Review: “Urban Prey” By Peter Beere (Novel)

A few days before I wrote this review, I happened to discover an utterly amazing second-hand bookshop in Petersfield – with a horror/sci-fi/fantasy section crammed with old books from the 1980s/90s 🙂

Anyway, although most of the books I bought were alternate editions etc.. of books I’ve read before, one of the other novels that caught my eye was Peter Beere’s 1984 novel “Urban Prey”. What can I say? The cover art looked like a cross between “Blade Runner” and an Iron Maiden album cover 🙂

Interestingly, this book is the first novel in a trilogy. Even so, this novel can pretty much be enjoyed on it’s own (although I’ll talk more about the ending in the later parts of this review).

So, let’s take a look at “Urban Prey”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1984 Arrow (UK) edition of “Urban Prey” that I read.

Set in London in the dystopian future of 2020, the story focuses on a man called B.K.Howard (or “Beekay”). Beekay is having a terrible week. Short on cash, he agrees to help his uncle out with a trip to Essex to pick up some smuggled goods arriving from the war-torn mess of mainland Europe. Unfortunately, the plod catch on and send a heavily-armed squad of riot-armoured auxiliaries to the port. Beekay barely escapes the grisly carnage that follows.

When he finally limps back to his run-down flat, there is a letter waiting for him. Call-up papers! As part of the ultra-conservative government’s drive to get the unemployment numbers down, those on long-term benefits are conscripted into the military and sent on a one-way trip to the worst battlefields the world has to offer. After Beekay goes to his aunt to inform her of his uncle’s death, he visits his long-term girlfriend and, after learning something about her, breaks up with her.

Miserable and drunk, Beekay tries to find a way to dodge the draft. But, the bank won’t let him withdraw any money from his account. Not only that, after deciding to make up with his girlfriend several days later, he finds out that she’s been arrested after stabbing a member of the city’s dystopian police after being threatened by him. When Beekay gets home, two men are waiting for him. They are terrorists who will help him and his girlfriend get out of the country if Beekay carries out an assassination for them.

Since the target is the policeman who threatened his girlfriend, Beekay agrees. But, whilst hiding out and planning the crime, he gets a threatening note from a man called Homer. Homer is an official “hunter” who tracks down draft dodgers….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it shares some very vague thematic similarities with “Blade Runner”, it is much more of a dystopian crime thriller than a sci-fi story. It is more like the gritty “it could happen!” dystopian classics like “V For Vendetta” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than anything else. Still, it’s a surprisingly compelling and atmospheric thriller.

Although the novel’s thriller elements are at their absolute best during the nail-bitingly suspenseful conclusion, there is a palpable feeling of suspense and danger throughout the novel. Beekay is living in a hostile, grim world that is indifferent to him at best.

In addition to the morbid fascination of watching Beekay get dragged into a life of crime, the relatively few scenes involving Homer chasing Beekay help to add extra suspense to the novel (and are a bit like “Blade Runner” in some respects). Likewise, the novel’s grisly and unglamourous portrayal of violence is similar to both “Blade Runner” and the splatterpunk horror fiction of the 1980s too.

The novel’s dystopian elements are a mixture of some classic dystopian stuff (eg: an endless war abroad, violent policemen, forced labour in prisons etc..) and a scathing satire of 1980s Britain. This gives the novel a feeling of gritty realism that you wouldn’t find in more stylised dystopian fiction. In the novel’s version of 2020, there is little to no advanced technology – just poverty, urban decay and an indifferent authoritarian regime. In other words, this novel is a satire of Margaret Thatcher’s time in government.

However, the novel’s dystopian elements do sometimes feel a little bit overdone – to the point where they almost stray into the realm of unintentional parody/dark comedy. I mean, if you’ve ever played dystopian comedy games like “Beneath A Steel Sky” or “Normality“, if you’ve read the hilariously earnest 1980s anarchist parody of “Tintin” or watched an old sitcom called “The Young Ones“, then the tone of parts of this novel will probably feel amusingly familiar.

In terms of the characters, they’re ok. Most of the novel’s characterisation focuses on Beekay – who is a self-pitying, unlucky, poor and nervous “underdog” character. He’s also a somewhat morally-ambiguous character (leaving aside his criminal activities, he’s also hypocritical and prejudiced at times) who seems like a product of the grim world that he has grown up in. Although the other main characters have just enough characterisation to make you care about what happens them, don’t expect lots of in-depth characterisation.

In terms of the writing, it’s interesting. The novel is narrated from Beekay’s perspective and the first-person narration is this weird mixture of informal narration and slightly more formal/descriptive narration. It fits well with Beekay’s character and helps to immerse the reader, but it is the kind of narration that will probably be a little bit annoying before you get used to it.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 198 pages in length, this novel is just the right length for the story it is telling. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is a fairly good mixture of moderately-paced segments that build atmosphere (and show the grinding boredom/grimness of Beekay’s life) and some surprisingly gripping and suspenseful fast-paced segments. Seriously, the later parts of this novel are real edge-of-your-seat stuff!

Plus, although there is room for a sequel at the end of the story, there is enough resolution to the main plot for the ending not to feel like too much of a cliffhanger. Even so, it is at least a mild-moderate cliffhanger in some regards.

In terms of how this thirty-five year old novel has aged, it hasn’t aged well. In addition to the fact that the dystopian future of 2020 looks almost exactly like an exaggerated version of 1980s Britain, this is also a novel where the main character holds a few prejudiced attitudes and/or uses some fairly “politically incorrect” language. Still, despite this, the underlying story of the novel is still surprisingly compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric.

All in all, if you want a cheesy 1980s dystopian thriller, then it might be worth taking a look at this novel. Although it isn’t perfect, some parts of it are really gripping and it has a wonderfully gloomy and grim atmosphere that will make the dystopian present of 2019 look positively cheerful by comparison. But, despite the cover art, don’t go into this novel expecting it to be like “Blade Runner”. It’s more “punk” than “cyberpunk”.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just get a four.

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Review: “Erebus” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a very extended break from Clive Cussler novels and read books by other authors. As such, I felt like re-visiting an old favourite that I’ve been meaning to re-read for ages. I am, of course, talking about a splatterpunk horror novel from 1984 called “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson.

I first read this novel at some point during the early-mid ’00s. Although I’d read at least two other Shaun Hutson novels before I read “Erebus”, this novel really knocked my socks off! It was quite simply the coolest book in the world. The only other books I read during my teenage years that even seemed to come close to the thrilling, fast-paced ultra-gory horror of “Erebus” were S.D.Perry’s excellent novelisations of the “Resident Evil” videogames (which, again, I really must re-read sometime).

But, about a decade and a half later (and after a failed attempt at re-reading it during a time when I’d gone off the horror genre), I wondered if I’d still enjoy “Erebus” as much as I’d done when I was younger. Needless to say, I did.

So, let’s take a look at “Erebus”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the the 2002 Time Warner (UK) paperback reprint of “Erebus” that I read.

“Erebus” begins in a farm near the rural town of Wakely, where local aristocrats Terence and Laura Bristow are returning home to check on their new racehorse. However, when they enter their farm, the horse flies into a homicidal rage. Meanwhile, Nick Daley is starting work at the local abbatoir. New to the job, he’s somewhat nervous. Something not helped by the fact that the bull that is due to be slaughtered suddenly becomes very, very angry…

Some time afterwards, we join a character called Vic Tyler. Following a bereavement, he returned to Wakely to run the family farm. Things are going surprisingly well since his farmhands tell him that the farm is producing more than usual thanks to some new multi-purpose feed from a local chemical company….

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring town of Arkham, journalist Jo Ward gets a frantic phone call from a nervous scientist at Vanderburg Chemicals who urgently wants to meet her to share information…..

One of the first things that I will say about “Erebus” is that there’s nothing else quite like it. It is an absolutely brilliant fusion of the vampire, zombie and thriller genres that manages to become more than the sum of it’s parts. Yes, other stories (“Double Dead” by Chuck Wendig, “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson etc…) have blended the vampire and zombie genres, but none have done it in quite the same way as “Erebus”.

In short, this novel is “Resident Evilfrom before “Resident Evil” was even a thing. But, instead of mindless shambling zombies, the “infected” are semi-intelligent vampires…. who happen to look and act a lot like zombies. Likewise, the main characters aren’t highly-trained soldiers, but a farmer and a journalist. And the story takes place in a rural part of 1980s Britain. And it is amazing!

In terms of horror, this novel isn’t outright scary – but it still uses different types of horror very effectively.

The most prominent form of horror in “Erebus” is the gory horror that the splatterpunk genre is famous for. Seriously, the average horror movie looks like a Disney movie in comparison to this novel. By bombarding the reader with frequent scenes of ultra-grisly horror, Hutson achieves something more than mere shock value. After a while, the grisly parts of the story become an atmospheric background element. So, even when the shock value wears off, these scenes still allow the story to maintain a menacing, macabre tone that really helps to set the mood.

This isn’t to say that even more experienced splatterpunk readers won’t be shocked occasionally though. Seriously, Shaun Hutson is an artist when it comes to writing about death, decay and other disgusting things. I won’t spoil any of the novel’s more shocking moments, but let’s just say that – if this was a film – it’d probably get banned. Or, at the very least, provoke a few amusing Daily Mail headlines.

The novel’s gallons of gore are also complemented by several other types of horror too. The most prominent of these is good old-fashioned suspense. At first, this includes some wonderful gothic horror tropes such as mysterious figures moving in the shadows, the townspeople slowly taking on a deathly pallor and the town centre gradually becoming more and more deserted. But, as the novel progresses, this is replaced with the kind of fast-paced pulse-pounding action-packed suspense that you’d normally expect to see in a particularly gripping thriller novel. Seriously, it is an absolute delight to see something that is able to blend both types of suspense so expertly 🙂

In terms of characters, this novel is surprisingly good. Good horror relies on good characterisation, and “Erebus” certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Both Vic Tyler and Jo Ward come across as reasonably realistic characters, both of whom have interesting backstories that have shaped the course of their lives. Likewise, literally every other character in the story receives at least a small amount of highly-concentrated characterisation.

Hutson’s narration is also really interesting too. In short, he sometimes uses the type of descriptive and eloquent narration that, these days, would be considered more fitting for a literary novel than a “low budget” horror novel. This works astonishingly well, since the rather flowery and sophisticated narration is contrasted perfectly with the grim events and drearily mundane settings of the story. It’s a perfect parody of the type of idealised, bucolic, “literary” storytelling that you’d expect to read in a more aristocratic novel.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. One of the major themes in “Erebus” is the contrast between Britain and America – with both being presented in a gleefully cynical manner.

Rural Britain (England in particular) is shown to be reassuringly cosy, but also the type of dreary, mundane, dilapidated, old-fashioned place that you would expect. On the other hand, America is depicted like something from a dramatic Hollywood movie… albeit a gangster movie. This is shown in Jo’s character arc – she flees New York in order to escape the Mafia, but ends up in a dreary English village that soon becomes just as dangerous…. thanks to an American corporation and an ex-Mafia hit-man, who are in hock with the British government.

This is also reflected in the novel’s politics too. Whilst the novel contains some brilliantly anti-establishment moments that put the “punk” in splatterpunk (such as the ominous government conspiracy later in the story, or Wakely’s comically incompetent police force etc..), it also realistically reflects the conservatism of rural England too. For example, during Jo and Vic’s first date, their conversation briefly includes a conservative rant that could almost have come straight from the pages of the Daily Mail or Daily Express.

For the most part, this 34 year old novel has aged fairly well. Not only are the suspenseful parts of this story timelessly thrilling, but the gory moments are also timelessly grotesque too. Likewise, the total lack of modern mobile phones just adds to the suspense too. Even the more obviously 1980s elements of the story (like Hutson referring to a computer monitor as a “V.D.U.”) just add to the cosy retro charm of this story.

Even so, there are a couple of brief moments that have aged badly. For example, the fact that one of the novel’s villains is something of a racist is relayed to the reader in a third-person narrative segment that would probably be written slightly differently today. Likewise, the conservative rant mentioned earlier also uses some descriptions/terms that haven’t aged well at all.

In terms of length, this novel is absolutely perfect. At 309 pages, this story never really outstays it’s welcome or contains much in the way of padding. Seriously, I miss the days when novels actually had editors who cared about length. This is the kind of book that can easily be binge-read in a couple of satisfying two-hour sessions. Seriously, it’s refreshing to see a novel that isn’t a 400+ page tome 🙂

All in all, if you love gruesome horror fiction, if you’re a fan of the classic “Resident Evil” games and/or if you aren’t easily shocked, then you owe it to yourself to read this novel 🙂 It’s thrilling, ominous, grotesque and unlike anything you’ve read before. It’s both gloriously retro and (mostly) timeless. It’s both really good and “so bad that it’s good”. It’s a novel that amazed me when I was a teenager and it still kept me absolutely gripped when I re-read it at the age of… well, older than that. So, wait until after midnight, put some heavy metal music on in the background and start reading “Erebus”.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Blood Simple” (Film)

Well, after reading various things on the internet about a film called “Blood Simple”, I just had to watch it. After all, it had been likened to a film noir, a dark comedy and even an old horror comic. These are three of my favourite genres 🙂

So, after taking a look online, I found a reasonably cheap second-hand DVD of the film. However, I should probably point out that I got the “ordinary” version of the film, rather than the more recent director’s cut version.

I should probably also warn you that this review will contain some SPOILERS.

So, let’s take a look at “Blood Simple”:

“Blood Simple” is a crime thriller movie from 1984 that was directed by the Coen brothers (and, surprisingly, is the first Coen brothers film I’ve seen).

The film focuses on a sleazy nightclub owner in Texas called Marty who suspects that his wife Abby is having an affair with one of his employees called Ray. After hiring a rather dodgy private investigator to follow them, his suspicions are confirmed.

Well, I’m sure he’ll contact a lawyer and resolve the situation peacef… oh, wait, this is a film noir with “blood” in the title.

After a violent confrontation with Abby and Ray, Marty returns to the private investigator and offers him $10,000 to kill both of them. The investigator agrees, but quickly realises that it would be easier to cheat Marty out of the money, shoot him and frame Abby for the murder. It seems like the perfect crime. However, things don’t quite go according to plan….

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is nervously suspenseful, oppressively intense and nightmarishly bleak (in a good way). It is one of the most complex, atmospheric and well-plotted films I’ve seen in a while. I’ve never seen a film quite like this one.

Although the film has a lean and efficient running time of 95 minutes, the film’s deliberately slow and suspenseful pacing makes it feel considerably longer. This slowness helps to gradually increase the suspense and to give the audience time for the emotional impact of the film’s events to sink in. This is also emphasised by the fact that the film’s dialogue is often peppered with silences and things left unsaid, with almost all of the characters also speaking in a slow Texan drawl.

With the possible exception of “Blade Runner 2049”, you really don’t see this type of pacing in more modern movies.

One of the most distinctive things about this film is how it handles the topic of violence. Unlike a lot of slick thriller movies that trivialise violence, this film takes a grimly realistic approach to violence. Whenever something violent happens, it has painful physical and/or emotional consequences that reverberate throughout the entire film.

Yes, this isn’t exactly a “feel good” film, but it has one of the most dramatic and mature approaches to fictional violence that I’ve seen in a while.

This emphasis on the consequences of violence drives many of the events of the film’s complex story (which plays out like an intricately-plotted, but very grim, farce), whilst also giving the film a vividly nightmarish quality that draws the audience firmly into the drama. Although this film has relatively few violent moments, each one has a tremendous emotional impact because of the film’s focus on the consequences.

This is a dark, bleak, shocking film which will probably leave you speechless for a few moments when the credits roll. Yet, it is also a compellingly watchable film. It’s like watching the events of a nightmare unfold slowly. Yes, the film has a few light-hearted moments, but these just serve to make the rest of the film even more bleak by contrast.

It’s such a film noir that even the taxidermy statues smoke.

Interestingly, for a film that revolves around the consequences of crime and violence, the police are nowhere to be seen. The characters go to great lengths to cover up crimes, and yet there isn’t a single police officer in sight. As well as giving the film a menacingly amoral atmosphere, this lack of police also really helps to crank up the suspense and paranoia too.

The lack of police is also cleverly used to explore and critque American myths about guns and self-defence. One of the central objects in the film is Abby’s small revolver….

Pretty much the entire film revolves around this one little gun.

This gun is only ever loaded with three bullets. It is too far away to be used in one confrontation (where unarmed self-defence is shown to be more effective). It is later stolen and used to commit a murder. When a central character almost trips over it, it accidentally discharges and narrowly misses him. Another character later tries to use the gun for self-defence, but fails because three chambers are empty. Then it causes Ray and Abby’s relationship to break down.

Then, after all of this misery (and another shockingly horrific scene a while later), the film eventually ends with the pistol actually being used for legitimate self-defence…. Only for the person firing it to realise that they’ve shot a different person to the one they thought they had.

This one little “self-defence” gun is the source of most of the misery, chaos and horror in the film. As an extremely dark piece of satire about gun culture in the US, this film works really well. Like with “Blade Runner“, this is one of those truly mature films that manages to be both extremely violent and extremely anti-violence at the same time.

Another interesting connection with “Blade Runner” is that the private investigator is played by the guy who played Bryant in “Blade Runner” too.

The film’s bleak, paranoid and nightmarish atmosphere is helped by some absolutely brilliant lighting design and set design. As you would expect from something in the film noir genre, everywhere is often bathed in ominous shadows. But, in a cool 1980s-style touch (which, again, reminded me a little bit of “Blade Runner”), this darkness is sometimes contrasted with some really beautiful neon lighting.

Neon and darkness – is there anything more beautiful 🙂

Seriously, this film’s use of silhouettes and lighting is sublime 🙂

Plus, the bar/nightclub that a lot of the film revolves around is a really atmospheric location too.

Musically, this film contains a really interesting mixture of ominous music, old pop/disco music and country music. Although it isn’t exactly the type of music that you would traditionally expect to hear in a film noir, it fits in really well with the Texan setting and really helps to add even more atmosphere to the film.

All in all, this is an extremely well-made, intelligent, compelling, unique, mature and atmospheric film. It is also the kind of nightmarishly intense and suspensefully horrific film that will leave you in stunned silence when the credits roll. It has a complex plot, a unique personality and a laser focus on vivid small-scale drama. And, even though this film is over 30 years old, it has aged surprisingly well.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (Film)

Although I’m not a fan of *yawn* slasher movies, there is at least one exception to this rule. I am, of course, talking about Wes Craven’s “Nightmare On Elm Street” series. And, although I’ve seen the first and the fourth films in this franchise before, I ended up finding a cheap second-hand DVD boxset of all seven “Elm Street” films a while before writing this review.

It’s also a fairly hefty thing that rattles ominously when moved.

Even though I don’t know how many of these films I’ll watch or review, I thought that I’d take another look at the very first film in the franchise today. I have vague memories of watching it about a decade or so ago but, apart from a few scenes, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about it. So, this seemed like the perfect time to re-watch and review it. So, let’s get started.

Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

“A Nightmare On Elm Street” is a horror movie from 1984 which sets itself apart from the more generic slasher films of the time with a really clever twist- the “monster” kills people in their dreams. This allows for all sorts of psychological horror, “unreliable reality” and surrealist elements to appear in the film, making it considerably more imaginative and scary than the average slasher movie.

The film begins with some shots of a man fashioning a bladed glove in a workshop, whilst a terrified teenager – Tina – runs through the corridors of an abandoned building. There’s a jump scare… but it’s only a sheep.

More “baaaa!” than “booo!”, really.

Soon, however, the man with the bladed glove is chasing her. But, as he corners Tina, she suddenly wakes up screaming. It was just a dream!

And, thus concludes this film. As a cautionary tale about eating stilton after 9pm, it excels perfectly – 5/5. What, No? Only joking…

But, when she sees claw marks on her clothes, she isn’t so sure. The next day, Tina meets up with some of her friends from high school and they begin to talk about her nightmare. Although her friends laugh it off as just a dream, Tina is still somewhat freaked out by it.

Horror? In suburban America? You must be joking!

That evening, they end up hanging out together at one of their houses. Tina’s uncouth boyfriend shows up too, and they spend the night together. But, once Tina falls asleep, she has another nightmare. This time, however, she doesn’t wake up in time!

Hmmm… I wonder why?

With Tina’s boyfriend suspected of murder (and having had similar dreams herself), Tina’s friend Nancy decides to investigate…..

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, even more than three decades after it was made, it still has the power to scare. But, in a good way. Unlike some horror films that can leave you feeling uneasy for hours or days after you’ve watched them, this film focuses more on nail-biting suspense and unpredictable drama. The surreal and unrealistic elements of the film keep the drama unpredictable, whilst also ensuring that any fear doesn’t linger for too long after the credits roll.

The pacing in this film is, in a word, superb. Not only is this film from the days when films actually had editors (hence the film’s lean 92 minute length 🙂), there is also often just enough of a lull between the more suspenseful scenes to keep things unpredictable. Not only that, there are a few cleverly-placed “fake” scares, and a few “fake” scares that unexpectedly turn out not to be so fake. Unpredictablilty is a key part of the horror genre, and this film gets it absolutely right.

This is a good example of the kind of unpredictable thing this film does so well.

Not only that, one thing that surprised me when I rewatched “A Nightmare On Elm Street” is the fact that, aside from the ending and a few brief moments, this film contains relatively little of the dark humour that the series is so famous for. In this film, the killer (Freddy Krueger), is often more of an “ordinary” monster than a wise-cracking fiend. This lends the film more of a “serious” tone than I expected, which also helps to add to the suspense too.

On the plus side, it does include a rather cool “Evil Dead” reference.

And there’s a little bit of dark humour involving Freddy too. But, not as much as I expected.

The film’s tension is further heightened by the fact that, for a lot of the film, no-one believes Nancy and her friends. Although this is something of a common trope in the horror genre, it still works fairly well here. Likewise, because relatively few people see Freddy Krueger during the earlier parts of the film, at least a few other characters begin to question Nancy’s sanity too. Again, this is a common trope in the horror genre, but it still works here.

The only well-established trope that doesn’t make the film more effective is the old “puritanical morality” trope. Basically, in 80s slasher movies, the only characters that survived were the “wholesome” celibate, teetotal, non-smoking, drug-free etc… ones. Although this film tries to subvert this slightly by showing a “good” character (eg: Nancy’s boyfriend) being killed, it’s still a major part of the film and it makes some parts of the story seem slightly old-fashioned and slightly less unpredictable than they should be.

No prizes for guessing who survives this film…

However, this trope is examined in a very clever way in another part of the film. When we learn more about Freddy’s backstory, a certain level of moral ambiguity is introduced into the film. Basically, Freddy was a serial killer who walked free from court due to a technicality. This then prompted the “morally upstanding” members of the town to track him down and exact cruel vigilante justice, by burning him in a furnace.

So, the film is basically about one especially evil murderer versus a town of mildly less evil murderers. Now, THIS is how to write a horror movie!

So, yes, this film is the perfect mixture of familiar tropes and innovation. Whilst you might think “it’s just an old horror movie“, it manages to set itself apart from other horror films of the era in all sorts of clever ways.

In terms of set design, lighting and special effects, this film is reasonably good. Not only are there a few expertly choreographed blood-drenched scares, but even with the special effects technology of the time, the “nightmare” sequences mostly still manage to be very immersive and dramatic. Likewise, the film’s horror elements also allow for some really cool lighting and set design too:

Seriously, if there’s one thing that old movies are great at, it’s lighting!

And set design too!

Most of the special effects still work well, although this one looks a little silly by modern standards.

All in all, this is a classic horror movie that has aged surprisingly well. In addition to being timelessly suspenseful, it is also – as I mentioned earlier – an example of horror done well. Whilst you’re watching the film, you’ll be on the edge of your seat for large parts of it. But, thanks to some clever writing and storytelling, the fear doesn’t outstay it’s welcome once the credits have rolled.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.