Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Phantasm

Holy shit. When I wrote the review for House, I thought I’d seen the worst the 80s had to offer in the horror genre. Then I saw Phantasm.

I legitimately cannot say which of these two movies is worse. I was interested in Phantasm because it certainly had one of the more unique ways of offing its victims. The little silvery flying murderball. I was hoping to find out more about that.

And yet, I did not, because the murderballs are disappointingly secondary.

Okay, here’s the plot: There’s a mysterious mortician who is apparently killing humans in a small town. Once he has their bodies, he shrinks them to half-size and reanimates them to serve as slaves in some wasteworld where the gravity is higher. He has a portal to it in a spare room.

Yet apparently he’s really operating on a shoestring because the only way he gets caught is that the younger of this orphaned pair of brothers sees the guy lifting 500-lb. caskets by himself and some of the dwarfzombies sneaking around.

Eventually he and his brother kill the guy. Sort of.

And then the younger kid wakes up to find his live brother dead, his brother’s dead friend alive, and he gets kidnapped through a mirror. Roll credits.

That’s it. The mysterious murderball is used exactly twice, once successfully when Big Bad decides to off a henchman, and then again when he tries to off Big Brother. Despite apparently being an alien, undead, or both, he cannot make murderballs immune to buckshot. So that was anticlimactic.

Is it better than House, or worse? Well, let’s put them head to head:

Do the characters act reasonably? Well, the protagonists in Phantasm eventually come up with something resembling a plan. It’s basic: go to the bad guy’s mortuary and perforate him with bullets. Essentially, this works. This beats the protagonist of House who forgets he has military training until the last 15 minutes. On the other hand, the Big Bad in House at least has a plan to get revenge. The Big Bad in Phantasm could have saved himself a lot of trouble by simply calling the cops and having the protags arrested for B&E.
House: 0, Phantasm: 0

Are the plots coherent? Phantasm‘s plot is simple, but makes sense: the bad guy is doing bad things. The good guys stop him. Contrasting this with House, where the bad guy is apparently haunting the house where the protagonist doesn’t live for several years, it’s a win for Phantasm.
House: 0. Phantasm: 1

Which movie is less boring? In House, strange things keep happening. They’re all red herrings, but things occur. In Phantasm, approximately half the film is taken up with Older Bro refusing to believe Younger Bro.
House: 1. Phantasm: 1

Do the endings make sense? In House the protagonist rescues his kid. So, yeah. In Phantasm, dead people are alive and alive people are dead, no fucks given.

Conclusion: Don’t watch either of these movies: do something more entertaining, like filing off your eyelids.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: The Descent

Fair warning, and never has this phrasing seemed more apt, SPOILERS BELOW.

Like any human uncontrolled descent, this movie was quite passable until it reached the end.

I mean, it was predictable as hell. This is one of those movies where there is going to be a Final Girl. Literally everything in the movie was telegraphed? Was Sarah’s dead husband having an affair with the hotter Juno? Of course he was. According to Movie karma rules, will there be a reckoning for this? Of course there will! When someone says that this cave doesn’t look like the one they studied, does that have ominous meaning..?

Dur.

But really, all that was almost forgivable, if not excusable, because this film is essentially, an all-girl production of ALIEN in a cave. That’s about enough to sell the movie on its own. But the ending…

Q: Which one?

A: Dude, what the hell? You’re the voice from the LAST MRFTL.

Q: Yeah, I got bored. Which ending?

EITHER ending! Okay, so in the American ending you get on Amazon Prime, Sarah escapes the cave, having wounded the evil Juno because she a) was the last person to sleep with Sarah’s husband, and probably caused the car wreck that killed him and Sarah’s daughter at the beginning of the film because he was thinking about it, and b) Juno accidentally killed another of their friends and then left her to die and lied about it. Oh, and c) Juno was the one who took them to the undiscovered and therefore — even without the C.H.U.D. infestation — HIGHLY DANGEROUS cave without telling anyone.

So, just to be clear, if ANYONE in this film deserves to die, it’s Juno. Although I think it sucks that what really appears to get Juno killed is her MOST excusable act: she puts a pickaxe through another girl’s throat when the girl suddenly appears behind her right after they’ve fought off a whole bunch of C.H.U.D.s. Literally ANYONE could have made that mistake, especially someone who has never fought for her life before. They might even panic and run away and leave their victim dying. Not laudable, but understandable for someone who’s suddenly thrust into a situation where choosing wrong means death.

Then WHY, for the love of crap, after Sarah escapes the cave and flees for her life is she confronted, two seconds before roll credits, with the vision of Juno’s vengeful spirit sitting in the car with her? Juno was, in fact, killed for vengeance. People who get justly killed for revenge don’t get to come back and haunt their killers. Otherwise the concept of vengeance just gets silly.

BUT, as the disembodied voice reminds us, there was another ending. The UK ending, as this film was a UK film. And in THAT ending, we discover that Sarah, after her escape…

…finds out she hallucinated the whole escape, and she’s still back in the cave, and the C.H.U.D.s are closing in.

Oh, gods. The first lesson you learn in storytelling school, usually with eyerolls from your bored elementary-school peers, is that any story ending with “And then I woke up and it was all a dream” is tedious and anticlimactic as shit. IT DOESN’T MAKE IT BETTER WHEN YOU MAKE THE WAKING UP PART BAD. Seriously, I just wish I could make a rule: you are not allowed to have your characters hallucinate shit in the middle of your horror movie.* Because it’s like bringing dead people back to life: once you’ve done it, how do you know anything is real? Maybe she was hallucinating killing ANY of the creatures. Maybe she was the first one killed! Maybe she died when she thwacked her head on the cave wall and all of this were coma hallucinations before she succumbed to a fatal head injury! I mean, either way she’s dead and nothing she thought she did mattered, right?

This trope needs to die in a fire.

*Unless the horror is that they are actually insane or otherwise being influenced to hallucinate. That’s legitimately something to fear.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: The Bye Bye Man and the Illusion of Horror

So, I watched the movie The Bye Bye Man on Netflix last week. For those who aren’t used to the Movie Reviews Far Too Late format, There Be Spoilers Here.

The Bye Bye Man is now the movie that finally helped me understand two features that really undermine a horror story for me. The movie starts out strong: there is a creepy supernatural entity called the Bye Bye Man. If you hear or see his name, you’re screwed. He will enter your thoughts and cause you to obsessively think, and finally say, his name. During this time, you will also experience hallucinations that may lead you to attack, or believe you are being attacked, by friends. Eventually, the Bye Bye Man will GET you. The only way to stop him is to give yourself up to death and take the secret of his name with you. Although the protagonists get the idea that disbelieving in the Bye Bye Man’s power may lessen his control over your mind, it’s too little too late, and they all die.

The attraction of the Bye Bye Man as a boogaboo is obvious. It is horrifying. Once you know about it, it’s too late to get away. You can’t recruit friends to help you, lest you damn them, too. You can’t fight it alone because its power of illusion may turn your own power against you. Or worse, your friends.

And that, really, is the problem: the power of illusion is so great that in a sense, it transforms the entire story from a horror story into the illusion of a horror story. To understand this, we have to understand two fundamentals of the horror genre:

The Puzzle Box: The solution to a puzzle is at the heart of the horror story. It has to be. For horror to be horror, the protagonists must be up against an opponent that is so overwhelming that normal means of combat are completely inadequate. Normal weapons, intelligence and limitations on action are completely inadequate to stop the boogaboo. So generally there is a vulnerability or a ritual or a sacrifice that must be completed to defeat the horror.
Now the nature of a puzzle is that a solution exists. If no solution exists, then there is not a puzzle, anymore than a bunch of confetti is a jigsaw puzzle. Before you object, please note that “a solution” does not necessarily entail “protagonists survive.” In horror, this is optional. Solution means, “the horror is defeated/deferred.” Sometimes the solution is obvious but horrifying, as in Saw, when Cary Elwes has to cut himself out of handcuffs. Sometimes its dangerous and difficult, as in Alien, when Ripley blasts the alien out of the airlock. And sometimes even solving the puzzle doesn’t really defeat the horror, as in The Ring.

The Horror Exists For A Reason: I think this is where a lot of horror movies fall down: because it’s not necessarily obvious this is true, but I believe it is true. In the best horror movies, the horror always has a reason to exist: in The Cabin in the Woods, the horror has a double reason for existing: the victims cal up their specific horror, but the overarching reason is that the ancient gods must be kept asleep. But after all, I can imagine someone saying, what about movies like The Ring and Alien? There’s no reason for these things to exist.
But there is. The horror can be its own reason for existing, so long as its drive is fundamental. The alien needs to reproduce and feed. The evil spirit from The Ring seems to have been born from an overwhelming desire on the part of its “mother” to have a child, and its evil “revenge” drive tied to the video springs from that.

When a horror movie fails atone or both of these fundamentals, it is at best weakened. The Bye Bye Man fails at both: there is really no solution to the problem. It hints that disbelieving in the Bye Bye Man can weaken his power. But it isn’t put into practice more than once, and halfheartedly at best. The only thing the protagonist can do is commit suicide. That’s a valid solution to horror, but that “solution” was already presented as part of the problem at the beginning of the film. So it doesn’t really count. Once you know the Bye Bye Man’s name, you’re dead at best.
In addition, no reason for the Bye Bye Man is ever shown to exist. What does he want? There seems to be some idea that he wants world apocalypse. But why? Is he an agent of Satan? We don’t know, and the movie doesn’t seem to care.

Another movie weakened by these problems is the critically-acclaimed It Follows, which is an incredible well-executed movie. But again, there seems to be no solution to the problem: even though the protagonists defeat It, the end of the movie hints that It is still out there following them. And even more than the Bye Bye Man, there is never a clue provided as to what this thing wants. Revenge? For what? Food? Then why is it limited to this bizarre venereal chain of feeding targets?

As I’m writing this, I notice that a common flaw here seems to be that when you think about it, it’s almost impossible to imagine how these bizarre chains ever got started. I mean, how did It ever start Following people? Remember, It can look like people the victim trusts. So, the first person to be the victim of It should have had no idea they were being followed, and been killed. End of chain. The only reason that The Bye Bye Man’s chain ever starts at the beginning of the movie is that one of the victims finds the name carved somewhere. So who learned it first? How? And how did it not get passed along infinitely then as the victim got more and more scared?

Now, for a movie that fails at only one of these aims, we can consider Oculus, in which a young brother and sister try to destroy the cursed mirror that claimed the lives of their parents and blamed it on the brother. Again, it’s a great set up: the mirror can project illusions into the minds of its victims in order to manipulate them into killing each other. The reason for the horror is clear: the mirror takes joy in murder. It’s effectively a serial killer. And it comes very close to providing a solution to the puzzle: the mirror cracked itself in the initial round of killings when a victim was propelled into it.

But in the end, the illusions of the mirror are just too powerful. It again kills the sister and leaves the brother blamed for her death. I think this movie would honestly have been perfect if the sister’s sacrifice of herself had worked: if the mirror had been tricked into destroying itself as the price of killing her. It was powerfully hinted that this would be the solution, and the fact that the protagonists lose anyway, leaving the mirror intct was a letdown.

In the end, such movies as The Bye Bye Man and Oculus provide not a horror story, but the illusion of a horror story by presenting us with an inevitable situation. And it may be terrifying: I’m pretty sure that falling out of a plane with no parachute is indeed terrifying. But it isn’t a story.

Video Games Inspired By My Daughter: Our Town, The Reckoning

This post began when I informed my children that we would be leaving them with the grandparental units while we went out to see “Our Town.” My daughter, Wednesday* asked what it was. So I told her it was a famous play. And in great excitement she asked, “Is there a movie? If it’s famous, there should be a movie! And a video game!”

These are the kinds of things that get me thinking. Probably a bad thing.

I hadn’t ever seen “Our Town.” But when I watched it, I just couldn’t stop watching it with an eye to making it into a video game.

The opening screen: OUR TOWN: The Reckoning scrawled across the screen over the typical shapes of a small American town: two-story sided houses with a small factory in the background. The smiling face of the Stage Manager rises over Our Town. Something about his smile is just a little bit… wrong.

Your character materializes on the siding, just outside the Town Square. Walking into Grover’s Corners, pop. 2,493, you notice that the numbers are faded, and you think the 2 might once have been a 3.

As you walk into town you see a number of buildings you can venture into. The General Store, the Newspaper, and the Hospital. There are also a number of houses that you can get into that are locked, and a few more that are abandoned.

If you stay out in the Town Square long enough, you’ll see an energetic figure talking to and about people going about the more or less cheery routines of their daily lives. As he touches them, their shadows grow a bit darker, but you might not notice that.

Stay in the Town Square too long, and he’ll come over to you. He’ll be very friendly. Maybe too friendly. He’ll ask your name, and you’ll tell him. He’ll be very excited to learn that you might be thinking of settling into Grover’s Corners. He’ll start telling you about the prominent citizens: the milkman, the newspaper editor, Mr. Webb who lives alone with his wife now that their children are dead, and Old Doc Gibbs whose wife died and left him living with his son. They raise his grandchildren together since his daughter-in-law also died. You notice that that this Stage Manager seems to know a lot about the folks who have died, and you think he actually told you when one of them will die, but you take his directions to the Hotel.

As you pass the Methodist Church basement, you hear someone call out to you. That’s creepy, but the young lady who has called your name tells you that you’re in terrible danger if you don’t come with her.

She introduces you to a few people hiding in the Church basement. It’s the only place that the “Stage Manager” won’t come. The only safe place. The young woman won’t tell you her name, just that it’s changed since she got out, and she’s trying to rescue her brother, but he won’t come with her. No one but him must know that she is here. She asks for your help.

As you go through the game, you are at first confused and later horrified as your choices take you into contact with the relentlessly cheerful people of Grover’s Corners, living on as they always have, with their town dying around them, their children dying young but staying here nevertheless. You avoid the increasingly ubiquitous Stage Manager, and you realize that this is not his name, that his name is something far older.

In desperation you ascend to the Graveyard atop the hill, but only in the day, and encounter the unquiet dead resting there, concentrating desperately on the weather and the stars lest they think too much on their stolen lives: lives stolen by Satanas Mephistopheles, who remains, ever the same, nondescript middle-aged… man? Woman? You can’t recall. And it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it waits and is watching for you to return and challenge it for the lives and souls of every human left alive in Grover’s Corners.

Will you withstand its power? Will you free Our Town..?

*Not her real name. But it SHOULD have been.

The Girl With All The Gifts (Spoilers)

This is really my Friday post. It’s today because I had an old friend over for the past three days, whom I haven’t seen in years, and probably won’t see again for a few years. So I am releasing some content from my Patreon site in the hope that my readers will enjoy it.

This wasn’t the movie I planned to write on this month, but I watched it. First of all, I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s a wonderful film, much deeper than the average zombie movie, and in my opinion, is what I Am Legend should have been. Second of all, spoilers ahead, so go watch the movie. I’ll wait.

Are you finished? Good! Wasn’t it cool? Yes, it was.

BUT! Ooooooooooohh, but…

I’m sorry, I still don’t buy it. Two things I especially had trouble buying:

First, the zombie fungus. Here you have an organism that destroys all higher functions of the body in the name of eating. But, wait! They can’t eat each other, so the fungus has to spread almost instantly and render the bitten human unpalatable. ┬áMost zombies, in fact, are almost unmarked by the initial attack. But the zombies do attack and eat (and apparently do not infect) animals.

But then the film shows us two (arguably three) amazing things: the first is that the plague has apparently been around for at least 12 (maybe 11) years. And second: the zombies don’t apparently NEED to eat. In London, we see them standing around in a dormant state when no food presents itself.

So, we have a fungal infection that stimulates hunger, but apparently does not need ANY food. It doesn’t need to consume its host, or the food of its host. And it keeps the host from decomposing.

Thirdly, it keeps the host’s CLOTHES from decomposing, which is arguably more impressive.

All this adds up to a question not easily answered: if the fungus does not NEED energy to live, then why does it infect at all?

But the real problem I see here is with the humans. They’ve been fighting this war for twelve years. Now, in six years of WWII, the last time the planet was faced with foes that would absorb the full might of its industrial powers (each other) humans invented the main battle tank, the jet fighter, and the atomic weapon. The humans have held out for twelve years against the zombie horde, which means they MUST have an agricultural and industrial base, and they have developed…

ZOM-B-GON zombie repellent. Stops the zombies smelling you.

And that’s it.

Now, the zombies are fast, but mindless. It’s not too hard for ME to figure out how to get rid of them. What you want is pits with stakes, minefields, and multiple fences with the gaps filled in with concertina wire. Hell, the zombies chase vehicles that are faster than them and don’t look where they were going. You could run dump trucks laying high-explosive mines in front of them until they were gone. And why is London even THERE any more? Why are we not getting rid of the dormant zombies with nuclear strikes? Humans have invented NOTHING to combat this menace. Not bite-proof body armor, not rifles that throw explosive shells (instead, they’re still relying on headshots with standard rifles), no. There are ZERO anti-zombie weapons, or tactics, in play.

So my conclusion at the end of the film was that the human race pretty much had it coming.