Thursday 24 August 2017

Review: The Blackcoat's Daughter

Today’s horror movie review is an odd fish and, to be honest, not really what I expected from the blurb or the trailer. Read on…

I actually watched this one as an import under the alternative title ‘February’ – a far better name, actually, because as far as I could tell the ‘Blackcoat’ only really appears in the first few minutes of the film, and it’s never made clear if the girl at the centre of proceedings is his (or maybe her) daughter or not.

The setup has great potential. Two girls at a religious boarding school are left behind when school breaks up for the holidays, because their parents don’t collect them. The older girl, Rose, is instructed to babysit the younger, Kat, until their parents turn up. The remote location, and the idea of these two kids being alone in a huge empty school with something sinister roaming the halls is a great premise. Elsewhere, we have a mysterious, troubled girl, Joan, hitching a ride toward the school, although it’s not explained at first what her connection is.

What we have here is a slow-burn, psychological movie, which may or may not be supernatural in nature. In fact, nothing much is made very clear to the viewer at all, with the movie’s predilection for non-linear narrative, jumbled, juxtaposed images, and very little dialogue. It’s almost art-house at times, beautifully shot, and sometimes poignant. In style and atmosphere, themes and location, and certainly in terms of the soundtrack, it’s very similar to one of my favourites, Session9. However, although not a terrible film, it does fall a long way short of that particular horror gem.

Where Session 9 genuinely fills every frame with a sense of unease, The Blackcoat’s Daughter attempts to artificially wring that sense from its scenes through a jarring soundtrack overlaid onto the most mundane shots. It’s only later when director Osgood Perkins fills in the blanks through flashbacks that we see what he was driving at, but by then I fear a few people may have switched off because, aside from a few truly creepy moments, the movie is almost unforgivably dull. It’s not helped by the fact that the biggest twist is rather clumsily handled – the only reason you don’t guess it right from the start is because the on-screen captioning – the thing you look to for concrete information such as location, character name and/or timeframe – deliberately misleads you. That doesn’t sit well with me – I’d rather have no captions than ones that fib. And sadly, it’s not an original twist – it’s been done much more successfully elsewhere, and very recently (not wanting to post spoilers, but see HBO’s Westworld).

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is eerie, hauntingly beautiful in parts, and does have a rather poignant ending, with serious questions about diminished responsibility. The possession aspect is pretty original, and rarely resorts to tired tropes. While she doesn’t have a huge amount to do, Emma Roberts further cements her acting credentials, and I reckon it’s a matter of time before she becomes a box office draw in her own right. It’s just a shame the pacing is so cretaceous, and the whole doesn’t mesh slightly better.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

The Red Tower

Very pleased to reveal the rather spiffing cover of my next Sherlock Holmes novel for Titan Books. Released in spring 2018, Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower is a Gothic mystery for Holmes and Watson, featuring a medieval tower, a ghostly red lady presaging a family curse, a seance on a stormy night, and dark deeds afoot.

Coming in Your Ears

With Alan Clifford in the studio.
So here's a thing: yesterday, I was on the radio. I know, right?!

Thanks to the attention drawn to my Victorian scribblings in my Left Lion Magazine interview, I was contacted by the peeps at BBC Radio Nottingham to do a live chat spot on their Afternoon Show with Alan Clifford.

We had a good chinwag about Victoriana, Sherlock Holmes, the difference between Victorian SF and Steampunk, whether people talk to their dogs, and other random musings. You can find the segment here (starting at about 3:07:30).

And yes, as my agent tells me, the dictionary definition of 'cringe' is 'hearing your own voice on a recording', but I'll make this small sacrifice for you, dear readers!

Friday 4 August 2017

The Silver Scream

Like most nerds, I’m a massive movie fan, undoubtedly spending too much of my precious time slobbing out on the sofa in front of the latest films. My particular penchant, as regular followers will know, is horror movies (and TV series) – preferably, although not limited to, atmospheric ghost stories rather than crazy slasher flicks. I realised the other day that I’ve started to binge on horror movies of late, old and new, and because I’m a huge fan of the genre I’ve decided to start publishing short reviews on the blog.

Reviews are really subjective, and I certainly won’t be doing star ratings, but hopefully you’ll find my musings useful, especially if you like the same sorts of movies as me. For a quick primer on what I consider to be great horror, check out a previousblog post on the subject here. One of the things I find interesting about the horror genre is that it usually gets a lower critical rating overall when compared to other genres – on IMDB for example, the best horror struggles to reach a 7.0 rating, while the poorest superhero movie will easily surpass that. This leads to specialist horror movie reviewers giving their genre a bit of an easy ride, whereas actually in some cases horror really needs to up its game and steer away from formulaic tropes in order to be, well, scarier!

To get up-to-date on my watch list, I’m going to kick off with three mini-reviews.

The Void

In a nutshell, this much-hyped movie is a mash-up of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, which are about the finest influences a pseudo-80s horror flick could have. Here we have a bunch of misfits trapped in a hospital, with knife-wielding cultists outside, and something horrendous inside. The movie has a great look and feel, from the design of the cultist robes (pictured) to the Lovecraftian horrors we encounter in the basement of the hospital. The body horror moments are well handled, the practical effects impressive, and the performances are generally solid.

Where The Void falls down is that it wears its influences too readily on its sleeve. There is the germ of a really cool story here, about dark magic helping humans to the next stage of evolution. But it gets a little lost in the blood and gore, which starts very early and doesn’t really let up. Too much of the emotional connection between protagonist Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) and his nurse ex-girlfriend Allison (Kathleen Munroe) seems forced and contrived, lacking the time required to grow our attachment for these characters organically.

This movie wants really badly to be John Carpenter’s The Thing, but lacks the character studies, nuance and sense of paranoia it needs to pull that feat off. It’s a worthy effort, and well worth a look, but I doubt it’ll stand the test of time half as well as its inspiration.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

I was inspired to check this one out on the recommendation of horror maestro Adam Nevill, which is certainly enough for me. The last time I checked out a movie he recommended it was the Taking of Deborah Logan, which I really enjoyed. But I digress.

Autopsy’ revolves around a mysterious body – a ‘Jane Doe’ – that is brought to a coroner (the excellent Brian Cox) and his assistant son (the slightly less excellent Emile Hirsch) to identify. The setup is really effective – it’s a remote location, after hours, the father is a stickler for procedure, the son just wants to go catch a movie with his girlfriend but agrees to stay. The body is a real enigma, showing signs of internal trauma and burning simply not possible for its flawless external condition, and having a suppleness that a long-dead corpse really shouldn’t have.

When the really weird stuff starts happening, we’re embroiled in a tense, panicky battle with dark forces, witchcraft and the walking dead. Unfortunately, that’s when the movie also starts getting a bit silly. There’s no real rhyme or reason to Jane Doe’s vendetta against the two coroners, and no real explanation of the extent (or limitations) of her powers. So what follows is really a collection of excellent horror set-pieces that don’t quite gel. There are a few annoying plot holes and inconsistencies, including one obvious error that had me shouting at the screen, but for all its faults Autopsy remains one of the best horror movies of the year. Well worth a watch.

Jordskott (TV series)

Part Scandi-noir crime, part folkloric horror, part environmental think-piece, Jordskott is a really unusual piece of television, and one of the weirdest and most absorbing things I’ve watched in a long time.

Detective Inspector Eva Thörnblad (Moa Gammel) returns to Silver Height seven years after her daughter Josefine disappeared by a lake in the woods. The body was never found and the girl was believed to have drowned. Now a boy has vanished without a trace and Thörnblad wants to find out if there is a link to her daughter's disappearance. That in itself might be intriguing, but when you throw in a corporate conspiracy spanning decades, the monsters who live in the woods (some in human form), and a sinister hitman with a vendetta against said monsters, you have a recipe for a wild ride.

The writing and acting in Jordskott is uniformly excellent, although quite often character points will be dragged out for far too long for little reason other than that the narrative requires it. The characters are well-rounded – even minor characters get a chance to shine, and all have believable backstories. There does come a point where the show could very easily tip into superhero territory, but it just about manages to tread that particular tightropes without becoming ridiculous. And the ending… well, as a crime drama, it wraps up nicely, but the deeper mystery about the titular Jordskott is left open. Lucky they’ve announced season 2 already…

That’s all for now. Let me know if you like this sort of content, and if so I’ll try to make it a little more frequent. In the meantime, don’t have nightmares…