Saturday, 24 January 2015

Stage Fright

Dir. Jerome Sable

When the daughter of a murdered Broadway diva wins the lead role in her summer camp’s annual musical production, the cast and crew begin to fall victim to a masked killer with a hatred of musicals…

In the past when horror has bred with the musical, it has spawned oddball titles such as Repo: The Genetic Opera, Phantom of the Paradise and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, resulting in one of the quirkiest subsets of the horror genre.

Similarly, with its admittedly ludicrous blending of musical comedy with slasher flick, Stage Fright sets itself up as an over-the-top, campy romp. Sadly, it never quite nails it.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Iron Doors

Dir. Stephen Manuel

Unusual German thriller in which a nameless man awakens in a concrete cell, apparently the prisoner of captors unknown. With only the contents of a locked cabinet at his disposal, he must find a way to escape before time runs out...

With an intriguing concept, singular location, cast of two and a highly claustrophobic atmosphere, director Stephen Manuel’s low-budget thriller initially holds much promise. Beginning as a creepy blend of James Wan’s Saw and Vincenzo Natali’s existential horror Cube, it succeeds in defying expectations by veering along a completely unexpected trajectory.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Arthur Machen Collection at Risk...

The Newport Art Gallery and Library - the only place in the UK to house a rare collection of books, letters and papers belonging to the first author of modern horror, Arthur Machen (1863-1947) - could close if proposed cuts to its funding are implemented. Machen, often referred to as the ‘Apostle of Wonder’, is perhaps best known as a pioneer of supernatural, fantasy and horror fiction. He has had an immense influence over contemporary horror literature (including writers such as HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell) and cinema - perhaps most obviously on the work of Guillermo del Toro, whose films Pan’s Labyrinth and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (which he produced) tap into the very same themes and imagery of Machen’s work: the intrusion of the ancient, the mystic and the incomprehensible upon a modern society.

The Friends of Arthur Machen literary society has asked for assurance that the collection will remain open to the public even if closure takes place. Treasurer Mark Valentine went as far as saying if the council closed the collection it would be "like Swansea disowning Dylan Thomas." The collection includes books and papers donated by admirers, friends and family of the author.

According to Newport City Council, who plan to cut £10million from the library’s budget, the building is in need of expensive repairs and is not fit for purpose. A spokeswoman for the council said: "Newport City Council is currently consulting on more than 100 budget proposals as it tries to close a £10m budget gap. One of the proposals that has been put forward relates to the library service and creating a hub model which would provide a different service offer to residents. The proposals do not affect the contents and stock of the libraries, including books and collections of cultural significance and historic value. If this proposal did go ahead then the council would follow all of the correct professional processes when moving items and all collections would be secured and kept safe during transportation."

The leader of the council has met with the literary society, and a spokesman said: "If the proposal to close the central library building did go ahead then the council would consider where the best possible place to relocate the reference library would be."

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Don't be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
According to Godfrey Brangham, the founder of the Friends of Arthur Machen literary society, "This obviously is of great concern. The library has a huge number of first editions, some very rare manuscripts, letters, and it would be a great shame if it was disassembled or moved out of the county. It should stay within the county. He is a son of Gwent and one of its finest writers."

The society’s chairman, Ray Russell, added: "Newport holds the finest public Machen collection in the UK. We'd like them to preserve it, develop it, and keep access to it open. Arthur Machen was a local son of Gwent who won worldwide literary fame, and it is hoped that Newport will continue to honour his work."

The son of a clergyman, Arthur Machen was born in 1863 in Caerleon, Wales. 2000 years prior, Caerleon was the Roman settlement of Isca Silurum, and the dark and mysterious landscapes of the surrounding countryside frequently coloured Machen’s work. The Great God Pan, perhaps his most famous work, was initially condemned when published in 1894. Horrified critics described it as a decadent and 'incoherent nightmare of sex.' HP Lovecraft was an early admirer, writing about it extensively in his influential essay 'Supernatural Horror in Literature', while Stephen King once described it as "one of the best horror stories ever written." It tells of a young peasant girl who is used in an experiment in early brain surgery. She experiences orgasmic visions of the vast and formless titular deity of nature but loses her mind in the process. It is then discovered she is pregnant, but she dies shortly after giving birth. Some years later, her daughter is revealed to be, as director Richard Stanley describes, "a beautiful, voraciously seductive avatar of Chaos, a pagan antichrist who proceeds to cut an apocalyptic swathe through stuffy fin-de-siecle London."

The Novel of the Black Seal and The White People followed in 1895 and 1904, respectively. The latter is a first person narrative charting the descent of a young girl on the brink of puberty into a sinister web of pagan rituals as her nurse prepares her for a final ‘communion’ with the fairy inhabitants of the otherworld; the former, a dark folkloric tale of eerie encounters with ‘little folk’ who steal away human children and babies, replacing them with changelings who exert an unhealthy influence over human affairs.

According to writer, comedian and Machen enthusiast Stewart Lee "There are so many fantastic things about Arthur Machen and they come into focus at different stages in your life. It's conceivable that there'll come a point in the not too distant future where people will find it absolutely inconceivable that this stuff was not preserved in the place that's the most appropriate to it."

Negotiations regarding the proposed cuts, and their subsequent impact on this rare collection of Machen paraphernalia, will continue until 16th January. For updates, check out the Friends of Arthur Machen website and Facebook page. 

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

A post-modern sequel to the 1976 film of the same name, The Town that Dreaded Sundown utilises an ingenious approach to tackling its story and providing a fresh perspective for horror fans fed up with sequels, reboots and remakes. Much like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Book of Shadows: Blair With 2, it acknowledges its predecessor as a film based on 'actual events' which plagued the sleepy town setting years prior. The characters are all familiar with the back-story and indeed the original The Town that Dreaded Sundown film, clips of which appear throughout. While it opts for this ‘meta’ approach it avoids smug eye-winkery and unfolds as an engrossing, creepy and extremely violent tale of a small town facing up to its dark past.

The immensely taut yet stylish direction comes courtesy of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose tenure on TVs American Horror Story is apparent in the tilted angles and fluid, often gravity-defying camerawork. While his direction is undeniably stylish, though not distractingly so, its also incredibly effective. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s screenplay isn’t constructed around murder set pieces (as most slasher films usually are); there is an actual mystery to be solved at the heart of proceedings. That said, each set piece is expertly mounted and chilling in its pay-off. The violence is strong, nasty and merciless and usually comes after moments of protracted tension, enhanced by a hypnotic score by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, which often switches from melancholy to menacing in a heartbeat. Despite the brutality, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a frequently beautiful looking film - all burnished sunsets, homey interiors and lurid motel and street lighting - loaded with striking imagery; not least the creepy appearances of the killer, dubbed The Phantom. With his face covered by a spectral white mask, he’s a haunting sight and his initial appearances recall similar moments from John Carpenter’s Halloween, when he is just glimpsed in the background or periphery of various shots, hovering in the darkness, wraith-like.

The effect of a crazed killer preying on the residents of sleepy Americana is, more often than not, overlooked or merely glossed over in favour of gory scenes and bloodshed. Not so here. Aguirre-Sacasa’s screenplay examines the devastating effect of the murders - and indeed the 1976 film inspired by them - on the small town community. Any sense of normality is completely decimated by the intrusion of the killer on small town life. Everyone becomes a suspect; strangers and neighbours alike are treated with suspicion and contempt. The film has quite a few red herrings and suspects and an atmosphere of mistrust, paranoia and fear is carefully established. What adds to the horror is that the killer could quite conceivably be anyone and is most likely a resident of the town, interacting with oblivious, unsuspecting neighbours on a daily basis.

There are some really interesting parallels with the highly underrated remake of My Bloody Valentine in the examination of the impact of tragedy on small, insular town communities and how people bond together or pull apart. A strong sense of community is established and as the story progresses, we witness it torn apart by the impact of the murders. The script also explores the pressures small town environments can put on their younger residents and the expectations of family, friends and community. Still trying to figure out who they are and what they want in life, they’re torn between staying or leaving, all the while surrounded by those who never leave and the memories of those who never come back. Those left behind cling to their dreams of escape, often becoming bitter. The stifling hold of religion over the southern states is also intelligently addressed and the thoughtful script is bolstered by a strong, always reliable cast of genre veterans including Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Denis O’Hare, Joshua Leonard, and likeable leads in the form of Addison Timlin and Travis Tope.

As Above So Below

Dir. John Erick Dowdle

Much like the zombie film, the sheer volume of found-footage horror titles, and their varying degrees of quality, has made audiences wary. The risk of experiencing tired retreads consisting of nauseating, shaky camerawork, amateurish acting and low-budget production values is reasonably high. Every so often though, one comes along that reminds you just how exciting and terrifying they can be, and how, when done well, it’s a format which offers filmmakers the opportunity to tell engaging stories in a way that makes them much more immediate and immersive.

While As Above So Below is not without its flaws, it is ultimately a very entertaining and frequently nightmarish title pertaining to be the footage of a doomed excursion into the very bowels of hell itself. Part Indian Jones style adventure, part religious horror, it’s a fascinating concept that is for the most part brilliantly atmospheric and expertly executed by director John Erick Dowdle (no stranger to found-footage scares, having already directed The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine and the similarly interesting-but-flawed Devil). It may be hampered by tiresome exposition and utterly redundant dialogue that insists on explaining everything, but once it hits its stride, much like The Descent before it, As Above So Below excels in depicting subterranean horror and a sweat-inducing, breathless sense of claustrophobia.

The setting is the vast series of catacombs beneath Paris - revealed to stand upon the gateway to hell itself - and the story follows a small team of historians searching for the Philosophers Stone; a fabled agent with the ability to turn base metal into gold and grant the user life eternal. The team comprises of unconventional experts in their respective fields, kicking against the grain and socking it to The Man every chance they get. We’re told, through very unnatural sounding conversations leaden with exposition, their paths have crossed before; Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is an archaeologist, historian, chemist and unparalleled expert on alchemy, while her partner George (Ben Feldman) is some sort of retro-engineer who can also translate ancient languages. Which obviously comes in very handy. They’re accompanied by local guides who help them access the catacombs illegally and act as fodder for later encountered terrors.

Even before things take a turn for the surreal, tension is already high given the claustrophobic spaces the team navigate, the oddball vagrants they encounter and the overwhelming sense that they are descending deeper and deeper beneath the city; and further and further away from safety. Spooky shenanigans are initially dismissed as the results of stress, the ill-lit environment, panic induced hallucinations and claustrophobia. Characters whisper of urban legends detailing the mysterious disappearances of individuals who have previously descended into certain parts of the catacombs. Before long all is saturated in ominous dread. From here events become increasingly nightmarish the further they descend. Eventually things start to go wrong and they catch glimpses of the members of a bizarre religious cult lurking in the depths. The creepy atmosphere is enhanced by striking and unusual imagery; a floor comprised of snapping mouths, dark hooded figures skulking in the shadows, pools of blood with the arms of the damned reaching out from the depths. Much of the imagery appears to be inspired by depictions of hell in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Auguste Rodin and Gustave DorĂ©. Viewing such surreal and grotesque imagery through the contemporary medium of digital film and the format of ‘found-footage’ makes for quite a few startling moments. Tension rarely lets up, though at one stage the action (captured as it is in first person POV) resembles a first-person shot-'em-up. As mentioned, As Above So Below is far from perfect, but it’s certainly immersive, atmospheric and very, very tense.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Happy Bloody Birthday, Behind the Couch

Behind the Couch turned 6 years old yesterday.

Over the course of the last year I have revisited Elm Street for its 30th Anniversary, fiddled with the Lament Configuration box during a Hellraiser marathon, had my work nominated for a Rondo Hatton Award, seen Claudio Simonetti perform a live film score for the second time, waxed lyrical about Vincent Price, written my 666th blog post, visited old cemeteries - at home and in London - and written reviews of old favourites, new favourites, French favourites, stuff I've found genuinely terrifying, and some classics I've never had the guts to write about before. I also caught up with my writer friends Christine Makepeace and Jon (Shocks to the System) Towlson to chat about their new books; a creepy Gothic novel and a study of politically subversive horror cinema, respectively.

Away from blogging I have continued to contribute to publications such as Exquisite Terror and Diabolique – my essay on the representations of the family in the films of Tobe Hooper was the cover feature for issue 20 of Diabolique. I also had the absolute pleasure of meeting Exquisite Terror editor Naila Scargill for the first time this year (we’ve worked together for about four or five years now). She took me to a pub in a crypt in London and we drank 'blood shots' and discussed the finer things in life (cats and horror films). While Paracinema magazine is still on hiatus, the website is updated regularly with all kinds of genre related articles and reviews, including my own regular feature, Audiodrome: Music in Film.

This year I have also contributed a little something to Alexandra Heller-Nicholas' forthcoming book on Dario Argento's Suspiria, made some headway on a chapter about Heavy Metal horror films for a new book on sub-genres within horror, and finally finished an essay - which I started over three years ago - on the pornographication/eroticisation of violence in the films of Dario Argento; it’ll be published in the forthcoming issue of Exquisite Terror. Stay tuned for further updates on these...

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by over the last year – here’s to another year. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Kensal Green Cemetery

During a recent visit to London, a friend and I decided to explore Kensal Green Cemetery in the west of the city. Founded as the General Cemetery of All Souls by barrister George Frederick Carden in 1833, Kensal Green was inspired by the garden-style cemetery of Pere-Lachaises in Paris. Comprised of 72 acres of beautiful grounds, it was not only the first commercial cemetery in London, but also the first of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ garden-style cemeteries established to house the dead of an ever-increasing population. Campaigners for burial reform were in favour of “detached cemeteries for the metropolis” and in 1832 Parliament passed a bill that led to the formation of the General Cemetery Company to oversee appropriate measures and procedures concerning “the interment of the dead.”

The company purchased land for the establishment of Kensal Green in 1831 and held a competition in order to select an appropriate designer. Among the prerequisites in the brief provided to entrants, were two chapels with catacombs, a gated entrance with lodges and a landscaped layout for the monuments. Out of the 46 entrants, Henry Edward Kendall (1776-1875) was eventually chosen to design the cemetery, as the panel appreciated the Gothic style he intended to utilise. The Chairman of the General Cemetery Company however, preferred a neo-classical style and managed to persuade the surveyor of the company, John Griffith, to create new designs in the vein of Greek Revival. It was Griffith’s designs that were eventually used, though there are still traces of Kendall’s Gothic style dotted throughout the grounds.

The cemetery was divided into an Anglican section – the ground of which was consecrated on 24th January 1833 by the Bishop of London - and an unconsecrated section for Dissenters. A central avenue, surely one of the most beautiful parts of the cemetery (and one of the highlights of my visit), is lined by neo-classical monuments, including columns, obelisks, sculptures of weeping winged figures, and ornate mausoleums – some the size of small houses. Majestic chestnut trees guide the eye along the avenue and up to a terraced Anglican Chapel, beneath which are extensive catacombs, which dominates the western section of the cemetery.

Amongst those for whom Kensal Green is a final resting place, is Lady Jane Franklin, an early Tasmanian pioneer, traveller and the second wife of explorer John Franklin. She spent much of her life trying to find out what happened to her husband after he went missing in the snow and ice of the North-West Passage of the Canadian arctic; and trying to disprove claims that he and his crew had resorted to cannibalism. A great many literary luminaries are also laid to rest in Kensal Green, among them Harold Pinter, JG Ballard, William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope.

Horror fans and admirers of Gothic literature should note that James Malcolm Rymer (author of the Varney the Vampire Penny Dreadfuls and co-creator of the character of Sweeney Todd, the 'demon barber of Fleet Street') and Wilkie Collins (author of The Woman in White and The Haunted Hotel) are also at rest here, and parts of the cemetery were used as locations for certain scenes of Theatre of Blood (1973) and Afraid of the Dark (1991). Kensal Green was also used as the setting in a particularly creepy short story by Ernest Favenc (1845-1908), a somewhat neglected author of weird Australian Gothic tales. Best known for his History of Australian Exploration, 1788-1888, Favenc was a prolific author and journalist who contributed to some of the most important literary journals in colonial-era Australia.

Favenc’s My Story, published in 1875, is an atmospheric tale of the occult, mesmeric influence and necromancy, which begins in the Australian Outback and culminates with a shocking discovery in Kensal Green: I was leaning moodily over the parapet of London Bridge one night. The hour was late, and the streets almost deserted; the night was dark and cloudy; occasional squalls of drifting rain came up the river. I stood there for some time looking at the lights of the town and the shipping, at the dark water running beneath my feet, listening to the chiming of the clocks, and weakly giving way to melancholy and despondent feelings. I was perfectly sober, and my brain clear. A solitary policeman was watching me a short distance away, as though he thought that I meditated suicide. A female figure hastily approaching from the opposite side brushed close to me, almost touched me; a strange thrill passed through me, an unrestrainable impulse made me spring after her; I overtook her just as she passed underneath a lamp; it was her! – the woman over whose body I had a tomb erected in Kensal Green Cemetery was by my side!

A chilling account of the restless dead in Kensal Green is relayed in True Ghost Stories by Marchioness Townshend and Maude Ffoulkes. It tells of a heartless publisher who is ‘reunited’ with a deceased love after happening upon her grave in Kensal Green. First published in 1936, Townshend and Ffoulkes introduced the tale with the statement, “The facts of this story were vouched for by the late Hon. Alec Carlisle, who told them to Maude M.C. Ffoulkes.” The tale concerns a rather hard-hearted publisher referred to only as L., who, in effort to gain acceptance by the upper echelons of London society, abandoned his former love; a simple but devoted girl named Elise, who was described as being in possession of "no working brains, and no money to speak of." By the time she died and was interned in Kensal Green, he had already forgotten about her. Years later, L. was attending the funeral of a colleague at Kensal Green, and, whilst wandering through one of the wilder, more remote corners of the cemetery, happened upon Elise’s obviously long-untended grave – marked only by a plain cross planted in the bare clay, leaning at a crooked angle, “as if tired.”

The pitiful sight of her grave left him overwhelmed with guilt, and he decided to improve the final resting place of his former love. Still concerned with acceptance in upper society and the potential scandal that would come about if his name was associated with the grave of such a lowly girl, he made the decision to improve the grave anonymously. When he returned home he dialled the operator to request his call be transferred to the relevant agency; but in his distracted, preoccupied state of mind, he found himself reciting a Kensal Green plot number to the operator. Moments later the call was picked up… A voice, at first muffled, then gradually becoming clearer, said: "Yes; who's calling?" L. gave his name. The person at the other end uttered a little gasp of delight and surprise. And L., with his blood turning to water, recognised the voice of Elise. "Why, it's never you, darling! Do you want me? Of course, I'll come!" (Just as she had always answered his one-time calls.) L. wanted to say, "No, no, no", but speech was frozen. "I won't be long," continued the voice; "but I was very far away, darling, when you rang up." Panic fear seized L. There was a click, and the line went dead. He dropped the receiver…

Shocked and more than a little horrified, L. dismissed his servants for the evening and retired to his study for a stiff drink. He had almost consumed an entire bottle of brandy by the time he heard his front door open, followed by footsteps in the hall. The footsteps dragged a little - as if their owner's limbs had recently been cramped - and as they came closer down the darkened hallway, sluggish, stiff and scraping, closer and closer, they were heralded by a current of icy air. L. passed out with fear just as the door to his study began to slowly creak open. L. awoke the next morning to find streaks of dark clay on his carpet, tracing a path from his front door along the hallway to his study. There was clay on the door handle, on his chair, even on his jacket; but no sign of his midnight visitor. L. never again used his telephone, nor attended funerals, and he developed a strong aversion to clay…

The grave of Wilkie Collins

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Audiodrome #22: Mayhem, Murder & Morricone: Part II

Italian composer Ennio Morricone is responsible for creating some of cinema’s most evocative and powerful scores. Widely regarded as one of the most influential and significant film composers of all time, his work spans decades.

While particularly renowned for his scores for Sergio Leone-directed Spaghetti Westerns, such as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Morricone has written film music for almost every conceivable genre. Though they are not as renowned as some of his other scores, his soundtracks for various horror films, psychological thrillers and Italian gialli are among some of the most dazzling, unusual and nerve shredding scores ever compos

Head over to Paracinema to check out the second in a two part series in which I examine some of Morricone's musical contributions to horror films, including John Carpenter's The Thing, Mike Nichols' Wolf, and Dario Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome (pictured).