Locke and Key (season 1)

locke and key poster

When their father is murdered, the three Locke siblings and their mother move back to his childhood home. For some mysterious reason, he’d never taken them to see their ancestral seat, but lost and grieving, the family grab at the chance to learn anything about him. And Keyhouse – the family obviously enjoying a pun or two – is a huge and intriguing place.

Oh yes, and it’s also hiding literal keys – magical keys that unlock various amazing powers. But the Lockes can’t just enjoy their new lives: someone – or something – wants those keys.

With everyone looking for more at-home entertainment in these lockdown days, if you’ve not tried this already I recommend giving it a go. I was curious; it sounded just my thing, but I worried about the ‘fantasy horror’ tag being heavy on the latter, and more about the main cast being teenagers and younger. Fears soon dispelled, though: it’s spooky rather than horrific, and the cast are all nice and un-annoying.

I’m very glad, as the story is well worth a look-see. Mysteries abound, about the house, about Mr Locke’s death, about the last time a group of Locke children experimented with the keys’ powers. Then there’s the sinister baddy, after the keys for their own nefarious purposes. It’s all drawn together to provide a massive ‘keep-watching’ reason.

Based on a comic book, there’s something quite computer game-y in the way the keys are hidden within other objects. Their various powers give rise to some pretty amazing visuals, too.

Recommended binge watching, and I’m delighted that there’s another series coming – even though we get a great ending, there’s so much more to explore.

First broadcast: January 2020 (Netflix UK)
Series: 1, with another announced
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Dracula (mini series)

dracula poster

There are sooo many adaptations of the Dracula story, different takes on vampires in general. Can the duo behind BBC’s excellent Sherlock reimagining do similar with this old myth? Auntie Beeb was more than willing to let them try, giving them a 3-part mini series over New Year’s.

So, can they do something different? Yes, and then again, not so much.

To be honest, the opening episode – and by that I mean 90 mins of viewing – didn’t wholly grab me. The aging makeup was almost as bad as the accent. It felt very like a poor rip-off of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Sarcastic nun, Agatha, was a welcome addition, but still…

I persevered, and glad I did: episode 2 was excellent. In the claustrophobic setting of the Demeter, sailing for England, a newly youthful Dracula plays games worthy of a Poirot novel, and I thought it worked brilliantly. Claes Bang as Dracula – now free of the wrinkles and awful accent – was a joy. He’s smouldering without being pretty-sexy, and devious and obviously enjoying it. Put me a little in mind of the swagger of Lucifer. And then – omg, the ‘twist’ right at the end of ep 2! We are three hours, and two thirds, into this, and NOW you do that to us?!

Alas, I can’t really discuss the third ep for spoilery reasons. Suffice to say, there are a few familiar names and the story disappointingly goes back to some well-worn plotlines. It’s a real shame, as there are glimmers of doing something ‘different’ and interesting, especially in this ep, but overall it felt a bit wasted. The ending is rather abrupt, too, which is always a shame when then story has been more carefully paced previously.

Do I recommend? Hmm. Overall and in general not hugely. However, if like me you’re rather fond of the vampire myths, and seeing what novelties people keep trying to come up with (nothing has ever matched the whole Judas thing in the awful Dracula 2000, right enough!), then there is a lot to enjoy here. Just, lower expectations for the last ep. And warning for gore, too – I’m not sure I really should have watched small child corpses trying to play peekaboo just before bed o.O

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1
Episodes: 3 @ ~90 mins each

My rating: 6/10 – for each ep I’d say 7/8/6, but marks lost overall for the ending

The Pursuit of William Abbey – Claire North

pursuit of william abbey cover

“The truth-speaker was tall as a stretcher, thin as a rifle.”

William Abbey is a young doctor working in Africa – a punishment for pursuing the wrong girl, in a very Victorian fashion – when he sees a native boy lynched. Shocked by the sight but unwilling to intervene, William is cursed by the boy’s mother. For the rest of his days, he will be followed by a shadow; if it reaches him, someone he loves will die. And so William runs, for the shadow only ever walks at a fixed pace. He can escape it for a while, but he can never stop.

He discovers others with the same condition – but, not all of them view it as a curse. For, along with the fear comes a gift. The closer the shadow gets, the more William can read the truth in men’s hearts. This makes him a valuable commodity to some, and it’s not long before he’s made an offer: assistance outpacing the shade, and in return he’ll spy for his country.

I’ve reviewed several of Claire North’s books, and I’ve said before I find them very hit (e.g. the amazing First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) or miss (e.g. 84K), although always well written and always intriguing enough to make trying the next one a risk worth taking. I’m pleased to report TPoWA falls into the ‘hit’ category for me.

William is not a hero as such. He bumbles through life, he’s used, he’s afraid. But he’s also increasingly aware of his own flaws, and slowly, slowly moves towards a resolution to the tangle he finds himself in.

A fairly hefty dose of social commentary seems to run through North’s work; here: is it really ‘less bad’ to be a bystander to terrible events? I’m not convinced. I’ve just finished renewing my first aid training, and the first rule is “See to your own safety first”. It felt a bit unfair that William is the one cursed, for not risking himself, and not one of the men directly involved in the lynching. I guess that’s part of the debate.

It continues with a more obvious “just following orders” kind of moralising. William reports back to his superiors, but doesn’t get involved in the consequences. Then he meets someone else with his ‘gift’, and we also get to ask, do the ends ever/always justify the means?

All of which makes it sound like a very heavy read, and it’s not too bad, honestly! The telling is split between a nurse in a WWI front line hospital, who meets the older Dr Abbey, and the gent himself telling his impossible tale. I can see why other reviewers felt they couldn’t connect with the lead, as he’s a passive pawn in most of the tale. But, stick with it.

I haven’t seen the movie It Follows, although that’s what this first reminded me of, then a supernatural Victorian anti-Bond. It’s creepy, but not horror. Rather, the sheer intrigue kept me reading, and I’m glad I did.

Hardback: 420 pages / 78 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 9th-15th December 2019

My rating: 8/10

Doctor Sleep (2019)

doctor sleep poster

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, into one of horror’s most famous movies. In the story, Jack Torrance (famously played by Jack Nicholson) goes slowly, murderously mad in the empty Overlook Hotel, endangering his wife and young son, Danny. When asked at a book signing, “What happened to Danny?”, Stephen King was inspired to write this sequel – so, are you ready to find out what did happen to little Danny?

Even if I hadn’t read the book, I think that this is an adaptation would seem clear from the way the story unfolds. We spend far longer than I expected with little Danny and his mum (recast to resemble the previous actors), watching Danny’s childhood and young life unfold into something of a mess – unsurprisingly. As with so many King stories, the horror is never just the monsters, it’s the reality of things like turning into a violent alcoholic like your father.

However, Danny (Ewan McGregor) eventually faces his demons – in more ways that one – and carves out a quietly satisfying kind of life for himself. Until, that is, gifted Abra Stone comes looking for him, hoping for help in tracking down the group of nasties killing young kids with ‘the Shining’.

I’ve said quite often that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, so why this one? Well, in my teens I loved Stephen King, including The Shining. The sequel manages to pick up on a classic story and add to it, expanding the concepts without spoiling the original.

This adaptation does a great job at bringing that to screen. The cast is excellent, including McGregor and Cliff Curtis on the good side, and the always excellent Rebecca Ferguson and Zahn McClarnon leading up the baddies of the sinister ‘True Knot’ group. There are layers of horror: snatched and murdered kids, monsters that eat your life, the childhood demons, and facing death. This makes for more subtlety than the silly ‘jump scares’ kind of horror that I dislike so much.

Indeed, I wasn’t too perturbed until the story takes us back to the Overlook Hotel, at which point all those memories of The Shining and the haunted hotel upped the unsettling levels dramatically. Appropriate, that: it mirrors Danny’s own childhood horrors back to haunt him once again. But it’s also deeply satisfying seeing old ghosts resurrected for the new story, including a few familiar-ish faces…!

Overall, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed this. It’s a good story done well, rather than out and out terror, but with enough creepiness to warrant the horror tag. Worth having seen The Shining first, though, as the nods back really add to the creepiness.

Released: 31st October 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 1st November 2019
Running time: 151 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

Dracul – Dacre Stoker

dracul cover

“I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

“The prequel and continuation of the classic work “Dracula” by Bram Stoker written by his descendant Dacre Stoker”.

What if the classic Dracula (1897) was based on the real life of the author? Indeed, Bram Stoker was a sickly child before making a rather miraculous recovery – an infusion of vampiric blood? And so this book affects to be written by his descendant, who has ‘discovered’ notebooks and such telling the ‘real’ story.

I must confess, I’m no wiser as to whether Dacre Stoker is real or a vaguely elaborate creation, nor do I think it matters – the conceit of the ‘reality’ of it all impresses me not one jot. If the story is good, then that’s all that matters.

And indeed, it starts out well enough. There’s a subtlety to the first part, dealing with the life of young Bram and his siblings, as they first encounter what may or may not be a vampire. However, as the author reaches adulthood, the tale felt like a ‘retelling’ of the classic, using historical figures to stand in for the known cast: Mina, Lucy, Van Helsing, et al.

To be honest, I found it a bit dull, perhaps supposed to have an extra chill from being ‘real’ (I can’t help but scoff, I’m sorry!). I felt we hit quite a few cliches, particularly the ‘friendly vampire’. It also seems to lift heavily from the visuals and perhaps even the motifs of Frances Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

So, overall something here just didn’t work for me, at least after that first section. The story feels derivative and unsatisfying, adding nothing new to the sub-genre. Worse, I think it actually cheapens the original book by suggesting it’s a journal and not a well-written piece of excellent imagination.

Ack. It’s not an awful read by any stretch, but it just didn’t click for me at all.

NetGalley eARC: 512 pages
First published: 2019
Series: Stoker’s Dracula book 1
Read from 12th-31st August 2019

My rating: 5/10

The Halloween Tree – Ray Bradbury

halloween tree cover

“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.”

One spooky Halloween night, a group of boys find themselves on a fantastic journey through time to learn the origins of the festival. Their guide, Moundshroud, takes them to ancient Egypt, Celtic Britain, Medieval Paris and more. But even as they discover the origins of the costumes they have chosen, they also try to discover what happened to their missing friend and group ringleader, Pipkin – is he a mummy? A gargoyle on the Notre Dame? Or is he… (gulp!) dead?

My Habitica book group chose this for their October read, and I thought why not – especially as the library had a digital audiobook I could borrow. I’m still trying to get ‘in’ to audiobooks, and this was a great one to try: aimed more at younger readers, it wasn’t too long or complex for easyish listening, and Bronson Pinchot (actor, Perfect Strangers, Beverly Hills Cop, etc) is an excellent narrator.

I didn’t really know what to expect going in to this, so was surprised and intrigued when it shifts from what seems might be a haunted house-ish kind of story, with the boys stumbling across Moundshroud’s home and the titular tree, to this fantastical journey through time.

The story is nicely creepy, but not too scary. I’m not sure half the ‘explanations’ actually have much to do with the festival of Halloween, but they do capture the origins of popular costumes e.g. mummies, witches, and the like. However, the tale is much bigger than the boys’ adventure, it’s really about cultural attitudes to death and how those have changed – pretty hefty stuff dressed up in a spooky kid’s tale!

I can see this possibly inspiring the likes of Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, so if you’re a fan of those this might appeal too. I hear there’s a cartoon adaptation, too, and while I’ve not seen it, this story certainly lends itself to the idea of visual representation.

Audio book: ~144 pages / 3 hours 10 listening time / 19 chapters
First published: 1973
Series: none
Read from 13th-30th October 2019

My rating: 7/10

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Wojciech Kilar

bram stokers dracula ost cover

In 1992, Frances Ford Coppola gave us a new take on the Dracula myth, low on the “I vant to suck your blud” and high on seductive romance and gothic tragedy. It was well received, winning awards, and presenting the viewer with a feast for eyes and ears both.

Returning from war to discover his beloved tricked into suicide and condemned by the church, Vlad (Gary Oldman) curses himself into the eternal life of a vampire better to get his vengeance. Centuries later, he discovers his wife’s double in the form of Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), and the movie mainly follows his attempts to win her heart – while an intrepid band of would-be vampire slayers try to stop him.

For the soundtrack, it makes a certain kind of sense to hire an eastern European composer given the tale’s roots. For a horror movie, it also makes a lot of sense to try to find something that bit different from the norm, to unsettle the listener. And there is a chill factor here, woven well with yearning love themes. Menace mixes with sorrow, seduction with fury.

We start with pure menace, strident horns and a chilling chorus with almost disturbing whispers underneath. But then we get to Lucy’s Party with its almost childlike, twinkling chimes – all light and lovely… but there’s a creeping disquiet to the piece, too. Then the mood switches again with the seductive feel of The Brides – but again, that sense of danger. The rest of the score follows that same kind of mix of moods switching and keeping us on our toes.

My favourite tracks tend to be the highly wistful love theme ones, such as Love Remembered and Mina/Dracula. The underlying motif is just gorgeous – yearning but never saccharine.

I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, so I’m not picturing scenes with the tracks, but it still works to conjure the mood. I don’t think anything has ever captured the pathos of the vampire myth quite so gorgeously.

I don’t watch much horror these days, and to be frank most horror movie scores are brash and obvious and I don’t find them pleasant to listen to. This, on the other hand, is hugely atmospheric and very listenable. I’d even recommend turning the volume up (a few of the tracks are particularly quiet) and immersing yourself in the lush layers.

My rating: 8/10 – I didn’t realise I liked this so much until I sat down to write this review, but there you go! 🙂

Genre: horror
Released: 1992
Length: 0:30:41
Number of tracks: 16, although an extended version with unused tracks is available (and I’d like to get my hands on, tbh!)

Track listing:

  1. Dracula – The Beginning
  2. Vampire Hunters
  3. Mina’s Photo
  4. Lucy’s Party
  5. The Brides
  6. The Storm
  7. Love Remembered
  8. The Hunt Builds
  9. The Hunters Prelude
  10. The Green Mist
  11. Mina/Dracula
  12. The Ring of Fire
  13. Love Eternal
  14. Ascension
  15. End Credits
  16. Love Song for a Vampire – Annie Lennox

The Allingham Minibus – Margery Allingham

allingham minibus cover

“Dornford killed Fellowes somewhere in Australia.”

I’ve written before about being a fan of Campion and the period-gentle kind of mystery. Here we have a collection of short stories, some with the famous detective, others a little more random. All in all, a rather good mix!

We open with a foreword from Agatha Christie – what better stamp of approval can another mystery writer of the time get, really?

The first story surprised me, as I didn’t know the author dabbled in horror. This is a perfect mystery-come-terror story, which I can wholly imagine being told around a campfire. And, despite the age (so much is reused, and loses something from the familiarity) still gave me a fun little chill. The rest of the stories mix this kind of ‘ghost story’ with mysteries, and a large dose of whimsy.

The strength of the writing is clear. There’s a lovely mix of cosy period elements, throwbacks to more genteel times, but with mysteries that genuinely kept me wondering where it was going next, whether they involved ageing, publicity-hunger actors, or church men who aren’t very godly, haunted parrot cages (!), or a more domestic tale of a couple’s last evening before an agreed divorce.

The Campion stories are scattered between, few of them and one I’d read before (in Campion at Christmas), but always a pleasure to imagine the character as portrayed in the TV series I loved.

Overall: an old-fashioned but nicely so collection of mysteries and light chills, perfect for the season – and beyond!

NetGalley eARC: 269 pages / 18 short stories
First published: 1973 and most recently rereleased October 2019
Series: Campion and other non-series stories
Read from 7th-27th October 2019

My rating: 7.5/10

Crawl (2019)

crawl poster

I would never have chosen to go to see this movie, which is one of the problems with – or strengths of, depending on the film! – Cineword’s Secret Screenings. There is such an excitement to not knowing what you’re about to watch, but that was tempered with the audible grown I and many other audience members let out when the title card came up.

I spent the first ten minutes or so wondering if I’d be making a hasty exit: I do not like horror movies. The tension builds as we go from Haley (Kaya Scodelario, Maze Runner) competing in a swimming contest, to heading off into a hurricane to track down the semi-estranged father (Barry Pepper, Battlefield Earth) who isn’t answering his phone. Alas, the ‘crawl’ of the title doesn’t refer to her swimming stroke, but rather the storm-flooded crawl space under the house, where she finds her father’s bleeding body.

And then… well, to be honest knowing absolutely nothing about the movie really helped up to this point, so if you want to leave know I’ll understand 😉

After one rather spooky moment, the revelation that this is a ‘creature feature’ was the only reason I stayed – and, I really wish I hadn’t bothered. Plus side, it’s not actually scary – well, jump-scares, rather than unsettling. There is gore a-plenty, but nothing that was going to disturb my precious sleep. Downside: everything else.

Oh, it’s daft. There is not just a huge dollop of factual ‘error’ (no, a person cannot outswim an alligator!), but a total lack of internal consistency. Sometimes it was too dangerous to venture past the piping, other times it was fine to make a run for it, or pause in the open to check for a phone signal.

This isn’t exactly Jaws for a new age, much as it probably wants to be. It’s a silly man-against-invading-nature ‘thing’, and the rather moronic plot-driving elements made me regret giving it my time. If you’re a fan of the genre, your mileage may vary greatly, but I’m really really not – and this did nothing to change that.

Released: 23rd August 2019
Viewed: 29th July 2019 (advanced, secret screening)
Running time: 87 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 4/10

Stranger Things (season 3)

stranger things 3 poster

Since the first season arrived in 2016, Stranger Things has been one of the highlights of TV viewing. The mix of horror and mystery, weird and nostalgia, all hit a sweet spot.

Usual warning: even mentioning names could be a spoiler for who survives series 1-2, so read on at your own peril!

We already knew that the wrap-up of season 2 wasn’t necessarily tied with a pretty bow, so it isn’t really a surprise that the ‘Mind-flayer’ isn’t as dead or trapped as the residents of Hawkins might wish. And when we find out that there’s a Russian operation to open a doorway … yeah, you know this isn’t going to end well!

Despite rave reviews, I think season 3 is the weakest so far – although still very good and very worth a watch. But, perhaps lower your expectations just a little.

There is a lot to like here. In particular, the continuing reinvention of Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington sees him spend the whole season in a cutesy sailor outfit, which is hysterical. We also meet a new character, Robin (played by Uma Thurman’s daughter, which is who she reminded me of all series!), and the interaction between the two is some of my series highlight.

The younger cast members are growing up fast – a few flashbacks remind us just how young they looked 3 years ago – and we’re subjected to the sight of new young love, awkward and vaguely embarrassing, and played with humour that juxtaposes the darker elements of the show. Still, these are the scenes that didn’t do much for me through the whole – tbh, I just wasn’t fond of most of the child characters, let alone their personal struggles.

The mix of horror and laughs remain a strength. Hopper’s struggles with parenting. Joyce’s pained expressions. Dustin singing. The hope for comeuppance for a new slimey character, played by new cast member Cary Elwes. And on the other side, murderous slime, exploding rats, and so much worse.

Still… the story isn’t complete. Perhaps I was hoping for more answers, and that’s not what this is about. I’m very glad series 4 has been announced – things have changed in Hawkins, but it’s not over yet!

First broadcast: July 2019
Series: 3
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 8/10