The Weight of Life – Fauna, by Donna Mazza


Full disclosure: I personally know Donna Mazza and consider her a friend and mentor. As much as this is an honest review, I’m so glad to be able to promote this book and I wish Donna the best success with Fauna – the biggest royalty cheque and the most glowing reviews. Speaking of which, pick up a copy here.

Over the last few years, as the climate change “debate” has raged on and the effects of our environmental destruction/pollution have irrevocably altered the world’s ecosystems and climate, we’ve seen a flood of fiction that falls under the moniker of “cli-fi” or climate fiction; essentially, fiction – more often than not science fiction – which addresses and extrapolates on the horrors of climate change, and humanity’s evolving relationship and treatment of the world’s flora and fauna.

Fauna, set in the so-near-it-could-be-now future, could certainly fall under this sub-genre of speculative fiction, but in Mazza’s novel a world ravaged by climate change is more background noise than narrative skeleton. If you pay attention to such demarcations, Fauna is more literary than genre, leaning into the more contemplative and character-driven tone of a Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan. Fauna explores a truly original and thought-provoking conceit through the troubled but quotidian lives of its characters.

In the wake of de-extinction programs that have successfully resurrected species like the Thylacine, passenger pigeon, dodo and woolly mammoth, the next species on the checklist is something far closer to human: the Neanderthal. Protagonist Stacey has a husband (Isak) and two young children (Emmy and Jake), but after the loss of a third, unborn child, she signs up for a kind of IVF treatment with LifeBLOOD®, a company at the cutting edge of de-extinction technology. LifeBLOOD® provides the family with much needed financial support to carry and raise a child that is biologically Stacey and Isak’s, but genetically altered with Neanderthal DNA. As Stacey explains it, “the cells … some of them are mine and Isak’s, but others were snipped and sliced and fused into our baby. There is not just us in there. Her whole genome was recovered and reissued: a new work using old materials. Somewhere in prehistory … she is the child deposited in a tooth found under layers of sediment in a deep cave. Only accessible via a narrow tunnel, amid a ring of stalagmites, an ancient campfire. The fossilised remains of a woolly rhinoceros, butchered mammoths and red deer… From there she has come back. Back to us. I have excavated her.”

The novel’s pace is slow and dreamlike, a story told through the growth of Neanderthal child Asta, from genetically altered embryo into little girl, and the ebb and flow of her family around her, about her. In many ways it’s quite a claustrophobic story, narrated in first person from Stacey’s point of view. With its small cast of characters and its introverted, introspective tone, Fauna unfolds at its own pace, largely untethered from the weight of plot or external conflict.

The economy of Mazza’s prose belies the narrative’s – or more particularly its characters’ – icebergian depth. Every word feels carefully chosen and painstakingly placed, every page a blistering rainfall of ideas and imagery made up of individual drops all falling towards the same purpose, narrative- and gravity-driven wonder. This is a beautifully written book, and the language flows in a consistent and engaging tone.

Stacey is a character very much in her own head, but Mazza is canny enough to constantly engage and relate her protagonist to aspects of the world around her, the human often juxtaposed with the environment. Animals and wildlife are always close by, playing a significant role in the characters’ lives and contributing to the novel’s thematic core. Little details add weight to the story’s mood and accentuate Mazza’s crystalline imagery. In one scene, tension “hangs in a silent wake that seems to hiss”, which is evocative by itself, until “a languid fly crawls across a convex mango skin scraped clean by small teeth.” Fauna’s world feels lived-in and tactile, constantly responding to and being shaped by its characters. Stacey’s point of view is cleverly taken advantage of, and there’s a sly disparity between her dialogue and her inner thoughts, in the spaces between people, what’s spoken and unspoken. Mazza teases out this dichotomy with the glacial weight of all the complicated emotions and tensions and knots that lie between two people in a long-term relationship, their words often inadequate at articulating the vastness and complexity of their emotions.

Despite its grounded narrative, there is no escaping the strangeness of raising a Neanderthal child. During Stacey’s pregnancy, Mazza briefly lights upon the abject body horror of pregnancy, the baby that grows inside her “forming and assembling, stretching me into its own shape”. From this point, Stacey and her daughter Asta are tightly bound, often to the detriment of her husband and other children.

As a character in whose head we spend the entirety of the story, Stacey can be a difficult protagonist to empathise with. At one point, Isak tells her, “You’re very self-absorbed when you’re pregnant”, but she seems self-absorbed for most of the book. Her mindset is a deliberate choice on the writer’s part, and the primary source of conflict in the novel. This plays out very well in several ways, from Stacey’s anxiety during the pregnancy, to her reclusiveness when Asta grows up, her reluctance and embarrassment around other people and how she assumes they will react to her decidedly strange-looking daughter (whose true origins and nature she is forced to lie about). Unfortunately, however, Stacey doesn’t really seem to learn very much from her mistakes; she’ll alienate her husband or children in some way, acknowledge her actions and their negative affects to herself, the reader, and eventually in teary apology to whoever she’s shut out, but instead of growing or changing as a result of her self-awareness, she often circles back to reclusive and damaging behaviour.

As a result of this, Stacey doesn’t exactly have a dramatic character arc, and while at first I felt like this hampered Fauna’s momentum, I came to realise that the novel isn’t so much about a propulsive narrative as it is the mundane drudgery of everyday life, with its high and low points, the anxieties and arguments, the hopeful glimmers and moments of joy and love. Its innovative conceit aside, Mazza’s novel is far more about family dynamics, and in this Fauna is masterfully crafted and achingly evoked, unfolding more in the vein of real life than a constructed story.

Normally I feel like this kind of book would be written about a middle-class mother undergoing an existential crisis but it’s refreshing to see a family from a lower socio-economic bracket represented here, along with the dynamics their circumstances precipitate and cultivate.

The argument that Asta is human, “just not the same kind of human as everyone else”, dominates Fauna’s thematic arc and is the basis for much of Stacey’s conflict. LifeBLOOD® enforces a veil of secrecy around their research project, forcing Stacey and Isak to explain Asta’s anatomical anomalies as a rare genetic disorder, and other parents and children often assume Asta has a disability of some description. This touches on some engaging and deftly handled issues about the way society treats children with disabilities or differences. More often than not, however, characters in Fauna are refreshingly inclusive towards the little Neanderthal girl. It’s predominantly Stacey’s preconceptions about people that are negative or wary.

I mentioned before that Fauna doesn’t focus on the wider global issues like climate change in which the story’s context nestles. Mazza works this reasoning into the novel in a very effective way. By all but excluding greater global events from the story, it feels as though Mazza is commenting on people’s proclivity for ignoring large-scale events they’re not directly affected by, which is exemplified to a tee in Stacey’s insular attitude. She watches on television as “a record-breaking fire tears through the Canadian wilderness and a coal-seem gas plant has exploded. Dead geese are heaped with a bulldozer.” With barely a thought, she changes the channel to a cooking show.

With these aspects relegated to the sidelines, Mazza has plenty of room to sculpt a convincing portrait of family life, Stacey and Isak often reduced to exhaustion and irritability with the efforts of maintaining a family and raising a baby: “we bundle ourselves into human shapes and collect the kids from school.” These are hurdles enough on their own without the pressure of LifeBLOOD® looking over their shoulder and constantly checking in on their living property, enforcing specific dietary requirements and taking measurements and blood samples from Asta.

Scientific experiments aside, the family’s dynamic will be familiar to most people, with or without kids; Mazza’s world in Fauna is no different from today’s endless grind, where capitalism is causing – has caused – the collapse of the ecosystem and the zombification of the working class. Those enduring pressures mount as the novel progresses towards its melancholy and ambiguous climax, as Stacey’s brittle balance of sanity cracks. Reader and character alike sit taut, nauseous with the feeling that at any moment she might slip off the edge and shatter.

But Fauna isn’t all struggle and angst. It’s a joy to watch Asta grow, and her family along with her, and Mazza’s skill at portraying this is wonderful. Stacey notes that her daughter “understands more all the time but her vocabulary is still so small, growing incrementally though her body shoots like spring.”

Fauna isn’t what I’d call a feel-good book, but it is a beautifully written one that examines challenging ideas through the eyes of its equally challenging characters. Its premise is original and refreshing, and Mazza balances angst and anxiety with a sense of hope, and an appreciation of the natural world rendered in crisp, poetic prose. It’s a story that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned, and holding the book in your hand, you can feel more than the mere physicality of it, heavy as it is with the weight of life, and history, and humanity.

She Said Destroy – Nadia Bulkin (Review)


Before I picked up her debut collection, She Said Destroy, I’d never read a word of Nadia Bulkin’s politically charged horror fiction. Renowned horror publisher Word Horde consistently puts out quality work by a variety of extremely talented writers, but with a TBR pile as large as Donald Trump is stupid, I often find myself way behind on their work. Basically, don’t make my mistake. Pick up a copy of this book immediately, because Nadia Bulkin is a literary genius.

This blistering collection opens with “Intertropical Convergence Zone”, a kind of escalating fetch-quest told with fairy tale logic, which charts the rise of Indonesia’s infamous past president Suharto, who at the time of the story is still only a general in the Indonesian Army. The brutality of his ideals is accentuated by the magical lens through which Bulkin examines Indonesia’s fraught political history. In his quest to seize control of the government, the General needs to consume objects of power retrieved for him by one of his trusted lieutenants, who narrates the story. Each object is representative of a particular tool essential to his rise to power, and their fantastical nature highlights not just the violence that hovers around and is perpetrated by the General, but also the dark absurdity of his quest, rendered unto myth or fable in Bulkin’s fiction.

“The Five Stages of Grief” is a chilling and claustrophobic tale that examines the lengths we’ll go to and the lies we’ll tell – both ourselves and others – to keep from the truth of loss.

In a poetic, heartbreaking take on the ‘final girl’ trope, “And When She Was Bad” explores the nature and agency of monsters, upending conventions in a surprising and heartfelt way. In all of Bulkin’s work the reader can sense not only her dedication to fractious and fallible characters, but forces and concepts far larger than any one person. She teases both out with her exquisite use of language; lines like “the great big amorphous past has risen up behind them on the country road and is swallowing those memories whole”, left me literally breathless.

In “Only Unity Saves the Damned”, Bulkin uses found footage horror tropes and antisocial adolescents to look at the psychogeography of a dead-end small town. Once again character is at the heart of the story, and the teenagers here are scratched out with pain and poignancy, weighed down by the insularity of their own existence. The true horror here is not the supernatural, but the starkly quotidian.

A truly bizarre story about an unexpected friendship, “Pugelbone” examines issues of class and colonialism, highlighting Bulkin’s propensity for lonely, broken, doomed characters. But this isolation isn’t limited to the individual; it engulfs families, races, and societies. This is the kind of prescient subject matter Bulkin excels at like no other writer I’ve ever read, truly expanding the reader’s knowledge and perception of the world through the lens of horror.

In “Red Goat, Black Goat”, a woman takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy single family in Java, in a truly devastating take on H.P. Lovecraft’s monster, Shub-Niggurath. Bulkin’s take on the mythos is so much more devastating for the ruin it makes of her beautifully crafted characters. Her prose isn’t purple, but it’s the way she puts her words together, the rhythm and pacing that comes from her constructions. Take this line: “the entire shape shuddered and the facades of skin melted back like a drawn veil. Beneath it darkness came a-crawling.”

A more ambiguous, illusive affair, “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is about the lies adults tell children to cover up the past. An intimate character study, the story is told in fractured fragments, revealing the protagonist’s mistakes and experiences, anxieties and fears. As we scratch and dig down through her life, something terrible that’s been lurking around the edges like a bad feeling or a floater in the eye soon becomes appallingly apparent.

In one of the collection’s more existentially harrowing tales, “Girl, I Love You” really throws the middle finger to people who hold tight to the idea of karma, of bad people getting what’s coming to them. The story explores the conflicts and connections fostered between people in a world where a certain kind of magic is commonplace, but where the emotional and social consequences of that magic are not ignored. A truly poignant story about the “raw, wriggling emotional stuff” of the human psyche that Bulkin is so adept at exploring.

“Endless Life” begins as a story about dark tourism and becomes a ghost story about the horror of the body. It’s a glittering, multifaceted tale that explores the things we’re blind to, and how that shapes the world we see. The complexity of its overtly political subject wouldn’t normally lend itself to a short story, and in a lesser writer’s hands it would feel like someone trying to stretch a blanket over a mountain, but Bulkin pulls it off with ease and skill, evoking as much of what she says as what is left silent. But we can hear the words all the same. And the words she does deliver, they dance and spit and burn with a bright-hot poetry you really have to read to believe.

“Violet is the Colour of Your Energy” is another Lovecraftian reimaging, this one a more lyrical and character-driven version of “The Colour Out of Space” that grabs you with its breathtaking opening line and corkscrews into a vibrant mystery. At the story’s centre is a marriage in vertiginous freefall. This is an excruciating slow-burn of escalating tension where the minutiae of the mundane is juxtaposed with the weirdness blooming around the family. There’s a whiff of VanderMeer’s Area X here in the imagery, and in the notion of escaping the limitations of the human. Bulkin’s language reaches transformative, sublime heights in a cataclysmic finale that’s as beautiful, engulfing and liberating as it is horrific. For the intensity of the writing, this is a story to be read slowly, each word savoured and truly tasted, and like every other entry in this collection, hungrily re-read.

“Truth is Order and Order is Truth” explores familial strife and royal machinations in pre-colonial Java, which is a fresh setting for this kind of fantasy if nothing else. The writing and imagery are as luscious as ever but the opening is bogged down a little in exposition and family history – necessary, but not gripping. A mid-point turnabout isn’t exactly shocking but it is beautifully executed, a revelation about the protagonist’s family that interrogates the beauty of hybridity, and what we have to become – or recognise that we didn’t know we already were – in order to find a comfortable place in the world.

Another small-town, backwoods horror, “Absolute Zero” looks at different aspects of that dynamic. It casts an eye over the things that we carry with us from childhood, that shape us in all sorts of unpleasant ways. The protagonist’s journey mirrors the nature of the town itself, with its “battered, ghostly layers peek[ing] through the concrete”. The evocative collision of the supernatural and the mundane in this instance examines the price you pay, the parts of yourself you have to kill, to gain some semblance of happiness, normality, acceptance.

Finally, in the longest and last story of the collection, “No Gods, No Monsters”, follows a family who’s made a terrifying deal with a devil, each generation carrying a burden they didn’t ask for but cannot refuse. The truly nasty family politics and dynamics on display here give the impending supernatural threat further weight, as it drags down Bulkin’s achingly human characters in its wake. In the same way – and in a genius move that makes the two elements inseparable – the evil works through the characters and thus affects them all in horrible, violent, and heartbreaking ways. The third act lands with a literal storm that pulls absolutely zero punches, and Bulkin rains down the horror an extended scene of blistering gore and masterful pace. Like all of Bulkin’s work, “No Gods, No Monsters” can work as a poignant metaphor, in this case about the fear of passing your demons on to your kids, and the moral complexities of deliberately having a child in spite of their inevitable dark hereditary. Like all of her work, too, it can just as easily sit with the reader as an exhilarating piece of fiction. Why not have both?

Every story in Nadia Bulkin’s collection is a minor masterpiece, on every level. Her characters breathe on the page, and her monsters are truly terrifying. She writes in a way that’s not flashy or flamboyant but dangerous, lean and fast and finely honed. Her words are utterly beautiful, too, and there are so many sentences to stop and savour the taste of.

I envy getting to read these works for the first time, but I’m also so excited to read each story here for the second time, and third and fourth. With the sheer volume of fiction out there I’m dying to read, the highest compliment I can give an author is that I’d push those new books and stories aside to read one of theirs again.

The best kind of fiction snatches you out of the world, and teaches you something valuable about it at the same time. She Said Destroy does both of these, and the stories in these pages have moved me in ways I never expected, have terrified and thrilled and broken me. They’ve entertained me, and changed the way I look at the world, and they’ll stay with me long after the last page is turned. Bulkin writes that “some worms cannot just be un-dug”. Neither can the catastrophic impact of her fiction.

You Cannot Trust Your Senses: Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts


One of the – many – great things about Jeff VanderMeer’s books is that the cover art is often just as gorgeous as the words within, and Dead Astronauts, his latest novel, is probably the most dazzling so far. The US hardcover – pictured above in my clunky attempt to take a photo with subtext and impact – is a neon shout of colour from the dustcover alone, which then peels back to reveal its pearly white underside and, on the hardcover itself, metallic blue swirls of organic design, along with some actual text from the novel. A wonderful little detail I noticed is that while reading, the pink endpapers cast a glow on the glittering white flap of the dustcover as it sits half-open in my grip. A small but beautiful detail in a book that’s full of such things.

Dead Astronauts is about… I don’t even know where to start. This doesn’t have a single, easily-defined plot or concept that can truly encompass the breadth and depth of story growing in its pages. This is set in the same universe as his previous novel, Borne, and although there is connective tissue between the two, one can be read independently of the other. In its broadest strokes, Dead Astronauts encompasses a fight against the faceless, nefarious, world-ending Company, in an entirely different kind of post-apocalypse – not empty or desolate but absolutely teeming – where biotech runs rampant and dimensions are multiple and nothing – I repeat, nothing – is what it seems.

Divided into a series of vignettes, each of which take conventions of voice and structure to strange new levels, the largest chunk of the book follows the titular trio of not-altogether-human companions/lovers as they attempt, across multiple realities, to beat back the Company and its horde of monstrous, sometimes unwilling denizens. They lose and they lose and they lose, and they keep trying, their realities fractured and fracturing as they traverse a new version of their world with every attempt. They are Grayson, Chen and Moss, and their bond is tenderly evoked in these chapters, the endless, maddening repetition of their failures strengthening their unique dynamic. Although we know from the book’s title – and their presence in Borne – that the trio dies, their quest and its demise reverberates throughout Dead Astronauts. This is particularly true for Moss, who is fluid in gender and form; she can transform into a carpet of budding moss, and her transformation blooms across several other sections of the narrative, anchoring the story in ways that don’t become apparent until the book’s final, quietly revelatory scene.

Among other characters are a sentient blue fox, a homeless woman who forms a bond with a giant salamander, a scientist employed by the Company, a sentient leviathan, and a malevolent duck that isn’t really, exactly a duck. Nothing in this book is really, exactly what it seems, narratively or linguistically or even literally. The reader’s perception of the novel, the characters’ perception of their world, and the world itself, all exist in a state of constant collision and change. It’s a novel untethered from such pedestrian constraints as genre or category, spanning sci-fi, horror, fantasy, literary fiction and love story – and all of these evoked in ways you haven’t seen before. The absurd merges with the surreal and the horrific, the beautiful, the intimate. The violent and dark and sorrowful. The hopeful and the exhilarating.

Multiple narratives collide with one another, each subsequent section or chapter narrated from a different – and most often nonhuman – point of view, each one illuminating the story’s overall geography a little more, a little more. Dead Astronauts is a book whose perspectives and fragments piece together a greater picture as it progresses, but the story also obfuscates and confounds as often as it reveals.

What VanderMeer can do with language, how he shapes it, is astounding. He plays with words and puts his own sentences through strange and beautiful metamorphoses, transforms the way you think of inflection and style and even thought itself. And that’s what this book is all about – change. Metaphorically, linguistically. Literally. A character becomes a swarm of salamanders, or a carpet of flowers. A duck is not a duck, a monster is something much more complex. Gender and shape and love are all utterly mutable.

There’s a lot of hope in Dead Astronauts, with its diverse and inclusive cast of characters, its exploration of animal consciousness and environmental concerns. So much of it is beautiful and tragic. So much of this story, too, is anger, and an anger I can relate to, an anger pointed towards the destructive obliviousness of humanity and its – our – insistence on repeated patterns of behaviour, our contradictory treatment of anything nonhuman, trying to help it out or conserve it but only on our terms and only needing to because we fucked it all up or hunted it down or killed or tortured or obliterated it in the first place.

VanderMeer writes about, and from, a variety of nonhuman perspectives in a way that feels authentic, but he also captures the human with such delicate urgency, the way we bond and the way we fail and fight and die, that it’s almost too much to bear. There’s a sense of deep pain in Dead Astronauts, and a real self-reflective darkness that seeps to the surface at times.

I’ve been a manic Jeff VanderMeer fan ever since City of Saints and Madmen. His work is always an absolute pleasure to read. Not only entertaining but complex, challenging, confronting, original, beautiful, heartbreaking and sublime. Dead Astronauts was all of these things, but perhaps, for me, a little less entertaining. Often, its complexity eluded or frustrated me. Some of the more experimental chapters were admittedly a little difficult to get through, and as I was reading I felt like some aspects went right over my head. This book requires work, but that’s a good thing. Like all genuinely ground-breaking works, it wasn’t an easy read. But the more I think about it, several weeks after turning that last page, the more it’s burrowed into my brain, colonising me with its weird imagery and its frankly gorgeous examination of nature, and cruelty, and love.

The ideas and concerns he explores aren’t necessarily things we don’t already know, but I can guarantee we’ve never heard them being said like this. VanderMeer doesn’t hit you over the head with a big glaring “message”, he gets your blood boiling with the horrors perpetrated, he breaks your heart with the consequences of them, and he wraps it all in a crazy, exhilarating story. He captures ideas and moments and tiny little aspects of things in a way I feel like nobody, living or dead, has ever thought of. His work truly comes across as having been written/narrated/constructed by something that isn’t human, that doesn’t have the same thought patterns or make the same assumptions as us, the unavoidable ways we think about and build our perception of the world around us, and the things in it, and the interactions between the two.

There is so much to recommend about this book, and so much to feel in awe of. VanderMeer has broken what we know of as story, cracked it open and spread it out across the expanse of Dead Astronauts, let it grow into something truly vibrant and new. This is a book full of secrets and hidden things, a puzzle to be poured over again and again.

If you look at the trajectory of his work over the years, it’s like VanderMeer is heading somewhere utterly beyond our comprehension, shedding skin after skin and changing his form as he travels. But even if I can’t always understand or appreciate the stops he takes along the way, I’m hanging on until the end, into whatever strange places he wants to take us. Following this “map that does not know its borders.”

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Film Review)

Over the last few years, a new Star Wars film has become something to – mostly – look forward to. The CGI-heavy but otherwise weightless prequel series put me off the franchise for a while, but after Disney’s dubious acquisition of George Lucas’ blockbuster property, The Force Awakens got me back into them. The standalone films so far could have been a lot better, but despite the infuriating level of studio interference in Solo and Rogue One, there are still things to enjoy about both. Recent Disney+ series The Mandalorian is solid, pulpy fun with some fantastic practical effects and the tactility of the original trilogy. My favourite by far, though, is Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which wasn’t just an incredible Star Wars film, but a great film, full stop. Given complete creative freedom by Star Wars boss Kathleen Kennedy, Johnson took the franchise in surprising new directions, doing something truly new with the universe and its characters for the first time. This second instalment in the new trilogy divided fans, however, many of whom have spent their days since Jedi’s 2017 release whining ad absolute nauseum about the film failing to pander to their expectations (as if that’s a bad thing), as well as hounding actress Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) off social media.

After Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow stepped out of the director’s chair for the third and final instalment, not just for this trilogy but the Skywalker saga as a whole, J.J. Abrams returned to helm The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams’ initial foray into Star Wars gave us the brilliant The Force Awakens, which, although it didn’t break any drastically new ground for the franchise, has to be praised for introducing a great new cast of diverse and interesting characters in Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren, among others.

Abrams has a pretty good track record; I’ll defend Lost until my dying breath, and his Mission: Impossible film is one of my favourites. Before Star Wars he did a great job of reinventing another sci-fi juggernaut with 2009’s Star Trek reboot. Even his lesser films, like Stark Trek sequel, Into Darkness, and the Spielberg homage Super 8 aren’t outright disasters.

But then there’s The Rise of Skywalker, which, for me, was a colossal disappointment after the previous films, and a massive step backwards after Rian Johnson broke the mould with episode eight. And yeah, I’ll be mentioning The Last Jedi a few more times, so you might as well start a drinking game for every time it comes up. Comparisons are inevitable, especially with such a variance in quality from one film to another. That’s two drinks so far, by the way.

Here’s what’s good about it. It mostly looks great – there are some beautiful set-pieces, the costumes and practical effects are wonderful as always, and there’s a real physicality to some parts of the film. John Williams’ score is gorgeous. I don’t envy the filmmakers the task of incorporating the late Carrie Fisher into the film, and they did the best job they could with the material they had, even if it does feel quite clunky. The brilliant cast is back, but it’s the material they have to work with that isn’t so brilliant. At a basic level, the script, co-written by Abrams, and Batman v. Superman and Justice League’s Chris Terrio, is bog-standard. There’s no character-driven story here as in the previous instalment (drink), but an ugly mush of convolutions and contrivances comprised of hunts for boring McGuffins, plot holes bigger than the film’s budget, a whole lot of tedious exposition, and dialogue that sounds like the writers stole all the lines from some tepid book of motivational quotes.

I think the problem here is that the filmmakers didn’t have even a broad roadmap for their trilogy starting out. Abrams set up some big mysteries in The Force Awakens and Johnson jettisoned them in The Last Jedi (drink), from Rey’s parentage to the origins of Snoke. Abrams wastes time in The Rise of Skywalker re-establishing these aspects in a film that feels more like a direct sequel to The Force Awakens than a cohesive part of a trilogy. He even sticks poor Adam Driver back behind Kylo Ren’s reforged mask – which now looks like a cheap plastic Kmart knockoff – for far too much of the film.

Speaking of which, they spend too little time on further developing this trilogy’s genuinely engaging and unique characters, and far too much focused on what they try to pass off for a plot, which is frankly ridiculous even by Star Wars standards – I found myself wishing for the days of tedious Trade Federation politics.

Abrams pulls a Bryan Singer with The Rise of Skywalker, relegating characters outside the main four to the sidelines. Naomie Ackie, Keri Russell and Richard E. Grant are fun new additions, but Dominic Monaghan’s role is pointless. Most infuriating of the existing characters is Rose Tico, who gets nothing to do after such an interesting and promising role in The Last Jedi (drink). But even the protagonists get little room to stretch and nowhere interesting to go. Some of the arcs play out in exactly the kind of way I hoped they wouldn’t, and one is particularly cringeworthy. Disney, backtracking cowards that they are, have gone for the laziest, easiest approach here, and it’s agonising to watch the actors wade through the slush of this soulless script.

The Rise of Skywalker splashes around in the wading pool of mediocre Star Wars clichés and “Oh no, I’m related to X” tropes, not only doing nothing new but rehashing characters and scenarios from previous films. The big villain here of course is Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine, who’s suddenly back from the dead with zero explanation and an entire fleet of (again, entirely unexplained) Star Destroyers. At which point I just thought, Who fucking cares?

Where The Last Jedi (drink) had a crisp, beautiful clarity to its world and its action sequences, Rise feels, aside from a few epic-looking but ultimately empty set pieces, like a disjointed mess for most of its agonising runtime. From its annoyingly choppy and rushed opening, the way it was shot and edited feels like a series of separate scenes and elements hastily strung together like anal beads (and this questionable analogy), except anal beads would likely have been a far more enjoyable experience.

The final shot of The Last Jedi (drink) expanded the Star Wars universe in a way previous films hadn’t, redefining what its characters were capable of outside the select chosen ones. All Rise does is shrink it back down with more tepid familial “revelations”, an unnecessarily convoluted plot, and characters that don’t surprise or engage with their arcs or their actions.

“Some things are stronger than blood,” Luke’s force ghost says. Yeah, fan service, apparently.


In the Shadow of the Moon (Film Review)

With films like the moody remake of cannibal family saga We Are What We Are, the violent downward spiral of Cold in July, and a foray into TV with the excellent (and sadly cancelled) amateur crime-solving bromance series, Hap and Leonard, Jim Mickle always brings a fantastic energy and grit to his work.

While he’s dabbled in a number of genres, common across his work is a loving focus on character and, more recently, an exploration of timely social issues. In the Shadow of the Moon, just released on Netflix, is no different.

I’ll try to be as vague as possible here, but it’s hard to talk about this film without at least getting into some minor spoilers and the thematic meat of the story, so anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer and doesn’t want even a hint of the plot spoiled for them, go watch it right now with my ardent recommendation, and then come back and read the rest of this.

Still here? Okay.

Imbuing a gory serial killer thriller with time travel elements is a novel idea if not exactly brand-shining-new, but Mickle executes this surprisingly ambitious film with an assured hand, ensuring both elements are engaging and the sum of their parts coalesces into something surprising – and surprisingly heartfelt. Again, his focus on character over spectacle is what sets this apart from some of the more generic Netflix originals we’ve seen over the last few years.

(Side note: anyone aching for some more time traveling serial killer action should check out Lauren Beukes’ incredible book The Shining Girls.)

The film’s prologue opens in 2024, in Philadelphia. Some sort of fiery catastrophe has decimated several buildings, and a burning American flag drifts down past the blown-out windows of a high-rise office.

After this brief scene, we jump all the way back to Philly in 1988, where we follow Boyd Holkbrook’s Thomas Lockhart, a uniformed cop aiming for a promotion to detective and with a baby on the way. While on his nightly beat, Lockhart encounters some gruesome and seemingly random deaths that share an inexplicable M.O. The atmosphere here is grimy and palpable, and the character interactions are stellar, really giving us a feel for how each person works and feels within the context of the film’s world.

The film’s score, by Mickle’s regular composer, Jeff Grace, is moody and energetic, really oiling the film’s narrative wheels and exacerbating the tension and mystery.

From this emotionally gruelling and wonderfully moody set-up, the film jumps ahead nine years to 1997, and then again to 2006 and 2015, charting Lockhart’s dangerous obsession with the mysterious killer.

The always excellent Bokeem Woodbine and Michael C. Hall round out the cast as Lockhart’s partner and brother-in-law, respectively. Rachel Keller and Rudi Dharmalingam are also good in their brief roles, but relative newcomer Cleopatra Coleman is a standout as Rya, the time-traveling and obviously-more-to-her-than-meets-the-eye killer. She comes to do a lot of the film’s heavy lifting in many ways, shouldering the issues it explores with a sense of stoicism and determination, and her motivations aren’t just personal, but social, symbolic.

In terms of what we see on-screen, though, this is essentially Holbrook’s film, and through its time-jumping ‘chapters’ we witness the effect that the fatal 1988 encounter has on him, driving him to a decades-long obsession with catching this killer, whose motives and methods defy explanation.

In many ways, I loved this film. It’s all very well made – the directing is assured, the performances excellent, and everything feels fresh and dangerous and thrilling, with an emotional core that’s beautifully evoked on so many levels. Mickle juggles several elements (the least of which turns out to be the cross-genre aspect) in a way that a lesser filmmaker would almost certainly drop the ball on. The time travel element is great without being overbearing, and the investigative aspects and world-building are all beautifully executed.

While I absolutely love the direction the story chooses to head in, I think there’s a divide between what the film says and how it says it that doesn’t always work in its favour. The problem here is one of perspective.

Beyond the arc that his obsession takes him on, Lockhart isn’t a particularly interesting or unique protagonist in his own right, but Mickle’s direction and Holbrook’s performance elevate his story in execution if not narrative. The film’s shortcomings certainly aren’t Holbrook’s – or any of the cast’s – fault. It’s a pleasure to see him allowed to embody a lead role so well after the post-production disaster that was Shane Black’s 2018 The Predator, and so many small but memorable roles in films like Logan and A Walk Among the Tombstones. As a character study, In the Shadow of the Moon is still well executed and emotionally affecting, but I feel conflicted about the point of view it chooses to tell its story from.

Although it takes a while for the film’s prevalent themes to come to the fore, they’re telegraphed from the opening shot of the ruined buildings: the tattered flag drifting down over the carnage is a retooled version of the American Stars and Stripes, the stars portion depicting the Confederate cross, a common symbol of white supremacy. On one hand, the way it eases us into this exploration of race and terrorism – which has sadly never been more relevant today – is a smart move for a film marketed as something more commercial and popcorn-friendly (even if that popcorn came out of your microwave).

On the other hand, as Holbrook’s Lockhart gets closer to the truth about the murders he’s given up everything – including a relationship with his daughter – to pursue, he expresses no discernible opinion about the glaring moral complexities of the case beyond his single-minded determination to catch the killer. This is Lockhart’s problem in general – he doesn’t engage in much self-reflection until it’s too late, and this feels more symptomatic of his need for a particular character arc, than something his character might actually do. Maybe not self-reflection, but at least his reaction to certain major revelations the film throws at him about the nature of Rya’s murder victims doesn’t really ring true. If they’d tweaked this aspect, the problem of perspective wouldn’t be so glaring. It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but it does leave a nagging little flaw in an otherwise excellent, and wonderfully ambitious narrative.

The way the film integrates its exploration of race as it reaches its quietly touching climax definitely feels earned in many ways, and I can see what Mickle is trying – and mostly succeeding – to achieve. It’s a film about finding something new, and how we can either kill our outdated and harmful mindsets or adapt to a new way of thinking, both of which occur in different ways as the story progresses.

This is an excellent, well-paced film that eschews expectations and moments of redundant action for a deeper exploration of how we fight, not just acts of organised violence and terrorism, but the idea of them. And this, despite the wailing protests of cry-babies the world over – who are going to have some serious tantrums about In the Shadow of the Moon – is what genre does best.

The Wind (Film Review)


Budgetary constraints in a film can be a difficult work-around, but they can also lead to some fantastic innovations. Although I find the deliberately small-budget-for-big-earnings method of a studio like Blumhouse to be a little tedious in its repetition, there’s no denying that this approach can work very well with genre films, and especially with horror. But there’s a difference between a film that simply didn’t cost much to make, and something that takes advantage of its limitations with a minimalistic or restrained approach.

Thankfully, horror/western gem The Wind is a fantastic example of the latter. This is the first major feature-length project for both director Emma Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland – not that you’d know it from watching the film, which comes across as an accomplished and meticulous piece of work that’s as layered as it is genuinely disturbing.

Caitlin Gerard is Lizzy Macklin who, with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) is attempting to carve out a life on the often unforgiving and isolated Western frontier in the late 1800s. The only other people for miles around are the Macklins’ new neighbours, Emma and Gideon Harper, played by Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee, respectively. The only other character of note is a reverend played – briefly but brilliantly – by Miles Anderson, bringing the cast to a total of five.

It’s a lean film in many respects, including its 86-minute runtime, but The Wind never feels lacking, and it certainly doesn’t starve its audience, opting for a slow meal rather than a cheap calorie-dump. From the very first shot, bone-chilling and completely devoid of dialogue, we know The Wind is going to take its time. After seeing so many messy, rushed horror films lately (recent Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary springs immediately to mind), it’s such a pleasure to sit down to one that’s both confident in what it’s trying to say, and how exactly it says it.

The Wind is a film told by women, about women, which not only makes a pleasant change from the usual stories told in this particular combination of setting, period and genre, but also allows the narrative to explore some interesting angles. At the story’s core is the relationship between the pragmatic Lizzy and the more mischievous, mercurial Emma, whose interest in Gothic literature and growing obsession with something she thinks is stalking the desolate plains at night cultivates both the film’s horror element and its thematic bent. It’s a film about paranoia and distrust, perhaps sown by the characters’ isolation, or perhaps something more sinister. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that we never get all the answers we want by the end, but The Wind’s ambiguity really works in its favour, because at times we’re left as confused – and terrified – as the protagonist. Speaking of terror, this film has a couple of genuinely scary scenes that eschew jump-scares for moments that unsettle on a much deeper level. In several instances the source of the terror switches in unexpected ways, the nature of whatever haunts both women evolving as the story progresses.

But whatever monsters may or may not be out there, it’s the human characters in The Wind, and the cast’s incredible, physical performances, that dominate. So much of the mood and tactility of the narrative is laid on their shoulders, Tammi’s direction really focussing in on the character dynamics, often born of insecurities and shortcomings, descending into unspoken conflict or outright hostility. Shots often linger to near breaking point on the characters’ physical or emotional trauma, with little or no dialogue needed to convey the tone of a scene. Lizzy and Isaac’s relationship, for example, has a tangible sense of history and intimacy as played by the superb Gerard and Zukerman, which makes their conflict all the more believable when it bubbles up.

The world built around the characters is impeccable, too, every object and situation inferring history and story. The frontier setting, by turns awe-inspiring in its beauty and terrifying in its naked hostility, is a character in itself, and shot with the same lingering determination as the rest of the film by cinematographer Lyn Moncrief. Both homesteads have a deliberately handmade, lived-in feel that lends itself to the film’s bloody physicality. Ben Lovett’s score accentuates the characters’ spiralling madness with its discordant strings; after his evocative work both here and on 2017’s The Ritual, he’s a composer to get excited about. Special effects are few and far between, but when Tammi does use them, it’s sparingly, lingering in the viewer’s memory with greater impact.

The Wind is a fantastic piece of horror in both its evocation of the weird and the subversive exploration of its two complex and tangible female characters, both caught in the teeth of a world otherwise dominated by men and defined by its harshness.

It’s like the filmmakers are actually using the medium they’re working in to tell their story with tools that are often overlooked or underutilised in favour of an easier approach. In other words, it’s a relief not having to listen to characters explain the story or their motivations to me. I said before that The Wind is a lean film, but it’s also rich with detail, the land and characters’ history lying just beneath the surface, every aspect evoked in a way that only film can. Everything works together here beautifully, and from script to screen there’s a sense of rhythm that’s rare in some of the most experienced filmmakers’ work. I can’t wait to see what Tammi, and everyone else involved in The Wind, does next.

Hellboy (Film Review)


I’m a huge fan of both Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics and the two mesmerising films based on them, directed by renowned Mexican monster man Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ron Perlman as the titular anti-hero in a couple of career-best performances, del Toro’s films capture the otherworldly feel of Mignola’s iconic artwork, distilled through the director’s particular vision. While Hellboy II: The Golden Army saw del Toro diverge significantly from the source material, and let rip with his love for bizarre fairy-tale creatures and misunderstood monsters, it’s still a truly magical film, both in itself and as part of Big Red’s impressive canon.

Like any fan of that series, I’d been waiting for a greenlight on the third film of the intended trilogy. But after apparently heading in a direction that del Toro and Perlman weren’t happy with, the studio announced a reboot of the series in 2017, helmed by Brit horror director Neil Marshall and starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour in the title role. The script originally saw several drafts by Mignola himself, Christopher Golden, Aaron Eli Coliete, and Andrew Cosby, but apparently Golden and Coliete’s contributions barely made it into the final film, with Cosby now listed as the sole writer.

As much I’m enamoured with del Toro’s films, I didn’t bear a grudge against this new version. On paper, this seemed like it might be an interesting take on the character at the very least, with the calibre of the people involved and its talk of a distinctively bloodier, darker direction that still remained faithful to some of Mignola’s best story arcs, particularly The Wild Hunt, Darkness Calls, and The Storm and the Fury. I love Marshall’s work, which can best be described as grungy and hyper-violent, and his use of practical effects is admirable, from the taut black humour of Dog Soldiers, one of the best werewolf films I’ve seen, to the squirm-inducing claustrophobia of The Descent, and the more streamlined thrills of Ancient Roman chase film, Centurion. His most recent work has been largely in television, namely two excellent Game of Thrones episodes that combine a sense of bloody scale with Marshall’s signature style. David Harbour is also an interesting choice for the lead, one of those character actors who seems to crop up in so many cool supporting roles (his turn as a psychopath in A Walk Among the Tombstones springs immediately to mind), and one of the highlights of a certain 80s-saturated Netflix series.

Given the talent involved and my love of the source material, I went into this new Hellboy film with genuinely high hopes and little trepidation. There was no reason this should’ve turned out the way it did.

The film opens with a tepid exposition-dump of a prologue that tries to go all Sin City with its colour-punctuated black-and-white visuals, brimming with hellish dialogue and clunky narration from Ian McShane. The delivery of lines here manages the seemingly impossible task of making the already awful writing sound even worse. Immortal, evil, and motivationally-bereft witch, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), is dismembered by a King Arthur so wooden he makes Guy Ritchie’s 2017 film look like a subtle and evocative masterpiece. Her divorced body parts are subsequently hidden in separate locations around the world, and to the present we cut.

Surely, surely the rest of the film can’t be this bad, right?

Not exactly. While the rest of Hellboy’s seemingly eternal two hours don’t quite reach the depths of that opening’s singularly abysmal bar, it doesn’t climb much higher. What we can glimpse of the plot beneath the bulge of baffling tangents and endless character backstories involves a resurrected Nimue intent on seducing Hellboy into triggering the apocalypse, destroying humanity, and ushering in a new world for the downtrodden monsters and fairy-tale creatures that follow her. It’s a story we’ve not only seen a hundred times before, but one that was done so much better in both of del Toro’s previous Hellboy films.

Even the actual apocalypse Hellboy’s so instrumental to only lasts about two minutes, those world-crushing, people-mushing monstrosities barely taking up more screen-time than they did in the trailer, which is a waste of some of their genuinely original designs even if they don’t match the rest of the film’s aesthetics by a long shot. There’s simply no threat here, and you can’t have narrative tension without any discernible narrative.

This might be a bad film, but it isn’t David Harbour’s fault, who’s one of the few things that come close to actually working. His Hellboy is uglier and grumpier and less nuanced than Ron Perlman’s magnificent performance (and involves a lot more yelling), but he’s trying something different with the role, bringing his own sense of the demonic anti-hero, and that’s to be commended, even if the film he’s wading through feels as phoney as the mountains of viscera it keeps throwing up onscreen.

On paper at least the rest of the cast is impressive, with sweary British thesp Ian McShane seemingly perfect as Hellboy’s adoptive dad, Professor Broom. But even this usually dynamite actor phones in his performance, shouting his way through every scene as if he’s addressing a crowd of hearing-impaired senior citizens at a midday bingo session. Shasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim, usually great additions to any cast, can’t seem to get past the sound of their frankly awful British accents or their wasted characters, as both written and cut.

Jovovich’s Nimue is a cardboard villain with little to no motivation for her formulaically world-ending scheme, and she rounds out the holy trinity of grating British accents that inexplicably populate the film. She comes across as a D-grade version of The Golden Army’s Prince Nuada – both nonhuman monsters bent on humanity’s destruction, but only the latter is written and portrayed with nuance and empathy.

And yeah, I know, constant comparison to the character’s previous cinematic incarnation – however superior – doesn’t exactly scream fair, but the truth is that even on its own merits, this Hellboy is a disaster. What makes things worse is that, occasionally, there are glimpses of what this could have been. There’s faint whiff of an interesting dynamic between Hellboy and his adopted dad, a much more calculating version of Broom than previously seen. It’s honestly great, too, to see aspects of the Mignola comics brought to life, like Hellboy’s flashback encounter with changeling fairy Gruagach, now a demented cockney pig-man bent on vengeance. The mostly practical effects used to bring him to life are impressive, but the execution renders everything around him both flat and garish at the same time. What makes this worse is that no single moment lingers long enough to have any kind of impact, one monster or action scene piled relentlessly on top of the other, any redeeming qualities drowned out by the sheer volume of blood and noise. Speaking of noise, every boring, gore-drenched action sequence is exacerbated by terrible song choices and Benjamin Wallfisch’s discordant deal-breaker of a “score”, which just adds to the genuine headache I ended up with by the time the credits started rolling.

But the blame for this garbage-fire might not lie solely on the shoulders of Marshall. The director was noticeably absent from the film’s publicity tour, and reportedly didn’t even attend Hellboy’s premier, due to apparent dissatisfaction over final cut and clashes with producers, who, among other instances of interference, apparently fired Marshall’s regular cinematographer, Sam McCurdy. Even without this knowledge, though, it’s clear that Hellboy is the unfortunate victim of the kind of studio-mandated hatchet job I haven’t seen since Suicide Squad or The Snowman, its narrative jumping from scene to backstory to bloodbath with barely a thread of coherence between them. Characters come and go, explaining more of the insensible plot before disappearing without notice or dying in a mist of poorly-rendered digital blood.

It feels like the studio executive in charge of this production was some mean-spirited, dead-eyed and deeply ordinary teenage boy who read the comics and saw the original films and thought they needed to be edgier, but wouldn’t know the meaning of the word edgy if it lobotomised him. You can just see him, sitting in his too-big high-rise office surrounded by cheap artwork and replica weapons, changing this plot point and smushing these action scenes together, masturbating furiously over every unnecessary splash of blood or ill-placed profanity. But running after Deadpool’s success screaming “fuck” and waving some severed limbs doesn’t make for a gritty or interesting or even fun film.

Ultimately, this is the studio’s fault. It’s bad enough that they didn’t let del Toro finish his trilogy because of financial cold feet. But then they orchestrate a pointless reboot that might actually turn out all right, hire a great bunch of people to make it, and then hogtie them right in the middle of proceedings. Neil Marshall clearly wasn’t given creative freedom to make the film he wanted or was even capable of, and the result is a tragic mess the filmmakers didn’t want and the audience didn’t enjoy. The only consolation is that this probably won’t make enough money to warrant the sequel they so clumsily try to bait in an epilogue as boring and unnecessary as every minute that came before.

So in the end, no one wins.

Pet Sematary (Film Review)


Stephen King adaptations have been coming thick and fast over the last few years, and show no sign of slowing down in the near future, with at least several films due for release in 2019 alone, including Mike Flanagan’s Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, It: Chapter Two, and Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass (based on a novella co-written by King and his son, Joe Hill). Even better is that most of the recent films and TV series have actually been very good, compared to the much higher ratio of bad King adaptations we were gifted in the 80s and 90s.

Often, the quality of these works is dependent on the quality of the filmmakers adapting King’s writing. Mike Flanagan made a wonderfully visceral and nasty film from one of the author’s more visceral and nasty books with Gerald’s Game; Andy Muschietti’s It was a great surprise, especially considering its troubled production (although I’d still kill to see Cary Fukunaga’s original vision for his intended epic two-parter, but that’s a whole other rant); and Aussie Zak Hilditch worked wonders with the more stripped-down thriller 1922, featuring an amazing, literally scene-chewing turn from Thomas Jane.

So when I learnt that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were attached to direct a remake/adaptation of King’s bleakest of books, Pet Sematary, I rushed to heap a hefty weight of expectation onto the film. The duo’s previous horror, Starry Eyes, is a nightmare in the best possible way, a slow-burn about a woman’s transformative quest for fame in a twisted, occult Hollywood. Some of the violence in Starry Eyes is truly toe-curling, and the whole thing is steeped in a nauseating sense of unease; it’s a film whose imagery still creeps back into my head from time to time, even after only one viewing.

Like Jordan Peele’s Us, released only the week before this, Pet Sematary’s focus is on family. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move down from Boston to a quiet rural town in Maine. Their new property encompasses a vast stretch of woods, within which is the town’s cutely misspelled “Pet Sematary”, the further reaches of wilderness beyond it blocked in by a towering deadfall of felled trees and branches. The road just in front of their house is also busy with speeding trucks. Both of these elements will come to tear the family apart, and also point to the fact that they must have had the worst real estate agent in the world.

When Church, the family’s cat, is killed by one of the aforementioned speeding trucks, crusty but kindly old neighbour Jud (a reliably superb John Lithgow) tells Louis about the resurrective properties of the “sour” land that lies beyond the pet cemetery’s deadfall. After burying the cat in this bleak and ancient place, Church comes back, but he’s not the same cat Ellie loved; he’s mangy and feral in both looks and temperament, scratching anyone who gets too close and ruining Louis and Rachel’s sex life with bloodied, half-dead birds.

Most of us know how this story escalates from pets to people, either from the book, the original 1989 film, or literally any trailer for this 2019 version. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the land beyond the pet cemetery is inadvisably utilised after a tragic (human) death, which precipitates further violence and mayhem.

It’s a well-made and well-acted film, efficient in its evocation of the Creeds’ spiralling predicament. But Jeff Buhler’s screenplay is a little too efficient, and the film is frantically paced, excising character development in favour of the mounting scares which, despite looking fine, fail to actually induce terror. Where King’s book felt unrelentingly bleak (the author himself cites it as his darkest work), for all its supposedly grim subject matter, the film largely failed to rend my soul or raise my heartbeat. Scenes that should feel grand or awe-inspiring are brief, small and forgettable, and anything that does succeed just comes across as very bread-and-butter horror; good, but not much more.

I’m by no means a book-to-film hardliner, raging at changes made in the adaptation to the screen, and the different tact the directors have taken here in several key elements actually works to the film’s advantage in some ways, but one of the joys of King’s book, and arguably its thematic spine, is the surrogate father/son relationship between Jud and Louis, a bond we see barely fleshed out in the film – again, because it feels like it’s in too much of a rush to get to the nasty bits. But without significant investment in the characters, that horror’s bound to fall flat. I watched these people suffer trauma and heartache and eventually terrible fates, but I wasn’t scared and I wasn’t all that troubled, except by my glaring lack of reaction.

Other aspects seem shoehorned in just to give the audience a creepy vibe rather than because they actually fit into the story. There’s a cool Wicker Man vibe at the beginning, with a procession of kids heading down to the pet cemetery in creepy animal masks, but this local ritual is never further explored, and the sense of something larger going on – which is a staple of the novel, for me – fails to ignite. This is a shame, because given the quality of the directors’ previous Starry Eyes, Pet Sematary represents a step down for Kölsch and Widmyer.

Given the close release dates, I can’t help but compare Pet Sematary to Jordan Peele’s Us, which for me was a far superior horror film with not only a lot more to say, but, crucially, characters I cared a more about than I did the Creed family. Where Peele’s film was a fully realised work with many layers to unpack and an astonishing attention to detail, there’s so much in Pet Sematary that falls short, despite the great source material and the opportunities for some genuinely terrifying moments.

Where the family in Us had distinct personalities and interior lives, depicted through dialogue and body language, Pet Sematary’s characters seem flat and underdeveloped, coming across as cut-outs designed simply to put them through the wringer of this horror film’s trope-filled obstacle course. This is no fault of the performances, though. Jason Clarke does the best he can with the relatively bland Louis. Amy Seimetz is terrific as Rachel, whose traumatic childhood is touched on with some effective body horror, accentuated by her layered performance. John Lithgow is also great as Jud, even if his character is relegated to the role of Wise Old Exposition Man. Jeté Laurence does a lot of heavy lifting as Ellie, tackling one of the film’s more realised characters with her complex performance.

Like the characters, the world they inhabit feels a little off, and not necessarily in the right way. Months pass in the blink of an eye, but there’s no sense of a lived-in environment, which is partly the fault of the rushed story and the failure of the film to take its time with the characters. The barren landscape beyond the cemetery’s deadfall is also just too alien for somewhere on the other side of a big bundle of sticks, with its skeletal trees, swampy ground and a horizon constantly flickering with lightning. It all spells out its evil a little too loudly, and just doesn’t gel with the real-world setting of the rest of the film.

I haven’t seen the 1989 original so I can’t compare this version to that. My memory of the book is hazy at best, but certain scenes and emotions have stuck with me, distilled over the years into an impression that not only feels much more emotionally harrowing, but, through its dark and intimate character work, gives us a glimpse into a universe much more vast and alien and hostile than we can imagine. When King’s at his best this works beautifully, and Pet Sematary – the book – is a fantastic example of this. But this claustrophobic, character-centric horror that briefly flares into something more complex and incomprehensible isn’t remotely captured in Kölsch and Widmyer’s film, which is a huge shame and a missed opportunity. Pet Sematary isn’t a bad film by any means, and though it does try to impress with some interesting changes to the source material, its lack of guts is glaring, especially relative to other King adaptations and other recent horror films in general. As Jud tells Louis at one point in the film, sometimes dead is better.

Us (Film Review)


Jordan Peele was always going to face a steep climb if he wanted to top his incredible out-of-left-field directorial debut. Get Out’s teeth-clenching intensity and biting social commentary made it one of 2017’s most delicious horror films, even snagging several Oscar nominations and a Best Original Screenplay win.

No pressure for his next film, then.

In many ways, Us is the perfect follow-up, another magnificent horror film with another whopper of a premise and more deftly handled social commentary. Refreshingly, it’s also a showcase of Peele’s desire to do something different, to take more risks, and while certain aspects of the narrative have alienated some critics, I adored it. It’s such a pleasure to see a film not only so competently, passionately made, but one in which you can see the director flexing his muscles, reaching for something more. It’s an ambitious film, but for my money it works.

It also continues Peele’s penchant for casting predominantly black actors in major roles, and Peele himself has said that he doesn’t see himself ever casting a white lead, much to the displeasure of cry-babies everywhere, and my own unrestrained joy.

The less you know about Us going in, the better, but the basic plot follows the Wilson family: parents Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Abe (Winston Duke), and their two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). While holidaying in Santa Cruz, the Wilsons encounter a murderous, scissor-wielding doppelganger family – referred to as the Tethered – who seem intent on wiping out their better, saner halves. What begins as a home invasion movie soon spirals into something much more complex and layered, and Peele is a master at juggling each element without any one of them hogging the limelight.

As with Get Out, Us maintains a razor’s edge balance between horror and humour, often the most intense or violent scenes perfectly punctuated with a moment of levity that arises organically out of the situation. The horror precipitates the humour rather than the humour being something shoehorned in – it feels natural rather than written, the characters well aware of the absurdity of their situation.

The film also looks and sounds wonderful, with a luscious colour scheme, beautiful use of light and shadow, and a score by Get Out’s Michael Abels that crystallises the terror with its eerie vocals and pounding strings. Us is only Abels’ second film score, but this guy is a genius.

My investment in a horror film is predominantly dependent on my investment in its characters, and Us has some of the best. Some of the early scenes establish family dynamics in a way that, again, doesn’t feel written or performed, four characters bouncing off each other at the same time, critical aspects of their personalities conveyed as much through dialogue as action and body language. In fact, the performances here are all so good that you almost forget you’re watching a fictional construction. Obviously we know that Nyong’o and Duke have no need to prove their acting chops, but Shadidi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex (who I’ve not seen in a film before) are both amazing as the two kids, their performances dimensional and nuanced, the way they adapt to their horrific circumstances particularly endearing. It’s also just great to see a black family kicking arse like this. The supporting cast is excellent too, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as Adelaide and Abe’s rich white friends. Moss in particular seems to be having a lot of fun with a role that’s much more snarky and vacuous than her usual (excellent) work.

But the focus here is on the Wilson family, and particularly Nyong’o’s Adelaide. What’s more impressive is that the cast play both roles, each murderous double not just a copy of the other character but imbued with their own terrifying personality. The physicality of each of the Tethered here is impressive, exacerbating their monstrousness and giving us some truly unique horror icons. If Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win a flurry of awards for her role(s) here, I’ll burn down a building.

There’s a depth to the film’s construction that begs multiple viewings. Images and symbols recur with a deliberate rhythm throughout, and the sense of duality is far from limited to the central characters. Peele lays down a visual groundwork that hints at what we’ll bear witness to later in the story, whether we pick up those details or not. Little tics and twitches throughout the film telegraph story beats, character choices and thematic arcs in ways that delighted me. These don’t make the plot predictable or the scares generic, though. Instead they elevate the material because they’re deliberately placed breadcrumbs that highlight Us’s themes, while leading up to a final “twist” that doesn’t feel it’s trying to surprise us so much as confirming what we long-suspected, and serves as a rich patch of metaphorical soil audiences will be digging down into for years to come.

I’ve seen many reviewers complain that the film’s final act explains too much, but then the same was said of Ari Aster’s Hereditary: I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now. The explanation here isn’t ham-fisted at all, and hardly goes into the kind of detail that would render the horrors toothless – it has the opposite effect, if anything. Besides, as with nearly every other aspect of the film, the nature of the Tethered is foreshadowed in earlier scenes. Revealing some of the why of these murderous doubles’ motives isn’t a slip-up but a deep and deliberate part of the story. I’d argue that it makes Us more effective, and much scarier. Without spoiling anything, it takes the film into unexpected territory, tapping into the darker aspects of modern – and particularly American – society.

If this all sounds like I’m heading towards puerile notions like “elevated horror” to Us, please wash your ears out. The last few years of excellent horror films enjoyed by a wider audience than just genre fans have led the more snooty, snotty critics to scrabble for justification as to how a lowly horror film can also be a good one. And so we get terms like “elevated”, because genre films, as we all know, don’t actually have anything to say; they need to be more than just a good example of the genre, they need to transcend the common muck in order to be worthy of critical acclaim and serious discourse. The idea that recent knockouts like Us, Hereditary and The Witch are somehow the exception rather than the rule does a disservice to the potential of a damn good genre film, and particularly horror in this case. These films are the embodiment of horror, good horror, sure, but horror doing exactly what it does best: scaring the shit out of you and saying something interesting in the process.

Us does all of these things, and it does them beautifully. It’s also subversive and original, and it’s setting a great example for the longevity of the genre, and not just in terms of quality. Financially, it had the highest grossing opening ever for an original horror film, at US$71 million. For studios whose only language is money, this is great news for the genre. On top of which it’s simply a joy to see such a brilliant film get the attention it absolutely deserves. Excuse me while I go watch it several more times.

Destroyer (Film Review)


Some directors have a distinctive visual, tonal or thematic style that makes their work easily recognisable; you can usually spot a David Fincher or Wes Anderson film from a single scene. Best case scenario, this familiarity can be comforting without getting tedious. After all, if we enjoy something, we want more like it. Other filmmakers have a less obvious signature, but once you get into their work there’s a certain indefinable feel, a sense of cohesion, the way Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and You Were Never Really Here share something that goes beyond their challenging, unsettling subject matter.

Others yet are more eclectic, surprising and delighting us with their output every time. You wouldn’t necessarily recognise two of their films back to back without prior knowledge, but there’s a joy in the level of variety on display, across genre and tone and subject. One of those directors is Karyn Kusama. Each film she makes is more different and thrilling than the last, and I always look forward to what she does next: Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body are both severely underrated; and 2015’s The Invitation is one of my all-time favourites and an absolute knockout, a paranoid, claustrophobic film about old friends reuniting for a dinner party that goes horribly, violently wrong. From science fiction to horror-comedy to horror-thriller, Kusama’s latest film is a grimy noir set in the wasteland of California, and just like her previous work, this one does the opposite of disappoint.

Destroyer follows Nicole Kidman’s detective Erin Bell, mentally and physically decrepit, as she embarks on a hunt for the leader of a criminal gang in which she was placed undercover as a young cop several years earlier. The plot here is lean, as emaciated and single-minded as its protagonist. Nobody sits around explaining plot points in dialogue meant more for the audience than the characters, and exposition is thin on the ground in the best possible way. We switch between Bell’s dogged investigation in the present, and flashbacks of her time undercover with fellow cop Chris (Sebastian Stan) as they insinuate themselves within the criminal gang led by the emotionally volatile Silas (a magnetic Toby Kebbell).

As a singular character piece, Destroyer’s focus is firmly, claustrophically stuck on Kidman as Detective Bell. Much has been made of her performance and her physical appearance in the film, both of which are as gruelling as they are captivating. Kidman lets the character swallow her up, and her performance is nothing short of astounding. It’s not just the makeup here but the way she moves, physically inhabiting the pain of every punch and kick and hangover. Over the course of the film she accrues these injuries with a mounting sense of exhaustion, but Bell powers through. Part of the joy of this film is the inability to look away from her as she shuffles and snarls and scraps her way through the film, heading towards what we can’t imagine will be a particularly happy ending for anyone involved.

She’s broken and miserable and nasty, all but estranged from anyone who ever cared about her. Often either drunk or hungover, she tries to solve most of her problems with violence, but her seemingly no-fucks-given approach is undercut with a tragic desperation. The actions of the past weigh heavily on her: shining through the violence and Bell’s drive for vengeance is her fear of handing her mistakes down to her rebellious teenaged daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), whose presence serves as an emotional anchor for the film, Bell’s one tiny hope amid all the rot.

The rest of the cast is phenomenal too, even in peripheral roles. Some pack enough punch to make the most of their limited screen time, like Bradley Whitford’s scumbag lawyer, Tatiana Maslany grunging it up as Silas’ lapdog, or James Jordan as a washed-up member of the gang; an early scene with Jordan’s character was enough to make me physically recoil from the screen. Jade Pettyjohn balances adolescent rebellion and emotional turmoil as Bell’s daughter, while Beau Knapp is deliciously slimy as her thuggish boyfriend. Sebastian Stan is solid, but his character could have been a little more fleshed out, and Scoot McNairy doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Bell’s estranged partner. In fact, if I had one small criticism of the film, it’s that the supporting cast aren’t quite as interesting as the lead, but then this is a story with a tight focus, everyone caught in the vortex of Bell’s catastrophic choices.

Destroyer looks and plays like one of those grimy, violent thrillers from the seventies, its California a place you probably wouldn’t want to live if someone paid you, a place where youth is fleeting and violence just around the corner. Bodies decay and shrivel, but everybody keeps on shuffling through this brilliantly shot hell. Theodore Shapiro’s score is mesmerising, too, accompanying the action with industrial growls and fervent strings, as much evocative of the film’s violence as its quieter, more heartbreaking moments.

Critics have been raving about Kidman’s performance in Destroyer, and she deserves all the praise for her role here, but without a great script (by regular Kusama collaborators, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also penned The Invitation), and such strong direction from Kusama, the film wouldn’t be half as good as it is. Every element here comes together beautifully, cast and crew delivering a film so gritty you can feel it under your fingernails and at the back of your throat. Destroyer is violent and grimy and tense, but it’s also steeped in sadness, a film about the choices and mistakes we make that change our lives for the worse, and set us on a collision course with tragedy. There’s a sense of the inescapable to this tragedy, a circularity that infuses the film without overdoing it. As Bell tells her daughter in her hoarse, unpunctuated drawl: “I’m mad I’m still mad it’s burnt a circuit in my brain.” Destroyer will burn a circuit in your brain, too.