Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Vehicular Manslaughter

18 – 95mins – 1997
Screenplay by: Brian Taggert
Based on the short story by: Stephen King
Directed by: Chris Thomson
Starring: Timothy Busfield, Brenda Bakke, Aidan Devine, Amy Stewart, Roman Podhora, Jay Brazeau, Rick Skene, William Hope, Brendan Fletcher


It goes without saying that the genre of horror is all about the abnormal, the uncanny; therefore possessing inanimate objects with deranged sentience which gives them unnatural supremacy over their owners is a wickedly perverse concept – when done correctly. For every Childs Play there’s a Small Soldiers, where the transfer of intimidation to an inorganic object diminishes the threat from chilling to cheesy and it’s therefore played for laughs.

This inability to differentiate between these dissonant demeanors ultimately stalls Trucks before it even kicks into gear. What we are left to survey is a flat, po-faced low budget TV Movie from the 1990’s (although, rather tellingly, not released until 2000) about unmanned automobiles running down their drivers that wants to be taken seriously and evoke an eerie/dramatic tension, but the absurdity of the whole endeavour unintentionally invites laughter rather than screams.

Based, believe it or not, on a 1973 short story by master of horror Stephen King, Trucks is actually the second filmic adaptation of this peculiar work, which I can only assume works much better on the page than the screen: 1987’s tongue-in-cheek horror/comedy Maximum Overdrive was actually directed by the author (his first and last foray into that field) and despite universal derision, was perhaps the favourable tone to take, as the only thing genuinely horrific about Trucks is the fact that it ever got made.

Timothy The West Wing Busfield must have been desperate to take on this lazy movie modification, which sees him and a contingent of clueless rednecks become trapped in a dust-ball truck stop by the murderously demented four-wheelers. The trucks (endowed with sentience following a sketchy "toxic spill") joy ride around the gas station’s forecourt, taunting their two-legged adversaries, knocking down signs, honking their horns and flashing their lights at one another to communicate!! It's never really discovered why.

But that isn’t even the epitome of Trucks’ preposterousness: the HGV’s are foiled in their hostile demon-stration by a fatal flaw in their bodywork – without limbs they must still rely on humans to refill their tanks with fuel!! There’s more, still: in a cutaway completely isolated from the main narrative, a postman delivering the morning mail is set upon not by a dog, but a remote control toy truck which trips up the poor man and smashes his head into the curb until he’s dead! Well, at least he didn't have to endure all 95minutes...

In a CR@B Shell: Helmed by inferior drivers, a killer King story careens dangerously off-road and implodes into a lifeless pile of scrap. Steadfastly failing to acknowledge the absurdity in its outlandish sci-fi concept, Trucks plays everything so straight that you’re laughing at it rather than with it.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Frosty Foes and Stem Fatales

Blu Review: BATMAN & ROBIN
PG – 128mins – 1997
Written by: Akiva Goldsman
Based on the characters created by: Bob Kane
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alica Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Elle Macpherson, John Glover, Jeep Swenson


Inspired by fellow movie review blogger Andy Buckle’s recent “Worst Film of All Time” post, in which 1997’s much maligned Batman & Robin claimed the dubious honour of pole position (check out the article HERE and why not stay for a nose around?), I decided it was high time I unwrapped the cellophane from my dust-collecting Blu-ray copy and gave the film which temporarily derailed the Bat-chise a belated re-watch.

I can remember seeing the film on the big screen when it was first released some 14 years ago and I must have enjoyed it (hey, I was only 13!) as I asked a relative to buy it for me – along with the rest of the series – on VHS that Christmas. I only re-bought personal favourite Batman Returns on DVD, but when I upgraded to Blu-ray, all four (and later six) live action Bat-flicks were high on my list of hi-def purchases. I can’t even claim that this clunker was a redundant disc within a box set: I purchased them all separately!

To give the Joel Schumacher-helmed flop its dues; it does look mighty fine in HD – but then the neon-hued megalithic Gotham sets are impressively vibrant creations; Tim Burton’s towering and intimidating gothic designs exaggerated to the verge of hyperbole. That, essentially, is Batman & Robin’s downfall: it is everything that worked in restrained measures in previous instalments ramped up to embarrassingly uninhibited levels.

Main adversary Mr Freeze (Schwarzenegger; granted top billing above the eponymous rodent), for example, isn’t just an eccentric villain with a score to settle, replete with a distinctive disguise and a sardonic sense of humour, oh no: he’s a flat out caricature of a maniacal madman with a clunky metallic suit, blue skin and an inability to speak without spouting the cheesiest ice-based puns known to man (“Ice to see you”, “You’re not sending me to the cooler”, “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!” – I could go on!).

Back in 1997, adult Bat-fans desperate for a new live action adventure were stunned into fury as they were pelted with over two hours of the naffest and least humorous “gags” this side of a farce – even the usually sombre protagonist (played awkwardly – for the first and last time – by ER heart-throb du jour Clooney) wasn’t immune to woeful wisecracks (“This is why Superman works alone”) and corny sight gags (the Bat-card, the rubber nipples) which pandered to a child’s mentality and left the hardcore legions out in the cold (oh god – now *I’m* doing it!).

If you were to look on Batman & Robin as a kid’s flick; it’s a madcap success, fusing the bright, the bold and the wacky into a comic-book world where mad scientists all look like Albert Einstein and dangerous chemicals come in vats with “VENOM” and a skull and cross bones printed on the front. That’s probably why I liked it at 13, but this is not what audiences were expecting – or wanting – from the tortured and tragic caped crusader who doesn’t have any super-powers but is impelled on the righteous path by brute vengeance.

If you go in prepared, it’s not *that* deplorable. Sure, it desecrates all over Tim Burton’s dark, stylised and unquestionably superior earlier instalments, but the fact that it is so unrelentingly frenzied does, in a way, make the madness more bearable: Batman & Robin knows it’s a tongue-in-cheek cartoon and it doesn’t even attempt to be anything else. Ultimate proof comes when O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson saves Silverstone’s Barbara Wilson from plummeting to her death after a superfluous high-rise motorbike race goes awry. The first words out of his mouth as they dangle perilously over the precipice? “So *this* is where you hang out?” Groan.

In the films defence, Akiva The Da Vinci Code Goldsman’s spirited plot is anything but lazy, endowing each member of the bulbous cast with a purpose and arc. Freeze wants to cure his cryogenically frozen bride from MacGregor’s syndrome, while an eco-friendly agenda blossoms behind Poison Ivy’s (Thurman; suitably sultry) green-fingered wrath. Ever loyal butler Alfred (Gough), meanwhile, is hiding his pain behind a staunch façade and his joy at being reunited with his secretly rebellious niece, while loathed sidekick Robin is sick and tired of living in the shadow of the Bat.

There’s certainly a lot going on for these people, yet still every shot is crammed to the hilt with blindingly effervescent lighting, grandiose buildings, pimped-up rides and an arsenal of Bat-toys which (handily) can foil anything Freeze and Ivy throw at the rubber-suited heroes (a heat ray to thaw ice? Check. Ice skates built into your boots? Check! Artificial lips to repel poison kisses? CHECK!). This optical assault is much to the detriment of any emotional narrative undertones, as even the most heart-wrenching drama (such as a dying Alfred’s reflections on a life serving the Wayne dynasty) is eclipsed by the bombastic and the ridiculous.

In a CR@B Shell: Viewed as a Saturday morning ‘toon for the under tens, Batman & Robin flies high as a cavalcade of camp comic book lunacy, but sat alongside Tim Burton’s dark knight-mares it’s a bat-shit, bird-brained embarrassment to the franchise which rightfully got sent straight to the cooler. Thank Gotham for Christopher Nolan!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Rite or Wrong?

15 – 113mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Michael Petroni and Matt Baglio
Based on the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” by Matt Baglio
Directed by: Mikael Håfström
Starring: Antony Hopkins , Colin O’Donoghue, Rutger Hauer, Alice Braga, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones

An evocative – if hardly groundbreaking – exorcism thriller, The Rite’s possession of its audience is fatally weakened by the absolutely absurd PR claim that it is inspired by a true story. True, it was extracted and adapted from research into Vatican-sponsored exorcism seminars as covered in co-writer Matt Baglio’s 2005 non-fiction book (available HERE), but any hold on reality is soon undermined by a desire to shock n’ scare with stock supernatural conventions rehashed from every previous film of the same ilk (including last year's admirable The Last Exorcism, which I reviewed HERE).

A mid-credits addendum to the loose but proudly-stated assertion (slyly hidden away in the hope no-one will see it) even confesses that despite its inspiration, The Rite is a wholly fictional creation – in case you needed persuading that Baglio didn’t really witness actual cases of demonic possession in Rome!! Chances are we *may* have heard about it from every newsroom or Twitter-feed in the world if he did…

Away from the dubious marketing ploy, The Rite is an engaging enough beast: part philosophical conversation on conversion, part eerie chiller. There are flashes of horror as disillusioned doubter Michael Kovac (O’Donoghue) is invited to assist famed exorcist Father Lucas (Hopkins) in his demon-purging duties, but out-and-out scare-fest was never director Mikael 1408 Håfström’s intention (“Were you expecting head-spinning and pea soup?” Lucas enquires of a cynical Kovac).

In a CR@B Shell: An unsettlingly atmospheric character-centric supernatural account of faith versus logic in our sceptical scientific age. An engaging story and bold performance from Hopkins go some small way to making up for a dribbling pace and indefensible PR misstep.

Friday, 24 June 2011

An Intimate Friendship

15 – 104mins – 2011
Written by: Elizabeth Meriwether
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell , Jake Johnson, Ludacris, Ophelia Lovibond, Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Cary Elwes

As emotionally reserved lone wolf Dr. Emma Kurtzman, Natalie Portman plays a character on the opposite end of the personality spectrum to the fragile and clingy wallflower she played so masterfully (and won an Academy Award for) in Darren Aronofsky’s psychological ballet thriller Black Swan (read my rave review HERE).

But as frustrating as her distant, loveless outlook in No Strings Attached may be (she plays a shift-working nurse with no time for love who rejects all slivers of emotional attachment but is still up for the primal act of sack-jumping when the urge so strikes), Portman – along with amiable co-star Aston The Butterfly Effect Kutcher – manages to inject this “modern” story of sex-centric relationships with a surprising amount of charm.

I can’t abide the contemporary assumption that everyone living in the twenty-first century is so darn flippant about who they fuck, therefore I was initially concerned that Ivan Ghostbusters Reitman’s skewed rom-com-minus-the-rom would favour the raunchier aspect of this friends-with-benefits pairing over the deeper issue of why Emma is so adamant that her life is better off without love, but I was pleased that neither character was painted as an immoral whore who slept around with any Tom, Dick or Hairy (yes, that was a purposeful misspelling).

No Stings Attached mercifully took a more tender tact (outside of a few booty call montage sequences; but don’t expect anything too vulgar), and just to hammer home the point that romance still exists in this dishonest age, Kutcher’s Adam is the first to fall in love – see, men have feelings too! – while Emma continually spurns his advances outside the bedroom.

It’s a shame the plot becomes predictably twee as Emma’s heart belatedly beats to a passionate beat and everything ends far too happily in a nice neat idealistic Hollywood bow, but then there are an abundance of one dimensional cookie-cutter characters clichés outside of the likeable leads.

In a CR@B Shell: Inevitably optimistic climax aside, No Strings Attached is a surprising good-natured statement on the pros and cons of the modern view towards monogamy. It’s hard to see what more the upcoming Friends with Benefits (starring Portman’s Black Swan co-star Kunis) can contribute to this concept.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

School of C*cks

Cine Review: BAD TEACHER
15 – 92mins – 2011
Written by: Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins


If you thought the high school students of American Pie were a puerile bunch of sex-obsessed wasters, then you haven’t met Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz); the most foul-mouthed, vain, materialistic, responsibility-dodging layabout at John Adams Middle School – and she’s a teacher!

“Shut the front door!”

Dumped by her prosperous fiancé for being a vacuous gold-digger, Elizabeth returns to the profession she despises to make ends meet, wherein she sticks on a continuous run of videos to amuse her pupils while she sets about winning over hot-bodied goody-goody substitute – and, most importantly for our Bad Teacher – heir to a wristwatch empire, Scott Delacorte (Diaz’s real-life ex Justin The Social Network Timberlake).

“I want to sit on his fac– Hiiiii!”

Problem is that Scott has fallen for over-zealous star teacher Amy Squirrel (Dinner for Schmucks’ Lucy Punch; as loopy as ever), while Elizabeth attracts the unwanted attention of grounded – but broke – gym teacher Russell Gettis (Gulliver’s Travels’ dopey Jason Segel). Certain that a boob job will win over minted Scott, Elizabeth undertakes all manner of back-handed and down-right illegal ventures to raise the necessary funds for the life-changing op.

While sniggersome in places (it’s the age-old juxtaposition of people of authority acting inappropriately against type), Bad Teacher isn’t quite the off-the-hook riot the trailer promised, while the mortification factor is understandable given that the writing duo are regular scribes on NBC’s squirm-fest The Office . But whereas Michael Scott’s misguided work-based shame was buffeted by heart, Elizabeth is curiously void of emotion or a moral compass.

Watching Diaz manipulate her peers while cruising through life smoking pot, snoozing in class and cursing at children does get rather old after an hour and a half, and only sarcastic Russell comes out of the film with a modicum of decency (even if he's hardly a prize catch); Amy’s career-minded determinism quickly shifts to envy and suspicion while sickening Scott is quite simply a douche.

While the third act game-changing revelation that producing a class of top grades in the state test will bag the triumphant teacher a hefty bonus does make Elizabeth change tack and buckle down, Scott’s plot arc soon fizzles out, hampered by a bizarre hole in the story which sees him decide without any form of hesitancy that it’s perfectly acceptable to dry hump Elizabeth on a school trip while his girlfriend is ill at home!! Was there a scene missing or did I blackout through a major decision? Either way, he’s still a douche.

In a CR@B Shell: Diaz’s one-dimensional Bad Teacher is rescued from crude humiliation by a faculty of kooky characters, but as funny as it is while it’s on, Jake Kasdan’s school comedy is as unmemorable as one of Elizabeth’s skive-easy lessons. This average effort barely scrapes a trio of ticks but must try harder.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Solomon Cage

15 – 98mins – 2011
Written by: Bragi F. Schut
Directed by: Dominic Sena
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Stephen Graham, Christopher Lee


Despite receiving a near unanimous critical mauling upon its theatrical release back in January, I still found much to enjoy in this swashbuckling blend of medieval quest and supernatural horror from the director of Swordfish, based on a decade old spec script which shifted between studios a suspicious number of times before Relativity Media produced it as their first in-house venture.

The permeantly unenthused Nicolas Drive Angry 3D Cage and Ron Hellboy Perlman team up as aggrieved knights Behman and Felson who quit their dishonourable order and return from a Catholic crusade (read: bloody massacre) to find their homeland ravaged by the Black Death.

Arrested for being deserters, the pair are charged by a dying Cardinal (Christopher Lee; barely recognisable beneath grotesquely disfiguring make-up) to escort a girl accused of witchcraft (Claire Foy) to a remote monastery to "stand trial" (read: be exorcised) and – in doing so, they hope – rid the land of plague. Well, it sure beats rotting in a jail cell. Right?

Accompanied by a band of priests, alter boys, knights and rogues – including Misfits' affable screwball Robert Sheenan, who impresses on the big screen – Felson and Behman set off on their old school road trip, ever-fearful of the prospect of being in such close quarters to a witch. As they journey on through foreign lands and spooky forests, disagreements rage and numbers dwindle in mysterious circumstances, until the girl’s true form is finally revealed.

If you liked last year’s Soloman Kane, chances are you’ll like Season of the Witch, which could very well inhabit the same universe, so akin are they in themes and tone. While Season would have benefitted from an 18 rating and more unreserved horror (it was toned down in production to be more teen-friendly and, sadly, the home release doesn’t offer a bloodier Extended Cut), there is still much supernatural splendour on offer in this unrelenting escapade.

It’s a minor gripe, but the “twist” in the denouement barely qualifies as such (it’s an issue with semantics, really) and the ensuing battle betwixt good and evil is diminished by the foe being all too obviously a CGI creation. Nevertheless, this is still a decent enough – if frivolous – swords and sorcery romp in the style of a classic B-movie. Season of the Witch may have its detractors but it delivers well enough as a schlocky Saturday k-night rental.

In a CR@B Shell: Sure, it’s high concept fantasy fare which won’t win any awards, but this is no Uwe Boll disaster (and Perlman knows all about those… *cough*In The Name of the King*cough*). Switch off your brain, switch on Season of the Witch and be dazzled by the entertaining barrage of gallant and ghoulish goings on.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Hell on Earth

Yeah, it's a loose, negligible link for a triumvirate of reviews for three vastly disparate films – but I needed a title and it kinda works so shuddupayourface!

18 – 104mins – 2011

Anyone who complained that Ghost Rider was too child-friendly are granted a second opportunity to see Nicolas Cage play a bad-ass dead man who returns to our mortal coil, apprehends a stylish vehicle-of-choice and deals vengeance to the bad guys – this time with a no-holds-barred 18 rating! Ummm: yay...?

Drive Angry is clearly meant to be a ludicrous, outrageous, testosterone-pumped guilty pleasure. Director Patrick My Bloody Valentine Lussier clearly had high hopes that it would garner a cult status akin to old skool grindhouse B-movies, but it failed. Spectacularly. Probably because it was trying too frickin' hard.

Cage's Milton is out to stop the leader of a Satanic cult, Jonah King (an impressively loopy Billy Burke), from sacrificing his murdered daughter's kidnapped baby. Seriously. Along the way he picks up a hot passenger (Amber The Joneses Heard), shoots a bevy of enemies whilst shagging a barmaid and comes face-to-face with The Accountant (William Fichtner), a tricksy messenger who is hell-bent on dragging Milton back to the fiery depths from whence he escaped.

Maybe I wasn't drunk enough, but I found most of the outlandish gun-totting, van-rolling, flame-throwing set-pieces to be comically lame rather than jaw-droppingly spectacular; some even bordered on farcical. But then away from a 3D cinema screening, the visual effects were appallingly ropey for a film of this calibre - and this budget.

CR@B Rating: aaaaa

18 – 103mins – 2010

Adapted from the Ken Bruen novel and directed by first-time helmer William Monahan, this recent cockney gangster drama is a prime example of all guts, no glory. London Boulevard desperately wants to be taken seriously as a legitimate genre heavyweight, but it comes off as a contrived and overreaching pretender to the throne. Given the pedigree of talent both in front and behind the camera, it's a crying shame – Monahan's impressive CV includes screenplay credits for The Departed, Body of Lies and Kingdom of Heaven.

Colin Farrell plays Mitchel, recently released from prison and determined to go straight. He finds genuine work as a bodyguard for paparrazzi-fodder starlet Charlotte (Kiera Knightley), but his reputation amongst the law-dodging elite means everyone wants to work with him – even sadistic kingpin Gant (Ray Winstone), who you really don't want to mess with. Will Mitchel be able to turn his back on his former life and devote his attention to the alluring-but-emotionally-fragile actress, or will be get dragged back down into London's criminal underbelly?

Fundamentally, London Boulevard fails because so much is thrown at the screen but nothing sticks: too many subsidiary characters and seemingly weighty subplots saturate our affection to the point of indifference; big name stars (Eddie Marsan, Anna Friel) are scandalously wasted; the central love affair takes an age meandering in lukewarm chit-chat then leaps forward drastically in the space of a single scene; while cartoon-y mobster cliches are as ripe as the embarrassingly vulgar language and snatches of senseless brutality in this grimy presentation.

CR@B Rating: aaaaa

15 – 104mins – 2011

When he isn't spending years perfecting box office gold, James Avatar Cameron is embracing his love of technology and underwater beauty with breathtaking oceanic documentaries such as Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss. So it's little surprise that he was only too happy to attach his name to this Australian cave diving drama which is based on true events.

Exploring a hither-to uncharted underground cave system in Papua New Guinea, a team of cave divers find their only escape route cut off by a freak tropical storm. Combating the rising sense of panic, the dwindling-but-determined expedition must traverse the treacherous underwater labyrinth in the hope of finding daylight before their supplies run out and they are trapped forever.

Comparisons to similarly-set claustrophobic creature features such as The Descent and The Cave are unavoidable, but Sanctum is a very real horror; and all the more effective for it. Narratively, its greatest strength is the fluctuating relationship between headstrong/heartless team leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and his uninterested son Josh (Russell Howard lookalike Rhys Wakefield), mainly because they are the only characters who are fleshed out, but if I'm being candid, the story pales next to the stunning location shots of nature at its most magnificent.

CR@B Rating: aaaaa

Sunday, 19 June 2011


Written by: Darren Shan
Published by: HarperCollins
Released: April 2011


Buoyed by a courteous comment from Darren Shan himself posted beneath my review of the first novel in his latest vampiric series, Birth of a Killer (see HERE – I was well chuffed!), wherein he promised more carnage to come in the saga’s forthcoming instalments, I persisted through a rather weak opening to this recently released second adventure charting the (comparatively) early years in the afterlife of Larten Crepsley before I hit the juicy stuff.

As the orange-haired sunlight-dodger wades half-heartedly through his second “life” like a directionless graduate who isn’t sure what the future holds, drinking himself into oblivion while partying with as many of the opposite sex as he can, I couldn’t help but feel like the opening clutch of chapters in Ocean of Blood were meandering filler; taking a looooong time to say not very much at all. By the sixty-page mark years had passed and I was deep into the hardly mammoth read, yet it felt like the ground covered could have been summed up in a single killer chapter.

That said, it isn’t as if Shan’s nimble prose style is a struggle to read. Granted it isn’t as wickedly poetic as Chris Priestley’s similarly macabre delights (see my reviews HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE and prepare to be hooked), but Shan’s chapters are brisk and punchy and the content easily digestible, so I never considered it a chore to read, just lacking any substantial meat to sink my teeth (or should that be fangs?) into.

For personal reasons, I felt blurring reality and fiction with the inclusion of a cameo from a certain Abraham Stoker, a scribe researching a certain novel on the undead inspired by Vlad the Impaler, was a cheesy misstep. Less cringeworthy than Elvis – sorry, “Bub” – in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, but far too reminiscent of The Undead, the dire twenty-first century “official” Dracula sequel penned by Stocker’s descendant Dacre, which also utilizes the iconic author as a character inspired by “real” bloodsuckers.

Returning to the big picture, and mirroring my thoughts on Book 1 (which opened with a horrifyingly brutal punch which would forever shape young Larten’s afterlife), Ocean of Blood – which is rather tame in the horror department for the bulk of its length – accumulated all its firepower for a staggeringly ferocious climatic 30 pages aboard the high seas.

Prior to the finale I was beginning to question what relevance the book’s title had to the land-based narrative, but then Larten and his lovestruck apprentice Malora board the Pearly Tornado bound for Greenland with Larten sick with vampire flu, delirious and desperate for a feed… Much to my morbid delight, the voyage doesn’t end happily for the suspicious passengers or crew, but it certainly convinced me to stick around for book three, Palace of the Damned, set for release in September: There will be blood...

In a CR@B Shell: Still a flitting and narratively insubstantial beast which fails to remedy Birth of a Killer’s flaws, but much like its protagonist, Larten Crepsley’s sophomore adventure is flamboyant and gushing confidence; wearing its scars with pride. Reach the gruesome climax and your jaw will hit the floor; your perseverance justified.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Bangkok Atrocious

15 – 102mins – 2011
Written by: Scot Armstrong, Craig Mazin, Todd Philips
Directed by: Todd Philips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Mason Lee, Paul Giamatti, Jamie Chung, Nirut Sirijanya

Back in the swirling mists of time – well, 18months ago to be precise – I published a pithy paragraph long review of what many critics were proclaiming the “funniest film of the year”: The Hangover (travel back to the early days of The CR@B Shack by clicking on this ‘ere LINK). I disagreed. It wasn’t so much that I hated the stag party misadventures of Phil (Cooper), Stu (Helms) and Alan (Galifianakis), simply that, after all the hype, it wasn’t the funniest film of 2009; merely chucklesome at best. I awarded it an average 3/5.

Inevitably with any box office smash, the studio saw dollar signs and a sequel was promptly green lit, imaginatively called The Hangover Part II (wouldn’t Another Hangover have been catchier?), to be released at the tail end of May this year. I decided to give it a chance, hoping a second dose of inane drunken misfortune would up the ante of the first and deliver heartier laughs. After sold out screenings and a Rod Stewart concert (see HERE) foiled my attempts to attend a screening, last night The Hangover Part II finally caught up with me – and boy was my head sore!

Not because I laughed so much it hurt, sadly, or because I drank myself into oblivion in some sort of ridonkulous homage to the onscreen action, waking this morning unable to remember a thing about what I had witnessed (although part of me wishes I had). No, dear readers, my head hurt because I was so utterly dumbfounded by what was playing on the cinema screen in front of me.

Shifting the action from Las Vegas to Thailand , Todd Philips' much anticipated sequel is otherwise content simply to give its audience more of the same - even down to an awkward scene in an elevator! On an impromptu stag night prior to Stu’s marriage to Lauren (Chung), the self-proclaimed Wolfpack wake up after what was meant to be “one beer on the beach” with a chain smoking capuchin monkey, a severed finger and returning hyperactive gangster Leslie (Community’s zanily irreverent Jeong) in a dirty Bangkok hotel room.

To make matters worse, Alan’s head has been shaved, groom-to-be Ed is emblazoned with a Mike Tyson-riffing, copyright-infringing (seriously) facial tattoo, his fiancée’s younger brother – teen genius Teddy (Lee) – is missing, and no-one has a clue what the hell happened on the preceding evening. Cue an hour and a half of escalating madness as the oddball gang attempt to piece together clues and retrace their steps to track down Teddy and make it to the wedding on time.

It’s an outrageous and barmy escapade to be sure, as the Wolfpack are shot at by Russian drug dealers, threatened by a mobster (a refreshing cameo by Giamatti), beaten by mute monks (!!) and follow infinite false leads before they come to the conclusion that maybe Teddy hadn’t travelled quite as far as they first thought (deja vu much?). Alas, the ludicrous is also intermingled with the raunchy and outright offensive – a strip club of Lady-boys whom Ed had drunken anal sex with being a definite moral low – resulting in a lot of grown men shrieking incessantly as their celebration turns increasing dark and distasteful.

My main bone of contention lies with clueless simpleton Alan, whose brainlessness and social naivety veers from ignorance to mentally unsound throughout. I just didn’t find him at all funny and I question how anyone can laugh at a man so inherently unlikeable: he isn’t simply the friend who faux pas’ to the point of embarrassment – he’s a dangerous prescription pill-popping lunatic who’s completely oblivious to his own erroneous actions and I found nothing to like about him.

In a CR@B Shell: After a night as wildly calamitous as their trip to Vegas, the Wolfpack should have declared “never again” – and so should co-writer/director Todd Philips, who has delivered a nigh on duplicate disaster in The Hangover Part II, albeit one which leaves an even more unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Ghost Train

Written by: Chris Priestley
Published by: Bloomsbury
Released: 2009


And so I have reached the end of the line: the third and final (to date) portmanteau Tales of Terror anthology from modern master of the macabre Chris Priestley. What a bittersweet joy it was to disembark from this scenic journey; I really could read these wicked little yarns all day long! I just hope that more instalments are forthcoming following the release of Priestley’s Frankenstein-esque novel, Mr Creecher, in October.

Despite recycling the same storyteller-and-audience framework established in Uncle Montague (click HERE for my review) and Black Ship (HERE), I was still enraptured by the ambiguity which surrounded Tunnel's Mouth's peculiar story time: who is this detail-reluctant Woman in White who has boarded the train to Kings Cross, why is schoolboy Robert Harper so quick to submit to her spectral stories despite his uncertainty towards his curious carriage companion, and what is keeping Robert's neighbouring passengers in such a deep trance-like slumber?

As the train draws to an unexpected stop at the mouth of a foreboding dark tunnel, its steep enbankment cloacking the carriage in an unnatural twilight, the mystery surrounding the strange, unrelenting storyteller steams forward undeterred as logical Robert senses supernatural forces are at work: why else does he keep having such vivid dreams of the make-believe yarns she spins, why else do his legs feel weak and his eyes so heavy at this time of day, and why else can he not rouse the dozing commuters around him?

Priestley shrewdly works in a delightful correlation to the dreadful events in Uncle Montague – making it feel like Robert inhabits the same shared, nightmarish universe as the eccentric teacher from hell – and while the pay off at the climax isn’t as bone-chillingly ghastly as Black Ship’s startling sting in the tale, it is nevertheless a well-worked – and finely set-up – twist even if we all anticipated a twist by this stage in the series anyway.

The short stories themselves are a stronger and more twisted batch than Black Ship’s castrated selection, but then they aren’t restricted to sea-themed scares this time around. From malicious mannequins (“Gerald”) to botanical beasts (“The Glasshouse”) and ferocious fairies (“The Little People”), I was particularly impressed by the variety of imaginative devices employed, even if they are all familiar tropes of the horror genre.

My personal favourite chapter was “A New Governess”, which really captured the creepiness of Victorian-era ghost stories such as The Turn of the Screw and genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. “Gerald”, too, was a devilish voodoo delight at making the innocent deadly, and “Sister Veronica” shocked me in its tortuous brutality because it was the only story which didn’t imply supernatural phenomena (rather juvenile malevolence) in its all-too-plausible horror.

In a CR@B Shell: A strong end to a superb trilogy; Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth makes the horrific entertaining without sugar-coating the frights, and I don’t care if it’s meant for a teen audience – I loved it, and I’m exceedingly jealous of Chris Priestley’s effortless knack for sumptuously poetic and evocative prose!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Death Repeats Itself

18 – 90mins – 2009
Written by: Holly Brix
Directed by: Seth Grossman
Starring: Chris Carmack, Rachel Miner, Kevin Yon, Lynch Travis, Melissa Jones, Richard Wilkinson, Sarah Habel, Mia Serafino, Hugh Maguire


Despite my continued admiration for the underrated 2004 Ashton Kutcher-starring thriller, even I was surprised to find they had produced a third Butterfly Effect film. After all, the first direct-to-video sequel from 2006 was such a limp and limited cut-price retread of the original’s philosophical time-travel plot device that it barely justified filming; the conclusion achingly predictable.

Mercifully, Revelations is a very different butterfly indeed. True, it still incorporates the familiar “Change one thing, change everything” premise into its mind-bending narrative, but an ever-altering murder-mystery element and an injection of sex and graphic brutality (no doubt at the suggestion of horror house After Dark Films*, who came onboard as distributors) help spice up the time-jumping core concept.

Sam Reide (The O.C.’s Carmack) has long learned to control the gift Evan Treborn introduced us to in The Butterfly Effect. Monitored by his psychologically introverted hermit of a sister, Jenna (former Mrs. Macaulay Culkin, Miner), Sam uses his phenomenal ability to aid the police in tracking down murderers and criminals by travelling back to witness the crimes being committed. He must never interfere, or he risks altering the timeline and severely changing life as he knows it.

He is happy to keep to this self-inflicting rule. That is until Elizabeth Brown (Habel), the sister of Sam’s long murdered high school girlfriend (Serafino), walks back into his life and begs him to use his gifts to identify her sister’s real killer and exonerate the innocent man (Wilkinson) who is about to be executed for the decade-old crime.

Against the recommendations of Goldberg (Yon), the man who tutored him in time travel, Sam takes the case and begins his unmonitored jumps into the past. Inevitably, the more he tries to help, the more he perverts the timeline, and his rash actions soon lead to the “creation” of a serial killer who is still on the loose. When Goldberg goes missing and Sam’s livelihood deteriorates, he must do all he can to track down the “Pontiac killer” before he is convicted for the murders himself.

Now obviously the whole leaping-back-into-your-body-from-yesteryear premise is utter wish-fulfilment gubbins, and I suspect Revelations gets tangled in a web of impossible paradoxes as Sam jumps time-and-again, his situation ever-worsening as he loses his grip on what is real in the reality he now inhabits, but regardless of logistics I was incredibly impressed by the film's density; a lot of thought has gone into this intricately constructed mind-fuck of a standalone story – a compliment (and it is a compliment) which cannot be levelled at The Butterfly Effect 2.

Personally, I could have done without the excessive mutilation scenes – the camera lingering a little too long on slashed-open corpses and blood-splattered limbs – and the wholly unnecessary soft core pornography. Now, I’m in no way opposed to such mature elements if they are warranted, but they are foreign to this franchise and thus all the more obvious. Furthermore, Revelations didn’t need to cheapen itself with such shameless titillation and gimmicky shocks when the story was enthralling enough without it.

Finally, I must applaud the deliciously dark conclusion, which – following the unforeseen reveal of the killer’s identity and the disturbing reasons behind the glut of murders – sees Sam jump back to a rather crucial milestone in his family’s history and make a difficult but altogether necessary decision for the good of the people he loves. It adds further fuel to my belief that this is a complex and emotionally superior sequel which far outshines its lazy predecessor, and it’s a pity Revelations has been buried on DVD and pigeonholed as a second rate horror.

In a CR@B Shell: “Jump” beyond the superfluous slasher flick gore and lowbrow smut and you will be able to appreciate The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations as a sinister yet remarkably inventive reignition of a previously exhausted franchise.
* After Dark Films are the company behind recent vampire horror Prowl, which I reviewed HERE

Monday, 13 June 2011

Waiting for this Day to Come

Underdogs Music
Released: 6th June 2011

Nearly nine years after sophomore LP Magic Hotel unjustifiably bombed (oh how I love that album) and two years after the long-disbanded 'loader reunited for a series of festival gigs and intimate tour dates (one of which I reviewed HERE), 2011 sees the release of the Eastbourne band's loooooooong-awaited return to the recording studio.

Released on independent label Underdogs Music and written in its entirety by front-man (and current Popstar to Operastar contestant) Joseph Washbourne, Only Human is a bold and brave comeback, eschewing the pop frivolity of uber-popular chart-stormers “Dancing In The Moonlight”, “Just Hold On” and personal favourite “Time Of My Life” for a more mature and reflective indie edge. Just a week after release it's already a well-worn comparison, but there are shades of Coldplay in the production – just check out the ethereal opening to the wondrous “Closure”.

Darker and more solemn in tone does not mean there isn't enjoyment to be derived from Only Human's blissful souring melodies; lead single “Never Stop Wondering” and latest cut “A Balance To All Things” (due for release on 20th June) are still jaunty foot-tappers (rendering the bonus Ash Howe remix of the latter – which merely adds a speedier beat – somewhat redundant), but they are more narratively weighty than certain cheesy cover songs.

I'm going to sound like an overly-complimentary fanboy when I suggest there isn't a weak track on the 12 track set, but this really is a wholly amiable album which can quite easily be played from beginning to end without reaching for the skip button. Each track is a joy – even the prior mentioned remix, in spite of its questionable necessity, doesn't deviate so far from the original as to make it unbearably alien.

If I were pressed for favourites; away from the well selected singles I would draw attention to ruminative opener “Marrakech” which throbs with dusty atmosphere, the beautiful ballad “Paradise” which sounds huge despite its acoustic production, the sense of hope after heartbreak in the aforementioned “Closure”, and epic closer “Numb” which includes a catchy hook to sing- and clap-along to and a rocking guitar riff which will really get the crowd going at live dates. I'll definitely be there - just look for the nutter demanding "Time of My Life"!!

In a CR@B Shell: More “Achilles Heel” than “Dancing in the Moonlight” in tone, but Only Human is nevertheless a soulfully sweet summer soundtrack and all the more palatable for its stripped back honesty: this is the album Toploader always wanted to create. Welcome back lads!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

To the Moon and Bark

U – 22mins – 1989
Written by: Nick Park and Steve Rushton
Directed by: Nick Park
Starring the voice talent of: Peter Sallis


“That’s it, Gromit… Che-e-e-e-e-se. We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

It is virtually inconceivable to me that the debut adventure of eccentric inventor Wallace and his ever-loyal pooch Gromit blasted onto our screens some twenty two years ago – where has the time gone?! Nevertheless, it is a compliment to the resonantly British character’s timeless appeal that even their most crudely-animated exploit is as captivating and re-watchable as it was in 1989.

Epic in scope but simple in plot, A Grand Day Out sees the quirky Yorkshire cheese-chomper (voiced by Last of the Summer Wine’s Sallis) recoil in horror as he realises he is out of his favourite dairy product – on a Bank Holiday weekend, no less! It is then that he hits upon the idea of taking the day trip to end all day trips: by taking a literal flight of fancy to a place where cheese is plentiful, because it's made of the stuff – the moon.

Assisted by his silently expressive canine cohort, Wallace sets about sketching then crafting a rocket in his cellar out of old doors, orange paint and plenty of D.I.Y. pizzazz, before setting off to their dream holiday locale – with a bounty of crackers for their ultimate picnic experience.

Ludicrously OTT yet charmingly endearing in its child-like naivety, A Grand Day Out is by far the most unrealistic of these plastercine pals’ four outrageous half-hour escapades (therefore making it rather hard to jump the shark when they’ve already snacked on “moon cheddar” by jetting off in a home made rocket) and yet it is still intrinsically grounded in the quirks and relationship between one man and his dog.

It is interesting to watch how Wallace treats Gromit, clearly his best – if not only – friend, and yet he still very much sees himself as the dog’s “owner”: patting him patronisingly on the head, expecting his loyalty and obedience, and then blaming him when things don’t go to plan (“You forgot to light the fuse, Gromit!” – despite that being Wallace’s job upon take off).

Despite his obvious embarrassment at his master’s camp foibles, Gromit is nonetheless ever-faithful and always on hand to get them out of a jam or, as is the case here, actually fly the rocket while Wallace sits back and reads the paper!! He is the straight man to Wallace’s fool, yet there is true love and admiration between these two oddball characters and this endears them to us, even if we do enjoy a snigger at their well-intentioned misfortunes.

Finally, full credit to creator and auteur Nick Park, who worked tirelessly for six years to complete his vision, which truly revolutionised not only Aardman Animation, but claymation as an art form. True, in the years since he has perfectly his talent, smoothing over the bumps and lessening the number of obvious fingerprints on his sculptures, but for him to enthrall us not only with the actions of a quirky old man and his pet but also a Moon-living “Cooker” contraption which has very humane dreams of returning to Earth and learning to ski, is an outstanding accomplishment.

In a CR@B Shell: The kooky plot is probably only worthy of 3*s, but the lovable characters and attention to detail propel A Grand Day Out into the stratosphere. Wallace & Gromit’s first adventure is literally out of this world – and they never looked back.

Friday, 10 June 2011

CR@B Howard's PlayStacean Top 5

PlayStacean – geddit?! As in crustac– oh, never mind…

Firstly, let me state for the record: I am in no way a video game aficionado. Quite the opposite. In point of fact, my poor PlayStation 3 was left untouched for a year and a half after it broke before I finally got around to contacting Sony!

Now that I finally have a shiny new replacement in its place – and as a variation from my CR@Blog review norm – I thought I’d give y’all a rundown of the top 5 games which have been most successful in frittering away my free time this past fortnight.

Remember: these aren’t reviews, and as due warning to all experienced gamers: I suck at all of them....

Developed by: Evolution Studios
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment

The first game I ever played on my PS3 (primarily because it came free with the console in a bargain bundle), MotorStorm: Pacific Rift just blew me away with its immense detail and breathtaking exotic landscape vistas. Even now I still think the water in particular is amazingly rendered.

I usually place no higher than 14th (out of 15!) in the races and I rewatch the all-too-frequent slow-mo crashes with a morbid sense of glee, but I get such an adrenaline rush from the speed these mismatched motors race at (“Boost! BOOST!”), and I enjoy cursing at all who dare pass me when I’m on a dirt bike!

Developed by: Terminal Reality, Threewave Software
Published by: Atari

My latest acquisition, Ghostbusters: The Video Game was a must-buy for me the minute my new console arrived. Written by Ackroyd and Ramis and starring all the original cast, it’s as close as we’ll get to Ghostbusters 3 until Murray stops stalling and signs his damned contract!

I haven’t had the chance to play it as often as I would like (yet), but so far it’s a real franchise fanboy thriller, with you playing as a rookie ‘Buster who joins the iconic spook-zappers on a number of callouts (most of which resemble prominent set pieces from the movies) while being trained at using the equipment. There’s a lot to take in, and the ghosts take a lot longer to zap n’ trap than I expected, but this is still great fun.

3. TUROK (2008)
Developed by: Propaganda Games
Published by: Touchstone Games

Aware of this popular franchises’ roots on the N64 from waaaay back in 1997, and as a huge fan of Jurassic Park, this dino hunting first-person shooter reboot was an obvious choice for me – and I managed to pick it up brand new for just eight quid a couple of years ago (RIP Woolworths).

You play the eponymous knife-wielding mercenary, your spacecraft shot down and crash-landing on a terraformed jungle planet inhabited by genetically engineered dinosaurs. As a gaming novice, even on “Medium” difficulty mode I find the reptilian beasties charge too fast for me to dispose of without sustaining damage, and without a map the overgrown labyrinthine landscape is confusingly repetitive to traverse, but Turok is nevertheless an engrossing adventure.

2. FIFA 08 (2007)
Developed by: Electronic Arts ( Canada )
Published by: EA Sports

The PS3 equivalent of comfort food – oh how I looooove the FIFA series; it’s so easy to pick up and play and you only need six minutes a half! I should probably upgrade to a newer edition (one where not only does David James no longer play for Portsmouth , but they’re no longer in the Premiership!), but with FIFA 12 mere months away, I may as well hold out for that.

Despite regular play, I’m still far from skilled at the beautiful game, and even on “Amateur” I still find myself conceding far more goals than I should – although occasionally I surprise myself: In a re-enactment of the recent Champions League Final I saw Manchester United to a 1-0 victory over Barcelona. Less successfully, in the very next game I let in four against Blackpool (though thankfully scored six)!

Developed by: Ubisoft
Published by: Ubisoft/Triumph International

This really was a no-brainer for the number one spot, wasn’t it? I purchased a PS Move Starter Pack with the sole purpose of playing this dancing game – and I wasn’t disappointed! The attention to detail in faithfully recreated the King of Pop’s iconic music videos is first rate, with “Thriller”, “Ghosts”, “Remember the Time”, “Smooth Criminal”, “Black or White” and “Leave Me Alone” being particularly flash.

The choreography far exceeded my expectation in regard to level of detail, and even as a long-time fan I still find myself being run ragged by the quick fire moves and flourishes. It’s a shame Invincible wasn’t given a showing (“You Rock My World” was definitely rumoured for inclusion), but surprise additions such as rarities “Sunset Driver”, “Streetwalker” and “Money” make for a versatile track selection. Fingers crossed for downloadable add-ons in the future!

Every Concert Tells a Story

Who? Rod Stewart
What? Live
When? Wednesday 8th June 2011
Where? Carrow Road, Norwich
Why? Why not?

At 4:15pm on Wednesday night I was sitting at work thinking the evening ahead consisted of a meeting and a trip to see The Hangover: Part II at the cinema. I had no plans of seeing Faces rocker Rod Stewart live in concert – either that night or any other, if I’m being brutally honest. My Uncle is a huge fan and he has played his The Very Best of… CD on many a family get-together, but otherwise the suggestion of attending a gig hadn’t even crossed my mind. Particularly not at £60 a head!

Then I received a phone call: my aunt’s friend had come down sick and they wanted to know if I fancied taking her place. Well, I considered: why not? Within the hour I had contacted those who would be affected by my last minute change of plans; I was home, changed, fed and on my way to the home of Norwich City Football Club with a ticket in my hand and no idea of what to expect from the forthcoming entertainment.

Upon informing people of my destination, I was surprised by the backlash of sneers and apathy aimed at one of the most successful performers of all time (17th, according to Billboard). Granted, I may not be a *huge* Rod Stewart fan myself, but his music is fun, jaunty, amiable and hardly offensive to any genres – what’s to sneer at?

You may be surprised by just how many of Mr Stewart’s vast back catalogue of hits you do actually know: “Maggie May”, “You Wear It Well”, “Sailing”, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, “Handbags and Gladrags”, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”, “Some Guys Have All the Luck”, “The First Cut is the Deepest”; these are all iconic tracks and perhaps the man – now in his fifth decade in the industry – isn’t given the credit he deserves?

Arriving at our none-too-shabbily-positioned seats to the rear of the Canary’s stadium at 7:40pm, the “support act” was already playing; an anonymous tuxedo-ed string crew akin to the Glenn Miller band. Perhaps it was because they had already started when we sat down, or because people were still milling about finding their seats, but I wasn’t at all impressed. They conjured no atmosphere of excitement and failed to engage 90% of the crowd. When Rod played Earl’s Court a couple of years ago he had Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders opening for him – did the budget not stretch that far this time around?

After a surprisingly brief fifteen minute change-over, the main man took to the stage at 8:15pm. At 66 you have to admire his energy: he performed a blistering two hour set with no formal interval and just two brief wardrobe transformations. All his greatest hits were included (at least I didn’t consciously notice any glaring omissions), as well as a smattering of fan favourites and jazzier Great American Songbook selections. Please don’t ask me for a comprehensive set-list, though.

As we edge ever closer to summer, however, I did feel that the atmosphere was tainted by the daylight, which stuck around well into the second hour. Unavoidable in an open top stadium, granted, but it reduced the spectacle of the stage lighting and giant video projection screen – as well as highlighting just how many people felt the need to wander about during the show!

Now, I understand that *some* people may need the loo (I even did at one point – surprise, surprise), it’s unavoidable, but there was never a time when there wasn’t a mob of people walking/skipping/dancing down the stands or across the open space at the rear of the on-pitch seating – were people really that blasé about missing the performance and that bloody desperate for alcohol? Really??!!

Rod has long been renowned for his raspy voice, but I also don’t believe the sound system did him any favours on Wednesday. Again, it could be down to the fact it was an open-top stadium rather than an arena, but he often sounded muffled (particularly when speaking to the audience) and was over-powered by the orchestration. He was also clearly upstaged by his powerful female backing singers who he often left to ad-lib or reach the high notes for him.

But then he is approaching 70, and his vivacious energy could not be faulted, even if his performance (and humorous lack of finesse at dancing) occasionally could. Following a rousing sing-along encore of “Sailing” (what else?), we spilled out of the ground at 10:15pm and straight into utter gridlock in the car park for what felt like hours. Three car loads of irate drivers nearly came to blows as a Land Rover tried to edge into the queue and nicked the bummer of a Micra! It was the kind of atmosphere-sapping palaver which puts a real downer on a night; but at least we got some chips out of it!

In a CR@B Shell: With a remarkable canon of sing-along classics at his disposal, it’s a shame that the lack of atmosphere and questionable sound system at Carrow Road tainted an animated performance from a punk/rock veteran who just refuses to retire.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

To the Manor Dead

Written by: Chris Priestley
Released in: 2010
Published by: Bloomsbury


In an attempt to temperate my ravenous consumption of the marvellous “Tales of Terror” series from Cambridge’s own young adult horror author Chris Priestley (click the links for my reviews of Uncle Montague and Black Ship), I decided to jump forward to his latest release; once again a ghost story with a young protagonist, but this time a singular extended story rather than an anthology of quick-fire yarns.

Newly orphaned Michael Vyner is this tale’s diminutive narrator, recalling the “heartbeat hastening” events of the last Christmas, where he was obligated to leave behind the life he knew to spend the holidays in the desolate and shadowy Hawton Mere, an ancient East Anglian abode which is home to his enigmatic and aloof guardian – the sickly Sir Stephen Clarendon – and a solitary woman in white who wanders the snow-covered fens…

The Dead of Winter could quite easily have been reduced to a 20/30 page short story from a “Tales of Terror” compilation, which is not to say it is an agonisingly drawn-out or humdrum affair when spread over a novel’s length, only that a lot of the time is spent accumulating a chilling ambience – shadows in the darkness, knocking behind walls, ghosts in the mist, etcetera – while the plot is never thick or complex. But then this is horror aimed at a teen audience.

Priestley’s descriptive prose is his greatest creative strength – he has great fun with his graphic and evocative imagery and metaphors, conjuring up a truly fearful vibe from the slightest of actions or most sensitive of sentiments. Par exemple:

“As I recoiled in horror, her face shone with a light of pure evil. Her eyes
that had been so bright in life were now white marbles, as if the fire had
licked all colour from them. She was like some spider who had waited for this
moment, and now the moment came…”

While the climatic clarification of the ghoulish goings-on did fall a little short of Uncle Montague’s extreme depravity (a wonderfully creepy faceless boy with just a mouth for shrieking in agony and the supernatural ability to morph into a giant arachno-lizard creature was sadly underused) and the solution to the overriding mystery of how Sir Stephen’s beloved wife died was all too predictable, what did impress me about The Dead of Winter was how well Priestley handled the increasing cast of supporting characters.

Cooks, lawyers, coachmen, servants, guardians, sisters; all play a part – for better or worse – in Michael’s sorrowful secluded stay at Hawton Mere, and none are given short shrift in the narrator’s first-person account. Even if they depart for extended periods of time, their presence is always felt by their absence, most notably Sir Stephen’s lawyer, Tristan Jerwood, who Michael gradually warms to and comes to see as a confidant, missing this new-found friend who must leave on business for long periods at a time. Of course this desire for companionship is only natural when your parent’s have died and you are imprisoned in an alien environment.

This kind of continuity may seem insignificant to some, but it is crucial to producing a consistent and relatable chronicle (particularly as Michael is only a child and – no matter how brave – still dependant on support from his elders), and it impressed me as proof that Priestley – an author who I have become acquainted with as a short story scribe – and his compellingly lurid shocks can translate to longer stories. I fervently await Mr Creecher, which is due for hardback release in October.

In a CR@B Shell: While not as vividly distasteful as the gloriously grotesque Uncle Montague, The Dead of Winter still succeeds as an old fashioned gothic yuletide nightmare in the fashion of Dennis Wheatley and Henry James ghost stories; not least because of Priestley’s slow-building tension and disturbingly macabre ambience.