“Annihilation” review


There has been a lot of chatter about Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, and much of it has been asking why, outside of the United States and China, it has not received a theatrical release (it premiered in the rest of the world on Netflix on March 12th).

In my opinion, though I think the film has flaws, it was certainly deserving of being seen on big screens worldwide, and it’s a great shame that hasn’t happened (apparently it’s due to differences between Paramount Pictures and the film’s producer, Scott Rudin). Nevertheless, for those of us who subscribe to Netflix and have had a chance to see the movie, it’s a fascinating and beautifully made science fiction film that treads a well-worn path in terms of both tone and subject matter, but does so with some style.

Warning: spoilers.

It tells the story of biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears after going missing a year before, on a top secret mission. He’s acting strangely on his return, and when he becomes violently ill Lena calls an ambulance; but on the way to the hospital she and her husband are intercepted by shadowy government agents who take them to the top secret research facility known as “Area X”, whose psychologist, Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to Lena that Kane was part of an expedition into the nearby “Shimmer”, a strange force-field somewhere on the coast of North America, whose centre is an old abandoned lighthouse. Little is known about the Shimmer except that none of the people so far sent in have come out – with the exception of Kane. Oh, and it’s growing…

So, racked with guilt about her husband as he lies in intensive care, Lena decides to join an all-female team of scientists led by Dr Ventress to explore the Shimmer, and find out what’s happening inside.

This is an intriguing premise for a story, no doubt, though the pedant in me couldn’t help but question the lack of common sense the characters display – why, when the Shimmer has been growing for three years, and countless teams have disappeared inside, would you send yet another team of researchers into it? Wouldn’t they use drones or something? And if you’re going to send people, at least put them in hazmat suits, right? Honestly, anyone would think these folks have never seen Eddie Izzard’s routine about the forest of death and blood:

The Shimmer certainly looks beautiful (location shooting was in Windsor and Norfolk), and the vegetation and bizarre animals (a result of the Shimmer’s strange mutating effects) are a credit to production designer Mark Digby and his team. The human/bear hybrid was especially disturbing (and surely owes a debt to the alzabo, a bear-like creature who speaks in the voice of its victims in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun”), and there is a scene involving human intestines which is not for the squeamish. As the team get closer and closer to the lighthouse, they become increasingly unhinged, and the final confrontation between Lena and the alien presence there is an extraordinary, bravura sequence which reminded me of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”.

Like that film, “Annihilation” is apparently only loosely based on its source novel (by Jeff VanderMeer), and made me curious to know how and why Garland has deviated from the original story. In sci-fi movies, the theme of human beings being physically and/or psychically altered by encounters with extra-terrestrial life goes back at least as far as The Quatermass XperimentThe Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and on through Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Ridley Scott’s Alien, the work of David Cronenberg, and the recent Netflix adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels:

So Annihilation isn’t doing anything spectacularly original in that sense. But its predominantly female cast (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny & Tessa Thompson play the other three scientists assigned to Ventress’s team) , and unsympathetic heroine (Portman’s character has been having an affair, and it is implied that this may have pushed her husband to embark on such a dangerous mission) are major plus points for a Hollywood blockbuster (at one point Kane tells Lena, before he leaves, that at least they will be in the same hemisphere, and so when he’s gone she can “look up and see the same stars”, and she angrily retorts that she has better things to do in his absence than just stare at the stars), and thus, disappointingly, may also have contributed to Paramount’s getting cold feet about an international release (see Helen Lewis’s detailed discussion of this in the New Statesman).

But though it boasts a superb cast and creative team, and I wanted very much to like it, I fear the film left me a little cold in the end. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a romcom, after all – but I felt that its precarious balancing act between the commercial imperative to deliver an exciting slice of commercial cinema, and its makers’ desire to reach for Some Deeper Meaning, never fully resolved itself. That said, we need science fiction and fantasy that has ambitions beyond simple audience titillation, and for that I salute this film, and heartily recommend that you see it if you can.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.


“Stranger Things 2” – Truth & Consequences


Warning: contains spoilers.

And so the Duffer Brothers’ phantasmagoria has returned for a second season on Netflix, and no doubt if you’re reading this you’ve already seen all nine episodes (they’ve been available to watch since the end of last month), and perhaps you’re one of those strange people with no social life and terrible sleeping habits who watched them all in one go. Shame on you.

I, alas, am not so brave as that, so have only just finished the final episode, but because no pop cultural event can ever be complete without my pronouncing judgement on it, and because, like you, dear reader, I really don’t have enough useful things to do, I thought I would post for posterity my thoughts on Season 2.

Season 1 appeared in July 2016, and quickly built up a dedicated following – I have to confess that, in common with many others, it was the reason for my taking out a subscription to Netflix in the first place. Now its young cast are big stars, and hype for the new season has been gathering momentum it seems for most of this year.

But is it, as they say, any good?

Perhaps inevitably, “Stranger Things 2” suffers somewhat in comparison to its predecessor – the novelty value of the first season has been lost, so the choices the producers make come under greater scrutiny as they seek to drive the narrative forward. Certainly, the plot is very similar – a year on from the events of Season 1, it is now Hallowe’en 1984, and young Will Byers is still haunted by his experiences in the Upside Down, and is being regularly monitored by Sam Owens, chief scientist at Hawkins Lab (why is the creepy lab still open? Don’t these people ever learn?). Will’s visions of the unpleasant parallel universe where he spent most of the last season incarcerated by all kinds of viscous nastiness seem to be getting worse, and the terrible blight affecting the local farmers’ pumpkin crop, and the bizarre goings on in a set of subterranean tunnels beneath the town, only serve to confirm our worst suspicions that something awful is about to happen.

Into the mix have been thrown some interesting new characters – Max, the tough young girl who joins Will’s class; her violent and aggressive stepbrother, Billy, who threatens Steve Harrington’s position as top of the high school food chain; and the kind and loveable Bob, Joyce Byers’ new boyfriend (too kind and loveable, as it turns out – you just know from the off that it’s not going to end well for poor old Bob).

In keeping with the show’s retro Eighties appeal, two of the new characters are played by actors familiar to fans of that era’s movies – Bob is played by Sean Astin, who of course starred in The Goonies back in 1985, and Owens by Paul Reiser, who was the villainous Burke in Aliens.

There are plenty of other nods to the world of Reagan, Thatcher and mullets (apart from the fact that several of the young male characters actually have mullets), from the posters for the November ’84 presidential election (Mike’s parents are Republicans, whereas Dustin’s mum is a Mondale supporter), to the lovingly recreated computer arcade where the young friends hang out, to the Ghostbusters costumes they wear to go trick-or-treating – and, as I wrote in my earlier post about the first season, for those of us who lived through those times, seeing your own past recycled in this way can be somewhat disconcerting.

But the introduction of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (a nicely judged performance from Brett Gelman, simultaneously ingratiating and sinister) is a reminder that the seeds of the “fake news” era were sown long ago, and that the familiar storyline of nefarious government agents plotting against innocent townsfolk, which has been a staple of Hollywood movies and TV shows for years beyond count, is perhaps not as benign as it seemed a few years ago. When encouraging your audience’s credulity helps to feed a willingness to believe virtually anything – so long as people we like are saying it – it begins to look somewhat irresponsible.

However, despite the broad horror of Stranger Things, its creators are too subtle to fall into all the obvious traps. Owens seems shifty at first, but turns out to be a decent man, and the other new main character, Kali / Eight, while not a villain as such, is nevertheless involved in a violent campaign of retribution against those she believes were responsible for the abuse she suffered as a young girl, a campaign that Eleven embraces but then ultimately rejects for its nihilism. Some viewers don’t seem to have enjoyed this episode, but I think it underlines a strong ethical current beneath all the fantasy and nostalgia – violence and revenge have consequences, after all, and they change people, and ruin lives, something also underscored by the touching scene where Nancy and Steve visit Barb’s parents: she may only have been a relatively minor character in Season 1, but her loss still reverberates, and I really appreciated that attention to emotional truth from the writers. Too often in these kind of dramas, the death of such characters seems to have been forgotten five minutes later.

The possession of Will by the amorphous, multi-tentacled being from the Upside Down – and the subsequent scenes where he is restrained as his family and friends try to exorcise the creature – I found genuinely disturbing, and though no doubt every care was taken to protect the young actors involved, nevertheless scenes of children in pain or distress are always upsetting to watch. But then Stranger Things is a horror serial with a predominantly young cast, so I suppose such scenes are all but inevitable. But maybe it could sometimes be handled a little better.

This no doubt makes me seem terribly middle-aged, to which I plead guilty – I am! But I’m still enjoying Stranger Things, though I think they need to keep new ideas coming if the show isn’t to run out of steam over the next two or three seasons. Ultimately, the key to its success is its cast, and its tight plotting. The way characters are allowed to develop – Steve Harrington was the school bully in Season 1, and has now become an unlikely hero, and Billy seems like a monster at the beginning of Season 2, but grows more sympathetic when we get to meet his appalling father – adds real depth, the kind of depth such fantasy horror requires if the audience is to successfully suspend their disbelief. As the writer M. John Harrison said in a recent interview – “You can’t really do the strange, unless you back it with the normal”.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.


dark forest - After Dark Photo (24759747) - Fanpop

Photo: fanpop.com

Personally, I like the idea of hygge, the Danish word that doesn’t quite translate into English but roughly means “cosy, with candles, and beers, and warm fires and stuff, for when it’s cold outside, which it is in Denmark a lot”.

This Christmas in the UK, hygge has become the latest thing the marketing men say we should all be into, and books on the subject are selling like hot brunkage.

But I’m rather pleased to discover that there is an anti-hygge, an opposite of hygge, called uhygge (and please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I’ve only just mastered hygge). Apparently it’s to do with that disturbing feeling you get in, say, a wood at night – that something is watching you, that you’re trespassing somehow, that you ought to leave, quick, and get home for some reassuring hygge.

Anyway, this article from the Guardian has more on the subject of uhygge. Don’t have nightmares…

“Stranger Things”: the power of nostalgia

Warning: contains spoilers.

“Nostalgia,” reckons the journalist Alexis Petridis, “is a type of curation: you edit out the bad stuff.”

Seeing as “the bad stuff” is pretty integral to Netflix’s fantasy horror “Stranger Things”, which became an instant hit when it debuted back in July, it may seem odd that so many of the comment pieces about it have used the term “nostalgia” to identify a key ingredient of its appeal.

But like the blues being a sad music that makes you feel good, the best horror – and in my opinion “Stranger Things” ranks among the very best – is a paradox: scary, yet also comforting. John Carpenter – one of several directors whose work is knowingly referenced in the wonderfully named Duffer Brothers’ creation – says that audiences feel good after watching a horror movie because they survived it: they’ve experienced all the symptoms of dread and imminent death without any of the fatal consequences. The thrills are all vicarious, but they leave the cinema feeling more alive all the same – an echo of the strange elation we often experience after a genuine near-death experience, like a car crash.

The choice of setting for “Stranger Things” is revealing – the story unfolds in the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, when local lad Will Byers disappears one evening when cycling home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. On the outskirts of town lies a mysterious government laboratory (is there any other kind?), and it’s quickly obvious that Will’s disappearance – and the simultaneous appearance of an otherworldly young girl named Eleven – is connected to it. But it’s the time in which the story is set – November 1983 – that is the reason its many fans have come over all nostalgic (even though many of its viewers – and indeed even its creators – weren’t even born in 1983).

The Eighties have been having a bit of a “moment”for a while now, and usually I find the recycling of fashion / music / politics that I have already lived through (I was born in 1974) pretty tedious. However, I’m willing to make an exception for “Stranger Things”, not just because of the way it smartly corrals a certain kind of pop culture of the period – from the blocky lettering of the opening titles, to the Tangerine Dream and Vangelis-inspired soundtrack, to the obvious debt to the work of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Stephen King – but also because it’s a genuinely unsettling reminder that, though the Eighties can sometimes seem like a simpler time, at least for those of us who grew up in the West (no mobile phones, no Internet, no Islamist terrorism), this is in fact a seductive myth.

I remember my childhood being haunted by the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon, which found its cultural outlet here in the UK with work such as Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel “When the Wind Blows“, and TV dramas like “Edge of Darkness” and “Threads” (which I was too young to watch but was nevertheless aware of). And even in quiet, rural Somerset, it was impossible to ignore the enormous political upheavals of the Eighties, with whole communities left floored by the effects of Monetarism, privatisation, and rapid de-industrialisation.

“Stranger Things” certainly isn’t a political show as such – though, as with so many American dramas of this type, the government – at state and federal level – are definitely Up To No Good, its representatives invariably nefarious and prepared to use violence to protect their interests. Their interests being, in this case, pursuing experiments on vulnerable adults – and their offspring – in order to try and get inside the heads of the pesky Soviets. Unfortunately, they bite off more than they can chew when they open a portal into a parallel universe – and something very nasty indeed comes crawling out…

The idea of the “Upside Down” – as Mike and his friends come to call it – and the way it (quite literally) tends to burst through into our own world is hardly original, but brilliantly and convincingly realised, and the performances of the young cast – from whose point of view the story is mostly told – superb, especially Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, and Finn Wolfhard (another great name) as Mike. David Harbour is well cast as the decent-but-troubled Chief Jim Hopper, and, in a neat piece of casting, two actors who first made their name back in the Eighties appear in prominent roles – Matthew Modine as Dr Martin Brenner, the man in charge of Hawkins Laboratory, and of course Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce Byers, mother of the missing Will. I wasn’t totally won over by her performance myself, but then she does have to play a character who’s pitched somewhere between wired and hysterical for the entire series – not an easy ask for any actor – as well as contending with the frumpiest wig of any TV drama in recent memory. And it’s good to see her back in a starring role.

The way the Duffer Brothers bring together the three main plotlines – Mike and his friends befriending Eleven; the shifting relationship between Nancy, Mike’s older sister, her witless boyfriend Steve Harrington, and Will’s brother Jonathan; and Joyce and Jim’s determination to get to the truth – is cleverly done, and moves towards something all too rare in dramas these days – a Proper Ending (as opposed to those open endings where all the plot strands are just left dangling so there can be another series). A well-crafted plot, where the various stories are actually resolved – God how refreshing! And with just enough of a hint of what a second season might hold (which the Duffer Brothers have insisted will be a “sequel” rather than a continuation), and “Stranger Things” seems to have hit the mother lode. It’s reassuring to know that, along with all the other Eighties influences they have picked up, its creators have also remembered something that was common back then but now seems to have been forgotten: how to tell a good story.


The stuff of nightmares – “Tale of Tales” review


I’d been looking forward to seeing Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales for quite a while, since I first read about its appearance at last year’s Cannes film festival.

It is, as the opening titles make clear, “loosely” based on the fairy tales of Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, originally published in the 1630’s.

Basile may not be well known to many readers these days, yet the Brothers Grimm greatly admired him, and he was a big influence also on Hans Christian Andersen. His versions of famous stories like Rapunzel and Cinderella are the earliest known.

This is Garrone’s first English language film (his previous movies include Gomorrah), and in one interview I read he expressed some misgivings about this, whilst acknowledging how its Hollywood cast (Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel) made funding and distribution easier to obtain (the film apparently cost over $14 million to make). But anyone expecting a Hollywood movie will be disappointed – this is very much a continental European – and specifically Italian – film, and watching it I felt the shades of Antonioni, Pasolini & Fellini hovering in the background.

The plot is a portmanteau of three different stories, set in three different, fantastical kingdoms, and the film moves between them rather than telling them each in turn:

In The Queen, the titular monarch is played by Salma Hayek, who so longs for a child that she invokes the help of a necromancer (played with ingratiating creepiness by Franco Pistoni, who, like many of the supporting cast, looks like he has stepped straight out of an Arthur Rackham or Brian Froud illustration – or perhaps, more savagely, something by Goya, whose Los Caprichos prints  were apparently a big influence on the look of the film). “Violent desires such as yours can only be satisfied by violence” he tells her, and, though she acquires a son and heir, the price is indeed bloody.

In The Flea, Toby Jones is the muddle-headed king of Altomonte, more interested in looking after his pet flea (which ends up growing to monstrous proportions) than his teenage daughter, Violet, whose Mills & Boon fantasies about a handsome, courageous husband are seriously dashed (along with quite a few skulls).

And in The Two Old Women, a lustful king, played by – who else? – Vincent Cassel (whom we first encounter enjoying the company of a couple of naked lesbians) is entranced by the singing of a washerwoman below his castle walls, not realising that she and her sister are old and ugly – though this doesn’t stop one of them from tricking her way into his bed, in a scene that is both cringe-making and horribly funny. Then she actually does become young – through the intervention of a witch (played with much otherworldly chuckling by the wonderful Kathryn Hunter) – and then things get really nasty…

The film looks beautiful – much of it was made on location in Italy, in such places as Castel del Monte, and Roccascalegna, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky makes the blue skies and white walls blaze out of the screen. Likewise, the costumes are ravishing, and some of the scenes – Salma Hayek eating a heart, or an undersea battle with an albino sea monster – unforgettable. But you probably can’t weave together three strange stories like this, and tell them with such ambition, without a few strands coming loose – and there were moments when I felt Garrone’s reach exceeded his grasp. The impact of Basile’s dark morality tales is lessened by some longueurs, and, though God knows I’m not advocating Michael Bay-levels of frantic editing, perhaps a bit of judicious cutting here and there might have helped focus the story(ies)?

I’m sure many will argue that such slow pacing is precisely the point of this kind of film-making, and Garrone himself says, ‘Don’t try to understand it, just feel it’. And despite my niggles I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you see it if you can – it may well divide opinion, but at its best it’s both sumptuous and spellbinding, and, like the most vivid of dreams, will linger long in your memory.

It’s elemental… Water

Andy Scott's magnificent Kelpies at Grangemouth

The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Grangemouth, Scotland (perphotography.co.uk). Kelpies are shapeshifters or water-nymphs from Scottish folklore.

Thought I might try writing a series of posts on the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – and how they feature in folklore. So I’ve decided to start with water, for no other reason than that some of my favourite mythological creatures spring from there – undines, rusalky, selkies, kelpies, good old mermaids (and mermen) – there are tons, and I wondered where it came from, this belief that, lurking in the deep, are our shadow selves, our lost selves, our reflections.

We’re both attracted and repelled by water – by lakes, rivers, the sea – and though it gives us life, and we love to play in it, and travel on it, we also know that it is a terrifying and ultimately unknowable place, dangerous and unpredictable. It has to be respected.

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother live at the bottom of a terrifying lake – “blood-stained and turbulent” – where Grendel retreats to die after Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and where Beowulf himself plunges to do battle with his mother:

…many wondrous creatures

Harassed him as he swam; many sea-serpents

with savage tusks tried to bore through his corslet…

Beowulf’s great sword, Hrunting, is useless against his foe, and after fighting with her hand-to-hand he finally manages to decapitate her with a supernatural sword he finds in her lair, and in so doing the lake, which had been full of “strange sea-dragons… and water-demons” is cleansed, “purged of its impurity”.

Danish Lake

Not all creatures of the deep are as deadly as Grendel’s mother, though many are ambiguous. There are several tales of mermaids (“sea-morgans” in the West Country and Brittany, “selkies” or seal-women in Scotland) who are caught by crafty fishermen to be their wives. Though the details differ, the basic story tends to run thus: a lone mermaid is surprised while dancing or “passing her shapely fingers through her bewitching ringlets”, and relieved of her “mantle” – her mermaid’s skin – without which she cannot return to her underwater home. She marries the fisherman, and bears him children, but then one day by chance she discovers her skin, which he has carefully hidden, and “…no sooner did she grasp it than she laughed so loudly that her laugh was heard all over the village… In an instant she regained her former youth and beauty, she no longer cared for husband and children, and swifter than the velocity of the March winds she returned joyfully to her beloved Tirnanog on the blue rim of the western ocean.” (The Kerry Mermaid)

Likewise, the rusalky, of Russian folklore, are beautiful water-nymphs, who at Christmastime leave the lakes and rivers that are their home to dance and sing. But, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, to hear their song means your doom, for you lose your sanity – and your soul.

In Robert Aickman’s short story, The Fetch, the protagonist, Brodick Leith, realises that his old Scottish family is haunted by a carlin – a wraith – who appears, like a banshee, whenever a relative – either by blood or by marriage – is about to die.

Mason, the manager of Brodick’s country estate, tells him of how she arises from out of the nearby sea loch, and Brodick recalls seeing her when his mother died:

“‘I saw no face,’ I said.

‘If you’d seen that, you wouldn’t be here now,’ said Mason.”

At one point, as he descends in the lift from his London flat, having kissed his wife goodbye, Brodick sees the carlin in the adjoining lift, ascending to his floor. In his desperation, he presses the emergency button, but the lift gets jammed, and by the time he returns to the flat, his wife, Shulie, has disappeared:

“The first thing I saw… was a liquid trail in from the street up to the gate of the other lift. Not being his hour,the caretaker had still to mop it up, even though it reeked of seabed mortality.

Shulie and I lived on the eighth floor. I ran all the way up. The horrible trail crossed our landing from the lift gate to under out front door…”

Of course, water is not only the source of strange or demonic beings, but can also be a protection against them – the Devil cannot cross running water, it is said. And a story from Watchet in Somerset tells of how its patron saint, St Decuman, was beheaded by local pagans, and where his head fell, a spring appeared, which was afterwards said to have healing properties. Incidentally, St Decuman wasn’t unduly perturbed by this apparent misfortune – he just picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders, and went back home to Wales!

St Decuman’s church, Watchet, Somerset (photo: pastscape.org.uk)


The Anglo-Saxon World (Kevin Crossley-Holland)

A Treasury of Irish Folklore (editor: Padraic Colum)

Gramarye – the Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, Issue 4

The Enchanted World – the Book of Christmas (Brendan Lehane)

The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman, collection)

The Folklore of Somerset (Kingsley Palmer)


Buried skulls & mummified cats


Photo: irisharchaeology.ie

Hello again.

Thought I’d share with you this article from the Irish Archaeology website, about the horse skulls found beneath the excavated remains of houses built in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries.

I was aware of the practice of placing such items in buildings to ward off evil spirits, though I hadn’t known before that these horses’ heads were also used to improve the acoustics! Reading this piece reminded me of the mummified cat – known by locals as “the extremely dead cat” – kept at Keswick Museum & Art Gallery in Cumbria. It was found in the rafters of St Cuthbert’s church near Penrith in 1842.

Cats often get a bad rap in folklore terms – and I have a somewhat jaundiced view myself, being allergic to the little critters – and their association with witches hasn’t helped. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, in 1677 on Queen Elizabeth’s Day (an old festival that used to be held every November 17th to commemorate Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558) the effigy of “a most costly pope” was burned on a bonfire, “his belly filled with live cats which squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire”.

Still, black cats are often seen as lucky, though not always for the cat itself, as various bits of it – head, tail, ears – used to be removed, and used in cures for eye-ache, styes, and shingles.

For more on the Keswick cat, and related apotropaic magic such as witch bottles, have a look at this excellent post from Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore.

Dessicated cat from Keswick Museum

The Keswick cat