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.