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Capsule Reviews, October 2014, Part 2

Normally this would be the vault reviews part, but I only have two capsule-length vault reviews left. So I filled the rest with new reviews…


Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere (Avon, 1996)

[originally posted 7Jan2002]

A portrait of a London subway tunnel heading off into the distance decorates the book's cover.

Somewhere down there, King Rat awaits.
photo credit: Amazon

Gaiman took the script from his own miniseries and novelized it, and that’s where many of the problems with this volume lay. While the plot moves along at a fine enough pace, and the pages turn quickly, there’s not really much in the way of development going on. The characters are 2-D all the way through, and we never get to feeling that there’s more than that surface. So if you’re a person who can’t find anything worth liking in a novel with badly-drawn characters, this probably shouldn’t be the first place you turn when looking for something to read.

On the other hand, if a well-realized plot and some great place descriptions are enough to make you eschew characterization, you could do a lot worse. Gaiman is quite good at coming up with new and interesting places to send his characters, most of which obviously started with the question “why in the world was this tube station named <x>?” Gaiman creates an alternate London that’s quite a bit of fun to explore. I just can’t quite shake the feeling that the miniseries would be more absorbing than the book. ***

* * *

Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit (Grove, 1956)

[originally posted 24Jan2002]

The outline of the protagonist is cut out of the cover's red background, revealing newsprint.

She does not stroll. She does not stride.
photo credit: Better World Books

Another excellent piece of work from Friedrich Durrenmatt. The story of The Visit takes place in a dying town in central Europe somewhere; the country is not given (the reasons should be obvious). As the town is on the verge of bankruptcy, with almost total unemployment and a pervasive sense of despair, one of the town’s local folk made good comes back, hinting that she will give the town enough money to bail it out: get the factory working again, allow the stores to restock, that sort of thing. The night she arrives, she tells the townspeople that their expectations of the reasons for her visit are true, and that she will give them the money they need. She has one condition: she requires justice in the form of a lynch mob. She wants the townspeople to kill one of their own.

The revelation of the intended victim is the major twist here; in many ways, the play’s climax is actually this scene, at the end of Act I, and the following two acts are a painfully drawn-out dénouement as we watch the townspeople’s changing reactions to the woman and her demand. Unlike The Pledge, in which we see the gradual development of one man’s madness, in this case we’re given a woman who’s arguably mad from the get-go (certainly, she’s as obsessed as The Pledge’s protagonist
is at the end of that novel from long before the beginning of this play), and we watch the way her madness, combined with her wealth, affects the town around her over the course of a few days. Durrenmatt is a master at using small details to show how the community changes its views over a relatively short period of time, and even manages to make the rather horrific journey humorous at times (the play is defined as, and works as, a tragicomedy). We find ourselves alternately sympathizing with and horrified at the actions of the townspeople, and see no conflict in the two attitudes. A wonderful play. ****

* * *

The Reeds (Nick Cohen, 2010)

A lone figure wades through human-high reeds on the movie poster.

Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink.
photo credit:

The Reeds is not a bad little film, certainly not one deserving of the kind of calumny it has received around the Internet (4.6 at IMDB, 10%[!!] at Rotten Tomatoes). It’s nothing spectacularly original, but if you’re looking for a somewhat understated supernatural thriller, this will do as well as most of your other options. A group of young-and-beautifuls head out of the city to spend a weekend boating in the middle of nowhere…but “middle of nowhere” turns out to be a much more accurate description than they were hoping, and the reeds are home to all sorts of the kinds of noises that make people wonder just how alone they are on the desolate moor. While the climax does get a touch ridiculous, that did not, in my estimation, detract from the basic enjoyability of the movie. It’s empty calories, but it’s an easily-swallowed ninety minutes that does not leave a nasty aftertaste. ***


* * *

From a Whisper to a Scream (Jeff Burr, 1987)

A headless body walks around with a machete in one hand and Vincent Price's head in the other on the movie poster.

The Headless Boresman.
photo credit:

I’ve said a great deal about American attempts to make horror anthology films since Creepshow, and it feels silly to reiterate it all here. From a Whisper to a Scream is another of those American anthology films where the framing device ends up working better than any of the stories therein, but unlike many movies of that stripe, the shorts in this one range from competent to pretty durned good, and the cast they dug up for this thing is pretty spectacular, with Vincent Price as the framing device’s narrator and a solid B-movie cast with names like Clu Galager, Susan Tyrrell, Larry Kiser, and Lawrence Tierney delivering the fun. I wish Burr had pushed a little harder to try and send this one into the realms of Creepshow (though in hindsight—Burr’s later output would include Pumpkinhead II and the fourth and fifth Puppet Master movies—he simply might not have had it in him), but what we got is watchable enough if you’re looking for a handful of short, sharp shocks. ***


* * *

La Casa de las Sombres (The House of Shadows) (Ricardo Wullicher, 1976)

The principal cast's heads loom over the titular house on the movie poster.

Teenage giallo grind, the geriatric remix.
photo credit:

Odd Argentine/US hybrid mystery that attempted to do giallo without any of the operatic cinematography or over-the-top gore scenes, with the expected result. Take away those things that make giallo what it is and you’re left with the parts that fans routinely overlook, namely the thin characters and anemic plot, with only a bit of faux-psychedelic camera trickery to give the same away (e.g., when Audrey witnesses the murder). If you’re a really big fan of seventies mystery/thrillers, this might be worth your time, but otherwise you’re better off forgetting you even know this exists. *

Not finding a trailer for it. You’re not missing anything.

* * *

Edge of Madness (Anne Wheeler, 2002)

Caroline Dhavernas looks apprehensive on the movie poster.

Can I play with… oh, forget it.
photo credit: IMDB

Historical drama/mystery set in nineteenth-century frontier Canada about a woman (Devil‘s Caroline Dhavernas) who walks into a sheriff’s office and confesses to murdering her husband (Final Destination‘s Brendan Fehr), and the investigation that follows. Enjoyable, if somewhat slight, and most of the relationships never quite rang true for me (the exception is that between the alleged murderess and the lead investigator); how much you can overlook that likely determines how much you’ll end up liking it. Would have been better with a slightly less predictable ending, but you can’t find many of those these days. ***


* * *

Nancy Shaw, Sheep Blast Off (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

The beloved sheep of the series head for the stars on the book cover.

photo credit:

Another of the Sheep books that doesn’t measure up to the original (cf. recent review of Sheep Take a Hike), but that has the interesting side effect of revealing another facet of the original that makes it work so well. Obviously, if you’ve got a flock of sheep in a jeep with one driving, you’re suspending a modicum of disbelief, but once you’ve gotten to that level, you don’t need to go farther; everything works, everything is internally consistent. With Sheep Blast Off, on the other hand, it seemed almost as if Shaw was trying to outdo herself with every passing page with the silliness. On the other hand, the language is consistent and fun—if your child is already a fan of the Sheep series, take this one out of the library and give it a look. Else, start with the original (and still best) book in the series, Sheep in a Jeep. ** ½

* * *

Sebastien Braun, Digger and Tom (Harper, 2011)

Digger and Tom (err, Skip) pose on the book cover.

You’re not short, Digger. You’re bucket-challenged.
photo credit: Amazon

Okay, I don’t get it. Why did the publisher feel the need to change this book, originally published in England, to have the title Digger and Tom instead of Digger and Skip? You can’t seriously think that was a cultural reference that would not be glossed over by the intended audience (or their parents, so you really know anyone who doesn’t watch at least one British import home show on TV? I mean, I don’t even have cable and I know that one). One way or the other, though, out of the whack of books (six) that came home from the library with mommy and the Bean on Friday, this was the winner (Tubby was the only other one that came close). Digger is a small backhoe who works on a construction site with a number of other machines. The dump truck Tom is his friend, but the rest of the machines look down on him because he’s kind of clumsy. When the team runs into a problem they can’t solve, Ton encourages Digger to take a whack at it, because digging is his specialty. Pretty standard stuff, but for a construction-equipment-obsessed two-year-old it seems to be the best thing ever. If your kid takes a shine to it, expect to be re-reading this one a lot. Doesn’t hold up to that all that well, but it’s short and easy, so not a huge problem. ***

* * *

Watty Piper, The Little Engine that Could (Platt and Munk, 1930)

The little engine steams down the mountain on the spoilerific cover of the book.

I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I didn’t have to.
photo credit: NPR

When I was a kid, I was pretty open to reading just about anything, really, and there were very few books I simply did not like. One of them was The Little Engine that Could. Well, a copy of it popped into our house tonight thanks to the mother-in-law, and I read it to the Bean tonight. Forty years later, my opinion of the book has not changed one bit. Repetitive prose, unlikable characters (in the engines who refuse), trite, inspirational resolution…I wouldn’t have put things in those words when I was four, of course, at that time all I knew was that I was bored by it compared to other books in my collection of which I wore out multiple copies (Big Max, The Snowy Day, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, I could go on all day), but now, with a quarter-century of analysis and criticism behind me, I can put fingers on why the book rubbed me the wrong way so badly when I was young. And it still does. I know it is beloved of millions, but sorry, folks, I have never been able to get on this bandwagon, and at this point it’s pretty obvious I never will. * ½

* * *

Kathryn and Byron Jackson, The Big Elephant (Golden Press, 1949)

The big elephant in a natty suit and yellow cap adorns the cover of the book.

All ready for his first day of school.
photo credit: Amazon

The Big Elephant is one of those Golden books from when the company was still, I think, finding its feet and trying to come upon a winning formula for pre-lit. This one doesn’t quite get there, though it’s not as bad as some of their other experiments (have you read Polly’s Pet? [shudder]). I should note, however, that the Jacksons, a year before this, came up with one of Golden’s early winners, Busy Timmy, and note in passing that experimentation is a good thing. But this book’s one big problem is its repetition, which is so pervasive, and so noticeable, it’s the only book from this batch of six that we did not finish the first time through; it took another pass the second night to get all the way to the end of the book. Would have liked to see a rewrite of this one with some of the repetition fixed to see how much the book would have been improved, but almost sixty years later, I’m thinking that’s probably impossible, at least with the original authors. **

Hell’s House (1932): She’s Pure As New York Snow

Hell’s House (Howard Higgin, 1932)

O'Brien and Davis stand staring at Durkin, looking out of a jail cell window, on the movie poster.

Hays? Who’s that?
photo credit: Wikipedia

Hell’s House still exists in the public consciousness solely because of Bette Davis. That’s a literal statement—the movie was thought lost for years, until Davis passed away and her personal film collection was donated to the National Archives; a copy of Hell’s House was discovered therein. It was Davis’ sixth feature, made when she was still in her early twenties (all five of her previous features were made in 1931); it was also co-lead Pat O’Brien’s sixth. But both of these big-name stars pale in comparison, in this potboiler, to the movie’s real star, Junior Durkin. Durkin is very little remembered these days thanks to his untimely death in a 1935 road accident (he was only nineteen years old), but he was big business in the early thirties; his very little screen output included playing Huck Finn in both Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931) and Franz in Phil Rosen’s 1934 adaptation of Little Men. While Hell’s House is a potboiler, and Davis and O’Brien give it about the treatment it deserves, Durkin throws himself into the role in a way one rarely sees in movies like this. I mean, we’re talking Edward-G-Robinson-in-Scarface here.

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Freaks (1932): Love and Linen Sheets Seem So Very Far Away

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

[originally posted 5Nov2001]

An artist's rendition of the principal cast decorates the lobby card.

You save your pennies and you buy another day.
photo credit:

While Tod Browning directed sixty-two films, from the early days of silent movies until the beginning of World War II, the vast majority of filmgoers (even of the snob variety) remember Browning solely for Freaks, his groundbreaking 1932 picture about carnival life. (Browning also directed Lugosi’s Dracula and Chaney in a number of films, but the stars tended to eclipse the director in those cases.)
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Laughter in the Dark (1938): I Haven’t Missed You. In Fact, I’ve Been Revoltingly Unfaithful to You.

Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (Berkeley, 1938)

[originally posted 24Sep2001]

A woodcut portrait of Albinus Kretschmer decorates the cover of the mass market paperback edition of the novel.

Our light has a special quality about it.
photo credit:

Laughter in the Dark was Nabokov’s first treading of the ground he would return to almost twenty years later in Lolita—a middle-aged man finds himself desperately desiring an underage nymphet coming off her first love affair, and complications ensue.
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The Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Pretend We’re Dead

The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)


Karloff dominates the poster, with Elsa Lanchester smaller and in the foreground, on the movie poster.

Now, no one thought about the idea that the hair would get caught in the neckbolts? Not good design, people!
photo credit: Wrong Side of the Art

NOTE: it seems silly to post a spoiler alert for a film that was made in 1935 and has been this widely-discussed, but this review does contain spoilers. Proceed with caution if you have not seen it.



I have been hearing about The Bride of Frankenstein for nigh on forty years now, since the first mass-market monster movie paperbacks I picked up in the mid-seventies. And yet, somehow, I had never gotten around to actually seeing the movie until earlier this week. Given that the film’s iconic image is that of Elsa Lanchester just awakened and gazing upon her prospective groom for the first time, I have to say I rather expected Lanchester’s role here to be a great deal meatier than it actually is. Paradoxically, however, it is her minuscule amount of screen time that lends the film much of the enduring power it has obviously had over critics; as of this writing, the canonical 1000 Best Movies list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (“canonical” because it is, likely, compiled from a larger number of professional critics than any other list, three hundred forty-seven)’s most recent update, in February 2013, has The Bride of Frankenstein at #308. Over the years I have read any number of times that it is better than the original; the blurb at TSPDT as I write this, from Roger Ebert, even kicks off with his assessment that Bride is “…the best of the Frankenstein films…”. (Frankenstein itself, on that same list, resides at #471.) I am guessing that, if you follow my reviews at all, me uttering the phrase “I do not agree” will be as much of a surprise to you as, say, the fact that the sun rises in the east.

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The Lady Vanishes (1938): Awaken in Darkness

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

Two scenes from the movie adorn this early poster.

Someone comes to town, someone leaves town.
photo credit:

The Lady Vanishes is prime Hitchcock, one of his early masterworks, and one that, traditionally, has gotten very little press. Could that be because it was one of the last films he made in Britain before becoming a part of the Hollywood machine? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know I intend to do anything I can, as one small voice in the wilderness, to try and elevate The Lady Vanishes in the American consciousness to its rightful place at the top of the Hitchcock heap with other timeless works like Rope, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window (and, while I know I am in the minority on this one, his silent film The Manxman, which I adored). It’s a textbook in the construction of a humorous mystery with dark undertones, and in that regard, I’m not sure it has ever been equalled.

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Winner Take Nothing (1933): Some Clean, Well-Lighted Stories

Ernest Hemingway, Winner Take Nothing (Scribner’s, 1933)

[originally posted 27Mar2001]

Two people, backs to the camera, carry off an animal they have hunted (I believe it is a deer but can't quite tell) on this book cover.

Certainly a better cover than the boring Modern Library one I have.
photo credit:

Arguably Hemingway’s finest book of short stories, Winner Take Nothing contains fourteen relatively short and always spare looks at various stages of life. What seem, upon first reading, to be nothing more than frameworks or outlines take on more meat upon reflection. Hemingway lets the reader fill in the small details, guiding his imagination rather than manipulating it. This does mean that the onus is on the reader more than usual with this book; Hemingway’s work is meant to be thought-provoking rather than escapist. If you can make it to the end of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the second story in the book, and reflect on it without feeling anything, then the book’s probably not for you. Those who approach it with the proper mindset, however, will find it to be full of opportunities to plumb one’s own imagination. ****