Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: December

And so I've come to the end of another year of writing reviews of the books I've read for pleasure. This month's books have a very festive feel, so this is definitely a very December-y post!

In case you're interested, here are the posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here are my reviews of the novels I read in December...

Devil's Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (2017)


I should probably start this with a confession… I haven’t read The Loney (Hurley’s acclaimed debut novel), which makes me one of the only people I know who hasn’t. I included Devil’s Day on a list of books about autumn traditions last year, but didn’t actually get chance to read it until this winter. It’s a strange book – not because of the subject matter (I really don’t mind strange subject matter!) – but in terms of its inconsistency. It has moments of absolute brilliance, but also some sections that don’t really seem that well-written. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion (great) with an unreliable first-person narration disguised at times as third-person (even better). John and his wife Kat have returned to his family’s farm at the Endlands for his grandfather’s funeral, intending to stay on for Devil’s Day and the Gathering (traditions on the farm that presage the start of winter). As the story of that year’s Devil’s Day unfolds, older stories are woven in – the Arncliffes who built the mill, the Dennings who once owned the land, events from John’s childhood, the presence of the Owd Feller himself. There is an incredible sense of place evoked in the book, and I particularly enjoyed the episodes involving the Far Lodge (a building one of the Dennings had constructed on the land). However, there is less clear sense of character created, and I struggled to engage much with any of them. Ultimately, perhaps the Endlands itself is the best-drawn character here.

A Midwinter Promise by Lulu Taylor (2019)


So… bit of a misstep, this one. In December, we went away for our annual holiday to Cornwall. The weather was wild, but we were cosy and warm in our cottage. All year, I’d been saving Christmas-themed books to read while we were there. However, on our first night away, I spotted A Midwinter Promise in the supermarket and decided that it would make perfect holiday reading. The blurb promised (a) winter, (b) secrets, and (c) Cornwall. I bumped it to the top of my list, casting aside all the festive books I’d been saving. And, sadly, I was very disappointed. Taylor’s book begins with a woman called Alex reminiscing about her childhood at Tawray, a rambling old house in Cornwall. When Alex’s dad has a stroke, she starts to wonder about her mother’s early death, and about the secrets that may have been kept by her family. The book then alternates this storyline with chapters set in the 70s, 80s and 90s, which tell the story of Julia (Alex’s mother) and her life at Tawray. The problem with the book is that (a) it’s only partly set in the winter, (b) although characters keep secrets from one another, Taylor doesn’t keep any secrets from the reader and so Julia’s story is crystal clear from the off, and (c) Tawray may nominally be located in Cornwall, but there’s very little sense of place, save a few mentions of how nice the sea looks. Really not impressed with my decision here.

The Darkest Place by Jo Spain (2018)


Back to the books I’d been saving for my holiday… as I’ve mentioned in previous months, my mum and I really like Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels. In fact, it was last December when I read the first in the series and passed it on to my mum. The Darkest Place is the fourth book in the series – though I’ve actually already read the fifth one (I read them out of order so that I could save this one for going away). The Darkest Place is set at Christmas (like With Our Blessing) and sees Reynolds called away from his family celebrations (as in With Our Blessing) to investigate a crime in a remote – and very creepy – location (as in…). The setting for The Darkest Place is a disused asylum on an island, which is accessible only by boat. A mass grave has been discovered, but there’s a body in it that shouldn’t be there. Psychiatrist Dr Conrad Howe disappeared at Christmas forty years earlier, and it now appears he was brutally murdered and left in the hospital grave pit. Reynolds is faced with opening up a cold case, which leads him into the dark heart of the asylum and its ‘treatments’. The Darkest Place treads familiar ground – Spain often returns to darker aspects of Ireland’s history in her books – and its lighter on the personal lives of the detectives than some of the others. Nevertheless, this is a satisfyingly creepy story with a clever puzzle at its centre.

Murder in Advent by David Williams (1985)


I’m not having the best luck with my festive reading this year. This next one was another book I was saving till Christmas, as I thought it would be a good seasonal read. I actually bought it in a charity shop in Truro last Christmas, but I didn’t chance to read it then. I’ve saved it all year, only to discover… it’s not actually a Christmas book at all (despite the title). Murder in Advent is set in the small (fictional) cathedral city of Litchester. The cathedral owns a thirteenth-century exemplification of the Magna Carta, which they are considering selling to raise much-needed funds for the cathedral. Banker Mark Treasure (apparently Williams’s series character) arrives, as he has a deciding vote in the matter, but before anything else can happen, there’s a disturbance in the Old Library. The Dean’s verger is killed, and a fire destroys the valuable artefact. The problem I had with the book (aside from the fact that Advent and Christmas aren’t actually part of the story) is that I simply couldn’t follow who was who. The key characters are introduced in a dazzling chapter early on, and there are a lot of them. If you’re unfamiliar with church roles and titles – if you don’t know what a Dean’s verger is, for instance – it’s a bit of a tricky read. And it’s made harder by the fact that all the characters seem to speak in a similar voice. Sadly, this one just didn’t do it for me.

Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood (2019)


Now this is festive reading. Just what I wanted! Littlewood’s book has all the elements you want from a Christmas book… snow, an isolated farmhouse and ghosts. The book is the story of Leah, who is recently bereaved (she’s lost her husband and young son), and so decides – impulsively – to leave Manchester and buy an abandoned farmhouse in Yorkshire. At Christmas. Buying the farmhouse was Leah’s late husband Josh’s idea, and so she believes this is a way of honouring his memory by trying to bring his dream to reality. The farm – Maitland Farm – once belonged to Leah’s family, so it seems like fate might be playing a hand as well. But when Leah arrives at Maitland Farm, in the darkest depths of winter and heavy snowfall, she discovers that it may be harbouring some grief of its own. Mistletoe is a classic Christmas ghost story, and Littlewood is adept at conjuring an atmosphere that is equal parts tragedy and horror. Leah’s experience of the ghosts of Maitland Farm comes through visions, which take on a life of their own. The past and the present begin to blur, with the eponymous parasitic plant weaving its way through the stories. I’d be wary of calling this a ‘cosy’ story, as there are some disturbing elements, but it certainly belongs to a good old tradition. The ghost story (or the story of the ghosts), perhaps, holds few surprises. But the way that it’s told is just wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Secret Santa by Trish Harnetiaux (2019)


I picked this one up in the supermarket on a whim (despite having collected more than enough festive books over the year). There were a couple of reasons why it caught my attention. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece of flash fiction called ‘Secret Santa’, and since then I seem to keep getting drawn to writing weird versions justice-dispensing Father Christmases. Secondly – and more importantly – the blurb looked like it’d be a good old-fashioned ‘everyone’s locked in the house getting picked off one-by-one’ tale. Claudine and Henry Calhoun are high-flying real estate types in Aspen. Every year, they throw a fancy Christmas party, which involves a competitive Secret Santa game that’s the talk of the town. This year, Claudine’s been contacted by pop star Zara (who bears some slight similarity to a real-life pop star who shall remain nameless). Zara is interested in buying Montague House, the first property Claudine and Henry ever built, and so Claudine decides to move the party to the somewhat remote building. The snow starts to fall, the guests assemble, and there’s an additional gift on the Secret Santa pile… This book was a lot of fun – it’s a quick read, and not necessarily the story you might be expecting, but I really enjoyed it. The tension is well-paced, and Zara emerges as a rather engaging character. Plus, there’s a bit of intrigue, secrecy and rivalry as well. I’m glad I picked this one up – it was a very enjoyable festive read.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018)


Managed to time my festive reading so I could end the year with a New Year-themed book! The Hunting Party takes place during a New Year’s Eve party, so it was the perfect way to end December. A group of old university friends meet up for their annual New Year’s Eve celebrations – this year, they’ve booked an exclusive (but isolated) hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Over the course of the booze-fuelled party, old secrets and resentments surface… and someone’s not going to survive the party. The book is much marketed as an ‘Agatha Christie with menace’ (hmmm… I think Christie’s books had enough menace of their own!), but it’s also been compared to Tartt’s The Secret History (which I didn’t enjoy). However, the book actually does its own thing, and it’s not really fair to compare it to Christie or Tartt’s work. There was a lot that I really enjoyed about The Hunting Party. I loved the multiple narrators, and I was impressed with how easy it was to keep track of a large group of characters. Most of the characters are a bit unlikeable (as you’d expect), but they were very believable and Foley snuck in just the right amount of sympathy. I also enjoyed the way the landscape is used to create an additional sense of seasonal threat. Only downside… Foley’s not quite at Christie’s level when it comes to hiding clues, and so I did work it out very early on. Nevertheless, definitely enjoyed this one.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Game Review: Mystery Case Files: Moths to a Flame Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 23rd August 2019
Platform: PC


This is quite a delayed post. I actually played Mystery Case Files: Moths to a Flame back in the autumn, but I haven’t had chance to write a review until now. Sorry about that.

So, Moths to a Flame is the latest instalment of the Mystery Case Files series, which is currently in the hands of Eipix Games. I – like a lot of MCF fans – was a little less than enthused by the last game in the series, The Countess. It wasn’t a bad game as such, but it just couldn’t hold a candle to the early Ravenhearst games. Not much can, to be honest. Although I thought The Countess was okay, I pretty much came to the conclusion that I was done with Mystery Case Files. I’ve seen other people saying the same thing when new titles come out… this series is pretty much done now. No more Mystery Case Files games for me.

And then they release a new game, and we all fly to it like… ahhhhh.

Moths to a Flame is set up as one for the fans. In fact, the storyline would probably be a bit confusing for anyone who hasn’t played at least some of the earlier titles in the series. The Mystery Case Files unit – and the Master Detective himself (the player-character seems to be male in this instalment, though obviously that’s a controversial subject in the series) – are under attack. Some files have been stolen, and an ‘Archivist’ (with a grudge against the MCF agency) is holding a group of agents hostage in order to draw the Master Detective into a twisted game.

The game involves visiting recreations of the settings of some of the detective’s iconic cases (specifically, Ravenhearst, Madame Fate’s carnival and the boarding house from Broken Hour) to piece together the puzzle of why this is all happening. These recreations are housed in the Zenith Museum of Oddities, which is part prison and part tribute to the Master Detective. You have to navigate your way around the museum to solve the case and free the other agents.


The game design is very good here, with lovely attention to detail in the scenes. Obviously, a big draw for MCF fans is the recreations of settings from earlier games. These were well-done, and there was a definite attempt to capture the intricacy and style of those games. However, the problem with offering recreations of iconic scenes from earlier games is that you are openly encouraging comparison with those games. And, for those of us who love them, the new game will fall a little short.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s missing from these facsimiles of Ravenhearst and Fate’s Carnival, but something is missing. I think the game – like most of the later MCF series – lacks the darkness of the earlier instalments. I don’t mean it’s too bright and colourful, but rather that it’s just a bit… harmless, when compared with the disturbed malevolence that rippled under the surface of the other games. So, although there’s a good attempt to capture the visual feel of previous chapters, Moths to a Flame doesn’t quite capture their soul. (Also, I missed the theme music. It really felt like it should be there for this one, and it sort of was at times, but, again, the soundtrack lacked something when compared with, say, Escape from Ravenhearst or Fate’s Carnival.)

Gameplay in this one, as expected, is pretty slick and has all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect. It’s standard point-and-click on the whole, with movement between scenes (without too much distracting back-and-forth). There’s a Custom difficulty level (yay!), collectibles and morphing objects. The puzzles are a mix of HOGs and mini-games, which you can replay afterwards on the CE. Some of the reviews I’ve read have commented on the welcome return of the Rube Goldberg puzzles, which were a characteristic feature of some of the earlier MCF games (most notably Fate’s Carnival). I was happy to see these but, like much of the game, the Rube Goldberg puzzles were a shadow of their earlier counterparts. They just lacked the intricacy and weirdness of some of the early instalments.

However, Moths to a Flame does have a very classy (and unexpected) element to its gameplay. I’m loath to say much about this, as it’s a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t played or who has only played the demo. All I’ll say is that something I thought was going to be a bit of annoying feature has a brilliant twist to it that I very much enjoyed!


As this is a first-person, single-player game, all eyes are on the player-character – in this case the Master Detective. There’s very little detail given, as is usual for the MCF games, though the motive behind the antagonist’s actions does suggest that the character’s reputation precedes them. This isn’t the first time someone has become obsessed with the Master Detective, so the success in the previous games has certainly brought the detective to people’s attention. Not, sadly, to the Queen’s attention this time, as Moths to a Flame eschews the once familiar phone call from Her Majesty to kick the adventure off.

Of the NPCs, the most interesting one is the antagonist. The others (the agents who have been taken captive) are, at least, a bit more well-rounded and a bit less whiny than the NPCs in some other games. They can’t complete the adventure for you, but at least they don’t just sit and demand that you perform tasks for them. The Archivist is the one who gets a bit more attention, as it’s his obsession that has resulted in the storyline happening at all. Unfortunately, once again, the game hampers itself with its own continued reference to older games. The Archivist was fine, as antagonists in HOPAs go, but by encouraging a comparison to the Ravenhearst arc, the game was drawing attention to the fact that he’s a far cry from Charles Dalimar (he’s not even Alister Dalimar). There was a moment, part way through, where I thought there might be a twist ending in which it turned out the Archivist was a Dalimar, but sadly that was not to be.

I played the Collector’s Edition, so there was a bit of bonus content. The main feature of this is the bonus chapter, which in this case is a sequel chapter (more a sort of coda to the main adventure). This didn’t add a lot for me, as it all felt a bit arbitrary – as though the developers knew they had to extend the gameplay for a little longer, but couldn’t think of any more storyline. Outside of this, I enjoyed being able to replay HOGs and mini-games, and to have another chance at getting Achievements. The bonus content also includes a Souvenir Room (popular with some) and the usual wallpapers and extras. It’s all as you would expect from a HOPA Collector’s Edition.


So… has Moths to a Flame redeemed the Mystery Case Files series? The jury’s out on that one. It was a better instalment than I was expecting, but those early games just set the bar too high. I suspect I’ll play the next game (which is already out, since it took me so long to write this review!), but my heart hasn’t been torn away from Ravenhearst yet.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2019 (Thursday and Friday)

19th-24th November 2019
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

This is the second part of my review of the films we saw at this year's Abertoir Festival. We saw a LOT of films during the festival, so I'm trying to make my review more manageable by doing it in three parts. You can see my post about the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday in my previous post, but here are the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

Thursday 21st November


The Monster Club (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1981)


Although the ‘headline’ theme for this year’s festival was sci-fi horror, Abertoir was also marking the centenary of Donald Pleasance’s birth. There was an interesting exhibition about Pleasence’s career in the Arts Centre, and the programme was peppered with films featuring Pleasence. And Thursday’s screening started off with a fun example. The Monster Club is a British anthology horror, sort of in the mould of Amicus and Hammer’s classic anthologies, but made just as the fashion for such narrative-driven horror films was waning. Loosely (very loosely) based on the short stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, The Monster Club features a fictional version of Chetwynd-Hayes (played by John Carradine), who is accosted by starving but courteous vampire Erasmus (played by Vincent Price). As a thank you for the ‘small donation’ the writer (admittedly unwillingly) gives Erasmus, he is taken to the titular nightclub, where various supernatural creatures gather to party the night away. Erasmus offers an explanation of these creatures, including the hybrid ones, leading into the anthology stories. The episodes are punctuated by scenes in the club itself, with madly incongruous 80s pop numbers interspersing the stories of vampires, ghouls and the ‘Shadmock’ (a hybrid creature possessed of a demonic whistle). Pleasence gives a riotous turn as a vampire-hunter in one of the stories, and the whole piece culminates in a gleefully disturbing speech by Price about how humans are really the greatest monsters. There are some moments of genuine creepiness – Lesley Dunlop’s ‘Humghoul’ explaining how her town gets its clothing and food ‘from boxes’ is my favourite bit in this respect – but mostly it’s just bizarre fun. The film is notable for being a late horror pairing of Carradine and Price – apparently Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing turned down roles – and it made for a great start to the day.

Short Films Competition Part 2


And now: the second panel of short films. The Original (Michelle Garza Cervera, 2018) is a stylishly made near-futuristic piece about a woman struggling to deal with her partner’s debilitating illness and the implications of a medical procedure. A nasty twist makes for a satisfyingly uncomfortable ending. Rain Catcher (Michele Fiascaris, 2018) – another stylishly made short, with a noir inflection – is about a photographer who keeps seeing a mysterious man in his pictures. In Unmade (Steven Sheil, 2019), a woman visits a medium ostensibly to speak with her dead husband one last time; however, she has more planned than a simple conversation. While Unmade feels like it’s treading ground we’ve seen before in short films, it’s well-executed and has a real bite to it. Where Blood Lies (Byron Qiao, 2019) – in which a Romanian hunter seeks to protect his village from Nazi vampire-hunters – is also well-executed, with a distinct 'who is the real monster?' flavour. Two less successful offerings, for me, were Paranoia (Katherine Lindhorst, 2019), a somewhat unpolished animation about surveillance, and Wild Will (Alan King, 2019), a monster film that (strange as it is to say) leaves far too much to the imagination. More effective were Retch (Kier Siewert, 2018) and Swipe (Neils Bourgonje, 2019), films that – while not massively original in their content as such – go a good way to showing off the talents of the filmmakers. The former is a body transformation sequence that showcases visual effects skills, and the latter is a creepypasta-inspired tale of dating app horror with a confident grip on narrative tension. Perhaps my favourite film in this panel was Midnight (Katie Bonham, 2019), a clever and compelling haunted house piece whose content belies the short running time. The winner of this year’s Abertoir prize and the Méliès d’Argent was Rain Catcher.

Donald Pleasence: Portraits Of Affection, Eccentricity and Mischievousness - a presentation by Tristan Thompson


The festival continued its celebration of the career of Donald Pleasence with a talk by Tristan Thompson. Combining biographical detail with an overview of Pleasence’s work, Thompson’s talk was an engaging and entertaining introduction to the man and his varied career. There was a good balance, as well – the details and anecdotes about Pleasence’s family and personal life never overshadowed the focus on his film career, and there was a consistent focus on his horror roles. I was particularly interested to hear about Pleasence’s theatre career, and his recurrent appearances in Pinter’s The Caretaker, which Thompson talked about in the context of the man’s varied film career. All in all, this talk was an apt celebration of Pleasence’s work, offering a solid introduction for people who didn’t know much about him, but also including enough detail to entertain those who did. And now to watch the great man at work…

The Flesh and the Fiends (dir. John Gilling, 1960)


The Flesh and the Fiends is based on the murderous careers of Burke and Hare, and on their financial arrangements with Dr Robert Knox. The first – very odd – thing to note about this film is that film censors (in various countries) refused to allow the names ‘Burke’ and ‘Hare’ to appear on the film’s title card. Apparently, The Flesh and the Fiends, Mania (US title) and Psycho Killers (alternative title) were perfectly acceptable, but to include the words ‘Burke’ or ‘Hare’ would be too much. Thompson mentioned this fact in his talk, and it’s baffled me ever since. Anyway, the film is set in 1820s Edinburgh. Peter Cushing plays Dr Knox, an eminent medical practitioner and lecturer, who needs to get hold of cadavers for his anatomy lectures. And he’s far too lofty and academic to concern himself much with where these cadavers might come from. Donald Pleasence plays William Hare, a man with an eye for an opportunity, and George Rose is his accomplice William Burke. When they realize that there’s money to be made in corpses, they decide to provide the good doctor with a regular supply. There’s a subplot involving one of Knox’s students and a prostitute, as well, which allows Billie Whitelaw to give a lusty turn as Mary. Overall, The Flesh and the Fiends is a bit of period horror fun. Cushing plays Knox almost as a cousin to his more famous role, Victor Frankenstein, and Pleasence is consistently (but rather charismatically) unpleasant as Hare. The latter also has the distinction of, perhaps, the only accurate accent in the film, as he gives Hare a convincing Northern Irish accent that was (probably) historically accurate, which stands out in a sea of English and bad imitation Scots. Not a ‘classic’, but still a very enjoyable screening.

Sator (dir. Jordan Graham, 2019)


I’m a bit unsure about reviewing this next film, as it’s very much a one-man project with a personal element to it. I’ll say up front that it wasn’t to my taste, and will try to be constructive in my comments. Sator is an impressionistic and rather cryptic story of a family torn apart by the titular demonic presence. Adam lives apart from his family, tracking something in the woods around their home. Intercut with the woodland scenes are sequences in the family home – with Adam’s siblings, and with his grandmother, who talks about her long relationship with the presence she calls ‘Sator’. This is clearly a demon, but the grandmother speaks of it as a more benign presence. There is certainly a clear attempt to create atmosphere here, with more than a few nods to The Blair Witch Project. However, there’s no clear narrative and very little characterization. Perhaps part of the problem is that it is a one-man project (as the on-screen credits make patently clear). One thing that really struck me from the Q&As with guests (Norman J. Warren and Gary Sherman) and the discussion of Donald Pleasence’s career was a repeated focus on how collaborative filmmaking is. All of the guests spoke warmly of the contributions made to ‘their’ films by other creative professionals (and, occasionally, not so warmly about the contributions of more administrative professionals!). They also spoke of their influences, mentors and heroes, evincing a love of cinema and of horror, and a recognition of their power. Unfortunately, with Sator, none of this was obvious. Aside from Blair Witch, there was no evidence of any awareness of other filmmakers or any love for the horror genre more widely. It is a one-man project, and sadly this often results in the audience themselves feeling excluded.

The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince


The next event was a theatre show – a stand-up comedy show from Robin Ince.
The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince is a frenetic reflection on the comedian’s lifelong relationship with horror and other related creepy things. The stage is littered with bits and bobs from Ince’s collection, including novels, film journals and posters, and the backdrop is a PowerPoint presentation featuring yet more ephemera (and a lot of video clips). Ince rattles through his collection, seemingly (of course, deceptively) at random, pulling out little gems and waxing lyrical about their content. There are po-faced reviews of gory horror films, the obligatory shock at revisiting public information films from the 70s, and some well-selected clips from cult movies and TV shows. The highlight of the show, for me, was Ince’s readings from Guy N. Smith’s Crabs novels, and I would happily have listened to loads more of this. The books themselves are funny enough, but Ince’s performance and commentary really brought out the absurdity of it all. Less successful, perhaps, was the hectic listing of traumatic things from 70s childhoods – not that this wasn’t rather funny, but it has been done before a lot. I’m not sure there’s any new way to say that The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was messed up, or that Children of the Stones was kinda weird. Nevertheless, the strength of Ince’s show is the presentation style. It feels so personal and off-the-cuff that it’s very easy to imagine that he’s literally just grabbed an armful of stuff from his attic and rocked up on stage. His Abertoir performance was enhanced by his direct address to the audience as fellow fans of horror, as though we were already in on some of the jokes. I really enjoyed the show – and I did laugh a lot.

Vivarium (dir. Lorcan Finnegan, 2019)


The next screening was Vivarium – which is not (as I was slightly worried it might be) about snakes. Instead, it’s a bit more of an existential horror. Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play Tom and Gemma, a couple looking to buy their first home together. They visit an estate agent who shows them a housing development called Yonder and, despite not being particularly enthused, they agree to a viewing. Yonder is at once an exaggerated suburban parody and a Kafkaesque nightmare. However, if you’re expecting a Stepford-like descent into the claustrophobia of consumerism and conformity, you’re mistaken. Again, Vivarium is a bit more of an existential horror. Left alone in Yonder – and with no way of leaving – Gemma and Tom aren’t thrust into a world of enforced marital harmony and competitive domesticity, but rather into a world of parenthood. Shortly after they have realized the extent to which they are trapped in the blandness of the Yonder show home, Gemma and Tom receive a package – a new-born baby that they are instructed to raise. Again, the audience is somewhat wrong-footed by this plot development, and any assumption about the direction the plot is heading (or the direction the relationships between the characters are heading) is likely to be proved wrong. For the most part, the film relies on its low-key set and near-absurdist storyline (for instance, Eisenberg’s Tom spends much of the latter half of the film digging a hole in the garden) to provide the unsettling and off-beat horror. However (and without spoilers), the film’s ending was the real high point for me. Ultimately, Vivarium is building towards a conclusion that is way darker than anticipated – and which just gets darker the more you think about it afterwards. Definitely enjoyed this one – and I’m glad it wasn’t about snakes.

Once again, stymied by lack of energy (I'm still blaming the cold). This time, we had to miss the late-night screening of First Love (dir Takashi Miike, 2019).

Friday 22nd November


Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (dir. David Gregory, 2019)


We weren’t sure what to expect from the first film today. I don’t like to read the programme in too much detail before screenings, as I like to go in with as few expectations as possible. All I knew about this one was that it’s a documentary – and, I assumed from the title, a documentary about Al Adamson. And I have to admit that, before seeing the film, I didn’t know anything about Al Adamson. I’m very happy to say that this has now been rectified. Adamson was an American filmmaker who specialized in B-movies and exploitation films, with titles such as Psycho-A-Go-Go and Satan’s Sadists on his CV. The son of silent film star Denver Dixon, Adamson was a prolific director between 1965 and the early 80s, as well as being something of a larger-than-life character. In a horrible twist to the story, Adamson was murdered in 1995 by a man he’d hired to do some work on a house he owned. Gregory’s excellent documentary is an insightful and highly entertaining look at a life that was, in some ways, stranger than fiction. The film strikes the perfect balance of talking head reminiscences from Adamson’s friends and colleagues (with admirable authenticity and honesty), archive footage of Adamson, and clips from a good number of his films. Some of the stories – like how Psycho-A-Go-Go got its name, and how Russ Tamblyn came to be closely associated with Adamson’s work – were just genuinely fun to watch. However, the film handles the darker side of the tale (Adamson’s murder, but also the aftermath of the death of his wife, Regina Carrol) with sensitivity and the appropriate level of gravity. This is a documentary which is both testimony and tribute to a life lived through cinema. A definite highlight of the festival programme.

Gary Sherman Masterclass - Creating the Illusion: Poltergeist III and the Secrets of Practical Special Effects


The next event was another theatre event (to accommodate some film students who were attending). It was another one that I wasn’t sure about. I mean… with the best will in the world, Poltergeist III isn’t exactly the most iconic horror film of all time. How interesting could a talk on the special effects be? It turns out… very! Gary Sherman began his talk by explaining that, when he was first invited to direct the third film in the franchise, he wasn’t keen. It was quite a different kettle of fish to his usual projects, so he only agreed on certain conditions. For the purposes of today’s talk, the most important condition was that all the special effects on the film were practical effects, and that there would be no computer manipulation. Now he had our attention. Sherman’s talk was a fascinating and engaging explanation of how various on-screen effects were created for the film. A lot of these involved the use of mirrors of varying types, which finally explains why, in this film’s narrative, the ghosts have to use mirrors to make contact with Carol Anne! I really enjoyed seeing how decisions about how to do effects led to certain choices with storytelling. It was also good to hear about the film’s prolific use of reflective glass panels placed at strategic angles on the set, as I’m pretty sure this is a version of the Pepper’s ghost stage trick (and I enjoy the continuity). Sherman was a great speaker – entertaining and information – and his answers to the audience’s questions were illuminating as well. Of course, Sherman’s warm and personable style – in addition to the interesting revelations in the talk – has created a strange effect of its own. I think Poltergeist III is now my favourite instalment of the franchise!

Off-Site Screening: Prince of Darkness (dir. John Carpenter, 1987)


Each year, Abertoir stages an off-site screening as part of the programme. Last year, we watched Friday 13th Part 3 in a barn in the middle of nowhere. This year, the scheduled film was Prince of Darkness, and we had a sneaking suspicion we knew where we might be watching it. And we were right! The buses dropped us off by a (not quite) abandoned church in the mid-Wales darkness. It was the perfect location for the screening. Carpenter’s film isn’t, perhaps, the most critically acclaimed of his work, but this screening was a lot of fun. The film tells the story of a group of students, who are assembled by a quantum physicist, Professor Howard Birack, to investigate a mysterious green cylinder in the basement of an old church. Birack has been called in by a priest, in order to offer a scientific perspective on something that may or may not be a manifestation of Satan. From this (admittedly far-fetched) premise, the film builds into a claustrophobic horror in which, one-by-one, the various students are either killed or possessed by the eponymous bad guy. Some of the science is rather cheesy, and the underlying supernatural element is a bit OTT, but there’s still a lot to like about Prince of Darkness. Not least… another appearance from Donald Pleasence (who plays the priest)! And a cameo from Alice Cooper as ‘Street Schizo’! Although it’s a bit of an uneven film, there are some great sequences in Prince of Darkness as well, and I particularly like the recurring dream that the students all experience. It’s an unsettling effect that is one of the more stylish elements of an otherwise quite riotous affair. Overall, I really enjoyed this screening. Like last year’s off-site screening, the location and atmosphere really made the experience.

Mystery Screening: Synchronic (dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2019)


From an off-site screening to a mystery one… when the buses brought us back to the Arts Centre, we went into the cinema for a surprise. The next film was listed simply as ‘Mystery Screening’! There’d been quite a bit of speculation as to what this would be, but it turned out (as some people guessed) to be a screening of Synchronic, the new film by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. Synchronic returned us to the world of sci-fi horror (though, I guess you could say that Prince of Darkness did this too). Two New Orleans paramedics are called in to what appears to be a standard drug overdose death, but they discover some strange circumstances when they attend. As further cases follow, they realize that they may be dealing with the effects of a new designer drug called ‘Synchronic’. The two paramedics, who are also old friends, have their own personal issues to deal with. For Dennis (played by Jamie Dornan), it’s family issues that play on his mind. For Steve (played by Anthony Mackie), it’s a cancer diagnosis. For me, the film is at its strongest when it’s exploring the relationship between the two men, with the (potentially) creepy narcotic storyline forming a backdrop to this. Nevertheless, the drug – and specifically Steve’s investigation into its effects – comes to the fore when Dennis’s teenage daughter decides to partake. I wasn’t completely convinced by all the developments from that point, but I enjoyed the film’s neo-noir aesthetic and low-key dystopian vibe. Ultimately, the story unravels a bit, as though it doesn’t really know how to end, but it’s still a stylishly presented piece, with engaging performances from Mackie and Dornan. There’s a bit of buzz about this one, so it was great that the festival was able to secure it.

UK Premiere: Diner (dir. Mika Ninagawa, 2019)


And now to something quite quite different (I do love the mad variety you get on a good festival programme)… The next screening was the UK premiere of Mika Ninagawa’s new film, Diner. Based on a novel by Yumeaki Hirayama, via a manga adaptation by Takanori Kawai, Diner is a film that revels in sumptuous, rich and occasionally kind of surreal visuals. The story is a little slight, with a lot of elements left underdeveloped, but that’s because this is a film that favours style over narrative. And that’s not always a bad thing. Tina Tamashiro plays Kanako, a hapless girl who dreams of ‘something’, but ends up captured and forced to work in the enigmatic ‘diner’ of the title. This place is actually a clandestine restaurant run by assassin-turned-chef Bombero (Tatsuya Fujiwara), and its clientele are exclusively larger-than-life killers for hire. The visuals, which constantly threaten to become overwhelming, take their cue, in turn, from manga and graphic novels, knowing nods to other action films, and visual art installations. Such plot as there is involves two strands: the resolution of Kanako’s predicament, and the fallout from the death of the leader of a yakuza gang. However, Ninagawa’s film constantly draws us away from these almost incidental plot concerns with violent set-pieces, charming comedy (including a bit of wordplay around Kanako’s name that even non-Japanese speakers will get), and some broad-brush character arcs. I’ve seen a couple of other reviews that highlight Tamashiro’s performance as Kanako – and this is a fair assessment, as she gives a surprisingly relatable turn here. However, for me, it was Fujiwara’s seductive, charismatic and unexpectedly human Bombero who stole the show. Diner isn’t the sort of film I’d normally go for (in terms of style and genre), but I was actually quite charmed by it.

Once again, we missed the final screening of the night. This time, it was more through choice than tiredness. I think we may have been the only people at the festival who don't like Event Horizon (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997)!

One more part of this three-part review to come. My next post will be about the films we saw on Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Poirot Project: Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (review)


This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Okay, so once again I’ve had a bit of a gap between posts, and it’s taken me a while to get to this one. However, I’m planning on writing a few posts in quick succession now. I don’t think I’m going to get to Curtain by Christmas, but I think I might actually get to Dumb Witness!

The eighth (and final) episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 7th March 1993. This was to be the last hour-long episode, and so the last of the short stories to get the individual treatment. It’s a curiously anti-climactic finale for the original format of the series, as it’s not a particularly notable episode (or, indeed, a particularly notable short story). If the programme-makers had known that it would be the last of the short format episodes, perhaps they might have changed the running order of the series – who knows?

There are a couple of things worth mentioning before I start the post properly. Firstly, although this is the last of the short-format episodes, there are still a number of Christie’s short stories that have yet to be adapted. The programme-makers would return to those stories in the end – and I’ll talk about how this works at a later date – but, for now, they are unadapted and (as would become apparent) shelved indefinitely.

The second thing to mention about this episode is that, not only does it mark a turning-point in the series (no more hour-long episodes), it’s also a bit of a watershed moment in my own personal relationship with the ITV series and with Christie’s fiction. As will become clear in the next post, some big stuff changed in my life between the airing of ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ and the next episode of the series. In some ways, it’s the coincidence of timing that has made me feel a very strong personal connection to the series. I was fourteen when ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ was first broadcast, and so just coming to the end of my childhood. I’ll write more about that when I tackle the next episode though (and I’ll warn you now, it’ll be a bit sad).

For now…

‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ was based on Christie’s short story of almost the same name (aka ‘The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls’), which was first published in The Sketch in March 1993. It isn’t the most memorable (or the longest) story, but it has a nice bit of locked room action for fans of impossible crimes.

Poirot and Hastings are off to the seaside! Apropos of absolutely nothing, Hastings announces that a change of air would do Poirot good, and that he’d like to take him off for a weekend in Brighton. This largesse on Hastings’s part is the result of him coming into a bit of money from ‘a very good thing’ – though whether this is an investment or a gamble is left up to our imagination. He tells Poirot that he has ‘money to burn’ and, instead of offering to pay his mate back for the rent-free accommodation he’s been mooching, he splashes out on a trip to the Grand Metropolitan. Poirot is touched by his friend’s generosity, but somehow manages to combine this with a dig at his intelligence: ‘the good heart, it is in the end worth all the little grey cells’.

Anyway, off they go to the seaside together, and wouldn’t you know it? no sooner are they there than they run into a mystery. Almost the second they arrive at the hotel, they run into Mrs Opalsen, a woman that Hastings knows ‘slightly’ due to the fact that her husband is a ‘rich stockbroker’ and, for the purposes of this story, Hastings hangs around with rich stockbrokers in his spare time.

Mrs Opalsen loves jewellery, and so Poirot regales her with tales of jewel thefts he has known. She then tells him that she has ‘one of the finest necklaces in the world’ that she’d love to show him. Mrs Opalsen runs off to fetch the pearls, but…

(If you can’t guess what happens next, I’m not sure why you’re even reading Agatha Christie tbh.)

So, while the Opalsens were at dinner, they left their valuable pearl necklace locked in a jewellery box in their hotel room. The box was left in a drawer (not locked), but their maid Célestine was in the bedroom the entire time. She was joined at one point by the chambermaid, and so the only conceivable suspicion falls on either the lady’s maid or the chambermaid. The former seems more likely, as the chambermaid was only left alone in the room twice – for less than 20 seconds each time – during the course of the evening. She wouldn’t have had time to open the drawer, retrieve the jewellery box, unlock the box with a duplicate key (which she would have had to somehow source prior to the theft), remove the necklace, relock the box, place it back in the drawer, and then sit back down as if nothing had happened.

No, that’s not plausible. Célestine must be the thief. And this is proven to be the case when the pearls are discovered in her room. Case closed.

I’m not sure what it is that makes us, as readers, refuse to believe that Célestine is guilty. Because we obviously don’t believe she’s guilty, or we wouldn’t bother reading the story. Every single bit of evidences points to her. She has ample opportunity to take the pearls – surely it would be far easier for her to get hold of a duplicate key to the jewellery box than it would for the chambermaid – and they’re actually found in her room. And yet, we instantly assume that this can’t be what happened. Yes – the pearls found in Célestine’s room turn out to be fake, but surely we’ve already discounted her guilt before that’s revealed?

Célestine does vehemently protest her innocence to Poirot, in French. She believes Poirot is French, and so will be on her side, and ignores his assertion that he’s Belgian (as most people seem to do). He’s Gallic enough to be a potential ally. But that’s not really the reason that we discount her guilt – after all, plenty of culprits protest their innocence, and even though Christie’s culprits are rarely anything other than born and bred English, Célestine’s nationality isn’t quite the perfect defence. No, the reason why don’t think Célestine did it is that she obviously did do it. There are no other suspects, so therefore it can’t have been her. We’re reading an Agatha Christie short story, so we just happily assume (with absolutely no grounds for it) that the patently guilty party must be innocent. It would have been impossible for the chambermaid to commit the crime, but we don’t rule out her guilt. The puzzle is simply how the chambermaid effected an impossible theft, because in this sort of story the impossible is always possible.

In the end, we find out that she did it with the help of an accomplice, some French chalk, an adjoining door, and that pesky duplicate key. The big clue (which, let’s be honest, we probably didn’t spot, despite Poirot clearly mentioning it a couple of times) was that Célestine left the room twice. The first time gave the chambermaid time to take the locked box from the drawer and pass it to her accomplice through the adjoining door to the next room. The accomplice could then use the spare key to unlock the box, take the pearls, and then relock the box. The second time Célestine left the room, the chambermaid could take back the box and replace it in the drawer.

And the accomplice? Literally the only other character in the story that isn’t Poirot, Hastings or one of the Opalsens. It’s the valet.

Who? You know, the valet who was briefly mentioned in one tiny paragraph. Turns out he and the chambermaid are in cahoots and are notorious jewel thieves in London.

Really? Yeah, I think Agatha was phoning this one in. She doesn’t even give the culprits names.

Despite the lacklustre mystery, there are a couple of nice bits in the story. It’s an early Sketch story, so Hastings is our narrator (which is always fun). My favourite bit about this story is that Hastings misses almost the entire investigation. Shortly after Poirot has investigated the scene and announced that he has to go to London to check things out, Hastings decides this case is a bit boring – ‘I thought you were working up to something exciting.’ – and goes to hang out with his mates instead.

When he gets back, Poirot has everything wrapped up and Japp has come to Brighton, arrested the thieves, and gone back to London. Poirot feels guilty about his friend missing all the fun, so offers to use his payment from Mr Opalsen to shout his friend another weekend in Brighton the following week. (An offer which Hastings, the old mooch, doesn’t turn down.)

Otherwise, the story is only notable for another outing for Poirot’s ‘large turnip of a watch’ – a detail from Christie’s characterization that I always enjoy. In this story, we find out that it’s ‘a family heirloom’.

And so, rather thin material for the adaptation. Especially as the adaptation would be the climax of the original run of hour-long episodes. Let’s see how the programme-makers played the hand they were dealt…


‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ was directed by Ken Grieve and written by Anthony Horowitz. As you might expect from his previous episodes, Horowitz attempts to stay as close as he can to Christie’s material, but isn’t averse to making changes in order to fit the story to the format of the show. And, here, he has to make quite a few changes.

The first major one is the alter the reason for the Opalsens’ visit to Brighton. Perhaps he was inspired by a line in Christie’s story: when Mrs Opalsen hears Poirot’s tales of jewel thefts he has investigated, she exclaims, ‘If it isn’t just like a play!’ And, in Horowitz’s adaptation, the Opalsens are actually in Brighton for a play. The TV Mr Opalsen is no longer a rich stockbroker, but rather a (slightly tawdry) stage producer, who is putting on a production of ‘Pearls Before Swine’, in which he will showcase an infamous set of pearls once given to an actress by a Czar.

(Guess what happens to the pearls after the first night of the play…)

The shift in backstory allows for a couple of other necessary changes. There are now more suspects, which is obviously important for the format of the episode. The Opalsens (played by Trevor Cooper and Sorcha Cusack) themselves are under the spotlight more: Poirot dislikes Mr Opalsen from the off, and the man is no longer one of Hastings’s ‘rich stockbroker’ chums. And there’s a playwright by the name of Andrew Hall (Simon Shepherd, in the first of his two appearances in Agatha Christie’s Poirot) with some dodgy secrets of his own. Hall is in a relationship with the (now only half-French) Célestine (played by Hermione Norris), and everyone – everyone – saw him outside the maid’s room on the night of the theft.

The introduction of Hall to the story is quite a clever change. On the one hand, it seems to introduce a whole new subplot to the admittedly thin story. On the other, it changes nothing. Célestine looks as guilty as ever, though now with the addition of an accomplice, so we still discount her (and Hall’s) guilt as easily as we did when reading the story.

Ultimately, for all the theatrical costuming, Horowitz doesn’t make any changes to the basic explanation for the theft. It’s still the chambermaid (played by Elizabeth Rider) whodunnit, though her accomplice is now a chauffeur rather than a valet (played by Karl Johnson), and he’s been masquerading as an American gent called Worthing in order to book the empty room next to the Opalsens’ suite.

Still… at least they get names this time, and a teeny little bit of backstory too. They’re Grace and Saunders in this version, and Grace used to work in a pub.

Backstory done.


Even with Horowitz’s treatment, the theft storyline in ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ is pretty flimsy. There’s just not enough of a mystery here, even when you add in Andrew Hall’s debt and ‘Mr Worthing’. So, the adaptation distracts us with some ‘Poirot and friends go to the seaside’ misdirection (‘It is as a magical trick!’).

This episode near enough screams ‘Pay no attention to the rubbish necklace theft story – look at Poirot in a deckchair!’


At the beginning of Christie’s short story, Hastings comments that a ‘change of air’ would be good for Poirot. It isn’t clear whether this is because his vrai ami is under the weather, or because Hastings is feeling flush and wants a little getaway of his own (which, apparently, he can’t do without Poirot).

In the TV adaptation, this casual comment from Hastings is worked up into a more definite plot point. Poirot is sick, and his doctor advises that he’s rundown and in need of a holiday. He suggests that it would be good for Poirot to get out of London for a while, and to put all thoughts of investigating stuff out of his head. Naturally, this translates into a weekend away at the seaside and, for some reason, he needs Hastings to accompany him.


As in the short story, Poirot’s supposed break brings him into contact with the Opalsens, which leads him to investigate the inevitable theft of the necklace. This time, however, Hastings doesn’t miss the action, but rather spends a bit of time trying to convince Poirot himself to skip this one.

After the theft, Japp arrives, and we get a rare Japp-and-Hastings-boys-night-out, as the pair of them hit the funfair for no other reason than that we want to see Japp and Hastings at a funfair.


But wait! The gang’s not all here yet!

Poirot calls in Miss Lemon for assistance. She arrives quickly, but she’s absolutely fuming at Hastings for allowing Poirot to take on the case. Thank goodness she’s now on the scene to relieve the detective of some of his duties from Christie’s short story. In the source material, it is Poirot himself who goes to London to gather some vital information to crack the case. In the TV version, Miss Lemon takes this on, visiting jewellers and a pub to nose out the facts.

That’s right – it’s another outing for Miss Lemon Investigates! (I love Miss Lemon Investigates!)


There’s one final bit of the seaside storyline that’s worth a quick comment. When Poirot first arrives in Brighton, a man runs after him and claims to recognize him. Poirot nods and agrees that the man may well recognize him from the newspapers, to which the man replies, ‘You are Lucky Len, and I claim my ten guineas!’

This is a gag throughout the episode, culminating with Poirot himself having an encounter with Lucky Len.

Silly as it seems to be, I quite like this little addition to the story. ‘Lucky Len’ (of the Daily Echo) is a fictional version of a recurrent newspaper competition from the twentieth century (which occasionally makes a reappearance). ‘Lobby Lud’ first made his appearance in August 1927, in a competition run by the Westminster Gazette. The paper would give its readers a description of seaside town, a description of ‘Lobby Lud’ and a special passphrase to use. Anyone who spotted ‘Lobby Lud’ in the correct town could speak the passphrase to him and win a cash prize (£5 – not to be sniffed at in 1927).

The competition was madly popular, and it led to all sorts of imitations and variations over the years. Apparently, it was devised to boost newspaper circulation during wakes weeks – with working class communities often taking their annual fortnight’s holidays at the same time, and being far less likely to buy a newspaper while on their jollies, the papers offered an incentive for people to continuing buying – you had to be holding a copy of the newspaper when you confronted Lobby, otherwise he wouldn’t pay out.

The phrase ‘You are X, and I claim my X pounds,’ was apparently coined for a post-war Daily Mail competition (making it slightly anachronistic in its appearance in the episode). The Daily Mirror ran similar competitions, with their character of choice being Chalkie White. In an article first published in The Guardian in 1980, a ‘Chalkie White’ talked about the perils of taking on such a role:
‘[S]ometimes I hate it. You get this terrible sense of paranoia. Everywhere you go, you think everyone's looking at you.’
Tiddly om pom pom.



I like the ‘Lucky Len’ side-line, as it’s a nice piece of British seaside ephemera. However, outside of that – and Japp winning a teddy bear on the shooting range – there’s not much else going on in this one.

The denouement takes place in the theatre, with a culprit-in-the-spotlight moment that echoes ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’. The over-friendly bellboy is played by Tim Stern, in the first of two appearances in the series (he’ll be back in ‘Third Girl’). And Hastings is absolutely hopeless when they stumble upon the playwright being beaten up by a couple of wrong ’uns (bet Watson would’ve dealt with them).

And that’s it. That’s the end of the hour-long episodes. That’s all of Christie’s original Sketch stories adapted for television.

What about ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’?

Shhh… don’t mention ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’.

Time to wrap this post up, as we’re moving on to the run of feature-length episodes now. As I said at the beginning of this post, ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ is a watershed moment for the series, but also for me and my own relationship with Poirot. It’s the end of the original format, and the end of my childhood.

La merde, as they say, est sur le point de devenir réel.

Next up… ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2019 (Tuesday and Wednesday)

19th-24th November 2019
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

This November, we once again travelled down to Aberystwyth for the Abertoir horror film festival. It was our second time at the festival - we went for the first time in 2018, and absolutely loved it. Fortunately, work commitments allowed for us to go again this year, which we were very happy about! Abertoir really is a great festival, with a very well-planned programme and lovely (very hard-working) staff and volunteers. This year, the theme was (loosely) sci-fi horror, in honour of the 40th anniversary of Alien (more on that later). However, as 2019 is also the centenary of Donald Pleasence's birth, there was a bit of a secondary theme running through this year's programme (again, more on that later).

As Abertoir is a six-day festival, and we saw a LOT of films, I'm going to once again do my review in three parts. First up... here are the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday 19th November



This year’s festival had a couple of different themes, which ran in parallel. The theme that was used in all the advertising was sci-fi/horror, in honour of the fortieth anniversary of the release of Alien. As such, it was fitting that the week kicked off with a classic bit of 50s sci-fi. It Came From Outer Space begins with amateur astronomer John Putnam (played by Richard Carlson) witnessing a meteorite crash. However, Putnam believes that the object is, in fact, an alien spaceship. His assertions are met with derision by the rest of the townspeople – and, indeed, by the academics he’s worked with at the observatory. As you can probably imagine, Putnam is eventually vindicated, but with an interesting (and somewhat unusual) spin on the standard ‘alien invasion’ narrative – which was introduced by Ray Bradbury in his original story treatment. The film was an early 3D movie, but in the introduction to it as Abertoir, we were told that it is now rarely shown in 3D. It was apparently quite difficult to get hold of a digital version of the film that could be screened with adequate 3D. In the end, the festival organizers had to do some digital mastering of their own – one of several ‘above and beyond’ tasks they took on this year with the films in order to enhance the audience’s viewing experience. The result was incredibly well-done, one of the best 3D visual experiences I’ve seen. I was really impressed by it! 3D rendering aside, It Came From Outer Space was a great start to the festival. While in many ways it’s classic Cold War B-movie fare, the film offers a quirky message about close encounters and an idiosyncratic take on the ‘bodysnatchers’ trope. I definitely enjoyed this one – a good start to this year’s festival.


The first new feature film of the festival was The Nightingale, written and directed by Jennifer Kent (of The Babadook fame). I wasn’t overly enamoured with The Babadook, but The Nightingale is a bit of a different beast. Set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825, the film follows the story of Clare, an Irish convict who begins as a servant on a British army camp. It’s a grim story, which apparently provoked walkouts at other festivals due to its brutal depictions of sexual violence. (Anyone who knows their classical mythology may guess that a character nicknamed ‘The Nightingale’ will be a victim of rape, but may not anticipate the ferocity of the repeated attacks.) When the British soldiers escalate their violence towards Clare and her family, she sets out on a journey of revenge. Kent’s film navigates the violence of colonialism and the genocide upon which Australia (as colonial state) was founded. It is – a word that comes up in several reviews – unflinching in its presentation of brutality and terror. However, it’s also a film about the relationship between Clare and Billy, the Aboriginal man she hires to be her guide in tracking the men who have destroyed her. Kent navigates difficult territory, drawing some equivalence between the victimhood of the transported convict and that of the Aboriginal survivor (a somewhat problematic narrative), but the film handles this with sensitivity and some nuance. Ultimately, the story is focused on Clare, and so Billy (and other Aboriginal characters) are seen through her gaze, and it is the change in her understanding that we are invested in. The Nightingale is a far cry from Walkabout, and it rightly steers clear of happy endings and clear resolutions. This isn’t a film to ‘enjoy’ as such, but it is a very powerful piece.


For me, the real pleasure of film festivals lies in the variety on offer. And the next film we saw was completely different to The Nightingale. Come to Daddy begins with Norval Greenwood (played by Elijah Wood) arriving at the remote home of his estranged father Gordon, preparing to reconnect after decades of separation. The reunion doesn’t go well, as Gordon turns out to be a heavy-drinking bully, who takes pleasure in tormenting his son. Norval is a quintessential (perhaps even clichéd) millennial, complete with ill-defined artistic career, self-help books and fragile mental health. Gordon exploits all of these aspects of his son’s character, repeatedly taunting him with increasing cruelty. But then (and I’m going to be very careful about spoilers here), something happens to shift the father-son conflict into different territory, introducing another dimension to the inter-generational friction. And the friction is definitely ‘inter-generational’, as Come to Daddy often draws us out of the individual father-son dynamic to gesture towards wider questions about masculinity and identity. Although the film garners a few laughs from some of Norval’s millennial affectations (not least, his pompous attempt to describe his unsuccessful ‘career’), sympathies are divided, and by the end of the film (no spoilers) the angsty self-absorption of the millennial seems far preferable to the repellent selfishness of the older generation. For all this, though, Come to Daddy is a bit of a confused film, both tonally and in terms of genre. The scenes with Norval and Gordon are excellent, and suggestive of a relationship-focused horror film that’s both quirky and deeply unsettling. However, when that thing happens (that I’m not giving spoilers for), the film shifts into different territory that, for me, is less successful. Much like Norval himself, I’m not sure Come to Daddy is completely secure in its identity.

Much like last year, we found we were struggling with our stamina again this time, so we decided to skip the final screening of the night (and given that I was suffering with a really bad cold, we knew it was likely we'd miss more of the late night shows, sadly). This meant that we missed the UK Premiere of Lake Michigan Monster (dir. Ryland Tews, 2018).

Wednesday 20th November


UK Premiere: 8 (dir. Harold Hölscher, 2019)


The second day of the festival began, for us, with another new feature film – 8. This South African film follows William and his wife Sarah, who move back to the remote farm where William grew up, after declaring bankruptcy. William and Sarah have adopted their niece, Mary, after the death of the girl’s parents. One of the first family scenes we see, prior to their arrival at the farm, is a brief stop at a roadside memorial to Mary’s parents – death and grief will loom large throughout the film. William is keen to make a go of the farm, though Sarah isn’t convinced that it’s the right place for them. Although 8 doesn’t tackle it overtly, the tension of South Africa’s past (and present) hum under the surface of this one – William is an outsider, though he believes he isn’t, which is played out with some thought-provoking sensitivity in scenes where the white farmer attempts to interact with black villagers. William’s travails on the farm aren’t actually the film’s main focus, though. 8 is really the story of Lazarus, an old man who (for reasons that unfold in the narrative) is fated to collect souls for all eternity. Lazarus arrives at the farm and offers to help William, who accepts the offer despite his wife’s suspicions. But it’s the relationship between Lazarus and Mary that really steals the attention, as the troubled young girl finds a strange comfort in a friendship with the cursed old man. The creepy supernatural horror escalates, with some well-crafted special effects (particularly the ever-present moths), but 8’s real strength lies in the human relationships at its heart. Some good performances (especially from Keita Luna and Tshamano Sebe as Mary and Lazarus) and powerful sense of landscape and place make 8 a compelling and watchable film.

Short Films Competition Part 1


Abertoir is part of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation and participates in the Méliès Awards cycle for short films. The audience votes on a selection of films, and then the festival awards a Méliès d’Argent to the highest ranked film, which then competes for the Méliès d’Or later in the cycle. Like last year, this year’s shorts were screened in two groups. In the first panel we saw L'Auxiliaire (Frederic Plasman, 2018), a darkly dystopian setting infused with the threat of body horror that gives way to social commentary (and, in the end, a bit of a punchline), and El Cuento (Lucas Paulino and Ángel Torres, 2019), a creepy domestic horror about a witch-like neighbour and an unsettling bedtime story. Both these shorts are very well-made, though both explore familiar territory. Dog Skin (Tiago Teixeira, 2019) presents a folkloric tale of metamorphosis and obsession, and Flowers (Ismene Daskarolis, 2019) – one of the shortest films this year – offers a tech-flavoured take on control and identity. In Ida (Cassiano Prado, 2018), a mother grapples with her daughter's bad-tempered rejection – but there's a sting in the tail. And Limbo (Dani Viqueira Carballal, 2018) offers a more impressionistic take on family disintegration and (self-)destruction. My highlights of this panel were The Cunning Man (Zoe Dobson, 2019), a darkly charming (and ultimately rather heart-warming) story inspired by real-life 'cunning man' John Harries. I was particularly impressed by how much narrative this film managed to present in the short format. The Game (Rogger Vergara Adrianzén, 2019) is a stylishly brutal twist on a children's game, wrapped up in a Saw-esque aesthetic. And Hopes (Raúl Monge, 2019) is a slow-burn (as much as a short film can be) tale of a homeless child and her adult companion, which builds to a wonderfully demented and disturbing climax.

Norman J. Warren in conversation with Tristan Thompson


The first guest at the festival was British horror director Norman J. Warren. Warren’s films – including Satan’s Slave and Prey – are sometimes called ‘New Wave horror’, as they were known for an explicitness (in terms of both sex and gore) quite unlike earlier horror offerings from the UK. In conversation with Tristan Thompson, Warren talked about his early love of cinema, and his early work on filmsets. Thompson’s prompts allowed Warren the opportunity to share many interesting – and funny – stories about the ups-and-downs of low-budget filmmaking (including some pointed comments about why some of his films had such low budgets). This session was enjoyable for the warmth and affection for cinema (and the insights into the nuts-and-bolts of the industry) that came through, which is characteristic of the festival as a whole. Warren’s films may not be ‘academic’, but his understanding of the power of film for audiences was palpable.

Inseminoid (dir. Norman J. Warren, 1981)


Following the Q&A with Norman J. Warren it was, of course, appropriate that we watch one of his films. In-keeping with the sci-fi horror theme of the festival, the next screening was Inseminoid. While this might usually be a ‘so bad it’s good’ film choice, watching it after hearing Warren talk about making it meant gave the screening a different vibe. There was a lot of affection from the audience and, while there were undoubtedly lots of laughs, it felt more like we were in on the joke, rather than that we were mocking the film. Inseminoid is a film about a spaceship crew beset by a hostile alien presence, which impregnates one of them (and, as we’d see, this is going to be a recurrent subject for this year’s festival). Low budget effects, just-the-right-side-of-hammy acting, and a gross impregnation sequence (which, as we’d learned in the Q&A, was effected with the help of ‘lots of Swarfega and raw eggs’) make for a riotous and gory space horror. One of the things I like about Inseminoid is that, although there is a bloodthirsty alien on the rampage, much of the tension comes from the messed-up relationships between the crewmembers who, at various points in the film, needlessly put one another at risk. They bicker, squabble and boss each other about, as the creature picks them off one by one, and their colleague Sandy goes through an accelerated and monstrous pregnancy. While this might be standard fare for a horror film, it is very enjoyable here, and it was good to see the film again on the big screen. I’d forgotten just how ruthless (and hilarious) Stephanie Beacham’s Kate is in her desire to save herself and the ship from the invading predator. If only the others had listened to her…

Unfortunately, my poorly head couldn't cope with a late night, so we had to miss the last screening again. Sadly, this time we had to miss Why Don’t You Just Die! (dir. Kirill Sokolov), which we were told is very good.

My next post will have reviews of the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: November

Bit of a busy month in November, so I didn't get much time for reading. Still, I've got a couple of reviews for this month.

This is the penultimate review post of the year. In case you're interested, the other posts from this year are here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October. But here are my reviews for November...

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)


In February, I read Rachel Joyce’s Perfect and enjoyed it. I picked up The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in a charity shop in Cleveleys this summer, and I thought I’d give it a go this month. Joyce’s slightly earlier (and perhaps more famous) novel is the story of Harold Fry. At the very beginning of the book, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, a woman he worked with two decades earlier. Harold hasn’t seen Queenie in twenty years, but he discovers she is now in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold tries to write a reply to Queenie’s letter, but he struggles to find the right words. When he sets out for the postbox, he finds he can’t bring himself to post his attempt, and so… he carries on walking. Joyce’s captivating novel tells the story of Harold’s walk, but it also a lot more. It’s a novel about grief and love (and, like the many people Harold meets along his way, the reader might initially misunderstand the nature of the grief and love behind the story). It’s also a novel about a story that has been resolutely not told for twenty years. When that story emerges, it’s a bit of a sucker punch, and I will admit to sobbing openly at some chapters. But the book is also very funny – and human, hopeful, heart-warming, and hard to put down. Although the setting is a little ‘unlikely’, the characters are surprisingly believable and sympathetic. I really recommend this one.

The Boy Who Fell by Jo Spain (2019)


My mum and I have been working our way through Jo Spain’s novels, ever since I stumbled upon her first DCI Tom Reynolds novel last Christmas. To be honest, I’m wondering why I had to ‘stumble’ on it, as Spain is a really talented writer, and the more I read of her work the more I wonder why I hadn’t seen more people shouting about her work! Anyway, my mum lent me the fourth and fifth books in the series, but I’ve decided to save The Darkest Place for my annual December getaway. The Boy Who Fell is the fifth book in the series – and I sort of suspect it may be the final instalment. And I think it might be my favourite! On the verge of a life-changing promotion, Tom Reynolds is asked by a colleague to look into an apparently open-and-shut case involving her cousin. A young man named Luke Connolly has been pushed to his death from the window of an abandoned house (with a tragic history). The local police already have a suspect in custody, and they believe they have more than enough evidence to secure a prosecution. DCI Reynolds is reluctant to push things – especially since that would leave him open to accusations of trying to cover things up for a colleague – but there’s just enough room for doubt. There’s a neat puzzle, plenty of clues, and a well-paced investigation here. It’s also a surprisingly warm book, with some lovely moments involving the detective’s team.