Krampus (2015)

krampus

★★★

It’s impossible to talk about Christmas horror movies without referencing Gremlins, and Krampus knows that. Boasting a similar ‘family fight festive critters’ premise to Joe Dante’s 1984 classic, it’s got a similarly dark sense of humour, not least when its menagerie of creatures are finally unveiled after a shadowy build-up. While director Michael Dougherty (who previously made decent 2007 Halloween anthology Trick ‘R Treat) is clearly enamoured with Gremlins and seems to want to recapture that film’s mischievous sense of fun, Krampus ends up being a very different beast, for better and worse.

We meet xx-year-old Billy (xx xx) in the days leading up to Christmas. Billy’s at a difficult age when he’s starting to question Santa’s existence, and his parents’ inability to give him a firm answer either way only contributes to his morose spirit. When his extended family arrive to stay for the holidays, things worsen, particularly when Billy’s bully cousins (xx and xx) get their hands on his heartfelt letter to Santa, which contains personal (and not particularly complimentary) observations about pretty much every family member.

Despite Dougherty’s form in horror territory, Krampus is most confident in these opening moments, which introduce our central family in all their warring glory. Great aunt xx (xx xx) is a mouthy alcoholic, while Billy’s aunt and uncle (xx and xx) rub his mother xx (Toni Collette) and father xx (Adam Scott) up the wrong way by merely existing. Only Billy’s German grandmother, Omi (xx xx), keeps to herself, but her silence comes heavy with the suggestion she’s hiding something from her family. Recalling the manic domestic scenes of Home Alone and any number of other John Hughes movies, Krampus’ opening 30 minutes are assured and funny, expertly making us care for the family despite and because of its obvious disfunction.

When Billy’s letter is read out at the dinner table, though, Billy’s so upset he tears it up and throws it out the window. The next morning, the entire street has lost power and a fearsome blizzard has transformed the neighbourhood into a frozen wasteland. Stranded in the house, the family continue to irritate one another, until one family member goes missing, prompting an unsuccessful search and, eventually, the revelation that Billy’s actions have inadvertently summoned Krampus, an anti-Santa straight out of German folklore who preys on anybody who’s given up on Christmas.

As horror premises go, it’s a doozy, and Dougherty goes to great pains to squeeze every drop of tension out of it. Initially, the tension-cranking is effective, particularly during one scene from the trailer in which Billy’s sister xx (xx xx) hides under a car only to be confronted by a creepy jack-in-the-box. After its assured opening, though, Krampus hesitates, and its second act becomes a tiresome exercise in over-long tension-building (even if it is punctuated with a brilliant bit of chimney barminess that finally gets the snowball of terror rolling).

It’s a good hour before Krampus’ alternately giggling, slavering, shambling monsters are finally revealed. The horned Krampus itself is genuinely horrifying, accomplished using puppetry and prosthetics (with a dash of CGI), while its army of scampering menaces are both ridiculous and terrifying. They’re also, for the most part, lovingly created using old-school prosthetics, which adds the kind of grounded weirdness to the film surely last seen in the Child’s Play series. When these bizarre anomalies break out, the scenes of carnage are impressively handled, providing just enough gore, levity and goo to sate horror appetites.

Part of the problem, though, is that Krampus gets confused over who its lead character is. After sticking closely to Billy and establishing his conflict, the narrative constantly switches between different family members until we’re left in something of a muddle. Meanwhile, Krampus ends up being more freaky than truly scary, and it’s most surprising just how bleak Dougherty’s film quickly becomes. The director has talked about Krampus as a horror movie in the Amblin mould, citing films like Gremlins and The Goonies as tonal touchstones, but despite Great Aunt xx delivering sardonic quips between sips from her hip flash, Krampus isn’t afraid of striding headfirst into pure horror terrain, and when that happens, the chuckles all but disappear completely.

When you throw in a beautiful but unnecessary animated segment, characters doing frustratingly silly things (would you send /your/ daughter out into a blizzard alone?), and an ending that tries too hard to be clever instead of settling for genuine emotion, Krampus winds up being a mixed bag of toys. There’s no shortage of chill-inducing weirdness (see the snowmen), but Dougherty seems so intent on creating something unpredictable and unsettling that he forgets what made the film’s first 30 minutes so strong – the bond between its dysfunctional family.

With Gremlins 3 looking more likely than ever, Krampus provides an entertaining diversion as we await Gizmo and co’s return. Dougherty comes so close to greatness that it’s upsetting when he comes up short. Still, between Krampus’ monster set-pieces, domestic banter, and a spirited turn by young xx (Billy), there’s much to love here. A few years from now, Krampus will have earned its place as a festive cult classic, which is just where it belongs.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

Scream: The TV Series – Season 1

screameries

★★★

“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series,” states pop culture geek Noah (John Karna) in the first episode of MTV’s gory, glossy Scream, and you can’t fault his reasoning. “Slasher movies burn bright and fast,” he continues. “TV shows need to stretch things out.” It’s difficult not to agree with him, especially on the evidence of Scream’s first season, an uneven mix of self-aware teens, grisly deaths and occasionally inventive mystery. Though this new incarnation of the ’90s slasher series pays due respect to movie creators Kevin Williamson and the late, great Wes Craven, it struggles to capture the same mischievous sense of fun.

Not that it doesn’t have a bloody good crack at it. Creators Jill Blotevogel, Dan Dworkin and Jay Beattie have 10 episodes to go crazy with the Scream formula, and what they deliver is essentially a cross between Scream and Pretty Little Liars, a show they’re savvy enough to name check in one of their meta tirades. Dworkin and Beattie both previously worked as writers on super-soap Revenge, and there are echoes of that show in Scream, too, to both its benefit and its detriment.

If the first rule of reboots is not messing with the original, MTV’s Scream at least sticks true to that. Relocating away from Woodsboro, the setting of the movies, is a smart move, disconnecting the show from its roots and allowing it to establish its own mythology. We find ourselves instead in the small town of Lakewood, where hot chick Nina (Bella Thorne) is butchered at home after being harassed over the phone. News of her death casts a pall over the town, and there are whispers that Brandon James – a troubled teen who went on a murderous spree two decades previously – has returned once more.

Enter a group of high school friends whose lives are turned upside down by the murder. There’s Brooke (Charlson Young), the cold-hearted bitch who’s having an affair with a teacher, jocks Will (Conno Weil) and Jake (Tom Maden), mysterious new kid Kieran (Amadeus Serafini), plus the aforementioned geek Noah. Oh, and then there’s Emma (Willa Fitzgerald), our very own Final Girl, whose loyalties are torn between her popular, impeccably groomed clique, and old friend Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus), who’s just been subjected to an online prank that spectacularly booted her out of the closet.

It’s a big cast, and we haven’t even got round to the adults (including Tracy Middendorf as Emma’s mother). While the teens are the ones we’re supposed to care about, it’s here Scream takes a tumble. Sure, they’re all savvy and quick-witted, but they’re hard to like. A lot of the time, the high-schoolers are so wrapped up in their own dramas (bribing scams, absent parents, sexual identity crises) that they don’t even seem to notice their friends are being butchered with alarming frequency. Brooke in particular comes off cold as a popsicle, while the jocks are completely interchangeable. (There’s an outbreak of smell-the-fart acting in places, too.)

Even Fitzgerald’s Emma makes for a wobbly heroine. Early episodes see her striking the right balance between girl-next-door charm and steely resilience, but as the bodies pile up, the angst sets in. Emma spends at least two episodes spontaneously bursting into tears for a segment of the story that, in a slasher flick, would be over in two minutes. It’s an off-putting diversion that contributes to the season’s midpoint sag, with more and more characters introduced until the show is unbelievably bloated. At times, it feels like Dawson’s Creek with a body count, rather than the knowing, knife-sharp series you’d expect from something branded Scream.

The mystery suffers, too, for being ratcheted out over 10 hours. It wavers between genuinely clever and bafflingly complex, and by the time the denouement arrives, it’s possible you won’t care anymore. (And even then, the unmasked psycho’s gurning ruins any suspense.) Still, there are definite high points, some of which eclipse even the Scream films for sheer audacity. Episode four boasts an engaging, Scooby-Doo-style exploration of a decrepit hospital that is both creepy and exciting, amping up the horror imagery, while a later episode features a death so jaw-droppingly brutal it makes Drew Barrymore’s bisection seem tame.

There are neat nods back to the source material, too. Hellish dream sequences in episode eight are a great throwback to Craven’s Nightmare On Elm Street films, and there are some neat flashbacks that capture an impressively old-school slasher vibe. For everything it gets right, though, Scream gets something wrong. Yes, the visuals are great, but where are all the parents? Halfway through the season, a number of teens are dead, and yet our main cast are allowed to run around at all hours without chaperones.

With its pop culture jokes (Taylor Swift, Walking Dead, Girl, Interrupted), occasionally effective scare scenes, and eerie killer (Mike Vaughn is excellent as the phone voice, though the new mask isn’t a patch on the original), this is Scream, but not as you know it. “I can promise you one thing; it’s gonna be gut-wrenching,” teases the killer at one point, and he’s right. If you grew up watching Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette attempting to unmask Ghostface, there’s a certain amount of nostalgia to be enjoyed watching this new iteration. And for all its faults, MTV’s Scream successfully updates the formula, at times innovatively splicing new tech with traditional slasher fare.

The question of whether a slasher movie can work on the small screen remains only half-answered by the time Scream’s finale rolls around, though, because while it pulls off some magnificent feats, it’s also bogged down in too much teen melodrama and characters doing stupid things to fully recommend. With a second season already greenlit, and certain threads left dangling in the first season finale, it’s difficult to see just where the show has left to go.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

I Know What You Did Last Summer: 20 years on

I Know What You Did Last SummerDirector Jim Gillespie on making a horror that defined a generation

In the mid-’90s, if you were looking for a film with a killer hook, you didn’t have to look much further than I Know What You Did Last Summer.

“It had that core dilemma of, ‘What would I do if this happened to me?’” recalls director Jim Gillespie, talking to Digital Spy. “That spoke to a young audience that was about to embark on their adult life, go to university, college… If you made a mistake and fucked up, what would you do? Would you bury the secret? The audience got it; that’s exactly what they hooked onto.”

Released 20 years ago today, in 1997, I Know What You Did Last Summer was the first teen horror film unleashed in the wake of Hurricane Scream. It had a script by the hot new writer Kevin Williamson (see also: Scream, The Faculty, Halloween H20), a cast of fresh-faced TV teens, and an old-school atmosphere that ditched Scream’s meta kicks for pared-back chills.

It helped that the film had a literal hook; the weapon wielded by a vengeful fisherman, who targets four friends – played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr. – after they’ve killed a man in a car accident, and covered up the crime.

Scottish director Gillespie, making his feature debut, never saw IKWYDLS as a horror film. He approached the production with an artistic eye. Together with production designer Gary Wissner (who hand-wrote the film’s chilling notes), he repainted the house owned by Anne Heche’s creepy Missy, and built both the film’s corrugated-iron gym and the bright yellow shower for the screamer of a epilogue. “I wasn’t interested in making a horror film, particularly,” Gillespie tells us.

Shooting in North Carolina, IKWYDLS even attracted horror royalty in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis, who swung by the set to find out what Gillespie was brewing. “She was doing Virus on the lot where our offices were,” the director remembers. “So she came down to say hi to everybody. To Kevin, she was a goddess, before he’d had any relationship with her, which he then had afterwards [with Halloween H20]. So she came down and just said hi to the kids. Which was nice!”

Digital Spy met up with Gillespie on the film’s 20th anniversary to find out the secrets of creating a hit horror movie. Here’s the story of IKWYDLS, along with Gillespie’s exclusive, never-before-seen behind-the-scenes images…

I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER

Drawing From Carpenter

“Halloween is my favourite horror film ‘cos I remember it so clearly. I’m not really scared by horror films, but I do remember one of the few times ever was when Michael Myers just keeps on getting up. I remember saying, ‘If he gets up one more time, I’m out of here!’

“I rewatched that film because it’s [set in a] small town. It’s not a gory film. I like the mood of it. I didn’t want to rip it off, but the feel of it was something I took from.

“And Jaws, funnily enough, is a film I watched as well because it’s set in a seaside town and I wanted the feel of that. So there’s lots of stuff that nods to Jaws; Fourth of July parades, all those things. We amped it up with a Croaker Festival. Gary Wissner designed these big fish buggies, fish hats. We got a load of local school bands to do the march for the festival. We went to town on all that! I wanted the waterfront to have a New England feel, and Jaws was that.”

The Fab Four

“I cast them all. [Jennifer] Love [Hewitt] was always going to be Julie, and she was cast first. We actually had made an offer to Reese Witherspoon first off. Reese came in and met us, but ultimately didn’t want to do it. But she pointed us to Ryan, funnily enough. They were dating at this time. We asked her who the hottest guy was, in her opinion, and she said Ryan Phillippe.

“Love absolutely straight away was Julie James. Nobody wanted Freddie; they thought he was too soft, he wasn’t muscular enough, so Freddie probably screen-tested four or five times. He got to the point where he was saying, ‘I’m done,’ and I really had to plead with him to stick with it because I wanted him. I thought he was going to be great with it. He went to the gym and worked out, changed his diet and his hair cut. I stuck to my guns and eventually they went, ‘Yes.’

“As far as Sarah was concerned, she was the last of the four to be cast. We’d auditioned loads of different people and screen-tested them, hadn’t found the right person. In part it was down to the fact that I didn’t want a 27-year-old playing a 17-year-old in the classic Hollywood way. There were loads of people we looked at who were just too old. Hilary Swank tested for it, who was great, but she wasn’t right for the role.

“We ended up in North Carolina, a matter of two weeks out from shooting, and we still hadn’t cast Helen. I got it down to three girls. I had seen some of Buffy; they’d shot the pilot. Kevin liked the idea of her, which was good. So she flew down to Wilmington and to me, Sarah was it. She was absolutely it. She was fantastic.

“The studio didn’t want her, even after the screen test! They went, ‘Nah.’ They thought she had a Jewish princess, Valley Girl feel to her. I went, ‘Rubbish, she’s good! Look at the screen test again.’ I went, ‘Right, it’s your choice, but know that we think she’s the best choice.’ Kevin backed me up on it. It was a fight for two of them!”

I Know What You Did Last Summer concept art

Bring On The Blood!

“We had fights over the blood in the film. I went back and reshot when Helen’s sister [Bridgette Wilson-Sampras] gets her throat cut; there’s a splash of blood on the glass. I initially had shot that without any blood at all. I’d cut the sequence and it worked, everything was exactly as it is, but they wanted this [splatter], to see her throat get ripped out.

“I said, ‘I’m not shooting that.’ So the most I would give in to was the blood from behind splattering the window. We did that as a pick-up; we reshot that towards the end of the shoot and that was my, ‘OK, I’m done with the blood.’”

A Fresh Kill

“The truth was we had a movie where the killer didn’t do anything! He just chased people. You had to physically see him do something in order for the audience to feel that he was capable of doing something. And Johnny Galecki, even then, was someone that people liked; he was a likeable character [as Julie’s suspicious friend Max]. He’d just done Roseanne, so he was a very well liked teen figure.

“So killing him was a big deal. And it was the one gory bit in the film, to be honest. I shot the film with hardly any gore. It made a big difference to how the rest of the film plays. It’s funny, you add a scene and the ripple effect through the whole thing is actually quite important.”

Post-Post-Modern

“My point was not to make Scream. Kevin wrote it, Kevin didn’t write this as Scream 2. There were a couple of lines that were very Kevin-esque, but he wasn’t trying to that whole post-modern thing cos he’d just done it with Scream. We deliberately were not going for that sort of thing.

“It was meant to be kind of a stand-alone revisit of those classic ’80s horror films. It worked! The movie was number one three weeks in a row. It just clicked with the audience. The title clicked and everything just seemed to work. Third week was Halloween weekend and it was number one in its third week. I couldn’t believe it stuck there for three weeks.”

I Know What You Did Last Summer

Kevin Williamson

“When we were working on the script for this, Scream was shooting. So I would go round to Kevin’s house in Hollywood and we would talk through the script, he’d have dailies tapes from Scream, so we would watch the dailies.

“But he’d also written the pilot for Dawson’s Creek. In fact, when they shot the pilot for Dawson’s Creek, they shot the dockside scenes on our set, because we’d built all these fishing shacks. So they shot some of the pilot for Dawson’s Creek on our sets when we weren’t shooting on them. It was all coming together at the same time with Kevin.”

No Sweater

“There was a moment where we’d shot Love on the boat at the end. We’d shot the end sequence before we shot the last part on the deck with the fight and her screaming. She just had a little tank top on. And then we realised we’d made a continuity error where she was wearing a little jumper all through the first part, so we had to construct some reason that she would take her top off.

“People thought it was so you could see more of her breasts, but actually it was because we had screwed up the continuity and needed it to match! So when we were halfway through building the set, we built this inner chamber that doesn’t exist on a boat. She goes in there and she can’t get the door up she uses her jumper as leverage.

“I watched Passengers recently and there’s a moment in there where the exact same thing happens! She takes off her top in order to use it to pull up some hot door. I thought, ‘They’ve stolen that whole thing!’”

I Know What You DId Last Summer

Equal Rights Nudity

“Ryan had to get his six-pack out. That was a pre-requisite! Everybody was like, ‘You’ve got to get Ryan’s top off!’ And he was fine with that because Ryan looks like that all the time.

“Freddie had a six-pack and all that. Ryan just looks like that. You could put a sack on Ryan and he’d make it look good; he’s just one of those guys. Didn’t matter what it was. He was perfect.”

A New Ending

“The original ending, Julie gets an email, like an invite [to a party], and it was a horrible scene. [You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_ES0_Cc_2k%5D I didn’t want to shoot it! I shot it really boringly because I didn’t want it to be in the film. It never worked as the end of the movie.

“The first time we previewed it, it had that in ad the movie had played really well but the movie you could feel was anticlimactic. The studio head came out straight way and said, ‘We’ve got a hit movie here, but not with that ending.’

“So the whole ‘one year later’ thing we shot immediately after that preview because I’d already scripted out what I wanted the ending to be. We got it up and running in about a week’s time, built a little set… and we also shot the Johnny getting killed, we added that in. We did two days of reshoots.”

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

“I agreed to do the sequel. I said yes initially. And then they wanted to release it on the same weekend [the following year], so that gave us nine months, and there was no script. So they wanted me to commit to a page-and-a-half outline, and I didn’t like the outline.

“I thought it wasn’t the right story. I didn’t like the premise. It kind of killed the franchise a little bit. They had a chance to do something a bit different and for me it didn’t work. That’s why I said no, I couldn’t commit to a page and a half with no guarantee that when we got to the script, I was going to like it.

“It was disappointing because Love was signed on, I think she was contracted to do it [the sequel]. She signed on because she thought I was directing it, and then I didn’t. That upset her a bit. Which was fine, we were ok after that, but I know she was upset it wasn’t going to be the same team. They put a lot more gore in the second one, deliberately so.”

Building A Success

“We did a thing that you would never really get away with today, which is the slow-build. Get to know the people before you start chopping them up, so you care about them a bit. They seem more real to you. It’s what Ridley [Scott] did with Alien. It’s 40 minutes before anything happens in Alien.

“I used that argument when we were doing the film. The premise is the thing that held the audience. It wasn’t the scary movie bit, it really was, ‘What would I do if I was in that situation? Drunk and in a car out with my mates on a quiet country road and we knock someone down?’ That was it, that was the hook for me in the script. It really was why the audience liked the film.’

20 Years Later

“Would I do an H20 catching up with Julie 20 years later? It could be interesting, actually. You could do something very different. They genuinely cocked it up with the second one. And then the third one they did straight to video was kind of pointless. I don’t know why they did that. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on it.

“They’ve been talking about a remake for the last three, four years. Neal [H. Moretz, producer] and I still talk back and forth, and Neal’s producing it. It feels like it’s gone on the back-burner a bit. It seemed like it was going to go a year ago, maybe. I thought if they were going to do it, they’d do it after 20 years. It should be out now.

“But I had a fantastic time shooting the first film. We had a fantastic time on it. North Carolina was a fun place to be. There’s a few jobs that you do, despite how hard they were to do at the time, you also have a good laugh. All the people on it were fantastic.”

This article originally ran on Digital Spy.

LS2

IT (2017)

IT

★★★★

Welcome to Derry. There’s loads to do here. Like go to the pictures. Or marinade in the small-town Americana. Or chill with a clown who wants to tear your soul apart. Yeah, Derry looks nice in the brochures, but people die at six times the national average here – and that’s just the adults. The kids have it way worse, as anybody who’s read Stephen King’s 1986 novel will know.

In Derry, a malevolent, shapeshifting presence feeds on young adults every 27 years and, in Andy Muschietti’s solid adaptation of King’s story, ‘It’ has resurfaced to target a fresh set of tweens.

As far as set-ups go, they don’t get much more elegantly unsettling, and Muschietti (Mama) knows it. Slipping into the director’s chair after Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) departed, his is a loyal translation that administers minor tweaks to maximise King’s lethal scares.

Aside from stripping out the book’s adult Losers Club segments (which will play out in the already-greenlit Chapter 2), the real masterstroke is relocating the action from the ’50s to the ’80s, which gives Muschietti the opportunity to update the monsters. Where King’s book resurrected many of the now oh-so-dated Universal monsters, Muschietti plums for smart psychological terrors that are gloriously unpredictable.

Yes, but is it scary? Well, Bill Skarsgård is certainly unnerving as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, ‘It’s favourite manifestation, and a segment in a flooded basement (sadly spoiled in the trailers) is nothing short of bone-chilling.

But IT isn’t really a horror movie. It’s an Amblin-riffing adventure in which its young heroes – all of them outstanding, particularly Sophia Lillis and Jack Dylan Grazer – tackle growing pains that happen to manifest in scary ways. It’s a film that owes a huge debt to Stranger Things (a show, of course, that owes a huge debt to King), playing more like a horror version of Stand By Me than the original ’90s mini-series starring Tim Curry.

So, yes, a trip to Derry is worth your while. Come for Pennywise but stay for the kids; they ensure that this is the most heartwarming horror movie you’ll see all year.

This review originally appeared in Crack magazine.

Lights Out (2016)

teresa-palmer-in-lights-out-2016The devilish conceit at the heart of 2013 short Lights Out was so scary it went viral on YouTube, prompting horror guru James Wan (Insidious) to hire its director – Sweden’s David F. Sandberg, next making Annabelle 2 – to expand it into a feature, and in the process deliver one of the scariest, most surprising films of 2016. The conceit? Basically: lights on, you’re safe. Lights out, something’s gonna get you. Something that crouches in dark doorways, hugging shadows before pouncing.

That’s what happens to the step-father of gutsy loner Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, bucking Final Girl cliches with an appealingly edgy performance), whose death forces Rebecca to confront her estranged mother (Maria Bello, terrifically tragic) and protect her step-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Which is harder than it sounds when every dark crevice could harbour a murderous entity.

Ably stepping up to the feature game, Sandberg excels at bleeding every gloomy corner of tension, and his innovative light tricks rivet, particularly a nifty shot involving a firearm. Yes, it’s basically 80 minutes of the same gimmick, but with characters you care about and a poignant denouement, this is horror with guts as well as gore. Even better news? Sandberg’s already on board for a sequel.

This review originally appeared in Horrorville Issue #2.

M.R. Carey interview: Fellside

promobannerIf you’ve read The Girl With All The Gifts, you’ll know a thing or two about M.R. Carey. The one-time comic-book writer and all-round awesome guy hit literary pay dirt with his 2014 genre-blender, which has already been made into a blockbuster movie starring Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close (it’s ace, go see it). And because he’s a self-confessed write-a-holic, Carey (Mike to his friends) has already released his next novel, the equally unputdownable Fellside. Set in the titular prison, it follows new inmate Jess, who’s haunted by the memory of the night she accidentally killed a little boy during a drug-fuelled rage. Incarcerated and terrified, she starts hearing voices – could the little boy have followed her to Fellside? (Yeah, I got chills.)

I was able to chat to Carey about his new book as part of his promo blog tour. Here’s what he had to say…

Where did the name Fellside come from?
I just wanted a name for the prison that had a Yorkshire flavour to it. I love the word fell. I particularly love how ambiguous it is. It means a high place, but that could be a mountain or it could be a piece of moorland high up in a range of hills. There’s no absolute sense of physical orientation to it. So it’s a good name for a place where you lose your moral orientation, where you lose your way as my protagonist Jess very definitely does.

What makes prison such a good setting for a story?
I think it’s the fact that your characters are locked in together and there’s no easy way out. Every story ultimately comes down to the clash of personalities and the inexorable working out of the logic of a given set of relationships. If you put your characters in an enclosed, hothouse environment with no way out, you compound and concentrate that effect. A prison is just one example.

How does Fellside compare to The Girl With All The Gifts?
I think it’s a darker book. That sounds a little strange, given that Girl is post-apocalyptic and includes the virtual annihilation of the human race, but I believe it’s true all the same. In Fellside there’s a lot of pain to go around, and Jess’s journey is harder and more traumatic than the journey Melanie has to make.

That said, both stories are optimistic about human nature. They find grounds for hope, let’s say, even in the most unpromising situations. Jess things she’s buying redemption for a terrible crime, and although she’s deeply mistaken about what exactly she’s doing and who she’s doing it for, she does achieve a kind of peace and a kind of accommodation with her own past. And the last chapter revisits that past in a way that hopefully will surprise a lot of readers.

Did you want to play with ghost cliches the way you played with zombies in Gifts?
Not really. I mean, challenging genre conventions wasn’t the point with either book. You always want the story to feel fresh, obviously, and so you reject some ideas just because they’re overly familiar. But that doesn’t present itself as the core of what you’re doing. With Girl the core idea was Melanie herself. Inventing her and fleshing her out was a big part of the groundwork for the story. Deciding on Cordyceps as my McGuffin didn’t feel anywhere near as important, although I was happy to find a vector for the zombie apocalypse that hadn’t already been worked to death.

At rock bottom Fellside is a story about addiction. About what it does to you, about getting free of it and then about trying to find the part of you that’s still you at the end of that process.

If you could lock two characters from two of your stories in a room together, which ones and what would happen?
Probably Dr Caldwell from Girl and Harriet Grace [from Fellside]. They’re both the heroes of their own internal narratives, but I think they’d see through each other’s bullshit in some very interesting ways. It probably wouldn’t end in physical violence, but they’d both come away effectively dissected.

Best story idea you’ve had that scared the hell out of you?
I don’t think I can get scared by my own stories. It’s like trying to tickle yourself – your nerve endings don’t work that way. But conceptually the scariest thing I’ve ever written is probably Pullman’s artificial hand in The Unwritten. If it touches you, you stop being real and become a story. You literally melt into words. That’s not something I ever want to experience.

Ever had a day you categorically couldn’t, wouldn’t (and maybe shouldn’t) write? What did you do?
No, everything is fair game. The more extreme, the more interesting. Obviously you don’t say which bits of your work are autobiographical…

Do you have writing habits and/or a routine, or does it depend on the day?
I wish I had a routine. I work long hours, start early and finish late most days, with maybe one day or half a day off at weekends. But I don’t work consistently. I’m easily distracted, waste a lot of time here and there on footling things, and then I have to make up the time by working late into the evening.

A colleague of mine at Luton Sixth Form College back when I was teaching said that when she watched me work the word that came into her mind was entropy. I asked her what she meant and she said “A whole lot of energy burning away into a vacuum.” She had me bang to rights. I’ve been very productive as a writer, but it’s been at the expense of everything else. I really do not have a life. I work and I sleep.

But I enjoy what I do, so it would be crazy to complain.

Review that left you grinning? Review that scarred you for life?
One of my Twitter friends described Fellside as “orange is the new Woman In Black.” I liked that a lot.

Bad reviews always make me unhappy, but I can’t remember any that have affected me for longer than a day. You wake up the next morning and go back to what you do. If the review was fair you even learn from it, and if it wasn’t you shrug it off that much quicker.

Best and worst X-Men characters to write for… Go!
Best would include Rogue, Beast, Cyclops, Professor X… You know, when I think about it the two lists would be almost identical! What matters is whether the editor is letting you play out the riffs and arcs you’ve got a real feel for, and I was very lucky in that respect. Mike Marts, Nick Lowe, Andy Schmidt, Daniel Ketchum. Best in the business.

And when you come right down to it a lot of the characters I loved best when I was writing in the X-verse were the minor ones who nobody else was using. I loved to dust them off and put them back in the spotlight.

Any unfulfilled writing dreams?
At this point, literally none. But there are still some comics artists I’d love to collaborate with. Top of that list would be David Beauchard, who wrote and drew Epileptic.

Fellside is out now.

Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Zombi-2-Zombie-Flesh-EatersIt was always going to be an oddity. Released as an unofficial (Italian) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. Directed by a dumped-from-grace Lucio Fulci. Book-ended with New York scenes shot specifically for the overseas market. Zombie Flesh Eaters should have been DOA. The oddest thing by far about this singularly gruesome zombie saga, though, is the considerable artistry in its gore-and-grit-churning tale of the ravenous undead.

A pre-credits sequence hints at what we’re in for. A bound man slowly rises from a bed. A gun is fired. The man’s head implodes with a shock of red that the camera guzzles up as greedily as any flesh-muncher. It’s just the first of many artery-spurting kills, the most famous of which has a young woman impaled through the eyeball (a scene restored when ZFE was finally released uncut in 2005) as zombies overrun the remote community of Matul Island.

If the plentiful gore still shocks, Fulci impresses most with admirable command over his material. Both blood-thirsty and eccentric, ZFE is a curious blend of Giallo and Hammer (check out Richard Johnson’s death-obsessed physician) that’s all hysteria-level thrills – zombies fight sharks, worms writhe in rotting skulls and women scuba-dive topless.

So what if the dubbing’s dreadful, the acting grotty? As it builds to a blazing inferno of a climax, replete with foreboding Big Apple epilogue, Zombie Flesh Eaters’ appetite for destruction is nothing short of exhilarating. 4/5

The Pact (2012)

Haunted houses, Japanese ghost girls, grainy found footage. Ghost stories once had the power to strike fear in the hearts of cinema-goers. After years of reboots, remakes and just plain rubbish, though, that power has dwindled. This year’s Woman In Black aside, films about spooks and phantoms have generally, uh, given up the ghost. Which, one assumes, is precisely why director Nicholas McCarthy has set his no-budget chiller, The Pact, in the last place you’d expect – sunny, modern day San Pedro. All the better to scare you with.

As a concept, it works beautifully. Introducing us to the film’s main setting, a flat-pack home in a suburban neighbourhood on the fringes of an industrial site, McCarthy instantly wrong-foots expectations. This isn’t the gothic haunted residence of The Innocents or The Others – it’s an everyday abode as gaudy as it is mundane.

Except it’s here, in her recently deceased mother’s house, that Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) mysteriously disappears one evening. All we know is that somebody (or something) was in the house with her. When Nicole’s sister Annie (newcomer Caity Lotz) pitches up looking for her, she finds nothing more than an empty house. It’s not long, though, before things are going bump in the night, and Annie starts to uncover unsettling secrets about her family.

Sundrenched setting aside, there’s pretty much nothing new in The Pact. Despite that, you can’t help but admire the skill with which McCarthy delivers his slow-burn scares. He excels at making us fear cramped, claustrophobic spaces. Narrow, gaudily-decorated corridors. Tiny broom cupboards. Shadowy bedrooms. All are exploited to suffocating effect, and The Pact works brilliantly as a celluloid jack in the box – each act builds steadily to a blow-out crescendo that’ll leave the hairs on your arms standing on end.

Last year, Insidious took the same approach. But where that film devolved into messy farce, The Pact is tripwire taut throughout – right up to its lingering, creeping final shot. It’s also a thoroughly modern spooker, utilising Skype, laptops and mobile phones to reveal hidden nasties (“Mommy, who’s that behind you?” asks a little girl in one nifty update on pantomime horror cliché).

Where The Pact falters is in its characterisation. While there’s no doubting Annie’s a ballsy heroine (after the things she encounters, we’d forgive her for running right out the door), she’s also one that we know next to nothing about. Beyond the fact that she has a sweet pair of wheels and a healthy disrespect for authority, of course. Poor old Casper Van Dien gets the worst treatment, though, as a sympathetic cop who acts as little more than a sounding board for Annie’s theories.

Considering The Pact started life as a short film (it showed at Sundance 2011), it’s surprising McCarthy didn’t attempt to dig further into his characters for the feature length version. Clearly, his priorities lie elsewhere. With its creepy psychic girls (“Oh, she’s here,” murmurs a gaunt Haley Hudson in a clear nod to Poltergeist), quavering long takes and refreshing lack of false scares, it’s a modest, contained tension-cranker that just wants to scare the crap out of you. In that, it mostly succeeds. 3/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Dark Shadows (2012)

“Welcome back to the shadows, we’ve missed you,” intones one character in Tim Burton’s latest genre-blitzer. It could easily be directed at Burton himself.

Dark Shadows is a return to the kind of gloomy, quirky material the filmmaker has shied away from since Sleepy Hollow (notwithstanding Sweeney Todd).

With its gorgeously gothic prologue, Dark Shadows seems like the perfect Burton-Depp vehicle. Based on a little-remembered 1960s soap opera, the duo’s favourite themes are all present and correct – not least their obsession with outsiders attempting to assimilate into modern society.

As the auteur goes about crafting a beautifully tangible 1760s Liverpool – flush in rolling fog and doused in sea spray – the opulent palette is complimented with the kind of richly intriguing ‘origins’ story that the Twilight franchise ummed and ahhed over for three whole films.

Because rich-boy Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) has pissed off a witch (Eva Green). Venting her rage, she transforms him into a vampire and locks him in a coffin to fester undying until the end of time.

Snap forward to 1972, and Barnabas awakens to discover the now decrepit Collins estate is home to comely descendent Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her moody daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), useless husband Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), haunted step-son David (Gulliver McGrath) and alcoholic therapist Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).

Despite the impressive ensemble, Depp remains the star of the show. De-coffined into that goofiest of eras, his horror at psychedelic ‘70s toot is genuinely funny (Trolls! Lava lamps! Karen Carpenter!). Things hit a high note early on when, post-resurrection, Barnabas is confronted with a symbol of terrifying modernity: the blazing twin peaks of the McDonald’s sign.

But unlike the deft arcs of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, though, Shadows is a mess of extraneous sub-plots and surplus characters. It’s easy to believe reports that script revisions were being handed out during filming, not least with regard to the nonsensical, blow-out finale.

As cameos, barely-there romances and never-explained spooky happenings all chaotically collide, Shadows quickly forgets its own ethos (“Family is the only real wealth,” as muttered by Barnabas’s dad in the film’s opening moments) in favour of scene after scene of Depp’s wide-eyed, reactionary culture clashing.

Even Eva Green’s sensual villainess – rocking power suits, a big blonde ‘do and a rasping smoker’s drawl – proves disappointingly fangless, hampered by the film’s most puzzling of oddball B-plots (including warring fisheries, obviously).

Though it’s delightfully odd in places, and entertaining when it works, Dark Shadows is little more than a sumptuous mood board; a portmanteau of intriguing ideas with little or no pay-off. Burton’s yet to return from the dead. 3/5

Via movieScope

The Woman In Black (2012)

Daniel Radcliffe is Harry Potter no more. After playing the wand-wielding wizard over eight films and 10 years, the Brit superstar has carefully chosen his first post-Potter role – and instead of debunking to America, he’s stayed right here on home turf for a pleasantly old school ghost story that has him trying new things while sticking to the genre he’s known for.

Not that he’s asked to stretch himself too much in The Woman In Black, a pared-back chiller based on Susan Hill’s much-loved spectral page-turner. Radcliffe plays solicitor Arthur Kipps, who’s still mourning the death of his wife when he’s sent to an isolated village to sort through the estate of a recently deceased woman. While there, though, strange accidents result in the deaths of numerous children, and Arthur keeps catching sight of a woman dressed all in black.

Lovingly scripted by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), Woman In Black is a very British ghoulfest. While TV series American Horror Story has been offering its own distinct brand of gory histrionics and quirky stunt casting, Woman In Black sways through buttoned-down grief, small town superstitions and twisted family secrets.

Capably helmed by Eden Lake director James Watkins, it’s a spare, atmosphere-heavy mood piece that wants you to feel the horror as well as see it. It’s also damn near a silent movie for a good 30 minutes as Arthur spends a night at a creepy house that may or may not be haunted. To Radcliffe’s credit, he raises his game considerably here, using those big soulful eyes to spine-tingling effect as he lets us into his character’s tortured inner world.

Some may find the film a little too old school. Though Woman In Black is often genuinely unsettling, it never aims to break the mould Sixth Sense-style. The strange ending (different to the book and stage play) is also oddly underwhelming, tying things up too neatly.

Despite that, Watkins’ film is a slow-burn chiller that mesmerises with shadowy imagery and grim story-telling. His Woman In Black is creepier than it is genuinely terrifying, the stealthy camerawork and heavy shadows effectively scratching under the skin, while the odd jump scares induce hair-raising paralysis rather than leap-out-of-seat spasms. For Radcliffe, it’s a step in an interesting direction. Woman In Black represents a growing on-screen maturity for the young actor, and it’ll be fascinating to see what he tackles next. 3/5