Vendetta, by Jack McSporran

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2actionhalf

Let’s start with a grumble. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the number of full books – or even collections of multiple books – I’ve picked up for $2.99 or less. Maybe that’s why I can’t help feeling gypped when a book lasts only about an hour. The official page count on Amazon says 182 pages. But this figure doesn’t take into account that a significant chunk is actually the first few chapters of Kill Order, the first “full” novel about British government agent, Maggie Black – available separately for another $4.99! If I’d realized this was only 133 pages of actual story, I’d probably not have fast-tracked this. I was then further disgruntled to discover that the “Maggie Black Starter Library” includes both books at the same $4.99 price. Sadly, let the buyer beware. Is it too late to get a refund for this? Consider this volume docked a star of literary rating as a result.

It’s a bit of a shame, since what there is, isn’t too bad. Maggie Black is an agent of “The Unit”, an entirely off-the-grid intelligence agency of the British government, specializing in dirty work. She was recruited by her boss, Bishop, Nikita-style – whisked out of jail, after deciding his offer of employment was preferable to a lengthy prison sentence – and trained in all necessary skills. Her mission in this slim volume, is to go to Venice and disrupt an impending agreement between Carlo Rossi, an international drug trafficker, and Peter West, a British dealer looking for a supplier. To this end, she adopts the persona of “Rebecca Sterling”, a brash American also seeking a source of cocaine and heroin.

The task becomes a great deal more complicated after Carlo is assassinated during their first meeting, with Rebecca suspected of being involved in the murder. Fortunately, she has help, in the form of Leon, another Unit agent, playing the part of Rebecca’s bodyguard, as well as Isabella, an Italian undercover agent who had worked her way into a position as the late Carlo’s PA. This leads to three particular set-pieces: a chase across the Venetian roof-tops; an escape from a near-death situation; and a battle in a cemetery which turns into a lengthy battle and pursuit around the canals of the city, with an explosive finale.

McSporran (a pseudonym adopted by a children’s author – as a fellow Scot, I can’t figure out whether I’m amused or offended!) has a good handle on his location, capturing the atmosphere of Venice. The action, too, is quite well done, crisply and clearly handled. The main problem is the plotting, which runs the gamut from obvious to eye-rolling. One paragraph after Leon showed up, I could tell he and Maggie would end up in one of “those” relationships. The villains, too, do the evil overlord thing, such as chatting merrily away with their captives before deciding a quick death is too good for them [if ever I become an evil overlord, I will ensure any prisoners are checked for knives before being tied to a post below the high-tide mark…] There’s also a bomb which shows up out of nowhere, having not been mentioned at all before it goes off.

It is a solid enough set-up, with effectively infinite scope for development down the road, and I did like the lead character. However, the weaknesses in the story-line, combined with the bad aftertaste left by the quantity of content here, are enough to push any further installments quite some distance back down my literary waiting-list.

Author: Jack McSporran
Publisher: Inked Entertainment, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Ingobernable: season one

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“Dirty politics, Mexican style.”

This is not quite a telenovela, for this has only 13 episodes and aired directly on Netflix, without appearing on any television channel. It’s also a little more punchy and gritty than most, and rather than going down the well-trodden path of what I guess we should call the narconovela, is rooted instead in political conspiracies.

Mexican President Diego Nava Martínez (Hayser, the male lead in Camelia la Texana) plummets from a hotel balcony to his death. The prime suspect is his estranged wife Emilia Urquiza (del Castillo, the original Reina del Sur), though she was actually unconscious at the time. Rather than sticking around, Emilia decides to leg it, and is helped by some old friends in the Mexico City slums. It turns out the President was preparing to announce an end both to the war on drugs, and the resulting secret detention camps, run by the military. This appears to have triggered an assassination by a murky coalition involving the army, the CIA and a secret group known as “X-8”. Can Emilia prove this is more than tin-foil hat malarkey, and clear her own name?

Weirdly, the show was filmed without its star ever setting foot in Mexico. She is still on thin ice there, as a result of her relationship with jailed drug lord, El Chapo, and a subsequent – trumped-up, according to del Castillo – money-laundering investigation. Despite this, it does a good job of depicting life at both the very top and bottom of Mexican society, and pointing out the stark difference. As Castillo said, “The real criminals are the ones who wear white shirts and a tie.” Though this is likely heavy on the working-class hero trope, with the noble peasants banding together to stick it to the man.

Still, there’s enough to appreciate here, with Emilia being harried from one place to another, while trying to get to the truth. It helps that, before marrying the president, she was involved in security operations, which gives her an insight into their tactics – and more importantly, how to avoid them. If this is never quite leveraged as much as it could be, it does at least help explain her action heroine abilities! Emilia isn’t the only woman who knows her way around a gun either; given the reputation of Mexico as a very macho culture, these are quite surprising characters.

They include Anna Vargas-West (Ibarra), who pulls triple-duty as Chief of Staff of the President’s Office and the dead president’s lover… while also being a somewhat reluctant CIA agent, under the command of Pete Vázquez (Guzmán). And then there’s Patricia Lieberman (Marina de Tavira), the tenacious special prosecutor appointed to look into the President’s death. But the most striking cultural difference is when Emilia and her team are trying to get evidence about the detention centers, and decide that merely catching the Defense Secretary at an S&M brothel wouldn’t be sufficient to discredit him. Suspect that would be more than plenty in Anglo-American politics!

Annoyingly, the 15-episode series ends in a cliff-hanger, without any true resolution: something I should likely have guessed, once it was revealed that the Defense Secretary had nothing to do with the President’s death. Fortunately, the show has been renewed for a second season, or I have been severely peeved. Overall, I was reasonably impressed by the first, and if you’re looking for something with aspects of both Jason Bourne and House of Cards, this should fit the bill.

Dir: José Luis García Agraz
Star: Kate del Castillo, Alberto Guerra, Erendira Ibarra, Luis Roberto Guzmán

Strip Club Massacre

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“Secondary staged carnage.”

After Megan (Watson) loses her job, boyfriend and the roof over her head in the same day, she decides to head off to Atlanta, where friend Amanda (Riggs) puts her up for a bit. Amanda’s boyfriend (Rollins) is manager at a strip club, and gives Megan a job as a cocktail waitress. But after realizing the gap in earnings between those employees who keep their clothes on, and those who don’t, Megan decides to make the jump into strip-tease. This rapidly brings her into conflict with Jazz (Brown), another stripper who rules the club through terror and intimidation, along with the help of her cronies. She takes it upon herself to make Megan’s life hell. However, she can only be pushed so far, before Megan and Amanda, push back.

A classic grindhouse title, which somewhat delivers on its premise: nearer to the “massacre” than the “stripclub” side, I’d say. Indeed, it’s rather more restrained in terms of nudity than I’d have expected. The gore, on the other hand, is plentiful in volume, if not necessarily quality: some of the special effects count as “special” in roughly the same way as “special education”. The story is basic to the point of simplistic: Megan is somewhat sympathetic, yet you’re never brought along on her descent into psychotic violence. It’s more like a switch is suddently flipped: I can imagine the film-makers thinking, “Right, 15 minutes to go, enough of this characterization nonsense, time for the rampage sequence.” It’s still about 20 minutes too much, and this perhaps needed a better outside hand, to cut down on what often feels self-indulgent fan fiction.

The most interesting character in all this is probably Jazz. If Brown looks familiar, you should probably be somewhat ashamed of yourself. That’s because she was previously known as Misty Mundae, and starred in a large number of films with titles like Gladiator Eroticus, Lord of the G-Strings and Spiderbabe. About which, I know absolutely nothing. :) She has now moved on from such things, and clearly knows her way around a script in a way that Watson (understandably, this being her feature debut) doesn’t. Jazz thus becomes hateable, in the same way Megan should have been likeable. She’s a vicious, coke-snorting bitch, who treats the club as if it were high school, and Jazz head cheerleader. A great villain, they should have made the film around her.

As a result, Jazz’s death is about the only one which packs any kind of emotional impact – it’s not too dissimilar to one I saw in La Esquina del Diablo, actually. The rest are mostly exercises in sloppy gore – as noted, some of which work, others which don’t. For instance, the (male) death by crowbar rape is perhaps more likely to put you off tacos than anything. [They could at least have used a fireplace implement, and had Megan cheerily quip, “How’s that for strip poker?”] And why does Amanda enthusiastically join in the mayhem? No credible explanation is ever offered. It’s all very clearly a small-budget effort, made with more passion than anything else. Unfortunately, outside of Brown, it does little to escape the obvious limitations imposed by its resources.

Dir: Bob Clark
Star: Alicia Watson, Erin Brown. Courtney Riggs, Stefan Rollins
a.k.a. Night Club Massacre

626 Evolution

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“The voice-overs in my head are urging me to kill this.”

Rarely, if ever, have I seen a film so thoroughly derailed by one bad decision. There’s potential here, and those involved have some decent track records as well. Director Lyde did the last two installments of the Mythica saga, including the best one, Mythica: The Iron Crown, which was far more fun than it should have been. Chuchran, similarly, proved eminently worth watching in Survivor, also directed by Lyde, so I was hopeful the combination of the two would strike further pay-dirt with this collaboration.

There are two heroines here, both of whom are young women, and who possess psychic abilities including telekinesis. The younger one, known as 449 (Jones), due to the tattoo on the back of her neck, is a foster kid in an abusive home, who doesn’t have much better luck with life at school. After thinking she has killed her foster father, she runs off, but is fortunate enough to bump into 626 (Chuchran), who is similarly blessed/cursed with mental talents. Recognizing a psychic sister, she takes 449 under her wing. But it soon transpires, that both women are being tracked by the shadowy scientific research company behind them both, and who are far from willing to let their assets escape. Rather than running, 626 opts to head into the lion’s den, and find out the truth about their murky past.

The approach taken is heavy on the found footage, with a lot of material which is supposed to be taken from security cameras, drones, etc. as well as the cameras with which both subjects have unknowingly been implanted. If you’ve got a high tolerance for first-person POV, this aspect doesn’t work badly, and is an interesting commentary on our modern “surveillance society,” where just about everyone is being watched, all the time. Chuchran also carries her scenes more than adequately, right from the first time we see her, engaging in a brawl in a car-park. She knows her way around a fight scene, and I’m going to keep following her progress. The visual effects depicting the powers are lightly used but effective enough – as much to enhance scenes, as carry them entirely.

Then we get to the mistake. For some, inexplicable reason, the film adds a narration – I’m presuming by Jones – which is just horrendous. It’s entirely superfluous, never adding anything of note: it’s less an internal monologue, than a sub-MST3K wannabe. Imagine being trapped in a cinema, next to a precocious 12-year-old hyped out of her little mind on sugary treats, who insists on providing a running commentary to the film. That’s about what you get here, though it’s likely even worse in the execution than your imagination. I have no clue why anyone ever thought this might enhance proceedings, because they were wildly incorrect. It takes what could have been a decent slice of small-scale paranoia, and turns it into something which occasionally becomes nigh-on unwatchable. Pity, really.

Dir: John Lyde
Star: Danielle Chuchran, Ruby Jones,

Three Wishes For Cinderella

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“#CinderellaForPresident2020”

While we’ve covered revisionist versions of fairy stories before, e.g. Maleficent, this is likely the closest to a “straight” retelling yet covered on the site. Cinderella (Šafránková) is condemned to a life of drudgery at the hands of her stepmother (Braunbock), until she gets a magical chance to attend a ball given by the local monarch. There, she meets the handsome prince (Trávníček) who falls for her, only for the couple to be separated at the end of the night. He seeks her out, with the help of a lost slipper, and they live happily ever after. So all the standard elements of the well-beloved story are present in this 1973 co-production between East Germany and Czechoslovakia. So what is it doing here?

Well, as the picture above suggests, this Cinderella is quite the bad-ass. She initially has no interest at all in the Prince; while the rest of the town is getting in a tizzy over his passing through, she sneaks out to ride off on her horse. That’s where she first encounters him, since he has snuck off similarly – and it turns out, she’s a better rider than him. Their second encounter comes when he is out hunting with his pals. This time, Cinderella is dressed as a boy (above – raise your hand if you’re unconvinced!), and proves herself to have better aim than him as well, shooting into a crossbow bolt being held in his hand. She also demonstrates a talent for tree-climbing: this is all apparently a result of the upbringing through her late father, who can only be commended. When she shows u[p at the ball, she’s not exactly throwing herself at the prince, chiding him after he says he has chosen her as his bride, for not asking her opinion [To be honest, he seems a bit of a dim bulb. Like father, like son maybe, for the Queen is the smart one of the family as well.]

There isn’t even a fairy Godmother to be seen here, and one isn’t needed. For this Cinderella isn’t pining out a window, waiting for her prince to come. She gets things done herself, more or less. She does get help from the local fauna when stepmom inflicts particularly tedious chores on her, and there’s also the “three wishes” of the title – though they’re less wishes, than sets of clothes that appear out of hazelnuts, because fairy tale. But overall, this is a remarkably self-reliant, smart and confident young woman, who will likely make an excellent ruler. Indeed, it would have been perfectly fine if, at the end, she had politely listened to the prince, and said, “No, thanks – although, if you can get my stepmother off my back, I’d appreciate it.” I do understand, it would likely have been a step too far, even for a heroine several decades ahead of her time.

This has become something of a staple of Christmas viewing on the European continent, broadcast on TV across a number of countries. In Britain, it was one of the East European films imported by the BBC’s children’s department in the sixties and semi-translated (the original dialogue is retained; a voice-over translates the dialogue and narrates, as if by a storyteller). However, it has now largely been forgotten in the English-speaking world, overshadowed by the terrors of The Singing Ringing Tree. That’s a shame, since this is worth equally as much attention, and offers a considerably more robust heroine than anything Disney was producing at the time, or would produce this side of Mulan.

Dir: Václav Vorlíček
Star: Libuše Šafránková, Pavel Trávníček, Carola Braunbock, Rolf Hoppe
a.k.a. Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, Tři oříšky pro Popelku, Three Gifts for Cinderella

The Mae Young Classic

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“Girlfights.”

The WWE and women’s wrestling have had a fractious relationship over the years. For every two steps forward, there has been one – or, more often, two – backward. But under Executive Vice President of Talent Paul M. Levesque, better known by his ring-name of Triple H, there have been hopeful signs of progress. Perhaps the biggest of late was WWE staging an all-woman tournament this year, featuring 32 wrestlers from 13 different countries. This was named the Mae Young Classic, in honour of one of the field’s pioneers and longest-serving members; she wrestled from 1939 through 2008, and passed away in 2014.

It was a little surprising that both Japan and Mexico, likely the biggest pro wrestling markets outside the US, only had one competitor each (fewer than, say, Scotland or Australia). This could be a result of most existing talent already being under contract to federations in those countries. Otherwise the 32 wrestlers included a surprisingly broad range. There were both veterans and newcomers: Mercedes Martinez has been wrestling since 2000, while Indian Kavita Dalal only started training last year. Similarly, styles represented a broad range: some had MMA backgrounds, others were pure pro wrestlers.

In terms of looks, there was generally a certain “body type”, lean and muscular – though that didn’t quite apply to Scotland’s Piper Niven, billed at five foot five inches, and 207 pounds, though remarkably agile for it. But there was a significant variety in size, ranging from the 5’1″ Kairi Sane, up to those a foot taller (the pic, top, significantly evens this out!). However, as they say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, and that was proved frequently true over the 31 matches in the tournament. You could never be sure who would prevail. [Just to be clear: I am entirely aware that all the results were pre-determined. But “good” pro wrestling, like good cinema, is at its most enthralling when it avoids predictability]

One thing I noticed was the particularly direct nature of the episodes. If you watch a typical episode of, say, Monday Night RAW, considerably less than half of each show will be actual, new wrestling. Between the various story-lines, chit-chat in and out of the ring, recaps and so forth, our son may not be far wrong when he calls it “soap-opera on steroids. The Classic was much more streamlined: with typically four bouts per episode, it had to be. Before each, you’d get a minute or so about each competitor, and then it was straight to the in-ring introductions. I was fearing this would end up being some kind of Total Divas-like, bitchpocalypse atrocity: those concerns proved completely unfounded.

It’s a little difficult to review without spoilers, which we were largely able to avoid – like any “real” sport, it’s a lot more fun to watch wrestling when you don’t know the outcome. So I’ll just go with some notes on the five competitors who stood out the most for us, in alphabetical order. Wild horses could not make us reveal whether or not they won any of their matches. :) I will say, it was a heck of a lot of fun, and I’d love for it to become an annual fixture on WWE’s calendar.

  • Shayna Bayzler (USA). Chris described Bayzler as “a female Brock Lesnar,” and that’s likely an accurate comparison. She became the wrestler we loved to hate, mostly for her thoroughly intimidating, take no prisoners attitude. While she’ll need to work on her wrestling technique, which is a little rough, there’s a lot of promise here, particularly as a heel.
  • Jazzy Gabert (Germany). At 6’1″, the tallest competitor, and with her short, platinum blonde hair (seen above), reminded us strongly of Brigitte Nielsen. Another veteran, wrestling since 2001, if you were going purely on who looked the part most impressively, she’d be the winner of the tournament. Only disappointment? She didn’t say, “I must break you…” to her opponents pre-fight.
  • Dakota Kai (New Zealand). Was already signed to a contract to WWE’s developmental show, NXT. Kai’s match was far and away the most-watched first-round contest on YouTube. Her kicks are lethal, many and varied. She looks like she has been teleported straight to the ring from a video-game like Dead or Alive.
  • Mercedes Martinez (USA). You could really tell the depth of her experience, both in terms of ring technique and psychology, and that helped elevate her less well-practiced opponents. Seemed to be playing the “gangster” heel for the purposes of this show, and did so effectively enough to irritate the hell out of Chris during her run. Which was likely the point!
  • Kairi Sane (Japan). Won us over completely with her heart and attitude, as she looked genuinely pleased to be there, and her elbow drop from the top-rope is a thing of wonder. [Typically, wrestlers break their fall somewhat with their legs, but Kairi leads with her elbow. This GIF likely explains it better!] Her first-round contest against Tessa Blanchard might have been the match of the tournament. Here are some highlights.

 

Sorcery and Science, by Ella Summers

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The blurb for this one reads, “Terra Cross is just your typical paranormal princess. She plays poker with goblins and leprechauns. She savors her morning muffin from the Pacific Sunrise Bakery in suburban California. She solves galactic crime cases. And on a particularly wild day, she can even see into the future.” It is somewhat inaccurate, at least as far as this novel goes. I don’t recall any poker at all, muffins appear once, and as for the crime-solving… Well, sorta but not really. There is, however, likely good reason, since the novel is a prequel to Summers’s “Sorcery and Science” series, in which I presume Terra does more of the above.

This is both a blessing and a curse. It allows this book to stand on its own: you reach the end, and there’s a fairly well-defined line drawn beneath the fates of most characters. On the other hand, it does require a clunky jump in the epilogue to tie into the body of the series. Not much more than, “we moved to the other end of the galaxy and started a private-eye business.” Wait, what? It almost works better if you skip that, and treat it as the first volume in its own, standalone series. The paranormal princess aspect makes more sense this way, in a universe where advanced technology and magic co-exist, and Earth is being carefully blocked from knowledge of both. Vampires, witches, elves, etc. all have their own realms, making varying use of the “sorcery and science” from the title.

Cross is the daughter of the mage’s king, but likes to sneak off on adventures with her best friend and mage enforcer, Jason. However, they bite off more than they can chew when chasing after a renegade scientist-wizard, Vib. He is creating an advanced breed of super-mages, with multiple, shared talents instead of the standard limit of one type of magic per person. Needless to say, this research – despite being way beyond the pale – is of great interest to the competing races. Terra and Jason find themselves not just fending off Vib’s creations; they also becomes pawns in the political battle for dominance between the various forces that seek to control the galaxy.

I generally enjoyed this, once I got past Summers’s fondness for prose which tends toward the over-descriptive, it seems especially when it comes to colours, for some reason. The world she crafts is quite an interesting one, and the techno-pagan blend of SF and fantasy is intriguing. While Jason is the more action-minded of the duo, Terra becomes more active later on, especially after taking one of Vib’s experimental concoctions, out of desperation. It allows her to use some of Jason’s talents, which are significant;y more combat-oriented than her precognitive ones. 

The sudden right turn at the end, to tie it into the main body of the series, leaves me uncertain whether I would want to continue, since it appears potentially rather different in tone. Not least, I get the horrible feeling there’s going to be one of “those” love triangles, putting the heroine between Jason and the dark, brooding vampire commander she encounters. Fortunately, that was only hinted at in the prequel, and what’s here was, overall, pleasant enough.

Author: Ella Summers
Publisher: Currently only available as part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Monolith

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“Here in my car, I feel safest of all…”

As a joke I saw on Facebook went, “With all these self-driving cars, it won’t be long before there’s a country song about your truck leaving you.” The rise of smart vehicles is inevitable, and likely, so are other films like this, which falls somewhere between Christine and 2001. In this case, mother Sandra (Bowden) is driving to see her husband, whom she suspects of cheating on her, with their young child David (played by the two Hodges brothers, whom I’m assuming are twins!) in the back seat. Her car is the state-of-the-art Monolith, equipped with every safety feature imaginable, and then some. But a series of events – a diversion, an encounter with roadkill on the hoof, and Sandra giving David her smartphone as a distraction – lead to a tricky situation. She is stuck on a remote desert road, outside of a car that has now entered its impenetrable “vault mode”, with David trapped in its interior.

It’s not necessarily a bad idea, with the Monolith (voiced by Lang) having a personality that’s somewhere between Siri and GLaDOS from the Portal games. But there are quite a few problems with the execution. Once Sandra is locked out, it’s less “Man vs. Wild” and more “Woman vs. Brick,” as the car is simply sitting there. It isn’t particularly exciting, which is why the script tries to inject various exterior threats, most obviously a feral canine attracted by the roadkill. Though it’s kinda hard to care much, given the heroine’s situation is largely the result of her own poor decisions. I mean, for heavens’ sake, what kind of mother chooses to light up a cigarette, while in the car with her asthmatic child? At that point, being raised by the feral canine and its pack, is probably the kid’s best hope. And don’t even get me started on the finale, which takes ludicrous to a whole new level. [It turns out this car truly is completely indestructible]

There are a few subplots which don’t particularly go anywhere: the whole “husband affair” thing, for example. Or the fact that Sandra used to be the lead singer for a pop group, which seems to be there purely for vaguely regretful thoughts about having settled down to start a family. Neither it, nor the fans she runs into at a gas-station, serve any purpose once we get to the meat of the story. On the plus side, the film looks great, with Utah’s wilderness providing a wonderfully scenic backdrop, and Bowden isn’t bad, as a woman clearly out of her depth and forced to desperate lengths to try and rescue her child. However, the script is at least two rewrites from reaching a point, where the makers should have looked at it and decided to abandon the resulting project altogether as poorly conceived. For in its current in-car-nation (hohoho), there isn’t enough meat on its bones to make it through the road-trip.

Dir: Ivan Silvestrini
Star: Katrina Bowden, Krew + Nixon Hodges, Katherine Kelly Lang

Wynonna Earp: season one

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“Wynonna the Demon Slayer”

After a long absence, Wynonna Earp (Scrofano) returns to her home town of Purgatory, near the Rockies. There, we discover the truth about the death of her father and disappearance of her sister, events which precipitated Wynonna’s departure. Turns out the great-great-granddaughter of the legendary Wyatt Earp has a supernatural duty to fulfill, using her ancestor’s equally legendary 16-inch barrel “Peacemaker” revolver. Wyatt kept demons known as “revenants” in check, and the mission has been passed down the family line since, with Wynonna the current incumbent. Fortunately, mystical borders keep the revenants within the “Ghost River Triangle,” and she has the help of Deputy Marshal Xavier Dolls (Anderson), an agent in the “Black Badge” division of the US Marshals Service; Doc Holliday (Rozon), the now-immortal former friend of Wyatt; and Wynonna’s kid sister, Waverly (Provost-Chalkley).

Yeah, as the tag-line above suggest, there’s more than an echo of Buffy here, from Wynonna being the unwilling “chosen one”, through Purgatory being a hot-bed of supernatural activity (or “Hell Mouth”?), and the associated “Scooby Gang” who help out the heroine. Doc is a parallel for Angel, being a somewhat ambivalent immortal who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Wynonna. Dolls is Giles, the sensible adult of the group. And Waverly is a lumpy combination of Giles (research skills), Dawn (bratty little sister) and Willow (gratuitous lesbian tendencies). I’m not sure how many of these similarities come from Beau Smith’s comic which is the source here. It first appeared in 1996, when Buffy was still a failed movie, and not yet the successful TV series it would become. But the showrunner admits, when pitching Wynonna, she would describe it as “Buffy meets Justified.

So, if you’re looking for originality, you are far better off elsewhere, certainly. That said, the horror-Western is some way from being an over-familiar genre, and the obvious influences certainly do not mean it is without merit or appeal. There has been a real shortage of action heroine shows on American television – which leaves me happy to see, even one as derivative as this. I particularly liked Scofrano, who brings a cynical world-weariness to her mid-twenties character.The show also does a good job of disseminating information, striking a nice balance between revealing its secrets, and keeping the audience guessing. The middle episodes do degenerate a bit into ‘Occult Monster of the Week’ territory, yet the writers redeem themselves with a strong final arc that sets the stage nicely, and not too obviously, for the second season.

Wynonna [a spelling which looks plain weird, with at least one N too many] takes to her destiny with gleeful abandon, dispatching revenants with enthusiasm. It’s refreshing to see a heroine who doesn’t agonize endlessly about dispatching the enemy – even if in this case, it’s probably because they are already dead. Overall, I think the show will likely go as far as Scrofano can take it. If it takes advantage of the chance to improve, and does so to the same extent Buffy did (the cast there didn’t grow into their characters until perhaps the third series), it’ll certainly be worth another look.

Creator: Emily Andras
Star: Melanie Scrofano, Shamier Anderson, Tim Rozon, Dominique Provost-Chalkley

The Creature Below

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“Two tentacles up! Well, one  tentacle, at least.”

The mad scientist has been a staple of horror/SF for almost 200 years, since Victor Frankenstein first cranked up his machine. The worlds of literature and cinema have frequently returned to it since. A survey showed mad scientists or their creations to be the threat in 30% of horror films over a fifty-year period, and examples from one or other, include Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll, Herbert West, and Rotwang in Metropolis. But they have been almost exclusively male: after Frankenstein, it was 75 years before any comparable female character existed, the title character in George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff, from 1893. They have been rare ever since, with only the occasional entry such as Lady Frankenstein to break male domination.

This is another rare example, and what makes this movie particularly unusual, is the Lovecraftian overtones. While not based specifically on any of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, it is certainly set in the Cthulhu Mythos where his stories took place. Indeed, at one point, heroine Dr. Olive Crown (Dawson) hangs up her credentials from “Miskatonic University”, the fictional establishment often referenced by Lovecraft. Yet Lovecraft wrote almost exclusively about men, to the point where female characters are notable by their absence. Here though, it’s likely necessary, due to the maternal aspect of the storyline.

Dr. Crown is part of a deep-sea expedition, testing out a new underwater suit. A dive goes badly wrong, with Olive barely surviving, and being blamed for the accident, though she remembers very little of what happened. When checking the suit, she discovers an egg-like sac. Having already been fired, she smuggles it off the boat, and back to the basement of the house she shares with her boyfriend (Thrace). It hatches, and the creature begins a growing relationship with Olive, that’s part-psychic, part-mental and almost all creepy. Especially after she discovers that human blood is about the only thing it will consume. Fortunately, there are no shortage of potential snacks to hand, including her former boss and her adulterous sister (Longden).

If you were to describe this as a cross between The Thing and Hellraiser, you’d not be far off. There’s the creepy, tenticular monster of the former, as well as a soundtrack which is so close to John Carpenter’s electronic minimalism as to invite a lawsuit. Meanwhile, you have the lurking horror behind suburban walls from the Clive Barker adaptation, with a seemingly nice young woman luring victims in, to feed her monster pal.  Onto this combination, the film piles common Lovecraftian themes of growing insanity, against a backdrop of the “Old Gods” – once the object of cult devotion, these entities have not been destroyed, and are merely sleeping, waiting for their time to come again.

There are certainly a couple of mis-steps on the way, not least some horrendous CGI which is not needed at all – a painfully artificial shot of a ship sailing could easily have been skipped, and takes the viewer out of the mood entirely. The ending, similarly, goes at least one step (if not several) further than it needs to: this is one of those times when leaving things to the audience to fill in the blanks would have been a better bet. But the monster, in its various stages of growth, is impressively realized, especially given the obvious limitations of resources here. If falling short of the movies which it most closely imitates, those are some large, black boots to fill, and there’s enough here of merit to provide a creepily decent pay-off for the viewer.

Dir: Stewart Sparke
Star: Anna Dawson, Daniel Thrace, Michaela Longden, Johnny Vivash