Wow, where did the time go? It’s hard to believe that it’s that time of the month again already, but my next newsletter is due out in the next couple of days.
I’d hoped to include at least one piece about recent archaeological discoveries, TV series and books, but real life has been a bit of a pest the last few weeks and I haven’t managed to achieve quite as much as I’d hoped.
Instead there’ll be reviews of Christmas TV ghost story The Amazing Mr Blunden, and Joshua Ian’s m/m Gothic romance The Ghost of Hillcomb Hall. There’ll also be an ultra-short (and slightly delayed, my bad!) Valentine’s romance story, Coffee For a Kiss, in which a man gets more than he bargained for when the barista at his local coffee shop offers to let him pay for his latte with a kiss.
If you’d like to read the story – or some of the rest of my ramblings (plus a new excerpt from my current work-in-progress, ghostly romp The Happy Medium), then you can sign up for the newsletter here. It comes out once a month, with history, mysteries, ghosts, trips out, semi-regular freebies – and a fair sprinkling of romance!
It’s taken me a long time to watch the whole of the Damien TV series – so much so that all the adverts related to Christmas, and the channel that showed it has ceased to exist! But I was determined to persevere, not least because I love supernatural drama of this kind (think Constantine, Dominion, or American Gothic).
In the end the series was rather like the Curate’s Egg – good in parts. The good included Bradley James, and not just because he made such a pretty Antichrist, but because he brought genuine acting ability to the role, turning Damien from a standard horror lead to a conflicted and at times despairing human. Another stand-out performance came from Barbara Hershey as Damien’s long-time guardian, willing to sacrifice absolutely anything to the cause.
The cinematography, special effects and music were also excellent, adding just the right note of bizarro to the horror. I particularly liked the title credits with their gothic overprints, and the Cujo-like ‘hounds of hell’ were rather brilliant.
For me these elements were overshadowed by the bad. For starters, the strange decision to link this Damien directly to the little boy in the films, even though the ages were completely wrong. No explanation was ever given for why adult Damien was only 30, not the 45 or 50 he’d have to have been if he’d really been the same person as in the original film. It wasn’t a serious plot defect, but it needed addressing and was just enough to pull me out of the story right from the start.
Apart from that, I felt that the series as a whole added little to the religious horror genre, and in some cases felt very much like horror-by-numbers, or even a team of writers making it up as they went along. Some of the more horrific scenes added little to the narrative and felt too much like they’d been added to ‘spice things up’. The pacing was also odd, with some episodes so full of action you could barely breathe and others dragging their heels. One particular episode, with Damien befriending a suicidal veteran in hospital, went on for days – and the plot point it seemed to be setting us up for turned out to be a red herring all along.
I got the feeling that the creative team fully expected this to run to a second series, so no loose ends were tied up. The Vatican hit-squad, the hand reaching out from the grave, the detective’s strangely menacing son, the old woman and the little girl in a ballet dress who kept appearing, even Damien’s own shattering decision to embrace his darker self, were all left floating for us to guess at. It’s a shame, because for all the show’s flaws a second series could have been brilliant, especially if it focussed on Damien’s last remaining shreds of humanity battling the near-certainty of his fate.
The cancellation can’t have been entirely unexpected, though. Any supernatural thriller of this type must cost squillions in special effects, and US television sponsors have an uncomfortable relationship with anything that smacks too much of the darker side of Christianity. In the end this joined all three favourite series I mentioned above in being axed, arguably before its time.
I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema – before the pandemic, obviously, and probably quite some time before that. But last night we spotted that the new Marvel film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, was showing at our local cinema in Bowness, and on a whim we decided to book tickets and give it a go.
We were a little nervous because we weren’t quite sure what to expect in terms of social distancing, masks, safety etc. But in the event it was excellent. There were only a handful of people in the auditorium, which was sad for the owners trying to make a living, but meant we were well spaced out with no random people breathing down our necks. The whole place had been cleaned until it shone. And there was a ventilation unit running the whole time we were there.
The film was great fun. It’s typical Marvel fare with one interesting difference – virtually all of the characters (and lead actors) are of east Asian/Chinese origin. They included old favourites Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, but also some newcomers – who, rather unusually, didn’t conform to the usual Barbie-and-Ken stereotypes of “attractiveness”. A refreshing change.
The plot deals with a man given immortality and immense power from wearing ten metal rings around his arms, and his son’s battle to stop him destroying their ancestral home. Or something. I probably wasn’t paying too much attention because I was so wrapped up in the Chinese elements of the film. The constant flashes of yin-yang symbolism, the music, and most of all, the fight scenes that used tai-chi-chuan rather than the more common karate or kung fu. I studied (practised?) tai chi for over eight years and although I’m hardly an expert, I recognised many of the movements and techniques, including using an opponent’s own power against them. It was lovely to watch and made me think seriously about taking up tai chi again.
Some aspects of the film were less convincing, including mystic creatures straight out of the Fantastic Beasts catalogue, and Ben Kingsley channelling John Lennon after a particularly bad acid trip. But overall it was high entertainment, and the sheer joy of being back at the cinema and doing something so normal again was nearly overwhelming. We even cheered at the p-pah p-pah p-pah fanfare of the Pearl & Dean adverts, so you can tell how much it meant to us!
And *whispers* the new James Bond movie is out at the end of the month…
Does anyone remember the movie Excalibur? It was one of the first Arthurian films I watched, many years ago, and it awoke a love of both that particular myth, and the genre of magical mysticism that it was part of. I loved not just the fantasy elements, but also the gritty reality – the mud and blood and smells of early Medieval life – which you probably wouldn’t have seen in films made in earlier decades. (It was quite similar to the TV series Robin of Sherwood in that respect, so perhaps it was an eighties ‘thing’.)
Yesterday I watched a programme I’d recorded months back from PBS America, of all unlikely platforms, about the making of the film. It featured brief clips of the action, plus interviews with John Boorman (director), some of the other crew members, and many of the original cast. It had some incredible names in it, many of them just starting out on what became brilliant careers, including Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Helen Mirren and Cherie Lunghi. And it was fascinating. There was lots of insight into how it was filmed, how the actors were chosen, how the soundtrack came about (mostly Wagner’s Parsifal, which is based on Percival from the Arthurian legends, of course). Plus a whole heap of reminiscence and anecdote, including a rather non-PC tale of a man trying to buy Liam Neeson’s horse, the joys of humping cushions while shooting close-ups of some of the sex scenes, and the battle scene where the same 10 actors, in full armour, had to crawl off set beneath the cameras then run back on screaming again!
I’m not sure if the programme is still available anywhere but it’s well worth catching if so. And it’s reminded me that I enjoyed the original movie so much that all I want is to watch the whole film again. Although a quick look at some of the reviews online suggests that it might not have dated terribly well…
It’s a very long time since I read the children’s classic (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) that this adaptation is based on. Slightly more recently, but not much, I watched the famous 1970s BBC version. But I’d still forgotten most of the finer detail, beyond a vague recollection of little Mary Lennox, orphaned in India and brought to live with a crusty old uncle in England, where she discovers a mysterious locked garden. So it was interesting to watch this latest Sky Original one-off and see how it compared with my memories.
Early on, it matched pretty well and was really enjoyable. It seemed to have moved forward in time about 50 years to a point just after the Second World War, but the basic details of a cholera outbreak, Mary left alone without even her faithful Ayah, and the arrival at Misselthwaite Manor to be greeted by rules, regulations and loneliness. After a while she starts wandering in the Manor’s extensive grounds and discovers the garden, which she finds her way into thanks to a friendly robin. But there the similarities began to end.
For starters the garden itself didn’t match my memories of the book, being much larger (really, half of Yorkshire seemed to exist within those high stone walls) and rather less unkempt. Mary’s discovery of the various sections was still involving, although I could quite easily have done without the souped-up Wizard of Oz style CGI, and her gradually developing friendships with Dickon and the invalid Colin were nicely done.
But the story felt less and less familiar, and more and more melodramatic. Characters I didn’t remember, situations that felt bolted on and even bizarre: a sentimentalised death, a terrible fire… Were those really in Burnett’s book? Well, I’ve checked since watching, and the answer seems to be ‛no’. Her original tale was much more restrained, and much more invested in the garden itself and its power to heal.
I watched to the end and enjoyed it, mostly. But the aspect that annoyed me more than anything was that odd journey forward in time. It didn’t make the story any more ‛relevant’ because it was still too long ago for most of today’s children to understand. It wasn’t necessary for any of the action. Most of all, in practical terms it just didn’t work. The attitudes in the book were very much of their time, which was Edwardian England. By 1947, when this film was set, things had moved forward, and the behaviour exhibited by many of the characters would have been unusual. And the idea that Mary’s mother would have travelled all the way from India, on her own, to be with her sister is hard to swallow. According to ‛film Mary’,this happened when she was three; according to the book she’s ten when the action takes place. Ten minus three is seven; seven years before 1947 is 1940… which was slap bang in the middle of World War Two.
How many stars would I give this? Probably 3 out of 5. Nice filming, nice gardens, some really good performances from the kids, but on the downside, too many unnecessary changes which got in the way of the book’s central message and added very little of their own.
Fans of the vampire genre in general, or Dracula in particular, should definitely try to track this BBC4 documentary down. Hosted by writer and horror buff Mark Gatiss, it’s a definitive history of not just the Bram Stoker book, but the myths and legends that inspired it, the various film and stage adaptations, and Gatiss’s own TV series Dracula (co-written with Stephen Moffat) which aired last year.
The programme is clearly a repeat since it mentions that TV series as ‘coming soon’, but for some reason I missed it first time around. This time I recorded it, and watched it in a couple of sittings last week. And was utterly riveted. For some reason I’d expected it to be a bit dry and dusty but it was anything but. Gatiss was informative but lively and his own innate sense of mischief kept showing through. And the snippets about the genre were fascinating.
There was the actual book, complete with annotations, that Stoker may well have got the name ‘Dracula’ from. There was an explanation of why the character’s cloak has such a high, stiff collar (something to do with the first theatre adaptation, although I’m not going to say what). There was the first really ‘sexy’ version of the character (Christopher Lee), and even a mention of when Dracula’s fangs first appeared!
Although I wasn’t madly convinced by Gatiss and Moffat’s adaptation of Dracula (you can see my blog post from last year about it HERE), I’d heartily recommend this entertaining look at the genre to anyone. Hopefully it’s still around on BBC i-Player; if not, watch out for another repeat. Or hire your own vampire to go and chew a few necks to make it available again!
The movie I Still See You seems to have had some awful reviews online. We thought we’d give it a go anyway, and we’re really glad we did. It wasn’t perfect (leap years*) but it was an original take on the traditional ghost story, with people who died when a secret government laboratory blew up reappearing in their loved ones’ lives.
The story focusses on teenage student Veronica’s attempts to find the truth after a new ‘ghost’ appears in her bedroom and appears to be trying to kill her. There’s a neat twist at the end and a nice romantic thread with fellow student (and fellow oddball) Kirk. The plot doesn’t deviate all that much from standard ghost story fare, but the reason for the ghosts, and the detail of how and why they affect the main characters’ lives, is inventive and thought-provoking.
I loved the dark cinematography and the blink-and-you-miss-it changes in some of the ghosts (watch Veronica’s father closely); although I found the dialogue rather too mumbly at times.
I see the movie is based on a book, ‘Break My Heart 1000 Times’, by Daniel Waters. I’d not come across this before but based on this I’d be tempted to give it a go, and see if he’s written anything else in a similar vein.
*Oh, and the leap years? Hmm, well, I don’t want to post any spoilers but let’s just say they only come round every four years… Still an enjoyable film, though.
Not mine quite yet. But mentioning The Name of the Rose in my post earlier today reminds me that my good friend Jay Mountney has a wonderfully well-argued and thought-provoking review of the book, the film and the recent TV series on her blog. Do go and have a look and see what you think.
I agree with many of her points, but you’ll have to wait and see which ones when I get round to posting my own review of the series. At the moment I’m still catching up on the recorded episodes and have two more to go.
A quick word of warning – Jay’s review does contain a few generic spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the series yourself.
When I mentioned that I was writing a romantic vampire story to a group of writer friends recently, their collective snorts shook the windows. And it does sound like a bit of a weird mix. But in reality it’s a popular genre in its own right, as this collection of favourite movies shows:
Love at First Bite (George Hamilton, Susan St James, 1979). The very first vampire movie I ever saw, and the one that switched me on to the possibility that vampires could be a force for seduction as well as horror. More comedy than romance and probably very cheesy by today’s standards, but at the time I loved it.
The Hunger (David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, 1983). Made only 4 years after Love at First Bite but with a completely different look and tone. This is a slick, stylish, erotic yarn loosely based on the Whitley Strieber novel of the same name. I found it rather ‘style over substance’ and ultimately a bit empty.
The Lost Boys (Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, 1987). Fast forward another 4 years and you get this wonderful tongue-in-cheek action-comedy-teen drama with a stellar cast, terrific one-liners and a thumping rock soundtrack. It was deliberately designed to make the New Romance-style vampires as alluring as possible and I can’t be the only fan secretly wishing they’d stayed alive!
Interview with the Vampire (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, 1994). A surprisingly good film version of Anne Rice’s famous Vampire Chronicles with sympathetic performances by the two main leads as Lestat and Louis. The New Orleans setting is heavy with Gothic romance and the books’ homoerotic subtext is nicely portrayed.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, 2013). I’ve seen arguments that this isn’t really a vampire movie in the true sense of the word, but it involves vampires and a centuries-old romance, as well as a sub-plot about the species’ demise, caused by the blood they drank from infected humans. It’s pure arthouse, more a slow dance of death than a coherent plot, and utterly beautiful to look at, and the soundtrack is mesmerising too. One of my all-time favourites.
So, that’s the five I’ve chosen, but there are others too. The Underworld series starring Kate Beckinsale, the Twilight series, which I’ve never seen myself but know to be wildly popular; and of course, the 1992 version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Gary Oldman (a film that has colossal flaws, but is quite possibly the most poignant and romantic of all).
I suddenly realised I hadn’t done a Friday Five for ages. And yesterday, a friend and I were chatting on Facebook about the difficulty in finding really good ghost movies to watch, which started me thinking what my own favourites in the genre were. So here’s a selection (well, five, obviously!) of them, old and new.
The Sixth Sense: brilliant chiller with a twist to (pardon the pun) die for. Plus an amazing, quiet yet emotion-filled performance by Bruce Willis and the introduction of Haley Joel Osmont in a role he seemed born for. M Night Shyamalan’s best movie so far, in my opinion.
Haunted: slightly old-fashioned chiller with Aidan Quinn as a loner going back to the house where his sister died twenty years before. Some clever special effects (especially as the movie dates back to 1995) and another great twist, not to mention great turns from Anthony Andrews and Kate Beckinsale as a brother and sister with a dark secret of their own.
The Others: excellent stuff from Nicole Kidman as a mother of two children with a rare form of photosensitivity who tries to protect them from the world outdoors. Dark, melancholy feel to things throughout and needless to say all is not quite as it seems.
Get Out. A much more recent offering with Daniel Kaluuya as a young man visiting his fiancée’s parents for the first time and finding much more than he bargained for. Original, chilling, even scary in places and with a slightly more uplifting ending than you often get with paranormal films!
Ghostbusters: the original and still (in my humble opinion) the best. Yes, it’s fluff but some of the scenes are surprisingly atmospheric and above all, it’s tremendous fun.
Does anyone else have any favourites I haven’t listed here? I’d love to hear what they are.