Book Review: Ghosts of Manor House by Matt Powers

“Old houses are never truly quiet.”

Ghosts of Manor House is Powers’ debut thriller and horror novel, about Edmund and Mary Wilder, a married couple shattered by the loss of their young son. Mary receives an invitation for the family to become guests at Manor House, an apparently quaint hotel, but Edmund soon realises all is not as it seems.

My Photo [Ghosts of Manor House]

In his author’s note, Powers explains he “wanted a story that fits with my memories of watching The Haunting, The Changeling and The Shining.

This horror genre is definitely conveyed; the opening of Ghosts of Manor House was enjoyable and suitably unsettling – I won’t give any spoilers away – but it peaked my interest in the story.

I really like haunted house stories; this book delivered all the conventions that you may expect from one – mysterious voices, creaky floorboards, and an ominous housekeeper.

Mary and Edmund’s grief at the tragic death of their son, and their desire to bring him back, to me, echoed Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, a horror novel about a burial site that holds the power of life, even after death. Admittedly, I read Ghosts of Manor House not long after finishing Pet Sematary, so King’s story was still fresh in my mind. This this may not have been an intentional echo, it may have been my own interpretation.

Although a fictional story, Powers does his best to keep his characters and situations realistic. For the most part, this is effective. However, I don’t think Edmund or Mary were developed as well as they could have been, though this may be the constraint of writing a shorter book.

The use of the present tense to narrate the story throughout was an… interesting choice. To me, this made some of the writing feel clunky and amateurish because I didn’t know what purpose this served. The use of flashbacks to reveal what truly happened to the family was a good technique, but until these started, I at times got lost in the various narrative strands – it was very difficult to place where the characters were, though this may have been Powers’ intention.

Edmund’s over-personifying of Manor House frustrated me as well; I liked the concept of a haunted house coming to life, but if every description of the house is personified, it loses the subtlety great horror has.

On the whole, Ghosts of Manor House is a quick read and a reasonably enjoyable haunted house story.

Star Rating: 3/5 Stars

Ghosts of Manor House is available to buy as an e-book, paperback, or audiobook from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

– Judith

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Film Review: XX – ‘The Box’

I recently watched XX, an anthology horror film, and it prompted thoughts and critical comments.

What is XX?

XX is an anthology horror film. This means it is a framed narrative, consisting of four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

XX is designed to display the talents of female directing within the film industry. It was released earlier this year, and has been given a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

In an interview, Jovanka Vuckovic said: “I’ve been working in the horror genre for a very long time and I noticed the real lack of women and that we’ve been misrepresented in front of the screen and under-represented behind the camera for a very long time.” (Glide Magazine)

My Photo [XX - 1 - Poster]

However, whilst this is not a bad motivation to create an independent film, all four shorts of XX left me disappointed.

The Box

The Box is the first short film in XX, written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic.

The story follows Danny (played by Peter DaCunha), a young boy, who, whilst riding on a train with his mother and sister, watches an old man with a red box / present. Danny is curious, and the old man lets him look inside, and Danny is then left visibly unsettled. When the family return home, Danny refuses to eat anything. Danny then speaks privately to his sister and father – whispering unknown secrets in their ear – who then also begin refusing food. The family members become thinner and thinner, eventually dying of starvation, leaving the mother alone.

What I Liked 

I liked the premise of gradual starvation in The Box; I thought the ripple effect of this on each family member was suitably creepy. I also thought the use of sound, pale colours, and dim lighting helped present The Box as an unnerving story, with an undertone of melancholy.

Image via Netflix
Image via The Independent

The most disturbing part of The Box was the “nightmare” scene. I was fully prepared for this short to explore these themes of cannibalism and gore further, maybe offering an explanation as to why the family were starving themselves. Perhaps they were saving themselves for becoming abhuman, and saving themselves for a gruesome gorge later…

Alas, none of this happened. The fact it was a “nightmare” was not made explicit, its editing was poor, and so this scene jarred with the rest of the narrative. The “nightmare” scene was disregarded as quickly as it appeared, and did not contribute to any of the later story elements.

What I Disliked

There are some narrative flaws with The Box.  Its structure is incoherent – both the beginning and ending do not convey that this is a horror film. Furthermore, the ending is unsatisfactory, and doesn’t tie up most of the story elements such as:

  • Who was the old man?
  • What was in the box?
  • Why did everyone but the mother starve?
Image via Netflix

There was also clunky dialogue in places, which didn’t help.

In between other awkward and stunted sentences, certain phrases such as ‘the box’ and ‘I have to eat’ were repeated so often, it hit the message: ‘This film is about a box and starvation’ in too heavy-handed a way.

In addition to its problems with narrative structure and dialogue, characterisation was also lacking. As The Box is a short, there is very little time to get to know any of the characters and invest in … anything.

Zacharek writes that The Box is the ‘most unnerving of all these shorts’ that ‘feels as satisfying and wholly thought out as a full-length one’, an opinion I simply cannot agree with. The Box was admittedly unnerving but it ultimately fell short and left me wanting more – something which I am sure a full-length horror film would not have done. (Time Magazine)

Interpretation

My interpretation of The Box is that Danny, after seeing “nothing” in the box, is likewise reduced to nothing.

Image via Netflix

To me, this invokes thoughts of a curse – like the one Billy Halleck is stricken with in the Stephen King thriller Thinner – or the threat of being reduced to dust by the wrath of God (Genesis 3:19). Undoubtedly, these are ideas I’ve mapped onto the film because of my own background and experiences, but they are ideas nonetheless I believe would be viable within a horror film context.

Zacharek argues that The Box is about ‘motherhood fears’ in the midst of ‘working so hard to keep everything nice’. Again, I cannot agree with Zacharek’s opinion.

In contrast, I would argue that the mother in The Box, played by Natalie Brown, did not show anywhere near enough maternal instinct, love, concern, worry, or hard work. She barely batted an eyelid even when her little boy began to starve before her very eyes, and was seemingly willing to let him skip numerous meals without challenging this behaviour. Like a proper parent, her husband, played by Jonathan Watton, expresses concerns, and yet is met with a response as blasé as a shrug of the shoulders.

This is infuriating and makes no sense!

XX‘s marketing strategy was to market the film in as feminist a way as possible. Yet despite being made by a female horror director, and focusing upon a female protagonist, The Box has managed to present women in a negative light.

By creating a lacking short film, with a female lead who does virtually nothing to prevent the destruction of her family and shrugs off all maternal concern, it doesn’t do much to advance feminism.

Conclusion

I actually really liked the underlying concept of The Box –  I just wish there had been better character development, better story, and a more clearly defined “purpose” to the whole thing.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

– Judith

Opinion Piece: It (2017) Discussion With The Blog From Another World

27 years after the first It, Pennywise the Clown has risen again in a new film adaptation.

27 days after its release (or thereabouts), Judith and Patrick talk about It.


Patrick:

Firstly, how did you think the film compared with the book? Did you like the changes it made?

Judith:

I think the film handled the source material cleverly; they didn’t try to cram absolutely everything from the book into the plot, streamlining it in a way that works best for film.

I loved the characterisation of Eddie and Richie. They were definitely the best acted and felt incredibly accurate to their counterparts in the book. Annoyingly however, Bill and Ben felt a bit “meh” – underdeveloped – and Mike was almost non-existent. Mike’s overlooking in particular is a real shame, because he is meant to be the one who provides the history of Derry to the group and the one to reunite them as adults. His small role could even be seen as problematic, considering he is the only person of colour in the group and has the smallest presence.

My Photo [It 4]

Patrick:

I did think some of the characterisation could have been shared round more. With a running time of over two hours, it was pretty long for a horror film, and it was perplexing why some of that time couldn’t have been spent on giving all the characters equal detail. I think it will be interesting to see who they cast as the older versions of the characters for the sequel.

I think they made judicious choices and made the most commercially viable film they could – in a good way! It has obviously captured audience’s attentions and I think a lot of this is making the story more accessible.

Judith:

Yes, I agree. Perhaps a lack of detailed characterisation for all was dependant on who were the strong / weak actors. In my opinion, Eddie and Richie developed the best performances, which isn’t surprising, as Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie) has had other multiple acting roles in addition to It, and Finn Wolfhard (Richie) is best known for his strong performance in Stranger Things.

Patrick:

I think that the success of Stranger Things certain pushed Finn Wolfhard to the forefront in order to draw in that audience.

Yet if you look at something like The Goonies, you know who each of the kids are. They might be more broadly drawn than the kids in the novel of It, but you know where you stand with all of them. If they had to simplify the Losers Club, and shed some characterisation in the process, they could have done it more effectively.

Did you think the film was scary?

Judith:

I think it relied too much on jumpscares and loud noises, although I had expected that from watching the trailer*.

*If you’d like to read our discussion of the It trailer, you can find it here:

When I left the cinema, I described it as “ridiculous macabre” to my friends, because It walks a fine line between creepy and downright ridiculous.

Patrick:

Which moments were the most effective?

Judith:

The scene that affected me most was when Pennywise approached Eddie in the abandoned house. He got so close to Eddie’s face and taunted him, truly terrifying an-already traumatised and injured Eddie. I thought both performances here worked really well; Pennywise felt like a tangible character who could not only psychologically torment them but physically grab, restrain or hurt the children just to scare them.

My Photo [It 1]
Still taken from the Official It Trailer

Patrick:

I thought the scares were fine, there was plenty of atmosphere and a good aesthetic but, as you say, too much of a reliance on loud noises making you jump. I really enjoyed the moment with the projector, the sense of helplessness really carried over and turned what could have been really corny into something quite primal.

My Photo [It 2]
Still taken from the Official It Trailer
Judith:

What did you think about the 80s nostalgia? I remember you mentioning it when we originally discussed our predictions for the film.

Patrick:

I thought it was pretty cynical but it didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. I think it takes some of the surprise out of the film, as you know the aesthetic and the locations almost immediately. It’s transposing the familiarity of the novel’s world to one which countless other films and TV series have taken place. I didn’t think it was too intrusive though.

What did you think of the portrayal of Pennywise? Was Bill Skarsgård an appropriate choice?

Judith:

I think he was creepy and unnerving but, like I’ve said previously, there was an underlying ridiculousness.

He at times looks odd rather than scary. His voice always seemed creepy and never friendly, making me think, “How does a little boy get persuaded to climb into the sewer with a man who already looks terrifying and introduced himself with a jumpscare?”

My Photo [It 3]
Tim Curry’s Pennywise (1990) and Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise (2017)
Patrick:

I thought Skarsgård didn’t have the true creepiness that Pennywise does in the book; there’s such a strange seductiveness to him that makes him even more frightening. He’s like a grounded, realistic predator whereas Skarsgård was simply Coco the Creepy Clown. I don’t know whether someone like Will Poulter (the original choice), would have been better. He certainly looks less eerie. Skarsgård has unnerving written all over him.

Judith:

What did you think about shifts in tone? It mixes comedy with horror so often.

Patrick:

Honestly, I think it came from the 80s setting. This film wanted to be Goonies, ET and Halloween all in one. I certainly think the lurches in tone could have been avoided if the film had been set in the 50s.

Judith:

I think I would have enjoyed It in a similar way if it wasn’t a horror, which is odd, given how much it is marketed like a stereotypical horror. It felt at times more like a summer coming-of-age film; there were jarring scenes of friendship and fun in the midst of what is meant to be fear and tension.

Patrick:

I can see that. I think the film could have been about about ten minutes shorter. To me, it was trying to make a slightly pretentious point about “oh we’re a crafted and prestigious film” and the ending could have been stripped down.

Are you excited for the second film? What changes do you think will be made for it?

Judith:

I’m excited for the sequel because I hope as adults, Pennywise will terrorise them differently and more intensely. Some of the scares in this It were a little tame – perhaps to tone it down for a teenage audience. I hope the adult characters are developed more fully, and we get the chance to see what Pennywise / It truly is.

Patrick:

I hope that the sequel will progress in both tone and maturity. I hope it’s won’t be like The Hunger Games, which remained 12 rated even though, as an audience member growing up with the films, we were 16-18 when they finished.  I hope that they choose good actors rather than stars. I don’t want Chris Pratt to distract from the fact that I’m supposed to be scared.


A sequel for It has been confirmed to be released in 2019.


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