Reviewed by Elaine Lamkin
Written by Michael Pennington
Distributed by Lulu Books
There are not that many things that give me the creeps. Clowns do (thank you, Stephen King and Pennywise), Spanish moss does (if you don’t live in the South, you probably can’t appreciate the sheer eerie-ness of Spanish moss – see The Skeleton Key, The Beguiled, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Dead Birds, pretty much any movie shot south of Atlanta, Georgia) as well as autumnal cornfields (try walking through a dead cornfield on a cold, windy night. I rest my case). Ventriloquist dummies I could do without – Dead Silent, Magic – and mannequins: Tourist Trap and now this book, Death by Darkness. But the mannequin in Arkansas writer Michael Pennington’s novel is not like the mannequins that were so creepy in the 1979 Chuck Conners’ film. Pennington’s mannequin is a much older one – a wooden one. Google wooden mannequin and then click on Images and you will see what I mean. These sumbitches are WEIRD!!!
Death by Darkness has some very original and unique ideas going on, aside from the wooden mannequin. Set in the small town of Redlake in southwest North Dakota in the late autumn and winter, you just can’t find a much more desolate setting. Add to that a protagonist, Dumas Harvey, who has suffered from schizophrenia his entire life, his childhood friend, the no-bullshit Chloe, Dumas’ doting mother, Lynn, the town’s antiques and oddities dealer, Gerrit along with some almost cartoonish bullies who make Dumas’ life a living hell and it doesn’t take the reader long to figure that the mannequin, mysteriously found in a junkyard, and the bullies in Dumas’ life are going to come together in some extremely unpleasant ways.
The book opens with a flashback to Dumas in high school and how he is the target for some incredibly vicious bullying from town rednecks, Daniel Balentine and Ronny Arwood. I did have a problem with the repeated bullying of Dumas, which continues throughout the book – Dumas didn’t want to press charges because he thought it would make things worse. By the time Dumas, Daniel and Ronny are in their mid-20s, the time the novel covers, how much worse could things get? These guys have put Dumas in the hospital more times than you can count. Kind of hard to believe the cops couldn’t do anything about these two assholes. But then if they were in jail, there would be no story for Death By Darkness is about Dumas’ revenge on these guys as well as some other townfolk he feels have persecuted him.
When the murders start, they are pretty graphic (gorehounds should love this) and the author has left the reader with some doubt as to who (or what) is commiting these crimes. Dumas keeps the mannequin, which he has named Olly, in the woods behind his house as his mother is too creeped out by the thing. And these woods do become almost another character – there are several creepy scenes where Chloe or Gerrit try to find Olly in the woods to get the mannequin away from Dumas. See, the mannequin has possessed Dumas and, as the story progresses, the reader is treated to just HOW deeply the mannequin has established control. And it’s quite unpleasant.
At one point, when Dumas’ mother has taken him to his psychiatrist to see what is going on with her son, Gerrit and Chloe do manage to find Olly and Gerrit takes the thing (did I mention it is life-size?) to his shop to do some research on where it could have come from and what the hell it is. At this point in the story, the reader is given some background on Malaysian folklore as it applies to these wooden dolls. Not sure how accurate this information is but the bottom line is that these dolls can either be used to protect children (Dumas may be 25 but he has the characteristics of someone younger) or they can be used for evil. Being a horror novel, protecting Dumas really isn’t Olly’s raison d’être.
The murders continue and get much more gruesome and by the end of the story, when all hell breaks loose, the reader is treated to shocks that they probably didn’t see coming.
On the whole, I really enjoyed Death by Darkness. The story really moves (I wanted to know what happened next and stayed up WAAYY too late reading in order to do so. On several occasions.) and Dumas’ character is one readers should feel sympathy towards – he has a terrible disease, schizophrenia, and then finds this ghastly mannequin which takes advantage of Dumas’ fragile mental state. There are some seriously creepy scenes where some of the townfolk are awakened in the middle of the night by something lurking outside their windows and there is a scene in the town cemetery…gross! I do wish the author could have written more about the town of Redlake itself – I never had a feel for the place (but then I’ve been spoiled by Stephen King, Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon who all really know how to establish a sense of place). There were also some rather annoying repetitions – I got it the first time that Chloe was a beautiful woman with a great body. Didn’t need to have my nose practically rubbed in that. The fact that the Harveys live in a two-story house didn’t need to be repeated ad nauseum. The bullies, Daniel and Ronny? Okay, we KNOW they’re the bad guys (and childish ones at that) – that fact didn’t need to be reinforced constantly. And there were a few instances of out-of-left field behavior – Chloe and the town’s detective, Okeene, having a fling right when things are really getting bad was the biggest WTF? (like horror films, I guess horror writers need to put in at least one gratuitous sex scene). I realize that this is Pennington’s second book and he does show some serious chops for the horror genre but he really needs a GOOD editor.
Other than these problems, the book itself is one I would recommend. You have a great setting: rural North Dakota in the winter. A unique character in Dumas. A plot that keeps you guessing and when was the last time you read about a demonic wooden mannequin? Or had people killed in such graphic and grotesque ways? Creepy, gruesome, isolated town in winter, creepy doll – what more could a horror fan ask for? Check it out!!
3 out of 5
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The Cured Review – Ellen Page Fights for Her Life
Written and directed by David Freyne
Taking a cue from AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the new Irish horror film The Cured begins where most zombie stories end. Drawing more comparisons, the themes of mistrust and social upheaval are front and center here as well. We’re the real villains, and the infectious disease turning humans into monsters is only there to hold up a mirror to show the worst sides of ourselves. The Cured uses the zombie mythos as Romero intended as a commentary on culture, with a little cannibalism thrown in for good measure.
Against the backdrop of a military takeover attempting to reintroduce the recently cured back into society, two people try to return to some kind of normalcy in a war-torn Ireland that’s been turned upside down by the zombie menace. Recently widowed, Abbey (Page) allows her now virus-free brother-in-law Senan (Keeley) to live with her and her son, even though most survivors are forced to live in an army encampment. Under constant surveillance, Senan’s old friend Conor (Vaughan-Lawlor) radicalizes the mistreated survivors of the virus into open rebellion.
The treatment of the survivors isn’t entirely unfair considering that they still have a connection and are not detected by a small percentage of the infected that haven’t responded to the cure. As both sides size each other up, Abbey and Senan are caught in the middle as they try to restore their humanity before the powder keg around them erupts.
Given its far out premise, the story stays firmly grounded in reality, focusing on the growing resistance and its political implications, drawing parallels to the protest movements such as the “Black Block” that have dominated some recent news cycles. When the virus divided the population, it was easy to know what side you were on; now, the cure has created a new class structure where the lower class is maligned until they cross the line and overthrow the uninfected. Clearly still affected and haunted by the heinous acts they committed when they were infected, the cannibalistic rage they still carry reflects the rage felt by the mistreated masses hellbent on overthrowing the powers-that-be.
Whether for budget reasons or simply a style choice, the eating frenzies that occurred before the cure are never fully shown so any gore and graphic images that could’ve been showcases for effects are left to the imagination. Maybe they weren’t shown because these acts were so unspeakable that they are too horrific to see and too painful to fully be remembered by the survivors. The top-notch sound design ratchets up instead and roars to life to the point where just hearing the carnage is enough to make you turn away.
Page’s performance is the emotional core of the film as she goes from understanding to fear to dealing with the ultimate betrayal. It’s important for a slow-developing story like this to have an actress with some star power, and director David Freyne and his team were fortunate to have a high caliber actress ready to deliver in some of the film’s quieter, more intense moments. Freyne directs these smaller character moments with care and also delivers once things open up to show the inevitable anarchy brimming under the surface.
The Cured may feel too closed off at times to allow its bigger ideas to fully breathe, but it never pretends to encompass a more epic scope that would be more in the vein of something like World War Z. Without ever addressing it directly, Freyne, as an Irishman, seems well aware of the history of the country; and he and cinematographer Piers McGrail inject their film with a pathos that makes Dublin come to life inside the world of the undead.
The Cured is a gritty take on the genre that fits nicely into the new type of storytelling that these stories need to embrace in a post-Romero world.
Bad Apples Review – Rotten Fruit, Indeed
Starring Brea Grant, Graham Skipper, Alycia Lourim
Directed by Brian Coyne
Like a seriously bad rash, some films stick with you regardless of whichever topical ointment you slather in generous fashion over your regions – ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce today’s orbital irritant: Bad Apples.
Directed (rather misdirected) by Brian Coyne, this lamentably sterile piece of celluloid follows a couple of murderous sisters, donning horrific (and not in a good sense) masks, and generally putting the sharp edges to random folk on Halloween night…case closed. Only problem here is this: the film has no pulse, no interesting characters to speak of, and basically nothing to redeem or recapture the time that you’ll have spent watching this complete dud. A husband and wife duo has a spotlight on them as well, but their tempestuous relationship makes rooting for them about as pleasing as sitting through 3 hours of Olympic curling…absolutely brutal. Also, you’re reading the babblings of a guy who loves to put the boots to any film that has been deemed “unwatchable”, but this complete wreck of a production is entirely that – something so remedial and uninspired that to type an endless array of rightful vitriol would be an utter waste of time.
So I’ll go on a bit longer with my public display of vehemence, as the casting seems WAY out of whack, and the production? Whoa…don’t even get me started on this – okay, I’ll go on a bit. With differing levels of sound editing, you’ll get the feeling at times like you could pick up a needle drop inside of a concert hall, and other frames of dialogue are so muddled they’re incomprehensible (not like you’ll feel the need to know what’s going on). Wonky camera angles and following shots are so horrendously captured, you’ll be wishing to watch your Mom and Dad’s old home movies just to gain a sense of stability. I normally pride myself on not begging this particular audience to take what I say to heart, or to shy away from something that could potentially ruin their eyesight, but believe me when I plead with you: do not waste your valuable time on this shipwreck – even if your time isn’t all that valuable: don’t waste it. Find something else to do and take a big ol’ pass on this wannabe slasher.
I don’t mean to pick on the low-hanging fruit, but these Apples should be batted away with a Louisville Slugger.
Edge of Isolation Review – A Movie with a Simple Message: Don’t Trust Anyone
Starring Michael Marcel, Marem Hassler, Alexandra Peters
Directed by Jeff Houkal
Sometimes, relying on the kindness of strangers is the thing that’ll do your gullible asses in – kindness? Strangers? Come on – think about it! Even further proof of said warning comes in the form of director Jeff Houkal’s brutally blatant film, Edge Of Isolation – won’t you come inside and grab a seat? You see! You fell right into another trap – jeezus, people…don’t trust just anyone, will ya?
Set up in a simplistic format, we’ve got a traveling couple (Lance and Kendra) whose Jeep, conveniently enough decides to shit the bed along a desolate stretch of roadway, leaving them at the mercy of the Polifer family, a slightly odd bunch of backwoods residents. This particular clan isn’t exactly wrapped too tightly, and they’re not afraid to let their freak flags fly, that’s for sure. You see, the family has been deeply-rooted in these here woods, and their “hospitality” has kept them fed for quite some time, and with a fresh supply of unsuspecting commuters stopping in at varying spells, their stomachs never truly seem to growl out of sustained hunger…oh, that kindness will bite you in the ass every single waking moment.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is constructed fairly simple, yet effective in its barbarism, and those who dig survivalist-horror will be wringing their mitts in anticipation for this one. While some editing does look a bit hokey, the practical effects more than make up for an at-times bit of strewn-about plot navigation, but who’s keeping score? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. I absolutely revel in low-budgeted films that don’t necessarily have the looks and feels of such, and Edge Of Isolation is one of those presentations that is certainly worth its weight in blood and guts – do yourself a solid and give this one a look when it becomes available to the masses, and for f**k’s sake, don’t take up anyone’s offer to chill at their place when your ride breaks down – get AAA and save your life (the previous statement was in no way affiliated or endorsed by the Triple A Automotive group – just sayin’).
Edge Of Isolation doesn’t need a full-blown allocation to keep future stranded motorists from losing their heads – all they have to do is push “play.”
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