Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book Review: BLOOD RIVER DOWN by Charles L. Grant (as Lionel Fenn) - *** out of four

As a huge fan of writer Charles L. Grant, but not a huge fan of fantasy, I opened my copy of Blood River Down with trepidation, fearing that this would be the one bum book that would tarnish my unblemished memory of Grant as a writer who just doesn't miss (which, in itself, is a pretty stupid notion, since there has not been a writer in history who never wrote a bad book. But I digress).

The first few chapters of Blood River Down took some heavy lifting on my part, as it was hard for me to get into the spirit and tone of the book. The goofy sense of humor and slow pace took me by surprise, since my idea of a Charles L. Grant book was shaped by such horror classics as The Orchard and the Black Oak series, solid horror/thrillers written in mesmerizing prose and filled to the brim with deliciously creepy atmospherics. Blood River Down is something entirely different.

It tells the story of Gideon Sunday, a retired football player down on his luck, who spends his days drinking, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the phone to ring, and trying to overcome his memories of his much beloved but recently departed sister. Then, suddenly, a magical door materializes in his pantry, which leads him into another world full of warriors and deadly creatures, and towards a quest to find a very special duck that can save or destroy the world.

What happens next is a series of mostly hit, and sometimes miss, series of incidents, adventures, and battles, some of which are hilarious, most of which are fun, and a few of which are downright boring. But it is obvious that Grant is having tons of fun with his tale and characters, delivering an array of puns, lame jokes, and some laugh-out-loud one-liners. And by the end of the book, I found myself smiling and feeling modestly rewarded for sticking with Gideon and company till the end (or the beginning, since this is the first part of a trilogy) of their quest.

For newcomers to Grant's work this is not the best place to start, as it lacks his mastery of atmosphere and his silky smooth prose, which is understandable, since Grant here is writing outside of the horror genre, the field he excelled at and in which he produced some of the most haunting stories ever put to paper. But if you are a die-hard fan like myself, or looking for an easy, fun fantasy read, then I'm sure you'll find much to enjoy.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


With the departure of Frank Darabont at the end of the first season, and Glen Mazzara at the end of the third, writer/executive producer Scott Gimple took over The Walking Dead, and turned it into something, well, different.

Fans of Robert Kirkman's original comic books on which the series is based, will be very pleased by how things turn out, as, reportedly, one of the main reasons Mazzara was ousted from the show was his lack of reverence for the source material and his insistence on tinkering with it to create a dramatic landscape better suited for televised storytelling. Not anymore, as Gimple and Kirkman steer the show back, rather abruptly, I might add, to its comic book roots, with varying results.

On the plus side, the show now has more of an episodic feel, with arcs being introduced and resolved within a few episodes, and a stronger emphasis on stand-alones, which works for those just tuning in to the show, and those who are merely casual fans who dip in a few times per season to keep up with a show that is more than trendy. On the minus side, long-time fans of the show, like myself, are subjected to a rude awakening, where, suddenly, characters start acting in ways not wholly consistent with what we know and love about these characters, while the mythic, serialized approach that made the show such a ground-breaking, timeless, and haunting storytelling endeavor, is mostly gone.

The show is still very good, don't get me wrong. But it's not an incomparable, perfectionist masterpiece anymore, as Gimple is a great writer (as evidenced by his episode "The Grove", one of the finest hours ever to air on television), but only an adequate showrunner, as under his guidance the show's technical merits take a blow, losing the tightly cinematic style of the previous three seasons. And Gimple also seems to have a penchant for sentimentality, as this is the first season to have a mawkish, almost unbearably saccharine bent, which is most notable in the episode "Still", one of the worst and most sentimental episodes of the series up to that point.

By the end of the season, things even out a little bit, and we begin to get used to this new but not improved Walking Dead, taking the good with the bad, the brilliant with the average. I, for one, will continue to watch the show, hoping for the best, waiting for Gimple and co. to surprise, shock, and inspire me. And if they don't, well, there's always the first three season to watch again and again.

Only time will tell...

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: THE FOUNDER (2016) - **** out of four

The Founder (2016) is one of the most important movies ever made. It is a crash course in why the world is the way it is; an indictment of an age of crass commercialism and hucksters pretending to be visionaries. By telling the true story of Ray A. Kroc, the "Godfather" of modern franchising as we know it, director John Lee Hancock and writer Robert Siegel lay open the story of modern America, globalization, and why we live in a world that rewards sales people and ostracizes the majority of dreamers and visionaries.

The Founder beautifully and clearly tells the story of Ray A. Kroc, the McDonald brothers, and the birth of one of the most successful businesses in the history of mankind. It also tries to set the record straight on who deserves the credit for what, in the long and convoluted story of McDonald's, and puts Kroc and his disciples under the harsh light of truth, revealing them for what they truly are: flawed, ambitious men, who build empires on the shoulders of visionaries and then try to bury them and steal their thunder.

But aside from the film's success as a smoothly structured history lesson, The Founder is also grand entertainment, with a terrific and terrifically complex performance by Michael Keaton as Kroc. While the supporting cast, which includes Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson among others, create memorable and fascinating portrayals of characters that the world and the history books have unfairly forgotten.

All in all, The Founder is one of the best films of its kind, and one which begs for repeated viewings. Unmissable.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: COOTIES (2014) - ***&1/2 out of four

One of the best horror-comedies you've never seen, Cooties (2014) is a fun lover letter to 80s horror/zombie movies. Like Final Girls (2015), Cooties' strengths lie in its near-perfect mix of reverence and send-up, with the filmmakers paying tribute to a genre they both love and find silly at the same time.

The plot: A group of teachers get stuck in a school where the students suddenly start turning into cannibalistic monsters (i.e zombies), and they have to do everything they can to survive, including facing their own fears and weaknesses. Saying anymore would ruin the fun for you, as this is a film filled to the brim with funny scenes, surprisingly hardcore gore, and a number of hilarious lines, not to mention a cast (that includes Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, and Leigh Whannell) that seems to be having a blast. The score by Kreng is also retro-synth music at its best.

This is also a rather conspicuous debut for Leigh Whannell as an actor/writer without his partner James Wan, and he proves himself admirably, delivering, along with co-writer Ian Brennan, a script that is original, funny, scary, and memorable.

Even if it is a bit lacking in technical merits - the direction is occasionally too conventional for its own good - this is an energetic, fun, tense, and endlessly entertaining horror-comedy, and a must see for fans of the zombie movies of the 70s and 80s. Unmissable.

N.B. Look out for a great appearance by none other than Peter Kwong (Big Trouble in Little China) as Mr. Hitachi!

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Movie Review: BLAIR WITCH (2016) - *** out of four

Released without much fanfare, Blair Witch (2016), the official sequel to The Blair Witch Project (1999) - let's all pretend Blair Witch 2 (2000) never happened -  is destined to become a polarizing film. If, like myself, you aren't a huge fan of the original, you'll probably find it to be a slick, compelling, and arguably superior sequel/retread of the original; on the other hand, if you are a die-hard fan of the original, and there are millions of you out there, it could be seen as an unnecessary repeat performance of the best aspects of the original.

To me, Blair Witch blows the original out of the water. Director and genre stalwart Adam Wingard, along with writer Simon Barrett, deliver a movie that is tense, fun, energetic, and deliciously scary, with the always reliable Wingard directing with an ebullience that was missing from the original

Whereas the original was an occasionally tedious exercise in cinema-verite, with hysterical characters and an annoying lead, this sequel features characters that are more fleshed out and much more likable. Yes, it isn't as gritty, and there isn't much here that is as startlingly original, but it is a better movie overall, with tight direction, an inventive script, and a terrifying, if slightly over-the-top, ending. It also has the advantage of working well as a stand-alone film, thanks to Barrett's clever script.

If you're looking for a fun, scary, and fast-paced "found footage" horror film, Blair Witch is for you.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Flashback Review: SLEEPWALKERS (1992) - **&1/2 out of four

Considered by many one of Stephen King's most embarrassing projects, Sleepwalkers (1992) is indeed a very flawed movie, but a fun one nonetheless.

Director Mick Garris, one of the horror genre's most reliable filmmakers, injects a lot of energy and style into the story, and the performances by the main cast (Brian Krause, Alice Krige, and Madchen Amick) are top notch.

What takes the film down a number of notches are the considerably uneven screenplay (reportedly penned by Stephen King as a lark), and the herky-jerky pacing, causing the film to have an incoherent, episodic feel that never lets the characters fully come to life. Also, the film's tone is all over the place, alternating between black comedy, low-brow humor, gory horror, and, ultimately, serious horror; not exactly an easy mix to take.

But, decades after its release in theaters, the film still holds up, mainly because of the terrific make-up/creature effects by Tony Gardner, Garris's stylish direction, and capable performances by the cast, both human and feline (the film features more than a hundred cat performers). So taken for what it is, a cheesy but slick horror film from the early 90s, Sleepwalkers is a tremendously entertaining watch.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Quick Review: LEGO BATMAN: THE MOVIE: DC SUPER HEROES UNITE (2013) - *** out of four

The most fun I've had watching a DC movie in years, Lego Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite (2013) - not to be confused with the theatrical feature released in 2017 - is a funny, fun, energetic, and superbly entertaining animated movie. It manages to be slyly funny and reverent to the source material at the same time (astute viewers will catch a lot of references to the original live-action movies), and the voice performances are top notch. A must for fans of Batman, Superman, Justice League, and DC comics.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Quick Review: THE OA: Season 1 (2016)

Another high-profile, critically-acclaimed Netflix original series, The OA: Season 1 (2016) is a massively disappointing foray into psychological Sci-Fi, with heavy-handed dialogue, humorless performances, and lackluster plotting.

It is all the more disappointing since the pilot is so impressive and visually majestic, right up to the final shot. But as the series progresses, the story gets thinner, the characters more annoying, and the tone more pretentious. It all leads up to an unrewarding and terribly exploitive finale, which is borderline insulting to viewers who'd stuck with it till the end. Avoid.

All episodes written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. Directed by Zal Batmanglij.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)

As a lifelong "Phan" of the Phantasm series, my heart lept with joy at the announcement of a new, and final, installment in the franchise, with the involvement of the entire cast from the 1979 original. After several delays, Phantasm: Ravager (2016) was released in theaters and VOD, and I got a chance to watch it.

My disappointment was staggering. Produced almost thirty years after Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998), I expected a tight, polished, poignant final chapter that would finally answer at least some of the many questions posed during forty years of filmmaking. What I got was an amateurish looking, incoherent movie, with surprisingly unpolished performances, and one which lacks much of the surreal, hypnotic atmosphere and style that made the series so special in the first place.

A huge part of the blame has to rest on co-writer/director David Hartman's shoulders, whose direction is adequate at best, and sloppy at worst. The special effects also leave a lot to be desired, which is shocking, considering what creator/writer/director Don Conscarelli managed to pull off decades ago with next-to-none resources, delivering four films that had plenty of style, and effects that always captured the imagination.

The lack of closure is also very disappointing for a die-hard Phantasm fan. Being the final chapter, there's little that seems "final" about this film, with its open-ending and unresolved storylines dating back to the very first film in the series. Yes, Reggie Banister's character gets a moving and bittersweet send-off, but that's about it. The Tall Man's tale seems far from finished, and the rest of the characters don't have much to do throughout the story.

One has to wonder why Coscarelli, who co-wrote Ravager, didn't just direct this final chapter, as the final product sorely lacks his touch and his mastery of low-budget filmmaking.

It is fun and heartwarming to see the gang back together again, and there are a couple of moments when the film manages to capture some of the magic of the original, but, as is, Phantasm: Ravager is heavily flawed and underwhelming, and a failure as a finale to one of the most popular and stylish horror franchises in history. To me, the true final chapter remains Phantasm: Oblivion (1998), in which Coscarelli gave us an open-ending that was mystifying yet satisfying on many levels, and one which was truly haunting.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review: SEAGALOGY by Vern

According to author Vern, if you are a huge fan of Steven Seagal and his strange and awesome movies, then you are, by default, a Seagalogist, a term the author coined to describe the die-hard fans, the real Seagal freaks, who follow his output religiously and truly enjoy his films for what they are. I am such a person; a huge Seagal fan since my teens, and someone whose appreciation and dedication to the Seagal ouvre only deepened with age. Yes, Seagal can be a polarizing, even bemusing figure. Yes, some of his DTV movies are heavily flawed and suffer from less than stellar production values. But there is no one else on this planet like Steven Seagal, the actor-producer-writer-bluesman-environmentalist-animal-rights activist-police officer, who also happens to be an Aikido sensei trained in Japan!

Seagalogy by Vern is marketed as a love letter to the man and his work, reviewing and analyzing all of Seagal's films and TV shows up to 2011. Vern's style is irreverent but, for the most part, not mean-spirited, and his passion for Seagal shines through. But those expecting a straightforward, serious look at Seagal's work have to look elsewhere. Vern's style is sometimes too humorous for its own good, with the irreverence occasionally becoming annoying and distracting. Strangely, for someone who has spent a lot of time and effort writing a book about a celebrity who suffers from overtly hostile coverage by the mainstream media, Vern falls into the same trap as the ones he criticizes in his book: those who viciously make fun of Seagal's shortcomings, real or imagined, because of his eccentric persona and beliefs, and his decision to leave Hollywood. Vern seems to think, as pointed up repeatedly in his book, that Seagal's "Golden Age" was his WB days (1988-1991), and that almost everything past that era is below par. I disagree.

Although I realize the ridiculousness of some Seagal's work and obsessions, I believe that, as an actor-filmmaker, Seagal has managed to make some truly interesting b-movies in a time where ageing action stars from the 80's and 90s are content to rest on their laurels, or become mascots banking on their household names, with shameless ads and/or inferior sequels to their biggest hits. Not Seagal. He has managed to make almost 40 DTV movies in the past twenty years, almost all of them reflecting his motifs, interests, and obsessions (Asian philosophy, a code of honor, CIA corruption, mafias, Chinese herbology, animals, Japanese swords...), and many of these movies are co-written by the man himself.

Vern acknowledges this to some extent, but his reviews of the later era Seagal are for the most part sarcastic and lacking in depth and proper research. That doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy the book. I enjoyed the hell out of it. But I was expecting something meatier, more fleshed out than light reading. Especially since, as of this moment, this is the only book ever written about Seagal.

So for Seagal fans, this is a must. It has some fascinating info and trivia, and some of Vern's reviews, especially of Seagal's earlier films, make you want to go back and rewatch the movies. But lower your expectations before picking up a copy.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)

The first adaptation of Susan Hill's classic ghost story is an atmospheric, nuanced horror film that lingers in the memory long after you finish watching it.

From the performances, to the confident direction by Herbert Wise, to the terrific screenplay by none other than Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Experiment), this is a near-perfect ghost story, which draws its power from its ability to suggest (with sound design and good cinematography) rather than show, and its terrific use of location shooting. Some of the technical aspects have aged a little bit, but considering that this is a modestly budgeted production made for British TV in the late 80s, this is an impressive, stylish, and surprisingly elegant film.

Reportedly disowned by Susan Hill because of the changes Kneale made to the original novel (including the shocking ending), this is arguably the best adaptation of the story (superior to both the popular stage version and the extravagantly produced 2012 feature starring Daniel Radcliffe). A must see for fans of ghost stories, British cinema, and the original novel.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Monday, February 20, 2017

Flashback Review: THEY LIVE (1988)

Original Theatrical Poster
One of John Carpenter's most popular and fondly remembered cult films, They Live (1988) is a film that, upon revisiting, doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. As a die-hard fan of the master filmmaker, I revisit this film every couple of years, hoping to find something that would make me change my mind about it. That's not to say this is a bad, or even mediocre, movie. Not at all. Carpenter is incapable of making an unwatchable movie, as his voice/style always shines through, but They Live is truly one of his lesser works.

The concepts presented here, including staunch criticism of uber-capitalism and consumerism, are admirable and still hold up to this day. It is the execution that's less than stellar, as this is Carpenter at his most uneven, with the film starting out as a focused criticism of Reaganomics and the plight of the working class during the reign of conservative governments, and then, once the protagonist, an immensely likable Roddy Piper as Nada, puts on the "special sunglasses" and discovers the true shape of things, the film shifts tones and become a somewhat cheesy and technically conventional thriller, with less and less of Carpenter's storytelling prowess shining through.

It might be that Carpenter got so caught up in the politics and conceptual ambitions of the story that he somehow mishandled or let drop other aspects needed to make this a complete success. The performances, with the exception of Piper, are lacking, with the always reliable Keith David and Meg Foster delivering performances that are surprisingly unpolished. As for the film's technical merits, something that Carpenter always excels at in his pictures, they are below standard, as the film lacks Carpenter's usual visual panache, while the effects are, for the most part, not very impressive. Even the score by Carpenter and his associate Alan Howarth is unmemorable.

They Live also seems to have been a turning point for Carpenter, as he took a four year break after the film's release, returning in 1992 with the problematic studio picture Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992). In the years since, Carpenter has arguably produced some good work (1994's In The Mouth of Madness, and 1998's Vampires, for example), but he seems to have lost some of his passion after They Live.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Book Review: THE DOOR TO DECEMBER by Dean Koontz

One of Dean Koontz's lesser novels that was previously published under the Richard Paige pseudonym, The Door To December is an overlong, overwritten paranormal thriller, which needed to be half this length to work. As is, you get Koontz at his most repetitive and heavy-handed. Not recommended, even to fans of Koontz's work.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Friday, February 17, 2017

Quick Review: WHISPERS (1990)

Repulsive, mediocre and poorly directed horror/thriller based on one of Dean Koontz's lesser novels. Victoria Tennant and Chris Sarandon are terribly miscast. A huge mess.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Quick Review: VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)

Eerie, disturbing Hammer horror movie, with a truly haunting ambiance and some truly disturbing imagery. It's slightly incoherent (reportedly due to last minute cuts right before release) and has repulsive undertones, but there's no denying its uniqueness among the Hammer cannon and its ability to linger long in the viewer's memory. A forgotten gem. Directed by Robert Young.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017