Triple Spooky Scoop Review: A Tale of Two Sisters, Black Christmas, and Black Christmas

A Tale of Two Sisters

Year: 2003
Director: Kim Ji Woon
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Very much so
Grade: Vanilla

I know. I’m probably the last horror fan alive who hasn’t seen A Tale of Two Sisters–but no longer! I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect here (I’m only vaguely familiar with the folktale that inspired it), but I enjoyed this one–though do I suspect I might like it better on a second viewing, to better appreciate all the clues carefully being laid out. Still, I caught enough this time around to figure out the major plot twists. How Soo-yeon isn’t real, considering that her father never looks at her. How Eun-joo also isn’t real, considering she can see Soo-yeon. Not to mention, Moo-hyeon is weirdly cold and awkward with his supposed wife; also, it’s just incredibly rare for two characters to simultaneously suffer from “am I going mad” unreliable narrator syndrome, so the whole split personality angle was really the only explanation that made sense.

I definitely didn’t guess the truth about that wardrobe, though. Obviously, something terrible had happened, but I had no clue on the actual details. Poor Soo-yeon! Poor Soo-mi! The real Eun-joo is obviously The Worst, but also Moo-hyeon? Holy shit, what an asshole. For one, like, he kept the wardrobe; he even tells Soo-mi not to talk about it, all, “Yes, I decided to keep this giant piece of furniture which housed your mother’s dead body and also crushed your sister to death, but stop bringing it up, like, don’t be weird about it.” Also, once it’s clear that your daughter is still very unwell and needs inpatient psychiatric care, you absolutely cannot keep leaving her alone like this, WTF. And just this dude’s whole attitude, too, like, I’m sure he’s exhausted and grieving and all that, but Moo-hyeon talks to Soo-mi like she’s just having tantrums; he might as well say, “Stop being crazy; I’m tired of your dissociative identity disorder.” Like–

I do think that while A Tale of Two Sisters is well constructed, I might’ve found it more mind-blowing if I’d watched the film back when it premiered in 2003. That was almost 20 years ago (she says, sobbing), and I’ve seen variations on this twist a lot now. Still, nothing really comes off as cheat to me. The only thing that does feel off is the dinner scene where Eun-joo’s sister-in-law has a coughing fit that abruptly becomes a very violent seizure. I know why it happens, like, for Writer Reasons, but I wasn’t totally clear about the in-story reasons. Does she have a medical condition? Is this some kind of emotional trauma response? Did the ghosts poison her soup? It doesn’t seem like she sees the ghost until she’s already seizing, but I will fully admit to ignorance here.

After watching A Tale of Two Sisters, our next film was John Carpenter’s The Thing, which I’m not going to review because I’ve already done so twice now. (Most recently here.) I’m mostly mentioning it because with The Thing, we have a winner for Horror Bingo, and it’s not Mekaela or me, but my good buddy, Marisa! Congrats, Marisa!!!

Mekaela and I have a gentlewomen’s agreement to keep playing until one of us gets a Bingo, though. And thus, we continue with . . .

Black Christmas

Year: 2019
Director: Sophia Takal
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – HBO
Spoilers: Yes, but mostly just in the third paragraph
Grade: Strawberry

This is . . . okay. It’s certainly better than the 2006 remake, anyway, although the bar on that is so low it’s near sunk into the ground. The thing about this Black Christmas is that it very much wants to be a Feminist Movie, and while I think it does have successful moments, the overall story is kinda sloppy and relies so heavily on a superficial idea of Girl Power™ that it often comes across as pandering rather than empowering.

Things I do enjoy: most of the characters, especially some of the minor roles. I was particularly fond of Fran, Jesse, and Kris. (Though awesome as Kris is, she does have a few moments where I’m like, ah, no–and the film doesn’t address it as fully as I’d like.) Some of the humor is great. I bust up at this line: “If you make me late for the train, I swear I’m never feeding you again. Ask my childhood hamster. He’s super dead.” Also, I really enjoyed the whole sexy Christmas number; it’s a hilarious “fuck you” song, yes, but also A) a great moment for Riley’s character arc, and B) just an awesome scene where the girls stick up for each other. There are some nice nods and reversals to the original film, too. And hey, there’s a DivaCup in this movie! Always nice when menstruation is something that’s actually acknowledged in Hollywood.

Still, a lot of the dialogue feels obvious and cheesy. It’s a problem throughout the film, but gets especially painful in the third act. I just . . . I don’t buy it, is the thing. (And the part where the white girl has to explain to her Black friend why the police aren’t trustworthy, like, yikes? Maybe not?) The script reads like someone had a long list of feminist catchphrases to get through in a very short amount of time. The plot, too, doesn’t quite work for me, partially because Riley jumps to “we’re obviously dealing with evil frat boy magic” way too fast for my liking, but also because for a story that heavily criticizes misogyny, it kinda lets men off the hook. Brainwashing pledges into mindless killers is a lot less horrific than young men actively choosing to kill outspoken women. Landon, too, mostly feels like he’s here to prove Not All Men, though I like Caleb Eberhardt’s performance; the character himself just feels distracting. Credit where credit’s due, though: I very much enjoyed Cary Elwes, as he always seems to be having so much fun, whether he’s playing a Ridiculously Smarmy Jackass (this, Stranger Things, etc.) or a Ridiculously Suave Motherfucker (The Princess Bride, Psych, etc.)

This Black Christmas works best, I think, as something meant to  introduce young girls to horror, like, part of a 101 starter pack: something that’s modern and broadly relatable and none  too gory or frightening; the PG-13 rating helps with that, though IMO, the downside to obscured shots and fade-to-black kills is that it doesn’t allow the Girls Who Won’t Survive any time to fight back, which I think is unfortunate. Still, if the target demographic is, IDK, 11-15-year-olds interested in giving slashers a go? I honestly think that would raise my estimation of the movie as a whole. (Though I’d still do at least one more editing pass. Probably two. This could’ve been better, damn it.)

Black Christmas

Year: 1974
Director: Bob Clark
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Personal Collection DVD
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Chocolate

So, yeah. This is one of my absolute favorite horror movies, one I’ve already analyzed in considerable detail in this Genderbent Wednesday essay. I don’t know that I have many new thoughts on it now: I still think Jess is a very important and relevant Final Girl, though I’ll admit I don’t always buy Olivia Hussey’s line deliveries. Still, I love that she’s a goal-oriented protagonist who’s made a decision to have an abortion, never seems particularly upset about it, and refuses to change her plans to appease her worthless ass of a boyfriend. It’s also worth noting that the women are largely supportive of each other in this film, too, and there’s nary an exploitative tit shot in sight. Barb has a few lines I’d definitely like to cut, but overall? I’ll go to my grave arguing that Black Christmas is a feminist horror film, especially for 1970-fucking-4.

It’s also easily creepier than either of its remakes, like, Black Christmas has atmosphere, damn it. Those phone calls are deeply concerning, and Dead Claire in her rocking chair is iconic as hell. There are things I’d like to change, of course: at one point, the girls mention they haven’t locked the doors or windows, and I’m like WHAT? No, nope, that is absolutely ridiculous this late into the movie. Also, while I love so much about the film’s ending (Jess killing Peter, never learning the real killer’s identity, the last phone call ringing us into the credits, etc.), it remains completely unacceptable to me that the cops leave an unconscious Jess alone in a House of Dead Bodies with only one officer to guard her, like, I get it, she’s sedated and they think the threat is over. I do not care; this is nonsense. I need much better justifications than the ones the script provides.

Still, this is always gonna be a favorite. Peter is the absolute worst, and I enjoy rooting for his impending demise. Phyl is cool, and I mourn her offscreen death. Barb is interesting, and I could probably write a whole essay on her character alone. (Did you know that Barb is A) not a nerd, and B) asthmatic? Did you even realize that was something that could happen in Hollywood?) I enjoy John Saxon as Lt. Ken Fuller and Marian Waldman as Mrs. Mac. Laughing Detective is one of my favorite bit parts of all time. I love that there’s such a strong case against Peter, that it 100% makes sense for both Fuller and Jess to assume he’s the murderer. Black Christmas is just an incredibly well-constructed horror film that is disturbing, entertaining, and still surprisingly relevant almost 50 years after its release. Bob Clark might be best known for his other holiday movie, A Christmas Story, but Black Christmas remains my favorite of his work.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Dream Home, Hausu, and Prevenge

Dream Home

Year: 2010
Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Nah
Grade: Strawberry

This is definitely not one of my favorites. It fails for me on multiple levels: as a slasher, yes, but also as a social commentary. I’m a bit wary of criticizing the latter, as this film was made in Hong Kong and I, as an American, could easily be missing important context here. The thing is, the issues on the table (a devastating housing crisis, exorbitant health care costs, etc.) are also incredibly relevant in the US, and still . . . I didn’t really feel like this film had anything to say.

Mostly, I found Dream Home boring. The violence is certainly gory, but each death scene goes on for at least 20 seconds too long, which results in less tension, not more. The pace is rather slow. I like idea of the flashbacks, but not the execution of them; they provided very little in the way of emotion, clarity, or even a rising sense of “holy shit, this lady has been wronged, and there will be BLOOD TO PAY.” (Though, to be fair, my favorite scene in the film actually is a flashback: our heroine and her childhood friend talking on a tin can phone, hilariously using the word “asshole” in place of “over,” as all children should.) As a protagonist, Sheung feels a little flat. Her brother is so incidental to the story that I’m not even sure why they bothered including him. Also, I feel bad for the prostitutes. Once again, can we please leave the poor sex workers alone?

Here’s a whole thing: at the beginning of this film, we’re told that Dream Home is based on a true story. This is always a suspicious statement, especially coming from a horror movie, so I looked it up afterwards and found an interview where the director was asked if this was true or not. His answer? “It’s the truth that many people would like to buy a flat in Hong Kong. But the plot and killing scenes are fictitious.”

This fucking guy.

Hausu

Year: 1977
Director: Obayashi Nobuhiko
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Chocolate

Okay. I kind of loved this batshit movie. I know I said psychedelic horror wasn’t my thing, but apparently, there are exceptions! (This list, for instance, includes Hausu and Suspiria, both of which I enjoyed. Of course, it also includes Mandy and Jacob’s Ladder, the latter of which is especially on my Never Fucking Again list.)

Hausu was born to be a cult classic. It is intentionally absurd, and much of that absurdity works for me; I laughed at, oh, so very much. The wildly obvious painted backdrops. Ryoko, the ridiculously angelic, who seems to walk in slow motion and probably has her very own personal wind machine. Auntie, whenever she looks directly at the camera or dances with the skeleton or, really, does much of anything; Auntie is just fantastic. The piano that eats Melody. Mac’s decapitated head biting Fantasy in the butt; yup, that’s a thing that happened, folks. And of course, all of the girls names; I am absolutely obsessed with a group of friends with names like Gorgeous, Melody, Fantasy, Sweet, Prof, Mac, and Kung Fu. (Kung Fu is the absolute best, BTW, and I mourned deeply when she died, though even dying did not stop her dismembered legs from managing to kill Blanche, the evil cat, because KUNG FU IS THE BEST.)

But it’s not just the surreal humor I enjoy; some of the actual horror works for me, too. I love the whole look of the house. Sweet’s body in the grandfather clock? Awesome. In fact, despite how silly it sounds–how silly it is, really–I genuinely enjoyed the scene where the mattresses attack Sweet, too. Also, flooding a room in cat’s blood, leaving two girls adrift on, what, a coffee table? It’s so weird but also so visually interesting; there’s so much to look at in this movie. Like Possessed Gorgeous in her wedding dress; oh, I love it; I love it so much. Let me tell you, folks: I am all about the obscure group cosplay here. And it really surprised me, too, how quickly Gorgeous gets taken out. She dies, for all intents and purposes, only 48 minutes into this movie.

There are some elements I don’t love. Like, it’s not that I need an explanation for why Mr. Togo turns into a bunch of bananas, exactly; mostly, I just don’t want Mr. Togo in this movie at all. (That goes double for the Watermelon Farmer.) Mac frustrates me, too, of course, considering her one and only personality trait is how much she likes to eat food; it’s an additional level of insult that “the fat friend” is maybe a size larger than everyone else. There are also a few random bits of nudity that are mostly just like, why?

But otherwise, yeah, I had a pretty great time watching this. Final notes: A) Auntie’s fiancé who never came back from the war is a damn good looking man, B) Gorgeous’s father is yet another dude who needs to seriously work on the whole “guess who’s getting a stepmother” talk, C) Gorgeous apparently inherited her father’s audacity when she basically wrote a letter that said “Auntie, I’ve met you exactly once in my life, so do you mind if I bring six of my friends over for a slumber party at your place?” and D) Apparently, the director’s ten-year-old daughter came up with the ideas for many of this film’s scares, which is why little girls should never be underestimated.

Prevenge

Year: 2016
Director: Alice Lowe
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Nope
Grade: Vanilla

This one’s okay, but I didn’t quite love it, and I’m still not entirely sure why. On the upside: it’s always exciting to see a female horror director, and it’s awesome that Lowe was eight months pregnant while shooting and starring in this film. Pregnant women are usually the victims in scary movies, likely to give birth to some eldritch horror that will inevitably kill their hosts upon delivery; it’s as interesting as it is rare to see a pregnant woman as a serial killer. I laughed hard at several moments, particularly in one scene where Ruth and her unborn baby are conversing. Fetus strongly reminded me of the Red Queen from Resident Evil, so that was an additional layer of hilarity, and holy shit, Ruth’s Halloween costume at the end of the film (seen above) is phenomenal. The lady horror cosplay energy is so strong this month!

Still. There’s something uncomfortable about many of the film’s scenes, especially in the first third of the movie. It’s intentional, I think, an awkward sense of humor, but it also made me feel quite awkward, myself? Like, not in a good way. Also, I was a little bored, because these scenes dragged quite a bit; I think it took me a solid half hour to get invested in the movie proper. The midwife mostly works for me, but occasionally throws me out, too–not to mention, dear God, you never assume there’s a partner involved; like, come on, lady, this is basic ass shit. And overall, I felt a bit distant from the story. Prevenge isn’t a bad movie by any means–it’s funny, and there’s one startling moment, in particular, that I think is quite excellent–but I just never really connected to it, myself.

Fair warning: if you decide to try this one out and vomit scenes bother you, well. I feel compelled to mention that there is one specific moment that garnered simultaneous UGHS from Mek and me; it very well may have been the most horrified either of us have been all month.

Triple Spooky Scoop Reviews: Mandy, Midsommar, and Haunt

Mandy

Year: 2018
Director: Panos Cosmatos
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Only mild ones
Grade: Strawberry

Well. That . . . that was certainly a movie.

Mandy is something of a critical darling; it’s got a 91% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and it may absolutely be your cup of tea-and-arsenic if you’re very into psychedelic horror and gore and 80’s metal references. But wow, this wasn’t my thing at all. On the upside: I actually am into gore, and also, there are some pretty neat shots in Mandy. I genuinely enjoy a lot of the bold colors, like, do I know why this forest is so intensely magenta? Nope, and I’m not wildly concerned about it, either. I kind of enjoy that Mandy, herself, isn’t, y’know, some hot college grad weirdly paired with Nicolas Cage; also, she does have this moment where she laughs at {spoiler redacted}, which is pretty fantastic. There is also a chainsaw fight, and people, you KNOW I’m here for a chainsaw fight.

Unfortunately, I had checked out of this movie long before that chainsaw fight. Mandy is only a two-hour film, but the pacing in the first half is soul-crushing, chock full of A) tiny filler scenes that could easily be cut, B) more plot relevant scenes that each run at least a solid minute longer than necessary, and C) whew, just so much weird LSD shit. Color palette aside, the general artiness of the film did little for me; mostly, it came across as disingenuous, like it was trying too hard to make up for a weak script and story. And I get it: not everyone watches movies for the script or story, and that’s fine. But for me, there was little here to excite, intrigue, or entertain; I found myself so disengaged that I couldn’t even enjoy the dastardly violence OR Nicolas Cage’s very unique brand of overacting. Although I did laugh my ass off during the Nicolas Cage screaming scene, which I’m pretty sure was not the desired effect. (Fair warning: if you watch this clip, you’re gonna get a lot of NC’s thighs and tightie-whities here.)

Final notes: A) Nicolas Cage keeps flicking his cigarettes around, like an asshole–you live in THE WOODS, you DICK, my Californian ass HATES you right now, and B) the evil cult leader Jeremiah is played by Linus Roache, who also played Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins, and I tell you now, if there’s an outtake of the actor asking his reflection “why do we fall, Bruce” while incoherently monologuing into a mirror . . . I still won’t like this movie, but Jesus, it would totally make the two hours I spent here worth it.

Midsommar

Year: 2019
Director: Ari Aster
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yep, all of them
Grade: Chocolate

Honestly, I liked Midsommar a lot more than I expected to. Florence Pugh is absolutely fantastic in the role, and once again I’m angry about the Academy’s refusal to acknowledge women in horror films. (Don’t talk to me about Black Swan and The Silence of the Lambs; those movies were 10 and 29 years ago, respectively.) I actually enjoy the film’s slow build, and while I’d never say Midsommar is a particularly scary movie, it certainly has multiple creepy, disturbing, and/or weird AF moments that I liked. I genuinely enjoy the look of the film, how colorful and bright everything is, how much of the horror takes place during the day, etc. The Ättestupa ceremony, I thought, was especially well done. The sheer cosplay potential in this movie is magnificent, too, and I like the score quite a bit. Also, this film did terrible things for my blood pressure because sweet Christ, I hate Christian so much, it, it, flames–

Christian is Dani’s boyfriend. He’s also a wishy-washy, gaslighting, pathetic Nice Guy turd, and I’m just really happy he burns to death whilst sewn inside a dead bear. In fact, that might be my new go-to curse now: die in a BEAR in a fire. It’s been a while since I’ve hated a fictional character quite this much, like, every time Dani gets upset about actual upsetting things and then is the one who apologizes to Christian for it, just–

I do find myself wondering how many dudes watched this film and felt sympathy for Christian, like, thought he was a mostly okay guy without recognizing how emotionally manipulative his behavior actually is. I want the answer to be “zero,” but I don’t quite believe it. On a related note: I wanna shake whoever wrote the film’s storyline on IMDb, which says Dani invited herself along on the trip when she absolutely did not.

I don’t think Midsommar quite earns its runtime, though, which is hilarious because I watched the theatrical cut, which is only 2 hours and 27 minutes. (As opposed to the director’s cut, which is 2 hrs, 51 min.) Again, I quite like the film’s slow build; it’s the last third, actually, where I feel the pacing drags. (Maybe just after Josh bites it? Also, Chidi, nooo!) I’m struggling to articulate why it drags, though. Like, a lot of this movie is about Dani’s emotional journey, right, her anxiety and grief and eventual realization that Christian is a tool and that she can let go of both him and her dead family and embrace a new family. And I love all that, but somewhere along the way, I feel like we lose that thread a bit, like Dani’s arc takes a backseat to all the drugs and weirdness and mating rituals and what have you. The resolution worked for me on an academic level, but I didn’t really feel it the way I’d hoped; I felt sorta distant, removed, which both surprised and disappointed me, considering how I’d invested I’d been before.

I also really don’t like how Ruben is handled. Ruben is a child prophet, born of incest. He has absolutely no character and very little in the way of plot relevance, but he’s thrown into the story anyway because his facial disfigurement and disabilities are meant to be a shorthand for horror; frankly, it’s lazy bullshit. Also, Dani’s backstory: it’s fine that her whole family died in a murder-suicide, but to just throw in that her sister is bipolar and that’s it, like, no motivation in killing the parents, just here’s a diagnosis, she’s a crazy person . . . yeah, hard pass. I really like how Dani’s anxiety is depicted in this film, but it occurs to me that this may have more to do with Florence Pugh’s phenomenal performance than the actual script itself. I genuinely like a lot about Midsommar, but its casual ableism, not so much.

Haunt

Year: 2019
Directors: Scott Beck and Bryan Woods
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Yeah, sorry
Grade: Vanilla

I went into Haunt hoping it would be delightfully terrible, but honestly, it’s actually a much more decent slasher than I anticipated. Admittedly, there are multiple things I’d like to change. The first is the backstory of our final girl, Harper, because while I am all for dealing with serious topics like abuse and domestic violence in slashers–seriously, I am ALL FOR IT–I still expect those topics to be handled with a lot of care and nuance and to be thoughtfully integrated into the story; unfortunately, I found this depiction clunky and basic as shit, and not nearly as empowering as it clearly wanted to be. If you can easily cut your protagonist’s whole emotional arc while barely making any changes to the plot, I think you need to reconsider how well that arc has actually been written.

Also, I’m just baffled by some of the choices our characters make and the reactions they have to the horror around them. The dude who gets shot because he goes back to confront a bad guy when FFS, he was already climbing over the fence to escape. The girl who stands up directly front of a shotgun trap instead of staying on her belly or standing to the side, both very clear options. Crawling all the way under the bed for a mysterious box when she could easily have just grabbed it from the side. (There are aesthetic and thematic reasons for this, but it so entirely defies all logic that it throws me out of the story.) Worst, though, is when our heroes encounter a bad guy claiming to be an ally (spoilers: he’s a liar) and start intently badgering him to say his name, his last name, take off his mask, etc. I do kinda get the mask thing because, you know, masks are creepy, but seriously, he’s either a hapless employee who’s really trying to help, or he’s a psychopath trying to murder you; either way, how the fuck is knowing his last name gonna help you here? The dialogue sometimes just feels wildly out of place.

(Also, last complaint, but Haunt uses one of my least favorite tropes when Harper accidentally kills her friend, who’s been gagged and dressed to look like a bad guy. This totally may not bother anyone else, as the trope itself isn’t inherently problematic; it just annoys me personally. But I do think Bailey drops out of the story for way too long, which is especially disappointing considering she’s the film’s only Black character.)

That all being said, Haunt is pretty entertaining, and some of the scares are genuinely creepy, especially if you love going to haunted houses like I do. For example, this bit where the characters each have to stand alone in this small, closed coffin? This is both a) delightfully unnerving, and b) actually reminds me of this great haunted house I went to once. (You didn’t stand in a coffin, but it was a very similar idea.) The scene where our heroes watch an “actress” get murdered (assuming it’s part of the haunt) is decent on its own, but it’s even better when they’re forced to watch their own friend get killed the same way. Ghost (the fake ally villain) is actually pretty sinister, like, this whole bit? “You said you wanted to see my face, and I was just wondering if you still wanted to see it. It’s a bit of a work in progress, but oh, I think you’ll like it.” I mean, CREEPY. Also, not even gonna lie: I audibly gasped at the spider in a girl’s hair because SPIDERS ARE THE DEVIL, I WILL NOT BE ACCEPTING COMMENTS AT THIS TIME.

So, yeah. I’d probably recommend this one. Things I want to change because, well, me, but this film was definitely better than I was expecting it to be.

“What Kind of Killer Do You Think Stops to Save a Dying Fish?”

Well, the Clarion West Write-a-Thon finished up last week, and I succeeded in writing things! Perhaps they weren’t the stories I should have been focusing on, necessarily, but it’s been a dark year, and it’s still only August. Sometimes, the joy of fanfic is more important than the projects that might someday get you paid.

Per usual, I offered up a movie review/essay as a possible reward, and two sponsors took me up on it. The first sponsor, Tom, has donated to the WaT several times now and has delighted in making me watch everything from classic SF that I’ve never seen (Dune) to laughably terrible movies about Big Foot that no one should see (Night of the Demon). Today, however, we’ll be discussing a film I have watched before, albeit not in a very long time: the late 90’s SF neo-noir, Dark City.

To my relief, it actually holds up pretty well.

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Triple Scoop Review: Doctor Sleep, Underwater, and Tigers Are Not Afraid

Doctor Sleep

Year: 2019
Director: Mike Flanagan
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Some
Grade: Vanilla

Let’s get this out of the way for anyone who doesn’t already know: I’m not a huge fan of The Shining. (Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Kubrick’s work in general: I tend to like the cinematography and not much else.) Many adaptational changes annoyed me, especially as I saw the film soon after reading the novel. Admittedly, that was all roughly 15-20 years ago now, so I might feel differently if I were to ever try it again. Point is, unlike many horror fans, I didn’t come into this weird hybrid of a sequel with much in the way of expectations, high or low. It was pretty easy to judge Doctor Sleep as its own thing. And fortunately for me, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Unlike The Shining, which is straight-up horror, Doctor Sleep has more of a dark fantasy vibe. Like, there are creepy moments, absolutely (I fucking loved it when Abra turned the tables on Rose), but the overall flavor of scare is different, kinda like the transition between the quiet, claustrophobic horror of Alien to the action-fueled horror of Aliens. It seems like a natural progression, but I can also see how fans of the original might have been disappointed. What’s really impressive, though, is how much I enjoyed this film, despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Horror movies, especially, have to work hard to earn that length without losing tension or momentum, and Doctor Sleep does a pretty good job with that: there are problems in the third act–which we’ll get to shortly–but overall, the slow, steady pace of the film works well for me.

The cast is great, especially Kyliegh Curran (who’s absolutely fantastic as Abra) and Rebecca Ferguson (who makes for a pretty iconic villain, one who I’d like to cosplay immediately.) Ewan McGregor does solid work as grown-up/fucked up Danny Torrance, and I like pretty much the entire supporting cast: Carl Lumbly is a stellar choice as Dick Hallorann, Cliff Curtis is instantly likable as Billy, and Zahn McClarnon is an excellent right-hand man/second banana bad guy. All of McClarnon and Ferguson’s interactions are pretty great; in fact, the whole villainous family dynamic is awesome and makes these guys much more compelling as antagonists.

Unfortunately, that third act is where things start to falter, which is frustrating because most of the problems here could easily be solved by just not returning to the Overlook. Physically, that is; half the Final Battle takes place in Danny’s head, anyway, so why not just make the entire thing one big mental showdown? We could still get all those iconic references and flashbacks without Danny and Abra literally driving to Colorado for no goddamn reason. (There is a reason: Danny is convinced that they can’t beat Rose on their own, but that’s sorta nonsense because at this point, their batting average against her is pretty goddamn phenomenal.) This would also eliminate the awkward sense of Abra just chilling alone in the car for ten minutes, while Danny has an emotional catharsis inside the hotel with his dad. Like, I genuinely enjoy that scene, but also . . . maybe don’t leave the kid alone outside when a monster is literally hunting you down?

Random Notes:

1. Actually, maybe we could scale back just a bit on those iconic references? Cause I do want them, but also, it feels like Mike Flanagan is vomiting The Shining at you for the last 20 minutes? Like, hey, here are the twins, here is the blood, here is the bartender, the axe, the door, the boiler room, etc., etc., etc. Give me these moments, but not one for every goddam minute, please. Space them out or whittle them down.

2. Snakebite Andi might be the most Stephen King name I’ve ever heard in my whole fucking life. I really liked Emily Alyn Lind in the role, though, since I forgot to mention her before. Also, MR. HOMN!

3. I wish Rose the Hat’s hat was, like, more important? Especially after the grocery store scene, I kind of expected something else. Still, I’m never gonna complain too hard about fashionable millinery. I will complain about Danny hitting rock bottom, however, because I definitely interpreted that scene as “baby starved to death after Danny left him alone with his dead mom,” which . . . yeah, didn’t sit well with me. Apparently, though, there are multiple different interpretations of what actually happened to Mom and Baby? Still. If you’re trying for a redemptive story, IDK, I think everyone should be real clear on exactly what your MC is being redeemed for. Especially if it’s dark ass shit like that.

4. Now that I’ve read the differences between book and movie, holy shit, I’m kinda glad I never read this. The 9/11 subplot? The “we’re related” nonsense? What the actual fuck?

5. I’m just gonna say it: “steam” is a little hard to take seriously.

6. Finally, there is a RWBY poster in Abra’s room. I haven’t watched that show in years, but still, I found this small detail surprising and delightful.

Underwater

Year: 2020
Director: William Eubank
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: VERY MUCH SO
Grade: Strawberry

This was fun enough, but it also could’ve been better. Some scenes are successfully creepy and tense: whenever our characters are crawling through Way Too Tiny Shit, for example, or when poor Mamoudou Athie fucking implodes. (I was disappointed by this; I really thought he was going to last longer.) Most of the cast is pretty great, although I’d probably recast and rewrite Paul (TJ Miller). Still, I’m here for Kristen Stewart’s whole aesthetic, am happy that Smith survived, was amused by last minute Cthulhu, and really enjoyed that Jessica Henwick was our surprise Final Girl. Holy shit, that’s two Western horror movies now with Eastern-Asian women who live. 2020, this is actually something I like about you.

So, that’s the good. As far as the bad, well. The voiceover shit completely fails, like, I honestly have no idea what it’s even doing in this movie? The beginning is especially weird because the first few minutes have this strange, in medias res quality to them that makes the whole scene kinda feel like a dream. It doesn’t fit at all; in fact, I seriously wondered if they were trying to set up some kind of unreliable narrator here. But the rest of the movie is a pretty straightforward action-horror movie (with just a bit of a Lovecraftian twist).

Not all the action scenes work for me, either, because some of them are so muddy it’s impossible to tell what’s happening to whom. Like, I get it: Underwater is underwater. Chaos, poor visibility, all that. Still, when a monster drags two characters away, I wanna be able to tell who they are. I might’ve been more inclined to forgive this if these scenes were strictly from Norah’s POV, as she sadly loses her glasses early in the film and presumably can’t see for shit; unfortunately, that’s not really how they play. Which is a bummer, actually: if I ever lost my glasses in any kind of horror movie scenario, like, it would very much impact my day and/or likelihood of survival. It might’ve been kind of neat, seeing Norah actually dealing with this during the film.

Also, the character work needs, well, work. Norah (Stewart) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) both lost someone–the same someone–prior to the events of this movie, but for some reason, they barely have any interactions throughout to build their dynamic and/or lay in the groundwork for this reveal. More space, too, could’ve been given to the Captain and Norah’s relationship, or to Smith and Emily’s. Instead, we spend too much time with TJ Miller, who’s supposed to be the funny, weird guy, and generally lands harder on the latter than the former. (Although I will admit to laughing when he fake-volunteers Emily (Henwick) to investigate something, all, “This is your moment.” That shit was funny.)

Random Notes:

1. I love that Emily saves Norah, and Norah saves Emily, and they both save Smith together. Also, kinda love that Norah punches Emily in the face. Not because she deserves it, but because it’s a good “who will sacrifice themselves for the other” moment.

2. I’m considerably less impressed by how the women have to get way more naked than the dudes. Except TJ Miller, of course, but this is purposefully meant to be comedic, rather than sexy, presumably because he’s fatter than anyone else in the cast. #RAGE

3. The hands-down funniest thing about this movie: Paul carries around this stuffed bunny, right, like, he cradles it, strokes it, makes sure it’s okay as he’s going through dangerous, water-logged parts of the station, etc. He is 100% acting like it’s a real bunny, and I was seriously wondering if we were gonna get some kinda high-pressure nervous syndrome/space dementia subplot shit going on, especially because of all the Alice in Wonderland references. But apparently, there actually was a real bunny while filming, until the director got a stuffed one instead because of safety concerns. Only for whatever reason, he never bothered telling Miller that the stuffed rabbit wasn’t a stand-in. So, dude acted like the rabbit was real because he thought it would be post-production. I can’t begin to tell you how much this all delights me.

Tigers Are Not Afraid

Year: 2017
Director: Issa López
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Mild
Grade: Chocolate

I’ve been meaning to watch this Mexican dark fantasy film for a while now, and I’m so glad I finally did, because it’s pretty fantastic. Admittedly, I probably could’ve picked a better week for it, like, if you need an escapist upper, uh, this isn’t it. (I literally held my breath when two of the kids walked up to a police car, and was utterly relieved when the cops just took off without killing them.) The violence here isn’t particularly gratuitous; in fact, it’s not a very gory film at all. But children do die, and die violently, on screen. Best to know that going in.

All of the kids are fantastic, especially Estrella (Paola Lara) and Shine (Juan Ramón López). I’m amazed that none of them had any prior acting experience because they’re all so good in this movie. One of the things that works best about Tigers Are Not Afraid: the quiet, funny moments when the kids are just hanging out: play-acting some American Idol shit in an abandoned building, telling ghost stories about this dude who eats kids with his pepperoni, etc. And while I can be hit or miss on stories that walk the line between “literal magic” and “is it, though?” I think the ambiguity serves this dark fairy tale well. Which probably isn’t so surprising, as it’s definitely a Monkey’s Paw kind of story.

I honestly don’t have many criticisms with this one. There are a few moments with this stuffed tiger that I found sorta hard to take seriously, but . . . yeah, that might kind of be it. While I’d hoped for a few specific things that didn’t end up happening, the actual ending itself fits the story well and isn’t wholly, needlessly bleak. And since I am, for once, trying not to spoil too much here, let me leave you with a vague list of some other things I really enjoyed:

The trails of blood
The goodbye scene
Morro is adorbs
The chalk
When the bodies are found

Also, the movie was both written and directed by a woman. YES!!!! I’m always excited to see more horror crafted by women!

TV Superlatives: March, April, May – 2020

Well. All is chaos right now, and it’s an absurd time to be talking about TV Superlatives. Regardless, that’s what we’ll be doing here today because at MGB, we believe that when people could use a moment’s break or distraction, what they really want is 5000+ words about cartoons, Chinese dramas, and CW shows.

Still. Before we get to any of that, let me list a few of the many places you can donate to help protestors and support Black Lives Matter:

Black Lives Matter

Campaign Zero

Black Visions Collective

Know Your Rights Camp

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

National Bail Fund (with a Directory of Community Bail Funds)

Please feel free to comment with links to any other related organizations or crowdfunding campaigns that you think need attention/donations. Please do not comment to say “blue lives matter” or any other inane bullshit. Save that crap for your Facebook page that nobody wants to read.

And now for the main event: our Spring TV Superlatives!

A quick reminder for how these work: I will bestow whatever TV shows I’ve recently been watching (whether they’re currently airing or not) with awards like Most Adorable, Best Kiss, Most Unintentionally Hilarious Moment, etc. As always, any awards with spoilers will be very clearly marked.

As a reference point, here are the shows I’ve been watching for the past few months:

The Untamed
Altered Carbon (Season 2)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 7)
Star Trek: Picard
Nancy Drew
Legends of Tomorrow (Season 5)
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness
Nailed It (Season 4)
Harley Quinn (Season 2)
Kingdom (Season 2)
Medical Examiner: Dr. Qin (Season 1)
Village Survival: The Eight (Season 1)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Season 5)

Let’s get to it, shall we?

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TV Superlatives: December, January, and February – 2019/2020

It’s that time again: our winter TV Superlatives!

A quick reminder for how these work: I will bestow whatever TV shows I’ve recently been watching (whether they’re currently airing or not) with awards like Favorite Bromance, Favorite WTF Moment, Best Profanity, etc. As always, any awards with spoilers will be very clearly marked.

As a reference point, here are the shows I’ve been watching for the past few months:

Busted! (Season 2)
His Dark Materials
Nancy Drew
The Mandalorian
DC Universe’s Harley Quinn
Watchmen
The Expanse (Season 4)
A Black Lady Sketch Show
The Witcher
Barry (Season 2)
The Good Place (Season 4)
Star Trek: Picard
Legends of Tomorrow (Season 5)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 7)

Let’s get to it, shall we?

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“Isn’t This Fun? It’s Like a Sleepover.”

Birds of Prey (and The Fabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) apparently underperformed at the box office last weekend–although, also kind of not, like, maybe we could wait half a second before pronouncing it DOA and throwing its corpse to the wolves, thanks? (ETA: Don’t even get me started on the rebranding. I’m flat out ignoring that nonsense.)

Since I did actually see Birds of Prey last Friday, though, let’s talk about the movie, shall we? Because it’s an awful lot of fun, and I really hope more people go out to see it. If Charlie’s Angels meets Deadpool with a side of, IDK, Smokin’ Aces sounds intriguing to you–or if you liked Margot Robbie and the cotton candy sparkle of Suicide Squad but hated the inconsistent tone, the incoherent storyline, the muddy action scenes, the Joker, and basically everything else about that film–well, this one might be worth checking out.

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