Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Flatline"

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers

After last week's episode Mummy on the Orient Express, I was excited for another installment to be penned by the same writer, Jamie Mathieson. But one or two things made me a little nervous - could Mathieson deliver a script of the same high calibre, and it seemed as though the episode was going to be Doctor-lite, coming in the midst of an already companion-heavy season. Did Mathieson's second episode Flatline deliver the way his first did? Let's find out.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive in Bristol to find something is very wrong. People have been disappearing throughout their town, their visages appearing on the walls of a tunnel. All the while, the Doctor is trapped inside the TARDIS which has inexplicably began to shrink on the outside. It seems as though an alien race has invaded the planet, draining the power from the Doctor's time machine and causing the mysterious disappearances. With the Doctor more-or-less out of commission, it's up to Clara to save the day.

Like his last episode, Mathieson's Flatline had a very interesting, original premise. The alien threat, a new one, who trap people in one-dimensional surfaces were very creepy and the scene in which they manage to ensnare a police constable was chilling and intense. The production design also managed to bring the creatures vividly to life as they took three-dimensional form and chased the heroes through the train tunnels.

Peter Capaldi was in excellent form as the Doctor. I do not hesitate saying he gave his finest performance in this episode. He managed to combine his usual intensity with a vein of sarcastic, sharp humour. The fact that he was confined to the TARDIS control room for almost the entire duration did not limit his performance at all. Capaldi is arguably the best actor to have taken on the role of the Doctor in some time and each episode further justifies that point. Jenna Coleman also did well as Clara. Luckily, the episode wasn't too centred on her as Clara has really taken centre-stage on three separate occasions this series. While she did play an important role again, the script managed to keep the Doctor in a role of authority.

While much of the episode was good, I couldn't help but feel that the execution of Mathieson's ideas was lacklustre. The finale, though inventive, was incredibly rushed and I couldn't tell you how the Doctor managed to save the day. The group of community service workers who Clara vows to protect were not characterised at all so I could hardly identify with them. The most well-rounded of the group, Rigsy (Jovian Wade) tried to be the hero of the day and sacrifice himself with no provocation and with no character building, this moment didn't seem justified. Lastly, and this one's a minor quibble, the continuity folks dropped the ball here as the length of Peter Capaldi's hair changed a few times between scenes. Unless I missed something about the TARDIS' failing life support systems changing the length of the Doctor's hair then this was a minor, but annoying quibble.

In all, Flatline had an original premise and good performances, but the execution did leave something to be desired. While not a bad episode, I wouldn't say that it was a series highlight. I give Flatline 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Coming Next Week - In the Forest of the Night by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Friday, October 17, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #3 "1973 Version"

With a cast headed by Jack Palance, a script written by famed writer Richard Matheson and directed by the man responsible for the American soap opera Dark Shadows, the 1973 adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel is perhaps one of the most accomplished. With a sense of evil and mystery unparalleled in any other version, this one also stands out as being one of the most faithful to the original novel.

The 1973 adaptation of Dracula was produced and directed by Dan Curtis. Curtis was the creator of the soap opera Dark Shadows which followed the lives of the Collins family and the haunted mansion in which they lived. The show, almost canceled due to low ratings, was reinvigorated by the appearance of Barnabas Collins, patriarch of the Collins family, and a scheming vampire. With the appearance of the vampire Collins, Dark Shadows became immensely popular and would run continuously until 1971.

With the success of Dark Shadows, it seemed only likely that Curtis would turn his attention to Bram Stoker's immortal classic. Initially actor Jonathon Frid, who had played Barnabas Collins, was approached to play Dracula, but the part eventually went to famed American actor Jack Palance. Palance's Dracula is terrifically creepy, his low raspy voice incredibly chilling. What's more, Palance's Dracula is an unpredictable creature of the night; after finding his hiding place disrupted by the gang of vampire hunters, Dracula lets loose a roar of dinosaur-like proportions. This unpredictable nature, coupled with the actor's physicality make Palance's Dracula a force to be reckoned with.

Jack Palance - an unpredictable vampire
Aside from Jack Palance's Count Dracula, the main reason this adaptation has been selected for this list is its overwhelming sense of evil. The recurring theme played by a music box is both melodic and melancholy, but adds to the evil atmosphere. This plot point was created by the screenwriter Richard Matheson who is perhaps best known for his own vampire novel I am Legend which has been adapted to the screen numerous times. Matheson also adapted to the screen a number of Edgar Allan Poe short stories for Roger Corman's film starring Vincent Price, and the hammer horror favourite The Devil Rides Out with Christopher Lee.

Matheson also contributed one of the script's most original ideas; making Dracula and Vlad the Imapler one and the same. Matheson's script also included a romantic subplot which found Dracula journeying to England after discovering Lucy Westenra bears a striking resemblance to his own lost love. This original subplot is well-handled here, far more so than in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1993) which took the menace out of the vampire. Despite the romantic angle, Palance's vampire never seems weak or un-threatening like Gary Oldman's did in that latter, unremarkable film. These new plot elements add greatly to the film, though they never distract from Stoker's original storyline which is kept more-or-less in-tact.

The rest of the cast fares quite well. Simon Ward appears as Arthur Holmwood who takes centre-stage as this version's main hero. Wardwas no stranger to the horror genre - he had appeared alongside Peter Cushing in 1969's Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. Nigel Davenport, a prolific character actor, appeared as one of the most authoritative Van Helsing's on screen and Fiona Lewis added great weight to her role as both Lucy and Dracula's deceased wife.

In all, with its fine cast, original writing and incredible atmosphere, the 1973 adaptation of Dracula still stands out as one of the best. The recently-released blu-ray is an excellent purchase for any Dracula fan. Next Friday we take a look at one of the most beloved versions of Dracula which spawned a prolific legacy of horror movie history.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express"

Warning: This review will contain spoilers!

With a title like Mummy on the Orient Express it's pretty easy to understand why I eagerly anticipated this particular story most for Series 8. The only problem with great expectations is that the actual episode could turn out to be less-then spectacular. How did Mummy on the Orient Express fare? Let's find out...

Following their dispute during last week's episode Kill the Moon, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) decide to go on one final adventure. The Doctor takes her to an intergalactic version of the Orient Express. The train seems to be full of scientists, and one by one they're mysteriously dying. It seems a mummy is loose on the train and those who gaze upon it have only 66 seconds to live. What is it, why is it killing those on the train, and how can it be stopped?

The premise behind Mummy on the Orient Express is probably the most original of the series so far. It is also in my opinion the coolest premise for an episode in the while. I am of course rather bias by my love for vintage horror and Agatha Christie (nicely blended together here by writer Jamie Mathieson), but as the plot progressed and the script ventured into original territory the episode contained to be very enjoyable. Despite it's title, Mummy on the Orient Express does not rely too heavily on Agatha Christie. It was nice though to see the Doctor play detective in a sense as he tries to determine the mummy's motivations and origins.

An excellent fan-made poster
It was good to see Peter Capaldi really get to be in the limelight this week, especially since the past two episodes have focused heavily on Clara. Capaldi's customary intensity really added weight to the situation and he drew me into the story. I also loved the Twelfth Doctor's eccentricities; proffering a fellow passenger jelly babies from a cigarette case was a genuine laugh-out-loud moment.

The episode was also incredibly visually striking. The mummy was a true feat of special effects, surely one of the best-looking monsters in Doctor Who's recent history. The sets for the Orient Express were also very well-done which accentuated the '20's-era trappings of the costumes and music. (Special mention to the always-reliable composer Murray Gold whose jazz-fueled score for this episode was a real treat.) Another nice visual touch was the clock in the corner of the screen which counted down the 66 seconds which victim had to live. These portions of the episode told in real time added to the tension and suspense of the story.

My only gripe with the story was its conclusion. There was an incredible amount of build-up to the solution and when we finally learn the mummy's true motivations, it comes as something as a let-down. Granted, the story wasn't exactly a mystery but it could have played up this aspect a bit more. As an aside, the episode clearly drew some inspiration from the 1972 horror film Horror Express starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing which finds a hulking alien being loose on the Trans-Siberian Express...whose victims die after gazing upon its face.

In all, Mummy on the Orient Express was the highlight of the series. With an intense, original story and some fun acting on Peter Capaldi's part, I award the episode 4.5 out of 5 stars. Interestingly, Jamie Mathieson will also be writing next week's episode, so I have high expectations once more.

Next Week - Flatline by Jamie Mathieson 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #4 "1977 Version"

One of the most highly revered adaptations of Dracula was produced for the BBC in the late 1970's. Re-released in America as part of the program Great Performances, the 1977 version of Bram Stoker's horror novel stands out as not only the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel, but surely one of the creepiest.

At two-and-half-hours, Count Dracula as the program became titled, there is plenty of room for all of Stoker's original plot points. Scenes which had seldom been committed to screen were preserved, such as the nightmarish sequence in which Jonathon Harker watches Dracula crawl spider-like down the side of Castle Dracula. A number of minor details which had often been overlooked were also included (Dracula's hairy palms for instance). Lastly, much of the original dialogue was lifted verbatim from the novel. To fans of the original story, 1977's Count Dracula stands as favourite version.

While I love the fidelity to Stoker's novel (and it's truly the only one to remain true to the book on this list), that's not the reason why I have included it. Count Dracula has surely got to be the most surreal, nightmarish adaptation of Dracula I have ever seen. The truly spine-chilling stuff begins with Louis Jourdan's Dracula. Jourdan is an actor of some renown, sadly rather forgotten today. He had incredible range appearing in everything from Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case to the famed musical Gigi to the role of the villain in the James Bond film Octopussy. Here, Jourdan approaches the role of Dracula in an interesting way. Dracula is cold and somewhat aloof, but this only makes his performance all the more intense and scary. Jourdan's Dracula never looses his cool, even when faced with the gang of intrepid vampire hunters.

Louis Jourdan - a truly nightmarish Dracula
What's more, Louis Jourdan is very human as Dracula. There are not many instances in the film where Dracula bears his fangs or has red eyes. However, when he does, the sudden appearance of these vampire traits is surprising, taking the audience off guard. Some of these scenes are heightened by coloured-filters which makes Dracula's skin white and lips and eyes red. Count Dracula (1977) truly is a nightmare brought to life, and for that it makes this top five list.

The other characters are portrayed on screen just as they appeared in the novel. The always-welcome Frank Finlay co-stars as Professor Van Helsing. Through no fault of his own, Finlay's vampire hunter is pretty underwhelming. Though portrayed per Stoker's novel as a middle-aged, Dutch professor, Van Helsing just doesn't come across as an exciting antagonist for Dracula. The script, slightly deviating from the source material, does allow the two opposing forces to exchange a few words as the story reaches its climax which really increases the tension. Also worthy of note is Susan Penhaligon as Lucy, Dracula's first victim. Her appearance as a vampire, wreathed in smoke, bearing fangs and red eyes, is really chilling stuff.

Count Dracula approaches Bram Stoker's novel not with bombast, but with a conscious effort to portray the story accurately and with great surrealism. A truly blood-chilling two-and-half-hours, if you're a fan of Stoker's novel or Dracula in general and haven't seen this adaptation, it is highly recommended. Next Friday we continue the Dracula countdown, this time featuring one of the biggest-name actors to play the vampire, with a script provided by one of horror's biggest names.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review - "The Monogram Murders"

I think it would be an understatement to say that the announcement making it known that a new Hercule Poirot novel was in the works garnered mixed responses. Poirot, the creation of Agatha Christie, had never been written by anyone other than his creator the Queen of Crime and many saw this as the final nail in the coffin for the Christie Estate.

Nevertheless, I awaited the release of the novel, eventually entitled The Monogram Murders written by Sophie Hannah, with some anticipation. I was curious to see if this bold experiment could work. Hannah had said that she was fond of Christie's works, a trait which seems to be disappearing in modern mystery writers. With The Monogram Murders now completed, how did it fair? Let's take a closer look...

Hercule Poirot is seated alone in a London cafe when he's approached by a mysterious woman who claims that her life is in danger. Fearing she will die, she tells Poirot not to seek the killer, for justice will have been carried out by her death. Later that same evening, Poirot meets with his friend and associate Inspector Catchpool of Scotland Yard and learns that three murders were committed at the Bloxham Hotel, each victim found with a monogrammed cuff-link in his or her mouth. Sensing a connection, Poirot is determined to track down the mysterious woman and bring about a solution to the mysterious deaths before the killer has a chance to strike again...

In some ways I feel rather sympathetic for Sophie Hannah. Before her novel was even released many Christie enthusiasts had written the novel off, the notion of reading it a sacrament to the Queen of Crime's good name. As I noted above, I was curious to see how the book would turn out. It's not like a pastiche is a bad thing - some of the Sherlock Holmes pastiches I have come across in the past have been outright brilliant, so there's always the possibility of genuine quality. However, The Monogram Murders does miss the mark. From the outset, Hannah said that she was not going to try to emulate Christie's style, preferring to utilize her own. That is already one mark against the book; a pastiche is supposed to be an author's attempt at emulating something else. That's it's raison d'etre. By not even attempting to emulate Christie's writing, The Monogram Murders simply becomes a Sophie Hannah mystery with Hercule Poirot thrown into the mix.

I have never read any of Hannah's other novels so I cannot say how the book fares compared to her others- from all accounts, Hannah writes psychological thrillers, which isn't too prevalent in the novel. Using The Monogram Murders as a basis for an opinion concerning Hannah, I don't know if I'd pick up one of her novels with great haste. Hannah was obviously trying to write a plot by like Agatha Christie, but it fell flat in the process. While Christie managed to create a lengthy list of suspects, Hannah's novel features far too few, which means that the all-important shock factor come the surprise ending is not there. There is also far too little character development; as other reviewers have pointed out, the three most interesting characters in the novel are the victims and they are never alive to interact with any of the others. Agatha Christie's novels were always filled with character development, even in her stories where the suspect list was decidedly small (such as The ABC Murders or Five Little Pigs, surely two of Christie's finest works).

While the plot may not have resembled Christie, what of the hero, Hercule Poirot? Well...Poirot seemed out of character to say the least. There were of course obligatory references to Poirot's "little grey cells", his mustache and desire for neatness and symmetry in his surroundings, but aside from these attributes, the detective herein could have been anyone. What's more, Poirot lost his temper far too many times in the course of the novel and I couldn't help but feel that Hannah drew inspiration not from Christie's own novels but the 2010 Agatha Christie's Poirot adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. The less said about that the better.

Much criticism has been leveled unto the book's narrator Edward Catchpool. This entirely original character wasn't too grating in my mind and I found him to be a likable-enough hero. However, his repulsion and aversion to blood and death were awful character traits for a policeman to have! What's more, these stumbling blocks were never overcome for Catchpool so we leave him just as uneasy around corpses as he was in the start. This could have been an interesting juxtaposition if there was a character arc introduced in the course of the novel's plot, but there were times when this side to Catchpool was forgotten completely only to crop up again later.

Now, let me make one thing clear. There was great potential in The Monogram Murders. The plot was incredibly complex, the setting of a posh London hotel in the '20's and some of the characters had intriguing stories. This book could have been much better if it had left Agatha Christie alone and simply been another mystery novel set in the 1920's. But, because Agatha Christie's name takes up half the cover on the edition which now sits on my bookshelf, I must regard it as a continuation of the great authoress' work, and therefore I expect more. If The Monogram Murders is the fist in a series of new Poirot novels, I don't know if I will attempt others. If future theoretical installments leave me with the same feeling I did once I had finished this book then I'm more inclined to say no.

To sum up, The Monogram Murders had potential. There was an interesting plot and characters, but as a homage or continuation to Agatha Christie, the novel misses the mark and Hercule Poirot was not given the justice he deserved. I finished the book without the usual sense of fulfillment I usually get when finishing a novel, so I will have to give The Monogram Murders 2.5 stars out of 5. If you're interested in trying out The Monogram Murders like I was, then I recommend checking it out from your local library.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Kill the Moon"

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers

As Series 8 approached, a few episodes received a great deal of advance publicity. Peter Harness' episode Kill the Moon was one of those episodes. Considered to be one of the series' highlights, did the episode deliver like it was expected to: yes.

Deciding to take Coal Hill School pupil Courtney Woods (Ellis George) on an adventure, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) travel to the moon. However, they couldn't have arrived at a worse time. A space ship, loaded with nuclear weapons, crash-lands on the moon's surface. Headed by astronaut Lundvik (Herminoe Norris) and her team, the crew finds themselves on an abandoned lunar base which has been overrun by spider-like creatures. Something is living beneath the moon's surface and it could potentially destroy all humanity. Clara and the Doctor will have to question their own morals in order to save the day.

It is interesting that Peter Harness decided to set his debut Doctor Who episode on the moon - a setting which hasn't been used since 1967's The Moonbase. For a debut episode, Harness delivered. Kill the Moon managed to be both incredibly atmospheric and morally-challenging at the same time. The episode's first half with the Doctor and the others discovering the long-dead astronauts killed by the spider creatures was incredibly creepy stuff (especially for a viewer such as myself who suffers from an intense case of arachnophobia).

At the same time, the episode proved to be one of the most morally-challenging in the show's history. I love when Doctor Who challenges the morals of its audience (which makes such stories as Midnight or A Town Called Mercy personal favourites). This episode played with the series' usual conventions and placed the tough decision entirely on the shoulder's of the Doctor's companions. It was a powerful, gutsy move, but I think it worked out very well.

I don't hesitate in suggesting that this was the best-acted episode of the series so far. Peter Capaldi stole the show as the Doctor and we get to see the Twelfth Doctor's darker nature like never before. Capaldi's Doctor is unmatched in terms of gravitas which he brings to the role. I know many viewers are put off by the Doctor's new-found prickly nature, but this is a fantastic representation of the character's ever-changing personality. Kill the Moon was originally intended to be a Matt Smith story which I cannot imagine at all. I can't see any other Doctor other than Capaldi purposefully abandoning his companions in order to prove a point and allow them to learn something about themselves.

Jenna Coleman also had her finest moments here. I don't want to sound redundant but Clara continues to be the Doctor's most challenging companion and surely the most independent. Her decision to leave the Doctor altogether was a bold move, and Jenna Coleman's acting made the scene seem entirely justified. Both Capaldi and Coleman made the episode a powerful one to watch and truly reinforced the episode's focus on morality.

In all, Kill the Moon was the strongest outing of Series 8 so far. With a haunting story-line and truly powerful acting, I do not hesitate in giving the episode a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Next Week - Mummy on the Orient Express by Jamie Mathieson 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #5 "1931 Version"

It is amazing to think that Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen more than any other literary character. Not far behind vying for the record is the king of vampires, prince of the un-dead, Count Dracula. Since his appearance in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula has immersed himself into our culture. As we celebrate this month looking forward to Halloween, I thought I'd count down my top five favourite Dracula films. So without further ado, I bid you welcome...

Of all the actors to play Dracula on film one has become more closely associated with the role than any other - Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was a fascinating, mysterious man in real life and before I delve any further into this famed 1931 film, I think it would be appropriate to take a minute and provide a history about how Lugosi became associated with the vampire in the first place.

Lugosi was a classically trained actor in his native Budapest. He scored roles as romantic leading men and sophisticated villains before he eventually drifted from the European stage. Lugosi arrived in America at just the right time as Dracula, a stage adaptation of Stoker's novel was about to hit Broadway. With his Hungarian roots and alluring appeal, Lugosi fit the bill perfectly to play Dracula on stage. The task was not an easy one for the actor as he has to learn all of his lines phonetically and throughout his life Lugosi never truly mastered the English language. With the play's success, a film version seemed imminent, Universal Studios procuring the rights to both the novel and stage play. Interestingly Lugosi wasn't considered for the role of Dracula - actors Paul Muni and Conrad Veidt making the short list. However, Lugosi at length secured the part. Cameras rolled and movie history was born.

I will say that Bela Lugosi is what truly makes 1931's Dracula. If the role were entrusted to any other actor I don't know if the film would be as fondly remembered as it is today. In fact, the movie is dated considerably with its distinct lack of musical score and stodgy, stagy set pieces some of which seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. But, Bela Lugosi never lets the audience forget him. Even after Dracula has left the majority of the film, his evil presence is felt throughout. It's this hypnotic power which no other actor has ever been able to capture the way that Lugosi managed.

Bela Lugosi in the career-defining role
of Count Dracula
The supporting cast of Dracula are enjoyable, but hardly eclipse the film's star. Edward Van Sloan presents a stalwart Professor Van Helsing, attempting to match Lugosi's theatrical delivery almost note-for-note. David Manners is on hand to play John Harker, the hero and romantic lead. Manners, much to his embarrassment later in life, would play important roles in what are arguably the three most well-known and revered horror film of the '30's - Dracula, The Mummy and The Black Cat. Helen Chandler, rather forgotten today, makes for a convincing heroine Mina, and her wide-eyed hypnotic stare is pretty chilling stuff even today.

Aside from Lugosi, the other most memorable part in the film is that of Dwight Frye as Renfield, the lunatic who is Dracula's human slave. Frye gives the role one-hundred-and-ten percent, completely immersing himself in the role. Frye's maniacal laughter lingers all in the memory after the film is over.

Despite the fact that Dracula was a commercial success in 1931, Universal's treatment of treatment of Bela Lugosi was far from exemplary. After turning down the role of Frankenstein's Monster in Frankenstein, Lugosi found himself virtually begging for movie roles. To add insult to injury, in 1936 when Universal got around to making a sequel to Dracula entitled Dracula's Daughter, the actor found his part of the vampire count written out of the script! The '40's didn't bring much aide to Lugosi's career as Universal cast their newest star Lon Chaney Jr. in Son of Dracula and John Carradine inherited the vampire's cape for House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

However, Lugosi got the last laugh - he was cast in 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, giving one of his finest performances and at once combining gravitas with tongue-in-cheek humour. It would be a fitting end to Lugosi's reign as king of cinema vampires in the '30's and '40's.

Despite the fact that it hasn't aged as well as other horror films of the period, 1931's Dracula brought the horror film into vogue and catapulted the genre onto cinema screens everywhere. Bela Lugosi, in one of his finest performances, made himself into one of the most meorable of all horror stars, and unknowingly created the image of the vampire for decades to come. Make sure to check in next Friday as I continue the countdown looking at the much-loved BBC version featuring Louis Jourdan.