Don’t Let Us Lose Another Bookshop

Some grim news came out today regarding Notions Unlimited Bookshop, one of Australia’s favourite bookstores. Owner-operator, all round good guy, and king of all that’s spec-fic, Chuck McKenzie, announced that the bookshop is in very real danger of closing by Christmas or soon after, due to the ever rising costs of running a business.

The following is taken directly from the Notions Unlimited Bookshop‘s website:

Since the day we opened our doors, just 20 months ago, the staff and management of Notions Unlimited Bookshop have worked hard to create something more than just a specialist bookstore, and we feel genuinely proud of much that we’ve achieved during that time, such as:

# Continuing to offer a great range of publications, including the best of Australian small-press, rare and hard-to-get titles, genre classics, and latest new releases.

# Building and maintaining a reputation for friendly and knowledgeable service.

# Keeping our prices reasonable – no mean task in these days of Internet shopping and global economic downturn.

# Becoming accepted as part of the local community, plus creating an ever-growing community of our own, bringing together fans of SF, fantasy, horror, graphic novels, gaming, manga, esoteric interests and more – something we’re especially proud of, and that we hope to continue doing for a long time to come.

In order for us to reach that last goal, however, we really do need the assistance of our customers, general supporters, and Facebook subscribers at this time.

Currently, Notions Unlimited Bookshop is looking at the very real possibility of closure – if not by Christmas, then perhaps just afterwards – with the chief cause being the ever-rising cost of running the business. It’s not definite at this point, but the writing is on the wall, and this appeal is an attempt to reverse matters before it’s too late.

Our aim, therefore, is not just to increase our daily sales, but to substantially increase the number of potential customers. Previously, we have tried to boost customer numbers through signage, social media and print advertising – yet almost 80% of our customers tell us they discovered us through referral from friends, family or colleagues.

So this is exactly what we’re asking our friends and customers to do for us now – refer us!

In a nutshell, while we’d love you to pop into our shop over the next few weeks and purchase a book (or two) to help keep us afloat, what we really want you to do is tell other people about us. Jump on Twitter and Facebook, tell your friends, family, workmates, and anybody else you know who loves SF, fantasy, horror, graphic novels, manga, media tie-ins, gaming, esoteric subjects, and other such related genres, to come and check us out in person (and then tell all of their peeps!). We’re not looking for handouts – just introductions to potential customers who may help to keep us in business. And do be sure to mention to everyone you refer us to that this is all in aid of keeping Notions Unlimited Bookshop operating.

Finally, I just want to make it absolutely clear that this is a genuine appeal, not some fake ‘going out of business’ sale or marketing trick. If things don’t improve markedly for us over the next month, we will almost certainly be forced to close our doors forever. No business owner ever wants to admit that a business is failing, but there comes a time when that owner has to either quietly slide towards the inevitable, or step into the spotlight and ask for assistance. So, if you feel you can assist, and will do so, you will have the absolute gratitude of myself and my staff – as well as, hopefully, a future in which we may continue to provide you with the range, service and community you deserve.

In the meantime, a massive and heartfelt ‘thank-you’ to all of our customers, regular and casual, who have supported us already since we opened. We couldn’t have survived thus far without you.

With Thanks,

Chuck McKenzie (Chief Zombologist)
Notions Unlimited Bookshop

Bookshops are an endangered entity in this day and age, and whenever one closes its doors for good, we are all a little poorer for it. Don’t let this happen to Notions Unlimited Bookshop. Please help in any way you can.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) – DVD Review

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro for a long time and his films are usually well worth the time. In this case, the Pan’s Labyrinth director is a producer for director Juan Antonio Bayona’s gothic horror about an old orphanage that is being reborn under the care of an ex-resident. As a child, orphaned Laura lived in the big old house by the Spanish seaside and has fond memories of her time there. She was adopted and left the home. Now in her mid-30s, Laura returns to the dilapidated institution with her husband, Carlos, and their seven-year-old son, Simon, to reopen the orphanage for just a handful of special needs children.

But, naturally, there is something weird going on in the beautiful old house. Simon’s behavior begins to grow increasingly strange and Laura and Carlos start to think the boy is getting carried away with his imaginary friends. On the opening day of the new orphanage, Simon’s bizarre behavior is written off as a bid for attention until truly strange events occur and Simon disappears. The search for Simon leads Laura deep into her memories of the orphanage and she begins to uncover troubling things that occurred after her own adoption.

This is classy and atmospheric film. It’s true gothic horror, with the tension and pace masterfully managed throughout. The acting is top notch, with all the characters utterly convincing. The film addresses the connections between the living and the dead in interesting ways. There’s nothing especially original in the ideas here, but the delivery and way the characters interact with the strange events is excellent.

The real power of this film is the subtlety and understated exploration of the horror as it goes for true emotional engagement. There are occasional old school shocks and a few typical tension-building filmic techniques employed, but they’re handled with as much subtlety as the plot. The cinematography is very good throughout, with the camera making great use of the locations and the architecture of the orphanage.

All in all this is a genuinely creepy and visceral horror film, cleverly written, beautiful shot and well acted. Highly recommended.


Haven – Series 2 (DVD) – Review

Haven is a Syfy original TV series based very loosely upon the Stephen King Hard Case Crime novel The Colorado Kid. In fact, I wouldn’t even say it was really ‘based upon’. More ‘inspired by’ as the connection between series and novel are very tenuous. Instead, it is best to view this series as a totally separate entity – maybe originating from somewhere along a different Beam – and hence there is no need to be familiar with King’s hard to find crime novel.

As this is Series 2 that I’ll be reviewing, some reference to Series 1 and a brief rundown might be in order, but I’ll try very hard to stay away from spoilers.

Haven Series 1 opened with FBI Special Agent Audrey Parker (played by Emily Rose) arriving in the small town of Haven, Maine, to investigate a routine case. Agent Parker soon found herself involved in a series of possibly supernatural events, known locally as The Troubles. In the course of solving these strange and paranormal mysteries, Agent Parker discovered what may be a personal link between herself and the town of Haven; a link that might lead her to the mother she has never known.

Structured in ways similar to shows such as The X-Files, Dead Zone and Warehouse 13, each episode of Haven features Agent Parker – having taken leave from the FBI and now a Haven Police Officer – and her partner Nathan Wuornos working to discover the cause of various ‘Troubles’ that afflict the town’s populace. These ‘Troubles’ are supernatural in nature, some of them a little clichéd, others totally original. But even the clichéd stories are held together well by some great characterisation from actors Emily Rose (Agent Audrey Parker), Lucas Bryant (Officer Nathan Wuornos), Eric Balfour (the criminally minded but always smooth Duke Crocker) and especially Stephen McHattie (Pontypool’s Grant Mazzy as the Reverent Ed Driscoll).

Series 1 ended with something of a cliff-hanger, and Series 2 picks up exactly where it left off with Agent Parker questioning her own name, identity and memories… which may not be her own.

Series 2 follows the same ‘one case per episode’ style established in the first series: towns people hallucinating or haunted by their worst fears (with a number of knowing nods to Stephen King’s IT); machines taking on a life of their own (a theme familiar to a number of King shorts and novels); dark forests with deadly intent; Groundhog Day style time-shifts; and a man haunted by evil and deadly duplicates of himself.

Many of the episodes don’t take themselves too seriously, and in some ways this light-hearted approach is closest to that of shows like Warehouse 13 or Eureka. But there are a few stories that take on a decidedly darker tone. “The Tides That Bind” is possibly the creepiest of these, with an opening scene that is sure to chill the blood.

Another feature that makes Series 2 different from Series 1 is a stronger emphasis on a continuous story-arc. The mystery of Agent Parker’s own past, and her reason for being in Haven, are examined in much greater detail. This is what I felt really elevated Series 2 above its predecessor. This main story-line never intrudes too much upon the individual episodes – indeed, it is the individual episodes themselves that often drive this main story – but it is a constant undercurrent that really adds a sustained and welcome suspense throughout the series.

Overall, Haven is a well acted and often surprising series. Even clichéd themes are given interesting twists and the main characters are all likeable… except maybe Stephen McHattie’s Reverend Driscoll. There are plenty of little ‘easter egg’ type additions for the Stephen King Constant Reader to discover, and the main story arc will keep you watching for more than just the individual episodes. Haven is a great addition to the genre of supernatural TV, and with stronger character writing, Series 2 is an even bigger improvement on what was already a very enjoyable first series.

Haven Series 2 is distributed by Hopscotch Entertainment and available on DVD and Blu-Ray from May 16th.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (DVD/Blu-Ray) – Review

DarkDon’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a horror film with a mixed heritage. It’s an American story, written by Matthew Robbins and Guillermo del Toro, directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey and filmed in Mount Macedon and Melbourne in Australia. The setting, perhaps in a hat tip to H P Lovecraft, is Providence, Rhode Island. The film is a labour of love for Del Toro and a remake the 1973 ABC made-for-television horror film of the same name that had a huge effect on Del Toro as a child.

The film stars Guy Pearce as Alex, Katie Holmes as Kim and young Bailee Madison as Sally. It has to be said that the absolute star of this film is Bailee Madison. She’s excellent in every scene. Alex and his girlfriend, Kim, are restoring an old mansion and estate, with an eye to getting some serious architecture industry attention and therefore a great boost to their careers. For reasons largely unexplained, Alex’s young daughter, Sally, flies in and comes to live with them in the mansion while the restorations go on. We’re told that Sally’s mum gave her to her dad and the lack of care from the mother is clear in a few examples. No real reasons why, but that’s how it is. We can accept that. It’s just the first of many tropes this film plays.

We know from the opening scene that this 19th century Rhode Island mansion is bad news. The previous owner, Blackwood, lost his only son, who disappeared inexplicably and then Blackwood himself disappeared, equally without explanation. At least, that’s the official story. We know that the malevolent creatures in the ash pit in the basement took them both underground. The opening scene goes from atmospheric Gothic to violent horror very quickly and anyone with a fear of the dentist needs to brace themselves.

The implication is that the house has stood empty for a hundred years since until Alex and family arrive.

The location is fantastic, with the house and grounds a perfect example of the kind of Gothic architecture this film needs. With the arrival of Sally, the film quickly stacks up the formula clichés: the busy dad, the distrusted “stepmom”, the misunderstood child, the creepy house, the groundskeeper who knows something he’s not letting on!

But tropes like these are okay when a story is done well, and there’s a lot to like about this film. The malevolent creatures underground are brilliantly creepy and their use of tools to manipulate the house around them is cool. The use of Sally as the central target and the adults not believing her is another old trope but very well handled in this instance. And it’s good that Kim starts to come around and take things seriously before the lack of belief itself becomes unbelievable.

In the TV original, Sally is an adult and Del Toro’s change to make her a child does wonders for the narrative of the film. There are some truly creepy moments, some real startling make-you-jump moments and a palpable sense of dread maintained through the film. At one point my dog, who had been snoozing quite obliviously, leapt up and started barking at the TV. The sound, as you can imagine from that, is brilliantly handled.

We learn that the malevolent creatures in the piece are fairies, and proper old-school, eating-the-teeth-of-children, afraid-of-the-light fairies too. They’re horrible and dangerous and very well done with the CGI the film uses.

Can you tell there’s a “but” coming?

But, there are a lot of flaws. Primary among them are some continuity errors and gaps in storytelling. A polaroid camera plays a large part in the tale and, while anachronistic, we can accept that as a stylised inclusion. But there do seem to be an awful lot of polaroid photos taken that never really get used, not to mention the ten-flash bar that takes well over ten flash-assisted photos.

There’s a distinct lack of fairy-stomping. Seriously, they’re nasty and dangerous and all, but they’re very small and a lot of kicking and stomping could have reduced the numbers as well as provide some evidence for the unbelievers. And, for that matter, one gets crushed in the library at one point but nothing is ever made of its body, which would have provided some much needed evidence at just the right time. Seriously, at times it’s almost as if they’re trying not to step on the fairies.

Perhaps worst of all, and there’s a tiny spoiler here, is the fate of the groundskeeper. Without giving too much away, fairly early on he runs into the fairies and gets what can only be described as a thorough, en-masse arse-kicking. It’s passed off as an accident, but no one seems to question how an old man can have an accident on his own in the basement that results in slice and stab wounds all over his body from the back of the knee to the palm of the hand, and leaves him staggering through the house with a pair of scissors embedded in his shoulder. Seriously, what the hell kind of accident was that?

People also seem to occasionally get knocked unconscious for exactly the right amount of time for plot advancement, but that’s an ongoing error in movies and something of a personal gripe of mine.

However, these are small gripes in the bigger picture. It’s a shame and the film would have been much better if they had been addressed, but Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is good old-fashioned scary movie stuff. It’s Gothic in every sense of the word. It does nothing new, painting the whole story by numbers, but it does all of that very well. It’s not terrifying, but it has chills and creeps that carry you along. And the ending is absolute horror, with one truly nasty event. The very last scene is suitably chilling. I do have one major problem with the ending, but I can’t talk about that without giving too much away. Besides, it’s not enough to spoil the film.

This isn’t a bowel-curdling horror film, but it is a very good dark fantasy. If you look past its obvious flaws, there’s a lot to enjoy here. And if you have young teenagers in your life, it’ll be a great way to scare the pants off them.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is distributed by Hopscotch Entertainment and available on DVD and Blu-Ray from April 4th.