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we’ll send him cheesy movies

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.

dome-at-sunset

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.

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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.

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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…

 

Shin Godzilla

I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong. I had been kind of reticent about watching Shin Godzilla because I wasn’t expecting to like it much. I thought I was going to be getting another “dark and gritty” take on something that, frankly, I didn’t need a dark and gritty take on, and while that isn’t exactly inaccurate, it also doesn’t do the film justice at all. As it turns out, Shin Godzilla isn’t just a great alternative take on Godzilla, it’s just great. Period. Full stop.

One of the things I was most concerned about going in was that I kind of hate the new Godzilla design. Don’t get me wrong, I love him when he’s a stupid, goggle-eyed lungfish dragging himself around and coughing radioactive blood out of his gills all over the place. But the actual “final” Godzilla design doesn’t do it for me in still photos, or in action figures, or anyplace else I had seen it before finally sitting down to watch the movie. And, admittedly, there are problems with the suit’s execution, maybe most notably that it is remarkably immobile, to the point where Godzilla may as well be a giant sculpture being dragged through the city on a track for long stretches. In the course of the film, though, even when he isn’t moving much–and, it must be noted, this iteration of Godzilla does just up and literally shut down for long stretches of the movie for plot reasons, standing in the middle of the ruins of Tokyo and not doing anything–this new Godzilla design works.

Part of why it works is because this Godzilla is something very different than previous iterations. Not only is Godzilla scary for probably the first time since 1954, but this Godzilla is constantly mutating, changing from that dumb lungfish version (which, do I need to reiterate, I absolutely love) through a couple of metamorphoses before we reach the “final” form. (And the movie teases us with the possibility of other, further mutations that we never actually get to see.) As a sort of living nuclear reactor that is in a constant state of biological flux, this new Godzilla no longer seems like just a way to make one of our most classic monsters “more extreme” as envisioned by a 90s comic book artist, but instead seems like a coherent design decision. (They even address his ridiculous jagged teeth.)

And while Godzilla’s rampage lacks the immediacy of the 1954 original’s image of Tokyo as a “sea of flames,” there’s no denying its impact, especially in the sequence when Godzilla unleashes his most destructive power. Nor has there probably ever been another disaster movie–kaiju or otherwise–that showcased such an absurdly realistic take on this kind of devastation. In this case, however, “realism” does not mean a lot of shots of filthy, bloody people suffering. It means a lot of shots of people sitting around in conference rooms and talking on phones.

And that is where Shin Godzilla‘s greatest strength comes to bear. As an attempt at taking Godzilla seriously, it works remarkably well. As an attempt to make Godzilla scary again it works perhaps even better. But it works best as a black comic satire of bureaucracy. The 2014 American Godzilla remake took a lot of (deserved) flak for sidelining Godzilla, or shrouding his skirmishes in smoke and debris, or burying them on the screens of televisions in the background. But the real crime in Godzilla (2014) wasn’t “not enough Godzilla,” it was “too many boring people.”

Shin Godzilla seems to take that challenge and extend it to the next level. It’s a film that is perhaps best summarized by a montage sequence in which intense rock music plays over shots of people talking on phones. The reaction to Godzilla’s abrupt arrival on the scene is mired in red tape and internecine conflicts. One of the funniest parts of Shin Godzilla isn’t even anything that would normally be considered a joke. Instead, it’s that literally every time anyone speaks or we are shown anything, there are subtitles on the screen identifying who or what it is in weirdly minute detail. So many, in fact, that it often becomes nearly impossible to read all the words that are being hurled at you. It’s both a play on the form of the modern disaster movie, and an effective way to drop the viewer into the bureaucratic quagmire of the film.

Helping everything along is great music–often repurposing the classic score of the original film–and the fact that, aside from some dodgy CGI and the aforementioned weirdly immobile suit, Shin Godzilla looks great. It utilizes a lot of found footage elements, especially early on, but it is also full of lingering, pulled back shots of everything from crowded conference rooms to empty streets to rain-soaked railroad tracks to a bowl of ramen. It’s a beautiful movie, and a potent one, and a surprisingly funny one, if not often in a laugh-out-loud sort of way. And while the characters are constantly bogged down in quotidian tasks, everything is shot and edited with a faux-documentarian flair that never makes any of it feel boring.

Would I want every Godzilla movie to be like this? No, not at all. This feels like one-of-a-kind, and I think it is probably the better for it. But judged on its own merits, I can say without a doubt that I was wrong about Shin Godzilla. It’s a hell of a thing.

Godzilla

Artwork by Sophie Campbell.

IMG_20170310_145038_633No remake can ever live up to the original King Kong. Luckily for Skull Island, it’s smart enough not to try.

From its largely unnecessary opening sequence (because we’ll get it all exposited to us again later), Skull Island is a lot sillier than I was expecting from the trailers. Not just in a “giant monsters smashing each other” kind of way, either. In a “Tom Hiddleston slow-motion chopping up pterodactyls with a katana” way. Pretty much top to bottom, this takes place in what is fundamentally a comic book universe without superheroes. Which is fine for Kong, and especially fine given that this is basically the first step in creating a shared universe with Gareth Evans’ 2014 Godzilla, to be exploited first in Mike Dougherty’s forthcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters and then later in a planned Godzilla vs Kong.

While Skull Island never even aspires to anything more substantive than what is essentially the pilot for a particularly brutal Saturday morning cartoon, it learned the lessons that Godzilla had to teach, even if it then goes on to make its own mistakes along the way. Where Godzilla didn’t spend enough time on the titular monster, Kong is all over this film, along with piles and piles of other monstrous denizens of the eponymous island. (Including the Best. Stick insect. Ever.) Your mileage on individual critters may vary, but at least there are lots of them, including a few nice visual nods to other giant monster movies that I may or may not have been reading too much into.

And while the human characters here may be just as thinly drawn as those in Godzilla, they replace any attempt at “normal folks” with a collection primarily composed of outsize archetypes, ready made for Saturday morning syndication. While most of the actors aren’t given a lot to do, John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson steal the show, with the latter playing Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick.

A quick skim across other reviews shows lots of people complaining about the screenplay, and while yeah, we could all have probably wished for something with a little more heft there, nobody really comes to a movie like this because of the screenplay, right? The biggest problem that Skull Island actually has is that the (frequent) monster battles too often feel like exactly what they are: nothing but a bunch of pixels. No matter how good they look, there’s a weightlessness, a lack of physicality, that keeps them from having the punch that you want from seeing Kong wrestling with a giant octopus or some weird, surprisingly gross skull-headed lizard monster.

Before I walked into the theatre, a friend basically texted me to say, “I hope it’s good!” And I replied back that I was pretty sure it would be what I wanted it to be; and it was. On the spectrum of modern giant monster movies, it’s situated firmly below Pacific Rim, which is certainly the contemporary benchmark, at least for me. But it’s also a big step up from my recollections of Godzilla, and a huge improvement on Peter Jackson’s 2005 attempt to remake Kong, if only because it never makes the mistake of trying to replicate the original’s success.

Instead, Skull Island is a fun, cartoonish movie with lots of giant monsters fighting one-another while humans played by good actors mostly narrate things that just happened. Chances are that’s all you’re going in for, which is good, because it’s all you’re gonna get. (There’s your pull quote, in case you need one.)

 

After my recent post about William Malone’s 2002 film Feardotcom, I decided to take a stab at his 2008 follow-up (Masters of Horror episode notwithstanding) Parasomnia. It turns out that I had already watched the first third or so of this movie once before, but something had interrupted me and I hadn’t gotten any farther. Which is probably okay, but also kind of a bummer, since most of the best stuff is in the last reel, but none of it is really worth watching twice.

I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard more talk about Parasomnia in weird fiction circles–not because there’s actually all that much to talk about, but because of four words in the opening credits: “Conceptual Art – Zdzislaw Beksinski.” Beksinski’s work is so beloved among many in the weird fiction world that I figured his involvement–even if it seems to be more inspirational than actually direct–would be enough to attract some attention to the picture, and certainly, once you know to look for it, it’s hard to miss in the film’s surreal dreamscape images, even if they are also unduly burdened with low-budget CGI and lots and lots of spinning mirrors (plus apparently at least one monster that was scrapped from Malone’s Masters of Horror episode).

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Weirdly, for all that William Malone financed this film himself and gets his name in front of the title like John Carpenter or something, this actually feels substantially less stylized than previous outings, possibly due to the budgetary constraints of shooting an indie rather than a studio feature. While IMDb doesn’t list a budget for Parasomnia, a little online sleuthing suggests that it’s considerably cheaper than either Feardotcom or House on Haunted Hill, and as a result, with the exception of the occasional foray into the aforementioned dreamscapes, the film reserves most of its visual style for the last few minutes, which bring in automata and a mesmerized string duet wearing goggles and corsets.

There are a few good gore effects, including a body that’s walled up in an abandoned bookstore bedecked with posters for old-fashioned stage magicians, but even when the film is throwing everything it has at the wall, it feels positively constrained compared to Malone’s previous films. (Though the shots of the mesmerist serial killer bad guy–a phrase that should be enough to win me over all by itself–using his powers are actually pretty cool.)

Sean Young shows up for all of a minute, Jeffrey Combs essentially revives his role from Feardotcom, Timothy Bottoms plays the exposition doctor who really needs to study up on patient confidentiality and medical ethics, and John Landis makes a cameo as a department store manager who turns out a semi-comatose, blood spattered girl onto the streets without so much as calling the cops.

Compounding any of Parasomnia‘s other problems is the fact that its central premise is pretty gross/creepy, in the way that Sleeping Beauty stories are often kinda gross/creepy, but maybe even moreso here. As our ostensible protagonist falls in love with a girl who has been asleep for most of her life and therefore has the emotional and mental development of a child; as they “bond” in scenes where, during her brief periods of wakefulness, she rubs ice cream all over her face like a toddler, plays with a doggy chew toy, or dresses up like a cheerleader; and as he bathes her sleeping body in scenes that are overtly sexual, or tells his kooky 80s movie best friend that he loves her, I found it impossible to go along with the movie’s notion that this “relationship” was on the up-and-up.

An insinuated connection between the two because they once met when they were very small, in a house that looks a lot like Elise’s house from the later Insidious movies, and a scene returning both characters to childhood in the film’s closing moments attempt to ameliorate the sexual predator vibe, but it’s really too little too late. Fundamentally, our “protagonist” may be less of a serial killer than the sinister Byron Volpe, but he doesn’t really come off looking a whole lot better aside from that.

Without the interference of a studio, Parasomnia should have been Malone’s stylistic triumph–the ultimate affirmation of Roger Ebert’s claim, regarding Feardotcom, that if “the final 20 minutes had been produced by a German impressionist [sic?] in the 1920s, we’d be calling it a masterpiece”–but instead it is so bogged down by its stricter budgetary limitations and its dedication to a problematic script that it feels like a lesser cousin to even the least of Malone’s more studio-oriented work, where, while the scripts were often still bad, the movies at least seemed less interested in them.

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]