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

Title Fright - Train to Busan versus World War Z

SPOILER ALERT!

Today's Title Fright pits World War Z (2013) against Train to Busan (2016).

World War Z is a big budget zombie film directed by Marc Forster. It stars Brad Pitt as a former UN inspector and family man Gerry. When a zombie plague sweeps the world Gerry must comes out of retirement and go on one last mission.

Train to Busan is a low budget South Korean zombie movie directed by Yeon Sang-ho. It stars Gong Yoo as distracted father Seok-Woo, and Kim Soo-Ahn as his daughter Soo-An. She persuades him to take her on a fast train to Busan to see her mother, but on the way the train is attacked by zombies.

THE WEIGH IN

Let’s compare the films to establish if they’re a good match.

I initially intended to pair Train to Busan with La Horde – a French zombie film where the battle takes place in a tower block - because both are action-horrors where the action is shaped by particular physical structures. But after watching Train to Busan I changed my mind.

Despite it’s kinetic energy, La Horde’s characters are shallow and unlikeable. They also fail to learn – notoriously, they keep shooting zombies in the chest.

Whereas Train to Busan is crammed with simple but compelling characters whose interactions keep us emotionally invested and drive the plot forwards. It just wouldn’t be a fair fight.

Next, I decided to make Train to Busan fight 28 Weeks Later. This was excitingly close and I’d like to return to this particular match later.

But then I asked twitter and the verdict was that Train to Busan should actually be fighting World War Z. I was skeptical at first, but after watching World War Z again I realised there were lots of interesting parallels between the two films. So here goes.

Parallel 1 - fast, organised zombies

Both films feature fast zombies which form mobs, human bridges and the like. In World War Z we see zombies breach a 20 metre wall by climbing over each other. In Train to Busan the train is almost stopped by a massive chain of zombies clinging to it.

Parallel 2 – family

In both films, the lead character is a father, and both films gain their tension from the centrality of the family.

World War Z begins with Gerry making pancakes for his kids’ breakfast, but this idyll is ripped apart by the zombie plague. Gerry is forced to accept a mission to find a cure because otherwise his family will lose military protection.

In Train to Busan, a good fifteen minutes is devoted to establishing Seok-Yoo’s terrible relationship with his daughter. This relationship remains key throughout the film.

Parallel 3 - politics

Both films reference a wider political canvas. World War Z puts zombies in a geopolitical context, with nations making and breaking their fate according to their histories and their relationships with other nations.

Train to Busan is one big economic critique, with wealthy Seok-Yoo bent on saving his own skin while blue-collar Sang-Hwa risks his life to save others.

LET THE FRIGHT BEGIN

Let’s get them in the ring!

Round 1 - the father

To begin with, high flying finance executive Seok-Woo is a textbook terrible father. He has his secretary buy a gift for his daughter and it turns out to be the same gift he got her last time. He doesn’t turn up to her school show. It’s her birthday the next day and unsurprisingly she wants to spend it with her mother.  With great irritation he agrees to take her, and that’s how they end up going to Busan on... well... you know how they get there!

Shut out -  Train to Busan 's Sung-Gyeong and Sung-Hwa, played by Jung Yu-Mi and Ma Dong-Seok.

Shut out - Train to Busan's Sung-Gyeong and Sung-Hwa, played by Jung Yu-Mi and Ma Dong-Seok.

When the zombies arrive on the train Seok-Woo’s first reaction is to shut out the living along with the dead. In this case it’s uninfected couple Sung-Gyeung and Sang Hwa, played by Jung Yu-Mi and Ma Dong-Seok. Seok-Woo’s actions are even more shocking because Sung Gyeung is pregnant. Soo-An is horrified and comments on her father’s ruthlessness.

But when Sang-Hwa saves Soo-An’s life, Seok-Woo begins to reassess.

By the end of the film Seok-Woo’s completely changed his moral code. When he’s infected he throws himself off the train to save not just his daughter’s life but that of Sung-Gyeong, the pregnant woman.

In World War Z, on the other hand, Gerry doesn’t need to address his moral code. Instead of changing he thinks, gradually piecing together a way to keep healthy people safe from the undead.

Gerry’s family is happy and he’s a natural hero. “What is that Gerry?” screams his wife when the zombies attack, and she clings to his neck as he saves her.

A natural hero -  World War Z 's Gerry, played by Brad Pitt.

A natural hero - World War Z's Gerry, played by Brad Pitt.

The actual devastation is far more epic than in Train to Busan, but it never gets inside Gerry. Unlike Seok-Woo, he never has to fight himself. The patriarchy is solid, the father is reliable. He doesn’t undergo an emotional journey – instead he endures a series of escalating scares whilst solving the puzzle of how to save humanity.

I call this round for Train to Busan. I love World War Z but Seok-Yoo’s journey is moving and memorable in a way that Gerry’s heroics aren’t.

Round 2 – leadership and politics

There’s a wider question in both films about how we lead society and civilisation in a time of threat.

In World War Z we encounter typically pragmatic military leadership. A navy captain played by David Andrews leaves Gerry in no doubt that his family can only stay in the safe zone if he accepts a mission.

Whereas Thierry, the UN deputy general secretary played by Fana Mokoena, protects Gerry and his family. He reluctantly ships Gerry’s wife and children out of the safe haven – to another slightly less safe haven – when he thinks Gerry is dead.

Thierry, who represents global leadership, embodies another kind of pragmatism – the coming together of nations to fight a common enemy.

This is a highly diluted version of the message of the novel World War Z by Max Brooks, which is a gripping but impersonal education in geopolitics. Still, the film gets across the way the rules would change in the event of global apocalypse. Even bitter enemies would be forced to work together to survive.

However, this isn’t exactly political. I’m indebted here to a blog by The Political Omnivore. You should absolutely check out this brilliant blogger if you haven’t already.

The Political Omnivore says that there are no politics in World War Z. The zombies are neither left-wing nor right-wing. They’re not a commentary on how we run our societies - they’re a metaphor for apocalypse. The closest World War Z gets to a political message is that in such circumstances we must drop politics.

Whereas Train to Busan dives headlong into hot political waters. For example, Seok-Woo’s ruthless moral code is explicitly linked to his position in society. When he tells another character he’s a fund manager, he’s told he’s a leech. His selfish behaviour is contrasted with the heroics of working-class Sung-Hwa, who sacrifices himself for the greater good.

Another passenger, wealthy chief executive Yong-Suk – played by Kim Eui-Sung - is even worse. Seok-Woo changes, but Yong-Suk remains committed to his ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality until his death. The staff on the train cravenly follow his lead.

Parallels are drawn between zombies and the living, and at times the two are virtually indistinguishable. For example when Yong-Suk and his coterie bay at Seok-Woo and his survivors to leave the one carriage that remains safe because they may be infected.

It’s been suggested that this is a comment on South Korea’s worst ever maritime disaster, when a ferry sank killing 300 people, mostly children. The ferry had been overloaded for commercial reasons, and crew fled after telling passengers to stay put.

I’d call this round a draw. World War Z looks to the future and is a genuinely original take on the zombie flick. Train to Busan covers familiar ground for a zombie narrative – left-leaning class conflict – but the relevance of this cannot be denied.

Round 3 – pace and structure

World War Z is confused.

We all know the story of how the final third got re-shot. Initially the final act was set in a remote yet high-profile nation state. After South Korea and Israel, Gerry was to go to Russia and die in battle. It didn’t work and another ending was put together where Gerry ends up at a World Health Organisation facility in Wales.

In a virtually action-free sequence of high suspense, he discovers a way to make humans invisible to zombies. He injects himself with a lethal bacteria that makes the undead ignore him because they only want to pass the virus to healthy hosts.

This is a great piece of cinema but it leaves a slightly odd taste in the mouth. The switch from geopolitics to microbiology is somewhat vertiginous and every time I watch it I get motion sickness.

Train to Busan, in contrast, is perfectly structured. The relationship between Seok-Woo and Soo-Ann drives the action throughout the film, there’s no sudden lurch into to what is almost a totally different genre.

At the end, Seok-Woo is bitten trying to protect Soo-An from the infected Yong-Suk. He succeeds in throwing Yong-Suk from the train and then has about a minute to spend with his daughter before he turns. He shows her how to stop the train and tells her that he loves her, but then he has to go. If you aren’t moved by this scene you must have a heart of stone.

It is the perfect culmination of what has come before. Through it, the film links the health of our intimate relationships with the health of wider society.

I call this round for Train to Busan. World War Z has a brilliant energy that compensates for its flaws. Whereas Train to Busan is simply flawless.

BEATEN ON POINTS

It's almost a knockout, but in the end Train to Busan wins on points.

World War Z is more original and ambitious, but it’s badly delivered.

Train to Busan does something more conventional, but does it to perfection.

Thanks for reading and please tell me what you think – comments are open below. I’d love to know.

 

Public Information Campaign - Alone at Last

The way the world would look if the Splits was out of control.

The way the world would look if the Splits was out of control.

This is the infamous noughties 'Alone at Last' ad from the UK Splits Authority. It's drab and depressing - the situation at this time was dire and the message had to be strong. There were complaints, but it sure as hell worked. We're digging out similar examples to complete the Archive.

Introducing Twit Follows

I'm going to start following twitter accounts in an ominious new way by reviewing them. Feeling creeped? Fabulous. Look behind you!

For Twit Follows, I'll review accounts that I follow already and want to follow in that extra special way because I think they're cool. I'll also review notable accounts that I've just discovered. It'll be mainly horror, but not exclusively.

David Robert Mitchell, director of It Follows.

David Robert Mitchell, director of It Follows.

It seemed appropriate to start Twit Follows with @DRobMitchell - that's David Robert Mitchell, the director of 2014 masterpiece It Follows.

He's been quiet lately, hopefully because he's directing a new film. But he was active over summer and autumn, mainly retweets. His feed is a mix of stuff about his films, other people's films and Donald Trump.

Little gems that I haven't seen before (admittedly I did have a break from twitter) include:

and:

and:

and

I also liked:

Finally, you should follow David Robert Mitchell because he's obviously a good guy:

To sum up, @DRobMitchell isn't the most talkative person on twitter, but what he does say is well worth hearing.

Hell House LLC

Never mind how Hell House LLC compares with other found footage films. It's a nearly perfect horror movie, period.

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It's about a haunted house attraction put on in an abandoned hotel to cash in on Halloween. As the staff prepares the hotel, things take a sinister turn.

The film is essentially one long fairground ride. Characters are lightly drawn and the story is archetypal. But imagine a ghost train that actually wears down your suspension of disbelief until you feel uncomfortably frightened.

The structure of the fictional attraction - you queue, you enter, you get gradually more unnerved - mimics the structure of the plot. It's a stripped down version of the plot of any horror movie, arguably. But this is no Pirates of the Caribbean and that's down to the direction. No jump scares, just a visual conversation between death as fun and death as stalker, with the stalker gradually winning.

Despite its flaws, Hell House is not just another found footage film. It actually gets depth from an unexpected source - its festive, fairground ride structure. It reminds us that life is all one big party on the Titanic. I think we horror fans appreciate that message when it's as well-delivered as it is here.

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness is self-indulgent, far too long and wildly overblown, but I still liked it a great deal.

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It's about Lockhart, a young executive at a financial services company. He's sent to retrieve Pembroke, an errant board member currently having a nervous breakdown in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.

When Lockhart arrives at the hospital he finds it unnerving and dreamlike, with Pembroke nowhere to be seen. After he breaks his leg the charismatic head doctor, Volmer, presses treatment on him. He eventually finds Pembroke but leaving the sanatorium is harder than it looks.

At least two sections should have ended up on the cutting room floor - one where Lockhart receives treatment in a tank which is infested by eels, the other where there's a montage of two characters descending into water. The eely tank has a digressive quality and adds nothing to the narrative. The montage is badly edited and melodramatic.

The climax was inflated to the point you worried it might burst all over you - effective in a way I suppose.

But there's still a lot to admire and enjoy. Dane DeHaan is brilliant as Lockhart. Mia Goth, who plays a frail young woman floating around the hospital, is exceptional. The dynamic between these two characters, and in particular their adventure in the village beyond the sanatorium walls, had me totally convinced.

The location - an abandoned hospital once used by senior Nazis - is spectacular. It was restored for the film and, I imagine, spruced up with CGI. The visual poetry of its swirling staircases, endless corridors and shining tiles is a great cinematic experience.

I loved the contrast between the US and Europe, too. The beginning of the film situates us in the merciless world of capitalism. Both we and Lockhart know this world well - nothing matters but money and the next deal. But when Lockhart gets to the Swiss Alps he's suddenly plunged into history and it feels deliciously odd after the first portion. Never mind that Volmer simultaneously channels psychoanalysis and Nazism (the former was actually chased out of Europe by the latter). Volmer's a composite of everything people think is weird about Europe and I enjoyed the extravagance of that.

There's a remarkable film inside A Cure for Wellness. What we've been given is long and slow and less remarkable. But it's still well worth watching.

 

How New York does Spooky

Yes, yes, yes, I know, Halloween is over. I've told my husband, who took these photos, all about news values but he says I'm just 'old media'. He is insisting I do this post so here goes.

We were in New York visiting relatives the week before Halloween. My husband took some great photos showing how inventive - or desensitized depending to your point of view - New Yorkers are around horror imagery.

My lovely, lovely, hardworking and super-competent cousin, a typical New Yorker, made these for her kid's bake sale. Why would one think twice about a four year-old biting down on a bloodstained axe? Where's your sense of fun?

My lovely, lovely, hardworking and super-competent cousin, a typical New Yorker, made these for her kid's bake sale. Why would one think twice about a four year-old biting down on a bloodstained axe? Where's your sense of fun?

Here we see a theme emerging - the weaving together of horror and shopping. This skull was as big as a boulder.

Here we see a theme emerging - the weaving together of horror and shopping. This skull was as big as a boulder.

Self-explanatory, but BIG!

Self-explanatory, but BIG!

Back to shopping - this is a department store. You can buy that harness.

Back to shopping - this is a department store. You can buy that harness.

An authentic    momento mori    in Bloomingdales. Check out the way the skeleton is leering at the mannequin decked in its transient earthly goods.

An authentic momento mori in Bloomingdales. Check out the way the skeleton is leering at the mannequin decked in its transient earthly goods.

Blimey these New Yorkers really have strong stomachs don't they! This isn't supernatural, it's just sadism! I don't know about you, but this made me think of   Fred West  , which is never pleasant.

Blimey these New Yorkers really have strong stomachs don't they! This isn't supernatural, it's just sadism! I don't know about you, but this made me think of Fred West, which is never pleasant.

Rewatching The Babadook

Rewatching The Babadook, it feels viscerally real, as if I've lived it.

It's the story of single mum Amelia and her son Samuel. Samuel's father died the night he was born and the family that remains is hopelessly haunted by this loss.

That loss eventually manifests through a mysterious children's book about an alarming character called the Babadook.

I'm sure there are plenty of families out there that have nothing particularly unmanageable in the cellar. But many do - I believe mine did - and this film is for us.

Often the short film that inspires a horror feature is actually better - Mama I'm looking at you. 

But the short film Monster that preceeded The Babadook shows how an archetypal scenario - which evokes little more than a powerful mood - can become more potent with the addition of specifics.

So potent that although the exact details of The Babadook don't apply to me, I still feel it's about me.

Anyone else?