Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Crimson Peak by Nancy Holder






A confession: during my first viewing of Crimson Peak in a theater I was, at the time, subtly deflated. Guillermo del Toro, such a creative artistic behemoth, had co-written and directed a Gothic romance with shades of unmistakable horror. And yet the experience, for me and for others, felt somewhat tepid.

I stress this was only my first viewing, riding coattails with weighted expectations.

In the time elapsed since then, my appreciation of Crimson Peak didn’t just grow, but began to haunt me in the same way our protagonist is haunted: the color, tone, and imagery all conspiring to make the journey a thing for the ages. Not intended to terrify, Crimson Peak instead invokes both an aching nostalgia and emotional frisson … responses seldom generated in the modern film-making epoch.

Nancy Holder’s adaptation in novel format encapsulates the film flawlessly. There’s a graceful sweep of syntax, a haunting melancholy to proceedings that arouses Fernando Velazquez’s poignant score. The author manages to nail each scene with enough restrained nuance it’s like experiencing the tale in a more intimate (and blackly adorned) Gothic setting. A perfect parenthesis to the source material from which it sprung.



 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Hollow House by Greg Chapman.




The author under the spotlight here needs no introduction. Mr. Chapman has worked for years now to shed light on the many mediums of horror, both through his own work (novellas, illustrations, and design work), and the work of others; being a vocal mouthpiece for the literary achievements of friends and colleagues and helping to establish horror as a serious genre both in his native Australia and abroad. Earlier this year, Omnium Gatherum saw fit to publish Greg’s first stab at a novel length work. Already, Hollow House has picked up some favourable appraisals. 

Without delving too deeply into plot territory here (the bare bones of this can found across the board, both in the novel’s description and the many assessments floating around), let’s examine instead both the positives and pitfalls of what the author is trying to accomplish. In Hollow House, the scene is set with an archetypal haunted house at the centre of the maelstrom: Kemper House on Willow Street. Surrounding the house, numerous players - the immediate neighbours - are drawn into a spiralling web of death, possession, and desires made manifest. In effect, Greg is taking the inhuman aspect (the house), and using it as a springboard to see how his characters behave and interact with each other. If I could compare this formula to other’s down the passage of years, we can see the same method explored in novels such as Richard Bachman’s The Regulators, and the darker fantasy of both Bloch and Bradbury.

The positive aspects of this novel derive from the human element; Greg has sketched out numerous damaged characters that are a real-life echo of what one would find on any suburban street: angst ridden teenagers, a retired Army Vet, and the conventional large family. Witnessing how they cope with a house of horrors is an entertaining testament to Greg’s bourgeoning storytelling prowess. However, there are pitfalls, and that is often the generic make-up of certain gambits on show. For example, opening up proceedings with something as arbitrary as a dead body. In addition to this, having a reporter on the prowl to uncoil layers of information has its DNA firmly entrenched in dozens of horror films.

Small drawbacks aside, this is a novel showcasing genuine heart with some adequate turns of phrase. Above all, it’s a competent signpost of what to expect in the future. With Hollow House, Greg Chapman is merely laying down the load-bearing foundations of a universe of horror to come.  

      

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon






A small declaration and acknowledgment: the film adaptation of Wonder Boys is one of my all-time cherished cinema experiences. And I suspect you will probably hear the same thing from many writer’s, both of the prolific and broad ilk, in addition to the hermetic and oblique. Belonging to a sub-tribe of people who spend a lot of time behind the scenes and in the shadows can promote a feeling of loneliness and longing. Fortuitously, along comes a major motion picture with some major star power where that sub-tribe is put on show for all the world to see: their intellects and foibles, their addictions and over-abundant capacity to love. Although I don’t know with any certitude, I do wager there were wordsmiths all over the world celebrating Wonder Boys. A writers time in the spotlight is brief, and any air-time at all, not matter how momentary, is a brief salve to that ever-present loneliness.

So why did it take this fledgling writer such a long time to come around to Michael Chabon’s original novel? Primarily the man dabbles in genres I seldom haunt. Which is a pithy excuse. Though I think it bears mentioning the author seldom writes about subjects that interest me (topics such as Judaism, spiritual heritage, among other things). However, something I do know as a certain truth: ones storytelling aptitudes can often eclipse the themes on show. Or, put more bluntly: an elegant turn of phrase that is insightful and honest can be the sole reason I plow through a novel, plot be damned. In any case, I am currently an undergraduate of Michael Chabon’s evocative prose, and now foresee steaming ahead with his entire resume.

For those yet to read the novelisation, Wonder Boys (for the most part) adheres to all the beautiful comedy and drama up there in Curtis Hanson’s interpretation. Writer and teacher Grady Tripp is a likable protagonist because he’s all too human. Whether we as a species like to admit it or not, a huge number of us residing on the planet are entirely prone to making huge mistakes and dabbling in narcissism. And Grady Tripp, over the course of a weekend, frequently does both these things. But he does so in way that is endearing because we, the observers of his headspace, are given an intimate glimpse into his private thought processes – which of course is the entire lynchpin of the novel medium itself. (And the reason many books feel like marriages, whereas movies feel like one-night-stands; but that’s a whole different editorial piece). Complimenting Grady Tripp in his subtle downfall from literary lion to underdog are characters every bit as flawed: James Leer, Hannah Green, and Terry Crabtree. Except for minor deviations in hair colour and attire, what you experience on the page is every bit as nuanced as the laid back performances given by Michael Douglas, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr, respectively. Filtered through the ringer of Chabon’s quirky prose, I would go so far as to say these individuals are even more entertaining. I’ve known creatives like these; I’ve broken bread with them and gotten blind drunk. (Although I’ve never shot a dog or carried a tuba. Not that I remember, anyway).

One thing needs to be stated: halfway through this novel there is an extended dinner scene, and it was during this interlude where I almost abandoned the novel completely. Let it be known I loathe dinner scenes in any book. And this one, featuring an immersion into Jewish ritual, is the granddaddy of them all. If you can overcome such hurdles (and I have no doubt some out there will actually find the scene hilarious), then keep trucking on. Regarding the novels third act and climax - Grady Tripp’s epiphany and subsequent redemption - some of the film scenes were altered substantially … although this is the nature of any adaptation.  Cinema is a different language, and a translation often needs to take place.

Wonder Boys as a novel is witty, and it’s absorbent. Sure, the grand appeal here might be a writer writing about writer’s. But as the old saying goes, somebody has to do it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Where The Dead Go To Die by Aaron Dries and Mark Allan Gunnels.





After being involved in a community of horror aficionado’s for over a decade now, it’s always a treat to come across new voices in the genre – those you can ascertain (without any great prodding) have an instinctual and genuine love of the genus. Though only new to this reviewer, of course. Because - as all of us working in the field today know intimately – purveying the landscape of horror in its written form is a lifelong pursuit, one that begins prematurely and is never completely abandoned. Although Where The Dead Go To Die is my first introduction to both authors on show, I foresee a relationship forming that is permanent.

As hinted by the title, this is a novel that tackles a zombie apocalypse – but of the type we seldom encounter. Here, the carnage is like background music to the greater whole: a whole that sheds a spotlight on the domestic aspect of family and relationships. Primarily, the novel is a dissection and foreshadowing of how these units respond to an enigmatic infection … and how bonds are forged and weakened by a threat that (although for the most part contained) still looms visceral and menacing in everyday life.

Emily Samuels is a single mother working as a nurse in a hospice interred with the infected. A latent disease, almost a year can transpire before the septic succumb to the labels of Smiler or Bone Eater. During this incubation period, it falls to staff like Emily to ensure this slow transition is tempered with just enough humanity to keep relatives and the populace happy. For in this realm, even the word zombie has been regulated to the shadows; books and movies dealing with the theme subjected to censorship. Of course, there are those who oppose such flagrant liberalism – who frequently picket the hospice and demand the soon to dead have no right to existence. It’s a heady concoction; a deft social commentary echoing Romero’s penchant for the same formula.

Here, the authors have painted a strong protagonist. But overall it’s the supporting characters who steal the more memorable scenes. There’s Emily’s daughter Lucette, a young girl forced to bear intimate witness to her own father’s sluggish demise. There’s Mama Metcalf, a durable member of the staff who briefly takes on the mantle of surrogate mother and grandmother. Inside the hospice, new arrivals are a constant … including young Robbie, a boy whose baptism into the undead is as taboo as it is heartbreaking. Against the backdrop of a snow-laden Chicago Christmas, all of the players converge in a showdown of wiles, death, and prejudices.

To give more away here would be an injustice to what lies in store. Though rest assured this is also a novel containing enough graceful and (at times) poetic prose that it reads much like the origami motif the authors have chosen interweave throughout. In essence, a flat piece of paper has been sculpted into a beautiful yet horrific work of art.

Note: Where The Dead Go To Die also contains many lush illustrations by the author.            


Monday, July 7, 2014

Different Masks: A Decade in the Dark




And so, after ten long years in the reviewing business, I’ve decided to hang up my quill pen. I hope - by way of this Blog – that you have managed to find something you like ... enough so that it prompted you to seek out the author/creator responsible and purchase a copy of their story or film. Next year, HodgePodge Press has agreed to publish a polished and updated version of this Blog in its entirety. Entitled Different Masks: A Decade In the Dark the book will be a small project with the aim of continuing a legacy of support and shining the spotlight on works that have inspired and continue to inspire all of us working in the horror genre today. With this chapter closed, it will give me ample time to finish all that I have within me personally ... those stories and mythologies that have always been there, just waiting to be excavated.

Matthew Tait, July 2014.
 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Severance





This is the second film from British director Christopher Smith I’m putting under the microscope (the first being CREEP only two short reviews ago). A film that followed immediately after that title in the director’s pantheon, this is Mr. Smith shifting gear from ‘the denizens of the underground tube-world’ to a more sophisticated outdoors romp with comedic stylings. That’s not to say blood isn’t on the menu (on the contrary it’s delivered in buckets), but Severance is black comedy territory interspersed with some truly unnerving horror in the film’s final stages.  


In the forests of Hungary, the sales division for a military arms corporation are travelling on a bus through twisting mountainous terrain. Boarded by a motley crew of disparate English workers (and one American), their destination is a luxury retreat in the wilds to participate in team building exercises. Right off the cuff, we know we’re in black comedy country by the cast alone. There’s Gordon (mildly overweight and bumbling, reminiscent of Nick Frost’s character from Shaun of the Dead); there’s Steve (a young everyman who has a penchant for magic mushrooms); beautiful Maggie (the American), Jill (full of punch lines); and rounding off the ensemble are Billy, Harris, and Richard the Manager. When their bus encounters a tree that blocks access to the road, the driver soon abandons ship, leaving the group completely isolated and in charge of locating the retreat solo ... which they soon do.

The Lodge (old and decrepit), contains documents alluding to its past history: a mental asylum – or perhaps a re-education centre for Russian war criminals. Though the true history is never agreed upon, one thing is for certain ... a fresh pie found in the kitchen containing a human tooth is evidence enough they are not alone. When Jill spots a sinister intruder loitering in the bushes later that night, all agree that abandoning the Lodge would be a wise course of action ... though not before a game of paintball to ensure that at least some team-building activity takes place. What soon follows is carnage, and lots of it, as the group is slowly picked off one at a time by a cabal of bloodthirsty maniacs.

Despite a somewhat meandering middle-act, this is an intelligent script that balances the precarious juggling act of suspense and humor perfectly. Though Severance is certainly a vehicle for the ‘slasher’ sub-genre, there are just enough amiable twists involved for that particular title to seem somewhat ill-fitting. While gore-hounds will get their subtle fill (decapitations, bear-traps, and torture sequences) there is also a modicum of ‘heart’ facilitated by a gifted cast who seldom put a foot wrong. Also noteworthy are practical special effects, producing a gritty and stylish element to proceedings that complement the European locale.

Still relatively unknown in some horror circles, Severance is a ride that without question deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Dog Soldiers, Shaun of the Dead, and The Descent.