Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Strange Matter #15: Creature Features

I've always wanted to have the drive-in movie experience. There's just something that seems really cool about pulling your car up to a GARGANTUAN (a reference you'll understand later--trust me) screen, chowing down on popcorn in the front seat, and using one of those nifty in-car speakers to hear the movie's soundtrack. Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you'd like to look at it) I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, so I always saw films indoors. INDOORS, ladies and gentlemen. Where's the fun in that? Luckily, Marty M. Engle took his precious time to write a little book called CREATURE FEATURES, which just so happens to feature a drive-in...albeit a haunted drive-in.

The story goes something like this: One fateful night, four friends by the names of Nate, Jon, Albert and Simon, decide to go hang out in the dilapidated, abandoned, and altogether-creepy (of course) Starlight Drive-In. They're searching around the old projector booth, because that's what tweens do--mess around with things they have no business messing with--when the supposedly defunct projector boots up, begins flashing outdated movie previews on the now miraculously-repaired silver screen, and the entire drive-in pops and crackles to life. The old neon sign lights up, probably for the first time in decades, and the speakers all start to sputter with crackly audio. And before they can really comprehend what is happening, there is a brilliant flash that sucks Albert, Jon, and Nate into the projector, leaving poor Simon behind to watch them on the screen and figure out how to get them back.

The bulk of CREATURE FEATURES centers around the old movies that the three friends have to fight their way out of: A classic flying saucer flick, a water-monster movie that takes place in the Amazon, a film about a mad scientist who shrinks people with a ray gun, and finally a good ol' fashioned Godzilla-type movie, complete with a giant lizard named Gargantuan (I told you you'd eventually get that reference!). The story bounces back and forth between this main thread and the side-story of a panicked Simon devising all kinds of ways to smash the haunted projector; each smash sends the trio to a another old movie.

Boom. Bang. Pow. That's how I'd describe CREATURE FEATURES. From the moment it starts, the story is an exciting action blockbuster. The scenery is always changing, thanks to the cool idea of sending the kids to different films, and the occasional shifts in perspective that take us back to Simon in the projector booth break up any small instance of monotony. Just when the reader is getting comfortable with a particular scene, the author puts us on an express lane to a whole new world (*resists overwhelming urge to make a corny Aladdin reference*).

And this brings us to the book's only real drawback: Since there are so many characters and the cast is always changing, we don't get a chance to really know anyone in the book. I often got the boys confused with each other, since none of them have any palpably discernible or memorable characteristics. And all of the extras, while suitably fitting for their specific movies and scenes, don't pop out as being all that unique. I would have especially loved to know more about the boys, to have had something to make me care about them. I should NOT want monsters to eat the main characters!

Oh, and the cover kicks ass. I dig that it has an orange theme, and I also dig the giant skull on the drive-in movie screen and the speakers lining the lot. And all of it is underneath a sickly-yellow full moon. Perfect enticement for the potential reader! Also, the CG files at the back of the book are really cool--there are some great shots of Gargantuan coming out of the screen and a sweet rendering of the haunted film projector.

In the end, the trip to the Starlight Drive-In is well worth the change for an over-priced hotdog. And an over-priced bag of popcorn. And a...$8.99 for an Icee!? You must be out of your mind! You...ahem...sorry...

I give CREATURE FEATURES a 4 out of 5.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest Review #1: A PLACE TO HIDE by Sean O' Dell

A PLACE TO HIDE is a surprisingly robust Gremlins homage that shows the beginning of some of Strange Matter's strengths. The book revolves around Trey Porter and his dealings with a centuries-old secret that's been hiding in the Fairfield woods. The name of the book is well-chosen, as the story is continually moved forward by characters hiding from or hiding ....things... away from others.

What I enjoy most about this book is it's one of the first books I can remember where the plot evolves and changes well over the course of the story. There's a dynamic to it that Engle and Barnes hit well. As Trey learns more information, his plans and decisions change a great deal, more than in most books I remember from that time. The subplot revolving around the bully Waylon Burst is also fun to read because it shows how well the characters are fleshed out. People change sides and objectives in logical ways.

In a lot of ways though, this book works best when read in conjunction with the 'sequel', DOORWAY TO DOOM. Even though we never see the bridging event at the end of A PLACE TO HIDE, the effects are well-portrayed in the next installment. It's also interesting how the story comes full circle. The person you most expect to be able to deal with the ending events of the book doesn't quite make the cut. As I mentioned earlier, the monsters here pay homage to Gremlins, especially in some of the descriptions of their appearance and in their reaction to their weakness. But their origins and motivations keep it from being anything enjoyable.

One thing I feel the author could have touched on more is the perspectives of both Trey's friends and the Terrible Trio as they were being chased by the creatures. This is something that the authors prove having as a great strength in DOORWAY TO DOOM--the switching of narratives and perspective to diversify the story. But considering how early this book is in the series, it's understandable. If you're interested in finding out more about The Terrible Trio or the fate of Waylon Burst's, I recommend DOORWAY TO DOOM.

I give A PLACE TO HIDE a 4 out of 5.