Ginger Nuts of Horror
Michael McDowell remains something of a cult figure today, despite authoring some of the best novels to come out of the 1980s horror paperback boom and having a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter (his filmography boasts such credits as Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas in addition to many episodes of anthology T.V. shows like Amazing Stories, Monsters, and Tales From The Darkside).
No less an authority than Stephen King described McDowell as one the finest writers to ever work in the genre, yet the man’s name has never attracted the same kind of attention or appreciation King’s has. It’s not a name your non-horror-reading friends are likely to recognize. McDowell is not a cottage industry. People don’t dress up as his characters for Halloween. Movies have not been made from his books.
At least, until now.
Shortening the title of one of McDowell’s best novels, Cold Moon Over Babylon, Cold Moon (which hits DVD and VOD this October) takes place in a quiet town along the Florida panhandle, a close-knit community teetering on the raggedy edge of the poverty line. When doe-eyed teenager Margaret Larkin washes up on the snake-infested banks of the river Styx, lashed to her bicycle and drowned in a shocking act of seemingly senseless murder, said community is shattered and, from beneath its broken shards, its most prominent residents’ darkest secrets come slithering out.
Something else comes slithering, too. Something pale-faced and drenched in sludge, seeking vengeance for the crimes perpetrated on the unquiet dead.
Full of chilling nightmare imagery, McDowell’s supernatural Southern Gothic is practically tailor-made for cinema. Though dominated by long stretches of suggestive terror and psychological dissolution, it knows when to pop the cork on all the tension it’s bottled up, bursting with garish, macabre gouts of all-out horror. Equally grimy and grim, McDowell’s black-haired, waterlogged ghosts would fit right in on the set of a J-horror spookshow. In theory, Cold Moon is a home run.
But what about in execution?
Director Griff Furst is probably the last person you’d expect to tackle this particular source material. His previous credits include such SyFy Channel-style CGI monster-mashes as Ghost Shark, Arachnoquake, and Alligator Alley (AKA Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Gators). On top of that, the cast list for Cold Moon includes that infamously ignominious ignoramus known as Tommy Wisseau. Y’know, the laughingstock “auteur” responsible for The Room? Yeah, that one. Upon hearing that alone, longtime McDowell readers would certainly be forgiven for letting their excitement over Cold Moon turn into trepidation.
Happily, there’s no need to fear. Not only has Furst delivered far and away his best directorial effort to date, but Wisseau’s presence is limited to a brief, wordless cameo. Hallelujah!
Sure, Cold Moon gets off to a rocky start. McDowell’s book is unusual in that it has little interest in maintaining the mystery of who its killer is, unmasking the culprit rather quickly so as to focus instead on the murderer’s piecemeal mental unraveling under the assault of angry spirits. As a result, the movie’s first act stumbles in its efforts to simultaneously appease audience expectations while also setting them up for imminent subversion. Once over that hump, though, Cold Moon zips along with nary a hitch. The first act may be a little shaky, but the second and third stand pretty damn solid, successfully keeping your eyes glued to the screen right up until the final credits roll.
A huge portion of that second and third-act magnetism comes thanks to actor Josh Stewart (best known to horror film fanatics as Arkin, the protagonist of those underrated Collector movies) who plays Nathan Redfield, a disturbed banker with a weakness for booze and jailbait. Even more than the ghosts who lurk in Babylon’s shadows, the look on Stewart’s face and the murky depths behind his eyes prove genuinely haunting.
Similarly worthy of praise are Frank Whaley (most famous as that burger-scarfin’ bullet-sponge Brett in Pulp Fiction), playing the out-of-his-depth sheriff Ted Hale, and Christopher Lloyd (don’t act like you don’t know who he is!), playing Nathan’s lecherous invalid father James. Much of the supporting cast is serviceable but forgettable, though that’s to be expected for a modestly budgeted production such as this.
Indeed, evidence of Cold Moon’s meager origins is readily apparent throughout. That doesn’t stop Furst from crafting an admirably effective atmosphere of melancholy dread, though. McDowell’s story and characters do a lot of the heavy lifting, but Furst himself deserves credit for realizing McDowell’s ominous and even grotesque apparitions so well, while also orchestrating plenty of spine-tingling scares of his own. Rounding out the package is an original score by the director’s brother, composer Nathan Furst, which imbues the proceedings with oodles of potent drama and emotion.
All in all, Cold Moon isn’t quite the home run it could have been, but it is a damn good horror movie nonetheless. Dark, creepy, and ultimately tragic, it’s an adaptation that does its source material justice. Here’s hoping more Michael McDowell adaptations follow.
THE Film receives a 10-market theatrical release along with digital on 10/6 through Uncork’d Entertainment. produced by Furst’s Curmudgeon Films.