Wicked Weekends: October Horror Movie Challenge, Part 1

It’s been a few months since I last posted, for which I can only apologize. I’ve been slammed with work and various other real life distractions, and I haven’t really had any time to post. But I’ve finally gotten a bit of breathing room, and I’m hoping to get back in the swing of things now.

Let’s kick things off with one of my latest endeavors: the October Horror Movie Challenge, as recently highlighted on one of my favorite community blogs, Gaming As Women. For those of you who prefer not to click on outbound links, the basics of the challenge are this: each participant is meant to watch 31 horror movies in 31 days, including at least 16 films they’ve never seen before. I’ve been squeezing in my 31 wherever I can, so I’m afraid I’m a bit behind, though I’m hoping to catch up soon. As of today, October 14th, I’ve seen eight movies, all of them new to me, and I’m happy to report that I’m putting a real dent in the horror section of my Netflix queue. As part of this process, I’ve decided to share some of my impressions in capsule reviews and tie them into the relaunch of my media-centered weekend posts, which I’m dubbing “Wicked Weekends”. So, for the next few weeks, expect a grand tour of the good, the bad, the ludicrously comical and the goddamned scary.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

2010 – 80 min. – Directed by Jalmari Helander – Available on Netflix Instant

Far in the north of Finland, a drilling operation uncovers an ancient evil – the one and only Santa Claus. As children in the area begin to disappear, a young boy named Rauno must convince his father and his fellow reindeer hunters of the danger Santa poses and find a way to end the creature’s threat forever.

This is more of a horror-comedy than a straight up horror film. Perhaps I should have expected as much the moment I heard the words “evil Santa Claus,” because as creepy as the Santa legend can get in some parts of the world (and it can get very, very creepy), I don’t think anyone’s tried to make an evil Santa film that’s legitimately scary. Rare Exports is no exception. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film by any means. I had a lot of fun watching it. It’s just not all that scary. Creepy in parts, certainly, and there are plenty of deaths, but in the end, it’s more of a horror-tinged farce than anything. It’s worth a watch, but don’t go in expecting a lot of scares. Honestly, it might be best saved for the Christmas season. When you’re tired of Rankin-Bass specials and Charlie Brown cartoons, spin up Rare Exports, spike the eggnog, and let the laughter commence.


John Carpenter’s The Ward

2011 – 86 min. – Directed by John Carpenter – Available on Netflix Instant

In the 1960s, a mysterious young woman is captured by the police and admitted to an isolated mental institution, where she and her fellow patients are hunted by a terrifying spectre tied to a dark secret in their shared pasts.

I enjoyed this movie far more than I thought I would. It’s not the greatest horror film I’ve ever seen, but it kept me guessing and it had a lot of great jump-scare moments. In retrospect, the climax of the film was actually quite predictable, but I honestly didn’t see it coming and I felt it was very well executed indeed. The main characters sometimes come off as one-dimensional, but given the fundamental nature of the film, I can’t really say that’s a bad thing. I would definitely recommend giving this one a watch.


The Thing

1982 – 109 min. – Directed by John Carpenter – Available on Netflix Instant

The staff of an American research outpost in the Antarctic take in a Siberian Husky rescued from Norwegian scientists hell-bent on putting the dog down, and soon discover that the scientists had very good reasons to hunt the creature. Faced with a monster that can mutate into anything it kills, the Americans must battle their own fear and paranoia as their ranks are swiftly and steadily depleted.

Here’s where I come off as a Philistine: I didn’t enjoy this film at all. I recognize that it’s a seminal horror film, an essential part of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy and a profound influence on countless subsequent movies. But I just didn’t enjoy watching it. Perhaps it had just been overhyped. Maybe I’ve been exposed to too many of the revolutionary ideas that sprung from this movie to enjoy it on its own terms. Maybe the 80s-style gore turned me off, as it did with Hellraiser. Whatever the reason, I could not get into The Thing. I suppose I’m glad I saw it – certainly everyone should see the classics of the genre, and The Thing is pretty universally acknowledged as such – but it was more of a chore than anything. Perhaps I’ll try watching it again sometime and see if my opinion improves on subsequent viewings.


Grave Encounters

2011 – 92 min. – Directed by the Vicious Brothers & Colin Minihan – Available on Netflix Instant

The cast and crew of a ghost-hunting “reality” show spend a night in an abandoned mental institution, where they soon discover that the stories they’ve been spinning for their audience are all too real.

Another movie I liked far more than I ever expected. I honestly thought this would be schlockfest, and to a certain degree, it was. The sequence of events was fairly predictable, none of the characters were terribly well-defined, and haunted asylums and found footage are among the stalest tropes in modern horror. But I find that when I walk into a movie with no expectations, I end up enjoying it for what it is. Grave Encounters is not a great movie. It’s probably not even a good movie. But it’s a fun movie, packed with genuine scares and creepy ambiance. I’m actually pretty excited for the forthcoming sequel. If you have Netflix, it’s worth adding this one to your queue. Maybe you’ll never care to watch it again – but it’s a fun way to spend a couple hours. Also, I kind of loved seeing a crew of so-called ghost hunters get taken down a peg. Couldn’t have happened to nicer people.


Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

2010 – 76 min. – Directed by Troy Nixey – Available on Netflix Instant

A young girl named Sally comes to live in the Gothic mansion her father Alex and his new girlfriend Kim are restoring, and whispers in the walls soon lead her to a walled-up basement, where she inadvertently unleashes a long-dormant evil. As the creatures that haunt the home torment Sally in increasingly vicious ways, Kim embarks on a desperate search for answers, racing against time to save Sally from the beings lurking in the darkness.

I wanted to like this one. I really, really did. I generally adore Guillermo del Toro (who wrote the screenplay for this film, a remake of an old TV movie). I’m very interested in fairy lore, and this film draws upon it in very interesting ways. As an intellectual exercise, I find the film fascinating. As a horror movie, I honestly hated it. It was slow and quiet in all the wrong places. The set and creature design were superbly creepy, but the pacing, the writing and the acting were all seriously lacking. The movie wasn’t enjoyable. It wasn’t really frightening. In the end, I don’t think it was worth my time. The Thing was worth watching for its place in movie history. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark will be lucky to be a footnote.


Dracula 2000

2000 – 98 min. – Directed by Patrick Lussier – Available on Netflix Instant

A gang of thieves raids a vault owned by none other than Professor Van Helsing, unleashing Dracula, the first and most terrible of all vampires. Chasing Dracula to New Orleans, Van Helsing and his assistant soon discover that Dracula has a very particular target in mind: the Professor’s estranged daughter Mary.

I went into this movie knowing that it would be bad. That it had been near-universally panned. And its reputation is deserved. For all of that, though, I had fun watching it. Christopher Plummer was a wonderful Van Helsing, and Gerard Butler made a decently creepy Dracula. The mythology behind the film was actually quite intriguing, if not entirely original. And after visiting New Orleans last year and falling in love with it, I’m a sucker for anything involving my second-favorite city on Earth. (The first, of course, will always be Boston.) There were some inexplicable and rather jarring elements – the inclusion of Lucy Westenra as Mary Van Helsing’s best friend, for example, even though Bram Stoker’s novel explicitly exists in the world of the film, presumably with Lucy’s role intact, and no explanation for this coincidence is ever provided – but it was an enjoyable romp all the same.


Event Horizon

1997 – 95 min. – Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

A search and rescue team is dispatched to the outskirts of the solar system to recover the Event Horizon, the first starship equipped with an FTL drive, which has mysteriously reappeared after a seven year absence. Though the ship initially appears to be abandoned, a malevolent presence soon makes itself known, and the crew of the Lewis and Clark discover that some doors should never be opened.

Okay, confession time: I’ve had this movie sitting on my shelf for ages, after buying a used copy off a friend, but I was too much of a wuss to watch it until recently. Having finally seen it, I honestly enjoyed the hell out of it. It was creepy as hell and scary in all the right places, and while the damned, haunted ship may be a trope almost as tired as the haunted asylum, the outer space setting made everything old seem new again. I’ve seen a few people comment that this film seems almost like a prequel to the Warhammer 40k setting, and even with my cursory knowledge of that setting, I have to agree – and after seeing the film, I’m slightly more interested in exploring WH40K than I was. My one complaint is this: there’s a toneless comic relief character who feels spectacularly out of place every time he appears, particularly as the film grows steadily more grim. I appreciate good comic relief, but this film really didn’t provide a bit of it; the movie would have been better served by having none at all. Still, even that flaw couldn’t really spoil the film as a whole. Event Horizon wasn’t quite as terrifying as I thought it would be – I think I’d built it up a bit too much in my mind – but it was very, very good and I’ll definitely be watching it again to catch any details I might have missed.



2012 – 109 min. – Directed by Scott Derrickson

Hungry for another smash hit, true crime writer Ellison Oswalt moves his family to the site of a vicious multiple murder, where he soon discovers a series of home movies chronicling a chain of homicides spread across many years and thousands of miles. As he slowly puts the pieces together, Ellison finds himself literally haunted by the grisly events, and slowly comes to believe that he may have placed his own family in harm’s way.

Just barely certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, this film, released on Friday, has been dividing the critics like nothing else. The main complaint so far seems to be that it’s predictable. Let me get that out of the way right now: it is. You’ll probably be able to see every major plot point coming around ten minutes before it hits. But the devil, as it were, is in the details. What this movie lacks in original plot structure, it more than makes up for in execution. It’s well-acted, beautifully atmospheric, wonderfully creepy, and studded with some awesome jump-scares. This film takes ideas that have been percolating in the depths of the horror genre for years and weaves them together into something that’s much, much more than the sum of its parts. To go into details would spoil the film, and it deserves to be experienced fresh. Suffice to say I highly recommend it. Ignore the critics. If you have doubts, wait for the DVD, but turn the lights down low, curl up with your loved ones and give this one a watch. Just don’t do it right before bed.


Fangirl Fridays: Katniss Everdeen, The Girl On Fire

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed in the UK edition of The Hunger Games

Welcome to the third and final entry in Hunger Games Week on the blog. I’m sure you all saw this particular post coming – really, is it any surprise that my favorite female character is the trilogy‘s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen herself? After all the time we spend in her head, after everything we see her do, after everything she goes through, it’s hard not to feel a deep and abiding sympathy for her.

Of course, feeling sympathy for Katniss isn’t the same as liking her, and I know that a lot of people don’t – or, at least, they feel that she’s deeply flawed, particularly as the series goes on. To be honest, I agree: she is deeply flawed. She has a serious inferiority complex. She breaks down, here and there, under the pressure she faces, the weight that’s placed on her shoulders from the very beginning and only grows as time goes on. Her confused feelings for Gale and Peeta throw a seemingly inappropriate romantic subplot into the midst of a long, hard fight against an oppressive government and a desperate struggle to survive in a world gone to shit. Too often, she is caught up in the plans of others, in the great crashing waves of history, rather than acting on her own initiative and her own behalf.

And here’s what we’re all forgetting: Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl.

She’s a teenage girl, for crying out loud! She’s allowed to be silly! She’s allowed to be distracted by boys! She’s allowed to fall short of the impossible goals that have been placed before her! For crying out loud: could you even survive all the crap she goes through? Because I know I couldn’t. I’ve folded in the face of a hell of a lot less. And yes, I’ve picked myself up again and yes, I’ve grown stronger, but I’m also something like a decade older than Katniss and I haven’t been through half the crap she has as of the start of the first book. So, yes, I forgive Katniss her flaws. I forgive her the occasional teenage girl moment. In point of fact, as with Rose Red, I love her not in spite of her flaws, but because of them.

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence: flawed, but not AS flawed.

In fact, if I have one complaint about Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, it’s this: the film version of Katniss doesn’t seem to have those moments. She’s almost too strong, too capable, too aloof, too stoic. We see her suffer, of course – physically, mentally, emotionally. We see her falter and fail. But where is the girl who forgot herself on stage with Caesar Flickerman, twirling and giggling in her dress and forgetting, just for a moment (and a moment she clearly regretted later), that she had been sent far from home to suffer and die to sate the Capitol’s bloodlust – that every last one of them had? Of course, not all of this can be placed on Lawrence’s shoulders: as I said on Monday, the movie doesn’t put us in Katniss’s head. We don’t hear her thoughts. We don’t see the doubts and insecurities she works so hard to keep hidden from view. And so Lawrence’s portrayal seems to fall short. I still think she embodies Katniss in many ways – but, if anything, she comes off as perhaps too strong. (It is, of course, not fair to blame Lawrence for the lack of giddiness in Katniss’s interview with Caesar Flickerman, either – the scene was clearly just not written to accommodate giddiness or gaiety. The writers and director chose to go in another direction. It’s not a bad direction, but I do feel something is lost.)

But I already reviewed the movie, so let’s get back to Katniss herself, particularly as she’s portrayed in the trilogy as a whole. You know, as I look back on my experience with the books, I can’t help but compare Katniss to other figures central to wars and revolutions and crises throughout history. George Washington springs to mind, of course. Thomas Jefferson, too. Abraham Lincoln. The Roman hero Cincinnatus. One might even draw certain parallels with Joan of Arc. We lionize these people. We make them larger than life. We tell grand, sweeping, epic stories about their deeds. But, in the end, they were simply people. They, too, had deep flaws. In some cases, a close historical reading reveals those flaws; in others, they are lost to time. But all of them, I promise you, were human.

The world will be watching. The world will always be watching.

Katniss Everdeen is much the same way. The generations that follow the revolution in Panem will undoubtedly lionize her, at least to some degree. Certainly they will paint her as a larger than life figure. The finer details of her life, of everything she experienced, of everything she suffered, will be washed away by the relentless tides of history. But we aren’t reading the future history of Panem. We aren’t reading a biography of Katniss Everdeen, the Girl On Fire, the Mockingjay, the fearless leader of the revolution. We aren’t even reading Katniss’s own memoirs – not really. We’re following her present. We’re living her life, moment by moment, as she faces impossible odds, suffers terrible losses, grapples with her own feelings and her own doubts. And that perspective is amazing. That perspective is precious. That is a perspective we so rarely see in actual history. Can you imagine what any historian would give to crack open Abraham Lincoln’s brain and see what he was actually thinking at any given time? Or Washington’s? Or good old Joan’s? In many cases, of course, we have memoirs, we have letters, we have records of conversations…but it’s not the same as actually getting into someone’s head, is it? Even the most impromptu conversation is full of spur-of-the-moment editing and self-censorship. Katniss doesn’t get to edit her thoughts and feelings…and, yes, she comes off just a little worse for it.

One of the film’s taglines is this: The world will be watching. It really will. In truth, Katniss is paraded before two worlds: her world of Panem, and our world that could one day change into something very much like it. To many of the readers of our world, she falls short. To the people of Panem, who cannot see her innermost thoughts, she is a hero, a symbol, something more than a mere girl – or, depending on their particular perspectives, a complete and utter enigma, particularly in light of her actions at the end of the war. Sitting outside of Katniss’s world, we privileged readers see into the very core of her experience. We know better. We know that she’s just a teenage girl.

Too often, we forget that bravery isn’t the absence of fear and doubt – it’s the ability to overcome it, or at least to live with it while you do what must be done. And heroism? We don’t get to define that for ourselves. Others will decide whether or not we’re heroic, and those of us who end up with that label may very well feel unworthy of it. We may be unworthy of it. But, in the end, we don’t get to make that call. Neither does Katniss. The Hunger Games and its sequels show us a heroine from her own perspective. In that, the books succeed brilliantly, and I can only hope that the movies ultimately do so as well. Because I don’t love Katniss Everdeen because she’s a hero – I love her because she’s a human being who does the best she can with what she’s handed, who tries to do whatever good she can in the time that she’s been given. She doesn’t always succeed. But she tries. And that’s what counts. That’s what ultimately leads her to play a central part in the creation of a new future for all of Panem.

So try not to be too harsh on poor Katniss, alright? She did her best. That’s all any of us can do.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Media Mondays: The Fades

Much like Lost Girl, The Fades is a recent import to American television, though it’s of much more recent vintage (originally airing on BBC Three in the fall of 2011) and far, far shorter. Like many BBC series, it’s limited to half a dozen episodes, and four of these have aired on BBC America so far, as part of the channel’s “Supernatural Saturday” lineup, which has typically included such series as the original Being Human, Bedlam, and of course Doctor Who. At this time, a second series has not been officially commissioned, though its chances are good.

The Fades fits neatly into the “Chosen One” sub-genre, joining such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Demons. The premise is straightforward, though as the series goes on, it becomes increasingly bizarre and complex in its execution: the dead are not leaving the Earth. Where once they ‘ascended’ naturally, they are increasingly trapped on the mortal plane, reduced to ghost-like beings called Fades. Worse still, some of the Fades have learned to regain physical form, mainly by consuming human blood and flesh. These rogue Fades are opposed by the Angelics – humans with the ability to perceive the Fades (where most humans cannot, unless they’re in fully corporeal form) as well as other useful gifts. As the series begins, a 17-year-old boy named Paul discovers that he himself is one of these Angelics – and not only that, but one of the most powerful Angelics in living memory, with powers far beyond any of the others. He soon meets said others, who urge him to abandon his family and friends and devote himself full-time to the fight, but he chooses to try and balance his life as an Angelic and a typical teenage boy, despite the inherent complications.

The series has its strengths and weaknesses. Though I’ve enjoyed it so far, I can’t call it an especially feminist show in any way. It fails the Bechdel Test completely, because female characters rarely interact with one another, never seem to have a conversation that doesn’t at least touch on the men in their lives, and are honestly under-utilized, despite some notable and talented women in the regular cast (including Natalie Dormer, late of The Tudors and now playing Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones; and Lily Loveless, most famous for playing one half of Naomily on Skins). My favorite character, Jay (played by Sophie Wu), is a fun, spunky, confident brunette who favors close-cropped hair and striped blazers…and she’s barely defined outside of her roles as Paul’s love interest (and the literal object of his sexual fantasies) and one of his sister Anna’s best friends. We don’t even see most of her conversations with Anna, who is played by the aforementioned Lily Loveless and portrayed as little more than Paul’s snotty, outgoing, popular twin sister. Natalie Dormer’s character is literally killed off in the first episode, and while this doesn’t keep her from playing a part in the events that follow (since the series is about the undead, after all), it doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. She ends up spending most of her time hanging around her ex-husband, who is aware of her presence but unable to perceive her in any meaningful way.

That said, it’s not unwatchable or irredeemable. While I would prefer to see more of the female characters and their interactions with one another, and the regular cast feels quite a lot like a boys’ club, it is a very strongly written show with a truly creepy, sometimes downright frightening atmosphere. The opening credits are perfect for setting the mood, the special effects are weird, fantastic and sometimes quite scary (though also quite gory on occasion, just to warn you), and the actors playing the various Fades move and behave in suitably strange and unsettling ways. Paul’s powers are treated with a blend of wonder and terror touched with a dash of humor, and the show takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Anything can happen and anyone can die.

The show’s true strength, however, lies in the relationship between Paul and his best friend Mac. Both of them are unrepentant geeks and social outcasts, which does sort of feed into a male geek power fantasy, but also works surprisingly well with the tone of the series and gives the target demographic an easy point of entry to the world of The Fades. More importantly, however, their relationship is the sort of unapologetically close male friendship rarely seen on modern television. Their bond is powerful and unbreakable, and they genuinely worry for and care about one another, despite the occasional spat. Mac’s role as Paul’s confidant also puts him in the perfect position to provide each episode’s opening recap, explaining recent events to the audience through his webcam and (amusingly) signing off each time with “Nanu nanu“. While these recaps are generally humorous in tone, they also offer insight into Mac’s state of mind, and in the wake of particularly troubling events, they can become quite moving.

It’s rare to see young men on television not only acknowledge other men as their best friends, but also as people they literally need to have in their lives. So often, that kind of close friendship is strictly and exclusively the territory of female characters. Men are generally encouraged to bottle up their emotions and make light of their relationships, when in fact friendship is vitally important to people of all genders. It’s refreshing to see a friendship between two men portrayed as a warm, close-knit and necessary relationship. In that respect, The Fades breaks out of the usual mold, and becomes something quite special.

The show has a long way to go, and if it does return for a second series, I hope more emphasis will be placed on the female characters. Anna’s status as Paul’s twin sister has already come into play and been invested with mystical significance, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if she turned out to be an Angelic herself; even if she doesn’t, new Angelics could always be introduced. While the focus of the series is on Paul, it does edge into ensemble show territory at times, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to follow a second protagonist. For all its flaws, though, The Fades is highly entertaining and a great addition to BBC America’s Supernatural Saturdays. I’ll certainly be watching the last two episodes, and if the show does return for a second series, I’ll happily give it a chance.