#HalloweenFrights Day 8: SJI Holliday on why she ain’t afraid of no ghosts

HalloweenFrights (4)

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! It’s the final day of #HalloweenFrights, boooooo! But what a creepy ride it’s been. Thank you so much to all of the fabulous authors who have contributed to the series, and succeeded in giving me nightmares for AN ENTIRE WEEK.

Today, to celebrate the fact that it is, in fact, All Hallow’s Eve, author SJI Holliday wants to talk to us about ghosts. And it’s something she knows a thing or two about – her new book The Lingering (Orenda, out now on ebook/audio, paperback on 15 November) is all about spooks. Take it away, Susi…

A recent survey by Groupon uncovered that 60% of Americans claim to have seen a ghost; 40% claim that their pets have seen one. Women are 20% more likely to have seen one than men, but men who have seen one are twice as likely to run away screaming on encountering one. Additionally, one in three claims to have lived or stayed in a haunted house.

So, with that in mind, its’ no big surprise that Netflix has decided to milk this phenomenon for all it’s worth – with the new version of The Haunting of Hill House taking a prime slot on their home screen.

But ghosts are nothing new. Ghost stories have been told since people first sat around campfires, trying to find ways to entertain themselves, and to explain the unexplainable. In my opinion, nothing has changed.

People still need to find ways to explain what they don’t understand – others may find comfort in the thought of an afterlife, as a place for their loved ones to carry on – personally it’s this element that scares me the most. The idea of waking up to find a dead relative standing by my bed, coming to let me know that they’re ok, would not make me feel ok one little bit.

I love ghost stories. I love ghost tours. I would love to go on a ghost hunt, but that’s taking it too far – I don’t think my heart could handle it, and I am convinced I would return with a Cruella DeVil style white streak in my hair. Forever haunted.

I decided to weave a ghost story into my latest psychological thriller, The Lingering, purely to entertain myself – to see if I could scare myself sufficiently while writing it – and to see if I could bring something new to the table. My two favourite supernatural tales are The Woman in Black and The Lovely Bones. The first, for the constant state of dread it invokes, and the second, for the emotionally gut-punching sadness.

I’ve used a common trope as a set-up – a haunted house – but I like to think I have subverted it. The haunted house is an old asylum, which now houses a spiritual commune – but it’s not the commune that’s ‘bad’ – it’s not a cult… it’s the inhabitants that turn things on its head. One of the main characters is a wannabe ghost hunter, who despite her best efforts, has not yet managed to see or even sense anything untoward, but she remains convinced that there is something unseen lurking (or ‘lingering’) within the walls. The other main character is an ex-psychiatric nurse and a sceptic – so, you can guess what might happen there.

Personally, I describe myself as a ghost agnostic. There is just too much that people have felt and seen for it to be completely inside our heads, isn’t there? Two people told me they’d seen a ghost in the house I once lived in. The both saw her at different times, months apart, both explained her in the same way without either of them knowing about the other’s account.

I would very much like some hard evidence. But ideally not first-hand…. #massivescaredycat

Thanks Susi. You can follow her on Twitter here, or check out her website here. And that’s a wrap! This week has been a complete whirlwind and I’m thrilled that people have been enjoying hearing from some of the best authors in books. Thanks for following along, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Have you enjoyed #HalloweenFrights? Want to see more things like this on the site? Let me know on Twitter here!

#HalloweenFrights Day 7: CJ Tudor reveals her horror origin story

HalloweenFrights (4)

It’s day seven of #HalloweenFrights, and today I’m drawing the bedsheets up to my nose as CJ Tudor prepares to chill us with her horror origin story.

CJ wrote this year’s bestselling smash-hit The Chalk Man (Penguin), and I’ve just been lucky enough to read a proof of her new novel, The Taking Of Annie Thorne (Penguin, February 2019), which was even more gripping and scrape-under-skin unsettling. So here’s how CJ became horror’s number one fan…

I first realised that I liked to be scared around the age of eight.

I grew up on Enid Blyton – the magic Faraway Tree, Famous Five and Mallory Towers – but suddenly I found myself perusing the library for something different… something less scones and ginger ale and more spooks and chills.

There wasn’t a lot on offer in the children’s section back then so one of the first scary books I read was Hamlyn’s Book of True Ghost Stories Fact or Fiction. It gave me nightmares for weeks but I still found myself drawn back to it again and again.

Around the same age I’d go around to my friend Kirsty’s house to watch videos. My parents didn’t have a video recorder but Kirsty’s parents had a Betamax (oh yes!) plus they were fairly relaxed about what we watched. It was here, curled up on beanbags together that I was introduced to An American Werewolf in London, Poltergeist and, later, The Evil Dead.

However, my true revelation came when, aged twelve – and now armed with my dad’s library card – I picked up a battered copy of Christine. That was it. I was addicted. I sought out more and more King, and Herbert, Koontz and Barker quickly followed.

But WHY did I love horror so much?

I think all kids are attracted to dark things, the lure of the forbidden. Children are also pretty revolting. They’re fascinated by bodily functions, blood and poo and scabs. There’s always one child who takes a delight in pulling the legs off grasshoppers (my friend, Kirsty, again). And we’re brought up on stories about wicked witches, monsters and ghosts.

I was also a teen during the golden age of horror. King, Herbert and Koontz ruled. The garish covers glared out from every book store. Terrifying but oh so tempting. And then there were the films – Halloween, Carrie, The Shining.

Horror informed what I read, watched and wrote. I continued to love horror even when it fell out of fashion. I remember, when I first began submitting my work to agents, one telling me that my mix of creepiness and crime was not what publishers wanted. Horror was a dirty word in the book world.

I’m thrilled that that seems to be turning around. After all, horror has always remained hugely popular in TV and film. People like to be scared. Horror enables you to peek through your fingers at something bad from the safety of your own sofa (or behind it). The monsters and the gore are contained. And usually, good wins out.

Horror was last big in the ’80s – a time when there was a lot of fear in the world. Nuclear holocaust, the cold war. I think it’s no coincidence that it is making a resurgence now, a time that’s once again troubling and uncertain.

When there are very real human monsters and conflicts that are not so easily resolved there’s a certain reassurance in watching a man in a hockey mask meet his comeuppance at the hands of a gutsy heroine.

So, in a weird way, I suppose I love horror because I find it comforting. And just a bit scary.

Thanks so much for that, CJ. You can follow CJ on Twitter here. Sadly, tomorrow is the final day of #HalloweenFrights, boooo. But don’t worry, we’re going out with a bang as another of my favourite horror authors descends on the site with ghostly goodies.

Have you enjoyed the series? Want to see more things like this on the site? Let me know on Twitter here!

#HalloweenFrights Day 2: Part Two – Fran Dorricott asks, Where are all the queer witches?

HalloweenFrights (4)

Let the magic continue! After Elizabeth and Katharine Corr’s rules for writing a witch story, today’s #HalloweenFrights continues with more wicca wonder from Fran Dorricott. Fran is the author of upcoming queer witch novel After The Eclipse (March 2019, Titan), which I can’t wait to read. Here, she discusses the idea of ‘otherness’ and asks, Where are all the queer witches?

Witches have always been my favourite ‘spooky’ creature. While my friends would dress up on Halloween with their false fangs and fake blood, I’d always be the one in the back smeared in green paint, a black cape and robes and a broomstick in my hand.

It’s no surprise that I’ve been consuming every witchy story I can get my hands on for as long as I can remember. My heart still jumps when I see a new book or TV show about them. What do I like about witches? Well, I’ve been puzzling about this for years, but I think it has something to do with the intersection of power and otherness.

Witches in popular culture do not generally suffer from the same level of persecution as the real women who are hurt and killed for their otherness, but their otherness still defines their lives. My favourite witches often worry about being exposed to others, their powers being abused or their lives changed by their magic.

And yet they are some of the most powerful role models in popular culture. Witches own their magic, use it boldly (whether that is for good or evil), and that has always made me feel strong. They are powerful because of their otherness, as well as despite it.

So where are all the queer and POC witches? Of course they exist, but while I was compiling a list of the witches I remembered from my childhood, the names on it were generally limited to white, straight, cis witches. Despite their otherness because of their magic, somehow the list looks remarkably like every other popular culture list.

willow.jpg

So I dug deeper. Of course we have a few exceptions to the rule. There’s Willow Rosenberg, whose same-sex relationship in Buffy heralds her as a queer icon for ever. And there’s Marie Laveau (I’m feeling special love for Angela Bassett’s portrayal in American Horror Story: Coven), the Voodoo Queen inspired by a real-life New Orleans figure. But otherwise my list of favourite witches is remarkably white and straight.

But things, I hope, are starting to change. I’m seeing a surge of queer witchy projects cropping up in young adult fiction. Anthologies like Toil And Trouble, and books like Labyrinth Lost, giving voice to LGBT and POC witches. The Charmed reboot has a lesbian main character (the middle sister, Mel), and I am so psyched to start seeing myself and my friends in more of the popular culture.

Just for fun, here is a rundown of my top ten witches in popular culture. These are the women who made me feel powerful – because of my differences as well as despite them – and I can’t wait to see more diverse witches in the future.

hida10. Hilda Spellman (Sabrina The Teenage Witch)
Hilda always reminded me of myself. Scrappy, a bit dippy, and very loving at heart. Of course Sabrina and Zelda are awesome too, but Hilda is just so much fun!

9. The Grand High Witch (Roald Dahl’s The Witches)
She was the cause of the very first nightmares I remember after watching a film. Anjelica Huston without her mask on was absolutely terrifying! I later had a dream where the Hocus Pocus Sanderson sisters came to save me.

8. Winifred Sanderson (Hocus Pocus)
Another glorious morning. Makes me sick! Same, Winnie. Saaaaame. Winnie’s brand of humour appeals to me in an ‘I work in customer service, too’ sort of way, and I love her even more as an adult.

7. Sally Owens (Practical Magic)
Book Sally and film Sally are a little different, but her gentle witchcraft always made me feel very safe and calm. Plus Sandra Bullock in braids is just adorable, honestly.

6. Piper Halliwell (Charmed)
My favourite of the Halliwell sisters, Piper’s freezing time powers always made me think I’d never be late to class if I could do it. Piper is the woman I always wanted to be: warm, patient, and kickass to boot!

Marie5. Marie Laveau (AHS: Coven)
Talking about badass women, Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau is top of the list. Somehow her scenes in the show were always the most arresting.

4. Mel Vera (Charmed 2018)
I haven’t seen much in the way of the Charmed reboot but I’ve very excited for the potential here! Charmed was my all-time favourite TV show growing up, so more powerful young ladies being badass is what I’m all about.

3. Willow Rosenberg (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
Look, who didn’t have a crush on Willow ok? A generation of queer girls everywhere owe a LOT to Alyson Hannigan. Just saying.

2. Manon Blackbeak (Sarah J Maas’ Throne Of Glass series)
Manon is one of my greatest adult-life loves. The perfect amount of cut-throat combined with a love for gross animals and I’m 100% down. Plus, who doesn’t love a cracking redemption arc?

1. Elphaba aka The Wicked Witch of the West (Wicked/The Wizard of Oz)
As a kid The Wizard Of Oz was my favourite movie. And when I found out that there was a musical about the witch telling us HER story I about died (I love Gregory Maguire’s book, too). In my opinion all good story-telling is about point of view, so I love hearing about characters whose story was originally very 2D. And I’m not going to lie and say I don’t support the Galinda/Elphaba ship, because I do. And Gregory Maguire does too.

This is a direct plea to the universe: more queer and POC witches please! With the world in the state it’s currently in, we need all the diverse badassery we can get.

Thanks Fran, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know about you, but after all this witch talk, I’m feeling pretty green. Things are switching up tomorrow as we delve in to one of the most pervading myths in horror with one of my favourite new authors. See you on the other side!

#HalloweenFrights Day 2: Part One – Elizabeth & Katharine Corr’s rules for writing a wicked witch story

HalloweenFrights (4)

Congratulations! You survived the first day of #HalloweenFrights! To celebrate, here’s a spook-tacular treat – today I have not one but TWO guest posts about witches.

First up, I’m handing over to author sisters Elizabeth and Katharine Corr, who recently cast a wicked spell with their Witches Kiss trilogy (which I loved). Because they’ve written three whole books about spellcasters, I asked them to reveal their six secrets for how to write an awesome witch story. Over to you, ladies…

When writing The Witch’s Kiss trilogy, we spent a lot of time researching all things witchy. Luckily, witches – like vampires – seem to have an enduring appeal, both in literature and on screen, so there was plenty of good source material. Here’s what we learnt…

1. Do your homework. In more recent history, witchcraft has been associated with the occult, satanic worship, cursing your neighbour’s cows and other generally bad stuff. In a modern context – and, funnily enough, if you go further back in history – it’s been associated more with healing and harnessing the power of nature. In our trilogy we’ve mixed elements of both, trying to pay homage to both versions of witchcraft.

hermione2. Make your witch believable – as a person first, as a witch second. A good witch story needs a believable protagonist. Think Hermione, Mildred, Granny WeatherWax. Each of these witches has vulnerabilities and strengths that we can relate to. Modern witches, even the wicked ones, tend to be more well-rounded than in fairytales (the Angelina Jolie version of Maleficent, for example). Have your witch be malicious and evil by all means, but also show us why.

3. Dress them right. Actually, dress them any way you want to as long as it fits with your setting. Personally, we love a pointy black hat. But witches, like everyone else, come in all different shapes and sizes. Some witches have wands, brooms and all the traditional witchy paraphernalia. Some have the latest technology and do power dressing. Our hero, Merry, lives in modern day Surrey and looks like a regular teenager. Her gran – the head of the coven – has a smart bob and pearl earrings; not a wart in sight. There are no rules regarding witch fashion.

3. Think outside the box: witches don’t have to be women or belong to a coven. There are modern male witches that would be very unhappy to be called warlocks (if you don’t believe us, Google it). We have a powerful male witch in our trilogy, who, unlike the wizards in our books, inherited his powers straight from his mum. Again, some witches enjoy being part of a group, whilst others are solo artists. Your witch doesn’t have to be part of a coven. Merry definitely didn’t want to be part of hers.

5. Know your powers. Magical powers vary. Some witches use cauldrons, wands and spell books. Granny Weatherwax prefers ‘headology’ (basically outsmarting your opponent by getting inside their headspace). Some witches make human/animal sacrifices, whilst others use the power of the land and, where possible, fresh herbs. If your witch casts spells, try to make them sound convincing. We spent a lot of time researching stuff in Latin and other languages.

6. Have a good antagonist. Harry Potter wouldn’t have been quite the same without Lord Voldemort, and a witch is always at her best when she’s in mortal danger. Either through clever spells or pure courage, facing down the Big Bad is when she comes into her own.

Big thanks to Elizabeth and Katharine for this. You can follow them on Twitter by clicking their names (ooo, magic), and make sure you check out their books if you’re a fan of all things witch-y. Want more spellbinding stuff? Check out part two of the #HalloweenFright witch special later today.

Videodrome (1983)

videodrome

★★★★

David Cronenberg’s seminal 1983 body horror Videodrome begins with a shot of a TV screen and ends with its main character re-enacting what he’s just seen played out on another screen. In-between, there are scenes of extreme brutality, physiological weirdness, philosophical debate, and sexual ambiguity, but Cronenberg repeatedly returns to the relationship between the screen and the viewer, assembling a caustic appraisal of society’s growing reliance on technology, and the uneasy way it infects and affects our everyday behaviour. Though the film is now over 30 years old (and, for the most part, looks it), its relevance only grows with the passing of time.

Max Renn (James Woods) is president of local TV station CIVIC-TV and on the hunt for something groundbreaking to offer his viewers. “It’s soft. Something too… soft about it,” he opines of content brought to him by his staff. “I’m lookin’ for something that’ll break through, you know?” That something turns out to be Videodrome. Plotless, shot in Malaysia, and depicting seemingly real scenes of sexual torture, the show borders on snuff, but Max wants it. Meanwhile, he defends his philosophy on a talk show where he meets radio host Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry of Blondie fame), explaining that he provides a safe outlet for society’s darker fantasies.

As Max and Nicki strike up a relationship, their sadomasochistic encounters signal a queasy journey into a circus of body horror. Released just two years after Cronenberg made Scanners (with its exploding heads and sinister psychics), and eight years after Rabid (with its phallic mutations), Videodrome is a distillation of everything the Canadian director represents. At the time, Videodrome was by far Cronenberg’s most sophisticated offering, and saw the writer-director expertly navigating themes of voyeurism and violence through a prism of intelligent horror.

With the help of special effects expert Rick Baker, Cronenberg draws us into a terrifying nightmare where technology and flesh combine. After discovering Videodrome is broadcasting out of Pittsburgh, Max attempts to track down its creators, then encounters the mysterious Bianca (Sonja Smits), who’s continuing the work of her father, Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a pop culture analyst who dreamed of a world where TV replaces reality. And when Max returns home, he suffers horrific hallucinations in which a gaping slit like a VCR opens in his torso. Bianca tells him that watching Videodrome causes viewers to develop brain tumours in which reality and fiction become horrifically distorted.

“We’re entering savage new times,” remarks one character in Videodrome’s mindfuck third act, and he’s not wrong. There are pulsating, groaning betamax tapes, guns welded to hands, and fleshy arm-grenades, all lovingly crafted by Baker’s team of effects mavericks; schlocky but they stand the test of time. Under it all, though, runs a sinister undercurrent that tackles ideas about violence against women, our culpability as viewers, the power of the voyeur, and even the question of what defines reality. It makes for an uncomfortable watch, and Cronenberg’s film is at times unbelievably quiet and restrained, which could test some viewers’ concentration spans.

If Videodrome sets out to do anything, though, it’s to test its audience. It wants to provoke and question; it demands we confront ourselves and ask why we keep watching. In the early ’80s, most viewers weren’t ready for something so self-aware (Videodrome bombed on release, making just $2.1m on its $5.9m budget), but modern, media-savvy audiences will appreciate its febrile subtext. Now, we really do rely on technology to survive, and most of us have our phones welded to our hands in much the same way Max’s gun becomes welded to his. In that respect, Videodrome is shockingly prescient, predicting how we have become physically and psychologically bonded with technology.

While Woods and Harry are fantastic, they inevitably play second fiddle to the impressive prosthetics and hotbed of ideas. Woods plays Max as wide-eyed and naïve even as he chases dark dreams. He’s almost a noir detective, navigating our nightmares and shuddering at what he finds. It’s also through Max that Cronenberg continuously challenges us to distinguish the real from the artificial. His film refuses to do so, shooting the ‘real world’ and Max’s hallucinations in the same way so that it’s impossible to tell them apart. That’s sort of the point. Nowadays, we’re unable to distinguish between a piece of plastic and the real world, existing in social media bubbles, emotionally attached to our inboxes and news feeds.

Ahead of Pixar’s WALL-E (with its tech-reliant space humans) and even the more recent Nightcrawler (with its carnage-obsessed TV execs), Videodrome offers a chilling glimpse into a possible future – and it’s a future that seems more and more possible with every passing year. At 87 minutes, Videodrome is a short, sharp jab to the solar plexus. Cronenberg has called making the film “cathartic”, but watching it is another matter. A bracing, unnerving watch, Videodrome is packed full of stark, intelligent ideas. It wriggles under the skin and stays there for days.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

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

Happy (belated) Halloween from Rumer

Hey everybody! It’s been exactly a week since Vicious Rumer hit 100% funding on Unbound. I still can’t quite believe I get to write those words. This book has been skulking in the shadows for over a year, so to know that it’s going to be published – and not only published but read by lovely people like you who pre-ordered a copy – is both surreal and unbelievably exciting. So thank you. This only happened because of you. I owe you all alcohol and hugs.

So what’s next? Well, in the past week I’ve been paired up with my Unbound editor (hi Craig!), chatted to him all about Rumer (I’ll admit, the phone call made me shake), and received his feedback on the manuscript (the man’s a power-reader).

As I write this, I’ve just made a start on his edits. I’m refining Rumer’s story to make it as scary, funny and thrilling as possible. I’ll admit, I’ve not read the manuscript in months, and it’s fun getting back into Rumer’s head (although there’s some pretty odd stuff in there). After I’ve made my edits, Craig will take another look at the manuscript before it goes through some heavy duty proofing – the book equivalent of a shave and a haircut.

The timeline on the project remains a bit of a secret, but there’s every chance that this time next year you’ll have a copy of Vicious Rumer in your hands.

If you can’t wait that long for some creepy fiction, here’s a belated Halloween treat – you can read my short story Dead Air for FREE when you sign up to my mailing list at http://joshuawinning.com. (I promise I won’t spam your inbox to oblivion. In fact, you’ll only hear from me when there’s big news.)

Meanwhile, happy belated Halloween from me and Rumer, and thanks again for going on this weird and exciting journey with us.

Josh x

08.02.18: Amended to change the title of the book to Vicious Rumer, woo!

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.