Best of 2020: BOOKS

Well. 2020 was . . . yeah, catastrophic. But the books, at least, were delightful.  Last week I posted a list of all the novels and novellas I read over the year; today, we’ll be discussing some of those books in more detail.

(A quick reminder: any book I read in 2020 is eligible for these Best Of’s, no matter when it actually came out. If I only discussed books published in 2020, well. Let’s just say this would be a much shorter list.)

FASTEST READ

The Game – Linsey Miller

Listen, I am always, always up for Murder Games of any kind, so this YA–where a high school senior discovers that one of her classmates is killing people for reals in their game of Assassin–was basically my dream premise. I read most of this in one sitting, which is unusual for me; I love to read, obviously, but I don’t have half the speed or focus of many people I know. So, it’s always a delight to find something easy and fun to sink into. Plus, you know. MURDER. Murder is my ultimate jam.

Honorable Mentions: When We Were Magic – Sarah Gailey;  Proper English – K.J. Charles; Silver in the Wood & Drowned Country – Emily Tesh; Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo; Pet – Akwaeke Emezi; My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

FAVORITE MYTHOLOGY STORY

Goddess of the North – Georgina Kamsika

Okay, I talked about this book last week, I know. But it’s such an entertaining and original urban fantasy. I especially enjoyed the Hindu mythology because I feel like we don’t get to see enough South-Asian myth in UF, or at least I haven’t. There are honestly so many deities from so many different pantheons here, and it’s a lot of fun to guess who’s going to pop up next. I also really love the complicated relationship between our protagonist and her mother because while tricksters do frequently pop up in fantasy novels, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a Trickster Mom before. The mother-daughter relationship here is easily one of my favorite parts of this whole novel.

Honorable Mentions: Circe – Madeline Miller; Gods of Jade and Shadow – Silvia Moreno-Garcia; A Song Below Water – Bethany C. Morrow

FAVORITE GRAPHIC NOVEL

Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men – Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

Velvet Templeton is such a great character. Not that this is news: I’m aware I’m still catching up on five-year-old trades. Nevertheless, the world needs way more awesome middle-aged lady spies. And this volume, in particular, ends on one hell of a conclusion. I should probably dream cast this series, at some point.

Honorable Mentions: Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole The World – Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting; Zodiac Starforce: By the Power of Astra – Kevin Panetta & Paulina Ganucheau

FAVORITE ROMANCE

Proper English – K.J. Charles

Okay, an F/F country house murder mystery romance novel? Holy Jesus, yes. This book is delightful: charming, witty, and actively queer, the last of which just isn’t something you get in Golden Age detective fiction, unfortunately. Proper English is definitely romance first, mystery second, but I enjoyed both aspects of the story: Pat is a likable, sensible heroine, and it’s a lot of fun to see her and Fen fall for each other and, also, solve crime. I’d like to see this story as a movie immediately.

Proper English is also something of a spinoff-prequel to Think of England, and you can better believe that novel’s already on my 2021 To-Read List.

Honorable Mentions: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics – Olivia Waite; Silver in the Wood – Emily Tesh

FAVORITE MYSTERY

The Santa Klaus Murder – Mavis Doriel Hay

Like I said, I’m a huge sucker for a witty country house murder mystery. These kinds of books are the ultimate comfort read for me, and I suspect I came across this one at just the right time. One of the things I specifically like here is the character work: we get multiple POVs for the first five chapters, and while it’s a bit strange, structurally speaking, it also allows the reader more time to really get to know our suspects. Plus, I had no idea how reliable these accounts actually were, so I had an especially fun time looking for discrepancies and clues. The Santa Klaus Murder is also the very rare Golden Age novel that actually ends on a hilariously fitting line, rather than just sorta clunking to a stop. I love this period of fiction, but some of those endings are just oof.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all Christmas stories are improved by a homicidal Santa; thus, this book also wins for FAVORITE CHRISTMAS STORY.

Honorable Mentions: A Morbid Taste for Bones – Ellis Peters; The Skull Beneath the Skin – P.D. James; The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

FAVORITE NON-FICTION

TIE!

Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith – Colin Dickey
Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction – Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

I’ve never read a non-fiction writer whose prose inspires me as much as Colin Dickey. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant, and I always have at least seven new story ideas by the end of one of his books. The material here, too, is fascinating, not just because I find early Christian history interesting, but because of how the saints are analyzed and interpreted here: as punk saints, saints as rejects, etc. Dickey’s most recent book is called The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession With the Unexplained, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Meanwhile, Monster, She Wrote is a remarkably quick read for non-fiction and makes for a fantastic reference guide. I jotted down all kinds of short stories, novels, and authors who I’m shamefully unfamiliar with. I especially enjoyed reading about women authors of the pulp era because that really seems to be a period where women have been selectively deleted from history. Also, seeing The Migration by Helen Marshall get a well-deserved shoutout was a delightful surprise. Helen, buddy, you rock.

Honorable Mentions: The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

FAVORITE MIDDLE GRADE

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – T. Kingfisher

This one’s a bit tricky: ostensibly, Ursula Vernon’s books are for children, while T. Kingfisher writes for adults, but in this case that appears to be a marketing decision; as Vernon discusses in her author’s note, she visualized this story as a dark children’s novel. That’s certainly how it read to me, so I’m placing it here, marketing be damned.

Shocking no one, I adored this book. It’s sort of warm and fluffy and laugh out loud funny, while also having these fantastically dark and weird bits that I absolutely love. One of the things I particularly like is how this novel discusses responsibility and heroism and never fully lets any of the adults, even the likable ones, off the hook for depending on children to save them. That all felt very real to me. There is also, as you might imagine, quite a bit of bread-related humor. The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is charming, and probably best enjoyed with something to snack on.

Honorable Mentions: Riverland – Fran Wilde; Peapsrout Chen: Battle of Champions – Henry Lien

FAVORITE YA

Pet – Akwaeke Emezi

There are books you spend years waiting to read, and then there are books that you’ve never heard of before, but which absolutely blindside you with just how goddamn brilliant they are; Pet was the latter for me, just so imaginative and exciting and wholly original. There’s so much voice in this book; I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I could really hear the language somehow, and I loved listening to it. In her review on Tor.com, Alex Brown mentions that the dialogue here is “as poetic as the narrative text itself,” and that definitely rang true to me.

The utopia in Pet is fascinating, particularly because it’s flawed without being secretly sinister or cruel. Jam is a great MC; in fact, I enjoyed all the characters, especially Pet. And monster-hunting creatures that emerge from paintings? Come on. That’s just cool. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more books from Emezi in the future.

Honorable Mentions: Blanca y Roja – Anna-Marie McLemore; A Song Below Water – Bethany C. Morrow; Cemetery Boys – Aiden Thomas

FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

Despite absolutely loving Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, I didn’t run straight to the bookstore for a copy of Ninth House, mostly because secret society mysteries aren’t always my jam; I often have trouble taking them seriously. But I straight up loved Ninth House, like, okay, it definitely reminded me that I know absolutely nothing about Ivy League academia and rich people shit? But it also has so much amazing noir energy, like, this is exactly what I want from modern noir: interesting characters making morally dicey choices for reasons you understand. (As opposed to assholes being assholes for Asshole Reasons). The characters are great here: Alex is a fantastic protagonist, I liked Darlington straight away, and Dawes is kinda the best. Also: Turner and Mercy. I’m really into the world, too: the various houses and their different types of magic. And the way this one ends, I mean, damn. I NEED THE SEQUEL, PLEASE.

Honorable Mentions: The Library of the Unwritten – A.J. Hackwith; Riverland – Fran Wilde; Blanca y Roja – Anna-Marie McLemore; Goddess of the North – Georgina Kamsika

FAVORITE NOT-SO-CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

Silver in the Wood & Drowned Country – Emily Tesh

I’m counting The Greenhollow Duology as one entity here because I could really see these stories as separate halves of the same novel; also, this is my blog and I make the rules, so. Silver in the Wood has a lovely folkloric/fairy tale feel, while I guess I’d characterize Drowned Country as more of a seaside gaslamp fantasy? Both novellas are charming as hell (which is why they also win for BEST NOVELLA) and feature an interesting world, fantastic supporting characters, and an M/M romance to root for throughout. Tobias/Silver, I ship you madly.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Not-So-Contemporary Fantasy: Gods of Jade and Shadow – Silvia Moreno-Garcia; The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow; A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – T. Kingfisher

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Novella: Exit Strategy – Martha Wells; Come Tumbling Down – Seanan McGuire; Ring Shout – P. Djélì Clark; Made Things – Adrian Tchaikovsky

FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION

TIE!

A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

A Memory Called Empire has just about everything I love to see in SF: murder, political intrigue, and an in-depth focus on identity and culture. The world-building here is incredible, and I was fascinated by all of it: the naming conventions, the linguistics, the profound impact of colonization on one’s sense of self.  Also: the imago tech that connects our heroine Mahit to her dead predecessor, Yskander. Anyone who’s ever wanted more weird Trill shit from Star Trek, well, this is the book for you. Plus, Mahit is an awesome heroine; in fact, I really enjoy the whole cast of characters. I’m eagerly looking forward to the sequel coming out later this year.

But Gideon the Ninth was pretty fantastic, too, a dark and irreverent SF/Fantasy mashup with monster battles, necromancers, creepy nuns, dangerous challenges, and–once again–murder, just like, a LOT of violent, gory murder. Gideon, herself, is incredibly fun: punk, buff, cheeky as hell. This book’s got voice and then some. Also: serious cosplay potential, which isn’t something I usually find in novels. (I’m not great at visualizing stuff, TBH.) Gideon the Ninth also surprised me at multiple points, especially at the very end. Things get pretty bleak for quite a number of characters, which sounds depressing and, occasionally, kind of is. But it’s also easily one of the most entertaining books I read all year.

Honorable Mentions: Velocity Weapon – Megan E. O’Keefe; Exit Strategy – Martha Wells

FAVORITE HORROR

The Only Good Indians – Stephen Graham Jones

This book. Damn. It’s strange and challenging and, like the very best horror, it lingers long after you’re finished reading it. One scene, in particular, honest-to-God shocked me, and while I don’t find most horror novels scary as a general rule, I will fully admit this scene creeped me out in the best of ways. As always, I love Stephen Graham Jones’s prose: the words he uses, the words he leaves out, the way even his shortest sentences can punch you in the gut.

In her review of The Only Good Indians at Locus, Paula Guran says, “The book will be seen as effective ‘social commentary,’ but it is not ‘commentary’: it is simply the truth displayed and injustice portrayed clearly for all to read.” And that feels about right to me. There’s a lot of truth in this one.

Honorable Mentions: Ring Shout – P. Djèlí Clark; Disappearance at Devil’s Rock – Paul Tremblay

FAVORITE NOVEL

Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

Per usual, I vacillated like crazy over this decision. Ultimately, however, I picked Gideon the Ninth because–in a year full of fear, incompetence, deliberate cruelty, and a little more fear– this book was just sheer irreverent fun, and I very much appreciated that.

Here is the rest of my Top 10 (not in any particular order).

2. Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo
3. A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
4. Pet – Akwaeke Emezi
5. Silver in the Wood/Drowned Country – Emily Tesh
6. Proper English – KJ Charles
7. The Only Good Indians – Stephen Graham Jones
8. Velocity Weapon – Megan E. O’Keefe
9. The Library of the Unwritten – A.J. Hackwith
10. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – T. Kingfisher

Somehow there are always a few fantastic books on this list that I don’t end up individually discussing, so a couple quick shoutouts: Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe is a space opera with political intrigue, BIG twists and turns, and characters who are allowed to be both likable and complicated.  Meanwhile, The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith is full of myths, banter, teamwork, and literary tropes. Also, angels. Also, Hell. It’s a very enjoyable read chockfull of excellent quotes. Both books already have sequels out, and they are very much on my To-Do list.

Honorable Mentions For Top Ten: Ring Shout – P. Djèlí Clark; The Santa Klaus Murder – Mavis Doriel Hay; Goddess of the North – Georgina Kamsika; My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite; Circe – Madeline Miller

That’s it for now. 2021 Books, here we come!

Triple Christmas Scoop Review: Anna and the Apocalypse, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and Die Hard

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m loathe to even express hope for 2021 at this point, so let’s just belatedly talk about the Christmas movies I watched last week instead.

Anna and the Apocalypse

Year: 2017
Director: John McPhail
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Some, but I don’t think any Big Ones
Grade: Vanilla

Ah, the traditional zombie musical holiday movie. I enjoyed Anna and the Apocalypse, although it’s a bit darker than I expected it to be. Ridiculous of me to assume otherwise, I know–horror comedies obviously tend to skew dark, not to mention Clear Foreshadow song “Hollywood Ending”–but I suppose I was thrown by all the dancing and cheer and cast full of generally likable characters? Musical comedies and horror comedies generally have different rules about who and how many people you can murder, and I found myself expecting a story that adhered more to the former than the latter. As such, some of the character deaths here definitely took me by surprise.

My absolute favorite character, though, is Assistant Headmaster Savage, who starts out this movie as a curmudgeonly antagonist–as all vice principals must–before transforming into a glorious mad villain–as all vice principals must. I’ve read a few reviews now that feel this turn is forced or unnecessary, and TBH, they aren’t wrong. But I also don’t care because Savage is so utterly delightful that I don’t give a damn what he’s doing, so long as he keeps talking. Every line is somehow drier and more disgruntled than the last until this dude’s sitting in the dark, ominously explaining that he’s eating his Christmas dinner, and I’m near in tears. Savage, BTW, is played by Paul Kaye, who also played Thoros of Myr in Game of Thrones, and now I’d really like to see a slideshow comparing every GoT actor with their absolute LEAST GoT-like roles.

Anna and the Apocalypse is also one of those movies where the horror might take you by surprise if you just stumbled across it on TV without knowing anything about the story. The first, IDK, 15-20 minutes play as a standard cute high school musical, and then we get “Turning My Life Around,” which changes everything. This scene is epic, delightfully having fun at the vast suspension of disbelief one inherently needs to enjoy musicals. Other favorite songs include “Soldier at War,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” and “It’s That Time of Year.”

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Year: 1984
Director: Charles E. Sellier Jr.
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Personal Collection DVD
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Strawberry

Despite owning this movie, I haven’t seen it in years and was a bit worried Mekaela wouldn’t like it and/or the film wouldn’t hold up, especially since some movies–especially ridiculous ones–are best experienced in a big group of people. These concerns proved groundless: Mek was hilariously indignant on Billy’s behalf, rooting for his inevitable killing spree to begin, and–despite the dreaded grade of Strawberry–I still find Silent Night, Deadly Night pretty solidly entertaining. There are things I’d change, certainly: the attempted sexual assault in the prologue, for instance, or the sheer number of tits on display. (The most egregious moment is when Scream Queen Linnea Quigley pulls on a pair of Daisy Dukes to go outside, but doesn’t bother putting on a bra or shirt? What?) Also, while I love that a kindly old priest gets killed after being mistaken for Evil Santa . . . IDK, maybe don’t make him deaf?

A list of standout moments: any time Billy says “NAUGHTY!” or “PUNISH!” (I’m definitely going to start yelling that at my cats now.) The ending, which sets up for the sequel that I still haven’t seen. (2021 Goals!) That fucking amazing moment when Billy gifts his bloody knife to a little girl. (Wait, this movie has five sequels and none of them are about this kid? JFC, hire me; I will write the shit out of an Evil Girl Santa movie!) Little Billy punching Santa Claus is pretty great, too, and that this toy store sells, like, actual bows and arrows, I guess? I mean, yeah, why not? Some of the death scenes are  fantastic, like, Bully Decapitated on a Sled is just *chef’s kiss,* and the dude who dies when he gets thrown through a window? YES. Partially because he’s impaled on just a ludicrously large piece of glass, but mostly because holy shit, someone in a movie finally dies from going through a window pane! I’m also in love with the blatant changes in film quality that sometimes happen mid-scene. It’s the absolute best.

The gigantic controversy that emerged when this movie came out is still shockingly absurd. I feel sorry for anyone whose career might’ve suffered just because people lost their minds and decided Silent Night, Deadly Night was an attack on Christmas, like, this wasn’t even the first Killer Santa movie, goddamn it. I remain vexed on this film’s behalf, and never mind that the movie is a year older than I am and no one cares anymore. This is nonsense. People should still be ashamed of themselves.

Die Hard

Year: 1988
Director: John McTiernan
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – HBO Max
Spoilers: Obviously
Grade: Chocolate

Well, I mean. Die Hard is always gonna win for me: I grew up on this one, and the nostalgia factor is just too strong. It’s been my favorite Christmas movie since childhood, and honestly works even better for me as an adult–except that, like most cop movies, it’s kinda 2+ hours of police propaganda. (We need more mavericks like McClane! It’s only pesky rules that stop hardworking cops getting the job done! Thank God Al Powell learned the Will to Kill again after shooting an innocent kid!) Still. Messaging aside, I do love this one. There are just so many little moments I enjoy: all the humming and singing (“Ode to Joy” has honest to God become a Christmas song in my brain), Al Leong’s improvised candy bit (it is low key my favorite joke in the whole movie), Karl and Theo’s bet (which I somehow didn’t notice for years), etc.

The dialogue, too, seems effortlessly funny. All the Big Lines, of course, but also the little asides. The way Alan Rickman says, “I must have missed 60 Minutes.” The obvious amusement in Reginald VelJohnson’s voice when he asks, “Hey, Roy, how you feeling?” How Tony’s actions–wait, his name is TONY–somewhat belie his words when he assures, “I promise I won’t hurt you,” or the way James Shigeta quietly reminds Ellis, “Holly’s husband. Holly’s policeman.” TBH, I just adore Shigeta in this movie and always get a bit bummed when Takagi dies. Hans, too, of course, because let’s be honest: we all want to see the AU version where Hans wins, right? Or at least some deleted scenes with Exasperated Hans listening to John and Powell talk? Basically, I want more of Alan Rickman at every given opportunity. Damn, I still miss him.

Obviously, there’s really not much I can say about Die Hard that hasn’t already been said a billion times over. But I’m here, so: A) I have a lot of Feels/Ideas about characters who build a relationship (of any kind) before actually meeting, so of course, I think it’s awesome that John does this with his closest ally Powell (only one scene together) and Big Bad Hans (only two). B) I like that John is mostly a regular guy who gets caught in a bad situation, rather than the Super Cop he’ll become in subsequent sequels. (He’s  also a bit of a sociopath–evidence HO HO HO–and probably would’ve gotten everyone killed with that C4, but we’ll ignore this for now.) C) A bad guy actually does die from being thrown through glass; however, this moment is somewhat negated when John swings straight through a glass window himself and is basically fine. And D) I love that Kristoff survives because I don’t care what anyone else says; he lives, and it is the BEST.

Finally, I’m mildly obsessed with recasting movies, just for the challenge of it. Lately, Mek and I have taken to recasting movies and TV shows with Korean actors–I always end up casting Choi Won-Young as somebody–and, of course, we’ve already did a genderbent cast for Die Hard a couple years ago. (Scroll down quite a ways.) I mention all this because while watching Die Hard for the 574th time, I was  struck by a strange if charming idea: what if LeVar Burton had been cast as Theo? Not because I dislike Clarence Gilyard Jr. in this, but . . . I don’t know, I’m just very amused by the idea of everyone’s favorite children’s show host/mild-mannered Chief Engineer playing a bad guy (albeit, a comic relief bad guy). He could absolutely do it, and I think it would’ve been fun to see. Which naturally led Mek and I to a new game: recast actors who could somewhat reasonably have played these roles in 1987. We haven’t settled on a full cast yet, but I can tell you that some of the nominees for Karl have seriously cracked me up.

2020 Reading List – Novellas, Novels, Graphic Novels, and Non-Fiction

Well. 2021 approaches, finally. Coming to the end of 2020 means a vast number of things, but for today, it means I’m posting the official list of all the books I’ve read this year. Also to be discussed: unsurprising reading trends, a few fanfic recs, upcoming SF/F novels I’m looking forward to, shameless promotion for my super talented friends, and of course, ALL THE QUOTES.

Shall we get started?

Continue reading

2020: Award Eligible Work and Recommended Short Stories

Looks like it’s that time of the year again. Let’s go ahead and tackle my stuff first. I have two short stories eligible for award consideration:

Monsters Never Leave You” – Strange Horizons (June 29th, 2020)

I’m very fond of this story, but it was not an easy one to write. I went through several versions before this final one could be born, and I’m proud of how it ultimately turned out. TBH, I kind of wish more people had read it, so if you’re a fan of fairy tales, sibling stories, found families, living houses, domestic witchery, creepy trees, and/or dessert, I hope you consider checking it out.

Spider Season, Fire Season” – Nightmare (July 2020)

If you’re looking for slightly creepier fare, you might consider this short story instead. I wrote it shortly after the Kincade Fire, and structurally, it’s a bit of a switch-up for me. (Thematically . . . possibly not so much.) You may enjoy this one if you like ghost stories, found families, non-linear storytelling, California, violent comeuppance, and a bit of optimism in your horror.

Moving on now to some of my favorite short stories I read in 2020, in no particular order:

1. “One Time, A Reluctant Traveler” – A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld)

Oh, this one is just lovely, a story about family and loss, history and survival, about taking all the tales you inherited and finding an ending of your own. It’s a quest story unlike any other quest story I’ve read, and that last line? Utter perfection.

If you must know, I left because if I stayed in Nat’s house one night longer, I was going to unravel, like a tragic traveler in one of my family’s tales. And that was a story I didn’t want to be.

2. “The Mermaid Astronaut” – Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

There’s a lot to recommend in this stunning blend of mer fantasy and space travel: the exquisite prose, the supportive relationship between sisters, the bittersweet resolution that doesn’t rely on a cruel twist. This isn’t a story that punishes our young mermaid for having dreams, and I really appreciated that.

“I don’t think it’s such an evil thing,” Essarala replied, “to want to see new worlds and taste their waters.”

“Evil, no,” the witch said. “Difficult, yes.”

3. “Open House on Haunted Hill” – John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots)

As is likely obvious from my own eligible work, I adore stories about haunted houses and/or houses that are otherwise alive. 133 Poisonwood Ave is definitely alive: sweet and lonely and longing for a family to live inside its walls. This one is heartwarming and an excellent comfort read.

All 133 Poisonwood has is a light touch, but it knows how to use it. Haunting is an art.

4. “Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades” – A.C. Wise (PseudoPod)

Maybe one of these years I’ll make a favorites list without an A.C. Wise story on it, but honestly? That just doesn’t seem very likely. This one is dark and fascinating and hooked me from the very first line. I mean, come on: “Have you ever thought about how fairy tale heroines are like final girls?” That’s basically ALL I think about.

This is my story, but when you hear it, I am irrelevant, a moral in the shape of a girl, an object to be acted upon.

5. “My Country is a Ghost” – Eugenia Triantafyllou (Uncanny)

A melancholy, gorgeous, and ultimately hopeful story about immigration, assimilation, family, and culture. So many of the lines in this one . . . I mean, damn. It’s an incredibly moving piece and an absolute must read.

When Niovi tried to smuggle her mother’s ghost into the new country, she found herself being passed from one security officer to another, detailing her mother’s place and date of death over and over again.

6. “The Sycamore and the Sybil” – Alix E. Harrow (Uncanny)

Look, I know envy is unseemly and all, but also, Alix E. Harrow’s prose is just unfairly beautiful. This story is about women and witches and surviving, until survival alone simply isn’t enough anymore, and if you haven’t already read it, well. Get to it, please.

Before I was a sycamore I was a woman, and before I was a woman I was a girl, and before I was a girl I was a wet seed wild in the hot-pulp belly of my mother. I remember it: a pulsing blackness, veins unfurling in the dark like roots spreading through the hidden places of the earth. You remember things different, once you’re a tree.

7. “Housebound” – Ao-Hui Lin (Drabblecast)

Oh, this story. I knew almost immediately that it was gonna kick me in the stomach, and sure enough, that’s exactly what it did. It’s disturbing and tense and made me positively seethe in fury. This story stuck with me well after I finished reading it.

The closet. It used to be here, through this door, under the stairs. Now there’s just a pit and bite marks on the door jamb.

8. “Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunrise” – Lauren Ring (Apparition Lit)

Clearly, I love a good time loop story, and this one is particularly fantastic. It’s the rare story where the protagonist doesn’t want to break free from her loop, which I found both original and extremely intriguing. Great concept, strong character work, and a spot-on ending.

Every day, it goes like this: I wake to golden light, with the surface of a star just beyond my wide viewport window. As the hours pass, a supernova forms, enveloping my little research vessel. I check my monitoring equipment, I eat my favorite meals, and then in the evening, I die. 

9. “A Moonlit Savagery” – Millie Ho (Nightmare)

Oh, this is a spectacular horror story, full of loneliness and betrayal and some particularly flavorful just desserts. It’s also my introduction to phi pop, which is very exciting; I want to read about ALL THE GHOSTS, especially the hungry ones.

“ได้,” I mutter against his skin, already dizzy with fantasies of splitting his ribs open.

10. “Dead Girls Have No Names” – Claire Wrenwood (Nightmare)

Finally, we have even more hungry dead in this excellent Frankenstein-inspired short story, where dead girls are stitched together by a mother bent on revenge. It’s dark and  poignant and powerful, and the ending is absolutely sublime. READ IT.

As the lid slammed shut, the truth of our new existence dawned: Never again would any mother name us or hold us or take this cold from our bones.

There in the terrible darkness, we tried to weep and discovered we could not.

That’s it for now. Happy reading!

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Sinister, Ready or Not, and Happy Death Day

My friends! Finally, we are at the end! Of course, Marisa is the real winner of Horror Bingo, but the St. George household required its own champion before the game could be properly concluded. There could be only One–

–and it was ME! Two years running, I AM THE WINNER.

We’ll get to the official Horror Bingo 2020 Wrap-Up at the very end, but first, our last three movies.

Sinister

Year: 2012
Director: Scott Derrickson
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Amazon
Spoilers: YEP
Grade: Strawberry

You know when something is relatively well-crafted but just isn’t your thing? Yeah, that’s Sinister, for me.

Some stuff is genuinely creepy. Like, a few of those snuff films are pretty disturbing, and I fucking adore all the Netherworld Children and their perfect little outfits and their dead little faces. Is it wrong that I kinda want kids just so I can dress them up like this for Halloween? Probably. Anyway, the all-around acting is fine, although my favorite is James Ransone as Deputy So-and-So. (I love that this is his official name in the sequel, even when he’s apparently the main character.) That bit where So-and-So’s like “You kidding me, I believe in all that stuff. I wouldn’t spend one night in this place, are you nuts?” HA. I also like the ending quite a bit–except the last minute jump scare, which is cheap and worthless. Admittedly, it is pretty obvious what fate awaits Ethan Hawke and his fam, like, once you discover that the Hanged Family moved from one murder house to the next, it’s not exactly a big leap to realize that all the families did the same. Still, I enjoy a story where leaving the cursed house is actually what kills you.

The thing is, though . . . I’m just not very invested in anyone’s survival. Ellison is kind of a schmuck, and schmuck protagonists, by and large, just aren’t my thing. I really feel sorry for his wife because moving into the Murder House without telling her? I mean, wow. Wow. That being said, I don’t actually like this woman. It’s a lot of little things, like how she keeps referring to their kids as his kids whenever they do something wrong, which yeah, I do that with my cats all the time, but I don’t actually mean it, and also they’re cats and don’t give a shit? But Tracy, she seems to mean it. She feels like that Stereotypical Uptight Wife that you kinda know a dude wrote: even when we’re meant to sympathize with her, she still manages to come off as slightly nagging? It’s not so much acting as script; in fact, I quite like Juliet Rylance’s performance when Tracy finally discovers Ellison’s lie. But Tracy still has virtually nothing in the way of interiority or plot-relevance, and she and her son feel less like full characters than thinly drawn victims waiting around to die. None of it’s terrible; it’s just that this is exactly the kind of family dynamic I’m not interested in seeing, especially in horror.

Ready or Not

Year: 2019
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – HBO
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Chocolate

Yep, I still love this movie. I really enjoyed Ready or Not when it first came out last year, and I love it even more now. The concept is just fun: Murder Hide-N-Seek, plus Homicidal In-Laws, Eat The Motherfucking Rich, etc. The script is witty and entertaining, and the whole cast is phenomenal, like, I adore so, so many of them. Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell. Melanie Scrofano and Kristian Bruun. Nicky Guadagni, thank you; thank you for giving me so much joy with this perfect face. Obviously, obviously, Adam Brody. He really is such a perfect fit as Daniel. And then, of course, Samara Weaving, who is the true star of the show; she goddamn shines in this film: the big laughs, the small emotional beats, the badass action scenes–she owns them all. Plus, she just has some of the best reactions. I could watch this scene all day.

Honestly, I don’t have a lot of quibbles here; I vaguely remember having a few, the first time around, but they seem to have faded on a second watch. (Wishing that Daniel would live just because I like him so much is less of a quibble and more of a “thank God for fanfic” moment.) Thus, I’ll just give you a short list of some of my favorite things: the glorious cosplay potential, pretty much all of Daniel’s lines, Emilie’s continuous fuckups, Fitch trying to learn crossbow via Youtube, Grace punching one of the kids in the face, OnStar Employee Justin, Tony’s exquisite meltdowns, the Good Brother/Evil Brother reversal, this song, and of course, the literally explosive climax. It is the best.

The only thing I really wish we got from this movie? A montage of deleted scenes where we saw the people who married into the family playing, like, Midnight Checkers and Old Maid and shit. That would be the absolute best.

Technically, I won Horror Bingo when I drew Ready or Not, but we decided to watch one last horror movie, anyway, mostly because of my frankly ridiculous reviewing system. Which brings us to . . .

Happy Death Day

Year: 2017
Director: Christopher Landon
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Mildly? Nothing that should ruin the movie for anyone.
Grade: Vanilla

It’s ridiculous I waited so long to see this movie. I’m obsessed with both slashers and time loop stories, and I’d planned to see this one in theater, you know, back when going to the movies was a thing you could do. Maybe I was worried I’d be letdown and thus sought to avoid the inevitable disappointment? If so, my procrastination was unnecessary, because I thought Happy Death Day was cute and probably one of the more successful PG-13 horror films, in that I didn’t find myself constantly thinking about how hard they were working to avoid that R rating.

I will say the movie isn’t . . . hm, I’m not sure how to say this without sounding like a total snot. Happy Death Day has an incredibly fun concept, but it doesn’t really do anything terribly ambitious with it. It doesn’t need to, necessarily; I meant it when I said I enjoyed the movie. I liked searching for all the clues and little details. There are tons of suspects because everyone hates our protagonist, and this is one of the rare films where a thoroughly unlikable MC (at least, initially) actually works for me. It’s also just funny. I laughed several times, and I’m sure I’ll watch the sequel at some point.

But when I talk about ambition . . . look, the time loop is a time-honored trope in SF/F TV, and I’ve seen shows do some really exciting things with it in terms of meaningful plot development, character development, etc. The Librarians, Agents of SHIELD, Person of Interest, Dark Matter, Supernatural, Legends of Tomorrow, the entire series of Russian Doll, etc. These shows have both delighted and surprised me with how they’ve played with time loops; Happy Death Day is absolutely enjoyable, but I don’t know if it did anything to surprise me, that’s all. The most original element, I think, is that Tree can’t continue endlessly through these loops without suffering eventual physical consequences, which is genuinely interesting; unfortunately, that’s mostly dropped in the final loop or two, and as such, doesn’t do a particularly good job adding a plot clock or raising the stakes. It’s not a huge problem, though.

I’ll tell you what is a huge problem: my brain, all twitching around inside my skull, trying to force me into beginning a new story when I have 87 other projects to finish. There’s just so many ways you can go, exploring time loops in horror. Ugh. STOP IT, BRAIN.

THE GREAT HORROR BINGO 2020 WRAP UP

Of the films I’d never seen before, my favorites were probably Hausu, Becky, Deep Red, Midsommar, and Tragedy Girls.

My least favorites, on the other hand, were easily Mandy and Dream Home.

Movies I’m most disappointed we didn’t get to: One Cut of the Dead, A Bay of Blood (Twitch of the Death Nerve), and Lake Mungo.

Movies I’m most likely to add to next year’s Horror Bingo list, assuming I don’t watch them before then: Mayhem, Anna and the Apocalypse, Hereditary, and maybe a rewatch of Cube. (It’s been a long, long time.)

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 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.