Monday, February 27, 2023

An Annabelle By Any Other Name...

Welcome to the Annual February Shortening! In honor of the shortest month on a blog written by a short woman, all posts are devoted to stories about vertically challenged villains. If you, reader of any height, have your own mini-horror to share, do so in the comments and I'll include you in a final post roundup as the calendar changes!

Horror trends don't die easily. In fact, once they prove viable, they spread through every budget and corner of the world. 

When Annabelle's formula became a bona fide success, low budget horror directors must have squealed with glee. "You mean we can make a killer doll movie WHERE THE DOLL DOESN'T MOVE?" 

Cue Robert, and its dozens of sequels or loose remakes sitting still on some of the free streaming sites. As I do every year in anticipation of February, I'd been circling various sources to find some new porcelain blood. Surely I haven't watched EVERY killer doll movie made with a budget over $10, right? Tubi is positively dripping in the genre, and while I'm sure there are some pearls in those bargain oysters, I don't always have the stamina to risk watching something less well-made than my kittens' artwork. 

Hence this year's safer bet. Netflix has particular standards when it comes to video quality, meaning most of its offerings these days have a higher budget than your typical Tubi find. Indonesia's The Doll (of which there are three installments and counting) has been on my radar for a while and the day has finally come to see how another part of the world sees immobile doll horror. 

Quick Plot: Much like The Conjuring, our story begins with a quick side tale that won't really have much bearing on the rest of the film. A trio of siblings get stuck with a mysterious doll who seems to love playing hide-and-seek. When it inevitably turns violent, they seek out Laras and Rendi, Indonesia's own Ed and Lorraine Warren variants. 
You're probably best off forgetting what I just said, since after the credits roll, we're reintroduced to that very same doll, who will indeed be reacquainted with Laras an hour later (though she seems to have no memory of this). Ah well, moving on!

Meet incredibly attractive young couple Daniel, a construction worker, and Anya, who fixes up dolls. Daniel's new promotion moves them into a high end rental but on his first day on the job, he's stuck in a pickle: his crew refuses to cut down a tree that marks the spot where a family was recently murdered. It doesn't help that there's a familiar looking baby doll attached to it. But orders are orders and before you can be friends to the end, the tree is down and the doll somehow ends up in Anya's hands. 

It doesn't take long for things to go downhill. Strange events befall the couple's new home. Friendly neighbor Niken insists it's supernatural and links Anya up with Laras, who gathers that the doll is holding the angry soul of the murdered little girl. 

Up until the final act, The Doll is pretty darn beholden to the Annabelle blueprint but thankfully, the film takes a rather shocking turn for its grand finale. It's a fairly slow roll into its big climax but I'm happy to say it's worth the ride. Yes, this is ultimately more "haunted ghost child" than "fun killer doll", and yes, I certainly prefer the latter, but hey: this ain't bad. 

High Notes
Some of its CGI style does fall flat, but there are plenty of refreshingly creepy setups (a raincoat comes to mind) that manage to be effectively unsettling in just the style you want for this kind of ghost story. Plus, DUMMY DEATH!

Low Points
My stance on "we can cut to a reaction shot of a creepy doll and call it a killer doll movie" has not changed, even if some films manage to make that aspect work. The doll of The Doll (I don't think she's ever even named) isn't even visually interesting...let alone active. 

Lessons Learned
Evil doll activity smells quite a bit like very bad farts

It doesn't matter if the doll is ugly: what matters is that a boy likes you enough to give it to you

People who love fiction love to make up stories

The Doll probably sits comfortably (obviously: the thing doesn't move) in the middle shelf of my favorite subgenre. I wouldn't revisit this particular film, but it whetted my appetite more than enough to continue with the series. So we say it here: The Shortening 2024 will begin with The Doll 2! (sets Google alert as reminder). 

Maybe by then the damn thing will do more than blink. 

Monday, February 20, 2023

He Sees You When You're Babysitting

Welcome to the Annual February Shortening! In honor of the shortest month on a blog written by a short woman, all posts are devoted to stories about vertically challenged villains. If you, reader of any height, have your own mini-horror to share, do so in the comments and I'll include you in a final post roundup as the calendar changes!

Better Watch Out's Christmas Eve setting might make it out of season for a usual February morning, but for reasons that become clear post-spoiler warning, this film certainly fits this month's theme.

Quick Plot: Ashley (The Visit's Olivia DeJonge) is an attractive high schooler a few days away from moving, making tonight the last time she'll babysit 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller). Yes, he's probably too old to need a sitter, but considering he's nursed a fairly obvious crush on the older blond, he doesn't object. Their evening starts off with the usual hijinks: boy tries to impress uninterested and age-inappropriate girl, girl's boyfriend calls, mystery pizza shows up, and an armed mystery man enters with a shotgun.

To go any further into Better Watch Out would be to spoil a very surprising plot element that is key to discussing the film. If all you know about Better Watch Out is that it's a Christmas horror story about a babysitter and her charge dealing with a home invasion, stop reading after the spoiler warning below. I'm shocked that I went five years without catching the film's actual plot, so much credit goes to the rare marketing restraint. It makes the twist all the more powerful. Ultimately, I'm a bit mixed on the final product, though I do think this is a smartly made tale with a lot of dark things to say. 

Now, stop here all who know no more

Better Watch Out is not a cute story about teamwork: it's a mean little twist on Home Alone where Kevin McAllister has grown a few school years into an incel. The man with a gun isn't an intruder: it's Luke's friend Garrett (played by Ed Oxenbould, also of The Visit) who's been roped into helping Luke in an ill-fated seduction attempt with the shocked and disgusted Ashley. Things escalate quickly and before you can tell Fuller to go easy on the Pepsi, Ashley is tied to a chair, watching in horror as Luke lures her ex-boyfriends to meet their own Wet Bandit-inspired ends. 

Writer/director Chris Peckover made Better Watch Out after Undocumented, an incredibly upsetting found footage-style horror movie that was rather fearless in how hard it looked at the racist American attitude toward immigration. Better Watch Out isn't quite as on the nose as Undocumented, but it shares a very clear sense of despair at the darkness lurking inside everyday souls. 

Luke is an absolute monster, made all the worse by the contrast between the insecure and weak Garrett. Miller and Oxenbould play off each other well, and when you add in Dacre Montgomery and Alex Mikic as Ashley's exes, Better Watch Out does seem to have some interesting things to say about the utter inadequacies of young men. I wish the film made it a tad clearer that Luke was more pathetic than precocious (based on some online discourse, I'm not sure that all viewers agree) but save for the stinger ending, there's something satisfying about watching a kid who thinks he's king be long as you ignore the stinger. 

High Points
Olivia DeJonge has been doing great work since The Sisterhood of the Night. Ashley is a bit underwritten (which may be part of the film's point, as we're seeing most of it through Luke's eyes) but DeJonge manages to create such a clear and natural presence that we're fully invested, and deeply satisfied by the film's ending

Low Points
I watched Better Watch Out via Peacock, which did that thing that many a streaming service thinks viewers want by immediately skipping the credits and heading straight into the next nearby title. This meant it took me three tries to confirm the mid-credits sequence, and boy, I really wish I took Peacock's hint and skipped it. 

Lessons Learned
Huntsman spiders are rampant in certain parts of "the United States"

Duct tape: don't babysit without it

Gross dads breed gross kids (and yes, I know we all love Patrick Warburton, but if ogled Ashley any more, she could have sued him right there and avoided a very bad evening)

I can't say I had a good time with Better Watch Out: its subject matter is so ugly that it's hard to enjoy the brisk 90 minute ride. Still, between this and Undocumented, Peckover has certainly shown that he's unafraid to face current horrors by way of crafting an effective genre film. I'm a little disturbed to see so much discourse about this movie refer to it as a comedy because it makes me think some audiences didn't get the point, but what can you do? 

Monday, February 13, 2023

Slither Me Timbers

Welcome to the Annual February Shortening! In honor of the shortest month on a blog written by a short woman, all posts are devoted to stories about vertically challenged villains. If you, reader of any height, have your own mini-horror to share, do so in the comments and I'll include you in a final post roundup as the calendar changes!

I don't LOVE the idea of throwing snakes in the short villain club; when they do that coiling thing, some could probably tower over me. But hey, Vipers was on Amazon Prime and sometimes, you just have to listen to the universe of streaming SyFy creature features.

Quick Plot: Overhead stock island footage introduces us to a secret facility where government scientists are genetically modifying snakes in order to fight cancer...and terrorists.

Naturally, these titular CGI vipers escape their thin glass barrier and find their way to another small island, strangely enough, one that looks the same in an overhead stock shot. Luckily for the few townspeople that aren't extras and therefore immediate snake scraps, former 3-star military man Dr. Silverton (Twin Peaks' always delightful Don S. Davis) was in the middle of transitioning his practice over to young army vet Cal, leaving the island with slightly more strategic experience (handy in an "escape the genetically modified man-eating snake invasion" emergency).

Also on hand to do some reptile combat is greenhouse owner Tara Reid, her friend-turned enemy Ellie, Ellie's angry teen daughter Maggie, Ellie's cheating husband Jack, the woman he's cheating with, Georgie, played by the always perfect and never used well enough Mercades McNab. Did I squeal in glee when her name showed up in the opening credits? Of course. Did I immediately deflate when I realized that, by placing her smack in the middle, it meant she'd die early? Blondy Bear, you know me well.

There aren't many surprises in Vipers. This is the kind of movie where a mother muses that her teenage daughter will be the death of her only to, you guessed it, die by snaking barely a full scene later trying to save aforementioned daughter. Don't expect much more.

High Points

You know what's probably very difficult? Acting terrified for the course of a 90 minute film when there is literally NOTHING physical to act terrified of. Obviously, the vipers of Vipers are pure computer generated art, meaning director Bill Corcoran probably had to dangle more tennis balls than George Lucas to capture the right eye positions. We can laugh at the SyFy pool of goofy CGI attacks all we want, but as this was made before the network went fully off the rails in terms of style, we should also respect the fact that each actor in Vipers plays their part as if they are genuinely afraid of these almost-ridiculous vipers.

Low Points

There are three white male characters who all stand about the same height, with the same dirty blond hair, and have generically white names. It's genuinely difficult to tell them apart for the first 10 minutes or so, and just seems like such a silly decision on the part of casting. 

Lessons Learned

Give a lady a big rock and you become nothing but a wallet

If your lover thinks mistakes a snake for your caressing hands, it's probably a note to moisturize more often

Genetically enhanced snakes bite like hell and more importantly, scream like baby velociraptors 


Vipers isn't anything terribly special, but it's interesting as a time capsule of the era when you could make a cheap CGI TV creature feature and still treat it somewhat earnestly. If the mood strikes you, find it now on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, February 6, 2023

Coming of Age with Superpowers

Welcome to the Annual February Shortening! In honor of the shortest month on a blog written by a short woman, all posts are devoted to stories about vertically challenged villains. If you, reader of any height, have your own mini-horror to share, do so in the comments and I'll include you in a final post roundup as the calendar changes!

You KNOW we can't start a fertile February without planting a few bad seeds first. That's right! It's the evil child installment of The Shortening!

Quick Plot: Ida is a moody 9ish-year-old who seems to be eternally sour over her developmentally disabled sister Anna. When their family moves to a high-rise for the summer, Ida quickly befriends local psychopath Ben. 

Sure, Ida got some kicks from sticking glass in Anna's shoes and squishing  innocent worms, but Ben's idea of fun involves cat murder (thankfully, clearly not in any way harming the actual cat actor). The boy must die. 

That's easier said than done once Ben starts to display Carrie-like abilities. Meanwhile, another young neighbor named Aisha is experiencing some kind of psychic connection to Anna, helping the girl speak for the first time in her young life. What in the village of the damned is going on here?

The Innocents doesn't really tell you, and that's okay. Written and directed by Eskil Vogt (half of the team behind Thelma and The Worst Person In the World), this is an unusual film in the best of ways. There's an immediate undercurrent of something very wrong. Young Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Ida initially makes for the perfect bad seed until Ben proves to be far worse. As that unfolds, we get to realize our own mistake in how quickly we judged Ida. 

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is commonly thought today as a celebration of youth, but what makes it so interesting today is how clear-headed it is at understanding the utter selfishness (and in Barrie's words, "heartlessness") of children. We love to romanticize the beauty of childhood innocence, but it typically takes us a whole lot of years of heartbreak to understand what cruelty is and how dangerous a thing it is to wield. 

The Innocents is fully aware that children's souls are a mess. Sure, a kinder kid like Aisha might already know right from wrong, but someone like Ida, who has clearly grown up resenting that her sister demands more attention from her parents, is still working through morality. It's not until she's fully confronted with what seems like pure evil that she starts to make decisions more in line with the light side.

There are a lot of ways to read The Innocents, and an analysis could go even deeper if you dig into the racial and gendered elements also at play. I'll leave that for another day, but in the meantime, check the film out and come back with your own takes. 

High Points
I'll always champion a strong genre film that makes effective use of daylight, and The Innocents is high on that list. Children are terrifying BECAUSE of how fresh-faced and innocent they look under the sun. Why bother to hide it with unnecessary darkness?

Low Points
I blame myself for having to break The Innocents up into three chunks to watch over the course of two days, so the odd pacing is more on me than Vogt. I was shocked when I realized I had reached the end of the film because, well, it feels a bit like something is missing. But how much of that is Vogt's unusual storytelling and how much is me watching under less than optimal conditions, I leave you to decide

Lessons Learned
We can whine about kids today preferring mobile devices to the outdoors, but tell me you still feel sad about that after watching this movie

When someone is mean, you tell a grownup

There are few ways to die that are sadder than doing so in the middle of boiling frozen hot dogs

The Good Son Watch

Considering how many times I reference this movie, I think it's time to make the callouts an official section. And yes, there are plenty of thrillers starring obscenely blond children that aren't The Good Son, but I can't help but think of it when a key moment of violence involves a highway overpass. 

The Innocents is yet another recommendation findable on Shudder. I don't know that it will please everyone, but it scratched my evil child itch in a wonderfully unexpected way.