Saturday, December 18, 2010

Review: Quake by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon was an author whose prolific sensibilities and writing work ethic guaranteed himself a legacy that keeps on giving: even if you’ve managed to slough through the majority of his tomes, chances are there is still a couple more lurking in the wings somewhere, just waiting to be tapped. It was many novels ago during my reading life that I picked up a battered paperback copy of The Stake, and over the years I’ve kept coming back, sampling each novel in turn like a much beloved dish, never rushing the process and spacing them out so I can go on living with the sure knowledge there will always be another on horizon. In 2001, the world of horror literature lost a unique and glowing talent that comes along all too seldom.  

With a title like Quake and the accompanying illustration, Laymon enthusiasts will no trouble envisioning what’s on offer here: a gargantuan earthquake has devastated most of down-town Los Angeles. If this isn’t the big one, it’s certainly close to it – and the subsequent havoc wrought might just give Stanley Banks the opportunity he’s been waiting for with neighbor Shelia Banner. Every morning she jogs past his living room window, and every morning he ogles her. With his domineering mother now out of the equation and the streets in ruins, normal suburbia is suddenly transformed into a macabre playground for the depraved.

Racing to get home is Shelia’s daughter Barbara and her friends from school. Her husband Clint is also stranded and pairs with unlikely allies as the streets abruptly become rife with roving gangs and looters. As the body toll rises, Clint and Barbara try to make it home before Stanley catches Shelia, now trapped within her bathtub among the debris.   

One of Laymon’s more ambitious efforts standing at nearly 600 pages, the author never loses his stride. Though sometimes small on action, he writes with the uncanny knack of making hundreds of pages fly by as though dozens of advents are transpiring. A lot of this can be attributed to his study of character: rarely have I come across a novelist who can articulate common people’s reactions and speech so accurately. Those familiar with his formula will know his work is sometimes like a play - pure narrative simplicity but handled so craftily the tale becomes intricate. And it’s never more evidenced than in Quake. Probably the only pitfall in a novel like this is its often outdated nature – at the time of publication in 1995, hand-held electronic devices were still some way from the mainstream. Hopefully this doesn’t deter a new generation from embracing Laymon’s creations.

As a horror writer, Richard Laymon was utterly authentic - someone that wore the genre like a badge of honour and never apologized for it. He paved the way for many others like Brian Keene and Bentley Little to fill a void after his departure. My only hope is that one day the world of celluloid will pay homage by adapting one of his many visions.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: Dread (2009)

There is no delight the equal of dread.

So begins the opening paragraph of a pivotal short story in the illustrious career of Clive Barker. From the myriad of tales presented in his ground-breaking collection Books of Blood, Dread stood out among others of the fold as a harrowing excursion into the nature of fear. 

Many years later we finally have a film adaptation from the anthology that has given rise to semi-successful outings over the years including Rawhead Rex, Candyman, Lord of Illusions, Book of Blood and The Midnight Meat Train. And it could not come at a more important time. With the expansion of the splatter-porn field now firmly entrenched in the scaffold of the genre, I feel the original architects of such tales deserve their voice to be heard before we become overly swamped in a mire of imitation and unsympathetic translations that lack metaphor. Although shocking in tone, Clive Barker’s tiny tale of Quaid and his philosophical relationship with the ‘Beast’ of fear is somewhat loftier than the usual horrors.    

Jackson Rathbone plays Stephen Grace, a University cinema student who becomes acquainted with Quaid – another individual like himself with a potent story from the past detailing horrific advents: Stephen does not drive a vehicle after his sibling died at the wheel, and Quaid is still reeling from being a child eyewitness to his parent’s dismemberment. Already, we are seeing things deviate from the original story – subtle changes at fist but still keeping with the overall milieu. Quaid then proposes research into people’s fears for their first thesis, and soon they are joined by fellow-student Cheryl to work with them documenting everything on camera. What follows is a character-driven descent into psychological terror with some gut-wrenching scenes.

Initially, I thought the restrained changes and in particular the casting of Shaun Evans as Quaid would hinder the build-up. This Quaid feels far too innocent and simple - gone is the dark charisma that made this expert manipulator so enticing. But as the narrative unfolds Evans begins to exhibit all the characteristics needed to flesh out the character. We then face the conundrums associated with re-playing our fears … that if we stare directly into the eyes of the Beast for long enough will we finally be granted revelation?

Writer/Director Anthony DiBlasi has worked recently on other Barker projects and the final product of this small-budget outing is ultimately as slick and unnerving as anything released by a major studio. The ambiance has been honored; the material given a kind of dark reverence that shows both an understanding of it tempered with the need for a clever rearrangement. While not containing the dark grandiosity of previous adaptations such as Lord of Illusions or perhaps Candyman, Dread still manages to find its own shadowy niche in the legendary resume of Clive Barker. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: Saw 3D

It hardly came as a surprise to the collective tribe when it was announced the inevitable SAW VII was to be filmed in 3D - perhaps a move that would hopefully make us less desensitized to the now repetitious ‘traps’ that percolate through one of the most lucrative horror franchises of all time. Dealing with yet another mind-numbing circuitous plot might be worth it to see what story-board designers could envisage trying to hang ropey intestines and viscera all over the viewer’s 3D glasses.

We open with the usual fare, and at first it seemed SAW 3D was vying into new territory … more darkly comical and conceivably something like the last Final Destination installment whereby it moves in self-parody or satire. That notion, however, is quelled in a hurry as we soon realize that what’s on offer is yet another unbroken continuation of the Jigsaw mythology … now a Russian doll tale that is a jigsaw within itself.

Bobby Dagan (a Sean Patrick Flanery looking a little the worse for wear) is a ‘Jigsaw survivor’ who has become a small celebrity by writing a book and doing the talk-show route detailing his experiences. He even holds morbid meetings not unlike an Alcoholic’s Anonymous whereby other survivors band together and give their take on the pitfalls and/or liberating effects of being unwilling participants in the serial killers game. Subsequently, he and his associates are abducted by Jigsaw’s newest torch-bearer Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), and off we begin on another merry-go-round of torture-porn.

The celebrity angle was a good one - and all the components were there to elevate Saw 3D into a suspenseful climax that would hopefully bring closure or possibly a deus ex machina that would round off the legacy. Sadly, something is lacking, and I found the previous plot-device of a medical insurance corporation much more appealing than this often bloated and imitating work. Of course, we probably threw out ‘could this really happen?’ about four films ago and can happily suspend disbelief for the sake of cinema. But somehow this didn’t work here, and the elaborate processes to set such a series of advents in motion delve into the land of pure fantasy.

With the conclusion no doubt on the horizon, the writers had an opportunity to tap into an emotional element, but what we see here is more of a jazzed-up musical score overlapping an excursion that still feels like a two-hour music video. (Saw VII actually contains a cameo by Linkin Park's Chester Bennington). The inevitable twist is somewhat compelling, almost like SAW’s greatest hits containing a bonus hidden track from the first film made by two Melbourne boys all those years ago. But regrettably, this is not the finale the franchise probably deserves.       

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: The Finger of God by Keith Williams

A retired Astronaut who once called the International Space Station home, Jordie MacAlister now spends his days in a different kind of isolation, sequestered away on the West Coast of Scotland and mourning the death of his wife after an inoperable brain tumour. Furthering his woe, he discovers his time in space has severely weakened his heart, thus curtailing short a career with NASA. His life is peaceful – if not quiet idyllic – until a top-secret NASA database is unaccountably downloaded onto his computer's hard drive in a blinding flash of light. With his inside knowledge, Jordie knows that such a thing isn’t possible. So it begs the question of whom or what is the power behind this inexplicable event that is now beginning to be felt around the world …

In the early stages of The Finger of God, we get the feeling this might be a short and speculative excursion not unlike a stand-alone episode of The X-Files. All the elements are there as Jordie recruits old friend and retired conspiracy-theorist Alan Sinclair to help him decipher the code. But what started out as a small mystery soon dovetails into an apocalyptic novel incorporating every device and trope of science fiction whilst invigorating the plot with horror elements reminiscent of the destruction and carnage found in a Roland Emmerich film. The action cranks up as we shift settings on a global scale from Geelong, Australia to the upper echelons of NASA. The darker aspects of the novel get even darker as Williams juggles an alien monstrosity hell bent on total abolition and the blemishes found within the human heart when put under such duress.

Unfortunately, when charting a plot evocative of sci-fi television, it becomes easy see everything through the lens of these shows, and a downside here is probably the clichéd characters and their dialogue and reactions. We have troubled, hardened cops voicing hackneyed thoughts; we have male and female protagonists who are brought together romantically through the fall of civilization. Underlying it all, we get the feeling Williams is using this stage to preach philosophy about human follies, and at times, I found myself getting bogged down in semantics that tapered the enjoyment of the fast moving plot. There are certain stages when you’ll ‘know’ you’re reading a book. A perfect example of this would be:

"That statement from Maurice injected reality back into the surreal atmosphere as awareness of the impossibly dire situation permeated the kitchen."

All that aside, we can tell Williams is a gifted author whose talent is only just coming to the forefront, and The Finger of God is perfect for people who enjoy savvy science fiction with subtle hints of horror.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Borderland (2007)

When first reading the caption ‘Inspired by a True Story’ a horror aficionado invariably recoils. Do we have on our hands another Texas Chainsaw Massacre replica trying to emulate the success of that franchise? Or perhaps this is just another torture-porn outing with a series of advents so loosely resembling the original crime its entire story is nothing more than a fictitious construct? Initially, that was my first impression of Borderland … a sordid tale set on the fringe of Mexico.

If there was any question regarding the film-territory we inhabit, the opening sequence quells all doubts in a hurry as two Mexican police officers find themselves in the hands of a drug-cartel that applies human sacrifice to please deities and thus remain anonymous from enemies. It sounds far-fetched, but the tone and mood of Borderland enables the scenario to be utterly plausible. None of this is for the squeamish, and although we have a sinister world very Tarantino/Rodriguez on offer, I had the feeling even those icons would be applauding this.

Next, we cut to the main-players and inevitable future victims of the blood-cult: Ed, Phil, and Henry – three arrogant and ambitious American’s celebrating graduation. The boys have decided that before college they’re going experience freedom and liberty as defined by those living south of the border. At first reluctant, Ed joins his friends and we are then treated to their adventures with alcohol, drugs, and sex. But this is no teeny-bopper outing where dim-witted adolescents are fodder for embarrassing lines and actions; I found the characters innocence and naivety to be genuine. When the subsequent abduction of Phil takes place, the tension becomes palpable.

The prescription for a movie like Borderland is, of course, the same one applied to films like Hostel. But it’s a formula that will always work for horror. This is foreign land, everybody is corrupt, and when the maelstrom comes there is nobody to help you or hear you scream. The added true-story element (of which there is a surplus of information in the special features) gives credence to the harrowing brutality of human sacrifice. When the tides turn, and the victim seeks retribution, we discover they are capable of just as much atrocity as their tormentors. Although at times the pacing is slow and the dark tones will have you squinting, the climax ensures Borderland rises just above the usual crop to be a better than average horror film.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Review: Aegri Somnia

Note: A review from 2006 I somehow missed. 

Aegri Somnia is a Latin phrase, one that means, literally, ‘A Sick Man’s Dream.’

Aegri Somnia
 (for me, at least), was always going to be a winner. The news spread; little banners and bookmarks circulated with an illustration that was enough whet my fantastique taste-buds. For dark fiction lovers like us – for I assume you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t – the appeal that can often come with holding a little package like Aegri Somnia goes beyond mere words. Whereas some people see nothing more than a little book to perhaps use as a drink coaster on a coffee table (god, I do hate that); we aficionado’s perceive a treasure trove; something that is perhaps priceless in value. And certainly more than the retail price: Tiny imagined worlds that a lot of sacrifice, sweat and time went into.

Jennifer Pelland is our first executioner of tales with YY, and it’s a very worthy opener. Reminiscent of the design on the cover, we know we're in a kind of monster territory. Little monsters. Monsters that scurry. After an abortive attempt to fashion a human baby goes horribly wrong, the man for whom the experiment was designed has to repair the damage. Although concerning fiends, the story’s heart is ultimately a cordial domestic one between a small boy and a grieving adult ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to put things right.

Christopher Rowe’s The League of Girls is a little more subdued. The plot seems to fit well into the Aegri Somnia theme, but I was a little baffled; maybe this was the point. After coming home from hospital following debilitating injuries from a plane crash (or was it)? Sammi is allocated a place in a girl’s boarding house that may well be some kind of afterlife.

One of my favourite’s follows: All Praise to the Dreamer by Nancy Fulda. It’s another story that’s strongly tied with parenthood, and the lengths we go to preserve our brood. What makes this one tick, however, is the strange, sentient creatures that prey on humanity’s infants. They are even given a delicious name (one I won’t reveal here), and you can tell the author has fun with her creations. A clever ending ensues.

Mythology comes to the forefront with Nothing of Me by Eugie Foster. Deity’s everybody will be familiar with – those from Homer’s Odyssey, rear up in a tropical setting set in present day. It’s a cool little story, and a lot of people will enjoy it; however, I’d just finished reading Dan Simmons’s epic Ilium and Olympos the night before. Hence, this particular reviewer was a little put off coming back to Zeus and his immortal family of gods, goddesses and demigods. They seem to be everywhere in current fiction, marauding around our writers heads begging them for more tales. But I’m just being morose here, ladies and gentleman. Eugie’s tale is infused with curses, betrayal and romance with immortals Scylla and Glaucus at the centre of things.

Natural storyteller Scott Nicholson gives us Heal Thyself, probably the ultimate standout in this collection. Jeffery Jackson has problems – big problems. And when he sees a past-life hypno-therapist to heal his cerebral sufferings, his psyche dovetails into area’s better left unexplored. I’ve made it no secret in the past (no pun intended) that I predict Scott’s only a couple of books away from breaking through big-time, and you’ll see why with Heal Thyself. There is a miniature here, and (in my opinion) he seems to grasp topics he might know little about with a fiery, almost effortless imagination.

Perhaps the only story that doesn’t quite fit in here is On the Shoulders of Giants by Bryn Sparks. This is probably due to the hard science fiction factor that seems no body else really ventured into. Apex readers will know that Bryn is very talented, however – and he fuses human emotion with robotic sentience quite well.

Dream Takers by Rhonda Eudaly tackles sleep disorders. Those familiar with insomnia or nightmares that invade us when we close are eyes will be chilled by this. In this future, technology has enabled one Timothy Lindsey to snatch nightmares from the subconscious and give them to somebody else. In this case, its inmates on death row . . . monsters already filled by the void. And of course, there is always a price …

The next piece, Letters from the Weirdside by Lavie Tidhar, seems dedicated to all the struggling dark fiction writers out there. We begin with a typical day in a horror magazine editor’s work-place. There follows his decent into story realms that fracture known reality and question the often blurry line between fiction and our own four-dimensional world: a motif Stephen King has explored at great lengths.

Every story here seems to feed off the one before it, and the next one, Wishbones by Cherie Priest comes off just as good as the rest. The plot concerns ancient mythical secrets during the civil war and is branched into the present involving teenagers working in pizza store. Cherie’s use of language (especially between the teenagers) is right on the money; their banter flies from the page like you’re watching it on the screen. Also, it’s the images evoked during the war camps and not the supernatural elements that ultimately win out.

All becomes as Wormwood will certainly make a lot of techno-phobes and environmentalists out there squirm in their respective reading chairs. It’s authored by Angeline Hawkes, who purveys the wasteland that is Chernobyl years after the meltdown and reports what she sees. Alex has permission to travel to the abandoned city to add some verisimilitude for a school report and perhaps take a few photographs. Alex discovers (after his motorcycle breaks down, of course), that Chernobyl isn’t as deserted as the world thinks and it seems the city has one last, horrifying gift for the world. Sounds great, and it is … except there is an element of disbelief for the reader as Alex comes to terms with the new environment astonishingly quickly. We’re thrust forward into B grade territory as though we’ve been there all along – and you might find yourself frowning. However, it is a short story, and Angeline is to be forgiven.

Well of the Waters by Mari Adkins falls into the same category as Nothing of Me. Although I’m probably wrong, stories such as these seem to be aimed at a female readership . . . and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. My personal taste, however, won’t easily be held sway here. Like Dream Takers, it revolves around a kind of sleep incubator. Another realm with powerful female thaumaturgy also comes into play.

It seems just when you think the best story has shown itself, along comes Mens Rea by Steven Savile. What started out as seamy cop London story – perhaps a very gruesome take on TV’s The Bill – suddenly goes ape into dark regions involving experimental brain surgery, hoodlum thugs with telekinetic gifts – and an ending that just begs for some kind of universe to be explored. Steven takes to the theme beautifully, imbuing Mens Rea with a vigorous, complex and ultimately uplifting tale.

Well, it was a good ride. And I was happy to make the journey. All authors are to be commended, as they have been given a task and responded resoundfully. Bravo Jason Sizemore and Gill Ainsworth for editing. You can purchase Aegri Somnia from Apex Publications. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Within His Reach by Steve Gerlach

This novella is dedicated to the memory of Rod Serling (writer and creator of The Twilight Zone), and it shows. Within His Reach is a quaint little story that harkens back to the film-noir days of the 1950s where American towns were a picturesque realm of suited, cynical attitudes with a black and white visual style. But underlying this hardboiled world’s glossy surface is also the propaganda beneath: that what lies on top is merely an illusion our authorities want us to believe in …

At this time in history, polio is an epidemic sweeping the nation, and Arnold Enright is one of the poor unfortunates to lose everything he holds dear to a disease that relegates you to the mechanical prison of living in an iron lung. Told in first person narration, this is where the story picks up, and Gerlach does a good job conveying the despondency of the disease. When Arnold decides to go ahead with radical surgery and subsequently wakes up in his home town of Hope Springs a whole man, his elation soon turns to despair when he realizes that the town is empty and everything has the drab quality of a nightmare. Was the surgery a success? Is he merely dreaming? Why does everything he touch vanish into non-existence? Despite the world around him falling apart yet again, Arnold goes in search of the wife who abandoned him and the daughter he’s never met.

Here, Steve Gerlach has given himself the task of translating the The Twilight Zone ambiance into a literary format, and for the most part, he succeeds; reading, we can almost hear the show’s soundtrack in the background – can almost anticipate an intermission when events fracture into pure slippage. But I also had the feeling this is a short story that has been stretched like taffy into the length of a novella. As I whole, I think it could have benefited from being sluiced down to half the word count … and made an enjoyable read even more palatable to fans of science fiction noir. A small quibble in an otherwise engaging story.

The Australian small Press Tasmaniac Publications have done a beautiful job with this edition, and although copies might still be available elsewhere, it seems to have sold out in its current incarnation. Tasmaniac have a reputation for glossy, imaginative illustrations and covers, and Within His Reach is no exception. It also contains a nostalgic and original foreword by legendary writer William F. Nolan entitled The Twilight Years.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: Splice

Vincenzo Natali has become somewhat of a science fiction cult director in recent years, helming the now well-known and celebrated Cube. Although never quite mainstream, his other foray Cypher has showcased a director that isn’t reluctant to call science fiction his forte. Too often in the past we see those with a penchant for the fantastique moving away into other more ‘serious’ realms when they find greater clout to wield. Thus the David Cronenberg’s of the world are a seldom phenomenon and should be treasured for their commitment and loyalty. Natali is one such director still finding his feet, and with Splice moves entirely into the mainstream.  
A scientist team that are also a couple, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrian Brody), are on the cutting edge of human/animal gene splicing, and are trying to develop a protein for a major corporation. When their experiments herald the arrival of new species, they decide to go rouge and take it to the next level: splicing human and animal DNA. When each small breakthrough leads to another victory, the scientists set in motion an irrevocable chain of advents that gives birth to Dren … an entirely new progeny female in gender and having hybrid characteristics.

Fitting this particular premise are typical plot-offshoots that go hand and hand with it:  the ethical and moral dilemmas … is it right to play with God’s codes and maps if it could lead to a victory over disease? And is there an ultimate price to pay if we succeed? Of course, there is nothing new here – but we get the feeling there isn’t supposed to be. The characters of Elsa and Clive are even named as a homage to central characters in Bride of Frankenstein. That said, the first half of the film does feel original in its execution, with the real star here Dren. This is no run-of-the-mill Alien/Species knock-off: watching the creature as it grows and learns at a breakneck pace is disconcerting to say the least – the CGI is flawless, giving an authentic performance that, once married with regular prosthetics, has the viewer feeling prickly with dread.

Throughout, there is the undercurrent of the domestic, as we see Elsa’s and Clive’s relationship and unresolved personal issues taken into disarray by the their current predicament. In this regard, there was so much to like, but what ultimately lets the film down is the final third, a finale that feels taped on and sinks to the level of Natali’s cheaper films. Obvious script re-writes are layered on as though no one (including the director), knew how to finish it. There is one unexpected development that is implausible to the point it’s laughable. And from here, any aficionado can guess where things lead.  

But this does not take away the films gains, and having an A list performer like Brody elevates the production into something that deserved to make theatrical release. French actress Delphine Chaneac gives the character of Dren an uncanny take that makes us feel and fear her at the same time. This alone makes Splice a small triumph. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: Centurion

With films like Dog Soldiers and The Descent under his belt, British writer and director Neil Marshall now has the clout to broaden his horizons and show the world and a mainstream audience just how much talent is at his disposal. His previous forays into horror have showcased a director with a certain penchant for hardcore character development, followed by a brutal showdown with enemy forces that may or may not be supernatural in nature and do not leave many survivors. With Centurion, he has stuck to his tried formula … but expanded it and broadened it out to encompass a stage that is less domestic and uses entire countries as the playground. Here, his monsters are human … but no less depraved than those he has put on display before.

Our Centurion is Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier who is the sole survivor of a bloody raid that saw his company decimated by the Picts … a savage and mysterious clan who refuse to fold into the Roman Empire and are employing guerrilla tactics that are preventing them from securing Britain. His next mission is to join ranks with the Ninth Legion and wipe out the Picts once and for all. But when an ambush ensues and an even bigger slaughter takes place, he now leads a cabal of survivors across unforgiving terrain and set-backs to reach his homeland again. And their presence his known by the Picts, who relentlessly hunt them.

It should go without saying that for those of you expecting another cult film likeThe Descent, that is not what is on offer here. I for one applaud the decision of the Director to take the story into uncharted territory and see what the audience makes of it. And the result? Surprises at every turn. I will admit to not being prepared for how well things ultimately came together. Above all, it is refreshing to take a break from the mire that Hollywood sometimes is. This is a British/Scottish cast and world, full of breath-taking scenery and a gritty style of film-making that only comes from doing the hard yards away from celluloid’s capital. The scenes of battle and carnage are still there for horror fans, and they are done so with realistic expertise. An audience member will feel totally ensconced in the cold, harsh reality of the Roman frontier. I have a feeling that Neil Marshall was schooling himself on set (much like Tarantino did with Kill Bill), to be an action director. But he still keeps the human element alive and true. The performance by the mute and beautiful hunter Etain (Olga Kurylenko) is worthy of distinction.

There are a couple of set-backs, most notable a romance that never quite takes off. But we get the feeling it was probably the studios suggesting such changes to encompass a broader audience. With a much larger budget in tow, sometimes creators have to make some sacrifices to get their vision across. There will be a few nay-sayers whose knee jerk reaction is to quickly compare it to Dog Soldiers and The Descent in a negative light, but over time this film will join the pantheon as a minor classic of the already impressive resume of Neil Marshall.  

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Review: Pilgrims by Will Elliot

An author that needs no introduction, Will Elliot burst into the mainstream from relative obscurity after winning the ABC manuscript award with The Pilo Family Circus. It was a novel of disturbing ideas and grisly images that took on a life of its own, breathing fresh blood into our literary scene and showcasing that young Australian talent could mix it with the big guns on a world stage. With Pilgrims, Elliot shifts gears in a largely new direction, moving into the invented world genre and trying to explode its conventions from within.

From experience, I think there comes a time in a speculative writer’s life when they think: now is the time to do my ‘otherworld’ book. Be it a dominion, realm, dimension, or simply world – it seems ingrained that this be accomplished as a kind of Magnum Opus or literary Jupiter that dwarfs all other novels, novellas, or short stories. And there is nothing wrong with this. Although it took an eternity, King himself achieved this milestone with The Dark Tower books. Numerous other authors have made it a staple: Clive Barker’s descriptions of wonderlands that sit just adjacent to us are like a guide for every intrepid writer who feels the need to describe some otherland. This hybrid of dark fantasy and horror is now well-mapped … the challenge is to find something unique and powerful to add to the fray. For the most part, Will Elliot does succeed with Pilgrims, book one of the Pendulum trilogy.

Eric Albright (a protagonist with shades of Elliot I suspect), has discovered a small red door underneath a train bridge near his home. His wingman in the unearthing is Stuart Case, a homeless alcoholic who accompanies Eric through the door into Levaal … the adjacent realm next to ours brimming with magic and all the ingredients we have come to expect from fantasy. We are on familiar ground, and Eric knows it. More than once he voices the opinion that because he is from our world, then he must be its savoir. Both Eric and Case become part of a quest that is fragmentary in the details but mainly about survival. A numerous and varied cast is introduced, and readers will see creatures of staggeringly various descriptions populate the world of Levaal. There are War Mages, flying Invia, Gods and Great Spirits. There are those that are free, and those that are not … as the current resident of the Castle, Vous, has turned this beacon of magic into a house of malign purpose with the hopes of ascending to Godhood.

Pilgrims as a book reflects journey. The kind of book, perhaps, that’s perfect for ones own voyage. For some peculiar reason I found myself digging into this narrative always when I was on the move: traffic light intersections, bus trips, and even on one occasion when hiking through the woods. At times it can be stagnant; the action and mysteries of a type encountered in many other fictitious worlds before. The language feels familiar and intimate, however – the Australian voice homely. Above all, Will Elliot wants to take us to his Narnia and the world of his childhood. Although a far cry from his debut novel and not inhabiting the same territory, Pilgrims nevertheless acts as a worthy successor.  

The story continues in Shadow and concludes in book three Dragon.  

Review: The Hitcher (2007)

HorrorScope has seen fit to let me visit one of the older horror/thrillers of the past few years. The Hitcher was released in 2007 and is a re-make of the classic 1986 film of the same name.

It came at a time when re-makes were still a relative novelty … and seems an age ago now in terms of film-making. When viewing it, do not expect to see many similarities with its previous incarnation. This is a film that is aimed primarily at a new generation coming through … and ultimately suffers for it.

We are in comforting and familiar territory with the plot: College students Jim and Grace are on a jaunt across the United States and en route encounter the hitch-hiker who calls himself John Ryder. After initially refusing to stop, they later encounter him at a gas station and there follows a nightmare journey with the psychopath.

Things are promising at the beginning: the audience is in hackneyed territory but knows this. The Highway is a like a character – a haunted wasteland that is a playground for anything malign to find a home and go un-noticed. There is no mystery about our villain; he is unmasked in all his glory, and talented actor Sean Bean has no trouble bringing to life the vapid stance of a detached executioner. In what is perhaps a small nod to the first film, there is an undeniable gritty attention to the colors and camera-focus.  

But things quickly fall apart with lazy dialogue and unrealistic scenarios that couldn’t possibly happen … even suspending disbelief for the sake of celluloid. I won’t go into these, but at times it felt like I was reading the screenplay – a huge warning bell going off that the director’s vision was not enough to curtail what is, at its core, a bad script.

There are encouraging sign-posts: jump moments are everywhere, enough to keep you interested … and it’s the type of horror that takes no prisoners about whom is dispatched or how. The ‘game’ John Ryder is playing intrigues us, for his toying levels go beyond mere play into something else altogether. A thumping soundtrack is with us every step of the way - it sounds like the throb of a heart or the whir of a truck and intelligently mirrors the ‘highway-artery’ theme of the whole endeavor.

Unfortunately, in the end, the clichéd ‘horror film’ behavior of those being toyed is enough to have us praying for their demise. Although by no means a complete loss, keep this one for a Saturday night marathon when all the quality has been exhausted.   

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review: Amusement (2008)

Initially a promising film, Amusement offers up a smorgasbord of ingredients that should have made this work. The narrative is a mish-mash of the My Bloody Valentine scenario, whereby a tormented adolescent has now grown up to bring his revenge fantasizes into a blood-spattered reality. His focus is the three girls who mocked him in youth.
As stated, the formula was trite but promising, and the opening sequence unfolds in a trucking convoy that takes a sinister turn. Camera direction is slick and eccentric; almost mimicking something David Fincher might produce; the film visually looks good and the bigger budget is apparent. But things dovetail as we come to the slow realization that almost everything is pilfered directly from some other source: the gothic ambiance, the hooded slickers in rain, and the interconnected storylines. This entire outing resembles something more on par with an anthology … and perhaps if they had marketed it this way and tweaked the story-line it could have evolved. Viewed from this perspective, it’s actually quite sublime: our stalker takes on the guise of a killer clown in what is a genuinely unnerving scene. A modern-Frankenstein motif is built into the account and what lies in wait is something that shames The People Under The Stairs … but it all seems too unwieldy, too elaborate – and our stalkers motivation is ultimately haphazard to the point of non-existence. The climax is more of the same: a stunning visual feast in a labyrinthine fortress presenting doors to the viewer that are never opened.

With a screenplay by Jake Wade Wall (the same individual who penned The Hitcher), Amusement can be safely filed away into the same category as my review for that film. This is no must-see and can easily be overlooked. But as something to complement a horror marathon, Amusement just rises above the tide to be mildly entertaining.   

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz

At 34, Ryan Perry has achieved his life’s ambition and then some: the head of successful software outfit and social-networking site that has seen him accumulate millions. Not only is he a Forbes magazine entrepreneur, Ryan is also dating an attractive fellow/surfer journalist (Samantha Reach) who isn’t far away from accepting his marriage proposal. So when he suffers a mild heart-attack and subsequently learns of its defect, his once placid world is altered radically. Ryan only has a short time to live … and will not live at all unless he finds a new heart.

Initially, I thought the premise of Your Heart Belongs to Me dealt with a fascinating condition that has been around since the first heart transplants – cellular memory. The theory (and stories) revolve around the notion that the brain is not the only organ that stores personality traits and memories; there have been many documented cases whereby a surgery patient has displayed new tastes in opinions, cravings, and other mild variations of habit. To a certain extent, this does form a basis of the novel … but it is only on the peripheral side-lines as Koontz tries his hand at marrying a slew of imaginings.  

After switching physicians and a transplant success, Ryan goes on with life … albeit lacking Samantha. Then follows a reign of psychological persecution that makes his original fears of poisoning seem tame by comparison: some invisible phantom has access to his private quarters, can manipulate his security, and has taken to leaving him gifts such as gold heart pendants. His paranoia moves into an investigation that uncovers a world of voluntary euthanasia and identical twins. Some consider Koontz’s work to be tame, but try envisioning a house full of real corpses embalmed exquisitely for art’s sake. Personally, I am a fan of his somewhat flowery and obsessively metaphorical prose, but others might find it a little over the top and long-winded this time. There is little dialogue, and a lot of inner rumination by our protagonist.

When the plot-payoff finally arrives, the reader with either vehemently applaud or cringe with disappointment. Here there is no middle ground.  By and large, Your Heart Belongs to Me is a book about subtext and texture. Seeing patterns to the plot not from the surface theme but from the implicit meaning of the tale … the things that the modern mind rejects on a conscious level. This is mid-range Koontz, but any author who can, without fail, elicit a tear from me in the closing stages of a book is an author who is ultimately doing something right. 

Review: Trick 'r Treat

Trick ‘r Treat was released in 2008 to little fan fare (basically left for dead by Warner Brothers) - but now finds a niche in horrors pantheon as a film to be remembered. If you have somehow managed to avoid this rare gem, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by becoming acquainted with it.  

Trick ‘r Treat takes the well worn mythos of Halloween and breathes new life into it by simply going back to basics. Everything takes place in the duration of one All Hallows Eve with a series of interconnected stories that weave a comic-book carnival spell over a small town: a principal serial-killer, a virginal red-riding hood, a hermit and a group of teens that take an urban legend too far are all part of the nights tapestry. The horrors that take place are allowed to do so under the guise of the festivities and blend seamlessly with the illusions … resulting in classic humor that keeps with the comic-book texture. 

Already you might have heard comparisons with this anthology to King’s Creepshow … but this is more like a modern re-telling for a new generation, peppered with enough revenge incidents that it will be like a homage to those familiar with that classic. It’s also reminiscent of another King creation: The Regulators - whereby innocent suburbia is transformed into a nightmare landscape by something juvenile … if only for the night.

With a haunting score reminiscent of something composed by Christopher Young, Trick ‘r Treat is a fusion of old-school thrills with a contemporary shine.Costumes and candy, ghouls and goblins, all kinds of masks and monsters … the only regret you’ll have is not viewing it during Halloween’s cavalcade. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review: Daybreakers

After its theatrical release, there has already been a lot of talk and reviews of Daybreakers, the second full-length outing by Australia’s Spierig Brothers, who were behind the 2003 semi-cult Zombie extravaganza Undead. So I won’t bore you with many particulars.

It’s 2019, and the script has broken the genre stereotypes by granting us a vision of vampires that has seldom been visited before: they govern the world, and a massive corporation has seen fit to round up the last of the human race for consumption lest the population succumb to extinction. This in itself is fascinating and holds a mirror up to our own world to promote endless discussion. The sphere has been flipped but is ultimately the same: blood is merely a metaphor for resources like food and oil. A veritable hornets nest of ethical and moral questions then present themselves ... as those that are left try to find a substitute or cure for the life-force of survival.

Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is one such individual, a hematologist working for a pharmaceutical company. His allegiance to his kindred race is waning … fuelled by slowly-eradicating memories and the farming of the race he once belonged to (think of a Matrix-like landscape of human production lines). Impeding the work is another addition to vampire society: a ghastly sub-species that has succumbed to blood malnourishment and is living in the squalid depths of depravity, feasting on anything and severely deformed.  

Daybreakers is like an American and Australian hybrid of a movie, and at the beginning, this can be grating. Obvious Australian back-drops, accents, and actors have been merged with American enterprise and this comes off cheap. Initially, the dialogue is awkward and juvenile (and somewhat embarrassing), but as our story chugs along, the lines are blurred, a stride is found, and everything becomes one. Visually, the concepts that come to life are spectacular, and I can only fantasise about how fun it was for the story-board artists and imaginers. The Sun, in particular, is mined like a character itself, and I was happily reminded of some of the awesome planetary sequences in Pitch Black (another one filmed in Australia), whereby we are granted a feast for the senses. Dark and gothic, the cities are transformed into a cimmerian wonderland of black elegance. Let’s be honest, the vampires here just look cool. And seeing an entire population of transformed eyes will appeal to any purveyor of the macabre. There is also a disquieting element, and the images associated with the holocaust are palpable.

Like other films of this stripe, there is an uprising of the repressed (in this case the humans, led by Willem Dafoe). Having an established acting cartel does bring the film to greater heights, and I have a feeling it would be much impoverished without Ethan Hawke’s sympathetic performance. There will also be many discussions about the type of vampire presented, for traditional dispatching methods are not brought into effect until the end.

Ultimately, I enjoyed my time with Daybreakers. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of a long road the brothers have in store for us …

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Review: Carriers

A unique apocalypse has devastated the world, and brothers Brain and Danny are on a pilgrimage across the country to their childhood haunt … a holiday house on the ocean where perhaps they can weather the storm of an airborne virus that infects its human hosts with ultimate death. Tagging along with the brothers are Brian’s girlfriend Bobby and their friend Kate. When encountering a father and his infected daughter who have run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, their trip takes a detour where they will discover they have more to fear from each other than a lethal virus. 
From the out-set, we are only given cursory hints as to what the world (and our individuals) have been dealt – and this works. The mystery could entail many things on the menu: most notably zombies, but it manages to avoid the old tropes and goes straight for the heart. I use the word ‘unique’ as this is a film that has taken a different route from others in the genre. Sure, there are shades of many of its predecessors. Most notably movies like 28 Days Later, and literature like The Stand and Night Surf. But Carriers is infused with a domestic human element that makes it worthy of distinctive praise. Throughout, we are treated to some genuinely disturbing moments as our characters try to deal with the illness - like the dilemma that is so pertinent to Zombie films: after infection occurs the pretence goes on that they are not infected … and should they divulge that they are? It’s designed in a way to make the viewer feel contaminated, and more than once I found myself wiping a hand on my sleeve. It does lack gore and action, but the real violence boils down to the callous lengths people will go to when their own survival is questioned.  

Someone pointed out recently that the current crop of horror movies being released to DVD is in a downward spiral. They may be right, but every so often a film like Carriers comes along and stems the flow.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Different Masks

In a desire to show the universe that I haven’t been entirely blocked over time, I’ve decided, for a bit of fun, to put up my novel Davey Ribbon on the interwebs in installments.

Many years ago – probably during the 90’s I thinking - it would have been unthinkable to have your unpublished novel displayed for any individuals to read in such an intimate and prolific setting. The tales were carried around in the fabled ‘trunk’ – or existed on a floppy disk. Why not take advantage of this tech and broadcast that ‘dreaming awake’ state a bourgeoning writer carries around with him or her all the time?  

As it currently stands, Davey Ribbon is around four hundred pages. The material you see online is raw and un-edited … but that’s what I love about working on it: it’s the first thing put to page that feels like celluloid in its construction (albeit without any collaboration) – with dozens of scenes having been deleted or re-written, and ‘The End’ written on two separate occasions only to be erased and continued. So, have a read and tell me what you think. It’s not in sequential order so forgive me for making you scroll down.

Many submissions have taken place recently and it seems I'm finally getting my shit together. These include Midnight Echo 5, Afterburn SF, the latest Chizine competition, and also the AHWA one. Even if no results are yielded it sure feels good to be in the game and submitting regularly ...  

I’m writing this on Saturday June the 5th. A few days ago, my Tonkinese cat had to be put to sleep. Oscar and I had been inseparable for thirteen years and it was an agonizing decision to make: although relatively healthy in all outward appearances his large intestine had been playing havoc for years, causing unfathomable constipation that not even daily doses of syrup could remedy. It’s strange to think how much they are entwined in your life: he was here, by my side, for every word written at this desk, every guitar riff written on the chair next to me, every good and bad movie – and every episode of The Simpson’s repeated hundreds of times. We know they are mortal and their span is diminished compared with ours. That notion, however, does not salve the pain when the advent occurs. I’ll miss you greatly my old friend, and even if I live to be an old man I’ll still remember you fondly as the greatest being I knew on this side of the veil …

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: The Fourth Kind

Right off the bat lets ascertain what a few people might be wondering about the movie The Fourth Kind: is at least some of the contents rooted in any truth whatsoever? Is the viral campaign that started it the geneses of some kind of celluloid disclosure? The answer, sadly, is no. The Fourth Kind is entirely fictional in almost every regard. The same formula applied to films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have also been applied … albeit with a bigger budget and slicker production that more closely resembles a re-enactment along the same lines as Fire In the Sky.

When the first hints of the viral campaign began to spill into my awareness, I will admit to a certain thrill. The subject matter is a theme that has been close to my heart for over two decades now. In the early promos, we bore witness to things like film-footage of the Disclosure Project for the Press in 2001 (an advent that was over-shadowed by subsequent world advents later that year), and very high quality video recordings of vehicles in our air-space that defy conventional explanations. This, however, is where the fascination came to an abrupt stop. If there were even slivers of truth to the story the film presents, I would have stumbled upon it in my own personal research. I knew then we were dealing with something more along the lines of a mock-documentary. 

Said story centers around the inhabitants of Nome, a small town in Alaska who have been experiencing an unusually high number of disappearances and visits from the FBI dating back fifty years. Dr Abigail Tyler (Milla Jivovich) is a local psychiatrist delving into the unmapped places of the local’s night-time world and soon learns a great percentage of them are exhibiting the same symptoms and telling identical tales. Dr. Tyler lost her own husband to murder in mysterious circumstances some time before and before long she also is not immune to the collective phenomenon experienced by inhabitants of Nome. The filmed advents are spliced with the so-called ‘real’ footage (annoyingly at the same time), of patients undergoing hypnosis and recalling the assault by non-human intelligences.

What director Olatunde Osunsanmi has done here is essentially create two films … both of which are false. After a while the supposed real footage, audio and interview with the ‘authentic’ and skeletal  Dr Abigail by the director degenerate into far-fetched lunacy and any belief we might have had at the start is slowly eradicated into a celluloid extravaganza that more closely resembles Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows than anything else. There is no doubt everyone on board here is trying … Olatunde is using the mythology and folk-lore of real world abductions (all are experiencing the screen-memory of an Owl, a common cerebral-surrogate for fourth kind encounters), but doing so in a way that is glazed and ultimately a rip-off. Our intruders malign aspect is layered on like an evangelicals ramblings and then ramped up into realms we know are for the benefit of creating that titular Hollywood ‘jump’ moment.

There are a few positives that can be taken away: the washed-out and blue sepia world the director has chosen is perfect for encapsulating Alaska. Some of his techniques and high-camera angles show the initial stages of someone who might find a permanent home in the horror genre. On occasion the music and flash-back sequences can be quite disconcerting. Ultimately, however, Olatunde Osunsanmi has taken a fascinating theme ripe for dissection and turned it into Saturday night popcorn slush.  

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Different Masks

Wednesday 21st April.

Apologies for my overall silence in this realm and others. At its core, the real reason for this is the fact that there has been nothing overtly astonishing to say. There has been a bit of a lull on the HorrorScope front because – although a plethora of material is being read – too much of the material doesn’t quite fit under the HorrorScope banner … a publication devoted to the Australia’s dark literary underbelly.

After returning from a spiritual Retreat on the Gold Coast in February, I suddenly found myself on speaking terms with my long-suffering muse … enough so where he answered the phone occasionally, anyway. And this led to the start and completion of two shorts: one currently untitled that just sits under the heading: Situated Deep in the Woods. And a thirty page extravaganza about a subject I’ve wanted to write about for some time: Body Integrity Identity Disorder. An affliction that makes the sufferer feel the need to amputate otherwise perfectly healthy limbs and appendages. This has always fascinated me, and the build up and occlusion of plot-ideas for fiction are ripe. Countless possibilities present themselves (as the disorder branches off into many other sub-disorders), and after some substantial research (mostly for personal interest – I have no interest in boring a reader with particulars), and a junction of waking dreams and thought processes, I sat down to write. The end result is a working title Kitten Push Cushion and Teddy Bear Prongs. Which might sound almost juvenile … until readers are shoved in the face with the wet and disparate subject matter. Both stories I have in mind for Afterburn Sf, and I’ll be submitting when that particular publication is open again.

WorldCon is being held in Melbourne from September 2 – 6th. And although my piggy bank is low in regards to this I plan on going even if I have to hitch-hike, car-jack, or rob a financial institution. So I will be there no matter what … and it seems everybody else in the Speculative dominion will also be there. I’m very familiar with the guests of honor having read Kim Stanley Robinsons MARS quintet or whatever the hell it is when I was seventeen and really branching into the realms of science fiction after taking up post in horror’s apocalyptic wasteland for so long. Anyway, this is something very special and I am greatly looking forward to seeing not only Australian but international friends with whom I have developed long-standing internet relationships with …

There are a lot of other things to harp on about, so hopefully I can make these entries quite regular. I’m very grateful to all the authors, artists, guitarists and drummers that give me a reason to wake up in the morning. Without your images and words decorating the walls of my skull there would be almost no need to pull back my mummifying sheets every morning and go about life’s business …

Currently reading: Quake by Richard Laymon. You Come When I call You by Douglas Clegg and Night School by Bentley Little.

Pilgrims by William Elliot is coming to me from over the border – the perfect piece that falls under mire of Australian dark fiction to review for HorrorScope.