horror

REVIEW: Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide is the sequel to Dread Nation so there may be vague spoilers for the first book in this review.

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy or as it seems and soon after Jane arrives in a town called Nicodermus, she comes to believe it’s not as safe as everyone believes. Jane soon finds herself on a dark path as she’s out for revenge and closes herself off from the world. But one person won’t let her shut herself off completely. Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by – and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.

Amazingly, Deathless Divide is even better than its predecessor. It’s told in dual perspective with the chapters alternating between Jane’s point of view and Katherine’s. it’s great getting to see things from Katherine’s perspective and she becomes a much more fleshed out character as you learn more about her past and how she struggles with the fact she can pass for white. Also, both perspectives are equally gripping and they both have distinct voices which is always a plus for dual narratives.

Jane honestly has gone through so much and she is such a fighter, but her quest for revenge and how desensitised she has become to killing the dead, puts her in a precarious place. She likes to think she doesn’t need anyone but that’s not the case and it takes a long time for her to sort all those feelings out in her head.

Jane and Katherine’s friendship is really the heart and soul of this book. Jane needs Katherine and Katherine wants to be Jane’s friend. They balance each other out and have fought and survived together, meaning they know one another unlike anyone else. There are other relationships in Deathless Divide, romantic or otherwise, but none of them are as strong or as important as Jane and Katherine’s.

In Deathless Divide you learn more about how the shamblers (the undead) have affected the rest of the country, and there’s even mentions of outbreaks around the world showing it’s not a localised event. Deathless Divide combines different genres and themes in an interesting way; it’s a survivors story, there’s Western elements, there’s a deeper discussion of bioethics and experimentation, and there’s a lot of trauma and how that can effect someone’s psyche.

All the while Deathless Divide continues to work as an alternate history because there are so many actual historical elements included and adapted for this scenario. For instance, the explanation for the Chinese arriving on the West Coast and how that effects things and how no matter what, it’s Black people who are always at the bottom of the theoretical social ladder.

Deathless Divide really goes to dark and unexpected places and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities Jane and Katherine live in the; the racism, the cruelty, the threat of death at any moment – from shamblers or humans – and it’s still an action-packed story with lots of twists and turns. It also has a very satisfying if a little bittersweet ending to what really is a fantastic duology. 5/5.

REVIEW: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

When the War Between the States was derailed when the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, America’s history took a different turn. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Jane McKeene is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect rich white folk. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane, but not one Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies – not all of them undead.

I find alternate history stories fascinating. They can easily not work if they change the outcome of a big historical event, but then present things are 100% better or a lot of society’s problems are solved now that change has been made. That’s not the case with Dread Nation. While the outcome of the Civil War is different as the Union states and the Confederacy have had to stop fighting in order to fight the dead, that doesn’t mean prejudices and racism has disappeared.

Jane and the other Black girls at her combat school now have a skill that can be used by society, but that doesn’t mean they are treated well by white people, especially those in positions of power. It’s the way Dread Nation combines the horror of racism with the horror of zombies that is really interesting. Jane is not just fighting against the dead, but also the systematic racism that’s prevalent in every situation she encounters.

Jane is a great character. It took me a little while to warm to her as she’s so headstrong and doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to answering back her superiors. But she’s also smart, resourceful, and can lie like a rug. She’s one for tall tales and can think outside the box which is important when she’s put in dangerous situations.

Her reluctant friendship with Katherine, another girl from the school who can pass for white (which in term brings about a lot of interesting discussions of race and how Katherine feels about what her perceived skin colour can get her), is great as they are so different. Jane is a rule-breaker, constantly looking to learn things people would rather people like her didn’t, whereas Katherine is more reserved, looking forward to the life of an Attendant and doesn’t wish to rock the boat. They are both extremely capable of taking down the undead, or shamblers as they’re known.

The shamblers are unsettling and the way they’re described makes their presence felt almost constantly. They are a threat that’s always on the peripheral of Jane’s life, and when one or two or a dozen are near, it’s a fight to survive.

Dread Nation is a fast-paced, action-packed story with an interesting premise that lives up to the potential. It’s the first book in a series and I’m looking forward to continue it as there’s still so much to learn about the shamblers, how they group together, and what the government of each state is planning to do about them. 4/5.

L is for Let the Right One In (2008)

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), an overlooked and bullied twelve-year-old, finds companionship and revenge through newcomer Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl with a deadly secret – she’s a vampire.

Vampire stories are nothing new. With a lot of the folklore surrounding vampires so well known, it is difficult to put an inventive spin on what anyone would know about a vampire. Let the Right One In does do some interesting and different things with the lore, for instance how vampires cannot entire a property without being invited, and this leads to some tense scenes as you’re unsure if the person who entered is friend or foe.

The setting of Let the Right One In is a snowy small town in early 1980s Sweden, where everything feels grubby and depressing. The school, Oskar’s homelife and even the snow-covered playground outside his apartment building where he first meets Eli, feel isolated and unwelcoming.

This fits into how both Oskar and Eli are feeling. They are both social outcasts, albeit for different reasons, and in a cruel, hateful world they find solace in each other. Their relationship is so full of childlike innocence – even though Eli is a lot older than she looks – but there’s also anger bubbling away in them both. The two young leads give great performances, but their characters were difficult to connect to as they were both so (justifiably) reserved.

There’s a group of adult side characters who become entangled in Eli’s life, but they are not particularly interesting and while they allow some more of the vampire myth to be explored (there’s an interesting scene featuring cats) they also feel somewhat pointless as it’s difficult to care about them.

The pacing in Let the Right One In is very strange. For the most part it’s very slow and, with the score and cinematography, very atmospheric but that’s not quite enough to keep you fully engaged. Everything snowballs at the end and that sudden shift of gear is a little jarring.

I had heard a lot of good things about Let the Right One In and I’m pleased I’ve now seen it. However, unfortunately it didn’t blow me away and perhaps it could not live up to the hype. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Serbia: Fear and His Servant by Mirjana Novaković

Translated by Terence McEneny.

Serbia in the eighteenth century is a battleground of empires, with the Ottomans on one side and the Habsburgs on the other. When Count Otto von Hausburg arrives in Belgrade with his trusted servant Novak, they learn of tales of vampires and missing men. In the besieged capital, safe for now behind the fortress walls, Princess Maria Augusta waits for love to save her troubled soul. But who is the strange, charismatic count, and can we trust the story he is telling us? While some call him the Devil, he appears to have all the fears and pettiness of an ordinary man.

It took me over a month to read Fear and His Servant. Not because I didn’t like it, when I was reading it I did enjoy it, but so much was happening in my life that even when I did have free time to read I didn’t have the right mental headspace to actually sit down and read that often. I think some of the issues I had with Fear and His Servant are down to how long it took me to read it. For instance, I’d get confused by who was who and how they were connected because it’d been so long since I’d picked it up that I’d forgotten characters names. Also, the language used and the writing style is very reminiscent of eighteenth century writing even though the book was written in the twenty-first century. It can take a while to get used to it, but it also helps bring you into the story as it makes the setting and the characters feel more alive.

Fear and His Servant is from both von Hausburg’s and Maria Augusta’s point of view, but it isn’t always that clear when it switches between them. Slowly I started to pick up which character was narrating the story as they each have a unique voice. Von Hausburg is sarcastic and blunt and he has a sort of charm about him, even though he is the Devil. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise the blurb stating “The Devil and Princess Maria Augusta of Thurn and Taxis tell unreliable tales of vampires and political intrigue in eighteenth-century Serbia” isn’t a metaphor and the Devil is actually a main character. It’s quite a fun experience reading a story from the point of view of the Devil, especially as he’s not as fearless or all-powerful as one might think, and every now and then there’s flashbacks to Biblical times as he tells stories of Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene.

Princess Maria’s side of the story is like she’s recounting the events to an unnamed person who prompts her every now and then, but you only have Maria’s responses. She seems to go off on a tangent more often than not and sometimes mentions things that have not yet happened in the main story.

As the story progresses and von Hausburg and Princess Maria journey with a group of men to find the truth about the vampires, their stories start to diverge. You read about events from each of their perspectives and sometimes they’re slightly different and in others they are vastly different. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not, as not only to their accounts differ from each other’s, but at times they contradict themselves. It makes the story both intriguing and confusing.

Fear and His Servant is an interesting story with compelling points of view. It’s sometimes funny, is sometimes eerie, and it’s also sometimes confusing. It’s an interesting premise and it’s certainly a book like nothing I’ve read in recent years, but I think having such large gaps between when I’d pick it up, had a detrimental effect on the overall reading experience.

REVIEW: Crawl (2019)

When Haley (Kaya Scodelario) goes to check on her father (Barry Pepper) during a category 5 hurricane, she finds herself trapped in a flooding house with deadly alligators.

Crawl is a combination of creature feature and disaster movie and with that it has a lot of the usual tropes, but it uses them well. There is a fair few jump scares, but they feel earnt as the film knows how to crank up the tension, leaving you almost constantly on edge. The jumps care’s release the tension just for a moment but then you realise something truly horrifying is happening and it’s hard not to look away.

One thing about Crawl that makes it feel extra tense is how something like this could happen. Not the deadly alligators going on a rampage in a hurricane, but the hurricane and the dangers it brings. Characters must rely on wide-up torches and radios as the water levels rise and the threat of flood defences failing and making everything worse is a real problem. It’s not just the alligators Haley and her dad have to survive, it’s the elements as well.

Crawl tells a simple story well – it’s runtime is under 90 minutes and the pacing is so incredibly tight that you encounter the alligators much quicker than you’d think. Scodelario and Pepper both give great performances as Hayley and her dad’s interactions feel believable as they fight to survive together. Also, the script is great as through their short conversations throughout the film you learn about their history which helps flesh out their characters without it ever feeling like a big exposition dump.

Crawl has all the makings of becoming a classic creature-feature. It’s tense, scary, claustrophobic and suitably gory and knows how to give the audience a brief reprise through humour every now and then too. The song that plays over the credits is so unexpected but also ridiculously perfect. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Iraq: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Translated by Jonathan Wright

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi, a scavenger, collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His aim is for the government to recognise the parts as people and give them the proper burial they deserve. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city. Haidi soon realises he has created a monster, a monster that cannot be killed and one that needs human flesh to survive.

At the beginning of Frankenstein in Baghdad there is a rather helpful list of characters that give you a short description of what each character’s job/relationship is. There are a lot of characters in this book, and you follow the perspectives of some but not all of them, and most of the characters lives intertwine with one another at at least one point in the story.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is described as “darkly funny” but I didn’t find it amusing at all, not even in a black humour kind of way. Potentially that’s because it’s a translated novel and humour isn’t always something that can be translated and work for people outside of its place of origin. It is a creepy novel at times, though not as horrifying as the quotes on the cover make out. The descriptions of the creature and what it does to people is unsettling and disgusting. However, the actual story of the creature, Hadi and the many characters they both interact with, was slow-paced and in the end dull. There’s so many characters and their side plots often have little or nothing to do with the creature, which makes the story meandering and hard to follow if you put down the book for a day or two.

The setting is the best thing about Frankenstein in Baghdad. Having it take place in Baghdad with the presence of American troops always being felt made it a setting where anything could happen. There were explosions, suicide bombers, and hints at corruption in the security forces. Everything in Baghdad is so uncertain that there’s always a sense of uneasiness and having the creature on the prowl just adds to that. At the same time though, the people of the city are so used to the noise of gunfire and explosions being a constant threat, that they go about their day as normal. It makes the situation feel somewhat surreal. From the outside, this constant state of danger is not normal nor OK, but here it shows how it unfortunately is normal for a lot of people.

Frankenstein in Baghdad has an interesting premise, but it unfortunately isn’t an interesting or compelling story. 2/5.

REVIEW: Hellboy (2019)

Hellboy (David Harbour) works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence a secret agency whose aim is to keep the human world safe from the supernatural. When ancient sorceress Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) plans to rise from the dead and wreak her revenge, Hellboy and his reluctant allies must do everything to stop her.

Hellboy is reboot/reimagining of the comic books and has nothing to do with the Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films in the early-mid 2000s. This film focusses more on the horror elements that come with Hellboy and there’s more bloody violence and swearing too. There are many different creatures, some have pretty interesting character designs, but unfortunately some of them suffer from bad CGI. Now bad CGI doesn’t make a movie bad, but when it’s there and the rest of the film in terms of story and characters aren’t so great, it’s definitely more noticeable.

There’s a lot going on in Hellboy and as it keeps jumping between characters and locations, it’s clear that the overall plot is far too convoluted. Characters seemed to get to different locations too quickly to be possible, and one way they get there is by having a character become unconscious and then wake up somewhere else. The editing is very messy as well. In action sequences and fight scenes it’s sometimes hard to follow and the editing is so quick that when there’s scenes of characters just standing and talking, you don’t get proper reaction shots to a joke (which means they don’t often land) or some big important piece of information.

As I mentioned there’s a lot of different things happening in Hellboy, with lots of different characters doing different things. Unfortunately, just because there’s a lot happening, it doesn’t mean it’s entertaining. It became rather boring watching these different fights because there’s not enough to make you care about the central characters. The dialogue is often at it’s most generic, and many scenes aren’t there to develop any of the characters personal arcs.

David Harbour made a good Hellboy, but the script he had to work with didn’t really give enough emotional depth to his fight to be good. Psychic Alice (Sasha Lane) and special forces agent Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) are both fun characters and they and Hellboy bounce off one another really well when the script allows it.

Hellboy is messy and unfortunately rather dull. There were sparks of fun and interesting things with some of the characters but it’s not enough to make this film enjoyable or worth watching again. 2/5.

REVIEW: Open Grave (2013)

When a man (Sharlto Copley) wakes up in a mass grave, with no memory of what happened to him, he must determine if the murderer is one of the five strangers who rescued him, or if he himself is the killer.

Open Grave is a tense, well-acted film, and it really works when you know as little about the story as possible. It’s creepy and unsettling and it will definitely make you jump a few times.

The atmosphere that’s set up from the very beginning is foreboding and unsettling. The deep pit the protagonist wakes up in is in the middle of nowhere, with the only house nearby being occupied by five people who either can’t remember what happened either, or can’t communicate what they know.

The way the story is played out means you are trying to figure out what’s happening at the same time as the characters are. The suspense is maintained throughout as different characters discover different elements to the truth but as they have no reference point, it still doesn’t always make sense to them – or they jump to what could be a very wrong or dangerous conclusion.

Sharlto Copley is brilliant as a man who is not sure who to trust and, as he gets flashes of memory, he’s not even sure he can trust himself. The rest of the cast are great too, managing to juggle the right amount of fear and suspicion with the desire to survive.

Open Grave is a compelling film that’s sharply directed and knows how to build the tension. The way it sprinkles in answers throughout is great as it’s not until the end of the film do you see how everything fits together. 4/5.

REVIEW: Life (2017)

When a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station are examining the first samples from Mars, they discover a rapidly evolving life form that not only threatens their lives, but all life on Earth.

A lot of comparisons can be made between Life and the original claustrophobic-space-horror-film Alien, but that doesn’t mean Life doesn’t do a good job with that template, and it offers its own spin of certain elements.

The first half of Life is more of the philosophical and scientific side of things as you get to know the basics about the crew and what they are trying to achieve with this life form they are studying. While the second half is more action-packed as naturally when the creature escapes, things get increasingly worse and the intensity never really lets up. It’s interesting how to begin with there is humour in this film, most of it coming from Ryan Reynolds’s character, but as soon as the danger is realised, the tension jumps up a notch and all characters are suddenly a lot more serious.

The camera work and editing make every tunnel and compartment of the ISS feel deadly. As the creature grows smarter and reactionary towards the humans onboard it becomes a bit of a cat and mouse chase around the space station as the crew attempt to contact Earth and stay alive. The dangers are real as members of the crew get injured or die in increasingly gruesome ways and it really is a battle as the creature and the humans onboard have a lot of the same basic needs.

Life is a tense, claustrophobic space horror that leaves you on the edge of your seat, but its dark undertone gets more and more prominent as the film progresses, leaving you drained by the time the credits begin to roll. 4/5.

REVIEW: Bird Box (2018)

When a mysterious force decimates the population, the one thing survivors do know is that if you see it, you die. Blindfolded and following her last hope for safety, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her children embark a dangerous journey down a river to the one place that may offer sanctuary.

Bird Box starts with Malorie telling her two children the rules about what they’re about to do, the most important one being – never take off your blindfold. As they set off on their journey, the film goes back to six years earlier and that’s where you slowly start to learn how Malorie ended up in this dire situation and how the world started to collapse.

For the most part, the film manages these two plots well as there’s multiple flashbacks and in fact the majority of the film is about Malorie meeting other people and them all learning how to survive together. However, having these two plots does make it a bit over-stuffed and potentially a bit longer than it needs to be.

Sandra Bullock is fantastic. Malorie manages to be strong, desperate, thoughtful and cold all at once. She is the focal point of the film and you can feel her terror. The supporting cast is great too, some have less to do than others – it’s easy to forget about Jacki Weaver’s character – but when they’re on screen they all bring something to this desperate and very different group of people.

Bird Box knows how to amp up the tension and bring the scares when needed. It’s all about less is more, and it’s the fear of the unknown that puts you on edge. An eerie score along with tight direction makes the story which could verge on the outrageous, be more uncomfortable and enthralling.

Bird Box is tense and, at times, horrifying. The performances suck you in and at times it can be a heart-pounding experience. It’s now available on Netflix and is definitely worth a watch. 4/5.