Monday, January 30, 2023

Best of the Year!

Here we are! The last week in January marks the anniversary of this blog, which means we're hitting the FOURTEENTH annual post where I count down my favorite movies I covered over the past year. Here goes!

There's a reason why Deliverance was such a hit, and why hundreds of knockoffs have followed. When a formula works, you keep at it. With Rituals, director Peter Carter and screenwriter Ian Sutherland crafted a speedy wilderness thriller that drips with dread from the very first lost shoe. Its alpha male cast comes loaded with the kind of overeducated, overconfident bluster that can only be schooled in the worst way. Rituals doesn't reach the heights of what this very specific subgenre can do, but it comes very close. 

This was the year of Shudder following up its epic documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched by wisely releasing many of the folk horror films it referenced onto its own service, and boy was I grateful. As someone always seeking out genre films with older settings, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an 18th century tale I'd never heard of, and even MORE satisfied when I sat down to watch it. Eyes of Fire is incredibly unusual, both a product of its laser-filled '80s time and also something that feels like it's from another world. You won't be bored. 

Game show horror is always a fun treat for me, and Jason William Lee nails it with his deadly take on Big Brother. A batch of attractive has-been internet celebrities are forced to win viewer votes or face a challenge that will send them to the grave. It's a classic premise, but Lee goes an extra step by quietly developing his inevitable victims into surprisingly human characters. It's not an easy feat (just ask most former reality stars) but Lee pulls it off with plenty of fun. 

8. The Psychic

The older I get, the more I appreciate the wild diversity of Lucio Fulci. Obviously, his gooey gorefests have always been near and dear to my heart, but much like when Roger Corman directed The Mask of Red Death, it's thrilling to occasionally be reminded that this filmmaker can actually MAKE OBJECTIVELY GOOD FILMS. The Psychic is a twisty giallo centered on the unspeakably glamorous Jennifer O'Neill, helped by a tremendous Fabrio Fizzi score. It's sad and clever and an absolute blast. 

I'm a sucker for a Saw-ish premise, which is what I thought I'd be getting when I queued up this little movie on Amazon Prime. Little did I know that writer/director Mathieu Turi had created his own cosmic trojan horse of sorts, making a film that feels fully in line with countless "strangers awaken in a dangerous game-based setting" only to flip the script halfway through with something so much deeper. Meander has a whole lot to explore, whether that's our place in the universe, what it means to connect, or the price of grief. There's a lot going on in this low budget sci-fi tale that feels a tad like like a Twilight Zone episode on light the best possible way. 

Horror fans, particularly those weaned on '80s slashers, are used to thinking of dead teenagers as table stakes. Occasionally, we might like a victim enough to feel a twinge of sadness at their untimely end, but more often than not, death is simply expected. What struck me most about Alison's Birthday (a movie that's striking for a LOT of reasons) is just how deeply invested I was in one single soon-to-be 19-year-old's fate. Mad Max's Joanne Samuel is a pleasant but unremarkable woman who just happens to have been born into a family hellbent on using her for a deeply tragic ritual. The final shot of Alison's Birthday is one I haven't been able to shake this past year. What an unusual, disciplined, and utterly sad tale. Be sure to check it out on Shudder. 

Books should be written about The Witch Who Came From the Sea, a film that's so loaded with ideas that it overflows out of its running time. Robert Thorn wrote the film for his wife Millie Perkins, who dives into the material with fearless insanity. Director Matthew Cimber would go on to create the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and inspire Marc Maron's character on Netflix's GLOW, which somehow isn't even the most interesting fact about this one-of-a-kind movie. A dark exploration of abuse and what it can do to a woman, a strange poem about the beauty of the male body, a sandy seaside world that always seems ready to drown...there's a lot here, and it deserves more conversation.

2009's Orphan was such a breath of fresh air: an original horror film with A-list talent giving its all, a wintery setting used to its best, a shocking ending that still holds up, and of course, one of the best horror villains under 5'. We were all hesitantly excited about a sequel, and somehow, the inaccurately titled First Kill delivered on all counts. Julia Stiles does wonders with Esther's newest foe, but of course, it's Isabelle Furhman who cements her status as a horror icon. What a ride. 

Come for the glory of a Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee matchup, stay for the surprisingly Wicker Man-esque twists of this jaunty 1973 mystery! Director Peter Sasdy takes on John Blackburn's novel armed with a stellar cast. You've got a murderous cult, brassy redhead axe murderess, creepy children, stylish journalists, and a genuinely jaw-dropping ending.  

Thom Eberhardt is best known for the glorious Night of the Comet, so it was a thrill to discover his first film in all of its strange and smart glory. The wonderfully understated Anita Skinner plays a professional young woman who escapes certain death only to have it follow her in the form of stalking corpses. I'm making this sound like Final Destination by way of George Romero which is incredibly unfair, as Sole Survivor is so much more unique in how it unfolds. While it's tonally miles away from Night of the Comet, you can hear Eberhardt's commitment to crafting nuanced young women and using classic horror tropes to tell a completely new story. 

1. Celia 

On one hand, Ann Turner's magnificent Celia isn't really a horror film. On the other, this is one of the most upsetting stories I've ever watched unfold, and I adored every minute of it. Set in Australia during the political and ecological turmoil of the 1950s, Celia tells the story of a young girl trying to navigate a world that doesn't seem very fair. Canny viewers may wonder if more modern classics cribbed some notes (The Babadook and Paperhouse spring to mind) while I kept thinking of last year's Shortening star, Poison for the Fairies. Like that film, Celia understands what it means to experience the world through the eyes of a little girl. It's a scary, angry place to be.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Lessons Learned, the 2022 Edition

We tend to run a tad behind on the calendar changes here at the Doll House, which means our yearly roundup starts NOW. As is tradition, today we recap our favorite Lessons Learned from every film covered. Next week: the blog's best films of the year! 

So here goes: a whole lot of 100% certified facts broken out into scientifically appropriate categories. 

All the Single Ladies

Never trust a man you meet at yoga -- Headgame 

Ladies, no matter how perfect he may otherwise be, if you anticipate a future that comes anywhere near the horror genre, never, and I mean NEVER, marry a novelist -- The Twin 

Early Courtship Rituals Explained

Netflix and chill is considered the height of vanilla -- #Like 

Nothing offers the promise of a serious relationship more effectively than wearing a gray-on-gray sweatsuit on your first date -- Edge of the Axe  

Secrets From Every Profession

Real meteorologists chase meteors, not the weather -- Mosquito 

Sensitive doctors don't make much money -- Shakma 

If you own three Toyota dealerships, nothing can hurt you -- Pledge Night 

A sailor might curse, but a captain keeps his mouth clean -- The Witch Who Came From the Sea

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

Aussie Rules History

Lyle was not a popular surname in 1980s Australia -- Alison's Birthday

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

The Limits of a University Education

They don't teach southern rituals at Princeton -- The Long Night 

If your college has a promising computer science program, be advised that every text you send via campus wifi is being monitored by good-humored nerds -- Halloween Party 

The World Wide What?

It is very mean to brag about your successful social media presence in front of a nerd -- The Canyonlands 

Even the internet can get bored with boobs -- Funhouse

You don't go viral by drinking vino -- The Deep House

True Love Means…

Marriage means occasionally dealing with rich pricks to show your love for your wife -- Orphan: First Kill

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

Filmmaking On a Budget

When in doubt about how well you're establishing a horror tone, cut to a closeup of ants -- The Toy Box 

If you have any reservations that your final runtime might be lacking, be sure to use a lush filming location so you can pad your film with tree shots. It works! -- The Resort 

Even in 2020, the best way to express a character as being bookish is to, you guessed it, make her the only cast member to wear glasses -- Seance 

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 -- Things 

Survival 101

Maybe, just maybe, like, and I'm just throwing out a suggestion here: don't get blackout drunk around a vampire? -- V/H/S 94 

If you want half a chance at surviving an alien tube torture chamber, make sure you maintain a slim physique that can fit between sparsely spaced barbed wire -- Meander

Time Is Relative 

32 seconds is best defined as the time needed to move one plot point around efficiently -- Virus: 32 

To a kid, 35 is old -- The Box 

Reading People

Knowing your Sondheim doesn't make you an ally -- They/Them 

 trust a weird little white guy with a chip on his shoulder -- No Exit 

If you ever have trouble telling identical twins apart, remember this simple rule: the troubled one has black hair -- The Forest

Doctor YOU

You only have to look at a man to know he's sick -- Amityville 3D

A prostate gland treatment is hardly the end of the world -- Nothing But the Night

History At Every Angle

Indigenous children of the 18th century rocked perfect bangs — Eyes of Fire

19th century firearms took a few minutes to reload, but moving slightly out of the way of said firearms apparently took even longer -- The Last Thing Mary Saw 

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

If you're going to display valuable 100 year old artifacts on a vessel filled with thousands of (often drunk) civilians, maybe it would be worth another $10 to put them behind locked glass -- Titanic 666 

Etiquette In the Modern Age

It is inappropriate to tell knock knock jokes before breakfast -- The Believers 

Nothing says "trustworthy" like boasting 56 lovers and not having murdered a single one -- The Psychic

If you hire people every day, you should know better to call an applicant "a pretty girl" during her interview  -- At Granny's House

The Animal Kingdom

Leatherface masks come in wendigo sizes -- Antlers 

To know geese is to fear geese -- Grandmother's House 

We learned from Jaws: The Revenge that sharks can scream, and now Blood In the Water tells us they also-

Regional Facts & Travel Tips

Hell is a karaoke brunch spot that makes you sing for a menu -- Choose or Die 

To be in "New York shape" means you have brown hair and probably smoke -- I Blame Society 

Never confuse bad luck with not actually checking the voltage  -- Hell Trip 

Life Goals

Live your life in such a sunny manner that when you die, your friends dub you a gentle boob-- Rituals

Monday, January 16, 2023

Can't Say She Didn't See It Coming

Is there still any question that the best of the Italian horror filmmakers is Lucio Fulci? I know there are plenty of cinema fans who will die for Dario Argento or try to slap my face with a Sergio Martino for making such a statement, but come on! Whether he's making gooey gore, tasty trash, or actual objectively good thrillers, Fulci is, at least to me, never not interesting.

Quick Plot: As a child, young Virginia was walking through Florence with her classmates as she watched her mother fall to her death over a watery cliff. That's rough enough stuff for a kid, but all the more disturbing when we realize her mother was tumbling into bloody mannequin form at that exact time...but in England. 

Some years later, Virginia has grown into a chic decorator living in Italy. She's newly married to an older businessman named Francesco. While they're clearly in love, Virginia is also withholding, sharing some of her new psychic visions with her pal Luca instead.

Trouble strikes when Virginia visits her husband's country estate with the intention of going full HGTV but instead, discovers a young woman's rotting body hidden in the walls (and yes, I have long craved for that content on HGTV). When the victim is revealed to be an ex-girlfriend, Francesco is quickly arrested as the prime suspect. Virginia is determined to clear his name and solve the mystery of her premonitions.

Giallo is far from my favorite horror subgenre...unless it's directed by Lucio Fulci. In the case of Don't Torture a Duckling, Fulci uses the central crime to explore something very specific (Catholic guilt). With The Psychic, Fulci has two aces up his sleeve: a well-written time-looping narrative (with the assistance of co-screenwriters Roberto Gianviti and Dardano Sacchetti) and the gobsmacking glamour of Jennifer O'Neill. 

My notes say "Julie Christie chic", which should tell you what you need to know. This is the kind of woman who hammers her way through a dusty corpse-filled hole and has me the viewer wondering where she got her boots. There's a reason O'Neill had so much success as a model: the camera loves her and she knows exactly how to love it back. As Virginia, O'Neill is believable as a smart, determined woman gifted or cursed with clairvoyance, and it makes a big difference in fully investing the audience in her journey.

It helps that she's working with more solid material than is often found in this particular corner of the genre. Giallo is a tricky beast because it often sacrifices substance for style, or ultimately relies on a shocking twist that just leaves me feeling annoyed. In the case of The Psychic, the looping stuck in time structure takes it to a different level. It's almost more classic gothic, and I found it riveting. 

High Points
There are a lot of intelligent filmmaking choices at work in making The Psychic so effective, and one of the most important is the haunting score by Fabio Frizzi. It's both of its time and timeless in the best possible way.

Low Points
In all honesty, I did not fully understand EVERY detail of what actually went down in The Psychic, but I feel like that's more my fault than Fulci's. I'm not always that smart.

Lessons Learned
Visions are not legal alibis

Nothing says "trustworthy" like boasting 56 lovers and not having murdered a single one

Hell hath no fury like the hourly chime of an annoying watch

I had heard positive sentiments about The Psychic, but I was genuinely surprised by just how good it was, and how fresh the storytelling felt. Give it a go! I watched via Kanopy, though I believe it's also floating around a few other streaming locations. 

Monday, January 9, 2023

Amityville: The 3Dening

It's been a pleasantly bonkers romp on Shudder through some of the Amityville Horror sequels, but it's HBO Max that currently houses the franchise's 3D entry. So break out those paper glasses and a dose of the inevitably needed headache medication and let's go!

Quick Plot: A couple who have lost their son hire a pair of psychics for a seance held in the old Amityville home. Just as a mystical orb of light shows up, so do the cameras, quickly revealing the smoke and mirrors as our couple reveal their own identities: reporters John and Melanie looking to debunk the Warren-esque shams. 

Upon further investigation, John gets an even better scoop: the Amityville property is for sale at quite the bargain. To help kickstart his divorce, he closes the deal and promptly moves in to find his realtor dead. Though we witnessed his fatal 3D fly mauling, there's no trace of the supernatural by the time the medics show up.

John has no issue with a man dying on his property before he's had a meal in its kitchen, but Melanie has a sneaking suspicion that there's something darker going on. Photographs taken the day before show the deceased distorted. Nobody else seems to care. 

As with most Amityville films, unexplainable events continue to occur in or around the house. John almost dies in an elevator, while Melanie nearly freezes to death when the house's power goes out and doors lock her in. John and his daughter Susan (pre-Hallmark, pre-prison Lori Loughlin) remain dubious until, of course, it's too late. 

Well, too late for some, though John counts no less than three dead people that have come into contact with the house only to die right after. 

Directed by Soylent Green's Richard Fleischer, Amityville 3D is surprisingly decent as actual film quality goes. It moves better than the overrated original and feels in some ways more professionally put together than the seedy (but effective) part 2. Much like Jaws 3D, this is a movie that would hold up perfectly well had it not been for its reliance on terribly aging technology.

That being said, it's hard to fully enjoy Amityville 3D after the goofier wackiness of what came after. Evil Escapes is about a haunted floor lamp going Maximum Overdrive on Patty Duke! Amityville Dollhouse includes a portal to hell and rubber tarantula. It's About Time is about a killer clock and ends with a character saying IT'S ABOUT TIME! 

Amitvyille 3D is, like, a real movie attempting to do real things. It comes very close to succeeding, but its effectiveness will mostly depend on its audience's ability to look past the limits of dated style. It obviously will vary.

High Points
Considering its incredibly dark origins, it's not a surprise that Amityville movies often go there when it comes to young victims. Amitvyille 3D is no exception, with a surprisingly effective ghost reveal of a character you expect to be safe

Low Points
Not surprisingly, watching an '80s shot 3D film in flat 2022 times makes the scares a little, you now, silly

Lessons Learned
You only have to look at a man to know he's sick

Sex with a ghost is fantastic (at least that's what a baby-faced Meg Ryan has read)

Next time you need a good screamer, call Robert Joy 

I was surprised to find Amitvyille 3D a far better film than expected, though slightly disappointed that it wasn't quite as fun as later series entries. That being said, it's not a bad way to spend 90 minutes and genuinely offers up a few surprises. One could do a whole lot worse. 

Monday, January 2, 2023



You know how ever horror subgenre runs the risk of repetition? We can only have so many high school reunion slashers and inbred rural cannibal families run amok before we need to do SOMETHING original, like send our earth-bound maniac to space. 

I haven't seen a Saw-inspired And Then There Were None-ish film make it off the earth just yet (and yes, consider this a formal request) but now it pleases me TREMENDOUSLY to announce that I've seen something I never even thought should exist, and yet now, I can't imagine how I lived without it:

a Jigsaw count'em down where Jigsaw is essentially a shark. 

Quick Plot: We open to find a smarmy lawyer named Henry shackled above a large indoor swimming pool, a deep automated voice warning him that he's about to meet his fate. Cue the countdown timer, screamed pleas, and chain drag into water where ominous chomping tones sound. 

Henry, of course, is just the appetizer. It's time to meet the main dinner party guests, all of whom are hiding some kind of crime that the late defense attorney helped them evade. Zara, a young woman whose husband is rotting in jail for something she hints at being responsible for, is arguably our hero, though that's really just because she gets the most screentime. 

Everyone seems pretty terrible. So yes, this is a Saw knockoff...


That's really all there is to say. Characters scramble to confess their sins when the timer goes off, never being honest enough to merit full forgiveness. A repeated underwater view of a decently CGI-rendered shark swims by, screaming happens, and BAM! We're out in 80 minutes.

The cast is serviceable, though it's a missed opportunity that they don't get to dig very deep. There's little in the way of surprise: even the big twist is a callback to the genre's foundation. Director Dominic Nutter (whose current only other film is, what do you know, a CGI dinosaur movie) only has so many tools (and angles of the CGI shark), and the script by Matthew B.C. and Dominic Ellis seems to know its own limits.  

High Points
Folks, it's a Saw ripoff with a shark. If you needed more out of life, I'm left wondering if we're actually the same species

Low Points
You do get the sense that the cast has something more to offer than just scream, but the script just doesn't seem to have time to care to find out

Lessons Learned
We learned from Jaws: The Revenge that sharks can scream, and now Blood In the Water tells us they also-

Look, I'm not here to tell you that Blood In the Water is better than average or not, you know, a straight-to-streaming CGI-heavy horror without much in the way of a point. BUT IT'S A SAW MOVIE THAT ISN'T A SAW MOVIE WITH A SHARK. I don't know what you're not getting about this.