Tag Archives: horror

The Pale Door

The Pale Door opens with a Poe quote containing the phrase, making it clear that it’s a metaphor for death. So I think you know what you’re getting into. Anyway, there’s this criminal gang in the Wild West, led by an older brother who doesn’t really want his younger brother to be a part of this life (although obviously he’s fine with the younger brother seeing all the benefits). But the younger brother is all, “we’re family, so I’mma help you on this train job.”

As you might expect, things go wrong along multiple axes, and they end up fleeing through the night to a lady-infested town in the middle of the woods. And here’s the thing. I am not opposed to movies about witches. Do they know magic? Do they consort with Satan? Are they good, or evil, or just misunderstood? Whatever it is, I’m here for it.

But these guys found one I’m not here for. Spoilers ahead, but you should probably read them anyway, and I’m sad for the guy who plays Rick on the new Magnum show that I cannot recommend this movie. But I cannot, and here’s why: if you are going to give your witch settlement[1] a backstory where they were originally from Salem, Massachusetts (and we all know how that turned out)? You are not allowed to make it so the people running the witch trials were right. Come on! It’s one of the blights of American history! What is wrong with you people?

[1] probably New Salem, Colorado? I can’t prove it, but it needs to be true.

Pearl (2022)

I should say first that this post contains semi-spoilers for the movie X, which I watched as the first half of a Friday night double feature last night. So if you read beyond this paragraph, I recommend you have seen that movie first.

So in X, our first viewpoint character is the recently cocaine-addicted stripper / girlfriend of the strip club owner, named Maxine. She wanders around the farm where she is shooting her first feature porn, in short overalls and nothing else, except when she’s skinny-dipping or sleeping or on camera, if you know what I mean (and I think you do). At one point, she crosses paths with Pearl, the wife of the owner of the farm. Pearl is ancient in a way that people made up to be old look moreso than people in real life ever seem. But Pearl still has… longings. She shows to Maxine pictures on the wall of herself in the full bloom of girlhood, before her husband went off to World War I, and tells Maxine that she should appreciate it while she’s got it, because someday she will end up just like Pearl. And the image on the wall photograph is the spitting image of Maxine, in a way that I thought was clever and telling; but in reality I did not know the half of it.

For you see, Pearl and Maxine were played by the same actress, one Mia Goth. And in the wake of that stunning realization, we learned that Ti West had made a prequel named Pearl, immediately after X was finished while they were still in New Zealand. And it was also available for streaming, so we immediately watched the next entry in what appears to be a trilogy, although Maxxxine isn’t out until later this year.

I spoke at length about the visible influences on the prior movie, so I should say of this movie that it has the imprint of The Wizard of Oz all over it. The palette is just drenched in oversaturated colors, Pearl in a dress on her bicycle immediately evokes Miss Gulch[1], and there’s a scene with a scarecrow that I really should let you experience for yourself.

Anyway, as the daughter of German immigrants near the end of the Great War and the height of the Spanish Flu, Pearl is having a rough time. She’s married, but her husband is off to the war. She hates the farm, but is trapped there by circumstance and her mother’s iron will. All she really wants is to show the world her dancing talent, get into the movies, and never come back home again.

If only her father weren’t crippled. If only people weren’t so distrustful of her German mother. If only she were free to do whatever she wanted.

If only she were sane…

So, down to the nitty gritty. This movie isn’t as tightly plotted and nowhere near as unsettlingly filmed as X was. The end of this movie as it relates to the beginning of the prior movie, it just makes no sense at all. I cannot imagine how you get from here to there. And yet… Mia Goth just sold Pearl to me, in a way I’m not entirely sure I would have believed was possible. Her  descent, her yearning, to be accepted, to be loved, to be free. It was what you would call, if it were the kind of movie people took seriously, a tour de force performance. I am truly impressed by this actor, is what I’m saying.

And my god, that smile. You’ll know the one I mean.

[1] Margaret Hamilton when she was in black and white in Kansas, instead of black and green in Oz

X (2022)

Friday night double feature! Even better, unexpected double feature, but I’ll get to that.

The first movie was lent to me by Ryan a number of months ago[1], but the time was finally right, so, hooray. Here, I was about to launch into a brief plot synopsis, but the problem with those is if I start with the title, I will inevitably say “Title is the sensitive story of” and it feels less like an homage and more like a ripoff, even though its not my fault I’ve read and heard so many of Joe Bob’s reviews that the phrasing is just lodged in my brain. In any event, I’ll start over.

After a scene designed in every way to evoke The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we fade in on a strip club owner and two of his employees, hopping in a van[2] with a few other folks on their way out of Houston to the rural remote wilds of southeast Texas (or arguably New Zealand) to shoot the first direct-to-video but also high-minded and artistic pornographic feature, set on a farm owned by an aging, nay decrepit, couple named Howard and Pearl. The house[3] and barn reflect the owners’ decay, but the rented cabin a few hundred yards away is actually kind of nice, I think by virtue of not having been occupied over the past who knows how many decades.

The remainder of the film would be the shooting schedule of The Farmer’s Daughters, complete with the sexual liberation of Jenna Ortega and lessons on film editing and assorted X-rated shenanigans, except for the air of disquiet that hangs over the remote farm. I think it’s fair to say that if our merry band of videographers aren’t careful, they may find themselves on a collision course with that opening scene I mentioned, set 24 hours after they got into the van.

So aside from how on the nose (but in a good way) I found the setup and payoff to be, I was sincerely impressed by a lot of the acting and cinematography choices[4]. Some of the cuts were very disquieting, and this may be the first time I’ve experienced a successful jump scare that was set after the victim’s death.

But honestly, the single most unsettling aspect of the film was a casting choice that is frankly a spoiler for this movie’s mood, if not per se its plot. However! I think I can talk about it in the next review. Like I said: double feature.

[1] long enough that it’s since on Netflix and I did not technically need the lend, so, um, oops
[2] All van scenes also shot with Chainsaw in mind.
[3] Also, the layout of the house’s entryway? Immediate Chainsaw flashbacks.
[4] and also the soundtrack was baller

Deliria (1987)

I cannot say that I know much about the history or evolution of gialli, so when I claim that StageFright is a late stage giallo, you should fully understand the credentials that I’m bringing to this claim. But it’s the first movie from a guy who previously assisted Dario Argento, and it is definitely on familiar terms with “stylish”. I call it late stage because the mystery trappings have been completely left behind; you know who the killer is before a single person has been butchered. Nevertheless, you can really see the historical underpinnings between there and here.

See, there’s this extremely off-Broadway musical about female empowerment against a serial killer? rapist? who wears a giant owl head as a mask. And via a series of improbable circumstances, a crazy actor breaks out of a mental facility and gets locked in with the cast and crew while they are finalizing their rehearsals in advance of opening night. So the introductory scenes are the musical, followed by improbable circumstances, and these are followed by some relatively by-the-numbers killings throughout act two. But then in the last 20 minutes, it just absolutely springs to life. Owlhead, the last survivor, the key, the cat, the fan blowing the feathers around… it’s as though without the weight of all the rational people caring about who is doing this or why or if they can survive, keeping things tethered in their own personal trauma, the true insanity of the situation is permitted to fly free.

I know not all of them can be hits, not even all of them from the ’80s, but I really was prepared to be disappointed here, and then, suddenly, I wasn’t. Bravo!

The Lighthouse (2019)

The podcast I’ve been listening to determined that their theme for “this” week should be Edgar Allan Poe crossed with an aquatic monster, and as you may or may not know, there’s not really a lot of that. Which is how I learned that his last unfinished story is about a guy on remote lighthouse duty. Lighthouses in the past, you see, were mostly manned by practically nobody, in long shifts. I guess via the Navy?

So anyway, these two guys (a master and an apprentice, but for lighthouses instead of ruling the galaxy) named Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson arrive to a remote island off the coast of New England, in artistic black and white, and proceed with their month or so shift at keeping the light on for passing ships. The thing is, the ocean and the seagulls and the mermaid figurine and the solitude and the lack of solitude gradually take their tolls on the sanity of one or both men, and in conclusion, I would really love to read Poe’s original story, wherever it is catalogued in Dream’s library. It would not have been this movie, but I believe it very much might have been in the spirit of this movie. Or perhaps more accurately, The Lighthouse is in the spirit of Poe.

Suspiria (1977)

For I want to say my birthday, my mother-in-law pulled from my wishlist the 4K Blu-ray of Suspiria, a movie which I have somehow never seen, despite having felt its allure since at least as far back as when I bought The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine[1]. I cannot even say what puts them, for me, in the same category. Objectively, they are not, but it’s the kind of thing where I just saw it in that period twenty years ago where I was buying up weird ’70s movies, so they are all jumbled together in my mind.

Learning that Suspiria existed was also my introduction to Dario Argento. I’ve seen a number of his movies since, but I always felt like this was his masterpiece. I do not especially know why that was my belief, only that it was. After the fact, I’m not so sure anymore, but there’s a lot to like here. This girl shows up in a weirdly Greek German city on a dark and stormy night to go to ballerina college, but they won’t let her in, and also this other girl is running away in terror.

Later, the other girl is dead, and they do let her in but everything is creepy all the time, and also they are just minimally pretending that learning how to dance is important, amidst all the food storage problems and exponentially amplified footfalls down the corridors outside the dormitories and weirdly vampiric Romanian handymen. This is not a giallo, and I think that is the single biggest departure from expectations. Because although they sort of acted like there was, this is not a movie that had a mystery to solve.

Instead, it has a series of vignettes happening to or near the American ballerina fish-out-of-water person, and they are all designed to be unsettling. The dog attack was not scary because it was gory, but because of the peculiar and shocking circumstances. The razorwire was not scary because it was razorwire, but because it was completely inexplicable, and because of how long the scene went on. And so forth. The entire movie was one long stretch after another of “this spooky and/or shocking scene is just going to keep going and going and going, long past the point of tolerability.”

My only real complaint is that it shared the Rosemary’s Baby problem of people in the 20th century never having heard of witches before. I just cannot wrap my head around who in the script room thought this kind of thing needed to be explained. What audience were they worried about leaving behind?

Before I go, I would be remiss to not mention the spectacular restoration this movie has undergone. The color palette is maybe the second most important character. The dance academy building is not red; it is drenched in red. The nighttime lighting is so far from today’s hyper-realistic “oh, is it dark in the story? then it’s by god dark on your screen” methodology as to basically be an inverse comparison to when people in 1939 discovered that color film existed while making The Wizard of Oz. No dim but serviceable lighting here; no, if it’s dark, it’s electric blue, or green, or whatever they felt like / had on hand in the moment. The important thing is, with every scene, you feel like Argento is throwing a bucket of paint at you, except beautifully instead of messily. …unless the scene calls for that, of course.

Last thing: that Goblin score? Maybe one step below being as iconic as your John Carpenters or your [guy who did Friday the 13th]s. Chef’s kiss.

[1] A movie which I may or may not have seen but definitely have not reviewed. Hmmm.

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe

I just really like these John and David books, okay?

That said, I think this is the best one. First book: suffered from first book syndrome, and especially from being written episodically on the internet before it was bundled into a book. Second book: too many spiders. Third book: a little too much depression therapy, though if it helped anybody, that’s really great news.

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe covers multiversal time travel, tamagotchis, questions of determinism, and more, all through the lens(es?) of the losers who are all that stand between us and fourth wall-breaking, world-ending dangers. It also serves as a different kind of therapy than the prior book, I think, and it incrementally advances our knowledge of the narrator[1], in new and troubling ways.

There are definitely things[2] about the book that make it appear, impossibly, as though the whole series has been planned out from front to eventual back, from which I can glean both appreciation of the writing craft involved and also make some shrewd guesses about as yet unwritten events to come.

But then again, questions of determinism, I believe I mentioned? Recommended, would read for the first time again.

[1] Complete tangent, but I think my favorite thing about David Wong is that he thinks John is the main character.
[2] and by things I mean retcons

Hotel Leikeu

If you think it’s hard to watch a foreign film in a language you don’t know while working, well, it is, but what I was going to say was, imagine how much harder it is when you watch the two halves of the movie with a gap of probably two weeks in between. So if you think this is going to be a shitshow of a review: fair.

Lingering is a haunted hotel story, a la The Shining. A young Korean woman is called upon to care for a disruptive younger sister she never even knew existed, which is also how she learns that her mother has died by suicide. At a loss for how to take care of a little girl, she takes the sister to a hotel run by one of her mother’s friends, a place where she spent a lot of time as a child herself but which in latter days is seeing less and less business; now there are only a handful of employees and maybe one other guest?[1] Only, the little girl has visions of violence and death (to be fair, this was the disruption at school as well, so it predated the hotel), but then other people start dying in mysterious and/or suspicious ways, depending on whether you think you’re in a ghost story (as our hero does) or a crime story (as the investigating police do).

Sometimes, I think movies aren’t very good but wonder if I failed them instead of them failing me, by watching while working. This time, I’m quite sure the movie was good and I would have enjoyed it more watching it at night, but at minimum all in one sitting. (This was not a choice I made, just an oops.)

[1] The rundown, “nobody comes here” aspect put me in mind of an additional hotel movie, to be honest.

Prevenge

I’ve once again fallen to three years behind on my random horror movie podcast, but having watched Prevenge, maybe I’ll start to catch up again? Maybe!

So there’s this Australian widow, and she’s pregnant. And the voice of her baby is in her head, telling her to kill people. Is she[1] choosing them at random, just striking when opportunity knocks? Is she stalking anyone she happens to see who pisses her off? It’s really hard to tell what motivates these murders, which is part of the horror of it. When she’s not in the middle of the hunt or doing an actual murder (usually these interludes are prenatal appointments), she seems herself horrified by what she is doing. But whenever the baby smells [metaphorical] blood, it is most thoroughly on, by turns tragic, slapstick, or nearly demonic.

If I’m being real, this movie does not work on paper. Even after knowing how it ends, I don’t think I would buy it, except that Alice Lowe sells it so well. She’s the writer, director, and actually pregnant star, and she’s… it’s hard to say what I want to say without buying into the system, so let me say it from the system’s perspective: she would never make it as the star of a Hollywood adaptation of her film. She’s plain of face, did I mention actually rather than prosthetically pregnant, and she’s not conventionally funny. But the way she commits to the bit, both physically and emotionally… when it’s not funny trending toward hilarious, which it often is, it’s profoundly disturbing. The escalating desperation, the simmering anger, the bewildered horror, she portrays all of these and more, and in conclusion, I hope she writes more starring vehicles for herself. She definitely knows what she’s doing.

[1] The mother or the baby, take your pick

Holly

‘Tis the season, by which I mean autumn and time for the annual (or more) Stephen Kjng book. Like the other books written in which Holly Gibney solves (or helps to solve, the first time out) mysteries, this book is not a mystery for the reader to solve, but rather, to watch the characters solve. Usually, the tension to a mystery novel where you already know whodunnit is in watching your hero (or heroes) work it out. Yes, they’ll solve it, but how? And will it be in time to save… well, no, too late for them, but what about… okay, but surely in time to save, well, whoever you want to see survive after the halfway point of the book.

But this is Stephen King, and he has named the book after its main character. So in this case, the tension is in whether Holly will solve the mystery before the mystery solves her! … Alright, that one got away from me. But seriously, I was nervous on page 1, and I was nervous on page 301[1].

I suppose I’ve said nothing about the plot. The book opens on the very worst night of a Hispanic literature professor’s life, and proceeds forward over the course of several years and several victims of a pair of undetected serial killers, in parallel with Holly’s present-day travails in the age of Covid, until, inevitably, they cross paths via a missing person’s case her detective agency is hired to solve.

Which reminds me of something I’d already suppressed over the last few days since I finished the book, which is… King is maybe too political for my tastes here. And I say this as someone who shares his politics, but, wow, fully justified, pre-established viewpoint character or not, this was the most polemical work of fiction I’ve read this side of Terry Goodkind. I wonder if it will hurt his sales. I also wonder if it will read differently with the passage of time, by which I mean, will it hit the same when people aren’t still being constantly infected by this thing? Maybe it won’t feel quite as cartoonishly diatribical when people aren’t still glaring dismissively at each other in real time.

I feel like I’m complaining here. Ultimately, this did not hurt my enjoyment of the book, it just started out so strongly positioned, in a way I’m not used to thinking about his fiction ever being. And I don’t want to be complaining, particularly when I don’t know how many new King novels I have left to read. Which is I suppose an appropriate mix of maudlin and morbid, for both the subject matter and the season which I so recently ’tissed.

[1] Pagination simulated for effect