Book Review: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

Author: Kelly Link
Title: Stranger Things Happen
Publication Info: Small Beer Press (2001)

Kelly Link’s collection of short stories take place at various locations around the world, most with a young woman as protagonist.  The tales, for the most part, are grounded in reality but contain elements of fantasy, fairy tale, or horror as if each story is haunted by something outside of reality.  Some stories are better than others but I didn’t find any of them particularly satisfying, if that’s even something one can ask of fiction.  Still Link has a vivid imagination and as this was her first story collection it could be worth checking out her more recent fiction.

One thing I do need to do is make a note about where I find out of books I add to be reading list.  While I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I am glad I read it, and I really wonder what inspired me to put on my TBR list in the first place.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Alien (1979)

Release Date: May 25, 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: Brandywine Productions

At its heart, Alien is a very simple story.  The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet.  They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way).  The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one.  Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.

The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control.  In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story.   The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.

The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors.  In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy.  Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff.   Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film.  And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened.  Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.

When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien.  I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens.  I may have only watched it twice before.  I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece.  It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Attack the Block (2011)

Title: Attack the Block
Release Date: 11 May 2011
Director: Joe Cornish
Production Company: StudioCanal Features | Film4 | UK Film Council | Big Talk Pictures

The film begins with a teenage street gang in a South London council estate mugging Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse in training.  Before the crime is even complete, a nearby car explodes in a fireball.  The boys discover that it has been hit by something containing an alien lifeform.  The gang’s leader Moses (John Boyega) determines that he will kill the creature to defend their community.  Thus begins 80 minutes of non-stop action with healthy doses of comedy and horror as they are hunted and then hunt a pack of sharp-toothed alien beasts.  The boys join forces with Samantha, the local drug dealer (Nick Frost), one of his stoned customers (Luke Treadaway), and others to defend themselves.

In addition to the alien threat, Moses and his crew also have to face down the police who are more intent on busting Black children than recognizing the extraterrestrial threat.  It’s a daring move to start the movie by showing its main characters as unsympathetically as possible and then develop the characters so well that the audience is cheering for them by the end The movie has a suitably low-budget feel, maybe even more of a tv movie.  Because of the presence of Whittaker and aliens it also feels like it could’ve been spun off from Doctor Who.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Freaks

Title: Freaks
Release Date: February 12, 1932
Director: Tod Browning
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Freaks is a movie that straddles a line between an exploitation movie and a film that provides a compassionate depiction of people with disabilities and little people. That the movie was promoted as “horror” makes it lean towards exploitation since there is no horror in this film beyond what viewers bring with themselves when they see people with atypical bodies as monsters.  I think more accurately this movie is a slice-of-life drama set among the performers of a traveling circus, that’s built around a love triangle, that eventually becomes a revenge story.

I like the slice-of-life parts best where we see people with dwarfism, conjoined twin sisters (Daisy and Violet Hilton), a man with microcephaly (Schlitzie) as well as the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and the sea lion trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) go about their day. Much of the cast were actual circus performers. The main plot involves the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) wooing the little person Hans (Harry Earles), breaking the heart of his betrothed, Frieda (Daisy Earles).  Cleopatra is really scheming because she knows that Hans has inherited great wealth. The final part of the film depicts the family of “freaks” teaming up to avenge Hans when Cleopatra tries to kill him for his money.  This could be seen as the scary party of the movie, but in reality, Cleopatra is the only monster in this film.

This movie was different and better than I expected, but I still felt weird about watching it.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)

Title: Vampires vs. the Bronx
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Director: Oz Rodriguez
Production Company: Broadway Video | Caviar

Vampires vs. the Bronx uses the invasion of vampires into a Bronx neighborhood as a metaphor for gentrification, and not at all in a subtle manner. The movie blends horror and social satire with humor and a lot of heart. It’s very 80s Spielberg-ian in the way that kids must team up to fight the evil threatening their community. In this case the threat is a real estate company buying up local businesses and buildings, not to make luxury condos, but to make a nest for vampires. The most chilling line in the film is when a vampire states that they want to be in a neighborhood where no one cares if people go missing.

A team of young teenagers are the lead vampire fighters. Their leader is Miguel (Jaden Michael), a young activist known as Lil Mayor. His nerdy friend Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) has the knowledge of vampire lore. The wild card is Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) who is being recruited to join the local street gang. Their hangout is the local bodega run by Tony (a great performance by Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez). A late addition to the team is Rita (Coco Jones) an older girl who is Miguel’s crush. All the young actors are great and seem like real kids.

The movie is not a groundbreaking in horror and/or social messaging, but it’s also not overly scary or gory like, say, Get Out. So a family could potentially watch it together. It is also is feel-good movie depicting a community coming together to save their neighborhood.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)

Title: The Exorcist
Release Date: December 26, 1973
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Hoya Production

I hadn’t planned on watching The Exorcist, but I added it at the last minute to my scary movie lineup. I can’t remember the first time I watched this movie, but I know I was definitely too young. I saw it several more times over the years – in whole or part – and then in the summer of 1990 I attended a five-week program for high school students at Georgetown University. That summer I became intimately acquainted with the setting of the movie, and of course watched the movie as a group. By that point, as a jaded 16-year-old, I found the movie more funny than scary. At any rate, I don’t know if I’ve seen it again in the past 30 years so it was worth revisiting.

Me, circa 1994, recreating a cinematic moment at the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown.

There’s something about the blockbusters of the 1970s where the way they are remembered in the popular imagination is not quite what the movies were about. Jaws was not about a shark eating people, but about three men of different backgrounds learning to work together on a boat and forming a bond. Rocky was not about boxing but about a man who happened to be a boxer learning to believe in himself. The Exorcist is not about a girl possessed by demons but about a priest going through a crisis of faith.

I’d forgotten how much of the movie does not deal with possession or the exorcism and the slow build it takes to get to that point. The ten minute prologue set in Iraq completely escaped my mind. Can you think of any other movie that introduces a character, as they do with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and then not have him return for 90 minutes. The connection of the Iraq scenes with the rest of the movie are never made obvious but I do appreciate that they were beautifully shot and like how there’s always sound in the background (picks and shovels, blacksmiths, dogs, etc.) that are discordant but musical.

I also didn’t really remember much of the main part of the film in Georgetown, such as Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) filming on the university campus or Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travelling to New York to see his ailing mother. There are also a lot more scenes of Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing medical procedures. I was surprised to learn that Regan getting cerebral angiography freaked out a lot of people in the audiences back in the 70s, because I don’t medical procedures disturbing for the most part. (Two movies that I’ve watched this month, Frankenstein and The Exorcist, were both said to cause extreme horror and revulsion to audiences of the time although I’d consider them tame compared with some mainstream horror that’s been released in the past four decades).

The acting performances in the movie are universally good with Miller, Burstyn, and Blair being particularly good. I’ve wondered why I never saw Miller in anything but I’ve learned that he was primarily a playwright and unfortunately also struggled with alcoholism. Still, if there’s one performance that you’re going to be remembered for, this one was excellent. The 44-year-old von Sydow, with the help of some terrific makeup, puts on a great performance as an old man and looks a lot like von Sydow would look when he actually reached that age.

Lest I go to far in my “it’s not about a girl possessed by demons” thought, this movie does have it’s fair share of horror and gross out moments, as well as disturbing behavior for a 12-year-old. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you if you’ve never seen it, because it really does also contain a thoughtful and nuanced story as well. For me, the darkest part of The Exorcist is learning how cruel William Friedkin was on the set. He allowed stunts to get out of hand so that they caused injury to both Burstyn and Blair, and Blair was given no protection from the extreme cold on the set as well as deliberately trying to frighten or anger the actors on the set. That to me is more unsettling than anything in the movie which is beautifully made and has an underlying message of hope in humanity.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Title: The Silence of the Lambs
Release Date: February 14, 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Production Company: Strong Heart Productions

I watched this movie back when it was first released on video and I didn’t like it. For one thing, I don’t like movies that glamorize the villain. The other thing is that I remember it having lots of obvious and silly plot twists.

Since the movie is on the AFI 100 List and I’m doing a Scary Movies this week, I figured I could revisit this movie with an open mind. Unfortunately, this movie is actually worse than I remembered. For one thing, it is extremely 90s, with that era’s fear of widespread crime in the movie’s DNA, and thus naturally full of copaganda that practically serves as recruitment film for the FBI. Secondly, the plot twists are utterly ludicrous. Everything from the fact that an agent-in-training is given heavy responsibilities, to Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster) revealing her most personal secrets to a psychopath, to the way in which Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) escapes his improvised prison is too ridiculous to take seriously. And while there’s dialogue stating something to the effect of “transexuals are peaceful,” the entire performance of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is heavily coded with the hateful idea that transgender people are psychotic.

Foster is the strength of this movie and does put in a spectacular acting performance. Parts of the movie offer an excellent depiction of a woman working in a “man’s world” and how she is constantly operating under the male gaze. The interviews between Starling and Lector are also well-done, but as much as they loom large in the popular imagination, they are only a tiny portion of the film’s running time. This is really Foster’s movie and she carries it well. I know that there are several sequels and spinoff tv shows about Hannibal Lector, but for my money, I’d rather watch a sequel where Foster’s Clarice Starling works on another case.

As for Silence of the Lambs, it joins Taxi Driver in the category of Movies That Are Highly Regarded That I Don’t Like With The Exception Of Jodie Foster’s Performance.

Rating: **1/2

Scary Movie Review: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Title: House on Haunted Hill
Release Date: February 17, 1959
Director: William Castle
Production Company: William Castle Productions

I somehow never watched a Vincent Price horror movie before and I wanted to address that in my Scary Movies series this year. House on Haunted Hill has a good reputation and even a remake but I wasn’t overly impressed. Price portrays an eccentric millionaire named Frederick Loren who invites five strangers to an allegedly haunted mansion, promising the reward of $10,000 for anyone who makes it through the night. Curiously the exterior of the building is Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist, Mayan-inspired Ennis House in Los Feliz California, while the interiors are more of a late 19th-century Victorian more typical of haunted house stories.

The party plays against the marital tensions between Loren and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), and they have several great scenes of exchanging catty dialogue. For a 75 minute movie, it takes a looooooooooong time to establish the premise. The “scary” parts of the movie are mostly focused on only two of the five guests: Nora Manning (a young employee of one of Loren’s companies, portrayed by Carolyn Craig) and the test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long). There are a couple of big twists to the story involving Annabelle that ground the story in human deceit rather than the supernatural. But overall the movie is uneven with a lot of unexplained loose ends. I feel it could’ve been tightened up to make an interesting television story on something like The Twilight Zone, but as a movie it’s a bit of a chore.

Rating: **1/2

Scary Movie Review: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Title: Bride of Frankenstein
Release Date: April 20, 1935
Director: James Whale
Production Company: Universal Pictures

This sequel is widely-regarded as better than the original, and I agree with the assessment. Some of the iconic moments of Hollywood Frankenstein lore originate in this movie rather than its predecessor. This includes the absolutely brilliant sequence where the monster (Boris Karloff) befriends a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) which is full of humanity. Of course, we also get to see the monster’s “bride” (Elsa Lanchester) with the famous streaked hair, but not until the very end of the film.

The movie does have some surprises though. It begins with a delightfully campy prologue in which Mary Shelley (Lanchester, again) tells her husband and Lord Byron that there is more to the story. I’m also pleased that Shelley gets credited under her own name this time. With Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) having regained his sensibilities, a new and madder scientist appears in the form of his mentor Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). In one of the weirdest and most unsettling moments of the movie, Pretorius shows off that he has created living humans, albeit tiny ones that live in jars. The movie also prominently features Una O’Connor as Minnie, because the one thing the Frankenstein franchise was lacking was a comical Irish maid.

The Bride of Frankenstein is a bit uneven, but better paced and more surprising than its predecessor. The pair of movies still make for an enjoyable evening of scary entertainment.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Frankenstein (1931)

Title: Frankenstein
Release Date: November 21, 1931
Director: James Whale
Production Company: Universal Pictures

I’d never watched Frankenstein before, but it’s so full of iconic moments that it feels like I have. Think of the scenes and ideas that have permeated culture for the past 90 years:

  • a hunchback assistant (named Fritz, not Igor)
  • brains in jars, one brilliant, one criminal (and all the pop psychology that goes along with that)
  • a stormy night, a laboratory in a creepy castle, and a pulley system to raise a gurney
  • “It’s alive!”
  • the monster and a little girl (Marilyn Harris) throwing flowers in a lake
  • an angry mob bearing torches and pitchforks (this may be the first time I’ve seen this done non-ironically). I did wonder if the mill owner was upset that the mob just burned his mill down

The odd part is the non-iconic scenes that link this all together. Despite the prologue where the audience is given a trigger warning for the horror to come, the movie today is a bit slow and the acting is melodramatic and wooden (especially Mae Clarke as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth). Colin Clive is suitably manic as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. But the acting star of the film is Boris Karloff as the creature. He brings real emotion and nuance to his grunts and movements, especially in the scene when he is exposed to the sun for the first time and the scene with the girl by the lake.

One summer when I was a teenager I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (who is rather offensively credited as “Mrs. Percy Bysshe Shelley” in this movie). I stayed up late to finish the book and then had to wait in the dark alone until sunrise because I was too spooked to go to sleep. The movie didn’t have that affect on me, but I can appreciate it for the incredible influence it’s had on film and the great acting of Karloff.

Rating: ***1/2