Reign of the Supermen

Reign of the Superman,
Directed by Sam Liu
Starring Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Cameron Monaghan, Cress Williams, Patrick Fabian, Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Tony Todd

The Death of Superman epic back in the early 1990s made waves around the globe – such is the place of the Big Blue Boy Scout in popular culture that the story went far beyond the comicsphere into the mainstream media. As with last year’s animated Death of Superman from Warner Animation and DC, this is an animated take on those early 90s comics that followed the loss of Superman, the world coping with his loss, and the appearance of four new Supermen trying to claim the mantle of the red cape.

The world is still mourning the loss of its mightiest protector, and on a more personal level we see the impact on Lois Lane, grieving for Superman/Clark Kent, with Clark’s adopted human parents, none of them able to tell anyone that Clark (officially listed as missing in the disaster of the Doomsday attack in the previous film) was actually Superman. In the editorial meeting room of the Daily Planet Perry calls each journalist for their input on a new story before calling for Clark’s take, only for them all to pause and remember he’s not there anymore. It’s just a moment, but a good one, reminding us that in his human guise Clark had friends and they are having trouble dealing with his loss.

Lois hasn’t been into the Planet since Superman’s death, but we all know that Lois is tough and resourceful, and she decides to fight through her grief in her own style – by going out and doing what a good journalist does, asking questions and digging behind the scenes. She wants to know who these mysterious four new Supermen are – the vicious Eradicator who targets anyone he considers criminal and is prepared to kill, unlike the real Man of Steel, the teenage Superboy (a cocky young lad), a cyborg Superman and an armoured man who calls himself Steel and wears the S symbol in honour of his fallen hero.

As with the previous Death of Superman, this follows the original comics for most of the narrative, with some changes here and there (which I have to say worked better for the pacing of a film). Lois calls on Diana as she begins her investigation – Diana is relieved to find she hadn’t come to grieve with her, commenting “Thank Hera! Despite my reputation I’m not so good at the touchy-feely!”. She adds that she’s not always great at this kind of thing, not having had many girlfriends, and hard-working Lois nods that she knows that feeling. There’s a nice feeling of the two bonding more here, which is picked up again later.

Diana and the Justice League don’t know anymore about the new Supermen than Lois though, and are just as concerned about them – who they are and what their real agenda may be. So Lois continues her digging, soon discovering more about each of them – I won’t reveal too much about what she finds out here, as that would be venturing a little too far into Spoiler Country. And yes, I know many of you will know much of this story, having read the original comics from the 90s, but these animated films are also clearly aimed to embrace new fans (and perhaps younger ones too) who may not know those stories yet, so I won’t risk the possible spoilers.

I will say thought that this, like the preceding Death of Superman animated film, is a nicely-paced piece – from a serious, brooding atmosphere of loss over Superman at the start it is only a short time into the story before we get our first super-powered brawl with Superboy and the Eradicator, which quickly spirals into a four-way slugfest as Steel and the Cyborg Superman arrive on the scene. They don’t hang about here, set things up, establish some emotional atmosphere and then pow, right into some serious action. Looking back I think the live action films could learn a bit from the pacing here – Batman Vs Superman could have been much better with sharper pacing and editing like this, for instance.

Despite the themes of grief and loss following Superman’s death, for the most part this is actually a great ride – lots of action, delivered frequently throughout, and some nice character moments, Perry uttering his trademark “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”, which made me chuckle, Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) regarding the Cyborg Superman and asking the Justice League’s Cyborg to talk to him (“what, you think all cyborgs know each other??”). And that aforementioned bonding between Lois and Diana also includes the girls enjoying an ice-cream together (yes, Wonder Woman eating ice-cream, sweet, funny and also a nice nod to the scene in the live-action WW movie), and we even get to see Diana do the “twirl” Lynda Carter style.

There is some great voice talent to enjoy here too – Serenity’s Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern, Rosario Dawson as Wonder Woman, Sliders’ Jerry O’Connell voicing the various Supermen, X-Men’s Rebecca Romijn voicing Lois and genre fave Tony Todd lending his voice to the villainous Darkseid. The animation style is clear and dynamic, the style and the story perfectly suitable for younger fans as well as the grown-ups, and it and the previous film offer a nice take on a classic 90s Superman story-arc for older fans but especially for newer, younger fans too – or better still, watch it together with your little superheroes! And do stick to the end for a post-credit sequence (a hint at another animated film to come?), while this sharp Blu-Ray also comes with several extras. Reign of the Supermen is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand.

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 only a movie…” – Reel Love

Reel Love: the Complete Collection,
Owen Michael Johnson,
Unbound

I first heard of Owen Michael Johnson’s Reel Love project quite a while back when it became an Unbound project, looking for backers. Given it combined two of my favourite things in the whole world, comics and cinema, I joined the group of people backing the project. As with many of the best movies, Reel Love is arranged in three acts, each taking in a different part of our film-obsessed protagonist’s life, starting off with his very first memories of a trip to the cinema. This is before the massive multiplexes that dominate today, and as we follow the wide-eyed and nervous wee boy walking in with his dad, there will be a rush of nostalgia for many of us of a certain age – the heavy curtains that pull back to gain entrance, the ushers with the wee plastic torches.

Sadly it is not an auspicious start – the darkness, the noise, the special effects, they are all too much for a young boy, he gets more and more upset until, bawling his eyes out, his dad has to take him home. But the siren song of the cinema will not be denied, and he returns. And returns. An enjoyable day out starts to become a way of life then an obsession. Friendships develop, always seen through the lens of movie characters and stories, he grows older, his small town is boring, doesn’t look like there is anything much for him to look forward to as he gets older, but the movies are always there, an escape, and naturally he gets an old camera and tries to make his own.

After school comes getting a job and unsurprisingly he gets work in a nearby cinema – his favourite old fleapit of a cinema is on its last legs, the old man who runs it and knows him well from all his visits knows his time is limited in the face of the giant, new multi-screen multiplex cinemas and that’s where he gets his job. The total newbie, no real drive or qualifications or career path, like so many of us he falls into something he has a love for, but working in a multiplex isn’t quite the stepping stone into the film industry. He does make some new friends though – the “Monster Squad”, the late-night shift of other misfits around his own age, each of them with a strong obsession with cinema. He’s found his tribe and even finds first love among their number.

But nothing lasts forever, friends drift apart, each has their own life and has to move on at some point, to a new job, new town, college, and Johnson captures that odd mixture we’ve all been through growing up, friends you were so sure would be your best pals forever and ever, but life – your own and their lives – just gets in the way, things change; it can be exciting, but it is also scary, a feeling of being left behind, left alone, that you’ve somehow been a non-starter, and again the book captures that mix of emotions that growing up and change brings to all of our lives, again reflected through the prism of film. First loves leave, both people and places (there goes that first girlfriend, there goes that first cinema he loved so much). By the third act our protagonist is an adult, now lecturing about film in a small college, looking at his students, young, dreams of taking on the world and making their Great Film, while he has grown cynical and jaded, until a new student shoves his way into class.

There’s much to love here – the three acts, corresponding to a Three Ages of man is a good one, from wide-eyed youth to teen desperate for connections and a place and not knowing how to achieve those, to the adult looking back and wondering how did I get here in my life, what happened to those dreams of youth? These scenes are beautifully handled by Owen, they don’t shy away from embarrassing details (of the sorts of things we all probably did at some point growing up) but they are also depicted with sympathy, and they will echo with so many of us.

The flashbacks to the early cinema trips are a delight, and the way it shows how deeply some of those stories embed themselves into our minds, especially at a young age, will again chime for so many of us – watching the original Star Wars as a kid in the cinema is beautifully rendered, the glimpses of the action on the screen with the wide-eyed looks of wonder on the faces of the kids, the way lines from those movies becomes a part of your life; an early, important friendship and its later break-up is shown through Hobbit characters from Lord of the Rings. The film imagery bleeds into the everyday, which is as it is for a lot of us – the films we love, the books and comics we read, the music we listen to, they all embed themselves into our lives in both good and bad ways. Reel Love celebrates that through a mix of coming of age and dealing with grown up life, all embroidered by the stories, characters and imagery of cinema, from Star Wars to Bogie.

Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo,
Directed by Ali Soozandeh,
Peccadillo Pictures

Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) is a single mother in Tehran, struggling to look after her mute young son Elias (Bilal Yasar), while her worthless husband is in jail on drugs charge, and refusing continually to sign consent forms for a divorce to let her go free. Meantime she is forced into sex work to try and make ends meet, leading to a pretty interesting opening scene in Ali Soozandeh’s intriguing look at the sides of life in modern Tehran that the religious rulers of that country like to pretend only exist in morally corrupt other societies, but of course regardless of what supposed standards they might claim exist people are people in any city anywhere.

We first see Pari being picked up by a middle-aged man cruising the streets; soon she is in his car (her young son in the back, as she has no-one to look after him), and her John is haggling over price (Pari is pretty good at standing up for herself), until she tells him firmly the best he is getting for that money is fellatio. This proceeds as the car is driving through a busy evening in the city and any hints of exploitation or titillation are quickly dispelled between, shall we say, performance issues for the John, then he catches sight of a young woman walking the busy night-time streets with a boyfriend. He realises it is his own daughter and moves to Indignant Protective Dad mode (despite having Pari’s head in his lap), the boy is – gasp – holding her hand! “Pervert!” he shouts. Raising her head from his groin Pari can’t help but comment “look who’s talking.”

This very much sets the tone for Soozandeh’s film – looking at the intimate, hidden sides of life (in a society where unwed couples holding hands in public can be arrested for indecency), but doing so with a nicely irreverent touch (not so much broad comedy, more the sort of humour that just often comes out of situations in everyday life). The film follows several characters like Pari, Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi ), the daughter-in-law of her neighbours in the new apartment she is moved into (the same judge who refuses to sign her divorce without the husband’s papers is happy to arrange to have her as a sexual partner on the side), and Babak (Arash Marandi), a young musician. Pari pretends her husband is a long-distance truck driver to explain his absence and that she works as a nurse, hence her regular night-time excursions, but they all have secrets to keep hidden.

We start to learn those secret lives in the individual strands, which then cross lines with Pari’s story throughout the film, a little like Short Cuts, all of which is delivered with Rotoscoping animation over the live actors, giving the film a very interesting visual style, like Waltz With Bashir or A Scanner Darkly. This approach allows for some interesting visuals – Babak, attempting to take an intimate phone call on the train where you never know who may be listening (and happy to report you to the religious police), turns towards the window, and the camera moves outside the carriage to look in at him on the other side of the window, or Pari and Sara having an evening out eating in an open-air cafe in a beautiful, colourfully-lit square at night, or a view from the apartment over an animated, nocturnal cityscape of Tehran.

Running throughout these tales of hidden lives and secrets is a strong theme of hypocrisy, of those standing up and pretending to be ultra-moral while content to indulge in any number of prescribed acts, most especially the men in positions of authority who continually try to control the women in society (they can do almost nothing without having a form signed by a husband or father), who act as if such moral “deviancy” is beneath them (one is reminded of the string of high profile televangelists in the US who condemn “sin” then we find out they’ve been indulging in endless extra-marital affairs and drugs).

It’s a theme that could have been delivered in a grimmer, darker fashion, but Soozandeh’s lighter touch manages to bring over these serious subjects (ones rarely discussed openly in such a conservative, highly monitored society) without wearing down the viewer; there are some upsetting and emotional scenes, but the humour of the everyday, and the satirical touches riffing on the hypocritical nature of a society pretending these problems only happen in decadent Western countries when in reality the same troubles happen to people, well, everywhere, no matter what any politician or religious leader likes to say.

Peccadillo Pictures has a reputation for bringing us intriguing films from different countries, often dealing with hidden, moral, sexual or taboo subjects, and Tehran Taboo fits very nicely into their stable of films, with the added bonus of giving us a glimpse into a society most of us don’t see in cinema too often, from a very human, everyday life perspective.

Tehran Taboo is out now on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures

Spaghetti Western meets Holocaust in the remarkable 1945

1945,
Directed by Ferenc Török,
Starring Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Iván Angelus, Marcell Nagy

If someone had told me that there existed a Hungarian film in black and white which draws heavily on the style of Sergio Leone’s Westerns to create a different angle on the Holocaust, I think I would have been scornful, and yet that’s essentially what Ferenc Török has done with this astonishing film.

In a railway halt by a tiny Hungarian village, still transitioning from Nazi to Soviet occupation, the station master sweats in the summer heat, then sweats more from nerves as he observes to Orthodox Jewish men, a father an son (Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy), disembarking the train, with two large chests which they have loaded onto a waiting horse and cart. As the pair walk slowly behind the cart towards the village, the station master cycles hurriedly ahead to warn the locals. What exactly do they have to fear from a middle aged man and his son? It isn’t clear at first (although if you know your history you may well guess).

Péter Rudolf’s town clerk is especially worried by this arrival a small, rotund, bald man who clearly enjoys having power and status in the village (and is worried about the changes the Soviet occupation may bring), and word soon spreads throughout the village about the imminent arrivals. Adding to this stew, this is the day of the clerk’s son’s wedding, and the entire village is involved – a chance for him to peacock his way around town and appear benevolent while really reinforcing his authority. And suddenly his little kingdom is falling apart as these two men approach, and his family and neighbours whisper about them, which family they are from, what they will demand when they arrive in town.

It’s soon apparent that most of the town fears the arrivals of these two Jewish men – as happened in many small towns across Europe the local Jews were rounded up by the Nazis, deported to the camps, and few lived to return. Meanwhile some of their former friends and neighbours made out rather well, taking their belongings, businesses and homes (Spiegelman included a section on this in his masterpiece, Maus). Safe to say they did not anticipate any of their Hebrew neighbours returning from that deportation. Some feel renewed guilt over what they did, how they profited, others hide their guilt with anger – how dare they try to take back these homes!

One of the most remarkable aspects of 1945 is that the Jewish father and son whose arrival precipitates this tsunami of guilt and soul-searching do very little in this narrative – they are glimpsed time and again, slowly walking through the heat-haze of the summer day, behind the wagon with their long trunks on the back, like a slow, dignified funeral procession. Their approaching presence is sufficient drive as the camera moves around the village, shots seen through twitching net curtains, guilty glances exchanged in the heat, recriminations start to mount, past sins surface, “foul deed will rise”.

Török allows all of this to stir and simmer, the villagers creating their own downfalls from their own past sins, their own darkness eating their souls. His director of photography Elemér Ragályi can’t be praised highly enough for his work lensing 1945 – his lighting and camera work allows Török to let the camera linger over the faces of the villagers, much the way Leone does with many of his (often unusual looking) subjects, in long, slow close-ups, taking time to build it all up. The white-washed village buildings glow in the strong sunlight, like the Mexican towns of an old Western, the black and white creating delicious, sharp contrasts with the shadows indoors, or low angles across the stubble of freshly harvested fields, through the heat haze towards the approaching father and son walking slowly, oh so slowly, towards the village.

It’s gorgeous-looking cinematography, and the use of numerous Western tropes fits this narrative of sin and guilt remarkably well, the father and son seen from one angle resemble mourners walking behind a hearse, from another angle they look like avenging gunfighters coming into a wicked town for some violent redemption (you could almost imagine the pocket watch music from For a Few Dollars More playing over these scenes).

The film is littered with other symbols the viewer can interpret (is the smoke from the steam train just smoke, or a metaphor for the smoke that bellowed from the chimneys of the death camps? The harvesting of the summer fields shorthand for the lives mown down? You’re free to interpret). 1945 is a stunning-looking piece of cinema that simmers slowly through deep emotions of guilt, anger and grief, and hints that the worst monster isn’t the spectre of eventual revenge for one’s sins but the poison those sins spill within our souls. I’m very glad my local Filmhouse picked this as one of their best 2018 films deserving re-screening. This would make an interesting double screening with Der Haputmann, which I reviewed a few months ago.

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

Stan and Ollie

Stan and Ollie,
Directed by Jon S Baird,
Starring John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston

This is one of 2019’s films which I have been eagerly awaiting. I should explain that my father ensured as a youngster that I was brought up in The Faith: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Tom’n’Jerry and of course, Laurel and Hardy. We still watch their films together today. So you will understand that while in some ways I may be predisposed towards a film about one of the greatest filmic double acts of all time, my lifelong love of Stan and Ollie also means I could be more critical of how anyone portrays them. I imagine that for many of us that will be the case, L&H have engendered life-long love in us, it’s not easy to see someone else portray them. Well, friends and Sons of the Desert, you can breathe easy, for Coogan and Reilly are clearly like us, in love with Stan and Ollie, and it is obvious this is a great labour of love for both of those actors, determined to do justice to their cinematic heroes.

While the film mostly circles around the events during Stan and Ollie’s final tour, through post-war Britain (their final performances together), it opens in 1937 in the legendary Hal Roach Studios, with the pair getting ready to film the dance scene from the brilliant Way Out West, while arguing with Roach (the always excellent Huston) about money and control of their films, hinting at the break which will come soon when Stan, his contract finishing before Ollie’s, tries to break out and set up in control of their own films, but Babe doesn’t follow for various reasons, causing a personal as well as professional rift just as the pair are at the peak of their global stardom.

Moving forward to the post-war era we find the pair being dropped off at their hotel in Newcastle for the start of their UK and Irish tour (the one which would finally prove to be their last). It is clear from the start that their star has fallen – the hotel is just a general inn, not one of the fancier, big hotels you’d expect Hollywood royalty to be staying in, and then they find that the smooth stage impressario arranging their UK tour has them booked to play small venues, not the big theatres. And even those smaller venues are not exactly packed. While they are still a beloved act, it has been many years since they performed in a film together, and it seems the fickle public demand and attention has slipped away from the duo. Fortunately some PR stunts (you can see many of those in newsreel footage on YouTube) helps to whip up interest and leads to a boom in ticket sales.

The film, however, isn’t really about a pair of stars trying to continue years after their heyday, however, that is just the backdrop; the real story here is about friendship and love, the stresses and strains of a long relationship. We all know from our own personal experiences that even our oldest friends can sometimes drive us crazy or upset us (and we them), and how much harder are those strains when you add global fame to the mix? There are sparks of the old magic, laughter mixed with a tinge of melancholy, moments of bitter recrimination and regrets voiced to hurt, but most of all there’s a feeling of two men who for all of that remain closer than close, their personal timing (that hallmark of all great comedians) so beautifully attuned to one another’s rhythms. “I love him,” Stan tells his wife, simply. In another scene after Ollie falls ill Stan lies down next to him in the bed, like one of the film scenes, comforting his old pal, his other half, arguments forgotten.

Coogan and Reilly’s performances are simply outstanding. It isn’t just that they re-create the look and mannerisms (even the expressions) of Stan and Ollie, it’s deeper than that. This was a partnership that flourishes for years, the two perfectly attuned to each other’s beats, the sort of partnership that comes out of years of being together, and somehow Reilly and Coogan summon up that feeling here, they really come across as if they are a couple of pals who have known each other for decades, their timing and interaction is that convincing. The film itself made me both cry and laugh, it is touching, in places reflective, but it also celebrates one of the great filmic partnerships, it celebrates their work, work which has lasted it through the test of time, it celebrates the pure joy that Laurel and Hardy brought to millions.

The recreations of some of their classic scenes in the film still reduced the audience I was with to gales of laughter, they still worked, they still made the audience roar. There are so many hard trials in life, but there are also those moments of delight and joy, and for many of us Laurel and Hardy were there to be one of those sources of joy the world needs. They still are, and this film celebrates that legacy.

The Favourite

The Favourite,
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos,
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone

My first film of the New Year and, oh boy, it was a damned good one too! You wait ages for a good historical, period film with strong female leads to come along, then January delivers us two, Mary Queen of Scots and this, Lanthinos’ rather excellent The Favourite. I’ve been itching to see this since I first saw the trailer a while back – Olivia Colman, here playing Queen Anne in the early 1700s (just before the Act of Union) is, for my money, one of our best UK thesps. Colman can play anything, from broad comedy to tragedy to kitchen-sink, emotional heavy drama, and here she uses her formidable acting skills to craft a layered performance where some others may have settled for something less complex, and it plays remarkably in the favour of The Favourite.

A synopsis of the plot makes it all sound rather straightforward and predictable: Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the powerful and influential wife of the war hero the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatis) has made herself the favourite of the often emotionally vulnerable and fragile Queen Anne, becoming so beloved by the Queen and so indispensable that her “advice” is often little more than her pushing her own agenda on the Queen and getting it through Parliament, while continually conspiring and scheming to ensure her own place.

Enter Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, a cousin of Sarah’s fallen on hard times (the family fortune gone). Abigail appears sweet and innocent, but it is soon clear she is anything but, and she is determined to use her cunning to learn from her cousin and work her way up from lowly servant back to being a lady of society. Sarah, of course, is unlikely to simply let anything threaten her position with the Queen, leading to a battle of wits and changing conspiracies and alliances made in dark rooms, all concealed behind courtly protocol and polite masks, as we watch to see which can manipulate their way to a winning hand.

Except that really, really doesn’t do The Favourite justice. The complex webs of plans and blatant emotional manipulation practised by both Sarah and Abigail, and the way they dance around each other is a delicious delight to watch, and avoids the simplistic approach of one being good, one bad, both are conniving, ruthless, determined and others, including nobles, MPs, the Prime Minister and even Queen Anne herself are simply part of their Machiavellian scheming. The interplay between the two is just fabulous to watch.

Colman’s Queen Anne, a woman marked by loss (seventeen pregnancies, seventeen lost children, stillbirths or miscarriages, quite terrible) starts off like a moody child, Weisz’s Sarah knowing how to cajole, persuade (or even slightly threaten) her to get her to behave, but as the film goes on Colman’s superb acting gives glimpses of far more emotional complexity, of a real person with real emotional and health problems, and, quite possibly, one who is not the innocent victim in this tug of war between the other two, but is perhaps well aware of their goings-on and maybe even secretly encouraging it and enjoying it…

The interplay between these three women is wonderful to watch, and the ridiculously complex court protocols and life are humorously undercut by humour, often quite bawdy (the C word features more than a few times and I was reminded of the poetry of Lord Rochester from that period several times). And how refreshing to watch a film not just with three very powerful and nuanced female leads, but females leads who totally (and rightly) dominate this story – the men, even historical heavyweights like Gatis’s Duke of Marlborough, are very secondary, there to move parts of the plot along but always behind these three formidable women characters.

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

Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.

Traces of the Great War

Traces of the Great War,
Image Comics

(cover artwork by Dave McKean)

In the approach to the 1914 centenary I was fortunate enough to be one of the contributors for To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Clark (aka the cartoonist Brick), a graphic anthology timed for the start of the centenary of the Great War. One of our aims was to tell stories from all sides, using an international group of writers and artists, to avoid the poison of jingoism, to instead go behind the horrible litany of statistics of casualties and tell stories about the actual people. If truth is indeed the first casualty of war then perhaps individuality is the second – too easy to lose those who endured those times in vast legions.

Seeing individual people, people like us, people we can recognise, empathise with, humanises those events at a level we can comprehend emotionally as well as intellectually, and in Traces of the Great War, which draws on an international array of writers and artists, and quite a diverse crew at that, from bestselling novelist Ian Rankin working with the excellent Sean Phillips to Juan Díaz Canales (co-creator of the magnificent Blacksad, for my money one of the finest comics creations of the last couple of decades) to the brilliant Dave McKean collaborating with the poet Simon Armitage, Mary and Bryan Talbot, I Kill Giants co-creators Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, to Marguerite Abouet (author of the wonderful Aya graphic novels) and Ergün Gündüz.

As with any anthology it always feels a bit unfair to single out some stories over others, but I can’t really go through every individual story here, and of course it is in the nature of collections that some elements will stand out to different readers, so not disrespect is intended to those I didn’t single out here – in truth I don’t think there was a weak link in this chain of tales, they all had something to commend them, and all took different aspects of that century ago war and the people who took part, and played them out with interesting hooks to capture the modern reader’s attention and take them not only back to that time, but to see how linked Then and Now actually are, that we today are all part of the same great tapestry that those earlier people were already woven onto, and to do so with much emotional honesty.

The collection starts with Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard’s “Without a Trace”, which manages the neat trick of being a century-later epilogue of sorts to the pair’s earlier WWI graphic novel White Death, but which can be read by anyone with no knowledge of that earlier work perfectly well. White Death dealt with one of the often overlooked arenas of this global devastation – the Italian-Austrian front in the Alps, where men had to combat the mighty peaks, snow and ice as well as the enemy shells and bullets. As with the better-known Western Front, even a hundred years on remains are still uncovered from time to time. In France and Belgium it is known as part of the “iron harvest” when the plough turns up old bullets, shell casings, helmets and often bodily remains of the fallen.

(Without a Trace, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard)

As with Flanders Fields so too in the remote, sublime beauty of the mountains; Morrison and Adlard have a carefree group of teens on an Alpine walk finding the remains of an Italian soldier of the Great War. Their shock quickly gives way to an all-too-modern reaction, the urge to take photos on their mobile phones. Their brief horror is replaced with larking about, until one youngster points out that this could have been their grandad’s father, that this was a person and that someone, somewhere was waiting for him to come home and never learned what happened to him or even had the small mercy of burying their fallen loved one. It’s short but packs in a huge emotional punch, and it’s a reminder of why, as we now move out of the range of living memory of those days, that each generation has to be taught about them.

Rif Reb takes an unlikely protagonist, a young punk anarchist in Paris, at a rich friend’s party, bored, escaping the crowd to explore the house’s library, finding (and stealing) a book of WWI poems written in a Haiku form, that speaks to this rebellious teen in a way the history books had not, leaving an indelible mark. Jean-David Morvan, Scie -Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima’s “Mines for the Miner” took the war under the tortured earth of the Western Front, with a young Welshman, a miner in civvy street like so many back then (most of those pits, like the war itself, are now history) finds himself once more pressed into digging dangerously below the land, but this time to “undermine” the enemy positions, a centuries old tactic used from the days of besieging castles before cannon existed, except here the miners and sappers would then leave an enormous explosive charge under the enemy lines.

(Unfathomable Imprints by Riff Reb)

My grandfather was a miner, severely injured by his time in the pits in the days when Health and Safety rules didn’t exist and working men were expendable cogs in the machine. This story captures that feeling of the civilian miner, a dirty, dangerous job that took so many of their lives, then adds in the complexity of war on top of it. Aurélien Ducoudray and Efa’s “Body to Body” sees an older Lady of the Night and a mutilated soldier in the bordello behind the lines, but instead of sex for sale the pair find some sort of comfort in comparing and explaining their respective war wounds, his bayonet scar, her Cesarean scar and so on. It’s a fascinating and unusual angle to take on emotional and physical trauma, drawn in a way that is intimate without being sexualised, despite the setting.

When did war become entertainment?

Ian Rankin is best known for his international best-selling crime novels, but he has penned a couple of comics before, and I know he is a voracious reader of comics, so I was interested in seeing what he did in collaboration with veteran comics artist Sean Phillips and Peter Doherty. The result, “War Games” (from whence the above quote comes from), has a man who lost his mother young, and was largely raised by his grandparents. After losing them and then his own father he has to perform that heart-breaking duty we all have to at some point – clearing out the belongings of a loved one who has gone, and in the process finds relics from his grandfather’s service in the Great War. Right away his memory takes him back to being a wee boy, out with his granddad, being taken to visit Edinburgh Castle, where his grandfather shows him a book of remembrance in the National War Memorial there, with the names of some of his old comrades. It didn’t mean much to the wee boy, as he says he remembered the ice-cream granddad bought him afterwards more vividly. But now he is a grown man with life experiences, he thinks back to what his grandfather was trying to tell him, to pass on to him a piece of living memory. He starts to explore this past, intertwined with his work running a modern-day computer games company, with perhaps a view to using some of the settings in a new video war game.

(War Games by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips)

“War Games” works cleverly on several levels – there’s that reminder that the elderly, frail veteran you see was not always old, once he was young and strong, and he went through experiences that thankfully most of us today never will when he was that young man. It’s easy, especially with the cockiness of youth at times, to forget that older people were once our age, once younger. The story also works on that regret at not understanding that when young, when those people were still around. I’m sure I am not alone in wishing that I could, as an adult, speak again to old family members and family friends, to try and draw from them those stories to preserve them and pass them on. But we can’t go back; I was too young to ask and write down those stories before those I knew faded away and it is an eternal regret. I suspect many of us feel that way in later life. Of course, if you do get the luxury of exploring some of that past, it may lead you to down pathways you never thought it would, to see that now-gone loved one in a very different way – could that gentle old grandfather really once have shoved a bayonet into the body of another young man and twisted it? It’s a horrible thought, but we all have a past and for those who served that often means a past they couldn’t talk about, taking their stories with them to the tomb, lost to us forever.

Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail on every story, but before I conclude I have to make special mention of the collaboration between the great Dave McKean and the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, with “Sea Sketch” and “Memorial”. November 2018 marked not only the centenary of the Armistice which ended the War to End All Wars (while sowing the bitter seeds of the next war), it also marked a hundred years since the war poet Wilfred Owen fell, only days before the Armistice. The poetry of Owen and others is one of the ways that we still experience the visceral, emotional impact of that war; those who served are now all gone from us, but their experiences, in their own words, are still with us. I’ve always thought poetry has a certain power that even the most lyrical prose can’t quite match; verse has an ability to engage with our higher thinking but also bypass it to deliver a shot directly into our emotional core, it can speak in metaphor and magic in a way that conjures feelings and imagery. With so many now revered pieces of poetry coming from that horrendous time it strikes me as very appropriate to involve one of our better contemporary poets, and putting him together with McKean is a touch of genius, the verse combined with Dave’s artwork has such strong, symbolic, raw, emotional power.

(Sea Sketch by Simon Armitage and Dave McKean)

The ranks of those who survived the slaughter of the War to End All Wars have thinned across the long decades, until finally the last veteran has departed to join his old comrades in whatever comes after this life. A full century has passed since the guns fell silent. But the echoes of those events still follow each generation down the decades – they shaped the events which came after them, which in turn shaped the events of the world our parents grew up in, that shaped our own and in turn will shape the world we pass on to the next generation. History is never truly about the past because history is never truly over, it’s all part of that same grand tapestry I mentioned earlier, and we are part of it, shaped by it and shaping it in turn.

It’s why it is important to understand those events and to comprehend their continuing influence on our own times. It’s important to remember that the Big Events of history were made by many people, all individuals, and we should not, cannot turn them into ranks of numbers and statistics but should recall them as people, like us, because many of them were us, they were our own families. And that simply we should always Remember. Traces of the Great War brings out that history but weaves it with the present, the consequences political, geographical, economic, that we still live with, but most of all it reminds us of the living, breathing people who once thought and dreamed and loved and were taken from us. But we Remember.

You can read my own story, Memorial to the Mothers, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, from the earlier WWI collection To End All Wars, for free here on my blog.

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…