Monday, September 2, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

The small town of Mill Valley talks about the Bellow's legacy in whispers, of a successful family disappearing, deadly stories, imprisonment, and black magic. In 1968, Stella, her friends, and a stranger find themselves in the Bellow's supposedly haunted house where they dread up old memories and accidentally bring the stories to life. To survive, the teens have to delve into the past and dredge up the truth, which turns out to be much different than the rumors still told by the town.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of my many childhood obsessions. I remember chasing my brother around and reading him The Red Spot story that scared him so much. The surreal, almost tactile illustrations by Stephen Gammell enhance the stories and make the books especially memorable. A film adaptation is a dream come true for me, even as an adult. These books are a big reason why I'm such a huge horror fan today and it's exciting for this film to introduce more people to such a formative work for many.

The film features a larger narrative of Stella, her friends Auggie and Chuck, and a kind stranger Ramon as they fall victim to Sarah Bellow's scary stories. The characters are well drawn enough to service the story and get the audience to care about them. Stella and Ramon are the most detailed characters. Stella is still dealing with the guilt and pain of her mom abandoning her and Ramon doesn't want to share his brother's fate, who died in the Vietnam War. Their backstories, rooted in trauma, provide emotion to the film and anchor the story in reality. The other characters aren't quite as detailed, but they don't really need to be. The stories and creatures are what people are most excited for.

The stories are pretty faithful to the books and so are the creature designs. Seeing Gammell's art literally come to life in such a creepy way is so amazing. The missing toe corpse (portrayed by Javier Botet), the pale woman, the jangly man, and Harold the scarecrow are all well designed, creepy, and just a little different from their drawn counterparts.  There isn't much blood or gore, but the alternatives are more chilling. For instance, Tommy, a racist jock, is stabbed with a pitchfork and sprouts hay, eventually transforming into the scarecrow in his family's field. The pale woman was the scariest of the monsters because of the oppressive red lighting and the inability to escape her. She didn't even seem outwardly malicious, simply walking toward her victim, but she appeared in every room and hall. Each one is produced by a mixture of practical effects and digital effects that work well together. I am pleased with how they turned out and I would love to see other creatures from the books replicated by the same team.

** spoilers **

The frame story takes place in 1968, during Nixon's election. Real world problems are present in the story even though they ultimately take a back seat to the horror and fantasy. Many of the social and political events in the film reflect things happening today, such as corrupt corporations poisoning locals and blaming someone else and the current president empowering racists. It's an interesting point of view that makes the events feel closer to home. The main message of the film is to not believe the accepted narrative and dig deeper to find and expose the truth. Sarah and Lou Lou, Sarah's only friend and a black servant, are blamed for killing children with scary stories and witchcraft when it was actually the Bellow's paper mill bleeding mercury into the water. Like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Sarah transforms into an evil force after being blamed as an innocent and punishes the guilty. The kids make racist assumptions about Lou Lou when questioning her in the present and expose a harmful trope seen in many horror films of black people corrupting innocent white people. This film has surprising depth and feels relevant.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a fun, creepy film with fantastical and real world horror side by side. Being a PG-13 movie, the creatures can't be as horrific as some vocal adult fans would have liked, but I was impressed by the balance of scary and keeping the target audience in mind. The Scary Stories books are for children and I would have been disappointed if the original audience were excluded from the film. The ending is definitely open for a sequel and I hope to see another film with even more of the memorable creatures reproduced on the screen.

My rating: 8/10 fishmuffins

Friday, August 23, 2019

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and his two children Gage and Ellie move from a large city to a small town. Louis works in the university hospital and his wife takes care of the children. They get acclimated to their home and befriend the gruff neighbor Jud Crandall, but something is still bothering them. On their property lies a pet cemetery where local children ritualize their pet's deaths, but the real and very powerful cemetery lies beyond a barrier. When the family cat dies, Jud shows Louis this burial ground, but the cat is simply not the same anymore when it returns. Then tragedy strikes their family and Louis plots to do the same without looking at the grave consequences.

Pet Sematary features an unlikeable protagonist but has some redeeming qualities. Louis Creed is awful and deeply entrenched in toxic masculinity. He's insensitive, quick to anger, and sees his wife as completely irrational and childish. At one point, he literally infantalizes her to the point of seeing her as his own daughter in adult clothes and it's gross. When tragedy strikes, Louis can't deal with his own emotions and sees it as his own responsibility to lead his family through grief. It's almost painful to read. Rachel, on the other hand, is much more sympathetic. She had to care for her disabled sister Zelda and grew to resent her because of her worsening behavior and the trouble it took to care for her. Her parents are the most horrible, abusive people who made her take care of Zelda alone when she was a child on the night Zelda died. Of course that is going to have far reaching effects for Rachel and it isn't weakness or childishness.

** spoilers **

The truly horrific part of the story is Gage's death and return. The grief and sadness of losing the young child is well written. Losing any family member is traumatic, but the loss of a child so young is unimaginable. However, the reveal is completely botched in perhaps an effort to couch the tragedy. Louis talks about it before it happens and completely destroys the shock of Gage getting hit so suddenly by a speeding truck. When Louis digs up his son's body to resurrect, the descriptions of Gage's rotting body are much more extreme than I expected. When Gage returns, he's almost a parody of the boy he was and it's so much more horrific because he was only two years old and could barely speak when alive. The comparison of him living and undead is much more stark and disturbing. The ending is creepy, but again the product of Louis' stupidity. I can't understand why he would make the same mistake a third time.

Pet Sematary has some creepy, disturbing elements that are eclipsed by the awfulness of Louis. He makes the most horrible decisions throughout the book and essentially ruins his family's lives because of his hypocritical inability to accept death. The true horror of the book is in the loss of a small child and its effects on a family, but it's lost in the hamhanded reveal of the death and in Louis' annoying perspective.

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Pet Sematary (2019)

Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and his two children Gage and Ellie move from a large city to a small town. Louis works in the university hospital and his wife takes care of the children. They get acclimated to their home and befriend the gruff neighbor Jud Crandall, but something is still bothering them. On their property lies a pet cemetery where local children ritualize their pet's deaths, but the real and very powerful cemetery lies beyond a barrier. When the family cat dies, Jud shows Louis this burial ground, but the cat is simply not the same anymore when it returns. Then tragedy strikes their family and Louis plots to do the same without looking at the grave consequences.

Pet Sematary is a flawed film that doesn't live up to the book or the original film for me. The family is adorable but their underlying issues aren't really established before anything happens. Rachel and her anxiety and trauma about her sister Zelda are without all the deeper implications of her fear of death and sickness. It's played only for jump scares. One of the best things about the book is the deep friendship between Jud and Louis, but here, it's like they don't even know each other, putting into question why Louis would even follow Jud at all. Even Ellie's relationship with Church seems surface level. When he becomes cruel and weird, she seems happy to be rid of him instead of heartbroken over the loss of her constant companion. Gage's precognition abilities seem to pop out of nowhere and only serve to get Rachel back to their house. The exposition is glossed over probably because it's a familiar story, but those deep relationships need to be established before things happen for it to mean anything.

** spoilers **

The best parts of the film are in the resurrection of Ellie and the ending with big caveats. Ellie's death scene is framed so much like the original with Gage running towards the street. It would have been a perfect twist to have Ellie die instead, but it was literally spoiled in the final trailer. The impact would have been so much more visceral if there was no mention of it at all and frankly ruined the effect of this twist on the story. Louis takes zombie Ellie and cares for her like he would any other child, bathing her, feeding her, and putting her to bed. These mundane tasks take on a tense and unnatural air because she's not the same. Little things remind Louis that she is dead like the brush tangling on the staples in her head. I loved how Gage's death is in your face with graphic descriptions of his decay and I was disappointed with how perfect Ellie looked in comparison. Having Ellie so decayed and disgusting would never be accepted in a film, so this was a good way to portray it. The ending is by far the best part of the film with Ellie making her parents into zombies (in record time) and converging upon a still living Gage locked in the car. The ending is so much more bleak and dark because Gage is like the last bastion of their previous lives.

Pet Sematary is an entertaining movie, but compared to the depth of the book (which I still had numerous problems with) and the original film, it just pales in comparison. The acting was fine, but John Lithgow as Jud felt completely wasted. The vast majority of problems occurred in the writing, especially in glossing over exposition to get to the scary stuff. The ending was unexpected at least. The best twist in the movie was unfortunately ruined in the trailer, so others should take note and not repeat those mistakes. The emotional impact of that scene would have been entirely different if it hadn't been plastered everywhere first. Overall, it was on ok movie, but it really felt short of what could have been.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Gantz Omnibuses 2 & 3 by Hiroya Oku

* Gantz Omnibus 2

More people are called to fight against the alien menace with no instructions or rules communicated. Kei and Kato continue to fight and attempt to lead the various people despite their disbelief and/or ineptitude. Kato takes a powerful stance while Kei's ego is inflated by his newfound abilities and equipment.

Gantz is a series with an interesting concept, innovative creature designs, and completely mean spirited, gross execution. Kei continues to be a horrible person that we are apparently supposed to be rooting for. He abuses his powers by taking his suit to fight bullies and terrorize people only to have to fight aliens without it when teleported unexpectedly. He suffers a little, but somehow continues to succeed. For instance, he kicks out female Kei from his house for not sleeping with him only to randomly have sex with a woman who looks exactly like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider later. It's obvious wish/fetish fulfillment on the part of the author and completely took me out of the story. Kei throws himself into fighting and enjoys it because his life is boring and he doesn't excel at anything else. He's just a pathetic, misogynistic character that I hate.

The things I actually like about this story are Kato and the aliens. Kato is Kei's foil in every way. He refuses to kill the aliens, tries to save everyone he can, and is genuinely nice to everyone around him. Despite that one gross moment in the previous installment, he is the kind of person that should be the hero. Perhaps Kei is meant to be a deconstruction of the hero trope, but I don't have to like it. The aliens have such unique designs and abilities with a flock of bird-like creatures and gigantic statues that are actually alive. It's a shame that I hate almost everything else about it. The action is fast paced and the considerable gore impressed me.

Gantz 2 is better than the first because the misogyny is kept to a minimum. The characters are already established and most of the book is action scenes. There are still pin-up pictures of every female character at the start of each chapter which annoys me. I'm only reading up to the third omnibus because I already owned them . Otherwise, I would have stopped at the first.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

* Gantz Omnibus 3

The team continues to fight the gigantic statue aliens, but the fight doesn't stay away from Kei's personal life anymore.

This installment of Gantz has tons of surprising losses that I never expected. Kei is already an awful person, as I've complained about many times before, but he manages to get so much worse. An alien attacks him at his school and he literally leaves his whole school to die when he's the only one who could even put up a fight. I'm just not sure how the author can expect anyone to keep following this "hero" when he starts horrible and gets progressively worse every single story.

At the very end of the manga (after extra drawings of each female character with even more gigantic breasts than they have in the regular art of the story), the author writes about how people complain about the many gratuitously nude or semi-nude pictures of women throughout his books. He makes it clear that it's for his own enjoyment and further states that it's the same thing as drawing attractive, tall men. It truly isn't. When every woman in the story (except the elderly) are objectified on every cell they're in, it's a lot different than depicting hot guys fully clothed (or censored when nude) and unobjectified. None of the women in the story have any motivations outside romantic entanglements with the male characters. I'm so done with this manga. Gantz has a lot of the same problems as the I Am a Hero series and it's depressing that both series are so popular.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Crawl (2019)

Haley Keller is still recovering from a loss at her swim meet when her sister calls, worried about their father. A category five hurricane is going to hit his town and no one has heard from him. Haley reluctantly searches for her father and finds him in the crawlspace underneath her childhood home with a broken leg and a giant alligator hunting them. As the crawlspace fills with water and more alligators, the hurricane comes closer and closer, making it less and less likely they will get out alive.

Crawl is a basic animal attack movie with a healthy dose of family drama. Haley is close to losing her scholarship by underperforming at swim meets. She used to be close to her father and bonded over swimming when she was growing up, but they have recently fought and become estranged. This extreme event forces them to work together and realize that their fight was insignificant. They support each other completely and go beyond their limits to help each other. It gives the whole film some heart.

The rest of the film is mix between a basic animal attack plot and a disaster plot. Crazy agile and fast alligators keep coming in larger numbers as the water rises and the storm draws closer. The alligators infest the waters and can't truly be escaped and the storm causes extreme flooding, heavy rains, and fast currents. As the film goes on, it gets less and less likely the two will survive. The moments of action and quiet are well plotted and the jump scares are effective and well earned. The gore effects impressed me, especially the father's broken leg. The biggest disappointment is how fake the alligators look at times, especially when their eyes glowed. Maybe if they were kept more hidden like Jaws, it would have been more effective. As it is, the cartoonish creatures brought me out of the film because they are frequently front and center.

Crawl is a fun movie if you aren't expecting much depth or complexity. It has twists and turns, kills galore, and a touching family story at its core. The only things that take away from the film are the horrible CGI alligators at some points and the super abrupt ending. I love that the ending credits has the song "See You Later, Alligator" playing. The acting from the two main characters is believable and their plight tugged at my heartstrings. Overall, Crawl is summer watch worthy of a trip to the theater.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, July 12, 2019

Gantz Omnibus 1 by Hiroya Oku

Kei Kurono and his childhood friend Kato are coincidentally on the same subway station platform years after they've seen each other. A homeless man falls onto the tracks and Kato tries to help him, but isn't strong enough to lift the man to safety on his own. Kato spots Kei and calls over to him. Kei reluctantly helps because he's been called out in front of a crowd. Together, they save the man but are hit by the train and appear in a room with several other people. They are given a second lease on life if they follow instructions to defeat various alien threats with incredibly powerful weapons and high tech suits.

I quickly realized this series isn't for me. Kind of a bummer since I had been gifted the first three omnibuses. Kurono is the worst guy. He has a running commentary of the most insulting, arrogant thoughts but has nothing to back it up. At his core, he's just a pathetic, horny high school student. The minute a nude girl (also named Kei) who had killed herself arrives in the Gantz room, he's all over her, kissing and groping her unconcious body. Later, this same girl stays at his home and he pressures her sex. Kurono makes my skin crawl and the fact that he's supposed to be the hero is even more disgusting. I'm sure he probably gets better over the course of the series, but it's pretty hard to stomach.

On top of that, Kei is the only female character and doesn't have any dimensions beyond being naked and objectified. Kei is threatened or outright attacked by almost every male character in the book, including Kato, the nicest guy in the series. Her body is shown in minute detail from every angle while Kurono's nudity is censored. Her only purpose is to love Kato when Kurono wants her and be naked in almost every frame of the story in addition to full page pin-up style pictures at the start of each chapter. Even the Gantz machine depicts her topless and calls her "Boobs." It's terrible writing and all of this distracts heavily from an interesting story.

Random people who die are picked by Gantz to fight the alien enemy with appropriate weapons and armor. If they accomplish their goal within the allotted time, they are rewarded points and if they don't, they die for good. There's no instructions of any kind, so they just have to stumble around, hoping what they're doing is right. The creature they fight is weird and the fights are the goriest I've seen in manga form. Kurono and Kato repeat the process with different people replacing those who died with a different enemy and they act as guides with what they've learned since the first time. Too much time in my opinion is spent on if this is a game show or not. It's clearly real when everyone starts dying.

Gantz had so much promise. It is a fast paced manga with amazing fight scenes and excessive gore. However, the characters are just too awful to root for (even the supposedly nice ones) and the treatment of women is horrifically misogynistic. I will be reading the next two omnibuses since I have them and they take about an hour for me to read. I don't expect these problems to get any better, but it might surprise me.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Midsommar (2019)

* major spoilers *

Dani Ardor is used to putting aside her own feelings in favor of others. The first scene of the film has her holding back tears and desperately trying to sound casual while asking her dismissive boyfriend Christian for emotional support. Then she experiences an unimaginable loss. Christian is physically there, but she is constantly bottling up her grief and panic attacks by herself. At every turn, her own needs and feelings are put aside for others (usually Christian). When she finds out from his friends that he's going to Sweden for a month and a half and already has a ticket, Christian spins it as an attack on him and she ends up apologizing just to get him to stay. When they arrive in Sweden and she doesn't want to take the psychedelics right away, Christian and his friend Mark pressure her into taking it right away. Dani spends much of the film saying things are ok when they're not and explaining away Christian's bad behavior. The one support that she has is in an unnamed friend who gives her good advice, but it's one phone call before the tragedy and she doesn't appear again.

Christian and his friends aren't the best people for Dani to travel with. Christian constantly gaslights her and browbeats her with his wrong opinions until she agrees. He has no direction in his life and is only still in a relationship he's clearly not interested in because he might regret it later. Halfway through the film, he gloms onto Josh's dissertation topic and claims it as his own, acting as if he had no idea. Mark only views women as objects and doesn't care about anyone else. The rites of the Harga hold no interest for him beyond ogling beautiful women and greatly offends the community with no remorse. Josh has some respect for their culture, but only to the point where it benefits him. His dissertation is partly on the community and it doesn't even occur to him to ask for permission to write about them. When denied pictures of their sacred book, he sneaks in the middle of the night to get the pictures anyway. He also knows about the suicide they will witness and doesn't bother to warn Dani, who is still in great emotional stress. The main theme of these men is selfishness.

The Harga are the exact opposite of Dani's world. Where her world is shown as industrial and impersonal, theirs is almost supernaturally sunny and bright, every experience is communal, and everyone seems happy. Underneath the politeness and pageantry, lies a layer of self sacrifice. These people believe so much in their faith and community that they would literally give their own lives for a newer generation and for prosperity. The Harga take advantage of their visitors' politeness and purposefully keep them off balance until they are used for whatever purpose the community needs. These methods seem well practiced and the Harga have no remorse or uncertainty about their practices. Everyone is complicit and supports their ideals completely, which makes the next layer even more disturbing.

Underneath that layer is another more insidious layer of white supremacy. The first clue is a book in Pelle's apartment about a secret Nazi language, buried but visible on his coffee table.  The Harga employ eugenics by only approving certain (white) outsiders to mate with and "keeping their bloodlines pure." I went to Sweden a month ago and the Harga do not represent the country's population. Outwardly they welcome everyone, but people of color and people who insult their ideals only serve as sacrifices. Although the Americans all transgressed in some way, the British couple Connie and Simon were innocent yet dispatched first. Ingemar brought them as revenge after being rejected by Connie and in his mind replaced by Simon. They went on one date which Ingemar put way more significance in, showing his toxic masculinity and incel interior. Furthermore, the spiritual enemy of the Harga people is the Black One and everything they do is in defiance of him. Their policies and beliefs consistently lure in and kill people of color. They only welcome white people to take part or assimilate into their community.

Dani experiences a spiritual journey from completely bottling up her emotions to being crowned May Queen and being embraced by a crowd of women feeling her emotions with her. She finally has power and these people revere her. After immolating her toxic boyfriend, she finally smiles and experiences freedom. However, that same event shows that the Harga also lie to their own people. The two willing sacrifices are given tree sap to feel no pain in the fire, but die painfully and horribly. Like the promise, the community is hollow and just more toxic than the relationship she just left. Dani is used to feeling less than and gloms onto the first thing that makes her feel like a person. For her, and many white women today, that thing is rooted in white supremacy. It's easy to turn a blind eye to the deaths of people you don't know or like when that same system makes you feel special for the first time in your life. It's phenomenon seen over and over in US politics as well.

Although Midsommar is a complex, well made film, some things marred the experience. Some of the foreshadowing is more like a truck to the face because it's so obvious. I love how you see everything that will happen if you look carefully on the walls of the building where they sleep. However, panning slowly over a five panel "love story" makes it completely obvious it will happen later in the film. I found the flowery plateaus reminiscent of Hannibal and the overall vibe of a secret, exploitative religion with performative, communal rituals as reminiscent of the new Suspiria. I also find how Ari Aster chooses to use disabled people in his films troubling. Through Midsommar and Hereditary, the disabled characters are played for scares and don't really have character arcs of their own. It's worse here because Ruben, the oracle, has no lines and only serves to unsettle the audience despite being revered by the Harga. We should have moved well beyond this type of ablist horror and it's disappointing.

Midsommar is an impressive folk horror film with layers upon layers of themes, symbols, and foreshadowing to wade through. The pace is in no hurry and reveals its secrets in due time. Even at two and half hours of runtime, I would have easily sat for an additional half hour to see more of this world. I had to watch it twice to formulate my opinions and truly dig into the material. The details of the Harga culture and their artwork alone is so rich and expansive. The visuals are gorgeous and unsettling, even in something as typical as a travel sequence is literally turned upside down and feels new. However, the treatment of Ruben was so unnecessary, disappointing, and rooted in ablism. I do recommend this film with this one caveat. Midsommar defies expectations of the horror genre by rooting it in flowers, sunlight, and friendly white people.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins