Three Things Horror Movies Can Teach Us About Writing Gruesome Horror Fiction (That Is Actually Scary)

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed since I got back into watching films again (and rediscovered the joys of horror movies recently) is how differently horror movies can sometimes handle scenes of gruesome and gory horror when compared to horror novels.

Although each medium obviously has it’s own set of techniques that are designed to make the most of the format’s strengths, horror films can still offer a few interesting lessons about how to make your story’s gruesome moments actually scary.

1) Less is more: This one is fairly well-known, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. One of the classic features of some types of horror fiction – especially horror novels from the 1980s (such as Shaun Huton’s “Erebus” or “Breeding Ground) – is ludicrously “over the top” gruesome descriptions. After all, unlike films, horror novels don’t have to pass a censor before publication. So, they can devote entire pages to lavish descriptions of death, injury, decay etc… However, whilst this technique can be used to create a grim atmosphere and/or to gross out inexperienced horror readers, it isn’t exactly scary.

Horror “works” best when it takes place in the reader’s imagination. So, what you don’t describe can often be more effective than what you do describe. Whilst a detailed gruesome description of a horrific event might briefly shock the reader – a slightly less gruesome scene that implies these horrific events will linger in your reader’s imagination for much longer. And, because your reader’s imagination has to provide the descriptions, then they will instantly be more disturbing than anything you could actually write. Remember, most horror novel readers are already fans of the horror genre.

I recently saw an absolutely great example of this technique in a scary 1990s sci-fi horror film called “Event Horizon“. Whilst the film certainly splashes a lot of stage blood around, the grimmest and most horrifying moments are often left to the viewer’s imagination – and are all the more disturbing for it. It is a film that will show you something really gruesome, whilst also leaving the extremely gruesome elements of what is happening to your imagination through clever editing, camera angles etc…. This instantly makes the special effects much more “realistic” than they would be if the film-makers showed you literally every detail.

So, whilst there is a tradition of extended passages of ultra-gruesome descriptions in horror fiction, don’t be afraid to leave the most horrific details to your reader’s imagination sometimes. This can make the difference between a cartoonishly “over the top” moment and a genuinely scary scene of horror.

2) Plot matters more than descriptions: If you actually want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then they need to be something that would still be scary even if they were completely bloodless.

In other words, you need to pay attention to the concept and situation surrounding your story’s gruesome events rather than the results of those events. If the situation is inherently disturbing or has an extremely dark sense of humour and/or a shocking level of cruel inventiveness to it, then it will be frightening even if it doesn’t include that much in the way of gruesome descriptions.

A great cinematic example of this is probably Dario Argento’s “Suspiria“. Despite this film’s fearsome reputation, there’s relatively little stage blood on screen. Most of the film’s gruesome moments also use fairly low-budget and/or unrealistic effects. Yet, not only will these scenes make you grimace in horror but they will probably also haunt you for a while after you’ve finished watching.

Why? Because the horror comes from the events rather than the stage blood. This is a film where characters die in drawn-out, bizarre and often extremely painful ways. These things are what horrifies the viewer. Even without a single drop of stage blood, these scenes would still be incredibly difficult to watch.

Another good example of this technique is the French horror film “Martyrs” (2008) – a film that I have watched once and will probably never watch again. It’s that shocking and horrific! Yet, whilst it certainly includes it’s fair share of gruesome special effects, they aren’t what makes the film so horribly traumatic to watch. It is the film’s brutal, nihilistic, cruel and just generally grim plot that makes it such a gruelling experience. Like with “Suspiria”, it would be just as difficult to watch even without the gruesome special effects.

So, if you want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then you need to think carefully about what is happening. If the horror in your story comes from the plot itself, then your story will be frightening. But, if the horror comes from the gruesome descriptions, then your story will be less frightening.

3) Realism and fantasy: Following on from this point, scenes of gruesome horror are generally more frightening and disturbing if the audience thinks that they could theoretically happen in real life. This is why a very gory comedy horror movie like “Cockneys Vs. Zombies” (2012) is hilariously funny to watch, but a much less gruesome movie like “Suspiria” is genuinely shocking and disturbing.

In “Cockneys Vs. Zombies”, the main antagonists are literally zombies. Zombies don’t exist. On the other hand, although “Suspiria” includes some paranormal events, most of the film’s more shocking and grotesque scenes are very much “realistic” examples of human evil and cruelty.

This isn’t to say that you can’t include fantastical elements if you want your story to be scary, but they have to be “realistic” in some way or another. For example, whilst the gruesome events of “Event Horizon” are set in deep space and in the future, the film is still scary because it takes a very understated and “realistic” attitude to how everything is presented. The spaceships are grimy and utilitarian places rather than unrealistically utopian “Star Trek”-like spaceships. The characters all have fairly realistic personalities, flaws and emotions.

Even when horrific stuff starts happening, most of the more “fantastical” elements are deliberately left vague or unreliable in some way. Although the film’s sci-fi setting means that it will take longer before you start to suspend your disbelief and feel fear, it is still able to scare you because it takes a very “realistic” approach to it’s story. So, if you want to make a gruesome story scary, you need to make sure that your reader feels that the events of your story could theoretically happen somewhere or someplace.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (18th June 2020)

Well, due to time reasons, today’s artwork ended up being a rather quick piece of gothic horror-style digital art (mostly created using this open-source program).

As usual, this picture is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Scorched” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Event Horizon” (Film)

Well, I’m still in the mood for watching horror films. So, I thought that I’d take another look at a sci-fi horror film from 1997 called “Event Horizon” that I’ve been meaning to re-watch for absolutely ages.

This was another film that I first encountered on late-night television during my mid-teens. Being a fan of the “Alien” films, I was eager to see another gritty sci-fi horror movie and foolishly didn’t think that “Event Horizon” would be very scary. Oh, how incredibly naive I was!

Still, like all genuinely scary horror movies, “Event Horizon” lingered in my memory for many years afterwards. And, eventually, fear turned into morbid curiosity. So, when I was browsing a charity shop in Petersfield back in 2018, I was delighted to notice a DVD copy of it on the shelves 🙂 But, because I was going through a major “reading novels instead of watching films” phase at the time, it languished on my “to watch” pile until shortly before I wrote this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Event Horizon”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS. This film is at it’s scariest when you don’t know what to expect. So, if you want to avoid spoilers, then the short version of this review is that this film is a very good sci-fi horror movie that you should watch… if you are fearless enough.

This film also contains FLICKERING LIGHTS/IMAGES, although I don’t know whether they are intense or fast enough to be an issue or not.

The film begins with a brief text segment that explains how space travel has progressed in the 21st century (apparently, we’re supposed to have a moon base by 2015!) before explaining that, in 2040, the research vessel Event Horizon was launched with the mission of exploring beyond the boundaries of the solar system but was lost somewhere around Neptune. It is considered to be the worst space disaster in human history.

Seven years later, a scientist called Weir (Sam Neill) has a nightmare about a corpse floating inside an abandoned spaceship. He wakes up on board a space station hovering above Earth, just in time to hear a tannoy message telling him that the U.S.A.C rescue vessel Lewis & Clark is ready to depart. He boards the ship and has a rather brief meeting with the crew before getting into a protective stasis pod for the high-speed journey ahead.

If “Alien” has taught me anything, it is that if a spaceship includes these, then it usually isn’t a good sign….

Fifty-six days later, the ship arrives at it’s destination. Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) calls a crew meeting to ask Weir what is going on. After all, Miller and his crew were supposed to be on leave when they got a call about this mysterious classified rescue mission.

Weir explains that the Event Horizon was actually a highly-advanced experimental vessel. It was performing tests on a wormhole-based device that he’d designed in order to allow faster-than-light travel between two points in space. But, when the ship entered the wormhole at one end of the route, it didn’t emerge on the other end.

Now, seven years later, it has mysteriously reappeared near Neptune. And Weir wants answers…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, once again, it was scarier than I’d expected it to be. Imagine a mixture of “Silent Hill”, “Sphere” and “Hellraiser”, with strong hints of “Alien” and H.P.Lovecraft, and this should give you some vague idea of what to expect. This is the kind of film that seems like a fun “Aliens”-style military sci-fi thriller at first and then gradually becomes much bleaker and more horrific as it progresses.

Seriously, if you’re expecting something as light-hearted and cheerful as the “Alien” movies, then you’re in for a terrifying surprise…

So, I should probably start by talking about the film’s horror elements. Although this film is at it’s most terrifying when you see it for the very first time and don’t know what to expect, it can still evoke a genuinely disturbing mixture of nerve-wracking suspense and bleak cosmic horror upon repeat viewings. And, as you’d expect from any good horror story, this film contains a plethora of different types of horror.

The most prominent types of horror here are psychological horror and cosmic horror. The main characters find themselves trapped in a claustrophobic abandoned spaceship that re-plays their worst memories and contains the grisly evidence of a trip to a hell dimension of some kind or another. A hell dimension that seems to be slowly seeping into our world. All of this is handled really expertly, with the film showing the viewer enough to make them realise that the main characters are in serious danger, but leaving enough to the viewer’s imagination to preserve a chilling feeling of mystery.

Yes, this is more of a psychological horror film than you might expect.

In addition to several quick cutaway shots that mimic sudden intrusive thoughts and various scenes which show the psychological effects of the film’s events on some characters, this film’s extremely unsettling, tense and bleak atmosphere is also helped by the fact that everything is on a timer because the ship’s CO2 filters have a limited lifespan. Initially, the twenty-hour time limit makes “Event Horizon” seem more like a suspenseful thriller movie but, as the film progresses, this gradually becomes more of a ticking death-clock that further enhances the chilling atmosphere of nihilistic bleakness.

Plus, not only does this film contain some brilliantly nightmarish gore effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clive Barker novel or a Cradle Of Filth music video, these effects are often made even more shocking via the clever technique of showing you something really horrific… but leaving the extremely horrific details of it to your imagination. Given everything the film shows you, what it doesn’t show you is probably ten times more horrifying.

For example, when the rescue team find horrifying footage of the ship’s previous crew, we don’t get to see much of it at first. Even later on, we only see a few nightmarish seconds of what happened to them.

Yes, this is apparently the result of self-censorship on the part of the studio. But, unusually for studio meddling, the reduced gore actually improves the film. By keeping the gore effects shocking but relatively brief, they become a disturbing extension of the film’s psychological horror elements – rather than cartoonish “gore for the sake of gore”. This is how to make a gory horror film actually scary!

The film’s sci-fi elements also complement the film’s horror elements absolutely perfectly. In the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, this is a film about humanity meddling with things that they should not meddle with. It is a film that is as much, or more, about what we don’t know about the universe as it is about technological accomplishment. It is a film about scientific hubris gone horribly awry. And, although we never actually see an alien creature in the film, it is very strongly implied that some kind of malevolent extraterrestrial intelligence from the hell dimension has taken over the ship. This is Lovecraftian “cosmic horror” at it’s finest!

In addition to a really clever scientific premise, the film also takes very heavy technological and stylistic inspiration from the “Alien” films. Not only do all of the spaceships have that wonderfully gloomy and grungy 1970s-90s “used future” look to them, but the main characters also quite literally have to spend long space journeys in stasis too. The film’s technology feels futuristic enough to be fascinating, yet most of it is still grounded enough in reality to immerse the viewer in the story.

Seriously, I miss the gloomy, industrial sci-fi of the 1970s-90s.

I can’t talk about this film’s horror elements without talking about the absolutely stellar set design and lighting too. Although I’ve mentioned that many of the locations have a realistic gloomy and grungy “used future” appearance, this film isn’t afraid to be even more creative with the set designs when it wants to scare the viewer. Expect to see random things covered in ominous spikes, a spinning corridor that looks like a meat grinder of some kind and other creatively creepy things like this.

Yes, this door literally has spikes on the edge of it. I dread to think of all the health and safety paperwork…

Likewise, the film’s lighting really adds to the atmosphere. In addition to the wonderfully gloomy chiaroscuro lighting that turns up in a lot of 1990s films, this film also takes a little bit of inspiration from Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic “Suspiria” when it comes to the lighting design 🙂 Although this is done in a slightly more subtle way than in “Suspiria”, this film occasionally uses an “unrealistic” palette of red, blue and/or green lighting to add a hint of nightmarish surrealism to the events of the film.

Not to mention that these bold colours also contrast brilliantly with the gloomy aesthetic of the rest of the film.

And just take a look at this ominous green glow!

As for the characters and acting, they’re really good. Although you shouldn’t expect novel-quality characterisation here (again, studio meddling), we get enough glimpses of several characters’ backstories to make us care about them. Not to mention that all of the characters also seem like fairly realistic people too.

Likewise, in the best sci-fi horror tradition, all of the characters also seem like suitably intelligent and competent people too. Not only does this allow for a lot of conflict between Weir’s coldly scientific and sceptical demeanour and the more practical survival instincts and technical/military knowledge of the rescue crew, but Miller is one of the best “captain” characters that I’ve seen for a while and I cannot praise Laurence Fishburne highly enough here 🙂 Miller is gruff and confident enough to really project an understated feeling of experience and authority, whilst also being emotional enough to really come across as a realistic character.

Laurence Fishburne might be most famous for his role in “The Matrix”, but his character here is as good or even better.

The film’s special effects also hold up really well too. Although there are a few brief moments of “old CGI” (eg: objects floating in zero gravity, a rippling water-like surface etc…), the film’s effects are mostly practical and are also helped out a lot by the gloomy lighting too. Plus, this is the kind of film that tells a compelling enough story that you probably won’t be paying too much attention to the technical details of the special effects.

All in all, this is an excellent sci-fi horror film 🙂 Not only will it scare you more than you might expect, but it does all of this in a really clever way. If you want an example of sci-fi horror at it’s scariest, then this film is certainly worth taking a look at. It’s kind of like a mixture of “Silent Hill”, “Hellraiser”, “Alien” and H. P. Lovecraft 🙂 Yes, there is apparently a “lost” longer version of the film but, taken on it’s own merits, this film is still a sci-fi horror classic.

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

Review: “Suspiria” (1977 Version) (Film)

Well, I was in the mood for a horror film. So, I thought that I’d take a look at one that I’ve been meaning to re-watch again for absolutely ages. I am, of course, talking about Dario Argento’s 1977 film “Suspiria” 🙂

My very first encounter with this film happened when I was about fourteen. I’d heard that Dario Argento was a famous horror director, whose films had sometimes been censored during the 1980s. Of course, to my teenage self, this made his films seem cool and rebellious – and I really wanted to watch one of them. So, when I happened to notice that “Suspiria” was being shown on TV one night, I stayed up late to watch it… and then turned the television off half an hour into the film because I was quite literally too terrified to watch any more of it. This was one of the first times a horror movie had really seriously scared me. So, it was something special.

Yet, though the fear faded over time, the film lingered in my imagination. I wanted to know more about it. Four years later, I got a copy of the film on DVD and – as a precaution – made sure to watch it in bright daylight. Surprisingly, I actually made it to the end of the film the second time round. And, now, over a decade after this, I was suddenly reminded of “Suspiria” again after I started re-playing a terrifying horror game called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” that still frightens me almost as much as my very first viewing of “Suspiria” did.

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

Unfortunately, the film’s iconic DVD cover/poster art is probably “Not Safe For Work”, so I probably shouldn’t include it here.

The film begins with a voice-over explaining that the main character – Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) – has travelled to Germany from America in order to study at a prestigious dance academy.

So, yes, a fairly classic set-up for a horror movie.

When she leaves the airport, it is a dark and rainy night. Several taxis pass her by until one eventually decides to pick her up. After a hesitant conversation with the gruff driver and a long gloomy journey, the taxi pulls up outside the ornate academy building.

But, when Suzy presses the intercom beside the door, the voice on the other end doesn’t know who she is. The disembodied voice tells her to go away. Just as she is about to leave, the door creaks open and a terrified woman rushes out into the darkness, muttering random words.

As Suzy takes the taxi back to the local town, we see the terrified woman running to a friend’s apartment. She is too shocked and traumatised to tell her friend what has happened to her and eventually ends up hiding in the bathroom. However, a mysterious killer is lurking outside the bathroom window!

The next day, Suzy returns to the academy and is let in. No-one there seems to know who was on the intercom the previous night. And, although everyone is shocked by the grisly murder of a recently-expelled student, life at the academy goes on as normal. Yet, it doesn’t take Suzy to realise that there’s something strange about the academy…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that there is nothing else quite like it 🙂 In addition to a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and some timelessly shocking moments, this film is also an absolutely stunning work of visual art too 🙂 Yes, some elements of the story and dialogue are a bit “corny”, but this just adds to the charm of this film. It’s a truly original, bizarre and creative horror film that every horror fan should watch at least once.

I should probably start by talking about this film’s lighting and set design, because it is absolutely exquisite. This is one of those films, like “Blade Runner“, where pretty much every frame is a beautiful work of art 🙂 Seriously, this is an “art film” in the very best possible sense of the term 🙂

This film looks absolutely amazing 🙂

This looks like something from the early-mid 1990s… But it’s from 1977! This film is ahead of it’s time 🙂

Many of the locations have a wonderfully ornate Art Nouveau/Art Deco look to them that is both timelessly old and timelessly modern, both gloriously lavish and coldly minimalist etc…

These superb sets also provide a jaw-droppingly beautiful backdrop that contrasts absolutely brilliantly with the film’s horrifying events, ensuring that the viewer never wants to look away from the terrifying events on screen. Not only that, the highly stylised and incredibly creative set designs also lend the film a wonderfully eerie and otherworldly feel, like something from a nightmare.

It’s also kind of like a much gloomier and more gothic version of 1960s psychedelia sometimes too 🙂

This film also contains some of the best and most creative lighting that I’ve ever seen 🙂 A lot of the film’s lighting consists of bold primary and secondary colours, with the film also making absolutely excellent use of colour theory in order to unsettle the viewer.

Whether it is how the film will often contrast red and blue lighting to evoke a sense of unease or how it will use changes in lighting to highlight various things (eg: an open door glowing bright red against a green or blue backdrop etc..), the film approaches lighting with an artist’s sensibility and it is an absolute joy to see 🙂

This film’s lighting design is completely “unrealistic”, and utterly amazing 🙂

And just check out this gloriously creepy red and blue lighting 🙂

Not only does the “unrealistic” lighting lend the film a “more vivid than real life” atmosphere, but the film also makes absolutely stellar use of darkness too 🙂 Like with earlier “film noir” movies and later films from the 1980s and 1990s, this film’s lighting works so well because it stands out against a dark backdrop 🙂

Yes, this type of chiaroscuro lighting goes all the way back to baroque artists like Caravaggio, but it is timelessly cool and atmospheric 🙂 And, as a fan of this type of lighting, it is an absolute joy to see it used so often and so well in this film 🙂

The film even includes at least one moment of traditional tenebrous Caravaggio-style chiaroscuro lighting too 🙂

Anyway, enough art criticism. I should probably talk about the rest of the film….

As for the film’s horror elements – although experienced fans of the horror genre will probably only find it moderately creepy, it still had me on the edge of my seat a few times. A lot of this film’s best horror elements are often slightly more on the subtle side of things and the film primarily relies on lots of nail-biting suspense, whispering voices, a creepy atmosphere, occult moments, ominous mysteries and a few subtly chilling characters to unsettle the viewer. Although there are certainly some jump scares and other shocking moments that will make you wince and flinch, this film is more of a slow burn than you might expect.

Seriously, this film has a wonderfully scary atmosphere 🙂

Surprisingly, this film isn’t as gory as you might expect. However, the film’s relatively few gruesome moments will shock you and linger in your memory because of their design, rather than the (relatively small) amount of bright red stage blood on screen. Like in old-school “video nasties”, some 1970s-80s horror novels and the “Saw” movies, this film’s stylised scenes of gory horror have a cruel inventiveness and dark Grand Guignol theatricality to them that is far more disturbing than anything you actually see on screen.

This film is a masterclass on how to make low-budget gory horror actually scary. Although many of the gore effects are very obviously ultra-cheap practical effects, they still have an incredible impact because the film not only knows what to leave to the imagination (making these effects seem even gorier than they actually are) but because the real horror comes from what is actually happening. The gore effects are secondary to the horror of the bizarre and cruel events that cause them to appear. Even without a single drop of stage blood, these moments would still be incredibly disturbing.

In terms of the film’s story, it is technically fairly minimalist. However, this minimalist story actually works here because of what the film doesn’t show or tell you. This is a film that tells you enough to give you a sense of what is going on, but has so many intriguingly mysterious background characters, strange unexplained events etc… that you really get the sense that you’re only glimpsing part of something much larger and creepier than what you actually see on screen. Like the best horror, this film creates a brilliant tension between curiosity and dread that lingers in the imagination long after the credits have rolled.

But, despite my praise for the story, I should probably talk about the script and dialogue. There are old videogames out there with better dialogue and voice-acting than this film! The film’s credits hint that the English dialogue was dubbed onto the film after filming and it really shows.

Imagine the voice-acting in a 1990s videogame and this should give you a vague idea what to expect. Likewise, imagine the exposition-heavy and “functional” script of an old videogame and it wouldn’t be too far from parts of this film’s script. Yet, far from being off-putting, all of this exposition, melodrama and woodeness just adds to the charm of this film 🙂 If you’ve ever played the original “Resident Evil” videogame, you’ll know that there’s something oddly fun and reassuring about corny dialogue. It is an imperfection that makes everything else perfect.

The dialogue and voice-acting really isn’t one of the film’s strengths, but the sheer corniness of it just adds to the fun.

In terms of the acting and characters, they’re surprisingly good. Although you shouldn’t expect giant amounts of characterisation here, the fact that we only glimpse the surface of many of the film’s slightly odd characters just adds to the intrigue and atmosphere of the film. Likewise, scenes of horror are nothing without good acting and the film’s main characters certainly seem suitably frightened by everything that is going on. Yes, the script and voice-acting add a bit of stylised fun and cheesiness to all of this serious acting – but this just enhances the nightmarish surrealism of certain moments of the film 🙂

Musically, this film is absolutely stellar. Although at least 50% of the film’s music consists of variations on Goblin’s famous (and really cool) gothic synth-rock theme tune for the film, the film handles it’s soundtrack absolutely expertly 🙂 Like with the crackling radio in the old “Silent Hill” videogames, expect this piece of music to start playing shortly before something scary happens. It creates an almost Pavlovian association that really helps to ramp up the creepiness during some parts of the film.

Likewise, in a similar way to the original “Resident Evil” videogame, this film also isn’t afraid to use slightly cheesy “melodramatic” instrumental music in order to heighten some moments of horror. And, surprisingly, this works. For example, whilst the “maggots” scene would have been subtly disturbing and unsettling without any music, the “over the top” instrumental background music really elevates it to something gloriously theatrical and unsettlingly dramatic. Seriously, the film’s soundtrack really adds to the horror 🙂

All in all, this film is not only a timeless classic of horror film-making that still retains a lot of it’s power to shock and disturb, but it is also a timelessly beautiful work of Art (with a capital “A”) too. Almost every frame of this film wouldn’t be out of place in an art gallery 🙂 Yes, some elements of it are a bit corny or wooden, but – like the random studio clips and mistakes in Beatles songs – these are the imperfections that make this film perfect. This is a creative and unique film that transcends it’s low-budget limitations and becomes something more than just a horror movie 🙂

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

Three Things Horror Writers Can Learn From A Horror Game

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written about the horror genre and I thought that I’d talk about it today because I ended up re-playing the early parts of a really scary modern survival horror game from 2018 called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” – which involves sneaking around a mansion and hiding from various bloodthirsty killers.

Although computer games and novels are completely different mediums, I was surprised to notice that this game contained some interesting lessons for writing scary horror fiction.

This article may contain some mild-moderate PLOT SPOILERS for this game though.

1) Use darkness carefully: One of the most well-known elements of the horror genre is darkness and gloom. After all, a fear of the dark is one of the oldest and most common fears. Yet, darkness only really “works” in horror stories when it is used carefully and with an awareness of how it works.

Darkness itself is an entirely neutral and non-scary thing. All it does is to make it more difficult to see things. Although this is commonly used to suggest scary things lurking out of sight and heighten the audience’s feelings of fear, I recently had a reminder that darkness can sometimes actually make situations less scary.

When I started replaying “Remothered: Tormented Fathers”, I messed around with the game’s brightness settings. I’d initially set them fairly high in the hope that it would make the game “less scary”. But, it was only when I ended up lowering them that the game actually became less scary. I was a bit puzzled by this for a few seconds before I realised why the added gloominess lessened the fear. It revealed lots of extra shadows that I could hide in if I needed to. And, although the game’s villains also use sound to find you, the darkness at least gave me the reassuring feeling that my character was harder to see.

Here’s a comparison to show you what I mean. The darker of the two images looks scarier, but actually feels less scary in-game.

In other words, darkness works both ways. So, don’t be afraid to show your characters using it to their advantage in order to hide from scary things. Conversely, if you really want to scare your reader, create a power imbalance by giving the adversary in your story better night vision than your main character (or, like in the game, very sensitive hearing). Without this, darkness just “levels the playing field” between your main character and whatever is scaring them. So, if you’re going to use darkness in a horror story, be aware of the power dynamics of it.

Likewise, scenes of horror that take place in brightly-lit locations can be more frightening than you might think – because it’s harder for your characters to hide and because it gives you an excuse to describe everything in lots more detail too. And, talking of descriptions…

2) Locations matter: One of the most important parts of any horror story is the setting. The more unique and interesting it is, the more memorable, scary and re-readable your story will be. Why? Because a concrete sense of place (created through vivid descriptions of a small number of unique and/or recurring locations) will linger in your reader’s memory longer than anything else will.

Not only that, if the story takes place somewhere interesting, then your reader will probably feel curious enough about it to want to revisit it – even if they are frightened of doing so. This tension between curiosity and fear is one of the best ways to create scary horror.

For example, although the “creepy mansion” setting isn’t exactly uncommon in horror games (it goes back at least as far as 1992’s “Alone In The Dark), “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” does a few interesting and unique things with it. For example, everything in the game (eg: the technology, costume designs, colour palettes, interior design etc..) has a subtle “1970s/80s horror movie” atmosphere to it and the mansion contains lots of random everyday clutter that gives the place a “lived in” feeling.

Here are a couple of examples. The CRT televisions, retro fashions and muted colour palettes instantly make this location a bit more distinctive and unique.

This feeling of place is also improved by the fact that the vast majority of the game takes place within a relatively small number of locations, allowing the player to memorise everywhere and build a mental “map” of the mansion. Likewise, at the beginning of the game, you get a chance to explore part of the mansion without any danger. Not only does this mean that, when new locations are revealed, they feel creepier and more unfamiliar, but it also evokes a tense feeling of claustrophobia (despite the mansion’s long corridors and wide hallways).

But, what does any of this have to do with fiction? Well, although novels aren’t interactive or visual, a focus on a few well-described recurring locations can be used to heighten the reader’s sense of fear in a number of clever ways. They can be used to evoke feelings of claustrophobia. Changes to familiar locations can unsettle the reader. Unusual locations make your story feel unpredictable. Seriously, don’t underestimate the value of good, well-described settings in horror stories.

3) Silliness and scariness: The first killer that you have to evade in “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” is an elderly character called “Mr. Felton”. Felton is dressed in nothing but an apron and a pair of wellingtons and will occasionally grumble about random things like mouldy food in the kitchen or sing various nursery rhymes. This character sounds more amusingly silly than frightening.

Yet, although Felton sounds like a “silly” character, these are some of the scariest parts of the game. Why? Because Felton is presented as a genuine threat to the player (Felton cannot be killed, can run surprisingly quickly, carries a sharp sickle and will also shout menacing insults at you). Plus, if you’ve completed the game before and know the backstory, then some of the earlier “silly” details actually make total sense in context and will become considerably more “realistic” and/or chilling as a result.

For example, the nursery rhymes hint at the later reveal that a traumatic event left part of Felton’s personality “frozen” at an early age. Although the game doesn’t tell you that this is why Felton sings nursery rhymes, it is a realistic and practical extension of this character’s tragic backstory that rewards astute players who actually pay attention to the story.

So, what does this have to do with horror fiction? Horror, by it’s very nature, is silly. Monsters, zombies, ghosts, vampires etc… don’t exist. If you actually want to make these “silly” things scary, you not only have to think about them in a more “realistic” and “practical” way, but you also need to present them as a geniune threat to the characters too. Plus, although the monsters themselves might be more silly than scary, the suspense and feeling of danger surrounding them are what scares the audience in well-written horror stories.

For example, the scariest parts of “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” aren’t when Felton charges at you with sickle raised. They’re the moments when you can’t see Felton. When you’re hiding behind something and you can hear footsteps getting closer or a door opening. When you haven’t seen Felton for a while and just know that this won’t last for much longer. A lot of the game’s scariness comes from the suspense surrounding Felton rather than the moments when Felton actually appears.

So, if you want to make something “silly” actually scary, then think about it practically, make it clear that the main characters are in danger and be sure to focus on suspense.

——————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Soul Survivors” (Film)

Well, I was still in the mood for cheesy early 2000s horror movies. So, I thought that I’d finally take a look at a film that I’ve been morbidly curious about for at least a decade and a half, I am of course talking about a film from 2001 called “Soul Survivors”.

If I remember rightly, I first noticed a DVD of this film in a shop in Plymouth during a holiday in the early-mid 2000s. Intrigued and amused by the bizarre idea of a “12 Certificate” horror movie (for reference, most “PG-13” US horror movies usually get a “15” certificate in the UK), I ended up buying a copy of it out of morbid curiosity. It then languished unwatched for many years, being one of those films I never quite felt enthusiastic enough to watch. Then, a week or so before writing this review, I suddenly remembered it and felt the same sense of morbid curiosity.

But, when I searched for my copy of it, I suddenly realised that I must have sold or given it away at some point within the preceding decade. Luckily, second hand DVDs of the film were going fairly cheaply online (though, even at about two or three quid, that’s still relatively expensive for this film)… and I decided to get another copy.

So, let’s take a look at “Soul Survivors”. This review will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for both this film and for another horror film too.

The film is set in America and begins with a woman called Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) saying goodbye to her parents and getting ready to go to university in a town called Middleton. Her boyfriend Sean (Casey Affleck), her slightly creepy ex-boyfriend Matt (Wes Bentley) and her “edgy” hard-partying “alternative” friend Annabel (Eliza Dushku) go along for the ride too.

And Cassie also brings an adorable stuffed dinosaur along for the ride too.

Sometime later, they visit a party at a fraternity house. Annabel says that she’s heard of a much more interesting party and the group decide to go there instead. It is some kind of ultra-stylised gothic rave at an abandoned church – filled with loud music, blazing torches and people dressed in dark clothes. So far, so cool.

And, yes, the music here is the kind of late 1990s/early 2000s industrial/goth music that you’d expect, or at least a generic approximation of it.

However, a creepy masked man accosts Cassie whilst she is dancing. She shoves him away and walks outside. Sean joins her and they talk about their relationship for a while, with Cassie feeling bizarrely hesitant to say “I love you” to him. Matt overhears this and is filled with brooding angst, between sips from a random hip flask. Eventually he awkwardly announces his presence and they decide to go home.

Whilst Sean goes into the club to look for Annabel, Matt has an angst-ridden conversation with Cassie before creepily trying to kiss her. Sean sees this and gets the wrong idea. This causes a bit of drama during the rainy car journey home. Cassie is the designated driver, but she gets distracted by the argument she’s having with Sean. A car suddenly swerves in front of the group’s car and both cars go over some railings and plunge into the darkness.

As you can probably guess, this isn’t one of those “everyone walks away unharmed” kind of accidents.

Some time later, the group attend Sean’s funeral. A few weeks after this, Annabel wants to help Cassie forget her troubles by suggesting regular nights out and Matt also sees an opportunity to get closer to Cassie, but Cassie is still unsettled by everything that is happened. A feeling that only intensifies when she starts having disturbing hallucinations and begins to notice a creepy masked man following her…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is a bad film. There isn’t even any redeeming “so bad that it’s good” fun to be found here. I went into this film with low expectations and still emerged bitterly disappointed by it.

Whether it is the generic characters, the annoying teen angst, the excessive plot twist foreshadowing, the insultingly stupid ending or even the fact that the purgatorial torment of watching this film feels considerably longer than the eighty-five minutes listed on the DVD case, this is a film that is best avoided at all costs. And the real shame is that it could have been so much better. Seriously, there are a few small hints of a good film buried under the literal mountains of awfulness.

So, I should probably start by talking about this film’s horror elements, which are a mixture of reasonably ok psychological horror, un-scary jump scares, a few creepy characters, an ultra-predictable “shocking” plot twist, some slasher movie style segments, gothic horror and a few blood-spattered hallucinations.

Some of the psychological horror segments are actually quite inventive.

And there are actually a few slightly suspenseful moments too.

Although these horror elements do become vaguely suspenseful, slightly creepy and/or mildly compelling sometimes – especially in the later parts of the film – the film then completely squanders all of this with a truly dreadful ending. Seriously, this is one of the worst endings that I’ve ever seen!

Imagine the excellent movie “Jacob’s Ladder” – but with it’s genuinely shocking and well-handled final twist telegraphed very far in advance in giant forty-foot letters… and with an utterly corny “It was all a dream!” happy ending tacked onto it at the very last minute too. Words fail me!

This should be a deleted scene and NOT the film’s ending!

Still, although the film very clearly hints that it is set in some kind of purgatory-like limbo between life and death long before it goes through the belated formality of actually telling you this, some parts of this are at least handled in a reasonably clever way via the subtle use of symbolism.

Whether it is the fiery goth club or the headstone-like crossed tile patterns underneath the swimming pool or the fact that the goth club and the church both appear in exactly the same building etc… I have to give this film praise for some of it’s symbolism. If “Soul Survivors” had limited the foreshadowing to just this subtle symbolism – then it would have been a better film. However, the plot twist is so heavily foreshadowed (with numerous cutaway shots, random moments etc…) that it barely even qualifies as a plot twist.

A lot of the other problems with this film’s horror elements involve the characters. Although this is theoretically a “creepy” horror movie, a lot of this horror is lost thanks to the completely and utterly boring blandness of the film’s characters.

Literally all of the characters in this film have about as much depth as a sheet of paper. You can sum most of them up in about 3-5 words and that’s about it. There’s the goody two-shoes main character, the “edgy” goth friend, the eerie masked man, the creepy ex-boyfriend, the intense boyfriend etc… The best way to summarise this film’s characters is that they are cheesy and stylised in the way that characters in adverts are. They are cheesy and stylised in the way that a focus group of executives trying to “realistically” portray “the hip youth of today” would be.

Yes, this makes the film unintentionally amusing at times, but – thanks to all of the angst-ridden drama and the brooding emotional tone of the film – this unfortunately never quite reaches “so bad that it’s good” levels. It’s just “so bad” 😦

Likewise, this would have been a much more interesting film if Annabel had been the main character instead of Cassie. One of the many problems with this film is that it tries to be an “edgy” and hedonistic gothic film whilst also trying to be a vaguely moralistic Christianity-influenced supernatural drama too. If the film had actually picked a side and run with it whole-heartedly, then it would have been so much more fun to watch.

Seriously, Annabel would have been a much more interesting choice of main character for this film.

I’d have loved to have seen an “edgy” gothic film about an “edgy” gothic character stuck in some kind of weird purgatorial death realm. It would have been so much cooler – with the film’s main character fitting in well with the story’s atmosphere and the film being able to approach the story’s themes in a slightly interesting, original and irreverently unpredictable way. But, no – this film does the classic 1980s Hollywood slasher movie thing of making the main character a paragon of moral virtue who borders on being vaguely offended by the very idea of fun or anything vaguely “alternative”.

Time for three riveting years of diligent study and wholesome extra-curricular activities!

Interestingly, talking of “edginess”, there was actually an alternative “R-rated” version of this film released on DVD in the US.

Looking at a list of differences between the versions [NSFW], it actually sounds a little bit more like a proper horror movie (albeit a somewhat sleazy one) than the toned-down “12 Certificate” version released here in the UK. However, the UK version of the film actually contains the “decapitated dinosaur” scene that only seems to appear in the “R-rated” US version.

Still, for all of this film’s many faults and missteps, I didn’t completely hate it. Not only does this film have lots of wonderfully dramatic lighting (even if it’s sometimes slightly too gloomy to see what is going on) and lots of wonderfully gothic set designs, but some parts have a wonderful early-mid 2000s goth atmosphere that reminded me a little of an excellent old computer game called “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“. There’s something gloriously atmospheric, stylised and reassuring about early-mid 2000s American goth culture. And, even in a bad film, it’s still an absolute joy to see it.

Quite a few scenes have really good lighting and/or set design. Shame about the plot and characters though.

This is a mainstream Hollywood movie with some gothic characters and a gothic atmosphere 🙂 I miss the early 2000s 😦

Likewise, this film made me nostalgic for the days when one of the main genres of film aimed at teenagers were actually horror movies. My memories of seeing films like “Resident Evil: Apocalypse“, “The Ring”, “The Grudge” etc… at the cinema during my teenage years in the early-mid 2000s are wonderful and cherished things. I even remember seeing a screening of the director’s cut of “Alien” in a mainstream multiplex cinema back in the day too 🙂

In this insipid age of generic superhero films, the very fact that this film is from a time when horror movies were “popular” automatically gives it a retroactive upgrade when watched today. It may be a bad film, but it is at least wonderfully evocative of a more sophisticated age when horror movies were as popular as superhero movies are today 🙂

All in all, this is a bad film – but not an entirely terrible one. Even though the film as a whole ruins it’s horror elements with generic characters and an utterly stupid happy ending, there are at least a few vaguely good horror sequences here in addition to some good set designs/lighting, some well-handled symbolism and a slight frisson of early 2000s nostalgia (for anyone who was both lucky and unlucky enough to grow up then). It isn’t a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t quite bring myself to absolutely hate it. I’m more disappointed with it than anything else.

If you want a genuinely fun early 2000s “so bad that it’s good” horror movie, watch “Ghost Ship” instead. If you want something gothic from the early-mid 2000s, play “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” instead. If you want a scary story with well-written characters that is set in a small American university, then read Sarah Pinborough’s “Tower Hill” instead. And, if the concept behind this film intrigues you, then – for heaven’s sake- watch “Jacob’s Ladder” instead! Whatever interests you about this film, there’s something else out there that is much better!

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just barely get a two. And, even then, I’m probably being generous.

Review: “Ghost Ship” (Film)

Well, since I was in the mood for a horror movie, I thought that I’d take a look at a film from 2002 that is quite literally called “Ghost Ship” (I wonder what it could be about?).

If I remember rightly, I noticed this film mentioned in film magazines and sitting on shop shelves back in the day and was intrigued by it. Unfortunately, I was only about fourteen or fifteen at the time and many of the video shops nearby had an annoying habit of asking for ID. As nostalgic as I sometimes get about the early 2000s, I’m so glad that I’m not a teenager any more.

Anyway, out of curiosity and nostalgia, I ended up buying a second-hand DVD of this film a couple of weeks before preparing this review. To my delight, not only did this film arrive in one of those wonderfully old-school cardboard and plastic DVD cases, but it also contained this utterly awesome lenticular cover art which makes a skull appear when you tilt it slightly 🙂 Seriously, I miss the heyday of physical media 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Ghost Ship”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (and a CREEPY SKELETON. Wooooo!).

This lenticular DVD cover is so cool 🙂 I’d like to see “Net-Flix” do something like this

The film begins in 1962, on board the luxurious Italian cruise liner S.S Antonia Graza. There is a lavish party, complete with big band and glamourous singer, and all of the passengers are enjoying the festivities. Well, everyone except for a young girl sitting on the deck who finds the whole thing utterly boring. Eventually, the ship’s kindly captain takes pity on her and invites her to onto the dancefloor on the ship’s front deck. Meanwhile, someone lurking in the shadows pulls a lever.

I’m sure he’s just turning the central heating on or something… Certainly nothing evil, surely?

Suddenly, the lights on deck begin to explode. A high-tension metal cable breaks loose and scythes its way across the deck – slicing and dicing all of the dancers except for the young girl, who survives by virtue of being very short. Then, in classic horror movie fashion, she lets out a loud scream.

We then flash forwards to the Bering Sea in 2002. A rough and ready salvage crew on board the Arctic Warrior are towing a dilapidated ship back to port when it starts to take on water. Captain Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) and a couple of the crew are eager to let it sink, but tough-as-nails crew member Epps (Julianna Margulies) thinks that she can weld the breach in time. After lots of high-wire acrobatics and some tense moments, she manages to plug the hole with the help of a couple of her friends.

In a dramatic scene that involves both sailing and abseiling, no less.

Back at port, Murphy isn’t really that annoyed about Epps disobeying orders. After all, the team have made a big pile of money from the old ship and are spending some of it in a neon-lit dive bar. Suddenly, a mysterious man approaches their table. He’s a sea-rescue pilot who has spotted a cruise ship adrift at sea and is willing to tell them where it is in exchange for both a cut of the profits and a place on the salvage expedition.

Wow! Their luck just keeps improving! Surely nothing can go hauntingly wrong for them…

The crew agree to his terms and set sail. And, after some mysterious issues with the radar, they almost crash into the floating remains of the S.S Antonia Graza. It’s covered in rust and appears to be slowly sinking. Strangest of all, there doesn’t seem to be anyone left on board. It’s almost like some kind of ghost ship

Who would have thought it?

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, before I started watching it, I was in a fairly glum mood. By the end credits, I had a huge grin on my face 🙂

Yes, it’s a fairly cheesy mid-budget horror B-movie which is about as scary as a kitten and also includes some angsty late 1990s/early 2000s Nu metal music too. But, this stuff is what makes this film so enjoyable. It’s a gloriously fun “so bad that it’s good” horror movie with a lot of personality, a sense of humour and a wonderful atmosphere. It’s also a reassuring relic from a rose-tinted time when films like this actually appeared in cinemas and survival horror videogames were regularly being released for the Playstation 2.

And, yes, this film is a survival horror videogame at heart 🙂 It takes place in a self-contained location like the old “Resident Evil” videogames (and the first “Resident Evil” film) and it is filled with wonderfully rusty, dilapidated and gloomy set designs that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the old “Silent Hill” games. And, although I haven’t played it, the “abandoned ship” idea was also used as a premise for a game released in 2005 called “Cold Fear“. Not to mention that the 2001 Game Boy Color game “Resident Evil: Gaiden” (anyone remember that?) also takes place on a creepy old ship too. This film is wonderfully evocative of late 1990s/early-mid 2000s survival horror games 🙂

Seriously, this location wouldn’t be out of place in “Silent Hill 3” or something like that 🙂

Although this is a film that will probably only scare you if it is the very first horror movie you’ve ever watched, I still really loved the film’s horror elements. There’s a good mixture of ghostly apparitions, ominous locations, gory moments, some mild psychological horror and even a couple of gloriously corny jump scares that are more unintentionally funny than anything else 🙂

Boo! A scary skeleton! I shouldn’t laugh, but this “jump scare” moment is unintentionally hilarious!

All of this is handled with a knowing theatricality and a gleefully dark sense of humour which more than makes up for the lack of actual scariness here 🙂 Plus, like with 1980s monster novels, half of the fun of a film like this is the fact that you get to feel like an absolute badass when you find yourself totally un-scared by the film’s “horrifying” events.

The film’s special effects, pacing and direction play a large role in this “fun horror” atmosphere. Not only is the reveal of the film’s (utterly silly) film noir-style backstory directed like a cheesy, rapidly-edited music video but even the gruesome opening scene is played as much for hilarious dark comedy (with body parts moving independently of their owners etc…) as it is for actual horror.

Although this film isn’t quite as ultra-gory as I was expecting, this allows many of the film’s grisly and/or bloody moments to have a slightly slapstick quality to them which just adds to the film’s charm.

Add to this the fact that this film mostly consists of “build up” – with the horror elements only seriously coming to the forefront during the last 20-30 minutes, the fact that it has random moments with Nu metal music that are completely at odds with the gothic “1960s” horror atmosphere and the fact that it also concludes with a gloriously silly and random plot twist … and you have a film that – whilst it won’t actually scare you – is just fun to watch. It’s a gloriously cheesy “so bad that it’s good” late-night horror movie that will put a huge grin on the face of anyone with even a vaguely dark sense of humour 🙂

And, yes, this film is funny. In addition to various lines of dialogue, the cheesy neon pink font used in the opening credits, a couple of “laugh out loud” gross-out moments/jump scares and several moments of grisly dark comedy, this film also contains a brilliant parody of a popular horror trope from the early 2000s too. Although the ghostly child that appears on the ship is initially presented in the same “creepy” way that you would expect from other early 2000s horror movies like “The Ring” and “Resident Evil”, she actually turns out to be one of the good guys later in the film. Seriously, I was not expecting this and it certainly made me laugh.

Another awesome thing about this film is the characters. Although you shouldn’t expect in-depth characterisation here, the fact that the main characters are a rough group of salvage hunters means that they are just fun to hang out with. They make corny jokes about each other, listen to cheesy Nu metal, drink beer etc… and are just generally the complete opposite of the boringly “prim and proper” main characters who often turn up in older horror movies. You get a real feeling of friendship and camaraderie in this film that is an absolute joy to experience.

I’d say that this would make a great TV series. But, being a horror movie, you can probably guess what happens to most of the characters…

The best characters are either a hilariously comedic metalhead called Munder or the film’s protagonist, Epps, who actually comes across as a more understated and realistic version of the typical Ellen Ripley-style protagonist you’d expect in a horror thriller. Imagine Starbuck from the 2000s remake of “Battlestar Galactica” and this should give you a vague idea of the kind of cool character she is. Plus, the film’s villain is a wonderfully corny “evil for the sake of evil” character who is quite literally working for the devil. Scary? No. Hilarious? Yes 🙂

And, talking of awesome stuff, I cannot praise this film’s set design and lighting highly enough. Not only does the ruined cruise ship look intriguingly creepy and gothic, but the film is also filled with lots of wonderfully atmospheric lighting that is gloomy enough to create atmosphere whilst also being bright enough to let you actually see what is going on. As I mentioned earlier, this is the kind of film that – visually – wouldn’t be out of place in an old survival horror videogame and it is a glorious visual feast for anyone with a vaguely gothic sensibility and/or memories of when mainstream videogames were better 🙂

You have found the BISHOP KEY. Add this item to your inventory? > YES NO ?

Is it just me or would an air raid siren and lots of radio static be the perfect sound effects here?

All in all, this film was an absolute joy to watch 🙂 It’s a gloriously fun “so bad that it’s good” horror B-movie that is wonderfully evocative of both old survival horror videogames and the early 2000s in general. Yes, it’s a lot more likely to make you laugh than scream, but this is part of the film’s charm. It’s a film that has personality, a sense of humour and lots of entertaining macabre silliness. It’s the cinematic equivalent of one of those old monster novels from the 1980s. Seriously, I miss the days when films like this were a lot more common.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four. It is quite literally “so bad that it’s actually good” 🙂

Review: “Sphere” (Film)

Well, although I’m still gradually reading the next novel I plan to review (I’m over halfway through it at the time of writing), I was in the mood for another film review. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather intriguing sci-fi horror film from 1998 called “Sphere”.

This is a film that I often saw sitting on shop shelves when I was younger and was vaguely curious about, but never actually got round to getting a copy of it. And, when shopping online for second-hand DVDs, I happened to spot a copy of it and wanted to satisfy my curiosity.

So, let’s take a look at “Sphere”. However, I should warn you that this review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS. This film is best watched without spoilers. So, if you just want a spoiler-free summary, then it’s a surprisingly good sci-fi horror thriller film 🙂

And, yes, this is one of those old-school late 1990s DVDs that comes in a semi-cardboard case. Anyone remember those?

The film begins with a psychologist called Norman (Dustin Hoffman) being flown across the sea in a US Navy helicopter. He’s been told that he’s required to help out with a plane crash and, sure enough, there are several Navy ships and a cordoned-off area in the middle of the ocean.

But, when he gets on board one of the ships, he is greeted by a military officer who tells him to wait in his quarters despite his protests that he needs to see the crash survivors within a vital 24-hour window in order to reduce the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder. A few hours later, a mysterious US government agent meets him and leads him to a conference room.

Hmmm… This secret agent looks totally trustworthy…

In the conference room, a marine biologist called Beth (Sharon Stone), a mathematician called Harry (Samuel L. Jackson) and an astrophysicist called Ted (Liev Schreiber) are waiting for him. The agent explains that they are a team who have been assembled based on a half-joking report that Norman wrote for the president about what to do and who to bring in the event of alien contact.

Needless to say, the rest of the team aren’t exactly happy about this.

After an accident with a ship laying fibre-optic cable, the US Navy conducted various scans and undersea expeditions and discovered a mysterious spacecraft buried in a coral reef. From the rate of coral growth, they have deduced that the spacecraft landed on Earth three hundred years earlier. The team will be the first people to look inside it…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is… Wow! It’s a really compelling sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 If you’re a fan of movies like “Alien”, “Event Horizon” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, then you’ll be on vaguely familiar ground here. It’s a really great mixture of mysterious science fiction, thrilling drama and creepy horror 🙂 In other words, it is sci-fi horror done right 🙂

If this reminds you a little of the Space Jockey scene from “Alien”, then you’ll probably enjoy this film 🙂

And the “2001” style computer messages are surprisingly creepy too 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this film’s horror elements, which are really excellent 🙂 Since this film only has a “12” certificate, I wasn’t really expecting that much in the way of horror – but this is a surprisingly creepy film 🙂 Although the BBFC were generally stricter during the 1990s, one cool thing is that they didn’t really take quite as much of an over-protective attitude towards horror films in lower categories as they do these days. So, don’t let the low rating put you off. Yes, it isn’t really that gruesome – but this film will actually scare and unsettle you 🙂

There’s a really good mixture of suspenseful situations, eerie mystery, psychological horror, creature horror, cosmic horror, claustrophobic horror, unreliable reality, sci-fi horror and a few grotesque skeletons/bodies too. Although there are also a small number of “jump” moments, most of the film’s horror is a slightly more subtle and unsettling thing which is left just mysterious enough to both make you curious and to make you feel afraid.

Surprisingly, this film relies a lot less on creatures and “jump” moments than I’d expected 🙂 It’s a bit more of a sophisticated sci-fi horror film 🙂

In addition to this, there is a brilliantly tense and suspenseful atmosphere running through almost all of the film. Not only are the characters frequently in danger but, as the story progresses, they become less sure of who they can trust and of reality itself.

The concept behind the film is absolutely brilliant and utterly chilling too. In essence, thanks to whatever is inside the sphere, the later events of the film follow literal nightmare logic (if you’ve ever had a normal dream and then suddenly worried about something in the middle of it, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about here) – where the character’s fears quite literally become reality. Seriously, I cannot praise this film’s psychological horror elements highly enough.

It’s impossible to talk about this film’s horror elements without talking about the sci-fi elements too. This film is a perfect example of sci-fi horror done right. Not only are all of the main characters intelligent scientists and mathematicians, but the film also has a strong element of mystery to it – a mystery which can only be partially solved by exploration, logical deduction and scientific study.

Throughout the film, there are strange events (eg: English text within the spaceship, strange numbers appearing on computer screens etc…) which all have some kind of logic to them that the characters have to understand and use to their advantage. Likewise, whilst the characters learn a bit about how the alien sphere works and why it is on Earth, enough is still left mysterious to keep the film feeling both intriguing and creepy

And, yes, despite some rather high-end computers, the scientists still use pen and paper occasionally 🙂

Although the film includes a few well-known features of the sci-fi genre (eg: spaceships, aliens, time travel etc…), it also takes a wonderfully Lovecraftian approach to science fiction too. In other words, this is a film about people confronted by strange and unknown alien forces that humanity should not know about. It fits into the classic Lovecraftian idea of dangerous knowledge too, with the characters eventually choosing to forget about everything they have learnt (and quite literally saying something like “We are the wrong hands”) because it would be catastrophic for humanity to know the sphere’s powers.

Although, weirdly, this is a horror movie with a (sort of) happy ending. Probably explains the “12 certificate”, I guess.

Plus, although the film is set underwater, it may as well be set in the inhospitable void of outer space too. This is a film that takes heavy inspiration from both “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, whilst also very much being it’s own thing at the same time 🙂 Imagine a toned-down version of “Event Horizon” or an extremely terrifying horror novel like Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” and this may give you some vague impression of the kind of awesome sci-fi horror film this is 🙂 Although I haven’t read the Michael Crichton novel that “Sphere” is based on, you can really get the impression that this is a novel-based film rather than a Hollywood original 🙂

In addition to this, it is also a really great thriller too. As well as the mystery and suspense that I’ve mentioned, the film not only has a novel-like structure (and is split into chapter-like segments), but there is a really good mixture of quieter moments and slightly more fast-paced survival drama moments that keeps the audience on their toes. And, as you’d expect from any decent thriller, the drama gradually keeps escalating as the film progresses.

Seriously, the chapter title-like segments work really well.

The film’s characters are absolutely excellent too. They have enough personality and backstory to make you care about them, whilst also coming across as slightly more understated and “realistic” than the average Hollywood thriller or horror movie protagonists.

Although the main characters are played by fairly famous actors, their acting is good enough for this not to be too immersion-breaking (although the film would have probably been mildly creepier with an unknown cast) and they actually come across as vaguely realistic scientists. Seriously, I cannot praise Hoffman, Stone, Jackson and Schreiber highly enough for their performances here. The same goes for the supporting cast too, who all seem like fairly “realistic” military characters – even if they don’t really get that much characterisation.

In terms of lighting, set design and special effects, this film is brilliant 🙂 This film makes absolutely excellent use of 1990s-style gloomy high-contrast lighting, which both adds to the creepy atmosphere and just looks really cool too.

Seriously, the lighting design here is really cool 🙂 It’s gloomy enough to add mystery to the film, whilst bold enough to allow you to see what is going on 🙂

Seriously, people certainly knew how to use lighting in dramatic ways in the 1990s 🙂

The set design is absolutely awesome too – taking heavy visual inspiration from the spaceships in both “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, whilst also being gloomier, more metallic and just generally more “realistic” 🙂

The team hang out in the mess hall- For example, the mess hall onboard the base looks a bit like a gloomier and more metallic version of the dining room from “Alien” 🙂

Likewise, although the close-ups of the sphere look a little like “old CGI” at times, the film’s lavish special effects still stand up surprisingly well when viewed today – probably thanks to the compelling story, the film knowing when to leave things to the imagination and the gloomy lighting covering up any small flaws that might be noticeable upon closer inspection.

All in all, this is an absolutely excellent sci-fi horror movie 🙂 If you enjoyed the movie “Alien” and you want something a bit more subtle, with more of a focus on mystery and psychological horror, then this film is well worth a watch 🙂

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

Review: “Practical Magic” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, due to hot weather and the fact that I was feeling less enthusiastic about reading than usual, I thought that it was time to take a look at a book I’ve been meaning to read for about two years. I am, of course, talking about Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel “Practical Magic”, which I first became aware of when I watched the film adaptation during a “1990s films” phase I went through a couple of years ago.

Anyway, second-hand copies of “Practical Magic” were a bit on the expensive side of things for a while and I ended up reading a few other Hoffman novels instead. But, shortly after reading Hoffman’s excellent 2017 prequel novel to “Practical Magic”, I looked online again and noticed that second-hand copies of “Practical Magic” had come down in price 🙂 So, I’ve been waiting for a chance to finally read this book.

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

This is the 2017 Scribner (UK) paperback edition of “Practical Magic” that I read.

The novel begins in rurual Massachussetts with a description of the Owens House, an old house lived in by two eccentric sisters called Frances and Jet who – like their ancestors – are believed to be unlucky. They have recently adopted their two young nieces, Sally and Gillian, after they became orphaned following a fire. The two girls grow up, going from being feared by the locals to being either respected or admired by them. When Gillian is eighteen, she has had enough of the town and sneaks out in the middle of the night to travel across America and meet a string of lovers.

Sally, on the other hand, is much less adventurous and stays at the Owens House with her aunts. A while later, she ends up meeting a local man called Michael and marrying him. They have two daughters – Kylie and Antonia – and things are going well until Sally starts to notice a number of strange omens. An odd feeling in the air. The clicking of death-watch beetles. Sometime later, Michael is killed in a car accident.

After a year of intense depression and mourning, Sally eventually decides to move to a suburb near New York with her daughters. The next few years pass and life is fairly normal, despite the fact that both of Sally’s daughters become teenagers and life becomes more chaotic as a result. Then, out of the blue, Sally suddenly gets an ominous feeling of foreboding one night.

To her surprise, Gillian knocks on the door. She needs Sally’s help. The body of her violent ex-boyfriend Jimmy is in the car and she needs somewhere to bury it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very different to the film adaptation. It’s an absolutely great book but, if you’re expecting a quirky “feel-good” dark comedy, then you might be disappointed. Hoffman’s original novel is a much more atmospheric, complex (in almost every way), creepy, bittersweet and intense story than the Hollywood movie that it got turned into. It’s this really interesting mixture of drama, horror fiction, literary fiction and romance that is fairly unique 🙂

Thematically, this is a novel about family, ageing, romance and magic. The novel focuses on three generations of Owens sisters, where each generation seems to influence the subsequent generation in strange and unexpected ways. Yet, each generation seems to have some things in common with each other despite sometimes trying to distance themselves from or define themselves against their older relatives. Characters’ personalities also change in unexpected ways as they grow older too. The novel also presents the weird mixture of friendship and friction within families in a reasonably realistic way too.

As for the novel’s romance elements, it portrays love as a capricious, intense thing that drives people to obsession, ruin and/or uncharacteristic behaviour. In this story, love is just as likely to bring misery as it is to bring happiness. Love in this novel is also much closer to overwhelming lust than romantic love in a lot of ways, which also adds a bit of steaminess, horror and/or intrigue to various parts of the story too.

This unusual – and sometimes scary- portrayal of love also links into the story’s theme of magic. This is less prominent than in the film, with the novel’s magical elements being portrayed in a slightly mysterious way and mostly consisting of things like omens, auras, folk traditions and occasionally spells. This understatement and mystery helps to lend a sense of realism to these magical parts of the story, whilst also giving everything an intriguingly fantastical atmosphere.

And, yes, this novel has atmosphere 🙂 It is this wonderfully intriguing mixture of modern gothic (with old houses, ominous moods etc..) and a slightly more “realistic” version of the type of timeless, stylised, rose-tinted 1950s-70s style American suburbia that turns up in fiction quite often. This is difficult to describe well, but this novel walks a brilliantly fine line between being a place where you want to relax in and a place that feels anything but relaxed.

So, I should probably talk about the novel’s horror elements. Although I’m hesitant to call it a “horror novel”, it certainly has some rather creepy moments of horror. These are both grittier and more understated than in the film and they include things like a tragic/gothic atmosphere, quite a few ominously foreboding moments, obsession, ghost horror, criminal horror, love spells gone wrong and a few menacing background characters. Although these moments are also there to make a few scenes feel happier or more reassuring by contrast, they lend the story a much darker atmosphere than the film adaptation and can certainly catch you by surprise.

Plus, unlike the film, the novel’s moments of supernatural horror are a little more on the slow-building, creeping and understated side of things and are also paired with a few more “realistic” moments of horror and tragedy too. All of this also helps to lend the novel a much creepier and more intense atmosphere than you might expect if you’ve seen the film.

On a side-note, another difference between the book and the film is in the locations. In short, the Owens House is much more of a major location in the film – with the majority of the book taking place in a suburb/small town near New York instead. Surprisingly, this works well with the novel’s horror elements – since it makes them feel more “realistic” rather than stylised and gothic. Likewise, because a lot of the novel takes place in “ordinary” suburbia, the scenes involving the Owens House also feel more atmospheric, otherworldly and intriguing by contrast too.

In terms of the characters, they are superb. As you might expect from an Alice Hoffman novel, they are both incredibly realistic and slightly stylised/quirky at the same time. All of the characters have realistically complicated flaws, emotions, anxieties, desires, motivations and personalities. A lot of the novel is about the relationships between the various characters, which also provides a lot of the story’s drama too. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough 🙂

Interestingly, unlike the film, the differences between Sally and Gillian are a lot more pronounced – with Gillian being more free-spirited and Sally being much more “boring” (for want of a better word). This contrast between the two characters works really well, even if it means that there are more argument scenes than you might expect and – for parts of the novel – Sally comes across as being a rather grumpy and unlikable character.

Another interesting difference from the film is that Sally’s daughters are pretty much the main characters during large parts of the novel, with the two aunts also being more like background characters than I’d expected them to be. Still, given that I’ve read the excellent prequel novel (“The Rules Of Magic”), the relative lack of characterisation for the aunts didn’t bother me too much. Still, despite this, they still get a fairly decent amount of characterisation during the relatively few scenes that they appear in.

As for the writing, it is spectacular as always 🙂 If you’ve ever read an Alice Hoffman novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about here. This novel’s third-person narration is written in this wonderfully flowing and poetic way that is both informal enough to be easily readable whilst also containing a level of personality and description that wouldn’t be out of place in a literary novel. Even if this story doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, this novel (or any Alice Hoffman novel) is well worth reading just for the sheer quality of the writing alone.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 278 pages in length, it never really feels too long. Likewise, thanks to the presence of several sub-plots and the way that the writing style flows, the story never really feels too “slow-paced”, even though it is very much a small-scale drama story (with horror and romance elements) rather than any kind of thriller novel. In short, whilst you shouldn’t expect to blaze through this novel ultra-quickly, it will never really feel slow either.

As for how well this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless 🙂 Although the atmosphere of the story sometimes feels more “vintage” than you might expect from a story set in the 1990s, this gives the story an oddly timeless quality (and it could easily take place in 1920s, 1950s, 1970s or 2000s America). Likewise, thanks to the excellent characters and characterisation, the story has an almost timeless level of depth, complexity and emotional relevance.

All in all, this is a really great novel that is filled with atmosphere, complex characters and excellent writing 🙂 Yes, it is very different to the film in a lot of ways – but if you want a memorable and unique novel, if you’re a fan of Alice Hoffman or if you just want a horror-infused romantic drama novel written at a level of quality you’d normally associate with literary fiction, then read this one 🙂

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