Friday, December 26, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who - Last Christmas"

Warning - This review will contain spoilers

I was of the opinion that the inclusion of Santa Claus at the end of the Series 8 finale, Death in Heaven, shattered the morose and downbeat atmosphere which the episode invoked. Therefore, I went into this year's Christmas special with some mixed feelings. Would Father Christmas interrupt yet another episode's atmospherics? Let's take a closer look at Last Christmas.

After meeting Santa Claus (Nick Frost) on her rooftop, Clara (Jenna Coleman) is spirited away by the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to the North Pole. A group of researchers stationed at the base have fallen victim to an alien race known as the Dream Crabs. When under the Crab's power, the victim enters a dream-like state and cannot separate reality from dreams. Soon, the Doctor comes to understand that their situation is more dire than he could anticipate and that Father Christmas may be their only hope for survival.

It is collective opinion of many Doctor Who fans that showrunner Steven Moffat is at his best when he's writing stand-alone episodes,ones which do not have to relate back to the overall arc of the series. I am in inclined to agree and I select Last Christmas as evidence of this. This Christmas episode managed to be quite intense and suspenseful, something which surprised me as most Christmas specials are lightweight in tone. Last Christmas is arguably the darkest Christmas special thus far - the characters' uncertainty about whether they are dreaming or not added real gravitas to the story. What's more, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who got a chill up their spine during Clara's dream sequence; a chalk board looming in the background foretelling her death if she didn't wake up.

"Nobody likes the tangerines"
Performances were, as expected, excellent. Peter Capaldi's Doctor has undergone a slight change in personality.Perhaps it was just the festive holiday spirit, but the Doctor seemed far less angry and uncaring. There was the occasional moment of true aloofness, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Twelfth Doctor's heart of ice continues to melt throughout Series 9. Jenna Coleman gave a genuine performance as she confronted her feelings about Danny Pink's death from Death in Heaven. I'm also happy with Clara returning for Series 9. She's been a good companion thus far - I only hope that she doesn't take centre stage too often like she did in Series 8, when the focus should have been on Peter Capaldi's still-developing Doctor.

As to guest star Nick Frost as Santa Claus, I couldn't help but feel that his contribution to the episode was inconsequential. This was of course a fault of Moffat's script and Santa darts in and out of the action with startling frequency. He turns up in the end to save the day which felt like a tremendous deus ex machina, and that's about it. However, Frost's line delivery was nice and he managed to make the fabled Father Christmas a humane character with some incredibly witty dialogue. Also, seeing Capaldi's snarling Doctor getting into a heated confrontation with Santa was a sight which had to be seen to be believed.

I don't think Last Christmas can be called the best of the Doctor Who Christmas specials, that honour going to A Christmas Carol, but it manage to feel large and epic, unlike last year's festive offering The Time of the Doctor which promised to be made on an epic scale, but felt small. Exciting in execution, the episode manged to be an intense, emotional ride. I cannot give it full marks as Nick Frost's Santa Claus seemed out of place and really took much of the emotional weight out of the proceedings. Therefore I give Last Christmas 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review - "Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein"

There are certain characters who Sherlock Holmes has run across a number of times: Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Arsene Lupin etc. However, there is one literary character with whom the great detective has seldom matched wits - Frankenstein and his Monster. This in retrospect, this makes some sense. Mary Shelly's novel is not set in metropolitan London, and it set some seventy years before Holmes took up his magnifying glass and deerstalker. However, that doesn't mean that some authors haven't tried to combine this famed characters into one story. Luke Benjamin Kuhns' Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein does just that. How does it fare? Let's find out...

It is 1885 and a spat of grave robberies have startled London. Sherlock Holmes, in the midst of a bout of great ennui, is disinterested in case. That is until he's approached by Inspector Bradstreet of Scotland Yard. It seems that at the scene of the latest grave robbery, a night watchman has been murdered. His curiosity sufficiently piqued, Holmes and Watson begin their investigation. The murdered man's face betrays signs of tremendous horror, and upon further investigation Holmes discovers a giant footprint nearby. By the detective's estimation, the man's murderer was at least eight feet tall. Who is the murderer? What do they want with the bodies, and is there a connection with the infamous Dr. Frankenstein?

Despite the fact that this graphic novel shares a title with one of Hammer horror's lesser-known works, it owes more to the style of the Universal horror films of the '30's and '40's. There's a genuine sense of mystery, adventure and horror mixed into the plot. Plot tropes from Universal's films are mixed in from the mad scientist and his lab. I won't spoil the story, but one character who appeared in one of Universal's most famed Frankenstein films turns in a wonderful appearance here. Despite its horror story trappings, author Luke Kuhns manages to weave an excellent Sherlockian plot and his presentation of the characters through dialogue is excellent. I am not very familiar with Kuhns' writing, but this makes me interested to look into more.

As I mentioned above, this is a graphic novel. Illustrator Marcie Klinger did an excellent job in capturing the Gothic atmosphere of the story. The artwork is dark and evocative and very nicely detailed. However, I was rather surprised to find Sherlock Holmes dressed in a standard twentieth-century trench coat though!

Without giving away too much plot, Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein gets around the logistical problems of combining these two famous stories by acting as a sequel to Mary Shelly's original. For fans of Frankenstein, some of the characters some of the original novel pop up in flashback and fill in some of the gaps. In this way, the story is able to work on its own without trying to limit itself to the confines of a previously-published work. I applaud the original story telling, especially since I had no idea what to expect going into the graphic novel.

In all, Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein is a very surprising work. Author Luke Kuhns is obviously well-versed in both his Sherlockian and horror film knowledge. With an interesting, original plot, and moody (though at times anachronistic) artwork, the graphic novel comes recommended from me. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.


Sherlock Holmes and The Horror of Frankenstein is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Pastiches (Of All Time) Part II

Let's not waste any time and proceed at once...

#5 - The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna - It would be an understatement to say that Sherlock Holmes has faced off against Jack the Ripper a lot in fiction. Two films, countless novels and even a video game feature this premise. However, one version of this oft-told story stands out above all the others - Edward B. Hanna's The Whitechapel Horrors, surely the finest book to feature the world's greatest detective matching wits with history's most famous killer.

Written in the third person as opposed to Watson's narration, Hanna's narrative manages to weave in a great deal of historical content into his fascinating story. Many of the theories regarding the Ripper's identity are explored within the book as Holmes and Watson move through a tangled web towards the truth. The late Hanna was clearly well-up on his Sherlockian knowledge as there are many references to the original works and each chapter opens with a quote from the canon. For a devout Sherlockian, The Whitechapel Horrors is simply brimming with Sherlockian goodness from start to finish. With a page-count which exceeds 400 pages, it's easily the most thorough Holmes vs. Ripper novel ever published, and one which is sure to impress both the Sherlockian and the Ripperologist.

#4 - The Tangled Skein by David Stuart Davies - Aside from plots which find Sherlock Holmes squaring off against Jack the Ripper, the other most common literary encounter is the great detective meeting the king of vampires, Count Dracula. The concept has been a multitude of times, but perhaps the best representation of this concept is David Stuart Davies' novel, The Tangled Skein. Set after the events of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes' pursuit of the very-much alive Jack Stapleton soon lead him to encounter Dracula himself on the Devonshire moorlands.

The Tangled Skein is part Sherlock Holmes novel and part Hammer horror tribute (which is probably why I love the book so much). The twisting, turning story-line is deftly woven and despite the overt supernatural elements inherent in the plot, the book still feels true to its Doylean origins. For those interested, Big Finish Audio adapted the novel as part of their Sherlock Holmes series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The brilliant music, sound effects and performances from Nicholas Briggs and Richard Earl heighten the already fantastic plot, and one is liable to feel a cold shiver pass through their spine while listening. In all, if you're looking for a pastiche to sink your teeth into (pun intended), look no further than The Tangled Skein.

#3 - The Giant Rat of Sumatra by Richard L. Boyer - "The story for which the world is not yet prepared" is without doubt the most famous of all the untold Sherlock Holmes adventures referenced in the canon. Dozens of variations on the concept have seen print, but the version penned by Richard Boyer is a work of sheer genius. Few writers have captured the original Doylean style of writing the way Boyer did, and presents his characters faithfully.

When a seaman drops dead on Holmes' doorstep, Holmes and Watson are drawn into a complex mystery which surrounds a mysterious ship called "The Matilda Briggs." Investigating further, the duo soon discover a link to a recent kidnapping and will face an old foe in doing so. What is so impressive about the plot for The Giant Rat of Sumatra is that it is a genuine mystery, with clues dropped all the way through which only the most keen of readers will see. Oftentimes, a pastiche leans towards being an adventurous novel, which is fine, but it's fantastic to see an author craft a truly intricate mystery for the great detective to solve. That's not to say that there is no adventurous spirit in the novel - the climax in particular is quite dramatically realised with its fantastic twist ending. I do not want to divulge too much as much of the fun of The Giant Rat of Sumatra is being lead on the same path to discovery as the detectives.

#2 - The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz - I think part of the appeal of The House of Silk is that it was penned by an author of a high calibre. What's more, Anthony Horowitz shows that he is a genuine fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and the original stories in his pastiche, surely the best Holmes pastiche of recent memory. Advertised as Holmes' darkest case, the claim is certainly true. While investigating a man's claim that he is being pursued by a dangerous criminal, Holmes and Watson become entangled in a web of devilry and deceit. They are faced with one seemingly unanswerable question throughout their investigation: what is the House of Silk? Little do they know what dangers the pursuit of that answer shall bring.

Horowitz's fidelity to the canon is excellent with fine portrayals of the principle characters. His tone does differ at times from Doyle's, but Horowitz fill his pages with references to the originals which are sure to warm the heart of any Sherlockian. The plot is tense and incredibly suspenseful, putting Holmes and Watson in a number of truly compromising situations. And Horowitz's prior experience writing for Agatha Christie's Poirot and Foyle's War comes into play as he manages to pull off when the greatest twist endings in any pastiche I have ever comes across.

And (drum roll please)...

#1 - The Veiled Detective by David Stuart Davies - Writing a pastiche is a difficult enough task. Writing a pastiche which tries to do something very different with its central characters is another matter entirely. But David Stuart Davies managed to pull it off wonderfully in what I believe to be the greatest Sherlock Holmes pastiche I have ever read. The Veiled Detective makes for absolutely compulsory reading once you've started.

The premise finds a medical doctor named John Walker hired by Professor Moriarty to spy on a detective named Sherlock Holmes. Assuming the name Watson, Walker moves into Baker Street and together the two begin work together as detectives, embarking on some of their most famous cases, the real details of which are finally made public. The Veiled Detective portrays its central figures in a different light - all are flawed, very real human beings. The original plot aside, the novel is a brilliant character study and allows the reader to examine the close friendship between Holmes and Watson in a way which has not been possible before. I was blown away by this book when I read it for the first time some four years ago and it has left a tremendous impact on me to this day. If you're interested in a fascinating character study of the world's greatest detective, The Veiled Detective is highly recommended.

As always, I open it up to you now. What do you think of the list? Did I leave one of your favourites off? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Pastiches (Of All Time) Part I

It is nearly impossible to list every single Sherlock Holmes pastiche which has ever been published in some form. There are a myriad of them in film, television, audio and print form. Having already examined movies and television, I'm excluding those from this list and focusing mostly on Sherlock Holmes novels or short story collections.

#10 - The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer - Without doubt one of the most widely-known pastiches, Nicholas Meyer's novel brought the detective back into the limelight, and though not the first pastiche, turned the Sherlock Holmes pastiche into a literary sub-genre. Meyer boldly decided to present an alternate version of the original canon in his novel, deciding to inform readers what really happened during Sherlock Holmes' presumed death.

In the thralls of cocaine addiction, Holmes begins to persecute his old maths tutor, Professor Moriarty. Knowing that Holmes is doing harm to both the Professor and himself, Watson manages to lure the detective to Vienna to see Sigmund Freud. Freud will work to cure Holmes of his addiction, but no sooner has the treatment begun than Freud, Holmes and Watson are thrown into a case. Meyer's novel is fast-paced and engaging as he managed to capture Doyle's original tone excellently. The story, while aggravating to the most devout Doylean, is an interesting alternative history, and the novel is written with such conviction that the story line is not too far fetched. As I noted above, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was not the first Sherlock Holmes pastiche, but it made writing them popular and the novel became a bestseller, ultimately spawning two (lesser) sequels and a beloved film adaptation.

#9 - The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle & John Dickson Carr - This collection of short stories has the distinction of being authored by Conan Doyle's own son and master mystery writer John Dickson Carr. Together, the two collaborated on a series of short stories, each one based on references made to untold stories from the canon. What resulted is a milestone in Sherlockian history, and some of the finest crafted short stories in the detective's long literary history.

Though there are some stories which are easily forgettable in the collection, some make worthwhile reading on their own. "The Adventure of the Black Baronet" concerns an impossible mystery and a family curse which Holmes must solve in order to acquit a wrongly-accused woman. In "The Adventure of the Seven Clocks," Holmes must determine why a mild-mannered man becomes enraged at the mere sight of a clock, and discovers political implications in the case. And in "The Adventure of the Deptford Horror," Holmes and Watson face another locked-room puzzle, and a means of committing murder which made my hair stand on end when I first read this collection. Written in an extraordinarily authentic voice, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes are some of the finest Sherlock Holmes short stories which I have ever happened across.

#8 - The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes by Jonathon Barnes - Though the only pastiche that is not a published book on this list, this Big Finish audio drama simply had to be included. Writer Jonathon Barnes has created four, interconnected cases from four periods in the great detective's career. Holmes and Watson will face danger at every turn as they take on what amounts to be one of their most epic adventures.

The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes is truly a story of epic proportions. Each of the four hour-long audio recordings are set in a different decade, beginning with Holmes just starting his career as a consulting detective and ending with the detective having long-since retired. The mysteries are truly engaging and thrilling, complimented by Nicholas Brigg's excellent turn as Holmes, and Richard Earl's remarkable reading as Dr. Watson. Big Finish has crafted some excellent Sherlockian offerings, but The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes is certainly among their best. (As an aside, Big Finish's next Jonathon Barnes-scripted Sherlock Holmes series, The Judgement of Sherlock Holmes is to be released later this December.)

#7 - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes by Loren D. Estleman - In the pastiche world, it's fairly common for two literary characters to meet. One of the best examples of this is Loren D. Estleman's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes which brilliantly weaves Holmes and Watson into the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson's original novella. Though the twist ending of Stevenson's story is known the world over, it's fascinating to see the original portrayed as a mystery once more, and part of the suspense and enjoyment of the story is seeing Holmes piece together the clues to come to the inevitable conclusion.

Estleman presents a very authentic Sherlockian voice, which adds further to the pastiche. Holmes and Watson are presented remarkably well as are Stevenson's characters, and their interaction is seamless. Taking no liberties with the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Estleman has managed to create one, unique plot which doesn't feel disjointed in any way. It is interesting to note that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes was Estleman's second Sherlockian foray - his first being the rather melodramatically titled Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula. Much like the novel which followed it, Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula incorporated Sherlock Holmes in the plot of Bram Stoker's novel, but not in the same flawless manner as this pastiche.

#6 - The Scroll of the Dead by David Stuart Davies - This particular pastiche will also hold a special place in Sherlockian heart as it was the first pastiche I ever read. David Stuart Davies, one of my favourite Sherlockian writers, has written what is perhaps the most exciting, action-filled novel of its kind. Matching wits with a maniac, Holmes and Watson must use all of their resources as they hunt down an ancient Egyptian papyrus which claims that it can raise the dead from their graves. As they embark on their dangerous mission, the duo do not who they can and cannot trust.

The Scroll of the Dead is an un-apologetically exciting novel. It is filled throughout with set-pieces which make for exciting reading, linked together by a complex plot, wrought with twists, turns and suspense. Throughout, Davies writes with an unmatched replication of Doyle's original making The Scroll of the Dead (for all of its outlandishness) feel like an original Sherlock Holmes novel. It's an overall fun, exciting read which should thrill and delight any Sherlockian.

So, we've come to the end of part one. Come back next week as I look at the top five best Sherlockian pastiches. As we enter the holiday season, maybe you'll find the ideal gift for that Sherlockian on your list...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review - "The Devil's Promise"

The Devil's Promise is perhaps best described as an unconventional Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I might as well say now that I enjoy unconventional pastiches. If handled correctly, these novels can provide some extraordinarily entertaining reading. Written by David Stuart Davies, one of my favourite Sherlockian writers, The Devil's Promise features Holmes and Watson entangled in a most unorthodox problem. How did it fare overall? Let's find out.

On holiday in the English seaside, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are soon embroiled in a mystery. The duo discover a body on a secluded beach, which promptly disappears. Deciding to investigate, Holmes and Watson soon find that the residents of the sleepy seaside hamlet are behaving oddly, seemingly intimidated by the Blackwood family who live in a secluded mansion outside of town. According to local lore, the Blackwood's father was a renowned Satanist who tried to conjure the Devil during a black mass. Sensing a potential lead, Holmes and Watson are prepared to investigate further when they are attacked in their rented cottage. In the struggle Watson is knocked out cold.

When the good doctor comes to, he discovers that months have passed. Returning to Baker Street with Holmes, Watson finds that his friend's personality has changed dramatically - the detective is far more distant and cold. What could have caused this change in character, and what happened after the two men were attacked months earlier? Watson will set out on his own to discover the truth, putting not only his life in jeopardy, but Sherlock Holmes' as well.

The Devil's Promise summed up in the above two paragraphs clearly shows that it is a different breed of Sherlock Holmes pastiche. However, I was drawn into the mystery almost from the beginning and I found myself finishing the novel in only a few sittings. While it may not please the most conservative of Sherlockians, the novel was obviously written by an ardent Holmes fan who managed to craft an ingenious plot around Holmes and Watson. There were many twists and turns in the plot which made for edge-of-your-seat reading, and the idea that Watson is alone in his investigation, unable to trust Holmes added much tension to the story.

The twisting plot was complimented by wonderful atmosphere. The book was filled with a sense of foreboding, impending doom which practically jumped off of the page. Just as Davies' Sherlock Holmes-vs.-Dracula novel The Tangled Skein was an obvious homage to Hammer horror films, The Devil's Promise fit the same mold. There were several Gothic nuances throughout the story and the climax was the typical blood-and-thunder set piece seen in a Hammer horror. The book particularly mirrored Hammer's 1968 film The Devil Rides Out which starred Christopher Lee fighting the forces of the Devil and a group of insane Satanists.

While the book was quite good, it's plot did make a few things difficult. There were few scenes which Holmes and Watson shared together and seldom were the detective's deductive prowess put on show. But, these were all compromises which had to be made considering the novel's plot. Therefore, I happily say that David Stuart Davies has delivered once more. The Devil's Promise is filled with twists and unexpected turns and tremendous Gothic atmosphere. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A State of the Blog Address

I just wanted to take a moment and apologize for my recent in-activity on this blog. I have been very busy lately and as much as I would like to keep the blog up-to-date, I simply haven't had the time.

I cannot say with certainty how much time I'll be able to devote to posts over the next few months, but I will try my best to post a few reviews and thoughts whenever I have the chance. There's a few things on the horizon which I hope to devote some time to.

So, in all, don't lose faith dear readers - though my output may not be as tremendous in the past, I have not forgotten my blog. I hope you check back periodically as I do have a trick or two up my sleeve.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Dark Water/Death in Heaven"

Warning - This review will contain spoilers!

Well, another season of Doctor Who has come to an end. How did the finale, a two-part story scripted by showrunner Steven Moffat fair and how it stand up against the rest of the series? How did Series 8 fare compared to the other seasons of the show and what of Peter Capaldi? I hope to answer all of these questions in the following review, so without further let's dive right in...

Distraught over the death Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Clara (Jenna Coleman) almost incapacitates the Doctor and his TARDIS by throwing the time machine's seven keys into a volcano. Seeing how far she would go to save the man she loved, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes Clara to 3w, a mysterious institute fascinated with death. The Doctor comes face to face with Missy (Michelle Gomez), the strange woman who has dogged his heels throughout the series, and together they manage to contact Danny in heaven. No sooner have they accomplished this does the Doctor learn that 3w is harboring Cybermen and Missy is in actuality his arch enemy, the Master! With the future of planet Earth hanging in the balance, the Doctor will have to use UNIT to save the day. But at what cost?

When it comes to two-part episodes like this, I tend to find one portion to be better than the other. Here, Dark water/Death in Heaven managed to remain consistent throughout. I must applaud Steven Moffat for keeping the tone the same throughout the two episodes, even when plot twists are introduced and the scale becomes much grander in the second half. I do not hesitate to say that these two episodes have been two of the darkest episodes in Doctor Who's recent history, dwelling on subjects like death and the afterlife, rather taboo for a children's show. However, I found it to be quite compelling and original. I would be lying if I said I wasn't drawn in - especially by the episode Dark Water which had to lay on the mystery extra thick.

The Doctor and the Master - or is Mistress?
We'll revisit the story itself in a minute, but I need to take the opportunity to address the performances from the principles. Peter Capaldi pulled out all the stops in these two episodes. He is without doubt the best actor to have taken on the role of the Doctor since the revival in 2005 and, aside from Matt Smith, is my favorite Doctor. The changes which we the audience have witnessed in his character since the start of the series have been tremendous - a truly brilliant character arc. I look forward to Capaldi's future in the role as I know he will retain that tremendous quality.

Also of particular note was Michelle Gomez as Missy. When it was revealed she was in fact the Master at the end of Dark Water, I wasn't quite sure what to think. (Not to sound too narrow-minded, but I have never been a big proponent of the whole gender swapping thing.) I reserved my judgment and I must say she did an excellent job. Gomez communicated a sense of the Master's true deranged character in a cold, quiet manner which was far more successful than John Simm's scenary-chewing attempts when he played the character. It wouldn't be too outrageous to liken Gomez's Master (Mistress, whatever) to Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector; speaking quietly and delivering a genuine chill up the spine.

While the scripts for Dark Water/Death in Heaven fared well for Capaldi and Gomez, it fell rather short when dealing with the companions. Jenna Coleman delivered her usual fine performance but it seemed like the independent nature of Clara's character became a bit too outrageous when she virtually kidnaps the Doctor and nearly destroys the TARDIS. What's more, this scene, which really goes nowhere, was hardy linked to the rest of the episode. Samuel Anderson, who usually gave a pretty decent performance in the past, seemed rather flat here, especially once he's been turned into a Cyberman. I don't want to bash too much on the script - especially since it did afford Capaldi one of his greatest Doctor moments; skydiving from a crashing airplane without a parachute, tearing a page from James Bond's playbook in Moonraker.

As I said at the top of this review, both episodes of the finale fared equally. Therefore, I give them both 3.5 out of 5 stars. So, in all, how did Doctor Who series 8 fare? Rather well. It featured some truly excellent episodes, but a fair share of mediocre ones. I'd say the series did afford Peter Capaldi a nice introduction and I look forward to his future in the role.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review - "A Scandal in Bohemia Graphic Novel"

I am actually not very familiar with Sherlock Holmes graphic novels. The extent of my knowledge consists only of the graphic novelizations by Ian Edginton featuring moody, evocative artwork by I.N.J. Culbard. All four of them, published by Self-Made Hero, are highly recommended. But today's subject is a little different. Today I take a look at an interesting take on A Scandal in Bohemia by Petr Kopl.

Going over the plot of the graphic novel may be a little redundant as it more-or-less follows Doyle's original but also manages to weave the plot of The Speckled Band into the mix. Despite this, this particular graphic novel may be a little surprising for the more ardent Doylean. The tone of this retelling is quite light and fun, bordering at times on outright parody. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson aren't above exchanging banter and getting into petty squabbles. One particular scene found the detective strong up from the ceiling of 221b hanging by his feet testing a theory. Aside from the fact that there's something overtly Robert Downey Jr. about the panel, it was actually quite funny, especially as Watson enters the sitting room, only to find his friend in a most unusual situation.

Holmes as drawn by Petr Kopl
However, the tone of graphic novel does change and scenes of genuine suspense or horror were conveyed quite nicely. These instances came more often than in the segment retelling The Speckled Band which managed to convey its original's sense of Gothic horror beautifully. The artwork was of particular note here, and I feel as though I should devote a bit of time to the artistic style. Though drawn in an obviously cartoon style, the exaggerated features of the characters was actually quite charming. Holmes is portrayed as quite angular with pronounced chin and nose, and surprisingly enough, Watson is drawn as quite the competent medico and not in the traditional buffoonish style. The illustrations added to the more-or-less light-weight sense of fun which ran throughout the graphic novel and heightened the "fun factor."

There were also a number of interesting asides and references to outside works to make this reader's eye widen. Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days makes a cameo appearance, and Watson becomes a member of the former's exclusive club. Mata Hari is also referenced (this comes as something of a funny twist come the comic's end) as are both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These touches, though enjoyable, were something of a distraction from the overall narrative and with the inclusion of Frankenstein's Monster into the mix (yes, Frankenstein's Monster is in here too) one began to feel that the writer's tongue was planted a little too firmly in his cheek. That's not to say this was a drawback just something of a stylistic surprise.

In all, A Scandal in Bohemia was a fun, very entertaining read. As far as Sherlock Holmes graphic novels go, it fared quite well I think. I do not hesitate in recommending it to fellow Sherlockians, and seeing as Petr Kopl has authored other Sherlock Holmes graphic novels in the same vein, I would be interested in taking a look at those too. I award A Scandal in Bohemia 4 out of 5 stars.


A Scandal In Bohemia – A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository . In ebook format it is in Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #1 "1979 Version"

To celebrate Halloween, here's my pick for the best Dracula film - the winner, the 1979 version released by Universal starring Frank Langella as the vampire. This oft-overlooked film is without doubt the most atmospheric and stylish version of Bram Stoker's story ever committed to film and boasts a particularly fine cast.

The 1979 version began life as a revival of the 1920's stage play which had originally starred Bela Lugosi. The show was performed both in America, where Frank Langella took the role of the vampire, and in Britain where Jeremy Brett took on the role. The play, featuring sets designed by famed illustrator Edward Gorey, was a tremendous success which eventually spawned a film version. In the director's chair was John Badham, whose last directorial job prior to filming Dracula was Saturday Night Fever! However Badham managed to create a truly awe-inspiring atmosphere for the film. It's a beautiful film to watch.

Many reviewers today complain that the latest DVD (and blu ray) releases have drained all of the colour from the film. This is true, but the result is brilliant. The re-coloured DVD adds tremendously to the overall atmosphere, accentuating the bleak nature of the story. What's more, when there are scenes of vivid colour, there is a greater contrast (like the controversial vampire wedding with lasers and the brightly-lit climax). The action is also updated to 1913 which gives the characters the opportunity to inhabit a stylish Edwardian world.

Of course taking centre stage is Frank Langella's Dracula. Langella performs the role in the vein of Bela Lugosi - a cool, hypnotic vampire. However, Langella doesn't perform with the same theatricality which Lugosi did which makes this Dracula all the more creepy and manipulative. Langella's subtly-played Dracula makes him seem eerily alone and humane - a point which is accentuated by changing the now-famous line of dialogue to "Listen to them, children of the night...what sad music they make." To play off of Langella's Dracula is Kate Nelligan's Lucy. Nelligan's heroine is a strong, independent character which makes her falling to Dracula's will all the more creepy.

Frank Langella - best Dracula of them all?
Interestingly characterised on IMDb as a romance, the 1979 version was one of the first to portray Dracula as a romantic figure. However, the movie succeeds brilliantly in this respect. Later versions (*cough Francis Ford Coppola's version cough*) reduced Dracula's threat by making him a romantic figure. Here, Langella's vampire is still an evil, manipulative figure, yet you cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness for Dracula come to the film's inevitable conclusion.

The rest of the cast compliment Langella and Nelligan nicely. In the role of vampire hunter Van Helsing was the great Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier. While it could be argued that Olivier was slumming it in this horror film, Olivier delivers a strong performance, and the script afforded the actor an interesting acting opportunity as Van Helsing becomes the father of one of Dracula's victims. Donald Pleasence lends some light comic relief to the film in the role of Dr. Seward and Trevor Eve plays a likable, sympathetic Jonathon Harker.

In all, the 1979 version of Dracula is underrated, but something of a minor masterpiece in terms of Dracula adaptations. However, one thing stood out the most while working on this review series - each of the five films I selected were totally different from one another, so in terms of favourites, Dracula films are perhaps the most subjective. If you're partial to classical theatricality, faithful surrealism, atmospheric evil, blood-and-thunder bombast, or stylized melancholia, one of the five films I selected should appeal to you.

We've come to the end of this review series. If you liked these reviews or believed I left out a particularly good version (or take umbrage with my constant Francis Ford Coppola bashing), then feel free to leave a comment. Happy Halloween!

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.

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.