It seems a bit ridiculous to put the previous year in perspective; after all, what can we say but the big blue marble completed another track around the giant ball of fire? But a year is how we take stock: of ourselves, of the state of the world, of anything that matters to us as a society, a civilization, a species.
And none of it seems very good. Even if we wanted to set aside the global lunacy affecting us all on both micro and macro scales, we face problems that, to my own admittedly cynical eye, appear insurmountable. We've gone crazy, and none of us seem immune to modern dancing mania. On a personal level, even as I managed the fallout of a major personal incident that occurred a couple of years ago, new professional and personal issues required more of my energy and attention. I skipped events to ensure stability; those I attended had a bittersweet air. I missed deadlines for open calls I found interesting, and flirted with giving up writing several times; while I wrote more fiction this year, only a handful of pieces sold. The result is I begin the new year more tired than I have been in a while.
And yet, on the writing front, this has been my best year ever. I had six stories published in 2022, the most I've released in a single year, including:
I've been on TikTok for over a year now, and
For 2023, I plan editing my novel, and writing more fiction.
At this point, that's about all I can do.
If I had to choose one word that describes the Other Worlds Austin 2022 film festival, it would be “melancholy.” I do not believe this was by intention. Even when it began its run nine years ago, an attendee often found themes accreting to the movies and shorts presented. If the 2014 film festival overflowed with an abundance of love for the genre in its various guises and styles, from serious to comic, from intimate character studies to sprawling space opera, then its recent and final showcase served as a reflective concluding chapter. Yes, while there were time slips, fantasy landscapes, and tales of terror, at the heart of most were relationships: some either breaking or on the verge of collapsing, some seemingly damaged beyond repair, or some that faced the realizations of moving on.
If this sounds grim, it’s not meant to be. Not exactly. Earlier this year Other Worlds Austin announced its 2022 festival would be its last. Its founder, Bears Rebecca Fonte, is moving on to other projects. So the selections might be seen as a reflection on that decision. Or perhaps my own sadness at seeing this unique festival colored my attendance. It shouldn’t, because this year’s lineup proved to be one of its strongest.
Initially the festival was to kick off with Mad Heidi, in which a dystopian Switzerland falls under the rule of a cheese tyrant, only to be confronted by a girl from the Swiss Alps who has transformed from a gentle soul to a kick-ass heroine. Because of an issue with the movie’s download, we were treated to the soon-to-be-Christmas classic Violent Night, where a bored Santa (David Harbour) saves a severely dysfunctional family from the hands of a wicked criminal in the guise of John Leguizamo. Of course it’s predictable — think Home Alone meets Die Hard — but it’s not without charm, and made for an enjoyable opening night.
One of the things I noticed in this year’s programming was a lack of forward-looking or future-oriented science fiction. That doesn’t mean it was completely absent. In The Tomorrow Job, writer and director Bruce Wemple offers the possibility of traveling into the body of one’s future self using a pill, and allowing a team of thieves to steal tomorrow’s secrets. A true quill science fiction movie that also functions as a solid crime thriller, it is perhaps more complicated than it needs to be, but remains suspenseful and amusing throughout. One of the nostalgia picks included Peter Hyams’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact, sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I have my own problems with the sequel, it nonetheless suggests the future does not, inherently, need to be dystopian; David Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) utterance “My God, it’s full of stars!” remains a mantra of hope. Beyond Tomorrow, the festival’s big documentary (which I missed, unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict), showcased artist and illustrator Roy Scarfo’s vision of the future, providing a glimpse of his seminal artwork.
What science film festival would be complete without an alien invasion? Snatchers involved purple corn from food trucks and a maid and FDA agent find themselves embroiled in an alien plot after meteor crash in upstate New York. It’s not as wild as it could have been, but always is watchable.
How about fantasy? It was there, and, with The Butterfly Queen, proved one could make a heroic quest using everyday items. An artist and sheep farmer on the verge of losing her farm is rejoined by her best friend, both of whom fall into a portal to another world where magic is powered by art. It’s an often touching study of friendship, grief, and redemption. Think Labyrinth as scripted by Terry Bisson and you’ve got an idea of what to expect.
If the trappings of science fiction and fantasy seemed somewhat sparse, the more overtly horror selections more than compensated, showing how diverse its subjects, themes, and approaches can be. This is especially true with the festival’s two horror comedies. Jesse Thomas Cook’s irreverent Cult Hero tells the story of a real estate agent who sends her husband to a wellness center for a weekend; when she learns the center is in fact a cult with sinister motives, she hires a disgraced celebrity cult buster to break him out. Often funny jabs at reality television, the self-help industry, and Machiavellian business partners make up for an at times sluggish second act. One wonders why Grady Hendrix hasn’t yet penned something similar. Writer-director Emily Hagins’s Sorry About the Demon finds a young man suffering from a recent breakup moving into a haunted house populated by evil spirits. It’s an amusing mixture of John Hughes and James Wan.
In Dark Nature, a therapy group hiking in the wilderness must confront the monsters of their past when they are hunted by a mysterious creature. There are good performances from Hannah Emily Anderson and Madison Walsh, along with good direction and scene setting from director Berkley Brady, though the story (by Brady and cowriter Tim Cairo) could have used a little more polish. Also faced with terror in the woods were the leads in Dane Elcar’s Brightwood, when a married couple teetering on the edge of divorce goes for a run and find themselves unable to leave the trail around a secluded pond. The movie depends on the performances of Dana Berger and Max Woertendyke, both of whom are excellent. Brightwood is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode by Serling or a story by Richard Matheson, but always is its own thing. For me it was one of the festival’s highlights.
The anthology film Scare Package premiered at Other Worlds Austin 2019 and was a huge hit. Based on the audience reaction, Scare Package II: Rad Chad’s Revenge, will be at least as popular. By turns funny and gross, it allows multiple directors the opportunity to tell metafictional stories at the insistence of its title character, a security guard who met his demise in the previous movie. It’s a lot of fun, with some surprising cameos.
And there was the non-supernatural thriller Influencer, in which the eponymous character is befriended by a young woman with sinister motives. Lushly photographed in Thailand, it’s about loneliness and isolation, and the dangers posed by those who live a life almost entirely online. Director Kurtis David Harder knows how to ratchet up the tension (not surprising given his previous Other Worlds Austin entry Spiral), with Cassandra Naud turning in a strong performance as the villainous CW.
Between Before, the closing movie, best sums up the what made the festival so great. On the surface, writer-director Sutton McKee’s picture is small: married couple Ari and John (Megan Sousa and Daniel Ballard) are separating as Ari is on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough. As they reminisce, wounds try to heal, secrets are revealed, and a government team tries to take Ari’s invention. It’s a chamber piece with implications both large and small, and reminds viewers that Other Worlds Austin was among the best at finding unique science fiction.
It’s no surprise that before each movie Sigrid’s “It Gets Dark” played over the reel featuring images from the festival’s offerings. (Or that the track is the first on her album entitled How to Let Go…maybe there was some intention, after all.) “It gets dark so I can see the stars,” the Norwegian singer tells us in the refrain, a phrase with deep meaning for those who take pleasure in going to movies and seeing stories in pictures, put together so people in a darkened room can witness something they’ve never set eyes on before. We see the highs, and the lows, of humanity in this year’s festival. This has been a great nine-year ride with a staff dedicated to finding compelling tales of who we are and what we can be.
You will be missed, Other Worlds Austin, but in the mind of this writer, you won’t be forgotten.
Whoa. All the whoa. Eric Wright’s fantastic Midnight Tales and Midnight Magazine have received love from the wonderful crime, pulp, horror (that kind of thing) YouTube critic CriminOlly, providing screencaps for the layout, which I mention without modesty. (Don’t let the fact that I’ve got stories in Midnight Tales let you believe I’m biased.)
Why have I not yet talked about David Cronenberg?
Cronenberg is one of the few directors working in our out of horror that regularly visits the theme of body horror, which is exactly what it sounds like: stories finding horror within the body, often serving as a metaphor for anything from aging to disfigurement--an uncomfortable theme, but one Cronenberg uses to incredible effect throughout his movies, in everything from his first features Shivers and Rabid, to my personal favorite, Videodrome.
Made at the beginning of the home video revolution, Videodrome tells the story of a cable company executive who becomes obsessed with a series of pirate broadcasts showcasing a series of filmed tortures. As he watches these images, hallucinations take hold of his mind, and his body begins to transform in harrowing ways.
It can be a difficult movie to watch, but beneath the grotesque imagery is a statement about media, its impact on society, and how we view the world.
Do you have a favorite body horror movie? Do you have a favorite David Cronenberg movie? Let me know in the comments.
A number of writers have shaped no only my aesthetic taste but also my own desire to write fiction, but few have had the impact of Harlan Ellison.
It's hard to look at any genre and not see Ellison's footprint: from mystery to science fiction, he has written masterpieces of the form. We could talk about half a dozen horror stories alone Ellison penned, but for this series, I have to point to "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" as one of the finest.
Walking the tightrope between science fiction and horror, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" tells the story of a computer that has gained both sentience and consciousness. It wipes out all of humanity save for six individuals, and begins subjecting these survivors to de Sadean tortures in a technologically Dantesque landscape. It's a harrowing read that refuses almost any point of redemption.
The Wachowskis used elements of this classic story in developing The Matrix, yet none of their visuals equals the dread or nightmare found in Ellison's work.
Do you have a favorite computer-as-monster story? Let me know in the comments.
I was a teenager when George Romero's Night of the Living Dead appeared on MTV one Halloween. To say it was life-changing is an understatement.
Night of the Living Dead's reputation precedes it. It is the first zombie movie to feature what we think of as zombies today: the flesh-eaters chomping on entrails whose bite will infect the living and turn them into zombies. It all comes from Romero's micro-budget movie. Its premise of a small group of people trapped in an abandoned farmhouse by hordes of the living dead is familiar, even elemental, to modern audiences. And yet, time has diminished none of its power. It's the first horror movie with a genuinely modern sensibility, from the dysfunction of institutions to the nightmarish ending...and the heightened level of gore. Yes, Herschell Gordon Lewis pioneered the splatter movie, but Romero gave it the social consciousness vital to Dead's longevity.
Do you have a favorite zombie movie? Let me know in the comments.
Summer is behind us, which means I probably shouldn't include Jaws among this series' entries. And yet, if we're talking about why I am the horror writer and fan I am, we have to talk about it.
The real brilliance of Jaws is in how many genres it touches. Of course it's a sea adventure, with strong overtones of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. It functions well as a thriller in its pursuit of prey. And, of course, it's a horror story. And a very good one, especially in its portrayal of our fears of the deep, and of our fear of sharks. The shark in question in a twenty-foot great white, and when seen in a shot alongside Quint's boat The Orca, it's absolutely terrifying.
This was only Steven Spielberg's third feature, after both Duel (based on Richard Matheson's short story) and The Sugarland Express. Jaws not only put him on the cinematic map, but in a way became the standard by which many of us judge horror movies. Few others match Jaws's power and intensity, and it is in part due to his actors, especially Robert Shaw as Quint. One look at him, and you see someone who practically reeks of fish.
There are too many great set pieces to single out a single one, so I will simply say that, if there's any one movie in this series I would recommend unreservedly, it would be this one.
One final note. The movie is based on a novel by Peter Benchley. It was a bestseller at the time, but I've never been fond of it. This is one of the rare instances where the movie actually improves on the book.
Do you have a favorite sea-themed or underwater horror movie? Let me know in the comments.
Shockingly, I have not discussed Ray Bradbury at all during this series.
So let's talk about him.
Readers tend to associate Bradbury with science fiction, and it's easy to see why. It's hard to divorce Bradbury's name from either The Martian Chronicles or Fahrenheit 451, his story collection The Illustrated Man, or a fantasy novel like Dandelion Wine. But he's penned at least two books of interest to horror readers: his carnival novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (which opens with one of the greatest first lines in horror fiction, second only to the first paragraph of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House), and the collection The October Country.
The stories in The October Country showcase Bradbury's gift for language, his occasional sense of whimsy, and his eye for macabre details. I tend to single out his story "The Crowd", about an individual who realizes that a crowd gathers at every traffic accident, seemingly from out of nowhere, and his dread as he realizes the individuals making up the crowd comprise the same individuals. Other stories in this landmark collection include "Skeleton" (in which a man discovers his skeleton is attempting to escape his body), "The Small Assassin" (a baby goes on a murderous rampage), "The Next in Line" (mummies in Cancun haunt an individual). All are wonderful in their poetic phrasing and use of imagery. There's almost no gore, and some modern readers may not find many of these stories scary, but all leave some impact, and none lack power, even seventy years after their initial publication.
Do you have a favorite Ray Bradbury story? Do you have a favorite Ray Bradbury book? Let me know in the comments.
Today is September 21. Stephen King's birthday. So we are perhaps obligated to talk about our favorite King work, or in this case, our first King work.
I wrote about both the book and movie versions of The Shining in an earlier post. At the time I read the book and saw the movie, I didn't know who either King or Stanley Kubrick were. So when I picked up a copy of his story collection Night Shift, I knew a little more about King, and read the stories with interest.
In fact, the first story I began reading was "The Boogeyman" because many of my seventh-grade classmates cited it as one of the scariest things they'd ever read. And they weren't wrong. Set in a psychiatrist's office, a patient describes how his entire family has been murdered by a strange apparition. It's a brief story but engaging, with elements of Edgar Allan Poe, and captures well a descent into madness and horror.
Other stories are strong. "Sometimes They Come Back" is an unnerving tale of the past coming back to haunt its lead character, while "Battleground" serves as an homage to Richard Matheson. You can't go wrong with any of these stories.
Have you read Night Shift? Do you have a favorite story in the collection? Do you have a different favorite King collection, or a favorite horror collection in general? Let me know in the comments.
A few quick words about my favorite werewolf movie, An American Werewolf in London.
I tend to like werewolf stories enormously. Their core idea--the beast and darkness living within us all--is captivating. It's the primal sense we are only barely civilized; beneath our human veneer beats the heart of savagery.
The subtext of An American Werewolf in London seems to bear this out. After all, Americans tend to be seen as uncouth, while Europeans see themselves as the pinnacle of civilization and culture. It makes perfect sense that an American, apparently well-mannered but ultimately an uncouth lout, might transform into a werewolf and terrorize England's greatest city.
A sense of tragedy informs most werewolf stories. The protagonists know they cannot escape their inherent animal nature except in death. Throughout An American Werewolf in London, David Kessler (David Naughton) is visited not only by his friend Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), who was attacked and killed by the very creature that transformed David, but also by his victims. Jack warns David he will continue killing until he is dead, leaving his victims in a state of limbo. David's victims, meanwhile, encourage David to kill himself, severing the werewolf's bloodline. It's heartbreaking to see David grapple with this news, and the realization of what he has done.
Heartbreaking, and also very funny. John Landis films An American Werewolf in London with the eye of absurdist, with rich comedy infusing every scene. A single example comes when David meets the souls of his victims. Their bloody bodies sit with him in a porn theater and offer suggestions of the best suicide methods.
What is your favorite werewolf movie? Let me know in the comments.
Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. His work has appeared in The Horror Zine, Rayguns Over Texas!, Horror U.S.A.: Texas, Campfire Macabre, The Dread Machine, and Generation X-ed.
He lives in Central Texas.