Archive for March, 2017

The name Gerald Jablonski is one that few people know, but everyone should — not that he probably cares either way. Jablonski’s comics career began in 1976 with a single strip in the pages of Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman’s Arcade #6, and then — nothing. He was literally the perennial “one-hit wonder” until 1990, when he suddenly decided to give the whole “comics career” thing another go, first with a strip in Snarf, then with further material appearing in anthology titles like Tantalizing Stories and Buzzard before Fantagraphics finally gave him a one-off book of his own, Empty Skull Comics, in 1996. And then things got kinda quiet again for the most part.

Fast-forward to 2001 when, thanks to a Xeric Grant (remember those?), he was able to self-publish the first issue of Cryptic Wit, a (very) semi-regular solo title that saw further installments unleashed on an undeserving public in 2008 and 2012. Obviously, then, “prolific” is something the esteemed Mr. Jablonski is not, but what he lacks in quantity he more than makes up for in quality. There’s just one problem with all of the publications his work has seen print in — they’ve never been big enough. And I do mean that in a strictly dimensional sense, rather than in terms of their length. Jablonski’s strips are so intricately-detailed and tightly-packed that the standard comics page — heck, even the magazine-sized pages of Buzzard — could never do them justice. Thankfully for us all, that problem has finally been solved thanks to Gary Groth’s “Fantagraphics Underground” sub-imprint, which has recently released the first, comprehensive, full-color collection of Jablonski’s work, entitled Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn, in a glorious 9 1/2″ x 13 1/2″ format, so at last we can see 100 pages of what this enigmatic talent has to offer without having to strain our eyes. Thank you!

To the extent that Jablonski’s comics are “known” for anything, it’s for their signature looping, twisting, spiraling word balloon tails. Seriously, they’re a veritable maze trailing from the mouths of their speakers, but as singularly bizarre as they are, they pale in comparison to the mind-bogglingly surreal contents of his (always one-page) strips themselves, which generally fall into three distinct groups :

  • The “Farmer Ned” stories begin with their eponymous narrator either lamenting the state of the world today, completely over-hyping the significance of the yarn he’s about to relate, or both, before cutting to a scene of a smart-assed young calf giving its mother a hard time and then following the travails of a disruptive newcomer to the farm (usually, though not always, a horse) who proceeds to work the nerves of every other animal around until the story not so much ends as simply stops;
  • The “Two Kids” stories delineate the wordless psychedelic violent confrontations between a youthful Ronald Reagan doppleganger and a youthful Gerald Ford doppleganger in a manner that can only be described as “Spy Vs. Spy on bad acid”;
  • And, finally, the “Howdy And Dee Dee” stories follow the exploits of a midlife, bear-faced “man” and his yellow-skinned, dog-eared nephew, who’s always playing his favorite band, Poopy, so loud that his uncle can’t hear his favorite radio serial, which inevitably leads to a series of vaudevillian insult trade-offs, followed by the nephew complaining about his teacher, who is an ant, and the arrival of a third figure, a friend of Dee Dee’s who looks vaguely like Tony Randall and never says a word. He does, however, wear a pink apron and look pained and/or constipated at all times. Again, these strips don’t really conclude, they just come to a stop, and their titles seldom, if ever, have anything to do with what’s happening on the page.

I’ll be the first to admit that the term “acquired taste” would be more than appropriate to drop into the proceedings as a descriptive at this point, but seriously — if you can’t get with this shit, it’s your loss. Jablonski’s comics are not only gut-bustingly hilarious, they’re also visually arresting on a level that’s almost impossible to conceive of until you see ’em for yourself. In his introduction to this volume, Jim Woodring reverently describes Jablonski as a true “lunatic,” and it’s no hyperbole — his vision is so well and truly singular that it could only come from a mind with no concern beyond emptying its contents onto the page in as authentic a manner as possible. The visual language they speak is so completely unlike anything else that it offers no evidence whatsoever its author has ever even seen another comic strip by another artist at any point in his life, much less bothered to develop an understanding of what his chosen medium “can” or “can’t,” “should” or “shouldn’t” do. Jablonski creates art for that rarest and most honest of all reasons — because he can and probably even must. The idea of an “end user” in the form of an audience doesn’t seem to enter into his thinking at all — you can take this shit or leave it, but it is what it is, and what it is certainly is nothing like anything else.

I’d say that I “love” this book, but honestly that seems too small a word with too narrow a set of emotions and reactions attached to it. In truth, I’m in awe of it, I’m perplexed by it, I’m amused (to no end) by it, I’m flabbergasted by it, I’m confounded by it, I’m fucking envious of the intellect it came from, and I’m amazed by the fact that I can be as constantly taken aback as I am by strips that play out in more or less exactly the same fashion every time. And maybe the best part of all is that Gerald Jablonski could care less what I think and he’s just gonna keep making the comics he wants to make in the way that he wants to make them, reaction to his work be damned. That’s integrity of a sort that’s almost impossible to come by in this day and age, and to which all I can say in response is — I don’t care how or when I die, just make sure I’m buried with a copy of Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn in my hands.

It’s probably not a great sign when a film sits on the shelf for six years, unreleased and undistributed, but such is the case with The Haunting Of Ellie Rose, a modest little low-budget number out of the UK from first-time director Tristan Versluis (who also co-wrote the script with Tim Major and Andy Thompson), a guy who’s apparently has made a name for himself as one of the top makeup artists in the British film and television industry — and has subsequently returned to that line of work. Again, probably not a great sign.

So, anyway,  yeah — this flick was actually filmed back in 2009, but hung around collecting dust until 2015, when it was finally released on DVD as well as onto various home viewing platforms, including Amazon Prime, which is how I caught it. I certainly wasn’t expecting much given what little I knew of the production’s backstory, it’s true, but hey — I’ve found celluloid diamonds in considerably rougher spots than this in the past. Would this then prove to be another pleasant, unexpected surprise?

The short answer to that, I’m sorry to say,  is “no,” but it’s not for lack of trying on Versluis’ part. His script here is paper-thin, to be sure — beaten down (emotionally, mentally, physically) by an abusive marriage, our protagonist (played by Eastenders star Lucy Benjamin), whose name you already know, splits from asshole husband Frank (Bill Ward) and returns to her disused family cabin, ostensibly on the US east coast, where flashbacks to her troubled childhood soon threaten to overtake her waking life and go some way toward amping up the apprehension she feels toward either splitting the scene, or staying where she is and awaiting the arrival of — someone. Honestly, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what is coming, if anything, but that’s a secondary concern for Versluis, since he spends most of his time piecing together where his central character has been.

In fact,in a very real sense, the present-day scenes in this film are just stage-setters for the flashbacks — Ellie stares out to sea a lot and pours herself one drink after another, and we do learn that an impending reunion with her younger sister, Chloe (Alexandra Moen), is what’s she’s so stressed about, but the real “action,” to the extent that it even exists, happens in the past, where we meet younger versions of Ellie and Chloe, as well as their emotionally distant mother, Rose (Kika Mirylees), whose supposed “transformation” from warm and loving parent to ice queen is still having reverberations in her daughters’ lives to this day. Although, ya know, stumbling across her dead body probably traumatized them a lot more —

I give Versluis credit for eschewing typical horror movie visual tropes in favor of a more “art house” look to his proceedings, but his disjointed time-jumps and rapid-fire editing do start to grate before too long. And by the fourth time we’re treated to a black-and-white flashback of the girls discovering their mother’s mutilated corpse, you’re more than ready to say “enough is enough.” The scenes look uniformly good, I’ll grant you that, but damn — they also looked good the first time, and once was plenty. Padding out a film is a necessary fact of life sometimes, sure, but when you go over the same ground over and over again and still only end up with an 80-minute feature,well, you’re in Nick Millard territory at that point.

The cast does a pretty decent job across the board here, particularly Benjamin (although all of them struggle with their American accents from time to time), but it’s not so much the quality of the material they’re given that holds them back as its sheer paucity. At the end of the day, The Haunting Of Ellie Rose feels like nothing so much as a 20-minute short extended far beyond its carrying capacity, and hoping desperately that some well-executed atmospherics can establish a pleasing enough “vibe” to distract you from the fact that there’s just not much happening here. It comes far short of pulling off that hustle, no question, but in strange way I do sort of admire Versluis and company for the earnestness with which they try to convince you that the appetizer they’re serving is actually a full meal.



This has been a rough week indeed for comics fans. Already reeling from the too-soon departures of underground legends Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, just hours ago news broke of the death of Bernie Wrightson, whose lavishly creepy illustrations haunted the imaginations — and found their way into the nightmares — of generations of readers. Arguably (hell, maybe even inarguably) the premier horror artist of our times, the esteemed Mr. Wrightson was a pre-eminent innovator and consummate craftsman whose painstaking attention to even the smallest of details made all the difference in the world and elevated his work from being “merely” great to being both great and memorable. But don’t just take my word for it, feast your eyes on some of his grimly lush renderings and decide for yourself :

As you can clearly see, Wrightson (who for many years omitted the “e” at the end of his first name and signed his work “Berni”) was a master of all mediums, from the brush to gray markers to pen-and-ink to washes to duotone paper to painting — you name it, he tried it, and always with resounding success. He really was just that good.

Wrightson began his professional career in 1966 working as an illustrator for his hometown Baltimore Sun newspaper, but after meeting legendary comics and fantasy artist Frank Frazetta at a convention he felt sufficiently inspired to give comics a try, and in 1968 was hired on by DC, where his work began appearing regularly in the House Of Mystery and House Of Secrets horror anthology series. Similar work for Marvel followed on “of-a-piece” titles such as Chamber Of Darkness and Tower Of Shadows, but his “big break” came in 1971 when he and writer Len Wein created the most famous “muck monster” character of them all, Swamp Thing, for a one-off Victorian-era story in House Of Secrets #92.  The strip proved to be so popular that Swampy was given his own series, complete with a revamped, then-modern origin, and Wrightson illustrated the first ten issues of Swamp Thing before signing on with Warren Publishing in 1974, where he put his then-positively-exploding talents to use on both original stories and adapted works (most notably of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft) for legendary black-and-white mags such as Creepy and Eerie.

The mid-’70s ushered in a new chapter, with Wrightson and studio-mates Jeff Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Michael W. Kaluta expanding their reach beyond comics and into commercial art, but he never left the funnybooks behind completely, and his 1983 graphic novel adaptation of George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow led to a sustained and productive working relationship with King that saw him produce original illustrations for the books Cycle Of The WerewolfWolves Of Calla, and the restored edition of the classic The Stand. 1983 also saw the publication, via Dodd, Mead, and Company, of a deluxe edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein complete with nearly 50 pen-and-ink illustrations that Wrightson had spent seven years producing and that many consider to be the pinnacle of his masterful use of line and shadow. Here’s just a sample :

In 1985, Wrightson and writer Jim Starlin oversaw Marvel’s Heroes For Hope, an all-star “jam” benefit comic for African famine relief, and in 1986 they did the same for DC with Heroes Against Hunger, beginning a long and fruitful collaborative partnership that saw them team up on the highly-regarded mini-series The Weird and Batman : The Cult for DC and The Punisher : P.O.V. for Marvel in ensuing years. A wide range of card game, film design, and commercial work followed on from there, as well and continued comics work for publishers such as Heavy Metal (the character of Captain Sternn in the Heavy Metal film was a Wrightson creation), Dark Horse, IDW, and Bongo until his retirement this past January due to health issues following brain surgery.

Bernie Wrightson — incomparable talent, winner of too many industry awards to mention, and delineator of gorgeous grotesqueries for  a half-century — lost his long battle with brain cancer on March 18, 2017, aged 68. He is preceded in death by his first wife, undergound comix cartoonist and “Big Two” colorist Michele Wrightson, and is survived by wife Liz, sons John and Jeffrey, and stepson Thomas. He cast a long and darkly beautiful shadow over the lives of comics and horror fans around the globe, and his untimely passing casts the longest one of all. Thank you, good sir — may you rest in peace as surely as your work will continue to cause sleepless nights for years to come.

Sometimes, friends, I just don’t even know where to begin.

I like to consider myself a fairly seasoned veteran when it comes to all things cinematically bad (I don’t call myself “Trash Film Guru” for nothing), but once in awhile something comes along that defies even my ground-down-over-time ability to adequately process. I’ve seen plenty of films that make no sense whatsoever — some good, some decidedly less so — but one thing even the most inexplicably bizarre servings of celluloid sewage have in common is that they were all trying to do something. Maybe it wasn’t something worth trying. Maybe it was something they flat-out shouldn’t have tried. But right or wrong, they all see it through to the end and sink or swim based on whatever fucking idea or premise they started out with.

Such is not the case with director John Hijiri’s 2009 zero-budget mega-turkey Jaws In Japan, which I caught earlier today streaming on Amazon Prime under its alternate international DVD (and whatever you do, I wouldn’t recommend sinking your hard-earned money into that) release title, Psycho Shark. This flick is like nothing I’ve ever seen simply because it seems to change its mind not once, but twice, about why it even exists. And as its thankfully brief 70-minute runtime drew to a close, all I could think is that it probably shouldn’t even exist at all.

Initially, Hijiri and screenwriter Yasutoshi Murakawa seem to be happy to simply dish out yet another Japanese bikini-romp, which makes sense given that its supposed “stars,” Nonami Takizawa and Airi Nakajima (as fun-loving college girls Miki and Mai, respectively) are what’s known as “gravure idols,” and neither of them can act worth a damn. Pretty early on, though, the decision is made that watching two admittedly quite pretty young ladies run around half-naked isn’t enough in and of itself to keep viewers interested if they’re not gonna get completely naked at some point, and so, while the “wear a swimsuit at all times” trope doesn’t go away, by any means, it’s simply steered into service of something that has the makings of an ostensible plot. Cue abrupt change number one.

This is the point at which our nubile co-eds find themselves completely lost on the island paradise they’re vacationing at and end up meeting a skeevy local who guides them to a hotel owned by a creep with blood under his fingernails who’s probably killing off tourists but, like an idiot, leaves their camcorders around for people like Miki and Mai to find. So, yeah, what we’re apparently looking at now is some sort of “found footage” serial killer flick.  And a damn boring one at that.

Unless, of course, roughly 45 mish-mashed minutes of watching shit “shaky-cam” footage, watching girls watching shit shaky-cam footage, and watching those same girls sleep, go to the beach, and take bikini-clad showers sounds gripping to you. There’s honestly more attention paid to — and more dialogue focused on — those ever-present bikinis than there is to the “killer on the loose” storyline, which is fair enough given that bikinis are more interesting than said storyline, but seriously — why not just make a “gravure” feature and leave it at that?

Evidently, Hijiri and Murakawa decided their “mockumentary”-style movie-within-a-movie wasn’t working out too well, either, so with approximately ten minutes to go, they abandon that conceit in favor of abrupt change number two : a giant CGI shark. Earlier scenes in this film borrowed obviously (and ineptly) from both Psycho and The Ring, but seriously, even though the film’s title gives it away, the sudden and hard pull into Jaws territory makes no sense whatsoever and feels very much like the last-second addition that it is (which makes me wonder what they were gonna call it before tacking this shit on at the end, but whatever). If you’ve got whiplash at this point, rest assured, you’re not alone.

Or maybe you are, because chances are that nobody else is awake at this point. Seriously, unlike other rankly amateur cut-rate CGI abominations like Birdemic, there’s just nothing weird or interesting going on here to maintain your interest until that shark shows up at the end, and by then it’s all far too little, far too late. It seems really strange that a film with pretty young women running around in next to nothing capped at the end with a laughably absurd CG monster could be boring, but that’s exactly what Jaws in Japan is. In fact, it’s downright interminably dull. And while I can certainly forgive (heck, more often than not I love) ultra-low budgets, cheesy FX, and absurd stories, one thing I can’t forgive is dullness. And no matter how many times Hijiri tries for a “do-over” with this thing, he never figures out how to turn it into anything you’re going to give a shit about.

Review : “Grass Kings” #1

Posted: March 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

My latest comic review for Graphic Policy website —

Graphic Policy

I’m not sure what it is about human beings and plots of land, but ever since our species (well, most of us, at any rate) gave up its nomadic ways, the places we’ve chosen to inhabit have become downright sacred to us. On the one hand, that can manifest itself in generally innocuous, perhaps even quaint, ways such as hometown pride. On the other, it can give rise to genuinely ugly impulses such as nationalism and a fear of the other, of those who come from somewhere else.

It remains to be seen how attachment to place will play out in the pages of Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins‘ new series Grass Kings, the first issue of which has just seen print courtesy of Boom! Studios, but there’s no doubt that this particular patch of dirt near a lake (referred to simply as “the” lake)…

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Some may say that the heyday of the swamp creature in comic books has long since passed, but I’m not so sure. Granted, the Alan Moore/Steve Bissette/Rick Veitch/John Totleben run on DC’s Swamp Thing back in the 1980s set the bar pretty high, but rather than try to compete with that, recent swamp-monster comics have been trying for something of a “return to roots” (bad pun, I’m sorry) approach : Swamp Thing himself returned for a six-part mini-series last year helmed by his co-creator, Len Wein, and artist Kelley Jones (whose style has always owed a heavy debt of gratitude to Bernie Wrightson) that saw them basically flat-out ignore Moore and everything after and make the former Alec Holland an old-school “muck monster” all over again, and now Marvel has decided to get in on the throwback act by bringing back their own stalker of the swamps, Man-Thing, with no less than Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine at the wheel. Could we, perhaps, be in the midst of a full-on swamp creature renaissance?

I guess the jury’s still out on that one, but for fans of these sorts of books, the signs look good : admittedly, Swamp Thing circa 2016 turned out to be something of an up-and-down affair that probably ran out of nostalgic charm at about the four issue mark, but if and when he returns I’ll probably toss my three (or four) bucks in and give it a go again, and the same “what the hell have I got to lose?” sense of nostalgia compelled me to open my wallet for the new Man-Thing #1, as well. I’m by no means a hard-core Stine fan (although there are certainly enough of ’em out there to bring at least a few who are non-comics-readers into shops to see what this is all about, I’d wager), but I do still have a decidedly soft spot for Steve Gerber’s old ’70s run on the series, although that’s something of a two-edged sword, for while Gerber may not have created Man-Thing as he did Howard The Duck, both characters were essentially stand-ins for their author that he marked with his own indelible stamp of Philip K. Dick-esque, quasi-metafictional “high weirdness” —  and neither has fared particularly well in the hands of other creators who have attempted one failed re-launch after another. You’d think Marvel would have learned after Gerber left The Defenders way back in the day and his group-therapy-centric “un-team” immediately devolved into a low-rent Avengers rip-off that floundered for about another hundred issues or so before finally receiving a long-overdue mercy killing that once the idiosyncratic scribe left his stamp on something it should just be left well enough alone, but the problem is especially pronounced in the case of Man-Thing because he’s literally an empty vessel : an unthinking, shambling, mockery of a man who wanders into situations based on a kind of “emotional telepathy” that draws him toward conflict, whereupon he makes contact with the most fearful individual involved (usually — okay, always — the bad guy) and, well — “whoever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch,” right? Then he exits stage left and the story’s over.

So, yeah — without all the social, political, and personal allegory that Gerber was able to channel into the situations that surrounded Man-Thing, it’s gotta be said : he never amounted to much more than a mound of moss. But Stine has a rather clever way around that little problem : his Man-Thing, you see, can think and speak. Not only that, he’s trying to make a go of it in Hollywood! Not that it’s going especially well, mind you — and it looks like it might go from bad to worse when his previous, mindless incarnation shows up to take his “life” back — but hey, wouldn’t you be looking for work in monster movies if you were in his shoes (not that he wears any), too? What else is he gonna do? Work at Wal-Mart or the post office?

Don’t ask me how or why his brain started working again — not being anything like a continuity expert on Marvel’s last couple of decades’ worth of printed matter I just couldn’t tell you, and for all I know maybe it hasn’t been explained yet and figuring out the mystery behind the “new” Man-Thing is something that Stine will be exploring in this five-parter — but it certainly works as far as core conceits go. Sure, the basic narrative tone of this opening installment is “retro” all the way — complete with omniscient narration, “purple” prose, thought balloons, a lengthy origin recap, and any number of currently-out-of-fashion literary tropes — but to see them all conscripted into service of a decidedly modern type of story is pretty damn refreshing and immediately gives one reason to be optimistic that this comic will aspire to something both other and better than the pure nostalgia ride that was Wein and Jones’ Swamp Thing reboot.

The artwork by German Peralta goes some way toward reinforcing this belief, as well — influences abound, obviously, as there are distinct visual cues that borrow not so much from previous iterations of Man-Thing as they do from old-time horror comics in general (Graham Ingels’ EC work and Ditko’s legendary Warren stories come immediately to mind when looking at some of these panels), but it’s not like every single page here would look right at home in the pages of Eerie or Creepy if it were in black-and-white. Some would, to be sure, but hey, let’s be glad that they’re not, because Rachelle Rosenberg’s watercolor-influenced hues on this comic are straight-up gorgeous and suit this material perfectly. Wrap it all up under a cover provided by Mr. Harrow County himself, the one and only Tyler Crook, and you’ve got one damn good-looking funnybook.

It’s not all perfect, mind you — there’s a genuinely useless and insipid backup feature that takes up the last four pages and leaves you feeling more than a bit financially cheated for shelling out $3.99 for what amounts to a 16-page story (in other words, smart folks may just want to “trade-wait” the whole thing) — but it is fun, smart, easy on the eyes and, perhaps most importantly, hearkens back to the past without becoming stuck in it. Purists may balk at the very idea of an intelligent (or even self-aware) Man-Thing and throw in the towel immediately, sure, but that’s their loss. Stine’s effortless mix of the old and the new grabbed me right away,  and while I’ll always be interested in where Man-Thing has been, as of now I’m far more interested in where he — and this series — are going in the future.

One flick that’s been spoken of with, it seems, nothing but respect — if not something very much akin to awe — over the years is writer/director Amanda Gusack’s 2005 “found footage” indie horror In Memorium, a true no-budgeter that’s said to share a number of stylistic similarities with its better-known semi- contemporary, Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity, but while that 2007 film  ended up serving as the spingboard to perhaps the genre’s most unlikely franchise and made Peli a genuine “big-wig” in the cinematic world, this one just sort of continued to be recommended by word of mouth (whether those mouths be literal or digital) but seen by very few, and Gusack herself made one more film, 2008’s relatively-larger-budgeted The Betrayed, before apparently throwing in the towel on this whole dream of making movies altogether. There really is no justice in this world.

Still, maybe the tide is turning — albeit slowly and too late. In Memorium, goofy title spelling and all, has for some reason recently become available on any number of “home viewing platforms” (including Amazon Prime, which is how I caught it), and so we can now legitimately ask whether this or Paranormal Activity has stood the test of time better. Even though most of us are seeing this for the first time.

I’m probably being a little bit hard on Peli’s “game-changer,” especially given that I actually liked it quite a bit on first viewing (and have enjoyed a couple of its sequels even more), but really, it doesn’t necessarily withstand the scrutiny of repeat viewings very well before it starts to grate, although in fairness that may simply be down to the fact that Micah Sloat is one of the most annoying characters (and actors) in horror history. But hey, if it aped its entire premise — as it now seems it did — from a prior film, well shoot, that just ain’t fair, is it?

Maybe a quick plot summary of In Memorium will help you decide if you think Paranormal Activity was, indeed a “copycat” effort or not : an aspiring filmmaker named Dennis (played by Erik McDowell) recently found out some very bad news — he’s got terminal cancer and will be lucky to survive the next two months. He’s gonna do his best to turn his suffering into art, though, by moving himself and his girlfriend, Lily (Johanna Watts) into a new house with a high-tech security set-up, and his hope is that after his passing she and his brother/frequent visitor, Frank (Levi Powell) can assemble some sort of documentary of his final days from the raw footage captured by the various security cameras set up all over the residence. What are you supposed to do, though, when said security cameras seem to be capturing something else altogether — something that suggests, weird as it may sound, that cancer might actually be the least of your worries since you’re in more pressing and immediate danger from another threat altogether? One that appears to involve the supernatural possession of someone very close to you?

Stark and austere blacks, whites, and grays are the primary visual language that Gusack communicates her lean, 73-minute story in, and not only are they stylish and effective, they fit the somber tone of the story to a proverbial “T,” and the actors, while clearly not professional, still seem to come off fairly natural in front of the camera(s). It certainly looks and feels like every bit the homemade production it is, to be sure, but that’s more than merely “okay” under these circumstances, it’s down essential in order to lend the project the credibility it needs in order to be well and truly effective — and is there’s one thing In Memorium is, it’s wildly, dare I even say admirably, effective. When you have no money, the best kind of film you can make is one that not only requires no money, but that can literally only be made with no money, and to her eternal credit, Gusack has crafted a production here that wouldn’t work with anything like “normal” or even “cheap” production values. Money — even a little bit of money — would compromise the faux-authenticity (goddamn, but there’s an oxymoron) that oozes (quietly but menacingly) from every frame of this film, and if you’ve been looking for iron-clad proof that “less is more,” then congratulations! Your search is over.

I could go on and on, I suppose, praising the strong atmospherics, genuinely surprising scares, artistically-composed scenes, smart dialogue, etc. on offer here, but honestly, I’m a critic with a conscience, and every additional minute you spend doing something other than watching In Memorium is time that could be better spent by checking it out for yourself. Amanda Gusack, if you ever happen to read this, please! Get back behind the camera as soon as you can.

There’s no excuse for it at this point beyond a pathetic combination of sadism and addiction : when new(-ish) “found footage” horror flicks show up in the Amazon Prime streaming queue, I’m in. Particularly if they’re of the “micro-budget” variety. 90-plus percent of these things are absolute turkeys, and of the less-than- ten percent that aren’t, only a small handful rise above the level of “merely competent,” but in my admittedly very tepid defense, there are still a few gems to be found while sifting through all the wretched, nigh-unwatchable dross. Unfortunately, the one I chose to subject myself to last night, 2016’s The Final Project, isn’t one of them.

The brainchild of director/co-writer (along with one Zachary Davis) Taylor Ri’chard, this rancid and rankly amateur effort follows the exploits of six university students who are collaborating on a — you guessed it — final project for their filmmaking class that sees them make the trek to Vacherie, Louisiana to explore the infamous Lafitte Plantation, a purported hotbed of supernatural activity ever since a slave who was a (probably less-than-willing) mistress of the joynt’s owner, along with four union soldiers, lost their lives there during a Civil War battle. Their restless spirits are said, wouldn’t ya know, to still be shuffling around the property, and lots of other poor saps have met mysterious ends there in the ensuing years, but while you or I would probably figure that was as good an excuse as any to stay the fuck away, that’s just not how things work in the world of “mockumentary” horror, and so nominal group “leader” Genevieve (played by Arin Jones), her boyfriend Gavin (Sergio Suave — who I genuinely feel sorry for if that’s the name on his birth certificate), her ex, Jonah (Leonardo Santaiti), the level-headed and responsible Anna (Teal Haddock), whiny spoiled brat Missy (Amber Erwin), and the generally useless Ky (Evan McLean) decide to roll the dice against fate and hope that they have better luck than, it would seem, anyone else who’s ever set foot on the grounds. Good luck with that.

You needn’t worry about whether or not they survive, of course — their demise is telegraphed from the outset when a silhouetted narrator/presenter says flat-out that he “will never understand why they would go to a place that was known to be haunted. The Lafitte Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana is a place you don’t play with. They knew that.” So, the first thing we know about these kids is that they’re stupid. The second thing we know is that they’re dead. And soon enough you will be, as well — dead bored, that is.

GoPro head-cams are the filming apparatus of choice here, but curiously enough, only some of the scenes appear to have been shot with them, with a number of others resorting to standard-issue (for this sort of thing, at any rate) “shaky cam” stuff, so don’t ask me how that works. Maybe Ri’chard hopes you’ll be so distracted by the bog-standard bumps, crashes, shrieks, and one-by-one disappearances of characters that are peppered throughout at the absolute most predictable times to notice the logical inconsistency inherent in his basic premise, but that would require said by-the-numbers “scares” to be interesting, and trust me when I say they’re anything but. When you pair up this wretched dullness with the film’s substandard acting — which ranges from simply incompetent on the high end to cringe-worthy and dreadful on the low end — the final result is a finished product that has absolutely nothing going for it. And since when does “raw footage” feature incidental music, anyway? Chalk that up to being one more head-scratcher in a flick that’s packed to the gills with them.

Look, I’m trying my best not to be a complete asshole here, but it’s really tough. This film has lame dialogue, poorly-staged “jump scares,” a generic “mow ’em down until we get to the final girl” plot structure, ineffective scene staging, up-and-down (mostly down) sound quality, subplots that are as uninvolving as the main one — look, it’s just no damn good. I give Ri’chard points for assembling a diverse cast that flies in the face of this subgenre’s depressing history (and present) of all-white ensembles, but if none of ’em can actually act, well — what’s the point?

And that’s really the big question all the way across the board here. If The Final Project turns out to be exactly that for Ri’chard, Davis, and their actors, I don’t think any tears will be shed.


Once upon a time, Jeff Lemire was one of the most interesting up-and-coming cartoonists around. Essex County landed with a bang — rather surprising considering its slow-burn, quiet pace — and seemed to announce the arrival of a major new talent with a highly personal, indiosyncratic vision. His career seemed poised to take off, and take off it did — although perhaps not in the direction many (most?) of us expected.

Enter “The Big Two.” Lemire’s wistful, free-flowing art style was never going to be seen in a Superman or Spider-Man comic, to be sure, but his writing was another matter, and while for a time he was able to balance his more personal, nominally “independent” projects such as Sweet Tooth and Trillium with “corporate comics” like Animal Man, once he signed on with Marvel, he started writing damn near everything in sight — with decidedly mixed results. His take on Moon Knight, for instance, has been uniformly interesting (thanks in no small part to Greg Smallwood’s superb artwork), and Thanos seems off to a promising start, but the less said about his X-Men work, the better.

In recent months, however, there have been promising signs that Lemire is looking to get off the corporate treadmill, or to at least find more time for work he can pour his considerable soul into. His revisionist super-hero title with artist extraordinaire Dean Haspiel for Dark Horse, Black Hammer, is a tour-de-force of inspired creativity that pays homage to men-in-tights tropes while smartly deconstructing them in plain sight, and his lavish watercolor-tinged illustrations in A.D. : After Death, a collaboration with superstar writer Scott Snyder, are gorgeously evocative things to behold. It was probably only a matter of time, then,  before he assumed full writer-artist responsibilities on something near and dear to his heart, and last Wednesday that project arrived in the form of the over-sized first issue of Royal City, his new monthly ongoing from Image Comics. It’s time to let Lemire be Lemire again.


The watercolors are ported over from A.D. and  Trillium for this one, but so are the more tightly-refined lines (comparatively speaking, mind you) of Essex County, making this something of a mix of the old and the new as far as the art goes, and the same appears to be true of the writing : the strong sense of place so integral to earlier works is here in spades, with the titular city immediately and fairly effortlessly establishing itself in our minds as a former industrial hub fallen on somewhat hard times, while the central characters, the Pike family, are experiencing something of a Twilight Zone-ish series of visions of their deceased son/brother at various stages in his life. Where that’s all headed no one knows, but Lemire’s explored the power of memory-tinged apparitions before in his graphic novel The Underwater Welder, and my best guess is that the long-form narrative structure of a proper series will be a more successful format to explore those themes than was that self-contained book, which missed its marks as often as it hit them, resulting in a decidedly “mixed bag” affair. Our various protagonists are fleshed out in broad and basic strokes here, it’s true, but that’s nonetheless effective as an exercise in small-scale “world building,” especially when this story is so obviously determined to be every bit as much about a place as it is the people who inhabit it. We see enough of everyone and everything to know all we need to know about them here, and you really can’t ask for a whole lot more from a first issue than that, can you?


That being said, there’s also something missing here, and it was only on second read-through that it finally hit me what that was : while this is undoubtedly a very personal piece of work, the older and (hopefully) wiser Lemire seems, at least to this point, to be maintaining a certain clinical distance between himself and his characters, almost like he’s observing them rather than fully engaging with them. We’ll see if that continues to be the case as events (and issues) unfold, but for the time being, it’s definitely not what we’re used to from this creator.


Still, who knows? Even if that does prove to be the tone going forward, maybe it’ll turn out to be a good thing. I certainly trust Lemire’s storytelling instincts enough to go wherever he’s leading us, and to let him guide us there in whatever manner he sees fit. This comic seems to be “item one” on Lemire’s still-quite-busy agenda, so chances are better than good that it’ll prove to be something quite special by the time all is said, drawn, and done. I was happy with, and intrigued by, my initial foray into Royal City, and I think that visiting it again every 30 days will prove to be a very rewarding experience, indeed.




As far as modern UFO “flaps” go, none are more well-known than the so-called “Phoenix Lights” incident of 1997, and while I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten anything like an “official explanation” as to what went down, I’ll guarantee you this much — the reality of the situation, whatever it may be, is probably far more interesting than 2016’s “found footage” indie micro-budgeter The Phoenix Tapes ’97. Even if all it was all just swamp gas or reflections of the planet Venus.

The authorship behind this particular piece of garbage is difficult to ascertain — the film has no credits, but that’s par for the course with these things. What’s far less common is the fact that this flick has no IMDB page, and that its official website lists none of the names of the people involved in its production, either. It does, however, make the more-than-dubious claim that the flick was “banned” from all streaming services save for Amazon Prime (which is where I caught it, obviously), a pathetically transparent slice of old-school hucksterism designed to foll the gullible into thinking that maybe this is the “real deal,” after all.


Which, needless to say, it isn’t — but if it were, events would purportedly have happened thusly : a guy named Dustin Miller was a “top-secret government agent” of some sort who was killed during a routine traffic stop in Texas. His father, Pete, was never satisfied with the authorities’ accounting of his son’s death, and when he finds a barely-plastered-over “cubbyhole” in his deceased offspring’s home, he thinks he’s found the real reason for the young fella’s untimely demise : hidden videotape recordings that shows the “truth” about what those mysterious lights in the sky were all those years ago. Pete’s determined to put put this material into the public’s supposedly eager hands, and so while he may be on hand to say a a few words at the starting and finishing lines, the rest of the movie is the “unedited footage” just as he found it.


Trust me when I say you’re gonna wish he’d left the whole thing alone. What we’ve got here is tedious “road trip” nonsense featuring four dumbfuck “bros” who have rented an RV to go spend a weekend in the Arizona desert. All they wanna do is get drunk, talk about girls, give each other shit, and crack dick and fart jokes, but instead on their very first night “away from civilization” (but evidently not that far away — listen closely and you’ll be able to hear somebody’s dog barking in their back yard) they hear loud explosions and see a meteorite (or something) crash into the nearby hills. This affords us the only mildly interesting and competently-executed scene in the film, but things go from almost-worth-staying-awake-for to depressingly dull in a hurry when we get the usual shaking of the RV and noises on its roof right after the big boom. When they wake up, the Winnebago’s dead and one of our quartet of clowns is missing, but don’t worry — his friends will be joining him soon enough, as on night two, shortly after witnessing those famous light in the sky, they’re dragged off, one by one, by a vaguely-visible shape that’s just, ya know, gotta be an extraterrestrial invader of some sort. With the tape still rolling the whole time, of course. The end. Sound like something you want to check out? Nah, I didn’t think so. You are, after all, much smarter than I am.


Look, I get it — evil aliens have become a staple of the “mockumentary” subgenre in recent years, and if I had no money and wanted to make a film with my friends for some reason, this might be the way I decided to go. Or not.  Thankfully, I have a job and other shit to do, so it’s not like it’s something I need to think about. It’s just too bad that whoever really is behind this thing (my money is on one of the film’s nominal and nameless “stars” being the guilty party) didn’t listen to the little voice in their head telling them that they were wasting their time by doing this.

I’ll tell you one thing, though — if I ever made anything as dull, predictable, amateurish, and just plain lousy as The Phoenix Tapes ’97, I wouldn’t put my name on it anywhere, either.