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!
Black Christmas Blu-ray Review – Making Its U.K. Debut From 101 Films
Starring Keir Dullea, Olivia Hussey, John Saxon, Art Hindle
Directed by Bob Clark
Distributed by 101 Films
There is only one Bob Clark Christmas movie I watch each year and it doesn’t feature Ralphie and his Red Ryder fantasies.
The endurance of Clark’s 1974 legendary slasher, Black Christmas, can be chalked up to a number of factors but the greatest is this: it is a disturbing film. I frequently come across horror message board topics asking for genuinely scary titles devoid of jump scares and excessive gore, but oddly enough Black Christmas doesn’t get many mentions. Maybe because it has been relegated to the “seasonal viewing only” heap? Regardless, fans will agree that the unsettling events portrayed don’t diminish with repeat viewings; if anything, subsequent watching serves to reinforce that it is a standout among a sea of imitators. The film is also a noted influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – arguably the granddaddy of slasher films – adding a bit of prestige to its legacy.
The girls of Pi Kappa Sig are throwing a holiday party before the Christmas break when, toward the end of the night, they receive a phone call from a man they’ve been calling “The Moaner”, who has a habit of calling and making unusual noises. Jess (Olivia Hussey) initially accepts the call but also allows her other sisters to listen in, prompting outspoken Barb (Margot Kidder) to jump on the line and goad this mystery man. She and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) argue over the possibility this guy may be more threatening than anyone realizes. Unbeknownst to the ladies partying downstairs, however, moments before the phone call came through an unidentified person (very likely this same caller) snuck up the side of the house and into the attic. And once the party wraps up that same person is found hiding in Claire’s (Lynne Griffin) closet, whereupon she is strangled and placed in a rocking chair in the attic.
The next day Claire’s father comes to the campus to meet her and is understandably stood up. He heads to the sorority house and reports her missing, at which point the girls and their housemother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), agree to help him locate her. The file a report with the police, led by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), and Jess also wrangles in Claire’s semi-boyfriend, Chris (Art Hindle), who helps bolster the search by raising hell at the station. Jess, meanwhile, is having problems of her own after confessing to her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), she is pregnant. She wants an abortion; he is vehemently against it. Claire’s absence grows more concerning when another missing girl is found dead in a nearby park, prompting the cops to ramp up their efforts. The girls are being picked off one by one as the unseen assailant remains hidden in the attic, continuing his phone calls that come after each murder. The cops suspect Peter may be a person of interest, as his interactions with Jess have become increasingly aggressive, but everyone is in for a shock when a tap on the line reveals the true source of the calls – they are coming from within the house.
With the film having been around for over forty years, and fans having been sold one “upgraded” home video version after the next, I suspect most readers are more interested in how Scream Factory’s Blu-ray stacks up against similar editions – which is basically my way of saying this review is a bit glib. For the uninitiated, however, let me say that I cannot overstate how exceptional Clark’s film is – never giving the killer an identity, an entire subplot concerning abortion, a palpable sense of grief for Claire’s father, a cast of interesting, unique people who don’t ever feel like archetypes, and a potentially downer of an ending. Some of his moviemaking tricks are brilliant, like the decision to create Billy’s voice from a combination of three different people (one a woman) and using interchangeable actors to portray the killer so you’re never quite sure who is in the attic. Carl Zittrer’s score is disorienting and minimal, making use of odd instrumentation to add extra unease; it also appears infrequently, giving the movie more of a real life quality. Black Christmas was a reasonable success upon release, more so commercially than critically, but time has been kind to this old gem and many now view it as an outright horror classic.
Hell, it was Elvis’ favorite Christmas movie.
Cult label 101 Films is giving the film its U.K. debut, presenting a transfer that is nearly identical to the remastered version Scream Factory released last year in North America. That 1.85:1 1080p picture is very likely the best this film can and will ever look. Black Christmas has a long home video history of looking very grainy, murky, dulled, and soft. I can’t say the new disc’s results are far off that mark but there are clear improvements. For one, grain has been resolved in a tighter field that looks less “noisy” and more “grindhouse-y”; do not expect an image clear as a crystal unicorn by any means. There is still softness to many faces and objects though detail looks far better here than it ever has before. Colors are more vibrant, too. Black levels run on the hazy side but they’re more stable than ever. The only noticeable difference between the Scream Factory and 101 Films versions are the latter is a touch brighter, allowing for a little more detail to filter through.
Audio is available via an English LPCM 5.1 surround sound track or a 2.0 stereo option. The multi-channel effort grants the unsettling soundtrack and Billy’s insane vocalizations more room to breathe, ratcheting up the creepiness thanks to the sense of immersion. Unlike the Scream Factory edition, the original mono track is not included.
Only a handful of extra features have been included, all of which can be found on the Scream Factory edition, too.
“Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle” – Hindle, who still owns that jacket, talks about being a working actor in Canada when there wasn’t much work, as well as how he wound up auditioning for Clark for a different role.
“Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin” – The actress who is most famous for having a plastic bag over her head tells a few tales from the set.
“Black Christmas Legacy” – This is a lot of interviews from the film’s actors and notable fans. I found it to be a bit tedious.
A handful of original TV and radio spots have been included, along with the “40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014”.
The package also includes a fold-out poster, reversible cover art, and a DVD copy.
- Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle
- Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin
- Black Christmas Legacy
- Original TV and Radio spots
- 40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014
This is an easy recommendation for purchase if you live in the U.K., since this is the film’s Blu-ray debut. Stateside readers may find this region-free version attractive due to the price, but know that it does contain significantly fewer extras than the in-print Scream Factory release. Either way, fans on both sides of the Atlantic have a version worth buying.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Review – A Haunting Mixture of Psychological Turmoil and Brutal Supernatural Horror
Starring Brittany Anne Woodford, Jenny Curtis, Kanin Guntzelman, Brendan McGowan, Jake White
Directed by James S. Brown
We all like to think of ourselves as being surrounded by friends, but let’s face it, if we were to ever truly hit hard times, there are probably very few, if any, people we could truly rely on. So on some level, Friends Don’t Let Friends is a film we can all relate too, as it deals with this very issue.
Stephanie is an emotionally unstable young woman who strangles her boyfriend to death after he insults and breaks up with her. She calls her friends to help her dispose the body out in the Joshua Tree National Part area, and instead of reporting her to the police, they reluctantly comply. As their car breaks down, the four friends find themselves alone at night in the Californian wilderness with the rotting corpse in need of disposal. Given their dire circumstances, they begin to become more and more aggressive towards each other, and this was where the film was really at its best. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how far the limits of their friendship could be stretched, and who would be the first to crack and turn on the others.
Anyway, their body disposal endeavor soon proves to be a mistake, as Stephanie’s ex rises from the grave as vengeful zombie demon thing with claws as long as knives. I’ll admit, I first I thought Friends Don’t Let Friends was going to be a movie purely about the limits of trust, so I was pretty surprised when the supernatural elements came into play. And when they did, the trust and friendship elements of the plot were somewhat downplayed in favor of a more traditional horror approach, and while it was still entertaining, I still would have preferred for the film not to have strayed from its initial path. At least the ending came as a shocker. I won’t go into spoilers, but let’s just say the even the most attentive viewers probably won’t see it coming.
As you can probably guess from a psychologically-driven film of this kind, the performances were top notch, with Brittany Anne Woodford being on particularly top form as the manipulative and unstable Stephanie, a character who revels in the revels in the power she felt when ending another human life.
With its mixture of psychological turmoil and brutal supernatural horror, Friends Don’t Let Friends is a film I would certainly recommend, but keep in mind that it may make you think twice when confiding in people who you think of as being your friends.
8 out of 10.
Coulrophobia Review – One of the Most Entertaining Killer Clown Films in Quite Some Time
Starring Pete Bennett, Warren Speed, Daniella D’Ville, Roxy Bordeaux
Directed by Warren Speed
The word ‘Coulrophobia’ refers to the fear of clowns, and if you happen to suffer from it, you might want to avoid director Warren Speed’s film of the same name. However, if you can stand the sight of clowns with gaping wounds in their manly parts, then you’re in for one heck of a fun time.
An all-female hockey team get lost deep in the Scottish woods on their way to a match (don’t ask), and are captured and forced to participate in a series of horrific games by the Grock family of clowns. All of the members of said family are absolutely fucking insane, but the one that really stood out was Twitch (Pete Bennett), who wears jester cloths and it said to have a short attention span. He longs to be a violin player and wishes he could blend in with normal society like the other members of his family. And you almost feel sorry for him, even though he’s a mad killer with bells on his head.
Director Warren Speed also appeared as Milo, a grunting mute who had his tongue cut out when he was a boy. As mentioned above, we see a close-up shot of a open wound in his penis being stitched up, which is not an image that will be leaving your mind anytime soon. Speed is clearly fearless when it comes to his art.
Inter-spliced with all the torture and mayhem, we also see documentary-style telling the sad history of the family involved, and this was where the film unfortunately faltered, because these scenes seemed out of place and just didn’t flow with the rest of the plot.
Ultimately, however, Coulrophobia almost seems like a film Rob Zombie might have made before he lost his way and started churning out trash like 31. Comparisons to House of 1000 Corpses are inevitable, and I absolutely mean that as a compliment. This is one of the most entertaining killer clown films in quite some time.
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