The Girl With All the Gifts, by MR Carey

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MR Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts is currently making quite a few waves at the moment, and not without good reason. Featuring a small cast of well-drawn characters, it’s an original and fast-paced horror thriller as you’re very likely to read, and even manages to put an entirely fresh spin on what’s fast becoming the hoary old cliché of zombies and the walking dead.

The main character of the title is Melanie, a young girl who spends her days in a classroom located deep inside a military bunker where she is learning alongside other children. However Melanie is the brightest of them all, and she soon sees the disconnect between the world she is learning about from her teachers and the clues she picks up about what actually lies outside the concrete walls and barbed wire fences.

It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario set 20 years after the world was ravaged by a plague that kills everyone it infects and then turns them into mindless flesh-eating feeding machines called ‘hungries’. Circumstances conspire to violently eject Melanie and a small group out from their protective cocoon in southern Britain into the reality of this ravaged world. It’s not only Melanie who has some shocks coming at what they find: her favourite teacher Helen Justineau, scientist Caroline Caldwell, battle-hardened Sergeant Parks and raw recruit Private Gallagher will all find their preconceptions overturned – about the world, the hungries, each other and even themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

The Walking Dead S4 E9-16 (Fox)

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Despite its critical and ratings success, The Walking Dead has always appeared to have a big ongoing problem with balance. It obviously can’t be just an unending parade of horrific beheadings and shock deaths every episode; but any effort to pause, take stock and build up new characters is instantly greeted with complaints from fans that the show has become too slow, lost its way or is veering too much into soap opera territory. Finding the exact pivot point to please everyone is surely impossible.

For me, I had thought that the first half of season 4 was the most consistently excellent run of episodes that the show had so far put together; but I was concerned that its decision to go for a huge mid-season cliffhanger by essentially blowing up its jailhouse setting and killing off several important and well-loved characters might prove to be the tipping point. There’s only so many times you can pull that trick without the audience going, “What, really? We have to start from scratch again?” without them wondering whether it’s really worth it or whether it’s just become an unsatisfying neverending undead version of Groundhog Day. Read the rest of this entry »

Helix E1-2 (Channel 5)

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It’s been a long time since the SyFy Channel has its breakout mainstream hit Battlestar Galactica, and while it has done its best to repeat the success with the likes of Being Human USA and Haven along with last year’s ambitious Defiance, the truth is that the channel will probably actually be best remembered in 2013 for its notorious ‘so bad it’s good’ Z-list creature feature Sharknado. Perhaps as a need to redress the quality balance, SyFy has started the new year with a serious quality drama from executive producer Ronald D Moore, the man behind the BSG success.

helix1The basic story of the 13-part Helix series is that of a team dispatched to investigate a viral outbreak at a remote state-of-the-art scientific station in the Arctic. When they get there, they find something never before seen, a pathogen that turns its hosts into … Well, there’s no easy way of saying this: zombies, albeit the wilful and aggressive fast-moving zombies of the likes of 28 Days Later, World War Z and Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, not the slowly shuffling variety pioneered by George A Romero still to be found in The Walking Dead.

As well as seeking to tap into the current mania for all things zombie, Helix also cheerfully ransacks a whole slew of other science fiction movie classics. The early episodes and overall setting strongly evoke The Andromeda Strain while the growing sense of paranoia over not knowing who may or may not be infected but yet to show symptoms is very much in the same vein of John Carpenter’s The Thing, also sharing its ice-bound location. There’s a touch of Alien (and all the films it inspired) in the ‘haunted house updated with monsters for ghosts’ mise en scene, and ultimately I was reminded most strongly of all of the TV series The X-Files, which itself was never better than when it was cheerfully purloining from every SF and horror source it could find. In fact Helix rather resembles two episodes of that show in particular (“Ice” and “Firewalker”) as well as that programme’s series arc more generally with its underlying sense of a deadly military and business conspiracy behind the threat. Read the rest of this entry »

Storage 24 (2012) [DVD]

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It was Halloween last night, and that called for a suitably scary horror genre film. As it happened, British independent film Storage 24 seemed to fit the bill nicely.

Let’s be honest from the start and admit that this is not the most original of films: it’s essentially a haunted house movie with the part of the ghost played by a ravenous extra-terrestrial predator. Or to put it another way: it’s another in a long line of Alien-inspired clones (with an interesting diversion at one point into Die Hard-ism) that follows all the familiar tropes of that specific genre – such as people stupidly wondering off on their own to investigate strange movements and noises – and frequently feels more like an overly slavish homage than a fresh effort in its own right.

But it does have a few original things going for it, not least the setting: the haunted house in question here is one of those soulless long-term storage facilities, and the film makes great use of the visual imagery of those unsettlingly blank, eerie steel corridors receding into blackness. It’s very well shot by director Johannes Roberts, whose visual style is one of the high points of the film and ensures that even with a rock-bottom budget the events actually on screen never look cheap. And a word of praise also for the sound design, which is consistently top-notch and plays an unsettling blinder throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray]

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Longtime readers of this blog will not be shocked to hear that I’m besotted with the silver screen monster movies of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and I freely admit that the release this week of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray boxset was one of the most anticipated of 2012 as far as I was concerned.

I’ve only had a chance to watch two of the eight iconic films from the boxset, but here’s the story so far … Read the rest of this entry »

The Woman in Black [Blu-ray]

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The return of the Hammer brand to cinemas is a welcome development in 2012, and it’s good to see it back with this well made, classy and impressive ghost story – albeit perhaps not one that quite warrants the laurels it received upon its release.

It’s a simple story – a run-down house on a remote island haunted by a ghostly woman in black whose appearance presages disaster. We’ve seen the story many times before, and indeed Susan Hill’s original 1983 novel on which the film is based is really just a pastiche of any number of similar stories and folklore going back centuries. It was never trying to be original, just to be the final word in being the best summary of all those tales in one go.

Since then the world of horror has moved on, although not by a lot; and indeed, the story of The Woman in Black seems to have prefigured much of the sort of J-Horror exploits from Japan, with a definite sense of Ring and The Grudge at work which have now crossed back over and visually influenced this new film adaptation in turn.

In summary, then, this film isn’t particularly original and probably never can be. There are a lot of clichés both plot-wise and stylistically – such as the frightened villagers ushering their children inside as the big city stranger Arthur Kipps walks past. It’s the type of thing we’ve seen many times since 1930s Universal and 1950s Hammer outings, and which has been parodied in everything from An American Werewolf in London to The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The fact that the villagers blame Kipps for what ensues is somewhat irksome as no one ever actually thinks to tell him what the problem is so that he has no idea what’s at stake: another example of a film that would be 10 minutes long if people actually bothered to talk to each other about the most basic things.

But such things needn’t be a problem, providing that the film knows this going in and resolves to make the best darn ‘tribute’ ghost story it possibly can be in the circumstances. And by and large, The Woman in Black actually manages to achieve just that.

For one thing, it looks wonderful: the house and over-grown gardens are meticulously created with a real sense of ruin and desolation. Director James Watkins knows how to shoot them and gives a proper sense of pacing that allows the surroundings to envelop you with a true sense of decay, death and dread before the ‘action’ really starts kicking in.

The film is to be commended for not relying too heavily on the usual sort of “faux shocks” to make people jump just for the sake of it. While most of the scares are things you’ve seen before, there are still at least a couple of moments that will send a chill down the spines of even the most hardened of horror film fans. The most impressive sequences of all are early in the film, where there are “blink and you’ll miss it” subliminal moments that you spot out of the corner of your eye and then wonder if you’ve seen at all, adding to the sense of unease and uncertainty that you share with the characters.

Or to be precise, one character: most of the film has just one person on screen, and that’s Harry Potter graduate Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps. There is a problem here in that he is – and moreover looks – far too young for the part of the widower with a young son to be entirely credible. But in every other respect, Radcliffe gives a sustained performance of completely believable excellence. Not once did he ever seem to falter or hit a wrong note, and in the long stretches of the film where it’s just him and us in the haunted house we are there alongside him 100 per cent throughout.

The other major star of the film is Ciarán Hinds as local landowner Daily. Hinds is, of course, also excellent; but at the same time, the film loses some of its edge once Kipps has back-up. The final third of the film also becomes rather too plot-heavy compared with the earlier sections, with Kipps becoming rather too instantly knowledgeable about the Scooby Doo/Supernatural techniques for exorcising ghosts than is really likely for a man of his era and social background.

There is a new ending to this film (which I won’t spoil) which completely explains the need for the earlier repurposing of Kipps as a bereaved single father and which also feeds into the overall sense of death, loss and despair that shrouds the entire film. For me, while it was a worthy attempt the new twist didn’t succeed and was the weakest part of the film, failing to deliver the character arc resolution it was clearly aiming for: although that said, the idea of Kipps packing up his case and jauntily returning to his old life would have been manifestly far worse.

Overall, then, this is a very solid, classy and well-made bit of old fashioned horror that’s been intelligently adjusted for the 21st century viewing audience. Not without its faults, and perhaps unfortunately somewhat over-hyped at the time it was released, but definitely worth the time and money to see – even if I personally would recommend you try the stage production at London’s Fortune Theatre in preference. Being scared by real events happening around you is always more effective than watching someone else being scared on screen: not for nothing is The Woman in Black behind only The Mousetrap as the longest-running play in the West End.

The Walking Dead S2 E1 “What Lies Ahead”

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When you find yourself with a stunning and wholly unexpected break-out hit on your hands – as American cable TV channel AMC did with the six-part The Walking Dead mini-series in 2010 – the big question mark and headache hanging over things is: can you repeat that success in the sophomore year? Can you convert that flash in the pan to something sustained and long-lasting, or will it fall apart in your hands when you have to get serious about it?

It doesn’t help when the production’s co-creator and showrunner (Hollywood director Frank Darabont in this case) suddenly leaves the project a couple of episodes into the making of the second series, after most of the writers have also just been replaced. It speaks volumes of considerable trouble behind the scenes, and means that when you’re watching the finished episodes you’re actually micro-analysing it thinking: “Is this where the quality dips? Where the rows set in? Where the shark-jumping begins? Is that why Darabont quit/was fired/delete as applicable?”

Fortunately, even with the micro-analysis set to full-strength, it’s hard to see how the first episode of season 2 represents a shift in direction or dip in quality thus far. The opening half hour in particular in staggeringly strong and also very simple in premise, as our heroes get stuck in a motorcar graveyard on a freeway in the middle of nowhere. Inevitably, a wave of the walking dead approach – too many to fight off, so all our heroes can do is hide and take cover in and under the wrecked vehicles as the zombies shuffle past inches away, in a deeply nerve-wracking extended sequence that leaves you holding your own breath past the point of comfort.

Critics fear that Darabont’s departure means they’re ‘soaping it up’, but certainly in the first half of this episode the ‘soap’ elements are simply those that existed in the first mini-series – the tangled relationship of the sheriff’s wife and his deputy; Andrea contemplating suicide. Yes, the second half of the episode does feature a long sequence where the sheriff (Britain’s own Andrew Lincoln) has a chat with his Saviour in a church in the middle of nowhere – but by then we need the respite, and the potentially mawkish moment has been paid for upfront by the deliriously macabre black comedy spectacle of zombie worshippers sitting silently in the pews, before promptly getting hacked to pieces or their heads caved in by an explosion of righteous retribution from the good guys. Even the falseness of the church itself (the tolling bell is the total artifice of a timer-activated recording played over a loudspeaker) adds an edge to any potential sentimentality-overdose from the ‘talking to God’ sequence.

Nor does the episode end with a pat resolution. We do not find the missing member of the group we’ve been searching for; and then out of nowhere there is a shocking gunshot during an apparently magical encounter with the ‘natural world’, and one of the members of the regular group that we’ve always assumed would be safe to the end is on the receiving end of it.

Far from finding any cracks or signs of shark-jumping in this season opener, I thought this was possibly the strongest episode we’ve seen of The Walking Dead since the pilot. It continues the tension and genuine outright horror (one of the scenes where the group have to check out what a zombie had for its last meal is astoundingly gross), deftly juggles the ‘soapy’ side to things, but at the same time it now has a new sense of self-confidence in what it’s trying to do and a new swagger in how it goes about doing it that stem directly from the success of the first season.

Whether this is just Darabont’s last triumphant hurrah at the helm and the cracks (if indeed there prove to be any) will start showing in two or three episodes’ time is another question entirely, but for now The Walking Dead is at the top of its gleefully grotesque game.