07 August 2020

Unpopular Opinion: Sense and Sensibility (1995)

An Unpopular Opinion on Sense and Sensibility
by Kristin Battestella

It's an unpopular take, but Sense and Sensibility is really a terrible story. How does no one else see it? Allow me to summarize director Ang Lee's (Crouching Tiger, HiddenDragon) 1995 adaptation of the Jane Austen novel as thus:

Brother John Dashwood (James Fleet) and his snobbish wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) cast out his late father's (Tom Wilkinson) second wife (Gemma Jones) and his three half-sisters to live off cousins in what they think is a meager, destitute humble in a delicious three story cottage with servants, picturesque views, and neighborly gentry. To escape this supposed squalor and regain their financial status, the only option is for one of the daughters to marry well. Eldest Elinor (Emma Thompson) becomes esteemed with her sister-in-law's brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), head over heels in their stiff upper lip after one country visit while middle daughter Marianne (Kate Winslet) throws herself at the enchanting John Willoughby (Greg Wise) after he touches her sprained ankle in a scandalous rescue in the rain. Poetry, picnics, locks of hair – it all seems like a marriage is in the bag until Willoughby is cast out by his wealthy country relations. Marianne continues to pathetically write a bunch of unanswered letters, throwing herself at him during a ball as high society whispers behind the backs of these reeking of desperation Dashwood ladies who really don't know how to pick men. Two hundred year old book spoiler alert – smooth talker Willoughby got a girl pregnant, so instead of making right by her, he's marrying another rich lady to cover his costs. Viewers are meant to feel sad by the fact that the one of his count 'em three women her really loves is Marianne, but clearly she does not love herself, just like Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), who's been secretly engaged to Edward– yes, Elinor's awkward enchantment – for five years. At this point, it feels like the audience need a flow chart to follow these ironic inter-relations as more cousins, in-laws, and families threatening to disinherited men who marry penniless women enter the crowded narrative.

Elinor, Marianne, and Lucy go off with more rich, distantly related folks as all everyone seems to do is invite people over to gossip and play matchmaker or reveal secrets to people they hardly know. They enter, greet, bow, curtsy, sit for five minutes of discomfort and misunderstandings before abruptly standing and suddenly departing. Carriage distances make these grand estates seem so far apart that it takes a day's rest to travel, yet the men for whom the women pine manage to speed to and fro on horseback at will – remaining absentee crushes for most of the two hours plus. Lucy is taken in by that snobby sister-in-law Fanny because The Ferrars don't know about the secret engagement and toss her out once they do hear of it, but Lucy takes a liking to Edward's younger brother Robert (Richard Lumsden) anyway. Marianne, meanwhile, ends up sick with a fever because she ran out in a storm so Willoughby could literally be her hill to die on, and her convalescence kicks another set of loosely related wealthy neighbors The Palmers (Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton) out of their own house. This time, Marianne was rescued by Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), another nearby gent who's been moon eyeing at her while she looks the other way at the heroic shadow of cad Willoughby. Brandon, you see, couldn't tell Marianne that the girl Willoughby knocked up was his ward – at least not until it's time to dump the stiff upper lip excuses, contrived suspense, and backdoor connected secrets on long suffering and heavy burdened Elinor, who's saving her lip tremble for hearing that Lucy is now Mrs. Ferrars. Of course, Lucy isn't Edward's Mrs. Ferrars, but Elinor doesn't get that memo. With fifteen minutes left, Edward finally shows up once more to tell Elinor what he should have said in the first dang place, which would have saved us all from one lame ass misunderstanding. Now, there can be a double wedding; the Dashwood women are no longer so desperate nor destitute, just relying on different men for their money and maybe happiness. Marianne has learned to like the Colonel after all and Elinor and Edward have apparently overcome their communication problem. Bravo, I guess.

Despite trying on numerous occasions, I've never made it all the way through Sense and Sensibility in one sitting. Why do I keep trying to catch the whole thing in bits and spurts? I can't lie, I just like looking at all the Regency costumes. Disliking the supposedly charming story also doesn't mean one hates on these ladies. Emilie Francois (Now with a PHD you go girl) as youngest sister Margaret is, unfortunately, pretty much an afterthought. The potential for youthful spying to find the truth about what's not been intimated or speaking bluntly to ask the right damn questions of these bumbling men is not used to full advantage. Likewise Margaret's spirited reckless but possible sense of what's what remains underutilized as a positive example that perhaps the titular best of both her sisters can be embodied together, and if she's not there for any future hopeful, viewers may wonder why she's here at all. Thankfully, we all love Kate Winslet's (Titanic) flustered cheeks and wispy tendrils as Marianne, the perfect Regency rose. The audience wants her to be happy in love, escaping these crappy social circumstances with whatever throwing herself at a guy it's going to take. The whirlwind, butterflies in the stomach, heartbreak, and tears remain relatable. We're protective of these ladies, so whatever bug's up Sense and Sensibility's butt, we don't fault screenwriter Emma Thompson (Howards End) in doing the best she could – earning an Adapted Screenplay Oscar and other acclaim for pairing down the obnoxious for love or money trite into something streamlined and mildly bemusing thanks to the Dashwood femininity. In spite of the intertwined back and forth mistaken jolly goods with too many characters' hands in the pot, we enjoy how our screenwriter also pulls off a Best Actress nominated restrained performance. Elinor is the oldest, the responsible, good sister taking care of everyone else but herself. Everyone else is allowed to be problematic, and the culmination of the movie isn't so much that her dang love interest comes clean, but that Elinor expresses herself after spending all her time bottling up her emotions alongside everyone else's crying and secrets. Ironically, the self-insertion from Austen writing in her first published novel about what she knows as a woman stuck under the misogynistic Regency's thumb is a bit too much life imitating art. She never got a happy marital ending, so it's doubly ironic that Dame Thompson ended up marrying Greg “Willoughby” Wise in real life. Touché. Sadly however, Gemma Jones' (MI-5) Mrs. Dashwood misses the opportunity to capitalize on being witty and Dame Maggie on Downton sassy, remaining passive and accepting of the circumstances rather than standing up for her daughters by worming the bullshit out of the men. Instead mother Mrs. Jennings Elisabeth Spriggs (A Christmas Carol) and daughter Mrs. Palmer Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter) carry the matchmaker quirky, because in Sense and Sensibility, only once a woman has married rich and spend her youth is she allowed to be a busybody eccentric.

Like Diana Ross said in Mahogany, the men of Sense and Sensibility, however, ain't shit. All of them. Too many named John and multiples with the same last name acerbate the wash out male confusion, leaving every conversation with the opposite sex laden by a Who's on First back and forth. While this can start off bemusing for some, it inevitably ends up so, so tiring for most. We wouldn't put up with this crap, so it's infuriating that our girls have to settle for this patriarchal, pussyfooting gentry. Wise's Willoughby is supposed to be the most handsome therefore he drops the most poon in his wake, yet we don't even see him most of the time. In Sense and Sensibility, the men's roles are more about how the women have built up the intimations while pining for the gents in their absence. Again, we're supposed to like Hugh Grant's (Four Weddings and a Funeral, which as Al Bundy said, is really just five of the same thing.) Edward Ferrars because he's befuddling charming with our Elinor, but it's just too damn awkward in his bathroom break and you miss him handful of scenes. Did the whirlwind actually happened or was all love goggles? Even Edward's collars and jackets looks too big for him as he hunches over and mumbles something honorable enough to get a passing grade. Visually, Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is the upstanding opposite as Colonel Brandon literally on his high horse when not taking his own friend zone shit from Marianne. Why is he bothering when she won't give him the time of day? The Colonel with no first name seems more suited in temperament with Elinor, but these secret keeping wallflowers only exchange help or whispers as needed rather then develop something more – never mind that in the book, Brandon is over thirty and Marianne is supposed to be a teenager. o_O Whipped brother James Fleet (Death Comes to Pemberley) is there so his wife Harriet Walter (Little Dorrit) can have her only power through him, and Imogen Stubbs (Twelfth Night) as Lucy Steele is likewise defined as villainous because she is competing in the same shallow gentry pool. Poor domesticated Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) is the man around the most, surrounded by the increasing number of flustered skirts his wife and mother-in-law invite into his home with only a newspaper and a few witty jabs to shield him. Obviously, there is a specific decorum and social control in Sense and Sensibility – men had all the financial and marital rights, remaining responsible for all their nearest women. However, that doesn't mean they had to be spineless dicks about it. Is this a twenty-first century perspective on a two hundred year old story? Yes, but with so much acclaim on the supposed romance herein, one keeps watching for a timeless characterization that isn't there. Instead of worthwhile men to our ladies, the males are all bloated and self-important, and it's tough to find the men are weak meta bemusing because it's true.

Thankfully Sense and Sensibility's Regency costumes, feathers, cravats, and gems are divine. Particularly now in a pandemic re-watch when it's been all pajamas with no need to dress up; the breezy frocks, purposeful yet pretty bonnets, and warm shawls provide elegance with their simple Greco-Roman revival touches as well as about the manor house comforting. Likewise, the landscaped estates, country cottages, and London town houses have candles, antiques, fireplaces, woodwork, and craftsmanship be they lavish or seemingly meager. Sense and Sensibility is bright with open spaces and sunny picnics. It's the typical English countryside ideal, yet all these dang people are so gosh darn unhappy about their expansive homes and picturesque views. It's such a chore apparently to ride on beautiful horses or in delicious carriages, going back and forth between neighbors when not breaking out the quills and inkwells and writing letters saying you are on your way. After all, there isn't much else to do when not reading idyllic poetry to escalate the socially unreciprocated yearning. Although right now, we can't even go over to a distant relation's mansion and kick them out of their own place when we get a fever, so I guess the grass is always greener amirite. Unpopular opinion or not, even an ardent Austen fan must admit Sense and Sensibility is a saccharin for love or money story with stupid guys who can't say what they mean, relatable in their pent up waiting women, and heaps of misunderstands going round and round on each intertwined couple. It's musical chairs until time's up and somebody finally tells who they love for real for reals – or at least learned to like for all their material assets.

Growing up reading Jane Austen, I always felt her books end up saying the same dang thing, and after all these tries, this Sense and Sensibility's main redeeming value is ultimately it's pretty dressings. I can't lie, when I'm in those Regency frocks feelings, I often fall asleep watching this on mute. The lack of sound makes one realize how this terrible who likes whom social confusion and heartache over nothing derivative can be so readily deduced. Even the British decorum hindrances permeate without hearing a word, rightly or wrongly indicative of the expected Austen same old, same old. I guess if it takes you dozens of times to see one adaptation, you really have seen them all. I'm utterly flummoxed how Sense and Sensibility's terrible story and time wasting bore – and possibly sleep inducing pace – can be so beloved. Sorry! ¯\_()_/¯

24 July 2020

Tales from the Darkside Season 4

Still Enough Gems in Tales from the Darkside Season Four
by Kristin Battestella

The 1987-88 Fourth season of the George Romero produced Tales from the Darkside provides a darker horror bizarre in its final twenty episodes beginning with the smuggled artifacts, Egyptian statues, and golden sarcophagus in writer Robert Bloch's “Beetles.” Although the premise is familiar, the petrified corpse, gem eyes, and eponymous scarabs create great atmosphere and ominous warnings – return the mummy to its tomb or suffer the cursed consequences. The unheeded desecration leads to more hysteria, insects, and death throws, setting the mood for the season alongside the dolls, mannequins, and stuffed animals of “Mary, Mary.” These are our lonely photographer's friends, and the photo shoot trickery for the video dating service calls are weird, pathetic, and sad. A real life friendly neighbor is too scary – she can't hide behind any facade and live vicariously in this orchestrated illusion. However, the warped horror escalates once the dummies start talking back. The new owner of an infamous haunted townhouse in “The Spirit Photographer” also intends to use rare technology and mysticism to prove the paranormal to his rational friend. They've spent their lives seeking evidence or to debunk, obsessing over life after death and paranormal explanations in an interesting two-hander mixing real science, ectoplasm gadgets, and ghostly images. Some of the supposedly irrefutable photos and phantom wails are laughable, but the eerie messages, stakeout suspense, and deceased drain on the living provide great ambiance. “The Moth,” by contrast, is brimming with rural mood thanks to a humble cabin and spell books that won't burn. Debbie Harry's (Videodrome) stabbed by a jealous wife and her angry mother thinks she is a wicked girl for the water rituals, broken clocks, branches, and circles in blood. Our daughter intends to come back – so long as her mother captures the moth that comes out with her dying breath. The religion versus the devil, who's right and who's sinister is well done thanks to counting the sand to keep out evil, creepy conversations, and deadly twists. Writer Clive Barker (Hellraiser) adds holiday melodies, trees, and presents to the underlying menace in “The Yattering and Jack” with angry apparitions, cracked mirrors and apparent poltergeists. Unexpected family visits escalate the supernatural and pleas to Beelzebub as carols turn to fiery smoke and devilish demons debate the rules found in Job regarding tormenting a good man into admitting evil exists. Tales from the Darkside presents another disturbing December demented – possessed turkey dinner and all.

A horror writer dad videotapes his scary movie adaptation for his squabbling kids while mom's on a long distance call in Stephen King's (Creepshow) “Sorry, Right Number.” Flashing call waiting buttons and desperate pleas for help, unfortunately, leave mom worried. She knows the voice but it isn't their collegiate daughter nor sisters or grandma. Our husband thinks it was a prank or wrong number, and the family dynamics change thanks to the understandable apprehension. The bad feeling continues in the night with damaged door locks and well developed suspense that keeps viewers invested right up to the twist. A passive aggressive bill collector in “Payment Overdue” threatens unpaid folks and enjoys scaring kids who answer the phone with how their parents are going to jail – getting the job done no exceptions until she receives a raspy call from a supposedly dead claim. It turns out she doesn't like being on the receiving end of the harassment, and the fearful frustration phone acting isn't phoned in like today's television with abrupt smartphone conveniences. A mysterious man delivers the payment from the deceased dialer – an avenging angel forcing our overly confident go getter to face the chilling pleas before it's too late. Tales from the Darkside has several similar stories in a row here with devils and telephones, but the excellent turnabouts make for a strong mid season before a plump lady who's tried all the guaranteed weight loss gimmicks in “Love Hungry.” Amid talking to her plants and crumbs everywhere, she spots an ad for 'you're weight is over.' Soon a small ear piece arrives allowing her to hear the painful screams of the foods being ingested. It's both an amusing and disturbing way to ruin dinner, and it's amazing no one else has thought of the horror of considering body, environmental, and self-worth statements from the fruit pleading not to be eaten. Now that she has a pair of glasses revealing the food in question, it would be murder to eat them but she has to eat something – leading to hunger, paranoia, guilt, and a bitter finale. Period clothing, spinning wheels, and old fashioned décor belies the 1692 Colonial Village in “The Apprentice” as a contemporary student applies for a re-enacting job. The magistrate insists on no sign of the twentieth century allowed, but our coed doesn't take her apprenticeship seriously. Smoking, flirting, and telling the puritans to lighten up and not have a cow lead to stocks, hangings, and debates on using so-called witches as a scapegoat to bind a struggling society together. Horror viewers know where this has to go, but it's a real treat in getting there.

"The Cutty Black Sow” continues Tales from the Darkside's late superb with trick or treating, fireside vigils, and an ill grandma who doesn't want to die on All Hallows' Even. Scottish roots and Samhain lore combine for deathbed delirium about the titular beast and warnings to stay safe inside the stone circle. The young grandson is left to make sense of the ravings, trying to finish protection rites he doesn't understand in this unique mix of candy, masks, and contemporary Halloween fun alongside old word spells, rattling windows, glowing eyes at the door, and home alone frights. The spooky darkness and chilling what you don't see is dang creepy even for adults! A cranky old wife, however, is unhappy with her husband's junk in director Jodie Foster's (Flightplan) “Do Not Open This Box.” She wants new things – including the titular package that a strange mailman says was delivered by mistake. He insists he'll pay anything for the unopened box's return, and our browbeating lady sees an opportunity for a reward. While she shows up her friends with ostentatious jewels, her husband only asks to invent something useful to others. Our carrier also has a midnight deadline and a limit to his gifts, and his repossession notice exacts a fiery turnabout. In returning director Tom Savini's “Family Reunion” dad Stephen McHattie (Deep Space Nine) does whatever it takes to find a cure for his son – taking the boy from his mother and remaining on the move as chains, snarling, shadows, and howls handle the surprise. Prior torn shirts and accidents send mom to child services; and despite nightmares, pain, and the urge to run free, the boy wants to be with his mother, leading to wild confrontations, hairy threats, and superb revelations even if you already know what's what. Barking dogs, parakeets, kitchen timers, coughing, and ominous toys also foreshadow the noisy horrors for the babysitter in “Hush.” Her charge has been experimenting in his father's workshop – creating a noise eating robot with one freaky suction-like hose. Initially, the primitive gadgets seem hammy and the premise simple, but the accidental activation and broken controller lead to heavy breathing, beating hearts, and some quite disturbing, slightly sexual imagery.

Of course, it wouldn't be Tales from the Darkside without a few awkward entries including the impromptu champagne and sensitive puppeteer forced into a private performance for a hammy gangster in “No Strings.” Cliché accents, vendettas, dumb shootouts, and sexism litter an already silly premise, and the supposedly scary pantomime is just dull. Yuppies also get what they deserve in “The Grave Robber” – another Egyptian piece with hieroglyphs, explosives, a creaking mummy, and yes, strip poker. It's laughable in all the wrong ways, and Divine (Hairspray) likewise can't save the corny jokes, offensive portrayals, and stereotypical visions seeking the obnoxious titular leader of “Seymourlama.” Will these terrible parents sell their indulged son for shiny trinkets? Although disturbing, the attempted mix of satire and sinister misses the mark. Downtrodden scriptwriter Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) also doesn't believe his innocuous neighbor with a dog named 'Diablo' can help him achieve movie making power in “The Deal.” Hellish quips contribute to the deja vu, for we've seen this plot previously on Tales from the Darkside as well as in other horror anthologies. This isn't bad in itself, just derivative. The shutter clicks and outsider point of view trying to solve humanity's mystery in “Going Native” are stilted and drab, too. Our photographer regrets joining this bizarre reverse therapy group with dark robes, rage, aggression, and creepy innuendo. It's all trying to be lofty about the human condition with on the nose debates about why we let advertising dictate what we value, obsess with wish fulfilling television, and use sex to alleviate solitude but everything falls flat. For it's time maybe this was provocative, however it's run of the mill after better Tales from the Darkside episodes and the steamy, alienated analysis could have been better explored on Tales from the Crypt. Unfortunately, from Nicky and Ruthie to the bad accents and red hair, the I Love Lucy spoof in “Barter” is just plain bad. A rambling, ammonia drinking alien salesman gives mom a gadget to freeze her son – providing some peace and quiet amid all her good gollies and household hints. Of course, everything goes wrong, and the attempted parody completely drops the ball as Tales from the Darkside ends with two clunkers. Likewise contending for worst in the series is “Basher Malone.” It's gritty music, seedy crowd, and wrestling cliches are terribly dated alongside some macho, blue lasers, and a masked man coming out of a portal behind the soda machine?

Fortunately, that Tales from the Darkside introduction is as creepy as ever, and the crawling bugs, icky corpses, gory faces, choice monster effects, and ghostly overlays remain effective. Hellish red lighting, dark silhouettes, night time eerie, fog, and thunder invoke horror despite small scale sets and one room storytelling. There's often only a few players per episode, too, but the acts flow as conversations rather than relying on flashing editing or visuals over substance. Mirrors, reflective shots, through the frame views, and basic camera ruses accent good old fashioned corded phones, big cordless phones with those giant antennas, answering machines, long distance calls, operators, and Ma Bell references. There's big old computers, tape decks, record players, radio reports, boob tubes, and the rush to find a blank VHS for the VCR amid nostalgic antiques, retro lamps, classic tunes, and period piece clutter. The obligatory eighties cool with big hair, excessive make up, lots of pinks, and terribly glam fashions, on the other hand, woof! Strangely, the Tales from the Darkside DVD Special Features includes two more episodes – odd spin offs or backdoor pilots that sadly went no further. Wills and flirtations mix with black roses and exotic pursuits in “Akhbar's Daughter,” for sheer near nudity, steamy silhouettes, and threats about what happen to the last suitor add to the sense of forbidden danger. By day, the tantalizing lady is not what she seems at night – leading to ominous portraits and gross consequences. Instead of wasting time on silly entries, it would have been interesting to see Tales from the Darkside grow into this more mature vein, and “Attic Suite” has a desperate paycheck to paycheck couple contemplating how to get rid of their elderly, costly aunt and gain her insurance policy. Auntie herself wishes she could starve herself to death for them, and we believe how sad and bitter the options are as the dire needs escalate in another serious, demented, and twisted plot. These two extra entries should have replaced the last two clunker episodes, which send an otherwise fine season and overall perfectly demented series out on a cheesy note. Compared to timeless horror series before like The Twilight Zone or upping the saucy Tales from the Crypt after, Tales from the Darkside is steeped in low budget eighties sinister. Season Four's eerie goods live up to the series name, and Tales from the Darkside remains watchable with memorable if bizarre vignettes and frightful storytelling.

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21 July 2020

Two for One Horror Conundrums

Two for One Horror Conundrums
by Kristin Battestella

These recent horror releases start off as one thing and become something else – biting off a bit more than they can chew with a mixed bag of entertaining, annoying, and even laughable results.

Doctor Sleep – Ewan McGregor (Nightwatch) and Rebecca Ferguson (The Girl on the Train) lead this 2019 sequel incorporating Stephen King's novels as well as The Shining's changes with 1980 campers in the woods and a creepy woman in a magic hat before Overlook Hotel landscapes, that infamous Room 237, and terrified children. Overhead angles, upside down camerawork, and chilling beats accent nightmares, boxing up the mind from evil, seedy movie theaters, and subliminal revenge. Unfortunately, the intermingled The Shining revisits and new inconsistencies keep restarting the plot. It's odd to see people recreating characters from the first movie alongside ghosts, telepathic explanations, birthday parties, and drunken escapades that again reset. The first half hour meanders, leaving the audience wondering how these 2011 strangers, eerie coastal rituals, and tempting offers to stay youthful forever are all connected to Danny's AA meetings and his touching fresh start as the titular orderly using his shine to ease dying patients. The momentum changes once more eight years later thanks to telepathic messages on the chalkboard, chilling Jedi mind tricks, a spooky troop running low on steam, and disturbing abduction vignettes. Interconnected visions made completely clear, automatic writing, channeling clues, and shining lookers experiencing the killer acts are intriguing, if jumbled together when the segments with specific characters each deserve focus. It's great when our shining friends finally meet – there's only a few like them in a lifetime and now someone is eating their shine. Warnings not attract people's attention lead to spooky silhouettes, ghostly catch ups, and filing cabinets to store the evil in the mind. Astral projection distortions are well done with warped reflections, ominous clouds, bloody noses, and flickering electric amid power struggles and who's tracking whom turnabouts. However high stakes are made simple with easy psychic ruses and instant traveling; the build up takes longer than the confrontations thanks to fast captures and fatal changes leaving little time to explore anonymous vampires snuffed out in quick shootouts. Internal struggles between alcohol and gifts are gotten over in a brief choice before car accidents, amplified mental powers, and rushed confrontations as the current action hurries back to the snowy Overlook in the last hour. The powerful psychics are suddenly vulnerable, susceptible to the hungry ghosts as the abandoned hotel awakens – Gold Room, axed door, and all. The payoff would have been worthwhile if we had more time with the characters, for entire scenes mimic The Shining, falling back on familiar corridors, typewriters, and hedge mazes rather than fleshing out daddy issues and alcoholism as a hereditary disease. Although entertaining with great scares and paranormal atmosphere, the back and forth, up the stairs and down the stairs action becomes one overlong movie serving two masters, struggling between pacing the book on its own and falling back on the Kubrick connections when one season of psychic vampires and then a second season revisiting the Overlook would have done wonders.

Skip It

Child's Play – Single mom Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) leads this 2019 re-imagining complete with uncanny valley ugly designs, compromised safety protocols, and creepy commercials for the new high tech Buddi doll. Stormy nights, disgruntled employees, and customer complaints lead to our pretentious son obsessed with his phone and too mature to play with a returned, defective, re-gifted doll. Instead he hangs out on the dark streets with his hood up – emo yet hip and making friends with a policeman neighbor when not using the doll to frighten mom's jerky boyfriend with generic jump scares. Mistaken commands and bonding moments are meant to be cute, getting the loneliness across in charming montages with social statements about a robot being a child's only friend. However, the supposed fun and games are intermixed with mechanical point of view, glitches, glowing eyes, creepy robotic talking, and knives. We know scary is to come – negating the sympathy with cats in peril, misused technology for one's own gain, and commands not to harm people a la Terminator 2. Internal references to evil robots and horror movies are out of touch, breaking viewer immersion because they are for the adult audience not the young protagonists onscreen. Lighting, shadows, and camera angles accentuate snippets of chilling horror, but then more forced whimsy flat lines the simmering mood. Most scenes also happen at night just for artificial menace – mom's nasty boyfriend even takes down the outdoor Christmas lights in the dark but it's tough to appreciate the ladder dangers, strangling light strings, and kids wearing headphones who can't hear the lawn equipment buzzing because of the crass overkill and laughable chopped head hot potato. How old does a kid have to be before he realizes he can't wish someone dead or cry when the batteries are taken out of his evil toy? Empathy and conflict suffer between the dual attempt at independent technological intelligence warnings and Chucky franchise sardonic. Cheap bathroom thrills and contrived suspense over automated devices not turning on the lights acerbate excessive torture porn as deaths go on and on with redundant stabbings, saws, driver-less cars, and splatter. There's no reason for the extra gore, our youth being deaf, or the family being white. It's downtrodden Chicago but only the supporting players are allowed to be Black in a mainstream horror release, and placing an old black lady in terror as if we're supposed to cheer because she's sassy to the end compounds the back and forth humor or horror insulting the audience. The tweens had numerous opportunities to tell an adult about the violence but they blame the grown ups when they aren't believed. The overlong plot and mixed motivations sway as needed, tacking on shopping hysteria, gory marketing displays, and remote control airplane propellers slicing a trapped crowd. The last fifteen minutes are an absurd department store bloodbath with our kids wielding a laughably convenient hedge trimmer. Despite potential, producer Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) once again runs someone else's I.P. into the ground thanks to reshoots and too many behind the scenes hands in the pot ripping off multiple themes. Maybe this is watchable for casual horror viewers, but the messy, repetitive cliches aren't as fun as the original Child's Play.

What the Heck?

Everfall – I didn't expect this 2017 indie to be good – I just wanted to see figure skaters in a horror movie. Epic mountains and action cam stunts, however, try hard while our melodramatic, washed up ingenue is late to the rink. She says there's not going to be a next time for her boyfriend to choose the rush over her – not because she is ditching this terribly toxic relationship, but because she fell and is out of the competition. Flashbacks and injury scars lead to crying in the shower, insistence that her boyfriend isn't the issue, and a fed up coach sending her to the obscure titular festival. The contrived family troubles, skating struggles, bad vibes boyfriend, previous fires, and cursed arena are all revealed upfront, but our snobby skater refuses everyone trying to help her and most of the characters are jerks or idiots. There's a ridiculous exaggeration about the death spiral maneuver, too – as if someone thought it was something scary and ominous enough to make a horror movie around it without ever showing anyone doing the move properly. Creepy rink officials, “dark atmospheric music” captions, and people walking around an ice rink like it is some latent scary place are too awkward, and no one's in a rush to call the police after an off camera witnessing of a girl shooting herself, because of course nothing in the arena is what it appears to be. Convenient screens show past videos yet phones are deliberately left at home, and it's up to our concerned mom to do a Google search and read Wikipedia aloud. Dressing Room 5 has an evil red door with talk of witches, rituals, and kids said to be scarified in an annual reaping along with everything else that's being thrown in here like candles, heartbeats, and ghostly little girls being chased up and down the same hallway. There's an angry firefighter ex-husband, too, and the useless daredevil douche boyfriend belittling her into pranks, injury, and ruining her skating keeps going on and on as if him being the cause should be some kind of surprise. Emotional music matches the imaginary resets for some of the best moments, but it's all a horror ruse so how are we supposed to be moved when we don't know which has really happened? There's messing with unreliability and then there's paining your audience by faking your way through the holes in the story. There's no reason to care about the past traumas or comeuppance, and if this is about the horror of an asshole boyfriend, we figured that out in the first five minutes. Not only is this a bad horror movie, but there's next to no on ice action. I'm so annoyed.

16 June 2020

Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder Remains Whodunit Expertise
by Kristin Battestella

Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds) directs the 1954 murder mystery Dial M for Murder featuring Ray Milland as an obsessive husband plotting to kill his adulterous wife Grace Kelly. Yes indeed, despite whimsical music, morning newspapers, and stereotypical bliss, our lady is kissing two men as daytime white robes give way to scandalous red dresses and evening cocktails. The reunited lovers catch up on blackmail, anonymous threats, and whether to tell her husband, but the British accents feel a little put on amid heaps of exposition. Fortunately, the pip pip cheerio phone manner adds to the fronts presented, and banter about buying a car with his money or hers and who gave up one's career for whom reveal more than what's really being said. Dial M for Murder has a lot of laden dialogue, past tense tellings written by Frederick Knott from his stage play, and for some audiences, the meticulous talking about comings and goings we didn't get to see may be too stiff. However, viewers also need to be informed of each recognition, supposedly coincidental encounter, and unaware pretense as the eponymous request drops so casually. Who's pulling the wool or has one over the barrel and who's going to blink first? Devious two-handers elaborately orchestrate the perfect crime via untraceable cash, switched keys, and fatally timed phone calls that can't prove who really did what. The first half hour of Dial M for Murder tells you who's going to be killed, when, where, and why with strategic placements, police scenarios, and assumed deductions. The only person who knows different will be dead, but the victim isn't where she's supposed to be, leading to suspenseful slip ups and costly mistakes. Stag party alibis, nightgowns, behind the curtain veils, roughness over the desk, risque strangulation, and penetrating scissors make for an interesting sexual, even cuckold or homoerotic symbolism. Our husband lets another man enter the home sanctity and do to his wife what he cannot – orchestrating the coughing, gasping, purple bruises, and rough aftermath as an over the phone voyeur. A brief intermission gives the audience some relief before locks, shoes, mud, handbags, and thefts leave holes in the revisionist history. What's been touched, misplaced, planted, burned? No forced entry and suspicious stockings escalate to lawyers, nightmarish trial montages, and an ominous sentencing. However preposterous or unproven, could there another perpetrator? Jolly good men pour drinks and ponder what if, winking at writing a detective novel and putting oneself in the criminal's shoes. “Just one more thing” deduction a la Columbo wears down the suspect with crunching numbers and attache cases suspense. Viewers must recall how the chess meets Clue really happened as each tries to outwit and reveal the truth.

Former tennis star now working man Ray Milland (ThePremature Burial) is so doting he even sends his wife to dinner and the theater with another man when he's working late. Unfortunately, Tony Wendice is clearly up to something, lying on the phone and faking knee injuries amid arguments about why he gave up sports and what he would do if his wife ever left him. Of course he knew about the affair – blackmailing Margot with her stolen letter in hopes the ended correspondence meant they would live happily again. His being the charming husband, however, only serves to hide his obsessive plotting on how to kill his missus. Tony is so suave about it, yet the detailed character focus reveals how crazy he really is – excited and pleased with his guaranteed calculations. He calls the police about this ghastly accident before serving them tea, planting evidence, and telling Margot to corroborate what lies he told. Tony speaks for her, too, using her shock for oh yes, but you see explanations and tidy answers. The debonair tall tales, however, only lead to more questions he cannot escape. Likewise sophisticated Grace Kelly (Rear Window) has ended her romance for her husband, contented at home even if she doesn't like listening to radio thrillers alone and seems like a kept little girl doing what her husband tells her. Margot robotically repeats what Tony says, confused by police and breaking down at the disturbing, intimate attack. Despite being the female victim held, used, attacked, and judged by men, Margot does have one moment of impaling power that disrupts her husband's plans. She's both numb and overwhelmed, not recalling his face but the horrible eyes and shamefully embarrassed for the adulterous truth to come out in her official statement. After all, scandalous women with secrets are unsympathetic to a jury. Mrs. Wendice lied about her lover, so why should anyone believe her now? Robert Cummings (Saboteur) as suave American writer Mark Halliday is here to be our lady's holiday fancy, using his literary perspective to help Margot though he can't quite put the pieces together thanks to carefully worded hypotheticals and holes poked in his theories. Shady criminal Anthony Dawson meanwhile – who appeared in the stage production with our Chief Inspector John Williams – is the swarthy, rough, killer womanizer able to do what our husband can't. Fortunately, our inspector knows more than he's saying, pursuing unnerving evidence and paperwork with jolly good deduction to counter every seemingly airtight explanation. He has a slick mustache, too!

Originally Dial M for Murder was designed for then vogue 3-D showings – evident now with obvious outdoor backdrops and exaggerated foreground objects. In hindsight, it makes no sense to have such a talkative piece presented in 3-D anyway, and if I could choose, perhaps Hitchcock's surreal Spellbound would have been a more interesting visual candidate. Bar carts in the forefront, moving silhouettes on the wall, cameras following the cast toward the screen, and filming through doorways also lend depth, but those are more about Hitchcock's voyeuristic audience rather than three dimensional staging. Exceptional lighting schemes, flickering firelight, and strategic lamps also spotlight areas or divide the frame for players with opposite motives. Keys and staircases play their usual Hitchcockian part amid retro rotary phones, giant receivers, vintage cars, fedoras, furs, cigars, and cigarettes. Dial M for Murder relies on a small two room set cluttered with furniture and objects to consider in the fatal orchestration – mirroring Dial M for Murder itself as the film tells you the plan then leaves viewers to wonder who gets away with it via panning cameras, overhead angles, killer point of view, and giallo mood. Frenetic notes match the violence as well as the internal simmering from our seemingly so cool characters, and when we do have action, it's claustrophobic, intimate, and scandalous. His and hers separate beds are moved out of the bedroom while the illicit couple is seen sitting on one bed, filmed through the headboard during conversations about which man has her key. While the DVD has a brief behind the scenes chat about the fifties 3-D craze, a twenty minute retrospective with contemporary directors breaking down Hitchcock's suspense whets the appetite for more. Of course, there are similar plots to a Dial M for Murder like A Perfect Murder that makes audiences these days more aware of the outcome. The slow, talky nature may bother some, yet that hoodwink, who's bluffing dialogue helps the suspense. Thanks to contemporary in your face and special effects, there's also a certain appreciation in how Dial M for Murder doesn't need elaborate set pieces thanks to deceptive performances, in camera assaults, and crime complications. In plain sight slight of hand, nail biting clues, charming criminals, and reverse whodunit lies remain entertaining shout at the screen excellence for mystery writers, fans of the cast, and Hitchcock enthusiasts.

17 May 2020

Pandemic Horror Pros and Cons

Pandemic Horror Pros and Cons
by Kristin Battestella

Being at home during the Coronavirus outbreak has led to new viewing opportunities and plenty of time to watch them. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that these recent famous monsters, demon films, supernatural tales, and ghostly terrors are going to be all quality.

These were Good...

Frankenstein – Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) alternate as the Doctor and His Monster for director Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave) in these two, two hour performances presented by National Theatre Live. Tolling bells, heartbeats, billowing backdrops, red lighting, and shadows invoke membranes and tissue for the monstrous birth while circular staging, mechanical floor changes, and electricity crackle with smoke and sound effects. Sweeping camerawork and overhead views add a surreal, looking down on high symbolism as locomotives, goggles, and top hats create an industrial, steampunk mood. Well done scarring, stitching, and bald, pasty looks match the pulsing nerves and body contortions which, though melodramatic for the back row to some, are realistic discoveries. This performance requires a certain agility and flexibility – Cumberbatch shows range in the ugly, yet his portrayal is more childlike or simpleton compared to Miller's guttural cries and visceral physicality. Our Creature begins helpless, unable to control his limbs amid confusion, laughter, and pain. With no dialogue in the first ten minutes, the audience is expected to be familiar with the story, leaving the doctor's abandonment, sing song rowdy, and horrified crowds to speak for themselves alongside young innocence and an emotional score. Some viewers may find the interpretive almost performance art bemusing at first, however the beatings on the street lead to a humble homestead and a blind man unafraid of kindness, and the drama gets better as it goes on with lessons on God, sin, tenderness, and paradise. Men are hungry, thirsty for food and knowledge – asking big questions on existence, friendship, and philosophy while conflict and tragedy mount. Dreams of a female creature come to life are an unexpected but welcome ballet before fire, screams, fear, and revenge. Fiancee Naomi Harris (Skyfall) is sublime in modern regency looks, but her grace and compassion aren't what Victor wants thanks to fatal lakeside encounters and vengeful confrontations. He despises his Creation but is proud of him because The Monster proves Victor could, and superb intellectual debates on who's the hardened murderer or justified and wronged lonely are really about conquering death rather than scientific experimentation. Reasoning like men falls prey to grave robbing and aggression, and though appalled at a second, surely wicked creation, Victor delights in the female challenge. Cumberbatch is more in his element reveling in the mad science as nightmares and ghosts create a sounding board in lieu of showing laboratory wonders. This perfect woman, however, needs a man not a monster, and the conflict doesn't shy away from the marital bed. Our impotent, stitching perfection together doctor won't procreate with his wife, but the females here are objects of desire solely for the violence of men, never appreciated for their goodness and unnecessarily assaulted as father doctor and creation son each learn to lie and best each other for their own gain. Although unnecessary extras and a slow, uneven start may feel off putting or overlong to some, the action and dramatic pace increase in the second half. I personally preferred the Miller as the Creature version, but thanks to National Theatre At Home Options, this dual told story remains entertaining with some great one on one segments for an interactive classroom reading and viewing comparison.

The Heretics Kidnappings, ritual symbols, altars, torches, and cults lead to freaky masks, chanting, demons, and sacrifices in this 2017 Canadian indie. The nightmares continue five years later despite group therapy, volunteer work, and an overprotective mother who won't let her daughter walk home alone. Assaulted and abused women are meek and apologetic, comforted by time heals all wounds hopeful, but others don't want to be touched, refusing to be victims and tired of lies that don't make it better. Would they go back and change their experience or seek revenge? Our female couple supports each other with realistic conversations and maturity – not horror's typical angry lez be friends titillation solely for the viewer gaze. Unfortunately, creepy campers, chains, and a scarred abductor ruin necklaces and birthday plans, leading to skull entrance markers, an isolated cabin, and flashbacks of the original attack with hooded dead, white robes, and flowery dresses marred in blood. Sunrise deadlines, whispers of angels, fitting Gloria names, and religious subtext balance faith, doubts, God, biblical aversions, and horns. What's a delusion and who's delusional? Who's right or wrong about what they believe? The multi-layered us versus them, who's really involved in what sinister, and what is truth or lies aren't clear amid threats, stabbings, whips, and history repeating itself. Men versus women innuendo and who needs saving attempts add to the less than forthcoming police, lack of answers, and obsessive searches. Who is trying to protect whom? Violence begets violence thanks to fanatical beliefs in the ritual and long awaited ceremonies. This demon is deceptive, growing stronger and more tantalizing despite a gross, uncomfortable sex scene. Occasionally the boo monster in your face jumps are forced, but the fine body horror, creaking wings breaking out the back, squishing sounds, and black sinews make up the differences. Fevers, convulsions, hairy clumps, and visions increase along with the realizations of what is happening before candles, pentagrams, burns, and one more final sacrifice. Viewers know where it all has to go, yet this remains entertaining getting there via escalating horror invasive, ritual complications, and one ready and waiting demon.

But Jinkies These were Stinky

Annabelle Comes Home – A middle of nowhere cemetery, foggy crossroads, engine trouble, and ghosts in the backseat open this 2019 entry in The Conjuring universe with creepy atmosphere and familiar faces as Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) bless and encase the titular doll in their demonic collection. Despite warnings on possession, crosses, and phantoms knocking at the door, the nowhere left to go timeline is backed into a confusing corner – we're after the prologue but before the main events of the First Film in an unseen in between home alone with The Warrens' daughter and her babysitter. Newspaper articles about The Warrens allow for mean jokes, bullies, and nasty neighbors, however it's tough to feel anything ominous when pesky folks deliberately go into the spooky vault and get what they deserve. Sixties music cues, record players, and period patterns are just window dressing as the teen sitter and her sassy BFF look too young and modern, and our charge also seems too old to be so childish. Thanks to contrived psychic encounters, terrible serenades, convenience, and more boy trouble, they all make stupid decisions just because the plot says so. Messing with the cursed items is merely an excuse for a variety of evil games, pointless evil wolf apparitions, and pianos playing by themselves. The random ghosts unnoticed in the background as if they are always among us are chilling and the rocking chair creaking by itself accents evil brides and decent individual scare vignettes. Unfortunately, the deflated Halloween horror feels tacked on in a bad coming of age movie sleepover complete with the cliché inhaler, and we never care about the people because viewers know nothing of consequence is going to happen to upset the canon. It turns out exploring The Warrens house while they are away for most of the film is derivative and boring, and this is more like a Conjuring for kids who shouldn't be watching the R rated flagship films. I zoned out after the first hour, only to be alerted by all the obnoxious phones ringing and incessant door bells – for the most frightening thing here is trite jump scare noise.

Demonic – Maria Bello (The Dark) and Frank Grillo (The Gates) lead this 2015 ghost hunters picture within a picture from producer James Wan (Insidious). Though brief, the opening credits are typical news reports and hyperbolic headlines of satanic rituals and brutal murders. Cell phone calls fill in exposition on the crime house, the sheriff's interrupted love life, and country town first name basis. Creepy dolls, fresh blood, and new bodies are at the scene of the original crime, but then we go back to the sunny one week earlier as our paranormal, passive aggressive yuppies have ominous chats about visions, dead mothers, and pregnancy giveaways in a weak connection to the past horrors. Via interrogations and corrupted cameras, the current investigation and the precipitating paranormal house attack unfold side by side. We just saw these people's dead bodies in the house, so it's not so much confusing as it is pointless and irritating to go back and forth. Viewers aren't seeing anything in the proper time solely to delay and distort the narrative with amateur intercuts and handy cams. For seemingly sophisticated equipment, all the innate herky jerky is cheap with off camera screams and attacks unseen not because that's scary, but because it was easier not to show what matters. We don't get to follow the police discovery trying to piece together the footage from their view because we're being subjected to in your face found footage fake outs that toy with what's in camera and out of the point of view. People are missing but apparently finding them isn't as important as perusing the lame footage complete with driving to the horror, useless store stops, trite introductions, and exposition not conversations. The present adults and whiny coeds going where they shouldn't are terribly disjointed, padding the two movies in one feeling with interrogation voiceovers such as “Let me get this straight....” Critical information is deliberately withheld until contrived car chases, convenient confrontations, easily deduced laptop clues, and occult research reiterate the absolutely not surprising possessions. Cliché ghosts, black ooze, and hackneyed open mouth roars can't disguise the jumbled mess, and it all insults the wise horror viewer – treating us as if we're as stupid as the people in the movie.

Malevolent – Scamming medium Florence Pugh (The Falling) sees real ghosts in this 2018 British/Netflix original set in 1986 as indicated with old televisions, large equipment, tape decks, and microfilm. The neon discotheques, however, are unnecessary, and the trench coats, high ponytails, and stacked bangles look more like costumes than clothes. If one misses the onscreen date, you might not even notice this is meant to be a period piece especially thanks to modern dialogue and today's terribly young looking twenty-somethings who don't seem old enough to drive much less orchestrate eighties supernatural con jobs. Grandpa James Cosmo (Game of Thrones) provides classy poise, but he's embarrassingly only used in one scene loaded with family history before spooky phone calls and bizarre self help tape voiceovers. Maybe the smoking, drug references, and warped positivity are meant to be character layers – we can understand the stress her big brother has in taking on all the family responsibilities – but his shady dealings make him a real jerk and he bullies his sister and girlfriend into the haunt hoax before blaming them for thinking the scheme's gone too far when he's at fault. Schoolgirls were murdered at the eerie manor in their latest investigation, but the maze like rooms and falling through the floor injuries feel hollow because our jerk demands they continue the faux exorcising despite the risks so he can get paid. Nosebleeds to indicate when one really has a ghostly encounter become trite when they happen every time. Once is enough, but the audience is beat over the head with this minute detail rather than seeing more about the old lady who calls their showmanship bluff. There's no sense of scale or consequences when something we already know is revealed to a character just to move the plot elsewhere. Viewers are over the footage within footage camerawork, as if we don't look at devices enough and need any type of screen to look through rather than just see for ourselves. Sideways video from a dropped camera, creepy dolls, and sing song music are getting old, too when following a silent ghost is all we need. It's tough to appreciate sinister villains cutting people's tongues out when we don't care about the victim by time we get to the haunted house meets contemporary chop shop torture in the final act. Whether it's by human or supernatural means, there's never any doubt where the cliches are going.