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: 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 Reviews: Mandy, Midsommar, and Haunt

Mandy

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

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

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

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

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

Midsommar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Triple Scoop Review: BLOODY HEARTS – Dead Body, Overlord, and The Void

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, so you know what that means: HORROR MOVIES.

Dead Body

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Shudder
Spoilers: Yes, but only in the last two paragraphs.
Grade: Chocolate

To my surprise and delight, this low-budget indie is a pretty decent little slasher film. (And directed by a woman! Yay, more women in horror!) The premise, of course, is absolutely my jam: a bunch of high school graduates (and one older boyfriend) play Dead Body, where one person is secretly assigned the role of the murderer and “kills” someone, and everyone else has to figure out who did it–only then people actually start dying. This is a Golden Age of Detective fiction staple and absolutely the kind of morbid shit I would definitely play, so of course, Mek and I had to try this movie out. Where it shines best is dialogue, characterization, and surprisingly intentional humor: Dominic’s mostly relatable bitchiness about his uninvited guests (“I need to go set up the loft I wasn’t planning on using”) or Dwayne immediately going for hacksaws, hooks, and nail guns after finding the dead bodies. I also genuinely like how protective Marcus is of his weird brother. (Or friend? I was never actually clear on this.) And there are one or two big surprises here: one didn’t do much for me, but the other I LOVED.

The thing that wasn’t a surprise, unfortunately, is the identity of the killer. Which, hey, correctly solving a whodunnit can provide a glorious sense of satisfaction, or even vindication. Here, however, Mek and I were pretty sure about the killer maybe 25 minutes into the film and were all but proven right about 25 minutes later–which is still a solid 15 before the Big Reveal. Some of the setup is actually pretty clever, but there are a few missteps, which I’ll discuss in the next two paragraphs. Other disappointments: the opening scene doesn’t do much for me–we should probably cut the last 30 seconds at least–and the two foreign exchange students are barely even in this movie, which is especially annoying because they’re the only POC in the whole cast.

SPOILER territory: I initially assumed Marcus was the killer because he’s the Nice Guy Love Interest and I figured he’d brought Rumor along as an obvious patsy. However, suspicions were quickly transferred to Dominic, partially because finding him so suddenly dead was shocking enough to be suspicious, partially because of the Harvard motive (which I thought was nicely handled), and partially because I’ve seen enough movies/read enough Agatha Christie to know you can’t trust dead bodies. Even if I hadn’t, Kenji playing dead is pretty obvious foreshadow. I think that bit could probably be cut, along with the whole it was YOU line from the opening scene, and that moment when the camera lingers a beat too long on the hammer. (Because that’s how Mek and I went from, like, 90% sure that Dominic was the killer to 190%: he kills Rumor with the hammer obviously left behind.) If we really want Dominic to be a shock, we probably need another viable suspect and/or a costume change; alternatively, it might work to do the Big Reveal with Rumor’s death, so the audience finds out well before our surviving heroes. That way, we’d get to watch Dominic’s surprise/delight when his intended victims start killing each other out of paranoia. I’m kinda warming up to that idea, actually.

Finally, the two big surprises are the last-minute resurrections of Sarah and Marcus. Sarah is really interesting: for one, her survival is pretty shocking because she seems like such a Dead Meat character. (Shocking survival, as it turns out, became quite the theme of the evening.) For another, Sarah pulls a nail out of her own face to kill the bad guy. I thought the scene where Ilsa pulls nails out of Sarah’s face was pretty great, but this is just badass. Unfortunately, Marcus’s miraculous resurrection kinda feels like it’s just taking away from Sarah’s. I felt bad for the dude when he died, but once dead? Yeah, stay dead, my dude.

Overlord

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yeah, sorry
Grade: Vanilla

I’m always excited by the idea of genre-blending, especially when mystery or horror come into the mix, but Overlord feels uneven to me. It’s strongest, I think, in the first act, when the movie is pure action/war drama. (Did anyone watch this movie without seeing the trailer full of spoilers? Cause damn, no one’s getting Nazi Zombie Shit from the first 20 minutes of this movie.) The plane scene is dramatic AF and the ominous clues in the woods that “something is amiss” are decent. I like most of the cast. Jovan Adepo gives an especially strong performance as our kind-hearted protagonist Boyce. I know Adepo primarily from a two-episode stint in Watchmen, and I definitely want to see more of him.

But we start hitting problems in Act II when our heroes make it to the French village. Part of that’s pacing: it takes way too long to for anyone to find all the horrific experiments. This movie is only 1 hour and 48 minutes, but boy, I’d have bet money it was a lot longer. And then, part of it’s content: I’m not sure Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, AKA, Euron Greyjoy) is doing much for me as a Big Bad, and I definitely found the coerced sexual assault shit completely unnecessary. (Boyce interrupts Wafner before he rapes Chloe, but this is still a yuck subplot and incredibly lazy writing.) The aunt, too, is much more foreshadow than actual character: she barely has screen time, much less dialogue.

Still, the worst problems, I think, begin after Boyce discovers all the Nazi Zombie Shit. The discovery scene itself is great: it’s weird, creepy, maybe a bit silly (I’m specifically thinking of the decapitated head pleading in French), but overall, just a lot of fun. And Boyce has spectacular reactions to the body horror/general impossibility; his freakout is super relatable, TBH. This is the moment the whole film has been building toward–which is why I’m just baffled by the decision to completely cut the tension by stopping for a 15-minute time-out, like, Overlord goes right back to straight-up war movie again, all unethical interrogations and “is it right to beat up a Nazi” and “do we even recognize ourselves anymore?” These are all perfectly fine themes that should not be dwelled on here, five minutes after this shit. And while we do kinda get back on track with the death/zombie resurrection of Chase (Iain De Caestecker), the film never fully recovers; instead, the whole third act loses its creepy body horror vibe and just becomes a really bad Resident Evil movie. It’s so bland and cartoonishly over-the-top that there’s just no tension at all. I was honestly bored, and that’s about the last reaction you want from your audience here.

Finally, some additional notes:

A. Secret histories, admittedly, are not always my bag, but I’m not sure that tying this story  to D-Day really does much for me.

B. I can’t decide if De Caestecker’s American accent is bad or if I’m just very aware it’s not his natural, lovely Scottish. I am fond of the actor, though. When Chase gets shot (inevitably, I mean, maybe don’t send the kid with the camera to secure the Big Bad Nazi Dude, FFS), I was all, “A-ha! This is why you cast De Caestecker, for the emotional death scene!”

C. Overlord’s “Holy Shit, This Guy Actually Lived!” is Jacob (Dominic Applewhite) and, to a lesser extent, Tibet (John Magaro). Tibet is the semi-redemptive asshole, whereas Jacob is Boyce’s buddy from the plane, the one who Boyce repeatedly promises, “I’ll be right behind you!” Obviously, I marked Jacob as First to Die. It is lovely to be wrong sometimes.

D. Alas, Private Dawson (Jacob Anderson) does not fare so well. Mekaela and I had just enough time to say, “Wait, is that Grey Worm?” before he blew the hell up. Sorry, buddy.

The Void

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Shudder
Spoilers: Yeah, sorry again
Grade: Strawberry

This one starts out so strong, but kind of spirals into an incoherent mess. Mileage is definitely gonna vary on that, depending on your A) tolerance for how much a story refuses to explain, and B) nostalgia for 80’s cosmic horror. I tend to be skeptical of the former and like the latter more in theory than execution. For example, The Void reminded Mekaela of Hellraiser, a movie I enjoyed for its aesthetics and not much else. (I’m tagging this whole review a blasphemy just for that sentence.) Meanwhile, The Void reminded me of Prince of Darkness, which I reviewed in great detail last year and, ultimately, didn’t love. Which is all to say I may not have been the target audience here.

Except . . . damn it, I still feel like I really could’ve enjoyed this movie. For starters, there’s an awful lot I do like about The Void. The initial setup and “WTF is going on here” mystery is a lot of fun. The look of the film is pretty great. I enjoy the whole cast. The reveal that our kindly old doctor isn’t just Dead Meat Walking but the actual Big Bad is awesome, especially since it comes after he does predictably “die.” Likewise, the reversal that our blatantly evil murderers from the beginning are actually good guys (well . . . good-sh) is pretty cool, too, although I do feel like their backstory gets a little lost in the chaos. The ending with the Sheriff and Allison is interesting, if sorta huh, and I’m fucked shocked that our ultimate survivors are the unnamed mute guy and Ellen Wong–people. I have finally found a Western horror film where an Asian woman lives. Holy shit.

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons Prince of Darkness came to mind wasn’t the portal sacrifice similarities or the supernatural pregnancy BS–more on that in a bit–it was the ominous cultists converging on the hospital. We know absolutely nothing about this cult, like, who the hell these dudes are, why they don’t bother coming inside, where they peaced out to at the end, etc. (Seriously, did the ascend or something? The fuck?) Apparently, this is one of the many things intentionally left open for the viewer to decide, but this viewer has decided: we learn nothing about these guys because the creators don’t care about these guys; they just needed something to trap the heroes in the hospital, and that’s it. In Prince of Darkness, the cultists are actually possessed homeless people, but they serve the exact same plot function, and IMO, that’s lazy as shit writing.

And therein lies my main problem with The Void; rarely does the script feel purposefully ambiguous and thought-provoking; mostly, it feels lazy, chaotic, and confused. The hallucinations in the not-exactly-there basement feel muddled. Most of what happens in the whole third act feels pretty muddled. And I’m especially disappointed by Allison, who starts out as a potentially interesting character and ends up just becoming a vessel, a body, a plot device rather than an actual person. Allison exists to A) draw our heroes into the Basement of Doom, B) add to our MC’s ongoing man pain, and C) give us some old-fashioned pregnancy horror, I guess? (She lost a baby prior to the story, so Big Bad impregnates her with monster juice, and she gets to die of symbolism. And getting chopped up by her tearful hubby, of course. Cool.) This is all especially tedious because we already have Maggie for the pregnancy horror, but I guess one eldritch nightmare birth where the mom/vessel violently dies wasn’t enough? Basically, this whole bit sucks.

Finally, additional notes:

A. I did actually enjoy the twist that Maggie was also a bad guy. I probably should’ve caught that, but I just assumed she’d have a gross demon baby, which, hey, that part was dead on. Poor Sarah got mighty ugly in her second life, didn’t she?

B. Much like with Grey Worm in Overlord, I had just enough time to be excited about Iris Rouse (Stephanie Belding) from Shadowhunters popping up before she got killed off. (Then transformed into an eldritch horror and then killed off again.) Sorry, buddy.

C. As always, doing clerical/errand work in a hospital hardly makes me a medical expert. And this story is admittedly set in some rural town in the . . . 80’s? 90’s? Still, I had a ball laughing at the medical inaccuracies in this movie. The aborted C-section wasn’t actually as bad as I thought (when you’re primarily familiar with a low transverse incision, a classical cut looks weird AF, like, Jesus, why are you all the way up there), although I highly suspect that whatever pain relief Kim used wouldn’t cut it for fucking surgery. But I straight up cackled when Allison walked to the med room, which appears to just be a basic supply closet where they keep narcotics unlocked on the shelf. Also, seriously, there’s only one patient here. Why the fuck are we keeping the supplies this far away? For that matter, why hasn’t the one and only patient in this hospital been transferred literally anywhere else? Like, I get the idea that this place is still supposed to be open for emergency services or something, but uh, dude’s clearly just an inpatient now. Ship that motherfucker out. And how in Christ’s name is anyone still working out of this hospital? Again, I get the idea–emergency services for locals while everyone else has moved off to hospitals that weren’t recently half burned down–but also, bullshit. The nearest hospital is only 20 minutes away, which of course is shitty, but shocking? In a rural county? HA. Hell, that’s the distance between the high school I went to and its closest hospital. Besides, the state of this place? No one should be working here. This especially kills me dead because the hospital I work at now has been temporarily shut down twice in the past few years just for smoke damage, much less a fire that actually destroyed part of the fucking building. These people have not heard of JCAHO, that’s all I’m saying.

D. Finally, more fun casting: our Big Bad is played by Kenneth Welsh, who I know from one episode of The Expanse but also from Twin Peaks, where he played Windom Earle. I had no idea that was the same guy! Meanwhile, Art Hindle, who was in both the original Black Christmas and the 70’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has a small role here, too. Horror cameo casting is just the best.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hostel, and The Legend of Hell House

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Hulu
Spoilers: Absolutely, and not just for this film. I will also heartlessly spoil Alien, Aliens, Scream, AND Halloween
Grade: Chocolate

I enjoyed this. I wish I could judge it against the 1956 film, but unfortunately, I haven’t watched that movie since I was 16 (studying McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare in US History, natch), and while I liked it at the time, I remember very little about the film now. Still, this 1978 remake is a lot of fun, and hey, look at all these people in it! Jeff Goldblum as a spiteful and atypically charmless writer! Leonard Nimoy as the evil psychiatrist version of Spock! (I’m specifically thinking of “This Side of Paradise.”) Robert Duvall as some rando priest on the swings! (It’s an uncredited cameo.) And, of course, Donald Sutherland as our fluffy-haired love interest turned doomed protagonist. I can’t believe I’ve finally seen the movie for this GIF! (You might think said GIF would’ve been a spoiler, but since I almost always see it in a “no, God, not YOU” context, I didn’t realize what was going to happen until right before it did.)

Also? Veronica Cartwright is the actual final girl here! Sure, things aren’t looking great for her right now, but nevertheless, Nancy is a side character–the second female lead, even–who makes it further than anyone else in the film, and I am fascinated by that. Try to think of other horror movies where that even happens. It’d be like Halloween where Annie makes it instead of Laurie. Or Tatum outliving Sidney in Scream, or Vasquez surviving Aliens when Ripley does not. (Or hell, Veronica Cartwright herself in Alien.) It’s pretty much just not a thing, is my point. Besides, Nancy’s really clever: she’s the one who figures out how to evade detection, successfully continues doing so when Elizabeth cannot, and hey, she likes to read! I’m extremely excited to add Nancy to my list of Interesting Final Girls.

There are, admittedly, a few moments that are pretty hard to take seriously, like the mutant dog or how it initially looks like Earth is being invaded by space sperm. On the other hand, the scene where Donald Sutherland takes an axe to his own half-formed pod face is pretty great, and the moment when Elizabeth crumples apart is surprisingly sad. It’s always great when a horror movie can hit you with surprise Feels, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers successfully does this for me.

Hostel

First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Personal Collection DVD
Spoilers: Definitely
Grade: Strawberry

I first watched Hostel (and reviewed it*) way back in 2010, and at the time, I really enjoyed the movie. But I also hadn’t seen it in several years, and had a sneaking suspicion that I’d feel differently about it now. My suspicions proved accurate.

Even now, I still don’t hate Hostel. But things have changed in the past decade, and one of those things is my tolerance for watching assholes be assholes for any elongated period of time. We’re with these dudes for about 40 minutes before we really get what we came for, and while it does make sense to have a lengthy first act when the bulk of your horror is  gory, torture-based violence . . . like, who wants to sit through 40 minutes of these little shitheads running around, being jerks, and seeing a truly improbable number of tits? (Jesus God, the ludicrous amount of tits in this movie.) It seems like there are two ways to fix this: either make these characters a lot more likable, or have Oli and Josh go missing much earlier in the film, putting the focus on Paxton as Amateur Detective rather than Paxton, Infuriating Dick.

Other problems I have with Hostel: a) Paxton’s backstory, not because of the backstory itself but because of just how lazily it’s dumped into the script, like, this is a teachable moment on How Not To Handle Exposition, b) how Josh, our only gay** and non-villainous character, dies, and c) Kana’s suicide, because come on, what the actual fuck. If she’d decided to kill herself months or even days after the fact, okay, that’s one thing, but to have her jump in front of a train here, just five minutes after escaping, because half her face is fucked up? Thanks, I hate it. Honestly, I hated this ten years ago, too, but when I read that the actress thought it was plausible, I tried giving it the benefit of the doubt. No more. This is total bullshit. Absolutely cannot deal.

All that being said, there are still things I like about this movie. For instance, that Achilles tendon shot remains fucking iconic. I think it’s interesting that Paxton is the only person you actually see murder anyone on screen. (Well, except for the Bubblegum Sociopath Street Gang, of course. I still kinda adore these random violent little children.) I actually like a lot about Paxton, if not Paxton himself: his ability to speak German, his revenge scene, his general ingenuity when it comes to survival. (Not to mention, Jay Hernandez’s performance; he’s pretty great in this.) Again, this is fascinating trope subversion because Paxton seems like the kind of asshole who gets killed off halfway through, when instead that’s Josh, our shy, asthmatic Nice Guy. Josh is such an obvious Final Boy that I really enjoy his surprise death–or would, anyway, if it weren’t for the Bury Your Gays thing.

*As always, the older the post, the more horrified I am by it. I do stand by some of my opinions in this review (I’m not linking to it; you can find it if you really want to), but I’ve also grown as both a writer and a feminist, and some of this review is just hideously painful to reread. It’s particularly jarring, too, because I mention some things about myself that just blatantly aren’t true . . . only I hadn’t realized that yet. Ah, the slow, frustrating process of self-discovery.

**Josh’s sexuality is not directly stated, but it is heavily implied.

The Legend of Hell House

First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Vanilla

I enjoyed The Legend of Hell House when I watched it on a whim last year, but I think I might’ve enjoyed it even more on the second go-round. The things that bothered me then still bother me now, unfortunately: like, the (apparently toned down) erotic hauntings are total bullshit. The only reason Ann is even here is so that someone can get possessed by a horny ghost. (You’ll notice it’s always the women who are getting “sex-possessed” in these movies.) The character literally does nothing plot relevant, not once, and considering this story really only has four characters? Come on. Florence, at least, is extremely plot-relevant, but she also decides to have sex with Daniel the Friendly Ghost in order to free his spirit, or something–only to find out that Daniel never actually existed; instead, Florence gets raped and possessed by Evil Belasco’s Ghost.

So, yeah. That’s . . . that’s a lot. But there is genuinely a lot to enjoy, too: the premise is basically my dream story, like, a scientist, a psychic, and a traumatized sole survivor–who’s also psychic–are hired to uncover the mysteries of the spooky haunted house? People, I’m in love. I also really like how this movie deals with physical mediums versus mental mediums and how our skeptical scientist does believe in psychic energy and scientific exorcisms; he just doesn’t believe in actual ghosts. I enjoy all of the trances and hauntings that aren’t based in shitty erotica, like, there’s some decent atmosphere in this movie. Young Michael Gough as Evil Preserved Corpse is perfectly creepy. And the mystery of “Who Is Actually Haunting Us?” is pretty fun throughout, although I will say that I’d like the “multiple ghosts” theory better if the mediums came across a fake ghost besides Daniel. (Say, Evil Belasco was impersonating someone Ben knew from the last expedition.) Also, while I quite like that it was Belasco All Along, the big reveal about his homicidal Napoleon Complex is, I think, pretty underwhelming. Although credit where credit’s due: the clues leading up to this in Ben’s backstory are pretty expertly handled.

The Legend of Hell House doesn’t always get a ton of love (at least, not when compared to other classic haunted house movies) and clearly there are things I’d like to change. But I honestly do think it’s a pretty neat take on the sub-genre and well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before.

Triple Scoop Reviews: The Call, Event Horizon, and Ready Or Not

The Call

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Crap, I don’t even remember. Amazon, maybe?
Spoilers: Yes
Grade: Strawberry

So, I actually watched this with my folks shortly before I went on vacation, and initially, I was surprised by how much I was actually enjoying it. Like, some silly things, sure, but for the first, say, 2/3 of the film, I found it to be a surprisingly claustrophobic little thriller starring two female leads I was rooting for. Both Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin give strong performances here; I specifically like watching Berry balance her character’s ultra-competence with her semi-recent trauma. And the relationship between these two characters is interesting: Casey (Breslin) is fighting to survive and sees Jordan (Berry) as her only lifeline, while Jordan quickly gets over-invested, determined not to lose another caller. It’s actually a pretty interesting dynamic.

Unfortunately, things rapidly fall apart in the last, maybe, 15 or 20 minutes of the movie. For starters, we get a lot more of the serial killer’s backstory, which besides trying way too hard to be creepy–he’s scalping blondes that remind him of his dead sister (COD: cancer), who he had skeevy and presumably unrequited Lannister love for–it’s just not really what this movie’s about, like I don’t give a shit about Bobo the Serial Killer* and his bullshit psychology. Then, after she loses contact with Casey, Jordan takes it upon herself to go looking for her, which–while predictable–is both incredibly unrealistic and just kinda dumb. In its defense, I will say that if Jordan had been a dude, I suspect a lot less people would’ve complained about the realism because audiences have been trained to expect Heroic Male Action, no matter if it makes sense or not. Also, there is, admittedly, something pretty empowering about watching our two heroines repeatedly save one another and kick the shit out of Bobo the Serial Killer.

Still, when Jordan’s boss (Roma Maffia) tells her that her part in this unfolding drama is over, like, there’s actually something really compelling about that. How exciting would it have been if Jordan did just have to go home, and Casey, using something that Jordan taught her, kills her abductor and rescues herself? There could even be an awesome Powell-McClane meet-up moment at the end. I’d be really into that. But we don’t go that way, and worse, after our Empowering Beatdown of Bobo, The Call goes for a completely dumb and “edgy” twist where, instead of calling the cops, the ladies decide to tie up our bad guy and leave him to starve to death, which, like, look, I’m all about dark turns and vengeance stories, but the twist comes out of left field. It’s totally unsupported, and I just don’t buy it from either character at this point. It’s a hugely disappointing ending for a movie that, up till that last act, really wasn’t so bad at all.

*I couldn’t be bothered to look up the character’s name, but the actor, Michael Eklund, plays Bobo in Wynonna Earp, so Bobo the Serial Killer he became. It is, of course, another excellent band name.

Event Horizon

First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yes
Grade: Vanilla

I watched this for the first time about nine years ago with my friend Denise, and until just now, I’d totally forgotten that I’d reviewed it before. (God, it’s so painful to read early reviews, both for writing skill and for shit I just wouldn’t say now. I still have high school journals I fear looking at.) Many of my general impressions are the same: fun, cheesy, gory SF in space. I like the movie, despite (or possibly because of) its flaws, like shitty mid-90’s CGI, occasional poor acting, excessive slow motion, etc. Though I do still wish we got more time with all our characters being properly tormented by their hell visions. Also, more time with Starck, who I like better this go-around but has very little to do, possibly because they cut some whole romantic arc between her and Miller.

I think my biggest takeaway this time is that Sam Neill’s character just doesn’t really work for me. Everybody starts hallucinating terrible shit, yeah, but no one starts turning evil or even really seems to change, personality-wise, because of it; no one, that is, except Dr. Weir (Neill). Which is weird because while he’s clearly an annoying, arrogant motherfucker, nothing he actually experiences really lends itself to this type of character arc. Like, the whole sad backstory of how his wife killed herself because he worked too much, or something? Yeah, it’s terrible, but at least I’d get it if Dr. Weir thought his dead wife was in the Hell Dimension and he was determined to find her, even if it killed everyone else. I’d get that. But instead, Weir quickly descends into villainous madness, you know, Because. And the whole backstory mostly seems to be an excuse for irrelevant creepy imagery and the opportunity to see Dead Wife’s boobs, which, uh, yay?

I have a surprising amount of nostalgia for this movie, considering that I didn’t see it until roughly fifteen years after its initial release, but I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing a remake now, maybe one that differentiated itself with not just better effects but a different tone: a little less cheese, a little more atmosphere.

Ready or Not

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: actual goddamn movie theater
Spoilers: Not this time (unless you look at the tags)
Grade: Chocolate

I enjoyed the hell out of this. As I already mentioned on my various social media accounts, Ready or Not is the most recent example of what’s swiftly becoming one of my favorite sub-genres of horror: “Welcome to the Family. Here There Be Bloodshed.” (There’s probably a more succinct, less pirate-y name for said sub-genre, but this is what I’ve got right now.) There are some definite You’re Next vibes here, of course–much with the Feels and dysfunctional family dynamics couched between all the comedy and gore–but there are differences, too, and not just plot ones. The jokes in You’re Next are less overt, I think; the horror played more straight. Meanwhile, Ready or Not is campier, but it’s smart, purposeful camp–not to mention, it’s just a really fun spin on that whole “The Most Dangerous Game” type of horror story.

I do have quibbles, of course, but they are very few and relatively minor and I can’t really discuss them without spoilers. Suffice it to say, they don’t take away from what I love about the film: great dialogue, delightful characters, and an utterly brilliant ensemble cast. Kristian Brunn and Melanie Scrofano (from Orphan Black and Wynonna Earp, respectively) are hilarious, as is Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene. I would cosplay her in a goddamn heartbeat; she is–as I’m sure many people have already pointed out–one Big Ass Mood. Henry Czerny was just born to play the rich asshole patriarch of this family, while Andie MacDowell is a lot of fun as his considerably more practical and competent wife. Adam Brody fucking excels at tragicomedy, like, I definitely wanna see more of this from him. And Samara Weaving just shines as Grace, who is funny and real and a terrific Final Girl. Weaving’s performance really stands out here, which–considering just how good this cast is–is all the more impressive.

I keep seeing reviews that stress how this movie isn’t anything new or original, even though it’s fun, and like . . . maybe, I guess? And if it’s not your thing, then it’s not your thing, and that’s totally okay. But while it’s always exciting when a film truly breaks the mold, not every movie has to be the next Get Out, you know? Besides, making a movie like this and making it well are two very different things. Tone is difficult. Balancing violence, Feels, and laughter is hard work. You really have to thread that needle, and, IMO, Ready or Not does a pretty great job with it.