‘The Astronaut’s Wife’ is a Creepy Thriller (review)

Jillian (Charlize Theron) is, as the title suggests, married to an astronaut, Spencer (Johnny Depp). While on a trip to space, he and his coworker Alex (Nick Cassavetes) are repairing their shuttle and there’s an explosion, causing them to lose contact with NASA. Upon returning home, both men begin acting strangely. Shortly after, Jillian discovers she’s pregnant with twins. Her suspicions about Spencer are compounded by NASA employee Reese (Joe Morton), who tells her Spencer is now an alien that basically erased her husband like a cassette (or some other technical device invented after 1999). Jillian is left to wonder who the father of the babies is.

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Depp’s face when someone told him blonde wasn’t his color

Something interesting in the film is the settings and minor characters, which symbolize the deterioration of Spencer and Jillian’s relationship. When Jillian and Spencer live in Florida, their house is big but homey, with lots of natural lighting. The co-workers at their going-away party seem friendly and likable. Jillian, a second grade teacher, works in an informal setting, sitting among her students. In contrast, the new house is overly big, sterile, and when it’s not dark, it’s lit with an ominous bluish light. (Actually, all of the settings are dark after Spencer comes home, even the going-away party.) The welcoming party she and Spencer attend is full of phony, snobby people; even the kindly woman Jillian befriends is spoiled, pointing out the bracelet her husband bought her when she had a miscarriage. Jillian’s new teaching atmosphere is now a formal private school, where the children wear uniforms and sit in neat rows.

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Bars, bars everywhere
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Jillian sports a haircut very similar to that of Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, reflecting the similar themes of paranoia, supernatural babies, and untrustworthy husbands. Though the movie is a bit science fiction-y, I’d say it’s more classifiable as a horror movie. There are a few creepy moments, like when Alex starts displaying signs something is amiss—the viewer has no idea what will happen next. It reminds me of the Black Oil episodes of The X-Files, which are profoundly disturbing. Or Reese confronting Jillian about Spencer: “Can you swear to me that he’s still your husband?” The filmmakers do a marvelous job of building tension, and it’s unpredictable. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for a serious tale of alien activity.

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Or maybe the haircut is just a family tradition

‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ is an Utter Classic (review)

Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) is a man so rocked by his wife passing away on the operating table (his being horribly disfigured in a car wreck doesn’t help matters) he decides to kill the eight doctors and one nurse who couldn’t save her, with nine of the ten Biblical plagues: boils, bats, frogs, blood, hail, rats, beasts, locusts, and death of the first-born. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is on his heel, and the race is on to stop Phibes before all nine plagues are reenacted.

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Goofiest corpse ever

This film is just a delight. It’s terribly corny and riddled with plot holes (most of which spring from trying to create deaths from plagues that are more bothersome than deadly), but it’s darn entertaining and funny, too. One of my favorite scenes is when Dr. Longstreet (Terry-Thomas) is watching what appears to be an ancient porno. His maid comes in and scolds him—for missing his dinner. I was also amused by the unlikeliness of the scene when Nurse Allen (Susan Travers) meets her doom. While she sleeps, Phibes covers her face completely with a viscous green goo (which she sleeps through), then releases locusts in her room. When the detectives find her, sans face, she’s lying in the exact same position we saw her in last, which leaves us to assume that she also slept while the bugs ate her—I guess she pulled a double shift that day. (Though to be fair, a reader did point out to me she remembered Allen saying something about taking a tranquilizer before bed.)

Nurse Allen was tired…dead tired

It has creepy moments on occasion, for example the scene when a doctor is sleeping soundly while Phibes lowers a mysterious cage into his room. But then the cage is revealed to be full of fruit bats. Fruit bats? Really? What are they going to do, lick him to death? Never mind the technical aspects of their anatomy, fruit bats are the cutest breed of bats—they look like little foxes.

A long-haired rousette (Rousettus lanosus) at the Lincoln Children's Zoo.
They said I did whaaaat?

Vampire bats at least have sparse fur, puggy upturned noses, and visible fangs, making them suitable as horror movie villains. Thus, even the eerie moments are upstaged by cheese.

There are some heartstrings-tugging moments, like when Phibes holds up a necklace to his wife’s portrait; in silhouette, it looks like she’s wearing it, emphasizing his inability to be with her. Those few seconds are more effective than his multiple speeches to her promising revenge, that all seem to start with, “My love, my queen…”

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Price gives his usual hammy but stellar performance. My brother Jeremy, who watched this with me, said, “There was only one Vincent Price.” Indeed, and I miss him. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something lighthearted but gory.

‘Aberration’ (1997) is Ridiculous but Entertaining (review)

Amy (Pamela Gidley) has just stolen fifty thousand dollars from her ex-boyfriend Uri (Valeriy Nikolaev) and needs to hole up for a while, so she heads to a secluded cabin. Unfortunately there’s a bunch of green goo around, which spawns lizards that are “evolving into a more efficient predator.” They have teeth, spit poison, grow gills, and quickly become immune to pesticides. Amy teams up with Marshall (Simon Bossell), a biologist investigating the disappearance of wildlife in the area. When a blizzard and a lizard-chewed car strand them in the cabin, their only hope is a shotgun and their wits.

I first watched Aberration as a teenager with my sister Leslie; our plan was to review every horror movie from the (now defunct) Hollywood Video. We didn’t make it past the A’s, probably because we watched stuff like Aberration.

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In case you’ve never experienced the magic of going into a store to pay an outlandish price to borrow a hard copy of a movie for which you needed a player. And God help you if that shit was late!

At that time, I hated the movie, and I’m still not crazy about it. The characters are often annoying, the lizards are painfully unrealistic, and it feels much longer than its 92-minute running time.

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Iguana eat your face!

It starts out slow, and though the action eventually picks up, I was still bored and didn’t really care if the characters made it or not. In addition, there’s a lot of reveling in the blood of dead animals, mostly the creatures, but there are also dog and cat corpses. In addition, for the last twenty minutes or so, Marshall starts manically shooting his gun and spouting one-liners. They’re not even particularly good ones, for example when the lizards kill shopkeeper Mrs. Miller: “She…was a nice…lady!”

To be fair, I didn’t hate it as much this time. There’s even a brief period in the movie when I enjoyed it: Amy and Marshall work together to find and kill the lizards in her cabin (contrasting with the rest of the movie—you’d be surprised at how much screen time is spent on them getting into a car, driving a ways away, discovering lizards have damaged the car, then having to walk. You‘d think after the first time it happens, they‘d check under the hood).

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Hmm, should I check for lizards? Nah, they couldn’t possibly disable a second car.

While Aberration owes a lot to action movies (particularly since its budget seems to be spent entirely on explosions and fires), and those films tend to focus on a powerful male and his arm candy, Amy and Marshall are equals. They’re both clever and resourceful, and while he’s the scientist, she’s far better with a gun. (Until the aforementioned last segment, when Amy is unconscious and Marshall becomes Rambo.) While I don’t always like Amy and Marshall, I appreciate that they don’t bemoan their situation—they crack jokes and take care of business. And unlike typical horror movie heroines, Amy doesn’t cry once; she’s tough, assertive, and though she has a short hissy fit, it’s angry rather than whiny. And finally, it’s a pretty clever premise; the lizards aren’t scary, but they’re menacing because they’re hard to catch.

If you’re in the mood for watching critters get blowed up and lots of purty fires, this one’s for you.

‘Arachnophobia’ Stands up to the Test of Time (review)

 

While on a job in Venezuela, a photographer is killed by a very poisonous and very bitey new breed of spider. The little bugger happily rides home with the corpse to a small town in America. Ross (Jeff Daniels), the town’s new doctor, is unfortunately quite afraid of spiders, but now has to deal with an army of deadly hybrids that are every bit as aggressive as their father. With the help of spider experts Dr. Atherton (Julian Sands) and Chris (Brian McNamara), as well as exterminator Delbert (John Goodman), he has to kill the queen and big bad Dad.

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I want a huggie!

I saw Arachnophobia as a child with my uncle (who also introduced me to the Poltergeist movies, bless him). I found it more entertaining than scary. Despite the serious subject matter, there’s a goodish amount of jokes too, for example wacky Delbert, who loves his job just a little too much. It’s PG-13, so there’s not a tremendous amount of gore (though there are a few painful close-ups of fangs piercing skin). However, I wouldn’t recommend it to people who have arachnophobia, despite the major plot point of Ross overcoming his; I think it would only inspire paranoia.

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If this is your reaction to seeing a spider, maybe give this one a miss

Speaking as someone who won’t go into her backyard at night without a flashlight and a can of spider spray because of black widows, I can attest the movie makes spiders scarier. It emphasizes their aggression, ruthlessness, and also their ability to lay hundreds of eggs at a time. Not to mention disgusting scenes such as Delbert savoring the crunch of a spider under his boot, a pulsating egg sac, and an exploding spider.

Aside from being gross and sometimes creepy, the film has other good qualities. It builds suspense while still utilizing the humor used throughout the movie, like when town residents narrowly avoid being bitten without even realizing it. In addition, the characters are likable, my favorite being Ross’s wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak). I find it amusing that she’s the spider-killer for the house, defying gender stereotypes. She’s completely fearless, and tries to encourage Ross to enjoy the beauty of spiders. She’s an interesting character—it’s too bad she gets phased out in the last half of the movie.

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“Sure honey, you have lots more scenes coming up. Now off you go.”

In addition, the spiders look real; there are only a few scenes (like when a spider is on fire) that it’s obviously a fake. Maybe it’s the childhood nostalgia talking, but to me the film is charming and amusing; it’s the kind of movie I can watch repeatedly. Give it a look if you’re neutral about spiders or will enjoy being freaked out by them.

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A movie that watches you back

‘April Fool’s Day’ is Fun and Delightfully Dated (review)

A group of twenty-something friends and acquaintances are heading to an island to celebrate their friend Muffy’s birthday. Once there, they run into trouble when they discover there’s a killer among them and no way off the island. Meanwhile Muffy’s behavior is becoming increasingly erratic. It seems everyone present has “little secrets” they’d like to stay hidden but are revealed with his or her death. Could it be that Muffy has gathered them all for some elaborate revenge scheme? Or is it an April Fool’s Day prank they’ll never forget?

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Those wacky ’80s hairstyles! Look at these assholes with their feet on the table–they’re just asking to get stabbed.

It’s your basic slasher movie: a large cast getting killed off one by one in an increasingly predictable fashion. Except that the characters, rather than being naughty teens, are naughty college students, so in between having sex and drinking they’re reading Paradise Lost and reciting poetry. But higher education doesn’t save them from having dumb moments, my favorite being when Rob tells Kit shortly after she finds one of their friends dead in a well, “You gotta look at the bright side of things.”

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I liked the characters, but I had genuine difficulty telling them apart.

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Each as forgettable as the last

Slasher movies generally have all-white casts, give or take a token Black guy or couple, and the characters are somewhat hard to distinguish between at first. Usually types are established: the practical joker, the nerd, the athletic guy, the final girl, etc. In this movie there were only four women, so I could classify them as the bookworm, the sex kitten, the unremarkable blond girl, and Muffy. But there were five guys, who all seemed to be the athletic practical joker. They eventually became the guy with the southern accent, the guy who might be gay (wait, which one was he?), and the other blond guys. Even by the end of the movie I was still confused. In addition to my befuddlement at the many many blonds, I spent most of the movie waiting for Muffy to reveal herself as a guy. Apparently I got my endings mixed up.

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Hey Muffy, hahaha!

Overall, it’s decent for a slasher; the acting is acceptable and there’s a nifty twist ending. It’s directed by Fred Walton of When a Stranger Calls and When a Stranger Calls Back fame. I enjoyed it. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something that’s a little bit—but not too much—out of the ordinary.

‘An American Haunting’ is…Definitely Less Ridiculous than the Book it’s Based On (review)

 

It’s 1817, and Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is a teenage girl who appears to be either possessed or haunted by an angry ghost who slaps her and pulls the blankets off of her bed, among other things. There are also weird noises and otherworldly animals skulking about the family property. Betsy’s father John (Donald Sutherland) has angered Kate Batts (Gaye Brown), a woman rumored to be a witch—is it possible she’s the one behind the phenomenon? John is also being affected—what is his role in the haunting?

The movie is based on a book written by Betsy’s future husband Richard (James D’Arcy), which is supposedly a true story, but some say it’s a hoax. I read the book, and have difficulty buying that all that stuff actually happened. There are far more demonic happenings the filmmakers wisely left out, for example characters’ long conversations with the ghost about their personal lives. The spirit is basically a slightly friendlier version of Pazuzu in The Exorcist. Thankfully the movie pares down the creature’s dialogue, but the shots from the its point of view get old after a while. Wow, people really were easier to scare back then:  

The plot point of the family owning slaves is just as hard to take seriously. In the interest of retaining sympathy for the white protagonists, the slave characters are treated extremely politely by the Bells; Betsy’s mother Lucy (Sissy Spacek) says, “Anky, could you answer the door, please?” At the same time, they’re superstitious and fearful stereotypes straight out of a 1930s zombie movie.

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Then again, the white folks are terrified of feathers

One aspect of the film I appreciate is that because Betsy is portrayed as a childlike and innocent girl, she’s not parading around in her frilly underthings like most teenage girls in horror movies. And because I don’t agree with Hollywood that romances have to be shoehorned into every single movie, I am also thankful that while the romantic subplot is an important part of the story, it is muted to a bearable amount (probably because the girl in question is a teenager, and her love interest is in his thirties).

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Check out those sweet mutton chops!

The filmmakers decided to throw in a wraparound story of a teenage girl facing the same predicament as Betsy, which leads to a truly creepy ending. The rest of the film is hardly scary, but the shocking twist (for both girls) is grotesque and disturbing.

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This was my reaction, too

Check it out if you want a sincere tale with actors you’ve probably heard of.

Park Ky-hyeong’s ‘Acacia’ is Gorgeous and Melancholy (review)

Korean movie. Mi-sook (Shim Hye-jin) and Do-il (Jin-geun Kim) are a married couple who are having trouble conceiving a child. They adopt an artistic loner named Jin-sung (Oh-bin Mun). He adjusts fairly well, with the help of his adopted parents, Do-il’s father, and new friend Min-jee (Na-yoon Jeong)—though he seems to think the acacia tree in the backyard is his deceased mother.

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                                                               Don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s only a movie…

Suddenly Mi-sook finds she’s pregnant, and though everyone still tries to pay attention to Jin-sung, things aren’t the same. Jin-sung is mean to baby Hae-sung, which exacerbates the situation. Mi-sook plans to send Jin-sung back, and he runs away. The family begins violently falling apart.

I hadn’t seen this film in six years or so, and was happy to finally get to review it. I still loved it, but my perception of the characters has definitely changed. On my first two viewings, I saw the family as basically loving, good people who had tragedy destined for them. On my most recent viewing (after becoming a parent), I feel a lot less sorry for them. Mi-sook flips out when Do-il even brings up the possibility of adopting a child. After she calms down and accepts the possibility, she picks a kid after a cursory introduction because he paints well. While they both make a valiant effort to welcome Jin-sung, they’re not the best parents. For example, Mi-sook has a hissy fit when Jin-sung has trouble adjusting to his new family name. Mi-sook and Do-il want to be parents mostly because they feel cultural pressure to do so, not because of any readiness or skill. They’re a bit cold and distant—the most endearing character is Do-il’s father, the kindly voice of reason.

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In addition to all the sad-making, there are lots of creepy moments, too. The viewer is unsure of what horrible things await, but the tension builds from the beginning, when Jin-sung recreates Munch’s eerie painting The Scream. Jin-sung has an unnerving blank-eyed stare much of the time, and Mi-sook is a ticking time bomb, so even the happy moments feel uneasy. One of the most brutal scenes is when Do-il finds a needle in his bowl of rice, cutting his mouth. He blames Mi-sook, and turns on her. Compared to the previously stable man he was at the beginning, this Do-il is terrifying and unpredictable.

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                                              “Clean that up before I kill you.” –actual quote

Overall, the film is thought-provoking and a bit depressing—check it out if you’re in a serious mood.

Dreams (poem)

When I was a child I soared without wings

in my dreams.

These days I have nightmares

about missing class

or forgetting to go to work.

But once I was free in my dreams.

The corridor rushed toward me,

and went on forever.

It went on forever

Until I woke up in the real world

where I was shy and awkward.

Where I was clumsy and fell down.

Where pain and tears were part of life.

Over the years I’ve stopped dreaming of flying

and dream of running instead.

An Education (poem)

I.

My first day of school

I cried for my mother.

Exasperated,

my teacher sent me to the principal,

who, in desperation, gave me a newspaper

that I did not yet know how to read.

II.

Emma.

She called me fat,

and teased me.

Keri.

She pretended to be my friend,

all the while bullying and trying to control me.

My biggest lesson of elementary school:

It’s not okay to be myself.

III.

The school counselor could not help me.

I was on the bottom of the cheerleaders’ pyramid.

I pretended to lose my math book

so I would miss the bus.

My popular friend

could not make me popular.

IV.

College.

Working two jobs,

going to school full time.

Breaks are for studying and homework.

I am incredulous

when my professor is incredulous

that I don’t want to tutor for her.

“It’s only an hour a week.”

I don’t even have time to eat.

V.

My BA gathers dust

and I gather dust.

I was a fool to get a diploma

in a language I already speak.

A subject that only taught me

how to write poems

about how education sucks

On Barbies and Stephen King (nonfiction)

I recently gave my three-year-old daughter her first Barbie doll. Part of me felt guilty, since Barbies are associated with body image issues. I’ve thought about it in depth, and I’ve realized that I don’t hate my body because I played with Barbies as a kid. I never thought an eleven-inch-tall toy with rubber hands, plastic boobs, and oddly shaped feet was a practical model for how I was supposed to look. What really had an effect on my self-esteem was all the Stephen King books I read, starting at age ten. Stephen King just plain hates fat people, women in particular.

Take Christine, which was my first King novel. Dennis, the protagonist, describes in great detail how wonderful his girlfriend Leigh is, mostly because of her appearance: “She turned back to me, and I was struck by her beauty again, calm and undemanding except for those high, arrogant cheekbones…” He goes on about her grace and her breath like a rainforest and her perfect body. This is contrasted by a scene in the book when Dennis and his friend Arnie, who owns Christine, have an unpleasant encounter after Christine dies in a strange neighborhood: “a young woman waddled down toward us from her house…She was in dire need of Weight Watchers.” She complains in a less than intelligent manner about how Arnie needs to move his car, and is mean to her two dimwitted, junk-food-eating children. It’s not a pretty picture.

King’s writing is saturated with such characters. It’s also never that they’re just fat; they have terrible hygiene, too, and are usually not the sharpest tool in the shed. Every so often, he presents a character who is fat but also likable, like Gert in Rose Madder. She’s a funny, confident person who teaches self-defense to battered women. And at one point she incapacitates the villain by sitting on him. (And then peeing on him—what did I say about hygiene?)

Don’t get me wrong. I still feel nostalgia when I read those books (and I do occasionally still read them). I’ll never forget how the last time an adult read to me as a child was my late father reading to me from The Tommyknockers. I don’t blame King for all of my body issues. Other factors include the media, being teased in school, and low self-esteem all around. In the end, I’m okay with Layla playing with Barbies as long as she knows that Barbie is no more realistic than her anthropomorphic panda doll or her battery-operated Elmo guitar. If she wants to read Stephen King later down the road, I’ll have to sit her down and explain that he has a narrow vision of what is beautiful. And also that he has no room to talk because he looks like a turtle.