we’ll send him cheesy movies

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

First off, I have never read Stephen King’s doorstop of a novel, and I didn’t see the 1990 TV miniseries  until I was already an adult, so it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. Which is basically a long way of saying that I don’t have any special investment in Andy Muschietti’s 2017 version of It besides that it’s a big budget horror movie and I like horror movies, and also that I don’t know, beyond the broadest strokes, what elements are unique to the movie and what belong to the book.

I was excited to see It less because of anything I knew or had heard about the movie itself–though the trailer looked fine (sans one really dumb scene) and I’d heard mostly good stuff–than because I have been too sick to go anywhere, even to a dumb monster movie, for two weeks, and I had promised myself a trip to the theatre once I was finally feeling up to leaving the house. Luckily, It was a fine enough way to spend most of three hours (once you factor in the obligatory 20 minutes of trailers).

That’s maybe not a very compelling review, but for a movie that is being hailed as the highest grossing horror film of all time (which depends both on how you do your math and what you count as a horror film) and garnering a whole lot of praise, It is mostly just that: fine. For everything that It does great, there’s something else it does that’s lousy, but for each thing that It does that’s lousy, there’s something else that it does great. And in between there’s mostly a bunch of good ideas that it doesn’t completely carry off, that sit somewhere in the acceptable middle ground between great and lousy, which is the ground that most of the movie occupies, to be honest, made notable mainly by the times it ventures into the territory to either side.

Really, the whole film is kind of a seesaw of contradictions. Much has been made of how great the child actors are, which is accurate, they’re pretty fantastic, and they need to be, because their characters are all pretty thinly drawn, so that the actors have to do all the heavy lifting to get any kind of meat on their bones. (And that’s not even getting into the problematic elements of Beverly’s role, which others have covered better than I would.)

There are scare scenes that work wonderfully (whether you find them scary or not), while others fall flat. Even if you don’t have my distaste for the “scary thing rushes haphazardly toward the camera while shrieking” technique that shows up in the trailer, after the 90th time that it happens in two hours, you’ll probably have developed a callus. You get the idea.


In a lot of ways, the ridiculous cartoon haunted house that would sit at the center of the movie if the movie’s structure allowed it to have a center (it doesn’t, really, just an episodic series of similar-feeling scares that cascade more than they flow into a necessarily anticlmactic climax), is unintentionally emblematic of both what’s right and wrong in the film. The house is too perfectly stylized (I really loved the sunflowers in the yard), looking like a Halloween haunted attraction, like the backlot construct that it is and not like something that’s connected to the rest of the town that we see.

Similarly, even when the film’s set pieces work, they often feel orphaned in the midst of its coming of age storyline, while that story feels thin; stretched, as it has to be, across so many characters and around so many scares.

There’s a lot that doesn’t gel in It, but those moments that do work sometimes really work, including the entire sequence with the slide projector in the garage. (It works pretty well in the trailer, too, but the movie, happily, takes it quite a bit farther.) I’ll talk more about that scene some other time, because that kind of playing with scope and scale is something that horror needs a lot more of, and it was a welcome addition to the trappings here.

Also welcome is Bill Skarsgard’s jittery, animalistic portrayal of Pennywise. I’ve been vocally critical of the basic design of the new Pennywise, which looks, in still photos, like a Joker henchman, even while also appearing more accurate to what I remember of the character’s turn-of-the-century roots, at least as portrayed in the miniseries. I know that Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise is beloved by those who saw it when they were young, but I don’t recall it leaving a huge impression on me. Skarsgard’s Pennywise, helped along by the occasional rolling eyes and maw of ragged needle teeth, is almost always unnerving once set in motion,  and really sells the idea of a monster that is just wearing a person-shaped disguise.

The decision to move the action of the film to roughly the era in which the novel was released was probably a good one, though it is executed with Stranger Things subtlety, making it clear time and again that the movie really, really, really, really wants you to be very clear when it is taking place. (Weirdly enough, the action begins in 1988, the exact same year as the inciting events in Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which I had just watched while I was too sick to go see It.)

So that’s It: A fun enough way to spend a couple of hours, with a solid central monster and set pieces that work almost as often as they don’t. It’s a pretty good movie, and one that seems to get better with distance, as the parts I liked stick with me while the parts I didn’t fade from memory. It made all the money in the world, which really isn’t all that surprising, all things considered, and I’ll be curious to see what they do with the sequel. More importantly, though, I’m happy for its success, and hope that it means we’ll start seeing more big-budget (for a horror movie, anyway) horror movies at the multiplex.

But if you are one of the many people I’ve seen who say that they love this version of It but hate movies like Insidious or The Conjuring or what-have-you, then you may want to reexamine one or the other, because they are really not all that different, except some of them are a lot less uneven.

Death Note

How do you make a movie that feels simultaneously boring and way too short? Ask Adam Wingard, I guess. Wingard’s name was what drew me to the Americanized Netflix original movie version of Death Note in the first place, having never read the manga or watched the anime or any of the various Japanese live action versions. Wingard had previously impressed with his 2011 film You’re Next and then even moreso with 2014’s The Guest, and while I wasn’t a big fan of his take on Blair Witch, I was willing to cut him enough slack to be curious about Death Note.

Honestly, in spite of my snarky opening up there, I’m really not sure how much of Death Note‘s failures lie at Wingard’s feet. This is a movie that feels, at every step, like it needs to have been a series, which, obviously, it already was, more than once. As a result, the film has the weird feeling of shortening or skipping over all the most interesting bits and short-changing most of the character building, giving it a sense of being at once thin and overstuffed.

Like a number of other recent movies, Death Note has been at the heart of a whitewashing controversy for importing the original characters from Japan to Seattle and making them American. I don’t feel like I’m the right person to ask about the whitewashing aspect of the film, but I do feel like Death Note made a fatal mistake by being an adaptation of the source material at all. The core concept of the series (as I understand it) seems like one that could be re-purposed into dozens of stories, so if you’re going to make an American version, do it as a sequel or spin-off of the original, rather than a retelling. Something that fits less awkwardly into an hour-and-forty-minute frame. (Not only would this have spared the film at least some of its whitewashing problems, it would also eliminate the need to buy that Shea Whigham’s character actually named his son “Light,” even with the flimsy “explanation” that his mom “was always kind of a hippie.”)

Of course, if the movie had a different story, it might also lose its greatest strength, which is Lakeith Stanfield as “L.” Having never read the manga or watched the anime, I don’t know what the character of “L” was like before, but Stanfield’s performance makes him far and away the best thing in the film, absolutely stealing the movie out from under everyone else. (I’d say something like “Lakeith Stanfield as Batman,” but, let’s be honest, his jittery, candy-guzzling “L” is already kinda better than Batman, isn’t he?)

The good news is, the Adam Wingard of You’re Next and The Guest seems to be at least somewhat back in Death Note, with its shots of “L” prowling through the halls of a nightclub or perching in every chair that he occupies. The visuals of Death Note stay fairly interesting even when the story flounders, though some shots, like an early image of spilled marbles rolling across the floor, needed to hold a little longer to really kick. (There’s a review of Death Note over at Birth. Movies. Death. that says most of what I would say about the film, while also being maybe a little more generous than I would be.)

Ultimately, I can’t speak to how Death Note holds up if you’re a fan of the anime/manga/whatever, though most fans I know have so far been disappointed. I can say that probably the highest praise I can muster for this Netflix original (besides that it really needs to cement Lakeith Stanfield as a star), is that it made me want to track down the other versions. So I guess that’s something.

Let’s see if we can’t torpedo any remaining credibility I may have as a consumer of horror media, shall we? Recently, I’ve been watching the two seasons of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour that are on Netflix. Initially, I was doing this because each episode was a standalone story that was only about 20 minutes long, which fit nicely with my “watch something while I eat lunch” approach to consuming media lately. However, once I got started, it didn’t take me long to continue watching because, frankly, The Haunting Hour is actually pretty damn good.

Because I was initially just watching out of convenience, I started picking out episodes with appealing-sounding synopses, not necessarily planning to ever watch the entire thing, so I ended up watching the two seasons completely out of order. Even so, while there were better and worse episodes, there were very few that I genuinely didn’t like, which is more than I can say of a lot of anthology horror. (“Best Friend Forever” may have been the worst of the lot, but it was also probably the most overtly comedic and overall the more comedic episodes tended to fare less well than their more serious counterparts, though I was also still happy to have them, as they helped give the show variety.)

My favorite episode from the first two seasons was probably the season 2 Halloween episode “Pumpkinhead,” while “Mascot” has one of the most genuinely disturbing creatures I’ve ever seen on film. Speaking of creatures, the next time I see someone wondering where all the practical creature effects have gone in modern horror, I know what to tell them: Apparently, they all went to R.L. Stine TV shows. Seriously, while there are a few (sometimes dodgy) CGI ghost effects in The Haunting Hour, this show, like Spooksville, which I watched a year or two back, is lousy with practical makeup effects and rubber suit creatures.

While just about all of the stories are classic “campfire horror” fare, they vary somewhat in their ultimate execution. Some tales take a more lighthearted approach, with the “good guys” winning out. More often, however, things take a darker turn, sometimes in a moralistic way as unpleasant, selfish, or ill-behaved characters receive their (usually severe) comeuppance, while other times even our most “likable” and well-meaning protagonists still end up on the wrong end of whatever ghost, monster, or other weirdness is going on.  (The apocalyptic “Scarecrow” is a good example of how nihilistic the show is capable of getting without any real bloodshed.)

There are also plenty of familiar plots, even when they’re not in the “be careful what you wish for” type vein. The season 2 episode “Headshot” is basically a retelling of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” while the season 1 episode “Afraid of Clowns” is reminiscent of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” But, y’know, with clowns. There are also odd cinematic coincidences. In the season 1 episode “The Dead Body,” Brendan Meyer plays a bullied kid who strikes up a relationship with a ghost that is a lot like his relationship with “David” in The Guest four years later, while “A Creature was Stirring” has a plot that heavily prefigures Michael Dougherty’s 2015 film Krampus, even while its titular creature is more obviously inspired by Gremlins.

Some other notable episodes include “Dreamcatcher,” “Flight,” and “Catching Cold,” to name a few. There are things wrong with The Haunting Hour, of course. It has some problems with representation, and, with a few exceptions, most of its tween protagonists live in suburban mansions by comparison to anyplace I ever lived. Meanwhile, an episode like “The Hole” actually ends up being chilling due to its implications of domestic abuse more than any supernatural goings-on. Ultimately, though, if you don’t mind stories aimed at younger viewers and a PG-level lack of gore (even while often reaching for some genuinely unsettling thematic conclusions), The Haunting Hour is a surprisingly robust bunch of campfire-style horror stories, broken up into easy-to-consume chunks. At least for the first two seasons…