May 182020
 

Since we are stuck at home, my wife and I tried the streaming service, Shudder. As horror fans, this has been a blessing. Shudder has a wide range of horror from the popular franchises like Friday the 13th, to Giallo movies, to weird shit that feels like it came from a video rental store. We have had it for two months and it barely feels like we have scratched the service.

One of those finds was Hell House LLC. Five people who build haunted house attractions come to the small town of Abaddon (first clue this was a bad idea)for their next Halloween-money maker. They buy/use an abandoned hotel (2nd clue) that has some creepy pentagrams already drawn (3rd clue!) in the basement. Hey, free decorations! What could go wrong?

Yeah, a lot. On the first night, people die and others go missing. The town shuts the house down. A group of investigators interview the only surviving member of the original five. Footage from the original five is mixed in with footage from the interviewers to make this movie.

This was a slow movie, but it uses its small budget well and it does some interesting things with your expectations. Turning the group’s asshole into the most sympathetic character is quite a transformation. A lot of the scares are lowkey and darn creepy. One of the best scares is a simple room transformation that still freaks me out to think about it.

Hell House 2 picks up a few years later with another investigative group looking into the Hell House. At this point, Hell House has become an urban legend and the town has had to set a police car outside the house to keep people from going in. The new group of heroes includes a psychic, the surviving member of the previous movie’s investigators, and some video journalists who really should have known better.

To my surprise, this movie does a great job of expanding on the mythos of Hell House and gives us a better idea of what exactly happened in the first movie, without demystifying the creepiness. I feel like if you didn’t like the first movie, you should wait until seeing the second to pass judgement.

This movie also does a great bit where it plays off the idea of the house becoming an urban legend. We get a lot of found footage scenes of other people going into the house for YouTube dares and other terrible reasons. It is almost a weird anthology of micro-short stories of Hell House trespassers. I could almost watch a movie that was just these short stories on their own.

In Hell House 3, a producer decides to stage Faust at the Hell House hotel. Two documentary people are there to film it. More weird shit happens. The fate of the Earth is at stake.

This movie has the largest budget as well as the largest cast. I didn’t find it as creepy as the 2nd movie, but to my great delight, it wrapped up the series in a very plausible and satisfying way. How many times do you get to say that about a horror franchise? The ending was great, and it almost warrants a second watch to see how everything lines up.

Now I will be honest. One of my comfort food genres is stupid people going where they don’t belong. The Hell House series scratches that itch and does it well. All three movies are found footage, which is another weakness of mine. I know some people can’t stand those movies but since a lot of the footage is from fixed cameras set up by the various groups, there is a lot less shaky camera nonsense than you get in other movies.

I highly recommend checking Hell House out.

Feb 172020
 

Under the Silver Lake is a 2018 movie about conspiracies in 2011 Hollywood. The main character, Sam, is a piece of shit who investigates his hot neighbor’s disappearance. By investigating, I mean consulting conspiracy zines, interrogating sex workers and engaging in ruthless violence to those who are weaker than him.

Did I mention Sam is a piece of shit? I almost quit this movie because Sam is the type of narcissist hero that i find really distasteful in today’s modern age. He sleeps around on his girlfriend, ignores his responsibilities, literally beats up children and thinks he’s smarter than anyone else. He is a walking Twitter Troll.

Once I realized that the movie thinks he’s a piece of shit too, I was able to truly enjoy the movie. Sam might be the main character, but he is in no way the hero. If anything, he is a walking indictment of the type of anti-hero loser investigator that fiction seems to love so much.

As for the rest of the movie, holy crap is it fantastic. Weird shit is happening in Hollywood and there are clues, signs and secret messages everywhere. Sam is just the right kind of damaged person to pick up on the clues and his investigations lead to the secret deaths of billionaires, a Homeless King, an assassin with an Owl Mask and the true origin of Pop Music. Once the movie gets going, weird shit is uncovered on a constant basis.

I admire the ambition of this movie. Most conspiracy movies have red herrings or preach the idea that things you think are connected, really aren’t, you wierdo. This movie rejects the idea of red herrings. Almost every clue, no matter how stupid or random, leads somewhere. It creates a world that justifies the most paranoid theory you can come up with, but then suggests that with so many weird things happening, shouldn’t you really be focused on your own issues instead?

The movie also has its own secrets that you will have to work out for yourself. Who is the Dog Killer that terrorizes the neighborhood? What is the purpose of the naked murderer with the Owl’s Mask? What the fuck is that parrot saying? The movie never says, except it does if you put together the right clues and maybe read this one Reddit thread . . .

I think Under the Silver Lake is the modern Foucault’s Pendulum when it comes to conspiracy fiction. Instead of trying to prove a specific theory, it is a wonderful take on the people who are drawn to conspiracies, which includes the kind of people who would enjoy such a movie.

May 062019
 
The Emperor of Darkness has a familiar tan.

Orgy of the Dead is a 1965 movie written by legendary shitty director, Ed Wood. The premise is that a couple have a car crash near the wrong graveyard. At least, I think it is a car crash as the budget didn’t allow money for a car or a crash so we just have to rely on sound effects and a spinning camera. The couple wakes up and the woman blames the man for the accident. They stumble towards the graveyard where they hear music.

See, this isn’t your normal graveyard. No, this is a special place where the ‘Emperor’ rises from a coffin, gives a long monologue about the forces of darkness, and is then attended by a Vampira knockoff. Together they sit and watch as damned souls entertain them.

How do the damned entertain the Emperor? With burlesque acts of course! Each act is preceded by a short bio from the Vampira knockoff. For example, “She killed her husband on her wedding night, and now must dance with her husband’s skeleton forever!”

The damned soul then comes in a costumer, dances a little, then the camera cuts away and when it returns, the woman’s clothes are gone except for her panties. She then dances for way too long. The Emperor says whether they please him or not and we move on to the next dancer. Rinse, wash, repeat.

At one point, the couple gets caught by a Wolfman and a Mummy, who bring them to the Emperor. The couple is then tied up and forced to watch more burlesque acts. The drama of the film is whether the Emperor will let the Vampira knockoff kill the woman before the sun rises.

Now, I hope that what I described does not sound interesting because this movie was super dull. The burlesque acts go on way too long and though some of the women clearly have talent, the emphasis of every act is the dancer shaking their boobs as much as possible. The acting is worse than you can imagine. The graveyard is so cheap looking that I have seen better presentations at Party City. The Wolfman and the Mummy are the comic relief, and are remarkably not funny at all.

The only upside to this movie was the Emperor and the Vampira knockoff. The Emperor is played by Criswell, a psychic known for some of the stupidest predictions ever. Criswell flips back and forth between being a master of evil and a slightly bored narrator. He does have a good voice and if he was more well known, he would the source of a dozen memes.

The Vampira knockoff was played by Fawn Silver. Unlike Vampira, Fawn can act and she might be the only one acting in this movie. She doesn’t have Vampira’s extreme features but her more curvier body makes her nice to watch. Her eagerness to strip and stab the living woman brings the only real sexual friction to the movie. It is a shame that she is not more remembered.

Orgy of the Dead ends with the sun rising and the couple waking back up. Was it a dream? Nah, more likely it was a cheap movie made to sell tickets by showing tits.

Jan 292019
 

Tampopo is a 1986 Japanese comedy about the delights of food. A milk truck driver wearing a cowboy hat comes across a single mother who is about to go out of business because her noodle shop sucks. The truck driver decides to help and because this movie was heavily inspired by Westerns, he assembles an unlikely group of experts to save her shop. Think of the Magnificent Seven except it is more like the Delicious Five.

The plot alone would make this movie a classic but what elevates this movie to greatness is that the many segues the director takes from the main story. Like a sketch comedy show, the camera will drift away to follow a passing character who stars in their own vignette. We see a business lunch at a French restaurant where none of the senior bosses know what to order but then the junior (and much abused) member shows them up with his mastery of the menu. At several points we see a gangster and his moll having the most sensual food sex scenes ever filmed. My favorite story might be the harried mother who rises from near-death to cook one last meal while in a walking coma for her begging family. These self-contained stories have nothing to do with the main plot except for showing another way that people interact with food.

This movie is a delight. It is amazing that it was made in 1986 because it feels like a prophecy of food culture, and food television, of the 2000’s. It explains the difference between a bad noodle place and a good one. There is a renovation scene where an expert describes the proper height for a noodle bar that could come from any current restaurant rescue show. Every other scene is filled with tips on improving your ramen soup that feels completely natural for the movie.

There is a new 2016 restoration of the movie now available. I highly recommend it as it looks gorgeous. My biggest piece of advice is to make sure you have plenty of food on hand because you will get hungry.

Jan 232019
 

In Phantasm 4, we pick up right after the thrilling events of Phantasm 3. Remember how Ice cream vendor, Reggie, was surrounded by a hundred killer spheres and Kid Shooter got ripped through a window by a Jawa? Well, I’m glad you do because the movie shows the Tall Man letting Reggie go but at no point does Reggie look for or mention Kid Shooter.

That kid is dead.

Anyhoo, Reggie doesn’t know why the Tall Man let him go and Reggie doesn’t care. He’s tired of this shit. He just wants to go back to being a cool middle-aged ice cream man and forget all this dead body/killer sphere shit. The ghost of Jody tries to talk some sense into Reggie but Reggie is done.

Meanwhile, Mike is his own and keeps having flashbacks to when he was a kid. The reason for this is the director found three hours of unreleased footage from the last movie and by the ghost of Vincent Price, he is going to get as much of that footage into this movie as possible.

That sounds harsh from me, but the result is kind of interesting. Mike is having several existential crises moments as the Tall Man appears, says something cryptic, and then Mike remembers something that may or might not have happened. Half of the movie is Mike sitting in the desert, wondering if any of this is real. You know, the Phantasm brand of not understanding shit about what is going on.

The other half of the movie is Reggie running into weird shit. He gets pulled over by a monster in a cop car, with the original cop crammed into the car trunk like a broken Transformer. Reggie also finds a hot chick way out of his league who is another obvious trap but at least she has a sensible name like Jennifer before her boobs come to life and try to kill him. Honestly, Reggie has the cool adventures while Mike has all the trippy weird shit.

Reggie and Mike finally reunite and find out some secrets about the Tall Man. See, the Tall Man was once a kind and gentle Civil War-era mortician who did some experiments in dimensional portals as he tried to understand the afterlife. One day, The kindly doctor makes a portal, steps through but then the Tall Man comes back wearing his body. Oops! Went to the wrong dimension, buddy.

At least, I think that is what happened. It’s Phantasm so your guess is as good as mine.

In the end, Mike uses his psychic powers to blow up the Tall Man, killing him for sure thi-nope, the Tall Man literally re-appears a few seconds later. The Tall Man rips a golden sphere out of Mike’s head, perhaps killing Mike, and then stepping through a portal. Reggie chases after the Tall Man through the portal.

As Mike lies dying, he remembers/imagines riding with Reggie in his ice cream truck when Mike was a kid. They hear sounds from the present day but dismiss them as the wind.

This is the cheapest of the Phantasm movies, made with a mere 650K. It certainly shows, but it actually helps the story. The 2nd and 3rd movie were action movies while this has dialed back down to personal horror. Reggie will always be getting jumped by monsters while Mike will always struggle with not understanding the fuck out of anything. Is Mike even human? Is the Tall Man real? Is anything real? Maybe the entire movie franchise is Mike’s nightmares as a child, still mourning the loss of his brother and family. We don’t know! Mike sure as fuck doesn’t know.

Which is maybe why Phantasm is my favorite movie franchise. It is illogical, callus with characters’ lives with an inscrutable near-invincible villain: just like a nightmare.


Dec 192018
 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology movie with six stories set in the American Wild West. The themes range from “Death will get you” to “No, seriously, Death will fucking get you.”

That is not a joke. Sudden death is a presence in every story.  It was jarring at first but once you accept it, the stories meld together to form a wonderful tapestry about the lethality of the Old West. By the time the sixth story rolls around, you will be nodding wisely as the characters discuss perplexing a man’s final moments can be.

This movie feels like a rebuttal to the discussions involving No Country for Old Men. Critics complained that the ending of that movie was too off, without a satisfying final battle. This movie feels like it is trying again to explain to audiences that stories don’t kill characters, characters kill themselves by the nature of who they are.

The first story, featuring Buster Scruggs, is about a singing cowboy that happens to be a murder machine to anyone who crosses him. That is easily the funniest story, although the second story about a luckless bank robber is pretty close. The third story is a silent, haunting story was too bleak for my wife to continue watching, but that story lingered with me the most and I think about it often.

After the grimness of the the third story, the fourth story, based on a Jack London story, inserts some life and beauty before returning to the theme of death. The fifth story is a lovely romance and the sixth is a delightful meta-story about the themes. 

As good as the stories are, the scenery steals the movie. Gorgeous shot after shot of the Western landscape made me nostalgic for a place I have never been. Even the imagery in the third story is breathtaking with its icy bleakness. The accompanying music is perfect and the soundtrack is a delight.

I am a big Coen Brother fan, and this one shoots to the top of my favorites list.

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Nov 192018
 

In the last Phantasm movie, Mike and Psychic Girl were ripped out of the backseat of a hearse even though the Tall Man was absolutely, positively, no way out of this dead.  The third movie picks up with the Tall Man stepping out of a portal and walking past his corpse. What? How is that possible? Forget thinking about it reader, this is Phantasm.

The movie cuts to Mike and Psychic Girl getting ripped out of the hearse. Mike, now played by his original actor, wakes up and oops, Psychic Girl is dead and has her head chopped off. Tall Man is coming for Mike but Reggie, the world’s greatest ice cream vendor, saves him. Mike then slips into a coma. Two years pass with Mike in a coma.

Okay, bear with me because this is things get weird, even for a Phantasm movie. While in a coma, Mike is visited by the ghost of his brother Jody. Jody helps Mike snap out of his coma just in time to fight off a evil maybe-possessed nurse. Once Mike is awake, he finds out his brother’s brain was placed inside one of the killer spheres. Yes, the secret ingedient for making a cool killer sphere is human brains. Jody broke free of his control and is now helping Mike!

Right until Mike gets kidnapped. Sigh.

Now Reggie has to go save Mike, again. Along the way, he picks up a small child who is the last survivor of his town, and incidentally, a crack shot with a pistol. Reggie also picks up a kick-ass black woman who was in the Army and wields nunchucks. Tagging along with this insane group is Jody, the renegade-now-good-guy killer sphere.

If Phantasm was a dream and Phantasm II was an 80’s action movie, then Phantasm III is a tabletop role-playing group. The guy playing Reggie refuses to roll a new character, there is the guy who min-maxes so he has the best fighter but his disadvantage is that he is a child, there is the woman playing her tough woman character from a streetfight game, and finally, you have the one player who insists on breaking the theme of simple humans against dark forces and wants to play a dark force-turned-good.

 

And you know what? It is fucking glorious. It doesn’t matter how many players or characters there are, the Tall Man is still awesome and they just gives him more people to fuck up.

there is a big climatic battle and we find out the secret to his immortality: the fucker is just a meat puppet for the killer sphere inside his head! Creepy! You gotta kill the sphere if you want to kill the evil man.

Oh, and Mike is just a killer sphere inside a body too. What? How? Why? This changes everything, maybe? I feel like I have been Phantasmed.

So the gang kills the Tall Man and his sphere for good this time. The cool woman decides to leave the party before the Phantasm tradition of the heroes getting fucked at the end of the movie and good for her. That player has been paying attention. Mike leaves too, probably to wonder the earth, visiting town after town and solving their problems but then moving on because of his dark secret.

What about Reggie and Kid Shooter? Well, Reggie gets swarmed by like a hundred killer spheres. Turns out the Tall Man has been busy. Kid Shooter tries to save him but then the Tall Man FUCKING APPEARS EVEN THOUGH THAT BASTARD SHOULD BE DEAD FOR REAL THIS TIME. Before Kid Shooter can complain to the gamemaster, Jawas grab him from behind and pull him through a door.

Sorry Kid Shooter, you should know better than have your back against anything in a Phantasm movie.

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Oct 312018
 

Haunting on Hill House is a tight ten episode series on Netflix about a doomed family who once lived in a very doomed house. The series is split between the past, when the family used to live in the haunted house, and the present, where the surviving members of the family try to deal with the PTSD of their experiences. They are pretty haunted.

Haunted house stories follow a set pattern. There is the naive family who has no idea what is going on, followed by creepy incidents until everyone realizes they are haunted, which usually leads to some investigations into the history of the house and ends with the collective decision to somehow fight the ghosts. The flashback style of the show short-circuits most of that. There never is an investigation phase for one thing.  For most of the series, half the characters never realize there are ghosts. There is still a fight with ghosts at the end, but the rest of the series breaks all the usual patterns to present a unique kind of ghost story.

Well, maybe not that unique. The director, Mike Flanagan, got his start with Absentia. If you ever saw that soul crusher of a movie, then you are moderately prepared for Haunting of Hill House.  See, there might be supernatural weirdness and ghosts in both stories but the real horror is grief and how we deal with it. Flanagan uses Hill House to tell the story of each family member dealing with the death of the beloved mother. One resorts to drugs, one uses major denial and fictionalizing the events, one uses meaningless relationships, one turns to controlling her life and family and the other, well, the other is still dealing with a ghost that keeps harassing her at the worse moments of her life, but you get the idea.

But I don’t want to give you the feeling that this is all sorrow and woe. There is a lot of really creepy ghost shit. There is not a single jump scare as it uses slowly creeping dread to make sure you are afraid to walk down a dark hallway alone.

There is also a lot of strength. These characters have gone through Hell, and those who fight are some of the most inspiring characters you will see in a ghost story. Once you understand how truly fucked these characters are, every triumph they accomplish is just that much more amazing.

I can safely say that Haunting of Hill House has been the highlight of this October. Creepy, smart and infused with real emotion, it is all the best that horror can be.

Oct 232018
 

Halloween is a strange franchise. The first movie is arguably the greatest slasher movie of all time. The sequels however, are among some of the worse in movie franchise history. There have been attempts to recreate the magic of the first movie by bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis a few times, but rarely do those movies work. Rob Zombie tried rebooting the franchise in typical Rob Zombie style, to debatable success. Now we have Halloween 2018, a movie which is a direct sequel to the first and ignores 40 years of sequel history.

To my great delight, it works. I would say this movie is as good as the original, which is something I never thought I would be saying. Maybe it is John Carpenter’s new music which makes the movie feel so sinister, or maybe it is Jamie Lee Curtis’s involvement as a producer which gets the important parts right, but whatever the reason, the movie is fun, scary and chilling.

One element that worked for me is Jamie Lee’s character of Laurie. Ever since Terminator 2, we as audiences have been taught that if a woman survives a killer than she transforms into a bad ass in later movies. That’s cool and I am all for it, in this movie, Laurie comes across as a bad ass AND someone deeply traumatized by what she went through. Sure, she shoots guns, trains in fighting and has a secret bunker but she also has shaking fits when she sees Michael and breaks into tears during confrontations. Every cool thing she does to fight back is made ten times more impressive by the fact that you know Laurie is scared shitless doing it. That’s a powerful detail that resonates with me, and is true of most trauma survivors I know in real life.

Another element I enjoyed was the obsession some characters had with finding out what makes Michael Myers tick. These characters are fixated on the fact Michael has never spoken or explained his actions. They pester Michael and other characters to provide clues for Michael’s psyche, as if there can be some great rational theory that explains everything. This quest for answers is a human thing to do, but it is also a movie audience thing to do, as the audience craves anwsers. Studios crave anwsers too, which is why we get reboots with extended scenes about Michael’s childhood.

But the theme of Halloween almost anti-intellectual. Laurie, the heroine, and the late Dr. Loomis, the therapist who knew Michael best, simply state that there is no understanding of Michael because he is pure evil. It is a the opposite of everything we are taught in a world that puts psychological forensic science on a pedestal.  It is also against out forgiving nature to think that every bad person has a reason. The idea that some people are just monsters is too frightening to comprehend. The movie even takes time to wipe out the theories put in past movies that Laurie is related to Michael. They want to make it clear that Michael has no reason, rational or irrational, for hunting Laurie.

As for the rest of the movie, I really enjoyed it. Michael, who is really just a bastard in a mask, is terrifyingly efficient in this movie. He is like a shark that finds a deadly object, then finds someone to use that object on, and then looks for a new toy and a new victim. Rinse, wash, repeat. Sometimes he mutilates the bodies and poses them in Halloween theme displays. Why? Who the fucks knows.

So you should go out and watch the movie in theaters while you can. After you do so, be sure to pick up the soundtrack so you can never rest easy in your house again.

Oct 122018
 

Z Nation is a zombie apocalypse show on the SyFy channel. I am personally sick of all things zombies, but Z Nation is in its 5th season and I keep coming back to it. Why?

My pitch for Z Nation is imagine Walking Dead if it was fun. It is created by the same studio that makes Sharknado but the show never hits that level of campy stupudity. Instead, it opts for the kind of wild hijinks you except in a tabletop role-playing game where people have a loose grasp on biology and physics. yes, early on there is a tornado with zombies in it but later there is a guy who collects zombies of famous dead people. There was a wonderful group of survivors who were trapped at a team-building exercise and now can only communicate through the talking stick. There types of zombies that range from plant monsters to zombie bears. This show has imagination.

The other reason for watching Z Nation is that they have a black woman, named Warren, who is their leader and resident bad-ass. It is refreshing to see a black woman in charge in a genre show. Warren has so many great moments over five seasons that she is one of my favorite action heroines in any show.

The other great character is Murphy. He is a prisoner who received an experimental dose of zombie cure in the early days of the apocalypse. After surviving twenty zombies bites, Murphy becomes the most important man in America and now the heroes need to transport him to a lab on the other side of the country.

There are other great characters like Doc the aging hippie, 10K the not-psychotic sniper, Addy the tomboy who’s good with gadgets and others. People come and go in this series like any zombie show, but these characters all have meaningful moments and die much more heroic deaths. No one gets their brains bashed in on the side of the road by a nutjob with a bat.

So yeah, if you are burned out on zombies, or burned out on sad people hacking parts off of each other, give Z Nation a try.