Monday, July 7, 2014

Different Masks: A Decade in the Dark




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

Matthew Tait, July 2014.
 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Severance





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


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

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

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

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




Friday, June 6, 2014

Hoffman's Creeper and other Disturbing Tales






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

The Ritual.

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

Kangaroo Point.

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

Hoffman’s Creeper

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

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

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



 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Babadook




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

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

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

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

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


Monday, May 12, 2014

CREEP







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


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


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

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


Friday, May 2, 2014

Devil's Due






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

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

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

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

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




Thursday, April 3, 2014

DAVEY RIBBON RELEASE DATE




April 27th 2014 will be the official release day for DAVEY RIBBON in both paperback and ebook formats. Come along and join the official facebook launch day.

"Just like his ghostly character, Davey Ribbon, author Matthew Tait latches on with haunting prose that doesn’t let go until the very end.” – Greg Chapman, author of 'The Noctuary' and 'The Last Night of October'

"Matthew Tait invites us to visit Cyclone Cove, a coastal community whose bizarre inhabitants and creepy landmarks have all crept out of the author's gothic imagination. This story reads like a macabre fairy-tale. And yet somehow, it manages to ring true, giving you that creeping feeling that it could all be real - that Cyclone Cove could be just down the road from your town." - Cameron Trost, owner of Black Beacon Books and author of 'Hoffman's Creeper and Other Disturbing Tales'


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Open Grave






There is an old school plot device that works very well: protagonist wakes up in the aftermath of a serious crime with no memory of how they arrived in said predicament ... and sometimes cannot recall their very identity. It sets up an interesting chain of events: is the newly awakened person a victim of the crime or its perpetrator? Will they recall their identity in a blaze of revelation or will recollection take place over the course of the story? 

Such is the case in the opening frames of Open Grave... a brutal and harrowing scene involving District 9’s Shartlo Copley awakening in a wilderness pit chock full of dead bodies in various stages of decay. Above, a storm is raging – and our main man does not recall who he is or how he arrived. After escaping the soon-to-be-ossuary, the John Doe comes into even more mystery: a mansion full of five other occupants (a mute girl, a German and three other Americans) – all of whom are just as ignorant. Though each individual discovers an identification card, trust levels are frayed to nonexistent and the group will duel in a desperate game to piece together the enigma. 

And the enigma? In addition to the charnel pit, the entire backwoods property is surrounded by human beings in the throes of rigor mortis – some of them stapled to trees with barbed-wire, others perishing by additional agonies. And during it all, our strangers are slowly recalling in flashback and snippets what came before: a viral outbreak of some kind? Were medical experiments being performed on the compound? Were they friend or foe to each other? This is the second act – and it is here the accomplished traits of all involved begin to shine: superb direction, masterful editing, and a chilling, appropriate score. Though Shartlo Copley’s South African accent tries to bleed in at times, he still manages to hold his ground for the most part and give a performance where it’s hard to envisage anybody else taking the lead.   

Despite a somewhat slow build up to the finale, we have here a refreshingly original set-up. It’s bleak (the tone gaudy and liquorice stained) and it’s suspenseful. Most of all it is leagues ahead of director Gonzalo López-Gallego’s previous Hollywood effort Apollo 18. With Gonzalo now setting up an impressive shop in the science fiction and horror genres, the only crime here was Open Grave receiving little to no theatrical release.  


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Bring Jasper Bark to Justice Blog Tour







A few short weeks back Jasper Bark burst into this reviewer’s consciousness with a little novella entitled Stuck On You. To say that it was an utterly disconcerting story is an understatement – but it’s also the grandest compliment I can espouse. For all too often we are spoon fed horror of the modicum, horror of the banal, and because there is nothing else in the merchandise window we give it faint praise. Since reading Stuck On You, more of the man behind those words has emerged. And though we have here a writer who composes seemingly without conscience, we also have an intelligent and humorous individual who cares about his chosen genre and works hard behind the scenes for the collective tribe. So sit back, relax, and hear some of what Jasper has to say.


Do you plot your stories or does it just unfold before your eyes?

If I’m honest, it’s a little of both. I usually spend a lot of time plotting in advance but sometimes a story gets impatient with me and tells me to just sit down and write the damn thing. Even when I’ve plotted something quite tightly the story will often surprise me by taking unexpected turns. There is always a journey of discovery as you uncover the first draft, even if you think you know where you’re going. One of my favourite jokes goes: ‘Q: How do you make God laugh? A: Tell Him your plans.’ Bearing that in mind, I suspect you would probably have your novel in uncontrollable fits of giggles if you were to show it your chapter breakdowns.

Have you ever written something so truly, deeply frightening that you scared yourself?

If you’re going to successfully scare your readers you need to be able to scare yourself. You need to probe those parts of your psyche that you’re normally too afraid to explore. You have to confront those irrational impulses and deep seated phobias, that fester away under the skin of your mind like an abscess, and use your fiction like a scalpel to lance them and bleed off the poison. If it works for you, it will work for a fair number of your readers.

One story that did deeply disturb me was How The Dark Bleeds. The idea for the story originally manifested in a graphic novel I was pitching to an American publisher. One of the subplots contained a concept that increasingly unnerved and disturbed me. It grabbed hold of the darker side of my imagination and tortured it incessantly, until I was both in love with and terrified of the concept all at once. I had never seen this idea anywhere before and I knew I had to write about it. The only problem was, as amazing as this concept was, the graphic novel I was pitching was better off without it. So it was with great reluctance that I took it out.

At around the same time I was stuck for an idea for the short story I was contracted to write for the anthology For the Night is Dark. Well not so much stuck, I had plenty of ideas, it’s just that none of them were as good as I thought they ought to be. The pay for writing short stories is frankly lousy, so I always figure that, if I’m going to go to the trouble of writing one, it better be something I really want to write.

Then I remembered the concept that enthralled and unsettled me, the one I’d put in the bottom drawer. If anything, it had grown stronger since I’d dropped it into fictional suspended animation. I found it had been waiting for me and it wanted to take me to places far darker than my fiction had ever been before. It forced me to confront and record the taboos I’d previously shied away from and  to enter those territories I’d always thought of as ‘off limits’ - even as a horror writer.

The experience of writing this story was both exhilarating and excruciating. There were several moments during its composition when I wondered not only if I wanted to finish it, but whether or not I wanted to write another piece of horror fiction as long as I lived. Ultimately, I did live to tell this tale and I will certainly tell others.

With hindsight, I’m glad that I did. The story turned out really well. It scared my publisher and made my editor queasy. It’s going to be collected in Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts the short story collection I have coming out in June from Crystal Lake Publishing.

Do you think horror has a purpose, above giving people a comfortable, entertaining scare?

I really do believe it has. In my opinion the best horror stories use the weird and other-worldly as a metaphor for a deeper or more personal truth. I also think that the world is quite a scary place at the moment and because of this the tropes and motifs of horror are some of the best ways of addressing the contemporary world. A lot of the horror writers coming up at the moment seem to be interested in social commentary in the same way that the New Wave and the early Cyberpunk writers previously used science fiction as a vehicle for social comment.



Stuck on You:


What were you thinking when you took an urban legend and turned it into a delightfully twisted story called Stuck on You?

Mostly - “Gee, I bet this will make ’em toss their cookies” I wasn’t actually sure it was an urban legend when I stumbled across it on an obscure forum while researching something else. The person posting it seemed to think it was a true story. In fact the tale first appeared on the Darwin Awards site, which is devoted to deaths that are so dumb the victim is given an award for not muddying the human gene pool with their decided lack of smarts. So there’s some debate as to whether it actually happened or not (my guess is definitely NOT).

It was one of those little snippets of information that stuck to the seamy underbelly of my imagination and wouldn’t let go until I wrote a story to get rid of it. Taking the Piss, another story that’s collected in the forthcoming collection: Stuck on You and Other Prime Cuts, was just the same. It was inspired by something hideous I read about that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I sometimes create stories as little traps for the vile and hideous notions that infest my psyche, so I can be done with them and pass them onto my unwary readers. Think of it as a public service.

Stuck on You goes to some pretty extreme places, did you ever worry that you were going too far?

All the time. The fear for a writer working on something like Stuck On You is that you’re going to lose half your readership. That what your describing is going to gross them out so much they’ll throw the story down in disgust. So I would try and slowly ease the reader into each new incident that befalls the main character Ricardo. I would build to a gross climax then scale it back a bit. The thing about the story is that just when you think it’s gotten as low as it can go I’ll find a new depth to plumb, but you have to let up a bit in between. The intense levels of eroticism helps with this as did the black humour. Many readers have said they squirmed while reading it, or felt sick, but most have also said they laughed too, which is good because there is a strong element of slapstick in the story.

Why should people read Stuck On You?


Because it’s the sickest, filthiest and most inexcusable thing you’ll read all year. If you think you’ve read everything in horror think again this will take you to an all time low. It’s the ultimate guilty pleasure, the sort of book you have to read with one hand free, partly to hide behind and partly to do other things with.

And there you go. Everything I said about the man is true. However, if you don’t believe me below is an entertaining clip where you can meet the man yourself:

Way of the Barefoot Zombie

And to learn more about this upcoming release, please visit:

Crystal Lake Publishing



Sunday, March 23, 2014

Banshee Chapter







During the cold war, an intelligence branch of the United States government known as the CIA became heavily engaged in programs dedicated to mind and thought control – the largest of which is now universally known MKUltra.
In this secret project, the US government used normal citizens – habitually without the individuals consent – to test a wide range of psychotropic drugs ... in particular LSD. Though the authoritarian experiments here were frightening enough in and of themselves, even more alarming is the never documented human cost: the men and woman who vanished into the ether suffering psychosis, delusions, insanity, and everything in between. Just what stories will the general public never know? What waking visions and nightmares were some of these people privy to?  

With such a rich store of historical data here up for grabs, it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to mine it fictitiously on celluloid. Not only has first time director Blair Erikson done just that, he has taken the above elements and fused them with a score of other motif’s including HP Lovecraft (in particular his story The Beyond), experimental radio broadcasting, and real life characters fictionalized for the purpose of storytelling. On paper this seems like a heady mix – one that could ultimately implode. But Banshee Chapter comes equipped with just enough unique sophistication and snatches of brilliance that at times the viewer will be left reeling.

Make no mistake; this is a ‘footage’ film. But ‘found footage’ has, thankfully, been left off the menu. What we have instead is a kind of a hybrid excursion inter-spliced with genuinely creepy stock recordings of real and fictionalized MKULtra experiments.

Present day, and James Hirsch has decided to take an old school MKULtra concoction himself ... and film proceedings. With his friend at the camera’s helm, it isn’t long before a sinister radio-broadcast takes up a chorus – along with an all pervading malaise that something altogether alien is just outside the door and homing in on James’s thoughts. After James’s mysterious disappearance, it then falls to his old college friend Anne to pick up the pieces. A present day reporter, Anne remains at the crux of the narrative – guided by a desire not only to find James but to unravel some of the evidence acquired.

And it’s this evidence that leads her to counter culture writer Thomas Blackburn – a fictitious rendering of author Hunter S Thompson. Though at first Blackburn’s character feels somewhat unnecessary – if only because of the real life writer’s ardent worship – a viewer will slowly acclimatize: Hunter S Thompson, for all his eccentricity, was a man deeply rooted in the milieu on offer in Banshee Chapter: CIA investigations, hippy subculture, and a deep seeded paranoia of authority. After ingesting the drug herself, Thomas and Anne are led on a pursuit for answers ... a chase where monsters from another realm are always peeking just around the corner.

While some might be turned off by the low budget, we have at our core here a film made with great care. Not only are jump scares prevalent, but there is a whole elusive quality to proceedings that was such a pertinent part of Lovecraft’s work. The monsters – though intangible – haunt the narrative through subtle images and a radio broadcast that will preoccupy your dreams. Throw in the ‘true life factor’ and we have a film that will eventually go on to become a cult classic.           

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

DAVEY RIBBON


This is the final artwork for my forthcoming novel from HodgePodge Press, DAVEY RIBBON. Available in both eBook and Paperback formats soon. 




Sunday, February 16, 2014

Stuck On You by Jasper Bark




Crystal Lake Publishing is a small South African outfit that has (in a very short period of time) established themselves at the forefront of timely and quality dark fiction. With a still-building resume that includes authors such as Gary McMahon and Daniel I Russell, I was more than happy to peruse a small novelette by one Jasper Bark ... a writer who has escaped my attention until now. Initially, I was informed that Stuck On You was ‘A twisted erotic horror tale, not for the faint at heart.’ Fair enough. But all too often I see these kinds of descriptions flaunted in a myriad of genres, so I had no pre-conceived expectations that this was indeed the case.

What I didn’t expect was the publisher’s description to be almost self-deprecating.

For Stuck On You is one of the most harrowing and entertaining pieces of dark fiction any of you are likely to encounter.

First of all, this isn’t the kind of story where one requires a blurb. For this reviewer personally, going in completely blind added to the overall dark surprise. However, for the purpose of any pre-release appraisal, the bare bones need to be laid out. (Though if surprises are what you seek in the shorter form, I believe you can skip this next part without missing a beat).

Ricardo is over the border in Mexico on a buying trip for his artisan-trader wife. On the return journey, he meets Consuela – a drug mule seductress who requests his help making her own border jaunt. Before setting-up the illicit drop, Ricardo and Consuela decide to consummate their taboo tryst in a forest ... a forest inhabited by nothing but black bears and an incoming storm.

Without giving away the crux of the narrative, this is really all the fundamentals one needs. Suffice to say in a very brief stanza of prose Jasper gives us intense eroticism, gore, and a medical affliction seldom (if ever) tackled in the annals of fiction before. Within each small chapter, horror is piled upon horror ...  so that just when you feel safe again Jasper decides to throw on yet another dark layer to the maelstrom. The writing – brutal and unapologetic at times – is also competent. And hovering under the surface is always a welcome modicum of droll humor.


Stuck On You will soon be available as a stand-alone eBook novelette in late March. Two months later, Crystal Lake Publishing will present Jasper Bark’s Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts – an entire collection of similar themed stories available in both paperback and eBook. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Would You Rather






When reviewing dark celluloid I’m always trying to find those accomplished gems that may have slipped through the cracks of the collective consciousness: films with small budgets but come equipped with a generous helping of sophistication that lifts it above current contemporaries. Without any long winded preamble, Would You Rather hits this sweet spot in almost every regard. Reminiscent, perhaps, of a domestic Hell House (with a smattering of torture porn), the story itself falls more into line with dark fiction. Though we may feel somewhat familiar with the plot, the allure of a simple ‘deal with the devil’ is no less tangible for that.

After moving back home to help leukaemia stricken Brother Raleigh, Iris finds herself in a world of mounting medical bills and debt. Enter a philanthropic snake-oil salesman aristocrat (Shepard Lambrick), who offers her an eccentric deal: participate in a one-night-only game under the guise of a dinner party. Though Iris remains ignorant of the game’s strictures, the offer itself is simply too good to refuse. For the winner, there will be untold wealth at the hands of the Lambrick Foundation. For the loser ... death. 

And so the party begins. Joining Iris at the table on this night is a motley crew of flawed individuals, each with their own desperate need for being present. There’s Conway (John Heard), a recovering alcoholic who already has conspiracy theories regarding the Lambrick Foundation. There’s Linda, the elderly wheelchair bound paraplegic. Travis, an Iraq war veteran; Amy, the mute Goth. And rounding out the festivities are both Cal and Lucas. Finally seated – and ignorant of the ultimate rules – Shepard Lambrick joins the party as master of ceremonies. Dinner is served, and it isn’t long before each character’s fearful idiosyncrasies are revealed: for Iris, it’s being a vegetarian. For Conway, the booze. After noticing their individual predicaments, Shepard offers them cash in exchange for a glimpse of the beast. That is, partake of their abhorred behaviours. Of course, this is where we are reminded of Would You Rather’s foundations - short stories like Clive Barker’s Dread and the entire SAW franchise. Except in this case there are no epiphanies waiting for the contestants at the end ... only one winner who will earn the promised prize money. 

With the first part of the game concluded, the real round begins – which is a macabre version of Would You Rather. Overseeing the party game is Bevans, a suited-up Butler from the old school who dispenses electric shocks, whippings, and near-drownings in case the contestants become unruly or do not follow through with their end of the bargain. Perhaps this is the philosophical element of the movie, where human choices are explored under duress: would you rather stab the contestant next to you or suffer the same fate twofold? Would you rather endure a whipping or extol your own? And always in the background is the carrot at the end of the stick: your personal malady cured. Or, as in Iris’s case, medical treatment for a brother if she can just make through to the next round.  

Taken as a whole Would You Rather falls into an interesting paradigm: on one hand it could have been so much better ... on the other it could have been so much worse. What we have instead is a film that slides beautifully into the middle. Thankfully, not all the action takes place at our tortuous party, with a single plot strand involving Iris’s doctor (as a would-be savoir), working as a side-dish to the main action. Though it’s a small supporting part, there are just enough layers here to keep a viewer happily moving from each scene to the next. If there was one glaring gripe, however, it’s an almost total lack of character development with Iris’s fellow contestants. While some are quiet, all are equally mysterious and do not give up their secrets easily. To remedy this, perchance it would be conceivable to include a flashback scene to give these individuals one more dimension atop the two already on show. 

Though horror here is abundant, Would You Rather still finds its niche far more in the realm of psychological thriller. With a satisfying conclusion to the darkly humorous game – and an inevitable twist to round off proceedings – this is endurance at its most disturbing.              



Thursday, January 16, 2014

Film Review - You're Next






From the promotional posters of You’re Next alone, it’s possible to discern what kind of horror territory we’ll soon entering. Though the ‘home invasion’ motif as a key plot device goes back many decades, it’s outings like the original When A Stranger Calls and 2009’s The Stranger’s that bring to mind the most accomplished efforts. While there is nothing cerebral about these storylines, they still (for the most part) manage to do one thing: scare audiences. Unmotivated murder, for all its lack of mystery, remains terrifying because of its sheer mystique; evil for the sport of it, where no amount of plea bargaining or desire for mercy will likely get results. Though a motivation does surface in the latter stages of You’re Next, it’s a revelation that ultimately hurts the viewing experience.

After an old school slasher scene opens proceedings (with an ominous lamb mask doing the duty), we are then privy to the lives of Crispian Davison and his fiancée Erin on their journey to a wealthy family reunion at a secluded vacation house. It’s Crispian’s parents wedding anniversary, and joining them for the fun is the whole Davison entourage: brothers, sister, and all their respective partners. Of course, with all that blood-kin under one roof it isn’t long before tensions arise – sibling jealousies, parental judgements, and attempts at humour that go astray. Though I’d previously heard criticisms You’re Next is ‘slow to get going’ – this reviewer found the build up an essential part of establishing some sort of emotional connection with the soon-to-be slain. There’s Erin (the wily accented Australian with hardcore survival skills), there’s also Drake ... a yuppie son who leads the tensions. With some of the other players almost mute, the upsurge of dialogue and character growth gives the film a splash of sophistication where it would have been all too easy for the writers to proceed directly to carnage.

And that’s where things get tricky: the carnage. On one hand we have a memorable dinner scene, complete with errant arrows that take out some of the tribe in interesting ways. On the other we have all surviving family members (in the aftermath) behaving as though they’ve just finished watching 1980’s horror: 101 stupid things protagonists do when confronted by killers. Of course, this is me being facetious ... but there are more than enough cringe worthy decisions put on show here that a percentage of you will switch off. The rest, no doubt, will be staying for the revelations – mysteries revealed that put a vulnerable and all-too-human face on our cabal of animal-faced killers. One positive thing on show is some slapstick family dynamic: though almost none of them are overly likeable, there are just enough comedic turns in the second act to keep You’re Next chugging along nicely until the final one.

All told – and when the end credits are finally rolling - we have a horror film that is worth your time. The methods of dispatch are compelling (no guns are used at all in our maiming), and some scenes toward the climax are inane and creative enough to be funny. Always simmering underneath the surface – particularly for the music score – there is a subtle eighties homage going on, both writer and director hamming it up for audiences with gore filled splendour we may have seen before but find difficult to place. Though the masks used will not produce any future icons, they are certainly creepy enough to find a place in someone’s Halloween ball of the future. Mostly, audiences will get a kick out of seeing our take-no-prisoners Australian heroine. You’re Next, for all its minute low budget flaws, is still a film that will hold the collective tribe’s attention from first frame till last.