Archive for the ‘horror’ Category

Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou and John Krasinski.

Another in my irregular series of films I would have seen at the cinema. Please note, while I won’t be including spoilers for this film, discussing it will involve spoilers for the original Quiet Place so be warned!

In an opening flashback we see the arrival of the aliens that will soon ravage the Earth and view how the Abbott family (including Krasinski as dad, Lee) survive the initial assault.

We then return to the present and pick up immediately after the end of the first film, where the surviving members of the family Evelyn (Blunt) Regan (Simmonds) Marcus (Jupe) and Evelyn’s new-born baby are attempting to find more survivors. They come across Emmett (Murphy) once a family friend but now an embittered survivor reeling from the death of his family. Emmett is reluctant to let the family stay but Evelyn convinces him to give them some time to rest.

When a song comes on the radio Emmett explains that it’s been playing over and over for months. Regan deduces that it’s a message from another group of survivors and sets out to find them, hoping the discovery that her cochlear implant can disorient the aliens can be weaponized.

As Regan travels into unknown territory and into peril, those who stayed behind aren’t safe either, and there are other dangers now beyond the aliens.

A Quiet Place is one of those films that came out of nowhere, a low(ish)budget monster movie with a great hook, what if the world was invaded by monsters who, although blind, had incredibly sensitive hearing and the only way to survive was to commit to living in a world of near total silence? Despite a huge plot hole it succeeded because the script, direction and performances were all top drawer. The script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, rewritten by Krasinski, was excellent, and Krasinski’s direction was spot on, creating a tense environment where the slightest noise could mean certain death. Added to this the cast were superb, with the standout being Simmonds, deaf in real life. When the first film was a hit a sequel was inevitable, it’s just a shame we had to wait over a year from when it was supposed to come out. As with any such sequel the most important question is, is it as good as the first one?

And the answer is, almost, which I think for the majority of sequels is a ringing endorsement. It lacks the surprise factor of the first film, and the bigger budget means more action set pieces and perhaps a little less of the intimate tension of the original but it’s still a superior monster movie.

Again the cast prove one of the film’s greatest strengths. Blunt is a superb actress, and she’s not afraid to take a back seat to let others shine. For a while I worried she was taking too much of a supporting role but thankfully as the film progresses she comes into it more, though the real leads in this film are Simmonds and Jupe, who are both great once again. I love how Jupe plays Marcus as almost perpetually terrified, but who wouldn’t have PTSD in this world? He gets to develop more this time, becoming more of a hardened survivor by the end of the film. Simmonds carries on her star role from the first film, and again is the best thing about the film. Determined and willing to stride into the unknown, despite her disability—which as the film shows is exacerbated in this world because she can’t hear when she’s made a noise—yes you might call her foolhardy, but the character has agency, and drives the story onwards, and it’s great to see someone differently abled being shown as up to the task of survival as anyone else. This leaves Cillian Murphy who’s long been an actor I’ve admired and he slots into the film perfectly as Emmett. Like Blunt his American accent is spot on and he essays a man who’s lost everything perfectly, and you’re never quite sure if he’ll do the right thing. As he did so well in Peaky Blinders and Dunkirk he does a thousand-yard stare with scary authenticity, leaving you in no doubt that Emmett is a man who’s seen horrible things.

Djimon Hounsou rounds out the cast. Another actor I like but he isn’t given much to work with here, in fact his character doesn’t even get a name!

While the world is broadened somewhat it doesn’t go all globe trotting or epic on us, retaining the small scale that worked so well. Yes there’s more CGI, and yes the aliens seem a trifle familiar but coming up with truly original monster designs is a tough ask. Despite their familiarity they’re still a potent threat and in Krasinski’s hands a source of unbelievable tension at times.

Don’t shout it from the rooftops (“they” might hear) but roll on A Quiet Place Part III if it can be this good.

By Max Brooks

A (very) short anthology by Max Books, the man who gave us World War Z. Usually I wouldn’t go through each and every story in an anthology, but given this one is so brief, just four tales, it seems churlish not to, so here you go…

Closure Limited: A Story of World War Z

The titular story is an interesting tale of an organisation that provides a very unusual form of closure for those who’ve lost loved ones to the zombie apocalypse. Just try not to think about it too much.

Steve and Fred

The weakest story of the four, really less a story than two unconnected vignettes stitched together. Steve is a bad ass on a motorcycle, trying to get he and his colleague to a rescue chopper. Fred is a man trapped in the bathroom by a horde of zombies. There’s little to connect them, and both tales just peter out without going anywhere. A shame, the central conceit of Fred’s story is actually very interesting.

The Extinction Parade

The best story in the anthology. A tale of what another breed of supernatural monsters gets up to while the zombies are munching their way through humanity. This was great from start to finish.

Great Wall: A Story from the Zombie War

A drab first person account of the zombie apocalypse, much like the ones that made up World War Z, and if it’d been included within that larger exploration of WWZ it would have been just fine. Here it’s ok, not great though.

I really enjoyed World War Z, but this was disappointing. I bought it second hand and I doubt I’d have paid full price for it, and even if it’d contained four great stories rather than just the one it wouldn’t have been worth full price. I understand the desire to make money off the back of a successful book, but this is a lousy example of ripping people off with some deleted scenes from WWZ or hastily written stories. Brook’s prose can be decidedly average, it’s his ability to get into characters heads and show the War from multiple perspectives that made WWZ so good and it’s lacking here for the most part.

It was diverting enough, and if you can find it cheap it’s worth it for The Extinction Parade, but definitely not worth full price!

The Scarlet Gospels

Posted: August 21, 2021 in Book reviews, horror
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By Clive Barker

The magicians of the world are living in fear. They’re being picked off one by one by the Hell Priest, a demonic Cenonbite known to some as Pinhead, although he abhors that sobriquet. The Hell Priest is killing them off, taking their magic, learning all that he can learn about the dark arts as part of a plan to make himself the new ruler of Hell.

Harry D’Amour, a former cop turned occult detective, travels to New Orleans after being hired by one of the recently deceased magicians via his friend Norma. Norma is a medium. She’s blind but can see the dead, and she tries to bring them comfort in their afterlives. The magician wants Harry to erase all signs of his occult double life before his family can discover them, but it’s a trap, set by the Hell Priest himself who has need of Harry.

D’Amour has no intention of becoming the Cenobite’s servant however, and makes his escape.

However, when Pinhead kidnaps Norma and takes her to Hell, Harry has no option but to follow. He and a small group of friends must face myriad trials, and the darkest evils of the underworld if they’re to save Norma, but can Pinhead be stopped before he usurps Lucifer himself?

This is the first Barker I’ve read in a while, and I have to say I was drawn by the cover, because when I spotted it, I’d recently rewatched the first three Hellraiser films (Hellraiser > Hellraiser 3 > Hellraiser 2 if you’re interested) and so the presence of Pinhead on the cover intrigued me. I was a bit worried that I hadn’t read a whole raft of Harry D’Amour and/or Pinhead stuff but it turns out there isn’t a huge amount out there, and in any event, Barker neatly explains who the various characters are so well it hardly matters.

It’s an odd novel, and probably one I enjoyed the first half of better than the second, but Barker writes well, and I raced through it (always the sign of a good book). Oddly I preferred it before the characters venture to Hell itself, it’s always difficult trying to put down on paper a realm we have no frame of reference for, and at times Hell feels a trifle pedestrian, people seem to have jobs, there are suburbs…it felt more like a magical realm in a fantasy novel, with demons instead of orcs, but then at other points it’s suitably weird. It’s worth noting as well that at times Pinhead, sorry I mean the Hell Priest (Barker hates the Pinhead tag), is a more interesting character than Harry, or in fact any of Harry’s friends, though that’s always the problem with scene stealing villains I guess, and with Pinhead there’s the added bonus of hearing Doug Bradley’s dulcet tones in my head whenever he spoke, which likely helped bring the character to life.

Fast paced, gory, and featuring Pinhead on top demonic form, this was an enjoyably diverting read, now if you’ll excuse me, I have a puzzle box to solve.

So back in November I won a pitch competition to write a story for 2000AD (The UK premier comic book) You can find out about the competition here.

Today my story was published in prog (issue) 2245. I’ve been a huge fan of 2000AD since I was ten years old, so suffice to say this was a dream come true.

2000AD is available in all good comics stores, newsagents and can be purchased online too! Here’s a copy of the cover, and the first page of my Terror Tale.

by Darryl Jones

Why do we frighten ourselves for fun? Why is horror such a huge genre? Books, films, TV shows. Darryl Jones, English Literature professor from Trinity College Dublin, strives to explain.

I’ve always enjoyed horror, right from being a kid and watching old Hammer films. I remember being terrified of the original Blob, and the thought of sleeping with the curtains open still gives me the shivers thanks to the miniseries of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, shown on the BBC in the eighties, so Jones’ book appealed. It helped that it had such a groovy cover as well.

It’s a slim text, less than 200 pages, but no less interesting for that. Jones splits his treatise into various sections; Monsters, the Occult and Supernatural, Horror and the Body, Horror and the Mind, Science and Horror, and dips into books and films related to each section. From vampires to zombies to the devil, serial killers to mad scientists. And he doesn’t only talk about (relatively) modern horror, pointing out that horror predates Stephen King, MR James, and even Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Shakespeare deals with horror, and Jones goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Horror has always been with us and always fascinated us, but it isn’t some one size fits all, generic genre, and Jones makes an important distinction between Terror and Horror; Terror is about fear, Horror is about shock (and below both is Revulsion, the gross out.)

Jones has interesting things to say, and even when going over old ground he seemed to find something new to say. I won’t say I always agreed with him, but Jones’ scholarly approach is always interesting, even when I didn’t, and I learned a lot, because for a small book its chock full of little morsels of information; For example the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote an influential treatise on werewolves in 1865, was also the man who wrote the words to Onward Christian Soldiers, and Jones makes an interesting link between the rise of the supernatural and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, as Darwin strove to explain the world, those of a religious bent reacted by emphasising the spiritual.

An interesting read for anyone interested in horror, or why people gravitate towards horror, that emphasises the cathartic nature of horror, and makes the point that many of those involved in the enjoyment and creation of horror are well adjusted level-headed people. Horror is good for you!

Well I could have told you that 😉

Maledictions

Posted: October 24, 2020 in Book reviews, horror
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At first look an anthology of horror stories set in the Warhammer universe seems a slightly odd decision, if only because for the Warhammer universe horror is second nature. 40K depicts a universe embroiled in near constant war, a galaxy filled with weird and deadly alien races, where even humans are not immune from the eldritch horrors of chaos that reside in the warp.

A second glance tells a different tale. Freed from the broad strokes of war, of horror on an industrial scale, this anthology allows horror to permeate on a more forensic level, less a meat grinder than a scalpel.

As with all anthologies the quality of the tales varies, and likely stories I liked others might not, and vice versa, but there’s something here for everyone, from visceral bloody horror, to more nuanced, psychological torment.

The highlight for me was Predation of the Eagle by Peter McLean, a gritty survival horror set on a humid jungle planet where the members of a platoon of Imperial Guard are picked off one by one by a relentless enemy. With more than a nod to Predator, there’s an overriding Apocalypse Now, war is hell feel to it. It might not have been the most original story in the book, but it was the most enjoyable.

I also particularly enjoyed The Marauder Lives by JC Stearns, a story of PTSD and how one can never escape the horror of one’s past as a former prisoner of war struggles to come to terms with what she endured.

The past catching up to characters is a popular theme, yet each tale that goes down this route does it very differently. Take Triggers by Paul Kane, which again centres on a character haunted by the past, but which tells a quite different kind of story in more of a Tales from the Crypt style.

Not every story features war, there are stories that could have just as easily been set in a Cornish fishing village, feudal Japan, or the sewers beneath Victorian London.

The big question is whether this is a horror anthology for everyone, or merely for fans of Warhammer’s various universes. Yes, knowing something of the wider context helped me to appreciate some stories, but my knowledge of 40K isn’t encyclopaedic by any means, and I think for most of the stories the wider backstory is just that, backstory, local colour of the kind you might get in any standalone fantastical story. There’s even an argument that a lack of knowledge might allow you to enjoy these stories even more, simply because you don’t have something to anchor them to.

A decent anthology for horror fans and Warhammer fans alike.

The Outsider

Posted: September 6, 2020 in Book reviews, horror
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By Stephen King

In Flint City Oklahoma a terrible crime has been committed. A young boy has been brutally raped and murdered, and Detective Ralph Anderson arrests popular teacher and little league baseball coach Terry Maitland for the crime. Ralph’s in no doubt that Terry did it. Eyewitnesses saw him lure the boy into a van, and saw him bloodied afterwards, not to mention the huge amount of forensic evidence placing Terry at the scene, including DNA and fingerprints.

There’s just one problem. There’s irrefutable evidence that Terry was in a neighbouring city when the crime took place.

How can one man be in two different places at the same time?

I’ve never read as much King as I should have, especially his earlier stuff, given he was doing for horror in the US what James Herbert was doing in the UK, but when I have read him my relationship with his work has at times been uneasy. I either love his novels, or I hate them. There never seems to be a middle ground.

Happily, The Outsider falls into the former category. This was a really enjoyable read and one that kept me gripped from the off. The first half functions purely as a police procedural, before it takes a sharp turn into something else entirely, which is good, because as much as I enjoyed the early stages of the book, for a while I thought this was just a straight thriller, and I was worried it was going to turn out Maitland had a secret twin brother who’d committed the crime. Thankfully, the explanation is much more interesting, and far more fantastical, and the novel shifts tone into something more akin to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with a band of plucky heroes seeking out the hiding place of a monster.

It isn’t perfect, it’s a trifle long for what it is, and the number of characters means some are more well-rounded than others, and sadly a couple seem to be there just to provide expendable targets for the bad guy, but some are more interesting, especially Private Eye Holly Gibney, a recurring character from some earlier King novels.

All in all, a great read, Yeah the monster isn’t exactly original but in King’s hands it hardly matters. Highly recommended.

IMG_20200619_125120By James Herbert

The unthinkable has happened. World War Three has broken out and nuclear missiles have exploded over London. Millions are killed, and pilot Steve Culver might have been one of them, except he fortuitously crosses paths with man from the ministry Alex Dealey, who’s on his way to a government shelter and, along with fellow survivor Kate, they battle through the underground to some semblance of safety, but for the survivors there’s more to worry about than radioactive fallout. Humanity thought they’d vanquished the mutant black rats, but they were merely hiding. Now they sense humanity is vulnerable, and claw their way out of the dark to claim London as their domain!

Given I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and given my predilection as a teenager for both James Herbert novels and apocalyptic fiction, it’s perhaps no great surprise that this 1984 novel was a firm favourite from my very first read, and I’ve read it many times since (as you can no doubt tell from the photo) though not for years.

The final, and in my opinion best, Rats novel (though there is a 1993 graphic novel) this sees Herbert go all out by killing millions in the opening chapters, and his evocation of nuclear annihilation and a ruined London is superbly done, playing on his usual trick of providing potted biographies for characters, just enough for us to empathise with them before killing them off. There’ll be rat related deaths aplenty later, but early doors the main causes of death aren’t teeth, it’s heat and the shockwaves burning up bodies and demolishing buildings.

He shifts to a second act focusing on the emotional impact of survival. Those in the shelter may be safe, but they’re still traumatised. Suicide is prevalent, and so is the risk of mutiny. Some don’t see why Dealey should be in charge just because he held a position of minor authority before the world ended.

There’s a grim recon mission to the surface featuring a wince inducing encounter with a rabid dog, but soon the survivors are faced with a triple whammy of threats; insurrection, flooding and rats!

This is a high concept novel. Bringing back the rats after a dull second outing and partnering them up with nuclear war, a subject on everyone’s minds in the 1980s. Herbert is disparaging towards authority in this, and the fate that befalls the main government shelter suitably ironic, yet much like his hero, he can’t quite bring himself to choose a side. Culver’s a standard Herbert stand-in; a loner in jeans and a leather jacket, a reluctant hero. A nonconformist who has little time for Dealey, yet seems equally sniffy about the potential mutineers. Dealey is a two-dimensional civil servant, a man who’s fallen back on bureaucracy because that’s all he has left. Herbert suggests Kate’s a strong female character, but really she’s just a damsel in distress for Culver to rescue and fall in love with. It’s a shame Herbert dispenses with a far more interesting female character early on.

A product of its time, women don’t far well, and whilst nowhere near as bad as I’d expected, persons of colour aren’t portrayed too glowingly either, aside from Jackson, who Herbert feels the need to constantly remind us is black which seems to be his only defining character trait, but he isn’t alone here and many people in the vignettes are more fleshed out that some of the recurring characters!

From a great concept the book goes downhill in the final third There’s the fairly predictable apocalyptic trope of the outlaw gang, and by the time we get to the finale there are just too few characters left to make for a final bloodbath, and it has to be said, there’s only so many rat attacks you can read before they all blur into one, and several of the grim interludes Herbert peppers the book with are a trifle samey. That said some other (non-rat related) interludes are nicely done.

He also annoys me by having characters use automatic weapons that appear to carry a ludicrous number of bullets!

A product of it’s time, this is still a very enjoyable read and definitely one of Hebert’s better books. It’s a trifle long and some of the underground scenes, especially late on, drag, but still a damn fine example of 80s’ post-apocalyptic fiction, and still a heck of a concept.

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The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, is arguably my favourite film, one I’ve watched numerous times and one I always seem to get something new out of, but it was a long time until I read the source novel. A few years ago saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tv miniseries on Netflix. In the past nine months I’ve re-watched both the film and the tv series, and I’ve also reread Jackson’s novel, so it seemed a good time to examine all three.

This will be a fairly deep dive, so I will go into spoilerific detail. If you haven’t read/seen any of these and you’re worried about finding out how they end, maybe look away now, but if you’re a fan, or maybe if you don’t mind spoilers, why not take a trip with me to Hill House, which has stood for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more…

 

The Novel. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959)

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Given its reputation as a true classic of literature, it is perhaps surprising that I’m not as enamoured of the source novel as many are. In part I think it’s the fact that I came to the party late, as it were, reading the book many years (and many repeat viewings) after seeing the film, which means there’s a lot that’s fixed in my mind, my image of the central characters for one. There’s also Jackson’s prose, which is at times superb and at others a little cold. The book isn’t that old yet feels a trifle old fashioned. That said you can’t argue with that opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Just reading that last line makes me shudder.

The original story is slightly different than the film that followed. There’s no Dr Markway, distinguished and handsome potential love interest here, Dr Montague is a different figure altogether, only ever paternal, and Nell has no eyes for him, only for Luke but otherwise the dynamic fans of the film are familiar with is the same. Four intrepid investigators. The academic, the rich layabout, the bohemian extrovert and the guilt-ridden introvert.

The other big difference is that Jackson’s tale sprawls beyond the house, and many of the spookier elements take place outside. In particular Nell and Theo coming across a (clearly ghostly) family picnic is shudderingly written, most particularly because Jackson never tells us what is so wrong with it that prompts the pair to run, and for Theo to tell Nell not to look back. Later still Nell walks into the undergrowth believing Theo and Luke are following, only they aren’t… Brrr!!!

It seems likely there is a ghostly presence at Hill House in the novel. It isn’t impossible that it’s all Eleanor’s doing, her grief and guilt magnifying her psychic powers but I think even Jackson made it clear there’s something spooky afoot. The sense of dread regarding Nell as the book progresses has a horrible inevitability about it as well.

The one misstep I think, is the arrival of Mrs Montague and her curious companion. She’s too broad and overbearing and their inclusion does feel a bit jarring.

One can’t quibble with the story, and some truly wonderful prose however, and if it wasn’t for the novel, we wouldn’t have got…

The Film. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (1963)

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It’s sometimes incredible to consider just how eclectic Wise’s career was. He directed everything, from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture) as well as Westerns, war movies, thrillers and of course horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting.) He directed his first film in 1944 and his last in 2000. Some have called him a journeyman, but I think that’s unfair, and The Haunting just shows how good he was. A technically perfect film featuring four wonderful performances and inventive camerawork to instil fear without ever really showing us anything.

Ostensibly it follows the beats of the novel, with a group of four intrepid researchers travelling to Hill House, although there are some changes. Dr Montague is replaced by Dr Markway, and it’s Markway rather than Luke who provides us with Nell’s unobtainable love interest, and while Mrs Markway does show up, she isn’t remotely as annoying, and doesn’t come complete with her own sidekick in this version.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Wise dispenses with the garden scenes, and whilst a few scenes take place outside—most notably the finale—for the most part he eschews the grounds in favour of bottling his characters up inside of Hill House. This is a great stylistic choice, emphasising the claustrophobia of the story, implying our heroes have been swallowed whole by the vile house that Hugh Crain built, and suggesting there’s no escape.

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The choice to film in black and white is another masterstroke. The sets are superb, with an oppressive rococo style and claustrophobic feel. The statues and the library are wonderful. Wise utilised a revolutionary amorphic camera that was so new he had to sign an understanding that the lens was imperfect. Wise and his cinematographer keep the camera moving and utilise crazy angles, skewed shots and weird lenses—as well as utilising mirrors— to give the impression of an insane house that’s always watching, always waiting.

And of course, perhaps the best decision Wise made was to rely on unseen terrors, with the exception of curious shadows (the face in the grill) and of course the breathing door. There are sounds as well of course, the banging, and the ghostly voices of Hugh Crain and the distressed children, but for the most part he relied upon his actor’s reactions to the house, the most famous of course being Nell’s “But whose hand was I holding?”

Which brings us onto the actors. Setting aside Lois Maxwell (yes Moneypenny!) as Mrs Markway and Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the wonderfully creepy Mr and Mrs Dudley, and a few other minor players, this film revolves around the four leads who play off one another perfectly.

Captured

As Nell, Julie Harris is superb (why wasn’t she Oscar nominated?) fragile and frequently on the edge of hysteria, she’s a jittery mess of anxieties and guilt, a child in the body of a grown woman. With every tic and tremor Harris speaks volumes. By all accounts she was suffering with depression during filming, and isolated herself from the others further enhancing the character’s disconnection. She’s a pitiful, utterly empathetic character and you can’t help but feel for her.

As Theo, Claire Bloom is the polar opposite of Nell, experienced, confident and quite patently gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, and her relationship with Nell is incredibly complex. At times friends, at times almost sisters, at times perhaps something more, is she interested in Nell? Theo clearly cares about Nell, yet can’t help sniping at her. It’s Theo after all who suggests Eleanor might be the one who wrote her name on the wall, and her throwaway “like sisters” line is heavy with meaning given we know how fractious Nell’s relationship with her own sister is. In weaker hands the relationship could have been flat and predictable, yet instead it’s vibrant, testament to Bloom and Harris’ acting. All the more amazing since they didn’t speak during the filming (though reconciled later).

As Markway Richard Johnson is cool, calm and collected, and quite debonair (in a slightly stuffy academic kinda way). Of the four his performance is the one that feels a little false at times, especially in the tenser segments, a little more theatrical should we say. I’m being harsh, because he’s still very good and as with the others it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Finally we have former child star Russ Tamblyn as Luke. Young , hip and flippant it’s a performance that could have gone over the edge but Tamblyn carries it off perfectly , and in many ways he’s the reason the film works, going to sceptic to  believer over the course of the story. He’s the one after all who at the end says the house should be burned down and the ground sown with salt. He’s wonderful in this, playing off each of the others perfectly. And of course this won’t be the last time Tamblyn crosses paths with Hill House….

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A superb film, a textbook example of creating tension without resorting to special effects. Claustrophobic and, pardon the pun, haunting, with wonderful characters at its heart, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons it succeeds. Even if nothing supernatural happened at Hill House, you’d still enjoy watching these four characters interact. Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve watched this so many times they almost feel like old friends, and Nell’s death still hurts every time.

Anyway, let’s shift forward fifty odd—very odd—years to…

The TV series. The Haunting of Hill House, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (2018)

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The arrival onto the scene of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen a whole slew of new TV shows, and when  it was announced that a 10 part series based on Jackson’s novel was in the works I was concerned, mainly off the back of the truly atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting, an exemplar for how not to remake a classic that misunderstood everything about the story and which wastes a decent cast by surrounding them with terrible CGI, overexaggerating the plot, and by having Catherine Zeta-Jones play Theo with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. I saw it once at the cinema and I never plan to see it again.

But enough about 1999’s exercise in how not to make a Hill House story, let’s talk about 2018’s exercise in how to do things properly, because Flanagan’s series is really top drawer storytelling, pretty much every episode scared me at some point and at least two of them are stone cold classics. Sure, it all kinda falls apart at the end but I can forgive it because the journey getting there is So. Damn. Good.

It’d be wrong to say there’s no nuance in the story, but from the perspective of the supernatural it’s clearly real. There isn’t even the hint that what’s going on is in characters’ heads. And we see most of the horror full on, albeit this is done far more effectively than the 1999 film managed. Flanagan also takes liberties, lifting pieces of the story and rearranging them, or in many cases rewriting them completely, and yet the essence of the story and the more familiar characters remain.

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The story is set in two timeframes. 1992 and 2018, with different actors playing child and adult versions of the Crain children, and in fact Hugh Crain himself. Back in 1992 the Crain family were renovating Hill House, until tragedy struck, a tragedy that left questions over what, exactly happened there, and a tragedy that’s informed each character’s life since. The eldest son Steven (Michael Huisman in the present day) used a fictional account of what happened to springboard his writing career, and now makes a living writing true ghost books. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is ostensibly the most together of the Crain children, and she runs a mortuary. Living rent free in a guest house on her property is Theo (Kate Siegel) who works as a child psychologist. A sensitive, she wears gloves most of the time to keep her curse at bay, and has distanced herself from any emotional attachments.

This leaves the youngest, and perhaps most damaged Crain children. Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a man with a history of substance abuse, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) haunted by sleep paralysis and recurring imagines of a particularly terrifying spectre.

There’s Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton as the past and present versions of Hugh, and Carla Gugino as Olivia, the children’s mother.

Like all the best horror Flanagan’s tale is about something beyond scaring people. This isn’t some soulless fairground attraction, it’s a tale of guilt and loss and redemption, and above all else love and family. Even if there weren’t a possessed house involved, it’d be interesting due to the writing, the direction and the cast.

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The Crain children think they’ve moved on with their lives, but the death of one of them will prove that, in many ways, they never left Hill House. The interweaving of timelines is exquisitely done, and not only between 1992 and 2018, even within the distinct timelines the story shifts back and forth as we see the same event from different characters’ perspectives.

In terms of frights there are some fantastic jump scares (a couple in particular had me literally screaming, even second time around when I knew they were coming) but beyond this there’s a palpable sense of dread, and many of the scares take their time, tension building as you wait for what you know is coming—take little Luke hiding under his bed as footsteps approach!!

By all accounts there are dozens of spectres in some scenes, hidden away in the shadows, though even on a second viewing I only spotted a couple of them. Two of the ghosts at the forefront are the most effective however. The tall man who menaces Luke (and there’s a Luke centric episode in the present that I’m sure Flanagan loaded with really tall extras so the ghost is subconsciously always on our minds) and the Bent Neck Lady who terrified Nell both as a child and an adult.

Which brings me to those two episodes. Episode 5 is named the Bent Neck Lady, a Nell focused episode that shows the full nightmare she experiences as she’s haunted by the titular phantom. It starts out utterly terrifying, but eventually morphs into something utterly heart-breaking. If you thought Nell’s fate in the book and the film were tragic you ain’t seen nothing yet, and by the end I was in pieces. One of the best episodes of television ever, in my not so humble opinion, and for a ghost story something that plays with time better than 99% of actual time travel sci-fi.

And then we get episode 6. Two Storms. A story that alternates between two thunderstorms, one in 1992 which the Crain family experienced in Hill House, the other in 2018 the night before Nell’s funeral as the family reconvene in the funeral home to talk about their sister, and old wounds will be reopened. The 1992 stuff is eerie, especially when one of the children goes missing, but it’s in the present day that the episode excels. The direction and cinematography, the script and the actors all combine to create (pardon the pun) a perfect storm of grief and anger captured in fluid tracking shots that show us spectres the family can’t see, and intercut between 2018 and 1992 seamlessly. It’s a heartrending episode where every single character’s wounds are raw. Again, strip out the horror and it’d still work.

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There are so many other things I could mention; the return of Russ Tamblyn in a cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist, the cup of stars (missing from the film),  Luke’s imaginary friend who it turns out is anything but ghostly, the character names (Shirley for Shirley Jackson, Steven for King etc), the secret of the red room that’s been staring us in the face the whole time, the clock repairman, Mr Smiley Face, the elevation of the Dudley’s beyond just creepy two dimensional plot points…and of course the fact that the five Crain siblings represent the stages of grief: Steve is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Nothing is ever perfect, and maybe it could have been an episode or two shorter, and maybe it does all wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and yes, Oliva as the crazy woman who wants to kill her kids in order to save them isn’t a great trope, but any flaws are minor, and if a second viewing taught me one thing, it’s this, much like the film, The Haunting of Hill House is a series I will return to again and again because I think there’ll always be something new to take from the story, and much as with The Haunting these are characters I enjoy spending time with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw.

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In the final analysis this is a tale that’s stood the test of time for over sixty years, and might stand for sixty more, testament to the strength of Jackson’s original story. It’s been remade and reimagined, and even survived Jan de Bont and Liam Neeson! Nobody’s tearing this story down and sowing the ground with salt in a hurry!

Thin Air

Posted: August 13, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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51KucvZBi0L._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_by Michelle Paver

Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain on Earth. It’s 1935 and a British expedition plan to be the first to reach the summit. The book’s narrator is Stephen, he’s the team doctor and his older brother Kits, who he has a fractious relationship with, is another of the climbers. The group, five British men and a small army of Sherpas, are following the route taken by an Edwardian party led by a man named Lyall. Lyall’s expedition was a failure and several men died. Lyall survived and wrote a book which Stephen and Kits read as a child, which is part of their reason for undertaking the expedition.

Before the expedition starts Stephen has a disturbing encounter with a man named Tennant, the only other survivor of Lyall’s expedition, who warns Stephen and his group not to follow the same path.

They ignore his warnings and begin their slow ascent.  As the journey continues Stephen becomes more and more convinced that there is a spectre on the mountainside, an entity that means them harm.  Kangchenjunga is one of the deadliest places on earth, but a restless spirit might make it even more hazardous for Stephen and the others.

 

Paver’s central idea is a great one, there have been many haunted houses over the years, not sure I’ve seen too many haunted mountains, but given even today may people don’t return from attempts to claim the highest peaks, the idea of restless spirits hovering between base camps is a doozy.

Her research is meticulous, and goes into incredible detail about how such an expedition mounted in the 1930s may have functioned. Similarly her characters feel real for the time, especially in their, at times, barely disguised racism in their treatment of the Sherpas, and yet despite this there are no pantomime villains here, well except maybe for Kits because I think she does overdo the smug older brother trope a little.

There’s a lot of build-up before anything supernatural happens, and at times it feels a little like a travelogue, but her prose is good and, as stated, her research excellent, so the book is always interesting, and there is a subtle but mounting sense of dread as they draw closer to the mountain.

Once they’re climbing for real the horror begins. This isn’t a gorefest, and I’ve read quite a few reviews that state it isn’t very scary, and in truth it isn’t that chilling, and I can see what some people have said about the ending being something of an anti-climax, but when it works it’s very unsettling, especially when Paver puts you on that mountain, because it’s easy to imagine you’re on the mountainside, all alone in a blizzard, with only thin canvas between you and the malevolent spirit outside. The origin of that spirit, when it’s explained, is pretty horrific as well.

Perhaps it never quite lives up to its high concept (pardon the pun) and maybe it almost works better as a tale of men against the environment than a ghost story, but I enjoyed it and was never bored. She wrote another book beforehand that sounds similar, with a ghostly presence haunting an arctic research station, and on the basis of Thin Air I’m inclined to search it out.