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 TomVater.com.

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 -
Nyctalopic 
Culture vs News
Black Roses For Me
Polarmaniaque
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.

END.

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.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Deadlier Than the Male

So glad I got to see Panos Cosmatos's bloodfest, Mandy, on a giant screen with a packed house. If you're familiar with his previous effort, Beyond the Black Rainbow, than you know dude knows how to fill a screen and max out a hi-fi sound system. Mandy, fucking rocks, man. Just balls-out jackhammers the hell out of its bare-bones revenge plot by cranking the sound design and visuals to eleven.

Enter Nicolas Cage understated-sman extraordinaire and behold the glory of director Cosmatos egging him on to higher, higher, higher hights of manic fuck-muggery. Seriously, anybody else out there that could rage-drink a bottle of vodka in his tighty-whities on the toilet to greater than this dude can just try and wrest the "greatest film actor of his generation" crown from his fingers. (Side note - heh, one of my tweets about der movie made its way to La Voz's coverage of Mandy's Cage-Rage memes - proud of me now, dad?)

A couple weeks since, but I got a little emotional and carried away talking to Steve Weddle about Mandy on the Do Some Damage podcast. It's a rambling episode in which I also recommend checking out White Boy, the documentary about Richard Wershe Jr. on Prime over prioritizing White Boy Rick, the drama starring Matthew McConaughey (as Wershe Sr.).

What I can whole-heartedly recommend that is available to stream now and made for the greatest triple feature I've experienced in a while is the banger line up of trippy, spooky, male-gaze/fem-centric killer flicks: Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon and Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.

Spring Breakers and Under the Skin are both on Netflix now and The Neon Demon is free on Prime. I'd recommend the order that I saw them in too - Breakers, Demon, Skin - for a slow decent from the opening day-glo hedonism descending into the equally warm-hued and gleeful bloodbathing at the end of Breakers to the harshly lit, ice-cold veneer of Demon's gorgeous red riding-hood-esque fashion fable and concluding with the muted weird of Skin's honey trap.

Great for any time, but an especially chilly and chilling autumnal treat.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Decalong

Couple weeks back when the rest of you were in Florida attending Bouchercon Steve Weddle and I found ourselves bereft of con attendees Holly West and Chris Holm and no idea what to do for the Do Some Damage podcast. What we opted for was an impromptu discussion about films - I promised not to do any preparation and let Steve pull a topic out of a hat prompting me to pull content out of my ass. The ensuing discussion covered Charley Varrick, Sterling Hayden, Jules Dassin and The Grifters. You can find it here.

And if that's not even close to enough of hearing me blather, Angel Luis Colón was his generous self and let me go on and on on The Bastard Title podcast. I've enjoyed listening to The Bastard Title episodes featuring folks like Johnny Shaw, Eryk Pruitt and Jordan Harper especially. Check out our conversation here. And be sure to pick up Angel's latest novel Pull & Pray from Down & Out Books if you like it hard boiled.
I'm always happy to have a new Shane Black film landing, not only for the opportunity to see it, but also for the excuse to revisit his entire body of work and to follow along with all the other folks who clearly feel the same way I do. A couple of my favorite Black pieces landing alongside The Predator that I particularly enjoyed:

Priscilla Page on The Last Boy Scout at Birth Movies Death.

Jake Hinkson on Lethal Weapon at The Night Editor.

I've been enjoying Michael Gonzales' The Blacklist series at Catapult covering out of print titles from African-American authors. The latest piece discusses Charlotte Carter's Rhode Island Red and it snagged my eye because I am still digesting the first of her books I've read, Walking Bones, a title I picked up on a recommendation from Kent Gowran

Kent's recently been posting simple book recommendations and having benefited from his recs in the past I pay attention when new to me titles and authors catch my eye. In the end, that's all I really want out of social media. Tell me about movies, books and music I've missed out on for whatever reason. So, I've been trying to do the same on Twitter recently. Just quick picks and signal boosts particularly for stuff I've enjoyed, but haven't seen much discussion about. 
Today I was going to suggest Jake Hinkson's No Tomorrow and last night he dropped the news that the French translation just won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière 2018. Holy shit, man. That's such great news. Not going to pretend it's not personally validating too. I mean, I've been telling you jokers to read his shit for years. So glad he's at least getting his due elsewhere.
The French, man. They know something. I mean, fucking William Boyle and Benjamin Whitmer's new books are published there before they're available in English. Between this and news that the adaptation of Frank Bill's Donnybrook opened the Toronto International Film Festival and quickly sold to IFC Midnight films, it feels like maybe, just maybe I'm not full of shit.
So, if you want to stay out front of what's what for crime and noir fiction be sure to come to N@B-Pumpkin Spice Edition October 20 for a good shot of creepy fucking shit from repeat offenders Fred Venturini, Shaw L. Coney and Josh Woods, plus Kea Wilson, Seth Ferranti, Kenny Kinds, Sarah Jilek and Jessica Leonard

Maybe you've noticed I've not kept to a strictly weekly posting schedule here for the last few months. Maybe you haven't. Maybe I flatter myself that this has registered with anybody, but the fact is that in just a couple of weeks this blog will officially be ten years old and I'm damned tired. I'm not shutting down, but I'm officially giving myself permission to tap the brakes a bit. 
For three of these last ten years I also wrote Barnes & Noble's (no longer existent or archived) mystery blog, Ransom Notes, with posts twice a week (a pace I mirrored at HBW in order to cross promote). All in all a conservative estimate makes it easily over a thousand posts (and many thousands of hours spent writing and apologizing for them). I'm glad to have done it, but I'd like to concentrate more on other writing going forward.

I'll continue posting here, just don't expect a regular schedule. If you've been reading regularly here, thank you. Really, the feedback I get from you guys makes it feel like I'm not just jabbering into the void and I appreciate every bit of it. For more consistent (and mercifully brief) content Twitter is where you'll find me talking about the shit I tend to talk about (follow me @JedidiahAyres).

Monday, September 3, 2018

Dog Day Afternoon Delight

As a kid haunting the grocery store video section I was always fascinated by the poster for Dog Day starring Lee Marvin. Oh man, he looks so badass pursued by helicopters across a wheat field and----I think I thought the rose on his jacket was the bloody bloom of a gunshot.

I'd never heard the phrase 'dog day' before, but it pretty much translated in my mind to 'a real bitch' and perhaps it's understandable that I confused the Yves Boisset film about a gone bad bank robbery for Sidney Lumet's similarly concerned and titled Dog Day Afternoon.

Then when I was in high school the 'dog' in the title coupled with the black ties in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs made me immediately assume it was all referencing Dog Day.

Michael Madsen's line to Harvey Keitel "I bet you're a big Lee Marvin fan" seems to reference Martin Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door? in which Keitel talks Zina Bethune's ear off about Lee Marvin

But I like to think he's actually suggesting that Keitel's character Mr. White is having a blast play-acting like he's the aging badass thief and killer Marvin plays in Dog Day "Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy?"

I was also totally mixing up Lee Marvin's helicopter pursuit through wheat fields in Dog Day with Marvin and Sissy Spacek running through wheat fields chased by a tractor with evil intent in Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut.

Anyhow, I finally saw Dog Day and it's not very good, but I can now keep it and Dog Day Afternoon and Prime Cut straight in my head. That poster though... that poster is amazing and I'm grateful for all the wild adventures it inspired in my head