Monday, 13 May 2013

The Last Werewolf Book Review Author Glen Duncan

Our latest recruit Ren Zelen brings us her thoughts on Glen Duncan's novel 'The Last Werewolf' so lock your doors, pull down the shutters and pull up a chair.....IT'S WEREWOLF TIME!!

For two centuries Jacob Marlowe has wandered the world, enslaved by his lunatic appetites and tormented by the memory of his first and most monstrous crime. Now, the last of his kind, he knows he can't go on. But as Jake counts down to suicide, a violent murder and an extraordinary meeting plunge him straight back into the desperate pursuit of life.

While Vampires and Zombies have been jamming the highway to the bookshelves and multiplexes, Werewolves have largely been left to idle by the side of the literary road. With Glen Duncan’s protagonist, Jacob Marlowe, you get more than you bargain for: not just a man but a werewolf, not just a werewolf, but an existentially philosophical one. The novel is, ostensibly, a diary. The tale begins after a ‘feed’ “Two nights ago I’d eaten a 43-year-old hedge fund specialist,” Marlowe states with what will be his trademark insouciance, “I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no-one wants.” We learn his backstory, a 19th-century costume tragedy, by means of his journal entries, composed in breaks between violent action and meaningless fornication. Two centuries of living have endowed him with a vast reserve of cultural expertise and a linguistic style that moves between the wisecracking cynicism of his noir namesake and the syntactical flourishes of the 19th century literary gentleman. Marlowe imparts the contents of his inner life and his impressions of the modern world in a series of dryly succinct verbal morsels: the topography of Wales is a “stack of vowel-starved hills: Bwlch Mawr; Gyrn Ddu; Yr Eifl, “a gold tooth is a “dental anachronism”; the point of civilization is “so that one can check in to a quality hotel”.

The first half of the book (I think it’s fair to describe this as a book of two halves) presents us with an interesting premise: If one embraces the bestial part of one’s nature, does human morality cease to be relevant? Duncan partially exonerates his (anti) hero by making this path necessary to his survival – he has to kill to live, he’s helpless in the face of his ‘animal instincts’, he must accept predatory murder and cannibalism as a fact of continued existence etc… Yet, it is when the ‘human’ element re-asserts itself that things become more morally ambivalent and more interesting. Jacob Marlowe is inured to his condition, to his bestial nature taking control once a month. He has accepted his choice to kill mercilessly in order to live, rather than commit suicide in self-disgust. So, the question is, how is one’s ‘humanity’ able to deal with the full consciousness of its ‘amorality’? The Werewolf condition becomes a vehicle for moral inquiry. How does one deal with human moral accountability when out of the wolf ‘persona’?

We might say that certain people in human history, dead and alive, seemed to have been able to overcome the niggling persistence of a moral compass. Some may have the excuse of being ‘sociopaths’ deficient in empathy and human feeling, but Jacob Marlowe can’t claim these as mitigating circumstances. Insist as he might that he has come to terms with his murderous lifestyle, he still seeks redemption – giving generously to charity out of his huge reserves of money (cunningly accumulated over an unnaturally long existence) and he makes a decision to live his long life ‘without love’ as a punishment for his first and most appalling murder.

It is that initial transgression, a horrific initiation into the bestial, that provides the next interesting question. The idea that deep attachment and passionate sexual love results in the desire to ‘know’ the deepest recesses of the beloved, to be one with them and, ultimately, to consume them into oneself. Which is literally what Jacob Marlowe does. Despite his many protestations as to his beloved Arabella’s individuality, strength of character and independence, his guilt at his crime cannot quite hide the satisfaction of having her entirely in his possession, in the most fundamental way. At the moment of decision, his ‘instinct’ is to take her, because he can - it is a capitulation to his momentary power over her that proves irresistible. Apart from being a disturbing scene in itself, it was too close a reminder, for me at least, of those suicidal fathers who insist on murdering their wives and children before they kill themselves, as though those others are ‘property’ over which they have the power of disposal – a sick exercise of dominance.

Marlowe is a jaded commentator on our mores and his own condition and a cynically witty raconteur. Lest we begin to find his ennui too intriguing, we are soon reminded of the coarse reality of being part dog. Like Marlowe's victims, we aren't spared the gruesome reality of a lupine attack; “There’s always someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, someone’s son. This is the problem with killing and eating people” — Marlowe’s quandary boils down to a case of existential exhaustion. Sated with another kill, Marlowe receives the news that he is ‘The last Werewolf’ from his human minder, Harley, a silver-haired, old-world gentleman (think Alfred to Batman). “They killed the Berliner two nights ago,” Harley gravely intones — “they” being a shadowy group known as the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena (Wocop for short) literary heirs of Van Helsing. Marlowe is pursued through Wales, London, New York, Paris, Greece and California, but tired with the drag of being a werewolf, he decides on capitulation to death. Then, a chance discovery changes everything : “Life,” Marlowe trenchantly reminds us, “like the boring drunk at the office party, keeps seeking you out.”

Which leads (in the second half of the book) to a further, rather unexpected transformation. Marlowe, the jaded cynic with a death-wish - finds love. It would be a pity to reveal too much, but I can say that I found it this section of the book perplexing. The transformation into wolf is well rendered, but seems to bestow almost supernatural powers, such as telepathy, which undermine the notion of the ‘beastly’. Also, though the giddiness and fragile joy of human love is convincingly enough portrayed I found its ‘beastly’ equivalent, which Duncan is at some pains to aggrandize, quite unaffecting. Perhaps even more strangely, one of the most benevolent and stirring of human emotions and experiences find their apotheosis while clothed in the form of the monstrous. The ‘beast’ suddenly appears to have finer and more intense feelings than the human. Who knew?

It is a novel chock full of literary allusion, to Conrad, Chandler, Shakespeare, Eliot, Nabokov, and more, almost in defence of its explicit, pulpy sex and violence. It occasionally loses its bearings in its own moral ambivalence. However, the story is twisty, tense and often blackly funny (a chapter begins: "Reader, I ate him") and, while adhering to tradition it does offer something innovative and more profound. But with all of its philosophizing, what does it mean? In an oddly bloodthirsty and kinky-sex-crazed way, ‘The Last Werewolf’ makes a case for culture and literature, and on a simpler level, it as a story about a divided persona, trying to make sense of how to live, how to accept what he is, how to keep going, because when everything else is stripped away, the Werewolf always ends up as just a naked man, lying in the dirt, bemused and blinking at the sun in his eyes.

Rating 4 out of 5 stars
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2013 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Maniac (2012) Review

Horror Remake - Starring Elijah Wood, America Olivo, Nora Arnezeder. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg. Original Story & Screenplay by Joe Spinell. Directed by Frank Khalfoun (2012)

Maniac is a remake of a notorious 1980's 'video nasty' that boasts some interesting ideas or gimmicks depending on your view. 
The original followed deranged serial killer Frank Zito as he kills and scalps young women, lovely!

The remake is shot almost entirely from the point of view (POV) of Frank, now played by a Hobbit! 
Yes, casting Elijah Wood in this on the face of it seems odd when you think of the Lord of the Rings films but he has already pulled off a believable psychopath with aplomb in Sin City, so maybe not such an unlikely choice. It is a choice which broadly pays off, as I will come to later.

The most immediately striking thing about the film is the aforementioned POV style and is the juxtaposition of the camera work and casting of a big Hollywood star that initially bothered me the most. Had the film been 100% POV we would have barely seen the killer, but Elijah Wood is in the lead role here and that leads to numerous shots of him forlornly or rather blankly looking at himself in a mirror.  I do wonder whether the director specifically wanted Wood as the lead or was there some studio pressure to a) cast a name, and then b) show the star of the film as often as possible.  Had he been able to cast a relative unknown he could maybe have been braver with the use of POV and I can't help wondering if the film may have been better had he been able to go down that route.  I also found it a little jarring that on more than one occasion the film jumps from POV to some kind of out of body footage, this only served to remind me that I had previously been watching it from Franks point of view and took me somewhat out of the moment.  Saying that, I am starting off on a deliberately critical note as as I felt the film was ambitious and genuinely nasty.

Irrespective of why we see Elijah Wood more than I would have liked he is very good and worryingly convincing, the original had Joe Spinell as Frank and he tackled the role with all the subtlety of a starving bulldog eating custard. Wood, however, plays Frank with an impassive neutrality which has the surprising effect of allowing the viewer to empathize with him despite his horrific actions. He cannot, and does not, try to justify his actions, but the more we learn about his past and his relationship with his mother the more we find our self feeling somewhat sorry for him. I think even if you took the violence and horror aspects out of the film you would be left with an interesting story about a man, desperate to be loved, struggling to overcome his terrible childhood.

This is an impressive change in tone from the original for what superficially is such a brutal and uncompromising film, which brings me quite neatly on to the gore and effects. It is one of the most visceral mainstream films for a very long time and looks very convincing throughout. Scalps are removed and blood is let at regular intervals as the film builds to it's predictably bloody climax. The fact that this is shot through Franks POV enables us the feel uncomfortably close to the action. The director, Franck Khalfoun also edits the film and you get the impression he wanted the viewer to feel a little guiltily voyeuristic watching some of the drawn out violence.

Another aspect of the film which draws the viewer in is the outstanding sound design and pitch perfect soundtrack. During much of the POV footage we hear the breathing of Frank as he goes about his business, when the stress and tension builds we get to experience Franks acute migraine/tinnitus and a blurring of his vision. It's a clever and intelligently used technique, as is the reverb on his voice in many scenes aping the way our voice sounds different to ourselves than anybody else. The soundtrack itself is all 80's synth/piano and at first I felt it was too obviously lifted from the era to allow the film to move far enough away from it's roots, thankfully as the film progressed I was proven wrong and it works with the films feeling of disconnect very well.

As impressive as Elijah Wood is, the stand out for me is Nora Arnezeder, the french actress who plays Anna, you hope throughout that she is able to get Frank off his killing spree and integrate him into the world around him.  She is on screen more than Wood and their relationship is believable due to their common interests. She plays Anna as both smart yet vulnerable and their relationship is the most surprising aspect and it really carries the film.

Maniac stands up well against any recent mainstream horror and is a more layered and thoughtful piece of work 
than the rather blunt original. Wood proves again he is now a long way from Hobbiton and Franck Khalfoun will now firmly be on my watch list. Despite my minor misgivings about Khalfouns failure to go 100% POV there is a lot to be impressed by with Maniac

Rating 4 out of 5

By Dave Wheeler