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...:::General Horror:::...

Black Christmas (2019)

December 18th, 2019 · 14 Comments

I was excited when I heard Blumhouse was going to remake BLACK CHRISTMAS considering the respectful way they were able to help the HALLOWEEN franchise up on its feet and send it in a well-received and fruitful direction. Then the trailer popped up online and my faith buckled a bit because it looked sorta drab and it couldn’t stop telling on itself. I refused to give up the ghost entirely though because I recalled how I judged the 2006 remake too harshly at first and then went on to learn to love its various charms and ignore its bizarre missteps. Well, it turns out the ill feelings the trailer left me with were sort of prophetic. After an enjoyably retro campus-slasher opening, it manages to be sufficiently entertaining for some time only to careen full force into a stupendously silly conclusion. I wish I could say its fearlessly off the wall wind-up rendered it goofy fun but since it spends much time gnawing serious issues early on, it feels more like self-sabotage.

This modern take got a lot of grief online for daring to be clear about its feminist viewpoint. As someone who grew up thinking the Bionic Woman was way cooler than the Six Million Dollar Man, I don’t really understand how female empowerment ruffles fan-boy feathers. I don’t believe BLACK CHRISTMAS does itself any harm by simply laying its ideas/ammo on the table, I just wish it was a surer shot when it came to taking down its adversaries. I very much enjoyed seeing professional contrarian Camille Paglia taken to task (she was a customer at my video store and truly the most atrocious individual I’ve ever encountered of any gender) but I felt some cringe when it came to the handling of the main character’s past rape. Riley (IMOGENE POOTS) is fortunate to have a championing support group but I have to question the thoughtlessness of her gal pals badgering her to preform a parody of “Up on the House Top” with jokey lyrics addressing date rape in front of her very rapist. One of her chums even tells her “you won” afterwards which I found even more bothersome (though that may have been the intention). Later when we find out what’s actually causing the rash of murders, it renders the culprits somewhat inculpable and I’m not sure how I felt about that either. I guess that I dug that it talked the talk but felt that it walked the walk rather clumsily (plus I feel like I’ve seen the rallying finale done way better in countless episodes of BUFFY.)

On the plus side, POOTS is impeccable. She somehow breathes pure life into uneven material and it’s easy to find yourself caring about her fate. There’s also more than a few moments that successfully conjure up the atmosphere of a classic eighties slasher and it’s clear director SOPHIA TAKAL and co-writer APRIL WOLFE have genuine affection for such films. It’s almost sad to think how much better the movie could have been if it just spoke its mind and drove straight ahead rather than making a u-turn into the supernatural zone. I suppose we’d still have to deal with its glaring seams. As nicely orchestrated as much is, there are large ragged chunks crammed with awkward voiceovers and an over reliance on flashbacks to clarify important plot-points. I don’t mind the PG- 13 rating (I’ll always be grateful for my G-rated teen experience with ‘82s ONE DARK NIGHT) but this film’s editing almost physically hurts as it strains to show just enough and has to snap away just when you’re getting a splinter of visual information.

Gripes aside, there’s no way around the fact that I have a serious soft spot for Christmas set horror films and BLACK CHRISTMAS (‘19) was at least kind enough to toss me plenty of snow, twinkling lights and even a crystal unicorn cameo. Could I grow to enjoy it like the last redo simply for being its own faulty, semi-original self (not sure how “original” a movie can claim to be when it involves that evil catch-all, black goo)? It’s possible, I guess (especially if an R-rated version materializes). I did dig a fair share of the ride and even when it’s tripping over its own feet, it’s at least thought provoking. As for now, I’ve got to call out its wobbly nature. I certainly didn’t hate it as much as the audience member who stood up at the end and declared that it was the “worst movie ever.” I thought that particular naysayer was a bit over the top but I do applaud her for voicing her opinion.

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Tags: General Horror

Knives Out (2019)

December 8th, 2019 · 4 Comments

Murder mysteries are the kissing cousins of horror flicks. KNIVES OUT is particularly horror adjacent thanks to the presence of eternal horror queen JAMIE LEE CURTIS and the always game for terror dipping TONI COLETTE. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, this baby delivers a majestic mansion, autumnal atmosphere, a couple of corpses and even a random spider crawling on someone’s face. Whoever thought of releasing this splendid whodunit right in time for the Thanksgiving holiday is my new best friend. I’m currently planning on watching it every year on Turkey Day because even though it offers zero in the cranberry sauce department, it features family members squabbling, dead leaves cascading about and the warmest looking sweaters. Better still for my holiday needs is its presentation of Linus Van Pelt-level sincerity ultimately foiling unfettered greed and privilege.

Unfortunately for this post though, this is the type of movie I think you should see knowing as little as possible about. I guess the basic set up is fair game so here it is: A wealthy mystery writer is found dead after a birthday party attended by his family. At first it looks like a suicide but of course, it isn’t and everyone who attended said party becomes a suspect. There. That’s all I’m going to say except (no spoilers); KNIVES OUT cuts with perfect precision and it’s one of those rare movies that keeps getting better and better as you watch it, every single turn of the screw makes the overall puzzle richer and more satisfying. I have my fingers crossed that DANIEL CRAIG’s southern sleuthing character Benoit Blanc appears in more movies than James Bond. Actually, the entire cast is stellar from the impressive newbies to the long-familiar folks showing off sides you’ve rarely seen.

I really don’t have much more to add than do yourself a favor and go see KNIVES OUT. Perhaps the strangest aspect of my experience with this movie is that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it in a packed movie theater. This is very unusual for me! I usually like to see movies as alone as I can possibly be but for some reason this movie made me feel a communal connection toward my fellow audience members who seemed to be having as much fun with it as myself. It actually cured me of my ever-expanding misanthropy for at least its full runtime! Nope, I wouldn’t change a hair on its lovely head. It’s wickedly clever, truly suspenseful at times and it says so much without loudly grinding an axe. KNIVES OUT is so satisfying it left me feeling like I’d just finished a masterful meal (and I’m looking forward to the day when I can watch it back-to-back with 2019’s other CLUE-esque twisted family gathering READY OR NOT).

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Tags: General Horror

Witchcraft (1964)

November 20th, 2019 · No Comments

I always have time for a movie concerning witches and if it’s casting its spell in gorgeous black and white that’s even better in my book. Directed by Don Sharp (who helmed the equally atmospheric KISS OF THE VAMPIRE a year earlier), WITCHCRAFT is a surprisingly dark and moody tale with a superbly gloomy ending. I’m a little shocked that it has evaded me for so many years because it seems like it should be mentioned alongside some of my favorite titles like BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962), HORROR HOTEL (1960) and THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK (1945). Truth is, I found it streaming free on TubiTV and liked it so much that I went online to buy a copy only to recognize it as something I already owned and hadn’t viewed yet (it’s in one of those “Midnight Movie” double feature sets from MGM with DEVIL’S OF DARKNESS (1965)). I know that’s not a very interesting story but I want to publically yell at myself for purchasing movies and not watching them. Plus, I’d like to alert the world that my brain has seen better days.

WITCHCRAFT opens with gravestones being crushed by a bulldozer. Because this film takes place decades before POLTERGEIST (1982), it’s not yet public knowledge that putting a land development on top of a graveyard is a rotten idea. The legendary Lon Chaney, Jr. as Morgan Whitlock is seeing red about the desecration (as well he should) because the very same family disturbing the graves (the Laniers) buried his relative Vanessa Whitlock (Diane Clare) alive under (accurate) accusations of witchcraft there. It’s sort of a Hatfields vs. McCoys situation except one family are greedy jerks who steal land and the other family are cool witches who can make you think you’re driving your car on Main Street when you’re really driving off of a cliff. Making things even stickier is the canoodling of two young lovers (David Weston as Todd Lanier and Diane Clare as Amy Whitlock) from each clan who hope to bypass all this ancient history and start anew. Peace and tranquility are hardly in the cards though because Vanessa Whitlock has risen from the grave and she looks fierce, awesomely creepy and totally pissed.

This toasty flick is tailor-made for watching from under a blanket with a reliable cat at your side. There’s a big old dark house full of menacing shadows and dizzying wallpaper, foggy walks to a torch-lit crypt, a bed-ridden old lady cackling out warnings, and a funeral for nearly every character who doesn’t abide. Plus, you get chanting Satanic cults, voodoo dolls and the kind of lovable score that doesn’t mind beating revelations into your head with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Some of it may be a bit tame and hokey by today’s standards (at one point we’re meant to be alarmed by a toad) but underneath its reserved veneer, it couldn’t be more dark and pessimistic (one character, who seems primed for redemption actually ends up with a wicked demise). The resurrected witch Vanessa Whitlock is pretty charming and alarming to behold and in a world starved for female ghoul representation, I think she deserves much more notoriety. Like all great monsters, she’s as sympathetic as she is frightening and I’m a little sad she didn’t leave a deep enough impression to warrant a sequel. #justiceforvanessawhitlock

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Tags: General Horror

Doctor Sleep (2019)

November 14th, 2019 · 5 Comments

Mike Flanagan is an incredibly talented filmmaker with singular talents and a sincere love of the genre that consistently flows through his work. He also doesn’t mind driving me insane by wearing his heart on his sleeve, underlining things that don’t require it and hitting sour notes at the worst possible time. Is it just me? I think it’s just me and I have to accept that. I loved THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE but felt kicked in the shins by its neatly tied in a bow closure. I think he achieved the impossible adapting GERALD’S GAME but felt yanked out of the drama by the overstated villain. Now, I absolutely loved about eighty percent of DOCTOR SLEEP only to find portions of its climax practically cringe-worthy. But look, eighty percent is a great grade. It’s basically a “B” right? I just feel like a real stick in the mud about this because I see so many with nothing but hearts in their eyes concerning this film. It is unquestionably quite an achievement, with inevitable classic status performances; it flies admirably high but to me, its landing is kinda janky.

Ewan McGregor is Danny Torrance (now Dan) all grown up and slipping into self-destroying, memory-buffering alcoholism. Luckily fate does him a solid and pushes the nicest guy on Earth, Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) into his path and soon he’s collecting AA coins and helping the elderly through the doorway of death with the help of a psychic cat (all cats are psychic and this is the part of the movie where I wish it was a mini-series so that we could spend more time in this cozy zone). He also discovers another person with his “shining” abilities, a staunch young girl named Abra (Kyleigh Curran) who he messages with frequency via his groovy chalkboard wall (he has the coolest apartment since MORK & MINDY). Trouble arises when a vampire-like group of psychic energy-sucking miscreants led by “Rose The Hat” (Rebecca Ferguson) get a whiff of Abra’s whammy fuel and decide it will be really awesome to smoke her like a doobie (these rats are so unscrupulous that they chomped on a little boy after a baseball game in the movie’s most disturbing scene). To be clear: acting and casting-wise, everybody in this movie is uniformly excellent. McGregor is deep as a well, Curtis is rock solid, Curran is steadfast, Ferguson delivers something for the ages and her right-hand henchman Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) and new recruit “Snakebite Andi” (Emily Alyan Lind) are as compelling as they are threatening. Even more incredibly, Carl Lubly as Hallorann and Alex Essoe as Wendy Torrence (!) occupy their legendary roles effortlessly.

I’m all in and things keep getting better and better and its all beautifully winding its way to the inevitable confrontation at the ground zero of Dan’s distress. I’m floating on a cloud. I love these people, good and bad (though we needed more cat), I feel like I’ve rarely seen a movie so respectful of its character’s motivations. What a beautiful examination of trauma, recovery and the value of self-forgiveness and friendship. In fact, I like this “Rose The Hat” much better than the Janis Joplin creep I pictured in my head when I read the book! And now THE SHINING music starts! I can hardly take it! It’s all so exquisite and then we get to the piece de resistance… the Overlook Hotel! This is it; this is what I’ve waited decades for… I’m with Dan, I am Dan at this point…

The wheels of the cart don’t fall off at the Overlook hotel but they sure did screech and wobble for me. I held on as long as I could, I clutched with all my might but something about the climax chaffed me the wrong way. Maybe it’s a weakness in me but it starts to feel like a cross between visual karaoke and a theme park maze. It’s like they’re strolling through a wax museum. At one point Rose The Hat looks down the hall, sees the elevator pouring blood and sort of does a knowing smile/wink that is so on the nose I thought she might start singing, “I think I’m going to like it here” from ANNIE. I dunno, in THE SHINING (both the King book and Kubrick flick) it felt like the spirits involved were infinite and unknowable, here they feel like a limited “Legion of Doom” rogues gallery. It’s me. It’s my fault. I’m a curmudgeon. I can’t think of any way Flanagan could have handled the material better (hmmm, maybe go all in and throw me the bear/dog man bone and lay off the bathroom lady a tad?). Don’t worry, I’m not going to throw out the old hag out with the bathwater. I’m sure I’ll watch this movie again and I’ll soften to seeing haunting horror iconography scrolled through like a family vacation slideshow. My niece texted me after the movie and asked me how it was. I texted back, “I have mixed feelings but it’s definitely worth seeing”. At the risk of sounding like the type of person who would call Picasso’s Guernica “busy”, that’s pretty much my review in a nutshell.

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Tags: General Horror

As Above, So Below (2014)

October 10th, 2019 · 4 Comments

As it turns out, it appears that I am a big fan of AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. I’m a little startled by this newfound awareness but maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised; it was directed by JOHN ERICK DOWDLE the same guy who delivered above-average horror fare like DEVIL and QUARANTINE. It’s just that I assumed that I was basically done with the whole found-footage gimmick and it seemed to have been generally trashed by most critics (its Rotten Tomatoes score is way harsh). I guess it just goes to show you that you have to keep your eyes open and never listen to anyone else when it comes to horror because what scares us is always a very personal thing. In any case, I was very wrong in assuming that AASB was just another cheap also-ran with nothing new to offer. It’s actually pretty darn unique in that it works as a rousing adventure flick as much as it works as a claustrophobic, psychological horror tale. There’s also something strangely relieving about a found footage flick in which it consistently makes sense that folks keep filming. Plus I think the world needed a good horror movie that takes place in the skeleton infested catacombs underneath Paris; it’s such a fascinating location that can’t help but bring the dread.

PERDITA WEEKS stars as Scarlett Marlow who means to continue her father’s work in tracking down an Indiana Jones-esque alchemy stone that can turn crap into gold and also does the nifty trick of granting eternal life. She’s somehow able to corral her ex-boyfriend and a couple of tagalongs in her kooky quest miles below the city. Inspired by the possibility of fame and fortune, this crew is amazingly adept at ignoring blaring red flags and warning signs which include (I believe) flashing subliminal ghosts (?), a cult of possessed females, an impossible piano from the past and a car on fire. Everybody involved seems to have horrible guilt from long-ago events that the evil caves are somehow able to capitalize on (that’s what evil caves do). If that weren’t enough, there are plenty of traps that can kill you and a wrong move can result in your being crushed under rocks. Things get worse and worse as the group gets further and the only way out appears to be to keep trudging deeper into more and more danger and more and more crazy-making blasts from the past. It’s almost as if they are literally traipsing through hell itself and honestly the claustrophobia and phantasmagorical happenings really start to get to me.

When I was a wee lad reading THE AMITYVILE HORROR, I remember the most terrifying part for me was when a hooded figure appeared at the top of the stairs during the climax and (if I’m remembering correctly) pointed a finger at the fleeing Lutz family. I was so disappointed that this scene never made it to either cinematic adaptation because for me, it signified that the shit was hitting the fan and that all debates over the reality of the supernatural threat were over. Essentially it’s the moment when the impossible becomes undeniable. AASB has such a scene. It fiendishly takes its kid gloves off and pushes these hooded Knights Templar looking dudes forward and after being so convinced of the reality of the situation, there’s something truly alarming about removing any question of the validity of the evil uncontrollable forces (Sorry, I hope that’s vague enough to not be a spoiler). AASB is currently on Netflix but I had to get a physical copy for myself in case it ever disappears. This is one truly underrated, almost horrifically poetic movie and I’m looking forward to return to it many times in the future. I also want the poster, the t-shirt and the theme park ride if that is at all possible.

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Tags: General Horror

Blu-ray Review:: The Prey (1984)

October 2nd, 2019 · 6 Comments

Woodsy slasher flick THE PREY is finally on Blu-ray! I once caught this slippery fish on YouTube and reviewed it way back HERE. The gist of my take was that THE PREY is unquestionably lackadaisical in spots (it’s famous for an over-reliance on nature footage) but kind of charming and adorable anyway and I’d certainly give it another shot when a superior release was available. Well, I have to say, Arrow’s new release is all kinds of superior and THE PREY cleans up real good. Having only seen a hazy, washed-out, zillionth generation version before, my peepers were more than pleased to take in some bright rich colors. Sadly I have no means to screen-grab images from my Blu-ray player but check it out; the picture is so vibrant that I was able to directly take photos off the TV with my ancient phone! Picture quality can’t save all of THE PREY’s quirky issues but it certainly does help.

I know THE PREY isn’t up there with the higher lords of campfire terror like FRIDAY THE 13th and THE BURNING. It’s not even up there with middle level also-rans like THE FINAL TERROR. It’s more stuck in the trying–to-keep-up zone of THE FOREST and DON’T GO IN THE WOODS and that’s fine. In my opinion, all eighties-era wood-set slasher movies have value. I might even say that out of the many underachievers, THE PREY is the most fetching to me. Sure it tries your patience on many occasions but it’s not mean-spirited (if you skip over the implications of the dour denouement), it’s got a healthy respect for mother nature (it features more critters than a TALK TALK music video) and I’m basically going to love any movie with a park ranger who plays banjo and tells jokes to fawns (and if these scenes are improvised padding, I’m all for it).

Arrow Video’s snazzy new package includes three (!) versions of the movie; there’s the zippy (80 minutes that feel like 100) jam we all know and love, a European cut that includes a back story involving gypsies, and finally a go-for-broke integrated combination of the two. Now in most cases, you’d want to gravitate to the version that serves up the most meat but I wouldn’t say so here. Turns out the gypsy backstory version does not consist of scenes edited out for time that were part of the original vision but scenes directed by a gun-for-hire that were added in by a producer who thought the movie needed more boobs. It’s not so much a lost, Holy Grail complete version, as it is a bastardized alteration that the director didn’t approve of. I’m still grateful to have all three (the more the merrier) but I think I’ll be sticking with the O.G. for future watches.

Perhaps the greatest attribute of this release is that it sports a commentary from our old pal Amanda Reyes of MADE FOR TV MAYHEM fame (if you haven’t gotten her book ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? yet, I suggest buying as many copies as financially feasible because they make great Christmas gifts and the holidays are just around the corner!). Let me tell ya, I have experienced the joy of watching a movie with Amanda firsthand on several occasions and it’s always an unmitigated treat. I can’t think of anyone who is as knowledgeable and entertaining at the same time. Here’s she’s joined by fellow THE PREY super-fan Ewan Cant and their rallying adoration for the flick is infectious. You’ll also find some informative interviews with cast members and crew, a return visit to some of the locations and a slew of never-seen-before outtakes.

Since my first viewing, I took THE PREY to be sort of a lovable underdog but this package has kindled new respect in the movie for me. Even though it will forever suffer from amateurish editing and dubbing issues, it has a genial heart that many of its better-made cohorts lack. It’s really too bad this early to the gate (filming started in 1979!) slasher got tangled in distribution woes and didn’t hit the track until interest in what it offered was beginning to wane (1983). I’m guessing it’s more influential than its given credit for as WRONG TURN (2003) features a scene that seems lifted straight from it (although the concept of a deranged mutant cutting a climber’s rope so that they fall to their death was surely a cinematic inevitability). In any case, THE PREY will always be the one and only movie to feature my childhood heroes Shazam! (JACKSON BOSTWICK) and Uncle Fester (JACKIE COOGAN, in his last film) discussing the merits of cucumber sandwiches and for that alone, I must stand and give it some long-deserved applause.

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Tags: Amanda By Night · Blu-ray Review · General Horror

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

September 25th, 2019 · 9 Comments

I was at the library the other day and I saw they had The Strangers: Prey at Night and good lord, I borrowed it again! What is going on with me? Why do I like this movie? It makes little sense because I’m not much of a fan of the first movie, I’m not impressed with the stale masks at all and I find the title itself sorta annoying. And yet, for some reason, I couldn’t wait to pop it back into my DVD player and watch it late at night as the world slept with the company of cats and cheap beer. I don’t even think I like the characters in this movie. They’re very frustrating. The father (Martin Henderson) fails his entire family by suggesting they split up, the mother (Christina Hendricks) lamely allows herself to be stabbed by someone half her size, the brother (Lewis Pullman) never demands that they all leave immediately after discovering their hosts have been murdered and I’m going to need a little more than a RAMONES T-shirt to convince me that the daughter (Bailee Madison) is a rebellious malcontent. This movie is begging me to dislike it but try as I might it looks like I can’t.

This is how we all find out what a shallow human being I am. There are two, count-em’ two elements that make this movie impossible to resist for me. First off, on a visual level, it looks fantastic. It takes place in the excellent location of a trailer park at night and a spookily lit fog cloaks all of the surroundings and it comes off like a half-remembered bad dream. Everything looks muddled and vague but then there are these blasts of super sharp neon as well. All the interiors are dunked in sleazy seventies brown and gold complete with burlap couches and wood paneling like that once hip Fiona Apple video “Criminal.” I’m such a sucker for that faux-sleaze aesthetic, I know it’s basic and mid-nineties of me to fall for such a thing and yet I do. It just works so well as an environment for horror and evil shenanigans. In addition, the fact that the abandoned grounds are empty gives off an alienating, end of the world vibe. It kind of reminds me of playing kick-the-can after dark when I was young and feeling like I could be engulfed by darkness at any minute. It also calls to mind how the dark, twisty labyrinth-like alleys and backyards of Haddonfield were so well utilized in the opening of HALLOWEEN II (1982).  

Speaking of CARPENTER-esque tonal touches, the score and soundtrack are my other soft spot. The repetitive theme by Adrian Johnston is either homage or a blatant rip-off of THE FOG’s and apparently my spine is going to tingle to it either way. I also adore director Johannes Roberts (47 METERS DOWN) ace idea to exploit some cold-ass synth-y new wave songs to embellish the kills. It’s almost as if the songs report on the atrocities like indifferent bystanders and it somehow accentuates the idea that the universe doesn’t care who lives or dies. Taking advantage of Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” is a truly inspired, off the main road choice that I can’t help aplauding. What’s really surprising though, is how well low-hanging pop tuneage like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s  “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” work (when paired with a brutal murder). Both songs were written by Jim Steinman and are known for their over the top theatrics but I’d assume they’d be too familiar and obvious to register much of an impact and apparently, I’d be super wrong. I have to say, this flick’s fluorescent pool confrontation is a symphony of exquisite horror-beauty that you don’t find many places outside’s Michele Soavi’s STAGE FRIGHT (1987) or maybe the signature stalk n’ skate set-piece from CURTAINS (1982).

I guess STRANGERS: PAN simply fulfills a nostalgic need for me; it reminds me of when I used to be able to watch a movie for payoff alone and with my critical mind fully gagged. The story is thinner than cellophane, the characters are not exceptionally interesting (I’ll root for them anyway just because they’re humans not looking for trouble) but there’s something about the freedom and danger of the night itself that it conveys that I find thrilling. As elementary as it all is, I’m kind of impressed that no kill is a throw-away and that each feels potently, almost romantically, fatalistic and tragic. And maybe the movie is a little deeper than I give it credit for; there’s something to be said about how the main character’s escalating fortitude coincides with the realization of how much she really does value her parents and sibling. And I think because the victims are a family unit rather than a gaggle of random teens, there’s something extra poignant about watching them die (see also THE HILLS HAVE EYES and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT). I dunno. I guess I just wanted to admit I’m a fan. This won’t be the first time I had a soft spot for a maligned sequel and it certainly won’t ne the last. I guess when it comes to slash-happy horror movies, I’m an old pro at making love out of nothing at all.

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Tags: General Horror

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018)

September 18th, 2019 · 5 Comments

Uh-oh, looks like somebody finally made a film adaptation of one of my all-time favorite books, Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. I’m going to give all those involved a kudos for bravery right out of the gate because it couldn’t have been easy translating such an intimate character-driven piece to the screen. Plus I don’t envy anyone attempting to compete with the substantially personal world Jackson’s words created for her readers. No novel easily transfers to film but this is one of those magical books you simply live inside of as you read it and its fans are rarely casual about their appreciation. Anyway, I’m happy to report that for the most part I really enjoyed this take on the material, it’s a true visual stunner, the acting is uniformly intriguing and it represents a hoarding shut-in’s preoccupation surrounding heirlooms, found objects and memorabilia eloquently. On the minus side, I think some of the most dynamic plot points are too lightly touched upon and the climax, which should feel like a hammer falling, barely stings. Saddest of all, a rug-pull twist in the book limply plays out like a beyond obvious “ya think?” revelation here.

Wide-eyed and lumbering, Taissa Farmiga delivers a compelling performance as Merricat Blackwood, an 18-year-old outsider living with her serene older sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario of TEXAS CHAINSAW 3-D) and their semi-delusional Uncle Julian (the ALWAYS excellent Crispen Glover). The three live ostracized from their community and holed up in their splendiferous mansion ever since Constance was accused of being responsible for their parent’s poisoning death years prior. Much like THE FOX (‘67), THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (‘76) PREY (‘77) and even JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (‘82), this is the tale of a blissfully cozy, harmonious existence that is turned upside down as soon as an untrustworthy dog shows up. In this case, the dog is a long lost (but not lost long enough) cousin named Charles (Sebastian Stan) who vaguely seduces Constance, threatens to hospitalize Julian and harangues Merricat for burying valuable treasures he clearly has his eyes on.

Thumbs up to all humans involved for their generally compelling work (although it could be said that Farmiga is a tad too oafish, Daddario is a smidge too simple, Stan is a bit too conspicuous and Glover could possibly let his freak flag fly higher) but one of CASTLE’s greatest characters, Merricat’s ebony feline Jonas, is sinfully underrepresented and it’s probably my biggest qualm. People are able to make houses and cities into characters in movies but somehow a cat character is a reach? Really all they’d have to do is show him more and speak his name more often for him to stick but for some reason, he’s treated as one of the home’s tchotchkes instead. That cool dude should be present and accounted for in every single scene where Merricat is casting and conjuring in her garden alcove.

Appalling cat representation failures aside, much like Sheena Easton in a Prince video, this movie has got “the look.” Poor me went to grab a few screenshots to illustrate this post and ended up with about fifty (truly, you could make a coffee table book out of nearly every frame). Director Stacie Passon, cinematographer Piers McGrail, production designer Anna Rackard and art director Louise Mathews all deserve kudos for this handsome devil of a flick. Even if it doesn’t quite hit all the emotional notes of the book (and really, how could it?), I think I can appreciate it as a visual companion piece of sorts. The near-constant blue/green color palette alone puts me where I want to be but I also can’t help but dig the fetishistic attention to detail regarding the hoarded bobbles and scattered random ephemera the dollhouse-like manor is nested with.

Overall, I’d say this a respectable salute that should appeal to patient viewers who are attracted to light Goth and the darker side of Martha Stewart. I know I wouldn’t mind watching it again in the future but I’m guessing I’ll always lament that Merricat’s relationship with her beloved bestie Jonas was so foolishly neglected. Cat erasure is a crime and the punishment is your movie is not as good as it so easily could have been.

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Tags: General Horror

It: Chapter Two (2019)

September 9th, 2019 · 12 Comments

Since the release of the first segment of Stephen King’s IT in 2017, horror fans have been pretty much spoiled with back to back better than average genre fare. The crop has been so high caliber it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when weeks and weeks would go by without any worthwhile releases. We’ve had it so good lately that a movie that emotionally resonates and is chuck full of visionary images of horror can somehow be shrugged off and deemed simply passable or even disappointing. I don’t get it. I loved the ever so epic IT: Chapter 2 and can’t imagine the source material being handled much better. Yeah, I guess it is a little long with its somewhat flabby and redundant midway section but you know the tome it’s based on weighs twenty pounds and features a giant space turtle right? I think director Andy Muschietti has accomplished the nearly impossible and then some. Really, the fact that another interpretation of Pennywise the clown can exist in the same universe as Tim Curry’s beyond iconic take is a feat in itself. Sorry, I’m just feeling kind of grateful that this two-part horror bonanza occurred in my lifetime and that it blessedly takes place in a time frame perfect for me to relate to. I do wish Chapter 2 was wise enough to take advantage of another song by The Cure but whatayagonnado? I can’t pretend I don’t love Cameo’s “Word Up” too.

And hip-hip halleluiah, Chapter 2 has the admirable audacity to jump right into the deep end opening its curtains to the deadly homophobic hate crime that haunted the hell out of me when I first read the book. I don’t care what anyone says, this scene (which is based on a real incident that took place in Bangor, Maine in 1984, two years before IT was published) is crucial to me; it sets the tone of the entire tale and pretty succinctly tells you everything thing you need to know about the not as friendly as it looks town of Derry (I’m sure they thought of including the incident in the 1990 miniseries for exactly zero point zero seconds). There’s admittedly a bit of a risk that such a realistic act of violence would feel abruptly out of place opening what is essentially a horror fantasy but the way it bookends with a revelation concerning Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) balances things out quite well. I’m sure Richie’s newfound direction is not going to go over well with everyone but I think it fits in as snuggly as a missing puzzle piece and besides, King himself has granted his seal of approval. (That reminds me- King has a cameo in this movie as a shopkeeper and it’s by far my favorite he’s ever done as he blasts authors who aren’t particularly good at providing satisfying conclusions to their books, it’s mucho hilarious).

Some folks will tell you IT Chapter 2 goes a little overboard with the CGI and borderline cartoonish special effects and I guess that’s just a matter of personal taste. I personally appreciate that you never know when a rubbery looking, eight-foot-tall funhouse denizen is going to jump out of nowhere and chase someone with arms flailing about and slimy drool pouring from its lips. If there is a reason such an abomination might vomit all over a character to the tune of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” I have no idea what it is, but it certainly adds unpredictability to the bonkers phantasmagorical swirling smorgasbord, which is right in line with King’s hallucinatory original intentions. Yep, there’s an absolutely shameless tribute to JOHN CARPENTER’s THE THING plopped down in the middle of this flick and it’s almost way too on the nose and yet, King himself referenced Universal horror icons (Wolf Man, Mummy, Gill-Man) of the original time period in the book so I guess it’s fair game. It’s a little gimmicky, a little cheap but what the hell kind of horror fan is going to complain about such a thing? Pennywise’s ultimate boss battle form saves his big expressive head and tacks it onto some kind of part scorpion/part spider/part Beetlejuice creature that’s a little trying on my too-slow peepers but hey, I’m old enough to remember when rendering such a monstrosity would be impossible so I’m here to happily digest it. It probably all looks a little too visually similar to the climax of the first film (maybe a contrasting color scheme may have helped?) but I still think it looks better than any attempt to faithfully create how things go down in the book ever would. Thankfully Muschietti seems to understand what’s translatable and what’s not and his shorthand saves the day. There are a couple cringe moments I guess, I found lil’ Georgie’s “You lied and I died” mantra tired at best but since it leads to Bill (JAMES McAVOY)’s realization that self-forgiveness is the key to moving forward, I’m more than happy to let it slide.

It’s not often we get a horror movie with such a vibrant romantic element either. I know I’m a sucker but I’m still shocked this movie was able to get me to ship a Beverly (JESSICA CHASTAIN) and Ben (JAY RYAN) union so hard. Which brings me to another strong element- if ever there was ever an Oscar award given out for casting this baby would be a shoe-in. Many times the blending of the character traits and features is damn eerie. Muschietti even goes so far at one point as to superimpose young and older Eddie’s (JACK DYLAN GRAZER, JAMES RANSOME respectively) faces on top of each other and uncanny doesn’t even begin to cover it. I guess at the end of the day, much like KING’s book, what really matters is how much you connect with the characters. I love all of these guys and somehow that even includes the returning bullies (though one of them is now just a rotting corpse). Mileage may vary but I think it’s likely to vary based on how much empathy you have toward those on screen. IT’s red balloon is always going to float higher for those of us who have experienced bullying, smothering parents, domestic abuse, gay-bashing, psychosomatic asthma, speech impediments, alienating birthmarks, familial deaths, advanced leprosy, horrible customer service at the pharmacy, etc., etc., etc.. Truly, if you’ve ever been chased down the street by a murderous, twenty-foot tall lumberjack this is basically the ONLY movie that understands your pain. I may be biased though, if there’s a story that better illustrated the importance of calling out and facing childhood traumas rather than running from and repressing them, I just don’t know what IT is.

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Tags: General Horror

Ready or Not (2019)

September 5th, 2019 · 4 Comments

Believe it or not, READY OR NOT is about as satisfying as thrillers get. It’s all kinds of suspenseful, hits you with tasty blasts of true horror and the pitch-black humor that weaves throughout is exactly the right effortless tone that never ventures into the too broad and annoying zone. The unremarkable trailer misled me to believe I was in for the standard, been-there, done-that affair but R.O.N. cleverly plays against genre expectations, guides you into areas you’d never assume existed and ultimately pulls off a completely unexpected (literally) explosive conclusion. It’s kind of an irresistible combination of old school parlor room mind game mixed up with survival horror and smothered in satanic cynicism. Plus it all takes place in a sprawling mansion complete with secret doors, dumbwaiters and shadowy alcoves so even on the most basic level, it offers a cozy joint to wander around in for a while. Maybe I’m partial as I’m a giant fan of the board game CLUE which I have to assume was an inspiration even though nobody gets clobbered with a candlestick.

SAMARA WEAVING (THE BABYSITTER) portrays Grace, a woman about to dive into marriage who finds herself intimidated and weary of her fiancé’s aggressively off-putting and obnoxiously wealthy family. Soon after vows are exchanged her milquetoast hubby informs her that the clan has but one request and that is for her to indulge them in the family’s ritual of playing a picked at random game together. It might be checkers, it might be chess, it could be Ker-plunk or Don’t Break the Ice but as luck would have it, Grace picks “Hide and Seek” which amounts to her running for her life as everyone involved tries to kill her. As you can probably guess, Grace is a far greater opponent than anyone in the family is prepared for and soon it’s not quite clear exactly who might survive the night. As someone who finds themselves filled with a crimson rage every time they see a photo of a rich douchebag posing with an innocent dead animal they hunted for sport (steam is coming out of my ears as I type this), I deeply and cathartically relish every damn painful comeuppance Grace inflicts throughout this fine film. It’s the feel-good movie of the summer.   

WEAVING owns this movie (although I gotta give props to ANDIE MACDOWELL as the menacing matriarch as well). Grace is such an appealing and relatable horror heroine. She bumbles and fumbles and makes bad judgment calls and succumbs to her own vices and is, in general, a beautifully flawed, exquisite mess. She doesn’t secretly know karate or build elaborate Rube Goldberg booby traps on the fly either. What makes Grace even more relevant is her well-earned ferocious anger. It’s glorious. At some point, she’s just plain exhausted and royally pissed and so rightfully incredulous as she asks the sky, “What the fuck is wrong with rich people?” There’s something so authentic about the fury that WEAVING emboldens Grace with, her every scream, curse and frazzled wail rings true and feels legit. As the character enjoys a congratulatory exhale from a cigarette at the end of the film (which strongly echoes Veronica (WINONA RYDER)’s casual smoke at the end of HEATHERS) it’s almost difficult to believe she is the same character we started out with. The emotional journey she endures (through optimism, doubt, passivity, paranoia, anger, rage, profound exasperation and finally shrugging blasé victory) is one harrowing yet richly rewarding (and sometimes hilarious) haul.

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Tags: General Horror