Saturday, December 29, 2018

Holiday Horror: All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018)

All the Creatures Were Stirring is an anthology holiday horror film. The frame story has friends Max and Jenna seeing an avant garde, minimalist play on Christmas Eve. A title card for each segment is presented and a part of it is pantomimed after each one. Overall, the frame story is cute and a little weird. The ending of it (titled And To All a Good Night) seems unfinished, but is definitely creepy and unsettling.

* All the Stockings Were Hung

A corporate Christmas party with white elephant gifts goes horribly wrong. Someone decides to make it his personal Saw where the building is flooded with toxic gas and coworkers have to open presents that could be conventional presents, weapons, or something that exposes a secret. This segment ramps up really fast with the first surprising kill. People's behavior goes south real fast as this sick game continues. The corporate environment is captured well and a few kills are unexpected and well done. It's a fun short for sure, but the bad effects, tenuous logic in choices, and spotty acting held it back.

* Dash Away All

A man is last minute grocery shopping on Christmas Even when he locks his phone and keys in his car. The only people around are three women in a van, so he approaches them for help. This is my favorite segment by far because the concept and execution are the best. There's a little bit of Christmas in the family frustration and shopping aspect and a really interesting creature that is mostly kept hidden. It's hard to talk about this one with spoilers, but it's the most successful and fun of all the segments.

* All Through the House

A curmudgeonly man, who hates his neighbors and their gaudy Christmas decorations, decides to stay home and watch TV on Christmas. It's essentially a modern, short take on A Christmas Carol with a coke-snorting jerk instead of a greedy old man. This segment is pretty forgettable for the most part because it doesn't really do anything to the formula of the story. The rest comes off as silly and weird without much of a payoff.

* Arose Such a Clatter

A distracted driver hits a reindeer and bashes its head in to put it out of its misery, but something witnesses the accident and follows him home. The concept is fun and one of my favorites, but the reality disappoints. It's revealed quickly that the reindeer is Blitzen, so Rudolph watches and seeks revenge. This could have been so fun, but Rudolph is never shown. We only see his red tinted point of view. The budget clearly wasn't there to fully flesh out the unique concept and the acting makes the characters seem like they aren't taking the threat seriously.

* In a Twinkling

Gabby and her friends have a surprise Christmas party at her boyfriend Steve's house. He always spends Christmas alone and they all will soon find out why. This segment would fit in well with The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. There are automaton people who look like their friends, some unknowable beings, and a surprisingly sweet ending. This one has the best acting by far and it's a wonderful segment to end on.

Overall, All the Creatures Were Stirring has a lot of potential and good concepts, but the execution suffers at times. Most of the segments look very low budget and what visual effects looked shoddy. Many segments are supposedly to be dark comedies, but the execution made it fall flat for me. I had high expectations for this, especially with the inclusion of several talented indie horror actors. However, there's something missing in the writing and acting and the budget seemed to limit their ideas.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Holiday Horror: Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

In Little Haven, Anna and her friends are seniors in high school and poised on embarking their adult lives. As they agonize about the effect they have on the world, what they will do next year, and if their love is returned, zombies take over their town on Christmas. Anna and her friends must hack, slash, sing, and dance their way to the school to rescue their friends and families.

Anna and the Apocalypse is a breath of fresh air in the current state of horror. Most films take themselves deadly serious and it's nice to have a horror comedy that provides gore, some drama, a little bit of sadness, and a lot of humor. Our protagonist Anna is bored with her small town and wants more for her life than what her friends and father want for her. Her friends want everything to stay the same so they hang out and have fun while her dad wants her to immediately go to college and embark on a career. She wants to explore the world and find her place in it before she settles down to adult life. This is met with incredulity and eye rolls from everyone around her. It's a horrible feeling at any age to not be supported by those around you.

The other teens have different goals in mind. John is Anna's best friend and completely in love with her. He has conventional dreams to go to college. Their friends Chris and Lisa are rather wrapped up in each other. Steph is more of an outcast, but wants to truly make a difference in her community while being thwarted by classmates and authority figures at every turn. This varied view of teens feels refreshing. They aren't all bored or consumed by technology or monolithic in any way. Everyone wants something different and wishes others would see and support them. The one outlier is Anna's ex Nick, a bully who spread rumors about Anna. Even his character is fleshed out and sympathetic by the end of the film.

The songs prove to be much better than I expected. In the trailers, the tune and words seemed fairly basic. However, each song shows how a character feels and is fun to listen to. Break Away and Hollywood Ending establish the characters and what makes them tic with relatable themes of fitting in, the unknown of the future, frustration, and dreams. It's That Time of Year is ridiculously laden with double entendres, a more vulgar Santa Baby. Soldier at War is my favorite zombie fighting song with sass and energy. My favorite visually is Turning My Life around because Anna and John obliviously sing this upbeat, inspirational song as zombies destroy their town.  Even seemingly throwaway songs are a delight like Christmas Means Nothing Without You and The Fish Wrap. The former could have been any Christmas song, but it gave a specific flavor at the start of the film. The latter is so silly and punny that I wish it were longer. The songwriting is good on every song even if the production and orchestration aren't the best. The use of non-autotuned voices is not only refreshing, but makes the characters and the film have a sense of realism and vulnerability.

The actual plot is pretty basic with Anna and her friends gathering weapons (the best being the giant candy cane lawn ornament) and saving their friends and family. Tonally, the vast majority of the film is lighthearted and fun, which I love. Some scenes are more comedic like Headmaster Savage's whole character and his songs. He desperately wants to control everyone in the school and becomes hilariously unhinged when zombies attack. When people start dying, it just doesn't have the emotional resonance needed. It seems out of character compared to the rest of it and simply doesn't fit. It's the only real flaw in an otherwise fun, enjoyable film. The ending has a dose of realism that felt more in line with everything else.

I knew Anna and the Apocalypse was my kind of movie just from the trailers. This Christmas zombie romantic comedy musical combines the gore and horror of zombie films, the wonder of Christmas, and the warm fuzzies of a romantic comedy with some surprisingly well written songs. The main characters feel real with their own view of the world and how they fit in it. The film's biggest strength is taking its teen characters seriously and portraying them as varied. I had so much fun watching Anna and the Apocalypse and I'm eager to own it to put into my yearly Christmas viewing rotation.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Holiday Horror: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's A Midwinter's Tale

A Midwinter's Tale is a holiday episode that takes place right after the end of the first season. Sabrina has signed her name in the Book of the Beast and essentially turns her back on her mortal life. The winter solstice is when the veil between this world and the world of the dead is thinnest, so witches huddle around their yule logs, lit all day and night to stave off supernatural threats. Sabrina decides to have a seance to contact her mother trapped in limbo, but Madam Satan extinguishes their Yule log at the same time to expose her and her family to dangerous creatures.

A Midwinter's Tale is a fun interlude between the first and second seasons of the show that deals with the fallout of the season one finale and draws from various dark Yuletide mythologies. Susie and Roz are still being awful, shunning Sabrina even though they had hidden powers they didn't tell her about. Sabrina is equally terrible because she still arrogantly solves Harvey's problems with magic even though she knows he wouldn't want that. He rightly sets a defined, specific boundary against Sabrina using magic on or around him even though he already made his feelings clear. I'm excited to see more of this confident Harvey in the next season.

The Church of Night celebrates Yuletide in their own way with pentagram wreaths, Yule trees with Satanist ornaments, sharing ghost stories, and an ever burning Yule log to stave off evil spirits loose in the world. It's charming and a wonderfully dark version of the holiday. Sabrina decides to use this dangerous day to have a seance to contact her mother trapped in limbo. Madame Satan decides to sabotage the effort because Satan ignored her victory in getting Sabrina to sign his book. It's disappointing to see Madam Satan being so insecure and vindictive after being the grand manipulator of the first season.

Two figures from Christmas folklore make an appearance. The first is Gryla called upon to collect her Yule lads, mischievous spirit children who have invaded the Spellman home and played some dangerous tricks. When alive, she made a pact with another witch to eat their own children to survive. Gryla ate her child, but the other witch didn't, so she has spent over a thousand years collecting children. The Icelandic myth has her eating misbehaving children, so the show takes some liberties. However, I enjoyed the tricky way the Spellman's dealt with her. The second figure is Bartel, a demon who collects beautiful people and encases them in wax a la House of Wax. In actuality, he's the Austrian version of Krampus, but his embellished method of punishment is nightmarish. These figures are tricky for the Spellmans to navigate around and brought a fun horror flavor to Christmas.

A Midwinter's Tale is only one episode, but it made me excited for the next season of the show. The biggest take away for me is the stark difference between Sabrina and Zelda. Sabrina is willing to risk everyone else to get what she wants (as observed by Zelda) while Zelda is willing to have Leticia raised by other witches for her safety. Other than that, I did love some of the developments with the seance and Sabrina's mother. This holiday special ended with a bang and showed promise for further episodes.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Tom Skelton, Fred Fryer, Wally Babb, Ralph Bengstrum, Henry-Hank Smith, Hackles Nibley, George Smith, and J.J. dress in costume and plan to go trick or treating on Halloween. Their friend Joe Pipkin felt sick and stayed home, but was on his way to join them when the others an elderly neighbor named Mr. Moundshroud. Pipkin is taken by something dark while the old man takes the rest of the boys on an adventure through time and space to save their friend.

The Halloween Tree is a story I had heard about for a while, but I had never got around to reading. It was so much different than I expected. The way the children in the novel and the children reading the novel are treated is impressive. Bradbury captures the joy and freedom of childhood with these nine friends. They are almost like forces of nature at the beginning of the novel running towards their meeting spot. Very quickly, their relationship and comraderie are established before embarking on their adventure. Pipkin is portrayed as kind of the Peter Pan of boys, the most fun and the pinnacle of them. Their love and respect for him is especially important because they spend their whole journey following him through time and to different locations and struggling to save him.

Mr. Moundshroud takes the boys on a journey to show them the origins of Halloween and their own costumes, traveling with them to ancient Egypt, druidic rituals, the gargoyles of Notre Dame, and the Dia de los Muertos celebration in South America. Bradbury doesn't shy away from the realities of the celebrations as recognizing death and rebirth. He combines historical accuracy with fantastical whimsy in such a satisfying way. My favorite sequence was showing how civilizations are destroyed and replaced with regularity and not much difference. The scene with the giant Grim Reaper cutting down bugs indiscriminately while the boys have also turned into bugs is so frightening and real for a children's book. This part with the ending of the novel has the young boys facing the realities of death in a fantastical way as well as a very grounded and real way.

The Halloween Tree is a literary masterpiece that holds up well today. I was ready to be disappointed by the story, but it combines the playful nature of childhood with a supernatural journey, the origin and purpose of Halloween, and the reality of death. Every character is so well drawn and dynamic that the fantastical journey has true stakes that tugged at my heartstrings. The art on the cover and throughout the novel capture the mood and prove timeless. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone, especially if they love Halloween. I will put this in my yearly reading rotation for the Halloween season.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: Alice Sweet Alice (1976) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

* Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

In 1961, sisters Alice and Karen attend a Catholic school where Alice will be getting the sacrament of her first Holy Communion. Karen is incredibly jealous of Alice and misbehaved overall. So, when Alice is found strangled and her body hidden, Karen is suspected of the murder. As the bodies pile up, more and more blame her, but is a little girl capable of murder?

Alice Sweet Alice is an underappreciated slasher that has relevant themes and weird story lines. Karen is an insufferable child prone to tantrums, whining, and histrionics. However, she is mistreated by almost everyone in the film and is constantly compared to her well behaved, angelic older sister who gets everything that she doesn't. She is even denied the sacrament of communion because she was born out of wedlock, something that she had no control over. Every adult in the film is awful in some way, from the lecherous and filthy Mr. Alphonse (who tries to molest her) to her aunt (who isn't shy about displaying her dislike of the little girl) to her own parents (who hold her at arms length even when she's punished for their actions). Watching the film, Karen is annoying, but she understandably acts this way because everyone in her life failed her.

The slasher wears a distinctive outfit of a yellow rain coat and an eerie clear mask, both things that Karen are seen wearing throughout the film. The murderer is a mundane person with twisted, religious motivations that do align with Catholic Church teachings (without the murder). It shows how toxic these judgmental teachings can be when applied to the real world as well as inside the church. The murders are well done, but not especially graphic. Alice Sweet Alice touches on a lot of sensitive subjects and handles them fairly well. I hope this film is eventually restored because the version on Amazon Prime is very sepia toned. The film is unique in the slasher genre and has more to do with Hitchcock murder mysteries than Friday the 13th.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

* Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Winslow Leach dreams of making it big in the music industry and thinks he did when record producer Swan uses his songs for the nostalgia band The Juicy Fruits. However, Winslow goes back to Death Records to follow up and is thrown out. He breaks in and Swan frames him for drug dealing, where he goes to jail and has his teeth extracted for metal dentures. Winslow breaks out again and again breaks into Death Records to destroy the records and presses, but he falls face first into a press, scarring his face and destroying his vocal cords. He steals a costume and vows to destroy the company and its productions and performances until he hears a woman sing named Phoenix, whose voice entrances him. He agrees to writer music for Swan and stop his reign of terror if Phoenix sings his music.

Phantom of the Paradise has a much more complicated story than above that I didn't realize until I tried to write it out. Despite what the title implies, the story is more of a retelling of Faust with a small dash of The Phantom of the Opera and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Everything is just kind of thrown together with over the top 70's rock opera with equally cartoonish characters. Winslow is sympathetic in every tragedy he experiences and ends up with a robotic voice and metal teeth masked in a metallic bird outfit. Phoenix, his muse, is a beautiful performer and initially balks at trading sexual favors for fame, but eventually takes up a relationship with Swan. I particularly enjoyed this departure because Winslow felt betrayed that his idealized mental picture of her (since he never even met her) didn't match with the reality. Everything is overwrought and dramatic within the glitzy backdrop of the hedonistic and enticing music scene.

Swan is the cackling villain of the piece who doesn't care for his performers or songwriters, opting to literally kill them when he no longer has use for them and they want their pay. It's a not very subtle jab at real life music producers who exploit their talent, coerce them into binding contracts that don't benefit them, and drop them when they are no longer successful. One of my favorite characters is Beef, a talented diva who has deeper layers. This character is coded as queer and unfortunately played for laughs, but shows the person underneath the facade. Phantom of the Paradise is rightfully a cult classic that I wish more people would watch and talk about. If you like over the top musical theater and horror films, I would highly recommend this one.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, October 29, 2018

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: Hell Fest (2018) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

* Hell Fest (2018)

Natalie returns to to her hometown to visit her best friend Brooke only to find an enemy from high school living there too. Together, with boyfriends and Gavin (to set up with Natalie) in tow, they all go to Hell Fest, a new Halloween haunt at an amusement park that pushes the boundaries. Natalie sees a masked man kill a panicked girl and dismisses it as a realistic act, but when the man follows them throughout the park, she thinks he might actually be dangerous.

Hell Fest is a fun, solid slasher film. The characters are fun and developed enough to root for and the killer feels scary and omnipresent. Natalie is afraid of Hell Fest and her friends really aren't the best to cajole her into it, but Brooke and Taylor are just delightful. Brooke supports her friends completely and Taylor's infectious excitement and fun nature made me like her despite Natalie's reluctance. The killer is known as The Other (only in the credits) and he completely blends in with the employees. He easily enters the park, steals a weapon, and picks out his victims for the night. The concept of the film creeps me out because I love events like this and real violence could blend into set pieces and tableaus as well done effects.

The kills are well done and there are enough misdirects to keep the plot interesting even though it's a bit predictable. Tony Todd makes a wonderful cameo and I wish he had a more major part. The mazes portrayed in the film are the only flaw. I've been to quite a few haunts and many of the set pieces looked cheap and not very impressive. Even the "extreme haunt" being that actors can touch you felt like a bit of a let down. Extreme haunts mean crazy borderline torture like McKamey Manor. Other than that, Hell Fest is a worthy entry into the slasher subgenre and has a fun ending.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

* Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

F.W. Murnau travels to Czechoslovakia with his cast and crew to shoot his slightly changed film adaptation of Dracula called Nosferatu. No one knows anything about Max Schreck, the star actor of the film to portray the vampire. He only appears in costume and in character, but he acts strangely. As filming goes on, crew disappear, cast is attacked, and the director keeps filming no matter what happens.

Shadow of the Vampire is an underrated gem of a film that combines horror elements and pitch dark comedy. Even though it's the tonal opposite of Nosferatu, this film recreates so many of its shots perfectly and captures the tone of that film alongside the separate, offscreen story. Willem Dafoe captures the vampire's inhumanity and his comic ignorance of human society. The rest of the cast and crew are so wrapped up in themselves and on mind altering substances that they don't seem to notice anything other than an eccentric actor. John Malkovich plays a cruel version of F.W. Murnau who trades lives for the perfect film and commits everything to film no matter how horrible.

The situations are both dark and hilarious with some moments of genuine emotion. It's tragic that Greta and the other actors are reduced to food. The vampire's sadness is palpable when he speaks of eternal life, not knowing how to destroy himself, and forgetting the niceties of human society. If you haven't seen this film, I would highly recommend it. Just brace yourself for strange characters and bizarre situations that have nothing to do with the reality of creating Nosferatu. Unfortunately, this film's only release is on grainy, horrible DVD and I hope something like Scream Factory will pick it up for a much needed Bluray release.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Journalist Taylor Gentry and her crew follow Leslie Vernon, aspiring slasher killer, as he prepares to embark on his first killing spree. Every step is documented from stalking and terrorizing his potential final girl to his intense physical training to the planning of every stage of the night of the spree. They even get to meet his aged mentor, a retired killer himself. When the night of the spree comes, Taylor and the crew have to decide if they will stand by and document the carnage or do something to stop his reign of terror and death.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is one of the best meta horror films yet it's still underappreciated. It has everything: a unique world, relatable well drawn characters, laugh out loud humor, and accurate analysis and breakdown of the slasher genre. The world within the film has all the famous horror film slasher killers like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, and Michael Myers as real people terrorizing real cities and victims. Leslie’s mentor Eugene is implied to be Billy from Black Christmas with comments about a singular sprees in the 60’s and 70’s and disappearing with no plans to return. His jealousy and admiration is palpable at the change the newer slashers made to the genre and at Leslie as he embarks on his own slasher journey.

Leslie Vernon has studied their stories, analyzed them, and found the best way to create his mythology. A local urban legend says thatTwenty years ago, an angry mob took a boy they claimed was possessed by evil. He is thrown over a waterfall. Now, the boy returns to bring vengeance upon the town’s youth. He has planned everything down to the letter and is eager to follow through, already harassing his potential final girl for weeks at her work and ramping up his cardio to catch up with victims while not appearing winded. You might think he would be creepy, but he proves to be a funny, likeable guy. As he gets to know the documentary crew, they become friends and start to become invested in his journey.

The documentary crew follows him through his planning and training phase to actually enacting his plan, step by step. First, Taylor questions him extensively and wants him to explain his motivation, but he refuses, prompting her to find her own answer as they cover his journey. Then they start helping him terrorize his potential final girl, planting evidence for her to find, and documenting his first encounter with his Ahab, essentially Dr. Loomis from Halloween. When they try to interview his final girl, Leslie shows them a bit of how dangerous he can be. Once the fateful night comes, Taylor and the crew change their minds and try to stop Leslie since he's explained every step to them. This is the amazing moment where it goes from mockumentary style to third person. Now, Taylor and the crew are in the slasher film they helped create with some clues, but Leslie also planned for the possibility that they would interfere.

Leslie goes from friendly and affable to a silent, brutal masked killer. He refuses to speak to them and mechanically dispatches his victims one by one. The crew adds to the slasher's story and mythology/ Taylor finds herself the post-modern final girl, chosen by Leslie before anything even started and shown everything in the process. She has to decide if she will take the mantle of final girl, lose her innocence, and get her revenge or if she will just be another in a long list of victims. Either way, she is adding to this slasher's notoriety and mythology, just like he wanted. Leslie knows he might not survive the night, but he will still achieve slasher killer status.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon takes every slasher convention, discusses them at length, and manufactures them. It critiques some of the exploitative elements, lays out the changes from the subgenre's origins, and provides apt (mostly Freudian) analysis of slasher films and final girls. While all of this is wonderrul, the film is also full of relatable characters and tons of laugh out loud moments. If you haven't seen this film, I highly recommend it. It made very little money in its original theatrical run and now has a cult following, but I would love to eventually see a sequel made to analyze and skewer all of those conventions.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 1

Sabrina Spellman is part of two worlds: the witch world and mortal world. As her sixteenth birthday nears, she has to decide if she sign her name in the Book of the Beast during her dark baptism which will mean she serves Satan and leaves her mortal life forever. Her home is steeped in magic with her aunts Zelda and Hilda, who have raised her since her parents died in a plane crash, and her cousin Ambrose being witches. Her best friends Susie and Roz plus her beloved boyfriend Harvey are part of her regular, mortal high school and in integral part of her life. How can she choose between two such integral parts of her life?

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina started out as a pitch dark 60's style comic book reimagining of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The adaptation to television changed quite a bit, making it more appropriate for teens, dialing back the horror elements, changing many characters entirely, and setting the show in present day with a retro flare. The show is a bit of a mixed bag with some unique elements and some that fall flat.

The world of witches is extremely entertaining with its over the top and dramatic nature, rituals, and long list of rules. They worship Satan and seem rather evil, but most situations with anything truly dark are played off comedically or pulled back before anything horrific happens. For instance, cannibalism seems to a typical part of their rituals and done just for fun, but it's either stopped before it happens (even though this particular ritual happens every year) or in a dream and so over the top it isn't taken seriously (even though the meal is a child). There is also an added element where the show says that witches can't love, but we see plenty of witch characters expressing love: Zelda and Hilda for Sabrina, Ambrose and his boyfriend, and the High Priest for his wife and child. I love the aesthetics and creepiness of this brand of fictional Satanism, but the tone is confused and doesn't seem to know if it's supposed to be evil, good, or somewhere in between.

Sabrina is a frustrating character who throws herself into dangerous situations without a thought to who might get hurt or what could go wrong. Her selfishness extends to how she treats her boyfriend and uses magic on him or around him to solve problems. She even goes as far as to commit murder as long is it can be magically reversed. Her main goal is to defeat Satan even while she draws power from him to do magic. Sabrina is more selfish and arrogant, thinking what she's doing is good even as it blows up in her face and hurts everyone around her. The worst instance is when she brings back Harvey's brother from the dead after he died in a mine accident. She didn't know that his soul has be brought back as well and doesn't want to take responsibility for her huge mistake. This chosen one story is a bit of a let down when the person is one of the worst on the show.

The best characters on the show are Zelda and Hilda. Zelda and Hilda are co-dependent and very different from each other. Zelda is completely devout in her faith and strives to be what Satan and the High Priest want her to be. At every turn, she panics that Sabrina is being led on the wrong path. She seems to hate and resent Hilda, but deep down she truly loves and depends on her. Her snarky comments, constant smoking, and fashionable black outfits improve every scene she's in. Hilda is the most sunny and cheerful of the whole show. She's completely supportive of Sabrina and doesn't let her church, her sister, or anything change her at her core. When she becomes excommunicated from the church, she goes on with her life and takes steps to become more independent. I'm eager to see more of these two in the next season.

Other favorites include Sabrina's cousin Ambrose and Madame Satan. Ambrose has so many more problems than Sabrina, but she can only come to him when she needs something instead of thinking of solutions for his house arrest or offering any help at all. His relationship with Luke is the most adorable of the show and the one I care the most about. He's one of the most intriguing characters of the show and he's criminally underutilized at this point. Madame Satan, on the other hand, is in almost every episode behind the scenes, pulling the strings to get Sabrina to turn towards Satan. She takes the form of Mrs. Wardwell, but killed her and essentially puppets her form. Madam Satan saves Sabrina at almost every turn, acting as one part fairy godmother, one part master manipulator. Michelle Gomez infuses the character with confidence, attitude, and a healthy dose of evil.

Sabrina, Susie, and Roz are best friends for years, but Sabrina has been keeping her witch background a secret. Her friends wouldn't really understand her background and make assumptions about it based on the whole Satan thing while her witch family and acquaintances don't understand why she can't let go entirely of her mortal life and friends. Susie and Roz have their own awakenings to latent abilities, but still treat Sabrina poorly when she finally tells them. Her boyfriend Harvery is the only one with a reasonable reaction of betrayal when he finds out how Sabrina continually manipulated him and made his problems worse with magic. Ross Lynch is an amazing actor and he hasn't really been able to show it on the show quite yet.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn't as chilling or horrific as I would like. However, it has an aesthetic and characters that keep me watching despite the very many flaws. Some have complained about the scenes with blurry edges, but I think it gives the show a distinctive style. The colors are absolutely beautiful and the fashions are on point. In every episode, numerous subtle horror film references are in character's clothing or the backgrounds or in set pieces, like the Suspiria skylight in the Spellman home. I hope further seasons will fix some of these problems and let characters shine that didn't get the opportunity quite yet.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, October 26, 2018

Suspiria (2018)

In 1977, Susie Bannion travels from her Mennonite family in Ohio to West Berlin with practically nothing to audition for the Markos Dance Academy. The teachers are initially dubious since she's untrained and unknown, but she impresses Madame Blanc enough to be admitted to the company. The other dancers are still reeling from the sudden disappearancing of one of their own, Patricia, only to have Olga seemingly walk out as well. Dr. Klemperer, Patricia's therapist, investigates into the dance school after the police find nothing untoward. Patricia's notes detail the supposed mythology and powers of the women who run the school, but it could be the ravings of an unstable mind.

The original Suspiria film has grown on me with its striking visuals, neon colors, and wonderful soundtrack. This new Suspiria doesn't retread the same territory and is more of a reimagining of the same basic storyline. It has more of a sense of its time and cultural climate than the original as well on a focus on the witchcraft and dancing of the school, a different visual style, and an overall different story. Their world is in chaos in West Berlin as the RAF instigates bombings, hostage situations, and kidnappings. The dance school is never directly affected by the violence, but the stories are all over the news, newspapers, and bombings occur as close as a block away. The women in the school never talk of evacuation and they are never without resources. Dr. Klemperer's storyline of his missing wife also keeps the recent history of the Holocaust close at hand. I enjoyed this dose of a realism to such a fantastical story.

The Markos Dance Academy focuses on modern dance instead of the ballet of the original. Ballet is restrictive and fairly uniform while modern dance allows for more expressions of emotion and varied visuals that go outside of conventional beauty. There are long sequences of rehearsals, lessons, and performances as well as discussions on the theory, meaning, and intent behind the dance throughout the film. I absolutely loved this aspect because it captures the lives of women who live, eat, and breathe dance. The dance aspects are also completely entwined with witchcraft. The first scene like this has Susie trying a solo with Madame Blanc's "help." Every one of her movements hurts Olga in another room, twisting her body and breaking bones but not killing her. Another case is how Blanc steals a another woman's ability to jump, causing her to have a seizure. These events aren't explicitly explained, but happen with little comment from the characters. It feels like the audience is watching things they shouldn't and perhaps don't completely understand.

Despite the violence of the school, the women have a sense of sisterhood with each other. It feels like a family with their own conflicts and dark secrets. The dancers don't have competitive rivalries or try to cut each other down. Everyone is very welcoming to Susie with the only outlier being Olga. They all support each other and only ask for roles if they feel they are ready. The focus on their own journey and support of other dancers is such a departure from the usual narrative of dance films. The dance teachers also have a familial bond along with their witchcraft. Madame Blanc does challenge Markos' leadership, but when she loses the vote, life goes on as usual. Blanc doesn't seem to harbor hard feelings and only oversteps when she feels students are unnecessarily being put in danger. She is also a nurturing teacher to her students, not afraid to debate with them and talk out ideas. Seeing all of this female camraderie was wonderful despite the more insidious secrets the teachers hold. Those dark secrets victimize their students with injury and even death if they step out of line or defy the teachers. This proves to be the toxic element that undermines the otherwise positive relationship between teacher and students.

* spoilers ahead *

The truly surprisingly thing to me is the fate of Susie Bannion. Instead of the shrinking violet of the original who manages to kill the aged witch, this Susie is Mother Suspiriorum, one of the three mothers that predate Christianity, who has come to reclaim the coven as her own. It's so gratifying to see her rise in the ranks, discover who she really is, and ascend to essentially godhood. Markos falsely called herself one of the Mothers and only saw the students as a resource for her to stave off death. Susie summarily destroys the grotesque Markos, grown diseased and old yet unwilling to give power to a newer generation, and all of her followers. Klemperer is spared and given closure on his wife's disapppearance, showing how Susie can be compassionate as well as deadly. Blanc somehow survives a partial beheading, implying that she, Susie, and the remaining witches will rebuild the coven without the toxic influence of Markos.

Suspiria feels like an epic that delves deeply into both the real and fantasy world of the film. If it has any flaws, it's in Klemperer's storyline and in the music. It takes time that bloats the film and slows down the tempo. The casting of Tilda Swinton as the character is a bit distracting, but she acts it well. I like the symmetry of all the people trying to exert power over the coven being played by Swinton (in Markos, Klemperer, and Blanc) and having all the main characters played by women. However, lessening his role might have made the film move a bit better. Thom Yorke's music is good for mmost of the film except in the otherwise silent sequence at the end, where it seems too insubstantial for what's going onscreen. Otherwise, Suspiria gave me so much of what I wanted from the original film with a completely different style and more muted colors. It's one of the most unique horror films of the last few years. Some may find it too pretentious, but I found it delightful.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins