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Matthew Dent

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The Thing (2011) [DVD]
The Thing (2011) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Offered by HarriBella.UK.Ltd
Price: £3.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Managed to capture some of the feeling of the original, but add more modern touches, 14 May 2012
This review is from: The Thing (2011) [DVD] (DVD)
I'll be honest, I approached this with some trepidation. The original film The Thing is a classic of sci-fi and horror, one of those films I watched as I began my awakening to the genre, and loved every moment of. Coupled with my general distrust of remakes, I wasn't at all convinced that this would be a sound investment of my time.

Surprisingly, then, I can report I rather enjoyed it. It managed to capture some of the feeling of the original, but add to it with more modern touches. The film is actually a prequel rather than a remake, which begs the infuriated question, why does it have the same name as the original? I don't have the answer to that, but the film itself does fit perfectly into the original which is rather gratifying in itself.

But that it works as essentially fan fiction to the original should not at all be the gauge of its success or failure. It must stand as a film in its own right- which it does rather well. The CGI rendering of the titular Thing gives it a rather different flavour, swapping the 80s gore effects which Carpenter was so fond of for a more Dead Space appeal. Indeed, the Thing more resembles the necromorphs from those video games than I remember previously.

The story itself was sound, but then it was half-written by the film it was expanding upon. A team of Norwegian scientists in the Antarctic discover a crashed alien spaceship along with an alien frozen in a block of ice, and remove the latter for examination. Except it's not quite dead, and the alien cells can imitate human cells, and you can probably see where this is going.

The pacing goes for a little less claustrophobic paranoia, and a little more big budget action, but I think that's more a sign of the times than anything- and aside from there being no real explanation as to why there is such an abundance of flamethrowers at Antarctic bases, it doesn't stray to far from the believability of the premise.

One interesting note is that it does seem to be staffed by lookalikes. The female lead, at certain angles, bears rather a resemblance to Firefly and Stargate Atlantis actress Jewel Staite (but isn't). The can't-speak-English Norwegian heavyman looks sort of like Liam Neeson gone native (but, unsurprisingly, isn't). And the English radio operator looks the spit of Tim Roth (but isn't). None of which has any bearing on anything really, but I thought it was interesting...

In the end, though, as much as I enjoyed the film I'm left wondering why it was made as a prequel to 1982's The Thing. Yes, it fitted perfectly with it, but that's because it was made to. It didn't have to be. It had flavours and inspirations from a variety of other sources, including as I've already mentioned the Dead Space video game series, and the first Alien vs Predator film. I'm a little disappointed that it wasn't pushed as an inspired-by-but-unrelated film, injected with a bit of originality and allowed to go its own way a bit more.

Even straight-jacketed to someone else's film I enjoyed it, but I do think I would have enjoyed it even more if it was its own film. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who is getting sick of remakes, prequels and the like.

Troll Hunter [DVD]
Troll Hunter [DVD]
Dvd ~ Knut Nærum
Offered by DVD Overstocks
Price: £3.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It isn't going to change the world, but it's a very good watch, 14 May 2012
This review is from: Troll Hunter [DVD] (DVD)
Enter The Troll Hunter, a Norwegian found-footage fantasy/horror film which seems to have been getting quite a bit of attention since it's DVD release. I decided to see what the fuss was about, and sat down with it yesterday evening.
Firstly, whenever I sit down to watch a found-footage style film, my first thought is one of trepidation: "Oh God, not another one." This is a somewhat unreasonable reaction on my part, as there are definitely good ones out there. It would be stretching it to say that for every Paranormal Activity that's pumped out there's a The Last Exorcism, but it's certainly possible to do a very good film like this. The problem, I think, is the more recent deluge of sub-standard offerings (thank you very much The Blair Witch Project).

Gratifying, The Troll Hunter belongs to the "good" camp.

The film sets a group of college students and wannabe documentary film-makers in Norway, following a man who they initially believe is a poacher, but soon discover is a government-paid troll hunter. Yes, it sounds sort of mad (and it is), and conjures hilarious images of conservative politicians railing against taxpayers money wasted on trolls, but I promise you it works.

The students follow the hunter, who is obviously somewhat apathetic about his job, and film him hunting and killing a variety of breeds of troll. The thrust of the plot is that the trolls are acting out of character, but really it works as a fantastical wildlife documentary.

The main coup The Troll Hunter manages is the believability. The idea of trolls running around the Norwegian countryside and the government keeping it a secret is, on the face of it, stretching credibility. But they manage it, with much careful attention.

The characters have the feel of enthusiastic students, somewhat naive yet delighted to have stumbled on something so big. The production values are realistically low throughout, but without the nauseating camera-swinging of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, and with night-time scenes that don't turn into the disorientating flicker-fest of The Descent. Added to this the subtle use of visual effects for the trolls, and you're onto a winner.

The ending is a little on the confused side, but I think that's always likely to be a problem with found-footage. You know, deep down, that it won't end well for the protagonists, so it's a matter of working up to that ending, but it gets a bit rushed and hectic.

Still, all in all it's a good film. It kept me watching, and it goes without saying that the Norwegian countryside is beautiful. It isn't going to change the world, but it's a very good watch, and if the big film studios are going to keep making found-footage films (and I think we all know they are...) then they should watch The Troll Hunter very carefully and take note.

The Awakening (2011) [DVD]
The Awakening (2011) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Dominic West
Price: £5.75

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best ghost films I've seen in a long, long while, 14 May 2012
This review is from: The Awakening (2011) [DVD] (DVD)
I love a good ghost story. There's something about it that speaks to the primeval, the child in me hiding beneath the covers, shaking with fear and excitement. They don't have a terribly good press- they are, often not unfairly, labelled cheesy, cliche and overdone- but when they're done right there are few things better.

And The Awakening is one of the best ghost films I've seen in a long, long while. It certainly blows Hammer's disappointing The Woman in Black straight out of the water- though some might think the lack of Daniel Radcliffe on the cast list gives it an unfair advantage.

But first thing's first: my declaration of interests. I know Mr Stephen Volk, the writer (well, over Facebook and the like, at least). I'm a fan of his previous work (Afterlife and the excellent Ghostwatch), and of his columns in horror fiction mag Black Static. I've also been wanting to see this film since its cinema release, but due to the ineptitude of Odeon Cinemas had to wait until the DVD release.

Now that's done, onto the review. The Awakening follows ghost-hunter and -debunker Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), who comes to Rookwood boarding school on the request of teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West, of The Wire fame, looking like he was carved right out of a block of manliness). There she sets about debunking the "ghost" that has been blamed for the death of a student, just in time for the kiddies to go home for the holidays. Which is when the real creepy goings on start.

The "debunking" story is a fairly uncommon, but nonetheless established, model of horror story- and one I have a lot of time for. It invariably comes down to a character analysis of the debunker. In this case, Florence's motivations and history take centre stage of the entire film, but they do so almost subtly- so you don't even notice until it's already happening.

I won't give the plot ending away (because it is rather special), but as befits the story type you know it will go either one way or the other. Either the occurrences will be supernatural, or they won't. In that way, it's a lot like watching a coin spin on a table. It'll either finish heads up or tails up, and you just have to wait and see. But The Awakening is a lot more entertaining to watch.

And that is largely down to the atmosphere. This is something that is integral to horror films, but which so many seem to get wrong. They either don't spend enough time getting the audience into the right frame of mind, or they do and then ruin it (see the Paranormal Activity films). Here, though, there is a constant air of subtle creepiness, rendered all the more creepy for being uncertain of whether it is malevolent or harmless. Through the setting, the music and the acting, I found myself on the edge all the way through.

So there you have it. Very highly recommended, particularly if you like horror to reach you through more than simply loud noises and "jumpy" moments. Best served chilled, in a dark room, on a big screen, and with the volume up a little too high. And probably not alone.

On Stranger Tides
On Stranger Tides
Price: £2.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You couldn't really want for better pirate fare, 13 May 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: On Stranger Tides (Kindle Edition)
I went into this book knowing very little about it. Really the only thing I had to go on was the rather lacklustre Pirates of the Caribbean film based on it, which is hardly the best endorsement.

But I found myself very pleasantly surprised with the result. The actual similarity between the book and the film is limited to the name, the fountain of youth, and the involvement of Blackbeard. If the film had been more like the book, then it might not have been the disappointment it turned out to be.

So why did I like "On Stranger Tides" so much? Well, the first thing it has going for it is excellent characters. The pirate genre lends itself to colourful, imaginative and exciting casts, and Powers doesn't disappoint. Main character Jack Shandy is the classic character who never really wanted to be a pirate, but found an outlaw life thrust upon him, whilst Blackbeard manages to be engagingly bad, but more than simply a cardboard-cut-out comic villain. Add to the mix a host of brash but morally-questionable buccaneers and you couldn't really want for better pirate fare.

One thing that I was a little less passionate about was the ending. Throughout, Powers keeps the story fast paced and exciting, with the action running right up to the end. Which is great, but it makes the ending feel rather abrupt. To go from full-throttle to over zap quickly killed the mood a little, but I couldn't say what I would have changed and it didn't damage the reading experience too much.

Overall I would definitely recommend this book. I was somewhat sceptical at first, believing that pirate stories were something of a genre cul-de-sac, but Powers' excellent writing and brilliant story converted me very quickly.

A Cold Season
A Cold Season
by Alison Littlewood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lingering, chilling, isloation-based horror, 29 Jan. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: A Cold Season (Paperback)
It seldom seems that a horror novel, a proper horror novel, gets any real mainstream attention. The inclusion of A Cold Season on the Richard and Judy Book Club list made me wonder a little. But Alison Littlewood's writing has featured frequently in Black Static, and I know that she's a gifted writer.

A Cold Season is merely confirmation of this.

The plot surrounds Cass and her son Ben, who move to the remote Yorkshire village where she grew up after the death of her husband in Afghanistan. The plan is to make a fresh start, but it all starts to shift away from Cass when snow seals off the village, and the strangeness of the locals starts to infect Ben.

This is a classic outsider horror. From the beginning it maintains a subtly creepy atmosphere of isolation, of not being part of the group, with the history, the geography and the community of Darnshaw blending into a single entity. There's a subtle wrongness from the very start in all of the residents, which sets the reader on edge throughout.

And that's what won it for me. From the start, I couldn't tell you where the story was going. There was a growing sense of tension as the snow set in and as Cass became increasingly alone, but there was no real indication of where it was going. As it happened, the climax came out of left field, taking me by surprise but still fitting the story.

On a purely selfish note, I'm very glad that this novel was so good. With the wide attention it's received, especially the aforementioned Richard and Judy Book Club, I'm hopeful that it will give the new wave of British horror exposure to a more mainstream audience. This can only be good for encouraging more publishers to embrace the genre.

Because Littlewood's début novel is pure horror. It splits open the darkness inside the everyday, and examines it for our entertainment. At its core is parental relationships: Cass' fears of losing Ben to whatever darkness is at the heart of Darnshaw; the broken and confused shards of her relationship with her father; and the ongoing hurt and confusion of a little boy whose daddy isn't coming home again.

A Cold Season featuring no vampires, no werewolves, and no fairies. A Cold Season is a creeping, chilling, lingering horror story. And it's rather excellent.

The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel
The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, character-driven quest fantasy. What more could you want?, 29 Dec. 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
It was in a conversation with Jennifer Williams herself where I discussed the nature of reviewing; that reviews of books that most people give are by nature likely to be positive, as if a book is bad most people would put it down and not finish it. So in the first sentence, I've already made two things clear: that I know the author, and that I liked this book.

Quest fantasy and I haven't historically had the best relationship. For a long while I regarded it as stagnant, boring and unoriginal. I think it might have been the elves. It probably didn't have too good an opinion of me either, but since I'm a badass I never really cared. Two things have conspired to change that opinion: HBO's TV adaptation of Game of Thrones, and Bethesda's life-consuming open-world fantasy game Skyrim.

But to the book. The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citidel, follows a motley crew of adventurers entering the titular citadel for various reasons of their own. The crippled Lord Frith is searching for the key to regaining his castle, whilst mercenaries Sebastian (the Ynnsmouth Knight) and Wydrin (the Copper Cat) hunt for gold and riches. The synopsis seems pretty standard for quest fantasy, but the hero (if there is one in particular) isn't a farm boy, and there doesn't seem to be an evil emperor in sight.

Where it comes of its own is quite obvious and simple; it's rather brilliantly written. The characters in particular shine, and all of them feel like real people. I think Wydrin is my favourite; rather than being a wilting princess or Amazonian wall of muscle, she's an actual person. This is what fantasy so often misses out on, and characters become subservient to the plot. Rather, the plot should be driven onwards by the characters, by their personality and motivations. Williams clearly gets this.

Another endearing factor is that it's a novella. So it's short. In a genre world that seems dominated by sprawling epic tomes, a little brevity is like a cool breeze on a summer's day. There are fewer words devoted to info-dumping, and more to in-story exposition. I finished this book in about a day, primarily because I couldn't put it down. It was engaging, exciting, and left me looking very much forward to the next installment.

If you got a Kindle for Christmas (you lucky thing!) then I would heartily recommend you give The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel a read.

Camera Obscura (Angry Robot)
Camera Obscura (Angry Robot)
by Lavie Tidhar
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An incredibly fun read, expertly written and immersive on an almost dangerous level, 19 July 2011
So I'm going to start this review with a confession. I have yet to read Lavie Tidhar's first novel, The Bookman. It's been on my to-read list pretty much since it was released, but this past year that list has been distressingly static. After finishing Camera Obscura, however, it has jumped to the top of said list.

Fortunately for series-order anarchists like myself, whilst Camera Obscura is set in the same world as The Bookman it doesn't seem to be a direct sequel. What it is, however, is an outstanding novel that appreciates full how to entertain and intrigue, and yet not shirk the big issues the story raises. Which is really what I'd expect of Lavie, to be honest.

The story follows Milady de Winter, an agent of the mysterious Quiet Council, as she investigates a murder and is catapulted into a wide-ranging conspiracy that takes her across the world, meeting a cavalcade of friends and foes, all pursuing an item which could mean the end of humanity. Which doesn't get across an iota of the excitement in the story. There are many points I enjoyed about Camera Obscura, but for brevity's (and decorum's) sake, I'm going to focus on a few major points and try not to gush hopelessly over it.

The first is something I've already hinted at. The sheer pace of the story is something to be marvelled at in itself. Short chapters, to-the-point sentences, and the fact that Poor de Winter is tossed around like a metaphorical rag doll. There scarcely seems a chapter that she isn't running for her life, or being knocked/drugged unconscious.

The storytelling here will keep you on the edge of your seat (now there's a cliché for you) and you should be well prepared for the ten minute dip into you planned to turn into hours. It happened to me, and it's both at once wonderful and intensely annoying. I emerged from the final page of Camera Obscura exhausted by the experience, but with a definite smile on my face. It's fast, and relentlessly fun.

The second point, is the wonderful range of characters. They're interconnected with the world Tidhar crafts really; familiar people and places, from history and fiction, worked into a rich and seamless fantasy. I particularly liked the lizard Queen Victoria, and Tom Thumb with his shop in Paris. He even works in a reference to Doctor Moreau, which hints at further things to come. And the main character of Milday de Winter was one whose boots are so easy to slip into that her trials and tribulations mattered deeply to me as the reader.

If I have to criticise something, then I'd have to say that the ending feels extremely abrupt. To race through a plot, foot down on the accelerator, and then to come to the finish line so abruptly was a little jarring. The climax comes only a few pages before the end, so it has a sense of suddenness, but also a sense of more story (and stories) to come. Hopefully that isn't just wishful thinking.

As you'll no doubt have gathered, I enjoyed Camera Obscura very much. It was an incredibly fun read, expertly written and immersive on an almost dangerous level. It's a widely held belief in the circles of genre fiction that Lavie is well on his way to being one of the new monsters of science fiction. This novel is as good an example of why as you're likely to find.

The Immersion Book of SF
The Immersion Book of SF
by Carmelo Rafala
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent first collection from a small publisher, 6 Oct. 2010
The Immersion Book of SF is more or less exactly what it says on the tin. A collection of science-fiction short stories, from Immersion Press. Simple, right? If you haven't heard of Immersion Press, that's not really surprising as they only have two books currently released, but judging from this particular offering their state of unknown won't last.

The cover is the first clue. "Features Tanith Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Chris Butler, Gareth Owens and more" it declares. And more? Christ, you've already got some of the premier writers of speculative fiction, including two authors featured in the latest issue of Interzone (Tidhar and de Bodard).

The collection kicks off with "Golden", by Al Robertson, which at first read struck me as an odd choice for an opener. It's a very good story, but a little bit complex, and at times confusing, dealing with an alternate reality crossing over in modern-day London. The stark contrast between the tedious humdrum of the protagonist's world, and the excitement of the world he is allowed tantalising glimpses into works very well, opening up another universe of imagination.

Tanith Lee's "Tan", is a comparatively shorter and more humorous piece. It centres around, predictably, tanning and UFO appearances, and despite its brevity managed to have a certain air of significance to it, mixing entertainment and food for thought as good sci-fi should.

"Have Guitar, Will Travel" by Chris Butler is another longer tale, providing a fascinating blend of lost romance, neural hacking, and music piracy. It sounds on paper like a strange combination, but it was so well written and the characters so believable that I'd have to crown it as one of my favourites in the collection.

"The Time Traveller's Son" from Jason Erik Lundberg is another shorter piece, and another very good story. It tells a story across a lifetime, of an absentee father and the lie (perhaps) he told to his son, to lessen the heartbreak of his absence. It does well creating an air of uncertainty about what the real truth is, and paints a rather moving piece of fiction.

Colin P. Davies' "Dolls" was an interesting premise, about little girls in an almost-dystopia future trapped in perpetual child pageants. It's very premise is a little disturbing, the protagonist's frustration at not being able to grow up is very resonant, and the relationship with her father a fascinating examination. I wish that the world could have been a little more fleshed out, but all in all it was a very good story, fully deserving of its place next to the others.

The next story, Anne Stringer's "Grave Robbers", I'm afraid to say was one of my least favourite in the anthology. I should clarify that by no means was it bad, it just didn't capture me in the same way that some of the others did. It follows the titular grave robbers, who make a strange discovery at a grave which begins to pull them apart. It's a tale of obsession, but it doesn't really explain enough. There's no real reason given for the obsession, and to my mind there was little to mark it out as sci-fi rather than horror or fantasy.

With "Father's Last Ride" from Aliette de Bodard, however, the anthology gets back on track. A daughter's journey of discovery into her late father's life is emotionally written, in a beautifully imagined world of electromagnetically-grazing alien jellyfish.

Gord Sellar's "The Broken Pathway" is another of my favourites. It bases itself on oriental mythology, in particular acupuncture, and has such a rich level of culture that makes it instantly intriguing and (yes, yes, I know) immersive. Following a pair of monks in their investigation into strange iron spikes appearing in the mountainside, this story is definitely worth a lot.

Eric James Stone's "Bird-Dropping and Sunday" is another light-hearted story, in the form of a telling of as an ancient fable about a young boy with an odd name. I'm sorry to say that it didn't do a lot for me, though I can see how others might well enjoy it a lot. It also seemed to suffer the complaint of not really being sci-fi, as much as other genres (in this case, fantasy).

To follow that, "Mango Dictionary and the Dragon Queen of Constant Evolution" by Gareth Owens was another story outmatched by its greater brothers and sisters. A tale about a world terrorised by a woman-spaceship symbiosis (à la Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang series, or TV series Farscape), there was nothing bad about it, but so much that was supposed to be odd and quirky just struck me as nonsense.

The final story, and clear headliner, was "Lode Stars" by veteran sci-fi writer Lavie Tidhar. Predictably, this was my favourite offering. Tidhar's story of a far-future religious society, devoted to a trio of black holes as the eyes of God, was a wonderful patchwork of fiction. It had clear hard sci-fi elements, along with religious conspiracy and genuine mystery. I wouldn't have expected any less from Tidhar, but it bears saying nonetheless that this was a superb story.

So there you have it. Do I recommend this story? Absolutely. I may have sounded critical of some of the stories, but the lowest standard it reaches is still in clear competition with the products of much bigger publishing houses. And that is every bit a credit to the editor as well as the author's; Mr Rafala has put together a blinding collection here. As a small press publisher, Immersion Press are punching well above their weight, and I am genuinely excited to watch their progress from here.

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