Pet Sematary (1989) Movie Review

The other day, scrolling through the channels, my eye caught on Pet Sematary. I’ve been looking forward to the new film set to release in April, and had never seen the original and so decided to watch it. I have never read a Stephen King novel, though I have enjoyed several movies based on his works but I wouldn’t really say I’m a fan, and most of the time the films are entirely hit or miss.

This was a big miss. This movie is just not very good. The acting is terrible, especially from the lead, Dale Midkiff who taps out at a monotone early in the film. The pacing of the film is off as well with the opening of the film moving very slowly but with no tension building. Then there’s the plot, which feels clunky. The characters are really quick to believe things that are rather fantastical and are even quicker to take action based on those beliefs. There are also a lot of things in the film that just don’t age well. Some of the camera angles and editing choices, along with the music feel very dated. Though, the Ramones theme song provides some much needed humor as the credits roll at the end of the film.

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The two good things from this film are the special effects makeup, which looks pretty gruesome, and the ghost/zombie Victor Pascow played very tongue-in-cheek by Brad Greenquist. His performance lightens the mood and his delivery of some pretty fun dialogue from a rather disturbing appearance is a nice combination of corny and creepy.

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Movie Review: Venom

My sister doesn’t go to the movies very often, and it is near impossible trying to predict what she might end up liking. So, of course, when she told me that not only had she gone to the theater to see Venom (more than once mind you) but that she actually liked it, I was surprised. I know that she has always been a fan of the Spider-Man universe and that she had a particular fondness for Venom but I had heard so many terrible things about this film, I just couldn’t believe that’s what she decided to spend her time on.

Time went by and after receiving the DVD for Christmas, an opportunity came up for her to share her appreciation of the film with me. We started the day off with a viewing of Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (which was quite a lot of fun), and then went back home to sit down and watch Venom.

I have to say, the film isn’t as bad as people say it is. It isn’t very good either but it’s not that bad. There are a lot of story issues, such as plot holes, messy exposition, and an expedited climax. The acting also isn’t the best, though I think Tom Hardy was having a lot of fun with the role, and of all the things I’ve seen him in, this is the film where I enjoyed watching him the most. At least he wasn’t just grunting or squinting his way through his scenes. The special effects look unfinished in a lot of areas but the Venom face effects look decent enough.

The best thing though that this film has going for it is its small scale storyline. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how tiring some of the superhero movies can get because there is just so much destruction and so many lives lost that it becomes depressing to watch after a certain point. Venom takes place in one central location (San Francisco), involves one main bad guy and a couple of cronies, and the climax of the film doesn’t involve a whole city’s decimation. The consequences of the characters’ actions could have bigger implications but the battle at the end doesn’t.

I can see why my sister likes this movie so much. Despite its weaknesses, Venom was kind of a fun viewing experience, and it is an interesting character to base a movie around. I don’t see myself revisiting this the way my sister is eager to but I’m also not upset that I sat through it this first time.

Netflix Series Review: The Haunting of Hill House

Though I have never read the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House, I have enjoyed watching adaptations of it throughout the years, the most successful of which being the 1963 film The Haunting. I have always been a fan of the horror genre, appreciating how, regardless of the quality of the film, it is the one genre that will always elicit a response. Comedy is subjective, and drama doesn’t always move you but even a bad horror movie will have one or two good scares.

Over the years I have become more discerning in what I see as a successful, and satisfying horror viewing experience. Sometimes it can just be a film that truly gives you the creeps but my favorite kind of horror films are the ones that pose bigger philosophical questions, and set about answering them by building tension through a slow burn plot and well developed characters. That is exactly what The Haunting of Hill House does.

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Clearly as a television series it has an advantage at being able to set a slow pace but this can also be to its detriment if the creators aren’t smart about the pacing. Thankfully, Hill House does a very nice job of breaking its story into ten fifty-ish minute chapters. The first half of the season is essentially broken up by character with the first five episodes focusing on each of the five siblings involved in the story. Over the course of these episodes we learn that this family lived in the legendary Hill House, that there was some dark tragedy that occurred, and that lasting psychological effects have plagued each of them into adulthood.

This first batch of episodes follows a classic horror narrative with its focus on the past haunted house story and other supernatural elements. It has the most horror style conventions, with the slow camera pans to the right or left to reveal something from the shadows, and the sudden cuts that result in good jump scares. Each of these scares feels earned thanks to the constant tension that is built throughout each episode and the season as a whole. Additionally, because we get to spend one whole episode with each of the main characters, when the second half of the season starts, we feel more attached and invested in the outcome. Learning how each sibling interacted with the house when they were children, and how they have coped with what they experienced adds a deeper layer to what horrors lay ahead.

Episode 6, “Two Storms,” may be my favorite of the series. It stands as the transition between the individual storylines, and what will be the final, family intwined storyline. It is the culmination of all of these egos and personalities, all performed beautifully by the cast, that we have been getting to know coming together to finally spark something. It also provides some wonderful flashbacks that add both to the dark mood but also the idea that this family used to be a tight unit, and that the house, both then and now, is determined to drive them apart.

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After that episode turn we get into the meat of the larger story and what this house is really capable of. This is where the true appeal of the show for me began to be revealed. This entire time the story has been laying the groundwork for its deeper themes of family unity and mental illness. There is the idea of a family that works together is stronger and we see again and again that when two members of the family are working in partnership, the supernatural elements are not as successful in their scheming. On the other hand, there is also the idea that family member idiosyncrasies may be genetic. Each of the characters has been dealing with some sort of post-traumatic stress but it is the introduction of the thought that maybe some of their issues have been inherited that we see a more meaningful thread in the story.

Horror films that play with reality versus the imagined can be very tricky. There is a fine line to walk in both trying to lend credibility to the idea of supernatural events while providing just enough doubt to suggest that they are simply imagined. Many films botch this portion of the story and fall too heavily on one side, fumbling in the end to provide an ambiguous enough answer to that more philosophical question of “What was real?” Hill House handles this balancing act by not addressing the question directly. There are characters that readily admit to having some sort of mental illness, and the question is never if they imagined it all. As Dumbledore would say to them, “Of course it is happening inside your head … but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” It is how they learn to live with it in a world that rejects the idea of the fantastical that really matters.

At the end of the series I was both scared, of the horrors in this house and for these characters I had come to care about, and sad. I had been so caught up in the horror philosophy of the show that I hadn’t noticed the impact of the drama portion of the story. It had been stitched in throughout and though there had been some obvious plot points, generally the feeling it evoked had been a subtle presence, revealing itself at the end to be the true heart of the story.

I watched this series more than a month ago now but it has really stuck with me. I have had some vivid dreams thanks to the creep factor of the show but more than that I have been mulling over those other elements of the story, family and reality. Specifically, how your connection to your family can sometimes seem like a different reality than the one other people live in, and how that can be both wonderful and terrible at the same time. I love a good scary movie/show but even more I love one that keeps me thinking days and weeks later, and that is exactly what The Haunting of Hill House has done.

 

 

Netflix Series Review: You

What makes a show binge-worthy? That’s the question I came away with after literally staying up until 2am watching all of the first season of You. It wasn’t a show I was looking forward to, and in fact I didn’t even know it was a thing until the day I sat down to watch it. I knew it was based on a book that was very popular, and which I had heard great things about but had no interest in reading. I also knew that the show starred Penn Badgley, who I like but wouldn’t necessarily call a favorite actor. So, back to the original question: What made it something I ended up binge watching?

Part of the deal, I am sure is that I found myself one weekend with the house to myself and nothing on the social calendar. I’ve definitely sat for long periods of time before, consuming mass amounts of media but usually it was something I had anticipated watching. With You, I sort of stumbled upon it. As I mentioned, I had briefly heard about it (that day), and as I scrolled through the options on Netflix, I paused to read the description. Now, Netflix has very cleverly started playing whatever content you land upon when you pause on the description. So, as I was looking at the show description, and considering whether or not I wanted to add it to my watch list, the first episode started playing. Very smart Netflix, catch us almost unawares, hook us before we even know what’s happening.

I’ll admit, the first episode was not what I was expecting from a television show about a man who stalks a woman and subsequently infiltrates her life. I thought it was going to be creepy, and if not creepy in the scary movie way, at least creepy in the way that stalkers usually are. To be fair, some of it does fall into that second category. There are things that happen that just make you feel icky but what struck me in this first episode was the light, almost whimsical tone of the voice-over. The start of the series feels like a romantic comedy, and in fact the story essentially begins that way. There’s a meet-cute involving a bookstore and some flirtatious exchanges, and the characters have charming chemistry. It doesn’t really begin to be disturbing until the end of the first episode, and that’s about when I realized I was hooked. The light tone takes a dark turn, a really dark turn, and suddenly the whole feel of the show shifts.

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The rest of the series is basically a back-and-forth of those two tones. You have some very comedic moments followed immediately by very violent and/or disturbing ones, and sometimes you even have comedic moments sprinkled in during the disturbing ones. It is an interesting experiment, and not always a successful one at that. Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg is charismatic, self-deprecating, and surprisingly sympathetic. There are things that fall under the “stalker creepy” category but because Badgley plays the character the way he does, you sometimes forget that he is stalking this woman. That’s usually when the show does something to remind you of this fact, like have him break into her apartment.

Elizabeth Lail is a good counter to Badgley, and plays Beck, the object of Joe’s attention as a fairly typical millennial woman. She is clearly devoted to her friends, though they may not be the best people, and she is just trying to navigate life the same way other young woman in her situation would. She has romantic missteps, and her Master’s to be concerned with but she also seems to lack some motivation, and she definitely uses some people, including Joe at times. So, as Joe is sometimes sympathetic despite being a stalker, Beck is sometimes unsympathetic despite being the victim.

Like I said, it is an interesting experiment, and there is definitely that theme of the grey areas in human character. The show isn’t perfect and there are things about it I find irritating (some of the sexual content seems excessive, as do some of the storylines with Beck’s friends) but overall I think what made it “binge-worthy” were the performances and that playing with tone element. I laughed out loud at some things, felt a little sad at others, even had those stomach twisting moments where someone is about to get caught doing something they shouldn’t (usually Joe but not always), and still had moments where I felt queasy because at the end of the day it is a story about a man stalking someone. It covered an uncomfortable setup (a man stalks a woman and infiltrates her life) with dark humor and a charming lead. The show is good, and good shows make us want to come back for more but this show was addicting because of how it approached its subject and the people it cast to tell its story.

Movie Review: The Babysitter

I forget where I first heard about this but it sounded right up my alley. A young boy stays up late one night to discover what his babysitter does once he is asleep. He soon learns that she is actually part of a cult that believes in human sacrifice. He then spends the rest of the evening trying to stay alive and out run all of the deranged, overly sexualized teenagers tearing apart his house and trying to use him for their ritual.

I’ll be honest, this isn’t a great film but it is a lot of fun. It is completely over the top and it is very stylized. It has a glossy look to it and plays with some of the usual horror tropes, and even throws in a few 70s style captions. The kid is actually pretty good, and everyone in it seems to be having fun. These kinds of films only really work when the people in them know the kind of thing they are making.

It won’t end up being a classic for sure but it is only an hour and a half, and some of the visual gags make it really worth it. There is definitely some gore, and you know the filmmakers had to have been laughing when they thought up some of these deaths.

Movie Review: Dumplin’

I heard about Dumplin’ thanks to the BookTube community on YouTube. Apparently the novel is supposed to be quite good. I do have an eBook copy of it but have not yet sat down to read it so I wasn’t able to compare the book to the movie. I was mostly interested in the film because I had heard that Jennifer Aniston had been involved with it from the very first stages, and the premise of the story sounded like something that could be fun. An overweight teenager, Willow Dean, joins a beauty pageant run by her former Beauty Queen mother to make a statement about pageants and the expectations put on young girls because of them, as well as to take a stand against her mother’s expectations for her. It is set in Texas and involves a lot of Dolly Parton.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to a variety of interesting themes. There is of course the concept of fallen beauty queens (what has happened to Willow Dean’s mother after her pageant win?), and the issue of self-esteem and how low self-confidence can impact the way others see you (but is it really how they see you, or just how you think they see you?). Unfortunately neither of these themes is well developed throughout the rest of the film. Willow Dean has low self-esteem, despite putting on a good face and she actually judges others quite a bit the way she feels they judge her. We see some of those feelings come to actual conflict but there is never any real resolution, and the issue of Willow Dean’s judging others never is addressed. The only follow up to the “fallen beauty queens” theme is a punchline Willow Dean delivers to a fellow pageant participant for no reason other than she takes an instant dislike to her.

On top of these thematic issues, the relationship between Willow Dean and her mother is very underdeveloped. We are told over and over again how awful her mother can be about the weight and the pageantry expectations but the only thing we actually see is a working mother, who very clearly loves her daughter, that sometimes fails to adequately communicate that feeling. Again, there is no meaningful resolution here. There is also the relationship with Willow Dean’s aunt, which is shown briefly at the beginning of the story to be loving and supportive. Willow Dean has clearly idolized her aunt but we don’t get much beyond their shared love of Dolly Parton, and donuts.

The major problem with this film is that it is fueled by teenage angst, and the worst kind at that, the unjustified kind. Willow Dean has a loving mother, supportive friends, and a really nice guy who is into her, yet she pushes them all away because of her own insecurities. Then, she spends the majority of the film on a revenge plot against her mother for no real reason. She sort of comes to a conclusion about her lack of confidence and how she has been projecting that onto others at the end of the film but the path laid out for that realization is so small and weak that it feels like her epiphany comes out of nowhere.

This film could have been about so much more than its poster premise of an overweight girl in a beauty pageant but every time it had the chance to dive into some deeper themes, it cut away from them quickly to focus back on all of that teenage angst. Suffice it to say it was a disappointment and not very much of an endorsement for me to pick up the book.