Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Hallowe'en Movies

Every year people compile lists of things to read, watch, do, and indeed wear at Hallowe'en. As I'm not a fashion guru (pause for gasps all round) I'll leave the spooky attire to others. So let's consider some spooky movies instead.

In my arbitrary way, I've decided to divide films into categories. First up:


1. Night of the Demon (1957)

The only big-screen adaptation of an M.R. James story, and a little masterpiece of its kind. Yes, it's got a boozy Dana Andrews in the lead role, as was necessary if a British movie wanted a chance of American distribution. But that apart it's a sharp, intelligent, and convincing take on the old idea of the evil cult and the perils of summoning up things best left undisturbed. Some criticise the film on the grounds that director Jacques Tourneur shows the demon in the opening scenes. But this is an artistically necessary move. In the original story, 'Casting the Runes', we are introduced to the idea of a real menace rather easily, but film is a literal medium and Tourneur shows us just what the sceptical hero is up against. And Niall MacGinnis as Karswell is one of the most compelling Grade A baddies.

2. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

Director Rouben Mamoulian's version of Stevenson's classic is enjoyable for many reasons, but Fredric March's Oscar-winning performance in the title roles is brilliant. There is a genuine sense of evil being unleashed when March drinks the formula. The transformation is good even by modern standards, and the joy of the ape-like Hyde at being freed is something to behold. This is a pre-Code horror movie, and there is also an air of sleaze and general grubbiness about some scenes that better reflect Stevenson's intentions. The studio, MGM, recalled most prints of this film and destroyed them when it made a much tamer version with Spencer Tracy.

3. Dead of Night (1945) 

We're back in Good Old Blighty for this classic anthology of weird tales. One might quibble about the choices of story - Wells' 'The Inexperienced Ghost', adapted here into a golfing tale, is weak - but overall this one stands the test of time. It tackles some of the great ghostly themes in traditional ways, and sometimes exudes charm and a rather old English whimsy. But when the tone darkens towards the end we really do confront the stuff of nightmares. It also makes for an interesting contrast with Night of the Demon.

4. The Innocents (1961) 

I'm not a Henry James fan. He is the Milton of pre-modernist prose - you can't ignore him, but he is frankly no fun. Fortunately, Jack Clayton's masterly film is not replete with Henry's wordage, and instead gives us the very effective plot and characters in his story 'The Turn of the Screw'. Deborah Kerr is excellent in the leading role as the inexperienced governess who discovers that the children in her care are under the influence of someone, or something, else.

5. The Haunting (1963)

Another country house drama with a supernatural core, Robert Wise's film based on Shirley Jackson's novel is a favourite of almost every ghost story writer I know. As in The Innocents, it's a gore-free horror story focusing on a woman who is somewhat deluded and naive. The difference is that here the characters are attempting to prove, or disprove, survival after death. The supposed medium Eleanor Lance becomes a conduit for the house's energies - or does she? It's a film that could easily have been frustratingly oblique, but instead packs a dramatic punch.

Well, those are my first batch of Hallowe'en movies. I'm sure you have some black and white masterpieces you'd like to recommend - I've omitted rather a lot! We'll move on to colour soon.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Ghost Stories For Hallowe'en

At this time of year a lot of people develop a sudden interest in supernatural fiction. The few parts of the internet that aren't full of porn, conspiracy theories, and cats are full of lists. Lists like this one: 'Five Must-Read Ghost Stories for Hallowe'en'.

Oliver Tearle has a book to plug, as is the norm with such things, but his list is a decent one. His starting point is the late-Victorian 'shift from what Virginia Woolf called "the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons" towards newer, more ambiguous and more unsettling, types of ghost.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

ST#28 Contents

What's in the next issue? I'm glad you asked. There are some stories!

'Fiveplay' - E. Michael Lewis

Naughty adults shouldn't play certain kinds of games...

'Doorways' - William Wanless

An old-school tale of a strange curse and a desperate solution

'A Name in the Dark' - Michael Chislett

Another unique tale of magical London from a criminally underrated author

'Look Both Ways' - Sam Dawson

Nostalgia can take possession of a man

'Mr and Mrs Havisham' - Gillian Bennett

A portrait, a haunting, but not exactly a haunted portrait

'Snowman, Frozen' - Tim Foley

A writer goes to a remote cabin to finish a screenplay...

'Bright Hair About the Bone' - Jacob Felsen

A poetic exploration of love and loss

'The Shrouder' – William I.I. Read

A weird tale about a weird tale

Out in November. Prepare yourself for preternatural peril, and that sort of thing.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

He's at it again...

Robert Lloyd Parry's Nunkie Theatre Company is on the road again this autumn. From Hallowe'en onward RLP will be performing two 'new' M.R. James stories. The title off the new show, 'Casting the Runes', is a bit of a giveaway. But, as fans will be aware, the show always contains two stories (and an intermission) - and the second is a bit of a surprise.

'The Residence at Whitminster' isn't the most obvious choice for a one-man performance. It's set in two historical periods with no modern framing narrative. But it's notable that in the new G&S Book of Shadows there are two stories inspired by 'Whitminster', as it is rather strong in terms of both character and ideas.

Anyway, I look forward to the latest Nunkie-tastic show with my usual droopy enthusiasm. I will report in due course when he performs in Newcastle.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Complex (2013)

The Complex (2013) Poster
Hideo Nakata directed Ring, Ring 2, and Dark Water, and so can claim to be at least one of the true begetters of J-Horror. If it weren't for Nakata's considerable talents I would probably not have sat through quite so many films in which young Japanese, Korean, Thai and Chinese people dash along concrete corridors under faulty strip lights.

Nakata's latest, The Complex, is at first and indeed second glance a return to familiar territory. The eponymous setting is a run-down block of flats very like the one in Dark Water. As in the earlier film the protagonist is a woman whose mental health seems fragile, and the haunting itself is down to an accident rather than malice. The focus of the film is not so much horror (though there's a decent measure of it) as neglect, and the harm that a selfish, thoughtless society can inflict on its weakest members.

The film begins with scenes of mundane domesticity, as nursing student Asuka (former pop star Atsuko Maeda) moves into the complex with her parents and younger brother. During the bustle of unpacking there's a typically subtle hint of things being not-quite-right which is very brief but telling. Asuka is disconcerted by a reclusive elderly neighbour whose loud alarm clock goes off very early in the morning. And is that a scratching at the wall?

It's no surprise when the old man next door turns out to have died from malnutrition. He left claw marks on the wall that divided his home from Asuka's room. Cue some bad dreams for Asuka, and the arrival of a clear-up squad, specialising in cases of death by neglect. One of the team, Shinobu (Hiroki Narimiya), explains to Asuka that the ghosts of the lonely often attach themselves to other lonely people; such spirits are best avoided. And soon we find that Shinobu has his own burden...

I don't think anyone who has enjoyed Nakata's work will be disappointed with this one. There is an effective haunting, a bit of bait-and-switch, a Big Reveal, and a climactic scene of genuine horror. The supporting cast are as good as we've come to expect from a director who depicts the stained, worn fabric of Japanese society with a few deft character strokes, and fortunately for the film's overall balance Atsuko Maeda acquits herself well.

Some of the scenes have a slightly familiar feel, because full-on supernatural horror in a realistic setting is a familiar concept. There are only so many ways the Bad Thing can manifest itself and do harm. But there is a lot of interesting stuff here, not least a rehash of that old favourite, the attempted (Shinto/shamanistic) exorcism that goes on as the Evil Force batters at the threshold.

So, The Complex is a qualified success - not a classic, perhaps, but a solid addition to the Nakata canon and proof that the Japanese ghost story is still alive on screen.

There seems to be no English subtitled trailer, so here's the Japanese one.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Look at the New G&S Book of Shadows

Artwork by Paul Lowe

Here are a dozen stories, all derived to some extent from the tales of M.R. James. Most are sequels, but there is a prequel and two stories that tackle stories from the middle, so to speak. In some cases, part of the game is guessing before it becomes obvious. I think you'd have to have a fairly detailed knowledge of all James' works, not just the famous ones, but that's a given with the audience for the book - isn't it? Oh, and one of the stories is by me, which makes this the first collection I've reviewed that contains a personal emanation. It's a strange feeling.

Anyway, the first story is by Peter Bell and concerns the vile doings and terrible fate of the Lord of the High Court of the Wapentak of Wirral. If that isn't enough to set your Jamesian juices flowing, he offers us an epigraph from Milton's 'Lycidas' and a framing narrative in which the narrator explains that he has pieced the story together from correspondence. 'The Sands o' Dee' is an old-school story, but far superior to outright pastiche. The core incidents are suitably eerie and horrific.

While editor Ro Pardoe doesn't say which stories link to which original works, C(live). E. Ward's '11334' does give the game away in the title. I don't think it matters. Like Peter Bell's story, '11334' is a carefully-constructed extrapolation of a Jamesian idea. It pivots on mysterious threatening letters that, for a very good reason, the reader doesn't get to see until fairly late in the day.

There are any number of ways to categorise these tributes to MRJ, but the one that leaps out - for me - is whether the setting is contemporary, or nearly so. This is the case with Helen Grant's 'The Third Time', a story that works out - quite rationally - what the consequences of the good intentions of a decent Jamesian character might be. Suffice to say our modern hero fares no better than Monty's less lucky protagonists. Whether he merits his fate is another matter, of course.

Just as contemporary but utterly different in style and execution is 'Slapstick' by Christopher Harman. With typical psychological intensity and deftly cinematic images, Harman takes us into the mind of a school caretaker whose everyday concerns gradually become entwined with something altogether more peculiar. Harman fans (I'm one) will not be disappointed.

It's always a pleasure to encounter a writer for the first time and find that you're on their wavelength. For me that was certainly the case with John Ward, whose 'The Partygoers' is a witty and thoughtful comment on the modern tendency to make silly TV shows about 'real life' hauntings. It's refreshing to find that a simple premise drawn from a passage in one of MRJ's later, lesser tales can inspire a solid modern story like this.