Sunday, February 24, 2013

Airheads

I can picture Steve Buscemi as a member of a heavy metal band. Brendan Frasier, that's a bit harder to envision, but with a little work, I can buy it. Adam Sandler doesn't look he'd fit in a hard rock outfit, but it could be worse; they could have cast Marky Mark.

In Airheads (1994), Buscemi (looking like Pantera's Rex Brown), Frasier (looking like Bret Michaels without the glam makeup), and Sandler (looking and acting like someone with brain damage) play Rex, Chaz, and Pip, a heavy metal band known as the Lone Rangers, and they're looking for their big break on the L.A. scene. After being rejected by a record company executive (Judd Nelson), the group heads to a local radio station to try to get airplay for their demo. When disc jockey Ian (Joe Mantegna) and station manager Milo (Michael McKean) refuse, Rex and Chaz brandish Uzis and take everyone at the station hostage. The whole scene erupts into a media frenzy as police (led by Ernie Hudson and Chris Farley) and a crowd of rock fiends descend on the station's perimeter, not realizing the guys are holding everyone at bay with water guns.

Though never as sharp or satirical as it could have been, Airheads plays as the 90s moron comedy combination of This is Spinal Tap and Dog Day Afternoon. At it's most basic level, this another one of those cool, free spirits following their dreams vs. the square establishment stories, and the film takes a number of shots at corporate sellouts, easy listening music ("The Mellow Sounds of Rain"), and the dismissive media. Sure, it's hardly original, there are some missed comic opportunities, and the jokes can be pretty stupid, but for 90 minutes, it's a good time, containing enough laughs and surprise cameos to sustain its running length.

As a heavy metal fan, I'm always a bit nervous when Hollywood tries its hand at portraying the genre because in the past filmmakers have demonstrated a bit of a condescending and dismissive attitude toward it (see Rock Star, or better yet, don't because it sucks). In Airheads, there's some gentle fun being poked at metal, but it's not nasty. Plus, the likes of Mot√∂rhead and Anthrax are on the soundtrack and not Hollywood's usual idea of metal (which is to say Def Leppard and Bon Jovi). Chaz, Rex, and Pip might not be the brightest bulbs on the Sunset Strip, but they do have a certain goofy charm. Determined rockers they are, but they aren't vulgar (well, comparatively) or mean-spirited, and they do have their pride and dignity. They're at least important to themselves, and that's an important mechanism of comedy.

I would have like it if more musical performances had been depicted. Chaz gets a great moment when he rants against Milo and Ian about they really don't know what rock is. "Do you know what it's like to be on the bill and to play for fifteen minutes and the only people there to see you are the other bands and their girlfriends? Don't talk to me about Rock 'n' Roll! I'm out there in the clubs and on the streets and I'm living it! I AM ROCK N ROLL!" That's actually a great a little character moment, and I think it would have benefited the movie to depict that stuff he's talking about. It would have better established their desperation; instead, all we get is Judd Nelson blowing off Chad.

A lot of the comedy consists of wacky hijinks. At one point, the boys figure if they demand a lot bizarre things from the police, they can plead insanity later; among the items they request: 57 copies of Moby Dick, a football helmet filled with cottage cheese, and naked pictures of Bea Arthur. There's also a subplot with a station employee (Michael Richards) hiding in the vents of the building and accidentally lighting himself on fire. Meanwhile, Farley is the cop charged with locating Chaz's girlfriend, and he finds her at a club where he is clearly out of place; this sequence taught me two things: never wear nipple rings, and don't mess with Farley.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mummy (1999)

A movie like The Mummy (1999), a remake of the original starring Boris Karloff, reminds me of an edict I try to remember but sometimes forget: review the movie that was made, not the movie I wanted made. This version of The Mummy had a long production history, nearly ten years in the making and originating as a more modestly budgeted horror movie. Some of my favorite filmmakers - Clive Barker, George Romero, Joe Dante, John Sayles - were attached at different points to write and/or direct the film, and after reading up what their different takes would have been, I wish one of them had gotten to realize their vision.

But, none of those treatments were filmed (although a few different idea from those unused scripts, from my understanding, were incorporated in the final version), and as much I would have preferred to see a different take, it's not productive to lament over what could have been, especially in the world of cinema where unrealized projects are a dime a dozen. Instead, I will try my best to appreciate what was made.

Instead of a horror movie, this version of the bandaged one is a blockbuster, action-adventure thrill ride, more like a spin on the roller coaster than a trip to the haunted house. Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, it's more in line with Indiana Jones than anything directed by James Whale or Todd Browning. It's action-packed with a strong emphasis on humor, filled with shootouts, chases, sword fights, and quips. Hardly anything that appears in it is original, the plot is filled with plenty of holes, and the characters are stereotypes, but I can't deny I had fun while watching it and came away from it smiling. It aspires to be popcorn entertainment and mostly succeeds.

The basic setup is similar to the original. Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), an Egyptian high priest buried alive for murdering the pharaoh and trying to resurrect his lost love in defiance of the gods, is accidentally resurrected in 1926 by an archaeological expedition to Hamunaptra, ancient city of the dead. Alive once more, he restores his decaying body by draining the lifeforce out a group of explorers who opened a chest of treasure and sets about bringing his love back to life. To accomplish the latter, he intends to sacrifice British librarian and Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), the woman who unknowingly brought him back to life by reading from the Book of the Dead (no, not the Necronomican). Opposing Imhotep is Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), leader of a secret society descended from Pharaoh's loyal guards, and Rick O'Connell (Brendan Frasier), an American adventurer.

The best way I can think of describing The Mummy is live-action cartoon. Instead of being broody and dark where things go bump in the night, it's often out in the open, bright, and the sets, whether in Cairo or the ancient ruins, are extravagant and at times stunning. There's a room of treasure, an ornate bed chamber, museum, and a gorgeous shot of Hamunaptra emerging in front of the rising sun. The special effects - hordes of scarab beetles, Imhotep's body gradually regenerating, a sandstorm with his face imprinted on it - are well done but for the most part glaringly obvious CGI. A few moments of potential creepiness, like when victims are eaten alive by the beetles or Imhotep summons a pack of shambling, squealing mummified cohorts, are undone because the creatures were clearly animated in after the fact, though I was impressed by the design.

The tone is quite silly at times. A number of characters including Evelyn's brother Jonathan (John Hannah), the cowardly Beni (Kevin J. O'Connor), a fat pilot named Winston, and the warden Evelyn bribes to get Rick out of jail are around for comic relief. Evelyn herself is introduced in a scene in which she knocks over an entire roomful of bookshelves, and there are elements of Sam Raimi's gonzo style present when Rick sword fights mummified guards, and their decapitated heads and dismembered limbs bounce around like plates in a Three Stooges skit. Violence is prevalent, but it's sanitized and bloodless, played for laughs and excitement rather than shocks and gore; the worst of it (people being mummified alive) is implied and not shown graphically.

 No performance is Oscar caliber, but they suit the genre. Frasier is fine in the adventurer role though he's still channeling something of his typical, lovable buffoon persona. Vosloo doesn't have do much more than be menacing and look intense, but he pulls that off while Fehr is appropriately mysterious and intense as the guardian of the curse. Weisz gets stuck with the damsel-in-distress part, but she and Frasier work well together and have some good banter. The more overtly comical roles strain at times, sometimes distracting for the action and story.

It's not the Mummy movie I would have wanted to see be made, but whatever its flaws, this is one remake that is entertaining. It's got laughs, adventure, and exciting action. Still, I hold out hope for a return to the title character's horror roots.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tales of Terror

Edgar Allan Poe remains to this day one of the most important and influential figures in the horror genre. The Internet Movie Database lists 268 adaptations of his work for film and television dating back to 1908 with eight adaptations listed in 2012 (and that doesn't include The Raven which featured Poe as a character played by John Cusack).

Adapting Poe's work for screen is probably more challenging than adapting other authors. It might be difficult to condense a 500-page Stephen King novel to two hours, but Poe's are mostly short stories that build to a single shock effect, and that's really hard to fill for feature length without resorting to padding or substantially alteration.

B-Movie King Roger Coman, along with his star Vincent Price and sometimes writer Richard Matheson, was frequently the most successful at translating Poe on screen. From 1959 to 1962, Corman directed eight films based on tales by Poe, including House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Masque of the Red Death. Tales of Terror (1962) falls in the middle of the cycle. Directed Corman, written by Matheson, and starring Price, this film is an anthology, containing three (well, technically four) Poe adaptations. Among the Corman-Price work, this is probably one of the weaker efforts but remains entertaining throughout.

In the first tales, "Morella" a reclusive (Price) mourning his late wife is visited by the daughter (Maggie Pierce) he blames for her death. The second tale is "The Black Cat," but it also incorporates elements of "The Cask of Amontillado;" a cuckolded drunk (Peter Lorre) exacts a sadistic revenge against his wife (Joyce Jameson) and her lover (Price again) while being irritated by the presence of his wife's cat. The final tale, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," concerns a dying man (Price once more) who is hypnotized at the moment of death by a shady doctor (Basil Rathbone) who's got eyes on his lovely, young wife (Debra Paget).

"Morella" is ok, but it doesn't really cover any ground that Corman, Price, and Matheson hadn't already covered "House of Usher." You've got the spooky, crumbling mansion, a family in decline, Price as the tortured nobleman, and a vengeful female coming back from the dead. This is the shortest of the three tales and feels over just as soon as it gets going. There is a nice, spooky sequence in which the ghost of Morella passes through the halls and goes after her daughter.

More overtly comical than the other tales, "The Black Cat" neglects the tale it draws its title from to be more in line with "The Cask of Amontillado." Price and Lorre respectively play Fortunato and Montressor, and unlike in the story, we're provided with motivation for the revenge, but by combining the two stories, the film confuses the two obsessions. Instead of being a deranged obsessive, Lorre comes off as an oaf; we're told he hasn't worked in 17 years, and yet he finds the motivation to wall up two people behind bricks. The cat, instead of representing all his neuroses and rages, is limited to a few scenes where it annoys Lorre until the very end when it proves his downfall. Still, this tale is good for some laughs.

"Valdemar" is easily the best piece of the three. The makeup effects on the decaying Price are pretty gruesome for their time, and Rathbone makes an enjoyably despicable villain, even if final actions don't hold up to much scrutiny other than he's evil. Price has to carry much of his role on his voice alone, and he pulls it off magnificently.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

If the zombies of director George Romero's Dead series can be summarized in one sentence, it would be this: "They're us." Undead, mindless, carnivorous walking corpses, for sure, but it's almost impossible to watch their behavior, as well as that of their intended human victims, and not observe some parallels with our society, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the second movie of the series, Dawn of the Dead (1978).

The dead are rising to attack the living, and society is in turmoil. The news media are functioning in a haphazard panic, and martial law has been declared by the government. The National Guard and Police are forcibly removing people from their homes and collecting bodies of the dead to dispose of, but the tide is turning as the number of zombies increases. In the middle of this chaos, SWAT officer Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) link up with helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emgee) and his girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross) to flee north. Desperate and low on supplies, they stumble upon an intact shopping mall. Though crawling with the walking dead, the mall offers the survivors a chance to rest and resupply, but it isn't long before they decide they have a good thing going and hunker down to make the mall entirely theirs.

Though filmed a decade after the original Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead picks more or less immediately from its predecessor, depicting society's bloody, confused response to the new phenomena of reanimation. Moving beyond the confines of an isolated farmhouse, the film traverses through a number of different locations - news room, inner-city apartment building, police, small airport, a flyby over a massive National Guard operation supported by the local rednecks - that it has something of an epic feel to it and paints a disparaging picture of the world's response to the dead; everywhere they go, our heroes run into zombies, and for about the first twenty or thirty minutes, it feels like Dawn will play out as a despairing thriller like Night.

But then, the heroes find the mall, and everything changes and not just their plans of flying off to Canada. Suddenly, the film becomes a wild, fun, and sometimes slapstick adventure piece.  Early in the film, during the SWAT team assault on a zombie-infested apartment complex, we see a zombie with its leg gnawed off clawing after an officer, a woman's neck ripped out by her dead husband, a man's head blown off by a shotgun, and a basement full of tied up zombies executed, put down like rabid dogs. The violence here is grim and shocking. In the mall, the zombies become comical, shambling through store aisles as muzak blares on the PA system and trying to walk up the down escalators. Peter and Roger have sort of a boys-own good time, racing through the mall, taking all the supplies they need, and blasting away at the zombies.

Night of the Living Dead was filmed in black and white and is stark, grim, and nightmarish. Dawn of the Dead is brightly colored, the blood and gore more plentiful and a sharp contrast against the bland background of the mall. The tone resembles a comic book, and the editing is frantic and fast, transforming the movie into something of an action movie shoot-em up instead of a desperate fight for survival. It's even a bit too silly at times with zombies getting pied in the face near the end.

In Night, the zombies had an aura of mystery and were confined to the shadows, shown as mindless hordes and suggested with clawing hands forcing their way through barricaded doors and windows. Here, while still dangerous, they're out in the open and brightly lit under fluorescent lighting. We see zombie nuns, zombie baseball players, zombie nurses, zombie brides, and even a zombie Hare Krishna. Their skin has become bright blue and gray, the clothing they wore when they died is similarly bright and colorful (and hideously garish. It was the 70s). They get shot, blown up, thrown off balconies, run over by trucks, duped, and subject to any other forms of violence to the point they're like video game baddies, existing only to be killed (er, killed again).

Zombies, we're told, operate only base, motorized instinct, acting out only the activities that were important to them in their lives and knowing nothing else. These ghouls shuffle aimlessly through the mall, only alive in the sense that they're moving and occasionally eating, their malaise interrupted only by the presence of warm flesh to try to devour. Soon, the living protagonists are too shuffling through the motions of a previous existence. Once the mall is secured, they run wild, living out a consumer's dream, taking all the material possessions they could ever want. There's a cute montage of them taking now useless money from the bank, weighing purchases in the food mart, and obeying the signs to follow the lines to the front desk. Everything is so giddy and intoxicating until ...

Boredom sets. With the rest of the world crumbling outside the mall's walls and everything the heroes could ever want or need, they come to find the mall to be a prison, a tomb. They mindlessly go about any activity just to keep from going nuts, pretending this is still good living. When a gang of bikers shows up to loot the mall and let the zombies back in, our heroes resolve to defend what's theirs: the mall and it stock of TVs, money, jewelry, and other goods. The result is fighting between what's left of humanity over something meaningless while the real threat closes in on them. Zombies may be easy to kill, slow, and stupid, but they're constant and don't fight amongst themselves. One minute, bikers are spraying ghouls in the face with seltzer water and laughing, and the next, they've been shot off their motorcycles by Peter and are easy pickings for the hungry dead to rip to pieces.

Dawn of the Dead is probably the most fun of the Dead pictures, but I would say it's also the most dated. Night remains a terrifying motion picture to this day forty-plus years later, but here, the blood seems too fake, the zombie makeup mostly extras in simple face paint that's not as scary as Night's ghouls or Day and Land's decayed walkers, and the fashion, slang, and haircuts confine this to the disco decade. From a technical standpoint, the movie is rough around the edges, but the apocalyptic vision and social satire on display remain as vibrant and edgy today as they were in 1978. It's impossible to watch this and afterward walk through your local shopping mall and not think the anonymous shoppers gazing from window to window somehow look familiar.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bad Lieutenant

The sight of Harvey Keitel on the DVD cover of Bad Lieutenant (1992) aiming a large gun brings to mind images of Dirty Harry, Charles Bronson, or some other rogue police officer vigilante taking the law into his own hands. Yet, nothing could be more misleading. This is not the story of one cop seeking to impose justice.

Harvey Keitel is no stranger to playing nasty characters, nor is he unfamiliar with playing crooked cops. But in Cop Land, at least his crime boss officer was able to play both sides of the spectrum, managing to appear as a benevolent cop who keeps his community safe while trafficking drugs and murdering those who upset the good thing he's got going. It's easy to see how Sylvester Stallone's honest sheriff could idolize his "Uncle Ray" and turn a blind eye to the chinks in the moral armor.

In Bad Lieutenant, there's no hiding this rotten core; his status as police officer, he figures, grants him the right to act however he wants with no consequences. His anger, perversion, shame, and toxic morality are right there on display for all to see, and it's not pretty. This is a movie about a man so intoxicated with his own power and so angry at the rest of the world, everything else seemingly exists only to serve him until it destroys him.

Keitel plays the eponymous character of Bad Lieutenant, which is directed by Abel Ferrara. Curiously, although we meet his family, watch him on the job, and witness his gambling and drug addictions, we never learn his name, his identity absorbed by his position and his vices. The lieutenant, the only title he's referred to, is a New York City cop. His day begins by dropping his two sons off at Catholic school and then snorting cocaine in the car. From there, he goes to a crime scene where two young women have been murdered; after a cursory exam of the scene, he begins taking bets with fellow officers about the Mets-Dodgers playoff games. He steals drug evidence to sell (and do) and threatens, bribes, intimidates, and/or lies to everyone he encounters.

While there are a few other characters that pop in and out of the movie - fellow cops, drug dealers, a bookie, prostitutes, and perhaps most importantly a nun - the lieutenant is squarely the focus the entire time. Ferrara keeps the camera anchored on the lieutenant, the environment around him a hazy, rundown blur that's barely perceptible. Even when the lieutenant's mother-in-law sees him snorting coke, her response is to ignore it. It's tempting to call the movie plot-less because we essentially follow him around as he goes about his different activities, but it soon becomes clear he's not in control as much as he thinks. His gambling debts begin piling up as one sure bet after another collapses, his addictions increasingly interfere with how he functions, and he angers people it's best not to be on the bad side of.

Bad Lieutenant is a tough movie to watch. Not only is the title character such a despicable bastard, there are some scenes of explicit drug use and graphic sexual violence. When the lieutenant shoots, heroin, we see the entire procedure, right down to wince-inducing shots of the needle going into the vein and being shifted around as blood is extracted. At another point, the lieutenant takes out his anger on two teenage girls. They don't have driver's licenses and don't want their father to know they have his car, so they reluctantly go along when the lieutenant tells one to strip and forces the other to simulate a sex act while he masturbates.

The film has a raw, grungy feel through most of the proceedings until the near the end. The lieutenant visits a nun in the church she was raped in. Knowing the reward for catching the perpetrators would help his gambling debts, he practically begs her to identify her rapists, but she, a devout follower of Christ, refuses, saying she has already forgiven them. He's stunned she wouldn't want justice, but she remains steadfast and leaves. Despondent, the lieutenant rants and raves against a hallucination of Jesus, appearing as he did on the cross. He demands answers and miracles, but the Savior remains bloodied and silent. There is no redemption.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Winter Light

Winter Light (1962) begins with the end of one church service and concludes with the start of another. In the former, the pastor preaches mechanically to about eight people while the second congregation consists of a non-believer, the organist, and the sexton, and in between the services, the pastor laments "God's silence." Is the service at the end a reaffirmation of the pastor's faith or his doubt?

Directed by Ingmar Bergman, Winter Light is a movie in which not a whole lot happens. The running time barely exceeds 80 minutes; there are only a handful of incidents, confrontations, speeches, and exchanges; and the pace is deliberately slow to the point it's easy to imagine people growing impatient while watching it. Yet, I remained involved throughout the film, and I'm not entirely sure why. The acting, cinematography, and direction are superlative, but I can't call the movie enjoyable. Something about it just speaks to me.

These are questions that have surely been asked by even the most devout of believers: is there a God, and if He exists, why doesn't He show Himself? Bergman himself tackled the question previously in The Seventh Seal . Here, the question does not haunt a knight returning from the Crusades to confront his mortality; it is the obsession of a pastor, a man who has spent his life in the service of his faith and now has come to question the meaning of it all. If The Seventh Seal is about trying to maintain faith and hope in the face of death, Winter Light is more about finding meaning while living in a world that feels devoid of it.

The film opens with Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), suffering from the the flu, giving his noon service to a small crowd, among them his former mistress, Marta (Ingrid Thulin), an atheist who regularly asks him to marry her. Also in attendance are Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). Following the service, Mrs. Persson asks Tomas to speak with her husband, suicidally despondent after learning China is developing the atomic bomb. Tomas tries to talk with Jonas, but he can offer no comfort or answers, only his own doubts and fears. All this and more occurs before the next service scheduled for 3 p.m. in the next town over.

The world shown in Winter Light is cold and barren. Snow covers the land and continues to fall on it, the church itself is vast and empty, and iconography of Christ on the Cross, always looming over Tomas, has fallen into disrepair with fingers missing from the one of the hands. Tomas, feeling so weak physically and alone spiritually, leans his head often against the wall of his office, gazing out a window that resembles a prison's. Bergman uses numerous closeups, both of individuals and of two people simultaneously, to really capture the characters' emotions through every movement and feature on their faces and their sense of isolation. Black and white is the perfect choice for this film, highlighting the shadows of the face.

Tomas' conversation with Jonas is the first instance of drama in the movie. Jonas goes to Tomas at his wife's insistence for guidance, just as Tomas turns to God, but unlike God who is silent, Tomas says perhaps too much, revealing his own lack of certainty and neurotic, paralyzing doubt. In some ways, Tomas, a man of the cloth, acts as God's representative in this church, and like God, he seems to offer no support or satisfactory answers, only regret and despair.

This is revealed through a number of monologues in the film, times when the narrative halts for the characters to lay bare their emotions and strike at the hearts of others. The first of which is a letter to Tomas from Marta, his reading of it dramatized by a close, unbroken shot of her speaking directly to the camera for nearly six minutes in which she tells him she loves him even after he rejected her and became repulsed by rashes on her hands. The intimacy of the confession is matched later when he confronts her with the knowledge he can never love her because she will never be like his late wife and goes on about all the things about her he doesn't like. For this monologue, Bergman cuts back and forth between faces -Tomas' and Marta's - to illustrate both his cold, unmoving indifference and and her crushed, heartbroken tears.

The final and most hopeful monologue in the film comes from Algot, the hunchbacked sexton (Allan Edwell). Alone with Tomas before the 3:00 service, he discusses the passion of Jesus, noting it was not the physical pain that must have hurt Christ the most but the spiritual agony. With his disciples having abandoned him and his Father having seemingly forsaken him, Jesus must have agonized in those final moments about whether anyone got his message, Algot says.

Isn't that one of the central questions of existence? Do our actions make any impact? Did we achieve what we set out to achieve, and did it have meaning? How does one live without knowing the answer? These are the questions that torment Tomas as they must have tortured Christ. At the end, when no one else arrives for the second service and it looks like it will be cancelled, Tomas begins nonetheless. After all, there is one person in the pew: Marta, and that is affirmation enough.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Black Mariah

My interest in The Black Mariah, a 1994 novel by Jay R. Bonansinga, came about when I learned director George Romero had at one point been in line to direct the movie adaptation. Even on its cover, the book claims it will "soon be a major motion picture." Nineteen years later, that project appears all but cancelled.

I have a strong inkling the release of Speed might have put the kibosh on the planned adaptation of The Black Mariah. You remember Speed? Keanu Reeves plays a cop on board a Los Angeles bus that can't drive slower than 50 mph or a bomb planted by Dennis Hopper's terrorist character will go off. The Black Mariah reads like the horror version of that scenario.

In The Black Mariah, the characters are not on a bus but a semi-truck, so named the Black Mariah. The two characters at the center of the plot are not a cop and passenger like in Speed but the trucking team of Lucas Hyde, a big, black, does-things-his-own way man, and his partner Sophie Cohen, the feisty, college-educated woman; later on, they're joined by Angel Figueroa, a determined teen with a Metallica shirt, cleft lip, and pronounced lisp. The threat here is not a ticking bomb but a Voodoo devil curse that will cause its victims to erupt in flames when they stop moving, burning them out from the inside. Lucas and Sophie witness this threat firsthand when it falls upon a young black man named Melville Benoit, who tells them about the curse and how it fell upon him. They try to help him by refueling his vehicle while in motion but can only watch in horror when he burns alive in front of them after the attempt fails. Before too long, they're back on the road being pursued by mundane (police) and supernatural threats as the Black Mariah begins eating up its fuel.

Knowing this was at one point to be a Romero film, I had fun picturing the actors he's worked with over the years as the different character. For Lucas, I envisioned Ken Foree, the heroic, thoughtful SWAT officer from Dawn of the Dead. For his partner Sophie, I imagined Adrienne "Oh, just call me Billy" Barbeau (though I don't think she comes from a Jewish family like Sophie). Another Creepshow alumna, Viveca Lindfors, probably could have had fun as Vanessa DeGeaux, the ancient, Southern aristocrat in a failing body who initiated the curse business and follows the Black Mariah in her limousine. I could also see Tom Atkins (he played a cop in Two Evil Eyes and Bruiser) as Sheriff Dick Baum, who's just trying to make sense of everything.

It's easy to imagine how The Black Mariah would have worked as a movie because unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily work as a novel. Suspense is generated by all the obstacles the truckers encounter as they try to keep moving : dwindling fuel reserves, pursuit by the police, other vehicles blocking the road, etc. Bonansinga also does a solid job charting the progress of the curse; it's not just stop and ignite, but rather, it grows and festers in their bodies. Lucas, Sophie, and Angel become sicker, weaker, and susceptible to hallucinations the slower they move, and it's not pretty.

But the author also throw in too many elements and too many characters that distract from the immediacy of the protagonists' dangerous situation. We got Sheriff Baum in his office and home, a deputy who flies to Florida to investigate the origins of the curse, Angel's uncle who senses the supernatural danger, Vanessa's long-suffering limo driver, and other assorted drivers, clerks, and even a railroad engineer that are introduced, given a back story, and then dumped, never to be mentioned again after their part is done. There are also a number of flashbacks and dream sequences that halt the story's momentum.

Bonansinga also undercuts the sense of mystery and discovery by having Melville explain everything about the curse right from the start. This information is relayed secondhand in the narration and dismissed by Lucas, but really, it included almost everything about the curse. How much more frightening could the book have been if the curse had not been explained, if we never knew where it came from  or why, and it just was?

I'm reminded of another story-turned-movie, Duel. That was about one driver being chased endlessly by a truck. We never learn why, we never discover who the trucker is, and we remain, the entire time, with the hero as his situation becomes more and more desperate until it reaches a breaking point. That's really the model I think The Black Mariah should have followed. Just keep it centered on the truckers, the curse's effects, and what they do to keep going. The book is too colorful when it should be more stark.