All My Favorite Books of 2021

Last week, I posted a list of all the novels and novellas I read in 2021. This week, I’ll be discussing some of those books in a bit more detail, with categories like Fastest Read, Favorite Horror Novel, Favorite Sci Fantasy, etc.

As always, any book I read in 2021 is eligible for these superlatives because if I only discussed books published in 2021, well. Let’s just say this would be a much shorter list.

FASTEST READ

Truly Devious, The Vanishing Stair, and The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson

This YA mystery trilogy (well, okay, it’s not technically a trilogy anymore) is delightful, and I quickly powered through each of these three novels. I want Ellingham Academy to be a real place, even though definitely nobody should ever go there because, yeah, all the murders. Still! Stevie is a great heroine and teen detective, and I really enjoy most of the supporting cast, particularly introverted writer Nate, who speaks the language of my fucking soul. The concept is fun, the humor is great, and I just really had a good time reading these. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out The Box in The Woods sometime later this year.

Honorable Mentions: Think of England – KJ Charles; The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley; Finna – Nino Cipri; The Final Girls Support Group – Grady Henrix; The Inugami Curse – Seishi Yokomizo; Network Effect – Martha Wells; The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji; Bryony and Roses – T. Kingfisher; Rock and Riot – Chelsey Furedi

FAVORITE BOOK THAT MADE ME CRY

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

Oof. This one sits heavy in the chest. I can’t really discuss why without spoilers, but I can say that this is a story about loss, and each loss here is more strange and terrible than the last. The imagery is really quite lovely, and the ending ties the whole novel together so well. The Memory Police is fantastic, and I’m genuinely glad I read it, but damn, I was one big bundle of Existential Feels after finishing this book. Read with a comfort snack, or six.

FAVORITE GRAPHIC NOVEL

Rock and Riot, Vol. 1 – Chelsey Furedi

When I found this graphic novel, I didn’t initially realize that it had begun life as a web comic, but I figured that out when I devoured Volume 1, immediately tried to buy Volume 2 and 3, couldn’t find them anywhere, cried, and then found the whole series here to read for free—and read it, I did, all in one night. (I mean, I know that’s not a huge accomplishment—this is not a dialogue-heavy comic—but I appreciate anything that makes me feel that sweet must keep reading, must keep reading rush.)

Rock and Riot is about The Aesthetic. It’s a queer, 50’s, greaser romcom set in high school, and it is adorable; oh my God, is it cute. I love the main ship, I love all their friends, and the ending with the Prom is such pure perfection. 2021 was often pretty bleak, but this comic was a great pick-me-up.

Honorable Mentions: Die, Vol. 2: Split the Party – Kieron Gillen & Stephanie Hans; Goldie Vance: Volume One – Hope Larson & Brittney Williams; Princeless – Raven: the Pirate Princess – Book One: Captain Raven and the All-Girl Pirate Crew – Jeremy Whitley, Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt; The Wicked + The Divine, Book 3 – Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

FAVORITE NON-FICTION

Ace: What Sexuality Reveals About Desire, Society and the Meaning of Sex – Angela Chen

One of my favorite things about this book is that it doesn’t approach asexuality from a narrow perspective. Angela Chen interviews a wide variety of people from all over the spectrum and specifically delves into the various experiences, stereotypes, and challenges that aces with intersectional identities come up against. The book also explores some really interesting ideas about compulsory sexuality and how experiencing sexual attraction in today’s society isn’t just considered the default; it’s automatically assumed to be superior to experiencing little to no sexual attraction, a perspective that’s omnipresent and needs to change in both queer and heterosexual communities. It’s a well-researched book, and I’m really glad I read it.

Honorable Mentions: Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre – Alison Peirse (edited by); Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels – Gwen Hayes

FAVORITE MIDDLE GRADE

Root Magic – Eden Royce

I didn’t read many middle grade books this year, but I’m so glad I picked this one up because the Gullah-Geechee rootwork here is just so interesting, and it’s exciting to read a fantasy novel set in this culture by an author who actually is Freshwater Geechee. Root Magic felt innovative to me, different than many of the MG fantasy books I’ve read before, and it’s something I wish I’d had the opportunity to come across when I was a child. I particularly like that this story gives multiple characters space for some moral ambiguity. People aren’t perfect here, but they do care, and I like that. There are also just some fantastically creepy moments in this book that I adored. I definitely hope to read more by Eden Royce in the future.

FAVORITE YA

The Valley and the Flood – Rebecca Mahoney

I initially discovered this novel because I love the author’s fanfic, and I’m so happy I did because it’s such an odd, fascinating, and moving story about surviving and living with trauma. It’s also funny as hell, and I love pretty much the entire cast of characters. I am, admittedly, a sucker for magical stories about weird little towns (this one has multiple prophets who are rated by their accuracy, it’s great), but I also really love just how much time and space is given to Rose’s emotional journey here. I wish someone would pick this up for a limited series because I would watch the hell out of it. So, like. Get to work, Netflix!

Honorable Mentions: Truly Devious – Maureen Johnson; The Vanishing Stair – Maureen Johnson; The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson;  Elatsoe – Darcie Little Badger; Summer of Salt – Katrina Leno; Raybearer – Jordan Ifueko; Iron Widow – Xiran Jay Zhao; Loveless – Alice Oseman

FAVORITE ROMANCE

One Last Stop – Casey McQuiston

So, I really enjoyed this. It’s a very queer, very living-in-your-20’s kind of story, and I ship our main romance, which is obviously huge. (One of my biggest problems with love stories—within ALL genres—is that I either don’t care if the couple gets together or, worse, I actively don’t want them to get together. It happens more often than I’d like.) August, though, is pretty great (and another true crime solver—someone needs to write me the One Last Stop/Truly Devious crossover fanfic immediately), and I like Jane, too. I don’t know if time travel romances will ever be my bag, but trapped-and-displaced-in-time punk heroines from the 1970’s? Yeah, I’m here for that. Plus, I really love how this book dedicates so much time to August’s platonic relationships, too, primarily with her roommates Niko, Myla, and Wes. I was 1000% invested in all their friendships.

Honorable Mentions: Paladin’s Grace – T. Kingfisher; Frederica – Georgette Heyer; Think of England – KJ Charles; The Midnight Bargain – C.L. Polk; Bryony and Roses – T. Kingfisher

FAVORITE HORROR

Night of the Mannequins – Stephen Graham Jones

Oh, wow. Night of the Mannequins is a morbidly funny delight from beginning to end. It is also, hilariously, not quite the book I’d expected when I started reading the story because I must have misread or misremembered the back-cover blurb somehow? Honestly, though, I think that surprise actually made the novella even better, the slow unfolding as I realized, Oh, wait, are we—oh, SHIT, we’re doing THIS. It’s my FAVORITE NOVELLA I read this year, and such a perfect combination of weird slasher and disturbing psychological horror all in one. In the unlikely event I ever teach a class, and I want to do a lesson on voice? Night of the Mannequins will be one of the assigned texts.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Horror: The Bayou – Arden Powell; The Final Girls Support Group – Grady Hendrix; The Secret Skin – Wendy N. Wagner

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Novella: The Bayou – Arden Powell; Finna – Nino Cipri; Here, The World Entire – Anwen Kya Hayward; Burning Roses – S.L. Huang; And What Can We Offer You Tonight – Premee Mohamed; The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P. Djèlí Clark; And This is How to Stay Alive – Shingai Njeri Kagunda

FAVORITE MYSTERY

TIE!

The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley
The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji

Both these mysteries surprised me for different reasons, although it’s hard to explain exactly why without spoilers, which I’m reluctant to include even in the case of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which is literally almost 100 years old. I first discovered this book while reading The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, and I’m so glad I picked it up. The format is so interesting. There’s very little actual investigation on the page; instead, it’s a group of self-styled detectives discussing their proposed solutions to a recent unsolved murder, and it’s an awful lot of fun, witty and engaging and rather meta in its “let’s poke some fun at these tropes” humor, which is extremely in line with Golden Age mysteries. I had a ball reading this.

Meanwhile, it’s no surprise I checked out The Decagon House Murders because any book with such a fun And Then There Were None premise is always an automatic read for me, but I have to give special kudos to this novel because the twist is so GOOD. I know some writers always get mysteries correct, but the truth is, I don’t: I have a tendency to overcomplicate things while puzzling out the many ways a story could go. Hell, I didn’t get The Poisoned Chocolates Case correct. (Parts, damn it. My theory seemed so sound, too!) But I’m not usually, like, stunned, either. The Decagon House Murders stunned me. It’s been a long, long while since I felt so blown away by a twist I didn’t see coming at all, and that was very exciting for me. One of the best surprises of the year. Also, yeah, I kind of want my own decagon house now.

Honorable Mentions: The Inugami Curse – Seishi Yokomizo; The Honjin Murders – Seishi Yokomizo; Truly Devious – Maureen Johnson; The Vanishing Staircase – Maureen Johnnson; The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson; Fortune Favors the Dead – Stephen Spotswood

FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION

Chaos Vector – Megan O’Keefe

The sequel to Velocity Weapon, this is an absolute doorstop of a book and also a wild ride, full of twists and turns that are like, Oh, shit. OH. SHIT! You’d think I’d be prepared for that after the first book, but damn. Specifics are difficult to discuss without giving anything away, but this is a fantastic space opera with a great lead heroine and several supporting characters that I’m invested in. There are still so many mysteries left to uncover in the third and final book, which is already in my To-Read pile—and like, not even my metaphorical someday pile. It’s in the stack of physical books towering over my desk. Enticing me. Intimidating me. Reminding me silently we’re heeeere.

Honorable Mentions: Network Effect – Martha Wells; The Galaxy, and The Ground Within – Becky Chambers; Finna – Nino Cipri; Riot Baby – Tochi Onyebuchi; The Memory Police – Yōko Ogawa; And What Can We Offer You Tonight – Premee Mohamed; The All-Consuming World – Cassandra Khaw

FAVORITE SCI FANTASY

Harrow the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

Yes, it’s true, I did read Harrow the Ninth roughly a year after the rest of the world, but I got there eventually, damn it! And it’s an awesome read, one which definitely activated the Mystery Lover part of my brain, only in this case, the primary mystery is less all right, who killed this dude and more like, okay, but for real, though, what the FUCK is going on? I had an awful lot of fun trying to figure out, indeed, what the fuck WAS going on. (I got, IDK. Half of it?) Reading Harrow’s super traumatized, wildly unreliable, and goth as hell POV was pretty great, too. All of the characters are fantastic, TBH, and while this is—as one is legally obligated to point out—a very different book from Gideon the Ninth, it is still just as witty, wild, and fantastically weird as its glorious predecessor.

Honorable Mention: Iron Widow – Xiran Jay Zhao

FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

I enjoyed Piranesi well enough while I was reading it, but it wasn’t until I reached the end that I truly fell in love with it. This is definitely one of those novels that throws you into the deep end right away, but it’s interesting to slowly piece things together, and that bittersweet conclusion just makes everything which came before that much more powerful. The prose is absolutely lovely, and I really like our MC, too, his kindness, how he takes care of the dead, his deductions—even when they’re wildly wrong. The whole story is gently melancholic, but I don’t find it unbearably tragic, either; in fact, I’ve actually been considering buying the book to reread it, which is very rare for me. (It may not happen because of the aforementioned towering TBR pile, but still. I’m seriously considering it.)

Honorable Mentions: Elatsoe – Darcie Little Badger; The Memory Collectors – Kim Neville; The Valley and the Flood – Rebecca Mahoney

FAVORITE NOT-SO-CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow

I read this book relatively early in 2021, and I knew that no matter how many other awesome novels I read in the upcoming months, The Once and Future Witches was definitely making it on my Top Ten. I’m not always drawn to historical fantasy, but a story about witches and sisters and suffragists? Particularly one written by Alix E. Harrow, who writes some of the best, most striking prose in the business? Obviously, I was here for that. And the book is written beautifully, of course. There are so many good lines here. I became very invested in the relationships between the three Eastwood sisters, and I love all the rhymes and spells and stories. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read this one yet, you should definitely check it out.

Honorable Mentions: The Midnight Bargain – C.L. Polk; Paladin’s Grace – T. Kingfisher; Under the Pendulum Sun – Jeannette Ng; The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P. Djèlí Clark; Bryony and Roses – T. Kingfisher; The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo; Raybearer – Jordan Ifueko; When The Tiger Came Down the Mountain – Nghi Vo

TOP TEN FAVORITE NOVELS + NOVELLAS OF 2021
(not in any particular order)

1. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke
2. Night of the Mannequins – Stephen Graham Jones
3. Chaos Vector – Megan O’Keefe
4. The Valley and the Flood – Rebecca Mahoney
5. The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow
6. Network Effect – Martha Wells
7. The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji
8. The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley
9. The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa
10. The Bayou – Arden Powell

Because my system is imperfect, I always have at least 2 or 3 books on my Top Ten that I don’t have a specific superlative for, despite how awesome they are. I refuse to only discuss 8 of my 10 favorite stories of the year, though, so I’m also here to recommend the following fantastic novels and novellas:

Network Effect – Martha Wells

Okay, no one actually needs me and my readership of, like, 4 people to recommend Martha Wells. It is a well-acknowledged fact that Murderbot is The Best. But just in case you’re also playing catchup, Network Effect was an absolute delight to read. I am 150% here for the humor, the relationships, and all the Feels—you know, the ones that Murderbot pretends to not experience. IMO, Murderbot continues to possibly be the most relatable MC of all time, and I’m looking forward to reading Fugitive Telemetry sometime later this year.

The Bayou – Arden Powell

Would you like a spooky, queer, Southern gothic novella set in the 1930’s? Of course, you would, and that’s great because I have one for you right here! The Bayou is a super quick read and atmospheric as hell, and that ending, damn. Everything comes together so beautifully at the end of the story when All is Revealed. The horror is just so good here; also, I absolutely loved the writing, like, just so many good lines. This is the first work I’ve read by Arden Powell, and it will definitely not be the last.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo; When The Tiger Came Down the Mountain – Nghi Vo; Harrow the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir; One Last Stop – Casey McQuiston; Here, The World Entire – Anwen Kya Hayward; Paladin’s Grace – T. Kingfisher; Fortune Favors the Dead – Stephen Spotswood; The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – Becky Chambers; Truly Devious – Maureen Johnson; The Vanishing Stair – Maureen Johnson; The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson; Raybearer – Jordan Ifueko; Iron Widow – Xiran Jay Zhao; And What Can We Offer You Tonight – Premee Mohamed; Loveless – Alice Oseman

Yes, well, the plan was to only list 5 Honorable Mentions, but very obviously, I failed. Look, I read a lot of awesome books last year, okay? Be happy I kept it under 20.

Here’s to hoping 2022 is filled with even more fantastic reads!

TV Superlatives: September, October, November – 2021

It’s December, which means–well, a bunch of things, really, but today it means that I’ve come to talk about all the television I’ve been watching for the past three months. Here are the shows:

What If . . . ? (Episodes 1-5)
Star Trek: Lower Decks (Season 2, Episodes 4-10)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 8, Episodes 7-10)
Running Man/Classic Running Man (Random Episodes)
Black Spot (Season 2)
Last Week Tonight
Nailed It! (Season 6)
Squid Game
Slasher: Flesh and Blood
Yumi’s Cells (Ep. 1- 7)
Evil (Season 2)
The Great British Bake-Off (Collection 9)
Nancy Drew (Season 3, Ep. 1 – 7)
Hawkeye (Ep. 1-3)

A quick reminder for how these work: superlatives may be bestowed upon any show I’m watching, no matter whether it’s currently airing or not. As always, I will do my best to clearly mark all awards with appropriate spoiler warnings. I may discuss events from past seasons, however, without such a warning. Which is to say, I won’t spoil any of Nancy Drew, Season 3, without a big heads up, but any Major Revelations from S1 or S2 are totally fair game.

Shall we begin?

Continue reading

2021: Award Eligible Work and Recommended Short Fiction

Well, 2021 is nearing its end–it’s absurd, right?–so it’s officially That Time again. First, I’ll discuss my own writing; then, we’ll move onto my favorite short stories of the year.

In regards to my own work:

Forward, Victoria” – The Dark – April 2021 – (3900 words)

Ah, my latest slasher. TBH, I’m pretty fond of this one. There are a lot of obvious horror movie references here, but I was primarily inspired by the shifting lore of the Friday the 13th franchise. I wanted to play with legends and monsters and how they both evolve over time. (Also, I just really wanted to write my own Teenage Girl as Unstoppable Masked Killer story.) You may enjoy this one if you’re interested in queer horror, undead girls, angry girls, second-person POV, fatal high school reunions, and a variety of violent kills.

An Ever After Diverged” – Daily Science Fiction – March 2021 – (1000 words)

Ah, my latest fairy tale. I see I’m very on brand this year. This is a short, angry little piece about seers, bodily autonomy, and how quickly women’s lives are considered disposable. You may enjoy this one if you like upended fairy tales, feminist fairy tales, quick reads, reverse storytelling, visions, prophecies, and alternate endings.

Only Circles in the Sea” – Mermaids Monthly – August 2021 – (250 words)
I Am Not Your Tragedy” – Mermaids Monthly – August 2021 – (250 words)

The tiniest of mermaid stories! The quickest of reads! 2021, truly, was the Year of Flash Fiction for me. I’ve never been so lucky selling such short stories. (In fact, I have two more flash pieces coming out sometime next year. One in Nightmare, one TBA.)

“Only Circles in the Sea” is my prophetic mermaids story, and you may enjoy it if you like stories about loss, reunions, and the unfathomable magics of the sea. “I Am Not Your Tragedy” is my cyborg mermaids story, and you may enjoy it if you’re interested in rejecting ablest narratives and stories where sharks are bitey jerks. Both stories will take you less than five minutes to read and come with absolutely fantastic artwork by Clare McCanna.

All of these stories are eligible for Best Short Story in most major awards (World Fantasy, the Nebulas, the Hugos, the Shirley Jackson Awards, the Bram Stoker Award, etc.) Well. Okay, don’t nominate the mermaid stories for the Shirley Jackson or Bram Stoker Award. I haven’t written a murderous mermaid story. Yet.

With that out of the way, let’s continue. In no particular order, here are . . .

My Favorite Short Stories of 2021

1. “Eating Bitterness” – Hannah Yang – The Dark

Oh, wow, this story. There’s so much that I love here: the inherent creepiness of the second mouths, the disturbing burdens that mothers are expected to bear, the multi-generational attitudes and approaches towards duty, pain, and what it means to grow up. This story is dark, stunning, and gorgeously told.

Every evening we tie Mama down.

2. “Of Claw and Bone” – Suzan Palumbo – The Dark

I mean, goddamn. This one is fascinating, powerful, and goth as hell. We’ve got bone magic. We’ve got mobiles made out of tiny animal skulls. We’ve got the kind of abusive family dynamics that always kick me straight in the Feels. This one is all about mothers and daughters and validating different types of power and strength. I’m obsessed with it.

Your own skull is still in pieces, kept flexible to withstand the compression of the birth canal. There is no guarantee what kind of woman you will fuse into.

3. “Proof by Induction” – José Pablo Iriarte – Uncanny

So, this story is all about grief and mathematics, and while I can’t pretend to know anything about the latter, I really appreciate how this one handles loss, particularly when you’re not processing it the way people think you should. There’s a pragmatism to this story that greatly appeals to me; also, the bitter truth that no matter how many chances you get at a last conversation, it won’t be, cannot be, the closure that you’re looking for. A fantastic story all around.

“The Coda cannot change in the way that a person can, however; it cannot learn or grow.” Her eyes meet Paulie’s. “Your father’s soul is not in there. Your father has moved on.”

4. “We, The Girls Who Did Not Make It” – E.A. Petricone – Nightmare

I am, and forever will be, a sucker for a dead girl story. Or, as the case may be, the story of many, many dead girls. I love how this one gives so much time and space to meet each and every girl who was murdered, to know them both individually and as a collective group. This story is angry and unapologetic, and I like the fierceness of its resolution.

We wish we were she-demons with long claws. We wish the full moon rose and our stories ended with us picking our captors out from between our teeth. We wish we’d been stronger. We wish we’d lived.

5. “The First of Many Lies You’ll Tell Her” – Kelly Sandoval – Daily Science Fiction

I adore Kelly Sandoval’s prose. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but she always packs so much emotion, so much regret, melancholy, and love, into even the shortest of stories. Her work is outstanding. This particular story is all about the perpetual fear that goes hand-in-hand with being a parent, and while it took maybe three minutes to read, the words lingered inside my brain for much, much longer.

When they first lay her in your arms, you will relearn what it means to fear.

6. “A House Is Not a Home” – L. Chan – Clarkesworld

I’ve never bothered to make an actual Most Beloved Tropes And/Or Premises List, but if I did, “sentient houses” would definitely make the Top Ten. And this is easily one of the best sentient house stories I’ve ever read. It’s both a quick read and a gradual unfolding, and I just wanna give Home a big hug. A wonderful read with a perfect conclusion.

It is the truth that Home tells because Home has no choice.

7. “Pathfinding!” – Nicole Kornher-Stace – Uncanny

Ah, more of my favorite tropes: super soldier kids who are abducted/experimented on/raised by nefarious government agencies! The characters in this one are great: I love 06’s defiance, 22’s pragmatism, and the deep, utterly platonic bond between them. I love all the dark humor, particularly concerning the Director’s warped sense of her own heroism. This story is engaging, extremely quotable, and an overall delight.

They are fifteen years old, which each of them wears differently. 06: defiance, nobility, misplaced nostalgia, surgically precise rage. 22: indifference (false).

8. “One and a Half Stars” – Kristen Koopman – Baffling

Laugh out loud funny. This one is hilarious, biting, a pitch perfect satire of . . . shit, a whole bunch of stuff, TBH. How gynecological pain is brushed off as natural, harmless, insignificant. How ridiculously complicated basic troubleshooting and tech support can be. What does and doesn’t count as healthcare even though it is very obviously healthcare. And that last line? Jesus. Absolute perfection.

Before anyone considers buying this uterus, let me share a little story.

9. “Taking Control of Your Life in Five Easy Steps” – P H Low – Nightmare

Oh, I adore this story. It’s both darkly funny and deliciously unsettling, and I love the repetition, the absolute precision of the prose. This one is so sharp and concise, and some of these lines just snap. If you’re looking for a creepy sendup of unhelpful self-help articles, you have come to the right place.

Understand that your life is confusing because you are only a ragged reflection of a true person in a true world.

10. “Teeny, Tinman’s Fourth Wife” – Liza Wemakor – Anathema

I must admit that I’ve never seen The Wiz (at least, not in its entirety), but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying this story in the slightest. I love how Teeny talks about her own body. I love that she’s never ashamed of herself or her size; it’s just that she’s had the misfortune to fall in love with someone ashamed of his desire for her. Teeny struggles with her feelings for this tin-man who never deserved her, and the whole thing is a great read with a fantastic closing line.

When we heard the skin-girl and the scarecrow around the corner, I played dead per our protocol.

Finally, because I read WAY too many great stories this year, here are a bunch of Honorable Mentions:

Laughter Among the Trees” – Suzan Palumbo – The Dark
The Family in the Adit” – A.T. Greenblatt – Nightmare
From Witch to Queen and God” – L.D. Lewis – Mermaids Monthly
Ootheca” – Mário de Seabra Coelho – Strange Horizons
If the Martians Have Magic” – P. Djèlí Clark – Uncanny
Dragons” – Teresa Milbrodt – Strange Horizons
Six Fictions About Unicorns” – Rachael K. Jones – Uncanny

Triple Scoop Reviews: Pipeline, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, and Dune

Pipeline

Year: 2021
Director: Yoo Ha
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Viki
Spoilers: Nope
Grade: Rocky Road

I’m a sucker for a fun heist story, and I have a soft spot for Lee Soo-Hyuk, so Mek and I decided to check out Pipeline. The movie is . . . fine, but also kind of oddly charmless, and a bit on the slow side for me. Oh, that sounds mean, doesn’t it? I didn’t hate this movie. The acting itself is fine (though I’m starting to wonder if Seo In-Guk has ever been in anything where he didn’t play the Arrogant Male Lead), and there were a few moments that did make me laugh; unfortunately, they weren’t very memorable because I can’t think of a single one now. I just never got very invested in the story, and that’s probably because I never grew to care about anyone on the team.

Heist stories usually go one of two ways: A) they’re grim little affairs, full of twists, betrayal, and murder, or B) they’re much wittier and light-hearted, often centering on the Team as Family trope. Pipeline is very much the latter (which is personally great for me), but none of the characters are very dynamic or interesting, and they just don’t have the platonic chemistry that really makes these kinds of stories sing. Honestly, we never learn much about any of them, not even our main lead. I kinda vaguely liked Counter (Bae Da-Bin), I guess, but that’s about it. Frankly, I found myself half-voting for the rich scumbag villain, because I didn’t really care about our heroes, and because Lee Soo-Hyuk wears the hell out of a nice suit. Like. I’m not always shallow, but yeah. I’m a little shallow.

Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang Chi GIF by Marvel Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Year: 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Disney Plus
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Vanilla

This was fun. I don’t quite love it, for a variety of reasons that we’ll get into shortly, but it was definitely an easy watch. The Final Battle is weirdly murky, but all the other fight scenes are great; I particularly like the chaotic Muni fight, and also when Ying Li kicks Wenwu’s ass at the beginning. (Not to mention, Ying Li’s whole look is fucking fabulous. Christ, I hope to see this cosplay the next time I actually go to a con.) I like how this isn’t quite your typical origin story; it’s a delight when we realize that Shang-Chi already knows how to fight. The music is fun. I am all about that dragon. (Also, the qilin, the huli jing, and all the other mythological creatures that I’m less familiar with.) And I enjoy pretty much the whole cast. I was especially delighted to see Michelle Yeoh and Tsai Chin, even if the latter was only there for a few moments.

Still, I don’t love this one quite as much as other folks, and I think that’s partially because the whole story is just built from one of my least favorite tropes of all time. Like, introducing this awesome, badass, immortal lady who just gives up all her powers because she falls in love (for God knows what reason) with this evil warlord who totally doesn’t deserve her? Yeah, pass. I found myself checking out a bit even before we got to associating tropes like Evil Man Changes His Ways Because of Romantic Love and Evil Man Goes Back To His Evil Ways Because His Love Died. Mind you, this has nothing to do with the acting; Tony Leung is perfectly good in the role; unfortunately, none of this interests me.

Also, for a movie with this many flashbacks, I think it’s completely bizarre to exclude the one where Young Shang-Chi actually decides to run away. It’s a Big Moment for his character, particularly considering the emotional conflict between him and his sister, and the only reason I can think not to include it is if we’re postponing it for a Big Reveal, namely, if it turns out that the man Young Shang-Chi assassinated is also Katy’s dead grandfather. I am desperately hoping this isn’t the case because, ugh, talk about tropes I’m not into. (I think it’d also be kinda cool if Katy and Shang-Chi did remain platonic, but that seems pretty unlikely, and I don’t hate them as a romantic ship. TBH, I kinda like their low-key, just wanna dance vibe. They could totally date and do late night karaoke and save the world without being all tortured and shit–that is, unless Shang-Chi’s lying to Katy about vengance-murdering her grandpa.)

Finally, I appear to be in the minority here, but Ben Kingsley in the role of Comic Relief didn’t do much for me. Like, I loved it when they brought up his character at dinner, absolutely, but the second we actually get him on screen for Kooky Fun Times? Nah. OTOH, seeing Benedict Wong join in on the karaoke? Excellent.

Dune: Part One

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Year: 2021
Director: Denis Villeneuve
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – HBO Max
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Rocky Road

So, I finally watched this movie, 20% because I was curious, 80% because Mekaela bribed me with a bottle of Moscato that we somehow ended up with. The wine was tasty. The movie was . . . okay? I’ve never read the book, and I have very mixed feelings on the David Lynch adaptation, so I doubt I was anyone’s target audience here. But sure, there are things I like about this. Exposition and worldbuilding are handled much better here than in the 1984 version. Rebecca Ferguson makes Lady Jessica a million times more interesting than I remember that character being. (Also, her costumes are just cool.) And some of Paul’s visions are intriguing, particularly the ones with Jamis, considering he’s set up to be this someday friend/mentor figure, but instead, Paul kills him. (Other visions are less interesting because, much as I like Zendaya, there’s a limit to how many times I need a quick flash of her looking all romantic/enigmatic. I’m definitely looking forward to her having more actual dialogue in the sequel.)

Still, Paul himself? Meh. I genuinely like that he’s a child of two wildly different lineages, but kid’s got all the personality of a celery stick, and I don’t care even a little about his whole Chosen One narrative. (Frankly, I kinda wish Lady Jessica was the Chosen One.) I continue to hate Baron Harkonnen, too, and I’m still royally pissed about the decision to put Stellan Skarsgård in a fat suit, especially while reading bullshit about how careful they all were to avoid using the fat suit for comedic effect in the film; meanwhile, in the very same article: “Stellan  just loved being naked as the Baron. We all used to kill ourselves laughing when Stellan would ask for more nude scenes. He felt, quite correctly, that the Baron appeared more frightening and dangerous unclothed than cloaked in robes or armor.” Cool. That’s way less shitty!

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The only positive thing I will say about the Baron is that at least Villeneuve cut the Depraved Homosexual shit because FFS.

Also, for a 2 1/2 hour film, I do think Dune, Part One has a couple of pacing problems. Like, I kinda feel there should be a little more time between “fuck, we’ve been set up to fail” and “Massacre Night.” And there’s been, what, five minutes between Paul whining that Lady Jessica made him a freak (dude, you’ve got bigger problems right now) and Paul deciding, “Well, okay, I guess I’ll just be Emperor, then!” The second half of the film feels especially off to me. I also kinda just miss how bizarrely weird the 1984 version looks in comparison, although obviously that’s a very subjective criticism. This movie is pretty; it’s just not very fun. Like, it’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie that takes itself SO seriously. Plus–and I know this is the most minor of complaints–I feel like the desaturated colors of this film are a bit at odds with this oppressive desert heat everyone keeps talking about. I never even once bought that heat.

So, will I watch Part Two? IDK, probably, though I suspect bribery will be involved again, and I don’t think I liked this one enough to see the sequel in theater, no matter how much Villeneuve abhors the idea of people watching his art on the small screen. (Yes, I’m petty. This shit pissed me off.) TBH, I’m a little surprised about how many people were apparently worried there wouldn’t be a sequel, like, I know every iteration of Dune ends up being divisive as shit, but also, this was a wildly anticipated film with a huge cast and well-respected white director, like, the kind of director who actually gets Oscar nods for his science fiction work. I just wasn’t quite sweating the sequel getting the green-light, you know?

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: The Funhouse, Friday the 13th, and Halloween

Well, my friends, Horror Bingo has reached its conclusion and I’m afraid to say that my two-year winning streak has also met its end.

Oh, The Watcher in the Woods, alas. We came so close.

Before we get to the wrap-up, though, let’s discuss our last three movies.

The Funhouse

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Year: 1981
Director: Tobe Hooper
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Peacock
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Pistachio

Most of the movies I’ve watched this year for Horror Bingo have been somewhere between decent and awesome. Even my least favorites have been pretty watchable; The Funhouse, however, is the first movie I’ve actively disliked.

For starters, it’s slow as hell. It takes roughly 80 years for anyone to die, and while a slow build can totally work, like. You gotta do something interesting with that screen time. Give me some character development. Give me some funny dialogue. Give me some deeply unnerving atmosphere. I think The Funhouse is trying to accomplish that last one, but mostly, I was just bored. The atmosphere isn’t so much creepy as it is . . . seedy, especially considering this particular carnival seems right out of the 1930’s. Which, hey, I wasn’t alive in 1981, so possibly this is period accurate? Still, it all felt a bit contrived and over the top to me, only not in a fun way.

I’m also just not really into the whole Deformed Killer thing, a trope which often has icky ‘the outside reflects the inside’ implications, even when said character is supposed to be pitiable. The Disposable Sex Worker isn’t my favorite trope, either (I would argue Zena counts in this context), and quite frankly, raises some deeply disturbing questions about what Gunther wanted from the Girl Scouts that he murdered prior to this movie. We also spend way more time than I wanted with Evil Gunther’s Evil Dad, and JFC, the final showdown between Gunther and Amy went on for another 80 years. Yes, that’s 160 years total. I am a dusty corpse now. Give me an RIP in the comments.

There were a few things I did genuinely enjoy, like, IDK if anything has ever made me laugh so hard as watching the Final Girl assure her date that, no, no, she got the joke. (People. The authenticity.) I also enjoyed the opening credits, which had some serious Halloween vibes, and the poor dude who got hanged before getting an axe to the head. I also laughed at how Gunther carried Buzz’s body out like he was the Virgin Mary holding Jesus. (Gunther’s makeup, BTW, is–uh–something. He looks like the secret murderous lovechild of Sloth from The Goonies and the Dancing Alien from Spaceballs.)

It appears that when The Funhouse came out, it received pretty decent reviews, and while art is obviously subjective, I have to admit I’m surprised. I mean, motherfucking Siskel and Ebert liked this movie, and I thought they’d have rinsed their mouths out with bleach before ever admitting they enjoyed a slasher.

Friday the 13th

Year: 2009
Director: Marcus Nispel
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – HBO Max
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Rocky Road

As far as Friday the 13th movies go, the sequel/remake is pretty middle of the road for me. Watchable but a bit boring, probably because I don’t care about either of the potential Final Girls. In other roles, I like Amanda Righetti and Danielle Panabaker well enough (particularly Panabaker, who I liked as Killer Frost on The Flash), and I should totally be rooting for these two. Sadly, neither Jenna nor Whitney are allowed even the smallest scrap of personality. (It’s especially unfortunate with Whitney, who I wish had more on screen interactions with Jason.) I get slashers are not well known for their in depth character work, but we can still do a lot better than this.

I do remember being surprised by Jenna’s death the first time I watched this, though it’s hard to say if it would surprise me as much now, being more familiar with the Jason mythos. At the time, though, I thought it was kinda cool Clay and his sister lived, rather than Clay and his potential  love interest. (Well. We do end on a last second surprise attack–sigh– so maybe I should be saying “survived the longest” rather than “lived.”) I kinda like the idea of a more territorial Jason, too, like, this isn’t the Jason who hops on cruise ships towards Manhattan. This guy’s just killing any outsider who gets too close to home. But it doesn’t seem entirely consistent to me (like, why did Scuzzy Donnie have to die), and I wish the film did something more with it. Maybe the cops could’ve been sacrificing tourists to their local drowned god? On the upside, I did wholeheartedly enjoy the Updated Sleeping Bag Death! I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who likes The New Blood, but by God, we all love the Sleeping Bag Death.

Finally, a scattering of random thoughts:

A) Trent is The Worst, but I must say that Travis Van Winkle really commits to Rich Yuppie Asshole, like, this is solid work. I have no idea why Jenna would date this guy, but I suppose I’ve thought that about women in RL, too. Meanwhile, Lawrence, who just wanted to save his buddy Chewie, deserves better. Poor Lawrence.

B) Wow, I don’t know if I can think of anything that sounds more uncomfortable than topless wakeboarding. Slamming my naked breasts into water at, IDK, 20 miles an hour when I inevitably wipe out? I mean, that just sounds painful.

C) Hey, Pamela Voorhees is played by Nana Visitor! Hi, Homicidal Kira!

D) Seriously, why did Whitney and Clay dump Jason’s body in the lake anyway? That would’ve made sense for characters in previous films, sure, but it makes no sense here. They literally had to drag him all the way there! The cops are likely to be dubious! I don’t understand!

E) If Whitney does survive her last second surprise attack, she’ll learn that her mom died, and that she missed the funeral. Damn, Whitney’s life is bleak.

Halloween

Year: 2018
Director: David Gordon Green
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Vanilla

Mekaela won Horror Bingo with The Funhouse, but I had one more space in this Triple Scoop Review, so we each picked a film and played roshambo for it. Mek won, and thus we watched a different sequel/remake: Halloween.

This is okay. I definitely enjoy parts of it, but I’m not in love with the film, either, which is, well. Pretty in line with my feelings on this franchise, TBH. Some things I genuinely enjoyed: the opening credits, a lead female character in a horror movie who’s over 60 years old, Judy Greer’s face when she says, “Gotcha,” Laurie Strode’s whole death trap house, the many times we see Laurie echoing Michael Myers from the first movie (Laurie standing outside her granddaughter’s classroom, Laurie disappearing when Michael looks for her dead body, etc.) I also think it’s really interesting, watching multiple generations of the Strode/Nelson family dealing with the fallout from one terrifying night in 1978 . . . but I still think the movie could do more with it. Specifically, I’d like to see more of Laurie and Karen’s relationship, like, we definitely get the broad strokes, but I feel there’s room for more depth and nuance.

As far as what doesn’t work for me, well. I’m still trying to puzzle that out, so I apologize if the rest of this review is a bit murky. I have a vague idea that part of my problem stems from how much these characters seem to buy into, hm. Let’s call it meta knowledge. Laurie Strode knows Michael Myers is coming back for her. She’s been waiting for it her whole life. And I think we’re supposed to agree: for one, Michael obviously does find Laurie, but also, we get Dr. Sartain’s theories about Laurie and Michael, as though they’re inextricably linked, not to mention Allyson goes to class and literally learns about fate. It all feels pretty Thematic, only here’s the thing: Michael pretty much goes wherever he’s taken. I don’t see much evidence that he’s specifically gunning for Laurie, particularly because we’ve erased every instance that he’s done so out of canon. (Not to mention, goodbye the whole sibling connection.) Honestly, it’s a bit sadder if Laurie’s spent her whole life believing in this Final Girl vs. Boogeyman destiny, but really, she’s just traumatized and has incredibly shitty luck.

And to be fair, Halloween doesn’t actually rule out that interpretation. Still, I can’t entirely shake the impression that this movie feels haunted by the canon it erased. The podcasters, particularly the dude, feel pretentious to the point of absurdity. When Aaron’s shaking the Michael Myers mask around (LOL to his convenient friend at the attorney general’s office, BTW) and asking, “You feel it, don’t you?” Like, I don’t buy any of that, and not just because this dude never seems to realize he could easily walk around the square and actually face his interviewee. Officer Hawkins running over Michael Myers could theoretically work, given that he was around in 1978, but the movie doesn’t give much space to his trauma, definitely not enough for me to buy Actually, Murder is the Best Approach Here from him. And while I’m sorta relieved Dr. Sartain is evil because I was getting real frustrated by his whole Michael Myers fanboy ass, he also just feels . . . weirdly artificial to me, like his dialogue could’ve been taken straight from some Pop Culture & Philosophy essay. Which is something I would totally expect from the Scream movies, but not so much here.

Halloween is entertaining enough, and I’ll probably see the sequel eventually (if only to see what’s causing these seriously mixed reviews), but there’s just something that, on a first viewing, feels oddly disingenuous to me.

(Finally, a few quick last minute things: A) I need Halloween: The Multiverse in my life immediately, where the various Laurie Strodes all face one another, and Karen meets the other two kids who were written out of continuity, B) I’m goddamn amazed that Cameron lives; also, Sheriff Barker, C) sadly, poor Vicky never had a chance, and neither did the Sandwich Cops, who legit were the best, D) much as I like Karen’s “gotcha” moment, I really wish it had more room to breathe, and E) Michael killed a child to show this movie isn’t fucking around, but didn’t kill the baby because, apparently, even Evil has limits.

THE GREAT HORROR BINGO 2021 WRAP UP

Of the films I’d never seen before, my favorites were easily The People Under the Stairs and A Quiet Place Part II.

My least favorite movie, OTOH, was definitely The Funhouse, with Till Death as a very distant runner up. The Funhouse was this year’s Dream Home. Or Mandy.

Movies I’m Most Disappointed We Didn’t Get To: Pontypool, Lake Mungo, and One Cut of the Dead have become the redheaded stepchildren of Horror Bingo. We keep throwing them in, and they stubbornly refuse to be chosen.

Movies I’m Most Likely to Add to 2022 Horror Bingo, assuming I don’t watch them before: As the Gods Will, The Call, Bit, and maybe The Fly. (Last year’s nominees were Mayhem, Anna and the Apocalypse, Hereditary, and Cube, which. Well, hell, that was damn accurate.)

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Happy Death Day 2U, Cube, and Mayhem

Okay, I know. Halloween is over. Guess what? Horror Bingo continues until there’s a winner, and so far, it’s still neck and neck. The stakes are high! (There are literally no stakes of any kind.)

Happy November. Let’s twist this.

Happy Death Day 2U

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Year: 2019
Director: Christopher Landon
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Vanilla

Happy Death Day 2U is an interesting sequel in that it slightly genre hops from “horror comedy with an SFF plot device” to “SFF comedy with vague slasher leanings.” I don’t know that it totally works for me, though. I really enjoy the embrace of parallel dimensions–it’s always fun to see what’s the same and what’s different in any given universe–but I’m also a tiny bit bummed by just how much of a backseat the whole slasher part takes. I was also a little disappointed when I realized that only Tree would get caught in the parallel dimension time loop. That’s what I’d been initially expecting, mind you, but then we began the movie with Ryan caught in his own time loop, and I had just long enough to think, Oh, that’s so INTERESTING, before we essentially just restarted Happy Death Day in Earth 2.

That being said, Tree’s reaction to realizing she’s back in the loop? Priceless. I still like Jessica Rothe as Tree, and a lot of the humor still works for me. (Some, admittedly, is a bit goofy for my tastes.) The emotional beats work too, mostly: I like that Tree is tempted to stay, though sometimes the swelling background music is trying way too hard; also, I definitely don’t care enough about Tree/Carter to make the World Where Mom is Alive vs. World Where Carter is My Boyfriend even remotely a debate. I also enjoyed getting to see the nicer, less homicidal Lori, though I do wish we had more time to spend on Comic Relief Scientist Friends.

I’m also still a little unsure about, well, most of the time/dimension mechanics, honestly. Why, exactly, was Ryan in a time loop again? Tree got stuck in hers when the quantum machine went off, but I don’t think it went off again, so . . . not sure? Also, while Alternate Ryan is interesting, I don’t know if he makes much sense, especially considering we get 2 Ryans in Earth 1, but only 1 Tree in Earth 2. I’m curious, too, about Alternate Tree, like, I get that her mind went traveling when our Tree came into the picture, but did she actually come back? Does she remember what happened to her? Would she have been stuck forever if our Tree decided to steal her life? It’s possible I missed some of these explanations, and even if I didn’t, I’m sure many would consider them nitpicks. But IDK. In some ways, Happy Death 2U is kinda intriguing; in other ways, I feel like there’s just so much more it could’ve played with and explored.

Cube

Year: 1997
Director: Vincenzo Natali
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yes, in this paragraph and in the trailer above
Grade: Vanilla

Cube came out when I was about 12, and I haven’t seen it since I was, IDK. 13? 15? It’s the first horror film I can think of, offhand, that uses an escape-the-booby-trapped-room set up; it’s also the oldest film I can remember that uses the Razor Floss death trope, which became popular a few years later. (Though if you can think of older films, please do let me know in the comments.) It’s definitely influential, and I can see why it’s gained something of a cult following. (Plus two sequels, neither of which I’ve watched.)

Some parts of this movie hold up better than others. I won’t pretend I can speak expertly about good autistic rep, but everything I’ve ever read suggests that the autistic savant character is a frustrating stereotype, one that’s become dominant in film and television since Rain Man. Some of the scene transitions are kinda laughable. Also, some of the actors are notably better than their costars, though I did have fun playing spot the actor. When I first watched Cube, the only person I knew was Nicole de Boer, who was on DS9. Now, I also recognize Nicky Guadagni from Ready or Not, David Hewlitt from Stargate: Atlantis, and Julian Richings, That Guy who pops up in every SF/F/H show that’s filmed in Canada. (You may also remember him from Urban Legend, which I just reviewed a few weeks ago.)

Still, it’s a fun concept and easily watchable, if you don’t mind how awful some of these characters are. Leaven, in particular, is so much worse than I remember, both incredibly whiny and also just a total jackass to Kazan. I enjoy how Quentin, a cop, is initially presented as the calm Good Guy, only for him to slowly reveal his true nature: namely, Sexist Murderous Dick. After all, the traps only kill 2 people; Quentin, himself, kills 3. I also like the twist that the rooms themselves are moving around. (Which, uh, the trailer just straight up spoils? Way to go, trailer.)

Cube is never gonna hit my personal Top Ten, but its influence cannot be denied, and it’s worth a watch if you also enjoy this type of horror. (Also, there’s apparently a new Japanese remake? Ooh, I hope it becomes available in the US. I want to check it out!)

Mayhem

Year: 2017
Director: Joe Lynch
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Only mildly
Grade: Vanilla

I mean, look. I could watch Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving running around being chaotic neutral all day. They’re pretty delightful here, talking metal bands and Dave Matthews Band in between murdering people with power saws. This premise promises, well, mayhem, and it certainly delivers on that front. There were definitely moments I laughed out loud, although annoyingly, I’m having trouble remembering specific ones right now. I did love the moment when Derek confronts The Reaper in his office. Also, Ewan asking, “Do you think I like the taste of kale?” Heh.

As an actual satire, I do feel like it’s missing something. Maybe it’s because I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity with all the other mistreated coworkers, who are by and large just around for background gags or to act as no-name henchmen. Maybe it’s because almost everyone on the board of directors acts normal, despite the fact that they’ve also been infected. The only person really acting any different is our chief villain, John (AKA, The Boss), and even then he’s mostly just yelling more and doing a lot of cocaine. The film would be stronger, I think, if none of the bosses were infected, especially if they proved to be just as violent without the excuse of an infectious, inhibition-removing disease. I also can’t help but feel like Derek Cho is resting a lot on the legal precedent of one case, as if America’s justice system is just gonna automatically treat a person of color the same as some white guy.

So, yeah, I do think the satirical aspects of this script could be stronger. (Also, the accents, which is totally not a big deal, but like. Couldn’t this just have been an international company?) OTOH, if you’re mostly watching to see Steven Yeun absolutely flip his shit or Samara Weaving add another notch to her Fun Violent Ladies On Screen belt–and let’s be real, that’s absolutely why I watched it–I mean, yeah, it’s totally a decent movie to check out.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: A Quiet Place Part II, The People Under the Stairs, and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

Horror Bingo continues, but first! An important change to our Very Serious Ice Cream Rating System:

The Old System: I review three films and award them Chocolate (first place), Vanilla (second place), and Strawberry (third place), regardless of how silly it is to compare wildly different movies like this. Every Triple Scoop Review has one of each flavor.

The New System: I review three films and grade them individually with this totally objective and highly scientific ice cream rating system:

God-Tier – Chocolate Salted Caramel
Really Enjoyed This – Chocolate
Enjoyed This Okay – Vanilla
Technically Proficient, But Not My Thing – Strawberry
Well, I Liked SOME of It – Rocky Road
I Actively Disliked This Movie – Pistachio
I Could Not Finish This Movie – Mint Chocolate Chip

Each Triple Scoop Review will be any combo of these flavors. Chocolate Salted Caramel probably won’t get used very often (I suspect it will primarily be awarded to old sentimental favorites), and I honestly kinda doubt I’ll use Mint Chocolate Chip at all because I can’t even remember the last time I started a movie and didn’t finish it. Feel free to argue about how I’ve unfairly maligned mint chocolate chip (or any of the other ice cream flavors) in the comments below, of course, but just know that your opinions are wrong and wrong forever.

With that, let’s get back to our movies!

A Quiet Place Part II

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Year: 2020
Director: John Krasinski
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Paramount Plus
Spoilers: Yes, in paragraphs 3 and 4
Grade: Chocolate

A Quiet Place Part II is a very competently made sequel, and for the most part, I had a pretty great time watching it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the first one, but I have the general sense that AQPP II got the Aliens treatment, you know, a little louder than its predecessor, more action all around, a bit less claustrophobic in terms of both setting and scope. But like Aliens, that totally works here, and most of what  I really enjoyed about the first film (an active Deaf protagonist, creepy Demogorgon monsters, the close focus on the Abbott family) is still present in the sequel.

Many of the scenes in AQP II have serious video game energy: the opener (which would also make for one hell of a Disneyland ride), the destroyed train scene, any of the moments when someone has to stay perfectly silent and still. (It’d be like in Until Dawn, where periodically you can’t shake the controller or INSTANT DEATH FOR YOU.) It’s all very fun, tense and entertaining. I also enjoyed Cillian Murphy in this, less because Emmett is a particularly groundbreaking character and more because Murphy is just a fantastic actor who elevates the material. All the acting is really solid, actually, and I hope to see Millicent Simmonds in more stuff because once again she’s excellent.

My primary quibbles are these: A) JFC, stop casting Djimon Hounsou just to waste him like this, and B) the feral people don’t totally work for me, mostly cause they seem, like, weird fucked up instead of normal “we kill people for food and joy” fucked up? Like, their eyes are all weird and shit, I don’t know. Maybe they’re sick with some kind of radiation? Vague Zombie Disease? It’s not that I particularly wanted a detailed backstory for these ten-minute antagonists, but they also feel slightly out of place to me like this: a bit forced and unnecessarily distracting

That being said, I did enjoy how “dive” came back around. I also like that the island community isn’t some devious trap and how nobody in the family dies; even Cillian Murphy doesn’t get the obvious redemption death I’d initially predicted. Sometimes, going optimistic works in your favor because, in horror, optimism is often the more surprising and exciting choice. (Which is another reason Djimon Hounsou’s death here annoys me so much; it’s such a predictable, throwaway moment. If his character has to die, fine, but why like this?) I like the triumph in this ending, too, as the kids each literally step up to kill the monster and protect their respective adults. It feels a touch abrupt, since we don’t actually see our heroes meet up again, but I also kinda enjoy it.

The People Under the Stairs

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Year: 1991
Director: Wes Craven
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Peacock
Spoilers: Surprisingly, no, not really
Grade: Chocolate

You know, I really enjoyed this movie. I’d never gotten around to seeing it before and the very little I knew–basically, there are weird people, and they live under the stairs–had me expecting something a bit more Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes. I wasn’t at all prepared for a satirical gothic horror criticizing conservatives, landlords, and gentrification, certainly not one with dark fairy tale sensibilities, deliciously over-the-top villains, cannibalism, bondage suits, and jokes, just like, all the jokes. This movie is a weird mishmash of a story that’s rocking at least four different tones, and I don’t exactly know why it works so well for me, but it really does.

I enjoy all of the acting, especially Wendy Robie as Mommy (or the Woman, as she’s credited). Her performance is so energetic and creepy and hilarious, and she makes for a delightful villain. This Lack of Impressed face right here, as she looks at Daddy?

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Oh, man. I felt that in my bones.

But the whole cast is pretty great. Fool is a funny, resourceful MC, and I think Brandon Quintin Adams does a great job with him, especially considering he’s all of, what? 10 or 11 here? I enjoyed A.J. Longer as Alice, too. Ving Rhames and Bill Cobbs were both a delightful surprise, and of course, this Twin Peaks fan was deeply amused to see Everett McGill here alongside Wendy Robie. I also really liked Sean Whalen, who I will always remember from Michael Bay’s “Got Milk” commercial. (Heh. I love that isn’t a joke.)

This is a story about a Black child living in a Black neighborhood trying to save his family from eviction, but it’s written and directed by a white man; as such, there are probably improvements that could be made here. If TPUtS ever does get a remake (and I know there’s been some talk), I’d really hope to see it in the hands of a Black filmmaker. But I don’t have a lot else that I wanna criticize. I thought the pacing was a bit off, maybe? But I also watched it with a couple of commercials (sacrilege, I know) and I had to take a couple additional pause breaks for my cat, so that easily could’ve been the problem. And yeah, there were a couple gags that were bit corny for my personal preference; mostly, though, I just laughed a lot. I adore pretty much the whole aesthetic: the costumes (particularly Mommy’s and Alice’s) and also the design of the house, with its multiple hidden passages and secret doors. I quite like the ending, too.

I kinda wish I’d seen this as a kid. I didn’t really get into horror until I was in junior high, but I wonder if this might’ve been the rare exception because in some ways, it kind of plays like a children’s movie–albeit a very, very dark, very, very weird children’s movie. I could absolutely marathon this with Return to Oz and The Witches.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

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Year: 2021
Director: Adam Robitel
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Only in the 4th paragraph (but spoilers throughout for the first film)
Grade: Vanilla

We watched the theatrical cut of this movie, and that’s important because the theatrical cut and the extended cut are apparently wildly different films, with completely different beginnings and endings and even different people pulling the Escape Room strings. That’s . . . weird, right? I feel like that’s weird.

Tournament of Champions is a decent sequel, though I did enjoy its predecessor more. (To be fair, my expectations for the first film were . . . not high.) I did have a good time watching this: I like death games and ridiculous horror, and obviously, yours truly was happy to see Holland Roden as one of the new players. Indya Moore was also a fun addition to the cast. I wish I found Zoey a more compelling protagonist, but I still don’t buy many of Taylor Russell’s line deliveries. I do enjoy Zoey and Ben together, though. Logan Miller is fun, and there’s something potentially interesting about a team who survived the first game entering a whole new one with a bunch of soul survivors.

The rooms and death traps are silly and enjoyable, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Tournament of Champions was trying a little too hard to top the previous film. I did have fun (I definitely laughed when one one of the characters clowned on a dude for trying to be the Chosen One), but the sequel has basically the exact same formula as the first movie, only slightly more . . . rushed? Ludicrous? I just feel like something’s missing, and I’m not quite sure what. Maybe I just wish the puzzles themselves had been more interesting. There aren’t many surprising or exciting plot developments here except for a twist that’s telegraphed a bit too hard.

Regarding that twist, well. In the first movie, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), who was kinda awesome, fell to her death, only it turns out that she survived, and was forced to design this Escape Room, otherwise Evil Minos would kill her daughter. I was bummed when Amanda died, so I kinda like this, except . . . IDK, it almost feels weirdly more depressing, like Amanda was pretty badass in the first film, but now she’s just broken, and never really gets an arc or a standout moment or even much screen time; in fact, she’s basically dropped once they all “escape.” Mostly, it feels like she’s around to show that unlike Amanda, Zoey would never break. Which, meh. Frankly, I’d probably have traded Rachel and Brianna for Zoey in a heartbeat. Partially because I just like them more, but also because their deaths specifically feel predetermined by the game, like they never really had a shot at winning, and that’s kind of a bummer, too.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Hereditary, Till Death, and Tag

Horror Bingo continues! Once again, we have three wildly different movies to discuss today. Let’s just skip straight to the blasphemy, shall we?

Hereditary

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Year: 2018
Director: Ari Aster
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yes, specifically in the 3rd and 4th paragraphs
Grade: Vanilla

Hereditary is . . . okay. It’s well-acted, particularly by Toni Collette. It’s well-shot. There are definitely some nice creepy moments and a few good surprises, which I’ll detail in the Spoiler Paragraphs. I like the use of the miniatures, which are clearly eerie AF.

But on the whole, I feel removed from this story, distant. I feel vaguely bad for this family because a bunch of truly awful shit happens to them, but I also don’t know that I particularly connect to any one of them as characters. There’s never really a moment that I became fully invested in their lives or the story in general. The whole movie is kinda, hm, flatly miserable I guess? Which, yeah I get it: this is horror, and no one’s here to have a good time. But I do feel like I’ve watched other horror films about suffering and grief that I’ve enjoyed a lot more and that have meant more to me. It probably doesn’t help, either, that I just read a handful of reviews that really have that whole “yes, Hereditary is a horror film, but it’s actually about something” energy, like the entire genre was trash before Blessed A24, Lord and Savior, came to save us from ourselves. I fucking despise that shit.

As far as the actual plot goes, I initially thought that the evil cult was trying to bring Dead Grandma back to life. (The evil cult itself was pretty, obvious, right, like we all knew that Ann Dowd was definitely Evil Grandma’s Equally Evil Friend?) Once we learned about Paimon, though, I was all, Oh, got it, we’ve been trying and failing to do this for a WHILE now, first with Long Dead Grandpa and then Long Dead Uncle and now Recently Dead Charlie. I completely missed that Charlie actually was Paimon since, IDK, she was a baby, basically? Until the ending reveal, I’d just assumed she was all emotionally fucked up due to the prolonged exposure to Evil Grandma.

There are some disturbing and/or holy shit moments I liked. When Charlie died, for instance (I thought she might go out early, but didn’t expect it to happen like that) or when Gabriel Byrne went up in flames. (Damn, that was a good surprise.)  Possessed Toni Collette decapitating herself; also, when she channeled Charlie during the seance. And the ants, God, I fucking hate ants. There really is some genuinely good stuff here.

But for me, the film as a whole didn’t linger. When Hereditary was over, I was kinda like, “Well . . . that was definitely a movie I watched,” and moved about my day. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t connect to it, either, and I don’t think I was nearly as disturbed as I was meant to be.

Till Death

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Year: 2021
Director: S.K. Dale
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Netflix
Spoilers: Some, technically, but nothing that should ruin the movie for you
Grade: Strawberry

Again, this is okay. It’s a fun concept: woman who’s been handcuffed to her dead asshole of a husband has to find a way to survive, especially when a couple of dudes come to rob and kill her. You know, it’s like Gerald’s Game, but worse. (I presume. Despite having been a Stephen King fan since I was 11 or 12, I’ve still never actually read or watched Gerald’s Game.) There are some specific moments I like: golf clubs, the various troubles with staircases, a nice reversal where one of the bad guys gets handcuffed to a dead body. Dead Husband (Eoin Macken) is The Fucking Worst, and rudely, this movie makes you wait a little over 20 minutes for him to die, which is obviously criminal. But mostly, it’s an easy enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Unfortunately, Emma is played by Megan Fox, and while I genuinely like Megan Fox in some things–Jennifer’s Body, for instance–I don’t think she quite works here, which is a bummer cause the whole movie kinda rides on her performance. In the first 20 minutes, she’s going for . . . hm, meek, I suppose? Sad and subservient? But it falls a little flat for me, never quite manages to feel genuine or nuanced. Her performance is a bit stronger when Emma gets to the “fuck you, corpse-husband, I will survive no matter what” stage of the game. Still, even then I don’t buy a lot of her reactions. There’s one moment when Emma yells “Fuck you!” or something, and I flat out laughed.

Mostly, I just couldn’t stop thinking of actresses I’d rather have seen in the role. Like, we’re currently watching Season 2 of Evil, right, so immediately, I’m thinking, “Man, Katja Herbers would’ve owned this.” Other possibilities: Kate Siegel (double feature this and Hush!), Florence Pugh (double feature this and Midsommar!), Samara Weaving (this scream, it is the best, I will never shut up about it), Sandra Oh (Jesus Christ, I would cut off someone’s right arm to see Sandra Oh in a horror movie.) Till Death is decent enough, but a stronger actress could’ve made this one sing.

Tag

Year: 2015
Director: Sion Sono
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yes, primarily in the last two paragraphs
Grade: Chocolate

I mean, damn. Tag is WILD. I knew that going in, of course, but let’s be clear: in no way does that fucking trailer prepare you for the film you’re about to watch. Holy shit.

I’m finding this one hard to talk about. Tag is a madcap rush of action, gore, and surrealism, and for the majority of the film, I had very little idea of what was going on–though I did accidentally hit on a Big Twist, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. It helps, I think, to have a “fuck it, let’s just see what happens” mindset–which isn’t to say don’t engage with the film, just, like. It’s probably not gonna make much sense until the end. If that sounds super frustrating, this might not be the movie for you. Likewise, if you hate gore (or only like it when it’s tasteful) this is also probably not your movie. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t a big problem for me. The opening scene alone, I mean, shit.

Tag is also a bit difficult to discuss because–as with any foreign film–I’m almost certainly missing cultural references or important context that Japanese audiences would know, not to mention this is Amazon, so how accurate are these translations, really? I can tell you that I enjoyed the score: I really like what I’ve heard from MONO so far; plus, there’s a brief instance of The Walking Dead theme music, which TWD, bah, but it’s damn good theme music. I can also tell you that I’d absolutely love to read an essay on this film from a queer feminist perspective. It’s not apparent from the outset, but by the end, there are some definite  fuck the patriarchy vibes here, which I enjoy. (Though there are also about a billion panty shots, which I guess you can argue makes sense, but I think the argument is weak.) And I can say–with only moderate spoilers– that one of the various antagonists in this movie is Evil Wind, a fear I deeply relate to, since apparently fire season has just sorta permanently traumatized me, goddamnit.

Here’s a funny thing: maybe halfway through the film, I told Mekaela that Tag would make for a decent video game, like, you could see how each reality felt like a different level, with different Bosses and different characters you could fight with, etc. Mek (who’d forgotten she’d seen this movie until it started) had zero reaction to this, which surprised me until we hit the end, and I realized Mitsuko actually has been in a video game this whole time, and Mek had been all, “Keep a straight face, keep a straight face.”

Tag is honestly a bit sad, although we do get that hint of optimism at the last moment. That old fucker doesn’t get his “prize,” at least, which is good. Mitsuko escapes, too, although she has to kill herself to do it, and it’s unclear exactly where she is now. Still. For a movie with Mass Murdering Wind, a pig-head groom, and absurdly comical levels of violence, Tag lands a bit heavier in the chest than I expected. This movie shows women the future, and it’s just Gross, Entitled Men Are Now Even More Entitled and Gross. I just feel very sorry for Mitsuko; also Aki, Sur, and all the other dead girls.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Candyman, Urban Legend, and A Bay of Blood

Friends! Enemies! Other Random People! It is October, and that means it is finally time for our 3rd Annual Horror Bingo!

The Game Set-Up: Mek and I each came up with our own list of 15 horror movies. We wrote those movie names down and put them together in a little Halloween bucket; then we randomly drew titles until we’d finished creating our own bingo cards. (The Free Space, if you were wondering, is the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th. We’ll watch it sometime later this month.) Then all the movies went back in the bucket, and now we’re taking turns drawing and watching scary movies until one of us finally hits Bingo.

Here’s to hopefully winning for the third year in a row!

Candyman

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Year: 2021
Director: Nia DaCosta
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Nah
Grade: Strawberry

For me, Candyman doesn’t quite come together. I definitely don’t regret watching it; in fact, there’s an awful lot to like here. The cast, for instance, is fantastic. I particularly like Teyonah Parris and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Troy is so extra, and I love him), but Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Colman Domingo also do solid work here. A lot of the individual creepy moments are great. Peeling skin. Shadow puppets. The wrong reflection in the mirror. Some awesome funny moments, too: Brianna’s reaction to the dark staircase. Most of Troy’s dialogue. Anytime anyone nopes out of saying Candyman. (White people are, almost exclusively, making poor life choices here.)

Candyman has a lot of interesting things to say about gentrification, about police brutality, about the exploitation of Black pain and the holy shit cringe of white people trying to dictate what stories Black people are allowed to tell. It talks about legends and collective trauma and makes some fascinating choices in terms of updating the Candyman mythology. This movie has so much to say; unfortunately, it doesn’t have nearly enough time to say it.

Candyman is only about 1 hour and 30 minutes long, and while that initially excited me (I am not, generally speaking, a huge fan of the 2 hour, 45 minute horror film), I think this particular story needed to be at least two hours, easy. Everything just feels extremely rushed or underdeveloped to me: Anthony’s spiral, Brianna’s backstory, and definitely a couple of Reveals that I can’t discuss without spoilers. It felt like we were flying past important steps, which kept me from ever really feeling that buildup of tension that can be so pivotal in horror. I love the idea of the ending (the scene in the police car is particularly fantastic) but the ten-minute lead-up to that scene felt so hurried and convoluted that it just doesn’t land for me nearly as well as it could. There’s also a tie-in to the the original film that I’m not totally sure is necessary; I don’t hate it, exactly, but it’s one more thing in a story that already has a lot going on.

Finally, dear God. Google what a normal bee sting looks like, and if you’re noticing some rather noticeable differences between your search results and your fucking death hand, go to the ER immediately. I am begging you.

Urban Legend

Year: 1998
Director: Jamie Blanks
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Definitely
Grade: Chocolate

It’s been years–maybe 20 of them, JFC–since I’ve seen Urban Legend, so I thought it’d be fun to finally rewatch it. This movie is one of the quintessential 90’s slashers, with hilarious 90’s problems (the internet is tying up the phone line!), some very 90’s music (OMG, “Zoot Suit Riot”), and an extremely 90’s cast. Holy shit, this cast. Final Girl Alicia Witt. Jared Leto, who’s more off-putting than I remember. (And not just because he’s kinda insufferable now.) Rebecca Gayheart, who–holy shit, she accidentally killed a child. I knew there had been a vehicular manslaughter charge (which is particularly . . . something, considering Brenda’s villainous motivations), but I didn’t know it was a nine-year-old boy. I just found all these ‘Rebecca Gayheart finally breaks her silence on tragic accident that left a kid dead’ articles, and like, I don’t know this actress, I’m not gonna offer an opinion on her sincerity or guilt, but wow, these headlines are passive, deliberately distancing Gayheart from her actions. And the tone of each article, like. They all really center her grief, her trauma, in a way that feels . . . yeah, kinda icky to me.

Okay, I got sidetracked. Also in this cast: Joshua Jackson (in his brief blond phase), Michael Rosenbaum (always funny to see him with hair), Danielle Harris (of Halloween and Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead fame), Brad Dourif (also in Rob Zombie’s Halloween, plus the Chucky movies, plus eight billion other weirdo roles), Robert Englund (I mean, do I even need to say), Loretta Devine (who rather surprisingly doesn’t die!), John Neville (who I vaguely remember from The X-Files), and Julian Richings (That Guy who pops up in every SF/F/H show that’s filmed in Canada).

While slashers aren’t, by and large, known for their likable characters, seriously, almost everyone in Urban Legend is kind of a dick. Like, am I supposed to be rooting for Natalie and Paul? Cause, yeah, nope. Frankly, I was cheering Brenda on until, y’know. She microwaved a puppy. (Apparently, this is an actual urban legend?) Tara Reid is playing one of the more likable characters here, which, I mean, I’m not saying it never happens–all hail Josie and the Pussycats–but still. These people are dire.

Urban Legends is silly but enjoyable, and I laughed a lot. Sometimes when I was supposed to (the “I Don’t Want to Wait” gag, Damon’s sleaze act, Natalie punching Damon for being a sleaze, etc.), sometimes when I probably wasn’t (pretty much the entire opening act or how Rebecca Gayheart’s hair suddenly grows three sizes when she’s revealed as the villain). It does feel a bit slow at times, probably because I truly don’t give a shit about anybody here, like, just zero investment in these characters. But I do really enjoy that Brenda’s the bad guy. It’s the only slasher I can think of offhand where the BFF is the killer. And hey, she even unambiguously survives! Not something BFFs are known for in this genre. (Villains, naturally, can go either way.)

A Bay of Blood

Year: 1971
Director: Mario Bava
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: All of them
Grade: Vanilla

Ah, A Bay of Blood, AKA: Ecologia del delitto, AKA: Reazione a Catena, AKA: Carnage, AKA: Blood Bath, and–my personal favorite–AKA: Twitch of the Death Nerve. It’s sorta hilarious to me how controversial this movie was when it first came out. I mean, I get it. This was a huge inspiration for the slasher genre and just crazy gory for 1971; in fact, some of the shots are still striking today, particularly the octopus slithering all over the dead body, like, Jesus. (Other moments that stick out: the countess’s hanging, the kid who gets a billhook machete to the face, the tarot reader’s decapitation–mostly because it made me laugh–and Laura’s corpse, partly because of the transition from flashback to dead body, partly cause she reminds me of Casey Becker in that shot.)

There’s a lot I like here. As a murder mystery nerd, I’m kind of obsessed with stories with more than one murderer–and not just partners-in-crime, but multiple separate killers. A Bay of Blood has 13 deaths and FOUR different killers. Six, if you count the accidental Murder Children, and boy, will we get back to those two. Anyway, I just think that’s neat. I’m really into the whole chain reaction of death, too, all, whelp, guess I gotta go murder again, or hmm, looks like an ideal time to bump someone off. I’m also very fond of the OST, which–in true 70’s Italian style–is totally weird and somehow still works, from the grandiose piano music to the more jaunty stuff to the ludicrously cheerful song that plays right after the Murder Children unwittingly kill their killer parents.

Structurally, though, I have problems. It should work: open with an inciting death or two, set up your cast of characters, kill off a few here or there, and then 3rd Act Blood Bath! But the pacing really feels off in the 1st half of the film. We spend fucking forever on these teenagers. (One has possibly the worst haircut I’ve ever seen. I don’t even know what to call it. Fluffy Mullet With Wings, maybe?) And while some shots and editing choices are great, others feel extremely random and choppy. The dialogue isn’t the best, either, although that’s hard  to judge, considering the dubbing and poor sound quality. Possibly, I missed stuff, like . . . why did these people just decide to leave their kids behind in a camper on the side of the road in the middle of the night again?

I can’t quite decide how I feel about that ending, either. The awful parents are the last murderers left standing, only they immediately get killed by their own children, who shoot them without realizing the guns are very real. These kids fucking skip off into the sunset, thinking their parents are only playing dead, and I mean–yeah, I definitely laughed to the tune of what the actual fuck. But the last minute Comeuppance Twist doesn’t always play for me, and ultimately, I’m not sure if I love it here.

I do really feel like A Bay of Blood might be one that grows on me, but I’ll have to think it over. TBH, I kinda want to see a remake. The cinematic blasphemy, I know.