05 July 2022

Horror Hexes!


Horror Hexes, Oh My!

By Kristin Battestella

These diverse, contemporary scares accent their cultural horrors with hexes, charms, and chills. Read on for protection, warnings, and mistakes from the parables herein.

Evil Eye – Traditional, superstitious Delhi mother Sarita Choudhury (Homeland) worries when her New Orleans daughter meets a too good to be true, suave, wealthy stranger in this 2020 Blumhouse/Amazon tale based on an Audible original. The culture and customs are immediately felt thanks to the styles, music, and protection charms. Old fashioned Mom follows Hindu astrology and warns that it's easy for a relationship to be perfect in the beginning. She's displeased with the whirlwind jewelry and doesn't want them to move in together unless they're married. It's too soon and she loves her daughter too much. Their horoscopes are exceptionally compatible, almost suspiciously, and our father objects to mom's invasive hiring of a private detective. He thinks she is inventing things to worry about, but viewers spot the possessive, fast red flags as our daughter quits her job and moves without telling mom. Video phone calls visualize the bothersome intrusions – differing time zones mean one side is always waking or disturbing the other. Family strife and realistic unease beyond the horror make flashes of mom's prior violent experience unnecessary until we get the whole story in full. Rather than a typical research montage, the right versus wrong argument is refreshing as the upsetting past comes to light in heartfelt dialogue. Are we suspicious because our mothers taught us to be? Children don't know everything about their parents or why they do what they do, and the stalking effects linger – knowing he is always there is frightful enough. Although the ladies bond over crap men, mom's demands about unborn curses and reincarnation sound crazy and controlling. She says she'll drop everything and get rid of the charms in face to face split screens, but chilling evidence and eerie revelations lead to in person confrontations where blood proves stronger than romance or evil. Domestic action rushes an ending that feels more like a straight thriller with no mystical connections, for the supernatural spiritual here won't be esoteric enough for viewers expecting full on horror. Fortunately, the family relationships and cultural drama anchor the supposition.

The Old Ways – A possessed American reporter is abducted by Veracruz brujas in this 2020 Mexican ode with dungeons, chains, herbs, and rituals. Our victim states who she is as if that gives her license to do anything – out of touch with her own culture while the interspersed English and Spanish reflect the miscommunication layers. Despite face paintings, occult drawings, goat milk, and salt across the threshold, she insists she doesn't have the “it” they fear. Cell phones and escape attempts are dealt with swiftly as her local relatives warn her she went where she shouldn't have gone. They will help rid her of the demon, but she still manages to retrieve her bag and shoot the heroin between her toes. After being bound and painted, she pretends, lying to fake her way out of the ritual before snakes slither in amid blood, hair in the mouth, and dead chickens. Arguments with her cousin reveal her twenty year absence, longstanding family troubles, and forgotten protective talismans from their abuela. Occasional diegetic music and a retro fan add flavor and heat while candles flicker and viewers question what we may or may not see in the darkest dungeon corner. Rustic demon documents, a bilingual dictionary, and “psychic surgery” escalate to bulbous sacs with extra teeth, vomiting, and snakes in the stomach. Rather than delays contrived for the audience or drawn out torture porn, the well paced demon encounters are about the possessed coming to believe, ask for help, and understand the terror of looking in the mirror and having something else look back. Healers instead of modern medicine and past exorcisms gone awry are told with personal sadness and lifelong grief – tearful pain with no need for today's whoosh flashbacks. The opening history and brief flash intrusions here are indeed unnecessary – nothing should visually take us from the dungeon congestion – for the suffering turned cleansing experience does better when this sticks to telling its tale without such modern cinema conventions. Chilling demon hints accent the one on one journey and willpower carried by the small ensemble. Serious research and ritual prep begats bones cracking, death whistles, visions in the smoke, Nahuatl demonology, and fatal trades embracing who you are. The ritual is recognizably similar to traditional exorcisms yet stays true to its unique cultural elements for horror viewers looking for something special.

Spell– Pleas, violence, and lingering scars open this 2020 parable starring Omari Hardwick (Power) and Loretta Devine (Waiting to Exhale). Rising above childhood cruelty has led to fancy suits, wealth, and law firm success. The high rise offices are sleek and shiny, but the self-involved teenagers joke about the backwoods past when a funeral summons the family to rural Kentucky. Dad Marquis, however, is unwilling to punish and have his children fear him like his father. He insists on winning with words because it is expected of them to fight and give in to Black stereotypes. Flying his own plane to Appalachia shows how much the elite family stands out at the rusty gas station convenience store with skulls and potions on the shelves. Marquis laughs at the outhouse and doesn't believe in the Mojo bags for protection against conjuring. He and his wife argue over their entitled teens belittling the country folks, ramping up the tension inside the cockpit as a storm brews over the mountains with lightning, maydays, and alarms. Marquis wakes in an attic bedroom, injured but under the care of an old fashioned couple objecting to his cursing yet assuring their hoodoo effigy is the best medicine. Marquis demands to know what happened to his family, for they are nowhere to be found at the out of the past rustic farm house. Vintage sewing machines, candles, and colloquialisms provide a suspicious quaint while calming powders, birds, and boogities invoke the rootwork folk magic. Marquis will pay whatever it takes for an ambulance and proper rescue team, but Ms. Eloise has no phone. Such tools meant to heal or communicate only become dividers among us but salt at the window will keep out the devil. Although he's not actually bound, shrewd filming angles above the bed or through the frame visualize Marquis' incapacitated position. A foot injury that's not what it seems, rainstorms, and revival meetings with animal parts, sacrifices, and chanting make for perilous escape attempts. The foul afoot doesn't underestimate the viewer thanks to suspect food, vomit, and one on ones where Marquis has to play along despite his belief that it's all psychosomatic mumbo jumbo. He's been trying to escape his past but must embrace who he is to cast the bones and beat them at their own magic. Belying use of the color white in the bed frame, locked doorknob, and innocuous pearls accents the eerie close calls in the tight house quarters before flashlights in the woods, ritual carvings, and bloody evidence lead to agony and desperation. The anguish and disturbia is personal – not drawn out viewer shocks. Frantic searches and hysterical digging reveal grimoires with flesh of my flesh spells and boogity doll bindings for and against. Marquis re-injures himself to maintain the ruse as torches and knives help him believe in a little fiery hoodoo of his own. The blu-ray edition features a half hour of deleted scenes increasing the out of touch kids versus Marquis' passiveness – strengthening his later man of action with more isolation. I'm surprised this received negative reviews with complaints about derivative occult cliches that completely ignore the history, cultural subtext, social commentary, and Black experience setting off the blood moon reap what you sow.

A Disappointing Skip

Old – Tropical sand, surf, palm trees, and cocktails set the vacation mood for M. Night Shyamalan's (The Sixth Sense) 2021 adaptation. The resort manager directs our families to a private reserve where beautiful caverns and inlet vistas lead to nosebleeds, chest pains, and bodies in the lagoon. When our guests try to leave the beach; zooms, warps, and blackouts send them back where they started amid knives, arguments, healing wounds, and growing tumors. Unfortunately, the dizzying, frustrating camerawork makes the viewer wonder what's significant. We can't see major action or important developments because the camera is always panning and pointing somewhere else. Although a stylistic choice mirroring the blink and you miss it metaphors, it's a terrible way to tell a story. Clunky, repetitive, simplistic dialogue; precocious kids who unrealistically introduce themselves to every stranger and ask who they are and what they do; disconnecting couples reiterating their relationships; and constantly quoted insurance statistics get...old...fast. Even with emergency surgical incisions rapidly closing, increasing schizophrenia, numerous sicknesses, swift decomposition, expedited youths, and a quickly deceased dog; it takes the group far too long to realize the a la Lost creepy happening. Any commentary on beauty, ageism, wealth, or divorce is never fully realized for most of the violence, wrinkles, rapid eating, even faster pregnancy, and growing young adults still mentally children happens off screen while someone watches from the cliffs as if we aren't supposed to know this is some kind of experiment. There's a lot of math about the hours per aging but we never truly witness the expedited struggle of old age because the interfering aesthetics constantly call attention to themselves. Rather than accenting our aging fears, such audience awareness detracts from the climbing fails, blurred vision, broken bones, and contorted backs. Underutilized doctors and nurses behave stupidly because the plot says so while diverse characters that should represent the social or racist dynamics become superfluous. Contrived childhood answers and notebooks found on the beach lead to perilous swims and an unnecessary meta meta with our director as actor. Seeing the accelerated aging from a pharmaceutical or medical perspective might have been intriguing, but the tacked on comeuppance underestimates the audience. Like low budget horror with a writer/director wearing too many hats, the indulgent M. Night was not the best writer or director for this material. The resort bookends should have been excised for more taut introspection, leaving what should be a provocative concept with no rewatch value.

30 June 2022

Quiz Show (1994) Video Review


Let's talk briefly about the multifaceted 1994 film Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and more. This ahead of its time drama layers the commentary on television and the audience ourselves mirror today's celebrity and social media.

Please feel free to comment below or join the conversation with us at Therefore I Review on Twitter! Let us know if you'd like to see more of these single film video critiques. Thank you for watching and feel free to read more of our Ralph Fiennes analysis at InSession Film!

The Unusual Ralph Fiennes at InSession Film

Shakespeare Brevity Video Review

Classic Shakespeare Film List

Marilyn Monroe at the 300 Passions Podcast

Frightening Flix Horror Video Reviews Playlist

April DVD Thrift Haul

24 June 2022

Horror Cliches I'm Tired of Seeing Video Review


Hello Contrivance, my old friend! 

It's time to fast forward over the prologues, driving to the horrors, and jump scares to have a fireside chat with Kristin Battestella aka Kbatz as we discuss all the formulaic tropes and problems with paint by numbers horror movies! For more Frightening Flix editorials as well as Kbatz Krafts projects anyone can do, pick up your copy of the Horror Addicts Guide to Life Book 2 workbook anthology available now on Amazon. What Horror cliches are YOU tired of seeing?

Horror Addicts Guide to Life Book 2

Horror Addicts Guide to Life Book 1

Our Frightening Flix Video Reviews Playlist

Follow Kbatz Krafts and Frightening Flix at HorrorAddicts.net or Instagram and Twitter!

My Horror Addicts Guide to Life Book 2 Press Tour Interview

Thank You for Watching! 

08 June 2022

Terror en la Casa!


Terror en la Casa

by Kristin Battestella

These slashers, ladykillers, and murder mysteries bring the horror home with period piece nostalgia and international flavor.

Cemetery of Terror – Retro TV static, eerie horror sounds, gory slices, and elevator shocks waste no time in this 1985 Mexican slasher. The English subtitles don't exactly match the spoken Spanish, but the hip tunes come from diegetic cassettes and boomboxes as the randy medical students and bathing suit babes plan to party in an abandoned house on Halloween. Though fitting with cobwebs, covered furniture, and evil grimoires, it's bemusing that the house doesn't seem old enough to be so abandoned thanks to the seventies paneling and shag carpets. A suave psychiatrist who knows the killer's satanic history and the police captain who think it's all routine add Miami Vice style as more local youths test each other's courage by going to the graveyard. That station wagon fits six adults – cruising along with the satanic killer's body in the back, no big. It's both humorous and demented as the morgue stretchers and dares to summon the dead escalate to Latin incantations in the cemetery on Halloween under the full moon. Sudden storms and scary, point of view suspense from our resurrected killer provide well done people in fear with no need for stereotypes, torture porn, or exploitation. Disturbing death blows happen fast as the killer gets intimate with his bloody, claw hands in well paced motivations that aren't drawn out for unnecessary effect. There's little to indicate it's Halloween besides jack-o-lanterns and vintage masks, for the skulls, crypts on fire, open graves, and tattered zombies rising are scary enough. Smoke and red lights accent the simplicity of kids in peril – unable to phone their parents and running in fear right back to the terrible manor. Sure, wielding a cross deters the zombies who can somehow walk through an entire cemetery full of cross grave markers anyway, but the multi layered horrors are effective without today's in your face hyperbole. Fiery black books and one on one battles with our man of action psychiatrist lead to a fun topper striking the right balance between genre winks and chills.

It Happened at Nightmare Inn – Originally A Candle for the Devil, this 1973 Spanish parable opens with swanky cityscapes and airplanes leading to our quaint village hotel run by two seriously uptight sisters. They violently object to their pretty blonde guest sunbathing on the roof and call her fatality divine providence for her indecency. After they chop up some lamb and scrub up the evidence, the elegant, soft spoken, less provocative sister of their late guest arrives alongside another tourist in hot pants dancing in the town fountain and a young mother with a baby knocking on their door. The perky and carefree blondes contrast the older, self righteous, harsh brunettes in dark button up clothes, and severe Gothic furniture, villa arches, stained glass, and organ crescendos match the medieval artwork, Inquisition past, and Catholic atmosphere. These ladies insist on running a respectable establishment, but one has a dalliance with the servant boy and the other gawks at the raunchy local men. She gets herself torn up in the briers as a mea culpa zen before donning a silky dress and saucy stockings. Our sisters almost turn on each other over the cash box, but it's time to sharpen the knives and tut tut at the hussy guests as innuendo and shaming layer the pent up attacks. Who gave them the right to be so high and mighty when they are women just the same? These supposed hasty departures make the townsfolk suspicious as a few slaps escalate to kidnapping, woman on woman violence, and fatal penetrations mirror the underlying guilt, repression, and demented joy. Snooping for evidence, vats in the basement, village intrigue, and close calls suspense culminate in food poisoning, gory revelations, axes, and eyeballs. Today this would be so unnecessarily heavy handed, and of course there are varying versions – a sixty-seven minute sanitized edition and a longer seventy-three minutes that still has awkward cuts on the sex and kills. Fortunately, this is an entertaining examination on female stereotypes via horror and it's worth pursuing the proper blu-ray edition.

Murder Mansion – There are varying versions of this 1972 Spanish/Italian La Mansion de la Niebla, however the organ music, dangerous mountain drives, and sexy hitchhikers set the snowy, seventies suave nonetheless. Gossipy couples, love triangles, and business before pleasure affairs are initially confusing, but the dubbing is well done – bemusing bickering rather than monotone banal. Soren to Milan overnight drives on the old valley road and ominous turns not on the map lead to squealing tires and car accidents near the foggy cemetery. A man with a sickle walks along the side of the road before more fearful figures in the mist and cackling echoes. Classic cars, cigarettes, guns, and creepy portraits add to the gothic atmosphere as one and all become stranded at the titular manor. The nearby village is abandoned, and our suspect hostess recounts local vampire legends and tales of the town witch to her hysterical guests. Hear tell of prior decapitation and impalements are dismissed despite the increasingly uneasy, eerie mood thanks to mirrors, evil eyes, and occult images looming over every room. Bare ladies' backs, lez be friends suggestions, and father/daughter jealousy or worse create innuendo before the dirty dude knocking on every bedroom door gets what's coming to him in chilling ghostly encounters. Billowing nightgowns escalate to blurred visions and fatal heartbeats as creaking doors and cobwebs lead to underground tunnels, chapel crypts, and coffins. Contemporary films often fail at this kind of surprising reveal, and although the edited editions excise the saucy violence, the genuine frights are effective without the skin and splatter overused today. The talkative set up and party flashbacks pad time on a thin story and too many uneven characterizations, but fortunately, this moody midnight scary remain swift and entertaining.

Retro Television Bonus

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre – This eighty minute 1964 CBS television film written and directed by Joseph Stefano (Psycho) was originally envisaged as a horror anthology pilot. Martin Landau stars (Mission: Impossible) as charming architect cum ghost hunter Nelson Orion ”as in the constellation” amid steamy kisses, picturesque beaches, and a mod bachelor pad. However screams, foggy cemeteries, and a family tomb with a horseshoe phone beside the un-embalmed interred provide Poe references and gothic atmosphere. Creepy housekeeper Judith Anderson (Rebecca) lurks about the grand manor, and the frazzled son of the deceased receives sobbing phone calls from a mother who's been dead for a year. The coffin is open and the receiver is warm but the skeleton is undisturbed, and midnight graveside meetings wax on how the wealthy make such elaborate art wasted on the dead while so many live in squalor. Howling winds, flickering lanterns, and closing crypt doors acerbate locked in the vault fears while the black and white lighting schemes accent wrought iron fences and marble tombs. Chandeliers, overhead angles, and multiple staircases make the mausoleum or manor appear larger amid rattling furniture, “psychical” powers, and science versus dogma debates. Orion doesn't charge for genuine hauntings but enjoys catching pranksters. He's not a medium but is wary of unbelievers – for he believes in freeing people of what haunts them be it guilt or ghost. Largely twofer dialogue carries the plot as Orion ponders what kind of mother expected a grown married man to always be home beside the phone. His sassy old housekeeper helps his “morbid adventures” as the sounding board for his exposition or deduction. Numerous up close shots of Landau push him as star, and this really could have been a delicious show with weekly horror guests. While the Spanish history on the titular missions and a whiff of religion are fine, the hear tell bleeding ghosts Orion's previously debunked feel tacked on when we could have seen that story. And Judith Anderson is supposed to be Hispanic? Seriously? At times the skepticism and music are laid on thick with repeated camera shots and unnecessary padding scenes. However the primitive chromakey overlays and phantom figures on the beach remain eerie. The then contemporary sleek and classical art work well with gothic candles, glowing paintings, and poison tonics as fatal pasts lead to stabbings and surprisingly well filmed vehicular revenge. Though at times somewhat Scooby Doo thanks to obvious supposition for modern viewers, this has some surprisingly creepy moments and fun performances for a late night watch.

02 June 2022

More Shakespeare at InSession Film!


It's time to moonlight again with our Shakespearean Classic Reviews and Contemporary Analysis at InSession Film!  

Op-Ed: A Few Shakespeare Classics

Op-Ed: Modern Shakespeare Looks

As a Bard Bonus, you can also see me discuss several of the adaptations covered in this Video Review! Thank you so much to those who have been watching! 

29 May 2022

Bad Horror Writers


Bad Horror Writers

by Kristin Battestella

These writers thrust into isolated locales, killer nonsensical, deadline contrivances, and horror delirium go from quality bizarre to disturbingly terrible. Read on for the good, bad, and ugly of writers in peril.

Weird but Great

Images – Susannah York (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) and Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine) star in director Robert Altman's 1972 mind-bending venture with music by John Williams (Star Wars), splendid Irish locales, and freestyle life imitating art characterizations. Tinkling wind chimes and whimsical unicorn readings penned by York go from charming to chilling thanks to eerie artwork and anonymous phone calls providing her husband's hotel address. Typewriters, old school cameras, and horseshoe phones accent the frenetic writer's scribbling as she huddles childlike under the table with her crumpled papers before cowering in the bathroom over the imaginary man kissing her. Crystals, mirrors, a multi-level mod apartment, vintage cars, and a country house show pampered living facades before a disturbing point of view change. Our author sees herself drive up to the idyllic gingerbread house and the doppelganger knows she's watching – forcing viewers to pay attention amid the kitchen knives, smoking flue, and creepy antelope head upside down in camera lens. She was said to live here as a child with her grandfather and works on a jigsaw puzzle when not sticking her tongue out at the lookalike neighbor's daughter and claiming she was prettier at that age. Suggestions of abuse and affairs mount with untranslated French, a dead lover caressing her mouth, and a dirty neighbor licking her face. Balconies or above looking down camera angles reflect the burying guilt or suppressed urges while zooms on the internal retro camera make us voyeurs wonder what saucy it has seen. Shooting with a shotgun versus shooting via the lens layers the scene changes through doorways and tiger, butterfly, dog, or train metaphors. Flashback or phantom encounters with the ghost lover, rough neighbor, or routine husband keep us guessing, for Rene plays Hugh, Marcel plays Rene, and Hugh plays Marcel. Our disturbed wife also sees herself naked as the sense of self breaks with surprisingly calm, collected violence and blood. Not listening to your inner self degrades into fantasy blending with reality and literal over the edge waterfalls. The full circle prism and character study horror looks directly at our camera and our warped self-image. Though too nonsensical for many, such provocative horror leaves us asking questions long after the movie ends.

Had to Fast Forward ๐Ÿคจ

Winifred Meeks – Cliffside waves and “Dramatic Old Timey Music” open this 2021 ghost tale immediately padded with numerous credits, extra long still frames, driving to the seemingly quaint English manor, and no dialogue save for Sherlock Holmes on the radio. Slow, tedious rather than atmospheric shots of the dark foyer, empty rooms, and spooky windows abound amid rambling phone calls from mom and ghostly humming heard by the audience but not the protagonist. A mug and a laptop twelve minutes in are the first indication she's a writer, and supposed slice of life conversations are unnatural exposition about her book series. She watches Nosferatu on mute while we listen to the voice on the phone and observe from outside a rainy window, and it's unclear if this is a poor aesthetic choice or just a ghostly perspective. Deliberate, incidental movements begat drinking wine and watching House on Haunted Hill – entire scenes as if Vincent Price should receive a screen credit – before more radio speeches and laborious phone calls with her cheating boyfriend played over picturesque mountains and floral vignettes. The protagonist is a nonentity yet there's time for her to shower and wear a towel before being suddenly convinced that unseen odd happenings mean the manor is haunted. However the few and far between ghosts are for the viewer not the character – ten seconds worth before ten minutes of birds in the sky, strolls in the woods, and brushing her teeth. Tacked on asthma and a London recovery offer voicemails about clergy and parapsychologist failures, and a Geocities-esque website tells of an unstable religious sailor's wife starving herself while waiting for his lost at sea return. This potentially more interesting backstory is told in five minutes when I had to fast forward over a fireplace, clouds, waves, yoga, and castle ruins. The off putting pretty to look at and listening to nothing disconnect combined with an excessive use of borrowed media makes this on and on, neither showing nor telling twice as long. Perhaps we could forgive the innovative, solo, COVID filmmaking if there was a true narrative, but the haunting is inconsequential to the monotony.

Why Indeed

Why – 911 transcripts, Shakespeare quotes, CCTV footage, and slow opening credits open this 2021 exercise in what not to do. The drive to the horrors actually takes half the movie – complete with blaring music, repeated overhead shots, and a manuscript called “Are we there yet?” The parking garage splatter is well done, but the elaborate kills and exploitative naked girl crawling on the ground are pointless. Ocean hotels, bedroom romps, and camping sex restart the cliches while phone calls repeat everything we just saw. Shaky cam tours of the retreat with anonymous bodies hanging on the stairs and the killer eating his cereal are purely for the audience, and victims asking the titular question before their final head chop are laughable rather than thought provoking. Useless cinematography like a snake eating a frog and pine cones still lifes acerbate the aimless back and forths, convenience store trite, and uninteresting killer vignettes. Humorous cutaways ruin the isolate fears, which themselves jar with the rustic, coffee commercial idyllic photography. What is the woman in peril doing while we're watching the nonsensical crimes elsewhere? Our writer runs around the house avoiding the killer when he was so fast with the meaningless shock kills! His heavy breathing point of view has no purpose if we've already seen him, and once again a one and the same writer and director without a second eye creates an all over the place, first draft narrative. I like the idea of this old school horror stock company, but Chris Browning (Bosch), Natasha Henstridge (Species), Lance Henriksen (Aliens), and more of this cast and crew also teamed up for The Unleashed, perhaps in a fly by night two for one deal. There's no other motivation to this paint by numbers. Backward strobes, sirens, and crime tape montages look like they ran out of money yet the movie ends with derivative one year later book deals, dream scares, and babysitter gotchas. Having no answer to the killer question is probably supposed to be some meta point, but it only leaves the viewer asking why they are watching.

20 May 2022

It's A Living Season 3


It's a Living Season 3 Almost Has it Together

by Kristin Battestella

The 1985-86 twenty-two episode season of It's A Living resets again for the sitcom's first year in syndication – introducing Crystal Bernard (Wings) as transplanted Texas waitress Amy Tompkins alongside Richard Stahl (9 to 5) as Above The Top's new chef Howard Miller. However, the first half of the season is somewhat unfocused, ingratiating the new characters whilst also going for broke for the syndication revival in a busy, trying to do it all hit or miss. Character personalities are enough to sustain the crisis, but the restaurant taken hostage seriousness in “Desperate Hours” jars with out of place humor and the cat having kittens. There are ambassadors in peril and patrons having heart attacks, but Michael Richards aka Seinfeld's Kramer is the bad guy with a terrible accent. Such laughable in the wrong place takes away from the reflections, regrets, and dreams the fearful staff share. Each lady has a moment to stand up to the villains, and fortunately, the courage overcomes the unevenness. Rather than focusing on the whirlwind romance with Richard Kline (Three's Company), “Jan's Engagement” also has a lot happening besides the titular proposal. Thankfully, this recurring arc is important for one of our characters, showing what It's A Living can do when the ensemble is used to full advantage. “The Prom Show” adds balloons and a dance floor at Above the Top as the high-rise waitresses provide the entertainment and problems ensue. Once again, the lead plot is thin while a more important story takes second place – this time showing the series' best with strong characters and musical numbers while illuminating the writing flaws. Likewise “Hail to the Chef” offers insights into our staff's ambitions, personal lives, and histories they'd like to forget even if it's via Secret Service interviews for a stereotypical presidential visit. Anti-war college rallies in the sixties, mooning a cop, worries over spilling chili – ironically, the eponymous pun about Howard's record being a middle initial mistake is the briefest story.

It's A Living is very frustrating when there's no room for A, B, and even C plots in under twenty-two minutes. Deserving secondary stories suffer as nothing burger sitcom retreads take the lead. Some shorting may be due to syndication cuts, but the overcrowded writers room featuring producers Marc Sotkin and Tom Whedon too often falls back on similarities later seen on their beloved The Golden Girls. It's A Living also reuses the same sets and incidental music, as if even then the same audience of both shows wasn't supposed to notice. It's uncomfortable now to see how off the mark “From Russia with Love” is as well with CCCP defections led by Christopher McDonald (Happy Gilmore), and the women chat about their disturbing worst male encounters in “The Jerks.” Late night inventory excuses frame flashback vignettes full of blackmailing and gaslighting assaults played for laughs. “I won't take no for an answer” and chasings around the sofa sped up like silent film slapstick ruin the chance to see the girls after hours. Even in 1985, who thinks “let's do a highlight show of men assaulting our women” is a good idea? Instead of the “Oddest Couple” being about Ann Jillian's displaced waitress Cassie moving in with Marian Mercer's cranky hostess Nancy for an acerbic twofer, Cassie eventually stays with Paul Kreppel's piano player Sonny. This immediately follows “The Jerks,” and though it's the best behaved Sonny has ever been, he still withholds news of another realty opportunity from Cassie. Somehow, it's all turned around for his sympathy – as if It's A Living doesn't know what to do with our strong ladies when the First Season was so progressive. Fortunately “Gender Gap” comes together with excellent topics and wit despite two important issues crammed in one. The man turned down by Amy's hiring files a discrimination lawsuit, so management caves and gives him a job. The ladies object to men taking the subservient, menial jobs usually resigned to women but no one can afford to strike or lose her job. The new guy is a poor waiter, too, a con artist usually settling out of court. This meaty topic shares time with an early but mistaken transgender plot, for Nancy's former flame felt she was in the wrong body and now she's dating Sonny. She doesn't want him to know, but it's not fair for others to demand she be upfront and tell him against her wishes before playing the operation for laughs and again inexplicably making the issue about Sonny.

The misunderstandings are better handled in “Jealous Wife” as missing ingredients and the titular accuser have everyone coming and going in the kitchen. It would be fun to see an entire episode just set in kitchen, and the mistaken identities, public confrontations, and truths will out have It's A Living firing on all cylinders as the multiple happenings work together. Bemusing standout Danny Thomas is supposed to operate on Nancy's hernia for “The Doctor Danny Show,” but Sorkin's episodes are often the thinnest derivative “the” and “show” entries rising only on the cast's charm. Nancy both wants sympathy yet doesn't want the staff gossiping about her fears, but the gals are there for her with strength and humor showing what It's A Living can do. Messy friends staying with Barrie Youngfellow's Jan, her taking the kids to a child psychologist, and Amy asking for the sentimental ladies to donate for a church auction are again told for locker room angst rather than seen as a Valley Girl turned princess repeats the hostages and terrorists alongside anti-Asian jokes in “Jewel Heist.” Thankfully, busboy switches, fake hotel doctors, and medication side effects combine for a fun if swift resolution. Likewise “Jump” isn't so much about the rejected actor on the restaurant ledge as it is driving dilemmas, no tip customers, and IRS audits. Everything is strong – underpaid waitresses hassled over $32 owed would be a statement unto itself – but we don't get to the eponymous seriousness via Cyrano until the last eight minutes. A blind date with a goofy cartoonist leads to a relationship played out in the comic strip for “America's Sweetheart.” The medium's dated but a woman not wanting her personal life public is something we struggle with today in what not to share or overshare online. It's another fine nugget not completely explored because It's A Living feels the need to cram everyone in every episode when realistically rotating pairs may have allowed more time. Our waitresses apparently work sixteen hours a day seven days a week when there are count 'em six empty lockers in the lounge!

The season finale “Mann Act” devolves into a clip show wrapped with Sonny's drunken interjections, and it's an infuriating end framing the series as about the wannabe cool piano player not the dynamic waitresses. So many more deserving plots were cut short when It's A Living also knew Ann Jillian was departing the series and could have given her a proper send-off. Jan's family life is also strangely unseen with her daughter only appearing once despite an intriguing hear tell B plot where Ellen shares secrets with babysitter Cassie but not her mother. Barrie Youngfellow is effectively the mom of the group, so her realistic romance and blended family shouldn't be relegated to all talk subplots. Jan's courtship deserved two or three episodes – the whirlwind timing, their not being able to have kids together, her relationship with her stepson, how her still going to college effects the family. However, it's all just there to give Jan something to say in the lounge rather than truly exploring the character changes. Meddling mothers, no judge, and an Above the Top reception gone awry fortunately set off “The Wedding Show” where our Jan finally gets to have it all come together in the kitchen of all places. In “Dinner with Deedee” competitive Jan avoids a former school rival now married to a wealthy executive. Jan insists there's nothing wrong with being a waitress, but she pretends to be a fancy customer and is angry at her embarrassment before realizing she has everything she wants. Such service industry hesitancy, hard working honesty, and character reflections showcase the best of It's A Living. As Cassie Cranston, top billed Ann Jillian can convince any customer to sample the succulent roast beef when they are out of steak. She takes Amy under her wing, donates the men's clothes left in her closet, and secretly volunteers at a senior home – she has to keep her wild dating reputation! A famous billionaire reserves Above The Top – Cassie included – in “Cassie's Cowboy,” and despite her cool facade, Cassie falls easily, happy to make a fool of herself and take a chance. We've seen this plot with her before, but Cassie dislikes becoming a snob and ultimately won't let a man no matter how rich walk all over her. She also accidentally starts dating twins unaware and tells them she has a twin sister and we do not see this plot! I protest.

Gail Edwards' ditsy Dot is always a bridesmaid with typical “Dot's Puppy” half an episode hi-jinks under-utilizing her failing actress when her outlandish lies should be It's A Living's go-to comic relief. Dot decides she must pretend to be a good waitress to become a better actress, but steals food from the kitchen to feed the homeless and shows up early when she's burned out on making excuses. Dot's visiting mother is exactly like her, and they drive each other crazy because neither tells the truth. Dot wishes Above the Top was a dinner theater, and she puts her skills to good use reenacting the crime in “Eleven Angry Men and Dot.” She teases Nancy with jury duty being the best reason for being absent, but deliberation drags on while the shorthanded staff struggles in one of this season's rare outside of the hotel plots. Crystal Bernard's Amy debuts in the season opener “Harassed” with an anonymous caller who says he's been watching her alongside roses, saucy notes, and piano requests. Amy's fears and the maternal protection from the veteran ladies endear her to viewers immediately. Rather then letting their worries on if the stalker is in the restaurant get to them, the girls take action with a few good trips and copying speeches they saw on Miami Vice. Amy's saving herself for her husband and is a terrible gift giver, but asking Sonny to help her rehearse for the church choir means we get to hear Bernard sing, too. Amy does repeat several ingenue plots from the earlier seasons – her father wants her to return home in “Amy Big Girl Now” and we didn't need this repetitive story as the third episode once she has already been introduced. She wants to stay at Above the Top, but two episodes before she wanted to leave, and the claustrophobic elevator confrontations compete with a mishandled overweight conference story. They're cranky, the waitresses yell at them for wanting more, and the staff both admire their efforts yet mock them. By the next episode, Amy yearns for home again, and her wild Snyder, Texas tales are “Back in St. Olaf” precursors about pigs and ditching work to go to a rodeo with her friend Billy Bob. Most of her characterization comes in fish out of water humor like having to take a California driving test, and each of these could have been their own plots rather than just throwaway moments. Amy learns to be assertive, standing up to Nancy over her not being paid to be bossed around on her own time – a surprisingly relevant moment for our current always accessible lifestyle.

Although It's A Living does Mercer a disservice in these Dynasty 1980s meets 1890s football player looking sleeves, waterbed owning, man-eater Nancy insists it's her nature to be unmerciful. She lauds Dot as a bad actress with the chance to be a successful waitress but insists she'll take true praise to the grave. Nancy won't break bad news just so she can see the staff squirm. She dreams of being the First Lady's social secretary but is overwhelmed when having to wait on tables herself, preferring instead the unpopular responsibilities no one else wants. Chef Howard, on the other hand, objects to any substitutions or food being sent back. He takes unsatisfactory dishes off the menu and sides with the understaffed ladies amid the magic tricks and mail in ordinations up his sleeve if the plot requires. Howard's gruff banter with Nancy is superb, but her behavior is clearly sexual harassment right down to the overnight kit she gifts him complete with a perfume called “Pillage.” Only male writers would think it's funny because the genders are reversed, and It's A Living didn't need to lay the crossing the line come ons so thick when the evenly matched twofers do so well. In re-watching It's A Living, Sonny Mann is also in very poor taste – saying he's tired of men preying on young girls...while trying to get a drugged woman up to his apartment. The staff hates him and the customers clap when he leaves, so Sonny's piano slapstick is purely for the audience. He sings terribly rude songs to the overweight group, grovels in a crisis, and hides behind the bar. I'm glad when people slam the piano lid on his fingers. In “I Write the Songs” Sonny gets a record contract and immediately ditches Above the Top with the titular spectacle before obviously crawling back. If It's A Living must have musical episodes, the ladies could do variety larks a la Dick van Dyke and Maude. Their singing is better, and if we already have Nancy's antagonism, we don't his annoying, inappropriate behavior.

Of course, It's A Living's print remains downright fuzzy like the days of yore when luxury dinners at Above The Top cost $50 plus the $10 tip. The repeated wardrobe is also steeped in short skirts with chunky belts, big perms, bigger shoulder pads, tight jeans with tall boots, one earrings, and colorful but ridiculously baggy pantsuits. There are sport coats with the sleeves rolled up on men and women, too, and a terrible off the shoulder, one-off uniform before a red option similar to the standard black ensemble. Although J.D. Lobue (Soap) would go on to be the series' most prominent director, these twenty-two episodes cram in much too much – both under-utilizing the embarrassment of riches and overflowing every act with crowded stream of conscious plots. Season Three has a bumpy start, great middle, and weak back half with uneven writing even within a fine episode. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth reviewing It's A Living thanks to the lack of streaming options, but modern frustrations and dated obnoxiousness aside, It's A Living is a breezy marathon with moxie.

26 April 2022

Movie of the Week Horrors


Movie of the Week Horrors

by Kristin Battestella

This throwback trio of women-centric network television movies consists of questionable larks at best and inexplicably disturbing at worse. Yet somehow, there remains some bemusing entertainment value – if you overlook a lot.

The Invasion of Carol Enders – TV movie queen Meredith Baxter (Family Ties) wakes up possessed in this unusual 1974 Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) produced tale that seems more like a soap opera pilot at only sixty-seven minutes. Some acting is laid on thick and the bare production tries its best as blindness, car accidents, an heiress, the suspicious stepson, and more soap opera tropes rely on reused Dark Shadows sets and familiar Robert Cobert music intruding to create more ominous mood. Military men and space engineers can't handle the financial downturns as husbands and boyfriends become angry, violent drunkards and the women suffer for it. The premise is eerie enough thanks to the more subtle chills as a patient claims a man she never met is her husband and he refuses to believe it as nothing more than a demented con. Our dead woman calls her broker like nothing is wrong amid the horror of looking in the mirror and seeing someone different. Of course, the ladies happen to be in the same hospital at the same time for the eponymous switch-a-roo, relying on convenient leaps as even the physician diagnoses one spirit as saving the other. The deceased also magically knows she was murdered when her car went off the road alongside faulty brakes, shady ex-husbands, bank forgeries, and then high-tech copy machine culprits. Baxter spends half the time sitting in a hospital bed with bandages on her eyes – used or removed as needed – before easily leaving for her own investigation. There are compelling one on ones and even some tense action, but the authorities bend to the supernatural or rational just to move the plot along – nonbelievers accepting a possession story that seems intended for Dark Shadows had that series continued. This isn't anything one hasn't seen already, yet I can't lie, I fell for the red herring!

Satan's Triangle – Bermuda Triangle shipwrecks and Coast Guard rescues spell doom for lieutenant Doug McClure (The Virginian) and lone survivor Kim Novak (Vertigo) in this 1975 movie of the week that looks ten years too late. The first twenty minutes could have been skipped – a dry reenactment with hovering helicopters, terrible radio banter, and airlifts that are somehow so plain despite the distress calls and sinking boats. Bodies are impaled and strung up on the mast, however the snail's pace back and forth focuses on the search protocol. Flashbacks to big game fishing and a previously rescued priest suggest that's where our story should be. The messy storytelling constructs interfere with the action at hand while wind, fog, and poor video quality make the schooner tough to see. A supposedly sexy priest and Jock Ewing himself Jim Davis chomping down on his food amid the disaster are inadvertently humorous despite lightning, ominous music, and then saucy bare backs of topless women. Recountings of another person within the flashback mean we never directly see anything as it happens, and nonsensical narrating over dialogue leaves the audience unable to share in the scary experience. The rescuer who wasn't even there repeats the deaths as if everything was a secret in need of explanation before tacked on religion and predictable twists. The devil said to be testing people's mettle could be intriguing without the artificially created constraints, and although we balk at this past bad, today numerous shows do the same deliberate delay and cut up mystery. One can usually forgive these ABC yarns, but in spite of a very chilling ending, this playing at spooky nothing burger obvious would have been much more effective as a half hour anthology entry.

She Waits – The print is understandably poor for this 1972 CBS production featuring newlywed Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) and mother-in-law Dorothy McGuire (Old Yeller) confronting the spirit of David McCallum's (The Man from U.N.C.L.E) late first wife, and the elegant, romantic music plays up the Rebecca wannabe mood. The ghosts and crazy old ladies jump right into the spooky old home ominous, but the California set piece doesn't have much gothic atmosphere. The deceased's pictures are pulled from the albums amid music boxes, voices in the night, phantom humming, and occult books in the library. However the antique shopping coincidences and contrived relationships skip over any slow burn scares. Claustrophobic rooms, billowing curtains, unseen spirits, and slamming doors are effective with very little, but the haunting is never used to full advantage. Superfluous characters come and go as needed, and it takes a half hour for something scary to happen. Naturally the droll son/husband and old man doctor don't believe the hysterical women and don't want them to frighten one another, but the derivative lack of surprises means there's no real torment for the characters. The hear tell talk of the titular Elaine doesn't create her presence, for we're repeatedly told she will possess and intends to harm her husband – giving away everything that's going to happen as if we've haven't seen Patty Duke play doubles already. Clueless men save themselves by talking their way out of the revenge as the reveals move fast because the seventy-four minutes says so. Instead of a warped battle of wills between the ladies, this merely limps into the same old, same old.

23 March 2022

The "I"s of Horror


The “I”s of Horror ๐Ÿ‘€

by Kristin Battestella

Beware! These intriguing horror stories almost have it all, but some throwback allegory chills are better than the island isolation and exorcism could have beens.

It's Excellent!

In Fabric – Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Without A Trace) leads writer and director Peter Strickland's (Berberian Sound Studio) 2018 British throwback getting right to the edgy score, seventies style, and cursed red dress peppered with red nails, black panties, vintage fashion, and old school unease. Personal ads aren't exactly the truth amid forced smiles at the bank and that hypnotic, sale sale sale advertising allure. Our somewhat frumpy divorcee is jealous of her son's saucy, intrusive, French speaking femme fatale girlfriend, and the creepy sales girl insists a date is purely about the temptation of a sensational, risque garment worn to provoke pleasure. Dumbwaiters and grand old fashioned department store spooky accent the retro technology as cold answering machines relay character information and money tubes or vintage buzzers invoke off kilter startles while time is distorted when browsing the fashion catalogs. The previous model of our dress – colored “artery” – came to tragedy and the tight frock leaves rashes before sending the washer crazy with damage, cuts, and blood. There's an intimacy to doing someone's laundry, and the mannequins are cleaned in a ritual, sexual fashion that's bizarre without actually showing anything nasty thanks to overlay montages and through the lens double vision. Bald heads and pubic hair are both seemingly unattractive and misleading reflections, store windows, and bank partitions create physical barriers, yet our projection of self changes when we know it's for the gaze, voyeurism, and getting off on the standards of beauty. Instead of wowing the audience with special effects, there's a “what we think we see” in the vaginal imagery, red sheets, and cult euphoria of the staff rousing the end of the year holiday crowd waiting to enter the store. They are so bereft when a shopper says she is over the retail ecstasy! Customers ignore the increasing, freak mishaps because we're buying into the couture, but the red dress moves on for stag drag gags complete with pacifiers and peer pressure disguised as good-natured humor. Prior events in the newspaper and the perpetually perfect Size 36 dress fitting every body type are dismissed as are the potential banking and department store connections. Handyman temptations and awkward sex at home lead to winks about how even the nerdy man can be manly because he can fix her washer. This henpecked man named Speaks holds his tongue as his intimidating boss eats Speaks' employee card – adding male subtext and consuming symbolism alongside stockings, penis shaped gourds, and latent bankers offering to role play in Tudor costumes. Nightmare nurses, nasty babies, marred faces, and skeletal thinness are recounted by the dreamer, foreshadowing for themselves rather than a flashy, meaningless visual for the viewer. Supposedly decent ladies spit, loot, and fight at the register before fires, alarms, melting facades, and bleeding mannequins laugh at the all consuming commercial machine we're dying to be a part of before another takes our place. It's pleasing to see a past telling in order rather than intercut flashbacks as if the dress connection was a big secret, but it's not quite fair to call this realistically bitter satire a comedy, for there are many layers and connections worth multiple viewings. Some may be upset at the the lack of explanations, but the social media horror seeping into our blood allegory speaks for itself.

Almost Has It...

The Isle – Siren warnings, echoing vocals, and watery perils begat three shipwrecked merchant sailors and uncharted edge of the world Scottish isolation in this 2019 parable. Rather than some spectacle disaster, we meet our 1846 survivors lost in a row boat, arguing about the run aground decisions, fog, chaos, and screams. The titular inhabitants are hospitable when the men come ashore, but the women are hushed behind closed doors and information about the dwindling community is not forthcoming. Celtic music cues, windswept scenery, stone fireplaces, wooden wreckage, kettles, and lanterns accent the well done rural as the residents insist our restless sailors shouldn't go exploring. Risking a burial at sea in a small local boat leads to dark waters, ominous mist, ghostly ship bells, and echoes of others caught in this island's lure. The whispering winds, moss covered tombstones, and dangerous cliffs work organically in scene, however there are a bit too many lovely for the arty sake of it scene transitions and splitting up to search will obviously, stereotypically not bode well for our Black sailor. More modern constructs like a bathroom scare via the wash stand mirror, spooky flashbacks of famine and rival affections, and abstract dream snippets intrude on the period atmosphere before a totally tame bedroom montage. The siren enchantment is apparent without the opening poems or Greek references, and bizarre distortions aren't for the sailor experiencing the delirium but a calling attention to itself visual for the audience. The score ramps up the tension before the editing cuts away – feigning the something spooky without any actual action far too many times. While one shouldn't expect outright horror here, the contemporary storytelling cliches and lengthy credits pad what should really be a straightforward ninety-two minutes. The survivors don't unravel the mystery for themselves and viewers already know what's what, so going back to the original curse as if it were a surprise drags the more pressing get out of Dodge goal. Again the faults here stem from a small production with a writer/director husband and a co-writer/star wife who needed a second eye. Although melancholy and atmospheric for a late night watch, this potentially unique story and setting deserved another polish.

An Unfortunate Skip.

Incarnate – Aaron Eckhart (Olympus Has Fallen) and Carice Van Houten (Brimstone) star in this PG-13 Blumhouse Exorcist meets Inception thriller opening with neck snapping growls and youthful possessions. After meeting our divorced mother and son in peril, the story resets with night club strobe and a smooth demon hunter who can enter the mind of the possessed and convince them to resist the evil influence. The red lights and maze like escapes, however, lead to medical hook ups, cameras, and a wheelchair bound warrior not so cool in the real world. Bruises on the inside become real injuries as the fantastic science and high tech supernatural mix with old school paperwork and Vatican officials interested in this rare kind of incarnate exorcism. He doesn't work for the church or believe in any religious aspects for what is just a parasitic entity – Ember is a doctor not a priest. These official exorcisms, church cover ups, mind over evil methods, and demon vendettas might have made a neat show, so it's strange that we open with the family encounter first when the doctor's treating a demon like a disease to be evicted from the inside is the main story. The family details are also repeated in a file report with a complete background check. Traditional, off camera exorcisms have failed, and there's a lot of telling and ham-fisted explaining for the audience when mom gasping at the unseen video is a nicer moment for the character and not a viewer wow. The deep voice and whooshing maneuvers make the boy's possession bemusing, and the subsequent tearful car accident man pain feels laid on thick since the audience has already deduced the past angst. Mom has nothing to do but ask questions about frequencies and auras, and leaving to bring in the abusive, drunk dad to help breaks the exorcism tension. The demon resists with illusions its prey desires, but serious strides resort to laughable on the ceiling action and more recollections of what we already know. Expedited timelines crunch the conflict from years of searching right down to ten seconds left on the EEG, but switch-a-roos and detours don't get us anywhere. Mom is told to be strong when of course she must have been but we don't see her perspective until the brief, required bonding between the grieving adults. Any symbolism between Dr. Ember and the demon's name being Ash is unused, and the finale comes easy with carnivals, crosses, and sudden devotions leading to hospital chases, levitation, and sacrificial contortions. Rather than utilizing the tender performances, this over-relies on predictable scares. Viewers understand why this was filmed in 2013 but not released until 2016. Derivative leaps and miraculous contrivance don't make in world sense or explore the provocative possibilities – leaving what should be a touching and soul searching story downright hollow.