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: “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: “The Relic” (Film)

Well, since I still seem to be in the mood for films (and am still reading the next novel I plan to review, albeit at a slow pace of 20-30 pages a day), I suddenly realised that it’s been a while since I last watched a monster movie. And, yes, although I’m still very much in the mood for “feel good” films, I also consider this wonderfully cheesy (and not really that scary) sub-genre of horror films to fall into that category.

Luckily, whilst shopping online for second-hand DVDs a few days earlier, I found a rather intriguing-looking sci-fi horror film from 1997 called “The Relic”. It could have been the gloriously melodramatic cover art, the fact that it is set in a museum or the fact that the film’s title reminded me a little of an unrelated 1980s horror novel, but it seemed like it could be worth watching.

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

The film begins in a forest in Brazil, with an American anthropologist called John Witney documenting a ritual being performed by a local tribe. They give him some kind of tea to drink and he suddenly begins to hallucinate and flinch in fear at one of the people nearby.

Sometime later, he rushes to the docks and tries to intercept a box of artefacts that he’d originally sent to Chicago. The ship’s captain tells him that he can’t remove anything after customs has checked it. So, John stows away on board and finds the box. He opens it and then starts screaming.

And, yes, he wears an Indiana Jones hat too. If you can actually see it in this gloom.

In Chicago, world-weary detective Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) is called out to the docks after the authorities find a deserted cargo ship adrift in the water. He’s in a bad mood because his ex-wife has just taken custody of his pet dog. His mood gets even worse when he finds blood spatter on the walls of the ship. Although one of his fellow detectives is eager to write the ghost ship off as the result of a drug-related crime at sea, a more thorough search turns up what is left of the crew floating in the ship’s bilge deck.

At the Chicago Museum Of Natural History, an evolutionary biologist called Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) shows up to work after meeting two schoolboys who are playing truant (and, in the tradition of Seymour Skinner, have decided to visit the museum). There is a gala planned in a few days time to celebrate the opening of a superstition-themed wing of the museum and Dr.Green learns that she needs to charm some of the wealthy patrons who will be attending because one of her co-workers from another department is trying to poach funding from her department.

After an argument with said co-worker, Dr. Green visits John’s office. He still isn’t back from Brazil, but a delivery of artefacts has arrived. One of the crates contains a smashed statue of a mythical monster and the other is empty except for leaves covered in strange red spores. The museum director orders the leaves to be incinerated, but – out of curiosity – Dr. Green takes one of them and begins running scientific tests on it.

What could possibly go wrong?

“Specimen Unidentified”? What a surprise!

Later that night, a security guard finishes his shift and decides to have a crafty spliff in the museum bathroom. Because older Hollywood horror movies can be more puritanical than Ned Flanders, something suddenly grabs his leg and drags him away. There is a lot of screaming.

D’Agosta shows up to the museum the next day to investigate the guard’s grisly remains. When he attends the autopsy, he also learns that part of the guard’s brain has been removed. Fearing that a serial killer is hiding inside the building, D’Agosta wants to keep the museum closed whilst the police carefully search the many basements and storerooms, but the museum administration and the Mayor want it re-opened in time for the gala…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that whilst it should be a good film in theory, the practice isn’t always perfect. In other words, it has some really cool elements and an interesting concept behind it, but these things are let down somewhat by the way they are presented. Yet, saying this, some of the “bad” creative decisions in this film are also fairly understandable too.

So, I should probably start by talking about the film’s… lighting design, of all things. One of the cool things about 1990s films (in many genres) is that they often use a very distinctive gloomy style of lighting.

This adds atmosphere to a film whilst also allowing the director to creatively use lighting to subtly highlight things and/or to create dramatic chiaroscuro-style contrasts between light and darkness. When done well, it looks amazingly cool. But, whilst this film sometimes gets the lighting right, large parts of it either take place in almost total darkness or include barely enough light to even make a guess at what is going on.

Sometimes, the lighting is really excellent 1990s-style lighting with enough contrast between light and darkness to allow the viewer to see what is going on.

But, quite often, the film looks a bit more like this! Can you tell what is going on here?

Yes, I understand the practical and creative reasons for this decision. By making the lighting very gloomy, it adds extra suspense to the film and also leaves some of the horror to the viewer’s imagination – which theoretically makes it more frightening.

The ultra-gloomy lighting also means that the most of mid-late 1990s CGI during some scenes involving the monster still looks reasonably good today. It means that the film-makers can do a lot more with a lower special effects budget. It also creates a disorientating sense of panic during the film’s more frantic moments too. So, there are some very good practical and artistic reasons behind the film’s lighting design.

However, as hinted earlier, it can make it very difficult to tell what is going on during large parts of the film. Yes, you can usually make a reasonably good guess, but this film may as well be a radio drama some of the time. [Edit: However, thinking about it more, this could possibly either just be an issue specific to this DVD edition or possibly even the monitor that I watched it on.]

As you would expect, the film’s horror elements consist mostly of suspense, a few mild “jump” moments, gory horror and sci-fi monster horror. Although this film probably isn’t going to give horror movie fans nightmares, these elements are handled really well.

The monster design is really creative and the backstory behind it is reasonably well-explained, with the film even presenting a fairly detailed in-universe reason for why it likes to eat people’s brains (since it’s a DNA chimera of several species, created from plant hormones similar to those found in the hypothalamus). Seriously, I cannot fault the creative concept behind this film 🙂

Not to mention that the monster is also vaguely reminiscent of “Predator”, whilst also very much being it’s own thing too.

Likewise, although the ultra-gloomy lighting makes it difficult to tell what is going on during some parts of the film, it does at least make the monster look a bit more “realistic”. And, as I mentioned earlier, it also does an absolutely great job of making most of the mid-late 1990s CGI look fairly good when seen today. Seriously, in terms of monster effects, this could pretty much be a modern film.

Except for one very brief moment where the monster turns into the T-1000 for a couple of seconds.

The film’s gore effects are also really well-handled too. Although you shouldn’t expect too much of a splatter-fest here, this film uses the clever technique of using some brilliantly grotesque, detailed and realistic-looking practical effects during the more brightly-lit earlier scenes in order to prime the viewer’s imagination so that the less-detailed gruesome moments later in the film also seem fairly grisly, even though you don’t actually see that much – due to the almost-impenetrable gloom. Seriously, this is how to use a limited special effects budget.

Thematically, this film focuses on the topic of “science vs. superstition”. Although this is mostly used for a few brief comedic dialogue segments and to add a small amount of characterisation to the main characters, it also adds a tiny bit of depth to the film too. Since, although there are ancient myths explaining the monster, Dr.Green still insists on finding a scientific explanation for it (which also adds a bit of “X-Files” style sci-fi horror to the film too). Still, the practical outcome of both things is exactly the same – there is a brain-eating monster lurking in the museum.

As for the characters, this is another area where the film should “work” in theory – but doesn’t in practice. The two main characters are an under-funded evolutionary biologist who believes in science and a world-weary Chicago detective who has good instincts, some superstitious beliefs and a bit of a backstory.

On the plus side, they seem fairly “realistic” and the film’s focus on plot rather than characters also means that the film moves along at a reasonable pace. Plus, the contrast between superstition and science also hearkens back to Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” too.

However, not only is Dr. Green absent for a fairly sizeable segment of the film, but both main characters don’t really get quite enough characterisation to make the viewer care about what happens to them. Yes, they seem like fairly “realistic” (albeit minimalist) characters, but they also seem a little bit too much like stock characters for the viewer to really get invested in them enough to give the film’s suspenseful moments a real feeling of nervous, uncertain suspense. Good horror relies on good characterisation, on the viewer actually caring about what happens to the characters.

D’Agosta is a “grizzled, cynical cop” character. See pretty much any detective TV show for other examples.

Dr. Green is a “scientist” character. See “The X-Files” or pretty much any sci-fi TV show for other examples.

The film’s pacing is also another area that should work in theory, but doesn’t in practice. This film begins with a mysterious opening scene and then gradually builds in intensity as the story progresses. So far, so good. However, the film’s most dramatic, fast-paced, gripping etc.. parts only really appear fairly late into the film. So, there’s a lot of build-up but relatively little payoff.

Also, this is one of those films that is too much like a thriller (eg: police procedural elements, disaster movie elements, action sequences etc..) to really “work” as a horror movie, whilst also including too many horror elements (eg: one monster, creepy suspense etc...) to really “work” as the kind of fast-paced thriller film it tries to be during a few moments. Still, it never really gets that boring.

All in all, whilst this film wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be, I can’t quite call it an entirely bad film either. It is a film that does a lot of the right stuff in theory, but doesn’t always work that well in practice. Still, it has some good points and – as I said earlier – it isn’t an entirely “bad” film either.

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

Review: “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” By Tim Lebbon (Novel)

[Edit: Ooops! I’ve just remembered that April is only 30 days long. I’ll post this month’s “Top Ten Articles” article here in about an hour’s time (and I’ll also have to break my rule about posting reviews on consecutive days too). Sorry about this.]

Well, it has been quite a while since I last read anything “Alien”-related, so I thought that I’d finally take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

I am, of course, talking about the second-hand copy of Tim Lebbon’s 2014 novel “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” that I found online when I rediscovered the spin-off novels based on the “Aliens” movies last year. Somehow, this novel ended up languishing on my “to read” pile for almost a year and had actually gained a rather impressive-looking layer of dust before I actually started reading it.

Unlike the “Aliens” spin-off novels that I’ve reviewed in the past, the events of this novel take place between the very first film in the series and the events of “Aliens”. Although this novel can probably theoretically be read as a stand-alone, the story will have a lot more depth and some elements will make more sense if – at the very least – you have seen “Alien” first. Plus, although this novel is technically the first part of a trilogy written by multiple authors, it works really well as a self-contained spin-off novel too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Alien: Out Of The Shadows”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” that I read.

The novel begins on the deep-space ship Marion, in orbit around a mining base on a desert planet called LV-178 that contains deposits of a rare mineral called Trimonite. Chief Engineer Chris “Hoop” Hooper has finished his shift and is planning to play some pool with Captain Lucy Jordan in the ship’s improvised bar. However, before they can start playing, they receive a distress call from the dropship Samson, which is travelling back up from the surface along with another dropship called Delilah.

From the bridge, the Marion‘s skeleton crew watch a disturbing emergency video broadcast from the Samson showing nothing but death, chaos and something. Something alive inside the ship. Something that isn’t human. When the Samson auto-docks, the crew wisely decide to quarantine it behind several blast doors and a vacuum-filled airlock. However, there are problems with the Delilah. It crashes into the side of the Marion, killing several crew members and knocking the Marion into a slowly-decaying orbit towards the planet. The remaining crew try to send out a distress signal, but the antennae has been damaged in the crash.

Ellen Ripley – last survivor of the disaster on the spaceship Nostromo thirty-seven years earlier – remains in hypersleep as her escape shuttle drifts through space. She is plagued by endless nightmares of alien creatures and the memories of her former crew members. Then, her shuttle’s computer picks up a signal and begins auto-docking. She wakes up to find herself on board another ship. It is the Marion. It has been several weeks since the crash and, according to the crew’s calculations, the ship only has about another fifteen days to go until it crashes into LV-178…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW 🙂 This novel is an absolutely perfect blend of both the claustrophobic, suspenseful sci-fi horror of the first “Alien” film and the more action-packed drama of the second “Alien” film. Seriously, this novel is as good as – or even better – than the films that it takes inspiration from 🙂 If you enjoy well-written sci-fi horror or if you preferred the first “Alien” film to the second one, then this novel is absolutely worth reading 🙂

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements 🙂 Although pretty much everyone knows what the monsters from “Alien” look like, this novel still manages to create a real feeling of mystery and foreboding during the early-mid parts of the novel by leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. Like in the original film, we’re shown enough to know that something horrible is out there, but enough is left mysterious to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Seriously, it is so good to see an “Alien”-related novel that takes as much (or more) inspiration from the horror elements of the first film in the series as it does from the action elements of the second film.

All of this suspense, claustrophobia and ominous mystery is also backed up by several other expertly-handled types of horror too 🙂 In addition to well-placed moments of gory horror that show enough to gross the reader out whilst leaving even worse details to the imagination, this novel also makes expert use of psychological horror, tragic horror, creepy places and – like in the original film – lots of bleak Lovecraftian cosmic horror too 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the novel’s horror elements highly enough 🙂

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, it absolutely excels 🙂 The novel’s heavy focus on suspenseful situations not only adds a lot of gripping tension to the story, but it also means that the story’s occasional action-packed moments feel a lot more intense and vivid in contrast.

Unlike most of the “Aliens” spin-off novels I’ve read, the main characters aren’t heavily-armed space marines 🙂 What this means is that they often have to rely on their brains in order to survive and, because they are only armed with improvised weapons cobbled together from mining equipment, every encounter with the alien monsters feels a lot more intense, dangerous and brutal than you might expect. Far from being an action movie in book form, this novel is primarily a harsh, suspenseful survival drama – which also lends the intense action sequences a lot more impact and gravitas than you might expect 🙂

As for the novel’s sci-fi elements, it absolutely nails the grimy “used future” atmosphere of the first “Alien” film 🙂 Not only do the spaceships all feel like realistic, utilitarian places, but the story also makes excellent use of technology (eg: A.I, incompatibilities between systems etc..) to add extra suspense to the story. This feeling of realism is also enhanced by the fact that the Marion’s crew are competent and intelligent astronauts who, unlike typical horror movie characters, actually make sensible decisions about what to do when faced with danger.

Although the novel’s alien monsters are what you would expect them to be, this novel makes excellent use of both mystery and cosmic horror during a brilliantly haunting scene where the characters stumble across the ruins of another alien civilisation that has been destroyed by these creatures. We see enough detail to marvel at the beauty and sophistication of their civilisation, but enough is left intriguingly mysterious to fill us with a haunting sense of death, loss and cosmic insignificance. Seriously, this is both science fiction and horror at their very best 🙂

On a side-note, one intriguing thing about this novel is that it also takes a little bit of inspiration from “Prometheus” too. Whether it is a subtle “Blade Runner” reference (eg: a mention of combat androids with expiry dates), other android-based stuff, long-forgotten civilisations, an automated medical pod or even some of the scenes set on the planet, this novel really feels like a good blend of old-school and modern “Alien” 🙂

As I hinted earlier, the novel’s characters are absolutely excellent 🙂 They all come across as realistic, intelligent people who have to use their wits in order to survive. This novel also gets the balance between showing their courage and showing their emotions absolutely right. Although they are well-trained, knowledgeable and tough enough to keep going, they are far from emotionless. Not only are they all suffering from various personal tragedies, but their determination to persevere in the face of almost certain doom is absolutely heartwarming too.

Ripley and Hoop get the bulk of the novel’s characterisation, with Ripley shown to be seriously affected by the events of the first “Alien” film and suffering from repeated PTSD hallucinations. Yet, despite this, she still manages to be the tough-as-nails badass that you’d expect her to be 🙂 Likewise, Hoop actually comes across as a realistic member of a long-distance spaceship crew. Not only is he plagued with worries about his own family, but he actually has a level of practical common sense, courage and technological knowledge that you’d actually expect someone on a spaceship to have 🙂

In terms of the writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a reasonably “matter of fact” style that is fast-paced enough to add suspense to the story, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere and suspense to the novel. I cannot praise the narrative voice here enough, reading this novel literally feels like watching a higher-budget and slightly more modern version of the original “Alien” film 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is brilliant 🙂 At an efficient 298 pages in length, not a single page is wasted here. To give you an example, the first sixty pages of this novel tell as much story as most other novels do in 100-150 pages 🙂 Likewise, this novel makes absolutely excellent use of suspense to keep the story moving at a decent pace, whilst also contrasting this with enough faster-paced action sequences to make both elements of the novel feel fresh and gripping in comparison to each other. Seriously, if you want a good example of how to blend horror with thriller-style pacing, then read this novel 🙂

All in all, this novel was a lot better than I’d initially expected it to be 🙂 It is a spin-off novel that is easily as good as – or better- than the source material it is based on 🙂 If you want an atmospheric sci-fi horror novel with both excellent characters and a perfect blend between suspense and fast-paced drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

Three Thoughts About Writing Sci-Fi Horror

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the sci-fi horror genre today. This is mostly because I’m currently reading a sci-fi horror novel (“Alien: Out Of The Shadows” by Tim Lebbon) that not only blends these two genres really well, but also helped me to see a few general themes and techniques I’ve noticed in other sci-fi horror novels (such as Nick Cutter’s terrifying “The Deep“) but hadn’t really thought about in depth before.

So, here are a few thoughts about writing sci-fi horror.

1) Mystery: When science fiction is at it’s best, it fills the reader with a feeling of awe and curiousity. It gives the reader a feeling of either exploring new planets, using new technology and/or visiting a fascinating futuristic world. It usually doesn’t explain literally everything about the story’s “world”, instead giving the reader just enough details to make them feel curious, but keeping things mysterious enough to give their imagination room to come up with the rest. Not only does this make these stories compelling, but it also allows the stories to seem much larger than they actually are.

Needless to say, this can also be used as a brilliantly chilling source of horror too. After all, the fear of the unknown is one of humanity’s strongest fears.

A lot of the best sci-fi horror stories rely heavily on mystery and uncertainty. In other words, they hint at more than they actually show. They provide enough horrifying details to let the reader know what could await them, and then they let the reader scare themselves with their own imagination. After all, the universe is a large place and most of it is unknown to science…. So, who knows what could lurk out there?

Plus, like in the classic sci-fi horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, there’s also the possibility that whatever the characters discover could be so strange and unworldly that it isn’t even possible to understand it. That trying to understand something so incredibly, terrifyingly inhuman could actually cause psychological damage to the characters. This, again, only works when there is a strong element of mystery in the story and when lots of details are left to the reader’s imagination.

This focus on mystery and implication also allows for a lot of extra tension and suspense too, because science is all about uncovering and studying the unknown. However, if the “unknown” is dangerous, then there’s tension between scientific curiousity and the basic instinct for self-preservation. By putting these two things in conflict with each other, you can really make your reader feel extremely nervous 🙂

2) Competent characters: One of the main differences between scary sci-fi horror and fun, but not frightening, sci-fi horror is what the main characters’ skills are.

In short, if your main characters are scientists, programmers, engineers etc.. then your sci-fi horror story will be scary, because they will have to rely on their minds in order to survive whatever dangers they face. If your main characters are burly, heavily-armed space marines, then your sci-fi horror story will be a lot of fun to read, but not that scary because your characters have both the skills and means to directly fight whatever they encounter.

But, more than anything else, your characters have to be competent, skilled and intelligent people. Since your story is a sci-fi horror story, they need to have a good practical understanding of science and technology. They also need to have a good level of general intelligence and resourcefulness too. Yes, they obviously still need to have emotions and the ability to feel fear, but it is very important that the reader gets the sense that they know what they are doing.

Why? Well, it is all to do with suspense. In short, if a character only has the intelligence of the average slasher movie background character, then the reader will probably expect them to make some foolish mistake that will result in their grisly demise. But, if the characters are a bit smarter, then the reader will have more of an expectation that they will survive – allowing for a lot more suspense and tension. Likewise, because the characters have to rely on their minds (rather than on weapons, physical strength etc…) to stay alive, then the story will be a lot less predictable too.

You can also use this as a source of character-based horror too. If a character has an over-inflated sense of their intelligence or focuses too much on scientific/technological intelligence at the expense of their emotional, social, moral etc.. development, then you’ve got the basis for a really creepy villain character. Just remember to write these types of characters in a subtle, realistic way if you want them to actually be scary, rather than hilariously cartoonish.

3) Social satire: I can’t remember who first said it, but there’s a brilliant quote that points out that science fiction is actually about the present day rather than about the future. In other words, it is a genre that allows writers to comment about current topics and issues in a more imaginative and complex way than realistic journalism can.

Needless to say, this can also be used as a source of horror too. A lot of the creepiest works of sci-fi horror will often include some level of social satire or critique, warning the reader about the horrifying direction that the world could go in if current problems aren’t resolved.

To use a famous example, George Orwell’s chillingly dystopian sci-fi novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was first published in 1949. This was a time when the horrors of fascism were still fresh in people’s memories and anxieties about Soviet communism were also starting to grow too. By focusing on the chilling similarities between these two political extremes (eg: surveillance, cruelty, propaganda, ideological rigidity etc…), Orwell imagined a nightmarishly bleak future that made a lot of points about this stuff whilst also being inherently creepy in its own right.

And this is probably a good thing to remember. Although social satire can make a sci-fi horror novel creepier, you must never forget that you are writing a horror novel. In other words, you need to write your story in a way that – even if the reader doesn’t care about the issues you’re talking about – they will still be disturbed by the actual events of the story.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a good example of this. Even if you don’t think about 1940s politics or modern mass surveillance, the novel is still very chilling thanks to the setting and characters. It is set in a stark, utilitarian world that is racked with poverty and in a constant state of war. It is a world where the highlight of every day is either drinking cheap gin or spending two minutes screaming in fury at a cinema screen. A cruel secret police force constantly lurks in the background, ready to drag anyone who thinks for themselves away to face the cruel tortures of Room 101. Even without the political subtext, it is a horrifying place.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Aliens: Cauldron” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for horror fiction and, since it’s been quite a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel, I thought that I’d check out a second-hand novel I found online a few weeks earlier called “Aliens: Cauldron” (2007) by Diane Carey.

Although this novel tells a self-contained “Aliens” story and can probably be enjoyed without having seen any of the films, it’s probably worth watching at least one or two of the first four “Alien” films before reading this just so that you have a better idea of what the alien monsters look like. Even so, they are described in this novel.

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

This is the 2007 Dark Horse Books (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: Cauldron” that I read.

The novel begins in space, on the cargo ship Virginia which is caught in a moon’s gravity and close to spiralling out of control. Directed by their charismatic captain, Nick Alley, the crew barely manage to keep the ship under control and, after a small crash with the ship they are meeting to exchange cargo with, both crews breathe a sigh of relief.

Later, in the cargo hold of the Virginia, a couple of crew members carefully doctor the ship’s records to disguise a rogue cargo container containing several dead alien specimens that they’ve been paid a lot to smuggle. However, due to a bizarre series of coincidences, the container gets opened and it turns out that the alien specimens aren’t quite as dead as they had been led to believe.

Meanwhile, on the cargo vessel Umiak, several space cadets are getting ready for a tour of duty before being dropped off at university on the terraformed planet Zone Emerald. The ship’s harsh captain, Pangborn, hates the cadets – not to mention that the cadets don’t exactly get along well with each other either. Still, the tour of duty promises to be a boring one – with the highlight being an upcoming automated cargo transfer with a ship carrying stasis-frozen livestock to Zone Emerald. That ship is, of course, the Virginia….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it. In short, this novel was one that slowly grew on me when I was reading it. Even so, when it is good it is good and when it isn’t, then it really isn’t.

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements and these are really good, if somewhat different to what I’d expected. Although there are a few well-written moments of gory horror, cruel horror, tragic horror and/or monster horror, the bulk of this novel’s horror comes from suspense, tension, claustrophobia and the characters. And this is handled expertly – whether it is several creepily unsympathetic characters who are trapped in space together, the inexperienced cadets facing danger, the constant feeling of fractious tension between the Umiak‘s crew or the many moments of claustrophobic suspense. Although this novel probably won’t frighten you, it’ll certainly make you feel nervous or uneasy at times.

The novel’s sci-fi elements are also fairly complex too, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, all of the futuristic technology etc… in the story feels well thought-out and very “real”. On the downside, this is achieved through lots of slow-paced descriptive segments (especially in the earlier parts of the novel) that almost seem more at home in a more sedate “Star Trek” novel than a thrilling “Aliens” novel. In other words, all of the cool sci-fi stuff actually tends to weigh the story down a bit too much at times. Even so, all of this meticulous description does pave the way for some brilliant set-pieces during a few later parts of the story.

Talking of “Star Trek”, one of the interesting things about this novel is how it is a bit like a more cynical version of “Star Trek”. The novel does this by focusing a lot on nautical traditions and by making several of the characters a bit more morally-ambiguous than the upstanding spacefarers you’d expect to see in “Star Trek”. On the one hand, this adds a satirical edge, a slight dose of realism and a bleak, tense atmosphere to the story. On the other hand, this also results in a few yawn-inducing nautical lectures, too many characters (2-3 crews, plus some space pirates) and a few cartoonish characters (eg: the harsh captain, the arrogant cadet etc..). So, this element of the story is kind of a mixed bag.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re reasonably good most of the time. There’s a good mixture between fast-paced action scenes and slower moments of suspense. However, although this novel includes thriller novel-like moments throughout, it only really seems to become the kind of grippingly streamlined thriller novel that you’d expect during the later parts. Even so, the novel’s story remains intriguingly unpredictable throughout and it contains many moments that might catch you off-guard or make you curious about what will happen next. Even the story’s ending is, for an “Aliens” novel, something that might catch you by surprise.

In terms of the characters, they aren’t really one of this novel’s strengths. One of the problems is that there are almost too many of them to keep track of, or become invested in, during some parts of the novel (the slightly confusing opening scene is especially annoying in this respect). Whilst there is a core group of characters that you’ll get to know and will probably end up caring about, they can sometimes be a little on the corny and/or stylised side of things. On the plus side, this novel includes some suspenseful “villain vs villain” scenes between Captain Pangborn and one of the cadets, which are almost cartoonish enough to be amusing but just about understated enough to be creepily menacing.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is also a bit of a mixed bag. In the later parts of the novel, where the narration becomes a bit more streamlined and “matter of fact”, it really helps to carry the story and bring it to life. However, the earlier and middle parts of the novel often tend to use a slightly more formal, slow-paced and description/exposition-heavy style which, whilst it does add some depth and atmosphere to the story, isn’t really a good fit with the kind of thrillingly fast-paced story you’d expect to see in an “Aliens” novel and it can make these parts of the story a bit of a chore to read at times. Still, once you get used to the writing style, then this becomes less of an issue.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is also a mixed bag. At 284 pages, this novel may seem reasonably short but the small print and passages of formal narration can make it feel slightly more like 400. As for the pacing, the novel’s early-middle parts can be a bit slow-paced (which works well during some suspenseful moments, but can make other moments a bit boring), although the middle-late parts of the novel are the kind of confident, streamlined and grippingly fast-paced thriller that you’d expect from an “Aliens” novel.

All in all, this novel is a mixed bag. Although it isn’t perfect, there is a good story in here. This is one of those books that will grow on you if you keep reading it and, although it can be a bit too slow-paced and/or corny at times, it is also a fairly unpredictable, suspenseful and creepy sci-fi/horror thriller novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks” By Steve Cole (Novel)

Well, since I was still going through a phase of reading spin-off novels, I thought that I’d check out a “Doctor Who” novel from 2018 called “Combat Magicks” by Steve Cole.

This was a hardback novel that I splashed out on last December (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance) shortly after series eleven of “Doctor Who” had finished.

Although I didn’t have time to review more than the first episode of this series, it was probably one of the best series of the show that I’ve seen and, well, I wanted more of it (especially since the 2018 “Christmas episode” was postponed to New Year’s Day 2019 and the show apparently won’t return until 2020). Hence getting this book.

I should probably also point out that, although “Combat Magicks” tells a stand-alone “Doctor Who” story and can be read without watching the “Doctor Who” TV show, it’s probably worth watching at least a couple of series eleven episodes before reading this novel in order to get to know the main characters.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks” that I read.

The novel begins with the TARDIS, a time-travelling spaceship shaped like an old police call box, being knocked off-course by a mysterious energy field. Inside the TARDIS, The Doctor and her earthly companions Ryan, Yaz and Graham try to work out what has happened.

When the TARDIS lands, they find themselves in Gaul in 451 AD. The sky is glowing. Something is interfering with Earth’s history and it is up to the Doctor to find out what it is and put everything right.

But, there is just one little problem. In the area around the TARDIS, the forces of Attila The Hun are about to do battle with the Romans who control the area. Being a fixed historical event that is a crucial part of Earth’s timeline, The Doctor can do nothing to stop the war. Still, it doesn’t take her too long to find out that mysterious witch-like creatures called the Tenctrama are involved in this whole mess…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s like an extra episode of “Doctor Who”, but with a slightly more complex storyline, slightly more horror and a much larger special effects budget 🙂

In other words, it’s a brilliant mixture of quirky science fiction, subtle comedy, gruesome horror and thrilling drama 🙂 Yes, it takes a little while for the novel’s story to really become gripping, but it is worth sticking with this novel 🙂

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Every futuristic thing here has a logical explanation and follows a consistent set of rules (which the characters have to try to understand). The nefarious Tenctrama who are threatening Earth also have realistic motivations for their actions and all of the story’s futuristic technology also feels like technology rather than magic.

Of course, thanks to the historical setting, many of the Roman and Hun characters consider alien technology to be magic. This allows the story to include some really cool dark fantasy-style elements, in addition to allowing the story to occasionally explore the difference between knowledge and superstition. Seriously, as sci-fi stories go, this one is well within the “Doctor Who” tradition.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really cool 🙂 In addition to some brilliant scenes of paranormal horror, scientific horror, death-based horror, zombie/monster horror and suspenseful horror, the novel also includes a surprising amount of gruesome horror too 🙂

Yes, this gruesome horror is relatively tame when compared to “proper” horror novels (with the story’s grislier moments being described in a slightly quicker and/or less detailed way), but it still adds a bit of extra atmosphere, grittiness and horror to the story in a way that the TV series probably wouldn’t be allowed to do.

Not only that, the story also includes zombies too 🙂 Yes, they are a little different from typical horror movie zombies, but it’s always really cool to see zombies in “Doctor Who” (like in the series eleven episode “The Witchfinders”).

In a lot of ways, the horror elements of the story reminded me a little of modern historical dark fantasy/horror/zombie novels like Rebecca Levene’s “Anno Mortis” or Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead“, which is never a bad thing 🙂

Of course, all of these horror elements are also balanced out with the series’ trademark sense of humour, consisting of things like pop culture references, amusingly eccentric comments from the Doctor and a few amusing narrative moments. So, this is more of a “feel good” novel than you might initially think.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good too 🙂 Although the story takes a while to lay out all of it’s plot threads and become really gripping, this is worthwhile. There’s a really good mixture of suspenseful moments, a couple of plot twists, dramatic action sequences, clever plans and large-scale drama.

One of the cool things about the Thirteenth Doctor having three companions (rather than the usual one) is that this allows for more complex stories when they become separated, and this novel takes full advantage of this fact.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only are the main characters reasonably close to their TV show counterparts, but this story also allows them to be a bit more badass – whilst still staying within the show’s traditional pacifist themes.

Likewise, the fact that this is a novel means that there’s even more room for personality and humour too. In addition to all of this, the novel’s historical background characters are reasonably well-written – with the highlights being Attila The Hun and a Roman version of “Torchwood” called “The Legion Of Smoke” – although they don’t get quite as much characterisation as the four main characters do.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, the novel’s villains (the Tenctrama) also come across as characters with defined motivations who do evil things for a practical reason rather than just for the sake of being evil. Because of this, they are even more chillingly effective villains. Not to mention that their backstory and motivations also help to feed into the novel’s anti-war theme too.

In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good. The story’s third-person narration has a little bit more of a distinctive “style” than I expected and it’s this brilliant mixture of more informal observations and mildly formal descriptions. It fits in surprisingly well with the tone of the TV show and, although there are a few mildly confusing moments (eg: a third-person segment written from the perspective of one of the Huns early in the story), it means that the story is a very readable and relaxing way to spend a few hours.

As for length and pacing, this novel is also really good. At an efficient 264 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. The pacing is mostly really good too, although the second half of the story is probably somewhat more gripping than the first half is. Although this is probably because the earlier parts of the story have to spend time setting everything up for the spectacular drama in the later parts of the story.

All in all, this is a really good “Doctor Who” novel 🙂 Yes, it takes a little while to really become compelling, but it’s a brilliant blend of the sci-fi, horror and thriller genres 🙂 So, if you enjoyed series 11 and wonder what it would look like with a higher budget, a bit more horror and more time to tell a story, then this novel is worth reading.

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

Review: “Torchwood: Long Time Dead” By Sarah Pinborough (Novel)

Well, a week or two before I wrote this review, I was reminded about the sci-fi horror TV show “Torchwood” after talking to a relative about “Doctor Who”. This then stirred a vague recollection of seeing Torchwood-themed books in bookshops ages ago.

After a quick internet search, I ended up getting second-hand copies of a couple of these books. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at Sarah Pinborough’s 2011 novel “Torchwood: Long Time Dead”. After all, it was apparently a prequel to the only complete series of “Torchwood” that I’ve actually seen (eg: the “Miracle Day” series from 2011).

Interestingly, although this novel references the TV show a few times, there are enough explanations and recaps for the story to be enjoyable if you’ve only got vague memories of the show or if you haven’t seen it. Likewise, this novel also tells a fairly self-contained story too.

So, let’s take a look at “Torchwood: Long Time Dead”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 BBC Books (UK) paperback edition of “Torchwood: Long Time Dead” that I read.

The novel begins with a government scientist called John Blackman exploring the burnt-out ruins of a secret underground facility with orders to recover any technology found within it. He hears someone groaning and, to his surprise, finds a woman lying on the ground in one of the rooms. Her stomach starts to glow red. But, before John can talk to her, she stabs him with a shard of glass.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff, a detective called D.I. Cutler is spending some free time watching a mysterious government site that has sprung up in the city after a terrorist attack three weeks earlier. He doesn’t quite understand why, but he has become obsessed with this strange site.

Back underground, the site’s commander – Elwood Jackson – discovers John’s grisly corpse and is shocked to find that his eyes are missing. Whilst all of this is going on, the resurrected woman, former Torchwood agent Suzie Costello, has managed to sneak out of the facility and travel to a safety deposit box she set up in case of emergencies. However, to her surprise, she finds that she has an urge to kill again…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly compelling sci-fi horror thriller that also vaguely reminded me of classic 1980s horror fiction (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..) too, which is never a bad thing 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good. Although this novel contains a few moments of gory horror and also uses the classic splatterpunk technique of introducing several random background characters who only survive for a single chapter, the main types of horror in this novel are psychological horror, cosmic horror, paranormal horror, implied horror, death-based horror, tragic horror and/or character-based horror.

These types of horror work really well and, although they aren’t usually outright scary, they help to add a rather ominous and creepy atmosphere to the story. Not only will the reader occasionally find themselves sympathising with the story’s creepy villain, Suzie Costello, but the novel’s themes of death and trauma and it’s vaguely Lovecraftian hints about a terrifying hell dimension are also fairly creepy too.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel is probably a bit more like H.P.Lovecraft than anything else. In other words, whilst there are references to alien technologies, monsters from outer space and other dimensions, the story focuses slightly more on the effects that these mysterious things have on the characters rather than on the mechanics behind them (although the novel does give an explanation for why Suzie returned to life). But, although the sci-fi stuff is a bit more of a background detail than I’d expected, it is well written and helps to add a lot more atmosphere to the story.

The novel’s thriller elements are fairly interesting too, with the story mostly focusing on both D.I. Cutler’s investigation into a mysterious series of deaths and on Suzie’s attempts to understand what is going on whilst also staying one step ahead of the authorities. This adds a lot of suspense and drama to the story, which helps to keep it really compelling.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Most of the characters get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them, with the novel’s best character probably being Suzie – who, although clearly the story’s villain, is written about in such a way that you’ll probably end up either feeling sorry for and/or sympathetic towards her during a few parts of the story.

In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good too. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly fast-paced, informal and “matter of fact” way that also focuses quite heavily on the characters’ thoughts and feelings (which helps to add to the story’s horror elements too). Likewise, there are also a few italicised flashback scenes that presumably describe moments from previous series of the TV show too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 250 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, this novel is written in a reasonably fast-paced way and also uses an interesting cross between a thriller novel-style structure (with alternating chapters focusing on the two main characters) and a 1980s splatterpunk novel-like structure (with some chapters and segments focusing on random background characters dying in horrible ways).

All in all, this is a fairly decent sci-fi horror thriller novel that is also vaguely reminiscent of the classic horror fiction of the 1980s too 🙂 The characters are well-written and the plot is both creepy and compelling too.

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

Review: “The Deep” by Nick Cutter (Novel)

Several weeks before I wrote this review, I happened to see something online mentioning a sci-fi horror novel from 2015 called “The Deep” by Nick Cutter. If I remember rightly, “The Deep” was likened to a modern version of H.P.Lovecraft. So, naturally, I was curious enough to look for a second-hand copy of it. To my delight, the author quote on the cover was from none of than Clive Barker too 🙂

Then, I got distracted by other books. But, since I was in the mood for horror fiction, I thought that I’d finally read “The Deep”.

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

This is the 2015 Headline (UK) paperback edition of “The Deep” that I read.

The novel is set in the near future, where the world has been reduced to a semi-apocalyptic state by a mysterious epidemic called “the ‘gets”. This disease makes people forget things, turning them into listless zombies before they eventually forget how to breathe or eat or drink.

A veterinarian called Luke arrives on the island of Guam. The night before, he got a phone call from the US military asking him to hurry over there. His genius brother, Clay, has been working in a deep-sea research station at the base of the Mariana Trench. The military has lost contact with the base. Clay’s last message to the surface was a strange phone call asking for his brother.

When Luke arrives at the surface station, one of the scientists shows him a mysterious substance dredged from the deepest point of the ocean called ambrosia. It has the potential to both cure diseases and heal horrific injuries. So, it seems like the most promising avenue for a cure for the ‘gets. However, before Luke descends below the surface, he sees what happened to the last scientist to surface from the research base.

Despite the grisly terror of what he has seen, Luke is eager to check on his brother. So, along with an experienced naval officer called Alice (or “Al” for short), they begin their descent into the deep….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that it is probably one of the most unnerving, disturbing and terrifying books I’ve ever read. Imagine a cross between horror movies like “The Thing”, “Event Horizon“, “Hellraiser” and “Triangle” and survival horror games like “Silent Hill 3“, but about twice as disturbing. Usually, I tend to take author quotes on book covers with a pinch of salt, but the Clive Barker quote on the cover is as much a genuine warning as it is praise for the novel.

So, I suppose that I should probably start talking about this novel’s horror elements. This novel is what would happen if H.P.Lovecraft, Clive Barker and David Cronenburg decided to write a book together.

There is an insidious, unnerving and downright petrifying mixture of psychological horror (lots and lots of it!), body horror, paranormal horror, character-based horror, phobia-based horror (insects, clowns, darkness etc..), realistic horror, cruel horror, monster horror, claustrophobic horror, ominous horror, suspenseful horror, scientific horror, gory horror, bleak post-apocalyptic horror and types of horror that probably don’t even have names.

Although the earlier parts of this book, when you don’t know the characters and don’t know what to expect, are slightly scarier than the later parts – the novel’s horror is fairly evenly-distributed throughout the story. Just when you think that you’ve got a handle on this book and think that it can’t do anything more shocking or disturbing than it already has, it will come up with something.

This is also one of those incredibly rare horror stories where reality itself cannot be trusted. Although this incredibly disturbing type of horror is more common in film and television, this is one of the relatively few written examples of it that I’ve seen. And, yes, whilst you’ll eventually be able to guess what is and isn’t a nightmarish hallucination, don’t be too certain about this. As I said, this novel can surprise you. It can lull you into a false sense of security and then get you.

As for the novel’s characters, they are brilliantly chilling. We are shown more than enough of Luke’s disturbing past to really care for him and to dread what other traumatic memories will be dredged from his psyche by the malevolent forces lurking in the underwater station. This is the kind of novel where the most terrifying character, Luke’s mother, never directly appears in the story outside of flashbacks, thoughts and hallucinations. Yet, she is in many ways a more terrifying evil than the malevolent forces at work in the depths of the ocean…

The other characters are fairly well-written and some of them have a real Lovecraftian flavour. Whether it is Luke’s brother, a brilliant but coldly emotionless scientist, or a segment of the novel showing the final journal of one of the doomed scientists, this novel can be very Lovecraftian at times. In addition to these Lovecraftian characters, there is also an interesting variety of other characters such as a courageous navy officer called Al and an adorable dog called LB too.

And, yes, I should talk about this novel’s sci-fi elements too, since it is a sci-fi horror novel. Although this novel explores the traditional Lovecraftian theme of scientists meddling with things they shouldn’t, the sci-fi horror elements are made even more chilling due to their realism.

Whether it is a mysterious pandemic or the fact that the scientists don’t know what the mysterious substance at the bottom of the trench is or the fact that the technology isn’t that much more advanced than current technology, this isn’t some distant fantasy set in outer space. It is chilling “it could happen” near future sci-fi horror!

In terms of the writing, this novel is brilliant. The novel’s third-person narration contains just the right mixture of fast-paced “matter of fact” narration and slow, creeping descriptive narration. Seriously, a lot of the horror in this novel comes from the way that scenes of the story are written. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story would be a hilarious dark comedy rather than fear in book form.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. Although, at 394 pages, it is a little on the longer side of things, it is partially structured like a modern thriller novel. In other words, there are lots of shorter chapters that lend the story a slightly staccato and fast-paced rhythm. But, unlike a modern thriller, there is only one plot thread and the novel isn’t afraid to slow down slightly at times to drench the reader in slow, creeping dread.

All in all, this is an extremely scary horror novel 🙂 For all of the people who worry that the horror genre has declined in recent years, this novel will prove you wrong. The horror genre may not be as prominent as it was in the 1980s, but it has been festering in the darkness of obscurity and slowly gathering its strength. Seriously, this novel is scary. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

Review: “Aliens: DNA War” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, it has been a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel and, since I was going through a bit of a sci-fi phase, I looked around online and ended up finding a second-hand copy of Diane Carey’s 2006 novel “Aliens: DNA War”.

Although it is theoretically possible to read this original spin-off story without watching any of the “Aliens” films, it is worth watching at least the first two films (Alien” and “Aliens) before reading this book, since the novel basically assumes that the reader knows at least a little about the series’ famous alien monsters.

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

This is the 2006 DH Press (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: DNA War” that I read.

The story begins on the spaceship Vinza, which is trying to land on a habitable planet called Rosamond 6 to evacuate a science team before a team of aggressive terraforming robots can deal with the xenomorph infestation that is killing off the planet’s fauna. However, the ship is having some problems. Namely that the medic’s pet bat has got loose and the rest of the crew are trying to catch it.

When they eventually land on the planet, the ship’s legal officer – Rory Malveaux – joins in the expedition to find the scientists, since he is the son of famed ecologist Jocasta Malveaux, who is leading the research team. Needless to say, Rory did not have a happy childhood and feels that he will be the only one there who will be able to persuade his fanatical, manipulative and charismatic mother to leave the planet.

However, when they reach the main research settlement, all that the team finds are several corpses. Although the rest of the crew want to get the hell out of there, Rory points out that most of the research team is still unaccounted for and that he won’t sign off on using the terraforming robots until he has found them……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a suspenseful, and gloriously cheesy, sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Whilst this novel is both similar and different to the other “Aliens” novels that I’ve read, it remained compelling throughout. It also reminded me a little bit of the later “Prometheus” prequel movie (mostly due to the planet-based scenes), whilst still having a fairly classic “Aliens”-style atmosphere too 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it tends to rely more on suspense and character-based horror than on gory horror. Sure, the novel contains a few grotesque scenes of grisly alien-based horror but the main sources of horror here are the hostile environment that the characters find themselves in, Jocasta’s sociopathic nature and the way that character deaths affect the other characters. So, whilst this novel isn’t that much of a gore-fest (relatively speaking), it still works really well as a horror novel.

In terms of the characters, although there are a surprisingly large number of background characters, the main characters are fairly well-written (if a little stylised). Although Rory is a likeable and slightly morally-ambiguous main character, the most well-written character is probably the story’s villain, Jocasta. She’s this creepily evil charismatic cult leader, who is also a fanatical environmentalist who cares more about aliens and science than about humans. Seriously, as villains go, she’s actually scarier than the aliens.

Jocasta is also contrasted with a space medic called Bonnie who, in addition to being a love interest for Rory, also seems to be like a “good” version of Jocasta who cares about both humans and animals (eg: an adorable pet bat called Butterball). Although she makes some rather naive mistakes during the story, which help to add suspense to some scenes, she comes across as a really likeable and realistic character.

In terms of the sci-fi elements, this novel contains some fairly interesting technology, not to mention an intriguingly mysterious planet too. Still, a lot of the focus of this story is on the ethics and legality of things like space exploration and terraforming.

This is also used as an avenue to show the inadequate nature of fixed rules in a complex universe, with even the most “lawful” character (Rory) having a fairly morally-ambiguous past. Likewise, the novel’s laws about terraforming are used as both a weapon against Jocasta and a tool for Jocasta and her fanatics. It’s a really interesting novel about the gap between formal rules and reality.

It’s also a novel about the dangers of things like ideologies and personality cults too, with these elements being one of the novel’s main sources of horror. And, in this spirit, the novel is also written in a brilliant way that will probably frustrate anyone wanting to analyse it in political terms (eg: it’s both a liberal and a conservative novel etc..). In other words, this is a novel about ambiguity and plurality.

Likewise, the novel mostly stays within the general mythology of the “Alien” films, whilst also doing a few innovative things with the alien creatures too. This helps to keep things surprising and suspenseful, whilst also allowing Carey to use the reader’s knowledge of the films to add extra suspense and implied horror during a few scenes too 🙂

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is written in a fairly informal way. Although this includes a few slightly quirky descriptions, these help to give the story a bit of personality (as well as adding to the “cheesy late-night sci-fi movie” atmosphere 🙂) and are part of the fun of the novel. Likewise, the informal narration also helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace and allows for a few occasional moments of comedy too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a wonderfully efficient 269 pages in length, this novel never really feels too long. Likewise, there’s a really good mixture between slower-paced moments of claustrophobic suspense, character-based drama etc… and faster-paced moments of drama and action. This novel flows really well and moves along at a fairly decent pace.

All in all, this is a really fun, suspenseful and compelling sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Yes, it contains a few tropes which seem to turn up in almost every “Aliens” novel I’ve read (eg: sociopathic scientists, desolate planets/space stations etc..) but it still a compelling story with some really good character-based horror too.

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