Monday, October 4, 2021

Horror Mini-Reviews: A Quiet Place Part II (2021) and Censor (2021)

* A Quiet Place Part II

Evelyn and her family seek a new place to live while avoiding blind aliens and feral humans. They encounter an old friend and surmise that they aren't alone in the world from a song on the radio.

A Quiet Place Part II is slightly better than its predecessor. The flashback to the very first day of the invasion is full of suspense and surprises. The CGI creatures are a little too present and in your face. The scene where Evelyn is backing up and the arm of a creature appears in the advancing bus's broken windshield is just the perfect amount of showing the creature's presence without seeing the entire thing. 

This sequel is mostly about the children taking charge, which leaves Evelyn doing almost nothing at all and Emmett, the old friend, assuming her role as protector. Regan is self possessed and does what she thinks is right no matter what. She figures out the song riddle and finds a way to help her community. The island city they find is interesting, but a weird distraction at best considering what happens to it. This installment at least felt like it was going somewhere instead of rehashing the same scene over and over like the previous film.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* Censor (2021)

Enid watches all the video nasties to judge which can be censored and which should be banned outright. She takes great pride in her work and believes she's protecting the general public from gore, murder, and depravity.  Her own sister went missing and she failed to recall any details. When she sees a film similar to that event, her world starts to unravel.

Censor is a unique film that follows up-tight and orderly Enid, who watches the most gory films as a sacrifice to protect her community (in her mind). When a man kills someone similar to a kill in a video nasty she personally approved (even thought the murderer hadn't seen it), the puritanical English public practically crucifies her. Her reputation is  fully destroyed when she is seen buying a contraband video nasty. The film's crux is that Enid can't differentiate a film from reality and she has so much guilt from her sister's death/disappearance that she would do anything to have her sister back. It says so much about society's approach to grief (as in none really) and how repression is necessary when grief isn't addressed. The delusion of the end was so surreal and perfect. I wasn't on board with every twist and turn, but the ending impressed me.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Fear Street Mini-Reviews: The New Girl, All-Night Party, and Killer's Kiss by R.L. Stine

Nostalgia re-reads! I read every single Fear Street book I could get my hands on as a kid and I'm rereading them to see how they hold up over time.

* The New Girl by R.L. Stine

Gymnast Cory falls for Anna without knowing anything about her. He loses interest in everything but her and she isn't who she seems. This is the very first Fear Street novel and it shows. Cory is an absolute idiot, throwing everything in his life away for a random girl he sees a few glimpses of. He has no idea that his best friend Lisa has a crush on him no matter how overt her feelings. The book is choppily written and doesn't have a lot of connective tissue. The only really interesting parts have Cory escaping a house out of a tree with his gymnast skills and visiting the very spooky Fear Street with its abandoned mansion and eerie residents. The ending ties up a little too neatly and the whole thing is a bit forgettable.

My rating: 1.5/5 fishmuffins

* All-Night Party by R.L. Stine

It's Cindy's birthday so naturally her friends kidnap her and take her to Fear Island for an all night party. Cindy is killed during the night. Was it one of her friends, her boyfriend, or the escaped convict? This is #43 in the series. The writing feels more fluid and the story more complete. This is a nice intro to murder mysteries. Most of the characters have some sort of motive and plenty had the opportunity. We follow Gretchen as she works to figure out who killed her best friend on a remote island with no phones and pre-internet. The characters feel a bit like paper dolls and not real teens, but it's so much better than The New Girl. The dialogue in particular feels unnatural. The ending is clever and unexpected with suspicion cast on many. I didn't predict who it was in the end and that impressed me.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* Killer's Kiss by R.L. Stine

Delia and Karina compete over everything from a prestigious art scholarship to their unknowingly shared boyfriend Vincent. Delia is terrorized with worse and worse instances of destroying her work or physical attacks, making everyone suspect Karina. The escalating harassment and attacks get pretty scary for a teen book of this era. I don't like Vincent at all, who works to keep both girls in the dark about his relationship with the other, and I wonder why these two talented girls bother with him at all. It all seems so misogynistic like girls have nothing better to do but fight over trivial things. This type of relationship between girls is seen in almost all the Fear Street books I've reread. I guess it's a sign of when it was written, but it's disappointing nonetheless. I remember Killer's Kiss being a favorite of mine as a kid because of the crazy twist at the end which seems more obvious reading as an adult and the ending monologue out of nowhere seems a bit bizarre. 

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins

I'll be covering a few more and hope the supernatural stories are a bit better. With the Netflix movies, people are charging kind of a lot for second hand copies, so special thanks to the LA County Library system for having all of these on Libby to borrow. Kindle Unlimited also has a few Fear Street titles. 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Unholy (2021)

 * The Unholy (2021)

* spoilers *

Alice, a young girl who is both deaf and mute, can miraculously hear and speak, in addition to having visions of Mary. Disgraced journalist Gerry Fen stumbles onto the case and turns out to be the only one Alice will speak with. He sees this as an opportunity to regain his former glory while she just wants to foster belief in Mary. Many flock to Alice for miraculous healing but only after promising to believe in and pledging themselves Mary. Her following grows incredibly large before anyone starts to question the identity of Mary.

The Unholy has an interesting concept and good actors, but falls flat in the creature and its design. I'm not a usual fan of religious horror, but this hits my wheelhouse as an ex-Catholic critical of the church. It's assumed that Mary is the Virgin Mary, but she definitely is not. Her backstory as a witch rightfully burned by the church isn't my favorite, but the wider implications of her being evil made me enjoy this film way more than I expected. The Catholic Church enjoys the great amount of attention and money that comes with Mary and ignore anything that stands in their way. Seems about right. Cary Elwes plays the Catholic authority figure, Bishop Gyles, who at first seems pious and gentle only to be exposed as an opportunistic charlatan. 

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is excellent at being a charming, sympathetic character despite any flaws and Gerry Fen is no different. At the start, Gerry is an alcoholic clamoring for any fragment of a story to sell no matter how small to the least credible magazine ever. He unwittingly creates this story by destroying an old doll he finds in a field. Once he meets Alice, he takes an interest in her and prioritizes Alice's needs over his own greed and drive to return to his rightful place in his career. To foil Bishop Gyles, he goes from someone willing to do anything to earn some money to someone willing to tank their newfound fame to save an innocent girl and the world.

Where The Unholy stumbles is with Mary herself. Her backstory aside, she's a CGI creature that isn't very detailed and just looks bug-eyed and strange. Every scare involving her fell flat and since she's the main antagonist, the horror elements are lacking. I don't understand why she couldn't have been portrayed by an actual person with makeup or practical effects or CGI enhancements. 

The Unholy is a surprisingly decent religious horror movie that doesn't view the church or its acolytes as heroes or saviors. Normal people doing the right thing are the heroes. I would love more in the subgenre along this vein. If it were a drama, it would have been more memorable, but the horror elements are forgettable and not scary outside of some cheap jumpscares. It's worth a watch, but I wouldn't buy it. 

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, October 1, 2021

Manga Mini-Reviews: Those Not-So-Sweet Boys 1 by Yoko Nogiri and Sensor by Junji Ito

* Those Not-So-Sweet Boys 1 by Yoko Nogiri

Midori drops her wallet at school and Ichijo saves it from shady students looking to steal. It would be all the more devastating because her mom can't afford rent with out her part-time earnings from working at a bar. The chairman of the school sees her in her work uniform and strikes a deal with her: if she can get Ichijo and his troublemaker friends to return to school and participate, she will get a school approved job. Midori jumps at the chance, but it might be a bigger problem than she can handle.

Those Not-So-Sweet Boys is an adorable slice of life manga with a surprisingly heartwarming core. Midori sacrifices everything to provide for her family and take care of her brother. She doesn't mind missing out on typical teen things so her family can afford rent and her brother can be a kid. On the other hand, Ichijo and his two friends are from pretty affluent backgrounds and have bad reputations at school. As Midori gets to know them, she sees that it's mostly the result of misunderstandings and bored teens making stuff up. She sees that underneath their spiky, aloof exteriors, they are nice, decent boys that stick close together.

This manga is a fluffy, cute read. I felt for Midori and enjoyed the twists and turns of the story. I wouldn't buy the rest of the series, but I wouldn't mind checking it out from the library and seeing where the story goes. 

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* Sensor by Junji Ito

Kyoko Byakuya is drawn Kiyokami village near dormant volcano Mount Sengoku. The inhabitants have shining golden strands in their hair that allow them to communicate with their minds and see into the cosmos. The strands are dried lava from the volcano that fall like rain. She stays to witness their ritual, but it all goes terribly wrong. 60 years later, tales of Kyoko endure and send many searching for her.

Sensor is a cosmic horror tale that differs from Ito's previous work. It's not as gruesome, but still has disturbing themes and situations in science fiction trappings. I was unnerved at the beginning because I expected the idyllic, almost Stepford-like village to have a dark underbelly, but I was wrong. The opposing cult of course wants to use the strands and cosmic power to call up a great darkness. Dueling cults surrounding the same supernatural phenomenon is something I'm surprised hasn't been explored more and I loved it. I am also interested in the background story in the Edo era (between 1603 and 1867) where a Christion missionary was harbored by the village, but eventually he was killed by the Shogunate for not renouncing his faith. I would have loved to see more of this time period in the manga before it moved on.

The villains are compelling, but felt pretty one dimensional.  I wish some of the ideas had been more developed. It felt a little like a rumination on the same ideas as Remina. I've been seeing criticism that this "isn't horror" and falls flat. Sensor is a departure from Ito's usual flavor of horror, but the shift to cosmic horror is equally effective and still employs his usual macabre art and body horror. Overall, Sensor had some interesting ideas and amazing art as always. I always look forward to  more of Ito's releases. 

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Franchise Marathon: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

 * Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

* spoilers *

Tina Shepard after her telekinetic abilities emerged years ago resulting in the death of her abusive father by Crystal Lake. Now a teenage, she is struggling with guilt and her mental health. Her psychiatrist prompts her and her mother to move back to the lakeside cabin as a way to access her powers, but she ends up awakening Jason Vorhees who was left chained at the bottom of the lake. The partying teens next to Tina's cabin don't stand a chance.

The New Blood is one of my favorite of the franchise. It stops trying to make sense or be plausible in the world and just has fun. Tina is an amazing character and it's nice to have a final girl again with the back and forth of Tommy's state as victim/hero or villain. I feel for Tina and immediately felt for her when she was verbally abused by Dr. Crews, the dubious psychiatrist. She of course falls for  Nick, which causes a bunch of teen drama next door. 

Jason is a full fledged zombie in this installment, revealing a horrific, rotted face. His kills are fun with some unique weapons and his fight with Tina is a welcome change to the slasher formula. Another change is the secondary villain in Dr. Crews. He was awful from his very first scene and even used a teen as a human shield to save himself. Usually the secondary villains are well meaning police, so it's nice to have a true human villain to go against both Tina and Jason. It's disappointing that Tina never returns in subsequent installments, but this is top tier in the franchise. 

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins 

* Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

Jason is back! He is resurrected on Crystal Lake where the SS Lazarus happens to be leaving with the senior class of Lakeview High School. Most of the teens are more concerned about drugs, having sex, and blackmailing the chaperons, but Rennie is more concerned with her aquaphobia. As Jason slices and dices through the distracted teens, Rennie and her boyfriend Nick try to save everyone before it's too late.

You might wonder why this is called Jason Takes Manhattan at all since it's essentially Jason on a cruise ship. Apparently actually filming the whole movie in Manhattan would have been too expensive, so only the ending has the iconic scene with Jason in Times Square.  The title is super misleading and it's no wonder why so many don't like this installment.

The cruise ship part is actually better than I expected. The kills are still fun, a mainstay in the series. However, the destined to die teens are flimsiest, most unlikeable characters that feel more like parodies of teens. Even with all its flaws, it's a fun, cheesy film perfect for movie nights with friends. It's not the greatest in the series by far, but worth a watch. 

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

* spoilers *

Jonah Keller is struggling to make it in New York with very little money or prospects for more than minimum wage pay. He dreams to be a playwright, but has no connections to the industry. His grand plan is to spend money on an exorbitantly expensive outfit and seduce rich, powerful, and successful playwright Richard Shriver. The plan works and after a little while, Jonah is invited to Richard's luxurious commune with other writers and artists. This should be his in to a career and being mentored by titans of the industry, but things don't turn out as planned.

Yes, Daddy starts out a bit like Joe from Caroline Klepnes' You with shallow, selfish Jonah essentially cyberstalking Richard Shriver and writing out topics for future conversations. He selfishly expects his mother to fund his expenses while he uses his own money to appear rich and ensnare his prey. I found him pretty insufferable, but intrigued at where the story was going. The romance goes as one would expect: instant connection and attraction with some ups and downs. 

The meat of the story comes in when they go to Richard's artist commune together. It's not all relaxing and extravagant dinners. At first, Richard's friends are hard to please and enjoy making Jonah feel like an outsider. Then, red flags start to present themselves with missing people, knowing references, and  The gothic novel element comes in with half remembered assaults and blackouts caused by excessive drinking and drugs in Richard's commune where he has complete control over everyone and everything. All the others act like everything is normal, but Jonah knows he's being gaslit even if he can't remember everything. This part of the novel is extremely well done, revealing Jonah's evangelical past and showing the dark underbelly of Richard's commune.

The book falls flat in the ending where Jonah finds solace in religion once again after being abused in both the evangelical church of his childhood and in another church after he escapes Richard's commune. It felt like a bait and switch and didn't really make sense to me after he had so many negative experiences with various branches of Christianity. Besides the ending, Yes, Daddy is a compelling twist on the gothic novel that kept my interest through every twist and turn.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Franchise Marathon: Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

 * Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

* spoilers*

Tommy Jarvis has spent years in a mental institution dealing with the trauma of Jason Voorhees' murders. He finds himself transferred to Pinehurst Halfway House to live with more freedom among other troubled teens. They are hated by their neighbors, but Dr. Letter, the manager, seems to believe in rehabilitating his charges. One of the teens is murdered by another in a fit of rage, leading to more scrutiny and disapproval of the program. The murderer is arrested, but more murders follow with Jason's usual methods. 

A New Beginning starts out fresh with a different feeling from the other films. Troubled teens work and learn skills that will help them reacclimate to society. Sounds great until one of the charges kills another gruesomely and with no warning. That caught me completely off guard and I had no idea what to expect going forward. It felt a bit like Nightmare 3 with mismatched misfits that you can't help but like despite their flaws. They all suspect each other when the murders continue. Tommy is the unfortunate newcomer who hasn't had a chance to form attachments. He doesn't say much and continues his childhood love of monsters by creating his own incredibly detailed masks. I felt for him throughout the movie. 

I appreciate when a franchise tries to break away from its main character (like Halloween III), but it just doesn't work here. The rest of the movie after the initial kill is fairly familiar and formulaic. The ending isn't as fresh as its beginning and feels like a bad Scooby Doo episode with a tacked on ending, again making it seem like Tommy will hurt people. Perhaps it was an idea to have him continue as Jason, but it was obviously scrapped in the end. 

My rating: 2.5/5 fishmuffins

* Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Tommy Jarvis is back and recently released from a mental institution after he killed Jason years ago. He finds Jason's body and accidentally resurrects the body when trying to destroy it. Now, he's frantically trying to warn the former Camp Crystal Lake (now Camp Forest Green) residents about Jason, but Sheriff Mike Garris dismisses it as hallucinations from a disturbed mind. Only his daughter Megan believes Tommy and of course falls in love with him. As the body count rises, Garris blames Tommy and Jason is dismissed as an urban legend, leaving him free to slaughter.

Jason Lives is a fun installment to the Friday the 13th franchise. It has everything: super cheesy acting, a sappy love story (based on a very short, shallow relationship), and fun kills. Tommy Jarvis has turned into the Nancy Thompson of the franchise, hellbent on defeating Jason once and for all while no one believes him. The writers had to retcon the end of the last movie to get him there and I think it was a good decision.

Jason is explicitly supernatural for the first time, resurrected by electricity like Frankenstein's monster and trapped by his home soil like a vampire. It took a while, but this installment finally puts Jason in his own category instead of being a cheap copy of another slasher killer. It's so fun to watch him slice and dice through unsuspecting corporate workers and other bystanders. This is the first time we see the camp actually functional and Jason only kills counselors, not the children. Overall, Jason Lives is heavier on the comedy side and just fun to watch. 

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins