Sunday, November 12, 2017

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: The Bad Seed and Night of the Hunter

* The Bad Seed

Rhoda Penmark is an angelic, sweet little girl until she doesn't get what she wants. Her mother starts to catch on to her deceptive ways when Claude, a boy at her school, dies in a seemingly tragic accident. I had seen this movie years ago and it's an amazing watch. The entire thing is set up like a stage play and takes place around Rhoda's house and the yard just outside. All of the information is conveyed through conversation between characters, but Rhoda's actions are no less chilling than if they were full view of the audience. Her failure to understand right from wrong and her charming facade make the stories believable. It's even more disturbing that she has so many people under her thrall when she would kill to get what she wants. Patty McCormack does a phenomenal job oscillating between enraged and sweet

Two other women give the film emotional weight: Rhoda's mother Christine and Hortense Daigle, Claude's mother. Christine starts out happy and healthy, but rapidly deteriorates emotionally when she realizes the truth about her child. On one hand, her little girl deserves protection and love and on other, Christine has a responsibility to stop her and save others Rhoda would kill. It tears her up inside, especially when she finds out her parentage isn't what she's been told all her life. Hortense is a complete mess after her son died. Multiple times, she shows up at the Penmark house, sloppily drunk and full of questions and stories. This role could have very easily been overacted or badly acted, but Eileen Heckart makes Hortense's pain heartbreaking. Although the scenes are uncomfortable and outside of social norms, she's doing whatever she can to cope and find out what happened to her son.

The Bad Seed is film that stays with you. This murderous intent and lack of emotions behind an angelic smile are absolutely chilling. The scene that encompasses Rhoda is when she's set fire to Leroy and plays Au Claire de la Lune on the piano faster and louder to drown out the ensuing chaos. For a film entirely dependent on dialogue, the performances are all strong and well done. The weakest part of the film is the ending due to the Hayes Code, which basically didn't allow the true ending of the play. The ending undermines Rhoda's character and the curtain call undermines the tone of the entire film.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

* Night of the Hunter

Siblings John and Pearl are shown where the $10,000 their father Ben stole is right before he's carted off to jail to be hanged. Reverend Powell shares a cell with Ben and weasels his way into the family when he gets out to find the money. Night of the Hunter is a realistic movie with dark fairy tale elements from the point of view of children. John is older than Pearl and sees things she doesn't, like the local children singing a cruel song about their father and the danger in Rev. Powell. He has to step in as an adult to protect his sister and himself when no adult will intervene. Rev. Powell is incredibly adept at manipulating adults with his charisma and his shield of religion. He has a relaxed air about him in every situation because he's completely sure things will go his way. John's defiance infuriates him like no other.

The other aspects that make this film memorable are Rachel Cooper and the beautiful cinematography. Rachel is a harsh, stern woman who takes in essentially stray children. She uses religion to strengthn the children's moral compass and bring them in as a family, counter to the reverend. While he would kill a woman for sexual interest in men, Rachel understands one of her oldest and reacts with love. One scene encompasses these difference. When he is stalking them in the night, Rev. Powell sinces the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Rachel joins in harmony while she sits vigil with her shotgun to protect her children, singing the same song with very different meaning. The look of the film is gorgeous with deliberate use of shadow and light. The scene where the children's mother is discovered in her car underwater is hauntingly beautiful. The look enhances the fairy tale and horror atmosphere.

Night of the Hunter is a film I didn't expect and will revisit in the future. The view of children was especially unexpected because so often children aren't treated as capable. This film treats children as real people trying to overcome impossible obstacles. The music used also creates and sustains the atmosphere, especially Pearl's lullaby in the journey down the river with her brother. The only weird part of the movie is the almost slapstick quality of physical fighting scenes that are deadly serious. It lightens the mood and perhaps shows that children don't truly know what danger they are in. Highly recommended.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, November 10, 2017

Batman: Nightwalker

Bruce Wayne is a young man with his whole future ahead of him. He has everything he could ever want at his fingertips except the parents killed by a thief when he was a child. While testing out a prototype car, a police chase passes him by involving the notorious Nightwalkers responsible for terrorizing Gotham City. Despite the police telling him repeatedly to stay away, Bruce decides to chase down the Nightwalker car and disable it so the police can catch it. The police give him community service that entails cleaning Arkham Asylum, home to hundreds of the most notorious criminals the city has seen. He's immediately drawn to a young girl named Madeleine imprisoned for murder and working for the Nightwalker gang. She only speaks to him and the police agree to allow him to try to get information from her, but she is more than she seems.

Batman: Nightwalker isn't like any other Batman incarnation because he isn't Batman yet. Bruce is the most innocent and naive you will ever see him. His intentions are pure and he still acutely feels the pain of his parents' absence. Unfortunately, he also is heavily influenced by his own arrogance and the assumption that he knows everything. Even when warned of Madeleine's methods of manipulation and reading people, Bruce assumes that he's just too competent to fool. (Spoiler alert: he wasn't.) He succeeds in feeding her information and making himself look like a fool. His whole attitude around Madeleine frankly disgusted me. He invented an entire senario in his head where she is truly innocent because she's female, young, and attractive. I was doubly disgusted when his sexist theory was correct to a point. The entire narrative only proved to reinforce his arrogant and sexist ideas.

Many plot points in this novel are hard to believe or unnatural feeling. The police having a teen work at Arkham Asylum is like having one work at a maximum security prison. No one would do that because that teen would be at risk. They also wouldn't ask him to do exactly what he was being punished for: interfering in police matters even when he thinks he's helping. It kind of ruins the whole point of his community service. The drones Lucius Fox made seemed more like something out of Robocop than something made today. The whole situation with them was completely predictable. The most egregious part of the novel for me was Madeleine's turnaround from bloodthirsty killer to reluctant criminal in love with Bruce Wayne. The entire time they spoke, she was manipulating him (too much like Sherlock Holmes if you ask me), but somehow she grew to like him? I didn't see it at all and it came out of nowhere.

Batman: Nightwalker did not meet my expectations. The most natural feeling parts of the book are between Bruce and his friends. These parts are unfortunately few and far between. Very little of the book is believable and I found myself exasperated and annoyed most of the short book. Bruce didn't really learn anything by the end of the novel and his arrogance is reinforced. I would not like to see this Batman in the future.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Haunters: The Art of the Scare

Haunters: The Art of the Scare is a documentary about all types of haunted houses, mazes, and events from traditional to extreme and the passionate people behind them. The beginning goes over the history of haunted houses and the inception of theme park haunts (at Knott's Berry Farm). I thought it was hilarious how many haunted house tropes originated in Christian Hell Houses that took you through horrible sins and their repercussions to get people to turn to faith. The documentary follows a variety of figures and their own endeavors in the scare industry, namely legendary scare actor Shar Mayer, Donald Julson creator of a huge home haunt, and Russ McKamey, creator of the infamous extreme haunt McKamey Manor.

Shar Mayer has been working as a scare actor for 35 years in almost every major scare event incuding traditional haunts, extreme haunts, and hybrid haunts with theater. From a young age, she wanted to scare people and enjoyed her first experience scaring classmates dressed as a skeleton on Halloween. Later on in life, Shar almost leads a double life in October when she works very late, takes time off her day job, and leaves her husband, who doesn't really understand her love of the scare, to take care of their home. Her transformation of mannerism and movement is amazing as she gets into character. The coworkers at the haunt are her family with that dedication and love to scaring people binding them together. I could seriously listen to her stories for hours. She's a fascinating person with a unique point of view.

Donald Julson runs a haunt out of his parents house every Halloween called Nightmare on Loganberry. Every year, he works for over a month, spending a large amount of money, for an event that will only be open for 4 hours on Halloween. It's also offered free of charge. His talent for fabricating props shines in his sets in addition to his and his family's dedication to creating this grand event every year. Unfortunately, his wife isn't as thrilled with his passion and even bans Halloween talk the rest of the year. It seemed like they were going to get a divorce any minute as they refused to compromise or discuss or see each other's side. This event is not far from where I live, so I will definitely check it out next year.

McKamey Manor is the most controversial of the haunts shown and it takes up much of the film mostly because no one has ever covered it before. It's also the most extreme haunt representative of a growing movement. The haunt is harrowing to watch as people are subject to what amounts to torture that they can't choose to leave for hours. There is no safe word or ability to walk out of the room. Russ McKamey has many shady practices including having children victimize patrons and then banning children actors after an adult actor acted inappropriately and gave them drugs and alcohol. This is all in addition to making people eat disgusting things including their own vomit, waterboarding them, and otherwise beating, punching, and shoving them. Russ will not go through his own haunt, self admittedly scared of everything, but videotapes every event, actively mocking and laughing at the patrons. It seems like it might have to come to someone dying or being seriously injured to stop this haunt.

Other scare attractions seen are Knott's Scary Farm, Universal Halloween Horror Nights, Blackout, The 17th Door, LA Haunted Hayride, and Delusion. The creators of these events are interviewed as well as Jason Blum and the Soska Sisters. I wish the sisters would have been interviewed about Hellevator since it was a game show that used a haunt format in a new way. I wish we could have seen more of Blackout and The 17th Door. Blackout is another one that's more extreme, but the creators experience everything themselves and have a safe word. The 17th Door slants more extreme and has a theatrical element. Safe words can be used for individual rooms so you don't have to bow out of the whole event over one thing. Delusion was one that I would love to go to. It's a theatrical haunt that takes inspiration from video game RPGs and has the group accomplishing tasks and completing some sort of quest together. All of the events have something special to bring to the scare event format.

Haunters: The Art of the Scare is a well made documentary that shows all facets of the scare industry. Jon Schnitzer creates an emotional story with the main figures featured where they all experience some sort of heartbreak or hardship, which is resolved or overcome by the end of the film. I discovered many local events that I either hadn't heard of or hadn't been to. The only real criticism I have is that McKamey Manor was maybe too prominent in the documentary, but it's the most infamous event that people would typically be most curious about. The deleted scenes are fully realized features on many of the haunts in the film that just didn't fit in with the narrative. I highly recommend this documentary and I hope Schnitzer might make another documentary or even a TV show featuring different haunts.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Sabrina Spellman grows up without her parents with her aunts Zelda and Hilda. Her life is far from normal since her aunts along with the rest of her family (except her mother) are all witches. Her cat Salem talks and acts as her familiar. Sabrina doesn't have full fledged witch powers yet and has to partake in a grisly ceremony on her 16th birthday to accept these powers. She balances the magic world and the regular world of her town Greendale and her school. Her father's past actions come back to haunt her in the form of a jilted undead ex-lover dead set on ruining the entire Spellman family.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a horror revitalization of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Instead of light hearted foibles, cheesy jokes, and zany family dynamics, this series has a completely different mood and genre. This is hardcore horror with casual cannibalism, Satan worship, and bloody rituals all grounded in 60's era aesthetics (which is also when the series takes place). These witches are evil and get their power by pledging themselves to Satan. Small references are peppered throughout each comic that include name drops like Dr. Saperstein (the Satan worshipping OBGYN from Rosemary's Baby) and Mrs. Lovett (the human-meat pie baker from Sweeney Todd). Sabrina balances the much darker magic world with the mortal world, shown as she grows up through the 50’s and 60’s.

As a character, Sabrina is a fairly typical teenager. She is torn between the power of Satan and the promise of a future with Harvey, her high school sweetheart. The Witches Council bans relationships between witches and mortals, although Sabrina is the product of one, a point of contention with other witches who call her half breed. Her aunts don’t hestitate to use their magic when their charge is threatened, like conjuring a giant spider to terrorize an arachnophobic classmate of Sabrina’s who made fun of her heritage. My favorite character is Madame Satan, formerly known as Iola. She committed suicide dramatically after Sabrina’s father left her for a mortal and returned after spending years in Gehenna, faceless and tortured. Her revenge on everyone involved isn’t swift or painless and works exceedingly well. I’m honestly kind of rooting for her because she’s so much more entertaining than the other characters.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a delightfully dark comic (especially in comparison to the source material). The art is consistent with the era and beautifully done. The only real flaw of the story is the final installment focuses on the backstories of Sabrina and Ambrose’s familiars Salem, Nag, and Nagaina instead of continuing the crazy cliffhanger of the previous story. Other than that, I am excited for the continuation of the series and will be checking out other Archie Horror titles, including Afterlife with Archie, which crosses over with this story.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tragedy Girls

* spoilers *

Sadie and McKayla are best friends with a blog called Tragedy Girls that details the murders of their local serial killer. After luring him in with a teen couple making out in a remote area, they succeed in capturing him and imprisoning him. They are free to copy his habits and methods while targeting their own hit list and reporting the growing killing spree on their blog. To the community, Sadie and McKayla are either a nuisance getting in the way or renegade journalists exposing police incompetence. Can they keep the charade going or will they slip up somewhere and be revealed for the murderers they are?

Tragedy Girls is a horror comedy that merges a typical slasher film with the drive for internet fame. Sadie and McKayla strive for as many likes, shares, and comments as possible. Simply covering the murders that fascinate them isn't enough. They also aspire to be serial killers themselves and use the existing one to copy and displace blame. At the beginning of the movie, their blog barely has any attention at all. Over the course of the movie and their exclusive point of view skyrockets their site into internet fame beyond their town. Their exploits have to balance public outcry and fame with keeping anyone from getting close to their secret. Sadie and McKayla are cheerful in their normal lives and even more gleeful in their gruesome work, giving the whole film a lighthearted mood. Neither girl feels guilty or upset about their victims which gives a colder and harder core to their characters underneath their bubbly facades. Their murders are messy and riddled with mistakes, but the local police is incredibly inept.

A couple things threaten to tear the friends apart including a boy and an inbalance of fame. The boy in question is Jordan Welch, the sheriff's son. He edits the Tragedy Girls videos and shares a love for European horror films with Sadie. McKayla treats him like garbage, so he understandably doesn't like her and actively tries to separate them. After saving Jordan from the serial killer, Sadie is much more famous than McKayla with the media clamoring to interview her and it drives an addition fissure in their relationship. I personally didn't like Jordan very much and thought he looked much older than the other actors. His willingness to discredit and condemn her best friend is gross and weird. I got an inkling of racism in with his willingness to absolve Sadie for any wrongdoing and viewing McKayla as the corrupting force. The ending is awesome as it subverts the romantic subplot that felt icky the whole time. The film leaves McKayla and Sadie together in neon masks with the highest body count they could have hoped for.

Tragedy Girls is an odd film because the title characters are shallow murderers. However, they are made to be pretty likeable especially compared to the other idiots in their town. That line between annoying and charming is treaded carefully. The film is hilarious and many of the situations and murders made me laugh out loud. The story is fresh and fun while still including darker, more sinister elements and a healthy dose of gore. Highly recommended.

My rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Hazel Wood

Alice and her mother Ella have always been on the road. Bad luck follows them everywhere and it wasn't uncommon to take off on short notice, in the middle of the night. This has been her life ever since she can remember until the grandmother she never met Althea, a reclusive and little known fantasy author. Ella suddenly settles down and marries a wealthy man. Months into the marriage, it's clear that divorce is on the horizon. Alice comes home one night to find the apartment empty with a weird smell. Her stepsister and violent stepfather eventually return, driving her from her home, but Ella stays missing. Alice goes to Ellerey, one of her few friends, for help and vows to find her mother.

The Hazel Wood combines the real world and a dark, dangerous fairy tale world populated by nuanced, realistic characters and frightening fantastical characters alike. Alice isn't afraid to tell harsh truths to people and comes off as abrasive. Her anger skates below the surface of her facade and it comes out at times. It's understandable since no one but her mother stays in her life for any extended period of time. Even the people she's with every day never get very close. Once she and Ellerey commence their search, strange things start to happen. Alice sometimes responds to these unexplainable events in irrational, dangerous ways. I was disturbed to see that so many readers didn't like Alice when so many abusive young men whose actions are much worse are revered as attractive and romantic. Women and girls are still looked down upon for having unbecoming emotions.

The story takes a while to venture into fantasy and horror. At first, Althea's dark fairy tales from the Hinterland are told to Alice by Ellerey, including Twice Killed Katherine who avenges her own death by draining the life out of men. Althea's novel is mysteriously absent with no library copies or digital copies and very rare physical copies. The two worlds overlap when Alice sees Katherine in real life. She and Ellerey find a way to the Hazel Wood, Althea's estate, but have to overcome trials to enter the actual Hinterland that has been bleeding into the real world through her stories. These tales are so unlike our traditional ones. There are no set rules (safe one), no morality, and no judgment. The only one in power is the story spinner and the characters must cycle through their stories over and over to keep the Hinterland existing. It's much different than any other fantasy novel I've read.

The Hazel Wood takes horrific fairy tales and blends them with the real world. There are grave consequences for tangling with fairy tale creatures and happily ever after doesn't really exist. Melissa Albert creates such an interesting world with unexpected traits and keeps the reader mesmerized with her masterful writing. The story wasn't predictable at all and I was eager to meet every twist and turn. I'm especially happy that the typical romance was subverted and chnaged in the end. I couldn't stop reading this book and I had to know how it ended.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Mini-Reviews: WNUF Halloween Special and Ghostwatch

Both of these films have similar themes and execution perfect for the Halloween season.

* WNUF Halloween Special

* spoilers *

The WNUF Halloween Special replicates what it was like to tape shows off TV in the 80's. There aren't any beginning or ending credits. The aspect ratio is that of an older TV. Tracking and static are all over the place. The commercials are the high energy, colorful monstrosities. One series of commercials shows a escalating Senate smear campaign between  The news program is full of transitional puns, over the top banter, and cutesy local stories. One of the stories is pretty serious as a soldier with PTSD shot and killed a trick or treater a year ago. All of it was created in 2013. The way the 80's is perfectly captured amazed me. It was like stepping into my childhood.

The special itself involves a reporter from WNUF going to a supposedly haunted house along with his camera crew (actually filming live) and a "psychic" couple similar to the Warren's with their helpful kitty Shadow. A crowd surrounds the front of the house in costume, hoping to see something creepy. The house was the place of a gruesome murder by a disturbed boy years ago. Mysterious things happen in the house including unexplained sounds, a smashed EVP recorder, and the poor kitty being killed. The story takes quite a turn from being Halloween fun to an actual threat emerging in the house, revealing the manufactured parts of the broadcast in the process.

I absolutely love the ending. Throughout the movie, signs of the bullshit Satanic panic in calls and protests from Christian extremists called HARVEST, stating that Halloween is evil and people who celebrate it will go to hell. I was afraid that it would end in some sort of Satanic ritual, but the filmmakers turn it around. Those same Christians the ones who brutally murder everyone in the house. It's a way to acknowledge that the Satanic panic was a huge travesty that had no truth to it at all. So many innocent people were blamed for awful things because of the music they listened to or the way they dressed or just because of general hysteria. The ending is perfect and I will watch this movie every Halloween.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

* Ghostwatch

* spoilers *

Ghostwatch is a BBC news broadcast trying to find out if ghosts are real. A news crew headed by Sarah Greene visits a family claimed to be terrorized by a ghosts including objects moving, strange sounds, temperature changes, disembodied voices, and unexplained scratches on one of the daughters. The story is clearly inspired from the Enfield haunting as both stories share many of the same details. This family is in dire straits and you can't help but feel for this single mom and her two daughters. The apparition is seen several times during the broadcast. lurking along the edges. I personally didn't see many of them since I watched it on a pretty small screen. The sordid history of the house is revealed throughout the special and two sinister figures emerge as antagonists.

Inside the studio, Michael Parkinson interviews Doctor Pascoe about the supernatural and explanations of the events going on at the house. They also take calls from the public to share their brushes with ghosts and the unexplained. The ending, like WNUF Halloween Special, is pretty bleak with the apparition seemingly escaping to the outside world in the viewers' homes and possessing the Michael Parkinson. It's amazing that this film was shown as if it were a live show with familiar faces of British news and children's TV. This method gives the public the most pause in believing the broadcast because these are the faces of people they see on TV every day. The public wasn't happy about being lied to plus some extreme cases ended in death or PTSD.

Filmed in 1992, this pre-dates found footage and ghost hunter style TV and establishes tropes that will become popular in both genres. I enjoyed the film especially how it starts as poking fun at the notion that the supernatural exists and ending with an outlandish notion of a country wide seance allowing the malevolent spirits into the outside world. It was only every aired once, but I'm surprised I never heard of it before. Ghostwatch is a bit like a modern day War of the Worlds and a film that warrants rewatching numerous times.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween Mini-Reviews Classic Edition: Dracula (1931) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

* Dracula

Renfield goes to Transylvania as a financial advisor and leaves it in the thrall of Count Dracula, a bloodthirsty vampire. Together, they move to London so Dracula has access to a fresh crop of victims. As the first horror talkie, the film has large swathes of silence that give the film suspense and tension helped along with the deliberate closeups. Bela Lugosi plays both the charming socialite Dracula pretends to be and the powerful, inhuman creature he actually is. This is the first movie to portray vampires as seductive and show them as blending into human society. Lugosi uses his skill as a silent movie actor to make his body language effective. His mesmerizing eyes hold the camera's gaze with a small strip of light over them to show his mental power over people. His hands and movements are almost otherworldly.

Instead of Jonathan, Renfield is the person who takes us through the story and has the most pathos. His physical and emotional change from before being under Dracula's thrall and after is stark. Before, he's a professional, neat, confident financial advisor. Afterwards, his hair is in disarray. His eyes bulge crazily and he bares his teeth in an insane smile. He alternates between being completely devoted to Dracula and struggling to help Dr. Van Helsing and his daughter. Jonathan Harker in contrast is an oblivious idiot who has an overinflated sense of importance. I don't sympathize with him at all. The only problems with the film are in Dracula's nature and censorship. Dracula isn't conflicted or anything which makes him a much flatter character than all the other Universal monsters. Because of the Hayes Code, showing any sort of vampire attack and Dracula's death was banned. It unfortunately takes a lot away from the sense of danger and the impact of the ending.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

* The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Erique Claudine is fired from the Paris Opera orchestra due to the deadened nature of the fingers in his left hand. While the Opera paid well, he spent his savings on voice lessons for Christine Dubois, a talented but overlooked singer. When he thinks his music is stolen, he kills the offending man and has acid thrown in his face. Erique's madness has claimed him as he terrorizes the Paris Opera, making demands and doling out fatal consequences for noncompliance.

This version of The Phantom of the Opera is my personal cinematic favorite because of the humor, the lush sets, and the extended opera scenes. These things are largely seen as ruining the horror, but it's an odd story that is never adapted faithfully. This film fits in well with the Universal formula with its sympathetic villain. Erique Claudine can't catch a break. His life is falling apart due to failing health with his piano concerto being his last effort to keep out of poverty. There is injustice in someone stealing his music, but murder is where the sympathy stops. He lives under the opera house, stealing things so he can help Christine and intimidate the managers and the police. The actual music he creates is beautiful, believable as a folk song and lullaby, and the only original music performed in the movie.

Christine, on the other was hand, works hard at her craft and courts Anatole, a leading baritone in the opera, and Raoul, a policeman. Stuck in the chorus line, she aspires to star in the opera and acts as understudy for Carlotta. Both men comically snipe at each other while they garner her affection. This was probably done to fill the void of the Phantom, Raoul, Christine love triangle that wasn't done here because of the Phantom's age and his more paternal affection towards her. The opera takes on a different type of drama when Carlotta is first poisoned and then killed. The police respond by not complying with the Phantom's demands to bait him into caputre, but instead he responds with a large scale attack. The offstage drama and high stakes contrast with the beautiful operatic moments. The composer takes familiar themes from Tchaikovsky and Chopin and creates original opera music and scenes.

The Phantom of the Opera is light on horror and heavy on personal drama, but it captures the grandeur and scale of the opera with amazing music and performances. The comedic elements are well placed. The love triangle ends satisfyingly with Christine chosing her career and the adoration of the public over the affection of the either man. It's a well made film that will always be my favorite of the Universal horror films.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Grip of It

Julie and James are looking to relocate due to James' financial ruin and gambling problem. They find the perfect inexpensive yet large house, perfect to start over in. It's too good to be true because weird things start happening in their house and increase in severity as times go on until their lives are completely disrupted. What is causing their problems: a nosy neighbor, a ghostly presence in their house, or just them?

The Grip of It is a suspenseful novel that has elements of a haunted house but never defines what's wrong. Julie and James are a young couple reeling from James' bad decisions and struggling to trust each other. That initial fissure in their relationship makes them quick to turn on each other when things go wrong. The weird events start with a strange sound with no apparent cause. They search around for the source to no avail. Bruises appear on Julie's body more and more often, looking deep and severe with no apparent cause. The couple sees children playing in the trees that no one else can see. A terrible smell fills their home and any water from the faucets no matter how clear it looks will fill their mouths with green mold. One day, they wake up with childish drawings all of their wall and both of them denying having done it. Both disbelieve each other and attempt to go one with their day to day life.

Threats come from outside as well in an odd, elderly neigbor who watches them from his window constantly and then lets himself into their home despite rebuffing their efforts to be friendly. When they are on the cusp of calling the police due to his home invasion, he disappears. The police eventually look at the couple with suspicion for their conflict with him as well as their failure to disclose earlier problems at their home. James doesn't help things by staying home from work for weeks on end without letting anyone know and gets fired. He tries to research the history of the house and does reveal that their neighbor used to live there with his family with a tragic death and a dark secret. Sometimes when he discovers something like a hidden room with a cot obviously lived in, he seems to forget it the next day and does  nothing about it.

The Grip of It ramps up to a fever pitch and then ends perfectly. No revelation come out and the reason behind all the craziness is never defined. No psychic comes in to tell them what's wrong and they have no idea how to fix it. I believe it's a combination of the supernatural and their real life conflicts that were never resolved from before their move. The story is told in alternative points of view between Julie and James, highlighting their distrust of and frustration with each other. Although it doesn't really resolve, it feels like it doesn't have to. I enjoyed the journey through this story.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Halloween Movie Mini-Reviews: Noroi the Curse and Jigsaw

* Noroi the Curse

This is a documentary style found footage movie about a paranormal expert named Kobayashi who disappeared after investigating a curse for his new documentary. His home was also burned down and his wife died in the fire. The film takes us through Kobayashi's journey delving into the mystery surrounding this curse that involves a quiet little boy, his offputting mother, and psychics.

Noroi the Curse is an insane movie. It has the tension and tone of The Wailing with the form of Lake Mungo. The pace is slow and deliberate, but I was on the edge of my seat for the whole thing. Kobayashi's uncertain fate and what happened to his home and wife is revealed at the beginning of the movie and then his incomplete documentary is shown. It starts with a small incident of a woman complaining of hearing odd sounds from her neighbor. The neighbor in question verbally attacks him and a small boy lives with her. However, the sounds are from babies when there aren't any babies there. The plot thickens when the neighnor moves away and the woman and her daughter die in a car crash right afterwards.

Kobayashi is dedicated to unravel this mystery and I was with him every step of the way. He, Hori (a seemingly crazy man), and Marika (a clairvoyant actress) serve as our envoys into this supernatural world beneath our own and make separate discoveries that create the full picture. The journey to discovering what is at the core of everything isn't simple. There are a lot of people involved and the plot weaves a complex web that delves into more depraved territory than expected. Noroi the Curse is much different than a lot of Japanese horror and takes a more subtle approach. The atmosphere is well built and maintained throughout. I highly recommend this unique film and it's a crime that it hasn't had a US release.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

* Jigsaw

An elaborate game of death has been started and a team of medical examiners and police are trying to find out where it is before all the people die. This is another Saw movie complete with beyond shallow characters, a convoluted twist that falls apart under mild scrutiny, and mildy interesting deaths. The characters are all so badly acted that two of them may as well be interchangeable with exactly the same gruff demeanor and misogynistic comments. It killed me that the women they were talking to simply accepted the condescending treatment even in a crazy death game. Ugh. The cast feels small because somehow the suspects only include the people investigating the murders. The main suspect is Eleanor, a woman fascinated with Jigsaw and a collector of his past devices. Her whole look is one big nerd stereotype and drastically changes after her obsession is revealed.

So many things are logistical nightmares that fall apart if thought about with any focus. Like why would Jigsaw's grave be left open unattended for any time to be tampered with? Why does everyone assume in almost every movie that Jigsaw is back? Why isn't Dr. Gordon brought in at all after the final reveal in the last Saw movie? The kills are decent and the traps are ok. If the series is going to move forward, I wish they would focus more on fun, creative kills than pseudo-intelligent, convoluted twists. If you go in expecting a typical ridiculous Saw movie, you won't be disappointed. If you're expecting an actually good, coherent movie, you will be disappointed.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Friday, October 27, 2017

Halloween Short Films: Light as a Feather and Sam

Bite sized Halloween treats!

* Light as a Feather

This short film captures the feel of good kid horror like Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Goosebumps. A group of girls have a sleepover and one tells a theatrical story of being abducted by ghosts if awake between 1am and 2am. The suspense is well crafted and it's a perfect bite sized ghost story for all ages. It's also unique production wise in that the actors and the above the line credits from director to writer to composer are all women.

* Sam Short Films

These short films were made for FearNet commercials to advertise the 24 hour Trick 'r Treat marathon. They capture the darkness and whimsy of Sam all year round especially with the sinister yet childish music.

~ Back to School

Sam gets ready for school and reacts to some rude kids.

~ Easter Candy

Sam tries his hand at being the Easter bunny. This one is pretty over the top and silly, but it's enjoyable.

~ Snowmen

Sam helps a friend build a macabre snowman and looks adorable in snow clothes.

~ Father's Day

This one is the sweetest of the bunch and only a little odd.

~ The Day After Halloween

This one shows the mess after Halloween and reveals Sam's life cycle.

~ Making a Friend

Sam helps a friend literally make a friend in an adorable homage to Frankenstein.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Final Girls

Quincy Carpenter survived a horrific attack right out of a slasher movie that left her the sole survivor. Her college friends were all brutally murderered. It’s no surprise that the media labeled her a final girl along with two other women who survived similar experiences. When One of the final girls Lisa is found dead and her apparent suicide labeled a murder upon closer scrutiny, Quincy is under a media microscope. Sam, the other final girl who isolated herself, comes out of hiding to connect with Quincy, creating a media frenzy, but Sam seems to half ulterior motives for being there.

Final Girls was one of my most anticipated books of the year and it proved to be a mixed bag of a book. I love the concept of the book. The author takes references and situation from slasher films and amalgamated them into the three final girl situations. Each woman deals with the aftermath of their trauma differently. Quincy tries to throw herself into normalcy, denying that her horrific experience had any effect on her at all. She’s about to marry a sweet man who works as a district attorney and works as a baking blogger who makes perfect cutesy treats. Underneath it all, she’s still rages, has blackouts, keeps people at arms’ length, suffers from depression and loneliness, and buries it all under her normalcy shield, Xanax, and wine. Sam crashes into her life and wants Quincy be to admit her anger. Sam is messy, abrasive, and most likely homeless, but she processes her past in a way Quincy refuses to. Lisa was my favorite final girl because she saw her situation as an opportunity to help other people through the darkest moment in their lives.

What follows in the book is frustrating from character actions to the way the twist is handled to the writing. Sam coaxes Quincy into playing vigilante in Central Park in the middle of the night. Not only is it incredibly stupid and dangerous, but it also takes up way too much of the book. I found it a waste of time in the book and it didn’t end up being very significant. It only served to give Sam power over Lisa. The twist at the end is unnecessarily spoon fed to the reader. The overall way of writing really bothered me because of the horrible characterizations of women and so much wrong information about them. Quincy wants everyone to read her mind and give her exactly what she wants without communicating. Of course she doesn't truly love her nice guy boyfriend because "women don't like nice guys." Sam ruins everything she touches. All are horrible female stereotypes. Small things bothered me as well like the author having absolutely no idea how bras work and claiming that true crime blogs are ran only by men because they have the time to waste??? The ID channel, Lifetime, the huge success of My Favorite Murder and podcasts like it, and all the female true crime enthusiasts would like a word with you.

Final Girls is probably the biggest let down of the year for me. I had heard such positive things, but it didn't live up to any of them. The protagonist made the most horrible decisions and the vigilante subplot just became the plot for most of the book. The obviously male author made so many generalizations about women and had no knowledge about things he should have looked up or asked about. Now I know not to read any books by Todd Ritter, the actual author of the book.

My rating: 1.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Happy Death Day

Tree wakes up on a normal day in a stranger's dorm room. She goes about her day generally being rude to people and dismissive of others until she's on her way to a party. A music box is set in the middle of a tunnel surrounded by construction lights and barriers. A baby masked killer stabs her to death and then she wakes up right back in that strange dorm room on the same day. This day, she makes it to the party, but also is stabbed to death while techno music blasts and no one can hear her screams. Tree has to find out who her killer is so she can see tomorrow.

Happy Death Day takes the concept of Groundhog's Day and gives it a horror twist with emotional weight. Tree starts out as a pretty odious person who doesn't really care about anyone but herself. She goes through her day kind of like a wrecking ball, ruining people's days and putting people down left. It can be as small as refusing to smile at a sorority sister or it can be as big as refusing to acknowledge ghosting someone she dated or sleeping with her married professor. It only takes her two days to figure out that she has to do something different and it isn't just deja vu. She starts by trying to figure out who keeps killing her, but she also changes how she goes about her day. It doesn't matter where she goes or what she does; the baby masked killer always finds her. Tree makes a suspect list and marks each person off when she finds they’re innocent.

Tree has a lot going on underneath her facade especially about her birthday which she didn’t want to tell anyone about. She shares it with hr mother, who she was close to and who died. After her mother’s death, her personality changed and she became the callous and unfeeling person she is today. Repeating the day over and over made her face the awful decisions and actions that come naturally now. Over time, she decides to smile at her sorority sister, break up with her married boyfriend, stand up to her awful sorority sister, start over with her roommate, encourage the closted gay man trying to date her, and reconnect with her father. When she finally arrives at dinner with her father, Tree is honest with him instead of pretending everything is fine. Her birthday makes her sad and lost because of the loss of her mother. The scene is very sweet and emotional when Tree finally shares her feelings and acknowledges their shared loss.

A sweet romance starts between Tree and Carter, the owner of the dorm where she wakes up every morning. Even though she’s mean to him, he always treats her with kindness and understanding. She assumes they had sex, but he reveals halfway through the movie that he let her sleep in his bed while he took his roommates’s bed because she was drunk. Every day he gives her advice and doesn’t act like her experience is totally insane. Carter even sacrifices himself to protect her from the killer. Tree thought she might beat the killer at that point, but opts to kill herself instead to make sure he’s alive when time finally moves forward. I usually hate romances in teen horror, but this one was adorable and well done.

Happy Death Day was so much better than I ever expected. The cyclical day is never explained. The killer is almost supernaturally good at tracking Tree’s movements and killing her in a variety of ways including stabbing, poisoning, and most spectacularly being blown up in a car. Their identity comes as a surprise. The reason for the killing is not great, pointed out by Tree, but people kill for dumb reasons all the time. I also didn't even notice that it was a PG-13 movie. The stakes were high and the violence didn't pull punches. It's definitely worth a watch.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Trip Yash is resigned to his life on Truog Island. He processes people coming in, makes money, and stays out of trouble. That is, until he meets Cron, a newcomer from the mainland. All of his caution goes out the window and he has sex with Cron even though it goes against every rule in the society he lives in. He's shocked when he's not dead the next morning, but he didn't get away unscathed. His arm eventually mutates into a canon of flesh that spews a corrosive, white liquid. Trip becomes a fugitive and has to choose if he wants to simply run away or try to change life on the island for good. 

Weaponized has an undeniably unique world steeped in body horror. Because of the Sex Wars and the loss of the Sexual Liberation Front, no one is allowed to have sex on Truog Island. If they do and its discovered, they will be immediately recycled, which looks like being publicly disemboweled and their body parts being repurposed to create weapons. Instead of being recycled, they can choose to become a Lich who have hardened internal organs as armor, mutilate their faces to appear more fierce, and dedicate their lives to enforcing the law. Propaganda tells the public that otherwise they'll die of the Hollow, a disease that will dissolve them from the inside. Reality shows that a variety of things can happen to them like becoming a Stalk like Trip did or gaining powers of shape or mold flesh or fusing together with a lover.

This government echoes real life situations especially with conservative states and schools who either spread misinformation about sex or flat out refuse to teach anything at all, leaving young people vulnerable to STIs and unwanted pregnancies. I also found it telling that weapons are literally made of human remains and the government was looking to find a way to kill more people to produce more weapons. When he becomes a Stalk, Trip uses his sexual drive as a literal weapon to fight against the corrupt government along with other people affected by the government's poison and disregard. These people are typically outside of the norm and seen as disposable like sexual people in general, bisexual women, and gay men. The exploitation doesn't stop at the people and extends to the island itself, which is revealed to be a living giant that poisons its inhabitants.

Weaponized is one of the weirdest books I've ever read. While the concepts are well done, some parts of the book lag. The plot and pacing lose their way in the middle of the book. I was questioning where the book was going and it lost momentum. Some processes could have been a little clear like the differences between becoming a Lich and a Stalk. There was an overabundance of ideas that sometimes weren't fully explained. Some of the descriptions grew a little monotonous. When something is described as phallic or oozing so many times, it loses its punch and doesn't seem as grotesque. Other than that, Weaponized is a bold, impressive debut novel and I look forward to more from Zac Thompson. 

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, October 23, 2017

Halloween Movie Mini-Reviews: Patchwork and Hell House LLC

* Patchwork

* spoilers *

Three women are attacked, killed, and combined to make a Frankenstein's monster-esque reanimated creature. They wake up disoriented and uncoordinated. After excaping their captors, they cooperate to figure out who did this to them and how they can go back to being three normal women. The three women couldn't be more different. Jennifer is abrasive and inconsiderate. Her boyfriend is cheating on his wife and won't give her the time of day, but she's successful in her job. Ellie is desperate for validation and will put up with so much abuse and disdain just for attention. Madeleine has a lot to hide as a serial killer.

Patchwork has a fresh, wacky concept and three fairly sympathetic protagonists. The story isn't linear and begins with  mad scientist attempting to bring the three women in one to life with a glowing syringe right out of The Re-animator. After this fails and he gives up, the women wake up and escape, trying to figure out what to do. As the action moves forward, it flashes back to get to know each of the girls and then what actually happened leading up to their creation. The way the three women communicate inside their shared head is shown by them as they used to look sitting in a room. It's starkly contrasted with how they actually look, limbs going in different directions and  twitching awkwardly. The look of them is as you would think: different skin tones and hair color put together with livid scars. The women decide to get revenge on whoever combined them and the people who have wronged them, including Jennifer's cheating boyfriend, Ellie's exploitative frat boys, and the lab workers they saw when they awakened.

Patchwork has some crazy ideas. However, some things weren't as successful as the first half of the film. A romance is forced and weird with all three women not being super into that random guy. The ending gets a bit weird. While I liked the revelation about Madeleine's involvement in the surgery, the confrontation with the mad scientist went a bit too silly even for this story, especially with the painfully bad owlcat hybrid. It's still a fun ride and worth your time if you're looking for something new.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* Hell House LLC

The Hellhouse Haunt has been succesfully delivering scares for years until 2009 when 15 people die, patrons are panicked, and the public still doesn't have specific answers about what happened. Answers from authorities are vague or intentionally misleading. A documentary crew tries to solve the mystery by interviewing survivors of the night and piecing together what happens. When a member of the Hell House crew produces tapes of everything, the truth will be revealed.

Hell House LLC is a found footage movie that combines first hand videos, interviews, and footage of the documentary investigation to tell the story of this haunt gone wrong. The company refurbished a dilapidated hotel in Abaddon, New York where terrible things are runored to have happened like suicide and satanic cults. Things seem to be going fine until weird things start happening: unexplained noises, objects moved by themselves, crew members sleepwalking, and other phenomena. The events increase in severity while the owner of the company refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong. The scares are subtle and well built, affecting each member of the team.

I found the film lacking in quite a few places. First, it seems to take quite a bit from The Houses October Built, which was executed better. They had unlikeable characters with  some redeeming qualities. These characters didn't. Second, I do not believe for a second that whatever money earned from the event is enough to risk the lives of the entire cast and crew. Third, the scares didn't ramp up enough at the end. They stayed subtle even while people were dying and it didn't seem real enough. The ending is a bit predictable and cheesy. I would probably watch a second movie, but I had too many problems with it to enter it in my yearly Halloween rotation.

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins