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On Writing, Monster Dogs, Chocolate Eggs, a Change of Face and a Slice of Life!

ON WRITING by STEPHEN KING was initially published back in 2000. It’s a lively nonfiction work that commences with an account of Stephen King’s life, relating how he got started writing at a very young age, sold his first novel CARRIE for an astronomical sum and became addicted to all manner of substances, legal and otherwise (he claims he “barely remembers writing” 1981’s CUJO). In the book’s second part King gives would-be writers advice on grammar (he prefers a “’s” to a simple apostrophe, and finds he said-she said exchanges to be the ideal way of writing dialogue) and marketing one’s work.

     The last and most memorable section describes in intimate detail the June, 1999 accident that nearly killed him, and the slow process of recovery. As in King’s previous nonfiction work, 1981’s DANSE MACABRE, the tone is friendly and pleasantly self-depreciating. King isn’t afraid to take his own work to task, in particular his 90s-era novels INSOMNIA and ROSE MADDER, and I must say I fully agree with his criticisms.

     ON WRITING concludes with a recommended reading list that includes LIVES OF THE MONSTER DOGS by KIRSTEN BAKIS, certainly one of the most absorbing novels I’ve encountered in some time. Set a few years in the future, it tells the strange tale of a group of genetically altered dogs who can talk, walk upright and think like humans. Created in Canada by a brilliant but hopelessly insane scientist, the dogs enter New York City and cause quite a stir. The vast majority of this bizarre account is told from the point of view of Cleo, a young reporter who gets far more than she bargained for when she’s invited to a very wild party the dogs are throwing before they revert back to their non-genetically modified selves.

     Don’t let the highbrow packaging fool you: this is very much a horror story, albeit a highly eccentric one that bypasses many of the genre’s more annoying conventions (for once the action isn’t slowed down by a gratuitous romance). The ambiguous climax feels a tad rushed and overall must be counted as a letdown, but this remains a damned impressive first novel.

     I wish I could say the same for the outrageously overrated MRS. CALIBAN by RACHEL INGALLS, a novella that was fawned over by everyone from John Updike to the British Marketing Council (which inexplicably voted it one of the greatest post-WWII American novels). A simple book in every sense of the word, it depicts Dorothy, a dissatisfied housefrow, having a passionate affair with a Creature from the Black Lagoon-esque sea monster who's escaped from a research lab.

     It's essentially a watered-down variant on Andrzej Zulawski's ferocious film POSSESSION, with Dorothy dividing her time between discreetly described dalliances with the creature and boring discussions with a friend who has many affairs--the true nature of which Dorothy is extremely slow to pick up on (she’s aware her husband is having an affair of his own, but never wonders with whom). Following a violent climax the critter disappears into the ocean, leaving our traumatized heroine alone. The book isn’t entirely worthless--its matter-of-fact treatment of the fantastic and uncompromising finale are plusses--just painfully thin from a conceptual standpoint.

     Here’s something I can unhesitatingly recommend, albeit only to the hardiest viewers: SLICE OF LIFE, a positively mind-roasting twenty-minute exercise in quasi-documentary minimalism by COMBAT SHOCK’S Buddy Giovinazzo (or at least that’s what I’ve heard--there are no credits, hence I can’t confirm Giovinazzo’s involvement). Shot with a camcorder on a big city rooftop, it opens with a punk chick threatening a hysterical young man with a knife. Turns out the guy is the chick’s ex-boyfriend, and reeeeeeally upset about being dumped. This dweeb pukes, cries incessantly and begs her to take him back, all to no avail, as she (understandably) makes it clear he’s “outlived your usefulness.” In a desperate bid for sympathy the guy eventually removes his shirt and slashes up his torso with a straight razor(!), to which his beloved sneers “You do this all the time”(!!). It concludes in appropriate fashion with a close-up of a puddle of vomit. Thoroughly repellant yet curiously moving (especially for anyone who’s ever been through a bad break-up), this film is guaranteed to get under your skin and take up permanent residence therein.

     An equally pungent portrayal of thwarted romance is unveiled in the 48 minute Dutch curio TO PLAY OR TO DIE [SPELEN OF STERVEN]. It admittedly starts off like a typical adolescent whine fest of the type that invariably pack the Sundance Film Festival each year, but ultimately resolves itself into something far more intriguing. After getting humiliated in his school gym for being gay, the young Gees (Geert Hunaerts) invites one of his tormentors to his house after his parents leave town. Kees is hoping to exact revenge, and a piece of ass in the bargain, but gets far more than he bargained for when his would-be victim turns out to be smarter than expected.

     So far so standard, but then in the final reel the film takes an unexpected dive into Kees’ disturbed psyche, with an increasingly surreal veneer that calls into question the reality of all that came before. Made by a former assistant to Paul Verhoeven, TO PLAY OR TO DIE is a troubling yet compelling concoction that’s harsh, intelligent and thoroughly unpredictable.

     I wish cold say the same for the 1976 novel CROC by DAVID JAMES, a fitfully trashy giant-crocodile-loose-in-the-sewers-of-NYC potboiler. It suffers from an overly drawn-out set-up involving a disgraced sewer worker whose partner gets chomped by the titular critter. The guy is initially hesitant about telling people what happened but the truth inevitably gets out, leading to a massive hunt through the sewers just as the “hero” is trapped therein by the hungry croc. The characterizations are unconvincing and the thrills quite scant, with most of the expected bloodletting occurring in the final couple chapters. See the movie ALLIGATOR for what this book should have been.

     There’s no movie equivalent I can think of for THE MAN WITH THE CHOCOLATE EGG by JOHN NOONE, which reads like a John le Carre thriller filtered through the sensibilities of David Lynch. In a starkly rendered landscape of rain, mud and decay a young serviceman on civilian leave is detained by his superiors; it transpires that the serviceman has been illegally selling hand grenades to a terrorist organization, who’ve used them for nefarious purposes.

     That more or less encompasses the bulk of the narrative, but what about the bizarre sequence where the protagonist is involved in a hit-and-run fatality and somehow finds himself toting the deceased individual’s coffin? Or the strange old man who pops up throughout, always screaming about the end of the world? Or the nightmares the protagonist is always experiencing that seem to portend some deeper meaning? Is there something here I’m not getting, or am I reading too much into a straightforward account? If the novel weren’t so evocatively written I wouldn’t care, but it is and I most certainly do!

     A far more straightforward treatment is offered by the satiric vampire movie THEY HAVE CHANGED THEIR FACE (HANNO CAMBIATO FACCIA), an Italian production that uses the tropes of DRACULA to criticize the advertising industry, and by extension capitalism as a whole. Here the CEO of a large corporation--named Nosferatu--invites an employee to his snowy mountain villa to inform the guy he’s been promoted. The bad news is that Nosferatu is a centuries-old vampire whose company is looking to evil spread evil throughout the world!

     This is an almost-good film with a memorably chilly atmosphere and some on-target satire (particularly in a commercial montage featuring adverts done in the styles of Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and the Marquis de Sade). However, the proceedings could have used a more varied and eventful storyline, as it all takes place largely in the vampire’s castle with narrative twists that aren’t exactly difficult to predict.

     We’ll close things out on a high note (of sorts) with the outrageous Linda Blair hosted video HOW TO GET REVENGE. An onscreen disclaimer makes it clear this hour-long trifle is “For Entertainment Purposes only,” and entertaining is one thing it certainly is.

     Featured are copious testimonies from various “Revenge Experts” and normal folks looking to get even with their tormentors, along with endearingly tacky vignettes showing how the victims in question were wronged. The revenge tactics are pretty standard stuff: pouring salt into your “mark’s” gas tank, having porno mags sent to his house, etc. Far more amusing are the interviews with the so-called victims, who (unable to disguise the fact that they’re reading off-screen cue cards) talk about how much better they feel about themselves after taking revenge. It’s like a Tony Robbins infomercial on acid!

 

--7/17/14 

     

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