What Feels So Timely

I get a lot of screeners. There are often too many to go through, but I’ve been impressed by how many great horror films IFC Midnight has put out in the last few years. The company really made a name for itself with The Babadook, but this year, they’ve been putting out really quality content, like Swallow and Relic, two of my favorite films of 2020. What these films have in common is that they’re female-centric. All of them deal with issues that women face, be it abusive relationships, motherhood, or family dynamics.

Their latest film, Kindred, is set in the UK and focuses on the plight of Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance), who finds out she’s pregnant about 15 minutes into the film. Before she knows it, her boyfriend’s family, especially the sinister matriarch, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), tries to strip her of her agency. She has no say in whether or not she should even have the baby, or if she has the baby, how to raise the child. The film is about gaslighting and negative stereotypes women STILL have to fight against. Charlotte is labeled mad and ill more than once, for instance. It feels so relevant, when you consider what’s happened globally and the backlash against women’s right. Poland, for instance, recently passed a nationwide abortion ban, which has only been delayed because of mass protests. Abortion rights in the U.S., meanwhile, face a dire threat, now that the SCOTUS has a far-right 6-3 majority.

I was struck by how unnerving Kindred is, how all the monsters are human, and how no one, and I mean NO ONE will listen to the female protagonist. It’s an incredibly relevant film that I recommend.

For more on the film, you can check out my full review for HorrOrigins. The film is now streaming On Demand.

In Defense of Halloween….6?!

Photo Courtesy of Dimension Films

Few films in the Halloween franchise are as maligned as Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), well, other than Halloween: Resurrection (2002) or maybe Rob Zombie’s two entries. The sixth entry, which also marked the beginning of Dimension films, is weird, for sure. It includes a cult that tries to control Michael Myers, and it attempts to tie up the loose ends of the woeful Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), which underperformed at the box office to the point that it took six years to make another sequel. Hear me out, however. Halloween 6 is a DECENT installment. It makes Michael Myers scary again. It has teenagers that are likeable, and director Joe Chappelle’s direction has a beautiful Gothic aesthetic.

The film picks up some years after Halloween 5’s conclusion. Michael’s niece, Jamie Lloyd (J.C. Brandy), is pregnant, and based on the opening, we can assume she’s carrying Michael’s seed. She’s strapped to a table, surrounded by robe-cladded monsters. Are they Satanists? Who knows exactly! I said the film is weird. A nurse helps Jamie escape, but it doesn’t take long before Myers tracks her down and kills her. Her death is one of the most brutal takes in the Halloween franchise. The scene is important for a few reasons. It shows that the franchise is done with the Jamie storyline of the previous two installments. She’s killed off in about 15 minutes. Further, her death sets the tone for Michael’s kills for the rest of the movie. They’re bloody and gruesome. Additionally, the aesthetic of the shot is stunning in a Gothic kind of way. Rain pounds outside the barn where Jamie hides. Thunder cracks. Michael finds her and approaches from the shadows. There’s a blue light cast on him, not too dissimilar from Carpenter’s shots in the original film.

The rest of the film has several other nods to Gothic horror films. Two of the film’s most likeable teens, Beth (Mariah O’Brien) and Tim (Keith Bogart), dress up as The Bride and Monster for Halloween. In one of the film’s last sequences, the film’s final girl of sorts, Kara Strode (Marianne Hagan), wears a long white robe similar to the one that Elsa Lanchester wore as The Bride.

Photo Courtesy of Dimension Films

Myers’ house, meanwhile, is occupied by Kara’s family, but it’s the neighborhood spookhouse. It LOOKs run down and dilapidated, and kids mount cardboard cutouts of Michael Myers. It is a looming presence in the film, something that continues drawing Michael back to Haddonfield, a place that’s familiar to him. In fact, some of the best kills happen in the house, and one echoes P.J. Soles’ death in the original.

It’s impossible to talk about the sixth installment without mentioning two of its main characters, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in his final performance and Tommy Doyle, played by Paul Rudd in his FIRST major performance. Pleasence really leans into the mad aspects of the character, thus furthering the film’s Gothic underpinnings. At the start of the film, he’s retired, hauled up in a cabin, working on a book. His burn scars from the second film’s conclusion are even more grotesque. He spends much of the film chasing Myers one last time, while ranting about all the years he spent trying to understand “evil.”

Photo Courtesy of Dimension Films

Doyle is one of the film’s most interesting characters. His trauma from being terrorized as a kid in the first film manifests itself into an obsession. He has pictures of Myers tacked up in his bedroom. He peers through a telescope at his neighbors, and he rarely smiles. Loomis has always been obsessed with Myers. Doyle, however, takes it to another level. It consumes him, and Rudd does a good job in the role.

Lastly, and this is a BIG spoiler alert, the film corrects the mistakes of the previous installment. In one of the bloodiest scenes, Michael kills off every single member of the cult, thus erasing that absurd ending of part five. You can’t help but cheer when he does this. It’s an attempt to right the franchise going forward; unfortunately, the next sequel, just might be the WORST Halloween of the bunch.

There are plenty of other reasons to watch Halloween 6. I already mentioned the kills. The film’s blue and dark tones are a visual delight, too. The cinematography will put you in just the right kind of mood. And thankfully, there is NO character as annoying as Halloween 5’s Tina (Wendy Kaplan).

The Curse of Michael Meyers has a lot of flaws, for sure. Most of those have to do with the silly storyline about a cult that the previous installment introduced. Curse does its best to right these wrongs, and the result is a decent sequel, nearly 20 years after the original film. At the very least, watch the film for its cinematography, Gothic aesthetic, decent kills, and Paul Rudd’s first big film gig.

A Dark Ink Reading

If you’re looking for something fun and unique to do this Halloween season, then let me suggest joining some contributors of Dark Ink: An Anthology Inspired by Horror for a poetry reading.

The event will take place on Zoom on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 7 pm Eastern Time/4 PM Pacific Time. Dark Ink was initially published in 2018 by Moon Tide Press. Most of the initial readings took place in California, since that’s where the press and most of its writers are based. This Zoom reading will allow other contributors to share their work and celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.

For more information about Dark Ink, check out this interview I did with Eric Morago, editor of Moon Tide Press, for Horror Homeroom.

Some Thoughts on “The Haunting of Bly Manor”

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

First, let me apologize for not updating this blog as much as I used to. The sudden shift to teaching virtually has consumed a lot of my time over the last several months. Additionally, I’ve been writing a lot of reviews for HorrOrigins and Signal Horizon Magazine when I can spare a moment, so that’s kept me busy. That said, I’d like to get back to updating this blog as regularly as I can!

With theaters still shut down for the most part, or limited to retro films, streaming services are the only option for new content. With most of 2020’s bigger horror productions, including Halloween Kills and Candyman, pushed back to at least 2021, that’s given more attention to the already highly anticipated “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” Netflix’s 9-episode take on Henry James’ Gothic ghost stories, especially his novella The Turn of the Screw.

After finishing “Bly Manor” a few days ago, I’m still thinking about it, and I’m still undecided regarding how I feel about it as a whole. I thought Mike Flanagan’s reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House was quite strong. The fifth and sixth episodes specifically were some of the best examples of horror on the small screen that I’ve ever seen. The bent-neck lady was terrifying, and Flanagan did an excellent job diverging a bit from Jackson’s narrative, while still keeping most of her key ideas and themes in tact.

“Bly Manor,” however, is short on scares, at least compared to “Hill House.” Instead, the series is more of a Gothic Romance. The basic, and I mean VERY basic plot of The Turn of the Screw is introduced in the first episode. A young American, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), takes a job as a governess at Bly Manor, where she keeps watch over young Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith). The first few episodes explore Clayton’s trauma, specifically the tragic death of her boyfriend, thus the reason she fled the states and takes the job at the British estate. Yet, she can’t escape the past, and her boyfriend appears to her as a ghost with shiny golden glasses, to boot.

The kids are one of the highlights of the series, nearly matching what James penned. Miles is both devious and charming. Flora runs around saying “perfectly splendid,” as if she’s practicing to be a 19th Century aristocrat. Though the series takes place in the 1980s, it very much feels like a 19th Century Gothic tale, due largely to Maxime Alexandre and James Kniest’s cinematography. Fog rolls off the pond near the castle-like estate. Night time shots create a sense of foreboding. Darkened corridors and long hallways feel menacing.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Yet, the ghosts in “Bly Manor” just aren’t that scary. The two main spirits featured in The Turn of the Screw, Peter Quint, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Miss Jessel, played by Tahirah Sharif, aren’t very threatening. Quint is abusive in a totally different way in “Bly Manor,” but he’s never…. that terrifying. Quint is a violent drunk in the novella. When Miss Clayton sees his ghost throughout the estate, he’s horrifying. The recounting of his death is also hair-raising. With “Bly Manor,” even the scenes directly adapted from James’ work, like an image of Quint’s face in a mirror or window, just aren’t that spooky.

Additionally, “Bly Manor” adds a storyline about possession (I think?) and time skipping that just don’t work quite well. “Hill House” toyed with a non-linear timeline in regards to ghosts, but it worked better in that series. In “Bly Manor,” it’s rather confusing. There is also a brief storyline about Miles and Flora’s uncle, Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), and his devious double. But that’s equally confounding..

All of that said, the eighth episode is a fantastic ghost story that provides context and background for the Lady in the Lake, a chilling spectral presence who haunts the residents at Bly. This episode is adapted from James’ story “The Romance of Old Clothes.” Once upon a time, the Lady in the Lake wasn’t faceless and water-logged. She was Viola, a wealthy woman with extravagant taste. Eventually, she marries, but she’s betrayed by her sister, Perdita (Daniela Dib), who moves in on her hubby when Viola falls ill. Viola is played by Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife who also played Theodora in “Hill House.” Siegel’s entrance to “Bly Manor” comes near the end of the series, but it’s worth the wait. The single episode contains nearly every trope of Gothic literature, including family betrayal, an ugly history that haunts the present, a failing English manor descending into financial ruin, and a vengeful ghost. It also sets up the finale quite well.

Overall, I need a few days to think about “Bly Manor” some more. Right now, the images and the cinematography stick with me most, especially shots of the foggy pond at night. But the ambiguity of James’ novella and some of its most terrifying scenes seem lost in this recent adaptation. There’s commentary about how ghosts and memories fade with time, hence the faceless Lady in the Lake. I’m afraid “Bly Manor” has that potential. I’m unsure what I’ll remember of the series months from now. I don’t know if this will stay with me the way “Hill House” did, but that’s okay. At least a 19th Century ghost story lives on for modern audiences.

If you want to check out another adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, I highly recommend The Innocents (1961).

Who’s Sleeping Next to Us?

(Photo from IFC Midnight)

Recently, I wrote a feature story on the films What Keeps You Alive (2018), currently streaming on Netflix, and Honeymoon (2014), one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. The article looks at how both films have a monster who is a significant other and use a rural setting to invoke the Otherness/monster. It’s a terrifying premise, that the one we love isn’t who we think they are. The article appears over at Signal Horizon. Check it out if you’re so inclined!

Centigrade: A Cold Survival Thriller

Genesis Rodriguez and Vincent Piazza in Centigrade (2020)

I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of most survival films. The only one I really enjoy and still re-watch is Into the Wild. That had the advantage of being based on Jon Krakauer’s book and thorough research. It also had the benefit of featuring an incredibly sympathetic, idealistic protagonist, Chris McCandless. I also go back and reach Jack London’s short fiction from time to time and have taught it in American Lit and Literature and the Environment, but as for survival stories, that’s about as far as I go.

Recently, I was given a screener for Centigrade, IFC Midnight’s new film about a couple trapped in a car in artic Norway. (My full review here for HorrOrigins). There are a few aspects of the film that appeal to me. The fact its setting is so centralized and so small, specifically a car, intrigued me. A lot of well-known survival stories take place in actual nature, so I was intrigued by the idea of an interior setting within the larger naturalistic and unforgiving setting. Additionally, the film only has two characters, Matt (Vincent Piazza) and Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez). Because the setting is so specific and so claustrophobic, it allows their story to slowly unravel, specifically issues within their relationship, exacerbated by their perilous situation.

Additionally, the film was shot in an ice cream freezer for 3-4 days at a time, as director Brendan Walsh wanted to make the setting as real as possible, including encouraging Rodriguez and Piazza to fast while shooting to feel an actual sense of hunger and starvation. That said, the film toys with the idea that the story was based on a true story, but the characters are entirely fictional. It’s only based on a handful of accounts and research Walsh did about people trapped under feet of snow who somehow survived.

While parts of the story are a bit outlandish, Centigrade is one of the more intriguing survival thrillers I’ve seen in some time. The film just dropped on VOD.

For the Love of 80s Horror…

If you’re a horror fan, and if you have four hours to kill during these sweltering summer days, then I recommend checking out In Search of Darkness on Shudder.Written and directed by David A. Weiner, the doc goes year by year through some of the most iconic films of the decade. It also features interviews with the likes of Kane Hodder, Heather Langenkamp, John Carpenter, Barbra Crampton, just to name a few.

Additionally, the film tackles key characteristics and tropes that made the 1980s such a vibrant time for the genre. Is the doc perfect? No. I can think of several films that should have been featured, as opposed to some of the Friday the 13th sequels. I also question why some big names were left out of the doc. Tom Savini anyone? Maybe, he wasn’t available. Who knows. That said, it’s a must-see for horror fans and a heck of a lot of fun. For my full thoughts on In Search of Darkness, check out the review I did for HorrOrigins.

Two Directorial Debuts to Watch

The last week has seen the release of two films by first-time directors that I’m confident will end up on several year-end, best-of horror movie lists.

The first is the Shudder exclusive The Beach House, written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown. The film follows two 20-somethings whose relationship is at a crossroads, and in an attempt to salvage it, they spend a weekend at the beach. Yet, it turns into an aquatic nightmare for them as an environmental contagion takes over the town. The movie has such a sense of dread, especially in its last act, that it may not be for everyone. But it’s one of the most effective ecological films and body horror flicks that I’ve seen in a while. Anyone into Lovecraftian horror should check it out. I reviewed it for HorrOrigins. The review is fairly spoiler free.

The second film, which released one day after The Beach House, is IFC Midnight’s Relic, marking the debut of Natalie Erika James. While The Beach House serves up summer scares and mostly takes place in daylight, Relic’s atmosphere and palate is far darker. Largely set in a creaky countryside home surrounded by a thick forest, the movie highlights the ravages of dementia. It’s a devastating, somber film that’s drawn comparisons to Hereditary and The Babadook. I also reviewed this one for HorrOrigins. I have no doubt Relic is a film that will continue to build buzz and will be talked about over the next several years. It’s the perfect example of how horror is the perfect vehicle to address more serious issues, in this case the aging process.

Pay attention to Brown and James. Their strong debuts make for promising careers ahead.

In Honor Of….

Anyone that knows me on a personal level well, or anyone who has read any of my poetry collections, knows that I lost my dad to cancer. I was young when this happened, and by young I mean 20, a junior in college. It happened fast. He was diagnosed by the end of my winter break that year, and by February, he died. When I learned of his diagnosis, I remember walking in the January cold, trying to process the news that my dad had throat cancer. I didn’t cry. I don’t even think I screamed. I do remember how tightly I clenched my fists that hung at my sides as I walked. Yet, I knew something was wrong after he picked me up from college and stopped on the side of the PA Turnpike to vomit. He also thinned since I saw him last. Only a month or so into the new semester, I received a call that I had to come home again because my father was essentially on his death bed, and I remember that drive home with my sister and the emotions that ran through us both that blustery February day, as we knew driving home meant we were driving home to say goodbye to our dad.

Last year, I was asked to write a piece of flash non-fiction for the Schuylkill Valley Journal’s blog for an “Origin of Interest” series they ran. I was asked to write one about my love of the horror genre. It didn’t take me long to start writing. Some of the best memories I have between my father and I involve watching films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and Friday the 13th with him. He took me to Blockbuster many Friday nights, where I roamed the aisles and picked out another horror VHS rental. Beyond that, he also fed and supported my obsession to turn my childhood home into a graveyard every Halloween, complete with mannequins that occupied the porch, including Dracula in a coffin and a bloody chef. He worked wonders with fishing wire.

In honor of Father’s Dad and my dad, I’m sharing again that piece I wrote for the SVJ blog.

To all the dads out there, Happy Fathers Day.

Shirley, Madness, and the Writing Life

Josephine Decker’s Shirley is a movie I want to show to all of my creative writing classes and then discuss its portrayal of the writing process. Elisabeth Moss is brillant as the famed horror writer, but beyond her spellbinding performance, there are a lot of layers to discuss.

First, the film plays with the perceptions of Jackson, that she was a witch, that she was sick in the head. It also depicts her as an outsider in the small college town, where her husband teaches literature at Bennington. Perhaps most importantly, when thinking about writing students, the film shows that writing is hard work. There is no illusion in that regard. Jackson becomes obsessed with her second novel, Hangsaman, about a missing college girl. In a fevered state of mind, Jackson works on new pages literally from morning until night, through dinner. There is no muse that just shows up. She goes to the desk.

Additionally, Decker is focused on portraying the struggles women faced in the 1950s to be heard, even someone with Jackson’s success. There is a fictitious subplot about a young couple that feeds this larger narrative. In the context of the film, it works.

I have a lot more to say about Shirley, which I shared in this review for Signal Horizon. Shirley is currently streaming on Hulu. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.