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

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Transfiguration (2016)

Milo has a reputation about his school for hurting animals and keeps to himself for the most part. He's obsessed with vampire lore and thinks he is a vampire, escalating to hunting people at night for their blood and possessions. Things change when Sophie, a teen girl with an abusive grandfather, moves into his building and befriends him, making him rethink his outlook on life.

The Transfiguration is a powerful film. Everything is grounded in depressing reality and we enter the scene without much explanation. Milo was orphaned by a mother who killed herself and now lives with his useless older brother Lewis. He has no real guardian or anyone who really cares enough to guide him. A counselor at school seems only concerned with controlling his violent impulses and nothing else. Even thought it's later revealed that Lewis severed ties with the local gang to keep his brother safe, it doesn't change the fact that he makes Milo take care of the household and shoulder all of the responsibility as a young teen.

Milo has notebooks full of all the different vampire lore, trying to understand who he is through the study of all types of film. Once a month, he hunts someone down to drink their blood and steal their money. His physicality isn't any different than a human's, but he feels a strong need for blood. It's clear that the first incident we see in the film isn't the first or the last. The reality of his vampirism is never confirmed or denied, although the film sows a lot of doubt. Its origin is after he found his mother's dead body, so it's definitely rooted in trauma and possibly a reflection that he feels monstrous because he felt it was his fault. Through it all, Milo stays a sympathetic character throughout the film even when he commits incredibly monstrous acts. One particularly hard to watch seen has Milo killing a little girl, but it's so well made because the dread is almost palpable. Eric Ruffin upholds the entire film as Milo and performs the role with subtlety.

When Sophie enters the film, Milo finally makes a human connection, which causes him to question his morals and vampirism. Their interactions are at turns tragic, hilarious, and sweet. Milo likes to watch horrific videos online of animals being slaughter or animals killing other animals, making Sophie uncomfortable and make a quick exit. What makes it so funny is Milo's complete inability to recognize that Sophia hates it. They share traumas with each other and show vulnerability they never feel safe showing to anyone else. Both also share living in this place of casual violence and despair, always feeling the watchful eyes of a gang in the area. Things take quite a turn when Milo is suspected of snitching on a local gang after he witnesses them kill someone. The ending is completely heartbreaking and has Milo taking control of his own narrative in a way.

The Transfiguration is an indie film with so much heart and emotion. Even though Milo has a mostly flat affect, his past and emotions are still conveyed through Ruffin's performance. I love how things are shown as they go along and it feels like we are seeing a portion of Milo's reality. I know people got pretty tired of vampires films recently, but this does it very differently. I highly recommend this indie gem.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: Phenomena (1985) and Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

* Phenomena (1985)

Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous movie star, moves to a Swiss boarding school called the Richard Wagner School for Girls. She is welcomed by her roommate Sophie, but sleepwalks that night, witnessing a murder in her dream and getting lost in the woods. A kindly entomologist, John McGregor, and his chimpanzee find and care for her. When she returns to the school, the administrators are not impressed with her antics and insist on medical intervention. The bodies start piling up as Jennifer discovers her latent power.

Phenomena is one of the weirdest and most disappointing movies I've seen. It has all of the trademarks of an Argento film, but is so poorly done. The acting, music, and use of supernatural all contribute to this. Going into to any Italian horror film of the era, there will be bad lip syncing and over the top acting, which I'm used to at this point. However, the characters don't have any real depth and the acting seems more over the top than usual. Even Donald Pleasance doesn't seem himself here and Jennifer Connelly, very early in her career here, seems lost. The music is all rock/pop music of the time that often doesn't capture the mood of the scene at all. It didn't age well and most newly composed scores for Argento's films are well known and loved now. The supernatural elements seemed overpowering. There is usually something that grounds the film even in the face of some fantasy element, but it seems to be missing here.

Jennifer's powers, the villains, and the violence are all ridiculous. Jennifer has the power to communicate telepathically with bugs, which is portrayed dramatically. If this was the only outlandish thing, I might have liked it, but the villains are so over the top. The headmistress at the school is convinced Jennifer is completely evil and wants to see her put away in an institution. She's a very one note, badly acted character. The murderer turns out to be a deformed child, which makes no sense logistically, with the weirdest knife. The ending is the cherry on this bizarre cake when the entomologist's chimpanzee saves Jennifer by stabbing yet another villain to death. Many Argento films are well crafted and beautiful and this is not one of them. It's all confusing, out of nowhere, and almost laughable. Parts of the film are visually wonderful and that's about the only good thing I can say about it. I will not be revisiting it if I can help it.

My rating: 1.5/5 fishmuffins

* Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

The Michael Myers Laurie killed in the previous film was shown to be someone else. Guilt ridden and in an insane asylum, she waits for Michael only to be killed swiftly by him. A year later, a reality show called Dangertainment sets up in Michael Myers' house where contestants spend a night in the spooky house with surprises from production. Unbeknownst to them, Michael Myers returns home and starts killing off the cast and crew one by one.

The Halloween franchise has a lot of ups and downs through several timelines and eleven films. This one has its flaws, but I believe is a bit better than people give it credit for. Halloween: Resurrection isn't the greatest horror film, but it takes a critical look at reality TV that still rings true today. A group of people compete online for a chance to be on the Dangertainment TV show and have no idea what they're signing on for beyond being on television. Each character their own camera to add a splash of found footage into a conventional horror film and emulate actual reality shows like Fear. The show is proved to be influenced by the production, as with all reality shows. Fake dead bodies are hidden in the walls and a producer dresses as Myers to terrify the contestants. This takes on a particularly sinister tinge when I realized its essentially re-enacting a true crime event where real people died. But the production doesn't bat an eye because online viewers will be glued to every minute.

The horror aspects are where the film stumbles. The triumphant ending of the last film where Laurie finally beheads Michael is completely destroyed. Of course it was someone else to continue the franchise and Laurie is killed within the first 15 minutes of the movie. It was impressive that she convinced everyone she was essentially catatonic and had a plan for when Myers would inevitably come after her. However, she's dispatched rather quickly. It makes me happy she can get revenge in the most recent installment. Anyway, the rest of the scares disappoint, especially when Busta Rhymes electrocutes Myers' genitals. The film looks painfully dated and populated with non-actor famous people like Tyra Banks. Myers himself is pretty forgettable and the scares are lacking. Although this isn't the best Halloween installment, it's far from the worst.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Halloween (2018)

In Haddonfield, a podcast team approaches a non-verbal Michael Myers with his infamous mask and a hardened, survivalist Laurie Strode separately. Their goal is to reunite them (and open old wounds) for their audience. Things don't quite go as planned. Myers remains impassive and Strode flat out refuses. When he is supposed to be transported to a different facility, the bus crashes and Michael escapes, returning home to Haddonfield and killing as he makes his way back to Laurie.

Halloween (2018) had a lot of expectations to live up to even considering many of the recent sequels and remakes have been varying levels of disappointing. I went into the film with cautiously optimistic expectations and the film proved to be more than that. First, it's ignoring every other Halloween film except the original. Trying to keep track of the curse of thorn, Rob Zombie's remakes, or the H20 timeline (where Laurie is alive) as opposed to the Halloween 4 timeline (where she's dead) would be an insurmountable task for anyone. The choice to exclude the second film seems odd, but it gets rid of the revelation that Michael and Laurie are related and keeps Myers a random killer (which makes him more frightening) and . This simplifies things and starkly shows the change (or lack thereof) in the main characters.

Michael Myers and Laurie Strode are forty years older than in the first film. Myers is essentially unchanged. He doesn't speak or even react to things. Idiotic podcasters shove the iconic white mask in his face expecting some sort of change and leave disappointed. Of course he looks different than we assume he looked in the original and we do get a small glimpse of his face to reveal the damage Laurie inflicted with her knitting needles. Once the mask is on and he's on the move, he seems more motivated and brutal than the first film. Myers goes door to door, killing those he happens by and collecting and discarding weapons until he finds his kitchen knife. His victims range from an old woman obliviously leaving doors open to a teenager hunting with his dad, but he seems to ignore people who stay out of his way, such as a baby in a crib or the little boy of a babysitter. His violence occurs offscreen or bloodless in the beginning and then steadily progresses to the most ridiculous, gory death near the end, reflecting the journey the franchise has taken over the years.

Laurie Strode, on the other hand, has changed tremendously from happy, normal teen to paranoid, tense adult. She lives in a house that's more of a fortress with traps and tons of weapons. She's constantly training, keeping up her physical fitness and skill with weapons, waiting for the inevitable day when he would return. All of this comes at a cost. She married, had a child named Karen, then divorced and had the child taken away due to her choice of survivalist life, outside of society. It's amazing to see Laurie so strong and capable, but it also takes into account the effect of the trauma she experienced and how she chooses to cope with it. Her mental state is especially in shambles when Michael is transported and she lives in constant fear of attack. I can see how she doesn't ever want to be a victim and wants to save those around her, but the way she expresses it can be hurtful to those around her. Karen, now grown with her own teenage daughter, chooses to live a normal life and keep optimistic, barring Laurie from her home if she won't get help for her mental issues and keeps living in fear. Both women are living their lives in a way to keep themselves mentally and physically safe and they happen to contradict the other, creating this rift.

The film is complex, alternating suspense with moments of humor to alleviate the tension. The majority of characters are surprisingly fleshed out from the sassy little boy being babysat to the young teen who hunts with his dad and enjoys his dance classes. Even the three teen boys in the film are different from one another. Since Donald Pleasance has died, a new character, Dr. Sartain, fills his shoes. The character is a bit of a surprise later since I shoehorned him into Dr. Loomis' role without a second thought. The only flat characters here are the podcasters who served to show how true crime outlets can exploit the people involved for views and fame and to get the mask back into Michael's hands. They didn't get to show much more than their desperation to get their story and have Laurie and Michael face each other for their audience.

The confrontation between Michael and the Strode women is everything I wanted it to be. I especially enjoyed how the Strode women were all capable and strong in their own ways. Each of them decided to blaze their own path and made different choices than those who came before them. I've read some people saying that Laurie essentially turned into Michael at the end, but I disagree completely. There is a role reversal because Laurie is on the offensive and sets traps, but she is essentially human while Michael is not. She is afraid and makes mistakes at times, but her thought out plan and training serve her well in the end. Her ability to fight back or use violence against him does not take her humanity away, especially when she does everything she can to save her daughter and granddaughter. Michael is the same as always: slowly pursuing and going over any obstacle like a robot programmed to do so.

Halloween truly surprised me with how good it was. I would put it as the second best of the entire franchise right behind the original. The pace is steady and the scares are well placed with some humor to break up the tension. There are surprises, plenty of kills, and a heartfelt family story at its core. I would love to see a sequel if it is as well made and thoughtful as this one. The people behind this really showed their admiration and knowledge of the franchise with subtle references to the other films, plot choices, and aesthetic choices. John Carpenter's score is the cherry on top of the whole thing with themes from the original plus new reworkings and new tracks. Highly recommended and well worth your time.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins