When the nightmares leak out into the streets: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters,
Lauren Beukes,
HarperCollins

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There’s a short version of this review which runs something along the lines of South African writer Lauren Beukes has been sent personally by the Dark Forces from the Infernal City to scar the mind’s inner eye with a scalpel of sharpened words. Although if Lauren is sent by demonic forces she’s very personable and has excellent taste in footwear. And besides, joking aside, from me saying a writer can scar your inner eye is a compliment. In Zoo City then more particularly with her last novel, the intensely brutal and powerful The Shining Girls (which made by 2013 best of the year list), she has displayed an uncanny knack for not just being able to conjure up images and scenes which stick in the reader’s mind long after finishing the book, they really get under your mental skin. In Broken Monsters she develops this skill to peel back the reader’s cognitive functions with a fine blade: the compelling main narrative flows over the cognitive components of the brain but the imagery leaks beneath the foundations of that logical faculty and seeps into the parts of our mind where imagination and it’s twin offspring Wonder and Terror live. This is a book which works as much on the logical strength of a powerful detective tale narrative but simultaneously works by engaging the darkest parts of our imagination; the combined effect is devastatingly powerful.

It seems pretty much everything in Broken Monsters is a struggle. The lead detective, Gabrielle Versado, has had to struggle against macho misconceptions about gender roles in the homicide department, as well as racial ones, while also struggling with a broken marriage and trying to be a single parent (her clever, determined but impulsive daughter Layla is also struggling, to come to terms with no longer being a happy family, with her mother often being dragged away by work pressures and the usual coming of age problems any teen in any city has). She and the entire department are in an eternal struggle, not just against crime in a city riddled with violent acts but with trying to bring order to a city that itself is struggling to hold together – Detroit. And then into this comes Clayton Broom, a man who has failed at relationships, at fatherhood, work and art, a man struggling to try and make sense of his life but lacking the ability to really understand and fit in. Until a car accident changes his perspective and he begins to start using his ‘art’ to reshape the world to how he thinks it should be. It’s not long after this that the first murder victim is found, his first attempt to bring his ‘message’ to the world and try and change it.

A body of a young boy.

Or, more accurately, half a body. The lower half is gone, replaced with those of a young deer, fused to the boy’s torso, then left posed to be found.

The scene is described in terms that really bring home the horror of this, not just of the deliberate, wanton taking of a life – a child’s life at that – but desecrating the corpse in this manner. Beukes captures the mindset of a group of big city detective battling to develop any possible clues into something they can work with, to take the monstrous but categorise it into areas of logical enquiry they can use, at emotional arms-length, to focus on the case and start working out why the killer did this, what it tells them, how they can use this to hunt him. Serial killer? Twisted trophy hunter fed up stalking animals, now turning to people? Is it race-driven? Sexual? Could it be some sort of ritualistic thing – a Satanic cult, Voodoo? You can almost hear the mental clicking of gears as the detectives take a situation that should never happen and try to apply their tried and tested methods on it to make sense of something that may be beyond sense, to categorise it, analyse it and follow those clues. But what if it is something else altogether?

What starts as a brutally compelling police-procedural story soon starts to morph – it will surprise no-one who has read Beuekes’ other books to learn that no single genre label can contain her work, and this is as much a horror story and a dark fantasy novel (reminding me sometimes of the dark horrors the likes of Tim Lebbon can conjure) as it is a detective story. When we see some of the events from Clayton’s increasingly disintegrating point of view we see that to him his horrific murders and bodily mutilations and alterations are not killing – they start as a sort of art, but not just art, this is primal art, art as a form of magic, as it was in the earliest days, when painting a deer on a cave wall was not just art but sympathetic magic, trying to capture something of the essence of that creature being depicted and to use it for understanding, shaping the world and power. The writing is deliciously dark – these are nightmares leaking out of the darkest places of a twisted, delusional mind of a man turned murderer, but as we are drawn deep into this heart of darkness it becomes increasingly difficult to tell nightmare fantasy from hard, cold reality in the semi ruined streets of Detroit. How much of this is the warped imagination of a sociopathic killer trying to somehow justify what he is doing to himself? And could it be real? What if others start to feel the awful, dark presence of what he is doing and how it can change the world around him and his ‘art’? It this shared delusions? Is there something else here? Psychotropics? Or something far worse, darker and unnatural…


(Lauren Beukes with artist Inaki Miranda at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my own Flickr)

I won’t delve any deeper into that, save to say Beukes manages to both have her cake and eat it in the very satisfying manner in which she explores the escalating situation and offers up different aspects for the readers to draw conclusions (and doubtless to argue with one another over aspects of what was what). Running through this main narrative thrust there are other elements – a sexual predator her daughter and friend bait with the aim of publicly shaming, her daughter’s friend in her seemingly perfect family but nursing her own dark secret, the burned out, failed journalist Jonno, come to the decaying city of Detroit and trying to reinvent himself as a new media guru, feeding off the increasingly bizarre murders. The scenes where Beuekes depicts various forms of new media and social media circling these events, exploiting them (and traditional media trying to feed off it like carrion) are bitingly realistic – the instant rush to judgement on comments online posted by people who don’t know what really happened but straight away have to shout loudly about their opinions (often in banal, badly spelled ways, frequently in vile, violent form) are sadly far too realistic. But those elements aren’t just added for a bit of detail or verisimilitude, oh no, Beukes is too good for that, she also starts weaving these new and social medias into the story in an unusual form that contributes to the main narrative, and how those changing media and technologies alter our view of the world around us, and our morality.

Even for an old hand at horror like me (happily raised in the pre-legislation era of the Video Nasties where you could watch anything) this is a deeply disturbing read. Somehow Beukes manages to craft not just the awful horrors of the brutal world big city detectives have to deal with on a daily basis (and she depicts the toll it takes on them) but then make this worse with an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of some unspeakable, un-knowable, un-nameable horror that is leaking out from realms that should not exist except in our collective nightmares, bleeding into the real world on an artist’s palette that uses blood and body parts instead of oils and brushes. And it is utterly, utterly compelling while making parts of your brain twitch, you simply can’t pull away from it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Big Bad Wolves

Big Bad Wolves,
Directed by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Starring: Guy Adler, Lior Ashkenazi, Dvir Benedek

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Here’s a rather unusual and utterly compelling film from Israel which came my way courtesy of the folks behind the UK Jewish Film Festival (, which runs from 30th October to the 17th November, Big Bad Wolves screens there on November 14th): Big Bad Wolves. Directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado it has been doing the film festival circuit, where it has been picking up some good word of mouth, not least from a certain Quentin Tarantino. Partaking of black comedy, crime and horror and with a central premise that revolves around the murder of a child I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this film at all – as it turned out I sat glued to the screen throughout.

The film starts with an almost idyllic scene of childhood play, a group of kids having fun together, playing hide and seek in the woods, two young girls happily running around looking for a spot to conceal themselves while their friend counts down to his search. It should be a happy scene, but despite the playful children there is a shadow looming even in these opening few minutes, from the ominous music to other signifiers – the little girl in red skipping through the woods instantly hints at not just a fairy tale edge, but the darker version of the old fairy tales, the type which were much nastier, murkier and often bloodier, before they were cleaned up to become the tales we tell children today. This dark fairy tale vibe continues when the children think they have found their young friend’s hiding place, but all they find is a single red shoe – a disturbing play on the ruby red slipper – which belonged to her; the girl in the red dress is gone…

This opening credits sequence is the trigger for the later events, with a team of Israeli detectives trailing the only suspect. There is no proof and the only circumstantial evidence is one child who thinks they saw a man matching this suspect’s description near the area. But, as some detectives do, our cops have decided already, with no evidence, that this man – a local teacher, as it turns out – is guilty, and they are going to get a confession out of him, even if they have to beat it out of him. However, they are not aware a kid has seen them dragging the teacher into an abandoned building and is covertly filming this abuse, which finds its way onto the internet in short order. The detective, Miki, who decided on this course of action is busted, not just for his abuse of power, but because their heavy-handed actions mean that the suspect – their only suspect – has to be released and left alone. Shortly after this the girl’s body is found – minus her head – and Miki is, understandably, kicked off the force.

This does not stop Miki though – he is still convinced the quiet teacher is his man. Word gets out about the suspicions – still with no proof – and he is suspended from his school work, his reputation ruined through only hearsay. Miki begins to tail him on his own time, planning to kidnap his suspect, take him to a remote location and torture the confession he desires from him. What he doesn’t realise is that at the same time Tsvika is following them both – the father of the murdered girl, with an agenda of his own, and now he has both the teacher and Miki in his sights with a cold, implacable determination to do what he thinks he has the right to do…

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I’m not going to blow any of this hugely compelling and incredibly tense film for you by risking any possible spoilers. Suffice to say what follows is bloody, painful and excruciating. With no actual proof, just a child’s possible description of someone who passed by the area, actions are set in motion, judgements are made based on anger and revenge rather than rational thought, let alone due process of law. And the viewer is almost complicit in this, the film-makers cleverly playing on competing and contrasting emotions on the part of the audience. On the one hand we’re utterly horrified at the thought of using torture on someone, especially when that person may well be innocent and have no confession to make. But at the same time if this man has committed the abuse then slow murder of a child there is a part of the audience that also wants to see him suffer and pay for his crimes. And since we don’t know for a long time which side of the innocent-guilty divide our little teacher stands on this creates an excruciating emotional tension which leave you totally immersed in the story.

The film leavens these dark moments with a black sense of humour which means that despite the violence and the heavy duty emotional subject matter there are lighter moments and scenes to offer some relief. There are also, like any good fairy tale, layers of metaphor layered through the story. On the simplest level there is the obvious dichotomy between straight out vengeance and the civil rule of law which all societies have to live by or else descend into the chaos of blood-grudges and lynchings. We may want the bad guy – assuming he is the bad guy – to pay, but we know it has to be by the book, no matter how much we may want to give in to the animal urge to simply hurt back (and what if we are wrong? That’s why we need courts, evidence, trials). Behind this you could also read some of these events for a commentary on the post-9/11 world, where even supposedly civil, law-abiding democracies have secretly reverted to the vile practice of torture to extract confessions, or even on the relationship between Israelis and Arabs and how easily those in power can abuse that power over others (always in the name of the greater good, of course, they still see themselves as the ‘good guys’). This is reinforced by Tsvika relocating to a remote home in a mostly Arab area, secluded, where he can plan to carry out his ‘interrogation’ without anyone nearby hearing the screams…

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It’s a hugely satisfying and gripping film, twisting the audience emotionally so they find themselves supporting both sides at differing points in the film, a real morality morass with no clear totally good or bad characters or motivations (the murdered girl’s father Tsvika acts with such quiet restraint rather than anger and shouting that he comes across as more terrifying than the supposed murderer in many scenes). The murders themselves happen off-screen, instead we get a description of them during the attempts to force a confession, and somehow this is even more horrifying, getting under the viewer’s skin more than a straight visualistion of the deaths may have done. Big Bad Wolves is stylish, satisfying, utterly compelling and it puts the audience through the emotional wringer. Seriously recommended.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Coffin Hill

Coffin Hill #1

Caitlin Kittredge, Inaki Miranda

DC/Vertigo

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The Coffins brought nothing but blood and misery to everything we touched.”

Coffin Hill is another of the raft of new Vertigo titles launched this autumn, and as with the first issue of Hinterkind (reviewed here) it is an “extra-sized” issue, which seems to me a good idea for a first issue where you have to pack in introducing the characters, some set-up and background etc in addition to getting on with telling your story. It also continues the strategy of approaching successful novelists to write comics for Vertigo (artist Inaki had previously worked on Fairest: Hidden Kingdom for Vertigo with novelist and Arthur C Clarke award winner Lauren Beukes, reviewed here).

Caitlin is especially known for her dark, urban fantasy and strong female characters, and this serves Coffin Hill very well, I think. This opening issue starts in Boston in the present day, a serial killer caught by a rookie cop, Eve Coffin. We don’t stay in the present for too long though – after leaving the celebration party for her collar quite early and clearly upset Eve goes home and walks into a major domestic disturbance. And by major I mean her flat-mate ahving a gun pointed at her by her drug-peddling psycho boyfriend… The gun goes off, Eve takes the hit and is rushed to hospital. As surgeons battle to save her life fractured memories of her earlier life slash across the page jaggedly, Inaki using a central scene of her on the operating table surrounded by these broken shards as his layout, the art cleverly suggesting the damage and turmoil in her injured brain.

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And then we’re back ten years previously to Coffin Hill, Massachusetts, the Coffin family manor – proper New World Old Money – Caitlin describes them as “the holy trinity of New England royaltyL old blood, old money, old secrets” which beautifully sums the family  and its history in the area up. Oh, and of course they are cursed. Their scheming, decadent lives have produced all manner of secrets, and part of that seems to be linked to witchcraft and dark magics, the woods by their estate brooding and haunted, known in local lore as a place not to go, a place where bad things happen even centuries after the Salem witch trials, the dark atmosphere hangs over it, poisoning the area and the family.

And it’s this dark legacy that attracts Eve, purloining a forbidden old tome from a study in the family manor while an extravagant party takes place and the wealthy bicker and argue and intrigue while wearing false razor-blade smiles at their societal gathering. Meeting her Gothy friends in the dark woods it seems young Eve is determined to do more than play at being dark, she and her friends plan a ceremony, and it’s becoming clear that something she did during these events is what has haunted and changed her all the way to the present day ‘hero’ cop life she leads in Boston.  It’s an intriguing, nicely dark and disturbing opening issue that leaves me wanting to learn more about this secret history and the effects it has had on that decade of Eve’s life that we haven’t seen yet. Caitlin creates an interesting lead in Eve, from the damaged, haunted, older woman we see as a police officer in Boston now to the rebellious rich daughter doing what she wants to annoy equally spoiled parents and flirting with something she doesn’t fully understand.

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Inaki’s art moves from dark, grayed tones for the present day urban police setting to brighter, clearer images of the richly dressed socialites of Coffin manor or the alluring, sexy (but not sleazily so) young Eve and her friends, while over it all there hangs a dark pall, like something from the House of Usher or other works by Poe. Intriguing, I will be picking up issue 2.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Ghosted #1

Ghosted #1

Joshua Williamson, Goran Sudzuka, Miroslav Mrva

Image Comics

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We open with a man in prison, Jackson T Winters. Right from the first page (a full page depicting Jackson walking past one cell as a huge, violent inmate forcibly violates another and threatens him with more of the same) we can see this isn’t the cosy crook-nest of Porridge, this is a brutal prison, where fellow prisoners turn on each other frequently. Jackson is biding his time, but not, as you’d expect, dreaming of freedom – he carries guilt from his last crime job, and in his mind as he thinks about how awful it is within those walls and bars is “the only thing that gets me through this is the reminder that someday I’m going to die…”

Not a happy bunny then, even by prison standards. When a full scale blooody riot breaks out Jackson soon discovers it is a jaibreak – for him. Enter Anderson Lake, a woman clad in black and festooned with weapons which she seems to have an uncanny ability with, like a cross between the Punisher and Black Widow. She frees him but knocks him out – when he comes to he is in a opulent manor, full of arcane curios, the collection of a rich eccentric interested in the occult – a nice double page spread packed with some interesting details for eagle-eyed fans to watch out for – such as the ‘muscle’ armour helmet from Coppola’s Dracula, the puzzle box from Hellraiser or the arm-shaped candle sconces from Cocteau’s achingly beautiful La Belle et le Bete.

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The house and the collection belong to Markus Schrecken (another horror reference, an obvious riff on Max Schreck, the original Nosferatu actor) and he is indeed both rich and eccentric, with an eye for collecting supernatural items. He has had Lake bust him out because he is the best thief he can think of and he wants him to assemble a team to steal something to be the crowning glory of his collection – an actual ghost. From a multiple muder home which will soon be torn down, no less.

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The rest of this first issue is taken up with Jackson’s reluctant agreement but on his own terms, and the ineviable putting together of a team of folk with different specialities that any good heist plot requires. And despite the supernatural overtones, this is a heist plot, a classic one really, the con offered a shot at escape if he comes through on a peculiar and extremely difficult last job. And the team handle it with the swagger and smoothness this sort of plot requires – despite having been beaten and just broken out of prison Jackson still plays it oh so cool, naming his terms (which include a 50s style hand-made suit “something Sinatra would have worn – class!) and wanting to pick his own team before their first planned scouting of the supposedly haunted mansion.

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It’s a hugely enjoyable read, think Ocean’s Eleven meets the world of Mignola’s Hellboy, and while it may (in the first issue anyway) be largely following the standard Great Heist script, that’s what it needs to do and in any case it’s what the reader wants it to do at this stage. Fun and interesting, and certainly has me wanting to read the second part, which is always the mark of a good first issue.

The Complex

Another quick review of one of the genre movies I caught recently as part of my annual Edinburgh Film Festival week, this one by the great J-Horror director Hideo Nakata. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

The Complex

Director: Hideo Nakata

Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Narimiya, Masanobu Katsumura, Naomi Nishida, Kanau Tanaka

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Hideo Nakata is a name well known to fans of horror films, especially that rich seams of J-Horror, with very influential entries in the genre such as Dark Water and Ring. When I went to see The Complex I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – much as I love horror film and have enjoyed the works which Japan (and them more parts of Asian cinema) have been adding to the genre, I have to admit that there has been a bit too much in terms of generic tropes and repetitive imitations – too many close ups of rolling eyeballs over loud soundtrack noise and very long haired girls crawling in unnatural poses have diluted this part of the genre through inferior copying and imitation. Refreshingly with The Complex Nakata treads a different but highly effective path, here opting for more of a straight ghost story, proper hauntings with real reasons for the ghosts’ existence and mostly avoiding the jump-shock or gore approach for creepy atmosphere, something a well told ghost tale can do so well and to such phantasmagorical effect.

Asuka is a young student, moving into a slightly run down looking 60s style concrete apartment complex with her family, in order to be nearer to her college, where she is studying to work in healthcare. The opening scenes of unpacking in the new home seem very tranquil and domestic and fairly cheery, with her little brother and loving parents around her, but for those of us who have a lot of horror flicks under our belts there are signs even then that there are dark clouds in the horizon. A solitary, rather tatty box of possessions, oh, these are mum’s thinks Asuka as she unpacks in her room, and takes it through to her parent’s room. Somehow you just know that box is foreshadowing something later in the film. Other warning signs that not all is right with the apparent domestic bliss of a new family home come when over breakfast on different mornings her mother and father have exactly the same conversation… It Nakata’s world it isn’t just the dark, spooky places that can harbour something odd or frightening, as with Lynch so too can the cheerfully suburban dometic.

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And then there are the neighbours – Asuka is sent with little homemade cakes to introduce the family to their new neighbours and starts with the apartment opposite them on their landing. She rings the bell and knocks the door; she thinks she hears someone inside, but no-one actually answers the door. And then in best creepy horror tradition the door opens itself, just a few inches, but with no-one visible. And then it closes again. Creepy things going on or just an elderly neighbour who doesn’t care for company? And why are there no kids in the playground, save for one single wee boy? As night falls on those first evenings in the new apartment the noises start, some awful, drawn out noise from the apartment right through from her bedroom…

I’m not going to expand any further into what the source of that noise is in the neighbouring apartment, or indeed why the apparent domesticity of the new family home feels so off despite the apparently happy surface, because that would take us into the realm of spoilers. Suffice to say Nakata takes his time in slowly building up the setting and introducing characters, the slow burn, ratchetting gradually up with the tension and creepiness that a good ghost tale requires. My only complaint about the Complex is that a couple of the twists I saw coming very early on in the film; perhaps Nakata telegraphed them a little less subtly than he should, but then again it is equally possible there’s no real fault in the narrative and it is simply having seen so many genre flicks the regular viewer picks up on some foreshadowing quicker than other viewers. It certainly didn’t spoil my viewing and Nakata being the master of horror that he is there were other revelations I didn’t see coming. Besides, J-Horror or horror from anywhere else, the key to a good ghost story is atmosphere, and that Nakata has in spades here. Good late night horror viewing.

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Review: Frankenstein’s Army

Frankenstein’s Army

Director: Richard Raaphorst

Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang

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I’ve just enjoyed my annual week off going round an enjoyably diverse series of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; of course some of those films I caught just happen to fall into the genres we cover on here, so I thought following last week’s review of the very unusual Iranian SF flick Taboor I’d share another interesting genre flick I saw, one I couldn’t resist, not with a title like this: Frankenstein’s Army.

World War Two rages, and a forward scout unit of weary, wary Russian soldiers is advancing cautiously, searching out German positions. Unusually this advance unit has had a film unit attached to them (so yes, you guessed it, we’re in ‘found footage’ territory, although don’t despair, this is actually pretty damned good fun), for recording and propaganda purposes allegedly (they may not be mad on the idea, but the grizzled combat veterans of the Soviet Army know better than to question orders from above in Stalin’s Russia). Their commander is growing concerned at their lack of radio contact with any other Soviet units in some days as they push forward. When they do finally receive a signal it is short, a desperate plea from another Soviet unit in dire trouble, and their coordinates, before the lose the radio signals again. They are wary – this doesn’t sound like a unit that should be as far forward as their scouting group, and why is it that again they cannot pick up any signals? None the less, comrades may be in trouble so they have to investigate, and soon come across a deserted village and semi ruined buildings – and fresh graves. Open fresh graves with emptied coffins…

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Exploring the buildings they are surprised to find the interiors are less like any farm or village buildings and more reminiscent of factories. Still puzzling over where everyone went to and why these rural buildings seem to have been refitted as some sort of industrial units they are attacked and take their first casualties. Their vicious enemy attacks suddenly, the familiar Nazi swastika is visible, but these are no ordinary Wermacht troops. In fact they don’t even seem entirely human

We soon discover our cameraman is not working for the propaganda unit, he is actually under top secret orders from the very top, and the unit must help him with it (and they are none too subtly reminded these orders come from Comrade Stalin himself and they know where all of the soldier’s families live… It’s not just the Nazis Russian soldiers have to worry about in this time, it’s also their own leaders). Soviet intelligence has become aware of an unusual advance weapons project the Nazis have, but this isn’t some engineering wonder like the V2 Rocket, this is all the work of one man, a certain Baron Frankenstein. And while he uses machinery just like Von Braun does for his ‘wonder weapons’, the Baron, of course, also uses human body parts. The reason for the desecrated, emptied graves nearby becomes clear, and soon the men are plunged into a hideous struggle with inhuman creatures, part human, party machine and the chances of them surviving, let alone capturing or killing the elusive Baron, seem to be diminishing rapidly in a series of nightmarish skirmishes.

I’m not going to say anything more of the story here for fear of spoiling it, but it is a very satisfying slice of sci-fi/horror, going from the open fields of war (open but eternally dangerous) to the closed, claustrophobic underground chambers of the Baron’s lair, enclosed and full of danger and grotesque horrors. The dark corridors and first person perspective of the cameraman’s footage (he keeps recording even after his real mission is revealed) combine to give an almost video game, first person shooter kind of feel to some scenes as the soldiers are pursued by the Baron’s monstrous creations through the decaying, dark, underground halls and corridors. The creatures themselves are a marvelous addition to the history of imaginative creatures in the genre, literally stitched together from pieces of Nazi corpses and then united with pieces of machinery, which gives a sort of steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them and which also reminded me (in the good way) of running around the remarkable sets and encountering the bizarre part human, part machine beings in Bioshock.

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(director Richard Raaphorst – in the loud shirt – on stage introducing Frankenstein’s Army at the UK premiere in the Filmhouse, during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Film Festival had the good sense to schedule this UK premiere of Frankenstein’s Army as a late night movie and that suits it perfectly – it is an ideal slice of late night genre movie, best viewed after a couple of drinks, by turns scary and horrific (some scenes in the Baron’s house of horrors are like an explosion in a charnel house) and yet also delightfully over the top in places, knowingly so, tipping a nod and a wink to the hardcore fans in a way that makes it clear the makers are fans of the genre themselves. It really is an ideal late night genre flick, the combination of action, horror and dark comedy, and the inventive creature designs seem destined to become cult faves. Sadly in the UK you’ll need to keep an eye out for screenings at film festivals as there’s no word on a UK general release yet, although the makers tell me that they are concentrating on an American release for now, with screenings in select cities and also video on demand at the end of July in the US market. Hopefully it won’t be too long before it gets a proper UK release too. Meantime keep up with the film’s release progress via Twitter and Facebook.

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Film: Byzantium

Byzantium

Directed by Neil Jordan

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton

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I’ve loved Neil Jordan’s films since the Crying Game and the fascinating Company of Wolves. He has a lyrical quality in the way he structures the stories and the cinematography of the scenes, and he is adept at layering stories and characters, most especially (as he demonstrated with Company of Wolves years ago and again in Interview With the Vampire) when dealing with mythic and folkloric subject matter. I was a little worried about Byzantium as it had some very mixed reviews, some lavishing praise, others saying it fell badly short. On viewing it myself a few days ago I have to say my worries vanished and I was absolutely absorbed into this intriguing and different take on the vampire mythos.

Gemma Arterton’s Clara turns tricks and performs in lap dancing clubs to bring in money while staying off the grid, living a secretive life with Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who, given the fact that Clara still appears very young, she passes off as her little sister, who she is the legal guardian of after their parents were killed. In fact the quiet and thoughtful Eleanor is her daughter, born under less than ideal circumstances and then raised in an orphanage some 200 years ago, while her mother paid for her board but was forced to keep her distance. After Clara’s vampirisation she returns to claim her daughter, the legacy of her mortal life, and for two centuries the pair have had to live a secret life, not just hiding their immortal, blood drinking nature from society but also from an unspecified threat, that Clara is clearly aware of but will not tell her daughter about.

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It’s clear that Clara is protecting her daughter from some group and at first we’re not sure who – vampire hunters? An organised team of other undead who object to their freelance lifestyle? But Clara, stuck in repeating the same routine – evade, hide, turn some sexual tricks to make money, move on, hide, repeat – doesn’t realise her daughter, eternally 16 years old, has matured within and is questioning why they live as they do, especially since she’s lacking any real history from Clara on why they are as they are. She repeatedly writes down her life story on paper, in beautiful copperplate handwriting, but not for anyone to read – symbolically she tears up the pages after she finishes and scatters them to the winds…

This brings us to one of the first kills and the modus operandi for the women, when a kindly, very elderly gent in the apartment block they are living in talks to Eleanor one day about the pages – he has picked some up, enough to start putting a little of her story together. He knows what she is and more than that, he welcomes her – he is old, alone, ready to move on. And Eleanor is only drawn to feed on those whose time is done, the old, the dying, the suicidal. To them she is not a blood sucking monster but an angel of mercy, and she speaks a benediction of peace to them as she takes them and lightens their passing. In one scene the horror of a vampire feeding on a helpless old victim in a hospital is transmuted as the woman looks at her and whispers, you came, my angel – she welcomes the release…

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Which is not to say they can’t kill for other reasons – Clara is perfectly prepared to kill, but in her case it tends to be evil people, such as an arrogant pimp in the seaside town they flee to (the world is a better place without you in it, she tells the surprised pimp as she overpowers him). Or to attack a mysterious pursuer (I won’t say any more on that for fear of spoilers). These are no innocents (in fact Eleanor makes no claim to be especially good), but they do have a moral code and despite their circumstances they are in many ways moral creatures, given their situation.

Of course eventually we find other vampires and it links back to how both women became immortals, an ancient society, a Brotherhood, which is not terribly keen on the idea of a woman joining when Clara is reborn, much less when she wants to make her daughter the same – women are forbidden to create, one brother intones. Just as the vampire is the inversion of natural life, here their immortal club is also inverse, the men are allowed to create new vampires (all men they deem to be of the right quality, like a perverse gentleman’s society) and women are forbidden – the power of birth, of the creation of new life, is here in the hands of men.

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The film is replete with references to some of the 19th century Gothic classic novels, and layered with symbols and many allusions to – and disruption of – gender expectations and roles. It’s a fascinating and spellbinding film, from the gritty, seedy underground life the women have to live to keep themselves hidden, on the edge of society forever to the flashbacks to both of their earlier lives and (eventually) their genesis as vampires (I won’t ruin it for you, suffice to say it is much more mythologically satisfying than the old being bitten and turned, and involves some beautifully composed and memorable shots). Saoirse’s performance in particular is exceptional – in the Lovely Bones (disappointing misfire of a film but she was good in it) and Hannah she’s showcased not only an especially refined gift for acting for such a young woman, she also has a wonderful, ineffable, otherworldly quality to her – like Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings you find it easy to take her as different because she radiates that quality quite naturally, and it is used to huge and sympathetic effect here as she questions her life, her immortality, the world around her that she can’t really be part of, and finally romance with a seriously ill, very sensitive young man, who is himself very different from most of society.

I could write screeds more on the symbols and myths invested into this film, the performances, the beautiful shots and the narrative structure which also draws you into this hidden world, but I think if I write any more I’ll risk spoiling some key scenes for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, so I’ll wrap up. Suffice to say for those who like something deeper, more folkloric and  with more bit to it (sorry) than the dreadful modern Twilight teen-girl friendly film vampire tale this is it, deeply steeped in folklore (the transformation scenes owe much to Celtic culture and myth rather than Transylvanian counts) and Gothic lore but laced with the real world and gender issues, it’s intoxicating. As with Jordan’s superb Company of Wolves I know I am going to have to get this on DVD when it comes out so I can watch it again and again, because I know there will be elements I missed the first time round. And when I find a film I want to rewatch numerous times and still expect to find new moments and insights, well, that’s about as high a compliment to a film-maker as I can pay.

Interview With the Vampire – Claudia’s Story

Interview With the Vampire – Claudia’s Story

Based on the novel by Anne Rice, adapted by Ashley Marie Witter

Headline

I’ll start by confessing straight up that Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire is one of my favourite novels. Originally published in the mid 70s it has sold in the millions and spawned a connected series, the Vampire Chronicles as well as a beautifully shot film by the very fine Neil Jordan. It is also one of the most influential novels in the vampire literary cannon, arguably as important to the genre in the 20th century as Stoker’s Dracula was to the 19th; both books are landmarks in the genre. I’ve re-read it several times over the years and in fact re-read it again just a few weeks before this adaptation arrived on my desk. It isn’t the first time the Vampire Chronicles have been adapted to the comics medium – I still have some of the Innovation comics adaptations in my collection (see here). However this is not a straightforward comics interpretation – instead Ashley Marie Witter has taken the original tale, which saw the 200 year old vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac narrating his life story to a young reporter, from his mortal life in the late 1700s plantation near New Orleans to the present day, and retold it, but this time from the perspective of one of the most singular characters in the novel – and indeed in all of vampire literature – the child vampire Claudia.

Ashley begins the story with a seriously ill Claudia – a beautiful young girl with a doll-like face and golden curls – being brought across by Lestat, the older, dominant vampire who made Louis into his immortal companion. As a shocked Louis watches, Lestat gashes his own wrist and offers it to Claudia, telling her she has to drink to get better from her illness. The human child drinks from Lestat and is transformed into an immortal vampire, endless, unchanging, in an incorruptible body that survives on a diet of human blood each and every night. Lestat has his own motivations for his actions – knowing that Louis is increasingly unhappy living with him he creates Claudia to be their ‘daughter’, her diminutive size and appearance making her as dependent on their support for her survival as any mortal child would be to its parents, locking Louis to him and their lifestyle, effectively forming an immortal, blood-drinking family unit. Realising what he has done calls Lestat a bastard and a fiend, while Lestat merely smiles in satisfaction, “such language in front of your daughter,” he mocks. I’m not your daughter, the little voice pipes up, I’m my mama’s daughter. Not anymore, Lestat informs her, now you are mine and Louis’ daughter…

As obvious and transparent as this gambit is, it works – Louis, the sensitive soul who finds immortal life difficult, wrestling with the morality of his existence, of the need to feed on human beings to sustain immortal life, cannot bring himself to leave with Claudia there, for her to be left only with Lestat to look after her. And so the trio settle into an uneasy family life – as with any family the child learns from both her carers. From Louis she learns an appreciation for the arts and the finer things of human existence, while from Lestat she learns the art of hunting and killing her human prey, something she takes to with great enthusiasm. Louis, the more nurturing of the two, is the one she loves, Lestat less so, but she still pays attention to the lessons he can teach her, until as the years pass she realises that he isn’t prepared to answer some of the deeper questions she starts to formulate, particularly regarding their own existence – why are there vampires, how did they come into existence, which vampire made Lestat and why does he never mention him? He becomes regularly enraged at her questions and when he refuses to explain she decides he simply doesn’t have the knowledge she desires but is reluctant to let her or Louis know, preferring to pretend to have access to secrets about their vampire nature that they may need for their survival.

At this point it becomes clear that she enjoys provoking him over such points and at first it might be easy to see this as the actions of a child. But Claudia, despite her deceptive appearance, is no child – decades have passed since she received the Dark Gift, and while like all vampires her body is forever fixed as it was at the moment of her mortal death, her mind has grown. She is now a mature, experienced woman, realising that while she may be a swift, immortal predator, she is trapped inside this child’s body – forever. She cannot physically grow up and this, along with her growing desire to know why ‘her kind’ exist and the fact that, denied a real childhood, she has grown up with a lack of empathy and human morality (unlike her ‘parents’ she did not have the luxury of experiencing human life for long to ground her for later life), will trigger an explosive, bloody rupture in their artificial family…

There’s much more, but I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read the original novel (and indeed if you have read it, you may know the major events, but I don’t want to spoil how they come across when viewed from Claudia’s point of view). Ashley handles portraying both Claudia’s childhood innocence and her later knowing, determined adult personality with a deft touch – since her physical body cannot change much of this has to be conveyed through gesture, expression and body language, a task the artist achieves magnificently, moving from beautiful child to cold-hearted, century old immortal killer with the small change of facial expression. In one scene the panels move closer and closer to Claudia’s doll-like face (and indeed despite the decades passing both her fathers still treat her like a beautiful doll), until the perspective zooms into a close up of her eyes, which are the eyes of a predator, of a cat, glowing, shining, luminous – beautiful yet dangerous because you don’t know if the mind behind them is regarding you with amused condescendion or if they are sizing you up as dinner.

Reframing the original events from Claudia’s perspective raises this beyond simple  adaptation (not that there is anything wrong with a straight adaptation) and to someone like me who has read the original series it seems kind of fair – the novel of Interview is from the point of view of Louis, the second novel, The Vampire Lestat, allows Lestat to comment on those events from his perspective, but Claudia, until now, didn’t receive such treatment. Ashley’s artwork is absolutely delicious – you may remember quite some time ago I posted a piece of art from the book when it was first announced she was working on it, and it was a gorgeous looking piece of work. Well the finished book is even more beautiful, the artwork mostly sepia-tinted (except for expressive scarlet splashes of blood dripping from fangs, or in blood tears from the eyes, which stand out with the vibrant hue of the blood in the early Hammer films when they were introduced to audiences more used to black and white), and wonderfully delicate and as lush, sensual and decadent as the original novel itself; this is one of those comics works I will find myself going back through again to pore over some of the delicious artwork. The erotic subtext of the original is preserved and, as with the novel, delicately layered through and hinted at rather than too obvious. The book itself is a very handsome small hardback, good stock glossy paper that shows off Ashley’s beautiful artwork to great effect – not just a good read but an attractive addition to your shelves; much recommended.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Frankenstein, signed by Mary Shelley

An incredibly rare first edition of Frankenstein, signed by the author Mary Shelley to Lord Byron. That stormy night in the villa Diodati (a summer made wet and stormy by atmospheric disruption caused by a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world) saw two great literary births as Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori encouraged each other to come up with chilling tales to pass the wet evenings. The literary model for the vampire for the best part of the next two centuries would be created (based partly on a fragment written by Byron, then expanded hugely by Polidori who used Byron, who he had fallen out with, as his model of the cold-hearted, aristocratic vampire, a standard model for so long afterwards in the genre), and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. An outstanding tale, part horror, part early science fiction, part cautionary tale on knowledge trying to push into areas perhaps we simply were not meant to know about, part analogy to her own awful losses (children lost to mortality, who haunted her thoughts), a tale that has a seemingly endless fascination for each new generation from 1818 right through to our own modern, highly technologically advanced society, where even today we take morals and themes from it and apply them to new developments that worry us, always the mark of good writing when themes remain immortal and forever adaptable and relatable to passing decades and centuries (link via K A Laity):

Lord Byron’s first edition presentation copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Peter Harrington on Vimeo.

Eddie – the Sleepwalking Cannibal

Edinburgh Film Fest: Eddie – the Sleepwalking Cannibal

Dir: Boris Rodriguez

 

Another late night horror gem unearthed during my week at one of the world’s oldest movie fests, the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right now I will raise my hand and happily admit that I circled this film in the programme as one I wanted to see the instant I saw the title; seriously, folks, how could I pass by a film with a title like that? It called to the horror and humour geek parts of my cine-soul and, as I was to find out, my instinct to jump straight into booking that film was a good call.

Eddie: the Sleepwalking Cannibal (not to be confused with Eddie the Sleepwalking Campbell, comics peeps) is a Danish-Canadian co-production (now there’s something you don’t often say in a film review). Lars Olafssen (Thure Lindhart) is a Danish artist who achieved some level of celebrity in the arts world a few years before, but now seems to be a bit burnt out, unable to inspire himself to paint anything new in years, with his agent having arranged a change of scene for him, teaching in a remote, rural art school at Koda Lake in wintry Canada. The move doesn’t start well for Lars when, too busy checking his map while driving, he hits a deer on a country road. Worse the creature isn’t dead but is dying in agony; he hesitates for a moment then realises he has to put it out of its misery. He’s repeatedly striking the unfortunate animal on the head with a rock when a police cruiser pulls up behind him…

Not his best introduction to his new community, and at the art school he quickly gets the impression that some want him there thinking he will produce new work and so put their art school on the map while others are simply jealous that he has had success as an artist while they never have (including his colleague and neighbour, a philandering artist with a constantly barking dog he leaves out all night keeping Lars awake). In his class we meet Eddie (Dylan Smith), a largely mute, developmentally challenged man. His elderly relative has looked after him since his parents were killed in nasty circumstances in front of him as a child, something he has never recovered from. The same old lady generously endows the school so as a thank you they let Eddie paint away in the back of the classes, producing work like a small child, but happy. When his relative dies Lars is persuaded to look after Eddie – if he goes to a care home the school loses the endowment and no-one else seems to want him. But on the first night with his silent man-child charge Lars is rather startled to find Eddie has left the house in the middle of the night. He’s even more alarmed when following him reveals a recently killed and partly devoured animals in the woods nearby and Eddie, almost naked, blood caked around his mouth, and quite asleep…

And so begins a series of blackly comical horror scenes. He finds out that Eddie has done this sort of thing before, but as a child years ago after the death of his parents – perhaps he is just emotionally upset again and it has come back, he will settle down soon once he feels secure with Lars. Deciding on preventative medicine Lars is going to nail Eddie’s bedroom window closed so he can’t open it in his sleep and go outside. Until the constantly barking dog of his unfriendly neighbour catches his attention and slowly Lars puts down the nails. I wish I could get some sleep, if only we could do something about that dog, he remarks, seemingly casually, before wishing Eddie goodnight. And a little while later, just as he hoped, sleepwalking Eddie drifts out into the night and the dog barks no more. But when he follows to make sure Eddie is okay he finds out somnambulistic Eddie has sunk his fangs and terrifying physical strength into more than the dog…

Lars is horrified but at the same time exhilarated – returning to his studio with images of blood and dismemberment flashing in his brain he stares at that damned blank canvas on his easel that has been teasing him with it’s untouched whiteness. And suddenly he is painting, with manic energy, creating his best work in years. When his agent comments that his last big creative burst came after he was in a bad accident, perhaps he needs pain and blood and suffering to gain inspiration, Lars laughs at him, but we can see his discomfort. Perhaps his agent is correct – is the violence stimulating his desire to create art? And if so dare he indulge in more?

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(director Boris Rodriguez (on right) in a Q&A after the Edinburgh Film Festival screening of Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal, pic from my Flickr, click for larger image)

Boris Rodriguez delivers a pretty much pitch-perfect dark comedy-horror – yes, the humour is as dark as tar in a barrel, but it’s the sort of bloody (literally sometimes) humour many horror fans will love, and the relationship between Lars and Eddie is well handled. Dylan Smith is a stand-out as the simple, backwards innocent (except in his sleepwalking excursions) Eddie, a really superb piece of acting, and the dynamic between the lead pair is rewarding: yes, it seems like Lars may manipulate and use poor Eddie for his own ends, but at the same time he clearly comes to care for the big lug and looks after him. There are evil acts of violence on here, slowly escalating, but there is no true villain, just a simple man-child who really doesn’t know what he’s been doing and an artist who is increasingly prepared to take suffering for artistic creation to an entirely new level… It’s funny, bloody and frequently touching, the scenes between Lars and Eddie giving it a nice emotional context that keeps it from becoming a slice of mere exploitation movie, the bitching and jealousy between the artistic community is amusing and the entire film has something of the Coen Brothers to it (which is a huge compliment, Ethan and Joel are cinematic gods as far as I am concerned) with a mixture of comedy, horror, drama and absurd farce. It’s still on the festival circuit and I don’t know when it will get a UK general release, but trust me, this is one to keep an eye out for, it is destined to become a cult classic.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Guinea Pigs

Edinburgh Film Fest: Guinea Pigs,
UK, 2012, running time 85 mins
Dir: Ian Clark

Director Ian Clark returns to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following up his previous short film he showed last time with Guinea Pigs, his debut feature length film, a very fine, tense medical-science fiction-horror hybrid that creates some genuine tension on a very low budget.

A group of strangers head for a very modern, hi-tech yet remote medical testing facility hidden away in the British countryside. All have volunteered to take part in the regular human trials that are part of testing new drugs and treatments to finally have them licensed for human use by the medical professions. Some are studenty types doing it to make money, some are ‘profession’ lab rats who go from test to test, one is a journalist planning an expose on how these massive pharmaceutical companies exploit people in need of money to give up their body as a test bed (and let’s not forget what a massive business such pharmacological research is in the UK and the fact it can’t really function without such tests).

The test runs for two weeks, during which the mixed group of older and younger, male and female test subject will live in the remote facility where they will constantly be scrutinised and monitored as they are administered a new experimental drug called Pro-9. No nearby village or town to wander to, no internet access, no mobile phone access (the undercover journalist is less than happy – I need the phone for work, she says, this is your paid work for the next two weeks, the Doctor reminds her). Through the first day each of the group is taken in turn and after a blood test administered their dose of Pro-9 then told to relax, enjoy the facilities, eat, sleep. By the end of the day as they all take their turn in the lab our small group are starting to tentatively bond a little in the rec room, sensing out each other. They think they are in for a long, slow, boring two weeks of daily routine. They’re not – many won’t get through the first night. There’s more than a little ‘adverse reaction’ to Pro-9…

Because each member of the group was taken in at various times through the day for their first injection the resulting effects start to appear in sequence with each, and this is part of the strength and dawning horror of Guinea Pigs – when the first to be injected starts to react badly to the drug during the night the other think it is because he broke the rules and did some strenuous exercise and it has accelerated the drug through his system. He is taken away for treatment by the staff and everyone ascribes it to a one-off complication, until the next person to be injected starts to show similar symptoms and they others realise not only is something badly wrong, but that they are really looking at what may happen to them. It’s a very clever touch by Clark and his team – imagine knowing too late that this drug is driving people into an uncontrolled frenzy and that you have taken it, that it is simply a matter of how soon, not if, you develop the same symptoms.

The situation soon deteriorates beyond the ability of the small night staff to contend with and we move to a fairly familiar small group under siege by crazies scenario – pretty common in a lot of horror, but I have to say well-handled here. Instead of the sudden emergence of a strong heroic type we have ordinary folks faced with an unthinkable situation and trying desperately to think on how to survive not only the other infected now prowling the grounds but how to deal with their own likely transformation that looms over them. And then there’s the fact that each of them is now looking at their rapidly diminishing group and thinking the people they have befriend could soon turn on them. Natural empathy for someone becoming ill wars with the self-preservation instincts: how can those not yet showing symptoms turn their back on friends who are? But if they follow that human compassion they could pay with their lives…

Although in some ways it strays close to the zombie/28 Days later model (which, whatever Danny Boyle says let’s be honest is another form of the zombie movie) Clark keeps his debut tight and focussed. He doesn’t go for cheap splatter (there is blood, but in context, not just added in to try and add an unnecessary thrill), likewise he avoids using the easy ‘jump’ scare approach too many lazier horror directors opt for, with a sudden jolt cut, loud effect or music piece to make the audience jump. I don’t mind a decent jump shock if used well (say the head out of the boat in Jaws) and I have no problem with gore in horror either, but I do have an increasing problem with untalented creators who use both far too frequently not for good effect but in lieu of being able to generate genuine atmosphere and scares by storytelling and good camera work. So thank you, Ian, for not doing that, for instead being confident enough to believe in the strength of your concept and characters to carry enough horror and chills. I think, debut or not, that is the mark of a talented storyteller and it means I will watch for the next film Clark makes. Highly effective, tense British SF-Horror and a perfect late night movie – it is currently on the festival circuit trying to build some awareness, so if you see it coming to a screening near you give them some support, they deserve it.

Guinea Pigs movie director and crew at edinburgh film fest
(writer/director Ian Clark, second from right, with some of his crew at the late night Edinburgh Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)