Category Archives: horror

RetView #12 – Ringu

Title: Ringu (Ring)

Year of Release: 1998

Director: Hideo Nakata

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Yuko Takeuchi, Hitomi Sato

Ringu-1998-movie-Hideo-Nakata-6

It would be a huge generalization to say that I love them all because like anything else, the genre can be a bit hit n’ miss. But I’ve spoken at length before about my fondness for Japanese horror movies. Ringu (the original version of the Ring, followed in 2002 by a big-budget and hugely successful American remake) is quite possibly the king of J-Horror. It’s without doubt the movie responsible for sparking a western fascination with Asian horror movies which was mined extensively over the next decade or so with varying degrees of success. Think Pulse, the Grudge and Dark Water, all of which were remade for western audiences.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that until Ringu burst onto the screens in all its grainy glory, western horror cinema was going through a notoriously bad time. We were still bogged down in the deranged serial killer/slasher genre, which was getting decidedly old by then. There are only so many cheap scares and bloody, increasingly imaginative kills an audience can tolerate before they get desensitized to the whole thing. We wanted something new. Something that wasn’t the same as everything else. Then came Ringu.

The film begins innocuously enough, giving barely a hint of the edge-of-the-seat creepiness to follow. Two cutesy teenaged girls, Masami (Sato) and Tomoko (Takeuchi) are messing around in an apartment and discussing a cursed videotape which supposedly kills its victims after they receive a phone call seven days after watching it, when one of them confesses to watching just such a strange tape a week earlier. Then the phone rings. Some time later, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Matsushima) learns that her niece Tomoko (Yup, thadda one) and three of her friends died under mysterious circumstances, and sets about investigating. The trail leads to a cabin in the Izu area of Japan. There, she finds an unlabelled video tape. Obviously, she watches it, thereby starting off a trail of events which might just be the death of her. She enlists the help of her ex-husband (Sanada) and together they attempt to break the spell and avoid Reiko’s imminent fate. More than two decades on, that unforgettable scene where Sadako the ghost girl climbs out of a well (and then through a television screen) remains one of the simplest yet most evocative slices of cinematic history ever committed to, er, videotape? Though many have tried to replicate the effect, it has never been emulated.

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Adapted from the 1991 novel Ring by Koji Suzuki who, in turn, based the story on an urban myth , the movie has long been noted as examining Japan’s obsession with the clash between tradition and modernity. This is only one of the many subtexts critics have pointed to, another popular one being that ghost girl Sadako is a model for the modern woman and how independence conflicts with the traditional core values of motherhood. Whether you agree with any of that or not, it’s clear that Ringu is an extraordinarily complex film that works on many levels. It is a visually stunning piece of work, so heavily steeped in Japanese culture that as a westerner it’s practically impossible to grasp all the subtleties. It draws on many aspects of history, folklore, and even theatre, to create a mash-up that is much more about fostering a pervasive sense of dread rather than going for cheap jump scares. Much was made at the time about Sadako’s jerky, twisty, hauntingly deliberate movements. These were actually based on a kind of interpretive Japanese dance called Butoh, which became popular after the Second World War. Even Sadako’s classic look is no accident, having been based on a specific species of ghost called the yūrei, which invariably feature stark white faces, long black hair, and white kimonos. The reason yūrei appear this way is because that’s how Japanese women looked when they were buried.

In fact, everything about Ringu was designed to creep the viewer out. One way it achieved this was through use of a technique called ‘Ma,’ where sound effects and musical scores are deliberately punctuated with sequences of rapid pauses or even long, drawn-out silences. This was another way the film differentiates itself significantly from Western films. While Western horror uses sound to let the audience know how they should be feeling, J-Horror (and Ringu specifically), uses Ma as a way to keep the audience thrown off balance. This is just one reason the Guardian named it the 12th Best Horror Film of all Time. By the way, you can watch it in its entirety (with English subtitles) HERE.

Trivia Corner:

In what proved to be a shrewd and innovative move at the time, both Ringu and its sequel Rasen (not to be confused with Ring 2), were released in Japan on the same day, January 31st 1998. Both films had different writers and directors, yet shared many of the same cast members. Shrewd and innovative this may have been, but successful it wasn’t as Ringu was an international hit and Rasen a comparative flop.

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For the Love?

There’s a worrying trend developing whereby publishers (often individuals who just call themselves publishers, with about as much market knowledge as a used condom) snap up stories, compile them into ezines or anthologies, and put them on the market hoping to make a fast buck. They don’t pay contributors, instead calling themselves ‘For The Love (FTL),’ or ‘exposure’ markets. It’s nothing new, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. There’s been a debate going on over the viability of these markets since forever, the main argument in the ‘for’ column being that they provide platforms for emerging writers to break through. That may be true, but only because more established writers don’t work for free.

Generally speaking, there are two distinct forms of FTL market. The first is where the publisher invites submissions, edits and compiles the stories, sorts out a cover, then distributes a finished product in the form of a website, ezine, or anthology, free to the public. This is a true ‘FTL’ market. Everyone works for free; the writers, the editor, the artists, using the publication as a platform to showcase their work. This is perfectly acceptable.

Then there is the dark side.

Other publishers invite submissions, edits and compiles the stories, sorts out a cover, then distributes a finished product in the form of a website, ezine, or anthology, CHARGES the public money for it and keeps the profits. They don’t pay the writers, or the artists, and what’s more, where possible they charge for ad space, thereby creating two revenue streams (sales and ads) whilst incorporating virtually non-existent overheads and operating costs.

The publisher, who is also usually the editor, maintains he or she invests a lot of time in the project and should be compensated. That is true. But what about compensating the contributors who also invest a lot of time in their work? And make it possible for them to make their cut? Not only do writers invest their time, but also money in the form of materials, hardware, software, electricity, etc. It actually costs money to write and submit. The ‘exposure’ guff doesn’t cover it. Would you ask a workman to your house, ask him to build you a wall, which you then charged people to look at, and when the workman asks for payment (or at least a cut of the profits) you say, “Well, didn’t you enjoy building it?”

I don’t think so. Not unless you want a punch in the face. The same principal should be applied here. Otherwise, you are effectively profiteering. The publisher will probably maintain that they can’t afford to pay contributors. But in that case, the project isn’t economically viable and shouldn’t even have left the ground. Would you start building that wall if you couldn’t afford to buy the bricks?

Of course, there is a wicked little sting in the tail here. These non-paying markets rarely attract writers of the calibre required to shift large amounts of product, because a lot of these writers have been around a while, quietly building their reputations, and know their worth. They put their hearts and souls into their work, and aren’t about to give it away for free (apart for the odd charity contribution), and stand by while someone else makes money off them. Therefore, the only people who contribute to these publications are writers ‘on the way up.’

This isn’t a judgement of their quality. They might be, and probably are, very capable writers. The problem is they are yet to build an audience, so very few prospective readers know who they are. This doesn’t sell books. Obviously, submitting to FTL markets is part of the process of building that audience, but it does nothing for sales in the short term. Publications need a few big hitters in order to sell copies. But if you don’t pay, you won’t get those big hitters and you won’t sell many copies.

Catch 22.

Of course, you can flip that equation on its head and say that if a publication offered contributors even token payment, the quality of submissions would increase and so would sales. From there, the more money you offer, the better standard of writers would contribute and consequently, the more copies you sell. The more copies you sell, the more you can pay contributors, and so on. This might be a very simplistic way of looking at it, but why can’t it work? If only more people recognized that you get what you pay for, we would all be better off.

This post was first published on the Deviant Dolls website.

And don’t forget, you don’t always have to start at the beginning!


RetView #11 – Thinner

Title: Thinner

Year of Release: 1996

Director: Tom Holland

Length: 92 minutes

Starring: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney

Thinner

Adaptations of Stephen King books are almost always given a rough ride. Even such classics as The Shining and Misery are not without their detractors. I don’t really understand why that is. My theory is two-fold. On one hand, there are a lot of Constant Readers who place the books in such high regard that they are considered untouchable. Woe betide any director who dares change the smallest detail, let alone put his own stamp on it no matter how talented he is (Stanley Kubrick being a case in point). On the other hand, there are others who just don’t like his work and are resentful of his success. I feel the same way about Justin Bieber. Another possibility is that the ‘good’ ones suffer from being associated with the shit ones. Who can forget Lawnmower Man? In that sense, Stephen King movies draw eerie parallels with his beloved AC/DC. For every Highway to Hell, there’s a Fly on the Wall.

Unlike some SK movies, usually those adapted from short stories which struggle to provide enough material for a full movie, Thinner benefits from a good, solid premise. Billy Halleck (Burke) is an arrogant and morbidly obese lawyer who has gotten rich keeping mobsters and crooks out of jail. One night he is out driving with his wife (Jenney) after celebrating a big result when she decides to give him a spontaneous (and ill-advised) blow job. That’s one way to tear his mind away from food. Understandably distracted, Billy knocks over and kills an old gypsy woman. Being personal friends of his, the local police chief and the judge conspire to have the case dismissed, and Billy walks free. Outside the courtroom, he is accosted by the old gypsy woman’s 104-year old father, who touches Billy’s face and whispers one word, “Thinner,” before leaving the scene. Almost instantly, Billy starts losing weight. At first, he is elated, then starts to worry about his health. He undergoes medical checks, which come back clear, leaving him in no doubt that he is being afflicted by a gypsy curse. He investigates and finds that the police chief and the judge have also been cursed, the former with the word ‘leper’ and the latter with ‘lizard.’ As Billy’s health wanes, he comes to the realisation that he needs help and enlists the services of one of his old mobster friends to track down the gyspies and make them lift the curse. From there, the situation escalates to a thrilling, and shocking finale. At the movie’s end you’ll be left with two, ahem, take-aways.

1: Never attempt oral sex when you are in control of a vehicle.

2: Don’t eat the cherry pie.

Thinner (originally titled Gypsy Pie) was first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1986. Though it garnered some good reviews, it wasn’t an immediate hit, selling ‘only’ 28,000 copies. After being outed as King, sales jumped to 231,000. Ultimately, it is a story of revenge, and the lengths people will go to in order to get even. Contrary to most King books, Thinner benefits from a very downbeat ending, something typical of King writing as Bachman. Burke (Robocop 3, Tombstone, Simple Men) is superb as Halleck. Okay, he looks a bit silly in the first quarter of the film when he is parading around in an outrageous fat suit pulling funny faces, but once that is out of his system and the horror sets in, he plays the part a bit too convincingly. The dialogue is passable, and the tension expertly built by director Tom Holland who cut his teeth in the horror world on films such as the original Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988). It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s all campy fun.

Reviews of the film were mixed. Noted critic James Berardinelli claimed, “Thinner could have been an opportunity to examine the ethics of a slick lawyer who refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. Unfortunately, questions of morality are of secondary importance to a film that emphasizes its Death Wish aspects.”

It didn’t exactly set the box office alight, either. In fact, it barely broke even. But this is another example of a film overcoming an indifferent initial reaction to slowly evolve into an underground cult classic. In a 2011 review, www.horrornews.net said, “Thinner, commonly mistaken for a mediocre movie, is in fact a crap-tastic masterpiece.”

I concur.

Trivia Corner:  

Thinner is partly based on an episode in Stephen King’s own life. He weighed 236 pounds and was warned by his doctor that he needed to lose weight and stop smoking. He began to contemplate what would happen if someone were to lose weight and then be unable to stop.

For the previous entry in the RetView series, please see here.


Digital Horror Fiction, Volume I

I’m pleased to announce that my short story Roadkill is included in the new anthology Digital Horror Fiction, Volume I alongside a host of stellar names including Aaron Gudmunson, James Dorr, Gregory L. Norris and my fellow Deviant Doll, Renee ‘Twisted Bitch’ Miller.

Digital Horror Fiction

Roadkill was inspired by a feature I did for Nuts magazine back in the day about rogue ambulance crews in south America. They patrol the roads, listening in to police scanners, looking for accidents. Then they ferry the dead and injured to hospitals and pick up their payment. Of course, the system is wide open to manipulation, and makes a great backdrop for a horror story. I started thinking, what if, one day, a rogue ambulance crew picked up a casualty who really should be dead, but wasn’t? In fact, what if he flat-out refused to die?

And what if he had a score to settle?

It’s probably fair to assume that heads will roll.

I had a lot of fun writing this story. It probably represents one of my first shambling steps into splatterpunk. It’s a bit over the top but hey, it’s fiction! If it makes you crack a smile, as well as turn your stomach, then my work is done.

Roadkill has been previously published in the anthology Fading Light and was also included in my collection X2.


RetView #10 – Eyes Without a Face

Title: Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage)

Year of Release: 1960

Director: Georges Franju

Length: 90 mins (uncut version)

Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel

Eyes without a face

Eyes Without a Face can legitimately lay claim to being one of the first gore films ever produced. In theory, at least. During production, a lot of effort was made to satisfy the strict standards of the various European censorship committees yet despite all the restraints, it still caused quite a stir in both the snotty establishment and the cinema-going public. Initial critical reaction to such an avant garde, experimental work was mixed, to say the least. Some praised the film’s bravery and innovation, while others were simply too disgusted by some particularly grisly scenes, along with the core subject matter, to delve any further and walked off in a huff.

However, as the years passed, the film gained more and more plaudits, and these days is often cited by modern filmmakers as one of the most significant movies ever made. Its influence doesn’t stop there. In 1983, almost a quarter of a century after the film was made, English punk singer Billy Idol recorded the song Eyes Without a Face in homage to the cinematic classic. When released as a single the following year, it proved to be one of his biggest ever hits. By the way, you’ll need subtitles for this one, unless you can speak fluent French.

You know you aren’t dealing with your average piece of European cinema the moment the manic funfair music kicks in over the opening credits. Nothing slow and brooding here, which is completely at odds with the slightly disturbing visuals where we see a woman driving a dead body around in a car then dumping it in a river. Even though the corpse is disguised in a raincoat and hat, you get the sense something isn’t quite right about it. Apart from it being a corpse, obviously. And so it proves when the body apparently turns out to be the recently disappeared daughter of the renowned Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), whose face had been hideously disfigured in a car crash. So severe were her injuries that only her eyes were left intact, hence the film’s title. The doctor identifies the body and has it interred in the family crypt with that of his wife, who’d died four years previously. So far, so creepy.

The ick factor increases when the doctor and his assistant Louise (the woman who had disposed of the body) return home where the real daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), is hidden. The body in the river was that of a test subject who had died after the doctor surgically removed her face in an effort to graft it onto his daughter. Problem is, her flesh keeps rejecting the new tissue, causing her shiny new features to literally rot away. Doctor Genessier promises he will eventually succeed, and until then urges his daughter to wear a mask. A precaution necessary because although all the mirrors have been removed from the house, Christiane still catches sight of her ruined face in shiny reflective surfaces from time to time and it never fails to freak her out.

True to his word, Doctor Genessier does indeed keep trying to restore his daughter’s face. He and Louise, who feels indebted to him for fixing her own face (one can only assume there were a lot of face accidents in post-World War II France) lure a young Swiss woman called Edna (Juliette Mayniel) to their lair, chloroform the shit out of her, then set about carving her face off and grafting it onto Christiane. This is the part that riled the censors so much, and for a film almost sixty years old, it’s pretty graphic stuff. Edna later escapes and when she discovers what they’ve done to her, throws herself out of a window, leaving the doctor and his assistant with another unsavoury mess to clean up. Meanwhile, an understandably traumatized Christiane keeps calling her fiancé, who thinks she’s dead, and a friend of Edna’s reports her disappearance to the police who see a pattern emerging. Soon, the net begins to close and as matters come to a head (or a face?) it becomes clear that Doctor Genessier isn’t the only one who can come up with dastardly plots.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jean Redon This was director Georges Franju’s (1912 – 87) first legitimate feature film. Until then he had primarily been a documentary film maker, the Nazi occupation of Paris and Industrialization featuring heavily in his subject matter. Perhaps his most controversial work was Blood of the Beasts, an unflinching look inside a French slaughterhouse. Eyes Without a Face works on many levels. Scratch beneath the surface (sic) and far from being a simple horror flick, you’ll find it rife with symbolism, offering a systematic study on the effects of guilt, remorse, unconditional love, isolation, and the misguided importance society places on superficial beauty. Unique, divisive, harrowing, and utterly brilliant.

Trivia Corner:

During its screening at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival, seven audience members reportedly fainted prompting director Franju to remark, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”


X3 is out now!

X3, my third collection of short fiction, is available now, featuring stories plucked from the pages of The Literary Hatchet, Siren’s Call, Morpheus Tales, Gore Magazine and several anthologies. It also includes two previously unpublished stories, extensive notes, and artwork by the award-winning Greg Chapman.

X3

Meet the airline passenger who makes an alarming discovery, the boy who takes on an evil troll, an ageing couple facing the apocalypse, a jaded music hack on the trail of the Next Big Thing, the gambler taking one last spin, and many more.

Full Contents: 

Introduction: The Final Curtain

Til Death do us Part

Gwraig Annwn

The Delectable Hearts

The Answer in Darkness

What Happened to Huw Silverthorne

What Happened Next

Altitude Sickness

Switchblade Sunday

Slots-a-Pain

The Elementals & I

Afterword

X3 is available exclusively in electronic formats NOW


Those Left Behind

My latest short story has just been published on a very cool multimedia platform called twentytwotwentyeight. Those Left Behind is  an urban horror story with a twist, and a surprise ending I hope you don’t see coming. It addresses mental illness, in particular suicide, which is something close to my heart. Depression and mental illness is a big issue for young men, and Wales has the second-highest suicide rate in the UK. There aren’t many people here who remain unaffected. The sorry state of affairs was brought to the public’s attention a few years ago with the mysterious Bridgend Triangle business.

There are many reasons for it, not least the current economic climate. Not so long ago, the towns and villages of south Wales were thriving as the steel and coal money rolled in. Black gold, we called it. it was dangerous work, but there was money to be made. Then the steelworks and coal mines closed, and an entire generation was put out of work almost overnight. I found this great article about it on the Washington Post, of all places. Not that I need to read about it, I lived through it.

The end result of the closures was that young people living in Wales today have little education and few prospects. Poverty is steadily increasing, and in relation to that drug abuse and crime rates are still soaring. This, combined with other factors like isolation and deprivation, has a debilitating effect on a person’s mental state. That’s my theory, anyway.

How can we solve the problem? Who knows. But maybe acknowledging it would be a good start. I hope you like the story.

You can read Those Left Behind now, free.


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