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DVD Review TV

DVD Review: Channel Zero: Candle Cove

Based upon Kris Straub’s creepypasta short story, Candle Cove was the first anthology in Syfy’s Channel Zero series with the second No End House, Butcher’s Block (S3) and The Dream Door (S4) swiftly following before announcement of its cancellation. Its creator Nick Antosca and producers Don Mancini (Child’s Play) and Harley Peyton (Twin Peaks) brought a unique experience to the small screen, most of which are now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Candle Cove opens during two months in 1988, five children: Jacob Booth, Sadie Williams, Carl Cutter, Gene Hazel and Eddie Painter go missing with four later found murdered. Only one – Eddie – was never returned nor remains discovered for burial. The Iron Hill Murders were never solved and now, 28 years later, Eddie’s identical twin brother Mike (Paul Schneider) a child psychologist is recovering from a breakdown and plagued by nightmares that eventually make him head home to mother Marla (Fiona Shaw) and the childhood home and friends he left behind. Once there, he realises that a TV show has started to air again called Candle Cove, an eerie puppet-led programme that only children seem to be able to see and which brainwashes them into participating in some deeply disturbing antics.

As more children go missing and start acting strangely, losing teeth along the way, Mike, – even finding himself a suspect at one point – must embrace his repressed memories, childhood traumas and nightmares head-on if he is ever going to discover the truth about Eddie. His creepy journey will see him recollect the bullying, the paralysing fear, and meet the mysterious Jawbone, its merry band of shipmates aboard the happy ship on the way to Candle Cove, and prevent history repeating itself.

While some shows tend to tell their stories from the child’s perspective, the world between adults and kids separated, here they interlink; childhood fear enforces adulthood and that trauma never leaves – all those things that grown-ups dismiss as an overactive imagination manifest and are all the more real and frightening. What makes Candle Cove so effective is its thoughtful and understated – even mundane – approach to horror. Yes, it uses tropes familiar in the world of Stephen King but there are also elements of The Twilight ZoneThe X-FilesAmerica Gothic and even Mystic River (2009), with additional (and repetitious) layers of intrigue. The fact that Winnipeg (doubling for Iron Hill) is so green, lush and naturally shot only enhances the supernatural.

There are nods to Treasure Island, The Muppets and an all-too terrifying version of the tooth fairy but not like you’ve ever seen. Childhood fears are its emotional backbone but it uses guilt, grief, dream logic and some surreal and whimsical imagery to really sell the deeply unsettling. The performances particularly those of Schneider, Shaw and two of the children, Abigail Pniowsky (Arrival) as Lily Painter and Luca Villacis, who portrays the Painter twins beautifully and skilfully relays two very separate personalities, elevates the subject matter. The thing about murderous children is that they are utterly terrifying; corrupted innocence disturbs and distresses on such a profound level. The lack of gratuitous violence is refreshing also, it’s not completely absent but tends to be distancing, quick and almost always off-screen.

Told over six episodes this anthology is an atmospheric and quietly unique experience, it builds the dread and truly unsettles staying with you long after the denouement. It’ll haunt your dreams especially the child made entirely of human teeth but never fear, head to bravery cave, all your secrets will be safe in Candle Cove…

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Review

Review: It (Dir. Andy Muschietti, 2018)

It feels idiotic to assume yet I expect most of the world is well-versed in the Stephen King novel and if not the book then the TV serial which surfaced in 1990. It’s back and, just like before children are disappearing and the adults are oblivious. Amidst a downpour in 1988, a little figure clad in a yellow slicker and green galoshes runs alongside the paper boat that his big brother and ‘bestest pal’ made for him. SS Georgie battles the raging seas i.e. gushing rainwater on the streets of Derry, Maine, until it slips from tiny grasp into the storm drain.

Twelve months later and still reeling from the loss of his little brother George (Jackson Robert Scott), Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and his group of friends: Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben Hanscomb (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) known affectionately, as The Losers Club join forces to defeat school bullies and the evil thing that is devouring the town’s children.

Adapting any major work must be hard, not least when the original text is a magnum opus. Liberties were certainly taken in 1990 condensing nearly 1400 pages into a three-hour TV series but then I was a child, had yet to read a King novel, and was utterly horrified at the prospect of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and his shifting shape(s) of fear. This time round, and now well-read, it feels slightly more faithful in some ways and yet there are those damn liberties again. Despite early production problems, and the acrimonious departure which took with him, his Will Poulter-shaped Pennywise and director’s chair, Cary Fukunaga retains a writer credit alongside his writing partner Chase Palmer but it’s Gary Dauberman who takes the lead while Andrés (Andy) Muschietti (Mama) steers the ship.

The novel’s structure has changed and 50s Derry is transposed to the 80s – just as Regan handed over the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Bush – but that just gives the 15-rated film a Stand By Me meets The Goonies (and John Wayne Gacy) retro quality that actually really works. Splitting the film into two chapters and avoiding those flashbacks and forwards, means these kids are able to hook us entirely, we’re completely invested in their plight, their friendships and fears, and that emotional connection is made. This is their time and each of the main cast is a delight.

Richie’s still a motormouth and has the best lines, Bev – she of Winter fire hair – is great; kind and tough, hypochondriac Eddie is more verbose than I remember, Bill’s still a little bland, and Ben’s a sweetheart (with excellent taste in boybands). Stanley’s character is fleshed out a little more while, disappointingly, Mike’s is somewhat diluted. His interest in Derry history is sidelined and given to Ben for reasons unknown, and not, one hopes, just a way for the filmmakers’ to avoid the racial elements of the story. He is clearly painted as the outsider. Fingers crossed that come Chapter Two some of these issues will be addressed, and he receives the narrative pull that was expected. My point is, gripes aside, it’s like revisiting old friends.

Had I watched this version at 11 years old, I’d have been traumatised, It comes back every 27 years (in actuality, 25 for me) and now I’m the adult no longer afraid (well, ish). To be fair, Bill Skarsgård in the clown get-up is the stuff of nightmares. He’s less abrasive and wisecracking than Tim Curry, and there is an underlying innocence to his Pennywise which adds to the vile and creepy. His body movements are manic and frenetic, even a little awkward, like a child who has experienced a growth spurt overnight and boy, is he hungry (the saliva drenched lips and string of drool, a dead giveaway). He is terrifying and yet, for me, the scares throughout the film are somewhat lacking despite the gripping sense of unease felt from the start with poor Georgie. 

Visually, the film is stunning thanks largely to Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, Janie Bryant’s costumes, and the VFX and make-up provided, in part, by Stan Winston alums Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis. The sets are elaborate and striking and for horror fans it has a real kid-in-a-sweet-shop feel, especially the house on Neibolt Street. The set-pieces are thrilling and rich in detail, and littered with plenty of horror-themed easter eggs, the jump scares are fairly frequent and perhaps a little obvious but there was one that the two guys sat next to me didn’t see coming.

All-in-all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable adaptation, horrific, heartfelt, and not in the least bit hokey; a perfect trip down memory lane via childhood street and nostalgia way. By the time the credits roll, you’ll float too.

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Blu-ray Review

Limited Edition Blu-ray Review: Carrie (Dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)

School is the worst place to hide in plain sight when you’re different and bullies are unforgiving and relentless, it’s one of the reasons why Stephen King’s first novel has stood the test of time and why Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Carrie still remains the best of its kind and resonates with an audience. Released just in time for Christmas (a Carrie White Christmas, no?) Arrow Video has pulled together a pretty decent limited edition boxset complete with a new 4K restoration from the original negative, replete with a whole host of new and archival extras, and new writing on the film.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is the only child of a religiously maniacal Gothic seamstress mother. Margaret (Piper Laurie) is a woman who insists on spreading the word of the Lord whether others like it or not. Her daughter wants nothing more than to fit in and be a regular teenager, however, the girls at school: Helen (Edie McClurg), Norma (P.J. Soles), and Sue (Amy Irving) led by Chris (Nancy Allen) have no intention of letting that happen. Even the teachers are mean. From that opening scene on the volley ball court in which our eponymous heroine is isolated and invited to “eat shit” after missing the ball to the following in the changing room. As Carrie’s pleasurable moment in the shower is interrupted by the violent and visceral experience of her first period. The original mean girls are at their most feral in their vicious hysteria as they launch sanitary pads and tampons at their vulnerable and terrified peer.

This girl is crying out for a mother and when she returns home it should be a place of comfort, somewhere she can feel safe, not a place where she has to repent in a closet for a biological function. However, with an abusive mother like Margaret – school is respite for her. A maternal figure comes in the unlikely form of gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) and then the unexpected happens and Tommy Ross (William Katt) – who is supposed to be going with Sue Snell – asks her to Prom. Sue feels, that by asking Tommy to take Carrie to the biggest night of the school year, it will assuage her guilt for attacking the timid girl in the shower. Tommy, much like the majority of the males in this film (and there aren’t many) is a pawn; a conduit for the girl(s) to use to get their way. See also Billy (John Travolta) and Chris’ relationship and her pig of a plan for Carrie. The women are the ones in control – Carrie just has extra ability to play with.

De Palma’s adaptation bypasses the epistolary structure of the novel entirely and combines the weighty issues with satire. While there are brief moments which homage Psycho – some references are subtler than others – the score which should have been Bernard Herrmann’s instead went to Pino Donaggio who created a wonderfully atmospheric accompaniment and found the best way of repurposing the late Herrmann’s work (by isolating individual notes from the shower sequence and using the high-pitched shrill strings during the times when Carrie loses control). It is in those moments the film comes into its own – although, Arrow really missed a trick not including the soundtrack.

Carrie was not the first (or last) to conflate questions of femininity and the supernatural. If anything it paved the way for more male filmmakers to attempt to get their heads around the abject notion of menstruation. The text also subverted the idea of the American home as a safe space, instead its white picket fence and asymmetrical visage became a place of dread, fear and anxiety. Helped immensely by the religious iconography and paraphernalia invading the oppressive domestic space and aiding the sexual repression enforced my mother – there’s that Psycho link again.

The film created a bit of a feminist backlash too, particularly in relation to the shower scene and the alignment of pigs blood and women’s blood – women as pigs (?) and the monstrous female body as the site of transgression. Certainly, there are some interesting readings in relation to Carrie and it will, of course, depend on your perspective. Carrie is “othered” (like almost every other monster in horror) because, as Alexandra Heller-Nicholas states (citing Carol Clover) during her audio commentary: “horror is a female genre” – our protagonist is the literal outsider and yet we are invited to identify with her. Her fury at the world and those who punish her is fully justified, as frightening, irrational and uncontrollable that power is in its force; Carrie stands up to her bullies, and well, there’s something rather empowering in that.

The Prom, its framing, use of space, split screens, Dutch angles, colour filters and the composition of each shot is superb (and a nice nod to Argento). Those blue and red filters and the scenes they colour are the greatest aspect to come from the restoration, they are visually amazing and, for me, the peerless part of the film. Even 40 years on, it holds up as one of the filmmaker’s best, if not the best (although, I’ll have to rewatch Sisters and get back to you on that). Carrie still resonates, we’re aligned with the “monster” of the piece and identify completely with this girl and her need/want of acceptance. Despite the fact that we know how the film ends, it’s easy to watch and still wish for a different outcome.

Special Features

Audio commentary provided by writers-critics-authors and all round good eggs, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Lee Gambin. These Aussies are authoritative (you can always trust these two when it comes to horror), knowledgeable and, better than anything, fun to listen to as they watch and examine Carrie; its themes, composition and their mutual love of it.

Acting Carrie (42 mins) – This 2001 featurette contains interviews with De Palma, art director Jack Fisk and the cast including: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, Priscilla Pointer, William Kat, P.J. Soles, Betty Buckley and Nancy Allen. They discuss the casting process which took place at the same time of Star Wars (Katt auditioned for Han Solo and Irving, Princess Leia). Spacek only auditioned following husband (and the film’s art director) Jack Fisk’s involvement and Laurie came out of retirement to play Margaret – it worked out well, they were both nominated for Academy Awards for their respective roles. Remember the last horror film to do that? Exactly. It’s an entertaining feature as we’re taken through the filmmaking process, story boarding details, and that shower scene. A building frenzy which Irving describes as “beautiful” and Allen, “disturbing. Ladies, it is indeed both.

More Acting Carrie (20 mins) updates on the previous extra by having a lot of the same cast members interviewed in 2016. There are new stills and images in this, however, a lot of anecdotes are repeated but it’s nice to see the cast in their advancing years. The addition of Edie McClurg is new (though the typo in the credits change her to ‘Eddie’) as we discover the real fire which broke out on the soundstage during filming and Soles’ perforated ear-drum following fire hose hi-jinks. Visualising Carrie: From Words to Images (41 mins) is a mini-feature which details Lawrence D. Cohen’s script brandishing in pre-production hell before securing a director. The Jack Fisk interview is the most interesting part as he details the process in making the White household which is known as “father, son and Holy Ghost” architecture due to its asymmetrical style, how he fashioned the Saint Sebastian statue in Carrie’s closet and the other religious icons he acquired for the set dressing. There’s a beautiful mention of the late Bill Paxton who put Fisk onto the pig farm.

Singing Carrie: Carrie the Musical (6 mins) – Although short lived, there was a 1988 musical production of Carrie which was written by Lawrence D. Cohen and starred Betty Buckley as Margaret White. Both she and Cohen discuss it and surmise why it failed on stage. In a 2016 interview Cohen is back in Writing Carrie (28 mins) as he discusses his process from receiving Stephen King’s manuscript, finishing it in one sitting and reviewing it for the paper he worked for. He believed even back then it would make a great film and upon seeing Obsession (1976) he knew De Palma was the man for the job. Cohen speaks warmly of his director and the success they both had with Carrie. He launches into discussing Carrie the musical, which seems a little redundant as the previous disc feature has already given us the lowdown.

A 2016 interview with cinematographer Mario Tosi follows in Shooting Carrie (14 mins), in which he describes the wonderful experience of working with “difficult communicator” De Palma. Tosi speaks in stilted English and uses cue-cards, not sure why he couldn’t have spoken in his mother tongue given the subtitled Donaggio interview later on. Cutting Carrie (24 mins) is a 2016 interview with editor Paul Hirsch in which he repeats a lot of information that has gone before. The monotonous tone of the man’s voice adds to the tedium of this extra as he describes the “painful” process of cutting the film. Not sure why he mentions Allen and  Irving’s subsequent marriages either. This is worth skipping.

Although not drastically different from the very first feature, Casting Carrie is 15 minute long interview with casting director Harriet B. Helberg about her first screen credit which she loved every second of working on (from what she can remember). She’s a big fan of the remakes too. Bucket of Blood (24mins) – a 2016 interview with composer Pino Donaggio is one of the disc’s highlights as he recollects how De Palma changed his life and took him from the canals of Venice to Hollywood. It’s a charming interview and nowhere long enough as he takes us through his score; from the homage to Herrmann and his use of strings to create suspense to the more melodic music, like Carrie’s theme. For a musical genius, the man is so very humble and such a lovely interviewee. Horror’s Hallowed Ground is a 10 minute, low-budget episode of a TV series which began in 2006 (a lot are available on YouTube) where host Sean Clark visits locations from classic horror films. It crosscuts from Clark to the locations/scenes in the film. It’s harmless and well put together if amateurish.

The last of the big features is a brand new visual essay Comparing Carrie in which writer-editor Jonathan Bygraves compares the three screen versions of Carrie from 1976, 2002, and 2013. He examines time periods, production, structure, the characterisation of Carrie (Sissy Spacek, Angela Bettis, Chloe Grace Moretz), the different versions of Margaret White played by Piper Laurie, Patricia Clarkson and Julianne Moore respectively. There is one small mistake in which one image is labelled as 2002 when it belongs to 2013 and I can’t say I’m a fan of the font used. It’s all written in blood-red capital letters and would have been so much more readable in lowercase (and therefore referencing the 1976 credits). That said, the strains of Donaggio’s melodious score over the top of the essay is wonderful.

Alternate TV Opening – Details the main differences in the censored TV version.

Gallery – 45 slides showing posters, stills, publicity shots including some of the prologue that was shot but never used.

Trailer – Spoilery trailer which they’d never get away with today because… Film Twitter.

TV Spots (3 mins) – Five of them in total. All of which stating “If you have a taste for terror, you will have a date with Carrie” which is a “chilling blend of American Graffiti and Psycho.”

Radio Spots (1min 30sec) – Same voiceover used as in the TV spots.

Carrie Trailer Reel (6mins) – Combines trailers from 2002 TV movie Carrie (dir. David Carson), The Rage: Carrie II (1999, dir. Katt Shea) and 2013’s Carrie (dir. Kimberly Peirce).

Reversible Sleeve featuring original and new artwork by Laz Marquez (see featured image).

Limited Edition 60-page booklet (unavailable at the time of review) featuring new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell, author of Devil’s Advocates: Carrie, a reprint of The Final Girls’ 40th anniversary Carrie zine, and an archive interview with Brian De Palma.

I’m loathe to describe something as the “definitive” version of anything, however, if we’re talking about editions of Carrie, then this one is as near as damn it. It repurposes a lot of extra features which appear on the 2016 Shout Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray and archival bits and pieces from 2001’s MGM Special Edition DVD but my main gripe (and I’m really searching for one, honest), the thing that would have made it absolutely perfect – or “definitive” if I have to put a label on it – is the missing soundtrack.