Stars: Zoë Tapper, Ed Speleers, Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Initial: Remember the early days of the pandemic when couples suddenly realized they were going to have to spend *a* *lot* of time with their significant other?
Production Notes: Danish/Swedish production.
What Did I Think: On one hand, this is a well-acted and generally well-made film that probably had a micro budget. Antonio Tublen is not only the writer and director, but wrote the soundtrack and is the editor. I’m reminded of Viggo Mortensen’s quip about his movie Falling (2020) where he filled a similar number of roles—it was one less person he had to pay if he could do the job himself. I also thought the premise was rather good. Karen and John’s relationship is in shambles after Karen’s pregnancy a year ago ended in a stillbirth. She’s ready to leave the marriage, but now they are forced to shelter-in-place while a zombie apocalypse is happening.
What left me a little cold was, unfortunately, the characters. Karen (Zoë Tapper) is almost an enjoyable psychopath—the type of person who, when all other entertainment has been exhausted, reveals a stash of drugs she’d stolen when she worked in evidence room (she’s former police?). But that sort of undercuts any serious thoughts about her mental health. I want to feel sympathy towards her, but honestly, she is so much of a psycho that I’m not quite sure why John (Ed Speleers) isn’t more weirded out by his wife’s surprising behaviors. The movie is dependent on these two characters, but I never felt on solid ground with either of them.
So, my A to Z ends on a bit of a sour note. I think I’m going to go watch Zombeavers now for a pick-me-up.
Stars: Michael Laurino, Anessa Ramsey, Alex Draper
“What are we watching?”
“Something to do with guns and tits and the end of the world.”
Initial: Y, also a letter with few choices…
What Did I Think: A few months back I watched a biopic about David Bowie that included no David Bowie music. YellowBrickRoad feels like a horror movie that wanted to hang its hat on The Wizard of Oz, but couldn’t include any mention of it other than characters mentioning it once in a while. While the doomed townspeople were supposedly obsessed with it before disappearing, it isn’t on the theater’s marquee in the “archival footage” at the beginning. Further, the characters are harried by big band music coming from nowhere. How much creepier would it have been is it had been music from Oz? Also, when the characters first start hearing odd noises, there is a delay in their reaction. I didn’t realize that the noises were diegetic sounds instead of soundtrack. Along the same lines, while this isn’t a found footage film, there are occasions when the filming camera glitches and dips at odd angles. It’s meant, I guess, to convey the disorientation of the characters, but considering the problems they’ve been having with their electronics, it feels more like a 4th wall break. These glitches always happen in a medium-ish shot from a point of view that isn’t any of the characters.
As is, the film is strangely claustrophobic for a story about open spaces. Closeups and medium shots abound. There are several moments of abrupt violence that weirdly have little lasting impact. YellowBrickRoad seemed too long while also feeling like details had been trimmed from certain scenes.
Stars: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone
“I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.”
“My dear friend, only the gods see everything.”
“My dear doctor, I’m closing in on the gods.”
Initial: Maybe more of a science fiction movie than horror, but X is a hard letter to fill.
Production Notes: In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King claims there was a possible different ending to X. Roger Corman denies this rumor.
What Did I Think: Roger Corman always does what he can with what he has. The effects in X are not great. Most of what we see the world through Dr. Xavier’s eyes* is a confusing rainbow jumble. I shudder to think of the headache it probably would have induced on a big screen… But Ray Milland’s subdued manner sells the dread of seeing everything, maybe even things the human eye wasn’t meant to see.
And the plot asks: What would you do if you had X-ray eyes? What would you be allowed to do? Xavier starts out as a scientist, but ends up as a mentalist and a card sharp. The best performance in X, though, belongs to Don Rickles, playing a skeevy, menacing carnie.
*Yes, his name is James Xavier—fun fact Professor X of the X-Men comics debuted the same month and year as this film: September of 1963.
Initial: There are many narrative movies I might have chosen for “W” but I decided on this documentary. I often wonder myself, “Why horror?” (And I still wonder. Maybe I’ll post about that some day in the future.)
What Did I Think: “Why horror?” is a big question and this documentary explores it broadly, but also focuses on Tal Zimerman’s personal history with horror.
Zimerman is an actor, writer, and a devoted horror fan. With the birth of his son, he began to wonder, why? Why did he find so much enjoyment and entertainment in things that might be seen as disturbing by others? *Is* there something wrong with horror fans? Or, is being an aficionado of the creepy okay, or even beneficial? Zimerman and filmmakers Kleiman and Lindsay talk to prominent industry figures and a cadre of academics.
Many theories are bandied around, and few answers are given. Fear, especially fear of the unknown, is a good evolutionary trait and maybe horror movies give us in the 21st century a way to fine-tune or safely test our fears. Maybe scary movies (and literature, video games, etc.) are a catharsis for the neurotic. Horror has been used in the teaching of moral lessons and also been seen as a moral danger. Maybe, everyone has a dark side and horror media is an acceptable way of expressing those darker urges. One of the more interesting bits was when Zimerman and his mother (not a horror fan) both watched horror clips while their physiological reactions were measured. Oddly enough, both had similar bodily reactions. The documentary also touches on how horror subjects are treated around the world. Really there is so much here that it could easily be multi-part series.
In the end, Zimerman notes that, despite it all, horror fans are more prevalent now and also more accepted as a fandom in general. For him, that sense of community, even when it was a community of outsiders, has been one of the best things.
I participated in Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon on this past Saturday. I started more books than I finished, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I did read, cover-to-cover,Into Bones like Oil by Kaaron Warren. It’s a horror novella that has been getting quite a bit of award nomination notice. Dora, who has recently lost her two children to a tragedy, becomes a resident at The Angelsea, a boarding house for people who have a hard time sleeping. It’s a grimy, skeevy place full of ghosts and opportunists.
I also read/listened to a few short stories, including Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” and the delightful “The Tree’s Wife” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman. I’m not familiar with Counselman, but I find it delightful that she wrote for both Weird Tales and Good Housekeeping.
Deal Me In
J♦️ – “Dotty” by Horacio Quiroga This story by Uruguayan writer Quiroga was translated by Nina Zumel. Zumel includes a link discussing the translation and adaptation: how to include the word-play of the original story when a fairly straight English translation doesn’t allow for that. I think she does a darn good job. This story is a little weird and a little unsettling as we contemplate the many meanings of “dotty.”
Willa Cather Short Story Project
This month’s story is “The Son of the Celestial,” in which Cather indulges in Oriental exoticism. On one hand, it’s Cather stretching her writing muscles. It’s imaginative and has some fine imagery. On the other hand, the depiction of Yung Le Ho is very stereotypical for the time (and for a long time to come). Ponter is his good friend, a white man who is on the outs with academia due to his propensity for drinking and pool playing. It should be noted though that Yung is still a member of his community while Ponter is not really a member of white society.
One of the books I started on Saturday was Nightmare Movies: Horror on the Screen since the 1960s by Kim Newman. It’s big. I’ll try to finish it by the time my loan ends. Still doing a chapter-a-day of God Emperor of Dune (which reminds me, I haven’t read today!). And I’ve jumped back into the world of ARCs with P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn.
Stars: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris
“I didn’t know if it was okay for me to go over and, like, talk to you. You looked so glum and so cute. I can’t even remember what I said.”
“You didn’t say anything, you just stood next to me.”
“Oh, shit. That’s creepy.”
Initial: I’m just happy to have a movie for V that isn’t a vampire movie. (I wrote that when I watched this movie back in March. Now, I kinda wish I had a vampire movie…)
Production Notes: An Irish–Danish–Belgian co-production.
What Did I Think: (spoilers likely) Vivarium starts with (presumably) a young cuckoo pushing an egg and another chick from a nest. Later, the older cuckoo chick is fed by the much smaller surrogate mother bird. That is this movie’s vibe. And in a way, this is a changeling movie, only instead of a baby being switched out in the real world, potential parents are taken to a pocket dimension (?) that is the worst suburban nightmare. And that’s an interesting premise, only helped by no explanation ever being given for what’s going on. But the execution is lacking.
The visual aesthetic is disconcerting, but the sameness and emptiness of the suburb never provides any tension. The speech and behaviors of the boy are likewise off-putting, but he’s only truly frightening when we see Gemma (Imogen Poots) reacting in fear or distress, and she doesn’t react very often. Vivarium plays with the notion of very strange circumstances wearing characters down and even becoming boring, but that doesn’t led itself to scares or even unease. One of the more fraught moments is when Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) locks the boy in the car to die—if the couple are to raise the child in order to be released, what will killing the child do? We don’t find out because the movie shies away from that path.
By far not the worst film I’ve ever seen, but I feel it could be so much better.
Stars: Heather Sossaman, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson
Initial: After watching Host (2020) and JeruZalem (2015), I figured I’d give this movie a try.
Production Notes: Filming included at least one 80-minute take with each actor in separate rooms and at separate computers.
What Did I Think: There movies that beg to be seen in a theater. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), for example. Star Wars (1977). Anything that Roger Deakins has worked on. I can’t imagine anyone going out of their way to watch Unfriended on a big screen. That’s not a knock. Watching it on my desktop (which is where I watch nearly all of my movies/TV) was perfect. The conceit here is that we are experiencing the entire movie through Blaire’s desktop: her wallpaper in the background, all the apps she has open (Skype, Chrome, Spotify), all the tabs she has open and bookmarked. It’s a messier version of Host, which only focuses on our character’s Zoom call. Host, made and released in 2020, was destined to be watched on a computer and it works well there. Unfriended, released six years ago, had a theatrical release. It made $64M off a budget of $1M, which is decent horror movie money. To be fair, the trailer makes it look like it has more scope than it does, but I can’t imagine watching this movie, which involves a lot of chat apps, on a screen 30 ft wide and 10 ft tall (a small theater screen).
Is it a good movie? It’s…fine. I’m someone who will always be a bit creeped-out by the uncanniness lagging video, but Unfriended relies more on disconnects and bad internet than Host does. I guess that’s appropriate for the internet of 2014. I can’t say I liked any of the characters, which is also appropriate, though I envy Blaire’s typing speed. With less actual plot, I think Host is the more fun film.
Speaking of… “U” is also for Uncanny. Our Past in the Uncanny Valley is an anthology of classic short stories featuring automata, edited by me! It available for FREE on my website. Just click through for format options: Our Past in the Uncanny Valley.