Written by Kristopher Rufty
Published by Sinister Grin Press
Jagger is the kind of book that horror presses should publish more of. There seems to be a march toward shorter novellas, or at least an emphasis placed on books that “move” (the ones that sprint to the “good stuff”). The old man in me doesn’t care much for this trend, and I’m happy to say that Kristopher Rufty’s Jagger is exactly the kind of book I love.
It’s a story that builds gradually toward the carnage, earning the violence and horror while understanding that character remains king. It gives us plenty of opportunity to get to know our cast before plunging them headlong into a bleak scenario that shakes the animal lover in each of us.
Comparisons to Cujo are inevitable. I know it, Rufty knows it, and I’m certain that his publisher, Sinister Grin Press, saw it coming too. When I tweeted the cover a few weeks back, several comments drew that conclusion. There have been killer dog novels between Cujo and Jagger, but I think that social media response perfectly illustrates why the market can stand a few more entries into this subgenre—we’ve still got Cujo on the brain! People still write about serial killers even though we’ve had Red Dragon and the rest of the Lecter novels, so why should canine horror end with a book from 1981?
I’m not going to compare Rufty’s novel to King’s, except to say both books do an admirable job of setting the stage quite well before the bloodshed kicks in. The measured pace of Jagger is a nice change in an age where genre books feel compelled to hit the ground running and never, ever stop. Yes, we have a pretty good idea of where Jagger is headed from the beginning, but that doesn’t stifle our enjoyment of Rufty’s characters any less.
Just north of 330 words, Jagger spends a good chunk of time on setup, and it’s a very good move. The first 100 pages are devoted to character development, acclimating us to the lives of our key players, while threading a sense of significant community history throughout the chapters. Our protagonist, Amy, is sympathetic and likable from the first words. She’s struggling to play the hand she was dealt as the owner/manager of an inherited trailer park community that has seen better days. Her best, most trusted friend is a gigantic bullmastiff named Jagger.
Amy’s friend, Teresa, doesn’t make the best choices. Teresa has an on again, off again relationship with Clayton, a grimy loser who makes money training dogs to fight. When his dog dies during a recent match, Clayton owes a lot of money to some low-tier slezeballs. Teresa and Clayton steal Jagger out of desperation, and the dog is injected with mysterious drugs to make him a more formidable fighter. The dog loses his mind and cuts a bloody swath all the way back to Amy, whom he might blame for his misfortunes.
Rufty knows how to manage the dog attacks in brutal, uncomfortable ways. Some of this is probably what I brought to the book, as my wife’s family has a bullmastiff that happens to be the sweetest dog ever. I couldn’t help but picture him as I read Jagger. My skin crawled throughout his mistreatment, and more so at his bloody, tragic vengeance.
We find some satisfaction in the way Jagger kills some of his more deserving victims, but Rufty is to be commended for fleshing out all his characters. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, a character like Clayton would be one-dimensional garbage, but there’s a sense of conflict within him that makes him interesting, and even a tiny bit sympathetic. I like that Rufty avoids writing about his villains with disdain. Yes, there are bad people in here, but he tells their stories with as much balance as possible, giving the book a welcome sense of heft.
I think stories like Jagger work best when unfolding at a slower pace. A novel isn’t a movie, and I’m sometimes confounded by an author’s (or publisher’s) decision to turn a book into the equivalent of an 80-minute b-movie. Sure, it’s a matter of preference, but when I’m going to invest myself in an author’s world, I like to live inside of it for a little while. Jagger trades between five or six characters, but I was never bored of any of them.
Rufty doesn’t shy away from the goods, either, so gorehounds can go ahead and pick this one up knowing there’s enough sex and violence to satisfy those cravings. I admire the ways in which Rufty depicts those events without any kind of redundancy. But there’s also a beautiful kind of poetry in his violence, as glimpsed here:
Nathan’s screams tore through the tranquility of the day, stopping the breeze, killing the sounds of birds and distant audible noise.
Grisly and chilling, Jagger is exactly what I’m looking for when I curl up with a modern horror novel. Old school in spirit, but carried out in a modern voice, I absolutely loved the ride. I saw my family’s bullmastiff a few days after finishing this and gave him a few extra scratches on the belly. Jagger is just a story, but it’s stayed with me since finishing it.
Note: I also love the book’s design. Sinister Grin Press is becoming one of my favorite sources for modern horror, and the whole package is great, from the cover art to the catchy blurb, and even the numbered spine, which should make any collector want to grab the rest of these books. I’m hoping they’ll publish one of mine someday!
Threads Blu-ray Review – The Horror of Nuclear War Hits Home Video
Starring Death, Destruction, Famine, Unimaginable Suffering
Directed by Mick Jackson
Distributed by Severin Films
Although not quite reaching the tense heights felt during the Cold War, talk of nuclear annihilation has nonetheless been on the tips of tongues following a recent public spat between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. The difference being that unlike the decades-long stalemate between America and Russia, this kerfuffle feels more like two boys breaking out the ruler to measure package size. Regardless, the truth remains that as long as nuclear weapons are held by any country the risk of a catastrophic event is always on the table – and their use should never be used as a casual threat. The world has seen firsthand the level of devastation that can be wrought with their use; a reminder none want to endure again. This seems as fitting a time as any for Severin Films to breathe new life on home video into Threads (1984), a frightening portrayal of what could happen in the U.K. following nuclear war. Similar in concept to America’s The Day After (1983), Threads is a chilling, bleak vision that showcases the breakdown of society prior to, and after, the detonation of nuclear weaponry. Nothing is glamorized; there are no heroics. By the time the credits roll viewers will be left chilled to the core, having witnessed so much destruction that should never be allowed to occur in a modern society.
The action is centered in Sheffield, U.K. where we follow the lives of a few distinct families and citizens who represent different sectors of the populace. The events leading up to nuclear war are depicted via television and radio broadcasts, with anchors reporting on increasing tensions in Iran following a coup allegedly backed by the U.S. In response, the Soviet Union moves troops into northern Iran to protect their own interests. The standoff becomes increasingly strained when the U.S. reports the submarine USS Los Angeles has gone missing in the Persian Gulf. Soon after, a collision between Soviet and American battle cruisers forces the U.S. President to issue a warning to the Soviets that any further action may lead to armed confrontation.
As all of this is occurring the citizens of Sheffield are attempting to go about their normal lives… until a melee involving nuclear-tipped weaponry prompts the government to assemble emergency operations groups. With the U.K. now completely gripped by fear, the threads of society begin to rapidly unspool, with citizens divided over local government response while runs on grocery stores and looting become widespread. Finally, in the early morning a few weeks after this skirmish began air raid sirens are sounded and within minutes a nuclear warhead is detonated over the North Sea, emitting an EMP and knocking out all communication in the country. The attack wreaks havoc, decimating the country and wiping out millions of lives in one swift blow. Those are the lucky ones.
Those who survive the initial blast are met with highly-radioactive fallout, disease, famine, radiation sickness, crumbling infrastructure and streets littered with rotting corpses. Society has suffered a complete breakdown. Money no longer holds any value. Nuclear winter brings about a dearth of crops and a massive drop in temperatures. Food is the only commodity with any value – and it is long before any can be produced. Population levels reach those of the medieval times. Even a decade after the blast, the areas devastated by nuclear war have only rebuilt to a level on par with the Industrial Revolution. Children are still born. Language is limited, due to the lack of proper schooling. Little hope looms on the horizon as those left alive scrounge and scavenge, eking out a miserable existence.
Director Mick Jackson made a smart decision by shooting Threads using a neorealist lens, employing unknowns in place of familiar faces. This gives the picture a documentarian feel while also scuttling the notion of seeing famous faces either survive the catastrophe or become heroes. There is no silver lining to be found. The initial blast rocks the U.K. on a grand scale, brought to visceral life by Jackson’s use of miniatures and montage to convey a massive scale of destruction. Fires rage, Sheffield is in ruins, charred corpses line the streets, and radiation poisoning leaves survivors roiling in pain and vomiting endlessly. The brutal verisimilitude is gut-wrenching; Jackson ensures every bit of pain and perseverance is palpable.
Threads should be mandatory viewing, serving as a warning of the very real potential outcome should civilized nations resort to using nuclear weaponry on a global scale. No good can come of mutually assured destruction. All of the posturing and battling between the U.S. and Russia pales in comparison to the annihilation of millions of lives and decades of industry, all wiped out in the blink of an eye. This is true horror.
Given its low budget and television roots, it should come as no surprise that Threads looks on a rougher side of HD. Severin touts the 1.33:1 1080p image as being a “new 2K remaster”, though the provenance of the elements used is not mentioned. Truthfully, the grainy, rough-hewn picture is a perfect complement to the gritty imagery seen throughout and anything more polished might have lessened the impact. The film was shot on 16mm and blown-up to 35mm; again, a smart aesthetic decision given the documentarian feel Jackson wanted. The cinematography reminded me of Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), an American documentary on coal workers. Damage can be seen throughout, as well as plenty of flecks and debris but, again, none of this was particularly irksome because it feels organic to this decaying world.
Audio comes in the form of a simple English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. First off, I highly recommend turning on the subtitles because the English accents are thick and plenty of U.K.-specific colloquialisms are used; it helps – a lot. This is a thin track without much direction, employing a workmanlike sound design to get the point across. Explosions have a bit of roar and oomph, but the biggest impact is made by a scene of total silence post-attack. Dialogue is clean and well set within the mix. Subtitles are available in English.
An audio commentary track is included, featuring director Mick Jackson, moderated by film writer Kier La Janisse & Severin Films’ David Gregory.
“Audition for the Apocalypse” is an interview with actress Karen Meagher.
“Shooting the Annihilation” is an interview with director of photography Andrew Dunn.
“Destruction Designer” is an interview with production designer Christopher Robilliard.
“Stephen Thrower on THREADS” finds the author and film historian discussing the production history and impact of the film.
A “U.S. trailer” as well as a “Re-release trailer” are included.
- NEW 2K REMASTER of the film prepared for this release
- Audio Commentary with Director Mick Jackson, Moderated by Film Writer Kier–La Janisse and Severin Films’ David Gregory
- Audition For the Apocalypse: Interview with Actress, Karen Meagher
- Shooting the Annihilation: Interview with Director of Photography, Andrew Dunn
- Destruction Designer: Interview with Production Designer, Christopher Robilliard
- Interview with Film Writer, Stephen Thrower
- U.S. Trailer
Brutal and unflinching in its desire to convey a story true to reality, Threads is a difficult and necessary viewing experience that shows firsthand the level of terror wrought by man’s hand.
Annihilation Review – A Fascinating, Gorgeous New Take on Body Horror
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Have you ever walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, “That was more than just a movie. That was an experience!“? It’s only happened to me a handful of times, the last one I remember being Mad Max: Fury Road. Last night that sensation washed over me as the credits for Annihilation began their crawl after a near two-hour runtime. I remained in my seat until every name slipped by before I found it within myself to stand up and leave the theater. All I could think was, “I’ve just witnessed something incredible.”
An adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his The Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows Lena (Portman), an ex-soldier-turned-biologist professor at Johns Hopkins whose husband, Kane (Isaac), has been missing for a year after leaving on a covert mission about which Lena has been able to get zero information. When Kane mysteriously returns and almost immediately falls gravely ill, Lena finds herself in a secret government facility that is monitoring a strange and potentially cataclysmic phenomenon: a strange shimmering dome that appeared in a remote region after a meteorite landing, a dome that grows larger with each passing day. Realizing that the answer to her husband’s malady may very well lie within that area, Lena joins four other women as they embark on an expedition into what is called “Area X.” However, it’s quickly realized that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that the laws of nature no longer apply.
The majesty of Annihilation is the time it takes to build the story and to ramp up the tension. While it has no problem with frenetic scenes, the film moves at an almost poetic pace, every moment adding something to the overarching narrative. From showing the relationship between Lena and Kane to the interactions among the five women who venture into “Area X” to the action sequences, every part of the movie feels necessary. This is even seen in the climax of the film, which is a 10-minute scene that features almost zero dialogue and yet feels fraught with danger.
Visually, the movie is absolutely gorgeous. The jungle that takes up most of Area X is lush and beautiful. Crepuscular rays break through the leaves and tease a rainbow iridescence thanks to the “shimmer.” A wide variety of flowers impossibly blossom from the same source, a result of the genetic mutations occurring within the dome. Strange fungal patterns explode across the walls of abandoned buildings, their patterns a tumorous cornucopia of colors and textures. Even when the movie brings gore into the equation, it does so with an artist’s gaze. Without ruining the moment, there is a scene where the team comes across the body of a man from a previous expedition. For as macabre as the visual was, it was equally entrancing, calling to mind the strangely beautiful designs of the “clickers” from The Last of Us.
Each setting in the story has a visual style that sets it apart from one another but still feels connected. The governmental facility feels cold and sterile while the jungles of Area X are warm and verdant. As the team ventures further into the contaminated zone, we are taken to the beach next to the lighthouse that acts as “ground zero” for the mysterious event. Here we see trees made of crystal and bone-white roots clinging to the nautical beacon. In this third act, we’re taken into the basement of the lighthouse, which can only be described as Giger-esque, with strange ribbed walls that feel like they pulsate with a life of their own.
The characters of Annihilation feel real, and the exposition given doesn’t feel forced. When Lena is rowing a boat with Cass, the sharing of information feels like camaraderie, not awkward plot reveals. Additionally, no character is without his/her flaws. Even Lena has her own issues that burden her with guilt, making her journey into Area X all the more understandable. As the stress of the mission wears on these women, the seeds of distrust begin germinating into deadly situations that have very real consequences, including the appearance of a bear that would be right at home in the Silent Hill universe. Also, kudos to Garland for writing the film in such a way where the gender roles not only feel natural but are never focused on in a disingenuous manner.
Musically, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who scored Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, create a soundtrack that is atmospheric, haunting, and hypnotizing. The music elevates the dreamy phantasmagoria of the film without overpowering any scene. Meanwhile, cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also worked on Ex Machina, helps create a film where nearly every frame is a work of art.
Those entering Annihilation expecting a clearly defined sci-fi/horror offering will be disappointed. There is certainly a great deal of both to be had, but the movie doesn’t want to offer something fleeting. Instead, it uses those genres as a foundation to create a film that will stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. When you get to the core of Annihilation, it’s a body horror film that pays homage to the work of David Cronenberg while carving an entirely new path of its own. Just don’t expect it to hold your hand and answer all of its mysteries. Some questions are left for you to see through on your own.
I do not say this lightly, but I truly believe that Alex Garland has offered audiences one of the best genre films in recent years.
Annihilation is a bold, gorgeous, and stunning melting pot of horror, sci-fi, and drama, culminating in one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen this decade.
Mom & Dad Review – When Parental Protection Goes Horribly Awry
Starring Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters
Written and directed by Brian Taylor
The love of one’s parents is something that can propel an individual to not only personal, but professional heights as well, and that’s not to say that the aforementioned love should be taken for granted, either. The reason why I’m making this statement is that you never know when that love could turn to blind, unrestrained rage, and you as the child could be forced to save your own life from those very people who raised you – enter Brian Taylor’s ultra-black comedy, Mom & Dad.
Josh (Zachary Arthur) and his sister, Carly (Winters), are your typical American children: generally oblivious to the life around them provided by their progenitors, and when a mysterious and unexplained virus causes all parents to turn violently towards their kids, it’s the youngins that are the ones being stalked, sometimes with horrific results. What gives this film a tremendous sense of “oomph” is the fact that there really isn’t a whole lot of time spend on useless build-up. Taylor’s style of balls-out direction is no truer on display here as the parental duo of Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair as Brent and Kendall Ryan is one of cinematic gold. Cage, who on the normal is an actor that harnesses his bat-shit nuts style of character portrayal until it’s time to fully unleash the beast – well, consider this performance off of the friggin’ chain! It’s clear from the get-go that the relationship between the folks and the kids isn’t entirely the most drama-free and devoid of subtle hostility.
Some of the scenes of various attacks are a bit tough to take at times, and although the film was created in jest, it’s still the shock factor that carries this one to the finish line with the audience kicking and screaming all the way. One scene inside a newborn delivery room had me shifting in my seat, and for that to happen is pretty damned impressive, and I’ve seen some rather demented shit over the course of my years. The film does get a bit disjointed at times, but order is restored when the mayhem returns in full-force, and Taylor’s action-film resume shows through with psychotic camera-angles and dizzying arrays of brute force from some characters. Blair and Cage didn’t exactly come off doubtless as a couple, and maybe they would have been better set as a separate-working tandem, but the two nevertheless provided some real entertainment once their switches got flipped (well, Cage’s switch never really has an “off” position in this movie).
In the end of it all, Mom & Dad is the textbook definition of a “mindless movie,” and that’s not meant to be a negative in any fashion – I absolutely loved it from beginning to end, and this one is meant for a viewing with the kiddies to gently remind them what could happen if they ever get out of line (wink, wink).
Ferocious, frenzied and ultimately fun, these parents certainly aren’t to be f**ked with!
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