Category Archives: horror

The Bell in Dark Moments

Without getting all preachy about it, one of the best things about writing fiction is that it gives me a platform to address, often indirectly, issues that I usually tend to shy away from. In the past I have used this medium to write about suicide (Those Left Behind) social decay and rising violent crime rates (Switchblade Sunday, Vicar on the Underground) and the decline of the print industry and the changing face of the rock scene (The Delectable Hearts). It’s not that I’m trying to be some kind of social justice warrior. In fact, sometimes I don’t know what themes my stories are addressing until after they are finished. It’s more cathartic than anything else. Maybe it’s my way of dealing with the shit. I believe that to some extent art should be like a mirror, held up to reflect us, and our lives.

The Bell, my fifth story published so far this year, is now free to read on Dark Moments, an online zine published by Black Hare Press. It’s a micro-fiction piece about cancer, so be warned it makes for uncomfortable reading.

That’s the point.

I’ve lost several family members to cancer, as we all have. I’ll be donating my fee to Cancer Research UK, and I encourage my readers to think about making a small donation to this or an equivalent charity because FUCK CANCER.

 

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RetView #26 – Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)

Title: Quarantine 2: Terminal

Year of Release: 2011

Director: John Pogue

Length: 86 minutes

Starring: Mercedes Mason, Josh Cooke, Mattie Liptak, Ignacio Serrichio, Bre Blair, Noree Victoria

quarantine2_01

Before we start, let’s clear up the inevitable confusion. Quarantine 2: Terminal is the sequel to Quarantine, which was the 2008 English-language remake of Spanish masterpiece REC (2007). REC also had a sequel. Three sequels, in fact. REC 2 (2009), REC 3: Genesis (2012) and REC 4: Apocalypse (2014). Quarantine 2 is none of those, and follows a totally different story arc. Geddit?

Good.

Unlike any other zombie flick, Quarantine 2: Terminal, written and directed by John Pogue (who had previously picked up writing credits on Ghost Ship and the 2002 remake of Rollerball) takes place on a commercial plane and later at a quarantined airport. In fact, you could argue that it isn’t even a zombie flick. These are the Infected, rather than the walking dead brand of zombie previously encountered in movies like 28 Days Later.

It is suggested through passengers listening to news reports that the events play out concurrently as those depicted in the first Quarantine film. It starts off as a typical domestic flight. But I guess they all do, until something happens to make them less typical. Things take a sinister turn when one of the passengers, Ralph, starts frothing at the mouth, throws up all over the place, freaks out and tries to storm the cockpit. Then, in a final flourish, bites half the face off one of the flight attendants before being forcibly restrained. Definitely not what you expect or want from your in-flight entertainment. Ralph has been bitten by a hamster, which in actual fact is a disease-carrying lab rat which has been brought onto the plane by teacher Henry (Cooke) for his students.

No spoilers here, but there’s something deeply suspicious about Henry and all is revealed in due course. Disobeying orders, the pilot radios for assistance and lands the plane at the nearest airport where the passengers disembark and encounter lowly baggage-handler Ed (Serrichio) while the pilots stay on the plane to look after Ralph, who is proving to be quite a handful. As is the rat, who duly escapes the plane and proceeds to make full use of his newfound freedom. Flight attendant Jenny (Mason) bravely attempts to takes charge of the situation, but her plans spiral out of control when a bunch of military types with hazmat suits and machine guns appear, and aren’t overly friendly. They try to administer drugs to the group, which later transpire to be experimental antidotes to the rabies-like virus which is apparently being spread through bites. With Ed’s help, the survivors soon realize that the only means of escape is via an old disused tunnel. If they can find it before the infected, or the military, find them.

Quarantine 2: Terminal, apart from the genius play on words of the title, succeeds mainly because it carries over the same brand of claustrophobic terror and general believability so perfectly executed in both the original Quarantine and [REC]. Things are so tight, it could have been filmed in a cupboard. Bonus points have to go to the makers for attempting to do something different with the franchise, rather than simply taking their cues from the original REC films. Like the first Quarantine, the sequel is notable for its complete lack of musical score, which adds to the eeriness of it all.

Despite being a straight-to-DVD release by Sony Pictures, Quarantine 2: Terminal was well received by critics and at the time of writing boasts an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, far above the average for this kind of film. The website Horror Freak News said in its review, “Expectations were low for this sequel to a remake, but the film pleasantly surprises. The gore is great, the characters elicit some caring about what happens to them, and the resolutions to a few lingering mysteries from REC/Quarantine are quite welcomed.”

I concur.

Trivia Corner:

This is Mercedes Mason’s first role in a zombie outbreak production. It wouldn’t be her last, as she would later have a similar role from 2015 in Fear the Walking Dead. Ironically, the webisodes Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462 also centered on a zombie outbreak aboard a commercial passenger plane.


Vampires, Zombies and Ghosts, oh my!

I am pleased to announce that my short story, Down the Road, is featured in part two of the new twin-volume anthology on Smoking Pen Press entitled Vampires, Zombies & Ghosts.

Here’s a sneak preview of the breathtaking cover art by Elle Rossi.

Vampires, Zombies, and Ghosts Volume2

I first wrote Down the Road, an alternate take on the phantom hitchhiker urban legend with one of my customary twists in the tail, several years ago. It was originally accepted by another publisher for a proposed new horror fiction magazine, but financial problems meant that project was put on hold indefinitely. After about two years in limbo, I finally accepted the fact that the project was probably never going to get off the ground, withdrew my story, started submitting it again, and here we are. It’s one of my more subtle, thought-provoking offerings. I am excited that thanks to the good people at SPP, it will finally see the light of day. Or the dark of night.

Vampires, Zombies and Ghosts (Volume 2) is out now on paperback and ebook.


RetView #25 – 28 Days Later (2002)

Title: 28 Days Later

Year of Release: 2002

Director: Danny Boyle

Length: 113 mins

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Noah Huntley

28-days-later-poster_960_640_80

Few post-millennium horror movies have generated as much debate and column inches as 28 Days Later. Based on the novel by Alex ‘The Beach’ Garland, it is often credited with kick-starting an ailing zombie genre as well as breathing life into a British film industry which had become saturated with warm, fuzzy Love Actually cash-ins. In 2007, Stylus magazine voted it the second best zombie movie of all time (after Dawn of the Dead) while a poll in Time Out magazine a decade later ranked it the 97th best British movie of all time. Director Danny Boyle has been involved in some of the most iconic British movies in history. His career started in earnest with cult classic Shallow Grave in 1994. He then directed Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach, before slotting 28 Days Later on his cv. Afterwards, he went on to produce the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, as well as direct Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and the acclaimed biopic, Steve Jobs. He won widespread acclaim for making the zombies in 28 Days Later ‘fast,’ as opposed to the kind of shambling oddities popularized by George A Romero’s genre-defining zombie films, which proved all the more terrifying.

The film opens with archival footage of riots, chaos and atrocities, setting the tone nicely for what follows. The main story arc begins in earnest when a group of animal rights activists break into a research facility to free some chimpanzees. However, unbeknownst to them, the chimpanzees aren’t cute and cuddly any more. Far from it. They’ve been infected with a rage-inducing virus, and once freed they waste no time setting about the activists who then go on to infect everyone else. 28 Days later (geddit?) injured bicycle courier Jim (Murphy, allegedly third choice for the role behind Ewan McGregor and Ryan Gosling) awakes from a coma in a hospital to find it deserted. Walking out into London, he finds much the same state of affairs. The streets are empty, cars and shops have been abandoned, and there are no people. Anywhere. He finds a newspaper telling of an evacuation, stumbles across a church where a mass suicide seems to have taken place, and is then attacked by a priest, who he whacks upside the head with a carrier bag full of Pepsi cans, all of which must be very unsettling for the poor guy. He eventually runs into a pair of survivors (Harris and Huntley) who tell him of an outbreak which has led to a nationwide, and possible worldwide societal collapse. After a miss-hap during which one of the trio is killed, the others hook up with a taxi driver and his daughter and they decamp for Manchester, where they hope to find the, ‘answer to infection.’ They are eventually taken to a fortified compound by a group of soldiers, where the ‘answer to infection’ isn’t what they thought it was. Instead of salvation, they are faced with oblivion.

The last half an hour or so offers a bleak yet well-observed and perfectly plausible assessment of what life might actually be like if (or when) the apocalypse comes and people regress to ‘kill or be killed’ mode. It’s interesting to note that fellow survivors pose more of a threat than the undead, this theory being at the very core of survivalism. Boyle ingeniously inserts flashes of the narrative from The Beach here, in that the focus is on a fractious group struggling to establish an alternative society under constant threat of attack, whether it be from outsiders, sharks, armed drug dealers, or these ‘fast’ zombies.

28 Days Later is famed for its depiction of post-apocalyptic London, which was achieved largely by filming early on Sunday mornings and shutting off sections of the city for short periods to minimize disruption. The ending is a hastily re-hashed alternative. The original, which hinged on the death of a major character, was deemed by test audiences to be too bleak. It’s an apocalyptic horror film for crying out loud. It is, however, one of several available as bonus content on some DVD and Blu-ray releases.

Trivia Corner:

The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, doubled for the interior of Wembley Stadium because at the time of filming, the ‘new’ Wembley was still under construction. Visual effects were used to turn the seats the right colour.


RetView #24 – War of the Worlds (1953)

Title: War of the Worlds

Year of Release: 1953

Director: Byron Haskin

Length: 85 minutes

Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne

war of the worlds

I know, I’m genre-hopping again. Much like The Fly the classic 1953 version of War of the Worlds isn’t as much of a horror film as it is a pure sci-fi flick. But it is considered one of the greatest of all time, and contains all the elements considered typical of horror movies – tension, suspense, conflict, and the threat of imminent death, right down to the spooky music. Not least, it was such a significant event in the history of cinema that I feel it would be a huge mistake not to include it in this series. So here we are.

This Paramount Pictures production was the first in a slew of film adaptations based on HG Wells’ groundbreaking 1897 novel of the same name, which was also the source material of the controversial Orson Welles radio drama that sparked widespread panic throughout America in October 1938 because everyone assumed it was an actual broadcast rather than a play and legitimately thought it was the end of the world. At its core, War of the Worlds is a straight-up alien invasion story, which in a Cold War setting becomes a direct metaphor for the perceived threat of communism and the detrimental effect it could have on the Western way of life. This is perhaps what sets this version apart from subsequent adaptations and makes it such an interesting case study. That and the fact that the release exploited the deep impression left on the public’s psyche by the infamous radio play 15 years previously meaning that the market was already primed long before the film even came out.

If you aren’t familiar with the premise, it’s simple, yet terrifying. The aliens come. Martians, to be exact. You know, from Mars. At first, everyone thinks earth is simply being pounded by meteors, so groups of people head to the impact sites for a closer look. As you do. At a crash site near Linda Rosa, California, well-known scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Barry), who’d been on a fishing trip, meets star-struck young waif Sylvia Van Buren (Robinson). The shameless flirting commences instantaneously.

Sylvia: You didn’t wear glasses on the Time cover.

Dr. Forrester: They’re really for long distance. When I want to look at something close, I take them off.

*Takes off glasses and leans in, which isn’t creepy at all.

After the initial excitement of the crashed ‘meteorite’ subsides, everyone files off leaving three men to guard the crash site. No sooner has everyone gone, a hatch opens in what is now clearly NOT a meteorite, a futuristic weapon emerges, incinerates the guards, and simultaneously shuts down all the technology in the town via an electromagnetic pulse. Wowzer. And that’s just the start of it. Someone calls the army and they roll up all guns blazing only to be met with death rays a-plenty. Carnage ensues just as reports begin to filter through (it’s unclear how, given the tech-fucking effects of that pesky electromagnetic pulse) that similar objects have crash landed all over the world. The condition is now critical. Before we know it, a full-on war breaks out (yep, a war of the worlds). Mankind, even when using the atomic bomb, prove no match for the alien invaders and are soon reduced to running around in a blind panic trying to stay alive. Many of the world’s capital cities are now aflame, and in the chaos Dr Forrester and the God-fearing Sylvia become separated. They find each other again in a church, but just when they face certain death the Martians abruptly start keeling over and dying. Apparently, they are unable to deal with the germs and bacteria in the earth’s atmosphere to which people have ‘long since grown immune.’ A little bit anti-climactic but it was as easy as that, the quasi-religious take-away message apparently being that where man (and nuclear weapons) fail, the smallest and most innocuous things sometimes succeed, so we should never lose hope. The stupidly unlikely romantic sub-plot is maintained right to the bitter end, so I guess there’s also some observation to be made about the all-conquering power of love, something which went right over my head.

At the time, War of the Worlds was celebrated for its use of movie-making technology, winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Okay, there were no other nominees that year, but it still won. Producer George Pal originally wanted to shoot the entire final third in 3D, but that plan was blackballed for being too expensive. Instead, the alien ships were superimposed over stock footage. It might sound tacky, but there’s a lot to admire. Whatever trickery was used results in a beautifully dark, apocalyptic landscape against which people are portrayed as being awfully weak and vulnerable. Not least the US Marine who catches fire. You don’t often see people catching fire in movies from 1953. Many of the visual techniques used became industry standards for years to come, the echoes of which are still being felt today. A bona fide classic people will still be watching in another 65 years.

Trivia Corner:

As a homage to the 1938 radio broadcast, at one point voice specialist Paul Frees appears on-screen as a radio reporter and does a pretty convincing vocal impersonation of Orson Welles.

 


RetView #23 – Shocker (1989)

Title: Shocker

Year of Release: 1989

Director: Wes Craven

Length: 110 minutes

Starring: Peter Berg, Mitch Pileggi, Michael Murphy, Heather Langenkamp, John Tesh

shocker

I was 15 when Shocker came out, and so at PAA (Peak Appreciation Age) for horror movies. And a lot of other things, including heavy metal. One of the most attractive things for me about this movie was the soundtrack, which featured Megadeth covering Alice Cooper’s No More Mr. Nice Guy alongside songs by Bonfire and Iggy Pop. Most impressively, the title track was recorded by The Dudes of Wrath, a supergroup consisting of Paul Stanley (Kiss), Vivian Campbell and Rudy Sarzo (Whitesnake) and Tommy Lee (Motley Crue). It even featured powerhouse songwriter Desmond Child and members of Van Halen on backing vocals. All this considered, Shocker was a perfect storm of my two main obsessions coming together. Metal and horror. Although dubbed a critical and commercial failure at the time (though not really, as it raked in $16.6 million at the Box Office against a $5 million budget) it has since gained cult status, and deservedly so.

Parallels are often drawn between Shocker and Wes Craven’s seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. While the former is much more light-hearted, often venturing into campy horror comedy territory, there are similarities. In his 2004 book Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, writer John Kenneth Muir says, “Shocker was basically Craven’s response to the Freddy Krueger film series and to Universal Studios, which informed him they wanted their very own horror franchise à la A Nightmare on Elm Street. Accordingly, moments in Shocker echo Craven’s earlier milestone film. Both films open with grisly serial killers working in their den of evil, both feature non-believing parents who also happen to serve on the local police, and both films also dramatize the now-expected ‘rubber reality’ dream sequences.”

In Shocker, the Freddy Krueger role is taken by a new anti-hero, Horace Pinker (Pileggi, later to make it big as Walter Skinner in the X Files) who appears to highschool footballer Jonathan Parker (Berg) in his dreams. This proves to be nothing but a precursor, when Horace (isn’t it more endearing when savage comic villains are referred to by their first name? Freddy, Jason, etc) then butchers most of Jonathan’s foster family, much to the chagrin of his police detective foster dad (Murphy). Using his dreams, Jonathan leads a police squad right to Horace’s door, but the killer escapes, brutally murdering all the cops in the process (except his foster dad, who yells at him). He then kills Peter’s girlfriend in revenge (Langenkamp, from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Obviously a favourite of Craven’s, she was also cast in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). Shortly afterwards, he is finally apprehended and it transpires that he is actually Peter’s biological father (bummer!). He is then sent to the electric chair. What his executioners don’t know, however, is that Horace has struck a deal with the devil. The chair doesn’t actually kill him, but ‘frees’ him and turns him into pure electricity, enabling him to continue his killing spree by hopping from body to body. Jonathan eventually wins through, with the help of his dead girlfriend, by trapping his nemesis dad inside a television set leaving the path open for a sequel. The much-touted sequel, which was supposed to be the second instalment in a horror franchise to rival A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday 13th never materialized, probably due to a combination of mixed reviews and shifting audience attitudes.

Some critics disagree, with Horrornews.net going so far as to call him ‘lame’ but IMHO Pileggi plays a remarkably convincing baddie, and with his bald head and trim physique is eerily reminiscent of a young Dana White. He does suffer a little from ‘Freddy Krueger Syndrome’ with all the banter and wisecracks (“C’mon boy, let’s take a ride in my volts wagon!”). However, despite its cult classic status, this film is not without its problems. One of the main sticking points is its length. At 110 minutes, it far exceeds the average 90 minute running time for this kind of genre staple and takes quite a while before it gets going. I blame the editors for that. Maybe a slightly shorter, more streamlined version would have fared better.

Trivia Corner:

According to Craven, the film was severely cut for an R (15) rating. It took around thirteen submissions to the MPAA before it was awarded an R instead of an X (18) which would have limited its appeal. Some of the scenes that were cut included Pinker spitting out fingers that he bit off of a prison guard and a longer and more graphic electrocution. An uncut version has never been released.


What’s in the Dead of Night?

Last year, after the rights to Apartment 14F, one of my earlier novellas, reverted back to me, I was finally able to polish it up and put out the version I wanted to. Now, I am giving the other book published by Damnation Books the same treatment.

I haven’t read this story for years. I don’t tend to go back and read stories once they’ve been published. It’s partly because I see writing as a continuous process. I’m a better writer now than I was eight years ago when Dead of Night first came out, and I’m probably a better writer than I was last week. But I have to say, this wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

From the double-meaning title to the cheesy one-liners and OTT violence, Dead of Night probably represents my first shambling steps into splatterpunk territory. It’s one of the first things I wrote that had a female protagonist. And no, it’s not because I’m sexist. I just didn’t think I would be able to write a strong female character convincingly. It took me a long time to realize that well, men and women aren’t very different after all. For this story, I thought I’d turn the usual set of circumstances on their head and have the gal saving the guy for a change. During the course of the story I grew very fond of Maggie.

I found the story flowed quite well, there weren’t many grammatical errors, and I was happy with the overall pacing. The only thing that lets it down is the fact that in some parts, it’s pretty dated. It’s been almost a decade since I wrote it. At the beginning, I had Maggie and Nick Arguing over what CDs to play in the car. Do cars even have CD players anymore? I suppose some still do. But for how much longer?

Dead of Night is packed full of pop culture references. Music, films, books. In the first version the dead celebrity Nick and Maggie discussed in the beginning was Michael Jackson. Since then Prince died, so for the reboot, Prince gets the nod. I always preferred his music anyway. There was a period in the second half of the eighties when he was untouchable. MJ does still get a name check, though, and I gave Meatloaf a nod by nicking one of the lines from ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ (I’ll probably get sued for that). I even slipped in the phrase ‘motley crew.’ Proud of that one.

If you’re a connoisseur, you might catch some of the movie references, too. The ‘Romero’s zombies’ one is easy to get, and the whole Nick losing a hand thing is a thinly-veiled homage to Evil Dead. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also makes an unlikely appearance.

In a lot of my stories I drop the names of Cardiff City FC players, past and present. It’s kind of an in-joke nobody fucking notices except me. Steve McPhail and Jay Bothroyd are definitely from the past. I was going to update them, but then I decided it wouldn’t make much difference. McPhail and Bothroyd are still great players and deserve their place in history.

Reading it back now all these years later, though I might not have been aware of it at the time, Dead of Night is clearly a tribute to the King of splatterpunk, Richard Laymon. I even use the word ‘rump. ’ If you aren’t familiar with his work, the joke is that he used ‘rump’ A LOT. At every opportunity. A couple of times a page. It was one of his trademarks.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment I had to make when I knocked out the original version was that I had to write it in ‘American.’ I rarely do that. The vast majority of my stories are set in places I have lived – Wales, England or China. However, because the story is about American Civil War zombies, this one had to be set in America. There was no way around it. I have visited a few cities in America, but never the Deep South where the story is set. Some artistic license was used there.

I found a couple of continuity errors, even after two rounds of editing by the publisher. That sucked. I had my happy couple hiking several hours to their camp site, then ‘nipping back’ to their car to grab hoodies when it got cold. That was improbable. Perhaps even more improbable than the other stuff going on. Oh, and I know guns probably wouldn’t still work after being in the ground for 150 years or so but fuck it, I wanted them to work so they did. It’s my story.

Finally, I added about 2000 words, took out the chapters, and inserted more line breaks. I originally wanted to tell the story through two POVs simultaneously, flashing back and forth from one to the other. But of course, that’s extremely difficult to do without head-hopping all over the place, so line breaks it is.

Check out the all-new cover art by Greg Chapman:

dead-of-night-reissue

All things considered, I’m pretty happy with this reissue. The book has been out of print for a couple of years now, apart from a few ropy second-hand paperbacks floating about on Amazon. It’s an important part of my back catalogue, and I’m glad it’s finally available again.

Dead of Night (Revised edition)  is available now on paperback and ebook.


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