Saturday, December 18, 2010

Quake by Richard Laymon




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

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

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

One of Laymon’s more ambitious efforts standing at nearly 600 pages, the author never loses stride. Though sometimes small on action, he writes with the uncanny dexterity of making hundreds of pages fly by as though dozens of scenes are transpiring. A lot of this can be attributed to his study of character: rarely have I come across a novelist who can articulate people’s dialogue so accurately. Those familiar with his formula will know it often reads like a drama: narrative simplicity handled so craftily the tale becomes intricate. And it’s never more evidenced than in Quake. Probably the only pitfall is Quake's outdated nature – at the time of publication in 95, hand-held devices were still some time away. Hopefully this doesn’t deter a new generation from embracing Laymon’s oeuvre.  

As a horror writer, Laymon was authentic - someone who wore the genre like a badge of honor and never apologized for it. Years later he would pave the way for others like Brian Keene and Bentley Little to fill a void after his departure. One day, let's hope the world of cinema will pay homage by adapting one of his many visions.




Monday, November 15, 2010

Dread







There is no delight the equal of dread.


So begins the opening paragraph of a pivotal short story from the myriad of tales presented in Clive Barker's ground-breaking collection Books of BloodDread, a harrowing excursion into the nature of fear, stood out from others in the pantheon.  

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

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

Initially, I thought the restrained changes (and in particular the casting of Shaun Evans as Quaid) would hinder the build-up. This Quaid feels far too innocent and simple: gone is the dark charisma that made this expert manipulator so enticing. But as the narrative unfolds, Evans begins to exhibit all the distinctive traits needed to flesh out the character. Then, we face the conundrums associated with role-playing our fears … does staring into the eyes of the Beast for long enough finally grant revelation?

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



Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: Saw 3D






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

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

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

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

With the conclusion on the horizon, the writer's had an opportunity here to tap into an emotional element, but what what's on offer is more of a jazzed-up musical score overlapping an excursion that still feels like a two-hour music video. (Saw VII actually contains a cameo by Linkin Park's Chester Bennington). The inevitable twist is somewhat compelling, almost like SAW’s greatest hits containing a hidden bonus track from the first film made by two Melbourne boys all those years ago. But regrettably, this is not the finale the franchise probably deserves. 
      






Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Finger of God by Keith Williams




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

In the early stages, we get the feeling The Finger of God may be a short and speculative excursion not dissimilar to a stand-alone episode of The X-Files. This element is present as Jordie recruits an old friend and retired conspiracy-theorist to help him decipher the downloaded code. But what begins as a small mystery soon dovetails into an apocalyptic narrative incorporating every trope of science-fiction with added horror elements like those sprinkled throughout a Roland Emmerich film. Shifting settings from Geelong, Australia, to the upper echelons of NASA, Williams juggles an alien monstrosity hell bent on exposing the dark folly of the human heart.  

Unfortunately, when charting a plot evocative of sci-fi television, it becomes easy see everything through the lens of these fictions. There are troubled, hardened cops voicing cliched overtures; there are male and female protagonists linked romantically through the fall of civilization. And underlying it all, we get the feeling Williams is using his stage to preach on human hubris; maps of intent weighted down with half-baked philosophy that manages to taper the enjoyment of a fast moving plot. During certain sections, you’ll ‘know’ you’re reading a book. A perfect example of this would be:

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

Mishaps aside, The Finger of God will still manage to resonate with readers who enjoy old-school tropes with subtle hints of horror.





Sunday, October 17, 2010

Borderland (2007)






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


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


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


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



Saturday, October 16, 2010

Aegri Somnia




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the only story not quite fitting in here is On the Shoulders of Giants by Bryn Sparks. Though only due to the hard science-fiction factor others have shied away from. Apex readers will know Bryn is talented, however – and here he fuses human emotion with robotic sentience. 

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

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

Every story here seems to feed off the one before, and the next one, Wishbones by Cherie Priest, comes off as good as the rest. The plot concerns ancient mythical secrets during the civil war and is branched into the present involving teenagers working in a pizza store. Cherie’s use of language (especially between the teenagers), is right on the money; banter flies from the page like you’re watching it on the screen. Also, it’s the images evoked during the war camps (as apposed to the supernatural elements) that ultimately win out.

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

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

It was a good ride. And I was happy to make the journey. All authors are to be commended, as they have been given a task and responded. Bravo Jason Sizemore and Gill Ainsworth for editing. Aegri Somnia is sold through from Apex Publications




Sunday, September 26, 2010

Within His Reach by Steve Gerlach





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

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

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

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


Monday, August 30, 2010

Splice




Vincenzo Natali has become somewhat of a sci-fi cult director in recent years, helming the celebrated Cube. Although not quite mainstream, his other foray Cypher showcased a director that isn’t reluctant to call science fiction his home. Too often in the past, those with a penchant for the speculative move away into more serious genres when discovering greater clout to wield. Thus the David Cronenberg’s
 of the world are a seldom phenomena who should be treasured. Natali is one such director still finding his feet. With Splice, he moves entirely into the mainstream.  


A scientist team who are also a couple, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrian Brody), are on the cutting edge of human/animal gene splicing, trying to develop a protein for a major corporation. When their experiments herald the arrival of new species, they decide to go rouge and take it to the next level: splicing human and animal DNA. When each small breakthrough leads to another victory, the scientists set in motion an irrevocable chain of events yielding Dren … an entirely new progeny female in gender and having hybrid characteristics.


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


Throughout, there is the undercurrent of the domestic, as Elsa’s and Clive’s personal relationship and unresolved personal issues fall into disarray. In this regard, there was so much to like, but what ultimately lets the film down is a finale that feels tacked on and sinks to the level of the director's cheaper films. Obvious re-writes are layered on as though no one (including the director), knew how to wrap things up ... and one unexpected development comes along that is so implausible it’s almost laughable. From here, any aficionado can guess where things end up.  


But this does not take away the films gains, and having an A lister like Brody elevates the production into something deserving of theatrical release. French actress Delphine Chaneac will make you both feel for and fear Dren at the same time. This alone makes Splice a small triumph. 



Saturday, August 28, 2010

Centurion





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

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

It should go without saying this kind of story is uncharted territory, far removed from the contained nuance of something like The Descent. And the result? Surprises at every turn. Above all, this is a British/Scottish cast and world, full of breath-taking scenery and gritty film-making that only comes from doing the hard yards away from the Hollywood epicenter. For horror fans, the scenes of battle and carnage are prevalent, often accomplished with realistic expertise. You'll feel totally ensconced within the cold, harsh reality of a Roman frontier. Much like Tarantino did with Kill BillI have a feeling Marshall was schooling himself on set to be an action director, while still keeping the human element alive and true. One performance by the mute hunter Etain (Olga Kurylenko) is worthy of distinction.

There are a couple of set-backs, most notably a romance that never quite takes off. But one gets the feeling studio interference - to encompass a broader audience - was probably at play here. With a larger budget, sacrifices will be made.

I have little doubt knee-jerk reactions will arise comparing this with both 
Dog Soldiers and The Descent, perhaps in an impoverished light. Over time, however, Centurion will eventually join the pantheon as a minor classic of the genre. 

 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pilgrims by Will Elliot





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

From experience, I think there comes a time in a writers life when they think: now is the time to do my ‘otherworld’ book. Be it a dominion, realm, dimension ... or simply world – it seems ingrained this is accomplished as a kind of Magnum Opus or literary Jupiter dwarfing all other novels, novellas, or shorts. Although it took a lifetime, King himself achieved this milestone with The Dark Tower. Numerous other's have made it a staple: Clive Barker’s descriptions of wonderland are like a tour guide for every intrepid wanderer who feels the need to portray their own otherland. The hybrid of dark fantasy and horror is presently well-mapped … now the challenge is to find something unique and powerful to dig out of the sand. For the most part, Elliot succeeds with Pilgrims, book one of the Pendulum trilogy.

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

Pilgrims as a book reflects journey. The kind of book, perhaps, that’s perfect for one's own voyage. For some peculiar reason, I found myself digging into this narrative always on the move: intersections, bus trips, and even one occasion when hiking. At times it can be stagnant; the action and mystery of a type encountered in a myriad of previous fictions. However, our language feels both familiar and intimate: the Australian voice homely. Above all, Elliot wants to transport us to his Narnia and the world of his childhood. Although a far cry from his debut, Pilgrims nevertheless acts as a worthy successor.  



The Hitcher




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

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

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

Things are promising at the beginning: the audience is in hackneyed territory but knows this. The highway itself is a like a character; a haunted playground for things malign to find a home and their activities to go unobserved. Regarding our villain, there is no mystery here ... he is completely unmasked, and actor Sean Bean has no trouble bringing to life the vapid stance of a detached executioner. In what is perhaps a small nod to the first film, there is an undeniable gritty attention to the colors and camera-focus.  

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

There are encouraging sign-posts: well executed jump moments are prevalent, enough to keep you interested, anyway … and it’s the type of horror that takes no prisoners about whom is dispatched or how. The ‘game’ John Ryder is playing intrigues us, for his toying goes beyond mere play. With us every step of the way is a thumping soundtrack like the throb of a heart or the whir of a truck. Intelligently, this mirrors the ‘highway-artery’ theme of the whole endeavor.

Unfortunately, the clich├ęd ‘horror film’ behavior of those being toyed with is enough to have us praying for their demise.

Although by no means a complete loss, keep this one for a Saturday night marathon when all other quality has been exhausted.

   


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Amusement




Initially a promising film, Amusement offers up a smorgasbord of ingredients that should have worked. The narrative is a mish-mash of the
 My Bloody Valentine scenario, whereby a tormented adolescent has now grown up to bring his revenge fantasizes into a blood-spattered reality. His focus is the three girls who mocked him in youth.
As stated, the formula was trite but promising, and the opening sequence unfolds in a trucking convoy which takes a sinister turn. Camera angles are slick and eccentric; almost mimicking something David Fincher might yield. Visually, this is a film that looks good. But things soon dovetail as we come to the realization almost everything here is pilfered directly from some other source: the gothic ambience; the hooded slickers in rain; the interconnected story-lines. Resembling something more on par with an anthology, one wonders if perhaps Amusement had been marketed as such - with some narrative tweaking - things could have fallen into place. Viewed from this perspective, it’s actually quite sublime: our stalker takes on the guise of a killer clown in some genuinely unnerving scenes. Thereafter a modern-Frankenstein motif is built into the chronicle, and the result of this is something to almost rival The People Under The Stairs … but it all seems too unwieldy, too elaborate – and our stalkers motivation is hazy to the point of being absurd. The climax is more of the same: a stunning visual feast in a labyrinthine fortress presenting doors to the viewer that are never opened.

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


  



Sunday, July 18, 2010

Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz





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

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

After switching physicians with transplant success, Ryan goes on with his life … albeit lacking Samantha. There follows a rein of psychological persecution making his original fears of poisoning seem tame by comparison: some invisible phantom has access to his private quarters, can manipulate his security, and has taken to leaving him gifts such as gold heart pendants. After his paranoia shifts into investigation mode, Ryan uncovers a world of voluntary euthanasia and identical twins. Some consider Koontz’s work to be somewhat tame, but try envisioning a house full of real corpses embalmed exquisitely for the sake of art. His prose - somewhat purple and obsessively metaphorical - can be divisive. There is little dialogue, and a lot of inner rumination by our protagonist.

When the plot-payoff finally arrives, a reader with either vehemently applaud or cringe. Here there is no middle ground.  By and large, Your Heart Belongs to Me is a book about subtext and texture; seeing patterns to the plot not from the surface theme but from the implicit meaning of the tale … things the modern mind rejects on a conscious level.

While this is mid-range Koontz - any author who can (without fail) elicit a tear from me in the closing stages of a book, is an author who is ultimately doing something right.



 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Daybreakers





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

It’s 2019, and the script has broken genre stereotypes by granting us a vision of vampires seldom visited: they govern the world, and a massive corporation has seen fit to round up the last of the human race for consumption lest their population succumb to extinction. This in itself is fascinating, a plot device which mirrors our own world, and one with the potential to promote endless discussion. The sphere has been flipped, but is ultimately the same: blood being a metaphor for resources like food and oil. Thereafter ethical and moral questions present themselves ... as those left try to find a substitute or cure for the life-force of survival.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Carriers



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

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

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Fourth Kind





Right off the bat, lets ascertain what a few people might be wondering about The Fourth Kind: is some of the contents rooted in any truth whatsoever? Is the viral campaign the geneses of some kind of celluloid disclosure? The answer, sadly, is no. The Fourth Kind is almost entirely fictional in every regard. The same formula applied to films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have also been used … albeit with an inflated budget. And the resultant outcome of all this is something more closely resembling an embellished narrative like Fire In the Sky.

When the first slivers of the viral campaign began to spill into my awareness, I will admit to a certain excitement ... because the subject matter has been close to my heart for over three decades now. In the early promos, we bore witness to things like film-footage of the Disclosure Project for the Press in 2001 (an event that was over-shadowed by subsequent world events later that year), and very high quality video recordings of vehicles in our air-space defying conventional explanation. This, however, is where the fascination came to an abrupt stop. If there existed even a smattering of truth to the project, I would have stumbled across it in my personal research. Alas, The Fourth Kind was going to be more in league with a mock-documentary. 

Said documentary centers around the citizens of Nome, a small town in Alaska experiencing an unusually high number of disappearances and visits from the FBI dating back fifty years. Dr. Abigail Tyler (Milla Jovovich) is a local psychiatrist delving into the local’s night-time world and soon discovers a great percentage of them are exhibiting the same symptoms and telling identical tales. Dr. Tyler also lost her own husband in mysterious circumstances years previous ... and is not immune to the collective phenomenon of Nome. Filmed events are spliced with so-called ‘real’ footage (annoyingly at the same time), of patients undergoing hypnosis and recalling an assault by non-human intelligences.

What director Olatunde Osunsanmi has done here is essentially create two films … both of which are false. After a while, the supposed real interviews with the authentic and skeletal Dr. Abigail degenerate into far-fetched lunacy. And any belief we might have harbored at the beginning is slowly eradicated where everything here feels more akin to something like Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. Olatunde uses the mythology and folk-lore of real world abductions (None's people are experiencing the screen-memory of an Owl, a common cerebral-surrogate for fourth kind encounters), but doing so in a way that is fixed and vacant. Our intruders malign aspect is layered on like an evangelicals ramblings, then ramped up to create the titular Hollywood ‘jump’ moments.

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