Category Archives: Memes

Horror, Suspense, and Sloppiness

I haven’t succumbed to memery in quite a while, but there’s one going around Facebook right now that gives me some excellent blog fodder, so here we go. This latest invites us to, in honor of impending Halloween, to name our 10 favorite horror movies.

When I was first tagged I thought, I can’t do this. I don’t like Horror movies.

See, what I was thinking of was the modern horror movie. What Roger Ebert calls the “Dead Teenager Movie”. You know the formula: a handful of horny teenagers go someplace that Appears Safe But Isn’t, and after enough sex and substance abuse to get a preliminary R rating for the film, proceeded to get hacked into chutney, in spite of the fact that they are armed with flashlights, curtain rods, and butter knives.

But then I started to rethink this. Dead Teenager Movies aren’t really scary. They’re stupid. True, they might all have at least one “jump moment”, but let’s face it – it’s easy to scare somebody, startle them, make them jump. Just ask Stephen King, who has made a career of being a mediocre writer with a talent for making people jump (and if he can’t do that, by his own admission, he will go for the gross-out – which is even easier).

And there’s another problem with horror. When you rely on jump moments and the gross out, I think it is easy to get lazy – or perhaps formulaic is the word I’m looking for – with what you are doing. I learned back in the early Eighties that if you had a great ending, people would forgive any literary screw ups you committed in the bulk of the work in question. Say what I will about King – he generally delivers satisfying endings,1 which is really what it’s all about to keep people coming back to that brand.2 As Mickey Spillaine said, “The first sentence sells the book. The last sentence sells the next book.”

What is harder is to make people sit on the edge of their chairs in suspense. THAT is what I like. That is also what I like to do to my readers – on chair’s edge, up all night reading, making them late for work because they are so busy turning pages. I have had a couple of readers tease me about being late for work because they were reading one of my books and kept saying, “Okay, one more chapter” – and then discovering that the end of the chapter left more ends dangling, prompting the reading of the next chapter… and the next… and the next. Let me tell you, of all the different kinds of praise I have received, that is the most satisfying. It means I have done my job as a novelist.

So suspense is where it’s at. But keep in mind a couple of things. First, it’s harder than it looks. While you can be sloppy with outright horror and a tacked-on good ending, good suspense is a well-tuned, ticking clock. You really have to push your writing and plotting abilities to keep things in rhythm. Second, suspense doesn’t necessarily mean that you are writing a horror or crime novel. Note that praise I received – it was for my modest Sci-Fi offerings, with nary a creepy crawly to be seen. In theory a Nicholas Sparks book can be a real page-turner if properly paced, but I have yet to hear that bit of praise associated with one of his books.3

It is with that in mind that I approached my list of favorite horror suspense movies. What keeps me on the edge of my seat? What gives me a satisfying ending? What can I watch over and over again and not get tired of? Some have creepy crawlies, while in others the creepy crawlies are inside of us.4 Watch and learn.

28 Days Later
Alien
Aliens
The Exorcist
Halloween
Jaws
Psycho
Rear Window
Scanners
The Silence of the Lambs
Sisters
Zodiac

Note: In keeping with the suspense theme, I almost put To Live and Die in L.A. on this list, even though there are no horrific elements in it. But it is a brilliant, edge-of-the-seat thriller as a pre-CSI William Peterson gets in way too deep in pursuit of the counterfeiter who murdered his partner. There’s not a bit of horror in it, but there’s incredible suspense as you wonder how in the world Peterson will come out of it all unscathed.

  1. Note here that I said “great” ending and “satisfying” ending, not “happy” ending. It is possible to have a story end badly for the main character and still have it be satisfying. Q.V. the film Blow, in which drug dealer George Jung loses everything, including the love of his daughter, and ends up in prison, a burned out shell of a man. Happy? No. Satisfying? Very.
  2. Yes, I said brand and not author. We’re in this business to sell books, right? And what is our name, but a brand? You know what to expect when you buy Coca Cola. Ditto Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Nicholas Sparks…
  3. I should note here that I have not read any of Mr. Sparks’ books, and therefore cannot attest to whether any of them are indeed page turners. Of course, he is delivering a decidedly different kind of reading experience. Sparks fans, please make your own assessment.
  4. Which is a whole other literary proposition. Subject for a future entry.

O Christmas Meme, O Christmas Meme!

I’ve been incommunicado for a while. My wife and I have been caring for my mother in various venues that started with her apartment, then moved into our house for three years, and when the level of care she needed became beyond our abilities, into a nursing home last March. She had her ups and downs, with the downs becoming more frequent and lasting longer. It broke my heart when her absentee ballot came in October and she wasn’t lucid enough to understand how to make the choices. I could have filled it out, knowing how she would vote, but with votes being fabricated throughout the state I live in, I just couldn’t in good conscience do it. She took a turn for the worse in November and finally passed away the Friday before Thanksgiving. It’s a bittersweet thing. I’m going to miss her, but she’s with God now, and she’s better than she ever has been. As I said at her memorial service, if they have crocheting in heaven, right now she’s making a scarf of many colors for Joseph – to go with his coat.

In light of all that’s happened this year, it now falls upon me to try and deal with this seasonal thing they call Christmas Spirit. That’s always been a hard sell for me – my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, and I’m one of those Scrooges who thinks Christmas has become too commercial. But my wife loves Christmas, so I always try to make an effort.

So this year I’m working hard to jump start things. I’ve strung my traditional Stratocaster Christmas lights in my office, and I’ve started an intravenous infusion of Christmas music via iTunes and iPod in the hopes of perking myself up a bit. And I thought that this might be a good time to revive an Internet meme that I participated in a few years ago when I was blogging about writing. The thing is, I’m not going to go through 1,000 blog entries to find it, even if I know to just look in Decembers, so I’m going to attempt to do it by memory. And I thought of a couple of other things I could add along the way.

Thus, in my attempt to further pump up my Christmas spirit, here is the recreated Christmas Meme – a simple list with one answer each… except you know me. My life and tastes are more complicated than one simple answer…

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS SONG
Like I said, never easy. So I broke it down:
Religious – Silent Night
Secular – One Christmas Catalogue by Captain Sensible
With swearing in it – Fairytale of New York by The Pogues

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS ALBUM
Traditional – A Charlie Brown Christmas
Non-Traditional – The Jethro Tull Christmas Album

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS ARTIST
Harry Connick, Jr. The guy gets Christmas, and his three Christmas albums are all wonderful, mixing traditional with jazzy arrangements. He writes original Christmas songs, too, and they’re terrific – especially (It Must Have Been Ol’) Santa Claus.

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS MOVIE
Another tough choice. Since again I can’t seem to pick one, here’s the short list:
The Polar Express – The spirit of Christmas, and the best vision of what Santa’s North Pole is like.
A Christmas Story – It’s 2008, but as long as there are families, this is what Christmas is really like.
Love, Actually – For Grown-ups. Because at Christmas, you tell the truth.
White Christmas – Great fun like A Christmas Story, and I love the overall theme of sacrifice to a friend.

FAVORITE PORTRAYAL OF SCROOGE
George C. Scott

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS TV SPECIAL
The Rankin-Bass version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, home of the line, “Hey, we can be independent together!”

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS TV EPISODE
Christmas episodes of established series are baaaaad news. More often than not, they try to rehash A Christmas Carol, with not-so-good results because all of their characters step out of character to fit the story into the series. The exception to this was WKRP In Cincinnati, which put a modern spin on the Scrooge story, kept everyone in character within the Dickens universe, and was eerily prescient about what radio would be like in the 21st Century. Runner up: WKRP’s Thanksgiving episode: “I thought turkeys could fly!”

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS MEMORY
The loud, raucous Christmas Eves spent at the home of my wife’s maternal Grandmother.

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS GIFT RECEIVED
That was either The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, or the Spy Christmas. When I was in junior high and my favorite show was Mission: Impossible, my much-older brother sent me on a spy mission one Christmas eve, running all over his house finding my presents from him and his wife. And the gifts were all spy-related – like a kit with a camera that turned into a pistol, code wheels, etc.

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS GIFT GIVEN
I much more enjoy giving, and I’ve got a lot of memories of folks opening presents from me. The topper has to be my nephew when he was just a toddler. I got him a Tuneyville Choo Choo, a train that went in circles and played nursery rhymes on little geared records. He opened it first, and every other present he got that Christmas eve, he unceremoniously dropped and went right back to playing with that train. Cool uncle status sealed!

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS TRADITION
Apricot fried pies. From my dad’s mother to my mom to my wife. And now my children are learning how to make them…

Overheard

My daughter occasionally posts what she calls “Conversation Collages” on her blog or Facebook page. I’ve long thought that was neat, and thought that was something I’d like to do, but I don’t have her ear for statements which sound interesting when taken out of context.

I’m old school. I tend to pick up comments that sound interesting when taken in context of the moment. Although some of the things that catch my ear work pretty well out of context.

I’m not trying to copy my daughter here… but I did, while cleaning off my desk, find a list of things I’d made of things I’ve overheard since the beginning of the year. I thought I’d share them now.

Walking through the aquarium, Mall of America, St. Paul, MN.:
“Ewwww. It smells like fish in here.”

In the men’s room of same:
“Time to wash your hands, sport.”
“But I didn’t touch my wiener.”

Walking out of a museum showing dramatic plaster casts of victims of the Pompeii eruption – several humans and a dog:
“That poor dog.”

A young boy playing church before church started:
“Turn to Psalm 52. It’s a song.” (sings) “Happy birthday to you, you belong in the zoo…”

A colleague at work, acknowledging my recent craving for fish:
“Maybe we should get some fish on Monday instead of Friday. That would make us Reverse Catholics.”

On the phone to a government agency, navigating an automated menu:
“For state information, press one. For federal information, press two.”
(I press two)
“You pressed two. If this is correct, press one.”

Snakes on a Plane, or, Five Lessons from Hollywood

CONTENT ADVISORY: Some of the links in this post lead to places that use an abundance of naughty words. Even some of the URL’s have cussin’ in them. You have been warned.

I really hate to hop on a meme like this, the Internet Flavor of the Month, but it says so much about something broken in our culture that I must open my big, fat mouth.

A week or so ago, I ran across this post, linked from some blog that I frequent. I think Ace, the fun-loving scamp at Ace of Spades HQ was the culprit who first brought it to my attention.

In the post, a struggling screenwriter comes to grips with the chance to work on a film that he says has the ultimate title: Snakes On A Plane. The fact that it pegs the Hoke-O-Meter in the red means nothing. It’s all about the title, which went through a number of changes until, allegedly, the high-dollar star of the pic, Samuel L. Jackson, claimed he’d signed on just because of the title.

Hollywood Lesson #1: The high-dollar star is the 800-pound gorilla. Whether he or she knows better or not. Usually they don’t.

I passed it off as another example of Hollywood stupidity until the weekend, when I received a note from a film junkie friend with a link to a blog posting about this film. “This is going to be the new All Your Base,” he wrote. The link was to a recycled version of this spurious FAQ at Cracked.com (the online version of a magazine that was once a third-rate imitator of Mad). I figure that it’s just more bad buzz on what’s going to spend a week at the cineplex and then go straight to video. But then I remember something.

Hollywood Lesson #2: Movie industry folks subscribe to the theory that “the only bad press is no press at all” – largely due to their inability to tell “good buzz” from “bad buzz.”

So I did what any semi-serious invesitgative reporter blogger would do – I took five minutes and Googled the phrase snakes on a plane.

And found this entry on Wikipedia – that’s right – Snakes On A Plane has gotten so much play on the Internet that it’s already got a lengthy Wiki entry.

Now according to this entry, S.O.A.P. (as it has been so lovingly acronymed) wrapped up filming in August (IMDB says September), but underwent five days of reshoots. But not because of the usual reasons (spoiled film stock, last minute rewrites in the editing room, removal of scenes that didn’t work, etc.). No, these reshoots were to capitalize on the Internet buzz. These reshoots are intended to take the film from a PG-13 to an R rating with added gore and violence, and the addition of a vulgar line of dialogue from Samuel L. Jackson that originated on an Internet parody.

Hollywood Lesson #3: When people quit coming to the movies and you hit on something you think people would pay to see, give it to them in spades and hope for a killer opening weekend.

Now I have to admit that, while it’s one of my favorite sites, Wikipedia is still rather unstructured. If congressmen can go in and edit the entries about themselves to be more favorable, what kind of other mischief might it inadvertently play host to? So I checked one more source, the online version of The Hollywood Reporter. And they pretty much confirmed everything that’s been going on with Snakes On A Plane.

Hollywood Lesson #4: If they’re going to this much trouble to cater to a potential audience, then what I’ve said for the last few years is really true – Hollywood is a city that is officially Out Of Ideas.

So, will I go see this film when it comes out? No. Will I rent it? Nope. I might pick it up if it turns up on the shelf at the local library, at which point I’ll watch it with the same sick fascination that I watch Plan Nine From Outer Space (although I do own a copy of Plan Nine, but that’s another story).

Which prompts the question, if this festering carrot of a treat that they’re dangling in front of me is not enough to get me into the theater, what will?

  • If you quit paying people like Tom Cruise the equivalent of a third world nation GNP, maybe I could afford to come more than a couple times a year.
  • And I might be more willing if you lose the kids with the laser pointers. Or at least point them to the right theater, the one showing Chainsaw Zombie Cheerleaders XVIII.
  • While you’re at it, get people to turn off their cell phones.
  • And get them to just shut up during the film.
  • What’s with the commercials? Previews I love. Commercials I can see on TV.
  • Might help to make something I want to see. This excludes anything based on an old TV series.
  • Ditto the comic books.
  • Ditto Adam Sandler. What’s the deal with him, anyway? He have blackmail photos of you or something?
  • On the other hand, what’s the point when the DVD will be out fifteen minutes after the film opens?

But alas, that brings us to our last lesson:

Hollywood Lesson #5: Hollywood always misses the obvious solution.

Don’t get me started on that one, or I’ll be here all night.

Meantime, if you want to see what there is of a trailer at the moment, go here. And keep in mind the words of the philosopher David St. Hubbins: “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.”

Listening:
All my dreams came true last night
All my hopes and fears
All my dreams came true once more
In tears in tears

(via iPod Shuffle)

Christmas Favorites

Here’s an idea I stole from Kevin at Observations, who in turn stole it from a blogging friend of his. I’ve added to Kevin’s, who added to his friend’s. Who knows where this will end?

The Best Of Christmas

Best Christmas Song (Religious): What Child Is This?
Best Christmas Song (Secular): The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
Best Christmas Song (Novelty): One Christmas Catalogue – Captain Sensible (New Wave Xmas)
Best Christmas Song With Swear Words In It: Fairytale Of New York – The Pogues (New Wave Xmas)
Best Christmas Album: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Best Christmas Album (Novelty): New Wave Xmas
Best Christmas Movie: A Christmas Story
Best Christmas TV Special: “A Christmas Carol” (George C. Scott version)
Best Line From A Christmas TV Special: “Why don’t you come with me and we’ll be independent together?” (Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer)
Best Christmas Treat: Apricot Fried Pies (Mom’s recipe)

NP – Various Artists, New Wave Xmas