Sunday, September 24, 2023

Neil Gaiman's Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch (1998).

Neil Gaiman still doesn't need much of in the way of an introduction, at least as of this writing.  Experience has taught me that's the sort of thing that can always change, and sometimes faster than any of us fans might like.  The reputation of even the best stories, and their writers, has always been a precarious thing.  And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it has always been a fragile minority of readers and viewers who have kept the reputations of even seeming titans like Shakespeare alive in a world that might otherwise consign him and every other artist to the dust bin of history.  For the moment, though, it does seem as if both Gaiman and Shakespeare can count on the continued goodwill of a sufficient enough minority of audience members to know who they are, and tell others that they were or are still here. 

For the vast majority of readers and viewers, Gaiman's reputation seems as if it can be boiled down to just two touchstone points in what is and remains an otherwise sprawling literary career.  The two works of his that everybody seems to remember is either his graphic novel series, Sandman.  Or else a smaller yet vocally substantial number will point to what looks like a simple children's novel on the surface, when in reality, it's a dark Gothic fantasy by the name of Coraline.  These are the twin poles around which Gaiman's current reputation continues to oscillate.  With either party eager to claim their preferred text as the superior product from the pen of the author.  While I'll admit I fall into the latter camp that favor's the adventures of Coraline Jones over the exploits of the Dream Kingdom and its Dominions, I'd also like to think I'm smart enough to realize both texts are also not the whole story.  In addition to one warped kids book, and a series of very influential graphic novels, Gaiman has had an otherwise vibrant and artistic career as a fantasy novelist.  It's an example, or specimen of this other career, the one that doesn't get as much exposure, or recognition that I'd like to shine a spotlight on.

Aside from giving the neglected side of Gaiman's career a day in the Sun, focusing on an otherwise unremarked upon short story such as "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is helpful in serving another purpose.  One of the goals of this article is to help answer the question, "What's the next best place to start for introducing new or still novice readers to the literary magic of Gaiman's work outside of either the Dreaming or the Button House"?  I think that's where an underrated, easy to digest story like this one can come in handy.  So let's take our tickets and see how wild the ride gets.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Black Phone (2021).

What's the best way to tell a Horror story?  It's a question I haven't asked before, thought it's probably something that a lot of hard core enthusiasts of the genre might wonder about.  I think I should clarify here that when I bring this up this idea, I'm not asking what is the best work of fiction ever written within the Horror genre.  Nor am I trying to set down anything like a definitive "method" by which all such works must be composed.  That kind of notion is easily disproven by common, everyday creative practice.  Instead, I guess what I'm really concerned with is trying to figure out at what point does the Tale of Terror stop being effective, and risk the danger of drifting into the realms of, maybe not the unbearable or purely tasteless.  Gothic fiction, after all, is the kind genre that sort of relies on a sense of bad taste in order to get its effect across.  As Stephen King points out in his near text-book quality study, Danse Macabre: "The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.

"Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing - we hope - our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character.  It is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentlemen, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition...but perhaps most frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave dweller (4)".  King then asks a very important question.  "Is horror art?  On this second level, the work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points.  The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed one but you knew of - as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out.  The Stranger makes us nervous...but we love to try on his face in secret (ibid)".  It helps to notice where King is going with this particular notion of his.

As I've said above, he's not about to dictate what the writer of modern Gothic fiction can or should write.  However, I think it is possible to claim that what he does with Danse Macabre as a whole is to plant a flag, of sorts.  The whole study text serves as an illustration of what the Horror story is like at its best.  This is what King seems to mean by saying that the genre can achieve a level of artfulness that is often denied by the mainstream critics, even to this very day, after all the years since Macabre was published.  A lot of it is down to pure snobbery.  Even at it's best, the Terror Tale is always going to be the black sheep of genre fiction.  Another reason for it, however, might be down to a sense of unnecessary overindulgence.  Here's what I mean.  For the longest time now, I've been convinced that the worst thing to ever happen to the Horror genre was also its greatest moment of triumph.  The genre experienced a kind of mixed blessing renaissance during the 1980s.  It was something that happened in the wake of a string of blockbuster performances at the box office during the 60s and 70s.  It started with Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960, and John Carpenter's Halloween is what took it all mainstream.

The success of Michael Myer's big screen debut seems to have been the film that let the genie out of the bottle.  It was the key that opened the doorway for the genre boom of the 80s.  In retrospect, it's success at the box-office was enough to prove to movie studios (mainly the independents, thought some of the major also took a kind of sideline interest) that Horror was a bankable commodity.  Hence you've got the genre explosion that has since become one of the defining features of the Brat Pack era.  I've called it a mixed blessing, however.  A lot of the reason for that is because while it's true, in a sense, that Horror had arrived in a big way.  The catch was that this arrival probably always came with a price tag that no one ever paid perhaps as much attention to as they should have.  In their eagerness to carve out a name for themselves in this newly opened playing field, the majority of Horror film creators sort of wound up tripping themselves up on the banner of creative excess.  This is where the problem sets in.

When most people think of 80s Horror, the two names that come to mind are always the same: Freddy and Jason.  For better or worse, they've become the twin poster boys for that decade, and my concern is that this is what most audiences think of whenever they even hear the word Horror.  If that's the case, then I'm afraid the vast majority of filmmakers did the genre a disservice in that decade.  By letting Fred and Jay become the de facto "faces" of the genre, they've saddled the Weird Tale with a reputation which it probably doesn't deserve.  It should also go without saying that each of them doesn't even begin to exhaust the creative potential the what good Tale of Terror can do.  Not by a long shot.

The trouble is that if a lot of the makers of the Cinema of Frights during the "Morning in America" years indulged in all kinds of excesses (by which I mean drowning the screen in as much fake blood and rubber and/or plastic guts as the budget will allow) and so the trouble begins to set in when this is all that the filmmaker can focus on in terms of any larger point to the story.  My own experience has been that the more the director keeps training the camera on the grue and viscera, the more obvious it becomes that their efforts at going for excess is pretty much telegraphing their own poverty of invention.  If you go too far in that direction, what you risk happening is audiences walking out on you.  The irony here lies in the reasons for why you'd start to loose customers.  It's not for the reason you might think.  They're not walking out thinking, "This is too much, I just can't take so much gross out, etc".  Instead, the real thinking behind the dwindling box-office return is more along the lines of, "Give me a break!  This is so damned ridiculous.  How can anyone ever think this is scary?  It's the most laughable thing I've ever seen".  This, then, is the complete irony at the heart of most 80s Horror films.

By letting excess become sort of like the unofficial, guiding principle of the day, it seems to have created a license for creative laziness.  This in turn lead to the mistaken notion that the buckets of stage blood will be enough to carry the day.  If things look like they're lagging, just toss a bit of gross out at the screen.  It doesn't matter how much.  People just tend to eat this stuff up, anyway, right?  The trouble is such a mindset totally underestimates the audience, it seems.  Horror in general appears to remain the most difficult of genres to get into, even at the best of times.  It always requires greater leaps of imaginative sympathy than what is required of other storytelling formats.  Even with this fact in mind, the one thing most audiences tend to agree on is that gore never seems to work all that much unless there is a good point to it, and even then, it only seems to work without the principle of excess.  This is how come, while I can't write off all the examples of 80s Horror, a lot of it is just overrated.

Don't get me wrong, there were and are plenty of examples from that decade of the Gothic genre firing on all cylendars up on the screen.  The trick here is that there's what has to be described as a shared reason for why the best examples work so well, even as most of them diverge in terms of plot, pacing, and overall dramatic approach.  What separates a work like Joe Dante's Gremlins from a myriad of Friday the 13th clones is that Dante is the kind of artist who takes greater care of how he handles the titular horrors at the core of his story.  He knows not just when to bring the proper note of Terror on-stage.  The director is also careful not to overplay his hand.  Dante seems to realize that less is always more, even when the subject matter is a Jim Henson Muppet from hell being roasted alive in a microwave.  While I don't think it's possible to point to Dante's efforts and claim it as any kind of gold standard.  It does seem reasonable to cite it as a good workman's sample of the difference between excess and one of many best possible examples of the right display of the art of fear.  Whereas someone like Wes Craven is content with relying on showing his villain walking around in a bloody ambulance bag, Dante first gives his horrors a legit build-up so that we know the moment of shock is coming.

Then, when it comes time to give his creature the proper introduction, Dante has set things up to the point that the big reveal has a greater sense of dramatic impact.  Seeing the mother in Gremlins come upon the first major specimen of the film's title works on not just an artistic but also something of a genuine thematic level.  To borrow King's own terminology, Dante has managed to hit several targets, or phobic pressure points at once.  First, the family home twisted from a place of warmth and comfort into a de facto hunting ground for dangerous animals.  Second, is the more elemental level of threat.  Will the monster be bested, or will it feed?  The third level is what gives the Terror of the scene its necessary sense of thematic weight.  The only reason the gremlin is there at all is because the Horror of the story was invited in.  Sheer human fallibility is what has turned a human place into a den for inhuman monsters.  While offering up some of the most famous moments of fright in the history of cinema, it's that final level of thematic depth that elevates the Terror into the realm of literary art.

This is what King was talking about when he discussed the best possible artistic levels of the Gothic genre.  It's a lesson the writer appears to have learned over the course of a long apprenticeship of trial and error.  The best place to look into how King made himself into a writer is to pick up a copy of his still essential autobiographical, how-to manual, On Writing.  The question lingering over all of this background context is what does any of this have to do with a recent Horror film that was released just two years and a half ago (at leas as of this writing)?  The answer is I brought up all this context because I'm hoping to show the reader just how a film like The Black Phone works as an example of Horror done right.  One of the best surprises about it is how it almost fits in well with the best examples of Gothic fiction that 80s cinema had to offer.  The trick here is that in order to demonstrate this idea, the audience will have to learn to look beyond the Freddy-Jason splatter-fest style of storytelling, and see if it is at all possible to arrive at an appreciation for a more artistic style of Gothic storytelling.

In order to see if this is possible, I've chosen to take a look at the kind of Horror film that might have been made under the Spielbergian lens of 80s supernatural fantasy.  It has a bit in common with films like Gremlins, while at the same time telling it's own narrative.  Perhaps its also somewhat fitting that it was initially written by King's own biological son, Gothic writer Joe Hill.  So why not join in and let's unpack what has to be one of the best sleeper hits of recent years, by answering The Black Phone?