THE SPECIAL — a film directed by B Harrison Smith (DEATH HOUSE), produced by Doug Henderson (of Everything’s Fire), and based on the novella by James Newman and Mark Steensland — had its premiere screening here in York last night. Mary SanGiovanni and I attended, as did authors Kelli Owen, Robert Ford, and Wesley Southard, and director Mike Lombardo (who assisted with special effects for this film and whom you all know as the writer and director of I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY, for which I served as Executive Producer).
Here’s a little secret about what it is to be Brian Keene. I’m always certain that nobody likes me. I have a small group of very close friends, an expanded group of friends, an even larger group of casual acquaintances, and then the public. Last week at the grocery store, one of the cart guys recognized me (I don’t know what the official job title is — the kids who collect the carts from the parking lot and bring them into the store). He asks, as I’m putting groceries in my car, “Mr. Keene, can you give me advice on how to be a writer?” So I did, very quickly. But here’s a hard truth — many times, I am far more comfortable talking to that complete stranger than I am the people I’ve known for years. I get it in my head that people who I’ve known for years must have certainly figured out by now that I’m a terrible person, and therefore, they don’t like me, and are only sticking with me because of who I am rather than who I am. (There is a difference between those two bold-typed words).
And yes, I am fully aware that this is not a healthy mental outlook.
I’ve known James Newman for over twenty years. I’ve been to his house, slept on his floor, played with his kids. And yet, as some point over the last decade, I convinced myself that he, like everyone else, probably doesn’t like me. Some of this is because when Mary and I moved in together, we had slightly over 4,500 books between the two of us. That’s not an exaggeration. Have you ever tried to fit 4,500 books into a house? It can’t be done. So, the two of us, along with our dear departed friend J.F. Gonzalez, opened a pop-up bookstore to sell off our duplicates. For example, if we had two copies of Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY, and both were signed to us, we flipped a coin and sold one of the copies. (The only time we didn’t flip a coin was if the person was dead, so, for example, I kept all my signed Richard Laymon books and she kept all her signed Charles Grant books, because Dick was my mentor and Charlie was hers). Some of Newman’s books ended up being sold — all duplicates. And somebody bought one and posted a picture online and made a big deal of what a terrible person I was for selling a signed James Newman book. So…that’s part of it. But mostly, it’s just my own unique brand of sociopathy that convinces me “nobody who really knows you likes you, Brian Keene.”
But I like Newman, and he’s been looooooooong overdue for a breakout and a bigger audience, so I was delighted that his novella, THE SPECIAL (which he co-wrote with Mark Steensland, who I don’t know as well but also seems like a nice guy), was getting turned into a movie. And I liked that it was being directed by B. Harrison Smith. And I liked that the production company was based here in my hometown, and that the movie was filmed here, because I’m all about paying it forward and trying to bring more jobs and more economic possibilities to this little patch of Central Pennsylvania, and sometimes I feel like me and the dude from the rock band Live are the only ones trying to do that.
So, we went to the premiere, and we had a delightful time, and I am happy to report that the film is excellent. I’ve not yet read the novella, but Wesley Southard has, and he says the movie is 98% faithful to the book. It’s a wonderful slice of surreal horror — think Bentley Little or Edward Lee-lite as directed by Dead Alive and Meet The Feebles-era Peter Jackson. It’s a deft blend of several overlapping sub-genres — extreme horror, psychological horror, sexual horror, and comedic horror. In lesser hands, the transition between these elements could have been jarring, but Smith handles them deftly. The audience laughed when they were supposed to and cringed when they should. There were moments when the audience cheered out loud and others when you could have heard a pin drop. The story plays with questions of consent in a way that will make you uncomfortable — and that’s what good horror should always do. But underneath it all is a dark and sobering meditation on addiction and sexual abuse. There are small directorial touches that I suspect many in the audience missed. At one point, the character of Lisa (played by Sarah French in a remarkable, earnest performance), is shown in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment reading a copy of SPILLED MILK by K.L. Randis, which is a memoir about sexual abuse. This is juxtaposed against a surface plot involving Lisa’s husband just returning home after sexually abusing himself (and possibly someone else). To say more would involve major spoilers, but I thought it was a nice, subtle touch, and the film is full of such flourishes.
In addition to French’s performance and Smith’s directing, I’d like to call special attention to Matt Neases’s cinematography. I know what our budget was for I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY and I know how hard it was to make that movie look like it was shot on a much bigger budget. I suspect the same is true for THE SPECIAL, and Nease does a fantastic job of making this film shine.
A number of my books and stories have been adapted for film over the years. Some of them have turned out great. Others lost the vision somewhere along the way. As an author, all you can do is shrug and cash the check, and if a fan gives you shit about the adaptation, you point to the book or the story and say “It’s still there, just the way you remember it.” James and Mark should rest easy in this regard. It’s obvious to me that a lot of care and thought and heart went into this adaptation of their work, and that’s the type of partnership every creative wants in this business.
Oh, and before I close out. There is an after credits scene that begins with a voice-over. I turned to Mary and whispered, “That sounds like Richard!”
And then, sure enough, there was our old pal Richard Christy in a hilarious post-credits cameo.
(Here is a pic of Richard, Jeremy Wagner, Mary and myself from back in 2012 for my 43rd birthday. Mary threw me a surprise birthday party in New York and Dallas Mayr aka Jack Ketchum suggested she hold it at his favorite bar, and Richard and Jeremy spent the night freaking out that they got to meet him. I miss Dallas terribly, and I think of him often, and when I do, that’s one of my favorite memories of him).
But I digress.
Bottom-line — THE SPECIAL is special. It is definitely worth a watch. No word yet on where or when you’ll be able to see it, but look for it either streaming or on the film festival circuit soon. It’s a slick, heartfelt, squirm-inducing, genre-bending mind-fuck of a movie, and the type of horror film we don’t see often enough these days.
I loved it.
— Brian Keene