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