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There’s really limited utility for a review here. By the fourth installment in a franchise, you’re either on board for what the Insidious series is peddling or you’re not, and The Last Key isn’t going to change your mind, one way or the other.

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The main reason to get excited about The Last Key prior to going in was Adam Robitel in the director’s seat. His debut feature, The Taking of Deborah Logan, was surprisingly great, with at least one indelible image that has made the rounds in .gif format so much that you’ve probably seen it by now, even if you’ve never seen the movie and didn’t know what it was from. Sadly, while Robitel sets some really nice mood early on, there is nothing in The Last Key to quite live up to that particular legacy, but there is a big, creaky ghost with skeleton keys for fingers, played by Javier Botet, of course, who has carved out a nice niche for himself playing big, weird, gangly ghosts.

Like all the previous installments after the first, The Last Key is guilty of not going big or weird enough in its final leg, though there are some welcome changes of direction midway through. And while the temporal shenanigans of Chapter 2 never make themselves apparent, there is a moment that feels much like one of them near the end of The Last Key, with one of those pesky red doors.

While engaging in many of the same kinds of jump scares that have been a hallmark of the series and its imitators, Robitel also resists the temptation of them more often than he is probably being given credit for, dragging out sequences of tension to almost excruciating length, occasionally to the point where the tension just dissipates rather than snapping.

What the film does do well is to remember that Elise is the beating heart of this franchise, and to give Lin Shaye (as well as screenwriter Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, playing Specs and Tucker) plenty of screen time. We also dive much more into Elise’s backstory. Which probably wasn’t strictly necessary, but doesn’t really do any harm, either.

I’m a notorious Insidious apologist, and I’ve loved every installment in the franchise so far, even the mostly forgettable third film. And I loved this one. But even I’m ready to hold up my hand and say that The Last Key should probably also be the last Insidious film. At this point, the snake has well and truly eaten its own tail, so it’s probably time to call it a night. Unless you want to give me the TV series where Specs, Tucker, and the ghost of Elise solve cute mysteries. I’d be down for that.

 

 

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In my previous wrap-up of movies that I watched in 2017, I neglected to mention that I also attended the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland as a guest again this year, where I think I only saw one movie, but that was Philip Gelatt’s really excellent They Remain, which I talked about right after the Festival back here.  For various reasons, I didn’t consider They Remain for my top 10 movies from last year, but if I had, it no doubt would have made the list.

I’m very pleased to say that They Remain will also be showing at this year’s Panic Fest right here in Kansas City, with director Philip Gelatt in attendance! I think it will prove a divisive film, but one that’ll get talked about a lot as more and more people get a chance to see it. I’m especially happy to have it playing here in my own hometown, at our kickass local horror film fest at our kickass local theatre, because I played a small (but I’m going to pretend pivotal) role in helping it find a home at Panic Fest.

If you’re local to KC (or even relatively close), Panic Fest is the place to be the last weekend in January. I’ve already got my tickets, and I’ll be there all weekend, probably haunting the dealer room when I’m not watching movies. So come find me and say hi!

In 2017 I watched 245 movies. Of those, I watched 152 of them for the first time, only keeping ahead of my “watch more movies that I haven’t seen before than ones that I have” goal by about 30 titles.

Of those, I watched 32 movies that were released in 2017 (depending upon how you count release dates). That’s actually a higher-than-usual number for me, which also means that, for the first time in a while, I saw enough good movies that came out in 2017 that I feel comfortable assembling a top ten list without just including every movie that I didn’t hate on it. So, with the usual caveats that this is a list of my ten favorite movies of 2017, certainly not necessarily the ten best, and that at only 32 movies, there are lots more that I haven’t seen than ones that I have, here are my Top Ten Movies of 2017 as they stand right now:

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10. Better Watch Out
I saw Better Watch Out back in August during a special theatrical screening and it blew me away; a vicious, funny, frequently surprising take on the home invasion formula and also a chilling look at male entitlement. If I was still going entirely off of that initial experience, this would be higher on my list, but a second viewing took off some of the shine. Still, if you’re going to see this one, see it as cold as possible, And whatever you do, don’t watch the trailer, which gives away many of the film’s best reveals.

9. Kong: Skull Island
There are plenty of better movies that didn’t make this list, but pretty much no matter what else I saw this year, Skull Island‘s complete and unflinching dedication to being a two-hour pilot for a gory Saturday morning cartoon meant that it was always going to have a place here. Plus, lots and lots of monsters.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This slot could basically be a tie between Three Billboards and the Netflix original I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. But, gun to my head, Martin McDonagh’s third feature takes the edge thanks to incredible performances from its leads and an unexpected emotional through-line that takes the Coen Brothers-esque premise someplace perhaps less satisfying but ultimately more cathartic than it seems.

7. Gerald’s Game
When I initially watched Mike Flanagan’s passion project adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, I walked away with mixed feelings. But the more I thought about it, the more this intricate meditation on the long-term effects of trauma stuck with me. As someone who is still working through the aftereffects of childhood trauma, there were plenty of moments here that felt all-too-familiar.

6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
I’ve been waiting all my life for them to finally get a Spider-Man movie right. Guess it only took six tries.

5. Baby Driver
Baby Driver is an imperfect movie, especially in its last third where even its best elements begin to break down. But its central conceit — a musical in which the characters listen to the music rather than singing it — is so enjoyable that it carries the movie well beyond anyplace it might otherwise have crashed on its own.

4. The Shape of Water
It is maybe a little ironic that what is probably Guillermo del Toro’s most assured film to date is also the one that feels the least like a Del Toro film. In The Shape of Water, Del Toro channels his affection for The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Abe Sapien, 60s Cold War paranoia, golden age Hollywood musicals, and a whole lot more into a love letter to outsiders that feels as much like a piece of French fabulism as it does any of Del Toro’s Spanish-language films.

4. Blade of the Immortal
For his 100th movie (depending on how you count), Takashi Miike combines the over-the-top qualities for which he is perhaps best known with the beauty and control of his more stately samurai films to create the bonkers and beautiful Blade of the Immortal. I watched it while recovering from surgery, and wrote up my slightly-drug-addled impressions at greater length for Unwinnable.

2. Thor: Ragnarok
There are lots of better movies lower on this list, but I probably didn’t have a better time at the movies all year than I did with Thor: Ragnarok. The various Marvel Cinematic Universe films have always done a pretty good job of feeling like they occupied an ever-expanding comic book universe, but Thor: Ragnarok may be the first one that actually feels like reading a four-issue comic book arc, in all the very best ways. For various reasons, I seldom see movies more than once during their initial theatrical run. In fact, I can almost count the number of times I have done so on one hand. Sadly, I haven’t yet gone to see Thor: Ragnarok twice while in the theatre (and probably won’t), but I really want to, which maybe says all I need to say.

1. Get Out
When I left the theatre after seeing Get Out, one of the first things I said was, “I’ve got to stop watching the best movie I’m going to see all year in February.” (Last year it was The Witch.) I said it partly as a joke, but I also wasn’t kidding. From the minute I finished Get Out, I knew I wouldn’t see a better movie in 2017 because, let’s be honest, how amazing a year would it have been if we got two movies as good as Get Out?

My least favorite movie of the year has also remained the same since the moment I walked out of the theatre, and let us hope that it shall always remain so, because if I see a movie that I hate more than I hated Alien: Covenant in the immediate future, I will be very sad.

Besides those movies above, I had a lot of great experiences in the theatre watching revival showings in 2017. Once again, I made it out to Panic Fest in January, this time attending as a civilian for the first time ever, and I’m planning to go again this year. I caught the Nerdoween mystery triple feature with the Nerds of Nostalgia at the Tapcade for the third year in a row, in what has rapidly become my Halloween tradition. This year I saw Tales from the Hood for the first time, and got to introduce Jay to both Waxwork and Creepshow. And if Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t the best time I had at the movies all year, then seeing The Deadly Spawn for the first time ever on the big screen at the Alamo definitely was. Not only did I love the movie, but there was just that magic in the air that made the screening a particularly special event.

The last movie that I watched in 2017 was either The Last Jedi or Terminator 2, depending on how you count. The first movie I watched in 2018 was The Debt (2010), but the next one I watch is likely to be the much more on-brand Hell Night.

20171202_104727Friday afternoon I left KC and headed south for what was supposed to be an overnight trip to visit the Ray Harryhausen exhibit at the Science Museum Oklahoma, on literally the day before the exhibit closed down. I was able to make the trip at all thanks to lots of help from my patient, affectionate, and extremely supportive wife. Up until that day, about the most strenuous excursion I had attempted since my surgery was a couple of trips to the movies (notwithstanding a couple of trips to the emergency room, which, while plenty strenuous, weren’t exactly voluntary).

I ended up overdoing it a bit at the museum, and what was supposed to be a one night trip turned into a two night one, but other than that I seem to have returned no worse for the wear than when I left. And I got to see the Harryhausen exhibit!

20171202_105835For those who may not know, Ray Harryhausen is one of my biggest inspirations, and, for my money, easily one of the greatest monster designers who ever lived. I own a book of his art and a book of behind-the-scenes stuff from his films, as well as just about every movie he ever worked on. My first novel was dedicated to him. So the opportunity to see some of the models and illustrations that had gone into five of his most famous films up close and in person was one that I didn’t want to miss, surgery or no surgery. (It is only thanks to Grace that I didn’t miss it, so she deserves another shout out here.)

 

It’s difficult to put into words what seeing these objects in person meant to me. Earlier this year, I got to go see the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and while the influence of GDT on my own work is probably more immediately obvious than the influence of Harryhausen, I would be extremely hard pressed to say which exhibit affected me more.

On the car ride back, Grace and I were discussing the exhibit, and I talked about the magic that is present in stop motion animation, especially that animation done by Ray Harryhausen. How much personality he was able to breathe into all of his creatures, how watching his films is like watching your toys come to life. And that magic was in the air everywhere at the exhibit, all of the models seeming like they were just one moment away from stirring into motion.

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In spite of the books I’ve read, documentaries I’ve seen, and commentary tracks I’ve listened to, I learned things at the exhibit that I didn’t already know. I learned how some of the armatures were cannibalized and repurposed for other creatures in other films, I learned about them strapping a bunch of stuntmen together in order to capture the motions of the Kali statue. I was already aware of Harryhausen’s own debt to the engravings of Gustave Dore, but I was happy to see that debt laid out in detail, and to see illustrations done by Harryhausen that obviously owed a heavy debt to Dore.20171202_105608

I know that I didn’t see most of Harryhausen’s other films until I was older, but I saw Clash of the Titans on TV when I was just a kid, and it had the same impact on me that Star Wars had on other people around my age. Seeing creatures like Harryhausen’s iconic take on Medusa or the Kraken in person was amazing beyond my ability to put into words.

Sadly, since the exhibit focused on Harryhausen’s fantasy films, I wasn’t able to see my very favorite of his creations–Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth–who may not exist in any significant form anyway, since his armature got reused on other creatures later on.

The rest of the Science Museum was pretty amazing as well, and I probably could have spent easily twice as much time there as I did, had I not run completely out of energy. As it was, I missed a lot of what it had to offer, but was able to see a planetarium show, check out an exhibit on Cabinets of Curiosities and an exhibit on shoes, and watch a live chemistry show where they made things explode. Grace even got to be a volunteer and hold an explosion in the palm of her hand!

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There’s so much more I could say about the trip, about the exhibit, about the museum, about Harryhausen, but I need to catch up on the things that I didn’t get done while I was away over the weekend, so I should probably wrap this up. I promised lots of pictures, some of which I’ve already been posting over on Instagram, but I’ll leave a few more in this post for those who weren’t able to make it out to the show themselves. Do yourself a favor, and if anything like this ever comes anywhere near you, make it a point to go. (And if you live within traveling distance of the Science Museum Oklahoma, go even though this exhibit is no longer showing. It’s worth it.)

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Today I went out to a movie for the first time since my surgery. I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri instead of Thor: Ragnarok, partly because I figure Thor is likely to be around for a while, while Three Billboards may prove a little more transient, at least as far as convenient showtimes go. I drove up to the Alamo Drafthouse and cashed in my free birthday movie with… 5 whole days to spare. (Also affecting my decision: I decided to go somewhat spur-of-the-moment, and by the time I got to the theatre the showing of Thor had already started.)

Three Billboards was really good, but, as will come as probably no surprise to anyone who has seen the rest of Martin McDonagh’s filmography, a hell of a downer in spots. I probably should’ve picked the (doubtless more upbeat) Thor for my maiden voyage, but such is life.

As you can guess from all of that, I’m healing up, though the healing process–which started out at an incredible pace–has plateaued somewhat. I am still getting better, it’s just moving a lot more slowly than it did for the first couple of weeks. Still, making it out to see a movie is a pretty good step. Next up, getting a haircut, painting my nails, and maybe, if I’m really ambitious and really lucky, making the trip to go see the Ray Harryhausen exhibit at the Science Museum Oklahoma sometime in the next week, before it packs up. (Given how long it took to get to today, though, I’m not exactly holding my breath.)

Still, I’m a lot better today than I was this time last month, so I’ll take what I can get. Grace has also been doing better, though there may be surgery of one kind or another lurking in her future, as well, and we’re waiting for some diagnostics to get a better idea of where that’s all headed. Still, things are stable for now, and given how the last few weeks have been, I’ll take stable.

I’m still behind on a lot of stuff, but I’m catching up. I took down the Halloween decorations just before Thanksgiving, with Jay’s help, and I put up some of the Christmas decorations yesterday because the weather was pleasant. I was able to make it out to have Thanksgiving dinner with Jay and the rest of my adopted family, which was really nice. We had little place cards with our names on them, and spaces on the back to write things we were thankful for, and I found that, in spite of, or maybe because of, how rough it’s been, I had a lot. This whole thing has made me a lot more grateful for some of the things that I might easily take for granted at other times. Hopefully I can hold onto at least a little of that as I heal up.

I flew out to Portland for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival (for the third or fourth time now) in large part because I knew that Strix Publishing would have the new deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil there. (And they did, and it is glorious, and I’m looking forward to sharing order links with everyone who wasn’t able to back the Kickstarter or make it out to the Festival very soon.)

Apparently, while I was out getting a burrito, Barbara Steele actually came by the table and asked about the book, which is honestly probably better than had she come by while I was around, given that, earlier in the course of events, when confronted by a potential customer who wanted to know what the book was about, I replied, almost word-for-word, with, “It’s a collection of short stories; I think there’s ghosts in it or something.” From then on, I was banned by Simon from attempting to interact with customers or otherwise make sales pitches concerning my own book. I had to avoid eye contact with all future customers, and if they had questions for me they had to ask them of Simon, who would then relay them to me. It was really for the best.

Even had I not been flying out to help hinder Simon’s attempts to promote Never Bet the Devil, however, I would have made it a point to attend on the strength of the fact that this particular HPLFF was the world premiere of Philip Gelatt’s They Remain, the first official adaptation of a Laird Barron story, since Kill List and Sicario don’t count, no matter how much they might feel like they do.

Astute readers may have noticed that I asked Phil to blurb Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, and that he was generous and patient enough to do so. If I didn’t already consider Phil a friend before I got to this year’s HPLFF, I definitely would after the events of the Festival. So there’s no way for me to render an unbiased take on They Remain, I say as if there is any such thing as a completely unbiased take on any movie, ever.

With all that in mind, They Remain is a triumphant, beautiful, meticulous, difficult, challenging, intentionally abstract and recursive film. As such, it’s likely to also be a divisive one. For those who didn’t have the patience for, say, The WitchThey Remain will probably drive you nuts. But for those who are willing to meet the film where it is, rather than expecting it to come to them, I think that you will be amply rewarded.

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I hesitate to even call They Remain a slow burn. The words “slow burn” give the implication that it takes a while for things to get started, that they smolder for a long time before finally bursting into flame. When the first frame of They Remain flashes up on screen, things have already gotten strange, and that strangeness just continues to accrete on every surface, on every character, on everyone and everything for the remainder of the film’s running time. It’s a recursive movie, as I said, which means that it doesn’t have a typical movie’s build to some sort of satisfying (or unsatisfying, for that matter) climax. It turns back in on itself time and again. Do things get stranger? Sure. But do they really, or have they been that strange the whole time?

They Remain isn’t a movie that offers easy answers. In fact, it isn’t even a movie that offers difficult ones. It’s a film that opens itself up to myriad interpretations, all of them potentially valid, without ever offering even the most astute observer one particular “solution” to seize upon. For some viewers that may prove infuriating, but when a movie tells you repeatedly that you won’t understand it, even as early as in the quote that shows up before the first shot of the film actually appears, you may only have yourself to blame if you walk out of it unsatisfied.

NBtD_FancyThe hours are condensing down into minutes and ticking away until I will be on a plane and headed for Portland and the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. This will be my third or fourth year as a guest, not quite consecutively, at what has rapidly become my favorite convention. To make the whole thing sweeter, we’ll be celebrating the launch of the new deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings from Strix Publishing. Copies arrived at the Strix Publishing offices yesterday. I have now seen photographic evidence that the book is a real thing and have been assured that it will be present at the Festival!

I’ll be participating in the mass author signing, and also hanging around the Strix Publishing booth in the upper theatre lobby to sign books probably sometime on Saturday afternoon. The rest of the time I’ll be watching movies, jawing with people, or participating in panels and readings. I believe I’m on two panels, one dealing with foreign horror films so that I can annoy all the other panelists by jabbering about Matango and Noroi, and one on fungi (where I can also talk about Matango)!

Unfortunately, I’m not feeling as much better as I had hoped to by now, but unless I take a massive turn for the worse in the next day or so, I’m better enough to head to the Festival. If you see me and I’m looking paler or more uncomfortable than usual, apologies in advance. I’m not contagious or anything, just stuck with a bunch of lingering symptoms that seem to have no intention of vacating the premises in a timely fashion.

In spite of my slow decay, I am extremely excited about the Festival, and especially can’t wait to see the world premiere of Phil Gelatt’s They Remain. For those who are coming out to the HPLFF, definitely track me down and say hi! I’m on the schedule, so I shouldn’t be too hard to find. And for those who won’t make it out, I’ll be posting to social media from the proverbial road, but you probably won’t hear from me on this here blog until I get back, so I’ll see you then!