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MV5BMTA4OWQ0NGYtNDgxNC00MzI4LTgzNzktYzAxMDcyMGI3OTFmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTIyODMzMzA@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_Way back when I attended Panic Fest in January, I saw the trailer for Ghost Stories for the first (eight or so) time(s), and it instantly became pretty much my most anticipated movie of the year. If you want to know why, go check out that trailer. It’s a doozy.

Yesterday, I finally saw the movie, and, naturally, it couldn’t completely live up to my expectations. But that has more to do with me than with any failing on the film’s part.

Ghost Stories is an unnerving helping of existential dread, layered on thick. However, much of its effectiveness depends upon a deft bit of misdirection, so if you’re planning to see the movie and would prefer not to be spoiled, I recommend stopping now and going and doing that very thing, if you’re someplace where you can.

Still with me?

The bit of misdirection I mentioned up above is also a part of what will make the movie less satisfying for some. It’s not so much that the movie has a twist ending–though I suppose it does, and ultimately one of those infamous “twist endings” that are used in editorial guidelines as examples of the kind you’re no longer allowed to employ–as that the structure of the film makes it seem like the three ghost stories of the title are the main focus, when in fact they are little more than distractions filled with hints of the real story, which is playing out in the framing narrative.

I’ll try to avoid going into detail as to precisely what that “twist ending” is, but suffice it to say that the film ends on more of a spook-block than I would normally prefer. Here it was used to what I think was good effect, but it still isn’t my specific brand of poison.

That said, I also kind of wanted the film to spend more time with our debunker investigating the various stories, and less time with the unraveling of the debunker’s own narrative. A film that joins up my love of ghost stories with my love of movies about people digging through papers and looking at old photographs. But that’s not a failing on the part of the movie. That’s me asking a film to cater to my particular interests, and if I want that, I need to make my own movie, and not get mad when other people make theirs.

Like the ending or hate it, when Ghost Stories is firing, it fires quite well, and does a lot with very little. Shadows and shapes and strange sounds and nods to classic British horror, including an out-of-focus bit straight out of “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” In classic horror anthology fashion, there’s even a “comedy relief” segment that is frequently quite funny but not much of a relief, as it also layers on the discomfort pretty thick.

It also bears mentioning that Ghost Stories has a virtually all-male cast, and the handful of female “characters” who do exist are there mostly to haunt or torment the male characters. Of course, you can find justifications for this in the film’s framing narrative, and it could certainly be argued from the ending that the film contains fewer characters, period, than it appears to on its surface, but it still feels like an observation that needs to be made.

I had a good time with Ghost Stories–any movie that plays the “Monster Mash” over the closing credits is obviously in good standing with me–but perhaps one of the best things it did was to remind me of one of the many reasons I love Richard Matheson’s Hell House (and the cinematic adaptation of same) so much. Spoilers for a 47-year-old novel and a movie that is nearly as old follow:

When you’re telling a story specifically about a paranormal skeptic setting out to debunk frauds and the superstitiously credulous, you run the risk of painting yourself into one of two corners. Either you end up without a supernatural element in your story, or you end up inadvertently proving the superstitious people at least somewhat right, which seldom paints a terribly flattering picture of science and rationality. Of course, there are plenty of ways to dodge this particular trap, but all-too-many things over the years have fallen into it.

Hell House is particularly great for the way it manages to both have its cake and eat it, too. The skeptic and the true believer are both half right about what’s going on, and the only thing preventing either one of them from figuring it out 100% is their unshakable conviction that they already have.

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For the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed watching and participating in the Save Horror March Madness bracket on Twitter, where the best-reviewed horror films from the Save Horror website battle for dominance. The bracket has been going for five years now, with Halloween winning the first two and the original Nightmare on Elm Street winning the next two. Back in 2016, I posted about my pleasure at seeing Nightmare walk away with the prize, even if it isn’t necessarily the movie I would have chosen to lead the pack.

This year, at long last, The Thing took that coveted top spot, after a contentious and dramatic bracket, in which at least one movie won by only a single vote. While some serious mistakes were made in the course of the month, I’m very happy to see The Thing finally getting its due, for the same reason that I was pleased to see revisionism (rightly) elevating A Nightmare on Elm Street to the status of genuine classic. In fact, there are few films in history that have benefited as much from hindsight as The Thing, a box office underperformer widely panned by critics at the time of its release, which has since risen to a prominence of popularity and critical acceptance that it could not even have dreamed of some thirty-odd years ago, though it has always deserved.

As far as I know, every year the final battle has come down to Halloween and one other film. This, to my mind, is right and proper. While this was the year for The Thing to take its spot at the top of the pack, Halloween is, if not a better film, then at least a more representative one. In fact, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and if I had to show someone just one movie, with the knowledge that they would never see another, and use that movie to explain to them everything that horror cinema is, has ever been, and is capable of ever being, I would probably show them the original Halloween, a movie which predicts the future while sampling from the past in ways that make it feel like the perfect picture to encapsulate the spectrum of horror cinema, if any one film ever can.

Though they came out just a few years apart, and they’re by the same director, Halloween and The Thing are very different movies. Just as Halloween is very different from A Nightmare on Elm Street, even though they share a subgenre and are the genesis point for two of the big three slasher franchises. (The original Friday the 13th is also pretty different from either one of them.)

And that’s part of the point of these brackets, right? Part of the fun. We’re not really trying to pick the best movie, we’re enjoying the thought exercise that comes with putting some of our favorite movies next to one-another and seeing how we react. Seeing how it changes the way we think about them, and about their relationships, and our relationship to them.

So anyway, consider this a glass of J&B Scotch raised in honor of The Thing and, if you follow me on Twitter, in celebration of not having to watch me proselytize for it a couple of times a day anymore.

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In just a few days, I’ll be at the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Not counting a brief layover at LAX, this will be my first time in California, the only state west of the Mississippi that I haven’t visited, excepting Alaska and Hawaii, the “freak states.” At the time of this writing, you still have just over ten hours to support the Outer Dark Symposium’s IndieGoGo campaign, where you can snag copies of Never Bet the DevilThe Book of Starry Wisdom, and other, rarer delicacies while supplies last.

I’ll be around for the whole shebang, assuming that I don’t sneak off into the Mystery House early and get eaten by a ghost, never to be seen again. I’m not scheduled for any readings, though I will be present for the Friday night pre-party stuff sponsored by Word Horde.

On Saturday, when the actual Symposium itself kicks off, I’ll be moderating a panel on the Weird in movies, TV, and even video games. (Which, fortunately, there are some other panelists who seem eminently capable of tackling that last one, because I am way out on a limb there.) We’ll talk about some of the recent ones, and what they (hopefully) mean for more Weird on the big (and small) screen, but knowing me, we’ll probably also talk about some older stuff, too.

There are going to be a lot of great guests at this year’s Symposium, and if the last one was any indication, it should be a hell of a time. If you’re already headed there, I’ll see you in San Jose this weekend. If not, you can still support a cool program and pick up some great weird literature (or Kino Lorber DVDs or other stuff) by backing the IndieGoGo sometime in the next few hours!

I know that we’re not even quite to the halfway point on our trip back around to Halloween just yet, but if you’re already jonesing for a taste of the spooky season, Jason McKittrick recently turned me on to the existence of a little show called The Witching Season, which is streaming on Amazon Prime or available to watch on YouTube.

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While the show’s humble origins and limited budget are apparent everywhere in its production, that doesn’t stop it from evoking the season better than most more expensive movies ever manage. The episodes themselves range from 9 minutes at their shortest to around 30 at their longest, and you could easily watch all five episodes in the time it would take to watch a regular film.

The end result is a series of short subjects that would feel right at home in the shorts block at any given horror film festival, connected together by a nostalgic yearning for Halloween and a shared style and tone, even as their subject matter ranges from high strange horror to masked killers, possessed toys, and haunted houses.

None of the episodes are necessarily any great shakes in the story department, though most feature a “twist in the tale” that is probably easy enough to predict going in, but satisfying for what it is. Where the show more than makes up for any ground that it loses in production value or originality, however, is in its Halloween atmosphere, which is effortlessly captured in lingering shots of decorations, pumpkin patches, and dead leaves.

There are some nice touches of local color, as well, as certain episodes bleed into each other, often through radio shows or late-night TV vaguely reminiscent of the WNUF Halloween Special or the wraparound segment of Ti West’s The Roost. Honestly, The Witching Season is worth your time for the opening titles alone, which summarize the season beautifully, in a series of shots vaguely (and, based on the rest of the series, probably intentionally) reminiscent of the great opening titles of Halloween 4.

It feels like the height of ingratitude to complain about The Ritual: a quiet and slow-burning but ultimately satisfying horror tale that is superbly cast, well-acted, and beautifully shot, and which contains [SPOILERS] one of the best monster designs in recent memory. And yet, while all those things are true, I never felt like The Ritual ever quite became the movie it so very nearly was.

Trading in plenty of familiar horror tropes: the woods are scary, so are people who live in rural communities and keep to “the old ways,” The Ritual juxtaposes these early on against a backdrop reminding us that the brightly-lit modern world can be quite scary and dangerous, as well. The parallel comes up again and again throughout the film, in shots that are production designed beautifully, as the off-license that is at the heart of the film’s galvanizing moment is subsumed gradually by the forest in successive dream-like sequences. Yet for all that this reminder seems at the heart of the film, it never connects completely with the film’s final act.

For the first half or two-thirds of its running time, The Ritual is carried, in no small part, by the performances of its leads, and by their dialogue, which never feels strained, even while it conveys a relationship that is always straining at the seams. These early moments seem better than anything that the movie’s climax could deliver, and there’s the fear that we’re looking at another Autopsy of Jane Doe situation, but then, at the last minute, the monster shows up.

Much has been made online of the monster design in The Ritual, and rightly so. It’s something pretty special, a mix between Laird Barron’s “Blackwood’s Baby” and the Kothoga from The Relic. It combines uncanny folkloric resonances with the scope of the monsters in Trollhunter, though never quite deployed with the same devil-may-care success as that film’s many creatures. The monster in The Ritual–which the film calls a jotun–is seen both more than you expect and less than you want, and its implications are played up to be just as effective as its unusually solid execution, which suffers only a very little from the clutter which so haunts contemporary creature design.

Maybe it has to do with when I watched it–after an extremely long day, when I probably should have been in bed but was too tired to sleep– or maybe it’s something in the changes that, I’m told, have been made from Adam Nevill’s source novel, but while The Ritual is good, truly, genuinely very good, and while it has a creature that will be hard to top for best monster of the year, it feels like it is comprised of a bunch of parts, all of which are quite good on their own, but which never feed into one-another in the way that they need to in order to create a sum that is more than themselves. Which is, again, a petty and ungrateful complaint to lodge against a movie that does so much so right, but there you go.

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CaptureOn social media I referred to this as a wrap-up, but that’s something of a misnomer, since this year’s Panic Fest proved too huge for one weekend and has spread into evening showings all this week, giving you another opportunity to see some of the best movies of the Fest, including Tigers Are Not AfraidVidar the Vampire, and Ruin Me all playing tonight, not to mention another shot at Tigers tomorrow and They Remain on Wednesday.

This year’s Panic Fest was, I think, my fourth one ever, and my second attending primarily as a civilian, rather than helping out with booths and stuff. I also doubled my previous weekend best when it comes to watching movies, and caught eight films at this year’s Fest, most of which were really good. Highlights include Ruin MeVidar the VampireTigers Are Not Afraid, and Lowlife. Of course, They Remain would be high on this list if I hadn’t already seen it at its world premiere at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival last year.

The list in full is: Ruin MeVidar the VampireThe CuredMohawkTigers Are Not AfraidLowlifeBirdboy, and Midnighters. I missed a few others that I heard good things about, including Mayhem and Mom and Dad, and I only watched one that I kind of hated myself for seeing, so that’s pretty good.

Tigers Are Not Afraid and Lowlife, in particular, are movies that I think you’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the future, while Vidar is going to be one of those bizarre sleepers that will become like a secret code for those who have seen it. I also saw the trailer for Ghost Stories something like three times, and it quickly climbed to one of my most anticipated movies of the year. For those who haven’t seen the trailer yet, it looks absolutely amazing, and like exactly my kind of thing. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it’s like the first half of Autopsy of Jane Doe, only the whole way through.

When not watching movies–and sometimes when I was–I got to spend some more time with Philip Gelatt and his producer Will, who were very gracious and a lot of fun, and who unfortunately opted to watch mostly the worst movies I saw with me. After seeing They Remain at the HPLFF, I had encouraged Adam and Tim to bring it to Panic Fest, and I was thrilled when it not only joined the lineup, but when Phil and Will decided to fly into town to introduce the film. I hope they had a great time in KC.

Other non-movie highlights include playing a Terminator 2 pinball game with Will and Phil, listening to Will’s Hollywood stories (which convinced me at last that nothing I make up about movie production will ever be as bizarre as the truth), intruding upon a couple’s very intense game of Connect Four (if either of you are reading this, hi and also sorry), saying hello to friends who I only seem to see at these events, and staying the night in a just-about-Banfield tier hotel with walls painted two different colors of brown, which really added to the horror fest ambiance, especially right after watching Lowlife. (It didn’t hurt that when I turned on the TV there was a women’s prison episode of Murder, She Wrote co-starring Adrienne Barbeau.) I didn’t take very many photos at this year’s Fest, and those I did take were a little odd, but I had an amazing time.

Panic Fest remains a great experience every year, and the Screenland Armour remains a great local movie theatre, run by great people who love movies as much as (probably more than) I do. If you aren’t from the Kansas City area, it’s worth your while to come in for Panic Fest some year. It’s always a hell of a time.

This may not be much of a wrap-up, and I may be making the trek back out for a few of the extended programming movies some evening this week, but for now I’m feeling a little worse for three days of wear, so this is about all I’ve got in me. More later…

Hey, I’ve been a little out of the loop recently, for one reason and another, but in the meantime I have been a guest on a couple of different podcasts. First, there was an epic two-part interview with me over at the This is Horror podcast, in which I talked with hosts Bob Pastorella and Michael David Wilson about monsters (of course), anxiety, finding your voice, tips for freelancers, and, yeah, even more about monsters. You can listen to the first half here, or find the second half here.

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Sort of in-between, I was also a guest at the Spooklights podcast from Muzzleland Press, where I talked with hosts Jonathan Raab and Tom Breen about making horror fun, writing licensed fiction, The Last Jedi, and monsters (duh). You can listen to that one right here.  As a bonus, I believe it contains the first official mention of what is going to be my third collection, coming hopefully next year.

This doesn’t (necessarily) have anything to do with podcasts, but next weekend I’ll be at Panic Fest right her in KC, where I’ll be watching a bunch of movies and hanging out with cool local horror fans, not to mention director Philip Gelatt again. I think they are already sold out of tickets, but if you’ve already got yours, I’ll see you there, and if not, I dunno, find a scalper or sneak in or something. It’s going to be a hell of a thing.