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A LOOK BACK IN HORROR: 2009

Here it is, my second annual look back at many noteworthy events in the world of horror film and literature, as well as a listing of the recently deceased. Let’s being with…

The Hottest Writer--in Print and Film: That would be the 83-year-old Richard Matheson, who despite not having published anything new in several years has attained newfound popularity.
     2009 was a particularly fruitful year on the Matheson front, with the appearance of Richard Kelley’s flick THE BOX, adapted from Matheson’s story “Button, Button.” There was also the Gauntlet Press anthology HE IS LEGEND (comprised of stories inspired by Matheson’s fiction), a biographical compendium entitled THE TWILIGHT AND OTHER ZONES, and a trade paperback release of Matheson’s censored I AM LEGEND screenplay. That’s in addition to new editions of many of Matheson’s novels and stories that appeared in ‘09, most notably his heretofore difficult to locate western-themed paperbacks from the nineties.

Favorite Literary Discovery: The 1969 French novel JEANNE’S JOURNAL by Mario Mercier, published in English in 1972, is a remarkable evocation of perverse eroticism and fantastic invention. I’d never heard of JEANNE’S JOURNAL before January of ‘09, but it’s now up there among my all-time favorites.
     No, there are no plans to reprint this amazing book that I’m aware of, which is a shame, as it’s truly a classic of perverse imagination.

Favorite DVD: Troma’s new edition of Buddy Giovinazzo’s 1986 mind-roaster COMBAT SHOCK is my pick for DVD of the year. The flick remains a wrenching evocation of urban desperation and psychosis, and has finally gotten the presentation it deserves.
     Included in this two-disc set are perceptive linear notes by SHOCK CINEMA’S Steve Puchalski, a series of retrospective interviews with various critics and filmmakers inspired by the film (including THE GORE GAZETTE’S reclusive Rick Sullivan), the original work print version (entitled AMERICAN NIGHTMARES), and more.

The Little Publisher That Could: It’s hard to believe that not too long ago I’d never heard of the UK-based PS Publishing. Obviously that has changed in the years since, particularly this last one.
     In 2009 PS put out new books by such luminaries as Joe Hill, T.M. Wright, Rick Hautala and Ramsey Campbell, while also publishing the work of up-and-comers like Paul Jessup, Derryl Murphy and William Shunn. Cleary PS is at the forefront of independent genre publishing, and if you’re a fan of such fare you’d do well to check out their website.

Most Overhyped Film: You know the answer to this one--or have you forgotten that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY supposedly made countless people afraid to go to sleep at night?
     The hype extended to that bogus release-by-popular-demand ruse Paramount used to role the film out, even though it was reported by many sources that the release plan from the start was to gradually widen the film’s play dates throughout October, culminating in a nationwide release by the end of the month--which, as you may recall, is exactly how PARANORMAL ACTIVITY’S distribution went down.
     The flick, by the way, is actually quite good. That doesn’t change the fact that it was hyped nearly to death.

MIA Films Released: For whatever reason, in 2009 several recent films that had been held off the market (in some cases for years) were finally released theatrically or on DVD.
     The premiere example is the abovementioned PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, completed back in 2007 and, it seemed, never to be released. Obviously Paramount finally came to their senses and put the film out--and the rest, as they say, is history.
     The Ed Lee-inspired gorefest HEADER likewise hailed from 2007, and likewise received belated distribution (on DVD) in 2009. The no-budget skin-crawler FROWNLAND was also completed in ‘07 but didn’t turn up on DVD until ‘09.
     To this list we can add John Hillcoat’s bleak Cormac McCarthy adaptation THE ROAD, which was supposed to premiere in Fall of 2008 but ended up in limbo for a full year (presumably undergoing “improvements” at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, a.k.a. Edward Scissorhands), and Paul Schrader’s bizarre ADAM RESURRECTED, which missed its scheduled February ‘09 theatrical release but turned up on DVD in September.

Most Overhyped Book: Months before its publication THE STRAIN by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan was heralded as a publishing landmark, and a transcendent masterpiece that reinvented the vampire mythos for a new generation. The advance reader copies featured glowing testimonials from booksellers across the country raving about the book and (more importantly) predicting massive sales.
     No surprise: upon its appearance in June ‘09 THE STRAIN sold extremely well, even though the grandiose claims about it didn’t quite hold up. It’s an extremely readable book, yes, drafted in tried-and-true “bestseller” style, but hardly the masterpiece it was heralded as. Nor are its vampires--which act like most standard vamps but for some interesting biological mutations--all that unique. Which leads me to…

Most Overdone Trend: I’ve got nothing against vampires in film or literature, but they have kind of been done to death. Now, with a dozen or so pulp vampire sagas cluttering bookshelves, the above-mentioned novel, a popular vampire-themed cable TV series and numerous vamp movies all appearing in 2009, the trend has grown downright obnoxious.
     Vampires as sexy teen idols (TWILIGHT)? Been done. As the subjects of a primetime soap opera (TRUE BLOOD)? Likewise. As objects for reinvention in a bestselling novel (THE STRAIN)? Ditto. As the headliners of a pulp series (ANITA BLAKE, VAMPIRE HUNTER et al)? Been done, been done, been done!

A Film that Actually Lived Up to Its Hype: Last year I heard tell of a French import called MARTYRS that was said to outdo 2008’s outrageously vile INSIDE, and just about everything else, in ugliness and sheer nausea. I scoffed at those claims, figuring no film could possibly be that nasty.
     In April of last year I finally saw MARTYRS, and…well, haven’t been the same since!

Most Unfairly Neglected Publications: Two of my favorite books of 2009 were put out by the UK’s Creation Books, but neither made much of a splash.
     I’d have thought the May ‘09 appearance of MOJU, the first-ever English translation of an important novel by the legendary Edogawa Rampo, would have inspired a bit more excitement than it did. I know I was eagerly awaiting its appearance, but apparently I was the only one.
     Ditto the graphic novel TEENAGE TIMBERWOLVES, scripted by the demented James Havoc (his first work of fiction in a decade) and illustrated by Daniele Serra. While it received numerous pre-publication raves by various critics (this one included), TEENAGE TIMBERWOLVES’ appearance was greeted with nary a whimper. A surreal freak-out about a band of teen serial killers loose in an alternate universe America, it’s obviously a limited appeal book, but I’d have thought that within that limited sphere there’d be more interest.

Biggest/Most Expensive Book: That’s easy--it’s the late Carl Jung’s long-suppressed RED BOOK, a massive 18x12-inch hardcover that retails for around $200.00(!). The history of THE RED BOOK is complex: it was drafted back in the 1940s and then forcibly held off the market, only coming to light in 2009 in an initially limited edition.
     I’m not entirely sure the book is horror-related, but it IS freaky and bizarre, being a compendium of disquieting visions and hallucinations obsessively laid out in art and prose. I’ll be writing a much lengthier piece on THE RED BOOK soon, but for now I’m attempting to simply wrap my head around the thing.

Wonkiest Publication: JOHN DIES AT THE END by David Wong first appeared in 2007 as a trade paperback from Permutus Press. Before or after that, or possibly around the same time, it was made available online as a free e-text--and then in 2009 it was repackaged in a prestigious hardcover edition by Thomas Dunne Books.
     How many different editions and publishers can a single book go through? I haven’t actually gotten around to reading JOHN DIES AT THE END yet, but can’t say my options for doing so are in any way limited!

All-Around Coolest Publisher: For the second year in a row that honor goes to Leisure Books, who continued putting out solid novels by many of the genre’s top authors in affordable mass market editions.
     Leisure’s 2009 slate included publications by John Skipp, Ed Lee, Brian Keene, John Everson and Wrath James White, along with new editions of classics like Jack Ketchum’s COVER, Richard Laymon’s FLESH and Robert Dunbar’s THE SHORE.
     Keep it up, please!

Where’s Clive Barker? I ask this only because Mr. Barker made some extravagant promises about his 2009 output, including a few new films (of which the only one we got was the none-too-inspiring BOOK OF BLOOD) and a third volume of his ABARAT saga, which Barker predicted would be finished back in April. He also intuited that his long awaited literary opus THE SCARLET GOSPELS might be nearing completion at last. Ha!!
    
Other things we’re waiting on from Clive: the third book of his “Art” trilogy, sequels to WEAVEWORLD and IMAGICA, and a director’s cut of NIGHTBREED. He’d better get moving!

Busiest Scream Queen: This year we have a surprise winner--it’s 61-year-old Dee Wallace (formerly Dee Wallace Stone), best known for her appearances in the original HILLS HAVE EYES, THE HOWLING, E.T. and CUJO. I was of the opinion that Ms. Wallace, like many starlets of her age group (Karen Allen, anyone?), was played out, and yet in the past few years she’s appeared in a slew of independent horror flicks.
     Wallace’s imdb page currently lists an astounding 18 screen credits for 2009, with 7 more in the works for ‘10. This puts her ahead of such workaholic horror babes as Brinke Stevens and Debbie Rochon--and furthermore, unlike those gals Dee Wallace has appeared in some films you might actually want to see.

Remembering Those Who’ve Passed On: Finally, in the world of film and literature those who’ve graced the horror genre only to leave us in 2009 include…

J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) Novelist: THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, CRASH, CONCRETE ISLAND, COCAINE NIGHTS

David Carradine (1936-2009) Actor: DEATH RACE 2000, Q, THE BAD SEED, SONNY BOY

Dom DeLuise (1933-2009) Actor: THE END, HAUNTED HONEYMOON

Dominick Dunne (1925-2009) Producer/Novelist: THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES, A SEASON IN PURGATORY

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009) Novelist: IMAGE OF THE BEAST, LOVE SONG

Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009) Actress: SATURN 3, EXTREMITIES, THE BURNING BED

Lucy Gordon (1980-2009) Actress: PERFUME

John Hughes (1950-2009) Writer/Director: CLASS REUNION, WEIRD SCIENCE

Michael Jackson (1958-2009) Singer/Actor: BEN, MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER

Allen Klein (1931-2009) Distributor/Producer: EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN

Karl Malden (1912-2009) Actor: CAT O’NINE TAILS, METEOR

Ed McMahon (1923-2009) Announcer: DAUGHTER OF HORROR

Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009) Actor: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN

Brittany Murphy (1977-2009) Actress: FREEWAY, CHERRY FALLS, DON’T SAY A WORD, SIN CITY

Natasha Richardson (1963-2009) Actress: GOTHIC, PAST MIDNIGHT, PATTY HEARST, ASYLUM

Charles H. Schneer (1920-2009) Producer: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS

Ron Silver (1946-2009) Actor: THE ENTITY, BLUE STEEL

George Simpson (1944-2009) Novelist/Screenwriter: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF FLIGHT 412, GHOSTBOAT, THIN AIR, BLACKBONE

Ray Dennis Steckler (1938-2009) Filmmaker: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES, RAT PFINK A BOO-BOO, SINTHIA THE DEVIL’S DOLL

Gale Storm (1922-2009) Actress: REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES

Patrick Swayze (1952-2009) Actor: GHOST, DONNIE DARKO

John Updike (1932-2009) Novelist: THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK


R.I.P., all. You’ll be missed!

 

--1/13/10 

     

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