Monday, February 24, 2020

Home Is Where the Haunting Is

We haven't had a Shortening yet without evil dolls, and damned if we're going to start now!

Dedicated readers might be curious as to why I've never before used this space to tackle this horror decade's most prominent porcelain villain. Part of may stem from the fact that Annabelle, you know, doesn't actually DO anything. 

It's kind of beautiful, and if you really want to dive deeper into just how grand a dame this toy is, I urge you to read Final Girl blogger Stacie Ponder's brilliant essay on the subject. 

Now obviously, I don't mind a doll that does nothing. Observe my complete adoration with Cathy's Curse and you'll understand that sometimes, a creepy pile of fabric with a face is enough in itself without Chucky-esque one-liners. And the truth is, I've genuinely enjoyed the first two Annabelle movies. So why not continue the journey?

Quick Plot: Beginning just a few minutes following the events of the first Annabelle, Lorraine and Ed Warren have successfully transported the titular doll to their basement of horrors. Locked behind blessed church glass, she sits back and waits.

The Warrens are called out of town to do some ghost hunting, leaving their daughter Judy (last year's Shortening queen, The Bad Seed/The Haunting of Hill House's Mckenna Grace) in the care of kind teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Jumanji's delightful Madison Iseman). While Mary Ellen was hoping to play some board games and bake a birthday cake for the lonely Judy, her wilder best friend Daniela shows up with other plans. 

And roller skates.

I can't imagine what world we live in where a ten-year-old girl can put on shoes with wheels for the first time in her LIFE and only manage to have one fall around the block. But perhaps the PTSD from the one time I attempted to roller boogie in the 4th grade just still burns.

Anyway, Daniela is eager to explore the Warrens' collection in the hopes of finding some kind of communication line to her recently deceased father. Naturally, she ends up freeing our favorite blond in the process, along with a whole batch of demons, ghosts, and for good measure, CGI werewolves.

Making his directorial debut, Gary Dauberman (who penned all three installments) creates a very stable PG-13 haunted house feel that should come across as a far bigger compliment than it might sounds. While The Conjuring universe has had its highs and lows, the Annabelle series has, for me, been consistently enjoyable. 

Even if the doll doesn't do sh$t.

With Annabelle Comes Home (or Annabelle: Homecoming, as I've been calling it for last year), Dauberman gives us what I affectionally call slumber party horror. Stakes are raised and the cast sells the terror, but at a certain point, the comfort level of (SPOILER ALERT) knowing that your extremely likable, extremely young cast is going to be okay. 

There's a place for hard, cruel horror, and another for spooky jump scares with heart. When done well, that latter spot is a darn good time.

High Points
There was a point early on in Annabelle Comes Home where I worried we'd be following a very dumb and slightly cruel teenager, but one of the nicest things about this film is that its characters are generally nice. It's amazing how far that goes for a film

Low Points
I know there are many real-life people who have issues with the actual Warrens, but fictionally, it's hard to accept that a couple who've spent their lives dealing with supernatural horrors would be so casual as to trust a teenager and a mere deadbolt to supervise their daughter and a house full of evil objects

If you can't nail the design (particularly a CGI one) of a werewolf, think very, very hard about whether it's worth including one in your film

Lessons Learned
The law of Checkhov's inhaler never fails

There's no such thing as enticing pizza in the horror genre

The art of wooing involves rock 'n roll

Annabelle Comes Home isn't groundbreaking, but it's a solid romp that I found incredibly satisfying. As a franchise, it's taken an interesting journey in focusing on adults, children, and now teenagers. I'll be curious to see where it goes next. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Poison For the Fairies, Nectar For Me

I have no memory of adding Carlos Enrique Taboada's Poison For the Fairies to my Netflix DVD queue, but since I'll never turn down a film whose synopsis involves evil little girls, it easily fits right in for The Shortening. 

Quick Plot: Veronica lives with her ancient grandmother and superstitious nanny. Like many a little girl growing up poor in 1960s era Mexico, she wants nothing more deeply than to become a genuine witch, a tic that makes her a little unpopular amongst her prissier fellow students. 

Enter new girl Flavia, a sweet, wealthy student who quickly becomes Veronica's best friend. Veronica convinces Flavia that she's a powerful witch, something that becomes hard to argue with after she grants Flavia's first wish.

All Flavia wanted was to stop taking piano lessons. A few drops of blood to sheet music later and her tutor is dead of a stroke. Sure, Flavia's mother says it was going to happen any day, but between that and the vivid nightmares, Flavia can't deny her new BFF's paranormal powers. 

Far less naive than her richer pal, Veronica uses her newfound reputation to take full advantage of Flavia, whether that means having her "give" Veronica some of her treasures or making Flavia accept the blame for her own nasty tricks. Flavia tries to distance herself from Veronica when a family getaway comes up, but the cunning Veronica is quick to invite herself along, especially since such a remote getaway seems like the perfect opportunity to create the titular potion.

What exactly is poison for fairies? Mostly, pretty gross stuff: toads, snake skin, tarantulas, and so on. As Veronica forces Flavia to help her assemble the ingredients, Flavia finally nears her own breaking point. 

An adorable (and ultimately safe) puppy is obviously involved.

Watching Poison For Fairies, I kept thinking to myself that here's no way this isn't a favorite of Guillermo del Toro and Issa Lopez. Much like Pan's Labyrinth and Tigers Are Not Afraid, Taboada's film plays with a fascinating balance between fairy tale and reality. It may seem obvious to an adult viewing the film that Veronica's skills are based on luck and not witchcraft, but the film is extremely smart about pulling us into Flavia's perspective to understand exactly how strong Veronica's power could be. Certain deliberate filmmaking decisions help, including never actually showing the face of an adult. The incredible performances of young Elsa Maria Gutierrez and Ana Patricia Rojo complete the effect.

More haunting than horror, I found Poison For the Fairies to be genuinely intoxicating. There's a specter of terror that hangs over the whole film, and the fact that it's centered on the innocent wide-eyed Flavia means we truly care. Veronica's Rhoda Penmark-esque savvy is juicy in an excitingly cruel way, making the girls' interactions so darn compelling. 

High Points
There is a LOT to contemplate in Poison For Fairies fitting but still shocking ending

Low Points
While Poison For the Fairies is almost perfectly paced, I could certainly have used a little more of Veronica's bloody fairy tales

Lessons Learned
Girls pray before bedtime because they're afraid

Witches can do anything, especially once they have a richer friend with a better reputation amongst teachers

All pacts with the devil have to be secret

I'm so glad that I finally sat down to watch Poison For the Fairies, but also a little ticked off that I'd never even heard of it until now. I can't stop thinking about this film, and if that's not enough for you to "long wait" to your own Netflix queue or library list, why are we friends?

Also, give me your adorable puppy or I'll put a spell on you.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Tick Tick Boom

The tick, one of nature's tiniest terrors made all the more deadly for just how small and undetectable it usually is. Does it break the covenant of The Shortening to cover a movie about a little thing made bigger? Considering the ticks of Ticks are still hand-sized and more importantly, that I'm the one making the rules, I'll say no. 

Let's do this. 

Quick Plot: A youth wilderness trip run by two not overly social workers is heading to the woods. The group includes the anxious Tyler (a gloriously young and awkward Seth Green), prissy DeeDee (Monkees' spawn Ami Dolenz), her boyfriend Rome, the sort of mute Kelly, Melissa, the chaperone's daughter, not-at-all gangster Panic (Fresh Prince's Alfonso Ribeiro), and his vicious...border collie.

All are pretty miserable, some with fairly valid reasons (when the near-mute Kelly finally speaks, she explains, "After I was raped, I just had nothing to say." The subject is never brought up again).

Elsewhere in the woods, Clint Howard is adding some steroids to his marijuana crop, unaware that some of the runoff from his production is seriously mutating the local ticks. It doesn't take long for nature's vampires to make themselves known to our ragtag campers, who quickly end up trapped in a cabin with a violent pair of sheriff-murdering locals. 

Clocking in under 90 minutes, Ticks flies by pretty quickly once the titular arachnids launch their attack. Director Tony Randel (probably best known for Hellraiser II) gets his money's worth from Doug Beswick's super gooey practical effects, lingering on long shots of pulsating tick-popping body parts and dripping wounds. I'll never speak ill of a movie that incorporates MULTIPLE bear traps, particularly when an all-out Clint Howard is the one on the wrong end. 

Ticks had an extremely brief 1993 theatrical run, but is probably remembered mostly for its VHS placement on rental shelves. As a remnant of its era, it's a pretty darn good time, and probably holds some merit as the last arach-attack flick to not use CGI. 

It's hard not to have a good time with Ticks, even if it's ultimately a fairly empty, incredibly silly ride. 

High Points
For a cheap '90s creature feature that knows exactly what it is, Ticks actually takes the rare step in treating its first major death-of-a-teenager with the kind of weight it would actually carry in the real world of, you know, a group of randomly assembled teenagers were hunted by steroid-laced ticks and one of them died

Low Points the same time, when you sit back and look at the death count of Ticks, tallying up three adult criminals and one black teenager feels a little disappointing in more ways than one

Lessons Learned
True parental love means dropping your kid off with complete strangers for a wilderness weekend and trusting them enough to not even bother meeting the people in charge

When in doubt, squish

Anxiety disorders will really flare up in stressful situations, especially when they involve man-eating ticks and psychos with shotguns

Ticks is streaming on Amazon Prime, and it's a pretty fun way to kill some time when you're looking for a good batch of bloody bug-filled gore. Tuck your pants into your socks and have at it. 

Monday, February 3, 2020

Let the Shortening Begin With Some Woodsy Terror!

Check your calendar! It's the shortest month of the year (made slightly longer this time around) which means it's the TENTH annual Shortening!

For those new to the blog, The Shortening is simply a month where we celebrate horror all things little: deadly dolls, killer kids, infectious insects, you get the idea. As is often the case, bad seeds tend to dominate, so let's start this year's celebration off with the moral depravity of the American tweenager.

Quick Plot: Rachel and Kaitlyn are 11-year-old outcasts about to discover they're neighbors. Rachel has just moved to town following the separation of her parents, while Kaitlyn's overworked mother (Angela Kinsey from The Office) struggles to care for her family, including a well-meaning husband trying to manage his own (not named, but clear) schizophrenia. 

A lonely school bus ride is all it takes for Rachel and Kaitlyn to connect, much to the chagrin of Kaitlyn's best (and only) friend Emily. Where Rachel and Kaitlyn bond over dark urban legends, Emily prefers to chatter nonstop about fairies. Like all middle school female friendships, nothing lasts forever.

And, much like MANY a middle school female friendship, the deeper the bond, the more dangerous the girls.

Kaitlyn, you see, hears voices, and the more she and Rachel dig into their favorite scary story (Slender Man stand-in Suzerain) the louder they seem to get. Always a lonely child, Rachel is so thrilled to have a friend that she never notices that Kaitlyn might have other forces at work. Together, they dive deeper into Suzerain lore, convincing themselves and each other that their families have become the prime target of the murderous internet demon. The only way to save those they love is to sacrifice an innocent, and unsuspecting Emily becomes the perfect lamb. 

"Inspired by true events" is a phrase that usually makes my stomach turn or eyes roll. I tend to prefer my horror be guilt-free and imaginary, so the idea of Lifetime tackling a fairly recent, incredibly dark true crime case seemed like it would go into irresponsible waters pretty quickly. Thankfully, this is one of that small percentage of Lifetime movies that approaches its material with actual care. 

Terror In the Woods is directed by D.J. Viola, who shows excellent skill with his very strong young cast (newcomers Ella West Jerrier and Sophie Grace). The script (written by none other than Tara Maclay herself, Amber Benson) demonstrates a clear understanding of how girls of these age bond and break. There's a careful attention paid to making sure Kaitlyn and Rachel aren't just newspaper articles come to life, but real lonely young women whose friendship fed into something very, very dark. 

While Terror In the Woods doesn't cross into Emmy-worthy territory, it manages to be quite compelling as a study of confused teenagers, mental illness, and the dangers of good intentions. This isn't a Lifetime movie that aims to spawn memes. It wants to take a famous, fascinating crime and look at how the people involved came to commit it. For a network whose commercial breaks gleefully revel in next week's stepson love triangle, that's pretty impressive. 

High Points
As anyone who's heard me praising the otherwise pretty maligned #Horror knows, few things are scarier than the simultaneous thrills and dangers of preteen female friendship, and Terror In the Woods understands this both in its performances and script

Low Points
Look, this is still a "ripped from the headlines" Lifetime cash-in on a real-life tragedy, and it's not entirely easy to shake the ickiness factor. That being said, the act of violence that everyone is waiting for is handled with genuine weight and never feels exploitive

Lessons Learned
11 is a prime time for grossness

Die with a pillow on your face and you won't feel pain

Furniture store bathrooms are a superb home base for murder cleanup

I'm not saying Terror In the Woods is the 21st century Heavenly Creatures, but it's a surprisingly effective and heartbreaking dramatization of a case already documented too many times. I can't say how it compares to the pile of horror movies already made (well actually, I can at least say it's deeper than Mercy Black) but it's certainly better than the token Law & Order: SVU episode done on the same topic. It's not exactly fun, but anything tackling material like this probably shouldn't be.