08 October 2015

Scary Silent Staples!

Silent Scare Classics!
By Kristin Battestella

There's no better way to top off a blustery autumn evening than with a late night viewing of these sometimes bizarre, often eerie, mostly Expressionist, and always chilling silent film essentials.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Sleepwalking, hypnosis, and a demented carnival atmosphere are just the beginning for this influential 1920 paragon. From the German intertitles complete with a madcap, unreliable narrator font to the eerie, off key merry go round score, the distorted perceptions and exaggerated visuals force the viewer to pay attention. Green patinas, teal evening scenes, golden up close shots, and opening and closing irises layer on the dream like retelling alongside askew, Expressionist angles and a stage like design – a play within a play to which we the audience are willingly privy. Contrasting triangles, shadows, lighting, and more surreal architecture parallel the lacking reality, for there is no external frame of reference and forced perspectives belie a fun house whimsy. The actors, makeup, and abstract period styles are fittingly macabre, and the stilted contortionist movements evoke a poetic but unsettling ballet where a misused seemingly innocent, forgotten pawn needlessly dies once his job no longer computes. Though very indicative of its early interwar time, this remains immediately progressive – man is misled, controlled, even compliant in his misdeeds but not willing to be responsible for his actions when it is easier to be led astray and defer your killing hand to the orchestrating puppeteer. Do we not let popcorn entertainment and social media dictate our needs because someone somewhere told us so? Are we living in a fantasy if we think otherwise? Maybe so. The mass sheep consequences are indeed frightening, and some may find it tough to view this picture objectively knowing the catastrophic calamities to come. The appropriately named Cesare, deadly predictions, a perceived loved triangle, escalating murders, and crazy case connections twist and turn while satirical police sit on high up stools like toy soldiers waiting to be told what to do – like us in our 9 to 5 cubicles. Ignorance is bliss, and that is mighty scary. This is must see genre at its finest thanks to heaps of real world fears and social commentary for horror fans and classroom studies.

Faust – This 1926 F. W. Murnau biggie waxes on all the good and evil one can muster thanks to its Old World appeal, supernatural surreal, and timeless story. Familiar strings and sweeping orchestration ground the Expressionist horror framework with frenetic ills or melodic tender as needed while stunning images of angels both light and dark are fittingly disproportionate with oversized wings. So maybe the mounted skeletons may seem hokey, but the smoke and mirrors, creepy eyes, and evil horns make for superb overlays and superimposed shadows. Why do we toy with spectacular effects when each frame here is like a seamless painting – unlike contemporary, noticeably shoddy CGI. Ghoulish makeup, severe looks done with very little, dark hoods, rays of light, and religious iconography loom large, telling the tale with symbolic light and dark objects dueling for our attention – just like the delicate titular ballet. The battle for one man's soul is set amid our earthly plague fears, and despite the torment and somewhat odd, dragging domestic humor, the acting is not over the top but subdued for the weighty subject. This macabre is closer to the past than the present, setting off the repentance questions and plague as divine retribution debate. His Old Testament gives no answer, and evil enters in on Faust's doubts, trading decadence with quills to sign in blood, hourglass measures, alchemy, superimposed flames, and mystical books to match the thee and thou spells. Our deceiving little old man becomes more traditionally devilish looking with each lavish temptation, duplicitous with his immediate tricks of pleasure and unfulfilling youthful elixirs that cannot be sustained. Could you do good with such power? Flight and winds show not how high one goes but how far we will fall, and despite a somewhat overlong hour and forty minute full length edition, the grim sense of dread here snowballs as the looming evil drapes the bedchamber within his robes. Will innocence and love triumph and restore the divine? This stunning attention to detail not only makes me want to tackle Goethe again, but shows what can be done when time is taken to ensure a picture lasts 90 years rather than be a consumed and quickly forgotten 90 minutes. The multiple versions and assorted video reissues will bother completists, but we're lucky to have these copies at all and horror fans and film students must see this still influential morality play.

The Hands of Orlac – Art and music meet the grotesque for this 1924 tale of pleas, surgeries, and will power. Precious few newspaper clippings and streamlined, made to look old intertitles accent the ominous locomotives, vintage vehicles, smoke stacks, and well done but no less hectic disaster filmmaking before the macabre executions and madcap medicine. Doctors in white coats with terrible news, a saintly woman in white, bleak black trees against the clouded white sky – rather than our beloved silver screen, the picture here is truly a black and white negative with bright, symbolic domestic scenes and nighttime outdoor filming. Overwhelming buildings loom tall, and the sharp, gothic arches of a sinister father's house reflect his uncaring. Eerie superimposed faces, phantom feelings, and impatience to remove the bandages build toward the eponymous hysterics, but the simple agony of handwriting changes and crooked hands so skilled with a killer blade but unable to master the piano wonderfully increase the torment and self doubt. Is it the mind doing these fatal repeats or the appendages themselves taking over? The full near two hour restored version feels somewhat overlong, with melodramatic scenes and unnecessary transitions interfering with the anguish. At times, contrived fingerprint exposition and solving the crime clichés pull the rug out from under the horrific hands possibilities, but fortunately, the blackmail, murder investigation, and bittersweet love anchors the monstrous appendage swapping. Where today we would have all kinds of bent, hairy, or special effects to hit the viewer over the head with how evil these hands should be, it's amazing how these wicked hands psyching out our pianist don't look evil per se but actually fairly normal. With our contemporary pick and choose genetics and scientific advancements, the concept of these influential limbs out for themselves is perhaps more disturbing. Could you loose your art and livelihood when calamity takes your hands or would you use extreme science to restore your limbs, accepting the inadvertent trade of music for something more barbarous? This is an excellent must see both for the ghastly what ifs and the inner turmoil at work.

04 October 2015

Unfriendly Family Frights!

Unfriendly Family Frights!
By Kristin Battestella

Put the kiddies to bed for these old school sociological scares, freaky families, and creepy couples of decades yore. 


Brain Twisters – A shattered walkman, neon, bad techno graphics, giant microphones, and lots of old time televisions add nostalgia to this 1991 sci-fi scary. Did I mention the bad denim, pink, phones with cords, and phone booths? The dated design is certainly noticeable but feels more bemusing than unwatchable. The opening fifteen minutes have a nice underlying ominous – we know something spooky is going to happen to these coeds thanks to the bevy of dorky dudes, a creeper professor keeping a student’s brain on ice, and you know, nasty corporations doing brain experimentations. The eerie bathroom scenes are fun, but the female characters are cliché and distinguished only by their stereotypes: the smart virgin, the dark haired slut, and the chubby best friend. This low grade, late night Cinemax feeling increases thanks to some hokey and a seriously testosterone trying wooden detective. The flashing lights triggering brain aversions are also lame; movies today have a lot more dizzy inducing strobe than a blinking pinball machine! While it’s nice that you can see what’s happening without any in your face special effects, the straightforward filmmaking was probably a by budget necessity, so the lack of camera bells and whistles or flashy editing feels like things are taking too long to escalate. Nobody really figures out what’s going on, and this nothing spectacular but not a disaster style could have been punched up a lot more. This is better than I expected it to be and remains entertaining, but the premise and ultimate statement are a bit dumb. If there’s supposed to be some kind of message about the static on the TV brainwashing the next generation, that ship done sailed!

Crucible of Horror – Alfred he is not! Michael Gough is deliciously wicked in this 1970 familial twisty brimming with mirrors, then upscale décor, country cottages, a spooky attic, and a suspicious stiff upper lip gentility. This dad's sexist ideals are so sadistically strict that he feels up his 16 year old daughter's bicycle seat – no, this dinner table isn't going to be awkward! Old phones and out of order receivers add to the deceiving protocol, lack of privacy, and oh so polite manner. Pour us a drink and kindly don't interrupt while we try to kill you, jolly good. Guilty hands are constantly rewashed, intercut secrets up the suspicion, and whether it is shown or implied, the disturbing violence somehow keeps us guessing who is in the right and doing what to whom. Classical music keeps the murderous plotting, well, classy amid the well edited escalation and bumbling crime. How many times has this caper been foiled? Our thieving, traumatized teen sucks her thumb, and wife Yvonne Mitchell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is both dead behind the eyes yet surprisingly lucid. The volume, unfortunately, seems very low here, and some scenes veer too far toward nonsensical psychedelic dreams. Not a lot happens to start either, but the creepy 90 minutes is allowed to simmer and build discomfort – not to mention how misogynistic brother Sam Gough (Shelley) and sister in need of discipline Sharon Gurney (Women in Love) are real life husband and wife! Despite some predictable twists, we don't quite blame anyone for taking matters into their own hands, and the retribution, fishy neighbors, and body afoot make for plenty of who did what to whom and how suspense. 

The Evictors – This 1979 AIP spooky opens with a neat 1928 sepia flashback complete with cool coops, a rural siege, and tommy gun shootouts before moving to Louisiana 1942 for more pretty country, fedoras, candlestick phones, and operators at the other end! Jessica Harper (Suspiria) unknowingly settles into that prior deadly house, and it's a familiar premise with red herrings, lusty realtor Vic Morrow (Combat!), and an old lady busybody recounting a 1939 killer flashback. There's also an expendable mystical negro stereotype sharing a 1934 flashback, and the expected horrors may build too slowly for audiences wanting shocks a minute. I'm not sure if I like the separate flashback actions or not, for they take away from the present mystery a bit too much. However, seeing how the murderous actions went down rather than just telling it in a typical research montage is different and allows for additional scares amid the more commonplace damsel in creepy house horrors. Fortunately, the flat picture fits the seventies meats forties revisit, and the cast matches the wartime look and colloquialisms. This was an idyllic time with unlocked doors, friendly neighbors, a lone woman walking in red pumps to the country store – and carrying back the groceries! The sentimental introductions, picnics, and king of the castle era creates a quaint safety before suspicious notes in the mailbox, eerie ticking clocks, creaking floorboards, and simmering thunderstorms. The behind closed doors screams, cut away violence, and killer camera perspectives add to the predatory suggestions – even if the finale gets somewhat humorous. Wise viewers may see the same old same old gun twists coming and the ending is a bit confusing. However, there are enough surprises and period flair accenting this puzzler. So why aren't more horror movies set in these eras?

Nomads – Although the eerie editing, slow motion, and stilted camerawork carries a dated movie of the week feeling, the black and white photographs, darkroom splicing, frizzy perms, and limp ladies bow ties ironically accent this atmospheric 1986 supernatural thriller. Los Angeles hospitals, violent patients, grimy vandals, and French flavor set off the bad dreams and strung out ER as the memories between fair doctor Lesley-Ann Downe (North and South) and bearded anthropologist husband Pierce Brosnan (GoldenEye) blur. The wrong reflections are in the mirror, and the intercutting between our avatar and the retraced action is well paced and mature but no less bizarre. While I can do without the music montages and oooo badass silent but supposedly sinister punks, the gender reversals, possessions, titular pursuits, and cryptic history remain intriguing. Granted, the unique Inuit myths aren't made completely clear and these desert spirits gone wild aren't as menacing as they should be. However, the viewer knows there's something suspicious amid the concrete jungle threats, spooky nuns, and abandoned creepy. Where some tribes fear the camera capturing one's soul, these evil spirits don't appear in the developed frame. It's freaky and foreboding considering how many more gangs and urban nomads there must be today. How often do we pass by rowdy, stray, or seemingly innocuous people without really noticing them? Whether they are supernatural or desperate, maybe it's better if we don't catch their eye and loose our soul. Head down and keep moving! It might be interesting to see this notion revisited, as once you get over some of the eighties silly and wild, over the top finale, this 90 minutes makes for a scary sociological study. 


02 October 2015

666 Park Avenue

666 Park Avenue Had Spooky Potential
by Kristin Battestella

Yes, I am superstitious about the number, and 666 Park Avenue probably began with one foot in its 13 episode grave thanks to its polarizing name. Though flawed with an unclear theme and a rushed rectification, this 2012 limited run remains a frightfully fun marathon.

New building managers Jane van Veen (Rachael Taylor) and Henry Martin (Dave Annabel) move into The Drake, a historic complex owned by penthouse living Gavin Doran (Terry O'Quinn) and his wife Olivia (Vanessa Williams). As Gavin uses his wealth and influence to advance Henry's political ambitions, Jane renovates the building, finding unusual secrets alongside fellow resident Nona (Samantha Logan). Neighbors Brian (Robert Buckley) and his photographer wife Louise (Mercedes Masohn) encounter the unexplained at The Drake themselves, as does Louise's sultry assistant Alexis (Helena Mattsson). Ghostly phenomena, suspicious residents, and past mysteries escalate as Jane digs deeper into the building's history – and discovers her own deadly secrets.

Although 666 Park Avenue is loosely based upon a book, the series ironically shares several similarities with the equally ill fated series The Gates, which aired two summers prior on ABC. Our new tenants move into a luxury, too good to be true apartment building, taking a working position in a community where their predecessor left under unusual circumstances. The ridiculously short credits also flash a lone title card before the listings scroll over the opening action, making who's a regular or who's merely recurring tough to deduce. Like The Gates, 666 Park Avenue also pads its short 42 minutes – or less – with unnecessary song montages, and despite a classy billionaire interracial couple at the top, diversity is lacking elsewhere. Does ABC keep repeating this formula hoping to get it right? The numerous writers and directors have no consistency for 666 Park Avenue, and the characters are their roles rather than truly bloomed personalities. The mismatched couples are unevenly developed and only seen hurrying home or leaving late. Some are in on the spooky while others are not, and most of the residents only interact for a hello or goodbye in the surprisingly tiny lobby. The Drake seems more like a hotel thanks to a weekly revolving door where regulars are left hanging for other going nowhere spooky. People are being sucked into the walls for goodness sake but 666 Park Avenue moves away from its scary core for irrelevant corporate schemes, Madoff name drops, and political double talk. Instead of sullying evil with the same old prime time hitmen or political assassinations, maybe not being so New York City steeped or having been period set may have let the building intrigue shine. The wicked blackmail in the second half of the series does better, but the ridiculous need to have an upscale party literally every other episode gets old fast. Truly, no one episode of 666 Park Avenue is all super, the audience never receives the answers we really want, and poor structuring muddles the quality paranormal pieces.

Fortunately, 666 Park Avenue is more spooky than nighttime soap opera with an adult cast, mature situations, desperate pleas, eerie phone calls, and mysterious contracts due. Thunder, spooky zooms, and ominous doors lead to residents with suspicious blood on their hands, petty thefts, and one creepy laundry room. The Pilot gets to the ghostly prospects early alongside deadly quid pro quo requests and a nefarious Order of Dragon past. This first hour feels like a decent haunted house movie, showcasing the eponymous elevator mishaps, spooky stairwells, and murderous flashbacks. Perhaps episode five “A Crowd of Demons” uses a Halloween party excuse too soon – we don't know the players enough to see them dressed up yet – but this is an atmospheric good time once the ghosts break loose. After an uneven first half, “Downward Spiral” begins to get to the bottom of The Drake only to have its reveals delayed until Show Nine “Hypnos.” Stock crashes, evil men in suits, sacrifices, and past rituals pepper the upscale where we least expect it. Play up those literal trips down memory lane, the mental hospital scares, bricked up fireplaces, and spooky books! “The Comfort of Death” toys with ghosts in the mirror and long lived curses while “Sins of the Fathers” adds priests and more 1927 living history coming back to rent an apartment. Reappearing pills taunt an addict, a knightly organization battles The Drake's Order of the Dragon – a lot of should have been there all along paranormal is tossed in too late along with a halfhearted evil topper in the “Lazarus” finale, and those dangerous bathtubs, past drownings, and bricked up bodies make viewers wonder why 666 Park Avenue wastes so much time on shopworn auxiliary in its early episodes.

Where the eponymous complex's supernatural threats are quite interesting, our would be heroic couple Rachael Taylor (Jessica Jones) as Jane and Dave Annabel (Brothers & Sisters) as Henry are a touch too innocent, plain, and naive for 666 Park Avenue. They don't seem like much of a pair, just New York ambitious with lots of parties interfering while Jane's connection to the building – which should have been immediately solidified – is strung along until the seventh episode. There's generic architecture talk, but Jane merely breaks a few things and knocks down some walls in her haunted house reveals without finishing projects or following through on the top to bottom explorations. Eventually, it seems like the idea of Jane and Henry being building co-managers is dropped altogether, as the totally unaware of the paranormal Henry doesn't seem to care about Jane's pleas to move or her fear for her life until she goes missing and ends up in an institution. Of course, Jane has no right to complain about Henry's politics getting shady when she has been keeping secrets about The Drake the entire time, and these plots that should be powerful are erroneously intercut with weaker B and C stories. William Sadler (Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey yes!) is great as Jane's estranged father, however, his horror heavyweight potential comes to 666 Park Avenue too late. Likewise, Henry's spooky dreams don't happen until the finale, as if the potluck writers simply forgot that Jane had the supernatural visions. It's not the actors' faults, nor the dozens of writers and directors who otherwise do fine work, but it seems like there was no character bible for this duo, leaving the audience anchorless to the very persons for whom we should cheer.

13th floor penthouse power couple Terry O'Quinn (Lost) and Vanessa Williams (Ugly Berry) certainly have the slick and suspicious afoot capabilities, but once again the mixed motivations on 666 Park Avenue hamper their scene chewing. At once, Olivia seems like a clueless fairy godmother lavishing on the newbies. However, one too many times she deus ex machina conveniently helps Gavin out of an evil jam before being unaware again by the next episode. Gavin, of course, threatens someone every hour to prove he is the top of the top, using politicians to get rid of mysterious rivals or swiftly dealing with dangerous minions. He knows all along about some secrets yet is blindsided by other evil trickery. If he's so powerful, why is his demonic brand such a slippery slope under constant threat? The rug is cut out from under the viewer when his evil hierarchy, past Order of the Dragon connections, and good versus evil religious aspects are never fully explained. 666 Park Avenue plays with pedestrian dirty politics too long, and I swear they literally pull a Seven from Married...with Children and send the Dorans' pointless daughter down the stairs to never be heard from again.

Sadly, I'm not sure the yuppie marital discourse of Robert Buckley's (One Tree Hill) struggling playwright Brian and his wife Mercedes Masohn (Fear the Walking Dead) as bitchy photographer Louise are necessary at all. Sure, they add bubble bath steamy and voyeurism, but oddly, 666 Park Avenue remains tame in the would be saucy affairs. Paranormal drug addictions and fatal attraction with Helena Mattsson (Betrayal) as Louise's assistant Alexis become completely uninvolved with the aforementioned characters' storylines, and although the gambling debts being tattooed onto Enrique Murciano (Without a Trace) as romantic Doctor Scott are a neat Karma twist, it never goes anywhere. The paranormal stamp on Brian's writing is late in the game to save the wishy washy between his women, and we don't know what's really going on with Alexis and her debt until Episode Ten. Rather than juggling too many superfluous paranormal residents and their wannabe The Devil's Advocate deals with Gavin and compromising the series, 666 Park Avenue should have combined these plots for just one strong younger couple, thus earning a second year to introduce some deadly love triangles.

But wait, there's more trite with the stereotypical magical negro psychic and rebel teen Samantha Logan (Teen Wolf) as Nona. Not only do redundant ghosts also impart similar mysterious warnings, but Nona doesn't always share what she knows, inexplicably leaving only the audience aware of the clairvoyance. Of course, Nona also has a magical negro grandmother in a wheelchair, and Ghost Guinan herself Whoopi Goldberg also makes an appearance as some kind of Matrix Oracle where, I hate to say it, she seems more like she's just talking on The View. Erik Palladino (ER) as doorman Tony is also treated as a subservient ethnic minority picked over for a higher position but used as a thug or handyman and deliveries as needed. 666 Park Avenue also has a black widow obsessed with youth, an obituary writer who changes people's lives with her pen, and two detectives snooping about The Drake. Well, one detective anyway – Teddy Sears (Masters of Sex) continues as another going nowhere side plot while his female black partner is never shown again. Typical.

Thankfully, symphony moments and ironic classic tunes add upscale accents to the blackmail and violence on 666 Park Avenue while creepy dream travels, phantom hallways, and hidden aspects of the building slowly reveal some sinister. It's frustrating when something spooky happens only to be cut away for an ominous commercial edit, but distorted wide lenses and through the keyhole photography add a sense of askew not found on your typical New York drama. The women's over-arched eyebrows give them a perpetual wow face, people researching their family history never bother to use ancestry.com, and some special effects look mighty poor. However, folks being sucked into the floor is pretty darn cool, and the 1920s styles make up for the contemporary lookalikes and lacking attention to detail. 666 Park Avenue has too many people, side politics interfere with the paranormal goods, and it takes half the thirteen episodes to really get going. The Drake's spooky promise is never fully refined, and the episodic dragging once again proves that network television needs to catch up with today's tightly paced shows and no time to waste storytelling. 666 Park Avenue should have been a taught 6 episodes rather than bloating itself with broad filler. Ironically, while improving on The Gates with its more spooky adult drama, these same pitfalls that shuttered The Gates condemns 666 Park Avenue.

It's annoying when such creepy potential and likable actors don't get the well thought out summer event series they deserve. Could have, should have – 666 Park Avenue is by no means great. Yet despite my negativity on the show's never quite hitting the right notes, it was indeed entertaining to marathon for the weekend, and 666 Park Avenue fits well for viewers new to horror, budding paranormal teens, or those looking for something upscale and spooky but light on fear.

27 September 2015

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 6

Buffy Season 6 Slips
By Kristin Battestella

On my last Buffy: The Vampire Slayer rewatch, I was sidetracked and stopped midway through Season 6. That, however, is no excuse – especially since now that I'm neck deep in another Buffy marathon, I can admit it's the disinterested sagging of Year 6 that bottoms out the vampy viewings.

Sunnydale without The Slayer just won't do, so witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) work a spell with Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caufield) to bring Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) back from the dead. Her watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) is leaving for England, but vampire Spike (James Marsters) has remained loyal to Buffy and helps care for her sister Dawn (Michele Trachtenberg). Unfortunately, Buffy isn't glad to be back, Willow becomes addicted to using magic, and relationship cracks show as Xander and Anya's wedding approaches. Life is bad enough, but the nerdy, self-proclaimed villains known as The Trio (Adam Busch, Danny Strong, Tom Lenk) interfere with the Scooby gang, causing a spiral of deadly divisions and end of the world rage.

Now on the UPN network after departing The WB, Buffy is darker this season and not as fun, understandably, perhaps, thanks to the hefty resurrection in “Bargaining Parts 1 and 2.” It's an excellent start with action heavy and questionable Scooby leadership – these bittersweet departures and deadly transitions are nearly insurmountable for most television series, but Buffy pulls it off in “Afterlife.” Distorted, in your face, camera whirlwinds reflect the jarring as well as the intimate moments, tender returns, and demonic consequences. Sure, your friends meant well! These early bottle shows are strong in Year 6, for there's no need to divert with weekly villains when you have so much raising from the dead angst. The gang isn't exactly up to fighting demons, and their internal problems make for a more interesting pain than any supernatural catalysts. A more horror styled filming is indicative of this bleak Buffy can't handle – such as the bills and broken pipes in “Flooded,” and more risque language and saucy details reflect this mature tone. “Life Serial” is fun as a one off episode with bemusing trials in the more expected Buffy humor. However, the episode has the unenviable task of fleshing out The Trio as mini bads for the season – rather than say, leaving them as an obnoxious recurrence or two amid all the other break ups, allegory, and torment.

Of course, “Once More with Feeling” has everything Buffy needs for the bitter developments in Season 6, and this longer musical hour works as both a unique takeaway and a deeply involved game changer. I hum these tunes or refer to the lyrics more often than I should admit, and while you can't watch it with your parents thanks to the naughty gay sex innuendo in 'Under Your Spell,' that suggestive wink has held up well. 'Bunnies' is a fitting little rock moment, and 'Rest in Peace' sums up Spike's romantic edge – even if he doesn't sing with his British accent. Whoops! 'I’ll Never Tell' is a fine throwback that foreshadows relationship troubles to come, and each song's tone is smartly tailored to match the characters regardless of genre or revelation. The actors who aren't really singers still have catchy moments – Sarah Michelle Gellar's flat notes appropriately match Buffy's off-key state of mind – and the tongue in cheek whimsy makes for self aware set changes and breaking the fourth wall moments. Rather than the shorter syndicated edition, viewers must see the full length episode with its lyrical subtitles to appreciate how the smiling mid century musical direction perfectly belies the unhappy truths. Slow motion training montages are intermixed with serious reprises, progressing the hour from lighthearted to explosive. Indeed, the 'Where Do We Go from Here' finale wonderfully surmises all of Buffy's metaphors, leaving the house of cards fallen and our players facing rocky, unknown futures. All their secrets are made known – maybe life will be okay, maybe it won't. Going out on a high note jokes aside, I must say, this episode could have been a superb series finale.

Whew! Though not as big a production, “Tabula Rosa” is an excellent coda. Their souls have been sung, so now let's wipe everyone's memory and see if anything is happier. The switcharoos are humorous yet serious, and it is important for our wayward Scoobies to rediscover themselves. The pairs with the strongest ties remain, and whelp, that's that for the rest. Michelle Branch's appearance with 'Goodbye to You' is also the best use of a concert montage on Buffy, ever. The early episodes this season are largely solid, even spectacular. Unfortunately, the magic is the drug elements in “Smashed” and “Wrecked” are too much together. Our beloved ladies are going to the dark side, nobody's friends, no one gets along, and it's all too unlikable and tough to watch. Dumb decisions are made and “Gone” uses invisible gags to lessen the sour, but half the episodes in Year 6 could have been axed. “Doublemeat Palace” uses the stinky of normalcy in its conspiracies with askew camerawork to match while “Dead Things” goes too far with Spuffy sex and disgusting Trio behavior. Important character developments may happen and pieces of these shows are memorable, but the framework is too depressing or forgettable. “Older and Far Away” is the one where they can't leave the house, right? “As You Were” is the one where Riley Finn comes back, really? And we care because?

Fortunately, “Normal Again” is a much nicer dark alternative with its superhero delusion and mental institution possibility. Which tale do we tell ourselves to keep us miserable or happy? This illusion versus reality twist is a much more tantalizing theme compared to the over the top bitter this season, as is the seemingly innocuous credit addition in “Seeing Red.” Again, rather than an expected monster, a real world drive by cuts the rug out from under the audience – we should know Buffy well enough by now to see too much good was in need of some ruin. Sadly, this critical episode is also uneven with Trio filler and an unnecessary, crossing the line motivation for Spike. His love isn't cause enough for his quest? Why even show his motorcycle flight – just let him leave and give us that surprise next year instead of intercutting the life versus death symmetry in “Villains.” Who can or can't be brought back from the dead and what happens when you choose to take a life instead? All the ills come full circle with a surprising spiritual touch in “Grave,” and a good laugh over a simple, embarrassing recap of the season's icky events breaks the gloomy. Unfortunately, Buffy doesn't quite come round right, and it's just a sigh of relief that this season is finally over


Well, well, Buffy wanted a regular life beyond being The Slayer, but a feeling meaningless resurrection, fast food job, and paying the bills isn't so fluffy, is it? Our super gal is flawed, disturbed, and unhinged – and getting drastic ala that rogue slayer Faith. Slaying used to be what made Buffy Buffy, but now she must find her place in this cruel world without her responsible routine. She can't go back to college and has to put up happy pretenses or tell everyone what they want to hear rather than hurt her friends' feelings. She raises Dawn and does the right thing while everyone else is too busy with their own lives to help her – even though Buffy is unwillingly back from the dead because of them. The bringing down the house metaphors are a bit obvious, but her discomfort over using someone she loathes such as Spike is an important experience. It's abusive, unlikable behavior when she takes out her self hatred on him. Buffy is an inherently good person doing what she perceives as wrong – and unlike Faith, it tears her up. Sadly, it takes horrible human interactions for Buffy to get back to sticking to her guns after this year's drab, but by the end Buffy is ready to live and intends to see justice served, whether her friends are right or wrong.

Spike's relationship with Buffy, however, is a little weird. Such kinky, uncomfortable, and unhealthy physicality is a bit too much for younger viewers yet Spike has grown in emotion and loyalty. He has a chip in his head but not his soul, and that restrained, misplaced prowess helps him relate to Buffy the way the rest of the Scoobies cannot. He works alongside them but remains at arms length, an outsider just like she is. Spike enjoys making Buffy feel both pleasure and pain, and “Smashed” shows the inseparable nature of those seemingly opposite feelings. Is Spike a man in love or a monster playing poker for kittens? This ongoing struggle provides some wonderful character movement even whilst Spike dresses sexier, goes in the buff, and is treated like a drug for Buffy's fix. He's a powerful influence that threatens to harm her but the violence feels too extreme. Can Spike yet be redeemed? We'll see. Likewise, Dawn is understandably trying to find her way now that the Key elements served their purpose in Season 5. Unfortunately, Dawn is also an inverse Wesley Crusher with nothing to do but steal, get rescued, or be really shrill, and we've been through all this erstwhile youth before on Buffy. Slowly, she joins the research or alleviates the tension with jokes, but Dawn-centric retreads like “All the Way” remain cliché and uninteresting. The audience has been rolling our eyes over her all along, so when the rest of the cast doesn't notice her petty crime and actually forgets about Dawn after the bullets fly...ouch. Losing the character completely admits to a Dallas dream season mistake, but this year Dawn may have worked better in a reduced recurring capacity as the sisters' mother had been. Ultimately, Dawn is truly a supporting character more for how the familial tug and pull affects Buffy rather than her own developments.

The hints were there, but it's pretty stinky nonetheless to watch Willow go off the magic junkie deep end with too many unlikable me me me threats against her friends. Giles is right when he says she has some in over her head amateur to resolve. Does Willow work? What is her major at school? She's a selfish bully who raises the dead or kills when it suits her but she can't poof away a bill for Buffy? Willow does the resurrection spell because she wants to prove she can, not because she should, and there's no need for the redundant magic ala drugs antithesis because Buffy's making her own mistakes already. Where magic was a positive empowering lesbian metaphor in Year 5, now Willow is a very bad girlfriend becoming the abusive boyfriend. She misuses magic and turns into some kind of stereotypical evil angry lesbian filleting men. The fury and pain are emotional moments the first time you see Buffy, however on repeat, you just want to skip these mixed magic metaphors all together. As Xander once said way back in “Something Blue,” 'So, so tired of it.' Buffy feels run out of ideas with these head beating allegories, and when Dark Willow's personal rage turns into wanting to emo end the world's pain, it's just ridiculous. I would be more angry that it is the lesbian relationship being treated so problematic in Season 6, except all the pairings go to hell this year. Fortunately, Tara remains a positive moral perspective and solid center for the gang, and Buffy confides in her away from the group. She looks out for the Scoobies from a good place, something the rest of the gang learns the hard way. Maybe the character doesn't change, but her reliability as an independent woman not moping over Willow is important to see alongside their more intimate and naturally progressing romantic moments. They do live together after all, and props to Buffy for not having the gay couple be chaste while other partners make whoopie.

Before their doubts about Buffy returning and their delayed engagement announcement, Xander and Anya were already a complicated pair. Rather than strengthening the character, Anya's blunt and impolite sass is regressed this season to downright rudeness and a no longer cute obsession with capitalism and money. While Xander is the Regular Joe anchor for Willow from beginning to end, he is also 'So, so tired of it' with Anya, and she only seems to care about what's really going on once she finds out Dawn has stolen from her. She tries to make Willow use magic and we feel for her being jilted in “Hell's Bells,” but Anya's mixed empathy also makes us realize how little we actually know her. “Entropy” tries to be humorous perhaps but the admittedly interesting possibility of Anya and Spike is used for hatred – another harshness thrown on top of the Year 6 heap. Xander does some stupid and cruel bull headed things too on Buffy, but the non superhero sidekick finale is meant to fix all that, I think. And no, Giles, you never should have left and picked the worst possible time to take flight.

There's more new school bizarre in Year 7, but Kali Rocha as vengeance demon/guidance counselor Halfrek and James C. Leary as fleshy but friendly Clem are fun guest additions amid the dreary. Elizabeth Anne Allen is a fine bad influence as rat no more Amy, but her taunting Willow with selfish magic antagonism is inexplicably dropped. Although The Trio is funny within themselves and it is nice to already know their history, they are dumb, unlikable, try hard villains that go round and round too long. We're disappointed in Jonathan – who hasn't learned his lesson and finds his moral conscious too late – and weak Andrew's latent crush on Warren is mistakenly played for humor. The Trio's fan service pop culture quips become too obnoxious to enjoy the geekdom, and surely this plot would be done differently today now that nerdism reigns. Simply put, Warren is an asshole and gets everything he deserves. Of course, in order to do that, you have to become more evil than he is, and Buffy is right that it is better to leave The Trio to the authorities rather than loose yourself in such rage.

Hokey ghost effects, repeated monster designs, visually darker schemes, dated 2001 laptops and payphones – this season of Buffy feels older than it is thanks to all this depression. Despite the regular Buffy writers and production team being here to run the show into the dark ground, was it creator Joss Whedon's larger than usual absence that let this season slide into common life addictions, character separation, internal evils, and one too many cliches? Perhaps. I'm tired of saying unlikable metaphor I know that. While casual fans may simply give up on Buffy halfway through here, completists will need to see Season 6 at least once to appreciate the player progressions – as well as their regressions and transgressions. Those familiar with Buffy can pick and choose their favorites, but the writing is on the wall for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Season 6.

19 September 2015

Recent Horror Pros and Cons 2

Recent Horror Pros and Cons Round Two!
by Kristin Battestella

Well, say hey! Here's another debate on the mostly good, kind of bad, and disappointingly ugly thanks to this quartet of modern horror movies. 

Altar – Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) and Matthew Modine (Memphis Belle) renovate a spooky, desolate estate on the English Moors in this 2014 Kickstarter scary full of fog, muted black and white style, and crisp, chilly moods. This family isn't feeling the “no signal” under construction living for the sake of mom's work, and Modine looks appropriately Vincent Price-esque as her increasingly tense, creepy, and obsessive American artist husband. Williams' Mrs. is in over her head before the scares begin, and though she explores, uncovers hidden doors, and takes pictures, Meg isn't seen doing much actual renovation and this design premise feels unnecessary along with a son who only appears as required by the plot. She also disbelieves their daughter by trying to be down with the hip lingo, deflecting by watching a movie on the iPad, and not wanting tweets about ghosts or dissing of her work reputation online despite her own suspicions. Rather than being a strong, proactive wife and mother, Meg takes a lot of crap from her husband and ends up in need of rescue because she ignores the obligatory superstitious handyman, her own internet research, and the local ghost whisperer. Distorted camera work and spinning panoramas are unnecessary as well, interfering with the innate, ghostly fears and appropriately askew one on one strangers. Seemingly innocent cuts, drops of blood, eerie apparitions, bones cracking, disembodied phones ringing, bugs, and coming alive walls do enough atmosphere building over the 95 minutes, and a one sentence history makes things bemusingly self aware: this bad happened, that bad happened, place should be torn down, fin. Granted, this isn't anything new and not a whole lot actually happens, but the seventies haunted house movie feeling and overall creepy tone provide a well paced burn to counter the usual horror contrivances like separated family members, lookalike ghosts, and going back into the house because you forgot your car keys – although the asthmatic teen has her cell phone but not her inhaler, talk about priorities! The repeating past events and titular rituals will be expected by wise horror audiences, and some of those haunting details should have been clarified, faults I again suspect are due to having a one in the same writer and director. I feel like I've said a lot of negatives yet this one was better than I expected thanks to its not reaching with sex and gore or a trying to be something its not pretentiousness. There's some same old, same old, but the time remains a pleasing escalation of ghostly possessions.

Dark House – Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) and Diane Salinger (Carnivale) anchor this laughable but creepy 85 minutes from 2010. Of course, the opening bloody stuffed animal titles and the long ass end credits pad what is actually a shorter runtime full of some bad acting and yuppie drama class millennial cliches – the ex-jock, a slut, the goth, and a token black guy. Shouting numerous curses is annoying not telling, the tech talk is already dated, and system critical virus visuals and CGI graphics are stinky, not to mention convenient when literal ghosts enter the machine. This a dimly lit, congested picture peppered with pointless jokes about unwanted lesbian advances, and the whoosh sounds accompanying flashback snippets are equally unnecessary. In your face gags are too Halloween attraction boo while the bad screamers aimlessly bumble from one trick to the next, splitting up for the attic or the basement, so wise. Just say no to that $300 a day horror movie actors within a horror movie haunt! Fortunately, Combs adds some much needed flair, and the eerie makeup, bemusing gore, and hammy zooms match his over the top haunted house holograms and fantastic mechanisms. Little girls, dead orphans, and a traumatizing garbage disposal add to the nightmares, therapy, pill taking, and facing fears, too. Apparently, the computerized research montage has now progressed to clicking through picture slideshows and watching news videos, because we all Google our past horror traumas to prepare for reliving that scary, sure. Although too many characters are needed to up the body count, the fun fakery sets up the humorous ease before the ghost scares increase, and our protagonists move along without knowing which deaths are real or part of the haunt design. Unchecked writer and director Darin Scott (Tales from the Hood) does unimaginatively play into every slasher movie expectation, including a tacked on finale switcharoo, and sophisticated horror fans expecting more will tune out long before a seriously goofy last image. However, if you can go with the fun and have a good laugh at it, this one isn't so bad.

Split Decision

Creep – I stumbled upon this 2014 thriller on Netflix before knowing it was found footage horror, which is admittedly not my favorite sub genre. The premise here is also weak – a cameraman who doesn't know he is in a horror movie answers a mysterious job offer to film for $1,000 a day at an isolated mountain cabin, why not. The trite drive up is videoed just so we can see our protagonist and herky jerky to and fro camera walking wastes precious time with transitions and travel. Too many scenes exists purely to build up annoying jump scares, and constantly changing locations undo the lone stalker atmosphere. First we are in the cabin, then hiking unprepared into the woods, then back in suburbia where the police laugh at the crimes because you've failed to show them all your ^%$#$# video evidence. Pick one entrapment and let it simmer rather than the pedestrian mobility of the camera. The obviously faux cancer video documentation scenes go on too long, becoming more awkward than endearing with bathtubs and wolf mask weirdness. That innate discomfort and titular feeling may be the point, however the creepy moments are left hanging and never built upon while the foreshadowing gives away everything. It's tough to focus on the obsessive sociopathy because the male on male stalker fears have a whiff too much latent homophobia. Attempts at humor or satire and self aware sympathy fall flat, missing the mark by fulfilling all the cliches. It takes 15 minutes for the barely there action to happen – trying to be dramatic confessions drag, gaining no traction as those aforementioned locations reset the scares. This should have stayed a taut short instead of a by the seat of the pants 77 minutes. Interestingly, the camera goes dark for audio revelations or silent for visual elevation, but the unique filming is undone by obvious editing and uneven pacing. Spooky phone calls add more confusion than suspicion, and nasty sexuality is just uncomfortable rather than risque. This attempted avante garde is too disjointed on top of stupid people being predictable, and the finale would be ironic except this kind of cynicism is commonplace today. A third perspective separate from collaborators Mark Duplass (The League) and Patrick Brice (The Overnight) or perhaps just traditional film making would have reined in the anchorless writing, trimmed the superfluous, and hit home the ominous potential here.

One to Skip

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death Blitz fears, raid sirens, and traumatized bombers open this 2014 Hammer sequel as teachers and orphans flee to the dilapidated, isolated Eel Marsh House – setting of the fine Victorian gothic of the first film. Oddly, the CGI London destruction lacks oomph, and the over saturated coloring is too dang dark. The mists and marsh fog can't build atmosphere if we can't see anything! The sounds here are also so quiet, the audience wouldn't know anything ghostly was afoot if not for the informative closed captioning. The supernatural setting alongside real wartime horrible is interesting enough, and Helen McCrory (Penny Dreadful) is appropriately kind but stern in her war at home refusal to break. The ladies look the period part, however Phoebe Fox (Switch) needs seasoning and unnecessary pilot Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is too chiseled and modern pretty. More throwaway stock characters, youth cliches, sepia tone strobe visions, eerie basements, contemporary jump scare editing, and shoddy reiterations of what we saw in first movie all make for too many modern horror tropes hindering what's supposed to be a simmering period piece. Handwritten notes would add old fashioned flavor, but the camera never stays still on the dang paper long enough to read anything – not to mention today's non-cursive versed viewers can't read it anyway even if we weren't already blinking and missing the hectic visuals. Double talk ghost semantics never let the audience get personally invested despite creepy dolls, dusty antiques, and flickering lanterns creating macabre mood. It's tough to compare thanks to the changed setting and while I enjoy the notion of the franchise moving the titular vengeance through unique times, this should have either been an unrelated release or placed closer to the prior film – perhaps World War I or the Influenza epidemic. You can't strive for a sunny London finale when you are still in 19fricking42! Calling this a sequel both puts off viewers thinking they need to see the first – you don't – and belies audiences seeking a continuation of its predecessor. I'm probably being nicer than I should be because I like the setting and the idea, but unfortunately, the un-scary cop out ending and opportunity turned run of the mill undoes any good here.