Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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Senses Fail – If There is Light (review)

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It’s weird how some bands stick with you and accompany you on your journey through life. Like a faithful dog that never dies, they’ll be at your side through thick and thin, good times and bad. Senses Fail are one of my ‘go-to’ bands. They are inspirational, and give me strength to continue when I don’t really feel like it. It’s not as if they try to be that way. When bands try too hard, it always comes across as lazy and contrived. But SF are real and they mean every word, even if those words aren’t always nice to hear. I know how lame that sounds,  but don’t just take my word for it. They aren’t the most technically gifted group of musicians in the world, but their passion, belief and enthusiasm for what they do is captivating.

How did all this start? Sometime in 2006 I was browsing Pure Volume for new music and came across the track Buried a Lie, from their debut album Let it Enfold You. This was when SF were riding the emo wave, though they were always more melodic hardcore than emo. Or post-hardcore, if you believe the record label. Some people call them screamo, others call them a punk band. Who knows what they are? Their music doesn’t really fit in any convenient category or sub-category, which is one of the reasons I love them so much. Another reason is the name. In Hinduism it is believed that being alive is a kind of hell, and the only way to reach Nirvana is to have no attachments to the physical world. No love, no job, no material possessions. You go out into the wilderness and meditate until you achieve the ultimate level of separation. As lead singer James ‘Buddy’ Nielsen explains, “If you want to reach the highest level of being and see God, you have to have all your senses fail.”

So even though on the face of it, ‘Senses Fail’ sounds like a massive negative (death?), it’s actually a metaphor for enlightenment or a higher state of consciousness.

Despite the labels they often get tagged with, SF aren’t always a blood and thunder kind of band. They release a lot of acoustic stuff which reveals their softer side, as evidenced by last year’s excellent In Your Absence EP. However, our first taste of seventh full-length If there is Light brings the thunder in spades. First single Double Cross, unleashed last November, is as bone-crushingly brutal as they come. It was soon followed by Gold Jacket, Green Jacket, and if this song was any more melodic they might have had a chart hit on their hands. Nielsen, who wrote that and every other track on the album, says the song is meant to give a voice to, “The millions of people struggling every day to follow their dreams and passions.” And it does. The third single release, New Jersey Makes, the World Takes, gave us more of the same and amped up the excitement levels to an all-time high.

As all three singles are sequenced in the first four tracks, you’d be forgiven for thinking some bright spark at the record label was doing some front-loading. But the sequencing works extremely well as Double Cross is the perfect opening track. Other stand-out’s for me are Is it Gonna be the Year and Stay what you Are, both infectious slices of vintage emo-tinged pop punk. The amazing thing is, they sound as fresh and vibrant as they would have had they been released back in 2004. The epic title track, which closes the album, also deserves a mention. Over the past few albums SF have built a reputation for making the closing track something to remember and they continue the tradition here. Like a microcosm of the album as a whole, If There is a Light is reflective, powerful, and moving. Anyone who has experienced profound loss and come out the other side will be able to relate to the subject matter, typified by the lyric, “I guess the best thing I can do with my time is love every minute of life.”

With producer Beau Burchell twiddling the knobs, SF vowed that their experimental phase was over and they were going back to their roots with this album, and it seems like they’ve kept their promise. It certainly has more in common with Still Searching than last full-length effort Pull the Thorns from your Heart (2015) which became their lowest-charting album to date. In the years between those releases they suffered several line-up changes and delivered the odd patchy piece of work. But here they are again, back from the dead and in top form. Front to back, this could be their best and most consistent album yet. Check it out immediately.

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Blink 182 – California (review)

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2016 – The Greatest Year in Music for Three Decades?

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RetView #7 – Severance

Title: Severance

Year of Release: 2006

Director: Christopher Smith

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens

To non-British readers this might be one of the more obscure entries in the ongoing RetView series, but its inclusion is entirely justified. Severance mixes humour, bravado, and some of the most brutal body horror this side of the Saw franchise to great effect, making it one of the stand-out Brit Horror films of the past two decades. It’s actually a British/German/Hungarian collaboration, but is quintessentially mainly due to the casting. Danny Dyer, perhaps best known for roles in Human Traffic, the Football Factory, The Business and, er, Eastenders, is a bit like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. Me, I think he’s a fackin’ legend. By his own admission, he’s banged out more than a few stinkers in his time. But as he says, he has to get paid somehow. He isn’t perfect, and has suffered from typecasting in the past, but he’s a criminally underrated actor. Severance, while probably being the best of his horror films, isn’t the only one. He also starred in Devil’s Playground, Basement, Dead Cert and Doghouse, none of which were quite as well received as this often-overlooked little gem.

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The plot revolves around a group of office staff from a weapon manufacturing company who are sent to Hungary on a team building exercise. As you would find in any office, there is an eclectic and varied cast of characters, all living up to certain long-held stereotypes. True to form, Danny Dyer plays everyman Steve, in a kind of reprisal of his role in Human Traffic (1999) who sees the weekend getaway as the perfect opportunity to get off his tits. He’s munching magic mushrooms and puffing on a spliff in the coach toilet before they even arrive (“Have I pissed meself?”). A spanner is thrown into the works when they find their route blocked and their driver fucks off with the bus, leaving the team meandering through a remote bear-infested forest. When they finally find the lodge they are supposed to be staying at, which offers very little in the way of home comforts, they discover it may or may not have been a lunatic asylum for war criminals and the ‘welcome pie’ has a human tooth in it. Then follows a wince-inducing scene with Gordon (Andy Nyman) and a bear trap, which is made all the more harrowing by the use of an actual amputee as a stunt double, and just when they think things can’t get any worse, the hapless office team start falling one-by-one to a progressively brutal spate of vicious attacks. But who is doing the attacking? And why? Surely those stories can’t be true…

If it hadn’t been for the presence of Dyer who positively excels, Tim McInnerny (perhaps best loved for his roles in Blackadder) would have stolen the show as insufferable jobsworth manager Richard. Shades of David Brent in The Office here (“I can’t spell ‘success’ without ‘u’). In fact, Severance is a kind of mash-up between that and Hostel. The humour is as black as you can imagine, and the gore comes by the bucket load. The ingenious tagline ‘Another bloody office outing’ sums things up pretty well. Suffice to say, not many of the office workers show up for work the following Monday.

Written and directed by Christopher Smith (Creep, Triangle, Black Death) and filmed largely on location in Hungary, Severance was met with generally favourable reviews across the board. Except high-brow whingers the Guardian where Peter Bradshaw gave it only two stars, bemoaning “the basic implausibility of the setup, (and) that weird, niggling wrongness for which there are not enough compensatory laugh-lines.” Ho-hum. This treatment could be partly attributed to the divisive nature of Dyer himself who has never been the broadsheet’s favourite son. The fact that we never find out what the killer’s motivations were also became a point of contention. Never-the-less, in 2012 Total Film named Severance the 36th best independent horror film of all time, and stands as one of the best British comedy survival horror films you are ever likely to see.

Trivia Corner:

Media interest in Severance was revived in 2008 when one of the kill scenes was (allegedly) recreated in the real-life murder of 17-year old student Simon Everitt, who was tied to a tree and forced to drink petrol before being set on fire. Lovely.

 


Film Review – The Void (2016)

It isn’t often a horror movie leaves me feeling as emotionally drained as this one did. Other worldly cosmic horror, body horror, splatter horror, this film is a mash-up of every kind of horror you can think of, and probably some you cant. It’s hard to know where to start talking about it. Dismemberment? Check. Pyramids? Check. Demon babies? Check. Hospital-cum-gateway-to-hell invaded by knife-wielding devil worshippers in hoods? Check. You get the picture. Possibly.

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It all starts innocently enough when sheriff’s deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole, who excelled in 2012’s The Conspiracy) stops one night to help what he assumes is s drunk dude crawling down the side of the road. When it transpires drunk dude isn’t drunk at all, but severely traumatised, Deputy Carter takes him to the hospital where his ex-wife works. There, whilst going through the administration procedure, he finds one of the nurses cutting her face off and stabbing a patient in the eyes with a pair of scissors. She then attacks Deputy Carter who shoots her dead. Not a regular occurrence. But his shift gets worse when he goes outside to his patrol car to call in the incident and is confronted with the afore-mentioned knife-wielding devil worshippers in hoods. Back inside the hospital, things take an even more disturbing turn when the dead nurse transforms into a slithering, slimy, tentacled creature, which is the last thing anyone needs, and matters are compounded when a gateway to hell (aka, the void) opens. There are numerous twists and turns along the way, which I won’t spoil for you, ensuring the plot moves along with pace. The downside of this is the fact that of you blink, you are liable to miss something important.

A lot of reviews compared The Void (favourably) with the low-budget horror flicks of the 80s. I don’t see it myself, though there are certain similarities with Josh Carpenter’s The Thing. Some of the cartoon violence comes across as a little bit gratuitous and the cosmic horror aspect adds some trippiness to proceedings, but the package works well. I love the return to ‘real’ special effects, rather than an over-reliance on CGI which has become the norm these days. The Void made quite a splash on 2016’s festival circuit and currently holds a 76% approved rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is remarkably high for a film of this type. Definitely not one to aVoid. Sorry.


The Human Waste Blog Tour

Last year, I did a blog tour for my novel Sker House. It proved not only very successful, but a lot of fun. It was so much fun that I decided to do it again this year to support my latest novella, Human Waste. Below are the details. Please consider paying a visit and/or drop a comment or share a link to help support these awesome hosts!

Acclaimed writer and filmmaker Regina Saint Claire was first out of the blocks, reviewing an ARC for her site the Indie Horror Review.

Close behind was the delightful Irene Cole, who reviewed Human Waste for her Well Worth a Read blog.

Next up I did a guest post about the Top 10 British Comedy Horror Films for the Deviant Dolls. Purely subjective, of course, but you know I’m right.

Then, I dropped in at Teri Polen’s Bad Moon Rising site to give a quick lowdown on Human Waste and chat shit about aliens.

And forced fellow Welshman Andy Graham to host me on his site and let me talk about books, and books, and books. And not even my own books. Not all the time, anyway.

Next up, I was very excited to be part of The Gal in the Blue Mask’s Halloween 2017 Frivolities:

Just for good measure, I also did my first ever character interview with The Gal. And boy, was it fun!

October is a busy month for horror hounds. I dropped into Selene Kallan’s launch party for her novel Starlight on Facebook.

And was featured in P.J Blakey-Novis’ epic 31 Days of Horror event.

Human Waste is available now, exclusively on ebook format.

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RetView #5 – The Night Stalker

Title: The Night Stalker

Year of Release: 1972

Director: John Llewellyn Moxey

Length: 74 mins

Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Carol Lynley

Note: This article concerns the original 1972 TV movie, not the unrelated 2016 release of the same name, or the 2002 movie Nightstalker, both of which focus on the activities of serial killer Richard Ramirez.

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It’s probably fair to say that despite coming out before I was born, this made-for-TV movie, and the popular series that followed it, had more of an effect on me personally and professionally than anything else committed to celluloid. I didn’t even realise how much until relatively recently. How? Because the film married my twin obsessions with writing and the paranormal, ensuring that to my young and impressionable mind, that the two things would forever be entwined.

Shortly after I first saw it as a kid, I remember telling my parents I wanted be a journalist when I grew up. They facilitated this childhood ambition by going out and buying me a ‘reporters kit’ comprising of a notebook and pen and a magnifying glass. Obviously, I immediately went out looking for monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural entities, hoping to look at them in fine detail through the magnifying glass and write about them in the notebook, because I wanted to be just like Carl Kolchak.

Damn it, I still do.

For the uninitiated, Carl Kolchak (brilliantly portrayed by the sadly departed Darren McGavin) is a jaded Las Vegas newspaper hack under unrelenting pressure from his shouty editor Vincenzo (Oakland) to turn over a constant stream of newsworthy articles. Luckily for him, though less-so for the victims, he uncovers a spate of gruesome murders and a wide-ranging cover-up. The general feeling is that Kolchak is particularly anxious to solve this particular case out of concern for his dancer girlfriend Gail (Lynley). An investigation reveals that the murders go back centuries, and the victims invariably suffer extreme blood loss. There is a suspect by the name of Janos Skorzeny who Kolchak believes is an ageless vampire, but can he convince the authorities and his difficult editor?

Ultimately, he doesn’t need to convince anyone because during a late-night showdown Kolchak manages to destroy the suspected vampire, thereby saving the city. But his actions come at a terrible cost. He is told to leave Las Vegas immediately or face a trumped-up murder charge, and is given the devastating news that Gail has already left. The lovelorn reporter then blows his savings placing ads in the personal sections of newspapers up and down the country in an attempt to find her. He never does, and the movie ends as it begins, with Kolchak lying on a bed in a sleazy hotel room listening to a playback of his account of the crimes which he has narrated into a Dictaphone. I guess matters of the heart were a lot harder to resolve before Facebook and What’s App.

The story ark was continued in a sequel, The Night Strangler (1973), where Kolchak finds himself in Seattle and is hired once again by Vincenzo to report on another series of bizarre murders. The second movie immediately preceded the 20-episode TV series, which became a fore-runner for such shows as the X Files, Supernatural, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There was also a short-lived, and frankly pretty terrible remake which lasted for ten episodes in 2005.

When it first aired on ABC over 45 years ago, The Night Stalker set the viewing record for TV movies, winning a 33.2 rating (the percentage of all TV homes). I might be wrong, but I don’t think that figure has ever been surpassed, and in the age of Netflix and streaming, it’s unlikely to ever happen. The screenplay for The Night Stalker was written by sci-fi legend Richard Matheson (the man behind I am Legend, the Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes and many more), and adapted from an as-then unpublished novel called the Kolchak Papers by Jeff Rice. Matheson and Rice collaborated on the sequel The Night Strangler but Rice, who often felt marginalized, then faded into obscurity, dying in 2015 at the age of 71.

Trivia Corner:

Producer Chris Carter is such a fan of Kolchak that he cast Darren McGavin in the X Files. The original plan was to have him play Kolchak thirty years on, but McGavin elected not to and the role was re-written to make him Arthur Dale, ‘Father of the X Files.’

 


RetView #4 – Phantoms

Title: Phantoms

Year of Release: 1998

Director: Joe Chappelle

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Rose McGowan, Ben Affleck, Liev Schreiber

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Dean Koontz film adaptations generally fair slightly better than those of Stephen King. Not commercially, of course. In that department King will always have the upper hand. This is why even his weakest short stories are deemed suitable for the Hollywood treatment. Dean Koontz adaptations usually have a bit more substance, possibly because the name alone won’t sell. They don’t come around so often, either. This is only the second adaptation in 13 years (the other being 2013’s quite brilliant Odd Thomas). The exact circumstances surrounding Koontz’s acrimonious departure from Martin Scorcese’s made-for-TV Frankenstein project in 2004 are shrouded with mystery, but evidently left scars.

Anyway, onward and upward.

The basic plot of Phantoms involves Dr Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going) who, in the aftermath of some indiscretion, takes her younger, more precocious sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) to the small ski resort of Snowfield, where she works. When they arrive they find the town deserted, and matters come to a head (when you see the film you’ll get the reference) when they find a grisly collection of body parts in an oven. And other places. Along with mysterious piles of watches and pacemakers. Just when you find yourself in need a bit of help and guidance, in steps a post-Good Will Hunting Ben Affleck to save the day. Or not. He certainly isn’t able to save his deputies, who **spoiler alert** are taken out by some unseen supernatural force in double quick time. Well, actually, one of them gets murdered by a giant moth-like creature with a large protruding snout which is definitely not ‘unseen,’ but you know what I mean. Thoroughly spooked, the survivors decamp to an abandoned hotel where they come across a reference to a British academic by the name of Flyte (Peter O’Toole) scrawled on a mirror in a locked room. They eventually manage to find an old radio, which they use to contact the outside world and put out a panicky SOS. The next thing you know, the FBI roll up in force, backed up by the army, some scientists, and a reluctant Flyte. Then, carnage ensues as a plethora of dark, slimy creatures, all part of a considerably bigger whole, rampage through the town in search of flesh.

Dean Koontz novels are impeccably researched, and usually contain enough hard science to at least provide the illusion of plausibility. There are government experiments, conspiracies and serial killers galore. Phantoms focuses on an ‘Ancient Enemy’ being responsible for various mass disappearances throughout history, like Roanoke, the Mayans, and a group of 3,000 Chinese soldiers who supposedly went missing in Nanjing in 1939. In Phantoms, this ancient enemy is revealed to be some kind of shape-shifting, amoeba-like life form, which dwells in the deepest recesses of the earth and comes up, presumably, to feed. It does this by absorbing huge swathes of humanity, thereby explaining the mysterious mass disappearances. One of it’s favourite tricks is to mimic past victims to procure new ones, and when it absorbs people it also absorbs their knowledge. This is an interesting concept, linked to the theory of the collective unconscious. In the film a discussion takes place about the famed experiments in the 1950’s which found that if flat worms are taught to navigate a maze, then ground up and fed to other flat worms, the new worms would also know how to navigate a maze.

As a result of all the knowledge and information it absorbs, the ancient enemy begins to think of itself as a god, and tries to enlist Flyte as a mechanism to tell the world of its existence. Ultimately, this God complex proves its downfall. Theology (often boiled down to the good old-fashioned battle between good and evil) is a common theme in Koontz’s work. As he is a practising Catholic, that’s understandable and not entirely unexpected. The interesting thing is, as evidenced in Phantoms, he often approaches the topic from an angle, instead of ramming the same old fundamental shit down your throat. Ultimately, even though the Ancient Enemy is beaten by the ingenuity of man, it does achieve its objective as when Flyte leaves Snowfield the first thing he does is write a book about the episode, thereby telling the world about the Ancient Enemy.

I really like this film. It is atmospheric, the script is tight, and there’s enough in the plot to keep things interesting right up to the suitably satisfying climax. With such a solid cast you would expect the acting to at least be serviceable, and it is. The MVP award, perhaps surprisingly, goes to Liev Schreiber (of the Scream franchise) who plays Deputy Stu Wargle with a convincing dash of psycho. The special effects are also worth a mention, as they are born of an age (just) before CGI, and call to mind the classic creature features of the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s a pity I seem to be the only person who likes it, because it only scores a 13% rating on Totten Tomatoes and the critic Roger Ebert gave it one star (out of four) stating, “If only we could learn to think more kindly of those who digest us, this movie could have ended happily.”

I fail to see how, but there ya go.

Trivia Corner:

According to IMBD, This film has a helluva lot of continuity errors and general fuck-up’s, which may be one reason why it isn’t very highly thought of.


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