor worthy of comparisons to similar fare like Fargo, No Country For Old Men or Blue Ruin.Can't wait to see what Baugh does next.

The Crew - Julien Leclercq - Yanis Zeri plays Sami, the leader of a Parisian heist crew taking down carefully planned scores with a level of precision teamwork that takes a lot of discipline and years of work to achieve. The film opens as they are filling a new slot on the team and the heat coming off their anxiety level is elevated even as the action remains cool. The job goes well until it doesn't and the team immediately breaks into individuals having to make very quick decisions about the rest of their lives. Stakes are high, but not cartoonish and combine personal and professional in a pleasing ratio and the on-screen action and violence are effective without ever becoming the reason for the film. The most pleasantest out of the blue surprise of the year for me - never heard about it, saw advertising, read a thing - just stumbled across it on Netflix and was knocked on my ass. This is exactly the kind of no-hooks, no-frills armed robbery picture I always want more of. No mugging for the camera, no embarrassing macho dialogue (this is the movie I wish Den of Thieves had been - not that I didn't enjoy that one, but sheeeeeit did it hit both of those shortcomings super hard), just workaday thievery complete with straight jobs and just enough family life to seem like human peoples instead of soulless hardboiled cliches.

The House That Jack Built - Lars Von Trier - Matt Dillon delivers one of the funniest performances of his career as Jack a frustrated architect/engineer who spent twelve years as a serial killer in the 70s and 80s. The film is narrated by Jack telling his story to Bruno Ganz's Virgil as the latter escorts him through the afterlife. Along the tour of heaven and hell the duo talk to pass the time - Jack finding it refreshing to speak frankly about his hobby with someone he cannot shock - and viewers are subjected to episodes from Jack's life as he murders (mostly women) in increasingly elaborately staged scenarios. We witness Jack bloom as his once crippling OCD eases and his muse dares to go bigger as consequence and punishment fail to find him. Nobody more surprised than myself to have an LVT pick in my top ten this year. I've been pissed at him since all that terrible Dogme '95 horseshit derailed a career I was very interested in up to that point. I've watched several of his films and skipped just as many over the last 20-some years, but while most of the ones I've seen have let slip flashes of brilliance - just terrific moments that make it clear he's a film maker of considerable talent - most of them have committed the unforgivable sin of boring me. The House That Jack Built did not. I know this one caused some outrage at its festival premier and that what I saw was a 'compromised' R-rated cut. I can't say whether my views on the film would change seeing the unrated cut, but to say that LVT's career has courted controversy I think gives him too much credit. Mostly I've found his provocations to feel juvenile and likewise those who are outraged by them, who constantly take the bait, to sound just about as juvenile in their outcries. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo spouted by Jack weighs nothing and did not engage me at all. If it engages (and enrages) you or not may be the litmus test for audience response to the movie - much the same way the degree to which you listen closely to the monologues the characters on True Detective will decide your appreciation of that show. In both cases I think they're perhaps overly elaborate reveals of character's self-perception, but the meat is what happens on screen and there's a lot of meat - or at least a lot to chew on. Even someone as unaware as I am about Von Trier off-screen can see Jack as a stand-in for the film maker constantly frustrated when he tries to make something beautiful and only successful when he does terrible things - his freezer slowly filling up with rotting-corpses/ideas that he takes out once in a while to try again to make more satisfying pictures of in silly poses. Upon reaching the end of the tour of hell - when Virgil shows him the absolute depths and then disappoints Jack by saying "that's not where you're going, I just thought you'd like to see it" it plays as a wink at Von Trier's tendency to self-aggrandize that his stand-in decides to push through deepest hell for an impossible chance out of the pit rather than be obscure and abandoned in a less hellish level. The episodic structure allows the film to play sometimes like a suspense thriller, other times like a horror film, a fantasy and probably most effectively as a comedy. There is a chapter early on that is probably the most effective prolonged sequence of comedic suspense I saw this year. This may or may not be for you. Did it shock me? I definitely audibly engaged once or twice, but it's difficult to be shocked when it is clearly what the provocateur wants to do. Entertained though? Yeah, I enjoyed wondering what the hell was about to happen next.

Mandy - Panos Cosmatos - When micro cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) spies Andrea Riseborough's Mandy through the window of his rapey van on a rustic backroad in the woody northwest he springs a stiffy as true as anything he's yet experienced (not a high bar) and summons his underlings to blow the Horn of Abraxas in order to summon spiky-leather-clad, acid-blasted bikers to bring her hither forthwith. And once Mandy sits before him doped to the gills and primed for a lil' of the ol' in-out, in-out she does the incomprehensible and turns him down. Laughs at him to boot. Aaaaand then he kills her in a horrific manner. Out of spite. Out of a need to feed the pain of embarrassment through an amplifier till that thing bucks and hums and feeds back all over the world. Then he and his crew including the spiky-gimp-suit acid freaks catch the reverb rebound in the form of Mandy's husband Red (Nicolas Cage) and ride that wave of mutilation till it dashes them against the furthest shore. Plot-wise that's it. Simple revenge story without any twists or complications, but the presentation is everything here. This is a heavy metal album cover come to life. It's an overwhelming sensory experience with visuals and sound design pushed to eleven and through the glass ceiling of good taste and responsible film making. We get hints that Red may be a grubby, flannel-wearing John Wick - a man of past violent potentials who's lived in peace and sobriety with his wife, and who lets loose a terrible reckoning when that tranquility is shattered (there's a great cycle of substances ingested: vodka, cocaine, acid, cigarettes, fueling escalating violence) - but it's never really spelled out. Cosmatos constructs pictures of such ticklish possibility they continue living beyond the frames and giving rise to new imaginings long after the run time is finished and it's the second, third and beyond lives the movie inspires that are the ultimate testament to the film's power and worth.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Christopher McQuarrie - Ethan Hunt's Impossible Mission Force is back for a sixth film and all the same things keep happening: betrayals, disavowed statuses, failures of sci-fi technology, reckless compromise of national/world stability and a series of heroic efforts resulting in jet-setting breathless chases, narrow margins of victory and me wondering just how the hell this series continues to improve and thrill me. This is the first series entry I'm including on this list and I'm not even sure it's the best entry in the franchise. It is remarkable for a single stand-out reason though and that is star Tom Cruise's commitment to upping the physical stakes for himself as a performer. In fact the onscreen shenanigans are so ridiculous a casual observer will probably assume that they represent quantum leaps in CGI sophistication rather than noticing that they really did all that shit in camera. Holy shit. I suspect the deepening pleasures of this film (and the others in the series) will be careful rewatches - not to parse plot points - but to study how exactly the thrills are constructed. Of course franchise first time returning writer/director McQuarrie has a fair amount to do with it too. In fact his work with Cruise on the last couple of M:I pictures is strong enough to get me to theaters for the Top Gun sequel (I have no love for the first), and I suppose I'll revisit Jack Reacher as well.

The Night Comes For UsTimo Tjahjanto - Plot concerns a bad man who just can't bring himself to bad that much any more and so gets the ruthless and well-oiled machinery of smuggling, trafficking, vice and murder for hire criminality in and around Jakarta and the South Pacific all a-twist in on itself and bursts the levee holding back blood and only the quickest, toughest most ridiculously badass motherfuckers will survive rising tide of entrails and brain matter and severed limbs the whole world is covered in by the end of this breathless, groovy as shit movie that gives Gareth Evans' The Raid franchise a worthy competitor for the kung-fu-ck-u film making throne. Having enjoyed director Tjahjanto's previous efforts (the pscycho/sicko thriller Killers and chop-socky lip smacker Headshot) just enough to keep tuning in I was nevertheless comfuckingpletely unprepared for the level of magic he was capable of. Nothing in those other films even hinted at latent potential a fraction of these heights. Here's hoping Netflix gives him the go-ahead on his proposed Six-Seas trilogy with The Night Comes For Us serving as chapter one. Further, let's hope there's an excuse to bring back the entire cast - in different roles where need be - especially Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Hannah Al Rashid and Dian Sastrowardoyo.

Widows - Steve McQueen - When a tightly knit heist crew is taken down in a shootout with Chicago police their widows are left holding their debts to banks, politicians and gangsters. The women come from disparate backgrounds and have no connection to each other outside of varying degrees of and reasons for desperation and decide to use the blueprints left behind for their late husbands' next score to settle scores and free themselves for deciding their own futures. The talent assembled on and behind the camera is considerable, but there is no one more in command of the proceedings than Viola Davis whose natural born leadership is apparent and solid enough to carry the production. Based on the novel by Lynda La Plante which already inspired a mini-series thirty years ago, it's easy to see how the story could support many more hours of onscreen exploration and it's easy to forgive McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn for indulging story lines that don't keep the focus squarely on the central crew, still, I wanted more time with the women as they evolved as a unit. The opening five minutes is a testimony to the power of sharp production values and terrific editing to make an intense short feature as emotionally moving as anything that follows. Looking forward to revisiting this one in years to come and appreciating that Davis and especially Michelle Rodriguez got their chance to flex their chops in a project of this caliber.

The World is Yours - Romain Gavras - This story of a dreamer (Karim Leklou) who just wants to open a franchise of frozen desert shops along the African Mediterranean coast and is committed enough to realizing that dream that he will engage in dangerous criminal activities to achieve it sounds stupid on the surface. And it is. Stupid. Utterly stupid. Stupid enough to feel real. Populated by a cast of none too bright characters all looking for shortcuts to their dream lives that they will recklessly plunge into dangerous waters and find that the very thickness of their wits and their inability to imagine outcomes that don't favor them are nearly super powers, this works equally and simultaneously as a thriller and a comedy whose twists and turns aren't entirely seen coming nor are they anything different than the numerous crime movies the characters have apparently seen and treated as tutorials for the way crime really works. This one deserves favorable comparison to Michael Bay's Pain and Gain or Guy Ritchie's comic caper pictures. Please seek it out.
You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay - Joaquin Phoenix is Joe a man whose existence revolves around taking care of his elderly mother and who makes a living as an off-the-books operative specializing in finding lost children caught up in sex-trafficking and dispensing brutal violence upon their captors. He's a man exposed to violence and physical/psychic trauma all of his life, as seen in flashback fragments from abuse at the hands of his father to the horrors of war, and it's taken a toll on Joe whose mind is broken in ways that remain unclear. His frequent suicidal fantasies throw some doubt upon the accuracy of onscreen events and the film never clarifies them - instead Ramsay places us within Joe's mind and leaves us to sort out chronology and the facts while giving us an often jarring, frequently surreal and beautiful sensory experience. A couple of significant changes to the plot of Jonathan Ames's (much more straightforward, but holy crap razor sharp) source novella work very well for film and there are moments made here that ought to guarantee its place as the origin of many future crime movie tropes (probably the most immediately recognizable stylistic influence-r since Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive - also based on a sharp novella... hmmm).

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Get Thee to a Nerdery, Post-Heist

Did you notice that the Do Some Damage podcast took a break over the holidays? Well, it did and it looks like I never even linked to the last episode we recorded. So here you go, me talking about Steve McQueen's Widows. What did we do with our time off? Steve Weddle finished his fucking follow up to Country Hardball novel Broken Prayer, Chris Holmes and Holly West? Who the fuck knows?


As 2018 wound down I squeezed in a couple more podcast appearances I've yet to let you know about. First, I was honored to jump on The Projection Booth once again with Mike White and my former (unbeknownst to me) neighbor Heather Drain to discuss John Huston's Fat City starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrell. If you've never seen it, check it out before listening to the episode because we go right through spoilers.

It's based on the novel of the same name by Leonard Gardner and I finally read the book myself a couple months back. It's a great example of the American beautiful loser genre and the film works well as an example of the cinematic version. In the episode Heather points out that the film has a Charles Bukowski flavor and says she'd have liked the opportunity to see Tyrell's Oma share a story with Henry Chinaski and I think that'd be a great fit. Read the book or see the film if you like John Fante, William Kennedy or... Willy Vlautin.

Also - Mike scored an interview with motherfucking Stacy Keach himself. You need this episode. Trust me.

Second, I'd like to thank Kent Gowran for turning me on to Blake Howard's One Heat Minute podcast, a show dedicated to picking apart and blowing up Michael Mann's greatest hits movie Heat one on-screen minute at a time. The fuck you say? The fuck I said. Each episode discusses a single minute of screen time in glorious nerdy detail and it's a pretty great discussion each time out.

How could that be?

Well, the guests he gets are a big part of it. One dude would almost certainly run out of steam on a 170 episode run about a single film, but each time somebody new jumps on there's a chance for more perspective and fresh takes. Recent guests have included Jordan Harper, Joe Lynch, Jon Abrams, Bill Duke and cinematographer Dante Spinotti.

Even recenter guests include me. Fuck yeah, I got to get my nerd on big time and geek about one of my all-time favorite films and the minute I was assigned is a doozy - minute 107 which features Robert De Niro's crew post-heist/pre-escape and Al Pacino's team closing in. The whole minute has very little dialogue, but tons of tension built in thanks, in large part, to Brian Eno's driving soundtrack cut Force Marker.

How'd it go?

Give it a listen and let me know.

Also - this picture of Renee Asher Pickup on holiday in France holding just purchased copies of Les Féroces and Todd Robinson's Cassandra (The Hard Bounce) made my New Year. If it don't warm your cockles they might be broke.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Jim Claussen

Jim wore a cowboy hat always. And boots. Except during Ninjitsu training. As an octogenarian. I never saw him train, but I heard about it. Whenever we sat together in the parking lot waiting to pick up children from school (my kids, his grandson). Or at the park. Or at his home where he'd decorated the hell out of Halloween season and thrown a party for his grandson's birthday.

The last time I saw him was at one of those parties. 20 teenagers running around the back yard in costumes shooting Nerf guns at each other, hopped up on sugar and nitrates. I loved the parties and it was clear the kids did too, but it wore me out just looking at the scene. Not Jim though. He thrived on it. He had energy to spare. He damn near broke my fingers shaking my hand. He wanted me to know there was coffee in the house. He always made sure to make coffee if I was coming over. He knew I liked it. He liked the way my wife made coffee when he visited our home. "She makes it strong."

She does.

Jim told me stories with a little prompting. He ran away from home at 14. Never saw his father again. Joined the Marines. Played in a country western band with his brothers on a honky-tonk circuit. Tended bar at a rough joint in St. Louis. Got in fist fights. Whiskey bottle fights. Gun fights. The stories he told me brought to mind Charlie Louvin's tales and I got him a copy of Satan is Real by Charlie (and Benjamin Whitmer). Jim loved it. He bought copies for his surviving brothers. He took care of his siblings during their declining years, often driving all over Missouri and Illinois to work on their homes or take them to medical appointments when they were ill or unable to themselves.

I knew Jim throughout his seventies as a kind man with a sweet disposition toward me and my family. But I know not everyone who knew him had the same experience.

Jim told me of estranged family members from generations before and after him. He wanted to talk about hard things. He'd had meanness demonstrated to him young and had responded in kind frequently throughout his life. He figured he'd changed some. He didn't know about grace. He asked me questions about Jesus. He believed in God most days. He had opinions.

We didn't see eye to eye on many things. I hated his politics. He cut me some slack, but figured people who thought like me were a big problem.

I didn't argue much. I listened. It was easy to. Jim had so much story to share. Full of humor and heart and violence. Beautiful and terrifying in the unvarnished presentation. I wish I'd taken more extensive notes about his life. I told him I'd like to use some of his biographical details in my fiction and he was thrilled. He read my book and said I had the stuff. Nothing gives me more confidence in my merits.

Tuesday Jim died.
For the last 80-some years Jim lived.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Prison Encounter With Charles Sobhraj, Asia’s Most Infamous Serial Killer: CriMemoir by Tom Vater

Tom Vater's latest book, The Monsoon Ghost Image is the third in his series featuring Detective Maier, the Asia-specialist for a German detective firm (after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man With the Golden Mind), this time pitted against the CIA, corrupt international business interests and 'The Wicked Witch of the East' in Thailand.

The following is his first-person account of interviewing serial killer Charles Sobhraj in prison. Keep up with Tom at his website

A Prison Encounter With Charles Sobhraj, Asia’s Most Infamous Serial Killer: 
CriMemoir by Tom Vater

Indian parents tell their children that Charles Sobhraj will come and eat them if they are naughty. That’s what crossed my mind as I walked with Canadian photographer and documentary film maker Steve Sandford through the gate of Kathmandu prison – which looks like a Spaghetti western film set, much like its watch towers and armed guards – into the visitors’ area, a long narrow room, split in half by a low wall and strong chicken wire that reached up to the ceiling. Visitors had to sit down on stone benches. To our left and right families were shouting across the low wall, through the chicken wire to their incarcerated relatives. This was Christmas 2003 and we were here to interview a man infamous and feared across a continent. Charles Sobhraj, one of the world’s most notorious serial killers, was awaiting trialin Nepal and had agreed to grant us an interview. So had the prison authorities. Charles Sobhraj spent more than twenty years on the road across Asia befriending backpackers, drugs-smugglers, diplomats and businessmen, then drugging, robbing and finally strangling or burning his acquaintances. He is said to have killed between twelve and twenty times.

The now seventy-four year old has been on the run from police in Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and France. Sobhraj, son of an Indian textile merchant and a Vietnamese woman, had a tumultuous childhood, growing up on the streets of Saigon and in juvenile prisons in France. Neglected by his family, the young Sobhraj moved effortlessly from petty crime to armed robbery and finally to murder. By the mid-1970s, a career that included jewelry theft, luxury-car smuggling and massive gem stone fraud was interspersed with kidnappings and torture of drugged foreigners. In South Asia, Sobhraj was known as the “Serpent’ for his mastery of disguise, his multiple identities and his ability to persuade people to assist him with his killings. With the help of several female assistants, Sobhraj poisoned his victims and then pretended to help them recuperate, while administering more poison.

But by the late 1970s Interpol and numerous police forces across Asia were on the look-out. Sobhraj was convicted for two murders in Thailand in 1976, which earned him the name ‘Bikini Killer’, but he was never caught for these crimes. French woman Stephanie Parry and American Teresa Knowlton had been found in shallow graves on beaches near Pattaya, Thailand’s notorious red-light beach resort. The police took months to connect the decomposed bodies to a mysterious gemstone dealer in Bangkok. By the time the local authorities were alerted by a number of suspicious embassies in Bangkok that Sobhraj was using false papers, the “Serpent” had allegedly paid off the Thai police and fled the country.

He admitted these and other murders to a journalist Richard Neville in 1977, which were published in the bestseller The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj. The Thais eventually charged Sobhraj with five murders. Autopsies after exhumation revealed one of the girls in Pattaya had been drowned, the other strangled. Charles Sobhraj was also charged with the murder of a Turkish man, who had been burned alive. With evidence provided by several embassies, the Thais also investigated Sobhraj for the murder of two Dutch tourists – Sobhraj had used the Dutch man’s passport to escape to Nepal. The Dutch couple, who had been staying in Sobhraj’s apartment in Central Bangkok, had been kept prisoner, drugged, beaten, strangled and burned to death. They were found in a ditch near the capital.

The world was closing in on Charles Sobhraj. In 1976 he poisoned a group of French students, as part of an elaborate gem scam at the Vikram Hotel in Delhi. For once Sobhraj got it wrong and miscalculated the dose for the students who became violently sick. Some of his victims realized they were being drugged, wrestled Sobhraj to the ground and held on to him until he was arrested by Indian police. Sobhraj went to court in Delhi. By 1977, Thailand had issued a murder warrant for Sobhraj. Nepalese authorities wanted to interview him about two backpacker-killings (though he was not charged in Nepal until 1986). The Delhi court charged him with murder, for killing Jean-Luc Solomon, a backpacker he had allegedly poisoned. In 1977 Sobhraj was found guilty of administering drugs with intent to rob, causing hurt to commit robbery and the Indian equivalent to manslaughter -- culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter and an additional five years for poisoning. He was sent to the notorious Tihar Jail, which he soon ran like a company, controlling business within the prison walls, paying off guards and enjoying freedoms no other prisoner could hope to attain. In 1986, just prior to his release, he escaped by drugging guards and prisoners alike at his birthday party. A few weeks later he was recaptured in Goa with a weapon. Sobhraj was keen to avoid extradition to Thailand where he faced the death penalty.

In 1997, after numerous hunger-strikes, escapes and recaptures and twenty years behind bars in India, Sobhraj was released and returned to France where he embarked on an apparently profitable career as a killer celebrity, signing film deals.

In September 2003, the Himalayan Times reported that Sobhraj was in Kathmandu. Shortly after, the police arrested Sobhraj at the Royal Casino. Old files were dusted off and the case of the two backpacker murders was reopened. “First the police did not believe who I was. My passport states I am Charles Sobhraj. I don’t think there is anyone else in the world who would use that name voluntarily.

So here we were, on one side of the chicken wire. And opposite us stood Charles Sobhraj, legs and arms shackled. We were flanked by two police officers, Sobhraj was surrounded by three officers. The walls were dirty yellow, the light beamed down from a neon strip above our heads, it was gritty. We were not allowed to take photographs, make recordings or take notes. Sobhraj was a charismatic man, even in his old anorak and woolly cap, (soon after the interview I watched The Silence of The Lambs and found it unbearably flat-footed and vulgar) and he was watching us like a hawk as we introduced ourselves and told him that we’d come to write a story about him. Through the wire, he looked perfectly reasonable, projecting the air of a French university professor, the assured spiel of an Indian gem stone seller and the rough skepticism of a Vietnamese soldier. His accent flitted between his personas, as if trying to evaluate which version of himself would work best with us, or on us. I guess he saw us as a prize catch, rotting away in his cell, waiting for something to happen, even if it was no more than the appearance of a couple of foreign freelance journalists.

The previous day, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Ganesh K.C., the man who’d arrested Sobhraj, had told us his rather incredible story.“I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I was playing near Kathmandu airport. In 1975 there were only fields and the morning fog was dense. It was quiet as a grave. I was running and suddenly, I saw the police in front of me, gathered around a body - the naked, burned corpse of a young white woman. The body was completely charred, except for the head. That moment has stayed with me all my life.”

As a ten year old, Ganesh had stumbled across the crime scene of one of Sobhraj’s two Nepali murders. In September 2003, he’d arrested the prime suspect in Nepal’s worst tourist murder. According to Kathmandu police, Sobhraj drugged twenty-six year old Canadian Laurent Carrière and twenty-nine year old American Connie Bronzich, then stabbed them and partially burned them, before dumping the bodies in two separate locations, one near Kathmandu airport and the other in a field near the UNESCO World Heritage Site Bhaktapur.

Of course Sobhraj professed his innocence. “I have never been to Nepal before. This is a huge miscarriage of justice. I am unlucky to have been arrested in a country where the law is as out of date as the prison I am held in.

Then he asked me a series of personal questions with what seemed like remarkable empathy. I had my stock answers, that we were on assignment, to hear his side of the story. Having denied the murders he was accused off in Nepal, he started laying into the prison system. His minders never batted an eye lid. “They hold a hundred people in each barrack here. More than two thousand inmates in all. Prison life in Nepal is as archaic as the court system. Luckily I have certain privileges - a room to myself, TV, and, through my lawyer, I can check my email every day.”

It was somewhat laborious to direct him back to the subject we had come for, his recent arrest in Nepal. With the help of a personal organizer he launched into his life story, with minute facts and names, at times quoting the books that have been written about him, but without alluding to having killed anyone. It was a weird hour long pantomime in the crumbling, freezing-cold jail.

The French Government informed the authorities in Nepal of my release in India in 1997 and requested to be told about any outstanding charges against me. I never heard anything back.

Sobhraj claimed the police only bowed to pressure from the media after reports of his presence had been repeatedly published. “While I was in the news, the police never came to my hotel, never questioned me. Three days before I was due to leave Nepal, they arrested me while I was having dinner at the casino. I was not even charged then. They have no case, no evidence, nothing.

Given Sobhraj’s track record, Ganesh K.C. was remarkably calm about his dangerous prisoner, “He is kept under special security arrangements because he escaped from Tihar in India so many times. But he will not elude custody here. Charles Sobhraj made a huge mistake returning to Nepal.” Outside the jail, a few Sobhraj groupies had gathered to visit their idol. An American waiting for his idol with a bag of oranges, told me, “Asking why Charles Sobhraj kills, is like asking why the sky is blue.” Another told us he’d spring Sobhraj dinner upon his release.

That will have to wait.

In 2004, Sobhraj was convicted to twenty years in prison for the murder of Connie Bronzich. The verdict was upheld by Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2010. In 2014, Sobhraj was convicted to another fifteen years for the murder of Laurent Carrière.

A couple of weeks ago, I was back in Kathmandu. I happened to walk past the city jail. There’s a new gate, a big iron affair, a little more with the times. But above on the prison wall, guards still patrol with automatic weapons. Somewhere in the bowels of the jail. Charles Sobhraj lingers and I can’t help thinking of all things I have done, seen, felt, lived and survived, the books I have written, the people I have met, since I first walked through those gates fifteen years ago. I also thought about the many people I have met who have been incarcerated unjustly, or for too long.

Charles Sobhraj is not one of them.

As Sobhraj slips into old age, as his biographer Richard Neville, incidentally one of the founders of the UK’s legendary OZ Magazine, passed away in 2016, and as the big film about the drifting hippie killer was never made, his name, his crimes and his charisma will fade. Children in India will be scared by other popular culture bogeymen.

Tom Vater is an Asia-based writer and journalist. He is the author of numerous books, mostly on Asian subjects, including four crime fiction novels. His most recent novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image, is a detective mystery unfolding in Thailand, on the fringes of the US’ war on terror, published in October 2018 with Crime Wave Press.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Crazy Like Two Donkeys

Excited to announce the French language edition of Fierce Bitches (no longer available anywhere in English, sad tuba) Les Féroces is now available (right here) and I'm enjoying scratching my head at some of the results that I get from feeding the reviews I find online through Google Translate. My favorite phrase yet: "The author must be crazy like two donkeys" from this review at Unwalkers. That one also ends with this zinger: "The ending is like  cuming on corpses, because the book is short but intense, stiff and harsh like his writing style… or like an old asshole."

A few more I've enjoyed -
Culture vs News
Black Roses For Me
L'atelier de Litote 
- My most sincere thanks to everybody who's read any of my books and taken the time to leave a review. You guys rock.

Also, at the same time my first translation into French is hitting bookstores, my story The Whole Buffalo (from Needle magazine #1) has been published in the Italian anthology Lavoro Sporco: Mucho Mojo Club alongside Anthony Neil Smith, Adam Howe, Danny Gardner, John Harvey, Doug Johnstone, William Meikle, A. Brunetti and Jeffery Deaver. Can you read Italian? Are you trying to learn? Kindle version available here. You'll have to go to Italy for a paperback.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Missing Links

Several weeks' worth of links to drop in this post. Sorry.

First up I was pumped to join Mike White and Axel Kohagen on the Projection Booth podcast for a discussion of a movie I really love, Brad Anderson's Session 9. For those keeping score this makes my third straight dissociative disorder movie discussion following David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. and Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. No idea what that indicates about me, but look for me to join Mike on a bunch of upcoming episodes that break the trend... I think. 

 Also on the episode Mike interviews co-writer/director Brad Anderson and co-writer/star Stephen Gevedon. As always I used the podcast as an excuse to catch up on a lot of the director's body of work previously unseen. I watched Beruit, The Call, Vanishing on 7th Street, Stonehearst Asylum and Sounds Like for the first time. Plus lookit who I found reading a book whilst manning the liquor counter in Darien Gap - none other than Big Daddy Thug, Todd Robinson himself. Heh.

On recent episodes of Do Some Damage I'm looking at the following:

A double feature double feature of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped and Jacques Becker's Le Trou or Óskar Jónasson's Reykjavik-Rotterdam and Tomasz Thomson's Snowman's Land.

With Drew Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale in theaters I talked some about Hotel/Motel movies.

Jeremy Saulnier's Netflix original Hold the Dark and other stuff.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Doctor Will Bone You Now: An Appreciation of Halloween III: Season of the Witch's Dr. Feelgood Daniel Challis, M.D.

Adam Howe has a new book (Scapegoat, with co-author James Newman) which means it's time for a new lengthy, obsession-driven piece at Hardboiled Wonderland. I won't waste your time setting it up - I'll just say that Adam's is one of my favorite voices out there doing gonzo, dirty crime/horror fiction and if you like this here blog my guess is you'd like his stuff too. So please, after reading the piece get your hands on some of his books.

The Doctor Will Bone You Now: An Appreciation of Halloween III: Season of the Witch's Dr. Feelgood Daniel Challis, M.D
By Adam Howe

WARNING — This shit contains spoilers… But frankly, if you haven’t already seen 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, then you are dead to me.

It’s getting late.  I could use a drink.
— Doctor Daniel Challis

It’s the week before Halloween when toyshop owner Harry Grimbridge arrives in a panicked state at a North California gas station, clutching a Silver Shamrock Jack o’ Lantern mask and raving hysterically to the gas station attendant that ‘They’ are trying to kill him. Grimbridge passes out and the pump jockey drives him to hospital, shadowed by the sinister black-suited men pursuing Harry.

While this shit’s going down, Doctor Daniel Challis arrives unannounced at the home of his ex-wife and kids, interrupting dinner. He’s stumbling drunk, literally staggering when he hugs his brats. He’s come bearing gifts: shitty Halloween masks, brown-bagged like booze, looks like he bought them on impulse at a liquor store or gas station on the drunk-drive over. Kids aren’t impressed. Mom’s already got ‘em Silver Shamrock masks, 1982’s must-have Halloween mask. Challis’s visit with the kids lasts all of a minute before he’s called away to the hospital. Some kind of emergency. (There’s a sneaking suspicion Challis has asked a buddy – probably a fellow barfly or the barkeep – to make the call and rescue him from his fatherly obligations.) “Drinking and doctoring,” deadpans his bitch ex. “Great combination.” He promises he’ll make it up to the kids. She gives a knowing roll of the eyes…

So in his introductory scene, we’ve established our unlikely hero – Doctor Daniel Challis – as an unashamed boozehound, a neglectful husband and deadbeat dad, who practices medicine while drunk. Pretty unusual protagonist for a horror flick. In an alternate movie universe, you could switch Challis with Denzel’s character in Flight — shit, Challis could probably fly a plane as well as he doctors.

Challis works at a small North California hospital. You get the impression the hospital chiefs are trying to minimize the possibility of a medical malpractice suit by burying Challis on the graveyard shift. It seems Challis’s regular routine is to play grab-ass with the nurses – particularly elderly black nurse, Agnes – and sleep off his drunk till quitting time. But not tonight.

Hysterical toyshop owner Harry Grimbridge is brought to the hospital suffering from shock, clutching a Silver Shamrock Jack o’ Lantern mask and raving about ‘Them.’ Challis chemically coshes the crazy bastard with 100mg of Thorazine and then stashes him in a room. After dealing with his one patient – hardly the big emergency that should’ve interrupted his visit with the kids – Challis tells Agnes he could “use a nap,” invites the old broad to join him, with a clap on the ass for good measure, and then retires to his office to catch a few Zs. He’s earned it.

While Challis is sleeping it off on the couch, a mysterious black-suited assassin murders the toyshop owner in his hospital bed. Woken by a scream, in an act of drunken bravado Challis pursues the killer through the hospital to the parking lot, where the guy torches himself with a can of gasoline and his car explodes.

In the aftermath of the toyshop owner’s murder, and his murderer’s incendiary suicide, a shaken Challis phones his ex to tell her he can’t pick up the kids. “Someone died here tonight,” he says. “It’s a hospital,” she replies. Naturally she assumes this is another of his bullshit attempts to shirk his responsibilities.

The toyshop owner’s hot young daughter, Ellie Grimbridge, arrives at the hospital from L.A. Challis – whose sexual harassment of the nursing staff has clearly established him as a poon-hound – takes one look and likes what he sees. But to his credit, he allows Ellie time to grieve – a day or two – before making his move. The yokel cops – suspecting the toyshop owner’s murder has something to do with “drugs, probably” – allow Ellie to ID her father’s body at the crime scene, shattered skull and all; I’m not convinced this is standard police practice.

Challis remains troubled by the murder/suicide. Nothing like it has ever happened in his eight years of practicing medicine at the hospital. And maybe he’s feeling some guilt at being passed out drunk when the murder occurred? He pesters the hospital coroner’s female assistant, Teddy – with whom he has a sexual past that Teddy wishes was sexual present – for more information on the assassin’s cindered ashes. Teddy is reluctant to breach hospital rules, but when he turns on the Challis Charm and promises “dinner,” she is powerless to resist and agrees to do some digging. (Challis has unwittingly signed her death warrant; a Silver Shamrock robot assassin will later fatally lobotomize Teddy with a coroner’s drill; a case of Challis drilling a chick by proxy.)

Having done as much as he can, Challis retires to his regular dive bar and starts knocking back boilermakers and watching cartoons. He’s on first-name terms with the barkeep, Charlie; my guess is Charlie paged Challis with his bullshit work summons when Doctor Dan was visiting his kids. Ellie finds Challis in the bar. “The nurses told me I’d find you here.” The implication being that when Challis isn’t doctoring, he’s getting shitfaced in this dingy gin joint, with one of the nurses, or just drinking alone, bitching about his ex to the barkeep. Challis and Ellie hit it off and decide to do some digging into her father’s murder.

Challis: I saw something that night.  I don’t know, your father came into the hospital… He— I thought he was crazy, out of his mind. He’s hanging onto a Halloween mask, he wouldn’t let it go… And what he said was, “They’re gonna kill us all.”  And in a little while he was dead.  And I don’t know what the hell is going on!

At the old man’s toyshop, a clue leads them to Silver Shamrock Novelties in Santa Mira, which connects with the Silver Shamrock mask that Ellie’s father was clutching when he was brought to the hospital. The amateur sleuths decide to travel to Santa Mira and poke around, sexual euphemism intended. Challis phones his ex from a payphone. Says he can’t pick up the kids this weekend. Important medical conference he can’t get out of. She doesn’t buy it. We’re beginning to get an inkling why the Challis’s marriage ended. Then Challis and Ellie set off for Santa Mira. Challis has bought a six-pack of beer for the road trip. It’s probably worth remembering that Ellie’s father has been murdered only days earlier. Challis is treating this like a vacation. In fact, it’s fair to say that Challis’s character motivation is to screw Ellie; that if he wasn’t so eager to jump her bones, what happens next might never have occurred.

Santa Mira is an Irish company town. (Ellie: “Irish Halloween masks?” Challis: “In California, you never know.”) The unofficial mayor is one Conal Cochran. A bog-Irish ex-pat, and one of the wealthiest men in America, Cochran made his vast fortune inventing practical jokes like the Dead Dwarf Gag and Sticky Toilet Paper – he’s the Donald Trump of whoopee cushions – before founding Silver Shamrock Novelties, the country’s number one seller of Halloween masks. This despite offering only a meager selection of three masks: Jack o’ Lantern, skeleton or witch. That’s it, kids. Pick one. Presumably Silver Shamrock’s aggressive blanket advertising campaign – with that fucking jingle – boosts sales.

Arriving in town, Challis casually suggests to Ellie that they pose as a married couple (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” – quick thinking, Doc) and check into the Rose of Shannon Motel. If Ellie suspects Challis has an ulterior motive, she doesn’t let on.

The Rose of Shannon is a “zoo.”  The moment Challis and Ellie check in, the place is assailed by guests. The Buddy Kupfer family – Buddy’s sold more Silver Shamrock masks that any other toyshop owner in the country; as a reward, he and the fam’ have been invited by Cochran to tour the facility, like Charlie visiting Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. And Marge Guttman, who has come to town to bitch about a fucked-up order. Marge claims this happens a lot. But what can you expect from Irish mask-makers? They’re probably drunker than Challis.

Snooping the motel guest register, Challis discovers that Ellie’s father stayed in town shortly before his murder. Knowing they’re on the right track, Ellie wants to start investigating right away. Challis tells her: “Whoa, slow down – I could use a drink.” That six-pack merely whetted his appetite. Staying overnight with Ellie in the Rose of Shannon, Challis offers halfheartedly to sleep in the car.

Ellie: “Where do you want to sleep, Doctor Challis?
Challis: “That’s a dumb question, Miss Grimbridge.”

It’s worth remembering once again that Ellie is the grieving daughter of a brutally murdered father, that the corpse is barely cold.

But Challis bangs her and then heads into town for more booze.

Returning to the motel with a bottle of liquor, Challis is stopped by a drunken bum. Not a drunken bum with a doctorate, like Challis; this guy’s a skid row wino who looks like he belongs on the mean streets of New York City, not a sleepy burg like Santa Mira. Challis shares his bottle with the bum after the guy assures him: “I ain’t got no diseases.” (Challis seems the more likely disease-carrier, probably a nasty STI – if he fucks like he drinks, I’m guessing he doesn’t practice safe sex.) The bum starts ranting about the damage Silver Shamrock has done to his hometown. Complains Cochran refused to give a “local boy” like him a job at his mask-making factory. (And for good reason. The guy’s a degenerate alcoholic. At least Challis is a functional alkie.) Challis returns with the rest of his bottle to Ellie at the motel. Hopefully he remembered to wipe the wino-spittle off the bottleneck before pouring her a drink.

After badmouthing Cochran to Challis, the bum returns to his favela-style shanty and is decapitated by the same yuppie-looking sonsofbitches who murdered Ellie’s father.

While Challis was away, Ellie has showered and slipped into some skimpy lingerie she’s packed for their investigation into her father’s murder. I guess she knew what Challis had in mind all along. Maybe she figured she owed Doctor Dan a roll between the sheets for his helping her? Maybe she just digs his mustache? Challis bangs her again, and then – in a brief moment of clarity – asks how old she is. It’s worth noting that Challis could pass for Ellie’s father. She assures him: “Relax, I’m older than I look.” Pretty vague answer – I’d ask to see some ID – but good enough for Challis. Despite claiming he’s too tired, Challis mans up, bangs her once more – third time’s the charm – and they drift into a satiated slumber.

That night, Marge Guttman, in the neighbouring motel room, starts screwing around with the microchipped tag on a Silver Shamrock mask – and is zapped in the face by a laser that makes a giant bug crawl out of her mouth. Challis and Ellie are awoken by Silver Shamrock medics carting off Marge’s corpse. (Female viewers, and gays, are treated to the sight of Tom Atkins’s ass as he pulls on his jeans; for the rest of the picture, Challis rolls commando.) Challis demands to view the body. “I’m a doctor!”  Of course, no one’s buying that, despite it being true – Challis probably reeks of booze and sleazy motel room sex. Conal Cochran arrives at the motel and assures Challis that Marge will be treated at Silver Shamrock’s state-of-the-art medical facility. Every mask-making factory has one. It’s the law.

The next day, Challis and Ellie visit the factory. Joining the Kupfer family on their Cochran-guided tour, Challis notes that the Silver Shamrock security men resemble the hospital assassin, and Ellie spies her father’s station wagon hidden away in a garage. Returning to the motel, spooked, Challis takes another drink and suggests they get out of town – fast. “I think it’s time for the Marines.”  He’s just being a wiseass. Unless he really believes this is a job for the military?

Leaving Ellie alone in the motel to call the cops from a payphone, Challis is unable to get an outside line. Ambushed by Silver Shamrock goons, he rushes back to the motel. Ellie has been kidnapped and taken to the factory.

Challis finds himself on the run from Silver Shamrock goons. Hopelessly out of his element – he’s just a doctor, after all, and a shitty one, at that – Challis literally stumbles around town before breaking into the Silver Shamrock factory in a brave, if ill conceived and ultimately doomed bid to rescue Ellie.

Challis sneaks around the factory searching for Ellie. Place is like a Bond villain’s lair. Finding an old crone, knitting in a rocking chair, Challis is horrified when he shakes her shoulder and pleads for help – only for her head to fall off and reveal she’s a robot. Next thing Challis knows, a Silver Shamrock goon with freakish strength attacks him. Fighting for his life, Challis slugs the sucker in the stomach, his arm sinks elbow-deep in the goon’s guts, yellow gunk spews from the wound, and Challis claws out a fistful of cables – another robot!

Challis isn’t cut out for this shit – probably thinks he’s having DTs – he becomes a little unhinged and is easily captured by Cochran and his Silver Shamrock robots. Great performance here from Atkins as Challis cracks up; channeling William Shatner, he’s teetering on his feet, eyes glazed, struggling to keep it together, as in Bond villain fashion, Cochran reveals to Challis his sinister plans.

Turns out Conal Cochran is an Irish-Celtic witch who plans to sacrifice the children of America to the Old Gods, and usher in a new Dark Age – or something. Using a stolen block of Stonehenge imbued with black magick power, and cutting edge 1982 computer technology, tonight’s 9pm Silver Shamrock TV Special will activate the microchipped tag on every Silver Shamrock mask, causing the child-wearer’s heads to melt and vomit bugs and snakes.

Cochran demonstrates on the unfortunate Kupfer family. They’re in a factory screening room. Little Buddy Kupfer is wearing his Silver Shamrock Jack o’ Lantern mask, and sitting too close to the goddamn TV while that fucking jingle plays and a computerized pumpkin strobes on the screen. Challis watches in horror as the mask melts Little Buddy’s head and spawns a plague of crickets and rattlesnakes that kill Buddy Senior and his wife. Challis loses what little sanity he has left as he realises what Cochran has in store for the children of America, including his own kids. (A rare display of paternal feeling.)

TV Announcer: It’s time.  Time for the big giveaway. Halloween has come. All you lucky kids with Silver Shamrock masks, gather ‘round your TV set, put on your masks and watch. All witches, all skeletons, all Jack o’ Lanterns, gather ‘round and watch.  Watch the magic pumpkin.  Watch…

Cochran retires to make his final preparations for tonight’s kiddie holocaust. Challis is left tied to a chair in a locked room, wearing a Silver Shamrock mask that will melt his head and make it spew bugs and snakes when the Special airs at 9. He manages to escape, crawling to freedom through a ventilation shaft like Bruce Willis in Die Hard – except this is pre-Die Hard, so one can only assume the makers of Die Hard stole the idea from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. (And Tom Atkins would later audition for the role of John McClane. True story.)

Loose in the factory, avoiding Cochran’s robots, Challis makes a desperate phone call to his ex. He begs her not to let the kids wear their Silver Shamrock masks. Quite reasonably, she accuses him of being drunk. Says he’s jealous that the kids prefer her masks to the shitty masks he bought them. Challis displays a complete lack of self-awareness by damn near crying in frustration that she won’t believe him, despite having been bullshitting her throughout the movie and probably their marriage.

Challis takes it upon himself to save his kids, and America, and ergo the world. After rescuing the strangely silent Ellie – bitch doesn’t even thank him – Challis destroys Cochran’s computer set-up by pressing a few random buttons, which causes his robots to malfunction, his computers to crackle with 80s-style visible blue electricity, and the stolen block of Stonehenge to zap the witchy Irish mask-making motherfucker into oblivion.

Challis and Ellie flee the factory before it’s obliterated in a fiery off-screen explosion. No time for Doctor Dan to celebrate with a drink and a lay. He must still stop the deadly Silver Shamrock TV Special from airing nationwide at 9pm. (Cochran must have used witchcraft to circumvent East/West coast time zones.)

As they blow town, Ellie is revealed to be a robot. To the actress’ credit, such is the woodenness of her overall performance, the shock reveal that she is a robot comes as a genuine surprise. After a fierce struggle, Challis beheads his young lover-turned-robot with a tyre iron. By now he’s little better than the stark raving loony (Ellie’s father) at the beginning of the movie. He even arrives at the same gas station and begs the same pump jockey for help.

With the clock ticking down to Halloween apocalypse, Challis makes a frantic phone call to whichever authority regulates television – all television – and convinces Mr. TV not to air the deadly Silver Shamrock commercial; a difficult feat for the President of the United States, let alone a lowly medical professional. But “You have to believe me!” seems to do the trick. One by one, the commercials cease airing. All except for one. Challis is left screaming like a madman into the telephone (“Turn it off!  Stop it!  Stop it!  Stop iiiiiiiiiitttttttt!”) as we cut to black and the end credits roll. The audience is left to ponder if Challis saved the children of America. And if Ellie was a robot all along.

Quite why this magnificent motion picture failed to find an audience remains a mystery. But 1982 viewers refused to accept a Michael Myers-less Halloween movie, and it died a quick death at the box office. More enlightened modern cinephiles can appreciate the film as a neglected classic of the horror genre.

A character actor is rarely better than when given a leading role in which to shine; playing Doctor Daniel Challis, a gone-to-seed stud with a doctorate, an eye for the ladies, and an unquenchable thirst, Tom Atkins carries the picture with a wonderfully nuanced performance. If we rarely see leading men like Tom Atkins anymore – with his non-classic good looks, and mustache – then we rarely see protagonists like Dan Challis. A unique anti-hero, the character of Challis elevates Halloween III: Season of the Witch to the A-list of B-movies.

As a final word of warning, do not play the Halloween III drinking game and try to match Challis drink for drink; you will likely be left requiring medical attention…perhaps from a doctor like Daniel Challis.


Adam Howe is a British writer of fiction and screenplays.  Writing as Garrett Addams, his story Jumper was chosen by Stephen King as the winner of the On Writing contest and published in the paperback/Kindle editions of King’s book.  He is the author of Scapegoat, co-written with James Newman, Tijuana Donkey Showdown, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, Black Cat Mojo, and the editor of the Wrestle Maniacs anthology.  You can stalk him on Twitter @Adam_G_Howe.