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Tabula Rasa

Review Copy

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, starring Robert De Niro and Kenneth Branagh, directed by Kenneth Branagh.

We were bound by our desire to get what was very good from the novel.
     Kenneth Branagh
First there was Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, then there was Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Coming soon: George A Romero's Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Then again...

Actually, the 'Mary Shelley' bit was added for copyright reasons, but they were certainly going all out to preserve the spirit and continuity of the original novel. Only the climax is a significant departure, and perhaps it's not overly a coincidence that it was one of the best bits.

Unfortunately, this is a movie which didn't quite work. The visual dimension was stunning, Kenneth Branagh is at home with period costume and the classics, Robert De Niro and Branagh himself gave their usual strong performances, Frank Darabont is a successful scriptwriter (and now director with the upcoming Shawshank Redemption), but all these elements were pushing at each other for room. A good example of this overload is the cinematography - stunning indeed, but at the movie's pace most of the moments of grandness came across as gimmicky -- without build-up or integration.

And further, the frantic pace left little room for suspense or even exploration of the ideas -- even the moral dilemma was delivered in a voice-over (from the traditionalist lecturer) and some rather unsubtle dialogue in the framing sequence. And the monster was almost criminally glossed over.

Not that the movie isn't interesting. Mary Shelley's own dialogue was substantially utilised and came across very well, and the relationship between creator and created was a new slant on previous efforts. Certainly Victor Frankenstein's idealism that was pushing him towards his Superman was more than evident, and explains somewhat his blindness towards his actual project (until a ton of warm K-Y jelly brings him back to earth). The visceral body imagery that ties his mother's death in childbirth, the collection of amniotic fluid and the final fate of Elizabeth together gave a real impact to Victor's increasingly literal struggle against the sheer messiness of the flesh. The two creation scenes balance the movie thematically and are memorable in their own right.

On the practical side, design and make-up were excellent, Emma Thompson had a really nice cameo, Helena Bonham Carter made the most of her expanded role, and John Cleese was unrecognisable (with De Niro's body and Cleese's brain, no wonder the monster was confused).

Like everything else, the moment where De Niro realises his creator has not given him a name was powerful, but came and went. The film works best as an illustrated guide to the novel, and continues Dracula's lesson that, while Gothic has much to offer, simple extravagance won't pin it down.

The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula, by Roderick Anscombe, Bloomsbury, London, 1994. $19.95 paperback.

Roderick Anscombe is an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, as it says on the press sheet, though not on the actual book. Now, I've always been a little suspicious of these professional qualifications when it comes to prose writing -- they conjure up images of clinical detail over effective storytelling, and don't seem particularly necessary. After all, William Gibson didn't know anything about computers -- he was a writer.

But so is Roderick Anscombe, and this diary-style account of Count Laszlo Dracula's explorations of Nineteenth Century medicine and murder shows that admirably.

This book succeeds both in the character of its main player and the depiction of the world he moves through, from Paris to his castle and village in Hungary, from medical institutions to political backrooms. And of course his nurtured and growing need to slaughter young girls -- and drink their blood.

This isn't a vampire story, it must be said, and I'm not sure the Dracula motif was entirely a good idea beyond the obvious marketing potential, but it is handled well enough never to become clumsy. And speaking of marketing, the distinctive front cover with its Salvador Dali painting also works rather well (even the American edition looks nice).

Laszlo, Count Dracula works as a combination of the historical and serial killer genres, though it is by no means the most intense or powerful work you'll find on either subject. The plot has plenty of turns and details to keep things interesting, and the ending is great. And while the supporting cast are never fleshed out to any great extent, this is consistent with the nature of the diary. Back to the author's medical knowledge, it never does get in the way of the story, though there are enough facts to keep it all credible. Perhaps a bit more attention could have been paid to dates, however -- the good people of Hungary seem to know all about Jack the Ripper several months before England does (and perhaps if the novel had been set a little later, it could have tied in with the real suicide/suspected assassination of Crown Prince Rudolph, but that's a little picky).

'There have never been vampires, just terrible, tortured human beings', as it also says on the press sheet. Pick up the book and get to know this particular human being a little better.

Everville, by Clive Barker, HarperCollins, London, 1994. Review by Jason Towers

Everville is a series of set pieces, loosely linked so the author can call them a novel. There's not much of a plot. I can't see any point to the story; any inspiration for the whole, rather than separate elements. About a third of the way in, I wondered why I was reading it.

Certainly there are flashes of compelling writing, engrossing situations, and great insight; but they're connected by long passages of crap. At least five of the characters are there solely to add to the tally of grotesques, and now I think back on it, there's no point to the crucifixions on the hill, other than, I suspect, to get in a bit of crucifixion imagery.

All the disparate parts should have made up a collection of short stories, not a dilute, padded novel. The portion of the epilogue devoted to Harry D'Amour, which has almost nothing to do with the 'plot', is already moving towards autonomy; withdrawing to the end of the book, becoming a short story in its own right. Left on the shelf for long enough, the whole novel might separate into short stories, like a chemical suspension allowed to settle.

Unfortunately, the prose doesn't make up for the plot. It's interrupted by awkward sentences, uncued dialogue, repetition and bad paragraph division. Occasional unclear descriptions of scenes or events leave the reader shut out. Barker is such a literary legend, it's hard to believe his writing is imperfect, even when you've just tripped over the evidence.

It doesn't take long for the author to insert his usual themes: tribes of monsters, sex as catalyst, and biological change. Imagine Barker's sex life.

The book's other universe, the Metacosm, gives no sense of being a fully realised world. It's a collection of sets with a sample of representative species. Like a seaside zoo. The Metacosm and the evil Iad race were more impressive in the previous book, where they were only implied. Fully revealing them has diminished them.

In the 'real world' part of the story, sections are devoted to generating sympathy for the small town residents in the background -- the parade organiser, Police Chief, barman etc -- but they're all too similar, too generic. When they meet their inevitable fates, are we supposed to feel for them because they were with us through the boring times?

After the big anti-climax, there are fifty pages of epilogues and loose ends. Strangely, this is the most compelling part of the novel, perhaps because it's setting up the next book. Yes kids, the novel is open-ended, plot threads left hanging -- if that's not too dynamic a word -- for the next instalment in the series. Entertainment, or marketing?

Everville needs to lose a few thousand words and a few characters, and it needs the writing glitches fixed. I've no doubt some readers will see something awe-inspiring in the book, but after x-hundred pages I was sick of its milieu, its conventions, and its lack of direction. If I hadn't had to review it, I'd have given up. It's too long and too boring.

The Crazies (aka Code Name: Trixie, George A Romero, 1973). 102 minutes. Redemption Films, London. £12.99.

Remember Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead? Supposedly an unofficial sequel to Night of the Living Dead, it would be perhaps more accurate to say it was a sequel to this movie. Plus living dead. The name of the town, the description of the events at a hospital, military involvement and, most significantly, the final solution, all make it reasonably clear. But then, maybe Dan O'Bannon just likes Romero, and The Crazies is a distinctive example of that style.

Between revolutionising the zombie and vampire genres respectively with NotLD and Martin, George A Romero made three films that aren't as well known. The Crazies was the first of them and is a bold step from the tight world of NotLD into a depiction of a full-scale disaster, showing a lot of what was hinted at earlier (despite being on a much smaller scale). The actual plot is less preternatural than his better known milieu, concerning a biological weapon gone awry, literally threatening the sanity of the small town of Evans City. That is, if the military doesn't drive everyone mad first.

The military presence is the most interesting part of the movie. Like the conflict in Day of the Dead, the armed forces are mindless and brutally short-sighted, actively aggressive towards the forces of science that will conceivably save the day. But here the soldiers themselves are very human (once you get inside the suits and gas-masks), and science is hardly an innocent bystander -- having created the virus (and been 99% certain of its inactivity) in the first place. There are no real heroes, and certainly no villains, just people mucking about and getting in each other's way.

The other characteristic of Romero evident is his striking visual style and supremely confident use of his medium. The entirety is not as polished as the Dead movies, but both the script and its presentation contain many gems for the finding. The ending is devastating. One for the cynics.

But, cynical or not, it is once again the realism of this movie that gives it its power. George Romero is the master of creating things that could happen from things that couldn't. If this movie hasn't succeeded as well as its siblings, it is perhaps because it doesn't fall into -- and thus revolutionise -- any well-defined genre. It is simply pure Romero, and that's well worth the price of admission.

Taltos: Tales of the Mayfair Witches, by Anne Rice, Chatto & Windus, London, 1994. $29.95 Hard cover.

And the big question is -- has Anne Rice sold out?

After all, along with her newfound mass appeal and big new movie (if not movies), the books are coming out at a fair pace these days. So is she sacrificing her intricate emotional odysseys for more commercial offerings? And do we have the right to complain if she is?

And the big answer is... maybe.

Taltos keeps going right about where Lasher leaves off, continuing the adventures of Rowan, Michael and Mona, plus assorted Talamasca agents and introducing a new mythology into the mix -- courtesy of Ashlar, one of the breed of Taltos that has been living among men for centuries. As is now par for the course, we also get a long history lesson half way through, in this case Ashlar's recounting of his life, and the coming of the Taltos into the human world and how they have fared (badly, it could be said).

It is reported that The Witching Hour and Lasher were actually written as a single novel and split up by the publisher -- explaining the sudden break at the end of the exquisitely described not-very-much-happening first novel (if not the somewhat radical change in Lasher's character between the books). The trouble with Taltos is that it seems like an addenda added onto the previous work to tie up the loose ends. This is particularly and most obviously true of the Talamasca -- never before have we had so much detail about this organisation, yet it all turned out to be an anti-climax. The very real questions about the Talamasca's true purpose and loyalties that were raised in Lasher were dealt with and then dismissed out of hand. The organisation then disappears from the remaining half of the novel.

But the biggest omission from the book for me was any of Aaron Lightner's point of view. It is not his story, true, but his marriage into the Mayfair clan in Lasher went virtually unexplored -- and now in Taltos any contribution to the story he makes is completely off-screen. And it won't be giving away too much to say we're not likely to get much of his point of view in future sequels. The ending is built for a sequel, by the way.

Against those disappointments, weigh up the fact that Anne Rice has by no means forgotten how to write, and the book reads and flows very well, her actual prose among the most polished I've read. Mona Mayfair is joined by country cousin Mary Jane and the two make a good team as they elude the rest of the clan on their own mission of deliverance. And Ashlar's story, whilst more thinly spread than most of the author's historical detours is a very effective look at a mentality and culture that never quite adapts to living with humans. Perhaps best of all, the moral dilemma of the novel is carried over clearly and is a powerful twist to the situation of the previous novels.

If you are enjoying the adventures of the Mayfair Witches there is no reason not to continue with this novel. Anne Rice's style and characters undergo constant change and redefinition (within well-defined bounds, which seem to be money and angst) and she has enough here to keep it interesting. But Rice's plots were never the main attraction, and this book spends too much time pushing the plot into various tidy corners. Maybe that means she's selling out to the mass market, but then, the mass market could do with a few more well-written books anyway.

The Awful Dr Orlof (aka The Diabolical Dr Satan, Jess Franco, 1962). 90 minutes. Dubbed, widescreen. £12.99.

What an old world charmer. Opera capes, shadows on walls, deformed henchmen and women in long, white, lacy gowns who scream a lot and have brilliant ideas about offering themselves as bait to trap the monster -- l'assassin!

The basic plot bears a passing resemblance to the classic Le Yeux sans Visage, but the two are very different movies. This is the sort of wildly overblown gothic where you can get away with a twisted doctor having a psychotic, libidinous assistant who is also blind, and does everything by hearing and touch. Make of that what you will. There are some very nice touches; plus the rather obvious drop-ins that Jess Franco's work seems to suffer from, and which send the rating up a few notches. I particularly liked the Doctor's careful methodology -- when he leads the first victim into the house, they pass the wagon and the coffin she leaves in on the way.

Something I must say has struck me about the Redemption product that has come our way; the prints are of excellent quality. As good as was available, there was nothing to be done about the fact it was dubbed inexpertly into English. I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to dubbing and colour tinting. Several plot points also depend on written letters and signs, which are of course still in the original French.

The admittedly few Franco films I have seen bear the mark of a director determinedly creating his own, quirky milieu for a story that in another's hands might simply have been competent, or just boring. He makes them original. And this one has a well-arranged plot to go with it. Amusing, with a definite flavour. An excellent choice by Redemption for their catalogue of rarities.

In the Dark, by Richard Laymon, Headline, London, 1994. $14.95 paperback.

There is a theory going round, I can't say how widespread, that holds that members of one cultural group should not represent members of another group in fiction. Thus, a Caucasian should not try to write an Aborigine's point of view because they couldn't do it justice, would end up as patronising, stereotypical or just inaccurate. Likewise men should not presume to write for the opposite gender, and vice-versa.

Hopefully needless to say, it's an idea I don't find... appealing. Just another bar in the politically correct gaol cell, to be more precise. But with something like Richard Laymon's In The Dark, I start getting the awful itch that there might be something in it.

The novel concerns one Jane Kerry, public librarian and target of the Master of Games -- a nefarious individual who sets her certain tasks to perform for increasingly large sums of cash. The who, how and why of the Master of Games I won't reveal here -- mainly because I have no idea (in fact, the title makes most sense referring to the audience). Instead it's a book about Jane and how she copes with the ever-increasing crisis, the dangers and humiliations of the Game. How she copes is not very well and, were I not male and thus obviously unqualified to say, I'd go as far as patronising, stereotypical and inaccurate.

Yes, people do do incredibly strange and quite nasty things for money. Yes, ideas of body image and violation vary widely among individuals. But in the words of a great man, give us a break.

Otherwise, the novel is uninteresting. Supporting characters are badly drawn, the prose is flat, the mechanics of the Game -- the notes -- aren't exactly state of the art wordplay. As a plus, the most obvious contender for being MoG isn't, but that still leaves a somewhat gaping plot hole. There are still effective moments, of both suspense and character, but unlike the other Laymon novel I've read, Night Show, this doesn't even work as a slasher.

'Rules' like the one about representations of others seem a knee jerk reaction to try and quell the worst of fictions, but which end up suffocating the best of them. In the Dark is by no means the worst of fictions, but it's a lazily written novel that doesn't deserve to be encouraged.

Lullaby of Fear, Emma Lorant, HeadLine Feature, 1994. Paperback, $14.95.

Well, I wasn't expecting this. Especially not from the cover. Well, I was expecting the eventual secret -- the genre aficionado will probably guess it from the blurb. But that said, the novel still manages a quality of suspense that is such a refreshing change.

It concerns a talented fourteen year old girl whose world is irredeemably ruptured by an attempted rape. In answer to her trauma, her parents send her to an isolated convent school in the Swiss Alps. Needless to say, all is not as it seems. The matter is well-constructed, intricately veiled in a web of Catholicism and Nazi references, and the slow realisation of the characters very convincing. It was the lurid green moon and lightning on the cover, and the fact it is billed as horror : it is one of those difficult cases -- surely more science-thriller? Even what I felt were the potentially horrifying moments were handled more as opportunities for moral debate. But, then again, the climax is straight gothic horror, and the 'dark-side' character, Doctor Erika Lager, is ver-ry tasty indeed.

Whatever it is to be called, the real surprise is that it reads like a Chalet School girl's novel. No mistake, this gives all the issues a certain extra punch. I haven't encountered anything quite like this before and I think I like it. I recommend it to impressionable teenage girls who think they aren't allowed to like horror. Emma Lorant has a previous book also available from HeadLine, Cradle of Secrets.

Innocent young girls, quasi-Christian peasant customs, lots of Nuns, murders running suspiciously along bloodlines, experiments 'against God and man!' (specifically). The moment where Doctor Lager turns to her accuser and says, oh don't be silly, that's human nature, is special. Maybe it is horror! If so, it is definitely quiet, even to skipping neatly over the actual birth scene. Still, a well-written book with a nice pace, and just that bit of food for thought.


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