Friday, February 27, 2015

Oculus - Movie Review

Directed by Mike Flanagan
Spoiler Free!

Whoa, wait, what?  A deeply-moving examination of childhood abuse and trauma masquerading as a half-wit Death Bed remake?  Not what I expected.

Oculus is a feature-length adaptation of a award-winning short released in 2005.  Sadly, I haven't seen the short, so cannot compare it in this review, but suffice to say it was compelling enough that studios tried for years to pick it up as a "found-footage" picture.  Flanagan refused these attempts, and finally agreed to make Oculus on the express condition that it NOT be found-footage.  During the scripting process, they expanded the original premise of the short by intertwining storylines of the past with the present.

But this isn't just a mish-mash of flashbacks.  Oculus tells the tale of a supernatural, EVIL mirror that has the power to warp reality around it.  It kills houseplants, absorbs dogs, and causes intensely realistic hallucinations, driving its human victims to their deaths!  As the movie unwinds, the boundaries between memory and illusion become increasingly blurred until they rip apart altogether.

The story goes that a brother and sister have finally returned to their childhood home: a house of horrors where both their parents died.  Tim has recently been released from a mental institution.  Kaylie has made her way past the trauma on her own, landing a job as an antiques dealer.  Kaylie convinces Tim back to the house because she's located the EVIL mirror that she blames for her parents' descent into insanity and their deaths.  Kaylie intends to document the mirror's powers, and then destroy it.

Tim is skeptical, until strange things begin to happen.  And as we are led down the twisting path of the last innocent days of Kaylie and Tim's childhood, we begin to see why Tim needed to be in an institution, and why Kaylie is so very... intense.

Of course there are ghosts.  Booooooo.  But I'll explain why this is a boo in a bit.

Full disclosure.
Firstly, I'd like to talk about my personal bias.  For example, how much did Joanna relate to Kaylie on a scale of 1-5?  Oh...about AN 8.  I sometimes tell my friends that my husband has done a lot to mellow me out, but they always giggle.  If only they knew how close I might have come to setting up an elaborate system of timers and a death contraption to kill the objects of my obsessions....

Further, as an individual who suffers frequently from severe nightmares, hallucinations, and hideous intrusive thoughts, it was really awesome to have a movie I could point at and exclaim "Look!  See when she bites that lightbulb!  It's not real, but it might as well be.  That's what it's like!  That's why X bothers me so much..."

Anyways, I really liked and identified with Kaylie.  She's a great character because her intelligence, resourcefulness, and determination are not undercut by her mental frailty.  Rather, her unbalanced mind renders her complex and flawed in a way that is empathy-inducing.  A way that would only make her look foolish to the most callous and under-developed adolescent.

Tim is the same way.  His skepticism is level-headed yet born out of a deep sense of self-preservation.  As such, Oculus accomplishes something to be pleased about: characters that are flawed and fearful for a good reason, not some loaded-in stupidity that's requisite for the genre tropes and cliches to go off.  Their childhood was deeply traumatic, and that's bound to make people messed up.  Thus, by actually giving us characters instead of cardboard dolls, the audience is able to empathize and relate to them.  Then, the trouble they get into is believable.  And then, Boom:  Horror that works.  Crazy, huh?

Watch out: we're about to dive deep.

This gets us to the heart of Oculus: how to cope with trauma.  Frequently in the beginning of the movie, Tim admonishes Kaylie for believing that the mirror is EVIL.  He claims that this is just an elaborate delusion she's constructed to cope with the inconceivable horrors of their past.  Memories are unreliable and fluid, and mysteries muddied by time can be easily explained.  The dog had Parvo, dad was just having an affair, etc. etc.

We see how stubborn Kaylie is in response.  How doggedly she chases an explanation that will make her mom and dad and brother Good People, people who were Not Responsible.  She's nestled deep into her obsessive insanity because believing in an EVIL MIRROR is easier and better than believing in the mental illness and abusiveness of her parents.  It's easier than facing the fact that her brother became a killer at 10 years old.

These threads: the unreliability of memory and the rationalizations we weave to cope with the unspeakable, are then mixed into an even nastier snarl with PTSD-type flashbacks and triggerings.  Time may have allowed Kaylie the ability to function in the world, but as the movie goes on, a very true thing becomes patently clear: somewhere on the inside there is still a terrified, frustrated, overwhelmed young girl.  There's a part of Kaylie that will always be that girl, fighting not to be afraid of the people she ought to trust most.  The mirror merely brings that piece to the surface.  And then when we consider how identity over time is not so linear and solid as we like to believe, and how our conceptions about our memories shape who we are, and you get quite the tangled web.

Speaking of tangled webs, Oculus accomplishes a somewhat impressive feat by keeping its shit straight.  I'm sure there are plenty of loopholes and details that people might point out as being flaws (while missing the point that flaws in recollection are exactly what the movie is ABOUT), but all things considered, this movie does an amazing job of minding its p's and q's.  Transitioning cleanly between the present, the actual past, hallucinations in the present, memories, and hallucinations designed to look like memories, Flanagan and his team pulled off a plot-line circuitous enough to make Christopher Nolan proud.

My gum disease is sooooooo spooooooopy!  Be Spooped!

On to the Bad Parts: those useless spoopy ghosts.

No doubt about it, Oculus was made for a general audience.  It pays its dues very diligently to the teenage cash crowd who love nothing more than to decry a horror movie for "Not being a real horror movie, just a psychological drama!  Not spoopy enough. 1 of 10, would not spoop. Super laaaame."  By bending over backwards to establish bullshit "rules" of how the mirror behaves and shoving ghosts down our throats, Oculus makes damn sure that 19-year-olds can't complain on Amazon that it's "totz not real horror".

Sadly, though, because it works so hard to make the EVIL MIRROR real, and the SPOOPY GHOSTS real, it completely undermines what is truly horrifying and resonant about the film.  What is more disturbing than not being able to trust your own mind?  Ladies with cataracts and bad teeth?  I mean, if we have a movie with two deeply scarred young people, returning to the location where all their horrors happen, it's bound to trigger all sorts of things inside them, resulting in a mind-breaking descent into madness.  To insist on the device of a haunted mirror is tiresome and juvenile.

And... I'm not even going to go into how predictable and useless the ending is.  Ugh.

However, I don't particularly blame the film-makers for this as much as I blame the market.  A lot of horror is unbelievably terrible these days because it's what sells.  Honestly, I'm impressed that Oculus even got made, and was popular enough to get, what, two sequels picked up?  So, I understand why they shoe-horned stupid ghosts in, I just whole-heartedly believe it would have been a magnificent movie without them.  The kind of movie that could be like a little baby sister to The Shining.

Speaking of The Shining, though, I'd also like to point out that the way Oculus is made leaves a little to be desired.  While the film-making was clean and the editing very polished (as stated above), I would have liked a bit more in the way of directorial and aesthetic flair.  The movie is very competently shot, and a portion of me wants to argue that any more visual stylization would distract from the plot, but... there's a but.  Atmosphere is frequently built via literal darkness more than shot-framing, and the palette of color and texture could have been more vivid for my tastes (this is a movie about insanity, afterall- we can use shades other than white, bright red, dusty ochre, and black).  As a result, I often felt like Oculus was an extremely well-planned film shot by someone fresh out of school, who hasn't yet had a chance to develop their personal visual style.  I would love to see this redone, sans the conceit of the mirror being actually EVIL, and with a bit more verve.  I think what I want is The Shining.

In short, Oculus definitely has its problems.  It's not a movie that knocks it out of the park.  But, it's got a lot of good stuff hidden away inside its shell.  In other words, Oculus understands the jungle it's in, and has spent a lot of time camouflaging itself as a SuperSpoopyGhostMovie, so that it can continue to feed and lay its eggs in peace.  This makes me happy in a strange way.  Instead of disappointment, I see something hopeful.  That there are people out there capable of making good, compelling, useful horror, even if they have to frost it with dumbness for now.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Deep Dark Fears

Alright, there's no extensive story here.  There's no creeply-edited short film or haunting song and dance.  There's no real life death or mystery.  This post is a brief respite from stomach-churning dread and disgust and is instead cutesy comics illustrating society's deepest darkest fears. :)

Illustrated by this little cutey here:

Illustrator Fran Krause asked people to write in and tell him their deepest darkest fears, no matter how irrational, no matter how strange, no matter how twisted.  Some fears can be traced to early childhood memories, some as a result of trauma or a triggering experience, some seeming to appear out of thin air.  What's interesting about human society is certain fears, even those that seem the most insane or unlikely, can be and probably are shared by a handful or even hundreds or thousands of others out there in the world.

We are not alone in our fears, but does that make them any less scary?  Does taking the terrifying image in your mind, translating it to words, and then translating them back into cutesy innocuous cartoons make them any less terrifying?

Krause is a member of the faculty in the Character Animation Program of CalArts.  His tumblr is here:, each post receiving multiple thousands of notes. 

I have linked below five of my favorite cartoons, the ones I find most creepy and unsettling, perhaps even hitting a little too close to home.

1) My two irrational fears involving being out and about are walking over the grates on sidewalks, fearing they will buckle under my weight and I'll go plummeting into the sewers below and/or being on the second or third floor of the mall and having someone bump into me, push me, or just have something generally go wrong and I go flying over the railing, smacking into the hard floor below.

2) I don't know how many times I've bugged my husband just randomly throwing into conversation, "What if we're really dead right now?"  I mean, how would one know if they are dead or not?  Truly, this is something we don't really have an answer to.  If I don't hear from one of my work clients for a few days or I say something to someone and get ignored, sometimes a little tiny part of me wonders, "Could I be dead?"  I, of course, then laugh it off.  I mean, I have to be alive, right?  I couldn't be writing this blog post if I were dead, right? [uncomfortable laughter]

3) Growing old is something we all hope for, but something I'm sure most of us also fear and dread a little bit.  There's an old cliche, would you rather die old and gray or young and beautiful?  Can you imagine the pain that must be felt to know you have lived 70 or 80 years of life, you have seen more than most, have wisdom to share for days, stories that would uplift a room, and yet no one will pay you the time of day because you're just 'old', 'wrinkly', or 'senile'?  Perhaps this is a reiteration to respect your elders.  They know far more than you ever will and they are valuable.

4)  An active imagination is a true gift that many will embrace as a child and slowly start to lose over time.  However, what if your imagination as a child was more of a detriment than an advantage?  What if childhood games and stories spilled over into adult anxieties and compulsions?  What if alternate universes are possible and perhaps, just perhaps, the mind of a child was able to unlock them and the mind of an adult made it impossible to 'go back'?

5) Depressing and maybe unlikely, but what if you outlive all of your closest family members and friends?  What if at your funeral, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren all attend but didn't really know you well, have no fun memories or stories to share?  What if they can only say things like, "Well, he/she gave us money at Christmas" or "Well, he/she always kept their house nice and tidy."  This could serve as a lesson to let people in more, treat others with more kindness, share a laugh with friends and family.  Make your life one to remember.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Isla de la Munecas

La Isla de Las Munecas or "Island of the Dolls" is an island situated at the Xochimilco Canals in Mexico.  Judging by the pictures alone, one can start to have an uneasy feeling, an uncomfortable wondering, why are thousands of decrepit, decaying, bug-infested, broken, cracked dolls looming in the trees, on the fences, in the bushes of this island?  Who put all of these dolls here and, for god's sake, WHY?!

A man named Don Julian Santana Barrera was the only inhabitant and caretaker of the island.  Legend has it, Julian was haunted by the spirit of a young girl who had drowned on the island and began collecting dolls and stringing them up in order to appease the young girl's spirit and bring her comfort.  Some accounts say Julian had tried to save the girl's life and was grief-stricken he could not, thus resulting in her presence haunting him.  Other accounts, including even Julian's family, say the girl had died before Julian even came to the island.  It is difficult to get a clear story of what actually took place, especially since, you know, spirits are involved and such.

Regardless, Julian became absolutely obsessed with the spirit of this young girl and began collecting dolls out of the canals and trash to hang up for the girl.  Julian even sold his produce to locals in exchange for more dolls.  Rather than cleaning up the dolls or attempting to fix them, Julian simply hung them as-is, cracked, decaying, dirty, glassy-eyed, soulless.  Even the dolls that arrived flawless were deteriorated over time due to the weather and wind.  Julian kept his small cabin filled with dolls as well, adorning them with sunglasses, umbrellas, and other accessories.  Julian had almost a strange sense of pride in his doll collection and would even give tours of the island, charging a small fee for visitors to take photos.

An extra level of creep steps in where, after 50 years of inhabiting the island and collecting dolls, Julian's body was found in 2001 in the exact place where he believed the girl had drowned.  Julian's legacy lives on though - the island has become a somewhat popular tourist attraction, being featured in TV shows and highlighted in articles.  Tourists travel from far and wide to contribute their own dolls to the island, the collection ever-growing.  Perhaps the spirits of both the girl and Julian now wander the island, surveying the dolls, strolling through the gardens, feeling a sense of peace for once.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Come Back to Me - Movie Review

Come Back to Me
Released 2014
Directed by Paul Leyden
Slight plot spoilers but NO ENDING SPOILERS

Hold the phone, alert the presses, a pig has grown wings and just flew past my head, I found a recent horror movie that I LIKE, I really like!! In fact - I watched Come Back to Me on a Friday night while my husband was out and when he got back I told him about it and we watched it together Saturday morning and HE liked it as well! (Normally we rip movies to shreds when we watch them together, haha.)  This means, I watched this movie twice within a 24 hour time period and perhaps I have a fever but I'd actually watch it a third time.

Now granted, before I get too carried away, this isn't an Academy Award worthy picture, folks.  In fact, there's nothing too special or over the top about it.  It isn't exorbitantly freaky or disturbing or groundbreaking.  It's a good 'ol fashioned tale of a lead female with anxiety stalked by the creeper next door with requisite long hair and smelly house.  But it gets deeper and there's a twist at the end that is epic and I'm not gonna tell you what it is for once!  However, all I will say is this, if you're a fan of happy endings, well, you're SOL on this one.

Our story opens with a teenage boy, Dale, sitting on the couch holding his pet rabbit and hearing his mom get murdered by his stepfather.  Or so we are led to believe...


Flash forward about ten years and we meet our main character, Sarah, a late 20-something blonde generic cute girl, married to Josh, wanting to have a baby, writing her thesis on the effects of porn on relationships.  Josh and Sarah notice Dale moving in across the street and bring him a plate of Rainbridge Farm cookies, which Dale creepily asks if they're homemade and then seems pissed off that they're not but accepts them anyway.  We later see Dale working in the grocery store and helping Sarah load her groceries in her car, being as friendly as he possibly can while still looking and acting like a major creepo.  

[Oh yeah and there are about five different scenarios in this movie where Dale eats cookies like a creep, all fast and maniacal, and that alone is worth the price of admission for the sheer WTF level of it all.]

We learn that Sarah had recently been in a bad car accident and had head trauma, resulting in insane night terrors where she sees Josh get killed, finds blood on her sweatshirt, wakes up in different rooms in the house, wakes up naked and smelling cleaning products, and all other varieties of strange scenarios.  Her very pregnant friend and therapist, Leslie, tries to help Sarah through all of her issues while Dale lurks around every corner saying hi to Sarah every chance he can get.


Eventually, Sarah starts to get suspicious of Dale and sneaks into his house one day after he leaves for work.  She finds an entire cabinet full of cookies and a box upstairs of keys.  Turns out, Dale made an impression of Sarah's key the same day he loaded the groceries into her car and has been sneaking into her house every night.  But what has he been doing?  Suddenly maybe the night terrors aren't nightmares at all, but reality.  We also learn that Sarah becomes pregnant but Josh shoots blanks, thus causing a giant rift in their marraige as he thinks she has been cheating on him and moves out to his buddy's house.

After months of frustration and fear she is losing her mind, Sarah sets up a smoke detector camera in her bedroom to get to the bottom of what exactly is happening during these night terrors/blackouts.  What she finds is alarming.  Dale has been sneaking into her house every night, tying her up, dancing with her in his arms, eating cookies, raping her, then slitting her throat.  Yes, you read that right.  Dale has been killing Sarah every night, BUT after cleaning up all the blood, before he leaves the room he breathes life back into her and all her wounds are healed yet she remembers nothing.

Turns out all those years ago, Dale's mom didn't actually die because that night Dale discovered his power and brought his mom back to life.  He then went out of control with it and began killing girls and animals all around his neighborhood and bringing them back to life, slowly driving his mother to insanity.  She hung herself, slit her wrists, and tried all other methods to die, but Dale would keep bringing her back to life.  Finally, Dale's mother set herself on fire in front of the police and was sent off to the insane asylum in order to get away from Dale.  Sarah goes to visit her and we learn Dale's back story and why he is the way he is today, including the fact that he is forever stuck in a preteen's mentality and when he first discovered his power, before he would bring people back to life, he would demand his mother make him homemade cookies with milk.


Our story comes to a grand conclusion when Sarah returns home prepared to shoot Dale, but finds he has tied up Josh and now their lives are in danger.  Sarah must come up with a plan to get Dale out of their lives for good and let's just say it begins with a cookie date over a wine glass full of milk and ends with, well...I want so badly to spoil the last ten minutes of the movie because it gets EPIC but I will not because I feel this one is much more fun when you don't know what's coming.  I'm also leaving out a couple of key scenes for brevity's sake, but let's just say they involve bunnies and babies.


Now, I learned after watching this that Come Back to Me is based on a novel, "The Ressurectionist" by Wrath James White, this BAMF right here:

White is a former World Class Heavyweight Kickboxer, distance runner, performance arist, and former street brawler.  Proof that you can't judge a book by its cover or an author by his snazzy suit and tie.

Once again, I would definitely give Come Back to Me a high approval rating.  Of course it has its cheesy moments and the lead actress is sometimes slightly insufferable with her over the top gasps and facial expressions and shrieking, but I can overlook this because of how well the other actors fit their roles and embody their characters and how this is one of those films where you know something is not quite right but you can't exactly figure out what's happening until it all just smacks you in the face.  Dale is a complex character who does heinous things but you realize deep down inside he's an emotionally-stunted momma's boy with a power he didn't ask for and really has no idea what to do with and, man, he just really likes cookies and milk.

Come Back to Me will make you think twice about whether some of your nightmares are a little more real than you'd like to believe and also make you side-eye that one neighbor who always seems a little too interested in where you're going or what you're doing.  And, hey, who doesn't love a horror movie that leaves you with a lingering sense of paranoia, am I right?  Anyone...? 

- Amanda

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

John Kenn Mortensen - Artist Review

The bio on his website reads:
Born in Denmark 1978, I write and directed television shows for kids.  I have a set of twins and not much time for anything.  But when I have time, I draw monster drawings on Post-it Notes... It is a little window into a different world, made on office supplies.
That's right, Post-It Notes.  I first saw the artist's work a couple years ago, promoted along the lines of "You Won't Believe What This Amazing Artist Draws on Post-Its!!!!!"  Luckily, the link had an image with it, so I got a glimpse of an eye of a Kenn-brand monster.  It was big and fuzzy, and its gaping, toothy mouth and pale, sightless eyes struck the perfect chord of endearing, mysterious, and deeply creepy.

The artist's use of ink on paper allows him to be extremely detailed.  Thus many of his monsters sport shaggy pelts, tattered robes, or oozing, melted skin.  This along with hyper-detailed backdrops of trees, fences. or bedroom walls makes the spaces left vacant pop.  For example, the white eyes of his creatures, ringed heavily with black.

A thing I love about these drawings is their atmosphere.  If there's an heir to the Edward Gorey throne, I can think of no better fit than John Kenn Mortensen.  His pictures do encapsulate little worlds.  Worlds that ring with the strangeness of childhood daydreams and imaginary friends.  Worlds where the Wild Things Are.  Worlds that house the creepy-crawlies kids innocently doodle, only to have their parent discretely crumple up the drawing as chills run down their spine.  Monsters are lit against the night with glowing eyes, or slither from shaded closets.  Sometimes the atmosphere is wrought with irised-in shading, other times it is in how lonely the monsters look.

However, it's not always about the monsters.  There's a balance in each piece between the featured humans, usually children, and the beasts.  It takes these hallucinatory creatures and tethers them to a sort of feverish reality.  What does your child see behind them when they look in the mirror?  Oh, just the usual...

Further, there's a deeply Victorian part of me that loves miniatures.  The fact that this work is done on Post-Its isn't kitschy; it feels like a 21st Century update to locket-bound portraits.

The only thing that makes me sad about John Kenn Mortensen is that sometimes it feels as though his fame is leveraged more on the Post-It Note gimmick than on the sheer mind-blowing quality of his work.  I wonder whether he would have achieved viral-level exposure of his work if it were pencil on vellum.  I wonder how many other Mortensens are out there making mind-blowing monsters I'm not looking at, just because they haven't figured out or bought into the right gimmick.

But, at least this artist is doing well.  Check out his website, or buy his books "Sticky Monsters" and "More Sticky Monsters".  I know what I'm putting on my Amazon wishlist for next Christmas.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Lincoln's Ghost

It's snowing here in the mountains of Virginia, and tonight feels like the perfect time for a ghost story.  So bundle up, scoot closer to the fire, and let's celebrate President's Day the spooky way.

It is sometimes said that the most haunted home in America is the White House.  Countless stories of spirits and presences have been documented.  Presidents, first ladies, heads of state, and the staff have heard footsteps, disembodied voices, and mysterious creaks.  Occasionally, full-body apparitions have appeared only to fade when the witness ran screaming or fainted dead away.

Of course, there is one spirit that tops the list, being seen so frequently that it's earned the title of "The White House Ghost": the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.

The first person to see Lincoln's ghost was Grace Coolidge, who lived in the White house as first lady between 1923 and 1929.  One day, she reported seeing an apparition of in the Yellow Oval Room.  He stood with his back to her by the window, looking out over the Potomac.

In 1942, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands heard footsteps in the hall outside her bedroom door.  As it was midnight, she was surprised when a knock came.  She answered it.  On the other side of the door stood Lincoln, in frock coat and top hat.  Wilhelmina fainted dead away.

However, that was not the only bedroom to be visited.  Many anonymous eyewitnesses reported hearing footsteps inside and outside the Lincoln bedroom at night.  Sometimes a knock would come at the door to the bedroom, and when answered by the occupant, there would be only empty air.  Undoubtedly, that room where Lincoln himself spent countless sleepless nights is the most haunted.

Plenty have seen him lying in repose on the bed.  Others have seen him going about his everyday business.  Famously, Mary Eben, secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt, looked into the room one day.  At the end of the bed, she saw the long-limbed figure of Lincoln sitting. pulling on his boots.  Immediately, she ran from the room "terribly wrought up".  Other accounts say she was screaming.

Others reacted to the ghost of Lincoln more stoically.  Winston Churchill disliked staying in the Lincoln bedroom.  But, despite his unease, there he slept during a visit in the '40s.  He was unwinding in the bathtub after a long day, smoking his cigar, and drinking scotch.  Even though I can't imagine why you would leave such bliss, he eventually rose from the bath and, wearing nothing but his cigar, walked into the bedchamber.  He was shocked to see Lincoln standing by the fireplace, leaning on the mantle.  According to the story Churchill told, the British leader then said "Good evening, Mr. President.  You seem to have me at a disadvantage!"  Lincoln smiled softly and disappeared.

However frightening these stories of Lincoln, they don't compare to the other ghost that haunts the White House.  At age 11, Willie Lincoln died of illness- most likely typhoid fever.  The death nearly drove his mother Mary Todd to insanity, and his father into a deep depression.

Willie's ghost was seen as early as the 1870s during the Grant administration, but has haunted the House for many years since.  In the 1960s, LBJ's daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb saw Willie's ghost.  She was staying in the room he'd died in.  She said she talked to him.

Whether these ghosts are merely hallucinations and the settling of a centuries-old house, we may never know.  But one thing is for certain, something haunts the greatest house in the land, even if it's just memories.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Bloody Valentine - Movie Review

My Bloody Valentine
Directed by George Mihalka
Spoiler Free!

Happy Valentine's Day!  Whether you're single or attached, I hope you're spending today anywhere other than a sad little mining town in Canada.  My Bloody Valentine takes place in just such a backwater, haunted by the specter of its dark past.

The story goes: 20 years ago, while the townspeople twisted away at the Valentine's Day Dance, a terrible mine accident trapped 5 men underground.  After a rescue effort that took several weeks, they pulled one survivor from the dark: Harry Warden.  Having resorted to cannibalism, Warden was now deeply insane.  A year quietly passed.  Then, on the next Valentine's Day, Harry Warden returned to murder the two supervisors responsible for the accident with a pick ax.  He left their hearts in heart-shaped chocolate boxes with notes warning the town never to have a Valentine's Day Dance again!

For 20 years, the warning had been heeded.  That is, until now.  The dance is back on, and it seems Harry has returned.  Hearts and bodies pop up everywhere as the sheriff and mayor deal with the crisis.  A group of young people (the men work in the mine, the women.... put up Valentine's Day decorations) are insistent that the Valentine's Day Dance go ahead.  When the sheriff cancels it, they plan to break into the rec-area of the mine and hold it anyways.

By the end, the body count is growing, and the remaining characters are left to race through the mines, running from the gas-masked madman.

With a title like My Bloody Valentine, one would expect this to be a slasher schlock-fest complete with terrible music, college-girls in bras, and plenty of gratuitous violence.  I'm not gonna say My Bloody Valentine LACKS those things, but it does manage to conduct itself without ever falling deep into the pit of Bad Movie-dom.

If you go into My Bloody Valentine expecting art, you will be disappointed.  If you go in expecting a fun horror movie, you will be rewarded with chocolate.

Or organ meats... whichever.

The pacing is perfect.  Dread is accomplished quickly and succinctly, particularly in the first-person stalking scenes.  Storytelling is a thing this movie does at all, which in turn means that we get definition on the many characters.  And it does so without forcing us to watch the actors exchange terrible, blunt, tired lines of dialogue about their backstories that are so bleakly generic that they might as well have been making seal-sounds (or perhaps my angst about the remake is bleeding in here- Orp, orp,orp!).

Speaking of characters, from the sheriff to the twenty-somethings, the players are distinct enough to keep straight, and some are even lovable.  For example, Hollis, a bearlike, mustached guy who is actually responsible, yet also a pretty cool dude in a committed, caring relationship with his lady.  Of course, there's plenty of sexism and a love triangle, but near the end these problems begin to shift in subtle ways.  The two guys fighting over a girl completely put aside their differences to make sure everyone gets out of the mine alive.  Relationships are sometimes portrayed as... actual relationships that include things other than banging.  The authority figures do things authority figures would, which includes not telling the youngsters jackshit.  Also, there's a deeply sad moment involving the sheriff and a box of chocolates that hints at how the adults are also leading their own complicated and emotional lives.

Then, we get to my favorite part: the makeup and practical effects.  My Bloody Valentine comes off as a bit coy when it comes to gore.  This may have been because the MPAA cut 9 minutes of "gore" from the feature before its release.  But whatever the cause, the effect is that we don't have to spend long stretches of time staring as a person gurgles.  In fact, we frequently only get glimpses of the kills, reminiscent of the man who got his eyes pecked out by finches in The Birds (only not quite as classy).  However, when we do get a look at the gore, it's very well-done.  There's no "Here, let me wet toilet-paper and stick it to your face, then over-use my stippling sponge- HOLD STILL" in this movie.  It's as if the make-up department actually bothered to look up the difference between someone who gets third degree burns from boiling water, and someone who gets burns from being left in an industrial dryer overnight.

Of course, there's plenty about My Bloody Valentine that evokes giggles rather than gasps.  The villain is distinctly Darth Vader-y.  The opening scene is basically all you ever need to know about a slasher movie ever- it's so cliche that it's like a warm hug from a teddy-bear.  The twist-ending is visible from a mile away, and the plot plays it by the book.

But what made me enjoy My Bloody Valentine is how right it gets it.  All the genetic markers for slasher movies are here, and done very well.  In my opinion, the thing that makes a good slasher movie is not how scary it is, but rather the chord it strikes.  Slasher-movies ought to be a thrilling admixture of schadenfruede, creepiness. laughs, and investment in the characters.  They're the campfire stories about hooks on cardoors.  Their purpose is to compel teenagers to clutch each other, then chuckle awkwardly, not stay with those teens until 3 o'clock staring at the ceiling.  Thus, with this being my personal rubric for slasher-flicks, I think My Bloody Valentine is a good one.  Perhaps not the greatest of all time, but a solid entry.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Nurse with Wound: Homotopy to Marie

As I've stuck my nose into the various musical backwaters of the internet, I sometimes come across music that I don't necessarily like, but can appreciate.  This generally happens when I get sucked into a labyrinth of noise music (which sounds exactly like it... sounds).  This is also what happened to me with Nurse with Wound, the recording name of Steven Stapleton.  I gave the first album, Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella, a listen when somebody on an online forum recommended it as good listens similar to Throbbing Gristle (a group I do enjoy- Slugbait ftw!).

Unfortunately, if you weren't clued in by the strange and slightly artsy/pretentious album title, Nurse with Wound is an avant-garde, Dadaist kind of production.  He focuses heavily on improvisation, eclectic instruments, and tape-looping samples to create horrifying and insane soundscapes.  Nurse with Wound isn't so much music to nod to, as it's music to listen to while scowling and looking puzzled.

Caveat:  I haven't listened to everything Nurse with Wound has produced.  Mind you, Stapleton is remarkably prolific, having released 41 albums between 1979 and 2013- and that's not counting his collaborative works.  So, I'm sure that Nurse with Wound's sound evolves over time, but I can't speak to that.  Right now, I'm here to review an album I did rather enjoy, even if I don't look forward to listening to it again.

Homotopy to Marie was released in 1982, and is the first album that Stapleton considers to be a "genuine" Nurse with Wound album.  It features tracks that are a bit more structured and polished, as opposed to the indulgently improvised earlier albums.

The first track, I Cannot Feel You as the Dogs are Laughing and I Am Blind, is pretty spooky.  It starts with three minutes of an indiscernible sound that could be a shovel digging into gravel, or it might be guns being thrown into a pile on the ground.  It escalates until abruptly being replaced by near-silent whispers, groans, and dripping noises.  Be warned, if you're listening on headphones, resist the temptation to turn it up or at 5:20 your eardrums will EXPLODE and you might poop your pants.  After the extremely loud noises, the murmuring in the background lifts and sounds an awful lot like a dungeon full of tortured people.  More screaming later ensues, so be on your toes.

Track 2, Homotopy to Marie (after which the album is named), is my favorite.  I sort of grok its point and its feel better than the rest.  Most of it is work with cymbals and resonances, occasionally punctuated with odd samples of a sophisticated woman proclaiming "Don't be so naive, darling!" and a little girl saying real spooky stuff.  There's some white noise layered in later, so if that bugs you, steel yourself.  It sounds like the inside of a madman's mind.

On the CD release, they included Astral Dustbin Dirge as the third track.  This is another twelve minutes of extremely quiet noises interrupted by loud, disturbing noises.  Female gasps, knockings, clatterings, and tappings created the feeling that I'm hiding just outside a serial killer's shack, too scared to run, while he drags a kicking woman inside and ....does things....

The Schmurz (Unsullied by Suckling) begins with three minutes of echoing, barking military voices.  Then lots of static and noise followed by creaky-creaks and women talking, then arguing, in Spanish.  This one, in particular, reminded me of why I avoid noise music.  It's full of feedback screams and hisses.  It gets surreal and funny when a sassy record begins playing near the end.

The last track, The Tumultuous Upsurge (Of Lasting Hatred), is a tiny little blip of distorted laughing, a la old-timey clown dolls.  Only a minute and a half long, it feels suspicious after listening to the rest of the album.

So why is all this long, terrifying, obtuse music worth listening to?  Why do I appreciate it?  Well, music is a very emotional medium, and horror is an emotional genre.  Even if this stuff isn't very fun, it provides a context for judging other spoopy music, say, in horror movies.  Listening to Nurse with Wound is like peeking at a wide and bizarre palette of disturbing textures and images.  The sounds in these albums are mysterious, bleak, shocking, or unexpected.  They suggest feelings or pictures that expand the context of horror in strange, if taxing, ways.

In short, even if the things Nurse with Wound evokes are unpleasant, they're always interesting.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Presumed Dead - Maria de Jesus Arroyo

It is a deep-seated fear of many to be buried alive or left for dead.  It is the driver of many an urban legend where one is presumed to be dead, placed in the morgue, and is later found out to have been alive.  One would think with the advances in today's medicine, the possiblity of mistaking a human for dead and leaving them in the morgue would be impossible, right?  Right?  Surely a highly-trained medical staff couldn't make this type of mistake.


On July 26th, 2010, Maria de Jesus Arroyo was rushed into a Los Angeles hospital, a victim of cardiac arrest.  Doctors assessed the situation, noted that Arroyo was 80 years old, and essentially must've thought, "She's old.  Her heart gave out.  Pronounce it and take her the morgue."  It was found later that the hospital had inconsistent records of Arroyo's EKG, which would have determined if her heart was still beating at the time.  When the time came for the funeral home employees to prepare Arroyo's body for her funeral service, her body was found face down with cuts, scratches, and bruises all over as well as a broken nose.  Arroyo's injuries were so severe, they could not even be covered properly with funeral makeup.  Her family was instantly suspicious and contacted the hospital staff as well as hired an attorney to sue for mishandling of her body.

Turns out, when Arroyo arrived at the hospital, she was not dead but merely unconscious.  The cuts and bruises on her body were a result of Arroyo's frail and confused 80 year old body awakening inside a refrigeration chamber and trying desperately to free herself with as much stamina as she could muster.  Eventually, Arroyo's body gave out, resulting in her death due to hypothermia and asphyxiation.  The lawsuit of mishandling was immediately changed to, in not so many words, mistakenly declaring dead and 'freezing alive.'  Unfortunately, 17 months had passed from Arroyo's death to the time the trial finally took place and the one year statute of limitations had expired, leaving the trial judge to dismiss the family's lawsuit.  Thankfully, as late as April of 2014, nearly four years after Arroyo's death, the judge's decision was overturned and Arroyo's family was able to pursue further action against the hospital.

I once read someone describe hell as knowing you are dead and still being able to experience all five senses but being eternally locked inside of the darkness of your own mind, unable to move, unable to breathe, scream, or respond to anything.  You can see only shades of darkness but hear everything.  You can taste, smell, and feel, but not move the tiniest of muscles.  One can only imagine Mrs. Arroyo's final moments were somewhat of a hell before ascending to heaven, locked in a cold dark chamber, confused, disoriented, and ultimately, hopeless.  May she rest in peace.

Truly depressing, truly nightmare fuel.


Friday, February 6, 2015

White - Movie Review

Released 2011
Directed by Gok Kim, Sun Kim

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I love Asian Horror.  I love it so hard.  I prefer how these movies actually spend time characterizing their characters.  I like the plot structures.  I love the aesthetic and how they use horror to explore other, deeper topics.  As a result, I may be more charitable to this movie than I usually would be, simply because it suits my tastes.

White tells the story of a rising K-Pop girl group, "The Pink Dolls", and the vengeful ghost that undoes them all.  A pretty standard "Angry Ghost" plot.  At the beginning, The Pink Dolls are sucking.  They get booted off talent shows and are about to hit rock bottom.  Their manager (using the magic money of their magical super-rich sponsor) moves them into a posh new studio complex, where they rehearse, record, co-habitate, and snipe at one another.  First warning shot is fired:  manager got the studio on the cheap because there was a devastating fire in the building 15 years earlier.  People died.  *spooooooopy*

The main character Eun Joo (played subtly and endearingly by Eun-Jeong Ham) is the eldest of the group, and is therefore their dubious leader.  The other three girls (all much younger and more ambitious) disrespect her frequently, and are downright bitchy to her in one particularly revealing scene.  Eun Joo is lovable, though.  She's hard-working and somewhat humble, but not a wimp.  She competently leads the girls, despite all their toxicity.

As Eun-Joo is cleaning the mirrors in the new dance studio (she wants to help out with the move-in), she finds a secret panel containing a stash of VHS tapes.

Now, I think most of us have seen enough horror movies to know that if a hole in a wall opens up and you find a stack of grimy VHS tapes, YOU LEAVE THAT SHIT ALONE.  Don't play the tape.  Don't even look at them for too long.  Just poke them back into the hole with a stick and call the cops.  But, of course, none of us would actually do that because we're too damn curious.

One of the tapes is labelled 'White', and when Eun-Joo pops it into her VCR, it plays a distorted, warped music video by the girl group who previously owned the studio.  Lacking a hit single, she shows the song/tape to her boss, they remix it, and off they go!  One costume revamp, choreography, and sexy attitude-adjustment later, and The Pink Dolls are taking off in the K-Pop charts!

Of course, no success goes unpunished in a horror movie, and soon the girls start falling prey to sinister influences.  Their manager insists that one of them needs to be the 'lead' of the song, singing most of the lyrics and taking center stage.  You know, the Beyonce of the group.  This is where everything goes downhill for The Pink Dolls.  One by one, the other girls go slowly mad and are grievously injured when they are promoted to be 'lead'.  Eventually Eun-Joo, with the help of her bff, Soon Ye, and an awesome audio engineer, begin to unravel the mystery of the killer ghost.

Now, without talking too much about the second half of the movie, I feel the need to sell you on why you should watch White.

Reason #1:  Outstanding use of creep.

This movie does one of my favorite things:  It has entire creepy scenes that are soundless.  No forbodeing music, no puckish background violins plucking out the X-Files pizzicato, nothing but an actress looking confused or terrified.  It's so lovely.  It sometimes includes small, shrill, nerve-grating sounds to build the tension, but even then, those noises exist for a practical reason in this movie.  The waves of dread that some of the scenes in White produce are just delicious.

Reason #2:  Jump-scares out the wazoo (if you're into that sort of thing).

Now, I really don't care for jump-scares.  I just don't find them compelling.  This being said, my opinion of  White suffered due to the frequency of these jump-scares.  I LOVED the creep, but then when the movie got around to making good on all that pent-up dread, it just blew it.  The gore was basic and uninspired, and somewhat of a letdown after the masterful execution of the build-up.  Sometimes the "injuries" of the girls was out and out ridiculous; almost Final Destination-esque.  Mind you, they don't completely ruin the movie, they just knock it down a peg from being the best.

This is just my opinion, though.  So why is this reason #2 for why you should watch this movie?  Because I know lots of other people LOVE LOVE LOVE jump-scares.  And let me tell you, this movie is full of them.  It will make you jerk so hard, you'll break furniture and scare your cats.  If the Bongcheong Dong Ghost scared you, get ready for that crap again, but with bells on.  Korea is nuts.

Reason #3:  It's full of amazing female characters.

Are you sick of every woman in a horror movie being a useless chunk of eye-candy?  Are you sick of watching women helplessly flail at an easily-solved situation?  Are you sick of bad acting?  Do you also secretly love American Idol?

Well, if you watched The Descent and disliked how muddy and brutal it was, but still long for a horror movie that satisfies, then White is the movie for you! It's packed with intriguing female characters, from the manager to the ghost, everyone is different and interesting.  Even when the characters are being horrible and shallow, it's extremely well-acted.  There are horrible, shallow women in the world, and I feel that White portrays them elegantly.  When somebody goes insane, it feels legitimately overwhelming, because you aren't just watching a Barbie-doll thrash around on the floor.

Further, I feel like the heart of White isn't so much about scary ghosts, but rather the complex relationships that tie women together.  Body-image, pride, the expectation to be kind, the expectation to be bitchy, the requirement to work together in an industry that is cruel and shallow, and the desire for actual friendship are just a few of the pressures clawing at these women.  Then, they have to perform sexual favors to get funding and are criticized and managed and used as if they are, truly, dolls.  The fact that there's also a vengeful ghost driving them to their deaths begins to seem like the least of their problems.  Or rather, it's an entertaining tool for getting at these harsh interpersonal subtexts. 

Reason #4: Compelling use of media.

White skips between scratchy VHS, low-res reality tv, glossy music video, thrashing live-concert footage, and conventional horror aesthetics as easily as a bird flying through clouds.  The transition between these styles is always seamless, because it's always called for by the story.  And the overall blending of these formats makes it ever more convincing that the evil imprint of a vengeful ghost could slip out into the real world.  Combine this with the eerieness of reversed audio recordings and mysterious internet activity, and you've got a multimedia cornucopia of spookiness.

In conclusion, I recommend White.  It's your comfy old Asian-ghost-with-a-grudge story, but with a slick Korean Idol update.  It's filled with the dramatic lives of pop-stars, and jumpscares galore to thrill teenagers.  In the end, I wasn't as sad for the ghost as I usually am, but I was thoroughly entertained!


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Separation - a short film by Robert Morgan

The Separation
Released 2003
Directed by Robert Morgan

Wait a minute, I thought this was Media Wednesday...  What are you doing talking about a short film, Joanna?

Valid point.  I know that we review a movie or seven on Fridays, but there's so much amazing visual horror work being done out there that it's really hard to not talk about it.  What about music videos?  They're short films set to music, so where does that put us?  I've decided that since there are so many feature-length movies out there, those are what Fridays are for.  Thus short films, animations, music videos, and recordings of performance art can fit into Spooky Media Wednesdays.

Set to a cripplingly beautiful rendition of Claire de Lune played on a music box, The Separation might be the most emotional stop-motion short I've ever experienced.  The content is gruesome, but the heart-breaking expressiveness of the models will have you cringing and choking up in turn.

The story of this ten-minute vignette follows conjoined twins through their long lives.  In the beginning, we see them in the womb, connected along one side of their torso.  Then, they are in a recovery room.  The room has two beds, but they sit together on only one.  They play with a doll, and tuck a rose into its swaddling.  The scent of the flower makes them smile.

Then, with nightmarish suddenness, they are separated.  One brother has difficulty walking, permanently imbalanced by the lack of his twin.

As men, they work together in a doll shop.  One inserts eyes into rubber heads with a vicious machine, the other sews fabric bodies.  In their own ways they long for the connection they once knew.  When they recognize the longing and loneliness they both suffer, they solemnly make a plan to sew themselves back together.

They build a massive sewing machine.  It's a monster of hissing, squealing noise and churning metal, the huge needle stabbing at a two-person throat plate...

The most striking thing about this short is the emotionality of the figures.  Rather than reaching for the low-hanging fruit of uncanny-valley dolls, Morgan has created a world where his crumpled, fragile, imperfect figures evoke pathos.  Their eyes are deeply expressive, and their delicately colored wax faces convey an intense humanity.  The softness of their flesh is brutally juxtaposed by the industrial relentlessness of the machine.

This is a film about longing, and how sometimes the thing we long for can never be.  All we can achieve is memory.  Far more horrifying than an industrial accident or the disfigurements of the body is the disfigurement of the soul.

If you're interested in more of Robert Morgan's work that is less emotionally grueling and scarier in the traditional sense, I highly recommend Cat with Hands.  It's everything spooky about fairy-tales, everything uncanny about stop-motion models, and deeply atmospheric.  Morgan has said in interviews that Cat with Hands could someday be made into a feature-length film.  I hope he does.  Then I can write about it for a Friday.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Tree-Man Syndrome

This is Dede Koswara, and, sadly, this photograph is entirely real.  It is not some set of make-up effects from a Stan Winston School dropout.  It's the result of an extremely rare genetic disorder known as Epidermodysplasia verruciformis, a.k.a. Tree-Man Syndrome.

Individuals with this disorder are extremely susceptible to Human Papillomaviruses (HPV) on the skin.  Once HPV infects the person, their bodies are incapable of fending off the virus, and it multiplies out of control.  This produces layers of scaly macules (changes in color), and papules (fluidless bumps), usually concentrated around the hands, feet, face, and genitals.  More benign cases only suffer from flat, wart-like lesions over the body.  More malignant cases, like that of Dede Koswara, produce carcinomas and polymorphic legions.

In essence, individuals with this disorder cut or scrape themselves (usually during adolescence), breaking the skin.  At that point, they are infected by HPV, and soon their skin begins to grow into hard, scaly, rootlike structures.  It overwhelms their fingers and features, making it difficult or impossible to eat and continue everyday life.

Treatments include surgeries to remove the growths, but this is a temporary coping mechanism rather than a cure.  Various drugs and supplements are currently being tested with mixed results.

Photographs of Dede Koswara first appeared on the internet in late 2007.  As one of the most severe cases of Tree-Man Syndrome to date, he was quickly picked up by a number of American tv shows on the Discovery Channel, TLC, and ABC.  They chronicled the story of how his life fell apart once his growths became overwhelming.

When he was 10 years old, Dede was playing in the forest near his home in Java and cut his knee.  Soon warts began appearing around the cut.  They spread.  It took years, but the growths eventually crept over Koswara's body.  Though they didn't hurt or itch, they smelled terrible.  He got married and had two children.  But by the time he was 28, the growths had completely covered his hands, rendering them totally useless.  He was no longer able to do his job as a construction worker.  His wife left him.  Without the ability to work, Koswara joined a travelling freakshow to support his kids.
It was during this time that pictures of him surfaced, attracting the attention of documentary-makers.
During 2008, Dede received experimental surgery to remove some of the growths from his extremities.  It was successful, and allowed him the use of his hands for the first time in 10 years (he was 34 at the time).  At the same time, doctors gave him chemotherapy to bring the HPV under control.  Unfortunately, the treatment was cut short when his liver began to fail.

In a turn of international drama, before the treatment could be completed by an American dermatologist named Gaspari, the Javanese government became involved.  They kicked Gaspari out of Java on suspicion of taking blood and tissue samples abroad for commercial purposes.

Since the treatment, Koswara's warts have begun to grow back.  He's had to return to his parents house where they clean him and feed him; dress him in his specially zippered shirts.

I'll leave you with a quote from Koswara himself:

"They say I'm not human.  Whatever they want to say, that's fine.  I guess I am a Tree-Man...  My body has again betrayed me, but what can I do?"