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.

23 September 2020

Recent Witches and Folk Horrors

Recent Witches and Folk Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

These indie horrors from the past few years provide folk tales, dark fantasy, and witches. While some are flawed but worthy, others are disappointingly boring and downright off putting.

Gretel & Hansel – Invitations to beware, come closer, and listen well open director Oz Perkins' (The Blackcoat's Daughter) 2020 fairy tale twist alongside creepy triangles, phantom silhouettes, pointy black hats, and babes lured to the woods. Nothing is given without something being taken away, and red leaves, eerie autumn tones, fog, and firelight create a storybook rustic, Northern European timeless. Our Gretel is older – she sees and hears things differently – but she won't work for a nasty old man even if her mother threatens her with an ax. Saddled with her younger brother Hansel, the hungry children set off for the scary woods, a magical and beautiful but spooky place with screeching crows, rustling trees, and wild mushrooms. Kindness is supposed to be its own reward and they shouldn't stop for wicked deceptions, tempting baking aromas, and unattended feasts when they peer in the window. While blurry camera work and distorted, askew angles reflect the weary unknown; the zorp, warped, dun dun dun sound effects are an obnoxious intrusion. Tender conversations and innocent chats also don't need any further narration as gross fingered, hair sniffing, disturbingly creepy Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) invites the youths to enter, rest, and eat because they have no meat on their bones. Simple stone buildings and old clothing styles add to the quaint antiques, candles, lanterns, and moonlight, but red doors, colorful stained glass, hairless cats, and nightmares suggest something sinister. Where are the animals for milk and eggs for baking and why does the fresh food never spoil? Despite each child having their misgivings, Gretel offers to work for their keep, cleaning with natural herbs, vinegar, and lye before learning rare recipes and remedies. Women, you see, are either used by men or crones feared for their gifts. Young Hansel is instructed in saws and sharp tools because that's the man's work, but Gretel must hide her menstrual clean up, take control of her talents, and accept the tasty price of youth and beauty as scratch marks in the cupboard lead to whispering voices, hidden doors, and forbidden white chambers. Red lights, moss, smoke, creaking wood, and thunder accent the electronic, surreal music – weird, bizarre notes invoking seventies folk horror films. Special effects are saved for the most disturbing magic and horror with sleeping drafts, potions, salves, and bloody revelations. One must consume one's weakness before it consumes you, and a burdensome child – or a younger brother – can hold one back from her true path. Our crone wants a protege to impart her wisdom, but what happens when the apprentice surpasses the master? We know this story ends with a cannibalistic twist, but the demented chamber of horrors and fiery finale feel a little held back, not going far enough compared to the slow build getting there. The modern, intrusive narration and unnecessary sound effects are also annoying to the audience well versed in this kind of horror, but fortunately, the delicious performances and fairy tale warnings anchor this tasty retelling.

Loon Lake – David Selby and Kathryn Leigh Scott (Dark Shadows, people, Dark Shadows) anchor this 2019 Minnesota set indie opening with 1880 screams, witchy curses, multiple chops, and bloody heads. An unnecessary contemporary driving credits montage restarts the farm country rural as a drunken widower renting an empty home takes the cross off the wall. Distorted camera angles set off the horror as well as pictures of the deceased and the sense of numbness amid the pretty fields, pleasant breezes, overgrown cemetery, and eerie trees. Details on accidental deaths attributed to the witch and the bad luck that follows if you cross her grave three times come at the local diner, and Selby is quite distinct as the pesky old neighborhood kook and his conflicted minister ancestor. The bereaved, unfortunately, doesn't believe in ghosts or witches despite tales of church fires, saucy spells, and bound rituals. Flashbacks provide last rites, fresh graves, and refused nastiness alongside spirits in the window, thunder, tolling bells, and number three repetitions. Conversations on grief versus faith are nice, if heavy handed, calming moments before figures in the corn rows, apparitions of the dead, phantom noises, and creaking floorboards. The past sequences, however, are out of order. That may be an attempt at leaving the history open to interpretation or making a case for crazy with guilt unreliable, but the audience has seen independent, over the top evidence of the witch, so we know it's not all in his head. Despite surreal visions, alluring forest encounters, willing temptations, dead birds, power outages, and spooky lights; it's also difficult to be on our modern man's side. He keeps saying “Let me explain” after grabbing a woman when waking rather than admitting he had a nightmare about the witch, still wants to talk it out when threatened for attacking her, and completely ignores a full gun rack because screaming at an intruder is apparently the better thing to do. Maybe this is about his learning to believe in both good and bad, but it's tough to feel for a guy claiming he didn't deserve this when the witch didn't deserve what happened to her either. Convenient writing seen in a dream provides an end to the curse, but he doesn't try to make it right, insisting he doesn't care what went down – which isn't the best course of action when she's naked and bathing in blood. Putting on a cross makes for instant faith, but the seemingly sunny ending and false fake outs are obvious. Although this makes the most of zooms, music, and in scene scares, once again the flaws here arise in too few people wearing too many production hats, and the imbalance shows by time our man pain protagonist is literally swinging at thin air. While entertaining for both the good as well as the bad, this really feels like two stories in one, and the elder period tale is better of the two.

A Disappointment

Hex – 1644 English Civil War soldiers confront occult heresy, witches, and battlefield blood in this 2017 low budget feature unnecessarily co-directed by its co-writers. Leather, flags, and torn parchments set the period while helmets, armor, prayers, and pretty fields marred with dead provide bleak. Pilfering from the bodies escalates to two soldiers circling, fighting, and clashing swords in the eerie forest, but the shaky handicam is in too close and can't follow the hectic action. The script is also so light it's nearly nonexistent, leaving the spooky to rely on “unsettling music” closed captions and false crescendos. The hand to hand, running, hiding, and repeated confrontations also go on and on for fifteen minutes with nothing to show for it. After more enchanting woods, moss, and overgrown stone ruins; mysterious runes, talismans, and hooded figures finally appear. An abandoned encampment offers tents, tools, and maps, but viewers must watch both soldiers wander through it all without taking any supplies before more stand offs and debates about who's going to pull the trigger first. One insists there is something ungodly in this forest, so they suddenly get over their hate, decided to unite against the witch instead, and then sit by the fire in silence. The audience, however, has so little evidence of anything evil happening. Maybe in a straight drama we could wait, but when there has been no horror forty minutes into an eighty-eight minute movie, this snail's pace becomes ridiculous. When we finally do have a bewitching figure in a ravine, the night filming is tough to see. The best scares are just dream fake outs, and shadows in the tent happen so fast, we aren't even sure there is anything truly scary there. Our soldiers, however, are apparently so traumatized, they don't study the maps to find their way out or head off at first light. At this point, we'd rather have had the witch's perspective about how to get these guys off her lawn. We see more of them flipping out and facing their battle guilt because this is really supposed to be about male absolving, and destroying her stick figures is supposed to make them feel better. Even when they come to a clearing and have seemingly escaped, they still seek to confront the witch in a cave. The witch wastes time explaining why in the most dialogue yet here at the end, and while they couldn't shoot a man and she clearly isn't evil, they'll stab her to death with the quickness. This premise had a lot of potential, but it goes nowhere and nothing major happens. This felt so much longer, but with open and closing credits, this is actually about eighty-two minutes and you could fast forward and not miss anything.

Couldn't Finish It

We Summon the Darkness – It feels like we've seen these rad chicks on the highway before complete with music, talk of make up and sex, and it's 1988 via 2019 thanks to crimped hair, Madonna bangles, recent vehicles, and modern skinny jeans substitutes that look like dress up for the costume party. Gas station stops, old man innuendo, and televangelist fire and brimstone add to the cliché teases while convenient murder reports on the radio detail satanic symbols found at the crime scene. The jerks on the road are likewise weak with terrible mullets and everyone measuring each other's meddle with their metal head expertise gets old very fast. The flashing lights and concert bouncing up and down are also brief and lame tropes alongside the good girl peer pressured into everything cool and crazed, annoying exaggerations. Maybe if you look at this as a parody or if it had been a comedy the tone and style would make sense? The highway home to the rich house is instantaneous compared to drawn out start, and the Never Have I Ever chatting around the fire drinking binges goes on and on when it's obvious the guys want sex and the girls are disinterested. Who's really after whom and for what purpose turnabouts are interesting, but not unexpected thanks to the ritual foreshadowing and upside down cross jewelry leading to the drugged and bound. A gender reversal on the horror is supposed to stand out, but one girl's character development is that she has to pee all the time and everyone is stupid, unlikable, knife playing drunks. You see, this isn't really about the occult aspects, just a congregation trying to instill fear of the devil by committing murders that look like cult killings. Idiotic interrogations that waste time bothering to explain all this make the threats feel hollow, and I'm so, so tired of so-called righteous assholes giving decent people a bad name. We have enough of that at the top these days, so this didn't need to be set in an eighties Midwest for the religious hypocrisy commentary. In fact, it might have come across as something deeper if the first half wasn't wasted on faking period window dressing that doesn't work. Stepmothers, bloody bodies found, police chases, lone officers who don't call for backup, psycho daddy pastors – the contrivances just go on and on, escalating until I eventually stopped paying attention.

14 September 2020

It's A Living Season 1

It's A Living Debuts with Delicious, Hard Working Charm
by Kristin Battestella

The thirteen episode 1980-81 debut of ABC's It's A Living gets right to the high rise scandalous situational comedy at the shiny Above The Top Restaurant as virginal waitress Vicki Allen (Wendy Schaal) braves the dating scene in the “Pilot” thanks to advice from her lady colleagues – married Lois Adams (Susan Sullivan), sultry Cassie Cranston (Ann Jillian), ditsy Dot Higgins (Gail Edwards), and single mom Jan Hoffmeyer (Barrie Youngfellow). Stern hostess Nancy Beebe (Marian Mercer), however, objects to the coddling, making sure their service runs smoothly even when everything goes awry.

It's A Living introduces everyone as they arrive to work, giving the audience a realistic chance to meet each lady's troubles, sassy, or headstrong. Immediately discussing sexual topics and critical views on marriage, mistakes, and a woman's right to say no establishes their tight knit relationships as well as our endearment for the girls against their brash boss or pinching cheeks patrons. Maybe sexual topics defining the women as mother, prude, or easy generalities are old hat, but the plots are well balanced, individual, and mature, not crass. When their families are away in “The Intruder,” the ladies gather for a slumber party amid local burglar scares and debates on if it's worth wearing pants a size too small if you look good. It's A Living shows the women at home, however they aren't traditional television homemakers – just women laughing over hair, nails, and being juvenile. Sure it's contrived that they all have off to be together at the same time, but it's a chance to address individual fears and their united stance. Our dames object to being called chicks because they are women who aren't helpless. Unfortunately, home and work collide in “Fallen Idol” when visiting dad Richard Schaal (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) has a surprising dalliance. He's cool with the bordering on tart skimpy uniforms, laughs at the generational jokes, and lends his bathrobe the next morning. The then shameful shocks regarding consenting adults may seem like an overreaction today, but it's delicious to see our waitresses deduce the innuendo with great comedic timing and punchlines. Despite perhaps too many innocent plots to start, the series first utilizes its rooftop restaurant to the fullest in “Up on the Roof” as problem tables and a fire in the hotel below lead to customers who can't leave, slow service, cranky couples, and bad music to keep them going. Our ladies must pull everyone together amid evacuation waits, hysterics, fanatical ministers, and worried employees who don't want to be last in the rooftop rescue. Rather than regular sitcom standards, It's A Living uses its setting in a crisis to standout.

There are, however, several dated hindrances on It's A Living – namely an obnoxious laugh track and over-editing with an up close cut for every comeback rather than any ensemble camera staging. On the other hand, the cast is crowded this season with similar girls, generic sitcom plots, and the occasional eighties grandiloquent child actor. It's unrealistic when the waitresses are all in the back solving a problem leaving no one to mind the restaurant, and at first, It's A Living doesn't seem to know how to use its dining establishment to its advantage. Today a series also doesn't have the luxury of dragging on with early, basic stories while we hang on for the banter and personality. Then again, the rotating door of waitresses to come would be a contemporary excuse for edgy, gritty issues and seedy, titillation drama. Fortunately, there's no real clunker in this abbreviated start, and by the second half It's A Living finds its characters' strengths in “Our Man Barry” as two girls become interested in the same man amid dieting plots, employers weighing the girls, and their having to share, starve, and take it for the highest paying waitress job in town. Friends, romance, red dresses, and food cravings don't mix! The lighthearted conflict and petty confrontations eventually remind the ladies that this guy can't be a real catch if he wants to string both of them along, but our mothers argue, too, when a porn magazine ends up in a daughter's backpack in “Kids.” These days, it's downright hysterical how they thought sex was everywhere in 1981 because it was so easy for a kid to see a dirty magazine on the rack at the grocery store! Some ladies are shocked, a few have a good look, others say it is time for frank conversations with youth, and they all recall how their mothers wouldn't even say it – just maybe spell it. None of them want kids to learn the wrong way with jokes and rumors, but they also think curious boys and dad's naughty sock drawer are to blame. Girls aren't supposed to look at pornos! Will telling a ten year old too soon ruin her attitude about sex? But porn certainly provides unrealistic expectations, doesn't it? The women's perceptions of each other change when their sexual ideas and child rearing clash, and it's fascinating to study how this taboo is addressed then and now. Today, a kid with smut on his computer is so ubiquitous, it can't even be a heavy hitting plot device like the well done here.

Barrie Youngfellow's (Barney Miller) divorced single mother Jan is also going back to school and doesn't have time for crap from customers. She pulls an all nighter so she can be free to take her daughter to an Andy Gibb concert, and the only thing that would have made that sweeter would have been if we had seen him! Jan vowed that her daughter wouldn't be denied anything because she has one parent, and if her her priorities make her a terrible waitress, that's too bad. Determined to pay for ballet lessons in “Super-Mom,” Jan takes a second calligraphy job. Her coworkers cover for her and help with the invitations while trying to make Jan realize this is really about her doing it all. Jan has to take the reprimands on the chin or lose her job, and It's A Living shows what it can do with the serious, single mom disappointment. Jan also waits until the semester's end to accept her professor's overtures in “Making the Grade,” but when she has a terrible time, he nonetheless insists on more or he'll fail her. He doesn't want to be psychoanalyzed for his ways, but she doesn't want to be assaulted – and a teacher holding a sexual threat over a student is no different than a guy with a gun in a parking lot. This story focuses on how the women feel, dropping the insinuations, asking real questions, and making better statements in 1981 than we do now. Ann Jillian's (Babes in Toyland) risque Cassie, by contrast, is said to date anything once and wears her skimpy waitress uniform on the street. Three weeks without makes one a saint, and all agree with her expectation to die in bed. Cassie objects to the other ladies' mother hen ways with surprising asides and steamrolling zingers – a Ma West innuendo married with sharp, under the radar writing and deadpan delivery. Though fresh and selfish, Cassie isn't heartless, but she can't admit when she's caught feelings for an exotic jet setter in “Cassie's Punctured Romance.” She's tired of pedestrian boys, but she can't keep a suave man when she's pretending to cook while the girls actually prepare dinner. They think she should take a chance on taking it to the next level, but Cassie fears something serious and hates women who cry over a man. Likewise iron-fisted hostess Nancy Beebe demands formality, and Marian Mercer's (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) dame is not willing to be fair. She dislikes children in the restaurant and is always ready to fire anyone – although she can apologize when she's wrong and has a begrudging respect for Jan's moxie. Nancy enjoys insulting their looks, inspecting the ladies, and demeaning their weight because she herself is the epitome of class and respect. She's quite flirtatious, too, even with a firefighter over the phone. While Nancy doesn't realize not everyone has made this restaurant their lives, she is correct that there is always something happening with these waitresses. She suspects they are late to annoy her so she must keep them on their toes. Briefly, Nancy wonders if she works them too hard, but realizes she doesn't care because they are trying their best and that's what makes it tragic. When Nancy claims the new boss has fired her in “You're Not Old, You're Fired” because he is dissatisfied with her work, the waitresses refuse to believe that could be the reason when she is impeccable with the customers. They can't think of nice things to say or good times they've had together, but it's clear the restaurant can't run without Nancy. The girls find out she was fired for being old, for men can have gray, lines, and experience but not women. Dignified Nancy, however, stands up for being perfect in every way but age – she's really forty-five not forty-two.

Top billed Susan Sullivan (Falcon Crest) remains level headed as unofficial waitress leader Lois. She always has the final word for the backhanded insults about being too old or not being as old as she looks, but her headstrong is too similar to Jan. Though played as friends, in real life they would be competitive rather than besties. Lois wonders why everyone asks her advice, but she readily tells one what they don't want to hear. Her marriage is said to be perfect, but an old flame makes her wonder what she missed in “The Lois Affair.” When he offers her his room key and a nightcap, Lois insists it can be an innocent chat. Despite the temptations, good old Lois won't give in to anything stupid, and she's hurt when her daughter is embarrassed by her job in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Speaking at school career day, Lois realizes there is nothing with a consistent job that puts food on the table – especially when her husband's work has thin times. This is a great entry showcasing the unnecessary inferior treatment of service professions, yet it serves as a natural conclusion for Lois to hang up her apron for her family. Wendy Schaal's ('the burbs) Vicki is our ingenue – the innocent country girl who won't go away for the weekend with a guy and is home by midnight once she eventually goes out for dinner and dancing. Although it's odd to have similar episodes back to back early, “Roomies” puts Vicki and sassy Cassie under the same roof for wholesome opposites, wise cracking two-handers, personality, and standing up for oneself. At times, however, Vicki's dunce innocence is too much like Gail Edwards' (Full House) habitually late wannabe actress Dot Higgins. Though best friends, Dot often doesn't notice something amiss with Vicki, and her aloof provides humorous side plots until a man comes between her and Vicki. Perhaps Vicki was meant to be the youthful, relatable character, but she matures by the end of the season, and her character's arc feels closed by her final appearance at the end of the season. The ladies turn to Bert Remsen (Dead Ringer) as cranky chef Mario this season for war stories and advice, but he has little else to do beyond hating food and complaining when they are overwhelmed and overbooked or everything is behind and under cooked. He takes the girls' side against Nancy, but his humor and wisdom are too few and far between, and ultimately, the friendly old man among the women is unnecessary in a series about ladies who can handle themselves. Likewise, I don't recall Paul Kreppel's (That 70's Show) piano playing Sonny Man being so obnoxious and annoying! He's not that good with the music, changing the lyrics if a line can move in on the ladies and clinging to his piano jar during a fire evacuation. It's bizarre to have bad singing for unnecessary comic relief – as if the terrible man is supposed to be what's really funny on It's A Living, not the stand up women. Sonny feigns colds, wants them to serve him tea, and bemoans how he never gets compassion from the waitresses. When Dot does appreciate his casual honestly after Sonny feels impotent over a few bad dates, he responds by returning to his would be lothario ways, and Nancy says he's just a clown in a cheap tuxedo. Ouch!

Sure the video is flat, but there's something to be said for opening credits that set the mood, and It's A Living's intro remains memorable thanks to a brassy, catchy jingle and a shiny elevator capturing the classy fun. Some openings are shorter than others – perhaps new syndicated brevity – and fade in transitions may also be edited shavings. Beyond outdoor stock footage and typical, redressed domestic sets, most of the humor takes place between the restaurant, kitchen, and dressing lounge. There's a pay phone for personal calls, too, and the one-sided conversation acting is bemusing rather than phoned in like today. The off the shoulder peasant tops, frilly sweaters, overalls, wedges, wide belts, and fringe would be a choice today, too – yet I like how the fashions remind me of then. Tight jeans, barrettes, feathered hair, and choppy bangs look so much older but have a pre-millennial innocence. Despite the black and beige suave dining schemes, the clothes are bright and colorful teals, purple, and pinks, and the four different waitress uniforms range from stylish black formals to wench-like skirts and sashes with each gal in a different color. Objections to the then risque strappy dresses are a topic of conversation on It's A Living, with the ladies assuring they don't have to wear rubber bands to be svelte. Enchanting though they are, compared to outrageous acrylic nails and unrealistic perfectly coiffed stars; our women look like waitresses – refreshingly normal people alongside whose struggles, success, and humor we can enjoy. After toiling with few reruns post syndication and no video releases most likely due to song rights, It's A Living feels more obscure than it deserves. Thankfully new streaming and retro over the air television options have brought It's A Living to a fresh audience. The ladies here get on just fine without being defined by their relationship to a man to tell us who they are, and there's something special about nostalgic laughter and progressive sitcom charm for the whole family.