Thursday, May 23, 2013


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

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

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

Nestled at the heart of the chase is Frank’s mental illness; his migraines and panic attacks; his overall malaise as though two separate individuals are competing for dominion. There are also the Norman Bates/Freudien issues. As an actor, there can be little doubt Elijah Wood is a preconceived good guy - but here he pulls off the warring duality effortlessly ... almost with the same amount of creative pizzazz a creature named Gollum once attained. With his previous foray into a dark psyche with Sin City, Elijah continues to step out of his comfort zone and challenge perceptions. Overall, I think this modern incarnation would be much impoverished without his casting.

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

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

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

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Pact

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 10, 2013

The End of Ever by Troy Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, this is a book I enjoyed my time with. And though there's nothing overtly new in the inventions, I found the characters to be its central sticking point. Other writers would do well to follow Troy’s example here – he’s taken a fellowship and given them such well rounded life you’ll feel a connection. And taken as a whole, it far exceeds his previous two novels.

When you have a novelist who is only improving with each successive stroke of the pen, you have a novelist you can ultimately invest in.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013


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