Guts Reaction: Bucking Hell

Bucking Hell is a short film by James Kermack. It’s about three men stuck on a sinking ship, with only one life-jacket. They sit below decks playing an improvised version of Buckaroo to decide who gets the life jacket – hence the title.

The Buckaroo is worth describing in more detail. It’s like a mix between a Blair Witch Project twig sculpture and a four-year-old child’s junk modelling. It’s really quite special.

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The film is a fine study of men on the edge and it’s darkly hilarious. Dick-waving about who’s got the biggest scar – that’s scar not car - takes up a significant proportion of the character’s dwindling time.

Gradually, the terrified and ridiculous bickering breaks down into Beckettian existential reflection. At this point real characters begin to emerge. One shows himself to be a cynic to the end, while another reveals an unexpected, if horribly violated, sensitivity.

Bucking Hell is a very accomplished short film. The performances – from David Schaap of the Inbetweeners, Nicky Evans of Shameless and Geoffrey Breton…  who is less well known but should be…. are impeccable.

Like many a short film, I wanted it to be longer.

James Kermack’s first feature film - Hi-Lo Joe, about a love affair haunted by trauma - received mixed reviews.  But Kermack’s clearly got an eye for compelling set-up and characters, and tightly controlled narrative. He’s currently putting together a dark action thriller, Knuckledust, and I’ll certainly be looking out for it.

Dead Corpse by Nuzo Onoh

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Nuzo Onoh caught my eye when I saw a blog about Dead Corpse, her latest novel. When I read that she calls herself the Queen of African Horror I was intrigued. I went to Amazon, looked inside the book, and found myself on a smooth, irresistible narrative conveyor belt with no going back.

Onoh is a British writer of Igbo heritage. She grew up in what was formerly the Republic of Biafra and is now part of Nigeria. Her books are all famously steeped in African folklore and traditions.  

Dead Corpse is one hell of a story, about three generations of medicine-women who battle with the evil in gods, men and in themselves to find happiness. It’s also about revenge, and the struggle to define the right way to live in the complex and divided world of modern Africa.

The story begins with Xikora, a powerful and somewhat malevolent albino medicine woman, dying in childbirth along with her infant son. Her daughter Owa - also albino and destined to inherit Xikora’s powers - is left motherless and vulnerable in a community that disdains light-skinned people.

We return to Owa some years later, when she’s established as the medicine-woman in the village. Although she’s just as powerful as her late mother, she’s much more timid and merciful. She has a daughter called Aku, also albino. But Aku’s academic talent has led her to attend a Catholic school and convert to Christianity.

I was already fascinated to see how this fight between old and new gods would play out. But then enter “the fat man”, one of the most upsetting villains I’ve ever come across. His plans for Aku are grotesque but the detail of his petty ambition makes him believable:

“…As I told you, I’m the deputy local government chairman and very soon, I shall become the chairman,” he paused, looking her over as if she were a bowl of assorted meats.

Occasionally Onoh uses too many adjectives for my taste - it might be more powerful to talk about some of the crimes that have been committed without mentioning that they are “heinous” for example.

But her language is mostly vivid and compelling. Take this passage where Owa and Aku communes with a goddess:

The earth cracked and the flies spewed out in their ferocious, deafening flight; the celestial flies, the forbearers of the great Earth Goddess. The swarm coalesced by the entrance of the shrine, whirling like a black tornado, sculpturing themselves in the smoky gloom till a dark figure emerged, a body formed from flies, a figure shaped like a woman, a towering, terrifying, night-black woman. The figure was so colossal it filled the shrine, seeming to extend beyond the dry, thatched roof. The fly-body swelled and rolled, whirled and surged as it undulated its terrible walk towards the black blood-coated statue. Aku’s head expanded and contracted. Millions of hard glittering fly-eyes blinded her sight as the great goddess drew closer.

Onoh's writing also has a consistent pace and clarity that draws you in and makes you forget time – the ‘narrative conveyor belt’ I mentioned in the introduction.

The plot of Dead Corpse is harrowing but that’s how horror works – tapping into deep anxieties and worst-case scenarios to sort out fairly ordinary dilemmas we’d all recognize. For example, is it better to think like ruthless Xikora or merciful Owa?

Xikora tells Owa:

“I make my own destiny. Haven’t you heard a word I said? Those who wait instead of taking action achieve nothing in life, like yourself, who’ve let your powers go to the dogs.”

By the end of the book you feel like you – along with Owa and the rest of her village - are walking a very thin tightrope of goodness between the values of Xikora and those of the fat man. But you’ve made it.

An exciting, satisfying read that will make you shudder and think - highly recommended!

Twit Follows - @RiversofGrue

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I don’t follow @riversofgrue for his tweets exactly. I mean, they’re good, they’re full of great images and intriguing updates on his projects and collaborations. But what I actually follow him for is what his tweets click through to. And that’s words.

I still don’t totally understand @riversofgrue – where he comes from, who his associates are and so on. His website is superb but some of his links take me through to sites that are a barrage of confusing words and pictures.

So I’m going to focus on his writing. This ranges from horror fiction to film criticism and introspective pieces, and it's always clear as crystal.

The first tweet I clicked on was this:

New to his feed, I thought it would be just another rambling blog. But then I was whacked over the head – in a good way, an excellent way - by the first paragraph:

I wish to start by making one thing unmistakably clear. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the most despicable, mean-spirited, rotten hunk of celluloid that I have ever had the outrageous good fortune of being subjected to. That’s a compliment in case you’re wondering.

What followed was a rollercoaster of kinetic, lyrical, exhilarating prose that articulated the insight that’s always been on the tip of my tongue about TCM – it’s actually beautiful. For example:

I would implore you to experience the restored version if you can take the relentless mental anguish a second time. Daniel Pearl’s cinematography really comes into its own here and every solitary strand of jade green Texas grass stands out defiantly against the brilliant azure skyline.

And he’s a bottomless pit of this stuff.

Now us horror fans are a diverse bunch. We all come at the genre with a slightly different take. And I’m not in exactly the same tribe as @riversofgrue. He writes erotic fiction and that’s not my bag (although I did read one story and I can see it’s a quality example of the genre).

He also published an article recently about @kreepazoidkelly, a special effects artist, model and icon of the horror community who is suffering a serious illness. Reading it I felt like I’d blundered into a private space.

But it was powerfully written, as if he was crying as he got the words out. And isn’t everybody always saying we have too many taboos around discussing illness and mortality? When was only hanging out with people in the same tribe the best fun?

@riversofgrue is anti-censorship, anti-niminy-piminy-hangups, and pro-tolerance. I think he's absolutely terrific.

So I am a #gruehead (yes, his fans have their own groovy moniker). To see just how much #grueheads love @riversofgrue, check out these tweets:

And there are literally hundreds like this.

Personally I’d like to see @riversofgrue publish some longer fiction in which he explores his twisted characters in much greater depth. But I get the feeling he’s already got a plan. I’ll certainly be watching it unfold.

Title Fright 3 Result - Silence of the Lambs vs American Psycho

The internet picked a very definite winner. Scroll down for the original contest.

Welcome to Title Fright 3 where two MASSIVE serial killer films do battle. This one is really exciting - it's like seeing Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman go mano a mano on each other! But it's a tight battle - please vote and comment and help us pick a winner!

Guts Reaction: League of Gentlemen Christmas Special

Here are my off the cuff thoughts on The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special.

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On the down side, the structure of the series - a hybrid between a sketch show and a sitcom - wasn’t quite as dreamlike as in the original show. It felt bitty, rather than unsettling.

This was the only downside, however.

Royston Vasey, as others have observed, is more relevant than ever. What is Brexit if not a resolution of Britain’s identity as a local country for local people?

I’m coming at League of Gentlemen as a horror fan. On a more personal note, I feel that for horror fans , the energy of characters like Edward and Tubbs and Papa Lazarou is always there under the surface of everyday life. To me, you can’t make sense of life without that crazy dimension. You can’t live your life without it. A show like the League of Gentlemen provides an exhilarating validation for this feeling, and it was good to be back.

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton were so ferociously good in all their roles they made me tingle. I got the feeling they were having the time of their lives and they absolutely took me with them.

Shearsmith excels himself when, as Benjamin Denton, he’s possessed by Harvey Denton. I never knew a top lip could be so funny.

Mark Gatiss, as usual, was smooth and brilliant.

All in all, watch it if you haven’t already!

 

 

 

 

 

Guts Reaction: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Olwen Kelly terrifies as Jane Doe. She may be the best thing in the movie.

Olwen Kelly terrifies as Jane Doe. She may be the best thing in the movie.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an American supernatural horror directed by Norwegian Andre Ovredal, who directed the brilliant Troll Hunter.

It stars Brian Cox as Tommy Tilden and Emile Hirsch as his son Austin.

Tommy is a a forensic pathologist and Emile works as his assistant. A harried local police chief ask them to rush through the autopsy of an unidentified young woman who’s been found in a basement. She’s in immaculate condition, but the rest of the house is full of blood-soaked corpses.

Tommy and Austin apply themselves with grim professionalism to trying to solve the mystery of how ‘Jane Doe’ died, but gradually things take an unnerving turn.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe does a beautiful job with a classic horror trope – our fear that the dead will return. It takes the people we trust to look violent death in the eye – forensic pathologists – and strips them down.

It also, I thought, takes a subtle swipe at expectations of female beauty. Maybe I'm just desensitized after watching The Corpse of Anna Fritz, which features graphic necrophilia. But Jane Doe’s body is eerily perfect and this is not a good thing.

The Autopsy has the most wonderful contrapuntal structure. There’s the obvious like a certain sound effect that appears at the beginning and the end of the movie with very different meaning. There’s relationship between father and son, marked by love and conflict.

Then there’s the less obvious, like Austin’s girlfriend’s benign insinuation into the male space of the morgue. This foreshadows the more sinister insinuation of Jane Doe.

These parallels and pairings should ring like bells. They should sing like a choir. And for the first half of the film, they do.

But it all gets lost in the second half. There’s nothing wrong with the acting – when has Brian Cox ever disappointed? But somehow these potentially powerful counterpoints miss each other, they don’t ring out. The denouement feels silly and anticlimactic.

The only exception to this is Jane Doe herself, played by Olwen Kelly. Her blank face terrified me in every shot.

And horror films often reveal wonders on a second or third viewing. I’d certainly watch this film again.

The Haunting of Hill House

It was as if Shirley Jackson's classic novel had been haunting me from the future.

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I read about it some decades ago in Stephen King's Danse Macabre, and was desperate to get my hands on it, but it wasn't available anywhere in the UK at the time.

At some point I saw film of the book - 1963's The Haunting - and was reminded again of this maddening original text that was so acclaimed and yet unavailable.

Now, finally reading it in midlife, it's lived up to expectation. It really is that good.

A group of people gather in a haunted house to explore paranormal events. One member of the party, unstable Eleanor, gets sucked in deeper than she expected.

The Haunting of Hill House is so powerful I'm - almost - glad I didn't read it when I was an impressionable young woman. It would have been just one more reason to fear growing up... It would have made me see Eleanors all around me... and even worse I'd have seen Eleanor inside me. There's always one inside and that's why we find these characters so interesting.

But I also missed out one of the most compelling characters in literature and for that I'm sorry. As a writer of horror fiction, I'm particularly sorry. I'm intrigued that apparently Stephen King's iconic character Carrie was in part inspired by The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor, Carrie - so maladjusted young women make good horror? Hmmm.... now do I know anybody like that? Have I got any stories in that vein? <scratches head emoticon>

Sour and sad and yet exhilarating in its mastery, The Haunting of Hill House is everything it's said to be.

Title Fright 1: World War Z v Train to Busan

WARNING: SPOILERS

Voting has begun on World War Z v Train to Busan. Voting closes this Thursday, 21 December at 9am UK time.

Use #titlefright and vote:

  • In the comments section below
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  • On twitter - vote in the poll and reply with your reasons
  • On Facebook - leave a comment with your choice and your reasons.

Maynard's House by Herman Raucher

Maynard's House by Herman Raucher is a beautifully-written haunted house story which plumbs incredible depths of creepiness.
It's about Austin, a young Vietnam veteran. He's inherited the house of Maynard, his best friend in the war, after he died in battle. The book begins with Austin travelling to Maine in the depths of winter to claim his inheritance.
An old edition of  Maynard's House  by Herman Raucher.

An old edition of Maynard's House by Herman Raucher.

The creeps takes a long time to get going, but once they begin they're powerful. The house is beautiful but oddly unnerving. There's a dead tree nearby from which a witch was hanged some centuries ago, and it casts no shadow. The rocking chair creaks at night. A carved plank records how for decades every inhabitant has fled the house or died. But there's a snowstorm outside and Austin cannot leave.
Two young Minnawickies - whether this refers to a Native American tribe or a supernatural sprite is never made clear - seem to offer comfort with their youthful shenanigans. But they turn out to be extremely troubling, especially as one of them is an attractive young girl who seems like a child one minute and a seductive adult the next.
This anxiety about the girl's age infects the reader, dragging you right inside Austin's unravelling mind. It's clear that he's been traumatised by combat, and it's as if everything now is untrustworthy, anything good or hopeful - such as his desire for a beautiful girl - may hide a horror.
But the book offers more than just creeps. There are a couple of awkward sexual scenes with animals of all things - a deer tries to eat Austin's 'odd carrot' while he's in the outhouse, and a randy squirrel mistakes him for another squirrel . These manage at once to be funny, and to work with the darker elements of the book.
The writing is something else, too. Take this description of the house as Austin first approaches it, for example:
A long, tapering roof, sweeping down almost to the snow—facing north, the better to deflect the wind, causing that invisible beast to spend its strength riding the roof, arriving in the trees beyond with nothing to show for all its muscle but an echoing whistle.
From what I can gather Maynard's House was first published in 1981. Despite the centrality of the Vietnam war to the plot, the book feels timeless, as if it could be set in any period after railways were invented. Maine is a character in its own right, cold and remote, sparsely populated by enigmatic locals who talk in riddles.
Maynard's House is slow and dreamy but repays the time taken to read it with a genuinely frightening story.If you like superbly written horror, and don't mind a slow build-up for a great payoff, this book is recommended.

Twit Follows: @AChrisHeathMD

@AChrisHeathMD  is... um... interesting <strokes beard, jots notes>.

He's a psychoanalyst who's active on Twitter and YouTube spreading the word about the glory of Freud.

And he's terrific.

Chris Heath, internet psychoanalyst.

Chris Heath, internet psychoanalyst.

Most people think of psychoanalysis as something that happens in a private room at a time strictly agreed between patient and therapist. As such, internet psychoanalysis is a contradiction in terms.

@AChrisHeathMD defies that and makes Freudian ideas accessible to anybody browsing the internet at work or late at night. He does this with his benignly barmy, oddly soothing vlogs at Freudalicious Mind on YouTube. Topics include procrastination, guilt tripping, mass hysteria and surviving family holidays.

A declaration - I'm a fan of the unconscious. I think it’s a horror writer's greatest resource. I also think a better public understanding of the unconscious could solve broader societal ones - I'd love Trump to go on the couch, for all our sakes, or if not his voters.

But talking cures are expensive and time consuming. The theory has the reputation of being complex and unfathomable. Unless you've got a lot of money and confidence behind you psychoanalysis basically irrelevant. This is a huge flaw in the Freudian project.

Freud knew this was a problem and he set up clinics in Vienna offering free treatment to people who would not otherwise be able to access it.

Today this has to mean coming out of the consulting room and academies, on to the internet. And not with enigmatic teasers, but with material that's actually useful to people, even if this means losing some of the magic of the process. You've got to start somewhere.

That's why @AChrisHeathMD is cool, in my opinion. He democratises Freud and and the great thinkers that came after Freud, like Melanie Klein. This is absolutely true to the original spirit of the practice - that it's for everybody, not an elite.

High five @AChrisHeathMD. An essential follow.