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Category: Reviews and Ramblings

My Favorite Horrors: ALIEN

I’ve written about the film Alien a couple of times here, but I’ve yet to come out and say that it’s my favorite horror movie. I wrote about how the alien creature itself has given me more nightmares than anything else, and how much I think of the big, out-of-nowhere twist involving Ash. Within the former piece, I go into what I feel makes the monster more frightening than any other I’ve seen on a screen or read about on a page. In the second piece I go into not just the unexpected revelation that Ash is a robot, but also how the film is built around escalating and unexpected threats. READ MORE

My Favorites of 2021

Favorite Film

Kicking things off with a decidedly non-horror favorite before we dive deep into world of frights.

I have missed going to the movies. I love being in the theater. The pandemic has seemingly made many people realize that they in fact don’t like going out to the movies. They might even be willing to pay extra to bring the movie straight to the comfort of their living room or bedroom (or home theater, if they have it like that). And if that’s your preference, it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with that. I like the big screen, myself, even when there aren’t many other people in the theater. Hell, especially when the the theater is sparsely populated. I caught Summer of Soul with my significant other and it was the first time I’ve ever been “alone” (save for my partner, obviously) in a theater to see a film, and it was a fantastic experience. Of course, at least 90% of the good vibes I felt while watching it was a product of the film itself. READ MORE

Classic Scary Story History: “Wait ‘Til Martin Comes”

Back in 2011 I wrote about my history with and love for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. One thing I’ve enjoyed about the stories I read in my childhood is encountering their origins or earlier versions through the years. Now, as part of my never-ending quest on this site to start new things that I rarely revisit or see through satisfactorily, I’m going to start a series of posts focused on the light history and evolution of some classic scary stories. Starting with the joke story, “Wait ’til Martin Comes.”

As it appears in the first volume of Scary Stories, it is the tale of a man who seeks shelter from a storm in an old house. He falls asleep in the house three times. The first time he wakes up, an ordinary black cat has joined him. The second time, the first cat is now accompanied by another cat that is “as big as a wolf.” The cats speak to each other.

“Shall we do it now?” the larger cat says.

“Let’s wait till Martin comes,” the other says.

The man tells himself he’s dreaming and falls asleep one more time. When he wakes up, a black cat the size of a tiger is present and it asks the other two, “Shall we do it now?” They agree to, “Wait till Martin comes.”

Understandably not wanting to find out how big Martin is or what the cats plan to do, the man says, “When Martin comes, you tell him I couldn’t wait,” then runs out into the storm.

The same story appears in 1959’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed, and Other Scary Tales by Maria Leach. Even details such as seeking shelter from a storm appear in Leach’s telling, which is worth pointing out because, as we’ll see, older versions of “Wait ‘Til Martin Comes” didn’t follow the exact same course.

The story is basically a joke derived from a “traditional Negro folk tale,” per the “Sources” section Alvin Schwartz provides at the end of his book. He then gives four different sources that all tell slightly altered versions of the story. The oldest version Schwartz cites comes from Newbell Niles Puckett’s Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, published in 1926. In it, the man just agrees to stay in a haunted house, as opposed to seeking shelter from the storm. The first cat that appears says, “Well, I can’t do nothin’ ’til Martin comes,” then vanishes. The bigger cat comes in, says the same, and also vanishes. When the third, tiger-sized cat repeats the routine, the man in the house does his own more practical and self-preserving disappearing act to keep from seeing Martin in the flesh.

Two versions appeared in The Journal of American Folklore, one in Volume 40 (1928), the other in Volume 47 (1934). In both of these the name “Martin” is replaced; by “Patience” in the 1928 version and by “Emmett” in the second one.1 In both stories the man in the house is stated to be a Bible-packing preacher. The 1928 version is very brief and to the point, while the 1934 retelling stretches things out considerably, with each cat playing around in red-hot fireplace coals before saying their line, but both follow the same general plot and reach the same destination. Increasingly large cats, implied threats, and then our protagonist books it before the titular (and presumably biggest) cat arrives.

Before looking at some other retellings, a couple of things to note here:

  • Schwartz and Leach had the grace not to write the story in affected “Negro dialect” which dominates the other versions of this tale mentioned thus far (as well as a couple more to come).
  • Related to that, one thing I like about the “original” story, as compared to some other “Negro folktales” involving ghosts, is that it’s not about a black person being afraid of their own shadow, or mistaking an innocent animal for a spirit. There are plenty of examples of other stories like that available just in the volumes I’ve mentioned, as well as elsewhere. In this story, though, our protagonist is faced with something bizarre and unsettling that would scare just about anyone, and when he gets the hell out of dodge it’s obviously the smart thing to do, not a cowardly act.
  • The stories with “Patience” and “Emmett” in The Journal of American Folklore make it clear that these aren’t otherworldly cats of undefined nature, but ghosts taking on the form of cats. Puckett’s story implies this by stating that it’s a haunted house, but the Folklore stories make it plain.
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    Movie Review: THE VIGIL

    I can’t write this review without quasi-spoiling something about this movie–a moment that I really enjoyed, a moment that I’m a sucker for–so consider this fair warning.

    When done well, few things in horror get to me quite like the moment when someone does or says something to menacingly reveal that they’re some kind of impostor. One of my favorite horror stories in any medium in recent years, the French series Marianne, deployed this effectively more than once.

    The Vigil pulls this off a few times as well, but one particular instance stands out from the rest. In fact, one of the few flaws I’d say this film has is that it goes back to the well with this trick one too many times, in a moment where it’s a little too obvious what will happen. That being said, it’s more about execution than predictability when it comes to these things. My favorite instance of the impostor revealing themselves in The Vigil was also something I saw coming well ahead of time, but in that case it just made me feel even more excited and scared about what was to come. To the extent that it made me turn the lamp on in my bedroom. I can’t remember the last time before this that a movie or book or anything made me flip a light switch.

    I also can’t explain why I like this particular horror fiction device so much. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of something that happens to me in dreams, but feels so much safer because I can turn off a movie or set a book down so much more easily than I can escape my sleeping mind. I’ve long had dreams that seemed docile and pleasant enough, only to have something happen to show the dream is an impostor, a nightmare in disguise just waiting for me to let my guard down. It’s not quite the same as what happens in stories, but it feels similar enough to me. Things will seem pleasant or innocuous enough in the dream (though still strange, because dreams are inevitably illogical to some degree) and then I’ll notice that I’m alone, or that there’s no obvious way out of some building I’ve been in, or that one of the players in my mental theatre isn’t taking a joke well and is about to set off a chain of horrible violence. I recognize the nightmare has been impersonating something harmless, I see its façade slip, and my spirit sinks as I know I’m in for something decidedly unpleasant.

    Again, it’s different for me when I’m watching a movie, reading a book, listening to a podcast, etc. I can enjoy and appreciate that sort of misdirection then, even as it might make my heartbeat hasten, as it did in The Vigil. It helps that the demonic villain, the mazzik–largely unseen for the film’s duration–is described early on as a shapeshifter identifiable due to having its head on backwards. It’s a simple and bizarre characteristic that has potential to come off a little silly, but instead proves effectively unsettling, partly due to how much the movie builds anticipation for actually getting a clear look at the thing. This is especially impressive considering most of the movie takes place in a single, small brownstone house, and even on just one floor of the house at that.

    Writer and director Keith Thomas knows what he’s doing. This is a movie about guilt, culture, having and losing faith, trying to forgive yourself, and respecting tradition while also trying to free yourself from some of it. This is a film that could have made the demon purely metaphorical and not an actual entity that exists within its universe, or could have eschewed the demon entirely, and might have gotten more love overall because of it. Not just because it might then have appealed more to people who don’t view horror as a vessel for “serious” storytelling (to be fair, are there even that many influential people who think that way left nowadays?), but also because it wouldn’t be susceptible to criticisms from horror fans who either don’t like heavy, sentimental themes mixed with their scares, or who purely rate a movie on whether it scared them or not (I feel like there’s still an abundance these types of fans out there).

    Yes, I’ve spent much of this review talking about how much its best scares impacted me, but The Vigil is also well-acted (carried primarily by lead Dave Davis, though the late Lynn Cohen also stands out), well-plotted and well-directed.

     Final Verdict: Very, very good. Made me turn a lamp on, and also made me feel.

    “THISsss… ain’t no funeral home.”

    Clarence Williams III was memorable in a lot of film and television roles, and almost certainly had his biggest impact as part of the original Mod Squad, which was before my time, but was a significant and even game-changing show in its day, and had enough cultural cache to earn a (not very good) film adaptation a quarter-century after its last episode aired. In short, he’s known for much more than just the time he played the Devil in the once-upon-a-time-underrated Tales From the Hood (which has gained more attention and praise over time, resulting in the recent Tales 3, which I liked and reviewed here). But I’m a horror author who’s loved frightening stories since I was a kid. So, upon hearing of Mr. Williams’ passing at 81-years-old, I first thought not just of his depiction of a Hollywood Devil, but one of the best depictions of Hollywood Devil of all time.

    First, let me get into what the hell I mean when I say “Hollywood Satan.” To be fair, what I’m about to describe predates film by several centuries, but film and television have been the epicenter of pop culture for decades, and Hollywood the epicenter of film and television, so that’s why I’m choosing to phrase it that way. Anyway, what I’m alluding to is the fact that the common depiction of the Devil / Lucifer / Satan doesn’t really match what’s in The Bible, Torah or Quran. Be ye religious or not you can still recognize that the Devil as he is commonly portrayed in the arts and pop culture is an invention distinct from his portrayal in Abrahamic religions. Now there’s a ton to unpack there and I don’t feel like getting into it all now–or possibly ever–but it’s easy to look up for yourself. Suffice to say, the accepted religious texts don’t provide a physical description of the Devil that gives him horns, or goat-legs or a goat-head, or any other features he’s frequently given in paintings or on screens or in books. Likewise, the religions don’t make him out to be some kind of ruler of Hell.

    So with that much at least said on that part of the subject, I’m going to shift back to crediting Mr. Williams with one of the all-time greatest portrayals of assorted Hollywood Devils. He’s over-the-top, more than a little warped, funny and captivating, and ultimately terrifying.

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    The finale of Tales From the Hood is a grand spectacle of fright that could stand beside some of the most nightmarish moments from the likes of Jigoku, aka The Sinners of Hell. In film and television, Hell is often depicted as torturous and miserable, for obvious reasons, but it’s less often seen as endless human chaos, as it is in the two movies I’ve mentioned here. Perhaps the scariest thing about Hell as seen in Tales is the way the bodies flail and convulse in fire that looks like it burns without consuming.

    Or, perhaps, the scariest part is the way Clarence Williams announces that Hell is upon our hopeless trio of gangsters. Maybe it’s the way he oversees the chaos and agony before him. Maybe it’s his true form. All I know for sure is that this is the part of the film everybody at who school who saw it talked about the most, and whatever was in second place wasn’t even close.

    I did a quick search for “greatest movie devils of all time” and was not surprised to run into article after article that gave no love to Clarence Williams III. One article had the temerity to include Harvey Keitel from Little Nicky and Jigoku in its top 25 (the former–just, c’mon; the latter doesn’t have a depiction of the Devil in it), but no mention of Tales From the Hood. To be expected, nonetheless disappointing. I’d go so far as to consider him for my Mount Rushmore of Movie Devils.

    Movie Review: THE VAMPIRE DOLL

    In Joe Hill’s excellent Heart-Shaped Box, there is a small side story about a little girl that once went missing. A ghostly reenactment of what happened to her is witnessed by the main character, Judas Coyne. It isn’t terribly consequential to the story overall, but is nonetheless chilling and impactful. I’m a bit of a sucker for moments like this.

    The Japanese film The Vampire Doll has such a moment, in which a doctor tells a ghost story that lasts a little over a minute. It’s about as brief of a detour as an already short movie ought to allow, but it’s surprisingly memorable and effective despite–or maybe because of–how short and matter of fact it is. The doctor uses the story–his experience, really–to explain why he, “a man of science,” is open to the existence of the supernatural. It also influences another character, Hiroshi, to reconsider his skepticism regarding fiancée’s claim that she (Keiko) actually saw someone who was supposed to be dead. Honestly, even if it served no purpose at all, I wouldn’t mind. In fact, I wish more stories could take a quick moment to tell us about other horrors and eerie mysteries within their universe beyond the one that is the focus of the plot.

    Original poster

    The Vampire Doll is the first of a thematically connected trio of Japanese vampire directed by Michio Yamamoto, and by produced by Toho studios, much more famous for Gojira and a host of other kaiju films, as well as several Kurosawa films and the likes of Ikiru. Toho is also responsible for some terrific horror films1, including Kwaidan, Onibaba and Kuroneko, and in the first half of the 70’s they had a run at three European-influenced vampire films referred to as the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy.”

    Each film clocks in under 90-minutes, The Vampire Doll being the shortest at just over 70 minutes. As you might suspect given the abbreviated runtime, the movie is interested in getting where its going with as few delays as possible. This leads to a few more contrivances than you might expect even in your average horror flick. A missing brother’s ring is spotted pretty easily on the grounds of the house where he was last seen. A man who buried a now-undead young woman just happens to be present to overhear Keiko and Hiroshi arguing over what to do next to find her brother. While she goes back to the house where she saw the vampiric spirit of her brother’s own fiancée–and where the lady of the house, Shidu, is very clearly hiding something–Hiroshi is approached by the gravedigger and told everything he needs to know to be productive in his own way.

    Could the movie stand to expand some of these moments, make the characters work at least a little bit harder to find some clues and information? Of course, and it would probably be better for it, but part of me still appreciates its efficiency. It anticipates that we’ll anticipate certain story beats and never pretends it’s not going where we know it’s going. To be clear, there’s a better, more patient way to tell this story, a path that better foreshadows and expands on a critical late-film revelation, but there’s also a much worse, more plodding and repetitive way to tell it as well. I ache less for the better version of this film than I feel gratitude for the version of it that we have.

    Mexican Lobby Card – courtesy zomboscloset.com

    There are some very effective, creepy moments in this film. Whenever our vampire girl, Yuko, shows up with her golden, evil eyes, unearthly complexion and terrifying grin, it’s always a treat. She is as much a phantom as she is a vampire, which makes sense considering how ghostly (and/or witchy, and/or demonic) European-style vampires were in older, pre-Dracula lore, where sometimes the dead didn’t physically rise from the grave so much as emerge from it as partly ethereal things that could return to their coffin after feeding while leaving the earth undisturbed.

    A haunted-house vampire tragedy, The Vampire Doll‘s brevity and refusal to even tease at something unexpected until about the last fifteen minutes or so can almost make it feel like a rushed, made-for-TV capitalization on a trend, but its production value, acting and spooky spirit-vamp elevate it.

    Final Verdict: Just a good little horror flick, told well (if very quickly) with a classically gothic tone.

    Movie Review: THE TOLL

    There is a book by John Hornor Jacobs called Southern Gods that doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie I’m reviewing here, but it’s a book I think of often, because I was drawn to it by a review that graded it a “B.” A decent grade. Solid. Right at the edge of good. The thing is, this “grade” wasn’t nearly as interesting as the review itself, which in turn made the book seem a lot more interesting, which is why I picked it up despite what some might consider a “lukewarm” score. It’s a book that I actually quite like, despite feeling a little bit let down in the later stages when it departed from a path I wanted to continue on.

    In that very general way, I suppose, The Toll does have something in common with Southern Gods. I enjoyed it, but it makes a revelation at the end that, in my opinion, transforms it into a less intriguing version of itself.

    All of that to say, this review might not come off overall as glowing or overly enthusiastic, but I would still encourage people to see this film. It’s one of three horror films I watched within  few days of each other that all made a positive impression on me (the other two being The Empty Man and The Vigil).

    Setup-wise, The Toll could only have been more in my bag if it was set in the south on a gloomy, humid evening  instead of in the northeast. Still, we’ve got dark woods, roads that impossibly lead you right back to what you left behind, specters made of memories and a local legend that feels older than it is, and that the locals don’t like to speak of not because they’re being cagey, but for fear of accidentally summoning it.

    We spend the vast majority of the movie with just our two leads, played effectively by Max Topplin and even more so by Jordan Hayes. These aren’t especially deep characters. This isn’t that kind of film. The events of the film take place over a segment of night that is of undetermined specific length due to a preternatural presence, but you can nonetheless take it to be a time period too brief to permit much character development. This isn’t a flaw or feature, just a product of the story’s structure. Some of the dialogue is clunky in spots but Jordan and Max sell most of it nonetheless.

    The execution of the story is the draw here. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but that’s a bad thing. If I see a character approaching a sign up ahead, I’m not anticipating being “tricked” into thinking it’s something ominous when it turns out to be mundane, but then wait, look again, it actually was ominous after all. I’m a bit of a sucker for a classical approach to horror storytelling at times–something that makes me feel like I’m a kid with my friends again, trading stories about all the ghosts and horrors haunting Mississippi’s coast–in part because I’m probably not going to fall for the pump fake, no matter how many times you try it. I’m not going to jump until you shoot your shot. Director and screenwriter Michael Nader spends most of this movie trying to put points up instead of trying to fool you for the sake of fooling you, and I dig that.

    But then, as they say, there’s the rub. Because there is a certain point, very late in the film, where the story just gets a little too blatant to be at its best. There are few different ways it could have ended up where it ended, and for a while it looked like it would take one of the more interesting or challenging routes. Instead it took a comparatively mundane shortcut. I actually felt my shoulders slump a bit when the movie made its decision, and smacked my lips when I realized it was fully committed to said decision. It wasn’t egregious enough to make me not recommend it, but it did leave me less enthused about it overall than I had been just five or six minutes before the credits started to roll.

    Final Verdict: I liked it, but wanted to like it more; if you aren’t as disappointed in the ending as I am, you might like it as much as I wanted to.

    My Favorite Horrors: Michelle Paver’s DARK MATTER and THIN AIR

    On her official page, Michelle Paver is described first as simply “A Creator of Legends,” and whoever wrote that “ain’t never lied,” as the folks say. I haven’t read any of her fantasy works. I’ve only read two of her novels in fact, but they’re two of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. This is especially remarkable as they are so similar. You might think the latter story might be less effective for being so close to the first. No, it’s still excellent, and both novels pull together something that feels like a legend. Classic, timeless lore befitting Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book.

    The very high-level premise of both books–Dark Matter and Thin Air–could be described as follows: A man–an outsider among his peers–joins an expedition that will take him to one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on Earth. There, it soon becomes apparent that secrets, crimes and tragedies figuratively and literally haunt the hostile landscape, and that the unquiet dead may be willing to do something dangerous to have their story heard.

    Now, if you phrase things broadly enough you can make a lot of different stories sound suspiciously similar to each other. Hell, what I wrote up above there would almost fit as a description of The Shining if you just replace a couple of words in the opening sentence. With Dark Matter and Thin Air, however, the similarities extend beyond a vague summary of each book. Certain story beats that appeared earlier in Dark Matter are replayed in Thin Air, including what happens in the climax, and this surprisingly didn’t affect my enjoyment of the latter book at all. Possibly because Paver created imagery in Thin Air that was somehow even more staggeringly haunting than what worked so well in Dark Matter.

    The setting for Dark Matter is the arctic, specifically an abandoned and now dreaded mining settlement called Gruhuken, while Thin Air‘s action takes place on the Himalayan mountain Kangchenjunga. As perilous as Gruhuken proves to be, the mountain is that much more dangerous. Likewise, the revelation of what took place in Gruhuken is terrifying, while the revelation of what happened on a previous attempt to ascend Kangchenjunga managed to be even more macabre and disturbing to me. It burned an image into my brain that will live with me for as long as I have a healthy memory.

    Both books are atmospheric, eerie, and patient burns leading toward impactful payoffs, and by the end both feel less like pure fiction than shadowy pieces of history. I’ll always have a soft spot for quasi-historical horror stories, possibly a product of reading Daniel Cohen’s Ghostly Terrors when I was seven or eight, a book that introduced me to Glamis Castle and its many creepy legends.

    Given how much I like both of these books, I can’t really explain why I haven’t yet gotten around to Paver’s Wakenhyrst, her latest historical-spooky-fiction novel, except that even now, as I’m thinking I need to rectify that, part of me just wants to go back to Gruhuken or Kangchenjunga instead.

    Movie Review: SPELL

    Mark Tonderai’s Spell is missing something, and I don’t mean something intangible, I mean actual parts of the film must be missing. I’m convinced of this, and not just based on certain moments from the trailer not making it to the finished product. Plenty of movies have “missing trailer scenes.” Not many movies feel like they’re missing significant chunks of their own story, however. It’s unfortunate, too, because up until the movie’s missing pieces become too apparent to ignore, Spell was working some fine dark magic.

    This is a simple, Misery-inspired story infused with the supernatural. A wealthy, successful man suffers a vehicle crash in a remote area (a plane crash in this case) and wakes up in a strange woman’s bed, wounded in a way that inhibits his mobility. Very soon he finds out that the woman doesn’t want him to leave, and that he’s going to die in her care if he doesn’t find a way to escape.

    The man here is Marqis, played by Omari Hardwick. The woman is Miss Eloise, played delightfully by Loretta Devine. They make up the primary players of a strong cast that also includes John Beasely. The acting ranges from fine to very good. Hardwick is solidly entertaining, even if some of his dialogue probably weakens how good he could be. Devine is very clearly having a blast and is the best thing about the film, aside from one thing I’ll get to in the next paragraph. Suffice to say that the performances aren’t an issue here.

    The direction, as well is good overall. Tonderai does good work with a couple of attempted escape scenes, ratcheting up the tension when Eloise and her crew get suspicious of Marqis possibly being on the move and go to check on him. He also knows how to get the absolute most out of a moment. A scene involving a foot injury made me wince and groan and laugh, and want to avert my eyes even though I couldn’t look away. It was so damn good. It is the signature moment of the film and should be one of the best moments of the year in any horror film, but it probably won’t get as much love as it should because of the film’s critical flaw.

    Again, this movie is missing parts of its story. I don’t know if some executive producers got involved and hacked it to pieces, I don’t know if a test screening or focus group is to blame, I don’t know if the culprit is last minute rewrites, I don’t know if we’ll ever see any of the deleted scenes that would make this movie whole, but it is a film with vital pieces ripped right out of it. This becomes all but insurmountable entering the third act, and then continues from there. Some character movements and motivations become nonsensical in a way that can only be explained by parts of the film being absent. This may not bother some people all that much, but by the end I just couldn’t get past it. The movie ends up feeling worse than rushed. It feels incomplete.

    Final Verdict: About two-thirds of an entertaining horror film, but it’s clearly had significant parts removed, and can’t survive that butchery.