Monday, October 29, 2007

A date with Dracula

I'm not much of a theatre-goer (and by theatre, I mean live stage perfor-mances), but a couple weeks ago an ad in the local newspaper caught my eye and Halloween-addled brain: The neighboring Amesbury playhouse was putting on a performance of Dracula.

With two young children it's rare these days for my wife and I to have the opportunity to get out. But this night my mother was available to babysit and we jumped at the chance. At first we debated the typical dinner and a movie ("Gone Baby Gone," or some other mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable fare), but then by chance I happened to recall the newspaper ad. We both decided that a date with the undead was preferable to Ben Affleck and decided on Dracula instead.

Dracula has always been one of my favorite novels. Many people shy away from it due to its age, and the greater accessibility of modern, popular horror writers (Stephen King and Dean Koontz come to mind), but if you've haven't read Dracula, you're missing out. It's a great story with a rich atmosphere and it still packs a scare. Author Bram Stoker could write, and his characters--Van Helsing, Jonathon Harker, and the unforgettable Count, among others--are truly great literary creations.

We had dinner and drinks as we waited for the show, and not until the play started did we realize that the waitstaff made up half the cast. That was probably the coolest element of the show--the small dimensons of the playhouse and the closeness of the actors made you feel like you were a part of it.

The show was enjoyable. It had its faults, including one actor and one actress with limited acting ability who didn't deliver their lines very well. The crew only changed sets once, using the same room for most of the show (a Victorian-style living room) and ending with Dracula's subterranean tomb. There was some issues with the sound, and at a few points I found myself straining to hear.

But the low points were outweighed by the good. The actors who played Van Helsing and Dracula were excellent, and Renfield was wonderfully manic and over-the-top. The lighting and music were suitably creepy. And in the coolest touch of all, Dracula emerged from the rear of the playhouse in the final act, striding amongst the crowd with his billowing black cape and protuding incisors and drawing screams of fright and excitement. Soon after he disappeared into his coffin, Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and Jonathan Harker also made their way through the crowd, pursuing the fleeing vampire with stakes and mallets.

Afterwards the cast came out into the crowd to chat and have a few drinks. The sight of some star-struck pre-teens asking for autographs did my heart good, as it was nice to see some respect paid to a troupe of actors performing for the sheer love of acting, and not the money. I spoke for a few minutes with Tom Seiler, a 60-something man who'd been acting for 33 years, as he told me, and congratulated him on his fine portrayal of Van Helsing. He encouraged me to come back again, and after my experience watching Dracula, I probably will.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A feast of flesh: Digesting Dawn of the Dead

Part 4 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

I still recall the first time I watched Dawn of the Dead. The violence and gore were shockingly graphic, and the dread I felt from the zombie hordes enveloping the earth was palpable. But it was the feeling of isolation and spiritual stagnation of the survivors in the mall that really made Dawn stand out for me, elevating it into something much more than traditional horror fare.

Made in 1978, Dawn of the Dead is the second in what has become director George Romero's zombie quadriology (is that an actual word?). The series started with the low-budget black and white 1968 Night of the Living Dead, then Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead (1985) and, most recently, Land of the Dead (2005).

Dawn of the Dead stands out above the rest of the series for several reasons. While Night is quite good, Dawn features a true full-blown zombie apocalypse in which mankind is overrun. While the zombie virus-as-pandemic first surfaced in Night, that film focused on a small group of survivors in a farmhouse, and, by the end of Night, the implication was that the outbreak was under control.

Not so in Dawn. In the first act, the world is plunged into chaos and we get to watch the disintegration of order as institutions crumble and populaces panic. Four survivors band together and manage to clear out a huge shopping mall, then "batten down the hatches" and attempt to live while death and destruction reigns outside.

While the four survivors (three men and a woman) have plenty of food and every material desire at their fingertips, their "bliss" proves very shallow and temporary.

In its second act, Dawn takes an introspective look at the human condition: While we may think death is at a comfortable distance, and that having money and all the "stuff" it buys will make us content, this is a lie. Ultimately, we as humans need something more. The zombies become a symbol of the ever-present disease and death that threatens to devour us, and ultimately will consume every man, woman, and child born. They are also a symbol of unbridled materialism, mindless "shoppers" drawn to the mall that you can find in any large or small-sized city across the United States, every day.

When a roving band of armed, militant bikers break into the mall in the final act of Dawn, all hell breaks loose. For sheer, unbridled fun and over-the-top gore, you can't beat the scene of bikers hacking and beheading zombies with machetes, bats, and axes, lobbing grenades and firing shotguns and pistols, and watching raiders get hauled screaming from their bikes and eviscerated and consumed alive. The scene of the guy who insists on using the blood pressure machine even as zombies converge on him and eat him is dark comedy at its best.

Despite the death and destruction, Dawn ends on a positive note as the last two survivors ultimately choose life, and a chance of salvation elsewhere. Whether or not they find it in their low-fuel helicopter is another story, but it's noteworthy that, even in the depths of despair, they make the choice to move on and live, despite the odds. When confronted with our own stark mortality, this is all we as mankind can do.

On a side note, Dawn was remade in 2004. Romero was not involved in the project. While the new Dawn is quite enjoyable, and perhaps even scarier than the original (the running zombies are shockingly unexpected and terrifying, and the opening sequence is amazing), it unfortunately loses much of the subtext and themes that made the 1978 version so great.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Turning back the "Pages": Remembering a great old bookstore

Back when I was a wee lad of about 9 or 10, I happened upon Pages Bookshop of Reading. Sandwiched between a pizza joint and an auto parts store in a run-down one-story building on the edge of the town common, Pages (known to me and my friends simply as "The Bookstore") soon became my favorite store/hangout, and a place that helped shape who I've become today.

It sounds corny, but Pages was a place of wonder for me. I still recall its creaky red floorboards and the smell of old books and newspapers that wafted out onto the street when you opened the front door. The place was dusty and dirty and, in addition to books and comics, contained some odd collectibles and old models stuffed into odd, cubby-like shelves on the walls.

But it was also stuffed full of the stuff of fantasy.

Back in the 80's when I discovered it, Pages had a prominent shelf of role playing games, including Dungeons and Dragons, Star Frontiers, Car Wars, Runequest, and more. It kept a supply of dice and a few racks of lead miniatures. I remember thumbing through issues of Dragon magazine that I couldn't afford and mentally recording variant rules, adventure scenarios, and monster ecologies to feed my game with cool ideas (this was in the pre-internet days, remember).

In the back of the store were a few towering rows of old hardcovers that no one ever seemed to buy, and whose inventory never seemed to change. But Pages also had a nice selection of paperback fantasy and sci-fi novels. I still have several on my bookshelf today. The bottom of each book was stamped with a letter code: A=50 cents, B=85 cents, C=half cover price. It was cheap, and I stocked up on lots of titles from authors like Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course, the inimitable Robert E. Howard.

Pages specialized in comic books and had it had a big collection of titles on the front racks, but even better were the seeming miles of long boxes stuffed with back issues. You could buy up old titles for 50, 60, or 75 cents, in most cases. I bought a bunch of old Captain Americas and Spidermans, Fantastic Fours, and other classic Marvel titles.

But my favorite memory was finding two old boxes full of back issues of Savage Sword of Conan. This was a great black and white magazine, featuring Howard's stories adapted for the comic medium but almost 100% true to their source material. The stories were raw, bloody, and not afraid to show female flesh, and illustrated by some terrific artists like John Buscema and Roy Thomas. Each issue was $1. Every week with my allowance I used to buy 2 or 3 issues, then stop off at Berson's pharmacy on the corner for a Pepsi and a candy bar. I relished the long walk home and the anticipation of reading SSOC with my feet propped up on my desk, drinking a cold soda and enjoying every page. Those wonderful black and white illustrations and Robert E. Howard's amazing yarns swept me up, and for a while I was part of another, much cooler world.

Just as sweet are the memories of the times my gang of my friends and I would walk to Pages on Saturday mornings. We'd browse for what seemed like hours, then head next door with our loot to Christy's Pizza. Christy's had small pay televisions, which (if I remember correctly) gave you a half-hour's worth of TV for 25 cents. I remember stuffing in coins and watching cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian and The Smurfs, eating pizza, and reading comics. Good times.

A few years ago the town demolished the old building that housed Pages and Christy's Pizza. Sadly, "The Bookstore" has been replaced by a decidedly prosaic bank.

Sigh, just what Reading needed.

I'll bet there's a lot of kids now, in Reading and elsewhere, that would have loved to have had a Pages in their neighborhood. I also believe (and I'm firmly up on my soapbox now) that most kids could benefit from having a local bookstore. In fact, I'm of the belief that a town just ain't a town without a place to buy, sell, and swap used books. While the trend now is giant chains, I find it hard to believe that any Barnes and Noble or Borders could pack into it as much cheap entertainment--or as much wonder--as Pages did.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

An adventure completed

Recently I had the fortune of finishing up Legends are Made, not Born, which marked my return as a Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master (DM) after some 17+ years since my last DMing experience. And what fun it was!

As you can read about in a previous post, the players in this module are effective "zero level" PCs, or normal townspeople who decide to become heroes by doing battle with an ogre that has kidnapped two townspeople. The PCs gathered information and purchased supplies in the town of Dundraville, then made their way to Skulltop Hillock, where the ogre lives. Sneaking in via a little-used back entrance, they battled their way through some cave denizens, including giant centipedes and a ghoul (the corpse of a long-dead warrior-king), before encountering the ogre Blogg.

After a PC sprang a log deadfall trap which awoke the drugged and sleeping ogre, an epic fight ensued. In the end, one PC was knocked out by the ogre's massive club, but Blogg was dead and the day was saved. Or was it?

The PCs soon found out from Blogg's sniveling captive hobgoblin servant Gurt that the "real master" had charmed Blogg and ordered him to capture the two townsfolk. The master--Suto Lore, a "power thrower," lives in the tunnels below Blogg's cave, said the terrified Gurt. The adventure was about to get a lot bigger and more sinister.

The PCs pushed ahead and made their way down a trapped ladder and a past a trapped hallway to Suto's quarters. There they found Suto's diary and uncovered a diabolic plan: Suto is seeking to locate the Codex Ilyium, a book of great and evil sorcerous power, but can only find it by summoning the demon Frogroth. Suto has created a demon summoning circle and is only a day away from his final preparations.

After battling Suto's enchanted broom(!), the PCs made their way to the temple. Alerted to the PCs presence after they set off a screaming shrieker, Suto prepared himself with a host of spells, including mage armor, obscuring mist, and levitate, and cast summon monster, summoning a fiendish spider to drop on the PCs as they entered the chamber.

Soon a pitched fight began. Suto was well-protected, and all the PCs could see of him was a billowing pillar of smoke. Several arrows were fired too low and went under the levitating wizard. Bec, the party's muscle-bound fighter, was bitten by the spider. Although the PCs slew the critter, it slowed them down enough for Suto to summon a small fire elemental from a brazier in the room. This thing proved nasty, as its blows inflicted both bludgeoning and fire damage.

Soon two PCs were down. Suto then cast hold person on Bec, who was frozen to the spot, and the fire elemental burned him alive (sorry Bec). Three PCs--half the party--were either dead or unconscious, and I was worried that my first time DMing in almost two decades would result in a TPK, or total party kill!

But the PCs proved both heroic and resourceful. Lord Casimir, a snobby son of a nobleman, bravely charged past the elemental and into the billowing smoke to thrust and cut wildly. Even though he was blinded by a glitterdust spell, he ran Suto through with a sword-thrust that had about a 1 in 20 chance of hitting. The few remaining PCs finally wore down the elemental with arrows and magic missiles, and the fight was over.

Truth be told (and if you're reading it here, players, its your bad), the PCs never found the "voice below" hinted at in Suto's diary, a small demon (a quasit) that was in league with Suto, and resided in the bottom of the pit in the summoning room. Of course, we didn't finish until 2:45 a.m. so everyone was tired at that point, including me, and I probably could have done a better job tipping the players off. Ah well, perhaps this could lead to another adventure...

Regardless, the PCs had defeated the evil wizard, rescued the two prisoners, and returned to Dundraville as heroes. The town welcomed them with cheers and kisses, and old Tarik one-arm, a retired fighter who lost his arm battling Blogg years ago, clapped them on the back over a cold ale at the Merry Riot Inn, and had this to say:

"As I've always said--legends are made, and not born, and you have taken the first step on a much larger journey, lads and ladies."

Overall, it was a fun night and a fine example as to why I love this game. The adventure--both the module itself, and my own--was complete.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Celebrating Halloween: My top 10 scariest films

In honor of Halloween, my favorite holiday of the year, I'm offering my top 10 scariest movies of all time. These aren't necessarily my favorite horror films, but are the ones that either chilled, disturbed, or downright scared the hell out of me.

1. Jaws. Still the scariest film I've ever seen, Jaws forever ruined my ability to swim in the ocean. Heck, if I make the mistake of thinking of the opening scene when swimming over my head in fresh water, I feel uneasy.

2. Alien. Despite its sci-fi trappings, Alien succeeds as a horror film because, frankly, the Nostromo is basically a big floating haunted house in space, and the alien is the ultimate stalker. Between the chest-bursting dinner scene and the guy with the spider-thing attached to his face, Alien has me convinced that I want no part of any beings from space, no matter what E.T. taught me. It's sequel, Aliens, was awesome too, though it succeeds more as an action film.

3. The Ring. I thought I was done getting scared at films as a grown man until I watched The Ring (the American version, not the Japanese original). Samara's awful disjoined movement, long, face-concealing black hair, and hate-filled eyes are terrifying, and the awful looks of her victim's faces still haunt me at night.

4. The Shining. The twin girls. The woman in room 213. Jack Nicholson's madness and axe-work. The isolation of the Overlook. Director Stanley Kubrick's studied, unflinching camera work showing it all. These elements combine to make The Shining the best haunted-house movie ever.

5. Jacob's Ladder. While it's not a pure horror film, Jacob's Ladder succeeded in disturbing me like few movies ever have. Tim Robbins' portrayal of a traumatized Vietnam veteran leaves you wondering what horrors are real, and which are imagined, the result of his damaged psyche. Demons and other horrors crop up unexpectedly and forcefully and the effect of Robbins' slow descent into madness is suffocating.

6. Dawn of the Dead (original). Before the credits were rolling, I was already making preparations for the zombie holocaust I knew was coming. Dawn of the Dead has some shocking scenes of gore and nasty, rotting zombies, but more terrifying still is the quick collapse of society and the monsters that men become when order breaks down. The 2004 (?) remake works too--while it loses some of the feeling of dread of the original, the running zombies are quite a shock.

7. Psycho. I finally got around to watching Psycho a few years ago after reading about it on so many "scariest film ever" lists, and despite its age and now-cliched elements, Psycho remains a scary movie. The shower scene still works, and Norman Bates' transformation at the end literally sent shivers down my spine.

8. The Exorcist. I don't know whether a studio could get away with making a film like The Exorcist today. The horrors inflicted on child actor Linda Blair are shocking, particularly what she does with the crucifix (that's all I'm going to say about that). In addition to the pea-soup gross out stuff, there's a whole lot of disturbing images and themes in The Exorcist that continue to haunt my dreams. That flashing pale-white demon face? Brrr.

9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This film is just flat-out vile from start to finish, so naturally I like it. From the decomposing corpses in the opening credits, to the psychotic hitchhiker who cuts himself with a razor blade, to the chainsaw killings and hammer bludgeonings, to the corpse and bone-strewn house inspired by the real-life home of mass-murderer Ed Gein, this film is unrelenting grue, horror, and terror.

10. Silence of the Lambs. Another film like Jacob's Ladder that's more suspense than horror, Silence of the Lambs nevertheless is downright disturbing. As great as Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal Lector was and is, the dude who played Buffalo Bill ("It puts the lotion on its skin") gets major props for playing one of the sickest, most realistic murderers in movie history. Silence of the Lambs conveys horror without even showing it--just listening to Lector's horrors (biting out a nurse's tongue and noshing on her face without a change in his pulse?) is enough.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Book review: All hail The Once and Future King

There's only a handful of books that I've deemed worthy of a five-star rating, and this is one of them. Maybe it just means that I have poor taste, but below you will find the reasons why I believe The Once and Future King is the pinnacle of the novel as an art form.

A modern retelling of the King Arthur myth, The Once and Future King is built with the nuts of bolts of Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur," but it's told in plain, modern english with a heavy emphasis on the philosophical and moral implications of the tale.

Whyte's story focuses on a pair of converging storylines--the education of the young Arthur by the scatterbrained yet infinitely wise Merlin, who transforms the young king into various animals to teach him the many facets of human nature (Part I, "The Sword in the Stone"). Arthur's education manifests itself in the creation of a set of ideals, founded on the belief that Might does not equal Right, which run at odds with the brutal, unfair regimes set up by the despotic rulers of the Dark Ages in which he lives.

Weaving into Arthur's story is the tragic tale of Launcelot. Portrayed as an ugly boy haunted by the demons of his childhood, Launcelot pours himself into his training to become the best warrior/knight in the world. Of course, his great passion for Guinevere and subsequent betrayal of Arthur undoes him and opens up the first fault lines that lead to the collapse of Camelot. And yet, Launcelot is just a man, so we can sympathize with this betrayal.

Whyte's story is told simple and direct, in contrast to the ornate prose of Malory and Tennyson. As a result the characters are more human and modern, replete with foibles and quirks. Whyte also strips away the romance in his accurate depiction of the squalid conditions of the period. As much as I daydream about it, the Dark Ages and Medieval Europe is nowhere you'd really want to live.

More than all this, The Once and Future King is brilliant for its portrayal of universal truths, philosophic meditations on subjects that range from aging, to the nature of conflict, earthly passions, and religion, and man's inability to ever enter a state of grace. It spoke to me on levels few books ever have.

Whyte offers several explanations for why the human race is fated to remain in eternal conflict: Suspicion and fear; possessiveness and greed; resentment for ancestral wrongs. These problems are either so deep-seated in human nature, or so old, engrained, and persistent (witness the religious and tribal conflicts in the Middle East, thousands of years old and seemingly without any hope of resolution, for a modern parallel), that they are beyond the scope of mankind to solve. Even great thinkers and peacemakers like Arthur can't eliminate them--the life of one man, even a great man like Arthur, is too short, and he (and we) literally age and die before we can offer solutions.

But even though Whyte's view of mankind is bleak, he offers the hope that we can redeem ourselves through education; if we pass on knowledge, stories of great men like Arthur, we can learn from their greatness and mistakes and elevate ourselves from our baser nature. This is Arthur's promised return, not as a man but as a concept of something great that once was, and can be again. This literal passing of the torch is told in "The Candle in the Wind (part IV)," the brilliant conclusion to the novel.

In a poignant and memorable final scene the aging Arthur sends a young page, Tom of Rewbold Revell, off from the final battle at Camlann with all Arthur's letters. Arthur is to die in combat against Mordred's forces, and Tom represents the bearer of the king's flickering flame of hope and wisdom. We as readers understand that Tom will be the only survivor, and is charged with passing on the king's knowledge and preserving the story of the greatness of Camelot.

This Tom is, of course, Thomas Malory, who will go on to write Le Morte d'Arthur. All has not been in vain, and Malory (and Whyte) have left us with a shining example of the greatness we as humans--with all our faults, foibles, and failings--may yet achieve.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

This pulp is high art: Why Pulp Fiction rules

Part 3 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Pulp Fiction
is a near-perfect film. Its script is brilliantly written and its casting is flawless. Under the skillful, stylistic hand of director Quentin Tarantino, the result of these elements coming together seamlessly is a joy to behold, and create a film that I can return to again and again. This is the mark of a great movie for me: One which continues to hold up under repeated viewings. Pulp Fiction does that.

Let’s start with the cast: Samuel L. Jackson comes off the screen in this film like few actors I have ever seen. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, he was robbed when he didn’t receive the award. To this day, whenever I see Jackson on screen (and he’s done a lot of films), he remains Jules Winnfield, and his “Ezekiel 25:17” speech is one of my all-time favorites. John Travolta made his big comeback in Pulp Fiction, and it’s easy to see why his star rocketed back to the top of the Hollywood A-list after this film. He was amazing, particularly in his exchanges with Jackson. The entire cast is superb, including Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Christopher Walken (the latter in a small but brilliant cameo). I’m hard-pressed to think of another film with a better ensemble.

Pulp Fiction oozes style. Witness director Quentin Tarantino’s work in a multitude of scenes: Travolta shooting heroin and experiencing its bliss in a midnight drive, shot in a series of slow, hallucinogenic images; and Travolta and Thurman’s dance on the floor of Jack Rabbit Slims, charged with electricity, sex, and danger. These are only a few examples of the film's exceptional direction and craft. And what else can I say about Tarantino’s signature use of sharp, witty dialogue ? Pulp Fiction is loaded with a number of memorable exchanges between its characters, too many to note here.

Despite its obscene language, graphic sequences, and crude subject matter, Pulp Fiction is, at its heart, a film that embraces old-fashioned virtues. Don’t be fooled into labeling it as a mere gangster film; it’s a spaghetti western in modern, post-Godfather/Goodfellas trappings. Both of its “heroes,” Bruce Willis and Jackson, ride off into the sunset at film’s end: Willis in literal fashion on an (iron) horse, Jackson implied as he decides to “walk the earth” like Kaine in Kung-Fu.

The film also dabbles in religion: It’s noteworthy that the characters that embrace redemption and “the path of the righteous” survive, while those who reject God/religion do not. For example, Jackson sheds his hit-man profession following the miracle of the missed gunshots in the apartment, and lives, while his partner, Travolta, rejects the notion that God might have intervened to save his life. He continues as a hit-man and pays the price for his choice with his life.

Likewise, Bruce Willis, while far from squeaky clean, follows the path of the “righteous man” and in so doing finds redemption: Rejecting a bribe, he double-crosses Rhames and the mafia to fight a legitimate fight. Later he returns to his apartment to get his father’s watch, a precious heirloom and a symbol of “purity” (despite the fact that it was hid in Willis’ father’s rectum during the Vietnam War). And finally, against his strong urge to flee, he rescues the man (Rhames) who wants to kill him most, and rids the world of a trio of sickos who run an S&M/murder ring in the basement of a gun shop. All his decisions, though difficult, steer him down the right path.

Pulp Fiction contains an enigma, the briefcase, which director Quentin Tarantino deliberately leaves open to viewer interpretation. I love that. For me, I think it contains the holy grail—witness the gold reflection when it’s opened, the religious feelings it invokes (the awed expressions on the faces of those who open the case). But it could be anything.

One bit I haven’t heard much talk about is the film’s clever title. It’s an obvious nod to the movie’s roots—Tarantino was certainly inspired by the pulps, e.g., the hard-boiled storylines of crime, sex, murder, double-crossing, drugs, fixed fights, etc. But it also carries a double meaning—the fiction of the film is literally “pulped”—the various storylines are all out of order, a mish-mash of narratives. Yet in the end they weave together perfectly.

Throw in a terrific soundtrack, and it’s easy to see why Pulp Fiction resides firmly in my top 10.