Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Haunted Book

The Haunted BookThe Haunted Book by Jeremy Dyson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book delivered more than I had expected. It presents itself as a portmanteau connecting stories based around the frame of Dyson collaborating with a local journalist to assemble his spooky column into a book.

It's quite an effective conceit. The idea of ready recorded stories needing to be qualified by a journey around haunted Britain is a mouth watering prospect. The only problem is the framing device disappears halfway through the book and is never really explained.

Not that it mattered much because the second half of the collection is based on an found tome full of old ghost stories. I really enjoyed these. It's a mix between Aickman and James.

I won't list my favourite stories in case it leads to spoilers. One thing I will say is I enjoyed every single one of them. Yes of course some more than others. The only downfall was the fading of the framing structure which sent me reading back to see if I'd missed a few pages.

If you loved ghost stories as a kid or read The Mysterious World books like me then you will appreciate this book. It's clear Dyson has a great love of the supernatural tale and it really shines though.

I give it four stars but in reality It's a four and a half.

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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

From Bates to Babes: The Little Deaths Part 2.

In Part One we examined the symbolic use of sex as creation and death as destruction in genre cinema. In the case of Norman Bates it is both, a cyclic journey without end. With the Italian movement of Giallo, which took its cue directly from ‘Psycho’, things got a little more blurred. Sex and death represented beauty. If art is destruction as well as creation Giallo films should have been the masterpiece, or at least a masterclass in the form. The films of Mario Bava, Sergio Martino and the Italian movement’s most famous son, Dario Argento, looked at murder as creation, as painting and ballet, (just look at 2010’s ‘Black Swan’ to see the influences). Though a lot of these films are rightly criticised today, a large number of them were pretentious or plodding, they gave birth to something that would change horror cinema forever.

Slasher films were Norman Bates mainlining cocaine straight to the brain. A fresh young director called Wes Craven took the noir of Giallo, Hitchcock’s suspense, 1950’s nuclear paranoia and rolled them up into a great ball of outrageous cinema. Though some would argue Michael Powell’s 1960 masterpiece ‘Peeping Tom’ owns that honour. Others may even tell you it’s ‘ThirteenWomen’ from 1932. Though I suspect much of the hype of the latter is largely due to the Hollywoodland suicide of Peg Entwistle. For me personally Craven’s debut film, ‘The Last House on the Left’ is the first true slasher. It’s widely known for echoing Bergman’s 1960 brutal film, ‘The Virgin Spring’ staring horror stalwart Max von Sydow.

Where films like Aregnto’s 1970 work, ‘Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ looks at murder as social problem curable by precise investigation, ‘The Last House on the Left’ shows it for all its grainy brutality. Craven’s debut was released in the same year as the best example of Giallo.  Fulci’s 1972 magnum opus, ‘Don'tTorture a Duckling’ dealt with death and sex as serious themes, setting the template for future Giallo, though none exceeded it.

It wasn’t long before the mystery thriller elements of Giallo and the nightmarish realism of Wes Craven were picked up and twisted. Horror is often like Frankenstein’s monster sat at the lake edge of genre with an innocent little girl; it takes the pure and squeezes the life out of it until it flails into a lifeless body.

The slasher genre had some great films. ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Halloween’ and Wes Craven’s other great gift to the genre to that point, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ disturbed a generation. But a whole batch of Cannibal films, video nasties and anything else the video man had hidden under the counter in faux classic book cases was simply awful. Don’t get me wrong I love those films. They have a soft spot in my heart, even the really bad ones. But the slasher genre for all its faults and all it beautiful glories gave us something unsettling. It gave us a puritanical view and a moral code that horror hadn't really seen before.

Of course we always had the ‘Man versus God’ or ‘Man versus Nature’ films. Hell, we even had Norman Bates style prudeness that sex out of marriage was punishable with death. But with the idea that the college kids smoking a bit of pot, having a few beers, or God forbid getting laid, would all end up hacked up or nailed to a cupboard door was a bit too much. It was as though they took all those puritanical anti-fun propaganda films of the 1930s and tacked them on to horror. Horror became ‘Reefer Madness’ style public information films against all fun.

It took the godfather himself, Wes Craven, to shake things up yet again. Just when his greatest monster Freddie Kruger was becoming a cartoon caricature, Wes kicked horror and the slasher sub-genre he’d been so pivotal in creating into the furnace in the basement. He held up a mirror to the genre and broke the unwritten rule; he made fun of the things supposedly horrific. He not only held up that mirror, mostly and bravely at himself, he smashed the template so nobody could use it again.

While 1996’s ‘Scream’ was another leap in horror it was still obsessed with one aspect of the very origins. It had sexy young women in almost every scene. This was horror for boys to drool over while their girlfriends gripped their shoulders as Ghost Face leapt from hidden places. Sadly the ‘Scream’ franchise and its little sister ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ series fell into the same state as ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and all the other slasher overloads. Soft core, soft focus and sexualisation seem to be its greatest legacy.
In films like the ‘Final Destination’ series and all the way up to ‘Piranha 3DD’ it’s all about the babes and less about the blood. If you look hard enough you’ll find clever films with great scares, terrifying monsters and more than a splattering of sex either viscerally or psychologically. ‘Hellraiser’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Videodrome’, Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’, ‘Martin’, ‘The Devils’, Alien (the whole film is about sex, birth and death), and David Cronenberg's entire back catalogue up to 2002’s ‘Spiders’ and so many more.

Sex and Death Today.

These days you’ll find little thread between sex and death at the cinema. Now and again a film will pop up that reminds you of Giallo, 2009’s ‘Amer’ for example. You’ll stumble on a sexy vampire flick, 2011’s ‘We Are the Night’ and 2012’s ‘The Moth Diaries’ are two great examples. Slashers however have become teenage cartoons, yet I still hold out hope for an original take on the much maligned sub-genre.

So sex and death is the same thing in horror it seems. Or different parts of the same beast. Much like in life I guess. Remember that beautiful French phrase, La petite mort, or The Little Death I spoke of in Part One? It's a metaphor for an orgasm. So you see, with sex we will always envisage the shadow of death lurking behind the bedposts.

   And for me at least, that’s what gives horror its real beauty.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Little Deaths.

All this sex is killing me.

If you ask people to explain the subtext of horror most would reply the genre is a metaphor for death. Or to be more precise, the preparation of death. I mean it’s obvious isn't it? All that stabbing and hacking. All the falling from roller-coasters and being chased by masked men wielding blood soaked chainsaws.

Wait, let’s stop a minute and pull away for a moment to think about this. Yes murder is obviously about the stalking reaper lurking in our shadows, just as torture is about the stresses and pains of life. But what place does sex have in all of this horror business? Well the French have a nice little euphemism for orgasm, La petite mort, or the little death. Sex and death may not be obvious bedfellows, but they never seem too far apart.

So let me spin the TV in your direction and show you some examples of what I think it all means, or at least why I think it’s there in the first place. You may be surprised, you may be shocked, but I guess you’ll just think I'm as mad as old Leatherface.

"The art of creation is older than the art of killing." Edward Koch

From the very origins of horror cinema the themes have included pursuit and murder of beautiful women. Not to mention recreation. In the 1910 version of ‘Frankenstein’ we first see man as God. The devilish doctor creates life without needing to bother with all that messy sex business. No, he prefers stitching together a jigsaw of stolen cadavers that have been marinating in amniotic fluids. Nice work if you can get it.What about ‘The Island of Lost Souls’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, ‘The Mummy’ and the constantly thinning ‘Frankenstein’ franchise? See a pattern emerging? This is about science creating life, or reanimating it at least. But there’s a problem in all of these, they all go horribly wrong. In the pursuit of scientific creation without sex we end with a hell of lot of death. And this is only horror up to the 1930’s!

Okay let’s jump forward a few decades. The 1950s and ‘60s continued the roll out of the tired tropes and dull franchises. We did see the emergence of the creature feature that the paranoia of falling A-bombs produced. Dracula was still hanging around and zombies still did their soft shoe shuffle. But these were remnants of a horror past. Their identities now represented penetration and infection.

Steve and Norma accidently built a BBQ and ate burgers as the bombs fell.

Yet something stirred beneath the nuclear paranoia and drug induced Cultural 
Revolution. The master himself, Alfred Hitchcock brought horror to the mainstream in the first year of the flower power decade. He didn't use monsters, zombies or vampires; though in many ways Norman Bates was all of these things. With the cinematic release of ‘Psycho’ horror became not only mainstream but intelligent. Of course it still had the jumps and scares to make your terrified date hold you close in fear. It also had the power to keep you awake long after the salty taste had faded from your tongue that night. From the popcorn I mean. Go clean your dirty minds.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Tall Tales.

He's behind you.

I went into this film expecting some lame Slender Man cautionary folk tale. It didn't disappoint, or rather it did because that’s exactly how it set up its stall. It was a tick box yard sale of horror cliché. Spread out on the previously used table we found a desperate small town, dark woods and an assortment of inhabitants clinging to the edges of society. Throw in a group of missing children, a bogeyman and box them up ready to store in the shadows of the damp garage at the back of your mind.

Then it did something that’s lacking too much in genre films these days. It surprised me. It didn't hang around and shock me like a cheap gag (stop being paranoid ‘Cabin in the Woods’ I don’t mean you) I do but don’t tell it. It wasn't some inward meta-analysis or tacked on twist. It was the essence of urban legend.

No, not Cab in the woods.
It achieved something films like ‘Cabin in the Woods’ tried and failed to do, (go back asleep Cabin we mean a different film) we don’t mean a different film. It found the root of horror. Not the root of horror films, which was done to perfection in the first ‘Scream’ film, it poked around for the horrors that lurk in the recesses of our minds. It examined our ideals and drove a shovel deep into our morally flawed society. It did this to discover where these scary tales are born.

‘The Tall Man’ isn't a perfect film; it’s not even a perfect horror film. In fact fans of Pascal Laugier's previous horror masterpiece, 'Martyrs', may not agree with his new approach. It has some solid performances, notably Jessica Biel, and some genuinely scary scenes. It has a message about who we are and how we treat each other. All of which could explain why so many horror fans poured cans of hate on the film then exposed grinning faces in the sulphur light of struck matches. Yes I have just listed some of the same things that annoyed me about ‘Cabin in the Woods’. 

Stop! In the name of blood.
Yes okay I do mean you Cabin sorry. Now shut up and go fuck yourself, (by which I make a better sequel). So I can understand the hate. The same hate gore fans spat at Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ for example. A lot of people feel horror should be straight, no tangents, no meta-trickery and certainly no intelligent observation of the real world. 

At first I thought ‘The Tall Man’ was a tedious horror and then I thought it wasn't horror at all. By the end I realised it’s the most chilling sort of horror film. It was one where all the stories originate, real life.

Paws: The Revenge.