The past is a different country

XeroxferoxIt’s hard to believe now, but there was a time, just a couple of decades ago, when British horror fans risked criminal prosecution simply for possessing videotapes of movies which are now readily available on Blu-ray from reputable high street retailers. The sheer absurdity of this draconian clamp-down helped fuel an explosion in the number of small press magazines devoted to the genre, many of which crossed my desk during the years I produced my monthly ‘Fanzine Focus’ column for The Dark Side.

One of the other magazines I wrote for back then was Headpress (“The Journal of Sex Religion Death”), whose publishing wing eventually grew to incorporate a range of film guides and cultural analyses. Among 2013’s releases was John Szpunar’s Xeroxferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine, a selection of interviews with key players on both sides of the Atlantic — myself included, although that hasn’t biased my favourable opinion of its value as a revelatory window into social attitudes during a particularly oppressive period in this country’s cultural history.

DVD review: Dark Matter, Season One (2015)

Dark Matter, Season One (2015)Dark Matter

[First aired on Syfy, the opening season of Dark Matter is currently available from Acorn DVD. This review appeared in The Dark Side #171, December 2015.]


A dysfunctional ragtag band of interplanetary mercenaries and political exiles, forced to scratch a shadowy existence on the fringes of known space, continually facing conflict both within and outside their no-frills starship… No, Joss Whedon hasn’t quit the Marvel sausage factory in order to reboot the Firefly franchise, despite that show’s clear similarities with the Syfy Channel’s homegrown thriller Dark Matter, which has just been renewed for a second season and is now available on DVD for those who missed its inaugural 13-episode run.

Co-created by Stargate writers Joseph Mallozi and Paul Mullie, who adapted their unsuccessful initial tv pitch into a well-received Dark Horse graphic miniseries before Syfy greenlit a weekly show, Dark Matter adds to its air of mystery by opening with its half-dozen human characters awakening from stasis aboard the freighter Raza to discover their memories have been wiped (the ship’s title is a homophonic in-joke, ‘tabula rasa’ being Latin for ‘blank slate’). Nor has the Raza’s resident android (Zoie Palmer, Bo’s lesbian lover Lauren in Lost Girl) escaped the saboteur’s interference, leaving all but one crew member in the dark as to his or her true identity and motivations.

For convenience, codenames are allocated in the order they left stasis: One (Marc Bendavid) seems to be the nearest to a reluctant hero among them; the feisty Two (Melissa O’Neil) swiftly becomes his second-in-command, taking the teenage Five (Jodelle Ferland, Mary Jensen in Kingdom Hospital) under her wing; Three (Anthony Lemke, another Lost Girl alumni) is the ship’s muscle, a role reminiscent of Firefly’s Jayne; Four (Alex Mallari Jr) and Six (Roger R Cross, Reggie Fitzwilliam in The Strain) are soon unmasked as killers on the run, but nothing in this series is quite as it seems.

Filmed, like Lost Girl and the Stargate conveyor belt, in Canada, Dark Matter has much to recommend it, not least the central story arc which underpins the first season and builds to a terrific reveal in the closing moments (none of the actors was tipped off ahead of the scene being shot). True, certain elements are less than wholly original, but there are plenty of twists along the route, buoyed by excellent performances from the regular cast, and I for one look forward to stepping back aboard the Raza when it relaunches next summer.


Extras: In addition to a photo gallery, each of the episodes has its own short featurette, focussing upon the individual characters, clues to their backgrounds and elements of the Dark Matter universe.

Film review: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

MyersHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

[From Critical Wave #17, 1990. Copies of Platform Entertainment’s 2010 DVD release are currently available via Amazon, as is the 2012 Blu-ray edition.]


There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to horror movies. The first, typified by John Buechler and Clive Barker, holds to the theory that emotional response is directly linked to visual bombardment: the gorier the image, the greater the impact. The other, which informed Robert Wise’s superlative 1963 screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, opts instead for intensity and suggestion rather than graphic anatomy lessons, shadows rather than splatterfests.

Regrettably, the latter school has had few graduates in the past decade, the box office success of Freddy Krueger and his rivals too much of a temptation for young film-makers eager to make their mark and all too ready to jump aboard the bloody bandwagon if it seems to be heading in the right direction. That’s not to say I’m not in favour of a little gore once in a while, just that by the time you’ve seen your tenth eye-gouging or your fortieth disemboweling, the entire affair loses its initial shock value, much as a stag night comedian who peppers his routing with “fucks” soon becomes merely tiresome.

So I suppose I should send a note of thanks to Dwight H Little, director of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, for not only creating (with screenwriter Alan B McElroy) a movie with sequences of real tension, but denting the view that horror sequels are by their very nature a worthless exercise in audience exploitation. The third chapter in the Myers saga (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch having no connection to its predecessors, you will recall) opens a decade after John Carpenter’s original, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character having survived her murderous brother only to die in a traffic accident, the focus shifting to her young daughter, now fostered by one of Curtis’ babysitting clients. Uncle Michael is safely locked up, of course, but (surprise, surprise) escapes to wreak havoc in tranquil Haddonfield yet again.

Several questions arise at this point, such as “How come psychopaths are always relocated in pitch darkness?” and “Why don’t people simply leave town for the Halloween weekend?”, but expecting a sensible answer is as pointless as wondering how Myers and monomaniacal psychiatrist Donald Pleasance survived the fiery finale of the second movie. You simply have to suspend disbelief, set your brain in neutral and go with the flow; gore fans may be disappointed by the conspicuous lack of on-screen carnage (folks get offed, sure, but with a refreshingly economical style), but I actually jolted at one point towards the close, which is quite a change from the usual predictable yawnfest. And make certain you catch the final few minutes, for one of the neatest twist endings in many a moon.

Film review: Edge of Sanity (1989)

Edge2Edge of Sanity (1989)

[From Critical Wave #11, 1989. Twentieth Century Fox released a DVD in 2004, copies of which are currently available via Amazon. Copies are also currently available on eBay.]


If Robert Louis Stevenson, awakening from the nightmare which spawned his novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, had been granted a vision of the legion of cinematic emetics his book would ‘inspire’, I suspect he’d have thrown his notebook to the floor, slid back under the sheets and vowed to never again eat strong cheddar before retiring.

However, we have Allied Visions’ Edge of Sanity as testament that such was not the case, with Anthony Perkins drafted in to essay the role of the deranged doctor. Intriguingly, the script is credited to J P Felix and Ron Raley, with no mention of the original source, though judging from the final result, this may be out of respect for the dead.

The core of Stevenson’s novel is its anthromorphosis of Victorian society, the Jekyll / Hyde split holding a mirror to the hypocrisy of the privileged few who preached morality in the daytime and spent their nights frequenting music halls and brothels. Its subsequent stage adaptation by the American actor Richard Mansfield struck a deep chord in a community then being terrorised by the Whitechapel murderer immortalised as ‘Jack the Ripper’, a relevance not lost on the makers of this movie.

What Edge of Sanity chooses to do, however, is to forge a direct historical link between the murders of autumn 1888 and the fictional antagonist of a novel published two years earlier. By dubbing the murderous alter-ego ‘Jack Hyde’, it attempts to cash in on the interest rekindled by last year’s centenary and at the same time legitimise its sado-sexual excesses; needless to say, it fails on both counts.

EdgeAnthony Perkins tackles his dual role with only a modicum of make-up (arguably the film’s single merit), playing the Hyde persona as a close relative of the homicidal priest he portrayed in Ken Russell’s excellent Crimes of Passion. This time, unfortunately, Perkins is allowed to go completely over the top and thus disastrously undermines his character’s credibility. His decision to take this course might be a conscious attempt to emphasise the difference between the mild-mannered workaholic Jekyll and his amoral doppelgänger, but it’s just as likely to be another coffin nail in director Gerard Kikoine’s reputation — particularly when Glynis Barber (as Elizabeth Jekyll) is allowed to be just as wooden as Kim Cattrall was in Kikoine’s previous genre effort, the dismal Mannequin.

Even more self-destructive that the erratic performances on screen is the film’s reliance on softcore titilation, underlined by Valerie Lanee’s bizarre costume designs, which totally eschew historical accuracy and opt for a cross between Ann Summers and Cyndi Lauper, decorated with more crucifixes than the Vatican. At some points, it out-Russells Ken himself, no mean feat but no reason for anyone to bother tracking this film down, either, unless you’re an s&m junkie. And if you are, I doubt you’ll find this dressed-up slasher yarn any more to your taste than I did.

Separated at birth?

I’m currently watching Odeon Entertainment’s excellent Blu-ray release of The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)*, wherein Linda Hayden’s demonic possession manifests itself in her sprouting bizarre bushy eyebrows. Hold on, I thought, could that mean model / actress Cara Delevingne has struck a similar deal with the Great Beast?


*(Odeon is currently offering a triple-disc deal for The Blood On Satan’s Skin, Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood Beast Terror (1968), all three on Blu-ray for £30. Word to the wise: availability is extremely limited.)

Book review: Ed Gein: Psycho! by Paul Anthony Woods

EdGeinEd Gein: Psycho! by Paul Anthony Woods

[From Critical Wave #26, 1992. Initially released by Annihilation, this book was reissued by St Martin’s Press in 1995 and by Plexus in 2001; both the later editions are currently available via Amazon.]


Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, Leatherface… The literary offspring of serial killer Edward Theodore Gein have one element in common: none could touch the real-life horror show staged within the deceptively drab walls of his Wisconsin farmhouse.

Rather than convey Gein’s story in a strictly documentary framework, Paul Anthony Woods stirs fact and fiction into a disturbing cocktail of research, assumption and pure guesswork, throwing light into the shadows of Gein’s insanity and refusing to disguise the nightmares thus illuminated. Gein, the farmer of flesh, dancing by the moonlight in his costume of human skin; his victims, torn from the earth or torn from life; and now, perhaps most bizarre of all, his elevation to cult status, the star of badges, t-shirts and rock songs. “In age of random slaughter,” Woods wryly observes, “we use Edward Gein as light entertainment.”

Book review: Stay of the Shower: The Shocker Film Phenomenon by William Schoell

SchoellStay of the Shower: The Shocker Film Phenomenon by William Schoell

[From Critical Wave #9, 1989. First published by Dembner in 1985, this book was reissued by Robinson in 1988; copies of the original edition are currently available via Amazon.]


There’s a danger inherent in academic consideration of an artform as broad as cinema; the wider you cast your critical net, the greater the opportunity for misinterpretation, factual error or straight omission. Sincere though Schoell may be, his overview of ‘the shocker film phenomenon’ is guilty of all these.

Indeed, despite the promises inbuilt in that subtitle, it’s hard to evade the suspicion that this work begun its life as a tribute to the influence of Hitchcock’s Psycho (although Saul Bass might have a word or two to say about that description and its adherence to the ‘auteur’ philosophy that the director is the overwhelming creative force, especially as Bass was the real choreographer of that famous bloodbath). So many references are made to Psycho, so many comparisons drawn where the later films fare ill, that the strain begins to take its toll on Schoell’s narrative and expose the other (more objectionable) flaws contained in his text.

Schoell’s off-hand dismissal of Herschell Gordon Lewis, for instance, with no apparent research; it’s one thing to accuse someone of being a “terrible film-maker” when you’ve seen his work yourself (I have, and he is), quite another to preface your accusation with the damning “Reportedly his movies are worthless on every level” and so undermine your own credibility as a critic. Similarly, his seeming failure to perceive Blow Out as Brian de Palma’s homage to Blow Up, his description of Targets as Boris Karloff’s last movie (he made six more, including four for Luis Vergara of which only two were released prior to his death in 1971) — all add to the cumulative conclusion that Schoell’s critique, despite its usefulness as an introduction to this cinematic sub-genre, is founded upon some extremely dodgy homework.

Book review: Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

BimbosBimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

[From Critical Wave #12, 1989. Initially released by Penguin, it was reissued by Ballantine in 1997 and as a Kindle e-book by Rosetta in 2010; copies of the later editions are currently available via Amazon.]


Let’s be frank, with a title like that and a fur-clad airhead draped across the front cover, the last thing you’d expect would be for this to turn out readable, let alone one of the funniest novels I’ve read this year.

But prepare yourself for a surprise: not only is Bimbos a reasonably entertaining murder mystery (even if the identity of the killer is far from the shock one feels it should be), it is also a well-observed send-up of science fiction fandom (particularly costume and media fans) which manages to mix parody with perception, whilst never over-stepping the line from satire into ill-natured ridicule.

Book review: The Canongate Strangler by Angus McAllister

CanongateThe Canongate Strangler by Angus McAllister

[From Critical Wave #21, 1991. Copies of the original Dog & Bone paperback are currently available via Amazon.]

It’s appropriate that Angus McAllister should set this parapsychological thriller in the heart of Edinburgh, considering its clear parallel with Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; indeed, he has the novel’s protagonist meet his nemesis in Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, a popular hostelry named after the very scoundrel whose exploits inspired Stevenson’s landmark work.

Whereas that book’s examination of subjective morality was conducted within its central character’s psyche, McAllister anthropomorphises his conflict by linking mild-mannered lawyer Edward Middleton telepathically to his “other”, the sociopathic Henry Cunningham. But even Middleton is not wholly innocent, growing to savour the adrenalin rush of murder whilst claiming to be horrified by his doppelgänger‘s bloodlust.

It is this exploration of the tale’s moral ambiguity which proves its strongest element, making up for a plot with few real surprises and a workmanlike style which places Middleton’s dilemma at one remove from its readership. That said, The Canongate Strangler is a refreshing alternative to the superficial stalk ‘n’ slash melodramas which currently proliferate in the horror genre.