scop (noun):

Old English – bard, minstrel, storyteller

Best Horror Movies 2019

January 6th, 2020

First of all, you’ve got to love a list that features an above-the-headline image of the Mashit demon from Nightmare Cinema. But beyond that (and the fact that NC comes in ranked among the top 20), the year’s-best-horror list at Rotten Tomatoes confirms that 2019 was a banner year for the genre.

For the record, here are RT’s top 20 horror titles, based on reviews from the website’s top critics:

  1. TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (VUELVEN) directed by Issa López
  2. HARPOON directed by Rob Grant
  3. HAGAZUSSA: A HEATHEN’S CURSE (HAGAZUSSA) directed by Lukas Feigelfeld
  4. US directed by Jordan Peele
  5. THE LIGHTHOUSE directed by Robert Eggers
  6. BLISS directed by Joe Begos
  7. READY OR NOT directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
  8. THE GOLEM directed by Doron Paz, Yoav Paz
  9. DEPRAVED directed by Larry Fessenden
  10. EVER AFTER (ENDZEIT) directed by Carolina Hellsgård
  11. BRAID directed by Mitzi Peirone
  12. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND directed by Mitzi Peirone
  13. LUZ directed by Tilman Singer
  14. MIDSOMMAR directed by Ari Aster
  15. CRAWL directed by Alex Aja
  16. THE WIND directed by Emma Tammi
  17. GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR directed by Travis Stevens
  18. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK directed by André Øvredal
  19. NIGHTMARE CINEMA directed by Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Ryuhei Kitamura, David Slade
  20. DOCTOR SLEEP directed by Mike Flanagan

That’s quite a list, and it includes a number of titles that I consider some of the best horror films that I have seen in recent years.

One of those is the list-topper Tigers are Not Afraid, which though not released in the States until 2019 has been wowing audiences on the festival circuit since 2017. I caught it in 2018 at Grimmfest in Manchester, UK, where it stunned a packed theatre with its timely blend of magic realism social commentary.

Directed by Mexican filmmaker Issa López, Tigers tells the story of a band of homeless children forced to survive on the mean streets of an unnamed Mexican town. Though not professionally trained, the young actors deliver riveting performances, with Juan Ramón López winning an Ariel (Mexico’s equivalent to the Academy Award) for his performance as El Shine.

The thing that impresses most about the film is the way it blends magic realism with social commentary. It’s a combination that gives fantastic cinema an edge over other genres, and one I have written about in a previous review of Rusty Cundieff and Darrin Scott’s Tales from the Hood 2 (2018).

Another film that blends horror and social commentary is Us, Jordan Peele’s multi-layered followup to his critically acclaimed debut Get Out. Here, Peele expands on the concept of the “sunken place” that he introduced in his first film, and along the way engages in ambitious world-building that gives the movie a freshness not found in the trope-laden plots of less successful horror stories.

You have to pay attention to this one, as incidents and images that seem random at first come together in a subtext that rewards re-watching. US is one of those movies that fuels conversation about the plot as well as the issues it raises.

A recent article in IndieWire calls horror “the most profitable genre [and] one of the most exciting vessels for filmmaking talent, a means of entertaining and terrifying audiences while tricking them into thinking deeply about the world around them.” The list above certainly supports that claim.

Writer at Work:
Santas, Wizards, & Life behind the Curtain

December 26th, 2019

jl-santaMerry Christmas!

I’m always impressed by writers who despite busy schedules manage to produce timely blogs and podcasts. I try. But when other work piles up, I tend to vanquish into the world of deadlines. 

This month has brought some exciting projects and opportunities that I hope to share in the weeks ahead, but right now it’s all about staying behind the curtain and getting it done. In the meantime, here’s a vintage post from a few Decembers ago that seems relevant in a number of ways. 

Warm holiday wishes to all … and scop on! 

So it’s December 1997. I’m driving north out of Oakland, toward Bigelow Boulevard and downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a gray day, light snow falling. Colored lights trim some of the buildings along North Craig Street, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Then I see him.

I clear the rise toward Bigelow Boulevard, and there he is—fourteen-feet high and smiling down from a roadside billboard atop the snowy hillside. Red suit, white beard. It’s Santa. Or is it? I do a double-take. This guy’s wearing rollerblades, sporting a Mohawk haircut, and throwing a peace sign. I slow down. Look again. That’s not Santa. That’s  … [read the rest of the original 2016 post at 21st Century Scop]

Horror Writers Association – Pittsburgh Chapter

November 19th, 2019

A few days ago, I came across a blog post by novelist Robert Yune, author of Eighty Days of Sunlight. Titled “22 Indisputable Reasons Pittsburgh Is The Perfect City For Writers,” the post does an excellent job of laying out some of the major reasons I still live in western Pennsylvania. And now there’s one more. Namely, the newly formed Pittsburgh Chapter of the Horror Writers Association.

Above, members of HWA Pittsburgh: Left side (front to back) Ben Rubin, Doug Gwilym, Corey Niles, RJ Murray, Stephanie Wytovich, Michelle Lane. Right side (front to back) Michael  A. Arnzen, Lawrence Connolly, Sara Tantlinger, Gwendolyn Kiste (hidden beside husband Bill), Dan Fiore. Photographed by: Nelson Pyles. Members not present: Terri Bertha, John Hardic, Dave Lasota, Frank Oreto.

Founded in the 1980s, HWA currently boasts a membership over 1,400 members from around the world, with a healthy contingent residing in western Pennsylvania.

Earlier this year, writers Sara Tantlinger and Michael A. Arnzen formed the Pittsburgh Chapter, which held its second meeting last Saturday at the Monroeville Library. In addition to giving some local writers a break from their keyboards, the meeting provided a chance for us to hear about the exciting endeavors some of our peers have been up to. Here are a few highlights:

Channeling his lifelong interest in the genre into a career, Ben Rubin is currently working to preserve and promote the history of horror film and literature for the George A. Romero Collection at the University of Pittsburgh, where he “serves as the main point of contact for students, faculty, and researchers seeking to explore scholarly studies in horror.”

The collection includes a number of Romero’s original film scripts (some representing projects that were never filmed) and other materials representing the history of horror in Pittsburgh and around the world.

Poet, novelist, and essayist Stephanie M. Wytovich recently released her sixth poetry collection The Apocalyptic Mannequin (from Raw Dog Screaming Press).  In addition, she has new poetry out in the latest issue of Weird Tales (edited by Jonathan Maberry) and more coming in the soon-to-be-released Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities, and Other Horrors (edited by Dough Murano and Michael Bailey). She also edited the latest installment of HWA Poetry Showcase, which went live last weekend.

Also carrying on the traditions of Poe, Baudelaire, and other practitioners of poetic horror, Sara Tantlinger recently won a Bram Stoker Award for her 2018 poetry collection The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes (Strange House Books). Her latest book, the novella To Be Devoured (from Unnerving) was released this past summer.

Meanwhile, fellow HWA Pittsburgh organizer Michael A. Arnzen (also a Stoker-Award-winning poet) has been serving as the academic consultant for a series entitled Exploring Dark Fiction (Dark Moon Books), which explores the modern masters of short horror fiction. The most recent book in the series considers the work of Jeffrey Ford.

Other writers in attendance were Doug Gwilym and Frank Oreto (editors of the Parsec anthology Triangulations), Nelson Pyles (creator of the fiction podcast The Wicked Library), and Gwendolyn Kiste (whose new story “The Girls from the Horror Movie” is part of Come Join Us By the Fire, the flagship project from Tor’s new horror imprint, Nightfire!).

I could go on. But you get the idea. There was a lot of talent there.

In sum, if you’re interested in writing horror and you live within driving distance of Pittsburgh, you might want to check out HWA Pittsburgh when it holds its next meeting in late winter or early spring. I’ll be sharing the exact date when it’s announced.

Chapter meetings are open to any level of HWA membership, including new/potential members, though the requirement for continual participation is that you are a dues-paying HWA member. Visit http://horror.org for more details.

World Fantasy 2019 & Writing Fantasy for Television

November 9th, 2019

Following close on the heels of Sustefest X, this year’s World Fantasy Convention provided a marked change of scenery – from Valle de Santiago’s old-world streets and dormant volcanoes to LA’s multi-lane highways and active wildfires. Fortunately, skies around the Marriott Airport Hotel (the site of this year’s convention) were clear despite the proximity of the Saddleridge fire fewer than 20 miles north. Nevertheless, some attendees commented on fire-related road closures and long detours.

One of the major gatherings centering on fantastic literature (the others being science fiction’s WorldCon and horror’s StokerCon) World Fantasy offers the solitary writer a chance to check-in on the state of the genre, do a panel or two, and (most of all) kick back at the bar with friends and colleagues.

This time around, programming kicked off at noon on Thursday with a panel on Writing Fantasy for Television, where I got to join fellow panelists Eldon Thompson and Gillian Horvath in a discussion moderated by Craig Miller. After an initial discussion of the current boom in original fantasy programming (thanks to Netflix, Amazon, Disney Plus, Apple TV, Shudder, et al), the discussion turned to the craft of scriptwriting and the best ways for new writers to enter the field. Specifically, one member of the audience asked what books new writers might read to learn the craft. Among the panel’s recommendations were Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman and On Directing Film by David Mamet (which, despite its title, offers some excellent insight into the screenwriting process). Beyond such titles, the panelists agreed that the best way to learn to write scripts is to read them. That’s easy to do these days, since many screenplays are currently available through sites such as The Internet Movie Script DatabaseThe Black List, and Screenplay.com. Indeed, the website Script Reader Pro recently advised apprentice screenwriters to carefully study their favorite films through a process of re-reading and re-viewing. It remains some of the best advice out there.

As always, the convention culminated with the awards banquet and the naming of this year’s best works of fantasy. A complete list of awards appears below.

Next year’s WFC 2020 will be held over Halloween weekend in Salt Lake City. I’ll hope to see you there.

  • Lifetime Achievement: Hayao Miyazaki and Jack Zipes
  • Novel: Witchmark by C. L. Polk (Tor.com)
  • Novella: “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Aug. 2018)
  • Short Fiction (tie): “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed, October 2018) and “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny Magazine, March-April 2018)
  • Anthology: Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo (Tor.com)
  • Collection: The Tangled Lands, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (Saga Press/Head of Zeus UK)
  • Artist: Rovina Cai
  • Special Award – Professional: Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)
  • Special Award – Non-Professional: Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy