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The Blatherings Of A Blitherer

Review: “Attachments” by Kate Wilhelm

January4

“Attachments,” by Kate Wilhelm, is the opening story in the Nov/Dec 2017 issues of “Fantasy and Science Fiction,” which is one of my favorite magazines. According to the novelet’s introduction, Wilhelm’s first story in F&SF was in 1962. She’s an established, experienced writer and it really shows in this piece.

“Attachments” opens with a a young woman in a creepy/picturesque ruin in England. We soon see that she’s from the USA and that she’s there with a friend… and also that something is horrifically wrong. As the story unfolds we see that it’s a ghost story, both literally and figuratively. Drew, the protagonist, has 2 ghosts attached to her who want her to do things for them; Drew’s abusive ex boyfriend lurks in the background, a constant threat to her both mentally and physically. Drew has to figure out how to deal with the ghosts on her back, how to solve their problems, and then how to solve the problems in her own life.

It’s a well written story. Drew is interesting and we get glimpses of her life, both current and past. The ghosts’ plan is flawed, but desperate plans often are. She, and they, need to be creative in coming up with a solution. The metaphor isn’t THAT obvious, but it’s there… Drew is asked to free ghosts from a prison, and must also free herself from the ghosts of her past.

It’s a fairly gentle story with a bit of menace that’s quickly neutralized.

“Attachments” is a solid piece that leaves me curious about Wilhelm’s other work.

Star Wars: The Spoilers Awaken

December28

I’m sure you’re interested in more hot takes on my ass and preparing for a pilonidal surgery but instead I’m going to talk about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Obviously there will be spoilers.

There is a problem with people of a certain age writing about Star Wars. For many of us, there is no time before Star Wars, no time we don’t remember having seen it. It’s sunk deep into our bones, soaked into our souls, flavoring the stories we’ve told ourselves and the play we’ve shared with others. So when a Star Wars movie or tv show or book comes out, it’s hard to separate our sense of self from what we’re consuming. It’s hard to accurately judge the product because there’s so much established emotion, context, hope, love, and projection going on. There are high standards to meet, but enough love and good will that a mediocre product can still be lofted up as long as it hits the right notes. The Prequels didn’t hit the right notes, for a number of reasons.

“Star Wars: Rebels” does hit the right notes, albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale. Please read more behind the cut.

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Fury Road and Agency

May26

Just saw “Mad Max: Fury Road” and it was utterly fantastic in so many different ways. Is it a perfect movie? No, of course not. But one thing I noticed was how many of the marginalized characters had agency, made their own decisions, controlled their own lives. There’s spoilers in this, so I’m going to tuck the text behind a fold.

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Phil Miller and Male Entitlement

March26

NOTE:
This post contains spoilers for the first five episodes of Fox’s Last Man On Earth.

Phil Miller has spent much of his post-virus last man on earth time wallowing in his own filth, drunk, in droopy underpants. In the Before Times, the 41 year old man had a job- not a career- as a temp. Unless the Tuscan, AZ temp market is vastly different from the Chicago, IL temp market, he was making $8-11 an hour, or just enough to afford his shabby apartment, single lifestyle, and not much more.

When Phil, who has given up on personal hygiene, sobriety, and life, meets clean and well groomed (shaved legs, even!) Carol, he stumbles across her clean drying laundry (and bra) first, spinning a fantasy of the sexy young soulmate they belong to. Carol’s less than conventionally attractive appearance puts him off immediately. She doesn’t live up to his fantasy. She isn’t what he deserves. Phil, who has literally been living in a pile of garbage and shitting in a pool, is convinced that she isn’t good enough for him. This despite the fact that Carol, annoying quirks aside, has her life pretty together. She manages to bathe and wash her laundry, for instance. She has plans for the future that don’t involve soaking in an inflatable pool filled with alcohol. And unlike temp Phil she had an actual career as an office manager of a business, which meant she was making significantly more than Phil and also probably had PTO, health insurance, and a 401k. In the old world, there’s a good chance she would have been out of his league, and yet Phil considers himself comfortably superior to her because of her appearance and insistence on stopping at stop signs (which, by the way, ignoring stop signs lead to a car crash when Melissa shows up). But really, which is worse: being a stickler for grammar or shitting in a pool and living amidst literal piles of literal garbage with food crusted on your face and in your beard?

Likewise, when Melissa shows up– younger looking than Carol, more conventionally attractive, more stylish, more made-up, more blonde– Phil feels entitled to her sexually and emotionally. She is more attractive than him, and again, in the before times she had a career as a Real Estate Agent and made FAR more money than he did. She, again, would have been very out of his league and yet he feels entitled to her simply because he exists and he wants her. Melissa can barely tolerate his creepy and predatory company, desperate horniness aside. (And in a world where every single vibrator and battery is free and available, would she REALLY be that desperate for sex with a creepy married dude? That plotlette very much feels like something a group of dudes would come up with.) Phil has nothing to offer her besides sex, and yet he feels he deserves her and if given the chance (no Carol, no Todd) she would realize how great he is and return his interest and attention, even though he has an established history of lying to her and betraying her trust.

This is an example of the same male entitlement that gives rise to the Nice Guys who have nothing to offer save feigned respect and kindness with an ulterior motive, and who deride and berate the women (usually better looking, with better jobs and social skills) who don’t appreciate their greatness and refuse to fuck/date/marry them.

Phil’s attitude is toxic, and dangerous, and creates a hostile and threatening environment for Melissa and Carol to navigate. When Carol pulled a gun on drunk, urine-soaked Phil and demanded to know if he was a nice person or not he said he was. But as his interactions with his fellow survivors show, he isn’t very nice at all.

Will his brief moment of emotional vulnerability and truth with Melissa mark a change in his toxic personality, or will he continue being a barely likable (albeit wittily written) character? I have a sneaking suspicion that “Last Man On Earth” may reflect the reluctance of an increasing number of survivors to put with him and his manipulations.

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31 Days of Horror: “Audrey Rose”

October24

“Audrey Rose” is a movie about white people discovering Hinduism.

There are good things to say about “Audrey Rose.” Anthony Hopkins is outstanding in the film as bereaved father slash stalker, and child actress Susan Swift was simply phenomenal. Additionally, unlike a lot of modern films, background New York is filled with People of Color: Black cops, a Black bailiff, a Jewish lawyer who talks about Shabbas and Dybbuks, a restaurant filled with patrons including a Black woman and a Sikh family, a mixed race jury, Indian expert witnesses. Most modern movies are notoriously, unrealistically white.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have much else redeeming it, and also suffers badly under Indian-specific Orientalism.

The plot of the movie is that young Ivy Templeton regularly has night terrors right around her birthday. They get worse the older she gets. Meanwhile, around her 11th birthday, a creeper dude (Hopkins) has been lurking around outside her school, following her and her mom home, trailing her dad en route to work, slipping gifts for her into her dad’s grocery bag, etc. The tension ramps up and then takes a frankly bizarre and almost preachy turn for pro-reincarnation… from a very Western European/Monotheistic point of view.

Stalker Elliot Hoover reveals that lost his wife and daughter in a horrific car crash almost 11 years ago, and that night terror afflicted Ivy is his daughter reincarnated, and her soul can’t rest because reasons. Ivy’s mother Janice, who is very ineffectual (sobbing and screaming while her daughter has a night terror, for instance), falls for Hoover’s line of bull very quickly to her husband Bill’s disgust. The movie seesaws for a while between “Is Hoover just a creepy stalker” and “no this is for real come on” and comes down too heavily pro-reincarnation. It’s very much a Movie With A Message (reincarnation is totally cool and every single person in India has no fear of death and never grieves for the dead because they all, every single one of them, believe in reincarnation and everything’s totally peaceful and cool if filled with violence and starvation they’re just, you know, so SPIRITUAL) that includes a freaking court trial to determine whether or not Ivy is Hoover’s reincarnated daughter.

They decide to settle things with a dose of hypnosis/age regression which people keep stressing out about how OMG DANGEROUS!!!!!!!!! it is. Ivy dies from it, for ~reasons~ and the movie closes with Janice penning a thank you letter to Hoover where she talks about both reincarnation and heaven. The cosmology is sloppy.

I wanted to like this movie a lot, and would have enjoyed it more if there’d been more of a question over whether or not reincarnation existed/Ivy was Audrey Rose reincarnated. Also if there’d been less cultural appropriation of reincarnation/Hinduism. Anthony Hopkins is absolutely incredible, though, so if you’re a big fan watch it just for him.

This movie gets 2 out of 5 stars.

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31 Days of Horror: “Cockneys Vs Zombies”

October23

“Cockneys Vs Zombies” is not “Shaun of the Dead,” but kind of wants to be.

It’s a bank heist movie and a family movie and a zombie movie, mashed together. It’s a dark comedy that isn’t very funny. As an American, a lot of the references, jokes, and choice of actors was completely beyond me, though, so perhaps if I were English I would have appreciated it more. Netflix recommended this movie based on my enjoyment of “John Dies at the End” so I was expecting something very weird, and this… wasn’t that weird.

The movie opens with a construction crew doing some digging. Two men discover a sealed vault and open it up, hoping to find treasure. Instead they find a bunch of bones, and a meaty damp-looking mobile corpse that quickly attacks them. This unleashes the zombie horror on London’s East End. While that’s cooking, Terry and Andy MacGuire discuss their bank robbery plans. They very obviously have no idea what they’re actually doing, and are making a lot of very bad decisions. Their day job apparently consists of taking hot pre-packaged meals to residents of Care Homes (Retirement Communities), including their grand dad Ray, who raised them. Ray berates them for working such a crap job, tries to inspire them to work harder, to get better jobs, to make more of themselves. Ray, and the rest of the residents, are troubled by the fact that the land their home is on has been sold, and they are all going to be relocated someplace else. Other than his service in World War II, Ray has never been outside of the East End. All of his friends, his family, his memories, his shops, he’ll be leaving all that behind. He’s not looking forward to it.

The movie splits into two congruent story lines as the boys head out to rob a bank. They pick up their cousin Katey and two male friends of theirs. In the ordinary course of things, they should have stuck with Katey alone. Since one of those friends had a massive stash of guns, however, it turns out to have been a good choice. Their bank robbery is a massive bumbling clusterfuck that veers away from being a shoot out with the police at the end due only to a surge of zombies that ate the cops. The group heads out, quickly realizing what’s going on… and resolving to go rescue their grand dad.

This movie isn’t as weird or as funny as I was hoping, and a lot of the special effects fall flat, looking too obviously computer-generated. The acting is good, though, and the movie does do a few remarkable things:

  • Katey is a phenomenal character, and I wish she’d been a protagonist or is the star of a sequel or something. She’s a well written, well-realized character who is an expert at lock picking and hot wiring, she’s quick on the uptake and an excellent shot, she’s very focused, she cares deeply about her cousins and grand dad. She’s utterly amazing, and she isn’t sexually assaulted or raped.
  • In fact, nobody in the movie is sexually assaulted or raped or threatened with same. There’s some rude jokes about sex, but nothing threatening. This is an incredibly welcome change and I deeply appreciate it.
  • Gentrification is directly addressed in this movie, with Ray and his friends having their home taken from them so a development company can erect luxury flats or whatever. The old folks are simply expected to shuffle away, are treated as inconvenient. The zombie plague is, after all, directly caused by the development company. The group of survivors takes a moment to question whether or not the police/military will even make an effort to save East End and its residents, and Ray says they’ll save themselves, as they’ve always done.
  • While predominantly white, two Black men have speaking roles (one of them significant), and the zombie hoards include PoC. It’s pretty common for people to say “Oh well this movie/show/etc is set in England so obvos every single person has to be white, regardless of England’s actual demographics.” So it was nice to see a mixed cast.
  • There’s a lot of women in this film, and they talk about stuff other than men (mostly they talk about zombies). Katey and Emma are full and active participants in the movie with critical roles, and never play damsels in distress or need special ladysaving. Peggy, Ray’s girlfriend, acquits herself well against zombies using both a sledgehammer and a machine gun.
  • There is no question of leaving any of Ray’s elderly and disabled/slow moving friends behind. They aren’t CARRIED, either. Erik is assisted in walking (he just had a hip replacement), but he and Hamish (who uses a walker) primarily move under their own power, of their own volition. Through the movie, the old folks are shown as having value and being able to control the situation.

There’s a lot I appreciate about this movie, and I wish I liked it more. It really needed tighter writing, better pacing, and more humor. I mean, there’s a scene where an old man in a bathrobe escapes a zombie horde while using a walker, and it just… kind of… falls… flat. They escape in a double decker bus. There’s these ridiculous moments, but it never really gels.

I have a feeling this movie gets compared to “Shaun of the Dead” a LOT for a number of reasons and it just doesn’t measure up at all. Sadly, it’s pretty derivative, so it utterly fails at being its own thing instead. I don’t regret seeing this movie, but I wish it had been better. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

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31 Days of Horror: “Candyman”

October22

“Candyman” is a classic horror movie about racism, abandonment, and Chicago.

I grew up in a really religious household, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I went to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, I went to Catholic school from second grade (CCD classes prior to that) through High School. The way I was raised just felt normal. Most of my friends were Catholic, or came from conservative families, or both. My parents were a little stricter in some ways than my friends’ parents, and I felt very little desire to rebel against them (out of very real fear of rejection/abandonment. Ironically, I got thrown out of the house for doing laundry at the wrong time and not for any petty teenage rebellion or high spirits. In retrospect, I could have lived it up a lot more and gotten the same result.). So when my parents banned almost every movie in existence, I didn’t really question it or try to sneak around to watch them. The upshot is that there are a ton of classic movies I have never seen. “Candyman” is one of them.

“Candyman” is a movie set in Chicago. Like the best urban fantasy and horror the city is a vital, integral part of the story. It’s almost a character in its own right. The movie opens tracking vehicles along the knotted tangle of expressways, moving from the South Side Northwards. Views of the luxurious high rise condos of the Gold Coast through protagonist Helen Lyle’s window; the cop car tooling down Lower Wacker Drive; Cabrini-Green, the setting of much of the horror; the University of Illinois at Chicago, pre-extensive external renovations; the bridges spanning the cold murky depths of the Chicago River; Stroger Hospital. Part of the character of Chicago is racism and segregation, and the movie digs much more deeply into issues like systemic racism and sexism than I was expecting.

Grad Students Helen Lyle and Bernadette Walsh are working on a thesis about Urban Legends, back when your average college student didn’t know what Urban Legends were. Helen’s husband, Trevor, is a professor at UIC. Despite her protests, he touches on Urban Legends in a lecture, cuing in potential interviewees/story tellers about what Urban Legends are and how they spread. He’s also very flirty with a female student, something he seems to have a history with. While transcribing tape recordings about a Bloody Mary-esque character named “Candyman” in her office, a cleaning lady mentions she’s heard about him. Intrigued and hungry for more data, Helen asks her and then another cleaning lady (who lives in Cabrini-Green) questions. They tell her a story about a woman who was killed by Candyman when he came in through her bathroom mirror… waiting in an adjoining apartment, removed the mirrored medicine cabinet, kicked her mirrored medicine cabinet out, and came through the hole. Helen does a bit of research and discovers that this is an actual thing that actually happened, and that the Housing Projects were so poorly made that the medicine cabinets were just set into holes in the cinderblock walls. There was nothing, no barrier, between the medicine cabinets. The victim called the police twice about the intruder, called 911 to report a break in, and was ignored.

I want to point out two things here:

1) Bernadette and the cleaning women are all Black, and the film passes the Bechdel test with wildly flying colors. Helen listens attentively to the cleaning women and treats them as experts in their knowledge, learns from them… but she’ll also be profiting from their story in a way they can’t, as she has access to academia and publishing and they don’t.

2) The bit about the congruent space between bathrooms? True. People WERE murdered by intruders punching through the bathroom cabinets. “Candyman” is based on a Clive Barker short story, a story written by an Englishman and set in England. Bernard Rose, another Englishman, wrote the script and directed the movie and did a fantastic job localizing the story. At the same time, he’s a white man who is literally profiting off the pain of Black people, sensationalizing actual horrific things that actually happened to actual people and making money off them in ways the people who experienced these things don’t have means of doing. Themes of abandonment thread their way through the film: people call 911 and are dismissed; Helen calls her husband for help and he’s off fucking a student; Helen and other people scream for help and are ignored; Trevor abandons Helen for his sexy perky-nippled student; multiple housing projects holding thousands of people are left to rot and decay, those within written off as unsalvageable human trash.

After a smug, condescending lecture from another man doing Urban Legend work, Helen decides that she and Bernadette are going to gather some first hand data and visit the Cabrini-Green projects, interview some residents, take some photos. This is a shockingly bad idea and Bernadette, who has actual brains in her head, does everything she can to convince Helen not to go. The two women wind up going together. A resident points out that every time white people come by bad things follow them, and this is very true as Helen’s actions rile up Candyman and cause problems for everyone, including herself.

The “real” history of Candyman, which omits his name and date of birth or death, is an absolutely unrealistic bit of unlikely circumstance and convoluted torture and murder, yet is told as unassailable fact by a man who studies Urban Legends and their hallmarks. The Urban Legend of a man breaking through a medicine cabinet is revealed to be true. UIC, a campus rich with Urban Legends of its own (both legends common to any campus with heavy use of Brutalist Architecture as well as more specific ones relating to the Behavior Science Building and Art and Architecture Building), is a wonderful choice as Helen and Bernadette’s college. Helen is attacked, but is not sexually assaulted or raped; she undresses on camera and it’s not titillating or voyeuristic. Her friendship with Bernadette is deep and loving. Helen repeatedly crawls through small openings, emerging from screaming mouths, born again from concrete birth canals. Helen fights to retain control of herself, of her mind, of her actions.

“Candyman” also explicitly questions the function of Urban Legends. Why are they so wide spread? Why are they so important? What do they mean, what do they offer? What if they are religion, a sacrament, something sacred and divine? What if we create god? What if our desires and fears manifest themselves as power and flesh, and become hungry? What if Urban Legends grant a special form of immortality?

It’s a fantastic movie.

It’s also not without its flaws.

One of the themes of the movie is that Candyman, a large Black man who is literally not human, preys upon and controls a white woman. He ruins her character, destroys her mind, posesses her, touches her body, kisses her. This is a pretty common, and pretty racist, fear about scary Black men despoiling white women. This could have been avoided by casting Helen Lyle as pretty much any ethnicity other than white, even made less obvious by darkening her hair. Urban Legends and stereotypes about sexually insatiable white-virgin-deflowering Black men abound. Does the movie knowingly play with this trope, or simply lazily fall prey to it?

Ultimately, I was pretty blown away by this movie and wish I’d watched it earlier. I was aware of its status as “cult classic,” and all too often that means “kind of shitty and very dated” (and so much about this movie IS dated, like UIC’s East Side architecture which as drastically been changed, or the fact that most of the housing projects have since been torn down and the ones close enough to the Gold Coast developed as luxury condos… which were supposed to be mixed-use with a certain percentage going to CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) tenants. That has overwhelmingly failed to happen, and a whole lot of people have been left homeless.). But there’s a lot about this movie to enjoy, to think about, and to unpack.

In my personal rating system for 31 days of horror, 5 stars means “buy this movie, it has good re-watch potential”; 4 stars means “rent this movie, watch it”; 3 stars means “find this movie for free, eh”; 2 stars means “skip it”; and 1 star means “ugh.” I’ve run across one movie that I thought deserved negative stars. “Candyman” is the first movie I felt deserved 5 stars. There’s a lot going on.

5 out of 5 stars for “Candyman.”

I’m really glad. I was getting super burned out by shitty, hateful, shallow gore horror and flapping tits.

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31 Days of Horror: “Vampires”

October21

“Vampires” is a pseudo-documentary about vampiric society in Belgium.

I’m a big fan of vampires, and a year or more ago saw a trailer for a vampire mockumentary making its rounds online. When I was flipping through netflix and saw a vampire mockumentary I thought YES THIS IS IT FINALLY and settled in. I was soon confused. This was… subtitled? I didn’t… remember… subtitles? It turns out the trailer I had watched was for “What We Do In The Shadows” which hasn’t been released in the USA yet but contains the line “we’re Werewolves not Swearwolves.” Can you see why I was so excited about it?

The movie I actually watched is simply called “Vampires” and is a Belgian film.

The film asks very reasonable questions: what if vampires existed? How would their society work? How would it affect human society? Are all vampire societies the same? What would happen if a documentary crew followed a vampire family around for a while?

Like good fake documentaries/mockumentaries, the film takes itself just seriously enough. It’s grounded very firmly in reality and recognizes that vampires living openly would cause some pretty big changes in human society. I was expecting more dark humor than there was, though. There is a lot to poke fun at or find tragihumorous with regard to vampires, and the “dark comedy” wasn’t very comedic… or perhaps humor was lost in translation.

One interesting aspect of the film is that the vampires are very much portrayed as the 1%, so to speak. They keep a woman, a former prostitute, in their house. They refer to her as “Meat” or “The Meat” and feed from her on special occasions because she tastes good, much as one would keep a goat around to milk it. The cops bring them (Black) “illegal immigrants” and criminals, who they refer to as “sausages,” who are kept in a pen in the back yard like livestock to be drained to death to feed them. They apparently stole the house they live in, the former owners dessicated body stored in the living room, wearing a clown wig. Vampire families with children are given (take? are assigned?) houses while vampires without children are forced to live in the basements of vampire families. The family that’s followed is casually racist, sexist, and ablist. When they are exiled to Montreal, Canada the adults are shocked to find that they are expected to work for a living and can’t casually murder anyone they feel like. But the social commentary is glancing at best, not very meaty at all.

This was an ok film with a few interesting concepts, but it doesn’t go deep enough, far enough, or darkly humorous enough. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

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31 Days of Horror: “The Awakening”

October20

“The Awakening” is a tense ghost story set in a boarding school in the early 1920s.

If you’re anything like me, you saw “The Awakening” available to watch on netflix and thought to yourself “Huh. I wonder if there’s any connection to Kate Chopin’s feminist short story about desire and sexual awakening.” The answer is no, although the trousers-wearing (at home, at least), cigarette smoking, atheist, ghost debunking Florence Cathcart has consensual sex with the emotionally traumatized but sex headmaster of a haunted boarding school, which is pretty great for a woman in London in 1921. Cathcart, who’s written a best selling novel about ghosts not being real, also works with the police to debunk fraudulent charlatan spiritualists intent on ripping off grieving patrons… an actual thing that actually happened, although in real life they pulled cheesecloth “ectoplasm” from various orifices, instead of using blood capsules and killing birds. After one successful raid, she’s approached by a teacher at a boys’ boarding school in Cumbria. A boy has died recently, apparently at the hands of a ghost, and the students are terrified. After a bit of emotional blackmail on his part, she agrees to join him at the school and investigate things.

At the school she reveals she attended Cambridge, unusual for a woman of her time. She sets up a variety of ghost/fraud hunter traps including tripwire cameras, and investigates the school. Despite some creepy events (including an alarming and unsettling dollhouse), she figures out what happened: some of the boys pranked her… and the dead child was killed because the English teacher locked him outside in the dark to help him “man up.” Terrified and alone, he had an asthma attack and died. “These boys must be strong– stronger than us,” he says in his defense.

The specter of both victims of the flu and the dead and surviving soldiers of World War I are laced throughout the film. There’s conflict between Robert Mallory, the teacher who contacted Cathcart, who is a veteran and Edward Judd, the groundskeeper, who faked physical disability to avoid being drafted. Mallory resents Judd’s cowardice while Judd resents that Mallory and other veterans are treated as heroes, as his betters. Cathcart, it turns out, is obsessed with ghosts because she desperately wants them to be real, she desperately wants to make amends to her dead fiance.

The acting in the film is fantastic, and the cinematography is interesting. It has a washed out, faded look and feel to it that I absolutely adored. Had the movie ended with Cathcart solving the mystery of the student’s death and leaving the fate of ghosts up in the air, I would have been very happy. A nice little mystery neatly solved, with the question of spirits not conclusively solved. Sadly, the movie continues on, and although the acting and atmosphere are both wonderful the plot descends into convoluted yet predictable plot twists and el oh el the skeptic is proven wrongity wrong about her deeply held beliefs and career.

There’s also an attempted rape scene, where Judd just happens to witness Cathcart and Mallory having consensual sex, so he decides that Cathcart is a slut and he beats her and tries to rape her, because that’s the price that must be paid if one is to see a woman in a film I guess. It’s a price I’m getting increasingly tired of paying, and quite frankly I’m getting burnt out on movies at this point. I was really enjoying “The Awakening” ridiculous over-telegraphed “plot twists” and all, and then BAM! a violent struggle and attempted rape of a very cool woman. There’s no escaping it. And that’s just so incredibly depressing and disheartening.

If the movie had ended after the mystery of the student’s death was solved, I would have rated this a 4 out of 5 stars. But it went on and took some bad turns and ultimately, as much as I wanted to like this movie, it only gets 3 out of 5 stars. Which is a shame. The acting is great, the ghostiness is great, the creep actor ramps up nicely (I’ve never seen such an effective use of a spooky dollhouse), and the cinematography is gorgeous. Alas.

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31 Days of Horror: “V/H/S”

October19

“V/H/S” is a movie that exists in the world.

One of the problems with “V/H/S,” and there are many, is that it came out in 2012 and features people recording things on digital cameras (or directly onto a laptop), but then other people watch those recordings on VHS tapes. Like, what? Really? Seriously? These folks couldn’t have found a DVD or website or something? It’s a conceit that would have worked 10 or so years ago, but now? One of the video vignettes is specifically dated in the 1990s, and it makes sense that it’d be on video tape. But it’s hard to find excuses to have people continuing to record while horrific things are happening around them, so two different vignettes use a headcam… one of which is disguised as a pair of glasses.

If you’re unfamiliar with “V/H/S,” it’s an anthology of 5 short horror films within a framework of a bunch of dickbags robbing a house looking for a special VHS tape. “You’ll know it when you see it,” they’re told. Why do I say they’re dickbags? They make a living assaulting women in parking garages and restraining them while they pull their shirts up and videotape them struggling, naked breasts exposed, and selling the footage to “reality porn” websites. They also record sexual encounters without the partners being aware of the recording. And they record themselves smashing up peoples’ homes for larks or whatever. I don’t know what any of their names are. They’re violent, they’re sexual predators, and I don’t give a fuck about them. I don’t care that they broke into a creepy dark house with a dead body in it and continued to faff about watching VHS tapes in the presence of the dead body and gathering up all the other VHS tapes that were stored in the basement far away from the multiple television screens for whatever ridiculous reason. Each vignette (watched by one of the B&E dudes) is framed by spooky stuff happening to the guys. But… I don’t care about them. So big deal.

The first vignette is about a group of dudebros who have made a pair of fake glasses that takes digital video and sound. They decide to go pick up a woman and have sex with her and record it, without telling her. Again, this is the second time “videoing a woman having sex without her permission” comes up as a plausible, possible, good choice of action. They go to a bar, get super drunk, take two young women back to a hotel. One of them passes out while a guy is trying to initiate sex. His friends laughingly advise him not to rape her. He turns his attention onto the other young woman, who is pretty creepy. She turns into some kind of vampire ghoul thing and eats everyone. This is actually an interesting idea, and I’d love to watch a movie about a freaky vampire ghoul thing that looks like a human woman and eats dudes. But about 75% of the vignette is the dudes wobbling around getting drunk and bro-ing it up and just generally boring the piss out of me. Also, there’s the troubling idea that a group of men try to take advantage of a woman but she is a violent monster who eats them so everything’s ok.

The second vignette is a video of a young couple on a second honeymoon road trip. You know how people groan about other folks’ vacation photos? Remember how old sitcoms used to feature vacation photo slides as like the most horrific boring thing in existence? Imagine watching an excruciatingly dull video of two strangers on a road trip as they record the scenery dribbling past and make small talk. It was like experiencing death. There’s a creepy part where the couple goes to bed and then at night the camera clicks on and pans over the dude asleep in his bed and then it continues panning over to the gal asleep in HER bed, and the videographer strokes her ass (clad, of course, in a lace thong) with a switch blade. It was a very creepy scene, very fantastically done. Later on the same videographer comes into the room at night and records herself killing the dude and then making out with the gal, because they planned this murder-thing for whatever reason. Killer records herself making out with New Widow, and we hear New Widow asking for reassurances that the footage had been erased. Earlier, her husband tried hard to coerce her into getting naked on camera for him. I mean, he really put the pressure on. He also recorded her changing her clothing without her knowledge/permission. So again, this is the third piece that involves filming a woman without consent.

The third vignette is about a young woman who lures a group of people to an isolated vacation spot to act as bait for the serial killer/boogeyman that killed her friends previously, so he’ll come out and she can kill him. She fails. The special effects were good– he (she? it?) didn’t show up on the recording except as glitchy static-y artifacts. There was a LOT of wasted time, irritating characters, and general bad acting. As with the previous two vignettes, a woman is a predator. The guys also take close up video shots of the breasts of the other woman in the group, and constantly refer to her as a slut.

The fourth vignette is a skype/webcam exchange recorded directly to a laptop. Why the fuck would it be on a VHS tape? It’s about a guy pretending to be the long distance boyfriend (and almost a doctor!) of a young woman he’s known since childhood. She is concerned about a lump on (in) her arm, and possible ghosts in her apartment. The lump is a tracking device and the ghosts are actually aliens who’ve been using her body to host alien/human hybrids… one of which we see the fake doctor boyfriend carve out of her body. Although the fetus is pretty big, she didn’t look pregnant at all. He arranges things to have her fake-diagnosed– and medicated– as shizoaffective, leaving her even more emotionally reliant on him. She was unaware he recorded all of their conversations, including her taking off her shirt and playing with her breasts. As he closes a conversation with her, he opens another one with a different woman that plays out exactly the same way: she takes off her shirt and plays with her breasts, then picks at her arm while complaining of a lump. This is actually an interesting story with serious pacing issues, mediocre acting, and a very low believability. The set up is too complicated, the removed fetus is too big, etc. And, again, this is the fourth vignette… the fifth piece over all… that records and displays a woman’s breasts without her consent.

The fifth vignette is about a group of guys who are headed out to a Halloween party, in costume. They wander into the wrong house and although it’s extremely obvious they’re in the wrong place they explore all the rooms and then head upstairs where they see some kind of ritual involving a tied-up woman and a knife. There’s some great scary special effects, but the set up (dudes in costume wandering around what is obviously the wrong house) is so ridiculous and the guys so bland and boring not even the effects could save it. To their credit, they try to save the woman, but it turns out she’s evil and kills them. Again, woman as predator.

I watch these movies and I take notes on them as I watch. I’ve noticed that the more I like a movie, the fewer notes I take. I took 2 pages of notes for “John Dies at the End,” and 3 pages of notes for “Pontypool,” but most of those notes were ruminations on the nature of fear and zombie movies, not the actual movie. “V/H/S” resulted in six pages of notes, including notes in the margins. This is time of my life, both watching and reviewing this movie, that I’ll never get back. This time has been utterly wasted.

The acting throughout the anthology is very uneven. Characterization is almost entirely absent. When it’s present, the characters are unrepentant assholes who sexually assault women for money or fun. The editing is very poor… most of the vignettes could have stood to be half as long, literally, as they were. I get establishing a sense of normalcy and complacency before whipping out the big horror guns, but tedium is not the way to do it. “Pontypool” handled this really well, and the contrast is striking. Women are overwhelmingly treated as sexual objects, victims, or monster predators (often all three) and not human beings. A lot of the special effects are great and there’s some genuinely creepy/scary moments, but they are overwhelmingly lost in utter tedium and banality. There’s a lot of really great things like this on YouTube, but for free, and better in every possible way.

I give this movie 1 out of 5 stars.

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