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RetView #9 – The Evil Dead

Title: The Evil Dead

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Sam Raimi

Length: 85 mins

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich

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I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was in my early teens, and my folks had one on holiday leaving me home alone. I scared myself so much that I stayed awake the entire night with every light in the house switched on. Apart from an early encounter with An American Werewolf in London, that was my first experience of being absolutely shit scared by a film. During subsequent viewings, I learned to appreciate the crude humour as well as other aspects like the kick-ass script and innovative cinematography. But that first time, it was all about pure, unadulterated fear. I was absolutely terrified, and traumatised for weeks afterwards. It was brilliant. If I had to pin down the single most frightening aspect of the whole movie, it would be the trapdoor leading to the cellar. It still gives me chills thinking about it now. I’d love to live off the grid in a secluded log cabin in the woods. But if it has a trap door leading to the cellar, you can fucking keep it.

Wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a little. If you haven’t seen Evil Dead (why?), it goes something like this…

Five college students go on vacation to a secluded log cabin in the woods which, as I mentioned, has a trapdoor leading to the cellar. You could probably attach any kind of metaphor to this. It could represent hell (the underworld), our subconscious mind, or any number of other things. But for the sake of argument, let’s just call it what it is. Obviously, the college students go exploring, and find some audio tapes made by a researcher who talks about something called the Book of the Dead, a book of spells and incantations bound in human flesh and written in human blood. The tapes summon demonic entities which, one by one, possess the students. The next thing you know, people are speaking in tongues and getting raped by trees left right and centre. The scene where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) initially falls under the influence, levitates, and stabs her friend through the ankle with a pencil before being locked in the cellar is utterly horrifying. She keeps pushing her hands through the gap in the trapdoor and making gurgling noises. Ew. As you can probably imagine, things deteriorate drastically from that point on and pretty soon Ash (Bruce Campbell) is locked in a nightmarish battle for survival. Things don’t improve much when he realises the only defence against his possessed ex-friends is dismemberment with a chainsaw. Needless to say, it gets messy. Real messy.

The only thing letting the side down is the quality of the special effects, which though innovative for the time, sometimes come across as cheap and tacky. But you have to remember The Evil Dead was made almost forty years ago and cost around $350,000. Finances were such an issue that the crew consisted almost entirely of Raimi and Campbell’s family and friends. Largely as a result of an appearance at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (where it was seen, and later emphatically endorsed by one Stephen King) the movie did manage to generate around $2.6 m, small potatoes in comparison with the $212 m raked in by that year’s biggest hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Germany, it was released in theatres and on video at the same time, and dominated the charts only to be banned shortly after. A heavily-censored version was released in the nineties but the ban on the original wasn’t lifted until 2016. This version is still preferable to the 2013 big-budget re-boot, largely because of the unpolished, rough and ready approach. It’s no surprise, either, that none of the original cast with the exception of Campbell went on to have much of an impact on Hollywood.

Trivia Corner:

At the end of filming, the crew put together a time capsule and left it inside the cabin’s fireplace. The cabin was later destroyed (Sam Raimi has claimed to have set it on fire himself, but he might have been joking) but the time capsule was discovered by a couple of Evil Dead fans. Hooray!

 

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RetView #8 – Demons

Title: Demons (aka Demoni)

Year of Release: 1985

Director: Lamberto Bava

Length: 88 mins

Starring: Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey

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This film is 1985 to the bone. You can tell the moment the awful tinkly synth pop soundtrack kicks in over the opening credits. You don’t even need the long, lingering shots of shoulder padded, pink-haired punks riding the Berlin subway but you get that anyway, just in case you were in any doubt. Cheryl, a pretty college student (Hovey), disembarks the train, and is pursued down the platform by a mysterious masked man. Not really what you want. But when Strange Dude catches up with her, instead of assaulting her he gives her free tickets to a film showing that evening at a local cinema. Crisis avoided. You would think. Cheryl then meets her friend Cathy, persuades her to cut class, and off they go to the cinema together. Little do they know they are setting themselves up for a whole lot of freakish, bloodthirsty fun and games.

In one of those cool film-within-a-film sequences, the film they are watching is revealed to be a gross-out horror about a group of teens who go in search of the tomb of Nostradamus and end up turning into demons and butchering each other. As we find out the teenagers fate, the cinema is revealed to contain a cast of colourful characters including two guys who hit on Cheryl and her friend (one of them being George, played by Barberini, who turns out to be the star of the show), an elderly couple, a blind man, and a pimp with some prostitutes. One of the prostitutes tries on a mask in the cinema lobby and scratches her face, mirroring what happens in the movie they are all watching. A short while later she breaks into full-on demon mode and bursts through the cinema screen sparking a stampede for the exit as the cinema-goers begin to realise that somewhere along the way, the movie has morphed into reality.

*shudder*

To make matters worse, when they try to flee the cinema they find the exits blocked, meaning that the punters are all trapped inside with the demon, which goes around ripping off faces, slashing throats, and infecting them with the demon-virus.

That would perhaps explain why the tickets were free.

Those infected with the demon-virus also turn into bloodthirsty thugs, and pretty soon George and Cheryl find themselves locked in a mortal battle for survival as all hell breaks loose around them. A perfect first date this isn’t. As the demons run amok, the face melting, scalping, and flesh-chewing is relentless, subsiding only long enough to cut to a bunch of muscle-vested Latino punks at irregular intervals who are driving around Berlin off their tits on coke (which they hilariously snort out of a Coke can) and listening to Go West. Really. At one point they drop their stash and then have to painstakingly pick it all up again. Luckily enough, some of it falls over the girl of the gang’s exposed breasts. She even gets some inside her knickers, apparently. Bizarre. Predictably enough, the horny, drug-addled punks eventually come to a suitably sticky end. Keep your eye open for the reappearance of the masked man from the subway station, tying things up nicely. But the final shock is kept for the last few frames. I bet you didn’t see that one coming. And that’s AFTER a massive helicopter crashes through the roof.

Overlooking the Go West abomination, elsewhere Demons benefits from a thumping metal-oriented soundtrack featuring choice cuts from Motley Crue, Saxon, Billy Idol and Accept. It is a rare English/Italian production, spawned no less than seven sequels (though few have any relation to the original, sharing the same name only as a tediously transparent marketing strategy) and is widely regarded as horror writer/producer extraordinaire Dario Argento’s tour de force. However, 30-plus years on, the sad truth is it hasn’t aged very well. The writing still holds up, just, and the cinematography should be applauded. There are also some inventive and gore-tastic kills, as you would expect from one of the masters of horror. Let’s not forget this is the guy who will always be remembered for THAT scene in Zombi 2 where he has a woman’s eyeball slowly impaled on a thick wooden splinter. Ouch. But by the mid-way point of Demons the camp, OTT acting gets a bit tiresome and it is further let down by some truly awful special effects. Given that the budget was a measly $1.8 million (compared to the $28 million shelled out on Rocky IV, which came out the same year) that’s understandable I guess. It would be interesting to see what a large American studio with some hefty backing would be able to do with this. If any movie deserves a remake, it’s Demons.

Trivia Corner:

Between leaving his job at a newspaper and making his name in the horror biz, Argento worked with Sergio Leone as a scriptwriter on the classic spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).


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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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.’

 


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