Sunday, December 13, 2020

Franchise Marathon: Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th Part II (1981)

 * spoiler warning *

* Friday the 13th (1980)

After years of being closed and abandoned, Camp Crystal Lake is set to open or new campers in 1980. Crazy Ralph tries to warn people away, but everyone ignores him and Unfortunately, an unseen killer keeps killing the counselors before the camp even opens. Will any of the them survive?

Friday the 13th is honestly my least favorite of the big 4 horror franchises, but I realized that I've only seen a few of the movies and may be judging it too harshly. Thus this exploration through the whole series. Alice is an excellent final girl with sense and a practical nature. However, the road the finale was arduous. After the initial exposition dump, the movie plods along and even the kills aren't that interesting until Pamela Voorhees shows up. Her mania and love for her son truly shine through as she's revealed to be the killer. She's one of the most iconic cinematic female serial killers and Betsy Palmer delivers an amazing, campy performance. The ending on the lake haunts me from childhood and rings a bit melancholy, knowing that Jason was a neglected, innocent little boy.

The first film didn't wow me and the pace made the relatively short runtime feel much too long. Pamela Voorhees and final girl Alice set themselves apart in this mostly forgettable start. The music feels underdeveloped, but the main themes (reused many many times) are iconic. Overall, it's a disappointing experience with some bright spots.  

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins


* Friday the 13th Part II (1981)


Five years after the Camp Crystal Lake Massacre, a group of counselors hold a training camp near the defunct, notorious crime site, where they mostly get into typical shenanigans like trespassing on Camp Crystal Lake, drinking, having sex, and doing drugs. This doesn't sit well with Jason, who sets out to kill all the camp counselors and punish them for their immoral behavior in honor of his mother.

Friday the 13th Part II is a vast improvement over the first which dragged and had no suspense up until the end with Mrs. Voorhees. The mythology for the whole series is kind of wonky. Jason appears as he is most known, a hulking silent beast of a man. Instead of his signature hockey mask, he wears a bag over his head with only one hole to see out of. He dispatches teens with knives, a garrote, and his signature machete. The kills are decent and the the lead-up can be suspenseful. It was made with the awareness that the audience knows when kills are coming and still surprises at times. Most of the teens are interchangeable, but I was disappointed when Mark died. He seemed decent and was largely dismissed by everyone else because of his disability when he had big dreams and aspirations.

Ginny, the final girl, is the best character in the whole movie. First, she's a student in college studying child psychology. Unlike most final girls, Ginny has a boyfriend and it's implied that they have sex. She also drinks at a bar. It's interesting that this portrayal is more progressive than Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 even though it was made 5 years later. Anyway, her psychology training gives her insight to Jason's mental state and it ends up saving her in the end. She puts on Mrs. Voorhees' sweater and pretends to be his mother, which buys her and her boyfriend much needed time.

Friday the 13th Part 2 is a decent sequel and much better than the first. Jason isn't my favorite slasher villain by far, but the movie was enjoyable. The ending has some inconsistencies that make me want to see the next movie if Ginny is in it. I doubt she is and I doubt they'll say what happened to Paul, but I can always hope. 

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Marcos' life is in shambles. His wife left him and he works on a farm that processes human meat, now legal because of a disease affecting all animals and rendering them inedible. He sees the most horrific things every day and has to do business with the worst sort who want to buy the head (as in head of cattle) for hunting, experimentation, or consumption. Then he receives a female head as an unwanted but valuable gift and has to decide what to do with it.

Tender is the Flesh is an absolutely chilling dystopia. Due to an incurable virus, animals can no longer be consumed or be around humans at all. There also no pets allowed, leading to a mass slaughter of them for human safety. The government has decided to allow the raising and killing of humans for food, opening up a huge market of other things previously illegal: medical experimentation (even the most inhumane procedures), hunting people, organ harvesting, and an expansion of illegal human trafficking. Bodies can't be buried for fear of being dug up and eaten. The less fortunate or less protected could be kidnapped and murdered for meat. Scavengers roam the countryside, violent and wild, looking for flesh.

Marcos's job is stomach churning but highly paid. The head can't speak due to their vocal chords being removed and lack of any sort of education. They are never acknowledged or referred to as human, always kept naked, and treated exactly as cattle.  Marcos carefully chooses who works there because the job attracts some unsavory characters. The goal is to find someone who needs the money and can desensitize themselves (as he has) to the violence. The general public calls it "special" meat and carries on as usually, blissfully ignorant of the realities of how they get their food. There is some outrage, but it seems more are willing to sacrifice others to go one with business as usual.

Tender is the Flesh kept surprising me with how depraved things could get. When I thought it couldn't be any worse, it went further. Whether it's a critique of the meat industry or the callousness of modern society, it works. Marcos seems to be the moral center of the book, even as he participates in the killing and processing of people for food, which makes the ending feel like such a slap in the face. I read this in a couple days. I couldn't put it down and it got under my skin. Definitely in my top books of the year.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Movie Mini-Reviews: Memories of Murder (2003) and Nightcrawler (2014)

* Memories of Murder (2003)

A serial rapist and murderer terrorizes a rural South Korean town in the late 80's while rural cops struggle to make headway in the case. They opt to blame the most vulnerable people in their community and use abusive methods to extract false confessions. Their supervisor tries to reign them in, but they seem committed to undermining the investigation at every turn.

Memories of Murder is a Bong Joon Ho film that portrays problems with law enforcement that persist today, especially in the US. Kang Sang Ho plays Detective Park Doo-man, a seemingly well meaning police officer trying to find the murderer/rapist. He is so affable and understandable that his behavior gets quite extreme before I doubted his intentions. He genuinely wants to catch this killer, but he relies on looking into the person's eyes to sense if they are guilty instead of preserving evidence or going off of anything more concrete than rumors. His partner's penchant for jump kicking suspects starts out as a slapstick, funny thing and then turns out to be a hinderance and indicative of an out of control temper. Both sabotage their own investigation on top of things out of their control such as a small, rural operation.

I'm sure plenty of corrupt police don't see themselves as such in the present day and they justify their horrific actions with working towards justice. With very few to hold them accountable and the pressure to support their co-workers whether or not they did something wrong, it's easy to see how good intentions simply aren't enough and how corruption can go unchecked. As with all Bong Joon Ho films, the conclusion left me emotional and broken with its reveal. 

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

* Nightcrawler (2014)

Louis Bloom is looking for ways to make money. When he happens upon a car accident and sees a film crew swoop in to document it, his interest is piqued. He sells stolen scrap metal to buy a cheap camcorder and a police scanner to throw himself into the nightcrawler life, filming accidents, police stops, and bungling it until he learns what news stations will pay for. Louis will do anything to keep a steady flow of footage for his chosen news station and will take out anyone in his way.

I had always heard good things about Nightcrawler and I found that Jake Gyllenhaal can play an incredibly convincing creeper. Louis Bloom doesn't have any lines he won't cross. He expects everyone to acquiesce and when they don't, he finds a way around them. The man is chilling in his singlemindedness and ability use information to his own advantage. I felt sorry for those around him, a means to an end or disposable. Near the end, I was on the edge of my seat because he decided to insert himself into the stories he films. When he arrives at a home where people are still being killed and robbed, I was just waiting for him to get caught or killed. He has no boundaries and finds nothing wrong with tailgating police on a chase or sacrificing others to get a good shot.

Nightcrawler took me on a wild ride. The ending is pretty unrealistic, but the whole ending sequence had me in complete suspense. The storytelling is amazing and shows how confident, unscrupulous person can get far by exploiting others. It's also a critique of what the public finds newsworthy (white families being attacked and car accidents). This thrilling film really hit me and went unexpected places. 

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Comic Book Mini-Reviews: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf and I'm Not Okay with This by Charles Forsman

 * My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

We know Jeffrey Dahmer as a notorious cannibalistic serial killer, but Derf Backderf knew him as a weird kid in high school. Backderf drew on his own memories of high school as well as interviewed others he knew and researched Dahmer's own accounts of the time. He puts together a timeline of Dahmer's escalating behavior (from drinking more and more to killing animals and finally killing people), what was happening at home, and how it appeared to people at school.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was how different it was to go to school in the 70's. Boundaries weren't established like they are now. The administrators were a lot more permissive and students had a huge amount of freedom. It seems like a perfect storm of permissive teachers, warring parents, and not connecting with other students left Dahmer to descend into his sick fantasies. The only way he got attention was with his offensive imitation of a man with cerebral palsy (or his own mother's seizures) or with antics like inserting himself into every yearbook club photo. His home life was messy and tragic as his parents' marriage dissolved and left Dahmer essentially abandoned. Throughout the novel, Dahmer hid himself behind binge drinking and that ableist imitation. While his crimes are abhorrent, we can still have sympathy for the teen who was failed by every person in his life who saw something wrong and ignored it.

My Friend Dahmer is even better than the film version and delves into piecing together Dahmer's own accounts of his behavior. It's agonizing to think how many times Dahmer was almost caught only to be let off by police, even after his first murder.  I recommend this as a fascinating look into the formative years of a serial killer.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

* I'm Not Okay with This by Charles Forsman

Sydney is a normal 15 year old girl who lacks direction, fights with her family, listens to music with her best friend, and writes in a diary about her secrets. She struggles with her feelings for her best friend, her father's death, and her telekinesis that reveals itself at the worst moments. Her mother wants to help, but ends up pushing her away more often than not. As her support systems fall away, she doesn't know what will be there in the end.

I heard of I'm Not Okay with This because it's now a Netflix show that is apparently very different than the graphic novel. Sydney's story starts off like most coming of age fiction with pushing boundaries, skipping school, smoking pot, discovering her sexuality, and trying to find her own way. What makes this narrative different is the telekinesis. After her father's death who also had powers, no one is there to help her try to control her powers or decide when to use them and the results are tragic.

The only flaw is in the shallow relationships. The most significant one is with her friend Dina, who Syd has feelings for and wants to save from an abusive relationship. The others are paper thin. Stanley gets her pot, which helps with her telekinesis headaches. Ryan, an adult grocery clerk, has sex with her and then confronts her about not calling. Syd feels bad, but doesn't seem to realize how inappropriate their brief relationship was. Even her relationship with her mother doesn't go much beyond typical teen rebelliousness and the one with her father is seen very briefly, but the grief for his death affects each page.

I'm Not Okay with This is a pretty straight forward story drawn in a simple, cartoonish style. I expected it to be more lighthearted because of the art, but Sydney's journey is heartbreaking and dark. The narrative felt like a struggling teenage girl, but I wish some of the relationships could have been a bit more developed. However, the ending absolutely gutted me. I'm planning to watch the show, but I realize there seem to be a lot of differences.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Friday, November 6, 2020

Nocturne (2020)

Vivian and Juliet are twins, both working hard to become concert pianists. Both go to the same prestigious art high school, but Vivian has made it into Julliard while Juliet didn't and refused to apply anywhere else. An excellent violinist who also attends the school killed herself and left a notebook, detailing rituals on how she became so skilled. Juliet finds it and dismisses it at first, but delves into it when her sister outperforms her at every turn. 

Nocturne melds the world of esoteric rituals with the high pressure world of classical music performance. Juliet is the underdog in every respect and remembers that she prompted her and her sister to start piano lessons even though she's viewed as the inferior musician. Vivian, on the other hand, is a lauded pianist, has a loving boyfriend, an amazing piano teacher, and the high opinion of everyone in the school. Once the rituals come into play, Juliet shows herself to be very petty, copying her sister's audition piece and exposing jealousy for her sister's prestige.  

As someone coming from music schools, I appreciate the realism in how people treated musicians, the politics of the school, and the paths set out for students. I kind of wish it was a college instead of a high school because of the age of the actresses and the fact that few are this serious about a performance career that early. Family members around them criticize a career in the arts and question how secure it is. The politics of the school place Vivian above Juliet, even when Juliet outplays her sister because they want to go with the more reliable choice. Even in college or at the professional level, certain players are favored in auditions even if they didn't play well that day because of their reputation or who they study with or know. It's a cutthroat world that I decided not to be part of and I opted to teach and play for enjoyment. Juliet's teacher tried to show her such attainable paths and she refused to see them. 

The esoteric rituals in the film take everything from Vivian and give them to Juliet. At first, Juliet doesn't put much stock into the notebook until horrible things start happening that end up benefiting her. She goes from sympathetic and hard working to obnoxious and egotistical over the course of the film. Her dreams seem to be slipping away from her, so she goes all in on this Faustian deal in a desperate attempt to preserve it. I feel for her, but she goes too far. The most tragic thing is that she's still quite young and could have achieved her goals eventually with a different setting, different teachers, and a different outlook. 

While much of the film is light on horror elements, the anxiety and psychological tension surrounding Juliet sustained me until the end, where it steers fully into horror. I enjoyed the focus on music, the obsession with unattainable perfection, and the realities of being part of the music world. The ending is predictable if you pay attention, but I enjoyed it in all its glory. I would recommend this if you liked The Devil's Candy, Bliss, or Starry Eyes, all about risking everything to succeed in some form of art.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Blood on the Tracks 1 and 2 by Shuzo Oshimi

* Blood on the Tracks ! by Shuzo Oshimi

Seiichi is a normal young man with a very protective mother, Seiko. He doesn't have many friends and his cousins frequently come over to spend time with him. They call to his attention his mother's history of being overbearing and he also has errant memories of finding a dead kitten in the road with his mother. Everything seems fairly normal until a family trip goes horribly wrong.

Blood on the Tracks is horror, but a more quiet, domestic type of horror than I'm used to reading in manga. For much of the book, nothing seems overtly wrong. There is an sinister undercurrent to the whole thing, but it's hard to point to something wrong. On the surface, Seiko is just a concerned mom who is a little clingy for her son's age. Looking closer, there are some things that could be a coincidence or could be something wrong: Seiko going to Seiichi's classes every day to keep an eye on him and constantly inviting his cousins over so he can't invite any friends. Maybe she's just worried or values family, but it also looks like she can't be away from him for long and wants to prevent him from making any true friends. The ending of the story culminates in a devastating event. The art around it plays with time, elongating the sequence unnatural and focusing tightly on expressions. Once the devastating event happens, Seiko's true nature becomes clear. 

I'm so excited to read more of this series. Horror manga are usually involve ghosts, conspiracies, or large world changing events. This small scale horror is done so well and feels earth shattering. The casual fanservice panels of women's bodies are absent here, which is incredibly refreshing. I see it so often, it seems to be a convention of the genre and it's nice to have the focus on the story instead of titillating the audience. The art style is much more delicate style than usual. The first pages in color are absolutely beautiful, done in a watercolor style with muted colors. Even the black and white panels have a keen attention to detail. 

My rating: 4.5/5

* Blood on the Tracks 2 by Shuzo Oshimi 

* spoilers for book 1* 

After Seiko pushes Seiichi's cousin off a cliff, Seiichi is completely in shock. Seiko acts like it was a tragic accident and Seiichi is too traumatized to say otherwise. They are questioned by police and follow the cousin to the hospital, all the while acting as concerned family and Seiko lying through her teeth. Then, Seiichi's crush shows up at their house, leading to another bombshell from Seiko.

Blood on the Tracks impressed with the first volume and surpassed that with the second volume. It's all about Seiichi's emotional journey trying to understand his mother's horrific actions, struggling with his own role in her lies, and coping with her new bombshell. This whole volume is about Seiichi holding it together as best he can. The close ups and elongation of scenes do a wonderful job of showing his internal struggle and true feelings he tries to keep inside to save his mother. After a girl who has a crush on him leaves a letter stating she'd like to be his girlfriend, his mother reveals a deeper level of obsession and control. 

I'm eager for the next volume to see how far the horror goes. The art is exquisite and as detailed and beautiful as the first volume. I feel so much for Seiichi under the thumb of his abusive, suffocating mother. This volume truly focuses on the psychological horror and effects on Seiichi which Seiko manipulates and pretends like everything is ok. I'm very interested in the story's developments.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, October 5, 2020

Possessor (2020)

Tasya Vos appears to have a normal life with an adorable son and an ex-husband who still loves her. In reality, she is a highly paid assassin with access to advanced technology that can insert her mind into another's and overtake it to kill her target. Over time, this practice has changed her mind, causing her to have intrusive violent thoughts in her own body and lose control over the host mind. Her latest job has her eventually trapped in a man's mind, unable to return to her own body.

I had no expectation going in beyond the eerie and beautiful imagery shown in the trailer and Possessor blew me away. The world building is immersive and different than many other science fiction films. Besides the tech industry and the secret assassin organization, the world feels the same as the present. Both companies we see feel like stepping into another world compared to Tasya's mundane, familiar home life. The visual style is so dreamlike, abstract, and colorful. The controversial sex scene with Tasya in a man's body and his girlfriend visually conveys gender dysphoria in a way I haven't seen before. 

Tasya is an exceptional assassin that shows a perfect fa├žade to the world. It's as beautiful as it is fake, shown by her practicing mundane phrases to sound suitably interested and normal to her family. She carries this same practice into her job, learning how her future hosts speak to the people around them, their inflections and tone, to keep living their lives undetected until she kills. Her sense of self unravels while her mundane life seems to feel empty, only holding her back.

Only two of her assassinations are shown, but they are memorable. The first has her living in the body of a Black woman, brutally stabbing her target to death (not according to plan), and being killed by police. This sci-fi blackface and portraying death so like those we see in the news frequently is a poor choice especially when the scene is only used for attention-getting shock value and no other deeper commentary. This is my only real problem with the film. 

The second assassination is even more brutal as the mediocre white man she inhabits is fighting her control over him and making the target (his girlfriend's admittedly horrible dad) suffer as much as possible on top of killing his girlfriend. While this reflects intimate partner violence that happens frequently, these characters and their story are the focus of a good section of the film. The deep rage over feeling inferior to his girlfriend and her wealthy father was enough to overtake Tasya's control to destroy them. It says volumes about toxic masculinity and misogyny.

Possessor takes a futuristic concept and jumps right in. The rituals and regulations around the assassination method feels well developed, like we're only seeing a piece of a greater whole. I was hooked on each twist and turn of the film and the ending truly surprised me. Possessor is a huge step forward from Antiviral (despite the flaw) and I look forward to more films from Brandon Cronenberg. 

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor La Valle

* major spoilers for The Horror at Red Hook and The Ballad of Black Tom*

Charles Thomas Tester lives in Harlem with his disabled father in the 1920's. While he could destroy his body doing honest construction like his father, the racist standards of pay and hiring practices simply don't appeal to him. He opts to do more covert, esoteric work in the hidden industry of magic that offers more risk and more reward. One day, he delivers a tome to an old woman for a large amount of money, but tears out the last page, rendering the whole thing useless. This simple act of sabotage doesn't technically violate any rules or agreements, but it exposes him to the scrutiny of both corrupt law enforcement and an even more ambitious sorcerer.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of Lovecraft's most appallingly racist short story, The Horror at Red Hook. In the original story, Malone investigates the sorcerer Suydam and witnessed unknowable horrors, human sacrifices, and the man's corpse reanimate. This is placed alongside the most dehumanizing, monstrous descriptions of people of color you will ever read. The Ballad of Black Tom, on the other hand, places a Black man at the center of the story instead of a cop and views this same population more as it was. This story is better than the original in every possible way from prose and characters to plot developments and conclusion.

Charles Thomas Tester navigates his world deftly, knowing when to look unaware or foolish to be underestimated and when to show his true intelligence. The strategy doesn't always work and he's often at the mercy whatever mood white men around him are in. Police are corrupt and only serve to protect the tender feelings of white people at the expense of black and brown lives. When Charles is forced to stay in Suydam's house overnight, the police kill his father over the complaint of the old woman with the missing page. They describe the murder so nonchalantly and then mock him for not being more upset. At every turn, Charles is at the mercy of the white men around him who can change their mind whenever they want and expect him to comply. If he doesn't, his life is expendable to them. 

The second section of the book is narrated by Malone, the original protagonist. He is not as virtuous here and shows the casual racism of the time (and of the present) on full display. The most egregious moment is when a white woman complains about a nearby tenement populated by people of color. She hysterically describes them as threatening and calls on him to protect her daughter (who cried over hurting herself). He soothes her and invades the tenement, where the climax of the story occurs. Malone also has a minor supernatural sight that shows him things ignored by others. He's been obsessed with the occult for years, which ultimately leads to his downfall. His ending is deserved.

Previously, he had posed as a street musician with a limited repertoire and a subpar singing voice to obtain jobs. His father taught him a powerful song before he died that he sang many times throughout the course of the novel, most notably for hours and hours after his father's death to absorb the loss in an uncaring world. The song comes back when he seems to be a mindless servant to Suydam, but turns around and murders him with the weapon his father gave him. In addition, he opens the portal for Cthulhu and becomes the monster white people see him as. The book ends with eyelidless Malone seeing the monstrosity looking down at him from the sky, unable to ever work as a cop again and with no hope of anyone sharing his knowledge, and Charles questioning his decision to unleash the monster on the world. Malone's fate is deserved and Charles was able to wield power in way he was never able to in the nonmagical world to get revenge for himself and his father. I don't blame him at all and find his actions justified.

The Ballad of Black Tom improves upon The Horror at Red Hook exponentially. It shows New York in the 20's closer to as it was with immigrants forced into slums and attacked just for existing instead of through an idealized, white lens as we usually see it. This very short book packs a punch and transforms a damaging piece of literature into one that portrays the injustice and pain people of color still experience today alongside amazing cosmic horror.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Stylist (2020)

Claire, a lonely hair stylist, works day after day in her salon. Once in a while, she will choose a customer whose life compels her (and the circumstances are right) to kill and take their scalp for her collection. When Olivia, a long time client, asks her to do her hair for her wedding after her original stylist abruptly canceled, something snaps within her and her deadly urges spin out of control.

I absolutely loved The Stylist short film and I was super excited to hear about it being lengthened into a feature film. Najarra Townshend reprises her role as Claire and infuses the character with sympathy. Claire is incredibly lonely. She has no friends or family, only acquaintances at work and at the coffee shop she frequents. The scalpings and murders seem to be driven by her need to pretend to be other people, those who have secret affairs, husbands, children, and the lengthy list of things she doesn't have. Anxiety and self loathing follows every social interaction over every word she says or outfit she wears. The self loathing in particular tracks with her ritual around pretending to be others in their scalps. These feelings also contribute to obsession with Olivia who is everything she isn't, social and bubbly. It's refreshing to see that Olivia doesn't have the perfect life yet Claire wants it anyway because it's different. 

One person pays attention to her, the barista she sees every day, but Claire doesn't acknowledge her or seem to realize the potential for some sort of relationship is right in front of her. She has to chase things that aren't hers, as is repeated throughout the film. When she spend more time with the bride to be and her family and friends, Claire starts to kill with greater frequency and much more recklessly. Then she tries to stop killing all together and finally throws herself into it once again. It was interesting to see such an emotional, relatable portrayal of a lonely person with anxiety alongside the typical behavior of a serial killer.

The Stylist expands upon the short film pretty well. It lost me a little bit in the third act before the ending. I felt it dragged  and could have benefited from editing out some sequences. For instance, there were several repetitions of her waking up days in a row that simply wasn't needed. Also if a director is going to insert themselves obviously into the film, it usually comes off a bit cheesy as it did here. Other than that, this film does a wonderful job crawling into the psyche of deranged yet familiar character.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Drifting Classroom Vol. 1 by Kazuo Umezu

Sixth grader Sho Takamatsu fights with his mother over being more responsible and growing up a but only to go to a school that suddenly transports to a barren wasteland. He finds himself in a role of authority after stepping up to protect the younger students and making hard decisions to further their survival. These students are faced with harsh realities and incredible dangers from humans and creatures alike while trying to figure out what happened and if it's even possible to return home.

The Drifting Classroom first came out in the 70's and was recently re-released in a beautiful hardcover last year. The story is a balance of bleak reality and wild science fiction centered around children. The children are forced to change quickly, especially the middle school aged kids, to lead where the adults fail and work toward the survival of as many as possible. He's almost unrecognizable even halfway through the story compared to the lazy kid at the start. Although he has everyone's best interests at heart, the others start to suspect him when inexplicable things happen and of course give over to mob rule when bullies lead and dissenters are punished. Overall, the kids shockingly work together well until fear and suspicious tear them apart.

The children are threatened by more than just the wasteland around them. The adults are doing nothing helpful at all. After the initial attempt to keep order, they kill themselves, kill kids they've taught and protected previously, or hoard all the resources for themselves. Simply put, they can't handle the extreme change and hopelessness while the children are resilient enough to hold on to hope and keep moving forward. The creatures who live in the wasteland are the other major danger, giant insect-like monstrosities that consume people like popcorn. Their existence was in doubt for a while when only a few witnessed it's first few meals until the school is faced with a fullfledged attack.

The Drifting Classroom is a foundational work that influenced current horror writers such as Junji Ito (explicitly stated in his latest release, Venus in the Blindspot). It delves into deep, dark territory with an art style more indicative of lighter tone. The revelations discovered are devastating and went places I could never have predicted. The edition is beautiful, high quality, and well worth the price. I can't wait to see what else this series has in store.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: She Dies Tomorrow (2020) and Exhibit A (2007)

She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

Amy is sure she's going to die tomorrow. Her friend Jane checks on her, only to also be consumed with the thought of dying tomorrow. After struggling to create some art and injuring herself, Jane goes to her sister-in-law's birthday party in her pajamas and passes along the thought to everyone. As it spreads, things spin out of control.

She Dies Tomorrow is a wonderful exercise in existential dread. How would you act if you knew with complete certainty that you would die tomorrow? Amy drowns her sorrows in booze and listens to dramatic music (Mozart's Requiem, the most dramatic music ever). Her boyfriend rages and destroys a room. Jane stumbles into her mean sister in law's birthday party in her pajamas. Others become brutally honest about their relationships or go to the doctor for help. People's behavior before and after the realization is completely different. Before, they seem relaxed and normal, but afterwards, becomes awkward and unnatural. The conversations afterwards are surreal and brutally honest.

This film is bound to be divisive and of course prompt the tiresome "is it horror" debate. I found it viscerally uncomfortable and full of nihilistic dread. The performances are top notch and the visuals range from mundane to vibrant and abstract. She Dies Tomorrow is a memorable experience that doesn't follow established tropes.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins 

Exhibit A

* major spoilers * 

The King family seems like any other. Judith is interested in photography and doesn't get along with her brother Joe, who's a bit of a jerk. The patriarch Andy is under pressure to get a promotion to alleviate their financial problems and move the family into their dream house. The promotion seems always on the horizon and their money problems worsen, especially after Andy decides to build a pool in the backyard. His behavior gets more and more erratic as time goes on, leading him to come home covered in blood one day. It's only the beginning of his spiral out of control.

Exhibit A is a found footage movie marked right away as evidence. Most of the footage is taken by Judith documenting her family and her next door crush (which is actually invasive and creepy). Her father seems like a good-natured, sweet guy who care about his family. The truth comes out in small doses as Andy has mood swings, starts smoking, gambles compulsively, . The scene where Judith finds trash bags full of used scratchers is absolutely chilling. He tries to repeatedly assure the family everything is fine, but everything points to the opposite. The ending sequence is horrific to watch as Andy attempts suicide and Judith saves him tearfully. Instead of thanking her, he smothers her to unconsciousness and dispatches the rest of the family.

This film moves pretty slowly, but shows a complete picture of the family before the tragic end. Each of the family members is nuanced and harboring a secret of some kind. This is a fascinating fictionalized look at a family annihilator, a man who kills his entire family usually tied to their own failure, their desire to to start a new life, or perceived betrayals from their family members. I hadn't heard of Exhibit A before it got on Amazon Prime, but it's one of the most effective found footage movies without supernatural elements. 

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Gilead, the totalitarian state that overthrew the US government, has replaced New England in the near future. Men have assumed all power, leaving women with no rights and no control of their own lives. Offred is a handmaid whose whole function is to have a baby for the man who essentially owns her. Once she has that baby, she will be passed on to another man to do the same due to the extremely low birth rate. She thinks of the past, the family and career she used to have, as she navigates the present. Who is trustworthy, who is waiting for her to slip up, and in what small ways can she have some freedom in this oppressive regime.

The Handmaid's Tale is classic dystopian novel that sucked me in right away. The chapters are very short and increase the tempo of the story. Offred bounces back and forth in time fluidly, the freedom of the past in stark contrast to the state of the present. Reading the transition between our time and the creation of Gilead was particularly chilling. She used to be a librarian, wife, and mother and now has no family, support system, or autonomy. Everything down to how she dresses is decided for her. She can't even have her own name as all handmaids are named "Of" the man they serve. They aren't allowed to read or have education outside of what Gilead deems womanly. Failure to to comply is essentially death, whether it's at a labor camp or execution with her body hung up for days as a deterrent for others. Some people around her take the risk anyway and flout the laws in small ways, leading to her seeing the cracks higher up in the system.

Gilead has every rule based in scripture and has all these rules to "protect" women that keep them free from rape, attack, and objectification, but only truly perpetuate all these things in addition to taking away any autonomy. Abortion is unsurprisingly illegal, but even methods to monitor the fetus and medical intervention during birth are also illegal. Seems counterintuitive to keeping both mother and baby healthy. Men have all the powerful roles including commanders who lead, guardians (police), angels (soldiers), and eyes (spies). Women can only be wives, handmaids, or aunts who train other women. The men don't hold themselves to the rules Gilead creates and are never blamed for anything. The whole system is simply a sham. This seems like the perfect utopia for a certain political party that only cares about benefiting themselves and leaving those they don't value with nothing.

The narrative is fascinating and delves deep into this dystopia through Offred's memories and experiences. The book took a couple of days for me to read and held my attention throughout. I expected the ending to be a little more bombastic and rebellious, but it ends anti-climactically. Offred's fate isn't known in this book so I guess I should read The Testaments to see what happens. I'm glad I waited until after it was published or I would have been a lot more disappointed. The epilogue seems a bit weird and out of place. Other than that, it's a pretty chilling dystopia.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, August 14, 2020

Host (2020)

A group of friends meets on Zoom during the COVID pandemic to have a seance led by an experienced medium, Seylan. Everything is going as planned until Jemma claims to contact a friend who killed himself that she completely made up. Seylan informs them that not respecting the experience in this way opened up the group to forces beyond their control.

Host is the perfect immersive experience. I personally have been in countless Zoom meetings for work and for fun because of the pandemic, so viewing this movie on my computer made me feel right in the middle of the action. Haley hired the medium and urges the others to take it seriously while the others make a drinking game and mock the proceedings. I don't really blame them because I probably wouldn't take it very seriously either as someone who doesn't believe in spirits or ghosts. Things get deadly serious after Jemma's prank and each friend is confronted with a supernatural presence.

The film clocks in at just under an hour and moves quickly. The set up is just enough to get a general picture of each friend before the action moves forward. No scene is wasted. The mood goes from joking and silly to suspenseful instantly. While there are jumpscares which usually replace creating mood and feel cheap, these ones are earned and enhance the whole experience. It's everything I wanted from Unfriended, which introduced presenting a horror film entirely from a computer screen. Host has creepy, unpredictable kills and hapless, sympathetic characters where Unfriended prioritized teen drama over everything else. The performances are convincing, especially Haley's raw panic during the closing sequence. 

Host is such a fun, spooky, unpredictable movie. Even though the formula feels familiar, the manner of haunting left me guessing what would happen. Frankly, even if you end up hating it, there are worse ways to spend an hour of your time. 

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, August 6, 2020

My Pet Serial Killer by Michael Seidlinger

Claire is a criminology student looking for someone exactly her type. She looks for him at night clubs (never at parties) and finally finds the Gentleman Killer after he dispatches three women in quick succession. Their honeymoon phase has her keeping him in her apartment, complete with a kill room, as she brings ideal victims to him. As time goes on, he grows frustrated at her rules and interference, rejecting her altogether. Claire is determined to ride it out, abandon him to completely break him, and come back to a perfect pet serial killer. Is he the one or does she have to go looking for another one?

My Pet Serial Killer is a strange novel completely from Claire's point of view. She's a graduate criminology student who's effortlessly successful. It leaves a lot of free time to dedicate to her true passion: grooming serial killers to be her perfect, obedient pet. She uses accessibility to her pet and his murders for sexual gratification and academic success. Unfortunately, her narrative serves as a barrier to the action. Claire herself is an interesting character and so is the Gentleman Killer, but the first half of the book dragged with extremely wordy stream of consciousness musings. 

The second half of the book takes an unexpected turn when she tackles her doctoral thesis with a brand new killer for her to shape. That journey takes her all across the country visiting her incarcerated exes. She bizarrely grooms two TAs into acting as her clones as if they are all the same person. The previous storyline felt pretty fantastical with bodies moldering in her apartment for weeks without anyone complaining. They also abduct people in public and dispose of bodies with no problem. This second act turns up that fantasy into nearly telepathic communication with her new pet, more audacious kills, the weird TA's, and only a tiny threat of the real world that felt out of place after everything else. This section is much more action based and less steeped in Claire's inner monologue.

My Pet Serial Killer is experimental, ballsy, and lacking cohesion. I appreciated the effort of implicating the audience for observing and the flashes of a parody talk show that may or may not be part of Claire's imagination. However, it came off a little confused and didn't mesh with the rest of the story. The novel moves fast and I read it in a couple days. The overall concept is definitely unique, but would perhaps be more successful as a movie.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins   

Amulet (2020)

Tomaz is homeless and haunted by memories of war until he meets a nun that gives him direction. He is brought to Magda's dilapidated home where she cares for her dying mother who is confined to the top floor. Over time, he helps them out, softens emotionally, and falls for Magda, but strange events keep happening surrounding her mother.

Amulet is an interesting movie that keeps its genre a mystery right up until the end of the film. We follow Tomaz and his story jumps around in his timeline. While he's awake, it's the post-war existence where he's much more hardened and haunted. While he sleeps, flashbacks to the war play out where he was a sentry at a pretty deserted location. He runs into a woman desperate to escape and he lives with her for a while. The present day timeline echoes the past with Magda and her situation trapped with her mother. In both scenarios, Tomaz falls for what he views as the damsel in distress (which ends up not being reality) and ends up showing his true colors in the end, a turn that I enjoyed. A lot of this part of the film feels more like a drama or romance, which I didn't always connect with. It also makes the film a little slower paced.

The aspect that I especially enjoyed is the mystery around the mother, the creatures, and Tomaz's shaky mental state. The mother seems more than ill with preternatural strength and an overwhelming urge to kill herself to the point where they can't even use power in the house. She's horrifically violent to anyone within her reach and Magda takes care of her as best she can. Tomaz finds skeletal bat-like creatures in the plumbing that he's forced to kill. The practical effects of the creature and the mother look detailed, creepy, and delightfully disgusting. How they connect isn't explained until much later and it's pretty shocking. Tomaz also sees signs and figures appear and disappear, making him question his own sanity. I love mystery, cool creature designs, and questioning the main character's reality.

Amulet is completely different than I expected, skating a line between drama and horror before running headlong into the latter. The horror elements are well crafted and make big twists to the narrative. I wasn't on board with every development, but I had no idea where the story was going and the conclusion definitely surprised me. It was both incredibly disturbing and satisfying at the same time. I recommend Amulet if you aren't in the mood for something fast paced and are in the mood to be surprised.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins