EIFF 2019 – Memory: the Origins of Alien

Memory: the Origins of Alien,
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillippe,
Exhibit A Pictures

Hard to believe, but here we are in the last third of June and that means Edinburgh International Film Festival time. My first screening out of the bunch I have booked was Memory: the Origins of Alien. You may know director Alexandre O. Phillippe for some of his very interesting previous documentaries, The People Vs George Lucas and Doc of the Dead (both highly recommended), and here he and his team have created another fascinating set of insights – this is not a standard making-of approach, rather this is an exploration of the myriad of people involved in the gestation of this now-iconic film, their thoughts, their inspirations, their dreams, their nightmares, the ingredients which would coalesce into the film Alien.

As anyone who has ever had to study Alien for an essay will know, it is one of those films that is replete with elements that can be endlessly debated and discussed, and some of those you are likely familiar with already, not least the surreal, dream-nightmare imagery of H.R. Giger, with its biomechanical, highly sexual motifs, which dovetails with other sexual aspects of the narrative (the “baby” alien chestbuster looking like a penis with teeth, as actor Veronica Cartwright put it, the “male rape” and insemination and the abomination of a birth), or the real-world parasitic insects which lay their eggs within other insects to feed from within then burst forth at birth inspiring what is now one of the most fabled scenes in cinema.


(above, the Furies, below, paintings by Francis Bacon, which fed into the idea for the chestbuster version of the Alien)

But Memory, while exploring these qualities, dives deeper, into the stories and myths that influenced Alien’s various creators, taking us from the Furies of Classical Greek culture (a beautifully shot scene takes us from Delphi, the “navel of the world” into a cave which becomes like an Alien set, right down to the laser beam from the egg cavern, except here the Furies wait below that glittering beam) to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Various talking heads comment, from academics to some of those personally involved, such as editor Terry Rawlings and art director Roger Christian, or co-writer Ron Shusett, with some clever use of archive interview material to allow some who have passed on, such a Giger or co-writer Dan O’Bannon, to be a part of the process, while others who worked with them also give us more insights into how those creators shaped their work, from early drafts, O’Bannon;s work with Carpenter on Dark Star and even his time with Giger on the Jodorowsky attempt to film Dune, all filtering into the eventual ideas in conjunction with the other film-makers.

As you may expect O’Bannon gets a lot of the running time here, as the original story creator, and we hear from his widow and from Shusett about “Star Beast” and how he knew he had something but he just couldn’t get past page 29 on the script, so Shusett pitched in, and the now-famous chestbuster scene was born. This scene, understandably, also takes a fair amount of the running time here – everyone involved, from the early drafts of the script (studio execs not being overly impressed until hitting that scene and experiencing their WTF moment) through to setting up of the actual scene, the puppet, the effects and filming it, they all knew this was where the film would live or die. It may now be one of the most well-known and important scenes in film history, but they had no way of knowing that when crafting that moment, and it is truly fascinating just how much went into its creation, from so many people.


(above, the now iconic chestbuster scene from Alien, below some early concept sketches for the scene, bottom: writer Dan O’Bannon on the Nostromo set)

And as for that iconic scene, so too for the whole film – Memory rather deftly tugs on the many different strands that went into the making of what we saw on the big screen, from childhood reading habits to art influences, to friendships or arguments that opened some doors or pointed people towards others. Of course all films are a gestalt entity – too often the director and the stars are the only ones focused on by the media, but those of us who love cinema are very aware of the huge amount of talents that go into the making of any film, and Memory beautifully, warmly. and with great respect for the creative process, shows how all those individuals, with all of their own histories and ideas and influences, work together to craft a feature film, in this case one that is now forty years old and assured of its place in cinematic history.

The EIFF screening also boasted a short post-show Q&A with producer Annick Mahnert who has worked with Phillippe before (he often uses a lot of the same team), and it was interesting to hear one of the team talk about how they brought together so many different strands of influences and people’s recollections to put together Memory, and she also let us know that their next film, which is mostly shot already but is now going into editing, will be about William Friedkin and the Exorcist, so I shall look forward to that.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the “Memory” title comes from a very early version of the story by O’Bannon.

Cymera

From 7th to 9th of June I was at the very first Cymera festival of literary science fiction, fantasy and horror at the Pleasance in Edinburgh. I was chairing a triple-header with Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gareth Powell, which turned into a very enjoyable event with the guys discussing their own work and space opera in general, as well as how they approach creating their works, from plot to characters to world building.

Richard Morgan at Cymera 01

On the first evening I saw Richard Morgan, who I haven’t seen in person for years. Some chums and I were early supporters of his work when his first book, Altered Carbon (now adapted by Netflix, with a second series on the way) came out back in the day (I still have my signed first edition).

Richard Morgan at Cymera 04

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I caught a great discussion by Samantha Shannon – I liked her Bone Season, and several of us in the bookshop have been eager to have a look at her new standalone book (it may eventually be joined by other books, she said at the event) The Priory of the Orange Tree, the only problem being it is a huge tome and if I start on that (and I do want to!) it means several others books waiting on my pile.

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Obviously I couldn’t take any of the event I was chairing, but here are Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky about to sign for readers after our panel:

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This is Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, and SJ Morden being interviewed by Andrew Lindsay at Cymera:

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Charlie Stross and Jonathan Whitelaw being interviewed by Andrew J Wilson:

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I hadn’t read Helen Grant, Clare McFall or Rachel Burge’s books (yet), but their panel on supernatural fiction sounded pretty interesting and I had a gap in my schedule, so I decided to check it out (trying new creators is part of going to festivals, surely?), and it proved to be very intersting (and a little spooky!)

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James Oswald (and his trademark pink jacket) is best known for his bestselling crime fiction (with a supernatural element), but his first love was fantasy and he began writing with his Sir Benfro series, which he discussed here with writer, tutor and former 2000 AD editor David Bishop:

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I really liked this element of Cymera – Brave New Words. Before the events in the main theatre new writers were given a few moments to do a reading from their work, a nice way to support new talent. Here’s Justin Lee Anderson –

Cymera 2019 - Justin Lee Anderson

Den Patrick, Leo Carew and Rebecca Kuang discussing their fantasy worlds:

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I really enjoyed Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard’s talk, which took a different angle from more common Western cultural tropes. Tade’s debut novel Rosewater made my Best of the Year list for 2018 and the sequel Insurrection, out just a couple of months ago, is even better (reviewed here). I have Aliette’s books on order…

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Organiser Ann got a suprise ceremony and gift at the very end of the weekend as thank you for the whole festival. It was pretty damned amazing, especially for a first outing – I talked to a lot of writers and readers, and they all enjoyed themselves. Hats off to everyone who took part and organised it, fingers crossed it becomes an annual event.

Cymera 2019 - Ann Landmann

Death Trench

Death Trench,
Directed by Leo Scherman,
Starring Rossif Sutherland, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Carrick, Shaun Benson, Ted Atherton

Mixing the horror genre with the war film is not a new, and even in recent years we’ve had examples such as Overlord and Outpost, and of course anyone who reads the Hellboy comics will be familiar with mad Nazi scientists that dabble in the dark magics. Death Trench (aka Trench 11) takes a slightly different tack, being set in the final days of the First World War rather than the second. Canadian Lieutenant Berton (Sutherland), is a miner, a tunneller, a sapper who has spent the war not in the trenches but under them, the old Medieval tactic of undermining a fortified position has come back in this statics war of attrition.

After a terrifying cave-in which he barely survived, he’s enjoying some well-deserved R&R and spending time with his French girlfriend. He is none too happy when some military police come looking for him to drag him back in for another mission. Allied intelligence has gotten wind of a secret German underground complex – not bunkers amid the main lines, but miles behind the front lines. As the German lines are starting to crumble and they know it has been hastily abandoned – it isn’t a fortification, they think it is a secret chemical weapons lab. They know one of those involved is a ruthless German scientist who has been one of those developing new strains of previous chemical weapons. With the chaos of retreat there is a chance to investigate and find out what they were doing in this underground lair, and Berton’s tunneller skills are required, along with the intelligence agents and a small escort group of American Doughboys, who are none to happy with being assigned to this mission when they all know the war is coming to an end.

What they find is a secret research bunker, a complex of claustrophobic tunnels and rooms, which should have been destroyed when abandoned, but the demolition charges failed to blow. As the small team, already at loggerheads with one another, descend into the world below they don’t know that Herr Doctor Reiner (Stadlober) is leading a German team back to salvage experimental materials then destroy the complex before the Allies find it. And that’s the least of their problems – German soldiers they are used to dealing with, but some of the test subjects of those secret experiments by Reiner are still down there in the dark, waiting…

The set-up here is fairly simple: two groups of enemy soldiers that will come into contact with one another, but find there is something far, far worse, something that doesn’t care what uniform you are wearing. It may not be the most original plot, but it carries along quite well. The small budget actually works for them in having those small, closed, underground sets, which are budget-effective but also pretty damned good for generating that enclosed, trapped sense of mounting claustrophobia, even before the Bad Things start to appear, and the effects for the experimental subjects is also well-handled.

Sutherland’s war-weary tunneller and Stadlober’s ruthless scientist are the stand-outs here, and they get much of the screen time (I had the feeling Stadlober was relishing playing the seemingly urbane, civilised scientist who is actually totally amoral and determined to finish his work). It’s also interesting to see World War One used instead of the more common Second World War – while not mind-blowing this is still a decently solid addition to the horror-war genre.

Death Trench is released on DVD and digital from May 6th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot,
Directed by Robert D Krzykowski,
Starring Sam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin FitzGerald, Larry Miller

Several things drew me to this film: it went down well at its FrightFest debut (always a good sign), it features the excellent Sam Elliott, and, well, come on, really, how could I resist a film with a title like that?? Other than those things though, I knew very little about this film in advance, which is something of a rarity these days, and I really didn’t know what to expect at all – high-jinks? Satire? Crazy silliness? With that title you can see why you might suspect that sort of approach, but actually no, this is a very unusual piece of film work that ploughs it own furrow, at its own pace and with its own style, and I applaud all involved for sticking to their approach, because it delivered an absolute wee gem of a film (and naturally some quality Filmic Moustache from Elliott!).

Calvin Barr (Elliott), is an older gentleman, a World War Two veteran now living peacefully in a small town in New England. As with many of us, as the years advance he finds himself more and more thinking of the past than the present, much less the future, and while his body may sit in his favourite armchair or the bar stool of his local pub, his mind is increasingly elsewhere, thoughts drifting back to his youth, to what he had to do during the war, and also to his pre-war life, the quietly satisfying peace of his small town, falling in love with local teacher Maxine (Caitlin Fitzgerald from Masters of Sex), with Poldark heart-throb Aidan Turner playing the younger Calvin.

It’s into this present-day, quiet, fairly lonely life that agents of the US and Canadian governments intrude, asking him to take on a new mission – the legendary Bigfoot exists, and appears to have become infected with a deadly virus that it is spreading. For now it is contained in an isolated wilderness area, but if it escapes this containment the disease will spread, and they have no cure – they are looking at a possible end of civilisation-level pandemic. No others have been able to track and kill the Bigfoot, none have returned, and so this former special operations soldier, the man they sent to assassinate Hitler, is the only one they can turn to, despite his age, he is, once more, tasked with defending civilisation.

And yes, he did indeed complete that mission and kill Hitler – and no, that’s not a spoiler, given it is in the title of the film! You may well wonder how is it that he could have assassinated the Fuhrer since that clearly deviates from recorded history – so is this an alternate history reality? A time-travel paradox or similar? Nope, and I am not going to spoil it for you by explaining how they can have had Calvin kill Hitler in the 1940s but still be true to history, save to say they do come up with an explanation that works fine, allowing the film its conceit of a soldier killing Hitler without contradicting real history.

However, those two strands of the narrative – the wartime exploits of young Calvin and the present-day mission to find the Bigfoot before it can spread the virus – are not really what The Man Who Killed Hitler is about, they are just the narrative framing on which Krzykowski paints a gently-paced exploration of a man’s life, his younger self’s hopes, his older self’s regrets, and the way life can change everything you wanted, everything you planned, especially where war is concerned. “I never wanted to kill a man,” Calvin tells his brother Ed (Larry Miller), “Even if he had it coming.”

As we see more memories of the wartime mission, and the pre-war courting of Maxine contrasted with Elliott’s older Calvin we piece together his story and how the war changed everything, taking him away from the woman he wanted to marry and settle down with, how it lead to this quiet, thoughtful man having to kill and discovering he was good at it, quiet, methodical, making him a good agent even though he hates the idea of it, how it was never the same again afterwards. There’s an echo here in older Calvin of William Munny in Unforgiven, an older man carrying a lifetime of regret for past deeds, although in Calvin’s case he was battling the forces of evil, not an outlaw like Munny, but killing still takes a toll regardless, even if in a righteous cause.

It’s not hard to see Calvin as representing so many young men who answered the call from small towns in America, Canada, Britain and so many other lands, young lads who had been brought up decently, who had been taught Thou Shalt Not Kill but then were forced to do just that again and again during the war to protect the free world. Young lads who came back as men who had seen and done too much (those that got to come back, at least), changed inside, rarely talking about it but forever altered by the memories and guilt. Elliott has a way of carrying a quiet, reserved, dignified air to his characters and that works perfectly in this role (so much so I wonder if the role was written for him?) – no anguished emotional outbursts here, instead Elliott signifies the inner turmoil of Calvin through tiny expressions and body language, some great acting craft here using such little movements to express so much of the character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

This is a wonderfully unusual gem of a film, a richly emotional palette of hope and regret, youth and old age, carried very much on the shoulders of Elliott’s quiet performance, unfolding a piece at a time at a satisfyingly gentle pace, slowly bringing us into the world of this reserved veteran.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot is released by Sparky Pictures on digital from April 15th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from May 6th.

Leprechaun Returns

Leprechaun Returns,
Directed by Steven Kostanski,
Starring Taylor Spreitler, Pepi Sonuga, Sai Bennett, Linden Porco, Mark Holton

The original 1993 Leprechaun was a fun piece of horror laced with comedy, very much in the style of this mid 80s to 90s US horror flicks (and it also boasted a pre-Friends mega-fame Jennifer Aniston). Naturally like many other 80s and 90s horror flicks it spawned a franchise with another six outings over the last couple of decades, and like similar franchises (think what happened with Freddy or Jason) it was often a law of diminishing returns. Leprechaun Returns, made for the SyFy Channel, rather wisely appears to be ignoring the many sequels and instead sees our pint-sized folkloric nasty resurrected some twenty-five years after the original movie, even boasting an appearance from Mark Holton as Ozzie from the original 1993 film (a nice touch).

A group of students have decided to set up an eco-friendly sorority house off-campus in the rural farmhouse from the first film, an off-grid house with solar power and drawing water from, yes, you guessed it, the old well where the Leprechaun was supposedly killed and banished, and has been for the last quarter of a century, everything fine. Lila (Taylor Spreitler) is the daughter of Jennifer Aniston’s character from the first film, moving in with her sorority sisters to fix the old place up. She experiences some premonition-like dreams on the way there, but she puts this down to the stress of recently caring for her terminally ill mother, and continues her college plans and moving into the house with the others, unaware that the little, green, mean, rhyming monster has been awoken from his twenty five year slumber (in a pretty gruesome but darkly funny “rebirth” scene).

Lila heard her mother’s stories, but understandably never believed her tales of some murderous leprechaun with a gold fixation and a penchant for bloody killings, and her first encounter with the leprechaun (now played by Linden Porco) she is convinced for the first few moments that she is seeing things, it’s all in her head, stress from caring for her mother in her last days mixed with those stories she never believed in, but it doesn’t take long to realise he’s very real. Her sororoity sisters and a couple of visiting boyfriends, fairly understandably, think their new friend is crazy, but not for long.

This cracks along at a fair old pace, from the set-up and introducing the new characters we get to the rebirth of the leprechaun himself pretty swiftly, which is good as that’s when the fun begins! Bad rhyming and black humour mixes with some inventive blood-letting as the leprechaun decides some killing – and finding his precious gold, of course – will help to regenerate his powers (he has some ‘performance’ issues with his first attempts after his incarceration).

Okay, you know this isn’t Shakespeare, but so too do the film-makers, and Kostanski delivers a decent mix of dark humour (including some nice touches like the leprechaun taking in the changes since he was last above ground, like mobile phones and selfies, or making fun on an electric car) with the gore and deaths (I won’t spoil them by describing any of them – sure, you can see them coming, but that’s part of the fun in this kind of flick), and ignoring the previous sequels and leading right on from events years before in the original is a good move, as are the nice touches linking the new film to its progenitor. Porco seems to be relishing the role, wicked grin through the grotesque make-up as he delivers blood and bad puns and rhymes, and there’s also a small but welcome sub-theme on gender empowerment.

This is a fun popcorn horror flick, and with Lionsgate releasing this in a double-pack with the original 1993 film this is a good Friday night double-bill slice of horror – set up the snacks and drinks and sit back and have some fun!

Crucible of the Vampire

Crucible of the Vampire,
Directed by Iain Ross-McNamee,
Starring Katie Goldfinch, Florence Cady, Neil Morrisey, Larry Rew, Babette Barat

We begin this new British horror with a flashback, in monochrome, to forest clearing where a man is stirring a large, bubbling cauldron. He is surprised by several soldiers in what looks like Civil War-era uniforms (a nod to Witchfinder General, perhaps?), the officer in charge grabbing him and accusing him of witchcraft; his dead daughter has been seen by several witnesses walking again after her burial. The cauldron, he claims is being used to create a potion which is fuelling her resurrection – the officer takes one of the soldier’s swords and cleaves the old cauldron in two, before ordering the accused man to be strung up from the nearest tree.

We move to the present day, and Isabelle (Kate Goldfinch), a young museum curator, is called into her director’s office, where he explains that renovations in a remote, rural country house have turned up one half of the cauldron glimpsed in the prologue. The museum has had the other half for some years and is understandably keen to obtain the other segment for study – in fact Isabelle is surprised that her boss is asking her to head out to the house to verify the find instead of going herself, but of course she can’t say no.

Arriving at the once-grand but now partly dilapidated country house she is met by Karl (Larry Rew), his wife Evelyn (Babette Barat) and their strange, pale daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady). She is welcomed in, given a room to stay in, invited to dinner, all the signs of hospitality are there and yet… Yet there is a distinct feeling right from the beginning that something is simply not right here – the family (especially Scarlet), there is something unsettling about them, and there is a feeling around the house that builds unease, a sensation heightened by first hearing someone walking around at night then later seeing Scarlet prowling the dark halls at night, even following her to the bathroom and at one point sneaking into Isabelle’s room (and rather strangely showing a keen interest in the other woman’s underwear), and there is the question of a strange music which haunts her.

A visit to the local village pub builds this feeling of wrongness – a disgruntled younger man seems to be stalking her, warning her not to return to the estate or it will go badly for her. A threat? Or a warning? The family’s gardener (played by popular actor Neil Morrisey) seems friendly, although his story of the previous gardener (incidentally father to the angry young man following Isabelle) who was found with massive throat trauma and blood loss in the woods (passed off as a freak accident) again raises Isabelle’s concerns about staying in the house.

Karl seems keen for her to finish her work and verify the find; she assumes he is just after money for the artefact, but Isabelle starts to wonder if there is another, secret motive. When she finds a hidden journal entry in the library in the house, detailing a former owner’s encounter with the cauldron fragment, and his subsequent series of nocturnal visitations, visions and what sounds very much like the same mysterious music she has heard herself. It seems this 19th century owner was trying to warn future occupants of the house, but what was he warning them against, and does it have anything to do with the cauldron she is investigating?

This was a pleasure for me to watch, Iain Ross-McNamee has crafted a film which draws heavily on old-school British horror movies. Crucible draws on some classic Hammer inspiration – the creepy, old house surrounded by dark woods, the host who on the surface is welcoming but you just feel is hiding something. There are numerous other homages and references worked in here, notably a nod to Carmilla/The Vampire Lovers, and includes some nice phantasmagorical images and visions that, while this is very much a modern film, also gives it some of the airs of the 19th century Gothic novel. In a world where too many horror movies rely on sudden jump-scares or OTT gore, Crucible of the Vampire takes its time to build an increasing atmosphere of unease and a slow-burn of ever-increasing tension, laced with some beautiful cinematography and imagery, while upcoming young talent Goldfinch and Cady are especially good.

A modern horror that draws on classic, older Brit horror film traditions, while also mixing in a touch of ancient folklore and Celtic myth, there’s a lot to love here, especially for those of us still in love with Hammer.

Crucible of the Vampire is getting a limited theatrical release by Screenbound on February 1st, and will be available on DVD and on-demand services from February 4th

It’s not over till the fat lady screams: Opera

Opera,
Directed by Dario Argento,
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Urbano Barberini, Ian Charleson, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, William McNamara,
CultFilms

A young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets her big break when the temperamental diva storms out of a rehearsal of the opera of Macbeth, slap into an oncoming car outside the opera house. In a bizarre mixture of elements of Phantom of the Opera with the Giallo serial killer sub-genre, this accidental promotion to leading lady on a major production proves to be more of a curse than a blessing, as attacks and bodies start to mount rapidly, all happening around Betty in a deliberate and sadistic campaign of terror.

So much for the plot: this is, after all, a Dario Argento film, and as such the narrative is neither the strongest or most important element for the most part. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way; like many of my fellow horror-hounds I have long loved Argento’s films, but most really are frequently bonkers on the logical story front. Not that it matters, as, in my opinion anyway, Argento horrors are far more about the experience, the dream (or nightmare) imagery and sounds, the emotional reactions these draw, and it is part of what makes his body of work so distinctive and visceral.

Opera is one of Argento’s more lavish works, making great use of the grand opera house location, but doing so in a very Argento manner. The opening scenes of the rehearsal give us great views of the interior of this grand theatre, but from perspectives that are unusual, even distorted, while the collection of ravens being used in the production caw ominously, followed by a long reverse tracking shot, all seen from the diva’s perspective, as she storms out. Another (handheld this time?) tracking shot takes us through young Betty’s apartment in an almost Sam Raimi-esque fashion, intimating an immediate threat to her, only for the tension to dissipate when we see it is just her friend visiting.

The film is replete with clever camera moves like these, or shots which go through the claustrophobia of a ventilation duct out into the vast, baroque space of the opera house interior and swings around the stage, creating not only some stunning visuals but also generating a disturbing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, of someone or something watching, just out of sight. When not indulging in some skilfully mobile camera moves Argento also creates some more close-up, intimate moments of tension and horror, such as the killer’s point of view perspective (just those iconic Giallo killer’s leather gloves visible).

And then there is that scene – many of you will know the one I mean, it has passed into horror movie history as an incredibly inventive, disturbing and iconic shots. Betty, tied up by the killer (again only glimpses of his leather gloves), but she is not the main target, rather she is the sadistic victim, restrained, needles taped to her cheeks below her eyes so she dare not blink, forcing her to watch as the killer waits for her boyfriend to enter and be slaughtered.

From Un Chien Andalou onwards film horror has often had a fascination with the eye – even for those of us brought up on the body horror of Cronenberg and others, there remains something compelling and sickening about a threat to the eyeball. And of course it isn’t just about the Giallo killer’s desire to torture Betty by making her watch him kill the victims before her helpless, captive gaze, it is, by extension including the audience, our perverse thrill at watching such scenes, a feeling reinforced by often shooting from the killer’s perspective, placing the audience in his shoes (or in this case his leather gloves), giving us both the thrill while also disturbing us with the thought we are virtually complicit in these horrors.

CultFilm’s loving 2K restoration gives these astonishing, bravura locations and inventively shot scenes the lustre and beauty they richly deserve, allowing the viewer to glory in that partly-insane, dream/nightmare trip that is Argento’s mind.

Opera is released by CultFilms on dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD on January 21st, and includes several tasty extras such as an interview with Argento himself

The Labyrinth Index

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit Books

The ninth entry in Charlie Stross’s fabulous Laundry Files arrives, and leads directly on from the events of The Nightmare Stacks and The Delirium Brief, which saw this most-secret branch of the old SOE, the intelligence service which deals with extra-normal threats (from vampires to unicorns – not as cuddly as they seem – to the increasingly likely Case Nightmare Green scenario which would see an unspeakable, Lovecraftian Elder God awakening and pushing into our world) exposed to the public after a cross-dimensional invasion of Britain reveals their existence. And then, worse, public scrutiny leads to meddling politicians interfering with the Laundry, neutering them just as a threat at the highest levels of government strikes, ending in a desperate deal choosing between the (slightly more approachable) lesser of two evils, leaving the British government now under The New Management – the Elder God N’yar Lat-Hotep is now the Prime Minister…

Now well into the reign of The New Management and his darkness summons Mhari Murphy to Downing Street. Despots are always hard to anticipate – underlings never know if they are still being favoured or summoned to be disciplined (and the new PM’s discipline includes planning a giant Mesoamerican temple to replace Admiralty Arch, all the better to show off the skulls of his enemies and those who have disappointed him (if you are lucky you will be dead by this point, if unlucky a still-living decapitated skulls), the old tradition of placing the heads of enemies of the regime on spikes taken to the max. In an impish move the PM has promoted Mhari to the Lords – creating her as “Baroness Karnstein”, a nice nice nod to her vampiric status. He has a special mission – in fact a pretty desperate, possibly one-way mission – for her and a small team in America.

It seems that while the UK – mostly unaware – has been slowly assimilated under the rule of a new Prime Minister who is just a human sock puppet for the Elder God, something else is going on in the US of A. Previous books had hinted at power struggles within the various agencies there which ran Laundry-style extra-normal intelligence services, and now it seems the main one, known to everyone else as the Nazgûl (which gives an idea of the sort of ethics they have) has pretty much cleared out agents of other services. But there’s something else – nobody has seen the President in weeks, not so much as a wave while boarding Marine One. And only those outside of the US have noticed this oddity, those in America not only haven’t noticed the absence of the President, they no longer even recall there was such a person or post. Somehow the entire nation has been enchanted into forgetting even the term “president”, and the PM sends Mhari and her small team covertly into the US to find out what is going on.

I’ve loved the Laundry Files since the beginning – they are an intoxicating mixture of spy thriller, supernatural horror and some wonderfully dark humour (you may be battling inter-dimensional dark gods but you are still in the Civil Service, so you need to fill out a Risk Assessment form and properly document any expenses claims). Over the preceding eight books Charlie has built up the world of the Laundry Files and its characters, and with the most recent few books there has been a strong sense of events spiralling ever more rapidly, the tempo is increasing, any victory may be short-lived, the darkness is spreading. It makes life hellish for our characters, but it makes the series ever-more engrossing for the readers. Covert espionage missions, power plays between different Dark Elder Gods coveted our world greedily, vampire agents, humans with special powers, Men In Black and even our old chums from the secret 666 RAF Squadron making an appearance again. As gripping as a hungry anaconda.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

Deliciously disturbing Brit folk-horror in Lip Hook

Lip Hook,
David Hine and Mark Stafford,
SelfMadeHero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smile-inducing Brit horror-comedy with The Snarling

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

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

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

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

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

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

House of Salem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killer App: Bedeviled

Bedeviled,
Directed by Abel Vang and Burlee Vang,
Starring: Saxon Sharbino, Bonnie Morgan, Brandon Soo Hoo

Using internet and social media as a new gateway for evil to stalk pretty, young teens in the American suburbs is hardly new – film (itself a technological artform) has always, since its earliest days, reflected our fascination with and fear of new technology, from the Lumiere’s steam train scaring audiences to the giant engine in Metropolis to recent films using the internet, like Pulse or Unfriended. We’ve seen quite a number in recent years, hardly surprising given our seemingly endless fascination with and increasing use of the online world and social media (especially now it goes everywhere with us on our ever-present smartphones), and horror has often been quicker than most forms to explore our love-hate, desire-fear relationship with technology and how it affects individuals and society.

In Bedevilled it takes the form of the eponymous App, which a group of high school friends are all sent… From their deceased chum. Most of us would be a little worried at receiving an invitation to download an App from the phone of a friend who had died a few days before, but our teens just install it right away (to be honest this doesn’t stretch credulity, I imagine a lot of people who practically live on their phones would just install new Apps without blinking too). Of course any horror flick fan knows that such an App is going to prove to be an open invite to bring evil to play right into the home – in some ways this is the 21st century version of the curious teens playing with an old Ouija Board they found in the loft, and in fact one character comments as much during Bedevilled.

There’s a pretty decent opening here, with the soon-to-be-deceased member of their group being menaced in her home, with a nicely creepy figure that unfolds itself in the darkness of the nocturnal home. After that though, I have to say it seemed to very much veer into an awful lot of teen horror cliché: of course the youngsters are all good-looking, they all live in large houses (where the parents are almost always absent so they can be alone when spooky noises scare them at night), there is a lot of those daft things people do in horror movies, like deciding to explore the dark house for a noise and not actually switch on the lights, the “this can’t be real” moments, the childhood scares that suddenly become manifest after they’ve discussed them, there are numerous dark scenes shot from low tracking angles and so on.

For the first half I was, I admit, thinking this is running through way more than its fair share of clichés. But then I started wondering if in fact this was deliberate, that the film-makers were actually taking all those many standard tropes of the teen horror and deciding to have fun with them, that they know fine well that horror fans know these are standard elements and we’re all in on the joke here. I really couldn’t quite decide which it was, just running through those clichés or being postmodern and having fun by deploying them. It does offer up some nice little scares though – the talking App invites one girl to pan the phone around her room, like an augmented reality app, and even though you know, you know well before it happens, that as she pans the screen around there will be something horrifying at some point, it still gives you a good jump when you see it (the digital App equivalent to the old seeing something scary standing behind you in the mirror, but when you turn around, it isn’t there trick), and that seemed to reinforce for me the idea that the use of those standard elements was deliberate.

Bedevilled may not be the most innovative horror, or even social media horror, but it does have some cool little moments, and I think it knows its audience. My recommendation is to treat this as fun popcorn horror – watch it on a Saturday night with a bunch of friends as part of a double-bill with some other teen horror, maybe, with the popcorn and booze and that’s just the way to take this.

Bedevilled is out on VoD from The Movie Partnership from 17th September