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.




Friday, June 6, 2014

Hoffman's Creeper and other Disturbing Tales






For a few years now I’ve been watching Australia’s Cameron Trost – from his humble beginnings publishing with Midnight Echo, to his shorter novel Letterbox, and finally acting as midwife and editor-in-chief to Black Beacon Books, an independent publishing venture specializing in mystery, suspense, psychological horror, and the just plain weird. In short, all the niches we’re here to promote. Though still in a stage of infancy, the small press is already showing the hallmarks of professionalism by working with a gifted team that includes Greg Chapman (whom I’m sure some of you met at the recent WHC), David Schembri, and Sandra Fowke. With Hoffman’s Creeper, Cameron gives us all the stories that have led him to this point – an imaginative chart showcasing his broader influences while at the same time giving rise to his own unique voice.  Here is a snippet of some:

The Ritual.

One of the collections openers is probably its strongest, the tale of a small cadre of female school students who - in order to gain power - turn to thaumaturgy and establish a coven. It’s one that contains an amiable twist, with a side of perversion. Foremost, it establishes Trost’s writing style: a fair heaping of dialogue with subtle mystery in the background like far-off radio noise.

Kangaroo Point.

A kind of reverse-coin approach to mental-illness. Eric Sanderson, while taking the walk home along the path past Kangaroo Point, encounters another man in the act of suicide meditation. With nicely crafted characterisation, this is somewhat evocative of King’s tale The Last Rung on the Ladder. Here Cameron is weaving the human into horror.

Hoffman’s Creeper

The title tale is also one of the more memorable ... the story of Professor Samuel Hoffman – a professional botanist whose adoration of the plant realm will see him adopt some eccentric (and macabre), practices. Though one could call this a more staid take on Little Shop of Horrors, I found something more here: a perspective of the world that views other species (in this case plant life), humanity’s equal if not better. In the real world it’s a science we are only now beginning to penetrate – just how conscious is the green world that surrounds us?

So ... what can we take away from this collection? As a working whole, the stories presented are light dark fiction (some, I have to say, bordering on YA). Though Cameron knows how to construct a clean and workable sentence, the subtle horror on show provoked – at times - a casual response from this reviewer. A positive method Cameron employs is a kind of failsafe twist (usually within the closing paragraphs) designed to rock readers perceptions of what came before. It’s a token technique – one that other writers aspire to but which Trost seems to have diligently mastered. In regards to style and technique, the author utilizes a generous helping of metaphor to already proficient ideas, and I anticipate it’s a voice that will only improve with time. 

With any debut collection there will be novice drawbacks (things like show, don’t tell), but for the most part Trost has put down some solid groundwork for future endeavors. I, for one, am looking forward to a full-length novel from this promising talent.



 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Babadook




Earlier this year, South Australian author Sean Williams posted the trailer to an up-and-coming independent horror excursion called The Babadook. To say my interest piqued immediately was an understatement (not only because the filming locations were local), but because the trailer displayed something genuinely unique: a dark, domestic outing rooted in suburbia but spliced with an almost cavalcade feel. Within the first few moments I was under the impression The Babadook might be a ‘footage’ film – if only because what I was witnessing on screen felt so genuine and raw. Several moments later I realized the error, having been momentarily fooled because I was observing real, stylized performances that cut to the bone. Cobble this with an effective musical score (and a storyline somewhat evocative of literary dark fiction), and you have a film showcasing potential success.

But The Babadook is more than just a success; it’s a triumph of independent filmmaking.

Set in Adelaide, Amelia is a widow and single parent raising Samuel – an eccentric, somewhat hyperactive child who’s inability to fit in at school (as well as acclimatize to his own family), is making simple day to day living a chore.  Losing her husband in a car accident – a calamity that took place on the drive to give birth to Samuel – has given rise to an existence of alienation and despair – especially on Samuel’s birthday. Though it’s a challenging relationship, the two still share a close affinity, and Amelia’s attempts to pacify her son’s worsening dreams lead to a nightly story hour of classic fiction – fables from old where the monster is always banished. These are fears that have trickled into the day, and Samuel has taken to designing makeshift wooden weapons in a personal battle with the unseen. Among the books at Amelia’s disposal is one that she cannot remember purchasing ... The Babadook – a macabre, beautifully illustrated fairy-tale featuring gaudy pop-ups and sinister rhymes. Once read aloud, the cadence acts as a summons to something beyond the veil.

What shines in The Babadook is not so much the story; it’s not even the more frightening moments. No, what works here are the subtle things employed: the sepia-toned suburbia, the stark performances. Child actor Noah Wiseman is a revelation, displaying sympathy and aversion in equal measure. The mother and child relationship is rife with magnetism and feels utterly genuine. Small, memorable cameo’s appear (most notably Daniel Hershall who played John Bunting in Snowtown), whose presence here is concrete despite the brevity of screen time. And lurking behind it all is the domestic aspect: an absent father looming over proceedings like the dark spirit of the Babadook itself.

Make no mistake, though: this is a film intended to disturb, and those key scenes designed for this (even for individuals schooled in the genre), can be genuinely unnerving. An original creation that is at times cartoonish, and at times malign, the Babadook reaches from beyond the fabric of another reality to slowly engulf and possess. To get the message across, writer and director Jennifer Kent has employed some slick camera work and effective compositing to create an atmosphere where our fears – in this case the dread of a family torn asunder – are duly amplified in a process that goes far beyond the limits of resources at hand. Touching, gritty, and starkly relevant, The Babadook is slow burn horror at its absolute finest.   


Monday, May 12, 2014

CREEP







For those of you familiar with what I look for in the dark celluloid excursion, appraising Creep should come as no surprise. Independent and off the cuff, with a soupcon of sophistication; the kind of film dalliance where passion and ingenuity often takes over from budget price tag or any noticeable studio interference. Released a decade ago and with little fanfare, Creep showcases the talent of then-burgeoning UK director Christopher Smith - the man behind such accomplished efforts as Triangle (2009) and Black Death (2010).   


Through a small epilogue involving sewer-workers, Smith kindly introduces us to the territory: the London underground ... a dank tunnel-world of labyrinthine train tubes, the human homeless, and sewer cesspools. In short, the perfect stage for calamity. Soon after, we attend a party with young German Kate (Franka Potente – Run Lola Run), who has it on good authority that George Clooney is at a popular club nearby. Though planning to attend with a friend, Kate abandons the party solo ... and subsequently falls asleep en route on a London train platform. Waking up alone – and now imprisoned – Kate is slowly introduced to the denizens of the tube-world ... and must stay alive until morning.


From first impressions of the poster, one might get the idea this is similar in vein to The Midnight Meat Train ... but this is a different, somewhat domestic animal compared to that romp. The antagonist, when it presents itself, is not quite the monster you expect – and for key moments during the build-up you’ll be trying to decide whether this is slasher territory or if Kate is running the gauntlet of the fantastique. After the human threats are dispatched, a killer steps into the limelight, a species of human troglophile cannibalistic in nature. Temporarily captured, Kate is put ‘on ice’ until her deformed attacker decides to return ... and it’s here she teams up with another victim and we are granted small insights into a genuinely creepy hermit who has a history all of his own. 

Though this review more or less falls under the banner of ‘From the vault’ Creep still stands up today as an effective gore-fest with some original content for its time. While it lacks a cohesive plot (and features a heroine that will jangle your nerves with unrealistic dialogue and reactions), the director has made the main focus here claustrophobic tension with an aside of unforgettable splatter. Most of all, you are witnessing here the early stages of a gifted filmmaker honing his skills in a distinctive setting that’s ideal for the genre.  


Friday, May 2, 2014

Devil's Due






It seems that everywhere we look nowadays a ‘footage’ film is being churned out somewhere. Whether you love or hate this distinct milieu (shaky camera work and naturalistic acting) – it matters little in today’s horror climate, because they are certainly here to stay. Not only are such films inexpensive, they consistently make a truck load of money. While some are almost accomplished works of art (REC), others fall so far below the paradigm of what constitutes effective film-making they should be regulated to the annals of direct-to-video cannon in perpetuity. When it was announced a while back that a ‘found footage take’ on
Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen was in the offing (and that directors from a segment of the film VHS had been acquired for helming duties), one could almost envision the result without viewing a single frame.

Recently married young Americans Samantha and Zach McCall are going on a honeymoon. Their destination: the Dominican Republic. One night, after getting waylaid returning back to their motel, an assertive cab driver seduces them into trying out an underground bar ... one presumably not located on any maps. After experiencing this somewhat taboo club, the footage then shifts to jerky scenes evocative of dark worship; the chanting and supplications of a cult satanic in nature. The next morning (and with no memory of the jaunt home), both Samantha and Zach fly home to the United States. Not long after – despite being religious about birth control - Samantha falls pregnant. And thus begins a lacklustre and derivative premise.

What follows is everything you would expect when giving birth to Satan: Samantha experiences nosebleeds, fugue states, and a bourgeoning disdain for her new hubby. Previously a vegetarian, raw meat is suddenly on the menu. (Even of the variety consumed in public supermarket aisles). On the street outside the McCall’s home, sinister and shady characters make a habit of loitering around the premises. Though the territory here is well mapped, there are (of course) small and quiet moments of tangible merit. In this found footage era, jump scares are ubiquitous, and the viewer will find an occasional one that works. What doesn’t work is mining the techniques of others, even going so far as to mimic recent outings like Chronicle. In this regard, the makers have turned homage into a banal science.    

Other virtues of the film? There aren’t many - though our lead actor (Allison Miller) does a more than competent job with what’s on offer, eliciting creepy stares spliced with her genuine girl-next-door persona. Another positive would be the film’s overall modernity: mainstream releases in 2014 are all going to have a polished sheen, regardless of budget constraints. And, toward the climax, there are more than a few effective special effect sequences. 

But sadly these aren’t enough to atone for Devil’s Due overall blandness - eight-nine minutes of home video that is (at times) insipid viewing for all.