Reviews: Victory Point

Victory Point,
Owen D. Pomery,
Avery Hill

During the seemingly endless, long, slow days of the main part of Lockdown, Avery Hill released a trailer for Owen D Pomery’s upcoming Victory Point, and sent me a link to view it, along with a few preview pages. It’s fair to say I was smitten right away, and it brightened a Lockdown day; I’ve been waiting since then to get a proper read at the full graphic novel. I was not disappointed. I’ve long had what I refer to as my “bookseller’s Spidey-sense” (caused by a paper cut from a mildly radioactive book) that gives me a vibe on certain new books, before I have even read them, and I know I am going to like them a lot. I don’t know how that vibe works, but it’s never steered me to a bad read yet, and I got it in spades looking a the previews and trailer for Victory Point.

Owen’s educational and professional background is in architecture and illustration, and that shows very much in Victory Point. A small coastal village, it is unusual – not to mention extremely pretty – for having been designed entirely by one architect as part of a socio-architectural experiment in the inter-war years, to create a small town that would not only be a home to families but be a base for artistic and scientific colonies (perhaps inspired by some of the artist colonies that for many years drew creators to places like Saint Ives). In true British tradition, this vision was never fully realised, with only part of the town constructed, and it soon turned into a regular, quiet little seaside town, save for the unusual architecture that visually unites the area.

And what a style it is, all beautiful, clean lines of 30s Modernist architecture, elegant without being fussy, the buildings and streets carefully situated into the descending slope of the coastal landscape as it reaches down from cliffs above to the beaches and sea below, all drawn in Owen’s handsome, clear-line style. We first see Victory Point on a bright, summer’s day, as Ellen, a bookseller in the (unnamed) big city is returning by train; this is her home-town, and she is coming back to visit her dad.

The fact that it is a summer’s day makes it ideal for luxuriating in the views of these gorgeous Modernist buildings that festoon the slopes of the hills, the elegant curves, the whitewashed walls catching the light beautifully. I’ve always loved the architecture of this period, and there is something particularly nice about this style when on the coast. I still have childhood holiday memories of Morecambe in the summer, and the beautiful Midland Hotel (fortunately now refurbished and restored), with its Modernist and Art Deco grace right by the sea, catching the light and making me think of the great ocean liners from the golden age of travel – long before I was old enough to understand what those art and architectural styles were, I knew they were beautiful.

The pace of the story is leisurely, and this allows Owen to indulge himself and the reader in the luxury of just wallowing in a pool of beautiful illustrations, as the returning Ellen walks through her old home-town to her parent’s house, and we are treated to so many simply wonderful, beautiful panels, with many of the panels being large, or even entire pages, the better to drink in the art. The pictures also do a magnificent job of conveying something of that glorious light quality of a clear, summer day by the coast, especially on that handsome, whitewashed architecture.

Not that this is a book just about a beautiful architectural experiment turned delightful anomaly – students come out from the city to behold “what might have been” if the experiment had been completed and expanded to others, but they see only the myth of the genius of the designer, not the fact that it is a real place, with real people living real lives (I must confess, despite vastly different architecture – though just as striking – I experience the same often in Edinburgh where I live, where it feels many visitors see it almost as a set and forget it is a living, working place and home). No, there is a story here, about belonging, about home and leaving, about growing up, about being part of your family but also needing to be yourself, and that bittersweet mixture of hope and joy and regret and sadness that entails.

Victory Point perfectly captures that slightly surreal feeling of coming home when it isn’t really your home anymore, something most of us will have experienced. Going back to the home town, to the parental mansion, still home and yet, not really home, because now we are grown up and moved away somewhere else that is now home. But this is still somehow home too, but we feel a weird mix of being a visitor as well as belonging now. Likewise Ellen’s reunion with her dad expresses those feelings many of us will have had on going back home to a beloved parent, of realising they are getting older, that while you are all now adults and living your own lives, they are still forever interlinked, and that no matter how old you are, that feeling that in your parent’s heart of hearts, you are still their little child and they worry about you, want to help you, see you be happy, are planning, even now, to try and make sure you will be okay when they are no longer there (and how our minds rebel against the thought when they bring such plans up).

The artwork for the characters is reminiscent of the Herge style – no bad thing, of course – with the little dots for eyes and simple yet effectively expressive faces that still convey so much emotion despite their economy (a single panel of her dad hugging her when she arrives home is just beautifully done and radiates emotion), and characters, architecture and landscape are all integrated so well in Victory Point, not just from the visual, aesthetic point of view, but also in terms of the story and the competing emotions underlying it.

It felt to me that this elegant, beautiful, quirky failed socio-architectural experiment was in many ways a metaphor not only for Ellen’s life, but for any of our lives, how something can seem, from the outside, to look perfect, enviable even, be it another’s home or their life, compared to our own, but of course beneath those facades are the same complex problems everyone has. The use of matching architecture to make an almost uniform town, except real towns don’t exist that way, they’re a mixture of styles and periods, a melange, much like the lives of those who live in them. Or Ellen visiting the secretive little cove where she first learned to swim as a child, floating naked in the clear water, the perspective from above, showing the geology of the coastal hills meeting the sea, Ellen, wondering where her life will go next, floating, suspended between the sea and sky and land.

Yes, this is a visually stunning, beautiful piece of comics work, filled with elegant artwork and vistas designed to show those structures off, but it is also a quiet, gentle tale of life and growing up and our competing goals and emotional attachments to people and places that all go to make us who we are and form what we do, all the hopes and desire, all the fears and regrets. This is a book I will come back to again and again to just drink in.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.

I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.

The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.

As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.

Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.

Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.

This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.

A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.

On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction.

Review: Mongrel

Mongrel,
Sayra Begum,
Knockabout Comics

There’s an old saying that you will never understand another person, unless you walk some miles in their shoes. I’ve often thought that books, especially autobiographical works, are one of the best ways we have to learn at least some understanding of another person’s life, their culture, their perspectives, and Mongrel reinforces that belief. We may never truly be able to walk in another’s shoes, not completely – how could we, every life is a unique set of very personal circumstances, even the life experiences of twins will differ – but we can obtain a look into those other lives, other interests, worries, cultural drives and norms, and by doing so we expand our own world a little more (and hopefully make ourselves a bit more aware, a bit more open to the differing lives of others).

Drawn in a rather beautiful pencil work, Mongrel offers some beautiful visuals, lovely to look at but carefully done so they never overwhelm the subject matter. The style is quit distinctive too, especially the faces of Sayra and her family and friends, the large eyes and often profile perspective putting me in mind of the way humans are depicted in ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. It’s an unusual style, at least in Western comics, but it works beautifully, as well as adding another layer of difference, reminding us that we’re looking into what, for many of us, will be a different culture, a different set of societal and familial norms. There are some lovely little visual techniques too – Shuna lost in thought of how her life has lead to this moment, her memories shown literally fragmented, like jigsaw pieces of her life, a thought bubble floating above her which she then reaches up and pops.

Walking through the door of my family home was like walking through a gateway to Bangladesh.”

Shuna’s story will, no doubt, be familiar to more than a few readers, those who have had to make that difficult journey that spans different, often competing, or even opposing cultural drives. Her religious upbringing and the societal expectations her parents – especially her mother – have are formed from Bangladeshi society, but Shuna and her siblings are being brought up in the UK. Try as they might to limit their children’s external activities – which friends they can see, when they can go out and when they cannot – they are, of course, exposed to other experiences and possibilities, and some of those seem alluring, exciting even, compared to home.

But home, as they say, is where the heart is, and for all the urge to rebel there is also an urge to conform, to please the parents and others in your community, to be an accepted, welcome part of it. While the experiences may differ, in many ways this is no different really from what most of us go through growing up, especially in our teens. We long to belong, for the warmth, love and safety and acceptance of family, but we’re also driven by the often contradictory impulse to stand out, to explore our own path. We want to belong and to be individual at the same time, one of the great contradictions of human nature, yes, but it is also part of what drives us to grow. It’s often a rocky road for most of us, but for those with strictly interpreted cultural beliefs and standards, it can be so much the harder, the possible penalties for transgression far higher.

It is to her great credit that Sayra explores all sides of this generational, cultural and societal problem. It would be all too easy to take a simplistic approach – make the parents out to be villains, inflexible, unwilling to bend to accommodate the fact they are raising their children in a different land with different standards and opportunities. Yet Sayra never falls into this trap. Which is not to say there isn’t conflict here, there is in fact a lot of that, and a lot of butting of heads, of inflexible approaches and failure to compromise, to try and adapt to each other’s competing drives and needs.

But Sayra makes it clear that her mother’s strict stance, no matter how harsh it may seem to us, is driven from love for her children – her religious beliefs make her fear that their failure to comply with how she thinks they are to behave imperils them, that it could take them from the path of righteousness and into temptation. In short that her children could damn themselves and on their day of judgement they would not ascend to Paradise and so she would lose them for all eternity.

Although Sayra is drawing on her own mixed heritage, being British Bangladeshi, there is much here that any of us will recognise from the awkward moments of our own youth, of striking out on our own, sometimes against what was expected of us, against a parent’s wishes or expectations. Family and people are family and people, no matter where we come from or travel to, after all. For those who have had an even harder journey trying to claim their own individual experience in the face of family, community and societal norms – cross-cultural children, gay or trans youth for instance – it will most certainly seem all the more familiar. The cultural imperatives and strifes may be different but the song remains the same. A beautiful and emotionally honest work

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Echoes of Fear

Echoes of Fear,
Starring Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton, Norman Zeller
Directed by Brian Avenet-Bradley, Laurence Avenet-Bradley

Arriving after generating a lot of good word of mouth on the festival circuit, Brian and Laurence Avenet-Bradley’s Indy US horror offers the discerning horror hound an intriguing, well-made, gloriously slow-burn take on the age-old haunted house genre, not using the (to me anyway) increasingly annoying jump-cuts to generate fright (I don’t think they do, startling is not the same as creating terror or fright), but by doing it the correct way, taking time to build atmosphere, slowly building up events and adding in some red herrings, to draw the viewer deeply into the film.

As you may guess from that statement, I am a sucker for a good haunted house story, but all too often come away disappointed by directors who opt for predictable cliché and quick jumps in lieu of the effort of deeper storytelling and atmosphere-building, the sorts of things that really make a good ghost story work. Here the Avenet-Bradley’s do take that time, allowing their camera to explore the huge, unusually laid out old house from intriguing, often unsettling angles, and their minimal cast (Trista Robinson as Alisa carries much of the film herself, her boyfriend, Paul Chirico as Brandon, often absent – also fairly useless in helping her – her only main help her best friend, Steph, played by Hannah Race) to lay down those foundations that let the story grow at its own pace.

Alisa has inherited this huge, rambling, hillside house from her doting, loving grandfather, who supposedly had a heart attack in the shower… Except a brief prologue hints to us that perhaps this wasn’t quite natural causes and there is someone, something in the house. Alisa moves in with the intent of sorting through her grandfather’s belongings, fixing up anything needing repaired and selling the house on. Her boyfriend can only stay briefly, leaving her mostly on her own, apart from visits from her friend Steph, even when Alisa starts to worry that there is something not right in the house.

The house itself is almost another character in this minimal cast ensemble. Built on a rocky hillside it has multiple levels sloping down, and many rooms, an awful lot of storage spaces (more than you’d expect), crawl spaces behind walls and under the lower parts of the rambling structure, concealed elements above in the high ceiling upper parts. The camera glides around all of these by day and night, and soon generates a feeling of unease even before anything much has happened – there is something just wrong about this house, the size, the layout, the multiple rooms and closets, the hidden little nooks. Despite her growing unease – at first she fears a squatter has been using the weird design of the house to sneak in and camp out somewhere, and she may be right – Brandon shrugs everything off and leaves Alisa to sort the place out.

But she is right, there is something wrong with this place, and not just a potential squatter. It starts slowly, finding something in a different place from where she left it, wondering if she just imagined it, noises that may just be the sounds of an old house or may be something more. Finding items from a squatter in a concealed area should solve that mystery, but no, that’s not the main cause of the noises and unease. The camera follows Alisa through both big, open spaces, like the high-ceilinged, broad living room to the tight confines of the crawlspace under the house.

While you’d expect the latter to create a nice, claustrophobic fear, which it does, the Avenet-Bradleys also manage to craft that fear even in the more open, well-lit spaces, making Alisa seem vulnerable to something that could come from anywhere around her. Even minimalist moves like the camera looking out of a brightly lit bedroom into a dark hallway beyond the open door contrive to create a creeping unease – such a simple move but so effective (it reminded me of Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which took a dark staircase in an ordinary suburban home and also made it creepingly terrifying through little more than slow camera moves and darkness and tension).

As Alisa realises there is more going on than a squatter, she attempts, despite her fear, to deal with it in a fairly practical fashion, she’s quite resourceful and determined (I would have been running out of there!). Since most ghost lore hints that a spectre remains because it has some unfinished business in the mortal realm, that it needs help to complete before it can move on, she starts to investigate the house, and her grandfather’s death. Was it really a heart attack? Was this presence there when he lived here? What does it want? Is it connected to her family in some way she doesn’t know, or just a random manifestation?

I’m not going to go any further on those latter points as it would risk us crossing over the border into that unattractive land of Spoiler Country. Suffice to say Alisa is going to investigate, and there may be more going on here than at first we may think. In many ways Echoes of Fear plays the many classic tropes of the Old Haunted House genre, but in many other ways it takes its own path and its own style to generate a genuinely dread-inducing ghost tale, wonderfully slow-burn, building, building, building, to a satisfying crescendo. This is one to watch good and late at night, with most of the lights out, for maximum effect!

Echoes of Fear is released on demand and download by Second Sight from July 20th, and on DVD (Certificate 15) from August 3rd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Lockdown Photo Journal

We were allowed one single, solitary exercise walk during the height of Lockdown. For those living alone this was especially hard, essentially meaning being isolated at home for the bulk of the day and evening, so those walks were important to my mental health as well as physical. Of course where I go the camera goes, and that was another way for me to cope with the months of stress and depression during Lockdown, documenting my city during these strangest of times

Empty Streets 04

Empty Streets 03

Empty Streets 02

Coming home from the last visit to a friend before Lockdown – even though the official announcement was still a day or two away at this point, the cinemas and bars and restaurants had already closed. Saturday night on Lothian Road, lined with bars, restaurants, two cinemas, two theatres and a concert hall all nearby, a place I would avoid late on a weekend evening because it is so busy with drunks, and here it was, the only other people I saw a couple waiting on their own for a bus home. It was eerie and unsettling to see this normally busy, lively area so quiet – I have seen more life there at 3am walking home from a late night Film Festival show… This was a harbinger of how my city, and countless others around the world, would soon become.

Thank You NHS

Back in late March, early days of Lockdown, little traffic, the normal noises of the city mostly absent, and a haar had descended on the city, as it often does here, the mist rolling in from the mighty Firth of Forth, adding to the sense of quiet and fear. On this day as I walked Princes Street I saw the digital advertising billboards on the bus shelters had all been changed to “Thank you to our amazing NHS staff”, one after the other after the other progressing down this normally bustling street.

Rebus Will Not Drink Here Today

The famous Oxford Bar, where Ian Rankin’s fictional Edinburgh detective from his Rebus novels likes to drink, as does the author himself. Closed like the other bars. His birthday fell during Lockdown, so Ian took a bottle of beer and a glass, walked to the Ox, poured his pint and had it standing outside the closed pub.

Viva NHS

Rainbows in windows and on the streets, and support for our NHS workers were everywhere. As with other nations the health professionals were overwhelmed, and in addition they were in the front line so even more vulnerable to infection, and the risk of bringing that home to family (some simply didn’t see their families for ages to minimise travel and risk). And still they looked after us as best they could.

Pub and Castle - Both Closed

Bright sunny spring day – the Blue Blazer bar in the foreground, the western flank of Edinburgh Castle atop its great volcanic rock in the background, Both closed.

No Shopping Here Today 01

Normally bustling George Street in April sunshine, all the fancy, expensive shops closed, no shoppers, no tourists, barely any traffic.

Tourist Free Zone 03

Vid - Deserted Royal Mile

The top of the Royal Mile on a bright spring day. This should be heaving with tourists, instead barely a soul to be seen. As I walked the eerily deserted streets that would normally be so busy I kept hearing the music from the film 28 Days Later in my head. Much as we moan about legions of tourists it was, frankly, scary and unsettling and disturbing to see my city like this, still a glorious, grand old dame on a day like this, but with nobody there to admire her save me and my lens. An uncanny feeling to be able to stand in the middle of the road in this UNESCO world heritage site and be able to do a 360 degree pan with the camera safely because there was no traffic…

The Distance Between Us Keeps Us Safe

Ladies having a socially-distanced safe chat early in Lockdown, in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I should have been enjoying the Ray Harryhausen at 100 exhibition there of this wizard of cinema, a movie maker who filled my early cinema going with sheer wonder. But the galleries were closed – the grounds remained openk so I walked to them often, enjoying the sculpture gardens.

Lockdown Grassmarket 01

Empty Old Town Streets

The Grassmarket, right below the Castle, normally packed with locals coming and going and many tourists, stag and hen parties and students enjoying the many bars and restaurants. Some of the inns here were centuries old when Robert Burns came to stay in them. Now empty, just me and my camera, some of the old pubs boarded up as they were worried about vandals or looters early on, which added to the strange empty feeling of the city.

All Closed

Cockburn Street in the Old Town. Just a few years ago Hollywood was in town shooting scenes for the Avengers at the top of this street. Look at it here…

The Tired Expression Says It All

Quick, street shot from the hip, lady early on in Lockdown carrying her groceries home during the period when a lot of shelves were empty and some items hard to get, adding to the overall feeling of worry, stress, fear. Not a technically good shot, being hurriedly shot from the hip, but it captured that oh so bloody tired of it and wondering how long the road would be feeling, I thought.

How We Shop Now 03

Hardware store on Morningside Road, one of the few businesses still open. Nobody allowed in during Lockdown, so they had a screen at the door, people socially distanced in queues outside, waiting their turn, then asking for what they needed, it would be brought to them at the door and they would pay by contactless card. This would become a model later on as Lockdown eased a little more, my own bookshop did this sort of “click and collect” until we were allowed people back inside in the last couple of weeks (with many safety rules implemented).

Social Distancing at the Bike Co-op 02

Cycle shops stayed open too, peforming much needed maintenance – many took to bikes to avoid what was still running of public transport (to avoid more possible infection vectors). Bus drivers and trams kept going on reduced service here, props to those who kept them running for those who had to keep working and needed the transport, while the bike shops made socially distanced queues and saw people at the doors for repairs and advice to keep them going too. I noticed most bike shops also had air pumps and water outside so cyclists could use them if needed without coming in, just a nice little extra but of help being offered to the community.

A Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms 01

A Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms 02

Not all doom and gloom though, nature kept ticking away regardless of the worries oppressing the human world. The cherry blossoms performed their annual magic, something always lovely to see, but this year oh so much more special and wonderful and needed. As I was lining up this shot of the “tree tunnel” in the Meadows I hadn’t noticed these young, masked women had spotted me and posed for the shot!

Cathedral, No People

Saint Giles Cathedral and Parliament Square, with not another soul to be seen. Normally so many tourists here, some sitting on the steps in the sun, resting their feet, lawyers coming and going from the nearby High Court and the Advocate’s Faculty. Not now. I’m not used to seeing it like this, it was upsetting and worrying, but again mediating it through my camera lens helped a bit, and I was determined to document my city during this time.

We Are Observing Social Distance

Safe, social distanced chatting in Princes Street Gardens. My walks brought me here often as a place to rest mid-walk before going home. With almost no traffic the sounds of the birds in the Gardens was so much more obvious and wonderful, while the spring weather meant they were perfumed with the scent of blooming flowers, all of which helped me cope with the endless days of isolation and worry.

The Line for Snacks 01

As the months passed a few places re-opened doing takeaway only coffee, like this one in the Meadows. My god the luxury of being able to buy a coffee again, even if you had to take it outside, the first brew I hadn’t made for myself in weeks and weeks. The simple pleasure of being able to buy a cup of java then sit in the park with it…

Spread Out For Safety

Socially distanced walking, jogging and cycling on the Union Canal at Fountainbridge. I avoided the narrower parts of the canal walkway – not enough space for social distancing, and if people left space between walkers then joggers and cyclists would go right through the safe gap, huffing and puffing as they did, which was alarming under the pandemic conditions, so I stopped walking those areas and only using the segments like this where there was more room for everyone to be safer.

Just One Passenger Today 02

Single, solitary passenger waiting for a tram at what should be rush hour, in the Haymarket area, next to bus and train interchanges, should have been packed with commuters, but this time just one chap.

Dominion 01

Dominion 02

Cinemas closed even before the official Lockdown. Normally see several films a month and it was very strange to go so long without being able to see the silver screen (yes, I can watch at home, it isn’t the same experience), and this incuded my annual sojourn at the world oldest continually running film fest, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which didn’t happen this year, of course. The closed and shuttered cinemas were stuck in time, their posters advertising current and coming attractions from just before everything stopped, like a time capsule. This is the family-owned Indy cinema The Dominion in Morningside.

Yoga Al Fresco 01

Lockdown Juggling Practise 06

Some made use of local green spaces – while I walked with the camera or sat on a bench in the parks to read for a while, others were performing their yoga exercises on Bruntsfield Links, or learning to juggle.

Life Among the Flowers

God, how important nature was to many of us in lifting our spirits – the return of life and colour and light in the spring is always welcome after winter here, but this year it was so badly needed to help us remember there was still magic and beauty to be found.

It's a Quiet Springtime This Year 02

So few people in the earlier parts of Lockdown even in the heart of the city in Princes Street Gardens, just below the now closed Castle.

Hooded and Masked

Masked and hooded in the Gardens during Lockdown.

A Hand to Hold is a Wonderful Thing 01

Some were fortunate enough to have someone to hold their hand during this long, dark, isolating time.

Hello, There

Mask and Turban

Mask or turban, which to wear today….

Operatic 02

Operatic Vid

We had to look for any small win, any little thing to cheer ourselves. One bright day, walking alone in the Meadows, I heard a beautiful voice singing arias, and found this young woman. I hadn’t heard anyone busking in weeks, let alone singing like this. The birds chirped in the trees above as she sang, voice clear, soaring out and up into the branches above to join those birds. I sat under a tree and listened, it was so sublime and wonderful and magical I cried at the beauty I had so unexpectedly found. It reminded me of the moment from The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins’ character breaks the rules to play an opera piece over the prison tannoy, and everyone stops, all those locked within the walls lifted by the beauty of the song and the music. Oh god, it was just beautiful for a few, precious moments.

Trio 04

Masked trio strolling the Union Canal during Lockdown.

Vid - a Walk Through the Misty Trees

Taking Shelter

Masked in the Mist

Misty Day 016

The haar returned as spring became summer and Lockdown rolled on. Despite the weather I went walking – I had to get out even for a while, and besides, it is more like walking through a light cloud than rain. Naturally I took photos and video clips as I walked. Edinburgh looks wonderful, draped in this soft, silken blanket…

Water Music

As the weather rurned to warmth and sun, more were out walking, some found good spots, like this chap sitting by the old Leamington Lift Bridge to play his guitar in the sunlight.

Time For a Quick Break 01

It's So Tiring 01

It's So Tiring 02

With little road traffic much of what was on the road was cycle couriers, working round the clock delivering meals – with restaurants closed only home delivery was available, and these guys were criss-crossing the city all the time. I would see them in the same few spots on my walks, where they had found areas to grab a quick, much-needed rest. Many were clearly exhausted.

Dalry Road, Midsummer Night 02

Sring had turned to summer as Lockdown went on. I went out for a stroll on Midsummer Night and took a few photos. This was after eleven at night, an hour after the summer sun had finally set, but in Scotland at Midsummer the skies just don’t really get dark. Even after the sun goes down there is a long, faerie light of twilight, the sky remains aglow and by 3am the sun is already rising again. We are not in the land of the mmidnight sun, but we do overlook their front lawn.

Keeping the City Tidy

Even during Lockdown the city had to be kept clean. While many of us were furloughed the bin lorries still came round, the street cleaners still picked up the litter and made our city look nicer.

Plenty of Parking Spaces Today 03

The concrete monstrosity of the multi-storey car park which previous generations of town planners allowed to be constructed right next to the Castle (what where they thinking??). Horrid, brutal structure and jarringly out of place where it is, but during Lockdown, totally empty of cars, and shot in black and white, it looked photogenic. I nipped in during a walk to snap this thinking I may never see it empty like this again…

Grassmarket Slowly Returns To Life 02

Grassmarket Slowly Returns To Life 01

The pubs re-open with strict distancing and safety rules next week, but the beer gardens and pavement cafes re-opened just a few days ago in Scotland (where Lockdown rules have been more cautious – as they should be – than those rules enacted by Westmonster down south). It was odd to see the Grassmarket like this, still quiet by what normal standards would have, but at least some life, compared to the deserted, boarded up scenes I shot a few weeks ago in this spot.

I shoot so many photos each year, and took even more during Lockdown, partly to document the times in my city, partly as one of my coping methods. I was also live tweeting video and photos as I walked, as a sort of “virtual walk” for those who couldn’t get out at all to enjoy, and several people got in touch to say they appreciated that and that those pics and videos helped them when they were confined, shielding, which made me feel a bit better, at least something postive had come out of it, however little. My photos went past the 21,000 uploads mark on my Flickr during Lockdown, and my daily views shot up as people were stuck inside, often looking online for diversion, so I hope those too helped some people pass the long, Lockdown days.

Books Are Back

We’re still in the early easing of restrictions here, on guard, they could change if more infections appear, but let us hope not. I am back to work, we can let people in – carefully – to our bookstore once more, which is wonderful. Two of our very young readers even dressed up in costumes for their first visit in months, which made us happy. Things are still so uncertain, many places will simply not re-open, those that have will have to struggle and adapt to new ways of doing things, but at least we are back.

The Swan Family

I normally keep an eye out for the regular breeding pair of swans we have on the nearby Union Canal, especially in spring when they have their cygnets. This year being furloughed for so long during Lockdown, with a single permitted daily exercise walk the only thing I could do outside the house, I had more of an opportunity to walk that way with the camera, and capture photos of them, from the small, fluffball stage of a couple of weeks old, to now, where they are rapidly growing to a similar size to their mother (Papa Swan is rather larger!), so I thought I would post a sequence of pics of this year’s cygnets to show how they have grown in the last few months.

Swan Family 08

Swan Family 09

Vid - Swan Family

Swan Family 024

This is our 2020 cygnets when very small – and supercute! I always love seeing them every year, but this year with the grim reality of Lockdown, the isolation and every threatening stress and depression, the magic and beauty of nature became all the more important, a wonderful escape as I took my once a day allowed exercise walk during the Lockdown (and of course where I go walking, the camera goes too).

Swan Family 037

Swan Family 042

Vid - Swans Feeding

My friend who runs the Union Canal Swans Twitter and Instagram is so known to the parent swans they let her feed their babies each year, the short video above is her feeding them some porridge (being Scottish swans they love a bit of porridge!)

Swan Family 080

Sleeping on the grass by the side of the canal

Swan Family 081

Swans Family 102

You can see how much larger they are by this point.

Swans Family 103

Papa Swan shaking it all out.

Swans Family 108

Quick close up portrait before they slipped back into the water after resting on the banking.

Vid - Swans Taking a Stroll

I love that slap-slap-slap of those big, webbed feet on the wet towpath!!!

Cymera Talks

The first weekend in June should have seen the second Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature taking place in the Pleasance in Edinburgh. We had the first one last year and as well as attending many events all weekend (and taking lots of photos, as usual), I also participated, chairing a multi-author discussion on stage.

Of course, like pretty much all festivals we had to cancel due to the pandemic. A little while into the Lockdown I was asked by organiser Ann if I would still be up for chairing if some online events could be organised, and of course I said yes. And so did pretty much all the authors, so the virtual version of Cymera that took place over the weekend just gone wasn’t just a few online chats, it was an entire programme running the three days of the original festival plan with author events (live and some pre-recorded), writing workshops and more, quite an amazing feat to pull off, effectively an entire festival online and at such short notice.

Cymera has been busy adding some of the live and pre-recorded events onto its YouTube channel now, which you can enjoy for free (although if you enjoy them and you can afford it, even a small donation would be helpful, the festival, despite not having the physical ticket sales, is still paying authors a fee for their time, so help is appreciated – you can donate here).

The two events I had the pleasure of chairing are online now: my talk with Arthur C Clarke Award winners Anne Charnock about Bridge 108 and Adrian Tchaikovsky about Firewalkers, both books doing what the best SF always does, using the future as a filter to examine the concerns of our own troubled times, such as environmental issues, global inequality and more. You can see it here:

And on the Sunday I was delighted to talk on a 2000 AD panel with Maura McHugh, Michael Carroll and Joseph Elliott-Coleman, discussing their novellas in the Judges series for 2000 AD (reviewed here), dealing with the pre-history of the iconic Judge Dredd series in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Set decades before Dredd, much closer to our own time, it effectively brings the world of the Judges – special lawkeepers with the power of instant justice on the streets, trained to be incorruptible, impartial – almost into our own world.

This isn’t the great Mega City of the far future but still America, an America crumbling socially, politically and economically, hence the Judges experiment. The three stories have a fascinating mix of murky morality, with those on each side all having both merits and flaws, and the tales, especially Elliott-Coleman’s “Patriots” had some terrifying resonances to recent events in the US, which we also discussed in relation to the books:

Reviews: Judges Omnibus Volume 2

Judges Omnibus Volume 2,
Michael Carroll, Maura McHugh, Joseph Elliott-Coleman
Rebellion/2000 AD

This second volume collects three novellas by 2000 AD regular Mike Carroll, joined by Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot-Coleman. Mike, I am sure, most readers on DTT will be more than familiar with, Maura – among her many other writings from short stories to collections to scripts for stage, screen and even computer gaming – will be known to DTT readers for some of her very fine Irish comics work such as Jennifer Wilde (illustrated by Stephen Downey), while Joseph’s writing came to the attention of Mike (series editor) via his contribution to Not So Stories, which featured writers of colour from round the globe keeping the wonder of Kipling’s tales but re-imagining them without the period imperialist, colonialist, racist elements.

I must confess, I am not normally that keen on prose tales based on comics. I don’t know why, perhaps my prose and my comics reading sections of my brain like them in their own compartments, but whatever the reason, it isn’t my normal choice, so imagine my delight in finding that these weren’t just interesting tales, but extremely compelling stories, offering glimpses into some of the blank spaces in the history of Judge Dredd, and, like many a Dredd tale, also commenting on current social and political problems.

In fact, as I was reading the three novellas in this collection in preparation for chairing and event with the authors at the Edinburgh-based Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature (like many such events the festival was cancelled, but the amazing team then re-created it online; it has been recorded so hopefully the 2000 AD panel will be on YouTube in the near future), I found that in a disturbing coincidence of timing that some of the elements from all three stories, not least Elliot-Coleman’s “Patriots” tale, were terrifyingly close to the dreadful events we have seen unfolding in the US. So much so that several times as I sat reading them, I had to pause. I’ve been reading Dredd since the beginning, I’ve seen some excellent socio-political commentary woven into the series (not to mention its rich seam of dark satire), but this was something else…

For those not familiar with the series, Judges is inspired by the now-classic thirtieth anniversary Dredd: Origins by the Dreddfather, John Wagner and the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra, which saw flashbacks to the early days of the Judge system. With a number of decades to explore and huge blank spaces to fill in (while keeping true to over forty years of established Dredd history), the Judges series is going decade by decade, with a few tales from each, not exhaustively covering the pre-history year by year, more like spotlights on certain moments, and will continue on taking us closer to the time we know from the original years of Dredd.

Opening the collection is Mike Carroll’s “Golgotha”. This is long before Dredd and the Mega Cities, this is still America, albeit an America that is crumbling and failing socially, economically and politically, it’s only a short few years from our own time, making it very familiar to us, and it is fascinating to see Judges not in Mega City One, but patrolling Main Street in small US towns. Under Fargo the Judge system is expanding, slowly replacing the traditional police force and legal system, but with both having to work in parallel for some time. For those who remember the earliest Dredds this will bring back memories – those stories showed police working under the Judges in the Big Meg, something that slowly faded away from the comics.

Here we see Quon, the very last officer to graduate from an American police academy. Quon has always wanted to be a police officer, and is a straight arrow, very by the books, disgusted at laziness and corruption in the Force, but also filled with loathing for the the incoming Judge system – she believes in due process, civilian policing, a court of peers at trial, not in giving any one person the powers of instant justice and sentencing. Ironically her attitude and unbending adherence to the law make her prime material to train as a Judge, but she isn’t interested, while those same qualities mean her fellow officers, also bitter at the new Judges, despise her too, but she’s going to have to find a way to work with them for an investigation.

In Psyche, McHugh expands on her previous Judge Anderson work for the Dredd Megazine, taking us back to the very first use of Psi-Judges – here called “Psykes”, a covert team of Judges who have been studied and trained with civilian scientists who have long believed there were those with psionic abilities and that if there were, some would be dangerous and therefore the new Judge system would need its own equivalent to protect citizens from harmful Psis. Fargo agrees and sanctions more training and the formation of a black-ops unit, off the books, something nobody will know about if it doesn’t work.

It’s a cleverly-structured two-timeline narrative: in what would be present-day Mega City One (i.e. the same era we see in the weekly comics) Psi-Judge Pam Reed, a pre-cog, literally unearths part of history, exploring old buildings below a collapsed City-block, which happens to contain the original offices of the Psyke research team. Reed’s abilities in this location somehow allow her mind to astrally travel to that era and communicate with Judge Wise, one of the first Psis. As well as being a gripping story (with inferences that if Reed in the future cannot help the nascent Psis in her past, her future may never happen), McHugh also deftly explores the outsider nature of the Psis. Even in Dredd’s time most other Judges aren’t keen on Psi-Division, seeing them as odd, peculiar – Judges are trained to stand apart, but Psis can’t help but feel what citizens feel and this makes them more empathic and human. This outsider status goes doubly here in the early days when most don’t even believe such powers are real, and there is an interesting question mark over freedom of choice: as with the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, there’s little freedom for a Psi, if they are detected they are expected to serve and that’s it.

In “Patriots”, Elliot-Coleman has Judges on the mean streets of New York. This is a New York that has more in common with the dirty, crime-ridden NYC of the 1970s than today, and draws on many influences from that era, from films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver et al, while also rather satisfyingly mixing in elements of The Manchurian Candidate and Carpenter’s classic cops-under-siege Assault on Precinct 13. Right-wing patriots, who see themselves as heirs to the original American Revolution are trying to defy the advance of the Judges system, seeing it as a surrender of liberty and democracy. And they may well be right, but the problem is like many fanatics they are willing to kill many innocents – for their own good, of course – for their cause, and while they call out the banner of liberty and freedom they also won’t accept anyone differing from their opinion.

Judges, even early era Judges like these, are just as stubborn and determined in the application of the Law, of course, so we have two unyielding paradigms clashing violently for the soul of the nation. And in “Patriots”, and indeed in “Psyche” and “Golgotha” too, we see both sides of the pro and anti-Judge argument and resistance, and the thing is, both sides have some moral validity, this is a moral quagmire, not a straight black and white morality, and that makes it far more thought-provoking for the reader (and also more dramatically satisfying too). For all their violent methods and their disregard for the safety of their fellow citizens (the ones they proclaim they are protecting), they do have some grounds, the Judges do mark a huge erosion of traditional liberty and freedom. But the Judges have been created because the existing system has failed – they have been trained to be impartial upholders of law to all, unlike courts and politicians, they will not discriminate on grounds of the colour of someone’s skin, their social class, wealth. The crumbling system badly needs them to try and stabilise it. But at what cost?

Each of these stories has been published as a novella on its own, but I read it in the Judges Volume 2 Omnibus, which collects all three, and I’d recommend tackling them that way if you can. While all three shine a light on a different aspect of pre-Dredd history and are their own beasts, they also, like the various comics series over the years, work very well together, feeling separate but also connected, part of a greater whole. For the long-term Dreddheads this is a compelling must-read, a very welcome exploration of how the Judge system first began in America and how it starts, decade by decade to show how it leads up to the post Atomic War world of the Mega Cities we know in 2000 AD, all layered with some complex morality, multiple mirrors to our own very troubled times and a nicely diverse cast of characters. I look forward to more in the series.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: The Grudge – the Unseen Chapter

The Grudge: the Untold Chapter,
Directed by Nicolas Pesce,
Starring Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver

Directed by the gifted Nicolas Pesce (Eyes of My Mother), and produced by the legendary Sam Raimi, and with a very fine cast, this new take on the established horror franchise created y Takashi Shimizu promises a lot, this promises a lot, but sadly only partially delivers. Originally conceived as a new start on the US version of the J-horror classic series, during production this changed tack, deciding not on a reboot but on a side story, an offshoot covering events that take place in the established history of the other films.

Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood), an American nurse working in Japan in 2004, visits the now infamous house in Tokyo, and leaves in a disturbed state of mind. In fact she is so shaken by her visit to this house she phones in her resignation to the nursing agency and is on the next flight back home, desperate to return to American and her husband and daughter. What she doesn’t realise – and long-term fans will already have guessed – is that anyone who sets foot in that house is now under its curse, and that curse knows no geographical constraints. Fiona is, in effect, bringing the curse to her own home, without being aware of it…

The film takes a multi-part approach to the narrative, criss-crossing different people and families in different years who are all affected by the curse after coming into contact with the house which was once the happy family home of the Landers, including Betty Gilpin’s (Glow) Nina Spencer and Star Trek’s John Cho as her husband Peter, who don’t even live there, but as estate agents come into contact with the curse when Peter visits the house after being unable to get the Landers to answer their phone to deal with their house sale. Others drawn into this cursed orbit include horror queen Lin Shaye (Insidious), newly bereaved detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and her young son trying to make a new life in a new home after the loss of her husband, and local police officers, one of whom senses the curse and avoids the house, while his partner is slowly driven mad by it.

I thought this multi-chronology approach, with multiple story arcs converging as Muldoon investigates a newly-found body in a car in the woods (newly-found but one that had clearly been there for years) that is linked to the house, a house with a history of previous deaths, was pretty clever in principle, but, for me at least, it didn’t quite deliver as much as it should, with the moving between different characters in different years making it hard to settle into the narrative or really get to know and care about the characters. That said I salute the attempt to shape a different storyline from the previous entries – I’m glad they wanted to make something a bit different, I’m just not sure it entirely gels as it should have.

This is not to say it is a bad film overall though – this old horror hound still found some pleasures here, Pesce and his very fine cast delivering some nicely chilling – and in some cases quite gruesome (a scene chopping food in the kitchen made even me wince) scenes, and, as I said, the idea of the multi-angled narrative of several different years in the life of the cursed house and those whose lives it corrupts is interesting, and a refreshing change of tack in the franchise, and I appreciated that this is part of the established history of the series rather than a reboot. Pesce and cinematographer Zachary Galler also frame and light some very effective scenes (William Sadler’s Detective Wilson, standing on the lawn in the pouring rain, just staring at the house is as disturbing as the more overtly horror moments). It’s not going to win over any new converts, I think, but while flawed, it still has some effective moments and long-time Grudge fans should still find it interesting.

The Grudge: the Untold Chapter is released by Sony Pictures UK on Digital from May 18th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 1st, including bonus material and alternate ending.

Reviews: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood,
Directed by Marielle Heller,
Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni

“You don’t consider yourself famous?”

“Fame is a four letter word, like tape, or zoom and face. Ultimately what matters is what you do with it.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“We are trying to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings.”

Fred Rogers, simply knowns as “Mister Rogers” to generations of child viewers, was an institution in American broadcasting for children, an integral part of many a childhood, a virtual friend to many kids who needed one, with his show, Mister Rogers Neighbourhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001 (with a small gap in the 70s). Like many in the UK I knew very little about him as the show wasn’t really known here, and most of what I knew about it I had picked up from references in countless American TV shows and films (the amount of times the show and the man are mentioned in so many different programmes and films gives you an idea of how embedded in the popular culture it was in the US, generations grew up with this).

Not being overly familiar with the show and so lacking that nostalgic affection for it, I was curious to see this movie (especially after it garnered praise at the highly respected Toronto film fest), but also rather worried that without that familiarity and affection for the show and the man, that I might not be able to connect with it. Well, that wasn’t the case – Marielle Heller and her crew and cast (especially Hanks, pretty much perfectly cast, and Rhys as the cynical journalist Lloyd) have crafted a film which is universally accessible to all viewers, regardless of their familiarity or lack thereof with the show, because this film is, at its very core, a film about the emotional depths of the human soul, about the dark places, the things that frighten us, worry us, make us angry, and how we can try to overcome them, about how it is is a good thing to listen, to be there for someone, to help, and in turn that it is okay to admit we are scared or angry, and to take a hand when it is offered.

The film is not, as I first thought, a biopic about Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), rather it is inspired by a late 1990s article about him for Esquire magazine. Journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a famous and respected investigative journalist, and more than a little put out when his editor hands him the assignment of a short interview with Rogers for a special issue on heroes. He’s far from happy, considering this a puff piece, and after his brief meeting with Rogers during a short break filming his show, he feels that there is something more here. While everyone loves Mr Rogers, he starts to think there must be something else, darker, hidden behind the home-knitted cardigans and gentle manner, and begins to plan a much longer piece on his own.

We’ve sadly become all too use to many much-loved popular culture figures later being exposed as something so far from their warm, public persona, and often feel a sense of betrayal, of another layer of cynicism added to our emotional armour when this happens. Here, however, the darkness is very much Lloyd’s own problems being reflected – his cynicism, his still simmering anger years later at the loss of his mother, of his estranged, womanising father’s betrayal of her when she was ill, his worries about responsibility for his and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their newborn baby. Rogers sees this in Lloyd, and with the same patient, understanding, reassuring approach he took to helping kids deal with emotional problems on his show, he gently befriends Lloyd, helping him to realise he can face that loss, grief and anger, but come through the other side.

This really, really could have ended up being a sugary, shmaltzy, syrupy story. That it isn’t is a huge credit to Heller, Hanks and Rhys, who offer a quite beautiful, emotional tale that will want to make you both cry and smile, while also giving some lovely visual treats – the model of the neighbourhood that was used in the show re-appears here (as do the various puppet characters and others), but that model approach is then also used for the different locations throughout the film, a lovely touch (and props to the model makers re-creating this in the same style as the original), or Lloyd hallucinating himself to be the size of the show’s puppets, on the model set, being asked by Fred about his problems, or a moment with the pair on the New York subway, where passengers recognise Rogers and start to sing his theme song, to his delight.

No, this may be a feel-good film in many ways, but it avoids most of the normal, overly-sugary traps those kinds of films often fall into. Instead we have a piece which feels very empathic, emotionally – you may well find yourself thinking about moments good and bad in your own life as you watch (I certainly did). Neighbourhood takes us on that emotional journey, but tell us that it’s okay, that it’s only human to feel, that it is okay to be sad sometimes, that anger is normal, it is what we do with them, how we deal with them that is important, and how we deal with one another, that bad things happen to us sometimes, but so often there is someone there who wants to help, and it is not weakness to take that hand that reaches out to you. As our entire global community deals with stresses and strains of the pandemic, this may very well be an almost perfect film to enjoy. An absolutely beautiful, warm, emotional journey.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is released by Sony on home digital from May 25th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 8th

Reviews: The Man With X-Ray Eyes

The Man With X-Ray Eyes,
Directed by Roger Corman,
Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles

Here’s an under-rated gem from the stable of the legendary Roger Corman, 1963’s The Man With X-Ray Eyes (aka X: the Man With X-Ray Eyes). I remember reading about this in some movie monster books when I was a kid, and seeing it late night on TV in my teens, but it rarely aired as often as the old Hammer or Universal movies did, and I haven’t seen it in decades. So I am delighted that Second Sight have brought it back, and indeed given it the deluxe treatment: a limited edition Blu-Ray set with a newly restored print, plenty of extras (including interviews with Roger Corman and Joe Dante), poster, a book by Jon Towlson and Allan Bryce, and boasting excellent new cover artwork by the always-brilliant Graham Humphreys.

For those who haven’t seen this very unusual slice of 60s Sci-fi/horror, made between shooting some of those iconic Edgar Allan Poe films Corman is still, rightly, highly regarded for, it follows Doctor James Xavier (Ray Milland), a physician who is working on an experimental mixture which he administers as eye droplets, with the goal of allowing human sight to be expanded. As he explains to his ophthalmologist friend Doctor Sam Bran (Harold J. Stone), in the last few decades humans have discovered a wide electro-magnetic spectrum – ultraviolet, X-rays and more – that their natural senses cannot see. What if they could, with their own eyes, not with imprecise instruments? Imagine how this would help a medical doctor – no fuzzy X-Ray plates, they can literally see through flesh and bone to diagnose an illness, formulate the correct treatment.

While his friends caution him for pushing too far, too quickly, Xavier is eager to test his work, despite the death of a test animal. His reasoning is that the animal couldn’t comprehend what its new visual senses showed it, but he, as a rational, intelligent being, can learn to do so. He is, well, partially correct – at least at first. He finds his new vision increasing, going from being able to read a letter through another sheet of paper covering it, to being able to see into a patient being readied for surgery, a young woman, and he can see what is wrong – a different diagnosis from the attending surgeon, leading to a showdown between the pair as Xavier uses his new powers to save her life.

It’s at this point that things start to spiral out of control – the medical authorities will not accept his abilities, and therefore not believe them as his excuse for his behaviour in the operating theatre (despite saving the patient). His career hanging in the balance, his research funding cut, struggling to control his new abilities, a terrible accident leads to him having to flee to avoid arrest. Desperate for somewhere to hide and continue his research (and a way to reverse the new visual abilities too), Xavier takes refuge, of all places, in a carnival sideshow, posing as a stage magician who can read minds and tell secrets (it’s here he comes into contact with the nasty, selfish carnival barker Crane, played by Don Rickles, in a rare straight, dramatic role), before also trying to use his new abilities to win in Vegas, to get sufficient funds to get his research going once more.

It remains one of the more unusual horror classics of that era – amazingly shot in something like three weeks for a budget of only $300, 000 (tiny, but huge by the normal American International Pictures’ budget standards!). Naturally, given the era it was made in, the special effects are not exactly dazzling – to be fair, this isn’t just because of budget restrictions, the technology to show what they really wanted was simply not there at the time. Despite this the effects team and art director still, in my opinion, managed to give the viewer the feeling of Xavier’s increasing dislocation, as his powers grow, as he can see more and further.

The visual processing in the human brain is enormously complex (as AI programmers have found in trying to replicate it with technology), and also relies on years of us learning to interpret the visuals coming into our brain into something coherent. While Xavier can cope with the titular X-Ray vision, as he begins to see more, things he didn’t even know existed, seeing into matter and the universe itself, he’s slowly losing his mind, and those visual effects, for all their early crudeness, do a good job of conveying this, in conjunction with the excellent Milland’s acting. (it isn’t all drama and doom though, there is some fun to be had, such as Xavier realising he can see through everyone’s clothes at a party, a nod to the old X-Ray specs gimmicks sold in the back pages of comics).

Adding much to this story is the fact that this isn’t the formulaic Mad Scientist story. Yes, Xavier may have a little arrogance of the highly skilled doctor who believes he knows better than others, but he’s not a bad man, and risking his career to save the young woman using his powers shows that he is a decent man. He genuinely wants to use these new abilities to advance medicine, to save more lives, to expand scientific knowledge, and that’s a large part of what really makes this such a compelling film, because he’s not a madman trying to take over the world, he’s a pioneer, with his heart in the right place, who succumbs eventually to the new, uncharted discoveries he has made, like the Curies and other scientists before him.

“What did he see?” asks his love interest, Doctor Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) of the unfortunate test monkey who proves the formula works, but dies afterwards. Those words haunt the film, as the abilities Xavier has gained become cumulative, taking him far beyond even the broadest speculations in science, into new realities he simply cannot cope with. He can’t even escape by closing his eyes now, because he can see right through the lids. This well-intentioned work leading to disaster lends the story a deeper, emotional, tragic aspect that compels as strongly as the idea of the new discovery does. An absolute classic of Sci-fi and Horror.

The many extras in this special edition are also great, not least the iconic Corman talking about the making of the film, how he came up with the rough idea, originally thinking he knew some of his musician friends on the jazz scene dallied in drugs, and perhaps he should make the central character a musician who overdoses, before realising he hated that idea, and going back to the notion of having a scientist, someone who was pushing into new frontiers without realising what the consequences would be. Corman also talks about his desire to remake the film, with modern effects able to realise the remarkable new visual abilities of Xavier in any way they want. Personally while the story is strong enough to stand a remake, and the modern visuals would indeed be better, as I said, it isn’t the visuals which really make this film so powerful, it’s the central idea and especially Milland’s performance that do so.

The Man With X-Ray Eyes will be available from Second Sight on limited edition Blu-Ray from May 4th.

Reviews: The Shed

The Shed,
Directed by Frank Sabatella,
Starring Jay Jay Warren, Cody Kostro, Sofia Happonen, Frank Whaley, Timothy Bottoms, Siobhan Fallon Hogan

I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the monster in the closet, or under the bed, or the basement. Sabatella’s Indy horror moves the monster action to the most innocuous of domestic locations, the garden shed. There’s no messing around, we are dropped right into things from the start with little preamble – a hunter, out in the woods with his rifle, is now the hunted, fleeing from something barely glimpsed, something his bullets will not stop. A vampire.

And not a pretty, sparkly Twilight vampire, or a swooning, handsome Anne Rice vampire, nope, this is a pretty horrible looking predator, a proper monster. And he catches his prey, but as he bites into the hunter (Bane, played by Frank Whaley, who you will doubtless recognise from a myriad TV and film roles, from Luke Cage to Pulp Fiction) he realises he’s made the classic bloodsucker mistake – he’s stayed out too late. The rising sun pierces the forest canopy and burns him; staggering back in pain from his prey, he’s exposed to direct light and then it’s time for ashes, ashes, we all fall down…

Given our monstrous vampire has just been introduced and then dispatched in the opening few moments, where is The Shed going from here? Well our now dusted vamp had bitten Bane before his severe sunburn got the better of him, but he didn’t finish off the fleeing hunter. Wounded, Bane tries to rise, still shocked from the realisation that vampires exist and he had just been attacked by one – and survived. Or has he? His arm enters a shaft of light breaking through the treetops, and he too burns. Looking at the pile of smoking ash that had been the fearsome vampire, he realises what has happened to him, and that if he doesn’t want to die the same way, he need shelter from the daylight.

It really is a remarkably efficient and swift setup – this opening takes only a few moments and already we’ve had a vampire attack, Bane infected, then having to make a run for shelter, finding the tool shed in the garden of Stan’s house (Jay Jay Warren), an orphan living with his grandfather (veteran actor Timothy Bottoms). There’s even a nice little nod to Katherine Bigelow’s classic vampire Western, Near Dark, as the unfortunate Bane grabs an old blanket to wrap around his head as he has to dash across the open ground in full sunlight, before finding sanctuary in the shadow of the eponymous shed.

Stan’s life is not a happy one – his mother and father are dead (a dream sequence hints at illness and suicide), he’s spiralled into petty infractions of the law and is now living with his grandfather, Ellis, his last option other than Juvenile Hall. And to make it worse Ellis is the “you kids today are too soft, I was in the army being shot at when I was your age” kind of brutish, unfeeling man, totally unsupportive of his clearly emotionally damaged grandson. He and his best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro) have it no better at school either, both being at the bottom of the food chain, Dommer in particular a target for the bully brigade, and even Stan’s former crush, Roxy (Sofia Happonen) has joined the clique of the nasty kids.

Unsurprisingly both would love to be free of their tormentors and their situation, and when Stan first discovers Bane, now transformed into full, bloody-thirsty vampire mode, is hiding in his grandfather’s shed, Dommer sees an opportunity to turn the tables. What if they can lure the bullies here, get them close enough to the shed door to be grabbed and dragged inside? Stan is horrified at the idea – no matter how much he despises the bullies, feeding them to a monster is wrong. He wants to figure out a way to deal with this, while not letting the authorities know (with his record he worries he will take any blame), but Dommer, poor, damaged Dommer, has been beaten up and abused once too often, he wants them dead, and in as painful and terrifying a manner as can be managed.

While not spectacular, I think Sabatella and his cast and crew did a great job with limited budget and resources. Yes, there are some flaws (aren’t there always?) – dream sequences that get confused with reality are a bit over-used, for instance, but for the most part this melding of hidden, secret monster with the high-school as hell (complete with its own kinds of monsters) works well, and you feel for both Stan and the hard life he’s been handed (that kid needs to catch a break, opines Siobhan Fallon Hogan’s Sheriff early on), and Dommer’s revenge fantasies, fuelled into murderous rage by the appearance of the vampire, while wrong are also quite understandable given what he’s been constantly subjected to.

It’s good to see vampires as proper monsters again too, instead of handsome, seductive or sympathetic beings (and no sparkles, thank goodness), an element I suspect many of my fellow horror fans will appreciate. There are also some nice touches, little homages and the like, thrown into The Shed for genre fans to notice, such as the aforementioned blanket over the head daylight run from Near Dark to even a quick reference to Ferris Bueller (as Stan has to run on foot to his house to beat the Sheriff there, cutting through gardens, running right behind her car before she notices). Some good, solid, enjoyable horror fun.

The Shed is available from Signature Entertainment on HD Digital from May 11th