ALIENS versus PADDINGTON

Forgive the clickbait title of this post, there is a serious point to this. I regularly recommend films here, but today’s recommendation is completely out of character and I wanted to give you some context. I saw PADDINGTON 2 this weekend just gone, and it was quite simply one of the best films I’ve seen. I laughed a lot, I cried a bit, and I loved it completely.

I’d read a review before seeing the film which said “Following a year of big-budget disappointments, this sequel is an hour and forty minutes of absolute joy.” That’s played on my mind since we left the cinema, and I decided to devote a little time to trying to work out why some sequels work whilst many others don’t. Looking back through other movies I’ve watched this year, one particular film stood out as an obvious counterpoint to PADDINGTON 2’s success, and that’s ALIEN: COVENANT. Yes, these are diametrically opposite movies intended for wholly different audiences, but they’re both sequels and therefore have certain things in common. Bear with me and I’ll explain (pun absolutely not intended – I may be a hack at times, but I’m not that bad).

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a real affection for PADDINGTON. I grew up watching and reading about the furry little bugger, and my wife and I made sure to indoctrinate our daughters in the cult of the little bear from darkest Peru before they were old enough to protest. My wife’s far, far worse than me, by the way. She has it really bad. She has a Paddington tattoo (honest).

Also in the interests of full disclosure, I love the ALIEN movies and will watch every single one that’s made, no matter what. The first and second (and third, to a lesser extent) films are ground-breaking in many ways. Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film in particular is incredibly influential and had a huge impact on me back in the day. It’s a masterclass in creeping, claustrophobic terror and features a creature which, to my mind, remains one of the ultimate movie monsters.

Sequels are funny things. ALIENS, for example, is often cited along with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and TERMINATOR 2 as a prime example of how to do it right, but for every good sequel there are many, many more inferior follow-up films. So why am I so enthusiastic about PADDINGTON 2 but was underwhelmed by COVENANT?

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THE RITUAL

I first met ADAM NEVILL in 2011, shortly after our mutual US publisher asked me to write a cover quote for THE RITUAL. If you look at my post about the book, you’ll see that he and I were born a year apart in the same city, but it took the involvement of St Martin’s Press in New York for our paths to cross. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a few horror conventions with Adam recently (next up – The Birmingham Horror Con Halloween Special next weekend) and it’s been great to catch up again and compare experiences. Adam recently moved into independent publishing, and I wholeheartedly recommend his two recent short story collections.

The film adaptation of THE RITUAL opened in the UK last weekend, and knowing the book well and having had opportunity to discuss the production of the film with Adam (and the frustrations of film-making for authors – which we talked about on a panel in Liverpool recently – photo below courtesy of Dan Burgess Photography) I was keen to watch it. It didn’t disappoint.

Here’s the blurb and the trailer. Click the link below for my thoughts.

Four old university friends reunite for a hiking trip in the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle. No longer young men, they have little left in common and tensions rise as they struggle to connect. Frustrated and tired they take a shortcut that turns their hike into a nightmare that could cost them their lives.

Lost, hungry and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, they stumble across an isolated old house. Inside, they find the macabre remains of old rites and pagan sacrifices; ancient artefacts and unidentifiable bones. A place of dark ritual and home to a bestial presence that is still present in the ancient forest, and now they’re the prey.

As the four friends struggle toward salvation they discover that death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees…

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Recommended Reading – THE DARKEST HAND trilogy

I recently had the pleasure of reading TARN RICHARDSON’S THE DARKEST HAND trilogy. The final book in the series – THE RISEN – was released earlier this year. This is an excellent series of books which deserves to find a wide audience. Set in Europe in an alternative twentieth century against the backdrop of World War I, it’s the story of Inquisitor Poldek Tacit. Tacit is sent by the Catholic Inquisition to investigate the murder of a priest in France, and finds himself neck deep in a battle between demons, werewolves, and heretics to prevent the world spiralling into oblivion. Don’t get the impression that Tacit is a quiet little fellow in robes wandering around Europe dispensing words of wisdom to placate the opposing sides – he’s anything but. He’s a battle-damaged, emotionally scarred, vicious, ruthless bastard, and one of the most entertaining protagonists I’ve read about in a long, long time.

I had a blast with these books, and I’d like to encourage you to do the same. Here’s the spiel for book one, THE DAMNED:

1914 – the outbreak of war. In the French city of Arras, a priest is brutally murdered. The Catholic Inquisition—still powerful, but now working in the shadows—sends its most determined and unhinged of Inquisitors, Poldek Tacit, to investigate: his mission to protect the Church from those who would seek to undermine it, no matter what the cost.

Yet as Tacit arrives, armed forces led by Britain and Germany confront each other across No Man’s Land. As the Inquisitor strives in vain to establish the truth behind the murder and to uncover the motives of other Vatican servants seeking to undermine him, a beautiful and spirited woman, Sandrine, warns British soldier Henry Frost of a mutual foe even more terrible lurking beneath the killing fields that answers to no human force and wreaks havoc by the light of the moon.

Faced with impossible odds and his own demons, Tacit must battle the forces of evil, and a church determined at all costs to achieve its aims, to reach the heart of a dark conspiracy that seeks to engulf the world, plunging it ever deeper into conflict.

This is the perfect time to pick up THE DAMNED and work your way through the trilogy. The first book is the next novel to be featured on the excellent IN THE SHEETS podcast, hosted by Brendan Cooney. Head over to the site and join the discussion. And while you’re there, there’s still time to take part in the HATER re-read. I’ll be joining Brendan later this month to talk about HATER and answer questions about the novel, the rest of the series and the film adaptation etc.

THE DARKEST HAND trilogy – THE DAMNED, THE FALLEN and THE RISEN – is available now. Find out more about Tarn at his website. You can also pick up THE HUNTED, a free ebook prequel, and dive into Richardson’s bloody and brutal world. Highly recommended!

It Comes at Night

It’s about time I started posting a few more film and book recommendations here, and what better place to start than with a well-made, lo-fi, slow-burn apocalyptic movie. IT COMES AT NIGHT is a really good movie, which appeared to have been sold really badly (perhaps intentionally) by the marketing team behind it. I thought it was a great film, but it wasn’t the film I thought I was going to see. Here’s a synopsis and a trailer. Click the link below for my brief thoughts.

Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorises the world, the tenuous order a man (Joel Edgerton) has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within the man as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.

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Train to Busan

Last night I finally caught up with the rest of the zombie-loving world and watched TRAIN TO BUSAN. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last twelve months, it’s a critically lauded South Korean zombie movie which has proved yet again that there’s still plenty of life in the zombie sub-genre. So did it meet my high expectations? Not exactly, but I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable and very well made movie.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is a harrowing zombie horror-thriller that follows a group of terrified passengers fighting their way through a countrywide viral outbreak while trapped on a suspicion-filled, blood-drenched bullet train ride to Busan, a southern resort city that has managed to hold off the zombie hordes – or so everyone hopes.

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THE KEEP

I’m not a historian or a military buff, so I had very few obvious reference points when I started writing THE FRONT: RED DEVILS (which was released this week, in case I hadn’t mentioned). Much of the second half of the book is set in the fictional surrounds of a concentration camp at Polonezköy, Poland. I had a very clear image in my head of how parts of the camp would look, and that got me thinking about a long-forgotten horror movie I’d always planned to watch but hadn’t been able to locate. That movie was MICHAEL MANN’S THE KEEP. Whilst not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, I certainly enjoyed it enough to recommend it to you here.

It is World War II in German-occupied Romania. Nazi soldiers have been sent to garrison a mysterious fortress, but a nightmarish discovery is soon made. The Keep was not built to keep anything out. The massive structure was, in fact, built to keep something in…

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Recommended Reading – Stiff

I’ve only ever seen two dead bodies – those of my father-in-law and my father. Regardless of the emotional attachment, it’s always a sobering experience. I’m not a religious man (in fact, I’m as far from religious as you can get – anti-religion, if you like), so I don’t believe any part of a person survives past the point of death. My belief is that once you die, you’re done. You immediately stop being you and become, well… nothing.

But what about your shell? What about the husk you leave behind? What happens to that?

It’s a sensitive and often taboo subject, but it’s one journalist and writer Mary Roach tackles head on in 2003 book, STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS. Written in a hilarious style which feels at once both keenly respectful and also cheeky and impertinent, Roach looks at a large number of ways the human body is used after death. Let me give you some examples of the subjects of her chapters:

  • human crash test dummies
  • studying the process of decay
  • what the bodies of the victims can tell inspectors after a crash
  • the scientific search for the soul
  • human head transplants…

…and it goes on. It sounds grotesque, I know, and Roach often writes with an unflinching eye, but she achieves something remarkable with this book: in talking about death and decay, she somehow leaves you feeling happier about life and your inevitable end. I originally picked this book up for research purposes (you think I make this stuff up? I’ll have you know the decay of my zombies is medically researched!), but by the end of a couple of chapters I was just along for the ride.

My dad died just under a year ago, and I was with him at the end. I’d had STIFF part-read on my shelf for a number of years, but losing Dad gave me a surprising incentive to pick the book up again and finish it. And I’m glad I did. It helped put things in perspective. Highly recommended.

The Girl with All the Gifts

On 26 January THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS hits US cinema screens. Here in the UK we were lucky enough to get to see the film in September last year. My advice to those of you in the States? Go see this movie as soon as you’re able. Based on the acclaimed novel by M R Carey, it’s a superb zombie tale with an excellent cast, which echoes the works of George Romero and John Wyndham in equal measure. Below you’ll find a synopsis, the trailer, and a link to click to read my thoughts.

The near future; humanity has been all but destroyed by a mutated fungal disease that eradicates free will and turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries”. Only a small group of children seem immune to its effects.

At an army base in rural England, this group of unique children are being studied, subjected to cruel experiments by biologist Dr. Caldwell. Despite having been infected with the zombie pathogen that has decimated the world, these children retain normal thoughts and emotions. And while still being subject to the craving for human flesh that marks the disease these second-generation “hungries” are able to think and feel making them a vital resource in the search for a cure.

The children attend school lessons daily, guarded by the ever watchful Sergeant Parks. But one little girl, Melanie, stands out from the rest. Melanie is special. She excels in the classroom, is inquisitive, imaginative and loves her favourite teacher Miss Justineau.

When the base falls, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. Against the backdrop of a blighted Britain, Melanie must discover what she is and ultimately decide both her own future and that of the human race.

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I Am Legend (2007)

iamlegendposterYou might remember that a couple of months ago I started looking back at Richard Matheson’s landmark novel, I AM LEGEND, and the various film adaptations which have followed. I wrote about LAST MAN ON EARTH here, and eviscerated THE OMEGA MAN here. Now it’s time to look at the version I was dreading most. Alex Proyas’ 2007 I AM LEGEND starring Will Smith.

It’s funny how time affects your perception and enjoyment of movies. I originally loved THE OMEGA MAN back in the day, but hated it following my recent re-watch. Similarly, whilst I despised I AM LEGEND first time around, it didn’t annoy me anywhere near as much when I watched it again. It’s still horribly flawed, it still takes huge liberties with Matheson’s story, it still stars Will Smith (and I still can’t stand him), but it was… well, okay, I guess.

Here’s the trailer. Click the link for my thoughts.

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The Omega Man

omega-manI’ve been looking back at Richard Matheson’s seminal I AM LEGEND and the various movie adaptations the book has spawned. This week, Charlton Heston in 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN.

My horror movie education began with double bills of Hammer classics and Universal monster movies which used to be shown late Saturday nights on the BBC. When my parents bought our first VCR, a whole world of possibilities was opened. For the first time I was able to record and watch films I’d otherwise miss because they were on too late on a school night or because my parents didn’t think they were appropriate (please remember – I was very young, and this was the height of the Video Nasties craziness which outlawed 99.9% of the films I wanted to watch).

I remember recording mainstream horror movies such as ALIEN and THE OMEN and watching them endlessly for as long as I was able (usually until Dad needed the tape to record something else – tapes were damn expensive back in the day, and we had the sum total of four of them).

THE OMEGA MAN was another film I watched again and again until I could pretty much recite the script, and until re-watching it for this feature, I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I expected it to have dated badly, but Charlton Heston’s post-apocalyptic antics really took me by surprise. I knew I’d watched the movie through the rose-tinted spectacles of innocence and youth, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is a clunky and horrendously dated film.

Chuck plays Robert Neville who, in this version of the story, lives an isolated life of relative comfort in a funky pad which, for some inexplicable reason, reminded me of Batman’s cave (and I’m talking Adam West Batman here, not Christian Bale or that Affleck person). More than any other I AM LEGEND adaptation, this film is a product of its time. Watch the trailer and you’ll see what I mean, then click the link for my thoughts.

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