THE PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES (Book Review)

Selected by: Herbert van Thal

First published by Pan Books in 1959 / Reprinted: 2017

296 pages


THE GHOSTS OF SENSIBILITIES PAST

Pan Book of Horror StoriesHaving released their first mass-market paperback in 1947 (Ten Stories by Rudyard Kipling), publishing giants Pan are this year celebrating their 70th anniversary with a series of reissues of their most popular and iconic titles. Piquing my interest among the twenty classics receiving a new lease of life was a reprint of the first ever volume of collected horror stories; 22 macabre tales from authors renowned (Bram Stoker, Peter Fleming, C.S. Forester) and unheard of.

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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.

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My Cousin Rachel (Cinema Review)

12A – 106mins – 2017


 

YOU BEFORE ME

Orphaned as a child and raised by his older cousin, Philip Ashley (Sam Me Before You Claflin) remains in written communication with his guardian when sickness calls for Ambrose (also Claflin) to sojourn to warmer climes in the winter. Ambrose informs Philip that while in Italy he has met and swiftly fallen in love with Rachel (Rachel Youth Weisz), a cousin to them both, whom he marries. But worrying insinuations and a despairing tone to Ambrose’s letters perturbs Philip, who journeys out to Florence expecting to find his frail caregiver at the behest of a beastly gold-digger.

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The 9th Life of Louis Drax (DVD Review)

15 – 108mins – 2016


 

LOUIS IN BLUNDERLAND

Typically associated with the horror genre having created such prominent hits as Switchblade Romance, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha remakes, Mirrors and Horns over the past 14 years, French director Alexandre Aja – still only 38 years old! – branched out from his comfort zone with this surreal adaptation of Liz Jensen’s bizarre 2005 psychological mystery novel.

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A Cure for Wellness (Cinema Review)

18 – 146mins – 2017


 

EELS ON FIRE

After transforming into the sickly Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Dane DeHaan once again plays a strong-minded and cock-sure twenty-something whose health deteriorates before our eyes in an overlong and overcomplicated genre piece. Wearing its multitude of influences brazenly on its sleeve, A Cure for Wellness marks Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski’s first foray into horror since 2002’s The Ring remake.

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Inside No. 9, 3.3 – “The Riddle of the Sphinx”

BBC Two – 28th February 2017 – 10pm

Created and written by: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

Directed by: Guillem Morales


 

GIVE US A CLUE

“Inform. Educate. Entertain”

Testament to the diversity Inside No. 9’s isolated anthology set-up allows, following last week’s (initially) light-hearted repartee and restaurant kerfuffle, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” presents itself from the off as a more antiquated and traditionally gothic beast, set within the rain-lashed study of Cambridge professor and Varsity crossword-compiler Dr. Nigel Squires (Pemberton), who receives an unexpected visitor in the form of Greggs employee Nina (Alexandra Roach).

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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

Frankenstein (Blu-ray Review)

18 – 89mins – 2015


 

NOVEL INTENTIONS

The sum of husband and wife Viktor (Danny Huston) and Marie Frankenstein’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) unorthodox endeavours to find “the formula for life,” Adam (Xavier Twilight Samuel) is ‘born’ perfect: handsome, healthy and endowed with the strength of ten men. However, his mental state is far behind his physical stature, and a number of “cell replication errors” bring about body deformities which prove to Adam’s creators that he is not the revolutionary breakthrough they first believed him to be.

“Are you a man or are you an animal?!”

Detached and distressed, Adam breaks out of his laboratory isolation following a bloody bone saw tussle with a technician, and he escapes into the big, wild world, where this naïve soul learns of the darker side of humanity…

A potent miscellany of twenty-first century idioms, technologies, social issues and scientific ponderings are infused with the base elements of Mary Shelley’s oft-adapted Victorian horror novel, transplanted to the modern day by Candyman director Bernard Rose. While some of the augmentations work well, others feel incidental and superfluous in this uneven update – sometimes awkwardly stylised as FRANK3N5T31N – which is sold with the slightly misleading USP of being told from the monster’s perspective.

While Adam does narrate his journey of discovery, there is a bizarre (but no doubt purposeful) disassociation between his overly philosophical and often grandly poetic internalised musings, and the childlike ignorance he displays on-screen with his “capacity of a one year old”. Such is his infantile mindset that Adam is frequently the victim of savage abuse, until he is befriended by blind busker Eddie (Tony Todd), who mentors him in how to survive when living rough.

The unbridled brutality (which often feels affected to uncomfortable overkill just to achieve the apex age rating) goes hand-in-hand with a frankly maladroit approach to lighting. As the film opens everything is overlit and gives the picture a rather graceless, unsubtle quality – at one point the saturation is so high a cabbage looks neon!

Echoing the evolution of the monster and the (thankful) variation in lighting direction, Frankenstein’s more nuanced second half is a vast improvement on the one note, in-your-face opening act, bringing shade and sentiment to the sadistic slaughter. Adam’s homecoming goes so far as to add parental poignancy with such painful insights as:

“You made me… you hate me… I am I… I am you… I am… alone.”

It isn’t perfect, but Rose’s gleefully bold and shamelessly grisly update does have a brain beneath its bloodstained body – it just needed time to grow into it.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Crimson Peak (DVD Review)

15 – 119mins – 2015


TRIP THE LIGHT PHANTASTC

Having taken a scenic detour to the Pacific Rim via Middle Earth, acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) returns home to the horror genre with this sumptuously beautiful love letter to gothic masterpieces. The back cover of last week’s region 2 DVD release boldly boasts that legendary scribe Stephen King bestowed the film with the impressive twofold accolade of “Gorgeous and terrifying”.

Well, Mr. King is half right. For Crimson Peak is intricately crafted and adorned with dazzling precision, a true archetype for set designers and light technicians in the industry to aspire towards. The screen is never anything less than a feast of towering bygone architecture, swirling snowstorms, portentous phantoms, maelstroms of moths and precisely-orchestrated plays of light and shadow.

But for all its jaw-dropping visual shimmer, the story is a slow and unsatisfying slog, with the stuffy aristocratic air and over-choreographed atmosphere zapping any tension or chills. Budding ghost story author Edith Cushing (Alice In Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) narrates the deepening mystery surrounding the dilapidated Allerdale Hall and its inheritors, but by signposting any paranormal activity you are no longer shocked by their arrival, no matter how ghastly their appearance or unnatural their gait.

As more is revealed of the true intentions of clay-mining baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) and his brusque sister Lucille (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain), the apparitions increase, but become ever-more redundant to the resolution of the plot as an influx of stabbings dominate. For such an otherwise tame horror, del Toro does shock with a profuse amount of blood (well, the colour is in the title), with one early scene in particular sickeningly brutal and unnecessary.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars