Wow. Why didn’t anybody tell me a movie had been made from Edward Bryant’s classic splatterpunk tale?
Trying to list the greatest movies from the golden age of action cinema, roughly 1980 to 1991. I came up with twelve that not only are classics of the genre but are outstanding cinema besides. We have:
Nothing like an emergency room visit to derail your ArmadilloCon 41 plans. Hope everyone had a good time.
Science fiction lost one of its true icons.
Yes, Rutger Hauer’s career pushed way beyond the genre’s restrictive barriers, and included everything from period pieces (Cyrano De Bergerac) to war films (Soldier of Orange) to thrillers (Nighthaws, The Osterman Weekend) to horror (The Hitcher, which I haven’t seen). He played the first vampire king slain by Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a crime lord matching wits with Clark Kent (Smallville), and acted as the head of Wayne Enterprises (Batman Begins).
But really, did he ever play a more singular character than Roy Batty in Bladerunner.
I’ve talked about my obsession with this movie, in all of its iterations, many times, so I won’t repeat it here. My love of that movie knows no bounds, and it is in part due to Hauer’s performance as a replicant whose desire to live despite a locked termination date. It’s equally menacing and tragic. Few things move me to tears like Rutger Hauer’s speech at the movie’s end.
Rest in piece. Time to die.
"Let's face it: fear is fun," writes Douglas E. Winter in his introduction to the landmark 1980s anthology Prime Evil. It may be why we turn to it as a source of entertainment, even if we seldom think critically about the hockey-masked villains or the hormone-addled teenagers who serve as prey.
But it can serve another purpose. It can lift us from the pits of depression and despair, as Shannon McGrew observes in her essay at Rue Morgue. "Horror gives us the chance not only to face our fears but to find a way to deal with some of the pain and suffering life throws at us," she writes--an acute assessment whether or not our pain is part of our depression, is situational, or even self-inflicted. They provide comfort when things fall apart.
If Midsommar represents art horror at its finest, then Crawl delivers a solidly entertaining if occasionally silly monster movie. Directed by French extremity wunderkind Alexandre Aja, it tells the story of a young college student (Kaya Scordelario) and her father (Barry Pepper) trapped in a decrepit house as a Category 5 hurricane hammers the coast of Florida. Rising water complicates their escape, as do hordes of giant alligators swimming the flooded streets. It's a pared-down effort, and Aja shows surprising restraint with material that could have been far more brutal. If it's not on nearly the same level as Midsommar, Crawl nonetheless shows what one can do with an economy of material. Worthwhile and recommended, and made me want to begin work on my meth gators story.
Houston wasn't Los Angeles, of course, but its own sprawl made such stories as "Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly" and "Call First" and novels like Darkside and California Gothic easily relatable. The city's abundance of hospitals lent plausibility to Etchison's organ transplant story "The Dead Line." The verdant Hermann Park, surrounded by neighborhoods of wealth and privilege, might have been the same setting for "The Dog Park," and the police cars that appeared forever parked on the tangled freeways easily could have sprung from "The Dead Cop." My family passed by the rest stops dotting I-10 during our sojourns to Austin, but I felt like I knew the abandoned locale in "It Only Comes Out at Night." And how could one not be terrified of department stores or high school reunions after reading "The Pitch" or "The Chair," respectively?
It wasn't just the settings and situations that set Etchison apart. He kept his prose spare, a holdover from his experience as a screenwriter, and it brought his vision to life. It was not just lean but fat-free, not just descriptive but evocative, even poetic. You cannot read any of the stories in The Dark Country or Red Dreams or The Blood Kiss without having his vision get under your skin. I tried to channel the opening line of his fantastic "Call 666" ("He awoke to the sound of a chainsaw.") in one of my own stories, but Etchison, always, managed to do it better.
It occurred to again me as I viewed several fine entries at Other Worlds Austin this December that we have lost the Future. I don't mean that the future won't occur, but that our vision of the Future no longer seems to exist. It's a thought I'd had before, but it seemed uncomfortably present (no pun intended) now.
Several years ago, I wrote the following in one of my Watching the Future columns.
The future used to be a destination. It used to be The Future. And like a Zeno paradox, the closer we got to it, the more unattainable The Future seemed... until we realized that the destination had been demolished. The hundred-story skyscrapers of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the pristine courtyards of William Cameron Menzies's Things to Come are now a never-ending string of strip malls selling cheap cell phones and tax advice.
Actually, William Gibson said it more succinctly in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition.
We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. ... We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition.
I wrote my column in 2012, but I stand by the sentiment, especially as I attempt to list the top ten science fiction films for 2018. I can manage five:
Others speak well of Solo and Annihilation, but neither impressed me as much as the top two on this list. In addition, three also made my horror top ten, and function better as horror movies. If we consider Black Panther a superhero movie rather than sf, then Sorry to Bother You, a devastating, Swiftian look at Where We Are Now (Pohl and Kornbluth would have approved), becomes the best original science fiction movie of the year. I grant you, it ranks on my Best of 2018 list regardless of genre (as does Black Panther), but it's all the more striking when one considers how little truly good sf hit theaters or streaming services.
It's a shame, especially because I happen to love the genre, and want to see more than the underwhelming material we're given. To that end, I'm going to try something different this year. I have a number of writing projects I want to work on, from short stories to the completion of a horror novel, so it perhaps is foolhardy to add one more.
Starting next week, I am initiating my Looking Back at the Future project.
I want to look at how science fiction cinema portrayed the Future over the last hundred years. I plan on reviewing 50 science fiction films release from between 1902 (when Georges Méliès released Le Voyage dans la Lune) and 2002 (one year before the release of Gibson's novel) with an eye on how our perceptions of the Future changed in cinema, which in turn changed our vision of the Future generally. Additionally, I want to avoid discussing the most obvious movies. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brazil, and Blade Runner (to name three) stand among my favorite movies of all time, but other, better scribes have written of their influence. By contrast, how many people have seen (or even heard of) pictures like Android, or Circuitry Man, or Night of the Comet, or Making Mr. Right, or Until the End of the World, or Screamers? How many have thought of These Are the Damned, or If..., or Abre Los Ojos in science fictional terms?
I'm not sure I have any goal other than examining these visions and how they shaped our perceptions of tomorrow. I have no idea if I will be able (or even want) to determine how, or where, we lost the Future. That may be unknowable.
Mostly, I'd just like to believe in the future again, even if it isn't the Future. I would like a glimpse of who or what those inhabitants of our future might be.
I hope to see you there.
(For those curious about my horror picks for 2018, they include: Hereditary, Mandy, Suspiria, A Quiet Place, The Endless, Halloween, Upgrade, The Ritual, Unsane, and They Remain.)
Armadillocon 40 will take place at the Omni Southpark Hotel in Austin, Texas on August 3-5, 2018. Along with such writers as Christopher Brown, Nicky Drayden, Stina Leicht, and Rick Klaw, I will be on several panels covering various aspects of genre, especially horror fiction (which seems apt when you consider that I seem to be writing quite a bit of it these days), as well as a reading and a signing. You can review the entire schedule here, and can find me at the following events.
For those interested, I have a reading at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. I'll be reading "Insane Pies," my first kind-of sort-of slasher story.
Hope to see you there.
Friday, August 3, 2018
Horror, Religion, and Spirituality
Fri 8:00 p.m. Ballroom F
Mark London Williams (moderator), Matt Cardin, Derek Austin Johnson, Amanda Downum, Don Webb, Jess Nevins
Our panelists will explore the connections between horror (book and/or film) and spirituality/religion.
Horror: What We Love and Why
Fri 9:00 p.m. Ballroom F
Amanda Downum (moderator), Barbara Ann Wright, Derek Austin Johnson, Andrew Hilbert, Don Webb, Josh Rountree
Ghosts, hothic, splatterpunk, vampires, weird. There are many types of horror. In this session, we'll ask our panelists to tell to us about the kinds of horror they write, the kinds they like to read, and to suggest favorite horror books and writers.
Saturday, August 4, 2018
SFF Movies You Should Have Watched Since Last Armadillocon
Sat 12:00 p.m. Ballroom D
A. T. Campbell III (moderator), Rick Klaw, Derek Austin Johnson, Scott A. Cupp, Stina Leicht
Our annual review of the best movies of the last 12 months or so.
Sat 3:00 p.m. Dealer's Room
Martha Wells, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Barbara Ann Wright, Derek Austin Johnson, David Afsharirad, Lauren C. Teffeau
Horror from Page to Screen
Sat 6:00 p.m. Southpark A
Matt Cardin (moderator), Joseph Fotinos, Derek Austin Johnson, Amanda Downum, Don Webb, Jess Nevins
This panel will discuss the relationship between horror fiction and horror film.
Reading - Derek Austin Johnson
Sat 7:30 p.m. Southpark B
Derek Austin Johnson
Reading - Derek Austin Johnson
Sunday, August 5, 2018
Music & Art Influences in SFF Stories & Novels
Sun 10:00 a.m. Ballroom E
Stina Leicht (moderator), Bonnie Jo Shufflebeam, Derek Austin Johnson, Josh Rountree, Sanford Allen
Where have our panelists used music or art in SFF stories or novels, or seen it used? What are your favorite examples? When you share a playlist with your readers, is it always the same music you wrote to?
2017 was the year I finally learned to stop worrying and embrace the darkness. It was a year of terrors both global and personal, with my ability to see a bright future clouded by anxiety and depression.
It was the year the Future let me down. And the year horror rescued me from despair.
As a science fiction writer who loves his chosen genre and now seems to have lost his faith, I have to wonder why the movies released over the past few years have been so routine and uninspired, whereas I can find at least two dozen horror pictures from the same period that, despite flaws and series issues, often have more drive, energy, insight, daring, and wit than even the better sf efforts. It's not that science fiction has lacked strong cinematic material; in fact, 2017 saw the release of Denis Villeneuve's sequel to one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. Whether Blade Runner 2049 endures the march of time alongside its predecessor remains to be seen. But it doesn't stop me from placing it on my list of ten best movies of 2017.*
Once you look past this mesmerizing sequel, the quality leaps into the abyss of the abysmal. Yes, Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi proffered impressive moments and dared to venture into new territory, but it the rocks of ingrained tradition required Herculean effort to lift, even with the assistance of Disney's best Jedi masters. Other sf movies fared even worse. Message smothered War for the Planet of the Apes, while both Alien: Covenant and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets veered into idiocy and irrelevance. And don't get me started on Beyond Skyline, a movie so bad that not even MST3k-style snark saved it during its premiere at Other Worlds Austin. (The inclusion of comic book movies may boost the number of good sf movies, but I seldom think of comic book movies as sf.)
Meanwhile, horror movies made released in 2017 eclipsed sf both in numbers and in quality. I used to think that did not live in the dark worlds posited by horror's grim imaginings, but the command of storytelling and strength of insight this harrowing genre provide allowed me to cope with lackluster, indifferent movies. I struggle to come up with a list of ten great sf movies, but the challenge in tripping the cinema of the dark fantastic is to not leave out incredible work.
To that end, what follows is my list of the ten best horror movies released this year. Whether or not any of these will become classics is something I cannot say, nor can I say to have seen everything released, which is why you won't find Gerald's Game, Raw, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer listed. But all are remarkable works by talented filmmakers. It's worth your while to seek them out.
In alphabetical order:
Better Watch Out: At first, very little seems to separate Chris Peckover's home invasion movie from such well-crafted entries as Hush and You're Next, but it doesn't take long for this tale of a babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) looking after a precocious tween to suddenly upend conventions. Clever, well-paced, and often surprising, Better Watch Out crosses the black comedy of Heathers with the banal evil of Funny Games yet never resembles either.
The Blackcoat's Daughter: Oz Perkins heightens the unease he brought to his absorbing first feature I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House to this tale of a schoolgirl (Kiernan Shipka) trapped at her boarding school as she awaits her parents. As with his first feature, Perkins suffuses this chilly picture with unease and dread, its even pace drawing the viewer in with shocks right up to the final, terrifying revelation. I can't say that The Blackcoat's Daughter is the best horror movie made this year, but it is my personal favorite.
Creep 2: Just when you think found footage movies ought to remain hidden (to say nothing of movies leaving numbers out of their titles), along comes one that delivers on the suspense and outright verisimilitude that elevated The Blair Witch Project to classic status. Rather than simply repeat the success of the their disquieting 2014 feature, Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass bring back their narcissistic killer, now suffering ennui and aimlessness. He crosses paths with Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a college student who runs a YouTube channel devoted to strangers in need of companionship. Deeper than Creep and thus more terrifying, it says much about our obsession with online culture and the alienation brought on by communications technology.
A Dark Song: A grief-stricken woman (Catherine Walker) hires an occultist (Steve Oram) to help her perform a ritual that will summon a guardian angel with the power to avenge her murdered son. Tensions mount as the months-long Kabbalistic ritual encounters obstacles and the frustration. Understated and rich in detail, Liam Gavin's directorial debut delivers intriguing characters too trapped in their own egos and pain to ever find full release from it. Some fans dislike the ending, but I found it to be transformative. Of all the movies on this list, this is a true must-see...
Get Out: ...along with Jordan Peele's debut, about a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who visits the home of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) and begins to question the strange behavior of their black servants. Insightful yet creepy, Get Out examines race and class in 2017 America with a keen eye, and tells its story with a rich understanding of genre. It suffers now from overpraise, but remains one of the freshest horror movies of the year.
House on Willow Street: Director Alistair Orr takes this tale of a kidnapping gone very wrong in several unexpected places. Starring Sharni Vinson as a desperate crook who kidnaps the evil heiress Katherine (Carlyn Burchell), this South African feature builds tension from the beginning. Not the greatest movie on this list, it remains a strong exercise in terror.
It: Full confession: the original television movie based on Stephen King's large, brilliant, and messy novel never appealed to me. Part of it was the casting (John Ritter and Richard Thomas? Really?) but mostly it had to do with the lack of inspiration in its shots, the routine manner of its telling, and the cheapness of the entire production. This Andy Muschietti-directed adaptation, however, answers all of my criticisms by telling the story of the Losers Club as it does battle with the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) beneath the sewers of Derry, Maine. Yes, the movie suffers from comparison to the exceptional television show Stranger Things (It stars at least two of It's cast members) but still delivers old-school scares with care and affection.
It Comes at Night: In Terry Edward Shults's relentlessly grim psychological horror film, a family survives in a secluded location after a plague has ravaged the world. When they meet another family they invite them to stay, but tensions and paranoia begin to threaten their easy peace. The movie highlights the themes of love and loss, with one of the most devastation final shots I've seen this year. Not as energetic or as aggressive as many other recent horror movies, It Comes at Night terrifies with its understated telling.
Split: We all wrote off M. Night Shayamalan (with cause) after the silly Signs, the strained The Village, and the jawdroppingly bad The Happening. Then he redeemed himself with the found footage thriller The Visit, and reminded us how good he could be with Split, about a man (James McAvoy) with 23 separate personalities who captures three girls and holds them prisoner in an underground facility. Shayamalan keeps all of the action focused inside the cell, where claustrophobia only adds to the disorientation. The ending transforms the movie into something unexpected (and thus may dampen its impact), but it thrills throughout its entire run time.
The Transfiguration: Like found footage movies, there seems no reason to reopen any vampire's coffin, especially after the Twilight saga all but killed our need to yet again examine their feeding habits. And then comes the disturbing The Transfiguration, about a young boy (Eric Ruffin) who lives in a housing project and believes himself to be one of the undead. He begins to rethink his life when he meets a teenage girl (Chloe Levine) in need of a friend. Brilliantly cast and smartly directed, it's a movie about children who have no illusions about childhood, about family and loyalty where neither exist. Part George Romero's Martin and John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let Me In, it is probably the most genuinely terrifying movie on this list.
*My top ten movies for 2017 include Baby Driver, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Colossal, Dunkirk, Get Out, Logan, Personal Shopper, The Shape of Water, and Wonder Woman.
Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. A member of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, his work has appeared in Skull Fragments: A Skelos Sampler, Rick Klaw's Rayguns Over Texas!, Nova Express, Moving Pictures, Her Majesty's Secret Servant, and Revolution SF. His film column "Watching the Future" appeared each month at Hugo Award-winning SF Signal.
He lives in Central Texas.