Saturday, 31 January 2015

Audiodrome: The Devil's Business

Set over the course of one night in a too-quiet house in which a satanic altar and the remnants of an infant sacrifice are discovered, The Devil’s Business charts the doomed descent of two contract killers into a web of conspiracy, blood-sacrifice and diabolism.

Scored by Crippled Black Phoenix front-man Justin Greaves, the music for The Devil’s Business is a suitably low-key, moody affair punctuated by moments of soaring post-rock. Greaves specialises in cinematic soundscapes – which he describes as ‘end-time ballads’ – rife with apocalyptic connotations and macabre subject matter, but always imbued with a shard of hope.

Head over to Paracinema to read my article on it and listen to a track. 

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 Witch 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.