I used to have dreams about my Aunt's place, without the burden of context. It sits like a jagged protrusion bursting out of the earth, as if it were forced upon the landscape without it's knowledge. The drive up seems longer than I remember, the winding uphill road sways back and forth as you make the climb, causing the house to lurch into view through the windshield from the right and the left as you draw closer. Deep in my gut I can feel a roiling spike of dread gouge and push at my insides as I draw closer, and I try to tell myself that it's just nerves, just anxiety. It can't be the house. Not from this far away. My fingers grip the steering wheel tighter and I internally sag when I remember the first time I saw it. I must have been four or five. Back then, the house looked like a palace. An alluring maze of hallways and rooms that seemed to spiral deeper and deeper with every doorway, drawing you further from the light of day. I wonder if it was really even the same house. Was I just too young to look very hard at the paintings hanging from the walls around me? To chart my circular paths through room after room. Or maybe it was part of the trap, a deception intended to draw me in like flies to sugar. What changed more as I grew older, the house, or myself?
I think that I'm the last person to arrive. I add my car to the line up and walk through the biting, late autumn air as the house looms over me, annihilating the outside world. I pause for a second outside of the doors, considering my options as I admire the metal decorations facing me. The whirling wrought iron fence still gleams as though it were new, grime and rust afraid to touch the metal. The world ends beyond that barrier.
Some small, innocent part of me says that nothing binds me here. I could get back into my car and run. I could go somewhere warm, somewhere far away. Or I could walk in and emancipate myself, say that I'm renouncing my stake in this family and let them argue among each other. But I don't hate them enough to do that. Not one of us was able to turn their back on the rest, even though we all knew this day was coming. And now it's my duty stand among the others too frightened or too noble to flee. Maybe it really is a sense of duty, or maybe it's just another trap. I never walked into this one. I was born inside of it, and all I did was learn how to see the iron jaws closing around me.
I glance upwards at the looming, stone birds that line the awning above me. Miniature gargoyles that act as a final barrier between the house and the rest of the world. I don't even need to knock at the front door, it just swings open of it's own accord. It always has.
The front hall wears shadow like drapery. I half expect my Aunt to come down the stairs, giving me the same tired, miles away stare that she always did. Maybe she will. The one thing that you can rely on when you come to the house is that everything it has ever contained is still there, in some form or another. Nothing that has ever walked in has ever really left.
People say that places they knew in their youth seem smaller when they revisit them. That may be true of a playground, or a favourite clearing in the woods by their old house, but here everything seems even larger. The dark spaces are deeper, the hallways longer. Everything stretches away from you, until it escapes perception. I struggle to keep my feet underneath me as my head swims. Against the west wall, a five-foot tall portrait of the man who built the place glares into the middle distance until you aren't looking at it. Past the grand staircase, a long line of doors all lead into the same room, and the same room after that.
Sometimes I wonder how this came to be. How what was once a dwelling, a home, could degenerate into this cesspit. I wonder if that man in the portrait knew what he was creating, or if it was something that had always been here, even before the foundation was poured. Perhaps this place was intended to imprison something, before the locks were sealed upon the warden.
I stand against the staircase, listening to the muffled noises from the utility closet. Once when I asked, I was told it was the sound of a secondary heater rattling to life. I didn't think that heaters sounded like someone whispering in a language I couldn't recognize. I doubt the thin wooden door to it would open, even if I wanted it to. Maybe some nights it does, all on it's own when no one is around to see what's inside.
The way to the parlour is unobstructed. I know everyone is waiting, but I need another moment. Some desperate, scrabbling part of me wants to rip at the wallpaper. To break the fragile wooden furniture and to burn every damnable, leering painting that I can tear from the walls. The more that I muddle past the initial impulse, the more I recognize it as a pitiable defiance. A mouse clawing at the cat that has pinned it down. No matter I what I do to this house, in whatever severity, it will pay me back in kind. One day, somehow.
It's done it before.
I wonder if my father had the same spark of defiance in his heart once. The same angry flare and need to cast away the shackles that had been rusting against his body, pressing into his shoulders since he could remember. Had that spark become the fire that consumed him? Or had it gone out? Had he been left so utterly alone when that last flare within him was extinguished, that he withdrew from sense, from reason and even instinct? What abject, thought annihilating dread would compel a man to flail at the looming predator, when every logical and natural law would tell him to withdraw, to let it pass over him?
I think about the choices he made so very long ago. I think about how it has brought us to this very moment, and when I do that, I cannot help but think about the tear.
My eyes drift upwards, along the slabs of oak and carpet that form the stairs, and darkened halls beyond. I know the path that I have to take. The map of the house is burned into my mind. When it wants to, it will even let me follow it. Some days I could wander lost and hungry for hours, stepping into the same room over and over again. But it will always let me find the tear. Always let me see the wound that has been rent into it, whenever it thinks I need to see it. I'll give it this, the house has no ego, if it is capable of such a vagary. It wears it's scar openly, as fresh as the day it was made. My Aunt never made any attempt to close it, and I doubt she'd be able to if she ever wanted. Even the fallen statuette that was used to create it lies untouched on the floor, covered in dust. It wants to remind me, remind everyone of what happened that last time any of us tried to fight back. What happens when we defy it's will.
I think about the long scar rent into the wall, the way that the torn wallpaper hangs and flutters there, the edges yellow and flaking. Every once in a while a piece drops away, left to moulder on the floor. More of the plaster beneath is exposed, still damp and black. I don't know if it has somehow putrefied on contact with the air, or if that's what it always looked like beneath the bleached pattern facade. There's no smell. Something about this place deadens the senses. And amplifies emotions. When I look at it, I think about the actions that followed. My mind is haunted by grim tableau of my father's final moments. How long he must have lay there, gasping on the floor when he finally collided with it, feeling the bones of his neck grind together unnaturally...
Even from here, I can simply look up the staircase and see the loose tear in the carpet where he lost his footing. It also remains right where it was, the only other mark. The entire timeline can be traced, from the damage to the wall, to the loose carpet at the top of the stair, to the spot in the hall where my father passed. Only now do I realize I have been standing in that exact spot for the last several minutes, drawn to it like gravity.
There is no shock to be had within these walls. No jolt of discovery or sudden chilling realization to be had. I have been here too long. I have known all that I can understand, I have felt all that I can feel. The cold, creeping terror gripping my spine as I stand on the spot that my father died when his bid to destroy his prison ended in a broken neck is commonplace. Accepted.
Someone calls for me, cutting through the ice water above and below. I turn slowly and glance through the doors that lead from the atrium and into the parlour, where the others have already assembled. Details, faded by their own memorable distinction, leap out at me as I walk in. The lace on the table, kept flat by the heavy stone vase of dried flowers on top of it. The chipped and scratched wooden frieze above the cold, ashen fire. It depicts carved angels in a grim mockery of innocence. Sometimes they look this way or that when you avert your gaze for even a moment. The tall cabinet at the far wall, locked tight and stocked with crystalline glasses that catch and hold the dim light. Standing in front of them and gazing in will show you a dozen shadowy reflections of yourself, each one slightly different, some older, some younger, and some gazing back at you, shouting silently. The fat, wine-coloured sofa squats in the room like an amoebic growth, it's leathery upholstery folding against the laps of those who rest on it, for lack of options. These others, these people, gaze back at me.
There are moments when I forget I am standing in a room full of people. This many have not gathered within the house for ages. I think it likes to be alone, with only a single keeper, a single plaything, or pet, or parasite to tolerate. I still don't know how it sees us. Maybe we are toys to be pulled apart, or hosts to nurture it's virulence. I believe we are nothing to the house, simply doomed to weather it's crushing grip while it just exists, unheeding of our needs or lives, a black sun consuming the world beneath it.
These strangers, my inmates, my family. My brother stands against the mantle, sighing to himself. My sisters are at opposite ends of the room. My uncle hovers in the threshold between the parlour and the dining room. I count three cousins, one staring through the cracked, foggy glass at the outside world as if for the last time, one glaring at a portrait of a stag and the third turning a simple brass ashtray over and over in her hands. My niece is sitting on the floor, trying in vain to get a signal on her phone. People are looking at the floor, are looking at the walls or the masonry or the few portraits that don't stare directly back, or simply off into the middle distance. No one is looking at each other.
Upstairs, my Aunt is breathing her last, ragged breaths.
My family is not a closely knit social organism. Holiday gatherings elude us, and we arguably meet more often by accident than choice. We all carry the same weight, even though we can hide it, or try to. I try to think of my life that I have built outside of these walls, of the one waiting for me at the apartment I call home. I think of the brightness of colours and how good I have become at pretending, at telling myself that I exist somewhere else outside of this space. My mind drifts to the people I have left behind, the facsimile of a life that I have constructed away from the house. Learning how to act is second nature for my family. Smiling the way that you're expected to smile, being among people and telling them the things they need to hear. Telling someone that you love them in just the right way that they believe it. The moments I live for, the few seconds that are given to me, are when I can forget, even for an instant, that I am who I am, and that I know the things that I know. For just a few seconds, I can believe it. I can be someone else and just be at peace. But only for a few seconds. Then the smiles around me fade into the background and my heart fills with poison and the noises blur again and I am alone.
I can only wonder what it must be like for the others. The ones who don't live in the house. I'm not so self-absorbed to believe that no one around me has problems, or fears. Beneath the words and actions of the others, I imagine that they are a sea of turmoil. Of doubt and stress. I wonder if it's any easier for them when they stare up at the blackness of an unlit room and try to fall asleep. I hope that they know how to pass the quiet moments while waiting for a bus or preparing a meal. Do they have to constantly try to keep their eyes on the page of a book, or keep the music in their ears turned up to full blast in a desperate attempt to drown out the thudding, pounding truth of things that keeps it's icy grip wrapped around their thoughts?
In my worse moments, when frustration and pain grow too intense, I hope that I'm not alone. I wish that everyone could experience what I feel and what I am so that at the very least, I do not have to suffer in solitude. But I suppose that's what family is for.
My brother sees me standing in the threshold of the parlour and weakly nods. He doesn't speak, none of them do. We all know why we're here, we all know what is going to come next. And there's the very real chance that any attempt to reconnect will simply be wasted effort. One of us will vanish today, and that will be that.
I look down at my niece. She's so young, maybe she even has a spark of vitality left within her. I want to grab her, to shout in her face, tell her to run away and never look back. That she still might have a chance. Instead I stand there, feeling the eyes of a thousand nameless voices against my back, crawling up my spine. I know that they are there, just as they know me. Then, there is a breath, just for a second. I do not feel the weight, the dread or the pressure. The house seems to withdraw, daring me to carry out my impulse. For a moment, I cannot feel it's fingers around my mind, like a cat releasing a mouse. It wants me to run. It wants me to defy. Just so it's jaws can snap around me while I struggle.
I cannot flee the house. I can't rebel and I can't destroy it. But I do not give it what it wants. And so I stand, silent, until my niece returns my gaze and the house creeps back into my mind, like ink in water.
My uncle leans against the door frame he is occupying, sallow and weak. He's older than most of us, but by how much, I cannot guess. He visits his sister now and again in an act of charity, and it shows. Even frequent visitors are withered by their time here. Every time they come, a little more is taken away.
I cannot imagine my aunt having anything left in her heart but despair and hate. I am flayed, raw and hollow, but still, I know that I am floating above the true abyss. I can only imagine how much farther I have to fall. As much as I think about those who can live beyond my spectrum, I think about what awaits below me. To truly be a part of the house. To live within it. To be steeped in that oblivion. I see my aunt when she first stepped through the doors, staring into the open jaws of a predator. I imagine her trying to sleep as cold, wet things whisper into her ears and keep her from rest. I imagine her with her eyes fixed on her own hands, or on the floor to avoid looking at the walls. The details in the woodgrain, the stubble of the masonry, the weave of the carpets. Look too hard at any of them, and you see the same face staring back from the patterns. I think about how my aunt must see everything as though it were coming down a long tunnel. And I can only imagine the deep, burning spite she must feel for my father.
The house should never have been hers to bear.
I look at my siblings, and we share the same thought. It's going to be one of us. My aunt would only ever choose a descendent of her jailer. She was next in line after my father, and her fate was sealed after he got himself killed with his brief whim of defiance. The fact that I may be robbed of any scrap of a future all because of him has crept into my thoughts, poisoning any happy memory I once had of him. All I can do is imagine the whether and whys and what-ifs as every path and scenario leads to a dead end. All because of him. And so I too can only hate him. Because of that doubt, that fear. Because of that possibility.
The house needs a host. An owner. Below, we wait for the final words to trickle from my dying relative's lips before she fades. A lawyer is who she will share her final moments with. Someone untouched, untainted, free of desperation and the horrors they stand in.
I wonder what is to become of her. Maybe there truly is some release in death. Even to simply vanish, to cease existing, would be preferable. That would mean to stop thinking. To stop fearing and hating and sobbing. Maybe she can ascend. To slip the hold that the house has on her. Or maybe once it has withered her of every ounce of life, then it will truly have her. Her body will be disposed of as the final anchor against the pull of that great, overwhelming shadow and she will be consumed. I try to imagine a worse hell than the one she has been living for the past thirty years and cannot, whether from the weariness of an exhausted mind or fear of what I may visualize.
My Aunt's role in this family is nearly over. Soon, we will receive her final message.
It's time to learn who she left the house to.
I feel as though I have spent, or rather, wasted, a great deal of time preparing for the worst. Girding myself for disappointment has become a past time, practically a hobby at this point. And like any hobby, the more time you spend at it, the better you get. I have always feared becoming truly cynical, and I believe that it has started to actually happen as I mature and grow older. Too many people in my life have instilled a relationship between maturity and despondency that I feel a need to actively combat whenever I realize the path that I am on. There is still room for hope in my life, and the idea of surrendering to pessimism at such a young age frightens me.
Lately, I've been making more thorough steps to advance my career as an actor. In this line of work, you are confronted with a lot of failure and more often than not, need to learn how to deal with rejection a great deal more than success. Bracing yourself against that is healthy, but expecting to be let down is a very easy trap to fall into. Accepting defeat before you even set foot on the path gets you nowhere.
Very recently, I had an excellent opportunity to advance my career, an audition, as usual. I felt good giving my performance and when I walked away, I felt a rare spark of confidence after months of wasted energy stewing in my own insecurities. Deciding to hold on to it, I took comfort and assurance in the work I had done and the future that it might present for me. And I was happy. It was refreshing after so many miles of bad road to actually have something to look forward to.
I didn't get the part, or the position. But doorways opened where there were originally none, and even now, I can remember the hope and warmth of those moments when I could think about what was to come and free myself of the ever present ticking clock that plagues my mind.
Optimism and the idea of hoping for the best has gotten a bad rap in my generation. Between loss of faith in government bodies, the changing climate and the evaporation of the middle class, it's not easy for people my age to look at the future and feel anything but dread. But there is stock in finding things to reach for, to expect the best from. There is a vast difference between bracing yourself for difficulty or setback, and being able to trust in your own resources and capabilities. And when disappointment comes, one only has to feel it once, as opposed to the dozens of times that cynicism and pessimism will put you through.
I choose to be an optimist, and I will continue to work on how I see the world and myself.
For as far as I can remember, I have had a fear of the the distant. The right word for it is Agrophobia, a fear of open spaces. Not arachnophobia, which is a fear of spiders. And no, not acrophobia, which is heights. I know what my anxiety is called. It does admittedly sound a great deal like Agoraphobia, which is a fear of nearly everything, and does seem appropriate during my particularly bad days. Like any fear, it's grip on me waxes and wanes depending on my overall mental state. By far this fear is at it's most acute in the presence of open windows. I am constantly uneasy whenever I am close to such a portal, and am incapable of sleeping comfortably in the same room as one. My mind often projects images of something horrible coming over the horizon and climbing in through that window. I suppose I can't really impress the dreadful feeling of exposure that being surrounded by unfamiliar, open ground can instill in someone with my particular neurosis. An outer door left ajar or an unexplained draft in a room can make me feel uneasy, and I find it difficult to concentrate in these conditions.
For years I thought I could live with what I considered to be a minor mental quirk. But gradually it began to affect my behaviour more and more. I could not turn my back on a large window, a gust of air on the back of my neck made me flinch and worst of all, I found myself moving my own bedding down to my basement, the only place I could get even a wink of restful sleep.
Eventually I realized that I could not let this phobia control my life. I sought medical and psychological help, and one of the more attentive doctors offered a suggestion that stuck with me. He said something as simple as a vacation could be ideal; a change of scenery, somewhere with wide open spaces and plenty of fresh air. Total immersion in what so deeply unsettled me.
Initially I was skeptical, believing that this immersion he proposed would prove to be overwhelming. But as the long hours of summer began to wear at me, I decided that I might as well take some time off of work and finally confront my psychosis while I was at it. And so I found myself packing my bags and booking a ticket out to Newfoundland, in search of that “Fresh Air” that so long eluded me.
Almost immediately I began to fall back into old habits. The window next to my seat on the airplane remained firmly shuttered for the duration of the flight, and upon arriving at the bed and breakfast that I would be spending the next several days sheltering up in, I requested a room in the basement, comfortingly small with only a few bulbs to provide light in the otherwise sealed off space.
I suppose as I lay in my quarters in that dim light, staring at the cracked plaster of a wall I could practically reach out and touch with the tips of my fingers while lying on my bed, I felt the reality of my affliction settle in. My entire life would be nothing but a long parade of self-imposed prison cells if I didn't end up doing something about it. The next day, things would be different.
I might not have entirely had my wits about me when I hopped the first bus that I could find headed to the coast, emerged in unfamiliar environs and after quickly getting my bearings, trekked off towards the sound of the ocean, comfortable that I could find my way back if necessary.
I suppose it isn't much of a leap to discuss my somewhat auxiliary fear of open water that comes part in parcel with my agrophobia. I've never seen Jaws, or really very many scary movies at all for that matter. But I don't think I need the image of some big rubbery shark biting at Richard Dreyfuss to have a healthy dislike of floating in deep water, legs dangling below me with a great blue abyss waiting to swallow me up the second I stop kicking.
But I could still appreciate the maritime shores, breath in the salty air and truly attempt to marvel at the rocky coastline surrounding me. There is an energy to the maritime, and along the ocean shore, I could feel it. The land is....old. You don't need to travel far to leave human buildings behind and stand among rocks and earth that have been shaped and moulded by eons of erosion, crumbling down into great rocky tides or being whittled into unique shapes over the millennia. It carries it's history and even someone like I could appreciate it. Every once in a while you could swear you hear a whisper passing among the rocks, or become overwhelmed by the sense of some great, eclipsing force that has been there far, far longer than you have. Until that day, I have never believed in the supernatural, but if magic exists, I feel that it could be found in a place like that.
This certainly didn't help the knot of apprehension curling in my gut that refused to let me go. Before I could let the anxiety consume me, I set off at a brisk pace, taking some moderate amount of comfort from the rocky cliff face that acted as the parallel border to the beach. The sky was overcast, so I was spared the sensation of the sun against my back as I continued my preamble. I was in unfamiliar territory, alone and facing one of my biggest fears, but I reassured myself that this was the best way to confront my own doubts, that I had a fully functioning phone in my front pocket and a map of the area in my back.
It wasn't long before I had to cut inland. Something about that much sky overhead and what could drop out of it at any moment made me reel with uneasiness. I found a small path that lead to an expansive field overlooking the water that gave me some reassurance and let me clear my head again. Still, the occasional rocky outcropping or protrusion loomed out from the grass, which seemed to grow higher the further I traveled, until it was practically up to my waist on both sides. If I concentrated, I could almost pretend they were walls, or the borders of a fence keeping me contained. Secure. Every once in a while I would look outwards towards the shore, often when a stretch or formation from the rocky coastline interceded on my self-identified sanctuary of grass. I tried to take in the horizon for as long as I was able, but always, eventually, returned my gaze to the ground in front of me before too long from a mixture of nerves and nausea. The cliffs rose once more to my right as my hike continued, a wide field of tall grass standing between me and the shore. Once more I looked up at the cliff face, before turning my attention to the far off edge of the ocean. I can't be sure if it was exhaustion, unease or some combination of the two, but I felt a wave of disorientation rush over me and the subtle fact that I had perhaps taken a little too much too soon hit me hard. I stumbled over to a particularly looming outcropping from my rocky environs and all but collapsed into a small recess of the cliff face, trying to catch my breath. My vision still swam and my eyelids grew heavy. Darkness settled on me like a shroud.
I don't know how long I slept. The cloudy sky seemed slightly darker when I finally recovered consciousness. As I willed motion back into my cramped limbs, I tried to tell myself that I had just grown weary from a walk over unsteady ground with a combination of jet lag, and had not, in fact, passed out from something innocuous as a hike. Awareness of my surroundings began to return as I continued to blink myself back into the waking world. Things seemed amiss to me though. The salty smell of the ocean had taken on a fouler stench, smelling akin to rotten meat. I thought perhaps the tide had washed some animal carcass up on shore, but with each passing second, the smell grew stronger, as though it were approaching me. And then I could see it; motion in the tall grass, the stalks bending and displacing as something moved among them. My hands cautiously traced the cliff wall behind me, trying to find purchase as the sound of shuffling and disturbed earth grew louder, still accompanied by that ghastly smell. Unfamiliar with the wildlife of the area, my thoughts turned to some kind of animal stalking through the underbrush. Fear dominated my actions as I turned away from the encroaching presence and began to scrabble up the side of the cliff towards an elevated ledge that I could see from my position. I had no intention of lying there while some potentially dangerous creature emerged from the undergrowth with the quite possible intention of mauling me.
A rock or two gave way underneath my grip, but I managed to hold on and pull myself up into the crevasse I had noticed earlier. At my back, I heard the clatter of stones as whatever had come to investigate my torpor finally breached the edge of the tall grass. I was too busy squeezing myself into a recess to get a good look at it, until a questing hand reached out and hit nothing. I fell backwards and was greeted with a whiff of stale air. It seemed that my hiding spot extended far deeper into the rock than I anticipated. Below me, the stench grew ever more intense, and the sound of shifting rocks grew louder. Whatever was below had begun to climb towards me. From the sound it was making, I could tell it was far bigger than any badger or raccoon.
Not sparing the time for another look behind me and out of options, I wedged myself further into the crevasse and began to crawl into the darkness of the tunnel that I had discovered, hoping that whatever was following me might pass by, or be too big to pursue any further.
What little light could be had barely punctuated the gloom of the tunnel, which stretched onward before me in an irregular straight line. I could barely get my feet under me, but managed to adopt a low crouch and began to make my way forward, one hand on my knee, the other tracing the ceiling, eyes straining in the dim illumination.
I felt as though I had made it about ten feet before the minimal light I had at my disposal was all but eclipsed by the sizable shape that had risen to fill the opening of my improvised escape route. I could barely see, and hastened my flight into the cramped darkness. The animal had followed me, right into the cave.
Another dozen feet or so, and the tunnel began to narrow. I had to revert to my hands and knees, pulling myself along and feeling both loose gravel and sharp rocks against my palm and legs. As I crawled, driven by the primal fear of re-entering the food chain, I realized how idiotic it had been to trap myself like this. Some part of my mind had obviously sought a tight, comfortingly small area when I had come under threat and as always, felt exposed. Now I was trapped in a narrowing cave, crawling forward into uncertainty with god-knows-what right behind me. At any moment, I might finally hit a dead end, or the path might become too tight for me to progress, and then, the thing behind me would have it's prey.
I could hear it now as well as smell it. The sounds of shifting earth intermingled with a heavy, fluid dragging, like a corpse over rocks. Something like viscous blubber that lay against the ground like a carpet. And the the breathing. A wet, ragged breathing that set my teeth on edge. It sounded pained and forced with each exhalation as though there was some torturous effort involved with the simple act of respiration. Every once in a while I heard something dripping off of the rocks, maybe ocean water if it had emerged from the sea, or it's own drool, or some other excreted fluid that it was giving off. I tried to banish any and all thoughts and imagery from my mind that this new information might conjure and pressed onward, pulling myself forward even as I felt the rocks around me cut and scrape at my skin. I do not know why my pursuer kept the pace that it did. Perhaps it was incapable of overtaking me, maybe it was as hobbled as I was, crawling on all fours into the increasing blackness. Or perhaps it was simply a predatory assurance that made it move so slowly. Like a cat toying with a mouse, maybe it knew I had no chance of escaping it, that it was only a matter of time before my battered knees would no longer obey my commands or I could not bear to bring my skinned palms against the ground. Then it would have me. It knew all this and it was just waiting for me to tire myself in a pointless flight deeper into the earth. For all I knew I was crawling right into it's den.
Before long, my sight failed me completely. Pitch blackness closed around my head, and the only way I could tell that I was moving under my own power at all or keeping up any sort of progress was the sixth sense of forward momentum, and the feeling of the cave floor beneath my hands and knees. I couldn't even bring myself to reach for my phone for a light source, the conditions were so cramped and I was terrified of breaking my pace long enough to access it that my pursuer would be upon me.
I gagged at the stench, feeling the toxic smell drip into the back of my throat so that I could practically taste it. It was getting closer.
I felt a rock brush past my face and nearly screamed.
I was hyperventilating now and for the first time in my life, I felt truly trapped by my environment. I couldn't breath. I was suffocating and being squeezed by the damnable cave that felt as though it was growing narrower with every passing moment. I sobbed quietly, breathing hot dread out of a throat all but throttled by fear. I was going to die down here, and I would never be found. I could feel my back occasionally make contact with the ceiling of the cave. A piece of my brain screamed at me to just stop, to no longer endure the white hot pain of my hands and knees against the ground and let whatever formless, nameless thing that had followed me into this cave finally have it's meal.
As I looked down at my own ragged, chipped hands, it took a moment for genuine thought to penetrate my despair and tell me that I could actually see my hands at all.
From somewhere, there was ambient light.
What little strength I had left in me reignited and I picked up my pace. The thing behind me wheezed and dragged itself forward, but I had renewed purpose. Somewhere, somehow, light was reaching me. As often as I felt I could spare it, I brought a hand up to the ceiling and walls, questing for a recess, some portal that the light was reaching me from.
Hand over hand, ever forward. Sweat stung my eyes and my cramped muscles begged for relief, but on I crawled, hand over hand. Hand over hand. I swore that I would see daylight again.
As I brought my fingers up to feel at the wall, I nearly gasped at the sensation of empty space. I turned my head in the same direction as my outstretched arm and swore I could make out a faint glimmer from somewhere distant.
Acting on the same impulses that had driven me to climb the wall and enter the cave, I all but launched myself sideways towards that speck of light. I could waste no time as the smell became almost a physical presence, curling around me like thin tendrils. The breathing behind me grew faster, a faint gurgling growl building from somewhere deeper in the creature's body.
I felt my skin break against the jagged edges of my new route, but I fought through the pain and lifted myself into this side cave, scrambling to cram my entire body through the hole that I could feel but barely see.
As I brought my last leg through, I felt something damp and coarse scrape against my shin. I didn't spare a second to think of what it might be. The sun. I had to see the sun again.
The shifting, squelching sounds began to echo and fade as I climbed, leaving whatever abomination that had trailed me for so long behind. I pushed on.
The ground began to soften. Rocks giving way to soil that my bloody fingers sank into. I pushed on. Once again I felt earth against my back, but it yielded to my presence and thin roots tickled my neck. I climbed.
I had to all but dig the last few meters, holding my breath as I passed through loose, damp earth. Finally, I felt fresh air against my hand. I pulled and my head followed. I breached the ground and gasped, howling in relief and pain at my numerous injuries and the sensory overload of sight and sound after such an extended period of isolation. I crawled free, shaking off the dirt that clung to me and shakily rising to my feet. I drew deep, grateful breaths. I had emerged.
Finally I could pull my phone from my pocket. 20% percent power was more than enough to help me find a main road and from there, transportation home. Aching, bleeding and still quivering, I began the limping journey back to civilization.
Safe in a taxi, I examined myself. My nails were chipped and cracked from digging into the earth. My knees had been rubbed raw and most disturbingly, several layers of skin on my calf seemed to have been removed entirely. My contact with whatever had followed me, however brief, had taken a piece of me with it. I huddled over, swallowing my lingering dread and fighting to stay awake. Maybe if I had just let myself sleep in that cab, things would be different.
I should have been quicker to react. I should have fought off the exhaustion and left that night, instead of descending the steps to my room and collapsing on the small bed. A thousand regrets spiral through my mind even now as my door strains against it's hinges. As the smell of rotten meat fills my nostrils, rousing me from my slumber. That same heavy, tortuous breathing is audible even over the creaking wood. I should have known that thing wouldn't give up nearly so easily just because I had eluded it underground. All that blood and sweat I was trailing was hanging in the air, it must have gotten my scent. And followed me.
I have to acknowledge it's persistence. It dragged itself every inch of the mile or so I had to walk, then the distance I travelled by car. And it's finally caught up with me. I have no doubt that it will eventually break through into my small room and then I will get to meet my pursuer. At long last, it has managed to corner me. And I have nowhere left to run.
It's my own fault, really. It was my phobias that drove me to this. I chose to come here. I went on that hike. But most of all, I insisted on a windowless room.
Stranger Things is the next big Netflix show to completely light up on everyone's radar recently, following in the footsteps of shows like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. It's eight-episode first season was briefer than most other shows available via the streaming service, but it's brilliant characters, captivating horror-sci fi tone and pitch-perfect writing completely hooked audiences and had everyone talking. After finishing re watching the entire first season with my parents, my dad made it pretty clear that I should write up a review of this series to go along with the rest of my Halloween month. Yes, the series has been out for several months, and has spawned so much discussion that pretty much everything there is to say about it has already been said, but think of this as a fresh take or perspective. Besides, since when have any of my reviews been even remotely on time?
Due to the fact that I'll be dealing with nearly eight hours of content, I have decided to eschew my standard “blow-by-blow” style of analysis and go for a more broad spectrum exploration of this show, it's themes and what makes it so damn good. Let's try and see how Stranger Things happened.
As always, my reviews get pretty spoilerific and I'll be mentioning plot points throughout. But honestly, if you haven't seen the show already, it's not hard to access. This article will be here when you get back.
Whenever you ask someone what makes Stranger Things such a great show, the initial answer I usually get is “The Nostalgia”. While it is true that the series is firmly rooted in the time period and style of the 80's, I feel like it goes much deeper than just that. Stranger Things has been described as “Stephen King through the lens of Stephen Spielberg” and it's clear to see the influences of both artists at play here. Everything from the warm colours of scenes, to the extra-dimensional terror pressing at the boundaries of our sane world, to the very adult fear of losing a child that kicks off the conflict of the whole series speaks of classic Spielberg and 80's films in general. Hell even direct narrative tributes are present through out, such as a flight by a group of bike-riding kids from a descending mob of government officials being assisted by their telekinetic friend, or the fact that Stephen King himself is mentioned both by name and reputation at several points throughout the story. Hell, we even have a mysterious girl with psychic powers showing up in addition to the initial supernatural threat!
But there are still differences. I believe that Stranger Things tackles the issues of missing children, paranormal forces, government conspiracy and even psychic children with a level of unflinching maturity that did not quite exist in the 1980s. We've seen these tropes before, but the absolute honesty on display is captivating. This is something that a post 9/11 world demands from it's fiction, to a certain extent. The pain of characters enduring loss, the people confronting the bizarre to such extremity that they begin to doubt their own sanity, and the very real of threat of what comes from beyond and within our own government is all very tangible, to an extent that I feel could not exist back in the more escapist 80s.
Stranger Things deliberately invokes a sense of the time period it takes place in with the ever-so-slight colour filter that the entire show is shot through, the reference heavy dialogue, the “Cold War Paranoia” story line that intersperses the piece, and of course, the kickASS soundtrack, both the licensed songs and the heavy synth beats. I have mentioned in the past that the beating, slow electronica of Stranger Things works in direct opposition to the films that it is trying to emulate. If this were actually an attempt at making a Spielberg movie, then John Williams would have composed the score. But Stranger Things is looking back on an era as opposed to trying to stand out from it and thus, aims for a very specific tone as opposed to going for a more timeless feel.
These traits have been seen before in other films that have also called back to the time period, most recently in the J.J. Abrams film Super 8. But that film is largely forgotten while Stranger Things is still the toast of the town. What sets these two similar works apart? Well, for one thing J.J. doesn't really have much of an artistic SOUL, but we're going to try to find some more concrete, factual answers.
I believe that the true strength of Stranger Things is that it understands that any truly great work of science-fiction or horror is character driven. The setting and rules of the story might be outlandish, but so long as you have well-developed, interesting characters to revolve that story around, the audience will be able to connect and appreciate the intricacies of what is being presented to them. The Thing knew this, Firefly knew this, and Stranger Things knows this as well. The story centres around the basic concept of a lone child being spirited away into a hellish alternate dimension by a carnivorous abomination that was loosed by a government project gone wrong, that initially intended to use a psychic girl who was the product of LSD experiments to spy on the Russians but ended up opening up a portal to the aforementioned hellish dimension and that is a LOT of information for someone to process if they are just diving in, and out of this world concepts like this rarely manage to elaborate on themselves without bogging the story down with carefully explained details and technicalities. But instead of the narrative and circumstances, Stranger Things focuses on the characters themselves as they attempt to wrap their heads around this extra dimensional mystery and the paranormal phenomena that have descended on their small town. To make it even more palpable, the differing revelations and deductions are made separate of each other by one of four parties, each working to determine the whereabouts of Will Byers and the cause of his vanishing. We see Will's immediate friends attempting to get into contact with him, and act as the audiences connection to Eleven, who will be touched upon later. Their part in the story is that of curiosity. They are the ones who figure the most about the situation and their imagination allows them to grip the possibility of an alternate dimension that their friend has been trapped in. Further up the age bracket, we have the older siblings of the kids, Jonathan Byers and Nancy, Mike's big sister. The teenagers primarily focus on the creature that is plaguing their community, directing their fears into anger at the situation. Their overarching plan is to find the creature and kill it, which sort of strays past the more highminded exploration that the kids are working on and into simple knee-jerk response territory. These two are teenagers, it's understandable. Both Nancy and Jonathan are spurred into action by the loss of someone close, Jonathan by his brother and Nancy by her friend, Barb.
Also, if I can go off on a tangent, one thing that always rubbed me the wrong way was the post-mortem canonization of Barb's character. I keep on seeing posts, rants and actual illustrated fan art all bearing the mantra “Barb Deserved Better”. For heaven's sake, she's even had full on comedy bits on other shows and animations devoted to her apparent abandonment by the protagonists. Yes, she was killed off at the beginning of episode 3, but that was the point of her character. Barb serves as Nancy's conscience, both alive, when she warns Nancy away from partying with that no goodnik Steve (Oh Steve), and later in death, Nancy's guilt over her friend's disappearance spurs her into action. Barb was not abandoned by her friends, Barb was a corpse by the time the opening credits started up. Will survived thanks to his ingenuity, familiarity with the terrain and oh yeah, he was holding a loaded rifle when the Demigorgon grabbed him. Remember that? Barb wasn't abandoned. She was dead. And nobody made a huge stink about it because staging the runaway of a teenager with a car is much easier than staging the death of a ten year old. I'm sure that she had family looking for her, they were just looking in the wrong direction. Enough is enough. It was sad that she died alone, but that's the point. It's a horror series.
The final group is the orbiting characters of Grace, Will's determined mother, and Hopper, the local sheriff who already has a boatload of personal trauma going into all this that will drive him to find the truth. Beyond exploration or reactionary violence, The mother and sheriff that comprise the adult faction are driven by both their own personal demons as well as the outside circumstances. It is made very clear that Hopper comes from a broken family and has endured extreme loss, and it is this trauma that fuels his obsession with unraveling the conspiracy around Will Byers's disappearance. I personally believe that his establishing moment was when he gripped Jonathan's shoulder and very shakily, yet intensely assured him that he would find Will.
Grace on the other hand, is also obviously entering this debacle with both a great deal of baggage, and a lot more to lose. From the simple inference and attitudes of her public circle, Grace is already apparently suffering from anxiety and potential instability, and her determination to both uncover the mind-bending circumstances behind her son's vanishing will not win her any supporters from even her immediate family. I found Grace to be the most compelling character of the entire, incredibly watchable, cast. She KNOWS that she isn't crazy, but also knows that everything she says will come off as insane. Only her inventive thinking and bloody-minded commitment to finding her child can serve her in this descent.
Eleven, of course, is the one who ties this all together. Her role in the group as a way to contact Will on the Upside-Down is more than just a functional purpose. She is also a narrative connection between the sane, rational world of the Indiana town that Stranger Things is set in, and the wild supernatural insanity that is pervading in on their reality. Eleven's psychic abilities first clue the kids in that there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. Her telekinetic assault on the bullies attempting to hurt Mike is what makes Hopper realize that Will's friends are in on this too. She explains the nature of The Upside Down to everyone. She's the link that spurs everything into motion. And I can't even spurn her abilities as an example of Steven King-esque “Psychic Powers out of Nowhere”. Eleven is the catalyst for the entire plot, and her telekinetic and telepathic powers directly influence and create events around her.
It seems necessary to keep all of these separate groups apart from one another as they carry out their own missions and agendas, if only to keep the story from drowning in the constant stream of information and interaction that would occur if they were constantly bouncing off of each other. Compartmentalized as they are, the show can instead fully use its 8 hour run time to explore each character and the group dynamic. And it makes it all the sweeter when they finally collaborate.
We have all seen the character tropes on display here before: The stressed cop, the overtaxed single mother, the damaged psychic girl, the eager-to-grow-up teenage girl that is grappling with her sexuality and so on. What makes the characters in Stranger Things so good is that the show can take the time to explore them, see why they are the way they are and what motivates them through the story. Everyone is fleshed out and stands as their own independent person. The mother of Nancy and Mike is obvious wound tight and eager to help her children, but blind to the larger problems that they face. The science teacher that offers frequent technical information to the kids is clearly a dork in his own right, but a scene of him showing The Thing to a date might be one of my favourite parts of the series, showcasing his interests and activities beyond his role as a teacher, which is actually quite rarely done. If I had to make a complaint, it's that some of the human villains are a little one note. Papa and the blonde haired assassin seem a little unilaterally evil, and almost as on note as the damn monster prowling throughout the series.
As for the ending of the series, I have no real problem, and appreciate both it's unconventional take on typical story arcs and it's refusal to explain the extensive repercussions. What happened to Eleven, is she still alive? Hopper seems to have faith, something that he hasn't possessed in a long time. What is going to become of Will? He's been touched by the other side, and that's left scars. Eleven was the same way, and now there will always be a piece of The Upside Down inside of him. As for Nancy, Jonathan and Steve, I rather liked the fact that Nancy eventually chose to stay with her initial choice. Steve had a redemptive arc of his own through the series and even at his worst, was never a complete asshole. He chose to make peace with Jonathan before approaching Nancy, and even went back to help them take their turn against the Demigorgon. And damn if that little bat twirl didn't make me a little bit more gay. You can add him to the stack of interesting characters.
Stranger Things is a fascinating exercise in storytelling, exploration of established plot and archetype and what freaks you out, from the childlike fear of monsters, to the adult fear of loosing a kid, to the overarching paranoia of not being told everything, and that possibly, the government doesn't have your best interests at heart. There is already talk of a season 2, but I would be perfectly happy if this stood on it's own. If there does end up being a second season, I think that the only way to do it right would be a completely different story line and set of events and characters. So much of the story revolves around discovery and figuring out the mystery of this small town that I think revisiting the same characters and setting just wouldn't carry the same impact. Hell, we've done The Goonies meets The Mist. What if we set the next season in the 50's and did Stand By Me meets The Dunwich Horror? I'd tune in.
And with that, I'm done. Whew. This was a simultaneously rewarding and intensely taxing endeavour. Yeah, I fell behind close to the end and this final entry was about two weeks overdue, but hey, it's finished now. I'm glad to have set out on this undertaking, and glad that you all accompanied me. If you're curious as to my final opinions on all of these films, I've put together one final little ranking of all of them , divvying out recommendations or condemnations from the space of a few days reflection.
For the purposes of this round up, I have neglected both miniseries that were discussed, as they count as separate entities that cannot really be classified on a simple best to worst (Also because they are probably leagues better than almost the entire list in itself). Also, any films that I did not finish and/or have scrubbed from my brain with liberal amounts of rye whisky will not be mentioned either.
I've heard good things about Phantasm, though the good things have rarely amounted to anything past “There are good things”. This 1979 film seems to exist in a sort of limbo between more well-known horror and the obscurer cult classics, thanks to the original films popularity and the ongoing franchise that has released it's latest sequel just this year, summing up to one every decade. All I know about these films is that there is a tall man, and balls. SO, lured in with the promise of tall men and their balls, I decided to take a look.
The film opens with two folks messily boning in a graveyard under some key lighting. This is, of course a horrible idea. The man is quickly tuckered out from this ordeal, and seems so wrapped up in his post coital haze that he doesn't notice his paramour pull out a knife and stab him, before transforming into a man. I'm pretty sure this is how 4Chan thinks transsexuals operate.
The next day, a really awkward shot of a pair of bad actors informs us that the funeral for Tommy, the stabee in this opening scene, is being held today. They clumsily recount how they were best friends and that Tommy's death has been officially been credited as a suicide. Yes, it's such a tragedy that he finally collapsed under the weight of his own depression and stabbed himself four or five times in the chest while lying down in a graveyard. Funny how many people take that way out in this town. We cut in between one of the friends from outside, Jody and a secondary, unidentified character out in the cemetery as they both try to pay their respects.
Jody is walking around an admittedly very cool and well shot masoleum while the kid is respectfully riding his noisy dirtbike around the graveyard. Such little information or context is given in these shots, that I was unsure if the two subjects were separate characters, or the same man at different points in his life, hearkening back to time that he's spent at this graveyard. But no, these two are brothers, and both of them seem to be pursued or at least observed by these scuffling black shapes that keep on ducking out of sight before they can get a good look at them. This would be vaguely creepy if not for the fact that they all sound like a badger trying to get into a can of Chef Boyardee's. Jody follows the odd badger noises and the synth-heavy soundtrack makes it sound like someone has collapsed on the organ. Then the disturbingly tall undertaker brings his hand down on Jody's shoulder like a damn hatchet and lets him know that the funeral has started. I swear, that shoulder grab has got to be the simultaneously most prevalent but least talked about cliche in horror movie history. Why does everyone do this? And the thing is, it's usually a trusted friend or family member that chooses to greet their partner by nabbing their shoulder like a demon spider. What would prompt an otherwise benign character to act like a damn psycho? At least the Undertaker here has a decent reason, given that he is clearly a threatening, intimidating person.
The funeral concludes, with Jody's little brother Mike spying in on it from the bushes. Jody didn't seem to want Mike to attend and see Tommy, a family friend, in this state. But as we will clearly see throughout the film, there doesn't seem to be any way for Jody to get Mike to do a goddamn thing. As the mourners dissipate, Mike lingers and gets his first red flag that something is up when he sees the undertaker pick up Tommy's coffin under one arm and slide it into the back of his hearse. The kid bolts, though it is clear he was detected by the undertaker. And no, not the WWE Undertaker. I'm not sure if that would make this movie better or worse.
Heading back into town, Mike stops at a Bed and Breakfast of some sort with a big white hand sign. Crap, if Torgo hobbles out the front door and offers to take his bags, I'm leaving. But no. Inside is another lousy actor and her grandmother, enjoying tea and both carrying odd star birthmarks. These two characters and their possible psychic powers will never be mentioned or seen again in this film. Mike talks about his brother and good God, this film cannot stop jumpily cutting in between two or three different scenes that aren't connected well enough for me to understand what the hell is going on. Admittedly, that 71' Hemicuda that Jody drives into the scene IS awesome, but I'm still not entirely sure about what's going on here. Then we flash BACK to the funeral, where Mike crashed his bike fleeing from the undertaker, then it's back again to the fortune teller's room. Good god, Memento had a less confusing timeline.
This is Dune! This is exactly Dune! This stupid kid is getting Jom-Gabbar'd and doesn't even get the courtesy of a dumb name for it! How did they think they could get away with ripping off such a clear plot point from this science-fiction work? I haven't even READ all of Dune and I know exactly where this came from. But yeah, Mike manages to conquer his fear and withdraw his hand, then heads off to go be the Quizaxkataract or whatever. The two ladies just giggle at each other, and I think it's clear that they were just messing with him.
By the time Mike gets home, the ponytailed guy from the funeral has showed up in an ice cream truck that I would positively NOT purchase so much as a popsicle from and is jamming with Jody on the front porch of their sizable house that Jody can of course afford the upkeep and property taxes of all on his own because fuck you 1979. Meanwhile back at the graveyard, an unnamed blonde lady goes to the mausoleum and passes through a strange black door before screaming. Okay.
Jody heads to a bar, with Mike still engaging in his favourite hobby; snooping in on his brother. Doesn't this kid have a life? Scenes like this bit at the bar, again, are quite well shot. While the performances in this movie aren't really anything to be impressed by, this movie clearly had a hell of a cinematographer. Jody talks up a creepily familiar blonde lady and they head off to the cemetery to knock boots. Mike follows, clearly not deterred at the thought of seeing his big brother about to get some action and watches from the bushes as these two start to get hot and heavy. The lady flashes her screen-filling boobs again and both Cody and Mike, who I am amazed can even see anything from his vantage point, get equally excited. I suppose if you paid an actress to show off her breasts, you might as well use em as many times as you can. Mike continues to watch, even though it's clear that from his position, all he's gonna see is his brother's thrusting ass, until he hears another badger rooting around somewhere behind him. The thing finally springs out from the underbrush and....it's a Jawa. It's just a Jawa.
Mike runs screaming, right past his brother. Jody to his credit pulls himself off of his date and runs after him, asking what the hell is going on. Somehow these two just glaze past the whole “watching you about to have sex” thing and Jody gives Mike the car keys, I suppose expecting him to drive himself home. He returns, only to find that the mysterious woman has disappeared.
I have a question. We know from the prologue that the blonde lady with Jody is actually The Undertaker in disguise, and was presumably about to murder Jody like he did with Tommy. How often does he get away with this stunt? How many stabbing related suicides can one small town have before things start to get suspicious? Do you think that Undertaker here might have gotten to like it by now?
“Yess, I shall lure these hapless fools to their deaths by turning into a hot, nubile, twenty-something blonde and hooking up with them at a bar. I shall take on a woman's young, supple form....for a little while, then lure this man out to the graveyard and kill him! But only after he's given me a proper nailing. A good solid screw. Yes, he needs to ride me hard like the dirty little girl that I am....goodness, OH, I may have to go take a shower....hmm. I shall shower as the girl. Yes. Need to make sure I know exactly how that body is put together. Ah, yes.”
My point is that everyone in this town is kind of a creep.
That night, Mike has a nightmare about the Undertaker and his zombies, then even runs into the guy the next day. Man, this dude his huge, and apparently dresses is suits that are purposefully a size too small for him as he walks around on marble flooring that someone set up for him in advance to get those ominous footsteps. These strange encounters continue that night, as Mike is working on the car (Considering that it's a 70's Plymouth, that level of upkeep is not surprising) another Jawa sneaks past and collapses the car on him. Mike manages to wriggle free after stubbing his brother's toe with a mallet, and is determined to head back to the funeral parlour and find out exactly what the hell is happening, gearing up with a knife strapped to his leg.
His sneaky approach to the parlour is marked by him kicking a window in and slipping into the basement. I'm not entirely sure what he's intending to find here as he sneaks into the upstairs showroom and narrowly avoids a janitor in a hat. Even after his close call, he continues to follow them closely with that special blend of snoppy and stupid that we see in horror movies that I like to refer to as “Snoopid”. He pursues the strange noises that permeate the place into the masoleum and then the black door that we saw earlier. But before he can investigate, a strange floating ball appears, sprouting prongs and looking like a rejected Doctor Who villain.
Wait, there WAS a Doctor Who villain like this. I withdraw my comment.
The ball flies at Mike, who dodges it but is grabbed by the Janitor. The ball pursues and Mike manages to avoid it as it hits the janitor in the face and...oh, JEEZ.
This this digs into his forehead with its little prongs and then a drill pokes out, going right between his eyes and...just SHOOTING blood out the back of it like he's a maple tree being tapped. It's amazing.
The Tall Man shows up again, just sprinting after Mike and nearly grabbing him before a door get slammed on his hand. Mike cuts off the protruding fingers in a panic and sticks them in a box, even as they seep bright yellow, clearly inhuman blood.
Jody finds Mike the next morning, collapsed in the stairwell with a shotgun in his lap. Damn, this big brother seems like a really shitty guardian. You blow of your kid to go get laid in a graveyard, you give him the keys to your muscle car so that you can you can try to finish up with your one-night stand and now, it seems as though you leave loaded weapons within grabbing range. He wakes Mike up and, to his credit, immediately believes him when he is shown the twitching severed finger. He suggest that they take their proof to the local sheriff's office, but when Mike goes to grab the finger, it has turned into some black scarab with a little demon face. Again, this movie has gone from confusing editing to straight up bizarre leaps in logic that I am just expected to take in stride. They're lucky I'm such a good sport about all of this. Mike traps the bug in a shirt and he and his brother improv with it for a little bit before finally shoving it into the garbage disposal which takes a few tries to actually mince the damn thing. Reggie shows up to ask what the hell is going on, and it's time for business. Fortunately, this house is packing as Jody grabs a Colt off the wall and gives his brother a quick, half decent crash course in shotgun etiquette. Jody makes a fun for the funeral parlour, seemingly abandoning the plan to contact the Sheriff. I thought that was a decent plan.
Jody enters the funeral parlour via the window that Mike kicked in, and barely makes twenty feet before another Jawa show up. They briefly tussle and Jody empties a clip into the thing before deciding to beat it, the hearse in hot pursuit. He tries to fire at the seemingly non existent driver before Mike swings by in the Cuda, clearly not listening to a damn thing his brother says. Jody piles in and the chase is on, before he manages to blow apart the car's engine with the 12 Gauge. The rig careens off the road and crashes, and Jody heads back to look it over. Not only does it turn out that a Jawa was driving the car the whole time, but it's actually Tommy!
Realizing that this is a bit much even for him, Jody calls in Reggie, hoping to use his truck to contain the still twitching Tommy abomination. After loading up the atommynation, Reggie gets a jumpscare from a previously unseen landlady that promptly goes the way of the starfaced fortune tellers and the trio reconnoitres to discuss their next move. Jody sends Reggie to the Sherrif with the Tommy and sends Mike to the nearby antique store where he'll be safe. It's there that Mike finds some old photographs and realizes that the Tall Man has been around for a very long time, at least since the 1800s. He makes the two girls manning the store take him home, where they run into Reggie's overturned truck on the way. They barely have time to inspect it before one of the demon dwarves attacks them in the car, hijacking it and kidnapping the two girls as Mike narrowly escapes through the back window. We stumbles back home as Jody is gearing up to head out. Having had quite enough of all this wandering away bullshit, Jody just locks Mike in his room and wedges a screwdriver into the doorframe to keep him there. Mike is upset, but there is a pretty neat, nonverbal scene where he figures out how to construct a makeshift thunderstick out of a spare shotgun shell and a hammer, blowing a hole in the door and escaping. He makes for the front door, running right into the Tall Man, who has all ten fingers back and seems pretty pissed off. He gets grabbed and tossed into the back of the hearse, but still has the Colt that Jody left him with, using it to shoot his way out and take out the tires, causing the car to crash and fireball. Easily explosive cars seems to be another trend I'm running into in this series.
Meanwhile Jody is busy exhuming his parent's grave, but cannot bear to look inside. Mike on the other hand, does so, finding it empty. Another silver ball is zipping around the mausoleum during all of this, but Mike runs back into his brother, who blows it out of the air with a very impressive shot. Then Reggie of all people shows up. He claims to have escaped the dwarves and had been hiding in a coffin, even going so far as to have saved a basement full of captured girls. This is all so rushed, that either this is some sort of trap, or a pretty sizable scene got cut out of the film for time.
The group finally heads through the black door, revealing a wall of black barrels in a small, brightly lit white room, right next to a pair of small pillars on the far side. Jody inspects the barrels, finding each one to contain a dwarf, while Mike inspects the two pillars, discovering that they form a sort of invisible portal, while Reggie hangs back, ready to betray either of them if that's what he's planning. But instead, Mike reminds himself not to fear and enters the portal of his own accord, finding a doorway to Mars or something. Aliens! It was aliens all along! This is a neat, cosmic-horror twist that I actually appreciate. After getting pulled back through, Mike finally deduces the entire plan: The Tall Man either kills people or takes in the bodies of the recently deceased and reanimates them, compressing their bodies so that they can serve as slaves on his home world. They are compressed in order to survive the radiation and high gravity. This seems like a needlessly complicated interdimensional plan for just a bit of cheap labour.
The lights go out and more dwarves jump the boys, until everyone manages to get split up and the power returns. As Mike and Jody stumble around outside, Reggie gets the bright idea that the gate works the same way as a tuning fork and puts his hand on it to just...stop the vibrations. It works, and the whole place starts to collapse in the face of this. Jody and Mike meet up outside while Reggie runs into The Tall Man in the same blonde lady form as before, clearly just trying to get a little extra lady time in but taking advantage of this to stab Reggie. Mike and Jody get away, but they aren't done yet. Jody heads up to the old mine shaft, planning to disguise it and lure the otherwise unstoppable Tall Man into it. He actually promises to come back for Mike this time, though it seems like the fifth time that this kid has snuck away on his own on the past two days. Mike, of course, runs into The Tall Man again and manages to escape the house. Again, his attempt to “Not Fear” strays him awry when fleeing, directing him in corpse filled quicksand and nearly getting him stabbed by Tall Man is blonde lady form. I think I can safely say that those two ladies were just fucking with him. He manages to spot and jump the covered up mineshaft, which Tall Man just stumbles into, sliding down just as Jody plugs the hole with some conveniently timed falling rocks. Then, with the danger finally defeated, Mike....wakes up?This is a twist that kind of comes right the hell out of nowhere. He wanders downstairs and recounts his odd dream to Reggie, of all people, who is still alive and has been his guardian since his brother Judy died in a car wreck. Whaaaaaat?
I appreciate that the movie is trying to blow my mind with this, but the problem is that this twist wasn't really set up all that much. Sure, Mike very briefly talks about his fears that Jody will leave him behind, but there isn't an overarching theme of loss or trying to let go like there was in a film like Pet Sematary. This is further compounded when Reggie suggests a change of scenery to Mike and sends him off to pack. He heads upstairs, only to find the The Tall Man is real, and right behind him. And then he gets pulled through a mirror, then the movie's over.
Okay, I appreciate that this film tried to throw reality into question with the end of this film, but I still am not sure what happened for all of this. The big "it was all a dream" twist doesn't really have a lot of time to sink in before the rug is pulled out from under us again by the ending. If it had a bit more foreshadowing, beyond a single snatch of dialogue and the general dreamlike quality of the visuals, I might be more receptive. But again, the very ending where the Tall Man shows up again isn't clever, the ending to Inception is clever. This is just confusing and makes me think that the director was sort of making up the film as he went along. If we would like to talk about strengths, this movie has a very unique, surreal tone to it that is helped with the strange visuals, excellent cinematography and electronic soundtrack. I'm reminded of some more independent European horror when I watch this film, even touching at films like Suspiria. Also, I'm a sucker for cosmic horror, so that's always a plus in my book. On the other side of the coin, the directing is pretty awkward when it isn't well framed, and the acting ranks from "meh" to terrible. It's easy to see why this movie is the cult classic that it is known as, being distinct in it's look and subject matter and worth checking out if you're in the mood.
1987s Hellraiser was a movie that I actually sought out, intending to watch it as the final film of my annual Halloween movie night. I have had very little exposure to this prolific horror film series, save via the occasional pop-culture reference to the franchise's poster boy, Pinhead. That marked up, porcupine looking dude always has a tendency to show up whenever icons of horror are gathering, despite the fact that I always thought he was a tad silly looking. I mean c'mon, he looks like that Guinness world record guy who clipped the most clothespins to his face. And I bet THAT hurt more than poking yourself with that many pins. The edgelord demons of this movie aside, I was led to understand that this movie actually had something going for it, and in my urge to continue exploring the initial entries in long-running horror movie franchises, I decided to take up Hellraiser.
This movie, based on the Clive Barker novella The Hell Bound Heart opens with a mysterious man selling a collector's edition rubik's cube to a traveler who looks in desperate need of a manicure. At the very least he could take a cuticle scraper under those nails. He returns home with his strange and mystical item, and his cursed frogurt with choice of topping. I gotta say, this guy goes full-bore with his mysterious cursed object rituals, even so far as lighting a little cube shaped outline of candles while playing with his cube. He dicks around with the puzzle box until something clicks and things get crazy, including a pair of the sketchiest looking shwarma cookers ever coming out of the darkness, the appearance of everybody's favourite edgelord demons and our puzzle enthusiast getting attacked by extreme body mods. Something or other happens and we can assume that he gets ripped apart, leaving a few chunks of face behind that the Pinhead monster rearranges and then disappears with, leaving the attic empty.
Flash forward a year or so and some new couple is moving into the old place, pacing around and cleaning out all the old furniture, moldy food and eerie prevalence of Jesus statues. Why the hell does this guy have so much Christian imagery lying around when he's super into solving hellboxes upstairs? Did he think his plastic Jesus would protect him whether it rains or freezes, or when torture fetish demons spew forth to drag him to bondage hell? It clearly didn't work out.
This couple consists of Larry and Julia, who have seized the property of Larry's brother, Frank, after his mysterious disappearance. They argue about how creepy and musty this old place, just as Julia finds some old photos of Frank in sexual congress with a variety of ladies. Gosh, in some he's even wearing MASKS while he plows his partner. I understand that this is supposed to show that Frank is some sort of experimental sexual deviant, but seriously, at best he's role playing with a kabuki mask while roping some poor shmuck into snapping photos of these relatively vanilla nooky sessions. Seriously, the average furry gets more adventurous than this. Where is the closet full of bondage gear? Where's the mounted sex swing and wide array sex toys? Where are all the collars for his “secret dogs”? Julie actually pocketed the photos, clearly intrigued as the daughter of the family, Kristy comes in.
As she says hello to her father and cordially greets her stepmother, the movers stagger in through the front door with a hefty mattress, eyeballing them both up and commenting on the goods. This is still the 80s, so they aren't fired on the spot for this, and Larry helps the guys shift this hefty thing upstairs. Meanwhile Julia is looking over the pictures of Frank, tearing the other lady out of each one. It seems that back when she first met Larry, she also was intrigued by Frank's rapeyness. This flashback goes into full on wet dream territory as she remembers the day after her own wedding when a sexy, rain-soaked Frank showed up at her door and basically leered her into adultery on the spot. Back in the present, Larry cuts himself on a nail while heading up the stairs and bleeds heavily, staggering into a side room upstairs and spilling his blood all over the floor. Get it? He cut himself on a nail while Julia remembers getting NAILED? Eh? Clever?
Larry heads to the hospital with his family while the blood he spilled seeps into the floor boards and hits a bit of viscous tissue that seems to have been left behind after Frank's little foray into the unknown. With the house still abandoned, the bloodied tissue begins to coalesce and ooze out from between the floorboards, and a human body begins to reconstitute itself. I can't lie, this is probably the best scene in the entire movie. This pre-Terminator 2 scene of a human body pulling itself together from a pile of primordial goo, going from a loosely defined skeleton covered in flailing tubes to growing back a brain and eventually connective tissue is achieved almost entirely with animatronics, reversed footage and stop motion, backed up by the thunderously epic score of the film composed by Christopher Young. The effects are excellent, the scene is skin crawling and the music and lighting gives the whole thing a sweeping, gothic feel that just had me going :D the entire time. The scene is punctuated by the wretched, half-formed man letting out an agonized scream as his lungs form within his chest. No snarky commentary, this is just awesome.
That night, the family is entertaining guests at a dinner party when Julia decides to just get up and leave, throwing down a vague insult and clearly still pining for Frank. Well today's your lucky day lady! She heads up to the vacant attic and runs into gooboy as he sort of flails at her. He's still just bones and connective tissue at this point, though he has enough of a face to beg for her help. Somehow, he manages to convince her that he actually IS Frank and tells her that he needs blood. He figures if a splash of his brother's blood got him this far (which is quite impressive) then more will eventually get him mobile and fully formed. She flees in terror as Frank just sort of continues to flail there, all sad and goopey.
While all this gross crap is going on, Kristie is walking back to her place with her boyfriend, discussing those things that young couples in the 80's discuss while some creepy Alan Moore peeps in on them from the alleyway. Julia and Kristy both have very different dreams that night, with Kristy envisioning a feather coated table that holds her father's corpse, and Julia having a more intimate nighttime encounter with Frank's memory, back when he had skin. She wakes up all flustered and goes back to the KY-Jelly coated skeleton in the corner, promising to help him because she still wants to jump his bones, even though that's all he's got left at this point. Hey-ya! Apparently Julia is a total drama queen and danger-fetishist, or Frank is so good in bed that Julia is ready and willing to betray her husband and gather an indeterminate amount of human blood for him. No kidding, when Clive Barker found that he could not keep the original title of his novella, The Hellbound Heart for the movie, he started shopping around for an alternative and one of the suggestions from a female production member was What A Woman Will Do For A Good Fuck. Meanwhile downstairs, Kristy has called her father at 2 in the morning because of her scary dream, even though I'm pretty sure this is exactly what her parents had her move out to keep from happening.
By the next day, Julia has gone full Black Widow mode, seducing men with her shoulder pads and luring them back to the house. Man, you don't need to automatically resort to murder if you just need blood. All it took was a little splash to get him this far, how much could he possibly need? I, on my own, could probably secure a bag or two of blood from a hospital or something if I really had to. And there's nothing stopping me from donating a little of my own blood to the cause. Seriously, stretch all this over a week or two and with a little bit of patience, you'll be strolling around fully formed in no time. But no, she decides to take the psycho route and seduces this schlub up to the attic, seemingly able to talk him into having sex on the dry, splintery floor. One gross disrobing scene later, she clubs him over the head with a hammer a few times and leaves his body for this gross, slippery vampire to feed on. Jeez, Frank doesn't even help her tidy up after, even after growing back muscles from this last feast. He looks a little better now, and by “better” I mean “Like a Bodyworlds exhibit has climbed off of it's dais and is putting the movies on one of the Heathers”. Frank explains that he needs to get his body back and start running before the demons who imprisoned him in Sex Hell, the Cenobites, realize that he has escaped.
Back in the much less interesting plot of Kristy's day to day, her job at the pet shop is interrupted by the reappearance of Alan Moore, who eats a handful of crickets and “vanishes” after Kristy takes her eyes off of him for a solid 30 seconds to talk to her boyfriend. That dealt with, he cut back to Julia clubbing another guy and Frank draining him dry. Also, the momentum of this restoration is really starting to slow down. The first splash of blood gave him physical form and enough structure to crawl around, but two whole dudes later, and he still looks like he's missing a few chunks. He even comments that his nerves are finally growing back. Frank rewards this latest bout of murder with more information, stating that so long as he has the puzzle box (Which he, by the way, has for some reason. Didn't Pinhead grab that when they were cleaning up after him?) then he is assured that the demons will not be able to cross over and reclaim him. He's still in need of flesh, and probably some new skin, but Julia doesn't feel like offering up Larry just yet. Even when he comes back that night with his dander up and starts to make out with his wife while Frank sneaks around upstairs. Man, Larry seems awfully oblivious to all of this stuff that's going on in his house, including the fact that there is even a third man living UPSTAIRS in a small room that branches directly off from the main hall. The fact that said man is a dripping corpse and looking to nail his wife is just icing on this cake. They get ready to bone, but then Frank appears out of the closet and mutilates a rat right in front of Julia with a switchblade that I guess he conjured out of the ether, which I imagine is enough to put her right out of the moan. Larry mistakes her wife pleading for his life for protests and whines for a bit before deciding to fall asleep downstairs while watching wrestling. The next day he actually calls up his daughter to ask her to check in on his wife and see why she isn't horny. Dang dude. As Julia brings in yet another guy for Frank to suck on, Kristy sees her escorting him inside and naturally assumes adultery. Well, she's HALF right. She storms in to confront them, only to run across a freshly hammered corpse and a skinless man in a suit with the best line in the whole movie:
Shockingly enough, this doesn't calm her down. Frank quickly gets handsy, but Kristy remembers that he is still a mass of exposed muscles and nerves and thus could be fucked up with a good, hard poke. And poke him she does, grabbing the puzzle cube from his hands. She manages to escape by baiting him with it and flees, finally collapsing from trauma on the sidewalk.
Kristy awakens in the hospital, interrogated by some spooky doctor who grill her and then leaves. Left alone, Kristy pulls out the box and seemingly like everyone else, can't help but messing with it for the next hour or so. Honestly, I know where she's coming from. That thing is so damn cool looking and sleek that I probably wouldn't be able to resist playing around with it until I managed to summon the hordes of deviant hell either.
She does end up opening it, which instead of bringing on the chains, spikes and spiky chains, merely opens up a portal into the upside-down that she briefly explores before realizing that this was a terrible idea and getting chased out by another cool-looking monstrosity. Then the rest of the Cenobites show up. Their terms are very simple: She opened the box, they came for her. They explain that they are explorers in a way, but instead of land, they chart the extent of experience and sensation, riding the barrier between agony and ecstasy until it no longer exists. And I gotta say, only Pinhead and the Cat Lady actually talk during all of this (by way of one having his mouth shut and the other not having lips) but man, do these guys know how to hold a scene. Pretty much every line they say is the finest grade of ham, and quotable as hell. Kristy pleads that she had no idea of the implications involved, but Pinhead merely remarks that it's not really his problem: You are in for an eternity of sensation obliterating torture until you learn to love it, just as Frank was. She tries to bargain, saying that Frank escaped their clutches and offering his soul for hers. They say that they'll consider it, leaving her in one piece, with one final warning: Do not attempt to cheat them, or they will “TEEAAARRR YOUR SOOUL APPAAAAAARRRRRT”
Back at home, Julie has seemingly gotten over her whole “Don't wanna murder my husband” thing and innocently invites a still utterly oblivious Larry upstairs. Honestly, if you are that blind to the goings on of your own damn house, then this is your fault for god's sake. Frank descends the steps wearing Larry's skin a few minutes later, and I have to wonder the true extent of this guys parasitic powers. How does he drink people? What, did he perfectly skin Larry with that switchblade of his and then wriggle inside? Is this The Mummy rules where absorbing other people's vitae regenerates his own body, or is this Jeepers Creepers rules where he replaces his own body parts with other peoples? Anyway, Julia finally gets that sweet sweet undead sex that she so craves until Kristy barges in, trying to warn them both of what's going on. “Larry” assures her that everything is fine and that he killed Frank. Poor fool was like a mad dog after all, and had to be put out of his misery. Kristy is a little slow on the uptake here, even pretty solidly ignoring the fact that Frank is obviously wearing her father's scalp like a wig. Kristy inspects the skinned corpse of what she does not know is her father while the murder couple downstairs wonders what to do with her. The Cenobites show up, demanding to know who did this. Kristy doesn't understand, still not clued in until Frank shows up, trying to comfort her/come on to her. Kristy quickly figures it out, clawing his loose skin off and bolting. Julia holds her, but merely succeeds in getting stabbed herself. Frank merely shrugs and stalks after Kristy as she flees upstairs, hiding briefly where she stumbles across the distorted body of one of Frank's victims. What, they were just getting stowed away in the spare room? The other spare room that's across the hall from the bleeding man corpse? Jesus Larry, how did all of this skip your notice? I mean I know you're dead, but unless a bottle rocket went off in your nose as a kid, you'd probably be able to smell SOMEthing.
Kristy escapes her husband's notice long enough to creep outside and just sort of...stand there until Frank grabs her and throws her back into the murder room. She finally calls him a murder and he replies “I'm just your old uncle Frank”.
As soon as the confession leaves his lips, the Cenobites show up again, explaining that they had to hear it from him. He can barely protest before the Criss Angel stunt attacks him again, pulling him every which way until he is completely immobilized by hooks and his flesh stretched to the point of breaking. At the very zenith of agony, he turns to Kristy and his screams terminate into a smirk. He licks his teeath at her in a final lewd gesture and speaks the shortest sentence of The Bible: “Jesus Wept”
And then he is torn apart. It's a pretty powerful scene helped by the phenomenal creature effects and Clive Barker's characterization of Frank. Of COURSE the last thing he did before spending an eternity in torture hell was make a pass at his own niece.
Kristy of course tries to run, but the Cenobites have deiced that they might as well take her along for the ride while they're here. They chase her around the house for a bit until she finds the Puzzle box clutched in the hands of a dissected Julia. In the original book, the Cenobites actually just left Kristy alone after claiming Frank and that was that, but this is a movie and we need or Big Dumb Ending. Kristy fiddles around with the puzzle box, figuring that if solving it summons the demons, then solving and unsolving rapidly in succession will banish them. It's actually kind of a clever idea, with the heroine actually hacking an infernal artifact in order to survive. And she does, kinkshaming the BDSM monsters one by one into oblivion with the power of puzzles.
Her boyfriends bursts in in the last ten minutes to see if he can help, but really only just gets almost eaten by the Uncle Fester looking one before the building falls on him. Kristy has a brief slapfight with the Hallway Monster and then she and Nameless Boyfriend flee, the house collapsing behind them and presumably getting sucked into hell. As they stand amongst the flaming wreckage, Kristy pulls the box out of her pocket and tosses it into the flames. But then Alan Moore shows up! And he grabs the box, then turns into a bone demon and flies away! What? Why did he keep following Kristy even when she didn't have the box? And what was with those prophetic dreams that she kept having? Okay! The whole scene shrinks away into one side of the box as if this is the ending to another episode of Hellraiser:The Series or something, and the movie ends the same way it began: Some mysterious shopkeeper offering the puzzle box to a curious customer while asking him the simple question: What's your pleasure?
I actually ended up quite liking this movie. While what I've seen of the other films in this series do not speak volumes about their quality, Hellraiser ended up being a dark, occasionally unsettling and thoroughly enjoyable exploration into limits of human desire. Clive Barker acted as the writer and director for this adaptation, so it is interesting to see what a writer will do with his own work on screen. Clive Barker certainly proves to be a competent writer as well as director, and I am left interested in what other work he has done. The film asks two very simple question: What are you into? And how far are you willing to go to get it? We see people like the movers ogling people up on their work hours, we meet Julia, who is willing to resort to murder in order to be with the one man who ever made her feel sexually fulfilled, and of course Frank, who considers himself above the rewards of mere human sexual fulfillment, but is clearly unprepared for the sheer extremity of pure sensation, which leaves him flayed and broken. I quite enjoy that the real villain of the narrative is not the demons, but rather Frank himself, a man who has touched the infernal beyond and has come back a literal shell of himself. His own quest to return to humanity from his experience in hell and the corruption he brings with him is the real driving force, and the demons themselves only show up when they are called. They will eagerly re balance the scales when a need to do so is necessary, and only ever lay claim to those that summoned them. They are more of an underlying tone than a genuine threat, and at the very end, they do not put up nearly as much of a threat as Frank did. It's a neat little film, though the wealth of practical effects probably suckered me in more than it should have. I can give this one a solid recommendation.
In a desire to add another werewolf movie to my repertoire, I flipped through the channels and resources available to me and eventually settled on a Canadian film called Skinwalkers. This 2007 film came out in that very special era of paranormal movies when the cool kids were trying to emulate Supernatural, that fresh, new groundbreaking show about sexy men who fight monsters. Remember those days, before that freaking show entered it's twelvth season? And boy howdy, does it's influence show itself off in this film right here. Let's see if we can catch up with Skinwalkers.
The film opens on the productions credits and the first little yellow flag pops up when the Lionsgate logo flashes across the screen. I only say YELLOW flag because hey, Lionsgate distributed Dredd as well. Then again, they also did the entire Saw franchise, so we're on very shaky ground here already. The narration starts up and some young chitlin' tells us that there are all sorts of scary thing out there. This is reenforced by a shot of a dude running through the woods, presumably away from one such scary thing. Alright, I can get into it. Guy fleeing through the woods, the corpses of his friends scattered all about the place, some unseen assailant hunting him through the woods? Okay, I can dig it. He's probably gonna get jumped by some out of focus shaggy creature and mauled to death and we're gonna listen to him getting chewed up while the titles appear. Hey it's a little predictable, but if the filmmakers are smart, they'll stick some kind of twist in there somewhere. You can't argue with the classics.
He finally hides behind a tree, panting heavily. This is horror movie code for “about to die”, so no real tension here. Sure enough he gets jumped by some big hairy monster and-
Wait. No. That's not a werewolf, that's a guy. I mean, yeah, werewolves are people too, but c'mon. We just started this movie and this opening entree just got clubbed over the head by some Woolie with a scar on his face and a really gross beard. You know, the kind of beard you grow when you can't actually grow a beard? My kind of beard?
Dead Meat here comes to, hung upside down and being interrogated by this biker gang that looks like it shops at Harrods. Some some lady Evil Sexys at him for a little bit in that way that I mentioned never convinces me back in Scarehouse. (Fuck this movie for ever making me think of that one again) and he says he ain't saying nothing about no kid. What, there's a kid involved? She says fine, and takes his gun away, noting that it's loaded with silver bullets as she empties it onto the ground. Okay, so they are the werewolves? She says that the silver bullets are cute. So what, do they affect them? What are the rules here? Then the full moon shows up at what is at best, late afternoon and turns red. And they all freak out about this for some reason, saying that the clock is ticking. Evil Girl shoots Dead Meat in the face with the gun she just unloaded and they all bust out of there.
Over by some cabin, a group of people that look like extras from Corner Gas are busy watching a home movie of a kid playing with a train set, all taking great solace in the fact that he is alive, well and hidden. Why? What's up with this kid? What sort of chosen one are we dealing with this time? The group are all happy about his safety and head downstairs for the night...strapping themselves into these big hanging leather-daddy harnesses. Dammit, this is the second movie I've watched that had an overarching theme of gimp suits. I swear this isn't on purpose. They lock eachother up, just as the power goes out upstairs. The guy whom I can only guess is the Dom in this polyamourous bondage relationship (Hey man, whatever floats your boat) heads upstairs to investigate and gets jumped by the Woolie upstairs. I think. The editing in this movie actually cuts back downstairs before the camera focuses on whatever is being revealed.
Then his body comes tumbling down the stairs and all of the bondage friends stat to freak out when this Sam Winchester looking dude strolls in with the rest of the Fashion Wolves. Helpless, the harnessed people won't tell him, and by extension the audience, anything about this magical mystery child, so he guts them all with his knife while accusing them of trying to play martyr. This man is named Varick, and yes, he's the second supernatural ringleader that I've met this month with that name. This guy doesn't even have the excuse of having been born in the 1400s or something. His name is just Varick. Also, it only takes a few lines to make it clear that this man was hired for his cheekbones alone. He just isn't that great of an actor, whispering and rasping his lines in an attempt to sound evil and persuasive, but coming off as a man needing a lozenge.
After slaughtering everyone downstairs, the bad guys manage to get a clue from the video tape of the child, even though the bondage enthusiasts masked hid identity well, even avoiding showing his face. The group heads out, noting that they have four days to find the boy.
Meanwhile, the boy in question is having some bad dreams, visions of a Michael Myers dude flashing through his head. He wakes up right into an asthma attack as his mother and...step dad (?) come in and help him through it. He notes that the moon is still red before going back to sleep, taking all of his secrets about why he's so important with him. Also, if this Blood Moon is actually going to last four full nights (Which also implies that the moon is going to be full for four full nights) wouldn't every astronomer in the world be absolutely shitting themselves? I know that I would. The colossal tidal and orbital upsets that this would lead to are staggering. Can you imagine a science-man wondering what the hell is going on and some janitor in the back just muttering “eh, probably some stupid werewolf prophecy or something. It'll clear up by Friday”.
The stepfather (?), Will is looking after this young boy. This boy of prophecy, this boy of destiny. There are those that call him...Tim. He dicks around in the shed while the dude who played Grace's awful husband in Stranger Things shows up outside, asking if everything is okay. This is uncle Jonas, and Rachael mentions that she is actually eager to leave this supportive network of friends and family behind and try to stand on her own now that she's a single mom. Seriously? The average single parent WISHES that they could count on so many people as you. Even the damn mailman shows up offering to hang out with Tim, and the Muffin Lady right behind him.
Muffin Lady looks after Tim for a while, noticing that he has started to carry a knife now, using it to fix his train set. He says his mom gave it to him when he found it, claiming that it belonged to his father. This might possibly be an interesting bit of character building or foreshadowing, but Tim BARELY has a presence or personality in this movie, just being passed from one guardian to the next like he's a Macguffin with a handle. That knife does not come up again in any meaningful way. Then some poorly-executed mid-2000's soul patch wanders in with a guy attached to it and starts putting the moves on muffin lady. Tim wanders into town with his Nana as Rachael tends to her job at the store and the bikers show up in town with their bad attitudes and leather jackets and cleavage and start looking for a fight.
Also, I know that Varick here is supposed to be all sexy with a jawline that could cut glass and all, but something about that stubble and the wideness of his face just makes him look like Nick Kroll from The League to me. Especially when he's wearing sunglasses like right now. Nana and Rachael both get a bad vibe, then some badly CGI'd eagel flies past them and Varick confronts Tim. Nana is clearly not having it and just whips a huge ass revolver out of her purse. Dang. Varick counters, and of course he wields a pair of Desert Eagles like the absolute tool that he is. I swear, that freaking gun gets so much coverage in movies and it's all because it just looks gigantic and sorta cool. Even Deadpool, a movie I love, is guilty of this, giving the titular character these two weapons in lieu of anything a trained mercenary would actually use. Hey Wade, I bet you wouldn't have to count out your shots if you carried weapons that could hold more than 7 bullets, 8 if you chamber a round. I suppose it's always just a matter of what looks good on camera, and a pair of huge, chrome plated handguns are certainly fun to look at, though I imagine that the recoil of firing just one of those things one handed would smack you in the face, never mind holding a five-pound hunk of metal at arm's length for an entire shootout.
And shootout they do, with the biker gang firing away at every pane of glass in sight while seemingly everyone in town returns fire, blasting at each other back and forth. Even the postman has a gun in his bag. I mean, I suppose this would be a neat action scene if I cared about any of these people, but I was promised werewolves, dammit. So far the best I've seen is one or two guys in need of a shave.
The thing about writing exposition into a story like this is that some information needs to be presented up front. We need to know who these people are and what they want. We need to know what their values are, why they are doing this and what the stakes are. And in a story with fantasy elements like this one (I'm sure they'll get here eventually), you need to give us the rules or at the very least show that audience what exactly is so special about these people. I'm not saying give us an opening title crawl or dump exposition on the audience from the very start, but you need to bleed a little more info into the film. So far all I've seen are two separate groups of people both centring around this one kid for some reason and then they get into a shooting match. There are no stakes here because we have no idea why this is happening.
Rachael hits the deck as the gunfight fills the street, meeting up with Nana as she reloads and grabbing Tim, being told to run. They do so as the locals clear out, leaving the leather-clad bad guys to walk the streets.
Police? Nowhere to be found.
The good guys all pile into an RV and escape, forced to leave Nana behind as she gets gunned down and blows up a gas station to cover their escape. Rachael clutches Tim when she sees that the back of the RV is filled with the same gimp suits we saw earlier, clearly having no damn clue what's going on. Back in the aftermath, Granny has tanked that bullet and staggers to her feet. Oddly, Varick seems willing to spare her until she shows them a little monster face, at which point he puts a bullet in her head. Back in the RV, I think I'm sort of getting a vague idea of what's going on. Rachael is told to stay in the back by Will, who locks himself in the driver's cabin. They bear witness to the rest of their friends and family securing themselves in their restraint suits, then one by one turn into snarling wolf beasts as the sun sets. It seems that Rachael and her son knew nothing about any of this. Tim actually approaches one of the animals and seems to be able to calm it down for just a second, before it snaps at them and prompts Will to let them into the cabin, explaining that they needed to see it for themselves. As the Bad, Leather-Wearing Wolves go through a similar transformation out in the woods, Will finally rattles off the rules for these werewolves (or rather “skinwalkers”) and Tim's significance:
Oh Jeez, I'm rambling again. Oh and Will is just some guy that helps them out, mentioning that “His people have been guiding them” And now I have even more questions. This is what happens when you wait until half an hour into your movie for someone to tell you what the heck is going on all at once. The gimps in the back all want to be free of their curse and have abstained from human flesh, but the Biker Wolves are totally down for murder and want to kill Tim before he can do whatever in three days time.
This is all interspersed with the Bad Wolves kicking in the door of some out-in-the -middle-of-nowhere bar and running rampant. I can say, the werewolves themselves don't look too bad, going for a Lawrence Talbot look with big hairy bodies and flat, snarling faces that look sufficiently monstrous. I dig the giant eyes they have. The skinwalker feeding frenzy quickly turns into a good ol' blood orgy (Another thing that keeps popping up in my movies) and the bad wolves bone until sunrise.
Back with the Bondage Wolves, Tim has passed out after another vision of the home invasion that haunts his dreams, and wakes up at the hospital. Everybody is on edge, Postman even pulling a gun on a poor nurse, laughing it off as “nerves”. I guess that's something you get used to working out in the country. Her day isn't going great, especially when another nurse finds her dead, just as Jonas spots Liam swinging around outside. Another shootout ensues through the hospital as the Leather Wolves try to reach Tim, but Postman manages to get them outside to safety, at the cost of his own life. Varick strolls out, holding muffin lady hostage. He and Jonas have a debate about the merits of werewolfiness, with Varick pointing out that Jonas is denying his true nature. This metahumanist argument fizzles when Jonas finally reveals the Big Twist of the movie with the line.
“Give me back your niece, for the sake of your son”
For this to work, then that means that this is the first time that Rachael actually got a good look at Varick. Things go south and Will guns the engine, getting everyone back inside as they drive off. Rachael is naturally a little pissed off that in addition to the boatload of werewolf information that she has been denied for so long, the group also never let her know about the leader of the bad guys being her damn husband Caleb, whom she thought was dead. Jonas states that this was done to “Protect her” but I sincerely doubt that. What, you aren't gonna tell her that the man who will one day come and try to kill your son will be wearing the face of his father? That would be a pretty crucial bit of information.
Back with the Biker Wolves, it seems that Varick didn't know about any of this either. I suppose it's just that special selective amnesia that makes people forget plot-relevant, shocking information but doesn't wipe out their toilet training. He's still committed to killing his son. But seriously, how was this a secret to Rachael? Did her husband just disappear once a month to parts unknown along with his entire family and their friends without arousing suspicion? How many times can you use “poker night went on a bit too long” as an excuse? Did Caleb not recognize his son's face? Why would he have a reason to believe Jonas? I suppose the story goes that their house was attacked in the nightmare Tim keeps having, then a wounded Caleb turned somehow and tasted human flesh, which seems to have turned him into a completely different person. And now he's running with these yahoos as their alpha, while they wonder about what to do with muffin lady, other than making her bake them a tray of delicious muffins of course.
There is a debate between Adam, his soul patch, and the rest of the Bondage wolves over what is to be done about Muffin Lady, his girlfriend. Jonas puts the matter to bed, stating that she is bait, but after another night of wolfiness, Soul Patch heads off to find her. I have no idea how he ends up finding her strung up against a cliff face so quickly, as tracking ability was never mentioned within the slate of werewolf powers, but he does indeed find his lady love and brings her back to camp, receiving a slap in the face from Jonas for leading the rest of the pack to their location. As the gang piles into the RV and hits the road, night begins to fall on the final day. Just a few more hours and the moon will strike Termina unless Link can awaken the four giants an-
Sorry, I just wish I was playing Majora's Mask right about now.
Muffin lady is acting a little more violent than usual as the gang straps each other into their harnesses for the night. She finally lashes out, snapping Will's neck in that way that bad movies think is even remotely possible and starts snarling about how good it feels. It seems that some time last night she tasted human flesh and has been turned into an Evil Werewolf. Soul Patch and Jonas are both bound against the wall, so they can only verbally plea with a feral Muffin Lady as she considers eating Will on the spot. Okay, I have to say that this is probably the best scene in the film. We know who all of these people, it has genuine tension and the added horror of seeing someone you love transform into a figurative monster while you are all on the verge of turning into literal monsters. Nick manages to get his gun out and Jonas begs him to shoot his daughter, that she is not the same person anymore and too dangerous to be left alive. Nick cannot and Muffin Lady (Who's name is Kat by the way) shoots him with his own weapon while Jonas struggles to get free, actually wriggling an arm out and making a grab for a weapon. At this point, I know that you need to stretch out tension, but there does not seem to be anything physically worming put of that thing or reaching over and unlatching himself like he is making a great show of being unable to do. Eventually however, Tim investigates from the front seat and tries to fend off Kat with a shotgun, until Jonas finally reaches his gun and shoots his daughter in the head. Harsh deal, man.
Just as soon as that crisis is dealt with, the RV smacks into Liam and flips off road. How was Liam involved in any of this? Was he magic? How do you train an eagle to kamikaze a cars windshield?
The Biker Wolves descend on the wreck, but the Bondage wolves have already holed up in a nearby factory. Jonas locks them both in a storage cage, giving them the key and a shotgun as he begins to turn. He makes them promise to shoot him if he threatens either of them. Jonas wolfs out and the trio of bad wolves stroll in, ready for the final showdown.
The Mark Strong one goes down first, getting swept off his feet by a trap that Jonas set and being dropped on his head. Then Varrick/Caleb comes face to face with Jonas and the two WolfFight, which is actually kinda neat. They toss each other around and try to outmaneuver their opponent, all while the Lady Wolf drops in on the humans. There is a brief scuffle where Tim wings her with the shotgun, then Rachael finishes the job, leaving Varrick and Jonas as the last wolves standing.
For some ungodly reason, Rachael leaves the relatively defensible shelter of the cage and confronts Varrick, begging him not to kill his son. There's a brief moment when it looks like he's considering it, but then just smacks her and looks ready to eat Tim until Jonas charges back in, dragging the fight up to the catwalk. Then Tim runs in, with not much of a plan. He just sort of yells at them both until Varrick looks up and Jonas manages to sucker punch him. Then Jonas looks ready to eat the kid until Rachael pumps him full of lead. So yeah, that kid pretty much got his uncle killed. Tim makes one last appeal to his father as he gets back up, even flashing the knife from the beginning of the movie. It looks like there might be an ounce of recognition in daddy's face, but nope. He just takes a bite out of Tim, just as the clock strikes midnight.
Just as that happens, Varrick is thrown back, tumbling to the floor below and leaving Rachael to tend to her son's massive shoulder bit wound. Or not, as the kid seems fine. They go down to inspect what just occurred and Caleb has transformed back into a human. Whatever happened caused the wolf to leave him and he is himself once more, looking up at his wife and son while flexing hard as he can.
The family checks into a motel with a shellshocked Caleb trailing behind them. Gosh, that must have been an awkward reunioun. “Hey honey, sorry about murdering all of your friends and support network, and it's totally my bad about all of that terror you lived through. Also, I had crazy forest sex with that girl you emptied that 12-gauge into, but you gotta understand, I was REALLY into eating people”.
They get a minor scare when it looks like The Grim Reaper himself is sneaking up on them, but they just end up menacing a trick-or-treater, realizing that it's Halloween. That scare was ungodly cheap, but it's still probably the most frightening part of the movie. The film ends with more narration, Tim explaining that because of some prophecised hocus-pocus, his blood now contains a cure for lycanthropy, which is how his father turned back after getting a mouthful of it. Realizing that goading werewolves into biting him isn't the best battle tactic, the family starts making “cure bullets” out of blood filled hollow point rounds just as the movie ends, with Julian Richings (Oh hey, nice to see that guy again) knocking at the door and asking to be cured, some butt-rock carrying us into the credits.
It bothers me that I have to add this film to the long list of sub-par Canadian Horror that I've already looked at this month. This film was doomed from the beginning with a badly paced script that takes too long to explain itself, then gets bogged down by a host of bad performances that sabotage what good ones there are to be found. I mentioned that this film tries to copy Supernatural a great deal, and that is obvious from the rural setting to the flannel n' denim that everybody is sporting, the guns being waved around and the prevalence of sexy stubble on everyone. The problem is that while this movie certainly copied the aesthetic well enough, it didn't quite nail the narrative tone that made the first few seasons so good. I have said in the past that Supernatural could be seen as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dukes of Hazzard”. There is a certain gruff, blue collar charm about the show coupled with black comedy and a desire to explore the unknown that made the show so intriguing, before it jumped the rail into dead horse territory. This film does not really nail that, and while the creature effects by Stan Winston are quite good and the third act does manage to pick up a LITTLE slack, it's still nothing special.
Eager for something on the verge of the modern horror era, the film that I decided to watch today is Wes Craven's People Under The Stairs a 1991 horror movie intended to explore the question of what exactly goes on in that creepy house across the street that kids don't like to walk past. It's a novel idea, and one of the films that paints the character of the home invaders as the sort-of good guys. Thanks to a formatting muck up, I managed to lose all of the notes I took on this film and am relying purely on memory for this typed up review. So let's not waste any more time and go meet The People Under The Stairs.
Our film open on a tarot card as a boy is getting his fortune told by his sister, Ruby, on his thirteenth birthday. She discusses the merits of The Fool, the first card in the Tarot and this kid's chosen sigil. The fool is young and reckless, usually unaware of what dangers lie around him and reliant on luck or the help of others. He can either lose himself to his naivete until it leads to disaster, or change his course and travel through adversity, burning away the boy until only the man remains. It's a decent intro to the character that we'll be following around the rest of the movie and some nice foreshadowing, although it brings in a theme of mysticism that we do not see repeated or touched upon again for the rest of the movie.
The film opens for real on Poindexter, but that name is actually more embarrassing than the nickname “Fool”, so everyone calls him that. His family is in rough shape, considering that his mother can't work because she has Movie Cancer, her sister can barely hold down a job in the nonspecific ghetto that they live in, and Ving Rhames is just sort of chilling about the place. They missed their rent payment by a week, which means that the price has tripled and they are going to be evicted pretty soon, so the folks need cash fast.
If you're wondering what kind of sadistic loon would actually institute such ludicrous rent policies, the answer is given in the next scene with a stiffly dressed couple dining in their living room as their daughter ferries dishes to and from the room. The patriarch is actively eating what looks like half a deer while spitting out buckshot, and the mother is stitching a dress while loudly extolling the virtues of their plan to drive up the rent of the local buildings that they own and evict all of the residents, knocking down the place so that they can build condominiums full of “Nice, clean people”. She also scolds her daughter for speaking out of turn.
I'm pretty sure this is what a given left-winger thinks Republicans live like.
These people, who I'm just gonna call the Trumps, are clearly emotionally abusing their daughter. She eats alone in her room until the mother comes upstairs to collect her plate, finding that a fork is missing. The daughter tries to find it, only to have a clawed hand poke out of a vent to give it to her. It's a neat and pretty spooky reveal that this poor girl might have some sort of odd, ghost ally or something. The Mother almost immediately calls her on it, believing that her daughter has been feeding “That thing in the walls”. So they know about it? Jesus, these people seem more and more like distant cousins of The Addams Family that Gomez and Morticia don't like inviting over to family reunions. The Father strolls in, the first words out of his mouth being: “Some n**gers robbed the store”.
Well fine thanks, how are you?
Momma just sort of throws the misbehaving daughter to an irate Father and leaves her to be physically abused, heading off downstairs.
The next day, Fool returns through the ghetto hellscape he calls home and has no answers about what to do for money. Ving Rhames speaks up, and I have no idea what exactly his relation is to this mother and her children. Is he like a stepdad or something? Just a dude who they let hang around because he brings the good weed? In any case, Rhames brings the idea of grand larceny to the table, saying that he has found out where the building's landlords actually live. He tells Fool that he wants him in on the operation, stating that the owners are rumoured to have an antique gold coin collection, offering to pay him a share of the bounty that could cover his mother's medical expenses. He is initially unwilling, but soon says yes, realizing that he doesn't have many other options. Also, Ving's character Leeroy is a borderline abusive, manipulative ass hole that will almost inevitably end up betraying Fool, but I still kinda like him. He's spunky.
Leeroy shows up at the house the following day, dressed as a boy scout and looking to recon the place a little bit. Man, if you're looking to buy your way in with the promise of cookies, then you're in the wrong outfit. Slap on a dress and call yourself Patty, and those two will invite you anywhere. My point is proven when the Mother doesn't so much as let him in the front door, and Fool reports back to the others, noting the heavy metal mesh over all of the windows, which strangely have the padlocks on the OUTside. The third man, Spencer decides that Plan B will be him heading up to the door as a utility man, and if that doesn't work, they have a wide array of fake moustaches to cycle through. This Silent Bob/Kevin Pollok looking dude manages to talk his way inside while posing as a gas man here to check their meter, but it's obvious that Mother has sniffed him out by the skull ring he's wearing. No self respecting civic servant would EVER be cool enough to wear a sickass skeleton ring.
Mother leaves soon after and Leeroy gets nervous, thinking that Spencer might be trying to make off with all of the loot when they don't hear back from him. He grabs Fool and pries his way inside with a crowbar, making their way into a dusty, neglected greenhouse. The doors to the actual house are thick and iron clad, but Leeroy manages to break inside, just as a rottweiler charges out and bowls him over. Quick thinking lets fool trick the doggo into the greenhouse and the two barricade the door behind themselves. Now fully inside, the two scope the creepy looking place out, Fool fitting in a little bit of social commentary as he notes that the living room of this place alone could fit ten families. The kid is naturally cagey about all of this, so Leeroy tells him to stay on lookout while he checks upstairs. Fool remains at his post for about ten seconds before investigating a noise coming from the basement, spotting Spencers clipboard on the stairwell. Wow kid, you mentioned you wanted to be a doctor one day? To his credit, he pauses halfway after seeing a mysterious shadow flitting downstairs and openly declares that he isn't THAT stupid, but then turns back AGAIN when he feels the influence of criminal peer pressure. His adventure into the basement goes as well as you would expect, with odd shadows skulking around just out of sight. He gets spooked by some odd lights that seem to be following him and actually trips over Spencer's corpse. Whatever killed him seemed to have rubbed some flour into his hair as well, unless he looked into the Ark of the Covenant or something, but he is gripping a golden coin in his hand,
confirming the existence of the treasure. Something beyond a boarded-up section of the basement tries to actually EAT Spencer's body and Fool decides it's time to beat it. He gets briefly tackled by some gangly dude with a saw on his back, but shakes him off and sprints upstairs until he accidentally triggers a booby trapped staircase, sliding back down to the bottom...then sprinting right back up that shit, because screw your booby traps, I did that all the time in grade school.
He makes it upstairs just as the couple pulls into the driveway. Fool sprints upstairs, calling for Leeroy. They find each other just as the couple (who are entering through the back door for some reason) realize that the way in has been barricaded. An attempt to flee out the front door turns out to be fruitless when the handle to the front door is electrified, leaving Fool and Leeroy trapped. They manage to force a hole open for their dog, and Leeroy actually tries to use Fool as bait to lure the animal out into the open. This doesn't pan out and Leeroy ends up getting jumped again. Funnily, that dog always seems eager to latch on to the same arm, but I never see an ounce of blood on his jacket. Fool grabs a hold of Leeroy and the door handle, conducting electricity through both of them and zapping the pooch (Um, yeah, no) and they flee upstairs. By now Daddy has kicked open the door downstairs and hit the security switches, plunging the house into darkness and throwing down shutters on all the doors and windows. Being big and loud, it doesn't take long for Ving to be sniffed out by a gun-wielding Daddy and shot full of holes. He even almost gives away the fact that there was a third man involved by screaming at Fool to run, but fortunately, Daddy just thinks he was calling him names. Thinking that there is someone else in the walls, Daddy charges out and-
HOLY HELL, did he get his hunting gear on. It looks like The Gimp is back for revenge, or Daddy is taking his name very seriously.
This single change of clothing really cements the fact that Fool clearly has NO idea who he was fucking with and is deeply in over his head. Now alone in a locked down house full of fervent 2nd Amendment supporters and a basement full of ghouls, Fool is running out of options. The dog, Prince, comes back and pursues Fool again, forcing him to hole up in a bathroom where he meets the daughter. Her name is Alice and she explains a few things. Namely about how this kid is basically toast, and what exactly the people in the basement are. It seems that these two have been kidnapping children from the local neighbourhoods for quite some time, looking for a boy child that they can raise as their own. One by one, each kid has failed their standards in some way, causing Daddy to “Cut out the bad bits” and lock them in the basement, implying mutilation and possible lobotomy. Occasionally they find food or flashlights to keep themselves entertained, but it's clear that whatever is downstairs is not the primary evil here. Alice mentions Roach, the one that got away and has been living in the walls ever since. Oh, so that's her friend.
Meanwhile outside, the cops drop by investigating the abandoned van that Mother and Father claim to know nothing about, Daddy having squeezed out of his playsuit. The police officer wanders off, but the couple finds Fool's boyscout uniform in the back of the van, realizing that he's a part of this and probably still in the house. Daddy doesn't waste any time sicking Prince on the intruder, who corners Fool in the bathroom. Despite putting up a decent fight, the kid is clearly outmatched and in serious trouble until Roach yanks him into the walls through a secret door. I frankly love the idea that this kid has been hiding in here for months, stealing supplies and fucking with the two psychopaths who live in the main house.
“Oh, that's Roach, he escaped into the walls and has been there ever since.” grabs broom
Roach manages to get rid of Prince via a Super Happy Fun Slide of his very own. (Did he build it? Or maybe the couple did in order to catch him. I'd just pump the crawlspace full of gas, like pesticide or something.) After getting a few holes blown in the walls behind them, the duo finally gets into Alice's room. She explains that Roach was another one of the kids that the Trumps grabbed, this one getting his tongue cut out for speaking out of turn. This exposition gets quickly interrupted when Daddy bursts in. Roach gets away, but Fool is caught.
The scenes of Alice being abused and tortured by her family are arguably the most disturbing scenes in the film, such as when she in thrown downstairs to clean Leeroy's blood off the floor, berated for getting blood on her dress and forced to bath in scalding hot water. It's pretty rough stuff and hard to watch, especially with the verbal abuse being screamed at her the whole time by Mommy. Meanwhile down in the basement, a chained up Fool is forced to watch Leeroy's corpse being butchered by Daddy, his meat being thrown to the cellar boys. Daddy decides to toss Fool in with them and leaves.
Fool wards off the flashlight wielding mob of quasi-morlocks in a way reminiscent of the average person stumbling in on a Role Playing Game group, until Roach gets there, scaring off the others by puppeting Leeroy's bloody corpse and freeing Fool, escaping into the furnace with him.
Dang, can't this guy be the main character? Roach opens a way for Fool, but in the process reveals that he was badly wounded by Daddy's shotgun. As he bleeds out, Roach gives his friend a small packet of gold coins that he managed to make off with and draws Alice's name on the wall in soot, making him promise to save the girl before he dies. Fool wriggles up to Alice's room and nabs her, punching Daddy right in the dick along the way, then it's back into the crawlspace. Their only advantage on these two gun-toting loons is their small stature allowing them to slip through the vents and in-between the walls, making for some tense, claustrophobic moments. They dodge an honest-to-god sliding spike wall and Prince gets loosed after them again, but Fool finally says that he's DONE running. Which is a nice sentiment to hold, but hard to put into practice when you are a 75-pound prepubescent teenager being chased by a bloodthirsty Rottweiler. He is immediately knocked over, but purposefully makes as much noise as possible to goad Daddy into stabbing the wall with his bayonet, impaling the dog. Gotta say, there was a lot of room for error in this plan. Also, I'm one of those people who consider the death of ANY dog to be tragic in a movie, but even I thought Daddy's excited juvenile dancing when he thought he had tagged the boy, followed by his soft “Aw, fuck” when he finds his dog's body was pretty funny.Fool and Alice get up into the attic, and Fool finally gets to an open window, planning to slide down the roof and into the pond he saw on his way in. Alice hesitates, having never been outside, and they run out of time as Daddy barges in. Fool makes the jump and escapes, mounting the fence and disappearing into the night.
Back home and recovering from the ideal, Fool brings the coins back to his Wise Black Man, who imparts that their age and rarity will more than pay for their rent for the next decade, as well as fund their mothers medical bills. Damn, those are some good coins right there. They even cure cancer, as there doesn't seem to be any doubt that Fool's mom will be a-okay once they send her to the hospital. Wise Black Man explains what's up with the Trumps: They aren't husband and wife, but actually brother and sister, the latest in a long, incestuous line of robber barons that started out in the funeral home trade but moved into real estate, having grown, richer, greedier and crazier over the generations while holed up in their trap-laden mansion. I already pulled the trigger on my Trump joke, but given the time period this movie came from, I think it's obvious that these two were a knock against the Reagans. I imagine that once you get your fourth generation of inbred offspring, anything you try to make with your own genitals will end up looking like a failed teleporter experiment, so Mommy and Daddy have taken to kidnapping kids, including Alice. I gotta say, for a girl that was raised by these two, she is remarkably well adjusted if only a little shy. Fool realizes that something needs to be done about these two, and proceeds to head out and heroically...call the cops on them. That's actually pretty well thought out.
The police and two social workers pop into the place, responding to a report of child abuse. I may not have mentioned it before, but the Trumps absolutely make this movie with their incredibly over the top acting and hammy performances, especially on the part of Daddy. The way they both roar garbled bible quotes at their pray or awkwardly dance around after killing someone is darkly hilarious and over the top to be simultaneously disturbing and captivating. Here though, both of them actually have to act normal as the police poke around, Mommy even serving them cookies and Daddy going so far as to smoke a pipe and wear a hat to hide his head wound from where Fool nailed him with a toilet lid earlier in the film. They manage to convince the social worker that they DID have a daughter, but that she died years ago and that they haven't gotten around to redecorating her old room. I have to say, I'm not all that familiar with social worker protocol, but these two don't seem to be doing a very good job of backing all of this up in any way. Maybe it's just another nudge from Craven that as a pair of rich, white people, the Trumps are clearly above any immediate suspicion. The cops leave and we are treated to another bit of black comedy as the two swing back the false wall they were hiding the staircase to the basement behind, bemoan the absolute fiasco that the day has been and trudge off to bed casually mentioning that they'll have to clear the bodies out of the cellar, get a new dog and maybe even kill their daughter while they're at it.
It turns out that the cop call was all a ruse for Fool to slip in through the back, as he grabs a fire poker and sneaks upstairs to the Trump's room while they are conducting their nightly prayers. He tries to get the drop on them, but it turns out to be a trap as Daddy lunges out at him, back in his Gimp Suit. Now I'm not speaking from experience (Honest) but Daddy is really wriggling in and out of this thing very quickly, and I'm sure as hell that all of that buckled up leather is pretty damn hard to get on or off in a hurry. He grabs Fool, who quickly gouges at his eyes and kneecaps an irate Mommy, breaking the fire poker over Daddy's back. He escapes back into the walls, climbing up the chimney to find Alice chained up in the attic. He manages to knock her free and avoid a questing Daddy, both of them meeting up on the roof. The pond is no longer a viable escape route, having been drained and filled with broken glass, so the two still need a way out. Alice still expresses misgivings about rebelling against her parents, having lived under their thumb for so long and only surviving by complying to their every demand. As soon as Fool tells her that she was a stolen child, you can see the darkness enter her eyes and steel cross her face. Now she's pissed off.
They make enough noise to get Daddy to stick his face into the chimney, where they promptly drop a brick on his head and barrel into Mommy, causing them to drop the shotgun. The cat and mouse games continue, with Alice trying to find a way out through the furnace vents and Fool confronting Daddy in the basement, who gets the drop on him via Super Happy Fun Slide and nearly blows his head off before being interrupted by a knock at the door. Fearing the cops, Daddy avoids pulling the trigger just yet, but Mommy opens the door to find Ruby, dressed in professional wear and claiming to be there seeking legal action again the Trumps for their unscrupulous real estate policies. Fool manages to use this distraction to seek refuge inside the holding pen with the Cellar People, who are now unequivocally on his side now.
Ruby comes back minute later with an angry mob of the entire ghetto community that the Trumps have screwed over. Mommy looks like she's about to open fire on the lot of them until Alice drops out of the ceiling vent like freaking Batman and knocks her unconscious, tripping the security system and sending all of the doors flying open. Their victory is short lived when Mommy comes to and somehow disappears out from under the nose of an entire crowd, sealing off the house and overriding the console in the front hall. Daddy hunts Fool downstairs, just as he is directed past a security system and into the building's old embalming room by one of the cellar people. The place has been converted into a vault of Scrooge McDuck proportions, with piles of paper money and gold coins lying about the place. Fool even nails the satire of this home by remarking “No wonder there's no money in the ghetto”. I have to ponder the practicality of keeping the door to your vault inside the holding pen for all of the roving cannibals that you have crippled and driven insane, who just maybe carry a grudge against you for all of that. Even if they don't try to eat you, then any one of them might just wander inside and start a fire or something, security system or no. The hits of this poorly thought out repository just keep on coming as Fool finds a bunch of dynamite there, underneath a stack of deeds. The noise attracts Daddy, who charges inside, shotgun at the ready.
Meanwhile upstairs, Alice confronts Mommy in the kitchen, telling her to her face that she is not her mother. Just as she is about to get knifed, one of the freed Cellar Boys takes the title of this movie to it's logical extreme, bursting out of the staircase and defending Alice. More and more of her mutilated “brothers” burst out of the walls and grates like the friendliest zombies of all, and I gotta say, it's just plain cool. Finally Alice stabs her captor, who is briefly menaced by what look like a few of Slipknot's back up dancers before she is mobbed and torn apart.
Downstairs, Fool manages to distract Daddy with a frankly ingenious time-release noise maker created by sticking coins into a slowly melted candle, and gets behind him, telling him point blank that he will detonate the dynamite in the vault by completing the security alarm's circuit unless Daddy drops his gun.
Daddy does not comply, so Fool acts on his threat. The resulting explosion carries through the house, somehow harming nobody but Daddy himself. I guess it was pretty old. Even the money is fine, getting blown throughout the house and up the chimney, raining down on the assembled ghetto townsfolk outside.
Alice and Fool sit down in the basement, the ordeal finally over as the Cellar people venture outside. Oh good, I don't see anything bad coming from a bunch of mentally and physically crippled morlocks venturing out into world they know next to nothing about after being forced to eat nothing but human flesh for their entire adult lives.
The People Under The Stairs is definitely an odd film, playing out in many ways like a reverse-Home Alone, with the home invader being a kid stuck in a trap-laden house by two criminals, except everyone in this house is playing for keeps. You also might have noticed a couple of sizable similarities between this film and another one that I reviewed earlier in the month: Locked inside of a killers house, a robbery gone wrong, sympathetic protagonists brought into crime due to crappy living conditions, a horrible secret in the basement, being pursued between the walls by a dog....
Yeah, I'm not sure if it's homage, a rip off or just coincidence, but Don't Breathe has a hell of a lot in common with this movie that came out over twenty years earlier. Between the two films, I have to say that Don't Breathe had an overall better execution, being more exhilarating, scary and with better performances, especially on the part of Lang as The Blind Man. But this film clearly wasn't trying to be as freaky, with the actions of the main antagonists being incredibly fun to watch, save the abuse of their daughter, and a much lighter overall tone, interlaced with some pretty clever Boys in Da Hood-style social commentary on real estate and ghetto life that gives the film a decade relevant tone, which can be said of a lot of Wes Craven's work. I still think that Scream is one of those perfect little time capsules of the 90's. I would say that both films have their strengths and are good for a watch, so I can definitely recommend The People Under The Stairs if you feel like venturing there.
Over the course of the month, I've discussed unoriginal films, unconventional films, horror movie cliches and clever subversion of them. We all know the basic tenants of surviving horror films: Don't have sex, don't drink or do drugs and never, ever say “I'll be right back”. But where did these rules come from in the first place? What are our codifiers? Our Ur-examples, if you will? Tonight we'll take a look at one of the original modern horror films, the movie that both set the tropes that we know today in stone, and also launched a franchise with the highest body count in horror-movie history. Let's slice into the 1980 slasher -classic, Friday the 13th.
Already the film sets it's quiet, unassuming atmosphere with a shot of the infamous Camp Crystal Lake, circa 1958. In the dead of night, a lone camera perspective creeps into one of cabins and passes over sleeping bodies of the young campers. Meanwhile, our yellow-shirted camp councilors are sitting together alone, strumming out a tune on the guitar and flashing each other do-me eyes over campfire songs. Okay, I've never been in the position to dispute or confirm this, but I sincerely doubt that any summer camp supervisor acts with the same mindlessly cheery, sing-along outlook that they do when they are around kids. I do however buy it when two of said supervisors sneak off for a little bit of dusty, splintery attic nookie. As they paw at each other, the Camera sneaks upstairs, surprising them both. The guy tries to explain what's going on, but the camera just lunges at him, with what I guess is a particularly sharp extended microphone and stabs him. As he falls back, the girl screams, the image freezing as the scream continues into the opening credits.
I'm going to take a second to talk about music again, specifically from the perspective of one of horror films. As we've seen with films like You're Next or It Follows, movies that attempt to pay tribute to the 80's slasher genre (A genre that actually started in 1978 with John Carpenter's Halloween) will often call upon the pulsing, buzzing synth music of the decade in order to complete the visual and narrative themes, sometimes more cohesively, sometimes a little more abruptly. You only need to hear the heart-racing beat from It Follows or the low, building tinkle of Stranger Things to go “oh yeah, that's the 80's alright”. But some of the very first slasher films of the decade, and even a majority of the films that people often think of when they hear the words “80's Horror” actually ducked a synthetic score in favour of a more timeless, orchestral theme. The original tension strings being sawed back and forth during moments of suspense or murder in Friday the 13th are a very memorable staple of the earlier films, and don't see a lot of repetition in this day and age, being both corny as hell and undeniable fun. Synth music was usually used less in the classic films (The occasional exception like the first Nightmare on Elm Street) and a lot more prevalent in the shlockier “slumber-party massacre” flicks that ripped off the more famous works like Halloween or 13th. It's an odd phenomenon when an homage to a style or genre actually pays a good deal of tribute to what people associate with the subject matter, rather than the subject matter itself. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, as I quite like the music in all of these movies, this is just a brief study of cultural perception.
The credits cut back to Friday, June 13th: The present day.
Damn, if that's the case then that original killer must be in their 70s by now, if not much older.
Okay, kidding., it's 1980's present day. Some backpacking ragamuffin is loping around the small town of Hope, New Jersey, starting conversations with dogs, asking awkward questions about the camp up in the woods that has a sordid history and basically doing whatever she can to make the locals seem uneasy. The residents of the diner all share a look when she asks about Camp Crystal Lake, even going so far as to call it “Camp Blood”. Subtle. Despite their misgivings, a particularly hefty trucker agrees to take the girl up close to the camp. She wanders back outside, the town's aging performance artist struts up to her like a drunken fop and rambles about how everybody is doomed and that she she should leave while she can. The trucker swats him off and Rufus smugly gets onto his bicycle with a bandy-legged flourish and cycles off with one long, drawn out “doooooooooooomed”.
That man is amazing. I wish I could bike off in any direction with that much gravitas.
This girl, Annie, says that she has been hired as a cook for Camp Crystal Lake and the trucker kind of goes back on his whole “Don't listen to that Crazy Old Codger” stance and recommends that she quit, citing the long list of nasty occurrences as cause to believe that the place might be jinxed: The murders of two councillors, a boy that drowned in the lake, some fires that occurred a few years after that, a previous attempt at reopening the camp that was cancelled due to bad water, and the fact that the former owner of the camp is now some burned out alcoholic. Annie responds by staring off vacantly and giggling at all of this. The clues all start to pile up and I realize that this girl's behavior is a lot more understandable if you imagine that she's whacked out on a shit load of ecstasy.
Back up at the camp, our menu for the night lines up, clearing the park and helping out. Oh, hey there young Kevin Bacon. Things are supervised by the new owner of the place, who looks exactly a 70's incarnation of Tobias Funke with those little cut-offs he's toting, and he's assisting Alice as she cleans the gutters. He mentions that she is a remarkable artist while also creeping up on her a little bit, and that's enough characterization for now. Steve sadly straps on some actual clothes and jets off in his jeep, promising to be back with supplies and making the kids pledge not to be picked off one by one by some shadowy threat hiding among the trees. Don't make promises you can't keep.
One of the girls, Brenda, is setting up the archery range when she gets a pretty effective little understated jumpscare by way of an arrow slamming into the target she's standing next to, fired by this chuckling shitstack, Ned. Oh Ned.
Annie gets dropped off another half-mile from the camp (Yeah, thanks for nothing, asshole) and manages to hitchhike onto another car, this one driven by the Camera. Oh no lady! That camera's dangerous! He conducts an entirely one-sided conversation wherein she fleshes out her backstory, only realizing that somethings up when the jeep speeds right past the camps entrance. The car begins to speed up and she bails, leaping out into a ditch and running through the woods, pursued by a mysterious flannel-clad figure. She somehow gets cornered by her pursuer, and her throat is slashed open, gushing (Or rather, trickling) blood as she falls to the ground.
Gotta admit, I actually didn't see that one coming so soon. Annie is easily one of the cuter characters, and the film did a decent job of setting her up as the protagonist with all the exposition being dumped on her. It's very Psycho and if not a direct rip-off, then at least a cunning use of the same trope. Always steal from the best.
Annie's killer lopes off towards the shore line to spy in on the rest of the kids as they go for a swim. We get to see most of the cast in swimsuits, Kevin Bacon in a distractingly tiny speedo and Kevin Bacon's distractingly large bulge. There is a brief note of tension as Ned seems to be having trouble in the water, but it turns out to be the old “Pretend to drown and play the 50-50 odds that the person to give you CPR is a girl so that you can molest her” trick that The Sandlot made so famous. Goddamnit Ned.
Meanwhile out in her cabin, Alice is fixing her hair hair when she is surprised by the presence of a sizable snake slithering around. She freaks out and calls in Bill, who just happens to be carrying a very unintentionally familiar machete, and asks him to kill it. Deciding that this requires their input as well, the entire cast piles into the same small room and absolutely trashes the place in an attempt to get to this lone animal. Lord, I'd feel better just keeping the snake as a roommate. Bill manages to chop it's head off, and the minor, relatively pointless crisis is averted. I suppose we were just setting up that machete.
Back outside the councilors are-
Jesus Ned, what the hell is wrong with you?
I'll bet the Cleveland Indians find all that whooping and hollering very offensive to the proud history of their sports team. His revelry is interrupted by a cop who bikes up to the place and starts pressing the kids about their purpose and if any of them have been smoking anything. He rattles off different names for weed so fast, I honestly expect him to actually hit them up for a joint at any second. He offers them a simple warning about crazy old Ralph before driving off to where he came from, leaving the group alone with Ned. That's never good.
Alice actually runs into Ralph first, finding him just crouching inside of the pantry like a pantry goblin. They exist. A lot of the jump scares in this movie are quiet, understated little things that are actually very effective, not in forcing that gut “HUAGH” reaction out the audience, but rather creating a sense of lingering unease with the knowledge that even the simplest thing can frighten you. Ralph peacocks around a little bit and lets them know that they're all doomed one more time before awkwardly cycling away. I really hope I can be like this man when I'm his age.
Bill switches on the power generator as the sun starts to hang low in the sky, and Bacon trots off with Marcie to feel each other up by the lake. Ned (For fuck's sake Ned) watches all of this, before he notices someone in a poncho sneaking around a nearby cabin. He goes to investigate and disappears from sight and the film.
Bacon and Marcie actually go in the same direction, conversing about their time at the camp and Marcie going off on a pretty random tangent about how she had dreams about the rain that turned into blood. Yeah, that'll get him in the mood for a little horizontal action. But fortunately Bacon is tuned out, clearly just nodding and smiling until it's time to bone down. They head inside the same cabin and start to strip down. Bacon discards his tanktop, and we're off to the races.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group is taking refuge from a coming storm inside of the rec hall and Brenda suggests some sexy shenanigans of their own, pulling out a board game and playing Strip Monopoly, which sounds ungodly tedious. Sure, it's all fun and games when you break out the board and titter the first time you land on a square someone owns and they have to take off a boot, but pretty soon it's three hours later, your feet are getting cold, your friend makes it around the board AGAIN without hitting any of your property, nobody wants to do the math on what the property tax means when it pertains to 20% of your clothing, a half-dressed opponent is napping while your girlfriend is mortgaging half of what she owns to buy back her shirt and you're considering getting naked right then and there if it will end this nonsense. That's when you remember why that painful boardgame was stuffed away in the attic to begin with and decide that you really have to talk your friends into playing Strippers of Catan next time. That game is way better. Just take an article of clothing every time a resource card is stolen.
Bacon and Marcie start laying into each other, and for an exploitational slasher movie, there is very little nudity in this sex scene. We just get a flash of an ass, that by the logic of their positioning, I can only deduce is Kevin Bacon' ass. How's that for a side of pork? Somehow in all of their wanderthrusting, these two doomed fornicators completely miss Ned's bleeding corpse on the top bunk, his throat also slit open. Oh Ned.
Spent and sweaty, Marcie wanders off in nothing but a rainjacket while Bacon reclines in bed, pulling on his shirt and putting a final nail in his coffin by lighting up a spleef. In a pretty well-timed moment, Bacon just notices a drop of blood fall on him as an arm darts out from under the bed and an arrow pierces through his neck, one of the more impressive and memorable deaths of the film, brought to us by Tom Savini himself. Also, was the killer just lying flat under the bed while those two were nailing each other right above them? It's amazing they didn't get a face full of sagging mattress.
Marcie doesn't fair much better, scrubbing up at the bathroom before investigating an odd noise and taking an axe to the face, all while she sort of stands there and weakly screams. Meanwhile back at the riveting Monopoly game, they call it just as it starts to get interesting and Alice seems to cement her status as our chaste, boring heroine by managing to not so much as flash her bra. None of the women in this movie seem all that interested in wearing clothes as Brenda pulls a raincoat on over her underwear and streaks off into the night. She has a brief encounter in the bathroom, narrowly avoiding the discovery of the killer and heads to her cabin, none the wiser. Back at the diner in town, Steve's record breaking 9 hour lunch finally comes to a close as he expresses his intentions to head back to camp despite the storm. He runs into engine troubles halfway there, but it seems whatever jinx or death curse everybody is talking about seems determined to get him up to the camp as a passing police officer gives him a lift. Man, these locals sure are eager to drive people up to a cursed campground that they are just as eager to warn people away from.
Not to be thwarted by her initial escape, the Flannel-clad Camera stalks up to Brenda's place, peering in on her. Brenda hears a noise and heads out to investigate in not much but her night gown, following what sounds like a crying child out to the archery range where she lets out a scream and...
Well that's it. I suppose she suffers some sort of shockingly visceral death off screen. We don't see her again for the rest of the film. Back at the Rec hall, Bill notes that he has no idea where Brenda actually went and they set off in search for her, not really aware of the fact that they are really the last two standing in all of this. They check her room, but only find a sizable wood axe in her bed. What the hell is that supposed to mean, is it some kind of ominous message? You could leave someones severed head lying around if you wanted to, but you just give your murder victims an axe that they could potentially use to defend themselves with. If I was a crazed serial killer (Again, there is no proof that I am) I would sweep the camp ahead of time and try to nab all the potential deadly weapons that I could. I'd have plenty of variety to choose from and it would encourage my victims to get creative with their self defence. Remember when Laurie Strode fought off Michael Myers with a coathanger? That was awesome.
Alice and Bill try to use the phone in the office, with Alice resorting to busting down a window almost immediately, only to find that the lines have been cut and all of the trucks have been ripped apart. See now, I'd be incredibly worried at all of this, but these two actually calm down, deciding that all of this shoudl be fixed by morning. Um, yeah. No. You're gonna die. A lot.
Steve gets dropped off at the entrance to the campground by the cop who gets called away on a report. He trudges up to the sign, before getting blinded by a bright light and offering a brief “Oh, it's you” to the Flannel Camera before it...gets him? I dunno, by the expression he's got, it looks as though he's getting sack-tapped.
Then the power goes out.
At this point, I would be halfway into my dead sprint for civilization, but Alice and Bill still seem to think that everything's okay
Bill heads outside now that the rain has stopped, thinking that this is all just an issue with the generator, leaving Alice all on her own. We are treated to what seems to be a three minute-scene of her making coffee, and it's arguably the best scene in the movie. It's almost silent, and there is something deeply unsettling about the way the camera pans back and forth to follow her movements from the pantry to the stove. We've already seen someone jump out of that exact pantry at her, and we as an audience know that the movie isn't going to pull the same trick twice, but the seed has been planted in our heads. Alice has no idea that she's probably the only person left alive at this point, and we're expecting SOMEthing to happen. But nothing does. And it's brilliant. Once the power comes back on, Alice heads back out to the shed and shit starts to get real when she finds Bill's body, throat slashed open and nailed to a very sturdily-hinged door by arrows. What, did the killer actually stick the arrows straight through his body and into the door, hoping that they would support his dead weight? Or maybe they just hung him up and then got a little target practice in. I really want to get into the head space of this killer. Alice naturally freaks out and hides in the common room, barricading herself inside and having the wherewithal to grab a baseball bat and lantern.
But the windows remain untouched, which the killer takes advantage of by throwing Brenda's brutalized corpse through a window. Oh, that's what happened to her. She just got kinda...roughed up? Maybe got a little strangled by all that rope she's wrapped in? Okay then. Alice freaks out about this for about twenty seconds before fleeing outside, where she sees headlights approaching the cabin. The driver gets out...and it's a middle aged woman in a big sweater. She smiles, offering to comfort Alice and investigate the problem. This is Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, a friend of Steve's.
Once she sees the body inside, she sighs a bit too melodramatically and bemoans the nature of Camp Crystal Lake, especially the death of the young boy back in '57. He drowned in the lake while the inattentive camp councillors were busy having sex. She becomes more and more unstable as she goes on, revealing that the boy was never a very good swimmer. She should know after all, being his mother.
His name was Jason, and today is his birthday.
Admittedly this plot twist comes a little out of left field. Any suspense of “Who's the murderer?” turns out not to really have a payoff when it turns out to be a character that is introduced five minutes before the big reveal. And yes, Pamela Voorhees is the killer in Friday the 13th. It's one of those fun little facts that horror movie buffs love to flaunt in front of people who naturally associate her hulking, goalie-mask wearing son as the face of the franchise. I actually love the idea of this nonthreatening, matronly woman as the cunning killer that has been slicing through the entire cast. The big reveal is done quite well and gives her character a hell of a motivation. She certainly doesn't want this place opened AGAIN. I'm not entirely sure why she revealed herself to Alice like this, but what the hell, we had to bring her in somehow.
Alice manages to outmaneuver Pamela and flees, running past an obstacle course of corpses (an obstacle corpse?) while Pamela mutters to herself, clearly off the deep end and hallucinating her son's voice goading her on to continued murder. Alice again uses her head and grabs a hunting rifle from the office, but doesn't have any ammunition, which is locked away. Damn these responsible gun owners! Pamela catches up and waylays brutally efficient murder in favour of slapping her around a bit. Alice beats her back again and flails off into the night. This cat and mouse game continues for the rest of the third act, with Pamela occasionally hacking through a door or grabbing Alice. It kinda undercuts the menace of your already subversive killer when they keep getting brained in the face with frying pans and rifle butts. That said, Betsy Palmer has one hell of a creepy smile
The fight finally makes it's way to shore, where Alice counters Pamela's large machete with a swiftly diminishing oar until it's down to bare knuckles and GOSH this is undignified. As Pamela struggles to her feet, Alice grabs her machete, and in one almighty swing, lops Mrs. Voorhees's head right off.
DAAAAAMN Alice, you hardcore.
Clearly exhausted and done with all of this, Alice pushes herself off shore in a canoe onto the dark lake, taking refuge in the middle of open water. She awakens the next day, the much less intimidating Saturday the 14th and waves down a squad car that has come to investigate all this talk of teen murderin'. It seems like the danger has passed, but we've got one more freakout for you folks:
Alice wakes up screaming in the hospital as doctors assure her that the zombie boy leaping out of the lake at her was all just a bad dream. Cool, can we write off all of the other films starring Jason as an extended hallucination as well? All eleven of them? Oh well. Alice asks about Jason, the boy in the lake, and the doctors reply that they know nothing about any boy. She hazily remarks that means he's still down there, as the scene fades to the smooth surface of Crystal Lake, which ripples ever so slightly...
It's a little slow for a horror film, and some of the camera effects have not aged well, but I think that overall, Friday the 13th has held up remarkably well. It has a solid plot and while the characters aren't exactly likeable, they have enough quirks to stand out. One of the major selling points is for the relatively unpredictable plot structure and the exquisite visual effects courtesy of Mr. Tom Savini. That arrow through the neck still looks great. Friday the 13th is an interesting beast, considering the franchise that followed it from such simple beginnings. It can be even downright chilling to people who know about the rest of the series when a character mentions things like Jason's birthday or when Mrs. Voorhees picks up that machete....
While later movies revolved around Jason, the focus of this one isn't really about the killer, or any specific character, but rather the site of Camp Crystal Lake itself. Many characters and even Mrs. Voorhees herself all note that the place is just where bad things happen. It's unlucky. The idea of the location itself being a major threat in the series is a neat concept that was never really explored once Jason slapped on his hockey mask and started knifing up fornicators. Pamela's dear son would go on to spawn a sequel-ridden franchise that would see Jason head into Manhattan:
To being pitted against other horror-movie icons:
To being shot into space and turned into a cyborg:
But I don't think his mother gets enough respect. The idea of a vengeful mother's grief turning into madness for her dead son is a very cool idea for a slasher, and Betsy Palmer really sells it. I also appreciate the almost entirely visual storytelling concerning Jason himself, in the brief flashes he is seen where there is clearly something...off about him. His deformed face speaks to some possible disability and makes his death all the more tragic, and Pamela's vengeance even somewhat justified. It's an interesting bit of character work that seems downright subtle for a horror movie. This film actually uses it's understated tone quite well, generating more unease and paranoia that straight up scares, and is still worth a look if you're feeling lucky
It was late, I wanted to get ahead of schedule with one more movie for the day, and an interesting film flashed across my Netflix library: The Pyramid. Continuing the trend of nothing but modern horror being available to me via streaming services, 2014's The Pyramid seemed to be worth my time. After all, Ancient Egypt hasn't been really represented in the horror movie circles very much since 1999's The Mummy shifted the tone of the standard mummy movie away from horror and more towards Indiana Jones-ey action/adventure. An attempt at bringing back the scary side of archeology seemed like a solid plan for a movie, the trick lying in it's execution. Let's enter The Pyramid.
As our story begins with a helpful title crawl letting us know that this is an account of a few putzes who wandered into an ancient archeological dig, a cold pit of fear is welling up in my stomach. Shots from the perspective of a camera man as the standard unrestful mob of Egyptians beats against the windows continue to make me break out into a cold sweat. There's a shot of a documentary film maker, Sunni, checking her levels and smiling as her camera man adjusts the focus, and sheer terror enters my heart.
I've been tricked into watching a found footage movie.
This....documentary, is chronicling the works of the Holdens, a father-daughter archaeological team that are overseeing a dig site outside of Cairo. The group has found a pyramid buried beneath the sand, which is unique in that it has only threes sides. Holden Sr. is convinced that the pyramid may contain the body of an ancient pharaoh, Khinoktinokten (I am attempting to spell that phonetically by the way), while his daughter Nora is skeptical, claiming that the level of sand build up that buried the structure is too deep. The pyramid potentially predates pharaoh Knock-Knock Tenactin, and possibly even his tough actin', as well as Ancient Egypt itself.The format of this movie actually gets a little confusing as we continue, when we start to cut to obviously non-diagetic shots such as a depiction of an imaging satellite orbiting over Africa. Back from the cameraman's perspective, the family is having a minor dispute over the uses of satellite imaging in the archeological process, with Holden thinking that it is too disruptive and that it interferes with a scholars ability physically explore a location, while Nora thinks that the technology provides a much needed edge in the field and that her father is just finding modern innovation hard to grasp. There is next to no point to this whole scene, beyond showing us the image of the entire pyramid to confirm that, yup, it has three sides. There really isn't a wedge in the relationship between these two and no real tension to absolve before the film is over. Holden is just being obstinate and Nora is just being a shit to her father for no real reason, even throwing in the occasional cutting remark as he struggles with the computer and accidentally reveals a photo of herself getting close with one of the dig technicians. This is probably supposed to be our main protagonist. Also, that's a very lovely glamour photo. Who took it? One of the diggers?
That night, the aforementioned frisky technician pilots a spybot into Nora's tent, fulfilling our sideboob quota for the film and introducing Shorty; an ungodly expensive-looking drone intended to plumb the depths of the pyramid and record everything. The next day, they finally unearth an entrance to the pyramids upper level, by way of a sealed off tunnel. While breaking the seal on the entrance, one of the labourers who has clearly never seen The Mummy leans in a bit too close and gets a face full of crazy gas, which appears to melt his face a little and make him lose his mind, falling to the ground in a spasming fit. Back under a tent, the group discusses the possibility of some kind of toxic air that has been brewing inside the pyramid, a mixture of dust, carbon monoxide and fungus that erupted outwards when the pressure equalized. Maybe that was something you could have mentioned before one of your workers got his brain melted by a face full of Egyptian curse dust, jackass.
Any further chances to off any more nameless, disposable Egyptians is quickly put to bed when Holden gets a call from Professor Buzzkill at what I can only pray is Miskatonic University. He explains that the civil unrest in Cairo is reaching critical levels and that they have been commanded by the government to leave, for their own protection. The guy on the other side of the Skype call in this scene might actually BE a university professor of some sort, considering how poorly he reads his lines. They protest and the argument continues into the next morning as it seems the entire campground packed up and bailed when nobody was looking. Nora tries to find a compromise, eager to explore the tomb while they still have a chance and suggesting that they send in Shorty. Holden eventually agrees while Nazir, Shorty's operator and Nora's almost completely unacknowledged boyfriend, pilots that little bot down the passageway and into the tomb. They get a few hazy pictures of hieroglyph-covered walls and some carvings of Osiris, which Nora claims that the Egyptians worshipped as lord of the afterlife and the first pharaoh....I suppose that's, SORT OF correct. It might have just been due to an exploitation of my curiosity around the tomb, but the initial jump scare of something streaking past the camera actually got me. A few more things scurry around, which might have been scary if they all didn't look exactly like rats, and then Shorty gets eaten by something big. They argue about what to do next, with Nazir mentioning that the robot is indeed astronomically expensive and that they are going to have to go get it. He manages to negotiate with the soldier who had been brought there to escort them to the airport and buys the group two hours to venture inside the pyramid. Nazir is headed in alongside Holden and Nora, Sunni the documentary-maker is following them as per their contract, and her British cameraman Fitzy, who has been recording all of this, is following her. So our assembled group of putzes gears up and heads inside, Holden grabbing a few flares to scare away the dogs that he assumed turned over the camera-bot.
They head inside with enough foresight to strap on dust masks that do not serve to muffle their voices in the slightest. The inside of the pyramid is dark and carries a geometric, winding feel that just reaches out for possible mind-bending construction, but falls short as I can't really tell where the hell anything is. I keep on trying to project something eldritch or lovecraftian on to what is just an all-too bog-standard Creepy Ruins set, and manage to keep disappointing myself.
The gang finds the severed 'Head” of Shorty and Zahir freaks out, all while Fitzy comments that there is something seriously wrong with all this. Also, with the gas mask on, he really sounds like Rhys Darby from Flight of the Conchords. The group reaches a central crossroads of thoroughfares directly underneath the apex of the pyramid, which Nora is eager explore. Zahir boosts her up, while fitting in a quick butt grope, until the entire group has gathered in the tip. I wonder who had to support Fitzy's butt.
They poke around, discovering that the room contains a small arsenal of ceremonial weapons and armaments, some of which have apparently seen use. Nora pockets a small Ancient Egyptian hatchet, which to it's credit does not immediately crumble to dust after laying on the floor of a tomb for several thousand years, and they head back down into the main chamber, Holden noticing that his safety wire has snapped.They are well and truly lost now. An attempt to navigate their way back, led by Nora, just leads them in a full circle (Way to go) and so they follow a different branch down into a sizable antechamber. And I have to say, there is a LOT of ambient light in this room for a place that, until now, could be navigated solely by torchlight. They find a few more chunks of Shorty and Zahir solemnly notes that “NASA is gonna kill me” right before the floor beneath them starts to give way. Any attempt at tiptoeing out of there fails when the floor collapses and the group tumbles into the antechamber below. The fact that they all were miraculously unharmed is averted a second later, when a rock the size of a humvee's engine block lands squarely on Nazir, pinning his leg.
By this point, almost everyone has taken off their dust masks for some godforsaken reason, and never really mention them again. I can understand not wanting to have half of your actors faces obscured for the duration of the movie, but introducing the need for dust masks, and then immediately having the characters discard them ten minutes later just makes them all look like incompetent dinguses. Nazir clearly isn't going anywhere, and Sunni notices a shaft leading out of the otherwise closed off room, figuring that this might be their ticket out. She mentions a background in rock climbing that never came up before, and gets to shimmying. She makes it about twenty or so feet up before noticing what seems to be a completely pointless alcove and the creature that it contains. I have no idea why this film is so eager to keep us in suspense as to what this mystery monster is, showing it only from the back and all, when it is very obviously a cat. It's a cat, people. We have our monster, it's an ordinary sized house cat with mange.
It gives her face a little scratch and she goes tumbling back down the chute, landing ass-first on Fitzy's face. She mentions not getting a good look at what attacked her, even though it, again, was very obviously a cat. She isn't too eager to go crawling up the cat pipe again, which leads to the group finally turning to the large, blocked off door that they seemingly completely ignored up until now. Holden is actually reluctant to start bashing down walls inside of the archeological find of the century, but Fitzy rather handily points out that their only other option is to die underground. They bust a hole open in the braced door and head through, leaving Zahir behind with a flashlight and a promise to return.
As the slightly smaller group continues to just sort of wander, I'm starting to notice that this movie is abandoning any attempt at a cohesive found-footage aesthetic. The camera keeps jumping away from the viewpoints of Fitzy, Nora or Sunny, who all have some sort of recording device attached to them. Look, I hate found footage films as much as the next guy, I think that they're an excuse not to write compelling dialogue and scene structure when all you need to do to build some semblance of tension is whip the camera around and have your actors spew out 50 different variations of “What the hell was that?” But even worse than sloppy, this movie comes off as ungodly lazy, gradually forgetting the point of a found-footage film and just switching to an omniscient camera angle watching these putzes in their pyramid. And so far, this movie has a single trick: having something run by the camera really fast and going VWOOSH.
The group hears a voice calling out in Arabic, and believe that it is the soldier from before, Shadique. They deduce that he must have found a way down to get them and try to ascertain where exactly the voice is coming from, but also hear Zahir's screams from back the way they came. There is a brief burst of music out of nowhere as the group heroically and idiotically decides to split up. Holden and Nora run back to the antechamber to find that something or other took Zahir, but left his leg. Nora has a minor breakdown and Holden comforts her, while back on the staircase, Sunni and Fitzy just sort of stand there until the archaeologists come back. Tensions mount as Fitzy speaks my favourite line of the film:
“The robot guy just got devoured by something!”
and Sunni starts to go off the rail, blaming the two for trapping her down there and eventually just loudly grunting at them. Okay, easy lady. Fitzy is actually the one to calm her down, noticing that the scratch on her face is starting to look badly infected. Initially I started to believe that her infected scratch was starting to make her hostile and maybe even turn her crazy, but no. A lot of people get infected by whatever is wafting around the tomb over the course of the film, and Sunni is the only one who starts to act off kilter and nuts. I guess she's just an abrasive bitch.
The gang heads into yet another pointless room and crawls into a tight tunnel, making it about halfway through before something starts to chase them. They scramble the rest of the distance and Shadique appears on the other side, pulling them all out and firing his rifle into the hole. Any kind of point to all this kind of leaves us when what was chasing them finally pours out of the hole: Cats. It's still just cats. Slightly bald cats, but cats nonetheless. Then someone even goes so far as to ask what the hell that was. IT'S CATS. IT'S JUST CATS! Have you never seen a cat before? Then something bigger pops out of the hole, grabbing Shadique and dragging him away. Okay, that came out of nowhere, and not in a good way, much more Looney Tunesey than any meaningful scare..Holden and Nora seem to forget that whole “Something just folded our military escort's spine on itself like a salon magazine” thing and start to explore the increasingly well lit pyramid, giving everybody a crash course in mythology that is roughly 40% accurate. They discuss the study of embalming, of the Egyptian afterlife and the judging that every soul must face before entering possible immortality, presided over by Anubis. I'm not even gonna try to correct all of this as there's a lot to go over. Just read Stick Gods on Tumblr. http://inonibird.tumblr.com/stick-gods
Fitz expresses his confusion as to what any of this has to do with finding an escape route, understandably antsy, considering that with both Egyptians dead, he's the closest thing this group has to a minority now. They keep going, and nobody even attempts to grab the abandoned assault rifle in one corner of the room. Dude, even if it's out of ammo, it's still an AK-47. Those things are built for bludgeoning.
They enter a side hallway, and Holden almost immediately triggers some sort of weighted trap that starts to fill the room with sand. The group breaks out into a run as the falling sand starts to cloud their vision, and Nora actually manages to get lost in a straight hallway, getting stuck and buried up to her waist in sand. Sunni makes it out, stopping just short of tumbling into a pit on the other side. Then Fitzy cements himself as my favorite character by blundering in to her and knocking Sunni down into an honest to god pit of spikes. What a fiendish trap for people sprinting through this pyramid with their eyes closed.
Holden manages to dig his daughter out, and Fitzy screams for help as a few more cats start to chew on their skewered dinner. Somehow, Sunni is still alive through all of this, despite having three spikes through her the size of soda cans. If not blood loss, you'd think hypotonic shock would have killed her by now. Holden scares away the cats with a flare and they actually attempt to yank Sunni off of the spikes, only succeeding in wiggling her around a little bit before she dies. Terrific. They head through another passageway, and end up back in the afterlife room from before, the labyrinthine paths of the tomb baffling them.
It's around here that the characters shoot a few more ideas back and forth, such as the fact that Holden has become infected by the bacterial disease that's floating around down here from the wound on the back of his neck, that these cats (Which Nora has started to call sphinxes. Have you even seen what a sphinx is supposed to look like?) probably survived down here for thousands of years by eating each other (Yeah, no) and finally the discovery of a few more bits of Shorty, one of them being it's still functional antenna. Fitzy manages to wire it up to his camera and they record a brief message to broadcast up to the surface calling for help. No real point or payoff comes from any of this, and that little monologue that Holden gives in front of the camera serves no purpose other than looking cool in a hypothetical trailer for this film. Holden's infection doesn't really do anything other than make him look a little shitty, and nothing ever responds to their cry for help.
While planning out their next move, the Nora feels a slight draft coming from behind a statue of Osiris, flicking a switch and opening up a secret door. They figure one door is as good as another, plunging deeper past a creepy wall of stone faces and into a more natural-looking cavern. In spite of myself, I actually found myself wondering if this film was going to bring anything interesting to the table. Maybe these natural caves led somewhere deeper, down to the remains of what REALLY built this pyramid. Maybe I would get my cosmic horror after all!
But no. They follow the cave into the burial chamber at the very bottom of the pyramid, and I dammit, I WILL point out that every major pyramid had it's burial chamber in the dead centre, surrounded by stone on all sides to ward off graverobbers. They poke around this still-very-well-lit burial room and find the decayed corpse of what turns out to be a freemason. These guys were supposedly master grave diggers, and if he never made it out....
Holden apologizes for nothing in particular as he wanders into the center of the shot, and I can already see it coming when some clawed hand punches right through his rib cage, nabbing his heart. The last two run for it, finding the way back locked off. Fitz actually displays a surprising amount of balls and decides he might as well go and see what this thing is, completely exhausted from all this running around. As he sneaks in, we finally get a good look at our beastie. It straps a somehow still alive Holden to a giant set of scales and weighs his heart, finds it wanting and then devours it, causing Holden's corpse to rapidly decompose (?). It turns around and...
Anubis. It's some kind of Anubis monster that is never really explained or elaborated on. Well that came right the hell out of nowhere. Is it a god? A cursed monster? An alien? Hell if I know. Why does Anubis always get such a bad rap in modern pop culture? He was never a bad guy, he was just the guardian of the dead. He's a doggo! So yeah, this Anubis monster somehow kept Holden alive after punching out his heart like it's Temple of Doom rules and then ate it, wandering off right after. He completely bypasses a cowering Nora (For a dog monster, he isn't very perceptive) and Fitz reunites with her. They return to the burial chamber and gear up again, Nora grabbing the remaining flare from her father's corpse and Fitz finding the soldier's body, nabbing his pistol. Bet you wish you kept that rifle now.
Nora finds a bunch of carvings on the side of a seemingly pointless sarcophagus that explains what is going on. This pyramid was built as a prison for Anubis. I suppose they trapped him by propping it up with a stick and putting a steak underneath. Anubis in the meantime is trying to find a way of ascending into the afterlife by finding a pure heart that will open up the way to return to his father, Osiris. I'm not sure if this means actually transcending the physical world, or just opening the pyramid, but come on. This guy has been down here for thousands and thousands of year and he hasn't tried to jimmy anything open in all that time? It doesn't really matter, because like every other plot point in the whole film, absolutely nothing comes of it. They figure that Sadique must have gotten in somehow, and the inscriptions reveal that one of the five shafts in the room leads to freedom. They do some astrological mumbo-jumbo while Fitz asks what the hell all of this has to do with finding an escape route, and Nora deduces the proper shaft to climb.
Well, yeah, it's the one with the very visible rope ladder poking out of it. Jesus christ Nora, you are completely useless. You probably could have saved time if you ran around checking each shaft. They climb, but leave all of their lights on and make as much noise as possible, leaving it very obvious to an irate Anubis where all of his potential sacrifices have wandered off to. He scuttles up the shaft after them, with Fitz unloading his pistol at the thing with seemingly no effect before he gets grabbed. Nora briefly stuns the monster with a flare and climbs to safety, until Anubis just silently pops up “Oh no you don't” style and nabs her. This movie could have ended right here and I would have been fine with it.
Nora wakes up tied to the scales and i swear this movie isn't even trying with the lighting. The whole room is just bathed in red and white light for no reason. She manages to briefly inquire to an unconscious Fitz's well being before he gets his skull stomped. Goddamit, I actually liked that character. He was easily the best actor in the movie, and unlike our utterly worthless main character, he actually had a likeable personality and positively contributed to the plot and escape plan. This whole “Final Girl” horror movie trope really has to end, it's 2016 for god's sake. Always making the last person standing of any given horror movie the attractive, personality-less young woman is predictable and stale. The audience isn't shocked by the deaths of the other characters, they see them coming a mile off because we have to do everything we can to save our pretty, nonoffensive white girl for the final minutes. Fun fact about killing off all of the interesting people: It leaves the audience bored with how the movie will end because they don't care about the surviving characters.
So Anubis shows up and I have to at least the practical effects team for some pretty solid animatronics on that big dog head. He looks ready to go all Mola Ram on her heart too (What, you didn't even try with Fitzy? I guarantee you that his heart is purer than Nora's) and our plucky heroine manages to saw her way out of the ropes and attack the monster with the ancient hatchet at the beginning of the film. Oh good, that thing came back. How amazing would it be if that thing finally crumbled as soon as it was put under an ounce of duress? How the hell is the blade so sharp? And don't talk to me about the Preservative Power of Pyramids. This bitch only has three sides, and you need four for that to work. The cats show up and attack Anubis for some reason, and Nora flees, back up the ladder and out of the pyramid, collapsing in the tunnel mere feet from daylight.
She comes to a little while later to see that some kid has found her, completely ignoring the prone, injured woman begging for help in lieu of playing with her camera. She rolls over to reveal that, oh no! She's been infected with the random Crypt disease that was never really explained! Plot twist? What is up with that infection besides making your face a little gross? Why did it turn that one guy crazy and nobody else? Anyways, the kid dicks with the camera, Anubis lunges out of the shadows and movie over. Thank Ra.
The Pyramid strikes me as the kind of movie that I would think up while I was 12: A bunch of guys explore an ancient temple and are one by one picked off by booby traps and maybe a monster. There is no other purpose or greater meaning for this film to exist. It just sort of does. We don't get any exploration into Ancient Egyptian mythology or culture, there is no grand revelation about the nature of the pyramid beyond “This pyramid is a bad pyramid” and the movie just sort of fizzles out on us. Nothing was gained. Nothing was accomplished. Nothing was watched.