Late last year, Wonder Entertainment released a special collector’s edition of Thomas Ligotti’s short story “The Frolic” in a book that comes bundled with a DVD — a 24 minute adaptation of that story directed by Jacob Cooney. Get it soon, because this product is limited to 1000 copies, and there are signed editions available. Remarkably, this is the very first cinematic adaptation of Ligotti’s work — and I must say, it’s an excellent treatment, co-scripted by Ligotti himself, intensely directed, and well-acted.
In my Goreletter reviews, I try to shine light on (mostly independent) “print” books because I feel that other media already get plenty of press and attention. At first I didn’t want to review The Frolic here because it is a new film, but the truth is this edition is more of a multimedia “story event” than your usual DVD release. Here you’ll get a full-blown celebration of the short story in a perfect-bound paperback which features not only a “newly revised version” of “The Frolic” (which originally appeared in Ligotti’s first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer), but also an eyebrow-raising introduction by the author, the complete screenplay for the adaptation by Ligotti and his screenwriting partner Brandon Trenz, and also enlightening interviews with everyone involved with the production of the film. Indeed, the book is everything that would normally appear on a “special features” section of an ordinary DVD, but here the printed word is so well-respected that it truly celebrates Ligotti’s mastery as a storyteller above all.
In a nutshell, the short story itself is about the chilling effect a child killer named “John Doe” has had on his prison house psychologist, David Munck. The killer, who justifies his actions by claiming he steals children away to some unearthly place so they can “frolic” together, disturbs Munck at the core, chipping away at his “objective” scientific worldview and replacing it with the supernatural. This foments into sheer terror when Doe refers to a “Colleen” during an interview — a name that sounds a lot like his own daughter’s, “Noreen,” a name Doe couldn’t possibly know. Ligotti does a masterful job of fracturing Munck’s world, from his faith in science and his career to his family relations, and much of the horror of the story comes from its inevitable, unstoppable conclusion.
The story artfully juxtaposes the doctor’s job in the adult world against the killer’s “work” in the world of children — and the characters lives intersect in artfully frightening ways. The film version does a great job capturing the creepy tension between the doctor and the killer by focusing on their parallels, without ever directly depicting any violence or gore, and the film changes the storyline just enough to make it stand strongly on its own two feet as a distinctive tale. The film, like the story, is dialogue-heavy, but it puts more focus on John Doe than it does the doctor and his family. However, the acting is so good (especially by John Doe played by Maury Sterling) that the tension between the characters mounts in a way that is highly reminiscent of the scenes in Silence of the Lambs, where Clarice Starling interviews Hannibal Lector: we can feel the prisoner’s great power despite his physical restraint, and we recognize his potential for evil in the glint of his knowing smile.
The bundled book gives excellent insight into Ligotti’s process. In his introduction, the author discusses the history of the story in a way that makes him sound almost embarrassed about its creation in 1982, yet proud of this cinematic treatment of it twenty five years later. He writes about his aversion to using “normal characters” as protagonists, which is the stock approach of contemporary domestic horror. Horror cinema, he argues, is inherently told from the viewpoint of normalcy, under some kind of threat by the abnormal, and this is how it engenders chills in the “normal” audience who are forced by films to confront it — but from a safe distance. In his fiction, Ligotti prefers to distort reality and present an abnormal worldview, tapping into the Weird with a capital W. But, in the 80s, Ligotti wanted to try his hand at one of these “normal” kinds of horror stories, just to see what it would happen if he sifted his proclivity for the aberrant through his abnormal lens. “The Frolic” was the result…and, he implies, the fact that he wrote a moderately “normal” horror story is precisely what makes it more adaptable to cinema than his other work.
In other words, “The Frolic” is Ligotti at his most conventional, if not accessible. It’s a great choice for the first adaptation of his work — but the story is no less disturbing because of it. Ligotti is very much a literary horror writer, if only in that he writes stories that are meant to be read and thought about in a way that cinema — which imagines the visual FOR us — does not allow. His stories are very much psychodramas of the dark fantastic, and since much the “psychodrama” is in the reader’s mind, the gaps and limits of language are imperative to staging it. The film version of The Frolic succeeds because it keeps the camera movement and other direction relatively low key, letting the dialogue of the actors and the written script drive the story. Anyone expecting the rapid editing and riotous gore of films like Hostel will be let down by this story, which is very “talky” — but since most of the story is a conversation between a mystified psychologist and an imprisoned child murderer, its tension and intrigue are high strung.
The film version differs just enough from the fiction version to make the set worth your while. Read the story first. Then watch the movie. Then read the screenplay and watch the special features. While the interview with Ligotti appears in the book, you won’t get any special appearances in the shape of cameos or interviews from the man (who seems to be so reclusive that he might well be the Thomas Pynchon of horror). If you like to see Ligotti’s imagination transformed into a visual medium, you might also be interested in the wonderful comic anthology from Fox Atomic, The Nightmare Factory; the first volume is excellent (and a second volume is coming soon).
Order The Frolic ($45) signed collector’s edition
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