Welcome to the online home of Edward Cowan (hey, that’s me!) and his literary projects, wild hares, and moments of ephemeral inspiration. Here you’ll find details about my novels, Unfated and Now It Gets Interesting. Also: drawings of skeletons and other creatures, many of them wearing sweater vests. You can also find me on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, and Twitter. Enjoy!
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a ton of reports concerning Netflix’s efforts to become an original programming behemoth. You probably have, too. Netflix is spending this many billions of dollars on shows. Netflix bought the rights to a movie in which Will Smith plays a cop partnered up with an orc. (No, seriously. It’s called Bright and it’s coming out in December.) And so on.
I was never skeptical of Netflix’s approach—it would be stupid to doubt the company’s instincts at this point—but I have always wondered how I fit into this new world order. The whole idea, after all, is that you’ll wander aimlessly through the walled garden of Netflix’s infinite delights until something strikes your fancy. And you will never leave.
Now, I know plenty of people who let the tides of random chance lead them to their next obsessive binge. They seem happy enough. But that’s never been my style. I tend to go by recommendations and reviews, not whim. So I never thought Netflix would catch me in its web.
. . . And yet there I was one recent October evening, pondering which horror movie to take in that I might report on its wonder (or delightful awfulness) to you, fearless reader. I own plenty of horror flicks I’ve yet to watch. I have lists of unseen movies that are readily available to stream. I approach this whole operation with the kind of scientific rigor that is the hallmark of any nerd wasting his time on something fun but ultimately inconsequential.
Rather than watch any of those ruthlessly vetted movies in my queue, though, I found myself doing what I never thought I would: I moseyed around the app until I lit on The Babysitter, yet another in a growing line of Netflix originals—or, to be more precise, studio flicks for which Netflix has preemptively bought the rights. To my horror, it all worked out exactly how Reed Hastings (the Big N’s CEO) predicted; I can’t say why, exactly, I decided to watch this movie above all others. In that moment, it just struck my fancy.
It was just there.
And, hey! The Babysitter is pretty good!
The setup is simple: 12-year-old Cole is, in the words of his peers, a bit of a pussy. As such, he’s the last kid in his class who still has a babysitter. Bee the babysitter is, of course, smoking hot—but she is not, despite all seeming visual evidence to the contrary, Margot Robbie. She is, in fact, one Samara Weaving, niece of Hugo Weaving, our beloved Agent Smith/Red Skull/Elrond/V. (Which is a helluva geek-cred CV.) Not that I’m complaining about there being a close approximation of Margot Robbie out there; it was just a tad confusing there for a few minutes.
Even more confusing: the cheerleader on the poster for The Babysitter is not Samara Weaving. That’s right: the star of the movie isn’t the one person on said movie’s poster. This is Samara Weaving:
Anyway. Back to the plot synopsis. One night, Cole stays up late to see how Bee occupies her time once he goes to sleep. This after the age-appropriate girl next door promises him Bee is getting it on downstairs with her boyfriend because, duh, that’s what babysitters do.
Bee, as it happens, isn’t having boyfriend sex. No: she’s staging a satanic ritual in Cole’s living room. Once they spot him, Bee’s fellow cultists scramble to hunt Cole down. Horror and Home-Alone-but-for-keeps hilarity ensue.
There’s just one problem.
Bee’s buds are a group of high school clichés come to life. You’ve got your vacuous cheerleader, she of the movie poster; the buff, shirtless star quarterback; a spastic and incredibly retrograde African-American comic relief character who is (surprise!) quick to die; and an inscrutably sinister Asian girl.
The QB, played by a winsomely psychotic Robbie Amell, is the only standout; he has a really funny scene with Cole I won’t spoil here, but it came completely out of left field. Otherwise, the Cheerleader, the Loud Black Guy and the Mysterious Asian Girl are stereotypes pulled straight out of a Michael Bay movie. (And not the One Good Michael Bay Movie, Pain and Gain. I’m serious. It’s worth a watch.) Hollywood: DO BETTER.
That glaring flaw aside, The Babysitter is good horror fun. Its premise is simple but effective. The acting by the leads is well above average. And it doesn’t go exactly where you expect.
One note of caution: this movie is directed by McG. If you don’t know what that means, no worries. If you do, and if his frenetic style bothers you . . . well, it’s worth a watch anyway. Just come prepared. I for one kind of admire his stubbornness in not having changed his style one iota since Charlie’s Angels way, way back when.
Yes: I really enjoyed The Babysitter . . . thus becoming one more zombie in the Netflix army. And that, my friends, is the true horror that is 2017.
Maybe you’ve heard of One.Perfect.Shot. It’s an online repository cataloging (what its editors consider) the finest still frames in all moviedom: perfectly composed, perfectly lit shots from the history of cinema. There’s a lot of good stuff there, some obvious, some obscure.
Try as I might, though, I haven’t found my own perfect shot, the one that has stuck in my head for lo these . . . I dunno, thirty or so years?
I speak of this:
. . . From 1980’s Alligator, one of a jumble of unapologetic Jaws rip-offs that peppered the late Seventies/early Eighties. We’re talking about Grizzly and Tentacles and Orca and Piranha. I was actually shocked to discover that Alligator was the last of these to be released; in my own man-eating beast hierarchy, it seemed obvious that the first flick you’d make after the smashing success of a killer shark movie would be a killer alligator movie.
I don’t remember exactly when I saw Alligator for the first time. I’m guessing middle-schoolish. And I really didn’t recall much about it—except for my one perfect shot, which has been seared in my head ever since.
A quick summary of the movie: pet alligator gets flushed down the toilet by exasperated father. Said alligator grows up eating the discarded remains of animals subjected to a growth serum by a shady pharmaceutical corporation. Said alligator grows to monstrous size, escapes the sewers, and terrorizes the city. In the midst of all this carnage, one determined homicide detective played by Robert Forster works to stop the beast whilst making four—count ‘em, FOUR—jokes about his receding hairline. Seriously–that running gag concerning his retreating coif comprises the main stab at humor in the entire movie.
Now to set up the scene for my perfect shot:
We already know the gator is chilling in a pool; minutes earlier, sandwiching one of those receding-hairline bits, we see police helicopters scanning residential neighborhoods for the monster. Closing in on one particular pool, we see an untidy array of drifting floats . . . and, amid them, the scales of one cleverly concealed reptile.
When we return to the pool, night has fallen. The pool is dark. There’s a kids’ costume party going on in the house. Two bigger kids, dressed as pirates, haul a little boy out to walk the plank—that is, the diving board. And just as they hustle their prisoner to the edge, Mom leans out and turns on the pool light to illuminate this:
It’s actually not a very compellingly staged scene. Outside of that one, tenth-of-a-second close-up of the gator’s lit-up jaws, there’s no real tension, no pause to build up the suspense. But man . . . that shot. That shot.
I have this thing with alligators, as you may know—enough to write a whole novel about one man’s encounter with an albino gator he finds basking at the foot of the fold-out sofa bed on which he had been sleeping. (Yep, that’s a shameless plug for ya.) Writing novels is hard. You don’t just sit down and reel off 75,000 words on a whim. Somewhere within you, though, is the nugget of a narrative, the very first inkling that you have something to say. And it can come from the most random memory. I’ve always wondered if this frame from a pleasant-but-mostly-forgettable Jaws knockoff was the spark that led me to write Now It Gets Interesting. It’s impossible to say for sure. But I am glad to report that, decades later, that one moment, that one shot, still gets to me the way it did when I was a kid.
One thing I will not forget, having rewatched Alligator as an adult: the amazingly ludicrous scene near the end where the big bastard rampages through an outdoor wedding, then kills the CEO of the shady pharmaceutical corporate by caving in the old man’s limo around him with its tail. If you don’t want to watch the whole movie, you still owe it to yourself to watch THIS:
I plan to stage a reenactment of this scene at my own wedding one day.
All kinds of people describe themselves as geeks these days. It seems every beautiful 18-year-old starlet or singer gushes in interviews about how she was “such a nerd” in high school. (I.e., five or six months ago.) Of course, if you pressed said celeb on her geek cred, the best she could come up with would probably be something along the lines of, “I’ve totally seen Star Wars!”
I’m not here to bitch and moan about these egregious act of pop-cultural appropriation, though. The way I see it, the more people who claim the mantle of geekdom, falsely or not, the more our corporate entertainment overlords feel compelled to produce nerdy projects that would never have seen the light of day in ye olden times of, oh, fifteen years ago. Game of Thrones doesn’t happen if half the American population isn’t bragging about how awkward they were in high school. You used to lie about that shit. Now it’s a badge of honor.
But how, you cry, does one separate the authentically nerdy from the tourists? There are a few tried and true methods. (Kirk vs. Picard being the Hammurabi’s Code of such tests.) Today we’re going to examine one in particular.
Next time you meet someone whose profession of authentic geekdom you find yourself doubting, here’s what you do: talk about how much you love cosmic horror. If the subject of your test replies with anything along the lines of, “At the Mountains of Madness rules!” . . . well now, you’ve got yourself a gin-u-wine nerd. If, on the other hand, they hem and haw or blink and stare at you blankly? That doesn’t mean they’re definitively not a geek. But anyone who actually knows what cosmic horror means is authentically nerdy in a “Sure, I’ve rolled a d20 or two in my day” way.
Or, failing that, you could just show them The Void. If they like this movie, yeah, they’re geeks. If they instead react with disgust or irritated confusion or both, they’re tourists.
Made in Canada on a shoestring budget (reportedly around eighty grand), The Void sets itself to the task of delivering on the horror and majesty of H.P. Lovecraft’s vision of a universe so incomprehensible to our mere mortal minds as to be utterly terrifying. It does so by throwing a ragtag group of people into a mostly-abandoned hospital, surrounding that hospital with white-robed cultists, and unleashing grotesquely mutated patients on our protagonists/victims. (So, so, so many tentacles.)
I’m not going to delve too far into the plot because . . . well, I’d probably sound like a crazy person if I tried to explain what happens in The Void in a linear way, stopping to explain why each twist in the story makes sense. And, really, it might not make sense in any linear, rational way. Which, if you’ve read your Lovecraft, is exactly the point. Our foolish notions of linear time and an ordered universe are just that: foolish notions. What’s really out there is so vast, so alien, as to blast our minds when we’re faced with it. In that, The Void is about as pure a distillation of Lovecraft’s vision as I’ve seen that isn’t based on one of his actual stories.
Does The Void have its flaws? Sure. The cast gives it a valiant effort, but at this budget, you’re generally getting the actors you pay for. On the other hand, the special effects the crew managed to wring out of that budget is pretty impressive. And its creators deserve credit for shooting the moon here. They’re not trying to get at a little of the Lovecraftian feel; they’re going for it all. It’s like they were told they could only make one movie, ever, and they were determined to jam every single idea they’d ever had into it. I appreciate the ambition, even if the execution is a little janky at times. The Void is worth a watch.
. . . If you’re a real nerd, that is.
So here’s my Tom Petty story.
The first CD I ever owned was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits. I got it, along with my first CD player, for Christmas in 1993. I was sixteen, so naturally I went to my room, closed the door, plugged in the stereo and started listening.
A few minutes later, a light knock. It was my dad, standing in a doorway from which he was accustomed to hearing songs like “Dirt” or “Territorial Pissings” or “Wish” spilling out. When you’re a teenager, the music you blast in your room forms a sonic wall against parental intrusion.
And I said:
. . . Our voices devoid of almost all inflection.
Now: I loved my dad. But I was sixteen and it was my sacred duty to argue with him about literally anything. Especially music. (Cue that old anti-smoking commercial wherein the kid yells at his dad: “I learned it from you!” That’s how my father and I were about music. I will forever remember the time I badgered him into driving me to Turtles so I could buy Stone Temple Pilots’ Core. Listening to it on the way home, Dad would not stop complaining about how the drummer hit the high hat on every beat. Of course I defended STP from my lame ignorant father’s lame ignorant musical judgment. And of course all I hear to this day on any song from that album is the fucking high hat.)
For parents, the experience of having a teenage son must be like adopting a feral animal, a creature grudgingly appreciative of the food and shelter you provide but always liable to snarl and bite at the slightest (or no) provocation. My dad would have known that, if his tone betrayed even the slightest hint of enthusiasm for Tom Petty, that album would never be played in our house again. I would only have listened to it in my car or at a friend’s place, anywhere I knew he couldn’t hear. And I would have retaliated against his approval by blasting ever louder, more abrasive teenage angst anthems from my room.
Silence. Both of us bobbing our heads along to “You Got Lucky” or “Don’t Do Me Like That” or “I Won’t Back Down.” Then Dad nodded and said:
. . . And left me in peace.
We never talked about Tom Petty again. Dad died eighteen months later, the summer after I graduated high school.
I know people who love Tom Petty far more than I do. (The fact that my personal Petty story is vectored through a greatest hits album was probably a dead giveaway, no?) I know people who played Tom Petty as the exit music at their weddings. I know people who have named bands after his lyrics. I know people who will probably have those lyrics engraved on their tombstones. I’m not going to claim any deeper connection to his music than I actually have.
Here’s the thing, though:
Whenever I hear a Tom Petty song, I think about that interaction with my dad. I imagine all the musical journeys we would have taken had he lived to see me into adulthood, when my reflexive teenage animosity faded and I started realizing the old man actually had pretty good musical taste. Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits, Christmas Day, 1993, gave me my first inkling that that might even be possible.
Oh, we still would have argued. I imagine us driving somewhere when I was in my early twenties, quarreling over some part of my life—my grades, my job prospects, that girl he didn’t like—and, after we simmered down to a tense détente, putting on an album we could both tolerate.
From my CD collection, that album would have been Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits. Or maybe Full Moon Fever by then. Or Wildflowers. And from there, on this imaginary road trip, we’d start talking about the music we loved. No longer arguing, but enjoying our common ground. I can envision Dad reminding me Petty was in the Traveling Wilburys (“Yeah, Dad, I know”), and if I liked that, I should really listen to Jeff Lynne, some early ELO. Or get into Roy Orbison. I’ve found my way to most of my dad’s music eventually, on my own, but I wish we could have done it together.
And from there, who knows? Maybe we would have gone to see Tom Petty live one day. Or Bob Dylan. Or Willie Nelson. I hope so; I am never more envious of my friends than when I hear one of them talk about going to a concert with his dad. I would give anything to be able to do that. To talk about music as adults, to share the songs and artists that inspired us. It would have been great.
. . . Until Dad made some disparaging comment about the drum machine on “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Then it would be on.
Back in October of 2015 I plowed through a heap o’ horror movies and scribbled my thoughts concerning them on this here internet. I had intended to repeat that feat in 2016, but, you know, something something something life. If I recall correctly, October ’16 was The Month of the Free HBO Now Preview and I was caching up on Game of Thrones, leaving no free time for movies.
Well, the GoT catch-up is caught, ain’t nothing free about HBO Now now, and I’m back on the horror horse. Like some kind of horseman . . . maybe . . . I don’t know . . . a headless one? Yeah. A headless horseman. Has anyone ever made a movie about that?
Anyway, we kick off Bride of The Horror. The Horror. with Little Evil, a Netflix exclusive from this very year of 2017.
The setup is simple. Adam Scott marries Evangeline Lilly, then flails at bonding with her creepy son, whom Adam begins to suspect might just be the Antichrist. So: The Omen, played for laughs, with a few visual gags from other horror classics thrown in. (Poltergeist, Children of the Corn . . . you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.)
Little Evil is one of those almost-but-not-quite movies. Almost creepy, but too obvious in its callbacks to surprise you. Almost hilarious, but more in a smiles-and-occasional-chuckles than an actual belly-laughing way. Inside the wrapper of all the horror tropes Little Evil employs is a nugget of the very real, awkward, sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny effort that goes into bonding with one’s stepfamily. But it plays those tropes too safely to get to a moment of real empathy for the characters. It’s entertaining but not quotable, a little touching without actually meaning anything.
Essentially, your enjoyment of Little Evil is going to depend on how much you like watching Adam Scott reprise his role from Parks and Recreation as the good-hearted guy who is perpetually befuddled and/or overwhelmed by the craziness of the world around him. I for one like him as that character, so I didn’t mind seeing it brought back for this movie. Nothing wrong with an actor leaning into his strengths—Jason Bateman seemingly puts out three or four variations on Michael Bluth every year, and no one’s complaining about that.
(Also, Clancy Brown makes an appearance as a preacher who might [surprise!] not be as virtuous as he seems. Always good to see the Kurgan in action.)
Here’s the beautiful thing about Little Evil, though: it’s a perfect gateway drug to real horror movies. Say you’ve got a significant other who doesn’t care for the genre. Show them Little Evil. It’s never actually scary, its humor is fairly safe, and it’s kind of sweet in the end, a nice family comedy built around satanic rituals. If your SO enjoys Little Evil, maybe then you explain how it’s a comedic take on the The Omen and hey, why don’t we watch that for comparison’s sake? And from there you might as well watch the other “Satan is really into kids” classics from the Seventies . . . and before you know it, y’all are watching Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and, voilà, you’ve transformed your boo into a horror fanatic!
Everyone wins: you. Your SO. Satan. Good times for all!