Deliciously disturbing Brit folk-horror in Lip Hook

Lip Hook,
David Hine and Mark Stafford,
SelfMadeHero

Arriving just at the right time of year, as the light retreats in the face of the long, dark, dark nights, Hine and Stafford’s Lip Hook promises a deep, deliciously disturbing read right from the front cover onwards. In fact I sometimes get a vibe on some books, before even starting them, a sixth sense (caused by a papercut by a radioactive book page) that steers me to a book that I just know I am going to love. I’ve learned to trust that instinct over the years, and Lip Hook was radiating that vibe to me before I even started it – once more I was glad I listened to my reading instincts, because it was a delectably creepy and disturbing read, awash in rich symbology, riffing on folklore twisted like a wind-gnarled coastal tree to suit the story’s own particular ends, and with a strong gender element.

Lip Hook revels in that rich tradition of British folk-horror; The Wicker Man and, more recently, Richard Rowntree’s Dogged (reviewed here earlier this year) came to my mind as I read, and in more than a few scenes that creepy short musical riff from Blood on Satan’s Claw would play in my head (horror film fans, you know that piece of music I mean), and classic Pertwee-era Who, The Daemons, also popped into my head several times while reading, and it is no bad thing when a horror tale evokes those predecessors for me.

Vincent and Sophia are on the run, high-tailing it from some unspecified crime, pursued by some group we never see but whose threat drives them to veer off the main road to Lip Hook, one of those small, all but forgotten villages that seems as if it is not only at the edge of the world, but a place caught in its own, little, twisted reality, regardless of the big world outside. Everything here is off – some things only slightly odd, others, increasingly as the narrative unfolds, are frighteningly wrong and twisted, and that feeling of unease grows and swells in the reader’s mind as they are drawn into this isolated village, surrounded by threatening marshes and the omnipresent (and apparently dangerous) fog.

Even the characters are visually disturbing – Vincent reminded me (in the good way) just a little of Marc Hempel’s interesting take on Loki in the Sandman: the Kindly Ones in terms of looks, while our first glimpse of Sophia, headscarf on as she drives, sunglasses like pilot’s goggles, long coat, made me think of a meaner, nastier version of Penelope Pitstop. In fact pretty much all of the characters here have something visually wrong and off-putting about them, including other main players that you actually like, such as local youngsters Falcon and Cal, with others among the locals looking even more unusual and unsettling.

Lip Hook is full of grotesques. It made me think of some of the odd-looking secondary characters Sergio Leone often used in his films, with strange features that he would let the camera dwell on, creating a strange mix of fascination (we can’t look away) and revulsion in the viewer. Here Stafford deploys that device to great effect – it isn’t just the crumbling village or the mist and marsh environment around it that look wrong, even the people do, and it feeds that sense of unease, that something here is simply, deeply, wrong.

In my view good horror requires an effective atmosphere as much as it does a solid, compelling narrative, and Hine and Stafford pay attention to both, allowing them to weave between each other to build a superbly creepy atmosphere; you could almost be in a crumbling old ruin in a Poe tale or wondering what lies round the corner in Innsmouth…. From larger scenes – Sophia being entirely engulfed at one early point by strange butterflies in the mist – to small details – an old portrait on the pub wall depicts a couple in Victorian finery, but closer inspection shows the well-dressed woman wearing a form of Scold’s Bride – Hine and Stafford build that sense of wrongness and unease until you are bursting for some form of release.

It’s just that what Rosie and Margot said to you… it made it sound like men mess everything up.”

Men run things. Things are messed up. Ergo men mess things up. There’s a neat logic to it.”

Traditional and folkloric elements abound, from cricket on the village green (which alters very quickly to something rather less wholesome) to the masks the locals wear to protect from the mists (some recall those horrifying protective masks worn by Plague doctors). The gender element of folklore is especially strong here, from two local women (and lovers) who still practise a feminine form of natural magic (like Wicca a type that celebrates kindness and goodwill and abhors the bad) to legends of a “hag” burned like a Guy Fawkes dummy, a perverted form of an older, female-centric belief system stamped on by previous generations of men in the area (shades of Witchfinder General and others, the men terrified of the thought of empowered women and seeing them as a threat to against their own power, to be contained).

A couple on the run, a strange, isolated, all but forgotten village wreathed in mysterious, dangerous fogs, people who have disappeared, a vile local nobleman who controls the village (or he thinks he does), hidden secrets coming out (literally and metaphorically), astonishingly grotesque characters and locations permeated with an unsettling atmosphere and a narrative that builds extremely satisfyingly towards a climax, pulling you along with it, lost in the mist with the characters and needing that resolution, whatever it may be, good or ill or both. A superbly atmospheric and deliciously disturbing slice of British folk horror. Read by firelight on the long, long nights while you wonder what lies just outside the comforting, warm glow of light from your windows…

“These are the days of our lives…” – Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody,
Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher,
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker

Alright, before I start I should hold up my hand and say I am a massive Queen fan. Always have been, so much so that I had to restrain myself from standing up and joining in the actions for some of the musical numbers on offer in Bohemian Rhapsody (nobody needs to see that in public and besides, save it for the special sing-a-long screening). I’m not sure if that means I was likely to be more critical of any film about Freddie and the boys or more easily accepting though. The film, as many of you will know, arrives with a somewhat troubled production history, not least the departure (willing or forced, gossip still circles) of Bryan Singer and a pause on filming, before Dexter Fletcher came on board to finish it. That’s the sort of signs that a movie may be a turkey; I’m glad to say that I didn’t find this the case here.

We open with the band about to get ready to appear on stage at one of the great music events of history – the global-audience of Live Aid, now a legendary gig, with, many would argue, Queen’s electrifying performance being the boost the massive live show needed – before looping back to the early 70s. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Mr Robot’s Rami Malek) is working a low-end job at Heathrow Airport and subject to racial slurs from his colleagues. At home he’s restless, chafing at elements of his Zanzibar and religious upbringing and eager to embrace music culture, escaping at night to watch gigs. It’s there he sees Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Bryan May (Gwilym Lee) playing with their three-piece band Smile.

When their singer leaves the band, commenting it is going nowhere, Farrokh – now calling himself Freddie – introduces himself to the band and charms his way into joining them through a mixture of self-confidence and bravado, the embryonic elements that Freddie, when he adopted the Mercury surname, would later channel to such fantastic effect on stage to capture live audiences with some huge success. With bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining, and the band changing its name to the grander (and outrageous, as Freddie said) Queen, the classic quartet is set to take on the world, with the film taking in chunks of their career in short bites, recording that first album, the iconic Night at the Opera, the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody epic track itself, through to the mid 80s and the triumphant Live Aid appearance.

Of course there are flaws, some I would argue are pretty much unavoidable – this is a feature film, not a documentary, so some elements are a little different from parts you may have read in biographies or seen in documentaries, and there is simply no way to do justice to every part of the Queen story, they had a twenty year career at the top of the charts, and you can’t cover everything that happened (for instance we don’t see anything about those post Live Aid albums made as Freddie was dying), you can’t even cover the making of every album and still have a watchable feature film, that’s more for a multi-part documentary. You may argue at some of the moments they decided to include over others, but that would be the case whichever periods of their story they put in or left out.

The film picks out some moments from that career and tries to keep a balance between the show-business moments and the personal lives, including Freddie’s growing realisation that he was gay or bisexual (although it also makes clear how that never changed his lifelong love for Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, including his touching dedication to her of the song “love of my life”), the arguments between the band members, management, labels, the press. But it also includes the good personal moments, most notably the friendship of the four band members that survives fame, success, ego trips, drugs, manipulative hangers-on and more, and remained the core of their identity right to the end of Freddie’s life. We get snapshots of their albums being worked on or their tours, including that amazing moment in Rio (then the largest audience for a live show) where the huge audience sang back to the band, a wonderful moment when they realise how much their fans have taken them to their hearts, with the lion’s share of time given to the Live Aid performance. And it includes nice touches such as Freddie’s beloved cats.

While Hardy, Lee and Mazzello do sterling work essaying Taylor, May and Deacon very well, the film concentrates unashamedly on Freddie, understandably given the wonderfully flamboyant front-man’s theatrical persona and his personal life. And whatever you think of which parts of the band’s career that they chose to show or any other aspects of the film, it is hard to deny just how damned good Rami Malek is as Freddie. It isn’t just the strong physical resemblance (aided by some prosthetics such as the extra teeth Freddie had which gave his mouth that unusual shape), or adopting Freddie’s unique voice, it is right in the core of Malek’s performance, he channels his inner Freddie, the mannerisms, expressions, movements, to a remarkable degree. I’ve read that Malek was determined to do justice to such an amazing performer and was aware how important he was emotionally to a massive number of fans, and by god that determination is there in every frame. It is an astonishing piece of acting, and as with his powerful work in Mr Robot is marks Malek as a young actor we should all be keeping an eye on. He looks as if he could command an audience just like the real Freddie could.

And yes, I did manage to restrain myself to the end, I didn’t stand up and join in the actions for We Will Rock You or Radio Ga Ga. But I think if there is a sing-a-long screening (and I am sure a number of places will do that, somehow!) then I may have to go along and join in unashamedly.

Smile-inducing Brit horror-comedy with The Snarling

The Snarling,
Directed by Pablo Raybould,
Starring Julia Deakin, Joel Beckett, Chris Simmons), Laurence Saunders, Ste Johnson, Albert Moses

Ferocious killings and stroppy actors, who knows which is worse?!? A small village is hosting a movie crew, currently shooting a zombie film, with the star, Greg Lupeen (Laurence Sanders) driving the director and producer mad as they strive to remain calm with a forced “okay, luv at each of his self-obsessed, self-important “I’m the star rants and screaming bouts. Meanwhile in the local pub Mike (Chris Simmons), Bob (Ben Manning) and village idiot Les (Sanders pulling double duty) are discussing the film shoot in their not exactly busy boozer (which is also being used as one of the movie’s locations), and are excited at the thought of playing extras in the film, a wee bit of unusual fun in their quiet small town. And they’re all amused to find that Les looks remarkably like the movie’s star, Greg.

But there’s more going on than the excitement of a movie shoot in a wee village – there’s the little matter of the grisly murders. In fact they don’t look so much like murders as wild animal attacks, the victims ripped apart. Except this is Britain and there aren’t exactly a lot of wolves or bears running around to cause that kind of death, so it must be a murderer, right? And the fact they happened during the full moon and seems similar to other incidents which happened in Wales when the same film crew was working there, that’s just coincidence too, isn’t it?? And the fact the leading man was bitten by a wild animal while filming a scene in a zoo in Wales, and now sufferers strange headaches and more mood swings than usual?

This is an absolute hoot of a Brit comedy-horror, and it clearly knows its audience and plays to it. The puns and jokes are mostly the so-bad-they-are-good variety (deliberately), and like a Carry On movie you can pretty much see the punchline coming, and it doesn’t matter a jot, because you want that punchline, heck you’re probably joining in with it and then laughing happily anyway. The Snarling mines a treasure trove of puns and clichés, such as the hapless, always stuffing his face detective (played by director Raybould) or the lead actor’s name Lupeen (sounding like “lupine”, leading Les to conclude he must be the werewolf, only for his pal to remark yeah, but my dad’s called Leonard, change a letter in his name does that make his a leopard?). This would make a grand night’s fun entertainment as a double bill with Carry On Screaming or Shaun of the Dead.

It’s low-budget and clearly they can’t afford top of the line CG effects for a werewolf, or a Rick Baker practical effects lycanthrope, but they get around, using what they do have, humour, clever editing and cross-cutting, and the dark (one scene involving cyclists being attacked is lit by their bike’s strobing light, which was a clever way to give only glimpses of the monster and also give us another bit of humour at the same time). There’s some really nice attention to detail too, always a good sign of a film crew really trying to go that extra mile – for example, after one of the elderly pub regulars is attacked by the mystery beast you can see a collection tin for him on the bar, and for all the glorying in obvious puns (which I have to say I loved, I mean they had me at that punning title, to be honest) this is also a clever tale, wonderfully threaded with good-natured humour throughout and paying homage to the greats (including American Werewolf) but with its own irreverent yet loving approach. A perfect Saturday night slice of horror-comedy to watch with a bunch of friends.

The Snarling is available on DVD and Digital from November 5th from Left Films

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
Image

What if drugs help you to find the thing that makes you special?

Ellie and Skip meet in the group therapy sessions at the addiction clinic they’ve been committed to, one of those “circle of truth” approaches many therapists seem to love and pretty much everyone else hates. And like many such groups, the “true” stories the patients are made to share are frequently less true than the therapists would like to think – addicts and their ability to lie to suit their circumstances are an integral part of this tale; you really can’t trust what they say about themselves, their past, their motivations.

Which offers up the reader a pretty interesting dilemma – we’re presented with these oh-so-young characters, and we can’t entirely trust what we learn about them. While that is quite a clever device for generating suspense and intrigue for the reader (no godlike narrator who tells the reader everything, we have to take bits and pieces and try and decide which are true), it could also have been a problem. After all, if you can’t be sure what the characters are really like, how can you start to buy into them, empathise with them? It’s an approach which could alienate the readers, but this is Brubaker and Phillips we’re talking about, and they take that potentially double-edged approach and use it quite brilliantly; despite, or perhaps even because we can’t trust their accounts of themselves I found these characters utterly irresistible.

To begin with this feels like the classic star-crossed lovers, a young woman, a young man, pushed together by unusual circumstances, bonding not just through their shared youth but the confinement and the rules of the sanatorium, chafing at them, leaving them eager to strike out against those rules and authority figures. Romeo and Juliet by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those rebellions start small – stealing the head doctor’s cigarettes while she is being lectured (a nice touch, the person telling her how to beat her addiction and how wrong it is to indulge thinks nothing of puffing away on her own addictive thrill while doing so), sneaking out of the building at night to smoke, talk, to make out. Romance and an up-yours to the authority figures at the same time.

This is beautifully handled – Phillips brings just perfect little touches to the visuals, such as a close up on Ellie’s face during the group therapy, her inner dialogue contrasting with what is being openly said in the group session, her gaze catching Skip’s as someone else talks, the expression just perfectly rendered, an elfish, knowing smirk that captures in a single panel how she’s feeling at that moment (as she admits to being a bad influence and having no plans to change), then the following visual interchange between them as the group and therapist continue unaware.

That rebellion will grow, however – sure these are young lovers, full of screw-you attitude, and it is easy to go along with their joie-de-vivre, to hell with the consequences approach. There’s always something intoxicating about that youthful rebellion and we-know-better-than-everyone pose. Except we know there are consequences, and, as noted earlier, these are addicts, we can’t entirely trust their motivations or their life stories. Not everything or everyone is what they seem here, and there will be some revelations, some may not be what you might imagine, although I shall say no more on that front for fear of spoilers.

I guess Billie Holiday is where it started.”

Threaded through all of this is a love of music, of how important music is in many of our lives, how sometimes it feels like a singer has written those lyrics just for us, the soundtrack to moments of our lives. And particularly here so much of the music Ellie loves was created by performers who struggled with addiction. There is a morbid sort of glamour to that, and come on, any of us who love music know that, we’ve felt it – actually we’ve felt it not just with music but with poetry, prose, pretty much every artform humans have crafted has been touched by those who have indulged, many argue for the better.

There are shades of the late, great Bill Hicks here on his stand-up diatribe on the War On Drugs, where he acknowledges the damage drugs can do but also notes how nobody picks up on the other side of it, like the stunning music that came out of some of that psycho-chemical experimentation, the old kicking open the Doors to Perception. There’s a fascination, even a sort of sick romance about all of that, especially tied to that spirit of youthful rock’n’roll rebellion, most of us have felt it, maybe even flirted with it even if just in imagination while blissing out to that music. Ellie tells the therapist as much when it is her turn to talk in the group sessions.

Like Welsh’s Trainspotting though, this book doesn’t glamourise drug use, it shows the mess it can and does make of lives, but it also, like Trainspotting, shows the highs and why they are so attractive – addictive. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies doesn’t get on the soap-box to preach condemnation, nor does it paint that lifestyle as overly romantic, it mixes both, showing that just like everything else in our lives the positive and negative aren’t always clearly separated, they can be messy, intertwined. That theme is in itself attractive and compelling, but here it is just the garnish to an engrossing story, with shifting sands beneath the changing characters that draw you in deep. It’s simply brilliant. And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading. I’m starting with some Billie…

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue,
Neil Slorance

Saunas, Moomins, Food, Romance and more!

A wee disclaimer before I start: I love Neil Slorance’s comics. I first came across them in the (sadly now defunct) Plan B Books down by the Tron in Glasgow several years ago, and have been following them ever since, and then the all-conquering, award-winning Dungeon Fun with Colin Bell, and now Pirate Fun too (highly recommend those latter two for those of you with kids, they are a delight for adults and even better for young readers, some of the little girls in my own family adore them). I’ve been especially fond of Neil’s travel mini comics such as Seven Days in Berlin, or Nine Lines of Metro. I had heard from his Twitter feed that Neil had been offered a place on a comics art residency in Finland, and had been looking forward to seeing that trip filter its way into his comics, especially as Finland has been making a bit of a name for itself in the last few years with a blooming Indy comics scene (similarly it has been building a rep with the SF&F readers and writers too).

While there are may elements here you’d expect (and indeed would want to see) in one of Neil’s work – some self reflection, the influence of friends, food, exploring, romance and, naturally, the odd tortoise reference – one of the most obvious differences here is the use of full colour for the Finland Issue, a change funded through the use of Kickstarter; this comic comes with lovely, watercolour painted art, and it is a very pleasing addition to Neil’s previous travelogues – even an opening page set in a deeply snowbound forest shines with glorious colour, the greens of the trees and clear, blue skies contrasting with the bright whiteness of the snow, and the use of full colour also allows for some utterly gorgeous scenes, such as single panel depicting the colours of the sunset viewed through the wintery forest. It’s only one panel, but it is one that stops you for a moment, reminds you again that it is worth pausing now and then to raise your head, as that great philosopher Ferris Beuller once told us, to take in little moments of life like the deepening colours of the sky at sunset, the shadows stretching across the land. That is a common thing in Neil’s travel works, I’ve found, and I think it is one of the reasons why they make me smile so much…

It’s a trip which nearly never happened, and in his normal honest way Neil records how he was elated at being offered a place, only to then suffer a lack of self-confidence, stacking up the problems rather than thinking of the opportunities. It’s another facet of Neil’s work that I’d admired in previous comics too, and I suspect his emotional honesty and the way he deals with such problems (often with the help of his friends) is part of why many readers enjoy his work – it’s very open, very human, very empathic. Of course he does get talked around into taking the chance offered (otherwise there would be no comic!) and sets off for the artist’s retreat in a small town outside Tampere, meeting his fellow creators on the residency who, I was pleased to see, were a diverse bunch from various countries.

We follow Neil making friends at the retreat, occasionally “flumping” into a deeper than expected snow patch during forest walks, meeting some friends who come over for a Finnish visit, exploring the local area and customs, such as the famous saunas of Finland, enjoying the dark skies and bright stars over the forest, the Moomins museum (Neil depicts Moomins-esque tortoises, he says to avoid copyright violations, but I suspect also because he just wanted some tortoises in there), and as always, the local food. I recall one of his previous works, I think it was the Berlin Issue, where Neil noted that he had lost weight and I was left wondering how he managed this as each of his travelogues are full of the joys of local food!

And, as advertised, there is romance – after the end of one relationship time had passed and Neil had met someone new, Ashley. Rather nicely he shows how they met when she came in to visit the shop below his studio and saw his comics, it’s beautifully handled, sweet but never too saccharine, just the right, warm balance. Naturally he is missing Ashley, but she’s arranged to meet him towards the end of his Finnish trip and… Well, let’s not spoil everything, other than to say that’s just a lovely sequence, and like so much of Neil’s work it left me with a lovely warm feeling and a huge smile.

You can purchase the Finland Issue and Neil’s other works from his website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

House of Salem

House of Salem,
Directed by James Crow,
Starring Liam Kelly, Jack Brett Anderson, Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills

First debuting at FrightFest’s New Blood strand in 2016, James Crow’s Brit-horror House of Salem finally gets a DVD release. Josh (Liam Kelly) is a young child with special needs, being left in the care of a teenage babysitter while his parents go for an evening out. As she puts him to bed she teases him that he is getting a bit old for taking a cuddly toy to sleep with – a cuddly lamb – but he is adamant that he needs it and she acquiesces, leaving him to sleep and returning down stairs to indulge in the grand babysitter tradition of chatting on the phone. The peace of a domestic slumbering evening is about to be broken, however, as a group of creepily masked intruders make their way into the home, intent on snatching the boy. So far it’s not that different from any number of other home intrusion thrillers we’ve seen, except Josh hears a spectral warning just before the attack, and attempts to hide and evade his pursuers while his babysitter bravely tries to defend him, but it’s no use, and he is soon in the bag.

Taken to a large but isolated old country house the masked gang, Josh is locked into one of the bedrooms while the gang’s leader Jacob (Leslie Mills) awaits more instructions from their mysterious employers, who will only get in touch via an old, vintage Bakelite landline phone. It is when they settle in for the long wait that the first cracks start to appear, as the different personalities in the gang assert themselves – the belligerent one who thinks nothing of violence or even murder, the cooler headed-one, the solitary women in the group, Nancy (Jessica Arterton), who seems least happy with the whole thing and is clearly protective of the child, despite having taken part in his kidnapping. Mills’ Jacob plays the hard-man leader, the sort who rarely shouts but is all the more threatening and scary for his seeming reserve – you just know this is a man who has done bad things and will do so again in a split second if anyone crosses him, and his authority forces the arguing individuals of his team to try and get along as they wait the night out.

But this is no kidnapping for ransom, this child and this location have been chosen by their mysterious employers quite carefully and carry an awful history of previous, similar events, and it is a history Josh can see and hear. Josh lost a sibling years before and this closeness to death has left him sensitive – he hears noises and voices, then sees figures, usually other children his age, dressed in white sleepwear like him (his hooded onesie recalls Where the Wild Things Are) and bloodied. Are these trapped spirits of other children who had been brought here, and if so, what were they brought for. As with most heist/crime stories they are at their most compelling when it all goes wrong, and between the bickering gang members and then changing plans from their distant employers, then the external threat of someone else being around this supposedly safe house (creepily leaving a dead game animal hanging from a garden tree). No, this is no ransom for money at all, this has a darker – a satanic – element to it and Josh is part of that ritual, and it may be that Jacob knows more about the real reasons behind it all than he is letting on.

While House of Salem has flaws, I’m not going to dwell on them as I think they were mostly down to the perennial problem for all Indy film-makers, lack of budget and shooting time. And while their resources may be slender (Primeval’s Andrew Lee Potts is billed as a star but in truth is only in it for a short time), Crow makes the most of what he has. It’s remarkable how much creepiness you can get just from figures in masks, both the kidnappers, then the Satanic cult members, both groups using very simple masks, nothing elaborate or complex here, but quite chilling in the way they dehumanise the figures and make them quite terrifying.

The mix of 70s style hidden Satanic cult and the crime gone wrong bickering gang works well, and while most of the gang are stereotypes, Arterton’s Nancy is fleshed out more, her backstory slowly emerging (and her relation to leader Jacob, a sort of surrogate father figure), which gives more reason for her defence of Josh. Liam Kelly is quite outstanding as Josh, this young lad gives a superb performance in a complex emotional role as a traumatised child with psychological and emotional problems already, then dealing with the kidnapping, the voices and the visions, it’s quite a performance from one so young.

The film also works in some nice symbology too, notably the image of the lamb and blood which recurs and becomes increasingly creepy as it builds to a climax in the third reel. An intersting, inventive and frequently creepy Brit-horror, ideal for some late Saturday night viewing.

House of Salem is released on DVD and Digital by Left Films from October 1st

Der Hauptmann – The Captain

The Captain,
Directed by Robert Schwentke,
Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel , Frederick Lau

Written and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Travelers Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent), The Captain – Der Hauptmann, to give it it’s original title – is a compelling tale of the closing days of the Second World War. Shot in a beautifully crisp, glowing, silvery black and white the elegance of the cinematography is, right from the start, at odds with the brutality at the heart of The Captain, as we see a terrified and oh-so-young German soldier being chased through a winter landscape and woods by his comrades. They are not just hunting him and aiming to kill him, they are clearly enjoying it, especially the officer in charge. Hubacher’s soldier is a creature of pure fear, seeing his violent death just a few footsteps behind him, his uniform and boots torn and ruined, his face so filthy only his astonishingly clear eyes looking out of that mess look human.

It is the final days of the war and German has turned on German, no longer just fighting the invading Allies but devouring their own, all civilised restraints are gone, years of the hard-edged Nazi regime coupled with the grinding brutality of warfare has cracked the veneer of civilisation, even the vicious rules of warfare are disregarded. Schwentke’s film, like Apocalypse Now, shows how that red-toothed animal is set loose by endless brutality, and even more alarmingly, how while some refuse that dark call and others try to turn away, some men are seduced by it. They come to like it, revel in that dark freedom that comes when they think there are no more rules, no more consequences.

Hubacher’s Willi Herold doesn’t quite start this way, he is the terrified soldier – a deserter, perhaps, broken by the relentless enemy attacks – being chased and shot at by his former comrades. After eluding them he trudges across country, finding an abandoned staff car, with a suitcase containing a captain’s uniform. Swiftly removing his own ruined uniform this private gives himself an immeadite promotion by donning this found uniform, but more than that, as he looks at himself in the car’s mirror he starts to assume the pose, the attitude he expects from a Nazi officer. This is a very young man, remember, who has been brought up in Hitler’s Germany, even before the shock of the war; imagine the role models he has had in his youth, those roles he is now assuming.

When Peschel’s Freytag comes stumbling down the road and reacts to him as if he was a real captain, Herold starts to play the role for real. Taking Freytag as his driver they stop at the nearest village, Herold playing the quiet, icy Nazi officer so well that the locals in the inn are soon too scared of him, providing them with food and lodgings. But there is a price – desertion is now rife as it is clear the Third Reich is doomed, and many of those deserters have been looting and raping their way through the countryside. After catching one those same locals he cowed with his act earlier now call on him to walk the walk for real, to “pay for his roast dinner” as one puts it. As the horrified Freytag watches helplessly Herold agrees with the locals, draws his gun and shoots the deserter right in the street. It is the start of a slide into brutality and depravity.

It isn’t long before Herold encounters more men separated from their units like Freytag – or perhaps they have just given up and deserted – and again he uses his newly borrowed authority to overwhelm them, again playing the arrogant, cold Nazi officer to perfection, exactly the sort of officer they expect. Encountering a group of military police rounding up deserters to take to a nearby camp, Herold expands his authority, telling them all he is on a special mission by order of the Furher himself, to investigate the reports of low morale and desertion behind the lines, snowballing his lies and actions into ever greater levels of brutality and atrocity.

This is not an easy watch, despite the quite beautiful black and white photography; The Captain lays bare and ugly fact of human nature – brutality begets brutality, violence more violence, Herold like one abused who then goes on in turn to become an abuser, a chain of vile cause and effect poisoning the soul. And worse still he starts to enjoy it, to relish it even, and so do a number of the men who fall under the spell of the Captain. And this is very much a man’s world, the only women seen briefly here are at a couple of celebrations, companions for the soldiers, the rest of the time it is men and other men committing acts normal society would repudiate, reminiscent of Hemmingway, perhaps.
The fact that the film is apparently based on a real person and events makes the events all the more horrific.

Hubacher as Herold and Peschel as Freytag both give up some incredible, intense performances in what must have been pretty emotionally-draining roles. Herold takes us from frightened, filthy, dishevelled soldier on the run to the overbearing, cold-faced Nazi officer, face impassive, his clear eyes. He falls so easily into this role the young man must have seen acted out before him throughout his youth in Nazi Germany, but Hubacher also throws in subtle changes in expression and body language early on, as Herold is unsure of himself, waiting to be found out and exposed, and you can see him changing as he realises others are following his assumed authority, no matter how vile his orders. It’s a damned fine bit of acting. Similarly Peschel’s Freytag as the everyman, just an ordinary guy who wants the war to be over, to go home, terrified of being shot by his own side, relieved when Herold takes him in, then the mounting horror in his expression as he witnesses the monstrous acts Herold brings the other soldiers to commit, another superb piece of acting , the two men’s performances playing off one another perfectly to bring emotion, sorrow, fear and utter horror to the viewer.

The Captain is released on September 21st

Turning Widdershins: Finding Baba Yaga

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books


(cover image by Shutterstock, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill)

So, this is a tale
Both old and new,
borrowed, narrowed,
broadened, deepened,
rethreaded, rewoven,
stitches uneven,
re-plastered, re-harled,
rehearsed, reworked
until it’s my own.

Love comes through a back door,
leaves by the front.
Not all baptisms occur at the font.
Witches are made, of blood and bone.
Witches are made, not only born.
A story is, not always means.
We pass on our genius
as well as our genes.

You think you know this story.
You hope you know this story.
You want to tell this story,
perhaps now you will.”

Our many cultures in our world are rich in folklore and myth, tales and characters that persist for generations, centuries, even outlast the millennia; passed down, by oral storytellers originally, later through the written word, later still radio, film, comics, online. They never go away, prove an endless spring of inspiration to creators of each age because the old stories that have endured the battering winds of the centuries without eroding speak, at their heart, of very human conditions, of love and hate, isolation and belonging, fear and hope, youth and age, ignorance and wisdom, cowardice and bravery, treachery and loyalty. These tales can feature trickster spider gods like Anansi, or brave but flawed heroes like Achilles or Gilgamesh; gods, heroes, villains, talking animals, magical creatures like dragons. But all of them, really, are about us, about people. It’s why they still fascinate us.

We denizens of the 21st century are no different in that respect from any of the people who went before us, from that writing explosion fueled by libraries and journals in the 19th century back to the medieval monk in a scriptorium working by candlelight, the storyteller sharing his tales by firelight at night as the caravan camps in its desert crossing (a tradition still honoured in some remote places), the wandering bards going from town to town to spin their tales to the Classical Greeks, right back to our ancestors painting tales on rock walls (again, not entirely gone, the Aboriginal people of Australia still honour this practise, telling stories and singing them to the land and the people).

Certain stories echo more frequently, prove truly flexible and adaptable to each new age, yet without losing their ancient roots, and that great figure of Russian and Eastern European folklore, the Baba Yaga with her iron teeth and chicken-leg house that wanders the forest is one of those. In very early versions of the Russian language her name can mean midwife. Or sometimes a seer or fortune teller, or a witch. Those multiple possible meanings nicely illustrate the complex nature of the Baba Yaga: sometimes she can be a kindly woman who helps a traveller, sometimes she is feared, flying through the air on her giant mortar and pestle, kidnapping children to devour. For others she is a protector of the wild nature of the land, or even a spiritual guardianr of the nation.

(Above:the Baba Yaga as depicted from the great Mike Mignola in Hellboy, published Dark Horse; below Ivan Bilibin’s 1902 illustration of the Baba Yaga)

The prolific and highly gifted Jane Yolen gives us all those aspects of the Baba Yaga and more; she plays both with the mythic tropes and archetypes and yet at the same time she gives us a rounded, real character we can believe in, not just a mythic figure, but a person. This is no mean feat and takes dexterous writing skill; to do it in verse takes even more ability, and I can’t help but wonder if it added to the difficulty for her in penning this story. But it was a good decision: some stories simply work better in verse. I’m not sure why, they just do. I think poetry, sometimes, can touch our emotions and immerse the reader further into a feeling, a setting, than prose can (I often find when prose creates those feelings so well in me that it almost becomes lyrical, poetic). Poetry can be like jazz is to classical music, or magic to science, a different perspective on the world, on people.

In Finding Baba Yaga, Jane Yolen gives us Natasha, a young girl in a troubled home, running away, going into that place that so many of our old stories warn us about, into the deep, dark forest that still haunts our collective dreams, and it is there, after walking by the silver moonlight, that she will find that famous chicken-legged house and the iron-toothed old lady inside. Had she been a pretty young lad she’d have ended up in the pot, but, grumpily and yet acceptingly, almost as if she (and the house) knew she would come, the Baba Yaga lets her enter, lets her stay, and as their relationship forms the young woman comes to understand more of the world, of its stories, of her place in those stories, of her own past, her future, and her own being, her own power.

There’s a strong element of the feminine throughout the verses in Finding Baba Yaga; there are a few male figures, such as the handsome (and crafty) prince, but they are very much relegated to supporting characters, ornaments there to help the story unfold. It is the women here who are the important characters, and with the arrival of pretty Vasilisa they become, for a time, a trio, which again harkens back to myths, some older than Baba Yaga’s, the three women who are also one (think the Kindly Ones in Gaiman’s Sandman or Medusa and her sisters or a thousand other takes on this ancient belief of a trinity of womanhood). It also manages to weave some sly, often dark humour into the tale – the Baba Yaga remarking about her sister’s house made of gingerbread and candy and how impractical that Hansel and Gretel house actually is (bears eat parts of it), and how dirty it is inside because she can’t help herself, she always bundles her young help into the oven and eats them…

It is, quite simply, a beautiful, magical, immersive piece of storytelling. I was extremely fortunate to find that the regular science fiction evenings in Edinburgh that the Shoreline of Infinity journal team organise had Jane as a guest earlier in the summer, and months before the book came out she read some of it to us. Poetry is, I find, often best when read out loud, especially by the original writer, so this was an absolute delight to hear Jane reading from her tale in verse. In a nice bit of coincedental timing I had just received an advance copy a few days before that event; it’s rather nice when coincidence turns into a little spark of magic like that.

Event Horizon June 2018 08
(Jane Yolen reading from Finding Baba Yaga at the Shoreline of Infinity’s regular Event Horizon evening in Edinburgh, photo from my Flickr)

This is another of the extremely welcome little novellas which Tor has been publishing over the last few years both physically and in digital form. We’ve reviewed quite a few on here, some by writers new to us, some by established favourites, but all a short but delightful dip into that writer’s world. I think Tor are to be commended for continuing to support and publish these novellas (which cover everything from hard sci-fi to fantasy to horror and even, as here, poetry); it’s a terrific way for readers to encounter new writing without the investment in time a larger book may require, and a good showcase for the writers (as are Tor’s regular short stories they post on their site). It’s also an ideal format for this unusual form of storytelling, of spinning a new take on the bones of old myth, a young woman’s journey seen through the magical power of poetry.

Plus Jane uses the word “widdershins” several times, which I find quite pleasing…

Finding Baba Yaga, a short story in verse, is published by Tor in October

We Shall Fight Until We Win

We Shall Fight Until We Win: a Century of Pioneering Political Women,
Edited by Laura Jones, Heather McDaid & Sha Nazir,
404 Ink / BHP Comics

Two small Indy Scottish publishers, BHP Comics (who are also behind the Glasgow Comic Con and the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival) teamed up with 404 Ink to create this anthology of “pioneering political women”, We Shall Fight Until We Win, which marks the century since (some) women got the vote in the UK with an all-woman creator team (nicely diverse line up too in terms of age, orientation, ethnic background, all encouraging to see) with short pieces on women from different decades across that century.

It’s a very interesting read, some tales being several pages, others being but a single page, and I admire the fact that they decided this would not take the route of only picking subjects most can admire, it also takes in subjects such as Margaret Thatcher because, even for those who loathed that very divisive politician the book cannot ignore that she was the first woman prime minister and the effect she had on changing politics in the UK, for good or ill, and while I personally cannot stand her I think it was indeed important that an anthology of this nature acknowledged her.

The range of subjects is as wide as the backrounds of the creators here, some well-known – Emmeline Pankhurst, Nicola Sturgeon, Dianne Abbot – while others may only be familiar to those who have an interest in specific parts of history. That’s a good thing, of course, because it means even if you consider yourself fairly well-versed in history there is a good chance you are still going to find out about a remarkable person you hadn’t heard of before. I like that aspect of these kinds of works, it is no bad thing, regardless of age, to be exposed to new people and ideas and events.

I’m not going to go through each individual chapter and creators, but I must mention a few that stood out for me personally. I liked Kathryn Briggs and Heather McDaid’s The Glasgow Girls right from the first page; I loved the style, infused with touches of Mackintosh and Art Noveau, and the title, riffing on the famous Glasgow Boys art movement. While most of the entries here opt to highlight a particular individual, this one has a warm, cooperative, social, community feel to it, celebrating a group of young women – school girls at the time – who saw immigrant families being settled into their local neighbourhoods in and around Glasgow, many of whom had fled terrible circumstances.

The children of these refugee families would attend local schools and they became part of the community, so when the seemingly eternally short-sighted and cold-hearted Kafkaeque monster of the Home Office opted to eject some from the country, placing entire families (including children) into detention, these young girls acted, they organised, they protested, they whipped up support, they stood up for their friends, and by god they made a difference. I was very touched by this particular story, partly because it showed the power of good will, well directed, but also because it chimed with an element of Scottish identity which is dear to many of us, that “we’re aw Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (essentially meaning we’re all the same, regardless) and that no matter where you came from, when you live here with us, you are one of us. Which is not to say we don’t have bigotry and racism in Scotland, sadly we do have that ignorant hatred too, but there is a song social and community strand to the national identity that still wants to embrace that inclusivity and standing by one another, and it was wonderful to see such young women taking that lesson and applying it to help others.

Jenny Bloomfield and Grace Wilson’s Life and Times of Mhairi Black, the very young, working class woman who became an SNP MP and brought her blunt, no nonsense approach to the stuffy, rule-obsessed House of Commons and showed it what she thought of their arcane rituals and customs (she was there to represent her electorate and didn’t give a damn about the games and rituals older MPs played by, much to their ire), had me smiling as it summed up this firecracker. Hannah Berry told of a woman I hadn’t heard of, Jayaben Desai, who stood up not just against misogyny and racism but the simple exploitation more than a few uncaring company’s have used on their workers over the years, organising together, as a union, to fight for their rights, something that affects all of us.

Hari Conner and Durre Shahwar’s story of Noor Inayat Khan was remarkable, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who volunteered to serve in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) during WWII, then trained by SOE and parachuted behind into Occupied Europe as a wireless operator, risking life and torture by the Gestapo to help liberate it from the Nazis, and paying the ulimtate price. I could read a whole book on that unbelievably brave woman, who was executed in the hell of Dachau, her last word reportedly a defiant “Liberte!”

I think the one that most emotionally affected me was Sabeena Akhtar and Erin Aniker’s The 60%. Like The Glasgow Girls this wasn’t about an individual, in fact this time not even about a small group, it was about, well, about most women. Not the ones in the history and politics texts who are remembered for their deeds and thoughts which changed the world, but for all the other women who didn’t have the “privilege to fight and franchise”, the mothers, aunt, the working women who then went home from that work to raise children and look after husbands. Your mother, my mother, our aunts, sisters and others who changed the world in other ways while raising us, carnig for us, teaching us, setting an example while nurturing us. I think that particular story is pretty universal “and though you haven’t read their names, I’d wager you know their faces.” Of course we know their faces, they are our own family and friends.

I was lucky enough to hear BHP’s Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer, and 404 Ink’s Lauren Jones (see below) discuss the project on the opening day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (my report on some of the comics and SF events from this summer’s festival is here), and it was fascinating to listen to how they went about this collaboration between the two Indy publishers (404’s first forary in comics). Not just in terms of embracing creators from a diverse number of backgrounds (something BHP has a strong ethos about, to their credit), but also from the production side – much of this work from new talent and established creators like Hannah Berry and Denise Mina (and our old chum and former FP blog reviewer Nicola Love, who I must give a shout out to) was solicited and completed and edited within two or three months.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 03
(Heather Palmer, Sha Nazir and Lauren Jones signing after their Edinburgh book fest talk, pic from my Flickr)

If these were two big publishers cooperating they would still be working out a legal document before they had started at that point! But being small and nimble BHP and 404 could push ahead quickly on that deal and the actual project to have it ready in a remarkably swift time period. I’m also heartened by hearing that copies have been going out to many school libraries in Scotland, and after chairing an event later at the festival with Sha Nazir several school librarians came over to chat about the book and other titles BHP had, and to note down other suggestions for graphic works they could use to help kids learn about complex subjects. It’s nice to know that this will be read in many of our schools.

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story,
Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre

Kangaroo has been doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit, receiving quite a bit of acclaim, and now with it being eligible for the 2019 Oscars they are making a push to get it noticed a bit wider by cinema-goers (and the Academy, the old “for your consideration”), which is how yours truly managed to get a screener to watch. And although this is very, very hard to watch in places, I am glad I had the chance to see this Australian documentary. As the film-makers and others point out early on there is a real dichotomy in the image of the kangaroo – it is the national symbol of Australia, it’s on their coat of arms, that sports-mad nation nicknames many of its teams after roos. And yet they slaughter millions of these animals every single year.

Not just slaughter, but killed often in the most disgustingly inhumane ways. Make no mistake, although this is a compelling documentary, you will need a strong stomach in certain parts of this film, it does not pull many punches in depicting just what goes on, nor should it – one of the central points here is that so many, in Australia and around the world where roo products (meat, leather) are exported, are totally unaware of what is happening, aided by a complacent government that seems to be in cahoots with a wealthy, multi-million dollar industry (and isn’t that something we’ve seen all too often in many different industries in many different countries? Strange how easily morality and decency can go when big money is involved). There are some stomach-churning scenes filmed by activists who are determined to break that cover, bring these practises out into the light – literally, as most of the hunting is done at night.

The law says any kangaroos “harvested” need to be killed swiftly and humanely, as you’d expect from similar standards in any animal food industries – we all, rightly, get sickened and outraged if cattle, pigs and sheep are made to suffer before the inevitable abattoir date and we have built up laws to protect the animals from such needless suffering. But shooter firing at night from a truck bumping over rough terrain and firing at a moving target often miss. Many roos are hit but not fatally, some take hours, days or in one case the crew documents, two weeks to die. Two weeks of agony and suffering. And that’s not the worst – there are the baby Joeys, the mothers shot, the baby still alive but helpless. The hunters take the baby animal and swing it by its hind legs, dashing its head on the nearby Ute (that ubiquitous Aussie truck), or in one especially sickening scene, the man stands on a tiny infant Joey after pulling it from the pouch of the dead mother. Yes, I did warn you, there are some stomach-turning scenes here. I’m an old horror fiend, grew up in that first wave of unregulated “video nasties”, and can take all sorts of gore on film. If it is fictional. Seeing it inflicted on an animal for real. Not so much.

The film doesn’t use these tactics just as shockers to get your attention and raise your awareness though, it is quite clear how stressful and disturbing this is to the film-makers and to the activists who are gathering this evidence, often at the risk of their own life. One couple who film and collect evidence bought land as a preserve for wildlife, but the law allows neighbouring farmers to drive onto their land and kill roos legally. Yeah, imagine a bunch of gun nuts on a truck in the dark of an outback night driving right past your house on your ground firing away and imagine not just the animal slaughter on your own property but how easily that could end in a human tragedy too. They gather evidence in film and, gruesomely, in body parts, that are then examined by vets to prove violations of the hunting rules. The government has largely ignored such evidence before, but with green politicians getting into office now they have politicians who are able to highlight this evidence, and as well as taking it to Aussie authorities, media and people to expose the reality, they take it to other countries who import kangaroo products, which hits the industry where it hurts (suddenly big sports stars like Beckham find out their footie boot leather came from kangaroos and how they were killed, and the major companies like Adidas, unsurprisingly, soon also decide this is not good).

Maybe you aren’t an animal lover and are wondering why you should be bothered. There is more here than just respect for nature and animals though – the big industry sways government policy (you know, governments, who are meant to represent the people, not corporations) and attempts to do similar abroad (one sequence shows some rather underhand shenanigans as they try to influence Californian politicians to lift a ban in imports). And then there is the health question – the roo meat for human consumption does not get the same strict hygiene rules that beef or pork does. The shooters drive through the outback at night, shoot a roo, hang it on the back of the Ute, gut it then and there (another pretty awful scene to watch – blood, knife, innards and bolt-cutters for those strong legs. Yes, shudder), then drive on looking for more. They all have to be shot between dusk and dawn when it is cooler, but as this is allowed at night it can regularly be over 30 degrees centigrade. And it takes all night to fill the truck, so imagine all those corpses hanging in that heat for hours before being driven some distance to the nearest refrigerated storage chiller. Driven in heat on dusty, fly-ridden roads while exposed to all of that contamination and heat, spoiling away. Independent studies of roo meat on sale in shops showed high levels of salmonella and e.coli. So even if you don’t care about animal welfare and enjoy your red meat, you should be worried about this.

It’s often a hard film to watch, there are some truly disturbing scenes, but that’s part of what makes this such a powerful documentary, and the way it covers the other strands, from the big industry-government collusion, the media buying unquestioningly into the much-peddled lies (“they are vermin and need to be exterminated”, “upsetting the natural balance”), the clearly dodgy “science” government agencies use to “prove” animal numbers (which don’t stand up to even basic logical scrutiny) and the public health threat is well handled and gives a rounded picture, rather than simply dwelling on the hideously huge slaughter. The fact much of this is beautifully shot, taking in that astonishing Australian outback and the gorgeous, iconic animals themselves adds a powerful contrast to the more disturbing scenes, while the film itself lays bare not just the monstrous slaughter (millions of animals a year) and the inhumanity of it, but asks upsetting questions about just how humans, as a species, see the natural world as a resource to be used and consumed.

This review was originally penned for Live For Film

Judas: a tale of betrayal but also of hope, forgiveness and love

Judas,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom! Studios


No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

The most famous betrayal in history; two friends, inseparable then sundered in a violent, bloody scene. No, not friends, more, one a saviour, a messiah, even, the other his devout disciple turned betrayer. Judas Iscariot, condemned for all eternity for betraying Christ to the Romans. In the Inferno Dante condemns him to the ninth circle, the lowest level of Hell, a frozen wasteland where Lucifer is trapped in ice, eternally chewing on the body of Judas, perpetual torment, one betrayer to another.

Or so we’re often taught – certainly the interminably dull Bible studies I was forced to go to on a Sunday as a child only ever gave out the simple, black and white, good and bad version of Judas and Jesus, and discussion or even questions about the more complex issues of morality, predestination and free will were not encouraged there. Not so in fiction, of course, where this tale has been retold and re-examined from many different angles, from Amos Oz and Tosca Lee to, more recently, Maxwell Prince and John Amor’s fascinating Judas: the Last Days (reviewed here).

It’s not hard to see why, it is a tale rich with moral conflict and drama and questions which are hard to answer. Did Judas betray his friend because of an evil streak? Or because Christ had to be sacrificed, and that required him to be the one to hand his friend over to the authorities? And if the latter, did he betray Christ because he was asked by his friend to do it because it had to be done to facilitate that sacrifice (and don’t most of humanity’s gods just love a good sacrifice?), and he was the only one he could trust enough to do the deed, even though he knew he would be vilified forever by his actions?

Or what if it was all God’s will, all pre-ordained that this was the role he was always destined to play? If so then how can he be held responsible for his decisions and actions, if he had only ever been a mere puppet on a string? Loveness and Rebelka’s Judas ponder these moral quandaries, and more, it delves into the personal relationship, humanises these two figures, especially Judas.

The initial set-up is handled with deft economy – the bag of silver coins, the kiss (such intimacy laced with betrayal), the scourging of Jesus. This is a well-known tale and they realise they don’t have to tell all of that, it is signified by a mere three panels on the opening page, then the fate of Judas on the next page, bereft, guilt-ridden, the tree, the rope, all handled in only five landscape-format panels, each one successively narrower, suggesting a rush to the end, the walls of his world collapsing in on him, the colours suffused a blood-red by the setting sun. Those two pages are a wonderful example of the way in which the comics medium can use visual shorthand, just a handful of images and panels, to convey so much meaning, the reader filling in the rest, it’s a splendid use of the medium.

But the final panel, hanging from that tree, silhouetted by the setting sun, a dangling black figure against the dying of the light of day, is not the end of Judas’ story. He opens his eyes again, but now he is in the most wretched place of all, the Pit. And another betrayer – perhaps the very first betrayer – the Fallen one who was once the Bringer of Light, Lucifer, is waiting on him. All his life there has been a second voice in his head, alongside the compelling voice of Jesus asking that he follow him, there was another, which sowed doubt like a farmer sows seed, and now Judas is face to face with him.

He is outraged, he rails against his fate, being so condemned to Hell for eternity, he blames Lucifer, but Lucifer talks to him in a persuasive tone. I didn’t put you here, your God did, your best friend, your Saviour. He compares the life of Judas to his own, how neither of them every really had a choice or chance, that these were the roles God always intended for them in His unfolding story. And if they had no choice then how fair is it that they suffer for those actions for all eternity? And the wider question of the world and humanity, what of them in this story, because, Lucifer explains, the story is broken. And Judas can see his point, he had already wondered when alive, if my friend can raise the dead then why do so many of us grieve for lost loved ones, if he can feed the poor then why do so many starve?

And then they are joined by Jesus, his mortal body dead, his spirit ascends not to Paradise but descends into Hell, weighed down by all the sins of the world he claimed to take upon himself. And here he has no power, he is just a dead man, and, Lucifer tells him, his father cannot hear him, or perhaps he can and simply does not care, it is just another part of this broken plan. And below the higher moral and theological questions, the personal: the damned Judas looks his friend in the face. “Did you know?” he asks. Was I always meant to play this role? How could you do that to someone who loved you? Why would you also then leave them in Hell, when you preach forgiveness, why not forgive him?

For me it is that personal aspect of Loveness and Rebelka’s take that is the heart of it – the moral questions are fascinating (and ultimately, I suspect not ones any of us can truly answer with certainty), but the personal aspect between these two friends turned enemies is not just the dramatic meat of the story, it is the emotional heart, and it is indeed very emotional as they face each other in Damnation. And I will not risk spoiling anything by saying anymore on that subject…

Rebelka’s art is perfectly suited to Loveness’s tale here – those aforementioned first two pages, the masterful economic but powerful few opening panels, the flashbacks to his mortal life as he becomes a disciple, often cast in warm, sepia and red tones, in contrast to the black and blue desolation of the Pit he finds himself in after death. There are some clever little detailed touches too – the old tradition, still practised in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church, of showing a saint’s halo like a golden disc behind their head is taken here, except the damned Judas has a black halo-disc.

The darkness of it hints at his eternal damnation, and yet the fact he still has a sort of halo also possibly infers a spark of the divine exists in him, the spark that made him a disciple when he was alive, and that in turn hints at hope, and hope may be the one force that can fix the broken story Lucifer told him of so bitterly. Colin Bell’s lettering is perfect, the speech bubbles from Jesus in a red ink, hinting at the compelling power of his voice (shades of Preacher?), and this is also used to fine effect in Hell where the lettering changes mid-sentence from red to a regular black as his power fades in Hell and he is just another dead human soul.

This is a fascinating story, delving into deep moral and theological questions about our freedom of will versus the possibility of all of our supposed choices being pre-ordained, that we are just actors in a story laid down before we were born, and it that is the case then the Creator who decided that surely must be flawed… But at the deepest level it is a story about friendship, about betrayal, yes, but not just the obvious one of Judas (did Jesus, in effect, betray his friend, condemning him into this hateful role?), and ultimately about three of those most delicate and yet desperately-needed aspects of our lives, three qualities that are so closely related: forgiveness, hope and love.

Clever Indy science fiction with 2036 Origin Unknown

2036 Origin Unknown,
Directed by Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull,
Starring Katee Sackhoff, Ray Fearon, Julie Cox, Steven Cree

Mackenzie “Mack” Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) is one of the last of a dying breed – what used to be a highly qualified, highly trained role that took years of study and experience to achieve, a mission controller for the space programme. Except now that true AI has come along most of those roles are redundant, humans no longer required, the AI, ARTi (voiced by Steven Cree) is pretty much running the show, she’s there as a sort of failsafe, or for some unusual occurrence. Now working all but alone with ARTi in an underground command bunker Mack is overseeing a new mission to Mars, and it’s a project that is fraught with personal, emotional baggage for Mack. Quite aside from her understandable dislike of the new AI usurping the role of herself and all her former colleagues, the last mission to Mars crashed, killing the entire crew – including her father. Add into this mix the eponymous signal of unknown origin and you have an intriguing mix.

What starts as a pretty timely commentary – the threat of ever smarter expert systems and nascent AI being in the news again regularly as a threat even to highly specialised jobs- on humanity’s relationship with technology, adds layers as it progresses. Mack may have to put up with ARTi but it doesn’t mean she has to like it. And the more she works with him the more she finds herself questioning the AI, its motives, its very existence. How exactly did such a sophisticated AI come into being? How did it come to be running so much so quickly, to be accepted by most humans as the way to go? ARTi is using his vast cognitive abilities to create more new technology – including a hyperlight communication system that allows instantaneous communication with the automated new Mars ship and rover (a handy idea that gets around the several minutes of time-lag in normal plant to planet communications between Mars and Earth, obviously useful here for the film-makers too as well as the character). ARTi may seem polite and willing to help, but is he? He isn’t human and she isn’t sure of his exact origins, let alone what hidden motivations he may have…

This is clearly a small budget, Indy production, but Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull uses his limited resources quite well – we do get some decent special effects sequences, such as the original Mars mission, the later one Mack is involved with, but the bulk of the film is Mack alone in the mission control bunker with ARTi. There is a brief visit from a former colleague and video call from her sister, but most of this film is Katee Sackhoff interacting with ARTi’s AI in a small, enclosed space. Much of this would work perfectly on stage and is nicely self-contained.

It also comes with overtones of Dave Bowman alone inside the Discovery with HAL 9000, and while it feels from his performance that Cree is obviously aware of that illustrious and influential predecessor, he gives a carefully nuanced voice performance, paying a little homage to HAL but still making ARTi very much his own character, and one who may have very different ideas about the mission that the humans (but is that a good thing or a bad thing?). The tight running time helps with this claustrophobic bunker setting with Mack and ARTi, building the tension increasingly until… Well, you’ll need to watch the film to find out.

The film-makers have been very fortunate in landing Katee Sackhoff for their film, I’d imagine a lot of science fiction fans will be more interested because of her presence (and as already mentioned she carries almost all of the human side of this movie). But a film still has to deliver good story and characters, and this is a clever piece of small budget science fiction that does deliver, using a nice combination of tightly wound emotions (Sackhoff mostly only has the screen of ARTi to act against, but she does it well) with layers of intrigue and mystery to good effect.

2036 Origin Unknown will be released on iTunes, other Video on Demand services and DVD from August 13th