Monday, February 28, 2022


I'm the rare geriatric millennial horror fan who genuinely enjoys ALL the Annabelle movies. On one hand, that shouldn't be surprising: they're well-made genre flicks that deeply understand their audience, and they star a killer doll! But on the other, they star a killer doll who, well, doesn't actually do anything.

The great Stacie Ponder has written an outstanding treatise on why Annabelle rocks. The downside, however, of this porcelain queen's success is that once other low budget horror filmmakers figured out that you can make a killer doll movie without even MOVING the main attraction, the overall quality of an already questionable subgenre had nowhere to go but down. These are movies that make Charles Band seem ambitious! 

Sadly, thirteen years into The Shortening, I'm simply running out of doll-based horror. 2015's Robert might well be the last non-Tubi made-for-pennies film I haven't clocked, so we're diving in and hope 2022 brings us a toychest full of more options.

Quick Plot: Meet Paul and Jenny Otto, a fairly awful British couple who casually fire their veteran housekeeper Agatha and bemoan how HARD it is...on them. Their much kinder son Gene is sad to lose such a close presence in his life, but Agatha, our senile but sassy MVP, doesn't go out quietly. She leaves Gene a special gift: Robert, a horrific glassy eyed doll with a history of destroying families. 

It doesn't take long for Robert to unravel the fragile Jenny, a stressed artist already on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If you're hearing echoes of ANOTHER cheaply made evil doll-destroys-frayed-family-without-actually-moving-on-camera movie, your ears do not need cleaning: while Robert definitely owes Annabelle some residuals, diehard fans of Cathy's Curse might be left wondering if this is an unofficial remake. 

I don't have time to go into all the reasons why should see Cathy's Curse (know that it was the very first film I covered here AND that I once introduced a screening of it at the Alamo Drafthouse) because it would be unfair to this, well, not very good variation of it. I SUPPOSE Robert is a better made film than that 1977 Canadian treasure, but honestly, so is that 30 second clip from the time my cat accidentally stepped on my iPhone's video button.

Written and directed by Andrew Jones, a man who has since made three more Robert movies and a barrel of similar looking titles, Robert is, you know, a killer doll movie that does everything it can to never show the doll killing. That wouldn't be a terrible thing if done well (see Annabelle and even the cheaper made Heidi) but when the stuff that DOES happen involves characters auditioning for an off-brand  antidepressant commercial's montage, it's not particularly fun. 

Still, Robert has his charms. Heck, his first act of violence is to repeat Chucky's opening flour footprint move! That's something, right?

High Points
I like a movie that has a kid who isn't the worst. Little Gene doesn't get to do much, but honestly, there's something very refreshing about just how chill he is about having a doll that's threatening the livelihood of anybody that comes in his orbit (and yes, do understand that after a lifetime of watching Charles Band productions get made with smaller budgets even as inflation soars, I am well aware that my standards are very, very low)

Low Points
Seriously: am I supposed to sympathize with an awful upper class couple who fire their long-term nanny and spend the two minutes it takes to make the decision complaining about how it makes THEIR lives hard? I hope not, because as soon as this happened (5 minutes into the movie) I was, and continue to be 100% Team Robert

Lessons Learned
Cursed dolls have a particularly sharp hatred of young women working in their home

Not helping your wife find answers to her mental illness is bad husbandry, but it's still better than cheating

You can't lock an evil spirit in the shed

The phrase "everything is relative" may be cliche, but it's never truer when applied to the evaluation of horror. In the scheme of cinema, Robert is pretty bad. In relation to other horror movies, it's just not very good. But compared to other killer doll films? Probably right in the middle. Compared SPECIFICALLY to non-studio-produced low budget productions? Above average.

Folks, I'm a very particular type of film fan.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Childhood IS Terrifying

While this website might have been born out of a passion for killer doll-based horror, I think I'm finally ready to accept that thirteen years into this blogging thing, homicidal children just might have clawed their way to the top of my heart, likely by slicing some porcelain achilles heels with tiny kid-sized scalpels. Whether it was Esther the Orphan's perfect curls or the Bloody Birthday trio's wacky antics, somewhere over the last decade, I've come to crave more monster youths than possessed toys.

Granted, part of that might be due to the requirements of both subgenres: anyone can shake a plaything around and call it a villain, but coaxing an actual performance out of a young actor is generally a far more challenging feat.

Now don't worry: as is tradition, we will indeed have ONE killer doll movie during February's Shortening. But today, today is for the kids.

Quick Plot: In 1957 suburban Australia, Celia Carmichael (the incredible Rebecca Smart) starts her ninth birthday with a batch of life-changing events: the death of her beloved, Communist-sympathizing grandmother, the arrival of the Tanners next door, and finally, the gift of her chunky pet rabbit Murgatroyd. 

If you're thinking "none of that sounds very horror genre-related", you'd be right, so let's address the elephant in the outback first: though she may rock perfect Rhoda Penmark braids, Celia is no bad seed. Much like Paperhouse (a movie that tonally feels very close), Celia is more whimsical childhood drama than horror, lightly filled with some fantastical elements tied to our title character's favorite, incredibly disturbing fairy tale. Shudder isn't really the natural place for this to stream, but you know what? I'm not complaining.

Long out of print (seemingly like most of writer/director Ann Turner's work), Celia is a special, special little film that deeply understands and achingly translates what it means to grow up. Honestly, that IS terrifying.

Celia is a sensitive, assertive kid, much to the chagrin of her bullish dad and subservient mom. She's instantly drawn to the warmth of Alice Tanner, the matriarch of her more liberal neighbors, whose own Communist ties sit poorly with Mr. Carmichael (though Alice's pretty face certainly doesn't). Between Australia's red scare and pet rabbit persecution, all the things that seem to bring Celia joy are threatened at once. It's heartbreaking.

So Celia copes with her fantasies. There's the recurring dreams of the dreaded Hobyah, goblin-like creatures lifted from Celia's favorite schoolbook (and yes, as the great documentary Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched suggests, The Babadook definitely took note). An abandoned, terribly unsafe rock quarry becomes a playground for Celia and the Tanner kids, occasionally invaded by her snotty cousin with dire consequences. Celia deals with such slights the way many a spirited child might: by setting ritualistic bonfires and burning effigies of her enemies with the hopes that it will translate to real-world payback.

And eventually, it does.

I won't spoil Celia, which, despite being a fairly free-wielding character study, does indeed throw us a twist in the fifth act. But yes, at a certain point, something very big happens, and I suppose it can technically nudge Celia into the genre category (particularly with the VERY final scene, that almost reads like the preface to a glorious queen bee origin story). Celia is apparently often compared to The 400 Blows in how it taps into a child's perspective, but my mind went straight to the champion of the 2020 Shortening: Poison for the Fairies. Both films understand that to be a little girl means feeling in a very big way, that the world is as scary as it is exciting, and everything that threatens what you love is a danger the bravest must face head-on. 

High Points
There's so much to love about Celia, but an area that really elevates the film is the nuance that Turner brings to Celia's parents. Yes, her father is a brutish jerk, but he does indeed love his daughter (even if, like so many fathers, he'll never understand her). 

Low Points
I'm going back and forth on the rather shocking plot twist towards the very end, and while it sits better with time, I still think it doesn't quite get the room to breathe that it probably needs

Lessons Learned
In a world before ergonomic Jansports, the baby boomer generation of Australia likely experienced early onset back problems

Animals In Peril Alert
Bad things happen to adorable bunny rabbits and kids have to deal with the outcome and I'm saying this now so you're well-prepared because IT'S TERRIBLY UPSETTING AND YOU'VE BEEN WARNED

Rabbit funerals aside, Celia is a gem of a film. It's by no means an easy watch (nor really a genre film) but it's so worth the effort when you're ready for a heavy dose of powerful childhood anxiety. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Who's That Knocking At My Door? IT'S SHAKMA

Can you believe it's been almost a decade since I last added a monkey to February's rotation of The Shortening? 

It's not that I don't love monkeys on film: quite the opposite, especially if they're wearing clothes and doing things better than humans. No, the reason I tend to stay back on simian cinema is because, well, like I said: I LOVE MONKEYS, and if you're going to cast one as a horror villain, there's a good chance I'll have to watch it go through a lot of pain. WHO NEEDS A MONKEY IN PAIN I ASK?

Still, Shakma's been circling my queue for years. Finally, the time had come. 

Quick Plot: Sam (a curl-less Christopher Atkins) is a promising med student who likes to spend his Friday nights LARP'ing with his friends and professor, Dr. Sorensen (a slumming, but always committed Roddy McDowall). Joining are his girlfriend Tracy (Nightmare on Elm Street's Amanda Wyss) and a few of his classmates, including, as Shudder's subtitles so kindly describe, this guy:

Sadly, the game starts in a dour mood because Sam's favorite baboon test subject Shakma reacts poorly to an experimental injection, leading Sorensen to order his euthanasia. Richard, everyone's least favorite classmate, forgets to finish the job. 

With money and pride on the line, the game is on. Sorensen monitors the action via a computer program and walkie talkie communication with the players, who wander the almost-empty medical school halls without fear of being caught. After all, they've disabled the alarms and sealed off the exits in order to not call any attention to their against-the-rules antics. What could possibly go wrong? 

Obviously, SHAKMA!

Awake and pissed, our small but mighty monkey goes on a tear, leaping at his prey and attacking with more power than anyone would expect from a cute primate who barely reaches the average adult's knees. It's cute! 

For a while. 

I can't think of another horror movie that combines LARP'ing with homicidal baboons, so that's certainly a win. Unfortunately, co-directors Hugh Parks and Tom Logan seem to run out of ideas after those first two. Once the students discover Shakma's on a murder spree, every beat is basically the same: character unwittingly walks into a room and is mauled by Shakma, or character runs away and locks a door just before Shakma can leap his way inside. 


the first three times. But then there are three more. 

At least, I stopped counting when I realized this was what most of this movie would be. It doesn't help that Atkins' Sam is kind of a jerk as a leading man. The film opens with him joking about the horrors of feminism, and I guess there's some attempt to set him up as an alpha male at primordial war with the creature he once cared for. But when done clumsily, it just means your hero is less likable than the wronged primate slasher scratching the eyes out of his friends.

High Points

If you're making a movie about an angry baboon on the hunt, you better find a way to elevate that intensity with some proper angry synth scoring, and thankfully, composer David C. Williams brings it

Low Points

There's a lot of fun in Shakma's baboon-on-the-hunt antics, but as I said, about 80% of the scare scenes end with a character rushing to close and lock a door before the little guy can get there. It gets a bit stale after the 356th time

Lessons Learned

Sensitive doctors don't make much money

Engineers may have promising financial futures, but their bandaging skills leave something to be desired

Culture is best defined as the knowledge you have of your romantic partner's family


If you're a completist when it comes to movies about babboons murdering LARP'ing college students, then you know, Shakma can't be missed. It does have an appeal outside of that very tight demographic in how unusual its premise feels (coupled well with the utter 1990ness of it all) but ultimately, Shakma turns stale quickly. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

We've Got Some THINGS to Experience

To-watch lists vary from one film lover to the next. For some, notching off every Best Picture Oscar winner is the goal, while others vow to see everything from one subgenre or, say, anything Martin Scorsese has ever referenced. Heck, even watching the entire Takashi Miike catalog could take up years of your retired life.

Then there are weirdos like me, seemingly sane, employed individuals whose lives remain incomplete without seeing all the movies considered the worst of all time. 

Hence today's dive into 20th century Canadian history, Andrew Jordan's Things. Next to its psychotic characters and miniscule budget, the bronze medalist villains are technically arachnids, so with February's annual Shortening in full swing, the time has come for yours truly to weigh in. Is Things the worst movie ever made? 

Quick Plot: Doug and his wife Susan have had trouble conceiving, so he's kidnapped a young woman (behind the scenes, a sex worker who only agreed to be on camera if her face was covered by a plastic Halloween mask, so we're already in special territory) to help get that job done. Or something? Honestly, I don't really know. Stuff -- or even, if you prefer, "things" -- happen, and we move upstairs (I THINK?) to what is described as a remote cabin owned by Doug. 

Doug's brother Don and his pal Fred come to visit, raiding the refrigerator for beer only to discover mysterious tape recordings of Aleister Crowley. They play them while recounting the plot of The Evil Dead and farting, which I guess was a popular way to spend a weekend in the late '80s Canadian wilderness.

Doug joins the party with bad news: Susan, who was undergoing radical medical experiments in order to have a baby, has died because her womb exploded? OR SOMETHING? I don't know, there are paper mache spiders everywhere and occasionally, the action pauses for news reports from adult film star Amber Lynn mostly discussing topics that have nothing to do with the action, including George Romero's continued efforts to copyright Night of the Living Dead. 

Do you sometimes find yourself looking at pictures of wolves in the arctic and wondering how there can be universally accepted logic that states such creatures are in the same species as pugs? That feeling of pure incredulous doubt is how you might feel when you realize THINGS is a movie, just like Citizen Kane or Wings of Desire or Friday the 13th Part V. Heck, Pieces suddenly seems like a masterpiece worthy of revaluation after getting through this...thing.

"You Have Just Experienced THINGS" reads the two-colored font at the end of this movie, and you know what? Credit to director Jordan and cowriter Barry J. Gillis because it's true. You don't watch Things. You survive it. 

Have I seen worse? Yes. And yes. And also, yes. But folks, I seek out some very, very bad films. Make no mistake: Things deserves its reputation. It is physically uncomfortable to sit through. 

So yes, obviously: I recommend this movie.

High Points
If nothing else, there's some delight to be found in the utter Canadianness of Things, particularly with my favorite bit of dialogue: 

"The blood is just maple syrup."

I'll take it.

Low Points
I knew I was in trouble when the opening credits employed multiple fonts. IN MULTIPLE COLORS


Lessons Learned
Canadian paper towels are exceedingly noisy

When directing inexperienced actors, perhaps placing the cue cards directly behind the camera and not ten feet to the left will help your overall effect

Refrigerators are a great place to store haunted tape recordings and coats

Look, nobody SHOULD watch Things, but if you're a completist when it comes to the bottom of the very deep barrel of bad horror movies, you kind of HAVE to watch Things. It's there on Shudder to abuse your eyeballs. When you fly too close to the sun and need to be brought back down to the pits of what man can produce, have yourself a watch.