Film of the Year 2019: ‘Midsommar’ (Dir. Ari Aster)

So, last year my film of the year was Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary. This year I’ve chosen his follow up. I think I might be a bit of a fan.

Midsomer

I know a lot of people had issues with Hereditary. Many of these I will happily admit were valid. The second half lost focus, and the ending was very disappointing after the promise of the first act. But I chose it as my film of the year for 2018 as I was so impressed by the power and ambition it showed. Especially for a debut feature. There was something about it that made me think Aster would someday produce something truly amazing.

Midsommar isn’t that masterpiece I’m waiting for, but it’s another step towards it. Again, this film isn’t perfect. But the important thing is the issue with this one is different to the last. Aster hasn’t repeated the same mistakes.

This time the main issue is predictability. The story has a bunch of American students visit a remote commune in Sweden to study their isolated community and ancient rites. If you feel you can guess the entire plot from that one line, you’re probably right.

But that’s not the point of this film. The story isn’t bad. It’s just predictable. And it’s the style and the characters that make this film. It’s grand. It’s beautiful. And the characters and plot are so fleshed out and developed it doesn’t matter if you can work out where it’s going. The journey itself it so satisfying.

What this film did was cement my belief that somewhere down the line Ari Aster is going to create a horror masterpiece. A touchstone of the genre. There may be a few more movies along the line as he hones his skills, but if each of these are as good as Hereditary and Midsommar then I’m more than happy to be along for the ride.

Review: “The Loney” by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney. A desolate stretch of land on the northern coast, notable only for an ancient shrine to which a young boy’s devout Catholic parents take him and his brother, Hanny, every Easter in the hope of find an miracle cure for Hanny’s muteness. But when a new priest is assigned to the parish, the family’s religious certainty is challenged, and the cracks in faith and ritual begin to show.

This was an interesting read. I loved the story. I also loved Hurley’s style. He does a wonderful job of writing around what is actually happening. It’s the perfect depiction of a child’s point of view: being witness the lives of the adults around him but never having anyone engage with him to explain exactly what’s happening. Everything was inferred. All the character backstory was there, but you have to work it out. These are not the kind of people willing to be open and honest about their feelings.

The setting was perfect for the story. Looking at it objectively I would have said it was a little too on the nose. But actually, sometimes simple is the best way to do something. The Loney and the house work as a perfect representation of the fragile and isolated world the protagonist’s family have created; with their strict religion and belief that simply religion-ing hard enough will eventually solve their problems.

But as much as I enjoyed The Loney and got a lot out of it, it’s one of those books that didn’t quite hit that point of satisfaction. I loved the story and the writing, but found it hard to get into and a little disappointing at the end.

Thinking back, I think the fact I took a while to get into it was down to me. I wasn’t sure of either the year the story was set or the protagonist’s age until well into the story. This niggled at me, preventing me getting lost in the story as I was searching for clues to work it out.

And the ending was, I’m afraid, a classic case of not hitting the same feel as the rest of it. It didn’t feel to me like it flowed naturally. From a wonderful, elusive story where everything was inferred, we were suddenly handed a climax that hadn’t been prepared for. Without wanting to give too much away, the climax relied on a certain element that either should have been set up much earlier, or removed entirely.

The Loney is essentially a story about how damaging adhering to a strict dogma can be to people and communities. It uses religion as the example, but doesn’t attack it directly. Rather it shows how a small community and family clutching to its own strict interpretation can only survive until the first cracks of doubt appear, and all too often refuse the see the damage it inflicts on those without their own agency. But I just felt that the framing devices didn’t match this theme, and kind of undercut it.

All in all, though, I greatly enjoyed it and I’ll be looking to pick up more of Hurley’s work. The Loney was his debut novel, and so hopefully his next two will have followed up in the same style, but with a little more evenness at the start and the end.

Recommendation: “Gyo” by Junji Ito

Something is wrong. A stench that drove Tadashi and Kaori from their holiday at the sea has followed them to their apartment in the city. A stench that is driving Kaori mad. But as terrible as that stench is, what is about to follow it out of the sea may be more than mankind can handle.

Gyo. A novel you read when you’re fine never to want to look at a fish ever again.

Junji Ito’s work is something that grabs your mind and doesn’t let go. Grotesque and beautiful. He has a masterful grasp of the very essence of horror; taking something normal and twisting it slightly until it becomes unsettlingly unfamiliar.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoy Uzumaki, the first of Ito’s books I read. But being compared to a masterpiece is never fair, and doesn’t mean Gyo isn’t good. It just didn’t quite have the same overall feel of a completed story. There didn’t seem to be as much character, and the ending came out of nowhere and didn’t really feel satisfying. But that didn’t detract from the experience I had reading.

And that’s what Ito’s work is; an experience. Whatever other opinion you may have of his work, you don’t finish this book the same as you went in.

Review: “The Upstairs Room” by Kate Murray-Browne

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne is a book made up of three distinct stories:

1) The first is the story of family reaching breaking point. As they struggle with young children, a new house, and a young and free new lodger, Elenor and Richard start to face how neither of them have ever been truly happy with their choices, and whether or not this means their marriage is a sham, or simply more real than the idealised image of it they have had.

2) The second is about a young woman trying to work out who she is. Zoe lives in someone else’s house, works in someone else’s shop, and sleeps with someone else’s boyfriend. All around her are people who seem to know what they’re doing, while she struggles to work out if she will ever find what she is “supposed” to do with her life.

3) The third is a ghost story, where a young couple and their new lodger discover their new house is haunted by a presence that doesn’t want them there. As Elenor gets sicker each day she remains but recovers once outside, Richard refuses to accept that his new house can be anything but perfect. But as Zoes starts to encounter inexplicable night terrors, the three of them need to decide whether to face their own prejudices to run away.

All three of these stories would be interesting to read. Mixed together as they are, they just don’t work. I can see what Murray-Brown was going for, but there is just too much going on. Her main problem is focusing on too many characters. Each time the story gets going and starts to engage you, you’re suddenly faced with huge chunks of back story. And you get this for all three main characters; Richard, Elenor, and their lodger Zoe. If Murray-Brown had focuses on either Zoe or Elenor, the book would have have a simpler through line and got bogged down in itself less often. As it is, the story is so diluted all tension is lost.

It’s a shame, as the writing and characters are good. There is a great book in here. Here’s hoping next time she gets a better story editor.

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

When fourteen year old Marjorie Barrett begins to display the signs of acute schizophrenia, her family’s life begins to fall apart. The doctors are unable to stop her illness spreading, and when her father loses his job the family is soon running out of money, patience, and hope. Soon they reach out to the Catholic Church for help, and agree to participate in a reality television show in order to fix their worries.

Fifteen years later Merry, Marjorie’s littler sister, recalls the events she lived through as a child. As she does so, painful memories and forgotten secrets begin to surface.

I enjoyed this book. I just didn’t love it. There’s nothing wrong with it. The writing is good. The characters are solid. The structure is interesting and the ending, while not mind blowing, is at least interesting and well set up.

The exorcism is a old an favourite sub-genre in horror. Tremblay is aware of that, and works it into the story. He is skilful in the way he makes the reader aware that he knows this isn’t a groundbreaking premise. It’s just that after he’s done this he doesn’t then add anything new.

I went into this book expecting more of the conflict between Marjorie’s illness and the lengths the family went to cope. How both religion and the media seemed like the only options available to them, despite how obvious seems that neither was going to help. In the end it felt as if Tremblay didn’t commit enough in either direction. It needed to commit more to this, or throw itself fully into the standard exorcism plot.

It’s still a solid read, and you could find a lot worse out there. Tremblay is a good writer – aside from some very clunky dialogue in the ‘present day’ sections – and I’ll probably keep an eye out for his other work. I was just left a little underwhelmed by the plot.

Film of the Year 2018: Hereditary

I’m not saying Hereditary is a perfect film, but it comes so close. Combined with the sheer ambition and potential it shows in the first time director Ari Aster, it easily takes the spot as my Film of the Year 2018.

HereditaryHereditary tells the story of Annie Graham, a miniatures artist dealing with the recent death of her estranged mother. After hearing that her mother’s grave has been desecrated, Annie begins to feel her mother’s presence in the house in a reflection of how she had hovered over her in life.

It’s one of those films you can’t say too much about for fear of giving away too much of the story. I can say that members of Annie’s family all take time as the central focus; her social outcast daughter, her disaffected stoner son, and her husband trying to do the right thing as his wife, it seem to him, begins to display the mental illness that runs through her family. And a short way into the film there is a massive shift in direction that I did not see coming and completely changed where I thought the story was going. 

Hereditary, as I said, is not perfect. The opening is strong, as are the characterisation and story. However as you get into the second half it begins to lose its focus. This could have been studio interference, but I have a feeling that it was more a case of Aster wanting us to know the full details of his story and worrying the audience would miss bits. What could have been a tight and pleasingly open narrative that left the viewer to piece everything together gets wrapped nice and neatly so we’re in no doubt as to what has happened.

I’m a massive fan of horror stories that manage to leave you guessing as to whether the supernatural element is real or in the mind of the protagonist, and that’s where this film should have gone. The fact that they spell everything out in the final half hour is a disappointment.

However, it’s still an amazing film. It was divisive, and there were friends of mine I thought would love it saying they were completely disinterested. But for me, this just making the whole thing more interesting. And as I said, for all it’s flaws this film shows Aster as a directer well worth watching. I have very high hopes for what he will create once he’s a more seasoned filmmaker with the confidence to leave the audience guessing.

Review: Uzumaki

When you’re reading horror, what you want to discover is a book that takes something mundane and everything and manages to make you see in it something new and unsettling that will make you question, if only for a short while, whether those things you’ve always considered safe are truly so.

And so when you find something as deliciously twisted and original as Uzumaki it’s impossible not to love it.

Uzumaki

Uzumaki tells the story of a Kurôzu-cho, a town haunted not by ghosts or monsters, but by a pattern. A Spiral. The books is broken down into episodic stories, each one telling the next stage in the story of how more and more of the population first slowly become obsessed with The Spiral, that pattern that permeates the world. Through the eyes of Kirie Goshima, a teenager seemingly in the centre of it all, we gradually the episodes begin see how something so everyday as a pattern reoccurring in nature can in fact be a sign of something far more ancient and terrifying.

I absolutely loved this story. I’m a total sucker for twisted horror like this, where the everyday world is gradually shifts and reveal that there is no place to hide from the things we thought were safe. Add to this beautifully grotesque artwork that seriously made me double-task several times while I read, and this becomes something you simply cannot put down.

My only quibble was that some of the middle chapters felt a little too stand alone. With some of the stories is was hard to put aside reality when wondering why people in the weren’t reacting more to what was happening to them. Even if it had been something simple like a few lines pointing out that it was strange how little people were reacting, rather than accepting and getting on with their lives.

But as the story continues and all the elements begin to come together this issue fades away. Once you’ve got to the end the way people act makes more sense. I would have just liked the final explanation behind to have been seeded a little earlier to prevent these niggling feelings.

But that minor issue aside I can’t recommend this book enough, and I will be looking for more of Junji Ito’s work as soon as my current reading pile goes down a little bit more.

Make the effort, branch out, discover more

So once again International Women’s Day has snuck up on me. I always mean to plan ahead for days like this so I have something profound, interesting or inspirational to put up here. Luckily for me, I just happen to be in the middle of reading something from an author who is all three of those things. One who just happens to be a woman, and someone I discovered by purposefully going outside my comfort zone.

img_0219-1

A while ago, I released most of the books on my shelves were from white, male writers and that keeping my reading so restricted was going to be limiting my own growth as a writer.

My first step to rectify this was a simple internet search for women writing in horror. From just a quick browse, the name Shirley Jackson kept popping up. And so I picked up her horror story The Haunting of Hill House.

And, as anyone else who has read this book will understand, I was instantly smitten.

I’d don’t know any writer who can so expertly craft stories that remain so intimately personal the more the action unfolds. Her protagonists – at least in what I’ve read so far – feel fleshed out and real beyond most writers. Usually, when we read we don’t think about how the characters are just that; characters. As good as they are, we know deep down they are not, and our willing suspension of disbelief allows us to ignore this as long as they fit the story world. But Jackson creates entire characters that you feel you know and understand intimately. The action of the plot may be happening all around them, but all of it is shown through such a focused point of view that it’s hard not to feel that we are not literally watching through the character’s eyes. Her grasp of the isolation felt only while in the midst of other people is pitch perfect. I don’t know any other authors can so deftly express so much about how our lives are constrained by the world and the people around us like Shirley Jackson. If you know of any, please recommend them to me.

I’ve re-read The Haunting on Hill House several times now. It’s a massive influence on my current project. Every time I’ve been stuck I’ve used as an opportunity to read it once again, and every time I leave it with fresh ideas and inspiration. It’s one of those books that instantly leapt into my all time favourites. I could easily read it over and over without it ever getting dull.

I’m now reading this collection of her short fiction, and with each story I love her work all the more. I’ve heard so many things about how good The Lottery is, only the quality of the stories before it is stopping me skipping forward and reading it first (it’s the last one in the collection). Each story is a snapshot into a world reflected through the eyes of her protagonist. The theme of each one is both simple and complex, a stream running deeper than it appears.

So if you want to mark International Women’s Day by reading a kick-ass female writer, and you haven’t discovered her already, I can’t recommend Shirley Jackson enough.

And so let this be a lesson in the benefits of branching out and trying something outside of your comfort zone. I discovered one of my favourite authors through by recognising that my reading wasn’t diverse enough and making the effort to do something about it. Let’s ignore the underlying problem of why it wasn’t diverse for now, shall we – That’s an issue for a different post – and imagine what I still have to discover by just making an effort to try something different?

My 2016 Game of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

While SOMA came out in 2015, I played it over the winter and completed it in 2016.

soma

Suffering from brain damage after a car crash, Simon Jarrett agrees to an experiment brain-scan. Blacking out half way through, he wakes to find himself in a seemingly abandoned deep sea research facility in the year 2104. What follows, as Simon tries to work out what has happened, is a terrifying exploration of the nature of the human soul and the sense of self.

This is one of those games you irritatingly can’t say much about in a review for fear of giving too much away. Half the appeal of SOMA is the experience of playing and discovering the story for yourself.

If you’ve played any of the Amnesia series of games, then you’ll have an idea of the gameplay. But SOMA is a massive step up in terms of story and voice acting. This is a story-driven, survival horror game, so you’re not going to be battling monsters. Rather, you’ll be running from them, helpless, as you solve puzzles and try to work out what the hell is going on. But as you creep or spirit through the game world you discover a plot that’s both depressing and fascinating. It will make you really think about who “you” are, and then leave you in a deep, existential mire.

Honestly, when I finished this game I lay awake at night with an honest to god existential crisis. It will make you question your very existence.

soma2

I wouldn’t exactly call this a “fun” game, although I don’t want to give the wrong impression from that statement. What I mean is, this isn’t something you throw on after a stressful day at work when you just want to switch your brain off for some mindless entertainment. You’re going to have to think through this one. Not because it’s especially hard, but because the story is so smart and thought provoking that you will need to pay attention to get all the benefit. But don’t worry, it’s so well written and perfectly balanced that it never feels like a chore to do so.

I would say the better descriptions for this are “rewarding” and “satisfying”, rather than “fun”. But, damn, is it both of those in spades.

 

My 2016 Film of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one was pretty easy. My film of the year has to be The Witch, from director Robert Eggers. I’ve already written about it here so I won’t go into too much detail again when you can just click the link. The passing of time has not quenched how much I love this film.

the-witch-spoiler-free-review-a-good-film-rarely-scary-849198

Exiled from their settlement for their extreme Puritan views, Samuel’s family settles their own farm on the edge of a distant forest. After a year of toil, dedication, and hard work, their new-born child is stolen from under the nose of their eldest daughter by a witch living deep in the woods. What follows is a spiral of fear, persecution, blame and madness, as grief and petty grievances tear the family apart. 

This film is creepy, sinuous, creative, and beautiful. Every shot is a portrait. The story a masterpiece is isolation and the collapse of sanity in the face of forces we can’t understand. Eggers firmly roots his film in a grimy sense of reality, using only natural light, researching the world and the lifestyle of the time, and utilising documents from the period to ensure the dialogue is authentic to the time.

Don’t expect jump scares. Don’t expect gore. Expect steady burning, character driven fear. Expect to be left creeped out and unsettled. This movie is truly what a horror film should be.