Friday, 29 November 2013

Shifting Perceptions: Shift (2011) by Em Bailey Review

Recently released from a mental hospital, Olive Corbett becomes convinced that the new girl in her year, Miranda Vaile, is a shapeshifter: a parasitic being that takes on the physical attributes and mannerisms of its host, while draining them of their vitality and spirit. When Miranda latches on to Olive’s ex-best friend Katie, Olive knows she has to do something, but what can she do when everyone knows that Olive’s crazy and shapeshifters don’t exist?

Just like Miranda Vaile, Shift is not as it first appears. This 2012 Gold Inky award winning novel  from Australian Em Bailey starts off as a clichéd teen sci-fi thriller and by page 50, I was convinced I had figured out every single plot twist for the rest of the book. Of course Olive will end up with Lachlan, the good looking life saver, but not before one or more of the “shock twists” that are inevitable in books with mentally unstable narrators. I was at the point of congratulating myself on being so clever and wondering if I should bother keeping on reading, when suddenly all of my predictions came true and I was only at the mid-point of the book. That’s when I realised that I’d been set up and Bailey had me right where she wanted me.

With everything “obvious” already having happened in the first half of Shift, readers are left wondering what could possibly happen next in the second half, and as a result, everything that follows is a real surprise. It’s a stunt I don’t remember seeing before and one I suspect few writers would be game to try, but Bailey pulls it off perfectly. By using sci-fi and thriller tropes to lull readers into a false sense of security, Bailey manipulates her readers so that they are at the point of genuinely wondering if Miranda could be a shapeshifter after all. And when the answer is finally revealed it doesn’t seem obvious at all.

Admittedly, some of the subplots are handled with less finesse than the main plot. The blossoming romance between Olive and Lachlan still feels trite, even after the mid-point ‘shift’. I could never figure out why Lachlan would waste so much time going after Olive when she spends most of the book rejecting him, and I assume that the only reason Bailey included this sub-plot was because she felt in some way obliged to do so given her target audience. Furthermore, Bailey spends so much time setting up the fact that Olive did something ‘unforgiveable’ that caused her father to desert her family that, when the truth is revealed, it is a major let down. Yet, these are relatively minor sub-plots and the rest of the novel is solid enough for them to be overlooked.

Verdict: Like a shapeshifter, Shift lulls you into a false sense of security and then gets into your head. Once it’s gotten hold of you, there’s no escaping the clutches of this highly engrossing thriller.

Friday, 22 November 2013

5 PG-13 Thrillers and Horror Movies That Don’t Suck

There are certain universally-accepted facts that everybody knows. Grass is green; what goes up must come down; and PG-13 thrillers and horror movies suck. Just ask any horror fan. The single worst thing that has happened to the horror genre in the past decade is the trend away from (US) R rated horror films, with their excessive gore and violence, towards much more restrained (and box-office friendly) PG-13 films. For those of you unaware of the US rating system, a PG-13 rating basically means no swearing, no sex, no nudity and minimal bloodshed. It’s the equivalent of a low-grade Australian M rating or a UK 12A or low-grade 15, and is the death-knell for the mystery, thriller and horror genres, which are all about bloodshed. The appallingly bad remakes of Prom Night, When a Stranger Calls and The Fog were all PG-13 rated. Enough said.

Yet, hard as it may seem to believe, it is actually possible to make a thriller or horror movie with a PG-13 rating that is worth watching. Horror-comedies, of course, work fine with a PG-13 rating (Ghostbusters and Gremlins were given the even more restrictive PG rating), but believe it or not, The Ring, which is a genuinely scary film, was also PG-13. The scares were there, there just wasn’t any blood. Disturbia, the teenage rip-off... uh ...update of Rear Window is also PG-13. It’s not the PG-13 rating that makes horror movies bad, it’s the fact that many film makers who make PG-13 horror films lack the creativity and innovation necessary to make those movies good.

To further prove my point, here are 5 more PG-13 thrillers and horror movies that are actually worth watching:

The Monster Squad (1987)

A group of kids must stop Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon from bringing about the end of the world.

The Goonies, The Gremlins, The Monster Squad. They sure don’t movies like that anymore. Co-written by Shane Black, who also wrote such films as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, I’ve never been quite sure whether this movie was aimed at kids or if, like Stephen King’s It, was in fact, an adult movie about kids. It also answers the question of what happens to a werewolf if you blow him into lots of little pieces.

Stars: Andre Gower, Duncan Regehr, Stephen Macht.

Rating: Australia M/ US PG-13/ UK 15.

Stonebrook (1998)

In order to pay his tuition fees, a college student (Brad Rowe) and his scheming roommate (Seth Green) become a pair of conmen backed by the mob.

A thriller rather than a horror film, this independent feature really ramps up in the last half hour when things inevitably go wrong for the pair resulting in a string of twists and double-crosses. Even though Brad Rowe is the star, the highlight is seeing Seth Green back in his Buffy days.

Stars: Brad Rowe, Seth Green, Zoe McLellan

Rating: Australia M/ US PG-13

Cry Wolf (2005)

A group of students at an elite boarding school start a rumour that the recent murder of a local girl in the nearby woods was, in fact, the work of a serial killer, and that more deaths will follow – then are horrified to find the rumour coming true.

Although the premise makes it sound like a teen slasher film, this modern update of The Boy who Cried Wolf is actually a very clever confidence trick movie with a fantastic ending.

Stars: Julian Morris, Lindy Booth, Jared Padalecki, Jon Bon Jovi

Rating: Australia M/ US PG-13/ UK 12A

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

After evicting an old gypsy woman from her home, an ambitious young loans officer is cursed to suffer three days of torment followed by eternal damnation.

Writer/director Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots with this grossly funny horror film that plays a lot like an episode of Tales From the Crypt. It’s the perfect example of a film maker using creativity to push the limits of the PG-13 rating.

Stars: Alison Lohman, Justin Long

Rating: Australia MA/ US PG-13/ UK 15

Fear Island (2009)

A group of high school students plans to spend a weekend partying on an otherwise deserted island are spoiled by the arrival of a killer out for revenge for something they have done. Told in flashback by Jenna (Haylie Duff), the last survivor of the group, who was found by the police clutching a bloody knife and whose memory of the events is less than 100% reliable.

This made for TV movie is the cinematic equivalent of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books. Mystery and suspense take the place of blood and gore, but it still manages to achieve an acceptably large body count, clocking up a total of six corpses.

Stars: Haylie Duff, Aaron Ashmore, Lucy Hale

Rating: UK 15 / Unrated in the US, as it was made for TV, but conforms to the MPAA’s PG-13 certificate requirements.

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Pen is Mightier...: Death Note/Death Note: The Last Name (2006) Review

Stars: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Kenichi Matsuyama, Erika Toda

When Light Yagami, an idealistic young law student, discovers a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in its pages, he uses it to embark on a secret quest to rid the world of criminals. But when the world’s greatest detective, L, starts closing in on him, Light’s definition of those who “deserve” to die starts to change, transforming him from being a self-proclaimed God of Justice to the most malevolent serial killer the world has ever known.

Japanese live-action cinema has always been a bit of a disappointment to me. Don’t get me wrong. Some of the story ideas are fantastic. However, more often than not, these great plots are destroyed by the fact that the film-makers lack the budget necessary to do them justice. Thankfully, this is not the case with Death Note, the two movie, live-action adaptation of Tsugami Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga of the same name, which actually manages to surpass its source material and ranks as my favourite Japanese movie(s) of all time.

Death Note is a serial killer story with a difference, in that the murders are committed using nothing more sinister than pen and paper. In an interview, manga creator Ohba explained that he made this choice because he “didn’t think he could create a normal fight-style manga” and thought “it might be good to have a suspense-type fighting manga”, which were very rare at the time. There is virtually no violence in Death Note (generally, if someone is killed using the Death Note, the cause of death is a heart attack); instead, the battle between good and evil is fought on a purely psychological basis.

The first of the two Death Note movies (which were made back-to-back and were intended to be watched together) focusses on Light’s descent into darkness. Through his relationship with his girlfriend Shiori, Light is initially shown to be an intrinsically good person with a strong sense of justice, but with each decision he makes, he becomes more and more corrupt, until the shocking finale where we realise he has become every bit as evil as the criminals he is trying to stop.

Although his presence is felt for most of the film, L, who is the Sherlock Holmes to Light’s Moriarty, and who is hilarious to watch with his bizarre array of idiosyncrasies (such as creating kebabs made of cakes and then eating them), only actually appears for the first time at the 72 minute mark and doesn’t come face to face with Light until the film’s end. This is very much Light’s film. 

The second film, Death Note: The Last Name, picks up immediately where the first film left off and expands the first film’s universe to include two more Death Notes and two additional killers. Light becomes a part of the police task force assigned to track down the Death Note killers and the focus of the film shifts to the psychological battle between Light and L, who are simultaneously working together and fighting to the death. When Light first arrives at the taskforce headquarters, he and L play a game of chess. This is the perfect metaphor for the film as a whole. Both Tatsuya Fujiwara (who also starred in Battle Royale – my next favourite Japanese movie) and Kenichi Matsuya are excellent in their roles as Light and L respectively (Kenichi Matsuya was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards), and the scenes with them together are a highlight of the film.

The original manga upon which Death Note was based was serialized in a weekly magazine and ran for 108 chapters. The story spans seven years and has a number of phases to it, with various people obtaining the Death Note and various detectives trying to track it down at different stages in the plot. The movies, however, deal only with the first half of the manga and new material is added in order to create an exciting mid-point (at the end of the first film) and a satisfying conclusion. Although I enjoyed the manga, after about the half-way point it became repetitive and started to drag, so the decision to delete the later portion of it is extremely welcome. It also focus the story more tightly on Light and L, who are undoubtedly the best and most compelling characters in the manga.

Given that Hollywood seems to love remaking successful foreign movies, ever since I first saw Death Note I’ve been wondering why there isn’t an American version of it. Recently, however, there’s been talk of just that, with Shane Black attached as director. While I don’t necessarily believe that all American remakes of foreign films are intrinsically bad (The Ring and Let Me In, for example, were excellent), I struggle to imagine how Hollywood could possibly out-do the Japanese when it comes to Death Note. If you want to know just how good Japanese live-action cinema can be, Death Note is the film to watch.

Verdict: A sprawling two-film epic that does justice to one of the most successful manga series of all time.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Cool Title, Shame About the Movie: You Can’t Kill Stephen King (2012) Review

Stars: Monroe Mann, Ronnie Khalil, Crystal Arnette, Kayle Blogna, Kate Costello

When a group of six stereotypical and highly insufferable twenty-somethings visit the lake in Maine where horror writer Stephen King is rumoured to live, they find themselves being killed off one by one in ways taken straight from Stephen King’s works.

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Stephen King is one of the most successful and influential writers of our time. His name is synonymous with “horror” and it is virtually impossible to find someone who hasn’t been exposed to at least one of his works, even if only through the numerous film adaptations. His stories have permeated the collective consciousness of our society so much so that at the mere mention of his name, you can guarantee certain images will immediately spring to people’s minds: Carrie White drenched in blood on prom night; Jack Torrance chasing after his family with an axe; It in the form of a razor toothed clown; and Annie Wilkes with her sledgehammer; to name but a few. As such, a film about a killer who is killing people in ways inspired by King’s works should be a great opportunity for fans and casual readers alike to play a big 90 minute game of “spot the King reference”. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Intended to be a horror-comedy homage to Stephen King, You Can’t Kill Stephen King fails on all three levels: it’s not scary, not very funny, and in spite of the film’s poster, which references five of King’s best known works, barely touches on King’s contribution to the horror genre at all. There are only four King-inspired deaths in the entire movie and all of them are based on obscure short stories that have never been turned into movies (three from Night Shift and one from Skeleton Crew). To date I’ve read 21 of King’s books and watched 50 movies/mini-series based on his works (not to mention The Dead Zone, Kingdom Hospital and Haven TV series), and were it not for one of the characters explaining the significance of these deaths, I wouldn’t have even spotted them as being King-inspired. It’s as if the writers of this film only bothered to read two of King’s short story anthologies and then said to themselves – “There. I’ve read King. This is what he’s all about.” If I was making this film, I would have, at the very least, re-read all of King’s most iconic works (for example, It, The Shining, Cujo, Christine) and worked from there, and I can’t figure out why the writers didn’t do the same.

The only really good things I can think to say about this film are (1) it’s short, and (2) the ending twist is kinda cool, although not really all that surprising and not cool enough to redeem what went before it. Nevertheless, much like with the similarly themed and similarly disappointing The Raven (2012), which featured an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired killer and also focused on Poe’s lesser known works rather than his best known classic, by depriving the audience of the opportunity to spot the references themselves, the makers of the film take away the very reason for the audience showing up in the first place. Early on in You Can’t Kill Stephen King one of the main characters is described as a “black hole of fun.” By focussing on the obscure works of King, the makers of You Can’t Kill Stephen King have created their own black hole of fun that is only likely to be fully appreciated by the most die-hard of Stephen King fans.

Verdict: What could have been an awesome homage to the most successful horror writer of all time never fails to disappoint from beginning to end. There’s a reason why you’ve never heard of this film.

Friday, 1 November 2013

This is the Way the World Ends: The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe Review

When a small island is hit by an epidemic that kills almost everyone in its path, the government quarantines the island, preventing anyone from either arriving or leaving. Cut off from the rest of the world, with no one left to keep the peace, a group of survivors band together in an attempt to help those who remain and possibly find a cure.

There is something about a good epidemic story that can really get under your skin. When I first read The Stand, for example, Stephen King’s behemoth of an epidemic novel, I fell ill with symptoms very similar to those described in the book and spent the whole time I was reading it wondering if I was going to survive long enough to finish it. We have all been sick at some time and watched a cold or flu pass through everyone at work or school and can easily extrapolate the experience to a killer flu that wipes out 99% of the world’s population. Deep down we fear that the possibility of such an epidemic isn’t as remote as we’d prefer to believe.

In Megan Crewe’s The Way We Fall, Ground Zero for the apocalyptic epidemic is an island off the coast of Canada and the story of how this epidemic takes hold of and destroys the island’s population is told from the point of view of 16 year old Kaelyn via the diary which she is keeping. Just to be clear, this is NOT a zombie novel. It seems now days that every story about an epidemic features a virus that turns people into brain-munching rage monsters, and when I first picked up this book, I assumed it was no different. Instead, the virus at the centre of the novel is just a standard flu-type virus that kills people dead (in the no returns sense of the word), but only after they’ve had time to become very friendly and pass on their germs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. It worked for Stephen King in The Stand, so why not use the same idea as the basis for a YA novel? The diary format works well as a means of conveying the paranoia experienced by Kaelyn in her quarantine situation and for the time I was reading this book, every time I heard someone cough or sneeze, I found myself wondering if they had the virus, too. Yet, after the initial set up, instead of picking up speed, the novel remains stuck firmly in second gear, rendering the whole thing a bit of a non-event.

Being the first in a planned trilogy, there are certain things you can safely assume going into this novel: the virus probably isn’t going to be eradicated any time soon and the main characters, especially Kaelyn, are probably going to survive. Nevertheless, The Way We Fall could still have been a lot more exciting and tense that it actually is. The problem is that Kaelyn never really does anything beyond delivering food to people, helping out at the hospital and sitting around home. Given the possibilities of the novel’s premise, surely Crewe could have found something less mundane for her to do. For a while, the villains of the story held some promise – a group of locals who start off by looting abandoned shops and move onto killing the infected in an attempt to control the disease - but even they are poorly utilised, with Crewe preferring to let the virus deal with them rather than forcing Kaelyn and her friends to fight them themselves. In fact, at times it feels as though the main characters are just sitting around waiting for their fellow islanders to die so they can move onto the (hopefully more interesting) sequel. (And incidentally, how is it that, on an island where everyone is dying of an epidemic, the main characters all manage to continually avoid infection, or if they are infected, rank among the rare few who survive? Isn’t that a little unlikely?)

The Way We Fall is not a bad novel, but given the plot elements Megan Crewe set up for herself, it should have been a lot better. Maybe the action will amp up in Book 2 of the trilogy (The Lives We Lost), but on the back of this novel, I won’t be rushing to find out.

Verdict: What could have been a YA version of The Stand, never quite manages to rise above the mundane.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Horror Classic: Suspiria (1977)

Stars: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett.

When American dancer Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) moves to Europe to study at a prestigious German ballet academy, she comes to believe her new school is run by a coven of witches.

Suspiria is the most beautiful horror movie you will ever see. Made during the peak period of stylistic Italian horror director Dario Argento’s career, which started with 1975’s Deep Red and continued until 1987’s Opera, it is considered by many to be Argento’s masterpiece and is frequently included in lists of the best movies of all time, let alone of the best horror movies.

It tells the story of Suzy Banyon, who has the misfortune of arriving at the Freiburg Dance Academy the same dark and stormy night another student flees the school and is brutally murdered. Over the following weeks, the school is subject to a series of bizarre occurrences, ranging from maggots falling from the ceiling to horrific murders, which lead Suzy and her new friend Sara to the conclusion that there is a supernatural presence in the school that must be stopped. The plot becomes more and more flimsy as the film progresses, but that doesn’t matter because you don’t watch Dario Argento films for the plots (which can get pretty silly at times), you watch them because they are works of art.

Utilising bright colours instead of the usual horror blacks and greys, Suspiria’s Art Deco style sets are stunning and a clear effort has been made to make every scene look interesting and gorgeous. This stands in stark contrast to the horrible events that are happening on the sets. When combined with the unsettling background music that plays throughout, written by Argento himself with Italian rock band Goblin, the overall effect is to make the audience feel as unnerved as the characters themselves (in fact, to elicit the frightened performances given by the actors, Argento played the soundtrack at full blast throughout filming).

36 years after it was first released, the scare factor of Suspiria’s numerous death scenes has dulled somewhat. With blood that looks more like red paint, and obviously fake and over the top gore effects, it is hard to imagine anyone now days actually being frightened of these scenes. Yet, the gruesome nature of them scenes remains and they are still undeniably shocking almost four decades on.

One of the few great horror films that has yet to be remade, there have been rumours of a Suspiria remake being in the works for years. Most recently, these rumours cast Isabelle Fuhrman in the lead and had David Gordon Green (best known for films such as Pineapple Express and The Sitter) directing. Fortunately, every attempt at getting a remake off the ground has crashed and burned. Although I don’t have any fundamental objections to horror remakes (the My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th remakes were both better than the original movies), Suspiria is one of the rare cases where it would genuinely be impossible to improve on the original. Like Rosemary’s Baby, another fantastic horror film that has yet to be remade and which would make a great companion piece for this film, there are some horror films that are just pretty much perfect. Hopefully Hollywood will continue to recognise this fact for years to come.

Verdict: If you’re looking for a great night in this Halloween, you can’t go far wrong with Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Book vs Movie Showdown: Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Scott Pilgrim, video gamer and bass guitarist in a not-so-great rock band, thinks his life has finally taken a turn for the better when he fall for Ramona Flowers, an Amazon Canada delivery girl who takes short cuts through his dreams. That is, until he learns he must defeat all of Ramona’s seven evil exes for her to become his girlfriend.

The Book: The Scott Pilgrim Series by Bryan Lee O’Malley

According to Joss Whedon, “Scott Pilgrim is the best book ever. It is a chronicle of our time. With Kung Fu, so yeah: perfect.” I don’t think I would go quite that far.

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six part graphic novel, published over the six year period from 2004 to 2010, starts off fantastically well, with the first two volumes being works of surreal brilliance. When Scott meets Ramona, a mysterious girl who rollerblades through his dreams; changes her hair every few weeks; and buys her shoes from the same place as Mr Silly; his life literally becomes just like the video games he wastes so much of his time playing. Ramona’s seven evil exes are essentially end of level bosses who vanish in a shower of coins when defeated; special “items” appear from nowhere when Scott performs certain tasks; and Scott even manages to earn an extra “life” at one point. The showdowns between the exes are great, too, with each playing out in a different but equally imaginative way (for example, the Bollywood inspired showdown with Ramona’s first evil ex, Matthew Patel).

Yet, O’Malley can’t seem to sustain the creative steam of the first few volumes, and around the midpoint, the story becomes more about Scott’s “real world” problems (like getting a job and reconciling with his own exes), much to its detriment. Even Ramona loses everything that makes her special by the final volume, with her character becoming virtually indistinguishable from the other women in Scott’s life, both in personality and visually. Joss Whedon did get it right about the Kung Fu, but that’s about it.

The Movie: Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)

Stars: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin

Edgar Wright’s perfectly cast film version of Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, takes all of the best bits from O’Malley’s graphic novel and combines them to form a unique movie that is part video game, part motion comic (complete with captions, visible onomatopoeia and comic panel-style framing) and part modern fairytale.

The first half of the movie, covering the excellent first two volumes of the comic, follows the source material so closely the comic could practically have served as a story board for the production, but after that, things go in a slightly different direction. The fact that Wright only had 108 minutes of screen time to work with, rather than six 180-ish page volumes, means he was forced to cut the story back to the bare essentials, and unusual for a book to movie adaptation, this actually works in the movie’s favour. The film’s second half focuses almost entirely on Scott’s battles with the evil exes and is mercifully free from the dull realism that sapped all the magic from O’Malley’s comic. It’s faster paced and more focussed than the way-too-long comic and as a result, far more enjoyable.

That’s not to say that Wright always got it 100% correct. As mentioned previously, the original Scott Pilgrim series was published over a six year period and given the movie went into production prior to O’Malley commencing work on the sixth and final volume, Wright was forced to make his own guess as to how the story should end. This resulted in him initially going in a completely different direction from O’Malley to the point where, after defeating all of Ramona’s evil exes, Scott chooses his previous girlfriend, Knives, instead of Ramona. The advantage of this ending is that it means that Knives is better developed in the movie than the comic and has a bigger part in the finale but it does render the rest of the movie more or less pointless. Fortunately, after discovering O’Malley’s actual ending, Wright changed the movie’s ending to match O’Malley’s (only about the last minute or two – Wright’s original ending is available on YouTube and as a DVD extra if you’re interested in seeing it), making for a more satisfying finish that maintains the movie’s magic right to the very last minute.

The Winner

The Movie. Although O’Malley’s comic starts off well, it is Wright’s take on it that manages to go the distance.

Friday, 11 October 2013

R U Game?: Game by Barry Lyga Review

Having proven himself by capturing a serial killer in his home town of Lobo’s Nod, Jazz Dent, son of America’s most notorious serial killer, Billy Dent, is called on by the NYPD to help them catch the Hat-Dog Killer, a serial killer who is terrorising the streets of New York City.

A friend of mine once told me that he refuses to start reading a series of books until the writer has written the final volume because it annoys him so much when he gets to the inevitable open ending of each instalment and has to wait a year or more to find out what happens next. Having just finished Game, Barry Lyga’s sequel to I Hunt Killers, I am starting to think this might not be such a bad idea. I get that writers of series books like to end on a cliff-hanger in order to encourage readers to buy their next book as soon as it hits the shops, but when a writer leaves so many plot threads hanging at the end of a book that it’s as if he or she forgot to write the final act, I find myself being turned off reading further rather than longing to read more. Unfortunately, such is the case with Game.

I say unfortunately, because I Hunt Killers (which can best be described as “I was a teenage Dexter”) was one of my favourite books of 2012. It’s the book I think should have won either the 2012 Edgar or Stoker award for Best YA mystery/horror novel and in my review (here), I tipped it as being the next big thing in YA fiction. As such, I really wanted to like Game. And in some respects, I did.

In Jazz, Lyga has created an original and compelling character (can you name any other teenage serial killer profilers?) and through Game, Lyga does all the things necessary to set up Jazz as a continuing franchise character: by setting the story in NYC, he has expanded Jazz’s universe and created the potential for future novels to be set in other locations; and he has upped the ante by making the killings bigger and badder than in the first novel and creating an enduring nemesis for Jazz, much like Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes. I appreciated the fact that Jazz was facing a bigger challenge than in I Hunt Killers and enjoyed watching him cope with crimes in the “big city”.

Where Lyga goes wrong, however, is by making the mystery simultaneously too easy to solve and too hard. In I Hunt Killers, I didn’t figure out who the killer was, but I was left with the feeling that I could have, had I thought harder about the mystery at hand. In Game, I didn’t figure out who the killer was because he only appears in one scene prior to being revealed for what he is. Yet, at the same time, I figured out the “game” Hat-Dog was playing almost immediately (I think I had seen something similar in one of the two hundred different mystery series I watch on TV) and then had to wait until page 400 for Jazz to catch up. Lyga has underestimated the intelligence of his readers and the book suffers as a result.

Furthermore, while Jazz’s girlfriend Connie was merely a minor supporting character in I Hunt Killers, in Game, Lyga increases her role to the point of giving her her own subplot and mystery to solve. By making Connie a detective in her own right, Lyga diminishes what makes Jazz special. The whole premise of this series is that Jazz is capable of out-thinking killers and cops alike because he was brought up by a serial killer. If an ordinary teenager (i.e. Connie) can also out-think the police etc, then that means that Jazz’s abilities have nothing to do with his upbringing and more to do with the fact that the police are just plain dumb, which renders the whole series pointless.

As for the “shocking” reveal in the final line of the novel, I’d actually figured that out in the first novel. If a good ending can save a mediocre novel and a bad ending can ruin a great novel, what does it say when you finish a novel and find yourself saying aloud: “well, duh!” I think the answer is “nothing complementary”.

Verdict: Follow the advice of my friend and wait until Lyga finishes this series before embarking on this open-ended follow-up to the otherwise excellent I Hunt Killers.

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Breakfast Club Goes to Hell: Bad Kids Go To Hell (2012) Review

Stars: Cameron Deane Stewart, Augie Duke, Ali Faulkner, Judd Nelson

While sentenced to Saturday detention locked in their school’s new library, six students from the exclusive Crestview Academy start falling victim to horrible “accidents”. With their number rapidly diminishing and no way of escaping the library, the remaining students must figure out who or what is causing the accidents before it is too late.

“This is not the f**king feel-good 80’s movie of the year where for seven hours we put aside our diffs and through commiserating about our mutually dysfunctional family lives or how lonely and alienated we each feel, we find some sort of common ground and end up as BFFs.” So says one of the characters early on in Bad Kids Go to Hell, which cleverly reimagines The Breakfast Club as a horror movie, by way of And Then There Were None, to great success.

The first twenty minutes or so of the film are a pure homage to the John Hughes classic: a cast of stereotypes brought together by Saturday morning detention – check; a very familiar looking library – check; even the scene in which the characters all arrive at the school is lifted straight from The Breakfast Club, and if that wasn’t enough, Judd Nelson appears in a cameo as the school principal. However, after the students have arrived, things start moving in quite a different direction from anything John Hughes ever imagined. Rather than talking about their problems, the teens of Bad Kids Go to Hell decide to conduct a séance in order to communicate with the ghost who is rumoured to haunt the library. Big mistake. It’s not long after that the accidents start happening, creating a whole new set of problems for the group, far more pressing than whether or not their parents really care. But what is causing the accidents? Is it really a malevolent spirit out for revenge or could it be one of the group?

An independent movie directed by a first time director (who also created the graphic novel on which it was based) and starring a bunch of actors you’ve probably never heard of, Bad Kids Go to Hell makes the most of its low budget, often substituting smart dialogue for violence, but leaving in enough scares and blood to keep horror fans satisfied. While watching it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 2011 horror-comedies Detention and The Cabin in the Woods, in particular Detention, which paid homage to The Breakfast Club as well as about a million other films of the 80’s and 90’s. Detention remains my favourite of the three, with its completely insane plot that schizophrenically changes direction every five or ten minutes but somehow manages to make sense. Yet Bad Kids Go to Hell still manages to hold its own in the group. If, like the characters in this film, you too ever end up stuck inside on a rainy Saturday afternoon, there are a lot worse things that you could do than watch a movie marathon made up of Bad Kids Go to Hell, Detention and The Cabin in the Woods.

Verdict: Did you ever think The Breakfast Club would have been better as a horror movie? Here’s your chance to find out. Bad Kids Go to Hell is a surprisingly good indy horror-comedy with a great ending you won’t see coming.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Summer Camp Can Be Murder: Nightmare by Joan Lowery Nixon Review

Unlike everyone else in her family, Emily is an underachiever. She's spent her whole life sitting quietly in the back row, hiding behind her hair and it doesn’t bother her in the least – but it bothers her parents. In an effort to get her to reach her full potential, Emily’s parents enrol her in Camp Excel, a summer camp for underachieving teens. However, shortly after arriving at the camp, Emily is struck by a feeling of déjà vu. Ever since she was a child, Emily has had a recurring nightmare, the setting of which appears to be Camp Excel. Has Emily been to the camp before, and if so, could the dead body she sees in her nightmare actually be real?

When I first read the blurb on the back of Nightmare, I assumed this book was going to be kind of like the movie Disturbing Behavior. You know, parents send their underperforming kids off to summer camp so they can be reprogrammed to become perfect Stepford Kids. Sorry to spoil things for anyone who thought the same, but – it’s not. Nightmare is actually a fairly ordinary, albeit enjoyable enough, YA mystery from veteran writer Joan Lowery Nixon, that reeks of missed opportunities.

Starting back in the 1960’s, Nixon wrote over 130 books and this late entry in her bibliography highlights just how much young adult mysteries have changed since that time. First published in 2003, Nightmare is one of the last books Nixon wrote prior to her death that year, aged 76, but reminds me more of teen mysteries I have read that were published back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s (for example, some of the older Lois Duncan novels). Books back then were created using a completely different paradigm from what is used today: they were shorter (Nightmare is only around 45,000 words or 166 small paperback pages long); there is never a real sense of danger (the murder in Nightmare occurred well in the past, and there are no murders in the present); and all of the teenagers talk and behave like responsible adults, rather than how teenagers really behave (seriously, these teens are a bunch of slackers and underachievers who are away from their parents at summer camp. Does anyone really believe they would be spending their evenings doing homework?). Compare this to Barry Lyga’s recent I Hunt Killers, a book in which a teenage boy hunts an extremely vicious serial killer, and you’ll get what I mean. Presumably, Nixon worked within that old paradigm her entire life and in her old age, wasn’t about to change. Unfortunately, the consequence of this is a book that feels dated, in spite of being only 10 years old.

With only 166 pages to work with, there’s little time for character or plot development. The teen characters, that is, Emily and her friends punk Taylor, aspiring playwright Maxwell and new age Haley, don’t fare too badly (I actually really liked Maxwell), but the teachers at the camp, who are the main suspects in the murder, receive so little attention that when the killer is finally revealed, I had to flip back in the book to remind myself who this character was and even whether this character was male or female. The ending is extremely abrupt, with the killer being revealed and stopped all in the space of the last six pages; and Nixon never really capitalises on the full potential of her setting. If a book is set at an academic summer camp for underachievers, of course the people running it have to be doing something illegal and immoral. Why couldn’t Nixon see this?

If this book were published back in the 1970’s, I would probably have given it a more positive review, as by the standards of that time, it’s not a bad book and it kept me entertained for its entire duration. Yet, in the last two decades, YA mystery fiction has come a long way, and by comparison to books published at the same time as Nightmare, it’s not difficult to find something that’s a lot better. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and re-watch Disturbing Behavior.

Verdict: A disappointing swan song from Joan Lowery Nixon, one of the most successful YA mystery writers of her time.