Ever play a game too scary to complete? Ever been haunted in the hours after the TV flickered out, thinking of how scary it would be to re-enter that haunted mansion, that bio-weapons lab, that fog-shrouded town?
7th Guest. Splatterhouse. Resident Evil. Silent Hill. Doom. Blood. Harvester. Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts. Castlevania. Dark Souls. Bloodborne.
These titles and more have inspired our newest anthology: Terror in 16-bits. Fifteen spooky levels of ghastly fun and frights, inspired by the horror video games you’ve come to know and love… and shudder to think about.
Three thirteen year-old boys in a shadowed living room, huddled around a flickering television set gorging themselves on block-cheese nachos, all hopped up on a case of Mountain Dew. On the screen, a beautiful young woman is admiring herself in a mirror. Suddenly, a wall of dissonant music overpowers the scene; a pair of demonic eyes appear outside her window. The stage is set for ultimate terror.
This was my first exposure to the genre of film known as giallo. The movie was Dario Argento’s Suspiria. It was broadcast into my best friend’s living room courtesy of a hacked satellite dish. For the uninitiated, “giallo” is the Italian word for yellow, and is a genre of film trapped somewhere between murder mystery and slasher horror, often served with a side helping of supernatural gravy and kinky sex. It eschews coherence and logical plot in favor of style and shock, leaning far into the realm of the surreal. Giallo often features storytelling through melodramatic music and overwrought imagery. After Suspiria came others. Argento’s Deep Red, Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, and even films shot outside of Italy such as England’s Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg. These movies had a profound impact on me both as a writer and a lover of cinema.
Giallo Fantastique, the new collection of short fiction compiled and edited by Ross E. Lockhart, attempts to capture the feel and tone of those films and transfer them to the written word. However, this collection also seeks to marry the giallo with a French genre of fiction called fantastique. Fantastique is a variety of fiction with blatant supernatural overtones, more closely related to weird fiction than any other categorization. The results are mixed, but ultimately satisfying, with a few tales that skirt tantalizingly close to brilliance.
Most of the tales entombed within Giallo Fantastique lean more toward the fantastique than giallo. Mixing the two is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the stories get bogged down in shock for the sake of shock, and an over-reliance on the surreal, which is not uncommon for a giallo. However, since the goal of the collection is an attempt to merge the two genres together, a stronger balance needs to be struck. The majority of the stories are well written and a few are very clever, but only a handful really set themselves apart from the dark flock. But oh, what a handful of darkly delicious doozies are they!
My favorite selection would have to be the enigmatic, and oh-so-gialloesquely named “The Strange Vice of ZLA-313” by MP Johnson. Johnson totally nails the spirit of the giallo but adds his own twist, setting the mayhem in the future. It’s fantastique, sci-fi, and horror all rolled into one delightful, sexy, and creepy chimichanga. Here is a writer who understands the genre and elevates it to new and exciting heights. I would have loved it to be longer.
“Sensoria” by Anya Martin is a little less far-reaching, but no less compelling. A cocktail of weird fiction ala Lovecraft and Argento-ish psychedelia, it sits with the reader long after the final page has turned. Out of all of the tales within Giallo Fantastique, “Sensoria” is the most cinematic, practically begging to be lensed by David Lynch.
High marks go to Michael Kazepis’s “Minerva,” a straight-up balls-to-the-wall giallo, and Orrin Grey’s “The Red Church,” a creepy little number which digs deep into the hallowed territory of Robert W. Chambers. Brian Keene’s “Exit Strategies” rounds out the collection as a chilling exposé of the secret occult history of the U.S. Transportation system that, honestly, doesn’t really lock into either the giallo or fantastique genre yet, somehow, fits perfectly into the collection. It’s a wonderful closing number.
Enough cannot be said about the excellent introduction by editor Ross E. Lockhart. The man knows his stuff, and his thoughtful and thankfully entertaining explanation of the entangled genres at play here makes sense of what is presented. Lockhart’s introduction makes the book much easier to digest and appreciate, especially for readers who may not be as familiar with Italian cinema.
Recently I’ve been interested in reading short story collections rather than novels. I’ve become tired of failing to get invested in a long-form story’s characters or plot, and have become accustomed to recognizing when a novel’s length is padded for thickness’ sake.
I’ve also been interested in reading work by female authors—especially within the horror genre—because most of the books I pick up tend to be written by men.
Add to that a desire to read something fun and pulpy, and Nightmare Carnival edited by Ellen Datlow seemed like the perfect fit. An entire short story collection with a diverse authorship—helmed by one of the industry’s top editors—and it’s about scary clowns, freaks, carnivals, and circuses (yes, there is a difference between the latter two).
If what I’m describing sounds interesting to you, I’ll save you some time and say that you should pick up the anthology. The book isn’t without its uneven or weaker stories—find me a collection that is—but the good (and a couple of great) outweigh the bad and the boring.
That said, this is not a book for the hardcore horror fan. Many of the stories—probably half or more—aren’t strictly horror, but are instead dark literary fiction or fantasy. The lack of the supernatural—or its de-emphasis, or its use as a vehicle for vaguely weird experimental fiction—in many of these works left me a little disappointed. I wanted the book’s cover, complete with cut-off text and faded comic-style coloring—to deliver on its promise of fun and pulp. I wanted a carnival spookhouse ride of mayhem, cheap thrills, and bright colors. Certainly, some of these stories deliver on that promise, and in very interesting and disturbing ways. Others simply do not, relying more on experimental forms of suspense and plot that don’t seem to have any substantial connection to the circus motif, which is obviously ripe for exploration in the horror forms.
Maybe this is my issue, not the book’s—but a book called Nightmare Carnival with ghouls, a weird-looking kid, and a bleeding clown on the cover tends to imply horror, right? While none of the stories were poorly written—the authors in this collection are certainly true talents—a few of them were, well, kind of pedestrian. They felt like something you’d read in a mainstream literary magazine, with a few big-top tents and carnies thrown in for flavor.
But there are quite a few really solid pieces in the book.
“Scapegoats” by N. Lee Wood is a sordid tale of mob rule and outcasts’ revenge; “And the Carnival Leaves Town” by A. C. Wise is bizarre supernatural detective story where the evidence just doesn’t add up; “Corpse Rose” by Terry Dowling is part science fiction, part urban legend; “Hibbler’s Minions” by Jeffrey Ford is a darkly-funny tale of monstrous fleas; “Screaming Elk, MT” by Laird Barron feels like a pulp action-horror romp in the contemporary Robert E. Howard school.
The two stand out stories of the collection are “The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones and “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud, both for very different reasons. Jones’ work is the only truly terrifying work in the collection; he forgoes all humor and pretense and goes straight for the jugular, capitalizing on fears of child abuse and molestation, torture, and clowns. It’s a story I read right before bed—and immediately regretted it. It also served to illustrate how the fear of clowns and the circus that many people suffer is completely underutilized in this collection. His story creeped me out in all the wrong ways.
“Skullpocket” uses horror tropes in new and interesting ways, following a cult priest and supernatural creatures as they reflect on their bizarre hybrid-town’s violent and compelling history. Out of all the stories in this collection, Ballingrud’s had the most behind it, implying a fantastic world of wonder and ruin beyond the scope of its too-few pages.
Nightmare Carnival comes recommended for these stories. Those looking to face their fear of clowns and the big top head-on, or those expecting a straight horror anthology, may be disappointed (with a few notable exceptions).
Then again, your mileage may vary—and the stories that work, well—they justify the price of admission. It’s the popcorn you pay for, but the peanut smell is free.
I’m a big fan of the V/H/S series. The first two films are the exception to the universal rule: found footage movies are boring, bad, and the last refuge of movie studios hoping to trick horror fans into shelling out their hard-earned money in exchange for an unprofessional product.
I’ll spare you the history lesson of the subgenre since The Blair Witch Project (a film that deserves recognition and acclaim as both an experimental film and a milestone in horror, even if it doesn’t quite have the same impact anymore), and say that the majority of found-footage movies have degenerated into shaky-cam addled, formulaic snoozers. There’s a few exceptions for me—the Paranormal Activity movies are usually good for one watch—but on the whole, I’ve learned to avoid these movies like the plague.
But not the V/H/S series.
The first film’s opening ten minutes are boring and tired—meant to shock us with violence, sexuality, and coarse language—but it soon gets into high gear, with a series of memorable and creative vignettes, all supposedly contained on weird VHS tapes found in a mysterious stockpile. The second film follows suit, with slightly better stories, effects, and payoff, and a subtle building of the mythos behind the supernatural snuff films.
The first two V/H/S movies have a ton of fun moments, cool creatures, and genuine jump scares. The series was, to my mind, a love letter to both anthology films and a testament to the (albeit limited) utility of “found footage” as a concept within horror cinema. They had their moments, were entertaining, and showcased a variety of directors trying new things.
It’s with great disappointment to announce that V/H/S: Viral feels like a cheap knock off of these movies. There’s a complete abandonment of the VHS concept—something that made the idea of an underground supernatural snuff film circuit seemed real, as it was limited almost exclusively to a dead technology. Want in the club? Go find a working VCR from the pawn shop. You can’t see this stuff online, or anywhere else.
It made what you were seeing seem exclusive, as if your entrance into this coven of extreme video had to be kept secret, because it was special. In the first two movies, you saw things that you shouldn’t have seen, things the rest of the world would never accept.
Not so here. The overarching narrative that bookends the different pieces is confusing, a semi-coherent series of somewhat-interrelated vignettes. It’s not clear how this footage was assembled—or if we’re supposed to think it’s been assembled—and it’s a mishmash of lazy social commentary about everyone being on their phones, filming when they should be helping.
“See you bitches on YouTube!” sneers some faceless clown trying to get a good angle on the action, before predictably falling to his death.
It’s not clear how the framework narrative—which was one of the more interesting parts of the first two films—connects the shorts together.
Some images from each do show up during the disappointing conclusion in a ham-fisted attempt at pulling it all together, but at that point the film has devolved into a teenager’s bright idea of metaness that left a sour taste in my mouth.
I knew I was in trouble when the film started with a boyfriend filming his girl’s lady parts. Get it? He’s a horny guy with a camera. He’s also a douchebag.
Both characters were cardboard cut-outs from INSERT NAME OF FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIE HERE and instantly unlikeable. Unfortunately, the same can be said about the rest of the cast. I’m not sure it was the acting that turned me off—it was probably the dialogue, which mostly consisted of people swearing, making crude sexual comments, or screaming.
Despite being the third film in a supposedly evolutionary series, the movie just couldn’t break out of established found footage movie tropes. “Are you filming me?” “Why do you have that camera?” and the like are heard over and over again. And there’s not one, but two creeper with a camera films a pretty girl’s cleavage sequences. Seriously.
Most disappointing of all is that the film ejects (pun intended) the found footage concept at times, seemingly at random. It’s not clear when we’re seeing something on a security cam, as footage from a documentary, on a handheld video, or even when we’re not seeing through a recording device. Yes, that happens in this movie on several occasions—it’ll switch from something on a camera, to supposedly objective perspective. I think. This is both disorienting and confusing, as even these sequences are shot like they are on camera, complete with shaky cam and Battlestar Galactica-style pans and zooms.
Visually, the film is a complete mess. Found footage movies have low standards to begin with, but close ups from helmet cams on gap-mouthed teens, digitized interference effects, and blood-soaked darkness creeping all over the lens combine to make the movie hard to sit through. Not only is slussing out what the film is trying to be difficult (documentary? a single tape? an online webcast? a film student’s pretentious art house project?), it’s visually grating. It gave me a headache.
The movie is not helped by its shorts. There’s the bookend narrative, which, while starting out with an interesting concept, devolves into nonsense by the end; a documentary (?) about a murderous magician; a scientist exploring an alternate reality; a boring stereotype-filled Mexican ghetto mass murder; and unlikeable male skater stereotypes fighting people in bad Halloween costumes.
The high point of the film is the short about a scientist who opens a door to a parallel universe—and meets his double. V/H/S: Viral is not worth watching, but this short definitely is. It does everything right: it starts with a simple concept, doesn’t confuse the viewer with too many perspective shifts, and ratchets up the tension until the inevitable, frightening climax(es). To say more would give it away—but let’s just say that the short gives you just enough information to freak you the hell out, while mixing it up with some grotesque and effective make up and production design.
As for the rest of the shorts, I couldn’t wait until they were over. The worst offender was the skate punks-go-to-Tijuana sequence. I couldn’t wait for them to shut up or die. Unfortunately, the creatures in this one literally look like people wearing surplus haunted house masks. I felt dumber just watching the confused, unfinished mess that was this bloody skateboarding/melee sequence. I suppose the crappy hip-hop music and skeleton guy giving the middle finger before exploding was supposed to be cool or funny or something, but I’m probably about twenty years too old to think so. Also, this sequence had some stylized still-frame, color-modified shots. I thought we were watching found footage, not processed music video crap. Oh, but look, blood, and he said the “F” word a thousand times.
Every sequence is marred by horrific, cheap digital special effects. Even the blood is digital in some sequences. What, they couldn’t spring $6 for Karo syrup? I try to be forgiving for low-budget movies, but a little practical SFX can go a long way. Since most sequences look like they were filmed over a weekend by a bunch of drunk college students, I’m willing to bet that craft and quality were not motivations for the filmmakers.
I spent $9.99 to see this movie early on Amazon Instant Video, and I regret throwing that money away. What makes this all the more disappointing is that the producers work over at Bloody Disgusting, a great horror site that loves to emphasize quality (and practical effects! ha!).
I’m a fan of the series because the first two were fun, with some great “oh sh—!” moments. This film feels more like a lazy, cynical cash grab designed for fourteen year old boys. There’s nothing wrong with movies for fourteen year old boys, if you’re a fourteen year old boy.
But for the rest of you, you can spend your money better elsewhere.
Here’s hoping that the inevitable V/H/S 4 gets the series back on track.