The BBC’s Crooked House – by Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss – is a ghost story about a cursed house, Geap Manor, which weaves together three spine-chilling tales set during Georgian times, the 1920s and the present day. The perfect spooky viewing for a Halloween night – enjoy!
King Kong is a fictional giant movie monster, resembling a colossal gorilla, that first appeared in the 1933 film of the same name. The character has since appeared in various media, having inspired countless sequels, remakes, spin-offs, imitators, parodies, cartoons, books, comics, video games, theme park rides, and even a stage play. In the publicity materials for his first appearance, Kong was described as, ‘a prehistoric type of ape’ and, while gorilla-like in appearance, he had a vaguely humanoid look and at times walked upright in an anthropomorphic manner. A much more recent screen incarnation of Kong – Peter Jackson’s 2005 film – while far less successful and iconic than the 1933 original, presented an altogether more interesting take on the character. Jackson opted to make Kong a gigantic silverback gorilla without any anthropomorphic features. Kong looked and behaved more like a real gorilla: he had a large herbivore’s belly, walked on his knuckles without any upright posture, and even beat his chest with his palms as opposed to clenched fists. In order to ground his Kong in realism, Jackson and the Weta Digital crew gave a name to his fictitious species, Megaprimatus kong, which was said to have evolved from the Gigantopithecus – a species of prehistoric giant ape, which actually once existed. Is there, however, any real-life precedent for Kong himself?
Lon Chaney’s ability to transform himself using makeup techniques earned him the nickname ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. Today he is regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterisations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup – as well as being the father of The Wolfman (1941) star, Lon Chaney Jr. Whilst Chaney senior is best known for his starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), it is one of his lesser-known films that remains perhaps his most infamous: London After Midnight (1927). The movie is now lost and remains one of the most famous and eagerly sought of all lost films, the last known copy having been destroyed in the 1967 MGM vault fire. The reason it is so infamous (and perhaps also the reason why it was destroyed) is that, according to urban legend, anyone who watches the complete, original cut of the film is doomed to become suddenly, incurably insane. This defence was most famously used in the 1928 murder trial of a man accused of murdering a woman in Hyde Park, London – unsuccessfully in that case.
The ‘green flash’ or the ‘green ray’ is a term applied to rare optical phenomena that sometimes occur either right after sunset or right before sunrise. The latter term was made famous in the 19th century by the publication of Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi/romance novel of the same name. Basically, when the conditions are right, a green spot is visible above the upper rim of the disk of the sun. The green appearance usually lasts for no more than a second or two. Sometimes (rarely) the green flash can resemble a green ray shooting up from the sunset (or sunrise) point. This spooky optical phenomenon has played on people’s imaginations over the centuries, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the visionary Verne appropriated it for his famous tale. In Le Rayon Vert (to give the book its original French title) Verne’s heroes are trying to observe the green ray in Scotland. After numerous attempts prove unsuccessful due to clouds, flocks of birds or distant boat sails hiding the sun, the phenomenon eventually becomes visible but the hero and heroine, finding love in each other’s eyes, end up not paying any attention to the horizon. Whilst the plot sounds fairly risible, the idea of the green ray itself has proved to be an intriguing one to this day, even inspiring a recent film which has in many ways become as famous as Verne’s novel.
In the period between Halloween and Christmas, with the country in the icy grip of winter and the nights long and cold, there is nothing like a good scary ghost story to bring family and friends together around the hearth. One of my favourites in this particular film genre is 2001’s The Others, the sort of suspenseful chiller which doesn’t seem to come around too often, given the modern preference for out-and-out shocks and gore in horror movies. Probably the best recent example of a film in the mould of The Others is 2011’s The Awakening, starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. In post-World War I England, an author and paranormal sceptic (Hall) is invited to a countryside boarding school by one of the teachers (West) to investigate rumours of an apparent haunting. But just when she thinks she has debunked the ghost theory, she has a chilling encounter which makes her question all her rational beliefs. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that there’s something very clever about a film that is subtle enough to scare and unsettle its audience by placing suspense, atmosphere, a gripping plot and a quality script and actors at its heart. As an added bonus, The Awakening also has one of those jaw-dropping twists at the end that make you question everything that you’ve just witnessed. If you enjoy films like The Sixth Sense, An American Haunting and The Woman in Black, you’ll probably need to make room on your DVD shelf for The Awakening.
With the Olympics not long past and the Paralympics still upon us, I thought that this might be an opportune moment to consider the haunted history of the UK’s capital city. There is certainly no shortage of material to draw upon when investigating the strange past of London, for just as it has been central to many of the major event’s in the nation’s history, it has also been equally famous as a city of vice, sin, crime and bloodletting. The grim legends of Jack the Ripper, Springheeled Jack and Sweeney Todd continue to cast a menacing shadow over the grimy streets of the East End. Bram Stoker may have made London Dracula’s main preying ground in his iconic horror novel, but the dark Count is seemingly very far from the only vampire – real or fictional – who has flitted through the city’s shadows. Similarly, the plot of Jonathan Landis’s American Werewolf in London also has its terrifying basis in reality. Many of the phantoms that are said to roam the capital are an essential part of British history, folklore and legend. The Tower of London, for example, is reputedly England’s most haunted building precisely because of the many who perished within its walls. There is an old saying that ghosts only ever appear in places that have known either great happiness or great misery, and the buildings and the haunted streets of London have certainly known both in abundance. The countless numbers of people who have lived and died in London in the course of its almost two thousand years of history had known every human emotion – among them hope, joy, love and, of course, terror. In consequence, there is not one square inch of old London town that is not imbued with the memories and experiences of its former citizens.
Despite being almost thirty years old, Ghostbusters has weathered well and still has the ability to elicit a wistful smile from a generation old enough to remember the likes of Madness, Reaganomics, legwarmers and the glory years of Liverpool FC. That’s because Ghostbusters, being made in the middle part of the decade that taste forgot, is as Eighties as it is possible to get. You would think that in the cold, cynical world of 2012 the film would be a bit like an old Status Quo album – so many good memories, but is it wise to revisit, in case you realise it is actually a load of rubbish? Okay, for those too culturally snobbish and those too young to have ever experienced the Ghostbusters phenomenon, here’s the spiel: three young(ish) paranormal investigators are sacked from their positions at Columbia University and decide, once armed with a fireman’s pole and an old ambulance, to set up a ghost-busting service. Meanwhile, Dana Barratt (Sigourney Weaver) is having trouble with her fridge, possessed, it seems, by the spirit of – bear with me – Zuul, an ancient Babylonian and follower of Gozer, the Destructor. Ooh Er.
It began simply. “In space no one can hear you scream”, cautioned the posters. There were no name actors, no fanfare, no star-laden premieres. Just a tale of seven people, all but one of whom dies at the hands of a seemingly invincible alien life form. Simple, but brilliantly radical, Alien was the grubby flipside of George Lucas’ fairytale utopia, a future where humanity was losing the war with technology and where exploitation and boredom prevailed. Alien was the heaven-sent antidote to the vacant escapism Star Wars’ success had borne in Hollywood, and an anomalous reminder of the power of cinema to terrorise and disturb. The film was conceived by Dan O’Bannon in 1976 but it was only a few years later, with the twin successes of Star Wars and horror films like The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, that Hollywood saw the opportunity to combine the two most profitable genres of the time in one movie. Even so, Alien was a massive risk at the time, especially since the director, Ridley Scott, had only one film under his belt when he came on board. This decision, risky as it may have seemed back then, proved to be a masterstroke as Scott stamped his unique vision on Alien with the memorable quote “To me, it was more than a horror film. It was a film about terror.” Now that the saga of Alien has come full circle with the recent release of Prometheus, it is perhaps the perfect time to look at how the original film came to define the genre of sci-fi horror.
William Shakespeare, the man known to history as the Bard of Avon and celebrated as the greatest playwright that the world has ever known, is at once a familiar yet elusive figure. Whilst there are few people on Earth who have not heard of or come across one of his plays, or at least one of his famous sayings, there is an enigma at the heart of Shakespeare’s character. Very few hard facts are known about the man, which has led to endless speculation about who exactly he was and how he came to write verse which is just as popular now as it was when it was first written, almost five hundred years ago. Some have even questioned the very identity of Shakespeare as the writer of the plays which made him so famous, pointing to the incredible breadth, variety and quality of his work as proof that an uneducated commoner could not have been behind them. Over the many centuries since Shakespeare’s death numerous theories have been put forward concerning the provenance of his plays, the true identity of their writer(s) and the reasons for the elaborate cover-up, if such existed. Hollywood got in on the act as well with the recent film Anonymous, which cashes in on one aspect of the Shakespeare conspiracy. There is, however, far more to tell, including facts which are even stranger than anything which ever appeared in Shakespeare’s plays.
‘Are we at the 100th post already?’ I hear you ask. Or to put it another way (I hope): ‘Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun?’ Either way, it’s a minor milestone but I thought it was worth an equally minor celebration so I hope you’ll all forgive me if I shamelessly devote this post to my own guilty and not so guilty pleasures. I’m not usually a fan of those ‘Best of…’ list programmes but what I’d like to do is share with you what, in my humble opinion, I consider to be the very best novels, novellas, short stories, films, television series and graphic novels in the field of horror, the paranormal and the supernatural.