Book Review – Cell [Stephen King, 2006]

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Stephen King’s Cell is – in my opinion – the sort of book that becomes a bit more relevant with each passing year. The story’s post-apocalyptic world is nothing new (even coming from King himself) and the ‘journey’ format starring a group of survivors heading out into a new world full of danger has been done before by the same writer (see The Stand for one example) but the fact that mobile phones are the cause of doom and destruction? Well, that part seems more and more plausible with each passing year.

We do after all, live in a world where so many rely on their phone for so much. People are glued to them on buses, trains and even in social gatherings where they are supposed to be communicating with real people (remember those?). Drivers would rather risk crashing on the road if it means checking their messages or Facebook updates whilst crawling in traffic and there is of course, an app for everything.

So Cell’s concept of a brain-scrambling virus sent out across mobile networks to phones worldwide and wiping any trace of civilisation from their owner’s minds doesn’t seem so far-fetched as a form of cyber terrorism that could hit most of the world’s population in one fell swoop. The book doesn’t focus on who was responsible for this attack or where they orchestrated it from because that isn’t the point. Instead, Cell takes the reader on a journey with a group of survivors who are thrown together in the wake of this catastrophe because they were either fortunate enough to not have their phone with them or because they didn’t own one in the first place.

There is the typical rich yet unbloated detail that you’d expect to find in a Stephen King book, especially with regards to the primal, unfeeling violence that those affected by the cellular virus (known as ‘The Pulse’) dish out in the immediate aftermath. It all seems quite real and a fair image of what might actually happen should such an event hit a technology-reliant Western society in the real world. As with any Stephen King book, no punches are pulled when it comes to the description of the violence and gore and this helps make the situation feel even more vivid.

Once the initial impact of The Pulse has had time to ruin the world, Cell then focuses on the characters and how their mental state responds to suddenly being thrust into a world of madness and survival. The main character is an everyman up-and-coming artist named Clayton Riddell who just wants to get home and find his young son, hoping that he hasn’t switched his phone on and that he still lives. He soon meets with other survivors who have their own stories and they set out to get away from the city, work out what is happening and to try and find safety.

I really enjoyed Cell the first time I read it and re-reading it today in 2018, it was just as good. The characters are very likeable and relatable as ordinary, everyday people. The mental journey and character development that they go through also feels believable and you – the reader – do feel as if you are on this journey with them (albeit in the safer confines of the real world!) and the book becomes a page-turner like most of Stephen King’s output. I also really enjoyed the detail and descriptions of the violence and the state of the ruined world, all of which hit me as believable.

If I have any criticisms of Cell then they would be the inconclusive ending (which kind of leaves the reader to decide on what ultimately happens) and the fact that some new friends are introduced during the latter stages of the book yet there isn’t really the time to explore their characters and get to like them as anything other than a late-game support cast. I found that I was only there to see what happened to Clay and his original companions, not the new additions to the group.

Overall though, Cell is a great book and one of the better ones in Stephen King’s ‘modern’ lineup. I do tend to prefer the older, more horror/supernatural-orientated books but Cell still manages to feel a little like those past glories while also having the other foot planted in a more current era.

B-Movie Review #2 – Queen of Blood (1966)

Usually, there’s only so far back that I will go when it comes to my consumption of movies. The 80’s and 90’s host the majority of my favourites and the 70’s sometimes gets a look-in as well but rarely will I watch something as old as Queen of Blood from 1966. It’s not for ignorance, more that the style of filmmaking, quality of sets and such from this period simply doesn’t captivate me as readily. I do want to try and address that though since I’m aware of many classics from the 60’s and previous. Back on-topic, I’m not sure that Queen of Blood should be classified as a B-Movie since I’m honestly not aware of how mainstream a release it was back in ’66 but for the theme and general sci-fi/horror premise, I’ve decided to cover it here in this particular series of reviews.

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Like a lot of movies from the period, the above poster is very creative with its visual advertisement of the film. Queen of Blood is far less dramatic and not as “hideous” in reality. In fact, I was pretty unimpressed with the slow, plodding pace of the movie in general and how long it took for anything to happen. I’d say that the first three quarters of the film were all very sci-fi with a lot of scene setting and plot revolving around space exploration and breakthrough contact with an extraterrestrial race. It was more suspenseful than anything, keeping me wondering when the first disaster or mishap would occur as is inevitably the case with sci-fi movies when mankind explores space or meddles in the unknown. It wasn’t until the latter stages of the movie when the horror element kicked in and I finally got to see what I was expecting to see.

To give a basic outline of Queen of Blood‘s plot, a small crew of astronauts are sent on a rescue mission from Earth’s forward base on the moon to find the craft of the extraterrestrials they have made contact with since their new friends have ran into trouble and crash-landed (apparently). The scientists see it as their responsibility to show mankind’s hospitality by rescuing these unknowns from their predicament. Unfortunately for the crew of the rescue mission, the sole-surviving female-shaped alien turns out to be more of a plant-like vampiric creature that sustains itself by consuming blood.

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The creature itself is actually quite unnerving and memorably creepy when she uses her hypnotic powers.

The film – in my mind at least – commentates on scientists and their desire to pursue knowledge and results above the safety of those they employ to do the dangerous work for them. Even as the crew is gradually killed off, the head of the project back at base (played by Basil Rathbone) remains calm and understanding of the situation but is ultimately more concerned with getting the specimen back in one piece to be studied. Even at the film’s conclusion when John Saxon’s character is adamant that the creature’s eggs (stealthily hidden around the ship without the crew’s knowledge) should be destroyed in the interests of Earth’s safety, Rathbone’s scientist ignores his main man’s warnings, choosing instead to have the eggs taken away at once for analysis. There’s a definite undercurrent of out-of-control science with the ends justifying the means and research taking priority over sense, something we can relate to when looking at many real-life inventions and current scientific/technological pursuits.

There are also numerous parallels with Ridley Scott’s Alien from the basic premise of a crew returning home with a killer creature from outer space aboard to those not on the frontline ordering that a dangerous species is successfully brought back even if it comes at the expense of the crew. Then there are the more obvious parallels such as the crew being killed off one at a time (despite their efforts to ensure that nobody else dies) and horror of the unknown from outer space. Some have speculated that Ridley Scott must have taken some sort of inspiration from Queen of Blood when working on Alien and even if we will never know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was the case.

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Seductive or evil? Any horror fan should be able to put their money on the creature’s true intentions.

The green-skinned alien herself (played by Florence Marly) is actually one of the highlights of the film despite the simplistic costume and make-up which don’t make her appear very monstrous or otherworldly at all. Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter because her sinister aura is born of the fact that she doesn’t appear to be evil at all to begin with, just unable to communicate with words. Close-ups of her eyes and seductive smile don’t necessarily signal any sort of malicious intent but at the same time, viewers will know that there’s something else behind the innocent, child-like personality that the creature projects.

This is one thing that I DO appreciate about older cinema: the fact that simple camera-work and clever close-ups as well as good quality acting can carry a movie with an otherwise straightforward plot. The creature in Queen of Blood is fairly one-dimensional and would be no more primal in nature than the Alien or any other murderous monster from the world of horror if she weren’t human-shaped yet Florence Marly’s facial expressions and the eery calmness about her lend the titular Queen some character. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t consider the Queen to be one of cinema’s iconic horror villains but the scenes involving her hypnotic gaze are genuinely creepy and there is legitimate suspense in waiting for that moment when the human charade will be dropped and a sci-fi film becomes more of a horror.

Sadly this never really happens. You don’t get to see the kills themselves and the film ends all too soon. That said, Queen of Blood is a pre-slasher era film from a time when evil concepts and grim implications were enough to chill their audiences. Once the graphic, excessively gory horror films came along in their masses, the slow build-ups and focus on suspense over outright terror were no longer enough. Queen of Blood certainly deserves recognition for creating an atmosphere and starring a sinister, unfeeling alien lifeform. Then there are the subtextual questions it asks about the morality of scientists and whether other races of creatures can be blamed for their behaviour when they don’t live amongst human society. The cast is mostly pretty decent and includes some good names such as the aforementioned John Saxon and also Dennis Hopper so there’s that too.

Overall, Queen of Blood is pretty much a film of its time but even so, I have to be critical and point out the fact that it takes so long for things to get moving (an issue with a lot of older horror, fantasy and sci-fi movies in fairness). It wasn’t really for me but I can appreciate what it brings to the table as a suspenseful sci-fi/horror.

 

B-Movie Review #1 – Psycho Cop (1989)

The TV critics are currently raving about the new Mamma Mia! movie at the present but I don’t ‘do’ those sorts of films and couldn’t be less interested if I had a gun held against my head. Most of the time, I don’t even do regular box office hit movies but I DO enjoy niche B-Movies so to get away from the mainstream media’s insistence on shoving Abba songs down my throat, I decided last night to watch Psycho Cop, a 1989 horror/slasher film that I’d not previously viewed.

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Now I wasn’t around in the 1980’s (I just missed out being born in ’90) but I can imagine that a film like Psycho Cop must have felt outdated even then, at the end of the decade when it was released. All of the slasher cliches are correct and present from cars refusing to start to false jump scares and the most stupid assemblage of victims that must wander off alone to investigate strange sounds. As a fan of these sorts of movies, I expect all of that (it’s part of the charm after all) but Psycho Cop fails to deliver even a competent, braindead slasher flick for several reasons.

The plot is as basic as you like and follows a group of six teenagers heading to secluded woodland and a luxurious house that they’ve scored for the weekend thanks to two of the characters (Zack and Eric) having unlikely success with some stocks. I say “unlikely” because when I saw how stupid these characters turned out to be, I had to wonder how they’d even heard of the stock market. Anyway, a rogue satan-worshipping cop named Vickers (played by Robert R. Shafer) has decided to follow the kiddies to their weekend getaway with the not-so-subtle intention of observing and then murdering this particular movie’s axe/knife/bludgeon fodder. The only other main character is the house’s unnamed caretaker who bites the dust first after making the silly mistake of heading into the woods alone in pursuit of his stolen axe. With that sort of decision-making, he kind of deserves his fate, wouldn’t you say?

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Shafer’s titular cop is the only redeeming factor of the movie.

The main problem with Psycho Cop isn’t the bare-bones plot itself but the lifeless, wooden feel to the movie. The characters are all one-dimensional and spend the entire time going around in circles. Doug and Laura won’t shut up about the caretaker and his sudden disappearance while the others weary of what they perceive to be their friends’ paranoia over nothing. Zack is a stereotypical beer-slugging cool kid with a cool haircut but no brains, Julie is the high-maintenance, stroppy blonde obsessed with her hairbrush and Eric is her beer-swigging boyfriend who just wants to get her into the woods alone. They spend the majority of the film arguing about whether something is actually going on around them or not, the group finding relief in what they believe are misunderstandings or Laura/Doug’s paranoia after investigating a noise or personal possession going missing. The cycle repeats itself several times before any of the core six characters actually die at Vickers’ hands.

There are also FOUR separate occasions where one of the charaters has misplaced something and elects to go off alone to find it. The most far-fetched of these is possibly Julie going into the woods to look for her hairbrush which she couldn’t possibly have dropped in amongst the trees when she’d clearly not moved from pool up until that point. Then there’s Eric scouring the patio outside in the dark…for a toothbrush. It certainly felt like the film’s scripters were clutching at teeny-tiny straws when it came to writing feasible reasons for the characters to end up alone in places where Vickers might be able to get at them.

The acting is pretty poor too and makes Psycho Cop even more difficult to watch when the characters have no real personality and are impossible to invest in. The only cast members who appear to have gone on to bigger and better things are Cindy Guyer (Julie) and Robert R. Shafer himself, both of which had subsquent movie and TV appearances with Cindy Guyer finding further fame as a cover model for hundreds of romance novels.

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Most of the group soon lose interest in the fact that somebody has constructed crucifix-like crosses in the woods…

All of this might have been forgiveable if the horror and action was up to par because let’s face it, a LOT of horror films have vacuous plots and questionable acting. Sadly, this is another major area in which Psycho Cop manages to disappoint. It takes far too long for Vickers to begin picking the group off and by the time the killing did start, I was bored of all the false scares and glimpses of Vickers’ hand or foot as he hid out of sight. The film is also surprisingly tame with a little gore and some brutal kills but nothing outrageous or particularly graphic compared to the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street for example. Swearing is at a minimum and there’s no nudity or sexy stuff to speak of which is also odd for an 80’s slasher film so if you’re looking for redemption in the form of boobs then prepare to be disappointed.

The star of the show and one redeeming factor is Robert R. Shafer’s titular cop himself. Robotic and sporting a wide-eyed, manic expression of glee when cornering a victim, he comes out with some awesome one-liners which are fantastic in their awfulness. He adds some much needed humour and a little presence to an otherwise extremely flat film. I’m not sure that Psycho Cop is worth watching for Shafer alone but the character of Vickers’ is entertaining nonetheless. It’s just a shame that the movie takes ages to get going and that Vickers has so little screen time next to a group of dumb teens who are not enjoyable to watch.

To conclude, I could only recommend Psycho Cop to a hardcore B-Movie fan who would watch anything within the genre, no matter how trashy or low budget. For everybody with not so wide-encompassing tolerances, I’d say don’t bother. There are no shortage of superior alternatives that were produced either side of 1989 and I’d include even the very worst and most far-fetched of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels (you know the ones) in that. Still preferable to Mamma Mia! though…