Category Archives: Horror

Hitchcock, Vertigo & Me: A Threesome in Fogtown

Vertigo

Horror writer Robert Dunbar posted on Facebook about the fact that Vertigo beat Citizen Kane in the prestigious Sight & Sound film. That got me thinking — always a dangerous prospect. I remember having a fascinating conversation with Dunbar about Vertigo specifically and Hitchcock in general at the World Horror Convention some years ago…must have been in San Francisco, 2006. I had just been introduced to Dunbar by P.D. Cacek. As I recall, Robert and I both share a great love for this film, but at the time I weighed in much more heavily on the “Hitchcock is a sadist, and that’s why he’s cool” side of a minor philosophical debate over just how warped Hitch’s mind is/was. Dunbar, to his credit, was willing to take a much more humanistic and whollistic view of the master’s brain, which got me thinking (then) about just how much I was reading my own motives into Hitch’s, and (now, again) about just how completely lost I was in despair in the years when I first saw Vertigo, and still (even more so) that year that I met the esteemed Mr. Dunbar.

Things were not good for me in those years, emotionally. That’s why I celebrate life now with such angry delirium, because I never know when the bell jar might drop and I’ll be stewing in my own sour air.

While I love Citizen Kane, I’ve always found it a bit too in love with its own artistry, at the cost of its humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I freakin’ love Welles; the man may be the most interesting son of a bitch ever to make a film. If his Macbeth doesn’t leave you twitching on the floor, if The Stranger doesn’t make your head spin, if his performance in The Third Man doesn’t awe you, then I’ll personally inform your next of kin that you’ve been replaced by a Body Snatcher. And that’s leaving aside the  fact that Welles presided over the greatest non-hoax in radio history (not counting, of course, Vrillon’s 1977 invasion of the UK, which was technically a television hoax and also was a hoax [ I hope], which Welles’s War of the Worlds wasn’t.)

But Citizen Kane, like everything by Welles, is best when it’s viewed through the prism of culture. Like the film I consider to be by far Wellse’s most interesting, F for Fake, Citizen Kane dominates because it rips a hole in the fabric of reality, not because it exists in flat narrative space. But where Hitchcock drilled a hole in screen and pumped cyanide in, Wells tore through the screen ready to brawl. His ambitions were in many ways greater, but he never had the control of Hitchcock.

Between the oeuvres of Welles and Hitchcock there’s ample fodder for a PhD thesis in any field you want, perhaps most notably clinical psychology, except that sounds far too much for comfort like the beginning of a Welles or Hitchcock film in which the psychologist does not meet a happy end.

But between Citizen Kane and Vertigo, I far prefer the latter, because I have always valued control over audacity — for deep psychological (and possibly psychiatric) reasons that may become tellingly obvious if you’re weird enough to stick with me for a while.

And I remember what a fucked-up experience it was the first time I ever saw Vertigo.

 

Vertigo2

 

You see, the first time I ever saw Vertigo I was incredibly depressed. I’d left my apartment on 14th Street to wander the streets, as I often did, which sounds more dangerous than it is when you wander toward Church instead of Capp, and when it’s early on a weekend afternoon, as it was, instead of three in the morning, as it occasionally was when I wandered in those days.

This time, the weather was beautiful and I was ugly, or thought so. I wandered for hours, my mood not improving but the sense of motion being helpful.

I found myself walking past the breathtaking Castro Theater, which I was lucky enough to be able to call my neighborhood movie house (along with the Victoria Theater and the utterly imcomparable Roxie, one of the greatest movie houses on the planet).

The Castro is gorgeous, in case you don’t know. It’s got a beautiful facade, it’s on a lovely block that just happens to be one of the two or three gayest damned blocks in the nation, possibly the gayest, possibly not just in the nation but in the world. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood and as if that’s not enough it has a freakin’ organ. And no, that isn’t a double entendre. The Castro Theater has a bloody pipe organ, which gets played before select performances and as accompaniment to silent films. The Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer joins the Spreckles Organ at the even more breathtaking (if that’s possible) Palace of the Legion of Honor on this Bach lover’s very long shortlist of San Francisco’s lesser-known pleasures. There are far too few pipe organs in the world, just like there are too few people watching Hitchcock movies. It seems like I never stop hearing how great they are, but every day I encounter people who haven’t seen them.

Anyway, on this particular afternoon it turned out I had rolled my meatwad of dispair to the Castro’s doorstep just a few minutes before an afternoon showing of a brand new 35mm print of (wait for it) Vertigo!

I had never seen the film, although I loved at least a dozen of Hitchcock’s other films by then. I have my sister Lisa to thank for this — she introduced me to Psycho and Rear Window when I was young. I’d devoured many Hitch films on VHS by the time I saw Vertigo — among them favorites-to-this day Strangers on a Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train (screenplay by Chandler from a novel by Highsmith, incidentally) and the screechingly brilliant The Birds, which bears a certain terminal similarity to Vertigo for reasons I’ll go into later.

So I was tangled up in blue and I had money in my pocket. The film nerds were positively shitting themselves and smearing it on the walls over how unbelievably significant this new print of Vertigo. And it’s never a bad time to see a flick — any flick — at the Castro Theater. I figured, “WTF, life couldn’t possibly get any worse, could it?”

I paid my ten cents (or whatever it cost in those days) and delivered myself unto the tender mercies of the esteemed Mr. Hitchcock.

Life couldn’t possibly get any worse? How wrong I was!!

Mr. Hitchcock’s Mercies are not always tender. Sometimes they are not tender at all.

I’m not one of those people who just falls into a movie and the experience is awesome even if it’s a bad movie or I just don’t like it. Especially on the big screen, alone, I experience films so viscerally that I often become quite a dick about them, actually. That’s why — fair warning — disgreeing with me on the ending of Birdy might get you punched in the face some day. (See? Now you have something to look forward to!)

Those of you who have not seen Vertigo, or those for whom it’s just a great escapist film, may forget what it’s about. It concerns a guy who is paralyzed by his — well, call it fear if you like, though in psychological terms I don’t know that it’s accurate to call vertigo “fear” as such. It’s a weird, paranoid, beautifully evocative and seductive film packed with the beautiful and the beautifully hideous.

But unlike in Psycho or The Birds, there isn’t a whisper of ugly in Vertigo. Within Vertigo‘s  visual language, violence is made ugly by the removal of beauty. In Vertigo, beauty just vanishes. You don’t see it pecked apart or even running down the drain. It’s just gone. The visually hideous is, therefore, left revealed only in the resulting spin within Scottie’s brain. It’s ugliness by imbalance…a puke-inducing destabilization of the self, like the devotional whirling of dervishes crossed with the spinning of baby chicks down a funnel in Baraka. Scottie Ferguson twirls because beauty is gone, and he can’t find it…and he’s not too damn sure who took it, but he thinks he’s pretty sure he knows for certain whoever took it isn’t who he thinks he knows he thinks it isn’t who he thinks it is. Spin spin spin, like the propeller on a Liberator. Spin, Scottie, until you’re the engine of your own destruction.

Vertigo is no less tense and no less scary than The Birds or Psycho or Rear Window (which uses a similar language of off-camera violence). But personally — maybe because of the way I first saw it — I still find Vertigo the most sadistic film by a truly sadistic director.

Watching it that day at the Castro, choked by my depression, I had the sense of Hitchcock sitting in front of me politely saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, did I just punch you in the nuts? Here, like THIS, is that what I did? Oh, did I do that? THIS? I did THIS? Oh, I’m sorry, here, let me do it again just to make sure I know what you’re talking about.”

My paralyzing depressions and my impulse toward artistic brutality are good friends and mortal enemies. They’re also each others’ psychoanalysts, not to mention each others’ landladies, proctologists, bosses-from-hell and occasional pityfucks. They have many late-night discussions over Crisco and MacTavish, and often, without warning, reach the spontaneous decision to murder each other once and for all. In that, they remind me of many great artistic partnerships down through the ages.
 

 

 

 

Jimmy Stewart may have been wholesome to a fault — to my way of thinking, much more wholesome than Hitchcock, whose work I both love and distrust. But you don’t fly B-24s over Bremen, Frankfurt and Berlin without learning how to be shit-scared and deliver your lines anyway. I didn’t know that then — I didn’t even know Stewart had served in World War II, let alone in one of the highest-risk professions a fighting man could have in World War II — not to mention way the fuck up in the air. Vertigo indeed. (Wanna know another interesting Northern California fact? Lt. Stewart — then in his thirties — was a four-engine flight instructor at Mather Field, now Mather Air Force Base, near where I grew up in Sacramento.)

Anyway, some of you may not be familiar with Vertigo. I can’t imagine why you’d give a damn about me if you haven’t experienced Hitchcock, since compared to him I am, at best, an anklebiter of terror. But in case you haven’t gotten around to Vertigo yet, I won’t spoil the ending. Just know that I love endings, at least when it comes to films and fiction. I consider the ending of Vertigo to be the most completely fucked up thing I have ever seen. Remember how I said I felt like Hitchcock was sitting in front of me and he kept punching me in the personals? I think I was overstating it, because ultimately Vertigo is a deceptively subtle film. Really, the end came — and still comes, even though I know it’s coming — as a complete surprise.

Vertigo‘s brilliant final shot hit me like a suckerpunch — a kiss for the damned.

I started laughing. I laughed like a fiend. I howled like a maniac.

I thought it was the funniest, most perverse thing I had ever seen a filmmaker do.

This was a warped and heinous crime against art and humanity, and as such a stroke of the most admirable brilliance an artist can be capable of.

To this day, I find the ending of Vertigo so unbelievably disturbing and funny and weird and creepy and tragic all at once. When I saw it that first time at the Castro, I absolutely could not believe I had seen what I had just seen. Nobody would actually do that, would they?

Oh, I laughed and laughed and laughed, probably for like a minute solid. I laughed until I cried. If I’d had popcorn and Diet Coke in my belly, I would have spewed it all over the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The other moviegoers, politely filing out having chats about what a genius Hitchcock was and how beautiful Kim Novak was, clearly thought I’d gone completely insane. Which I probably had, although some years before and this was really just a late-arriving memo. This was a weekend afternoon showing of a new Hitchcock print at The Castro Theater, mind you. They tolerate eccentricities in that neighborhood. The bar for crazy is pretty high.

That day I proved beyond eccentric. How charmingly Hitchcock talked me into putting my head in his filmmaking guillotine! He did not help my depression, but then, he wasn’t trying to.

Cut and print, Mr. Hitchcock.

Advertisements

Friday the 13th: Kill Kill Kill Kill… Die Die Die Die… Bad Bad Bad Bad… Hair Hair Hair Hair…

Friday the 13th

 Yes, it is that day again…and time for an afternoon viewing of Friday the 13th, the film that most thoroughly typifies the “Have sex, get killed” equation in American cinema. Thank you for dying, Kevin Bacon.

If you haven’t seen this flick, then you are missing out on numerous cultural touchstones. You probably don’t even know the meaning of the word “Kill kill kill kill…die die die die…ow ow ow ow…” which my friend Jonathan used to say whenever anyone was foolish enough to hand him a butcher knife.

To this day, I find that simple term, like mise-en-scene, joi de vivre, or Schadenfreude, to be highly useful in many conversations; it is almost universally understood.

More accurately, the sound in question (sometimes known among film nerds as the “Jason Sound”) is “Ki ki ki ki, ma ma ma ma,” at least according to composer Harry Manfredini, who said — and I quote — “Everybody thinks it’s cha, cha, cha. I’m like, ‘Cha, cha, cha? What are you talking about?'” (That’s Manfredini’s voice, by the way.)

Incidentally, Betsy Palmer, who plays a rather central role in the film, reportedly called the script a “piece of shit” after reading it. She never would have taken the role if she hadn’t desperately needed a new car.

Well, Mrs. Voorhees. We all do things that surprise us sometimes, don’t we?

Palmer was a very mainstream actress at the time, and a guest on many TV shows including “The Joey Bishop Show,” “Password,” and “The Kraft Television Theater,” and would later be in “Murder She Wrote,” “Knots Landing,” “Columbo,” “Newhart,” and many more. According to the IMDB trivia page, when Friday the 13th came out, many of Palmer’s fans were not pleased. One critic was so pissed off he published her home address and encouraged her outraged fans to write her in protest, but published an incorrect address.

I don’t quite agree with the esteemed Ms. Palmer. For all its bizarre faults (Five minutes of screen time making instant coffee, anyone?), there is no disputing what an impact on cinema this damn thing had. Better yet, it’s an object lesson in what happens when people get all hopped up about the end of civilization sure to be caused by things like movies. In the early-’80s culture wars, we were told that the slasher film genre that Friday the 13th and Halloween represent was sure to turn my generation into an army of babbling psychopaths who kill with machetes at the drop of a hat. Little did they know it would actually take antidepressants, text messaging, Grand Theft Auto and the internet to do what damage hadn’t already been done by Dungeons & Dragons.

I didn’t see Friday the 13th until well into the ’90s. I viewed it from the start as an absurdist enterprise, and the entire franchise as a Beavis and Butthead punchline. It’s not a horror film so much as a comedy skit in the woods. I almost can’t watch it without thinking of its clueless teen machete fodder and crazy old weirdos as drag queens and kings who might at any moment burst into a torrid English drinking song with excruciatingly obscene lyrics (yes, this means you, Kevin Bacon). I don’t so much watch Friday the 13th, I watch the Friday the 13th that’s playing in my brain — the Friday the 13th I didn’t see when I was a kid, filtered through everything I’ve learned since I didn’t see it that makes the zeitgeisty terrors of 1980 seem cartoonish and ridiculous, and the terrors of 2012 seem tiresomely been-there, done-that.

As if that wasn’t enough, add to it the fact that I was already an occasional semi-pro horror writer before I ever saw the flick. My good friend Alex S. Johnson, who is probably the reason I ever started writing horror to begin with, even wrote a Friday the 13th tie-in novel. Nancy Kilpatrick wrote two. Before I saw the thing, Friday the 13th was already furniture in my life. The Jason universe was like the World of Darkness — I might go there, even hang out there, but I didn’t take it that seriously.

So maybe Friday the 13th never really had the chance to scare me — unlike John Carpenter’s Halloween, which I did see when I was young. Several of Carpenter’s other movies are among my very favorite films of all time — but then as now, I find Halloween dull, underdramatized, unimpressive. Halloween had the chance to genuinely scare me, and blew it because in my estimation it’s an overrated film; regardless, for better or worse Halloween simply doesn’t work for me. On the other hand, I was laughing my ass off at Friday the 13th before the curtain ever rose.

Viewed in that context, I love Friday the 13th. But I’m sorry to say that thirty-two years on, after half a dozen viewings and numerous drinking games, the most horrifying things in this film are the hairstyles. “Ow ow ow ow” indeed.

Taste the Blood of Christopher

The incomparable Sir Christopher Lee is 90 years old today.

Yes, he was Saruman in Peter Jackson’s brilliant Lord of the Rings films — and perfect for the role, maybe partially because he was surely the one member of the acting cast who was most in love with those books, reportedly re-reading them each year. He was also the only one to have ever met J.R.R. Tolkien in the flesh.

And yes, he was a genuine piss-and-vinegar type in World War II, volunteering first for the Finns in the Winter War against the Soviet Union, and thereafter in the RAF and as an intelligence officer for the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa.

But between those two events, Lee was in literally hundreds of film roles. (IMDB lists 276 acting credits in total, from the Kaleidoscope TV series in 1946 to 2013’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again, where he will reprise his role as Saruman.

Most importantly to me, Lee played Dracula in a series from Hammer Studios — among my very favorite horror films of all time. I love them for their spot-on Gothic atmosphere and shameless melodrama; these are not films that apologize for being what they are. They chew the scenery like it was made of peanut brittle.

It was the quality of the acting — Lee and Peter Cushing chief among them — that always sold those movies to me. They might have needed such creative salesmanship because of relatively low budgets and familiar plots — but true professionals like Lee never seemed to work at bringing it home. They made it look not only effortless, but genuinely scary no matter how crazed the maniacal laughter he was called upon to issue in concert with umpteen-twenty violin stabs. Cheesy movies have never scared the ever living hell out of me the way Hammer flicks did — and still do, if I’m drunk enough, despite repeated (and I mean REPEATED) viewing of several of the best of them. If Lee ever phoned it in, then he did so the way Freddy Kruger did, if you know what I mean.

Or maybe Lee didn’t have to phone it in because the familiar — at times, even hackneyed — plots didn’t need any apology. Were they created with love, or as shameless profiteering? Fuck if I know — I suspect a little of both. The Hammer Dracula films unapologetically rehashed the Universal Horror of the ’30s with the gusto of a fanatical Rocky Horror Picture Show cast marooned in the suburbs, but with a moviemaking mojo that, on second or third or fifth viewing, remains to my eyes remarkably credible given their available resources.

If just one studio could turn out the kind of credulously reverent retellings of classic stories that Hammer did in the late ’50s through the early ’70s, I would never say one nasty word about dumbass Hollywood remakes again.

And if just one leading man could scare the living shit out of me the way Lee’s Dracula did when I first saw these flicks on Saturday afternoons, we wouldn’t need found-footage gimmicks to conjure pure terror and bona-fide storytelling.

I stand in awe, and occasionally sheer terror. Bravo, Mr. Lee; bra-MFing-vissimo.

[Night Bazaar] How I Found My Strengths as a Writer

From my new column at The Night Bazaar, about finding your strengths and weaknesses as a writer:

I’m far from convinced there’s any such profession as “writer” anymore; we’re all multi-taskers, by definition.

But there is this thing called “writing,” yes, and occasionally I get to do it.

When it comes to writing itself, I like to believe that my strengths are far more numerous than my weaknesses.

But it’s quite possible that I’m kidding myself.

What I do find is that the more I write, the less my strengths matter and the more my weaknesses do. That’s because writing a lot of fiction puts me face-to-face with every possible roadblock in my creative process, and every roadblock is a potential “debunking” of my strengths. It doesn’t matter how great I can write X type of scene, if Y type of scene keeps me from ever finishing my novel.

As a result, all that my strengths do is allow me to get past the weaknesses, or manage them effectively. That’s great news, yeah, but if I take the time to celebrate my strengths, it only slows me down.

Here’s an example.

Read the rest of this post at The Night Bazaar.

The House of Corporate Horrors Guest Post at Suvudu.com

I did a guest post over at Suvudu.com called “The House of Corporate Horrors,” about the writing of my novel The Panama Laugh and what it all means! And also how my zombie novel is one of the extraordinarily few zombie novels (some would say “the only”) directly connected to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, like, philosophically speaking.

Here’s an excerpt from “The House of Corporate Horrors”:

The important social observation that inspired The Panama Laugh is simply this, and I’m not the first one to have it: “By limiting the power of the public sector and privatizing things like the military, law enforcement and counter-terrorism, we as a globalized society offer a dangerous amount of power over to multinational corporations that are, at best, benignly amoral. At worst, they careen into soul-crushing evil.”

The premise therefore became, just how evil could they be?

This seems, in retrospect, like a straightforward premise of the sort that’s common in cyberpunk: “Heartless monolithic multinationals do awful things to the little people.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not actually 100% anti-corporate. I’m a passionate supporter of small business, and I think when small businesses get big(ish) that’s just dandy. But I believe what we have today is a grotesque conflation of the public sector and the private, where corporations have been allowed to get too big to fail, and therefore have been handed the keys to the kingdom. Public money should not be used to bail out private enterprises — certainly not unless there is some kind of accountability for providing long-term benefit to the people whose money that is, rather than simply the stockholders.

Read the rest at Suvudu.com, or buy The Panama Laugh at Amazon, or, better yet, at Biblio.

 

Thomas Roche Interview at 10ZenMonkeys

For Halloween, I was interviewed by Destiny at 10 Zen Monkeys about my writing career and The Panama Laugh as well as politics, crime, and zombies in general. Here’s an excerpt:

10 ZEN MONKEYS: Is there something millenarian in the zeitgeist now — some universal sense of doom, or a desire to laugh and secede from humanity? I’m sorry — every question I’d ask you suddenly seems tainted with a dark obscenity whenever I add the word zombie. “Where do you get your inspiration for your novels…about zombies? Will you be writing a sequel…about zombies? How do you celebrate finishing your first novel…about zombies?”

THOMAS S. ROCHE: Isn’t everything about zombies?

I just go ape-shit over good zombie apocalypses. I love them; they’re one of my favorite genres. I read a lot and watch a lot and just completely groove on all the incredible creativity involved in zombie walks, all the viral zombie websites and social-networking stuff, all the in-jokes for zombie fans…I just love it. It’s a template that takes on so many wonderful forms.

I feel like some of the zombie novels published in the last five years were jumping on a bandwagon. But I’m not going to badmouth them because that’s essentially what I was doing, even though it’s a bandwagon I’ve more or less been on for 20 years ever since I read the first Book of the Dead, which is one of the two best zombie books ever published (the other being Max Brooks’ World War Z). I think Night of the Living Dead is one of the greatest and one of the most important films ever released. I love Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. And I go nuts over the Resident Evil movies even in the slow parts. I adore Fido. I want to grow up to be Frankenhooker.

There’s plenty more — the whole interview is over 3,200 words, and was a blast to do. Check it out at 10 Zen Monkeys!

Now For Sale in the Kindle Store: Viva Las Vegas, a Zombie Crime Story

I’m celebrating Halloween by putting all my old zombie stories up in the Kindle store. “Viva Las Vegas” is Zombie Stories #1.

When the zombocalypse hits, a Mob hit man who made the mistake of working “one last job” and got his fiancee killed must cruise the broken streets of Vegas looking for her.

Buy a copy of “Viva Las Vegas” for 99 cents in the Amazon Kindle Store.

“Viva Las Vegas” was the very first zombie story I ever wrote.

I had been re-reading The Godfather and Goodfellas and reading the books of former FBI agent William F. Roemer, about the Chicago mob. I was totally obsessed with the Sicilian-American Mafia and organized crime in general. My friend Alex S. Johnson told me John Skipp was reading for another Book of the Dead anthology. Some years before, I had read the original Book of the Dead, an anthology of stories based on the world of George R. Romero. I thought it was the most drop-dead amazing horror I had ever read.

So I wrote “Viva Las Vegas,” “A tale about dirty rotten gamblers and the heavily-armed hit man who kills them a second time…sometimes a third.” I made it as tragic and hard-boiled as I could stand, and extra-bloody because you can’t have a zombie novella without cracking a few heads. The original version was 7,700 words, and i trimmed it down to about 7,200 to speed up the action.

After I submitted the story, Skipp called me at home one day. He told me how much he loved the story, but he couldn’t take it…because while it was 100% true to his crime-novel sensibilities, it wasn’t quite true to his Book of the Dead sensibilities. I think those were his words, more or less. I was so blown away by getting a call from John Skipp that I just bleated and glorped. I think I mighta squeed.

Anyway, when my friend Shade Rupe was collecting stories for a second volume of his amazing magazine/anthology Funeral Party, it was at a time when I didn’t really consider myself a nonfiction writer.

So I sent him this. He loved it. It appeared in that amazing tome.

Some years later, it was selected for a volume of James Roy Daley’s Best Zombie Stories anthology series.

It’s one of my favorites. Like all my zombie stories, it cuts to the heart of my mythology, even if it’s a very different mythology than other zombie stories I’ve written. When I came back to the genre with The Panama Laugh, I had this character very much in mind…but this guy isn’t quite Dante, because the time between one work and the other had warped me profoundly, and I had much more to say.

Zombies, like vampires, are a template for thematic improvisation and psychological exploration. While that’s true of all monsters, fictional and nonfictional, it’s with zombies and vamps that I find my own obsessions framing the argument so the agonies seem real.

Doing anything else would be unfair to the characters. Laugh if you want, but I take horror seriously.

Hope you enjoy it. I know I liked writing it.