How to be married, according to horror movies

gillman wedding small

I got married! Though it’s not traditional for the bride to give a speech, I decided that was sexist nonsense, and wrote something to deliver to friends over a celebratory dinner. And, well, I thought I’d share it here, too. So here you go:

“As you’ll probably know, Craig and I watch a lot of horror movies. And actually they can teach you a lot about relationships. So, based on what I’ve learned from the movies, I’d like to promise Craig some things for our marriage, in front of you guys.

Here goes:

  • I promise I will never deliberately move us into a house where all the previous occupants were horribly murdered
  • I promise I won’t secretly join a cult and sacrifice you to Satan
  • I also promise I won’t openly join a cult and make a suicide pact with you
  • I promise I won’t use an Ouija board to invite demons into our home
  • And if we do end up with a demon in the house, I promise I’ll prioritise getting rid of it over filming it
  • I promise I won’t suggest a winter getaway to an abandoned hotel and end up chasing you around with an axe
  • I promise to never read the Latin
  • I promise I won’t scheme to murder you for the inheritance
  • If we ever have any pets, and they die, I promise not to bury them in a cursed burial ground to try to bring them back to life
  • I promise not to push you down a well
  • I promise not to insist on adopting an orphan who turns out to be a 40-year-old murderess
  • I promise not to attempt teleportation
  • Actually I promise not to attempt any kind of weird science that might result in either me turning into a monster or me building a monster in the basement
  • I promise not to turn into a leopard.

Mostly, I promise not to murder you! Let’s finish with a toast – to a totally non-horrific marriage!”

Cheers to that.

What I Watched: October 2013

black death

What happened to cinema this Halloween? It doesn’t seem right that there’s no big horror film out this weekend. For years, the big Halloween event film was a Saw sequel, then it was a Paranormal Activity sequel, but then this year, nothing. Nada. Blumhouse Productions dropped the ball by not having Paranormal Activity 5 ready to go – even their spinoff, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, isn’t due out until January.

Several fantastic horror movies came out over the summer, including The Purge and The Conjuring, but October is a complete dead zone, at least in the UK. In America, the Carrie remake is out, but here we’ve got weeks to wait for that. At one point I think the new Hammer film, The Quiet Ones, was going to be out this week, but that got pushed back to some point next year too.

The only new horror movie out this Halloween is The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, a film that’s as confused and pointless as its title. The only bright spot is that the BFI Gothic season is showing some amazing films all over the country over the next few months, but as brilliant as Nosferatu is, somehow I can’t get as excited about that as I would about a brand new horror film.

Bah. Maybe the complete lack of decent new horror films explains why I’m enjoying American Horror Story: Asylum so much. It’s totally bonkers and completely addictive. And horrifying. It’s better than pretty much every film I’ve watched over the last month, but here’s my roundup anyway, starting with the three best films I saw in October:

Black Death

I hate witch trial movies. I find it kind of gross that we tell stories, supposedly based on real-life witch trials, in which ‘witches’ really do have evil supernatural powers and need to be killed. Because real witch trials were just about killing women in various horrendous ways out of fear and ignorance, so making movies about those women which justifies their murders based on some magic bullshit makes me kind of angry. It’s got to the point where I’m afraid to even rewatch Hocus Pocus, which is one of my favourite Halloween movies, because I think it’s gonna piss me off.

Black Death, then, kind of delighted me. It’s about a group of supposedly Christian soldiers – all murderers and torturers of various types – who set off to find a rumoured village that’s escaped the plague. They think that the reason no-one from the village is getting ill must be because the village’s leaders are in league with the devil – it’s even suggested that this village might be the source of the illness. When they get there, though, it turns out that’s not quite what’s going on…

The film threatens to tip over into magical bullshit several times, but it never quite does. And though the first two thirds are fairly dull and super heavy-handed on the exposition, the final reel is just brilliant. It’s almost Wicker Man-esque in the way it pits two different types of belief against each other, and ends by suggesting that actually, no-one is right… but murder is definitely, definitely wrong.

It could have done with a bit more character development, and the visual style is pretty ugly, with its all brown colour palette, but that ending is so satisfying I’m willing to forgive all that. It’s not quite the witch trial movie I’d like someone to make – an angry feminist story told from the perspective of a ‘witch’? – but it’s pretty good anyway.

Ghost Team One

A kind of spoof on Paranormal Activity and its ilk that’s actually played, for the most part, pretty straight – it’s just that the ghost is summoned by sexual energy, and the two leads are a pair of selfish idiots. Throw in a homicidal third housemate and a gorgeous ghosthunter with her own bizarre motives for wanting to make contact with the dead and you get… something so ridiculous, so over the top, and so funny that Paranormal Activity is never gonna look interesting again. Some of the semi-improvised jokes tip over the edge of taste, but it’s got an anarchic energy it’s tough not to be charmed by it.

The Lords of Salem

Picking a third movie for this list was difficult. I probably should’ve just gone with Ghostbusters, although I think I was in a weird mood when I rewatched it because it didn’t seem as charming as it used to. So I’m going with The Lords of Salem, which I’ve now seen three times, despite not particularly loving it. It’s got… something. It doesn’t feel like a Rob Zombie movie, for starters. My point about hating witch trial movies above stands, but I think Zombie is trying to say something interesting about gender in this movie. It’s just a bit inarticulate.

I think the reason I keep rewatching it is that I’m trying to tease out something coherent from it, but it’s so contradictory and nonsensical that I can never quite feel satisfied with it. Are the witches meant to represent something? Some dark side to femininity that’s been forcibly repressed through the ages? The relative uselessness of the male characters in the movie supports that, but even when Heidi, the film’s protagonist, gives in to her inner darkness and appears to reach a moment of triumph, hundreds of other innocent women die? For no apparent reason? It’s bewildering.

And the rest

The Bling Ring (predictably vacuous); Ghostquake (like an extra long episode of Goosebumps); Double Indemnity (super stylish with amazing dialogue); House of Bones (daft); Would You Rather (better than the cover art suggests but still not very good, with an overly telegraphed yet nonsensical ending); The Colony (fun apocalyptic thriller); It’s A Boy Girl Thing (startlingly crude bodyswap comedy); Battle of the Damned (painfully dull); Ice Cream Man (just say no); Labor Pains (just not funny enough to make up for the fact the writer has clearly never had a real job); Material Girls (like Labor Pains but somehow worse); Ghostbusters (probably ruined by my lack of affection for Bill Murray).

The market for horror films

The Market For Horror Films screencapped

I was on a panel at Raindance last night! Which was pretty exciting. Along with Alan Jones, James Moran, and Julian Richards, I was there to talk about – well, the market for horror films, and since I’ve helpfully screencapped the page from the Raindance festival website which explains what it was about, I won’t repeat the description here.

Because the panel tended to focus more on the distribution side of making a movie than the press/PR side, I didn’t get to say an awful lot last night. But here are a few thoughts I had on making an indie horror movie that’ll stand out (and hopefully get you some good coverage/reviews):

  • Work with your resources
    If you’re on a low budget, you might not be able to do everything you’d ideally like to do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a good movie. Most of the genre-defining horror movies of the last decade have been low budget. (It depends on your definition of “low budget”, but Saw was made for about $1 million, while Paranormal Activity reportedly cost just $15,000, so, y’know.) You just have to figure out what you can do with your money: what locations you can access, what favours you can call in, and what skills you have.
  • Write an amazing script
    Easier said than done, maybe, but writing a great story costs you nothing but time. All too often, the script is what lets down indie movies, and there’s no real excuse for it. Work on your dialogue, make sure your story holds up, and have a fantastic ending. It’s amazing how many other flaws can be forgiven if your script is really, really great.
  • Take risks
    The advantage you’ve got over someone making a studio picture is that there isn’t anyone telling you what you can’t do. You’re probably not gonna get extensive producer’s notes on your script. So do what you want to do. Make a film you’re really really passionate about. The film that I keep thinking about, when it comes to brilliant indie horror movies, is Excision. That film is totally uncompromising and that’s why it’s great.
  • Get the best cast you can
    You probably can’t afford to hire name actors (though if your script is good enough and you’re willing to work around them, you might find some big names are willing to work on the cheap) but try to at least find someone halfway convincing. Your amazing dialogue will sound terrible if your actors are useless.
  • Make it look awesome
    Again, easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Think about your shots. Don’t film stuff for the sake of it. Way too many micro-budget movies are full of irrelevant padding shots and scenes that do nothing other than slowing down the narrative and boring your audience. Don’t do that. And for the love of God, don’t put crappy filters on your digital footage to try to make it look like film. It’ll look better without it.

The other thing I’ll say, which is something we said last night, is that it’s really really important to have a stills photographer on set, at least some of the time. If you don’t have any decent images, you’re gonna struggle when it comes to promoting your film – which includes when you’re sending it to sales agents, when you’re submitting it to festivals, and when you’re trying to get websites or magazines to review it. Pictures are really, really important, and screenshots from the film absolutely will not cut it.

I didn’t mean that to sound as negative as it did. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of really great indie horror films over the last few years, and I’ve also seen some not-so-great ones for sale in Tesco in shiny shiny boxes, so I believe both that it’s possible to make a great indie horror and that it’s possible to get distribution for indie horror. And nothing would make me happier than discovering the next amazing low budget horror phenomenon, so, y’know. Get on and make it, yeah?

Thank you to everyone who came to Den of Eek! 2 Urban Legends

wordpress den of eekIt’s getting dark outside and I’ve only just shaken off enough of my hangover to write anything about last night. But despite the pounding headache, I’ve been in an insufferably good mood. Because last night, I hosted the second Den of Eek! event, and I think… I think it might even have been better than the first one.

Like last year, I invited a bunch of awesome people to come and tell original scary stories to an audience by candlelight. We used the same venue and the same set up: just a stage, a microphone, and a bunch of chairs, but this time the brief was slightly different. Rather than doing ghost stories, like last year, we asked everyone to come up with an original take on an urban legend. The stories they wrote were brilliant, terrifying, gruesome, funny… and deeply, deeply creepy.

We kicked off with Aliya Whiteley’s megamix of urban legends, followed by Chris Farnell’s cautionary tale about GM foods. Natasha Duncan-Drake came back from last year to tell us not to step on the cracks in the pavement, Neil Jones also returned with a warning to would-be petsitters, and Sarah Ditum told us an absolutely true story about something she found in the basement of her new house. To finish off the first half, Tom Pollock read a story about a mysterious key than unlocks more than just doors, and Joff Brown, another Eek! veteran, explained that a little imagination is a dangerous thing…

After a short break, Clayton Littlewood read the night’s most shocking story – one of the highlights of the night, for me, was watching the expressions on people’s faces during this one. James Moran passed on an evil curse; Rosie Fletcher’s tale of sex and revenge was sleazy and gross (in a good way!) and Sarah Pinborough made everyone scared to take the bus home. James Brogden’s story about a university prank gone wrong was funny right up until the horrifying punchline, and Kit Allen’s Halloween history lesson was eerily fitting, given the location. Finally, James Henry’s amazing meta explanation of where urban legends come from brought the house down.

I knew all the stories were good because I’d read them beforehand, so that I could put together the running order, but they really came alive out loud. Last year, I think I was too nervous about keeping everything running smoothly that I didn’t get to really enjoy listening to the stories, but this year – despite a few teething troubles with the microphone! – I felt a bit more confident that it was all going to work out, and, self-congratulatory though it might sound, I had a really good time.

One thing that I really, really love about this event is that many of the people who read stories hadn’t done it before. Some of them don’t even write fiction very often, and certainly don’t share it in public when they do. But they went for it, and – I think? – enjoyed themselves as much as we enjoyed their stories. Somehow, everyone I’ve asked to be a part of this has turned out not only to be smart and talented, but also fun and friendly and easy to work with. The atmosphere backstage is always brilliant – and I think that comes across to the audience, too?

Obviously the ultimate goal of Den of Eek! is to raise money for charity, and since this was another sold out event, we raised another massive chunk of cash for the Geeks vs Cancer appeal. I’ve thanked all of the performers from last night (many times over!), but if you came along, bought a ticket, or even chucked in a few quid’s donation, you deserve a thank you too. You’re brilliant.

We’ll be putting together an ebook of the stories soon, and I’ll be shouting about that when it happens, but in the meantime, if you didn’t get round to buying last year’s, maybe you’d like to pick up a copy now? It’s on offer right now, so it’s a mega bargain, and all proceeds go to a good cause.

Den of Eek! A Collection of New Horror Fiction is out to buy now

Den of Eek ebook coverHey, remember when I put together an event where loads of amazing people came and read ghost stories in a London pub? Sure you do. It was brilliant.

Well, finally we got round to publishing an ebook collection of all the stories read that night. The twelve short stories in this book are completely original, created especially for the event, so you can’t get ’em anywhere else. The full contents list looks like this:

“Grindr” by Clayton Littlewood (author of Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho)

“The Double Walkers” by Leila Johnston (editor of The Literary Platform and author of Enemy of Chaos)

“Siren” by CJ Lines (author of Filth Kiss and Cold Mirrors)

“Matron” by Sarah Pinborough (author of PoisonMayhem, and The Language of Dying)

“Death in the Modern World” by Natasha Duncan-Drake (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“The 34 Steps” by James Moran (screenwriter for Doctor WhoCockneys vs Zombies, and Tower Block)

“Ghosts in the Web” by Mary Hamilton (Guardian journalist and games designer)

“A Witch Killing” by Joff Brown (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“Unfriending” by Neil Jones (screenwriter for BedlamHouse of Anubis, and Hollyoaks Later)

“The Phantom Limb” by James Brogden (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“No Reason” by Johannes Roberts (director of Storage 24F, and Roadkill)

“Forever Death” by Kevin McNally (actor in SupernaturalPirates of the Caribbean, and Downton Abbey).

… Which, you’ve got to admit, is pretty incredible. All proceeds from sales of the ebook will go to Den of Geek’s Geeks vs Cancer appeal, so when you buy it you also get to experience the warm glow of doing something good for other people. Which is priceless, really.

The ebook costs £5.14 and is available for your Kindle (or the Kindle app on your PC, smartphone, or tablet) here. Go and buy it, please.

On zombies, survival, and making geeks exercise

Why are we so obsessed with the zombie apocalypse?

Let’s start with the most obvious point: stories about zombies are stories about our fear of death. After all, there’s no more potent reminder of the existence of death than a corpse. Zombies scare us for two reasons: one, because they’re predators that want to catch and eat us, but two, because they remind us that one day we’ll be dead too. Every one of us. Sooner or later, our bodies will fail us and we’ll stop thinking and moving and existing, and instead we’ll just decompose. It’s not a nice thought, so it’s one that we tend to avoid lingering on… except when we’re telling zombie stories.

Although horror movie monsters tend to come and go in phases, the current zombie trend seems to be sticking around. It’s already been a decade since Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, and Shaun of the Dead made the undead cool again, but a quick glance at any upcoming release schedule shows that there are plenty more zombie stories coming our way in the future. So what is it that continues to appeal to us about these narratives?

I think it’s the way that new zombie stories focus on survival. If you look back at zombie movies from the 60s, 70s, and even 80s, they tend to have downbeat endings. Night of the Living Dead is the obvious example, where getting through one night of zombie attacks is the least of our hero’s worries. And then there’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, the unofficial Italian sequel to Dawn of the Dead, a queasily claustrophobic movie in which the takeover of the living dead is presented as inevitable, because we’re all going to die sometime. Even Return of the Living Dead, in many ways a very silly film, ends with the dropping of a nuclear bomb. These are stories about the end of the world, and there’s something fatalistic about them.

Newer zombie stories, on the other hand, are more hopeful. They’re about finding ways to survive and, eventually, rebuild. The most explicit example is Max Brooks’s book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which sets out exactly how to stay alive when the dead are walking the Earth. Between that book, Shaun’s ‘have a cup of tea’ plan, and Zombieland’s numbered rules for survival, the idea that there’s a strategy to surviving the apocalypse has become firmly embedded in our consciousness. At this point, you can ask anyone in the pub where they’ll hide out once the dead rise and, chances are, they’ll actually have an answer rather than dismissing you as the weirdo you clearly are.

It’s kind of comforting to think that we might be able to survive the collapse of civilisation – and zombies make a tidier foe than, say, climate change, or the tanking economy. That’s why we’re still telling ourselves the same stories over and over again. If there are rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse, and we can memorise them, then we’ll be prepared for anything, won’t we?

We want to prove ourselves, too; it’s not enough to just watch other people surviving any more. Zombie themed videogames like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead let us play through our survival strategies on screen, while live action roleplaying experiences like Zed Events’ zombie shopping mall and ZombieLARP let us test our physical prowess against the undead. Seriously – as a culture, we’re now so obsessed with the idea of being able to survive a zombie apocalypse that there are multiple companies running regular zombie survival events. Cultural historians of the future are gonna love us.

But perhaps there’s a way to put all this zombie-obsessing to good use. The fitness app Zombies, Run! uses a zombie story to encourage players to exercise – to run often, to run far, and to run fast – and, from personal experience, it works. The plot of the game is that, in the near future, the dead have risen and society has crumbled. You’re part of a small post-apocalyptic society, and it’s your job to run out beyond the settlement’s walls and collect supplies. Story clips play in between songs on your own playlist, as your radio operators encourage you to keep going, and warn you of any nearby zoms.

There’s even an option to turn on ‘zombie chases’, during which you need to speed up or risk losing precious supplies as the undead bear down on you. Somehow, just hearing zombies moaning through your headphones is terrifying enough to trigger an adrenaline-fuelled burst of speed, even in the slowest, laziest geeks. (Yup, guilty.)

By drip-feeding players just enough story to keep them hooked, by introducing them to characters it’s impossible not to care about, and by making the player feel like an integral part of the story, Zombies, Run! is hopelessly addictive. And by requiring them to actually go outside and exercise, Zombies, Run! lets players feel like they really are, in some way, preparing for the apocalypse. After all, if something’s trying to eat your brain, being able to run really fast is an important skill.

The success of Zombies, Run! – now in its second season, it’s been downloaded by over 450,000 people – demonstrates that our obsession with zombies, and running away from them, is far from over. It’d be great if someone could figure out more ways of using that obsession productively, though. If anyone ever develops a Zombies, Clean Your Flat! or Zombies, Stop Arsing Around On Tumblr And Do Some Work app, I’ll be the first to download it.

(I wrote this for The Literary Platform, but it’s now gone, so I’ve reposted it here.)

Remembering Boris Karloff


I wrote a thing over at Den of Geek about Boris Karloff and, while I won’t republish it here, I am gonna link to it. (See?) I think Karloff is probably one of the best actors we’ve ever seen, in or out of the horror genre, and I’m really sad that time travel doesn’t exist so I can’t go back and meet him. From all accounts, he was a pretty awesome guy.

It’s a bit weird that I’ve visited his grave, though, isn’t it? It is. Yeah. Sorry about that.

Den of Eek! A Night of Spooky Stories

Last night I did one of the scariest things I’ve ever done: I hosted a live storytelling event that I’d organised. And it was amazing.

The idea for Den of Eek! had come months ago, after watching a reading of a short horror story elsewhere. I wanted to recreate the idea of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and I thought it would be fun to get together a bunch of interesting people – not just horror writers – to see what kinds of stories they’d tell. I pitched the idea to Den of Geek and they were enthusiastic, and then I spent a frantic couple of months making it happen.

It’s kind of incredible to me that it all went as smoothly as it did. Everyone I asked was into the idea, and they all wrote new, original, spooky stories for it. We ran a reader competition on Den of Geek looking for new talent, and managed to find three genuinely great stories to include as part of the event. We booked the function room of the Phoenix on Cavendish Square, and the lovely Mark Mitchell designed a fantastic poster for us to use to promote the event. Within a day of tickets going on sale, we’d sold half of them; two weeks ago, we sold out completely. Somehow, everything came together perfectly.

Last night, we had both an amazing line-up of speakers and stories, and a brilliant audience. Clayton Littlewood opened the evening with a creepy tale of being stalked on Grindr, followed by Leila Johnston’s account of doppelgangers (which even included a reference to the death of my least favourite Romantic poet). CJ Lines told an oddly convincing story about a haunted videotape, Sarah Pinborough turned the reassuring tick of a grandfather clock into the terrifying noise of a monster, and Natasha Duncan-Drake used slasher tropes and Twitter formatting to create an almost poetic nightmare. The last story in the first half was James Moran’s, which featured a haunted staircase and might have given me a whole new neurosis to deal with for the rest of my life.

After a brief interval, we came back with another six stories: Mary Hamilton’s story turned the whole internet into a horrifying, ghost-filled wasteland; Joff Brown’s tale of a witch-killing was delightfully creepy; and Neil Jones’s story of Facebook betrayal was wonderfully told, a slow unfolding mystery with a killer last line. James Brogden’s eerie story about a phantom limb was a really imaginative take on the idea of a ghost story, while Johannes Roberts’s harrowing tale of bullying and revenge was probably the darkest story of the night. Finally, we wrapped up with Kevin McNally’s gorgeously delivered tale of cursed treasure, all atmosphere and decadent descriptive language (a couple of people commented that they thought he must’ve been reading Lovecraft or Poe, but nope, that was an original!). Everyone brought something of their own personality and interests to their story, and it was kind of fascinating watching how it played out.

I thought I’d be sitting here this morning dissecting the night and thinking of things I’d’ve liked to change. But honestly, I think it was great. (I mean, I’m biased, maybe, but still!) My hosting skills were probably the weak link of the night, but I managed to get everyone’s name right and didn’t actually fall over, so I’m calling that a win. Keeping every story to around 5 minutes, and making sure the running order shuffled up the ultra-modern social media stories with the more traditional ones, seemed to keep the audience engaged. Everyone reading was just brilliant; I’ve said thank you to all of them a thousand times already, but I really couldn’t have wished for a nicer, more creative bunch of people to work with. And the audience were so lovely, just warm and attentive, and it seemed like they were really having fun. I could’ve hugged everyone.

On a slightly more serious note, probably the best thing about the Den of Eek! night was that we decided to put all the proceeds from the ticket sales towards the Geeks vs Cancer appeal. We managed to raise a decent chunk of money, and it’ll go to a genuinely good cause. We’re looking into turning the recording of the stories into a podcast, or maybe putting together an ebook, so that even more people get to enjoy them – more news on that when I have it.

Right now, I’m just… really, really happy. Once again, I just want to say a massive thank you to everyone involved. You’re all amazing.