Monday, April 21, 2014

Cinema Tourism: my Top 5

As readers of my various writings may know, I have moved around a bit. I enjoy travelling, and I've actually lived in Spain, Germany and Belgium. I've always been a little bit in love with the whole idea of "abroad", which is why my novels and some of my short stories are set in other countries.

One of the other great loves of my life is going to the cinema. Note, I do not just say "films". I love films too, but there is a difference between a DVD and a pizza at home and the whole experience of going out to the cinema. I started to think about this the other day because I took my daughter to see the new Hammer film, The Quiet Ones, and during the trailers she was excitedly asking whether we could see various other upcoming films. Some of them were films I fancy seeing myself, others not, but the fact of the matter is, I like going to the cinema so much that I will happily go and see films that aren't on my wish list.

I do draw the line somewhere; when we lived in Germany I told the children I would never, ever take them to see Felix - Ein Hase auf Weltreise, because I couldn't face the thought of two hours of sickly-sweet bunny-rabbit on world tour (luckily they shared this opinion otherwise there might have been trouble). But mostly I am very happy to go and watch anything. I've been to see films abroad a number of times, often without being able to understand any of the dialogue at all, just for the experience.

Anyway, musing on this subject, I decided to try to come up with my Top 5 foreign film experiences. Being contrary, I came up with six and couldn't decide which one to leave out. Here they are, in more or less chronological order.

Humanoides del Abismo (seen in Spain, 1980) 
According to the IMDb, this film was rated 18 in the UK, and given that I was 16 that summer, I probably shouldn't have been watching it at all. I was on holiday with my family and my best friend of the time in Sa Riera, so although I can't remember where the cinema was, it was probably Girona. The friend and I went to see the film; my parents didn't. Perhaps they thought we were watching a charming romcom instead. Humanoids del Abismo ("Humanoids of the Deep") was about disgusting-looking monsters with naked brains for heads, who came up from the sea to murder men and (to put it very euphemistically indeed) ravish women. After watching this delightful film, I was nervous about swimming for the whole of the rest of the fortnight. It was worth it though; if nothing else, it was memorable.

Footloose (seen in the Cevennes, France, 1984)
I'm not really a fan of dance movies but this was an interesting experience because we went to see the film in a little village cinema. We were staying near Lasalle but I am not sure whether it was there. The cinema had a run-down, rather unofficial feel to it: half the seats were broken, so you had to choose ones which weren't before getting settled, and the "screen" was a bunch of white sheets tacked to the wall at one end of the room, which also had a bicycle leaning up against it. The really exciting thing about this cinema visit was that there were scorpions crawling up and down the walls, so you never did quite know whether you were going to get to the end of the movie without being stung by more than a sudden passion for Kevin Bacon.

Beta (seen in India, 1992)
Possibly my favourite cinema trip of all time. I went overlanding from London to Kathmandu in 1992 and whilst we were in India I went to see the romantic musical Beta at the famous Raj Mandir cinema in Jaipur (see the pic at the top of this post - after dark it is lit up green). I went in a small mixed group, and as the queue for the ladies-only box office (wonder if they still have that?) was much shorter than the other ones, I volunteered to buy the tickets. Even being in the ladies' queue was a bit like being carried along by a tidal wave. The lady behind me, a very tall stout person, was leaning on me with all her weight whilst I was trying to buy the tickets, and the minute I had picked them up from the counter I was cast aside like driftwood. We bought popcorn, which was awful (that has surely improved since 1992). The screen where Beta was being shown was probably one of the biggest I have ever been in, and packed out, because part of the film was shot in Jaipur itself. Whenever any recognisable landmark appeared, there was wild whistling and cheering. When the heroine said anything pert there was pandemonium. People were standing on the seats. Fabulous. It was one of the best things I did on that entire four month trip.

Bambi (seen in Germany in 2004? thereabouts anyway)
I went to the cinema many times in Germany (we lived there for seven years, after all) but the most memorable experiences were not the visits to the Galleria in Euskirchen, which was our nearest "proper" one. Bad M√ľnstereifel, where we lived, used to have a cinema but it closed down round about the time we moved there in 2001. However, every so often there would be Kinderkino (kids' cinema) in the Eifel Club meeting rooms in the Johannistor, one of the four mediaeval defensive towers that are dotted along the town walls. Generally these would be fairly old films - we once saw Bambi, made in 1942! However, the children were young enough to be happy with whatever they saw. The room where the films were shown was full of chairs and tables (somewhat unorthodox cinema seating) and the walls were lined with stuffed animals including a wildcat. The luxurious thing about watching films there was that you could order drinks - Apfelschorle (a kind of fizzy apple juice) or even Schnapps...

Above: the Johannistor

Sint (seen in Leuven, Flanders, 2010)
I've blogged about this seasonal slasher movie several times before, so I won't labour the point. I was very keen to see it on the big screen but nobody would agree to go with me (and my husband had to stay home with the kids, who were too young to see it) and for some reason which I forget, I couldn't have the car the day I wanted to go. So I got the bus into Leuven, which took ages (and even longer on the way back because I had a long wait for the next one going home). Totally worth it. Even better,  it was near the end of the film's run, so the screen was fairly empty. I spread myself out, ate my own weight in pick'n'mix, and enjoyed.

Thirteen Assassins (seen in Brussels in 2011)
Whilst we lived in Flanders, my Flemish friend Tom took me to the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival on two occasions. In 2010 we went to see Les aventures extraordinaires d'Ad√®le Blanc-Sec, which was fabulous because Luc Besson actually appeared on stage and talked for a bit, although I can't remember a word he said because of the intoxicating effect of fangirliness. In 2011 Tom suggested gory samurai film Thirteen Assassins. Generally I'm not a great fan of samurai films but I was quite happy to give this one a go. The most memorable thing about the evening was probably the combination of film and menu. Before we went to the festival, Tom and his brother and I went to a Flemish restaurant in Brussels where they talked me into trying the dish paling in't groen, which is fried eel in green sauce. In the interests of fairness I have to say that it tasted good, but it looked distinctly alarming, and before we even got to the screening I was feeling a little bit queasy about what I had just eaten. The film opened with a slow and very gory act of hara-kiri. As we were sitting in the middle of a row there was no escape. I am mainly proud of myself for not barfing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

UK YA Day is Silent Saturday!

Write it in big huge letters:

Today is UK YA Day, the day to celebrate young adult books by UK writers!

Loads of interesting things are going on today - check them out on Twitter via the #UKYADay hashtag! 

The fabulous @ProjectUKYA run by the tireless Lucy has all sorts of interesting things today including games and links to lots of #UKYA stuff. Writers and bloggers have written about their favourite UKYA books, what they love about UKYA and what they are reading at the moment. 

Check out this post from When I Was Joe and Salvage author Keren David: It's UKYA Day

You might also want to check out the brilliant UKYA website that Keren mentions. The website is run and maintained by authors Keris Stainton, Susie Day and Keren herself. They've put a huge amount of work into it, and it's a fantastic resource for anyone who loves YA (this means adults who are no longer exactly *cough* "young" too...) especially if it comes from our fab home grown authors. You can search for UKYA titles by location and genre - so if you've read something you've really loved and want to find something similar, it's a great place to start looking. 

I'm a relative newcomer to UKYA because although I was born and brought up in the UK, all my novels to date are set abroad, and up until 2011 I actually lived abroad. So apart from my passport, there wasn't very much that was "UK" about me. I'm delighted to be living and writing in Scotland now and to be waving the flag for brilliant UK books (hmmm....if we go independent, I hope I won't be thrown out of UKYA again...). 

There's another reason why today (19th April) is special for me. Today is Silent Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. My latest book (above) is named after this day, and you can find out why in this blog post: Silent Saturday is coming to get you! Because Easter is a moveable feast, Silent Saturday isn't on 19th April every year. It was pure coincidence that this year it happened to fall on the same day as UKYA Day. So I'm celebrating twice. 

I'm hoping to post some more stuff about Silent Saturday later today, but in the meantime, if you're on Twitter, do pop over there and see what is happening on #UKYADay! 

Above: We love ProjectUKYA!

PS You might like to check this out too - it's a free audio excerpt from Silent Saturday especially for UKYA Day!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Silent Saturday is coming to get you!

If you happened to live in Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) and you also happened to live fairly close to a village church (as I did when we lived there), you would probably notice something this Saturday. Or rather, you would notice the absence of something. Those jolly church bells that ring every quarter of an hour during the week and a lot more on Sundays would be silent.

This is because the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter is Stille Zaterdag or "Silent Saturday," which soberly commemorates the time Jesus lay in the tomb. On that day, no church bells are rung in Flanders. Flemish children are told that this is because the bells have flown away to Rome to collect Easter eggs from the Pope (as illustrated in this airline poster at Zaventem, left!). I've sometimes wondered how they are supposed to do that - presumably they'd have to fly back upside down?!

When I heard about this tradition, my first thought was that if I were a little Flemish kid, I would be mad keen to get into the church bell-tower on Silent Saturday and see whether the bells really had flown away or not. After all, it'd be less of a grey area than say, the existence of Santa Claus, who was in fact a real-life historical character: the Bishop of Myra, no less. Either the bells would be there or they wouldn't. I'd be dying to know. And this is the starting-point for my book, Silent Saturday. When she is only seven years old, heroine Veerle De Keyser climbs the belfry of her local church with her friend Kris, in an attempt to find out the truth.

Of course, what they find confirms Kris' suspicions: the adults have been lying through their teeth, and the bells haven't gone anywhere at all. So the friends decide that while they are up the tower, they may as well take a peek out of the windows at the village below. What they see is shocking and bloody: the aftermath of an appalling murder, the worst thing that has ever happened in their little community. The killer was so unrelenting and savage that the press dub him The Hunter.

Ten years later, the teenaged Veerle runs into Kris again in unusual circumstances, and they embark on a series of audacious urban exploration adventures. But the past is about to catch up with them, as it becomes apparent that someone is, once again, hunting human prey - and they could be next.

If you fancy some seasonal reading, Silent Saturday is now out in affordable paperback - and in June it will be followed by the sequel, The Demons of Ghent. Watch out for more and higher bell-towers, and some very nasty deaths!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Top 8 Horror Films

I'm supposed to be taking a break this week but it seems I can't keep away from the keyboard. For a while I've quite fancied blogging about my favourite horror films - today I finally got on with the job. 

First up, I have to say that these are my personal top eight. I don't claim that they are the best horror films of all time - they are the ones that I personally like best, and I have watched each of them at least twice - in most cases half a dozen times. 

I like creepy films, but I'm not fond of extreme offal so most of these films are scary but not an absolute gore-fest. Dutch slasher film Sint is a bit of an exception but hey, it's my list; I can award myself the inconsistency badge if I like. 

The other thing is - obviously - the minute I'd finished compiling the list I thought of loads of other films that ought to be on it. The Hunger. Nosferatu. Sigh. I'm not adding any more, though, because otherwise I'll never get this posted. 

So here are my eight, and I'd love to hear what other people's fave horror films are, especially if they fall into the creepy-not-gory camp. 

My 8 favourite horror films (in no particular order):

The Ring (US version). OK, I know this will horrify Ringu purists but I saw the American version first and it seriously scared the hell out of me. I was alone at home, watching late at night, and amazingly I had no idea what was going to happen in the final scenes (though they have now been parodied so much it’s hard to imagine a first time viewer not knowing what to expect). When it got to that bit I actually backed away from the tv...
I love The Ring (I’ve read the original novel too) because not only it is very scary, it is almost perfectly structured. I’m a fiend for structure – I can’t stand rambling tales with loads of atmosphere and nothing else. The countdown from seven days to zero is fabulous; the sense of time pressure is appalling. And I love the fact that you think the mystery has been solved...and then realise it hasn’t. 

The Devil’s Backbone. I don’t get fangirly very often but I do about Del Toro, and I think this film is such a masterpiece that I hesitate to describe it as "horror" because it is so much more than that. It is the story of a ghost – but not the ghost you think. There are some fabulously creepy moments in this film but one of the things I love about it is that it doesn’t follow the dreary old cliche of handsome hero/gorgeous heroine battling the scary thing. The only fit handsome young man in the movie is a spectacularly nasty piece of work. The lead character, through whose eyes we see much of the action, is a child. The most sympathetic adult male is (literally) impotent. The woman he desires is not only mature but disabled...and very sexually enthusiastic. And the end of the film is beautiful and sad. 

Sint. This is a Dutch-language film (though available with subtitles) by director Dick Maas. It’s a seasonal slasher flick set in Amsterdam and infused with fabulous black humour: Saint Nicholas is not really the apple-cheeked cuddly old guy we all think of, but a murderous thieving mediaeval bishop who was burnt to death by villagers whose kids he had stolen. Now he comes back every time there is a full moon on Saint Nicholas’ Eve, and kills as many people as he can. I saw this film when we were still living in Flanders; a Flemish friend told me it was on and as soon as I heard what it was about, I was desperate to go. It takes a special film to persuade me to take the bus to and from Leuven on my own, and sit there in the cinema like a nobby no-mates (my other half wasn’t keen and the kids weren’t old enough). It was worth it. Fabulous. I nearly cried with joy, especially at the bit where the „Saint“ is galloping along the rooftops of old Amsterdam with the police shooting at him. 

The Woman In Black (2012 version). I feel kind of guilty including this one because I feel it throws absolutely every well-worn cinematic trick in the book at you – eg. ghost rising out of the ground (The Grudge); heart-attack-inducing shock moments (just about every horror film ever); etc. Also, I saw the much more low key TV version made in 1989 and thought it was genuinely chilling, so why gild the lily by chucking special effects at it? And of course the 2012 version has Harry Potter in it (can’t he just shout "Expelliarmus!"?). And yet...and yet...this film really did give me the creeps, big time. It wasn’t the shock moments either, though I duly jumped out of my skin like everyone else in the cinema. It was those glimpses of the Woman In Black in the corner of rooms, at the edge of your vision – watching, glowering....Brrrr. I can’t go out into the back garden after dark any more without the skin on the back of my neck prickling, thanks to that film...and to my daughter, who informs me that the Woman watches me from under the trees when I am putting the rubbish out. Sob. 

The Mothman Prophecies. I can’t believe it took me so long to come across this movie. Perhaps I automatically screen out anything with Richard Gere in it after seeing Pretty Woman. Anyway, a friend suggested it because he knows I prefer creepy to gory, and this did not disappoint. Strange creatures (are they angels? demons? aliens?) appear before disastrous events. But are they trying to warn people, or are they causing these things to happen? There is plenty of weird in this movie – the mothman introduces himself to Gere as "Indrid Cold" for example, and I am still trying to work out why that name is so creepy-sounding. There is enough mystery to keep you guessing until nearly the end. There are also many fleeting half-glimpses of the mothman that are genuinely chilling – and one that made me jump out of my skin. I like Richard Gere much better in scary movies than romantic ones.

The Orphanage (Spanish with subtitles). Hmmm, how to say much about this one without a gigantic spoiler? Laura and her husband Carlos open a children’s home in a former orphanage that Laura attended as a child. Laura and Carlos have an adopted son, Simon; after a series of bizarre and sinister events Simon vanishes. Laura continues to search for him after her husband has let go. Like The Devil’s Backbone, The Orphanage (which Del Toro helped to produce) does not concentrate on conventional romance; instead it’s all about the love of a mother for her child, which is refreshing and moving. There are some supremely chilling moments – eg. when Laura plays a Spanish version of What’s the time, Mr. Wolf? with a group of ghost children – but the thing that grabbed me most about this film is the paradigm shift at the end. Not everything that seems innocent is; not everything that seems grotesque and frightening is. 

The Fog (1980 version – what do you take me for?). I love this film – it’s one of my most-viewed movies. It’s also one that sounds irredeemably daft if you try to explain it to someone who doesn’t like scary movies. "Drowned leper ghosts." Ah, but it’s so much more than that. It combines creepy (ghost stories at midnight round the campfire, a resounding knock on the door at night, the drifting fog) with physically threatening (marlinspike through the eye, anyone?). And I like the fact that the characters look like real people, unlike the glossy-looking ones in the remake. Also, I think Spivey Point sounds like a scary place all on its own.

Prince of Darkness. I’m running out of adjectives now (just as well I’m doing Top 8 and not Top 10). I first saw Prince of Darkness at the cinema many moons ago (I have a feeling that was another of those solo cinema trips). It’s about a rambling urban church, fairly modern in appearance but with an ancient crypt underneath it containing (or indeed, barely containing) something diabolical, which (obviously) wants out. There are some gruesome scenes, but for me these aren’t what makes the movie scary. The thing that gives me the creeps is the recurring dream everyone keeps having if they fall asleep in the church. The very indistinctness of it makes it ultra sinister. There’s that, and what happens to the heroine. Not gory, but all the same, terrible. Also to look out for: a cameo by Alice Cooper(!) as a white-faced down-and-out, and Donald Pleasance as a priest who desperately wants to save the day but doesn’t quite have the gumption. 

So, that was my top eight. What are yours?

Above: Oooh, no - get behind the sofa!