Saturday, 28 May 2011

Julia's Eyes

Year: 2010
Director: Guillem Morales
Screenplay: Guillem Morales and Oriol Paulo
Starring: Belen Rueda, Lluis Homar, Pablo Derqui, Francesc Orella, Julia Guttierez Caba
Running Time: 112 minutes
Genre: Horror, thriller, psychological

Summary: After the apparent suicide of her blind sister Sara (Rueda), astronomer Julia (Rueda) becomes convinced that Sara did not kill herself, and is soon obsessed with finding the truth behind her death, with the reluctant help of her concerned husband, Isaac (Homar). Julia is suffereing from the same degenerative disease that Sara suffered and is already going blind. She knows that if an operation to save her sight fails, soon she too will be totally blind. As her investigation progresses, Julia begins to feel that she is being watched and followed from the shadows. As a spate of apparent suicide claims the lives of people involved in Sara's last days, it becomes apparent that someone will do anything to prevent her from uncovering their secret.

Opinions: This Spanish horror movie was produced by Mexican writer, producer and director Guillermo Del Toro (who also produced the 2008 horror hit The Orphanage). The horror here is centered around blindness and the fear of being chased by someone who can see you but you can't see them. There are also a few disturbing sequences featuring eyeballs. It starts off as an investigative mystery thriller before suddenly switching gears and becoming something totally different.
The acting is very good throughout, and the film provides plenty of chills and genuinely thrilling chases. The film works on a lot of very primal levels, and the tension is sustained throughout. It also provides some unexpected twists thoughout. The film is well-made with a number of inventive visuals. It manages to pull off the concept of the veiled, hidden threat very well. The influence of Alfred Hitchcock is felt very strongly in this work, and there are also of plenty of typically quirky Del Toro touches.
The only real flaw in the film is an unsatisfactory coda in the closing minutes.
The film is a must-see for horror fans, and also for general thriller fans, who are looking for something a little different.

Belen Rueda in Julia's Eyes.

Monday, 23 May 2011


Year: 2009
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: David Leslie Johnson, from a story by Alex Mace
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Aryana Engineer
Running Time: 123 minutes
Genre: Horror, thriller, psychological

Summary: Recovering alcoholic Kate Coleman (Farmiga) and her husband John (Sarsgaard) find their already strained marriage stretched to breaking point after their third child is stillborn. They decide to adopt a nine year old Russian girl named Esther (Fuhrman) from a nearby orphanage. At first glance Esther, who is a talented painter, appears firendly and intelligent, if slightly strange.
At the Coleman household Esther is welcomed almost immediately by the Coleman's deaf-mute daughter Max (Engineer), but she is disliked by the older child, Daniel (Bennett), who immediately takes exception to Esther's mannerisms and eccentric taste in clothes.
Before long Esther begins to display increasingly violent and manipulative behaviour. However, as Kate becomes increasingly suspicious of her John refuses to believe that Esther is anything but misunderstood. As their relationship begins to disintegrate Kate becomes determined to uncover the secrets of Esther's past.

Opinions: This film belongs to the "evil child" sub-genre of horror (which includes The Bad Seed (1956), The Omen (1976) and The Good Son (1993) among many others) as well as the "cuckoo in the nest" sub-genre in which a family comes under attack from an enemy within.
The film is slow to get going and the final half hour gets ludicrously over the top, but mostly it is an impressively atmospheric slice of horror. Moving at a deliberate pace the film builds up it's characters and their relationships, allowing for a number of elements to be dealt with more subtly (such as John's infidelity and Kate's guilt over an accident involving Max). The film, which was shot near Montreal, also gets a lot of milage out of the wintery landscapes.
The performances all round are superb, with Isabelle Fuhrman delivering a standout performance as the murderous child, seemingly all sweetness and light, but with a cold, dead-eyed stare which makes The Omen's Damien look about as threatening as Dennis the Menace. Vera Farmiga also impresses as the increasingly suspicious mother.
It's a good and effective psychological chiller up until the last half hour or so when it all goes into slasher movie territory. Still, it is more than watchable and provides plenty of good chills, and is worth watching for the perfomances if nothing else.

Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrman in Orphan

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Iron Man 2

Year: 2010
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Justin Theroux, based on the comic-book series Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time: 125 minutes
Genre: Superhero, action, science-fiction

Summary: Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) has publicly revealed himself as armoured superhero "Iron Man". With Iron Man helping to maintain world peace, Stark becomes a beloved national hero. However the US Government are deeply uncomfortable with allowing the technology and power of the Iron Man armour to remain in private hands and demands that Stark hands over his armour and equipment.
However Stark is more concerned about the fact that the equipment which he designed to save his life and power the Iron Man armour is slowly poisoning him and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational and unstable much to the concern of his friends such as Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James "Dusty" Rhodes (Cheadle) and Pepper Potts (Paltrow), as well as mysterious new employee Natalie Rushman (Johansson).
Meanwhile Stark's arch-rival Justin Hammer (Rockwell) enlists the help of murderous Russina scientist Ivan Vanko (Rourke) to build an even more advanced version of the Iron Man armour in order to beat Stark. However, Vanko has an agenda all of his own.

Opinions: This movie is a fun sequel to Iron Man (2008) and is intended to be the middle part of a proposed trilogy. The special effects are spectacular and the movie includes some memorable set pieces, such as Mickey Rourke's interruption of the Monaco Grand Prix. The piece is anchored by some great performances from a very talented cast. Robert Downey, Jr. does brilliant work in the central role, making the character of Tony Stark, who could very easily come across as just obnoxious, arrogant and cocky, both likeable and sympathetic. Gwyneth Paltrow also does well as Stark's put upon friend and assistant.
The problem that the film has is that there are so many story lines running through it that they don't all have a chance to fully develop. Also, despite the set pieces, through most of the middle of the film there isn't really much of a sense of jepordy or danger.
However the script is witty and the film is well directed making of a great piece of action entertainment. It should appeal to people who aren't necessarily superhero fans, since it isn't as fantasy oriented as most superhero movies, and plays more as a techno thriller. It also doesn't hurt that the film includes Scarlett Johansson in a very fetching superhero costume.
Watch out for comic-book icon Stan Lee appearing in a brief cameo (where he is mistaken for Larry King). There is also a brief scene at the end of the closing credits which serves almost as a teaser for Thor (2011). Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America are due to meet up in The Avengers which is due for release in 2012.

Robert Downey, Jr. faces off in Iron Man 2

Friday, 20 May 2011

"Anno Dracula" by Kim Newman

Year of Publication: 1992
Number of Pages: 546 pages
Genre: Horror, fantasy, adventure, crime, alternate history

Summary: London, 1888: Queen Victoria has remarried, and her new husband is the infamous Wallachian prince known as Count Dracula. Now with Dracula at the throne of Britain, the vampire race have come out of hiding and increasing numbers of "warm" (living) citizens have become vampires, and frequently not by choice. Under Dracula's rule, the living increasingly become an underclass, and any hint of insurrection is punishable by imprisonment in brutal prison camps or by summary execution by impalement on wooden stakes.
In the notorious Whitechapel area of London, a brutal killer known as "Silver Knife" has been savagely slaughtering young vampire women. Charles Beauregard, a secret agent for the mysterious Diogenes Club, is ordered to track down the killer. Aiding him is the beautiful 400 year old vampire Genevieve Dieudonne.
As tensions in the city threaten to explode, the body count increases as the press give the murderer a new name: Jack the Ripper.

Opinions: Have you ever finished a book or a film and wondered what would happen if things had turned out differently in the end, if the heroes lost and the villains won? The background of this book is what would happen if Dracula not only survived the events of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, but triumphed and fulfilled his evil scheme.
As with the later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic and subsequent film, the book collects characters from the full range of Victorian horror and adventure stories, such as Henry Jekyll (from Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Doctor Moreau (from H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Professor Moriarty (from the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories) among many others, as well as real characters and events (such as Oscar Wilde, Joseph Merrick and the Jack the Ripper murders) and characters from numerous vampire books and films (including references to more modern authors such as Stephen King and Anne Rice).
The book is fast paced and hugely entertaining mixing action, gothic horror and political intrigue with dashes of romance. Newman manages to blend numerous characters, references and events into a coherent whole, while also exploring the kind of society which Dracula has created. Newman writes well and his prose is full of wit and vivid, detailed descriptions.
This book is perfect for enjoyable, gruesome entertainment and will provide plenty of fun for vampire fans. It has been followed by three sequels to date.
The novel has recently been republished in paperback with annotations, afterwords, an essay, selections from an unfilmed movie adaptation and a short story.

Monday, 16 May 2011


Year: 1932
Director: Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Fred Pasley, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W. R. Burnett and Howard Hawks, based on the novel Scarface by Armitage Trail
Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, George Raft, Vince Barnett, Boris Karloff
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Drama, crime, gangster

Summary: Big Louis Costillo (Henry J. Vejar) is the leading crime boss of the South Side of Chicago, until he is gunned down by Tony Camonte (Muni) apparently acting on the orders of rival boss Johnny Lovo (Perkins). After the murder, Chicago erupts into a gang war. However, with the help of Camonte and his enforcer Guino Rinaldo (Raft), Johnny Lovo soon becomes the most powerful figure on the South Side. However Camonte wants to take over the other areas of the city against his boss's express wishes, and to make matters worse is finding himself increasingly drawn to Lovo's girlfriend, Poppy (Morley), while Rinaldo is finding himself increasingly involved with Camonte's sister, Francesca (Dvorak), who is desperate to break free of her brother's brutal control of her life.

Opinions: Most people today are probably more familiar with the 1983 remake of Scarface which was directed by Brian De Palma and starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer (the one where Pacino invites us to "Say hello to my little friend!"), and which has now become a really big cult film.
However the 1932 original is still probably the most influential and definitive gangster movies ever made. Produced by billionaire Howard Hughes, this was hugely controversial in it's day for it's violence and arguable glamorising of the gangster lifestyle.
Although the impact of the film has inevitably dimmed since it's first release it is still pretty powerful and full of iconic moments such as George Raft's laconic hit-man whose constantly flipping a coin, and the violent confrontation with Boris Karloff's rival gang boss in a bowling alley with the ball knocking over the pins becoming almost symbolic. There is also a lot of humour in the film, such as Camonte's incompetent henchman (Vince Barnett) who is unable to take telephone messages and tries to hold a telephone conversation in a restaurant while a full-blown shoot-out is going on. The film also has an interesting recurring visual motif of an "X" symbol whenever a character is to be murdered (Hawks apparently offered the crew members $100 to think of a different way to show the "X" for every murder).
The perfomrnaces are great, especially Paul Muni as the charismatic, fast-talking Camonte, who is also a scarily brutal, childish, murderous psychopath. He is well supported by Ann Dvorak as his tormented sister.
The movie is loosely based on the life and career of legendary real-life gangster Al Capone (who was also nicknamed "Scarface"). According to screenwriter Ben Hecht a couple of Capone's men visited him to make sure that the film wasn't based on Capone. When Hecht assured them that it was fictional, the men pointed out that the title would lead people to believe that the film was about Capone, and Hecht replied that of course it would and they would get bigger audiences because people would want to see a film about Al Capone. "It's all part of the scam we call show-business" Hecht apparently said. Capone's men, who appreciated a good scam, left them in peace. Capone himself was apparently a big fan of the movie, and owned a print of it.
The movie, which Hughes had instructed Hawks to make "as realistic, as grisly as possible", encountered numerous censorship problems, and was released with a text introduction and the subtitle "The Shame of a Nation" added, along with several re-edited scenes and an alternate ending. Most prints these days use the original, more violent, climax.
This is a must see for fans of gangster movies and also for anyone interested in the history of cinema. Even today, nearly 80 years after it's release, it remains exciting, funny and shocking.


Vince Barnett, Paul Muni and George Raft in Scarface

Sunday, 15 May 2011

"Kraken" by China Mieville

Year of Publication: 2010
Number of Pages: 481 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy,

Summary: Billy Harrow is a curator at the Natural History Museum in London, England. His pet project is an extremely rare, intact and perfectly preserved giant squid. One day the squid, impossibly, disappears.
Billy finds himself plunged into the dangerous world of London's occult underworld. A world of warring cults, bizarre sorcery, elemental powers, magical gangsters, supernatural assassins, and secretive police task-forces. Billy soon discovers that they are all searching for the giant squid (or "kraken" as they call it). He soon learns that there are cults who worship the giant squid as a god, and believe that Billy is it's prophet.
They also believe that the stolen squid will bring about the end of the world.

Opinions: This book, from award winning British author China Mieville, blends fantasy, contemporary urban grit and dark humour into a startling apocalyptic whole. The idea of London hiding a secret magical underworld has been dealt with before (for example in Neverwhere (1996) by Neil Gaiman and the Harry Potter series (1997 - 2007) by J.K. Rowling) and the idea of mysterious squid cults has precedents in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. However, this is a wholly original work.
Mieville is a talented writer, with an inventive way with language, and there is barely a page that is not full of action, jokes, semi-scientific occult jargon and popular culture references. There is a certain playfulness at work and Mieville evidently attacks his material with gusto.
The characters, which include the disembodied magical union organiser Wati and the comic-horrible assassins Gross and Subby, are well drawn and memorable. Also the stylish prose and the ideas don't get in the way of the story.
This is an endlessly entertaining urban fantasy novel, and is well worth checking out. The novel has a strong sense of time and place and conjures an enticing feel of a magical world, just beneath the surface of our reality.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

"The Informers" by Bret Easton Ellis

Year of Publication: 1994
Number of Pages: 262 pages
Genre: Fiction, satire, horror, crime, short stories

Summary: This is a collection of thirteen loosely linked stories set mostly in Los Angeles in the early to mid 1980s. In "Bruce Calls from Mulholland" two people try to sort their complex social and romantic lives out during a telephone call. In "At the Still Point" a group of friends share an emotional dinner on the anniversary of the death of one of their mutual friends. In "The Up Escalator" a woman, unhappily married to a movie studio executive, tries to juggle her family life, her social life and the affair that she is having with one of her teenage son's friends while slowly falling apart. In "In the Islands" a man makes a disasterous attempt to bond with his estranged son while on a vacation in Hawaii. In "Sitting Still" a student reflects on her previous experiences in L.A. as she takes the train from New Hampshire to Los Angeles for her father's remarriage. In "Water From the Sun" a popular local newscaster has an affair with a much younger man, but her estranged husband is determined to reconcile with her. In "Discovering Japan" a burnt out rock star continues his mental and physical degradation while on the Japanese leg of his world tour. In "Letters from L.A." a woman narrates her experiences of Los Angeles to her unresponsive friend in a series of increasingly disturbing letters. In "Another Gray Area" a young man finds the death of his father in a plane crash just another complication in his drugged-up existence. In "The Secrets of Summer" a group of vampires live the good life while preying on the youth of Los Angeles. In "the Fifth Wheel" a kidnapping spirals horrifically out of control. In "On the Beach" a woman's approaching death provides food for thought for her partner. In "At the Zoo with Bruce" a woman tries to sort out her relationship with her married boyfriend during a trip to the zoo.

Opinions: Despite being published in 1994, the stories in this book were mostly written while Ellis was at college, at around the time of his debut novel Less Than Zero (1985) (Ellis has stated that he has not written any short stories since 1986). It was published as a kind of stopgap filler as the novel Glamorama (1998) became increasingly delayed.
The stories in the book are all told in the first person, and each one is told by a different narrator. The book is linked by recurring themes, settings and characters. The stories concern wealthy, beautiful and mostly young Los Angeles residents who seem to have limitless supplies of money, sex and drugs, but are mostly completely empty inside. Mostly the characters become almost heroic when they struggle to the barest glimmer of self-awareness. As such they are not the most likeable or engaging of protagonists, and many of the characters are (literally) monsterous. This in itself will probably turn away many potential readers. Ellis tends to adopt a flat, minimalist voice in his writing. However, many of the characters become, if not exactly likeable, at least in a weird way sympathetic.
Ellis is a very talented writer and, while this is not among his best works, none of the stories are devoid of interest, and some are genuinely powerful. The guesome comedy-horror tale "The Secrets of Summer" is a brilliant contemporary vampire story (what better place for bloodsuckers than Hollywood?)
However, if you are new to Bret Easton Ellis this is probably not the best place to start. Personally, I would recommend The Rules of Attraction (1987) or the hugely controversial American Psycho (1991) as a better jumping on point. Fans of Ellis' novels will probably be able to pick up the frequent references to locations and characters form his other works.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Battle Royale

Year: 2000
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kenta Fukasaku, based on the novel Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, Masanobu Ando
Running Time: 114 minutes, and a 122 minute Director's Cut
Genre: Science-fiction, action, horror

Summary: In the near future the Japanese government, concerned at rising truancy and unemployment figures, as well as an increase in youth crime, authorises the Millennium Educational Reform Act, better known as "the Battle Royale Act", in which every year, a randomly selected high school class are taken to an uninhabited island. There they are fitted with lethal explosive collars, and forced to fight each other in a three day battle to the death until there is one survivor.
This year, a high school class, who believe that they are going on an ordinary school trip, are drugged, taken to the island and forced to take part in the Battle Royale, which is being overseen by one of their old teachers (Kitano) who quit his job after being stabbed by a student. Issued one weapon (of varying degrees of effectiveness) each they are all forced to try to survive by any means necessary.

Opinions: This hugely controversial Japanese film did a lot to popularise Asian "extreme cinema" in the west. Based on a popular novel by Koushun Takami, which has also been adapted as a "manga" (comic-book) series, the film blends dystopian science-fiction with violent action. The film is most interesting in the way it deals with the friendships, crushes, cliques, gangs, romances, rivalries, and animosities which are part and parcel of high school life being put into a truly extreme and nightmarish situation.
The film handles it's characters well, and effectively shows each individual's reaction to the situation without their personalities getting lost or becoming bland, which is a big risk in action movies. Even the bitter teacher who oversees the Battle Royale, and is very well played by Japanese film legend Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, becomes weirdly sympathetic in a way, even though he does some pretty monsterous things.
The film was extremely controversial due to it's level of violence, and the fact that the characters are almost all teenagers. However, while the film is intensely violent, it's very exaggerated and stylised.
The film is very suspenseful and once it gets going it does not let up. In terms of storytelling it is very economical, with pretty much all the information that the viewers need being delivered by the teacher's introductory lecture to the pupils and the incongrously perky instructional video that he shows them. Throughout the film on-screen titles appear telling us who has died and how many of the kids are left. The film's character development is portrayed through their actions, with occasional flashbacks to their previous life. Far from being the typical action/horror movie faceless drones who are just there to be killed, in this film mostly everyone has a distinct personality and is convincingly hinted as having an existence outside the frame of the movie.
The film's soundtrack strongly features haunting classical music which creates a powerful juxtaposition with the violent images.
Violent, powerful, thought-provoking, suspenseful, moving and frequently funny, this is blistering entertainment and a must see for fans of action movies.
It was followed by a sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem, in 2003.

Aki Maeda and Tatsuya Fujiwara are among those trying to survive Battle Royale

Friday, 6 May 2011


Year: 2009
Director: Anthony DiBlasi
Screenplay: Anthony DiBlasi, based on the short story "Dread" by Clive Barker
Starring: Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Evans, Hanne Steene, Laura Donnelly, Jonathan Readwin
Running Time: 108 minutes
Genre: Horror, psychological

Summary: Present day America: Film student Stephen Grace (Rathbone) befriends mysterious psychology student Quaid (Evans). Stephen agrees to help Quaid with his research project into the nature of fear and introduces Quaid to his classmate and editor Cheryl Fromm (Steene). The three interview volunteers about their earliest experiences of fear and record the interviews on camera. Quaid becomes angry about their lack of progress and also about the fact that his two colleagues just see it as another college project. Disturbed by his increasingly irrational and violent behaviour, Cheryl and Stephen decide to quit. However, Quaid has just started his experiments and intends to take them "to the next level". Soon Cheryl and Stephen find themselves plunged into their own very personal nightmares.

Opinion: This movie is based on a short story by Clive Barker, which was originally published in volume two of his short story collection Books of Blood (1984). It's kind of unusual for a Clive Barker story in that there are no supernatural or other fantasy elements. As a short story, the tale was tense, tight and gripping. However here, necessarily expanded in order to fit the running time, some of the tension is lost. Mostly it works pretty well though.
The film benefits from a strong atmosphere and does well with it's low budget. The film is shot with high contrast between light and shadow and at times the amount of shadows on screen can be irritating, and there are moments when it is difficult to distinguish what is going on.
While the horror in the film is predominantly psychological, there is a high level of violence and plenty of gore. There are also plentiful scenes of people being graphically tormented in grimy rooms in the manner popularised by the likes of Saw (2004) and Hostel (2006).
The film is relentlessly downbeat and the all-pervading gloom (in every sense) may prove too strong for some viewers.
The performances are good from a largely unknown cast, and, despite some occasional lapses in pacing in the middle part of the film, the whole thing moves pretty well.
The whole film is largely well-made, and has plenty of atmosphere and tension, and enough surprises to keep fans of the genre entertained.

Shaun Evans researches Dread