Tagged: horror

Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2012)

England, 1966. American screenwriter Shane Carter has arrived in search of work and approaches Hammer Film Productions. Beset by competitors and subject to a waning interest in horror, Hammer needs new blood and so commissions Carter to produce a script in just five days, instructing him to set the story on a train and to include Hammer’s trademarks, “an exotic setting, young lovers, fearsome creatures, a dire warning, rituals and curses, and dreadful consequences.” (p16).

Carter accepts the challenge and sets his story in the fictional country of Carpathia (a stand-in for Romania) during the Great War. Four people board the Arkangel in order to flee the approaching front line, ignorant of the train’s final destination and the horrors within – the roguish cad Nicholas, the village girl Isabella, the vicar Tom and his wife Miranda. Each in turn will be tested by the train and those that fail will be damned to ride the train all the way to Hell itself.

Your enjoyment of Hell Train will greatly depend on your familiarity with Hammer Horror films and tolerance for homage. In the main story aboard the Arkangel, Fowler deftly employs Hammer’s archetypical characters and the aforementioned trademarks with verve, briefly sketching out each of the principal characters’ backgrounds, motivations and flaws before throwing them under the train (quite literally in one instance). Keeping the plot moving along briskly through the use of short, punchy chapters punctuated by cliffhangers, the fun comes from seeing what horrors Fowler will unleash next, rather than out of curiosity as to how each character will endure their tests.

It’s not a huge spoiler to state that Nicholas learns to care for people other than himself, Miranda is consumed by her greed and Tom’s faith is exposed as hypocrisy. Isabella is the one character who gets an interesting arc, a minor deviation in Fowler’s homage, noting via the voice of Carter that “Hammer had relegated their female leads to scream-and-faint roles for too long [..] he wanted his leading ladies to be as indelible as the men.” (p165). Thus in spite of being the ‘ignorant’ peasant girl, Isabella is the only one who survives her own test without aid and who ultimately saves the day.

The healthy dose of gore employed in the form of some very gruesome deaths at the hands (and mouths) of ghouls, succubi, war-crazed soldiers and ravenous insects is tempered by the occasional present-day interlude focusing on Carter as he searches for inspiration, embarks on a fling with assistant and muse Emma Winters, and meets Hammer’s most illustrious stars. Despite being a fundamental part of Hell Train‘s structure, lampshaded by Fowler as a “portmanteau approach with a traditional script, and add[ing] a wraparound framework set in the present day” (p167), these interludes are a very abrupt shift in feel and serve as unwelcome distractions from the far more compelling train-bound thread.

I’m torn about Hell Train, because it is clear that I do not have the prerequisite depth of knowledge to truly appreciate what Fowler has achieved. So, as originally stated, it comes down to your familiarity with Hammer’s film output. Fans will lap this tale up whilst those less familiar may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

This review was originally published in Vector 273 (October 2013)

Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2010)

At one stage or another, many of us have drunk too much and woken up with no memory of the previous night. Few though have woken up with horns and the power to know a person’s deepest desires and to influence their behaviour. That is the situation that Ig Perrish finds himself in following the anniversary of the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, an unsolved crime that most of his hometown believes he committed.

Fearing for his sanity – for the horns are only visible to Ig – he finds that a mere touch compels people to confess their sins to him. This leads to the discovery of some uncomfortable truths about his friends and family, and eventually the identity of Merrin’s killer. Thus enlightened, Ig embarks on a course of vengeance, but soon discovers that justice for Merrin may come at the cost of his own humanity.

I’m in two minds about Horns. On the one hand it’s a very readable gothic fantasy with (mostly) superb characterisation. On the other, it’s a bad fix-up of its genre premise with starkly different mainstream novellas, features a ludicrously over-the-top antagonist and lacks a proper exploration of Ig’s transformation into a devil.

Hill paints a vivid picture of small-town America and is deftly able to get to the heart of a character with minimal effort. The novel starts off with a bang as Ig’s unwitting use of his newfound powers leads to an early reveal of the killer but then into a very mainstream segment (entitled ‘Cherry’) which lays the foundation for the triangle between Ig, Merrin and their best friend Lee Tourneau. Providing emotional depth for Ig and Merrin’s relationship, ‘Cherry’ is a well-written rite of passage tale albeit a very different beast to the main narrative. We return to Ig’s revenge quest briefly before turning to ‘The Fixer’, a flashback told from the sociopathic perspective of the story’s villain. Again a style shift ensues but here the greater crime is that Hill, in an effort to make Ig’s devil antihero look good by comparison, deploys such a density of evil clichés that the novella undergoes a kind of literary gravitational collapse.

My other concern with the book is that whilst it sets up an interesting premise in Ig’s transformation, it fails to torment him with any morally questionable decisions, nor explore how Ig feels about the choices he does make. Kicking his grandmother down a hill is probably the most evil thing that he does and that happens near the very beginning – everything else he does seems quite agreeable and thus Ig’s path is never really in doubt.

Still, as previously stated, Horns is an enjoyable tale if you can ignore the stylistic bumps and not delve too deeply into its theological arguments.

This review was originally published in Vector 268 (November 2011)

30 Days of Night: Dark Days (2010)

The original 30 Days Of Night (2007) was an intriguing spin on vampire films, taking many cues from the survival horror of a zombie apocalypse coupled with fearfully animalistic vampires, all black-irised, sharp teethed predators. As an added bonus, Josh Hartnett was surprisingly not shit as sheriff Ebon Oleson, and Melissa George as his wife and fellow sheriff Stella got to kick more than the average amount of arse whilst not looking stupidly glamorous. Naturally the sequel doesn’t feature any of these positives and is a poor follow-up. Quelle surprise.

Set a year after the events of the first film, in which the inhabitants of Barrow, Alaska are trapped and then gradually slaughtered by a group of vampires during a month-long period of night, sole survivor Stella Oleson (played by Kiele Sanchez because Melissa George was smart enough to avoid this travesty) is still plagued with nightmares about her ordeal and the loss of Ebon. The government has covered up the deaths under the guise of a tragic fire, so Stella travels around the country giving talks about what really happened but of course no one is willing to believe that bloodsucking fiends could be responsible. Even when she fries two vampires in her LA audience with industrial-strength UV lamps, a corrupt FBI agent spins the whole thing as a hoax. Enter Paul (Rhys Coiro), Todd (Harold Perrineau) and Amber (Diora Baird), a trio of vampire hunters in contact with Stella’s mysterious informant Angel Dane, the vampire with a soul. They’re on the hunt for the vampire queen Lilith (Mia Kirshner), and Dane thinks that Stella can help. Cliched bollocks ensues.

For what turned out to be a straight-to-video (showing my age there) straight-to-DVD release, Dark Days initially shows a lot of promise. The opening of the film evokes the tone of the original and Stella’s UV trap is nicely done. The low budget only becomes apparent during the action set-pieces, but it’s when the Scooby Gang other survivors show up that all of the faintly original stuff is brushed aside along with any semblance of character development or sensible plotting.

For a group of experienced vampire hunters the gang are comically inept, failing to to cover their rear or bring enough ammunition, leading to a member getting bitten on their first incursion into LA’s sewers. Vampirism in this world comes on fast, another trope borrowed from zombie films, so we have the group sobbing over having to put the bitten guy (whoops spoiler – oh well, it’s the black guy who gets it) out of his misery and so Stella gets to beat his head in with a breeze block. It’s a shockingly brutal method of dispatch and would have been so much more effective if Stella had done it without prompting – certainly we could have done without Paul geting angst-ridden about having to do the deed like in every damn zombie film/book ever. After Todd’s dead, the group’s master plan involves locking themselves in a room and waiting until nightfall so the vampires go and feed elsewhere. It works but damn if that wasn’t the dumbest plan I’d ever heard for escaping vampires.

In between hunts, Paul and Stella talk about his dead daughter and estranged wife to justify him sexing up Stella later on but sadly it doesn’t actually make him any more interesting. Todd is of course dead at this point and a chance to let Amber feel some guilt over getting him killed fails to materialise. Angel Dane gets a brief bio when he meets Stella and that’s his lot before getting shot through the spyhole in his door, which is not so much foreshadowed as neon light signposted about an hour before it happens.

In short, the premise of a month-long night and properly scary vampires were the first film’s main strengths and Dark Days doesn’t capitalise on them in the slightest. The vampires in this film come across as cannon fodder and LA really isn’t the same as Alaska, especially when the director insists on filming scenes during the day. The paper-thin characterisation and shit plot are just the icing on the cake.

I’m not quite sure what is more aggravating. The fact that Steve Niles co-wrote the screenplay based on his comic and so should have known better, or that other reviews on the internet have suggested that this film has redeeming qualities. It really doesn’t and there is the possibility of another film judging from the ending and the fact that there are more comics out there. Here’s hoping we get something more akin to the original that isn’t a complete retread. I wish.