Movie Reviews Far Too Stupid: Monsters and The Ruins

You know, what really makes me want to tear my own throat out as a writer sometimes is when I see that, despite the enormous number of wonderful novels that would make great movies, people keep making films based on ideas that should have been shot down in a high school Creative Writing I class. So to illustrate this, a pair of movies that I couldn’t even finish. And because they deserve no better, spoilers do exist:

First: The Ruins

This one actually started off really well, which was why the subsequent idiocy was even more disappointing: Team Disposable 5 (Jock, Nerd, Clown, Slut and Virgin. Thank you, Cabin In The Woods) go out to an old “Mayan” ruin, where Jock’s brother is supposed to be digging. They are surrounded and forced into the ruins by creepy tribal “Mayans” with guns and not allowed to leave. They quickly discover that they are under attack by carnivorous plants, and the Mayans are really quarantining them so they don’t spread the stuff. So far, it’s really good.

Here’s where I got turned off. Jock is the first casualty, and breaks his back, leaving him paralyzed. Early in the second day, Nerd (who is in med school — or maybe is just accepted to med school, it’s unclear) nominates himself the leader and decides that the only way to save Jock from sepsis is to amputate his infected legs. While they have nothing but a pair of tourniquets and a pocket knife.

Yeah, no: I’m out right there. I don’t believe this asshole could even get into med school, and I don’t believe anyone would go along with it. I don’t believe Clown doesn’t just punch this moron out an try to run for help, especially since no help is known to be coming. It’s obviously an excuse for serious gore and screaming, and I’m done.

But these guys are geniuses compared to whoever wrote Monsters.

So, yeah: a NASA space probe fell on Mexico awhile back and infected it with giant squid kaiju. The “infected zone” (i.e. Northern Mexico, which conveniently didn’t spread north of the US border) is quarantined. Gas masks are for some reason ubiquitously distributed to the poor just outside the Quarantine Zone (in case what? Someone inhales a case of kraken?) and the US military and reporters are dispatched to contain and record the invasion.

The storyline before I turned it off was that Reporter Hero is ordered by his boss, Magazine Owner, to rescue Magazine Owner’s Baby Girl (age: 22-25), who is there for No Discernible Reason and was mildly wounded in a Squid Kaiju Attack (OUTside the QZ. Why does the QZ exist, again?) and to escort her back to the USA. So, we’re supposed to believe that Magazine Owner who is willing to pay $50,000 per shot of kaiju-killed kids won’t charter a private jet with trained security squad to fly down to Mexico to get Baby Girl away from the kaiju, but instead will simply bully Reporter Hero on the scene into buying said Baby Girl a $5K ticket on a refugee ferry up the Baja coast. Sure. Because that’s what people do. In the same scene he’s buying the ticket, refugees are lined up to be “escorted” across the “Quarantine Zone” to the US.

And that’s where I was out. The producers/directors obviously don’t understand that quarantine might mean something in an alien invasion, or that rich people would spend money to save their loved ones effectively. The script also contained such gems as:

Reporter Hero: So, you’re married?
Baby Girl: Engaged.
Reporter Hero: What’s the difference?

Although I have to admit liking the exchange that went:

Baby Girl: Doesn’t it bother you that your job relies on terrible things happening?
Reporter Hero: You mean like a doctor?

Or a soldier, policeman, firefighter, safety regulator, health inspector, et multiple cetera…

Please, friends. There are ways, MANY ways to get your drama without relying on idiot plots like these.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Dragonslayer

So, let’s just come out and admit it: there were a lot of bad movies in the eighties. And especially, there were a lot of bad F/SF movies. There were a lot of people who, having seen the success of Star Wars, were convinced that they could do the same thing, either by blowing their money on special effects and not bothering to write a decent story (Lifeforce), or worse, by NOT blowing their money on special effects, and STILL not bothering to write a decent story (Yeah, that’s you Buckaroo Banzai). There were movies that tried to blatantly rip off other, better movies (Explorers and Starman).

But every now and then you got a real gem of a film that managed to do it mostly right. And it hovered on the background of your consciousness until you finally watched it. And for me, that film was Dragonslayer.

I think the thing that stood out for me was this: I can think of few films that used their limited special effects better. Oh, sure, you can tell that the director was stretching 1981’s technology to the breaking point, and by our standards today, it’s pretty laughable. But considering how difficult it was to film something as complex as a dragon (spaceships are easy by comparison) the results were stunning.

But mostly what blew me away was the dedication to telling an actual story that I, who live in a time of gritty anti-heroes, found refreshing. I really don’t want to spoiler this film (which can be watched for free on Amazon Prime: go watch it!), but roughly, it’s the tale of Galen, a sorcerer’s apprentice, whose master, Ulrich, is approached by a delegation of commoners whose kingdom is beset by a dragon. Their king is appeasing the dragon by feeding it virgins by “lot,” a lottery that his own daughter and those of his nobles are curiously immune to. Ulrich is killed by the king’s captain of the guard, Tyrian, whose lord doesn’t want to take the risk of upsetting the dragon, and Galen is left to attempt the deed himself, with only his master’s amulet to give him any power at all.

While the writing is sometimes clumsy and rough, the movie as a whole was like a breath of fresh air. Galen, our hero, is neither a whiner nor an overpowered Gary Stu. He just decides he’s going to get the job done, and faces it with courage. Valerian, his love interest, who has grown up disguised as her blacksmith father’s “son” to save her from the lottery, is actually believable in that role, and not a knockout beauty that leaves you wondering whether literally all the men in the village are blind. Casiodorus, the appeasing king, has a backstory that makes his cowardice understandable, if not pardonable, and probably believes, on some level, that he really is doing what’s best for his kingdom. Taken together, the heroes use brains and courage to defeat the dragon Vermithrax, and it’s a great ride.

In these days when men of physical courage and authority are often derided or suspect by definition, and the ninja supergirl is often called upon to improbably save the day, it’s a tale that recalls a more innocent time.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Midsommar, Part II (of the review. There is no Midsommar II) Now With Fresh Spoilers!

So, I figure the first part of this review didn’t really do justice to MIDSOMMAR. I watched it while I was doing laundry (and if dirty laundry isn’t a metaphor for this film, I don’t know what is) and wasn’t thinking about it too deeply. But now that I’ve thought about it, I actually have to hand it to them: it’s a film that is full of meaning. Whether that meaning is worth anything or not is up to you, but it’s quite obviously there.

So, Dani, our film’s protagonist, is in a bad place. Her parents and sister have all committed suicide, leaving her as the only member of the family to survive. It’s never quite clear whether Mom and Dad were partakers in the suicide or whether suicidal little sis just decided to take them along.

Dani has a boyfriend, whose name is Christian. Yes, that’s important. He’s about to dump her when the suicide hits, and now he can’t. Christian is about to leave on a trip to Sweden with his buds Mark and Josh to visit their friend Pelle’s home. Christian decides that, in fact, he’s going to bring Dani with them, which doesn’t exactly thrill his friends as they find Dani clingy and annoying. Because she is clingy and annoying.

Upon arriving at Pelle’s village, it becomes quickly apparent that we have arrived in Scandinavian Deliverance land, where dwell Pelle’s people, the Hargans. There are two more outsiders, a couple named Simon and Connie. These folks are all about the old gods, and we all know what the old gods were like: they enjoyed sacrifice. Indeed, it doesn’t take long for the newcomers to start disappearing.

Now, over at ScreenRant, you can find an article explaining what happens to the characters in terms of the “sins” they commit during the film: they want to leave, and they defile something, etc. However, I believe this interpretation is completely off base. Midsommar is, from the outset, a pagan sermon about the virtues of the old gods, and the corruption of Christianity.

The first indication we have that all is not well in Hargaland is when two of the community’s elders commit suicide by jumping off a cliff and dashing themselves to death on rocks. Just to drive it home (sorry), the man doesn’t quite die, and he is “assisted” to his doom by means of a large mallet. The outsiders are horrified, but are asked to understand that this is only the Hargans’ way of seeking balance with the natural world and embracing death in its proper role. Josh, Mark and Christian murmur weak protests. Dani is horrified, but Christian is too weak and spineless to stand up for anything or really comfort her.

The true zealots here are the aptly-named Simon and Connie, who have had enough and make plans to leave. Simon (Peter) was always the fiercest of Jesus’ followers, and Connie is, well, constant, not to be shaken from her conviction that what the Hargans are doing is simply wrong. They are “taken to the train station”

Meanwhile, trouble is erupting among the former friends. Pelle is clearly cozying up to Dani and pointing out Christian’s shortcomings. Josh is completely indifferent to any moral failings on the part of the Hargans and is only interested in getting as much material for his anthro thesis out of it as he can. Meanwhile, Christian and Mark play the ugly-American oafs, with Mark as an incel who is clearly desperate to get laid, and careless enough to piss on a sacred tree, while Christian alternately shrugs off Dani’s pain, flirts with Pelle’s sister who is casting love spells at him, and then tries to horn in on Josh’s thesis topic by insisting on doing his anthro thesis on the village as well.

I think the names here remain key to understanding the roles of the major players. First, we have Josh. He’s fascinated intellectually, but morally repelled by this practice of paganism and wants access to their scriptures, eventually violating their proscription on photographing it. Joshua is also the English version of Jesus’ Hebrew name, Y’shua. Josh represents the Judaeo-Christian morality that wrote down the laws of God, stealing the pagans’ mysticism and then condemning the pagans. He is the most dangerous of the anti-pagans, and must be killed.

Then we have Mark, named for the writer of the first gospel. He has no real interest in anything except sex, drugs and food. He’s a tool, nothing more, and has no idea what he’s stumbled into. Only a fool would rely on anything he said. The gospel is therefore discredited.

And finally, we have Christian, named for the entire religion. He is completely and utterly unlikable, having no virtues that can stand up to the smallest vices, but always wanting to appear virtuous, no matter what the cost. He doesn’t want to look heartless so he stays with Dani. And yet he always puts himself first, never giving her any real time or energy. It’s made clear he’s at fault in this (despite the fact that Dani is obviously extremely needy and not really ready to be in a relationship at all). At the Hargan village, Christian can neither condemn the Hargans with the fierceness of Simon and Connie, nor question them with the intelligence of Josh, nor stand up for them in the face of Dani’s disapproval. When Maja, Pelle’s sister, casts a love spell on him and he finds out, he is faithless, unable to even say that such a thing is inappropriate. He is quick to steal Josh’s thesis idea when it looks easy, (imperializing over both a black man’s idea and a native culture simultaneously!) and when Josh disappears (supposedly with the Hargans’ scripture) he is just as quick to repudiate Josh and deny that they have ever been friends. Finally, he is completely willing to go to Maja’s bed and be unfaithful to Dani. In short, the “Christian” is in reality exactly what pagans imagine him to be: a weak-willed sheep, led about by his lusts, but without the courage and fortitude that would make fulfilling them admirable. As such, he is their sacrificial animal, to be used, condemned, and well-rid of.

But what of Dani? Well, she becomes the May Queen, elevated there by that most pagan of forces, fate. She was fated to be invited to the Hargans’ village, and fated to become the May Queen. As such, she is the one who ultimately chooses whether Christian or a member from the Hargans will be chosen. Screen Rant’s “explanation” of “why she kills Christian” is almost comical in its overexplanation:

“The answer to that is complex, but a good place to start is the fact that Dani isn’t exactly in her right mind at the end of the movie.

She wasn’t exactly in her right mind at the start of the movie. At best she’s traumatized. At worst, she’s codependent.

She’s been given drugged tea that’s causing her to have strange visions, danced to the point of exhaustion, and experienced the emotional trauma of seeing Christian have sex with another woman,

Her boyfriend cheated on her in public. That isn’t “complex;” that’s one of the oldest explanations for murder we’ve got.

followed by a release of emotion with her newfound sisters. By the time she’s on stage in her enormous flowery gown, Dani looks pretty out of it, but the one thing she does seem to be aware of is that Christian has hurt her.

Yes. Christian has “hurt her.” That really seems to be the sum total of Dani’s awareness, and the idea that Dani’s pain is Christian’s fault is the one thing that is hammered home time and again in this film. He didn’t kill her sister, or her parents, and he tried to include her when she needed to be included. Being drugged and exhausted is an excuse for her behavior, seemingly, but not for Christian’s. Funny how that works out.

Moreover, she also seems to recognize that Christian is the best choice for the sacrifice that represents the exorcism of evil from the community, because he – not the Hårgans – is the source of her pain.

Yes, and it’s also not the Hargans’ fault that they seduced a guy who was in a relationship, apparently. They are innocent, while Christian is guilty.

In the pagan world (note the small p, I am referring to classic pagans, not any followers of modern Wiccanism or related faiths, here) holiness is more positional than consequential. It derives more from what people are than what they do. Dani is good and Christian is bad because Dani is a woman in pain. Therefore, she must be in the right. To say otherwise would be to blame her on some level for her pain. We endure endless sobs throughout this film, most of them from Dani. And while it is true that Christian’s choices are mostly selfish, so are everyone else’s, including Dani’s. No one ever seems to think that Dani should do anything for him, but it is made very clear that Christian must stay with Dani, be there for Dani, adjust his life for Dani, invite Dani along with him, remember Dani’s birthday. He is responsible for her pain, but she is never responsible for his. He doesn’t even (conveniently) have real pain in his life, just selfish ambitions.
Dani kills Christian for the simplest of all reasons: she is angry at him and wants revenge. And her killing of him is held up as right. She is the May Queen, a holy figure. It is right that she kills him because she has decreed it to be right. It is right because it represents the triumph of the strong pagan goddess reclaiming her true superiority over the false, weak, Christian god who lied and failed to fulfill her.

Of course, what’s truly astonishing is exactly how successfully this message overrides the demonstrable horror that this pagan community has achieved: a monocultural, racist theocracy which by its own admission deliberately practices incest in order to induce mental disabilities, enforces the euthanasia of the elderly, and lures outsiders in to be sacrificed along with their own people annually. But what are such little defects compared to freeing our minds from the evils of Christian hypocrisy?

It’s a breathtakingly simple message. Who is listening?

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: Battle: Los Angeles

Hi, Loyal Readers. Sorry it’s been so long. It’s a boring story: COVID = teaching from home + homeschooling x kitchen remodel, and all of it adds up to almost no writing, and definitely no blogging. Here’s hoping for a rebound.

Oh, Battle: Los Angeles. I was in the mood for a really cheesy, bad Alien Invasion movie, and boy did you deliver. But why did you deliver such awful, awful cliches?

The sad part was that this movie was surprisingly good: I mean, disclaimer, first: I’m a civilian, but the filmmakers consulted Marines when they made the film, and it reminded me of some of the better war movies out there, the ones that have drawn high praise from veterans I know. As a war movie, it wasn’t half bad, except for one thing (later).

But as a science-fiction movie, it commits one of the tiredest, awful cliches out there.

The aliens are invading the Earth for its water. No, really, you read that right. For its WATER. And not that they are using to DRINK. No, they are using the water for FUEL. AND they are using it in such quantities that they are, within one DAY, causing a detectable alteration in the Earth’s coastlines.

Folks, that may have been a pardonable casus belli back when H.G. Wells was invading the Earth. No one knew what any of the planets were made of. But today? Saturn’s rings are dirty snowballs. The Oort cloud is full of MORE snowballs. No one will shoot back at you for mining them. What the hell?

I suspect the film KNEW it was being stupid, because the Scientist On The News tried to cover it by saying, “Nowhere else in the universe do we know of LIQUID water.”

Oh, I see. LIQUID water. Let’s break this down for a moment while I wake up my inner math-and-science nerd and interview him:

Q: Hey, there. How much water is in the Earth’s oceans?

A: 352 quintillion gallons.

Q: Cool. Could you use that water for fuel?

A: There are actually three ways you could theoretically do that, but two are stupid.

Q: Really? What are they?

A: Well, you could break the water down into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis and then burn them again in hydrogen fuel cells. But that’s stupid.

Q: Why? Sounds cool to me.

A: Well, for one thing, it takes more energy to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen than you get from burning them. That’s because of the Law Of Conservation Of Energy, pretty much THE fundamental law of physics, almost. And for another, when you do? The ash is water. So, the aliens would be a) losing energy, and b) putting the water right back where they got it.

Q: What’s the other stupid way?

A: Well, you can eleectrolyze the water, toss out the oxygen, and then fuse the hydrogen into helium for a SHIT-ton more energy than it took to electrolyze it.

Q: And why is that stupid?

A: Because to do that you ALREADY need the kind of energy found in the heart of a star. If you’ve got that kind of energy, you really don’t need more. And you’ve got badass enough technology that you can probably wipe out present-day humanity with plasma torches from miles away. No need to engage them with slightly-superior technology unless you’re doing it for sport.

Q: And there’s a third way? That’s smart?

A: Well, kind of: that way involves filtering the seawater for heavy water: water made from oxygen and deuterium. Deuterium is hydrogen with an extra neutron. You can electrolyze THAT and fuse it into helium for a SHIT-ton of energy. And you can do it with technology that’s slightly superior to our own. 

Q: So, technology like the aliens demonstrably have?

A: Yep.

Q: So then, the movie makes sense?

A: Not by a long shot. Heavy water makes up only about 0.0156% of all water. Therefore, of that 352 quintillion gallons mentioned earlier, you have to sort through it to find the mere 54.912 quadrillion gallons you want. Not to mention, of course, all the salt, nickel and horrible organic goop floating around in there. Now, to lower the oceans a mere INCH would necessitate the removal of some 2.4291 quadrillion gallons of water.

Q: Which means that if they took literally all the heavy water on the planet, the oceans would be lowered by approximately less than..?

A: Two feet.

Q: That’s dumb.

A: Oh, it’s dumber than that.

Q: How does it GET dumber than that?

A: The World Nuclear Association has estimated that that’s enough to fuel the entire world, at ten times its current population, and at 100 times the AMERICAN rate of energy consumption, for 1 million years. 

Q: So, waitaminute, you’re saying the aliens can suck the oceans of the planet dry of the amazing energy-water in about a day or two, and they’ve come to invade Earth for water because…?

A: They don’t want to be bothered melting ice.

Q: But they’re okay with lifting it out of Earth’s gravity well?

A: Apparently?

Q: How much energy does it take to melt ice?

A: I dunno, but I and anyone I know can melt a pound of it in a standard oven in far less than an hour for negligible cost.

Q: And to put that pound of water in orbit costs…?

A: $10,000.

Sigh. You know, it would have made more sense for the aliens to have invaded us because they wanted to take all our refined metals, or samples of Earth life, or JUST ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE THAN WATER! Seriously, it was dumb when Star Trek: Voyager pretended water was rare twenty years ago. It was dumb when V: The Final Battle did it in the 1980s. And you have to work at it to get dumber science-fiction than THAT!

Stop it. No one else is allowed to invade the Earth for water. Ever.

Oh, I almost forgot, there’s one other thing you’re not allowed to do, and I promised to come back to this later: you’re not allowed to pretend that there’s just this ONE vulnerable spot on your slightly-larger-than-man-sized aliens and that you’re going to snipe that regularly now. Because pretty much, from everyone I’ve EVER heard talk about real combat, you aim for the center of mass and shoot.

Seriously, stop that.

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.

Movie Reviews (or something) Far Too Late: Paranormal Activity

DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT: As far as the film goes, I’m going to reveal a plot point.
As far as the review goes, I couldn’t even finish this movie.

I wanted to watch this because I was in the mood for a good creepy ghost story, and I’d heard good things about it.

OPENER: Dude and Dudette moving into apartment. Setting up camera in bedroom to record source of creepy noises that sometimes trouble them at night. Dude is slightly annoyed at Dudette for inviting a psychic consultant to advise them on the source of these noises, which has been messing with her since childhood.

EXPERT: Hey, this thing you’ve got here is not a ghost, but a demon. Potentially very dangerous.

DUDE: So, how about we get a Ouija board and ask this thing what it wants.

EXPERT: Okay, that’s a really terrible idea because that would be inviting it to notice you. Goodbye.

DUDE: Well, I don’t believe in this enough to take an expert’s advice seriously, but I believe in it just enough to still think Ouija boards are a good idea because I was the one who thought of them.

DUDETTE: Hey, babe. Since I’m the one being haunted by this thing, maybe I should get to make the call on how we deal with it.

DUDE (pouty): Well, okay, but you know I think I get a say, too because I didn’t know you came with a demon.

DUDETTE: Just promise me you won’t get a Ouija board.

DUDE: Okay, I promise I won’t buy a Ouija board.

Aaaaand, that was it. I was out. At this point, I can’t spend another second of my precious and finite time on this planet with these two morons. I’d rather be doing something less predictable, like picking my nose. Dude is a complete ass who wants to poke the demon because he wants to be in charge and be right. Dudette is a complete idiot who can’t see that Dude is about to go borrow or otherwise acquire the Ouija board that he only promised not to buy (oh, he is so clever, a master of verbal trickery, this one) so he can poke the demon. This is the very archetype of the Idiot Plot. And I’m going to be expected to spend the rest of the film sympathizing with these two morons, who will check out books about demons, but will never once consider going to church. At this point, I’m rooting for the demon, but figure that watching it eat them slowly from the feet up isn’t on the table.

Shame.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Lifeforce

Kevin Murphy, who voiced MST3K’s Tom Servo, in his book A Year At The Movies, recalls deciding to go see the movie Pootie Tang, and encountering a pair of young men arguing about whether to go see it. When he asked the dissenter why he didn’t want to go see it, the reply was, “Because I think it’s gonna be as stupid as I think it’s gonna be.”

And now for my review of Lifeforce.

When that movie came out in 1985, I was twelve. I hated horror movies, so was uninterested. But I knew the movie was about space vampires, and that sounded pretty stupid to me.

Over the years, a number of people have referenced the movie, and it seems to have attained some sort of cult following as an underrated 80s classic. So when I saw it free to watch on Amazon Prime, I decided to see if maybe my twelve-year old self had been overly judgmental. And indeed, it was not so bad as I had thought.

It was much, MUCH worse than I ever could have imagined. I owe my twelve-year old self an apology. And any of you out there who recommended that movie? Yeah. So do you.

How can I summarize Lifeforce? It’s as if it was made by people who had seen the movies Alien, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, but hadn’t really understood them. These same people had also, however, watched a whole lot of softcore S&M porn and understood it very well. Perhaps too well. The whole movie is about the leading men being unabashedly drawn to an alien who looks an awful lot like Liv Tyler (so, I mean, good taste, there, at least. Note to self: also, Liv Tyler was supposedly 8 years old in 1985. Is it possible that she’s actually a vampire? Research!!), and on the way they acquire telepathic powers that make them capable of telling when a woman wants it rough. Really, I’m not making these plot points up.

During the film it is deduced that the space vampires are truly the source of the vampires of legend, because they demonstrate a whole lot of the classical vampire vulnerabilities and powers, such as vulnerability to being staked, transforming into a giant bat, and becoming a huge glowing ball of light that flies around the city sucking the life out of people using the special effects from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We all remember when Dracula did that, right?

In truth, the vampires develop their new and frightening powers at the twin speed of plot and arousal, but let’s be fair, so do the humans. Nothing in the whole film ever happens for any reason other than that the writers decided it was time for it to. No question raised by the film is ever answered, including whether Liv Tyler and Captain Sex Slave live or die at the end. But that’s okay because we aren’t interested. The only question that REALLY interests me is how they managed to persuade Henry Mancini not only to score this film, but to produce one that sounded like John Williams’ and James Horner’s Greatest Meh.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: House. Or, The Worst Horror Movie In The World.

Not the hit TV series starring Hugh Laurie. The 80s horror-schlock film starring George Wendt and some guy who was utterly forgettable as the protagonist.

So, every now and then, I get the urge to do something completely silly. Make random recipes off the internet, see how well I remember the lyrics to whole musicals, vote Libertarian, etc. And one of the things I do is watch old movies on Netflix or Amazon that I thought looked intriguing once upon a time. This is how I came to watch House.

I remember previews for House from the 1980s. It was billed as a comedy-horror or a horror-comedy. I also really like the haunted-house conceit. So I decided to give it a try and see if it was material for a cult classic.

What I found was, in fact, material that I shall use if I ever want to teach a class entitled, “Writing: How Not To Do It.” A brief catalogue of its sins will be listed below, because a comprehensive one would be longer than the film. For the hard-of-thinking, this will contain what would otherwise be called spoilers, but this film is so far gone it really can’t be spoiled.

The Junkpiled Protagonist: Our protagonist is a writer (gosh, wonder where that came from?) who is traumatized by, in no particular order, the fact that he is suffering from writers’ block, possibly brought on by his son who has disappeared from his front yard, his wife who has divorced him because of the missing son, and his Vietnam-induced PTSD. The effect is that this guy has so much shit to deal with that it’s impossible for us to care about any one issue.

The Incoherent Backstory: Apparently, the son disappeared while playing in the yard of the titular House, while I guess visiting there, because the House belongs to protagonist’s crazy aunt, but the whole family was to all appearances living there when the kid vanished. It’s implied that he either or both was kidnapped by people in a car streaking away or vanished from the House’s swimming pool before his father’s eyes.

The Endless Red Herrings: The car streaking away turns out to be only the first of myriad fake clues strewn all over the plot. Also included are Bosch/Daliesque paintings done by the aunt, endless scenes involving a medicine cabinet, a love interest that never materializes, strong hints that protagonist is completely delusional and hallucinating literally everything in the movie, and to top it all off, LITERALLY EVERY MONSTER IN THE FILM BUT ONE.

The Wandering Plot Monster: So we see the protagonist move into his aunt’s House (the same one his son vanished from and that he seemed to have been living in before) right after she has hanged herself, and despite getting fairly convincing evidence that the House is haunted — like, the ghost of his aunt appearing and saying, pretty much, “The House killed me.” — does nothing about it. Just sits and tries to plow on through his memoir of the Vietnam War despite the fact that his publisher has told him it won’t sell, and despite increasing but halfhearted attempts by the House to kill him. The fact that the protagonist looks very much like Ted from Airplane! with a perm does not add to the gravitas of these scenes. Closely related to this is…

The Idiot Plot: This is pretty much the whole film. Our protagonist kills humanoid monsters and buries them in broad daylight in six-inch shallow graves in his backyard. He completely ignores apparitions of his son begging for help. Despite the fact that the House’s clock loudly rings midnight right before monsters appear in the closets, it takes him two or three times to get it. Despite the fact that he’s a soldier, it takes him most of the movie to figure out that he might want to use guns. Despite the fact that his own son vanished in the House, he allows his sexy neighbor to use him as impromptu unpaid babysitting so she can go out clubbing and leaves the kid alone in a room of the House, from which he is promptly kidnapped by shapeshifting spirits, which he already knows the House contains. Through all of this, he continues to behave as though the most important thing is plowing on with his story of how he lost his pretty-much-an-asshole buddy in Vietnam.

The Horrible Climax: In the end, it is revealed that the cause of his son’s disappearance, the mastermind behind the House, is the ghost of his old war buddy, who has never forgiven protagonist for — get this — NOT killing him in Vietnam when he was wounded. Because protagonist went to get help instead, leaving his buddy to be carried away by the VC, who tortured him to death. So his spirit apparently decided to get revenge by invading protagonist’s aunt’s house, and kidnapping the kid to the jungles of Vietnam in another dimension, which can only be reached from inside the House.
So, EVERYTHING else in the House — the creepy distorted woman he killed, the baby kidnappers, the Lovecraftian closet-monster, the animated tools — all of this was just incidental. We never find out how long the kid was kidnapped for. Enough time for a divorce, for great-aunt to put him in a spooky painting, and for her to commit suicide. Of course, she blames the kid’s disappearance on the House from the beginning, so apparently it was haunted before Evil War Buddy Ghost got there? And I guess it was just a great place for him to take over? He’s actually a pretty knowledgeable and subtle strategist, this guy.

The only way this movie ever got made is that it was during the Great Eighties Horror Boom, when studios were desperate to mimic things like Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part Billion. And the production values are so low that I kept expecting to see Made In China stamped on the rubber suits. I’ve literally seen these mistakes made and avoided by high-schoolers. Take these lessons to heart: this film is not “so bad it’s good.” But it is bad enough to learn some lessons from.