Received a print copy of Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror Candlemas 2021 Edition

Hey everybody, M. here,

Excited to say that my Pnakotic Pnostman dropped off a copy of Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror Candlemas 2021 Edition in the mail! We’ve got oft anthologized veteran U.K. horror/SF author/poet and Beat poet scholar Bryn Fortey and Chaosium editor/prolific purveyor of modern Mythos fiction Glynn Owen Barrass on the cover, and here’s a tiny glimpse of what you’ll find inside from yours truly:

Does that snippet make you curious about what happened at the party, and what happened at the after party and, most importantly, what happened after the after party? Head over to Amazon and snag the issue in print or ebook to find out. Within those pages you’ll find a varied assortment of Cthulhuvian tales to weirden your mind beyond its breaking point! ! ! Cthulhu fhtagn!
-M.

“Payload” now available in print in Startling Stories!

Hey everybody, M. here,

The day has finally arrived – the long anticipated first issue of the relaunched Startling Stories from Wildside Press, edited by Doug Draa, is out in paperback and available on Amazon (and with, as you can see, a different cover than the prospective one that was floating around early last year). This relaunch of the classic pulp science fiction magazine contains my science fiction story “Payload” alongside a bunch of other cool brand new stories, not to mention a ‘50s one by Silverberg (a story which was, from what I understand, written originally for the classic incarnation of the mag).

I had a whole big blog planned exploring the ins-and-outs of “Payload.” Firstly because I do believe that, as a story about intertwining and mutating varieties of contagion, it’s more germane to the world as it now looks – in the midst of a pandemic with one or perhaps numerous infodemics happening alongside it – than it would have been had it run closer to when I had written it. In fact I think the story probably speaks more to the experience of living through a pandemic in a technologically advanced society than it would have had I written something more immediately, directly recognizable as a piece of pandemic fiction. Secondly, waiting for a long time for something gives you a lot of time to think about it. And boy have I thought.

So I could honestly probably talk for an hour or two about this one – about its Ballardian (I think?) vibe and where that might fit in the context of Campbell-era of science fiction, about the approach to virology and epidemiology and how that might have changed given that concepts like spike proteins and adenoviral vectors are now, bizarrely, part of the common parlance, and about a million other aspects of this story. Some parts of it have a long, long history in my brain, despite it all having come together, as these thing sometimes do, rather quickly. But in attempting to write such a blog I found that I was just asking myself questions that I hadn’t been asked and then answering them, which felt sort of silly. More importantly, as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a story not a philosophical treatise – one that I hope will keep people guessing and deliver some entertaining thrills more than anything. So check it out and get Startled!

And if you want more M. Stern in your head…
Earlier this week my cosmic horror-comedy “After the After Party” — a story with quite a different sensibility than “Payload” — made its appearance in Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror. Check it out in print or e-book, as nothing goes down better after an M. Stern story than an M. Stern chaser, so they say. “They” being, in this case, me. Anyway take care everyone, stay safe.
-M.

“After the After Party” OUT NOW in Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror!

Hey everybody, M. here,

Wishing a belated Happy New Year to all of you! I Just got word a little bit ago that my story titled “After the After Party” has arrived in print (and Kindle format) in Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror. This story is sort of a funny one, I’ve described it as having the sensibility of sort of a madcap rom-com — so what can you expect? Self delusion! Quixotic romance! Weird intrigue! Arcane rituals! People acting like assholes! References to the classics! Gloppy monsters! And a touch of existential fear and trembling — what would cosmic horror be without it, right?

Sound like your kind of thing? Head on over to Amazon and snag a copy, and I hope you mythos mavens and weird horror aficionados get a kick out of this one. Follow me on Facebook for more updates, not to mention brief thoughts on technological miscellany, songs I like, and whatever else I post when the spirit moves me.

And speaking of updates …

A new way to get your M. Stern fix
The duo over at cyberpunk mag Write Ahead/The Future Looms have launched a “digital news-stand” for the purchase of individual digital issues. That means if you haven’t grabbed Vol. 11. yet, featuring my story “Head on the Door” and you want something to cool to read on your electronic device of choice — or are yourself a cyborg and are capable of downloading ebooks directly to your brain — you can now get the entire issue for a mere 3 pounds sterling (or whatever that converts to in your preferred currency).

If it is at all helpful in driving this micro-transaction, I said somewhere else that the moral of “Head on the Door” is that anyone can break your skull but only you can break your heart — an aphorism I believe to be no less true now than I did like three months ago when I made it up.

Anyway hope everyone is holding up out there, take care and stay safe!
-M.

Nove-M.-ber update (new story acceptance and other stuff!)

Hey everybody, M. here.

Hope everyone is staying safe and hanging in there during what is by my calculation the eleventy-thousandth month of this goddamned wretched pandemic. I’ve got a few new developments to share, so without further ado…

New story on the way at Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror
I’m excited to say that the other day I got an acceptance from Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror for my story After the After Party, which is slated to appear in the Candlemas 2021 issue early next year. I don’t want to get too deep into what this one’s about and run the risk of dropping spoilers, so suffice it to say I’ve been calling this story a cosmically horrific rom-com romp. Looking forward to it making an appearance in print.

Write Ahead/The Future Looms back issue pack available
Speaking of print, for those who want to get their hands on a physical copy of my short story Head on the Door, Write Ahead/The Future Looms has made their most recent back issue pack available for purchase. Along with Vol. 11 —  which contains my story of broken hearts, shattered skulls, self-deception and miscommunication both human and android — you get two other issues packed with all sorts of cyberpunk madness from both seasoned authors and up-and-comers from around the world. In addition to the contents, these mags have a unique design aesthetic and look super cool when you’ve got a bunch of them together — so pick up a stack and dig in.

Follow me on Facebook for more M. Sternerrific updates
That’s about all the big news I have at the moment. Hopefully there will be more forthcoming soon but, in any case, if you’ve checked out my stories and are digging what you’re reading or have any burning questions you want my take on, give me a holler in the comments or follow me on Facebook,

Also if you’ve got a theory about what Ancient Greek tragedy the events in Head on the Door very, very abstractly map on to, let me know here or over on FB. If someone can actually get this one I might even mail them a prize or something — at the very least I’d be incredibly impressed.

Take care everyone!
-M.

Write Ahead The Future Looms Vol. 11 has arrived in my M.ailbox

I got my physical copy of Write Ahead The Future Looms Vol. 11, featuring my story Head on the Door, the other day in the mail. Looks SUPER nice — just take a look below! I’m looking forward to digging in and checking out all the other stories in there. And since my story is up as an online preview of this issue of the magazine, you can read it right here.
-M.

Check out “Head on the Door” — Available NOW as an online preview!

Hey everybody, M. here,

I’m stoked to say that my story Head on the Door is now up online as a teaser for the print/digital edition of cyberpunk magazine Write Ahead/The Future Looms Vol. 11. I’m so happy to be featured alongside a mix of eclectic authors from around the world. Check it out, let me know what you think if you are so inclined — and follow me on Facebook to stay on top of what else I’ve got looming in the future.

-M.

Sold another story!

Hey everybody, M. here,

Just a quick update. I’m excited to say I signed a contract the other day and my story titled Head on the Door is slated to appear in cyberpunk magazine Write Ahead/The Future Looms. I’m quite happy to have found a home for this story and thrilled it is coming out in WA/TFL. The U.K./Zurich-based magazine has been at it for a few years featuring pulse-pounding, mind-bending stories from a lineup of science fiction authors from around the globe.

More information on when the story should be making its appearance and those sorts of things should be coming soon.
-M.

Some M.inor Updates

Hey everybody, M. here.

I don’t have a ton of news to share, as the pace of a lot of projects has of course slowed for a lot of people lately due to the pandemic. One noteworthy development, however, is that Wildside Press released the prospective covers for the next six issues of Weirdbook the other day.

They all look amazing, and since my story Birth should be appearing in issue #44 I’m posting that one here. Since the names on the cover are not yet finalized according to editor Doug Draa, I’ve blurred them. But that notwithstanding — cool, huh? I’ve still got no idea about a potential release date for this or any of the other Wildside magazines, though last I heard Weirdbook #43 had entered the proofing process.

I had intended to get out at least one more blog’s worth of reviews about end-of-the-world-themed movies done for M. Stern’s Short Ends over the past couple of months. In the first two, I had been sort of tongue-and-cheek about the notion that watching depressing movies under these circumstances ran the risk of driving me nuts. In fact after watching Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and 1959’s grim nuclear fallout drama On The Beach back-to-back, I found that it actually was impacting me emotionally in a way that movies usually don’t. So I’ve chilled out on that, though both of those films are incredible and well worth writing about. Maybe I’ll give my 2 cents on them once I’m able to again hear “Waltzing Matilda” without bawling.

I had also considered maybe reviewing some of the horror that has been streaming online in recent months — the indie horror circuit has really stepped up during the pandemic, with fans and festival organizers alike finding creative ways to get all sorts of weird and wild stuff, new and old, to a remote audience. I got sidetracked from doing that though, as my level of concentration has been — as I am sure is fairly universal — completely shot to hell.

This also speaks to my level of productivity with regards to fiction. I’ve been working even slower than my usual snail’s pace — though I do have a story or two I’ve been chiseling away at (and few others out there in the ether).

Given that there is no telling what things will look like a few months from now — good, bad, or indifferent — I’m hesitant to talk about future plans too much. But every year in October I see how many horror movies I can watch, and how many reviews of them I can write up. This year I want to try to do that publicly — here — instead of posting them on my private social media like I usually do. I also hope to make another appearance on my buddy Rob’s horror movie podcast at some point — where I will aim to do significantly less rambling than I did the last time he was gracious enough to have me on.  At any rate, if and when any of that happens, hopefully things are less terrifying and depressing by then. Take care everyone.
-M.

M. Stern’s Short Ends: End of the World Movies, Part 2 (Tarkovsky, Romero)

Hey friends, here I am with some more reviews of the bleakest stuff I could force into my eyeballs given the present state of affairs. And what a bleak end to a bleak week! First up is The Sacrifice, the final slow, brooding philosophical long-runner from slow cinema pioneer Andrei Tarkovsky (if you dug that Bela Tarr writeup I did last time, you’ll love this one). Then I’ve got my favorite George Romero flick, The Crazies. Yes, my favorite Romero. I think that might be an unpopular opinion but I stand by it — and if you read the review, you’ll find out why!

The Sacrifice (1986) Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Nuclear war might not be the catastrophe most top of mind at the moment, but there is no question that it is, as Sun Ra tells us, a motherfucker. There are a few art house films I’ve seen that give this fact its full existential due; two from Ingmar Bergman (Winter Light and Shame) — and Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. It seems no coincidence that this one is regarded as Tarkovsky’s most Bergman-esque film, it was shot by perennial Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, is in Swedish rather than Russian, and stars Bergman repertory regular Erland Josephson (and there may be some other Bergman crew crossovers in the credits).

Josephson plays Alexander, a rural-living 60-something verging on a birthday and parent of a strange young child referred to only as Little Man who has a bandage around his throat. A neighborly new mailman, Otto rides up on his bike outside and Alexander strikes up a conversation about Nietzsche (“Do you know Nietzsche?” he asks. “No, not personally,” Otto replies) and Otto recounts having grappled with the theory of eternal recurrence (Nietzsche’s thought experiment, positing that everything we do in life down to the smallest detail might be something that we repeat infinitely). Alexander opines that you’d need a demiurge to facilitate such a set of metaphysical circumstances. Otto leaves, and Alexander muses about the fragility of a spiritually bankrupt society technologically sophisticated enough to destroy itself.

The nuclear blast in The Sacrifice is way more stylized and affecting than this public domain image of a real-life nuclear bomb test.

Inside the house, we meet Alexander’s family who are there to celebrate his birthday. They discuss his having played Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on stage. Otto shows up and things skew spooky. He explains that he’s a collector of strange, impossible stories. He is revealed as a probable epileptic as he flops, suddenly and dramatically, into some kind of dead faint when the conversation skews mystical (epilepsy being a condition he shares with the most existentially hefty of Dostoevsky’s characters Myshkin, Kirilov, and I think Raskolnikov — it’s been a while). He gets back up, and we’re set up for one of the film’s more poignant observations. Nuclear war breaks out, but it’s not nuclear war we’re used to, seen from the desk of a frantic NORAD official at his desk. Rather, the destruction interjects itself abruptly into the banal, quiet lives of the characters, distant from any global conflict. Un-foreshadowed except by the jingle of a tray of glasses, then a carafe of milk crashing  to the floor from a shelf*, one second it’s silent and the next it’s the earsplitting, overwhelming sound of rockets. Then we’re outside again. Alexander staring out onto a nightmarishly gray landscape – the world at large has presumably been reduced to rubble; locally, the aftermath of the catastrophe is represented by the color having been sucked out of the world (Tarkovsky and Nykvist actually stripped the color out of the film to get the weird effect.)

Alexander returns inside after a cryptic encounter with Otto. The family is watching television. Look looks of disbelief and anxiety mirror the broadcast’s dull, defeated run-through of the implementation of martial law. The broadcast ends. There’s an empty, contemplative silence.Alexander’s daughter breaks suddenly into as unconstrained sobbing and hyperventilating as I have ever seen in a film, asserting that disaster is somehow personal. They’re stuck. They don’t know what to do. They want to leave but there’s nowhere to go. Society’s infrastructure and the stability it assured a moment earlier has been wiped away.The sense of dislocation is palpable.

And they want it to be over. Perhaps most of all Alexander, who has spent his life preoccupied with the end of the world and is now living his worst case scenario. Wringing his hands and on his knees, he begins with the Lord’s Prayer then moves into extemporaneous petitioning. He begs that his children and friends be protected from dying. He begs for the sake of everyone. Tears filling his eyes, he desperately parses out the types of suffering experienced throughout the world into smaller and smaller subcategories, as as if more granular taxonomy will strengthen his case in God’s eyes. He offers to give up everything he has, even his family, even his home, even Little Man, to live a life of asceticism – if only the world would be set back the way it was before. This scene perfectly, haunting depicts a quite ethereal sensation. Alexander wants to hit the brakes. He wants to turn around and swim back through time to get to something normal, while the familiar ways of being in the world are sloughing away and hurtling backwards into memory. It’s probably a familiar sensation to anyone who has suffered a tragedy; one can imagine it becomes more comprehensive the closer the tragedy gets to being a world-ending one. Before slipping into an even more gray, more muddy nightmare, he gives one last plea to be rid of his “deadly, sickening, animal fear.”

Then he’s awake again and speaking with Otto, who seems now to be the demiurge discussed at the start. and Otto offers Alexander the chance to return to the world to normal if he sleeps with a servant – who is actually a witch – and make a wish. He does, and the sound of ringing glasses and bombs dropping indicates that the world has somehow returned to the verge of its terminal moment. A second later he’s on the couch, and it seems that things have returned to normal.

We’re left with questions, as is Alexander. What, if anything, was sacrificed to save the world? Was it a Judeo-Christian willingness to give up everything worldly, son included, that did the trick, a pagan sex-magic ritual or none of the above? At first we assume it’s Little Man, who seems to have disappeared – and so does Alexander, who gets to work burning down his own house to complete the renunciation of everything he owns. But as Alexander is driven off to the mental hospital, Little Man reappears and for the first time speaks, stating “In the beginning was the Word.” If the entire thing wasn’t a delusion, which it may have been, it seems that Alexander sacrificed not his son, but his sanity, to allow the world to continue on as it had.

I guess there’s a way that this movie seems like a meditation on creativity; Alexander, an artistic type, is burdened with insight. Where everyone else sees life clusterfucking inevitably along, he’s plagued with scenes of the bombs dropping. He feels like he should be able to do something about it. Ultimately powerless, he loses touch with reality and descends into a fantasy of metaphysical control. When we get out of his head and see him from the true third person, as others do, we realize he has driven himself insane.

On the other hand, I see a lot of Tarkovsky in David Lynch – maybe more than is actually there, sometimes. So just as I tend to wonder when watching Twin Peaks if the Black Lodge and White Lodge are fictionalized versions of metaphysical constructs that Lynch in some sense believes in, I wonder if this isn’t also the case regarding the relationship between characters and reality Tarkovsky renders in The Sacrifice. I read somewhere years ago that Tarkovsky was a theosophist, and so it doesn’t seem out of the question that the way he believed reality to work in some way mirrored this film. Maybe in the sense of the world being repeated, destroyed and un-destroyed on a semi-regular schedule. Or maybe in the sense that movie seems to indicate, solipsistic as it may be, that through some kind of ritual and some kind of sacrifice we might be able to impact the world around us, it’s just a matter of figuring out which one. It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?

*I had erroneously believed that Lucio Fulci was paying homage to this in a hospital scene in The Beyond where a carafe of acid falls off of a shelf, but The Beyond was released five years before The Sacrifice.

The Crazies (1973) Dir. George Romero

I’ve been hesitant to re-watch The Crazies because I find it upsetting even when there isn’t a real-world pandemic rattling the foundations of civil society. Given what the last few months have looked like, I was concerned that watching this one would freak me out to the extent that I would spend the rest of my life convinced I was a glass of orange juice. I gave a watch nevertheless, hoping to maybe figure out what it is about this plague flick that sticks with me so much, despite critics appearing to be lukewarm on it. I think the reason I find The Crazies to be so horrifying is that it’s a movie about things breaking down – society, institutions, and individuals – spiraling downward in short order, which also makes it a movie about how fragile those things are.

Things crumble right from the outset. Two kids in small, rural Evans City around the age of eight or nine are playing around, a brother trying to scare his sister, when they walk in on their father raging full force with a crowbar. The girl goes for her mother and finds her beaten to death. The father burns down the house with the kids in it. While I can imagine this being the kind of scene deemed excessive upon the film’s original release (under the name Code Name: Trixie), I think it’s important in setting the stage and speaks to the seriousness of the project. There’s an uncomfortable reality that underlies the revulsion of seeing a couple of innocent kids having to experience death and violence: if you’re 10 years old when the world falls apart, that’s the age at which you deal with it.

Dave, a firefighter, and his pregnant fiancee Judy, a nurse at the local hospital, both receive calls to deal with their respective sides of the anomalous small-town tragedy. Dave, meets up with his army buddy, fellow firefighter Clank, and already news has spread around the fire station about some military involvement. At the hospital it’s even more apparent that martial law is on the way. It’s crawling with hazmat suit and gas mask-clad military. Physician Dr. Brookmyre attempts to get answers from Major Ryder, who is having the entire town locked down in the high school gym as a quarantine measure, explaining that they’ll be expecting the proverbial “few cases” of the virus by morning.

Dr. Brookmyre secretly sends Judy packing and two parallel storylines emerge. Judy ends up in a van with David, Clank, local teenager Kathy Fulton with her father Artie and a potentially ill fifth person, and one half of the movie tracks their attempt to outflank the iron-fisted quarantine measures and get somewhere safe. The other storyline follows the just-deployed Colonel Peckern, who attempts to control a rapidly degenerating military situation while virus researcher Dr. Watts, re-assigned to Evans City despite believing he could be more of a help from home his lab, races to find a vaccine.

It is from Dr. Watts we learn that Trixie, the substance in the vials being carried by a plane that crashed in the mountains, called an attenuated vaccine up to this point, was in fact a bio-weapon – one which induces an encephalitis that causes waves of unpredictable, murderous behavior in those infected. Create with in-curability in mind, Trixie is assumed to have escaped into the water supply and spreads via human to human contact. Luckily it can’t be spread by cats or dogs, only primates. “If you don’t have any pet monkeys around the only things infected will be human beings,” Watts says.

They talk through their attempts to outmaneuver the virus with so many unknowns at play and the chances don’t sound good. Martial law is invasive but beats the alternative, with the army secretly poised to nuke the town to stop the spread of the virus if things get too bad. Moreover, it’s unclear if any of the containment measures at all will be effective. Watts points out that an asymptomatic carrier passing through town could have unknowingly smuggled the virus out days earlier, rendering the entire quarantine useless. The steps they’re taking now would have been effective days ago. Currently it’s possible, if not probable, that they’re already too far behind to make a difference.

Things get worse. In the hospital, a single gunshot rings out and a local cop is killed in a struggle with the military as the small-town mayor pleads for more information. This scene struck me as being quite incredibly acted out. There’s sort of a Neo-realist quality to the cast of mostly-unknowns to begin with. They feel like locals. When the gun goes off, the ancillary characters look like they’ve just watched something unreal. They press themselves into the furniture like they’re trying to disappear. You see in their eyes that they’re processing that things which don’t happen in civil society are starting to happen. (While I haven’t seen the film’s 2010 remake, I can’t imagine it preserves this authentic grit).

Watching a futile attempt to contain a virus is hardly the only horrifying thing about the movie though. What the virus does taps into a whole other panorama of human fears. The loss of control of your own faculties is a terrifying prospect. Especially doing so violently. The unreliability of our senses is a perennial concern of philosophy, and comes up from time to time in fiction — often but not always in genre fiction. The work of Philip K. Dick, deals with the disparity between perception and reality in all sorts of ways – in his case sometimes its the universe that’s moving around on us, sometimes it’s us that, and often it’s some bottomless spiral of both. More recently and with a strictly supernatural hook, this foundational anxiety showed up 2013’s Oculus, in which a brother-sister duo who find themselves, when in the presence of a cursed mirror, doing all sorts of murderous things that appear on a recording, but that they don’t recall having done. Of course you don’t have to delve into the supernatural or the speculative to understand what’s so frightening about this. There’s certainly no shortage of real-life stories of people doing uncharacteristic, violent, etc., things while in a state of cognitive decline, all terribly upsetting in their own way.

This anxiety is at the crux of some of the most powerful (and controversial) scenes in The Crazies. When Judy, Dave and their crew have occupied a house to squat in as it becomes clear that they haven’t managed to duck the virus. Kathy is becoming childlike and incoherent due to viral infection. Arti, originally introduced as an overprotective father, becomes viscerally disturbing in how he’s acting towards her. In a haze of viral incoherence, he has sex with his own daughter and – after being thrown off of her by a disgusted Clank – presumably recognizes what he has done and hangs himself. This is another scene that I’m sure scans to some as pure Grindhouse excess, but it strikes me as one of the most devastating illustrations of one of the movie’s central points. The foundations of our morality rest on the idea that we have control of our actions. Losing that control completely enough to do something unspeakably vile, then returning to sanity a moment later, reveals a special kind of hell. This sexual transgression is mirrored in Clank’s descent into murderous violence – one moment he’s stabbing military men to death rather than reasoning with them, the next he’s tearing up, begging Dave like a little kid for confirmation that he’d done nothing wrong.

The more quietly horrifying side of this anxiety happens on the science side. As Dr. Watts works with another scientist in the high school chemistry lab to try to find a Trixie vaccine, there are a series of awkward interactions. He banters with his co-researcher. She seems unsure if he’s joking. It seems equally likely that either he just has a strange, affable sense of humor, or he’s been infected with the virus and is going insane. We look for signs in each interaction. It’s impossible to tell. He has a eureka moment, discovering a “smaller configuration” through the microscope that he can’t explain to his co-worker, and it’s unclear if he’s onto something too important to express clearly, or if he’s hallucinating.

Dr. Watts runs out of the lab with two vials of blood, certain he has the answer. He’s caught up in the mob scene, pushed down the stairs and accidentally killed by two hazmat-suited military men. Whether this represented humanity’s final chance or not, we don’t know. A morass of bureaucratic failure, panic, and insanity feed each other to prevent anyone from arriving at a clear answer. Like our personal morality, our infrastructure and institutions rely on most people behaving sanely most of the time. By the end of The Crazies, most everyone could be infected and most everyone could be insane; citizens and the military are engaging in firefights and it’s unclear who’s following orders and who’s lost their minds. Oh, and the virus already escaped containment anyway. The movie ends with the military getting ready to repeat the same mistakes in the next big city over.

So why is this one my favorite of Romero’s classic work? First off it’s hardly a knock against the pioneering imagery or social commentary of Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. In fact I think some of the staying power of those movies relies on similar themes explored in The Crazies (the breakdown of infrastructure, the fragility of human relationships, the mortal fear of having to kill or being killed by a loved one with either party acting outside of their own control). The Crazies, however, as it moves those things out of the realm of the fantastic and into the realm of the scientific, opens up for me a different can of worms. It speaks more directly a couple of fears harbored by hypochondriacs, and I’ve always been a hypochondriac. I guess you can’t really call NOTLD’s agonizingly slow scenes of human organ eating “escapist,” but along some line of measure I find The Crazies to be less escapist than that.

While NOTLD continues on as an oft re-shown and re-adapted cultural touchstone, even past the latest wave of zombie-mania, I wonder if the current state of things might give The Crazies a renaissance, as fear of contagion is – hopefully only for a brief historical moment – necessarily at the forefront of the public conversation. Given that, it’s worth noting that by far the strangest element of watching this movie now, I found, is that it’s uncomfortable to watch the potentially/presumably infected characters getting close to one another talking and touching each other. And taking their gas masks on and off willy-nilly. Even though it’s fiction, you find yourself looking for the moment the bug jumps. Keep some distance, folks.

Coming next …
I’ve kinda-sorta decided to take a break from watching disturbing stuff for a minute, but who knows. I’m thinking it might be best to watch a couple of Eric Rohmer movies to cleanse my mind of unpleasant thoughts. From the four or five of them I’ve seen, his movies consist of nothing but French people taking vacations and talking at length about their fairly innocuous relationship problems. I might change my mind and get a couple more catastrophe movies written up, though, or maybe some other weird horror deep cuts. Stay safe out there.
-M.

 

M. Stern’s Short Ends: End of the World Movies, Part 1 (Béla Tarr, Bruno Mattei)

It wasn’t completely by chance that my movie viewing began heading down an apocalyptic path when current events started getting serious. Some people, it seems, escape into meme-ready comfort TV, and others stare hard into the abyss with rigorously dismal cinema. I’m generally one of the latter types, and so it seemed to make sense to write about what I’ve been watching and I guess, maybe, to try to figure out why I’m putting myself through this. While I haven’t been watching any of the more directly topical blockbusters like Contagion or 12 Monkeys (though believe me, I think the latter movie’s a scorcher — the first I don’t remember well), I think that the best of the movies I’ve been watching – or even the less good ones – reflect our reactions to fear, uncertainty, tragedy, and utter lack of control in ways that, if they’re not necessarily easy to watch, can be valuable to think about. And the worst — at least one has a bootleg Terminator in it, but is nevertheless thought-provoking in its way.

While I had intended to do this as one post, I’m going to split it out into a couple as these reviews have run a bit long. What can I say, I over-write when I get antsy. Spoilers are to be found throughout, if you care about that sort of thing. Anyway, speaking of figures not known for their brevity…

The Turin Horse (2011) Dir. Béla Tarr

It seemed like a no-brainer, with the official onset of a global quarantine, to reach for whatever movie I could find by the most canonically morose living director in world cinema – Hungary’s Béla Tarr. I found The Turin Horse streaming, its relatively slim 2.5 hours marking the intentional end of Tarr’s filmmaking career and depicting, perhaps not coincidentally, the on-screen end of the world.

The film derives its name from an anecdote about the latter-day life of Friedrich Nietzsche. The philosopher, traveling through Italy, reputedly saw a man beating a horse. Nietzsche threw himself on the horse to protect it, weeping. Taken home, he then uttered his last sane words: “Mutter, ich bin dumm” (“Mother, I am dumb”). This anecdote – retold at the beginning of Tarr’s film – is as oft-shared among readers of philosophy as the one about Kant’s precisely-timed daily walks through Königsberg, Jeremy Bentham’s practical-to-a-fault mummification, and those tales of any number of philosophers’ masturbatory habits each as unique as a snowflake.

Scholars point out, however, that The Turin Horse story is apocryphal – it’s a bit too close to a fictional anecdote found in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and there is little historical evidence to corroborate that it happened.

The closest thing to a picture of The Turin Horse I could find to accompany this review.

It’s not hard to get why we keep telling it, though (or naming movies after it): Nietzsche was a man who saw atheism as an inescapable reaction to the modern world being demystified through science and reason, a world which now posed questions without viable answers, leaving those perceptive enough to appreciate the situation nothing but despair to grapple with. He believed that our most basic moral intuitions and social norms were false, and that to recognize them as such was to be set above those who believed, unquestioningly, in their universality. He was a philosopher preoccupied with the hideous anguish and, potentially, sublime beauty of an existence devoid of transcendence. In one final gesture of unmatched sensitivity, he collapsed at the tragedy of it all and never again spoke a word. (Nietzsche did, in fact remain sitting in a chair in complete silence for the final 10 years of his life). Whether or not it happened, the story seems to act as a capstone on the bleak, poetic irrationalism of his thought. To quote actor Gunnar Björnstrand, speaking to film critic Peter Cowie at the first screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence: “Pretty strong stuff, isn’t it?”

The stuff of Tarr’s final film is unfortunately not quite that strong. At the beginning, the haunting voice of the film’s occasional narrator recounts the final equine encounter of Nietzsche’s sane existence, then assures us that “of the horse, we know nothing.” We then see a horse, being driven by a rustic farmer against the backdrop of a landscape with an unyielding wind blowing (it doesn’t let up through the duration of the film). We wonder if maybe we’re watching a piece of philosophical fan-fic fleshing out the story of a semi-mythical bit player. It’s been done to excellent effect before, in literature (Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas) and film (Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). It seems as though we’re being set up to see this great historical victim of abuse, having been saved by a philosophical titan, going on to live out the rest of its life like the donkey in au hazard Balthazaar; a picture of innocence in a wretched world.

In fact it’s not exactly clear if this is The Turin Horse we’re dealing with or merely a horse of a similar color. We see the horse occasionally throughout the movie, but most of the film is focused on the farmer and his daughter, living inside a small, sparse cabin. Day after day, the father wakes up in his long johns and the daughter mechanically dresses him. They saddle and unsaddle the horse. They do shots of brandy. She boils two potatoes and serves them each one. Everything they do, especially how they eat, has a ritualistic feel – the father scratches the skin off of his potato with one hand, smashes it and picks it apart, the daughter peels hers fastidiously with both hands. The characters gobble their respective potatoes while they are still steaming. The wind outside gets stronger.

“Of the horse, we know nothing.”

While Wikipedia pegs this movie as taking place in the 19th century (due presumably to the transportation, style of heating, living arrangements, etc.) it’s details like this almost alien mode of potato consumption that make me think the movie, in fact, takes place in a sort of timeless semi-reality – along the lines of the fabulistic nowhere of Kafka’s The Castle. (I suppose it’s possible that it could be a super specific cultural practice, but I can’t see Hungarian farmers of any era willfully burning the hell out of their mouths with every potato). This sense is bolstered by the fact that, as the wind continues to howl, the farmer and his daughter have only two encounters with other humans. In the first, a man shows up looking for brandy and explains to the farmer that the village no longer exists. The farmer appears unrattled. In the second, a bawdy dance macabre of gypsies show up attempting to spirit the daughter away; the father chases them off with an axe. The father and daughter are entirely unmoved from their routine despite evidence filtering down from all quarters that something big is happening. The horse, meanwhile, seems like a bellwether for the impending apocalypse – refusing to eat and otherwise acting out as the situation outside degenerates.

On the final day, things change. They try to leave; it’s not wholly clear if they succeed and arrive in an identical cabin, or just return home. We see characteristically long, somber shots of the daughter staring out the window. The two try to light a lamp. It doesn’t work. Entropy, it seems, is signaling a victory. Fire no longer works, it slowly flickers out. In some of the movie’s most haunting scenes – confined to the last few minutes – only the howl of the wind is audible and the film cuts to absolute darkness.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into what the circumstances of the characters in this esoteric fable might mean. If we’re indeed seeing the abuser of the semi-historical Turin Horse cursed, as a stand-in for all banal tyrants, to remain in some loop of eternal reccurence, unwilling or unable to vary even minutely as things decay around him. Or if it’s a more broad meditation on our tendency to throw ourselves into ritual or keep our heads down and hope for the best, even as we’re watching things break down around us. Worthwhile topics for an art film of this type to explore, but I wish the movie would have been overall stronger.

Which is to say that despite those captivating, long-running shots synonymous with the name Béla Tarr movie, a minimal plot made for philosophizing, and the ending’s staggering collapse into black (which is excellent), I don’t think this one touches his masterpiece, Werckmeister Harmonies. That one makes me sob like a baby every time I watch it, no exaggeration – it’s up there with Tokyo Story in terms of movies that can provoke such a reaction. I think it’s precisely because in Werckmeister – in addition to the film’s formal beauty — amid the ominous and Kafkaesque imagery, it’s about a search for transcendence. From the opening scene, Werckmeister grapples with hope in its cryptic, mystical way, whereas The Turin Horse ignores its possibility outright. I think in some ways the former approach is both more affecting and sadder.

Even the score in The Turin Horse pales in comparison to Werckmeister; in Werckmeister, there’s a somberness and longing in composer Mihály Víg’s Badalamenti-meets-Philip Glass-style score that matches that of the characters. In The Turin Horse it leans too heavily on the Glass side, as repetitive as the characters’ existences, but not as powerful as their circumstances demand. This was an OK way for the world to end, but it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for as the final statement from a talent as singular and significant as Tarr.

Shocking Dark AKA Terminator 2 (1989) Dir. Bruno Mattei
Right, so after all that going on about how I was watching movies about life and death (and mostly death), I’m writing up a schlockfest I’ve been meaning to write about for a minute that just so happens to be, at least marginally, an apocalypse thriller. It’s so much more, though. The release of Shocking Dark from Severin Films was one of the biggest deals of 2018 for Blu-ray collectors and it’s hard to think of a curio coming out from any distributor that has matched it since. The 1989 Bruno Mattei-directed, Claudio Fragasso/Rossella Drudi-penned film owes it’s notoriety to the fact that it is a work of copyright infringement so brazen that it had never gotten a release outside of continental Europe until Severin put it out. Its original release title, Terminator 2, and the accompanying cover/poster artwork, may give you a hint as to the nature of the grift at play that kept it confined to Europe, but this film’s disregard for trademarks is more than just skin deep.

In the movie, an algal bloom or toxic cloud of some sort has rendered the Venice of the then-future early-’00s a toxic wasteland. A scientist and maybe some other people have disappeared into the catacombs built underneath the city – apparently to expunge the pollution. The surveillance cameras in the tunnels have stopped working. This leaves the Megaforce Marines, a military team dressed like dollar store action figures, to go on a search and rescue mission accompanied by Sam Fuller of the shadowy Tubular Corporation who just sort of shows up, and Dr. Sara Drumbull, a doctor of something from somewhere. Frequent Bruno Mattei leading lady and Demons star Geretta Geretta plays Koster, who distinguishes herself as the only member of the Marines with a consistent personality throughout the duration of her appearance. She plays it big. Like, R. Lee Ermey big – berating and trading racial barbs with her Italian cohort, going as far as to ask – in one particularly inspired bit of dialogue down in the sewer-like catacombs – what his countrymen eat to “make their shit smell so bad.” (To once again quote Gunnar Björnstrand, “pretty strong stuff, isn’t it?”)

The smell of those catacombs is no human excreta, though. It is the stinky rubber monsters that are eating people, or wrapping them up in spiderwebs, or possibly turning them into other monsters – as is explained in one clunky line of kinda-sorta scientific dialogue – sandwiched in between interminable scenes of walking. Amid a monster attack here and there, the Marines end up finding the lost scientist’s daughter. Her face is affixed in sort of a pained contortion of fear, she whines constantly in an accent of indeterminate origin. She clutches Dr. Trumbull for safety and repeats her name every time anything threatening happens. So much so that if you watched this movie intending to drink every time a character said the name “Sara,” you would die of alcohol poisoning within a matter a minutes. At some point along the way we discover that Sam Fuller from the Tubular Corporation is actually an android, and the Tubular Corporation is, in fact, the samesuch corporate entity that destroyed the environment in the first place, intentionally, as part of an unnecessarily convoluted real estate scam.

The kicker, though, is an introduction of a conveniently and inexplicably-placed time travel pod left by The Tubular Corporation, allowing Dr. Trumbull and her Sara-screaming sidekick to return to the pre-enviropocalyptic past. They warp back and are followed by android Sam Fuller, who lands in c. 2000 AD and stomps on a remote controlled car in a shout-out to the officially licensed Terminator. He then has half of his face blown off, to mimic the look of the officially licensed Terminator as much as one could possibly manage with no budget, barely any time, and a limited amount of skill. Just as the action leading up to it is basicaly a knockoff of Alien made within the same parameters. Which I think is the beauty of an artifact like this.

I remember seeing an interview about 10 years ago with Luigi Montefiori AKA George Eastman, star of Anthropophagus and a few million other Italian genre films. He said that the Italian sci-fi movies of the era, unlike the horror movies, never really developed their own style because they were always knock-offs of U.S. movies. The more I see of these the more inaccurate that strikes me. This movie, Rats, and 2019, After the Fall of New York, are all way more similar to each other than they are to the contemporaneous U.S. science fiction films they intended to knock off. Watching these movies is almost like seeing the profitable elements of U.S. genre films filtered through a Five Obstructions-esque series of constraints. Concerns over intellectual property rights, of course, not being one of them — quite the opposite. It wasn’t a matter of needing to be original, but finding an original way to be unoriginal.

Which is why this movie got me thinking what’s so exciting about seeing unauthorized, international takes on familiar properties like this. When something like this gets rediscovered it’s always a surefire hit, take for example the wave of interest in Turkish Star Wars probably about 15 years ago. It doesn’t even have to be fully bootleg. Even in cases where a contract was actually brokered, like with the Japanese TV series that casts Spider-Man as an alien who operates a giant Voltron-style kaiju robot (has that gotten a proper stateside release yet?) there’s a sort of surreal sense of disbelief seeing such familiar characters used in weird, unfamiliar ways. The same reason we’re drawn to bootleg action figures and knock-off Simpsons gear. It’s endlessly fascinating to see the way people can get things kind of right while getting them completely wrong.

In a strange way, though, I think the impact of a movie like Shocking Dark has been blunted by the current technological moment. Advances in home digital filmmaking let basically anyone do their own lo-fi takes or mashups on whatever licensed property they please. My first time through Shocking Dark, I kept trying to think of it as I would have had I come across it 20 years ago. I couldn’t quite be as flabbergasted as I wanted to. Today, I can visit Vimeo and watch a pretty dead-on fan-fic “remake” of Robocop where the scene in which Robocop saves a woman by shooting her assailant in the crotch expands, or degenerates, into three minutes of Robocop shooting off the dicks of an advancing army of hoodlums. We see less labor-intensive labors of love like this all the time; Force Ghosts of pro-wrestlers cut into Star Wars and whatnot. The only recent thing I can think of that sets off my brain’s disbelief centers anymore is the re-shot Return of the Jedi ending featuring the real-life David Prowse under the Darth Vader mask, discussed in the documentary I Am Your Father, which is presumably hidden in an underground bunker to prevent Lucasfilm/Disney from eradicating it. Nothing else seems quite as shocking, and so Shocking Dark doesn’t watch quite like it would have.

It’s still pretty wild, though. A film that was so sketchy its release had to be constrained to a continent where the film’s language wasn’t primarily spoken isn’t something you encounter every day. Severin did its usual great job of enhancing the Blu-Ray experience with add-on swag, in the form of a limited edition slipcase baring the bootleg Terminator 2 graphics from the original release. At the time the time the Blu-Ray came out, the story was that they would continue to sell until a studio hit them with a C&D. I don’t think it happened as movie studios, litigious as they remain, are probably a little too hip to the Streisand Effect to get goaded into sending a nastygram to a boutique indie outfit. It was a cool stunt though. The disc looks cool on the shelf, and if I ever have guests over — which is a rarity these days — I hope that they’ll be so distracted trying to figure out what the hell it is that they won’t even notice the more tasteless fare that I keep around, like my copy of The Sinful Dwarf, sitting nearby it.

More interesting though are the special features — essential viewing for a movie like this as, if you’ve taken the time to watch it, you’ll doubtlessly want some context for what the hell could have possibly been going on when it was made.

I personally find Claudio Fragasso’s takes on the films he wrote/directed in the era to be fascinating in general. His own rather ambivalent if not slightly tortured relationship with these movies gives a view into the contorted relationship between creativity and commerce, something I’ll get into more if I ever review Zombie 4: After Death. In the Shocking Dark interview with him and Drudi we get, expectedly, kind of a rundown of who knew what and how much when this hot slice of willful deception was being cooked up. Most of the responsibility for the borrowed Terminator is placed firmly in the lap of a duplicitous distributor. But at the very least Bruno Mattei had to know, right, because he was shooting a movie with a Terminator in it and he had to know that he, Bruno Mattei, wasn’t James Cameron? And while Fragasso claims that this one was the first and last flick he ever worked on with such disregard for if not the law in general, at least copyright law, didn’t Severin more recently put out The Night Killer, a Nightmare on Elm Street rip sold in Europe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3? It’s all so weird and confusing and I love it all. I wish I knew how much more of this stuff was actually floating around out there.

The Geretta Geretta interview is likewise fascinating; in detailing her experience making this and other genre movies in Italy, she confirms that there was a lot of heart that went into them. It was a bunch of ex-pat actors doing the hell out of it because they thought any movie they were working on might be the one that broke big — and as outrageous as the final product may have been, I think that’s inspiring.

Going back to the strange, confusing experience of seeing something like this back before the Internet demystified everything, I can’t help but think that somewhere in the U.S., maybe in like Iowa, there must have been a foreign exchange student who showed up at some middle school in 1989, with a story of having seen an as-yet non-existent Terminator 2 with all sorts of weird plot details. For this, s/he was mocked mercilessly. It had to have happened at least once, right? Consider yourself vindicated, kid — who or wherever you are.

Next up …
If you’ve read this far, you’ll be interested to know I’ve got a review of one of my favorite (and now, on re-watch, favoriter) Tarkovsky films in the works, as well as my very favorite George Romero movie. And maybe some others, though honestly I might have to shift gears on my movie viewing to light comedies because I am afraid too much of the type of thing I usually watch is starting to make me flip out.

Anyway, if you dig this, follow me on Facebook or leave some love in the comments and maybe I’ll do these more often. Fiction should be coming out one of these days too … I think. Take care and stay safe.
-M.