I recently saw Cold In July and it’s in serious contention for my favorite film of the year. And folks, I don’t mind telling you that I think it’s been a pretty damn strong year.
Much of Cold’s appeal is vested in Joe Lansdale, who wrote the novel on which it is based. The film is only the second of Lansdale’s works to be adapted to the big screen; a fact that is simultaneously odd and understandable. Odd because Lansdale has a distinctive voice. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, Lansdale is an author who divides his time pretty much evenly between crime novels and horror short stories and as a result writes crime novels that can trip without warning into the gothic derangement of horror, and horror stories that unfold with the blunt impact of crime. Understandable because Lansdale is among other things an eccentric writer, one with a love of the scatological that sometimes gets the better of him, a bag of tricks he’s not afraid to reuse (if there’s a preacher in the story, he did it) and a world view that can’t be fairly called nihilistic or pessimistic but is at the very least extraordinarily fucking mean.
But whatever else he is, Lansdale is a story teller, or maybe a yarn spinner. I’ve read some of the reviews of Cold In July, not even negative ones mind you, with bafflement that has verged on horror. Some critics have even gone so far as to attempt to define it as an anthology film. Brothers and Sisters, have we as a movie-going populace become so deadened by film as Intellectual Property and Brand Management, by plot as scenario, situation and tent poling that we have forgotten what an honest to God story looks like?!? Something with a beginning, middle and an end that develops and turns and changes? Something where you don’t automatically know how the last five minutes will end based on how the first five minutes begin? Has that become a genuinely foreign concept? Not to Lansdale it hasn’t. So with Cold still in theaters and on demand let’s take a look at the shorter than it should be, but longer than you might think list of Joe Lansdale adaptations. Let’s hope the motley crew below gets some siblings soon.
Bubba Ho-Tep: Bubba Ho-Tep was notorious from its release. There are few ideas that are irresistible but the concept of an elderly Elvis Presley battling a mummy with the aid of a black resident who may or may not be JFK is surely one of them. Particularly when you have Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis in the lead rolls. Bubba Ho Tep is just as eccentric as you would want such a film to be, but it’s more than a one joke film. The degradation of age is a constant theme with Lansdale, and one that he handles starkly and unsentimentally as any other. Elvis has been greatly reduced by his years, shrunken to an old man with a walker and a “growth on his pecker,” (Believe it or not the film is actually significantly less scatological than the novella.) He can hardly get out of bed, let alone do battle with the forces of darkness.
In hindsight it makes sense that Don Coscarelli was among the first to try and bring Landsale to the screen. Their sense of localism and eccentricity are a good match for one another, and neither is afraid to employ a somewhat rambling pace. For many this was their introduction to Lansdale and it’s tough to think of a better starting point.
Incident On and Off A Mountain Road: Lansdale’s second outing with Coscarelli proved to be less successful. Incident On and Off A Mountain Road is actually one of Lansdale’s most straight-forward horror stories, basically a slasher with some telling touches of the perverse. The story’s most unique twist is that “The Final Girl” in question is a former survivalist (something that You’re Next borrowed whole cloth) and is all too able to give the slasher in question a really tough day.
The problem with adapting the work is that it’s too straightforward. A strict adaptation would be hard pressed to last twenty minutes, let alone the near hour of a Master’s of Horror episode. So there’s plenty of padding and the added material makes the story and protagonist significantly weaker.
Still it’s not all bad; Ethan Embry gives a surprisingly effective performance as the lead’s abusive husband that presages his effectively thuggish turn in Cheap Thrills. Coscarelli is an old hand and knows how to get the most out of a cathedral wood, a rotting cabin decorated with corpses or an eight foot tall albino killer looming up from the shadows. He also knows how to stretch a dollar until George Washington starts to shriek, and as a result the episode is one of the best looking of the Masters of Horror slate, a couple iffy day for night shots notwithstanding. All in all though this one works better on the page.
Cold in July: This one on the other hand… This one just kicks ass. Cold in July follows a meek family man who kills a burglar, only to be informed that he’s the son of a just released convict who comes to town to get hisself some Texas style revenge. The movie you have in your head plays out within the first twenty minutes, with escalating harassment and a showdown and from there… well, that would be telling.
What I’m not afraid to give away is that Cold In July is simply a top notch genre film. Funny enough to bust a gut, brutal enough to make me flinch, buoyed by great performances from Sam Shepard, Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson, who smartly under-plays his role as a good ole boy P.I. and layered with a John Carpenter influenced score (there’s been a bumper crop of those lately) that’s icing on the cake. It’s Texas noir at its finest. Director Mickle, like Coscarelli, knows how to get a lot with a little and he sells the period details with careful, understated effort and has the master genre filmmaker’s instinct for what to show clearly and what to cut away from for maximum impact. Aside from one plot hole it’s tough to find fault with this film, which more than lives up to its title.
And that’s it for Lansdale on film, aside from an independent short of Christmas With The Dead that isn’t readily available. Bill Paxton has recently announced an adaptation of the Lansdale novel The Bottoms, which would certainly have potential, and Sundance has optioned Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series, could serve as welcome methadone for soon to be withdrawing Justified fans. But that’s about all.
But Wait There’s More:
Batman The Animated Series: Even if you’ve never seen a Joe Lansdale movie or read one of his books chances are you know his work. Lansdale has written extensively for comics; in fact a collection of his complete run of Jonah Hex was just released, He stayed at DC to write for Batman The Animated Series AKA the best animated show of the 90s and Lansdale is responsible for some of its strongest episodes. “Perchance To Dream” in which Bruce awakens in a world where he is no longer Batman, is cited by Kevin Conroy as his favorite episode of the series. The AV club cited it as the best of the run as well. My personal favorite has always been “Showdown” which pits Jonah Hex against a zeppelin wielding Ra’s Al Ghul in the old west and is exactly as cool as it sounds.
Lansdale stayed on at DC, working on both Superman and the controversial 4th season of BTAS. After a hiatus Lansdale returned with the DC Showcase: Jonah Hex, a ten minute short that manages to be a damn sight more entertaining than the live action version from the same year (low bar to clear I know). Unfortunately his latest project for DC is pretty dire. Batman and Son has little to do with the Grant Morrison run it draws from. All the poppy energy and fun of Morrison’s arc is exchanged for an annoyingly grimdark and crude rewrite, exacerbated by animation that is shockingly limited when compared to the other DC standalones and a Batman voiced by an actor who sounds half asleep at all times. The film is not without some of Lansdale’s trademark eccentricity. The beginning comes straight out of a Kung Fu film and it’s tough not to imagine the grin he must have had as he typed the phrase, “And then Batman comes face to face with a giant mutant Bat Ape.” But on the whole Batman and Son is a film that has been miscalculated to a puzzling degree.
If You’re Looking To Get Into Lansdale: If you want horror, try starting with one of his two “best of” horror collections High Cotton or Bumper Crop. If you want crime consider Savage Season, the first of his Hap and Leonard series or The Bottoms. Lansdale also has a new Hap and Leonard story in the new George R.R. Martin edited Rogues, and it’s among his best.