IT Breaks the Remake Curse

Published September 12, 2017 by rmpixie

It (2017, 2 hrs 15 mins)

We all know by now that Stephen King is one of the most prolific horror writers of the 21st century. Along with his incredible library of terrors comes film adaptions. Some are classics like Christine, The Dead Zone, Carrie and The Shining, and some were not so great like Sleepwalkers (although a cat does save the day), Dreamcatcher, and Secret Window. Being a fan since my teens, I’ve read a lot of his books and watched the good and bad films. One of my favourites has to be It. This chilling book told the tale of a clown that terrorized a small town in Maine and its children every 27 years. When the TV mini-series adaptation was aired in 1990, I was there with bells on and loved it. Fast forward to this summer where Andy Muschietti, director of Mama, took the helm to create a modern take on the demonic clown. I was a little skeptical since I had mixed feelings about Mama, but this director has an aesthetic that I like, so I was willing to give it a go. I’m pleased to say that he has done a more than successful job in modernizing the mini-series into a fast-paced horror movie, destined to create new fans and please the old ones of Stephen King’s work.

The town of Derry is seemingly peaceful and a great place to raise a family, but there is a darkness that dwells there. Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), Bill Denbrough’s (Jaden Lieberher) brother has gone missing after being lured into a sewer by a menacing clown. Given up for dead, the town puts a curfew in place to save other children from going missing as they try to figure out what happened, but 7 young misfits know better. They have all been tormented by the clown in their waking life, being lured and taunted by him; becoming his inevitable prey as he feeds off their fears. When they realized they’ve all encountered this clown known as Pennywise, they band together to defeat this evil entity.

From L to R: Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Bill (Jaden Lieberher), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Photo credit: IMDb

King has a way of conveying an incredible sense of nostalgia with his books, and luckily films like Stand by Me and The Green Mile were in the hands of competent directors who created visual testaments to King’s skill. The 1990 version of It directed by Tommy Lee Wallace works well too, tapping into the schoolyard fears of being bullied and not having the idyllic childhood that so many strive for. I also enjoyed the introduction of characters as adults and their encounters with the dreaded Pennywise in flashbacks. In the 2017 version, we get only the childhood battle with the demon clown, but here instead of a timeline from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s-early 90s, the kids are based in the 80s.

Everything 80s is new again, from the hit Netflix series Stranger Things to popular bands touring for their now adult fans. The writing team of Cary Fukunaga (director of HBO’s True Detective), Gary Dauberman (writer of both Annabelle films), and Chase Palmer were extremely smart about the setting of the remake. Instead of regurgitating the same timelines from the original and making a static revamp mired in a world that is further removed from our generation, they made the timeline dynamic because it holds so much meaning to many of us that grew up in that era, tapping into a visceral feeling of that same nostalgia King is so brilliant at. It translates really well, especially with the music choices, and we all relate to the kids in the film because it felt like we were all there. They also took great pains to encapsulate the episodic TV representation, streamlining action and changing some moments to make things fresh while still capturing the same feel of childhood uncertainty that comes with being a preteen.

Pennywise has become iconic because of Tim Curry’s terrifying portrayal. Everyone remembers the scary clown’s grimacing mouth filled to the brim with razor-sharp teeth. Those are large clown shoes to fill, but Bill Skarsgard did a fantastic job channeling the essence of the evil Pennywise and at the same time making it his own. His handsome young face is unrecognizable under the clown makeup and prosthetics; his voice is eerily childlike, cartoonish and menacing all at once. The ensemble cast that makes up this modern “Loser’s Club” was engaging, sharp and had the best chemistry. Finn Wolfhard embodied the cut-up Richie with a wit that made me forget he’s the kid from Stranger Things. Lieberher and Chosen Jacobs both worked well as Bill and Mike respectively; embracing the sensitivity of the two characters, and Jeremy Ray Taylor will break your heart as the awkward and love-struck Ben. Last but not least, Sophia Lillis was tomboyish and feminine with a wonderful strength that updated the original interpretation of Beverly.

Oh that Pennywise! (Bill Skarsgard)

My only criticism is that Beverly ends up being the damsel in distress that the boys must save after we see her come through as a fighter and survivor of abuse, as well as the unifying, peace-keeping member of the group. It’s contradictory, but in the book, it’s worse when she offers herself up to the boys in a weird sexual bonding scene to unite the group. Other than her needing to be rescued, the new Beverly stands up for herself making this portrayal the lesser of two evils.

If you’re looking for a relevant walk down memory lane, It is a must-see. With the film’s current box office take of 123 million dollars, and a sequel focusing on the kids as adults back to battle Pennywise in the works, horror has clearly made its place in the theatres. I keep saying (and will continue to say) movie-goers are hungry for content, and even though this is a remake of a classic, it’s well done and worth the cost of a movie ticket.

 

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Annabelle: Creation – A Little Sugar, a Dash of Spice and Heaps of Brimstone!

Published August 24, 2017 by rmpixie

 

Annabelle: Creation (2017, 1 hr, 49 mins.)

Our favourite possessed doll is back! After seeing her terrorize a family with her demonic presence in Annabelle (2014), of course the creators had to give us an origins story. I mean, it’s only fair, right? Horror producer extraordinaire James Wan and his horror universe needed to give the satanic doll her due with a full back story, and that’s what we get in Annabelle: Creation.

Taking place in 1943, 24 years before the first Annabelle film, we meet Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), a doll maker hard at work in his shop. He has a mischievous daughter Bee (Samara Lee), who is doted on by him and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto). The family is well-loved by their community and Sam is known for his skill. When they lose Bee in a terrible car accident, they are devastated and mourn their loss for 12 years.  The couple become reclusive but come out of their grieving to open up their home to six orphaned girls and their nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) after their orphanage closed down.

Kate (Taylor Buck), Tierney (Lou Lou Safron), Linda (Lulu Wilson)Nancy (Philippa Coulthard), and Carol (Grace Fulton) as the orphaned girls.
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac Dune Entertainment 2017.

The girls can’t believe their good luck as they explore the huge house, thrilled with all the places to explore. Mr. Mullins is sombre but glad to have them there, only banning them from two rooms: Mrs. Mullins’ who suffered an injury from a mysterious incident years before and stays behind closed doors, and their dead daughter’s locked bedroom. Despite their odd hosts, the girls look to the future and hope for adoption, especially Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson). Their bond has made them best friends and they hope to be adopted by the same family. Janice is recovering from polio, so her braced leg makes them both worry that she will be overlooked.

Sam (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther (Miranda Otto).
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac Dune Entertainment 2017.

When Janice wakes one night to find Bee’s bedroom unlocked, her exploration reveals a closet with a doll, our Annabelle, hidden inside. Once discovered, the demonic Annabelle unleashes her powers on the unsuspecting girls and torments the Mullins’, haunting them with the terrible mistake they made years before.

Janice (Bateman) and Annabelle getting acquainted
Photo credit: Warner Bros. 2017

The first two acts of Annabelle Creation give you a decent build up with a couple of jump scares to draw your attention back should you feel you’ve seen/heard this type of thing before. It’s almost as if director David F. Sandberg, who also directed Lights Out, gave you a couple of “I saw that coming” moments to pepper the building tension. The final act is a total horror movie playhouse, with nail-biting action, lots of well-placed scares and a nod to the real Annabelle doll to boot.

The young cast delivered some great performances worthy of a good old popcorn horror flick, and it was nice to see film and TV veterans LaPaglia and Otto back on the big screen. The angelic Bateman had to channel some major badness when Janice changes for the worse, and Wilson was just as good playing her conflicted best friend.  I must say that I was also excited to see Joseph Bishara play a demon again. With his talents used in Insidious and The Conjuring as various supernatural creatures, this composer and actor has stolen my monster heart. Look to him for giving the audience guaranteed willies with just a glimpse of his demonic grimace.

While I’m all for the indie or obscure vintage horror film, I love a good horror franchise. I enjoy revisiting the lore of monsters and recurring characters no matter how schlocky things get, and Sandberg gives us solid prequel to Annabelle. The fact that Annabelle Creation doesn’t do anything new shouldn’t stop you from seeing it, and for those who hated the first Annabelle film, they should know this second installment is really good.  Their ranking makes me think of the Ouija films. I disliked the first film Ouija that came out in 2014 for its weak story which was widely panned, but the prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) starring Lulu Wilson, was definitely stronger and gave us some really creepy scenes. It’s no wonder the second film was well-received since Mike Flanagan of the indie hits Absentia and Oculus fame directed and co-wrote it.

With a reported 1 billion made in total for The Conjuring series according to Variety.com, you could argue that these prequels and sequels are made for money not substance, but Wan has succeeded in bringing horror fans consistent films in his Conjuring universe with heroes and villains you want to see more of.  He also mines the very indie directors we support out here in horror land, taps into subject matter that has a wealth of material, and he hit the bull’s-eye with Annabelle. Who doesn’t want to see a great origin story about one of the creepiest haunted antiques that still sits in Ed and Lorraine Warren’s Occult Museum to this day?

To sum it up, there’s no shame in saying Annabelle Creation is a fun Friday night horror movie that does the Annabelle story justice and leads to another potentially solid addition to The Conjuring franchise (If you haven’t figured out what that means, you’ll have to stay right until the very, very end of the credits).  Go see it now!

 

Shudder Exclusive: Kuso-The Anti La-La Land

Published July 25, 2017 by rmpixie

Kuso (2017, 1 hr, 45 mins.)

 

A forest sparkling with fairy dust, it’s woodland floor peppered with what can only be called anus mounds; psychedelic collages of body parts flashing before your eye to an electronic beat; poxy-faced characters in absurd and disturbing circumstances as they struggle through the literal muck of life. That muck, which at first looks like your garden variety sludge, is actually made up of the complexity and randomness of everyday drudgery. All of this can be found wrapped in a psychedelic, comedy/horror package of interconnected segments in the Shudder Exclusive of Kuso, directed by DJ and artistic virtuoso, Flying Lotus aka Steve Ellison.

Kuso opens with a spoken word chorus, or “news pirate” (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) hijacking a news report of an earthquake that has hit Los Angeles, and carries on to various TV spots showing the aftereffects of this seismic event on a motley crew of characters. In Royal, a young man partakes in erotic asphyxiation administered by his loving sister who has a secret. Then we have Smear, with a bullied boy whose mother forces him to eat horrific meals. He is ridiculed in school because of his intestinal discomfort and when he runs away, comes across a magical forest with a feces hungry anus-like creature. There is a woman in a subterranean hell as she searches for her baby in Sock, and finally Mr. Quiggle takes us on a journey of another woman who deals with her dating dilemma and her “trans-dimensional” monster roommates, and a man who seeks radical treatment for his fear of breasts.

What we have here is, to me, a nightmarish commentary on the current social and political climate. The reviews have not been overly receptive to the film, citing the over-the-top gross-out scenarios as too obvious or beyond the reach of comprehension. They have also compared the film to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which makes sense with the bizarre subject matter and body horror. I beg to differ with these reviews for the most part however, because as a person of colour, I see it as a psychedelic, avant-garde and horrific approach to life as a marginalized person.

Avant-garde film, music and comedy is often seen as a white endeavour, but one only has to remember the epitome of avant-garde art, Jean-Michel Basquiat; the afro-futurist movement with Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who plays “Dr. Clinton” with his bowel motivated treatments); the cyber-punk gore fests of Japanese horror; the musical DNA from Flying Lotus’s grand-uncle legendary saxophonist John Coltrane; and the decades of spoken word poetry based in the bebop/hip-hop arena to realize this is untrue. Snobbery would consider the latter to be merely a symptom of the “urban” experience with popular music and art of today, but dig deeper and you’ll find modern observations on life as a marginalized or Black person in continually trying times, like the thought-provoking news pirate chorus at the start and end of the film. This is why the Black director and cast composed of mostly people of colour is so important. It shows that we too have a sensibility for the avant-garde, perhaps even more so since some of our real-life experiences can be surreal and literal representations in modern film can often be too painful to watch.

Each sore-riddled character in the vignettes lives on the fringe of society in their filthy abodes. They are the antithesis of the meet-cute, rom-com story, the absent father tearjerker or the mild-mannered guy overcoming his fears. Dialogue in the film mimics formulaic scripts like the intimate, after-sex talk between lovers or the awkward comedy between strangers that just may become friends, and characters sport grotesque skin eruptions instead of picture perfect skin, making the film an abomination of the squeaky-clean Hollywood crank that the masses are addicted to or sick of. That this earthquake takes place in L.A. isn’t unusual, in fact, it is most telling as this is the very place that ideals of how we should live are created even though many a civil unrest has taken place there. In the current climate where racial tensions and turmoil are coming to a head, the earthquake has pushed the build-up of all the white-washing and cover-ups to the surface, spewing forth the discontent, anxieties, fears and truths of the ignored and gagged masses, much like the pus, semen and feces that bubbles from Kuso’s characters.

Although we are now in the internet age, the use of television is so important in this film. One story leads to another from endless screens of all-seeing eyes in each household, illustrating how TV has become a part of everyday life, an extension of ourselves; guiding us in what we should be doing or consuming and feeding us edited and suspect news stories. It is still one of the most powerful electronic mediums in society today as Marshal McLuhan once prolifically predicted, and Hollywood has always been the defining force in what we consume, being the makers of the messages sent through these electronic mediums. When that message is continually manipulated, distorted and upended in no uncertain terms, we must reprocess what is shown to us, which is what Kuso attempts to do.

Incest and general foulness aside, I have only two issues with Kuso. One is with the Mr. Quiggle segment involving the woman “B” (rapper The Buttress) who realizes she’s pregnant and is treated like trash by her two furry TV screen faced roommates played by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. These fantastical creatures whip excrement at her and belittle her every chance they get. While her exchanges with them are meant to be comedic, there is an underlying misogyny that can’t be missed as well as the suggestion that she has been date raped by her stalker Phil, played by comedian Tim Hiedecker. His usual Adult Swim-Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! blank-faced delivery gave this story a more disturbing turn even though “B” brushes the incident off. She is also questioned about her decision to get an abortion at the Coathanger Clinic by Manuel (Zack Fox), even thought she says that it’s her body and her right. While she is tough and holds her own with her male counterparts and her stalker does get his comeuppance, it’s a hard reminder of the struggles women endure in the real and surreal comic book world.

The other is a sign spotted in the Coathanger Clinic “B” and Manuel visit, advertising a vaccine for “N*ggapox” with a smiling white face. I will go on record to say that I will never, ever get used to hearing the “N” word, even if it’s used between Blacks and in almost every hip-hop song and Tarantino film out there, but this sign in the clinic made me stop for a moment. It seemed to be a joke, but I wondered if a deeper meaning could imply removing Blackness from society; inoculating us from the Black struggle so we can all live in oblivion and denial, or even removing it from whites who have, perhaps according to their peers, become too ingrained and involved with Black culture. I could be over thinking it, but the few gasps I heard from the mostly white audience at the screening when the camera focused on that sign gave me pause.

There is also a strong pornography element throughout the film, from flashing imagery and TV commercials to full on ejaculate, and even a cameo from porn actor Lexington Steele. Flying Lotus was interviewed by the Guardian, and he mentioned growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he says “all the porn comes from”, making it a sort of background din for him. He manages to create this feeling of overconsumption with clips of body part collages made of magazines cut-outs undulating to catchy electronic beats that is seamlessly erotic, surreal and absurd at the same time. It desensitizes the viewer at some point, much like the constant battery of airbrushed and perfected bodies plastered before us on a daily basis.

One of the “trans-dimensional” tv monsters in Mr. Quiggle critiques a bizarre porn movie he watches stating that it was “exploitive and sexist though artful”. This along with other statements from the cast like, “I fucking hate this movie!”, is almost a foreshadowing or a mocking of what critics would think once the film was released, and Flying Lotus wasn’t wrong. While some may focus on and denounce the obvious gross-out splatter of Kuso (which is apparently a Japanese word for “shit”) that made people walk out of the 2017 Sundance screening, I challenge viewers to go a little deeper with the insanity. There might be arguments for or against this film as art, and it’s certainly not perfect and will definitely offend with themes of rape, incest and over-the-top sexual content, but it will show you life’s uglier side through fresh eyes, eyes that tire of the La-La Land universe of denial and white-wash.  I caught Kuso at a limited screening recently in Toronto, but you can now see the real dirt streaming (sorry!) exclusively on Shudder.

 

Book Review: Family Ties and Gothic Horror in The Only Child

Published June 19, 2017 by rmpixie

The Only Child by Andrew Pyper (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

 

Canadian horror author Andrew Pyper has his finger on the pulse of the family. His previous works cover a father looking for his child in the best-selling The Demonologist to a twin haunted by his sister in The Damned, and now, another family dynamic in The Only Child. With his dark approach to family and psychology, he brings us to world where literature, personal demons and reality collide.

Lily Dominick is a forensic psychiatrist who is brilliant at what she does because it’s all she does. Throwing herself into her work with the criminally insane, she is driven and stoic-the result of a tragic family and personal history. Her usual day at the forensic psychiatric center is changed when she is alerted to a patient who has committed a violent crime and awaits her assessment. This patient, known only as client 46874-A, reveals to her that not only did he know her dead mother, but he is also her father. This is alarming to Lily since her mother fell to a violent death, the details of which escaped her for years as well as no memory of her absent father. When this strange patient escapes and starts to pick off people in Lily’s life, she embarks on a global journey where she finds out more about this mysterious man we come to know as Michael and his outrageous claims to be the inspiration for classic horror writers and their creations. Compelled by this menace she tries to stay ahead of his terrifying abilities while seeking the truth about his connection to her, and stop his mad killing spree.

Pyper has created an interesting mythology with the character of Michael. He is a combination of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula, with a demonic element that overrides the romantic aspect of these tortured monsters. It’s certainly a different approach to appreciating the classics. He reminded me of the HBO series Penny Dreadful, but with a modern twist, especially with the steam punk inspired accoutrements that Michael uses to drain his prey of blood. He’s a character you at times sympathize with as he recounts battles with his evil nature, but his ultimate arrogance becomes his worst burden. Snippets of his journals are fascinating and I had hopes that his back story would play more center stage, but that was left to our main character, Lily.

Lily’s is independent and strong which I enjoyed about her, but she was also my least favourite of Pyper’s characters. Her judgement was questionable and her sexual impulses were at times unwarranted and hollow in most situations, especially as she envisaged having sex with almost all the men she met, including Michael. This was a little surprising as Pyper’s female characters have been more well-rounded in the past. I’m not sure if it was his intention to show Michael’s supernatural power over her, or some sort of sexual dysfunction, or to show her sexual freedom as a modern woman, but I can’t imagine sexual encounters would be on the mind of a woman running for her life. He did however, succeed with her emotional turmoil, her memories of her mother’s death and her coping mechanism of being a workaholic. Between Michael and Lily, you may find yourself hoping the monster prevails instead of his prey since sadly, he is far more interesting.

While it may not find a firm footing, The Only Child is still within the literary realm that Pyper enjoys exploring. With a gothic/modern espionage feel that may not be a familiar place for his readers, it’s still worth checking out for an interesting villain brought to life from the pages of Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson. Here’s hoping there’s a compelling prequel in store.

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