Monday, January 25, 2021

Best of the Year, 2020!

Having made it through the roughest 365—nay, 366! days in recent history, we continue the Doll’s House TWELVE YEAR and counting tradition of celebrating the blog’s actual birthday with a roundup of my favorite movies covered over the last 12 months. 

Have at it! 

12. Necromancer

Necromancer is the kind of ‘80s horror most of us wrote off as a memorable VHS cover from our days prowling video stores. Imagine my surprise to discover that in an era of the genre rarely thought of in the same sentence as feminism, Necromancer proved to be a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the kind of PTSD a woman might experience after sexual assault. Yes, there are vengeance demons in garage sheds and gooey monster murders, but the horror comes from a very human place, and one rarely taken with the serious heft it needs. Necromancer isn’t a great film, but it taps into something important, and that means something.

11. Annabelle Comes Home

The Annabelle series doesn’t hold a candle to Chucky’s saga in my heart, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three installments. The third film nails its PG-13 slumber party tone with effective scares, sympathetic young characters, and some emotional stakes that make it the perfect one spooky night story. 

10. Season of the Witch 

George Romero will always be known as the founder of the modern zombie, but in between his Dead series, he made some interesting genre-adjacent films. As Martin put a spin on vampirism, Season of the Witch does some fascinating exploration of what a modern witch might look like amid ‘70s suburbia. There are apparently multiple cuts of this film and none that Romero ever really felt nailed what he wanted to do, but the one streaming on Amazon Prime is filled with some neat touches that make for something different.

9. Parasomnia

This past year, my podcast, The Feminine Critique, devoted most of spring to covering each episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror. The results were pretty disappointing, reminding my cohost Christine and me of just how much early 2000s horror seemed to hate women. Thankfully, the silver lining was finding a few great installments, including William Malone’s The Fair-Haired Child. This led me to check out The House On Haunted Hill director’s other works, including the disappointingly dull (but attractive) His 2008 labor of love is something far more interesting, pulling in Malone’s trademark visual style with a deep heart at its center. While it follows some supernatural serial killer beats, Parasomnia feels truly fresh, making it well worth anybody’s time.

8. Witch-Hunt

I stumbled upon this micro-budget thriller on Amazon Prime and spent the first 20 minutes thinking I’d be making Mystery Science Theater 3000-esque quips at its Lifetime style only to finish and declare it some of the smartest storytelling I’d ever seen in a tiny genre picture. A tiny cast composed entirely of women gather for a party game, unleashing some sort of mysterious force that might be connected to their participation in the satanic panic of the ‘80s. Writer/director Philip Schaeffer has nothing to work with but a single location, and he manages to weave together a film that had me on the edge of my seat. I would love to see what he could do with bigger resources, and highly recommend anyone with an appreciation of independent filmmaking takes a look.

7. Into the Dark: Culture Shock

I’ve yet to be disappointed by the handful of Hulu’s Into the Dark features that I’ve watched, but Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock is the first one that I can easily call great. Its first half is a heartbreaking look at what it means to cross the Mexican/U.S. border, while its second part takes such a surprise but ultimately, very meaningful direction. It calls to mind plenty of other film properties while also feeling completely new, all anchored by an excellent performance by lead Martha Higareda. Like several of the newer films on this year’s list, the best part of these movies is the excitement at young directors’ potential. 

6. Black Christmas

Is 2019’s Black Christmas the scariest telling of a holiday-themed slasher? Gosh no, nor is it even a slasher! As a horror film, I won’t argue that Sophia Takal’s film is a masterclass in suspense, but as a feminist blast of the patriarchy, it’s a joy, and the 14-year-old female horror fan deep inside my past was practically in tears at how supported I felt. I think of the scene where an immaculate Imogen Poots has to hold herself in from exploding at the doofy white middle aged male security guard any time I’ve had to restrain my own anger, because you know what? While I’ve never had to take down a cult of fraternity misogynists, I still felt seen by what this movie understood about the fundamental female place in a world run by men who are terrified that their power is slipping away. I fully understand this film not clicking with a lot of viewers, but I refuse to tolerate anyone not accepting that it’s damn important.

5. Paperhouse

With Candyman, Bernard Rose made what is often considered the best genre film of the 1990s. More a magical realist drama, Paperhouse, long out of print and now watchable via Amazon Prime, is a far different film but equally stunning. An unhappy schoolgirl discovers that her art can come to life in her dreams, and before long, she’s making daily visits to a sickly boy her age haunted by an abusive father figure. There’s a lot going on under the surface, and brilliantly sparse visual style that makes each frame feel like a painting from the same collection. It’s a beautifully quiet meditation on that age between child and teenager, as our lead slowly grows up by opening herself up to others. It’s a lovely, haunting film that won’t leave you easily.

4. Exhibit A

The cover art of this British found footage drama would have you expecting the kind of shaky cam quickie that was so popular in the post-Paranormal Activity boom, but Dom Rotheroe’s Exhibit A is something far deeper, more akin to something from the mind of Michael Haneke than Blumhouse. A middle class British family begins to document their daily life with a video camera right as their boisterous but damaged father starts to fall apart. It’s not an easy watch and not one I’ll repeat any time soon, but it’s incredibly well made, and will leave you far more disturbed than most of the traditional horror films I watched this year. 

3. What Keeps You Alive

Colin Minihan has become quite a force in the modern horror genre, starting with his teamwork in Grave Encounters and continuing now with Shudder’s well-received Spiral. What Keeps You Alive demonstrates that Minihan might just be one of the best working directors today, with a mastery of how to build suspense, use his geography, and steer fantastic performances. The less you know going in, the more effective the film will be, so stop reading and queue it up on Netflix already. You’re welcome.

2. Vivarium

Yes, Vivarium had a weird stroke of luck in landing on Amazon Prime during lockdown, which undoubtedly made this story of stifled isolation even more effective. Writer/director Lorcan Finnegan crafts an unusually haunting tale of a young couple trapped in an artificial housing development and forced to raise some sort of monster child. Actress of the year Imogen Poots turns out another complex performance as a woman who didn’t ask to be a mother but can’t decide if she should fight or embrace it. I know a lot of horror fans found Vivarium disappointing (I’ve seen the word “boring” thrown out quite a bit in reviews and comments) but something about its suburban forced parenting nightmare really struck me, and hasn’t left my mind since.

1. Poison For the Fairies

The best feeling I can ever have when covering a film — particularly an older one — is to say, “where has this been my whole life?” Carlos Enrique Taboada’s Poison For the Fairies is so strange, so stylish, so hypnotically unique that I genuinely fell in love. I’m guessing that’s true for a lot of filmmakers, as there are certainly hints of Taboada’s essence in Guillermo Del Toro and Issa Lopez’s works. Poison For the Fairies tackles one of my favorite subjects: children who are fundamentally mean. While fairly tame for most of its running time, Poison For the Fairies ends on such a shocking moment that I was left with my jaw on the floor, then reassembled in a very unusual smile. This is a special, special little treasure from a filmmaker I didn’t know. Can’t wait to dive in deeper. 

And that's a merciful end to the year that was a LOT of horrors! Come back next week for the start of February's Attack of the Shorties!, aka a whole month devoted to murderous things on a smaller scale. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Lessons Learned, 2020


Here at the Doll’s House, we celebrate a year’s end not on December 31st, but in the month that leads up to the very birthday of this here blog. The first round in this two-week party is one of my favorite parts of the year: a chance for me to review the past 365 days of accumulated knowledge and break it down into my favorite lessons. Categorized for your reference, here you go!

Lessons In Love

The art of wooing involves rock 'n roll -- Annabelle Comes Home

Snogging is a lot like kissing a vacuum cleaner — Paperhouse

Responsible adults use protection, even if they're having stranger sex in a dirty subway station floor that hasn't been cleaned since news of Watergate broke -- Stag Night

First dates are always better when done montage style -- Nothing left to Fear

Nothing gets a waitress hotter than when you stuff her face with a burger and rant about Tarzan -- Redeemer: Son of Satan

What Makes a Good Parent

There comes a point in every single mother's life when she has to do what it takes to make sure her firstborn doesn't throw her future away for a handsome failed architect turned diamond smuggler -- Smuggling In Suburbia 

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 -- Ticks

When your daughter is balled in the next room, you handle it by kicking some ass -- Season of the Witch 

Modern Weaponry On a Budget

Never underestimate the usefulness of an antique baby doll as a hand-to-hand combat weapon -- Incident In a Ghostland

Before blasting it across a large field filled with extremely flammable beings, take a minute to consider the basic rules of gasoline -- Cell 

One of the easiest ways to kill someone? Climb a short ladder and drop a screwdriver on his head. Gravity is fun! -- Killing Spree 

Vehicular Science

The slower the car roll, the longer the death gurgle -- Up Against Amanda

Young People 101

The great thing about modern coeds is how much they talk in detail about their lives and motivations, ensuring new film audiences just stopping by for a peak understand every key part of who they are and what they fear -- Truth or Dare 

In any group of attractive college students, there will inevitably be one prankster who deserves to die -- Haunt 

The Law of Thermodynamics 

The best cure for a hot tub that's too hot is a bottle of tequila -- Head Count

Occupational Stereotypes That Are 100% True

Unleashed architects are one of the more dangerous sorts to be haunted -- Amityville: It's About Time

Witches can do anything, especially once they have a richer friend with a better reputation amongst teachers -- Poison for the Fairies

Pilgrims may be no fun and homicidal, but they can teach some handy tips about poisonous fruit -- Pilgrim

If you can't talk, you can't sell -- Exhibit A

Always assume that your babysitter is snooping -- Glass Houses

No preacher is more trustworthy than the one who wears a gun at all times -- Pure

Survival In the Internet Age

Fast typing is a vital life skill -- Unfriended: Dark Web 

Always read the terms and conditions. Oh, who are we kidding? Most of us would rather accept a supernatural death than actually do that every time we download something -- Countdown

Believe In Yourself & Others Will Follow

A bad bleach job was all you needed to pass yourself off as a Hanson brother -- Urban Legend

Complete confidence means nothing if your mom's a dirty alcoholic- -- Urban Legends: Bloody Mary

Wilderness Tips & Facts

Nothing starts a fire better than anti-fire propaganda! -- Body At Brighton Rock

The price you pay for roughing it is microwaved croissants -- Nightmare At Noon

Harder Than It Looks

When introducing someone to solid foods, remember that an ice cream cone requires far more motor skills than you probably want to challenge at first bite -- Parasomnia

Easier Than It Looks

Who needs event planners when there are candles and party store decorations? -- Witch-Hunt

Advanced Crime Coverup 

When burying someone alive, take a few extra seconds to make sure there's no exit route -- Martyrs

Furniture store bathrooms are a superb home base for murder cleanup -- Terror In the Woods

When covering up bloodstains, remember the cardinal rule: blot, don't scrub -- What Keeps You Alive 

An arcade is no place to discuss last night's sexual assault -- Necromancer

American Geography

Nice people don't live in Malibu - Monster Party 

Self-Preservation In Times of Turmoil

Maybe it's just the real-life quarantine talking, but doesn't it just seem OBVIOUS that one should avoid having sex when there's the slightest chance that you might be harboring a mysterious parasite -- Isolation

Never outright TELL the jaded 911 operator that you've awoken in a tub of ice cubes with a missing kidney. Just say, "I've lost a lot of blood" and let the paramedics take it from there - Urban Legend 2: Final Cut

First Impressions

You can always judge a woman by the quality of her homemade soup -- Culture Shock

Female Trouble

The only way to lose a Diva Cup is with abandon - Black Christmas

Maintaining a perfectly fit body is a lot of work, but the reward is that you get to rock a gold lamé harem jumpsuit - Killer Workout

You TOO Can Be a Filmmaker!

When in doubt about how to end your film, consider giving the last laugh to a cymbal playing monkey - The Blackout

And that’s a wrap! Next week, we’ll look back at the beast films I reviewed this year, followed by the TENTH Annual Shortening, aka a month devoted to the tiny villains who make horror movies worth watching. See you then, monkeys and all!

Monday, January 11, 2021

Black Mirror Rewatch: Smithereens

Welcome to another Black Mirror episode I wasn't looking forward to revisiting, not because it was terrible, but because my memory told me it was boring.

Let's see.

The Talent: Like Hated In the Nation, Smithereens is written by showrunner Charlie Brooker and directed by James Hawe, with Fleabag's Andrew Scott in the lead role and a barely recognizable Topher Grace in the Mark Zuckerberg-by-way-of-self-help-and-a-better-gym part.

The Setup: Chris, an unassuming but deeply depressed ride share driver, parks himself outside of the Smithereen company headquarters every day in the hopes of snaring a passenger high up on the corporate ladder of the social media enterprise. He needs to get the ear of founder and CEO Billy Bauer, and taking a hostage seems like the easiest method.

Unfortunately, Chris acts a little quickly, judging the young 20something in a suit to be of note when in fact, poor Jaden is simply an intern trying to make a good impression. The negotiation process ends up taking much longer, which raises the suspicions of small-town cops who spot Chris's play from afar. Chris now feels even more pressure to get what he needs from Billy while outlasting the possible sniper target aimed at his head.

The Ending: It wouldn't be Black Mirror without some kind of twist or reveal, and in this case, it's by Chris's own confession: yes, he's sad about his fiancee's untimely death in a car accident, but it turns out, it was his fault all along. Much like the lead of my favorite episode (Be Right Back), Chris was busy scrolling through Smithereen's feed while driving. The fatal accident that took her wasn't due to a drunk driver's compromised position, but by a bored, social media obsessed Chris.

Chris finally gets Billy's ear, and the result is...underwhelming. Billy gets it: he's addicted too! That's what the software was designed to do, just like the Vincent Kartheiser triplets showed us in The Social Dilemma. But, well... what of it? Chris uses his last phone call to help a friend who has also lost one and is looking for answers through social media, and we exit on an ambiguous scene that suggests (but does not confirm) that Chris is killed by the sniper and the rest of those involved go back to scrolling their feeds.

The Theme: If Nosedive didn't already tell us this, social media is addictive and dangerous

The Verdict: My feelings on Smithereen didn't change one bit: it's a well-made slice of television that feels completely unnecessary and a good 20 minutes too long. I was far more interested in Amanda Drew's grieving mother than Chris's bottled guilt. Worse, the mistaken identity of Jaden is a subplot that takes up running time while giving us the same result we would have had if Chris abducted Billy himself (only without the scenic desert backdrop).

Black Mirror's fifth season isn't highly celebrated, and an episode like this certainly makes it clear to me why audiences have fallen out of love. There's nothing new to be said about social media and our dangerous reliance on its validation, especially when the show tackled the very issue one season earlier. What's left are some good performances that just don't go anywhere.

Technology Tip: Hey, did you know you shouldn't be distracted by your smartphone when driving? Don't worry if you forget: we'll repeat the lesson in a few months.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 4/10; there's some genuine felt weight regarding grief, especially with Drew's monologue. But ultimately, it's hard to care about Chris when it's so clear that he cares very little for himself.

Quality Scale: 6/10. Well acted, fine dialogue, pretty shots straight out of a Runner's World magazine, but sluggish and so oddly paced that something just feels off

Enjoyment Scale: 4/10. I'll almost certainly never go back to Smithereens, not because it's bad, but because it's just boring. Any of its meaning is better gleaned by better episodes, so what we're left with is a mopey story that doesn't even have a satisfying conclusion. I'll pass.

Up Next: It's a Shortening miracle! Next in the ranking was Season 5's Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too, which just so happens to include a doll! See you in February!