Abertoir 2016 Part Two – Vegan Veterinary Students and Socially Responsible Sociopaths

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There’s something a bit special, something deliciously, addictively odd about the Welsh horror festival Abertoir. Part of it comes from the paradoxical combination of an insanely acute attention to detail and a laid-back, friendly attitude from the organisers. But the setting also plays its part, as Aberystwyth itself almost invariably contributes its own ineffable oddness to proceedings. In 2016 it came most obviously in the shape of a freak weather front, that sent a sudden salvo of tornadoes across the town halfway through the week.

It looked briefly like the venue would be lifted aloft with all of us inside it, in true WIZARD OF OZ style, before we were all deposited somewhere in Transylvania. Sadly it wasn’t, and the storm evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, though the special showing of THE FOG had to be abandoned. Due to inclement weather, of course. Happily, another venue was found to screen THE FOG, and there were still numerous excellent events to look forward to. As in the first part of my Abertoir rundown – which you can read here – I will be focussing solely on the new films previewed during the week in the hope that this piece can serve as a guide for the best new horror films for fans to look out for in the future…

deadman-bigI fear I’ll subvert that goal straight away with DEADMAN INFERNO: TOKYO YAKUZA APOCALYPSE, but I do have an excuse. In 2015, the madcap Japanese gangster zom-com mash-up DEADMAN INFERNO won the Audience Award for best new film of the festival. So when the Abertoir organisers discovered that a prequel had subsequently been made, they set out to secure a copy. It turned out to be something of a challenge, as not only had this prequel not been shown outside Japan, even in its homeland it was a limited release. Undeterred, they secured a screening copy, and of course then had to translate it themselves. So the Abertoir showing of DEADMAN INFERNO: TOKYO YAKUZA APOCALYPSE was a real exclusive, the only subtitled version in existence. As it depicts events preceding the zombie outbreak in DEADMAN INFERNO, there are no walking dead. Taking their place is more of the slapstick gore and violence that made the original such a crowd-pleaser, as a brutal gangster clan tries to muscle in on the territory of a Tokyo rival. It is ridiculous, brutal fun, though at just over an hour with no undead, is more of a supplement to it’s feature length predecessor than a film in its own right. If DEADMAN INFERNO ever secures a Blu-ray release though, TOKYO YAKUZA APOCALYPSE would represent the most killer extra ever. And in the context of the festival, it was yet more evidence of how the organisers are happy to go the extra mile to deliver a unique experience for their audience.

fantasticozziOne of the guests of honour at Abertoir 2016 was the veteran Italian film director Luigi Cozzi. He screened his new film BLOOD ON MELIES’ MOON – his first in 27 years – though sadly I missed it. I did however see FANTASTICOZZI, the Brazilian feature length documentary about the director’s career. Cozzi, who runs the Roman horror shop and museum Profondo Rosso for his better-known colleague Dario Argento, is regarded with huge affection in the horror community. It’s probably fair to say that Cozzi has never made a masterpiece, but his films – most of them cheap, over-ambitious cash-ins on more successful Hollywood genre hits – are typically enormously entertaining nonetheless. Perhaps he lacks the raw talent of his more celebrated friends and collaborators like Argento, but FANTASTICOZZI illustrates just how far you can get with a winning personality and an authentic love of fanatic cinema in all of its manifestations. You get the impression that Cozzi got a lot of work simply because people like and trust him, and that he took the jobs because making monster movies is truly in his blood, and it’s difficult not to grin at the results.

rawcoverThe most hotly anticipated film of the festival was RAW, not least because at previous screenings audience members had reportedly fainted, vomited or even required an ambulance. The Abertoir organisers were quietly sceptical, suggesting that even though it was a strong film, these reports may owe more than a little to marketing hype. Another possibility is that previous RAW previews drew in a lot of audiences unused to horror cinema in any form, as it’s a film with an obvious arthouse appeal. RAW is the story of an innocent teenaged vegan, who enrols at the same bizarre veterinary college as her wild-child older sister, where she discovers some primal appetites she struggles to contain. There is little doubt that the film’s writer and director, Julia Ducournau, believes her debut has a deep message. But is it about the power of feminine sexuality? Our place on the food chain? The folly of making a film when you don’t really have a story? It’s hard to say, and by the end – in my case at least – to care. I should confess at this point that I’m not much of a fan of the Franco-Belgian school of self-consciously transgressive, pseudo-intellectual horror to which RAW belongs. In fairness, RAW is interestingly shot, and isn’t as daftly pompous as MARTYRS or as tediously pretentious as AMER, and does have a welcome streak of black humour. If you’re wrinkling your nose at me slandering the above Francophone horror films – both regarded as classics in many quarters – then you may well get something out of RAW. But, while there were some arresting – even harrowing – scenes, the characters grate, and the script signs a series of plot cheques that the director has no intention of cashing.

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By way of contrast, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER takes a similarly unpromising premise – of a teenage outcast (Max Records) who his therapist is worried may become a criminal sociopath – and turns it into something wholly compelling and oddly warm. Our curiously likeable young anti-hero is convinced that the chilly backwater town where he lives is already being stalked by a serial killer, and resolves to stop try and stop them. The most familiar face on the cast comes in the shape of Christopher Lloyd as an elderly neighbour who befriends the troubled teen, and I’d say it’s a career best performance from the veteran actor. A miasma of quiet dread suffuses I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER and while some weren’t convinced by the film’s final twist – which I’m not discussing here for obvious reasons – I rather liked the boldness of the climax. Chilling and funny by turns, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER takes a tired genre trope and turns it into something witty and authentically original, a tense study on just what turns men into monsters.

dark_song_posterA DARK SONG is set in Wales, so was in a sense playing to a home crowd at Abertoir. It concerns a distraught woman who, destroyed by grief at the death of her son, seeks help from an occultist played by Steve Oram. Oram, perhaps best known for playing the gauche psychopath in the serial killer comedy SIGHTSEERS, plays his sorcerer very much against type – down-to-earth to the point of oafish – which lends a reality to this tale of mystic rites in an isolated country house. Ritual magic(k) has been touched upon in genre cinema a number of times before, but A DARK SONG’s scriptwriter has done more homework than most, delving into the demanding, meticulous, taboo-breaking ceremonies involved, designed to erode the practitioner’s contact with the everyday world of perceived reality. Like most savvy horror filmmakers on a tight budget, the director employs the small cast – it’s almost exclusively a two-handed affair – and limited sets to generate a sense of claustrophobia, as sanity slowly leaves the building. As many such filmmakers discover, however, skilfully building up the tension can create the need for a climactic final act that’s almost impossible to deliver, and A DARK SONG doesn’t quite satisfy in that department. For all that, it’s an interesting, intense film with a fresh angle on the familiar territory of occult horror.

For more information on Abertoir, visit the festival site here.

Abertoir 2016 Part One – Restless Cadavers and Sociopathic Neighbours

aber-posterWith the horror festival season now over for 2016, I thought I’d cast an eye over the new films I caught at this year’s Abertoir. I should emphasise here that this represents just a fraction of the diverse variety of entertainment on offer over the six day event. There was a selection of diverting horror-themed talks (including my own modest contribution) and two live Lovecraftian events (consisting of a performance by the impressive Duke St Workshop, and a one man show from the brilliant Michael Sabatton). And, as usual, a full programme of retro screenings of classic titles, from THE FLY and SHIVERS, to NEW YORK RIPPER and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, plus a merry crew of special guests, such as b-movie queen Lynn Lowry, and soundtrack composing legend Fabio Frizzi, who debuted his new score for the 1981 cult zombie film THE BEYOND with a live band.

I must also confess that I didn’t catch every new film screened at Abertoir (the need for food, sleep, fresh air and sanity sometimes took precedence). But below are capsule reviews of the new films I did see. From a pragmatic point of view, this makes most sense, as while nobody reading this without a time machine can enjoy any of Abertoir 2016′s live events, the festival’s peerless programme of premiers reliably gives a good snapshot of the oustanding films for horror fans to look out for in coming months. Last year attendees enjoyed preview screenings of films that subsequently enjoyed critical acclaim – such as THE WITCH and BONE TOMAHAWK – and this year’s crop of international horror cinema also featured several titles surely destined to establish themselves as classics in years to come.

So, without further ado, a few new films from Abertoir 2016 to look out for in the coming months…

inerasableTHE INERASABLE comes from Japanese cinema’s distinguished tradition of haunting, sophisticated ghost stories, stretching back to KWAIDAN in 1965. The film begins with a writer who specialises in investigating the paranormal experiences of her readers. One particular case – of a student troubled by a mysterious brushing sound in her apartment – begins our descent into a maze of interlinked tragedies and spectral consequences. THE INERASABLE has two underlying subtexts: That the spirit world operates to its own alien logic seperate to that of the daylight world, and that the supernatural is contagious, slowly infecting all those who encounter it. The story unwinds like a langorous serpent, with each coil drawing you further into its uncanny world. In truth, at times it can be hard to remain focussed on which thread we are supposed to be following, and casual viewers may find THE INERASABLE too drawn out, but for those with the patience to persevere, it is studded with impressively unnerving moments.

voidIn THE VOID a police patrolman finds himself sheltering in a near-deserted smalltown hospital when it becomes clear that a local cult have broached a gate into an eldritch parallel dimension. A gushing love letter to the golden age of VHS horror of the 70s and 80s, THE VOID is peppered with visual and plot references to the work of American genre legends like Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter, as well as nods to Italian maestros of surrealist splatter like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. While I overheard some acccusations of plagiarism, for me these homages are delivered with such deftness and evident reverence and affection as to be impossible to resent or so readily dismiss. More importantly, you don’t need to know a thing about B-movie history to sit back and enjoy the punchy pacing and gobbets of old school gore and monster FX in THE VOID’s ferocious foray into Lovecraftian madness.

autopsyjaneTHE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE takes place in a provincial American morgue that also doubles up as town crematorium. When the father and son team running the place take late-night delivery of an unidentified female corpse, it triggers a sequence of increasingly disturbing and inexplicable events. Quite unlike its director Andre Ovredal’s previous feature TROLLHUNTER, THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE is a masterclass in scalpel-sharp suspense and cloying formaldehyde atmosphere – exploiting his morbid setting’s potentrial for claustrophobic menace to the full – though things can suddenly get messily visceral when the story demands it. Brian Cox – now establishing himself as something of an unsung horror icon – takes the lead in an excellent cast, bringing warmth and believability to his portrayal of a brittle, but principled ageing pathologist. Despite very stiff competition, THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE won Abertoir 2016′s audience award for best new feature, a richly-deserved accolade for a film that deserves to be recognised as a genre classic.

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On the surface, CREEPY is a Japanese serial killer thriller in the HANNIBAL mould. In it, a police detective who specialises in psychological profiling sees a case go badly wrong, and quits the force to become a university lecturer in criminology. However, his past continues to haunt him, as he slowly begins to wonder whether the world of murder and madness he thought he’d escaped now resides right on his doorstep. I was with CREEPY for the first hour or so – it’s well made and keeps you on the edge of your seat with a mood of quiet, pervasive foreboding. However, it isn’t just a tense ride, but at 130 minutes a long one, and by halfway through the gaping plot holes and cockeyed character development begin to threaten to derail the whole film. Ultimately, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa might have done better to have opted either for a more straightforward straight police procedural crime film, or a more full-blooded foray into the suburban grotesque or perhaps even supernatural. As it stands, CREEPY tries to play both hands and doesn’t quite satisfy with either, making for a strong film that falls tantalisingly short of its potential.

So ends the first part of my capsule round up of Abertoir 2016′s finest. Check back in a couple of days for the second half.

Aberystwyth – It’s Like the Last Days of Rome Out There…

deuceIt’s that time of year when excited fear fans make the pilgrimage out to the westernmost fringes of the UK for Abertoir. This time, the Welsh horror festival is focussing its attention on New York’s 42nd Street. Not the popular musical, nor less the modern Disneyfied district around Time Square, rather the Deuce as it was once known, when the area was a sweaty Mecca for New York sleazehounds. Between the 1950s, and its revitalisation in the 90s, the Deuce was home to countless grindhouse theatres, screening the films too gory, crass or downright scuzzy for regular cinemas.

And for one week only, between 15-20th of November, Abertoir are bringing Manhattan’s heart of exploitation cinema back to life in the quaint Welsh town or Aberystwyth!

cross10And, as ever, I’ll be there, lowering the tone yet further. This time I’ll be delivering a talk that tries to get to the very roots of the age-old association between cities and sin, digging deep into the worst history’s decadent urban sprawls have to offer the unwary traveller. There will be weird facts and swearing, there will be wild gesticulation, there will be antique dirty pictures. But that’s alright because rude pictures are okay, so long as everyone in them is dead… Hold on. That sounds wrong.

sodom-05 And for plenty more that sounds deeply wrong, join me at 2.15 on Thursday afternoon for my talk Beyond Sodom and Gomorrah, and witness the most foul-mouthed lecture on Mesopotamian social history ever attempted without the aid of a safety net.

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Even if my little performance doesn’t appeal, do check out the rest of the programme, for as ever the Abertoir organisers have excelled themselves. There’s a knockout roster of new horror films – such as Raw, The Love Witch, and The Void. Plus a feast of vintage grindouse – from I Drink Your Blood to The New York Ripper. There’s also theatre (including an adaptation of the Lovecraft tale Polaris) and a return for the soundtrack composer Fabio Frizzi after his triumphant performance at last year’s event. For further information, click here

Hope to see some of you there!…

Dare You Face… The Midlife Crisis of Dracula!

dracula-a-d-1972Unfortunately I was unable to deliver my talk at this year’s Bram Stoker International Film Festival. Happily, however, I will be at the Fear in the Fens event in Downham Market, Norfolk, this Saturday (November 5th) where I have the honour of being the day’s keynote speaker. I was initially asked to deliver my popular talk on Vlad the Impaler, Who are You Calling a Count?, which I first gave at Bram Stoker last year. However, upon reflection and discussion, I have updated and adapted the lecture to better suit the film I will be introducing. The film in question is Hammer’s toothsomely cheesy Dracula AD 1972, with my talk now entitled The Midlife Crisis of Dracula. In it, I investigate the strange case of what happened when legend’s immortal Prince of Darkness collided with the decade that taste forgot…

For further details of the event, click here for the official site, or indeed here for my own preview of Fear in the Fens. Meanwhile, for anyone who can’t make it to East Anglia this weekend, I shall soon be delivering another of my inimitable addresses on the opposite side of the country in Aberystwyth. More details presently…

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York’s Little Box of Horrors

I come from the last generation that grew up wholly without the Internet. It almost seems strange now to reflect that my first book was researched without a single recourse to the Web. But of course the Internet changed everything. One offbeat example might be dreams…

beyondgraveWhen I was younger one of my favourite recurring bitterwsweet dreams involved finding some magical shop down some hidden alleyway. Invariably it would be stuffed with wonderous treasures – toys usually initially – which I had never seen the like of. When I awoke, I was invariably struck with a melancholy sense of loss when I realised that the amazing place I had found and the incredible things I had found there weren’t real. Incidentally, my weakness for this notion explains why, perhaps, I remain so in love with the 70s horror film From Beyond the Grave, where the uncanny junk shop Temptations Ltd purveys surprises to luckless customers, presided over by the peerlessly creepy Peter Cushing.

Meanwhile, happily, as I grew older, I discovered unique emporia off the beaten path which – if not as literally magical as those of my dreams – were still enchanted caves holding objects of desire wholly new to me. Best of all, they were real, and the things you took away in your shopping bags didn’t dissolve at the sound of an alarm clock. I’m thinking here in particular of the shops I found in the labyrinthine heart of London’s West End during me adolescence, such as the delightfully dingy heavy metal basement Shades, or the irresistibly-named Dark They Were and Golden Eyed with its treasure trove of horror magazines and monster memorabilia.
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Both Shades and Dark They Were… are long gone, but I was struck on a recent visit to the West End by how all of their successors had also disappeared, with nothing springing up to replace them. Various factors are to blame, but the Internet has to be the biggest contributor to the demise of such truly special specialist shops. The initial discovery that Amazon, Ebay, Etsy and whatever now made most things accessible at the click of a mouse was intoxicating. But I was increasingly left with the wistful hangover of pondering what we may have lost, that perhaps that magic of discovery has gone forever…

Do modern kids dream about impossibly great web-sites which they can never find in their waking hours?

All of this has been a – rather rambling – preamble to something I wanted to publish on an enterprise that contradicts pretty much everything I’ve said over the last few paragraphs. Around last Halloween, a shop opened up here in the quaint and quirky, historical city of York which more than meets the qualifications I describe above for a truly magical space, full of wares that you didn’t know existed let alone that you wanted. It’s named Pandora’s Box.
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From a Vincent Price death-mask made from Belgian chocolate, to a lock of Charles Manson’s hair, or a baby’s-head candle, Pandora’s Box never fails to enchant, startle, intrigue and – on occasion – unsettle with it’s ever-rotating stock of offbeat curios, macabre ephemera and otherwordly oddities. I was immensely flattered when the owners Heather and Greg asked to stock some of my work, and Pandora’s Box is now the only shop on the planet where you can guarantee finding signed copies of my books.

You only have to look in the window to see that Pandora’s Box conceals myriad secrets and stories. So I resolved to quiz its proprietors on how the idea came together, and what it’s like managing such a unique venture. Heather – who is the friendly face behind the counter most days – answers most of the questions here, while her partner Greg prefers a more behind-the-scenes position…
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Why, when so many other businesses have migrated online, do you feel it’s important to have an old school bricks-and-mortar shop?
Heather I like the human experience. I like people. I like the eccentricities and sharing the knowledge of what we have with people. I like even the negative reactions to our collections. I mean I get mad of course when people are incredibly rude but if I can get them to see what I see, I feel so accomplished.  Most importantly with the stuff we sell it is invaluable to have the hands on experience for the touch and feel of an object. Greg isn’t always such a big fan of humans.

manson-baubleThere’s little denying that a lot of what you sell – and indeed what I write about – could be described as morbid. Yet in my experience, ‘morbid’ people are often sensitive, kind and thoughtful souls. Is that your experience, and if so any thoughts on why that might be?
Heather I find that morbid people are kinder, more thoughtful and more genuine. I think morbidity comes from having a challenging  life with more hardship and loss, you either become morbid and have a great sense of humour or you become a bitter asshole. Resilience goes a long way and humour makes people resilient, not sure which comes first.  I think the macabre is actually beautiful.
Greg I agree that it’s true. They generally tend to recognise how fleeting stuff is and tend not to be too petty about anything.
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What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever bought or sold? Have you ever been offered anything to buy you turned away because it was too much?
Heather So many things have passed through our fingertips. Probably the most beloved and weird was Ralph, a gorgeous diaphonized human fetus. We were afraid of the potential issues with shipping him over here when we moved. A small list of favourites: A drawing by Richard Ramirez, Ted bundy’s leg hair, forensic skulls, countless medical tools, specimens and collectibles.
I miss my antique elephant rib and Ralph the most.
Everything is too much money, this isn’t a get-rich kind of thing it’s a hobby gone mad.
We both reluctantly passed on a boot knife reputed to belong to Whitey Bulger as it was likely evidence since he was still wanted.
Greg misses the lion skull we had. It was a massive vintage female lion skull only 1/4 inch smaller than the record male lion. It was gorgeous and we only had that for a day before it sold.

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Is the morality of taxidermy an odd reflection on modern sensibilities? There are several supermarkets nearby filled with slaughtered animals in their chiller cabinets, yet people come into your shop and threaten you for selling stuffed animals that died of natural causes. Why do you think taxidermy makes some people so angry?
Heather Both of us think it’s lack of knowledge that makes people angry. They just don’t understand. They feel everything dead should be hidden away and forgotten like anything else unpleasant. I think some people tolerate certain objects in certain surroundings as well like in a museum and they can’t figure out how to categorise it outside of their neat little box. We embrace death and the beauty that is in it and the beauty after it.
I don’t believe in killing for art or taxidermy but generally death is unavoidable.
People just don’t know how to deal with death and instantly want to assume the absolute worst about people. 

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There is evidently a unifying theme or aesthetic behind Pandora’s Box, but it’s very hard to pin down. How  might you define it? It strikes me that one element that many casual observers miss is a strong vein of black humour – am I onto something there?
Heather The unifying theme is us. When we pulled out of multidealer shops and markets and decided to sell in our own space back in 2011, we made a simple rule. If we didn’t love it, it wasn’t allowed in the shop. Many curiosity shops delve into weaponry, air plants or beard creams, we won’t do things to appeal to a market, we will unapologetically keep curating things like they are just for us.  The shop and collections are like looking into our heads.
We absolutely crack ourselves up. There is so much humour in everything we do. Little pope dolls riding ferrets and a nun with a devil mask, a tiny gun in a priests hand, a stuffed deer with a pretty wig. Humour runs through everything and it does run dark.

diaphonizedDo you have a ‘holy grail’ item? If there was one thing that somebody might bring into your shop that was your dream – or nightmare – piece, what would it be?
Heather We have a laundry list of things we want. Greg’s wish is an iconic extinct thing – beyond the passenger pigeon we had since he says that just looked like a pigeon – he wants a dodo or a thylacine or something magnificent. I tend to wish for everything I’ve ever sold back. I find the same things over and over because I love them so much and then tell myself I can keep the next one. I truly want another human diaphonized fetus as long as it’s as similar to Ralph as possible. I also would love a skeleton with rickets and a skull with syphlis but ask me tomorrow and my answer will change again.  Anything and everything from an asylum gets both of us quite excited.

In addition to being a retail environment you can actually visit, Pandora’s Box also sell over the Internet for those who can’t make it to York. For those who can, they also offer a wide range of fascinating events and workshops, from taxidermy to tarot reading. I plan to collaborate with Heather and Greg on something pretty unique in the near future. For further details on all of this, and links to stay in touch with Pandora’s Box on Facebook Pinterest and such, click here.

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Norfolk Nightmares

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I’ve been occupied for most of the summer murdering babies and torturing Jesus at York Minster (an experience I should probably write about on here at some point). But now autumn looms large on the horizon, Halloween beckons, and my calendar is as usual filling with speaking engagements and suchlike, all of which I shall be detailing on here in due course. I’d like to begin, however, by previewing a new event in the foreboding shape of Fear in the Fens, which runs on November 5th, in the quaint East Anglian town of Downham Market.

I say new, but the festival is part of the ongoing series of CULTure Babylon events, curated by writer and dark culture expert Kit Lewis, which began in 2012. The CULTure Babylon philosophy marries screenings of classic horror films with other media that will help the audience really get under the skin of the movie in question. For Fear in the Fens, Kit has picked a diverse trio of vintage horror flicks guaranteed to delight fans of retro, cult chillers.

witchfinder Opening proceedings is a screening of Witchfinder General, perhaps the definitive bleak East Anglia film, so there could scarcely be a more apt locale to see it. A surprise hit upon release in 1968, it features an unusually grim, understated performance from its star Vincent Price, with sequences of brutality and torture that still have the power to shock.

seventhvictimlobby Following this The Seventh Victim, a unique slice of New York noir from producer Val Lewton, who kept the horror flame alive in the lean years of the 1940s with a series of atmospheric, stylishly suggestive chillers. The Seventh Victim is a labyrinthine film, outwardly about a Satanic cult in fashionable Greenwich Village, but concealing perhaps other ideas about suicide and sexuality in its shadowy depths.

dracula-ad-1972-2 Providing the finale is Dracula A.D. 1972, arguably the definitive example of the effect time can have on a film’s critical status. Pilloried by critics upon release as the worst thing Hammer had ever made, with subsequent generations of horror fans condemning it as the most painful evidence of the studio’s failure to update their Gothic formula. Yet in more recent years it has attracted a building following, who point out what while it may not be as scary, or indeed groovy, as Hammer hoped, it is ridiculously entertaining.

Supplementing the screenings will be a trio of talks. Historian and occult scholar Dr Francis Young will preface Witchfinder General with an address on the authentic history of witchcraft in East Anglia. Festival founder Kit Lewis will contextualise The Seventh Victim with a lecture on Satanic cinema. Bringing up the rear, I will be delivering my infamous ‘Who are You Calling a Count?’ talk, examining the historical roots of the Dracula myth.
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Rounding out the day are the Nasty, Brutal and Short sessions, consisting of brief, bite-sized horror films, introduced by local low-budget film expert Chris Mizsak. Held in Downham Market’s picturesque town hall, Fear in the Fens promises to be a fascinating, fun event, combining international cult cinema with an exploration of the unique, dark heritage of the surrounding countryside: ‘The East Anglian landscape is unique…’ observes Kit. ‘It has inspired feelings of dread and terror since Beowulf, the first horror story in English, was written here in the 7th century…’

For further details and tickets, please click here.

Tuning Into Satan

sir-thomas-lawrence-satan-summoning-his-legions-1796-1797-4The excellent Satanic Scholar website is establishing a video presence via a new Youtube channel. It opens with an interview with site founder Christopher JC, where he discusses the ideas behind the resource and what first drew him to Satanic scholarship. It also serves as a peerless primer on Romantic Satanism – the best short film on the subject I’ve yet encountered. I was hugely flattered to be asked to record the quotes included in the film. (Any embarrassing mispronunciations or overly hammy delivery are solely my responsibility.)

I’m proud (an apt sin in the circumstances) to say that I am also involved in some of the new channel’s future presentations. For further information on the Satanic Scholar project, consult their excellent website here.

Apocalypse Then…

Recent events have convinced many that, if we aren’t actually living in the End Times, we are certainly experiencing a period of unprecedented tumult and despair. The historian Paul Lay brought this to mind in a recent piece for History Today ‘Social media is abuzz with the question: is this the worst year in history?’ he begins. ‘The year so far has been a challenging one: a huge refugee crisis, born of the suffering in Syria and Iraq; increasing terrorism in Europe, a continent bewildered by Brexit; a failed coup and its sinister aftermath in the strategically critical state of Turkey; the Zika outbreak; growing racial tension in the United States; famine in northern Nigeria…’

distant As Lay, rightly points out, there have been far more traumatic times to be alive. Indeed, by most measures, most of us probably qualify as pampered. But this does touch on something I’ve long found fascinating. Namely, why do so many of take such perverse pleasure in pretending we are living in some kind of historical nadir? It’s a tendency I think I first really noticed when reading Barbara Tuchman’s acclaimed history book A Distant Mirror. It’s portrayal of the medieval world was well wrought, but her central thesis – that the apocalyptic era of the mid-1300s somehow reflected the tumult facing the world in the 1970s when it was written – was, frankly, far less convincing.

danse macabre I would, in all honesty, support the case for the 14th century as a leading candidate for the worst in recorded history if pressed. Endemic total war, famine caused by a minor ice age, religious conflict, and violent widespread rebellion, all under the shadow of the Black Death, which claimed around half of the population in much of the Known World. It is true that from the ashes of such wholesale tragedy many positives emerged, but that is a story for another day (and the basis for a book I’ve been planning forever).

aids-virus-ad_2416090b In my own lifetime, I think I’d single out the 1980s as a particularly grim period. The Cold War mushroom cloud spectre of nuclear annihilation hung over us in playgrounds across the globe. AIDS struck just as my generation came of age, forcefully connecting pleasure and death in our collective subconscious. Mad Cow Disease was still a frightening unknown, the prospect that what we’d eaten, courtesy of industrial farming techniques, might well fell a large number of us with a horrific neurological disorder. Worst case scenarios were competitive with the Black Death in terms of mortality, and even more fearsome in the way it claimed its victims by eating away at their grey matter.
220px-ProtectAndSurvive Some time back I was asked to pen a piece on the Apocalypse for the metal magazine Terrorizer. Researching it reminded me of the music I’d grown up with. While there were intimations of the apocalypse in 1970s rock – most notably ‘Electric Funeral’ by Black Sabbath perhaps – the transformation of the possibility of nuclear holocaust from a possibility to something that felt iminent, defined much of the music of my youth. Bands like Nuclear Assault dominated the cutting edge thrash movement in the 1980s, Nuclear Blast would go on to become one of the most successful genre labels in the world, while a search of the Metal Archives site throws up over 100 bands across the globe with ‘nuclear’ in their names.

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Yet it wasn’t all so dark. Most of us remained comfortable and fed – in the UK at least – and many of the threats we felt so keenly never manifested. But we do still take a perverse pleasure in pretending we live in ‘the worst of times’ don’t we? A quick skim across the internet reveals legions of jeremiads of every political persuasion insisting things are sliding into hell and that, by implication, were once much better in some mythical golden age.

But it’s balls isn’t it? Perhaps we feel the potential for loss greatest when we have most to lose? Maybe melodramatic doomsday declarations are a masochistic luxury afforded us by comparative comfort?
One thing I would suggest is that the worst of times are not when we fear that the world might end, but when we hope it will…

Throwing BabyMetal Out with the Bathwater – or – Clickbait Music Journalism and the Rise of Troll Metal

I haven’t done any music journalism in some time. So I thought it high time I reminded myself why. The subject of today’s lesson is a Japanese novelty act named BabyMetal. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’re a lucky person, should close this page, and get on with your life knowing that I envy you. If on the other hand, you read any of the rock press, then you can hardly have avoided the tsunami of hype that has surrounded this otherwise unremarkable, unhappy marriage between Oriental bubblegum pop and generic session metal guitars.

If BabyMetal is of any interest, it is as the band that happened to be in the right place just as the metal media fell under the spell of clickbait journalism. When they discovered the sad fact that the magical internet travel can be driven more effectively by irritating your readers as impressing or informing them. And so everyone began running pieces that riled their core audience, which also attracted a new influx of commentors who enjoyed watching serious music fans being upset.
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The music press had effectively begun trolling their readership. And no subject worked better than a trio of Japanese teenage girls, recruited to pretend to front a heavy metal band by one of Japan’s leading talent agencies. BabyMetal, by default, became the first troll metal act.

What caught most by surprised – including one suspects the band, their management, and the magazines hyping them – was when the constant coverage actually started to turn into concrete success. As any advertising executive can tell you, shove anything under people’s noses often enough, aggressively enough, and you’ll thrust it into their subconscious, becoming a trusted and recognised brand, regardless of how objectively low quality it may actually be.

I could’ve picked any one of an endless stream of articles about BabyMetal to illustrate my point. But this piece entitled ‘ROB ZOMBIE Shuts Down BABYMETAL Haters In Epic Fashion’ from Metal Injection’s a particularly depressing specimen. If you’re in for the ride, you can read it here. The article does at least have the virtue of brevity. Indeed it combines so much irritant into such a small space that I think it deserves some sort of Pullitzer prize. So, what’s wrong with it? Where to begin?…

Well, BabyMetal. Duh. Every time you wheel out this clickbait product an actual band dies.

‘Haters’. Haters is not a fucking word! You can have critics, detractors, opponents – hell there are countless synonyms to employ – English is a wonderful language. So quit writing like a teenager with ADHD fluent only in txt spch.

And if somebody is a ‘hater’, maybe they ‘hate on’ this plastic donkey show for a reason. Implying that somebody hates something just because that’s what they do is infantile sophistry. Sometimes, believe it or not, some of us dislike things for a reason.

And few if any metal fans hate the band as such. We just hate what they represent in terms of hype, manufactured pop, and clickbait journalism. Many got into metal to avoid this kind of crap. Shove it under our noses often and vigorously enough and we’re entitled to react.

And can we put this ‘metal elitist’ drivel to bed too. Since when did picking your music on merit become a bad thing? I can see why cynical record execs might like to foster an environment where docile fans will swallow anything you dump in front of them. But if a music journalist finds themselves spinning a similar line, it’s time to look in the mirror.
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Nobody was ‘shut down’. People seldom are when the liberal media employ this stupid, teeth-gratingly triumphalist expression. Somebody may have deleted a tweet because they were being confronted by somebody they had long admired, who has disappointed them.

And Rob. Rob… I like a lot of what you do, have often defended you from ‘haters’, and you were very personable when I met you. But nobody can accuse you of having impeccable critical judgement. I thought Lords of Salem was bold and interesting. But Halloween? Your choice in hats could use some attention too.

On the subject of energy at gigs, when I’ve seen Rob performing, he was clearly giving it his all, but looked pretty tuckered out by halfway through. Energy isn’t everything in music you know. Nor does being a performer give you the right to ‘shut down’ your fans. The guy whose taste you criticised is clearly one of the guys who put you were you are by buying your albums. Or was…

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I hesitated to write this. As I’ve already emphasised, the vast majority of the problem most BabyMetal ‘haters’ have is not with the ‘band’, but the way in which this product is being so crassly promoted. By writing this, I’m inevitably contributing yet further to the vast surplus of coverage lavished on this daft novelty act.

To misquote an old adage about religion… Bad music taste is like genitals: we’ve all got some, and they can be great fun. But there is a time and a place, and keep thrusting them in everyone’s face and you’ll start losing friends.

I am aware that the overall tone of this article has been a tad negative. So in the spirit of inclusiveness I shall abandon my metal elitism. Indeed I’m putting together a band of my own. The future of metal! You saw it here first…

Blobbyhammer

The Perils of Honesty and the Politics of Achievement…

Just for a change of pace, some politics.

Recent revelations about the financial affairs of the UK’s leading politicians have proven compelling viewing for those who enjoy watching the rich and powerful squirm. Particularly revealing – and a tad bizarre – was the recent statement by the MP and former Tory minister, Sir Alan Duncan, who spoke out in Parliament in defence of his master, David Cameron, after the Prime Minister came under fire for his dubious tax arrangements.

“Shouldn’t the Prime Minister’s critics really just snap out of the synthetic indignation and admit that their real point is that they hate anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them?” began Sir Alan. “May I support the Prime Minister in fending off those who are attacking him, particularly in thinking of this place, because if he doesn’t, we risk seeing a House of Commons which is stuffed full of low-achievers who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and know absolutely nothing about the outside world.”

The phrase, with friends like that… leaps to mind. It certainly doesn’t sound much like what somebody with any knowledge of the outside world might say in full view of the electorate.

Duncan probably imagined he was making the point that government needs the involvement of businessmen, who might be scared off if their tax arrangements routinely come under scrutiny. In doing so, he must be one of the few political commentators arguing that big business doesn’t have enough influence over politics, at a time when pretty much everybody else is trying to work out how to stop business lobbies from corrupting governments. Setting that aside, I think his statement tells us a few other things about a certain mindset that prevails in much of modern politics.

If nothing else, Sir Alan is to be applauded for his candour. It was one of those rare moments when you felt somebody in the House of Commons let the mask slip and inadvertently gave a glimpse of what they really think. Candid perhaps. Smart: not so much. Duncan’s one of those characters who is just astute enough to fool himself into thinking he’s a good deal cleverer than he actually is. Dazzled by his own brilliance, he’s blinded to his own serious limitations.

If Corbyn wants to win the next election he should just use this on a loop as the Labour party political broadcast.

It’s an archetypal example of the toxic Tory myth of the businessman as ubermenschen, of privilege being the same as virtue, that our value can be measured in pounds, shillings and pence. But it’s a myth so easily dismissed. Nobody outside the sociopathic realms of business thinks that somebody who, say, saves lives in their daily work is worth less than the besuited parasites who cheat people using small print.

We don’t hate anyone with a hint of wealth. But if you’re reasonably savvy, you’re instinctively wary, because most of the methods for accruing fortunes are not indicative of good character.

Sir Alan might sneer at the under-achievers, but what’s he achieved? Well, he was a very successful businessman, earning substantial amounts dealing in oil with the Gulf States. But if one region threatens world peace, it is the Middle East, and if one thing destabilised the region it was the willingness of Western businessmen to deal with corrupt Arab regimes for quick profits. If Britain became involved in any dubious conflicts, then the interests of our oil magnates were the trigger. It is difficult to imagine we would be allied with some of the most immoral tyrannical states on the planet, if it didn’t suit the interests of businessmen. Like Alan.

Then Sir Alan went into politics. To try and undo any harm he may have done as a businessman? Not quite. He has repeatedly tried to abuse the system, pocketing public funds, boasted about it, then been obliged to back down and apologise. Duncan tried to fiddle the justly infamous buy-to-let scheme. He was among the worst of the abusers of the MP’s expenses scheme. He infamously claimed thousands for gardening. Then topped it off by claiming that the MP’s salary of 64 grand (not including expenses natch) was impossible to live on, that MPs “live on rations and are treated like shit.”

In short, Alan is most definitely an achiever. Though many of his achievements might warrant prison under a less deferential justice system.

I’m not sure the country can handle too many more over-achievers like Alan. After all, somebody’s got to do something fucking useful with their lives.

Meanwhile, ever the consummate politician, here is the man himself in action, showing the mixture of charm and foresight that make for a born statesman…