The Last Horror Show

Last for the month of October, anyway.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Cheerleader Jennifer is possessed by a demon when a rock band sacrifice her to the devil in return for fame and fortune, and she starts eating boy students at the college she attends. The story is told by best friend Needy, who is in an asylum after killing Jennifer. And that is, more or less, all there is to this one. I can imagine the pitch session – take one hot young actress (Megan Fox), add a demon, take another hot young actress (Amanda Seyfried) and have her dress down to look plain and dowdy, add a rock band with occult ambitions, have hot actress #1 use her feminine wiles to lure young men to nasty and messy death (but no actual sex or nudity, as we want that 15 rating, and the hot young actresses would probably need a lot more money to strip), then pit her against hot young actress #2, with some gratuitous girl on girl action as icing on the cake, before the cathartic ending in which the demon is defeated and the rock band get what is coming to them. Sorry if my tone sounds dismissive, but the film really did feel like a very cynical attempt to exploit the most shop soiled tropes of the genre with added prurience, but no real payoff. With Needy in an asylum they could at least have made her an unreliable narrator and introduced an edge of ambiguity, but even that possibility seemed to fly over everyone’s head. In short it was exactly the sort of film you’d expect to get with the title Jennifer’s Body, the tag line “she’s into bad boys”, and Megan Fox showing leg on the DVD case. Horror lite, and more tease than blood money shot. And apologies for any spoilers, but I don’t think anyone watching this will be surprised by the plot.

The Sin Eater (2003)

Heath Ledger is priest Alex, a member of an order in the Catholic Church that fights demons. He travels to Rome to investigate the death of the head of the order, but once there gets drawn into papal infighting and politicking, as well as becoming the focus of a plot to pass on the power of the Sin Eater, a thousand year old man who can absorb the sins of others, allowing their cleansed souls to go to Heaven. I remember reading a story about a sin eater in the old Pan Books of Horror and it was rather an unsettling piece, but this outing over eggs the pudding with the Sin Eater an archetypal figure, one who in an almost messianic sense can take on the sins of others. I liked the concept, but felt it got lost in a welter of plot twists and spiritual contortions, while Heath Ledger never really brought his role to life and none of the characters were people I could bring myself to care about. I suspect I might enjoy it a lot more on a second viewing, but as I said about another film recently I simply don’t feel invested enough in the story to do so. It was for me simply an attempt at being clever that over reached itself. Meh! as all the cool kids say, or at least I think that’s what they say.

Roadkill (2001)

Sometimes simple is best. Lewis and Fuller, two brothers driving across the USA, become the target of a homicidal truck driver when they play a joke on a man with the CB handle Rusty Nail. The deadly game of cat and mouse continues with a vengeance after they pick up student Venna, the girl Lewis is trying to impress. Yep, simple, rather like Duel played out with a cast of pretty young things and a CB radio thrown into the mix. We get plenty of thrills and spills along the way, and no surety that anyone will survive, with Nail adding a few plot twists when he drags others into their deadly game. The three stars – Paul Walker as Lewis, Leelee Sobieski as his childhood crush Venna, and Steve Zahn as the irascible older brother who just can’t stop himself mouthing off – are well cast and play their roles with conviction. And, though we only ever know him as a voice on the CB radio, Rusty Nail makes for a compelling monster, his voice harsh and unnerving, his presence in the film that of an almost unstoppable monster. Hard to credit that something this simple was scripted by J. J. Abrams. It lacks the sleaze me, tease me effect of Jennifer and the ambition and convoluted plot of Sin Eater, but was better executed and more entertaining than either.

So what’s with these films having different titles on imdb to what’s shown on the DVDs?

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Filler content with a painted man

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #9:-

The Painted Man by Graham Masterton
(Severn House paperback, 218pp, £10.99)

Talented artist Molly Sawyer finds that her drawings of roses come to life, but before she and her psychic mother-in-law Sissy can reach any conclusions, Molly is called away to her job as a police sketch artist. A man has been butchered in an elevator and a young woman left for dead. She describes a red faced monster wielding a knife to Molly and the picture is circulated in the media, getting the killer the name Red Mask. More attacks follow and Molly’s services are called on again, only now there appear to be two identical maniacs terrorising Cincinnati, against whom the police and FBI are helpless. Sissy warns of bloodshed to follow, but her fortune telling De Vane cards can give her no real clues. Then the Sawyers realise the terrible truth about who the Red Mask killers are, and the only way in which they can be neutralised is to resurrect Sissy’s dead policeman husband.

This is a book about which I have very mixed feelings. It’s billed as ‘A Sissy Sawyer Mystery’ and is the second in what appears to be an ongoing series. As far as that goes, Sissy comes over as an older version of Medium’s Allison Dubois. The character is amiable enough, and a lot of the book’s strength comes from the family interaction and the depth given to her psychic activities. There is plenty of interest in the attitudes of other family members, both to the psychic side of things, where son Trevor is sceptical, and the implications of bringing back Sissy’s husband. The Red Mask attacks are described in a lively and exciting manner, graphic enough to chill the reader but not gratuitous.

The reservations I have concern the plot, in that so much of it seems obvious or simply not thought out. Molly discovers her paintings come to life. For most people the normal reaction would be to start drawing objects with a pecuniary value, but that never occurs to these characters, and the explanation we are eventually given for Molly’s newfound talent seems like a plot convenience of the first water, something that might have cut the mustard in a supernatural-lite show like Charmed, but seems wholly misplaced in a novel where people are being gruesomely slaughtered. As to Red Mask, I guessed the explanation for his appearance almost immediately, but it took the characters almost half the book to catch on, and that explanation brings further problems, which I can’t elaborate on without committing the cardinal sin of dropping a plot spoiler or two. I also guessed what really happened with the original attack, which again left the characters puzzled.

There’s an ethical dimension to the book which wasn’t satisfactorily explored at all. The actions of some of the characters, albeit unintended, caused the deaths of more than forty people, but this doesn’t seem to give anyone a second’s pause. The character who is the most culpable gets away with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist, which doesn’t really sit well with me. Yes, in practical terms nothing can be done, as the supernatural is not recognised in a court of law, but all the same I would expect the characters to manifest some show of regret or guilt, even while recognising that it wasn’t really their fault. Their apparent indifference makes me care all the less about them, which is not good for an ongoing series.

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Trailer Trash – Amityville: The Awakening

I suspect that for many this film will be as hard a sell as the house itself.

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A Haunting We Will Go Again

Three films with ‘Haunt’ in the title, and all watched comparatively recently.

A Haunting in Massachusetts (2014)

This is a curious film, and nothing at all like the spooky, children in peril flick suggested by the illustration on the DVD case. Tom and Brenda have the perfect life in LA – he’s a successful architect and she jogs – but then Brenda gets violently raped in her own home and it all comes tumbling down. They, with their son Rodger, head back to New England and Brenda’s family home, where her father welcomes them to stay despite obvious disapproval of Tom. And from there things go from bad to worse, with evidence of supernatural intrusions and the couple’s attempts to save their marriage getting twisted into malignant patterns. Somehow they have become involved in an ancient feud between a dead Viking warrior and a witch. Tom determines to save his wife and son, not realising that in fact it is he himself who is in danger. I’m not sure what to think of this film – there is some vivid imagery, a few solid scare moments, and at times it can be quite harrowing, as with Brenda’s rape, the sexual violence in the couple’s relationship, and the final fate of Tom. On the downside, I couldn’t really make much sense of the whole thing with the Viking and the witch, and the scenes in which their history was acted out seemed hopelessly naff, as if somebody had thought to do something different with a ghost story, but then failed to think through the implications of their plan. It’s a film where I feel I need to watch it again to make up my mind, but at the same time there’s nothing that really prompts me to make such an effort, which kind of tells its own story.

The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

I saw this at the cinema when it first came out, and remember vaguely liking it, which is an opinion that still stands today after watching the DVD. Sara moves her family, including recovering alcoholic husband Peter, into a house closer to the hospital where son Matt is being treated for cancer. Matt chooses to make his bedroom in the basement, where a secret doorway is soon discovered and the family learns that they have moved into a former mortuary. It’s the launch pad for a whole barrage of fright sized special effects, with exorcist Nicholas on hand to help out, as they slowly delve ever deeper into the past of the house and the acts of necromancy practised by its former owner. Cue the inevitable release of spirits and an act of spiritual catharsis. It’s a feel good movie, one where the natural order is threatened but eventually family values and ‘no greater love’ surge forth victorious, and yeah, I guess I have no real complaints on that score. The parts are all played with panache, with special kudos to Virginia Marsden as mother Sara, Kyle Gallner as Matt, and Elias Koteas as Nicholas. There are jump moments and a suitably garish and grotesque back story. At times it’s quite cringe-making. Despite all that though, it feels like stuff we’ve seen plenty of times before and done better, and there’s nothing on the supernatural side of things that can compete with the horror of Matt’s cancer.

Haunt (2014)

Same old, same old. The Asher family move into a house with a history, and soon after son Evan starts experiencing paranormal activity. With the help of mysterious neighbour girl Samantha, who is being abused by her father, Evan investigates further. They discover a hidden room and an Electronic Voice Phenomena box that was used by a previous occupant of the house to communicate with the dead, and they decide to follow in his footsteps. It’s a bad move, and inevitably things go pear shaped. I enjoyed this one, without wanting to go overboard in praising it. There’s some good characterisation, with the burgeoning romance between Evan and Samantha convincing. There are some nicely shot scenes, especially the first night time meeting between the two young lovers. The whole thing with EVP adds a novel element to the haunting, one that hasn’t been used ad infinitum like most of the tricks of the haunting horror subgenre. And there is a mystery involved in the story as well, so that we can get some fun out of figuring out who the characters are, both the living and the dead, and where they fit into the final pattern. There’s nothing to dislike really, just a competently written and executed chiller.

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Filler content with novellas

Below are reviews of four novellas published by Spectral Press that originally appeared in Black Static #48.

NB: Subsequent to problems at Spectral Press at the start of the year, three of these novellas are now published by Snowbooks.


You can’t keep a good monster down, or so they say, and as if to prove the point John Llewellyn Probert’s arch-villain is back for second helpings of a dish best served cold in THE HAMMER OF DR VALENTINE (Spectral Press hc, 99pp, £21). With the author’s British Fantasy Award winning formula improved by adding a touch of thwarted thespian Edward Lionheart to the mix, this time around our evil genius du jour is murdering the journalists who trashed him in the press, and trawling the back catalogue of Hammer Films for his templates.

We open with a man hurled from a catapult and impaled on a cross, continue with deaths by having the ceiling fall on top of you, hanging, acid and other equally inventive methods of terminating a life. While DI Longdon and his team struggle to keep up, Valentine and his mysterious female assistant always remain one step ahead, until the erstwhile detective gets with the programme and uses his knowledge of Hammer lore to get the jump on his nemesis (well, somebody else’s knowledge – the DI isn’t as culturally astute as he could be). But of course nothing turns out quite how you expect it.

Though some of the novelty has undoubtedly worn off, this is still, just like its predecessor The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine, a hugely entertaining read, with echoes of its inspiration in the career of the inimitable Dr. Phibes, so much so that you can almost hear that sepulchral organ music playing as you read. There’s an exciting story, dashes of humour and, believe it or not, some serious points being made about the nature of tabloid journalism along the way, so that like Longdon and his fellows you can almost sympathise with Valentine. And, of course, there are all the film references to pick up on, adding an extra dimension to the story, one that will be enjoyed by the cognoscenti without detracting from the fun for those who have reached an appropriate reading age without ever having experienced the crimson stained delights of a Hammer film. I loved it and hope that there will be another book in the series. (And if you thought I was going to say anything negative about this novella, then you’re obviously not familiar with the plot of Theatre of Blood.)

Told from the viewpoint of Frank, a teacher currently suspended while an accusation of assaulting a student is resolved, Mark Morris’ novella ALBION FAY (Spectral Press hc, 129pp, £21) opens with a funeral. As we read on we learn that it is the funeral of his brother in law and two children, apparently murdered by Frank’s twin sister Angie, who has disappeared. But the underlying reasons for this tragedy, if any, are rooted in the distant past. A childhood holiday spent at the isolated house known as Albion Fay, and the caves behind the house to which are attached local legends of the Fay and changelings, all of which fascinated Angie, who claimed that she could see “night people” inside them and then inexplicably disappeared, returning a day later with no explanation as to where she had been and, to Frank at least, seeming changed. And then there is the family’s troubled history, the tale of an unhappy marriage and an abusive relationship that ended horribly, actions which perhaps the younger generation are fated to repeat.

What we have here is a beautifully written novella, one that engages the attention with a compelling plot and fully realised characters. The backdrop of Albion Fay and the surrounding countryside is strongly rendered, with the landscape itself seeming imbued with mystery and magic, in many ways reminding me of the work of Machen and Blackwood, while the local legends recounted by the children the twins meet add a fascinating new dimension to the story. Frank, a somewhat distant and timidly aloof character, and Angie, outgoing and self-confident at first, but then transformed into someone damaged by an experience of which she can never speak, are both convincingly portrayed, while the picture of a broken marriage and the effect it can have on children is powerfully conveyed, with scenes that tear at the heart strings. And ditto for the picture of Frank’s mother, in her later years beset with dementia and remembering everything through a fog. While the supernatural elements seem to be in the very forefront of the story, Morris leaves open the possibility that they are simply the projections of a damaged psyche, an excuse or justification of sorts for the terrible thing that Angie does. It’s a clever gambit and one that he pulls off with aplomb. I loved everything about this story and hope that it does well for the author.

THE BUREAU OF THEM (Spectral Press eBook, 60pp, £1.99) by Cate Gardner is the story of Katy who is grieving for her dead boyfriend Glynn, but even thirteen months after he was killed the pain is no less. Her friends are concerned about her mental health. But then she sees his ghost in the shell of a derelict building, one of a horde of the dead. It is the start of a blurring of the lines between everyday reality and the world of the dead, one of condemned buildings and people with ashen pallor, who can remember little of their past lives but whose bitterness and anger at the living knows no bounds. It is a world dominated by the trickster figure of Yarker Ryland and the shaman Amos who appears to Katy as a tramp. Her ally is Peter, the man who walks with the dead, with a tattoo on his arm that reads “Property of the Bureau of Them, Us and You”. Katy is warned that she will never escape, but her overriding thought is to rescue Glynn from the arms of the dead, or to be reunited with him through her own death at their hands.

There are echoes here of Japanese film Kairo, but done as if the character of Betelgeuse has been intruded into the plot courtesy of the acerbic Yarker Ryland. Initially passive, Katy is transformed by her ordeal, her inability to let go carried over into another world, where she becomes the monster. From the perspective of the dead it is the living who are ghosts, needing only to be set free from the prison of flesh. Their anger at being forgotten, at seeing the living come to terms with their grief and move on, is a catalyst for destruction. They want to infect the whole world with their anger. This novel approach with its attendant reversal of usual values, thrusting the desires of the dead into the foreground of the plot, is what makes Gardner’s work so effective, a surreal variation on the traditional ghost story that is powerful and affecting for the way in which it places emotions under the microscope, dealing with the commonplace of loss in a strikingly original manner, showing the steps that lead to the creation of a vengeful spirit.

Like Stephen Volk’s previous Spectral novella LEYTONSTONE (Spectral Press hc, 117pp, £21) offers a different slant on the life of a film world luminary, in this case the director Alfred Hitchcock, though hardly as generous to its subject as Whitstable was with Peter Cushing. It expands on an earlier story, ‘Little H’, and takes as its starting point a supposedly true incident from the childhood of the master of suspense in which the boy is taken by his father and delivered into the hands of the local police officer, who lets him spend a night in the cells to toughen the boy up. The policeman takes a gleeful delight in tormenting his young charge, giving Fred new things to worry about, such as not getting fed and the rats nibbling at his toes. So far, so good, with what could almost be a master class in crafting the escalating tension and sense of menace for which Hitchcock was known. In the aftermath of the incident, feelings of guilt inspired by religion, a burgeoning sexuality and the sensation prone magazines that the boy reads, all come into play, and the lesson that Hitchcock takes from the experience is not the one his father intended. He starts playing tricks on other children, culminating in the imprisonment of a young girl in a room in an abandoned house. But there are consequences.

This is an engrossing story, one which chronicles the birth of a fantastic imagination and the events that shaped Hitchcock to his role as purveyor of terror. Volk deftly slots each incident into the plot, each reinforcing all the others, so that we never doubt the portrait of a tortured and tormenting genius that emerges from the morass. Fred isn’t really evil as such, but his moral standards are pushed more to the amoral side of the scale by the lessons he learns, and it is the resulting streak of creative ruthlessness, the willingness to go that extra step and make his lies believable, that provides the bedrock for Hitchcock’s later success on a world stage. He has discovered that the world is not fair and that good is not rewarded and evil not punished, at least not automatically. He acted badly and got away scot free, while his victim was punished even though entirely blameless. It simply came down to which of them could produce the most credible account of what took place, with young Fred’s lies more convincing than the truth. Conversely his father, in attempting to toughen up his son, is punished by the subsequent demands made by the policeman, and it is his wife, the boy’s mother, who pays the price for Fred’s sins. Nobody here is left unsullied, except perhaps Olga, who has all the sense of virtue punished that we could expect from a heroine in the novels of De Sade. It is a disturbing book, both for the details of the story that it tells, all of which are unsettling, but also for the subtext which tells us that genius, the artistic creations which we admire so much, may all be mired in blood and shit. Actions have consequences, but they are not always the ones you expect, and the mind of the auteur seeks to bend them to his benefit with little regard for the effect on others.

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Graphic Miscellany #2

Three more graphic novels read recently:-

Constantine the Hellblazer Volume 1: Going Down

Written and illustrated by Diverse Hands

This volume collects together the first six issues of DC’s 2015 relaunch of the character. Having never read any of the books before, I know Constantine only from the Keanu Reeves’ film, and this is nothing much like that. The character as portrayed here put me in mind of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius – sharp dresser, androgynous, English, mouthy git. He performs various occult deeds during the course of the book, moving effortlessly through a liminal society where our world and that of the supernatural overlap. The main storyline however concerns a vengeance demon that is consuming the ghosts that attend Constantine, and to deal with that he has to travel back to London and revisit somebody from his past, giving us the cue for a wealth of back story. Oh, and along the way he picks up a new boyfriend, which is probably going to lead to all sorts of trouble in the future. It’s a fascinating and elaborately constructed piece of work, one where you have the impression of a whole world of the unknown just waiting to be discovered by the reader – the nearest comparison I can think of is Sunnydale in the Buffy TV series, with its bars and clubs where humans and other entities rub shoulders, only here it’s done on a worldwide scale. The various adventures are handled well, convincing once you allow for the existence of the occult, while Constantine himself is a memorable character, one who constantly rubs everyone else up the wrong way, cocky and arrogant, and perhaps afraid to let himself get too close to anyone and so using attitude to keep them at a distance (the new boyfriend is initially repelled). The artwork is inventive and varied, an almost trippy sensitivity colliding headlong with much darker sensibilities to keep the reader off balance and unsure what to expect next. I liked it a lot, and at some point hope to catch up on previous incarnations of the character.

Darksiders II: Death’s Door

Written by Andrew Kreisberg & David Slagle, illustrated by Roger Robinson & Michael Atiyeh

The hero of the story is Death, he of the pale horse. Death is asked by head angel Abaddon to travel to Earth to defeat a rogue demon, but to do so he must work under the radar of the Charred Council, who have not allowed this mission. Death agrees to take on the task, but the rogue demon is not quite as advertised, which causes certain complications. And that is pretty much all there is to it, though they pad things a little with tales of Death’s past and history with the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and there’s a mysterious character who looks like Clint in High Plains Drifter mode. It’s all window dressing though, at least within the context of this particular adventure. The appeal of the book lies in the vibrant artwork, and as far as that goes I’ll admit to being impressed. There are some visionary and spectacularly rendered scenes of combat and otherworldly tableau, all of which put me very much in mind of the work of Jack Kirby, though here done with a subtle blurring of the edges and modern feel to it, with the use of scarlet and bone white tones enhancing the atmosphere of the story. I liked it to look at, but aside from gaping in awe there’s really not a lot here to remember or encourage me to seek out more in the series.


Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Darick Robertson

Angels and demons are okay for the existential stuff, but for real evil you need human beings, and that’s what we get in this sleazy, gritty tale. Nick Sax is not a nice man: he used to be a cop, but now he’s a contract killer. Unfortunately he over achieves on his latest job of work, taking out four underworld figures, not three. The fourth man held the password to a fortune, and the mob boss thinks Nick knows what that password is. With a gunshot wound, Nick is shacked up in a mob hospital with a gang of professional torturers waiting for him to come round. And then there is the tiny blue horse called Happy that only Nick can see, who tells him that he has to save a young girl being held prisoner by a killer in a Santa suit. The race against the clock begins. The whole thing with the password is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll let it go as it gives the bad guys a reason to chase Nick without actually killing him. There’s some good characterisation here, not just in Nick, who is sleazy as advertised though ultimately proving to have some redeeming features, but also in the bad guys, with their Trumpesque dialogue and plotting, and with the female detective Nick knows from the old days. The plot is reasonably complex, providing the pretext for plenty of ultra-violence and taking us far into the seedy underbelly of the porn industry (no plot spoilers, but this is definitely not for the faint hearted). While it’s simply a convenient way to get the plot moving, there is a certain logic behind the existence of Happy, the one outré element in this otherwise entirely realistic story, and it’s a stretch this reader was completely willing to make. Robertson’s artwork brings Morrison’s words to vibrant life on the page, stripping all romance out of the text and bringing home the sleaziness of what is taking place. And the blue horse lurking in some of the panels adds a note of vibrancy to the generally noir tone of the work, assuring us that, no matter how bad things get (and they get very bad indeed), there’s always hope for a happy ending. I loved it.

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Song for a Saturday – I Love the Dead

I once answered the door to some trick or treaters while this was playing on the stereo.

I think they were impressed.

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