THORNHILL (Book Review)

Written and illustrated by: Pam Smy

Published in the UK by: David Fickling Books / Publication date: 27th August 2017

Pages: 544


A TIMELESS FRIENDSHIP

Weighing in at a daunting 544 pages, APU graduate and Cambridge lecturer Pam Smy’s debut solo work (the first she has both written and illustrated) is actually a deceptively quick read, and one which I blasted through in a matter of hours.

… Keep Scuttling!

The Woman In Black (Live Review)

Two men in hats, sitting facing each other

Cambridge Arts Theatre – 29th September 2016 – 7.45pm
Based on the novel by: Susan Hill
Adapted by: Stephen Mallatratt
Directed by: Robin Herford
thewomaninblack.com   Tour tickets


 

FRIGHTFUL RECITAL

I have read Susan Hill’s scant-but-spooky ghost story, I have jumped more often than is respectable at Hammer’s 2012 filmic adaptation and I have even watched with utmost curiosity the ITV Christmas drama still unreleased on region 2 DVD. On Thursday night I experienced a fourth incarnation of The Woman In Black in the form of Stephen Mallatratt’s stage show. For 27 years a staple of London’s West End, it is now on tour and playing a week-long residency at Cambridge Arts Theatre.

… Keep Scuttling!

Gothic (DVD Review)

18 – 87mins – 1986


 

CARNIVAL OF CHAOS

“As long as you are a guest in my house, you will play my games…”

Embellished with his signature idiosyncratic fusion of grotesque surrealism and indulgent eroticism, acclaimed-but-controversial visionary British director Ken Russell (Altered States) turns his fevered eye toward the fateful night in 1816 upon which young Romantic artists Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson), her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr) and the doctor Polidori (Timothy Spall) gathered at the menagerie-esque madhouse of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) to tell ghost stories – with the future Mrs. Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein being the enduring outcome.

Enhanced by the eerie tones of a pheramin-lead score, and with thunder and lightening clashing outside, the dark and largely empty rooms of Byron’s uninviting Swiss sanctuary is chock-full of eccentric ambiguities and stock genre tropes – from cobwebs, rats, candles and ornamental skulls to bell jars, clockwork mannequins, suits of armour and all the ingredients to conduct a séance! Its an eclectic cluster which in the wrong hands could have appeared too busy, but Russell successfully manages to juggle all the elements into an elusive and evocative almost poetic fever dream.

The hired help merely roll their eyes at the surreal circus parading around them, but there is a frightening heightened intensity to even the artist’s frivolity, with their virtuous tempers giving way to an almost rabid frothing obscenity the longer the night goes on. There is a fine line between genius and madness and I do believe that Gothic sits pretty atop that very line!

Sex, drugs and creativity clash violently with perverse and wanton abandon in this trippy and stirring madhouse. “I never plan anything” Byron cries – and never a truer word spoken as Gothic is often maddeningly confusing (a severed pig’s head lies on a bedroom floor, a goblin-like creature watches the girls as they sleep fraught dreams, and just what was that alien-like head in the barn?!), but never anything less than gripping and evocative.

As the night races towards day, the imagery takes on even deeper metaphoric meaning, the fears and anxieties of the decadent author’s each contributing to the jigsaw-like monster they have created (“our creature”). The elements which run through Frankenstein are cleverly planted throughout this uneasy viewing experience which often leaves you – like the characters – feeling like you are “trapped like a dream in human form.” But unlike the characters we know we can escape simply by pressing “pause” – except we are so enraptured by the lavishly grotesque delights dancing before our eyes that we don’t want to.

Gothic [DVD]Indecent, erotic and eerily surreal, Ken Russell’s historically inaccurate Gothic won’t be to everyone’s taste, but those looking for an orgasmic sensory overload need look no further. Come the end credits you’ll be sweating, shivering – more than likely confounded – but ultimately satisfied by this lavish macabre mindfuck.

CR@B’s Claw Score: 4 stars

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, 1.6 (TV Review)

image

BBC One – 2nd August 2016 – 9pm

Written by: Simon Tyrrell

Series Created by: Ashley Pharaoh

Directed by: Sam Donovan


 

A GHOST OF HIS FORMER SELF

This is it. Six weeks later than fans who binge-watched it all on iPlayer, BBC One has completed its weekly Tuesday night transmissions of Ashley Pharaoh’s haunting historical drama, The Living And The Dead. By tying together the glimpses and clues which have peppered the six hour run, explaining the escalating mysteries and hinting at more, episode 1.6 was a perfect conclusion to a superior series.

“Stay with me, Daddy.”

Haunted by his “insoluble guilt” following the death of his first child, Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) has lost himself in a spiral of depression which has mired him in an unhinged purgatory where the past, present – and future! – intertwine in a sanity-testing fug. Can his pregnant wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) warm his “cold eyes” and save her husband’s “lost soul”, or will the ghost of young Gabriel (Arthur Bateman) get his way and lead his father to the afterlife…?

After weeks of the briefest hints and teases (headlights, iPads, red coats), we finally spend some sustained time in the present day, with the “book of light” carrying “guardian angel” who Nathan suspected was attempting to steal Gabriel away at last revealed to be his great-great-granddaughter, Lara (Chloe Pirrie). Self-admitted herself to a psychiatric ward, Lara has likewise been haunted by Gabriel’s ghost since giving birth to her daughter, Lottie.

When her visiting grandmother (Diana Quick) reveals Lara is not the first in her family to see Gabriel’s ghost, the suspected postpartum psychosis-sufferer escapes hospital and heads to the abandoned and dilapidated Shepzoy estate for answers…

“I know I’m somehow part of this…”

With her iPad chock full of photographed mementos of Nathan’s bygone era, Lara offers viewers a whistle-stop recap of the series so far, with pictorial reminders of the ghost miners storyline from 1.2, Nathan’s evermore frantic scribblings and the tragic love affair from 1.4. I love the wicked irony that a series so ingrained with a theme of progress has its dual leads (Nathan in 1894 and Lara in 2016) stalled in their attempts to move on from the past.

“The essential thing is timing…”

“… and the amount of light.”

Paying heed to its own advise, I must give credit to the series’ lighting directors. I watched this final episode during the day with the curtains open and still its evocative tone, use of both natural and artificial light and shadow and creepy concessions to the supernatural genre (faces in windows, lullabies chanted through walkie-talkies, glimpses of blood-stained victims through shaky-cam perspective) elicited goosebumps on innumerable occasions!

With a horse-drawn reveal which shatters the temporal line more than it already had been, The Living and the Dead 1.6 manages to leave viewers simultaneously satisfied and still with plenty to ponder. I could nit-pick why Gabriel still required parental company when Lara’s grandmother had already revealed that Lara’s mother committed suicide shortly after giving birth, but this is a minor quibble in an otherwise exemplary timey-wimey narrative jigsaw plot.

The closing scene, posing a question still unanswered, gives me high hopes that this isn’t the last we have seen of the “notorious” Nathan Appleby. Hopefully the BBC listen to their guardian angels and commission a second series of this progressive and perplexing drama – please don’t leave us hanging over that juicy cliff!

CR@B’s Claw Score: 5 stars

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, 1.5 (TV Review)

BBC One – 26th July 2016 – 9pm

Written by: Peter McKenna

Series created by: Ashley Pharoah

Directed by: Sam Donovan 


 

CHAOS BEFORE CLARITY

Following last week’s leftfield cliffhanger, this penultimate episode in Ashley Pharaoh’s chilling period mini-series intensifies the “supernormal” activity, but does away with the story of the week template in favour of a more all-inclusive village-wide assembly of incidents.

It is All Hallows Eve in Shepzoy, and the farming community and out-of-town railway workers are uniting to mark the pagan tradition with typically folksy gusto. The date also marks the anniversary of the All Hallows Massacre, which centuries earlier saw the sword-slashing Roundheads ride on Shepzoy, hunting and gutting all in their way, “the ground sodden with blood…” Lovely.

It is gruesome visions of this historic bloodbath which this week manifest themselves to the fearful villagers, with the city-dwelling railway engineers driven out by the superstitious hauntings, after “townie” Smith (Harry Peacock) is terrified by the ghost of a hanging victim in the copse.

Maud Hare (1.3’s Elizabeth Berrington), meanwhile, is growing increasing concerned about living side-by-side with evil, as the mark of a noose grows more pronounced around her neck, and Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) is so consumed by his belief in the presence of his dead son and glimpses of a woman in a red coat carrying a book full of moving pictures, that he drags poor Harriet Denning (1.1’s Tallulah Haddon) back into the hot seat for another session of doctorly hypnosis.

“They’re coming for you, Nathan, they’re coming for you.”

Harriet’s father, village priest Father Denning (Nicholas Woodeson), is furious at Nathan’s ungodly meddling in the occult, until the whole village witnesses both a blazing tree which leaves no ash and a spirit army of Roundheads charging translucently through the forest. Reluctantly, he agrees to an exorcism, but Nathan is less than keen when his pregnant wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer), reveals some startling evidence in the background of one of her photographs…

The hauntings intensify, the visions more frequent and the truth harder to ascertain in episode five of The Living And The Dead. A lot occurs in this busy hour of drama without the plot ever really progressing or the mystery becoming any clearer. Colin Morgan expertly portrays a spiral into insanity, while Peter McKenna’s screenplay is an effective exercise in tone and atmosphere. I suspect we are in for a spectacular finale next week, but if you aren’t binge-watching this as a boxset and catching it in weekly instalments then this is less satisfying as a standalone story, with no palpable beginning, middle or end.

CR@B’s Claw Score: 3 stars

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, 1.4 (TV Review)

BBC One – 19th July 2016 – 9pm

Written by: Robert Murphy

Series created by: Ashley Pharoah

Directed by: Sam Donovan


 

SECRET FLOWER OF THE FOREST

“The past is dead, and the dead are dead.”

Never a less convincing word is spoken by Victorian psychologist and spiritual-dabbler Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan), who is attempting to reassure his pregnant wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) after witnessing the roaming spirit of a murdered villager at the close of this fourth episode in BBC One’s progressive supernatural period drama.

Despite being written and directed by different crew, tonight’s latest instalment is better than any previous episode at effortlessly continuing the series narrative without making the connection to previous parts feel laboured and forcefully inserted for continuity purposes. This felt like the conclusion of a two-parter.

Having been banished for his violent attempt to cleanse Shepzoy of its “witch” last week week, former farmhand Jack Langtree (Joel Gilman) is this week accused of attacking traumatised school teacher Martha Enderley (Nina Forever‘s Fiona O’Shaughnessy) while living rough in Elmwood Forest. But can Martha’s wide-eyed ramblings be believed, or is she more connected to the disappearance of her friend Alice Wharton (Gina Bramhill) than she is letting on?

“Your mind is denying us access to your memories…”

Donning a Rick Grimes-esque Stetson and attempting to put his personal malaise to one side, all-round go-to-guy Nathan adds lawman, detective and autopsy-deliverer to his growing repertoire of skills, returning to the mist-shrouded scene of the crime in an attempt to save Alice and apprehend Jack.

Behind the lens, Sam Donovan incorporates a wealth of dizzying aerial tracking shots of the gorgeous natural woodland, paralleling the scale and warmth of red autumnal foliage with the stark and claustrophobic greys of the cold Shepzoy dwellings. Pronounced angles and focus pulls also help immerse the viewer and increase the ominous and ethereal atmosphere which has been so strong throughout The Living and the Dead.

Once more Nathan’s haunting bereavement is kept to the outskirts – teased deliciously in a Ouija board prologue but then essentially back-benched once again. I sense this frustrating drawn out approach will be a common occurrence until his dead son is brought front and centre in an episode all his own at the tail-end of the six-part series.

Modernity again rears its head into the traditional Somerset community, with Llama’s proclaimed as the “future of farming” and an eventual innate confession capping-off what would have been a rather predictable and average murder mystery with a passionate explosion of pent-up alienation which the twenty-first century can relate to with more open-minded understanding than ever before.

“All my life I’ve felt different…”

Had the episode finished there, it would have been a passably adept hour of eerie entertainment, three CR@B’s out of five. However, the final shot pans to a truly jaw-dropping rug-pull reveal which corroborated an earlier question lingering in the back of my mind concerning a potential anachronism. Frankly, it blew my mind. Suspicions and curiosity well and truly running rampant, I am thankful for the innovative Beeb’s iPlayer boxset approach which means I don’t have to wait seven excruciating days to have my theories laid to rest. “That way madness lies…”

CR@B’s Claw Score: 4 stars

The Boy (Blu-ray Review)

15 – 98mins – 2016


 

10 SIMPLE RULES (AND ONE SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF)…

Upon The Boy’s theatrical release this spring, movie magazine Total Film could not have been less gracious in their sweeping disregard for this healthily-publicised UK-set psychological horror, granting it a lowly single star, accompanied by a sketchy stub review which scarcely covered an inch of a single page.

The creepy life-size doll concept, effective trailer campaign and some far warmer opinions from friends convinced me that this American-Chinese production was still well worth checking out, and the film’s home release this past week afforded me the opportunity to judge The Boy for myself on Blu.

So, is director William Brent Bell’s ceramic creeper a toy-riffic modern frightener or as porce-lame as Total Film would have us believe? Well, it’s something of a dolly mixture of the two extremes, to be frank, with an uncanny premise and tense atmosphere somewhat dispelled by some unbelievable character behaviour.

Lauren Cohen escapes The Walking Dead – and her native US – as nanny Greta, who is attempting to put an abusive overseas relationship behind her by caring for a wealthy British couple’s young son while they depart on holiday. But Greta doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when it transpires that her young charge, Brahms, is not flesh and blood, but a disturbing, pale life-size doll which his ‘parents’ care for as if he was real.

Greta cautiously agrees to continue in her role, believing it to be “easy money,” but when she dismisses a list of ten golden rules the Heelshire’s have left her, Greta and flirty-but-friendly grocery delivery guy Malcolm (Rubert Evans) soon discover that Brahms is not to be played with…

I happily overlooked some of screenwriter Stacey Delay’s lazy stereotypical flourishes (the Heelshire’s reclusive manor house cannot pick up a mobile signal; an American loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; Greta uses a candle rather than a light-switch to roam the house at night) because The Boy triumphed in being effectively tense and atmospheric – the drip-reveal of the unfurling mystery surrounding Brahm’s bizarre backstory affording the opportunity to play on various haunted house and possession tropes.

You’ll either love or laugh at the climactic twist, but I had no problem with it (even if it does have strong shades of Aussie horror Housebound). What did disturb me, however, was the wholly unnatural reactions Greta in particular was guilty of throughout: brushing off and failing to convincingly question what are completely unreasonable requests, and then happily accepting the supernatural charade so quickly that I honestly questioned whether I had inadvertently skipped a scene!

CR@B’s Claw Score: 3 stars