Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Becky, The Burning, and Deep Red

Becky

Year: 2020
Director: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Oh, barely
Grade: Chocolate

I enjoyed Becky; it’s fun and it’s gory, very gory. Lulu Wilson is excellent as our angry 13-year-old MC, who, ah, zealously defends her home against Neo-Nazi escaped convicts. Wilson, all of 15, already has an impressive horror resume (The Haunting of Hill House, Annabelle: Creation, Ouija: Origin of Evil, etc.); Kevin James, meanwhile, is not so well-known for horror, so seeing him here as the Big Bad is, uh, startling at first. That being said, I actually think James does a pretty decent job; his performance is more understated than I would’ve expected, and overall, it worked fine for me.

The whole cast is pretty solid, actually: I like Joel McHale  as Jeff (Becky’s Dad), and I had fun playing spot-the-actor with Ryan McDonald (from Fringe) and Robert Maillet (Sherlock Holmes). I also really enjoyed Amanda Brugel as Kayla, Jeff’s fiancée; in fact, my biggest problem with the movie is that it doesn’t give Brugel enough to do. Like, I get it: in a movie called Becky, I expect our titular heroine to do the lion’s share of the homicide. Still, this is also a movie with Nazi villains spouting gross bullshit about mixed races; it’d be nice to see the film’s only Black female character get in on the violent action. There were several opportunities in Becky, all of which were missed.

Still, I had a good time watching this. As plenty of other people have noted, Becky’s not here to fuck around; this is a horror movie for people who like creative violence, with weapons ranging from rulers to boat propellers; if that doesn’t sound like your bag, this probably isn’t the film for you. Personally, I found it delightful; it’s clear that between Becky and You’re Next, I have a serious weakness for the “Home Alone but VIOLENT” sub-genre of horror. I also like the moment when Becky switches from Surviving Mode to Killer Mode; I thought it worked well. She has a pretty great costume, too, like, a striped shirt? A fox hat? Blood? I could cosplay the shit out of this.

Also, apropos of nothing, but this Child of Divorced Parents absolutely felt the whole ‘Wow, did YOU pick the wrong way to break the news about your GF.’ Like, dude, come on. I recognize that Becky is kind of a pill, but also, get your shit together.

The Burning

Year: 1981
Director: Tony Maylam
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Youtube
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Strawberry

This one’s got something of a rough start, and not just because I highly doubt the plausibility of anybody this severely burnt turning into such a spry serial killer. (Don’t @ me with Freddy Krueger. Dude is dead; normal rules don’t apply.) I also kinda can’t stand some of the people you’re apparently supposed to be rooting for, like, am I supposed to feel sorry for Nerdy Alfred instead of chanting for his death? Whoops. And the ‘let’s murder this random prostitute’ is bullshit, too, like, this whole story is based on some East Coast urban legend about a dude who kills kids; leave the poor sex workers alone, please. (Also, fuck you, whoever wrote the Wikipedia summary: the sex worker didn’t “lure” Cropsy anywhere; she’s the actual victim, not some kind of evil sexy trap brainwashing the helpless serial killer. Goddamnit.)

Still, there’s a lot I enjoy about The Burning. The whole raft massacre is pretty great, actually, like, sure, it’s silly that Cropsy was apparently just chilling in that canoe all day, waiting to attack, but also, this is a genuinely awesome scene. There’s a ton of tension as we slowly approach the canoe. I absolutely assumed we were getting a creepy body reveal, when BAM! Cropsy attacks instead! It’s a delightful surprise, but also, dude takes out like five kids at once, which is exceedingly rare in a slasher.

Which is worth talking about, I think, because I saw several reviews for The Burning complaining about how formulaic it is, which, like, nah? Cause A) in 1981, the slasher formula was still being written, sorry, and B) while there are formulaic elements (all the unnecessary tit and ass shots, for example, and/or Wow, Teens Like Sex in the Woods), there are interesting subversions, too. For one, there’s no Final Girl. Girls do survive, but The Burning is all about the Final Boy–though I suppose there are two nominees for the position. (Personally, I’m Team Todd, rather than Team Alfred, because his origin story is inextricably linked with the villain’s; also, he’s ultimately the one who kills Cropsy.) Also, while the score is undeniably 80’s, it really doesn’t sound anything like most 80’s slashers. The climax takes place in this abandoned mine, which is just visually interesting. There are actually kids at this damn camp, for once. There’s even a plus size girl who A) is never made fun of, B) pushes this one asshole into a lake, and C) LIVES. I mean, she also barely has lines, but fuck it, I will take the small victories I can get.

Other random notes: A) The Burning was the film debut of Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens, and Jason Alexander; unfortunately, it was also the film that helped start Harvey Weinstein’s career, which great, now I feel all dirty, B) Tom Savini did the makeup here, which was very apparent from the first death, C) That being said, the burn makeup is kind of laughable; see also: “Cropsy Vision,” D) Some of the supporting players are surprising likable kids, instead of being horrible little assholes, and E)  while Eddy and Glazer are clearly the worst horrible little assholes, I maintain that both Alfred and Todd also suck. Alfred is just a creeper; Todd, meanwhile, is the Nice Guy who has big “okay, calm down, let’s not be irrational here” energy whenever his girl Michelle is angry at someone. (Todd, naturally, gets to yell at whoever he wants.) Todd also has so little remorse for his childhood prank-gone-wrong that he just turns the whole thing into a campfire story. Dude’s all, “Remember how I almost killed a guy once and ruined his life forever? How can I turn that into some spooky summer fun?” Clearly, Todd is kind of a sociopath, which I respect. Still, I wish the movie owned it a little more.

Deep Red

Year: 1975
Director: Dario Argento
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Yeah. Like, all of them.
Grade: Vanilla

There are many different flavors of WTF Horror; unlike Mandy, Deep Red is definitely more my speed. I have a lot of ideas for a remake, actually; for instance, it’d be great if I didn’t spend half the film chanting death death death at our detective pianist hero. Marcus, you see, believes that women are inherently “weaker” and “gentler” than men, and boy is he a whiny little shit about it when Journalist Giana quickly proves him wrong. Giana drops out of the story for far too long, IMO; I really wish we saw them both conducting their own investigations into Psychic Helga’s death. Probably could also use a few better leads; how Marcus gets to the author, for instance, is pretty weak sauce. And more suspects would be great, too, because while I always love getting the killer right, I can’t exactly pretend I had to work for it, here.

Still, I had a lot of fun watching this. The whole premise is so my jam, and the score is just so delightfully weird; it shouldn’t work at all, and yet I love it, spent the whole film bopping around to the jaunty music. (And am listening to it now, as a matter of fact.) And course I enjoyed most of the death scenes: Prof. Giordani’s is probably my favorite, partially because that teeth shit is brutal, and partially because of that weird fucking doll, like, holy shit, it’s so creepy and hilarious simultaneously; I love it. (Though I will say Carlo’s death did little for me; that was a little too Final Destination for my tastes.)

Other things I really enjoyed: pretty much ALL the weird doll shit, the ultimately pragmatic motive behind the murders, Marta’s hat, gloves, and leather jacket combo (Marta’s also on the Dream Horror Cosplay list), the fact that Marta’s actually visible after killing Psychic Helga, the giant abandoned house, the hilariously creepy mural–oh my God, I LOVE it, I NEED it, I want that shit on my walls immediately–and YES, there are stickers at Redbubble; excuse me, I have to go buy one RIGHT NOW.

Random notes: A) If you weren’t sure this was a Dario Argento movie, look no further than Helga’s death scene (hint: there’s glass), B) I was 100% sure we were gonna get a transphobic twist that Carlo had once been Carla, so I’m extremely happy to be wrong here; also, Marcus is shockingly not an asshole to either Carlo or Carlo’s transgender lover, which was a huge relief, C) that being said, Carlo’s not exactly a winner himself (there’s a whole rape joke; it’s gross), and he’s kind of a pathetic character with a miserable death, so I can’t say the queer rep is, y’know, fantastic, D) I wish Marta’s crazy was dialed back from an 11, especially considering her motive is ultimately practical, E) Colin Firth will absolutely play Marcus in my remake, and while the music will probably need to be toned down at least somewhat for modern audiences, I adore the idea of specific themes for our main characters; his will be something on the piano because, you know, detective pianist (while Giana will get the more jaunty 70’s shit as an homage), and finally, F) here’s the moral of the story: if you find an inexplicable baby doll hanging from a noose inside your presumably empty house, DON’T STAY INSIDE THE HOUSE. Hitchhike your ass to town, if you must; you are about to die BADLY.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: The Changeling, Tragedy Girls, and You’re Next

The Changeling

Year: 1980
Director: Peter Medak
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Only mildly–but the trailer above basically shows the whole movie, so beware
Grade: Strawberry

The dreaded grade of Strawberry is misleading here. I quite liked this movie, actually; I just happened to like the next two films more. The Changeling is a classic sort of ghost story: an old, mysterious house, a creepy music box, some strange banging sounds, a child’s ball bouncing down the stairs, etc. For all I know, this movie originated some of those tropes. The film is very atmospheric, and I enjoyed its slow, steady build; also, the seance scene, and how no one wastes time on tedious skepticism. YES.

I like George C. Scott in this, too; he’s very reserved, very understated, which I think generally serves the movie well. (Occasionally, he’s possibly a touch too understated; at one point, I was like, “Damn, man, have a reaction or something.”) Trish Van Devere, OTOH, doesn’t work quite as well for me, although to be fair, my problems might stem more from writing than the actual peformance. Claire feels more like an outline of a character than an actual character; she has virtually no interiority, mostly existing to A) get John Russell into the house, and B) give John Russell someone to bounce his ghost detective instincts off of. She also has a couple of emotional breakdowns, and while I’m 100% here for one of them, the other feels very random to me.

Overall, I found the mystery engaging, although I was a bit thrown when certain elements were dropped entirely. (Presumably just red herrings, but I still expected them to come back in some meaningful way?) I also wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more with Russell’s dead family, who are barely mentioned in the second half of the story. (A quick aside: I knew Jean Marsh was in this movie, but completely failed to recognize her because apparently I was on the lookout for Mombi, not Tragic Dead Wife.) On the other hand, I did quite like Melvyn Douglas as Senator Carmichael, whose emotional reaction to {spoiler redacted} genuinely surprised me. If you’re trying to decide which Melvyn Douglas 80’s horror film to watch, I highly recommend The Changeling over Ghost Story (which we watched for last year’s Horror Bingo). And if you’re a Star Trek fan, hey, John Colicos (AKA Kor) plays a bit role here!

Here’s what I can’t get over, though: the size of this haunted ass house. Who’d wanna live in this spooky ass mansion by themselves? You could be housing 25 people in this place, easy! At one point, Claire shows John Russell to the music room, and I’m like, “Bitch, this is a damn castle; you could make five music rooms and still have space to spare.” Mr. Russell, sir, please. Next time, consider a damn cottage, I’m begging you.

Tragedy Girls

Year: 2017
Director: Tyler MacIntyre
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Hulu
Spoilers: Only for an uncredited cameo
Grade: Vanilla

This was an awful lot of fun. I already adored Brianna Hildebrand from Deadpool and The Exorcist (the cancelled-before-its-time TV show, not the 70’s classic, obviously), and I really liked Alexandra Shipp in Love, Simon and X-Men: Apocalypse (even if X-Men: Apocalypse, itself, was abysmal). Of course, neither disappointed here; these two are AWESOME as murder BFFs. The whole cast is pretty great, actually: I enjoyed Jack Quaid quite a bit as Jordan (even if dude hilariously cannot pass for a high school student), Kevin Durand is pretty perfectly cast as Lowell, and the uncredited Josh Hutcherson cameo? Oh. Oh, man. I was DYING. It is the absolute best. I will say, however, that I seriously wish that Rosalind Chao had been in the film for more than five seconds, and I kinda think the script sold Craig Robinson a little short.

Arguably, Tragedy Girls has a more negative philosophy in regards to social media than, say, #Alive, but it doesn’t bother me too much here because social media didn’t make Sadie and McKayla homicidal maniacs; they were clearly little homicidal maniacs from the jump. I honestly don’t have a lot of criticisms of this one. Obviously, I’m all about ride or die murder friends; also, the soundtrack is great, the ending is spot on, the violence is super gory, all things I love. You know, the whole movie is just . . . cute. Like, in a glittery, bloodthirsty sort of way.

You’re Next

Year: 2011
Director: Adam Wingard
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Personal Collection DVD
Spoilers: Definitely – do not read if you haven’t seen this yet
Grade: Chocolate

Ah, one of my favorites. It’s actually been a while since I rewatched this one, though–long enough that I actually said, “Jesus, how old is this movie” when Erin busted out an actual camera instead of her cell phone–and it’s a lot of fun to revisit when you already know the twists. I kept catching things I missed the first time around, like how “both” refers to Felix and Crispian, not Felix and Zee, or what’s behind Crispian’s smile when Erin says that his parents are loaded. And I still love so many things about You’re Next: how funny it is, how the horror is played completely straight despite just how funny it is, the family dynamics, the booby traps, “I don’t think that’s a fair criticism,” and Erin, yeah, just Erin as a whole. Also, the scene at the end where Crispian tries to justify his evil plan and win Erin back into his good graces, I mean, it is perfection. This scene is, no lie, one of my favorite scenes in any horror or comedy I’ve ever watched. The delivery is just so good here. “Maybe . . . an engagement?” I aspire to such mastery of craft.

Some random notes:

A. Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) has the gall to comment on Zee’s unusual name, like she didn’t name one of her kids “Crispian.” Barbara. Don’t put me on Zee’s side, here.

B. The opening scene is a bit weak IMO, but it’s also very short, so it’s not a huge problem. Still rolling my eyes at the woman strolling past the giant glass windows in an unbuttoned shirt, though, like seriously. One button, that’s all I’m asking for.

C. Hmm. Never did finish that You’re Next/Home Alone/Halloween fanfic, did I?

D. Felix and Zee’s deaths still get me. Like, they’re great deaths; this definitely isn’t a complaint. But man, do I cringe.

E. Seriously. Who even complains about a “jarring” Australian accent? When has that ever been a thing? Kelly, you suck. (On a positive note, Kelly is actually seriously hurt when she’s thrown through glass! This is so unusual in movies! Even Erin gets all cut up and impaled, although admittedly, she should really be dead.)

F. Poor Tariq. You miserable bastard.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: #Alive, Freddy vs. Jason, and Train to Busan

Well. 2020 has been . . . a lot, and will surely keep on being a lot right till the bitter end. No doubt at least one bit of catastrophic or otherwise world-shaking news will break between my posting this review and you reading it. And yet . . . it’s Halloween season. And I love Halloween season, and am determined to enjoy as much of it as I can.

Thus we begin our second annual HORROR BINGO.

#Alive

Year: 2020
Director: Jo Il-Hyeong
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Netflix
Spoilers: Not really, no
Grade: Vanilla

Okay, so, technically, this movie doesn’t count for Horror Bingo; I actually watched it a few weeks ago and just haven’t had the opportunity to write it up yet. But I’m throwing it in here anyway because I really enjoyed #Alive a whole lot. It’s definitely a film that embodies 2020, Our Year of Quarantine, Misery, and Despair–except that it’s actually much more optimistic than that, and I’ve long been excited by horror that is optimistic, uplifting, or otherwise hopeful. One cool thing about this type of horror is that it can lead to interesting trope or genre subversions; after all, a thing going right is sometimes more shocking than a thing going horribly wrong.

I will admit to being a bit tired of protagonists who are, like, IDK, gamer loser boys? But I genuinely enjoyed Yoo Ah-In in the role; he’s pretty fantastic, which is great because we spend quite a bit of time with him alone in his apartment, trying to survive. The film takes its time here, really delving into Oh Joon-Woo’s emotional journey, and I absolutely love that. I also adore Park Shin-Hye as Kim Yoo-Bin, Joon-Woo’s badass neighbor. I became very invested in their survivor bond and enjoyed watching all the moments where they risked themselves to share food or otherwise help each other. In fact, I think my only real complaint about the film might be in the last act when a new character is introduced; I feel like the pacing is a bit off here, though I might feel differently with repeat viewings. I sometimes do.

Otherwise, yeah, this is a pretty fun Korean zombie film. Bonus points for some great music, fantastic booby traps, and also for being the rare film where social media is actually depicted in a positive light. This particular millennial appreciated that.

Freddy vs. Jason

Year: 2003
Director: Ronny Yu
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Absolutely
Grade: Strawberry

NGL: This GIF is 116% better than this movie.

Last year, we rewatched Jason X, which is legit one of my favorites in the Friday the 13th franchise. This year, it was Freddy vs Jason’s turn, so we decided to make it our Free Space in Horror Bingo. Alas, Freddy vs Jason is actually even worse than I remembered, and I wasn’t exactly fond of it the first time around. The acting, the editing, the writing, Jesus, the writing. Of course, there are multiple cringeworthy lines, but the one that sticks out most is when our heroine decides– completely out of nowhere–to provide the worst exposition of all time with, “Freddy died by fire, Jason by water. How do we use that?” Oh God. I was dying. I was in serious fucking distress.

Also, let’s be clear here: Freddy Krueger is useless in this movie. Jason Voorhees kills, like, 22 of 23 people. Freddy gets one dude, one. When Freddy somehow holds his own against Jason after Lori drags his ass to the waking world? Nope, not buying it. Jason would obliterate this dude. And while I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the difficulties in coming up with a coherent storyline for this kind of crossover, like, come on. If your movie is titled Freddy vs. Jason, then either I wanna see a much better murder competition between these two, or way more battles between our titular villains, like, give me some Mortal Kombat shit, I am begging you.

Honestly, I have a lot to say about this movie, and very little of it is positive. Things I do genuinely like: A) Trey’s death scene (I cheered), B) Charlie’s death scene (surprisingly sad), C) the part where Charlie insists he can’t give Jason Voorhees mouth-to-mouth because he has asthma (“Kia, he has asthma!” LOL LOL LOL), and D) Katharine Isabelle, who is easily the MVP of the cast. (So it’s a bummer her part is so small–and that the director tried to go back on her contract and make her do nude scenes, ugh.) I honestly forgot just how many people were in this movie: Monica Keena, Kelly Rowland, Jason Ritter, Chris Marquette, Lochlyn Munro, a Zach Ward cameo, etc. This is delightful.

Then again: A) not to harp on this shit script, but aspiring writers, please don’t give your heroine two different back-to-back origin stories on why she doesn’t date (“my cherished boyfriend mysteriously ghosted me” and “my tragic dead mom”), B) also feel free to leave out any homophobic jokes (allegedly an improv, still total bullshit), C) also leave out any dumb possession scenes (Freeburg), D) or shitty death scenes (Kia), E) or bullshit resurrections (Freddy waking up Jason, somehow–although to be fair, Jason’s resurrections have never really made any sense). Finally, less laughable gratuitous nudity, if you please. Cause come on. Who buttons up their shirt just enough that one boob is sticking out all the time? Honestly.

Train to Busan

Year: 2016
Director: Yeon Sang-Ho
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Viki
Spoilers: Yep, all of them
Grade: Chocolate

I enjoyed Train to Busan the first time I watched it; I liked it even more on the second go. I wonder how the translation differs between Viki and Netflix. I’m afraid it’s been far too long for me to compare.

My thoughts are largely the same here: while lousy redemptive fathers are even worse than loser gamer boys, Gong Yoo makes this shit work, like, this is the gold standard of daddy redemption arcs. The Feels in this movie are incredible. Obviously, Ma Dong-Seok is the best and thus his death hits very hard, but I feel invested in almost all the characters: the sisters, the baseball player, the pregnant wife, the train conductor, the small child who gives her father Judgment Eyes for two hours straight, etc. It remains impressive that I even feel a bit sorry for Selfish Asshole, especially since he’s directly responsible for so many deaths. This is an emotional movie; I definitely cried more than once and felt pretty wrung out after watching it. (Though, to be fair, I also found out that Trump was COVID+ at the same time, which, like, I have zero sympathy for that man. Still, I remain anxious for how this will impact the election; besides, the news in general is just overwhelming lately. My reaction was basically “. . .” because I’m lacking even the emotional bandwidth for proper schadenfreude these days.)

I do still wish at least one of the women in this movie had an action scene where they, you know, did something. It bothers me less this go around, but it’s still likely my biggest disappointment with the film. OTOH, Jong-Gil’s decision to open the door played much better for me on a second viewing. And I still love so much else about this film: the pacing, the action scenes, the clever use of tunnels, etc. Also, on a positive note: Train to Busan was the first thing I saw Choi Woo-Shik in, who I rather adore. (He’s such a puppy in this movie. The expression on his face when he enters the train car full of Zombified Teammates, oof. Poor puppy.)

I maintain that Small Child’s singing at the end of the film is a terrible idea and should have gotten our two survivors dead (rather than be the instrument of their salvation), and damn the themes and symbolism. Still, it’s not a serious complaint. It doesn’t look like either character is in the sequel, either, which I’m actually grateful for, and not just because Peninsula is, by all accounts, nowhere near as good as its predecessor. It’s just if a character makes it through a zombie apocalypse, I have zero interest in watching a sequel where they inevitable die. LONG LIVE SUNG-GYEONG AND SOO-AN, SURVIVORS OF THE ZOMBIE HELL TRAIN.

Triple Scoop Reviews: The Witch: Part I – The Subversion, Death Bell, and Guns Akimbo

The Witch: Part I – The Subversion

Year: 2018
Director: Park Hoon Jung
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Netflix
Spoilers: Surprisingly, no
Grade: Chocolate

Oh, I really enjoyed this Korean SF/F action-horror movie. I confess to not totally getting the title (something lost in translation, perhaps), but the movie itself is a pretty good time. Kim Da Mi is excellent here as Goo Ja Yun, an amnesiac who ran away ten years ago from one of those evil government facilities that likes to experiment on children. (A very specific sub-genre I’m apparently a sucker for, considering Dark Angel, Stranger Things, The Pretender, etc.) I also like Go Min Shi, who plays Ja Yun’s excitable best friend, and Choi Woo Shik, who plays, well, Chaotic Evil. I very much enjoyed the latter’s work in Train to Busan and Parasite, but it wasn’t until I saw this movie that I realized, oh, he’s not just talented; he’s hot. Lots of people try for smirky evil hot but only manage smirky obnoxious. Choi Woo Shik is not one of those people.

The Witch: Subversion – Part I has a slow, steady build with an explosive third act, and I’m looking forward to seeing a sequel. (I believe a trilogy is planned?) There are other things to talk about; unfortunately, they all include spoilers, and I’d prefer not to get into those now. But the movie is an awful lot of fun, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who also enjoys a) this very specific sub-genre, and b) violence. Because there is most certainly violence. Obviously, I approve of this.

Death Bell

Year: 2008
Director: Chang
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Youtube
Spoilers: Some. Mind the tags, in particular
Grade: Strawberry

This is apparently a hugely popular horror film in South Korea and was fun enough to watch, but ultimately, I’m pretty meh on the actual execution. I’m all about the basic setup, of course: a group of kids (and teachers) are trapped at a high school and forced to successfully solve a series of test questions, or else their classmates will be violently murdered. I like the idea of the bad guys here and their respective motives. I’d genuinely like to see this film remade by a different director with a better script.

But as is, I have several problems, like, almost none of the death traps work for me, not just because they’re such obvious Saw knock-offs, but because they’re way too elaborate and ridiculous to fit the actual scenario. (Some people are quick to accuse a horror movie of being a Saw knock-off just because its exceptionally violent and/or includes death traps, but these ones really do lack originality.) There is both a human and supernatural angle to this story; unfortunately, the supernatural stuff mostly feels mishandled. The last minute twist seems particularly cheap because it doesn’t feel supported by the actor’s performance at all–though it does, I suppose, at least make another character’s whole storyline less random in retrospect. (Still not terribly fond of it, TBH.)

Additionally, two quick notes: one, I’m all about horror movies acknowledging that girls have periods–seriously, I am all for it–but this mostly felt like an excuse for a weird upper thigh shot, so, eh? And two, any sympathy I might have had for one character completely goes out the window the second she realizes that everyone around her has mysteriously passed out and decides that this is a great time to put on her headphones, alone, in the middle of a school where multiple people have been murdered. I. You. What. WHY?!?!?!

Guns Akimbo

Year: 2020
Director: Jason Lei Howden
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Not really
Grade: Vanilla

There’s a lot to like here, especially if you’re into over-the-top, gonzo action flicks like me, but there are also things that don’t quite land. For one, I’m not sure I’m totally buying our Big Bad; Ned Dennehy is okay in the role, but I feel like other actors could’ve done more with it. Neal McDonough, for instance, was made for this kind of villain. Also might’ve enjoyed Clancy Brown, who Mek suggested for some punk Highlander vibes. More importantly, though, Guns Akimbo has this weird tendency to throw in a moral now and then that just doesn’t work. Like when Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) wonders how long it’s been since he went outside without staring at his phone, and I’m like, bitch, that’s some weak tea satire; are you actually mistaking that for an original perspective, and anyway, who the hell is thinking “gosh, I wish I’d stopped to smell the roses” when they’re stumbling around after waking up with gun hands? I feel, too, that there’s a small but annoying thread of “anti PC culture” running throughout the film, an impression that only seems validated after remembering the controversy around director Jason Lei Howden. Yikes.

All that being said, I could watch Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving in this all day. They’re both great here: Radcliffe has some absolutely phenomenal reactions–I am so down for all his absolutely bizarre post-HP projects–whereas Weaving is just as iconic here as she was in Ready or Not. She’s pretty fantastic in this, IMO. Not every bit of humor lands right (Rhys Darby’s character, sadly, feels like a series of punch down jokes, much as my Voltron geek girl heart hates to admit it), but a lot of the dialogue is genuinely hilarious; for example, I about died when Miles tried to cut off this cop’s tragic backstory. I like Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), too; she doesn’t get much to do, unfortunately, but I did find her interesting. Also, Nerf Guy!

If you like the concept of Guns Akimbo, there’s a decent chance you’ll like the movie: there are some really fun fight scenes, amusing bits of meta humor, one or two solid surprise moments, and just a very enjoyable soundtrack. I’m actually glad I watched it; I just really wish I could tweak it some, too. And yeah, it’d also be nice if the writer/director didn’t entirely suck as a person.

Now Available at Nightmare: “Spider Season, Fire Season”

A funny thing about the writing business: you can’t always predict when your stories will be published. I submitted “Monsters Never Leave You” to Strange Horizons months before I even wrote “Spider Season, Fire Season.” I officially sold the former to SH in November 2019, while Nightmare didn’t buy the latter until late January 2020. Sat here for six months with little writing news to report, and then boom! Both stories are published within eight days of each other. Writing is weird.

But to the actual point: “Spider Season, Fire Season” is available to read for free at Nightmare! I wrote this little ghost story shortly after the Kincade Fire last year, and I think it came together pretty nicely. (She says, hopefully.) Especially recommended for anyone who likes ghosts (obviously), found families, California, multiple points-of-view, non-linear storytelling, and horror that has room for hope. TW for violence (including domestic violence) and off-screen deaths (including deaths of children).

If you do end up reading, I hope you enjoy!

Official Radiohead pairing: “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm)

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!

Year of Monsters: Nosferatu

Well, it’s our penultimate movie, folks, and the oldest Year of Monsters film selected. It also happens to be the first vampire movie ever made, not to mention a completely unauthorized retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that, due to a lawsuit, was nearly wiped out of existence. It’s hard to overstate the influence of Nosferatu; this movie is legend. It is quintessential horror film history.

So, I kinda wish I had more to say about it.

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Behind the Scenes – Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus

No century-old monsters to discuss today, I’m afraid; I’m a little behind in my Universal movie watch. Instead, we’re gonna do a guest blog! Guest blogs are the best because, frankly, I don’t have to do all that much work; also, this one is about NEW DARK FANTASY NOVELS. Victorian goth fantasy, even. Basically, it’s a win for everyone.

The current pandemic has disrupted, well, pretty much everything right now. Rather obviously, Covid-19 takes priority, as it should; unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any easier on debut authors whose books have just come out. Which is one of the reasons I invited my friend, Jonathan Fortin, to come on my blog and talk about what inspired his debut novel: Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus, which just recently came out from Crystal Lake Publishing. If you’re looking to read something new and/or support debut SF/F/H authors, then feast your eyes on this absolutely gorgeous cover art by Ben Baldwin and continue on to learn all about Lilitu.

BEHIND THE SCENES OF “LILITU: THE MEMOIRS OF A SUCCUBUS”

I’ve always felt that succubi and incubi take everything that’s scary and sexy about vampires, and amplify it. They’re beautiful demons that prey on humans, but they have some pretty cool traits that vampires don’t. For one thing, they can enter and manipulate dreams. For another, they often have wings, horns, or tails. But the biggest difference is that, while vampires are often figuratively about sex, succubi and incubi are far more literal–actually drawing sustenance through sexual energy.

Maybe that’s why there haven’t been too many serious books focused on succubi. There are certainly a few, but more often than not, succubi remain side characters–usually femme fatale sex symbols that exist primarily for the male gaze. It’s also pretty rare for books to portray succubi as folklore does. For example, rarely do succubus protagonists enter dreams, or have wings or horns.

With that in mind, there were a few main goals I had in mind while working on LILITU: THE MEMOIRS OF A SUCCUBUS:

  1. To write a succubus-centric novel that wasn’t male-gazey.

  2. To have it take the folklore of succubi and incubi seriously.

3. To use that folklore to explore gender issues in an exciting horror/dark fantasy tale.

I felt that a proper succubus book needed to address gender issues because of society’s double standards about female sexuality. Indeed, sometimes when men feel threatened by a woman, they will call her a succubus, literally demonizing her–particularly if the woman in question is sexually liberated, dominant, or just won’t submit to male authority.

From this idea emerged the character of Maraina Blackwood–a mortal woman, raised to believe that she must submit to the patriarchy, who ends up becoming a heroic succubus fighting to smash it. Maraina’s arc is all about exploring the ideas that are drilled into our heads growing up, and recognizing how toxic they are. She deconstructs the femme fatale archetype by being a noble seductress. Similarly, the villain of the book, the cruel incubus Salem Sotirios, is a condemnation of toxic patriarchy, as well as of “abusive-but-sexy” Byronic love interests like Edward Cullen or Christian Grey.

Once I had this concept, I ended up setting the book in Victorian England. Part of this was because I wanted to give the book a pervasive Gothic Horror aesthetic; this way, my succubi could wear corsets, my incubi could wear top hats, and they all could frolic around in dark, crumbling castles. As an enthusiast of Victorian Gothic Fashion, that sounded just dandy to me.

More importantly, though, the Victorians had infamously rigid gender roles and severe sexual repression. It was a perfectly horrible society for Maraina to grow up in, making her all the more of a sympathetic rebel.

From there, I considered the rules of succubi and incubi, and adjusted them to fit the narrative I wanted to tell. “Succubi and Incubi” was too mouthy to repeat over and over, so I settled on naming the species as a whole “Lilitu.” Different lilitu bloodlines would have different traits–some would have horns while others wouldn’t, some would shift gender, etc.–but in all cases, they would be able to enter and manipulate dreams.

Another factor was the fact that succubi are supposed to be exceptionally beautiful. I didn’t want to support the idea that there’s one valid form of beauty, so I ensured that we meet succubi of all body types throughout the book. I also decided to deconstruct this facet of the mythology by exploring how society demands that we look and act a certain way based on our sex, and the dysmorphia we can feel as a result.

LILITU is dark fantasy, so it’s got plenty of fun, magical bits: flaming swords, sexy demons, and blood rituals, to name a few. But at its core, it’s attempting to explore very real issues, and many of its most unsettling moments are based on the factual truth of Victorian life. Unfortunately, in our modern world, many of these issues remain uncomfortably relevant. The main takeaway from LILITU is this: all demons do is draw attention to the horror that was already there.

ABOUT THE BOOK: England, 1876. Twenty-year-old Maraina Blackwood has always struggled to adhere to the restrictive standards of Victorian society, denying the courage and desire that burn within her soul. But after a terrifying supernatural encounter, Maraina’s instincts compel her to action.

Maraina soon discovers a plot to unleash a new world—one of demonic aristocrats, bloody rituals, and nightmarish monsters. Putting her upbringing aside, Maraina vows to fight the dark forces assuming control of England. But as her world transforms, Maraina finds that she too must transform…and what she becomes will bring out all that she once buried.

Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus is the first chapter in an epic dark fantasy saga, proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing—Tales from the Darkest Depths.

PLACES YOU CAN BUY: Amazon

(Or if you want to support small business, check to see if your local bookstore can order the novel and ship it directly to you.)

ABOUT JONATHAN: Jonathan Fortin is the author of “Lilitu: The Memoirs of a Succubus” (Crystal Lake Publishing), “Requiem In Frost” (Horroraddicts.net), and “Nightmarescape” (Mocha Memoirs Press). An unashamed lover of spooky Gothic stories, Jonathan was named the Next Great Horror Writer in 2017 by HorrorAddicts.net. He attended the Clarion Writing Program in 2012, one year after graduating summa cum laude from San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing program. When not writing, Jonathan enjoys voice acting, dressing like a Victorian vampire, and indulging in all things odd and macabre in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him online at www.jonathanfortin.com or on Twitter @Jonathan_Fortin.

Year of Monsters: Dracula

Dracula is one of the rare Universal classics I’ve actually seen before; it was many years ago, though, and at the time, I found the film rather boring. Watching it again, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, while the story is undeniably chaotic, I enjoyed Dracula quite a bit. There are multiple reasons for that, but the most strikingly obvious one is the fantastic score.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I’ve seen that movie, and there IS no score . . . well, you’re right. Until the late 1990’s, at least.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

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