Author: Alison Garsha

Writer of strange fictions and devotee of all things horror.

‘Grotesque’: short story in Ink Stains Vol. 6

If I’ve been silent on the bloggosphere for a while, it’s not because my passion for the genre has dwindled, but because I’ve spent the last couple of years quietly labouring away at writing my own horror fiction, the fruits of which I’m thrilled to be able to share with you today.

My story, ‘Grotesque’, is now available in print and ebook editions as part of the Ink Stains Anthology, Vol. 6, from Vagabondage Press. It’s a dark fantasy/horror story that pokes a bit of fun at the stresses of academic life, taking the phrase ‘essay crisis’ literally.

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© Vagabondage Press, 2017

Whether you’re more of an ebook person or prefer a physical copy, you’ll find ten exciting, dark tales from ten different authors (including yours truly) that all deal with boundaries, crossings and transgressions. The links above are American, but you can easily find it at your national Amazon site.

If you do read it, I would love to hear what you think. I continue to write, read and watch horror while working on my craft, and any journey is better with friends. For those of you who’ve read the blog before and know me as Iota (or even Terrifying Treats), I’m ready to remove the mask: My name is Alison Garsha. Nice to meet you.

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Film Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

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There’s very little I can say about this film without venturing into spoiler territory, so I will say very little.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is fleeing her old life after a tiff with her fiancé and finds herself in a car accident. When she comes to, she is hooked up to a drip with her leg chained to a concrete wall. Apparently, some kind of doomsday event has transpired and she is just lucky that Howard (John Goodman) was kind enough to pick her up and keep her in his bunker. Only she’s not so sure she wants to stay there, regardless of whatever poison gas/zombies/space worms might be waiting for them on the surface.

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You have probably already heard that this so-called sequel is worlds away from Cloverfield (2008). What hasn’t changed since 2008, however, is the delight the franchise apparently takes in playing with audience expectations. Cloverfield had an almost nihilistic ability to dispatch main characters with little fanfare; this worked well with the lack of empathy inherent to the found footage format. 10 is perfectly willing to show us what we don’t want to see, but it isn’t found footage. Instead, it employs a narrative perspective limited to its average-Jane protagonist. This lack of outside interference creates intimacy between audience and heroine and allows the twists – and there are many – to have more impact.

There are moments when the film achieves an almost Hitchcockian grace. There are many parallels to the portly master’s work: a domineering parental figure, a single location, duplicitous characters, the staircase motif, quasi-platonic male-female partnership, and, bien sûr, the twists. Audiences will find themselves forever changing their mind about Goodman’s character. This is as much down to the writing as it is to Goodman’s fantastic performance. He is exceptionally well cast; the natural tension between his good-guy, Roseanne/Pixar pedigree and his intimidating physique is used to its full advantage. In typical funnyman fashion, he scores some comic relief points, as well.

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Be warned that the third act does not quite live up to the first two, and that the twists become increasingly ludicrous – although this might not bother you. There are some parts that just don’t add up, some loose ends that are left untied and certain moments that are just too much muchness. This would have worked fine in Cloverfield, with its trademark combination of an ostensibly realist approach on the one hand and monster-movie madness on the other, but 10 leads us to believe we’re watching a different kind of movie.

Perhaps this bait-and-switch is the whole point, but the effect is undermined by the film’s promotion as a sequel to Cloverfield. Ultimately, I think this brilliant, tense thriller suffers from being two different things at once. If this awkward pairing gets more people to see the film, then perhaps it’s justified. I’m torn between acknowledging that the things I like about 10 have nothing to do with monsters (and that this association, therefore, detracts from my enjoyment) and admitting that I kind of admire the playful way the filmmakers have addressed the issue of mythology and fictional universe. People will have radically different experiences of the same event, and 10 Cloverfield Lane uses this fact that make something unpredictable.

The movie opened in US cinemas on 11th March and on 18th March in the UK, and is gradually conquering the globe as I write this.

Until next time,

Iota

 

 

Film Review: The Witch

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“What went we out into this wilderness to find?”

Robert Eggers’ new film The Witch is startling, to say the least. Critics love it, but audiences don’t seem to know what to make of it. This first line represents, in my opinion, a microcosm of the film’s principle dread. To watch The Witch is to embark on an uncertain trek into a chaotic and unknowable world, stumbling into a thorny bushes in the dark. You might emerge oblivious to what’s just happened to you, but you’ll be pulling out the splinters for days.

This is Eggers’ directorial debut, a fact which is revealed not by a lack of polish but by the inescapable feeling that one has never seen anything quite like it before. The story is set in New England in the 1630s and begins as a family of six is excommunicated from their Puritan plantation. They then set up a remote settlement of their own, perched on the edge of a dense forest. From this point on, most of the suspense is derived from the insidious accumulation of strange happenings. Events descend into Dionysian disorder, in a way that reveals the fault lines in the family’s relationships. This is a film about witchcraft that isn’t actually about witchcraft – this is simply the guise that cleverly conceals a story about grief, parental hypocrisy, incest, zealotry, womanhood and New-World anxiety. It doesn’t shy away from any of these topics, and is frequently quite shocking, as a result.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so effectively addresses the psychological trauma of the North American settler, the dark side of pioneer spirit. Nature is callous and unknowable, and threatens to creep into the home and infiltrate one’s life if not actively kept at bay. A family, alone in a haunted environment, surrounded by the unforgiving hinterland, might recall the Torrances or the crew of the Nostromo. If horror can teach us anything about families, it’s that isolation is not the path to peaceful, happy relationships.

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I heard some audience members in the cinema express their disappointment with the film, claiming that is was bleak and pointless. Certainly, if you’re expecting a fun thrill ride, or really anything analogous to most contemporary horror, then you are bound to get more – or rather, less – than you bargained for with The Witch. This is not to say that Eggers doesn’t make use of horror conventions and clichés, but rather that he does so in such a completely different way and in such an unusual context that I, and many others, found the experience invigorating. I was not frightened, really, but I was thoroughly discomforted whilst simultaneously in awe at the beauty of the production.

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The film looks gorgeous, even down to the actors’ distinctive faces, which almost make the characters seem like apt illustrations in a storybook. The costuming, muted palette and extensive use of natural light conspire to create a convincing period piece. The dialogue, written in convincing, Caroline-era English (It’s nice to see someone who knows their thous, thines, and thees) helps with this effect without becoming obtrusive. The score is an unsettling assortment of dischords, buzzing and shrieking that suggests the cacophony of a coven’s ritual. The father’s (Ralph Ineson) gravelly voice reverberates throughout the cinema and builds anxiety towards the character. On that note, I would be remiss not to mention Anya Taylor-Joy’s surprisingly understated performance as the family’s eldest daughter, Thomasin.

You might like this film if you particularly enjoyed last year’s The Babadook. Both are similar in terms of narrative pacing, fairy-tale elements and the emphasis on shame and resentment in family relationships. Where they differ is that The Witch arguably lacks the accessibility and cohesiveness of its distant, Australian cousin. The titular (no pun intended) villain doesn’t quite feel consistent (perhaps due to the inherent mutability of witches) and many audience members will find that the viewing experience can only be described as “a drag”. But if that doesn’t bother you – and it doesn’t me – then crack on.

The Witch opened last month in the US and hit UK cinemas on the 11th of March.

Beware and take care,

Iota

 

The Best of FrightFest: London 2015

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This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 16th annual London FrightFest in Leicester Square. This wonderfully curated event lasts for five days and shows some of the best new genre films, most of them from outside the mainstream (so no Sinister 2). Last weekend, festival programmers served up a whopping 76 feature-length films, 30 shorts and 4 special events, such as an extended Q&A with guest of honour Barbara Crampton. I managed to see 21 features and all of the shorts. It was tough to narrow it down, but here are my top 10 favourites from the festival.

  1. Banjo
    Writer/Director: Liam Regan. UK 2015.
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© Cincest Films

Banjo is a film about meek Peltzer Arbuckle (James Hamer-Morton), a man abused by his boss, coworkers and girlfriend to the extent that he is paid a visit by his childhood imaginary friend, Ronnie (Damian Morter). Ronnie is impulsive, crude and violent, but above all, he wants to break Peltzer out of his funk. He’ll do anything to shake things up, with no regard for Peltzer’s or anyone else’s safety. This is a fun, indie shlockfest with a professional polish, and more people need to know about it.  Director Liam Regan works in an office and says he first came to FrightFest five years ago, where he met so many fellow fans and people working in the industry that he felt inspired to scrape together a bit of money and make a film of his own. The result is impressive, to say the least, with a wide variety of settings and an attention to detail that demonstrate the director’s ambition. Fans of Troma and Henenlotter will appreciate the film’s exploitation vibe, as well as a few cheeky inside jokes.

  1. Scherzo Diabolico
    Writer/Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Mexico-USA 2015.
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© Salto de Fe Films

The director of last year’s knockout Late Phases brings us a Spanish-language production about ambition, sadism and revenge. Aram is overworked and underappreciated at his office job, and decides to seek revenge by kidnapping his employer’s teenage daughter. The first half is bleak and difficult to watch, but the film takes an unexpected turn at its midpoint that brings some sick humour into the mix. It is beautifully shot and undoubtedly of a high standard, but it seems to express such a nasty and cynical view of human nature that I can’t help feeling slightly dirty after watching it. But still, it’s a story in which Mozart’s “Turkish March” plays a pivotal role, so it can’t be bad.

  1. The Hallow
    Writer/Director: Corin Hardy, Writer: Felipe Marino. UK 2015
© Occupant Entertainment

© Occupant Entertainment

A tree surgeon moves his wife and baby into an old house in the middle of the Irish woods. At first, unfriendly neighbours, windows mysteriously smashing and black sludge seeping through the ceiling are mere nuisances. Soon the family find themselves in grave danger, and with nowhere to turn. There are strange creatures in the woods, and the answers may lie in an old book of Irish folktales. The Hallow is a very competent and well-paced take on what is probably the oldest plot in horror cinema: the haunted house. In this case, it’s the woods surrounding the house that are haunted – but don’t worry; they find a way in. The folkloric mask allows the film to explore some dark and taboo themes and still end up with something I imagine will be quite successful in the international mainstream. It’s an impressive first feature for the director.

  1. We Are Still Here
    Writer/Director: Ted Geoghegan. USA 2015.
© Snowfort Pictures

© Snowfort Pictures

A middle-aged couple (Barbara Crampton & Andrew Sensening), grieving the loss of their only son, move into a big, old, New England house to escape reminders of the past. Unfortunately, echoes of the past are exactly what they find. “The house needs a family,” and it’s going to get it.

This is a true, nostalgic haunted house movie and fans of the same from the 70’s and early 80’s will appreciate the film’s self-aware references. There are highly improbable situations and characters, bizarre dialogue and over-the-top deaths that affectionately underscore the ridiculousness of the film’s predecessors without stepping into the territory of overdone “meta” horror. The director himself said he wanted to make a haunted house movie for, by, and about grownups, and that’s exactly what this is.

  1. Deathgasm
    Writer/Director: James Lei Howden. New Zealand 2015.
© Metalheads

© Metalheads

Frustrated with small-town life, loveable teen outcasts turn to heavy metal to ease their heavy souls, forming a band by the name of Deathgasm. They uncover an old piece of handwritten music, with accompanying lyrics in Latin, and think they’ve found their first big hit. Unfortunately, the song turns all who hear it into demons, and the boys accidentally transform their small town into a literal living hell. It’s up to Deathgasm to save the world.

Much has been said of the film’s fantastic use of outrageously good practical effects on an indie budget. This is definitely a major selling point. For me, though, its real strength is in the snappy writing and subversive humour. Even when it comes across as immature (which it often is), you can tell that a great deal of love went into making it, and the audience couldn’t help but buy into it and laugh along. If you like metal, you must watch this, and if you don’t, there’s plenty to enjoy besides.

  1. Nina Forever
    Writers/Directors: Ben and Chris Blaine. UK 2015
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© Charlie Productions

Holly is working in a supermarket when she falls for her coworker, a brooding romantic who tried to kill himself after his girlfriend, Nina, died in a horrific car crash. The two begin a passionate affair that has potential to turn into something more… if Nina would let it. She appears, in physical form, bloodied and broken, at the most inappropriate moments. The story progresses as the lovebirds try to free themselves from their physical and emotional Nina-baggage.

This is a film that blurs the boundaries of the genre a bit. It’s a unique and bloody ghost story dressed up as an indie romantic comedy. While it may not have much to offer by way of suspense, it makes up for it with depth of character and feeling. There is plenty of dark humour, but a more wry, understated variety than you find in most horror comedies these days. The film’s biggest strength is its three lead actors, who succeed in selling this bizarre love triangle to the audience.

  1. Turbo Kid
    Writers/Directors: Francois Simard et al. Canada-New Zealand 2015.
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© EMA Films

Born from a short segment in The ABC’s of Death, Turbo Kid is set in a dystopian, futuristic wasteland, which just happens to be in 1997 (although civilisation and industry seem to have ended in the 80’s). It’s been described as Mad Max meets Power Rangers, and tells the story of a young man who dares to stand up to the tyrant Zeus (Michael Ironside), becoming the hero from the comic books he so adores. Along the way, he meets a chipper sidekick called Apple and a tough-guy mentor. Together, they will fight for goodness and equality. Oh yes, there will be blood. And intestines, and severed limbs, heads and torsos – but all in good fun. The result is dark, hilarious and frenetic, with a nostalgic electro soundtrack that will make you feel like your fists could punch rainbows.

  1. They Look Like People
    Writer/Director: Perry Blackshear. USA 2015.

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Christian, a young man who has pulled himself out of depression through the magic of self-help dogma and bench presses, receives an unexpected visit from an old friend, Wyatt, whom he invites to stay in his house. While their paths may have diverged, they bond over shared memories. The trouble starts when Wyatt receives mysterious phone calls in the middle of night telling him of a body snatcher-like conspiracy that only he can prevent. As his delusions (or revelations?) progress, Christian and Wyatt’s friendship is pushed to its limits. This is an incredibly profound character study, made all the more compelling by its minimalism and plausibility. The tension increases gradually as the film subtly absorbs the audience into its deceptively simple story before hitting them with unflinching emotional honesty. Both sensitive and terrifying, it moved me in a way no film has in a long time.

  1. Bait
    Writer/Director: Dominic Brunt. UK 2015.
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© Mitchell-Brunt Films

Two women dream of opening their own café in their post-industrial town, so when they meet an independent lender who offers to front them the cash they need, they think their dream has come true. Unfortunately, this man is human scum, and there is no limit to the sadistic measures he is willing to take to get his money. Not since Shylock has there been such a ruthless usurer. The script is razor sharp and the characters fully realised and human. I have heard the film classified as more of a thriller, but I believe that the pacing and omnipresent paranoia, along with a brutally good finale, reveal Brunt’s true horror allegiance.

  1. Tales of Halloween
    Directors: Many. USA 2015.
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© Epic Pictures Group

The perfect finale to the festival, Tales of Halloween is a mega-anthology film featuring 10 shorts – directed by the likes of Darren Lynn Bousman, Lucky McKee, Neil Marshall and many more – all set on the same Halloween night. It is riddled with cameos and is made with so much affection for the genre that fans will not be able to resist its immense charm. It deserves a spot amongst the most accomplished anthology films ever made. Irreverent humour abounds, but there are some sincere scares, as well, so horror fans will want to get cozy with this warm, fuzzy blanket of a movie.

© Epic Pictures Group

© Epic Pictures Group

There you have it. Finally, here’s a list of films (with directors’ surnames) that I unfortunately did not see, and therefore cannot vouch for personally. Still, I have it on good authority that they’re excellent, and will track them down when I get the chance:

Landmine Goes Click (Bakhia)
Shut In (Schindler)
Rabid Dogs (Hannezo)
Road Games (Pastoll)
A Christmas Horror Story (Harvey et al)
Night Fare (Seri)
Body (Berk & Olsen)
Summer Camp (Marini)

I hope each and every one of the films named in this post gets the widest release possible. And if I’ve persuaded anyone to seek out these films, or to come see FrightFest for themselves, then I can finally sleep soundly (just kidding; catharsis experienced through good horror always knocks me out).

Happy viewing, and see you there next year,

Iota

Film Review: It Follows

I have little patience for reviews that applaud the “rare” horror film that eschews gore in favour of “real scares”, thereby proving that the genre “still has something new to offer audiences”. I can see that the purpose might be to attract people who would otherwise avoid it entirely. Still, I find myself becoming defensive of the horror genre, which turns out at least a dozen or so brilliant cinematic disembowelments of the human condition every year. What they see as the shining exception I see as part and parcel of a genre that is doing just fine, thank you very much.

© Animal Kingdom

Which brings me to It Follows. If you follow any kind of horror media, you’ve probably already heard some of the hype surrounding the indie film that seemed to appear out of nowhere, stalking from festival to festival, leaving a trail of petrified filmgoers in its wake. It has already earned sweeping praise from mainstream and genre critics alike. As for me, the year is still young, but I’m already saving a spot for it among my top 5 favourite films of the year. Here’s why.

When genre newcomer David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed It Follows – his first horror feature – he had the audacity to create a brand-new monster, with its own mythology and rules. The threat is deceptively simple: a young woman (Maika Monroe) has a sexual encounter that leaves her with a kind of hallucinatory infection. So far, so Cronenberg. What she sees, and what the uninfected can’t see, is people – one at a time, and in various stages of undress – walking slowly and deliberately towards her. They appear at random and haunt her waking hours. What happens if they get to her? She’s not about to wait around and find out.

© Animal Kingdom

This constant menace has a number of effects that make me wonder what it must have been like to have been among the first audiences to see A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its sense of brutal inevitability, or Night of the Living Dead, with its eerily ambling assortment of the undead. While the threat may be somewhat avoidable in the short term (as opposed to, say, a charging grizzly), the sense of dread is created by the knowledge that a real life cannot be lived under its shadow. The sexual element recalls early Cronenberg and is just outlandish and retro enough to (probably) avoid stepping into the political hot mess of a decade where everyone is offended by everything.

The film’s 1980s aesthetic is not just a gimmick, but has the escapist effect of detaching the audience from the era of mobile phones and social media. The only handheld device in sight is used to read Dostoyevsky. Rich Vreeland’s neo-80s synth score has been a popular talking point in reviews of the film, and for good reason. It rumbles ominously at the right moments, and soars thoughtfully at others. The camera engages in old-school slow pans and zooms that create a sense of both nostalgia and voyeurism, contributing to an atmosphere of dread as well as intimacy: perhaps the two words that best describe the emotional core of the film.

The other bold move Mitchell makes is in creating a horror film that is so sentimental or, indeed, intimate. One gets the impression that the setting, a suburb of Detroit, holds a great deal of personal significance to him. The teenage friendships we see on screen, thriving on the outskirts of a city in ruins, feel genuine and carry an unspoken history with them. Scenes of, ahem, passion are ardent and steamy enough without becoming gratuitous or uncomfortable. The entire concept of the film lends itself well to creating a bond between audience and heroine (Monroe), as we are so often privy to horrors only she can see. What I enjoyed most, though, were the simple but surprising POV shots of her twiddling the stem of a flower, putting on lipstick in front of a mirror, or calmly watching an ant crawl across her arm.

© Animal Kingdom

As much as the term is overused, I think Maika Monroe is the scream queen we need. This performance, combined with her role in last year’s The Guest have proven that she is more than just a pretty face. I think she makes a far more believable young, introspective female lead than Jamie Lee Curtis’ iconic Laurie Strode (Halloween). That’s not to say she’s fascinating or edgy; to use the parlance of our times, she’s on the “basic” side of the spectrum – more Taylor Swift than Debbie Harry. She’s the young woman still clinging to childhood nostalgia but eager to start living her life and to find out what that means for her. In other words, she’s perfectly poised for some supernatural terror to write its name in that blank space of hers. One way or another, it’s gonna get her, get her, get her, get her.

It Follows is a fantastic and memorable work of horror, but it doesn’t prove anything about the genre’s merit that fans didn’t know already, because it doesn’t need to. After a long festival tour and wide releases in France, the UK and Ireland, It Follows finally finds its way stateside on March 13th.

If you like the blog, feel free to follow me,

Iota

Film Review: Clown

© Cross Creek Pictures

Kent (Andy Powers), a real estate agent, has a happy family life with his wife Meg (Laura Allen) and young son, Jack. Jack’s birthday party is already underway when the clown they hired calls and cancels at the last minute. What does Kent do? He digs up an old clown costume from one of his properties and jumps in to save the day. The next morning, he discovers that the suit, nose and wig have fused themselves to his skin. But that’s not all – he soon starts exhibiting violent tendencies and cravings for the flesh of human children.

Clown is the surprising feature debut of TV-movie director Jon Watts and his frequent cowriter Christopher D. Ford. I have to hand it to them for giving us something we haven’t seen before. Killer clowns themselves are nothing new, but they often appear in films of a farcical (see Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Stitches) or surrealist (see It) nature. The film strikes a serious tone and isn’t played for laughs per se, although those viewers with pitch-black sensibilities may find a few things to smirk at. Overall, it’s not as ridiculous as the promotional material or plot summaries would suggest.

Speaking of promotional material, you may have seen the posters or trailers for the film, proudly presenting it as a creation of “The Master of Horror Eli Roth”. I don’t know when this became a thing people started saying, but I can remember a time when Roth’s own film, Hostel, was billed as “Quentin Tarantino Presents”, so maybe this is just part of the circle (one might say downward spiral) of life. Roth’s involvement is, actually, a bit of a funny story. Back in 2010, Watts and Ford posted a fake trailer for a prototypical Clown on YouTube, presenting it as an admittedly plausible production of Roth’s. Well, the master himself stumbled upon the clip and admired the duo’s chutzpah so much that he agreed to produce the real thing. He even gave a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance. Now, I have to admire the guy for lending his name and support to genre newcomers (see the Soskas), but let’s give credit where it’s due by remembering whose movie this is.

© Cross Creek Pictures

Watts and Ford take their interesting clown-metamorphosis idea and end up with a film that is far better than I expected it to be. Roth compares it to The Fly, but I wouldn’t go that far. The first act is fast-paced, loaded with satisfying plot points and characters who behave somewhat reasonably. The gradual transformation continues as we are exposed to the invented Nordic folklore of the “Clöyne”, complete with fake medieval illustrations – fitting, for two filmmakers who have no qualms about manufacturing their own reality. The story gets a boost from Karlsson (Peter Stormare), an expert in the mythology of this particular clown suit. Indeed, I half expected Clown to fizzle out after a busy 45 minutes and devolve into cheap sight gags, as is the case with many other carny slashers.  Not so; the movie fills its runtime with plenty of unfortunate events and some striking visuals. If anything, I could accuse it of being a bit busy.

The script and actors deftly handle the potentially explosive subject of child murder that is so indispensable to the story. These scenes are always staged and shown carefully, if not quite sensitively. Laura Allen impresses as she tests the lengths to which she will go to save her child, revealing an unexpected depth in her character. Unfortunately, she makes some of the supporting cast look even weaker by comparison.

© Cross Creek Pictures

This is the point in the review where I will admit to not really “getting” scary clowns. While I understand that the irony of fearing something that’s intended to bring joy could be widely appealing, that doesn’t quite explain the ubiquity of murderous clowns in popular culture, nor the glut of coulrophobic films since It. One can’t help but think clowns are terrible at their only job; a study from the University of Sheffield claimed that clowns were “universally disliked by children”, who find them “frightening and unknowable”. Perhaps too many people have bad memories from early childhood of painted people ruining perfectly good birthday parties or trips to McDonald’s? Adults may find the aesthetics or behaviour of clowns unsettling, but then the same could be said of other figures from children’s entertainment. Why do clowns, in particular, deserve to be the objects of such repulsion? I think this is partly a case of art imitating life imitating art… The eponymous villain will recall, of course, real-life serial killer and clown John Wayne Gacy, the two sides of his identity having grown inseparable in the public’s mind, not that I can blame them.

All in all, it’s not the kind of subgenre I tend to go for, but the film is pleasantly surprising and, really, could have been far worse. It’s also fairly light on gore, at least by contemporary standards, if that is a consideration for you. Clown premiered in Italy during November 2014 before making its way to the 2015 Glasgow FrightFest last weekend. It was released on DVD in the UK on the 2nd of March. It is set to open in Japan later this month, but so far no North American release has been announced.

Next time, just go to a costume shop.

Iota

West End Thrills: Ghost Stories

Lest you think me narrow minded for relying solely on films to get my horror kicks, I thought I would share with you a recent theatre-going experience I had in London’s West End. I’m not talking about Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black, which I’ve also seen and whose perennial popularity I can confirm is entirely deserved. No, I’m talking about a smaller, more recent original production on at The Arts Theatre until the get-your-keister-to Leicester-Square-before-it’s-gone 15th of March: Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories was written by Jeremy Dyson, a co-creator of BBC’s The League of Gentlemen who went on to adapt Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales for the West End, and Andy Nyman, an actor and magician with roles in Severance and Death at a Funeral. It premiered in February 2010 at the Liverpool Playhouse, and has since terrified audiences in London and even (briefly) in Toronto. There have been whispers about the play extending its reach to the USA this year.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Ghost Stories, you’ve heard the gimmicky, almost William Castle-esque taglines: “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending”. The play also takes a couple of leaves out of Hitchcock’s book by forbidding (re)admittance to the theatre after curtain time and imploring patrons after curtain call to “Please, keep the secrets of Ghost Stories”. I will honour this request by attempting to reveal as little as possible about the play while still communicating why I think you should go see it.

Walking into the theatre, you feel the hum of nervous anticipation emanating from your fellow patrons. The unnerving cocktail of ambient sounds – water droplets, echoes, rumblings – cuts through banal chitchat. The theatre is “decorated” with black bin bags and yellow caution tape, which suggests that the performance to follow will be similarly frugal and minimalist. Never fear (at least, not about that); the story starts off slowly before revealing its technically impressive, expressionist set pieces, all superbly lit to maximise tension. The sound crackles, whistles, booms and screeches. Packed into tight seats, you feel trapped in an immersive environment of dread. Even your sense of smell is eventually turned against you.

Overall, Ghost Stories can best be described as an experience: a ride, almost. The quality of the acting and direction surpasses the admittedly thin script. None of the three stories is particularly groundbreaking and each relies on ready-made archetypes (and the fantastic atmosphere mentioned above) to create suspense quickly. This means you probably won’t spend the next few days thinking about the stories, and you definitely won’t be saving them for your next campfire.  Genre fans, in particular, may find this disappointing. That’s not to say that the script is flawed, merely that narrative novelty is not its raison d’être. The surprise ending I’ve been asked to protect is, well, surprising, but it’s not what you will remember about Ghost Stories. You’ll remember the sense of intimacy created both on stage and within the stalls and circle, thanks to the care and attention to detail that go into one sumptuous, satisfying, 80-minute feast.

“Thank you and sleep well.”

Iota