Friday, August 31, 2018

2018 Late Summer Scary Movie Report

The Endless
From the duo that brought us the Lovecraftian Spring, comes this ambitious sophomore feature. It’s puzzling, relentlessly obtuse, and generally polished for an indie.  This could have been a great film, but instead is a good film. At its surprisingly gooey core is the story of two brothers attempting to reconcile after abandoning a cult and dealing with some vague aftermath. Their solution is numbing half conversations (men, am I right) and a misguided attempt at understanding their feelings by returning to the cult. Plot wise it  delivers on its lofty promise. Unfortunately, the emotional impact doesn’t quite resonate mainly because of the tepid writing that reduces the honorable but amateurish lead performances to stoic, repetitive caricatures. You can tell these actors (who are also the co-directors) are true friends but they never once convince us that they’ve lived their characters’ lives and never achieve the brotherly dynamic integral to the plot. The resolution also left much in the air, and while I don’t expect to be spoon fed an explanation, the ending feels like deliberately bad editing or an ode to pretentious art filmmaking, I’m not sure which is worse.

Summer of 84
With the next season of Stranger Things a year away, Summer of 84 may just the right bit of nostalgia to tide you over. This is the follow up feature from the directors of the excellent Turbo Kid, and they were clearly influenced by the Netflix show. However here were faced with a human monster instead of supernatural one. Four young hormonal teens Goonie-up to find a serial killer terrorizing their tiny town. One of them suspects a neighbor who also happens to be a cop and refused to believe otherwise straining their friendships and families. The movie plods along, drenched in thickly slathered electronic music that at times obscures the dialogue. It’s an exercise in patience since the first half tends to be repetitive and doesn't ever reveal much about of the many characters which signals script problems. Eventually it does ripen into a good thriller and takes a turn into full horror, changing the tone considerably and ruining a little of the plucky fun. Nonetheless, I found it entertaining and a worth recommending to fans of 80s nostalgia flicks.

American Satan
You’ve heard the story before: band sells soul to the devil for meteoric rise to fame and fortune, while we witness the transformation from great to terrible. The premise is not new and acting is not on par with the overall production values. And yet, this is a persistently fun, often funny, horrific movie that keeps you watching and rocking out to the bombastic “cinematic metal” soundtrack (think Pat Benatar or Bon Jovi covering James Bonds themes). This is retro-cool flick does make one pause at its central conceit: the devil is at the center of all metal music. Is this a PSA or an endorsement? I guess you’ll read what you want depending on what side of the line you stand but it’s clear in this movie that the devil makes life worse. Most interesting are the factoids during the credits that outline the effects on some of rocks’s real stars (Ozzy Osborne was possessed on stage, Santana came out with it’s only Grammy winning album after meeting his spirit guide). A TV show spin off based on the movie, tentatively titled, Paradise City, is coming next year.

Take an LA-obsessed American blonde, three heavily armed French men, and a remote location in the middle of a desert and you have the recipe for a very bad situation. And it does get bad, then worse, and even worse. But it’s a French horror film so you know it’s going to get bloody, insane, and fly completely off the rails, which it does. If you’re expecting a realistic plot then you’ve come to the wrong place. The things these people endure is beyond any physical plausibility. I get a paper cut from loading the paper tray and I’m calling it a day. What the film does manage to do is connect with your inner beast of rage, frustration, and stress and lets you yell like a maniac at the screen. Again, there’s nothing original in this film but it’s exceedingly well, and definitely one of the goriest films I’ve seen in a long time. I was so exhausted after watching this that I feel asleep instantly. Take that, Ambien.

Down a Dark Hall
It started as a young adult novel in 1974, and bought by a large studio in hopes of making it next big thing. Unfortunately, the studio’s chokehold is evident in the interminable goal to be bland and inoffensive, yielding boring characters, cliche haunted house scenes, and murky story that is not helped with the underlit and  incomprehensible cinematography. The director’s other promising features Red Lights and Buried both hinted at greater things to come and there are are some interesting moments of atmospheric dread – shadowy figures dashing into dark corners and the occasional camera pan that reveals ghostly bystanders far in the background. But then Uma Thurman shows up sporting a French accent shakier than Bambi’s first walk in the forest, and wobbles the tone from scaryish to outlandish. This plot struggles to keep any momentum and new reveals add nothing to the story. Ghosts stories are my favorite genre so I tried very hard to find good here but ultimately only found disappointment.

The Devil and Father Amorth
If you are a Catholic and talk about exorcism you do so in a hushed tone for fear that the devil might be listening. According to this documentary, it is always listening and looking for the weakest and most vulnerable. Directed and written and starring William Friedkin, this overwrought and self-congratulatory documentary focuses on the global phenomenon of The Exorcist film and also briefly touches on the life work of Father Amorth, one of the Vatican’s main exorcists. In one extended sequence Father Amorth performs an exorcism in front of the unwavering camera with almost no cutaways. This was thoroughly documented and fascinating but ultimately tedious. Exorcisms, were told, can last weeks, months or even years and require persistent, repetitive, incremental steps to alleviate. Even then, victims may never fully recover suffering with dreams and dread that something waits for them in the darkness. Some fall under the spell and never return from it. Interesting stuff but this film is not about exorcism. At just over an hour long, it feels like a bonus feature on The Exorcist’s blu-ray release than an actual deep dive into the life of this man who by all accounts was loved by the community. It made me a little mad that it didn’t honor Father Amorth better although perhaps it was on Friedkin’s to do list. Ultimately, Friedkin is limited by what he has access to and the Vatican was not about to expose its most cloistered sacred rite for public scrutiny and certainly not as entertainment. One day that documentary will be made and this is not it.

The Lodgers
Rules must be obeyed in the soggy gothic tale in 1920s rural Ireland. You must be in bed by midnight and never allow a stranger through the door. Two twins nearing their 18th birthday are informed that the trust they’ve been living off is empty and their house is to be sold. This sets off a series of calamities that reveal the sinister dark secrets hidden in the family lineage. As a gothic story it works well and the atmosphere certainly creates a sense of dread and foreboding, but for much of the running time, there’s little spectral action. From a narrative perspective, the characters are very vaguely drawn mostly because the twins live alone in this giant house and have no one to talk to. In movies you want to show, not tell so instead we’re left to decipher subtle details of character that may be much to delicate to leave any kind of impression. I kept waiting for something to happen and in the last 15 minutes, it did, but was that too late? Much like ghosts my attention had already drifted off into the ether.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Brief & Curious History of Yankee Candle's Boney Bunch

Love them or hate them Yankee Candle's Boney Bunch have created a holiday tradition for many Halloween fans. These ceramic figurines each hold some kind of candle and portray whimsical smiling skeletons in all kinds of punny themes (Death by Chocolate, Head Chef). When the craze began in 2008, the retailer had no idea the kind of demand they would generate and quickly sold out of product. I was still getting catalogs in the mail long after everything was gone and many customers were quite irate.

They came back a second year, and then another – preceded of course by they will-they or won't they return chatter. Parties were thrown in stores, with early hours, costumes, treats and special coupons for everyone. I went to several events to meet the Boneyheads. Everyone loved Halloween and shared stories of previous years purchases. Once the doors open, however, it was every person for themselves. There was grabbing, pushing, bartering, yelling, and even crying. Some people bought hundreds of dollars of stuff (and keep in mind they were once reasonably priced at an average of $10). One entrepreneur bought multiple items and planned to sell them on eBay for triple their worth once they disappeared from the shelves.

According several managers, Yankee Candle planned their year around the Boney Bunch launch sale since for a couple weeks, it was the best selling product of the year. They tried to keep up with demand (and disgruntled late season shoppers) and tiered the release of products. They offered pre-ordering at the store level which was disastrous. They released special editions online only to entice shoppers to stay home and order online, but their aging website always crashed during the fateful Saturday sale. One year they tripled their order of product from the manufacturer and ended up with considerable overstock! (Now overstock is held for the next year as returning favorites and rarely clearance priced.)

Demand seems to have slowed down and the stores don't make a big fuss at launch day anymore. They still advertised launch days but there's hardly a coupon in sight. This year they gave away candles in hoping of propping up sales but it's clear they've forgotten about appeasing the Halloween fans. Gone are the lavish catalogs with the artful photos, the special signage around the store, and the fun videos/games online. This party is over but it was fun while it lasted.

Here are some of my favorite pieces from 2018 that launched this past Saturday (you're in luck – nothing has sold out yet). After 11 years of figures, they've explored just about every theme imaginable but still manage to get a few fun surprises in the mix. Personally I love the more wicked ones that definitely connote the darker side of Halloween – but in a whimsical way (headless clown with skeleton head impaled on a cane, anyone?).

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Ambitious Horror of The Terror

AMC’s new anthology series, The Terror, has been sitting on my DVR since premiering March 26 and concluding on May 21. I love a good naval yarn but was so badly burned with the ridiculous Pirates of the Caribbean movies and aimlessly bland Black Sails Starz series, so all 10 episodes sat like sad logs by a summertime fireplace.  But I gave it a go and so grateful I did. The Terror is an engrossing prestige horror aimed at adults with a superb cast, grand visuals, and taut dramatic storytelling that swiftly moves along – easily one of the finest series on cable today and it MUST be on your watch list. Be warned however that it’s violent, relentlessly gory, and very heartbreakingly tragic.

Based on the novel by Dan Simmons, the story traces the 1845 lost expedition to the Arctic led by Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. In traversing the icy region in hopes of finding the Northwest Passage, they ultimately become icebound, and as Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) exclaims, “This place wants us dead.” As if the situation wasn’t dire enough with tainted food supplies, crew rivalries, and harsh conditions, they soon face an even more deadly thing that tilts the series towards the supernatural… perhaps. Regardless, this is  most certainly is horror at its finest.

The series is visually stunning with long shots of the ships at sea, dancing northern lights, and the jagged shards of frozen sea pushing skyward. The lighting is impressive as winter sets in and only a momentary red sunrise peaks beyond the horizon only to set seconds later.  There’s a particular scene enshrouded in a thick fog where the camera pulls back and up and capturing the hazy, terrifying action below. Every aspect of the production is striking and chilling, and I could swear the temperature in the room dropped 10 degrees as I watched.

Take a look at the endlessly fascinating and hypnotic opening credits. Not once did I fast forward through it:

After reading about the premise for season 2, which is a different story altogether, I’m hooked on this prestige horror series. Although I really doubt that quality like this will drawn the kind of audience that AMC hopes. It’s an incredibly ambitious concept (read: a tough sell) to take a real historical event and overlay it with horror. But like all short-lived great horror that came before it (Hannibal, The Exorcist, BrainDead, Carnivale, The Leftovers, Ash vs. Evil Dead, Outcast) we’ll get what we get and be grateful.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Halloween at Michaels is Impressively Gothic

Michaels definitely seems to have stepped up their Halloween game this year with some really interestingly gothic merchandise perfect for an apothecary. I've been to three Michaels and each has some crossover products and some whole lines unique to each store (only one carries the "full" Martha Stewart Halloween line). I asked the manager if they were getting the other items and she said no. Each store will carry some unique lines. What?! Has that always been the case? Anyhoo, I'm waiting for that one 40% off sale that's just around the corner. Here is what made my wish list.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Martha Stewart Is Mad for Halloween at Michaels

Browsing through my newly remodeled Michaels, I stumbled upon Martha Stewarts extensive NEW Halloween collection. The light up bats and wall-clinger bats are especially good (more realistic than cartoony). I counted three distinct themes/colors but the staff was still in the process of putting items out. It's great to see such a large and inspired collection after years of neglect. Is there hope for a new Halloween magazine this year as well?!?