Thursday, December 31, 2015

Quick Book Review: THE LIGHT AT THE END by John Skipp and Craig Spector

A cult classic splatterpunk vampire novel, The Light At The End is an original, energetic, occasionally terrifying book, with a sense of foreboding lacking in many novels of its kind. Its urban setting, combined with Skipp and Spector's kinetic prose and masterful grasp of atmosphere and visual description, make this a memorable horror novel, and one which has aged very well (it was originally published in 1986). Despite uneven characterization and an underwhelming first third, the sheer visual power of The Light At The End makes it deserving of its cult status and a highly recommended read for anyone in the mood for a cinematic, scary vampire novel.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review: MR. HOLMES (2015)

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This is a tough film to review. On the one hand, Mr. Holmes (2015) is an elegant, touching film, with a mesmerizing performance by Ian McKellen as an elderly Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, for Holmes buffs, like myself, this is a film that tries to humanize Holmes, by portraying him in a sad, tragic light, as a lonely, ailing old man with nothing to show for his life. This is not the fate we want for the greatest detective who ever lived, is it? 

It's also a Holmes film with no real central mystery or puzzle to intrigue us, as director Bill Condon, following a script by Jeffrey Hatcher (based on Mitch Cullins' novel A Slight Trick of The Mind), is more interested in the psychology of Holmes and the surrounding characters than detection and intrigue. And while the surrounding characters are somewhat interesting, they aren't fascinating enough to hold the film together. So what we are left with is watching a regretful, senile Holmes try to remember the details of his last case, the reason he chose to live in exile, tending to his bees, with only a resentful housekeeper (Laura Linney in an annoying performance) and her young son for company.

Still, Mr. Holmes is a pleasant enough couple of hours. It's a classy, polished film, with enough highlights to make it worthwhile. But Holmes aficionados, beware. This is not the Holmes you know. This is Holmes as seen through a realistic lens; not a larger than life super-sleuth, but a man regretfully facing a life unfulfilled. It's an elegiac, bittersweet portrayal that's not for everyone.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Quick Review: COP CAR (2015)

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Dark, and darkly funny, suspense-thriller, with terrific performances from all involved, especially the young stars, James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, and a charmingly malevolent Kevin Bacon. The film's main fault is a slow, borderline dull first third, which may turn off some viewers. But those who stick with it will be rewarded with a rich, taut suspense movie, with plenty to offer and a terrific climax. Who would've though that the director of such a terrible movie as Clown (2014), could make this modern classic? Highly recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Quick Review: TIGHTROPE (1984)

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Dark, compelling psycho-sexual thriller, with Eastwood in a memorably different and edgy role as a cop with twisted sexual tastes, hunting down a serial killer who targets women. Atmospheric, unusual, and full of suspense, this is one of Eastwood's most daring and provocative films. Highly recommended.

N.B. Although Richard Tuggle is credited as writer/director, Eastwood, who produced the film, took over the reins and directed the majority of it.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Quick Review: THE PSYCHIC (1977)

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Intriguing, if sub par, Lucio Fulci supernatural thriller, with a good central performance by Jennifer O'Neil. The first two thirds are almost unbearably slow, but the intense climax is effectively scary. Recommended, but with reservations.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Quick Review: REPO MAN (1984)

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Original, often hilarious dark comedy with sci-fi overtones. It has an energetic late 70's/early 80's punk sensibility and a great soundtrack. But its incoherent, episodic nature and lack of a likable protagonist, prevent it from being the classic it could have been. Still worth a watch, as it's a one of a kind viewing experience.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Quick Review: THE INITIATION (1984)

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Cult slasher movie, notable for a couple of gory deaths and a neat twist at the end. But the uneven pace, unfocused script, and flat direction make it an overall forgettable watch.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Is Stephen King A Bad Writer?

There has been a tendency in the past decade, mostly by younger readers and writers, to over-analyze and criticize King's writing and argue that he's undeserving of his mega success. As a huge fan of King myself, and as someone who has read the majority of his works, I have a few things to say about this. First, King, mainly due to his strong sales, has, almost single-handedly, elevated the status of the horror genre in the past four decades from something akin to porn, to a genre that's on bestseller lists almost all the time alongside "literary fiction". That is an unquestionable fact. Second, King's massive and thriving popularity hangs mostly on his many popular, successful, and occasionally critically-acclaimed film adaptations. Who doesn't have fond memories of watching Salem's Lot (1979), The Shining (1980), or Silver Bullet (1985) on TV as a youngster, and getting the crap scared out of them? Third, King's literary output has been of uneven quality in the past two decades, with novels like some of the Dark Tower books and the terrible Doctor Sleep valid proof of that. And, finally and most importantly, I think King is a brilliant writer when he wants to be. Books like Salem's Lot  (1975), The Shining (1977), Skeleton Crew (1985), Pet Semetary (1983), The Dark Tower VII (2004), and Duma Key (2008) are suspense/horror writing at its most stylish, flavorful, and compelling. Yes, King has a tendency to overwrite and overcook, but his voice and mastery of characterization are awe-inspiring. I have to admit that some of his recent work has been underwhelming. But I still keep up with every new release of his, and, every once in a while, I pick up one of his books and dive in, expecting magic. And, sometimes, I still find it, in spades. 

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015

Quick Review: MATTERS OF MIND, BODY, AND SOUL: Clan of Xymox

Xymox's latest album is a bit of a departure for them. It still has the sublime production, the ethereal melodies, and the unique electro/synth sound. But this is their gentlest, most subdued record since 1986's Medusa, with Moorings almost whispering most of the lyrics, making the album more romantic than Gothic. It's an enjoyable, haunting and memorable record, full of ideas and good to great songwriting; it's just that it takes repeated listens for its beauty to sink in. Highly recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015

Quick Review: TREMORS 5: BLOODLINES (2015)

As a huge fan of the Tremors movies, I found this to be a mildly entertaining, if unoriginal and unnecessary, sequel. Michael Gross as Burt Gummer is still fun to watch, but Jamie Kennedy is grating and the script weak. The effects are the best in the series, though.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Quick Review: PSYCHIC (1991)

Tightly-crafted, well-written psychic thriller, with good performances and perfect pacing. A forgotten gem from the 90's. Directed by George Mihalka (My Bloody Valentine). Recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Quick Review: THE RAPTURE (1991)

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The Rapture (1991) is one of the most underrated, undeservedly obscure films ever made. It is a haunting, disturbing. moving, and occasionally frightening religious thriller, which deals with issues and subjects most filmmakers are terrified of broaching. Its tale of a depressed young woman who decides to leave her hedonistic lifestyle behind in order to find God, is a twisty, atmospheric, superbly written one, handled with care and intelligence by writer/director Michael Tolkin, and with a terrific central performance by Mimi Rogers. One never knows where exactly the story is going, right down to the disturbing final scene. Although it will probably offend, to some extent, believers and non-believers alike, this is a thought-provoking, challenging film that should not be missed.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Quick Review: ODD APOCALYPSE by Dean Koontz

I am a huge Dean Koontz fan. I consider Odd Thomas (2003) to be one of his best novels. But I have to admit, I found most of Koontz's recent novels, especially most of the sequels to Odd Thomas, disappointing and repetitive. The good news is Odd Apocalypse is the best Koontz book in years, and the best sequel to the original novel. It still suffers from being too long for its own good (the plot isn't complex enough for 400+ pages), and from Koontz's annoying tendency to preach. But it's an atmospheric tale, with an imaginative concept, and it's darker and edgier than most of his recent output. For the first time in years, I am looking forward to the next Odd Thomas adventure. Recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Quick Review: ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979)

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One of the finest prison movies ever made, Escape From Alcatraz (1979) is a suspense masterpiece. It's masterfully directed by maverick filmmaker Don Siegel, with fine performances by Clint Eastwood, Fred Ward, Larry Hankin, and Patrick McGoohan, and a nuanced, well-written script by Richard Tuggle (who would later on direct Eastwood in the hit Tightrope (1984). This is an unmissable, compelling, near-perfect suspense picture, and arguably Eastwood's second best collaboration with Siegel after Dirty Harry (1971). Based on a true story.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The 25 X-FILES Episodes To Watch Before The Show's Return in 2016

Whether you are new to The X-Files or a die-hard fan who needs a refresher course on what makes The X-files so great, the following 25 episodes, selected by a hardcore fan, should fit the bill. The episodes are listed in the order of their original air-dates.

1- Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1): Written by Chris Carter. Directed by Robert Mandel: One of the better pilots of great TV shows (pilots are notoriously hard to make, since at this early point the creator(s) are still experimenting and trying to find the show's voice). Chris Carter's writing is good, the dark, foreboding atmosphere is there from the get-go, and, of course, Mulder and Scully are compelling, likeable characters we want to see more of. The rest is history.

2- Squeeze (Season 1, Episode 3): Written by James Wong and Glen Morgan. Directed by Thomas Katleman: The first stand-alone/monster-of-the-week X-Files episode ever, is a great, scary tale that showed The X-Files was more than just a UFO conspiracy show. The X-files was also one of, if not the, greatest horror TV show ever made, and Squeeze was just a taste of what was to come.

3- Beyond The Sea (Season 1, Episode 13): Written by James Wong and Glen Morgan. Directed by David Nutter: Arguably the first episode that truly showed what The X-Files was capable of when it fired on all cylinders, Beyond The Sea is a masterpiece of style and substance. Part ghost story, part psychic thriller, this is a brilliantly conceived mini-movie, which showed the acting chops of all involved, especially a young Gillian Anderson and a scene-stealing Brad Dourif as the death-row inmate who claims to be a psychic.

4- The Erlenmeyer Flask (Season 1, Episode 24): Written by Chris Carter. Directed by R.W. Goodwin: The first truly paranoid X-Files episode, with conspiracies within conspiracies and double-dealings galore. It kicked off what would later be, for better or worse, the main driving force of the show: The alien conspiracy to colonize Earth and the US government's attempts to hide the truth from the public. It's one of the better “mythology” episodes, episodes that deal exclusively with the alien conspiracy storyline.

5- Aubrey (Season 2, Episode 12): Written by Sara B. Charno. Directed by Rob Bowman: A terrific horror tale about madness and undying evil, this is another one of those high-quality creepy tales that only The X-Files was able to pull of so well. Endlessly creepy with top-notch performances and direction. Also features the first appearance of Terry O'Quinn, who would appear numerous times on several Chris Carter productions (including Millennium and Harsh Realm).

6- Irresistible (Season 2, Episode 13): Written by Chris Carter. Directed by David Nutter: One of the all-time great stand-alone X-Files episodes (and the inspiration behind Carter's other great TV show Millennium), Irresistible is another milestone for the series in terms of quality and ambition. At first glance, the episode seems like another serial-killer tale. But as the story progresses, Carter and co. make it their own, with incredibly eerie visuals, hints of the supernatural, and great performances by all involved.

7- Revelations (Season 3, Episode 11): Written by Kim Newton. Directed by David Nutter: One of the first episodes where The X-Files attempted to create a scary religious thriller a la The Omen, Revelations is a frightening, thought-provoking episode with some disturbing visuals and an otherworldly feel that is unforgettable. Reportedly, it was a hard episode to produce, with numerous re-writes and post-production tweaks, but the end result is a haunting, wonderfully eerie episode.

8- Grotesque (Season 3, Episode 14): One of the high-points of the entire series, this psychological/Gothic thriller is The X-Files proving once again that nobody in the history of TV created scarier images and storylines than Chris Carter and co. The plot: While chasing a serial-killer obsessed with gargoyles, Mulder, overworked, and overwhelmed by the darkness of the crimes, begins to question his sanity. With assured performances by Duchovny and guest star Kurtwood Smith, and stylish direction by Kim Manners, this episode is a favorite of the cast and crew, and for good reason.

9- Jose Chung's “From Outer Space” (Season 3, Episode 20): Written by Darin Morgan. Directed by Rob Bowman: The X-Files' first dip into outright dark comedy is an unforgettable, witty dissection/spoof of The X-Files and its alien mythology. It occasionally veers into pretentious over-the-top antics, but, for the most part, this is a smart, funny, original episode, with everyone involved in top-form. It also proved that, at this stage, The X-Files was a show to be reckoned with in terms of writing quality and versatility.

10- Tempus Fugit (Season 4, Episode 17): Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. Directed by Rob Bowman: One of the few highlights of the problematic fourth season (due to Carter spreading himself too thin by creating Millennium and working on the upcoming X-Files feature film), Tempus Fugit (and its continuation Max) is The X-Files at its most polished and bombastic, with stunning visuals, terrific EFX, and a complex, disturbing story of a very violent alien abduction. What this episode and its follow-up accomplish in terms of production values and overall quality, many big budget feature films fail to even come close to.

11- Max (Season 4, Episode 18): Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. Directed by Kim Manners: The continuation of Tempus Fugit (see above).

12- Elegy (Season 4, Episode 22): Arguably the finest script written by the mostly underwhelming John Shiban, this is a touching, haunting, and very scary story of grief and premonition, which deals with Scully's cancer and fear of dying. One of the best ghost stories ever shown on television.

13- Kill Switch (Season 5, Episode 11): Written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox. Directed by Rob Bowman: One of the most ambitious and visually stylish X-Files episodes ever, Kill Switch, co-written by cyberpunk superstar author William Gibson, is The X-Files further expanding its scope and creating an episode that, again, rivals many a summer blockbuster in sheer originality and impact. Almost 20 years later, Kill Switch still stands the test of time as a masterpiece of sci-fi and suspense.

14- Bad Blood (Season 5, Episode 12): Written by Vince Gilligan. Directed by Cliff Bole: Reportedly a favorite of the cast and crew (especially Gillian Anderson), Bad Blood is a stunningly original vampire tale with several twists. It's funny, scary, unpredictable, and unforgettable. Think Salem's Lot meets Rashomon meets Mel Brooks!

15- Folie a Deux (Season 5, Episode 19): Written by Vince Gilligan. Directed by Kim Manners: Another highlight of Season five, arguably the last great season of The X-Files. This is an episode that works on many levels: as a ghost story, a psychological thriller, and an allegory about losing one's soul doing a thankless desk job. Kim Manners' direction is tight, the visuals super-creepy, and the writing intelligent.

16- The End (Season 5, Episode 20): Written by Chris Carter. Directed by R.W. Goodwin: Written as a potential finale to the series (with plans to continue the franchise as a series of feature films, starting with The X-Files: Fight The Future), The End is one of the best mythology episodes ever written by Carter. It has a clarity and an urgency missing from most episodes of its type, and the ending is effectively shocking, paving the way for an effective reboot/fresh start. Too bad the feature film and the rest of the series never fulfilled that promise.

17- The Beginning (Season 6, Episode 1): Written by Chris Carter. Directed by Kim Manners: Designed as a continuation of the 1998 feature film and as a reboot of the series, The Beginning is an entertaining, polished episode intended to show off the high production values and glossy veneer the series acquired after its problematic move from Vancouver to Los Angeles. Here, Carter and co. try to rewrite the alien mythology by introducing a new, scarier incarnation of the alien beings. And it works, for a while, at least. The rest of the season is uneven at best, with Duchovny, wanting out of the series to focus more on features, being too sardonic for his own good or sleepwalking through his lame dialogue.

18- Tithonus (Season 6, Episode 10): Written by Vince Gilligan. Directed by Michael Watkins: An excellent example of The X-Files mastery of “Quiet Horror”, stories that achieve the scares without overt violence or clearly visible monsters, but with suggestive, shadowy visuals and strong writing. The story, about an immortal night-beat photographer who is trying to capture “Death” with his camera, is endlessly eerie. The performances by guest-star Geoffrey Lewis and Gilligan Anderson are top-notch. The climax, where Scully literally faces “Death”, is beyond haunting.

19- One Son (Season 6, Episode 12): Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. Directed by Rob Bowman: The highlight of the mythology episodes of season six, One Son answers a multitude of questions about Mulder, Agent Spender, and Cancer Man, while wrapping up the main alien conspiracy storyline that had at that point outstayed its welcome. It's riveting, shocking, and, like most mythology episodes, occasionally incomprehensible.

20- Orison (Season 7, Episode 7): Written by Chip Johannessen. Directed by Rob Bowman: Season 7 was mainly a bust, but it did include this terrific sequel to season 2's Irresistible, featuring Donnie Pfaster, one of the creepiest serial killers ever created. This time, the stakes are even higher, as there seems to be someone (or something) helping Pfaster kill. Faith and the nature of evil are some of the concepts dealt with here, in an episode that made us fans remember, after a number of mediocre episodes, why The X-Files is one of the greatest TV shows ever made.

21- Closure (Season 7, Episode 11): Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. Directed by Kim Manners: Written as the final answer to the question “What happened to Scully's sister, Samantha?”, Closure is a compelling, frustrating, yet ultimately touching episode. It has numerous plot holes, and doesn't give a fully satisfying answer to the mystery that has been driving Mulder's character up to that point. But it does provide some answers. Add to that Duchovny's best performance in ages and Mark Snow's haunting score, and you got a must-see episode.

22- Requiem (Season 7, Episode 22): Written by Chris Carter. Directed by Kim Manners: Fearing that this might be the final episode of The X-Files (Duchovny wanted out, and Chris Carter was exhausted), Carter threw everything but the kitchen sink in this potential series finale. To my mind, had this really been the series finale, it would have ended The X-Files on an effectively shocking note. Instead, we got two more uneven seasons, and a series finale, The Truth, that left a lot to be desired.

"Via Negativa"
23- Via Negativa (Season 8, Episode 7): Written by Frank Spotnitz. Directed by Tom Wharmby: Who would have thought that, after the show's reboot without Mulder, The X-Files was still capable of such an episode as Via Negativa? Dealing with dark spiritualism and the power of nightmares, this is one of the finest and most frightening stand-alone episodes in the entire run of the series, with terrifying visuals and a fine performance by Robert Patrick as Agent John Dogett. Arguably, the finest episode of the final two seasons of The X-Files.

24- Existence (Season 8, Episode 21): A mediocre episode that tries to bring the now tired mythology to life, Existence is included here mainly for the wonderful performances by all involved, and the final scene that brings Mulder and Scully together in a way fans had been clamoring for for eight years.

25- The Truth (Season 9, Episodes 19 and 20): Aired together as a TV movie event, The Truth is a 90 minute attempt by Chris Carter to bring together all the myriad strands he had been weaving for 9 seasons. Well, he doesn't exactly pull it off. But as far as series' finales go, this is an entertaining, ambitious, extravagant hour and a half, that does make some sense of the mythology. And the final scene is pitch-perfect.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe (2008)

So that's it. A list of the 25 episodes to watch before The X-Files returns for its tenth season in January 2016. I highly recommend watching the feature film The X-Files: I Want To Believe (2008), which is a nuanced, mature thriller, co-written and directed by Chris Carter. It's a stand-alone tale about faith, science, and perseverance, which gives Mulder and Scully plenty of moments to shine. Its only faults are its overly subdued tone, and being aimed at die-hard fans (if you haven't watched most of the series, or at least the 25 episodes listed here, you won't get the full effect of the story).

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

About The Author: Ahmed Khalifa is a filmmaker and writer. He is the author of Beware The Stranger, a horror novel, and Egyptian Gothic: Stories. Both books are available at Amazon here. He is also the writer/director of The Weapon, an action/supernatural Web Series, which centers on a vigilante called “The Hunter”. You can watch the complete first season, for free, here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Quick Review: THE EVIL (1978)

A near-forgotten "haunted house" picture from the late 70's, The Evil is a passable horror film with an intriguing premise: a group of psychiatry students led by their professor, rent an abandoned mansion to use as a drug rehabilitation center, only to discover that an evil force, maybe even the devil himself, dwells there. Although the script is good, the dialogue sharp, and the performances adequate, Gus Trikonis's pedestrian direction, and second-rate optical effects make this nothing more than a watchable hour and a half.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Review: THE GAUNTLET (1977)

Considered by many to be one of Eastwood's few failures, The Gauntlet has a lot to offer despite its flaws. Like the majority of films Eastwood directed in the 70's and 80's, it has an offbeat, original quality to it, which is rare for mainstream Hollywood films, especially ones with a star of Eastwood's caliber. In one sense, it's Eastwood's version of a blockbuster action-movie, filtered through his penchant for quirky storytelling and stories focusing on strong-willed, independent individuals and their battle against corrupt bureaucracies. But don't let all that fool you into thinking this is high-brow stuff. Not at all. The Gauntlet is mainly Eastwood having fun tinkering with the action/chase movie formula. And to some extent it works. Where it doesn't wholly work is in the credibility department. This is the kind of plot that requires Costco-sized doses of suspension of disbelief. But, considering the film's over-the-top tone and a comic-book inspired poster by Frank Frazetta featuring a muscled Eastwood, what did you expect? An entertaining misfire from a master filmmaker.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015

Quick Review: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

Hugely underrated, High Plains Drifter is a terrific, confidently directed, occasionally eerie, ghost-story/Western, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. One of Eastwood's most audacious and stylish films, and a horror/weird Western masterpiece. Unmissable.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015

Revisiting The X-Files: Season 9

The nadir of the entire X-Files run, season 9 is where The X-Files lost its audience, and for good reason: the plotting is scattershot, the mythology a mess, and the absence of Mulder and the minimal presence of Scully hurt the series greatly. A couple of entertaining stand-alone episodes and the 90 minute finale, "The Truth", are the only high points. Six years later Chris Carter would partially redeem himself with The X-Files: I Want To Believe feature film, a touching, clever, and mature movie for die-hard fans. #XFiles

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.