Tag Archives: Hollywood

Top 20 Alternative Halloween Horror Movies!

It’s almost that time of the season again… Hallowe’en is like Christmas for horror writers. Are you looking for some great horror movies to watch and scare the life right out of you? Great. But before you reach for that Stephen King DVD or watch “Halloween” for the zillionth time, you might want to check out these top 20 alternative horror movies that are (almost) just as great!

Some of these are obscure, some of them are lesser known titles by horror masters like John Carpenter and George A Romero. But they all share one thing in common. These are great films!

 

 

Elvis and JFK versus The Mummy!

Elvis and JFK vs The Mummy in “Bubba Ho-Tep”!

20. Bubba Ho-Tep (2006)

Elvis is alive and well and living in a nursing home, along with JFK, whose brain has been put in the body of an old black man. Cue an undead Egyptian mummy that is picking off the other residents one by one.  Yes, this is a real movie. Worth it for Bruce Campbell’s Evil Presley impersonation alone.

19. The Innkeepers (2011)

Ti West follows up his masterful homage to 1970s slasher films, “The House of the Devil”, with this slick, scary supernatural tale about  two bored, postmodern clerks looking after a haunted hotel. Scooby Doo it ain’t.

18. It Follows  (2014)

A terrific modern horror film about a ghost that… follows. To say any more would be to spoil the plot. Guaranteed to completely ruin any teenage date.

17. House! (1986) 

Fantastic, rubbery horror/comedy with William Katt (“The Greatest American Hero”) at his most likeable. A horror writer moves into a haunted house. What else do you need to know? With Norm from “Cheers”!

16. Martin (1976)

George A Romero is of course best known for zombie films. Here’s his vampire film. Or is it? John Amplas is excellent as the young man who may or may not be a bloodsucker in this disturbing, realistically told tale.

15. Black Sabbath (1963)

Mario Bava is not a name that is widely known. But it should be. This atmospheric, Technicolor Italian masterpiece features three scary stories and is introduced by none other than Boris Karloff!

 

A gorgeous, full-colour apparition in Black Sabbath!

A gorgeous, full-colour apparition in Black Sabbath!

 

14. April Fool’s Day (1986)

Great, fun 80s slasher movie that is a cut above the rest.  Features great set pieces, but I promise you’ll never see the ending coming. April Fool!

13. Wolfen (1981)

Psychedelic horror featuring Albert Finney. Something is killing vagrants in New York City. The detective in charge thinks he’s investigating a werewolf. But the truth is stranger than he could have imagined. A very original horror movie.

12. Vampyr (1932)

If you thought the only old horror film worth seeing was Nosferatu, you’d be wrong. This semi-silent movie classic still has the power to chill with its surreal imagery and its depiction of vampirism as almost a mental illness.

11. Carnival of Souls (1962)

Made by a former banker with a cast composed almost entirely of friends and neighbours, this creepy ghost story has been imitated countless times. The fact that only the lead actress is a professional just adds to the unnerving quality of the movie.

 

Going Our Way? A bus load of ghouls in "Carnival of Souls".

Going Our Way? A bus load of ghouls in “Carnival of Souls”.

10. The Innocents (1961)

The great Deborah Kerr stars in this adaptation of a rather unsavoury tale by Henry James called “The Turn of the Screw”. That’s all you need to know about this classic creepy kid horror movie.

9. Tenebrae (1982)

Dario Argento is one of the Italian kings of slasher movies (or giallo movies as they’re called there). This is possibly his best. An American horror author in Italy finds that someone is killing people using his novels for inspiration. The identity of the killer will keep you guessing right up until the very end.

8. Lord of Illusions (1995)

Clive Barker’s follow up to Hellraiser is less well know but equally atmospheric.  Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) is great as down-on-his-luck supernatural Private eye Harry D-Amour, investigating a very hellish cult.

7. Silver Bullet (1985)

Here is the obligatory Stephen King movie. But this is a less famous gem, starring Corey Haim and Gary Busey and based on King’s illustrated novella “Cycle of the Werewolf”. It grabs you from the start and never lets you go.

6. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Carpenter didn’t direct this sequel. But the image of kids in pumpkin masks that suddenly start to decompose will haunt me for the rest of my days. And what’s with those indestructible bodyguards?

 

Jesus, this is creepy. That pumpkin mask from Halloween III!

Jesus, this is creepy. That pumpkin mask from “Halloween III”!

 

5. Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent vampire road movie never says the V-word once. Beautiful photography and a classic Tangerine Dream score make this possibly the best cult horror film of the 1980s.

4. The Fog (1980)

John Carpenter’s “other” movie. A rip-roaring ghost story with Jamie Lee Curtis and some phantom pirates. Just steer well clear of the hideous Disneyfied remake!

 

3. Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Subtle, sophisticated, psychological horror that perfectly captures what it’s like to be a kid when nobody believes you. This film  has nothing to do with Cat People or lycanthropes of any variety. The studio simply gave the writers the title to work with!

 

2. Dance of the Vampires (1967)

Roman Polanski directs this beautiful Gothic horror movie, complete with castles, wolves, vampires, hunchbacks, and snow-topped mountains. It’s also a hilarious comedy! The ill-fated Sharon Tate gives this movie a poignancy that was never intended.

 

Who is the werewolf? Who cares? Just enjoy this great 70s B-Movie romp!

Who is the werewolf? Who cares? Just enjoy this great B-Movie romp!

 

1. The Beast Must Die (1974)

This groovy 70s werewolf movie is also a whodunnnit! In fact, you get the chance to solve the mystery for yourself while the film stops halfway through! Peter Cushing and a host of character actors are lured to a big game hunter’s isolated mansion while their host tries to figure out which one of them turns furry under the full moon. A fun time is guaranteed for all!

 

There you go, my pick of the best alternative horror movies to brighten up your Halloween night. Happy viewing, and don’t have nightmares!

 

 

 

Fantasycon 2016 report: Fantasycon-by-the-Sea!

 

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Scarborough – home of all things sci-fi, fantasy and horror!

 

Last weekend marked my third foray into Fantasycon, the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society. This year it was held in Scarborough at two hotels: the Grand and the Royal. Guests of Honour included bestselling science-fiction, horror, and fantasy authors Joe Hill, Mike Carey, Adam Neville,  Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Frances Hardinge, James Smythe, and Derek Landy.

The main hotel was, shall we say, interesting. Scarborough itself seemed to be stuck in a bit of a time warp – appropriately perhaps. But no-one can deny that the Grand is awesome to look at – a Gothic façade that dominates the Scarborough seafront. The main staircase served as an impressive backdrop, as did the various antique ballrooms.  I found myself reminded of The Shining several times!

 

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The Overlook Hotel… I mean The Grand in Scarborough.

 

Registration was easy enough, although the wristbands proved to be a bit fiddly and impossible to remove, except by accident! The usual bag of goodies included a stick of rock, to put us in the mood. Having learned from previous experience, I signed up to several of the agent/editor sessions and masterclasses straight away. Perhaps unsurprisingly the session with Joe Hill was booked up even before Friday afternoon.

Fantasycon 2016 was absolutely stuffed to the gills with panels and events. I attended as many as I could fit in around socialising, which is the most enjoyable part of Fantasycon.

Highlights for me included the panel titled “It’s a Kind of Magic” featuring Sue Tingey, Pete McLean, Peter Newman, James Bennett, and Irene Soldatos.

Also, the newly-launched UK chapter of the Horror Writers Association was a strong presence. Friday saw the HWA launch several books in concert with Jo Fletcher Books. Many authors were on hand to sign their latest books and to rub shoulders with newer authors like myself. Kudos to HWA organisers Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan for hosting such a well-attended event.

Agents and editors were also available to provide insights into the world of publishing and screenwriting. I found these sessions to be a particular highlight and hope they will continue to be a theme at future cons.

Another addition to the programme was writing masterclasses sponsored by Gollancz. These were of a very high standard, catering to the new writer but also useful to writers of all levels.

There were many book launches over the weekend. In fact, you needed limitless pockets to be able to attend them all! But the ones that I did get to were lively, informal affairs. Of course I soon abandoned my vow not to buy any more books and came away with a small armful.

Saturday saw another horror panel: “Creepin’ up on You”, about the overlap between reality and horror fiction. Chair Paul Finch interjected some welcome humour into what could have been very grim proceedings. Other attendees included living legend Ramsey Campbell, Tracy Fahey, VH Leslie, Helen Marshall, and Mark West.  Topics ranged from the scariest things ever written, to things the writers would not consider writing about, and an interesting discussion on how shifting cultural awareness has meant that some horror devices may no longer be legitimate ways of frightening an audience, such as the “terrifying” reveal of the disfigured composer’s face in the Phantom of the Opera.

Another standout was the HWA panel on getting published. The experienced panellists included Paul Kane, Marie O’Regan, agent Ian Drury, publisher Jo Fletcher, and editor Stephen Jones. Again, this was a standout for me, with many “dos” and “don’ts” on dealing with publishers and agents.

Saturday evening saw my first ever reading at Fantasycon (though not my first ever reading) along with horror scribe Terry Grimwood. The listeners were very graceful and it seemed to go down well. I thoroughly enjoyed Terry’s reading from his new book. My thanks to Roy Gray for providing much-needed coffee!

Afterwards, all eyes were on the legendary Fantasycon Karaoke, the disco, or the bar. I stayed up way too late and had way too much fun nattering to people. Sometime after midnight I slunk off to my guest house to grab a few hours of sleep before Day Three!

 

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The Grand lives up to its name – from the outside, anyway.

 

On Sunday morning I took part in my first ever Fantasycon Panel. “Lost in Hollywood” was moderated by agent Ellen Gallagher and featured legendary TV writer (and all-round nice bloke) Stephen Gallagher of Dr Who and Oktober fame, as well as Stephen Volk (screenwriter of Ghostwatch and Gothic), as well as Remington Steel TV writer Joanna Horrocks. The discussion was wide-ranging and I enjoyed it a heck of a lot. Hopefully, I’ll get to do it again!

My Sunday ended with the Monster mash panel, in which Ross Warren, Adam Millard, Georgina Bruce, Alastair Rennie, and Laurel Sills discussed monsters and what makes them scary (or not). It was a lively and varied debate, and I found myself getting one idea after another as I listened.

The BFA Awards ceremony rounded off the weekend. Having never attended one before, this was an eye-opener, and as each Award was dished out too thunderous applause I found myself aware of just how much the BFS is a very inclusive family.

In all, I found Fantasycon-by-the-Sea the best Fantasycon yet.  Or perhaps I’m just getting into the swing of things more. It was great to catch up with existing friends and to make some new ones. As always, my reading list has grow exponentially. It was also great to continue to appear on panels and perform readings. My thanks to the more experienced writers who took time to talk with me at length about this insane and insanely entertaining business we’re engaged in. I left feeling invigorated, pumped up, and ready to write. To anyone who hasn’t been, I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.

 

How to sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK – Part Two!

Here is the second part of my article on how to actually sell screenplays for film and television to Hollywood while living abroad, for instance, in the UK. This may seem like a daunting if not impossible task. But let me assure you, it can be done.

To recap what we learned last time:

 

Step One – Write the screenplay

Last time we covered the fact that there really is no magic bullet, no secret trick for success. Also, be prepared for failure. You will encounter rejection. Lots of it. But the beauty of writing is that there is no way to “fail” providing you keep learning and improving in terms of skill.

 

Step Two – Learn about the business

We also covered the importance of leaning about the movie business. Doing this will help you understand what types of script people want and the different people who work in the industry: agents, managers, producers, actors, directors and executives. Learn their jobs. Discover what it is they are looking for.

 

So without further delay, on to Step Three!

 

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in "Adaptation" by Charlie Kaufman.

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in “Adaptation” by Charlie Kaufman.

 

Step Three – Reverse engineer your career

What kind of writer do you want to be? Do you know the kind of screenplays you wish to write? Do you long to write character-driven indie productions or big tentpole pictures? And do you know how to get there?

When I was first starting out, I knew my strengths were writing action scenes, creating cool, often fantastical images and snappy dialogue. I am also a huge comic book fan and enjoy adapting material from other sources. So I looked at what it takes to be a successful studio writer for hire.

I wrote that down.

Then I looked at the easiest way to become that kind of writer: get an agent and get handed writing assignments. Okay, now how to get an agent… I found that it was possible to submit directly but that this was unlikely to garner results. Many (but by no means all) agents pick up clients based on recommendations from other people. So I knew I needed an established track record of sales or options to get their attention.

Backtrack a little: how do you get a sale or option without any contacts and without living in Hollywood?

I scoured the Internet for sources to help get screenplays produced and to meet other people who might be able to give me that recommendation. I discovered listing sites like Inktip and others where you can even pitch direct to an agency via Skype or in writing.  It’s no longer necessary to live in L.A. to sell pictures to Hollywood. That’s another screenwriting “lie” you can expect to hear a lot. Does it help? Sure. But you still need an awful lot of luck and talent.

So I wrote down where I wanted to be. Then I listed all the steps that could get me there. Then I simply followed those steps!

Obviously, it’s not that simple. Would that it were. Some steps are much harder to take than others and none of them ensures your script will be accepted. But this kind of mind-mapping can be a good way to focus your career and create a strategy. There are many routes to getting a film made. The above methods are just a few of them.

One strategy for success is copying the strategies of others who are successful. For this I recommend studying how big name screenwriters got where they are. Read Tales from the Script edited by Peter Hanson and Robert Hermann to get an idea of how top Hollywood writers made it in L.A. There’s no one path. Joe Eszterhas was a journalist, William Goldman a playwright and novelist, Antwone Fisher was a security guard at the studio that produced his incredible life story. Paths to success can be as individual as the writers themselves.

This is the biggest step. It requires time and commitment. Read the stories of other writers. Listen to interviews and podcasts. The Internet contains a wealth of information. Use as many free resources as you can find. That’s really the only way to find out what working as a screenwriter is really like. Without working as screenwriter, of course.

 

Step Four – Don’t quit.

You only fail by quitting.

Along the way I have seen many people give up on screenwriting for a variety of reasons. They have a family to support and have to get a “real” job.  They don’t have the time. They can’t stand the constant rejection.

In order to be taken seriously in this business, you have to take the business seriously. Like any career, screenwriting requires an investment of time and money from you. You have to commit to it.

Write. Read. Submit. Repeat.

 

Step Five – No, really. Don’t quit.

It’s easy to be crushed by rejection. When you’re typing away in solitary confinement, day after day, it’s also easy to get bitter and frustrated. It’s also very easy to get desperate, especially when you need money.

If you do need money, I recommend getting a job that will allow you to write. A 9 to 5 job will grind you down. A vocation will demand too much of you. Find something that will leave you time to write each day.

One thing you must do is learn to love the process. By this, I mean the process of Writing, reading, submitting and repeating.

You won’t hear back from everyone who requests a copy of your script (Annoying as that is, but true for so many reasons it’s impossible to list them). Even if it is accepted your work may be rewritten. You may be fired from projects. Not paid for others. Projects you invest lots of time in will come to nothing. People you work with may be difficult, others will be pleasantly professional. You may even become friends with some of them – and wouldn’t that be cool?

Elliott Grove in his excellent book Raindance Writer’s Lab says you should rephrase the statistics. Think of every rejection as bringing you one step closer to a “yes”. And you only need one “yes” to make it happen.

Good luck!

 

How to Sell a Screenplay to Hollywood from the UK – Part One

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The screenwriter’s dream: now you too can get to work in the bath.

 

Okay, here is the big one. How do you sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK? I suppose this is what this blog is supposed to be all about. So let me take you through the steps involved. Sounds simple, right?

First of all, about myself: I am a British screenwriter, but I’ve made spec sales and had options with companies in the UK, Europe and Los Angeles, USA.

Secondly, as William Goldman famously said: “Nobody knows anything”. He was talking about the movie business. So as you read this, please place your tongue firmly in your cheek and take all of this with that pinch of salt.

However, this being the confessions of an English screenwriter and all, I thought I should at least attempt to share with you what I have learned when trying to sell a script to Hollywood without having to go and live in L.A..

And what better way to start than with the secret “one easy step to success”?

The secret trick to success

First of all, here is the secret trick — the magic bullet, if you will — that all professional writers know about…

Ready?

There is no magic bullet!

Yes, that’s right. There is no secret trick to selling a screenplay. No magic bullet. No one way that ensures success. There is only hard work, practice, lots of practice, a lot of luck, and a lot of failure.

“What? I’m going to fail?”

Yes. You will fail. Sometimes spectacularly. Sometimes you will want to quit. But to quote from Benjamin Franklin “Energy and persistence conquer all things”. That is especially true of screenwriting.

Let me explain…

There is no one way to sell or option a script today. Elliott Grove in his excellent book “Randance Writer’s Lab” compares the movie industry to an enormous building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people who you can make deals with or who can further your career in some way: agents, industry executives, producers, etc.

Your job is to get in the doors. It doesn’t matter which one. Just keep trying.

Now all this sounds pretty wishy-washy, so let’s get down to brass tacks.

Step One – Write the screenplay

The first step to selling to Hollywood is: you must be able to write great screenplays. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many writers produce script after script which never sells. But as long as you are learning your craft, you are progressing.

“But how come so many bad movies get made? I just saw a terrible movie. I could write better than that!”

Yes. Bad movies do get made. For a variety of reasons. Sometimes a producer just desperately needs a screenplay because they have actors or locations available. Sometimes studios butcher screenplays because they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience than the material can support. Sometimes a “star” will insist that the script goes in a terrible direction to make them look good. Sometimes a hurricane will blow the set away. The list goes on. And don’t forget that making movies is hard. Really hard. Heck, if it was easy everybody would be doing it, right? Just because you can spot a bad movie doesn’t mean you can make a good one.

You must write, write, write. Devour all the screenwriting books you can find.

You must read screenplays. Actually read them.

Watch movies. A lot of movies. Deconstruct them on paper to see how they work.

This will require you to invest time in your craft and will also involve spending money. A lot of money.  In short, you must approach screenwriting like a job. Because that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

I can’t stress Step One enough. You will be up against UCLA college graduates who have done nothing but read and write screenplays for the past 3 years. Think you can measure up to them? Knowing your craft is the only part of the business you can control. So make sure you deliver a superb script. “Competent” is not enough. “Good” is not enough. Your screenplay must be “great” to stand out from the hundreds of thousands of screenplays circulating every year.

Got that? Good.

Once you’ve done all that, you may be ready for step two:

Step Two – Learn about the Business

Let’s go back to Elliot Grove’s comparison of the movie industry to a building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people you want to do business with. And this IS a business, make no mistake. It’s called “Showbusiness” for a reason. Yes, you can enjoy giving your creativity full reign when you come up with an amazing scene. But remember that you have to sell the script when it’s done. And like any salesman, you must know what people want.

One mistake writers often make is to try to predict trends. Every now and then a movie does phenomenal business at the box office. For up to a year afterwards, everybody wants something similar, be it “Memento” or “Saw” or “The Lord of the Rings”. You may be tempted to begin work on a similar project, hoping that people will go crazy for it. But by the time you have finished your script, which can take anywhere from a month to even years, the market will have moved on, and people will be clamoring for the next big thing.

What’s a writer to do?

Instead of thinking in terms of the hot movie genre, you should think more in terms of what is sellable. You will find that certain types of movies are always in demand, while others are pretty much dead. For instance, don’t bother writing that Western or Period Drama. Even if you see a major picture in those genres. The spec market for those films are almost impossible to break into. Most new films in those genres are initiated by the studio, who then hires a writer for the project.

(Caveat: remember how we said that nobody knows anything?)

My advice is, if you have a great idea for a new Queen Boadicea film, turn it into a novel. Then Hollywood can come to you when it sells a million copies. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Genres that are always in demand?

Cheap ones.

Block Comedies, low budget horror movies, found footage movies (a recent trend which probably will not continue as the justification behind them becomes more and more bizarre), movies without lots of SFX, low budget thrillers, “contained” movies with only a few locations or characters.

Did I mention cheap?

One of the biggest independent hits of all time, “Halloween”, which launched the careers of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis, was about a man in a William Shatner mask walking around homes with a knife. It was made for $325,000 and raked in $47 million at the box office alone.

There are several other things you must know about the movie industry before embarking on your odyssey to net that lucrative spec sale.

What is a spec sale?

A spec is a screenplay initiated by a writer who has not been hired to write a screenplay. That’s about it.

Sometimes studios mainly generate their own projects and put calls out to everyone they know (agents, managers, producers) that they are looking for writers for the project. The lucky writer than gets to “pitch” their take on the material to the studio. These jobs are called assignments.

The film industry is bigger than Hollywood.

Motion pictures are made all over the world these days. China is a huge upcoming market. My first option was to a company based in Germany. I’ve also written for companies in England and Canada as well as the USA. Plus, nowadays everyone can be a filmmaker. Just invest in a decent phone camera. Recent indie breakout hit “Tangerine” was filmed entirely on an iPhone. Now you too can be Cecil B DeMille! (note: if you don’t know who Cecil B DeMille is, stop reading this immediately and go watch a ton of old movies made before 1960. I’m serious).

Sales vs Options

More fun terms! In the movie industry, you don’t have to sell your screenplay until it’s produced. You can option it instead. The producer usually pays you less money than they would for a sale. They then have the option, within a specified period (say, 12 months) to get the money to make the picture. If they do, you should be then paid more money to sell the script to them. If not, you get the rights to the script back. It’s a win-win for a newbie screenwriter.

However, an option can also be a disappointment if the producer is not willing to pay a lot. I have seen (and signed) options for as little as $1. Are you being taken advantage of? Well, that depends on where you are in your career. A dollar option to someone with no credits whatsoever is a step up the ladder.

So, to recap: there is no one way to sell a script. You can sell screenplays around the world these days, thanks to the Internet. But you must work on your craft. Read as much as you can. Read screenwriting books, read online articles (there are many free ones), read the trades (by which I mean the trade magazines such as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – all of which are online), subscribe to newsletters. The Scoggins Report can also give you invaluable guidance as to which companies are buying which type of script. These will all give you a feel for how the industry operates. You must become familiar with this, because these are the people you will be trying to sell your work to.

Hot tip: You will find that writing equates to about half of a screenwriter’s working life. The rest involves that dreaded word: marketing. You must become your own PR expert, agent, manager and marketing guru, because that is how you are going to sell your script. Enjoy!

In the next part we’ll look at what to do after you’ve written the script, and how to (hopefully) get it into the hands of Hollywood professionals!

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

See you next time!

THE MOST VISUALLY STUNNING FILMS EVER MADE

There have been some beautiful films made. The films in this list aren’t necessarily the prettiest, but they all share some of the most visually striking images ever committed to film. The films below may be obvious, or they may be obscure. But they were all made by master directors who can tell a story visually.

 

A still from Sunrise. Watching this Oscar-wining silent movie is an unforgettable experience.

A still from Sunrise. Watching this Oscar-wining silent movie is an unforgettable experience.

 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
The first in our list is a silent movie that has to be seen to be believed. Every frame is like a wonderful painting coming to life. Added to that, the film is filled with cinematic tricks, double exposures, and everything but the kitchen sink. FW Murnau was lured to Hollywood after making Nosferatu by the promise of being able to do whatever he wanted. The result is this awesome film that tells a very simple story in a very imaginative way.

 

Fantasia (1940)
Fantasia is the first animated Walt Disney feature film to depict classical music though animation. It’s gorgeous, funny and thrilling, comprising dancing ostriches, nymphs and satyrs, dinosaurs and demons. Apparently Disney wanted to make more experimental films, but the Second World War destroyed his foreign markets so he had to go back to fairy stories. It makes you wonder where he would have gone from here had not WWII intervened.

 

The Red Shoes (1948)
Powell and Pressburger made some beautiful films, such as A Matter of Life and Death with its celestial court, Black Narcissus and Tales of Hoffman. But this updated fairy tale is a gorgeous riot of colour filled with tableauesque shots like oil paintings come to life. Martin Scorsese’s favourite film.

 

A gorgeous technicolor moment in The Red Shoes.

A gorgeous Technicolor moment from The Red Shoes.

 

 

The Third Man (1949)
The black and white photography is perfectly suited to post-war Vienna and the shady dealings in Graeme Greene’s crime thriller. But it’s the final underground chase scenes involving the mysterious Harry Lime that makes this one of the best photographed films I’ve seen. The Vienna sewers become a nightmarish funfair ride to the accompaniment of that famous balalaika!

 

Night of the Hunter (1955)
Who can ever forget the image of the murdered mother at the bottom of the river, her hair floating in the ghostly current? Or the tattooed knuckles of Robert Mitchum? Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is an American Gothic pastoral fable filled with iconic, haunted images.

 

Lillian Gish keeps a lonely village in Night of the Hunter.

Lillian Gish keeps a lonely village in Night of the Hunter.

 

Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock’s most handsome production sees James Stewart haunted by the memory of a lost love, only to find it again in Kim Novak, who so clearly resembles his former lover that he even remakes her in that image. Right from the title, this film is a delight to watch, with terrific composition, all of Hitchcock’s trademark camera tricks, and an intense performance by Stewart. By the end of it you will be dizzy!

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s masterpiece is a true desert epic. There are giant vistas, sand dunes and Arab armies mounted on camels. But there are also much subtler moments of symbolism – the way the Arabs follow Lawrence’s shadow on the ground as he postures after winning a battle. A legendary film that deserves every one of its accolades.

 

Japanese ghost stories come to life in Kwaidan.

Japanese ghost stories come to life in Kwaidan.

 

Kwaidan (1964)
The most expensive film ever shot in Japan for a time, Kwaidan tells several ghost stories set in that country’s feudal history. The first, Snow Woman, is probably the most beautiful to look at. Shot in colour, but with sets that were hand painted by the filmmaker, it makes you feel cold just watching it. Well worth tracking down.

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Little needs to be said about this sci-fi classic. Its groundbreaking sets and models paved the way for movies like Star Wars a decade later. Indeed, its incredible just how well the space scenes stand up. Also refreshing is the lack of sound in space, which really amps up the tension when the astronauts face off against psychotic supercomputer HAL in the film’s later sections. A sequence of incredible images presages the film’s climactic journey through the wormhole, only to leave us guessing at their true significance as the film fades out.

 

 A plague of locusts descends in Days of Heaven.

A plague of locusts descends in Days of Heaven.

 

Days of Heaven (1978)
Gorgeous Terrance Malik movie with Richard Geere and Brooke Adams. The Depression-era landscape is sparse, consisting of sky, corn and the huge house – emblematic of the simple, human story the film reveals. One of the 1970s greatest films.

 

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s advertising agency background is nowhere more apparent than in this cult sic-fi, featuring Harrison Ford as a futuristic P.I. and a unforgettable turn by Rutger Haur as the android he is sent to destroy. 1940’s noir is everywhere here, but with the dial turned up to 11 on the style setting, from Rachel’s enormous fur coat to the art deco pillars in the Tyrell Corporation HQ. A beautiful film.

 

Movies at the speed of light in Koyaanisqatsi

Movies at the speed of light in Koyaanisqatsi

 

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
Using state-of-the-art (for the time) tricks such as slow and fast motion and time lapse photography, Geoffrey Reggio’s film contrasts the timeless beauty of Monument Valley with the dizzying pace of modern life. Shot to a hypnotic Philip Glass soundtrack, it became one of the most iconic pieces of film ever, copied and imitated countless times.

 

Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)
Although not appreciated fully on release, Alan Parker’s extended music video of the Pink Floyd concept album features a rather lifeless Bob Geldoff as rock star Pink, a man on the cusp of a complete mental breakdown. But it’s the wonderful Gerald Scarff cartoons interspersing the live action footage that steal the show. Marching Hammers, a demonic Judge shaped like something rather indescribable, and a Hammer-headed schoolmaster pushing his pupils though a meat grinder are images that have passed into public consciousness. An underrated film that is well worth revisiting.

 

What Dreams May Come (1998)
Robin Williams stars in this tale of a man who finds himself stranded in the afterlife following the death of his children and his wife’s nervous breakdown. Not a comedy, you might think. But this movie contains so many emotions that watching it can be an exhausting experience. The film also contains an unforgettable rendition of the hereafter, where whatever you dream becomes reality, and Heaven resembles something out of a Renaissance work of art. A rare example of a modern movie that uses gorgeous colour to its full potential.

 

What-Dreams-May-Come-4

Robin Williams looks out over a heavenly vista in What Dreams May Come.

 

Marie Antoinette (2006)
I’ve long been a fan of Sofia Coppola’s movies ever since seeing the very stylish Virgin Suicides. Although the plot here is minimal, with Kirstin Dunst’s titular ruler having fun a lot before the Revolution arrives on her doorstep, the photography captures a kind of childish innocence and a love of nature and beauty. It’s a pleasure to watch the images unfold in cinema verite fashion, showing us a childish monarch who was simply divorced from reality.

What do you think? Do you agree? If not, be sure to let me know! Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed this selection of some of the most beautiful films ever made!

Eastercon: Mancunicon convention report 2016!

This year’s science-fiction/fantasy convention EASTERCON took place in Manchester, England. Mancunicon, as it was called, occupied four floors of the iconic Hilton Hotel, a slender glass-and-steel building shaped like the number “1”. The convention gathered together sci-fi and fantasy authors, fans, publishers, gamers and cosplayers. There were almost a thousand people in attendance, and one of them was yours truly.

The Hilton Tower... in the sun.

The Hilton Tower… in the sun.

 

Now, I’ve been to FantasyCon before and the odd sci-fi movie fan convention. But I’ve never been to Eastercon, so I was unsure what to expect. Fortunately, some friends of mine from the Manchester Speculative Fiction Group were also there, so there was always someone to chat (or moan) to.

The first thing we did was gather at the bar. This was (unsurprisingly) the focal point for the Con. However, the Hilton is a very tall, narrow building so sometimes the bar became very crowded. This never became a real problem, but it did make queuing for the two lifts difficult. The small meeting rooms also meant that several panels were oversubscribed. I was sorry to have missed the panel on rare sci-fi and fantasy TV shows of the 1950s -1970s. But on the whole things ran pretty smoothly.

The atmosphere was, for the most part, very friendly, with everyone united by a love of sci-fi and fantasy. Although some were more hard-core than others – there was a cosplay competition on Saturday for those dedicated enough. I am not the most gregarious person in the world. But even I found myself chatting to a diverse array of people over the weekend.

My writing group has an anthology called “REVOLUTIONS” out at the moment, so this was an ideal place to plug the book. We sneaked up a few posters and shifted quite a few copies. My only regret was that I didn’t manage to prepare any advertising material for my own novel. But then Easter always sneaks up on me.

The events programme was varied and jam-packed. This year’s guests of honour were authors Sarah Pinborough, David L Clements, Aliette de Bodard, and Ian MacDonald. But many more took part, and topics ranged from hard sci-fi to sewing. So there was something for everyone… even a cookery class!

So after catching up with my fellow attendees, I made my way to the first panel…

Welcome to Eastercon – Saturday

This was highly informative and useful. It soon became apparent that Eastercon has a culture all of its own. Some people had been going literally all their lives, while the oldest member was a mere 90 years old.

Afterwards, I browsed the dealers’ rooms. Against my better judgment I gave into temptation and walked away with an armful of beautiful 1970s paperback editions. But some deals are just too good to pass up!

Diversity in SF

The first panel I attended was about diversity in SF/F. This was a very intelligent and nuanced discussion about how difficult it is for authors who are not white and middle class to get published. The speakers made their points with eloquence and precision. Afterwards, I found myself with a far greater appreciation of issues of race and gender.

MSF Group’s “Crit Sandwich” – Saturday and Sunday

Next day, Manchester’s SpecFic group held the first of two long feedback sessions for budding authors. My fellow group members and I reviewed 3 pieces each day of up to 10,000 words per author. The sessions were very enjoyable, with some interesting, varied and (intentionally) amusing samples of work. All those who took part said they found it very useful. I take my hat off to them, as I’m not sure if I’d have had the courage to submit my work to complete strangers at my first Eastercon!

Jo Fletcher Books Launch – Sebastian de Castell

There were several book launches over the weekend. We ascended the lift to the Presidential Suite on the 22nd floor for a reading by the author. The view and the plentiful red wine made this a memorable occasion, and the publishers were open to questions from anyone who attended. Indeed, the wine flowed a little too freely on occasion, with several people complaining of feeling “under the weather” as the Con wore on!

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..And the view from the 22nd storey in the rain.

 

The Fuzzy Set of Horror

That evening I attended a lively discussion on the boundaries of horror, given by three gothic/supernatural fantasy writers with helpful contributions from horror grandmaster Ramsey Campbell. There were some hotly debated questions about Waterstones’ policy of no longer segregating horror from fantasy and science-fiction as well as on the merits of zombie films.

Later, we sampled the gastronomic delights of Manchester (there are many) before returning to a packed bar and hobnobbing with anyone who would talk to us. But after over ten hours on my feet, I was exhausted. So I limped off to bed to grab four hours’ sleep before Day Three.

Trailblazing Comics of the 1980s – Sunday

Next morning – my head buzzing with a litre of coffee – I took part in my first ever panel. Thankfully, it was a subject I can ramble on about for hours – comic books. My fellow panellists Karen Brenchley and Tony Keen provided the focus of the debate. Together, we discussed which creators shaped the comics field in the 1980s and beyond.

Inevitably, “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” were mentioned. But we also managed to include such diverse matters as 2000AD, John Byrne, and “Cerebus the Aardvark”! The attendees called us on our knowledge, so we had to be on our toes. But we all brought something different to the table and managed to give the audience a broad overview of both mainstream and indie comics in the decade. Afterwards, we got chatting to several interesting people. I enjoyed this a heck of a lot and would thoroughly recommend the experience.

Kaffeeklatsch with Sarah Pinborough

Guest of honour at this year’s Eastercon was horror/crime/YA novelist Sarah Pinborough. Fresh from Hollywood, Sarah shared tales of writing and more in this cosy setting. This was a nice change of pace from the panels and a chance to ask more detailed questions of the author. As for the content, I’m afraid I can’t tell you more because, as Sarah says, “What happens in Kaffeeklatsch stays in Kaffeeklatsch!”

Author Reading – open mic

This two-hour session gave authors a chance to read their own work. My nerves were set on edge by the announcement that it was to be a competition. When the “judges” were given sticks with numbers on, the whole thing took on the aspect of a David Lynch film. Authors read their works until a gong signalled they had run over the time limit, whereupon the judges gave the scores. Fortunately, the whole thing was just a bit of fun. The readings were diverse and entertaining, and the host excellent. Although I really felt for one poor chap who had only written his piece that morning.

SF Pub Quiz

Late on Sunday, we took part in the hardest pub quiz I have ever seen in my life. Categories ranged from “Name the scientific instrument” to “Name the TV theme tune… and composer”. Needless to say, our score was abysmal!

By this stage everyone was relaxed and the party mood was in full swing. It was with a heavy heart that I retired to bed in the early hours, knowing that there was only half a day to go.

The Deeper the Grief, the Closer to Life – Monday

By Monday a few people were looking the worse for wear. But a crowded audience still packed out the main room to listen to a panel about grief and loss. Despite the heavy subject matter, the talk proved to be worth waiting for. Authors Sarah Pinborough and Neil Williamson discussed writing about grief, as well as recounting real-life tales, both sad and funny. This was definitely one of the better talks, although I can’t really remember why!

Criminality in SF/F

The final panel of the day got a little raucous at times, as several authors discussed the representation of crime in sci-fi and fantasy novels. By this stage we were all just relaxing. Some great debates arose, though. One of which may have just given me an idea for my next story…

In Conclusion

Eastercon was something of an unknown quantity for me. At first I found the fan-based culture a little intimidating. But having it in Manchester helped my travel plans and allowed me to stay much longer.

Given the unique challenges of the Hilton tower, the organisers did their best to keep things running smoothly. Volunteers were always present to help, and being on a panel was tremendous fun.

If I had any suggestions it would be to offer more author readings and to include more horror. At the moment, Eastercon is quite “sci-fi heavy”.

So will I be going to another Eastercon? Hell, yeah. I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone who likes genre fiction.

Will I be more prepared next time? Definitely!

 

The Shannara Chronicles reviewed

THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES aired on 5 Star in the UK today and MTV in the USA. The beloved fantasy novel written by Terry Brooks was the sequel to his hit 1977 bestseller The Sword of Shannara, an epic fantasy in the vein of The Lord of the Rings but with one unusual twist – the stories are set in a post-apocalyptic future that only resembles the medieval world of fantasy.

The Elfstones of Shannara is a much darker affair and sees elves pitted against a demonic invasion. Only a young, half-elven boy and an elven maiden can stop it. The book captured the imagination of millions of readers. But how does the new TV series shape up?

 

The Shannara Chronicles airs on MTV and 5Star

The Shannara Chronicles airs on MTV and 5Star

 

The TV pilot opens with an action sequence not in the novel, as Amberle, an elven princess, competes in a difficult race to become one of the Chosen, a religious order sworn to protect the Ellcrys, a magical tree that protects the elves from demons sealed off from the world by The Forbidding. We are then introduced to several of the main characters, including Will Ohmsford, the young boy whose destiny is linked to the Ellcrys in some way.

The show boasts some excellent CGI visuals, especially the enormous backdrops of the Elven palace of Arborlon and several shots of old world superstructures, now crawling with vines and forgotten. It’s a handsome production, although sometimes the elven costumes and hairstyles resemble Arborlon 90210 rather than those of a medieval fantasy land.

Initial signs were encouraging.

The writing was for the most part serviceable. The first episode was more of an introduction to the characters, which worked fine on a story level. However, there were some cringeworthy moments. Series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are known for Smallville, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and I Am Number Four.  And that kind of writing style lingered throughout. There were several moments of heavy-handed cliché: the kick-ass heroine, the dumb young male hero, the kick-ass female warrior, the kick-ass female thief, etc., etc. Also, several rather unfeasible physical stunts: a male elven warrior knocked out by a young girl with one blow of a sword hilt. But hey, maybe these elves all have glass jaws.

The writers also changed a lot, bringing in some characters earlier and adding more romance, which is forgivable when you’re trying to draw in new viewers. One strange plot hole was that none of the elves believed in the magic of the Ellcys, not even Amberle. Which was odd, because she’d just competed in a dangerous trial to become a member of a religious order dedicated to protecting that very magic. The king also had an advisor specifically dedicated to monitoring the tree’s health. Kind of makes you wonder why they bothered if the tree’s power was just a fairy story.

Also apparent was some groan-inducing dialogue. This was dialogue obviously added to appeal to modern teens: “I smell elf-boy hate” says one character, while an elven princess tells her friend “Thanks for the save”. I’m pretty sure people won’t be talking like that in 10 years, let alone thousands of years from now. That kind of writing made Arborlon feel more like an American High School than a place of high fantasy.

But what really got on my nerves was the directing – or more specifically, the editing. During the first 25 minutes I had to resist the urge to switch off, because I was getting dizzy. Director Jonathan Liebesman (known for Wrath of the Titans and the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie) seems to have a rule that the camera cannot stay on anything for more than 2 seconds. As the shot constantly changed, sometimes even mid-sentence, I felt like I was inside a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning. Even a dying woman’s last moments featured multiple shots because I guess that just wasn’t dramatic enough. When the camera finally lingered on a money shot of Arborlon for a whole 10 seconds, I felt real relief.

All of which was a shame, because I wanted to love The Shannara Chronicles. I’m a huge fan of the stories and of Terry Brooks’ writing in general – The Elfstones is one of the few novels I’ve read several times. And like many fans, I’m amazed that Hollywood has not seized upon the chance to adapt these into big budget movies. Because that’s what they really need.

Despite this, the series showed some promise. What was smart was the way the filmmakers used backdrops – the Seattle Space Needle now like a giant, fallen tree. The sense of wonder conveyed in the trailers really drew me in. The demons also look suitably weird and scary. And there are enough wonders in the book to provide many CGI  amusement in future episodes.

The acting too was pretty good. The leads certainly look the part, with Will Ohmsford and Amberle (played by relative newcomers Austin Butler and Poppy Drayton) both being particularly strong, if not outstanding. John Rhys-Davis (possibly the only man to play both a dwarf and an elf) adds his usual gravitas as the elven king. As for Manu Bennett as Allanon – he’s a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment. A man of monolithic stature, he looks the part. But does he possess the menacing mystique of Brooks’ creation, or will his character degenerate into a brute superhero?

I am going to watch future episodes, if only to see whether the editing style will calm down. I hope so. Because if the creators can steer away from the patronizing, market-driven approach of so many other forgettable TV shows, they could still create something great. Or at least something that gives people a flavour of Terry Brooks’ unique and moving vision of the world of Shannara. This series’ saving grace just might be the incredible plot of the original book. But at this point, after viewing the pilot, I need a little more convincing that the magic is there.

 

The Dreaded Coverage (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Feedback)

Today’s topic is about one of the most dreaded things a write can encounter: professional feedback, otherwise known as coverage. How to use and deal with feedback is one of the most important skills for a writer. As a screenwriter, that goes double.

WHAT IS COVERAGE?

Coverage is obtained when a writer submits his or her screenplay to an industry professional for written feedback. The professional does not undertake to produce the script, but instead provides a written report listing its strengths and weaknesses.

The difference between professional coverage and feedback from other people, such as the writers in your writers’ group (you do have a writer’s group, right?) is that you pay for the former. But the principles about how to deal with feedback are the same whether you pay or not.

HOW TO GET COVERAGE

There are many ways to get coverage. Websites and screenwriting gurus abound offering consultancy services ranging from around $50 upwards. The sky is the limit. I have seen consultants ask for thousands of dollars. The pros and cons of these services may depend on where you are as a writer, and I won’t go into whether they are worth the fee here.

You can also approach your peers – other writers. I would not suggest using friends and family unless they are also writers.  Your mother will always say your latest torture horror opus is “lovely, dear”. Likewise, friends may not wish to offend you. Those who are not writers may simply lack the skills needed to analyse a script or to tell you whether it is marketable or not. So always go with someone with experience of writing, editing or script reading.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into what coverage means to a writer:

 

Signs of when it's time to move on. (via Bluecat)

Signs that it’s time to move on.

STANDARD COVERAGE FORMAT FOR SCREENPLAYS

In the film industry, coverage consists of 2-3 pages of synopsis, followed by (usually) 2-3 pages of actual analysis, sometimes followed by a score card. The “meat” of coverage is the 2-3 page analysis. The score card illustrates at a glance the strengths and weaknesses of your work according to that script reader.

What is the purpose of the synopsis, you ask? I submitted my script to get an analysis, not to have my own story told back to me! I’ve been swindled!

Well, it’s tempting to consider the fist 2-3 pages as filler and ignore it. But another way to look at it is to consider that your story may not have translated itself into someone else’s head the way you imagined it in your own.

Writing is the art and craft of transferring thoughts from your own head into someone else’s. It is a kind of telepathy. Whether the other person “gets” your scene or not, or has a different impression of what just happened in your story, can be a sign that you were not successful in getting them to imagine everything as you did.

 

HOW TO DEAL WITH COVERAGE

Whenever a writer receives feedback, whether verbal or written, the initial reaction may well be to clench your teeth, dig your nails into the arms of your chair, then launch into a tirade about “idiots not getting it” or accusing the reader of skipping important parts that explained everything.

But remember, as a writer your job is to communicate. Just as the customer is king in the restaurant industry, in the writing world the reader is king. If the reader doesn’t get  what you want them to get, you have only yourself to blame.

Another reaction is panic. Panic at the amount of work that needs doing. Despair at the insurmountable cliff one faces. Did you spend enough time on your script to begin with? Most writers write around ten drafts of a script and at least two drafts of a novel before even showing it to anyone.  Now another rewrite looms. How will you ever get the work done?

Trust me, it’s something everyone dreads.

The way I deal with this is as follows:

Read the feedback all the way through, from start to finish.

Do nothing.

Let it percolate. Don’t be temped to dash off a hasty e-mail cursing the reader for his or her stupidity. If you’re in a writer’s group or face-to-face situation, take the comments with good grace and make a note of them. You will be glad you did. Giving feedback is an art in itself (that’s for another time). Some people are better at it than others. The other person may only wish to help as much as possible. They may think that by being ultra-critical they are only strengthening the material.

Let the dust settle.

After about a week of nursing your feelings by overindulging on cappuccino or another beverage of your choice go back to the feedback. Read it again.

Now that your feelings are out of the way, doesn’t it make more sense? You may even be inspired as you read and gain ideas about how to improve the script. How did you miss that plot point? And of course that character wouldn’t do that!

Maybe the reader knows something after all.

Read it again.

This time, break it down into the things that don’t work. Also make a note of the things the reader liked. Don’t change these. These are your story’s strengths.

I always copy the feedback into another document, then edit it down so that I just have the reader’s criticisms  bullet-pointed in a list.

Still looks like an awful lot of wok, doesn’t it?

Here’s a secret tip.

Do the easy stuff first!

Did you use the wrong word somewhere? Commit a typo? Attribute dialogue to the wrong character. Go and change that sucker now. Each time you do, remove that point from your document.

Feels good, right?

You’re making progress!

NOW FOR THE REAL WORK

At this point, go back over your shortened document. Now separate the points out into things like “STORY”, “CHARACTER”,  and “DIALOGUE”.

I now go through the script one time for each of these things. Take another pass for story problems, then another for character and dialogue etc. I recommend Paul Chitlik’s excellent book “Rewrite” for a structured approach. If you already did this, now’s the time to do it again.

By taking a structured, methodical approach to addressing feedback, you can make the process of rewriting much less painful.

If you find yourself unwilling to throw out a cherished scene or piece of dialogue, simply save another version of your novel or screenplay file. You can always go back to it. And you may find that without the psychological crutch of having it there you’ll find a much better way to write that scene or show that character’s journey.

Feedback is painful. It’s painful because we writers like to believe that what’s on the page is a little bit of our soul. And rejection hurts. But that’s not how it is. Rare is the script that cannot be improved, even Oscar-winning screenplays. Henry James, the great American novelist, used to return to his stories and tinker with them ad infinitum.

By taking time to let your wounded pride recover, you can approach feedback with a clear head. By breaking it down into small tasks, you can make rewriting seem less daunting. If you do these things, receiving feedback may become less like a chore.

As always, if you think I’ve missed anything, or disagree with me, let me know. I welcome the feedback!

Happy (re)writing!

 

POSTSCRIPT:

There will come a time when you cannot rewrite any more. Recognising this is just as important as knowing the script needs improvement. When you reach this stage, don’t delay. Get it out there! Form a marketing plan and execute it. Don’t let someone else beat you to the punch. This has happened to me several times. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone sell your idea to a studio when your script is sitting on a shelf waiting to be marketed!

 

 

My top 20 horror novels of the past 70 years!

As it’s almost Christmas, here is a list of my own favourite horror books. These are books that either inspired, terrified me, or made my jaw drop at the sheer beauty of the writing. These are all personal choices, so feel free to disagree. But without further ado, here is the list, in no particular order…

 

rats

The Rats James Herbert

British writer James Herbert was strangely underrated during his lifetime, which is a shame, as he is one of the most frightening horror writers of the 20th century. “The Rats” burst on to the scene in the 1970s, and it still packs a punch today. The huge list of characters, the violence, and the incredible imagery make this a must-read!

Cabal Clive Barker

In the 1980s Clive Barker appeared as a breath of fresh air with his promise to show what other writers only hinted at. Not satisfying with having the monster carry off the maiden, Barker wanted to reveal what happened afterwards. Cabal is his most solid novel, a tale of a man who believes he is a psychopath and takes refuge in a hidden underground city of monsters. The result is a Grand Guignol of the surreal and unnerving. Filmed as the uneven but imaginative “Nightbreed” with David Cronenberg as the bad(der) guy!

 

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The Stand Stephen King

My first Stephen King entry is the author’s dark take on the apocalypse. It begins with a whimper and ends with a bang.  Filmed twice with varying success, this is some of King’s finest writing. So depressingly realistic that at first I had to give up on it and came back when I was in a lighter mood!

IT Stephen King

The second Stephen King entry on my list is, I think, undeservedly ignored, thanks to a forgettable TV movie. But make no mistake, the novel is King at the peak of his powers. The characters are rich but archetypal, the town of Derry both nostalgic and terrible. And the monster, ah, the monster..!

 

The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Ramsey Campbell

 

A peculiarly British atmosphere pervades this book, set in the poor end of Liverpool. There is a particularly nasty antagonist, but what makes it so memorable is Campbell’s description of urban neglect. Wherever the characters go you feel the empty eyes of forgotten tenements glaring at them. A unique little tale.

bradbury

The October County Ray Bradbury

Few can deny that Ray Bradbury is the American master of the short story. But did you know that this anthology contains an early possible prototype of the Addams Family? These American Gothic fables contain such memorable tales as “The Jar” and “The Emissary”. Packed with gorgeous prose, this is both horror and literary… and funny to boot!

Domain James Herbert

The last entry in the “Rats” series sees survivors of a nuclear holocaust eking out an existence in London’s rubble. Until they find an army of mutated rats waiting for them! Superlative suspense fiction. Every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. Surely a Hollywood blockbuster waiting to be made!

The Vampire Tapestry Suzy McKee Charnas

A unique take on the vampire genre sees Suzy Charnas’s ancient and wily vampire take on the challenges of the modern world. Never has a vampire been presented in such a detailed psychological light.

The Books of Blood Clive Barker

Yes, all of them! It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary Barker’s fiction was when it first surfaced. These short stories run the gamut from the epic (In the Hills, The Cities) to the eerie (Skins of the Fathers), the surreal  (The Body Politic), the funny (The Yatttring and Jack) and the downright weird (Son of Celluloid). Some have become movie fodder, such as the unforgettably bizarre video nasty “Rawhead Rex”. Others are allegedly in the pipeline. But nothing can prepare you for Barker’s very personal vision of a contemporary world that’s as dark and corrupted as Dante’s inferno!

Interview with The Vampire Anne Rice

The book that launched a publishing legend. I still remember getting lost in the luxuriant Gothic prose. Anne Rice creates a vivid fantasy fever dream that is both like and unlike the movie version. A true masterpiece of fiction.

triffid

Day of the Triffids John Wyndham

British writer John Wyndham’s most well-known book is an example of the “cosy catastrophe”. But that’s why I like it! It’s interesting to see stiff upper lips drop as British society falls apart under attack from some walking plants with the aid of a meteor shower!

Kiss Kiss Roald Dahl

Not just the writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl’s short stories were laced with an acerbic wit and grisly imagination. A bit like fairy tales for adults, with added poisoning, brain surgery and insect/baby hybrids!

Ghost Story Peter Straub

Possibly THE great American ghost story. Peter Straub writes far too little horror these days. But this fantastic novel – described by Stephen King as “a tiger tank of a book” – contains virtually every twist on the ghost tale that you can imagine. Oozes atmosphere and quiet menace!

legend

I Am Legend Richard Matheson

With episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and numerous TV movies such as the unforgettable “Duel” and “The Night Stalker”, Richard Matheson inspired a generation of writers.  This is his probably his most famous work – filmed as the languid Vincent Price chiller “The Last Man On Earth”,  the action-packed and very Seventies “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston, and lately as the CGI-heavy Will Smith popcorn flick, this tale of a man alone in a  world of vampires  has still never been done right. Which is a shame. It’s a fine novel.

The Haunting Shirley Jackson

One of the great ghost stories ever written, it’s amazing how the writer delivers so many effective scares without ever resorting to gore or shocks. Shirley Jackson’s story is a snowball rolling downhill, gathering chills as it goes. Also one very good and one very bad movie.

Teatro Grottesco Thomas Ligotti

Ligotti is one of the writers of the “new weird” – modern authors in the cosmic horror tradition of HP Lovecraft. This collection showcases his unique prose style – a style of flatness and repetition – that lends his words a peculiarly terrifying banality. “The Red Tower” was a particularly fine story. Have fun unpacking the symbolism!

Hour of the Oxrun Dead Charles L Grant

Overlooked by many, Charlie Grant’s Oxrun Station stories all take place in the same sleepy Connecticut town – that just happens to attract all manner of evil! Perhaps it was because these are classic supernatural stories that came out just as writers like King were modernizing old horror tropes. But these are creepy tales, laced with luscious prose. The old TOR versions had the best covers – each one a gorgeous Halloween-themed scene. Ideal for a creepy night in!

grant

Last Call of Mourning Charles L Grant

My favourite Charlie Grant story keeps you guessing all the way through. The plot sounds simple enough – the heroine returns to Oxrun Station to find her family ‘changed’. They don’t bleed, keep out of the sunlight, and have strange nocturnal habits. But the truth is something you’ll never guess. A masterful book that drips atmosphere and charm.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All Laird Barron

Barron has erupted onto the horror scene in recent years. This volume represents many of his Lovecraft-meets-Raymond-Chandler style of stories. But that is to do him an injustice. True, “Hand of Glory” is an effective pulp/horror mashup. But other stories show a genuine ability to expose our innermost fears. His eye-catching imagery cannot be easily forgotten.

The Vampire Lestat Anne Rice

Anne Rice second entry in my list is, I think, the most rich of her vampire stories. While I loved the epic scale and sheer ambition of “The Witching Hour”, “The Vampire Lestat” beats it because of the wonderful ironies the author employs. Here we learn who Lestat is, where he came from, his complicated (to say the least) relationship with his mother and his first meeting with Armand. We also learn more about Rice’s vampire mythology. This is both epic and deeply personal. Lestat feels like a living, breathing person. In all of horror, I can’t recall a more well-rounded, charismatic character!

Afterword

What’s missing from this list? Plenty. This is not my “Top 20”. Nor is it meant to be any kind of definitive list. These are just books I’ve loved. Pure examples of the horror genre that are original stories. I’ve not included anything by any “classic” author such as HP Lovecraft, Mary Shelley or Edgar Allen Poe, because everybody knows all about them anyway. Hopefully you feel the same or similar about some of these titles, or if not, I hope you seek them out and find them to your liking!

Enjoy!

The Many Different Types of Horror Movie Scare!

What techniques do horror movie makers use to make a film scary? The answer is, many. Serious critics often vilify horror movies as cheap, vile “video nasties”.  But in reality, a horror movie is a complex machine. Some of the best ones operate on many levels. So today we’re going to examine just what makes a horror film scary.

I’m not talking about monsters or violence. Instead, I’m talking about the methods writers and directors use to make us jump out of our skins or hide behind the sofa (don’t tell me you’ve never done that) in our favourite scary films!

This is by no mean an exhaustive list of the types of scares to be found in horror movies. But here are the ones I’ve noticed a lot.

 

Cat Scares and Hidden Attacks abound in

Cat Scares and Hidden Attacks abound in “Alien”!

The Jump Scare

The laziest kind of scare. The hero or heroine is walking around the creepy old house when BOO! It’s the monster! Usually it leaps straight at the camera so we experience for the shock ourselves. This is the kind of scare that easily gets on your nerves. For a classic example, see the “head in the boat” scene in JAWS. Check out many modern movie trailers for more inept examples.

 

The Lewton Bus

Also known as the “Cat Scare” or “Faux Scare”.

Ever noticed how sometimes the hero or heroine will be walking through the dark old house/deserted spaceship looking for the monster, when suddenly BOO! out jumps the monster. Oh wait, it’s not the monster after all. It’s only the cat. Or maybe it’s the boyfriend that puts his hand on the heroine’s shoulder. You’ve just been played for a sucker.

The origin of this term is legendary film producer Val Lewton, who used this to great effect in the classic original THE CAT PEOPLE (1942). If you’ve never seen it, get yourself a copy. It’s been ripped off hundreds if not thousands of times since.

“Nested” Cat Scare

A modern twist on the Cat Scare is that right after the innocuous event the real monster DOES appear! This would be more interesting except that it’s also been done a thousand times. For a more interesting variety, check out AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Our hero has a terrifying dream involving a monster with a knife. He wakes up to find… his nurse leaning over him. She goes to the window, opens the curtains and…BOO! The monster jumps out from behind the curtains and stabs her in the chest. Our hero screams. Then he wakes up again. The nurse is there and she goes to the window. She draws the curtains again and… nothing happens. A very unsettling scene.

 

 Mirror Scares / Reveal Scare

How many times have you seen the hero or heroine go to the bathroom, open the mirrored bathroom cabinet (it always has a mirror, doesn’t it?), close it again and… BOO! There’s the refection of the monster right behind them in the mirror! Modern variants include refrigerator doors with monsters inexplicably appearing behind them. Once again, this has become a massive cliché. Still pretty scary, though.

 

Loud noises

A relative of the jump scare.  But instead of seeing something, we hear it. For a recent example check out the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies. Although here the scare is used quite effectively, as the loud noises build up over each night, making the audience dread each sundown more and more. And, of course, they are very inexpensive to create!

 

Hidden attack

Typically, this very effective scare hits us from another direction from that in which we were looking. Not to be confused with the Cat Scare, which is supposed to get us on the edge of our seat before the attack happens. This scare comes out of nowhere. It’s a bolt from the blue.

Done well, this is one of the best scares. A classic example is the infamous chestburster scene from ALIEN where the creature explodes out of John Hurt’s chest. But other examples can be found. John Carpenter’s underrated THE FOG contains several of these. There’s also a great one in EXORCIST III. The camera sits at the end of a long hall in a hospital. A nurse sits at the desk, doing paperwork. Other people come and go. The nurse goes to check the rooms. She walks up the corridor. Behind her, very subtly, the other people leave one by one. She locks the last door, turns to go into the room opposite and BOO! What is that behind her? The monster explodes out of the locked doorway with a very nasty set of surgical scissors in hand. You’ve just been caught out by the Hidden Attack!

 

Suspense

This technique has been described as what happens when the audience knows as much as the character on screen. We’ve all seen those films where the hero or heroine (more probably) approaches the door, knowing there’s a killer/monster on the other side. They open the door slowly and …. BOO!

Nowadays this is pretty clichéd. Modern viewers tend not to buy this setup. There’s no way anyone with half a mind would go towards the location of a dangerous lunatic or hungry monster. So filmmakers try to find increasingly bizarre ways of getting the character to go towards the fear instead of away from it. Personally, if I never saw a character go toward the monster again, I wouldn’t mind. Sometimes it’s best just to accept that certain things are no longer scary.

Hide and Seek

According to Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest ways to create suspense is to employ what’s called Dramatic Irony. This is where the audience is aware of a menace that’s creeping up on the unsuspecting hero or heroine. Classic examples of this scare include the original HALLOWEEN (1978). This has pretty much been done to death (no pun intended) by the Slasher genre. By now the audience has become so familiar with it, it’s almost like an in-joke for the crowd. See the SCREAM movies for pastiches on this technique.

 

Mystery POV

A cousin of “Hide and Seek” is the Mystery POV, also known as the Dark Intruder POV. Here, the camera becomes the eyes of the killer/monster. We see it approach the unsuspecting victim. Classic examples include JAWS, when we see the unsuspecting swimmers paddling in the sea from below. Suddenly the camera rushes up to those dangling legs and… CRUNCH!

It’s a strange technique in that it sometimes arouses sympathy with the killer! Italian cinema has often used this technique to jarring effect. The Giallo films of Dario Argento, such as DEEP RED, often show us the killer preparing to commit (and committing) increasingly bizarre murders. It’s a sort of comment on how, just as audiences like to be scared, they might also be enjoying the thrill of seeing the murders onscreen. Creepy.

Endurance horror

This is an interesting technique. Films such as the original THE EVIL DEAD (1981) were marketed as “endurance horrors”. The basic idea is that you throw so much at the audience that they can’t take any more. Eventually, the slightest thing sends them over the edge and leaves them a quivering bundle of nerves. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is a great example of this. By the time we get to the crazy “feast” scene at the end of the movie, the heroine (and the audience) are emotional wrecks!

Birds Film

Claustrophobia and suspense in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”!

 

Repulsion

Another lazy technique. This just means making the audience want to gag. In the hands of a master, like body-horror maestro David Cronenberg (THE FLY, SHIVERS) it’s truly terrifying and will stay with you for life. In the hands of anyone else, it’s just yucky. Bad examples abound, I’m just not going to go there.

 

Surreal Scare

My favourite kind of scare. This happens when you see something that looks so startlingly out of the ordinary that it’s frightening. It’s a “Thing that should not be”. Classic examples include David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD… or practically anything by David Lynch.

My favourite example is the famous vampire boy from the TV movie SALEM’S LOT (1979). Here, a boy awakens one night to find another recently deceased boy floating outside his window, scratching to be let inside. He foolishly opens the window. The dead boy floats in. He’s pale, rotting maybe. He has yellow eyes, long teeth and he’s very, very hungry. An extremely scary scene indeed.

Fear of the Unknown 

Horror writer HP Lovecraft once said that the greatest fear of mankind is the fear of the unknown. Some horror movies play on our sense of dread at not knowing what lurks within the darkness. The Found Footage horror genre uses this one a lot (primarily because it involves not seeing anything and is therefore cheap). At crucial points all the lights will go out. Cue screams, banging and general terror. Examples include THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which proves that sometimes it’s what you don’t see that’s more frightening.

Phobias

A close relative of the “Repulsion” technique, except that this involves repeatedly showing us images of something we find scary. Often this involves animals. Sharks, spiders, snakes, parasites, wolves, diseases, all these things are pretty scary. Or it could be a fear of flying, falling, the ocean, dismemberment, disfigurement or other types of grisly death. Examples include SNAKES ON A PLANE. However, you can forget the rather unscary ARACHNOPHOBIA.

Claustrophobia is another sub-type of this scare. The original DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) uses this to excellent effect. The heroes are all trapped in a shopping mall with hundreds of zombies. The undead might be slow, but there are so many that escape is impossible. The classic shot from that film occurs when a character thinks himself safe in an elevator, only to be swamped by zombies when the door opens. This type of scare lingers long after the film ends.

 

Loss Of Identity

What’s more scary than dying? Losing your soul, of course. Horror movies recognize this. Many classic genre tropes like werewolves, vampires and zombies prey upon out fear of losing our sense of self, that thing which makes us who we are. The undead are not our real loved ones; they are unthinking, hungry shells out for our blood! Smart movies play with this type of scare. One of the best is THE INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS (1956). We crawl with terror as people slowly lose their identity and are replaced with the hive-minded, unfeeling pod people. And when you are the only real human being left… well, that’s a truly frightening prospect!

The Chase

Chase sequences abound in horror movies. It’s a close cousin of the “suspense” scare. Both we and the character know there’s something right behind them, trying to catch up. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE employs the classic example of this as the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface pursues the hapless heroine through the woods.

 

Atmosphere

This is less common nowadays and has become a cliché. In the early days of horror cinema it consisted of an old dark house, scary inhabitants, flickering lanterns, lightning storms, etc. etc. The old Universal horror movies of FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE WOLF MAN (1941)  contain many examples. However, something of this still survives in so-called J—Horror, which subverts this type of scare.  Here, ghosts pop up in banal places, like modern Tokyo, Internet chat rooms, or tenement buildings. See the Japanese originals of THE GRUDGE, PULSE, and DARK WATER for examples.

So there you are, my main types of horror movie scares. Doubtless I’ve omitted a few, so feel free to correct me. Now go out there and scare the pants off people!