Unstable Ground

This exists to spread the word on work from Unstable Ground, Inc., as well as anything we find cool or interesting. There's already a million voices out there spreading opinion, PR, and utter time-wasting inanity.... what's one more?

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Postings by Justin McConnell
https://www.facebook.com/justinmcconnell
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1190282/

2013 - The Writing on the Wall

2013. This time 20 years ago, I would have expected hover-cars by now. Of course, I was 11 then, and also believed in Santa Claus. I think. Those presents were coming from somewhere, dammit.

I’m currently 31, and greet each year like I have something to prove. Some years I’m able to accomplish things that I would add to the ‘bucket list’, while others I’m lucky to make it through with my sanity intact.

Every year I learn, and more importantly, gain wisdom. Only now do I realize what a completely naïve moron I was at 21, and I’m sure when I reach 41, I’ll look back and question the thought process I currently utilize. Every once in a while you have to look back at where you were, and where you want to be, and figure out how to rewire your brain. Break old habits. Try new things. Make improvements.

The world over, people make resolutions on this holiday: be better with money, lose weight, exude more self-confidence, learn the deadly art of Krav Maga. Whatever it is, they make a pledge to themselves to work toward this goal, to make it happen. They see something in need of improvement now, imagine the result of their work, and then not quite get a grasp on the actual work required. It’s human nature, our psyche is wired for instant gratification, and so a fuzzy ideal of the end goal is not as much of a priority as enjoying a current moment. I’m guilty of it too, in many avenues of my life. Seeing the ends before the means.

I’ve had 31 years now to live for instant gratification. I do see a bigger picture, a number of goals. Dreams I’ve held most of my life. I do work toward these, and earn every step up the ladder in my career. Fight tooth and nail to get where I want to be. I have laser focus more often than I’d like to admit, which is what is required to make my goals become reality, but it comes at the cost of neglecting other areas of my life. Sometimes I forget to live, in the pursuit of a dream. I don’t see the reality of the now in a fog of the future.

This last year has been one of the most difficult in my entire life. On some fronts, it was quite a success. My first narrative feature The Collapsed was released in 12 countries worldwide, I finished a long-production feature documentary called Skull World, and my ‘name’ (whatever that means) has traveled further than it ever has in the past. In early 2013 it is looking like I will be making a feature I’ve been trying to get made for years now, The Eternal, starring actors I both grew up admiring (Michael Biehn), and have grown to respect immensely (Adam Kenneth Wilson). Right before Xmas another actor I’ve been watching my entire life has agreed to join the project (currently remaining nameless). The monthly short-film festival I curate, Little Terrors, is doing quite well. My post-production business is doing great, and new business ventures loom in the new year that could be quite lucrative.

However, several months ago I also lost my best friend and creative partner, which is something that has me repeatedly questioning why I do what I do, when life is so short. When there is so much living left to do. His death has me thinking a lot about my approach to not just the film industry, but life in general. I notice now, more than ever, areas of my life in which I am unfulfilled. They are mostly what I would consider ‘first world problems’, but they are still goals I should be putting more effort into. Personal ones. My well-being. My mental health. I consider myself generally sane, but so does almost every crazy person in existence. Somewhere in there, a few synapses aren’t firing the way they should, a few others throw up blinders to the problems, and I need to work harder to identify and remedy. To be a better person, a better me.

And in the world of film, in which I spend most of my current focus, I need to realize and accept some things. First of all, the obvious: the industry is not what it once was. I’ve written about this at length in the past, and it all holds true. The route to producing is different, the system is different, and it’s either adapt or die. Flourish or flounder. I’ve always prided myself on being a multi-faceted artist, despite what they tell you in film school (“Pick a discipline and stick to it, or else you’ll be bad at a bunch of things instead of good at one thing”). I realize more and more that this is the path to what I want. I need to be flexible. To have focus, but also be open to new opportunity. To embrace the changes, work with them, and put in effort to predict the new ones. Learn as much as I can, and never stop.

So, this year, I’m not setting any resolutions. Not exactly. I see multiple areas of my life I wish to improve, ways in which I can be better. And now I must see the steps, all of them small, one after the other. There is only so much you can accomplish in a day. So starting today, accomplish something. Anything. I truly believe it’s the route to happiness.

Little Terrors: Rebooted

If one was to ask me a little over year ago if I saw myself programming film theatrically on a regular basis, I would have said no. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of public exhibition attempts over the years, from live band promotion to theatrical campaigns for my own films, but as an active programmer, I never saw it in the cards.

This all changed in July 2011 when an upstart rep cinema, The Projection Booth, and Jonathan Hlibka, took a chance on an idea to bring genre short films to the people of Toronto on a regular basis. After approaching and bringing the great people at Rue Morgue Magazine on as co-promoters, the series Little Terrors was born. Over the last year I’ve worked my ass off when I had the time, and programmed over 100 shorts from all over the world, including multiple Toronto premieres (I take pride in being the first person to bring the insanity of Banana Motherfucker, Bobby Yeah and Roid Rage to the city).

However, I’d be lying to myself if I said it was easy, or always pleasant. As stated, I don’t consider myself a programmer first - my primary focus is film production and my post-production clients. In both of those areas, business has exploded for me the last year, and I frankly find myself with nowhere near enough hours in the day to get everything done. As the months moved on, I found myself in a rather distressing place with the Little Terrors program.

While at The Projection Booth, I was the sole programmer, publicist, graphic designer (aside from the wonderful hand-drawn artwork by Kevin Hutchinson each month), technical/post organizer, and more. This means that many days out of each month I would have to spend working to present the best program possible, and deal with all the logistics involved: chasing down shorts, converting PAL to NTSC BluRay, etc. All of this for a series that didn’t even take submission fees, and that I often paid for out of my own pocket.

This would all be fine, except the audience numbers have never been what I would call strong. We’d have our good months, and our bad ones. Then, once the OFRB stepped up and demanded we pay for classification for every event, it resulted in not just me losing money (and countless hours), but the theatre as well. We were delivering a hell of a program each month, but sometimes not putting enough people in the seats to justify it’s existence. We have a great group of regulars who can vouch for the strength and quality of the films we play each month, but what we need is a crowd on a regular basis, even a small one.

To make a long story short, a few months ago I realized that something had to change in order to keep the program alive. I began to realize that although I truly believe The Projection Booth is one of the best rep cinemas in a city where their numbers are dwindling, a combination of low foot-traffic and number of hours required on my part to operate resulted in a perfect storm of missed potential and lost money. It’s the same challenge facing most people in the exhibition game, and I knew that I could do one of two things. I could either throw in the towel and kill the program, or I could rework it into something that would both draw crowds, and alleviate some of the financial and time-strain running it puts on me.

I chose the second option. I quite enjoy bringing these crazy slices of cinema to an audience each month. I don’t do this for money, I do it to inspire and entertain the people that are similar to me: people searching for something different and outside the norm when it comes to film. Realizing how important it was that I continue to do this, and with a sudden opportunity raising up, I put a plan in motion.

First of all, the program is leaving The Projection Booth. I am truly grateful for everything that theatre has done for me and the program as a whole, and will speak highly of the venue to anyone that asks (and wish them the best of luck with their new expansion at the Metro). I’m incredibly thankful for all the venue and staff has done for me over the last year. If I could have made it work there, I would have stayed. As a room, and cinema, it reminds me of the ‘Festival Cinemas’ chain that helped me fall in love with Toronto when I first moved here in 2000, and needs all the support it can get. All the rep cinemas do… they will die without a hungry audience wanting to see what the multiplex won’t program. And with the extremely expensive required move from 35mm (which is already being phased out) to digital projection, they need asses in seats more than ever.

They need asses in the seats, and so do I. At our former venue, nobody was really making anything off of Little Terrors, and I felt for the best of all involved I should take a great opportunity that arose. Not only that, but Kelly Stewart’s well-run ‘Fright Nights’ series more than fills the horror void at The Projection Booth.

The new home for the series will be at Rainbow Cinemas Carlton, right in the heart of downtown Toronto, and actually on a subway stop. The theatre, and chain, has displayed a real desire to program independent film now that Cineplex basically has a monopoly on most of the city (having recently bought out the AMCs), and hopes Little Terrors can be the start of something. My hope is that the more accessible location and higher foot-traffic will not only help keep this program afloat, but help convince the owners of the viability of indie programs and films. The better films outside the mainstream do in ticket sales, the more likely they will be programmed in the future.

In addition to the move of venue, I’ve brought on two very talented programmers to help me: Christian Burgess of Toronto After Dark, and April Snellings of Rue Morgue Magazine and Knoxville Horror Film Festival. We are also now taking a very low submission fee, which will help subsidize the materials and time needed to make this happen each and every month. Finally, I’ve launched a 4-city tour of highlights from the first year, to help the word spread further.

Our first night at the Carlton is September 19th (9:00pm), and I hope to see not only the regulars out, but some new faces as well. The series’ new home has a real potential for growth, as long as the audience votes for it with their ticket purchase. As long as people want to see it, I will strive to search the world for the most off-the-wall, fucked up and entertaining short films around, and present them on a regular basis. Hope to see you out as we begin our second year!

Music Video Evolution

While I didn’t focus primarily on music video production throughout my career, I have directed a number of them. Since most of my work has been via post production, namely to keep steady income, the opportunities to do music videos have been few and far between. Not only that, but I have never had a budget that I would call ‘adequate’ enough to really bring what I wanted to the screen (plus I have a folder full of killer treatments that didn’t actually make it into production). When I produced videos most often was before the HD switch that made them suddenly very affordable at fully professional quality, so they aren’t going to age well.

All of this said, for aspiring filmmakers, music videos are a wonderful educational opportunity. You have to produce what are essentially ‘mini-movies’ and tell the entire story visually. They help you develop your style and experiment with new ideas. As a producer, they can teach you how to produce for pocket change, and on a small enough scale that mistakes aren’t quite as big a deal as with feature films.

Below is an outline of my music video work (only videos I’ve directed are here - I have DOP’d or edited quite a few more, including an unofficial video for Fantomas that I was tricked into thinking was official at the time). It runs chronologically from oldest to newest, breaking down relative budget, production problems, and what was learned. Maybe you’ll find this helpful.

I’m also going to be entirely candid about the budgets. Those who may want video work done in the future, please keep in mind that these budgets are over a career progression, and do not necessarily reflect what I’m charging currently. Also note that these are cash budgets, and don’t account for the hours that were put in for very little or free to get the video finished.

It should also be noted that I’m using the best quality links for these, not necessarily the links with the highest viewcounts. Most of these videos are on alternate Youtube links with a great deal more views.

No Assembly Required - Shove (2002)
Camera: Panasonic DVX100, Budget: $500
Airplay: MuchLoud (medium rotation), MuchMusic Indie Spotlight

My first directed video, trying reverse/stop motion and going for the ‘Tool’ thing without having any money to pull it off. This is also one of the first things I ever worked on with my long-time producing partner Kevin Hutchinson. First use of practical FX (bladders).

Bloodshoteye - Hitlist (2004)
Camera: Arriflex Super 16mm, Budget: $16,200 (VideoFact grant)
Airplay: MuchLoud, Muchmusic

I would consider this one of my biggest failures, mostly for reasons entirely out of my control. We were approved for a $15K grant via VideoFact, but the final video is not what I had planned. My first experience working with a big crew (around 40 people), including a wire/stunt team, practical FX (dry ice, torch), and multiple monsters. The thing about VideoFact is you have to deliver a video worth double the funding they give you, and get it made before they cut a cheque. So this had to be produced on borrowed money, and everyone had to work for low rates. We had union-level tech crews that weren’t really into the shoot, and it all just went to Hell. Then the big thing happened: we blew all our power at the location and had to spend 4 hours finding a generator on a Sunday. I ended up cutting my shotlist in half, cut a bunch of stunts, and the video suffers for it. I also ended up putting $1200 out of my own pocket into this. I learned four incredibly important things here: 1) it’s better to work with people that are actually excited and want to be on set for the art instead of just another paycheck, 2) pre-production makes or breaks a production, so plan for every contingency, 3) you can only get so many shots in a day, and 4) the bigger the crew, the slower things often go. I applied to VideoFact 3 more times after this, but was not approved again.

RPO - Find Me (2004)
Camera: Panasonic DVX100 (x2), Budget: $1200
Airplay: MuchLoud, Muchmusic Indie Spotlight

I still quite like this video, in all it’s rawness. The lighting isn’t great, but the shoot day was as hectic as they come. Packing all of those extras in a tiny, smelly, sweaty room lead to an uncomfortable shoot. On this one I learned that alcohol available to extras is not a fantastic idea, even with a rock/metal video.

iFORANi - Saved Your Life (2004)
Camera: Panasonic DVX100, Budget: $1500
Airplay: N/A

This is an important one because it’s great in illustrating how much you have to keep on top of tech standards. When this video was shot in 2004, in SD on the DVX100, MuchMusic was still accepting videos shot in this format. However, by the time the song was finished in 2006 (it was initially cut to a rough track), MuchMusic was accepting HD material exclusively. Therefore, it lost out on it’s opportunity for airplay. Luckily now TV airplay is not that important for a video, with Youtube getting more viewers, but back then, lack of it was crippling to potential exposure.

Tub Ring - Habitat (2005)
Camera: Panasonic DVX100, Budget: $300
Airplay: MTV USA

This one was actually a gift from me to the band. I was working on their DVD Optics at the time, and wanted to give them some added value as an Xmas gift. I got together with Kevin Hutchinson and we came up with this Jonestown/Heaven’s Gate with puppets idea. He was working on a bunch of children’s shows at the time, making similar looking puppets, so we shot something a bit more twisted with them. Some experimenting on my part with 3D animation as well… something I didn’t stick with. In any case it was fun, and I got to realize how much time and patience is needed when dealing with puppets. And you need skilled puppeteers to really bring them to life.

No Assembly Required - ‘I Hate’ & ‘Pictures of You’ (2008)
Cameras: Panasonic HVX200, Budget: $1500 (for both videos)
Airplay: MuchLoud (medium rotation), MuchMusic

These were both straight up performance videos, so we decided to shoot them both quickly on the same day. These videos are also the first I hired a D.O.P. on (the talented Pasha Patriki, who had worked with me previously on Ending the Eternal, and eventually shot The Collapsed). We developed a very good shorthand communication when working, and by now I’ve learned the value of having a great D.O.P. working with you in tandem. Things move faster, and quality goes up. Around this point is when I began to realize that unless I really like the songs, want to help out a band I’m close with, or have a sizeable budget to work with, music videos aren’t really worth the time and cost on a personal level. The videos I’ve done since then have all been produced based on that philosophy.



Oceano - A Mandatory Sacrifice (2009)
Cameras: Panasonic DVX100 (x5), Won’t mention budget here
Airplay: MuchMusic, MTV USA, Fuel TV

Outerloop Management has been a client of mind for years with live show and DVD authoring/production work. They approached me to do a multi-camera live event recording of this Earache artist. At this point I had already shot multiple full-set live camera releases (including two Summer Slaughter tours), so not much new was learned here. This is right around the time I would have liked to have been shooting something like this in HD, but the budget didn’t accommodate that.

The Overfiend - Maiden (2009)
Camera: Panasonic HVX200, Budget: $2800
Airplay: MuchMusic, MuchLoud

Arguably the best music video I’ve made. The years of production experience leading up to this point show a great deal. Pasha Patriki is back as D.O.P. on this one, and it’s our first attempt at doing virtual environments and greenscreen on this scale. The ‘Sin City’ effect. Fairly easy to shoot, but then it lead to two weeks straight of 14 hour days in my apartment as I did all the VFX on it. The walls and environments were hand-drawn by Rue Morgue/Phantom City Creative's Justin Erickson. Realistically, this video should have cost a lot more, but I reduced my quote significantly to get the opportunity to do something like this, and because of a long-standing friendship with the band. All said, I'd likely hire a VFX artist to do this kind of thing in the future (especially since I now know some great ones).

Cauldron - Chained Up In Chains (2010)
Camera: Panasonic DVX100 (x5), Won’t mention budget here
Airplay: MuchMusic, MTV USA

Another live video for Earache Records. Wanted to really play up the throw-back 80s live/tour video angle, so the style reflects that. Not a ton learned, just a fun video.

Lady Pimp - Guy (2010)
Camera: Panasonic HVX200 + DVX100, Budget: Not worth mentioning
Airplay: N/A

I debated even mentioning this one, because it’s so far from what I do. It’s a joke/comedy music video for FemTV/Lady Pimp, so it’s tongue is firmly planted in it’s cheek. It’s also possibly fodder for a future Cracked.com column, or Rebecca Black level scorn. Job for friends mainly, but I’m still proud of how it looks visually. Shot in an afternoon and cut very quickly, I was going for a throwback to rap videos from the 80s, mixed with absolute cheese. Laugh or tear your own eyes out, it really depends on your sense of humour. (has been set to private now, for some reason)

Luca Mele - Dress A Wound (2012)
Camera: Canon 7D, Budget: Not worth mentioning
Airplay: TBD

My newest video, shot with the crazy quality prosumer technology now available. Considering the Canon 7D package I shot this on costs less than half of what I paid for a DVX100 back in 2002, tech has come a long way. This is the fourth video I’ve shot for Luca (three others with his band No Assembly Required). Was a nice experiment in getting back into D.O.P.ing a video myself (with a skeleton crew of two other people), and playing with lenses and focal lengths. I’ve also determined that shooting with a DSLR is far less conspicuous when producing something guerrilla-style. Nobody seems to notice or care when the camera is that small. Quite happy with the results on this one, considering it had like 9 locations shot in only 7 hours, for virtually no money.

Structures - Paralyzed (2012)
Camera: Various HD, Budget: Can’t mention.
Airplay: Somewhere, but unsure

This live video for Sumerian Records artist Structures is one of the craziest live shoots I’ve ever done. Basically stage dive olympics. Pretty intense, and was kicked in the head several times (I was also running the camera in the pit).

So there you have it. I’ll keep doing videos from time to time, but I’d hardly consider myself a video director as a career. I’m much more focused on feature film & documentary production at the moment, as well as my regular post-production work (got to keep the bills paid!).

I would highly recommend shooting music videos starting out, or anything that gets you out and producing. The more you produce, the more you will learn, and the better you will become at your craft.

The Con Game: A Warning for Filmmakers

Most people don’t know this, but when I was first starting out in feature film production, I was conned out of approximately $14,000. At the time, it would be convenient to call myself naive, but that wasn’t the case, exactly.

When I finished my first documentary, Working Class Rock Star, back in 2006, I had no clue what to do in order to sell it. I did a bunch of research and it pointed me toward the entire sales agent community. I met with a number of them, and after checking them all out, went with somebody that seemed fairly legit. Jeffery Coghlan. The first meeting I had with him filled me with hope: he showed me cell phone photos of him with various celebrities, laid out a good strategy to get things going, and then came the catch: He wanted $5000 initially for expenses/retainer. At the time, I thought this was standard, and complied.

We signed a deal with a company he’d set up called PCC Productions, which probably should have been the first red flag. After all, all his emails said “Guardian Entertainment”. Later I learned that the address on the PCC Productions contract led to a currently operating gym, and the company was created (and all bank accounts opened) literally days before he took my first payment. And closed two weeks prior to the last payment (approx. $1000 - which he insisted on in cash - all other payments were made via cheque, which he filtered through shell accounts). I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Anyway, I met with him several times over the next year. The contract we had called for quarterly reports that I never received, and after enough time passed, I started getting suspicious. There were zero results, until 2007. That year he apparently went to EFM (in Germany) and texted me that he’d sold over $100K. The texts came in rapid fire: $15K to Israel, $30K to Germany, etc. I was ‘over-the-moon’ excited, considered I’d produced the documentary for less than $50K.

A few months passed, with me asking for some form or proof that these deals existed - deal memos, deliverable requirements, etc. He stated the deals couldn’t go through without E&O, so he ‘helped’ me obtain it. What he really did was take another $6000 from me (plus $3000 for a ‘publicist’), and then ran with it. Well, not run, exactly. He started producing Pontypool with Bruce McDonald. (Which is why I sometimes make the joke “I helped indirectly finance PONTYPOOL”).

This was all very confusing, until I did some more research. Turns out Jeffrey Coghlan has a long history of fraud in not just film, but other industries as well. I’ve even learned that he’s defrauded old ladies out of their life savings. Did I mention that at the time he was my ‘rep’, he apparently had cancer and was going to die soon? The tricks these assholes will pull.

For the last few years, I’ve quietly been gathering information. I didn’t want to make much of a big show about it, since I figured that the last thing I need as an active producer is a bunch of active legal proceedings. Things like that make investors nervous. I’ve collected a nice paper trail though, and met with at least 5 other of Jeffrey’s ‘marks’. They’ve all lost more money than me, and haven’t bothered to chase because he’s basically the Carmen Sandiego of the film industry. Most recently he was involved in completely screwing over the production of Free Enterprise 2, taking the money and running. You can read about that here (in the comments).

The point is that there are a lot of good people in the film industry (my current sales agents at Raven Banner are trusted, and great), but also a lot of sharks. Jeffrey is one of the worst of these, but others exist. The problem is they mix their crime in with legitimate business, so it can be difficult to see through the bullshit. For example: Jeffrey is the reason I met George Romero at the TIFF Diary of the Dead pre-party a few years back. But he also conned me out of $14,000.

My advise to filmmakers first getting into the sales game: do your research. Do as much due-diligence on the people representing you as possible. Call other people that have worked with them. Don’t be naive.

I look at what happened to me here as my ‘advanced film school’ at this point. Because of being screwed over by this unscrupulous asshole, I’ve become far smarter about how I play the game. I’ve gone out and actively taught myself the ins and outs of the distribution game, know the history of the vast majority of active sales agents out there, and try extremely hard to avoid getting screwed over again. This may make me come across as a bit of a hard-ass in negotiation sometimes, but it’s better than going forward blindly. Now upcoming filmmakers come to me for advice, and it’s a much better position to be in.

The reason I feel I can publicly talk about this now is the comments sections of three articles I just found online. Here, here, and here. Jeffrey is not only now publicly outed as the scumbag he is, but the police are actively looking for him…. in both the US and Canada. His days of scamming the naive and the trusting are limited. Thankfully.

Do your research, and be careful. There’s already far less money for independent film than ever before - don’t let someone like this make it even worse.

Creative Control (short story)

(by Justin McConnell, copyright November 2011)


“Don’t say anything else!” pleads Erica, maintaining eye contact through tear-streaked eyes. Examining the faces of her friends, she knows they needed convincing, that they had to understand. Survival depended on it.

A few minutes ago, there were eight of them, happy and oblivious, not knowing how close to the edge they were. Now, with two down, they were closer than ever to the truth, and in turn, death. They need to know everything, Erica realized, but he can never find out. He had to be kept in the dark. In a flash of irony, the answer strikes her, and she lowers her head, defeated. Of course I know, well before she does.

The eight of them had traveled the long stretch of highway in two cars, a fact that Leon never let them forget. Every group has a Leon: frugal to a fault, schedule conscious, organized. For days leading up to the trip, he had been comparing prices on rentals, calculating mileage, and generally figuring how to save as much money as possible. He planned to rent a minibus, but everyone else stopped listening to his advice long ago, and by his calculations, their gas price was now double. His frustration had turned to annoyance early in the trip, while at dinner. After eating a salad and watching everyone else gorge on combo meals and beer, the table insisted on splitting the bill. Little things added up all along the road, and by the time they had turned off into the secluded trail to the cabin, Leon had decided he’d rather be anywhere else. Only the odd passing glance at Laurie, the fleeting hope, kept what little he had left of his spirits up. Maybe this was finally it. Maybe.

The sun pierced through the canopy of trees in staccato rhythm, a natural strobe, partially obscuring Laurie’s vision as she drove. She raised her hand to lower the sun-visor. She could sense it then, as she always could: Leon was staring at her again. Glancing to the backseat, she made eye contact, adding a quick smile to really rub it in. Leon swiftly looked anywhere else, as if something in the trees was suddenly fascinating. At this point, she wasn’t really sure what she thought of Leon, but didn’t see the harm in messing with his head. Besides, he wasn’t that bad to look at, and if the timing was right, she entertained the idea. Perhaps.

“Why are we slowing down?” Phil asked, sitting in the passenger seat across from Laurie. Up ahead, the brake-lights on the second car flared red.

“No clue, these roads aren’t maintained for shit.” She swore, but I won’t count that against her. Yet. Everybody gets one.

Phil lost interest fast, and returned to his phone, surfing the net in the middle of nowhere. Brightly-coloured nipples and flesh beamed at him from a 2-inch screen.

“Is that porn?” Laurie inquired, both curious and a little bit intrigued. From the backseat, Leon and Jenn both leaned forward with keen interest. Jenn, normally quiet but willing to take the piss out of anyone when the opportunity arose, was the first to speak up. “How do you see anything on that tiny screen?”

“It’s just a little taste.” Phil stated, grinning. Turning to Laurie, a devious gleam in his eye, he spoke with the suave cadence known to get him laid more often than not, “Don’t worry, I brought the portable DVD and the good stuff for us.”

From the backseat, Leon watched as Laurie grinned uncomfortably, an almost defensive maneuver. ‘Good’, thought Leon, ‘came across a little bit creepy there, asshole’. I agree.

Turning back to the road, Laurie noticed something wrong with the car in front. It began to swerve on the narrow pathway, a little at first, but growing in intensity as time rushed past. She motioned to the lead car “what the hell?” 

The four of them watched helplessly as the inside of the front car exploded, a shower of blood and flesh spreading across all the windows, as if pressurized. Laurie slammed on her brakes as the lead car swerved into the ditch, rolling over.

In shocked silence, they sat there, staring forward. The rear doors of the front car swung open painfully, and someone started crawling out. All at once, Jenn breaks the silence. “We have to help them.” Finally, some reaction time. A point for Jenn.

All at once the rear car empties, the four rushing up to help their friends. The first person out of the front car is Barry, a short, stocky fellow with some early male-pattern baldness. He also happens to be covered head to toe with blood and pieces of flesh, staring forward with his shocked eyes glowing white, a crazed look of disbelief on his face. He’s speaking gibberish, until he makes eye contact with Phil. “Fucking exploded. He just…..”

Laurie and Jenn have rounded the other side of the overturned car, and bend down to look inside. Both of their friends on the passenger side are hurt, but alive. Erica and Mike are helped to their feet, the same dazed expressions covering their gore soaked bodies.

“What the hell happened?” asks Laurie, not really wanting to hear the answer. Erica just stares at her, unable to put her thoughts into words. She’s starting to understand, but can’t quite formulate the complete thought. I’ll give her time.

Leaning further into the car, Jenn makes eye contact with Phil through the gruesome interior. The whole thing is covered with what used to be Scott, shreds of his clothing bunched up among hunks of flesh, decorating the car. Jenn saw one of his shoes, foot still inside, and turned from the sight. She stumbled to the side of the road and vomited.

Erica watched as Jenn stands back up, a disgusted look on her face. She glanced around at her remaining friends, and still can’t bring herself to speak. Aside from the fact that Scott just spontaneously exploded, something just wasn’t right here. She could feel it. Of course, she’s right.

Laurie steps back, angry and confused. She yelled out to everyone at once, “Could someone tell what the fuck just happened?” In a blink of an eye, she explodes, showering her friends with a blast wave of blood and bone fragment, enough force to drive them to the ground. I told you, everyone gets one.

Erica pointed to where Laurie just stood, and exclaims “That! That’s what happened.”

Phil looked around, disbelief on his face, “What do you mean? Scott just fucking exploded? People don’t just do that!” That’s one.

All at once it hits her, and Erica knows. She knows, and she’s in the moment, she’s existing in the present. It’s her time to live, a gnats life, and she’s going to make every second count. She remembers. It’s too horrible to believe, but she knows it’s the truth. She knows the rules, and she has to save her friends. She’s going to try, but I know there’s no hope. Pity.

“Don’t say anything else!” she pleads.

“What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense.” Leon exclaims, regaining his footing and picking little pieces of bone out of the side of his face.

Erica shakes her head. She has to make them understand, but she can’t let him know. But he already knows. I know everything. “If you piss him off, he’ll kill you.”

They stare at each other silently a moment, Phil in particular sizing up Erica, trying to make sense of her words. “Who is he? Who are you talking about?”

“I can’t tell you. If I tell you, he’ll kill me too.” Erica searches her mind, her thoughts racing, looking at every angle. How can she do this? How can it be different this time?

Jenn breaks in, “Look, we have to get help. Anyone’s cell phone work?” Patting themselves down, a look of confusion washes over the group. “Where’s my phone?”

Barry shakes his head, and dives back into the car, searching through the splattered interior. “Where is it, where is it, come on, where is it?!?”

“Your phones are gone.” Erica answers, the only one not frantically searching. In the distance, a bird cries out, and Erica freezes, fear washing over her face. The rest of the group stops searching, and looks at Erica in disbelief. Phil is the first to speak.

“You keep talking like you know something. What aren’t you telling us? What do you mean the phones are gone?” He approaches Erica, imposing and somewhat threatening. I don’t like this much.

Erica shakes her head, pleading, “He just took them away. Look, you just have to trust me, we have to stop talking. It’s the only way.” Little does she know, mere  thought can kill. 

“No, no, fuck that. You know something, spill it.” Exclaims Phil, still angry.

In the sky above, the bird cries out again, closer now. Erica looks up, fear in her eyes. New tears form, streaming down her cheeks. Her face fills with pain for her friend, knowing what’s coming next. She speaks softly, “I’m sorry….”

A large shadow swoops over the group, something massive flying over them, low and fast. A whoosh of air rushes through them, kicking up dirt. Phil looks up, and screams. A massive bird, prehistoric and somewhat demonic, swoops down at him. He’s snatched in the thing’s massive talons, and lifted into the air.

On the ground, the friends scream helplessly as Phil is lifted high above them, and then dropped. The ‘asshole’ screams in terror as he plummets to the earth, striking the ground at their feet with a wet thump. There’s no saving him. In truth, there’s no saving any of them. I apologize in advance.

Barry screams out first, quickly cutting his words as he sees Erica aggressively raise her index finger to her lips. “What the fu—-?” She silences him.

Jenn grabs Leon by the shoulder, and pulls him back, motioning for them to crouch. They stare up at the sky, searching for the monstrous bird. Barry remains staring at Erica, who simply stands there. Jenn calls out “We have to find cover, it could come back.”

Erica looks to Jenn, and responds coldly, “It won’t make a difference.”

There’s silence for a few moments, when something catches Leon’s eye: a small piece of jewelry, glittering in the sun, sitting in a pool of thick blood. Earrings, once belonging to Laura, bits of flesh still attached. All at once, sadness hits him like a wave, years of pent up emotion, of hopes and dreams, crashing down at once. She was his ‘one’, even if she didn’t know it. He turns to Erica, “Tell me what’s happening…. Please…”

Erica’s face fills with pain, and she desperately wants to tell him. She knows the specifics, but has to be vague. She shakes her head, “He’s watching us, sees everything, hears everything. You can’t make him angry.” She misunderstands me.

Jenn has had enough, but holds her tongue. Her thoughts are crimson, pangs of anger with no direction or target. Drifting to a visage of her mother, and their last moments together, two nights ago. Something in the way she looked at her, a hint of approval after all these years, a long overdue smile. She wanted to get back to that, to the loving embrace, a bond finally built after so many years of coldness. To her family, her pets, her life. She stands, new resolve on her face, and begins to walk away from the group, back toward the highway.

Barry calls after her, “Where are you going?”

Responding, a sense of determination in her voice, she moves like a woman possessed. New strength flows through her, a survival instinct cultivated from a history of strong female leads, a hero in the making. A Final Girl. “I’m walking to the highway. There’s no way I’m dying like this.”

She steps forward to the sound of a click. Looking down, she notices two metal pins sticking out of the dirt, and lifts her foot slightly, carefully. There is a whirring noise, and her eyes fill with fear. She turns to look at her friends, and locks eyes with Erica. She sees pain in her friend’s face, but also a strange calm, a detached expression. Like she knows.

The ground below Jenn’s feet bursts upward, spewing dirt and launching the mine into the air. It explodes at her midsection, vaporizing her upper body, leaving bloody stumps and spreading her body across the road. Sorry Jenn, nobody gets out that easily.

Barry watches as Jenn bursts, eyes wide as his sanity leaves him. He rushes at Erica, tackling her to the ground. “Tell me what the fuck is going on? Tell me now!” He holds her down aggressively, his face filled with wild rage.

Seeing this, Leon rushes to the rescue, throwing his shoulder into Barry like he’d imagine a football player would. The two men topple over, leaving Erica panting on the ground. As they struggle, Erica turns to them and pleads, “Stop! You’ll just piss him off!”

Barry quickly gains the upper-hand, delivering a fury of blows to Leon’s head. Punch after punch lands, turning Leon’s face to pulp. He’s alive, but dazed. Looking over at Erica, Barry moves toward her.

Staring up at the sky through his broken face, Leon realizes that his entire life, all the calculation, all the worrying, amounted to nothing in this moment. Striking him at exactly the wrong time to make a difference, he learns that sometimes you simply can’t plan, and have to let instinct take over. With his last bit of energy, he pulls himself to his feet, and stumbles toward Barry.

Barry is pulled to the ground before he reaches Erica, choked into the dirt as Leon uses everything he’s got left to try and make a difference. To be the better man, the hero of his own story. Only Erica knows that this isn’t his tale, he’s merely a player.

A piercing shriek fills the air, and the ground rumbles. Erica sits up, preparing for the inevitable. She looks at Barry and Leon as they struggle, and stands.

With a sudden jolt, a large metal spike protrudes from the earth below Barry’s head, piercing his skull. Leon is sprayed with blood, and jumps back, in total shock. He watches in terror as the head of the spike separates into four, folding back to resemble a grappling hook. The shriek fills the air once more, and the hook pulls back, bringing Barry’s impaled head with it. With a crunching of bone Barry’s entire body is dragged into the ground, headfirst. A geyser of blood rushes from the hole in the ground, homage to any number of things. I never really liked Barry anyway. He was a redshirt, even before he was covered in blood.

Leon looks from the gory mess of Barry’s instant grave, to the cold face of Erica. She stands over her last remaining friend, and smiles. “I tried. I really tried, I’m sorry.”

In an instant, Leon begins to remember as well. A wall of denial tumbles down, and he sees his place in the world for what it is. He sees the falsehood of every single piece of himself, the joke of existence. He smiles at Erica, thinking of nothing better to do, and speaks one last time, “Fuck, this is going to hurt.” With that, he explodes, showering Erica once more with blood.

Erica looks around her, at the remains of her close friends, the people she’d known her entire short life. Anger takes her, finally, and she screams out, to nobody in particular, “Do you get off on this, you sick fuck?” There’s no answer, because there’s no narrator. “Tell me, do you get off on all this shit, on all this suffering? Why do you do this to us, what gives you the right? What makes you so special, huh?!?”

In the distance, the monstrous bird cries out, startling Erica for just a moment. “I know what’s coming, and I’m not afraid. Bring it on, you son of a bitch! You might kill me, but you’ll still be just some pathetic loser in a dark room somewhere, probably living in your mother’s basement. Probably can’t even get it up, you fucking shell of a man!” She’s well past two strikes.

The shadow of the monstrous bird flies over her, blocking out the sun for a few brief seconds. She knows it all, sees what’s coming for her. Knows there’s nothing she can do. As the creature closes in, she feels the wind first, and closes her eyes. In a quick flash, she’s lifted into the air, the feeling of weightlessness taking her, causing butterflies in her stomach. She remembers her childhood, driving back-roads with her dad, jumping the foothills. The feeling of the car taking air, the freedom and thrill. She remembers her sisters, the look on her first love’s face, that moment she knew deep down that life is going to be okay. The moment she truly believed she had a bright future. She remembers all of this, because I want her to. It’s all false, but it comforts her nonetheless.

Now, she’s falling, plummeting to the earth. Mere seconds, and she’ll hit the ground, every thought and dream gone. All lost, forever. I want to comfort her as she falls, to tell her the real truth behind it all. The mystery behind the veil.

She thinks she understands, but she only sees part of it. She will live on, forever, existing again every time someone reads this. Her, and all of her friends. They’ll all keep coming back to life, or more accurately, to existence, in the imaginations of every new reader. Even Mike, who I only mentioned once, will live briefly until he fades to nothingness due to a fault in my storytelling.

I gave her life, as I did the roads they traveled, the vehicles they drove, and the bird that dropped her. She lives in my mind, and the minds of the readers, and nowhere else. But she lives, all the same. And now she dies, all the same. As she hits the ground I want to introduce myself, to take credit for the short flicker of her existence, to experience her hate or love firsthand. Would she greet me with disdain or acceptance? Would she value her short life, or simply want the cycle to stop? Would she realize that the power I hold to destroy, I can also use to create? That all it would take is words on a page to change her circumstance, to break the loop?

As Erica meets the ground once again, I impart my message, I give her awareness. I make sure she remembers next time. I suggest that maybe she can change things, but I know it’s false hope. I hold all the cards. I’m the writer.

Halloween Special - Overlooked/Forgotten Horror Flicks Worth Watching

It’s been a very long time since the last post, due to non-stop work on my end. Hell, I’m even writing this at the moment during some downtime at an out-of-town gig in Nashville. There will be a more general update posting soon, after I return, but in the meantime, I’m going to post this (it should also save me some time, since I always have tons of people ask me for horror movie recommendations around this time of year):

Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year, and I’m a huge horror geek. Everyone under the sun seems to come out with lists of their top ‘whatever’ horror films around now, but that isn’t what this is. This is in no particular order, and isn’t a ‘top’ anything. This is merely a list of very cool horror films that have been overlooked or forgotten by the general public as the years progress. You may read the list and wonder “why isn’t ___________ on it?”, but that’s not the point. If it’s notable enough, it doesn’t belong here. Granted, a couple of films listed have cult followings, but for most, these will be new discoveries. The list is also not comprehensive, or I’d be writing all day. So, get in the Halloween spirit with these gems:

The Boneyard

A very unique zombie flick with an even more unique protagonist (an old psychic lady - the type of character that would normally be victim #1 or #2 in your average horror flick). Creepy as hell, with great creature F/X.

Shadowbuilder

Michael Rooker as a twin-pistol carrying Catholic priest versus a demon. What’s not to like?

Prison

Early Renny Harlin flick with a Hellraiser-vibe in a prison. Early role for Viggo Mortensen.

The Borrower

John McNaughton followed up Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer with this very bizarre flick about an alien serial killer having to constantly find new bodies to inhabit in order to survive. Fantastic practical make-up F/X by Kevin Yagher.

Dellamorte Dellamore/Cemetary Man

Michele Soavi’s mind-fuck take on the Dylan Dog character. Tons of fun, highly-inventive, and unforgettable. Soavi’s The Church also belongs on this list.

The Night Flier

Overlooked Stephen King adaption starring the always interesting Miguel Ferrer.

Dead Birds

Great period-piece horror flick, heavy on atmosphere and subtlety, but doesn’t skimp on the gore.

Night of the Creeps

The most well-known film on this list, but if you haven’t seen Fred Dekker’s awesome zombie movie, you must. Progenitor to James Gunn’s Slither.

The Deadly Spawn

Practical monster madness with some of the goriest, most-unpredictable character deaths around. Has a loose sequel called Metamorphosis, which is also pretty fun.

I Come In Peace/Dark Angel

One of the coolest flicks of the 80s (even though it was made in 1990). Dolph Lundgren vs a drug-harvesting alien madman. Not technically a horror film, but enough inventive kills that it counts for this list.

Hardware

Also a cult flick know fairly well in some circles, Richard Stanley’s tale of a military robot going haywire is highly effective, gory, and disturbing.

Dagon

Stuart Gordon’s cool Lovecraft adaption that most missed when it came out.

Wendigo

Early film from the talented Larry Fessenden is heavy on atmosphere, and well worth the watch.

Whisper

What happens when hardened-criminals kidnap a kid that is basically Damien from The Omen? Well, find out, and enjoy.

Botched

Horror-comedy, but filled with inventive kills. Lots of fun.

Pig Hunt

Very fun and bizarre hybrid of a ton of horror sub-genres. Contains a killer score by Les Claypool.

From Beyond

Another great Stuart Gordon Lovecraft-adaption, starring Ken Foree and Jeffery Combs. Filled with amazing practical creature F/X.

Surveillance

Jennifer Lynch’s disturbing thriller is full of more twists than you can count, and well worth the watch. You’ll never look at French Stewart the same way again.

The Last Horror Movie

Similar to Man Bites Dog, but highly effective and unsettling.

Frankenfish

Forget the cheesy name, and the fact it was produced by the SciFi Channel. Strap in for inventive and gory kills, unpredictable deaths, and a tone that feels a lot like Tremors on a floating bayou community. Lots of fun.

Triangle

In my opinion, Christopher Smith’s (Black Death, Severance) best film. Fantastic mind-bender that you have to pay attention to while you watch, or you’ll be lost.

Honorable Mention:

Ice Cream Man

Not a good movie, by regular standards. However, it contains a hilarious performance by Clint Howard (“Butter brickle!”), some deliciously over-the-top kills, a wicked sense of humor, and an amazing single-take tracking shot through a mental institution. Lots of fun to watch with friends. For more Howard madness, check out Ticks and Evilspeak.

Acockalypse Never - The Demise of A Contest Short Film

It’s been a while since the last post, mostly due to my insane schedule the past couple of months. The summer has been great - but also busy and exhausting. Here’s a look at one of the many things we’ve been up to… and the result.

For those that don’t know, the great folks at Drafthouse Films, Timpson Films and Magnet Releasing have launched a contest to find the 26th director for their impressive roster on the upcoming anthology film The ABCs Of Death. Most of the time, when someone launches a film competition or contest I don’t seem to see the point of entering, as the cost to make something worthy of winning often outweighs the potential benefits of the contest. Film, even short film, can be very difficult to make happen, and to make something memorable enough it usually takes a lot more than just drive and a few friends. This contest, however, with it’s incredibly impressive director roster (pretty much every important genre director in the past 10 years), is different.

So, while I was out of town in August as on-site editor for the national convention of a Christian organization (that shall remain nameless - work is work), I took a good look at the director’s list, and realized what we need to do. We needed to push the envelope so far it would break. Out of that trip, and a fair bit of rendering downtime, our concept for the contest was born. It would be insane, over-the-top, gory, and fully NSFW. T Is For Testicles. Basically, the opening 5-minutes of the Dawn of the Dead remake done with exploding off-the body sentient The Thing-like cock monsters. An ‘Acockalypse’, if you will. Something with the playful tone of Gremlins, using full-on creature puppets made by the talented team I know we have access to. I brought the idea to Kevin Hutchinson, my writing partner, and we got to work. You can read it here.

Knowing the puppets and effects were going to cost a significant amount of cash, we raised money from friends and investors. We recruited most of the crew from The Collapsed, including the talented composer Rob Kleiner, and were shooting on RED. In addition to enough volunteer corpses to officially create a massacre, we brought on a fantastic practical FX team to bring the creatures to life. We even added a new scene to the script where Vs The Dead director Phil Pattison would fight his own penis with a power-drill. We were set to shoot on September 27th - cutting it close to the deadline, but we figured the idea was audacious enough to still have a solid chance. We began running into production problems throughout - we lost our lead actress, other people weren’t going to be able to stay committed - but nothing that we couldn’t have overcome.

Then this hit the internet:

The Germans beat us to it! An idea that’s so out there, so left field - and somehow someone else spontaneously created the same basic thing! Now, I do believe our script is better, and is different enough that it’s not totally the same, but it’s close enough that we killed our project. Even though we’ve been at this for over a month, spent some money, and already started building the puppets, it doesn’t matter. We’d still be seen by the public at large as ripping off the idea if we completed it. There’s are flying sentient testicles, ours were the full private area as a living creature - potato/potatoe.

However, since we did the work, we’re going to probably re-purpose the creature and the best parts of the script somewhere in the future. In the meantime, I want to share some of the work that was done, design sketches and ‘work-in-progress’ sculpts by the talented Kevin Hutchinson.

I guess if there’s a point here, beyond just sharing what we’ve done, it’s that sometimes you have to know when to throw in the towel. Although I would have loved to make something this crazy, we weighed the pros and cons and decided the best way forward is to not move forward at all. If you’re in film, there’s a very good chance something like this will happen to you. Not the same circumstances, but you’ll be faced with a choice. It’s not always the bad thing to ‘call it a day’.

I’ll close this with my two favorite shorts in the contest so far, T Is For Talk and T Is For Toilet. Enjoy!



Caged (short story)

Over the next little while, when I get time (which isn’t that often, unfortunately), I’m going to be writing new prose to mix in with the articles, recommendations, random postings, and Unstable Ground related stuff. It will be a way to exercise my narrative abilities outside of film scripts, which is what I write most often. To kick this off, as an example, I’m reprinting a short story I wrote a few years ago. There’s a bunch of additional writing of mine here.

Caged

——-

The one thing Timothy had always been was a skeptic. From birth he refused the trappings of an average upbringing, scoffed at his toys, refused regular food, and abhorred the Sippy Cup. His mother assured him that blocks were safe, that strained peas were good for him, that it was actually better to get more of that horrible pasty green substance into his mouth than any other part. What limited imagination his parents had.

Timothy was an artist, from the earliest of ages. His desire to make strained peas into abstract expression was only the tip of the iceberg. The walls were his favorite canvas. He scribbled shapes and constructs that would be entirely incoherent to anyone not on his unique wavelength, yet in his eyes were vast tapestries of awe inducing beauty. He was prolific, he was brilliant, and he never coloured inside the lines.

One morning while Timothy was deep in thought his mother approached him and looked him in the eyes. She spoke slowly to him, asking him a question. His mother’s inquiry fell on deaf ears, such was the singularity of his mind while meditating on the deeper questions. Although possibly one of the greatest minds of our time, Timothy’s mother interpreted his lack of response as a developmental problem. As a mental deficiency. Soon, she sought help.

A battery of tests were launched at our intrepid hero. He was poked, prodded, scanned, analyzed, interrogated and given nap time. He was given every toy imaginable, viewed through glass, and carefully scrutinized. When he was told to put the square peg into the square hole, Timothy simply refused to move. He didn’t see the point.

Try as they might, the so-called professionals were ill-equipped to handle Timothy. He was the next step, the next evolution, the future. The doctors were living in the past, thinking inside the same boundaries, referring to the same case studies. Soon the next step became a family’s next big problem. Timothy was diagnosed with an extremely unique form of autism. So unique, in fact, that a board of medical professionals had to deliberate for hours just to create a suitable name. The official name for Timothy’s current condition is still not publicly known.

After every test was run the medical community simply lost interest. Diagnosis, although extremely wrong, had been delivered. Time to move on. Bigger fish to fry, pills to hand out, charts to check. Timothy was sent back to the care of his loving, but now understandably burdened family.

From that point on his family handled him as if he were made of fine china. He was not allowed to go out, to play with friends, or to go anywhere unsupervised. This child, this creature better equipped for survival than any step of human evolution before him, was being handled with padded gloves. Luckily, Timothy didn’t seem to notice. Realistically, Timothy simply didn’t care.

On a certain level, Timothy knew what he was. He sensed he was special. Nobody ever knew it, but he held the answers to a lot of the bigger questions in life. He was sent to us to be a guide, to help us transcend, to expand our knowledge and change our archaic way of thinking. Our thoughts were never wrong, but our processes couldn’t be further from the mark. If he could speak now he would tell us that evolution is always the goal, regardless of the consequences. He would tell us that as a species we fear change because it always occurs violently. That if we removed the fear and accepted the natural order of things then everything would be okay. That we are a creature that fights evolution at every turn while embracing the results of it. We are inherently focused on the end, and ignore the means.

He would say all this, if he were still alive. For Timothy, the set messenger of all our answers, his tragic end came on the business end of a brutal mountain gorilla beat-down. Ironic even, that the next step in the evolutionary ladder would be cut down by something a number of steps below him. Sometimes the past doesn’t let the future forget.

One day, Timothy was taken to the zoo. This was not customary, as he rarely was allowed outside, and he took in all of the information with a sense of awe and absolute bliss. He marveled at the animals as they lived their simplified existence. He empathized with the plight of these magnificent beasts, all caged and put on display for the benefit of human entertainment. He reflected on the fact that often times humans would rather not travel far for this kind of splendor, so their solution was to pack them all into a park and charge admission. Problem solved. Life made easier.

This is when Timothy saw it, the huge mountain gorilla. The look on the face of the gorilla was one of absolute depression. In the grand scheme of things, this gorilla had no reason to be depressed. He had as much food as he could eat, someone was there to clean up his feces (but not the good stuff - that was hidden and reserved for throwing), and as much fake jungle backdrop as he could handle. Despite all this luxury, Bobo (as Timothy aptly named him) was sad. You can take the gorilla out of the jungle, but not the jungle out of the gorilla.

Immediately Timothy knew the answer. This gorilla needed to roam free, it needed to escape and return to the lush greenery of his home. While nobody was looking, and with the dexterity that only an advanced human is capable, he swiftly climbed the cage and jumped within reaching distance of Bobo. The gorilla showed no sign of noticing him.

Looking behind him, he noticed a little door, most likely leading to the feed and staging area. All he needs to do is pull the door open, and let Bobo walk through. He knows that this venture into the great unknown will make Bobo happier, will bring this great beast the fulfillment it truly wants, but simply isn’t used to. All it has to do is look up, take the risk, and walk through the door (and realistically probably attack a zookeeper and some pedestrians - a loose gorilla that doesn’t go on a rampage gets made fun of the next day around the water cooler).

Timothy opens the door, and waves his hands violently, trying to get Bobo’s attention. The gorilla sends a short glance of lazy recognition, and then continues to look depressed, unmoving. Timothy takes a step closer, still waving his arms. The gorilla looks again, with no more interest, and then resumes his unmoving sadness.

Come on, Timothy thinks, you’re free! He wills the gorilla to move, and takes another step forward. Bobo isn’t moving. He’s been caged too long. The world outside might be wonderful and new, it might be the answer to all of his problems, but he fears the unknown. Like everyone else. Bobo doesn’t understand Timothy’s insistence to leave, doesn’t realize how much better it is outside the cage, and just sits there.

Timothy takes one last step forward, and lowers his arms. He learns a valuable lesson at this point, one that would have carried with him throughout his career as the savior of all mankind, that would have grounded him and given him wisdom. He realizes that you can’t rush someone that isn’t ready to be free. That you have to be patient. You can open the door, you can show them it’s there, you can tell them of all the wonders that await them - but you can’t push them through it. They have to be ready. Most people, Timothy thinks, simply don’t realize that they’ve been ready the whole time. That their own self doubt is what is holding them back, that taking the plunge is sometimes the only way to prove that life is worth living. That evolution is natural, necessary, and absolutely the right choice. It’s better than sitting in a cage.

He wants to tell Bobo all of this, but despite the language barrier, Timothy has yet to speak a single coherent word his entire life. He now stands right next to the gorilla, surveying the sad beast as it exists in this cage, both it’s prison and it’s home.

The gorilla turns to look at Timothy, and their eyes meet. Bobo wants to tell Timothy that life is just a string of disappointments. That one minute you’re picking insects off the backs of your family and the next you’re sitting in a fake jungle made of plaster. That the only joys you can expect out of life is throwing feces into the face of a tourist wearing a sweater-vest. He wants to say this, but the language barrier is too great. So he does the next best thing he can think of, and beats Timothy to death.

The Reading List - Recommendations

I firmly believe that if you want to be a writer of any actual merit, you need to read. You absolutely have to. Not just scripts. Novels, non-fiction, anything you can get your hands on. Not only should you read avidly, but you should strive for diversity while doing so. Even if all you ever want to write is horror, don’t let that be the only thing you read. You’ll learn valuable lessons in characterization and find more inventiveness in prose than in most film. Dive in headfirst, and read.

In that spirit, I’m going to compile a short list of some of my favorite, most influential writers. This is in no way a comprehensive list, because I don’t want to be here all day. The purpose is to hopefully expose others to some unique, and in most cases fun, literature. This list is in no particular order.

———————————————-

Tim Dorsey - After reading his debut novel, Florida Roadkill, the name Serge Storms will be forever lodged in your brain, like a parasitic ear-worm. At this point, Dorsey has written a series of 13 books following the exploits of an ever-expanding cast of Florida characters, most notably Serge. I can’t really explain Serge easily - except that he’s a force of nature. A genius-level IQ and a buttload of mental illness, Serge is part vigilante, part serial killer, and all twisted fun. Think if a much more interesting version of Dexter went on a series of starkly-written, surreal, drug-fueled ‘adventures’, and you might get somewhere close. If Hunter S. Thompson and Elmore Leonard got together to rewrite American Psycho, it still wouldn’t quite capture the insanity and magic of this series, but it might come close to matching it’s tone. And horror fans - you think Jigsaw is creative? I hold Serge’s drawbridge bi-section and MRI bullet explosion up against any Saw trap, any day. Highly recommended.

Kurt Vonnegut - Most people know who he is, but he can be a difficult read to the uninitiated. A post-modern satirist of the highest level, Vonnegut’s writing is so thick it may take several passes to appreciate the structure and nuance on display. His best work is full of some huge ideas, played out in a way that helps the reader better understand our own nature. The fascinating look at our ‘possible’ evolutionary future (and the prediction of smartphones in the early 80s) that is Galapagos, the Ice-9 exploits and Bokononism religion in the classic Cat’s Cradle, the entire concept of Tralfamadorian time in Slaughterhouse Five, the weird introspection of Breakfast of Champions. The list goes on, to include a bunch of really bizarre sci-fi written under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout. Seek him out if you haven’t already discovered it for yourself. He has passed, sadly. So it goes.

Craig Clevenger - At this point, two of his books are available - The Contortionists Handbook and Dermaphoria. I won’t write a lot about him, because it’s best you discover for yourself. His writing has been compared to Chuck Palahniuk, but I find it’s a very different beast. Very strong work.

Christopher Moore - The spiritual lovechild of Douglas Adams and Stephen King. He takes great horror and fantasy concepts, and makes them hilarious. Most of his books exist in the same general universe, so a lot of the fun is found when characters from other books pop up and intersect in other stories. I’ve enjoyed everything he’s written, but my personal favorites are A Dirty Job, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, Fluke and The Stupidest Angel. It’s light reading, but extremely well written, and highly inventive.

Chuck Palahniuk - Everyone knows him as “the Fight Club guy”, but he’s written so much more of note. The writing is generally raw and powerful, and in more than a few cases what most people would find shocking. Below it all is an undercurrent examining our lives and the society we live in, often times veering into the anarchistic. Not every novel is great, but all are worthwhile. One of the most impressive things about his work is the journalistic approach he takes to everything he writes - every single detail is researched fully and exploited in very real ways. It’s fiction you actually learn from. Favorites - Rant, Haunted, Lullaby, Survivor, Snuff.

Stephen Graham Jones - An author that wrote a fascinating novel all horror writers absolutely must read, entitled Demon Theory. Broken into three sections, the novel is written in a hybrid film-script format, demonstrating three different horror sub-genres around a concentric theme. The book itself is filled with footnotes on every page, further examining the motivation and source of each story element, whether it’s a homage to another film or classic trope. This is one author I really need to read more of, when I’m able to get around to it. Regardless, Demon Theory is required for horror writers.

Lloyd Kaufman - This is purely a suggestion for the filmmakers out there. I find his own brand of film school books to be full of equal parts valuable information and hilarious insights into the life of the independent artist. Just finished Sell Your Own Damn Movie, and recommend the entire series to anyone seriously thinking about producing, directing, and everything else.

James Gunn - Most people know James as a director and writer, either from his independent hits Slither and Super, or the Dawn of the Dead remake, or his early days at Troma. Or PG Porn. What you may not know, is that he’s actually a very talented author. His novel, The Toy Collector, written even before the Troma days, is more raw and interesting than most debut novels I’ve ever read. A fake (though that’s open to interpretation) autobiography, where the protagonist is actually named James Gunn, the book is at once a brilliant coming of age story and meditation on a man having trouble adjusting to the demands of adult life. He’s not kind to himself in this novel, but I identified with it on many powerful levels. It’s a truly great novel. But don’t let all the serious talk stop you - it’s also really funny, and is very much written in the same voice that’s become so popular with his films.

Stephen King - A legendary author, and one that takes a lot of flack. Some of his books have come across as uninspired, but considering the length of his career, and the quality his work has at his best, he deserves a great deal of respect. The best of it all is the Dark Tower series, his masterpiece. Spanning 7 novels and 4200 pages, and extending out into over a dozen satellite novels, this is worth the time and investment. What King has done here is developed a multiverse, a fascinating and endless array of possible worlds. The idea that the universe is not vast, but ‘thick’, is a big question to ponder, and King has used this concept as a well-spring of story. The Dark Tower weaves elements of String Theory, Jungian philosophy and Lovecraftian mythos to create something that really should be experienced. He is Gan of his world, and you really should visit.

Terry Pratchett - Ah, Discworld. I’m about 8 books into this over-35 book series, and it’s another great example of an author creating a universe to play in. A big sandbox to bash characters together. Funnily enough, Stephen King’s Dark Tower has the idea of Maturin, the turtle holding the world on his back. Well, Discworld happens to be on the back of a giant space turtle as well. Don’t ask. It’s not important. What is important is that Pratchett is the Douglas Adams of the fantasy world. Lord of the Rings by way of Monty Python. Also make sure you check out the novel he wrote with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, for a hilarious and creative take on the biblical apocalypse, and the seeming inspiration for the most recent season of Supernatural.

David Wong - Editor of Cracked.com, he wrote a very entertaining, and immensely interesting novel called John Dies at the End. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s got similar elements to King’s Dark Tower universe, Lovecraft mythology, and multiverse theory…. all wrapped in a comedic package. That classic stoner comedy template is used for a Hell (literally) of an adventure. This is also the first book in ages that’s kept me up and thinking all night. It’s at once disturbing and page turning, while keeping a generally humorous tone. I personally can’t wait to see what Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba HoTep) has done with the film version.

Douglas Adams - Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Enough said. Seriously, just go read the bloody things.

Dashiell Hammett - Great hard-boiled detective fiction, and one of the progenitors of what we now consider to be noir. Dialogue that runs circles around others of it’s ilk, and some of the most iconic stories in existence without ever even knowing it. For example, Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) was made into Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which in turn spawned A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. The Coen Brothers have called on his work for both Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple. Rian Johnson’s critically-acclaimed debut Brick is basically a Hammett novel set in a high school. Check out Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard as well.

Alan Moore - The man that changed the public perception of what a graphic novel could be, with his classic Watchmen. Of all his work, I still like Watchmen best, it’s a masterpiece…. but everything he’s written is worth a look.

JRR Tolkien - If you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, it’s probably time.

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This list could go on a lot longer, but there’s more than enough there to keep someone busy for years. So get out and read something!

Little Terrors event for August

Here’s the poster for the Little Terrors event we’re co-programming with Rue Morgue Magazine in August. There is now a Facebook fanpage for the series, if you want to stay up to date, as well as a dedicated event page. Here’s an article about the series, and the first edition. This new poster’s hand-drawn elements are once again by Kevin Hutchinson, design by me.