Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Company of Wolves Book Update

I’ve just submitted the final proofs of my monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series), so it won’t be too long before it’s available to pre-order. I also wanted to share a preview of the beautiful cover design (right).

Here’s a little snippet from the intro:

The Company of Wolves is a dark fantasy film quite unlike any other. A meditation on the horrors of the adult world, and of adult sexuality, as glimpsed through the dreams of an adolescent girl, it amalgamates aspects of horror, the Female Gothic, fairy tales, werewolf films and coming of age parables. Drenched in atmosphere and an eerily sensual malaise, it boasts striking imagery immersed in fairy tale motifs and startling Freudian symbolism. 

The Company of Wolves was Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan’s second film, and his first foray into the realms of Gothic horror. Jordan co-wrote the screenplay with British novelist Angela Carter, and it is based upon several short stories from Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of reinterpreted classic literary fairy tales told from a piercing feminist perspective. 

The film incorporates elements from three stories - each a provocative reworking of Little Red Riding Hood: ‘The Werewolf’, which tells of how Red Riding Hood discovers her ailing Grandmother is actually a werewolf; ‘The Company of Wolves’, which begins as a series of folkloric anecdotes relating to werewolves, and ends with Red Riding Hood seducing a lycanthropic huntsman; and ‘Wolf-Alice’, the tale of a young girl raised by wolves who grows up outside the confines of civilised society and comes of age in the lonely castle of a werewolf duke.

Stay tuned for further updates.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

'Too Dreadfully Brutal': In Conversation with Author Jon Towlson

Is the 1930s horror film more akin to graphic modern horror than is often thought? In his recent book, The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936 (McFarland & Co), film critic and author Jon Towlson vividly explores the misconception of 1930s horror as safe and reassuring. Towlson will also give a lecture at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in London on 16th March, to further discuss the subject and share his research.  

Synthetic Flesh/Rotten Blood: The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936 will examine ‘happy ending’ horror in relation to industry practices and censorship, and detail how the likes of Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Raven (1935) may be more akin to the modern Grand Guignol excesses of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Hostel (2005) than many critics and audiences believe. Towlson’s discussion will be reinforced with memos, letters and censorship reports from the studio archives and other research conducted for his book.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting to Jon about his work, his forthcoming lecture, the misconception of 1930s horror cinema and how it helped shape the genre.

Head over to Diabolique to read the full interview

Thursday, 23 February 2017

We Go On

Dirs. Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton

We Go On tells of Miles Grissom (Clark Freeman), a young man with a crippling fear of death, who places an advertisement offering a large sum of money to whoever can help him prove the existence of an afterlife.

With the help of his mother Charlotte (Annette O’Toole), he narrows down the offers of help he receives to three possible candidates and embarks on a journey he may never be able to return from...

The fascinating central premise of We Go On strongly evokes The Twilight Zone, while the focused script ensures an insular atmosphere.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review. And keep an eye open for issue 5 of Exquisite Terror, coming soon... 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Rare Breeds by Erik Hofstatter

Kent-based author Erik Hofstatter’s latest offering is a dark, terse and keenly paced little chiller that consistently leads the reader into unexpected and ever unsettling places.

The story concerns Aurel Schwartz, an unassuming young man whose tendency to sleepwalk begins to create tension within his family. When his somnambulant wanderings become strangely menacing, Aurel’s wife Zora believes he poses a real threat to her daughter Livie.

Before long the family is caught up in a nightmare of missing teenaged girls, grave-robbing, astral projection and necromancy…

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

And keep an eye open for issue 5 of Exquisite Terror, coming soon... 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Lemora – A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural

Dir. Richard Blackburn

Set in 1920s rural America and filmed on an ultra-low budget, this deliciously weird and wonderful adult fairy tale tells of a young girl’s sexual awakening in the rustic abode of a female vampire. When 13-year-old church singer Lila (Cheryl Smith) receives a letter from the titular antagonist (Lesley Gilb) informing the girl her gangster father is close to death and longs to see her one last time, Lila runs away from her puritanical guardian, Reverend Mueller (Blackburn). On her journey she encounters various incarnations of aggressive male sexuality, from the sleazy ticket seller at the bus station and the lecherous man whose car she stows away in, to the coven of undead abominations lurking in the woods around Lemora’s home. Their advances serve to highlight Lila’s perceived vulnerability and objectify her burgeoning sexuality as she wanders somnambulantly through increasingly nightmarish landscapes. When she arrives at the home of Lemora, Lila initially resists the older woman’s attempts to initiate her into the sensual world of vampirism, but eventually embraces the power it wields and transforms into a Gothic seductress.

Lemora belongs to a group of films which unravel as darkly sexual coming of age parables, with fantastical narratives in which adolescent girls on the cusp of adulthood find themselves in menacing, arguably psychological landscapes pursued by monsters, both literal and figurative. Films such as The Company of Wolves, Valerie & Her Week of Wonders, The Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth, Paperhouse, Pan’s Labyrinth and Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty all explore and unfold within the dreams and fantasies of young women, who must use their resourcefulness, strength and virtue to overcome danger and emerge into adulthood, victorious and transformed. The narratives these girls wander through echo the initiations of folk and fairy tales in which the girl must outsmart the monster and obtain knowledge and experience. Lemora may not be as complex as the likes of The Company of Wolves but it certainly has moments that are almost as provocative. While the werewolves in Jordan and Carter’s film were metaphors for different aspects of sexuality - including adult sexuality in general, active female sexuality and aggressive male sexuality - the mindless forest vampires in Lemora merely speak of aggressive male sexuality and thrive on brutal instinct, completely without reason.

Despite the film’s remarkably low budget, Blackburn deftly creates a nightmarish landscape of forests, cellars and labyrinthine backstreets, rendering his filmic canvas in shadows and eerie blue lighting. As soon as Lila leaves the apparent safety of her home - and her religious guardian - to embark upon her journey to the town of Astoroth, she steps into a lurid and claustrophobic otherworld. From the creepy bus journey and the faded grandeur of Lemora’s plantation-style house, to an extended chase sequence that unfolds in the deserted town, Blackburn conjures a creepy atmosphere pregnant with oppressive foreboding. Lemora actually possesses a similar look and atmosphere to Tobe Hooper's EC Comics inspired Eaten Alive (1977), with its livid lighting and suffocating Southern steaminess.

There are a number of interesting allusions to the work of H.P. Lovecraft throughout Lemora, particularly The Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which the narrator is drawn to the decrepit and shunned town of Innsmouth. Due to years of mating with powerful sea creatures known as the Deep Ones, the locals all possess a peculiar appearance - bulging eyes, scabrous flesh, narrow heads - described as ‘the Innsmouth look’. The creepy ghost town Lila travels to – Astaroth – has a similar reputation to Innsmouth and she is warned about it by the bus driver. He explains that the townsfolk are horribly disfigured, have taken to prowling the surrounding forests and all have what he refers to as ‘the Astaroth look’. In demonology, Astaroth is the Duke of Hell and forms part of an unholy trinity with Lucifer and Beelzebub. Scholars believe the name is derived from several specific ancient goddesses including the Canaanite Ashtoreth (goddess of fertility, sexuality and war), the Phoenician Astarte (goddess of fertility, motherhood and war) and the Sumerian Inanna (goddess of love, fertility and war). These goddesses are connected to ideas concerning sex and death, a prominent theme throughout Lemora. Coincidence? Probably. But read on…

Lovecraft refers to the similar sounding Azathoth in several of his stories, including Dreams in the Witch House, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Haunter of the Dark and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He describes Azathoth as a ‘Nuclear Chaos’ and the ‘Daemon Sultan’. Interestingly, Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price suggests Lovecraft was not only inspired by the names of various demons and gods (Ashtoreth, Astaroth etc.) but by the name of an essential agent of transformation in alchemy: Azoth. Azoth is the name given to Mercury by ancient alchemists, and they believed it was the animating spirit contained in all matter and it made transmutation possible. This brings us back to Lemora and the themes of transformation - Lila’s gradual metamorphosis from child to a woman, and human to vampire. Not to mention the transformation and mental and physical degeneration of the residents of Astaroth. This is all of course complete conjecture on my part, but I thought it an interesting digression!

Lemora is a work of dark, dreamlike suggestion that draws upon fairy tales, vampire lore, Southern Gothic literature and the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It is an untypical vampire film with its own fascinating lore and hinted-at mythology. As a fantastical coming of age film, it perfectly captures, to quote from the Aurum Encyclopaedia of Horror, ‘the essential amorality and mysteriousness of the world of childhood’.

I would like to thank Wes over at Plutonium Shores for recommending I check out Lemora, a strange little film that warrants repeated viewing.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Dear Scream...

Happy 20th Birthday, Scream! I can't believe you've grown up so fast. I know it’s now 2017 and you turned 20 last year, but you weren’t released in the UK until 1997 so technically it was twenty years ago this year that I saw you. Technicalities aside, I couldn’t let the occasion go by without writing a little something about you on here. I remember my dad taking me to see you at the cinema because you were rated 18 and I was only 16. I wanted so badly to see you though. I was shocked and intrigued by your teaser campaign on TV, and you starred some people who were in things I loved as a 16-year-old (Friends! Party of Five! Boys on the Side!). You were my first experience of watching a horror film in a cinema with a real live cinema audience (they were quite annoying) and I can still remember the excitement and anticipation. I was equal parts irked and enthralled when the audience reacted to you in such a vocal way. They screamed a lot. I thought you were the greatest thing ever, although my dad was very unimpressed and no amount of my insisting 'But it's ironic and post-modern though' would change his mind.

If I had to pinpoint one film that influenced my taste in films (i.e. horror), I'd pick you, Scream. After watching you and noting all your little references and allusions to other slasher films, I watched John Carpenter's Halloween and it terrified me and then there was no turning back. The floodgates opened. I lapped up 80s slashers like Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Hell Night, Terror Train and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and by investigating your director Wes Craven’s filmography, I found a filmmaker I really quite admired. While he made some really flawed titles throughout his career, he brought an intelligence and a philosophical air to horror cinema that really appealed to me; that, and his penchant for surreal dream sequences. Films like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing, The Serpent and the Rainbow and brutal urban fairy tale The People Under the Stairs provided food for thought as much as they provided chills for the spine. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare became an obsession for a while and confirmed, for me anyway, that he was the right person to direct you. And he directed you so well. Your opening scene with Drew Barrymore is an exercise is sustained dread and tension. It’s a landmark moment in horror cinema up there with the opening scene of When A Stranger Calls and the climactic revelation of Black Christmas, to name but two other moments that traumatised me. 

Telephone Terror: Scream (1996)

Please hold... FOR TERROR! When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Your call is being redirected... TO TERROR! Black Christmas (1974)

You were so successful you single-handedly revived the slasher film. Shortly after your release I was compelled to visit my local video shop (where I also worked, handily. Just like Randy!) and go back to the cinema to check out teen-terror titles like The Craft, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, The Faculty and Halloween H20, all of which have become personal favourites. You also helped inform my taste in music, too. I still love Nice Cave & the Bad Seeds and, for a few months at least, I listened to a lot of Republica. The interest in slasher films you sparked led me to pick up Mark Whitehead’s little pocket guide to slasher movies and Adam Rockoff's Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. I read about proto-slasher titles such as the Gothic-tinged body-count of Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve and Dario Argento’s swanky gialli such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, which I eventually couldn’t get enough of. I especially fell in love with the films of Dario Argento. So much so in fact, I wrote a book about them.

Twenty years later I’m still obsessed with horror and even though I own you on DVD, along with your siblings Scream 2, 3 and 4, I always watch you when you’re on TV (you eventually spawned a TV series! Which wasn’t bad!) and I always feel nostalgic for the spring of ‘97. You encapsulate an important era in my life and one I look back upon with much fondness.

Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper

Dirs. Ian Powell & Karl Ward

What if someone had discovered the knives used by Jack the Ripper? What if those cruelly glinting blades then went missing? And what if the Ripper came back into our world to once again mutilate and massacre? These are the tantalising questions that form the premise of atmospheric independent horror Razors, the first in a new series of forthcoming films set to explore the bloody exploits of one of the world’s most mysterious serial killers. It tells of enigmatic film professor Robert Wise (Thomas Thoroe) who gathers a group of young screenwriters at a sinister Victorian warehouse in the heart of London to work on the ultimate horror film. Amongst the assembled group is troubled screenwriter Ruth (Kelby Keenan) who believes she has discovered the actual knives used by Jack the Ripper. When the knives go missing and it appears the spirit of the Ripper roams free, the young screenwriters must unlock the building’s dark secrets and unravel mysteries from their own pasts if they are to survive…

With a group of characters exploring their fears to write the ‘definitive’ horror film, various ghostly happenings and the shadowy presence of a Mephistophelian movie producer, Powell and Ward don’t skimp on intriguing ideas as they set the stage for an atmospheric bloodbath. The notion of a group of writers challenging one another to pen the ultimate horror story while feeding their imaginations with nightmarish tales, echoes the events of that ‘wet, ungenial summer’ by Lake Geneva that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. Aspects of Wes Craven’s Scream also surface throughout Razors as the young screenwriters comment on the conventions and mores of their favourite types of horror films, ranging from subtle ghost stories and graphic gore-fests, to the eerie sensuality of Gothic vampire films. References to the likes of classic chillers such as The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House abound, as the characters realise they have all been carefully selected for the project.

Cinematographer Alessio Valori carefully lights each scene using mainly candles, torches and onscreen sources of light, and the limited budget and dark locations actually work to the filmmakers’ advantage, as they help conjure a creepy, claustrophobic air. Striking imagery, including horror staples such as creepy dolls and little ghost girls, is rife throughout, and Razors eventually follows a familiar formula as the group are violently picked off one by one while exploring their foreboding surroundings. The screenplay offers a plethora of interesting ideas, and cerebral dialogue between various characters serves up real food for thought as they discuss such concepts as the beauty of horror, the nature of fear, the current state of horror cinema and what attracts individuals to such subject matter. With deliberate pacing the directors take their time to establish atmosphere and it’s clear they aren’t interested in just producing another run-of-the-mill body-count film. As the screenplay enters an increasingly Gothic realm of hidden chambers and bloody secrets, Powell and Ward establish a curious mythos which will hopefully be explored in further instalments of the series.

Razors is a creepy little art-house chiller with ambitious ideas and moments of visceral intensity.