Pop Culture and Reviews (Gothic Horror and sci-fi: Books, movies and TV)

If you’re interested in reading my science-fiction/ horror/supernatural/cult TV reviews, you’ll find them on these cool sites which you should check out anyway, if you’re a lover of pop culture:

My Horror reviews in all mediums, books, films and TV:

Immortal Ink Publishing blog: http://immortalinkpublishing.com/blog/?p=308

@RPKraul blog : http://rpkraul.com/wpmu/?p=420

My Horror Book reviews on:

@epublishabook http://www.epublishabook.com/2011/11/03/book-review-%e2%80%98apartment-16%e2%80%99-by-adam-nevill/

My reviews of Cult TV shows and horror and sci-fi movies on:

@TheCultDen http://www.thecultden.com/1/post/2012/01/review-sherlock-series-2-episode-1-a-scandal-in-belgravia.html

Horror/sci-fi movie/book  reviews on:  Check out  www.spookyisles.com

different outcomes http://differentoutcomes.wordpress.com/

and @KensingtonGore site.

http://hammered-horror.moonfruit.com/#/guest-film-reviews/4553401382

Here are just some of my reviews:

 

Happy HALLOWEEN!

John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN

“You can’t kill the boogeyman!”

 

John Carpenter’s movie HALLOWEEN had its premiere in the U.S on October 31st 1978. Although touched upon in smaller cult movies such as ‘Peeping Tom’, the components and themes used by HALLOWEEN had not been used in a major feature film for some time, not since its obvious inspiration and cinematic predecessor, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960). The horror movie had been evolving away from its representation of classical monsters such as Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula or ‘The Thing’ into a less supernatural or alien creature. The feature film monster became a man (though rarely a woman). The new monster was the psychological deviant, whose twisted mental perversion leads him to stalk and kill unwitting and innocent victims.

PSYCHO, and later its simpler offspring HALLOWEEN, were so successful at the box-office, they inevitably engendered countless imitators and variations. They instigated the conventions of the ‘slasher’ movie genre that we are now so familiar with, so much so that they are able to be referenced ironically in more recent movies such as Craven’s ‘Scream’ and Whedon’s ‘The Cabin in the Woods’. The killer is usually the product of a psychosis created by a sick or traumatic family event – the victim – a beautiful, sexually attractive woman – the place is often a twisted, dark, dank perversion of ‘home’ – the attack is often perceived from the victim’s point-of-view and most interestingly perhaps, the weapon is never a gun. The rules of the ‘slasher’ movie require the weapon of choice to be pre-technological – the ice-pick, the axe, the razor, the machete, the chainsaw, and of course – the phallic knife – all the better to get up close and personal to a victim. Violent physical contact is essential for the psycho monster – a perversion and sublimation of repressed penetrative sexual contact. Undoubtedly one of the elements that made Hitchcock’s PSYCHO a runaway success, was his sexualisation of motive and action. The prototype of the victim is the woman, most clearly, the sexualized woman. This is not an idea invented by the cinema, it was Edgar Allan Poe’s contention that “the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world”. As for the murder or mutilation of a beautiful woman, slasher director Dario Argento puts it succinctly, ”I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or a man.”

John Carpenter took these elements and with HALLOWEEN, distilled them into a less contentious, less complex, yet perfectly executed (if you’ll pardon the pun) cinematic vehicle for a series of scary, jump-in-your-seat moments. That’s not to belittle Carpenter’s sophistication as a film-maker. He creates an eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere, not least by the use of his trademark soundtrack, and sets a relentless pace leaving the audience little time for consideration of any internal logic.

The initial murder that opens the film happens on Halloween night and takes place entirely from the viewpoint of the killer. It involves a lissom teenage girl being mercilessly stabbed to death with a kitchen knife, following a sexual interlude with her boyfriend in her parents’ bed. The twist comes when the murderer is revealed to be her six-year-old brother, Michael.

The film then shifts to Halloween night fifteen years later, when Michael escapes from the asylum where he has spent the intervening years and heads for Haddonfield , keen to kill a few more slutty teen girls, presumably still silently enraged at the sexual wantonness of his unfortunate sister.  As Dr. Loomis, his doctor in the asylum, explains, although his body may have achieved maturity, his mind remains frozen in an infantile jealous fury.

While PSYCHO’s Norman Bates had a side that was visible and to all appearances, seemed normal, Michael Myers does not. He is emphatically an outsider, locked away from society. He moves robotically and is seen only in a mask, so he seems less than human. We catch sight of him only in glimpses, his white-rubber face emerging from the shadows of the background or the darkness of a doorway. In one aspect he seems supernatural – he survives assault after assault with superhuman indestructability.  He becomes the embodiment of the kid’s mythological ‘boogeyman’.

The slutty, sexy girls and their inconvenient boyfriends are dispatched methodically, until only one girl is left. The surviving girl is the one who discovers the butchered bodies of her friends. She is then pursued, cornered, wounded – she screams, she runs – she alone is left to perceive the full horror and peril of her predicament, and we must face it with her. She is the innocent, the intelligent, the bookworm, the swot, and usually, the virgin, but it she that must finally look death in the face.

That is why Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN fares rather better than her mother Janet Leigh in PSYCHO.  As Laurie, the last girl standing, she is presented from the outset as the most sympathetic character – on the verge of dating, but unlike her companions, still unsure and shy. Protective of the children in her charge while she is babysitting, she draws on resourcefulness and courage when faced with the relentless killing machine that is Michael Myers. Just long enough to survive until she’s rescued!

The shower scene in PSYCHO is probably one of the most praised, studied and iconic scenes in cinema history, but there is only the most fleeting of moments when we can actually perceive the body of Marion being stabbed. The rest is rendered in oblique images of the knife, the body and finally the bloody water as it swirls down the drain. Hitchcock version of murder was the probably the last to require the use of our own imaginations. The improvements in special effects and computer generated images have made it possible to create maiming and dismemberment in the most realistic detail. With this explicitness the ‘slasher’ movie moved onto ‘torture porn’ and the all out ‘gore fest’, and with it came an inevitable desensitization. These kinds of movies have changed in tone. We can’t get any more horrific, and so beyond horror there is only the ironic reference or the blackly humourous.  Happy Halloween.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

Movie Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’

Reviewed by Ren Zelen

“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic” Charles Darwin

In ‘Prometheus’ Ridley Scott, director of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’, returns to the genre he helped to define, and again he seems to be concerned with giving us a slice of speculative fiction – one that concerns a key question, that of the creation of life. In ‘Blade Runner’ a gifted human runs a corporation that creates ‘replicants’  – clones engineered to be physically indistinguishable from their human counterparts, if anything, their physical characteristics are superior, but they are not allowed to developed emotionally, due to the ‘fail-safe’ device of a lifespan of merely four years, installed in case they get ‘uppity’ with their creators. But of course, they do get uppity, and a handful of them risk everything to go in search of their ‘creator’ to get some answers to the questions they feel compelled to ask. Although ‘Prometheus’ is ostensibly a sister film (supposedly a prequel) to Ridley Scott’s other ground-breaking sci-fi ‘Alien’, its characters are on the same quest as Roy Batty and his band of ‘replicants’ – they are in search of their creator and they are looking for answers.

In the Greek legend, Prometheus comes to a sticky end for delving into the secrets of the Gods. Clearly, the crew of the eponymous spaceship that sets off to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, in their eagerness and idealism, choose to gloss over that small detail. Not so the director, who remembers the Prometheus story only too well, and god-like, metes out an appropriately monstrous ‘sticky end’ to almost all of his cast.

Set around 40 years prior to the original movie,  the movie features ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’’s Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba. The story begins when two scientists believe they have discovered a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth and, finding private funding, they lead a team on a journey into the depths of the universe but, inevitably, they discover rather more than they bargained for. With a budget reportedly of around $130m (£84m), the new 3D blockbuster is on a much grander scale than Scott’s original ‘Alien’ movie (his second feature film) and its shoestring budget.

In the original ‘Alien’, the ship was a claustrophobic warren, whose crew were seen in the stark up-light that bounced off every antiseptic, white surface or were half hidden, cowering in the shadows of the dark, grubby tunnels of the industrial vessel. In this movie, the characters immediately make an excursion outside the ship into a colossal CGI landscape, a digital universe unavailable to Scott 30 years ago. Though strangely, this alien landscape seems to have a somewhat retro sci-fi look, reminiscent of the designs of strange worlds on seventies’ SF paperbacks and album covers. Technically, ’Prometheus’ is marvellous – visually stunning. Ridley Scott can still masterfully ‘paint’ a film. Shot in 3D but without letting the process dominate the movie in conception or execution, the film uses the process to enhance rather than overwhelm. The effects, supervised by Richard Stammers, build upon the outstanding production design by Arthur Max.  Dariusz Wolski’s graceful cinematography synthesizes all the elements expertly and I was glad to note echoes of HR Giger’s original ground-breaking
designs throughout. The race the crew encounters even had a touch of the muscular titans found in the apocalyptic etchings of William Blake.

In this movie, however, Scott has no stand-out charismatic character, such as Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty – ruthless, thwarted and ultimately tragic – who offered us one of the most poetic deaths in cinema history. It has an ‘Ellen Ripley’ of sorts, but here it seems she has been split between the two lead actresses. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth is a more emotional character by far, but has the same relentless instinct of survival. In fact, her stamina is the most miraculous aspect of the movie. One must only assume that surgical procedures have advanced considerably in the future, as she is up, running and jumping almost immediately after a particularly gruesome major surgical procedure which normally requires considerable recuperation. I personally, stood amazed.

It is Charlize Theron who demonstrates Ripley’s cool-headed efficiency, calculation and attention to detail, admittedly, taken to a different level. The most delightful performance comes from Michael Fassbender, who plays David, the synthetic creation of another corporation head carried away by his own hubris. Being an earlier model of the latter synthetics of the ‘Alien’ franchise, he manages to appear more unnatural, while stealing the film with a chilling unctuousness rather like a knowing and slightly amused robotic ‘Jeeves’.  He models his eerily Aryan look and slightly supercilious manner on Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and otherwise seems to be channelling the cold detachment of David Bowie’s ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’.

Unfortunately, gorgeous and exciting as it is, ‘Prometheus’ doesn’t have the impact of either ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner’ because it offers philosophical ground that has already been well-trodden by Ridley Scott. Although it shares those films’ willingness to play with ideas and concepts, it merely expands on the ‘space-jockey’ mystery of the first ‘Alien’ movie and marries it to the ‘panspermia’ notion posited by Erich von Däniken‘s 1968 notorious bestseller ‘Chariots of the Gods’ (a book my father related to me on his knee) which asserted that humankind was bred on Earth aeons ago by spaceman-aliens. (No-one mentions Von Däniken much anymore, his notion fell into disfavour and has been largely ignored). Here, the philosophy of the movie runs into several dead ends: So, did the aliens create all life on Earth, and if so, why did they spend so much time on the dinosaurs? (Though presumably, even they had teenagers to amuse.)  How long ago did this happen – because the aliens’ map of Earth has the layout of continents as they appear today, post-Pangea ? Lindelof’s script is laced with inconsistencies and tends to nip every good idea in the bud or kill off a character just as things get interesting. The justifications are not particularly helpful in themselves and only serve to obscure one layer of mystery with another.

This movie is backed by a huge orchestral surge of a score, which meant that it conspicuously lacked the long, drawn-out silences and sense of menace and breath-holding tension that made the original ‘Alien’ movie so elegantly unnerving.  This was a pity.

But Scott’s skill as a director makes sure that there is a driving narrative impulse throughout the film, as well as an endearing idealism regarding mankind’s drive to find answers. There is, as in his previous movies, an abiding interest in man’s connection to his technology and the responsibility he has towards it – the idea that we can learn about ourselves through that which we sometimes inadvertently create – and that is a fitting notion for any artist or engineer to contemplate.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

Movie Review Retrospective: ALIEN: A Sci-fi Iconoclast

By Ren Zelen

“Believing the strangest things, loving the alien”

Alien is one of the most discussed, dissected and academically analysed movies in modern cinema. Considering so much has been said about it, the film seems to be simplicity itself: a tense, linear storyline, an innovatively envisioned setting, sparse dialogue – it is simple, but close to perfect. Belying its high production values and box-office success, Alien was made on a shoestring by Hollywood standards (approximately US$11 million). It just goes to show that a little creativity and imagination goes much further than mere dollars. Without the benefit of CGI, Ridley Scott and the Swiss surrealist artist H.R Giger relied on their artistic inventiveness to create this iconic and hugely influential science-fiction movie. We would never see space travel the same way again.

Before we get excited by Ridley Scott’s return to his Alien universe with his upcoming movie, Prometheus, it may be timely to remind ourselves what caused us to feel this anticipation in the first place.

It is hard for current generations to imagine a time in science-fiction before Alien, a time before face-huggers, chest-bursters and strong heroines, but such a time there was.

In the science-fiction movies of the fifties, sixties and early seventies, the role of female characters, with rare exceptions, was confined to mixing cocktails for their scientist husbands and screaming and fainting at inconvenient moments. They were there to be ‘protected’ and ‘rescued’ by the male protagonists, often as adjuncts in a larger scheme of saving the world. Apart from the occasional appearance as tightly-costumed, science-babe-eye-candy, their role was generally as helpmeets, or consisted of dithering hysterically and getting in the way of the serious business of the menfolk.

After three (four if you count the ‘Predator/Alien’ excursion) subsequent Alien movies, countless imitators, and the wholesale plundering of Giger and Scott’s sci-fi visual language, it is hard for latter generations to comprehend sci-fi movies that came before, since the entire ‘look’ and tone of sci-fi was forever altered. As a female raised by a father with a fondness for sci-fi B-movies of times past, I found Alien a revelation. It was a shock to see a female character, thanks to her mixture of ingenuity, practicality and luck – allowed to finish a movie as the sole survivor. I’d never seen that happen before – just as I’d never seen a face-hugger, a chest-burster or that outstanding Giger visualization, the Xenomorphic alien (for which he won an Oscar).

It’s impossible now to approach Alien as a first-time viewer and feel anything resembling its original impact. Everyone knows too much about each of the iconic scenes of the movie, whether they’ve seen it or not, whether they like sci-fi or not. It made an international star of Sigourney Weaver and of the Xenomorph she managed (against all cultural odds) to escape. We have become so familiar with the ‘Alien’ of the title, most viewers don’t realise when watching the original movie, that the creature is never really seen properly until the last few shots. (We didn’t actually get to see that fabulous creation in its full glory until the James Cameron action sequel, Aliens.)

Martin Scorsese, in his recent film Hugo, reminds us through his fictionalized character of Georges Méliès, that film is a potent medium because of its link to dreams and unconscious states. In that sense, science-fiction film can be seen as a genre predicated on the exploration of the bizarre, fantastic, and unusual – most closely connected to the imaginary, to dreams and possibilities. Despite its apparent simplicity, Alien tapped into some deep psychological territory, and this is another reason why its resonance is still felt throughout popular culture today.

Prometheus apparently, will deal with the problem of origins, but we must look back to Alien to seewhere these questions were first formulated. That movie began with the camera exploring the inner-space of the mother-ship, tracking down a corridor to a womb-like chamber which houses the crew, wakened from a protracted sleep by the craft’s support-system, aptly named ‘Mother’.  Their waking mimics a kind of rebirth, but they emerge into a clean, antiseptic, white-walled ambience – well-controlled and regulated with no hint of blood, trauma or pain. Contrast this with the crashed, unknown ship three of the crew are later required to enter (through those vulvic openings). That interior is mysterious, dark, dank and organic. They are lost within its hugeness, and tiny in comparison to the giant figure of the life-form they find inside, fossilized in its death-throws.

Crew member Kane is lowered into a steamy chamber housing rows of eggs, the most basic of organic forms. As his hand touches one of them it opens up, revealing a fleshy, pulsating interior. The thing inside leaps out, smashes through his helmet and penetrates through Kane’s mouth – reaching deep inside him in order to fertilize itself within the secure confines of his stomach. Many primal fears are invoked here – the fear of suffocation, of forced penetration and of unwanted pregnancy, and just for good measure, this invasive violence and subsequent gestation is perpetrated upon a man. The Alien is not fussy about whom it impregnates.

The now, well-known scene of Kane’s bloody birthing of the Alien ‘baby’ was originally one of the most jolting cinematic ambushes in cinema history. It begins innocently enough, with Kane apparently recovered and the Nostromo ‘family’ happily reunited over dinner – but it ends with Kane convulsing in agony, being held down by his unwitting crewmates, when, with a cracking of rib-bones and a spray of blood and entrails the Alien infant gnaws and bursts its way out of his torso, hisses at the stupefied, gore-splattered crew, and scurries out of sight. On its first release, the cinema-goers were just as shocked as the crew – in space, apparently, ‘no-one can hear you scream’. Here, we discover the invasive ‘alien’ violating the human body, bursting through its flimsy organic matter and the barriers of sexual identity – and that birth is death – talk about invoking subconscious Freudian fears!

But probably the bravest twist in the original Alien movie was to kill off the central character of the rugged and manly captain (Tom Skerritt) mid-narrative, and against all contemporary expectations, to allow the prettiest woman on board to be the shrewd and tenacious survivor – to allow Ellen Ripley to take the role of monster vanquisher. In that first movie she emerged gradually from an ensemble cast to be the focus of identification, but following on from that, Sigourney Weaver’s character of Ripley was to become the connecting thread that was torun through all the Alien sequels, making it the first movie series to be focussed on and powered by a female protagonist.

The movie’s auteur, Ridley Scott, decided to quit the franchise while he was ahead – until now. Perhaps the temptation to answer some of the questions his first movie posed and to tie up some of the threads left hanging, was just too strong. So, 33 years later, Prometheus arrives to provide us with answers, and, presumably, with further questions.

“You’re what? You’re still collating? I find that hard to believe.” Ellen Ripley

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

(first published on http://www.spookyisles.com )

100th Anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Death:  On Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’

By Ren Zelen

 

“There was one great tomb more lordly than all the rest; huge it was, and nobly proportioned. On it was but one word, DRACULA.”

Of all our monsters, the Vampire remains our most malleable fictional creation, rediscovered by each generation and reinvented to reflect its own fears and repressed desires. Contemporary concerns and attitudes always serve to colour our perception of these adaptable bloodsuckers and their slayers, and the character of the Count has so inspired the human imagination that he has become one of the most versatile figures of popular culture. Vampire mythology has various historical sources and literary precedents, but its cultural impact began with Bram Stokers novel.

Stoker’s book ‘Dracula’, entered the literary world and was thoroughly absorbed into the Western imagination. Like a vampire itself, the myth continues to feed on the lifeblood of popular culture in order to attain immortality. It has infected a host of other mediums – there have been countless adaptations in the movies and on TV and it has mutated into forms the Count himself would not easily recognize.

But it was the repressive society of Victorian England that gave birth to and nurtured the original monster, and that is where we must look to discover the source of Count Dracula’s persistent potency.

In Stoker’s book Count Dracula is descended from Attila and the Huns – the traditional enemies of civilization, and is often associated with nocturnal predators, such as wolves and bats. Transylvania is portrayed as a dreamlike place and the Count as a nightmarish creature. This places him squarely in the territory of ‘the Other’- the ‘not like us’, and since Stoker never gives him a narrative voice he is also ‘the unknowable’. In this position ‘outside the pale’ he is able to shatter some of the most closely held taboos of Victorian sensibility and become an amalgam of our cultures’ subconscious fears.

He has prodigious physical strength and a supernatural power to attract his victims. This is easily understandable as an image of sexual potency and in the book,  is frequently contrasted with the passivity of the young heroes, especially Harker. But the Count’s sexuality takes a non-procreative form. For the Victorians, the sole legitimate aim of sexual congress was procreation, so Dracula’s sexual impulse is ‘abnormal’. Not only that, it is promiscuous and bisexual. The Count’s desire for blood, though often focused on women, crosses gender boundaries. When Jonathan Harker cuts himself shaving, Dracula wants to ‘suck’ him. (This homosexual element has been played upon in some of the film adaptations and subsequent incarnations of the vampiric, such as Anne Rice’s Lestat). Dracula’s behaviour crosses the borderline of Victorian society and enters the forbidden zone of taboo.

The novel also toyed with the idea of a predatory female sexuality, as exemplified by the ‘brides’ and by Lucy, whose blood/sex lust is released after being bitten and ‘turned’.  This idea was shocking to the Victorians – it was a threat to the patriarchal order. For them a woman was meant to be asexual, passive and pure. If she were a sexual creature, she must also be degraded and dangerous.  Lucy must be destroyed to be ‘saved’. The threat of female desire and assertiveness must be removed – the status quo of patriarchal control must be preserved.

The connection between blood-sucking and sex is something that has been seized upon rapaciously by modern culture. The Hammer films are a classic example of this, frequently featuring scenes where phallic stakes are thrust into the bosoms of buxom girls. The most overtly sexual of the Hammer films featured their fictional female vampires and included titillating scenes of nudity and lesbianism, consolidating the association of vampirism with erotic behaviour.

The connection between vampirism and capitalism is less explored in modern fiction, though the link between patriarchy and its economic base is made clear in Stoker’s book, as Mina writes in her journal, “How can women help loving men when they are so earnest, so true and so brave! And too, it made me think of the wonderful power of money! What can it not do when properly applied.” It is touched upon in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, where the vampire Lestat is shown to prosper as a result of his commercial viability in the music industry, and in more detail in Guillermo del Toro’s 1992 film, Kronos, (about a man who discovers a clockwork beetle that turns him into a vampire).

Anne Rice’s ‘Interview With a Vampire’ (1975) finally allows Lestat the voice Bram Stoker denied Count Dracula. By doing so it suggests the possibility that vampires might be tormented, soul-searching, complicated, rather glamorous characters. This notion opened the floodgates. Currently, thanks to the subcategory of vampire fare such as ‘Buffy’, ‘True Blood’ and The ‘Twilight’ series (which may be seen as soapy descendants of Rice’s richer Vampire chronicles) the original Dracula-like vampires – cold blooded, un-dead, blood-drinking  predators, are becoming  an endangered species. Their monstrousness has been devalued – their mythology diluted. It’s high time that the vampire reverted back to his original nature and again took his rightful place, disturbing our placid dreams with his subversive presence:

“The last I saw of Count Dracula, he was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.  (Article originally published by http://www.spookyisles.com/2012/04/on-bram-stokers-dracula/)

Movie Review: CHRONICLE

Reviewed by Ren Zelen

Smells like Teen Spirit

It’s not the first time a movie has asked us to believe that a geek can fly. We’re all familiar with the genre where superheroes have nerdy alter-egos and a mask to prevent the world discovering their heroic identities, but in ‘Chronicle’ there are no alter-egos, no masks, no costumes, no wise mentor giving sage advice and guidance, no evil villain to defeat – in fact, there’s not much heroism to speak of. The ultimate battle of the three teenage boys in this movie is one which they fight within themselves, in order to understand their own ability and to control their burgeoning powers. Realistically enough, they’re just kids – caught in the painful process of getting to know what kind of people they actually are, trying to understand the grim aspects of the world and the darkness within themselves and struggling to find a way to express their inner lives.

‘Chronicle’ is a genre mold-breaker, and if anything, it has more in common with Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ than with ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Superman’.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a shy high-school student with an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who is dying of cancer. At school, he is ignored or bullied – he feels alienated from society. His life is a rough ride. After a particularly bad day, he’s persuaded by his easy-going and popular cousin Matt (Alex Russell) to go to a rave party in an old barn in the woods around Seattle.  Matt’s friend Steve (Michael B Jordan) a high-school over-achiever, finds a circular hole in a clearing among the trees and persuades Andrew to come and film the discovery – and because they have the irresponsibility, curiosity and naivety of drunk teenagers, they descend into the pit guided by nothing but the light from their phones. They find a glowing, crystalline object, presumably extra-terrestrial, but this is never confirmed. It is an encounter which changes their lives.

The three teenage boys find they have developed telekinetic abilities. They quickly discover their new power works like a muscle – it gets stronger with exercise and practice. First it’s all frivolity and fun – building Lego towers and using leaf-blowers to blow up girls’ skirts. We occasionally get to experience the wonder and joy of their gift as they discover they can fly at will, and spend innocent hours playing football among the clouds.

But the damaged Andrew is an accident waiting to happen and soon a telekinetic stunt goes too far. Matt and Stephen are frightened and sobered by the potential repercussions of their superpowers and pledge to make rules –  but Andrew is tired of rules. He has been pushed around all his life and now he has the power to fight back.

We see the action unfold through the video Andrew is making about his life. Andrew can use his telekinesis to make the camera float around wherever he needs to film (from a filmmaking standpoint, this craftily solves the first-person point-of-view problem in ‘found-footage’ films, creating some great ‘out-of-body- like’ scenes. One warning: If you suffer from motion sickness, you might want to take some medication with you, as the ‘hand-held’ camera motion can get pretty wild! It gets even more extreme during the climax of the film, as there appear to be many cameras catching the action from numerous angles, CCTV and such included).

26-year-old director Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis (son of John) have come up with an exciting and thoughtful movie that breathes new life into the traditional theme of the abused loner who receives superpowers. It moves confidently through a low-key beginning, taking care to introduce the characters and their situations. This approach pays dividends as it makes the shattering climax all the more shocking, thrilling and emotionally involving. How Trank created such outstanding effects on what was reportedly a (by cinematic standards) paltry $12 million budget is to be wondered at.

“Chronicle” puts a new spin on a familiar sci-fi motif. It is as much about the psychology of teenage insecurity and volatility as about pyrotechnics and effects. It packs a punch that is emotional and visceral – it is as much brain as brawn. Yes, teenagers are self-centered and immature, but sometimes it might be the behaviour of peers and adults which finally pushes them over the edge of an abyss. “With great power comes great responsibility” is not a principle meant only for superheroes.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

Movie Review: The Woman in Black

By Ren Zelen

Hammer Horror, Hammer Horror – Won’t leave it alone”

‘The Woman in Black’ is based on Susan Hill’s much-loved novel, which has also been adapted as a very successful London stage play by Stephen Mallatratt and has now been brought to the big screen by the iconic British film company ‘Hammer ‘. Chosen as the movie with which to herald the revival of their studios and add to their substantial body of work in the gothic horror genre. Though the book was written in 1983, it is a classic tale of vengeance from beyond the grave in the tradition of M.R James, Le Fanu, Henry James, Dickens or du Maurier – in other words, it has a decent narrative and is soaked in atmospheric spookiness.

The movie version wilfully and refreshingly bucks all of the horror trends of the past decade. Here there is no ‘found footage’ or torture-porn, nor any partially-clothed starlets getting imaginatively butchered. It is not adapted from a movie the Japanese or Koreans did first (and better) it isn’t a remake – nor is it in 3D! There isn’t a single moody, sparkling vampire or improbably limber zombie chasing its lunch. It is simply an homage to the Victorian ghost story – classically structured and set in the traditional location – a crumbling and deserted mansion. There is isolation, plenty of eerie mist, strange sounds in the night and some seriously creepy toys. All the essential ingredients, in fact, of the classic gothic horror film.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer emotionally devastated by grief at the death of his wife in childbirth. Arthur is given an assignment to salvage his neglected legal career, which entails heading off to a remote village to handle the legal paperwork of the deceased owner of isolated Eel Marsh House and its estate, situated across desolate, misty marshlands and separated from the mainland by the daily tides. Leaving his young son with the nanny, Arthur takes a series of trains to get to the secluded village. Despite ominous looks and warnings from the local townsfolk which serve only to confuse him, he goes over to the house – where ‘bad things happen’. These lead us into a story relating to dead children and their relationship to the eponymous Woman in Black.

Most of the movie is a one-man show. Radcliffe’s character begins the movie melancholy and becomes increasingly mystified as he encounters the spirit that inhabits the house. Radcliffe is making a good attempt at finding a more varied career after growing up on screen in public as Harry Potter, but this role is not necessarily a huge stretch for him, as probably no actor in the history of cinema has been better prepared for a movie spent constantly reacting to invisible forces. The result is that Radcliffe gives a performance that is assertive, but not showcasing any new sides to his talent. His transformation from sorrow to terror is not as striking as it might be, but the film does show that he’s able to hold the screen alone. There is a good, solid supporting cast. Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds grasping the opportunity to be more animated than Radcliffe in playing the village’s wealthiest and most benevolent residents.

Although horror movie lovers have seen the conventional shocks and scares many times before, James Watkins’s exuberant direction, Jon Harris’s editing and Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack delivers them with such zest, one can only admire their enthusiasm (and be reminded of the early works of Mario Bava). I suspect though, that perhaps Jane Goldman’s strengths as a screenwriter for the fast-paced action of ‘X-Men First Class’ and ‘Kick-Ass’ did not prepare her for handling the pacing of a slow-burn, build-up of terror in the gothic horror genre. I feel it would have been advisable to reveal the malevolence of the ghost sooner in the story, so that we were fearful for the protagonist rather than just observing his reactions to the haunting.  Ms. Goldman has also changed the emphasis of the book in her screenplay, since Kipps is not Susan Hill’s happily married man looking forward to fatherhood, but a widower whose wife has died while giving him a beautiful son. This makes him disturbed and unsettled before he even enters the ghost house. Perhaps this was meant to increase our emotional involvement with the character of Kipps, but I’m not sure that watching a happy man looking forward to his future, and observing his sanity and stability being systematically eroded by forces he cannot comprehend or whose intentions he does not understand would not have been even more effective, and more of a challenge for the actor, but maybe that’s just me? There is also a queasily ‘feel-good’ ending. This is quite different from the grimness of the book and diminished the shock of just how unforgiving and obsessed this ghostly presence actually is. It should be noted, that if a ghost story is to be involving, it is important to convey the tragedy, hatred or madness of the ghost itself. Ghosts were people once, after all, and they potentially have as many stories to tell as a writer cares to give them. It is this feature which distinguishes them from our more rigidly defined monsters, such as Vampires, Werewolves or Zombies.

The film has a 12A rating in the UK (one suspects in order to allow Mr Radcliffe’s younger fan base access to his latest venture) and this, of course, must have limited the scope of the potential scares.

In Stephen King’s fascinating book, ‘Danse Macabre’ a nonfiction outlining his take on the art of the Horror genre, he delineates three levels: terror, horror and revulsion. He states that terror is the ‘finest element’ – the suspenseful moment before the actual monster is revealed – the horror occurs when we finally see the monster, but he equates revulsion with the gag reflex, a level which he considers as merely a cheap thrill. With films such as ‘Human Centipede’, ‘Hostel’ ‘Saw –whatever-number-it –is –now’ and other visceral, gorefest films pushing the boundaries of revulsion, fans of the classic horror will welcome ‘The Woman in Black’. Certainly it has been doing well at the box office, so far. It is recognizably a ‘British’ movie, as all Hammer Horror movies were, and I was pleased to see that some of the old Hammer hallmarks are still present. Perhaps it may be soon be the time for Kate Bush to re-release that ‘Hammer Horror’ tribute song?

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

TV Review: American Horror Story

Reviewed by Ren Zelen

….And they all died happily ever after…..

Ghosts just ain’t ghostly any more.  Apparently, they are, to all intents and purposes, as competent as the living – perhaps hampered only by a touch of agoraphobia. True, they are angry, obsessional and delusional, but then again, so is every second person on the bus.

When it was announced that Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were venturing into the ghostly realm, we might have guessed that things would get a bit crazy. Subtle they are not. The point which seemed to escape the writers was, that the dead cease to be chilling when they completely lose their mystery and crassly insist on becoming virtually indistinguishable from the living, making nuisances of themselves by behaving as if they were. Riding about in police cars, having cosy coffees in the kitchen, visiting their shrinks, pestering their ex-boyfriends, copulating with the ingenuous living, killing people with knives, guns or whatever implements come to hand – this might as well be an episode of ‘Desperate Housewives’ as a ghost story.

Admittedly, there was a great effort to tell a garish story as boldly as possible. The device of revealing a chapter of the gruesome history of the house at the outset each week was initially a good idea. However, once the resident ghosts were joined by various assorted additions who had unfortunately wandered into the place for whatever reasons, the ratio of dead-uns to the living became rather top-heavy. The internal logic of this world was so unconvincing that it never really succeeded in being scary. It failed to differentiate between paying homage to the genre and throwing every single horror cliche into a blender and creating a sticky mess. Murphy and Falchuk’s stated intention was to “bust the genre up” and on that count, they succeeded.

A few examples: The police keep coming around to Connie’s house whenever a death occurs – surely even they might be a bit surprised when such a list of ghastly deeds are perpetrated in the vicinity of one woman? What happened to Violet’s corpse? Did anyone ever come looking for that pest control guy that Tate murdered in episode 10 and is his van still parked outside? Then there’s the Harmon family ‘Christmas special’  – Why did the ‘good’ ghosts suddenly go into dreamy ‘blur-o-vision’ ?  They didn’t get on while alive, what suddenly makes it all sweetness and light when they’re dead? Will their dead baby remain a baby for eternity? Will Ben the errant husband be faithful ‘till death do them part’?…Ooops!? Why bother scaring away the Ramos family? They’ll only have go through the same rigmarole again when another family move in? Ben chopped the Christmas tree down with his own hands – Uh-huh – not bought from the garden centre then… Oh, and Tate seems to have forgotten he’s the father of the Antichrist… I’m just looking at the final episode here, a nitpicking list for the series would take up far too much space and reveal just how silly many of the story strands were. The scene in which Ben and Vivien deal with their marriage problems while cathartically eviscerating and shooting one another is both hideously gory and laughably bad all at the same time – that’s how American Horror Story might be seen as a whole – sometimes shocking and gruesome, often ridiculous and silly.

The whole, rudderless vessel was kept afloat by the majestic acting battleship that is Jessica Lange: imperious, vengeful, desperate, scheming, heartbroken – she was able to elicit every kind of emotion from her deliciously southern-Gothic, ageing-belle character. For much of the series, Jessica Lange and Taissa Farmiga managed to keep the extremes of the storytelling grounded. Lange’s ‘Tennessee Williams-esque’ performance was balanced by the more subtle, subdued nature of Farmiga’s acting. These were the pivots of credibility around which the rather fatuous ghost story was able to continue revolving. The only other character that kept my attention was Evan Peters’ troubled, and dead, teenager in love, Tate. His heartsore devotion to Violet, however, did not prevent him from impregnating her mother with a ‘devil child’ or cause him to have any qualms about dispatching any number of living visitors to the house in true murderous fashion! No-one of course, initially noticed he was dead, because to all intents and purposes, he wasn’t. Still, Peters managed to invest Tate with some kind of pathos, angst and sympathy, often overriding the nonsensical aspects of the character development, no mean feat in itself. There were also some nutty cameo performances and Zachary Quinto finally got an opportunity to camp it up (even more than the rest of the cast)!

The show was a kind of crazy entertainment. People tuned in each week just for the ghost-train ride, I guess, no matter how tacky the ghouls might be, because today’s horror monsters, unfortunately, are all too human. In contemporary shows and books, ghosts, the undead, vamipires, werewolves and all that cavalcade, get along with their daily business like any other run-of-the-mill killer on the streets of any cop show on TV (only wearing more white make-up, contacts and latex).  They fall in love, they have sex, they produce ‘babies’, they argue, they fight, they bare their teeth, but they just won’t damn die and go away, will they? The success of TV’s ‘Buffy’ (love her, though you may) has an awful lot to answer for – sucking all the creepiness and atmospherics out of the genre and replacing it with soapsuds. Being undead is such an attractive fictional proposition nowadays – no taxes, no decisions, no work, just – playtime.  American Horror Story wraps up with the Harmons, a happy family at last – they just had to die to ‘live their dream’. As for the next season? It seems to be setting itself up to become a story of the Antichrist and the ghost family next door – ‘The Omen’ meets ‘The Munsters’ meets ‘Parenthood’.  Hope you enjoy the vigorous (occasionally rough) soaping we’ll all be getting….

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

TV Review: ‘SHERLOCK’ Series 2, episode 1: A Scandal in Belgravia (Reviews of all three of the Sherlock episodes in series 2 can be found on  http://www.thecultden.com )

By Ren Zelen

New Years’ Day brought the return to UK television screens of the much anticipated second series of ‘Sherlock’ – the highly acclaimed and successful ‘updated’ version of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. It was a while coming, apparently because the two principal actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, have been so in demand for other projects, probably partially due to their exposure in the first series, that it has been difficult to get all participants together for a productive stretch of time. Co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have also been riding high, finding recognition for their episodes of  Dr. Who, and Moffat accepting co-writing duties on Spielberg’s ‘The Adventures of Tintin’.

The first new episode of ‘Sherlock’ – the Moffat-penned ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, turned out to be a fun roller-coaster ride, suitably ‘twisty’ in plotting – a deconstruction of Conan Doyle’s original ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, but one which poked fun at and paid homage to Holmes mythology in several entertaining ways, including  puns on the original titles such as ‘The Geek Interpreter’ and ‘The Speckled Blonde’. The interaction between Watson and Holmes has developed – they are more familiar with each other and the relationship has become more equal and more relaxed compared to the first series. Cumberbatch and Freeman shine as a version of ‘the odd couple’ and their friendship comes across as quirky, yet genuine. The subsidiary character of Mrs Hudson was also given a chance to evolve. Moffat’s Sherlock may exhibit the familiar cold, calculating traits, but when he perceives that Mrs Hudson has been ‘roughed-up’ by CIA henchmen, a part of his psyche emerges that we did not suspect, and it is also revealed that Mrs Hudson herself is more resourceful than we had imagined, and we get a glimpse of the source of Holmes’s lurking affection for her – “England would fall”, he states, should she ever leave Baker Street, (I had to supress a ‘Hurrah!’ at that point).

But let us examine the reworking of the character of Irene Adler, who appears in only one Conan-Doyle story. In the original she was a distinguished opera singer and an ‘adventuress’, known as ‘THE Woman’ by Sherlock in deference to her being the only antagonist ever to outwit him. He admired her not only for this, but for her noble generosity to him, and to the petty, ignoble, minor royal in the tale. In Conan Doyle’s words, Irene Adler is to Holmes the one woman who “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” but this is mainly due to her powers of insight and deduction rather than seduction.

In Moffat’s interpretation, Adler’s charms are presented rather more overtly, notably by her ‘Victoria’s Secret’ undies and in her naked entrance (so much for maintaining her ‘mystery’). It may have grabbed the attention of the viewer,  but I was not convinced by Sherlock’s failure of deductive powers faced with Irene’s nudity – there was plenty to go on in her demeanor and her environment, no matter how taken aback by her boldness he might have appeared (though I subsequently enjoyed the amusing orgasmic sounds of her text alerts). Adler was portrayed as a professional dominatrix – which might explain her being privy to the most damaging of ‘secrets’, and certainly, the part had some excellent lines, but I confess myself to being rather disgruntled as ultimately, this smart, worldly and assured woman, originally Sherlock’s most intriguing antagonist – gradually degenerated into a ‘damsel in distress’ labouring under a crush, needing to be rescued….Oh well – such remains the hold of the televisual cliché….

It was gratifying, however, for any Conan Doyle geek to see that Moffat’s reworking deigned to follow some threads of the original – the clergyman disguise, the ruse of the fire, the inclusion of Adler’s final “Goodnight, Mr Sherlock Holmes” and a the keepsake by which the detective could remember Irene (a phone rather than a photograph) – and one can’t help but enjoy Moffat’s origami-like plotting – his sleight of hand as one piece slots into another, creating a delightfully convoluted whole.

It is a challenge to set Conan Doyle’s most famous creation in the present-day. The 21st century is a far more complex, dangerous and morally ambiguous country than Conan Doyle’s fictional Victorian world. The characters must expect to walk a much finer moral line. We see Gatiss’s Mycroft swimming the murky waters of international politics, and his Jumbo Jet full of corpses wonderfully demonstrates its shocking, moral ambivalence.

The ‘Sherlock’ series rightfully takes its place as one of the most entertaining and challenging television shows we can expect to see on our screens this season, and I’m looking forward to seeing our present-day Sherlock and Watson’s reactions when faced with next week’s Gatiss-penned ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ – here’s hoping it doesn’t turn out to be a slavering, phosphorescent sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Book Review:

Review: ‘Apartment 16’ by Adam Nevill

It’s been a very long time since a big UK publisher has shown much interest in a UK author of horror, not since the days of Clive Barker and James Herbert in fact. That’s why I was intrigued to find out what may have prompted their interest in Adam Nevill’s ‘Apartment 16’.

This is a novel about ‘the bad place’ to use one of Stephen King classifications, and is a story reminiscent of the haunted rooms of King’s Overlook Hotel and concerning another man’s descent into madness. But this ‘bad place’ is Barrington House, an upmarket block in London’s Mayfair district where there is an empty apartment, one that has been empty for fifty years. One night a young art-student, Seth, having taken the job of night watchman, hears a disturbance in the small hours of the morning and investigates, starting a chain of events which reveal Apartment 16 as a gateway to something vindictive and terrifying which begins to seep into the dark passages and dusty rooms inhabited by the mysterious, aged residents of Barrington house, and whose evil presence also begins to infiltrate Seth’s impressionable mind.

A young American woman, Apryl, arrives. She has inherited an apartment from her Great Aunt Lillian who died in strange circumstances. Rumours claim Lillian was mad, but her diary suggests she was implicated in some horrific event decades ago. Intrigued by the diaries, determined to fill in the gaps left by her eccentric relative, Apryl begins to unravel the hidden story of Barrington House and the truth about the presence that torments the inhabitants.

The book is successful in instilling a feeling of tension and disquiet in the reader. Nevill’s writing shows an intriguing marriage of old and the new styles.  He employs the shadowy, barely-glimpsed horrors on the periphery of M.R. James’ and H.P. Lovecraft’s imaginations, the uneasy ambience of Blackwood and the raw, visceral descriptions of Clive Barker. Buildings and environments become characters in themselves and are infused with a brooding malevolence. London is shown at its most desolate, contrasting its squalor and faded grandeur – a permanently grey and drizzling backdrop to Seth’s growing existentialist nausea and descent into alienation and disgust at the degradation of the human into the bestial. Here it resembles T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. The supernatural elements form grotesque, nightmarish visions but, in my case anyway, it is the realistic description of an unprovoked beating that Seth suffers at the hands of what we have recently named ‘feral youth’ that creates the greatest impact. It is brutal, and truly frightening – a damning description of the realities of the horror that roams our streets every day.

But what makes truly great horror story is not just the visceral descriptions of gore or the jolts of shock or the twist of apprehensive fear in the gut, but an element that touches a deeper and more subtle chord of recognition in the psyche of the reader. What interests me when I’m reading a horror story is identifying the fears it’s really attempting to exorcise. It seems to me that ‘Apartment 16’ is dealing with fears of confinement and servitude, of becoming powerless hostages or slaves – with the threat of annihilation hanging over our heads. One of the reasons we read horror stories it to gain that longed for resolution to the fears we all experience and shrink from – we read to see evil vanquished or overcome – because real life affords us little such satisfaction.

Content is copyright of R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2011 All rights reserved.

THE LAST WEREWOLF

by Glen Duncan

Reviewed by Ren Zelen

While Vampires and Zombies have been jamming the highway to the bookshelves and multiplexes, Werewolves have largely been left to idle by the side of the literary road. With Glen Duncan’s protagonist, Jacob Marlowe, you get more than you bargain for: not just a man but a werewolf, not just a werewolf, but an existentially philosophical one. The novel is, ostensibly, a diary. The tale begins after a ‘feed’ “Two nights ago I’d eaten a 43-year-old hedge fund specialist,” Marlowe states with what will be his trademark insouciance, “I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no-one wants.” We learn his backstory, a 19th-century costume tragedy, by means of his journal entries, composed in breaks between violent action and meaningless fornication. Two centuries of living have endowed him with a vast reserve of cultural expertise and a linguistic style that moves between the wisecracking cynicism of his noir namesake and the syntactical flourishes of the 19th century literary gentleman. Marlowe imparts the contents of his inner life and his impressions of the modern world in a series of dryly succinct verbal morsels: the topography of Wales is a “stack of vowel-starved hills: Bwlch Mawr; Gyrn Ddu; Yr Eifl, “a gold tooth is a “dental anachronism”; the point of civilization is “so that one can check in to a quality hotel”.

The first half of the book (I think it’s fair to describe this as a book of two halves) presents us with an interesting premise: If one embraces the bestial part of one’s nature, does human morality cease to be relevant? Duncan partially exonerates his (anti) hero by making this path necessary to his survival – he has to kill to live, he’s helpless in the face of his ‘animal instincts’, he must accept predatory murder and cannibalism as a fact of continued existence etc… Yet, it is when the ‘human’ element re-asserts itself that things become more morally ambivalent and more interesting. Jacob Marlowe is inured to his condition, to his bestial nature taking control once a month. He has accepted his choice to kill mercilessly in order to live, rather than commit suicide in self-disgust. So, the question is, how is one’s ‘humanity’ able to deal with the full consciousness of its ‘amorality’? The Werewolf condition becomes a vehicle for moral inquiry. How does one deal with human moral accountability when out of the wolf ‘persona’?

We might say that certain people in human history, dead and alive, seemed to have been able to overcome the niggling persistence of a moral compass. Some may have the excuse of being ‘sociopaths’ deficient in empathy and human feeling, but Jacob Marlowe can’t claim these as  mitigating circumstances. Insist as he might that he has come to terms with his murderous lifestyle, he still seeks redemption – giving generously to charity out of his huge reserves of money (cunningly accumulated over an unnaturally long existence) and he makes a decision to live his long life ‘without love’ as a punishment for his first and most appalling murder.

It is that initial transgression, a horrific initiation into the bestial, that provides the next interesting question. The idea that deep attachment and passionate sexual love results in the desire to ‘know’ the deepest recesses of the beloved, to be one with them and, ultimately, to consume them into oneself. Which is literally what Jacob Marlowe does. Despite his many protestations as to his beloved Arabella’s individuality, strength of character and independence, his guilt at his crime cannot quite hide the satisfaction of having her entirely in his possession, in the most fundamental way. At the moment of decision, his ‘instinct’ is to take her, because he can – it is a capitulation to his momentary power over her that proves irresistible.  Apart from being a disturbing scene in itself, it was too close a reminder, for me at least, of those suicidal fathers who insist on murdering their wives and children before they kill themselves, as though those others are ‘property’ over which they have the power of disposal – a sick exercise of dominance.

Marlowe is a jaded commentator on our mores and his own condition and a cynically witty raconteur. Lest we begin to find his ennui too intriguing, we are soon reminded of the coarse reality of being part dog. Like Marlowe’s victims, we aren’t spared the gruesome reality of a lupine attack; “There’s always someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, someone’s son. This is the problem with killing and eating people” — Marlowe’s quandary boils down to a case of existential exhaustion. Sated with another kill, Marlowe receives the news that he is ‘The last Werewolf’ from his human minder, Harley, a silver-haired, old-world gentleman (think Alfred to Batman). “They killed the Berliner two nights ago,” Harley gravely intones — “they” being a shadowy group known as the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena (Wocop for short) literary heirs of Van Helsing. Marlowe is pursued through Wales, London, New York, Paris, Greece and California, but tired with the drag of being a werewolf, he decides on capitulation to death. Then, a chance discovery changes everything : “Life,” Marlowe trenchantly reminds us, “like the boring drunk at the office party, keeps seeking you out.”

Which leads (in the second half of the book) to a further, rather unexpected transformation.  Marlowe, the jaded cynic with a death-wish – finds love. It would be a pity to reveal too much, but I can say that I found it this section of the book perplexing. The transformation into wolf is well rendered, but seems to bestow almost supernatural powers, such as telepathy, which undermine the notion of the ‘beastly’. Also, though the giddiness and fragile joy of human love is convincingly enough portrayed I found its ‘beastly’ equivalent, which Duncan is at some pains to aggrandize, quite unaffecting. Perhaps even more strangely, one of the most benevolent and stirring of human emotions and experiences find their apotheosis while clothed in the form of the monstrous. The ‘beast’ suddenly appears to have finer and more intense feelings than the human. Who knew?

It is a novel chock full of literary allusion, to Conrad, Chandler, Shakespeare, Eliot, Nabokov, and more, almost in defence of its explicit, pulpy sex and violence. It occasionally loses its bearings in its own moral ambivalence.  However, the story is twisty, tense and often blackly funny (a chapter begins: “Reader, I ate him”) and, while adhering to tradition it does offer something innovative and more profound. But with all of its philosophizing, what does it mean? In an oddly bloodthirsty and kinky-sex-crazed way, ‘The Last Werewolf’ makes a case for culture and literature, and on a simpler level, it as a story about a divided persona, trying to make sense of how to live, how to accept what he is, how to keep going, because when everything else is stripped away, the Werewolf always ends up as just a naked man, lying in the dirt, bemused and blinking at the sun in his eyes.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

Book Review:

Florence and Giles’ By John Harding

Turning  the Screw….

Florence & Giles is an intriguing Gothic tale, well thought-out and deftly plotted. It owes much of its inspiration to Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and is a tribute to that classic story of misguided and obsessive madness.

Set in remote and crumbling New England mansion, twelve-year-old orphan Florence is neglected by her guardian uncle and banned from any formal education as her absent uncle has strong opinions on the dangers of a clever woman.  Ignored by the minimal staff of the house and left to her own devices, she finds the abandoned library, teaches herself to read and devours books in secret – she appears a resourceful and intelligent young heroine. Keeping her self-taught accomplishments a secret from all, she considers them her own personal triumph, seeing herself as literary and articulate against all the odds. She insists on narrating her own story in a language of her own invention. This contrived language is a little awkward to get used to. Her insistence on turning nouns and adjectives to verbs and verbs to nouns “no budgery was to be had. I was in a weepery of frustration” – can rather grate and irritate at first, but once the reader gets used to its idiosyncrasies, it ceases to slow up the pace of the story.  One cannot help but admire Florence for her intellectual hunger and self-determination but, as becomes apparent, Florence is a girl grown headstrong in her own opinions, particularly as she has no-one to contradict her or curb her overactive imagination.

Highly observant and imaginative, she is prone to sleepwalking and is troubled by a recurrent dream in which a mysterious woman appears to enter the room of her younger, half-brother Giles, and gloat over him. After the sudden, unexpected and violent death of the children’s first governess, a second teacher, Miss Taylor, arrives, and immediately strange phenomena begin to occur. Florence becomes convinced that the new governess is the woman in her dreams – the vengeful and malevolent spirit of her dead governess who means to harm her half-brother Giles, to whom Florence is strongly attached. Against this apparent supernatural enemy, and without any adult to whom she can turn for help, Florence must use all her ingenuity to protect her little brother and preserve the world she has created for them both.

John Harding has created a novel of real atmosphere and suspense, chock full of gothic motifs:  secret towers, shadowy corridors, overgrown gardens, swishing black dresses and ghostly faces in mirrors. True to the Henry James story, Harding maintains the mystery of his small cast of dramatis personae, confining them in a narrow world where soon what is real and what is imagined becomes blurred and indistinct. Led into Florence’s isolated world by her own words, it is left to the reader to try to deduce what to believe – what is true and what is fantasy in this  increasingly fevered and stifling atmosphere. To Harding’s credit, he has left enough clues so that as a reader, one can guess the identity of the replacement governess fairly early on, but this realisation actually serves to ramp up the tension regarding the events of the story and its shocking climax.

Florence and Giles reads like a satisfying Gothic chiller, and even when the story arc lags a little it is still a fascinating study of perversity and self-delusion exacerbated by isolation and loneliness. This is well thought-out, slowly ‘turning the screws’ of tension and uncertainty, and I would recommend it to any lover of a good Gothic yarn.

The only questionable aspect I found regarding the tale, was that once the events had unfolded to their inevitable climax – I was left wondering whether Florence’s uncle’s misogynistic point of view, had, in this case, been, in fact, a terrible prediction.

Reviewed by Ren Zelen

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.

INTRO and APOLOGY

Who am I to comment on the vagaries of  ‘Popular Culture’ and why should you care what my thoughts about it are’ – is undoubtedly the question on you lips, and rightly so. The answer  of course is , that I’m just a person who has made a lifelong study of pop culture because I’ve been forced to live it.  As have you. Am I a practicing journalist, academic or politician ? I confess to having formerly served time under the yoke of all these in some form or another,  but I’m not in thrall to any of them any longer which is all for the better, since I may therefore be said to view my subject with a disinterested eye, devoid of hidden agendas, political, academic or professional. ‘Ah calls ’em, as ah sees ’em’ to quote a homely maxim of our American cousins. I do have a journalist friend whose business it is occasionally to write about aspects of pop culture – movies, music and such. He has studied it as long as I have — the only difference being that apparently, he’s hated most of it since 1980, which alas, has meant his commentaries are not always of the most constructive nature. I can’t make any claim to be less influenced by my temperament than he is, though mine I hope is more genuinely open-minded.

As to my opinion, you may not care a jot, which is also as it should be, because you hopefully have plenty of opinions of your own, having been mercilessly exposed to the proponents and perpetrators of popular culture yourself. The most I may hope for is that if Pop Culture is something that interests you, annoys you, confuses you and intrigues you, you may find reading commentaries about it entertaining, stimulating, irritating and occasionally, perhaps, thought-provoking.

I would prefer this to be less of a one-sided discussion, since one of the pleasures of pop culture it its ability to engender agreement in adversity or  fuel arguments, but standing in alignment or opposition to my comments may serve to solidify your own stance on these subjects, or at least give them a second look. We are so subsumed by our pop culture that we often just fall back and sink into it as if under some form of hypnosis. Well, that’s just what our media overlords want us to do. Don’t let them off so lightly… so…..Let’s WAKE UP! It’s time to ask some questions….

 

 


‘Let the Right One In’ – you might as well…

If you have seen the acclaimed Swedish-made vampire movie, ‘Let the Right One In’ and its American remake ‘Let Me In’, you have probably already chosen your own preference.

Tomas Alfredson’s original ‘Let the Right One In’ (2008) – a story about a delicate and bullied teenage boy and his relationship with a mysterious, vampiric girl, was a satisfying synthesis of atmospherics and violent incidents, of tenderness and terror.

That film’s haunted ambience seemed to have sprung organically from the frozen nation in which it was set. ‘Let the Right One In’ drew you in slowly – into the chilled static mist and numbing frosts – reflecting the cold-heartedness of the world that the characters inhabit. In the American remake, the setting, originally 1980s suburban Stockholm, is shifted to Los Alamos in the same era, with Ronald Reagan’s religion-tinged speeches broadcasting over the local televisions. ‘Let Me In’ (2010) is pretty faithful to the first movie, but omits the disreputable queasiness of the local community that provided some of the Swedish movie’s satire and reworks a pertinent moment in the original film (in which the boy ferociously lashes out at his tormentors while skating on a frozen pond) which was deemed unpalatable for American audiences, for some reason.

Even so, it seems almost redundant for a remake to have been made, except for those who simply cannot tolerate the idea of performing the dual brain functions of reading subtitles while watching a foreign movie.

The principal child actors, Chloë Moretz (required to turn in a more complex performance than her scene-stealing Hit Girl in the movie ‘Kick Ass’) and Kodi Smit-McPhee, from the post-apocalyptic movie ‘The Road’, acquit themselves well, but with their healthy, well-fed, all-American demeanor, they can’t quite replicate the sense of vulnerable isolation and gender-bending confusion inherent in the performances of Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson in the original.

‘Cloverfield’ director Matt Reeves takes on the directorial duties of the remake, and apart from emphasising the vampire violence with some CG enhanced jolts of brutal throat-ripping (which work well) cleverly adopts the original movie’s use of long, suspenseful shots and subtle sound to construct the tense, wintry mood.

Reeves has the opportunity to employ the odd exhilarating directorial flourish, such as a devastating car crash captured from the perspective of the back-seat. As remakes go, it is one of the better ones, an efficient retelling of the Swedish original, aided by considered performances and also perhaps because it learns valuable lessons from the success of the original and chooses not to stray too far from its source material.

Also in its favour, ‘Let Me In’ transfers from the original, the element that always made this particular vampire story more than just a scare-fest fantasy – the most pertinent aspect of both movies, for me at least, is the fact that here, the fear of the vampire monster is always on the verge of being upstaged by the real-world fear of the bully. The vampire is not the principal villain or the object of our greatest revulsion – the bullies remain the most repulsive monsters present in both movies.

Vampires remain our most adaptable fictional horror creations, rediscovered and reinvented by each generation to reflect their own fears and repressed desires. Contemporary concerns and attitudes always serve to colour our current perception of these malleable bloodsuckers and their slayers. Whichever movie version of this particular vampire tale you prefer, its real horror lies in its ability to remind us all of our greater fear of the real monsters that are always out there.

 

Pop Culture: FROM ‘HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE’ TO ‘THE KILLER INSIDE ME’

I watch a lot of movies in all genres – a lot. Occasionally I feel moved to point out when I feel the clammy hands of manipuIation, or the hot breath of exploitation on my cheek. I’m also not partial to the insult to my intelligence, although as Mencken famously said: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public.”

Watching movies is an ongoing education. Watching old movies is a lesson in social history – where have we come from in order to get to where we are. I recently watched again, a movie I had last seen as a child, although it was originally made in the nineteen sixties. It was a sixties ‘comedy’ film -‘How to murder your wife’ starring Jack Lemmon and Terry Thomas, two actors always worth watching (albeit for different reasons) with distinguished careers and immense popularity. This film had the premise that all men secretly loathe marriage (no matter if your wife happens to be the lovely Virna Lisi) and would happily make their wives ‘disappear’ if given the chance. When Lemmon ‘confesses’ to murdering his wife, he is aquitted by an all male jury and carried out of the court on their shoulders like a hero. (You only need to watch E! news for a couple of days to see this notion still at work in todays’ Hollywood reality!) But, to return to social history for a moment, seeing this movie reminded me why seventies feminism came into being. The ideas in this movie were culturally speaking, comedic staples at that time and throughout the seventies, ie: men are basically intent on sexual freedom but ‘trapped’ into marriage by the machinations of women. Think of the TV sitcoms of the time. In that social climate was it so surprising that young women turned around and said ‘ Actually, we’re not that keen on ‘trapping’ anyone into anything, let alone marriage, so let’s not. But, if men don’t want marriage and we are to be free of it, women must then have the means to support ourselves and be independent.’ So far so reasonable, if it wasn’t for the fact that feminism has been blamed for the ‘breakdown’ of marriage and the family unit routinely ever since –  the patriarchal cultural establishment conveniently forgetting its part in the process. Mercifully, the apparent vagaries of gender politics has not succeeded in killing off the institution entirely. The family unit endures, and even quite happily in some cases.

That short preamble into gender politics notwithstanding, we speed a few decades from wife murder as comedy in the sixties to the present day and ‘The Killer Inside Me’. Not so funny.

One could argue that there have been many great, tough, ass-kicking heroines in the movies since the seventies. Post the groundbreaking Ripley in ‘Alien’ doors were opened for Lara Croft, Trinity, Alice, Buffy, Hit-girl and countless others, so much so that the tough-girl has become a cinema staple. BUT, these women are about as common in reality as is the witch Hermione in Harry Potter. Violence against women is an everyday reality and what a sad condemnation of our culture it is when we have to have an advertising campaign in order to indicate to young women what abuse constitutes, and when they are actually being abused. So much for the effects of post-feminism (which is a fictional construct in itself). I am inured to violence in movies (I choose my words deliberately). I accept it is part of cinematic entertainment and I even have to admit I am one of those girls who prefer a Terminator or Batman movie to any chick-flick or rom-com (they haven’t scripted a decent one of those since the 1950’s anyhow). Indeed, I can take my Tarantino with my Sam Raimi and  thanks very much (but you can keep Eli Roth.. everyone has to draw the line somewhere…). I accept that violence in general, and particularly to women, has been the meat and potatoes of the movie industry for many a long year. I don’t object to the examination of violence, sadism, psychosis and murder in movies, these subjects have been done to death (pardon the pun) since movies became mass entertainment. What drives me to despair is the persistance of the notion of women being compliant in that situation. That they ‘want’ to be abused. I am heartily sick of coddled actresses mouthing all that stuff they have been told by the director (as they think of their career trajectory and salary cheques and safe, cushioned little lives) about their character’s masochistic sexuality and death wish, how their character is complicit in the violence done to them out of ‘love’ and self-hatred and….. yada, yada yada. Yes, heard it all before from actresses in a hundred other ‘women are doormats’ movies. Clearly, that is why the dominatrix is such a rarity in sexual fantasies…. (sorry, but ‘facetious’ is my middle name) . Seriously though, a film like ‘The Killer Inside Me’ no matter how ‘well written’ must be really gut-churning to the families who have lost a mother, wife, sister or friend to violence, and let’s face it, there are no shortage of families who have – you know the statistics. The director, Michael Winterbottom was apparently surprised when a woman stood up at his press conference and said “How dare you”, but free speech should not be a commodity open to artists only. The families of victims have the right to stand up and say ‘ How dare you!’ because in  their lives it was not just a movie where at the end of the scene the girl got up and was able to peel off the ‘nasty hot latex disfigurement mask’ (a la the sensitive Jessica Alba).

I would love to think that the public viewing this film will intellectualize the minutiae of the movie and see that the passivity of the female characters may simply be the perception of the killer as he attempts to justify his actions -‘She wanted it – its her fault, she made me do it, she ‘consented’ ‘ as ever, being the refrain, and excuse. I wouldn’t like to think the movie might be viewed by an audience looking for their own justifications or who just get a kick out of seeing women beaten up. Movie critics and magazines say the movie will prompt debate and raise questions. Surely, not that old chestnut? What new point does it contribute to a debate that has gone on for decades already? Don’t just make these throwaway statements – define your terms please! Explain to us how  it does not simply want to show this violence (already described graphically in the book) in visual terms – which makes it  more immediate and visceral and thrilling and real, up on a 20ft movie screen…. And why would it want to do that exactly? To forward a debate? Yeah, right. The book makes these points far more elegantly (if one can use such a word) and astutely. Movies are all about sensation in visual terms. Oh, and box office returns.

I’m not denying or judging the existence of S&M practices between consenting adults or that masochism exists in both genders, but let’s also look at the actual thrill of sadism which consists of inflicting pain on unwilling victims, albeit vicariously – which is the real point, isn’t it?  ‘But no-one thinks that’s the norm!’ you protest. Well, here’s a newsflash – masochism isn’t an exclusively female trait. Yes, really, and just to underline how pervasive a notion that still is – in a recent interview the actor in Jennifer Lopez’s latest rom-com, Alex O’Loughlin, declared to the male interviewer when asked if (nice) men like his rom-com character really existed, ‘Well, is it just me, or do women respond better to being treated badly?’ he ventured, to which the male interviewer nodded enthusiastic agreement. Alright, he wasn’t advocating violence I hope, but I for one, am fed up of this idea that you have to ‘treat them mean to keep them keen’. What’s that about? This actor is marketing a movie about romance to women who he feels actually wouldn’t appreciate the reality of the ‘decent man’ he is playing? Interesting thinking there….from a cultural standpoint.

I also saw ‘New Moon’  (my mother is a fan – there’s a thing!) . How do we explain the success of the ‘Twilight’ movies and their kin? (I happen to be a vampire purist in the Bram Stoker mould, but I’m not my mother) When and why, culturally speaking, did vampires and werewolves become our great romantic heroes? They say everything a young woman wants to hear – they will never let her down, they will be with her forever, they will protect her, they would die for her and apparently, if I didn’t mishear, they would marry her! The perfect romantic leading men. Is the message here that actual men are far less desirable and trustworthy than bloodsuckers and monsters….or possibly just the same thing in sheep’s clothing…Hurmm… I don’t know, I’m just asking?! I have seen young women wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the legend ‘I only date vampires’ Hurmm… (I’m beginning to sound like Rorschach!)  Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to know some really good guys who are not vampires or werewolves, at least, not as far as I know. Buffy may have had a different experience, but she’s fictional (and fabulous, I may add).

Lastly, I saw ‘Kick-Ass’ at the cinema. I went to see it with a guy who hated it, and was particularly disturbed by the child violence. I love comic-book superhero movies and I liked the ‘Kick-Ass’ take on the genre, even if it was a bit unsure whether it was dealing with fantasy or reality and constantly wavered between one and the other. I think it’s heart was kind of, in the right place – though the child violence is questionable (I guess it makes a change from sexualizing underage girls!) Yes, if only people tried to be heroes and stand up for what’s right, even if they know that the reality may mean getting their ass well and truly kicked.  Although you can’t tell me that the only real superhero in the movie – Hit-Girl,  has any basis in reality at all,  of course not! Alas, she is nowhere to be seen when a real woman is being kicked to death because she’s ‘asking for it’.

And just now, the last thing I’ve watched is Radiohead’s video for ‘Just – you do it to yourself’  Now, that video really speaks to me. So, if you want me, I’ll be lying on a pavement somewhere in West London having lost the will to live – ‘You do it to yourself – just you’ Thom, you hit the nail right on the head, ‘Ouch’.

by @RenZelen

 

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Comments
  1. therockmom says:

    Hey! As part of Rolling Stone’s ‘The Playlist Special’, your MCR man, Gerard Way, picks his Top Ten and not one song was released after 1980:

    http://rollingstoneextras.com/playlists/view/gerard-way

    Must have something in common with your journalist friend!

  2. therockmom says:

    Had to add: okay now I’m subscribed!

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