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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Fear Street Part Two: 1978, or: Stayin’ Alive

As we make our way through the Fear Street trilogy, we’re only going back further in time and diving deeper into horror tropes and supernatural forces. Don’t worry, though–Part Two will deliver those vital horror elements: teens making questionable decisions, overly dramatic yet largely ignored warnings, and witches. Praise the Lord, so many witches.

The Film:

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

The Premise:

Following the events of Part One, teens in 1994 learn of a 1978 summer camp massacre that seems to have been the work of undead witch Sarah Fier.

The Ramble:

Following the events of Fear Street Part One, drugs are the official reason for the series of murders that decimated the population of Shadyside for approximately the 10,000th time in history. Keenly interested in the story is one C. Berman, previously revealed to be the survivor of a 1978 summer camp massacre. Desperate for a lead that will help possessed Sam, Deena and her brother Josh plead for C. Berman’s guidance…though, as her sad story reveals, there’s not much hope for those the witch Sarah Fier wants dead, including C. Berman’s own sister.

In 1978, Shadyside sisters Cindy and Ziggy couldn’t be more different. Cindy is an overachiever inclined to become extremely upset over stains on her shirts and the lack of enthusiasm for cleaning that burnouts Alice and Arnie express. Though once fun and free-spirited as one of Alice’s bffs, Cindy is pleased with her good girl reputation that can help her leave Shadyside behind forever.

Ziggy, a teen girl with long red hair, rolls her eyes as she walks away from her sister in a forested area.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ziggy, who is one strike away from being sent home from summer camp. After being caught stealing, mean girl Sheila takes it upon herself to make Ziggy pay, going so far as to string her up and burn her with a lighter. Camp counselors intervene, and future sheriff Nick Goode prevents Ziggy from getting sent home as his brother and future mayor Will would prefer. In all of this, there are no consequences for Sunnyvaler Sheila.

When Ziggy goes to see Nurse Lane for her burn, things get intense fast when Ziggy notices files about the witch in the nurse’s office. Nurse Lane discusses her daughter, who seemed to be a victim of the Shadyside curse when she murdered 7 people before killing herself. Cindy is dismissive of her sister’s concerns about the nurse…until Lane attempts to kill Cindy’s boyfriend Tommy soon after. With the ominous warning that Tommy will die that night, Nurse Lane is removed from the premises.

Teenager Ziggy talks to the camp nurse as she waits for her arm to be bandaged.

Now with an interest in following through on Ziggy’s concerns and finding a reasonable explanation for the disturbing happenings, Cindy tries to gather what information she can from her sister. However, it’s too little too late, and Cindy responds to Ziggy’s disdain with some harsh words that she’ll never end up regretting just a few hours later, of course. Ziggy has problems of her own as she contains to suffer harassment at the hands of Sheila and kindness from counselor Nick…who surprises her with some vengeful schemes up his sleeve.

As Cindy and Tommy investigate Nurse Lane’s dire warning further, they learn one of the tales around Sarah Fier’s life and undeath is her sacrifice of one hand in exchange for immortality. Theoretically, reuniting Sarah’s body with her skeletal hand may stop her at last…though no one has a clue where to find these remains. After prankster Alice runs off with Cindy’s purse, the team of Alice, Arnie, Cindy, and Tommy investigate a strange burial site that leads to an underground series of tunnels. It’s just around this time that Tommy begins to feel rather under the weather; (not so) coincidentally, he feels rather compelled to start swinging axes at skulls.

Cindy, a teen girl with dark hair, holds a flashlight to a book in a darkened room. Next to her, a teen boy and girl look over her shoulder.

After an encounter that unleashes a possessed Tommy on the unsuspecting campers, Cindy and Alice are stuck in the maze of tunnels in search of an escape route. Meanwhile, the campers are thoroughly engrossed in a Color War game of capture the flag–Shadyside vs. Sunnyvale, naturally. It’s really only the Shadyside kids who are in real danger, as the legend of Sarah Fier’s curse reveals that those from Sunnyvale aren’t targeted.

Teenager Ziggy looks into the eyes of teenager Nick as they sit side by side.

Much of the subsequent action unfolds as both Cindy/Alice and Ziggy/Nick try to track down the killer before more foreheads become closely acquainted with the business end of an axe. Even if Tommy is out of the picture (and, as he’s effectively a possessed corpse, that’s a big if), what of Sarah Fier herself and all of the ghouls under her power? And what does this all mean for our 1994 teens’ hope of freeing Sam from the witch’s grasp?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I had so much fun watching this installment, in part because of the clear interest in (respectfully) borrowing from other horror classics. Part Two continues to strike a good balance between disturbingly gory slasher and teen sleuthing adventure. Even though a lot of the characters are teen horror cliches, there is enough care taken with the backstory here that I’m invested in them anyway. Just as the relationship between Deena and Sam was the heart of Part One, the sister bond between Cindy and Ziggy is the driving force behind the story of Part Two.

I have to admit the “big twist” revealing who C. Berman was not that surprising to me…especially if you think of the personality alone of our leads. However, maybe this reveal is a genuine surprise to others?

As with the first installment, the aesthetic is gorgeous and the soundtrack is superb. Some of the ’70s hair is truly great, and there does seem to be more attention to creating a sense of time & place that was missing from Part One. However, I’m still not totally convinced about the setting as our characters are still rocking a mostly contemporary aesthetic and perspective IMHO.

Though our second installment does build upon the story established in Part One, I will say they don’t connect particularly effectively. There are times when this film almost feels like part of anthology series as we forget about the ’94 plotline completely except for the first and last 10 minutes or so. And, though we had several reminders about Nick Goode’s future as Sunnyvale sheriff, I totally forgot that his brother Will becomes the mayor. I could have used a few more character reminders for the non-sheriff characters, honestly.

Minor source of annoyance: despite what teen horror typically promises, we don’t actually get to see Sheila die a horrible death. As she’s a Sunnyvaler, this makes sense and is in line with the setup of the curse and all of the social commentary involved with it. But it’s still irritating as she was definitely the character I most wanted to see with an axe through her temple.

Overall, though, the trilogy has been a great deal of fun so far. My complaints with Part Two are relatively minor, and I can’t wait to dig in to Part Three, especially as we get the rare but excellent period drama horror setting.

Would my blog wife take an axe for this one or surprise it with a bucket full of cockroaches? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Fear Street Part One: 1994, or: Mall-ed to Death

What’s better than making a decision about the next film on the Collab? Making the next 3 decisions all at once. Much as a I enjoy a carefully thought-out decision about our next viewing experience, I’m happy to say we’ve already checked off that box for several weeks. Our attention will be turned entirely to the Fear Street trilogy on Netflix…unless the dark forces within prove too much. Or our Wi-fi signal is interrupted. Truly a chilling thought.

The Film:

Fear Street Part One: 1994

The Premise:

In a town plagued by grisly murders for centuries, a group of teens must confront a witch who is out for blood.

The Ramble:

There must be something in the water in Shadyside, a small town where the murder rate is staggeringly high. Could the rumors about a long-dead witch causing all of the mayhem be true…or is Shadyside really just a bad place to live that brings out the worst in people?

In a dark, blue-lit room, a teen girl looks fearful as a figure wearing a skeleton mask and hood looms behind her.

After the latest murder of a teenage bookstore employee by a close friend, the residents of Shadyside and the idyllic neighboring town of Sunnyvale are in mourning but not complete shock. Residents of both towns seem to spend a large part of their time waiting around for the next murder.

In the midst of this tragedy, depressed teen Deena is experiencing her own personal loss after breaking up with her girlfriend Sam. As Deena is the one who did the breaking up when Sam moved to Sunnyvale, Sam is indignant that her ex has the nerve to be jealous. It does seem problematic that Sam is now dating a football player as a way to mask her LGBTQ identity and forget all about Deena.

A teenage girl angrily gives a box to another teenage girl wearing a cheerleader uniform.

When tensions arise during a community vigil for the recently murdered teen, things escalate between Shadyside and Sunnyvale high schools pretty quickly. Sam’s boyfriend proves to be a poor decision maker, tailing the bus that carries Deena and her friends. Deena really raises the stakes on that front when she and one of her bffs, Kate, throw a bucket of ice at the car, causing it to careen off-road into the woods. Sam is injured in the accident but ultimately okay…though her blood manages to draw the attention of a supernatural being.

Shortly after, Deena and her brother experience a creepy encounter that she initially believes to be Sam’s boyfriend playing a prank. Deena’s brother Josh, on the other hand, is something of an expert on the local lore of Sarah Fier, the witch executed in 1666 who is supposedly responsible for the statistically improbable number of grisly murders in Shadyside. It turns out that Josh may be onto something, especially when Peter is soon ruled out as a suspect quite definitively.

The local police are predictably useless on this one. Deena’s friends Kate and Simon also experience some disturbing events, quickly realizing that the witch is indeed causing mayhem…all because she’s after Sam’s blood. Luring the witch out, the gang sends her to a fiery doom Hocus Pocus-style and all is well in the world.

In a darkened basement, teenagers face an offscreen character, reacting in shock to an ill-advised plan.

Except of course it’s not. After learning of the 1978 case of C. Berman, who was pursued by the witch but managed to survive, the gang concludes they’ll have to employ some more strategic tactics. Along with some hooking up just in case this is really the end, they decide to outsmart the witch by killing Sam with an overdose…then bringing her back to life as soon as possible. A simple plan that could never go unexpectedly wrong, obviously.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is a lot of fun, and the soundtrack is so perfect, but there are a few issues that prevent this one from earning a full 4 stars. Like many a Netflix acquisition, there are a lot of moments that feel very intentionally formulaic. Frequently, there are times when the characters, writing, style transparently evoke Stranger Things, Riverdale, and IT…along with a number of horror classics. Sometimes it works, but at other times it gets overwhelming and confusing.

I like our characters well enough, and it’s refreshing to have an LGBTQ romance so central to the story. Kate is probably the most fun as an ambitious yet rage-fueled drug-dealing cheerleader. But there are a lot of times that everything feels overly glossy and put together, and our teen characters are perhaps too much of a nod to classic horror tropes. This could be a consequence of having seen one too many low-budget shark films: all other production values seem flawless in comparison.

I think my biggest annoyance is that our film does view very much like one that’s setting up other installments. However, Gillian Jacobs does appear briefly and promise entertainment in volume 2, so I can’t be entirely upset. And, in my criticism, I have somewhat underrepresented how much fun this one is as a teen adventure, gory horror, romance, and coming-of-age story. Look out for round 2 next week!

Would my blog wife sacrifice herself for this one or go full-on vengeance-seeking witch? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Carnival of Souls, or: Ghosted

Watch Catherine Deneuve delightfully sing and dance in a French New Wave classic, they said. Finally cross off a classic sitting on the watchlist for years. Too bad UK/French relations are at an all-time low when it comes to streaming The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for a reasonable rental fee. However, our misfortune turned around when we opted for another classic of 1960s cinema this week on the Collab, and it’s the best kind: a cult classic.

The Film:

Carnival of Souls

The Premise:

Following a tragic car accident and her subsequent move to Utah, a young woman is haunted by a ghostly carnival figure connected to an abandoned pavilion on the outskirts of town.

The Ramble:

When a random 1960s dude challenges you and your crew to an impromptu car race, what’s a self-respecting woman to do but press her elegant stiletto heel to the pedal? As it turns out, this is a fateful decision–the driver turns out to be rather nasty, bumping our ladies from a bridge into the depths of a river below. One of the passengers, Mary, is the only survivor as her two friends die in the accident. As is to be expected, the two men in the other car blatantly lie about the events and walk away scot-free. A search team attempts to retrieve the remains of the wreck, but odds seem low as the muddy waters leave only the classic hook on a rope technique available. This feels so old-fashioned, but I’m honestly not sure our search and rescue technology has advanced significantly in the intervening years.

A woman looks distressed as she is wrapped in a blanket, looking at the river she was rescued from. A group of men stand behind her, impassive.

Though Mary seems understandably in shock, she is determined to carry on with her pre-crash plans to relocate to Utah for a job as a church organist. Upon leaving the institution where she learned to play the organ, she bluntly tells those wishing her well that she appreciates the sentiment but she’s never coming back. What’s more, despite the expectation that music should be her passion, it’s just a job to her. As a person with an abiding yet unfulfilled desire to disrupt polite social conventions, this speaks to me on a fundamental level. I have an extreme amount of love and admiration for our girl Mary.

Unfortunately, Mary’s expectation that she can start over with a clean slate is doomed from the start as she begins seeing the chillingly pale face of a man virtually everywhere. As she drives into town, she notices a grand empty pavilion that has seen better days…just before its closure, as a carnival.

Mary will be living in a house overseen by Mrs. Thomas, which is home to only one other lodger, John…who we will certainly spend some time on later. When the pastor welcomes Mary to town and to her new role within the church, she dodges the offer of a reception by asking if it’s absolutely necessary. No, Mary. It’s never necessary. As the pastor shows her around town, Mary asks about going into the abandoned pavilion. The pastor declines as the building has been closed off to the public for so-called health and safety reasons.

A man and woman sit on a sofa, drinking cups of coffee. The man leans forward slightly, smiling, while the woman leans away.

Shortly after, Mary get to know her neighbor across the hall, John, better. When she opens the door in a towel, expecting Mrs. Thomas, she changes into a robe…with John creeping on her. Initially rejecting John’s advances, Mary reconsiders after another disturbing encounter with the ghostly pale man. When John brings her coffee in the morning, Mary learns that he may have a problem with alcohol, but this doesn’t prevent him from considering himself a happy-go-lucky ladies’ man.

Mary’s plans to acquire a new (gently used) wardrobe are disrupted when, upon leaving a dressing room, she suddenly hears nothing and seems to be invisible to those around her. Understandably upset, Mary has a bit of a breakdown and encounters a doctor, who advises her that hysteria solves nothing. Solid advice right from a groundbreaking medical research study of the 1960s. The doctor is surprisingly helpful beyond this, attempting to dissect the reasons for Mary’s visions. Channeling David Rose to explain that she doesn’t want to be close to people, Mary is relatable indeed.

A man sits at a desk in his office, looking expectantly at a woman sitting in a chair nearby. She looks down towards the ground, her expression pained.

Finally unable to resists the allure of the pavilion, Mary explores the structure at last, finding her life becoming increasingly surreal. Falling into a trance-like state while playing the organ, Mary begins playing music deemed terribly offensive by the pastor, who fires her on the spot. Meeting up with John, Mary is distant and miserable but afraid to be alone with her visions, real or imagined. After John gets fed up with Mary’s neuroses and she spends the night rearranging the furniture, Mrs. Thomas contacts the doctor. However, Mary is disinclined to seek help; rather, she’s utterly determined to leave town. But as unfortunate circumstances arise at her every attempt to escape, it seems Mary may be inexorably guided back to the pavilion. What horrors await her there?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Achieving cult classic status, our film is an impressive achievement, and its influence is massive. Many of the techniques and themes feel quite contemporary. There are a lot of moments where this feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, and I do not at all object to this. Things are legendarily low budget for this film, so we are relying heavily on empty spaces, close-ups, and quiet moments of dread (as well as dramatic organ music) to create a highly atmospheric tale. One scene where Mary’s doctor turns around to reveal himself as the ghost man is not the most surprising for its existence in so many subsequent films, but no less effective. Perhaps due to the low budget and lack of prestige, I can see how this film was easily overshadowed by Hitchcock in its time. We’ve got many of the same elements that make for a suspenseful watch, and star Candace Hilligoss looks so much like a Hitchcock leading lady.

Personally, I find the complexity of the film’s themes and thoughtfulness of its messages most compelling. There are a number of ways to interpret director Herk Harvey’s film. First, it’s an effective exploration of post-modern existential dread and isolation. Mary both seeks out and fears being alone–when she’s around other people, Mary is limited by their expectations and assumptions. As something of an outsider, she experiences a great deal of anxiety to essentially conform or die. At the same time, there are a lot of instances in which being around people is the only thing between Mary and truly terrifying thoughts and experiences, and this tension is highly effective in creating suspense. There are more specific anxieties to unpack as well, including those around mental illness, gender roles, and workplace expectations. I find Mary’s relationship to the supposedly passion-driven field of music refreshingly honest–if a bit depressing that it’s been so long that we’ve been telling ourselves the lie that work is a thing we should love.

I will say there were some limitations that prevented me from bumping up this rating a bit higher. First, there are times when the low budget does become noticeable…particularly in the acting department. Mary’s wide-eyed stares of horror carry a huge amount of the film, but some of the performances are less than convincing (except my love for the director as lead creepy ghoul will never die). I also hoped some of the elements and themes would be fleshed out a bit more and create more cohesion–there is a sense that the production ran out of money and rushed to the dramatic twist ending at a certain point. And the amount of screen time John gets is effective, but I still wish he had been written off earlier or met with a more gruesome ending. The men who do awful things in the film walk away largely unscathed–which I do feel makes a surprisingly forward-thinking feminist argument…but is still frustrating.

On a side note, I thought it was quite progressive that Mary shopped for secondhand clothes–I can think of virtually no other films where characters thrift shop for clothes unless it’s to make a point about how cool and quirky they are.

Overall, even though I love to be a contrarian, I can’t argue there’s a very good reason this film has a reputation as a well-loved cult classic.

Would my blog wife follow this one to a creepy abandoned pavilion or drive off without looking back? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Happiness of the Katakuris, or: Born This Clay

It wouldn’t be the Blog Collab if we weren’t pressing play on a horrible mismatch of genres that shouldn’t work. Horror, musical, comedy, claymation? Surely these elements can never combine in satisfying cinematic harmony. But we’re not necessarily seeking perfection here so much as that certain B-movie je ne sais quoi.

The Film:

The Happiness of the Katakuris

The Premise:

After an unlucky family covers up the suicide of their first inn guest, things…escalate.

The Ramble:

At a hotel restaurant in Japan, a young woman finds a horrible surprise in her meal: a little demonic creature that thinks her uvula looks like a delicious snack. After leaving the woman for dead, the creature undergoes a very quick life cycle, coming full circle as it’s snatched up in a crow’s beak. When an elderly man kills the crow, bringing it down mid-flight, you know ominous events are about to unfold.

A claymation woman screams as a small winged demon pries open her jaws.

The aforementioned man is our narrator’s great-grandfather Jinpei Katakuri, the head of a rather unfortunate family. His son, Masao, laid off from his job, made the seemingly sound decision to buy a remote property sure to transform into a popular tourist destination after the construction of a major road. Major setback to this plan? The road has yet to be built.

Masao’s daughter Shizue lives with the family, along with her brother Masayuki and daughter Yurie, the narrator. Shizue is divorced and falls in and out of love too quickly. Masayuki has a violent temper and is attempting to leave his criminal past behind. Yurie herself is a child but old enough to realize her family is leaning heavily on the dysfunctional side of the scale.

Four members of a family stand outside, looking unhappy and facing away from each other.

Just as the family is prepared to give up on making a living from the inn, they finally welcome their first guest on a dark and stormy night. Unfortunately, their guest is extremely depressed, ultimately dying by suicide when he stabs himself with a hotel key. When the family discovers the body, they decide to cover things up, fearing their first guest’s suicide will doom their business.

Four people in a dark room pause in the middle of a dance. They react in distress to the discovery of a body in the room.

Soon after, a man claiming to be a member of the British Royal Navy arrives, and Shizue is instantly smitten. It becomes increasingly clear that the man is not who he appears to be, especially as he makes ever more outlandish claims about his connections to the royal family. After he leaves, Shizue receives a call implying he has died…but is that the truth?

When a somewhat renowned Sumo wrestler arrives at the inn with a teen girl, it’s not long before both end up dead. Because of the suspicious number of bodies piling up, the family starts to believe Masayuki may be responsible due to his criminal past.

Add a few musical numbers to the mix, a plan to finally begin building the long-promised road, and some reanimating corpses, and you’ve got…a rather surreal experience.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

The premise is irresistible, but the loose structure of the film itself is confusing and often frustrating. I appreciate the musical numbers so much, especially the extremely dark ones that discuss hiding the body of the first guest and discovering the exhumed bodies have become zombified.

I would have liked a bit more direction here, though, and some idea of what is to come. I expected more horror, but the film is more interested in exploring themes around family and social commentary about success/happiness and the perception of these…as well as just doing whatever the fuck it wants to. Some of these themes don’t work well when everyone in the family is problematic to some degree. I found it difficult to care about the characters and what happened to them as they spent most of their time being horrible, making questionable decisions, and having things go miraculously well despite their incompetence.

Props for weirdness, though. I’m struggling to think of a recent watch as unabashedly strange and visually daring as this one.

Would my blog wife save this one from an unexpected lava flow or bury it along with the other bodies? Read her review to find out!