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By Jess Peacock

The Strain has finally come full circle, its nascent days spent as a pitch for a television series, only to be rejected and find new life as a bestselling three book series. And now Guillermo del Toro’s vision of the vampire apocalypse is a hit show for the FX network, its first season earning, so far, fairly consistent positive reviews and enough of a viewership to garner an order for a second season to begin airing in the summer of 2015.
            Adhering rather closely to the novel with some miner changes and modifications, the first nine episodes of the season of The Strain is something of a slow burn up until the fourth episode, appropriately titled It’s Not For Everyone, where a conspiracy to initiate a viral outbreak of vampirism in New York City boils over and the disbelieving heroes, so ensconced in their scientific reason, become fully engrossed in the rapidly growing horror.
            With minds of the caliber of Guillermo del Toro and co-author of the novels Chuck Hogan shepherding the series, and Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse bringing his showrunning expertise to the table, The Strain should be a game changer in cable television history. So why have I been underwhelmed?
            I don’t mean to insinuate that I don’t like The Strain. I actually do, and consider it one of the better horror series to come along in quite some time. David Bradley is a delight as Abraham Setrakian, a grizzled, cold, and determined vampire hunter with a past connected to the big bad the Master. There have been some effectively horrific scenes so far, such as the morgue attack in the first episode, Neeva the housekeeper’s flight from Joan Luss’ house with the children in tow, Vasiliy Fet taking care of the problem that Eph was unable to address, as well as the flashbacks to Eichorst’s past in Treblinka, all making for particularly good television. However, despite all of this, I feel like The Strain should be so much better than it has been up to this point. There just seems to be something missing from the mix.
           Of course, many television shows take a little time to find their voice and momentum. Fringe wandered somewhat aimlessly its first season, trying desperately to avoid the X-Files-light tag, only to become one of the most innovative sci-fi television shows in history. In the case of The Strain, several issues need to be addressed, not the least of which is the pacing. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a rhythm to the series, as frightful scenes of vampiric mayhem suddenly nosedive into lengthy detours of wooden exposition.
            Which leads to the second problem of the series, and that is the writing. When a talented cast comprised of Corey Stoll, Sean Astin, and Kevin Duran are unable to convey believable dialogue, then there’s some radical tweaking that needs to be done.
            Again, there has been plenty to love over the past nine episodes, and, having read the novels, the next four weeks should definitely pick up the pace as the proverbial shit continues to hit the fan. Beyond this season, knowing the cataclysmic events that are unleashed and the malevolent depths the novels descend into, it will be interesting to witness how del Toro, Cuse and Hogan translate such massive and disturbing imagery to the small screen. Until that question is answered, the first season of The Strain thus far, despite its shortcomings, has served as one of the more original and epic vampire narratives in some time.

Review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Review by Jess Peacock

Seth Grahame-Smith has quickly become the current “it” boy du jour, and it’s not difficult to see why. After dipping his toe into the literary scene with the overtly self-aware How to Survive a Horror Movie, Grahame-Smith single-handedly established the horror/historical literary mash-up craze with the delightful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, followed by the excellent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (my review of which can be read here). Both novels caught the attention of idea deficient Hollywood, and the author quickly found his respective brainchildren in the hands of producers Natalie Portman (yep, that Natalie Portman) and Tim Burton, the former now in development hell, the latter on its way to your closest googleplex this summer. In addition, Burton tapped Grahame-Smith to write the poorly received Dark Shadows remake, as well as to construct a sequel to the director’s sophomore hit Beetlejuice.

One might think that with the amount of attention and success Grahame-Smith is experiencing that he might now be looking to stretch himself as an artist and as a novelist. Unfortunately, his latest historical reimagining, Unholy Night, serves more as a film treatment than a novel of any depth or substance, with the most minimum of character development propelling the story through to its abrupt and hastily developed paint-by-numbers conclusion.

The novel tells the story of Balthazar, a thief who, along with two others of his ilk, cross paths with a certain history shattering baby in a manger, and must ultimately pool their talents and skills to evade their murderous common enemy, King Herod. While undoubtedly an interesting alternative historical (or fictional, depending on your religious beliefs) premise with regard to the tale of the three wise men in Christian scripture, the story ultimately falls flat, and one gets the distinct impression that Grahame-Smith hoped that the fusing of story elements from the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Prince of Persia might elevate the novel to something greater than the sum of its parts. Hell, even a key plot point from The Princess Bride serves as the primary motivator for the protagonist of the novel (“You killed my father brother, prepare to die.”)

In addition, Grahame-Smith seems to fumble the more interesting aspects of his novel, particularly the last Magus and the dark powers at his disposal. A potentially epic, Sith-like villain that could have brought so much more to the overall narrative, the occult abilities of the sinister wizard fail to serve as anything more than a convenient apparatus to keep a shoehorned-into-the-story Pontius Pilate on track in his promotion motivated pursuit of the fleeing thieves and the defenseless offspring of God. In other words, there were countless opportunities for unique and fascinating explorations in this world that were left untouched, overlooked, or simply not utilized toward what could have been the realization of the full potential of the story.

This is not to say that Unholy Night falls entirely flat, quite the contrary. As a summer read, it quite adequately serves its purpose as a kinetic yarn, and readers on the lookout for a mindless adventure will find much to be happy about. Unfortunately Grahame-Smith could have given us a lot more meat on this predictable, safe, and entirely conventional bone.

Review: The Cabin in the Woods (novelization) by Tim Lebbon

Review by Jess Peacock

“It’s symbolism that’s important, never truth.” – the Director

In some sense, it is difficult to review The Cabin in the Woods novelization without actually reviewing the film it is based on. More or less transcribed directly from the shooting script, the novel is solely the intellectual property of scriptwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, with the job of adding some literary flesh and cartilage falling to brit novelist Tim Lebbon (Berserk, 30 Days of Night: Fear of the Dark). Therefore, perhaps it might make sense to briefly discuss the film and the metaphorical treasures within.

The Cabin in the Woods has been widely praised by critics and fans for many reasons: from its deconstruction of traditional horror tropes, to its critique of our contemporary surveillance society, to a scathing rebuke of the cultural obsession with youth and ultimately our subconscious desire to destroy that youth. Missing from the conversation, however, is what Whedon and co-writer/director Goddard have to say about the unspoken, dark, and more horrific elements of religion.

It is important to note the similarities that Goddard and Whedon’s deities within The Cabin in the Woods share with the Elder Gods of the sprawling mythos imagined into mythhistory by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft believed that the contemporary horror genre has emerged in its present form as a bifurcated doppelganger to modern religion, a malevolent (although essential) compartment that the devout keep at arms length, while using it to compile their unspoken and unrealized fears about the shadow side of the Divine. Lovecraft himself wrote in The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The science, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The unspeakable reality of the Divine that takes amorphous shape in the Lovecraftian mythos may in some ways reflect the equally indescribable horrific elements of God that have been knowingly obfuscated and shifted to the outright (and therefore easily dismissed) horror genre. Make no mistake, western religion and western horror are dueling discourses on the unknown, of what lies beyond human reason and understanding, an issue at the forefront of The Cabin in the Woods. From the sacrificial bloodshed in the Hebrew Bible to appease a vengeful God, to the ongoing metaphorical cannibalistic offering of obedience presented by Jesus to his followers, Whedon and Goddard highlight how the requirement of blood sacrifice by a deity presents unquestioned (at least for the religious) horrors, as this diabolic aspect of scripture has either had its fangs dulled through the need for palatable and civilized religious services, or altogether ignored entirely by contemporary faith communities. As a result of this Jungian suppression of the dark side of the Divine, the horror genre has emerged as the shadow of religion, quite literally it would seem in the world of The Cabin in the Woods.

Unfortunately, Lebbon never expands on these or any other fascinating concepts at play within The Cabin in the Woods, serving, rather, only as a glorified court reporter for curious bibliophiles and fans of the film who might be hoping for additional insight into the world of the antiseptic and mundane eldritch corporate hierarchy instilled to keep the sinister numinous of the cosmic unknown at bay. In addition, the whip-smart dialogue of the film is often bogged down by the somewhat clunky prose and pace of Lebbon who is no doubt hoping to put his own stamp on this latest addition to the Whedonverse.

Despite a poor showing at the box-office, Whedon and Goddard have undoubtedly constructed an amazing journey into the darker and more horrific aspects of our culture, exploring how and why genre efforts might serve as more than simple mindless escapism and could ultimately be a lens through which to view the human condition. Unfortunately, this fails to translate effectively in the literary effort by Tim Lebbon, as the author serves only as a tour guide and less philosopher/theologian.

NOTE: This is not the issue, however, with the excellent The Cabin in the Woods: The Official Visual Companion. Easter Eggs abound in countless interviews with crew, actors, and the writer/producer/director team of Goddard and Whedon. In addition, each page is filled with gorgeous full-color photos that allow the reader to explore every nook and cranny of the narrative, including a myriad of creatures only briefly caught on film (or not at all) and a vivid view of the infamous betting board (just who/what is Kevin??)

Movie Review: The Avengers

Review by Jess Peacock

At one point in the new Marvel film The Avengers, ubiquitous SHIELD agent Coulson tells Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, that SHIELD has updated his classic suit with a few modifications. Rogers asks, “Isn’t the stars and stripes a little old fashioned?” At which point Coulson, an avowed fanboy of Cap, tells him that maybe, just maybe, old fashioned is what the world needs right now. And herein lies the magic of writer/director Joss Whedon’s approach to the record smashing live action superhero mash-up: old fashioned fun that hearkens back to the Halcyon days of the cinematic game changer Star Wars.

Nerd-god Whedon knows who the Avengers are, what they have been, and where they need to go. As such, he avoids the mistake of reinterpreting the mega-team through a post-modern, nihilistic lens, a trap too often ensnaring other contemporary superhero projects. Neither does Whedon devolve into camp (coughGreenLantern). Rather, he allows the characters to play in a world and respond to a threat that Marvel has brilliantly pieced together since the release of Ironman in 2008.

Ultimately, Whedon is somehow able to achieve this while giving every major hero their rightful due, not allowing the considerable presence of Robert Downey Jr. to overshadow the fact that this is a team-up film (a super-powered feat in its own right). And it works. At the start of the film, these characters are at cross-purposes, with their own agendas and egos blinding them to the larger developing threat. Steve Rogers is seemingly adrift in contemporary society; Tony Stark is focused on, well, Tony Stark; Thor is unable to see past his Asgardian responsibilities; and Bruce Banner just wants to be left alone in exile. As the gamma fueled doctor describes them, the Avengers are an unbalanced chemical mixture ready to explode…and the results may not be what Samuel L. Jackson’s manipulative and heroically amoral Nick Fury was hoping for.

Some reviews have complained that the first half of the film is paced too slow, that Whedon seems to get wrapped up in his own whip smart dialogue and fanboy glee at seeing these characters on screen for the first time in history. Unfortunately, this might be the Michael Bay effect so prevalent in modern action cinema, a terminal illness that demands a giant explosion destroying a major national landmark every two and a half minutes. Yes, The Avengers ultimately gets to the explosion-y goodness, and satisfyingly so. However, Whedon presciently lays the groundwork for something far more important in the film and the Marvel universe writ large: community.

Make no mistake, Joss Whedon’s fingerprints may be all over the aforementioned dialogue, however, it is his focus on the building of community that truly lies at the heart of The Avengers. Disparate ideologies coming together to serve a singular purpose is a staple motif of the Whedonverse (e.g. Firefly, which also seems to have influenced the look of SHIELD’s flying tech), and is the narrative engine that powers The Avengers. Why would an avowed capitalist, a jingoistic patriot, an introvert with anger management issues, and a demi-god who is quite literally above it all, ultimately decide to work together or even deign to be in the same room with one another? To say much more would be to venture into spoiler territory, but rest assured, the enmeshing of these considerable egos and powers feels organic and rather awe-inspiring (note: to witness the culmination of this new community, stick around to the very end of the credits for bonus clip deux).

None of it would ultimately be possible, however, without the presence of Tom Hiddleston and his maniacal return as Loki. A dark, more twisted God of Mischief than we previously witnessed in Thor, Hiddleston brings to the “big bad” of the film a demonic glee and palpable excitement as he schemes, murders, and manipulates the Avengers on his way to becoming the ruler of all of Midgard. His interactions with each hero reveal a mind that is truly lost and so desperate to be a king, a king of anything, that he is unable to see that he is himself a puppet in a larger cosmic scheme revealed in a truly nerdtastic post-credits denouement (are you really going there, Marvel??)

Aside from a somewhat generic score, The Avengers is a perfect superhero film in every way. While box-office receipts are no indication of the quality of a movie, the Hulk-smashing $200 million domestic weekend and $600 million twelve day worldwide haul (now exceeding $1-billion) is an indicator that moviegoers will respond to smart scripts that treat the fan and the property with respect. Marvel’s multi-year plan, building to what was previously an unthinkable cinematic scenario, is now playing out before the eyes of the world, and the overwhelming response is a testament to the vision, focus, and, yes, love of these heroes and gods of the new age brought to life by Marvel and the true hero of the day, Joss Whedon.

Review: Monsters In America by W. Scott Poole

Review by Jess Peacock

Nobody could be blamed for mistaking Monsters In America for a book that it simply is not. Whether a result of the title itself, or the gnarled trees shrouded in an ominous fog serving as the cover art, this is not some compendium of hauntings in the heartland or a documentation of personal eyewitnesses to the antics of the Jersey Devil. Author and history professor W. Scott Poole has constructed a work that is far more in-depth, scholarly and imaginative than any throw-away bargain bin schlock that fills the bookshelves every autumn, and has set the bar ridiculously high for any future research exploring the locus of historical and cultural studies, particularly as it pertains to the horrific.

Equal parts thoughtful and frightening, Monsters In America explores the darkest recesses of American history, using the distorted reflection of fictional monstrosities to tease out the true horror of this nation’s unflattering past, ideologies, and political & religious nightmares uniquely suited to these shores. Poole writes:
Monsters are “meaning machines,” excavating all manner of cultural productions depending on their context and their historical moment. In American history they have been symbols of deviance, objects of sympathy, and even images of erotic desire. They structured the enslavement of African Americans, constructed notions of crime and deviance, and provided mental fodder for the culture wars of the contemporary period.

Monsters In America is not a simple Sunday stroll through analogous genre icons as they pertain to interesting footnotes in American history. Poole has written an important text that serves as a clarion call for readers to closely examine the commonly accepted narrative of history that has been steadily spoon fed to a people who want to, need to, believe in the overt goodness of America. Monsters, Poole successfully argues, serve to pull back the membranous protective tissue of historical revisionism to reveal the charnel house of injustice and lies found beneath. As Poole so eloquently writes, “American exceptionalism and innocence are nothing but happy bedtime stories for children rightfully afraid of the dark.”

From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein serving as a metaphor of slave rebellion, to the monstrous Saturday matinee mutations standing in for the horrors of The Love Canal tragedy, to a resurgence in the popularity of the Universal Monsters in the 1970’s serving as an anchor for kids living through the “restructuring of American family demographics,” Monsters In America challenges, enlightens, and, quite honestly, frightens in its prescient view of American history, as well as the seeming ubiquity of the monsters of our past and probable future.

Monsters in America | Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting from Baylor University Press on Vimeo.

Cellar Dweller Review: Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson

Review by Jess Peacock

F. Paul Wilson’s Midnight Mass is actually three books, or, perhaps more accurately, three genres, in one. The first half of the novel is horror writing at its finest, leaping out of the shadows on page one and relentlessly chasing the reader through the darkened streets of their imagination until it deftly transitions into a metaphysical musing on what it means to be human. From there, Wilson’s storytelling violently downshifts into an action soaked revenge tale couched in the nightmare world of a vampire apocalypse.

Lamenting the absence of truly ghastly vampires in the horror genre, or, as Wilson describes in an author’s note preceding Midnight Mass, “the soulless, merciless, parasitic creatures we all knew and loved,” the author set out to pen a tale that countered “the tortured romantic aesthetes who have been passing lately for vampires.” On all counts, Wilson succeeded at constructing a work that has continued to be underappreciated over the last seven years, finding itself seemingly lost in the shadow of his wildly popular Repairman Jack series.

In all likelihood having influenced David Soznowski’s equally wonderful novel Vamped and the sub-genre busting Spierig Brothers film Daybreakers, Midnight Mass introduces a world where humankind suddenly finds itself teetering on annihilation at the hands of a swift and violent vampiric worldwide assault. Save for a few regions of the United States where the undead have not yet sunk their teeth into, inhabitants of communities around the globe are relegated to camoflaging their existence as best they can, or serving as blood cattle for the new dominant species.

Thankfully, Wilson does not attempt to post-modernize his brand of vampire. Rather, he reclaims the popular mythology associated with the monster, as evidenced when he writes, “My premise going in was that all the legends about the undead were true: they feared crosses, were killed by sunlight, were burned by holy water and crucifixes, cast no reflection, etcetera.” By embracing this traditional approach, the author swings wide open the theological door that one would have to walk through if, in fact, vampires existed. And by setting the bulk of the first half of the novel in a Catholic church under siege by the undead, and populating the pages with intelligent, determined, and tough-as-nails survivors struggling to maintain their faith amidst the gore and insanity, Wilson is able to explore spiritual questions that have every right to manifest in this type of horror novel. “But you’ve got to take the next step,” explains Father Joe, the protagonist of the novel, to his atheist niece who is wearing a crucifix around her neck for protection. “You’ve got to ask why the undead fear it, why it sears their flesh. There’s something there. When you face that reality, you won’t be an atheist or agnostic anymore.”

The pleasure involved in reading a razor sharp novel celebrating the spiritual trappings of the traditional vampire aside, with Midnight Mass one can blindly apply any number of positive adjectives and labels: wickedly smart, thrilling, often horrifying, emotionally draining, devastatingly violent, and surprisingly tender. Because of this, F. Paul Wilson’s addition to the undead bookshelves undoubtedly deserves to sit amidst such classics as Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and John Steakley’s Vampire$, two other important literary works that explore the confluence of faith and vampirism by slamming the door on the unfortunate revisionism that has plagued the undead sub-genre for decades.

Cellar Dweller Review: Gospel of the Living Dead by Kim Paffenroth

Review by Jess Peacock

Five years ago, Kim Paffenroth, a professor of religious studies and author of several works of zombie fiction including the Dying to Live series, penned Gospel of the Living Dead, an exhaustive look at the mostly sociological and theological implications of the undead cinematic portfolio of George Romero.

In order to thoroughly dissect the director’s work, Paffenroth examined Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and even the Romero-less Dawn of the Dead remake, through the lens and surprisingly similar motif of Dante’s Inferno. The author writes, “Dante’s greatest and most surprising notion, that hell is not so much a place of external torments…inflicted on the damned from some force outside of themselves…both Dante’s hell and the hell of a zombie-infested earth are places where the hell is primarily internal, of our own making.”

Paffenroth proceeds to bolster this belief by analyzing the various issues at play in Romero’s zombie films (both symbolic and overt) such as sin & redemption, consumerism & materialism, racism, sexism, and class warfare to name only a few. For example, with regard to Day of the Dead, the author writes, “It is not the military, government, or church that exercises real power, but the wealthy…according to Romero, the White House, the Pentagon, and the Vatican do not run or exploit the world – Wall Street does.” This type of critical analysis of what some might write off as a mindlessly violent film gives Gospel of the Living Dead a resonance that a general analysis of the Romero library might not provide.

Paffenroth particularly excels when dissecting the theology of the undead, a task made particularly difficult in the light of the overt anti-religion stance George Romero has assumed over the years, both cinematically and personally. “More than any other movie monster or mythological creature,” Paffenroth writes, “zombies vividly show the state of damnation, of human life without the divine gift of reason, and without any hope of change or improvement.” It is from this subtle perspective that the author analyzes potential theological springboards in the films, avoiding, for the most part, heavy-handed allegorical images that fit only with a shoehorn and a mallet. One unfortunate lapse involved the direct comparison of Big Daddy and his zombie followers from Land of the Dead crossing a protective river in order to reach the humans on the other side to the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea found in the Hebrew Bible.

Other than a few missteps in that vein, the only major critique with Gospel of the Living Dead is the lengthy synopsis that Paffenroth provides for each film/chapter. It is probably a safe assumption that a reader of such a specifically targeted compendium already knows the referenced works of Romero, making these sections nothing more than page-count padding.

While often overly academic in its style of prose and somewhat repetitive in its content, Gospel of the Living Dead still provides sharp and important analysis of a body of work that has always had more on its mind than bloodlust and gut munching. Paffenroth takes George Romero, the horror genre, and fans of the zombie sub-genre seriously, and dives headlong into not only an apologetic of the seminal zombie series, but a true celebration of the social and theological layers buried within.