Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Written by Bram Stoker

Published: 1897

Synopsis: Famous for introducing the character of the vampire Count Dracula, the novel tells the story of Dracula's attempt to relocate from Transylvania to England, and the battle between Dracula and a small group of men and women led by Professor Abraham van Helsing.

My Thoughts: I'm a little embarrassed to say that I haven't read Dracula before. I've seen most of the film adaptations, and I've always been aware of its notoriety as a classic horror text but for some reason I've never gotten around to reading it before. Dracula is a phenomenal book. Contemporary authors really should take the time to study this book, regardless of whether they write horror or not, because it truly is amazing in every possible way. The quality of writing, the ingenuity of the story, the vitality of the characters, the use of journals and letters, the combination of so many delicious genres into one great book...seriously, why hadn't I read this before?!

So the book begins as Jonathan Harker heads out to meet Count Dracula, an elderly client who is intent on moving to England and needed legal help to organise it all. Once in the huge castle it doesn't take long for the easy and enjoyable conversations late into the night to turn to something far more sinister. Harker soon realises that his freedom in the castle is being severely curtailed, and after several late night explorations it is removed completely. At the same time things around the castle starts to get really strange, he witnesses the Count crawling down the castle's steep walls, and he comes across three women who appear out of thin air and encircle him eagerly clawing for his throat. As much as I loved the rest of the book, I think it was this first portion that I loved the most. The action takes place amongst such a wild and mysterious part of the world and the capacity for the supernatural seems all the more likely.  From the early descriptions of the changing landscape to the growing unease of the locals who risk their lives to help Harker avoid the castle to the scene with the Count asleep in his coffin, the pacing and foreshadowing is done spectacularly well and completely had me within its grasp. Then there are the three women/vampires, va va voom! Take note Stephenie Meyer, that's how you write some disturbingly sexy scenes! For example;
"There was a deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive. And as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal till I could see in the moonlight the moisture Then lapped the white, sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited. ”
The visual capacity for this writing is extraordinary, it's not hard to see how this book led to so many film adaptations and copy-cat writers. As Jonathan struggles to survive in the castle amidst the three women and the wolves, Dracula makes his way across the sea to England and Jonathan's fiancée, Mina, happens to be in the small seaside town he lands in. After Mina's friend Lucy succumbs to a mystery illness, we're introduced to the rest of the cast, Lucy's Fiancée, Arthur, his friends Dr Seward and Quincey Morris, and the absolutely delightful Van Helsing. Because I hadn't read this book before, I'd always imagined Van Helsing as a young BAMF who dominates vamps and other mythological creatures (I think you can blame the Hugh Jackman movie for that) but he's so different! He's definitely still a BAMF, but he's old and sweet and unbelieveably gorgeous character. I just wanted to take him home and keep him in my pocket! He definitely falls under the Gandalf/Dumbledore awesome old guy banner. One of my favourite lines of his is this one he says to Mina;
"There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights"
See! See! So the book is told through a series of diary/journal entries, letters, and telegram accounts which have been collected by Mina in order to help the group in their attempt to destroy Dracula once and for all.  I'm not sure how many books at the time this was published would have used this format, and even though it's fairly common now, it's exceptionally well done and I loved that it added perfectly to "this happened but we don't believe anyone would ever believe us" theme that runs through the book. I guess in a way it's the precursor to all the found footage horror films around now, except given the time the book takes place, it actually makes sense for all of this to be documented in a diary or in long letters to one another.

So yes, I enjoyed the crap out of this book. It's intelligent, funny, heart-warming, spooky, graphic, unique and well worth the attention it's received for over 100 years! Given it's age, it does take a while to get into the rhythm of the dialogue patterns if you don't often read books from that time, but it's not impossible nor difficult once you get into it. There was one character, an old man in the seaside town Lucy and Mina stayed in, that I couldn't understand a word of. His dialogue is written verbatim in a very thick Northern (?) accent and full of idioms and speech patterns unique to that area. It was only about a page in total, but I just couldn't work out more than 1 in 5 words and I simply gave up. It had no real bearing on the story (a touch of foreshadowing if anything) so it wasn't the end of the world, but thank god it wasn't all like that! Anyway, that one blip aside, everyone should read this book asap if they haven't already.

5 out of 5 litres of fresh virgin blood

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mini Book Review: Horror and the body, two books by Linda Badley

Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic
by Linda Badley

Published: 1995

What I thought: This book was fantastically helpful with my study but zombies make up barely 1% of the content of it! Under the banner of horror Badley looks at zombies, monsters, serial killers, slashers and a myriad of other horror characters and examines them through a series of psychological lenses such as Kristeva's abject, Freud's uncanny and Foucault's clinical gaze. Each chapter focuses on another topic and area of horror film but they aren't disconnected, each chapter melts into the next superbly and makes for an interesting read even for someone who isn't a film academic.

My Rating: 5/5

Writing, Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice
By Linda Badley

Published: 1996

What I thought: This book didn't really have any bearing on my studies, I picked it up because of the strength of Badley's other book. This book was equally as interesting and detailed as her first book but moved the focus from horror film to horror literature. I don't think it would come as a surprise that Clive Barker's writing lends itself greatly to discussion in terms of the body and perhaps even Anne Rice, considering the sexualisation that vampires have encountered in fiction largely thanks to her novels. All three authors have several novels from across their writing careers (at time of publication) examined as to how the reflect or work with psychological and cultural theories on gender, body image and sexuality. An interesting read, academic but without the verbose and difficult language some theorists tend to favour.

My Rating: 4/5

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Film Review: Cujo (1983)

Released: 1983

Starring: Dee Wallace,
Danny Pintauro
Daniel Hugh Kelly

Synopsis: Evil bites when a monstrous canine terrorises a helpless family in this legendary cult classic. When Donna and Vic Trenton struggle to save their rocky marriage, their son Tad befriends the loveable 200-lb St. Bernard who belongs to their mechanic. But what they don't realise is that a bat bite has transformed Cujo from a docile pup to a vicious killer. With Vic away on business, Donna and Tad's car trouble pushes them into a living nightmare - trapped by the demonic, relentless dog from hell.

My Thoughts: Before watching this film my only exposure to Cujo was in an episode of Friends that's usually remembered by fans because it marks the start of Joey's infatuation with Rachel. So I guess you could say I didn't really have any expectations going into this film, other than it seems to get enough favourable reviews to stop it from becoming one of those Stephen King films. You know the ones, the ones that we're not supposed to mention...

As Donna arrives at the empty mechanic's yard with her her son in their barely functioning car she is attacked by the rabid St. Bernard and trapped within their car. With no hope for escape in their car, and no clear exit path, the mother and son are stuck in the boiling hot car as Cujo stalks around it, halting any attempt at escape and ramming the doors and window with it's head. The claustophobic feelings of anxiety that these scenes evoke had me on the edge of my seat. The camera follows Donna's gaze around the yard, halting on the front door, on a baseball bat, on the door handle of the car, back to her son in the car, all while splicing in shots of Cujo just waiting. I mean that dog is ALWAYS THERE! Any time a window is opened or a door even looks like it might be opened then BAM, snarling, gnashing teeth take focus on the screen. It's some seriously decent and terrifying film-making and is not hard to see why this film is a cult favourite. Then there's Cujo himself, I mean, if there were doggie-Oscars, he'd have won it 10 times over. I can't believe I'm praising the acting of a dog, but seriously, he was insane! The blood matted in his fur, the gunk pouring from his eyes and mouth, the rabid fury as he attacked the car...he was the heart and soul of this film.

Unfortunately these scenes don't make up the film in it's entirety. In fact, this part of the film doesn't kick in until about 45 really boring minutes have passed. It seems like Cujo suffered from the King curse where the film-makers stay faithful to 75% of the source material and then just eliminate the remainder. I'm going to have to actually read the book to know for sure, but there were just aspects of the film that seemed unfinished to me. Such as, Donna and Vic hit a rough patch in their marriage, the rough patch being Steve, the local stud, who Donna is sleeping with. As they struggle to remain civil their son Tad (wonderfully played by Danny Pintauro) is struggling to sleep at night thanks to his over-active imagination. I'm fairly sure if these story arcs were in the actual book then they would have had some actually baring to the main story, but in the film they were just left hanging with zero resolution or reasoning why they were even part of the plot. The marital problems do weigh in slightly more, and perhaps if they were used exclusively for the reason Vic left town, rather than a work issue, it would have felt more complete. I'm guessing they were supposed to add weight and "colour" to the characters, but really they just acted like red herrings to where the story was heading - especially Tad's fear of a monster in his closet.

Stephen King films can be really varied, and until you actually sit down in front of the TV you have no real idea if you're getting one of the winners or one of the duds. Cujo falls somewhere in between, perhaps a bit closer to the winner end of the spectrum. As fantastic and terrifying as Cujo is, his grizzly attack scenes are outweighed by the haphazardly portrayed family drama. Imperfections aside, this is still definitely worth a watch.

3.5 out of 5 Beethoven films that'll never be the same again. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Published: 2008

Synopsis: In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

My Thoughts: The Hunger Games is not a horror novel, but it's a book that I haven't been able to escape during the year and a half I've been blogging, and with the film releasing soon I decided I might as well bite the bullet and check it out. It may not be horror in the strictest sense, but the dystopia created by Suzanne Collins is one I think horror fans could really enjoy.

In the future (how far off is never specified) the world is a dank and desolate place. Katniss, our protagonist, is 16 and a born rebel. Thieving and hunting off Capitol property to feed her family, it's clear to see that she's going to cause trouble for the smooth running Capitol all too soon. Katniss lives with her mother, a healer, and her 12 year old sister Prim, the absolute light of her life. And it's her devotion to Prim that sets her on course for the rest of trilogy. When it comes to draw the names for the district's "tributes" to the games, Prim is selected to represent District 12. Distraught, Katniss takes her place, volunteering for what she believes will be her certain death. Joining her into The Hunger Games is Peeta, the baker's son, who helped Katniss out when she was most in need years earlier.

Now the Hunger Games are where all the fun is, at least for me, a horror enthusiast. If you've seen Battle Royale (and I hope you have) you already know the basic premise. A group of school aged kids are locked in an arena and ordered to fight to the death. The last one standing gets to return home and live forever more in the lap of luxury. Where it diverges from Battle Royale, apart from in goriness, is the reasoning behind the Hunger Games. 74 years earlier there had been a rebellion within the districts. They fought for their independence from the Capitol, but after the annihilation of a 13th district they dropped their weapons and surrendered. As punishment two children from each district were taken and forced to fight, and each year since this has been repeated so that the districts forever remember their place.

As time has gone on though, things have developed and changed. The Hunger Games are broadcast across Panem and are treated as though they're the Olympic games, something to be proud of and to celebrate. The residents of the Capitol relish the "sport" and drama of the whole event, so before the fight can begin, each tribute is primped, plucked, waxed, cleaned, painted, and varnished and forced to endure an opening ceremony and series of interviews. Personally, this is when I found things got a little dark. Unlike Battle Royale which purely concentrated on the present and the murders in the arena, The Hunger Games spends a great deal of time pulling apart the sickening festival that these games have been made into. When you think about some of the extreme calls for punishment demanded on the internet and news (*ahem* FOX *ahem*) and the fascination we seem to have with reality TV, it's hard not to see the plausibility of something like this. It's a grim future, and a sharp look at where our society is headed.

The novel is a cohesive story rich with action, characters and dystopian themes. Being a young adult novel, there is a lack of complexity within the plot and writing, however the quality, across board, is very high. Behind the awkward love triangle and heavily sign posted exterior, there is a dark and troubling interior that has the necessary bones to create a fantastic series. Questions are raised about independence, duty, authority, duplicity and reality, while statements on class equality, free will and social responsibility are discussed throughout the entire trilogy. This is the kind of book where you get back what you put in. If you want to examine it for tougher and more bleak truths, there is plenty of grit in there for you. However if you're after a (dark) action adventure with a dash of romance, then there's plenty of that within the covers too.

Suzanne Collins deserves a great deal of credit for the series she's created, especially in light of the Twilight style puff-pieces that are so predominant in YA books today. If you aren't used to to young adult fiction, you may find yourself tripping through the conventional YA narrative tropes, tools and formulas, however I'm yet to meet someone, from any walk of life, who didn't rave about this book the second they put it down. It's momentum hasn't slowed down for a reason, definitely worth a read.

4 out of 5 arrows to the skull.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Opinion:Is horror in trouble?

I was poking around a few blogs the other day, and I came across one (not naming names) that was decrying the end of horror as we know it. According to this blog writer, thanks to books like Twilight, and TV shows like True Blood or The Walking Dead our monsters are no longer monsters, but sad, soggy glittery reflections of what they once were.

See, the problem with this argument is that A/ you need to believe Twilight is horror, and B/ you're concentrating only on the mainstream.

A version of this argument has actually been raised on this blog before by Tom, and I completely agree with him that Twilight is insipid, boring and uninspiring, and that the "paranormal" phenomena it sparked has been detrimental to our general ability to source horror fiction in our local book store. I also agree with Tom (and the original blog author) that the vampire, in all it's creepy sexual glory, was de-fanged by Stephenie Meyer and the wannabes who followed her lead.

However the original blog author I wanted to discuss took this a step further and basically suggested this was a sign that horror was dead. This is what I contest. They suggested that Stephen King's latest book was "mainstream," that The Walking Dead failed because it stated that the zombies were "people too" and that shows like True Blood are the standard fair for horror cinema and TV now.

I'll start with the Twilight issue. I do have a genuine concern that Twilight has tampered with vampires so much that it will be difficult for young audiences to ever accept them as anything other than glittery heartthrobs. However, Stephenie Meyer isn't writing horror, and neither she, nor her audience, are under any illusions that she is. That's why this paranormal banner was created, because these books take monsters and typical horror elements and romanticise them for teens and 40-something stay at home mums. Is it encroaching on horror's turf? It sure as hell is, several of our nearest book stores are lacking a horror section completely while the paranormal section takes up several aisles. However, I highly doubt our beloved horror writers are about to give up the ghost and start churning out paranormal fiction, nor are the paranormal readers ever going to pick up a horror book, because let's face it, it is not their cup of tea.

So while we're discussing authors, let's get onto the Stephen King thing. Stephen King is a favourite author of mine, and his horror books are hard to beat, but he is not, nor has he ever been, strictly a horror novelist. Every short story book I've read of his has been a collection of horror, science fiction, fantasy and general fiction. The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption are phenomenal tales, but horror they ain't. The Gunslinger is one of the most prolific series in existence, and it ain't horror either. Sure he's best known for his horror, and he doesn't hide the fact that he delights in horror (and hates Twilight yippeee!) but that doesn't mean that his release of a thriller is proof that horror fiction is in it's death spiral.

Onto The Walking Dead. Now, I haven't seen the latest series, and I never finished the graphic novels because, personally, I never thought they were that great. However, I've just spent the past year learning everything there is to know about zombies and film and literature (and am about to launch into a Phd in the subject) and I can assure you the whole OMFG THEY'RE JUST LIKE US bit is crucial to the success of the zombie. The basic fear of zombies is very similar to the sci-fi fear of robots taking over, it relies heavily on the uncanny valley and the connection we share. If they were simply zombie cats or lions or even dinosaurs, no one would give a shit. But your dear old granny, the one who baked you pies and sang to you every night, coming back and trying to tear your flesh from your bones? TERRIFYING! Films have begun to take this a little too far (see: Warm Bodies) and are destroying the subtle complexity of the relationship between zombie and human, but it's a concept that has always been around. It was present in the zombie films of the 1920s and 1930s, and Romero (i.e. The Grandfather/Godfather of zombies) had characters often stating things like "they're us," and who could forget the end credits scene in Night of the Living Dead?

Finally, True Blood. I watched the first two seasons and it was enjoyable enough, but I got a little bored of the whole thing myself. However, once again, I don't think anyone is suggesting it's a horror TV show. Horror themes, yes, horror genre, no. This isn't new, TV, film and literature has been borrowing from horror's playpen of monsters and creating comedies, dramas or romances for decades. Popular though this style may be right now, there are also countless bone-chilling, stomach-churning, heart-racing films, books and TV shows being released right now. TV is a difficult one, but I've heard good things about American Horror Story (how much horror it contains I'm not sure), and shows like Dead Set show that it can be done. As for film, sure they may not be playing at your generic cinema multi-plex, but there are horror films being released every week that will scare the pants off cinema-goers. Martyrs, The Woman, Insidious, Trollhunter, Paranormal Activity, and Helldriver are all films I've seen recently that I enjoyed the crap out of. Meanwhile, new authors like John Ajvide Lindqvist are hitting home runs over and over with their phenomenal new takes on the horror genre. If anything, there seems to be an increase of horror available, perhaps thanks to the rise of cheap video recorders and YouTube.

Monsters have never belonged purely to the realm of horror, they frequent fantasy, science fiction and now "paranormal" and romance. Books like Twilight may have pushed horror further into the outskirts, but let's be honest, horror is used to that location. It has surged forth and become more prominent and popular from time to time, but the best horror has always been made in the shadow of the mainstream. In a place where film-makers, authors and artists have the freedom to manipulate, torment and twist their work into creation. For every Twilight made, there is also a Daybreakers. For every Warm Bodies, there is a Helldriver and a REC. For every bizarre desire to remake Evil Dead, or Carrie there are countless original films coming into existence. It's all a matter of knowing where to look, and loving horror enough to search. Also, maybe (just maybe) we should start telling our book stores how much we hate that they no longer have a horror section. Maybe if we start showing outward enthusiasm for the genre, the businesses will respond by supplying to our demand.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Film Review: The Fly (1986)

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jeff Goldblum
Geena David

Synopsis: A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.

My thoughts: Tom has been trying to get me to watch The Fly since we started dating, almost three years ago. It's not that I didn't want to watch it, or that I had any aversion to it, but it seemed like the only times he suggested we watch it was at 2am, or when I was in a funk. Finally, we managed to sit down and watch it together, and now I'm kicking myself for waiting for so long!

Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, an eccentric scientist who has dedicated his time to creating transporter pods. Unfortunately for him, while they transfer non-biological items (seemingly) fine, whenever a living creature is placed inside, they get fucked up, turned inside out, and all that gorey good stuff. While he tries to work out the kinks, Seth meets Veronica Quaife (played by Geena Davis), a beautiful journalist looking for a scoop. Sparks fly, they kiss, they fall in love and Seth keeps trying to sort out his machines. After determining that it should be fine if tested on human subjects, Seth jumps in to see if they'll work. Unbeknownst to him, however, a wee little fly flew into the machine, converting it from a transporter pod into a gene-splicing pod that recodes Seth's DNA with fly DNA. Seth notices no difference, except that his speed, strength and agility seem to have jumped from non-existent to borderline super-hero. Though he thinks it's all due to the disintegration of his body and reassembly of the broken down bits, Veronica starts to notice the smaller differences that he misses or ignores. As Veronica gets more and more nervous, Seth becomes more cocky and obnoxious about his masterpiece machine, ignoring the creeping on symptoms that things are less than OK.

Things begin to spiral very quickly after Veronica decides to leave Seth. Seth transforms from high-functioning human to hybrid creature almost overnight, and each time we see him he appears less human, less well, and more disgusting. As much as I enjoyed the movie as a whole, and the story that was told, it was these transformation scenes which captivated me most. I'm very vocal when it comes to the benefits of physical special effects over computer generated effects, and this film is a firm example of that. From the inside out monkey, to Brundle-fly's gradual transformation, the effects were far more tangible, more tactile (even on the screen) and played a much larger role that CGI ever does. When Veronica returns later to see Seth, the disgust and sadness on her face is far more effective because she is actually seeing Jeff Goldblum transformed and inhuman in front of her, rather than just gazing at a man covered in ping pong balls in front of a green screen. It's just far more effective, and the detailing always seems so much more disgusting and complex and realistic when the SFX are physical.

I loved this film, I thought the love story developed between Veronica and Seth was fantastic, I loved Seth's greedy obsession with his project and his refusal to accept the consequences. I loved the SFX, and the costumes (Oh 1980s, you are good for a giggle), and Seth/Brundlefly during the final 20 minutes. I loved the self-reflection, the concern over scientific experimentation, the drawing of a line in the sand. David Cronenberg created a film that'll remain as troubling and as effective for another 25 years, and doubtless years after that. A true modern horror classic.

4.5 out of 5 Brundle-flies.