31 Days of Horror: Satan’s Slaves (2017)

Another rainy night in New York and tonight’s choice was the atmospheric Satan’s Slaves directed by Joko Anwar and available to watch on Shudder. Apparently, Anwar was so taken by a 1980 Indonesian movie of the same name (which inspired him to become a filmmaker) that he clamored to do a remake/prequel to the movie. Once he showed producers his vision for the film, he got financial backing and was able to shoot Satan’s Slaves in only eighteen days. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhc0d6kYmQ8

In Satan’s Slaves, a family of six struggles to survive after their mother has fallen ill and become bedridden the last three years. The mother Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi) used to be a famous singer, but she hasn’t worked in eight years and no more royalties are coming in for the family. The father (Bront Palarae) has mortgaged the family house, which looks like it might have once been palatial, and is now bankrupt after caring for his sick wife. Mawarni rules over the family with a silver handbell that she rings whenever she needs something, and that serves as her voice throughout the movie, a rather aggressive one.

Mawarni dies and the family buries her in the Islamic tradition, with the local holy man asking the father if they ever pray since he’s never seen them in the mosque. Oldest child Rini (Tara Basro) serves as caretaker for the family when their father travels after the funeral to attend to business matters. That’s when the children begin being haunted by their mother, all but the youngest Ian (M. Adhiyat), who can only communicate using sign language. Mawarni terrorizes her children through the radio or their toys—and these moments provide some very creative, genuine scares.

The plumbing goes out in the house early on, and the family becomes dependent on water from the well, which is located in their bathroom. It’s so completely different from the Westernized bathrooms that I’m familiar with and that added a lot of creepiness for me. Something is in the well and seems to be beckoning the children, yet they can’t really avoid that area of the house. They need to get water for basic necessities, and they have to use the bathroom. So I just ended up being terrified whenever one of the kids had to pee.

Grandma (Elly D. Luthan) comes to visit and ends up dying in the family manor after writing a letter. Thereafter, her presence enters a scene every once in a while, represented by some asthmatic wheezing, which is unnerving. These two matriarchal spirits seem to be locked in battle over the family. Rini searches for the person that the letter is addressed to and finds a hippie writer named Budiman (Egy Fedly). He tells Rini that her grandmother disapproved of her mother as being a singer was not a dignified career. When her only son married Mawarni, she never gave her blessing to the couple. Mawarni was unable to get pregnant for a long time, and the grandmother believed that she asked Satan for her children. Budiman says she joined a fertility cult which will takes a member’s last child as a sacrifice on their seventh birthday. And guess whose birthday is coming up in three days? Ian’s.

 The hippie gives Rini an occult magazine that looks like the Indonesian version of the National Enquirer, and she takes it to the family home but doesn’t really believe in all that it contains. Later, though, she sets up one of her mom’s old records and discovers that when she plays it backward, she can hear chanting in an ancient language.

She asks the village holy man what she should do as the family continues to be haunted by their mother, and he tells her to pray. And pray she does, which sets up one of the most delicious scares of the movie.

The plot gets a little Scooby-Dooish after that when the hippie tries to get a revised version of the article to Rini, telling her what to do in order to save her family. But it’s done stylishly with faceless cult members surrounding the house with synchronized movements.

Anwar has followed up with a sequel to this movie after Satan’s Slaves became a huge hit in Indonesia and Malaysia: Satan’s Slaves 2—Communion. It just came out this year, but I’m unable to find yet on any streaming platforms. Perhaps it will be around for next year’s 31 Days of Horror in October.

31 Days of Horror: The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

Today was my choice for our daily horror movie, and I went for The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which was available to watch on Showtime. My reasons: It has Kiernan Shipka in it, who I love, and takes place in a Catholic boarding school. I’ve always been attracted to those boarding school settings that are perfect for witchcraft and covens. If I see a plaid skirt, I’m in. It’s been a dreary day in New York with lots of rain coming down from the remnants of Hurricane Ian. So with a Chinese food order on the way and my legs tucked under a leopard blanket, we started the movie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRc_-iK3RVE

At an upstate New York Catholic boarding school called Bramford Academy, two girls are left during the start of winter break: Kat (Kiernan Shipka), a freshman who seems disconnected from most of her classmates and staff, and Rose (Lucy Boynton), an upperclassman who believes she is pregnant and has lied to her parents about when to pick her up.

Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton).

Kat seems to have a vision about her parents dying in an accident and engages in increasingly odd behavior as the girls rattle around alone in the academy with only two older nuns to watch over them. At night, Rose hears moaning coming up through the heater vents, and when she goes down to the boiler room, she finds Kat prostrating herself in front of the furnace.

This sequence comes to an end with some disturbing contortions from Kat while sleeping, the kind I associate with demon possession. And then we cut to a new storyline where the subject switches to a third girl named Joan (Emma Roberts) who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and is trying to put some distance between herself and it. There’s no indication whether this storyline is happening simultaneously with Kat and Rose’s or precedes or comes after it.

She’s picked up by a man named Bill and his wife in a creepy scene where I kept waiting for some sort of sexual overture to happen. Instead, Bill (James Remar) pays for Joan’s hotel room while they are on the road heading to a town that’s just past Bramford. And while visiting with her in her hotel room to get her story, he tells Joan that he believes God put her in his path. This all happens while Joan sits in a towel with a prominent puckered scar on her shoulder that matches another on her chest. Later, he shows her a picture of his daughter Rose, who’s now deceased.

There’s some more back and forth between the characters’ storylines, and the audience now knows that Kat and Rose’s story comes first. In the second section featuring Kat and Rose, Kat continues to be creepy. She tells Rose twice, “You smell pretty.” We see Kat’s calendar marked with winter break and then there’s a big heart drawn over February 14 earlier in the month. An alternate title for the movie is actually February, what I think of as the bleakest month in some parts of the United States. But the heart makes me think that maybe Kat was trying to flirt with Rose? I don’t know—there’s not much to work with here.

Through Kat’s perspective, the audience sees a black-horned shape that haunts her in nearly every scene. When she tries to call her family, she gets a disembodied voice telling her to kill everyone. The nuns, Rose, and Kat sit down for lunch, and Kat has a breakdown that ends in a murderous rampage. She turns up Ed Kemper–style in front of the furnace in the basement boiler room and is shot by a frightened cop.

After this, we’re back to Joan’s storyline, and going by the prominent bullet scar on her body, I’m guessing she’s supposed to be Kat. I’m not sure if the Joan section makes much sense to me. I can see similarities in the hair, but the two actresses appear to be around the same age so the difference in the timeline doesn’t gel for me. But I understand the impulse to try and tie the story up neatly. A lot of this movie left me cold, and I don’t think it was just the rainy day. I liked the puzzling little details that seemed to fit together neatly by the end of the movie, but I couldn’t really find much heart pumping the story along. This was the first feature film by director Oz Perkins, who comes from quite a horror pedigree as he’s the son of Anthony Perkins. He’s also directed I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and Gretel & Hansel. I quite liked the retelling of Gretel & Hansel; it was so atmospheric and gothic and real feminist horror, I thought. But I haven’t yet seen I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Maybe I’ll slate it for later in the month, on the days when I’m traveling. I like it that Perkins has chosen to do horror focusing on women’s stories and want to see how he further develops.

31 Days of Horror: Hatching (2022)

Thirty-one days of horror started three years ago when we were at the height of quarantine. October has always been a favorite month with lots of events—readings and get-togethers with my chapter of the Horror Writers Association, haunted houses, and always a big Halloween party on the thirty-first. But with everything still closed at the end of 2020, we had to come up with another way to celebrate. So my sister and I decided to watch a horror movie for each night of October, where we took turns picking a film each night. The only rule was that neither of us could have seen it before. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DS1oDoElwqc

It’s become a wonderful experiment where I watch things I would never normally pick out for myself, and there’s a huge sense of competition because we always want to outdo each other with our choices. There have been a few stinkers, like The Lighthouse and Climax. But generally, it has elevated my horror game. We usually end up watching a fair amount of foreign horror films because those end up being the movies we haven’t seen yet. And a lot of times those are really scary for me because they don’t follow the American horror tropes that I know so well.

My sister had been thinking on her choice for a couple of days and selected HATCHING, a 2022 Finnish horror film that’s available on Hulu. I watched the trailer and was looking forward to sinking my teeth into this one. It had a Grimm fairy tales feel to it, but also included sports and modern twists. We had to restart the movie at the beginning because somehow the settings were tuned to English narration. We were getting a very creepy monotone voice saying things like “IFC logo appears with blood dripping off the I; girl appears in blue leotard; there is tickling.” Disturbing already and worth a laugh, but we prefer to hear the foreign movies in their original language with English subtitles. And sometimes I can even understand some of the words with my hodgepodge knowledge of German, Spanish, and Italian.

Once we got HATCHING properly started, I was creeped out by the perfect polish of this perfect Finnish family in their perfect house. Lots of blond hair, two children playing, and fuzzy zoom-ins of Mom and Dad kissing while their daughter looks on fondly and her brother rolls his eyes. Then the tableaux is shattered as a bird strikes the living room window.

We zoom out of this stylized family portrait in its IKEA-style setting and now see that Mom’s holding her phone on a selfie stick as she cobbles together content for her vlog. She’s an influencer using her family as props and intends for the focus to always fall on her. However, it’s her daughter Trija, her oldest child on the precipice of puberty, who steals the film. And it’s a wonder to see. Siiri Solalinna plays Trija, and the many expressions this young actress uses to portray this people-pleasing daughter are like quicksilver, portraying so many facets of her character.

My favorite is eye-of-the-tiger Trija when she’s training hard as a gymnast for her first big competition, something that Mom (Sophia Heikkilä) has been amping up on her channel. The intensity of her eyes as she jogs could burn down trees. Mom ends up being a stage mother of staggering proportions, forcing her daughter to practice routines until her hands are blistered. Trija finds an egg in the creepy woods and bonds with it while her mother is away during the weekends for “vlogging” conferences—yeah, right.

Eventually, this egg hatches into something, and I can’t say I was in love with the look of the thing when it emerged. It was giving me goofy Howard the Duck vibes, but it does morph through the course of the film becoming something deep and meaningful for Trija as this mother-daughter saga unfolds.

There are some genuine gross-out moments where I was holding my hand over my mouth, feeling my gorge rise. I thought, You’re not going down that road. But yes, director and writer Hanna Bergholm did, and I’m not mad about it.

All in all, a wonderful film to start off 31 Days of Horror.

Artus Scheiner: Is It in the Blood?

We were living in Germany, and my dad got a slim box in the mail. The kind that usually indicated a book. He said we were going to look at something very special once we got home. Me and my sister sat at the dining room table with Mom and Dad while our younger sister and brother played; they were too young to understand the importance of this book. My dad flipped through the pages very carefully with amazement. We had a family coat of arms, and there was text going into the symbology, though there wasn’t too much actual writing in the book. There were lions on the crest, which represented courage. But even at twelve, I knew that. I didn’t need a book to point it out. I really didn’t feel a connection to the book on the Scheiners. It seemed vague and not quite right. This was pre-Internet, and I think my grandmother may have ordered this for my dad.

So I forgot all about that Scheiner book with its coat of arms with lions that looked like a cartoon, not real at all. How could anybody carve that onto a shield? Instead my interests were more taken by visits to the Landstuhl Post newsstand and the few racks that were stacked with real comics. I’d also read the cartoons in the daily Stars and Stripes that my dad brought home from Ramstein every day, but what me and my sister really enjoyed were long-form comics. It started with juvenile Archies, which were few and far between because my family couldn’t really afford these extras.

But one day we discovered a treasure trove of comics in the dumpster outside of our building. They had been thrown out by the Covingtons who lived above us. A couple of teenagers in the family were the source of the comics, and I figured Mrs. Covington must have stumbled on them and made her kids get rid of them. She was super-religious and had been spotted in the woods outside our housing complex cutting switches from the trees to beat her kids with.

For sure, Alan Moore’s and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing would be against her religion. I remember being terrified while reading the eco-horror title when a boy’s parents release the Monkey King after playing with a ouija board. With both excitement and dread, I watched that black-and-white monkey as it started feeding on the blood of children. I didn’t know comics could do that, and it was transcendent for me. We’ve always been artists in our family, and with horror comics paving the way, along with a deep love of Grimm’s fairy tales, some seriously demented and wonderful creatures sprung up. We’d always had a taste for the dark, the gothic, and that was reflected in my family’s artwork.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled onto work by Artus Scheiner, a bohemian artist from Prague, who specialized in cartoons and illustrations made in gauche, my paint medium of choice in college because of the bright colors. I clicked a link that Guillermo del Toro put up on his Twitter account and was stunned to find artwork that looked so similar to what me and the rest of my family produced.

I tried to find more information on him, and the things I uncovered gave me shivers down my back because of the similarities I found. Artus started off as a financial clerk in Prague, but he had an interest in drawing and art from a young age. After he started having success publishing his illustrations in important magazines of the time, like Lustige Blätter, he quit and worked full-time as an artist. He participated in the café culture of Prague, where intellectuals, artists, and writers gathered, and frequented Café Arco, which was visited by other famous luminaries such as Franz Kafka and Max Brod. There he met Milena Jesenska who he asked to work as a model for some of his fairy-tale illustrations. She didn’t mind modeling nude, but she was kind of grossed out by his studio.

Artus and his older brother Josef Scheiner, who was a politician, were part of an association called Sokol, which believed in gymnastic training and cultural development for its members. Josef loved puppet theater and would stage productions for children and guests in his study from 1895 to 1907. The puppet theater was a family affair with puppets being created partly by the brothers’ mother and some by Josef’s wife, Karla Scheinerová. Artus helped by creating scenery and backgrounds for the stage. And Josef would write the scripts, some based on old fairy tales. This reminds me of work my sister has done designing marionettes and selling them on her Etsy shop. Teen Vogue contacted her once, and she lent the magazine one of her puppets as a prop for a photo shoot.

Artus is identified as an artist of the Secessionist movement, which puzzled me. But reading more about it, I found it was part of a reaction to classical art of the time, and there were many bases for the movement: Prague, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. I knew it as art from the Weimar Republic, and some of the artists associated with this movement are Otto Dix, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and George Grosz—only some of my favorite artists. While staying in Berlin, those were the artists I sought out at smaller galleries and museums, skipping all the classical art.

One of my favorite images by Artus is an illustration for the story “The Wooden Baby” from Tales from Bohemia. For the longest time, I thought it was a picture of a giant frog wolfing down a person, but no, it’s a wooden baby with a voracious appetite who keeps eating everybody he encounters while singing rhymes: “I’ve gobbled and gobbled/All that I can;/A jugful of milk/And food from the pan./A whole loaf of bread/And, all this is true—/My mum and my dad/And a dairymaid, too!/I’ve eaten a peasant/And all of his hay,/Pigs, swineherd and shepherd/And sheep, in a day./But as I’m still hungry…/I’ll eat you, if I may!”

The similarities between that and some of my stories are eerie, and now as I work on my kids’ book The Rats of New York with illustrations done by my sister, looking at her artwork and one by Artus for the book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, they almost appear as if they came from the same studio. In my eyes, at least.

I am actively trying to acquire some of Artus’s work now through a Czech auction house called Sypka, but so far I haven’t been lucky with any of my bids. I think I need to make a visit to Prague the next time a lot is selling. I want to see one of these artworks in person and really study it.

Creepy Cats in Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street

Creepy Cats in Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street

Since Tor announced its new imprint dedicated to horror Nightfire in 2019, I’ve been anxiously awaiting its first books, wondering what to expect. It’s been a long time coming, but reading one of their first offerings, Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, has been a highlight of my horror year so far, and I’m looking forward to reading more books from the line. I especially like the feminist bent that Ward’s storytelling takes and her knowledge of what makes horror appealing to a female audience. “There’s a tricksy sense of empowerment, particularly from the ghost story,” she’s told The Guardian. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t felt a bit like a ghost in a meeting, so you can see the appeal. And just being a woman has an element of body horror to it. Childbirth? That’s some horror right there.”

Ward uses multiple points of view to tell a murky, layered story that takes place on the East Coast in a small town near a destination lake and a gothic forest as bleak as any to be found in fairy tales. There’s Ted, a damaged man with questionable tastes in food, who’s become the scourge of his neighborhood after being accused in a child’s disappearance years ago. He has a young daughter Lauren who he sees part-time, and the teenager appears to have some developmental issues. Ted lives on Needless Street, and soon a new neighbor moves in next to him, spying on him and tracking his whereabouts. This is Dee, older sister of Lulu, who was one of the missing girls at the lake years ago. Dee’s determined to find out what happened to her sister years ago no matter what, and her journeys have led her to Needless Street. There are a few appearances from the Bug Man, what Ted calls his shifty psychiatrist who likes to talk about his magnum opus that he plans on publishing soon. And then there’s my personal favorite character, Olivia the cat who describes the many different types of naps she takes and has a faith in God that would rival a human’s. She also harbors a feral huntress side to her that she calls Nighttime, who only comes out when she’s truly hungry or angry.

Ted has set up barricades around his house with teeny-tiny peepholes to protect himself and his property from all the people who want to do him harm, and Olivia watches out of them during certain times of the day when she spies a stray tabby who she loves with all her heart. For me, these are the most heartbreaking moments of the story.

“Her scent precedes her, falls through the air like honey dripping onto toast. She comes around the corner with her graceful stride. How can I describe her? She’s striped like a little dusty tiger. Her yellow eyes are the same color as ripe gold apple skin, or pee. They’re beautiful, is what I mean. She is beautiful. She stops and stretches, this way and that, extends her long black claws. She blinks as snowflakes come to rest on her nose. She has something silver sticking out of her mouth, a tail, maybe. A small fish like a sardine or an anchovy.”

The Last House on Needless Street

The Last House on Needless Street is quite unlike any horror novel I’ve read before. The story’s dreamy but also terrifying. I love the homage paid to a person’s pets; no matter how creepy their personality might be, they too love someone or something. Also, the shifting setting kept me feeling off-kilter and claustrophobic. A large part of the story is spent inside that house on Needless Street with three floors. There’s an attic at the top, which all occupants of the house avoid, except Nighttime, because of the creepy green children who live there. There’s an ever-watchful portrait of Ted’s mother, a former nurse, and his father, a drunk who abandoned the family years ago. And next to that portrait stands a set of Russian dolls that keep reappearing in different configurations as the story progresses. This claustrophobia appears to be a desired effect, though, as Ward classifies this novel compared to others she’s written: “Needless Street, I think, was more about containment.”

Full Moon: What Did You Plant 6 Months Ago?

Full Moon: What Did You Plant 6 Months Ago?

It’s the last full moon of the year today and it falls in the sign of Cancer, a perfect place since Cancer is ruled by the moon. A full moon brings a harvest of what the new moon in Cancer brought you six months ago. Or in the case of this year, two new moons in Cancer on June 21 and July 20.

During the new moon, you plant the seeds of your idea, which is influenced by what house the new moon falls in your chart. My favorite site for casting a natal chart, a unique portrait of where the planets were on the day you were born, is Astrodienst. It’s a website out of Switzerland chock-full of free astrology tools and information. If you know the time you were born and where, you can use their free Chart drawing, Ascendant to cast your natal chart. Once you have your natal chart, you can plot your intentions and goals during the year, according to the moon cycles. Here’s a sample chart from Astrodienst, where you can see how the houses of a natal chart fall:

There are twelve houses in a chart, and each one is associated with a different quality. In the chart above, Cancer is in the ninth house, so a person with this particular horoscope would notice things dealing with travel, higher education, and belief systems being highlighted during the new moons of June 21 and July 20 and that is coming to a peak with tonight’s full moon. If you have your natal chart available, look at what house is in Cancer to see what issues are being highlighted by this new moon/full moon cycle.

first house—this house governs self, your physical appearance and mannerisms

second house—this house governs money and possessions

third house—this house governs communications and media

fourth house—this house governs family and home

fifth house—this house governs creativity and pleasure

sixth house—this house governs health and organization; how you approach a task

seventh house—this house governs partnerships and contracts

eighth house—this house governs shared property and money; also transformation and mysteries

ninth house—this house governs travel, philosophy, higher education, religion and other belief systems

tenth house—this house governs your career

eleventh house—this house governs your friendships and acquaintances, your community

twelfth house—this house governs the subconscious, karma, and soul

With this full moon, we’re now harvesting what we planted at the end of June and July. Think back to what was going on in your life during the new moons in Cancer on June 21 and July 20. That should give you an idea of what you’re coming to the end of now. The change can be dramatic or more subtle depending on where the full moon lights up your chart.

In this year of quarantine, I went to my cabin in Pennsylvania in June, knowing I did not want to be in New York City during a hot summer where I couldn’t go out. I carried just enough clothes for two weeks, my cats, computers for work and writing, and my Kindle for reading. With just those few possessions and comforts, I had one of the best summers of my life, surrounded by nature and feeling free. I realized I didn’t need much to be happy and satisfied; in fact, I was happier with less stuff cluttering up my time and mind.

Both of my journal entries from around the new moons on June 21 and July 20 focus on how I was feeling peaceful and content with less, and now with the full moon returning to Cancer, I’ve integrated that want and need into my life. I returned to the city in September and have been actively casting off things as I try and recreate the peace I felt during June and July.

In my chart, my twelfth house (the house of the subconscious, karma, and soul) is in Cancer, so that’s the area that’s being lit up during this full moon as the year draws to a close. In this last part of the quarantine year, I’ve been doing most of my work in my bedroom and found myself not liking what I was surrounded by in there. My place in Pennsylvania is right next to a creek, and for some reason, I always feel best and most relaxed around water. With the bedroom being so close to the subconscious—it is the place where you dream—I’ve found myself redecorating it during these last two weeks of the year. In—surprise—a water theme. Cancer is all about being near the water so it makes sense to me how I’m recreating my summer environment in my place of retreat. Full circle. What about you—which house is associated with Cancer in your chart? What life lesson have you integrated as 2020 comes to a close?

Farmhouse Scares in Annabelle: Creation

I’ve been trying to see a movie a day, like the tagline for MoviePass says, and decided to go see Annabelle: Creation because it was the only thing that really fit into the time slot I had. Plus, I love horror. A horror film almost always dominates at the box office, but people are surprised by how well those titles do. I’m not. We live in nerve-racking times with terrorist attacks and super hurricanes, and I think people are comforted when they go to a theater and see a horror film—they’re guaranteed to see how bad it can really get, and then they emerge unscathed and think, Well, that’s not so bad. I survived that.

Screen-Shot-2017-04-02-at-145901

I saw the first Annabelle movie on DVD after it got lackluster reviews, but now, I don’t have to worry about that. A $17 ticket really makes you think about what you’re going to see because it’s more expensive than the DVD or rental, and you don’t want to throw money at crap. Plus, you usually make a movie an event with friends, meaning dinner and drinks and what-have-you, and who wants to have a bad experience and blather about what crap the movie was? No, you want to be excited and lit up about what you saw, to talk about it in rapturous tones. I’m more willing to take a chance with films using the MoviePass because all I lose is time, really. But even then, I don’t think it’s a bad loss. You’re in a two-hour experience of suspended concentration if you do a movie right and focus, not futz around on your smartphone.

14box1-master768

Now, I did see The Conjuring in a theater, where Annabelle was introduced as a brilliant prologue to the film. Well done. And it was an exciting experience, everything you want from a horror film. Unexpected scares and heavy audience participation. When I saw my fellow audience members for Annabelle: Creation (mostly teens), I figured I’d hear a lot from them. But no, they completely surprised me. I was the one laughing at heavy foreshadowing and stuck in a creaky seat that made noise no matter how I positioned my legs. The rest of the audience was silent, like in a French movie theater.

Annabelle Creation3

Annabelle: Creation explains how the evil doll became so in the first place, and it’s a period piece like all the movies in the Conjuring franchise, though there are some bits of dialogue that struck me as post-2000 psychobabble. I loved seeing a farmhouse that looks like it’s straight out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic with fields, a barn, a well—settings that are so scary and thoroughly wrung in this picture for full horror potential. Here, the characters are a passel of orphans—the most tragic of tragic—who descend on a doll maker’s home. The main character Janice is struck with polio and starts in a heavy leg brace, then moves to an old-fashioned wheelchair à la The Changeling. All the actors in this film did a fine job, especially Talitha Eliana Bateman, who can be winsomely sweet and vulnerable or Bad Seed evil.

_T2A2526.dng

The only time I was really drawn out of the movie is when the origin of Annabelle is summed up in a two-minute voiceover by one of the characters, who wears a painted face plate over half her face, kind of like a dolly-painted version of what the Phantom of the Opera wears. It was a great visual since she’s married to the doll maker and it’s Annabelle the doll who’s the manifestation of evil. But rather than having all the information delivered so quickly, I’d rather have had hints as to what was going on throughout the movie. But Annabelle: Creation was rather ambitious, attempting to pull together elements from The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle. I was thoroughly confused by the ending scene, though I heard some of the kids say, “Oh, I get it.”

10-annabelle-2.w710.h473

Afterward, a woman asked me, “Excuse me, Miss. Do you understand what happened?,” explaining that she had seen all the Conjuring films but didn’t get the ending scene. I told her I had, too, and didn’t get it. Later, I googled the ending, and maybe someday I’ll view the franchise entries all at once and try to piece the information together, but I prefer it when a movie can stand alone. I think the writers and director were just really excited and wanted to cram as much as they could into one film. Maybe that’s a product of the moviemakers realizing how expensive films are now for audience members, and they just wanted to guarantee as much bang for our buck as possible.

A Bloody Julius Caesar Stirs Up a Hornet’s Nest

I took my Girls Write Now mentee Laura to go see Julius Caesar last Friday at Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park. We had been planning it for a while and postponed to later in the week so we had nicer weather. I’m glad I charged and packed my computer because we really wanted to tape our exit interview we had planned now that she’s graduating and going on to college in the fall. I had come up with ten questions for Laura, and she ad-libbed questions for me. I was surprised that it lasted longer than an hour, but we had some meaty questions, like “What do you think is going to happen politically in the next five years?” and “What’s going to happen to art in the current political climate?” We were both optimistic about the future and had no idea how portentous our questions and ideas were.

We took turns going to the restroom while the other saved our spot in line, and then right before they started handing out tickets, I went to the snack bar area and got us two hot dogs. The line started moving, and after the first glut of tickets was gone, Laura and I were at the head of the line with just one woman in front of us. A man came by and handed the woman his extra ticket after his friend was a no show, so then Laura and I were at the head of the line. The second round of tickets came by, and the Shakespeare in the Park employee sorted them into singles and pairs and gave us our tickets. We were so surprised to find ourselves in the front row almost center stage—the best tickets in the house. Laura was exuberant, hopping up and down. “I’ve never been in the front row anywhere!”

IMAG2376

The play was tremendous. Whenever I read Julius Caesar while editing our Grade 10 textbooks at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, I enjoyed it, but when I saw it performed at BAM (the first time I’d ever seen it live), I didn’t really like it. Might have been the nosebleed seats we had—the absolute last row in the theater. This Julius Caesar, though, was fabulous. When we sat down, I saw people miling about onstage, looking at scaffolding, like what we have in New York when buildings are undergoing construction. Some had programs in their hands, and they were putting Post-it notes on the scaffolding, similar to what happened in Union Square station after Trump was elected and everybody was so upset. There was a wall that became an entire passageway, where everybody started writing Post-it notes about how upset they were about the election and it became a thing.

subwaytherapy12-720x480

I thought the people were actual audience members, so I told Laura, “Go on up there, hon, and write something. Put your wish down.” Laura said, “No, I don’t think I should,” and usually she’s so bold. Thank God she didn’t. They were frigging actors, and later, they played the part of the disgruntled public.

It was a clever staging. It’s set in modern times, and Caesar is portrayed as a Trumpian character; Calpurnia as Melania, with an Eastern European accent; and Marc Antony was portrayed as a woman with a “Go USA!” attitude, leggings, and an Aw, shucks! Midwestern accent. I’m guessing she’s supposed to correlate to Mike Pence. It worked really well and was riveting for the first three acts, but the play kind of lost momentum in the last two acts. I still loved it. How they handled the crowd scenes was brilliant and unexpected, and Laura and I craned our heads, trying to catch the rabble-rousers who sprang up in the audience. It felt so interactive, like the demonstrations going on now during this presidency. Some people walked out—about four that I could see—and I remember thinking it was because of the controversial staging decisions or maybe because of the chairs. They are pretty uncomfortable. Then I saw the headlines the next day.

julius-caesar-shakespeare-president-donald-trump-stabbing-933x445

We still don’t have an answer in this play about what is going to happen to us, much like in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but it gives us plenty to think about. We just have to be aware and flexible, roll with the punches, and never give up hope. I think of that old saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I do. I most definitely do. And I’m grateful for Shakespeare in the Park.

Oops! Joyce Carol Oates Does It Again with DIS MEM BER

I finished DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates, and for me, it’s kind of meh compared to some of her other works. I prefer the short-story collection HEAT, where the females are allowed to be mean and fierce. The female protagonists in this collection seem limp and boxed in, which maybe is the point—that the stories show how girls and women are forced into these positions by society. But I want heroes, dammit.

514QxGRjCmL.SX316

There are two stories about widows, which speak to Oates’s own experience, I think, after unexpectedly losing her first husband. And I’m glad to have a few short stories on the subject because I haven’t encountered many. In “Great Blue Heron,” a brother-in-law pressures a widow to sell the lakefront home she’s always lived in and “invest” in some technology that he deems worthy. The other widow story was the reason why I wanted to read this collection (“The Crawl Space”), since it won a Stoker Award this year. It’s a creepy, claustrophobic story about a widow missing the house she once lived in with her husband and feeling like she’s neglected his memory—eventually when she visits, she’s trapped with his possessions . It reminded me of “Hansel and Gretel” when the witch is pushed into the oven.

“Heartbreak” really hit me with younger sister, Steff, who’s terribly jealous of her older sister, Caitlin, and the attention she gets from her slightly older stepcousin Hunt. It ended completely different from how I pictured it. There’s gunplay going on in the story, and Chekhov has said if a gun’s introduced, it has to be used. I still wasn’t ready for the massive guilt, which I think is the right reaction to an “accidental” shooting. We need more stories showing the consequences.

“The Drowned Girl” seems to be a take on the real-life Elisa Lam story, where a young woman drowned in a hotel’s rooftop water tank (the Cecil Hotel) and contaminated the water supply. For more than a week, guests complained about the foul water, and then a security guard went to the top and found the bloated, dead body of the girl. Cops say she had a psychotic break (Lam was bipolar) and killed herself by accident, but there are suspicious things in the case: She was naked, the top to the tank was put back in place (too heavy to do one’s self), and the rape kit was never processed. Anyway, Joyce Carol Oates sets the story in a college town, where the woman is named Miri Kim, and she’s already died, but another student becomes obsessed with the case and water and pipes. It kind of reminded me of the protagonist who goes a little crazy in Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates at the 2013 LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California campus on Saturday April 21, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Katy Winn/Invision/AP)

Sister Love Grows Rancid in Raw

I blundered into Raw not even knowing it was a horror film, which was the most delicious surprise. Buried under deadlines early in the week, I depended on my friends to pick the movie and didn’t check reviews, summaries, or anything. We went to see the eight o’clock showing of Raw at the Angelika on Houston Street, and luckily, I didn’t get anything at the snack bar. This is not the type of movie where you want to have nibbles by your side.

In the French horror film Raw, studious, square Justine (played by Garance Marillier) is taken to veterinary school by her parents, and early on, it’s established that they are strict vegetarians. She’s dropped off in the parking lot of what looks like a sad, gray industrial complex, where her older sister is supposed to meet her. Justine’s parents aren’t surprised when the older sister’s a no-show, and Justine trudges off alone, dragging her red suitcase, to find her dorm—quite different, I think, from how American parents would be portrayed, dropping off their progeny at college.

 

Justine finds out that she’s rooming with a male instead of a female, but he tells her he’s gay so the school counts him as a woman. Not sure what to do with herself, Justine goes to bed, only to be woken in the darkest hours of the night by a team of screaming people dressed in graffiti-covered lab coats with masks covering their faces. They toss all the rookies’ beds, clothes, and other belongings out the windows, trashing their rooms, and Justine and fellow first years are made to crawl through some underground complex until they arrive at a raging party, where Justine is finally reunited with her much cooler older sister Alexia (played by Swiss actress Ella Rumpf). This is just the first part of a hazing ritual that all the rookies have to go through.

960

Similar events happen after that, including one where Justine has to eat a rabbit kidney. She balks at this after being a vegetarian for so long, but her older sister bullies her into doing it. The kidney makes her ill, giving her the dry heaves, but that’s nothing compared to the bloody rash she wakes up with. Watching Justine’s itching reminded me of what happens when I go camping and forget the super-DEET bug spray. Just the sound of her fingernails on skin made me cringe. I get baseball-sized welts after mosquitos bite me, and sometimes the itching is so bad that I’ll go after the bites with a hairbrush, resulting in hamburger skin. But that just happens in an isolated patch. Poor Justine has hamburger skin all over her body once she’s done itching.

raw-rash-fb

 

Shortly after that, she starts having cravings for meat. They start out mild, with her stealing a hamburger patty from the lunch line and then wolfing down shawarmas with her roommate. But they soon progress to cannibalism, where she experiments with human flesh after an unfortunate waxing incident. It was gag-inducing to watch Justine snacking on a dismembered digit like a chicken wing and hard to look at the screen. I panned across the audience and saw people rolling in their seats, covering their eyes or hiding their faces against their partners. After a few seconds of the eating, though, you do get desensitized. I kept telling myself, it’s just a hot dog, it’s just a hot dog, and it turns out the actress playing Justine had to do something similar to psych herself up for the scene. Marillier told W Magazine, “You know, it was sugar. I was eating candy. If there was any difficulty, it was finding the reality in the scene so I wasn’t thinking, I’m just eating sugar.

 

For showings in Los Angeles, staff handed out barf bags to the audience after fainting was reported from Canadian moviegoers. I’m not sure how the two correlate or if that was a marketing scheme, but the gore isn’t gratuitous. Some of the body horror is uncomfortable, but I think that’s because it’s woven in with some gruesome rituals that females engage in for the sake of beauty.

landscape-1489094805-elm030117intel-movies-001-courtesy-of-focus-world

My favorite part of Raw is the intense sister relationship between Justine and Alex. It’s well portrayed with moments of extreme tenderness and thuggish brutality. At one moment, Justine and Alex are getting drunk together and laughing, and in the next, they’re trading bite for bite in a parking lot fight, with one bite in particular reminding me of a hellish scene in Cape Fear. There’s jealousy and competition—the essence of a sister relationship. I wish Raw was around years ago when I compiled “Top Five Sister Horror Movies” because it’s definitely a contender. I might have to revise my list.