Monday 29 February 2016

The Witch | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Fellow horror fans: we’ve been duped!

The critic endorsements that decorate the trailer for The Witch would have us believe that this film, written and directed by Robert Eggers, would scare the pants off us. “One of the most genuinely unnerving horror films in recent memory,” says one. “… will make your blood run cold,” cautions another. That’s verbal candy for the horror aficionado.

For months, I anticipated the jitters that films like The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2002), and Paranormal Activity (2007) heaped upon me.

There was, however, a bit of trepidation about that preview: the excerpts that accompanied those tasty quotes didn’t show anything especially groundbreaking. That observation turned out to be telling.

As The Witch progressed, I kept asking myself, “When’s this going to start getting frightening?” Sadly, at some point, I realised it just wasn’t going to happen. The Witch fails to deliver as a horror film. Moreover, those few scenes that led to its (mis)categorization as a horror are clichés, some of which are laughable.

The film does offer strong acting, period authenticity, and cinematography that reflects the self-suppression and bleakness that characterized Puritan New England. But that’s not why I came to see this film. I came because I wanted to poop my pants in fear.

A Banished Family Falling Apart
William, Katherine, and their five children get banished from their plantation for religious differences, then set out to live on their own. “We will conquer this wilderness,” says William (played by Ralph Ineson, whose voice is as gritty as a Puritan wardrobe). “It will not consume us.”

Then baby Sam’s disappearance triggers intensifying familial strife, the brunt of which gets directed toward oldest child Thomasin. She’s accused of being a witch by supremely annoying toddler twins Jonas and Mercy. Mother Katherine accuses her of stealing an heirloom. Characters argue, then pray. They chastise each other, then go into the woods. They point fingers, then berate themselves.

Underpinning and fueling all of this is the threat of a witch (or witches) that inhabit the forest. Ee hee hee hee!

A Sheep in Goat’s Clothing
If you’re into period pieces about one of the grimmest eras in American history, then you’ll have a blast… maybe that’s not the right word. The Witch captures the harshness of the time, the perils of religious extremism, and the subjugation of devotees (especially women). The film’s focus on authenticity leads to the dialogue’s heavy accents and unfamiliar diction – Ineson’s gravelly voice doesn’t help – that made it a bit difficult for a (American) Midwesterner like me to understand.

Again, achieving historical accuracy wasn’t the film’s conveyed purpose; generating fear was. Thus, The Witch is a historical drama touted as a horror even though there are only a couple somewhat frightening scenes slapped onto it. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the film is the discordant, high-pitched chorus that accompanies views of the forest’s edge.

Not All That Doesn’t Glitter…
So where’s all this critical acclaim coming from? Clearly the endless onslaught of one-dimensional action films irks critics, but have they become so jaded that for them, anything with extended shots, sparse sets, and economy of movement warrants a triumph?

Last year, they got it right for It Follows, an understated film that was conceptually innovative and did provoke fear. That film offered a brilliant ending with thematically sensitive camerawork and an alarmingly abrupt final cut. Conversely, the concluding scene of The Witch is silly. Plus, I’ve seen that. I’ve read that.

Maybe the critics believe The Witch makes some statement about the oppression of women. I don’t care. It didn’t entertain me enough to put thought into that theme. I wanted a horror film and they lied to me. The oppression of women isn’t frightening. It just sucks.

Perhaps one filmgoer’s parting comment best encapsulates the typical person’s response to The Witch: “That wasn’t really frightening. Just depressing.”

Don’t be fooled by the critics’ assertions of a “slow build”. A slow build to what? I was looking for a skyscraper; what I got was a Lego block. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Friday 26 February 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #54: now out!

free pdf | free epub | free mobi | print UK | print US | Kindle UK | Kindle US | review | review

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #54 is here. It features a new short story by Charles Wilkinson, “Septs”, and an entire novella – complete in this issue! – by Patrick Whittaker, former winner of the BFS Short Story Competition. “The Policeman and the Silence” concerns a murder investigation in the weird town of Kaza-Blanka. I think you’ll love both stories. The issue also includes a tremendously exciting editorial where I (a) apologise for this issue being late, (b) talk about a publisher who doesn’t pay their reviewers slamming people who don’t pay other types of writer, and (c) look back at my reading in 2015. The issue also includes thirty-one reviews, by Douglas J. Ogurek, Jacob Edwards and me.

We look at the work of Charles Chilton, Felicia Day, Warren Ellis, Johann Peter Hebel, K.J. Parker, Terry Pratchett, H.G. Wells, Royce Prouty, Malcolm C. Lyons, Pu Songling, Sam Dyer, Leo, Garth Ennis and John McCrea, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, CLAMP, Robbie Morrison and Brian Williamson, Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming, Alexandro Jodorowsky and Zoran Janjetov, and Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. Plus there are reviews of Ant-Man, Goosebumps, The Green Inferno, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, Krampus, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (twice), The Visit, Trials Fusion Awesome Max Edition, Arrow Season 2, Doctor Who Season 9, and The Flash Season 1.

The amazing wraparound cover art is, as ever, by the marvellous Howard Watts.

Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Charles Wilkinson’s books have included The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions) and Ag & Au, a pamphlet of his poems. His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (W.W. Norton), Unthology (Unthank Books), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), London Magazine, Under the Radar, Prole, Able Muse Review, Ninth Letter, The Sea in Birmingham and in genre magazines/anthologies such as Supernatural Tales, Horror Without Victims (Megazanthus Press), Rustblind and Silverbright (Eibonvale Press), Phantom Drift (USA), Bourbon Penn (USA), Shadows & Tall Trees, Prole, Nightscript and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books). He lives in Powys, Wales, where he is heavily outnumbered by members of the ovine community. A Twist in the Eye, his collection of strange tales and weird fiction, is forthcoming from Egaeus Press. Several of the stories first appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at:

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who also provides the wraparound cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at He has a Facebook page at, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity.

Patrick Whittaker has made the occasional foray into short film making and has two feature film scripts in pre-production. Two of his shorts – The Raven and Raspberry Ripple – have won awards. He has an honours degree in Media Production. In 2009, he won the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition with “Dead Astronauts”, a tale of odd goings-on in English suburbia. His dystopian novel, Sybernika, is published by Philistine Press:

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal, medical and political publishing.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday 22 February 2016

Deadpool | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Sorry Iron Man: you’re no longer the most entertaining superhero.

We expect a couple of things from a good superhero movie. First, of course, is action punctuated by violence. We’re happy if we walk away with a favourite scene or two. Second is a superhero who’s fun to watch. If we’re lucky, he or she will charm us with a couple of quotable quotes.

Choosing such scenes or quotes for Deadpool, directed by Tim Miller, proves problematic. That’s because every scene entertains . . . and almost everything this film’s namesake says (and he says a lot) elicits at least a chuckle.

Typically, people who don’t stop talking annoy us. Ryan Reynolds’s Wade Wilson/Deadpool talks . . . and talks . . . and talks. He never stops. But here’s the difference: whether he’s skipping, getting tortured, taking a cab ride, or hacking off bad guys’ (or his own) limbs, this audience addressing antihero leaves the viewer wanting more.

There’s something awfully compelling about a protagonist who pops his head out of a mid-air, upside-down vehicle and says, “Shit. Did I leave the stove on?”

Deadpool, which broke the box office record for an R-rated film’s opening weekend, shows keen awareness of its position in a long line of superhero films, and it exploits that position brilliantly.

Typical Superhero Story, Atypical Storytelling Techniques
What Wade Wilson wants is pretty straightforward: to apprehend Francis/Ajax, the villain responsible for Wilson’s Freddy Krueger-like complexion. It’s the way the story unfolds, however, where Deadpool makes its mark.

As soon as the opening credits roll, the film sets itself apart: instead of stars’ names, superhero film character tropes (e.g. “the hot chick”, “the British villain”, “a moody teen”) and other gems appear.

The story begins with a day in the life of Deadpool. A super-extended action sequence (with references to everything from Monty Python and Judy Blume to 127 Hours) periodically flashes back to how Wilson obtained his powers. Such storytelling acrobatics echo Deadpool’s thrillingly unnecessary spinning flips. Moreover, plunging the viewer into the action underscores the potency of this character.

Then, down comes the fourth wall, which Deadpool not only breaks, but obliterates with Ferris Buelleresque panache. Wilson plays off superhero film clichés while boldly conceding his own role as a character in a movie. He preps us for another character’s “superhero landing”. He stops the music that accompanies the overused slow-mo superhero walk so he can make a phone call. He speculates on whether the conspicuous underpopulation of the X-Men headquarters that he visits stems from his film’s budgetary restrictions.

In the ultimate fourth wall mischief, Deadpool pokes fun at Ryan Reynolds the actor’s looks-rather-than-acting-fuelled rise and at Reynolds’s disastrous Green Lantern (2011) movie. He even comments on “breaking a fourth wall within a fourth wall”.

A Stark Departure 
The Marvel cinematic superhero roster, despite its continuing success, stood to benefit from another eccentric character. Yes, the Avengers films are highly enjoyable, but doesn’t all that teamwork slightly detract from the narcissistic splendor of Tony Stark/Iron Man?

Along comes Deadpool, shrewdly marketed as the (wink wink) perfect date movie (which doesn’t escape Wilson’s commentary) for Valentine’s Day weekend. And couples do get a love story of sorts, but more important, they get a new kind of superhero whose moxie transcends that of Iron Man.

Undoubtedly Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man did a lot for the superhero subgenre, but Reynolds’s Wilson, with his chummy approach, contemporary cultural references, rebellion against superhero conventions, and crude asides better connects with adult viewers.

Examples? Okay. Iron Man flies around in a computerized metal suit that is the result of his engineering genius. Deadpool takes the cab (and doesn’t pay the driver). Iron Man has an arsenal embedded in his suit. Deadpool throws his weapons in a Hello Kitty bag, which he’s prone to forget. Tony Stark lives in a beautiful cliff-side contemporary home surrounded by his inventions. Wade Wilson rooms with an elderly blind woman in a cluttered apartment. He passes gas as he walks by her and says, “Hashtag drive-by.” Stark wouldn’t do that.

Tony “It’s moments like these when I realize how much of a superhero I am” Stark is a narcissist. Wade “This shit’s gonna have nuts in it” Wilson is a smart-ass. Who would you rather spend time with? – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Wednesday 17 February 2016

King Ted Reading Challenge: 25% done

In the editorial for TQF54, which should be out by the end of the month, I look back at my reading from 2015. I read plenty of books, and on the whole I really enjoyed them, but they were quite homogenous, and mostly written by men. So when I saw the reading challenge set by the school that my older daughter attends (which I have nicknamed King Ted), I decided to do it too. The pupils are challenged to read two books in each of twenty categories, without counting any author more than once.

They get a green certificate after reading four books, a blue certificate after eight books, a red certificate after twelve books, and the ultimate yellow award for reading 39 books and completing every category. (One book counts double, if you write a review, because the author is a friend of the school.)

To their rules, because I read so few books by women last year, I've added my own wrinkle, that a maximum of one book in each category can be from a male writer, and at least half the books used to claim a certificate must be by female writers. And while the children do the challenge over the school year, I'm doing it over a calendar year (which gives me a bit longer).

It's been very good fun so far. Reading challenges are inherently awesome, of course, and it's got me reading a slightly wider range of books than usual, and, in combination with my resolution to stop buying new books this year, at least until after my birthday, it's really encouraged me to dig into my extensive and often neglected book collection.

If you fancy giving it a try too, here are the categories, plus which books I've read so far, a quarter of the way into the challenge:

Short story zone

Mystery zone

History zone
1. The Silver Branch, Rosemary Sutcliff: a brilliant story set during the decline of Roman power in Britain; almost post-apocalyptic in places, as they stand among the ruins of the Empire's glory days.

Thriller zone
1. Thieves Fall Out, Gore Vidal. After watching his brilliant demolition of William F. Buckley in the documentary Best of Enemies, about their televised arguments during the 1968 Republican convention, I wanted to read some Gore Vidal, and this is the only one of his available as an ebook. It's a hardboiled story set during an attempted Islamic coup in Egypt. A book that's much more topical than it should be all these years later. Would make a great movie.

Diary zone

Witch Child by Celia Rees and review
2. [Counts as two books, if you write a review.]

Biography zone

Science fiction zone

Horror zone
1. I Travel By Night, Robert McCammon. Average novella about a vampire gunslinger.

Fantasy zone

Comedy zone
1. The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman. A book of facts that are not true. Probably slightly more fun for Americans than UK readers, because half the time we won't get what the real-world jumping-off points were for these flights of fancy, but it's still very good. And it's a masterpiece of typesetting.

Romance zone
1. Come Close, Sappho. One of Penguin's little black classics, this seems to be a series of fragments from longer pieces, but it's hard to tell. Very sweet, though.

Friends and family
1. Patchwerk, David Tallerman. A good novella in's new range from an old friend of the magazine. Review to appear in TQF55.

Classic zone
1. Mrs Rosie and the Priest, Giovanni Boccaccio. Another Penguin little black classic, this is a set of rude stories about bad people.

Myths, fairy tales and legends from around the world

1. The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold. This won the Hugo. It's the story of Miles Vorkosigan, who joins the space navy and gets himself into some very sticky situations, but none so sticky that he can't talk his way out of them. Very enjoyable.

1. The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon. An excellent overview of the Batman's career by an NPR journalist. (Review planned for a future issue of Interzone.)

Adventure zone
1. Jacaranda, Cherie Priest. A gunslinging priest investigates a hotel with a history of mysterious deaths in a novella from Subterranean Press. (Review to appear in TQF55.)

Crime zone

Friends recommended

So I'm a quarter of the way through so far, and I have claimed my green and blue certificates! (My daughter is making them for me.) I'll post an updated version of the list when (or if) I get to 50%, 75% and 100%. I'm currently listening to the excellent audiobook of Amy Poehler's Yes Please, which'll go into either biography or comedy, and reading The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien, which'll go into friends recommended (John Greenwood thought I would like it, for the bit about drinking tea you don't like, if nothing else). Thanks to the teachers or librarians at my daughter's school who came up with this challenge – I do recommend it to others.

Monday 15 February 2016

The Brenda and Effie Mysteries: Brenda Has Risen from the Grave, by Paul Magrs (Bafflegab Productions) | review

Effie might be in love, “in a whirlwind of amour” in fact, with a man named Keith, who has an elephantine proboscis upon his face. Brenda, former bride of Frankenstein’s monster, doesn’t like Keith, and that leads to a fall-out with Effie, who even stops opening her little shop. As she worries about her friend, memories return to Brenda of another old friend, Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man back when they were in a travelling circus together. She was the Half-Dead Woman, who could let her stitches loose and horrify the crowds by wriggling her bits when they weren’t attached to each other any more. She was a callow young thing then, less than a century old, and just like Effie she didn’t listen to the advice of a well-meaning friend when she should have. What’s more, women were being killed back then, and they are dying now as well in a very similar way. It’s too soon for Brenda and Effie to go their separate ways. We learn much more about Brenda in this story (at least those of us who haven’t read more than one or two of the original novels yet). She has been in the course of her long life “a graverobber, a vagabond, a woman of ill repute, a warrior, a witch, a handmaiden to a queen, a sorcerer’s assistant, a lady pirate” and one suspects that isn’t all, but what she needs to be in this fourth story is a good friend, and perhaps she’s better at that than anything else. Another entertaining story, though it’s rather less light-hearted than earlier instalments. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday 11 February 2016

Douglas J. Ogurek's top five mass market genre films of 2015

The top grossing films of 2015 were Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. All achieve five-star status, but none makes my list for the top five mass market sci-fi/fantasy/horror films. 

Perhaps it all boils down to originality: Each of the three top moneymakers are part of a series. None of my top picks are. Click on the film name for a full review.

#5: It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell. This critical darling emerges as one of the most original and stylish horror films in the last decade.

#4: The Visit, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This one stands out from the pack of horror films with child protagonists. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s quite frightening. And true to M. Night’s canon, it offers a twist and a positive message. 

#3: Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus. Inventive concept, stunning special effects, and a juvenile cast of characters. Great dumb fun.

#2: Krampus, directed by Michael Dougherty. Krampus surprises as a new Christmas horror classic. It far transcends the anticipated “slasher” film and delivers a positive message while crossing several genres: comedy, action, horror . . . even drama. 

#1: The Green Inferno, directed by Eli Roth. Everyone’s talking about “the bear maul scene” from The Revenant. Obviously, they haven’t seen The Green Inferno, which gushes cartoonish violence and over-the-top gore. Surely most critics (and moviegoers) will disagree with me. Too bad. If you make it through this one without cringing or squirming, then you closed your eyes. 

Let’s hope that 2016 offers as much moviegoing fun as last year! – Douglas J. Ogurek

Monday 8 February 2016

The Brenda and Effie Mysteries: Spicy Tea and Sympathy, by Paul Magrs (Bafflegab Productions) | review

Brenda, former bride of Frankenstein, tells most of this third story while strapped to a table in the murky underground base of a villain. Her blood is being drained and infused with a special tea, in hopes of bringing a dried-up corpse back to life. The situation dredges from the depths of Brenda’s imperfect memory the events of a night in the fifties, when she worked as housemaid to Professor Tyler. He is one of the Smudglings, a group of fantasy writers much like the one frequented by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. One of their meetings was disturbed by the attack of a mummy, who made off with their best tea set and all of its contents. In the present day this is somehow connected with the Tipple teahouse (and massage parlour), owned by international traveller and explorer Professor Marius Keys, of whom Brenda says “everything about him speaks of quality and polish”, a phrase that would be even more apt in description of this series of audio plays. Anne Reid is terrific as Brenda, bringing both the sweetness and the toughness that the role requires, and the writing is a constant delight, full of detail, care, specificity, and ideas. Effie sounds uncannily like Sarah Millican, which makes me smile every time she speaks. From the moment the now familiar theme music plays, you know it’s going to be good. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday 1 February 2016

The Boy | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Just when you thought the creepy doll approach had run its course, along comes Brahms. 

Years ago, Mr. Heelshire, having imbibed one too many spirits, described his long-deceased son Brahms with a single word: “odd”. Such is the tone that characterizes The Boy, a film about a doll that may or may not embody the spirit of its namesake, who died in a fire at age eight.

Though it hit theatres in January, a month notorious for horror duds, The Boy is good. It’s better than good. Directed by William Brent Bell, the film offers a creepy antagonist and some genuinely freaky experiences. It’s less about jump scares—there are a few—and more about lingering unease.

Gretta Evans, fleeing an abusive ex-boyfriend back in the States, takes on a live-in nanny job at an English manor. It isn’t long before the property’s elderly owners (the Heelshires) reveal that their beloved son Brahms is a porcelain doll.

“If you’re good to Brahms, he’ll be good to you,” says Mr. Heelshire. “If you’re bad–” Mrs. Heelshire doesn’t let her husband finish. So the couple takes off, but not before the missus whispers to Gretta, “I’m so sorry.” Thanks for the vote of confidence!

Gretta, equipped only with her own skepticism and a list of “rules” ranging from “Never leave Brahms alone” to “Kiss goodnight”, throws a blanket over Brahms and calls it a day. She soon learns that something is definitely up with that doll.

Brahms’s antics begin with subtle mischief and gradually escalate, while Gretta’s human interactions are limited to calls with a friend back home and the occasional exchange with love interest Malcolm, the Heelshires’ “grocery boy”.

Is He Alive, or Isn’t He?
Doll antagonists like to go berserk. Think Chucky, or the even more extreme tribal doll from Trilogy of Terror (1975). Brahms, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach: he remains motionless. It’s when you can’t see him that Brahms does his thing. Thus, he achieves a much higher level of menace than his dynamic counterparts.

The Boy casts its spell by keeping us on the fence. Is Brahms endowed with supernatural powers? Or is he some elaborate hoax?

Then there’s the doll’s appearance. Brahms isn’t ugly, nor is he done up in vivid colours. Rather, with his pale complexion and deep brown eyes, Brahms represents the over-protected, shy schoolboy. He is proper . . . fragile even. He might also be champing at the bit to cause some mischief.

Often the camera lingers on the doll’s face to bring discomfort to the viewer. Is that thing going to blink? Will it move its little arm?

A Little Dickens
The Boy starts slow, lulling the viewer into a tea and biscuits (with some red herring) atmosphere. It reminds me of the quiet films that supported my high school and early college readings of nineteenth century British literature. There’s the manor with its classical architecture and ornate interior woodwork. There’s the garden and the statuary.

However, Brahms Heelshire plays a much different tune than the Brahms (Johannes) that was Dickens’s contemporary.

Whether the filmgoer approaches it with a “figure it out” or an “in the moment” mentality, The Boy offers an experience as memorable and unsettling as the “tink tink” of a finger tapping porcelain. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****