Monday, December 26, 2022

Nerd Alert! Books to Buy With Your Gift Cards!


As tentatively promised, it's time for another dive into some of the genre (and adjacent) books that I've been enjoying in recent weeks. Clean those glasses and dive in!

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathanial Philbrick
Nonfiction is a bit of an uphill climb for me, but there's one particular history subject that I can always read about: exploration/nautical hell. Chalk it up to having a passionate fifth grade teacher, but give me a biography of James Cook that details his brutal dismemberment or the horrors of scurvy as it knocked out his crew's teeth and yes, I'm fully there. In the Heart of the Sea is sort of the historical prequel to Moby Dick, an intimidating classic that I've circled like Pee-Wee Herman around the snake tank, knowing I SHOULD read it for its place in literary history, but terrified at the amount of likely dull whaling details I'm going to encounter. In the Heart of the Sea is thankfully a brisker but deeply informative look at the same era and industry, told well by Nathaniel Philbrick as he sorts pieces together the various accounts of the infamous Essex's voyage in 1820. Phlbrick's voice is engagingly entertaining, keeping the history lesson moving with great narrative skill. I certainly didn't expect to encounter 19th century dildos in chapter 2, if that tells you something.

TV/Movie Pairing:

The fascination of In the Heart of the Sea is wonderfully reminiscent of another property based on a nautical failure of the same era. If you loved Dan Simmons' The Terror, this ticks many of the same boxes. And more importantly, if you haven't checked out the wonderful (and vastly underrated) AMC miniseries adaptation, amend that today. Jarred Harris and Ciaran Hinds lead the cast through brutally stark art direction. Yes, the CGI monster is the least effective part (same goes for the presumably non-CGI monster in the book) but the human aspects and nature's wonder are beautifully done. Just promise me you'll skip the completely unrelated second season of the series, which assembled a completely new creative team to tell an unrelated story...very badly.

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic In the 1980s by Richard Beck
TWO nonfiction on ONE list? What is HAPPENING? Well, hopefully not whatever went wrong with the world in the 1980s, when the system began to prosecute/persecute random citizens for corrupting the youth of America with witchcraft. The Satanic Panic is a dark chapter in this country's history, but not nearly enough is known about why and how it came to destroy so many lives. Author Richard Beck does a thorough dive into a few of the more prominent cases and effectively grounds the action so we the reader can better understand how 1988 California could so easily mimic 1692 Salem. It's all too familiar. 

TV/Movie Pairing

I'm still waiting for the world to find this Philip Schaeffer's Witch-Hunt, a made-for-pennies oddity that manages to develop a fascinating little story on dialog alone. Witch-Hunt is very much about how being part of the Satanic Panic might fester in someone decades later, and while you have to power through its early low budget strained rhythm, once you give in, there's a lot there. 

When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole
The horrors of gentrification take on a literal form in this contemporary tale of a Brooklyn neighborhood. The narrative is effectively split between Sydney, our hometown heroine ready to defend her territory from the invading wealthy whites, and Theo, a nice enough guy discovering his part in the problem. It's a fast-paced mystery with a solid payoff.

TV/Movie Pairing

I found When No One Is Watching by the tagline "the literary Get Out," and that really does fit. If you enjoyed one, you'll likely feel the same way about the other.

God Shot by Chelsea Bieker
Don't you kind of hate yourself for being so damn fascinated by cults? The details are always so strangely enthralling that you end up sucked into a story that almost always involves victimization, often of the marginalized or young. Chelsea Bieker's God Shot doesn't necessarily give us a story we haven't seen before, but she solidly places it from the point of view that we should most be listening to in these scenarios: a teenage girl who is thoroughly enamored by her faith's charismatic sham of a leader, but slowly discovers entirely for herself that there's something very wrong. It doesn't necessarily fall into the horror categorization, but it's deeply affecting in pulling you into a very dark place.

TV/Movie Pairing:

There are plenty of films and documentaries about cult victims, but one the best remains Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like God Shot, it steadies itself in the perspective of a young woman taken in by the promises of an appealing man quickly proven to be horrible abuser. Now don't ever make me write out and remember the order of names in that title again.

Blood Autumn by Kathryn Ptacek
Is there anything more wonderful than discovering a used bookstore that has both cats AND a huge stretch of horror paperbacks? I stumbled upon such a gem on a recent vacation (the Book Corner in Niagara Falls, New York) and left with a literal boxful of random treasures, including this sexy vampire romp. I'd never heard of the author or title, but for $1, that juicy cover art couldn't be denied. And what a find! August Hamilton (amongst her many names) is a gorgeously drawn villain, a deeply carnal succubus who tears through men every which way. It's hard not to root for her.

TV/Movie Pairing

August makes you thirsty for the kind of glamourous lady vampire that sashayed through castles in the Hammer years. I confess that's a bit of a blind spot for me so at the lack of recommending the wrong one, I'll say you can never go wrong with Catherine Deneuve's otherworldly performance in The Hunger. If you're looking for something newer and woefully underrated, the divine Gemma Arterton shines in Neil Jordan's underappreciated Byzantium. 

Anything here strike your fancy? I'm always on the hunt for more reading, so if you've found adjacent picks to some of these, share them in the comments! And as always...

Monday, December 19, 2022

Things You See In a Graveyard (providing the lighting is good enough)

I want to be very clear, particularly during the holiday season when negativity is the last thing anyone needs: I don't like trashing low budget movies. I've never worked in the industry, and I fully respect the incredible amount of hard work that goes into crafting a full-length film, particularly without a lot of resources. 

At the same time, if this website only covered studio-produced 7-digit budgeted films, we'd miss a lot of gems. As a lifelong horror fan, I've spent decades sifting through muck and vow to never stop.

Even when it means I watch a movie like Ghost In the Graveyard. 

Quick Plot: High school senior Sally has returned to Mt. Moriah after a mysterious 9-month vacation. Her history in the town has always been rough: ten years earlier, her best friend Martha died in front of her falling into an open grave while playing the film's titular game. 

Now, things are...strange. And incredibly confusing. Sally's dad (a shockingly normal Jake Busey) and older brother Billy welcome her back with open arms and tea (everybody here drinks a lot of tea) just in time for the town paperboy to be brutally murdered by Martha's grave. The town sheriff casts some suspicion on Sally, who's also struggling to fit back into high school amid visions of ghost Martha and the hive of mean girl Zoe and her maybe boyfriend Reed, who's also been Sally's penpal during her mysterious sabbatical. 

Oh, and maybe Sally had a baby?

I don't know how to properly explain just how confusing Ghost In the Graveyard is in terms of its narrative. First, there's the odd age of actors that left me trying to figure out how Billy fit into the family (it took me several extra scenes to confirm that he wasn't Jake Busey's brother or boyfriend, but actually, his son). Zoe starts off as typical head Heather, only to actually be (spoiler, if you can decipher) a willing or unwilling evil witch. And most notably, Sally's absence is never explained, nor is the random infant that occasionally shows up as a seeming member of the family ever actually explained. 

It's...folks...this is weird.

Also, not particularly good, though first-time writer/director Charlie Camparetto is clearly trying (and based on the number of times "Camparetto" appears in the closing crew credits, so was everybody related to him). Between the Book of Revelation prophesying and Da Vinci Code plot twists, the script isn't's just bad. Tones shift wildly from scene to scene, backstories are dangled without any explanation, and the grand finale is so weirdly shot that we barely know what's happening (not that we did by following the story anyway).

Is this more competently made than, say, Grandmother's House? Certainly. The cast is clearly doing what they can, but goodness, they are working with reheated leftovers of a meal that wasn't very good to start with. 

High Points
I'm reaching here, but I guess I'll throw out a bit of "huh, didn't see that happening" shoulder bump to the brutal murder-by-way-of-baseball of a child 10 minutes in

Low Points
Seriously, I spent a fair amount of time scouring the internet to make sure i wasn't the only viewer who watched this movie and said, "BUT WHO THE HELL DOES THIS BABY BELONG TO?" and yup, the handful of actual posts about Ghost In the Graveyard all ask the same question

Lessons Learned
Going away for 9 months as a 17-year-old will bring you back with terrible hat style

A surprise perk of being the descendent of the Virgin Mary is that everyone wants to make you tea

Live long enough so that your tombstone isn't titled "Little"

Ghost In the Graveyard is not good by any real definition of the word "good." Yes, there are far worse things out there, but I say that as someone who spends far too much time looking for them. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

The First Destination

If you're like me, the title Sole Survivor calls to mind two things:

1- the unrelated '90s homonymically titled plural version mostly known for having the most Scream-ish poster of post-Scream horror

2- that many a film fan shouts "Final Destination ripped this off!"

Had anyone added "written and directed by Night of the Comet's Thom Eberhardt, it wouldn't have taken me 40 years to watch. 

Quick Plot: Denise is happily navigating her late twenties. An inheritance has left her with a lovely, wackily decorated house. She seems quite adept at her career behind the scenes of television commercials, the latest of which stars Karla Davis, a past-her-prime former starlet with a touch of ESP. 

Karla has a vision right before Denise takes a plane trip, though it's too late (and Karla comes off as too crazy) to help. Denise's plane goes down, but as you might have guessed by this film's title, she makes it out not only alive, but barely touched. 

Her new handsome and single doctor has some concerns about how Denise is processing the trauma, but what can you say? She's young, healthy, attractive, and ready to move on (literally, in the case of her hot doc). But there is something nagging at her, a feeling that she got away with an act of rebellion and that she'll have to pay up.

Said suspicions are validated over the next few days. First come the just-missed-being-accidently-crushed-to-death misses, then the walking corpses, and finally, the homicidal stabbing corpses. We don't need Tony Todd to tell us Denise's worries are well-founded. 

Sole Survivor was made in 1984, but it feels so much like a product of the 1970s, more akin to your Let's Scare Jessica to Deaths and Messiah of Evils than any slasher of its era (save for some randomly inserted strip poker nudity featuring a young Brinke Stevens). While the tone doesn't at first glance share any of Night of the Comet's apocalyptic bubblegum, you can see how both are the work of one mind, primarily in the characterization of their heroines.

Anita Skinner's Denise is such a refreshing lead. Professional in her work and playful in her downtime, she's quite the rarity in '80s horror: a fully realized female adult. Skinner's only other film credit is the excellent, underrated Girlfriends, and it's shocking that her Denise is just as developed as her Alice in that dramedy. We're used to horror pulling us into the final girl's plight by pure instinctive sympathy for an ingenue, but Eberhardt does something different, letting us get to know an actual human being who's so real that we absolutely have to care about her. 

It doesn't quite move the way you expect it to, and while the Final Destination connection is certainly there in plot, the tone is nowhere close. It's playful in a different way, letting us fall into Denise's life in a way that we feel like we're her friend, then making us all the more spooked by her new fate. The actual zombie-like death harbingers are uniquely unsettling, especially when the film goes the extra step in explaining the actual biology behind it. 

This isn't the scariest film of its time, but there's a whole lot to love to love here, and I imagine, much like Eberhardt's other films, I'll enjoy it even more on rewatch. 

High Points
Skinner is fabulous and it's a shame we didn't get her in more movies. I would also credit Eberhardt deeply for the simple decision to make a horror film about adults. It's ridiculously refreshing to have grownups with jobs, homes, and life experience. 

Low Points
I suppose Sole Survivor's pacing might be a little slow for some viewers expecting more scares (though I wasn't one of them)

Lessons Learned
All civil service bullshit is the same

Not all morticians eat sloppy sandwiches. Some just smoke cigarettes and drink coffee

Always listen to the alcoholic has-been, even if she can't get her lines right

I adored this movie, but it's definitely one that might not fit whatever mold you're expecting. Go in fresh and open and enjoy. It's (FINALLY) available now to stream on Shudder. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

Hail Caesar (Salad Horror)


The "pretty people in peril slasher" is the Caesar salad of the horror world. Stay with me for a moment on this.

It's always available on the menu/catalog, and you're never REALLY excited to consume it. But there's a comfort in knowing it will have certain elements (parmesan cheese/an alpha male dying horribly, crunchy croutons/a complicated backstory for its villain) and every now and then, a satisfying surprise (that twist! real anchovies!). It might be disappointing, but it will rarely miss its fairly unambitious target.

Thus do we take a ride on Hell Trip. 

Quick Plot: A group of twentysomething "Americans" (with very rich non-American accents) land in Africa for vacation to instant bad news. Their tour leader Adam is several hours late and they're only a few minutes into their drive when the van breaks down, forcing them to trek 8 miles through the jungle where, well, very little actually happens. 

They eventually make it to their resort only to find it abandoned. The hosts have left a note explaining the whole staff left for a funeral, so the group takes advantage of the now open bar and convene outside for a barbecue. Finally, the slaughtering starts. 

That's pretty much Hell Trip in a nutshell. Filmed in South Africa with a camera lens that was apparently first dipped in the water dish you use to rinse off a paintbrush, it comes with a fresh setting and dour point of view. The young actors put their best attractive feet forward, but there's no one to latch onto, with half-hearted attempts at any character building quickly lost once the action (finally) kicks in.

Director Patrick Garcia (co-writing with assumed brother George Garcia) clearly enjoys working in the genre, and the way Hell Trip's final act unfolds suggests there's some more potential down the line. Horror fans of the "I'll watch anything" variety will find some enjoyment, but it's far from the smoothest safari ride.

High Points
Once the movie's switch flips to the final hunt, the actual execution (pun somewhat intended) of the violence is done quite effectively, with faster paced attacks that make much more sense than dragging out every death

Low Points
There's a lot to pick on in such a beginner project as Hell Trip, so let me focus on two crimes that occur in the opening five minutes:

1- Credit choices that rather pretentiously list out entire character names in a very difficult to read red font

2- Having a character throw up in full graphic detail multiple times. For a movie that barely hits feature length, this means something like 5% of running time is spent on vomit

Lessons Learned:
Being in the military will make you emotionless

Never confuse bad luck with not actually checking the voltage 

When a story is exciting, The New York Times is known for using exclamation points in their headlines

Always disinfect a wound before it gets infected 

Hell Trip isn't going to do much for anyone, but at least its final twenty minutes pack some excitement. If you're scraping the bottom of the Amazon Prime barrel, it's got a very minor serving of protein. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

All of Them Believers


One thing to miss about this new world of entertainment run by streaming services: losing that time in college you flipped through channels, stumbled upon a scene where a cheery housewife was electrocuted in front of her young son and Martin Sheen, then had to run to a class only to spend the next 20 or so years wondering what that movie was, and where it could possibly go from there. Had you known the answer was "Law & Order episode complete with before-they-were-famous faces and facial spider egg nests," just imaging what your 20s may have been like.

Anyway, it's 2022 and I finally found said film. 

Quick Plot: Dr. Cal Jamison is ready for a fresh start. You would be too if after a cheerful morning run, you came home to watch your loving wife be horrifically electrocuted by a hotplate and spilt milk as your young son watches on. It's enough to make a man pack up his life and move to 1987 era New York City, where a comfy job as a psychologist for traumatized police officers awaits. 

Cal heads east just in time for a series of brutal child murders to sweep the headlines. Someone is killing young boys of color in what seems like ritualistic sacrifices. Local detective Tom (baby-faced Jimmy Smits) is undone by the discovery, warning his new therapist that everyone is in danger before stabbing himself in the middle of a Harlem diner.

The lieutenant on the case (Robert Loggia!) senses something bigger at play, which slowly takes Cal down a dangerous path of how some of the city's most elite and powerful titans of industry have acquired their strengths. It's a little creepy, a little silly, and definitely more than a little racist.

Voodoo is something no white American should really use as the subject of film. No matter how many positive characters (such as Cal's friendly housekeeper) you toss in, it's basically impossible to not turn your story into one that casts dark-skinned non-traditional Christians as monsters. They talk in TONGUES. They DANCE frenetically. They plant mysterious dust on your stylish compact so your face can erupt in a spider-filled rash. THEY'RE EVIL, you see.

If there's a silver lining of The Believers, it's that (minor spoiler) the actual villains are whiter than a Ritz Carlton tablecloth...though they require the tools and skills of the Caribbean to execute their impressively evil plans. So yes: still kinda racist. 

The Believers was based on a novel by Nicholas Conde, with a screenplay by a pre-Twin Peaks Mark Frost and directed by Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man's John Schlesinger. The film certainly carries the gritty New York energy of those titles, and at times, makes for an engrossing mystery that puts a very specific spin on Rosemary's Baby. But it also seems to exist in a world entirely of its own, one that wants to engage in the lives and practices of Afro-Cubans, but also, has no earthly idea how to do so without marveling at their exoticism. 

It's a shame, and I honestly don't know how much of my thoughts watching The Believers had to do with the movie itself or the nagging feeling that in 2022, it just felt irresponsible. There are some fun (if predictable) big plot swings, high stakes all around, and a nice little punch in its coda that makes this film stick with you. But also, it's, you know, a bit silly and a lot ill-advised. 

High Points
Martin Sheen's Cal is a very particular protagonist of the era: a renaissance man with an FBI profiler's brain, FBI recruit's physical stamina, and CBS-style FBI leading man luck with the ladies. It's a ridiculously written role, but it's the skill and charisma of Sheen that both makes it work and ultimately holds the entire film together

Low Points
I've said enough about the implicit racism of the film, so I'll move on to a missed opportunity: there's a reveal around two side characters that should have deep weight, but never feels fully explored (especially when one has a last minute change of heart). In a nearly 2-hour movie that doesn't seem to mind building out some side characters, I don't really understand why these two are left so unresolved

Lessons Learned
Don't cry over spilt milk: just clean it up quickly with your dirty running socks before it can lead to the electrocution of a loved one

It is inappropriate to tell knock knock jokes before breakfast

In the '80s, it was common for landladies to have professionally done headshots hanging proudly in their bedrooms

In the scheme of Rosemary's Baby-inspired late '80s NYC-set ritualistic murder mysteries, The Believers is pretty rad. It's got A-list talent behind and in front of the scenes, and it tosses more than a few surprises your way. It's also a movie made by (and for) a whole lot of white people spinning something they probably don't understand very well into some wacky plot fodder. I think it's old enough that one can watch it with that grain of salt firmly in cheek and still have a grand time. At the time of this posting, it's streaming on Amazon Prime, though the movie seems to hop services more often than the subway breaks down, so good luck!