If you read this column regularly, you already know that I love books—both print- and electron-based books—as well as films. (I favour genre films—Fantasy and SF as well as horror and the like—but I’ll watch almost anything.) And when it comes to e-books, the best kind are “free” and “cheap!” (Well, that goes for print books too, I guess.) I’ve already told you about the Storybundle, and I’d like to remind you that the Aurora Award Storybundle, containing a bunch of Canadian Aurora Award winners and finalists has less than a week to run, so click on the link above and get some now! But there’s another bundle I just became aware of a couple of days ago, and that’s the HumbleBundle! And here’s a thing: the science-fiction HumbleBundle from Wordfire Press (see Figure 1) also has fewer than four days to run! As far as I know, it ends Monday April 18 or Tuesday 19 April. And here’s the thing: if you pay over $15—just like the Storybundle—you will get a very large number of ebooks for that small amount (I paid more—it goes to charity, and you can choose the charity); for a basic donation (I think $5) you get six(!) books; for double that (more than the average of $9.63) you get an additional five books… and if you pay more than $15 you get an astonishing eighteen downloads of DRM-free SF/F books in PDF, ePub and Mobi formats (which work on Kindle, Nook and other devices). The site says these books are worth $106; I disagree. I think they’re worth much more! And here’s the kicker: one of these downloads contains FOUR previously unpublished Frank Herbert books (although only one is SF)! I’m talking about Frank Herbert, author of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, Billy the Kid Meets Dune, Son of Dune… no, wait; I got carried away. Those last two aren’t actual Dune books. I’m in the middle of the Herbert SF book, called High-Opp, and I’m enjoying it. And when I’m done with that one, I have twenty more books in this bundle to read! That’s gotta be worth more than $106, I’d say.
And to prepare for this week’s column, I’ve watched a bunch of genre and semi-genre movies, which reminds me of the Neil Innes comment on a comedy album: “I’ve suffered for my music; now it’s your turn!” Sometimes I really do suffer for your sakes. (Sound of the world’s smallest violin, right?) In my search for something to recommend (either to go see or to run away from), I tried to watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—not enough Jane Austen, too much forced humour—as well as something called Pandemic—which got boring even before it got going. I might go back to it later, but for now it’s “Oh, no, not another zombie movie!” But I found this movie, called The Boy, which turned out to be watchable, but not terribly good. As you can see from the poster (Figure 2), it stars Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie (for now, anyway—nobody’s sure who will be dead when the new season starts!) on The Walking Dead on TV. Yep, more zombies!
I shall review without much in the way of spoilers, but really, there’s not much original in this movie. Apparently, it was filmed in Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia—in Craigdarroch, an ornate Victorian castle built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, between 1887 & 1890—which masqueraded as an English country manor owned by the “Heelshire” family. (I don’t know if the interiors were filmed here as well, but it’s quite the place, if so. One of these days I might pop over to “the Island” and take the tour!) Cohan’s character, Greta Evans, is an American from Montana who comes to this remote place to take a job as “nanny” for the Heelshires’ eight-year-old son, Brahms. (During a phone call between Greta and her friend in the US, they talk about how she needs money, but you don’t find out exactly why till later.) Greta naps in the taxi bringing her to the Heelshire place, and when she arrives, the taxi driver tells her the Heelshires had to “step out” for a bit, and she should wait in the parlour.
She goes inside, slips off her shoes and, instead of waiting as she was told, starts wandering around the house, pausing at a large family portrait of the Heelshires on the second-floor landing. The mother is a stern-looking older woman—too old, one would think, to have an eight-year-old son—and the father about the same age. The boy in the portrait is average-looking. She’s wandering around upstairs—apparently Greta’s not big on following directions—when she’s surprised by the “grocery boy,” Malcolm (Rupert Evans), who starts filling her in on what’s going on. While she’s assisting him, the Heelshires come home and take her to meet her charge, Brahms. Greta is blown away, and thinks it’s a joke, because the Brahms she meets is a life-sized doll with a porcelain head.
The Heelshires aren’t laughing, however. Greta eventually learns that this doll is a “coping mechanism” for the parents, because the real Brahms had died in a house fire some twenty years before. Greta is given a set of rules (“Never cover Brahms’s face; Always kiss Brahms good night; etc.), and because she needs the money, decides to play along. The Heelshires tell her Brahms accepts her and she has the job—and she’ll be on her own for the next two weeks, as they’re going on their first real vacation in years! Because the landline is her lifeline, and there’s no wireless within range, she makes several phone calls to her friend, during which we learn that she is fleeing an abusive boyfriend, Cole—who has a restraining order out on him—and that her friend’s kid accidentally gave Cole Greta’s mailing address. (Foreshadowing, anyone?)
And, Greta being as careless as she is about following directions, the “rules” go out the window (figuratively) as soon as the Heelshires leave. She throws Brahms carelessly on his bed, covers his face with a blanket (“He’s creepy, and stares at me!”), and so on. Then inexplicable things begin happening, leading Greta to believe that perhaps the doll is actually alive.
Okay, so what’s wrong with this movie? Nothing really wrong, except that it’s unexceptional. Well… maybe I was disappointed because—although it’s well acted—it never really gelled as a thriller; it seems to me that Greta was way too willing to believe the doll was alive and to start following the rules, given her earlier nonconformist character. There are a number of plot points that don’t work (I can’t discuss them here, because of spoilers, dang it—but there some major reveals and fairly obvious plot twists) and the whole Cole (Ben Robson) thing—I don’t feel bad about revealing his presence, because the whole foreshadowing thing was as clumsy as heck—didn’t work for me. I would have liked this movie to be a “B” genre film, but it appeared to me to be more of a “C-“ movie. Darn.
And now we come to the movie The Forest, with Natalie Dormer. Natalie Dormer is experiencing quite a run on TV, with roles in The Tudors (Anne Boleyn), Game of Thrones (Margaery Tyrell) and Elementary (Irene Adler), as well as bit parts in a few movies, like The Hunger Games and Captain America. She seems to be a pretty good actor, and she has a very expressive face. And the main poster for the movie (Figure 4) is intriguing; it shows the top half of Dormer’s face with the bottom half replaced by a bunch of nooses (neese?) hanging with and from vines, it looks like. Then you notice that the jagged part of the face looks like the tops of trees.
Dormer’s character, Sara Price, awakes from a dream of running through a dark forest at night. Later she receives a phone call from a policeman in Japan that her twin sister, Jess, who teaches English at a school there, has disappeared. The school has filed a missing persons report, and the police think she has gone to the Aokigahara Forest to die. (They say if someone goes there and doesn’t come out for 48 hours, they are presumed dead.) Why would that be? Well, the Aokigahara Jukai (“Sea of Trees”: as one character explains, “from Mount Fuji, the trees look like a sea.”) is a place that used to be—according to a school official—a place where in the “old days” when food was scarce, communities would take the elderly, blind or sick to the forest and leave them there to die—a practice called “ubasute.” Now it’s a popular place for people to commit suicide, and is often called the “Suicide Forest.” (That is the truth, according to Wikipedia—it’s the most popular place in Japan for suicides, and the third-most popular in the world! Although suicide is frowned upon in most cultures, Japan has always had, it appears, a fascination with death.) Popular belief is that the spirits of the dead—and this is echoed in the movie by a schoolgirl Sara meets at Jess’s school—cannot rest in Aokagahara, and are always angry.
Anyway, Sara is convinced that her twin is still alive; they share a special “twin” bond, and she would be able to tell if Jess had died; she goes to Japan, and finds a building—the Visitor Centre–on the edge of the forest; she asks a woman there if she has seen her sister. “Why, yes,” the woman explains, “We found her, and have her here.” She leads Sara downstairs to a room where there are bodies, but it turns out the body there is not Jess. After getting lots of warnings that if she goes into the forest she must not stray off the path, Sara walks back to town and, at her hotel’s bar, meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who says he is a journalist for an Australian travel magazine. Aiden tells Sara that he has a friend who searches for bodies in Aokigahara, and if she lets him write her story, they will help search for Jess.
In the morning Aiden introduces Jess to Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who will guide them through the forest. (Interestingly enough, “Michi” means “path” in Japanese, according to one IMDB post.) Sara is warned that she may see things in the forest, bad things, but they are only hallucinations. And from here the movie kind of drifts off into cliché land; we learn a few new things, like that some people leave ribbons and strings tied to trees and bushes—ostensibly so they can find their way out of the forest—but really, so park rangers can find their bodies. Otherwise, there are the usual horror-movie scares; for example, Sara finds Jess’s tent (having or leaving a tent is a sign that that person hasn’t actually decided to die, and might change his or her mind) and decides to stay the night despite warnings from Michi—she has the predictable horror-movie nightmares and scares. And the worst part of the horror-movie predictability is that she acts as if she hasn’t got a brain in her head; there are several scenes of her running in a blind panic through the forest, leading to all kinds of consequences, and the ending of the movie is also all too predictable. (We have a saying around our house, which is used for characters who should—or will—die in a film or TV series: TSTL. Too Stupid To Live!)
Unfortunately, TSTL behaviour and predictability spoil not only the movie, but also what could have been a real learning opportunity: Aokigahara is a very real place (although this film was not filmed there; it was filmed in the Tara National Forest in Serbia), and the suicide rate in Japan is nothing short of a crisis. Now, I’m not saying that a horror movie should be only an educational opportunity, but the background could have been used to more effectiveness in pointing out that crisis. But maybe that’s just me… If you prefer your horror flicks predictable, with TSTL heroines, then this film might be your cup o’ chai.
Last words: Canadian readers, voting for the Aurora Awards opens on June 15; and if you haven’t registered for your CSFFA (Canadian SF/Fantasy Awards) membership, remember that it’s only $10 for a year—and in your “voters’ packet” you will get most of the nominated works to read! A really big bargain, talking of ebooks and the like. (And both I and the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk are Aurora nominees, hint hint…) Sorry, non-Canadians, you’re just not eligible. Darn it.
If you haven’t commented on my column yet, I think you should. In fact, I think you owe me a comment. I’d be happy to hear anything you want to say about this column except maybe “Shut up and go away, Steve!” Surely something I have said either interests you or ticks you off—let me know about it! I might not agree with your comments, but they are all welcome. Please don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. And you know, my opinion is only my own opinion, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!