Ben Smith – editor of the great pop culture mag Shelf Heroes – asked me if I wanted to contribute an illustration of a film that began with the letter E for the latest issue. So many good films came to mind but I ended up going for Surprisingly Good High School Rom Com Easy A because it’s one of those films that manages to bring a smile to my face despite the various problems it has.
The print job on the magazine is superb and I highly recommend picking up a copy if you can. It’s full of amazing illustrations and some great features about ET and Event Horizon.
Here’s my contribution:
Here’s an illustration I did for a VICE Gaming article called “Why it’s so hard to make a video game” by Tina Amini. It’s a great deep-dive into the world of game developers and the creative journey of making a game. I think anyone who makes things will recognise a lot of the same frustrations, compromises and joys in their own artistic practise.
2016 has been such a dark year. In fact, both 2015 and 2016 have been hard years personally, politically, and professionally. I’ve found myself seeking a soothing respite from it all in tennis. I’ve always watched the Grand Slams and generally kept up with both the ATP and WTA tours – but this year, I’ve sought out all the Masters Series matches, drawn a comic about tennis in 2016, and I got a chance to catch some of the Wimbledon qualifying matches up close which was genuinely exciting. I’ve even started planning a comic about tennis which I’ll hopefully make a start on before the end of the year (I need to get out of a little “I don’t like the way I draw” slump first).
So in a year in which everything else has been pretty horrible, it was a nice surprise that one of my favourite tennis players – Andy Murray – made it to World Number One after 70-odd weeks at the number two spot.
I think I first saw Murray play in his Wimbledon debut in 2005 when he eventually lost in a gruelling five setter with David Nalbandian. I remember even then he faced criticisms for his temperament and fitness levels (having succumbed to cramp in the Nalbandian match). But it was clear, the way he played then, that he was going to be – at the very least – a more interesting British player to watch than the serve-and-volley specialist Tim Henman. I’ve never been much a fan of supporting British players just because. Murray was different though – an exceptional player who had a game I actually wanted to watch.
On the court, Murray has one of those games that is nuanced and strategic – perfect for someone, like myself, who enjoys the “chess at ninety miles an hour” aspect of tennis. He has the shot selection, the strength, the endurance, and the smarts to deliver interesting, intelligent matches. As Andy Roddick has said: “no-one else on the tour has a higher tennis IQ than Andy Murray”. He may not have the flair of Federer, the precise power of Nadal, or – until this year – the consistency of Djovokic – but this is what I find most charming about Murray. The – as the New York Times put it – “walking existential crisis” that is Andy Murray can be a frustrating watch sometimes, but that can part of the fun of it. And yet, when we look back at this year – he reached three Grand Slam finals (one of which he won, the other two were lost against a historic Djokovic career slam), he defended his Olympic gold medal, and won six Masters titles. He’s currently on a 20 match winning streak, with a 74-9 win-loss record for the year. While Djokovic’s form has definitely dropped since his French Open win – giving Murray a path into the top spot – Murray also deserves credit for his persistence and a solidly consistent year.
Off the court, Murray was the first men’s tennis player to hire a female coach in Amelie Mauresmo, described himself as a feminist (possibly the first/only male athlete to do so?), and helpfully points out when journalists are making sexist statements. Unlike a lot of the other top players, he doesn’t have a tax haven residence in Monte Carlo. When he cried after losing Wimbledon to Federer in 2012, the British public finally warmed to Murray (though I’m pretty sure the traditional ‘British when he wins, Scottish when he loses’ “jokes” persist) and he has recently talked about this in reference to how people should talk more openly about mental health. He’s been outspoken on doping, match-fixing, gambling sponsorship, and equal pay in tennis, making some great statements this year after the Indian Wells fallout. And if you weren’t ever so slightly charmed by his Sherlock fandom or the way he clutched the trophy for dear life at Wimbledon this year, then I don’t know what to do with you.
Also – you know what? I find his dry monotone and deadpan delivery endearing – at least he has a sense of humour about it: “No matter how excited I try to sound my voice still sounds incredibly boring. But I’m actually incredibly excited right now. That’s just my voice. I’m sorry.”
Congratulations Andy Murray. Even if it’s only for a week.
Lampoon Apathy – a great politics + comedy production company – organise brilliant all-night events with comedy, music, punditry and analysis whenever there’s a big election. I illustrated and designed the poster and logo for their US election gig this week.
The result, of course, was horrifying.
As a freelancer, I often get asked to work on projects speculatively.
Sometimes the projects go somewhere, sometimes they don’t. I rarely do it as it can be a heartbreaking process when you get invested in a book that reaches a dead-end but it’s all part of the freelance life. I thought it might be nice to share some of the early work I did on a couple of projects that, for various reasons, never went further. I think enough time has passed on both of them that I can share these…
The book I was extremely excited to work on was a comic adaptation of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Those who have read the book will know just how powerful and vital the book is, and I was flattered to be asked to write and draw an adaptation for the publisher with Alexander overseeing it. I had written a rough script and drawn some example pages (see below) but the project ended up going on the indefinite back-burner. The comic was going to be printed in two colours hence the limited palette used here. I can’t recommend the book enough and would also recommend seeking out The House I Live In (a documentary with similar themes, in which Alexander also appears). I’ve not yet watched Ava DuVernay’s 13th on Netflix, but it also looks essential.
I was also asked to illustrate a page for a book about Neuroscience. There are some typos and missing text due to the early draft of the script. In the end, the authors went in a different direction.
“Finally, a pretty part of the French countryside.”
Quick summary: A troop of Belgian scouts embark on a camping trip. The kid with a troubled past and few friends – Sam – spots something in the forest… But no-one believes him. Is it his over-active imagination? Or are they being watched?
As soon as there are scouts on a camping trip I find films like Wet Hot American Summer and Moonrise Kingdom popping into my head. I was half expecting a Belgian version of the Wes Anderson SNL parody – The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.
Instead, we get a film that aims to evoke a childhood adventure/horror in the vein of Stephen King (the kids are camping near Casselroque which I’m assuming is a reference to King’s Castle Rock, Maine). The music is synthy and very John Carpenter as is the modern trend (no complaints from me) – so we’re almost in Stranger Things territory here.
Ultimately, Welp starts to descend into a gruesome kid version of Switchblade Romance (unbelievably, the film was granted an all-ages rating in Belgium) with some full-on gore and unrelenting villains. As with that film, I found myself really admiring the direction, the editing, and the craftsmanship on display while having a problem with how the final act plays out.
There’s something bracingly uncomfortable about watching children endure the traditional mental and physical ordeal of such a horror film – I felt like the film could have made some interesting points about that. I also found it interesting as a sort of dark coming-of-age movie.
I think my preference would have been to have more of the film focus on the actual everyday scouting horrors with sadistic scout leaders and bullying kids. All the scouting traditions and games and rituals felt like things I hadn’t seen in a film before and seemed ripe for horror – most of which went unexplored.
Can’t pretend I didn’t find enjoyment in Baloo’s tree encounter.
The film was crowd-funded through IndieGoGo.
Pretty sure the scout leader had Suspiria playing on his ringtone.
I also watched:
The Den (2013)
“I’m just trying to make some new friends.”
Quick summary: Elizabeth has just got some grant money to research a chat-roulette style piece of software called The Den. She’ll be on it all the time, with her computer recording everything. But some of the people she meets online might be dangerous.
So this film, for the first half, is a found footage movie taking place entirely on Elizabeth’s screen in the much the same way that Unfriended works. This came out before, and it appears that a lot of people rate this higher than Unfriended – though it may well come down to which one people see first.
I have to say, I found Unfriended to be the far superior version of this style of laptop-screen-as-viewing-experience device. The Den may have come out first but I feel like Unfriended perfected the gimmick – revealing characters and decisions by letting us see first drafts of comments and emails before they are erased and rewritten (instead of relying on expository dialogue), and having something to say about cyber-bullying and online abuse that justifies the entire structure of the movie.
The Den has to expend some clunky dialogue and opening scenes explaining why everything is being recorded and why Elizabeth is enduring chat roulette and it just doesn’t feel as clever or as unsettling as Unfriended which played around with the form of the laptop screen in increasingly clever ways. Granted, had I seen The Den first, I think the novelty of the device itself would have made me feel more warmly towards the film.
It’s a much nastier film than Unfriended. The final half hour becomes an interminable torture porn fest (if it hasn’t been pretty clear during these posts, I’m not a fan of torture porn) with an ending that most people who have seen My Little Eye will guess a mile away.
And that last scene can do one – I’ve seen Funny Games – don’t try that “but aren’t we all complicit in watching these narratives?” in a last ditch attempt to make the film mean something.
I suppose The Den is the nihilistic, nasty, and more realistic (in that there are no ghosts) sibling of the more structured, nuanced, and ultimately quite moral Unfriended. I think there are horror film fans who will see one of those sounding more up their street than the other.
Going to leave my Horror Week at that (20 films + 10 illustrations) and re-watch some horror classics tonight without taking notes.
This was a lot of fun. Thanks for following along and sharing the posts if you have been. I’ll try and do the same thing next year if I can. Of course, horror films are for life, not just for Halloween so I’ll be attempting to catch up with Blair Witch, The Girl With All The Gifts, Carnage Park, Under The Shadow, and all the other recent cinema releases I’ve missed when they make it to dvd.
I ended up prioritising more modern horror this time around as they are often closer to 80-100 minutes long and thus a little easier to double-bill every evening. A shame as I really wanted to fill in some more horror blind spots – so again, I’ll be working my way through them outside of October.
Favourites this year: The Witch, Darling, When Animals Dream, The Battery.
Honourable Mentions: May, The Shallows, Mama, The Bay, Welp.
The full Horror Week archive:
The Last Winter + Wendigo
The Witch + Witchfinder General
The Shallows + The Bay
Southbound + Trick ‘r Treat
When Animals Dream + The Roost
The Battery + The Hallow
Creep + #Horror
Darling + Mama
May + Intruders
Welp + The Den
AV Club 24 hours of horror films as chosen by contemporary directors
Little White Lies interview with John Carpenter
BBC Fright Night audio plays/shorts/bedtime reads
“I like weird. I like weird a lot.”
Quick summary: May is lonely – having grown up with an eyepatch to treat her lazy eye, overbearing parents, and an eccentric personality – it was always tough to make friends. As an adult, things aren’t any easier. Will May find acceptance and a happy ending with amateur horror director Adam?
Rather fittingly, May is like patchwork of similarly themed films – a modern version of Frankenstein, Carrie and Psycho. The humour is jet-black with Anna Farris being a comedic highlight (“You’re funny. Want to watch me file?”), and there’s no skimping on the gore.
I think what interested me most about the film was the way in which all of May’s potential friends and love interests repeatedly announce their attraction to ‘weird’ only for May’s brand of weird to be too much for them. Adam in particular, seems extremely keen to prove his ‘twisted’, counter-cultural horror credentials – attending an Argento screening, making a short film about a couple who start devouring each other, asking May for gruesome tales about her job – only to be put off by May’s very genuine responses.
May is a subversive anti-Rom-Com – in which the shy, awkward girl doesn’t take off her glasses and immediately find acceptance. She isn’t adorkable. Her home-made clothing isn’t some cute moment masquerading as character development. Viewing it with 2016 eyes, it reads like a critique of the manic pixie dream girl trope – a bit like Ruby Sparks but, I would argue, more satisfying.
I noticed upcoming Star Wars (+ Brick, Looper, and Breaking Bad) director Rian Johnson’s name pop up in the credits as editor.
Tagline: “If you can’t find a friend. Make one.”
I also watched:
Intruders/Shut In (2015)
“You have no idea what I’m like.”
Quick summary: Anna is agoraphobic and can’t even leave her house to attend her brother’s funeral. So when a bunch of robber archetypes (one reluctant, one psychotic, one leader) break in to steal her inheritance, she finds herself unable to runaway. But who is trapped with who?
I’d actually planned to watch something else (Inside) but the dvd was playing up so I settled for something on a streaming service that looked interesting. I’ll be honest, I picked this because it had Martin Starr in it.
It wasn’t bad. It starts off as a standard home invasion in the Panic Room tradition and the tension is well directed enough (not as interesting as Panic Room’s sweeping camerawork to build the sense of space, not as edge-of-the-seat intense as Haute Tension) before switching things up about halfway through and pivoting to something more like Saw.
That switch-up infuses the film with an unpredictable energy that was really refreshing – before becoming something all-too-familiar. In the end the messaging and themes of the film became too muddled and messy that I had no idea what it was trying to say. That would be fine but the film appeared to abandon its b-movie conventions in order to go deeper.
Ultimately, a decent enough thriller but not much more.
This has reminded me that I still need to watch Walter Grauman’s 1964 film Lady In a Cage.
Tonight: Last night for this year. I’m tempted by The Den, Cub, Lady In a Cage, Trouble Every Day, The Strangers… We’ll see.
Check out the archive of the horror week here.
“I am honestly one of the good ones.”
Quick summary: A young woman is left as the caretaker of a posh New York brownstone. Is the building haunted and trying to drive her mad?
From the opening scenes, the immediately reminded me of The Innocents and, perhaps most obviously, Repulsion. Polanski is clearly a touchstone for director Mickey Keating here. There are so many similarities to Repulsion is terms of story, themes and aesthetic that it would be tempting to dismiss it as a derivative work – certainly, anyone who has seen Repulsion will know how the film will end. But Keating brings his own directorial flair enough that it comes across more as an inventive love letter to seventies satanic horror than an outright copy. Honestly, I’d love to see more modern directors take their cues this era of horror cinema.
I enjoyed Keating’s previous film Pod – another tense psychological horror that played with a lot of the same ideas as Friedkin’s Bug. He uses some similar techniques from his first film here (subtle strobe effects, disturbing sound design, off-putting editing) and I think this film cements his reputation as one of the most interesting horror directors working today. I need to seek out his most recent film – Carnage Park.
Lauren Ashley Carter, who also appeared in Pod (as well as Jug Face/The Pit – which also starred Sean Young who has a cameo in Darling) is excellent as the unnamed protagonist (“You didn’t even ask me my name.”). She has to carry the film almost entirely without dialogue and she makes it look easy.
I liked the six title cards introducing each chapter – the playful typography and timing of them added a much needed element of (black) humour to the film.
Also enjoyed the non-specific era the film is set in – no modern signifiers and the music and clothing is well chosen to allow the film to have a timeless quality.
It’s a Glass Eye Pix film so – Larry Fessenden cameo time!
I also watched:
“Victoria. Come. Mama.”
Quick summary: Two children go missing due to some plot, only for them to be discovered five years later. Having lived in the woods all this time. When they’re taken in by their Uncle (Jamie Lannister) and his partner (Jessica Chastain), it becomes apparent that whatever took care of them is still around – and they call it “mama”.
I was absolutely in the mood for a decent ghost story horror film this week and this didn’t disappoint. Directed by Spanish filmmaker Andres Muschietti based on his short of the same name (it’s here and only two mins of your time), and exec produced by Guillermo Del Toro. This has the ambitions of The Orphanage in terms of delivering a solid ghost story with heart and soul – and while it isn’t as successful as The Orphanage, it’s in the same spirit.
The kids are excellent – the physicality of them as they scuttle around in Exorcist spider-like fashion is brilliantly creepy and they handle the later emotional scenes well. Chastain, the reluctant new mother, is almost unrecognisable in heavy eyeliner, Misfits tee and tattooed up while Jaime Lannister is fine as the new father and ridiculously handsome illustrator (“Annabel is in a band, and you draw pictures for a living…” – said in a moment when their fitness for parenthood is questioned).
So we’ve got the popular paedophobia horror theme, some early fairytale table-setting (the film opens with “Once Upon A Time…”) and ghost effects that cherrypick pieces from Dark Water, Ringu, and – as the director said – “a Modigliani painting left to rot.” All in all, a recipe for some slightly generic but satisfying horror.
I enjoyed some of the early scenes with the ghost playing with the children – it was pretty sweet while being unnerving. It had me hoping for a Beetlejuice style ending that had everyone living peacefully together. While that doesn’t happen (and Del Toro apparently had to fight for the bittersweet ending) I liked the choices made in that final act. It didn’t feel like a paint-by-numbers horror ending and while I found that refreshing, I think that will possibly annoy some viewers.
Dr Exposition was a bit of bum note and he makes some monumentally moronic decisions to keep the plot ticking along. But even that left me feeling endearingly towards the movie. Maybe I’ve just been broken by watching 16 horror films in eight days.
Tonight: Not sure yet… Only tonight and tomorrow left so I need to figure out what my final four movies will be.
Check out the archive of the horror week here.
“Anybody you need to make peace with in the world? Before you die?”
Quick summary: Aaron has accepted an odd craigslist job offer – to follow Josef around with a camera for a day in exchange for $1,000. But why does Josef want to be filmed?
Actors Patrick Brice (also the director) and Mark Duplass co-wrote this two-hander – improvising scenes and playing the rough edits back to friends in order to workshop it as they went. Apparently there are three alternate endings and about 10-12 variations of each scene in the movie. It’s an approach that strives for a natural, unscripted feeling throughout – something that makes sense for mumble-core godfather Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, The One I Love, Togetherness etc.).
It felt right to watch Duplass play a creepy character like Josef – I’ve always found him a little unsettling in most roles.
Creep is a strong psychological horror/black comedy and worth a watch. I liked the narrative switch-up around the one hour mark and the ending felt satisfying. Apparently Brice and Duplass are working on a sequel of a possible Creep trilogy? I’d be interested to find out where they go with it.
Josef adores the Lewton Bus moment (Boo! Not really! Got you!) – I think he fits about ten into the 80 minute film.
The choice of using found footage was fine but I have to admit I felt the film could have gained a lot from some more dynamic direction and interesting shot choices.
I also watched:
“Guys! Let’s go touch all the art!”
Quick summary: A bunch of social-media obsessed tweens hang out in a very expensive-looking house and bully each other until someone starts killing them off one by one.
So I was excited to see this after coming across EMA’s excellent soundtrack for it last year. It also has Chloe Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne making brief appearances. It’s a film about cyber-bullying and social-media and largely seems inspired by Italian Giallo films of the sixties and seventies. It has a brilliantly OTT credit sequence with eye-watering Candy Crush style visuals. I mean, this film should be my favourite horror film ever.
But it’s a mess. Fashion designer and actor Tara Subkoff wrote and directed this and has a great eye for creepy, haunting visuals. There are some lovely shots and genuinely refreshing images. So much of this film is close to being brilliant. Ultimately though, the script lets it down – with a muddled structure and some terrible dialogue (I think every character tells the other to “go kill yourself” at some point).
The characters feel like tweenagers very much written by an adult with the sort of blunt observations about social media that feel like an extended “Dungeons and Dragons/Video Games/Video Nasties/Pokemon Go are corrupting our youth!” headline. Unfriended is the horror film that understands cyber-bullying and social media and actually handles it with surprising nuance.
Yes – well done – the guillotine noise and double-meaning of “Submit” every time they use social media is super clever.
Ugh. It’s almost so good. I actually thought it was interesting that none of the characters notice that their friends are being killed off. And the bullying was effectively nasty enough that I was on edge long after the credits finished rolling.
Sort of worth watching to see Timothy Hutton’s performance go straight to 11 and STAY THERE.
Tonight: Maybe Darling (2015) and The Tenant (1976).
Check out the archive of the horror week here.
The Battery (2012)
“Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I want to go to bed.”
Quick summary: We follow former baseball players Ben and Mickey as they survive a zombie apocalypse by wandering through the relatively zombie-free Connecticut wilderness. While bickering.
This caught me by surprise. I think we’ve definitely reached peak-zombie at the moment (though I hear wonderful things about The Girl With All The Gifts) and I wasn’t entirely sure I needed to see another zombie survival movie. But this sweet natured, low budget (it was made for $6,000), zomblecore character study felt like a breath of fresh air.
Ben (played by writer and director Jeremy Gardner) enjoys the rudimentary camping trip they find themselves on. The hunter/gatherer lifestyle suits him and he seems to revel in dispatching the zombies that cross their path. Mickey on the other hand (played by producer Adam Cronheim) tries his level best to escape the reality of the situation – burning through batteries listening to Americana on his headphones and longing for a bed with a roof. It’s a solid dynamic and leads to a decent exploration of their relationship throughout the course of the film. And the headphones ensure we get a great soundtrack.
Despite it likely being a budgetary choice, I really liked how we joined most of the zombie encounters after-the-fact. Letting the malaise and loneliness of their odd, co-dependent relationship become the focus of the movie over the undead.
The Battery of the title, for those of you like myself who lack the baseball knowledge, is what the dynamic between a pitcher and catcher is called.
The film is playful and funny, and while the characters can be arseholes, I found myself growing fond of them and rooting for their survival. A nice change from the unrelenting grimness and broad character archetypes of The Walking Dead (which, in fairness, I’ve not watched much of since Season 2). There’s a great 11 minute long, stationary shot towards the end that audaciously asks the viewer to imagine the climatic moments of the film happening offscreen. Plus a touching nod to Jaws. Plus an uncomfortable masturbation scene. So you know, something for everyone?
I wonder if the sunlit photography and meandering, contemplative pacing was inspired by Badlands. It certainly reminded me of Malick’s film in this reagrd but that might just be due to the knowing homage on the poster.
Larry Fessenden cameo klaxon.
Maybe it’s because I’m spending a week (admittedly self-imposed) watching two horror films every day, illustrating one, writing these basic notes, and then fitting in the rest of my paid work – but I sort of found myself envying their zombie-based camping holiday. I clearly need to get out of the house.
I also watched:
The Hallow (2015)
“This isn’t London, things here go bump in the night.”
Quick summary: A couple from London move, with their tiny little innocent baby, to a remote Irish village to survey a local forest for some unnamed (I think?) corporation/developer. But by trespassing in the woods, they unwittingly piss off some baby-stealing Irish folklore.
First things first – two of the leads in this are Benjen Stark and Roose Bolton – the latter being the harbinger of doom who pops by to pass-agg warn the family about The Hallow. Also, an all too brief cameo from Michael Smiley.
The film clearly wants the viewer to recall The Thing, Evil Dead, Pan’s Labyrinth and Straw Dogs when watching this. And it starts strongly enough in the first act that it almost gets away with quoting those films so directly. But by the end, the film felt more like the Del Toro produced Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark remake – solid and well crafted enough, with some good creature effects, but offering little new or surprising.
Benjen Stark annoyingly “splits the party” a little too much and honestly, was bringing parasitic fungus spores into the house with your child really the best idea Benjen? Also, while we’re at it Benjen – you’re working for some faceless corporation taking down a forest so are we actually supposed to be on your side?
I was pretty excited about a good cabin in the woods scare, and I liked the idea of using Irish folklore for the horror element – that felt new. But in the end it all felt like a bit of a missed opportunity.
There’s a lot here to like though, and the director – Corin Hardy – definitely delivered some great set-pieces that suggest his future projects will be worth a look.
Tonight: I might watch some Netflix horror tonight with Creep (2014) and #Horror (2015).
Check out the archive of the horror week here.