Monday, July 28, 2014

Kiss of Life – review

Author: Brian L Porter

First published: 2014 (dual edition)

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: A year after meeting the enigmatic Christina Radaluc during his investigation into the so-called Vampire Murders in Romania, investigative journalist Alan Dexter finds himself beset by a recurring nightmare.

Includes the prequel 'Dracula Doesnt' (sic) Live Here Anymore', also by Brian L. Porter.

Christina, he believes, is calling to him. She is in trouble and needs his help, though how she could possibly reach into his dreams is a mystery to him. On such flimsy 'evidence' Dexter enlists the help of his friend and fellow journalist Karen Bailey who, though skeptical of his story, agrees to travel to Romania with him to assist in his quest to find and solve the mystery of Christina's appearance in his nightmares. On arriving in Romania they discover that not only Christina, but her brother, a local police officer, have been missing for months, and the pair set out to find them.

Dexter retraces his steps from his previous visit to Romania, hoping to find some connection with his previous investigation and the current disappearance of the woman he realizes he has fallen in love with. What they discover, however, takes them far beyond the realms of the believable as the intrepid pair enter a dark world of long-forgotten practices and fear-filled corridors.

Do vampires really exist?

Can Dexter and Karen save the beautiful Christina and her brother from the jaws of a living nightmare far more terrible than anything Dexter's own fevered dreams could produce?

As the story moves from the city to the cold, bare, mountainous regions of Transylvania, land of myth and terrifying legend and the ancestral home of Christina's family, Kiss of Life moves ever closer to it's (sic) shattering and terrible conclusion.

The review: I picked up the kindle edition of Kiss of Life that came with the prequel short story as listed in the blurb. This was ultimately quite useful as it gave necessary background for the main story.

In Dracula Doesn’t Live Here Anymore we meet hack journalist Dexter who, due to sheer luck, is asked to report on a murder story in Romania where victims are being drained of blood. He meets Romanian journalist Christina Radaluć (shuffle the letters) and her policeman cousin (not brother as the blurb says, though his familial status does change in the book at one point) named Alex. The story is a short and that is a shame as we don’t really delve into an investigation as such. We do delve into a love affair between Dexter and Christina and vampire lore. This is where things go wrong.

Did you shuffle the letters? Yes, Christina is a descendent of the Dracula family and tying Prince Vlad and Count Dracula is not necessarily a bad thing – if the author is accurate within the boundaries of the novel. So when Christina tells him that the folklore of the Romanian vampire says they can walk in daylight “contrary to Stoker” I inwardly groaned as, as we know, Stoker had the Count active in daylight in the novel. Such a thing may be little but is very annoying. We are told that Christina’s family owned a guesthouse in Whitby “just as the fictional character… …had done” – assuming this to be the Count then all the English property owned by the Count was in London, not Whitby.

There is an inaccurate pop-culture history of Prince Vlad III – we are told the family is one of the oldest in Transylvania (they were Walachian), that his name was Prince Vlad Draculea (use of that spelling making me wonder why the “e” was missing in the anagram) son of the original Prince who bore the name Dracula (Prince Vlad II was Dracul – not Dracula). To be fair the nationality of the family does seem to switch to Wallachia in the main story at one point but then switches back, making it seem that the two Principalities are interchangeable. Prince Vlad is also demoted to Count in a passage in that book (where it was referring to the historical persona).

They were the main errors surrounding Dracula (book and historical) but if you know Stoker it serves to diminish the work in hand. When it came to folklore we are told that Greeks called vampires Vrykolakas (fair enough) and they were known as Chupacabra in Central and South America – this made me start, due to the fact that the Chupacabra legend is very modern – dating only to 1995.

There were errors in type also. Three times Christina becomes Christian. There is a section where they eat, go to Dexter's room for a nightcap and then leave the bar (not his room) to go and eat again – it is a muddled section, which I re-read several times to check it wasn't me, and I am sure that the author changed locations in one of the drafts and hadn’t tidied the draft. The stories are rather short (the first is a short the second probably at novella length) and very occasionally the language shows a need of an edit but the dialogue probably needed a bit more work as it feels forced at times.

All that said I was very taken by the main plot twist, which was nice. To me the author needs to give the draft a re-proof and also to get his geography, historical detail and Stoker orientated commentary accurate. The first story could stand expanding, taking us into the investigation, but ultimately keeping the neat ending of the main piece. 4 out of 10.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hemlock Grove: Season 2 – review

Director: Various

First released: 2014

Contains spoilers

I liked the first season of Hemlock Grove. I felt that the way they did the monster mash was interesting. The lycanthropy had some nice twists, the idea of an upyr who didn’t know his own nature worked well and the variant of the Frankenstein Monster was fantastic.

So when season 2 was released to Netflix (the series is a Netflix original) I had much to look forward to. Unfortunately the series fell short for me this time around.

The werewolf of our tale, Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), left Hemlock Grove and is on the road with his mother Lynda (Lili Taylor, the Addiction). They are at a Romany funeral when it is raided by the feds. Lynda is arrested for a variety of charges and taken to Hemlock Grove correctional facility, forcing Peter to return there and stay with his psychic cousin Destiny (Kaniehtiio Horn, Embrace of the Vampire & Being Human (US)). In order that he might get the money for a lawyer he grifts a couple of drug dealers into buying a "traditional gypsy drug" formula by giving them an innocuous fluid and then partially turning to make them feel that they have tripped – unfortunately it is turning on the wrong moon and that way leads to becoming a feral, murderous vargulf.

the baby
Meanwhile newly awaken upyr Roman (Bill Skarsgård) has taken over biotech firm Godfrey industries whilst his mother, Olivia (Famke Janssen), recovers – Roman bit off her tongue at the end of the last episode. He has his daughter hidden in his new house, a baby girl with unnaturally blue eyes. If Roman was a bit of a spoilt brat in the first series he acts it even more so when faced with the responsibilities of management. He also seems to have completely forgotten about the upyr ability to control minds – but more on his powers later.

Nicole Boivin as Shelley
You see one problem I have with the second season was that some of the best characters are sidelined. Shelley (Nicole Boivin) is on the run (the authorities think the giant girl is both a monster and murderer) and so after fighting the vargulf from the first series (that pops out of the grave as she wasn’t beheaded) she hides in an abandoned house for most of the series. Olivia is sidelined from being a Dynasty level bitch queen to recovering invalid. We also discover that she is becoming human – the mad doctor Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) believing it is something to do with the effect of upyr venom on one of their own kind. To be fair, in the last episode Olivia is very much back.

a serial killer cult?
The main story sees Roman and Peter having to rebuild their trust whilst sharing premonition dreams of murders made to look like accidents, which are being committed by perpetrators wearing blank masks. Meanwhile a girl comes into their lives called Miranda (Madeline Brewer) who falls for them both but also starts lactating and feeding Nadia (the baby). Of course both stories become conflated and the Order of the Dragon have their fingers in the pie too. So, what about the vampirism?

Well, Roman spends a lot of his time, at first, trying to control the hunger. He pays a man to wear leeches and then collects the bloated parasites as a snack but that only satisfies so far. Then it is the genre standard trying to (and failing to) control his hunger and, to be honest, it is a little tired as a device – especially in the second season of a series – that said it does lead to a nicely gory dream sequence with a stretched mouth and as much blood as a Japanese splatterpunk film. Where it gets more interesting is when Pryce reveals that upyrism is a retrovirus and that he can potentially cure it. This does cause Roman to be less powerful than he might have been and might have answered the mind control except, of course, that didn’t explain why he didn’t have/use it earlier on.

a moment of gore
The season wasn’t awful, but as I have intimated I felt there was something missing. That something almost seemed to return at the finale (which was in episode 10, the season shedding its length by three episodes) until we get a pay-off to a storyline that just seemed so convoluted, under-expained and ridiculous that it added a dull clang to the sharp chime of the final episode. This one was struggling as a season and perhaps they should have stayed at 1. That said it had some moments within it to make it better than it might have been. 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Code Blood – review

Author: Kurt Kamm

First published: 2011

Contains spoilers

The blurb: Body Parts, Blood, Fetishism…

Colt Lewis, a rookie fire paramedic, is obsessed with finding the severed foot of his first victim after she dies in his arms. His search takes him into the connected lives of a graduate research student, with the rarest blood in the world and the vampire fetishist who is stalking her. Within the corridors of high-stakes medical research laboratories, the shadow world of body parts dealers, and the underground Goth clubs of Los Angeles, Lewis uncovers a tangled maze of needles, drugs and maniacal ritual, all of which lead to death. But whose death? An unusual and fast-paced LA Noir thriller.

The review: I first came across Code Blood, or should I say an excerpt thereof, in the anthology Vampires: Romance to Rippers; an anthology of tasty stories Vol. 1 and was so taken by the villain of the piece, Markus, that I immediately ordered the book. As I delved into the book I found I disliked Markus intensely – that is what you are meant to do, I guess – but that in no way made him less of a well written character and the book took us away from the supernatural vampire and into the realm where people believe they are vampires – and you know what, sometimes it is good to move out of the supernatural for a while.

Now I don’t want to get into a debate about whether so called vampyres truly are people who need to drink blood to survive – but I can certainly say that Markus is more in the realm of the deluded. An albino with blood and death fetishes he is thoroughly dislikeable and a very real danger to a young Tibetan Grad student who has Bombay Blood, a rare blood type that can be transfused into most other blood groups but cannot accept transfusion of anything bar their type. His aim is to sell it to the vampire community (and keep some for himself).

We also meet Colt, a firefighter and paramedic who, still in training as the latter, has to attend an accident where a young woman has lost her foot. The foot is never recovered and Colt becomes obsessed with finding it – it was actually picked up and stolen by Markus. I found myself somewhat annoyed by the Colt character as he was an idealist, and too emotionally drawn in (something his colleagues try to tell him) and I just felt that, where he real, he’d be heading for one major emotional crash and burn.

The characterisations were well done in the book and it was a quick read. It concentrated, to some degree, more on the thoughts and emotions of the characters, rather than the actual thriller aspect, but they were well drawn (if at times unsympathetic) characters. 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero – review

Author: Susannah Clements

First published: 2011

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Vampires first entered the pop culture arena with Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula. Today, vampires are everywhere. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Twilight Saga to HBO's True Blood series, pop culture can't get enough of the vampire phenomenon.

Bringing her literary expertise to this timely subject, Susannah Clements reveals the roots of the vampire myth and shows how it was originally immersed in Christian values and symbolism. Over time, however, vampires have been "defanged" as their spiritual significance has waned, and what was once the embodiment of evil has turned into a teen idol and the ultimate romantic hero. Clements offers a close reading of selected vampire texts, explaining how this transformation occurred and helping readers discern between the variety of vampire stories presented in movies, TV shows, and novels. Her probing engagement of the vampire metaphor enables readers to make Christian sense of this popular obsession.

The review: I came across this through a Facebook Group and an article by Anthony Hogg. Now I am not a Christian (by a long shot) but the concept of the book seemed intriguing to me and I am always open to hearing a different viewpoint. Of course the joy of the vampire genre is that it is open to multiple interpretations and, as an archetype, the vampire is a malleable beast.

Clements covers the four vampire shows/novels mentioned above and the works of Anne Rice and attempts to show that the vampire has gone from the embodiment of evil to a romantic hero – as the subtitle relates – and of course this is true, except where the vampire is the embodiment of evil still, such as in such up to date series like 30 Days of Night. But she is not wrong that there is a definitive romantic movement in the genre. Interestingly she plots a secular course, where the tamer the vampire becomes the more secular the tale.

This was an interesting suggestion, though I’d suggest that the secularisation of the vampire is more to do with the general secularisation of society than it is the move to the romantic vampire, for instance in (and citing again) 30 Days of Night we have a rather secular take on the myth without the romance and with plenty of evil brutality.

Clements does, in my opinion, miss some directions she might have taken. She correctly argues that Dracula is a Christian novel. However her concentration is on the hunters and the apotropaic icons used in the novel. I think there was as much argument to be found in the fact that Stoker thought Dracula meant Devil, that he gave the Count the pseudonym Count De Ville and suggested he was schooled by the Devil in the Scholomance - indeed over time Hammer make the character, quite literally, the Antichrist.

Clements argues that Twilight is the most secular of the main series she looks at and her arguments are sound. Whilst Edward worries for Bella’s soul it is almost a throwaway comment and barely explored. However I think that the attitudes shown in the novel might reflect on the author’s social outlook and, being from quite an active religion, that may also reflect on her faith but this is not explored in here.

I think it would have been interesting to have explored I Am Legend as the movie took a totally secular novel, ignored or twisted the point of the climax of the book and created a very pro-Christian narrative. However that is just a wish list moment.

The book was well written and well argued, it was interesting to look at these things from another direction. It contains indexing and a bibliography - always a plus point. A worthy volume. 8 out of 10.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Vamp or Not? Under the Skin

A 2013 film by Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin tweaked my “Vamp of Not?” senses from the moment I heard about it. This was primarily because I read that it was about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) that sucked the flesh from young men she picked up. It rang an internal bell and so I watched a film that is very much a science fiction art film.

I have seen positive and negative comments about the film – indeed it seems to polarise viewers. I have also heard various directors’ work it is compared to. What I haven’t particularly seen is a likening to The Man Who Fell to Earth but it is very much in the same ball park as an alien is used to explore someone who seems outside society and through that character we start to question the essence of what is humanity. However the question we need to ask is, “Is it vamp?”

Scarlett Johansson is the girl
It starts with lights and, eventually, an eye. We can hear a voice, at first only making repetitive sounds, which is clearly the learning of language. A motorbike rides through the Scottish countryside. Eventually the rider (Jeremy McWilliams) stops and walks down an embankment, when he returns he is carrying a girl’s body. He puts it in the back of a white van. In a white room a naked girl (Johansson) walks to the body and strips it – putting on her clothes. A tear leaks from the girl being stripped – so she isn’t quiet dead. The implication is that the girl has been irreparably damaged somehow and Johansson’s character is replacing her.

Add caption
The majority of the film has her driving around Scotland trying to pick up men in her van. She is careful to question them as she wants to ascertain that they won’t be missed. Some of the dialogue can seem a little stilted but these are not actors – Glazer had a hidden camera running and explained to these men afterwards that it was for a movie. As such a couple of these guys ended up being rather brave as their characters are brought back to her’s. The room they enter is a formless black and they follow her as she strips and they strip too. Notably the main couple of guys we see have erections. As she walks the floor becomes liquid below them and they walk on, submerging themselves. At this point they seem mesmerised, unable to help themselves, unable to turn away.

only skin remains
Over the submerging of a couple of men we see what happens to them. One man ends up submerged, he can make nor hear any sound. He sees another victim and they manage to touch fingers. The man who was already there looks odd, as though the liquid is slowly digesting him, then – suddenly – his innards are evacuated leaving just his skin floating. We see a conveyor of viscera going somewhere. The film is purposefully ambiguous as to what is going on but, in the novel it is based on, human is a delicacy on the alien’s home planet.

on the beach
She is divorced from emotion, watching with a distant air as a man tries to rescue another man in the sea who has tried to rescue his wife, who in turn has tried to rescue her dog. On the beach the couple’s baby cries. I have seen complaints about this, that no one would leave their baby to try and rescue a dog but, living at the shore as I do I am aware of several death when people have tried to rescue a dog in the sea and been swept out themselves. She bashes the exhausted would-be rescuer with a rock and drags him to the van. Both she – and the biker who comes later to remove the tent and gear belonging to the man they have taken – ignore the crying baby leaving it to the elements. It is a rather harrowing scene. Talking of harrowing, some of the chosen ambient music is disturbing, almost a communication of anxiety.

what is under the skin?
The film follows her as she starts to develop humanity and it is through another outsider, a facial neurofibromatosis sufferer (Adam Pearson), that she consciously starts to recognise something within herself. Incidentally Adam Pearson genuinely has neurofibromatosis. So we have a few tropes familiar in the vampire genre. We have the theme of the outsider (though from the outsider’s point of view), we have sexuality used as a predatory lure. It does seem that the victims are literally sucked out of themselves, leaving only the skin, whilst their innards are presumably used for consumption. When we see an alien – in its true form – burning it seems a very quick incineration, which felt familiar. Whilst the room in which the men are submerged appear to be formless black, the house that serves as base of operations has a decayed, derelict look.

However, despite some familiar tropes I don’t think that this is Vamp. If anything the aliens are predators but that doesn’t make them vampires per se. Indeed I was kind of reminded of the film Prey, at least with regard the alien predatory aspect. Not Vamp.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Penny Dreadful – season 1 – review

Director: Various

First aired: 2014

Contains spoilers

When I reviewed season 1 (and only) of Dracula I had seen episode 1 of this series but was moved to say, in comparison to the older series, “the dark, griminess of Penny Dreadful’s London was a million time more effective”. I stick by that, indeed the series had a huge amount going for it – though it might have been better in some ways.

Chandler, Murray and Ives
In many respect this Monster Mash series was reminiscent of the league of Extraordinary Gentlemen though the steampunkiness of the Alan Moore series was gone. We did, however, get representation from vampires and Dr Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, The Disappeared). We got characters from the Dracula novel, though they were moved and changed around, and we got Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). We also got an American gunslinger, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, 30 Days of Night), a consumptive whore, Brona Croft (Billie Piper, Secret Diary of a Call Girl), and a fortune teller who was sensitive to possession, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, Dark Shadows).

Master Vampire
Now I mentioned Dracula characters and we start off with a new character tied into that mythos in the form of explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). He is the father of Mina Harker nee Murray (Olivia Llewellyn) and she has been taken by vampires. We never actually meet her husband but the first episode sees Vanessa Ives hiring Ethan Chandler on Sir Malcolm’s behalf as they need a man good with guns. It sees them go beneath an opium den as they believe there to be a vampire nest there. We meet three types of vampire. There are the first they meet, servants of the master, who are male and look mostly human (and I never noticed them displaying fangs). There are what I might term as brides, females with their hair shockingly white and with fangs and then there is the main vampire, a bestial, clawed creature with red eyes and rows of sharpened teeth. They overcome these first vampires but Mina is not there and they realise that there is another master.

They take the killed master vampire to the resurrectionists – looking for a surgeon who can autopsy it - and meet Victor Frankenstein. He tells them that the skin is more like an exoskeleton. When he peels it back there appears to be tattooing on the exposed body, which depicts scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, this leads to an Egyptian Mythology sub-plot that is left dangling at the end of the series. Later they clean off the exoskeleton with flesh eating beetles, but as it is flesh below that is tattoo’d this didn’t make too much sense to me as one would have expected the beetles to eat down to the bone. Actually as things roll on we realise that the so called masters are themselves more an elite level of minion – there is a master vampire whom we do not see in the season (but whom I assume would be Dracula himself).

David Warner as Van Helsing
The other Dracula character we meet is Van Helsing (David Warner, The Hunger: Nunc Dimittis, From Beyond the Grave, Waxwork, Nightwing, Cast a Deadly Spell, Spider-Man & I Was a Teenage Vampire). In this Van Helsing is a haematologist consulting with Frankenstein and is well aware of vampires (his wife was taken by one). He introduces Frankenstein to the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, suggesting the Rymer accidentally got much of the detail right. I'm not too sure about that statement as Varney was the first complex vampire character but the little we see of these vampires indicates brutal and animalistic killers. Talking of Varney and placing the penny dreadful in a series of the same name, the series does throw in little conceits like that - for instance Frankenstein mentions the poetry of Shelley.

Harry Treadaway as Frankenstein
Frankenstein, of course, has issues with his own creation – Caliban (Rory Kinnear). Dorian Gray’s presence was slightly incongruous and I felt the character could have been used a little better (he is somewhat of an iconoclast but underused and we never get to see the damned portrait). Murray’s servant Sembene (Danny Sapani) was too mysterious and demanded further scrutiny and background. The series had moments of genius – an episode dedicated to the background of Vanessa Ives was disturbingly excellent in places – but other parts seemed a little too convenient, especially the coincidental interactions and acquaintances of these people from different social strata. In trying to build mysteries, perhaps some things were under-explored or (in one case) almost forgotten until the very end of the series and just touched upon. Perhaps they simply had thrown too much into the pot?

a vampire bride
A sense of time sometimes got lost. One episode concerning a possession failed to offer any idea of how much time had passed but then we discover that Gray had time to do a trip over to continental Europe while things were going on. The acting was generally very good – though Billie Piper’s Irish accent did slip occasionally – but the main star, to me, was the City of London (or Dublin, as that was where this was filmed!) because the palpable oppressive atmosphere was a constant through the show. I did enjoy Penny Dreadful, it just felt a little unpolished in places (around what they were doing with certain threads) and might have been even better than it was. However it deserves a strong 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lost Girl: Season 4 – review

Director: Various

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

When I watched Season 3 of Lost Girl I felt it was a little bit disjointed and perhaps a tad meandering, with no real big bad point. It did, however, reposition the main characters. This would either work or otherwise in the next season’s favour.

As we enter season 4 Tamsin (Rachel Skarsten), the Valkyrie, is dead and 18 months have passed. Bo (Anna Silk) is literally a Lost Girl as she was taken by the mysterious Wanderer (Kyle Schmid, Blood Ties & Being Human (US)), unfortunately none of those left behind remember her. Somehow Vex (Paul Amos) has taken control of the Dark Fae and Kenzie (Ksenia Solo) is masquerading as a fae and in a clandestine relationship with Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried, Underworld: Awakening & The Death of Alice Blue).

Oh My
They all begin to realise that their memories have been altered and their lives are false (in terms of the fact that they interact in ways they would never would have done if their memories had been unaltered). So the opening concentrates on getting their memories back (and has a welcome cameo by the fabulous George Takaii). When they manage to break the spell that has them all missing the memories of Bo then Bo awakens, on a train (which is an other-dimension construct), remembering her friends. Their rescue attempt and her escape narrowly miss each other.

Kyle Schmid as the Wanderer
With Bo back we face the Una Mens – a group of mind linked Fae, tasked with keeping order and Fae law with extreme prejudice. It seems that they are after Bo until they tell her that they were searching for the unaligned succubus – she has become aligned… with the Dark Fae and here we have the nub of the season. Yes there is an overarch, with the wanderer and (as, despite hints otherwise, the Wanderer isn’t) Bo’s father what we get is a really nice character exploration where Bo has been placed in a faction (by her own hand, not that she can remember doing it) and it isn’t the one she would naturally sit in. However we saw her go somewhat dark before and it makes for some nice character dynamics.

Bo's escape
Whilst we do get the return of Tamsin – Valkyrie rebirth and rapidly grow from childhood to their adult state – in the main the season is about loss and it works fabulously. The storyline is probably the strongest they’ve had and they really use the characters well. There was a particularly good episode around Krampus (and it’s rare that I’ll enjoy a Groundhog Day style episode) and we get revenants that are – in effect – simple zombies.

All in all the season wasn’t just back on form, I’d say it was the best so far. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.