Book Review: Murder on the Orient Express

At midnight, the famous Orient Express train is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, one of the passengers is dead – stabbed a dozen times. Isolated by a storm and with a killer onboard, detective Hercule Poirot must find the culprit.

The newest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 murder mystery novel was released in UK cinemas in 3rd November 2017, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot.

My Photo [Murder on the Orient Express]

I read Murder on the Orient Express for the first time around this time last year, and although I wrote notes, I never published a book review. However, after seeing the film adaptation last week, I thought it an appropriate time to revisit my notes and finally write a book review.

I really, really liked this book.

I haven’t read much by Agatha Christie, but I found her writing style surprisingly easy to read, which was a great way into the story.

Murder on the Orient Express is the first Poirot story I’ve ever read, though it’s the tenth published by Christie.

He is quirky and clever, drawing on stereotypes introduced by characters like Sherlock Holmes, such as the extraordinarily talented and secluded intellectual. Poirot, however, whilst he prefers solidarity, integrates with society in a polite and courteous manner and, to the best of my knowledge, does not struggle with an opium addiction. For these reasons, I enjoyed Poirot’s character more than Sherlock, and I liked reading Poirot work his way to conclusions.

I liked the mix of lots of characters, all trapped in one singular place, who all had different stories and personalities, and yet Poirot was able to find various connections between them in interesting and subtle ways.

Film Comment: I think this subtlety was lost somewhat when translated to the big screen, in the process of condensing the narrative into a just under 2-hour film.

My Photo [Murder on the Orient Express 2]

I thought the book was satirical, particularly in the interactions between Hercule Poirot, and his friend M. Bouc. This satire was carried across to the film, albeit in different ways.

In the book, Bouc is aware of the stereotypical methods of looking for clues, and subsequently thinks almost every object on the train is a clue. Undoubtedly, this is the approach the “untrained” mind – the mind of the reader – would take; Poirot satirises this with quips directed at Bouc, and instead leads the reader’s attention to the tiniest and seemingly most insignificant details, which are the most telling.

The final reveal of the culprit surprised me, challenging my own theories I’d created in my head and making me think in different ways.

Minor Spoiler: There was a reluctance to condemn the act of murder, because of the reason it was committed. I think murder is murder, and if we begin to justify some murder over others, regardless of intentions or motivations, it creates a risky, slippery slope of vigilante justice. Admittedly though, this frustration was admittedly drawn out more by the film adaptation.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I really liked the newest film adaptation as well; Branagh captured the character of Poirot well, and the cinematography was visually stunning. I recommend both!

News of a second Poirot film with Kenneth Branagh, an adaptation of Death on the Nile, is already spreading. If this is the case, I can’t wait to read Death on the Nile next.

– Judith


Film Review: XX – ‘Her Only Living Son’

This is the fourth review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the third of these – Don’t Fall –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Her Only Living Son

Her Only Living Son is the final short in the series, written and directed by Karyn Kusama.

Cora (Christina Kirk) is a single mother, and her rebellious son Andy (Kyle Allen) is about to turn 18. However, the day before his birthday, she is called into school to discuss an incident in which Andy tore off a classmate’s fingernails. Andy becomes increasingly violent and Cora becomes increasingly afraid of him. The tension builds, as it is strongly hinted that Andy is not entirely human, but may in fact be the son of Satan.

What I Liked

Zacharek writes, it ‘deftly on the subterranean fears that often come with motherhood’, introducing the theme of motherhood (just as in The Box) but approaching it differently. (Time Magazine) This may remind horror-film fans of other works like Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, in which a child Antichrist is the central antagonist.

My Photo [XX - 5B - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix

In a similar manner to Don’t Fall, the story felt more like a horror than The Box or The Birthday Party. The score and occasional gore (nice rhyme) added to this.

However, whilst the premise of Her Only Living Son is suitably “horror” in nature, by introducing concepts like Satan and the Antichrist,  the execution of this was poor.

What I Disliked


Cora was a weak character, snivelling and sad – even before her son transforms into something abhuman.

In a similar manner to The Box, Cora’s behaviour as a mother does not empower women, but displays women as once again under the influence of the men in their lives; even the mailman seems to have more agency than Cora. Normally, gender roles in film wouldn’t bother me a great deal, but given that Her Only Living Son is directed by a woman, to create more presence of female film directors and better female representation in film, I thought the female characters would reflect this. Representation was an issue in other ways too.

My Photo [XX - 5C - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix

When Andy’s “fingernail incident” was discussed at school, the parent of the victim, a black woman, is present. She is talked down to by both the headmistress (a white woman) as well as the other school staff (white men) and told she is the problem for speaking out against Andy’s behaviour.

Whilst this scene makes no sense anyway, I also realised that this mother (Lisa Renee Pitts) in Her Only Living Son was the only prominent person of colour since Lucy (Sanai Victoria) in The Birthday Party.  I’m not going to start accusations of “racism”, but I found it incredibly interesting that a project specifically designed to improve representation in film seemed to favour casting white men and white women – women who then became subservient to those men within the film.


The flashbacks at the beginning felt disjointed from the rest of the narrative – they didn’t provide enough information for what was happening to be understandable. Furthermore, the entire use of the flashback is undercut when Cora relays what happens via dialogue later in the film. I also found the ending dissatisfying because it wasn’t particularly clear as to what happened, and why it happened.

Was Andy exorcised? Was he punished by Satan? Why did Cora suffer too?

These are the sorts of questions it raised, but not in an enjoyable “cliffhanger” way, but in an “unfinished story” way.


Overall, despite its links to the supernatural and paranormal genres of horror, Her Only Living Son is the short I enjoyed the least.

Concluding Remarks

Having watched and reviewed all four shorts in XX, here are my final comments:

  • Was each film incredibly well-made?

No; there were some flaws in production and things that could have been bettered.

  • Was each film explicitly “horror” in nature?

No; sometimes the genre wasn’t clear cut, and was a mix of different elements.

  • Was the story of each film entirely perfect?

No; character development and storytelling technique were the two things I found most lacking across all four shorts.

My favourite film was probably The Box because I liked its story premise best, and I liked being able to interpret it.

  • Was the message of each short explicitly clear?

No; not always.

  • Were the films particularly feminist in either style or content?

No; I didn’t think so and at times representation was an issue.

  • However:

I have never spent such length discussing films before – albeit whether that’s an indication of XX being so good and thought-provoking or so bad it needs condemning I don’t know.

XX has been described as a ‘mixed bag’, which I feel is an apt description.

If you’re looking for some relatively light horror this Halloween, you could always give XX a go. If however, you prefer well-made horror films with … actual horror, I recommend you steer clear of XX.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.


Thank you for reading this series on XX; I had great enjoyment in both watching each short, and writing each review.

– Judith

Film Review: XX – ‘Don’t Fall’

This is the third review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the second of these – The Birthday Party –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Don’t Fall

Don’t Fall hits closest to the mark as an independent paranormal horror film. It is the third short in the collection, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin.

Lemire agrees, writing that it is ‘the most traditional, straight-up horror film of the series’. However, she also argues it is the weakest link in the chain of the four shorts. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Don’t Fall is about four friends on an expedition in the desert. One of them, Gretchen (Breeda Wool) stumbles across an ancient cave painting whilst exploring the cliffs that appears to be denoting an evil spirit. The group camp out for the night, and Gretchen is attacked and possessed by a creature. One by one, this “Gretchen Monster” attacks the other three friends.

My Photo [XX - 4B - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Liked

Surprisingly, what I liked most about Don’t Fall was its overuse of horror clichés and stereotypes. It was a refreshing difference to the oddities of The Box and The Birthday Party. Although, had this been a feature-length production, these clichés would have worked against, rather than for, the film.

In an interview, Benjamin said: ‘I wanted to make it very much like ‘we are in a horror movie’ from the second it opened.’ (Cryptic Rock Magazine)

I liked the establishment of tone early on in the short with the use of music; the horror score was good throughout and the transitions from light to darkness alert the audience that they’re clearly watching a horror film; something, I think, that was more difficult to establish in The Box and The Birthday Party.

My Photo [XX - 4 - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Disliked

However, whilst the group of friends are picked off one by one in true Cabin In The Woods fashion – an admittedly exciting premise that has some decent scares –  because of a complete lack of characterisation (again) the audience are given no reason to care. The group’s fate is virtually insignificant; we don’t know or care why the evil spirit chose to attack them, nor do we find out anything about this spirit at all.

This is why Lemire wrote that this was the weakest of the four shorts, arguing: ‘we never get to know the characters enough to care about their fates’. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Ultimately, I think this reveals the issue of pairing the short film format with a long cast list.

There are plenty of independent short films on YouTube that are both enjoyable and successful, because they keep their narrative streamlined and focused on a single character, or minimal characters. Therefore, after 15 minutes, the audience feel as though they’ve had a reasonable glimpse into the character’s life, experiences, and personality. However, in films such as Don’t Fall, the addition of lots of characters, paired with the time limitations of a short film make it incredibly difficult to develop anyone’s characters in any real depth.

However, Zacharek praises the brevity of Don’t Fall, arguing that it is a ‘solid example of film-making economy’. (Time Magazine) Speaking of economy, the limited special effects budget was clear when it came to the “big reveal” of the monster, although credit must be given for Benjamin’s attempt.


Overall, the effect of Don’t Fall is one of a small scale paranormal horror that could definitely be improved but, left as is, is reasonably entertaining.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

– Judith