Pet Sematary (Film Review)

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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)

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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)

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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.

Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley (Review)

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I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of Andrew Michael Hurley’s second novel, Devil’s Day, his follow up to the beautiful and quietly menacing debut that was The Loney. Like that first book, Devil’s Day is ensconced in the English countryside, in this case an isolated farming community in Lancashire that clings to ritual and tradition.

Narrator John Pentecost is returning to his family farm in the Briardale Valley, pregnant wife Kat in tow. His return is precipitated by both the death of his grandfather, the Gaffer, and the yearly titular ritual of Devil’s Day, where the villagers sing songs and tell stories about the time the Devil came down to the valley to make mischief.

This is a book that, like The Loney, is in no hurry, and has little concern for the machinations of a flashy or action-packed plot. That kind of story can be hard to pull off, but Hurley is adept at keeping the reader’s attention. I was rapt with Devil’s Day from the opening line to the last. I enjoyed The Loney, but this felt like a much more accomplished novel, and the folk horror element is what really did it for me. Hurley’s restraint and subtlety is still as applaudable as ever, but the feel in Devil’s Day, of stories and folktales creeping across the landscape into reality – or rather, as in a lot of cases, already an ingrained part of that landscape – is palpable and sets a shiver crawling across your skin.

Although a slow-burn, this is a very precise and well-crafted book. There isn’t an ounce of spare flesh to be found. The prose is neither indulgent nor workmanlike. It has that evocative, tactile tone of a masterful storyteller, to the point that you forget you’re reading a book. Take this passage, where a young John is out amongst nature; Hurley gives us all these wonderful bright details, lending his own style of imagery to the scene:

“Things fled as I slithered down through the dry mud. Birds dissolved into the undergrowth and the eel that lay curled up like a question mark just under the surface of the water shivered aware in a ring of ripples. Nothing wanted to stay, not the damselflies or the dippers, or the kingfisher that unearthed itself from the dark, rooty banks on the other side and skimmed away with the current, burning a blue stripe in the air.”

I could read that over and over, and still find something new to smile about every time.

It’s almost a cliché at this point, but the setting here is as much a character as the people inhabiting it. The terrain and the weather shape the characters’ lives in ways both mundane and profound.

Just as the landscape shapes the characters, so does the past. It’s always needling into the present, informing and shaping it, pricking it with unease. The Gaffer’s aphorisms or lessons punctuate the story so that even in death we’re not without him. His presence underpins John’s narration, as well as his thoughts and feelings about the farm and his obligations to it.

The characters – even the fleeting, incidental ones – are never anything less than startlingly real; crafted with a crispness that puts Hurley’s skills as a writer on full display. The characters here are very traditional, which can really grate sometimes with their staunch religious beliefs, and their “he’s a pouf” and “don’t be a sissy” attitudes. They’re hardscrabble people with proudly calloused hands and a get-shit-done attitude. On the farm, work trumps everything, overcomes everything. Loss, disaster, even the Devil comes second to the necessities of farm life. Everything carries on, through death, weather, hardship, and the Devil’s sneaking tricks.

As we meander through this glacial story of rural family history and ritual set against the rugged English countryside, something a little insidious starts to creep into John’s tone. In his head, this is not just a visit but the start of something more permanent. Despite Kat’s objections, it’s his firm belief that they’ll soon settle down on the farm, that they’ll abandon their urban lives and jobs for this far simpler and harsher one maintaining the family farm.

John’s quiet but unwavering insistence that this is less a choice than a familial obligation is unsettling, but given the retrospective nature of the narrative, also sadly inevitable. This obsession with the legacy of obligation Kat inherits by dint of starting a family with John really alienates him from the reader – or this reader, anyway. As Kat becomes increasingly unsettled – and, to be honest, me with her – John’s lack of sympathy is stark in its absence. Everything’s a “useful lesson” for Kat or something that she’ll become accustomed to and appreciate, no matter how uncomfortable or out of place she feels. That we know she does come around and that they raise their first child on the farm doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and somewhat heartbreaking, this woman caught in the web of a family’s hardscrabble (although not unhappy) way of life.

Kat’s the outsider here, and the reader’s way in to the story. She’s uncomfortable as I was with some of the family’s odd traditions and practices, as well as their occasional bluntness towards her. And when the horror element does edge its fingers around the doorframe, it’s Kat who reacts the most to it, her burgeoning sense of dislocation one that I vehemently shared.

As with The Loney, I did find myself wishing for a little more of the horror, or some culmination of the supernatural, but Hurley doesn’t work that way whether I like it or not. Devil’s Day is more about the people and the place, their past and present and inevitable future, than it is the overtly supernatural. It’s ultimately about the lengths people will go to protect not just their traditions but their family livelihood, their way of life.

Nothing here, from the characters to the harsh terrain to the ambiguity of certain events, is meant to be any shade of comfortable; this is a challenging book, but a riveting, beautifully crafted one. It reinforces what The Loney first showed us: that Andrew Michael Hurley is a unique and gifted writer, whose work I will continue to eagerly devour.

 

“Some people change the world.” – The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson (REVIEW)

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Disclaimer: prepare yourself for some heart-on-the-sleeve gushing.

HP Lovecraft, arguable big daddy of one vein of weird fiction, is known for a lot of things – unfettered racism and a discernible lack of female characters among them – but sheer breathtaking magic that warms the heart and gets it racing at the same time isn’t exactly one of them. With The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson takes Lovecraft’s Dreamland setting and reinvents it with so much skill that I could genuinely, and without a sliver of hyperbole, cry.

Especially in light of recent dramas directed at the weird fiction community, there’s a certain amount of baggage that comes with expanding – and especially subverting – Lovecraft’s universe. Personally, I’m all for it. First, old HP’s flaws and prejudices can’t just be ignored, and they can still be addressed while appreciating the more positive elements of his work. And second, the very act of recalibrating Lovecraft’s seminal universe with a more diverse and inclusive world in mind has given us some absolute gems over the past few years, including but not limited to Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I reviewed here), and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. What Ruff and LaValle’s works did for African American characters in a Lovecraftian universe, Johnson’s does for strong female characters.

Set in the Dreamlands introduced in Lovecraft’s short story, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Johnson’s busy novella follows Professor Vellitt Boe, who teaches at the Ulthar Women’s College. After Clarie Jurat, a student and the daughter of one of the university’s trustees, runs away with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt is tasked with retrieving her, on a journey that will span the depths and heights of the Dreamlands in all their magical and treacherous variety.

To be honest, it’s been a while since I read Kadath, or any of Lovecraft’s other Dreamlands-set stories, so my memory of such wasn’t exactly fresh when I dove into Johnson’s novella. Thankfully, prior knowledge or context is far from necessary; there are some fun references to Lovecraft’s original stories here, but both die-hard fans and those to whom names like Randolph Carter and the Plateau of Leng are utterly unfamiliar will enjoy this story just as much.

Setting the bulk of the novella in the Dreamlands themselves allows Johnson to give it a fresh flavour while maintaining most of Lovecraft’s established geography and mythos. But these never impinge on or shape the story Johnson is trying to tell. The narrative’s borders do expand as we follow Vellitt Boe’s perilous journey, but despite the sense of growing danger and the bitter scheming of elder gods, her quest keeps all those unspeakable, madness-inducing elements in the peripheries.

Vellitt Boe’s 55-year-old female protagonist provides a unique and utterly engaging perspective; in her younger days she was a fervent adventurer, trekking across most of the Dreamlands, coming face to face with danger and wonder both. As an older woman engaged with retrieving one of her students, she might be a little less physically up to scratch, but she’s just as capable and much wiser than her more free-wheeling younger self as she retraces some of her earlier footsteps. Her age works on both a practical level and a philosophical one, giving her the tools and agency to navigate the dangers, monstrous or human, that she encounters on her journey.

To say this is a book about female empowerment is too reductive. It absolutely is a book about female empowerment, and Johnson addresses the failings of Lovecraft’s original Dream-Quest in ways both direct and subtle, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of it.

There’s a freshness to Vellitt Boe’s journey, a kind of fragrance that places it somewhere between a fairy tale and a fantasy adventure. It moves at a wonderful pace and fits in a lot for its short length. It’s also a fun, and – unlike old HP’s work – heart-warming story. All of this sets Johnson’s book apart from Lovecraft’s work, despite the shared setting and mythology. There’s a distinct lack of horror or sense of cosmic indifference – at least in the usual Lovecraftian sense – and as much as I enjoy those things in a lot of fiction, Johnson’s choice to remove her work from that was an inspired decision. It stills thrills and terrifies often, but without the sense of inescapable doom that hounds Lovecraft’s thinly-drawn characters.

Instead we get a book that celebrates the depth of human perseverance, wit, and experience, and the things we carry with us as we age.

Ultimately, there aren’t enough adjectives in the world to properly encapsulate how I feel about this book. It’s one of my favourite books of the year, if not decade, and it has one of the most resonant and beautiful and thrilling endings to a story I think I’ve ever read. What it ends up being about is something so far removed from Lovecraft’s original stories that it renders its inspiration almost unrecognisable, because for all its magic and wonder, for all its deft fantastical elements and beautiful dream-logic, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is about people, in all their fallible and unique incarnations.

As one character says to the protagonist: “Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.” Vellitt Boe might be the latter, but with her writing, Kij Johnson is undoubtedly the former.

 

Taken the Crazy Train – John Claude Smith’s The Wilderness Within

Nobody does an acid trip of a story quite like John Claude Smith. What I’ve read of his short fiction is dazzling, and weird, and dazzlingly weird. His first novel, Riding the Centipede (which I reviewed here a while back), was a marvellous debut, a neon-lit, hallucinatory nightmare of manic proportions. Smith’s writing thus far feels like the perfect distillation of gonzo horror fiction, a combination of great character beats, off-the-wall insanity, and an enormous bit of fun.

His newly released second novel, The Wilderness Within, is less of a gut-punch – to begin with, at least. it opens with protagonist Derek Gray visiting his long-time friend, Frank Harlan Marshall, who lives on the edge of a big old creepy forest with only one neighbour in sight.

This is a book exclusively about artistic types, and delves deeply into, among other things, the minutiae of the creative process. Derek and Frank are both very successful horror writers. Frank, whose work is much more bleak and brutal than his friend’s, is also a bit more successful, with books on the bestseller lists and blockbuster film adaptations earning him riches and a celebrity status that seems much scarcer for writers these days, especially of horror.

Anyway, the two catch up, shooting the shit and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. At some point, their comedian and actor friend, “Dizzy Izzy” Haberstein, turns up, and Derek’s sense of reality starts to skew. Smith skilfully portrays the interactions between the three friends as insecurities, old feuds and nostalgia rise to the surface.

Derek also strikes up a friendship/flirtation with Frank’s only neighbour, the singer known as Alethea. With her interest in philosophy and metaphysics, her looks and wit and charm and intelligence, Alethea comes across as more male fantasy than rounded character, at least to begin with. At the core of the novel’s first half is Derek’s growing connection and interaction with Alethea; their conversations about philosophy, humanity and nature – and, importantly, humanity’s relationship with nature – lay the foundations for the thematic direction Wilderness takes.

From here, once dynamics and core relationships have been established, the weirdness starts to creep in. Some characters are not what they seem, and maybe Derek’s conception of reality isn’t, either. These questions keep popping up at various points throughout the book, which often has the quality of a dream or drug-trip. Unfortunately for the characters, it’s not all in their heads, but that doesn’t mean that what’s in their heads is harmless.

Where Riding the Centipede was a fairly fast-paced novel that juggled a number of intersecting – and often colliding – character arcs, The Wilderness Within is much more of a character piece, with its introspective first-person narration and its exploration of its protagonist’s primary relationships. There’s still a copious spray of weirdness, especially in the second half, but by the very nature of the story, this plays off and is shaped by the humanity at the heart of the novel.

In a lot of ways The Wilderness Within is a book about the past; Derek is constantly rubbing the present thin enough that it beads through, but the foundation of Derek and Frank’s friendship, their years of adventure and success, is mostly kept out of the way. It looms in the reader’s peripheries, crouching behind the presently unfolding madness, more a concealed framework than an overt influence.

What Smith does very well is craft this world of artists and situate it firmly in our reality; it really feels like his characters and their work – books, films, music – exist within our pop culture bubble, and as I read about them it was almost disheartening not to be able to go and consume some of it.

There are some sharp, gorgeous observations here too, though. One character is “noticeably winding down”, and Derek observes that “it reminded me of the nervous deceleration of a music box, the end creeping up to sweep it into silence.”

On the whole the novel has the grainy feel of horror made popular in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s more than a whiff of Clive Barker in there, but also some unexpected flavours. The first few chapters are reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, with Derek’s exhaustive descriptions of (in this case fictional) bands.

This influence carries through into the feel of the protagonist, too. He reminded me in a less sleazy way of one of Ellis’ characters, a dysfunctional world-weary guy cutting through life, telling his stories but not really knee-deep in any of them; he has a history and a life but he’s strangely removed from his past despite being so informed by it. I could never quite connect to Derek, never bridge that gap between the fiction and the human, despite the admirable world- and character-building chops Smith clearly demonstrates here. Derek talks about his emotions, but he never really seems to feel them, and subsequently neither did I. This doesn’t mean the novel isn’t engaging – it absolutely is – but I felt like more of an audience member than a participant.

Smith writes with gusto and honesty, the weirdness flaring across the page. The story jumps between this great pulpy weirdness reminiscent of Barker, King (especially The Shining) and a little Campbell, and the more overt philosophising that manifests as conversations between characters (most prevalently, Derek and Alethea). This is fine, but would have worked a lot better in certain parts if it wasn’t quite so meticulously explained. Philosophy as exposition, as character-building conversation is hard to pull off at the best of times, more so when it’s being juggled with a bunch of other big ideas and set pieces. It mostly works here, but I feel like some fat-trimming, some pushing down of these ideas into the story’s subtext might have served its flow much better. This is especially evident during some of the more action-centric scenes, in which characters will have an aside with each other while fleeing something or engaged in serious conflict. This breaks the rhythm of the action and, more importantly, the tension such action evokes.

The ideas themselves, however, are all very engaging, even if the execution falters at times. This is a novel packed with ideas. Smith’s observations about the nature of sounds are fascinating, as are the existential musings on nature and our relationship with it; not only its alien allure, its otherness, but the idea that we shape nature by our perception of it, and it shapes us in turn, is carried through to its logical conclusion.

Smith is at his best when the shit hits the fan and things get really weird. You can feel him having fun with scenes and characters, his prose revelling in grotesque turns of phrase. Everything becomes tactile and delicious as he puts his characters through all colours of hell. The action, when he kicks into full gear, is written with a kind of joy and flair for juggling; all these elements stacked and tumbling around each other in a whirl of chaos, before Smith catches them momentarily, and then back up into the air they go.

There’s a cartoonish, almost slapstick tone at times that feels both intentional and familiar after Smith’s psychedelic debut. In a book like Centipede, this really works to its advantage. In Wilderness this is effective for the most part, but with a narrative more grounded between reality and what seems to be a more dreamlike, philosophical breed of horror, this can sometimes blunt the tension, making comic what should be taut and terrifying.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that this may be the point. That line between horror and comedy, encapsulated nowhere more perfectly than in Dizzy Izzy’s character and his various incarnations/inspirations, is straddled so violently that the two often converge. There’s something hysterical about the later, more outlandish scenes that, had they not been blackly funny, would actually have fallen flat.

The final reveal(s), as telegraphed to an extent by the themes laid out from the beginning, is both brilliant and disturbing and a little reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s latest controversial offering, mother! (which I reviewed recently). There’s something beneath the skin of this revelation that’s more than a little unpleasant in its almost masturbatory exploration of the ego and/of the artist. It explains some of the misgivings I had about earlier scenes and characters, but within the story, this does nobody any favours. To this extent, there was no character I really rooted for here, although I suspect that might be Smith’s intention. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist in the same way I can’t relate to – again – a Bret Easton Ellis character, but that doesn’t mean they’re not engaging or fun to read.

This is a relatively slim novel, but it feels like a big, busy one. I admire Smith’s ambition and especially his ability to corral humour, horror and pathos together into scenes. His tone and his style, after Riding the Centipede and The Wilderness Within, is unique and engaging and already quite recognisable. More than that, it’s a style I recommend you get acquainted with.

 

 

 

mother! (Film Review)

Another year, another divisive Darren Aronofsky film. The fervour that critics get into over his work, either to condemn or praise, is almost exhausting, if only because it’s the expected reaction at this point. But I guess that’s better than indifference, which, exceptions aside, is how I’ve feel about the majority of what I’ve seen in the cinema lately: bland, forgettable stories presented/edited in a bland, forgettable way. An unpleasant percentage of this year’s cinematic output – off the top of my head, The Dark Tower, Flatliners, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (the last of which I’m extremely sad to have to put on this list) – has been unforgivably dull.

Just to be clear, this is not me being a film snob. I’ll happily forgive a film for not being overly original if it at least has something going for it, some visual or narrative flare, an interesting character/performance – just something to tell me that someone on some level of the production really cared about it.

But I’ll get to my point. Love or hate them, you can’t say Aronofsky’s films don’t have some sort of visual or narrative flare, and you definitely can’t say that anyone involved with them is phoning it in.

For the most part, I’m a big fan of his films. Requiem for a Dream is as harrowing and inventive as Clint Mansell’s listen-on-endless-repeat score, not to mention featuring a Jared Leto before he become the method-acting wanker we know today. The Fountain – with another, arguably even better, Mansell score – is an ambitious, beautiful sci-fi love story that embraces its own bold weirdness and works all the better because of it. Black Swan is a crisp, creepy psychological horror, in part a love letter to the Giallo horror films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Noah is a batshit crazy, visually orgasmic take on the famous Biblical story, complete with stone angels and two insane performances from Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone.

Aronofsky’s latest, mother!, its lowercase title punctuated with an exclamation mark, is both as hysterical and annoying as said title suggests. I liked it though, or I think I did. I definitely liked parts of it. I didn’t not like it, at least?

It’s incredibly ambitious, and goes in a direction you don’t at first suspect. Personally I think it’s one of his most problematic films, but also one of his most interesting. I still find myself thinking about it even a couple of weeks after watching it, my head buzzing with its escalating weirdness, and the ideas it throws around like blood in a slaughterhouse.

When I saw the film’s trailer (which you can watch here), I thought it was a work of art in itself, a sharp, scratchy rhythm of image, sound and text that disturbs and delights all at once. On one hand it encapsulates the tone of the film itself, but on the other it doesn’t come close to revealing what it’s really about. (Not that I’m complaining. In these days of trailers giving away every damn plot point, this can only be a good thing.) What looks like a straightforward horror film is actually something much more, and much weirder.

The basic plot of mother! follows Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed woman (referred to as Her, or Mother in the credits) living in a newly refurbished house in what looks like the tranquil middle of nowhere with Javier Bardem’s Him, a poet struggling with writer’s block. Soon, the couple’s idyll is disturbed by the arrival of Ed Harris and later his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer (Man and Woman, respectively), whose extended stay and strange behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing for Lawrence’s character. To say that the situation escalates from there would be a massive understatement.

This is Aronofsky’s first film that hasn’t featured a music score from his go-to composer, Clint Mansell. I’ve said that I’m a big fan of their work together, so I found this a little disappointing. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – whose work on Sicario and Arrival is incredible – is credited as the “sound and music consultant”. In lieu of a traditional score, then, the film employs a creeping, creaking soundscape that follows and circles and stalks Jennifer Lawrence through the house, from room to room and from danger to danger.

Along with the intimate over-the-shoulder camera-work, this makes for an unsettling experience. I don’t know if this film is really all that enjoyable or entertaining in the strictest sense, but it’s not really supposed to be. Everything here – the sound design, the cinematography, the performances, the disturbing escalation of events – is all very effective in making the viewer uncomfortable even as they remain fascinated.

For the first half, anyway. Before the proverbial shit hits the fan, mother! plays out like a very well made psychological thriller with a fantastic hallucinatory edge. I felt as uncomfortable, bewildered and claustrophobic as Lawrence’s protagonist seems too. These strange, creepy people in her house, the escalating sense of terror that soon becomes literal and immediate. One brilliant scene involving a secret door in the basement made me think that the film was moving towards the occult, but the direction it takes from here is very different.

After this, when the chaos really kicks in, the film loses some of its flare and momentum. Inside the house – a setting we never leave – crazy piles upon crazy in an ugly, almost annoying way. A few scenes involving soldiers seem a bit too ridiculous and don’t really gel with the previously established atmosphere. Just when you think events can’t go any further, they do, and while this does culminate in a brutal, gorgeous ending, I can’t help but feel a little let down by some of the insanity that came before. I like what Aronofsky does with the story, but I feel like he could have executed it in a less screechy, handheld way. Something with a bit more visual intensity would have worked much better before that incredible ending, and might have made the film’s symbolism a bit more digestible.

For me, that symbolism is one of mother!’s downfalls. Not the symbolism itself, maybe, but the way it’s shoved in the audience’s face, the glaringly literal obviousness of it. There are more than a few Biblical references in there; after a while the film’s practically teeming with them. Some work, while others are very on-the-nose.

It’s not that I have a problem with what mother! is about, but in a way that seems to be all it’s really about. The allegory, the metaphors and symbolism, that’s essentially the film. The surface is the subtext, and Aronofsky seems so intent on conveying this, he’s forgotten to give us something more than that.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of the film is how gleefully nasty it is in its treatment of Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist, effectively a muse for Javier Bardem’s creatively blocked poet. There’s no descent from human to monster for Bardem here; from the opening shots he’s never a sympathetic or even very complex character. The same could be said for every “character” here, Lawrence included. The performances are all searing and powerful to watch, but some have more of a focus than others. Ed Harris and Domhnall Gleeson are criminally underutilised, although Stephen McHattie does a great job with a creepy extended cameo.

But beyond the roles everyone plays, the only humanity on show here is its ugly, messy, chaotic side. Without giving too much away, though, this seems to be the point, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Again, everything’s symbolic, but whether these elements stand up on their own is another question. I just don’t know if it’s a question that anyone needs to bother asking, let alone answering.

I’m sure there are other interpretations to be gleaned from mother!, and of course not everyone will come to the same conclusions. I’m not even sure I can truly decide how I feel about this film. Some of the threads it toys with in terms of Bardem’s struggle with artistic expression, the treatment of Lawrence’s character, and the literal events playing out onscreen are pretty disturbing, but I keep swinging between feeling a little bit angry and disgusted about this, and wondering if maybe it works for exactly that reason.

Whatever I ultimately think of it, though, at least I do actually think of it, which is something to be thankful for in this year’s dribble of forgettable Hollywood sewage.

But that doesn’t make mother! – or its annoyingly punctuated title – any less irritating, fascinating, disappointing and thought-provoking.