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Tuesday, 30 September 2014


I like to read words. Lots and lots of them, one after the other. It's tremendous fun and I can't recommend it highly enough. However, sometimes words just don't cut it, and what I really like to do is look at pictures as well as words. Especially, comics. I like superhero comics, but they don't always offer anything more than a popcorn fill ie a tasty but ultimately empty experience. I like horror comics, of course, but sometimes - as with books - I like to read something that offers more. More horror, more themes, more intelligence.

I like a lot of things, clearly. One thing I truly admire, though, is literature (whether it's a book or comic) that has the power to actually affect me. Ladies and gentleman, I present to you UZUMAKI:

Written and illustrated by Junji Ito and first published in 1998, UZUMAKI tells the story of a small Japanese coastal town that gets slowly consumed by spirals. Things start insidiously, as Kirie (she's the girl in the foreground, and is ostensibly the main character) stumbles across her boyfriend's dad staring intently at a snail shell. It then soon becomes apparent the man is obsessed with spirals, and ultimately seeks to become one. 

This is the just the start of the horrors that affect the town, though. UZUMAKI is spread over twenty chapters, all of which flow chronologically from one another and offer references and callbacks to previous events. The above image, of a boy turning into a snail, is perhaps the most overtly grotesque occurrence, yet offers the best example of how Ito approaches the story. 

Kirie, or her boyfriend Shuichi, typically uncover or notice something peculiar (although occasionally someone else will) and then investigate or at least follow events. They are often as active in the weirdness as they are passive (or rather, helpless) observers. For instance, the boy who turns into the snail can't be helped. It appears from the off he's doomed, as he only comes to school when it's raining, and is really slow. When a spiral is discovered on his back that then starts to grow into a shell, Kirie can't help him. No one can. All that's left to do is watch as the inevitable takes form. But perhaps the true horror is what happens to those around him, and how the snail curse spreads...

This happens again and again to people in the town, with something horrific and spiral-centric deforming and twisting their bodies and minds. Some become snail people, others turn into deformed fleshy 'corkscrews', or merge with other people in twisted knots. Hair comes alive and a dead boy springs to life. Mosquitoes lead to a horrific murder spree. It's almost passé to say "Oh, well it's Japanese so of course it's mental" but honestly, nothing can prepare you for the places Ito takes his story. It's utterly, utterly deranged but shot through with really warped black humour, even slapstick. 

There's a Lynchian vibe coursing through the story, too, as everyone in the town becomes aware of the horrors and reacts accordingly, yet often seem to just...ignore them. I'd also compare it to the work of Bentley Little, as the mundane is given a subtle but increasingly bizarre spin. It would have been interesting to see Ito explore characters taking a more active role for a longer amount of time; Kirie and Shuichi effectively give up a little too often, and other characters who show initiative either give up too, or in some way succumb to the spiral. 

However, the plus side (if you can call it that) to Ito doing this is that it adds to the general helplessness of the town. Believe me, UZUMAKI is bleak. It becomes cloying, restrictive almost. A shroud of despair that rarely lifts. It isn't an easy read at times, but I think this adds to the power of the story. It's genuinely horrific, the artwork is frequently disturbing and the events become more and more unhinged as things build (or rather swirl) towards a climax that hints at cosmic horror as much as chaos theory and the infinite pattern of nature. It reminds me in some ways of Darren Aronofsky's debut film Pi (coincidentally also from 1998), as that follows a man who uncovers the secret number/pattern behind the the world, and the effect of this knowledge on his sanity.

In fact, the more UZUMAKI progresses, the more you start to suspect that you're either not going to get a straight answer to what's happening, or you will but it can't ever hope to adequately match up to everything that's come before. I feel that we get exactly the ending we deserve, with any other logical (as far as logic works in the universe of UZUMAKI) ending risking frustration.

UZUMAKI was turned into a film in 2000, which I haven't had the chance to watch. I understand it's more concerned with the surreal images and events of the story, rather than the psychological aspects, which is fine but it made me wonder. The more I read of UZUMAKI, the more I became convinced this would work remarkably well as a TV series. Recurring characters could be fleshed out and the effects of the spiral upon the town could be explored through the machinations of the town's elders/council. Is someone covering things up or putting a spin on events to convince the population that the weirdness has a "rational" explanation? How does the outside world react to the events in the town, particularly towards the end when the horrors become irrefutable...?

UZUMAKI profoundly affected me, there's no doubt about that. It's the first thing I've read in ages that actually unnerved me. I think a great deal of the unease comes from the fact Ito isn't afraid to kill or harm apparently important characters. No one is safe. There's often a sense of danger missing from mainstream horror, which is probably why I prefer to read (and write) so-called 'pulp' fiction. The gloves are off in those stories, more often than typical literature. Maybe a bit of blanket statement, but there you go.

So in closing, I highly recommend UZUMAKI. It can be found and read online, if you so desire. But be warned: it's less 'going down the rabbit hole' and more 'circling the drain'. 


Monday, 1 September 2014


Hello, meatbags. That's a completely normal, serious post title, because I like to do that sometimes. Keep sensible post title aficionados on their toes. Let's have a look at found footage films, shall we? Yes please.

Das ist sehr gut!
I'm going to mainly focus on the recent film THE BORDERLANDS, because by gum it's really, really good, and perfectly illustrates many of the points I'm going to make/discuss. No spoilers, though! Well, maybe some minor ones. Or not. YOU'LL HAVE TO WAIT AND SEE!

I don't think 'found footage' can be classed as it's own genre, as there are a number of them out there that fall squarely into the 'horror' bracket, but that doesn't stop people pretending it is. Let's look, first of all, at what 'found footage' actually means. It means footage that has been found. WOOF! That's just blown my mind! That's a pretty easy description and mission statement, yet any film that involves first person camera views and/or footage filmed by the characters themselves and/or anything that utilises other camera devices gets called 'found footage', when there is, crucially, no framing device that posits what we're watching/about to watch/have just watched has been, you know, found.

CHRONICLE is an excellent example of a film that uses other cameras/devices to document events to tell a story, yet isn't in any way 'found'. THE BORDERLANDS is another, and I'll come back to this in a moment. GRAVE ENCOUNTERS is a prime example of a found footage film that adheres to the core mission statement - a producer starts the film by telling us, the audience, that what we're about to watch is an un-aired episode of a new ghost hunting show called Grave Encounters. And I can't talk about found footage films without noting THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, because I like to be obvious every now and again. That film tells us we're watching tapes that were recovered. Mission statement: met.

Is he having a wee? He's having a wee.
So what's wrong with calling a non-found footage film 'found footage'? If you're the sort who reads aloud, I hope you didn't just cover your screen with spit thanks to all those f's.On the surface: there's nothing wrong. It's marketing. However, there are three very important core aspects that define a found footage film:

1. There needs to be a reason why is the camera still rolling when scary/weird things happen.
2. There shouldn't be any external music/sound design ie a score or soundtrack.
3. How has the footage been edited? Technically, it shouldn't have been.

THE BORDERLANDS meets (almost) all these requirements with aplomb. It tells the story of a church-sponsored 'miracle investigator', a priest and a tech expert. Together, they're charged with investigating a small English church after footage depicting unexplained object/body/camera behaviour surfaces. Is it a miracle? The techie's been paid to document everything in case they stumble upon conclusive proof, the investigator is there to offer an expert opinion, and the priest can verify the spiritual aspects of whatever they may find. Every member of the team is fitted with little cameras, their cottage and church is fitted with CCTV and other fancy bits and bobs. Everything we as the audience hear is what the characters hear, and it's exceptional sound design. Upon first viewing, it doesn't appear to have been edited in a 'cinematic' way, but subsequent viewings reveal cuts to simultaneous events, which breaks the third rule a little, but it works so what the hell.

Well, it would break the third rule expect THE BORDERLANDS never pretends to have been recovered footage...plus the ending makes it effectively impossible for that have to have happened. WHAT DO YOU MEAN, WAYNE? I'm not elaborating, but I will say the ending is actually horrific and utterly brilliant, but not in the way you'd expect. The artwork that apparently apes 'CABIN IN THE WOODS' may give you some idea what to expect, but in a more literal way.

THE BORDERLANDS makes use of technology as a story-telling device, rather than relies on it, as is the case with the majority of actual found footage films. Plus, when creepy stuff happens, these guys do leg it, because although they're inherently curious, they're not idiots. The interplay between the core team is well-written without resorting to stereotypes, although the priest at the allegedly haunted church isn't the best actor, nor is an older gent who appears in the third act. Yet despite these faults (it is a low budget - albeit polished - film, after all) the fictive dream remains intact. What is going on with the church? The answer/implications are genuinely creepy, not to mention tie in wonderfully with the setting.

And what a setting! Like the best haunted house films, the location is a character in and of itself. Although the church is small and relatively non-descript, it's situated on a small hill in the middle of nowhere and shrouded by trees. Who would build something right out here? Certain night-time scenes really hammer home the ominous, remote nature of this place - it might as well be on the moon.

Right about now would be a great time to segue into mentioning APOLLO 18, the notoriously bad found footage film set on the moon! But I haven't seen it, so I shan't.

Instead, let's answer the main question: when is a found footage film not a found footage film? When it hasn't been found, of course! So what does this make it instead? Faux documentary? Multiple camera first person? Ultimately, does it matter as long as it's well-written and competently made? I suppose not. Just as long as you don't borrow the style of a found footage film then commit the cardinal sin of having nothing of interest happen until the last five minutes, and even then it's not, er, interesting. HOLLOW, I'm looking at you! Christ on a bike, that film's awful.