Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review: The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

Published: 1976

Synopsis: It was a freak accident. The man had suddenly stepped into the road, and the brakes had failed. Clare could only steer wildly, the car finally crashing into a tree and on to the kerb. Now her brother Rob was dead, silent in the passenger seat, slumped against the door. He died of massive head injuries. But there was something else, something that at first she couldn't uite grasp, that seemed inexplicable. His right arm was missing. Gone. Someone had taken it.

My Thoughts: Like most people who have read this book in the last 20 years, I was coerced to track down this book thanks to Stephen King's glowing review in Danse Macabre. During my search, I have encountered several very interesting interviews with him (including his contribution to Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown) and have found his views and philosophies on horror fiction to be congruent with my own. He understands the unique insights and experiences that horror/weird fiction provides. He doesn't shy away from the fact he is a horror writer - he revels in it - something I respect and applaud in the face of literary genre snobbery.

So naturally, when by chance I happened upon The Doll Who Ate His Mother while actively searching for Ramsey Campbell books at the Brisbane Lifeline Bookfest, I was beside myself. It is this perceived kinship I felt for Campbell through media which is probably responsible for the fact I wasn't blown away by this book. Don't get me wrong, it was a very strong first novel but its didn't tingle all my horror-nerves simultaneously. I just created expectations it couldn't match.

The second disservice to the book comes from its blurb, which dulls the effectiveness of the first scene. Which is why I have no problems spoiling it here. The first chapter introduces us to the protagonist (kind of) Clare, who accidently kills her brother in a car accident. At the scene of the crime, a mysterious figure who was partially responsible for causing her to crash makes off with her brother's severed arm. This ghoulish act comes as a shocking reveal in the chapter, but is already given away in the first sentence on the back cover. But I guess it's a good way to sell the story.

As for the character of Clare, I called her a protagonist with the qualifier 'kind of" because, while she was a fairly well developed character, she wasn't a powerful force in shaping how the story progressed. She acted more of a witness or as a tourist in the story - listening to other characters stories and finding clues without actually deciphering them herself. This might not have been Campbell's intention as not every chapter was set through her point of view, but overall I felt she was the character the reader was supposed to identify with. She was also the absolute last character to piece together the mystery in a terrific climax to the story, which I won't spoil.

I enjoyed Campbell's writing style, especially when it drifted into hallucinogenic territory. Right in the beginning, Clare sees a line of babies walking along a rooftop, but when she looks back at them they have turned into cats. I've heard this style become even more pronounced in some of his later novels (which might also explain his admiration for David Lynch. Note to self: Do an Eraserhead review), and writing horror that drifts in and out of the realm of dreams and nightmares is, in my opinion, a noble pursuit.

It is not a difficult read to get through, sitting comfortably at 280 pages in small paperback. I am eager to read more of Campbell, though I'll probably indulge in his short fiction before picking up one of his novels again for no reason other than his short fiction has been so widely praised. It is definitely not the genre-shaker that King suggested it might be, but it is a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

3.5 out of 5 (though I only paid $2.50 for it at the book fair)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Book review: The Fog by James Herbert

Published: 1975

Synopsis: The peaceful life of a village in Wiltshire is suddenly shattered by a disaster which strikes witout reason or explanation, leaving behind it a train of misery and horror. A yawning, bottomless crack spreads through the earth, out of which creeps a fog that resembles no other. Whatever it is, it must be controlled; for whereever it goes it leaves behind a trail of disaster as hideous as the tragedy that marked its entry into the world. The fog, quite simply, drives people insane.

My Thoughts: A couple of weeks ago, armed with a copy of Stephen King's Danse Macabre, Tom and I made our way through the maze that is the Brisbane Bookfest looking for some classic, quality horror to add to our collection. This classic James Herbert book was on Stephen's huge index of must-reads, and we certainly weren't going to question the King's recommendation or turn away from the $2 price tag.

The Fog isn't quite what I thought it was going to be. The book starts off with an earthquake that not only decimates half a small town, but releases the deadly fog that will become, in a way, the antagonist in the story. The next few chapters montage a collection of different people's interaction with the fog and their subsequent reaction to it. Though the fog will cause insanity in anyone who comes into contact with it, the way that insanity manifests is almost never the same. Common seems to be a desire to harm yourself and others, but it seems that depending on your personal morals and personality, the perverseness and method you choose alters greatly. So when a priest goes mad he exposes his penis to his congregation, while a scorned poacher draws and quarters the man who'd had him arrested and the man's family. As the fog moves across England, these interactions are scattered through the main story, and I have to say these were easily my favourite bits. These vignettes held some of the most poignant interactions and emotions in the entire book, and to see these people progress from their daily life to spiralling into insanity was, in some cases, absolutely heartbreaking. Herbert certainly has a talent for creating, within a paragraph or two, an entire life for someone, and then decimating them in equal space. They rarely live on in the pages after their insanity sets in, but their role in the story is a heavy one, without them the main story wouldn't have the force it needs to impact the reader.

John Holman is the central character of the book and the first victim of the fog. Thanks to a blood transfusion for injuries he sustained in the earthquake, he not only recovered from the fog's insanity but became immune to it. Because of this he finds himself the most important man in England, and is soon working alongside the government to try and work out where it originated, what it is, and how they can stop it. Not only is the state of the country, or even the world at stake, but John's girlfriend Casey soon falls victim to the fog and it's up to him to try and fix things. While the smaller character vignettes are more traditionally horror (some of the scenes are pretty perverse and graphically violent) the main story featuring John soon falls into a more thriller/action story. It's a war story, but instead of being pitted against the Russians, or Middle Eastern forces, or the Chinese, their enemy is a yellowish dense fog that's drifting across the English countryside. So at the same time as being fairly conventional, it's completely unconventional, but the fresh and unique view usually dominates any expected reactions/actions/plot points.

If it wasn't for the fog victim's small stories I possibly would have found myself bored with this book. The writing was, for the most part, really tight and interesting, and the characters, dialogue and situations were well crafted, but I don't often enjoy sitting down and reading an action novel. Those small chapters of horrific content, and diverse characters were enough to pique my interest, but if you aren't a fan of the more action driven novel, then perhaps this won't be the book for you. The only other detractor in the story, for me, was the handling of homosexual characters. There were two, a female and a male, and both were featured within the small character vignettes, and both stories made me feel a little uncomfortable. Both tales focus on how unnatural or deviant their sexual interests are, the man (a teacher) is painted as some deviant sexual predator thanks to the old "gay men shouldn't be around children because liking dudes is totally the same as liking children" bullshit, and the lesbian, though her love story is touching, is driven to suicide because her girlfriend decides to "become normal" and turns her back on her shameful past. Is James Herbert homophobic? No, I doubt it. But the fact of the matter is, the only two gay characters in the book are painted as awkward, deviant, wrong and shameful, and whether that's because of the time that the book was written or because of the author's personal beliefs, it made me feel icky. But perhaps that's just me reading too much into a situation, or maybe I'm just overly sensitive about those issues. It wasn't enough for me to avoid recommending the book, but it was enough that I felt like I had to mention it.

There are a lot of things great about this novel, the atmosphere, the concept, the small character pieces, the relationship between John and his girlfriend, but there are also some negatives. This was James Herbert's second novel, and I think that shows, but it is also clear why this novel became such a classic and is admired by so many. So unless the addition of political/military action is enough to turn you away, I think this is a book that all horror literature enthusiasts should read and would enjoy.

3.5/5 miles of sickly yellow fog.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Academic mini-reviews - Zombies!

I spent 2011 researching and writing an honours thesis on the changing representation of the zombie in western films, so as you can imagine I read quite a few of the books on zombies available. Here are just a few of the books I read which helped formulate my research plan and provided hours of interesting philosophical, cinematic, and metaphorical debate on the subject.

Gospel of the Living Dead by Kim Paffenroth

my rating: 4/5

This book was an incredible look into the deconstruction of Romero's zombie 'Dead' series through a religious lens. Paffenroth's use of theological beliefs and theories in conjunction with zombie depiction provided an interesting and informative glimpse into modern America and commented on several aspects of today's society and religion. Bonus points were given for working Dante into the analysis.

The Book of the Dead by Jamie Russel

My rating: 5/5

A fantastically detailed look at the evolution of the zombie from its Haitian origins up to its most recent cinematic features. Jamie Russell distances himself enough to talk about the movies in terms of their technical and critical successes and favours, rather than simply talking about the ones he enjoyed the most, which I've found many other zombie film critics to do. As a student doing my thesis on zombies in film this book was indispensable, but it's interesting and entertaining enough to be read by a zombie enthusiast also. Chock full of film reviews and colour pictures of their release posters and film stills too.

My rating: 3.5/5

This book examined Romero's film cannon (not simply his zombie films) with a concentration on the link between his work and literary naturalism, which was a lens I hadn't seen used in conjunction with zombies before. While the analysis on some of the films felt lacking and seemed more like a regurgitation of the events of the films, overall it was a comprehensive, unique and interesting view on Romero's style of film-making.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Film Review: Henry, Portrait of a serial killer (1986)

Directed by: John McNaughton

Starring: Michael Rooker
Tracey Arnold
Tom Towles

Synopsis: Based on the life and killings of Henry Lee Lucas famed American serial killer who now resides on death row in Texas. Its always the quiet ones. How many time have we heard this phrase used to describe a killer? Too often. Henry is the boy next door who just can't get the taste for murder out of his mouth. It all started when he was an abused child.

My thoughts: Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of those films I think any horror/thriller enthusiast is expected to watch. Kind of like Night of the Living Dead, Silence of the Lambs and The Thing.  It just so happened that neither Tom nor I had gotten around to seeing this one, so we decided to finally cross this one of the list.

From the very first minute you're witness to the brutality of Henry, with a montage of 5 murder victims laying prone in the various surroundings while the sounds of their murders play over the top. The worst, perhaps, is the woman sitting half naked on a toilet with a bottle wedged deep into her eye. Though you only see the after-effects of the attacks, their screams for help and the squealchy or thunking sounds of attack were probably the most traumatic aspect of the film for me. The scene lasted so long, that Tom even asked me if this was going to be the entire film, and I have to say, if it was, I probably wouldn't have lasted longer than 15 minutes. Not because it would be slow/boring, but because I think it'd probably haunt me a lot more than actually seeing a man attack other people. I think there's something about savage amounts of gore or violence in film that makes it impossible to see it realistically, this opening scene however, doesn't let you escape the reality of a serial killer.

Though you do eventually see Henry actually kill people in the film, this motif of the sounds of the attack played over their image is repeated several times through the film, always inspiring the same reaction from me. I'd say this is the most successful aspect of the film, and probably one of the reasons the film has gone down as such a "must see" classic. The other factor in its success has to be Michael Rooker's performance, and the character of Henry himself. As the film moves from ghastly murder, to lunch at a dinner, to a quiet evening dinner with his housemate (and soon to be accomplice) Otis and Otis's sister (Becky), to murdering a man over a TV, Henry switches between quiet guy next door who is police and respectful to an apathetic brutal serial killer. This is one of the comments that always comes up when a serial killer is finally caught, so many friends/family/acquaintances say "but he's so charming" or "he's quiet but he was always so polite and helpful". Henry perfectly demonstrated how smoothly a man (or woman, no bias here!) can move between their two personas effortlessly and become all the more dangerous because of it.

So the basic premise of the movie is that it focuses on Henry and his relationship between Otis and Becky. Becky has just flown in after escaping from her psycho husband, and while she looks for work takes the spare room at Otis and Henry's home. While Becky bonds with Henry over their shared experiences of abuse at the hands of their parents, she experiences the "good" side of Henry, with him often coming to her defence when her brother makes sleazy passes at her. Otis, on the other hand, gets to meet the serial killer side, and quickly takes up the occupation for himself. Though Henry is the focus of the film, personally I found Otis far more disturbing. He's aggressive and perverse and he has no control over himself. While Henry is creepy because of his removed view of life as a serial killer (it's almost like it's a job to him), Otis is unable to stop himself once he gets going, and on more than occassion Henry has to discipline him like he's some kind of animal.

While I found the premise and the psychology behind this film fascinating, it fell short for me. Other than Rooker, the actors playing Otis and Becky were less than stellar. Both seemed new to the game and often had that focused look on their face when they recited a significant chunk of lines. The transparency of the acting definitely removed much of the atmosphere for me and was the greatest let down. Other than the acting I'm not really sure I can provide a reason for why this film let me down a little. Perhaps it's because there have been some incredible serial killer films released since, or maybe it's simply a little dated now, but I finished the movie feeling a little "meh" about the whole thing. This seems to be the opposite reaction to quite a few of the reviews on IMDB, but for me it was just...lacking.

While there was a serial killer named Henry Lee Lucas who did have an accomplice named Otis who had a relative (a cousin) named Becky, a quick google search suggests that much of this movie seems to be fabricated. That isn't a big issue for me, but for those of you who enjoy films that closely follow the lives of serial killers this may just be a deal breaker. Regardless, you probably should see this film, because it definitely has its place in horror/thriller film cannon, but be prepared to be a little underwhelmed.

3 out of 5 blood stained suitcases.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

Directed by: John Carpenter

Starring: Sam Neil Julie Carmen Jurgen Prochnow

Synopsis: An insurance investigator begins discovering that the impact a horror writer's books have on his fans is more than inspirational.

My thoughts: In the Mouth of Madness is the third movie in John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy and the third movie we saw in our semi-regular movie nights (coincidently, The Thing was the first we saw). It has Sam Neill, it has John Carpenter, it has awesome practical special effects - but it lacked something.
The plot follows Sam Neill character, a professional bullshit-spotter (insurance investigator) who is hired by a publisher to track-down their most successful horror author, Sutter Cane, who has gone AWOL. By using clues hidden in Cane's earlier books, Sam Neill discovers the location of a town named Hobb's End. After arriving in town, he discovers that Hobb's End has probably been written into existence by Cane (who looks strangely like Neil Gaiman), and bad, nightmarish stuff starts to happen.

While everything was solid, it felt like I'd seen everything before. The sceptical protagonist, fiction turning into reality, malevolent creatures from another dimension that send you mad when you look upon them - these are conventions I've seen often enough that, while it could keep me watching, it never moved me to the edge of my seat. It could be that so many authors and film makers have borrowed ideas from this movie that they now seems ubiquitous (the game Alan Wake, for example, owes a huge debt to this film), but there was nothing really in the film that I haven't seen done better somewhere else.

That said, there is a lot in this movie and I don't think there are many other directors who could have take this on and kept it coherent. The story twists and turns, but Carpenter keeps the audience on top of it all - no small feat. As I said before, this film has some great effects including but not limited to: creepy-back-of-head face (like in Harry Potter, but cooler), twisted spider-walking people (like The Exorcist, but not as cool), and lashing tentacle granny (like in The Thing, equally as cool [note from Kayleigh: Tentacle Granny is really fucking cool.]). Another thing the film had going for it was casting Sam Neill in the lead. Consciously putting my affection for Mr Neill aside, he delivered a terrific and believable performance. And I mean that objectively. Well, as objectively as someone who once ordered a portrait of him online can be. Performance by supporting cast was also strong across the board. No complaints in that area at all.

The final act was a bit problematic for me. Get ready for some spoilers....

It turns out Cane is a puppet for creatures from another dimension that want to come here and do terrible things to us. This final turn screams Lovecraft, but without a purpose. There was so much in this film already in terms of psychological horror, supernatural horror and in a way, body horror - it was just too many things by the end of the film. Furthermore, creatures from beyond the realm of the conceivable, the very sight of whom drive the behold mad, work a lot better when you don't get a good look at them
Overall its a good effort and very worthwhile for John Carpenter completionists, but it lacks anything truly unique or that will one day make it a classic.

3 out of 5 Sutter Cane sequels

Monday, January 16, 2012

Audio Book Review: H.P. Lovecraft Volume 1

HP Lovecraft: Volume 1 (Audiobook)
by H.P. Lovecraft

Synopsis: An anthology of some of H.P Lovecraft's shortstories;

The alchemist ****
The festival ***
The beast in the cave ***
Beyond the wall of sleep *****
Facts concerning the late Arthur German and his family ***
The descendant ***
The hound ****
From beyond ****
Cool air ****
The white ship ***
The call of Cthulhu *****

This audiobook has stumped me, It wasn't a personal purchase and I actually don't know how it came to be on my iPod! My last laptop died so I'm currently without itunes so I can't hunt through my files for more info, and because Lovecraft is such a prolific short story there are hundreds of anthologies of his work and I simply can't find this particular one. What I can say though is that many of the stories in my mystery anthology were also part of an anthology titled The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird StoriesThat anthology was made up primarily with Lovecraft stories which were first published in Weird Tales, a fantasy and horror pulp magazine. One of the few details my audiobook did provide me with (other than the story title) was the date of publication, and while some weren't actually published in Weird Tales, they were written or published in the same era of his career.

Before I even begin to talk about the stories themselves I want to discuss Lovecraft's distinct writing style, or to be more exact his mastery at wordcraft. Lovecraft has an unbelievable ability to write an attractive sentence. I'm not talking about the actual content of the sentence here, simply the sound and the rhythm the words make. Rich and thick like syrup they swirl around your head in the most exquisite of manners. They trip off the tongue with ease and yet they hold such weight. It was extremely hard for me to pay attention to the stories because just listening to the lyric/poetic like quality of his word choices was almost all consuming!

On to the actual stories, overall I found them to be rich and exciting tales that captivated my attention and were filled with that exciting and suspenseful Gothic style horror. All the stories built up their suspense so quietly and so neatly that I would be startled when I realised my heart was beating faster or that I'd stopped wiping down the bathroom counter and was instead frozen listening intently. Of course considering the age of the stories some of the 'twists' and final reveals were almost comical to me but even if I found the end of some (The Beast in the Cave) a little silly or over-dramatic (which may have been the fault of the audiobook narrator) the build to that conclusion was still quite fantastic. As I was reading a few reviews on websites about Lovecraft and these stories for this review I came across a sentence by a Lovecraft scholar named Peter Cannon that I thought perfectly described the tales (though it was written specifically about The Call of Cthulhu), it said the story was "ambitious and complex...a dense and subtle narrative in which the horror gradually builds to cosmic proportions."

 There is a real struggle with the self present in the stories, present I'd imagine because they are all told from the first person perspective and most seem to take a confessional tone. All the narrators confess to a momentous struggle they once fought through or in some cases are still fighting against. The nature of the struggle changes, in some instance it's an actual fight with some form of supernatural being while other times it's a more internal struggle, where they have to fight against the science and reason they've always adhered to which has now been shattered by their sighting of a demon or conversation with an alien. While much of the actual story takes place in the physical realm, the real story takes place in the mind of the narrator, how he deals with it, how he communicates, how he fixes on certain details.

My favourite story was Beyond the Wall of Sleep, in which the narrator was an intern at a mental hospital who relates to the reader his experiences with a particular patient, John Slater, weeks before the man died. During his sleep Slater has fits during which he rants about things that can't possibly be found on Earth, and a mysterious being who wants to hurt Slater. As Slater approaches death the narrator hooks them both up to a two-way telepathy device and finds that a being supremely made of light appears to be using the body of John Slater as a medium for communication. What I loved about this story was what happened next (which I won't describe in detail for fear of spoilers) as the alien/being of light communicates with the young intern narrator which such profundity and emotion that I was completely transfixed. Again I have to return to Lovecraft's use of language, a similar story in the hands of someone who can't manipulate words into such heavy, lyrical and emotive sentences most likely would have failed.

My only real complaint has nothing to do with the actual books but the audiobook narration. With each monster/alien/creature came  a new 'voice'. Some of these voices were fine, they were deep or reverberated but were easy to understand. Others were insanely difficult to understand even the smallest of words. The worst was probably the voice used in Beyond the Wall of Sleep which sounded like a possessed Scooby-Doo, I couldn't understand a word of it, and actually had to re-listen to the last half of the story about 3 times before I got the gist of it. Because the monster's speeches are often quite profound and some of the most interesting parts to the story it was a real shame to not be able to understand everything they were saying, especially when what they were saying was also crucial to the plot (or that was the feeling I'd get anyway). I had wanted to physically read the stories anyway since so much gets lost when you listen rather than physically read but because of these voices I'll definitely have to read them so that I can piece together a couple of the stories that don't seem to make complete sense to me.

It is easy to see the impact these tales and Lovecraft himself had on horror writers like Clive Barker and Stephen King and listening to these tales gave a great insight into the foundations of the horror genre as well as being extremely captivating and enjoyable. I highly recommend these to anyone who enjoys horror but isn't necessarily looking for a scare, for while the tension builds and there are frightening images they most likely won't stop you from getting to sleep at night.

4.5 out of 5 calls from Cthulu I won't be returning.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary's Baby 
Written by Ira Levin

Published: 1967

Synopsis: She is a housewife - young, healthy, blissfully happy. He is an actor- charaismatic and ambitious. The spacious sun-filled apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side is their dream home - a dream that turns into an unspeakable nightmare...

My thoughts: Rosemary is a young newly-wed who is desperate to start a family with her actor husband, Guy. He seems a little reticent (even though he's 9 years older) and doesn't want to even think about it before he's had his "big break". The book begins when the two of them find out an apartment is available at the Bramford, a HUGE Victorian-esque apartment complex in New York that has a rather shady past. It was home to the Trench sisters who used to eat children, A Satanist/witch named Marcato also called it home, and some other names are thrown in without any specification of what horrible nastiness they committed, perhaps they were hit-men, mafia bosses, cannibals, witches, or god knows what else?! Because of an unhappy situation involving the suicide of a young woman Rosemary had only met the previous day, Rosemary and Guy finally meet their loud and rather obnoxious older neighbours, Minnie and Roman. After a first awkward dinner party with Minnie and Roman, Rosemary is ready to sever ties with them, but when Guy (who had issues with his parents growing up) seems to take a real liking to them, she lets it go and goes back to keeping house.

Which is what much of the book is about, keeping house. Rosemary is your typical 1960s housewife, she takes pride in keeping a beautiful house for her husband and entertaining friends in their well-kept home. So as minor narration describes Guy spending hours next door with the oldies and doing rather badly in his auditions, and some weird dinner party singing/chanting coming from next door, the main thrust follows Rosemary as she sews together pillows for their window seat, or daydreams about the yellow wallpaper she'll use when they covert the sitting room into a nursery. Now, don't get me wrong, it isn't written in a "she is a woman, this is her place" kind of way, it's simply following Rosemary in her daily life, and slowly hints at things being not quite right. She isn't a super hero, she isn't feuding with her husband, she isn't mega rich or super poor. She's a typical woman, living a typical life and enjoying it.

That said, she isn't a simple character, she's a very interesting woman who, as the book and the action progresses, is constantly torn between behaving in the approved female position (i.e. the man is right, do what he says) and speaking up for how she feels or when she doubts what a man is telling her. For example, after settling into their apartment, Guy's luck is looking up and the play he was desperate to play a part in, which had been cast without him, offers him the lead role. With his career looking up, they decide it's time to start their family, and Rosemary prepares a beautiful dinner to lead into their night of baby-making. After a few too many drinks (*ahem* drugged chocolate mousse) Rosemary passes out in her bed and "dreams" some really crazy crap which eventuates with the devil himself raping her. When she makes up the next morning with scratches covering her body, Guy laughs it off by saying he's cut down his nails already and "sorry, but I was super excited about having a baby. Whoops!". I'd already seen this in the film, but I couldn't hold back my inner WTF! If my husband said "oops, sorry I raped you but it's OK because BABY!" I'd cut his dick off. But Rosemary is torn between her obvious disgust, "but we could have done it this morning or tonight, last night wasn't the only night," and her conditioned response that the husband is right and good and all OK. After the whole thing swirls around her head, she takes off to a friend's house in the wood to re-evaluate their relationship without his interference. Now she may not come down on the side I would have, but the constant tug-a-war that occurred in her mind during this event and the others that occur is what makes this book interesting, especially in regards to the time the novel took place in.

But moving on, this book isn't simply about Rosemary keeping house, it's also about her being pregnant, and it's once she becomes pregnant that the horror element of the book really kicks in. Given the possible cause of her pregnancy, she doesn't have a simple or pain-free pregnancy, in fact she's so crippled with pain she ends up looking like a skeleton and can barely move from room to room. But no-one, not Guy, Roman and Minnie, nor her doctor seem to take her pleas for help seriously, and she fears for the life of her child. As the pain gets worse, she grows paranoid that everyone is in on a plot to steal her child away from her, and this is when the supernatural elements tied to the creepy old apartment building are tied in. The great thing about this book, is even as you find yourself caught up in the supernatural fear that Rosemary has, you find yourself questioning if she's not simply paranoid and perhaps losing her mind to the pregnancy-crazies just a little. It's because the first half of the book concentrates on the mundane and the ordinary so much, that you can never truly form an opinion one way or another. And this is coming from someone who'd seen the film several times before finally cracking open the book.

If you've seen the film and don't have a lot of spare time, perhaps skip this one, since in a rare occurrence the film is almost exactly the same, down to every last line. However, it really was a fascinating read, so if you're interesting to read what inspired the film, or you want to see an amalgam of 1960s horror and housewifery then head down to the library or book store and grab a copy. There is a sequel, set in 1999 I believe, but it's supposed to be absolutely rubbish. I've got a morbid fascination for those terrible sequels though, so I'll give it a go and let you all know how I find it!

4.5 out of 5 creepy old naked people standing around your bed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Film Review: The Reef (2010)

Directed by: Andrew Traucki

Starring: Damian Walshe-Howling
Gyton Grantley
Zoe Naylor
Adrienne Pickering

Synopsis: A great white shark hunts the crew of a capsized sailboat along the Great Barrier Reef.

My thoughts: A few weeks ago I was researching for my uni supervisor when this film came up. Usually I find myself pretty disappointed with shark films. Jaws, obviously, is a classic, but more often than not shark films tend to lean more towards the ridiculous (Deep Blue Sea, Shark Night) than the realistic. When a film does try to be realistic, like Open Water, I find myself bored by the shitty characters and slow pacing. That being said, for some reason I decided that perhaps this film would be different and maybe, hopefully, stand closer to Jaws than Raging Sharks.

The Reef follows Kate, her brother Matt, his girlfriend Suzie and Kate's ex-boyfriend Luke as they head out on a boat island hopping their way to Indonesia (or so one review stated, the film itself is less specific). Along with the group is Warren, the poor guy stuck navigating and sailing the boat while the other four lounge around in swimsuits and snorkelling along reefs. Aside from Warren and Luke, who both work on boats, none of them have any real experience in the water, and from the outset it seems as though they're a little unprepared for their journey.

After a luxurious day snorkelling on a small island things take a turn for the worse. As the four make their way back to the boat on a dinghy, it springs a leak after catching on some coral in the shallow water. Back on the boat, the engine has stalled and they have to sail their way out of the shallow coral infested water without its assistance. Then to top it off, after thinking they'd made it back out safely, they're woken with a shock the next morning when the boat strikes more coral and capsizes. When they make it out from under the boat and atop the floating hull they're faced with two options. Stay on the boat and face certain dehydration, starvation and sun-stoke as they float further out to sea, or take to the water and attempt to swim to an island that is 13 miles (20 kilometres give or take) away. Warren, the experienced boat hand, is certain he won't be getting in the water and he makes it crystal clear to the others that in their wetsuits they're going to look like juicy fat seals and the sharks which are definitely swimming around these waters will be only too eager to eat them up. Luke then rebuts this sensible statement by saying it'll only take them 3 hours and he can navigate with the sun and his watch. Warren stays put and Kate intends to stay with him, but when she sees the other three swim 50m she jumps in and decides to take her chances out in the open. This all happens within the first 25-30 minutes of the film. The next hour shows their struggle to swim in the open ocean, and a sudden unwelcome visitor spending far too much time splashing around near them.

Le sigh. OK, this movie wasn't bad. The splicing of real footage of great white sharks amongst the panicked swimmers was well done. Some of the composition probably could have been worked on for a little longer to clean up the edges, but overall it was far more effective and realistic than the traditional robot or CGI options. Unlike other shark films, there aren't prolonged scenes of the shark snapping at the swimmers. Instead they use (far more effectively in my opinion) longer shots which show the murky blue waters and the shadow of the shark swim into view, then out of view again, only to reappear closer on another side. It really emphasised the claustrophobic and hopeless trapped atmosphere that would be overwhelming if you ever found yourself in that situation. The only shot missing was of it's large shadow slipping down below their feet. That's such a classic shark film shot it seemed crazy for it to be absent, and it would have helped scale the size of the shark too. The acting, though a little wooden in the scenes before the shark attacks, was fairly realistic once the terror mounted. Sure it was mostly screaming and crying, but let's be honest, that's what we'd all be doing in their flippers.

OK, now on to the problems. First I should preface this by saying this was based on real events. Three trawler workers decided to risk the swim to a nearby island/reef when their boat capsized off the coast of Townsville. Along the way they were picked off by an aggressive tiger shark leaving only the one survivor who was picked up moments before his own certain death. The film takes an unbelievable but factual story and teases out all sense of reality. They seem completely unprepared for a voyage out on the open sea. When Luke goes to make breakfast on the second day he's faced with an empty cupboard. Exactly how long were they planning to be out on the water for? Then when Luke returns to the capsized, underwater cabin to try and find supplies he doesn't seem to be able to locate any life jackets or other necessary life saving devices found on boats. Then there's Luke's assertion that four weak swimmers would be able to swim 12 miles in under 3 hours in open water, with currents strong enough to drag their boat far from land. Then there's the scene when they all sleep in the water and somehow think they can pick up navigation the next day without having moved. Then there's the fact that the attacking shark is a great white which would almost never be found in Queensland waters. In this situation a tiger or bull shark would have been acceptable, and far more aggressive options that would also lend more accuracy to the story. Basically, the story is full of holes which I simply couldn't get past. I understand that your survival instinct kicks in and perhaps you don't think particularly rationally when your life is threatened, but most of the issues seemed like sloppy or slapdash research and writing by the production team.

Finally, there's the fact that the film is about 25 minutes too long. With these "realistic" animal attack or boat/plane/car accident films, I feel like shorter is always better. It was 45 minutes before the shark was finally more than a dark blur in the distance and attacked someone, but there was another 45 minutes after that which just dragged, even with added shark shots and attacks. There are so few options in these films, (stay on the boat or swim, drown, get lost, make it to island, or shark attack) and so little room for any sort of plot or character development, that they soon grow monotonous regardless of how successful and scary their FX are. Perhaps it was a fault of the movie (they are essentially one trick ponies), or just a symptom of my unbelievable impatience, but this film didn't have enough atmosphere or thrust to keep me interested for the entire film. I've heard the opposite from plenty of people though, so I guess it probably has more to do with me than the film in this case.

Overall, not a bad film, but not a great one either. Your enjoyment will really depend on your previous history with shark films. If, like me, you've seen all the dodgy shark-tacular films with the same CGI shark flipped and  stretched to 100 feet then this will probably seem a real winner. However, if all you have under your belt is Jaws, well...it could go either way. I've never seen more than 25 minutes of Open Water (there's that impatience again) but people have told me this is a similar but more successful version of that film. So then there's that to consider too. Ugh, I think this is perhaps the Schrodinger's cat of films, good or bad, success or failure, you won't know until you open the DVD box and chuck it in your player. Just don't blame me if you hate it. Or if it stops you from being able to dip your toes in the ocean for the next six months. Actually, I think that'd make it a success, so feel free to send me your thanks if that's your reaction!

3 out of 5 rotting sea turtle carcasses.