23 January 2021

A Shakespeare Trio the Sixth


A Shakespeare Trio the Sixth

by Kristin Battestella

This trio of Bard influenced dramas and documentaries is all about older analysis, reflection, and even some mistakes.

All is True – Director Kenneth Branagh (Wallander) stars as William Shakespeare alongside Judi Dench (Goldeneye), Ian McKellan (Lord of the Rings), and Hadley Fraser (Coriolanus) in this 2018 biopic recounting The Bard's final years. Opening title cards detail the 1613 burning of the Globe Theatre and how Shakespeare never wrote again, but Branagh is almost unrecognizable as Shakespeare returns to the green countryside with autumn leaves and sun kissed silhouettes. There is no action here as the conversations and country pace are reflective rather than London bustle. Twenty years he's been more about town than at home, so his wife puts Bill in the best bed for the guests. Awkward dinner scenes, tense will stipulations, and gardening struggles mirror the family disconnect as Shakespeare's attempts to apply his imagination to household references don't quite work. He and Anne are honest about their children's troubles yet they themselves are distant. She reminds him that he spent so much time putting words into people's mouths that he forgot what's unsaid matters. Not to mention she's pretty angry over his love poetry and wonders if he ever considered her reputation amid his visions of their late son Hamnet. He can converse with men of distinction despite lingering embarrassment over his upbringing and paying for a fake coat of arms, but Shakespeare provided wealth, fame, comfort, and fortune for his family – so why are they so bitter? The Bard didn't realize the rest of his family had stories to tell, but couldn't, and once the truth about Hamnet is addressed, they can heal complete with a charming explanation about that second best bed left to his wife in his will. Unfortunately, the uneven time between his daughters and their creep husbands detracts from the internal Shakespeare analysis. Even if some of their scandals are factual, their drama is here for its Puritan harshness, and the lookalike tut tutting townsfolk are also unnecessary. It's tough for us to believe Shakespeare was disrespected and belittled by small people when no external angst is needed. Such strife is just an excuse for The Bard to whip 'em with his words while his illiterate family learns to read and write to prove they love him. The Hamnet supposition also drags on even after Bill has supposedly accepted his daughters, making three years seem like three months because every plot comes back to this deceased ideal. Contrived liberties may irritate purists when the introspective legacy, attention to Tudor detail, Jacobean furniture, and Puritan garments are better. Usually we give Branagh his Shakespeare indulgences, but an outside eye not so beloved of the Bard would have smoothed the unevenness here. The cast is superb – Dench is thirty years older than her onscreen husband when Hollywood would have cast a thirty year old – and the longest scene is a twofer with McKellan's Earl of Southampton waxing on their read between the lines love and the forever young words that last long after the family line ends. Despite unnecessary intrusions, this is a perfectly period swansong meant for mature Shakespeare viewers.

Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains – Steven Berkoff (Octopussy) performs and analyzes iconic Bard figures in this fun 2019 one man presentation. Rousing Henry V monologues and London cityscapes capture the viewer's attention much more than a talking heads documentary by letting us in on the show. Berkoff's angry at diminishing changes in the text, intrusive technologies, and modern liberties that miss the point of the words. Trust the language and the speeches are enough to immerse the audience in the suspension of belief. A deliciously intimate Iago soliloquy reveals his small minded, mediocre jealously, and we can often recognize his pleasure from displeasure in ourselves. Richard III, on the other hand, is a clever villain. Berkoff compares his intelligent orchestration and sadistic motivations to not just Hitler, but Trump as fear and power make a poor substitute for real emotions. Today, we don't think we need love thanks to the internet and pornography, but wealth and corruption can't fill the vacuum created by an absence of compassion. Such disturbing characters are fun to play, but it's also difficult to wash away such darkness when you leave the boards. Rather than purely scholarly analysis, it's interesting to see the characterization through the craft. How do you add your own innovated nuance when the audience already has Olivier's take in mind? Of course, wannabe baddie Macbeth just can't get the job done thanks to the lingering loyalty holding him back. Shakespeare is shockingly succinct for his day in Lady's Macbeth's unsex me wish – the removal of her nourishing femininity makes her the male impregnating our subservient, festering thane with killer notions. Coriolanus listens to his mother and it gets him got and Oberon is going to get what he wants from Queen Tatiana even if he makes Puck do the dirty work. Berkoff concludes with his own Shakespeare experience, first as something difficult and irrelevant in his youth then later still boring compared to big Hollywood opportunities. The poetic, stirring imagery, however, brought him to the realizations and self expression to be had amid the layered pentameter. Film has its tricks but pure theatre has nothing but the actor and the playwright's words. Although the time dedicated to our heroes and villains is unequal, the mix of famous and lesser known balances out thanks to the food for though interpretations and unique perspectives. Even if you disagree with Berkoff's take, this is an entertaining gateway to some of Shakespeare's juiciest characters; an inspiration for all ages to research further and a great supplement for the at home classroom to compare and discuss.

An Unfortunate Skip

Romeo and Juliet – A cringe on both your houses! George Cukor (Let's Make Love) directs Norma Shearer (The Barretts of Wimpole Street) and Lesley Howard (Gone with the Wind) in this black and white 1936 two hour Shakespeare adaptation immediately hampered by its company of oldsters pretending to be adolescent lovers run afoul. The title card introductions also feel like silent film holdovers, however the who's who family rivalries add to the medieval mood alongside trumpets, tights, wimples, feathers, banners, tunics, tassels, fur collars, cloaks, and gems. Juliet's hair and gowns certainly take some interwar liberties, but convenient family crests and shields remind us who is who during the dares, sword fights, and rumbles in the cobblestone streets. Some of the boasting is meant to be bemusing, but most of it is over the top with fainting women, gasp there be Capulets, spitting, and it's the Montagues, our foe! The sizing each other up clout is also moot because we know it's not going to mean anything in the fatal end, and the toy wooden swords stabbing under the arm are stage fighting apparent. Although we do get to see Basil Rathbone (Comedy of Terrors) and his rapier in action, it's a mistake to intercut his skill with up close soft shots instead of using the fight to its fullest. Much of the side story angst and set up, however, could be excised. Despite their stage training, the stars are reciting juvenile, enchanted dialogue rather than really acting alongside a typically hysterical nursemaid and Andy Devine (Stagecoach) as unnecessary comic relief. The tale here is condensed yet overly romanticized with rowdy filler and poor John Barrymore (Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) looks more like a horny old man instead of a rebellious teen. The balcony scene is creepy and awkward as are the Morning Mood music bliss and angelic choruses. Is this a coming out party for an old maid and a virgin guy who just want to hold hands? Why are these grown ups talking old speaketh silly and worried about what their family thinks when they can go to the friar ASAP and get it on like adults? Nobody has to die over this not so forbidden, changing the entire dynamic of the tragedy thanks to out of touch pretentiousness and try hard windblown reinforcing the pompous elitism for those who think negatively of Shakespeare. If this was based on the play but an adult version with updated language, a lot of what's wrong here could be forgiven thanks to the fine production values. Fans of the cast and Shakespeare completists may find some delight here, but even if you like classics, it's easier to perceive this as a riff-able spoof with no expectations.

20 December 2020

Etta James 12 Songs of Christmas


12 Songs of Christmas by Etta James is Perfect for 2020

by Kristin Battestella

Musical accompaniments by Cedar Walton, George Bohanon, and Red Holloway set off the 1998 holiday album 12 Songs of Christmas from Etta James – an hour long mix of jazz infused seasonal staples and reverent carols. Winter Wonderland provides a swanky start with smooth horns and piano interludes to match the snowy lyrics. The breezy pacing makes room for big notes and groovy accents in unexpected places while setting the session's sophisticated, adult tone. The casual but voluminous notes continue in Jingle Bells. This doesn't feel like the expected kiddie but rather a fun date. It's a day on the holiday town complete with cuddling and carriage rides! The saxophone brings the December foot tapping, keeping things lively without being in your face with the usual titular excess.

Despite talk of happy Christmas memories, Etta's first slower ode This Time of Year turns the lights down low with melancholy lyrics of the season. Also on Brenda Lee's Jingle Bell Rock album, the brass instrumentals here create somber crescendos and long notes for a little holiday peace and quiet. The second longest track Merry Christmas Baby, however, is a bluesy, sexy duet between voice and saxophone. This frisky foreplay isn't kiddie like 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,' and it's just plum nice to have an album that's not for the youngins – unlike seemingly everything else these days. 12 Songs of Christmas likewise isn't reaching with a hip, contemporary, radio friendly track that's sure to be the holiday hit of the season. These are adult melodies to match the after dinner cocktails, lights out, and mistletoe mood. The soft, dedicated breathy notes of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas need no other bells and whistles, and it's extra poignant to listen to this deliberate, far apart holiday in 2020. Etta's vocals echo the lyrical highs and lows, but the hopeful December wishes are sad nonetheless.

On the flip side, Santa Claus is Coming to Town is surprisingly the longest track on 12 Songs of Christmas – a fun spot in the middle of the set again more about grown up nostalgia than making children behave. In fact, the familiar melody leads to snapping fingers and a chance for the big kids to misbehave, sway and toast, or cut a rug. This time the jubilee is for us! Less heard sunny a cappella lines likewise open White Christmas with firm memories. Rather than wispy or trembling as the Irving Berlin ode often is, the powerful voice shares the winter sentiment with one and all in a slightly swanky forties tone. Many listeners probably expect an Etta a la 'At Last,' however, this rendition rocks a little on the holiday dreams instead of going for the typical balladry. Fortunately, those big slow notes are saved for The Christmas Song, which is ironically the shortest track on 12 Songs of Christmas. Etta's smooth, steady vocals let the piano take the melody out for that jazzy spin. The seasonal refrains remain strong without the need to break out in shrill, can't sing along exclaims.

12 Songs of Christmas winds down the session with several carols, and The Little Drummer Boy closes in on that nativity feeling with Etta's rolled, rum pum pum pum effortless. Again, this chorale is often arranged with somewhat juvenile rhythms, but the notes here parallel the lyrical reminder that sometimes the only gift we have to give is the music we make. Particularly in 2020, this rendition is a touching, personal reverence for adults increasingly pressured to buy, buy, buy. The notes be they songstress or brass are going to take as long as they are going to take for the spirit to be felt in Silent Night. It's so nice to not have super orchestration or headache inducing notes – but that doesn't mean this creche doesn't pack a powerful punch. Joy to the World is also not festive fast for the whole family. This toe tapping isn't rushed; the words can be heard and the subsequent verses not often used in standard holiday recordings are here for some classy church smooth with just a touch of gospel infusion. Some over produced renditions of Oh Holy Night are also so big and high that not all the words are discernible. Thankfully the powerful message in this brooding finale is clear. It's a candlelit night and the hour is at hand, and a lone voice in the dark doesn't need to be five octaves to be poignant.

No track on 12 Songs of Christmas is short thanks to time taking, near four and a half minute minimums. This isn't a rush holiday rush soundtrack for the juvenile December busy or indebted holiday shopping. Etta James' 12 Songs of Christmas is a pleasantly mature session – a night out for mom and dad with an intimate concert at the club. This is a delicious listen for trimming the tree, a dinner and dancing night in, or the sophisticated holiday party and festive workplace. That is, if we could still have those seasonal socials of old. Not all Decembers are jolly and 2020 is the perfect time to revisit 12 Songs of Christmas.

18 December 2020

We're at InSession Film!


Tidings of health, hearth, and home from I Think, Therefore I Review! By Royal We of course, I mean me, and in the past few months in addition to I Think, Therefore I Review, I've also been doing some classic film analysis at InSession Film!

Feel free to explore some of the Old School Top Tens and More:

Top Ten: Gregory Peck Essentials

Harvey – Because We All Need a Pooka Right Now

Top Ten: Montgomery Clift Essentials

Top Ten: Charlton Heston Essentials

Top Ten: 'A Christmas Carol' Adaptations

Op-Ed: Seven Vincent Price Movies that Aren't Horror

Remember of course, you can find much more Horror commentary and Frightening Flix analysis exclusively at HorrorAddicts.net! Revisit the podcast season to hear our reviews and don't forget there are also a few Frightening Flix videos on Youtube alongside our Kbatz Kraft Holiday crafts and Dark Shadows inspired decorating:

I admit I've driven some of my editors a little crazy this year. At times I took on too many projects, bowed out of other opportunities, messaged people constantly over every little technical issue, but then took breaks from social media altogether. While chatting in some of those Kbatz Kraft videos, I've talked about rewatching a lot more comfort shows this year, both retreating into a rewatch happy place or going nothing to loose ambitious on artwork – each, of course, understandable for obvious reasons a.k.a 2020. So here's to getting back to a more regular reviewing schedule and the chance to share more Classic Film, Horror Movies, Retro TV, and Sweet Music in 2021!

16 November 2020

Where are all the Mid-Century Mexican Horror Films?


Where Are All the Mid-Century Mexican Horror Films?

By Kristin Battestella

From The Witch's Mirror to The Curse of the Crying Woman and more, I've thoroughly enjoyed the mid-century Mexican horror productions I've seen from the forties, fifties, and sixties. I would wholeheartedly like to see more, but where did all these Mexican horror movies go? Read on for my rant about the frustrating difficulty in finding these quality classic scares.

Why so inaccessible?

Thanks to directors such as Rafael Baledón or the likes of Abel Salazar's filmography, one can filter, search, and find dozens of Mexican horror films on IMDb, Wikipedia, and more. We know they exist, so where are they and why aren't they readily available? Ten or fifteen years ago, a budget DVD set with twenty or fifty so-called horror classics was a get what you pay for way to find a few old horror gems amid the so bad it's good obscure, public domain scares, and cheap VHS quality rips. This was how I first found some Spanish horror delectables. Today however, those sets aren't really viable compared to affordable streaming options. Unfortunately, be it the free horror channels, discount streaming tiers, or the big mainstream options, none of them have any of these films. Back when we had Xfinity and could browse all the thousand channels on the guide including the Spanish cable package, I used to see some great horror films listed on the peliculas de clasicos channels. I'd write down great titles like Museo de Horror, El Beso de Ultratrumbo, La Cabeza Viviente, and more but can't find any of them anywhere. How with today's instant access to everything are these films still so inaccessible?

Cultural Drift is No Excuse!

It takes a lot of digging and research to find these titles, and although it's easy to search with Spanish language filters, that creates its own set of problems. Sure I've been able to find a few Salazar sixties horrors or Mexican movies, but those searches also yield a lot of Paul Naschy pictures from Spain (and searching for his Waldermar werewolf films is another aggravating not all available pursuit). Soon, these lists skew to Spain, European productions, Jesus Franco, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava. Seventies Italian giallo pictures are not what we're looking for, and finding the right version of a film with different releases, run times, and different titles per country only adds more fuel to the frustrating fuego. Sometimes you think you are getting the right movie and it turns out to be something else, or worse a film you've already seen under a different name. I myself am guilty of putting all my Spanish horror viewing lists and recommendations together because it's so tough to find just the Mexican scares. Of course, Spain and Mexico are different cultures with different español and different identities, and it's problematic to presume they are interchangeable. Many years ago I had a vehement argument on an online film forum when a commenter said he wanted a role to be cast with Penélope Cruz or Salma Hayek or “one of those types.” O_o This person could not see why I objected to these actresses being lumped together as one and the same. On a non-horror note, I highly suggest the Maya Exploration Center's Professor Edwin Barnhart's Great Course lectures including Ancient Civilizations of North America, Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed, Lost Worlds of South America, and Exploring the Mayan World to educate oneself on the history of Southwest, Central, and South American communities.

The Classics are Better.

What irritates me most is the perception that because Hollywood or mainstream horror is more prevalent, that means it must be better. In my recent viewings, however, that's been far from the truth. I've enjoyed the majority of independent Australian, New Zealand, Irish, UK horror, and European productions, sure. Canadian pictures, on the other hand, have been more mixed bag. When the festival finds are true to themselves, they've been good – but you can tell the difference when a north of the border production is compromising itself in hopes of an American sale and wide distribution, catering to the formulaic and cliché. I had such high hopes for The Curseof La Llorona. It starts well with colonial Mexican scares so viewers think we're in for some period piece Hammer flair, but sadly the film – written and directed by white men, because of course – degrades into the typical kids in peril with whoosing entities and trite jump scares. Cultural fears are dismissed and protective warnings are treated like Mysticism 101, and the entire time I was waiting for it to end, I had one thought, which was that The Curse of the Crying Woman was better. There's an entire Wikipedia page called “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema” but where are all the films? Netflix if you're lucky has one DVD copy, and when that breaks, it's just saves and unavailables.

It's Frustrating and Offensive.

For viewer looking for quality horror of any kind, it's disturbing how unique storytelling, different cultural scares, and the many horror stories to be told must be bent to serve white mainstream horror. The fact that these films are not widely available almost feels like an intentional burying – the way a great Asian horror film won't see the light of day stateside because the rights were bought up and it is being deliberately suppressed until the rich white blonde jump scare cliché remake is released first. Why aren't these classic, quality films being celebrated? Why are they not freely available to watch at any time? A black and white picture? So what! Spanish subtitles or a bad English dub? Big deal! Is it because they are not in English that white America suspects releasing these films properly won't be profitable enough for them? Well that's just too damn bad because I want to see these films. Do you have an inside source on where to find some classic mid-century Mexican horror movies? ¡Damelo!

04 November 2020

High Spirits


High Spirits Provides Elevated Humor and Charm

by Kristin Battestella

When investors intend to foreclose on the struggling Castle Plunkett, down on his luck owner Peter Plunkett (Peter O'Toole) and his faithful staff pretend to be the most haunted castle in Ireland for a group of American Tourists – including an on the rocks couple (Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D'Angelo), a conflicted minister (Peter Gallagher), and more. Unfortunately, the real ancestral ghosts decide to give the Yankees what they came to see, leading to frights and supernatural love triangles as the murdered Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah) and her killer betrothed Martin Brogan (Liam Neeson) interfere with the vacation plans.

Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire) wrote and directed 1988's High Spirits, and the leaky roof, angry phone calls, and late payments waste no time in setting the three week deadline, desperate employees, and humor mixed with bleak situation. A seemingly senile mother who talks to the unhappy castle ghosts gives them the hair brained idea to drum up some smoke and mirrors ghosts, and the zany preparations give us a chance to tour the castle complete with silly string, a mummy swinging from turret ropes, roller skating knights in armor, and rubber body parts under the tour bus. Banshees on the luggage rack, out of control horseback phantoms, buses sinking in the swamp – the fakery is off to a terrible start for these soggy tourists! Charming music adds to the shenanigans while the layered script provides passive aggressive nuances. It takes repeat viewings to catch all the under the breath asides and off the cuff quips as eclectic guests and parapsychologists nonchalantly hope the real ghosts are better than spinning beds and sham theatrics. The kids aren't impressed after seeing Nightmare on Elm Street, either, but the bungling staff take their drink, song, and home seriously – especially as mortgage connections and family histories come to light. Despite fun pacing and humor regarding real ghosts who could have saved the castle had they appeared sooner, High Spirits has a darker undercurrent with rich American imperialism ready to put the villagers out of work and phantoms who stab, chase, and terrorize. This Victorian sense of the parallel realm on the other side of the wall is not so whimsical thanks to violence, betrayals, and repeated consequences accented by somber music cues, heavy breathing zooms, and hidden point of view camerawork. The intercut supernatural action doesn't need in your face boo shocks, for the idea that the ghosts are watching from behind the stone walls and may interfere with human business is creepy enough. These encounters are not part of the tourism facade, and the dialogue carries much of the dual storytelling and show within a show winks. The ensemble does its job thanks to one sided phone calls, details on their neurosis, and conflicting personalities – developing more character than our contemporary try hard exposition and contrived conversations. Perfectly timed lighting strikes, talking horses, guests covering themselves with rugs or lampshades, and meddling, innuendo making ghosts keep High Spirits playfully self-aware. Crisscrossed couples both living and dead are dangerous yet preposterous amid the titular guide book, whistling whiting, and The Big Bopper. Scary tense moments make up for anything dated or silly because the frights and conflicts are being experienced by the characters – these aren't just hollow special effects shockers tossed out for the audience. Unfortunately, after a strong start, some of the interesting ensemble players disappear while others are featured. Indeed there are rumblings that Neil Jordan intended High Spirits to be very different from the PG-13 theatrical version, and the uneven tone, disjointed scene transitions in the second half, and reduced to irrelevant characterizations show such behind the scenes rifts and editing changes. Ghostly tuppings, inter-spectral marriages, a tempted priest, suicides, sexual consequences, and kinky, mystical reversals also suggest High Spirits was meant to be darker and more mature. Skelping possibilities on All Hallow's Eve when the spirit is moved and the flesh is willing lead to scary nuns, kissing corpses, and forbidden relations. While true love can bring the dead the back to life, interchangeable women and mixed messages rush toward a quick finale when the story, characters, and castle vignettes are entertaining themselves without the seemingly easy happy results. I think we'd all like to stay a little longer at Castle Plunkett!

Yes, he made some epics, but I don't care I love Peter O'Toole in this and Supergirl. Drunk and desperate, Peter dons a tuxedo and pretends to be a gracious host, but he's not really a showman and insists that minor unexpected inconvenience should be expected because that's what's in the brochure. He's not sorry he lied about the castle being haunted when their home is at risk, and although we don't get the sense we see him acting, O'Toole looks to be having fun with the role thanks to theatrical seriousness, over the top soliloquies, and near slapstick physicality. The for the back row elevates the winks, and when not sleeping in his roll top desk, Peter has it out with his dead dad before complaining about these fickle Americans who couldn't wait to leave over fake ghosts but now stay longer for the real ones. Steve Guttenberg's (Police Academy) Jack feels at home in Castle Plunkett, innocently enjoying the bad performances and trying to make amends with his wife. He drinks and wanders the castle, interfering with ghostly patterns and confessing how cold-hearted his wife really is. Jack is smitten by Daryl Hannah's (Splash) alluring specter Mary Plunkett, but the situation is almost too much for him – “You're a ghost, I'm an American, it would never work out.” Mary is forced to relive her murder every night, and when Jack ends her torment, she instantly falls in love. She thinks this newfound peace is a miracle that brought them together. Sir Jack saved her from being doomed forever, but Beverley D'Angelo (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) is a deliciously snobby wife more interested in Valium and sleep masks – a daddy's girl with ulterior motives for this ridiculous trip. The Brogan versus Plunkett history is just business, and it takes a lot of high maintenance creams, high strung supplements, and obnoxious curlers for Sharon's satin and pearls to look so good. For her, Castle Plunkett is a nightmare; everyone hates her and Sharon is ready to leave until big, brutish, and bemusingly wicked Liam Neeson (Taken) pops up in her bathtub. He's cruel to Mary, smelly, squishing, and jealously stabs her but gives Sharon really great back rubs so she's not too sorry about ditching Jack when Martin takes an interest in her wee vixen.

Chaste soon to be priest Peter Gallagher (While You Were Sleeping), however, is having second thoughts on what was supposed to be this spiritual retreat before his final vows. He has to cover himself with his collar when stormy spirits rip away their clothes, and the impure thoughts mount when watching the marshmallow voiced guest Jennifer Tilly (Bride of Chucky) exercise. Evil nuns make Brother Tony think twice – a chilling scene with a smoking crotch that assures he gets the message. Tilly's Miranda is here solo after breaking up with a boyfriend who booked the trip. He's a hairdresser who devil worships on the side and ran away with a monk instead, but Miranda has no problem innocently flirting with a priest thanks to some kinky innuendo and scantily clad moments. Unfortunately, their story seems to get shorted during High Spirits. At times, they aren't present even in group scenes, and with these characters' backgrounds, it's a missed opportunity to further explore Catholicism, local folklore, and New Age thoughts on the ghostly events. Despite enough scares and nothing to keep them at Castle Plunkett, Tony and Miranda seem there just to round out the mayhem alongside likewise underutilized parapsychologist Martin Ferrero (Jurassic Park) and his family, who occasionally object and scream over the kids in peril. Delightful Mrs. Plunkett Liz Smith (The Vicar of Dibley) knows her son is an idiot and fills in the details on tupping with dead relatives, but she and her husband Ray McAnally (My Left Foot) deserved more. In the end, High Spirits is blessed with too much of a fine ensemble and no way to use them all. Fortunately, on location castles with rugged stone, arch windows, sweeping fireplaces, hidden nooks, enchanting crannies, maze like corridors, and winding staircases provide an excellent backdrop for all High Spirits' possibilities. Phantom winds, billowing curtains, cobwebs, and dust add to the four poster beds, antiques, throne chairs, tapestries, candles, portraits, and clutter. When you're doing a castle haunt theme for your Halloween house, this is what it should look like! Rainy coasts provides dreary amid perilous swamps and overgrown greenery. The rough and worn, moody blue scale comes in the chilly stone and bleak skies – unlike over saturation, this feels old, drafty, and natural with bitter hotel staff dressed in ratty layers and stretched out sweaters. Zany buses and whimsical fiddle music provides impish charm, for even the hokey, two dimensional marionette monsters and fake tentacles offer drunken parody, child fears, and sloshing water drenching everybody. That Pan Am flight to Ireland also has one of those wonderfully huge and unrealistic cinematic flight cabins! Boob tube television poltergeists, retro eighties does forties silky blouses, and voluminous ladies hair also look fine, and the women enchant with gray costumes, wispy Regency frocks, white slips, black lingerie, and red dresses as the innocent and pure fun escalates to more saucy cuts as the ghostly encounters increase. Bemusing ghost trickery, appearing and disappearing transitions, going through objects effects, and lighting pops accent the ethereal sheen, catacombs, and zombie corpses climbing out of the walls. Today's productions often work so hard in trying to be spooky or snarky, but who knew some ghostly body glitter could go such a long way?

While there may be a few adult scenes and scares that could be too much for young viewers, High Spirits is ripe for re-watching. Though I loved this in my youth, some of the critical panning is not undeserved – High Spirits could have been a flawless classic instead of just late night Halloween fun. However, despite apparent editing problems or behind the scenes changes, High Spirits balances the humor for the family, ghostly spoof turnabouts, and mature undertones for wise adult audiences thanks to a delightful cast, heaps of atmosphere, cheeky wit, and spooky but carefree charm.

20 October 2020

Giving Themselves Away Horrors

Giving Themselves Away Horror

by Kristin Battestella

What's one to do with recent horror releases that go beyond foreshadowing or mere suggestion and flat out give away their secrets too early in the picture? Read on for several such predictable, conflicted conundrums. What could have made these movies better? Had they not shoehorned in the obvious horror at the expense of fine drama and performances. Spoiler Alert!

Delirium Distorted home movie flashbacks, daddy issues, family suicides, and therapy sessions open this mental illness or haunted mansion 2018 Blumhouse Production starring newly released Topher Grace (That '70s Show) and parole officer Patricia Clarkson (Six Feet Under). Suggestions about not putting a dad who was eaten by his dog on a pedestal and jailbird brother history are dismissed in favor of heavy breathing phone calls, ridiculously on the nose “Prisoner of Love” music, and distracting product placements. Though meant to add nostalgia, a try hard box of mementos including cassettes, Kathy Ireland posters, an old computer, CDs for the boom box, and Gin Blossoms t-shirts doesn't develop the time warp characterization so much as it makes this film feel two decades too late as our dude bro skateboards through his mansion while under house arrest. The babe delivering groceries is conveniently retro cool and awkward conversations are awkward, so he sketches her and she gives him a mixed CD. (Yuppies today thinking that is so edgy can't comprehend the struggle that was making mixed cassettes!) Ripped wallpaper with 1994 writing underneath, creaking walls, and rattling furniture make for a very slow build before hidden doors, secret passages, and peepholes. Footsteps when one is supposed to be alone, tongues in a jar, saucy cameras, and videos of women chained in iron masks seem like we're getting somewhere, but the zorp crescendos, loud effects, talking out loud, and scares over the shoulder are for viewers not the protagonist experiencing the chills. The eyes ripped out of his stuffed animal would be suspicious if said eyes didn't laughably end up stuck on dad's ominous portrait amid tiring pool scares and crazed versus supernatural old hat obvious. Telling someone about the family crimes becomes the new research montage complete with more unnecessary the victim worked at Wendy's name dropping as convenient pharmacy connections, substitute medicines, relatives who may or may not really be there, and people said to be dead blur together. Fainting and time distortions don't forgive in plain sight clues that were previously ignored once they are thrown at the screen alongside more nonsensical red herrings. This should have been a straight family drama – a taut, isolated investigation rather than contrived horror and audience guessing games without mystery or scares. The mansion is never fully explored right from the start, and it's frustrating when the viewer sees everything here coming. I correctly called at the twenty-two minute mark what's revealed in the last twelve minutes before fist fights, gun shots, and pool waterworks that get all the money in the safe wet. Oh well. ¯\_()_/¯

The Invisible Man
– Writer Leigh Whannell (Insidious) directs this 2020 Blumhouse and Universal Australian co-production starring Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid's Tale). In this contemporary H.G. Wells spin, the picturesque mod home is eerie and isolated with sophisticated security, tip toeing fear, hidden preparations, and desperate escapes. Even after her optics entrepreneur boyfriend is found dead, Cecilia is afraid to go to the mailbox and jumps at every doorbell. Eventually she begins to come out of her shell to friends, but innocuous camera pans in the unattended kitchen, creaking floorboards, flickering lights, and construction tarps suggest something sinister. Big baggy clothes and body discomfort are better than the usual titillation, yet there are still shower scares and wrapped in a towel moments. Despite sheets, coffee grounds, paint splatter revelations, photos, and attic evidence, Cecilia holds on to his phone to call a ride share, going all the way back to the compound she escaped without stopping to pick up some spray paint or downloading an infrared app. While the technical plausible rather a serum of old is fine, the boom boom crescendo zorp music and shock and awe overkill are too much when it's not as if the invisible optics were unexpected. Cecilia insists he is not dead just invisible, but such accusations only make her seem crazy and no one believes her once CCTV is used against her when convenient for the horrors. Though a fine performance from Moss provides broken desperation, mentioning the word “architect” at a job interview and having everyone turn on her is not character development. Making a woman go through real terror only for it to escalate into science fiction horror also feels too cruel. If he orchestrated her pregnancy behind her back, why does he fling her across the room and drag her across the floor like any other whooshing horror entity? How does an institution not have cameras to capture this? By the ninety minute mark, the contrivances become too ridiculous, and it's tough to maintain interest when we need to act like modern technological help and logic don't exist. Where are all the security cameras that can definitively prove the violence is not her doing? Fire extinguishers likewise should have been used much sooner. Invisible boo shocks are weak next to threats to kill family and friends, for this is not a scary hi-tech monster but a monster person who can't be escaped unless she too commits a deadly crime. Just because abusive men are horrible, this didn't have to be a horror movie. Although this feels like a separate script that tacked on invisible elements, in the end this becomes one overlong origin for an Invisible Woman in a Universal Dark Monsterverse. If someone asks how she got the suit, she can say she took it from an abusive jerk. Were we not supposed to see that coming when she found the second suit?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Boarded windows, cluttered antiques, dilapidated splendor, and black cats open this 2018 Shirley Jackson adaptation from director Stacie Passon (Little Birds) starring Taissa Farmiga (The Nun), Alexandra Daddario (We Summon the Darkness), and Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Greenery and quaint outside the window lead to “Last Tuesday” title cards, record players, colorful wallpaper, mid century flair, vintage homemaker style, deadly herbs expertise, arsenic in the sugar bowl, and newspaper headlines of dead parents and orphaned daughters. Younger sister Merricat is afraid to go for groceries in town because the villagers hate them – and gossip about the elder Constance being acquitted of the family murders. Merricat reads spell books and buries tokens, but her charms don't actually protect them and her narration dumps a lot of backstory early when the visual cues, quirky behavior, and family bizarre are enough to digest. Brief scenes of household calm, cleaning, dinner, and sisterly devotion lead to odd snow globes, skeleton keys, candles, and whispers of poisoned mushrooms. Lady friends of their late mother in pearls, gloves, and pillbox hats visit for tea, trying to get Constance out again, but when their cousin arrives, Constance becomes infatuated with him. Charles looks like their father, stays in his room, sits at the head of the table, and suggests Merricat should be punished for trying to drive him away. Despite her bratty spying and behaving much younger than her supposed eighteen, the narration intrudes upon scenes outside of her point of view as tensions escalate. Constance defends Merricat, but eventually she admits how her sister makes everything worse. Merricat resents their opportunistic, fortune hunting cousin taking her place because she is in love with her sister and wants everything to her advantage. Deluded visions of their dead parents saying she should never be punished excuse fiery actions as firefighters debate about saving the manor and the looting townsfolk chant to let it burn. This is not as spooky or weird as it could be thanks to the unreliable narrator obviousness given away at the beginning. Who's responsible is no surprise, and fatal revelations about who did what are dismissed in favor of blaming the cruel neighbors when their hatred is just a consequence of the sisters' freaky behaviors. When they bring goods to the door and apologize, any attempt at healing is ignored. Despite implications their father was abusive, Merricat told on her sister's boyfriend so their father would get rid of him – keeping her sister in a destructive environment just because she was jealous and wants to be with her sister forever. Not unlike an abuser herself, Merricat's glad when people call her a witch, has convinced herself she is one, insists she has done no wrong, lets her sister be admonished if it means she gets to keep her caged in their ruined home, and only smiles when she achieves her goals through poison, death, and fire. Why do so many movies start with an ending scene and then go back to tell how it got that way? It really ruins the character study here rather than deepening the demented angst.

Didn't Finish It

Nightflyers – Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire), Eoin Mackin (Merlin), and Miranda Raison (MI-5) lead this 2018 SyFy ten episode series based upon the George R.R. Martin story as alarms, red lights, weightless debris, radio warnings, and a grizzly shipmate with an ax lead to airlocks, medical saws, and bloody splatter. After the opening horror, we go back to the beginning of the mission with crew introductions, confusing for the cool technical slang, little world building, and exposition that doesn't tell the viewer very much. Pretty ship views, celestial visuals, and outer space special effects meant to be awe inspiring don't work once we've started with dark, congested ominous and realistic, tunnel-like submarine interiors. Horror and science fiction perils are not the same thing, and droning, distracting, pulsing music doesn't invoke either one. Dangerous telepaths are needed to save earth by attempting communication with a mysterious alien artifact, but psychic feedback, bloody noses, a supernatural saboteur, and communication problems leave others in fear questioning whether they are doing the right thing. Suggestions to turn back are dismissed, but this mission is off to a terrible start with too much contrived suspense and conflict. The audience has no time to make sense of everything thrown at the screen amid lame shocks like pumping hearts, people set on fire, and chopped heads. Basic sci-fi telepaths, gene therapy, and jacking into the system plots are derivative amid stereotypical Black characterizations and cliché family angst complete with a little girl in a red raincoat and falling flat menace. The pace changes as much as the distrust, altered mission objectives, and personal motivations. Everybody has their secrets – one minute they doubt one person then defend them the next, no one shares all they know, and information is deliberately withheld from the viewer. Life on earth is at stake and alien contact is in sight yet nobody's on the same page despite in world telepathic revelations and memory machines that bend to suit the moment. Laughable guards constantly screw up, acerbating every situation while the captain refuses to share the details on the ship's malfunctions. Are we not supposed to know his angry mother is the literal ghost in the machine? Obvious contrivances leave episodes ending on down notes, and this should have been another movie adaption or a three hour event. it's easy to skip around after the first few overlong entries despite some being as short as thirty-nine minutes. Cool credits blending space, mind, vessels, and galaxies promise this will be something more than suspicious delays and unlikable people in an all over the place presentation, but I completely forgot I was watching it and never went back.