Sunday, April 23, 2017

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: Life and Cabin Fever (2016)

* Life


The International Space Station is home to 6 astronauts from all over the world. A probe returns from Mars and is narrowly caught flying through space. Exobiologist Hugh Derry sifts through all of the samples and finds the first instance of extraterrestrial life, named Calvin by an adorable elementary school class on Earth. Calvin rapidly grows and turns sinister when it views the crew as a threat to its existence. I thought life would be a complete Alien rip-off, so I was pleasantly surprised when it was quite different and the characters weren't all complete morons as they usually are in this genre (looking at you, Prometheus). Each of the characters has something to humanize them to the audience so we care when they start dying. Sho's child was just born. Hugh shares his feelings about his paralysis and why he wanted to be an astronaut. Rory is the loveable jokester while David is much more serious and obviously more at home in space than on Earth. Ekaterina and Miranda are the type of women I like seeing in these movies. They are no-nonsense people who don't let their emotions get in the way. Both do everything they have to in order to keep others safe. All of them are intelligent people who do everything from following set protocols to even sacrificing their own lives in order to save others.


The alien in the film is unique in that all of its cells act as muscle, brain, and nervous system. It starts out as a single cell and quickly develops into a large multicelled organism similar to a flower mixed with a jellyfish. It turns violent when it lies dormant, possibly dead, in a lab accident and Hugh shocks it to revive it. Perceiving it as an attack, Calvin lashes out and crushes his hand. From there, it's a cat and mouse game to either trap Calvin, suffocate him, or keep him out of the space station. The creature swims through zero-gravity with deadly grace. Blood in this atmosphere looks pretty awesome and is used with restraint. I didn't like that as the creature grew bigger, the front and back are defined and it has a sort of face. There's no reason for that at all, especially when it was symmetrical on all sides up until then. I'm also curious as to how it would fare in Earth-like gravity. The moments of romance between Miranda and David were completely unnecessary and out of character for Miranda. That was at least 10 minutes that could have been used to figure out the problem threatening their lives. Other than that, Life is a textbook sci-fi horror creature feature that ends up being enjoyable but forgettable.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* Cabin Fever (2016)


Awful teens go to party in a remote cabin, pissing off the locals and inadvertantly spreading a flesheating virus. This is the remake of Eli Roth's 2002 debut film that I enjoyed for all its cheesiness. This version is borderline unwatchable and I'm very confused about some of the choices made. First, the teens are the worst and make the dumbest decisions ever. Bert is the most horrible with his "barely legal" gun that he shoots to stroke his ego even though he accidentally discharges it next to people multiple times. If only he had just shot himself. That gun causes so much trouble. He shoots the drifter infected with the virus. When that drifter goes into their car, Bert succeeds in shooting the car a bunch of times, causing it to break down and cutting off their only mode of escape. The others aren't much better.


In the original, the teens are kind of awful, but they had distinctive personalities plus Paul and Karen were the two to root for. In this one, they may as well be interchangeable. Bert is only distinctive because of his stupidity. Jeff was hilarious in the original with his obsession with drinking beer instead of water and staying away from everyone else. His death was funny because he worked so hard to stay uninfected. New Bert was infected early on and ruined the humor. The Deputy is an attractive woman using similar humor as the last, but the delivery was terrible, making her character boring. The only part I liked of the new movie was the extended view of the locals. When looking for help, they stumble upon a woman butchering a pig, ranting crazily. She actually turns out to be helpful, but also serves them glasses she covered in pig blood. The pig blood gets in her hair, on her face, on her shirt as she obliviously touches things with her bloody hands. It's the only moment of real humor in the whole movie. Everything else is tired cliches, horrible decision making, and paper thin characters. The Cabin Fever remake is a carbon copy of the original with nothing to add. The comparison only makes the remake look even worse than the cult classic that I thoroughly enjoy.

My rating: 1/5 fishmuffins

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America


The Devil in the White City tells the stories of two men who made a big impact during the time of the 1893 World Fair held in Chicago: architect Daniel H, Burnham and serial killer H.H, Holmes. Most of the novel focuses on the planning and building of the World Fair by Burnham and all of its problems, pitfalls, and successes. Practically everything that could have gone wrong did, including the poor health and death of his partner, the great economic downturn, the growing demand to pay workers a living wage, the interference of government officials, disastrous weather destroying buildings, and hard to work with land. With all of these obstacles, its opening was a bit lackluster with so many things incomplete. Later on, it proved to be successful anyway, spanning 690 acres, breaking the record for outdoor event attendence, and welcoming over 27 million visitors. The biggest innovations were in the use of electricity to power the fair and the original Ferris Wheel.

While the fair is entertaining in its own right, the more interesting part of the book was about H.H. Holmes, amateur architect, opportunist, and serial killer. He started out as a con artist, using his charm and manipulative nature to start businesses and never pay any debts. His murder spree either targeted people who were in his way financially or women he dated and/or married after he had grown tired of them. After masquerading as a doctor and owning a pharmacy, he took advantage of the World Fair hype to build his own hotel. He built it over a long time, hiring and firing many workers without paying any of them. The resulting building was dark and odd with apartments and retail spaces. Unbeknownst to the occupants and employees, many hidden chambers, hidden passages, heavy duty locks, and hidden gas lines. The basement was outfitted with a huge furnace, lime pits, and acid pools to dispose of bodies when he was done with them. The building surprisingly attracted many people wanting to go to the fair. He only allowed women to stay and redirecting male customers to nearby hotels.

When people started disappearing around him, Holmes claimed they moved, eloped, went back home, or just left in the night with no word. It was years before he was even suspected of anything because of his manufactured, affable personality. It's chilling to think that people could disappear without a trace and it could be months before anyone would even look for them at that time. After he killed, Holmes would dissect the bodies, then sell the skeletons to medical schools as they wouldn't ask any questions about where the body came from. This whole situation with the fair seemed like a coincidentally perfect situation for him to be able to target numerous people and go unnoticed for so long. At his trial, he confessed to murdering 27 people, but it could have easily been many many more. He was suspected of killing his associate Pietzel for insurance money and then killing Pietzel's three children in especially grisly ways. The investigation of these murders was the most interesting part of the novel as it was written more narratively to show the detective's journey.

The Devil in White City is an easy book to read, but it's deceptive. I expected it to mostly be about H.H. Holmes because of the title. At least I expected half of the book to be about him, but it was much less. While the Chicago World Fair is engaging, I read this book for the true crime aspects and they were lacking. H.H. Holmes is a horrific person who got away with a shocking amount of crimes before being put to death. His audacity and the volume of his murders are both shocking and fascinating, making the fair chapters eventually tedious to get through.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Belko Experiment


* spoilers *

In rural Bogata, Belko Corp employs numerous American people who are the only ones allowed in the building one day. New security search cars and belongings while turning away the local Columbian employees at the gate. 80 employees are left and they go about their day as normal until a voice comes on the intercom to inform the employees to kill two people or four would be killed randomly. People dismiss it as a joke, but soon after, the doors and windows are sealed with giant metal blinds. They panic and four of them die by the exploding tracker in the base of the skull the company implanted supposedly in case of kidnapping. Now, the employees either have to do what the voice says and kill whatever number is chose or wait for more to randomly die.


The film starts out with establishing the relationships in the office after the imported employees are allowed in the building. Mike is quickly established as a nice if a bit cheesy guy who loves Leandra. They are clearly dating, but Wendell constantly harasses her whenever he can, convinced that she should be dating him instead. Dany is the new hire on her first day while Barry, their boss, seems to be pretty sensible but firm. There are a bunch of others, but these are the main ones. When the announcement comes to kill 4 people, most treat it as a joke and go on with their day until heads start exploding. When the danger becomes real and all of their escape routes are cut off, the employees split into 3 groups: the rich white men (including Wendell and Barry) who try to take charge and want to actively kill, Mike and a lot of others who want to try anything else, and the rest of the employees who have no plan at all, but merely want to survive. The rich men group take charge only so they won't be chosen to die plus they seem pretty comfortable with killing later in the film. The rest of the people kill for survival, but shy away when they can.


Mike quickly establishes himself as an enemy of team rich guys by first loudly proposing an alternative to their plan and ruining their chances of breaking into the security armory. He also opposes the unseen voice by trying to cut out his transmitter and putting up signs asking for help. It does seem like he got special treatment because he wasn't killed immediately after the second infraction. Dany spends a lot of the film hiding and survives way longer than I expected. She kills someone accidentally in defense and shows innovation in her idea to hide in the elevator shaft and turn off the power. I was cheering for her because everything was against her. She would have been the best winner to subvert expectations if this is to be taken as a violent metaphor for corporate America, but it didn't turn out that way. After much back and forth, Team Rich White Dudes decides to organize people by arbitrary categories and starts shooting them. The submission to being killed is believable because panicking people in shock will follow authority figures and so many more lives are at stake. Dany subverts this by turning out the lights, allowing people to escape, but her death was the result of the dumbest decision. It wasn't realistic with how her character was established at all.


The story continues as more and more people are expected to die. The conflict between peace and violence doesn't even matter because the end rule is that whoever kills the most people at the end gets to live. The gore flows freely and looks realistic. However, when it's down to Mike against Barry, it seems to be saying that corporate America boils down to two white dudes against each other, which is pretty tonedeaf. I couldn't really care much about which one won even though Barry is terrible because Mike honestly isn't much better. He seems too much like guys who insist they are nice and deserve things as a result. I loved the ending and thought it was clever, but Mike as the final guy is too expected. We glimpse other Belko experiments where an old woman won, which would have been really interesting, but we just get this predictable plot. It seems like James Gunn wrote a fantasy movie for the guys that see themselves in Mike. He seems to think they make up most of his audience. Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn are criminally underutilized and so many much more interesting characters than Mike died well before they should have.


The Belko Experiment merges aspects of Battle Royale and Office Space to make a pretty entertaining movie. I appreciate that the marketing made it clear that it was referencing Battle Royale with its use of Verdi's Requiem, which is featured in the dramatic beginning of the Japanese film. However, Mike as the main hero is problematic and pretty boring in a number of ways. I didn't care about him or his lame shoehorned romance and it really brought down the film for me. The film addressed other office issues that effect people of color and women, but the ending just shows that it didn't really matter at all.

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tithe


Sixteen year old Kaye Fierch is used to moving to different places at odd times with her mother, a musician in Stepping Razor. When her mother's boyfriend of the moment suddenly tries to stab her, they flee to Kaye's grandmother's house in New Jersey. Kaye reconnects with old friends from when she used to live there and can't shake the memory of her old imaginary friends, Lutie-Loo, Spike, and Gristle. She starts to believe they really were imaginary figments no matter how vivid until she runs into Roiben, an injured fairy knight who she helps in exchange for his full name. Her childhood friends in addition to a whole world of faeries are revealed to be true with Kaye playing a key role in the freedom or subjugation of many.

Kaye is used to a lot of things no sixteen year old should be used to: moving around, working instead of going to school in order to survive, taking care of her mother, and cleaning up her mother's messes (literally and figuratively). She is the authority in her family who makes sacrifices to provide for her family while her mother follows her dreams, a sad reversal of what should be happening. She is also used to strangers' fetishized or flat out racist assumptions about her with her Asian features and blond hair. I love this detail because it points out socially acceptable racism and shows how it hurts people first hand. Corny, her best friend's older brother, befriends her in an unlikely friendship because they have practically nothing in common. Both are outsiders in a way, Corny being gay and antisocial while Kaye is Asian and prone to repelling people with her stories and weirdness. Small things have always happened around Kaye that she couldn't explain, but she dismissed them time after time. Until one day, she makes something happen too big to dismiss and she runs into faerie knight Roiben which sinks her and Corny deep in the faerie world.

The faeries of this world can be good or evil, just like humans. However, the magic is in the shades of grey in between where most of the characters lie. Some are truly evil and some good, but most are stumbling through trying to do the best they can with huge obstacles and supernatural powers which puts them in between. At first, I thought the plot would be pretty straight forward. It's presented as Kaye saving the faeries outside of the Seelie and Unseelie courts from being enslaved by submitting to be the tithe or sacrifice. Unseelie is evil; Seelie and outsider faeries are good. About midway through the book, deceptions are revealed where the faeries inhumanity at a basic level is shown. Faeries are not human and don't hold human morals. Good is seen in the midst of the depravity of the Unseelie court and corruption is shown in the Seelie court despite its perfect facade. Kaye navigates this world imperfectly, but Corny finds himself lost in it, manipulated by a powerful faerie. The stakes are high as the human world hangs in the balance. Some of the most tragic, emotional scenes are when her human friends clash with the faerie world.

This novel came out when I was a teen and I've waited years to read it for some reason. I love every book I've ever read by Holly Black, but for some reason I always put off this series. Now, I wish I had read it when it came out because it would have introduced me to a more realistic, nuanced version of fantasy. Both the teen experience and the faerie world are illustrated realistically. The teens drink, curse, have attractions to each other, and aren't perfect. The faeries have their own sets of rules and laws based in mythology that feel alien to us. Tithe is still a wonderfully dark faerie novel that defies expectations at every turn and brought progressive elements to the teen genre.

My rating: 5/5

Monday, April 10, 2017

Frontier(s)


An ultra conservative is elected as the French president, giving rise to riots in Paris. A gang of Arab Muslims that include Tom, Alex, Farid, Sami, and Yasmine steal money to escape the regime, but Sami is shot. They split up, hoping to meet up in a remote location later on. Yasmine takes her injured brother to the hospital with Alex, where he dies and she escapes the authorities. Tom and Farid with the money go to an in run by a strange family near the border. The people are welcoming in an uncomfortable way and something is deeply wring. They have no idea the inn contains horrors that they never imagined.

I watched Frontier(s) years ago and felt underwhelmed maybe because of its similarities to other films. However, upon rewatching, it's a powerful, intense film that's part Hostel, part Texas Chainsaw Massacre and pushes it further than either of those films. The film starts with the riots in Paris, establishing the city as dangerous. The drama within the Muslim gang is quickly revealed as Yasmine is pregnant with Alex's child and thinking of having an abortion because they aren't together anymore. Yasmine and Sami are the most likeable of the entire group, which makes it all the more tragic that Sami dies at the hospital. I was completely outraged when the hospital staff opted to notify the authorities of possible criminals rather than helping the man bleeding out. This shows how the world won't help them due to some brand of bigotry because there was no indication that they committed any crimes beyond the color of their skin. The imperative of the hospital to help people is secondary to that bigotry. Alex and Yasmine have no time to mourn Sami before they are forced to flee and meet their friends at a remote inn.


This brings us to the Hostel segment of the film where Tom and Farid arrive at the inn, greeted by Gilberte and Klaudia. The women offer them rooms free of charge and seduce them. Tom is completely into their offer, but is also quick to insult them when they reject sexual advances later. Farid rejects them at first, but then ends up videotaping their encounter. Like Hostel, the seduction proves to be a way of luring and distracting the men for more nefarious purposes. Through all of their seduction, it's pretty clear that Klaudia and Gilberte feel scorn at best or hate at worst for them.Then all of them plus the women's brother Goetz and their mother have the most awkward family dinner ever. Farid and Tom FINALLY get the hint that they are in danger, but their escape foiled by Goetz who runs their car off a cliff. They survive, but they wander into a mine shaft full of horrors. Meanwhile, Yasmine and Alex arrive at the inn, but aren't as easy to seduce or as gullible as their friends.


Yasmine is eventually captured by the family who are revealed to be Nazis. Their patriarch, von Geisler, stayed in France after World War II and created his twisted family by capturing children and having his own children to raise as Nazis and to carry on luring and killing people for their possessions and for their meat. He decides to use Yasmine to save them from inbreeding, as many mutated products of it live in the mine shaft. He isn't bothered that she is already pregnant and plans to force her to wed his son Karl who will eventually take his place as patriarch. This neo-Nazi family is the product of France's complicity in their occupation during World War II. Some resisted, but others gladly participated. The focus on moving forward afterwards led to the nation refusing to acknowledge the atrocities committed on French soil. In the present day of the film and of real life France, this also led to conservative, racist ideals to fester over time, leading to the election of President Sarkozy and the horrible treatment of immigrants, especially of Muslims. The Geisler's aren't shown to be odd outliers, but a product of ignored French history left to develop in a remote part of the country.


The Geisler family isn't completely devoid of good people. The most sympathetic member is Eva, a child-like woman underestimated by her family. As a child, she was kidnapped and told that she might be returned to her family if she was obediant. Her own children are the monstrous mutants in the mine shaft, but she loves and cares for them as she would any other child. Her kindness sets her apart from her family even though she is complicit in their crimes. Yasmine and Eva reflect each other in a way, as pregnant mothers doing their best in the midst of criminals and being criminals themselves. Both go to extraordinary lengths for their children even in the face of great opposition and they help each other. As von Geisler resolves to teach Yasmine's child to hate its own history and people (echoing Sarkozy's recent comments of immigrants rejecting their own culture to become truly French), she resolves to make her baby safe and allow her child freedom in the face of a toxic society. It's clear right from the beginning with her treatment at the hospital that if she does return to conventional society, her treatment would not be much better.


Fronter(s) does have familiar elements seen in other films, but the basis in French history and society plus additional elements such as Eva sets it well apart from American horror films. It's a particularly brutal film in the New French Extremity movement and one of the best in my opinion. Alexandra West's book on the subject was instrumental for me to gain historical and social context for this films and others in the movement. French history is much more tumultuous, dark, and bloody than a lot of media will have you believe and it's fascinating that the horror genre is the one to show that dark underbelly.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Court of Mist and Fury


Feyre can't sleep or eat since her horrific experience Under the Mountain where she defeated Amarantha, died, and resurrected as a High Fae. Her new state as an immortal with unknown power doesn't do anything to help since she no longer knows her own body or abilities. She tries to help Tamlin, who is almost as emotionally broken as she is, but he shuts her out again and again for her own protection. Time and time again, others in the Spring Court tell her to get in line and blindly obey even though her mental and physical state deteriorate daily. When Tamlin literally locks in her in the house with magic, Feyre loses herself in her powers until  takes her to his realm, the Night Court. Their bargain to spend a week with him every month also interrupted Tamlin and Feyre's wedding, but this was an answer to her distress. Is Rhysand more than the depraved, arrogant High Lord that he appears to be? How serious is the incoming war and what can Feyre do to stop it?

Feyre starts out the novel as a shell of her former self, tormented by traumatizing memories of Amarantha and her minions. Every night, she wakes up terrified and sick to her stomach. Over months, her body is hallow and thin while her mind is tortured. Her relationship with Tamlin suffers because of her insistence on being free to go where she wants and being involved with every aspect of ruling, not just the parts Tamlin deems appropriate. I loved Tamlin's character in the last book, but his actions in this one are horrible. He slowly shows his true colors as an abusive person when he consistently refuses to allow her to have freedom of almost any kind. I understand his reasoning to make the tough decisions in order to keep her safe, but he treats her like an object instead of as an equal. His entire court falls in line behind him, making Feyre even more physically and emotionally broken with no one to even confide to except Rhysand. All of them tell her to simply follow orders to make Tamlin look powerful instead of doing what would be benefit her in any way.

Rhysand is arrogant and infuriating, but hides his dreams of a world where all elves and humans live in harmony. His past is full of trauma, violence, and abuse, but he never let it break him or turn him into a monster. His Nightmare Court of atrocities and sadism is a front to hide his idyllic city Velaris, where the people have been hidden safe for thousands of years and cultivated a society of art and music. He accepts his reputation as cruel and monstrous in order to preserve something truly good. Rhys holds Feyre to their bargain to save her from her wedding day, taking the time to teach her to read and how to protect herself from mental attacks. He's the first person to treat her like a person and teach her useful things even knowing she would report everything to Tamlin. When he saves Feyre a second time, he asks only that she keep his secrets about the city and his movements. She can do what she likes with no ultimatums or demands. Tamlin's treatment of her contrasts starkly as abusive, selfish, and thoughtless. Feyre starts to heal both physically and mentally, slowly learning how to harness her unpredictable new powers. She gains her agency back and helps with the fight against the King of Hybern, just as she always wanted.

A Court of Mist and Fury is just as addicting as its predecessor and even better. The world is explored beyond Tamlin's Spring Court and Under the Mountain. We see the beautiful Summer Court, the human world from a different perspective plus the powerful queens, Velaris, the actual Nightmare Court, and even the castle of Hybern. Feyre, Rhysand, and Tamlin are all much different than they were in the first book both due to events and changes in perspective. Much of the past is dredged up to show why Rhys and Tamlin hate each other so much and how Rhys came to be surrounded by his band of trusted friends, most rejected by their own homes and families. His confidants are a whole new cast of characters that I grew to know and love. They trust each other completely, but aren't afraid to call each other out when one is out of control or making the wrong decisions, another stark contrast to Tamlin's Court. The ending had me on the edge of my seat and I couldn't believe what happened. I'm glad I waited so long to read it because the third book is out in about a month and I need to know what happens!

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, April 3, 2017

Upcoming Horror Sneaking Up Behind You: It and The Mummy

* It



It, the miniseries from 1990, introduced Pennywise into film with an iconic performance by Tim Curry. Of course I don't expect the new portrayal to be the same, but what I've seen of it in the trailer is underwhelming. His look is offputting already and not conducive to luring children in to scare and consume. The outfit brings to mind medieval jesters which is an odd reference that I hope will eventually make sense. The most disappointing part to me is that jump scares have replaced the deep unease that Pennywise used to bring. I truly hope it's just how the trailer was cut, but all of Pennywise's appearances are jump scares. That only stays effective for so long and it's a cheap way to keep the audience on edge. I liked Curry's interpretation of approaching Georgie and striking up a normal conversation even though he's standing in a storm drain. Pennywise's voice will also be key, which isn't heard here.

The Loser's Club looks great and I like setting the kids' story in the 80's so it's a little more updated. The dilapidated house looks awesome and the ominous red balloons are chilling. I believe the town of Derry with a dark secret that has people disappearing at an alarming rate with the adults turning a blind eye to it all. I hope my doubts are unfounded and it's really good because everything besides Pennywise looks amazing. He will make or break the movie. We'll see if the film leans more towards jump scares or creating and maintaining suspense.

* The Mummy



I've always loved mummy stories from Boris Karloff's film in the 30's to Brendan Fraser's film in the 90's to the Mummy's Alive animated TV show. This remake of The Mummy looks like a steaming pile of garbage. Tom Cruise plays the same character in everything he does now and I hate to see this franchise start with this type of action movie. Brendan Fraser's movie was a fun mix of action and horror, but this looks like literally Mission: Impossible with a supernatural enemy. There's no reason for military to even be involved with this story. Cruise's "acting" is hilariously bad especially in the screams in the plane crash. I think the studio thought it was being clever by gender swapping the mummy and the heroine, but there's nothing unique about it. I hope it miserably fails to let them know that people want real horror instead of this action crap.