Saturday, September 12, 2009

"The Darker Side" by Cody McFadyen

This is the third book to feature Special Agent Smoky Barrett, coming after "Shadow Man" and "The Face Of Death". The former was a solid serial killer thriller, but the latter is one of the best entries in the genre. Despite a pretty awful beginning 40 pages, "The Face Of Death" developed into a fast-paced, genuinely scary and even moving thriller. It comes highly recommended.

When an author's second book vastly improves over the first, I take that to be a good sign. So I was very much looking forward to "The Darker Side". Alas, with greater expectations come greater disappointments, as "The Darker Side" is a very by-the-numbers affair, with the curious lack of drive in the proceedings exposing some of the author's more annoying traits - ones I was able to gloss over in previous outings because the stories were so involving.

Agent Barrett's case this time is to chase a killer who seems to be using his victim's deepest, darkest secrets against them. He'll get them to reveal their worst sin before murdering them. The first victim turns out to be the transexual son of a Senator. Although much is made of this political connection for the first part of the novel, it's basically forgotten about by the time the book is over - just one of the many faults to be found here. But, moving on....the second victim is a reformed drug and sex addict, which leads Barrett and her team to the woman's church and Father Yates, the priest she made her confessions to. From here, Barrett realises there's a very strong religious undertone to the murders and that the numbers 142 and 143 found on each victim means that her killer has actually been in operation for a very long time....

"The Darker Side" just has everybody - the author and the characters - going through the motions. It's clear McFadyen has run out of ways to move these people along. Smoky Barrett has endured being raped by a madman and watching as he murdered her husband. Same madman also mutilated her face. In the previous books, we learnt Smoky shot and killed her daughter while aiming to shoot and kill the madman, who used the daughter as a shield (these events all took place before "Shadow Man", so I'm not spoiling anything). In this book, we learn a couple more horrible truths about Smoky that she's had to endure. I mean, it's getting a little ridiculous. We're up to the third book here. It seems McFadyen only seems to be able to develop and define Smoky through the tragedies she has endured. Well, buddy, you're running out of credible ways to do this. Time to create new characters, or move the focus primarily to the plot, and further away from the characters we already have.

The other thing that really bugged me here was the way people talked. Callie, a member of Smoky's team, calls everybody "honey-love". Bonnie, Smoky's adopted daughter, calls her "Momma-Smoky". Kirby Mitchell, a character from "The Face Of Death" (who, realistically, doesn't even need to be here) calls Callie "Callie-babe". I mean, ugh! Enough! It was really irritating, and was highly noticeable because the plot here was so lacking. The religious theme to the murders was pretty ho-hum, the motive a real non-event, and the killer himself wasn't terribly interesting.

The fact that "The Darker Side" was a bit of a bomb doesn't mean I'll be giving up on the author. "The Face Of Death" was an excellent book, and I'm of the belief that somebody who can turn out a winner like that deserves a second chance.

"City Of Fear" by Alafair Burke

Generic title for a generic crime story in which homicide detective Ellie Hatcher comes across the dead body of a party girl while on a morning jog. She has cuts on her body and some of her hair has been hacked off. The investigation quickly leads to a prime suspect, Jake Myers, who hooked up with the dead girl at a club shortly before she died. The evidence against him is pretty tight, and all involved think they've got their man. But Ellie is then alerted to three old cold cases by a still-grieving father of one of the victims. All were young girls. All were snatched after being at popular clubs. And something has been done with their hair.

Ellie isn't sure whether to forge ahead with the case she has, or investigate further and see if she can make any links. The reader already knows that the same killer is behind all murders, so it's basically a matter of waiting for the book's characters to catch up. This is one of those books that's happy to just coast along without any surprises or originality. So much time is spent on Jake Myers - first building the case against him, then uncovering the conspiracy he hatched with buddies and lawyers to get somebody else to confess for him - that it simply becomes dull. We know that Jake isn't the killer! Give us a little something to keep us involved! The revelation that Ellie is connected to the case, and in the killer's sight - something that would happen much earlier in a better book - doesn't come until well into the third act.

"City Of Fear" is easy to read and does deliver some of the requirements of the genre. But just because you're not covering any new ground in the crime genre is no excuse to deliver something so lacking in suspense. Burke has got police procedure and law down pat - but so what? Just because it seems accurate doesn't make it interesting. This one needs far more surprises, to be more suspense-driven, to be more interesting, to even compete with the big names in crime.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Road Kill 2: Dead Ahead"

The original "Road Kill" was a great thriller starring Paul Walker and Steve Zahn as two brothers who play a trick over a CB radio against a trucker by the moniker of "Rusty Nail". Of course, a pissed off Rusty Nail sought revenge, relentlessly stalking the brothers.

In this day-and-age of endless direct-to-DVD sequels, it's quite astounding the variation in quality you can find. "Wrong Turn 2" was gorier, funnier and more entertaining than many theatrically released films. "The Grudge 3" and "Boogeyman 3" were fairly blah. "Pulse 2" was pretty darn awful.

Luckily, I felt "Road Kill 2: Dead Ahead" was well above average. And it actually brings back Rusty Nail, rather than just being an in-name-only sequel. This time around, two sisters (Nicki Aycox, Laura Jordan) and their boyfriends (Nick Zano, Kyle Schmid) break down in the desert on the way to Las Vegas. After a bit of hiking, they come across an abandoned house with a 1971 Corvette inside. They decide to borrow the car until they can find a rental car. Then they'll return with the Corvette - and some cash. But the car belongs to none other than Rusty Nail, and that pisses him off. He kidnaps Zano, and puts the other three through various mental and physical tortures in an effort to save him.

This one really sucked me in. It builds up the suspense at a steady pace, before finally letting loose with a gruelling torture scene, a couple of exciting car-chase sequences and a couple of other suspenseful scenarios. Director Louis Morneau has been behind many a direct-to-DVD venture, and he's had more than his share of duds, but he really seems to be in his element here. He also gets good performances out of his actors - the torture scene is actually largely free of gore, but the two actors involved look so frightened, and in so much pain, you really buy into it.

"Road Kill 2: Dead Ahead" seems to have received largely negative reviews on-line. But I found it to be well-crafted schlock, with a cast and crew who actually seemed invested in how the final product would turn out.

"The Haunting Of Molly Hartley"

Although I love the made-for-TV domestic/stranger-from-hell thriller, I'm not overly fond of the made-for-TV supernatural/ghost-story thriller. "The Haunting Of Molly Hartley" - which doesn't actually involve any haunting - plays a lot like something you might expect to see on cable TV. I've already been disappointed by such fare as "Devil's Diary" and "Deadly Pledge", and this flick, which was released theatrically in America, barely rises above the level of those two movies.

The plot has Molly (Haley Bennett) rapidly approaching her 18th birthday. She's experiencing nosebleeds, panic attacks and weird visions. Perhaps understandable, since she recently survived being stabbed in the chest with a pair of scissors by her own mother. Her mother, now locked up in an asylum, was of the belief she was trying to save her daughter from a terrible legacy. One that would come to fruition on....oh my God....her 18th birthday!

Kind of like "The Uninvited", this one covers up the fact that absolutely NOTHING is happening by throwing in plenty of Molly's aforementioned nosebleeds, panic attacks and weird visions. There's about five in the first twenty minutes. Add to that plenty of false scares - a few of which admittedly got me. And that's what's so annoying about this uninspired hack job. Director Mickey Liddell clearly knows how to set up his shock scenes. If he actually had a script to go along with his budding directorial talent, there could be a decent movie to be found. Unfortunately, what we're left with here (after a pretty decent prologue) is a series of boo scares leading up to an amazingly flat, "who cares" finale. It's like everybody involved didn't care how it ended either.

"The Haunting Of Molly Hartley" looks good, moves along quickly, has a solid cast, and certainly isn't boring. But it is one of the emptiest so-called thrillers I've come across in a long time. Wait until it comes to television - where it truly belongs.


I must admit it's good to see these sorts of domestic thrillers back in the mainstream again, since they've pretty much been relegated to the realm of TV movies and direct-to-DVD releases. We've had "Disturbia", "Lakeview Terrace" (which I keep meaning to see) and more recently "Orphan". This time around it's "Obsessed", which made a crapload of money at the box office in America, but curiously bypassed theatres here in Australia. It stars Idris Elba as an ad exec with a beautiful wife (Beyonce Knowles), a young child and a big new house. But when temp Lisa (Ali Larter) shows up at work, trouble starts brewing. It's clear she's got a thing for him, but he's clearly not got a thing for her. This doesn't stop her from mauling him in the bathroom at the Christmas party, or letting herself into his car and flashing him a glimpse of her in bra and panties. He keeps on rebuffing her, which only seems to make her more and more determined.

I love TV movies, so I've already seen this plot at least 1600 times. But I'm still not bored of it yet, and I appreciated the fact that "Obsessed" didn't pretend to be anything it wasn't. I turned my brain off, went with the flow, and wasn't insulted with any ridiculous last-minute plot twists, as is so apt to happen in thrillers these days. I expected certain things from this movie, and I got them. Sometimes a generic product can be a liability, but in this case I think there's something to be said for a movie that delivers pretty much what you're wanting from it. Crazy hot woman? Check. Douche bag main character unable to make a smart decision? Check. Domesticated stay-at-home wife who suddenly turns into Chuck Norris in big climax? Check! I was a little disappointed we didn't get the best-friend/colleague-who-figures-out-what-psycho-is-up-to-and-cops-it-good subplot (who can forget Julianne Moore getting sliced to ribbons by the rigged greenhouse in "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle"?), but was able to let it slide.

The acting is on-the-ball. In particular, Idris Elba makes for a likeable lead, even if his character is a bit of a dolt. Beyonce Knowles lacks the acting chops of her co-stars, but she's not nearly as bad as people make her out to be, and she's certainly no worse than any of the actresses who take on similar roles in similar TV movies. Ali Larter is a stand-out - she's an absolute stunner and seems to be having a really good time with the role. In fact, I wanted to know more about the character. What made her this way? What's her motive? In the script, she's just a nutjob, end of story.

You won't be surprised by anything in this movie. You'll nitpick at all the plot holes. You'll marvel at the ridiculous, over-the-top catfight that caps things off. But secretly you'll love it. I certainly did. Every predictable, manipulative minute of it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


One of my favourite horror movies is "High Tension", a French flick with an utterly stupid twist ending. So why is it a favourite? Because what happens after that twist ending is so over-the-top and bloody you can't help but love it. So I didn't have any hesitation in plonking down money for "Inside", another French horror movie that has received praise from horror fans for being uncompromising and, of course, outrageously gruesome.

"Inside" focuses on Sarah (Alysson Paradis), a pregnant woman right on the verge of giving birth. She's somewhat apathetic about the whole thing, as her husband recently died in a car crash. However, she's forced to fight for her life, and the life of her unborn child, when her home is broken into by a mysterious woman (Beatrice Dalle) who makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she wants Sarah's baby. And she's willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get it. Anybody who ventures into Sarah's home, whether it be to visit or, later, to try and rescue her, they are typically subjected to a violent, gruesome demise.

For the most part, "Inside" seemed to me to be your typical post-"Saw" horror movie. Lots of gore, bouts of brutal violence, some genuine suspense amongst the unpleasantness. I was thinking "yeah, it's a good movie, nothing special". Then along comes the final 5-10 minutes, which basically made me fall off the couch, whilst watching the screen through the gaps in my fingers. Yikes. Wow. Just when I thought I'd seen everything....

I'm now in the process of making sure everybody I know who can handle a flick like this watches it. Anybody else should be very wary....


Killer kid movies are nothing new. "The Bad Seed" back in the 50s started it all, and in 1992 there was the minor cult classic "Mikey", which starred the little kid from TV's "Family Ties". It was a cool direct-to-video release (way back before there were DVDs), with Mikey proving to be quite adept at dishing out vicious punishments to those who cross him. I actually own it on video, as I'm not aware of any DVD release as yet. Starring Josie Bissett before she went on to "Melrose Place", Ashley Laurence from the "Hellraiser" movies and Mimi Craven, wife of horror director Wes, it's worth a watch.

Anyway, 1993 saw "The Good Son" released, which was Macauley Culkin's attempt at breaking out of kiddie roles. It didn't work - he stopped acting the following year. Another decent movie. 1994 had the direct-to-video offering "The Paperboy", which starred Alexandra Paul during her stint on "Baywatch". And 1996 gave another direct-to-video killer kid in "Daddy's Girl", probably the weakest out of this lot. If there have been any other killer kid flicks since then (other than the "Children Of The Corn" movies), they don't immediately come to mind, which means they probably weren't very memorable in the first place.

So it's good to see the sub-genre get another work-out in "Orphan", which I saw at the movies a couple of nights ago. Yes, it even got the big-screen treatment! Here, a married couple (Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt after an upsetting stillbirth. They settle on Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a 9-year-old from Russia. She wears old-fashioned clothing, is very well-spoken, and wise beyond her years. The eldest son (Jimmy Bennett) doesn't take to her, but Esther seems to bond with the youngest child (Aryana Engineer), who is deaf. Of course, the viewer knows Esther is batshit crazy, but it's fun watching as the family members eventually catch up. Only Sarsgaard remains hopelessly clueless.

"Orphan" really goes for the jugular and doesn't hold back. Although not fast-paced like a slasher flick or action movie, this one still had audience members literally running out of the cinema when they needed a toilet break, just so they didn't miss anything. Esther doesn't bat an eyelid, whether it be dropping the "f" bomb, or killing a nun with a hammer and making her poor deaf sister help hide the body. It just gets more and more crazy as it goes along, culminating in a loopy twist that, while deliciously over-the-top, somewhat undermines the jaw-dropping audaciousness that had come before it. Nevertheless, I had a blast. "Orphan" has strong acting, decent boo scares, genuine suspense (Esther's new siblings are frequently on her hit list), and wacky surprises.