Originally released in April last year, Winward by Chad A. Clark was an explosive and tense novel of small town terror. It is now being re-released with a brand spanking new cover next week, and Ginger Nuts of Horror is proud to bring you the first look at its new cover,
I loved this book, you can read my full review of it here. If you didn't pick it up on its first release make sure you fix it now, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Wendy and Rubin are on their way off for a weekend trip to spend with friends in the small, out-of-the-way town of Winward, Colorado. But what should have been time spent reconnecting will instead become something much worse.
Something has happened in Winward. An act of violence which neither Wendy nor Rubin can fully comprehend. And immediately upon arriving in town, they are drawn into a sequence of events completely out of their control. Their lives are about to be turned inside-out, and for an act as innocent as crossing the town line.
The darkness of Winward lurks within.
I grew up in a small town of five hundred people in Wyoming that everyone always pronounces wrong or spells incorrectly, Shoshoni (show show knee); I swear it’s a real place. My first novel, Dreamwalker: The Second Plain, is LGBTQ+ as are HOME and Daughter of Illusion. My other books include the Circus Tarot Trilogy (it’s Clowns and Tarot, what’s not to love), Hunger, Hydrangeas on the Lanai and Darkness is Coming. And last, but not least, I have two anthology collections, An Unnamed Acquaintance and Liaisons Macabre. Oh, yeah, I currently live with my husband of twenty-one years in Colorado with our three cats, ten crested geckos, and one saltwater fish tank.
Project to highlight: HOME https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01B9WW2QW
Amazon Author: https://www.amazon.com/Charles-W.-Jones/e/B005K038PY/
THE FIRST HORROR BOOK I REMEMBER READING
When I was maybe eleven, I came across The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson in my grandma’s collection of paperbacks. I remember being intrigued by the cover with the red house and lettering. I figured if my grandma read it, then it must be OK.
As I read, I was pulled further into this fantastic story about a family that was being tormented by ghosts, but that didn’t bother me, that’s nothing; dark and thunder, now that’s a different story. I read throughout the day while my brother and I waited for my grandma to get off work. When she came home, I sat on the couch reading. I put the book down, and the look on her face was priceless like she’d seen something from the pages I’d just read.
She was concerned that I’d have nightmares, and something like don’t come crying to me if you do was said, and she took the book from me. Then she stared at me a minute and saw that I was sad. I remember what she said next like it happened a minute ago. She said, “Hell, as long as you’re reading, who cares. Just don’t tell your mom.” From that day on, we had a bond that hadn’t been present before. We shared the love of horror.
THE FIRST HORROR FILM I REMEMBER WATCHING
Growing up, we had cable TV, which is amazing for a town of five hundred people, and one of those channels played old movies on Sunday afternoons. On one of these days, they showed The Masque of the Red Death starring Vincent Price. My mom laughed when she saw that it was on and said that she’d seen it in the theater when it was new.
There are parts of this movie that an eight-year-old shouldn’t see, but I couldn’t close my eyes or look away, I was in love. Seeing this movie later in life, I don’t understand why I flinched, but I was eight, so I guess I have to give myself some credit.
THE GREATEST HORROR BOOK OF ALL TIME
I’m obsessed with Cabal by Clive Barker. OK, that’s a lie. I’m obsessed with everything by Clive Barker, but this is my favorite. The story is dramatic, edgy, and a great fantasy. The horror aspects of it make me tingle. The creatures are strange and delightful, and I can’t get enough of it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, I know it’s over twenty.
THE GREATEST HORROR FILM OF ALL TIME
Oh shit, this is a difficult one. There are so many that I love, so I’m going with the first one that pops into my head. The Conjuring (2013) is the winner of the moment.
There is an intensity in this movie that I find rare in current films. It’s one of those that I have seen way too many times, and each time, I jump and my sphincter contracts in all the same spots. The exorcism scene freaks me out every time, even more than that in The Exorcist.
THE GREATEST WRITER OF ALL TIME
Huh, I wonder who that could be? Oh wait, I think I already answered this. Clive Barker is the one for me. The worlds he creates are what I aspire to make when I sit down to write.
He’s the only author that I’ve collected first editions of all of his books. And when I met him at a book signing for Visions of Heaven and Hell, all I could do was stare at him. It was the strangest thing. I’m never speechless.
THE BEST BOOK COVER OF ALL TIME
Like The Greatest Horror Film of all time, there are several that I find amazing, so again, I’m going with the first one that pops into my head. And the winner is from a book that I read in high school: Familiar Spirit by Lisa Tuttle.
It’s of a black cat with glowing eyes, and a mysterious figure is standing at the doorway of a spooky house with the same glow coming from inside the house. The cover captivated me then like it does now.
THE BEST FILM POSTER OFF ALL TIME
I love the artwork of B Movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The artistry is incredible, and I wish I could get my book covers to look like them, but I haven’t found an artist that I can afford. My favorite is The House on Haunted Hill (1959). The detail is phenomenal, making me want to watch the film.
THE BEST BOOK / FILM I HAVE WRITTEN
Oh, now we’re getting personal. HOME is the masterpiece that I let the Fallen Angel, Belphegor, take control and guide my fingers around the keyboard. He wants a meeting with God and tries to use Cody to make the appointment.
Main Street of my hometown is the setting, and I gave it one last breath of life before it was demolished both in the book and in real life. Even with the criticism, I get from the cover, I love this book. I’ve thought of changing it a few times to satisfy their needs from what has been said is “the nonsensical Romance-like cover,” but then I say, fuck that, it’s how HOME wants to be.
THE WORST BOOK / FILM I HAVE WRITTEN
I’m shaking my head as I write this because it’s not a bad book, it’s just on the verge of silly and is misunderstood, which was on purpose. Hydrangeas on the Lanai was my attempt at Gothic Horror with the overdramatic feel of a B-Movie. I believe that I hit the criteria for both. The reviews I’ve received for it, and the DM questions about it tell me that it was a flop.
THE MOST UNDERRATED FILM OF ALL TIME
That’s easy, Carnival of Souls (1962). I love this movie, but no one ever knows about it, and that’s a shame. It’s about Mary Henry, who was in an auto accident, then moves to Utah. As the story progresses, it’s unclear whether she’s hallucinating or what’s happening is real. So much of this movie makes little sense at the time, it’s like fragmented pieces of reality shoved together, and it’s all on purpose. Everything seen and felt is for a reason, adding a layer of chilling surrealism. The entire story feels like something Alfred Hitchcock would produce.
THE MOST UNDERRATED BOOK OF ALL TIME
Shameless plug time? Probably not. Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu. I don’t know anyone who’s heard of it when I talk about. It is one of the strangest, beautiful books I’ve ever read. The darkness that lurks around every turn gives a layer of edginess. If you haven’t read it, you should.
THE MOST UNDERRATED AUTHOR OF ALL TIME
My answer is because I’ve just learned of this author and had the honor of getting a copy of his most recent book, Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space. His name is Duncan P Bradshaw, and until a few months ago, I had no idea that he existed. Had I not been on Twitter at the right time when he asked for volunteers to read the book before its release, I’d probably still be in the dark about him.
THE BOOK / FILM THAT SACRED ME THE MOST
It by Stephen King tops that list for me, filling both the book and film category. Clowns have always freaked me out, and Pennywise took that fear and multiplied it by one thousand. Of course, that didn’t stop me from watching the original made for TV mini-series or seeing the recent remake and planning on seeing the sequel.
There’s something about being scared by a movie or book that’s exhilarating, and it makes me want to face my fears.
THE BOOK / FILM I AM WORKING ON NEXT
I’m currently writing the second book in the Eli Thompson series, Master of Ravens. It starts where Daughter of Illusion left off. The Fallen Angel who graciously accepted my invitation to be written about is Naberus. He’s not one of more widely known Fallen Angels, which I think is the reason he agreed; he wants to get the word out. The violence level is just as high as in Daughter of Illusion, so if you haven’t read that one already…yeah, you know where I’m going with that.
Eli Thompson has witnessed many disturbing things in his life, but when he has a vision of despicable acts, he isn’t sure what to do until he is told that he needs to leave his comfortable home in Wyoming and go to Denver, CO. When he arrives there, he still doesn’t know why he’s there until his senses lead him to a restaurant in LODO where a grisly act has occurred.After Eli is arrested by Detective Jonas Wechsler for being at a crime scene, they discover that other crimes where the perpetrator has vanished have happened and are entwined with the same Fallen Angel, Agrat bat Mahlat, who desires to bring about change to the world by sacrificing men to Samael. Quickly, they learn that there are other players in this vile plan, one a pawn to carry out the Fallen Angel’s orders, and two siblings, who were separated at birth.Eli and Jonas, against the wishes of their Watchers, decide to confront Agrat, finding themselves in a precarious predicament.Warning! This book contains graphic violence, sexual content, and other vulgarities.
EUGEN BACON, AUTHOR OF CLAIMING T-MO AND WRITING SPECULATIVE FICTION ON WRITING HORROR AND THE PARANORMAL PART 2
Writing horror and the paranormal part 2 by Eugen Bacon, author of Claiming T-Mo and Writing Speculative Fiction
Eugen Bacon loves chocolate, sake, Toni Morrison and Ray Bradbury. She has sold many stories and articles, together with anthologies. Her stories have won, been shortlisted and commended in international awards, including the Bridport Prize, L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest and Copyright Agency Prize. Recent publications: Writing Speculative Fiction, Macmillan (2019). Claiming T-Mo, Meerkat Press (2019). In 2020: A Pining, Meerkat Press. Black Moon, IFWG. Inside the Dreaming, Newcon Press.
Writing horror and the paranormal
I was seven or eight and it was night. I was sprawled on a coach in the living room with my mother. She must have forgotten I was there, or perhaps she thought I was asleep. She was watching TV, a British horror I Don’t Want to be Born, sometimes titled Sharon’s Baby, starring Joan Collins, Eileen Atkins and Ralph Bates.
The drownings, the stabbings, the hangings, the decapitations. They stayed with me, that trail of death surrounding a sinister infant whose evil refused to give in to exorcism. My child mind augmented the horror, the parallels of a cooing baby with fat legs in a pram and the spate of unusual deaths.
Weeks after, my life sat on pause in that terrible world. I crept about holding out a crucifix and scattering holy water—my mother was a devout Catholic so there were plenty of these. I observed babies with a wary eye and could not close an eye without lights on. It took years for me to disremember the uncanniness around the possessed baby, the effect of a curse after a woman rebuffed a dwarf. I still remember the fear—it was as real as touch. Shadows with heartbeats lurking under my bed.
What I experienced from watching this paranormal horror was fear, revulsion and spook, and it contained all three types of terror King posted about on Facebook to his over 16,000 followers, and me:
The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …
That is what a good horror story does to you.
Revisit the terror you felt as a child when you visited a theme park: how the tiniest hairs at the nape of your neck stood as you stepped into the circus of screams. Remember how, as you trod or rode in a cart along the darkened trail, there was a presence: a wisp of breath, a feather-light touch, a whisper in the shadows, a silhouette inside fog, a flicker of nights, a howl of laughter … How you barely breathed until a burst of light summoned you back to fresh air.
Stories continue to evolve around the Bermuda triangle that has inexplicably vanished so many people, planes, ships. Paranormal stories contain a supernatural element, for instance an atmosphere, an entity, a poltergeist. Cinematic examples include director Hideo Nakata’s psychology horror The Ring (Ringu in Japanese), where the ghost of a seer’s daughter murders within seven days anyone who watches a mysterious video tape; Andrew Douglas’ The Amityville Horror, where demonic forces terrorize newlyweds in an abandoned house; and James Wan’s The Conjuring, where paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine seek to resolve a dark force terrorizing a family in a remote farmhouse. A classic paranormal tale is Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, many times adapted into a film or television drama, a ghost story that transforms the miser Mr Scrooge.
Commonalities in these narratives are isolation, the uncanny—the strong element in the paranormal.
This is a great start to writing startling horror and the paranormal.
*First published in Eugen Bacon’s Writing Speculative Fiction, Macmillan (2019)
Writing Speculative Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches (Approaches to Writing) by Eugen Bacon
In this engaging and accessible guide, Eugen Bacon explores writing speculative fiction as a creative practice, drawing from her own work, and the work of other writers and theorists, to interrogate its various subgenres. Through analysis of writers such as Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, this book scrutinises the characteristics of speculative fiction, considers the potential of writing cross genre and covers the challenges of targeting young adults. It connects critical and cultural theories to the practice of creative writing, examining how they might apply to the process of writing speculative fiction. Both practical and critical in its evaluative gaze, it also looks at e-publishing as a promising publishing medium for speculative fiction.
This is essential reading for undergraduate and postgraduate students of Creative Writing, looking to develop a critical awareness of, and practical skills for, the writing of speculative fiction. It is also a valuable resource for creators, commentators and consumers of contemporary speculative fiction.
2019 Buried Alive Film Fest will be held on Nov. 13-17 at 7 Stages Theatre!!!
1105 Euclid Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30307
Ginger Nuts of Horror is thrilled to have the Bloodhound Pix crew cover the Buried Alive Film Festival. We are particularly looking forward to covering VFW, Joe Begos’ follow up to Bliss, and Antrum. Thanks to BAFF for letting us cover the fest!
Here’s a link to the full schedule: http://buriedalivefilmfest.com/schedule/
Come out and see some of the best independent films in the world! This November the Buried Alive Film Fest has a new home at 7 Stages Theatre located in the heart of Little 5 Points Atlanta. Also their new location is connected to the great coffee house and bar, Java Lords, making it easy to grab a drink or coffee and enjoy a beverage in the theatre!
They will return with some of the most disturbing, visually appealing, and scary independent horror films in the world. Out of all of the submissions their judges have narrowed it down to this fine selection of horror gems. So grab a drink and see them all on a big screen with nice comfy seats!
The modern age of digital film-making has flooded the market with tons of films, one seemingly indistinguishable from the next. The depth and breadth of horror fandom, combined with the rapid growth of independent film-making, have led to an explosion in indie films dealing with the terrifying, macabre, gory, and bizarre.
Their films are not for the faint hearted or timid. We pride ourselves on finding the weird, the gross, and the horrifying. With that being said we consider our general festival rating to be 17+ or R-rated. Which means no child under the age of 17 without a proper guardian.
The Buried Alive Film Fest comes from the same group of twisted minds and horror film buffs that founded Gorehound Productions and Atlanta Horrorfest 14 years ago. Together they strive to promote true underground filmmaking in the Southeast and beyond, while providing the Atlanta area with the best independent horror has to offer. Their long history of partnership with such Atlanta community standbys as the Chambers of Horror Haunted House, Zombie Walk Atlanta, Zombie Pub Crawl Atlanta, and Splatter Cinema leaves them in a unique position to promote both those new to filmmakers and longtime underground icons.
Some of the highlights of the festival are
4th annual Sinema Challenge!
See the films that Atlanta filmmakers come up with in 13 days. After randomly drawing a horror genre and a subject card from Cards Against Humanity, they then have 13 days to produce their horror masterpiece. Make sure you are here early for this one of a kind event. It’s a lot of fun and always sells out.
Antrum: The Deadliest Movie Ever Made
Dir. Michael Laicini and David Amito – USA – 95min
Antrum, a feature length film shot in the late 1970’s, is cursed. In 1988, a movie theatre in Budapest that was screening the film burnt to the ground, killing the 56 people who were in attendance. This incident follows the inexplicable deaths of a number of film festival programmers that had received Antrum as a submission and died shortly after watching the film. These events culminated with a riot during an exhibition in San Francisco, after which the film vanished. These events have created a belief that watching Antrum will you kill you. Else Films has successfully tracked down a sole copy of the film for public release. This is that film.
Dir. Joe Begos – USA – 91min
VFW follows Fred and his military buddies as they must defend their local VFW post – and an innocent teen – against a deranged drug dealer and his relentless army of punk mutants. These Vietnam vets have been to hell and back, but this will be the longest night of their lives.
Dir. Ben Winston – USA (Local) – 68min
Two reckless bikers on a provocative, nightmarish journey through the mountains. Shot entirely on black and white 16mm film. It invokes the aesthetic of the classic films of the 1970s.
This is definitely not a review. This will definitely contain massive, total spoilers for the Joker movie. Proceed accordingly - and with the understanding that in my view, this is a movie best experienced cold as possible; in other words, if you’re going to go see it, maybe come back here after.
To steal an out of context quote from Guardian-reviewed horror author James Everington; Well, fuck.
I guess I’ll start with the disclaimers; Joker is a cultural icon that is incredibly important to me. I was a pretty avid Batman fan from the ages of thirteen to my mid twenties, and his rogues gallery in general, and Joker in particular, was a huge part of the reason why. And while I owned and enjoyed The Killing Joke, I was still - am still - ideologically opposed to the notion of a Joker origin story. For me, one of the central brilliances of the conceit of Joker is his fundamental unknowableness - even as the arch nemesis of the World’s Greatest Detective, he’s the one member of the Batman’s rogues gallery for whom the entry on the Batcomputer reads ‘Real Name: Unknown’.
So to describe my feelings as I sat down to watch this movie for the first time as mixed would be an understatement. ‘Who says I’m indecisive? I’m conflicted!’ as the mayor in Dark Knight Returns would put it. I think what tipped me into seeing it was mainly the initial critical response, which seemed.... Well, not universally positive, but it did seem to indicate it would be the kind of movie I would like.
I do also feel compelled to add that at least part of my wanting to see it was the, in my view, embarrassingly overwrought reaction to the trailer - the trailer, mind, not the film - from some people on the left/liberal twittersphere. For the first time in my usage of that site, I felt compelled to use the ‘mute word’ function to stop me seeing hot takes from people I under other circumstances like, posting commentary that in some cases wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from the mouth of Tipper Gore or Mary Whitehouse. I think the vast majority of nonsense talked about the ‘censorious left’ is grotesquely overblown, and often mistakes critique for censure (and even in this case, I feel compelled to add that nobody I saw was calling for the film to be banned, only rather performatively stating their intention not to see it), so it’s profoundly irritating to me when there’s an event like this and I see that, unfortunately, there is a small kernel of truth to some of the claims - or, at least, were in this case.
And it's doubly frustrating because, in my view, almost all of that commentary is just… wrong. As in, not in the movie.
Take the whole ‘incel as hero’ moral panic; the movie undercuts this completely, and indeed effectively deflates, if not demolishes, most of the ‘moral panic’ arguments against the film. These fears rest ultimately on a concern that the film is somehow ‘making it cool’, ‘it’ being murder and/or mayhem and/or mysogony and/or pick your bette nior of choise. But the movie just does not do this because Fleck/Joker in this movie (thank you Jack Graham for this observation) is simply never, ever cool.
The central performance by Phoenix is mesmerising, and you can’t take your eyes off him - I mean that literally, as he’s on camera for almost the entire running time of the movie, and mostly center shot at that. He is, at moments, deeply pitiable, with an awful vulnerability and a desperate loneliness. But he is also shown as self absorbed, delusional, and unambiguously homicidal, and in none of those moments is the audience invited to enjoy or take glee in his awful actions. This is, in some ways, a revenge narrative, but it’s a revenge narrative that utterly fails to deliver any catharsis, at any point.
It was interesting to me that the movies early 80’s aesthetic seems to feed into that, making the movie visually reminiscent of, sure, Taxi Driver, but also Death Wish, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection. Hell, there’s even the odd moment when Pheonix looks into the camera where I felt I could detect an echo of Bales’ Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, in the set of the jaw and glint of the eyes. Flecks social situation is, of course, markedly worse than Bateman’s in every conceivable way (except, perhaps, at the start, with regard to his loving relationship with his mother, though that also ends up providing a catalysing moment for his spiral into psychosis in the final reel); still, there are some commonalities between the two men that are deeply uncomfortable.
Similarly, in the subway sequence where Fleck kills for the first time there are clear visual and narrative echos of Jodie Foster vehicle The Brave One; though, again, the differences are crucial, as they remove any sense of catharsis from the scene. Yes, the three men who start hassling the woman before turning on Fleck, are awful, gross men, all entitlement and boozy aggression and flashy watches. Still, Fleck is no hero. When he sees the woman's discomfort, he doesn’t try to intervene; he looks away, and it’s only his involuntary laughter that provides her an opportunity to escape, as the men turn their attention to him.
The scene itself is also shot and edited exquisitely, the use of the frequent flickering and occasional brief blackout of the lights giving events a sense of hyper reality; also feeding into the first gun shot, so that for a second, it's not clear what the flash signifies, though the noise and blood soon provide unwelcome clarity. To steal a meme, this sequence is going to be taught in film classes.
In this section, though, there are two crucial narrative events that turn it away from the catharsis of Foster’s pre-emptive revenge on her would-be rapists - one obvious, the other subtle, but I think ultimately more telling.
The first is that he shoots all three. The first killing could have been justifiable - certainly the look on Fleck’s face as the gun goes off is one of deep shock, and by the point he’s taking the shot, he’s lying on the floor being kicked by three men. I mean, people have been killed as a result of that kind of beating, and if you have a society that allows gun ownership (though earlier Fleck says ‘I’m not allowed to have that’ when a coworker first gives him the pistol, indicating his history of mental health may, in Gotham, if not in the real US, mean he’s not allowed to exercise his 2nd amendment rights) then, sure, it’s self defense.
And the second guy, it’s very quick after, so it could almost - almost - seem like just an overreaction, adrenaline.
But then there’s the third guy, who he wounds, then chases down, then shoots. In the back. And then stands over him and shoots some more, until he’s out of bullets.
This is not how heroes behave. Well, unless they are six year olds in an Orson Scott Card novel.
But the more subtle moment is, I think the more interesting one, and it’s this; the first shooting looks very much like an accident.
The reason I find this so significant is that in a standard revenge narrative - indeed, especially in The Brave One, which this sequence clearly visually references - the moment the protagonist pulls the trigger is a moment of empowerment and profound catharsis - both for them, and more importantly, for us. It gives us what we came for, after all; the worm turning, the bullied/victim turning the tables and asserting (lethal) power - blood for blood and by the gallons. This is what we want, as we chomp on my popcorn (and when I say we, I certianly include myself; I fucking love revenge movies, even bad ones). It’s a moment of release, of transformation, and it’s grit-your-teeth awesome… and Joker doesn’t do it. Not that way.
Instead, Fleck looks almost more scared than the two survivors. The second time he pulls the trigger, he’s still flinching, the gun bucking in his hand; not so much an instrument of powerful revenge as an out of control animal with a lethal bark. Even as he hunts down and kills the third man, the gun is out in front the whole way, his arm locked, almost as if it is drawing him towards his victim.
I am not - I really am not - trying to say Fleck doesn’t have agency in this moment; that would be totally wrong, and I think is neither intended nor implied. What I am saying is this scene manages to take one of the most iconic, pivotal moments in any revenge narrative - the first kill, the moment the ‘hero’ Takes Back Control - and utterly subverts it, making it what it always was, always should be; something squalid, and mean, and horrible, and utterly without merit, or joy, or catharsis.
The fucking Joker movie does this. I mean, that the fuck is gonig on here?
It’s far from the only time the film does this, of course. One reading of it might be that the entire film is a conscious effort to undermine and subvert every single trope there’s ever been about the ‘lone nut’ vigilante killer, positive or negative. Like, there’s Fleck’s relationship with his mother, which is, initially, loving and at least nominally mutually supportive - sure, she says cruel things to him at times (‘don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?’) but she says it out of innocence, not malice, and Flecks simple devotion to her as he bathes her is a moment that could so easily have been played for creeps, but it’s not. Instead, it’s one of the more realistic portrayals of the life of a carer that I’ve ever seen, as well as standing as a mute but powerful rebuke to a society that demands its least fortunate, and most of need, spend all their time and energy caring for each other as best they can. Fleck is not a sympathetic character, but he is, again, a deeply pitiable one. It’s also telling that when she’s later revealed to have been abusive (by profound neglect at the very least - though one of the many areas of ambiguity the film contains is what the nature of Flecks mothers mental health issues are, beyond clearly present and profound) the moment he takes her life (again, a staple of the revenge narrative, the abused child as adult kills their abuser) is totally robbed of catharsis, yet again subverting the trope. It’s squalid. It’s horrible. And it solves nothing.
But then the subvertions are part of the point. The movie, like Fleck, keeps trying on and discarding personas, voices, genres. It’s a supervillain origin story, no, wait, gritty social realism, no, revenge narrative a la Taxi Driver, no, it’s the King Of Comedy, wait, no, it’s some fucked up Hamlet/Oedipus hybrid, no it’s a political treatise on mental health, oops, nope, it’s Fight Club, No, V for Vendetta, oh, wait, no… It’s kaleidoscopic, and I’m making it sound like a mess, but it isn’t, it’s coherent, it’s just… a lot.
Another central pillar of the film is ambiguity. Now, I have to be honest here; generally speaking, I am not a fan. When it comes to narrative, I’m often painfully conservitive - while I am in theory fine with a story that’s open to interpretation, and tolerant of unusual structure, in my heart of hearts, I’m an old fashioned ‘beginning-middle-and-end’ kind of guy.
I think part of what I like about Joker is how it still delivers that kind of narritive, but the ambiguity is nonetheless powerful and pervasive, and delivers some incredible twists along the way. I think it's also important to note that the film doesn’t cheat; Flecks unreliability as a narrator is signposted early. In the first twenty minutes,, we’re given a truly cringe-inducing trip inside Flecks daydreams as he watches the Murray Franklin show, and fantasises about being ‘discovered’ and called up on stage. The fantasy itself is sophomoric, if not outright infantile, which is part of why it’s so painful to watch; it’s sweet, Arthur is sweet, and the naked, raw desire for acceptance that the moment represents I found almost physically painful to experience. And sure, part of that is knowing, given the title, this can’t possibly end well (indeed the movie is merciless in exploiting the sense of dread, of descent, that the title and Flecks first scenes imply), but I think it hurts pretty bad on it’s own account. Who amongst us has not etc…
So we know Fleck has a powerfully realised if child-like inner life, and it was also immediately clear to me that his relationship with his neighbour was entirely in his head - though it was only on second viewing that I realised the big clue was her knowing his name without asking, or having any obvious means of knowing it. But the impact this unrelaibility has on other scenes is profound. Like, does the confrontation with Thomas Wayne really happen? The way Fleck gains access to the cinema seems like something out of a bad TV show (hell, when I saw him in the outrageously old fashioned attendant uniform, it felt like a nod to the 60’s Batman TV show, in some ways) but, equally, like something out of the second half of Fight Club. There’s nothing in the rest of the story to tell us either way. And that ambiguity is interesting because it feeds into the central ambiguity, not just unresolved but, by the end of the picture, unresolvable; is Thomas Wayne Fleck’s father?
When we initially learn of the possibility, it’s an incendiary moment; and one that plays with metatextual knowledge in a really fascinating way. As I sat there, I found myself thinking; Wait, they can’t, can they? I mean, DC signed this off, so surely… *thinks about everything I’ve seen so far* - wait, DC SIGNED THIS OFF!!! How is ANY of this happening? And as it IS happening, who’s to say…? But, surely…?
The thing is, by that point, Thomas Wayne has already undergone a pretty severe assault on his character - most especially from his own lips. His performance on the morning news program is appalling; distant, patrician, arrogant, with a distaste for the poor that spills over into contempt. He’s vile, classic white rich privilege, lauding the dead wall street jerks as family and good men (and we know all about the horseshit behind that particular claim) while leaving his former employee (and again, that much is later verified) to rot in slum conditions. Chuck in the baffling, tone-deaf choice of a gala fundraising black tie screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times, FFS, as Gotham starts boiling over, and we’re left with a portrait so unsympathetic, I am amazed it got past DC head office. That’s fucking Batman’s dad, y’all. Even if all the other bits that have a hint of ambiguity didn’t happen - even if he never punched Fleck, even if Fleck’s mother was totally delusional - it’s still a portrait of a fucking monster. Add in the totally delicious moment where he utterly damns his son’s future career by decrying those who would wear masks as ‘cowardly’ and, yeah, this is uncharted territory for the Batman mythos, and one I find fascinating, even as I suspect this movie almost has to represent some wired cul de sac in terms of DC cinematic universe continuity (like, is there really anyone who thinks putting Fleck!Joker into a Robert Pattinson Batman flick is a good idea?).
Still, the ambiguity of Fleck’s parentage is the most powerful of these moments, not just because it’s left unresolved but because, as I noted above, it’s unresolvable. Yes, the papers from Arkham that Fleck reads could be true, sure they could; we know there’s something wrong with his mother, beyond just physical frailty, after all. At the same time, as the film explicitly points out, Wayne has all the money, power and influence in the world - if he did have an affair with her, he could have covered it up, even got her committed; it’s happened, all too often, to women who have the misfortune of first attracting and then becoming inconvenient to powerful men. The movie never comes down on one side (I felt sure it would, again imagining the suits would demand it, but apparently not), and when Fleck reads through the papers, first imagining himself inside his mothers interrogation room, and then finally enduring a hysterical laughing fit that is painful to watch, we’re left wondering how much he has worked all of this out; it the hysteria that’s about the pivot into psychosis at heart a reaction to knowing he’ll never know? Although, the photo of his young mother, with the inscription on the back - ‘I like your smile! - TW’ as he’s putting on his pre-show makeup sure twists the knife one last time (a moment very reminiscent of The Crow, another revenge narrative movie this film utterly skewers by inversion).
Because Fleck throughout the film is on a ceaseless quest for identity, and it’s that quest to pursue and protect those brittle identities that lead to almost all his actions; he chases the street kids to get back the sign from his clowning job, and later carries the gun that gets him fired for similar reasons. His pursuit of stand up comedy is an attempt to pivot from clowning to something he imagines he wants more (and of course, his imagined girlfriend watching adoringly is an attempt to create another role for himself to play). His maybe-not-even-real infiltration of the gala screening (and his almost-seduction of child Bruce Wayne at the manor gates, a wonderful sequence where Pheonix runs an incredible emotional and tonal gamut in a very short period of time - trying on and discarding a few more masks in the process, as I think about it) are both attempts to redefine himself as a son with a father and brother.
It’s heartbreaking, and it’s pitiful, and it’s desperately sad; and it’s also explicit in the text that none of this shit would even be happening if he’d been kept on his meds or even better, kept in the hospital he claims he was happy in during his first therapy session. One of the most baffling parts of the entire Joker experience, for me, was seeing far-right YouTube TrollScum Paul Joseph Watson declare the movie to be one of the best of the century, while blithely claiming it exposed the fatal flaws in… the left?!? I mean to say, in a movie set in the 80’s, where the entire narrative needs the Reagan policy of emptying state asylums and putting people with mental health issues literally on the street to be the backstory, the catalyst, for the entire bloody narrative… Well, you see my point. Mystifying.
It was disconcerting, all the same, and one of the reasons I wanted to see it again. I think where I’ve gotten to, following that viewing, is that, like Starship Troopers or even my beloved Robocop, there’s no film you can make on the subject of violence that won’t be misinterpreted by some meathead, somewhere, as saying the opposite of what it’s actually saying (or in the case of Joker, screaming).
Because, in keeping with the subversion of the revenge narrative I’ve been riffing on throughout, the movie also pulls a very significant rug in the final act, which is that in addition to there being no catharsis, we don’t get the moment when the Joker… becomes. I have to hat-tip Jack Graham again specifically for this observation, because it’s dead on and hugely revealing; at no point in this movie is the Joker ever, ever cool.
You keep thinking it’s going to happen. You keep waiting for it to happen.By the final fifteen minutes, you’re practically bursting with anticipation; and when he starts dancing down the steps, you go, aha! Here we…. And then the cops show up and it all goes to shit before it’s even begun.
This fucking movie, man.
Like, it doesn’t even do it in the grand climax. The other moment you think it’s going to happen, when The Fucking Joker is finally going to arrive and fuck shit up is when he’s walking through the curtain to be on the Murray Franklin show. And the set up is there, and the slo-mo is there… and then he sits down; and despite the performative entrance, he’s got nothing. He’s still Fleck, just in a suit and with green hair. He cycles through his rehearsed voices, trying to find a mode that fits, and he can’t, because they don’t, because he doesn’t, because… he doesn’t.
Instead, he makes a spur of the moment decision to kill Murray instead of enacting the suicide he’d reherarsed so carefully. And it’s not cathartic. It’s fucking horrible. It’s pointless, it’s empty, it’s meaningless.
And, see, here’s the thing; that’s how revenge stories should always make you feel. Because, here in the really real world that is, almost all the time, where revenge will lead you. Self hatred, self loathing. Nowhere good. No where you want to be.
Don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying you need to or should forgive. Be angry if it serves you. Hate, if it sustains you. But fucking live. Because living well is the best revenge. Maybe the only revenge worth a damn.
Before I close, I want to dig into one other aspect of the movie; that of the depictions of mental health. Now, full disclosure, I’ve had the odd brush with mental health issues in my life - nothing really serious or life threatening, thankfully, but enough to have had some pretty shit times, down the years, every now and then. So I do not and wouldn’t want to erase the experience of anyone who feels differently… but I was basically okay with how it was handled here. It’s self evidently not unproblematic - at the end of the movie ‘Joker’ is clearly ‘crazy’ and a killer, and that’s got all the usual stigmatization problems (made all the worse, arguably, by how we’ve seen him at better times, had to watch the deterioration to that final state) but, well, two things.
Firstly, the movie makes it so explicit you’d have to be literally Paul Joseph Watson to miss it; Fleck’s descent into sociopathy, whilst perhaps always being something he carried the potential for, simply wouldn’t have happened without the brutal and systematic cuts in services to the most vulnerable in society. Full stop. If the world worked as it should, Fleck and his mother would both have been in some kind of assisted living scheme with regular home help and appropriate medication, and they’d be doing just fine. It’s the world - specifically a Republican inspired, Reaganite world, Watson, you fucking dipshit, one typified by billionares like Wayne wanking themselves off on live TV over their ‘self madeness’ while ordinary people rot and bleed in a devil-take-the-hindemost society that treats empathy as an amusing diversion for the ultrarich and a fucking liability for anyone else - that creates this Joker. It was preventable, and in that sense it’s as clear a tragedy as you’re ever likely to see.
But/and/also… he’s the fucking Joker. He’s crazy. He’s always been crazy. Yes, it’s true that the vast majority - the vast majority of people with mental health issues are not violent, and are disproportionately at risk of violence both from others and to themselves. Indeed, the movie shows both of these cases, with Fleck suffering indignities both great and small as he tries to navigate the world that’s squeezing him ever tighter. He also reherases suicide, like, a lot, and at one point, in one of the most ambigious moments in a very ambigious film, climbs into a fridge and shuts the door behind him, before inexplicably being located on the bed in the room next door when the phone rings to invite him on the Murray Franklin show the following morning.
And I know one specific complaint is that Flecks particular combination of symptoms are highly irregular to the level of almost being functionally impossible to see in one person. And, you know, not a mental health professional or expert here, that might be so. I do know (from personal experience) that someone can have more than one thing going on at once, mental health wise, and that symptoms and causes can get a bit tangled.
Suffice it to say Fleck is an extreme case in any number of ways. Also, ‘almost never’ is not never. It nearly is, but… so if you want to complain that it’s yet another fucking movie depicting someone with mental health issues as dangerous, yeah, sure, it is. And if you’re worried that feeds the bullshit Republican thing about how ‘we need to look at mental health’ as a substitute for real gun control, sure, I hear you, that’s a thing, all right.
But while ‘dangerously mentally ill’ is undeniably a grossly overrepresented demographic in hollywood movies, I have to say I cannot think of an example that comes anywhere near to treating that difficult, spikey topic with the respect and depth it deserves. Not the way Joker does. It is a devastating and damning portrait of a broken society, and the damage that does to the most vulnerable.
Fleck is not a hero. Joker is not a hero. What he does is inexcusable.
But to understand is not to excuse. And he is - also - a victim.
And this fucking movie is fucking amazing.
Since the ashen husks of video game company Konami's beloved -but criminally abused and neglected- franchises have begun to cool in the post-apocalyptic breeze, a number of independent video game developers have rushed in to fill the voids left in their wake.
Appetite for the likes of Castelvania, Contra/Probotector and, of course, Silent Hill (sob) is still acute, despite Konami's inablity or unwillingness to do anything with these franchises.
As such, independent video game creators (some of them partially formed from Konami's own much-abused ex-staff) have taken it upon themselves to feed that desire, creating numerous sub-genres within the market that Konami once monopolised.
Not least amongst these sub-genres is the so-called Metroidvania, the term a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, refering to that peculiar species of action-platformer begun with Castelvania: Symphony of the Night, which blends the gothic horror stylings and action platforming of the latter with the exploration and upgrade elements of the former.
Unambiguously successful, the sub-genre has spawned any number of sequels, immitators and entirely new franchises, but was, up until relatively recently, dominated by the Castelvania franchise.
That is, until Konami simply stopped producing the damn games.
As a result of that lack, the independent scene has exploded with the likes of Axiom Verge, a fantastic science fiction game that blends elements of the original Metroid with a much a more H.R. Giger-eseque, surreal horror aesthetic, Bloodstained, a game which is essentially Castelvania in all but name (even boasting one of Castelvania's lead creators) and Hollow Knight, a slightly more cartoony, innocent-looking adventure but which nevertheless retains all of the action and exploration characteristic of the genre.
Then, recently, a surprise entry; a Kickstarter campaign made good; a work that came out of nowhere, afflicting us with unexpected but welcome trauma:
The horrific, disturbing, painterly masterpiece that is Blasphemous.
Blasphemous is a game that distinguishes itself from its conemptoraries not in design or mechanics or composition; in all of those areas, it is entirely derivative. There is nothing here that we haven't seen from Metroidvania titles before. The basic game mechanics are old-fashioned platforming and combat; the player explores areas by navigating series of platforms and traps and monsters, learning how to deal with certain layouts and placements as they go, collecting various items and upgrades, acquiring new powers, spells (“songs,” in this instance) and everything, everything, everything that players of Metroidvania titles will be familiar with. No one playing this will be surprised by any particular mechanic or mode of play; the game is so utterly familiar, the player hardly even needs to read any kind of instructions, pay attention to on-screen hints or whatever. We already know; it's embedded in our muscle memory and has been since time out of mind.
This game is unabashedly, unashamedly, Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, Harmony of Dissonance and the rest. It makes absolutely no bones about the fact.
However, it also blends certain other influences that one might not necessarily expect:
The game is unforgiving. Vicious, at times, its enemy placement, its tricks and traps, the manner in which it forces the player to stop and consider how to approach certain situations, highly redolent of From Software's Dark Souls and Bloodborne, both titles that the game resembles in other key ways as well:
As in those games, lore and back mythology is not specifically communicated. There is very little exposition or clear communication in the post-apocalyptic, gothic fantasy setting of Custodia: rather, like Lordran, Drangleic, Lothric and Yharnam before it, the player must piece together particular interpretations of what might be occuring from implication and inference. There is a swathe of written lore in this game, largely centring on the various items and relics that the player can pick up, all of which come with their own oblique, often quite abstract tale that fleshes out the world, that hints at a rich and florrid back-history, but which is never specifically detailed or constricted by particular accounts.
Again, this is a form of storytelling that is particular to the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games, and one that I personally adore; it obliges the player to engage with the world in a manner that simply providing absolute background and mythology does not; players must immerse themselves to some degree in the sumptuous, blood-sodden richness of Custodia, they must come to understand the hideously masochistic, self-flagellating ethos of this setting in a way that players of many other Metroidvania titles simply don't. There is a sincere and extremely detailed story here; one that, as in Dark Souls, has largely already occurred when the player takes their first steps; this is the aftermath of world-shaking, epoch-making events. We, as the faceless, nameless Penitent One, may be the cypher for some new age, but the mechanisms have already begun turning without us. That is made very particular from our earliest steps: the world of Custodia is a broken and degenerate one, filled with the ruins of ancient temples and cities and shrines, with the lunatic, wandering remnants of ancient cults and communities that no longer have any kind of coherent philosophy or presence within the world. This is desolation in its sincerest form; the decay not only of physical civilisation, but of the ideologies that inform it.
Given that the game is, at base, a 2D action adventure in a style that has been around for over two decades, to achieve this level of implied background, of aesthetic and atmospheric storytelling, is nothing short of miraculous (if you'll pardon the pun).
Key to that mythology is a nebulous and deliberately oblique notion known only as The Miracle. As to what The Miracle actually is, was or implies, that depends on who you talk to in Custodia, and even then, the notion remains ill-defined. What is known is that The Miracle occurred at some point in Custodia's past and redefined its every culture, its politics, its structure. In that, it's highly redolent of Gwyn's kindling of The First Flame in Dark Souls; a metaphysical event that is highly mysterious, that reorients reality itself with its profundity. Here, The Miracle is what inspires Custodia's obsession with suffering, pennance and self-mortification. Later in the game, the player is given the story of where The Miracle derives from, which then makes some of the imagery in the game even more profound and fascinating to interpret.
The game distinguishes itself not through how it plays or how it's structured, but by how it feels. Whilst it is wholly derivative in terms of mechanics, design etc, in terms of its ethos and atmosphere, it's a wonderfully bleak, cruel, desolate experience that drawers a world teetering on the edge of metaphysical collapse, a world that has been devolving and disintegrating for perhaps centuries when The Penitent One finally awakens and sets out on his journey.
From the first instance, the most striking element of the game is its art design. Deriving influences from sources as diverse as certain forms of Renaissance and medieval art, Catholic tradition, the Crusades, witch trials, The Spanish Inquisition, The Burning Times, horror art, cinema and literature, the game is aesthetically quite unlike anything that has ever been seen in the medium before.
Custodia is a world whose sincere metaphysics revolves around pain, the beauty of suffering and self-mortification. Its every culture, its every creed, its every inhabitant is built around certain notions of enshrined suffering: some churches, for example, are derived from “saints” or prophets who exhibited particular forms of mutilation (either self-inflicted or divinely administered), and so seek to emulate that mutilation in their own bodies (the wonderfully named “Convent of Our Lady of the Charred Visage” is a key example). Through pain, through pennance, the peoples of this world believe they can achieve a kind of cleanliness, but also a form of transcendence. Some, such as the Genuflectors, ensure that they are always half-crippled and bent double by binding their arms behind their backs and tying weights to their hair and beards, dragging their heads down towards the ground. Every enemy you'll encounter in the game are members of particular cults that have afflicted themselves with certain forms of suffering, from scarred and naked women who have bound themselves to great chunks of holy sepulchres that they drag around on their backs to men, women and children who have buried themselves in the earth, erupting only to claw and bite at The Penitent One as he passes. No species or form of suffering, humiliation or pennance has been ignored, here; the game designers have taken every pain (a-ha) to ensure that the denizens of Custodia exhibit suffering elaborate enough to make the likes of Francisco de Goya, Dante or Clive Barker baulk.
Many of these entities, certainly the larger and more elaborate ones, are derived from specific pieces of art or characters in particular paintings by the likes of Bosch, Goya and numerous others. It is quite spectacular to witness strange and elaborate entities that have only ever been static in paint and canvas suddenly brought to life. Disturbing imagery and wholly unpleasant scenes abound throughout; nothing here is about salvation from pain or avoiding humiliation, but accruing and emphasising it. The Penitent One is not some saviour intent on purging Custodia of its ills. If anything, he is a facilitator of them, slaughtering his way through the land, murdering great saints and divine entities until he finally makes his way to the one who presides over every church, every cult and mystery: Escribar, the Keeper of the Divine Miracle and the host of all suffering in Custodia.
Interestingly, as in so many of its influences, the game exercises a certain ambiguity in this regard: this isn't a tale of “good versus evil” or of salvation from damnation: Escribar is not an antagonist in the traditional sense. He does nothing vastly evil or untoward regarding The Penitent One or the rest of Custodia. Rather, it is suggested that The Penitent One might be the key to his final salvation; the means by which the man's ancient suffering might be undone and another set in his place.
Whether the player succeeds in this largely depends on which ending they achieve; there are two endings to the game, both of which are entirely bleak, but one of which -the secret “good” ending- suggests a potential continuation of the story, another cycle in the mythology (and, of course, a sequel somewhere in the future).
This is something that characterises the game quite distinctily: unusually for a Metroidvania title, there are certain story arcs that are possible to miss, permanently unravel or not achieve in time. There's also a vast swell of secrets within Custodia, hidden characters and relics, recesses and chambers, that can only be accessed under certain esoteric conditions, but that reveal certain elements of the game and its background that help to enhance the experience even further.
It's a genuine, sprawling adventure that oblgies the player to explore every nook and cranny, to listen to suggestions and oblique scraps of communication that might metaphorically or tangentially hint at what they have to do or where they have to go.
As a result of that obliqueness, there are times when it's very easy to hit a wall and flail around directionless, which can be extremely frustrating, especially if the player is forced to navigate the same gauntlets multiple times, dying again and again to traps, enemies etc.
However, the world of Custodia and its many highly inventive environs are so painterly in their beauty, so suffused with atmosphere, that, for the most part, navigating it is an absolute joy. There are numerous times throughout the game in which the player will stop in awe at the jaw-dropping beauty the designers have managed to render in what is, essentially, an extremely limited graphical style. By aping the art traditions from which they derive inspiration, the creators have managed to make every screen a painting in and of itself.
Take, for example, a scene towards the end of the game, in which The Penitent One emerges on the battlements of a great cathedral that dominates much of the landscape. Here, the game suddenly switches to subdued silhouettes and dusky shadings, the sky and horizon marked in the most exquisite detail whilst the foreground and creatures upon it are rendered entirely in shadow. The sequence lasts for only a couple of screens but is utterly breathtaking in its brilliance.
A similar instance occurs when the player arrives on the edges of a realm known as Jondo, which is an entire plain that consists of a gigantic, inverted bell driven into the heart of a mountain range. As the player approaches Jondo, they can see the inverse curve of the great bell in the background like the bizarrely curving sides of some great valley. Traversing the area provides the player a perspective on the great bell which spans several screens and plunges down to become its own subterranean arena. The sheer sense of scale elicited, the visual design of the area, is nothing short of incredible, echoing some of the more elaborate architectural designs of the game's influences Dark Souls and Bloodborne (doubly remarkable, given that this game lacks an entire third dimension that those two franchises boast).
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the imagery in this game is wholly and unambiguously disturbing. Deriving from a small, independent video game company, the game has no compunctions about offending or upsetting with its imagery, the result being depictions of pain, mortification, mutilation and outright suffering that are often highly distressing -and rather grotesque- to behold. The atmosphere of the game is extremely dour, its expanse eliciting an almost depressive quality, its metaphysics based entirely upon the notion of self abuse and mortification to achieve a degree of enlightenment. Thus, the game does incorporate images of profound and elaborate torture, bodily mutilation, self-harm, humiliation and abuse which some players may find problematic.
In terms of its technical faults, being a Metroidvania title, it incorporates all of the failings innate to that sub-genre, including a great deal of back-tracking through previously explored areas (not a fault in my perceptions, but one that other players have certainly commented on), occasional difficulty in path-finding and numerous timing-errors, platforming problems, issues with enemy placement and character responsiveness etc. Certainly some of the more elaborate platforming gauntlets feel somewhat out of place in Custodia, and also given that The Penitent One is functionally different from other protagonists in the sub-genre: whereas the likes of Symphony of the Night's Alucard is floaty and extremely light to play, The Penitent One is deliberately awkward and heavy, which makes some of the more precise platforming moments irritating. There are also certain sections of the game that are rife with glitches, most notably certain boss encounters that perhaps incorporate too many gimmicks and unusual mechanics than is good for the game engine.
The game is also extremely hard for a game of its type, perhaps one of the longest and most difficult on the market thus far, its difficulty level aping some of the Dark Souls titles, which may be off-putting to players seeking a more casual or mainstream experience.
But, for those who find themselves drawn by atmosphere, compelled by rich back-mythology and elaborately painted worlds, there is more than enough to bleakly enchant here, sufficiently so that a sequel is now inevitable, Blasphemous perhaps rising to fill the hollow where Castlevania itself once sat.