Sunday, October 30, 2011

Monster Movies to Check Out

I was going to make a Halloween blog post about the scariest movies I've seen, but all my favorite blogs have already done that. Besides, I haven't seen many classic slasher movies, so I might not be the best person to list scary movies. Instead, here are what I consider personal favorite interpretations of movie monsters. Some are scary, some are funny, some are just plain bizarre- maybe you'll find something among them!


The fashions may not have aged well, but The Lost Boys is still one of my all-time favorite movies. Love the vampires (nasty and stylish,) love the slayers (tiny and nerdy,) love the music (especially the main theme.) I've seen this movie too many times for it to still scare me, but I did my share of screaming the first time around, and it's fun and witty enough to keep me coming back every time.


This movie isn't for everyone- it's more art house than proper horror, and the feminist fairy tale motif is layered on pretty thick. If that doesn't scare you off, though, track down a copy of this Red Riding Hood update, and enjoy a sensual, surreal nightmare of a movie. It's based on the work of Angela Carter (a writer I love,) and boasts the only werewolf transformation sequence to really send chills down my spine.

The Frankenstein Monster

The original Karloff movies are great, and I even like the Kenneth Branagh version, but Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks made what must be, in spirit, the truest movie to the original novel. The monster is lonely and frightened and desperate for love, and in this generation, he finally gets a Frankenstein who won't abandon him. It plays fair with monster movie tropes, and despite being a parody, it really feels like it could have been part of the Universal Studios Frankenstein series. And lest I forget, it's really, really funny.


Oh man, does this movie do a number on me. Guilliermo del Toro knows how to do beautiful, insidiously creepy ghost stories, terrifying me with nothing more than a child's laugh. The Orphanage also features surprisingly reasonable protagonists for a horror movie (my boyfriend and I cheered when the heroine actually- gasp!- called the police after finding evidence of foul play buried in the house.)


When filmmakers try to make "romantic" Dracula adaptations, what they're actually doing is remaking this. An ancient monster rises from the grave to seek his reincarnated love, but in a welcome change of pace, she objects- she has a new life now, and he has no right to take it from her. The movie is sadly lacking in actual mummy action, but the first scene still stands as one of the all-time classic monster movie moments.


Are they communists? Are they McCarthyists? Does it matter? Either way, the town of Santa Mira is being invaded by conformist aliens, and the increasingly futile struggle to escape is scary no matter what your political bent. They don't eat you or kidnap you, they just copy you and take away your personality- and sometimes, that's all aliens need to do to be frightening.


I'm technically cheating here (the violent, mindless hordes in Pontypool aren't reanimated dead,) but I wanted to be able to plug this movie. I'm not usually a fan of zombie movies in general, but Pontypool takes the concept and twists it into something terrifyingly original. The very words we speak begin to get caught in our throats and drive us mad, and only a tiny Canadian radio station is safe- but for how long?

Bonus: Grab Bag

Silly, bloody and self-aware, this anthology film depicts the monsters faced in a small town on Halloween night. We've got ghosts, werewolves, pseudo-vampires, serial killers, and an adorably creepy child who might just be the spirit of ancient Samhain. If you can't make your mind up which monster you want to see the Halloween, put on this cult comedy-slasher and get 'em all in one package.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sci-Fi with a Conscience?

What obligations does science fiction have?

This question occurred to me because of The Steampunk Bible. One of the essays contained therein was "Blowing Off Steam" by Catherynne M. Valente, and in it, she argued that a work must accurately portray the horrors of the Victorian era (unsafe factory conditions, terrifying societal change spurred on by technology) in order to be truly steampunk. "If you want Victoria in your coat pocket," she writes, "if you want the world that comes with her, all that possibility, all that terrible, arrogant, gorgeous technology, take it all, make it true, be honest and ruthless with it, or you're just gluing gears to your fingers and telling everyone you're a choo-choo train."

You can agree with her or not, but her objections to much of modern steampunk raise an important question. Steampunk might not exist without steam and children slaving away in dangerous factories, but by the same token, cyberpunk might not exist without futuristic sweatshops where people are paid pennies a day to make bionic implants. Pseudo-medieval fantasy can't exist without peasants and the feudal system. As we've known ever since Fritz Lang filmed Metropolis, Utopian societies generally require someone living in non-Utopian conditions to make them happen.

Is a writer of the fantastic under any obligation to portray this?

I've always disliked the idea that a writer "has" to write with a moral in mind- or that a writer "has" to do anything, for that matter. I don't think it's wrong to read or write escapist fiction, and to not want to be bothered by grim and dirty realities. I've also seen grittiness taken too far; one of my biggest problems with the Warhammer 40k universe is that the evils of all the factions are so exaggerated that it becomes hard for me to care about anyone winning at all. And I think we've all read enough preachy science fiction, or at least seen a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, to know how painful it can be trying to enjoy something that wants to lecture first, entertain second.

However, this doesn't mean I entirely disagree with the notion of sci-fi having a conscience. Harshly put as it was, Ms. Valente's point still stands; we can't fully appreciate the glamour of a setting unless we get a little bit of the grit. Any setting, whether historical or imaginary, can have the capacity for both horror and beauty, and the two often go hand in hand.

I don't think fiction has any obligations, but I do think that fiction is better when it is informed by the context in which it takes place. When the author knows what problems their characters will face in their day to day lives, and what problems go unseen by them on a regular basis, that provides for a much richer text. Discworld wouldn't be half as fun if the city of Ankh-Morpork wasn't a filthy mixture of medieval, Victorian, and modern urban blight, and the anachronistic blast that is Samurai Champloo wouldn't be as interesting to watch if one of the protagonists being an illiterate peasant never became an issue.

In short, I don't think you have to zero in on a society's problems in order to write a good story. But if you want to portray a rich and enveloping universe, you need to be aware that they exist.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steampunk Ramblings

Another confession: I'm the sort of girl who wears bustle skirts and corsets in her everyday life- and judging from the internet, I'm not alone. Whether your interest is in neo-Victorian attire, old-fashioned pulp magazines, or retro-futuristic architecture, looking back to the past has become a popular "nerd" source of inspiration. Think of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and put the stress on the last word; most young nerds/hipsters/goths/whatever you want to call us are often less interested in faithful recreation than in taking bygone aesthetics and incorporating them into modern contexts. Perhaps the most famous form of this is the "steampunk" genre- a style of dress, literature, music and film that imagines a world somewhere between yesteryear and the distant future.

To be less cryptic, "steampunk" is a subset of science fiction that imagines a Victorian era with futuristic technology (or sometimes a futuristic era with Victorian aesthetics and social conventions.) It was an offshoot of cyberpunk, a genre familiar to those who have read Snow Crash or watched The Matrix, but replaced the emphasis on computer power with an emphasis on steam power- a sky full of airships, coal-powered death rays, and brass goggles everywhere. The "punk" part of the name is somewhat misleading; it's a holdover from cyberpunk, rather than an indication that steampunk is about rebellion or grittiness (though it certainly can be.)

There are pitfalls of the genre, just as there are things about it I love. One of the most parodied aspects is a tendency to smother everything in gears, and it's never good when the story (or music, or gaming experience) takes second place to marveling at how cool the setting is. It has cliches and stereotypes, and outfits can be a real hassle to assemble, especially if you're no good at sewing.

Despite these problems, the steampunk genre holds a special place in my heart. I'm more glad than I can say that I live in an era of modern medicine and women's suffrage, but as an admitted romanticist, I can't help being drawn to a world of elegance and adventure, even one that never truly was. Looking to the past during visions of the future is more than understandable- it can be beautiful, creative, and lots of fun.

Interested? Try these...

Comics: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Honestly, I never liked this as much as I wanted to- I just couldn't stand what I felt it did to some of my favorite Victorian characters. But if you're more flexible regarding literature than I am, check out this much-loved spy thriller/dark adventure series, where secret agents from classic novels do battle to protect London from mad scientists, aliens, and more.

Novels: The Difference Engine pretty much started it all off, and The Diamond Age is a fun blurring of the boundaries between steampunk and cyberpunk. You can also go for romance novels with Soulless, and the other books in the Parasol Protectorate series.

Television: You can't talk about steampunk without mentioning Wild Wild West, where gentleman spies keep America safe with clever gadgets and dashing heroics. The campy film version bears almost no resemblance to the original, but is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Films: Disney's Treasure Planet goes the "future world with Victorian fashions" route, in an update of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. You can also check out Back to the Future Part III- where else will you find a flying, time traveling train that runs on steam power?

Music: Rasputina, one of my favorite bands, uses electric cellos to make nearly unclassifiable rock songs with Victorian overtones. For a list of similar music, check out the Sepiachord website.

Roleplaying Games: If you liked Wild Wild West, give Deadlands a try- the dead are rising and sleeping monsters are awakening in the old west, and you're just a bunch of cowboys and scientists armed with gatling guns powered by the souls of the damned. If you prefer a European flavor to your steam, try Castle Falkenstein or Baron Munchausen; the former casts you as a Burroughs-esq pulp hero, and the latter...well, who the hell knows what the latter will cast you as.

Fashion: Gentlemen's Emporium is one of the best places on the web to get frock coats and frilly dresses, should you so choose. Clockwork Couture is a little inconsistent with their stock, but when they have good stuff, it's always beautiful.

Got any more recommendation? Feel I've completely misrepresented the genre? Let me know in the comments!