Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Review: “Crawl”

Alexandre AJA (Dir.), “Crawl”, Paramount Pictures, 2019.

“…I said, ‘my pretty Creole girl, my money here’s no good;
if it weren’t for the alligators, I would sleep out in the woods’”

-Traditional, “Lakes of Pontchartrain”

I’m pretty conflicted about this film. On the one hand, I love a horror movie where the situation is everything and, when you inject some nasty creature into it, the stakes get raised enormously. On the other hand, it’s mainland USA alligators who are the menacing agents here and they are just not the predators that they’re painted as in this story. America has crocodiles – big nasty and brutish – but they are not equal to the ‘gators in number and few Americans have seen them or have had anything to do with them; alligators are familiar to everybody and that’s why they’re used here. Don’t get me wrong: a nip from one of these lizards is going to hurt, but it’s only under certain remote circumstances – like being asleep and outdoors; the situation that the guy in the quote above details - that they’d be able to unleash the kind of panic that this movie shows us.

It reminds me of the weirdness that happens in the “Jurassic Park” flicks. In the first film you can imagine the conference where the dino-experts came to Spielberg with the raw facts about the Velociraptor which most likely ended with the director saying, repeatedly, “yes, I understand – but can’t you make them bigger?” I get it: horror movies are not documentaries and the bigger the monsters, the bigger the box-office take, and turkey-sized real-world Velociraptors don’t ramp up the macho of the lead male actors as much as ostrich-sized ones do. However, credibility does have a part to play in all of this. If Alexandre Aja wanted Saltwater Crocodiles for his film, he should have just written a movie set in the Top End of Australia, not played the Maximising Card and dosed his bayou reptiles with a ton of CGI steroids. Or he could have set his story in Egypt – Nile Crocs are bad boys too.

And before anyone gets all “USA! USA!” on me, I should point out that absolutely no part of this movie was shot or staged on American soil. It was filmed in Serbia of all places and even the lead actress – playing a wannabe US Olympic swimming athlete - is British. So why this parochial need to bend the rules of nature and adhere to the North American milieu? The bottom line is - as it always is – product placement, and the ease with which, say, a packet of Doritos can be introduced into a scene in Florida, as opposed to one set in the Nile delta.

So, going in, if you’re any kind of herpetologist, you need to check your alligator knowledge at the door and be prepared to experience the ringing tones of Aja’s best Spielberg impersonation: “yes, I understand – but can’t you make them bigger?”

Back to my reason for liking this film, it’s one of those Haunted House type flicks where the environment absolutely dictates the action of the main players, once the monsters have been unleashed. This is the template of “Alien” and also of “Deep Blue Sea” and a bunch of other monster romps where an understanding of the locale is crucial to the plot. Here, our two leads are bailed-up underneath a house being renovated, trapped in the crawlspace there by rising floodwaters being brought in by a “category 5 hurricane”, one of those storms that Trump didn’t even know that they had numbers for. The weather has ruptured a stormwater outflow and allowed alligators from a secretive nest into the basement and the rising waters force the captives and the intruders upwards through the building until a climactic moment-of-truth on the roof. This path upwards through the structure is crucial to the plot and is an anchor for the narrative: it’s obvious from the early scenes that Aja wanted this to be not just an escape film, but one which takes his lead characters from the lowest point of their relationship to a resounding emotional high moment of redemption. Clunky? Possibly, but a good scaffold on which to build.

Before doing a bit of research, I thought I’d never seen an Aja movie before: I knew that he’d made “Piranha 3D” and so, not unexpectedly, I set my expectations fairly low. But then I discovered that he was the guy who made “Horns” from the Joe Hill novel and that lifted things to a new level. My issues with Joe Hill’s book were that it feels as though it runs out of steam towards the end and becomes bogged down with the author trying to amuse himself with all of the bad puns he can conjure onto the page; Aja, in translating the book to the big screen, trashed all of this pointless waffle – thank God! - and streamlined the narrative into a workable whole – with one exception. There was a point where he felt the need to inject a Heavenly counterpoint to all of the devilishness happening in the story by displaying an angel, something that – deliberately – doesn’t happen in the book (devils and Hellions of all stamps are excluded from the fraternity of Heaven; in short they don’t get to have friends or play with Them Upstairs, and must endure their selfish, lonely lives alone). So, recalling all of this, the redemption arc here in “Crawl” isn’t out of character in this director’s canon but, fortunately, there were no wings and halos this time.

The scares in this film are, as you’d expect, of the ‘monster leaps out of the woodwork’ kind, for the most part. We see our heroine, Haley, enter the basement in search of her missing father and suddenly a ‘gator takes a snap at her. Then, while trying to seek help, she leaves her parent behind, only to become trapped in another part of the structure which is too small to allow the reptile to pursue her. Then, having formulated a plan to distract and evade the ‘gator, she discovers that there’s more than one of them. And so on, and so on. It’s all pretty much par for the course, but what makes it work is that both characters abstain from doing things that are completely stupid (something that other films of this type allow to happen with eye-rolling regularity) and equip themselves in practical fashion: I cheered their use of hand-cranked torches for example, since that meant I could discount long tedious scenes of batteries fading into uselessness.

I was also expecting to see moments when Haley’s swimming athleticism would allow her to outswim an alligator. Thankfully, this also didn’t happen. Rather, the test for our lead was to challenge her desire to win, to “want it” as the expression goes. Yes, her skills in the water stand her in good stead, but the movie never tries to sell us the line that humans are better in the water than a creature explicitly designed for that purpose.

Finally, there’s a solid core of very dark humour running through this film that really helps to lift it from the mire. At one point, as floodwaters are rising, Haley catches sight of a small boat in the forecourt of a petrol station across the way. She cries out to the people piloting it and flashes her torch, trying to catch their attention, but they’re too busy trying to break into the ATM to catch on. By the time they do notice her attempts to communicate, the ‘gators have taken them out one-by-one. Chomp, chomp, chomp…

I’ve become aware that there are quite a few ‘Killer Croc’ films out there, all seeming poor cousins of the ‘Shark Flick’ which I’ve highlighted here in the past: “Lake Placid” and its sequels; “Rogue”, and “Black Water” as instances. I’ve seen “Rogue” and it’s definitely worth checking out, but I don’t think I’ll be setting course to cover all the monster reptile films out there: I’m not sitting through “Anaconda” again… Also, this last year has seen reports that the Yangtze, or Chinese, Alligator must now be considered extinct in the wild, so, for me, that’s the ultimate buzzkill for exploitation cinema of this kind.

As for “Crawl”, it’s slick and entertaining, it carefully avoids the major pitfalls of this type of movie for the most part and it does what it sets out to do in a grimly humorous fashion. Three Tentacled Horrors from me.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Player Handouts: “Edge of Darkness”

People seem to be enjoying the player handouts that I created for the Chaosium introductory scenario entitled “The Haunting” so I thought I would do some more. This set of handouts is designed for a beginners’ level adventure that was released with the sixth edition rules back in 2004. It was written by Keith Herber and is entitled “Edge of Darkness”. It appears in the rulebook right after “The Haunting” and is a good follow-up to that story. It reveals to neophyte players exactly how the business of Summoning, Binding and Dismissing alien entities works in “Call of Cthulhu” and gives players a first-hand experience of the various levels and effects of sanity and its loss. It’s also set in the Arkham environs during the Classic Era period of the game, so it’s a solid entrée to Mythos roleplaying.

First up, the players are summoned to the bedside of an Old Friend (not my favourite way to hook in a group, but never mind). Rupert Merriweather is dying, and it transpires that he and his extinct friends have left behind them a huge mystical mess that needs sorting out. It involves – initially - the contents of a metal box:

(There are a number of boxes in this story – it pays to keep track of them!)

Within the box are an envelope containing a deed to a farming property outside of the Arkham city limits, along with the key to it; a journal; and a small gold box shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus. Obtaining this stuff is contingent upon working around Merriweather’s snarky son and heir, so some deft arbitration is called for.

The main focus of attention is the golden box. It’s shaped as a traditional sarcophagus (a Greek word meaning – quite appropriately – “corpse eater”) and it has hieroglyphs on its lid, within a cartouche, along with another set of glyphs on the underside of the same – these are quite different in style.

The most interesting thing about this item is that it has practically nothing to do with the story. It’s a MacGuffin to hang future adventures on and, while it’s of little use in the present situation, it’s loaded with all kinds of possibilities for an erstwhile Keeper.

A more pertinent source of clues is the Journal of the Dark Brotherhood. In the scenario as presented, the Keeper is instructed to determine which player character takes charge of this object and to dole out information to them as outlined in a section entitled “Reading the Journal”. I’ve broken up this information into a number of graphics which should be distributed in the following order:

Here's a close-up on that newspaper article:

The original scenario parcels this information up into a different arrangement of documents, but ultimately, it all works out the same as presented here.

On the basis of this reading, the party is encouraged to do some research in the local libraries about what they’ve just discovered, and some of those options are summed up here:

For characters who successfully use their History or Egyptology skills there's this:

And this is for characters who successfully use their Occult skills:

(I couldn’t resist throwing a reference to James Churchward in here – he was an English writer and polymath who conducted serious research on the Lost Continent of Mu. His major opus, The Lost Continent of Mu: Motherland of Man, was published in 1926 and was thoroughly pillaged by H.P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price.)

Finally, for characters who choose to trawl through back-issues of the local newspapers there’s this:

Next, after absorbing all of this information, the players may decide to head out to the sleepy village of Ross’s Corners to check out the farm. The locals are reticent, and the place is a mess, but soon another box is found – this time an old cigar box, with two small containers and a sheaf of yellowed pages within.

Again, the contents of the box are of minor interest. The canister contains a necessary material component for the Summoning ritual while the small box is full of the Powder of ibn-Ghazi – not really necessary for this story, but a mean trick on anyone who uses it on the Summoned, partially-invisible horror!

The information on the sheaf of papers is the good oil here:

Six copies of the chant required for the Summoning;

Some reference and background information on sources (I threw in this reference about a colleague with access to the Restricted Library because the scenario doesn't cover how Allen got to see Prinn's book and also to further show how shonky he is!);

A picture of the Pentagram with some cryptic chemical information about the brown powder in the small tin canister;

And the transcribed details for running the ritual.

(The original scenario calls for 13 pages all up in this bundle, but I’ve condensed it down somewhat for the sake of brevity.)

And that’s it. This is a nice little introduction to Lovecraftian horror roleplaying with lots of scope for embellishment by the Keeper and room to create ongoing story material. Seek it out and see what you think!

(All information presented here is copyright Chaosium Inc., taken from CALL OF CTHULHU 6th Edition, 2004.)

Monday, 9 December 2019

Review: “Occult Detective Quarterly", Issue #5 - Winter 2018

GRANT, John Linwood, (eds.), “Occult Detective Quarterly, Issue #5 – Winter 2018, Ulthar Press, Warren RI, 2018.

Octavo; paperback, with illustrated wrappers; 166pp., with many monochrome illustrations. Minor wear. New.

Some time ago – when this issue first emerged – I made a deliberate decision to not review it. There were three reasons for this and they are as follows: in my previous assessments of “Occult Detective Quarterly” (ODQ), I made some comments about a particular regular feature of this magazine at which one member of the journal’s production staff took great offense, regardless of the fact that those comments were based on my personal opinion (which I feel free to express) and were couched explicitly in such terms. They, in turn, felt perfectly free to retail their opinion of my opinion here at this blog and, after some brief exchanges, I felt that the issue had been concluded, although, at the same time, I felt less than encouraged to make any further efforts at promoting this organ. That’s reason one. Reason two is that it wasn’t apparently concluded there, because the editor chose to rake the matter up again in the introduction of this issue – apparently, honour wasn’t quite satisfied, and this was a bone that needed more chewing. The third reason is the obvious one: I have a story published in this issue and it felt a bit on the nose to review a vehicle parading my own efforts.

However, things have come to light which wipe the slate clean and which force me to rise above this tawdry clash of personal opinions. John Linwood Grant, the spiritual leader of this journal, contacted me to discuss payment for the story which appears here. I had practically written-off any notion of being paid at all for my efforts and was surprised that the topic had suddenly materialised. It transpired that Sam Gafford, head of Ulthar Press, which had taken over publishing duties for ODQ, had died suddenly and now the other ODQ stakeholders were trying to sort out some kind of future, not only for the magazine, but for the Press overall. This meant tracking down all contributors and ensuring that monies owed became monies paid. I told John to pour any cash owed to me back into Ulthar Press and to keep the journal alive, because a world without ODQ is a poorer one for it. To that end, I decided to write a review despite the reasons outlined above, because forums such as these need to survive so that writers can showcase their efforts, particularly the kind of niche writing that this magazine promotes. Reviews lead to sales; sales lead to longevity; therefore, I’m doing my bit (and pretending that my own work doesn’t exist between the covers of this magazine!).

First things first: the book is physically smaller this time around. The previous four issues were quarto-sized, perfect-bound affairs with colour cover art and glossy wrappers; in this iteration, we’ve downsized to the octavo format with gloomy monochrome artwork and a velvety lacquer on the covers. Personally, I dislike this finish because it feels kind of ‘creepy’ – which is, ironically, why I used it on my own book of ghost stories – and it marks easily, especially when retailers clog up the panels with their pricing and promotional stickers (admittedly, this isn’t too likely to happen, given current print-on-demand platforms). As a distinct break from the previous issues, this all works well – the art is suitably moody and nicely executed and the smaller size is perfect for those occult detection fans who like to read on public transport.

On the inside, there’s a lot less art than in previous issues, which might be due to fewer contributors in this sphere or due to time or material constraints. (I know that my story, in particular, was bit on the long side, and I was told that it would have to wait until space became available in order for it to see print.) There are still quite a few advertisements though, usually at the end of the stories after the now-trademark ‘skull dingus’ that signifies a gap in the proceedings. Ads are lifeblood for these types of journals and it’s good to see them represented. The rest of the content breaks down into two sections – fiction mostly up front and articles in the back. Let’s start on the stories:

First up is Tim Waggoner’s “The Empty Ones”. This is a return to an interesting world which was first presented to us within the pages of ODQ #2. In that issue’s tale – “The Grabber Man” – we encountered Ismael Carter, psychologist with heterochromia, who has the ability to see into a dangerous dimension, or reality, which he calls “The Shadow”, and who takes it upon himself to work against the evil incursions of that realm. Here, the stakes are incredibly high, as he strives to help a childhood friend avoid the attentions of the eponymous Empty Ones who pursue him through time and space trying to devour reality as it forms and who he distracts by slaughtering innocents for them to feed upon instead. This is a tight little tale that really delivers and helps to push open wider the enticing doorway to this concept.

In “The Curious Adventure of the Homesick God”, Sandy Chadwin introduces us to Finbar Coryat, occult detective, and his friend Newman, who together investigate various spooky goings-on at the Great Museum of the North in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It turns out that an avatar of the Legionnaire’s god Mithras is manifesting within a museum recreation of a typical Mithraeum, or site sacred to Mithras. In getting to the bottom of the manifesting deity’s discomfort, they encounter the ghost of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian princess and avoid the wrath of a gallery’s worth of taxidermized animals, killed and stuffed and put on display for no good reason. The colophon to this tale states that the author used real locations and elements for his story, and it shows in the amount of detail which he brings to the narrative. It kind of feels that he loses track of the story somewhat in trying to show how intimate with the Museum he is – and in trying to force the laughter here and there – but overall it’s a nice concept, well executed.

“Shadow’s Angle” by Brandon Barrows tells the story of a Japanese exorcist, Azuma Kuromori, tailing a demon-possessed body through a modern Japanese city. This is a well-written story with plenty of twists and turns and a nice sting in the tale. My only issue with it is that it could have been set anywhere, so bland is the location detailing and so American is the idiom. I couldn’t tell if the setting was Japanese or if only the characters were Japanese. Possibly, this was the result of trying to tiptoe around potentially racist minefields but, at the end of the day, it simply speaks of a failure to commit, both racially and culturally.

“The Unquiet Office” by Marion Pitman tears a page out of a Dorothy L. Sayers mystery and dials things up a notch with ghosts and an intrepid spinster-investigator invested with just a hint of the essence of Miss Marple (or even of D.L.S. herself!). Jane Oliver, an editor at a London publisher’s during the Thirties, learns that the man in the office next door to hers is afraid to work there because the place is haunted. She tells her circle of friends about the situation and her best friend’s maiden aunt – Irene Rogers – invites herself along to try a bit of ghostbusting. The unravelling of the situation is expertly handled and ties things off in a quite satisfying manner. There were one or two instances when information was awkwardly dumped on the reader in an attempt to show how much the author knew about the time and place, but these can be glossed over. (Dracula, by Bram Stoker, for instance, wasn’t a popular book at all at the time it was written; everyone was reading The Beetle by Richard Marsh instead.)

“Brown Eyes Crying In The Rain” by Steve Liskow will please fans of “Supernatural” with its set-up. Our investigator patrols a deadly stretch of road on a rainy night hoping that the often-spotted ghost of a girl who died there will reappear. Todd is in luck: the girl appears and what happens next solves her seventeen-year old cold case. This is a nicely done piece which hits all the right notes and deeply satisfies. Those looking for the typical ‘Sam & Dean’ denouement, however, will probably be disappointed.

In a necromantically warded tower on the outskirts of an ancient kingdom, master vampire Lord Bloodthirst, vassal of the Eternal Empress of the Night, has been staked to death by an unknown assailant. Desperate to solve the mystery, Prince Sanguine arranges for the abduction of Serena Cordosa Arabella Enchanté Alacansa, First Princess of Lacasse-Epstein and Heiress of the Malachite Crown – she, the only one able to thwart the Plots of the Iron Knave; who solved the Puzzle of the Dolmens of Heath; and who completed the Unsolvable Riddle of the Sunken Donjon - to undertake an investigation of the murder. In “A Princess Calls”, I.A. Watson and Chelsea Vance concoct a delicious and hilarious romp which Princess Enchanté herself calls “your classic locked castle mystery”. I needn’t point out (what with the J.B. Priestley-riffing title) that there’s a sting in the tail, but in the meantime, readers are left wondering - was it Lord Blackgoth in the Feasting Hall with the chair leg? Or some other form of nefariousness…?

“Storm Stones” by Cody Schroeder treads some tired old ground in its narrative, albeit well-written in an engaging style. Essentially though, it’s another tale of a rough-and-tumble monster-hunter getting dragged into a case that he feels overly conflicted about. In his instance, our hunter is “Sam Hain” (which, I don’t need to tell you, is wrong on so many levels) and the Monster Of The Week is a giant crystalline porcupine-cum-grizzly bear called a Lyn Dyr. (America, it seems, is the melting-pot and stomping ground of every world mythology that there is.) The local police presence wants the creature dead and our investigator would rather conserve than kill and thereby hangs the tale. It’s a highly entertaining read in the style of Jim Butcher, but predictable. And Mr. Hain also has heterochromia which clashes unfortunately with Mr. Waggoner’s earlier piece…

I was a bit nervous getting into Megan Taylor’s “Exposing the Dead”. There’s a tendency for some writers to play with the tense of their story - especially when it involves young, street-savvy, or homeless youths - because it seems that, when everything is in the present, it speaks more to the recklessness of youth. It’s a very tired technique, to be frank. Here we have two young women daring each other to break into an abandoned Spiritualist church on the other side of a busy road. Fully in the present tense, we see them cajole and bully each other into completing the task at hand, with a bucketload of revelations about their individual pasts and their relationship, only to be brought up short by the terrible reveal at the end. These are a pair of amateur investigators who are having a Really Bad Night. Despite my trepidations, this turned out okay.

In “Daddy’s Girl” by Julian Wildey, we encounter “Merodack the Magnificent” a bona fide occult investigator slumming as a carnival fortune-teller and magician. One night in western upstate New York – “the old ‘Burned-over District’ that had birthed Spiritualism, Mormonism, and any number of sects and failed Utopias of the last century” – Lisbeth Duttee pays a call on the canny carny and tells him a strange tale of woe about her unwell father. The resulting magical after-hours house-call involves a twist and double twist with the unnatural birthing of a three-headed spider demon and some of the lightest Mythos touches I’ve ever read. Mr. Wildey knows his occult literature as well and that always scores points in my book. Excellent stuff!

Loren Rhoads’ nifty story “Something In The Water” outlines the precarious events which transpire after a San Francisco Aquarium worker inadvertently adds a liquid-bodied nereid – or water spirit – to its collection. Called in to try and explain odd goings-on at the aquarium that have resulted in at least one death, local mystic Alondra DeCourval awakens ichthyologist Jacki Ruiz to a world of magical underwater possibilities – one armed with a load of pointy teeth and a bloody single-mindedness. Rhoads makes deft use of her understanding of the aquarium setting and the history surrounding it which never feels like an intrusive ‘info dump’; as well, her occult detective is solidly grounded and feels like a real person, rather than just a ‘dashing tailored coat with a big gun and a magic talisman in one pocket’ which is all too often the case with these characters. Great stuff!

Cliff Biggers’ “Hastur in Hyades” continues the Occult Legion series, detailing an occult detective’s attempts to trace the source of a 1960s rock band’s demonically backmasked recording (clue: it starts with the letter ‘H’). A well-written installment.

So much for the fiction, the rest of the issue is a bunch of articles pertinent to the themes of ODQ along with some thoughtful reviews. Bobby Derie gives us an overview of the career of - largely-forgotten, nowadays - author Seabury Quinn’s occult investigator Jules de Grandin, mainly through the pages of “Weird Tales” magazine. Meanwhile, Paul St. John Mackintosh details his experiences at the annual CrimeFest convention in Bristol, 2018, where occult crossovers in crime fiction were the hot topic du jour. James Bojaciuk’s regular column (“Aural Apparitions”) on audio recordings and podcasts of the supernaturally investigative, covers what might prove to be (sadly) the last in the “Omega Factor” audiobook series. Finally, Dave Brzeski takes us on a tour of the novels and screen writing of William Hjortsberg, which includes one of my favourite films, “Angel Heart”.

With that, it’s another successful issue put to bed. There is so much to enjoy in each episode of this magazine that it endlessly repays investment. The notion of the investigator working with or against supernatural elements is so endlessly reiterative that inspiration looms on every page, whether you are a reader, writer, or roleplayer. It’s true that some of the writing isn’t always as polished as it could be, but the ideas are almost always solid and are definitely worth the entry fee. If it wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t write for it.

Three Tentacled Horrors from me.



“The Empty Ones”, Tim Waggoner
“The Curious Adventure of the Homesick God”, Sandy Chadwin
“Shadow’s Angle”, Brandon Barrows
“The Unquiet Office”, Marion Pitman
“Brown Eyes Crying In The Rain”, Steve Liskow
“A Princess Calls”, I.A. Watson & Chelsea Vance
“Storm Stones”, Cody Schroeder
“Exposing the Dead”, Megan Taylor
“Daddy’s Girl”, Julian Wildey
“Something In the Water”, Loren Rhoads
“The Devil Drives”, Craig Stanton
Occult Legion: “Hastur in Hyades”, Cliff Biggers


“The Occult Jules de Grandin”, Bobby Derie
“CrimeFest 2018, Report”, Paul St. John Mackintosh
Aural Apparitions: “The Omega Factor” (Big Finish), James Bojaciuk
Cold Cases: reviewing selected works by William Hjortsberg – Falling Angel, Angel’s Inferno & “Angel Heart”, Dave Brzeski