Saturday, August 27, 2022

Book Review: THE BIG DARK SKY By Dean Koontz. *** and a 1\2 out of *****

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(c) Amazon.

Dean Koontz returns to some of his favorite themes in The Big Dark Sky, letting his obsessions, fears, and hopes all come through loud and clear. And in doing so creates one of his most effective and memorable novels in years. Although Koontz came close with his wonderful novel Devoted, published in 2020, The Big Dark Sky is a better, more nuanced book in many ways. It is also much darker.

The plot: A group of people from different backgrounds has converged at a remote ranch in Montana. Each person has a reason to go there, from facing painful childhood memories, to investigating a series of strange phenomena, to escaping from a seemingly omnipotent killer. Each one of them is haunted, seeking answers to questions they can no longer ignore. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the ranch, a disturbed visionary works on completing his manifesto of terror and mass murder, unaware that his fate is also connected to the ranch and the people headed there.

With echoes from some of his earlier books, especially Phantoms, Strangers, and Demon Seed, Koontz delivers a tale that is compelling, wondrous, and disturbing. It has a questioning, marveling quality and a nasty, darkly witty edge that have been missing from his books for years.

It isn't a perfect book, though, with a number of slow-going chapters near the beginning of the book, and a short slump around the middle section. But for the most part, the writing is crisp, the main concept fascinating, and the characters likable. And the villain is one of the most terrifying creations of Koontz's career. Highly recommended for fans and newcomers alike.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2022.

Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and novelist. He is the writer/director of several short films and a feature, which was released on Netflix, and the author of a number of novels and short stories, including the YA horror novel, Beware The Stranger, available on Amazon. He is also the host of The Dark Fantastic Podcast. Find him on Twitter @AFKhalifa and on Facebook @DFantasticPodcast

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Movie Review: A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM (1990) **** out of *****

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(C) Corsair Pictures.

Adapted for the screen by Andrew Klavan (from a novel by Simon Brett), and directed by TV and stage veteran Jan Egleson, A Shock to The System (1990) is a strange creature: a Hollywood movie made at the tail-end of the Regan years, yet one that approaches its subject matter - greed - with a subtlety and wit rarely found in the reactionary filmmaking of that era.

The premise is simple: Graham Marshall (Michael Caine), a middle-aged, modestly ambitious man, leads a moderately successful life, both professionally and personally. But when he is passed over for promotion by a brash and much younger colleague, he is shocked. And, slowly, Graham finds himself being drawn to a darker way of doing things, as he slowly but surely reaps the rewards of his misdeeds and climbs the corporate ladder.
The story, of the older, meek man slowly going dark, is a hoary, tired concept that, by the 1990s, had been done to death. But in the hands of screenwriter Klavan and director Egleson, this exhausted concept becomes fresh, compelling, and wryly funny. Egleson's direction, in particular, is so steady, so visually elegant, that it lends both the darker and darkly funny aspects of the script a surprisingly refined tone, making A Shock to The System one of the best films about corporate greed to ever come out of Hollywood.

But writing and direction aside, this is Michael Caine's show, as he takes a difficult role, and one which could have easily become a grating caricature in the hands of a less capable actor, and turns it into a believable, charming, and disturbing character that is always threatening to spiral out of control into the realm of the absurd, but never does. With dry humor and tremendous restraint, Caine portrays Graham as a man who gets a taste of evil by accident, and, as a result, transforms his life into a marvel of devious design; a man who sees himself as some sort of dark sorcerer who has found the keys to the world.

Yes, some of the twists and turns are a bit far-fetched, and Egleson lays it on a bit thick when it comes to depicting what greed has done to the New York city of the 1980s and 90s. But, for the most part, A Shock to The System tells a riveting tale about the decay of corporate culture, and how a new generation of morally bankrupt over-achievers created a system that breeds greed and immorality. And like its corrupt protagonist, A Shock to The System manages to fulfill its ambitions so well, it's almost a magic act.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2022.

Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and novelist. He is the writer/director of several short films and a feature, which was released on Netflix, and the author of a number of novels and short stories, including the YA horror novel, Beware The Stranger, available on Amazon. He is also the host of The Dark Fantastic Podcast. Find him on Twitter @AFKhalifa and on Facebook @DFantasticPodcast

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Movie Review: THE BLACK PHONE (2022) *** and a 1\2 out of *****

(c) Universal/Blumhouse.

Scott Derrickson co-wrote and directed Sinister (2012) one of the scariest movies ever made. But he also co-wrote Sinister 2 (2015), a deeply disappointing sequel, and co-wrote and directed Doctor Strange (2016), a bland and forgettable Marvel extravaganza. The Black Phone (2022), Derrickson's seventh feature film, is one of his better efforts. It's compelling, hits plenty of emotional notes, and features a disturbing villain.

Loosely based on a short story by Joe Hill, the movie revolves around Finney Shaw, a shy 13-year-old boy living with an abusive, alcoholic father. When he's abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement, he feels helpless and close to death. Then, suddenly, a disconnected phone on the wall rings, and Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. It's a helluva hook, and Derrickson milks it for all its worth, delivering a number of tense and disturbing sequences, as Finney tries to find a way out before his abductor strikes.

But a strong hook aside, The Black Phone has its share of problems. With the exception of Finney, wonderfully played by Mason Thames, and Robin, memorably portrayed by Miguel Cazarez Mora, the rest of the characters are little more than the sum of their parts, with each character seeming to be there to catalyze a plot point or fulfill an emotional beat, while the villain, The Grabber, played by a game Ethan Hawke, comes off as two-dimensional and unoriginal. The plotting is also creaky, with storylines coming and going, as if there are three different movies taking place at the same time, resulting in a story that never really gels. And for a film about survival and overcoming, the tone is relentlessly dour. And even when a light finally shines at the end of the tunnel, it isn't as uplifting or moving as it should be, with the ending leaving somewhat of a sour aftertaste.

But, for the most part, The Black Phone hits more than it misses, and is an affecting and heartfelt movie in many ways. And its depiction of the role of faith at times of crisis is a breath of fresh air, especially coming from an industry that seems to export misery and nihilism by the truckload. One just wishes the movie was twenty minutes shorter and packed more of a punch.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2022.

Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and novelist. He is the writer/director of several short films and a feature, which was released on Netflix, and the author of a number of novels and short stories, including the YA horror novel, Beware The Stranger, available on Amazon. He is also the host of The Dark Fantastic Podcast. Find him on Twitter @AFKhalifa and on Facebook @DFantasticPodcast

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Book Review: DRACULA UNBOUND By Brian Aldiss *** out of *****

Following on his hugely successful and tremendously entertaining novel Frankenstein Unbound, which combined time-travel with a post-modernist revision of Mary Shelley's life and her most famous novel, Brian Aldiss dips into the same well with Dracula Unbound, his attempt to do something similar with Bram Stoker's Gothic masterpiece.

Alas, the second time is not the charm. Where Frankenstein Unbound was fast-paced, coherent, and thought-provoking, Dracula Unbound is slow, meandering, and intellectually lukewarm.

The plot (from the publisher's blurb): In the barren dust of the far future, the sun leaks energy in a darkening sky and the only remaining humans are imprisoned by spectral, bloodthirsty beings. Back in the brilliant Utah sunlight of 1999, two ancient graves yield evidence that a species of human coexisted with the dinosaurs . . . Linking these scenarios is impetuous inventor Joe Bodenland (the protagonist of Frankenstein Unbound), who has just created a machine that manipulates time to dispose of hazardous waste . . .

Where's Dracula, you ask? Well, without revealing too much, let's just say that Bodenland manages to go back in time, meet Bram Stoker, and together they hunt down the vampiric creature that will later inspire Stoker to revise his masterpiece.

As is obvious from the synopsis, the plot is confusing and confused, and Aldiss, never a writer to dwell on characters' motivations and psychology, is at his worst here, with characters that are mere sketches, and dialogue that is woefully artificial.

And unlike in Frankenstein Unbound, where he treated the source material and its author with reverence, here, Aldiss foregoes the tone and mood of the original novel, and seems intent on ridiculing Stoker, portraying him as a staunchly conservative, syphilitic hypocrite, who is always eager to do battle for "God and Country" at the drop of a pin. Aldiss, who has a penchant for psycho-sexualizing his stories at the expense of quality, misses the mark here, and his portrayal of Stoker is nothing less than offensive, especially since in his afterword he mentions relying for his research on two highly-contested biographies: A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker by Harry Ludlum, and The Man Who Wrote Dracula: A Biography of Bram Stoker by Daniel Farson *.

But all could have been forgiven if the story had been compelling. But it isn't, and fans of Stoker and his novel will be disappointed by what Aldiss does with and to them.

Still, the novel is high on imagination, even if it is low on craft, and it is an interesting misfire by a singular author.

* For a more balanced analysis of the novel Dracula, and the life of Bram Stoker, check out Elizabeth Miller's brilliant essay, Coitus Interruptus: Sex, Bram Stoker, and Dracula, available here.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2022.

Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and novelist. He is the writer/director of several short films and a feature, which was released on Netflix, and the author of a number of novels and short stories, including the YA horror novel, Beware The Stranger, available on Amazon. He is also the host of The Dark Fantastic Podcast. Find him on Twitter @AFKhalifa and on Facebook @DFantasticPodcast



Sunday, July 17, 2022

Movie Review: HALLOWEEN KILLS (2022): THE EXTENDED CUT ** and a 1\2 out of *****

(c) Universal/Blumhouse.

With Halloween (2018), co-writer/director David Gordon Green made his intentions clear. He basically took the template and prestige of John Carpenter's original masterpiece and used them to create something of an abomination: a soulless and mostly artless horror movie that basically inverts everything Carpenter did in his original. Carpenter's movie was elegant, restrained, and full of atmosphere. Green's was crass, sloppy, and virtually devoid of any flavor. Carpenter's ending was haunting and subdued. Green's ending was preachy and over-the-top.

And now we come to Green's sequel, Halloween Kills (2022). There isn't much to add, really. It's a tad less crass, but it's even more meat-headed than Halloween (2018), and Green amps up the violence to sickening levels, throwing everything but the kitchen sink in a cynical attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator. While Green's Halloween script's left something to be desired, the writing in Halloween Kills is, for the most part, abysmal, with characters speaking stiff dialogue and acting in ways that defy all logic. Add to that Green and company's including a "message" about the madness of crowds in a film that is already politically-corrected to within an inch of its life, and you get something that is simultaneously bland, offensive, and forgettable.

Although Halloween Kills has its moments, they are few and far between, and one can only guess why Carpenter would add his name and blessing to such a mess of a sequel to his beloved classic.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2022.

Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and novelist. He is the writer/director of several short films and a feature, which was released on Netflix, and the author of a number of novels and short stories, including the YA horror novel, Beware The Stranger, available on Amazon. He is also the host of The Dark Fantastic Podcast. Find him on Twitter @AFKhalifa and on Facebook @DFantasticPodcast

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Film Review: MISTRIAL (1996) *** and a 1\2 out of *****

(C) HBO/WB.
Back in the 1990s, HBO was the cable channel. It exuded class and daring, with its ability to attract top-notch Hollywood talent, in front and behind the camera, by offering filmmakers creative freedom and good budgets. These “HBO Originals”, mostly features and mini-series, offered the average viewer some of the most original and eclectic programming on TV. It was Netflix before Netflix. It was "Prestige TV" before the term was even coined.

Mistrial (1996) written and directed by filmmaker, novelist, and all around renaissance man Heywood Gould, and starring Bill Pullman in one of his best roles, is, to some extent, a case in point.

The plot (from Gould's official site): An angry cop literally kidnaps a court proceeding in a desperate bid for justice. Eddie Rios stands accused of the murder of two police officers, but he’s found not guilty due to a lack of proper evidence. Steve Donohue, the detective who brought Rios in, is outraged by this decision, and in a burst of anger he pulls his gun and holds the defendant, the judge, and the jury hostage, demanding they immediately retry Rios, with Donohue presenting evidence he was forbidden to show the jury due to legal technicalities.

It's a melodramatic high-concept, and Gould provides all involved, especially John Seda as Rios, and Robert Loggia as the police captain, ample opportunity to shine. But it's Bill Pullman as Donahue, a cop at the end of his rope, who pulls the whole thing together, with a performance that is nothing short of a career highlight. Although Gould tries to keep things gritty and even-handed, his direction is too staid, too flavorless for its own good. Still, Pullman overcomes the faults in the writing and directing, playing off an invested Seda, who takes a thankless role and imbues it with enough gravitas and pathos to make it palatable.

While the final twist isn't much of a revelation, and many of Gould's technical choices leave something to be desired, Mistrial mostly works because of Pullman, and a script that dares to ask uncomfortable questions about what it takes to maintain law and order, and the problem of criminals hiding behind political correctness and public sentiment. And, most of all, Mistrial doesn't pander, to anyone. Something HBO and other major Hollywood players seem to be doing a lot of these days.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2022.

Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and novelist. He is the writer/director of several short films and a feature, which was released on Netflix, and the author of a number of novels and short stories, including the YA horror novel, Beware The Stranger, available on Amazon. He is also the host of The Dark Fantastic Podcast. Find him on Twitter @AFKhalifa and on Facebook @DFantasticPodcast

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Book Review. From A Buick 8 by Stephen King. *** out of *****

Listen to the review here:
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(c) Gallery Books.

First published in 2002, From A Buick 8, is midrange Stephen King, which means his irresistible voice and mastery of style are there, drawing the reader and moving the story along. But it also means that, like other King midrange novels, think Firestarter, The Dark Half, and Gerald’s Game, the plot is thin, the characters not very memorable, and the ending problematic.

The story. members of Troop Dee, a Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Western Pennsylvania, come across an abandoned Buick that resembles a vintage blue 1953 Buick Roadmaster. Slowly, they start to realise that it isn’t a car at all, but something other.

The story is told as a series of recollections by different troopers, and their experiences range from the nerve-wracking to the horrific. The book is at its best during these episodes, which are like tightly-written vignettes of imaginative weird fiction. But when King focuses on the characters and their inner thoughts, the book stumbles, as none of the characters are very interesting, and the plot is nothing less than a concept stretched to its breaking point. This is most apparent during the book’s climax, an unimaginative and predictable sequence that is short on thrills and catharsis.

Light on plot but highly readable, From A Buick 8 is King-lite, and one of the first books where King started to show signs of leaning too heavily on sentimentality instead of on structure and genuine emotions. But King is King, and one usually knows what they are getting when they pick up one of his books, an entertaining page-turner, which From A Buick 8 surely is.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2022.