Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tales of the Black Freighter

If you’ve seen the Watchmen film, you probably already know that it was based on what many consider to be the greatest superhero comic book ever written. At almost four-hundred pages, it was inevitable that some elements of the original story would be cut from the film. One of those elements was Tales from the Black Freighter, a comic book read by one of the supporting characters (a comic within a comic). The basic idea was that, in a world where superheroes are real, nobody would want to read make-believe stories about them, instead turning to other genres like horror, western and pirate stories.

The story follows the sole survivor of a ship sunk by the Black Freighter, a seemingly supernatural pirate vessel. The survivor finds himself washed onto a desert island, along with the wreckage of his ship and the rotting corpses of his crew. He initiates a gruesome plan of escape that leads to further acts of dehumanization as he makes the journey back to his hometown before the pirate ship reaches it.

The horror of this story is physical, psychological and supernatural, leaving the viewer to wonder how much is hallucination. The narrator’s need to protect both himself and his town drives him to increasingly monstrous actions. By the story’s end, we see how these actions have damned him even as we realize that, in the same situation, many of us would have done the same thing.

There’s a lot of material on this disc related to the Watchmen film and motion comic; but Tales from the Black Freighter stands very much on its own as a dark allegory for the corruption that lies buried within the best of intentions. Even the closing credits manage to disturb with Nina Simone’s famous cover of “Pirate Jenny” from Threepenny Opera. Short but darkly sweet.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Unseen by Hands in Nameless Magazine.

A few weeks back, "Unseen by Hands" was published online at Nameless Magazine. It's a Lovecraftian style of story that goes in what is hopefully a surprising direction. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


This film made me throw up. You can take that as a recommendation or a warning. I can’t honestly recommend this one for entertainment value; but if you’re looking for disturbing films, this is the big one.

The film is based on The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, with the setting updated to World War II fascist Italy. Four prominent men (a banker, a bishop, a judge and a president) arrange to have eighteen young people (nine male and nine female) abducted and held in a remote chateau, where they are tortured over several weeks. The prisoners are raped, led around on leashes, force-fed shit, branded and mutilated. Between humiliation sessions, they are forced to listen to the almost comically shocking stories told by old prostitutes about further depravities. The prisoners do not escape. The four masterminds are not brought to justice. The film ends with the implication that these atrocities will simply go on.

Director Palo Pasolini had a lot to say about the symbolism throughout this film and, I suppose, a case can be made for its artistic merit. But the film is also disgusting on both a physical and emotional level. With these sorts of films, it’s always difficult to tell if the director is attempting to associate this disgust with some social evil (wartime atrocities and the excesses of fascism) or simply creating an exploitation piece. It’s also difficult to tell if the attempt is successful or if the film becomes so disgusting that any socially redeeming message is lost between scenes of rape and murder.

It really all depends on why you want to watch disturbing films in the first place. If you’re simply looking for celluloid endurance tests, Salo will be the kind of challenge you’re seeking. If you’re looking for a film that explores the darker side of human nature, you should find something here as well. But it’s not a party film or a date movie or one of those “so over-the-top-it’s-funny” kind of stories. It’s a shocking film whose bleakness has rarely been approached since its release over thirty years ago. The Criterion Collection has recently re-released this film on DVD, so you have a chance to see for yourself. Proceed with caution.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Singapore Sling

Wait. What just happened? There was a Greek detective muttering to himself, Sam Spade style. Then there were a couple of women, wearing lingerie and goggles, burying their chauffer in the rain. A secretary’s intestines were being dumped into the sink. Then it got kind of weird. I think I just finished watching Singapore Sling.

It’s like a porn movie you’d see playing in one of your nightmares. There’s plenty of sex; but it’s all mixed up so that you see sex with guns, sex with vomit, sex with knives, sex with piss, sex between mother and daughter, sex with eloctroshock therapy paddles strapped to the temples, sex with the mummified corpse of your father. What the hell do you even call sex with the mummified corpse of your father? Paternecrophilia? Do I have to make up new words just to describe this thing?

Seriously, the plot, so far as I can make out, is that a detective (played by Panos Thanassoulis, who kind of looks like a young Gerard Depardieu) goes looking for a woman named Laura and tracks her down to an old house occupied by a crazy mother (Michele Valley, who sounds kind of like Ornella Muti) and daughter (Meredyth Herold, who sounds kind of like Amanda Plummer). He doesn’t know that they already killed Laura and, in short order, he’s tied up and tortured until he agrees to participate in their strange fantasy lifestyle. I think. Or maybe Laura isn’t really dead and she’s just posing as the crazy daughter. Or maybe they’re not even mother and daughter. Or maybe he isn’t a detective after all. I mean, we never learn his real name and both women just call him Singapore Sling.

Occasionally, the characters look right into the camera and talk to me. Sometimes they lapse into Greek for no particular reason and sometimes the Greek is subtitled. Sometimes it isn’t. It’s funny and scary and disturbing and weird enough to keep me guessing. I’m not sure what to make of this film. But I’m watching it again.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


For my next lost review, Trent Reznor's 1993 short film, Broken. Since writing this review, it seems that Reznor himself is trying to upload this film to the Internet, but video hosting sites keep taking it down due to its extreme content. Still shocking after twenty years? That's why I'm reviewing it. That's also why, sorry, no link.

Good luck finding this one. Trent Reznor has never authorized the public release of this music video collection; but bootleg copies abound. Like most transgressive cinema, time is not very kind to this 1993 short subject; but I remember seeing it at a party years ago and, at the time, this was a film that went where the splatter films of the eighties feared to tread. Today, it can be seen as a precursor to the so-called “torture porn” films (Saw and Hostel being the most prominent of this sub-genre). But in many ways, Broken is a purer thing than what’s being put in multiplexes today. No dialogue beyond song lyrics and no plot beyond the bare minimum needed to begin the atrocity exhibition.

A killer, about to be hung for his crimes, remembers the man he abducted and tortured to death. The scene jumps back to the abduction, followed by the man being restrained in a basement. There is a television set in the room and the killer watches Nine Inch Nails music videos to get himself in the mood for murder. The film then jumps between Trent Reznor’s dark dreams put to music and the stark brutality of one man torturing another man to death for no apparent reason other than the thrill of it.

The highlight of the short film (if such a term is appropriate for something so steeped in darkness) is the video for “Happiness in Slavery”, wherein legendary extreme performance artist Bob Flannagan calmly places himself in a torture device designed to turn human beings into raw meat. The basement torture scenes between music videos are purposefully grainy and give the illusion of being from an actual snuff film. The whole film has that beautifully grotesque allure that compels you to watch, even as you know there is nothing socially redeeming about witnessing make-believe atrocities.

I suppose this film could go under the heading of “giving the audience what they want”: torture, degradation and brutality, without the plot and dialogue that tends to be so badly written in other films of this sub-genre. The entertainment value is largely a matter of personal taste; but if you’re looking for something transgressive, dark and more than a little gross; you could do worse than tracking down a copy of Broken.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Another lost review brought to light. This time, it's for Crash, the 1996 film directed by David Cronenberg (not the 2004 film of the same name.)

James and Catherine Ballard are involved in what could charitably be called an “open” marriage. Each of them have multiple affairs and share the details of these affairs freely with eachother. At the film’s beginning, the viewer gathers that both are growing dissatisfied with this situation. And then James Ballard gets in an automobile accident.

While recovering in the hospital, James is approached by members of a secret society of car crash fetishists. Dr. Helen Remington is the other survivor of James’ accident, who sees the accident as a natural extension of her fetish for having sex in cars. Vaughan is the de facto leader of the group, orchestrating re-creations of famous car crashes (such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield) and spouting increasingly strange theories (such as re-interpreting the Kennedy assassination as a traffic accident). Gabriella is a sort of fetishized car crash victim, dressed in black lace and fishnet stockings beneath her steel leg braces and form-fitting back brace.

The sexualization of automobile accidents is presented as a mixture of sadism, masochism, exhibitionism, voyeurism and the end result of a thousand advertising campaigns that equate cars with sexual prowess. None of the characters come across as spiritually or emotionally mature and the car crashes seem to fill an emptiness that exists in each of them. The viewer is not particularly moved to care about any of the individual characters in Crash; but simply watches to see how much further each of them will go. It is an extremely graphic and tragic story that we watch simply because we can’t help but be curious ... much like a car crash.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


While I was going through my Killer-Works files in search of previously posted reviews, I found seven additional reviews that never got posted on the website. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting these lost reviews of disturbing cinema here. We'll start with 1932's Freaks.

In 1932, MGM wanted to capitalize on the horror trend begun by Universal Studios and produce some scary movies of their own. They approached no less a person than Tod Browning (director of Dracula, the film that essentially started the whole thing) to direct a horror film for them. The story goes that, after reading the script, producer Irving Thalberg said, “Well, I wanted something horrible, and that's what I got." Freaks is a subversive film, even by today’s standards; so you can imagine the reaction of audiences, critics and media watchdog organizations back in 1932. The film was shelved by the studio and banned outright in some countries until the 1960s, when the cultural tone had shifted and the word “freak” became a badge of pride.

Based on the short story, “Spurs” (which is surprisingly more disturbing than the film), the film is set amidst the strange subculture of freaks working for a carnival. One of the midgets, Hans (Harry Earles, who would later play a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz), is enamored with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a statuesque trapeze artist who finds him repulsive, but plays at loving him in order to get his money. Her plot to marry and then poison Hans is uncovered and both she and her strongman lover suffer the terrible and surreal wrath of Hans’ fellow sideshow performers.

Seeking to make his film as realistic as possible, Browning chose to cast actual sideshow performers. The conjoined twins, human torsos, pinheads and bearded ladies are all authentic. The viewer is left to wonder if Browning wanted to give work to performers who normally would never have been cast in a feature film or if it was instead a calculated act of exploitation. Throughout the film, the freaks are portrayed as sympathetic characters. Even the gruesome revenge scene doesn’t make them unsympathetic, given the circumstances. But the fact remains that, in our seemingly more “sensitive” culture, such a casting decision could never be made and these individuals would be left in the dark shadows of society, under the pretense of preserving their dignity.

The plot is a bit hackneyed and most of the freaks are not (to be brutally honest) very good actors; but Freaks has a place in cinematic history. Even after all these years, you can’t help but stare in wonder at people who are, in the most important ways, no different from yourself.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Johnny Got His Gun

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I've been slowly re-posting the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting the last review of mine to appear on the site, for Johnny Got His Gun. The review was originally published on November 9, 2009.

The story opens with a team of army doctors managing to save the life of Joe Bonham, an American World War I soldier. Unfortunately, a shell blast has left Private Bonham without legs, arms, eyes, ears or a mouth. The doctors take comfort from the knowledge that he has suffered permanent brain damage and will never be aware of his wretched condition. But the doctors are wrong: Joe Bonham is completely conscious and living a nightmare existence.

Often hailed as one of the great anti-war films, Johnny Got His Gun, written and directed by Oscar winning (and famously black-listed) Dalton Trumbo, speaks just as much to the general human condition as to the horrors of war. We watch a man, cut off from the world, try to make peace with his new internalized existence. Joe's recollections of his past grow increasingly warped by his dream imagery until finally none of it is reliable. The memory/dream scenes (shot in color) are interposed with scenes of drab reality (shot in black and white), where we see how different people react to what, by all appearances, is merely twitching human meat. Their compassion and callousness manifest in surprising ways and, by the end, the only truly evil thing that can be done to men like Joe Bonham is to ignore them. It is no small irony that this story (both the film and the original novel) is routinely suppressed during times of war. For most of us, the only exposure we've ever had to the film are in the clips used for the music video of Metallica's One some twenty years ago.

At one point, even Jesus Christ (played with more compassion by Donald Sutherland than any other film version of Christ I've ever seen) is stumped in his attempts to comfort Private Bonham. If the viewer takes solace from anything, it is that the film does not cop out with any easy answers. This is a film that understands that life can be unfair and simply expresses its condolence.

Johnny Got His Gun provides a snapshot of the life of one young man whose future is destroyed by war, yet continues to exist, refusing to simply be forgotten. It is all too easy for us to honor those who fall in battle for a single day, then promptly forget them as we are rallied for the next war. In fact, the greatest tragedy of the film is that its message is still relevant today.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dead Boys Review by A.T. Weaver

A month back, a review of Dead Boys was posted on Ingrid Hall's website. The review was written by Julia Flowers, who writes under the pen name A.T. Weaver. It includes a favorable comparison to The Twilight Zone and a question that more than one reader has asked me.

Why is the book called Dead Boys? Simply, there is a dead boy in every story: the dead son in "Parable of the Lazy Rooster", the ghost haunting the dormitory in "Cold Comfort", the half-dead son in "Midnight Cappuccino" and, yes, the dog in "Wet Dog Perfume".

Thanks for taking the time to review my collection, Ms. Weaver.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Imprint

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I've been slowly re-posting the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting my review of the Takash Miike's contribution to the Master of Horror series, Imprint. The review was originally published on March 27, 2009.

When Showtime began its (2006) Masters of Horror series, the idea was that the great horror directors of today would each be given an hour to tell a story with none of the limitations usually assigned to a feature length production. The implication was that, on a premium channel, there would be no taboo areas that these films couldn't explore. Showtime received thirteen short films. Twelve of them became the show's first season. The thirteenth film was never aired.

Takashi Miike's 13th offering crossed the lines that supposedly didn't exist. His contribution, Imprint, is only available on DVD. Even before seeing this particular film, those familiar with Miike's work will probably understand why there was a problem. The director of Audition and Visitor Q doesn't simply create films that are more violent or disgusting than those of most other directors. He creates transgressive cinema. He takes a simple story about a man searching for his lost love and transforms it into an exploration of the lies we tell (to ourselves and others) in order to hide the truth. He does this by mixing disturbing imagery with equally disturbing ideas.

A deformed prostitute tells the horrible tale of a woman desperately awaiting the return of her lost love, only to turn the story on its side to recount her own hideous upbringing, only to turn the story on its side again to reveal the truth about the man listening to all of it. With every turn of the plot, we are left to believe that we've seen the worst of it, only to watch another turn and another disturbing revelation. These revelations include scenes of torture (despite what the brothel madam says, that's going to leave a mark) and violence against both women and children. Frankly, it's difficult to imagine editing this film down to something acceptable to Showtime without simply removing many of the key plot points.

By the end of Imprint, it's difficult to tell what has actually happened, since it uses both an unreliable narrator and an unreliable listener. Sit through the credits for one final scene that comments on the entire film with a single gesture.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dead Boys Reviewed on Indie Reviews

Zach Tyo at Indie Reviews posted a four-title review of Halloween books yesterday. Besides Dead Boys, he also reviews Infected by James Schnannep, How I Met My Monster by R.L. Stine and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. So, yeah, good company.

Thanks for taking the time to review my collection, Zach.

Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: The Seventh Victim

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting my review of the 1943 Val Lewton thriller, The Seventh Victim. The review was originally published on January 12, 2009.

After watching one of his films, a friend of Val Lewton asked the director, "What is this film trying to say?" Lewton's alleged response was simply, "Death is good." A hard sell to audiences even today; but Val Lewton produced nine horror films unlike anything audiences had ever seen back in the early 1940s. RKO Studios was looking to produce a series of horror movies to cash in on the trend that had made Universal Studios so much money in the 1930s. Lewton was hired to produce these films; but saddled with strict budgetary requirements and a string of titles chosen by the studio (ranging from the corny The Cat People to the unintentionally hilarious I Walked With a Zombie ... both recommended, by the way). Val Lewton chose to use these restrictions to his advantage, using shadow and ambiguous plotlines to suggest horrors that he could never afford to actually show.

In The Seventh Victim, Mary (Kim Hunter) is a young woman who goes to New York in search of her missing sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). What she uncovers is a cult of devil worshipers. At one point, it is revealed that, in their past, the cult has murdered six people in order to protect their secrets and Jacqueline may well become the seventh.

The Seventh Victim is a film that deals with contradictions. The devil worshipers, although portrayed as evil, are also pacifists (acknowledging that violence can turn on itself and accidentally accomplish good). It turns out that Jacqueline is both suicidal and fleeing for her life. By the end of the film, it could be argued that everyone gets exactly what they want; but none of them are happy.

Val Lewton's low-budget scare tactics are still effective today and still used (with varying success) in both low- and big-budget films. The use of shadows, both real and thematic, places The Seventh Victim in the film noir category of that time.  The sophisticated devil worshipers in Greenwich Village bear more than a passing resemblance to the Satanists who graced the screen some thirty years later in Rosemary's Baby. It's a moody piece that unsettles without any overt violence and well worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Kissed

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting my review of the 1997 film, Kissed. The review was originally published on October 21, 2008.

This is the most touching and genuinely sympathetic film you are ever likely to see on the subject of necrophilia. The first half of the film follows the more or less solitary life of Sandra (Molly Parker, who later achieved more mainstream recognition with roles on Deadwood and Six Feet Under), a woman compelled to make love with corpses. Her detailed recollections and well-explored motivations elevate what at first looks like a sick fetish to something spiritual and transcendent. By the time she meets Matt (Peter Outerbridge), we have seen the world through her strange eyes and his initial fascination seems crude.

The story becomes less sensationalistic and more subtle as Sandra and Matt struggle with a problem common to most couples: seeing the world through one another's eyes. It becomes a story about Sarah trying to explain your unique worldview to a man who doesn't (and perhaps can't) share it. Matt's attempts to understand and support Sandra also continuously backfire tragically as we see a man genuinely trying to understand and reach out to a woman whom most of the world would simply turn away. Ironically, as his attempts grow more extreme, he begins to behave like a stalker and ends up presenting a far more disturbing character than the necrophiliac.

The film is based on a short story by Barbara Gowdy entitled, "We So Seldom Look on Love". The title of the story is, in turn, taken from a line of Frank O'Hara's poem, "Ode on Necrophilia". Also, I have no idea what the producers told Sarah McLachlan when they requested the rights to her song for the closing scene ("We're making a film about necrophilia and we thought of you."); but "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" is just the perfect song (with a most appropriate title) to act as a coda for what both main characters are trying to accomplish. This is a story about love: how it can be physical, spiritual, addictive and, to the outside observer, indescribable.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: The Collector

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. This week, I do a book-to-film comparison of The Collector. The review originally ran on July 28, 2008.

Before the onslaught of post-Silence of the Lambs films and novels that glorified the serial killer to anti-hero status, there were few films that offered a truly sympathetic view of the psychopathic mind. The Collector (both the 1963 novel and the 1965 film) has the distinction of being cited as being a personal favorite by more than one real-life serial killer.

The story (although relatively bloodless) is chilling for what it says more than what it shows. The story and movie open with a butterfly collector (played by Terence Stamp) kidnapping a 20 year-old art student (played by Samantha Eggar in an Oscar-nominated performance) and locking her in his cellar. The collector's goal is to make this woman fall in love with him. To this end, he has fashioned the cellar dungeon in the style of a lavish apartment and provides her with whatever items she might desire, frequently referring to her as his "guest". In a modern world that includes men like Josef Fritzl (who kept his daughter and the children they had together locked in a cellar for twenty-four years), the story might seem either horribly prophetic or humorously quaint.

Both the film and the first half of the novel follow this strange premise to its logical conclusion, as the woman's attempts to escape grow more intricate and desperate. At first, the collector seems genuinely embarrassed and addresses his captive with an almost endearing shyness. But the cracks in his proper British facade reveal this social awkwardness as a symptom of a psychopathic mind, unable to understand the wrongness of his actions.

The major difference between the film and the novel comes in the second half of the book, which switches the point of view from the collector to Miranda Gray, the art student whom he has abducted. You read excerpts from Miranda's secret diary where she describes her early life and her attempts at making an identity for herself. Both characters are unformed personalities, neither really understanding what it means to love, but we can believe that at least Miranda has the capacity to learn and grow emotionally (unlike her captor). Some fans of the novel complain that the film, in essence, took away the victim's voice by removing her inner monologue. While the film is still effective, I would certainly agree that the novel has more depth because of this section.

This was the first novel written by John Fowles (who later went on to write The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, among others) and the screenplay was adapted by Stanley Mann and John Kohn (which earned them an Oscar nomination). It is both famous for its three Oscar nominations (the third being William Wyler as Best Director) and infamous for allegedly inspiring the works of several serial killers (including Leonard Lake, Christopher Wilder and Robert Berdella). Take a look for yourself and see what it does for you.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: The Mother of Tears

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. This week, I finish rerunning my review of Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy with the third film in the series: The Mother of Tears. The review originally ran on July 7, 2008.

The Three Mothers trilogy wraps up thirty years after it began with The Mother of Tears, the bloodiest, nude-iest, and unintentionally funniest of the three films. It opens with a coffin marked in witch symbols and wrapped in chains being unearthed in a church courtyard. Inside are three demon statuettes and an old sweater. If you're thinking these demon statuettes are talismans of black magic which will be used to bring about a new dark age ... you're completely wrong. Turns out the Second Age of Witches will be brought into being by a sleeveless sweater decorated with glitter-glue. A woman is disemboweled by three demons and a monkey (don't ask, it's never explained) and we're off on another of Dario Argento's nonsensical odysseys of beautifully-shot violence.

The city of Rome becomes a nexus of evil as witches from around the world converge to celebrate the Second Age of Witches with their queen, the Mother of Tears. No trouble spotting the witches – they're the Goths with eighties hair strutting through airports, train stations and the streets of Rome. Stuck in the middle of this retro nightmare are Asia Argento and a supporting cast of disposable co-stars. Apparently, the secret to fighting the Mother of Tears lies in finding an old man who has the answers; but he is brutally murdered before he can do anything besides mutter a few cryptic clues that lead to another old man; but he is also brutally murdered before he can do anything besides mutter a few cryptic clues that lead to still another old man; but he is ... well, it becomes pretty obvious where this is all leading. At one point, I swear to you, the film rips off the plot line of Harry Potter word for word (on an unrelated note, I'd love to see a Harry Potter movie directed by Dario Argento).

Frankly, this film is an homage to eighties horror. The violence in this film is tempered by the fact that it's so over-the-top that you can't help but chuckle. There are spilled intestines, corpse-filled pools, gouged eyes, cut throats, severed limbs and a spear that ... well, the spear scene is just the scene where you either leave the theatre or start to laugh.

The nudity is also so gratuitous that, like the violence, it's just easier to take it as a joke. The witches in general are fond of exposing their breasts and the Mother of Tears spends a lot of time strutting through her lair wearing nothing but platform shoes, a wicked smile and way too much make-up. The only genuinely creepy moment in the film is Asia Argento's shower scene ... and this is only disconcerting when you realize that it's Asia's father, Dario, who's directing it.

If you've been following the work of Dario Argento this far, you'll get The Mother of Tears. Not overly disturbing or horrifying (although there are a few "jump out of your seat" moments); but the kind of fun, outrageously bloody horror movie that used to litter the local cineplexes twenty years ago and best seen with an audience laughing and screaming all around you. Definitely enjoy this one at the theatre.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Inferno

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. This week, I continue rerunning my review of Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy with the second film in the series: Inferno. The review originally ran on June 30, 2008.

Inferno (1980) is a sort-of sequel to Dario Argento's classic horror film, Suspiria (1977). Ask almost anyone (this reviewer included), and you'll be told that it's just not as good. On the other hand, you're probably not going to find movies that look like these being produced by anyone else. Even Argento doesn't seem to be making films like Suspiria and Inferno any longer, having slowly drifted towards a more realistic style that (while he does it well) no longer looks like his signature. Just like Suspiria, Inferno is the kind of movie that you might see in a dream. Unfortunately, this time the dream logic is taken to an extreme.

Where Suspiria had a threadbare plot surrounded by beautifully shot scenes of violence and exposition, Inferno doesn't seem to have any plot at all. It is rather a series of interconnected vignettes involving a New York hotel and a trio of witches. The three witches are known as the Mother of Sighs (who terrorized the dance school in Suspiria), the Mother of Tears (who haunts Rome in the 2007 film of the same name) and the Mother of Shadows (who's at the center of this film's conspiracy). Their secrets are outlined in a book entitled "The Three Mothers" and anyone who gets too close to learning these secrets dies horribly. That's pretty much the plot. We don't spend enough time with any of the potential protagonists to feel any sympathy for them.

Oh, but the things they see before they die ...

Once again, Dario Argento has us so dazzled by bizarre scenery and surreal behaviors that we barely notice until it's all over that none of it makes any sense. The opening underwater scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie (just as the opening murder in Suspiria managed to do). Occasionally, the surrealism grows so absurd that it threatens to pull the viewer out of the story entirely (like the attack by flying cats or the face of death that looks suspiciously like a rubber mask), but it all works if you get yourself into the right state of mind.

The biggest let-down on the sequel would definitely be the change in soundtrack. The Goblins do not provide music for Inferno and they are sorely missed as the sound moves between serviceably creepy and so over-the-top it's funny instead of scary. That's Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer doing the music, by the way.

Inferno was not as successful as Suspiria and is not as readily available on DVD, but if you enjoyed the themes of power and gender (as well as the striking visuals) of the first film, this one is worth a look.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Suspiria

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. This week, I return to the first film in Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy: Suspiria. The review originally ran on June 23, 2008.


Susan (Jessica Harper) is the new American student at an exclusive German school of dance. In addition to making friends with her classmates and making enemies with the teaching staff, she investigates the murder of one of the students (who died on the same night that Susan arrived). What she uncovers is a century-old conspiracy involving witchcraft.

The plot is somewhat threadbare and doesn't work as a traditional mystery since it's fairly obvious early on who is behind the murder. What elevates this 1977 film to its classic status is the beautiful work of director Dario Argento, who composes each scene like a surrealist masterpiece, full of bright colors and strange details. Argento is never one to sacrifice beauty for logic, however, so some of the more beautifully composed scenes don't always make sense. Each murder is shot like a music video and otherwise bland expositional scenes are rendered captivating by the surrounding scenery. The whole film comes off looking like a dream; but don't worry ... there's no such cop-out ending.

Just as important as the camerawork is the soundtrack, provided by The Goblins. It's rare that a soundtrack has been so perfectly suited to enhancing a nightmarish atmosphere and it's hard to imagine this film acquiring its cult status without the unsettling score. At several points in the film, the word "witch" can even be overheard being harshly whispered through synthesizers.

While Suspiria stands very well on its own merits, it is later revealed to be the first part in a trilogy of films known as The Three Mothers. Inferno(1980) and finally Mother of Tears (2007) round out the infamous collection.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dead Boys Review on Book Boyfriend Reviews

A few weeks back, Book Boyfriend Reviews posted a nice review of Dead Boys. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: The Night Porter

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. I was told to focus my reviews on disturbing films and I found a likely candidate in Liliana Cavani's 1974 art film, The Night Porter. The review was originally posted on June 16, 2008.


Love can be the most frightening emotion, especially if you find someone who loves you because of your worst traits rather than despite them. The Night Porter is the story of a Nazi concentration camp guard and prisoner who fall in love.

The story begins in Vienna 1957. Max (Dirk Bogarde) is the night porter at a hotel, living a life of quiet obscurity, but seemingly content. He still has ties with his old Nazi allies, men in hiding who occasionally meet to discuss their past actions. Their conversations resemble a grim parody of group therapy sessions, in which the Nazis try to purge their own feelings of guilt (while at the same time plotting the murders of any witnesses who could turn them in to the authorities). It is noteworthy that even the other Nazis find Max's crimes to be especially hideous. Max is not portrayed as a man filled with regret for his past crimes, nor as a man filled with hope for the resurrection of the Third Reich. At the story's beginning, he seems to lack emotion entirely, content with his quiet life.

Into the story comes Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), wife of a composer staying at the hotel where Max works. She is also a former camp prisoner with whom Max had an affair. We see in flashbacks that this courtship involved rape, humiliation and exploitation. Max is at first afraid that Lucia will expose his terrible past to the authorities; while Lucia is overwhelmed by her buried memories. Both are surprised to find that they have feelings for one another besides fear or hate and they re-kindle their love affair.

Max and Lucia end up risking everything, including their lives, to keep one another safe from Max's Nazi allies (who want to silence them both). What at first appears to be a film about an abusive relationship slowly becomes a story about star-crossed lovers, whose love is challenged by forces far greater than themselves. Like all great love stories, there is an undercurrent of tragedy. The viewer is left to wonder if the greater tragedy would be splitting these two apart or keeping them together in a relationship that truly should not exist.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dead Boys Review on The Dowser's Delusions

Joe Bonadonna posted a review of Dead Boys on his blog, The Dowser's Delusions, a few months back. Check it out, then go pick up some e-books from both of us.

Joe's written the wonderful sword & sorcery / hard-boiled detective fusion collection, Mad Shadows, and an old-fashioned space adventure novel, Three Against the Stars. He's also teamed up with David C. Smith for a supernatural pirate adventure, Waters of Darkness.Getting high marks from Joe is quite the compliment.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Dumplings

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. Last week, I reposted my inaugural review of Cannibal Holocaust, a classic in transgressive film. I followed that review with a more recent work, a short subject by Fruit Chan titled "Dumplings". The review originally ran on May 12, 2008:


Most of the time, we are not informed of atrocities so much as reminded of them. We already know how animals are slaughtered for meat, how foreign labor is abused to provide us with cheap products, how oil is linked to terrorist organizations, how pharmaceuticals are tested on animals. We normally reconcile it all under the sad label of "necessary evil". If we were, each of us, offered an elixir of eternal youth, how much thought would we give to the strangers who had to suffer to produce it?

"Dumplings" tells the story of Mrs. Li, an aging actress who fears her husband will soon leave her for a younger woman. She meets Mei, a working-class woman who runs a dumpling shop out of her apartment. Mei's dumplings are reputed to restore youth to those who eat them and thus fetch a high price. What makes this story so disturbing isn't the revelation of what's in the dumplings (you can probably figure it out before you even see the film), but rather how it is not mentioned outright, simply understood. The violent scenes in the film not only shock, but also add to the subtler theme of the piece, illustrating how casually Mei (and eventually Mrs. Li) observe it all. The finale is appropriately understated, shocking us by what has been done without explicitly showing us. The final scene is made chilling by a quiet sound rather than a bloody image.

Dumplings originally appeared as the first short feature in an anthology film titled 3 Extremes. A longer, full-length feature version was later made and can be found in the two-disc set of 3 Extremes. Personally, I would recommend the shorter, original version. The longer version is padded out with additional scenes of dumpling preparation, back-story into the life of Mei and Mrs. Li's husband's affair. All of this additional scenery seems to take away from the true horror of the piece...how a decent woman can slowly become indifferent to evil. Worst of all, the extended version replaces the original ending with one that manages to be both gorier and less brutal.

Enjoy Dumplings as a short subject on how we each reconcile with evil.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Dead Boys Review on Black Gate

A couple months back, John O'Neill published a review of Dead Boys on Black Gate. Beyond the book itself, he also goes a bit into how we first met at the Top Shelf Books open mic event, a monthly reading series which has recently come to an end. Since it's impossible for me to imagine producing this work without the support of various reading events and writers groups, it's good that John mentioned it in a review.

Check out the review and, while you're there, nose around the site a little. It's updated daily with information about more science fiction and fantasy novels than you could ever finish reading.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Cannibal Holocaust

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. Site runner Jill Cooper asked for reviews of disturbing films and I decided to start off with one of the most disturbing films of all time. So here it is: originally posted March 10, 2008:


Four filmmakers go into the Amazon rain forest in search of a cannibal tribe. They are never seen again. Six months later, their footage is recovered. If it sounds familiar, keep in mind that Cannibal Holocaust predates The Blair Witch Project by twenty years. The whole "found footage horror" sub-genre (which includesBehind the Mask, Last Broadcast, The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, andDiary of the Dead) started with this 1980 cult classic.

What the format allows is a bird's eye view of human depravity. A simple laundry list of atrocities will give you an idea: castration, firing squad executions, rapes, abortion, cannibalism, amputations, the iconic impalement scene and several (by all accounts, real) animal mutilations. The Italian government was allegedly fooled by the realism of the footage and actually put the director on trial for murder.

The question I keep asking myself isn't why someone would make this movie (money); but rather why I watched it. I first saw it during a midnight screening at an art house theater. Halfway through the movie, I began to wonder about the audience around me. What drove each of us to spend a Saturday night watching a movie like Cannibal Holocaust? The director's motive was as clear as that of any drug dealer: to provide the product that customers demand. But why the demand? In the end, the audience members are revealed as being the true monsters with our unexplainable need to view human misery.

For nearly thirty years, Cannibal Holocaust has stood as a gold standard for disturbing cinema. The more polished Hollywood horror shows haven't even come close to its brutality or ability to generate self-loathing in an audience for watching it. However, after viewing recent box-office successful films likeSaw and Hostel, director Ruggero Deodato has stated that he feels mainstream audiences may be ready for a big-budget re-make. There seems little reason to update the story for this decade, however, since the original does such a splendid job of delivering "what the audience wants", while at the same time forcing that same audience to ask why they want it. Approach with caution!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Interview on Ginger Nuts of Horror

"5 Minutes With Michael Penkas" got posted on Ginger Nuts of Horror today. Check it out here.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Guest Post on LongShortStories

Earlier this week, Wayne C. Long posted a piece I wrote on his blog, Long Short Stories. I go on at a bit of length about the process involved in writing and publishing an ebook. Wayne's produced a number of short story collections of his own and you can learn more at his main web site. As always, check it out and let me know what you think.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Battlepug on Black Gate

Last week, I posted a review of Mike Norton's web-comic, Battlepug, on Black Gate. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Midnight Cappuccino on Bad Grammar

Brendan Detzner posted an interview with me on his Bad Grammar podcast. The interview was conducted late last year, so there might be some dated references. Besides the interview, I read "Midnight Cappuccino", which also appears in Dead Boys.

For those looking through the backlog of Bad Grammar interviews, many of those named appear regularly at the Bad Grammar open mic event as well (second Friday of every month at 1743 S. Halsted).

So it's a half-hour talking about the trials of tribulations of getting published, performing at open mic events and getting a college degree; followed by a story. There's also hookers and Star Trek.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

It's Dark Inside on Black Gate

My review for Karen Heard's story collection, It's Dark Inside, went up on Black Gate today. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Worst Was Yet to Come

My story, The Worst Was Yet to Come, is now on Black Gate. You can view the complete story online here. As always, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TAPE on Black Gate

My review of the short video TAPE was posted on Black Gate on Tuesday.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Dead Boys

They're not hard to find, if you know where to look. In the back of a pub after happy hour. In a dorm room between semesters. In a dog park after sunset. In a hospice room on Christmas Eve. Dead boys.

Michael Penkas brings you four stories about the dead who refuse to leave and the living who refuse to let them go.

Parable of the Lazy Rooster - A priest offers consolation and the most exotic drink on Earth.

Cold Comfort - A prostitute visits the scene of a tragedy in order to render her own brand of absolution.

Wet Dog Perfume - A lonely man mourns the death of one friend as he makes another.

Midnight Cappuccino - Christmas Eve brings together a family separated by more than miles.

Dead Boys is available now through Amazon and Smashwords for $2.99. These are four of my earliest published pieces. If you like what you read, leave a quick review where you ordered your copy. And if you don't like it, leave a quick review anyway, so I'll know where I need to improve in my next collection.

Oh yes, this is only the first.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Penpal on Black Gate

I posted a review of Dathan Auerbach's debut novel, Penpal, on Black Gate. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Book of Horrible Stories on Black Gate

My review for The Book of Horrible Stories by Sheila C. Johnson is up on Black Gate today. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Last Red Sonja Post on Black Gate

It's titled, "Blue Sonja," for the blue fur outfit she briefly wore in the eighties instead of her iconic chain mail bikini. I share some final thoughts on the character and what went in to writing this series. It's been fun, but now it's time for me to move on to other things.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Red Sonja novels on Black Gate

I continue my series of Red Sonja reviews with a look at the six novels published in the early 1980s.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Marvel Team-Up 79 on Black Gate

My Red Sonja review series continues with Marvel Team-Up 79. Red Sonja and Spider-Man ... classic Bronze Age stuff. Check it out at Black Gate.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Master of Shadows on Black Gate

My review for the Red Sonja story, "Master of Shadows," went up on Black Gate today.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Red Sonja 15 on Black Gate

My Red Sonja review continues with Red Sonja 15, posted on Black Gate today.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Red Sonja 14 on Black Gate

My Red Sonja review series continues with Red Sonja 14. Zombie toad men and killer clams. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Red Sonja 13 on Black Gate

My review for Red Sonja 13 got posted on Black Gate today.
Also, just a little freaked out to realize this is my one-hundredth blog post.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Red Sonja 12 on Black Gate

I just posted my review of Red Sonja 12 on Black Gate. As usual, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Red Sonja 11 on Black Gate

I posted my review for Red Sonja 11 on Black Gate today. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Red Sonja 10 on Black Gate

As usual, this Tuesday meant another Red Sonja review on Black Gate. Check out my review for Red Sonja 10 and leave a comment.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Red Sonja 9 on Black Gate

I posted a review for Red Sonja 9 at Black Gate earlier this week. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Red Sonja 8 on Black Gate

My latest review, Red Sonja 8, is up on Black Gate. As always, check it out and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Red Sonja 7 on Black Gate

Just posted my review for Red Sonja 7 on Black Gate. Check it out.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Red Sonja 6 on Black Gate

I posted my review of Red Sonja 6 on Black Gate a few days ago. As always, let me know what you think.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Red Sonja 5 on Black Gate

My latest Red Sonja review (issue 5) went up on Black Gate this Tuesday. Check it out.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Coffee with Count Presto

It's a surreal little piece about a private magic show that goes horribly wrong and plots within plots. "Coffee with Count Presto" is making its first appearance in issue 28 of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. And even if you don't like my work (though why you'd be here if you didn't like my work is a bit beyond me), you should definitely check out an issue of this weird, wonderful indie zine. It's got pieces by Krista Hoeppner Leahy, Kevin Waltman, Erica Hilderbrand, Brian Baldi, Andrea M. Pawley, Kamila Z. Miller, Helen Marshall, Nicole Kimberling and John McKernan. And check out the cover by Junyi Wu.

Issues run at just five dollars for print. The electronic version is on its way. To find out more about it and order your own, check out the website.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Red Sonja 4 on Black Gate

Happy New Year! My latest Red Sonja review is up on Black Gate. As always, let me know what you think.