Monday 25 September 2023

No One Will Save You | review by Stephen Theaker

Brynn, a seamstress in her early twenties, lives alone in a house in the woods. She isn’t popular. Her postman deliberately throws her packages around, anonymous callers shout abuse at her on the phone, and when she comes to town she is met with hostility and disgust. It’s unclear why, though we can guess it relates to the death of her best friend, ten years ago, at the age of twelve. She doesn’t speak to anyone, she dances on her own, she writes letters to her dead friend.

From there the film could have developed into a tedious emotional drama about isolation, trauma and small-town life, but thankfully evil aliens intervene! Brynn is woken by what she assumes is an animal going through her bins. She gets up to investigate, but then hears footsteps downstairs. It’s a grey alien, one of those with an oval head and big black eyes, and, as she unfortunately finds out, it has telekinetic powers which let it pick her up, throw her around and, erm, open and close the refrigerator doors.

Brynn knows that no one is coming to save her – that no one would even want to save her. For the entire film, through one brush with extraterrestrial danger after another, she has only herself to rely on, and we root for her as she does it. That’s partly thanks to an excellent performance from Kaitlyn Dever, previously so good as the teenage wannabe kingpin in Justified. Even without dialogue, she conveys Brynn’s desperation perfectly, and comes close to making it a very good film.

The main problem is that it is so clearly a mish-mash of greatest hits from other films: Signs, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Nope, Skyline, Communion, etc. It synthesises them well to produce some alarming scenes, but it hews so close that with a few jokes at key moments it would feel like a parody. Younger viewers who haven’t seen those films will enjoy it the most, I think, and perhaps on a second viewing I would enjoy it more for what it is, rather than seeing the jigsaw pieces.

Apart from the aliens’ weird finger-toes, the most original aspect of the film for me was how it has you cheering for the violence she inflicts on the various types of alien she encounters, sometimes by luck, sometimes by design, but then asks you to consider whether that capacity for violence is a good thing, even as it is saving her life. The ending will be divisive. I thought it was perfect, but I was wholly unconvinced by the route the film took to get there. See what you think. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday 18 September 2023

Anchor’s Heart, by Cavan Scott (Absinthe Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Cavan Scott is a well-regarded and astonishingly productive writer of media tie-ins. A search for his name on Goodreads or Amazon brings up a panoply of books, comics and audioplay spin-offs for Doctor Who, Star Wars, Pacific Rim, Judge Dredd, War
hammer, Transformers, Assassin’s Creed, Sherlock Holmes and the Teen Titans. He was even credited, in the most recent issue of Empire magazine I read, for inspiring an upcoming Star Wars television series. This novella, however, is set in a universe of his own creation, and it’s rather a glum place.

Mark Poole is a paramedic who after seven years on the job took a call that left him seriously traumatised. He wasn’t responsible for the death, but that only seems to have made it worse. If he had messed up, he could learn to do better next time, but the inevitability of such moments, of turning up to find dead bodies, of how often it happened during the pandemic, was too much for him. And now four months later he’s staying home, helping Beryl from the downstairs apartment with her gardening. He starts to hear music no one else can hear, has visions of disturbingly erotic artwork, and becomes convinced that someone in the house next door needs his help.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped, given the excellent track record of PS Publishing when it comes to novellas. (Absinthe Books is a boutique PS Publishing imprint run by Marie O’Regan, who also provides a brief introduction to the book.) It isn’t terrible, but for me it didn’t rise above being a three-star book, a readable enough slice of horror that never really takes off. Part of the problem is that it’s told in the first person present tense, and Mark isn’t a very interesting narrator. His phrasing is quite humdrum (“The most I know about him is that his car is an absolute beauty”) and when describing sexual stuff his language can be off-puttingly pornified. He frequently uses short one-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect and they tend to fall flat.

Another problem for me was that although Mark is obviously not in his right mind during the events of the story, his actions often beggar belief. As a health worker, he would have been on as many safeguarding courses as any of us. Despite the supernatural elements, he should have known perfectly well how best to go about raising the alarm over what he believes to be a mistreated child. The lack of consequences for his actions also bothered me. For example, at one point he persuades his sister, a GP, to access a patient’s medical records, with serious consequences for the patient, but none for Mark or his sister.

But the book does have its strengths. It’s very good at conveying Mark’s mounting frustration, and the reader can only share his distress as things get worse for him rather than better. It realistically portrays the way his relationships (with Beryl, Jason in the apartment upstairs, and his sister) crumble under the pressure of his obsession with the house next door. The short, intense chapters encourage the reader to share his sense of panic, since there’s never enough time in them for anything to be fixed. And the book’s revelations end up being not quite what one expects. Dedicated horror fans may find that it provides a satisfying enough portion of what they want from a book. Stephen Theaker ***

This review originally appeared on the previous version of the British Fantasy Society's website, and then in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #72. The book is available in signed and unsigned editions from PS Publishing.

Monday 4 September 2023

Blue Beetle | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

When Jaime Reyes returns from college, having successfully graduated, he gets the warm welcome from his family (mum, dad, grandma, sister, uncle) he expected, but they have bad news for him. His dad has been unwell, and has lost his auto-repair shop, and the family is about to lose their home. Jaime sets his plans for post-graduate study aside, and via one twist and another his quest for a well-paid job brings him home with a cybernetic blue beetle in a takeaway box. As soon as he touches it, it crawls into his spine and transforms him into the armoured, agile Blue Beetle, able to create any weapon he imagines.

I was predisposed against this film. It was a tv movie released for some reason in cinemas. The trailer was nothing special. It wasn't my Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, the funny one from Justice League International – the guy who inspired Nite Owl in Watchmen. It was the new guy, albeit a new guy who first appeared in the comics 17 years ago. I read Blue Beetle: Jaime Reyes, Book One a few weeks before watching the film and wasn't that impressed. But then the title sequence of the film showed pictures of Ted Kord in action as Blue Beetle, and I was ready to give it a chance.

Turns out I loved it. The film is better than the trailer, and everything you see in the trailer works better in the context of the film. My favourite moment was the Cypress Hill needle drop during a marvellously kinetic fight scene, but there was plenty of competition, not least a visit to Ted Kord's secret lair. Jaime Reyes is played with immense charm by Xolo Maridueña, who was also immensely likeable in Cobra Kai. He proves himself adept at everything the film requires of his character: action, angst, grief, romance, humour, he does it all with panache. And those playing his family are equally good, each of them getting a chance to shine.

We saw it on an Imax screen, and you would never have guessed it began as a tv movie. The effects were superb, and the suit looked great, whether Blue Beetle was flying, fighting or throwing up shields to protect his family from a hail of bullets. The only hints of its television origins is perhaps that Blue Beetle had just one super-powered enemy to fight, Carapax, cursed with OMAC technology, and that there was just one big boss, Susan Sarandon as Ted Kord's evil sister. But the film was no worse for it. I'm amazed to see that it was 2 hours 7 minutes long, because it felt so streamlined.

Overall, a delight. I laughed all the way through. It will be a shame if there isn't a sequel. For a tv movie released in cinemas I think it's done very well, though nowhere near as well as it deserves. It knocks the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Eternals for six. My prediction is that it'll find its audience on television, Blue Beetle will pop up in upcoming DC universe films, and then we'll get another. Unlike Henry Cavill's Superman or Ben Affleck's Batman, the Blue Beetle refuses to kill, so I think he'll get on well with the new Superman. ****