Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night"

Warning - The following review will contain spoilers...

Doctor Who Series 8 has brought on another new writer. This time it's Frank Cottrell Boyce, a famed author and screenwriter known for his magical fantasy stories, including his sequels to Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His debut for Doctor Who entitled In the Forest of the Night was hyped as putting the Doctor in a powerless position. Does it ring true? Let's take a closer look...

Over night a forest has sprouted up across the entire planet Earth. Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) are left to take care of a group of children from the Coal Hill School. However one of them, a mysterious girl named Maebh (Abigail Eames) has disappeared, only to turn up outside the TARDIS uttering cryptic messages. Lost in the forest, will the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) be able to discover what caused the forest to sprout up?

Boyce's assertion that the Doctor would be powerless in this episode was rather accurate. Armed with only his sonic screwdriver (which doesn't work on wood), the Doctor has very little to go on as he tries to solve the mystery. This was an interesting opportunity to see the Doctor in a different light and Peter Capaldi, as always, rose to the challenge. It's no exaggeration to say that Capaldi was the best thing about the episode - the vein of sarcastic, dark humour which was so prevalent in last week's episode carrying over.

Abigail Eames and Peter Capaldi
The other positive aspect is the production design. In the Forest of the Night was an incredible episode to look at, with some beautiful visuals. Shots of sunlight rays shining through tree branches were plentiful and really added to the naturalistic, mysterious tone set forth in the script.

But, the episode cannot stand only on its visual merits. The acting was on a whole was good from the ever reliable Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson. The child actors, who have had a hit-or-miss track record in Doctor Who, fared well enough. But, none of them could conceal the heavy-handed dialogue in the script. This was without doubt the episode's being downfall with a "save the environment" message not-so-subtly weaved in. The dialogue between Clara and Danny seemed too contrived at times and the children's dialogue was cliched and unreal. I never thought I'd here talk about selfies in Doctor Who. The most poignant moment was when the Doctor, trying to convince Clara he should stay on Earth, told her "This is my world too. I walk your Earth. I breath your air." These are the exact same words which Clara used when telling the Doctor he should leave the planet forever in Kill the Moon. It was sadly a throw-away moment, likely written into the script by showrunner Steven Moffat.

So, In the Forest of the Night managed to succeed on atmosphere and acting but the heavy-handed plot and dialogue brought down an otherwise original, interesting premise. In the Forest of the Night is unfortunately the weakest episode of Series 8. I give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #2 "1958 Version"

It seems to be an undisputed fact that Hammer Films revolutionized the horror film genre. With the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, the studio pushed the envelope when it came to horror. The film's tremendous commercial success made it inevitable that a follow-up was in the works - and it was even more inevitable that Bram Stoker's immortal novel would be dramatised next. Released as Dracula in Britain and Horror of Dracula in America, the film would come to be one of the most respected in the horror genre and lead to a lengthy film series.

I have already had the chance to review this remarkable film once before on this blog as part of Peter Cushing Month last May. I encourage you to click here to read that review as I'll be filling in some of the gaps from that previous review.

Of course the main attraction in the film is Christopher Lee's Dracula. Interestingly, the vampire count is side-lined for much of the film and in fact he has only sixteen lines of dialogue and speaks to only one character. However, Lee's Dracula pervades the remainder of the movie, making the most of his limited screen-time. Lee's Dracula is perhaps the most animalistic ever committed to the screen, his red eyes perpetually blaring and his fangs dripping with blood. Seldom has Dracula been so unnerving and creepy, and certainly far-removed from the debonair, well-cultured Bela Lugosi of the 1931 film.

Of course the other high point of the cast is the ever-welcome Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire. Of all the actors to play Van Helsing who has appeared on this list (including next week's choice), Cushing is perhaps the best. He's the most far-removed from Stoker's original conception, but Cushing's athletic and quick-witted Van Helsing makes for an excellent hero, and also sometime of a prototype for his fantastic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Cushing and Lee contribute greatly to the sense of bombast which runs all the way through the film. The final act in particular are a series of chases and fights which keep the film's energy up to the brilliant, awe-inspiring conclusion.

A study of red-eyed ferocity
Fearing typecasting, Christopher Lee was less then enthused when he learned that Hammer planned on adding a sequel to Dracula. What eventually transpired was something of a Hammer franchise and I'd like to take a moment to look at these films individually. 1960's The Brides of Dracula didn't feature Lee's Dracula at all and instead focused on Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. The film is excellent - one of Hammer's finest. Lee donned the vampire's cape for 1966's Dracula: Prince of Darkness which finds the count brought back to life after a group of travelers find themselves stranded at Castle Dracula. Lee's Dracula has no dialogue whatsoever in the film, and while not the best of Hammer's Dracula sequels, it's an entertaining piece of '60's horror.

Next was Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. The film is probably the best-looking of Hammer's Dracula movies; scenes wreathed in fog and coloured filters which lend an eerie, fairy-tale like quality to the film. The next, Taste the Blood of Dracula is my personal favourite Dracula sequel. Lee's Dracula has the smallest role of any Dracula film, but it's a well-mounted, visually-stunning film and surely the nastiest sequel thus far. It's also the turning point in the Dracula series as the films which followed dropped in quality. Arguable the lowest point in Hammer's series was Scars of Dracula which tried as hard as possible to compete with the increasingly gory horror films released in America, but the effort was in vain and what transpired is a plotless, unsatisfying film. Hammer decided that Gothic horror was no-longer in vogue in the early-'70's, so the studio transported Dracula into the 20th century with Dracula A.D. 1972, a fun film made cringe-worthy by the dated '70's references (I never thought I'd hear dialogue like far out and groovy in a Dracula film). The last film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula combined vampire lore with spy thriller and science fiction, but ultimately failed to succeed.

Though some of Hammer's sequels are entertaining in their own right, none can eclipse their brilliant first effort. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee head a strong cast in an exciting and creepy version of Bram Stoker's novel. Check back next week as I celebrate Halloween with my favourite Dracula film, perhaps the most stylish and atmospheric version ever committed to film.

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.