I was hoping to post a Watching/Reading Log at the end of every month, but April got the better of me. Still, better late than never. Thanks to my current Polytechnic course I managed to track down some new books by old authors and old books by new authors, whilst my Eighties Fantasy Film column on Helen Lowe's blog continues.
There was also a trip to the Court Theatre to see a lecture on ghosts that spirals out of control, and to the movies for that superhero vs superhero showdown. You know, the one nobody is talking about except to compare it unfavourably to the most recent superhero vs superhero showdown movie.
And in between all this, I took a trip down memory lane and played some games from my childhood – complete with EGA graphics. Those were the days...
The Dunstan Creek Séance
Buying tickets for this show at the local Court Theatre was a very impetuous move on my part, and I didn't let myself overthink what I was in store for when I booked online. The idea of a period ghost story had my name written all over it, but sometimes I've been known to get a little too caught up in the moment when watching scary stuff. The last thing I wanted was to embarrass myself in front of a live audience by screaming my head off.
Luckily I found the strength to keep myself in check, and it was everyone else who nervously laughed their way through the proceedings. The show has only two actors: Lizzie Tollemache and David Ladderman, who play occultists Suzanne and Arthur Bishop. Their performance begins as a lecture, with the couple giving a presentation on ghostly activity in Otago during the gold rush, complete with old-timey slides.
But then the slide-machine starts malfunctioning, depicting images of a pocket watch and music box that the two find highly disconcerting for some reason. Maybe it's got something to do with their last investigation, which they seem reluctant to talk about, especially when lights start flickering and objects begin moving of their own accord.
Eventually the couple transition into playing characters from the past: not only the tragic owners of the pocket watch and music box, but the people who are subsequently haunted by their spirits. It's a little unclear what's actually happening here: are Suzanne and Arthur channelling old ghosts, or are the vignettes meant to be glimpses back into the past? In any case, it all comes to a head when Suzanne decides to settle matters once and for all by conducting a séance.
With a couple of volunteers from the audience, they go right ahead and summon the restless spirits of colonial New Zealand. Creepy footsteps, flashing lights, unexpected bangs – I'm sure you can imagine how it all went down, though the biggest scares derived from the subtle, unexpected stuff. Like when a vase on a tabletop suddenly topples over in the middle of a conversation, or the pocket watch begins swinging by its own volition from a shelf.
It was great fun, especially with an audience that was ready and willing to get scared. They went the whole nine yards when it came to warning people with heart conditions to please leave the theatre (nobody did) and the performers did a great job shifting between the eccentric occultists and the 18th century colonials.
Railhead by Philip Reeve
I love Philip Reeve's work, ever since I got caught up in The Hungry Cities quartet and their subsequent prequels. He has a real gift for world-building; specifically in coming up with what sound like absurd concepts which are written with such elegance and imaginative force that they're rendered completely believable – though at the same time they never lose their fairy tale edge.
In this case it's trains that provide the backdrop for his story; to be more specific, interstellar trains that take their passengers though K-gates that connect one planet to another. Naturally this is thousands of years into the future, after which artificial intelligence has become several god-like entities and constructed the train system for the wellbeing of humanity (surprisingly, this isn't a story where the computers take over).
Reeve also seems to be interested in exploring the mutability of identity, with the inclusion of Hive Monks (insects that swarm together to form a single intelligence) and Guardians (artificial personalities that downloads themselves into various vessels) to depict different ways in which self-awareness can manifest.
Our main character is Zen Starling, who is commissioned by a mysterious man to steal something aboard one of the trains belonging to a powerful Corporate Family. It's a pretty fun heist story, though I'll admit I was more interested in Reeve's world-building than his plot – which made for a strange reading experience, as though I was constantly trying to peer around the protagonist in order to appreciate his surroundings.
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
I'm always down for a dark and twisted fairy tale, and Cuckoo Song finds a perfect hook: a changeling tale told from the point-of-view of the changeling – who doesn't initially know she's a changeling (that's not much of a spoiler as it's apparent to a discerning reader from the first chapter).
Set in the 1920s, the story starts with a little girl called Triss waking up after an accident with only a vague idea of what's happened to her. All she knows is that she's got overprotective parents, an insatiable appetite, and a little sister who seems terrified of her. Gradually she tries to put the pieces of her memory back together, all while increasingly unexplainable phenomena occurs in the house around her.
It's fundamentally a supernatural mystery, but one that captures the darkness and creepiness of Faerie, as well as the frayed dynamics of a broken family. Frances Hardinge writes beautifully, with content that's reminiscent of Holly Black, Catherynne Valente, Patricia McKillip and all those other modern fairy tale authors. This is the first book I've read from her, and I was very excited to see that this is far from being her first publication. I've a lot of reading to catch up on!
The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)
I guess I've been missing Black Sails because over these past few weeks I've revisited the game that helped define my childhood. Guybrush Threepwood wants to become a pirate, but just as he completes the three trials to prove himself worthy of the profession, he learns that the beautiful Governor Elaine Marley has been kidnapped by the ghost pirate LeChuck.
Having fallen in love with her over the course of his adventures, Guybrush decides to hire a crew, charter a ship, and sail off to Monkey Island in order to rescue her!
I really can't understate how influential this game was to me growing up, and playing it again as an adult was such a nostalgic experience that I got a little weepy at times. Most people remember it for how funny it is (and it's very, very funny) but for me its strength is the atmosphere. Gameplay occurs on two different islands: Mêlée Island at night and Monkey Island during the day, with each location soaked in mystery and intrigue.
Mêlée Island in particular is at the top of my list for "fictional places I'd most like to explore". Minus all the murderous pirates, it's a beautifully rendered setting: the night time harbour and township, the dark forest alight with fireflies, the governor's stately mansion...
It's also aged incredibly well in regards to its story, and many of the jokes that flew over my head as a kid are newly hilarious. For example, when Guybrush finally reaches Monkey Island, he's forever picking up memos that the LeChuck, Herman Toothrot, and the island's native tribe are leaving for each other all over the place. I never really understood them at the time, but now the thought of a ghost pirate, a marooned hermit and a bunch of cannibals testily communicating with each other via passive-aggressive notes cracks me up.
Perhaps one of the best things about the character of Guybrush is that you actually get a chance to shape his personality. Depending on what choices you make in the dialog trees, you can play him as an earnest young naïf or an utter smartass in nearly every single interaction he has. It doesn't make a huge difference to the way the story unfolds, but it does give you a sense of agency in the way Guybrush engages with supporting characters.
And as for those supporting characters... they're brilliant. Who could forget Stan or Otis or Meathook or Captain Smirk? But most of all there's Elaine Marley, the powerful governor of Mêlée Island who subverts the Distressed Damsel trope in the funniest way possible, and the wonderful, brilliant, perfect surprise waiting for you when Guybrush finally meets the legendary Sword Master.
I played the game in VGA graphics, but honestly I prefer the original EGA version from when I was a kid. No, the visuals aren't as nuanced and the colours not as varied, but there's an opaqueness and mysteriousness to them that's lost with too much detail. One thing remains the same however: the Monkey Island theme music. Just listen – it still gives me chills:
Conquest for Camelot (1989)
There's a good chance my love of Arthurian legend started with this game. Of course, some things are instilled in us from such an early age that it's impossible to remember a time when we didn't know of them, but on replaying this game (having finished The Secret ofMonkey Island, I was still wrapped up in the need to revisit games from my childhood) I began to realize that this may have been my first introduction to King Arthur. Or if not the first, then at least one of the earliest.
Basically, you play as King Arthur. Camelot is falling to disease and pestilence, and so three of Arthur's best knights ride out to find the Holy Grail and restore the land to health. They are Gawaine, Lancelot and Galahad, but none of them ever return. Guided by Merlin (who provides the rather sardonic narration) it's up to Arthur to save all three of them and retrieve the Grail.
The thing I loved about this game was the sheer amount of detail and research that went into it. Designer Christie Marx clearly did her homework on Arthurian legends, for though there are a few strange omissions (no Morgan le Fay) you can ask about nearly anything and get information on it, even if it's got nothing to do with gameplay. At other times there are background characters that simply exist to set the scene, like the girl at Siloam's Fountain that takes fright at Arthur's arrival and rushes away without a word.
There's also a real sense of mystery at work – one sequence that always haunted me as a kid was when you transform a withered old hag back into a beautiful maiden by returning her silk sleeve. She rushes off to find her love – a knight two screens back who has long since died and rotted into a skeleton. What happens to her then? We never find out.
Oh, and here's a fun fact. The designer of this game is the same woman who created Jem and the Holograms. So I not only owe her my interest in Arthurian legend, but fond memories of the most quintessentially Eighties cartoon of all time.
Return to Oz (1986)
How to scare the shit out of your child in one easy step: let them watch this movie. I mean, my God. You hear old-timey stories about how your grandparents were allowed to run around without supervision in the days before child predators and fatal traffic accidents, but this movie was released just over thirty years ago! This was my generation being exposed to some of the most intense fantasy horror that wouldn't be seen again until Guillermo del Toro hit Hollywood. Sorceresses who steal heads, madmen with wheels for hands/feet, stone kings that force little girls into elaborate mind games with life-or-death stakes... yeesh.
Despite the title, it's best not to think of this as a sequel to the MGM musical, but rather an adaptation of L. Frank Baum's later books in the Oz series (of which there were many). Specifically The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz have been combined to shape this film's storyline, and though it keeps a couple of elements from the famous musical (namely the ruby slippers as opposed to the silver ones in Baum's books) things like Dorothy's age, Toto's breed and the character designs for the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion demonstrate that it's set in a different continuity.
But underneath all the darkness and creepiness is an interesting message of duality and reconciliation, specifically in the relationship between Dorothy and Ozma. In another trait carried over from the MGM film, several actors play double-duty in both the real world and Oz – for instance, the doctor and matron at the medical clinic at the beginning of the film are also the Nome King and Princess Mombi that Dorothy later faces in Oz. It also keeps up the MGM film's original idea of Maybe Magic Maybe Mundane when it comes to the existence of Oz, whereas Baum's books were very clear as to the place's reality.
But Dorothy escapes the clinic in the first place with the help of a mysterious young girl, one who is later identified as Ozma – though it remains unclear how she was able to visit Dorothy in the real world. There are all sorts of interesting connections between the two of them: that Ozma appears as Dorothy's reflection, that Jack Pumpkinhead refers to each girl as "mom", that Dorothy wishes she could be "in both places at once" just before Ozma reappears to reclaim the Emerald City – it's so pronounced that you could make the argument that one is the mental projection of the other, and that the conclusion of the film involves Dorothy reconciling the two halves of herself, compartmentalizing her desire for Oz with her need to stop insisting that her imaginary (?) world is real.
Pretty hefty stuff for a kid's movie!
Gremlins holds a strange place in pop culture history; never quite attaining cult status and yet containing a premise that everyone knows about. Despite never seeing it as a child, I still knew the gist of the story and its hook: a boy gets a strange new pet that comes with three crucial instructions: he must keep it out of bright light, prevent it from getting wet, and never feed it after midnight. Naturally these rules get broken, leading to the birth of the titular gremlins and the havoc they wreak over the protagonist's small town.
It's a pretty solid basis for a film, and one that's been parodied a number of times (just off the top of my head, I know The Powerpuff Girls did a riff) and yet in many ways the film itself is entirely forgettable. Outside the nearly-but-not-quite iconic puppets used for Gizmo and the gremlins, there's not a single memorable character. I can't even remember the protagonist's name. Billy, I think? It's his father who brings home Gizmo (or "the mogwai") from China Town, only for everyone to respond to the sight of a brand new species with a casual: "oh look, that's nice."
There are so many other strange creative decisions: like how a bunch of people from the town are introduced in the film's first act, played by actors such as Judge Reinhold and Corey Feldman. You'd think they'd have a fairly significant part to play once the gremlins start causing mayhem, right? Er – no. They just disappear entirely.
Then there's Phoebe Cates is in the love interest role, and her character's defining trait is that she hates Christmas. Why? Because her father disappeared on Christmas Eve and the police found him a week later dead in the chimney after he attempted to slide down and surprise his family by impersonating Santa Claus. She shares this with Billy near the end of the film, in a monologue that comes completely out of left field and is never mentioned again afterwards. It's just... bizarre.
Look, maybe I just don't get this movie. I know it's a horror/comedy, but the two genres just don't seem to mesh well here; almost as though the horror flattens the comedy and the comedy over-alleviates the horror. Mostly though, I think it's just a badly constructed film – too many Chekhov's Guns that don't get fired, too many odd scenes that don't really fit into the context of the story. Sorry fellow Eighties kids.
Crimson Peak (2015)
I reviewed this movie after I first saw it at the theatre, so I'll keep this brief. Watching it again at home, I picked up a few more details that flew right past me first time, most significantly that Enola's baby was actually Lucille's baby, born of incest and so not long-lived. I don't know how I missed that, especially since Lucille explicitly tells Edith that Enola promises to try and save the infant, only for it to die anyway.
I also realized that Lucille ends up killing Edith's dog (she kneels down and you can hear it whimpering just before Thomas stabs Alan) when I was initially under the impression that it just went missing – much like the house servants.
I also kept my eyes on the butterfly motif, and there were a LOT more than I first realized. They seem to symbolize freedom in two ways: the freedom that comes with death (the dying butterflies that Lucille points out to Edith; the blue butterfly pinned to the wall behind Thomas when he finally asserts himself) and the freedom of transformation (the butterflies in the hallway when Edith discovers Thomas/Lucille; the butterflies embossed on the book that is ultimately revealed as being written by Edith herself).
In short, it held up well after a second viewing, though I think the cards were shown way too soon in regards to Thomas and Lucille's villainy. Something like that should be left to stew a little in the audience's minds, not immediately revealed in a small aside. (Coincidentally enough, I watched Star Wars:The Force Awakens last weekend, and they make the same mistake in the way Kylo's parentage is revealed).
Batman versus Superman (2016)
Yes, I watched this movie. No, I didn't hate it. It's hard to really elaborate on that; suffice to say that although I completely recognize and understand the problems people had with this film, I'm not really invested enough in these characters or their universe to muster up too much outrage. Everyone has their passions in life, and movies based on comic books has never been one of mine.
So I was able to just sit back and enjoy it, and believe it or not: I did. Of course, Synder's commitment to being as dark and gritty as possible gets absurd at times. Perhaps my favourite example of this is when Clark Kent goes on walkabouts and has a vision (dream? visitation?) from the dead Pa Kent who tells him about the time he and his father successfully redirected floodwaters, only to end up drowning the horses of their neighbour's farm.
Stop everything folks, we have reached peak nihilism. It's so far gone it's flat-out funny.
But Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman was a ray of light amidst all the doom and gloom, capturing both her joy in battle and her compassion in the wake of Superman's death. It was a great introduction to her character, and I'm looking forward to her solo film. (That theme music!)