Wednesday, December 2, 2020

End Times

Man, I just watched David Fincher's Zodiac for the whateverth time this week and dug it so hard.Can't wait for Blake Howard's Zodiac Chronicles podcast to begin. Anyway, got me thinking about my pal Kieran Shea because he's got things to say about it... and what do you know, Kieran's got a new short story out this week. Rejoice! You can read From Lombard to Lebkuchen (circa 1998) for free at Shotgun Honey.

You can also read this bleak-ass Christmas Massacre piece Kieran contributed to last year's CrimesMas series if you want a lump of coal for the season... or how about this - read his thoughts on Robert Graysmith's book, Fincher's movie and y'know a couple other book to film comparisons... crime? Not crime? Fiction? Fact? Gimme whatever, man because it's the fucking season finale of 2020 and all bets are fucking off.

Jed asked me to submit a piece for this “Picture Book” blog idea of his, and with the daily shit raining down these days I paused before agreeing to do so, for two reasons mostly. First, I’ve been writing a new novel that deals with transgressions so heinous my family worries about me when I disappear for hours on end just to regain my composure. The second reason is more basic—who cares what I think anyway? And c’mon…a prompt like “Picture Book” seriously? How does one even begin to define the difference between two completely unique mediums? Am I supposed to delineate which is superior or lament what has been lost in rendition? Seems like folly from the get go.

Anyway, there’s a trend with bumper stickers lately, i.e. employing the mathematic symbols ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ ( >) ( < ) to express sentiments. That said, interpret the following as you will, because I’m going to lie on the couch and eat a sandwich.


Author: Robert Graysmith

Book Opinion: Painstakingly researched with an index that covers just about every minuscule detail you can think of and some you may’ve missed. Like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, this book is a forerunner of the now explosive and often exploitative true crime genre. Nevertheless, opinions differ. I found it chilling and snappy, however a friend described it as being “better than a Lorazepam chased by a shot of Chivas” if you need to fall asleep on a long flight.

Film: Directed by David Fincher, Screenplay by James Vanderbilt

Film Opinion: Say what you want about Mr. Fincher’s grimy style, but he gets the mood, the dread, the music, and the era right. Outstanding acting, even that wee cameo of Donovan’s daughter, Ione Skye. The pacing is near perfect. When a rumor began swirling that they were making this book into a movie my first reaction was—(to quote Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride) inconceivable! It’ll be a convoluted mess with all the flashbacks and flash forwards. Nope. Five-stars.

Verdict:   Film > Book

Eight Million Ways to Die

Author: Lawrence (Iron Man) Block 

Book Opinion: Brilliant, neo-noir gold. Scudder being Scudder. Copious mayhem running red and soaking the carpet. Get some or turn in your crime fiction aficionado card.

Film: Directed by Hal Ashby, Screenplay by Oliver Stone, R. Lance Hill, Robert Towne

Film Opinion: Lazy mid-week television fare smothered in blown-dry pastels and palm fronds. Despite actors’ performances, this west coast reworking of Block’s protagonist sucked warm bilge on the good ship Holy Fuckup. Personally I blame the adaptation’s failure on overreaching producers because somebody out in Hollywood was obviously drunk on Sea Breezes and doing way too much blow.

Verdict:     Book > Film


Author: Peter Benchley

Book Opinion:  Egad, what a wildly successful piece of tree pulp. Some beat per beat suspense, but tea-weak characterization and yawn-inspiring prose. Dude, you want to read a real book about sharks? Go find In the Slick of the Cricket by Russell Drumm. Read The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey.

Film: Directed by Steven Spielberg, Screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb

Film Opinion: Look, I’ve seen this movie over sixty times and all I can say is thank heavens for the professionalism of Spielberg, Gottlieb, Scheider, Shaw, Dreyfuss, and Hamilton. Talk about your silk purse out of warm bowl of pig shit. Even plagued by multiple catastrophic production issues and rewrites, the choices made and the fat cut away delivered a movie that is permanently seared into the shared Jungian dreamscape. At a Mystery Writers of America conference I once heard this movie described as the perfect serial killer story. I couldn’t agree more, even with Benchley’s god-awful cameo as a reporter looking like Elliot Richardson on his best day.   

Verdict:   Film > Book

Kieran Shea
is the author of the hardboiled science-fiction Koko Marsteller series and Off Rock.

Friday, November 27, 2020

To Live & Die in L.A.

Man was I excited to be back on The Projection Booth podcast this week to talk about one of my favorite movies - William Friedkin's To Live & Die in L.A. with Mike White and Andrew Nette. It's a film that has been a part of my life for 35 years even though I didn't see it till the early 90s.! When it came out I had no idea what it was about, but I was absolutely captivated by that title! That poster! I haaaaaad to see it.

And you know what? When I did finally get around to it, I never did get over it. It's such a propulsive escalation of macho themes and stereotypes rushing toward unexpected and deeply satisfying ends.

I've written about To Live & Die in L.A. as well as other films based on books by Gerald Petievich (Boiling Point and The Sentinel) as part of the Picture Books series but what's changed since writing that piece is that I've read two of the books - To Live & Die in L.A. and Money Men (adapted as Boiling Point). I dug both of them. Plot-wise both adaptations are very faithful to the source material, but I'd say James B. Harris' Boiling Point is probably a little closer to the feel of the novel with its slightly laid back wait-n-see narrative than Friedkin's frenetic hard-charger. 

While the book and movie tell the same story, Friedkin's film is very action-focused (as a visual medium should be) where Petievich's novel is not exactly a George V. Higgins-level marathon of dialogue-heavy scenes it is certainly closer to that in feel than the viscerally propulsive film. In fact I'd bet the first three scenes you think of when you remember the movie aren't even in the book. The airport? Nope. The presidential detail? Huh-uh. The car chase? 

Hell no.

Even Chance's last scene is very different in the novel, though the book goes just as hard at the character and I would recommend reading it to anybody who enjoys the film. The surprises especially in the final act are worth discovering.

Boiling Point doesn't hold near the place in pop culture history as To Live & Die in L.A. which helped launch the careers of William Petersen, John Pankow and Willem Dafoe, though its cast is even more incredible: Wesley Snipes, Dennis Hopper, Viggo Mortensen, Dan Hedaya, Seymour Cassel, Jonathan Banks, Lolita Davidovich, Tony Lo Bianco, Paul Gleason, Tobin Bell, Valerie Perrin and James Tolkan.

In 1993 it arrived just at the beginning of Snipes as a leading man phenomena preceded by White Men Can't Jump and Passenger 57 and followed in quick succession by Rising Sun, Demolition Man and Sugar Hill (all '92-'93). Supposedly there were reshoots involved, but at the very least an effort to advertise the film as another Snipes-action spectacular is obvious in retrospect. Somebody didn't know, or more likely didn't care, what they had.

And what they had was a sturdy little crime flick about hustlers and predators on the streets with a hell of a that-guy cast and behind the camera talent in Harris and Petievich that would give serious weight to familiar genre-fare. I hope when somebody puts out a repackaged blu-ray they can get the film reconsidered and appreciated.

If you give up on hearing me ramble, don't give up on the episode, just skip ahead and hear Mike interview Willem Dafoe about the role of Rick Masters and his career. FWIW my next appearance on The Projection Booth will also be with Andrew Nette and we're looking at another Dafoe flick, Roger Donaldson's White Sands.

Also worth noting I made an emergency replacement appearance on All the President's Minutes podcast with Blake Howard and we talked about Robert Redford's vs. Dustin Hoffman's career, Alan J. Pakula's weaponization of recording devices and his affinity for bad brogues from Brad Pitt in The Devil's Own to Jane Fonda in Klute and I took the opportunity to connect Pakula/Klute to David Fincher's Zodiac as an easy bleed-in to Blake's next obsessive podcast project.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Not the Baloney Pony

Happy to be back at The Projection Booth podcast this week with Mike White and Carol Borden talking about Robert Montgomery's adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' Ride the Pink Horse for Noirvember. You can find the episode here. Sounds like the title of an AC/DC song if ever a noir film did.

Of the three of us I turned out  to be the biggest fan of the film while Carol was bullish on the book and Mike wasn't quite sure what to make of it. That's okay though because I was a big enough fan for all three of us.

Certainly I think it's a big improvement for Montgomery over his directorial debut (the Raymond Chandler adaptation) Lady in the Lake which may not entirely work, but is at least ambitious and interesting for Montgomery's choice to shoot it entirely from his/Marlowe's POV and for Audrey Totter's amazing facial expressions. Ride the Pink Horse doesn't go near as hard on the calling attention to its style front, but it is stylish.

And handsome. Damned handsome. And, I, for one, think Montgomery wears that suit like the handsome damned of many of my favorite gringo noirs, though the ending of the film is a far sight more hopeful than the ending of Hughes' novel (or films noir in general). Carol and Mike have got more to say about that, but the episode also features a swell Dorothy B. Hughes-focused interview with Sarah Weinman, so I defer to everybody else there.

For the episode I read the novel and watched all the films I could find that Hughes had a hand in including Nicholas Ray's adaptation of Hughes' novel In a Lonely Place which I'd seen before, but only just learned how different it is from the source novel (lots on that in the interview with Weinman). 

I also watched The Corpse Came C.O.D. and Follow the Boys, a forgettable couple of toss-offs Hughes did some un-credited work on, but I quite enjoyed John Garfield and Maureen O'Hara in Richard Wallace's adaptation of The Fallen Sparrow about a damaged-goods veteran come home to find out who killed the policeman who helped him escape torture in a prison camp. It made for an interesting disillusioned vets double bill with Ride the Pink Horse, though Sailor, the protagonist of Hughes' novel, is not a soldier Lucky, the protagonist of Montgomery's film, is.

I listened to Montgomery and Wanda Hendrix reprise their film roles for the the radio drama edition of Ride the Pink Horse and watched the Destry episode Ride to Rio Verde which is also adapted from the text. The last adaptation I consumed was Don Siegel's The Hanged Man starring Robert Culp. As a big fan of Siegel's I was disappointed in The Hanged Man, which felt pretty slight though it had a nice touch or two (including nightmarish clown make-up on Gene Raymond). It wasn't nearly as satisfying to me as Montgomery's version. In the episode Carol notes that Culp's nastiness better represents the Sailor character from Hughes' novel though. 

Here's an interesting bit. In February 1964 Siegel directed Destry's first episode, The Solid Gold Girl. Episode 9, Ride to Rio Verde based on Ride the Pink Horse, aired in April. Siegel directed an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers (or, if you prefer, a remake of Robert Siodmak's 1946 version) which was supposed to be a made for TV film (the first made for TV film in color), but which NBC passed on due to the shocking colorized violence and was subsequently released theatrically in October '64. Then, in November, one year after John F. Kennedy's assassination (which had delayed filming on The Killers), Siegel's second attempt at a made for TV movie, his Hughes adaptation, The Hanged Man airs.

And that's it for Hughes movies. According to Mike, Carol and Sarah I really need to dive into more of her books and based on my enjoyment of Ride the Pink Horse I will. Seriously, the book is super hardboiled and unsentimental, nasty, brutish and has a scorcher of an ending. And it sounds like judging her books by their movies is a mistake regardless of how much I like the films.

Incidentally, before Ride the Pink Horse was an episode of the TV show Destry, Destry the character had a couple of hit movies: Destry and  Destry Rides Again inspired by a Max Brand novel starring Audie Murphy, himself a veteran of WWII who came back with some awfully deep war scars, like Montgomery's in Ride the Pink Horse and especially Garfield's in The Fallen Sparrow, that caused his marriage to Ride the Pink Horse co-star Wanda Hendrix to fall apart very quickly.

Anyway, check out the episode, I think you'll enjoy it. Also, subscribe to The Projection Booth's patreon if you can, check out Sarah Weinman's books and get acquainted with Carol Borden's website The Cultural Gutter: thoughtful writing about disreputable art. This is great company to be in.

Speaking of great company, tune in to The Projection Booth for the last Noirvember episode where I'll be back talking with Mike and Andrew Nette about William Friedkin's To Live & Die in L.A. That episode will also feature an interview with Willem Dafoe!

Saturday, November 7, 2020


Okay. For fucks' sake.

Back to crime stuff.

Thank God...

Since we last spoke... 

here's what I've been up to.

I haven't had the energy or focus to talk about any of it...

For some stupid fucking reason.

I'm glad you all hung in there. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

31 Favorite New to Me Horror Movies

Here we are near the end of scary movie season so I'm sharing my 31 favorite new-to-me horror movie viewings of the last year. 

Always ShineSophia Takal - Swell psychological horror riff on mirror images, performance and persona with Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald doing the thing. I hate to be reductive and say you'll dig it if you're down for a budget-friendly Bergman or just a little light Lynch instead of a heavy meal, but that's not a bad hook. 

Basket CaseFrank Henenlotter - Duane is a just a sweet young kid come to New York City with a lidded wicker basket in his arms, looking for a flophouse and a little human company and everywhere he goes people ask 'what's in the basket?' The film waits until that tension has built to the point the audience sounds like Brad Pitt at the end of Seven before revealing that... you've seen it, right? I'm like the last guy old enough to have seen it 30 years ago who hasn't yet, aren't I? When I saw that it was streaming I had to check my letterboxd account to see if I'd seen it before and it just hadn't made an impression. Turns out I hadn't yet seen it though I could've picked the surprise out of a lineup - I knew that image, but holy hell I was not prepared for how effectively upsetting the effects and 'performance' would be... and sad, just really sad. I daresay I was moved. Anyway, I can't wait to catch up with the sequels. I fucking loved Basket Case.

Brain DamageFrank Henenlotter - An alien parasite attaches itself to Brian's brain in a most Cronebergian fashion, feeding on him and in turn turning him into something not quite himself. Apparently it feels awesome. Brian sees new colors and he lives (and dies) in a euphoric, if extremely destructive, state. What ensues is a trippy, disgusting splatter flick that's a swell metaphor for drug addiction, toxic relationships and... the dangers of alien brain-eating parasites. My first two Henelotters (this one and Basket Case) came way too late in life. I've got catching up to do.

Butt Boy - Tyler Cornack - Chip is just an average middle-aged schlub getting his yearly physical when the prostate exam awakens an appetite to cram things up his butt. First little things around the house go missing, Parcheesi game pieces, television remotes and so forth, but soon it becomes apparent that his anal appetite may not know bounds and threatens to derail his life. Fast forward sometime into the future where Chip's joined an addict's group and takes on the sponsorship of an alcoholic police detective who's seen some dark shit in his time and whose latest case, a search for a missing child, will bring the two men uncomfortably... unnaturally close. Bad Milo plus Dave Made a Maze divided by The Greasy Strangler equals one of my favorite movies of the last year.

Color Out of Space - Richard Stanley - Loved the triumphant return of Stanley to feature film making, Nicolas Cage's performance and the psychadelic horror of Joly Richardson's fate... some Basket Case/Eraserhead-quality moan/screaming. 

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus - Spike Lee - Actually saw this one before catching Ganja & Hess a few weeks later and, probably because of the order of exposure I prefer the remake though I'll admit I'm not prepared to unpack all the allegorical significance of either sexy, spiritual vampire/addict movie. I just enjoyed all the sensual pleasures and weird rhythms of Spike in give-zero-fucks mode.

Dead End Drive-InBrian Trenchard-Smith - One I absolutely would recommend for everybody. First, it's a fucking amazing concept - punks and undesirables corralled in a purgatorial drive-in movie theater. They can't leave, but most don't even notice, let alone mind. They're kinda content to watch action movies (BT-S's The Man From Hong Kong and Turkey Shoot are both featured), have sex in their cars and get coupons for the concession stand. It's a great metaphor for malcontents of the Reagan-eighties distracted by MTV and shopping malls, but mostly it's a whole lotta fun.

Doctor Sleep - Mike Flanagan - Yes, I love Stanley Kubrick's The Shining without feeling precious about it and have not read Stephen King's book. No, I haven't read the less-loved sequel, but my son has and I enjoyed the hell out of our late show viewing of Doctor Sleep and our after-the-show de-briefing on everything changed from the book and his admiration for how it payed seemingly equal respect to the twin pop-culture versions of its origin as well as smoothing rough edges of the source material into something special. Also, Rebecca Ferguson, aye-yi-yi. 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch - Tommy Lee Wallace - Tom Atkins leads this fucking bonkers intrusion into John Carpenter's supernatural slasher franchise that disappointed fans upon its initial release - no Michael Myers! - but yes, everybody who told me for years that it's one of, if not the, best in the series, you were correct. 

Head Count - Elle Callahan - Nicely atmospheric and spooky. That's all.

Highway to Hell - Ate de Jong - Charlie and Rachel (Chad Lowe and Kristy Swanson) are off to Las Vegas to get married, but when Rachel is abducted and carried off to hell Charlie follows on a rescue mission. Along the way he'll meet all manner of supernatural denizens of the spiritual plane, strike bargains and make eternal enemies. Shit, if I'd seen this one when it came out and it was pitched to me like a Snake Plisskin exploit it probably would've been my favorite movie for a few years. Go big and hopefully go home.

- Gerard Johnstone - A young woman with substance and petty criminal issues is spared prison time, but sentenced to house arrest with her mother. What could be worse? The house could be haunted. Goodness gracious, I did not expect to be that creeped out by what I assumed was going to be a strictly comedic haunted house movie.

The Howling - Joe Dante - 1981 was an amazing year for werewolf movies also seeing the release of An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen, but The Howling gets a nice mix of urban and rustic settings and an unexpectedly scuzzy grindhouse, serial killer running amok in the sex arcades of 42nd street element. 

The Invisible Man
- Leigh Whannell - Elizabeth Moss is a woman gaslit by the vengeful ghost of her abusive ex. Either that or he's not dead, he's very much alive and transparent. Pretty swell 21st century re-purposing of the Invisible Man monster. 

Knife + Heart - Yann Gonzalez - Just another gorgeously dressed gay porn slasher period giallo. What's the difference between slasher and giallo again? Am I using either of those terms correctly? Porn though... pretty sure I nailed that one. Oh man, that guy jizzing in the phone booth is a great visual gag.

Killer Condom - Martin Walz - I'm at the stage of life where I hear about edgy gross-out German language Troma releases from my kids. Whatcha watching, son? Killer Condom, dad. Oooh, monster design by H.R. Giger? Shh, dude's about to get his tip bit. Yeah, the title is literal, but perhaps the weirdest bit about this story of a hardboiled big city homicide detective who suspects the hourly rates hotel is being preyed upon by sentient, monstrous prophylactics with razor sharp teeth is that the story takes place in New York City, but everybody speaks German. 

Lake Mungo - Joel Anderson - Unexpectedly affecting mournfulness to this mockumentary about a drowned girl and a haunting. Slow, unsettling burn.

Overlord - Julius Avery - I was a huge fan of Avery's feature debut Son of a Gun and was disappointed to learn that his follow up wasn't a crime film, but a WWII zombie movie belonging to the briefly, inexplicably expanding Cloverfield universe, but... holy shit, did I dig Overlord. This is an audience-pleasing genre mashup of D-Day expendables vs. Nazi Frankenstenian monsters that skips over all the dull exposition. I appreciate films that recognize they don't exist in a vacuum and do not have to painstakingly lay the groundwork for their audience to leave accepted reality, instead they accept that when they say 'jump' we'll say 'how high?' Um... plenty. 

Prom Night
- Paul Lynch - Neither as good as Carrie or Halloween (its two most apparent influences), it's so much pleasure to watch Jamie Lee Curtis be a young, hot, disco-dancing babe I forgave all shortcomings. 

Shrunken Heads - Richard Elfman - What the actual fuck was the pitch for this movie? It starts off with the wide-eyed innocence vibe of a Stephen King coming of age in the sixties story focusing on a trio of thirteen year old boys running the urban jungle between school hours and chores then turns suddenly horrific as the boys are slain by gangsters to set an example for other neighborhood kids not to fuck with them. It gets weirder when the local mortician beheads them with a hacksaw, shrinks their skulls and uses some dark magic to re-animate them and send them out as avenging, uh, flying heads clutching razors in their teeth who slice up the city's criminal element and perv on their tweenage crushes. It's like The Crow directed by Tim Burton bridging the gap between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. with a dollop of Porkys for good measure. Written by Matthew Bright if that means anything to you. I watched everything that he wrote or directed this summer and who-boy, he's a delightfully weird one.

Strip Nude For Your Killer Andrea Bianchi - Edwige Fenech starred in at least two of the greatest-titled giallos ever, but I easily prefer this one over Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key because Strip Nude wastes no time grabbing your attention opening on a between the knees shot of an abortion procedure that the patient does not survive. It's... eww. Turns out the dead woman worked at a modeling agency and shortly after her fatal operation a black leather-clad, motorcycle-helmet-topped, knife-wielding killer is stabbing their way through the agency's personnel... usually while they walk around apartments and hotel rooms naked for their um killer. What's not to love?

Sweet Kill - Curtis Hanson - Tab Hunter trades on his wholesome all-American image as a killer whose sex and murder drives are crossed to the detriment of many victims. Straight up exploitation trash. Blood and boobs and a great hammy central performance.

- J.D. Dillard - Kiersey Clemons is castaway on an island with her boyfriend, but loses him in short order to an ocean monster. Fuck. This is great economical survival/monster horror that uses a small cast, a great locale and a simple, potent premise to wring a little dread outta nature and the unnatural. 

10 Rillington Place
- Richard Fleischer - Richard Attenborough and John Hurt in early roles before casting directors swapped their types. Attenborough plays the sadistic torture killer John Christie who preyed on the women in his apartment building (at the titular address) and Hurt is the young family man Timothy Evans who was convicted of and executed for some of Christie's crimes. 

Things - Andrew Jordan - Video nasty with pure shot on a camcorder production value and an enthusiast's commitment to gore and hideous ideas. 

UnfriendedLevan Gabriadze - Terrific low-budget, found footage premise (haunted internet call) that goes harder than I expected in a couple of key areas. Listening to actors convincingly portray obnoxious adolescents may be a little hard to sit through, but I'm hip. 

The Velocipastor - Brendan Steere - A rare example of a super-cheap movie reverse engineered from a joke title that actually explores all the territory said title suggests to a satisfactory degree. I'm excited for the sequel.

Waxwork/Waxwork II: Lost in Time
- Anthony Hickox - Cheating by writing one entry for two movies that are a fair amount different from each other, the first is something like a Vincent Price movie directed by Sam Raimi and written by Clive Barker and the second more like a horny Bill & Ted adventure, but I watched them back to back and the impression is kinda singular. I'm not... really sure the experience I had was real, but I'm also reluctant to confirm my memory, afraid that it will fall apart if I attempt to recreate it. Goofy fun with a stupidly deep bench of character actors and half-good practical effects. Don't ever remake these. Don't change a frame.

White of the Eye - Donald Cammell - David Keith stars as a sound installation expert at the center of a police investigation into some brutal murders in this fucking weirdly amazing serial-killer tone poem. As familiar as all the elements are; (giallo-staged killings, Art Evans' driven detective, native peoples' spiritual overtones, obsessive off-beat charming suspect) I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. Probably won't be for everybody (I mean, it's over 30 years old and I'm just hearing about it), but man did it hit a sweet spot for me. Loved it.

Wishmaster - Robert Kurtzman - I watched all four entries in the series in a couple of days and the third entry really jumps the franchise shark, but I enjoyed the hell out of the first one (and liked the second quite a bit too). The practical effects depicting nightmare orgies and monstrous creations and all the nasty ways to die or be cursed to live were deliciously ticklish to the imagination. Surprised nobody ever recommended these flicks to me before.