The Thistlewood Curse – early reviews

The first reviews for The Thistlewood Curse continue to trickle in, and so far they have all been very positive.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

For example, one reviewer on Goodreads spoke of “chilling moments”, “an unusual premise” and that although it was “not what I’d usually choose… I was kept guessing to the end”.

There have been also been five star reviews on the US and UK Amazon sites respectively. One stated “Simon Dillon’s streak continues with another cracking book! The author’s storytelling is top notch with the twists, turns and suspense covering the book with glue, that is to say, you can’t put it down.”

Another said “This one will certainly leave you with “novel hangover,” still reeling from the emotional storm that just picked you up and spit you out. It was engaging, captivating, and immersive from the very beginning, and the plot twists were a pleasant surprise.”

I’m also very pleased people are seeing past the murder mystery/horror elements into the deeper stuff. For example, one reviewer commented “The characters are built up and written so well, you feel you know them and connect with them. For that reason, when they go through an ordeal, you go through it with them.” The reviewer went on to state that this was “a book with real depth, personal struggle and a test of faith—in more ways than one.”

To all those that have left reviews for this or any of my other novels, thank you so much. I really appreciate your support.

If you have read and enjoyed The Thistlewood Curse, please, please do leave a review on Amazon. It need not be long. Even just a one-liner saying “I enjoyed it” is fine. All such reviews are a great help to independent self-published authors such as yours truly – not because we require endless affirmation, but because the more reviews are published on Amazon, the more Amazon shows the fruits of our hard work to other customers.

Thank you.

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Why I support the casting of Jodie Whitaker in Doctor Who, but wish some people would shut up about it…

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As some of you will know, Doctor Who is my favourite television programme of all time, and has been since I was about eight years old. You can read why in my 50th Anniversary celebration from a few years ago, here.

News that Jodie Whitaker has been cast as the new Doctor, and the first female Doctor, has caused a stir. Many are very pleased, lauding the decision as a great step forward for feminism, gender equality and so on. Other long-time fans are disappointed, some of them for idiotic reasons that are undoubtedly rooted in appalling sexism.

I’ve had a lot of people asking for my take on the news, so here it is in a nutshell: I couldn’t care less about gender politics. I couldn’t care less about cry-baby fanboys. All I care about is one thing: is the new series actually any good?

We won’t have the answer to that until sometime next year. However, given that the only Doctors I thought didn’t work were Paul McGann and Colin Baker (through no fault of their own, I might add), given that Jodie Whitaker is a terrific actress and given that Chris “Broadchurch” Chibnall is taking over from Steven Moffat on production duties, I suspect that they know what they are doing, and the new series could well turn out brilliant.

Making the character of the Doctor female doesn’t contravene Doctor Who canon. It has long been established that the Time Lords live in effect many lives, and reincarnate many times. It has also recently been established that they can switch genders (though some criticised this decision). On paper at least, the decision to have a female Doctor could work very well.

However, some (including women) have raised objections. Despite the afore-mentioned canon, switching the Doctor to female when he has been male since 1963 will feel like switching the gender of Sherlock Holmes or Spider-man. Indeed, one comment (from a woman) said she didn’t want a female Doctor any more than she wanted a male Wonder Woman.

Sometimes giving a traditionally male led franchise a female lead works well (The Force Awakens). Sometimes it works less well (the recent Ghostbusters). Sometimes changing male characters to female in a reboot/re-imagining can work outstandingly well (the character of Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica for instance). I don’t have time for idiots who think the Bechdel Test is somehow a measure of quality (I once heard someone contest that Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t a great film because of a lack of female roles, I kid you not), but I do think it is great to see better, more three-dimensional roles for women in a much broader context, across all genres, starting to come into effect. Doctor Who should be no exception to this, regardless of whether the lead is male or female.

What does annoy me, I must admit is, is activist lobbies jumping on the bandwagon, behaving as though they are Doctor Who fans when they haven’t ever watched it before. When someone said to me that a female Doctor should be supported regardless of quality “for feminist reasons”, I wondered whether a similar view should be taken for all walks of life. How about in politics for instance? Margaret Thatcher anyone?

The part of me that despises being lectured wants to tell these activists that I oppose a female Doctor on principle, just because they insist on bludgeoning everyone with their sanctimonious, condescending SJW nonsense, behaving as though a female Pope had just been appointed. And just to bring some balance, for similar reasons, I often feel the urge to join a church led by a female pastor every time some evangelical, patriarchal nitwit tells me they disapprove of female church leaders, but that’s another issue… My point is this: I intensely dislike my favourite TV series being hijacked by political agendas.

By the way – quick side note – whilst I appreciate the irony of writing something like this on the internet, when valid points are being raised, it is possible to understand both sides of the debate and a have a civilised conversation without degenerating into polarised abusive remarks and/or “calling out” (a term I detest), with the reductive cries of “Misogynist!” and so on that largely define online debate.

The new Doctor is female? Great. Let’s objectively assess the new series when it arrives.

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Film Review – War for the Planet of the Apes

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A superb motion capture performance from Andy Serkis dominates War for the Planet of the Apes, the final segment of the recent “Caesar” prequel/reboot Apes trilogy. Serkis is master of the motion capture discipline, bringing to life characters as diverse as King Kong, Captain Haddock, Baloo and Supreme Leader Snoke, but his turn as Ape leader Caesar in this film could quite easily be his best performance yet (with the possible exception of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings).

Borrowing elements from two 1970s Apes movies, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the plot concerns ongoing hostilities between Apes and mankind. When Caesar (Serkis) suffers a horrific personal tragedy, he undertakes a quest for revenge against “The Colonel” (Woody Harrelson). Caesar is joined by old friends Rocket (Terry Notary), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Maurice (Karin Konoval), who like before acts as his conscience. New characters include mysteriously mute human girl Nova (Amiah Miller), who Maurice takes under his wing, and “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), who provides a spot of comic relief in an otherwise largely grim and dark tale.

The bleak tone may come as a surprise to some viewers, but the Planet of the Apes movies have always contained challenging, sometimes controversial subject matter. Although the War title suggests loads of action, the bulk of the film feels more sombre and meditative. Throughout the story, Caesar is tormented by hallucinations of Koba (Toby Kebbell), the Ape villain of the previous movie, who points out his hypocrisy in now turning to the path of vengeance. In addition, the Colonel is a well-rounded, fully realised villain whose motivations are well thought through. There are shades of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Harrelson’s performance, underlined by one piece of human graffiti which reads “Ape-ocalpyse Now”.

It seems redundant to talk about special effects, but the motion capture work here is quite remarkable; both the intimate (the afore-mentioned Serkis) and the large scale battle sequences that bookend the film. Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin conjure grey, wintery landscapes that feel tremendously immersive and cinematic, and composer Michael Giacchino builds on his terrific score from the previous film with some fine new themes.

Ultimately, War for the Planet of the Apes is a very solid and satisfying piece of work; definitely on a par with the previous two entries in the series.

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Are my novels one big existential crisis?

The other day, my wife made an observation about my body of work; namely that virtually all my novels, either peripherally or directly, concern an existential crisis. I thought about this, and have come to the conclusion that she is correct.

Notions of identity, delusion and not being able to trust reality are definitely a running theme in my work, along with other mainstays such as abuse of power, religious oppression and so forth. Here are some examples from the novels I have published thus far (avoiding major spoilers): 

George goes to Neptune – Admittedly the first two novels don’t deal with an existential crisis, but the third in the George Hughes trilogy definitely does. George’s highly unusual battle with his dark side is what inspired me to write this third novel and complete the trilogy.

Uncle Flynn – The question of who is Uncle Flynn runs throughout the entire novel, particularly during the hunt for the hidden treasure. Throughout much of the story, police pursue him and his nephew Max across Dartmoor, for mysterious unknown reasons.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge – An identity crisis of sorts lies at the heart of this story, involving Dr Gribbles’s daughter Emily and the Beast itself.

Children of the Folded Valley – Quantum physics and the nature of reality are a theme behind this story, still my most successful novel to date.

The Birds Began to Sing – From the very first chapter, it is clear that Alice’s perceptions of reality should be questioned. The suspense in many of the events that follow hinges on the question of whether or not what Alice is seeing is real or a delusion.

Love vs Honour – Spiritual identity crises form the heart of my attempt at teenage romantic drama.

Most recently, my supernatural thriller cum horror story The Thistlewood Curse pulls the rug out from the reader in a variety of existential crises involving ghosts, astral projection and more. You can download or buy a print copy of The Thistlewood Curse here.

Existential crisis remains a theme in virtually all my (as yet) unpublished novels, and this will no doubt continue to be the case.

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Film Review – It Comes at Night

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It Comes at Night has been marketed as a horror film. Quite honestly this is misleading. Yes there are horror aspects, but this is more psychological apocalyptic drama than horror, with lashings of ambiguity that had the disgruntled audience I saw it with muttering “Nothing came at night!” as the credits rolled. Clearly they were expecting zombies, at least.

Actually something did come at night, but exactly what that was is open to wide interpretation. The setup involves a father, wife and teenage son, Paul (Joel Edgerton) Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). They live together under strict quarantine conditions at an abandoned house in the middle of a forest, in the wake of a never identified global plague. After capturing an intruder called Will (Christopher Abbott), they eventually decide to take pity on him, along with his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son, because they are able to provide food. They agree to live together for the common good, and at first things work out well. However, seeds of suspicion and mistrust begin to kick in when one of the always locked house doors is mysteriously found open one night…

Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults has crafted a lean, suspenseful work with some fine performances, particularly from Edgerton and Harrison Jr. The film works as a slow-burn tale of claustrophobic, escalating dread. We aren’t sure exactly why we feel so uneasy, but unease drips from every frame, especially during Paul’s paranoid warnings to Travis that he can’t trust people who aren’t family, however good they seem. This fear creeps into the plague-ridden nightmares of Travis, who also spies on Will and Kim, possibly sexually desiring the latter then promptly repressing said desire. A sense that something is out there in the forest, particularly at night, takes hold. Will the contagion return? Lines between reality and fantasy become blurred to clever effect, especially when the frame itself shrinks almost imperceptibly during dream sequences, suggesting the closing of eyes or imminent death.

What’s it about? Quite honestly I can’t be sure. The ambiguous finale could be a dream itself, or delirium in the mind of a dying character, since it takes place entirely in the afore-mentioned squashed aspect ratio. My own take is that It Come at Night is a bleak and pessimistic parable about paranoia, betrayal and the fragility of human decency when faced with potential catastrophe. But whatever it is about, the film is gripping, atmospheric and unsettling (and incidentally contains violence and strong language, for those who appreciate such warnings). The lack of a clear resolution may be off-putting to some, but I thought that ambiguity was its strength, even if in physical terms “nothing came at night”.

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Film Review – Spider-man: Homecoming

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In recent years, Spider-man reboots have become as frequent as shock election results. Understandable then, that one should approach this latest iteration with a certain weary cynicism. However, I am pleased to report that for the most part, Spider-man: Homecoming is a light, enjoyable and above all different take on the iconic superhero.

Due to tedious legal wranglings, Spider-man had until very recently been off limits to Marvel Studios. Said legal issues now resolved, Marvel neatly introduced the character in Captain America: Civil War. A retread of the Uncle Ben origin story became entirely unnecessary. Instead, Homecoming focuses on Peter Parker’s post Civil War provisional Avengers membership, under the mentoring of none other than Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr).

Peter (Tom Holland) has the usual nerd-in-high-school problems, but they are tackled here with a refreshingly indie sensibility courtesy of Cop Car director Jon Watts. For example, early in the film, Peter’s equally “uncool” best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his secret identity and becomes a comedy sidekick/conscience of sorts. As Spider-man, Peter is still very much finding his way, and his attempts at being a hero are hilariously inconsistent, to put it mildly. Frustrated at not being given more to do by Tony Stark, determined he is ready for big-league villain confrontations; Peter unwisely seeks to bring down hi-tech arms dealer Adrian Toomes aka Vulture (Michael Keaton playing a different kind of Birdman). Moral lessons about not running before you can walk ensue…

Holland is winningly awkward in the lead, and the supporting cast, which includes the return of Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan and Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, all do well. Keaton isn’t a particularly menacing bad guy, but his blue collar salvage worker trampled by government bigwigs backstory provides good motivation. The action scenes are well done (particularly a set piece at the Washington Monument) and there are a couple of good plot twists, as well as an amusing running gag involving Captain America. Michael Giacchino contributes a fine music score, and although perhaps the regulation post credits scenes are getting a little wearing, this time it really is worth staying to the very end.

The first two Sam Raimi Spider-man films remain the high watermark for the webslinger on the big screen, but Spider-man: Homecoming is superior to the last two entries (which despite the winning chemistry of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, felt like they were trying too hard to build a franchise). By contrast, Homecoming feels leaner and more satisfying, even though it is already connected to a much bigger universe.

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Horror and Christianity: Incompatible?

Regular readers of my blog are aware that I am an ardent apologist for the horror genre, and have also written within this genre myself. Given my Christian faith, a number of my fellow believers find this unusual, and at times profoundly disagree or even take offence at my views. Said believers take a similar view of my horror novels, though I doubt they have actually bothered to read, say, The Thistlewood Curse, and judge the context rather than the genre.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

The argument regularly trotted out by evangelical Christians is that horror movies, TV series or novels are unpleasant, unwholesome and ungodly. I have often heard evangelical preachers condescendingly berate congregations with refrains such as “Would you watch that with Jesus sitting next to you?” The standard Bible verse they like to quote, as if to prove their point, is Philippians 4 verse 8, which speaks of only meditating on those things that are noble, lovely and true. The problem with this argument is that it is used as an excuse for the wholesale dismissal of an entire genre, without regard for what is indeed noble, lovely and true within it. All genres contain stories that live up to that Biblical standard and equally all genres contain entries that fall short of it.

I for one have never been able to understand the evangelical Christian objection to the horror genre. For a start, the Bible itself is absolutely awash with some of the bloodiest, most horrific stories imaginable. If a Christian takes the position that the Bible is divinely inspired, then in choosing to use these stories for instruction, God definitely has a taste for horror.

Secondly, a common reason for disliking horror is an inability to appreciate or understand metaphors, and an inability to examine what a story is actually saying, rather than merely what it contains. The presence of disturbing scares, violence and gore should not in and of themselves warrant a dismissal of a work on purely aesthetic grounds. However, many Christians – indeed many people – cannot or will not take context into consideration and look past such elements.

Ironically I have had conversations with Christians who happily defend the likes of Mamma Mia! – a romantic comedy with a truly abhorrent spiritual message (essentially it doesn’t matter who your father is as long as your mother had loads of fun promiscuous sex) – because it is rated PG. At the same time, they dismiss something like Under the Shadow out of hand as “demonic”, regardless of the fact that it is a profound and interesting examination of the oppression of women under fundamentalist Islam. It is, I would argue, far closer to the noble, lovely and true ideal.

Let me be clear: it is entirely valid for someone to be repulsed and/or terrified by a horror story to the point where they do not wish to read or see it. Personality and temperament come into play here, and everyone has different raw nerves, not to mention different tastes. Some love the catharsis that comes from being emotionally terrorised by a good horror tale. Others cannot understand why someone would put themselves through such an experience, in much the same way that I cannot understand the appeal of bungee jumping and other extreme sports that flirt with death. Therefore if a Christian, or indeed anyone, feels that the horror genre is not for them then that is entirely reasonable.

However, I start to take issue when Christians make a doctrine out of personal revelation (ie “God says I can’t watch horror films and/or I don’t like them, so you shouldn’t either”). Such thinking is completely unbiblical to my mind, especially when taking into context passages such as the one in Romans chapter 14 about “debatable matters”. The stuff that needs to be clear in the Bible (thou shalt not steal, kill, commit adultery and so on) is there in black and white. However, I do not see “thou shalt dismiss the entire horror genre” in scripture, and to pretend it is there because some Christian leaders don’t much care for horror or find it disturbing is, to my mind, idiotic.

Accepting that the horror genre is disreputable and controversial, how then should a Christian approach it? Why do people like horror stories? Do they gratify some dark part of our sinful natures like a modern equivalent of watching Christians being thrown to the lions? Is it to achieve some kind of catharsis? Or is it rather rooted in the human need to experience stories of all kinds, some of which explore the darker aspects of our existence?

Let’s consider those questions one at a time. First, does the horror genre gratify the sinful nature? I would say that this can only be argued on a case by case basis, as with any story from any genre (see earlier example of Mamma Mia!). Certain horror films are indeed morally bankrupt. However, just because a story is gruesome or frightening doesn’t necessarily make it the embodiment of evil. Otherwise the final chapters of Judges (to cite just one of countless examples) would not be in the Bible.

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Moving on to the catharsis question, if you think about it, watching any movie is weird. An audience puts themselves through emotions and experiences they would do anything not to experience in real life, regardless of the genre. In fact, the best comedies often contain some of the most excruciating situations. Audiences watch all kinds of movies time and again, not necessarily to see happy endings either. The viewer wants the right ending. How, for example, should The Godfather Part II end? Michael Corleone goes straight, forgives his brother, reconciles with his wife and lives happily ever after? The ending of The Godfather Part II is chilling, profound and spiritually true. It is the right ending, and it is also one of the most popular films ever made.

Though generally considered more disreputable than The Godfather, horror films can also be spiritually true, which brings me to my final question. Human beings are wired for stories of all kinds. We get meaning from them and are able make sense of the world through them. This is why Jesus used parables, and also why the Bible is filled with amazing stories, some of them eye-wateringly horrific. In a fallen world, sometimes we find meaning by confronting our darkest, deepest fears head on. Why else would anyone watch a film like Buried – a truly terrifying experience set entirely in a coffin, about a man buried alive. Horror films don’t just explore obvious fears either, they can be political allegories or satires, or, at their best, expose spiritual realities which potentially (and sometimes actually) glorify God.

Time for some examples. Let’s start with allegories. Vampires, werewolves and the like are frequently used as metaphors exploring the dark, sinful side of mankind. The battle between spiritual transcendence and baser instincts has been explored in everything from Jekyll and Hyde to Dracula, and countless movies since these classic gothic novels were written. Their popularity is understandable, as we all have our inner vampires, werewolves and Mr Hydes. Such stories are reflected in the Bible too – for example, when Nebuchadnezzar is transformed into a beast in the book of Daniel.

Frank Darabont’s take on Stephen King’s The Mist is an extraordinary allegory of Bush’s America in miniature (inside the besieged supermarket). It is not the monsters outside that prove the most terrifying thing about the story, but what happens inside as the humans turned on one another. The parallels to the Iraq war and other recent history were all too clear. Yet the ending was of most interest to me. It’s difficult to imagine a more punch-in-the-guts, feel-bad finale, yet I have come to the conclusion that it is (by accident or design), a profound moral warning about assisted suicide that Christians can applaud, if they can see past the blood and terror.

There are other good examples of allegory in horror, some spiritual (is Alien really about demonic possession?) and some political (Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be read as either pro or anti McCarthy). Then there are political satires, at which point I invoke the notorious George A Romero and his seemingly unending zombie movies. The original Night of the Living Dead is about civil rights, but Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism, Day of the Dead about genetic experimentation, and so on. Virtually all zombie movies are incredibly political and often make fascinating moral statements – again, if one looks past the splatter.

Throughout history, horror stories have often had fascinating subtexts, some more obvious (the dangers of playing God in Frankenstein, and more recently, films like Splice), some less obvious (The Wicker Man is either about the triumph of the Christian faith over Paganism or a condemnation of religious extremism in all forms). Then there are films that deal in more overt spiritual matters, such as genre classics The Exorcist and The Omen. Neither have great theological weight, which is a standard objection by many Christians. However, a film is not a sermon. In the case of The Omen, if it gets people interested in the Book of Revelation, that is surely a good thing. Regarding The Exorcist, (the greatest horror film ever made to my mind) for some years I criticised the finale, thinking that the defeat of the demon by the priest sacrificing his life was silly. However, I now think the ending makes sense because the priest is a metaphor for Jesus himself. Like Jesus, he has his Garden of Gethsemane moments, experiencing doubt and fear, but ultimately he acts sacrificially. The Exorcist may not be good theology (in stories of this kind, the power of the demonic is understandably exaggerated for dramatic effect) but it is very satisfying storytelling, metaphorically demonstrating the power of sacrifice to overcome evil.

More recent examples of exorcism are found in The Rite and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (the latter directed by Scott Derrickson, a Christian who also sees great potential for good in the horror genre). The Exorcism of Emily Rose refreshingly deals with the science verses spirituality debate by arguing they are not mutually exclusive ideas. Again, the theology police will find plenty to complain about, as they will with The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. And again, picking such nits is to entirely miss the point. After seeing both Conjuring movies at the cinema, I walked out hearing muttered conversations of cinemagoers saying how they now wanted to discuss the film with their Christian friends, given that both were (very loosely) based on true stories. The Conjuring is the cinematic equivalent of a hellfire sermon. It even ends with a message onscreen that basically says: There is a God. There is a devil. Pick a side.

Ghost stories are another horror subgenre that evangelical Christians have traditionally condemned as being theologically inaccurate. Their argument is that ghost stories imply a purgatory that is not in the Bible, or that they violate scriptural prohibitions about summoning the dead. But again, this completely and utterly misses the point on a monumental scale. Ghost stories are not about “reality” but metaphorically deal with the sins of the past refusing to stay buried, and as such are spiritually fascinating. They are about spiritual unfinished business, or unsolved crime. The verse about Abel’s murdered blood crying out to God from the ground leaps to mind. Good examples in this subgenre include The Woman in Black, The Haunting, The Sixth Sense, The Orphanage and The Changeling. The Bible itself has a rather peculiar ghost story (Saul and the Witch of Endor towards the end of the first Book of Samuel) and Jesus himself spoke of ghosts when he walked on the water, meaning that he clearly understood the power of fables and folklore.

Psychological horror films are a particular favourite of mine, and recent years have thrown up two genuinely outstanding examples. Under the Shadow is one example, as I mentioned earlier, and another is The Babadook, which is not only a truly terrifying piece of cinema, but also one of the most moving horror films I have ever seen. The Babadook deals with repressed grief and guilt, and although it is traumatic and disturbing, it is ultimately redemptive and deeply cathartic. For me, The Babadook definitely stands up to the noble, lovely and true ideal, and to answer the afore-mentioned preachers, I would happily watch it (and the other films mentioned here) with Jesus sitting next to me. Indeed, I find The Babadook compassionate and comforting, in the manner spoken of in 2 Corinthians 1 verse 13: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort”.

In summary, I for one wish more Christians would see the potential in horror as a means of expressing and affirming faith. As for me, I have fully and unapologetically embraced the genre in my writing. This year I released The Thistlewood Curse (which can be purchased here) and I have three other horror novels sitting on the shelf awaiting release, including The Spectre of Springwell Forest, a ghost story which I wrote this year and intend to release next year. No doubt some of my fellow believers will brand me a heretic, but for those who enjoy the genre, watch this space.

NOTE: This article is an updated/revised version of a piece I wrote some years ago entitled In Defence of Horror.

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Film Review – The Red Turtle

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Tonight I finally caught up with The Red Turtle, the only animated film from the 2016 Oscar nominees that I had yet to see. A French/Belgian co-production with Japanese Studio Ghibli, directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, this wordless, deceptively simple, splendidly animated fable gets under the skin in haunting, profound ways. For some it will be too slow, subtle and low key, but frankly I feel sorry for anyone who takes that view.

The plot concerns a man shipwrecked on a desert island. He makes repeated escape attempts, but is constantly thwarted by the presence of a huge red turtle that smashes up his bamboo rafts every time he tries to set sail. The man is furious with this turtle, but after he vengefully turns it over on the shore, he experiences a strange, quasi-Damascus road moment of remorse at what he has done to this magnificent creature. This in turn apparently brings about a miracle which… No, it’s too good to say anymore.

When it comes to describing the animation, phrases such as “stunningly drawn” and “achingly beautiful” feel completely redundant. Images that will stay with you forever include blue-grey seas against charcoal skies, magical dreams of flight and a devastating tsunami. The island itself is a colourful kaleidoscope of bamboo trees, sheer rock formations and teeming wildlife (including some comic-relief scuttling crabs). Actually with so much sheer beauty to take in, from monochromatic night scenes to opulent, sun-bathed days, the visual feast proves overwhelmingly emotional.

Breathtakingly poignant, eloquent and moving, The Red Turtle is about the mysteries of nature and of human life itself, effortlessly encompassing themes of birth, life, death and rebirth into its minimal but resonant narrative. There are also fascinating spiritual interpretations of just what the Red Turtle represents. For example, one could read this as a fable about God thwarting man’s overreaching ambition, for his own good, so he can enjoy something better, even though he can’t yet see it. Or the film could be read without any religious angle, as simply a moral tale with the premise that one should make the most of one’s situation, regardless of how catastrophic it may appear at first glance. However in the end, regardless of what interpretation is taken, the effect is spellbinding, magical and transcendent, especially when accompanied by Laurent Perez de Mar’s magnificent music score.

In a cinematic landscape clogged up with soulless, bloated Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean sequels – films without a shred of artistic merit that exist purely to part the gullible from their cash – The Red Turtle comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air, a shining gem of a film, and a true work of art. In fact, I have to confess it had such a profound effect on me that I had to take pause afterwards, wiping the tears from my eyes, before driving home. I know it’s been out for a while, but do try to track it down in the cinema. You will not regret it.

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Film Review – Baby Driver

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I’m not sure if there is such a thing as an instant cult classic, as to my mind a cult film has to pick up a following over time having been largely misunderstood and/or neglected by audiences on original release. However, if there were, Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver would definitely fit the bill. It is, unquestionably, a blast of pure cinematic exhilaration that brings a fresh spin on the well-worn heist genre.

The “Baby” of the title (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) heist crew. Baby has tinnitus so constantly listens to an iPod to drown out the noise, and has learned to orchestrate his superbly skilled high-speed pursuit manoeuvres to pop music. Thus, Baby Driver at times feels as much like a musical as it does pedal-to-the-metal thriller.

It gradually becomes apparent that Baby is no hardened criminal, but that an error of judgement as a child forced him into a life of crime. Consequently, Baby rubs shoulders with individuals that are either violent or, more dangerously, violent and inept (with a supporting cast that includes the likes of Jon Hamm, Jon Hernthal, Eiza Gonalez and Jamie Foxx). Furthermore we learn, in brilliantly deployed, hugely emotive flashbacks, about the loss of Baby’s mother. As a result, Baby came to be looked after by deaf “Pops” (CJ Jones), although in his old age, Baby now is the one looking after him. Seemingly trapped, Baby finds a possible way out of Doc’s clutches when he meets waitress Debora (Lily James) and romance blossoms. But will he be able to escape both the police and his employer?

Performances – especially from Elgort – are absolutely spot-on. In the wrong hands this could have been a disastrous mess but Elgort plays his character brilliantly, flitting between aloofness, charm and vulnerability with aplomb. As for writer/director Wright, not only is his witty screenplay perfectly judged, but his direction is 24 carat cinema, most emphatically during the genuinely thrilling, near operatic car chase sequences. One is reminded of The French Connection, Bullitt, To Live and Die in LA, The Blues Brothers, True Romance, Heat  and most emphatically The Driver (with occasional references to Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), but this is still a very unique beast, quite possibly Wright’s best movie to date.

I should add the usual warnings for swearing and violence, for those who appreciate them, but Baby Driver remains a deliriously entertaining, very, very cool spectacle with laughs, thrills and heart to spare. I cannot foresee a scenario where it doesn’t have a place on my list of the ten best films of the year.

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Download The Thistlewood Curse FREE – for five days only!

For just five days, you can download my new novel The Thistlewood Curse absolutely FREE from Amazon Kindle.

The Thistlewood Curse is a riveting supernatural thriller featuring a young detective and her lifelong friend, a paranormal investigator who specialises in astral projection. With a page-turning central mystery guaranteed to keep you guessing until the terrifying finale, don’t miss your chance to check it out absolutely FREE.

Here is the blurb from the back of the novel:

Can a ghost murder the living?

Lawrence Crane’s powers of astral projection are put to the ultimate test when he and his lifelong friend Detective Laura Buchan investigate a mysterious death on Lundy Island.

Sensing a dark power at work, they attempt to identify a human assassin under the control of supernatural evil.

But can they escape a terrifying, centuries-old curse?

Download your FREE copy of The Thistlewood Curse here.

 

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