Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tucker's Grove by Kevin J Anderson




Over the years, much has been said and written about Kevin J Anderson. Although his name and countenance do not at present appear under the word ‘Prolific’ in any dictionary, I’m almost positive it does in some alternate universe. Or perhaps ‘workhorse’ is the more apt description we are looking for here. Whereas some writer’s are content to publish a novel a year, Kevin has adopted the more streamlined approach of releasing multiple well-received books over every twelve month cycle - each of them inhabiting different mythologies and platforms over a wide spectrum of genres. Part of this can be attributed to his eccentric yet genius ability to dictate stories while hiking in mountainous terrain (it obviously makes for productivity) – while another facet is sheer hard work ... not only composing the books, but infiltrating every aspect of the process: attending conventions, singing books, meeting fans, tutoring the up-and-coming, collaborating, editing anthologies, giving out blurbs, hosting awards, sitting panels, joining advisory councils ... and this isn’t everything. To say he deserves success is an understatement. Though he may have a history of inhabiting already established realms (Star Wars and Dune), I can attest Kevin’s own mythologies are every bit as intricate as those he uses as a playground.

First released in 2012 first as an eBook, Tucker’s Grove chronicles a group of interlocking stories centralised around the dark Midwestern town of Tucker’s Grove. Though sometimes the connection is loose, there is still enough cohesion overall to give the mythology a sense of continuity.

Bringing the Family.

Set in the days before Tucker’s Grove is fully established, Bringing the Family records the journey of Mr. Deakin and Clancy Tucker. After a tornado devastates his land, Mr. Deakin cannot refuse the work offered his way ... helping one Clancy Tucker escort his deceased parents by horse and cart across endless prairies in order to fulfil a promise. The only catch: a ritual of digging up the coffins each night and reburying them on a slow journey to Wisconsin. A bizarre obligation, but one he doesn’t question ... until the night Clancy passes out from whiskey and the sacrament isn’t performed. A tale that lays the ground work, Bringing the Family is a short, somewhat satirical stab that sees Kevin giving rise to zombies in a frontier setting.

Church Services

More in line with the dark fiction promised, Church Services gives us the story of Jerome Tucker - a preacher and carnival-tent exorcist in Wisconsin’s still uncharted lands. In possession of an ancient urn – or, more specifically, a demon jar capable of imprisoning spirits freshly expelled from human hosts, Jerome never thinks that he might be feeding the demons by containing them with his blood. Here, we have another tale that acts as fertilizer for the foundation of Tucker’s Grove, nourishing the soil with corruption for the generations to come.

Last Stand.

A snapshot of the American Indian War takes centre stage in Last Stand. Beleaguered and outnumbered by a tribe of Sioux Indians, a cut-off group of soldiers must resort to a depraved act for survival that sets off a chain reaction rooted in magic and myth. What I liked here was the unorthodox approach, interspersing the regular syntax of story with the journals and testimony of dead men.

Scarecrow Season. 

And now we come to present day Tucker’s Grove ... and a dying man impaled like a scarecrow on Elspeth’s Sandsbury’s farm. After discovering an alter devoted to dark gods, Elspeth sets about ensuring her crop yield is perpetually bountiful by making the obligatory blood sacrifices. Only her rituals aren’t quite what the Old Ones desire, and it will take a wayward traveller to educate her on the true meaning of what appeases them. More reminiscent of traditional horror in the market today, Church Services takes the familiar, the ordinary – and paints it black.

Though not every story presented in Tucker’s Grove, there are just enough slices here to give one a signpost of what to expect. As someone who grew up in small-town Wisconsin, this is Kevin Anderson tapping into a kind of homage ... paying respect to those stories that kept him awake (and sane), during a childhood halfway between Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates. While some of the syntax can be juvenile (and the stories laid out more at home between the pages of bygone pulp), we still get a seldom-seen glimpse of someone honing their skills, chipping away at the bedrock, and mastering a talent which would eventually give rise to one of the most gifted authors working today. 


Sunday, November 17, 2013

SLEEPER (S) by PAUL KANE




Paul Kane is a British author who has - by slow degrees - come to my attention through social media. Although not privy to reading his fiction before this, I was aware had Paul entered the collective tribe with numerous publications orbiting the Hellraiser mythos – in particular the well-received Hellbound Hearts anthology released in 2009 (of which Paul was a creative and driving force). Not only prolific in publishing circles, he seems to be an overall advocate for British horror across the globe. With Sleeper(s), Paul teams up with the burgeoning South African small press Crystal Lake Publishing to give us a short, cinematic novel heavily influenced by the epidemic sub-genre whose peak came with techno-thrillers such as The Andromeda Strain.      

Middletown UK, and an entire populace has been rendered unconscious by an enigmatic ‘sleeping’ disease that’s reminiscent of a plague. Consequently quarantined in the aftermath, the military enlists the help of Dr. Andrew Strauss ... an eccentric insomniac and a pioneer in the study of infectious diseases. Now a freelance maverick, Andrew travels the world with a (doting) assistant ready to tackle the next contagion. Though separated by a recent romantic tryst, both he and his partner are recalled as cavalry to the ghost town of Middletown, there to confront a virus that appears almost supernatural in origin. Accompanying the scientists are a motley crew of British and US soldiers – both of whom serve under different motives and clash in a melee of culture and warring personalities.

Sleeper (s) strengths:

Paul has created an ominous world around Middletown. Choosing what is almost a ‘slant’ on the saturated zombie genre – much as Stephen King did with Cell - the infected humanity here are refreshing and unpredictable creatures. Dormant to the environment and cocooned in a kind of white webbing secreted from their bodies, each ‘Sleeper’ appears to share a collective hive mind on a dreaming frequency that can also be accessed by the living. Shuffling around with malevolent intent, there is an old school flavour to these living dead that harkens back to tales prevalent in the past – where characters and their motivations come in black and white ... and the view through one’s imagination contains the same tone and imagery.

Sleeper (s) drawbacks:

However, part of the problem of drawing upon a bygone era is simply having a landscape that is overly too familiar. Earlier, I sighted The Andromeda Strain as an obvious inspiration ... but a reader here will also see shades of several X Files episodes and plot devices lifted directly from movies such as Inception and Outbreak. Although one could argue Mr. Kane has delved into this territory as a kind of homage to those groundbreaking genre tales, the characters in this book seem to bear no relation to living persons, and have instead been lifted as cardboard cut-outs from those celluloid adaptations. There is a strong romantic element here (the relationship between Strauss and his assistant), but their dialogue and private musings are sometimes rendered on the page like corny Hollywood discourse. When the climax comes – largely involving a confusing military cast – the scenes have a choppy, incoherent momentum that was evocative of the police-force/vigilante action sequences in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. (Original studio version). If I had one grievance with the overall syntax and ‘voice’ it would be a writing style slightly impoverished by a lack of metaphor.

That said, for readers who love the cross-pollination of science fiction and horror - and like it told in a gritty action style with military nuance – there is still a lot to like within these pages. Compact of length and cinematic in scope, Sleeper (s) contains just enough punch for this reviewer to seek out the further works of Paul Kane.   


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

GHOSTS IN A DESERT WORLD ON SALE TODAY


As you can see from the original manuscript, this is a collection that has been whittled down over time to encompass only the best prose and stories. 





For the first time in paperback, GHOSTS IN A DESERT WORLD on sale from Amazon now. 








Monday, October 21, 2013

The Last Night of October by Greg Chapman




It’s no secret I’m a fan of what Greg Chapman is doing here in Australia. Although his written works are still in an early developmental stage, he has proved himself quite the renaissance man by tackling the art world with pencil and brush stroke alike ... an endeavour that recently peaked with himself, Lisa Morton and Rocky Wood taking out top honours for superior achievement in a graphic-novel at this year’s Bram Stoker Awards. More than his list of accomplishments, however, is an individual who genuinely cares about his chosen fields. Earlier this year, Bad Moon Books saw fit to acquire his Halloween novella The Last Night of October. Featuring illustrations by the author himself, this is the sort of quick, deep and biting novella we’ve come to expect from Greg.  

Confined to a wheelchair, Gerald Forsyth is ill of health and in the twilight of his life. He has many concerns ... but chief among them is Halloween night. What he fears the most is not the exuberance of the annual holiday from a crotchety old man’s point of view. No, Gerald’s phobia is rooted in supernatural dread – for Halloween is the one evening of the year when a very special trick-or-treater comes knocking at his door  ... a boy from his childhood past who wants something from Gerald; perhaps atonement for past transgressions, perhaps his very soul. When a relief nurse of Gerald’s accidently lets the boy inside, the two of them hide within the house. And it’s here that Gerald must recount his story, not only to be relieved of the burden of his guilt but of the very tale itself.  

The premise is a simple one – reminiscent perhaps of Greg’s earlier novella The Noctuary. In that particular story, similar motifs were on display: childhood secrets, sins of the past, and present day retribution. Here, however, they have been infused with the glamour and cavalcade feel of Halloween. In regards to this, Greg’s descriptions have already earned approval from American audiences (it’s common knowledge that Halloween is not celebrated on Australian shores). The carnival feel is present and so is the nostalgia inherent in a young boy’s life – that time of adolescence when ones imagination is never riper and monsters take centre stage with love. As Gerald recounts his tale, a different sort of monster eventually takes centre stage, giving the author a chance to add even greater depth by treading the path of life’s choices and their consequences.  

However, this is not a book without some minute editing faults, and a reader may feel themselves taken aback when a phrase or word is sometimes repeated five or six times within a page or paragraph. An example of a sentence that could be easily adjusted:

His chest rattled and Gerald felt blockage within his chest.   

Though somewhat of a pet-peeve, I’ve always found repeated words to be a hindrance to coherent flow, giving the reader a self-conscious awareness they are actually reading a book. There is also a generous heaping of adverbs on display ... although the jury is still out with regards to their legitimacy overall in popular fiction. 

Small mishaps aside, this genuinely is a delightful book – one for all ages. Rich in a metaphorical writing style with an aside of aching nostalgia, The Last Night of October is Greg Chapman right at home and in his element. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

809 Jacob Street by Marty Young





In this particular stanza of a review, I will usually give a mini-lecture about the author under our microscope: how he or she fits into the landscape of dark fiction etcetera. For Australian Marty Young, I won’t go into too much technical detail – but suffice to say we have an author here who has been at the forefront of Australian horror for quite some time now ... and I don’t mean publishing (although he has been partaking of that also). No, Marty’s time has been devoted to the shadows; working tirelessly behind the scenes to build a community that was somewhat non-existent in its current incarnation less than a decade ago. By giving genesis to a small cabal that would ultimately become the Australian Horror Writers Association, Marty changed the landscape of Australian horror in perpetuity - providing starved writers here a much-needed voice on the world stage. And he did this, of course, while tinkering away on his own novels. When the small press Black Beacon Books sprang up a short time ago, it seemed like the perfect time for Marty to release his debut novel ... pairing him with a publisher who is well-versed in dark fiction and equally enthusiastic about the genre. 

809 Jacob Street introduces us to Joey Blue, a resident vagrant of Parkton. (Think Castle Rock or any other fictitious town in fiction). Joey is an old bluesman who wanders the borderlands of his town, never quite figuring out if he is actually alive or a ghost himself. Blotting out the past with heavy drink, Joey is paid a visit from an old friend who requires help - whose disappearance years ago is tied to the house on 809 Jacob Street ... a rambling old structure that has seen its fair share of death and stands like a testament to the ultimate haunted house. 

Across town we Byron James, a young Australian recently moved to Parktown. Adapting to small town life after Sydney is hard ... especially with his new friends Ian and Hamish – both of whom are into the macabre and have an overt obsession with the house on Jacob Street. After Byron’s personal research into the house’s past fails to yield sufficient information, a journal falls into his hands. And then, when Ian proposes a night journey to find out some answers for themselves, it seems like a perfect yet dangerous plan.  

Although aware of Marty’s work previous, I came into 809 Jacob Street almost completely cold and without the vaguest notion of what to expect. Sure, both of us have grown up on a rich and steady diet of Stephen King – but I wasn’t quite prepared for how accomplished this little novel turned out to be. Evoking those stories of old with his motley crew of kids (1980’s horror fiction), Marty gives the reader a subtle coming-of-age tale while also delivering cerebral prose that becomes almost narcotizing after a while. Here, there is a slow build of tension that is somewhat effortless ... as if 809 Jacob Street was a latter novel in the author’s resume. Also interspersed within the story are small, hallucinatory images from artist David Schembri that keep within the guidelines of subtle horror while complementing the prose. If this reader had one gripe with the tale as whole, it was having the author unceremoniously pull a character midway without the individual having any real influence or participation in the final act. Like a series of intersecting dominoes, the two-plot strands failed to align in a coherent manner – a small blight in an otherwise consummate tale of dark fiction. 

For both Black Beacon Books and Marty Young, the future looks bright.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

THE CHILDREN





Directed by Tom Shankland
Vertigo Films, Ghost House Underground


Evil, malign children as the focal for a horror premise. Let’s reel off just a few of them, shall we? There are outings such as The Exorcist and The Omen, of course – retro masterpieces that have stood their ground over the span of generations. Different incarnations of Village of The Damned and vintage classics like The Bad Seed. For modern audiences, there is the memorable performance by Gage Creed in Pet Sematary. And, in horror literature, Stephen King laid out some of the early foundations with Children of the Corn ...  a small, dark slice of rural Americana that has spawned an entirely unremarkable celluloid franchise. What all of this tells us, of course – is that little monsters in the genre are here to stay. When the most innocent of our creatures in the human tribe succumb to a malady of evil, wide-eyed disbelief is often tempered with guilty pleasure – for when children enact revenge on their oppressive adult overlords, it’s sometimes all too easy to root for them.

Released in 2008, The Children is a British horror film that found approval on its native shores but has largely gone under the radar. Here, the writers have taken a well-worn sub-genre (creepy kids), but found a relatively original plot for them to navigate around. Though an unexplained virus seems to be at the crux of the narrative, the story is lent strength by its isolated setting, domestic component, and a slow build of tension.

Snow is thick on the ground when Elaine and her family (husband Jonah, teenage daughter Casey, and two younger children) arrive to spend Christmas and New Years with her sister Chloe and her own extended family. It’s a picturesque occasion ... not only having relatives under one roof for the festive season but doing so in a country environment that is quintessentially British – a holiday of fire, hearth and snow. Laughter is prevalent, and the decorations have been hung. Soon, family members begin exhibiting strange symptoms: some of the children are vomiting and becoming listless; emo teenager Casey merely wants to escape. Random acts of playtime in the snow turn malicious with deliberate acts of sabotage intended to hurt the adults. Misbehaving children, crying children, and a general air of malaise (beyond the holiday norm) all culminate in a gruesome fatality: the demise of an adult in a contrivance that is anything but an accident. Although the authorities are alerted, the snow and isolation delay a response, giving the children more than enough time to form an unruly cabal ... and play the adults off to their ultimate demise.

Though the catalyst for the children’s decent into madness is never properly addressed, its very enigma makes their character motivations ultimately more appealing. With no rules or strictures, you never quite know what to expect or what palpable spooks lay in wait – a refreshing change from a decade of horror where ‘nothing we haven’t seen before’ becomes a ritual critique. By the mid-point, a lot of confusion abounds – not just for the terrified adults, but for the viewer who now has to contend with second-act filler: moody looks from our teenage emo, over-acting, and awkward dialogue. Fortunately these small, self-conscious scenes do not over-extend themselves, making headway into a third act that amps up the carnage and doesn’t overly censure itself.

Low on gore but still potent in atmosphere, music, and pacing - The Children is reminiscent of some of the more memorable films of the eighties – albeit with a far lower budget. (With all that snow, The Omen II certainly came to mind on more than one occasion). Performances from the children are mature, and overall the film stretches its rating by daring to splice them with uncensored savagery. The ending, when it comes, is one the finest elements here. Not a twist per se ... but more a final ‘coda’ that raises more questions than answers and leaves the door open for added mythology.



Tuesday, September 24, 2013

GHOSTS IN A DESERT WORLD AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK HALLOWEEN 2013




First released as an eBook in August 2011, my debut short story collection will be available (under the auspices of Hodgepodge Press) as a paperback Halloween 2013. Revised and updated, this incarnation features two new stories The GRIEF SCHOOL and the previously unpublished MUTABILITY OF THE FLESH.  

"The depth is there, the atmosphere is there, making this one of the best examples of this genre I've had the pleasure to read. This collection not only shows that the writer has the chops to go places, but that he should be there already."

-Daniel I Russell, author of Shadow Award nominated CRITIQUE

The comparisons between Tait and Lansdale come when you experience the dread that both manage to so easily create. Tait's stories put us in a world that could be just around the corner for any of us. The country road, the small town, the inevitable outcome of too much popular culture, and a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. The writing is competent and imaginative. The stories deliver and the blood just drips from every page.


-Paul Mannering, author of TANKBREAD 




Sunday, September 8, 2013

DARK MERIDIAN


Grab a free digital copy for a short time. 





Here: DARK MERIDIAN 


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem by Daniel I Russell




Over the years – in what I think is a natural evolution – this reviewer has become somewhat cynical a propos to the short story in the horror genre. ‘A quick kiss in the dark by a stranger’ Stephen King once described them – and although that is a fitting metaphor, I’ve always found their somewhat cryptic nature to be a hindrance to a rewarding experience. More often than not, a reader will go in completely cold, for there is seldom an accompanying description or blurb beyond a vague, only hinted at theme or illustration. Not only that, but their overall incoherence has caused me to routinely abandon plenty of them. Quotable prose and syntax notwithstanding, there have been many occasions where I’ve come away from the last sentence of a short story only to think: what the hell just happened in that story? And: Did any of that actually make a lick of sense?

Of course, there are many exceptions to the rule - and one writer I will always make time for is Australian author Daniel I Russell. After consistently proving he knows the formula for coherence over the extended length of a story, Daniel has finally accumulated together all in one volume the ‘bridgework’ stories that have catapulted him to where he sits now ... as an industrious workhorse in the field of horror and an individual who cares about all facets of the genre. Initially, this was a compilation I received in a protracted Word document – and although I enjoyed such ‘kisses in the dark’ within this format, I ultimately wanted the full experience of the published book – not only the heft and weight of its physical binding but the added extras of an introduction by Brett McBean and compelling end-notes on each story’s genesis by the author.

By the Banks of the Nabarra

A domestic tale revolving around the Australian ‘Bunyip’ – a mythological creature from Aboriginal folklore whose environs include billabongs, creeks, and waterholes. Here, an isolated rural family is terrorized by a stepfather patriarch. Fed up, the mother hatches a plan to dispose of the miscreant once and for all. But her plans are waylaid with the introduction of a beast who resides in the nearby lake.

Narratively speaking, this is a very straightforward horror premise ... but it’s ultimately made entertaining by the domestic component and Daniel tackling his first home grown Australian monster. One of the openers, By the Banks of Nabarra is characteristic of what lies in store for the reader: heavy, realistic dialogue and descriptive ‘gross-out’ horror that goes right for the jugular.

Disproportional

First person narration of romance that goes horribly awry. After her first husband walked out, lonely single mother Agnes has finally worked up the courage to ask a co-worker to her home for dinner. But first he has to meet her son ... a disproportional creature with unconventional appetites. What I liked here was the miniature in images – descriptions that are unexpected but don’t break a stories spell or give us a mini-lecture:

My house sits on top. When I drive up and see it there all alone, I always think it’s been naughty and sent to sit in the corner, away from all the cookie-cutter houses that like to behave.

It Comes But Once a Year

A somewhat Christmas story featuring a character from Daniel’s early novel Samhane. In his notes, the author talks about composing an ‘ejaculation story.’ Although I consider myself well versed in horror sub-genres and grew up reading Richard Laymon, I will admit to a certain non-exposure in this particular category. As you can imagine, the story features Christmas lights ... but comes with a side-dish of monsters, mayhem and seminal fluid.

Broken Bough   

Another domestic tale ... this one actually reminded me a little of Stephen King’s The Last Rung on the Ladder – at least in terms of the voice. Here, a zombie apocalypse has arrived, but the dead are merely background static to a couples isolation, depression, and misgivings. In a claustrophobic apartment, a baby that won’t stop crying is just more white noise, forcing our mother to be backed into a corner ... or perhaps a balcony. Broken Bough is the perfect example of heart contained within horror. 

Devolution  

My personal favorite and one that was composed for a short story slot (and set in the same universe) as Brett McBean’s jungle trilogy. It’s a miscellaneous cast – with our narrator being a New Yorker of middle-eastern decent in a tropical rain forest apocalypse. Sequestered on an island with a motley crew of varied misfits, it isn’t long before a Lord of the Flies mentality slips in ... and again I was reminded of King (in this instance The Mist), where a character with unstoppable charisma latches onto the good book and exploits it. As sides are chosen and division sets in, the value of belief will be learned for narrator and reader alike.


This is just a small snippet of the twenty-two tales contained within Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem – a vast funhouse of a collection encompassing everything from B grade horror schlock (Fluffs), to World War 2 melodrama (A Picture Tells and Following Orders). Of the cryptic nature I spoke of earlier, I will admit to finding some of that here, and occasionally I struggled to find a linear map contained within the story. All told, however, every positive facet of Daniel’s writing is put on display – chief among them the ring of exactness and truth he can give to dialogue. Above all, the short stories here represent a capstone to a segment of Daniel’s career ... each tale a snapshot of time from the life of a writer whose greatest work is yet to come. 


Friday, August 2, 2013

EXCISION






Through the annals of literature and film, dark humour - and black comedies in particular – have been hard to pigeonhole as they often tread a fine line around many genres. In literature, a book like Needful Things could certainly be construed as a black comedy – yet the novel contains a multitude of nightmarish scenes that to call it anything less than a horror novel would be a disservice to the book overall. In the movie media (where the term gallows humor is applied more liberally), the permission slip to laugh at morbidity is accomplished through outings such as the original Evil Dead trilogy. More often than not, however, it is the small independent film where this particular sub-genre burns the brightest.

Although containing elements of comedy and satire, Excision stands out as one of the darkest films I’ve encountered in years ... a Donnie Darko for the new decade.

A disturbed and colorless high-school student Pauline (AnnaLynne Mcord) has ambitions for a career in medicine (surgery in particular). Loathed by her idealistic peers, she sits awkwardly at the center of a modern family headed by an eccentric and overbearing mother Phyllis (Tracie Lords), a dying sister with cystic fibrosis, and a father who panders to the whims of his wife. While having features that hint at beauty, Pauline struts around with a simian gait espousing crude insights and able quips that ultimately isolate her from everyone. With a penchant for vivid dreams involving necrophilia, surgical procedures, and vivisection – Pauline is the very definition of misfit. Being a nonconformist aside, Pauline is still at the mercy of all teenage compulsions ... including the urge to lose her virginity. And so - after selecting a popular girl’s boyfriend to fulfil the function – she sets about a clinical seduction that eventually leads to a macabre union seldom seen on film.

Though slow at times, Excision is still layered with enough subtext, oddball camera angles, and small cameos to make the experience uniquely atypical. There is Pauline’s maths teacher (played tongue in cheek by veteran Malcolm McDowell); there is her archetypal teenage neighbour across the street who incessantly skips rope. But it’s the relationship with her mother that remains the crux of the narrative. Here, Tracie Lords has given us the performance of her mainstream career, eliciting sympathy and scoundrel in equal measure. Before, I compared this film somewhat to Donnie Darko – although no supernatural elements are involved, a viewer will still see vague parallels in the domestic dinner conversation of Pauline’s family ... snippets of dialogue that underscore the notion of pent up anxiety ready to implode under the thin veneer of plastic suburbia. More reminiscent, perhaps, are the themes and tones explored in both American Beauty and the original Carrie


Excision is the first feature film from writer/director Richard Bates – and here has produced a gem of an outing in all the ways that count: snappy dialogue, original performances, tight direction, and biting social satire. The path to gore is tread subtly at first ... but there are enough disturbing visuals overall to place this firmly in a particular horror category that is not easy to define. But be warned: bleakness and nihilism take centre stage, so please leave your optimism at the door.    


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

No One Lives






Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura has an impressive resume of film. Although I’m not overly familiar with the body of work that began his journey (outings such as Versus), I – like many others – stumbled upon this unique talent after being exposed to the genuine horrors of The Midnight Meat Train. With an arsenal of very Kitamura techniques at his disposal (stylish hyper-kinetic camera movement and offbeat angles, among others), we all watched in awe as he faithfully brought Clive Barker and his vision blazing into the new millennium. An adaptation that is now legendary for not getting the treatment it deserved – one wondered whether the overall experience had shattered Ryûhei somewhat. Would he still want to pursue such outlandish monsters in the aftermath? Or would he perhaps try to find a safer path to success? Thankfully the former was chosen, and with No One Lives our director has chosen a script from first time writer David Cohen that again raises the bar and gives us a lofty and unique perspective of horror.

Right off the bat, I was not impressed with the misleading advertising poster (it’s too evocative of the Hostel sequel years previous). Although there are a few facets of torture and clout here, No One Lives by no means falls within that sub-genre. That said, most aficionados are well aware of a studio’s attempts to hinder or negatively market a final product – so with that brief warning sticker attached we can proceed with the story at hand.

The journey begins as many others in the genre: in true slasher fashion, a young woman is stalked through suburban forest by an unknown assailant using sophisticated equipment. Before being apprehended, she leaves a cryptic message of her continued existence … bread crumbs for those in authority who may be looking for her. Scene two – and we have more familiar genre territory: a seemingly normal couple are negotiating the highways with some serious luggage in tow. The unnamed pair have made a decision to ‘relocate’ and begin a new existence. Although their motives are not clear, it appears our charismatic male is certainly the one at the controls of this adventure. When they stop off at an out-of-the-way motel to recharge, we are then treated to some cryptic dialogue that seems to raise more questions than answers. We do have some revelations at hand, however – and through cobbled together news stories have ascertained the missing young woman is the offspring of society’s elite. After finding her breadcrumbs intact, the call goes out to secure her freedom and life.

Switching gears, the audience is then introduced to a gang of modern thieves in the midst of a large scale mansion heist. Quicker than expected, it’s soon ascertained that pilfering and burglary are just some of the crimes this cabal entertains when the vacationing family unexpectedly show up. In the aftermath, the two factions cross paths in a small diner that sets off a chain of interlocking events that entails a major and unpredictable twist … a happening that simply cannot be revealed here. And although the couple find themselves the target of these outlaws, a killer emerges that will dwarf them all leading to a cat and mouse showdown in the thug’s lair where anybody is potential prey.

Without revealing this predator or the secret that’s loosed, I will say the rest of the film follows a steady enough formula of revelations and imaginative kill sequences. Holed in like rats, the criminal gang have finally met their match. Giddy with the twist – and by now relishing the outing – I was somewhat disappointed when various flaws began to appear … chief among them characters breaking the cardinal rule of an intelligent horror film: acting stupid. With a killer having already displayed near invincible prowess, that does not stop the injured and maimed trying to escape in the most foolhardy way possible – simply walking out the front door. It’s here, unfortunately, that the sophistication slips around the edges. Thankfully the second half is salvaged by key moments of flashback detailing our heroine’s plight – sequences that give rise to philosophic undertones and ask pertinent questions concerning evil and its motivations.

I know all this sounds outwardly confusing – like a mash-up of very different genres barely related to each other – but with all plot points revolving around the major twist, what looks messy on paper actually comes out sharp. Altogether, Ryûhei Kitamura has delivered a very unique and dark experience: an amalgamation of two disparate plot lines shoved together with enough force that the generated heat melds the elements. Recommended.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Purge





Despite a minuscule budget of only three million, The Purge received quite a lot of pre-release hype. Part of this – of course – is attributed to actor Ethan Hawke’s participation. (After the critical success of both Daybreakers and Sinister, Mr. Hawke seems to know how to pick them). Another element to the excitement is the intriguing and original premise: an amalgamation of horror and (not-too-distant) science fiction with the kind of plot that seems right at home within the pages of dystopian literature.  

It’s the year 2022, and the United States of America has found a way to curtail excessive crime and overpopulation. On one night every year (over a twelve hour period) all criminal activity is sanctioned ... including murder. Punishment is suspended and violence reigns supreme. This annual - and supposedly cathartic experience – has been aptly titled The Purge. Through news blips and media loops we quickly discover that despite the moral implications, The Purge is actually effective: for the remaining year misdemeanors remain almost non-existent. Apparently, the simple answer to humanity’s psychological tribulation is a united mental enema of depravity; an abandoning of all civilized behavior in favor of our ingrained base needs and ancestral animal instincts.

If all of this sounds a tad implausible, it is. However, in this particular instance I was happy to suspend all disbelief for the sake of entertainment.  While it would have been interesting to look at the worldwide effect of The Purge, writer/director James Demonaco has opted instead to take a close look at the domestic component – to put under the microscope one well-to-do American family and see what mayhem eschews. The Sandin family – an envy of their entire neighborhood – have everything they need to survive The Purge. James (Ethan Hawke) knows security intimately. After all, he sells it for a living. His wife Mary (Lena Headey – better known as Cersei from Game of Thrones), is effective at keeping both her American accent and family together. Teenage children Charlie and Zoey come with their own baggage: Charlie has major issues with The Purge, and his sister Zoey is fuming that her father won’t let her date an older boy from school. Soon night draws near and the shutters go up. When young Charlie succumbs to his warring empathy and opens up their house to a pursued homeless man, it isn't long before all hell breaks loose from numerous fronts. The homeless victim has escaped in the house, and his masked vigilante hunters (looking for all the world like The Stranger’s home invaders on steroids) have arrived on the front doorstep demanding their god-given American right to purge. It then falls to the entire Sandin clan to make a decision: do they succumb to the invaders ultimatum - thereby becoming no better than Purge participants – or do they fight to keep their ethics alive?

Notwithstanding a director at the helm who has worked with similar themes before (Assault on Precinct 13), The Purge still suffers from various flaws. The pacing – while lent strength with a rousing ‘heartbeat’ soundtrack – never seems to attain the lofty heights we originally envisioned and developments become stalled as the audience guesses hurdle after hurdle. Although our masked adversary is decidedly creepy at times espousing patriotic rhetoric and generally giving off an ‘American Psycho’ kind of vibe, his predictable bedlam comes far too late in the film and is ultimately ineffective.


All told, The Purge is still an above average thriller containing just enough claustrophobic moments and subtle action sequences to put it on the map. With Universal already giving the follow up a green light, one can hope that future writer’s take heed of the wonky philosophic undertones and give more credence to The Purge’s attractive concept.  




Thursday, June 20, 2013

Film Review - Chained






From the somewhat vague synopsis provided by other media, a viewer may garner the opinion Chained might be something akin to a (low budget) gritty urban thriller along the lines of Michael Mann’s Collateral. However, such notions are quickly dispelled as we bear witness to a terrified adolescent male rummaging through a box containing female identification cards. When a doorbell suddenly rings and the child looks up fraught, it doesn’t take a sleuth to ascertain a serial killer is about to enter the fray. Enter he does, and soon we have reached the garish conclusion that Chained will rapidly descend into the most taboo strictures of film-making – that any allusions of a crime/thriller are wholly discarded as the child cowers in fear and the screams of a new victim are heralded through the walls. Who is this child? And how did he come to be in such depraved circumstances?  

Cut to eight weeks earlier and Tim (our future captive), is taking in a movie with his mother. Afterward – and at the behest of his father – both mother and son enter a cab and make for home. But the mundane ride home takes macabre twist when taxi-cab driver Bob - a mentally unstable killer played by Vincent D’Onofrio – decides to make little Tim’s mother his next unwitting victim. Forced to endure Bob’s depravity up close and personal, Tim is suddenly orphaned and in the lair of a maniac. Our killer, having done his deed, sees the presence of the child as a new-found opportunity. Does he use little Tim as a mere slave to help him in his daily carnage? Or does he decide to do something even more sinister ... to mould Tim like clay in his image - to make the boy a protégé out of untarnished innocence and teach him the art of death...

It’s an original premise, and before going any further we must shine the spotlight on the director: Jennifer Chambers Lynch – a surname synonymous with surrealist filmmaking. After the debacle of her debut Boxing Helena (an outing this reviewer never saw but knew of), Jennifer fled the broad audience and delved into more minor pursuits ... reminiscent, perhaps, of her father David Lynch. While Chained reflects nothing of David’s unique – some would say Lynchian - cinematic style, it is still imbued with enough disturbing and violent moments to warrant a small comparison. Shot in a mere fourteen day period, Jennifer’s technique is domestic, claustrophobic, and all too real. With only two central characters, this is the sort of get-under-your-skin creepiness that leaves a lasting impression. 

Fast forward to many years later and little Timmy is all grown up. Now resembling a gaunt rock star, mentor Bob continues his slow methodology of indoctrination. Given the dehumanizing nickname of ‘Rabbit’, our padawan-in-training still retains his adolescent conscience and mild mannered innocence. Rewarded accordingly – and metered out with punishment in the same the same token – little Rabbit tries to find a subtle chink in Bob’s armour ... a monumental task given that Bob - living in rural isolation and anonymity - has perfected his killing art.

To call this film ‘unrelenting’ is an understatement – and it’s outings like Chained that reinforce something the collective horror tribe has always known: that you do not need a monumental budget or prestigious studio backing to create an indie masterpiece. The only flaw – and with a second viewing I had grave doubts it was a flaw – was a shocking ‘twist’ ending that’s an almost unnecessary addition. It’s a small blemish, because the rest of the film is faultless in almost every department. Here, Jennifer Lynch translates our real-world horrors with a skill and dexterity seldom seen - and we can only hope this talented director decides to call horror her home.



Monday, June 3, 2013

DARK MERIDIAN OUT IN PAPERBACK




It's finally here - the first of a trilogy. Get your copy in paperback and ebook: Dark Meridian

The story continues in OLEARIA (2014) and THE HOPE OF KINFOLD. (2015). 

"Inventive and suspenseful, Dark Meridian is a story of epic proportions, told in Tait's distinctive, genre blending style."

-Tracie McBride, author of Ghosts Can Bleed

Friday, May 24, 2013

DARK MERIDIAN


If you're going to take one journey with me, I urge you to take this one ... 




Thursday, May 23, 2013

MANIAC







Maniac (2013)
La Petite Reine and Studio 37
Directed by Franck Khalfoun


I have a confession to make: as a horror aficionado for most of my remembered life I am at pains to divulge the sad fact that I have never viewed the original 1980’s slasher Maniac. Of course, I can summon the VHS video cover in my mind with vivid recollection (almost as gaudily as I remember the poster for David Cronenberg’s first film Rabid) - and yet for some obscure reason that eludes me I’ve never sat down and watched the film. Now, many years later as a grown adult I have been given that opportunity twofold: too not only immerse myself in Franck Kahalfoun’s astonishing new remake - but to take a nostalgic trip back in time to the 1980s that I should have taken years ago as a genre novice.

One thing needs to be stated immediately: this modern retelling of Maniac is shot almost entirely from Frank Zito’s POV ... you will see and hear Elijah Wood talking – you will watch his hand gestures and reflection in the mirror – but watching this film is like being at the controls of a macabre and voyeuristic video game. As a participating viewer, your first instinct is to recoil (do we really need an intimate view of up close and personal carnage?) However, one slowly acclimatizes after realizing this unique perspective is the most intriguing thing about the film. Not only is it a monumental achievement from a technical standpoint – but as a collective audience, we delve into a characters motivations through feeling and hearing ... a challenge that has not been hitherto attempted (to the best of my knowledge) in filmmaking before.

Just in case we forget what territory we’re in, the opening is classic slasher: the prey has been spotted and we can hear heavy breathing from a stalkers outlook, bringing to mind an adolescent Michael Myers about to visit one of his siblings. Some credits roll, and a musical score that is unmistakably 1980s comes into the fray ... a deft touch that pays considerable homage to its predecessor. After Frank’s first victim has been dispatched and scalped (a secret I don’t think I’m giving away), we are then escorted back to his mannequin-adorned lair – a dummy shop bequeathed by his promiscuous mother many years before. Although our retro music is still playing, Frank is soon web surfing internet dating sites, discovering in his hunting a smorgasbord of potential scalps to bring home and place atop his bald mannequins.

Nestled at the heart of the chase is Frank’s mental illness; his migraines and panic attacks; his overall malaise as though two separate individuals are competing for domination. There are also the Norman Bates mommy issues. As an actor, there is no doubt that Elijah Wood is a preconceived good guy - but here he pulls off the warring duality effortlessly ... almost with the same amount of creative pizzazz that a creature named Gollum once attained. With his previous foray into a dark psyche with Sin City, Elijah continues to step out of his comfort zone and challenge perceptions. Overall, I think this modern incarnation would be much impoverished without his casting.

Eager to share his mannequins (the regular art, away from fly-blown and decaying scalps), Frank comes into contact with French photographer Nora – a beautiful and savant young artist eager to collaborate and share her wares. It’s a different kind of relationship, one that could almost spell salvation for Frank. Almost. As the impending climax reaches a steady cohesion - one that will see a close friend of Nora’s hog-tied and butchered for her hide - Frank then becomes Nora’s unwitting counsellor, but cannot hold back his second self. It’s a final showdown, a gory splatterfest that takes place in bleak and deserted suburbia.   

All of which is saying that none of this is for the faint of heart. Maniac – although a triumph in terms of a remake – is still peppered with enough disturbing moments to make one ruminate about the legitimacy of the slasher sub-genre in general. Fans of the original will be subtly appeased – after viewing the 1980 version not long after, I did notice more than a few artistic nods to William Lustig’s first film. And although I found that version to be somewhat lacklustre and sluggish, there are more than enough epic moments in this new reimagining to satisfy all and any devotees.

In reviews, the phrase ‘highly recommended’ is thrown around all too often. But if it’s applicable to any editorial perspective, I’m going to say that particular idiom is suited to Maniac more than any other film I’ve seen this year. 


Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Pact






The Pact – Film Review (2012)
IFC Midnight
Directed by Nicholas McCarthy



When seeking out rare gems – in this particular reviewer’s case independent horror films with a slice of sophistication – one never knows what a mixed bag they will find. With sometimes little to no information permeating the ether (and online rating systems seldom giving up their secrets), the hit or miss ratio can be much-maligned or something celebrated. In my personal opinion, a films overall anonymity is something to be lauded; its mere ambiguity can guarantee it a proper audience away from the rhetoric of others. The Pact (2012) is one such outing ... a small sleeper of quiet horror that far exceeded any expectations I may have garnered from it.

Two sisters lie at the heart of this tale after their abusive mother has passed away. Back in her childhood home and putting final touches on the funeral, Nicole calls Annie in an attempt to have her sister present for the occasion. With memories of mistreatment still sharp, Nicole initially refuses ... but makes the jaunt down anyway after Nicole seemingly vanishes from the face of the earth. Once returned, it isn’t long before Annie begins to feel the first supernatural overtones (smashed photographs and moved objects, among other things), leading her to believe Nicole’s disappearance is somehow related to the house or a presence within it. Soon after her cousin Liz succumbs to the same fate, and the audience is then treated to sublime poltergeist activity with Annie at the heart of the melee. Distraught, she flees to the local police – only to have her story rebuked. Returning to the house with a local officer and seeking revelation, Annie soon learns that her sister and cousin – although lost - could be a lot closer than anybody realizes...

Earlier I mentioned The Pact was ‘quiet’ horror – and it’s a more than adequate word to describe this film. Choosing slow moving interior shots of a suburban house, director Nicholas McCarthy gives the audience an ominous impression of the mundane by transforming simple things like a small closet space into a place of dread. The musical score is heated and tense (silent when it needs to be), but ratcheted up with rusty violins and subtle piano during moments of suspense. There are some introductions early on - an example would be a jaded cop entering the picture – where as viewers we anticipate a slide into the formulaic ... but hidden around every corner is a small surprise, almost like the chapters of a novella. A tight celluloid experience notwithstanding, one cannot help but wonder how such a tale would fare within the confines of a book. For all its dark ambition, the plot structure still feels like something lifted from literature.

During the course of Annie’s sleuthing (an investigation that includes consulting a blind psychic), our young Gillian Anderson look-a-like comes to learn of a hidden room in the heart of her childhood home. It is here that the story reaches a hybrid of real world horror sparring with the supernatural in perfect duality. There is an amiable twist – one that I didn’t see coming – and a balanced quota of restrained jump moments that are effective without going overboard. With her cell phone pinpointing strange locations and photographs of dead women pointing the way, Annie soon learns of a serial killer known simply as ‘Judas’. Like the hidden room in her house, this enigmatic figure is much closer than she can possibly realize ... a redemptive secret hidden in plain sight.

I know there are many out there who would construe The Pact as being somewhat unremarkable; however, with budget limitations and no major theatrical release this was never going to get the attention it deserved. With tight performances, stylish direction techniques, and imagery that is short-lived but containing unadulterated horror, The Pact will eventually go down as a small classic in the genres independent pantheon.

Note: Due to The Pact’s success, a sequel has been announced. Unfortunately the original writer and director will not be at the helm.



Friday, May 10, 2013

The End of Ever by Troy Barnes






Many years ago I composed a review for the Australian writer Will Elliot – who, having astonished readers worldwide with his debut novel The Pilo Family Circus – had now released his sophomore effort, the first book in a fantasy trilogy entitled Pilgrims. Parts of the review read:

I think there comes a time in the speculative writer’s life where they think: now is the time to do my ‘otherworld’ book. Be it another realm, dimension, or simply ‘world’ that sits adjacent to this one – it seems ingrained that this accomplished to serve as a kind of Magnum Opus or literary Jupiter to dwarf all other works in the writer’s pantheon.  

As the author of two previous full-length novels, Troy Barnes has decided to largely shift gears and tackle the aforementioned above – to bring a motley cast of characters from our own familiar world and transport them kicking and screaming into an invented one. It’s an ambitious task – especially within the confines of a stand-alone alone novel. There is an arrangement of a mythology to set up; but not only that – the writer must play by its rules and keep them check.

Although no central protagonist opens this tale, this seems to be the story of young Zach. After a night of revelry with his friends: Rayne, Shaun, Amy, and Taylor retire at home together. Upon waking not only do these individuals find themselves in a different world – their entire house has been transported with them to the edge of a cliff. At first this land is somewhat mundane ... it could be an exotic region of earth. But as they make their way down the mountain they find a bleak austerity to the realm devoid of life but potent in its nullity. Soon, it isn’t long before the landscape begins to feel like the afterlife ... one more akin to Hell.

Troy’s prose is simple yet steady. Holding its own you can see the hallmarks of other writers that the author may not necessarily read now ... but instead grew up with. There’s an undeniable Australian/world dichotomy – one that is refreshingly welcome. But there is also a level of the juvenile (not uncommon with only a third book), and pages riddled with adverbs that the editor should have scalped away clean. Divided up into short and choppy chapters heralded into steady parts ... it’s a technique that ultimately pays dividends over the course of nearly 400 pages. In short, it keeps you turning them.

This is the world of Ever - a world a little reminiscent, perhaps, of King’s Mid-World in its particulars. Carnage comes very quickly, and you wonder how many will be left by the mid-point. In their wanderings, the intrepid group are joined by the amiable darkling Titch, a kind of elfin half-breed whose race were decimated decades previous. Titch then becomes central to the story as the group encounter soul-feeding Gremlins and a town entirely inhabited by a wicked band of men I’ve seldom encountered in fiction before. It’s a well mapped and thought out world – you can tell Troy knows it well. But if I could lament one thing it would be its ultimate lack of colour: as the group travel down the road known as the Shadow Line we get the sense that more monsters are required on this journey.

Overall, this is a book I enjoyed my time with. Although you’ll find nothing overtly new in the inventions, I found the characters to be its central sticking point. Other writers would do well to follow Troy’s example here – he’s taken his crew and given them such well rounded life you’ll feel an intimate connection. And taken as a whole, it far exceeds his previous two novels. When you have a novelist who is only improving with each successive stroke of the pen, you have a novelist you can ultimately invest in.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

DARK MERIDIAN BY MATTHEW TAIT




A first look at the cover for my upcoming novel DARK MERIDIAN.