Sunday, 28 November 2010

Night of the Demon

Year: 1957
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester, based on the short story "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Athene Seyler
Running Time: 95 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural

Summary: American scientist Dr. John Holden (Andrews) arrives in England to work with Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), who was planning to expose a notorious Satanic cult led by Dr. Julian Karswell (MacGinnis) at a convention. However, when Holden arrives he is told that Harrington died the previous night in strange circumstances. Harrington's neice, Joanna (Cummins), believes that Karswell summoned a demon to kill Harrington, but the sceptical Holden laughs this off. As Holden continues the investigation into Karswell, he discovers that he has been slipped a paper covered with runic symbols, and is informed that he is in for three days of increasing supernatural terror before the demon comes for him.

Opinions: This British film (which was released under the title Curse of the Demon in the USA) is often acclaimed as one of the great horror films. In his previous films, such as Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), Tourneur developed a reputation for hinting at the horror without explicitly showing it, the idea being that often what you don't see is scarier than what you do see. This film uses a lot of his trademark style, such as deep shadows surrounding the characters, odd camera angles and the use of sound more than visuals to hint at the horror. However, the film's producers decided to show the demon itself right at the beginning of the movie, against the director's wishes (Tourneur later stated that "the audience should never have been completely certain of seeing the demon"), although, despite the common belief that the demon shots were inserted after the principal shooting was finished, some have said that showing the demon was planned early on in the production. The addition of the demon has long been divisive among fans of the movie. I think the film would have been stronger if the creature was implied rather than explicitly shown, and, certainly when seen today, the rubbery looking monster is almost more comical than scary.
The film's producer Hal E. Chester did not endear himself either to the film's star, Dana Andrews (who said that he would walk off the set if Chester did not stop interfering with Tourneur's work) or to screenwriter Charles Bennett (who, unhappy at changes to the script made by Chester, said that if Chester "walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead").
However, despite the production problems, the film remains a powerful and genuinely chilling film, with some great performances, in particular from Niall MacGinnis, as the avuncular but evil Karswell, complete with the most diabolic beard in cinema history.
Incidentally M. R. James, who wrote the original story, "Casting the Runes", is one of the greatest horror writers Britain ever produced. His stories, while not particularly gruesome, are genuinely creepy and very well worth checking out.
Similar territory to "Casting the Runes" and Night of the Demon was explored more recently in the Sam Raimi film Drag Me to Hell (2009), the basic storyline of which is quite similar to this one.

The controversial monster from Night of the Demon

Thursday, 25 November 2010

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson

Year of Publication: 2005
Number of Pages: 533 pages
Genre: Crime, thriller

Summary: Henrik Vanger is a very wealthy businessman and the elderly patriarch of the large and powerful Vanger family. However he is haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a sixteen year old relative 37 years earlier.
Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist and co-editor of the crusading, political Millennium magazine. However his career and the magazine's future are in serious jeopardy after he loses a very high profile libel case against a billionaire indutrialist. Vanger offers Blomkvist a job writing a history of the Vanger family, while in reality he is to investigate the disapperance.
As Blomkvist finds himself drawn into the dark secrets of the family he enlists the help of Lisabeth Salander, an enigmatic and dangerous investigator and genius computer hacker.

Opinions: This book is the first part of the Millennium Trilogy (the others being The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2007)), which journalist Steig Larsson wrote in his spare time after work, and the manuscripts of which were delivered to the publisher shortly before Larsson's death in November 2004. The books have all been massive international bestsellers and, certainly on the strength of this first book, the hype is justified. The book is a complex and dark detective thriller, which weaves together various storylines and many characters. The original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women and one of the key elements of the book is Larsson's abhorrance of violence against women, as well as corruption in politics and big business. It does have very strong messages, which occasionally threaten to overrun the story, but usually it succeeds in being able to deliver it's message while still delivering a consistently entertaining story.
There are plenty of memorable characters, especially the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, tough antiheroine Lisbeth Salander, as well as the idealistic ladies man Mikael Blomkvist.
An absorbing and genuinely powerful and at times shocking thriller. For the most part it is well paced but the story does drag a bit in places, also the plot has a few too many coincidences, but the complaints are pretty minor.
The novel, along with it's sequels, was adapted as a film in it's native Sweden, starring Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace as Salander. An English language remake is due for release in 2011 directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as Salander.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Year: 2010
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson
Running Time: 146 minutes
Genre: Fantasy, adventure, action, epic

Summary: The evil Dark Lord Voldermort (Fiennes) and his army of Death Eaters have gained control of the Ministry of Magic and the whole wizarding world is in the grip of fear, especially those born of muggle (non-magical) parents and are particular targets of the Death Eaters. The only hope appears to lie with Harry Potter (Radcliffe) who knows that, in order to gain immortality, Voldermort has split his own soul and hidden it in several disguised and hidden objects known as "Horcruxes", and that only when they are all destroyed can he be defeated. Now the principal target of Voldermort and his Death Eaters, and with friends and safe places rapidly disappearing, Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) find themselves on the run and on a dangerous quest to find and destroy the Horcruxes.

Opinions: If you have never seen any of the Harry Potter films or read any of the books then this is not the best place to start. The first of a two part film adaptation of the seventh and final book in the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series, this makes no concessions to newcomers. As with the previous films, this is a very faithful adaptation of the book, and features spectacular special effects as well as appearances from numerous well-known British actors. However, as with the book, this is a major departure from the rest of the Harry Potter series. It's frequently commented on how each movie is darker than the one before, and this is certainly the darkest of the series so far. There are no Quidditch matches, or amusing hi-jinks at the Hogwarts School here. In fact the school, the prinicpal setting for the series, doesn't feature at all in this film and, for the first time, Harry and his friends are out in the wilderness, completely on their own. There is a surprisingly bleak atmosphere in this film, a tone set early on in a scene where Hermione erases herself from her parent's memories and also deletes herself from photographs and documents. All three of the lead chracters have their own demons to deal with: Harry has to deal with his status as the "Chosen One" and his guilt at the fact that anyone close to him is in danger, Ron has to deal with his jealousy of Harry and his attraction to Hermione, while Hermione struggles with what is effectively the loss of her parents. With each film the three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have got better and better and in this one, where their roles are more complex than ever before, they really do great work.
This is a very good movie which still delivers plenty of action and spectacle, and there is still plenty of humour, if not as much as in previous installments. It also features a very impressive animated sequence. Certainly, Harry Potter fans should be more than happy. The second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is due for release in July 2011.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Thursday, 18 November 2010

"Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut

Year of Publication: 1973
Number of Pages: 295 pages
Genre: Satire

Summary: Midland City, USA: Car salesman Dwayne Hoover is the wealthiest man in town. Charismatic, successful and a pillar of the community, Dwayne is pretty much a model citizen except for the fact that he is slowly going completely insane. After reading a book by obscure but prolific science-fiction novelist Kilgore Trout, which he takes for the literal truth, Dwayne loses his mind completely. Meanwhile, Kilgore Trout himself is hitch-hiking across America on his way to Midland City for an Arts Festival.

Opinions: This novel constantly moves between the daily routine of the increasingly unbalanced Hoover and Trout's cross-country journey, while finidng time for numerous digressions, diversions, jokes, factoids and pot shots at almost anything that comes to mind. The ostensible plot of the novel is really nothing more than an excuse for Vonnegut to unleash savage and at times hilarious satirical attacks at life in general and American life in particular. The book is written in a faux-naive style almost as if the narrator is trying to explain life on Earth to a group of alien schoolchildren. Vonnegut doesn't pull any punches and the satire is frequently harsh and cruel, but there is also a strong vein of compassion. Vonnegut's voice in the book comes across as that of a man who deeply loves humanity but is always disappointed by it. The novel is consistently entertaining and frequently very funny. The prose is punchy and conversational making it easy to get into, and is enlivened by Vonnegut's peppering the novel with numerous line drawings. The book may not be as good as some of Vonnegut's other works (such as Slaughterhouse 5), the author himself gave it a "C" grade, and it's cynicism may be off-putting to some readers, but this is still well worth checking it out.
It will make you laugh a lot and it will also make you think a lot.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

"Handling the Undead" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Year of Publication: 2005
Number of Pages: 364 pages
Genre: Horror, supernatural, zombie

Summary: Stockholm, August 2002: The city swelters under a severe heatwave, everyone in the city suffers from a splitting headache and no electrical device can be turned off once it is switched on. Then the city's dead return to life.
David is a stand-up comedian who is happily married to children's book author Eva, and the couple have a ten year old son, Magnus. The night that the dead come back, Eva's car hits an elk and she is killed. When David goes to identify her body, he notices it start moving.
Gustav Mahler is a freelance journalist who is still grieving for the death of his grandson, Elias, a month previously. Mahler's daughter, Anna, the dead boy's mother, is so grief-stricken she barely ever leaves her home, and he cares for her despite their mutual resentment. When he learns of the resurrection, Mahler has a glimmer of hope that the family can be reunited.
Rebellious teenage goth Flora shares a deep psychic bond with her devoutly religious mother, Elvy. When they are visited by Elvy's recently deceased husband, the two have very different ideas as to what the events mean.
Meanwhile scientists, city officials, newspaper pundits and the Government try to discover what is happening in Stockholm, and what can be done about it.

Opinions: From the title you could be forgiven for thinking that this is 364 pages of gore-drenched, flesh chomping zombie action when, in fact, John Lindqvist's follow up to the best-selling Let the Right One In is a dark and moving meditation on grief, love, loss and hate. That's not to say that there isn't plenty of gruesome horror, but mostly it's about the reactions of people to the return of their loved ones. The book moves between four storylines, and the frequent cross-cutting means the book never really gets dull. Unlike most zombie stories, the living dead in this novel are not essentially aggressive, although they do have limited mind-reading abilities and react to "negative" emotions such as hate, fear and anger, while any living human who is around them for too long also develops mind-reading abilities. The book takes it's time getting going, and the frankly bizarre climax is a bit abrupt and unsatisfactory. However, for the most part, this is a strong, well-written book. Lindqvist has an eye for the details of everyday life and, as with Let the Right One In, this book benefits enormously from his ability to ground the supernatural elements in a recognisable urban reality. Lindqvist also has a good feel for character and makes the book at times a genuinely moving experience, which is as much about intolerance and family relationships as it is about shambling zombies. Also, while not being particularly scary, the book does have enough action and suspense to satisfy genre fans.

Monday, 15 November 2010


Written by: Mark Millar, illustrated by John Romita, Jr.
Year of Publication: 2010
Number of Pages: 216 pages
Genre: Graphic novel, superhero, action

Summary: Have you ever wanted to be a superhero? David Lizewski did and makes his dream a reality. A bored, nerdy New York teenager, David's main interests in life are comic books and classmate Katie Deauxma, until he buys a scuba wetsuit off e-bay and, naming himself "Kick-Ass", sets out onto New York's mean streets to fight crime, despite having no powers and no special training. Needless to say, his first attempts are an abysmal failure and he is very badly beaten up. Following months of operations, therapy and three steel plates in his head, Kick-Ass is out once more and, after footage of him foiling a mugging is uploaded onto YouTube, finds himself a sudden celebrity. However, after meeting murderous ten year old vigilante Hit Girl and her father Big Daddy, David soon finds himself seriously out of his depth.

Opinions: This book started life as an eight issue comic book series based on Scottish writer Millar's own teenage dreams of being a superhero. The book is hugely entertaining with frequently hilarious foul-mouthed dialogue and complemented with great artwork. It won't be too everyone's taste since it is full of graphic, over the top violence. More than likely the book's main audience will be fans of the movie which was based on it and, while the film follows the storyline of the comic very closely, the comic is several shades darker than the film. David Lizewski is a likeable and sympathetic main character, but the most memorable character is the good natured but extremely violent Hit-Girl.
If you're a fan you'll also want to get down to your friendly neighbourhood comic book store to pick up Kick-Ass 2 the first issue of which is currently on sale.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Prophecy

Year: 1995
Director: Gregory Widen
Screenplay: Gregory Widen
Starring: Christopher Walken, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz, Viggo Mortensen
Running Time: 98 minutes
Genre: Horror, thriller, supernatural, religion

Summary: Just before he is to be ordained as a priest, Thomas Dagget (Koteas) experiences a nightmarish vision and loses his faith. Years later he is a homicide detective and assigned to the bizarre case of a corpse seemingly born with no eyes, and a hermaphrodite, he also has an ancient hand-written Bible with an extra chapter in the Book of Revelations. Translating the chapter, Dagget learns of a second war in Heaven due to some angels who were jealous of God elevating humanity over them. Dagget discovers that the leader of the rebel angels, the archangel Gabriel (Walken), who has an extreme disgust for humans - he refers to as "talking monkeys" - has arrived in a small Arizona town in search of an evil soul to use as a devestating weapon.

Opinions: This movie, which was also released as God's Army, is a striking mix of action, horror and theology. It benefits enormously from a very strong cast full of familiar faces from independent films, with Christopher Walken being a particular standout as the charismatic and malevolent archangel. It also provides a lead role for Elias Koteas, a talented and prolific actor who tends to be quite underrated. The film is well-written with the complex storyline unfolding with enough twists and turns to sustain interest and keep the viewer guessing without being unecessarily convoluted. It also has a strong thread of dark humour. Packed with originality and invention, it is certainly the best religious themed horror movie of recent years. The film's main problems are mainly down to it's low-budget, the special effects are at best adequate, although the film is wisely sparing in it's use of special effects, and it lacks a distinctive visual style, although some image are very effective - most notably a brief glimpse of Hell. Although the film was not a huge success on it's original release, it's reputation has grown and it has become something of a cult hit, and to date has been followed by four sequels.

Christopher Walken in The Prophecy

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Year: 2010
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic-book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong
Running Time: 117 minutes
Genre: Superhero, action, comedy

Summary: New York City, the present: Dave Lizewski (Johnson) is a teenage comic-book fan, who dreams of becoming a superhero. Despite having no training and no superpowers, he decides to turn his dreams into reality and, with a costume fashioned from a scuba diving suit, he dubs himself "Kick-Ass" and sets out to become a real-life superhero. However, his first attempts just result in him getting badly beaten up. However, one night his successful intervention in an assault is filmed and put on the YouTube site. Dave discovers that Kick-Ass is an internet celebrity. Then he meets fellow costumed hero Big Daddy (Cage) who, with the help of his violent, foul-mouthed eleven year old daughter, Hit Girl (Moretz), is fighting to bring down the city's most powerful organised crime ring.

Opinions: This movie is a lot of fun. It is packed with action and humour, and there are plenty of references to the world of comic-books and superheroes. The film, which is almost a parody of Batman and Spider-Man is very sympathetic with the costumed vigilantes but also features the dark and dangerous side as Kick-Ass very quickly finds himself way over his head. The film's storyline is not particularly unique with the idea of untrained superhero wannabes having been done several times before, but the film is stylish and entertaining enough that this doesn't matter. The film features some great performances in particular from Chloe Moretz turning in a startling performance as the ruthless Hit Girl who manages to be both likeable and terrifying. In the film's lead Johnson delivers a great comic peformance. The film is full of exagerrated comic-book style violence, which won't be to everyone's taste. The film knows it's target audience and fans of comic-book movies and action films are sure t find something to entertain them. As an unashamed comic book fan myself, I loved it.

Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz in Kick-Ass

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Paranormal Activity

Year: 2009
Director: Oren Peli
Screenplay: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong
Running Time: 86 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural, mockumentary

Summary: In San Diego, California, in 2006, a young couple Katie (Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) are troubled by an unseen supernatural force. Micah buys advanced cameras and audio-visual equipment in order to document the phenomenon. As the bizarre events escalate the couple's relationship begins to break down.

Opinions: This film is basically a "found footage" film. The entire movie purports to be the footage shot by Micah's cameras, similar in style to The Blair Witch Project (1999). Much of the film is taken up by static shots of the couple's bedroom at night, the camera positioned in such a way that the shot takes in both the bed and the open door directly beside it. The suspense comes from knowing something is about to happen but not when, and also having sudden loud noises in long, silent scenes. For the most part, the events are very subtle building up slowly from the comparative mildness of the early happenings. Due to the domestic setting, the film probably works better as home viewing than it does in the cinema. It also focuses on the reactions of the couple to the events, Katie just wants to leave it alone and doesn't want to antagonise the force, while Micah wants to contact it and fight it. The movie's main problems are to do with it's style more than anything else, mainly the fact that you wonder whether the couple would film so many of their conversations and arguements, and also the fact that even when they are supposed to be really scared they always remeber to bring the camera with them. However, the film does work well, and is genuinely chilling at times. It was followed by a sequel which was released in 2010.

Sleepless nights in Paranormal Activity

Let Me In

Year: 2010
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Matt Reeves, based on the novel and screenplay Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Cara Buono
Running Time: 116 minutes
Genre: Horror, drama

Summary: In March, 1983, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, twelve year old Owen (Smit-McPhee) lives with his religious, alcoholic mother (Buono), who largely ignores him, on a depressing housing estate. He is also frequenty bullied at school. One night he meets a new neighbour, Abby (Moretz), a seemingly ordinary twelve year old girl, who lives with an elderly man (Jenkins) assumed to be her father. A strong friendship soon blossoms between Owen and Abby until he learns that Abby is, in fact, a vampire, and her "father" is behind a brutal series of ritualistic killings in the local area which he has done to provide her with the blood she needs.

Opinions: The 2004 novel Let the Right One In by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist has previously been adapted as a critically acclaimed and successful Swedish film directed by Tomas Alfredson, and now an English-language version has been made. It's hard not to feel cynical when a successful foreign language film is given an English-language remake, especially when it's only been a couple of years since the release of the Swedish film. In fact, Alfredson was, understandably, very angry at the news that his film was being remade on the grounds that he thought a film should only be remade if there was something wrong with the original and he didn't think that there was anything wrong ith his film, and he is perfectly correct that there is nothing wrong with the earlier film.
However, leaving that aside, Let Me In is a very good film in it's own right. For the most part it sticks very closely to the earlier film and fairly faithful to the original novel (both movie versions excise the novel's gruesome zombie sub-plot). The film has a good sense of time and place with striking visuals of the snow-bathed housing estate. Director Reeves, best known for the 2008 monster movie Cloverfield, delivers some striking scenes, in particular a sequence where the camera is in the back seat of a crashing car. He also has some of the more traditional horror movie scares happening in the background of scenes, and although there are computer generated special effects used, they are mostly fairly subtle. The movie's main strengths are in superb performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz in the lead roles who make their characters if anything even more engaging and sympathetic then their Swedish counterparts.
While sticking a little bit too close to the original to really become it's own thing, this is a fine, well-made movie that deserves a wider audience than traditional horror audiences and should appeal to fans of the original as well as newcomers.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz in Let Me In