Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

At seventy-two, King has told people he only intends to retire “when God tells me to.” Given his latest book, a 557-page science-thriller, I doubt God will be giving him that message anytime soon. And if he keeps writing stories like The Institute, I’m completely fine with that. Especially if I can eventually get on his radar someday.

The Institute centers on Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who is planning on going to Boston for college in the fall. He also has some telekinetic abilities, though he can’t do more than move an empty pizza pan when he’s excited. Still, that’s enough to put him on the radar of The Institute, a shadowy facility in the backwoods of Maine. His parents are murdered, and he is spirited away, used in experiments that are supposed to enhance the psychic abilities he and other kids and teens have. And as time goes on, Luke not only gets a better idea of what sort of things they’re doing at the Institute, but realizes with growing anxiety that he has to get away. Before he is changed permanently. At least, changed more than he already has been.

What makes this story so scary, even though it’s more science-thriller than science-horror, is its plausibility. You can totally imagine a shadowy government or shadow government organization kidnapping kids and using them for their own ends.* There are a lot of comments on or callbacks to the Nazi experiments on concentration camp victims, and as a WWII/Holocaust scholar, those comments are extremely warranted.

Aside from that, this book is good. The characters feel real, and the Institute is well thought out, adding to the feeling you could see some of this stuff happening. Luke is a likable protagonist, smart but not arrogant about it (in fact, he worries a lot about being too arrogant with his intellect), polite, and eager to help his friends. Likewise, the staff of the Institute feel real as well, particularly how they can do what they do and think of the kids as less-than-human.

As for the Institute, it’s big and is usually good at keeping the kids within the boundaries of the facility, but it also has its issues such as faulty equipment and staff rivalries, which makes it feel real. It could almost feel like your own workplace. Just evil and incredibly cruel.

Of course, the story isn’t totally perfect. I’m not going to fault it due to the fact that it’s not one of King’s terror-inducing stories like IT, we all know he’s great at writing more than horror. Nor am I going to fault the book due to the return of psychic powers. After all, stories where psychic abilities feature prominently, like Carrie and The Shining, are why King is a household name today. But I will admit the ending does feel a little expository and may not give everyone the sense of satisfaction people are looking for. That is a criticism I’m comfortable making.

However, on the whole The Institute is a strong entry into the Stephen King bibliography, a slow-burn that will leave you uncomfortable and yet unable to put the book down. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.2. Whether you’re using your mind or your hands, I recommend lifting up a copy and giving it a read this Halloween season.

And that reminds me, welcome to October! As a horror writer, I’ll have plenty to share with you during the most wonderful time of the year (and yes, it is the most wonderful time of the year. Read this post if you don’t believe me). We’ll have reviews, writing updates, discussions of horror, and possibly a demonic summoning. Look forward to it, my Followers of Fear. And until next time, pleasant nightmares!

*Just so you know, I’m not going to directly comment on any parallels between this novel and current events, though plenty of people, including King himself, have done that already. My current job makes doing so difficult. If I ever get the opportunity to write full-time, that’ll change. In the meantime though, I’ll just keep my mouth shut and stick to reviewing stories on their own merits.

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I listened to The Stranger Beside Me by true crime writer Ann Rule, who actually knew Ted Bundy, on audio book to prepare for this movie (and that’s the extent to my knowledge of Bundy). In the days leading up to this film’s release on Netflix, I was excited to see this adaptation. Nearly thirty years after the man’s death, would this film, along with the Netflix documentary (I know, I need to watch it, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet), introduce a new generation to the shocking murders of Ted Bundy?

Well, I went in expecting a different kind of movie, but I came out satisfied with what I got.

Based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by his real-life girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (known as Liz Kendall in the film and Meg Anders in The Stranger Beside Me), Extremely Wicked follows the romance of Bundy and Kloepfer, how they got together, how Bundy’s arrest in Utah, his two escape attempts in Colorado, his final trial in Florida, during which he marries one of his groupies but (seemingly) still has feelings for Liz, and finally his execution in Florida.

I think what I like the most about this film is its star-studded cast. Everyone embodies their characters so well. Zac Efron as Bundy comes across as a sympathetic, lovestruck man who finds his life falling to pieces around him and the one good thing in it drifting away, while Lily Collins as Liz Kendall does a great job as a woman who put so much into her relationship with this seemingly-perfect man, only to grapple with his crimes. John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart did the man an honor, combining the judge’s Southern gentility with his own deadpan acting method (finally, a film from this year that doesn’t waste the guy’s talent). And Jim Parsons made me forget at certain moments that I was watching Sheldon Cooper. I actually had to watch the scene where he delivers his opening remarks as prosecutor Larry Simpson twice, it was so chilling. Parsons could lead a legal drama now that The Big Bang Theory is done.

I also like how the film balances a romantic storyline with what is mostly a courtroom drama. Unlike other films, Extremely Wicked doesn’t go to great lengths to show Bundy’s depravity or murders, but instead hints and flits around it until the final scene of the film. Its focus is showing how the ongoing legal saga affects Bundy and Kloepfer’s relationship and vice versa, as well as the psychological toll on Bundy. The director knew what they were going for with this film, and in that aspect it succeeded.

If I have one gripe with this film, it’s that romanticizes Bundy a little too much. Bundy’s always had a number of female fans who find him attractive despite what he’s done.* Even actors portraying him have awakened the wrong kind of fascination in teenage and young women (Ann Rule relates some of the phone calls she got after The Deliberate Stranger with Mark Harmon aired in 1986 in her book). Zac Efron is a very handsome actor, no doubt of that, and in the interest of focusing on his romance and courtroom battles, Extremely Wicked glosses over the evil in its title and makes Bundy out to be more of a sweet, hurt man than a calculating serial killer. And I’m not sure that was the best decision.

I also would’ve liked to see Ann Rule make an appearance in the film, but I think I can live without that.

On the whole, I give Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile a score of 4 out of 5. While its POV Is slightly skewed, its an entrancing thriller that draws you into the story and the bloodless battle occurring on screen. Take a look, and prepare yourself for a ride.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I hope to have one or two more posts out before the weekend is done.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for advanced readers for my upcoming fantasy-horror novel, Rose, about a young woman who starts turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). In exchange for an early electronic copy, all I ask is you read it and consider posting a review after the release. Anyone interested should send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

*The scientific name for attraction to dangerous partners, by the way, is called hybristophilia. Theories to how it arises range from evolutionary desires for strong and capable partners to romantic notions of wanting to change/help a damaged partner to wanting fame or even just knowing the partner is stuck in a jail cell and won’t go anywhere. The more you know.

Author Jason Stokes in an adorable photo with one of his cats.

It’s been a while, but I have a new author interview to share with everyone. This one is with an author with an extraordinary story, both in terms of the novel he’s published and his own life experiences. Allow me to introduce Jason Stokes, author of the new novel Watcher.

Rami Ungar: Welcome to the show, Jason. Please tell us about yourself and about Watcher.

Jason Stokes: My name is Jason Stokes. I am a writer and artist currently living in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Watcher is about a young woman diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis who witnesses a horrific crime via hacked webcams. Due to her own lifestyle, she is forced to make a decision between preserving her own safety and seeking justice for a woman she’s never met. In the process she finds herself against the most powerful citizens in her city and untangling a web of corruption that involves nearly everyone she meets.

RU: You wrote Watcher while taking care of your life, who has MS, and who gave a lot of input on the story. Can you tell us what that was like?

JS: It felt like it was time for a character that had the same struggles I’ve seen her go through and exposed the way caretakers in chronically ill lives support those they care about. I wanted her to have a hero she could relate to. She was invaluable, answering questions about how she would handle specific situations, helping me walk in her shoes and uncovering things I had never thought of.

RU: Did the idea for the novel evolve out of your wife’s diagnosis? Or did it influence an already-existing idea?

JS: I had an idea but It was all wrong. It was overdone and I wasn’t feeling excited by it. When I asked myself, how would she (my wife) handle this? It started to come together. I saw a story that had more depth and stakes that were higher than your average mystery/suspense story. When she (the MC)  wakes up every morning she is already at a disadvantage and it doesn’t get any easier from there.

RU: You founded the company, Gestalt Media, that published Watcher. Why go that route?

JS: Ultimately I’m a control freak but I also want to have a role in bringing forward original projects. I wanted full control over my own work and knew the stigma of self-publishing but I also know several creators and I wanted to help bring their projects to fruition. I’m currently working with an artist/writer to publish a series of offbeat comics sometime this year.

RU: On Twitter, you spoke about how a local bookstore refused to carry Watcher. Can you tell us why and how that made you feel?

JS: The store in question refused to carry Watcher because the main character has MS but I (the author) do not. Their stance is not unique. It is a trend among publishers and retail stores to insist on own voices and to refuse books by those outside of the represented  community. I felt that as my wife’s caretaker for the last six years, I have lived this as much as anyone aside from her. I wrote it with extreme care and respect and sought her input through the entire process. The fact is, there are people whose stories deserve to be told that may not be able to for whatever reason put it into words. As authors it is our responsibility to interpret and share the world. We often take ourselves out of the equation. If it’s done with respect, care and attention to the group being represented that should be enough.

I don’t think the store itself is wrong for their viewpoint. It’s their choice but I disagree with the narrow lane it provides for future literature. As I’ve said, it’s a good intent with misguided execution.

RU: I know this is tough to ask, but how are you and your wife doing these days?

JS: As well as we can. It’s a brutal disease and every day is a little worse than the last but we stay in good spirits. She’s a fighter, a true inspiration and I’m proud to stand beside her on this journey. As long as research continues we have something to look forward to. Anything can happen.

The cover for “Watcher” by Jason Stokes.

RU: That’s good. Can you tell us what your writing process is like, if you have one?

JS: I subscribe heavily to the tenets of the Snowflake theory outlined by Randy Ingermanson. Generally I will come up with a character or a situation I find appealing. Something that isn’t often seen or a new angle. Then I’ll place it in a world and find a central scene, something that brings the story to life. From there I’ll build out starting with a two or three sentence synopsis, then a few paragraphs, then a list of scenes, until the whole things appears.

RU: Are you working on anything now or have any future plans as far as writing goes?

JS: Too many things! There’s never a shortage of ideas and projects begging for time. I have another novel coming in time for Halloween. Ghost Story is the beginning of a series involving a protagonist that can see the dead on a road trip to discover more about his exceptionally unusual past.

RU: What advice would you have for other writers, no matter their background or level of experience?

JS: I’m going to quote Chuck Wendig ‘Finish your sh*t.’ You have to finish. As scary as it is. As difficult as it can seem. The real journey begins when you write ‘the end.’

RU: And finally, if you were stuck on a desert island for a while and could only bring three books with you, which ones would you take?

JS: Well, I think it would be only prudent to include the Worst Case Scenario Survival Guide. Alternately the Boyscouts of America field book if it was available. Next I’d bring along Robinson Crusoe for obvious reasons and Jurassic Park because it is the single most entertaining novel I’ve ever read.

RU: Thank you for being on the show, Jason, and the best of luck to you and your wife, both with Watcher and in life.

If you would like to check out Watcher (I’ve already sent a request into my local library to order a couple copies), you can get it for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. If you’re interested in more of Jason Stokes, check him out on Twitter. I highly recommend you consider doing both.

And if you would like to be interviewed for an upcoming or recent release, either check out my Interviews page or send an email to ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com, and we’ll see if we can’t make some magic happen.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Greta follows Chloe Grace Moretz as Frankie, a young woman living in New York who finds a handbag on the subway on the way home from work. She brings the bag to its owner, Greta Hadig (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow living alone. The two women strike up an unlikely friendship and find comfort in each other’s company. That is, until Frankie finds out Greta is hiding some terrible secrets, and her relationship with the older woman takes a very dark turn.

The best part of this film is its lead actresses. I’ve always loved Chloe Grace Moretz. She’s a great actress who truly embodies whatever role she inhabits, be it a vigilante or Carrie White in the better movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (don’t @ me, Sissy Spacek/Piper Laurie fans). Greta is no exception, with Moretz really coming across as this young woman who’s kind and a little vulnerable, but also at the same time has a bit of fight in her. And Isabelle Huppert’s Greta is plenty creepy. She’s no Annie Wilkes, but she can go from sweet and grandmotherly to cruel and sociopathic at the flip of a switch. it’s a great change.

And Maika Monroe from It Follows has a supporting role in the film! Good to see her again, I haven’t seen her in anything since that film (probably my fault more than hers). She’s great as the best friend who’s seems shallow on the surface but has a deeper, badass side to her.

However, the film isn’t exactly a thrilling psychological slow burn. We’ve seen this sort of story before, and that makes it predictable. By the last third or so, I could predict what was going to happen minutes before it occurred. And while there are some tense moments, they’re too few and far-between to create a gripping atmosphere. Couple that with an unnecessary and boring dream sequence, and the film’s quality really goes down.

On the whole, I’m giving Greta a 2.8 on a scale of 1 to 5. The talent is there, and God do they try to make it work, but an obvious plot and lack of actual terror make this a forgettable entry into the thriller genre. Which is a shame, as the director was the guy who gave us Interview with the Vampire in 1994 and as I said, Moretz is the superior Carrie in the superior adaptation. But hey, every now and then you strike out, am I right?

This new film got some buzz after its trailer was released, with lots of people saying it could be scary as all get-out. That, and there aren’t many movies revolving around haunted artwork and/or the art world, so we thought it could be breaking some new ground. So I tuned in this evening. And I’m glad I had wine in the fridge, after what I just saw.

Velvet Buzzsaw follows tough art critic Mort Vandewalt, art agent Josephina, and her boss Rhodora Haze, who are considered the creme de la creme of the art elite circles or working on making that happen. One day, Josephina discovers her elderly neighbor has died, and then discovers he’s an artist of amazing talent, who also wanted all his artwork destroyed after his death. Jospehina decides to take the artwork and sell it alongside Rhodora, making them all very rich. However, several suspicious accidents and deaths occur, all occurring around the dead man’s art. Soon Mort, who has become obsessed with the dead man and his work, discovers some dark secrets around it. Secrets that are deadly in their power.

I’ve heard it said that contemporary art is about the idea behind the piece and its execution, rather than what the work portrays. If so, I think the idea here was a searing indictment of the elite art world in the form of a horror movie, but ooh, was the execution horribly botched.

Velvet Buzzsaw is only really a horror movie a third of the time. The other two-thirds, it seems to be either a slow-burn thriller about the dark side of the art world, or the film equivalent of those literary stories where characters go on personal journeys through their hundrum lives to find themselves/meaning in their lives/happiness. When it’s the third type, it’s actually pretty decent. If it were that kind of film, then we might get something Oscar-worthy. But then the film switches to slow-burn thriller, which is just kind of sub-par, all talk about cut-rate deals and how to screw everybody over (in more senses than one). And when it switches to horror, the rest of the movie has been so diluted that there’s no atmosphere or scares that the audience can be picked up.

I also found John Malkovich’s role in this film to be a total waste. He’s this tortured artist who kind of exits the film halfway through, and then we only see him in the credits, and it’s like…what? What was the point of this character? Along with Natalia Dyer’s Coco, which would’ve been a great perspective to see these events play out from if the character had been given more screen time, I’m just peeved.

If there was something about this film I liked, it was the cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, Zawe Ashton and Rene Russo do excellent jobs as the three main characters, Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame has a role as an up-and-coming artist, which was cool. And there are some cool art pieces in the film, as well as some great bits of cinematography.

But taken all together, Velvet Buzzsaw is a 2 out of 5 at best. It’s inconsistent in tone, wastes some of its talent, and ultimately creates a film that’s stylistically memorable but otherwise forgettable. If the film had maybe found a tone to focus on and, if that chosen tone had been horror or horror-thriller, given the character of Coco more screen time instead of just using her as a sort of tragic comic relief, and had devoted time to building an atmosphere, then we might’ve had something here. But since the filmmakers didn’t go that route, it’s just a damn shame.

After reading and really enjoying Sager’s first novel Final Girls, I was eager to check out his latest book, The Last Time I Lied, when I found out about it. It helped that the protagonist was a young woman with a dark past (my favorite kind of character to work with) and the story combined an old horror trope with some of the new thriller-type storytelling that we’ve seen in novels like Gone Girl and The Woman in the Window, as well as in Sager’s last book. What more could I ask for? Excited, I downloaded the audio book before the New Year, and started listening.

The Last Time I Lied follows Emma Davis, a New York City artist who is invited back to Camp Nightingale as an art instructor for its first summer in fifteen years. One problem: Fifteen years ago when Emma was a camper at Camp Nightingale, her three bunkmates went missing and were never found. This incident has haunted Emma all through her teens and adulthood, and she decides to go back to see if she can’t finally put the past to bed and maybe even find out what happened to her friends. Weaving between the past and the present, Emma arrives at camp and finds very little is as it seems, and gets caught up in a web of mystery, one with her old bunkmates at the center of it, and which threatens to entrap her and the current crop of campers inside.

One thing I loved about this story is that the camp setting and the camp reminded me of my own camper days. Yeah, my camp was co-ed and Jewish in nature and the one in the book is a secular all-girls camp, but the amount of swearing, the hormones and the differing personalities that sometimes get along and sometimes clash kind of brought me home. But beyond that, this novel is just as twisty as Final Girls was. Every moment you think you know what’s happening or what’s happened, the story throws you for a loop and introduces new information that makes you rethink everything. I was only able to guess a couple of those twists out of all of them, and given that I’m not normally very good at doing that for most mysteries,

I also felt a lot of connection with Emma herself. She’s a very well-developed character, and I understood how the events of the past affected her in the present (I’ve been there too, though nowhere as severe). But you also see how caring she is, and how that caring makes her want to seek out the truth and to protect those around her. She’s a great example of a protagonist for this sort of story, and I hope I can learn from reading her story to write those sorts of characters in my own stories.

A few things did stick out for me with this story. Remember those twists I was able to guess? Well, at times said twists did feel a bit obvious, so the emotional response at their reveal wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been. At least for me. For others, it could be different. Also, there’s this subplot involving a relationship between Emma and another major character she has history with, not all of it good. And while that subplot did add some drama to the story, I didn’t like how it concluded. Without spoiling anything, after everything that occurs in the novel, I find the hints as to the direction the relationship may go in the future hard to believe.

But all in all, I really enjoyed The Last Time I Lied. It’s a twisty story with plenty of surprises and great characters that play off each other in all the best ways. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.3. Sign up and dive right in for a great thrill ride.

I’m looking forward to Sager’s next novel, Lock Every Door, when it comes out this summer. And if you read Final Girls or The Last Time I Lied, you will be too.

As you know, I’m a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to Lizzie Borden, the woman who allegedly murdered her stepmother and father, in that order, was acquitted at trial due to prosecutorial bungling as well as societal attitudes about women at the time, and who allegedly haunts the house where those same murders happened. I’ve stayed overnight at the Borden House, now a bed and breakfast; I’ve read a book or two about it, including See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt; and I’ve watched more than a few adaptations about the murders, including the famous 1975 TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden.

So when I heard a new movie was being made on Lizzie and the murders, I was intrigued. It had some big names attached, including Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. And the trailer made it seem like this was going to be a really tense thriller film. I was willing to see it in theaters, but the film was only given a limited theatrical run and it wasn’t playing anywhere near me (or in Ohio, as far as I can tell). So when my library’s copy came in for me today, I actually rushed over to pick it up with the goal to watch it tonight.

I can see why this was given a limited release.

Lizzie retells the story of Lizzie Borden and the 1892 murders of her parents, using the theory that Lizzie and the maid Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan were lovers and committed the murders after Mr. Borden discovered their affair. That’s the plot in a nutshell.

I’m not sure what exactly the filmmakers were going for, because this was nothing like the trailer. For the most part, the film goes at a slow crawl, making it feel like three hours rather than an hour and forty-five minutes. Everything takes it time, which in what is supposed to be a tense murder thriller can really take you out of the story. And you know how people accuse Kristen Stewart of having no emotional range in her films? Weirdly enough, it seems reversed here: Stewart has some emotional range, and everyone else seems like they only know how to mimic emotion, rather than show it!

On top of that, Lizzie didn’t include some things that one might expect from any story on Lizzie Borden. The turbulent relationship between Lizzie and her stepmother is glossed over; Lizzie is shown suffering from seizures, which is something I don’t remember ever hearing about her; elder sister Emma Borden is barely in the film; and a few other things beside.

Oh, and there’s this thing with the soundtrack. Namely, it doesn’t show up that much, and when it does it disappears really quickly. There’s one scene where you’d expect lots of soft music to highlight the emotion of the scene, only for it to cut in and out every three seconds. Um, why?

Was there anything about this film that I liked? Well, the attention to detail is decent when it comes to clothes and furnishings. The house’s first floor is laid out like the real house in Fall River, Massachusetts, which I approve of. And the development of the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget is given the time and development needed to really make you believe in it. And there are some real talents in this film, including Jeff Perry, Denis O’Hare, and Fiona Shaw.

But other than that, Lizzie was really not worth the wait. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving this film a 2. If you want a Lizzie Borden film that keeps the tension up even though you already know how it ends, I recommend 1975’s The Legend of Lizzie Borden, starring the incomparable Elizabeth Montgomery in the titular role. Fun fact, Montgomery found out Lizzie was her sixth cousin once removed after completing the film. Imagine if she’d known that when she was playing the character!

Now if only I could see  productions of Fall River Legend, the ballet based on the murders, and the rock musical Lizzie. Yes, those exist, and I want to see them live. Someone pleeeeeease make those happen for me!