High school, zombies & musicals: Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail,
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu

High school. Zombies. Hard to tell sometimes which is more horrific. Add Christmas concert, overbearingly strict new headmaster, boyfriend troubles, arguments with parents, worrying about what you’ll do with your future plus a zombie apocalypse and set much of it to music and you have Anna and the Apocalypse.

I’m sure I’m not alone in loving Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was one of those episodes that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea that would fall flat, but actually it was enormous fun and also moved on the story arc and character developments. There’s a lot of Once More, With Feeling in Anna’s DNA, and a touch of those wickedly satirical musical episodes of South Park too, I think (indeed the opening credits are animated and have a slight similarity to South Park’s style). Here, while the young cast (sensibly) play it all straight, it’s also clear the film-makers are having a huge amount of fun taking the American style high school musical, populated by teens with whiter than white teeth who love in sunny, Californian towns and royally taking the mickey out of them.

The sight of a bunch of Scottish school kids and staff in a wee town near Glasgow bursting into this very US style (complete with teachers and even the dinner ladies dancing) is side-splitting, while lyrics like “not a Hollywood ending” further satirise the American musicals and teen comedies Anna riffs on (although not in a nasty way, you get the impression they like laughing at them but still like them). And as one character comments when the action starts, this sort of thing happens in other countries, not in a wee town in Scotland, and that is part of the fun here.

We have the Usual Suspects – Anna (Ella Hunt) is a gifted, smart, intelligent girl, approaching the end of school and scared to tell her father she’s going travelling before she applies to university (he is over protective after losing his wife), her friends John (Malcolm Canning), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Nick (Ben Wiggins) and Lisa (Marli Siu). The kooky, daft but loveable one, the “best friend” who is so obviously totally in love with her, the geeky one, the obsessive, intense one, the trying to be a hard-man jock but masking inner feelings one, and naturally a nasty headmaster (Paul Kaye) who would probably have enjoyed teaching at Sunnydale High, the sort of headmaster who clearly hates kids and resents that they may grow up to have a happier life than he has had.

Anna and the Apocalypse takes all of these generic elements but filters them through a small, west-coast Scottish town sensibility, and that’s funny in itself seeing such very American stylings done in a wee Scots school as they prepare for the annual Christmas concert (especially slightly ditzy but delightful Lisa, who plans a somewhat more risque number than she told the headmaster she’d perform). And then, wouldn’t you know it, the zombie apocalypse happens. And at first Anna, John and the others don’t quite notice. Heading out of her house, walking down the rainy winter street Anna is singing and dancing, earphones plugged in, while behind her neighbours flee from their homes pursued by the undead, fires burn, cars lie crashed and she’s oblivious with her phone, singing and dancing away, until she bumps into John dancing and singing his way to school, they duet and, of course, that is the moment a zombie in a snowman costume attacks them (hey, we’ve all been there).

After that it is the quest for survival, Anna and John finding some other friends along the way, trying to sneak across their town to school to find their other friends and families, and because authorities have issued emergency alerts saying the school will be the evacuation point for the town. And as with all such films, it’s a guessing game as to which characters are going to make it, which are going to end up becoming finger food for the ravenous undead who are rapidly over-running their town. And again while this takes the well-known generic tropes, it does so with such a knowing nod and wink – these people are fans and they are in on the joke, they know we are in on the joke and, to be honest, the young cast are so damned likeable that you buy into it happily. Of course the flipside of that is that you know not all the characters you come to love are going to make it. But they may go out with a song!

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Anna and the Apocalypse 02
(a very happy director: John McPhail talking to the late night film festival audience before Anna and the Apocalypse screened in the Edinburgh Filmhouse)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Anna and the Apocalypse 03

This was my final movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival, part of the late night strand the EIFF does each year (and don’t horrors suit the late night slot?). Director John McPhail and many of the cast and crew were at the screening, and clearly extremely excited and buzzed to bring their Indy Scottish film to the country’s most famous film festival. As a very delighted John McPhail told the audience, this is their home-town showing, screening to a Scottish audience, and the pleasure and excitement he and the others showed in being allowed to make this film then get to screen it at a packed festival showing was infectious. The festival audience didn’t just laugh at the humour or wince at the (deliberately) OTT violence (very cartoony), the whooped and hollered and clapped along to the musical numbers, it was almost like being at a Rocky Horror screening, and that made it ten times more fun (the festival crowd was also treated to a special sing-a-long segment after the screening).

This is gleeful film-making, loving but also happy to play with the generic tropes of horror, teen drama and musicals, and has future cult film written all over it. Best seen with a group of friends.

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World,
Directed by Franck Ribière,
Starring Anna Mouglalis, Niels Schneider, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Julie Recoing, Michel Fau, André Wilms

Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and another intriguing film, this time from French director Franck Ribière, this partakes of elements of murder-thriller, period piece and delightfully lurid horror. Set in the famous/infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle district of Paris during the 1920s, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World takes real-life settings and historical characters – most notably the theatre’s great scream-queen, Marie-Thérèse Beau, better known by her stage name of Paula Maxa, played by Mouglalis, an actress who was slaughtered in thousands of violent and gorey ways every night on the tiny stage of the theatre. It’s claimed she was “killed” some ten thousand times, and early on her character lists many of the ways, from strangling to stabbing, slashing, burning, boiling, decapitation, being pulverised. And yet, she shrugs, here I still am…

In some ways this listing of nightly horrors enacted on the stage of this notorious theatre (which only closed in the 1960s) and the fact that Paula “survives” it all and keeps going is part of the central theme here: we were told in the post screening Q&A with the film-makers that they were not aware of a violent assault Paula had endured in her younger years, and yet they had written such a scene in affecting her and a sibling, in an uncanny art imitating life moment. They were exploring the nature of horror and violence, how it affects people, even the pretend violence of the horror on stage or in the movies, both those who watch and those who act it out (imagine being an actor having to be killed in inventively gruesome manners every single night). Experimental psychologist Alfred Binet, another real-life character involved with the actual theatre, is also, appropriately, a figure here, helping owner De Lorde construct not just physically awful torments and demises for Paula, but mentally brutal as well, pushing, pushing, pushing, aided by the giant figure of Paul, the special effects wizard (another real life character, apparently his stage blood formula is still used to this day).

Mixed into these factual elements are more fictional dramatic ones – a young journalist from Le Petit Journal, Jean (Niels Schneider), investigating both the moral brigade demanding the theatre should be closed for indecency (forerunners of later “we should control what everyone can see, for their own good” types that burned rock and roll records or the Mary Whitehouse mob) but also a series of disappearances and murders around the Pigalle and Montmartre areas (loved by tourists today, but rather rougher back then). Is the murdered inspired by what he sees on stage, is it driving his fantasies to act them out for real? Who are the figures haunting Paula? Does her work help her excise her own demons or is it all pushing her to brink – and do those in control of the theatre even care or are they happy to push beyond the limit?

The film is set in mid 1920s Paris, but the cobbled back streets, the heels clicking on them through foggy nights, the evening capes, they could all come from a Victorian-set Hammer film, and the gallons of luridly red “Kensington Gore” as the blood flows scarlet stands out against the dark, mostly nocturnal scenes, as vivid a claret as ever flowed in a Hammer film. Interestingly they film-makers told the festival audience that originally this was to be an English language film, set in New York, but as they explored it more, found the historical Paula Maxa, it became clear they really needed it to be a French film, set in Paris. They struggled for funding, but a Belgian film fund stepped up, as did Netflix, who they thought would ask for it to revert to the original English language premise, but instead were quite happy for it to be a period French piece.

In fact Franck Ribière commented on the “Netflix issue” which has come up at quite a number of film festivals around the world, most notably at Cannes, where some are glad of the new stream of funding and distribution while many others are horrified and say it is killing cinema with movies going straight to television streaming and bypassing cinemas. I can see arguments on both sides, but that’s a debate for another article, not a review. I will note that Franck Ribière explained he didn’t see the problem, it was another welcome source of funding for film-makers, and nobody makes a director or writer work with Netflix, it is up to them to approach them about partnerships, and that he is happy to be able to watch films as he wants, in cinemas, on TV, on his phone. Many other directors, I am sure, disagree, but it was interesting to hear him comment.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Most Assassinated Woman in the World 02
(Director Franck Ribière in dark shirt on the right and his colleagues at the post-festival screening Q&A with the audience)

No news on a UK release for this one yet, but as it is co-funded by Netflix I assume it won’t be long before it appears online, so those of you who don’t have a film festival or arthouse cinema nearby will be able to see it too. All in all I really enjoyed this, it offered both the over-the-top horror the Grand Guignol was famed for (and which it has given its name to as a general term in horror now) mixed with a more psychological aspect, and layers of “plays within plays” as we see fictional and real elements of Paula’s life mixed with pretend versions for the film and more pretend but almost real versions on the stage, until we’re left wondering what elements are real, what scenes are what they seem to be and which are theatrical artifice, all shot in a beautifully sensual manner. One of the smarter, classier horrors I’ve seen recently, and yet one which happily plays with elements of classic horror too.

Huge fun in Blood Fest

Blood Fest,
Directed by Owen Egerton,
Starring Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Jacob Batalon, Barbara Dunkelman, Tate Donovan, Zachary Levi

It will surprise no-one who is a fan of fun, punk-ethos Indy studio Rooster Teeth their latest live-action film is a supercharged, gleefully genre-mashing and referencing outing with as many laughs as it has splatter (and even the odd quiet, emotional, character moment). Owen Egerton writes, directs and indeed stars as the leering, bloodthirsty showman (I could imagine Alice Cooper playing this role when younger) who orchestrates the eponymous Blood Fest, a festival for horror fans. Within the large, walled grounds (actually a re-dressed Renaissance Fest location in Texas, we were told at the post-show Q&A) there are multiple locations based on horror genre tropes – the high school prowled by a serial killer, the circus with evil clowns, vampire girls seducing drunken lads, zombies and more.

In a film which revels in multiple, loving references and homages both to other Rooster Teeth creations and many horror movies (even the title is a nod to the famous/infamous Blood Feast), Blood Fest opens, rather nicely for an old horror fan like me, with a nod to Carpenter’s Halloween, zooming in on the suburban American neighbourhood on Halloween, and a young boy watching classic Universal horrors with his mum. Until a shadowy figure is glimpsed when she goes to the kitchen for snacks (a scene telegraphed by the tell-tale sign of the room light refusing to come on, a deliberate take on a generic device in slashers). Fast forward and that young boy, Dax (Robbie Kay) is now a young man, and one who has embraced the horror genre as a coping method for dealing with his fears and his horrible experience of seeing his mother murdered in front of him, before being rescued by his father. His father who is a famous psychologist and who blames the entire horror genre for creating the urge for violence that killed his wife (carefully ignoring his own culpability – the murderer was one of his own patients).

Needless to say the father is not going to allow his son to go off with his friends, Sam (Seychelle Gabriel) and Krill (Spider-Man Homecoming’s Jacob Batalon) to the largest, splatterest horror gathering ever, and equally needless to say our plucky teens find a way around dear old dad, who is busy telling network television how horror is to blame for everything bad in society while the kids sneak off to indulge their love of the genre. And I doubt it will surprise any horror fans that (bit of a spoiler alert!) that Blood Fest is not exactly what it seems. When the showman takes the stage for the opening ceremony (Egerton again) and bemoans how stale the genre has become, how mainstream (“we put Freddy on a lunchbox!”) then cries out to his baying crowd that they want to make horror scary again, I think most genre fans will suspect what is coming (and if not the bouncers standing between the crowd and stage, clad in pig-head masks also telegraph trouble in advance). The blood here is not fake, the fans are trapped inside this compound as the showman makes his own demented horror to end all horrors by filming them as they are slaughtered in a variety of horror tropes (this includes zombies with Go-Pro cameras strapped to them to record the carnage!).

I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler though, as this happens very early on in the film and is pretty much the basis of it – also, as I said I think serious horror fans (who are the main audience for this, after all) will guess what is coming, at least for that part. After that reveal and the commencement of the carnage it becomes a battle of survival for our young friends who have to cross the various themed horror locations to try and escape. Along the way Egerton packs in so many references to a multitude of horror films, but this is done in a fast-paced, loving and hugely fun manner – this is the film-makers letting us know they too are fans and winking to us, we’re all in on this together. Who is going to make it, who is going to die, how are they going to die? Egerton and his team take us on a well-paced rollercoaster, gleefully throwing in slapstick as well as splatter, and sometimes both at the same time, as well as delighting in doing a little genre-mashing.

For all the well-paced fun and loving references to the genre’s history, however, there are some serious elements in here; not for the first time horror, that genre often much-maligned by certain groups in society, holds up a distorting mirror to that society. The reactionary elements blame the genre for everything bad in the world – this is not unlike the idiotic Wertham “Seduction of the Innocent” which blamed comics, especially horror comics, for a perceived growth in societal ills. In recent decades is has been horror movies, rock music, rap music, video games and others that are easy to blame rather than turn attention to what is really wrong, what really causes violence in society, and, without giving too much away, there is a later element in this frantic fight for survival where Egerton makes clear that there are other forces in society that we should be far more worried about than horror-inspired slashers, killer clowns and monsters.

It’s clever, fun, well-paced, packed with multiple references for fans to pick up on, laced with dark humour and even a few gentle character moments and emotional elements, it’s pretty much ideal for most horror fans, I think, I can easily see this becoming a future cult horror flick. Egerton and a bunch of the Rooster Teeth family were at the Edinburgh Film Festival UK premiere of Blood Fest, and Egerton especially was on terrific form, full of energy, talking up the crowd both before and after the showing like a delightfully demented horror version of PT Barnum. There was a group of Rooster Teeth fans in the audience and the interaction between them and the film crew, and the other audience members (some of whom were new to RT productions but clearly looking forward to seeing more), was terrific, there was just such a huge, positive, good-natured vibe at this late night festival screening, and Egerton et al seemed more than happy to be invited to such a prestigious film festival and join their long-running roster of late-night horror delights.

One of the Rooster Teeth producers was asked when the film would be getting a UK release; he replied they couldn’t say just yet, but that they would be making an announcement very soon, so keep an eye on the RT site and twitter for more, because this is one horror hounds are going to lap up.

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Creepy tales for the dark nights: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2,
M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore, John Reppion, Al Davison, George Kambadais, Abigail Larson, Meghan Hetrick
SelfMadeHero

Autumn winds blow, shaking the remaining leaves off the trees, the temperature drops, and the nights stretch out towards the direction of winter, darkness falling earlier every night – the ideal time to curl up indoors, preferably by the fireside, and read a damned good ghost story. And few ghost stories are more classic than those of Montague Rhodes James a medievalist scholar of some academic renown, but best remembered today as one of the all-time great tellers of ghostly tales, many originally designed for him to read to friends and students by candlelight on Christmas Eve. They’ve been enormously influential, and adapted to other media across the last century, including two rather fine volumes adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, the second of which has just arrived from SelfMadeHero.

There are four tales here, each illustrated by a different artist. Number 13 by George Kambadais, Count Magnus by Abigail Larson, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, by Al Davison and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by Meghan Hetrick. M R James was a master of crafting short, unsettling stories, and these are just the right length to establish the story and, just as important for a James tale, the atmosphere. Because James, as with Poe, it’s as much about that atmosphere, from the seemingly mundane to the first inkling that something isn’t quite right, then that slow building sense of unease that grows into dread then fear as those hints of movement in the shadows manifest.

The Number 13 plays on the Western tradition of that number being considered unlucky – many hotels, for example, will avoid naming a room or floor with it and go from 12 to 14, and that’s the case here, where our visitor, exploring some local Scandinavian history returns to his hotel room one evening, and find it odd that he hadn’t noticed room 13 just next to his own when he had passed it during the day. Gazing idly out of the room window as he smokes, he notices the room light casting the shadow of himself and his window on the nearby building – and that of his neighbour, in room 13, also standing at his window. Except next morning, there is no room 13… Kambadais’ art does a terrific job of slowly stretching the everyday normality of a regular hotel into something…other…wrong… threatening, nice and subtle to begin with (astonishing how uneasy just a door can make you…) and then changes in shadows and colour and… Well, read it to find out, I’m not going to blow it here!

And that is the down side of short horror tales – personally I think the shortform story particularly suits horror, but in a review it does present certain problems, most pointedly that you can’t say too much without risking a spoiler. So I’m trying to be very careful here, and talk more about the art and the atmosphere than the narrative of the four tales here. Larson’s Count Magnus (one of James’ more famous creations) has a more stylised art, the depiction of the eponymous count glimpsed in an oil painting long, angular, distinctive, the panels set in an ancient Swedish churchyard and crypts conjures up a feeling of confinement and claustraphobia, while the colouring by Al Davison is simply gorgeous, adding much to Larson’s art on the Count (a scene with the multiple colours from the sunlight streaming through a stained glass window into the church is beautifully done, or a single beam of light into an old tomb).

Davison takes on the main art duties in the next story, an old, old favourite of mine, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, which I’m sure is a favourite with many others too, not least for the classic 1960s TV adaptation of this superbly creepy story. Again we go from the mundane, almost boringly normal – starting with a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge dons chatting over dinner about their holiday plans – to the slowly building sense of unease, the art style and the colour palette shifting from a well-lit, realistic depiction to a cold, icy blue, night-time view of shifting shadows and strange, distorted figures and that horrible feeling that there is something there, right there, in your room close to you, something that should not be there.

Red Thorn artist Meghan Hetrick completes this volume with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. This starts out like a conventional adventure story, our protagonist following a well-worn path of those before him who have tried to find the secret key that reveals where a fabled treasure has been hidden, a treasure most now consider to be just an old folk tale. And like any great adventure hero our clever chap stumbles across a clue no-one else has, that puts them on the trail. And that’s where this starts to diverge from an Indiana Jones or National Treasure type adventure of clues and hidden doorways and secrets concealed and uncovered, because, after all, this is an M R James story, and this rapidly goes from high adventure to something far more disturbing, almost Lovecraftian-level disturbing. The scenes of preparation and discovery take in bright, sunlit villages, grand houses with beautiful stained-glass windows, in stark contrast to the scenes where they start to uncover secret areas, panels depicting them descending spiral stones of an old well, lit only by the flickering lamp, linger in the mind after the story is finished.

In fact all of these stories linger in the mind, especially if, as I did, you read them as they – and the originals – should best be read: on a dark, autumn night, by the fireside, happily lost in the slowly-building atmosphere of fear and dread each tale crafts so perfectly, until you suddenly start back to yourself when the wind howls down your chimney and for just a moment you feel a stab of fear, the creeping fingers of the stories still stirring your perceptions, until you realise that sound in the chimney was just the wind, that the blinds only rattled because you forgot to close the window and the breeze is shaking them. Or wait, you did close that window earlier, didn’t you, and it was just a sudden breeze that blew out the candle, wasn’t it?….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 - Mike Carey
(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Film: psychological horror in The Resident

The Resident,

Directed by John Ainslie

Starring Tianna Nori, Mark Matechuk, Krista Madison

You could be forgiven for thinking the story concept for The Resident (also known as The Sublet in the US) sounds not unfamiliar – a mother and young child mostly alone in a new apartment with odd noises and things happening, it does stir memories of Dark Water and other such offerings. But Canadian film-makers Black Fawn are getting themselves a bit of a rep in horror circles (they also did The Bite which Garth reviewed on here last year), and there was something about this that sparked my Spidey-sense and told me this was going to be worth checking out, and so it proved, for while the main idea of mother and child in possibly haunted new home is far from new, The Resident plows a different furrow from others in that field, offering up a genuinely creepy, psychological approach.

Joanna (Tianna Nori), her husband and her new baby have to move into temporary lodgings for his new job, and right from the start this is an apartment block that just screams out that there’s something wrong. It takes several attempts buzzing the intercom just to get into the block, then on schlepping up the stairs (just what you want with a baby stroller) to the apartment for rent they find no-one there, no sign of the landlord. But the door opens and there’s a not telling them to look around but if they don’t like it then pretty much leave and don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out. Not exactly a warm welcome. Oh, and there is a locked room in the apartment. Which hubby surmises must be where the landlord stores his personal items, but which you just know is going to be something else…

There’s a palpable sense of unease right from the start, just viewing the apartment, but once they move in the sense of disturbance grows. Much of the increasing sense that things just aren’t right comes from Joanna basically being at home by herself with the baby, day after day, in a strange city while her husband is out at his new job. She doesn’t know anyone here and, mysteriously, she never seems to bump into anyone from the neighbouring apartments coming or going. But she does hear them. Sometimes. A banging, banging, banging on the walls and other sounds.

And this is where The Resident takes a different tack from some haunted apartment tales – director Ainslie wisely uses the more mundane, everyday elements of Joanna’s life as a new mother in a strange city to both heighten her feelings of isolation and dislocation and yet at the same time also make you second guess her state of mind. Like many new mothers she’s already dealing with major life changes – the physical and emotional sides of pregnancy and giving birth, then finding yourself now mostly at home on your own during the work day, totally cut out of your previous routines. That is a difficult thing for most first-time mothers to adjust to, and here in a new city she doesn’t even have friends or relatives to come round, take them out, babysit or help out, increasing her isolation, and it doesn’t help that her husband is busy with his new job and his stress there means he is less than supportive even when he is at home…

And I found this was the element that really made The Resident work for me – that real-world side of things, of Joanna trying to cope with her new life and baby and new home is something that is very easy to empathise with, and grounds the spookier aspects. In fact, it not only grounds them it also offers the viewer a dilemma – how much of the increasingly strange things that seem to be happening are real? And how many are the products of a woman in a heightened emotional state? And that really helps drive The Resident into a much more psychological level as the viewer is left wondering what is real and what is not – and realising that even if it isn’t real, the effect is the same on poor Joanna. And what if it is real, what are those noises from neighbouring apartments where nobody every seems to be home, what’s in that locked room, what happened here before… With a lean running time The Resident builds atmosphere right from the start and increases the psychological pressure throughout, not outstaying its welcome, so keeping the tensions nice and taught.

The Resident is released on DVD, on-demand and download by Second Sight from May 22nd; this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Books: Disturbing, personal horror on the Downs – Chalk

Chalk,

Paul Cornell,

Tor Books

(cover design by Peter Lutjen)

The great publisher of SF&F, Tor, has been doing a cracking run of shorter books recently, some by new talent, some by existing, some very short (like 90 page novellas), some a bit longer (as is the case here, although still a bit shorter than many modern novels – which is a good thing, actually, it’s just the length it need to be, nothing unnecessary). When this one arrived on my desk it went straight into my eternal tottering pile of must-reads because – well, it’s Paul Cornell. And I also had that mysterious vibe, the bookseller’s Spidey sense, that just whispers to me sometimes that this is a book I need to read. And yes, I did need to read it (bless you, Spidey-sense, you never lead to anything less than a great read).

Andrew Waggonner is a schoolboy in the early 1980s, at a private school that’s seen better days,  in rural Wiltshire, and like any school anywhere there are all the usual things any kid has to try to juggle – the expectations of parents, indifferent teachers “preparing you” for life, the different social castes of your fellow schoolkids, avoiding the bullies, wondering about the opposite sex with a mixture of eager desperation and terror, about trying to figure out who you are, or who you want to be, and, this being school, how not to have any of that stand out too much in case you get picked out as different, listening to music and trying to make sure it’s the “right” music – music that the other kids will approve of and not make fun of you for listening to.

Like pretty much every school ever there is, of course, a bully – Drake – and his clique all desperately trying to make themselves look hard in front of their leader. But when Waggonner becomes the target for their violent urges, they overstep the mark, going far beyond the normal name-calling or hitting to something much worse, far more damaging, both physically and emotionally, something that scars both victim and perpetrators. And it will have repercussions. Nobody here is entirely good or bad, entirely villain or victim; as Chalk unfolds, rather satisfyingly they become elements of each.

At only 265 pages I don’t want to go into too many plot details, because this is a beautifully compact, self-contained work and to describe too much of the events, especially that key moment of bullying abuse, would be to spoil too much. Suffice to say that it is extremely disturbing, even to a seasoned horror fan, and the chain of events it sets in motion, rippling forward is equally disturbing and unsettling. The story oozes a creeping sense of horror, and a sense of an inevitable dread, like something from Poe, that feeling of the world moving off-kilter with a slow but unstoppable, irresistible force, of darkness becoming visible.

Set in the West Country, Cornell makes great use of the location – this is ancient landscape, both natural chalk downs and the landmarks made by the hand of man, ancient man, like the eerie, haunting chalk figures, the great stone circles like Avebury, or West Kennet Long Barrow. This is a region steeped in the arcane, the ritual, myth and magic since the neolithic days of our distant ancestors and anyone who has walked there will be well aware that those long-distant times can still raise a tingle on the back of your neck, a feeling of … something… The people here were an old people long before Rome’s Legions marched across the land. There’s still a sniff of magic in the air now that even a modern world of motorways and television doesn’t erase, and what happens if that ancient magic starts pushing into the modern world, reshaping it?

Chalk bleeds atmosphere, a slow-burn build towards a satisfying, well-paced, faster and faster urgent climax that could go one way or the other, the sense of place and history and myth almost palpable. The atmosphere of 80s school life is just as well articulated by Cornell – Doctor Who on a Saturday night, the hidden world of classroom cliques and groups that no adult (parent or teacher) can protect you from (or often even wants to know about), and, this being the 80s, listening religiously to the Top 40 each week, because this is an era where the radio and singles are how you get your music (no multi-channel digital streams here, this is an era where the school is just getting its first Dragon 32 computers) and it is vital to know what the latest number one is in case another kid asks you. It doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, but it does evoke the era extremely well, and I found myself having more than a few flashbacks; Cornell invests the settings, character and tales with a personal touch that makes the reader empathise all the more (even the bullies are fully-realised, not cardboard cut-outs but complex, contradictory human beings).

There are moments of sharp horror, of violence, blood, fire, some from the now, some echoes from the distant past, but still recorded into the very landscape, almost like Kneale’s Stone Tapes (I found it also, for me, evoking something of another creepy tale of that era, the Children of the Stones). But mostly Chalk, like much of the best horror stories, thrives on atmosphere, the type that gets under your skin, of a growing disturbance, both personal and more widespread across the land, slowly but inevitably building; a creeping horror, the ancient meshing with the modern, a sickening sense of dread cresting like a dark wave that, sooner or later, must hit the shore….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Cthulhu horror meets racial bigotry in the Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom,

Victor Lavalle,

Tor

victor_lavalle_ballad_black_tom_tor_books_cover

In recent months top SF&F publishers Tor have bee putting out a series of rather tasty wee novellas covering fantasy, science fiction and, here, straying into Lovecraftian horror, and indeed urban horror, the sort that is generated as much by the more vicious, ignorant elements of humanity as it is by supernatural and magical threat. Charles Thomas Tester – Tommy Tester, the eponymous “Black Tom”, is a black man in early 20th century America; it may have been decades since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, but even in urban New York (let alone the Deep South), discrimination and intolerance is rampant, the Civil Rights movement and hard-won battles of the 60s are a long, long way away.

This is an era of know your place, and if you are a young man of colour then that’s even more important – keep to your “own areas” (such as Harlem), don’t get in the way of the white folks (especially the rich ones), and avoid the attention of the police. And given Tommy grafts a living from a mixture of playing a simple repertoire for busking in the street and from running slightly dodgy errands, which can take him outside his comfort zone of Harlem. And we see him early on running one of those errands, delivering a strange manuscript to a mysterious woman in a richer (and whiter) part of town, a book which may have esoteric learning in it, possibly dangerous knowledge. Despite keeping his head down and often adopting the servile and simple stance expected of him though, Tommy’s no idiot, he’s sharp, sharp enough to deliver the book and take his payment, but to ensure an important page is held back so that its knowledge can’t be fully used.

There’s a little hint of the John Constantine around Tommy, not so much a streetwise magus like Constantine, but a man who knows there is more about the world than just what most people see, and this knowledge and his esoteric errand-running bring him to the attention of a very wealthy man who asks him to play his music at a private party at his large house. And it is there that Tommy Tester learns that there is even more behind the everyday scenery of the stage we call the world than he suspected, and he thought he knew a bit. That there are other realms, and dark, ancient beings to whom human civilisation is but an ant hill. But living as a black man in that era of US history, being seen as unimportant, beneath notice almost, is something Tommy knows all too well, and his perspective on the ancient, dark beings is coloured (no pun intended) by how the simple fact of his own skin tone has seen him treated in his own society.

This is a superb read – Lavalle, even in the brief length of a novella, conjures up a superbly atmospheric story, both in terms of the atmosphere of dark, Lovecraftian dread and unease building throughout and also in the way he so wonderfully brings out a real feeling of New York in that period, the different areas with different ethnic cultures overlapping, each with their own ways and districts, and the realism of those streets – all now so changed, entire subcultures and communities moved and changed in the intervening decades – works perfectly as a contrast against the darker fantasy elements. And the aspects dealing with they way race, class and wealth  dictate how someone is treated – does the policeman respectfully raise his cap to you or does he wallop you over the head with impunity – and viewed have many parallels to modern society.

In a mere 149 pages Lavalle crafts an increasing air of menace an unreality lying just beyond the seemingly solid walls of our reality, just waiting to break in, and at the same time does what the best writers do, uses the fantasy to draw parallels to social problems of the present day. This is the first time I’ve read Lavalle, but I’ll be happy to pick up anything else by him after this.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Red Kingdom Rising

Red Kingdom Rising is a very intriguing new British Indy horror from Navin Dev, and one which, I am delighted to say, avoids the far too easy route some less skilled new film-makers take in creating a horror flick and thinking sudden jumps or needless splatter or sadistic torture equals genuine horror (not that I mind a bit of splatter but too many use it or torture in horror in place of creating story or atmosphere rather than to serve it). No, what Dev has done is crafted a delightfully dark dream world of a film, inspired by Lewis Carroll (which appeals to me as Carroll is one of my favourite writers of all time).

Mary Ann (played by Emily Stride) is a troubled young woman, haunted by dreams that seem to leak out into her waking life, creating real problems for her everyday life and work, dreams that seem to be wrapped around tales of Alice in Wonderland and more specifically the figure of the Red King that her father used to read to her against her mother’s wishes. But what parts are dreams of the book, which are perhaps dreams of her father who has just passed away, and do they mean something? We begin with a quite dark, disturbing nightmare – is it childhood memories mixed up with guilt over her father’s recent death surfacing in her mind, or do these dark, blood-red dreams signify something else, some aspect of her family life of childhood that she has repressed or ignored.

Reluctantly Mary Ann decides to return to her family home and her distant mother; it’s clear she didn’t grow up in the most conventional, loving family environment. As she settles back into her old room the dream become more vivid – the sleeping (now awakening) Red King, a small girl in period costume called Alice, who, disturbingly has no real face, just a face shaped blank visage which reminded me of some of the wonderfully creepy moments from the old Sapphire and Steel show (which is a compliment). The waking world and the dark fantasy of the dream state become increasingly tangled like the roots of an old, gnarled tree, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one from the other – a moment with her rather odd mother in the kitchen seems like it may be the real world, albeit it very strange but then the mother’s behaviour is strange, but then it suddenly feels more like the dreams/nightmares are crowding into the scene – portents and symbols litter the film, both in the waking scenes and the dreamstate, and really you cannot separate either strand of the film, both are a part of Mary Ann’s damaged psyche, held together (barely) for years into early adulthood but now bleeding out into the open and forcing her to find the source and confront it.

I won’t spoil it for you by delving any further into the plot, but I will say Dev creates a very assured slice of fantasy-horror on a small budget, deftly weaving symbols and literary references into the story and treating his audience as intelligent enough to understand the symbology and the dream-state scenes without spoon-feeding them. The waking world and the dark dreamstate become increasingly hard to tell apart and in truth you shouldn’t even try, they are all part of Mary Ann’s attempt to understand the roots of the nightmare figure of the Red King that has haunted her since childhood – who is he, what does he represent? Who is the small, faceless child Alice? A guide, an ally or a mischievous spirit?  Red Kingdom Rising is a beautifully-made horror-fantasy moving through dark, dream waters that run deep, crafting genuine, disturbing horror not from shocks or OTT effects but by constantly layering up an in increasing sensation of claustophobia and building sensation of dread, of there maybe being now way out – is there a genuine source to these troubling nightmares or is Mary Ann simply mentally ill? Is there any rational way to approach dream logic to unravel the meaning? Dev has produced a confident, elegant dark fantasy of a film that engages you into a brooding atmosphere that will appeal to anyone who enjoys intelligent, elegant horror such as the early works of Del Toro.

Sadly at the moment, as is often the case for independent film-makers, getting the resources together to make a film is a real battle, but having managed to achieve that and make the film there is a whole second battle to be fought to try and get the attention of distributors to get the film widely shown. I know I often see very fine Indy films of all genres at the Edinburgh Film Festival and it can be months, sometimes years or even never before I see them get a distibution deal to be shown to the general public in cinemas. At the moment Dev is doing special screenings and the film festival circuit to try and build word of mouth and create awareness of Red Kingdom Rising, so sadly you won’t be able to see it easily right now in your local cinema, but do check the official site for news of special screenings (I’m told the excellent Kim Newman was at one recently and liked what he saw, which is a good indicator to those of us who enjoy good horror) and festival showings, because when someone makes an intelligent, atmospheric Brit horror movie like this they deserve some support. And distributors, you should be looking at this film and getting it out to audiences.

 

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Easter zombies

The Easter holiday weekend, when we remember Jesus Christ who died then rose from the grave, walked out of the tomb as an Undead, munched on some passing disciple’s brains and so gave birth to the zombie genre and set the scene for the horror messiah Saint George of Romero. And praise also to the Catholic Church who took time out from buggering young children to create the myth of Transubstantiation where they held that the wine and the Host wafer literally became the body and blood of Christ when taken at services, giving life eternal, thus also promoting both the cannibal horror sub genre and of course the vampire. Where would modern horror be without Jesus and the Catholic Church, eh?