Review: The Babadook

It’s absolutely not worth the hype. It’s less frightening than comparable films like Insidious although it is reasonably tense. It’s poorly structured and seems uncertain about who you should actually like. The kid is unbearable at the start, with clear behavioural problems which vanish as he becomes increasingly more angelic.

It’s also unclear whether the monster is a representation of the child’s mental health problems or the mother’s or both. If the monster was just the child’s inner demons, the story would be powerful, as it would make sense that the mother’s struggle to cope would be part of the same thing but when it gets wound up with the mother’s grief and depression it feels messy and over-complicated.

The bit where the mum kills the dog is pointless and adds nothing: it’s a lazy trope designed to be shocking but which distracts from any psychological tension. The end section feels rushed and unbelievable and the incidental characters like the crash guy and the social workers are utterly unbelievable. I get that the mum is meant to be isolated and unable to ask for help but that could have been achieved with half the ham and been more believable.

Had the potential, and the mum’s depiction of grief and not coping with a difficult child is very compelling, but it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity. I’m assured that the film is terrifying by my friends who have young children, but I’ve no intention of finding out if they’re right.

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Review: Creep (2014)

Overall, I liked this film a lot, which is quite surprising given that the premise seems set to fail. It’s a found-footage film, which tends to put me off as it’s been done to death (pun totally intended) consistently badly ever since The Blair Witch. It sort of feels like watching an episode of The Office in the horror dimension which again is odd because I hate The Office. It works though, and the tension is almost unbearable at points. It’s the first film I haven’t been able to watch in places despite the fact that nothing was actually happening.

The main character is entirely compelling and believable: a very well-developed bad guy. The videographer falls into the usual victim cliches which is irritating but at least it seems self-aware. The jump scares are highly effective and the plot is compelling. I feel like the sister is a weak point, and added in simply to create unnecessary tension: I was already tense enough.

The ending left me unsatisfied with the big “but why?” hanging over it. Perhaps that’s because I was so invested, though. Overall, I liked it enough to put the sequel straight on though. Not quite The Visit perfect, but not far off.

Review: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

This film had the potential to be really excellent, but suffers from lazy writing and a lack of awareness. It’s absolutely worth watching, but all the more frustrating for that.

Some parts were done exceptionally well. I’m jumpy anyway, but the jump scares are particularly effective. Also the camera work is very good and right from the start, it’s clear the corpse is more than just a dead body. The acting is compelling and I found the father to be particularly believable.

The cat dies. It’s the least convincing bit of sfx in the film and it adds nothing, because the tension is already very high. In terms of plot, it’s a distracting tangent. In fact, the time could have been spent on developing other themes which makes this worse than most gratuitous pet killings.

The revelation that she is an innocent from the New England witch trials made into a witch through torture is a very clever idea. I wish it hadn’t been left until the last 20 minutes of the film. There could have been a really intelligent discussion about the body politics of young women in witch hunts, but it’s rushed because too much time is wasted early on killing cats and introducing an irrelevant love interest who was always going to die.

The idea that the dead woman’s evil came from the actions of men is barely touched on, and given that the morticians were men (who unknowingly added to her suffering), there could have been so much made of linking their actions to her powers. Given that this wasn’t developed, it would have made far more sense to have the morticians as a mother/daughter combo. For me, this is just lazy default-to-male writing. The film literally positions the mute, naked body of a woman as the central object of fear and then completely fails to engage in the dialogue about why that body is fearful.

As a member of the ‘trapped in a confined space with a malignant presence’ family of horror films it’s reasonably successful, but it’s a missed opportunity which would have benefited from a little more research and a little less reliance on horror tropes.

Review: Train to Busan

I love zombie films and I’ll tend to forgive them a lot more than other horror films, but this is a genuinely enjoyable, well-paced film with believable characters and an understanding that plot doesn’t have to be much more than “There are zombies: people react.”

At the start of the film, the father is very hard to like, which makes the attachment you’re bound to develop all the more profound. The big guy who joins the action is superb, although *spoilers* if you know the genre, you know exactly what happens to him, and it sort of becomes a game of guessing when he’s going to get bitten. Note to self: never be both the biggest and strongest and the funny one in a zombie apocalypse.

There’s nothing hugely innovative about the film: it’s 28 Days Later style runners with fast infection and plenty of action. That’s sort of the joy of it though: no gimmicks or silly twists, but just a developed, enjoyable slice of action. The survivors are put in tricky situations and come up with ingenious responses and a few failures that end in their death.

I liked that there wasn’t too much anxiety-inducing standing helplessly while the zombies close in. There was one scene where I was convinced that someone was going to get sliced in half, but I think the desire for a lower age rating curbed that as the only two candidates were a kid and a pregnant woman. I’ve seen worse, but this really isn’t that kind of film. None of the gore is shocking or particularly outrageous: it’s probably one of the most sanitised bits of gore splashing made this decade, and I think that works in a market flooded with torture porn and splatter fests.

There is one character who is built up to be truly loathsome: given where the film was made and the tradition of satisfyingly brutal catharsis, I expected his end to be horrible. It wasn’t, and I did feel a bit robbed. But the film is all about poignant emotional moments, and I guess it fits. I’d have preferred something a bit more visceral though.

All things considered, this is a very good addition to the genre, and as zombie-flavoured palate cleansers go, it’s highly effective.

Review: Nails

Nails: an unbelievable, derivative film full of ineffective jump-scares.

I find films where the plot is driven by the supporting cast not believing the protagonist hard work. This is no exception, and it’s not done particularly well either. Everyone except Ross Noble’s nurse is so two-dimensional it feels like they’ve been written for a GCSE melodrama piece.

This style only really works if you develop an attachment to the supporting cast, and that’s impossible. It uses the painfully out-dated horror trope of ‘let’s not believe the hysterical woman who inexplicably won’t explain the thing that would help’ with absolutely no awareness or irony, and falls victim to the boring cliche that the woman only discovers her strength when she is reminded she’s a mother.

Also, when each character dies, it’s after they’ve called the protagonist crazy. If done well, you could be left wondering if the ghost is a manifestation of her frustration; it isn’t done well, and just feels like a juvenile exercise in catharsis which doesn’t work because you don’t care about the characters.

The film also shamelessly steals elements from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Paranormal Activity, the scene with the pitchfork in the hospital from The Crazies and one truly awful remake of that classic scene from The Ring where the ghost comes out of the TV. If they’re meant as a tribute to those films, they seem forced, but it feels more like an exercise in nicking other films’ good material and ruining it.

I think the thing I like least about this film is the way it absolutely refuses to let me believe in it. The protagonist is supposed to be paralysed to the point of not being able to breathe, and yet maintains perfect dexterity in her typing hand. She starts off unable to talk, then almost magically regains the ability as soon as that isn’t relevant to the plot. This could so easily have explored the horror of being locked into an unresponsive body, but that is completely sidelined in favour of a badly-realised ghoul with a terrible nickname.

Genuinely one of the worst horror films I’ve seen this year. The only good bit would be using it to play rip-off bingo. Not advised as a drinking game: you’d need your stomach pumped.

The Rock

Once I was a mountain. The tallest peak for miles around: I watched over the hills, my little sisters. I stared out towards the distant ocean, wondering what it tasted like. Did it feel as good as I imagined?

Birds landed. Their grasping claws so sharp and agitated told me they would not stay with me. They needed to be away soon. Maybe close, maybe far: I was only ever a point on the journey.

Time saw my power and envied me. Coveted my stature. I will be here as long as he is, and he knows it, but slowly, quietly, he ground me down. Still here, but I didn’t stand as tall. One day my slopes were not so imposing and steep. I had let my guard down, let him in. He took what he wanted. The intrusion gave me jagged cliffs.

The sea watched and he saw a thing he wanted. A thing that he could take. He crept towards my base and gently lapped against my foundations until one day I found that he had surrounded me entirely. He was bitter and sharp: not how I had imagined at all. Piece by piece, he tore away everything I had been.

These days you don’t see me unless he lets you; even then you have to be standing almost on top of me. That’s what they wanted. They cut away until I was the shape that fit their desires. But I’m still here. I’m no mountain any more: not a proud cliff or a sharp ledge. But I am a refuge for the little ones who hide from time and the sea. Crabs scuttle about in the shallows I create at low tide. Insects hide in the moss I still cling to and sometimes they tempt a bird down to land on me. Like they used to. Like I remember.

I have learned to respect my diminished self, because I have endured it all. I am still a place of safety. I am still a source of beauty.

My little sisters seem much bigger now. They stare at me in horror because they see their own downfall in my gentle, worn edges. They’re starting to understand: they have to. We’ll always stick together, until the day we’re all a single grain of sand. I’m dragging them down. No. I’m just not there to protect them any more. They must blame me. I would.

I miss the freedom of the sky in every direction. Maybe one day I’ll be so small the breeze will pick me up and I’ll dance high in the wind like I did as a child. One day I’ll be free.

The Taniaste

Ianto leant against the rough bark of the gnarled old tree, enjoying the feeling of the warm sunshine of Lyonesse playing over his face. As was always the case, the Fir Cruthen people were faced with insurmountable odds, unsolvable problems and unbeatable enemies: he couldn’t remember a time when this were not true. Nevertheless, at this particular moment, the Taniaste was content to enjoy a moment of reflection.

At present, he was experiencing an odd mix of nostalgia, excitement and apprehension; this was entirely down to the revelation that he might just have found a new source of nip. One of the most intensely isolating experiences was the way in which the people of the Fir Cruthen saw Ianto as a wise, powerful fae, while he only saw that which had been lost. That could soon change…

He had the memory of a hundred bodies and a thousand memories of sacrifice and bereavement. Worse still were the memories that stubbornly sat just out of reach, refusing to show themselves. But perhaps now there was a chance to unlock some of those memories and tap into the old power.

It was a delicious thought. With that said, however, Ianto would need to put some checks in place. He couldn’t very well be trusted to act in a rational, sensible manner when so much of who he was, so much of what he loved sat waiting to be unlocked with a pinch. No. Someone would need to help him keep his judgement unclouded.

Ianto stretched luxuriously in the sunlight. All this business with the nip had put him in a reflective sort of a mood and his thoughts drifted back to a recent, different self. He looked down and saw himself as Dim Tan, the roguish Taniaste loved by so many. And there to his right was the king: not the current Umrada, with his unnerving ability to switch between jovial and deathly serious in a heartbeat. No: this was high king Morgan, a tall, inscrutable man of quiet intelligence who had started the Fir Cruthen towards the path of glory they currently trod. And so Dim and King Morgan strode into battle, beset on all sides by formorii…

The memory shifted. The Taniaste looked more closely and saw the face of her husband, many years ago. Sir Calidore looked exactly the same: that stern look of chivalry and honour would never change. The Taniaste basked in the glow of love: her love and his, intertwined like the branches of the great tree under which they said their vows to different gods. A single tear rolled slowly down her cheek. It was the joy of the memory and the wrenching loss of what no longer existed.

And then it changed again. There was a tall man and a beautiful woman from a land that would one day become Albion. This Taniaste hadn’t lasted very long at all, but before he was injured scrumping apples from the king of Bernicia’s royal orchard, he had approved of the work the tall man and the beautiful woman had started. He’d also stolen one of the King’s prize giant hogs to use for his escape, but that wilful beast had been too loyal and delivered its outraged cargo straight into the hands of an angry mob of villagers.

The sound of battle filled the Taniaste’s ears and he half expected to see a memory of the war against the Greenskin Empire, but in fact he awoke in the present, surrounded by painted warriors and angry forest spirits. He realised he was lying on top of one of the largest warriors and was delighted to realise that even in his reverie, he’d had the presence of mind to start healing the injured man.

Blood poured from the chest of the fallen warrior, but Ianto had seem far worse. In fact, given that the chest was still attached to all the other usual parts, he found it barely a challenge at all. As he drew forth energy from the pole of corporeal magic and let it bind the wound like the roots of a tree, his own heart caught in his throat. The World Tree still burned, and its pain grew from a terrible ache to an all-consuming agony that lived in him.

But there was work to be done, and so many warriors threw themself at his feet, bleeding from deep wounds until it seemed that all there had ever been was fighting. Ianto tended to his people with kindness and love, sending them on their way with a joke and a smile. It was what they needed. And soon, as was always the case, the attack was over. The forest spirits had been driven away and the people of the Fir Cruthen were safe again, for now.

The horror of the World Tree stuck in Ianto’s throat. He wanted to scream it out, to purge the horror and urge everyone near to action. It was a sobbing, choking sensation that begged for release. Instead, Ianto picked up the crown of wildflowers he had been working on and offered it to the nearest warrior with an overexaggerated bow. Laughter rippled across the glade.

“I don’t know about you lot, but all this saving lives makes me thirsty. Who’s for a drink?”

The Taniaste skipped merrily towards the camp and not a soul there saw the sadness he shouldered for them all.

The Demon

Ozymandias could be accused of many things (and whenever something went wrong, his name was usually first to be shouted), but a lack of persistence was not one of them. Having refused to let anything as inconveniently permanent as death get the better of him, the impeccably-dressed gentleman found himself once again surrounded by familiar faces. He must have taken his time in refusing to stay dead as there were a few faces in this town he didn’t recognise. New friends? Well, that would be nice, but Ozymandias was under no illusions: a man with demonic eyes and a very sharp suit who arrives late to a party in purgatory is likely to be viewed with suspicion.

Odd that sartorial awareness should be a source of suspicion, but there it was. These were good people, but not over-burdened with an abundance of intelligence in the main. True, there were a few brain cells here and there, but the two scientists conducted experiments which were mostly composed of exploding things. In fact, one experiment had exploded so ferociously that it had torn a hole in the very fabric of reality. No: these were not people with whom Ozymandias could have a philosophical debate.

There was always Elizabeth, but that was… complicated. And in any case, with the potential end of days mere moments away, Ozymandias had other issues which required his immediate attention. It had been decided that he would open a portal into- well, best not dwell on that bit- while the most righteous and pure went through to deal with what was on the other side.

It was probably for the best that Ozymandias was performing the ritual, then, as he sure as hell wasn’t righteous and pure. In fact, when even hell itself recoiled from his intrusion, he realised he might have crossed a line somewhere. But which one? So many delicious transgressions: hard to know which was the worst.

Back to the task at hand. Abel was dutifully letting blood from those who felt they were righteous enough for the ritual to work, and more power would soon be needed. The markings cut into the earth wriggle with barely constrained malice and a feeling of wrongness hung like a curse over the scene. Fools, thought Ozymandias. Not one of these ‘pure’ souls thought to question the rite? True enough, it would only allow the righteous through, but this power was not God-given. He knew it; they must have an idea. But then, that is how the devil works, he mused. Let the herd see what they want to see until there is no way out of the abattoir.

Dark clouds had gathered overhead. As the ritualist poured power into the working, he felt more than saw the carrion birds circling above. What waited on the other side was of vital importance, but the crawling dread in his stomach told Ozymandias that more would walk through his portal than came back. Whatever happened, it would need to be quick. While his control of infernal energies was almost beyond compare, even he would begin to suffer if he tried to hold the portal open for too long.

And then the air started to shimmer. Like the haze of a wildfire blurs all that it touches, the working of Ozymandias and Abel burned a hole between the chapel and the infirmary. A fitting spot, thought the ritualist with a wry smile. The brave souls who would venture through stood ready, but as they moved forwards a sound tore across the skies. It was a dread trumpeting that drove such horror into the hearts of the assembled masses that they fell like the walls of Jericho. Only two remained standing strong: through the portal walked they.

If Ozymandias was pleased to see the preacher writhing on the ground like a serpent, he did his best to hide it. Only a twinkle in his obsidian eyes hinted at his delight. How delicious that a heathen could step through a trial of purity, but the preacher spouting words from that damned book was forced to grovel on the earth.

But now was the time for concentration. Two souls now relied on his skill and his care. He was their god now, for if he closed the rift, their souls would be trapped in purgatory forever. He cleared his mind of all distractions and focused on pouring his strength into the rift.

Time stretched out until it seemed that Ozymandias had wandered lonely deserts for forty days and forty nights. Lips cracked in the drought, he barely had the strength to carry on the chanting required by the ritual. He barely remembered why he was doing it, and the words had lost all meaning. And then a traveller in that antique land: a soul returned. Ozymandias could not quite grasp what it meant until Abel spoke his name. The world resolved into the scene of the ritual he had started what seemed weeks ago. One had returned alive.

Ozymandias slumped forward weakly. He had given so much: it would take time for him to recover. As he knelt on the site of that blasphemous ritual, the sun blazed behind him, perhaps as a warning. It was at exactly that moment that Elizabeth looked over and saw him, arms outstretched in supplication, face haloed by the angry sun. She knew what he was.

Subterfuge

It was probably fair to say that Earl Hawksmoor knew what she was doing, the wizard mused. Gwen had initially been annoyed to the point of grave offence when she had recieved the request, but things were starting to fit together into a tapestry far more elaborate than could ever have been anticipated. At this precise moment, Gwen was patrolling the Oxford forests by the border of Elvesham (or Mead. Probably best to call it by it’s new name). The request had been simple: Hawksmoor had asked for a delegation of Oxford wizards to patrol the area in case of magical creatures getting out and causing havoc.

Typical politician, Gwen had thought. Make a big show of sending powerful resources in after the fact and when a victory was not only inevitable but in some places already being enjoyed. A monumental waste of her time that could have been dealt with by any half-competent squire. She had exploded the first tiny demonic entity with little more than an angry glance. And so it had continued: excessive use of power from forest edge to village square.

But there was more at work here. Gwen was slowly building up a picture of what had happened since the warhost had gathered at the edge of the forest. Far more interesting than the complaining of barely-sentient demonic entities were the rumours and whispers of local peasants. Why would they bother to hide their disdain for this noble or that knight? After all, Gwen looked nothing like a politician and everything like a woman getting on with the important business of exploding rogue horrors.

When the peasants invited Gwen in for dinner in thanks for her work, she would listen with what seemed to all but the keenest eye to be polite friendliness. In fact, the wizard was putting together a profile of those who would be most likely to cause problems for her regent and a very comprehensive list of their crimes and weaknesses.

She was almost sad when she received word that her presence had been requested by Earl Hawksmoor. This had turned out to be a reasonably diverting endeavour, after all. Ever the pragmatist, Gwen decided that the best way to cover her actual purpose was to leave behind a story that would occupy the attention of every tavern and market stall from here to Elmet.

Gwen had noticed a presence lurking in an old, unused haybarn. It was barely a creature at all: more a tiny coalescing of chaotic sparks. She had fully intended to deal with it quietly before she left in the same way one might deal with a particularly persistent mosquito, but it provided her with the perfect opportunity for a few choice theatrics.

She walked towards the barn, stopping briefly to ask the local innkeeper to fetch her hat. “There is a dangerous creature living in that barn.” She proclaimed solemnly, just loud enough that a few nosy patrons could hear. “I can deal with it, but I need my hat. Would you run and fetch it for me?”

By the time Gwen was reunited with her hat, ccloar to half the village had turned out to watch, and explanations ranged from her capturing a dangerous prisoner all the way to the possibility that she might be about to banish a vampire. Once properly attired, the wizard focused her energies on finding the thing. A tiny thing made of lightning and air, it soon noticed the attention.

Gwen called upon the power of Sastrines and felt her hands glow with energy. She drew deep from the well and allowed that power to crackle and fizz, hot and blue around her hands. She exerted her will over the lightning creature, trapping it in place until the moment she could no longer contain the energy within. It exploded out with a noise like thunder, consuming the being entirely and shattering it into a rain of burning purple sparks which fell to earth like petals in a storm.

Overhead, the sky darkened as if in unity with the wizard’s work. A low rumble, and soon thunder boomed across the sky like applause for the banishing of the demon. Fat, warm drops of rain started to fall. With a grin, the wizard collected her belongings and winked at the innkeeper.

“You’ll not need to worry about a drought this year. Those crops looked like they could do with a drink anyhow!”

As she strode off on the long journey towards Oxford, Gwen heard the sound of cheering even above the storm.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Things were not going well in the kitchen. Portia the chef had walked out in a fury after finding her fine set of peeling knives had been reappropriated one evening to be used, along with one of the test pies, as an impromptu dart board. All seemed lost, with the combined stomachs of the warhost descending in a little over a week and no hint of progress. The menus lay ruined under a suspiciously frothy ball of dough, presumably interred there to guard against unruly draughts. Nearby, a pot of pickles bubbled quietly, which was reasonably surprising given the distance between them and the stoves.

As if the explosive state of disrepair in the kitchen had influenced the remaining staff, fights were breaking out among the half-risen loaves. Hamish had accused Boris of being a necromancer, who had retorted that the former was, in fact, a druid spy. This was met with a round of bad-natured cackles from the pastry section; the pot washer signalled his approval with quite an eloquent round of flatulence and Boris planted his fist squarely in Hamish’s ribs. The two launched into a whirling flurry of fists, offcuts and foul language.

Mavis was flustered. After all, a banquet in Essex must have fish, but that Fir Cruthen man got so angry last year. What if they served his uncle by accident? Are salmon actually cousins to trout? Would a tasty bit of hake get them all executed? No-one knew the answer and the fish cooks’ necks were well and truly on the line.

Suddenly, the doors exploded inwards with a blast of icy winter air. A tall figure crowned with a mass of curls stood silhouetted against a backdrop of softly falling snow. The new chef had arrived! In a deep and resonant tone which boomed across the stoves, he proudly proclaimed “Sort your lives out, you idiots: we’ve got dinner to cook. And don’t worry about the fish: everyone will think it’s King Quentyn’s fault!”

The kitchen buzzed with a new sense of purpose as the chef donned his jacket and beckoned in his helpers. First came a small woman, walking with a stick, who single-handedly broke up the fight between Hamish and Boris, breaking both their noses into the bargain. Behind her strode a glorious figure with hair the colour of gold and a bottle of fine Essex vintage stuffed down his apron. Years later, the staff would still whisper that the ghost of High King Hazel came back to help.