Farewell to the Youth Group…


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haunted hallwayFor the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10

I’ve been silent. I know I have been silent, not posting my brain droppings or reviews or such these past few weeks. There have been some paradigm shifts, the major of which was where I said goodbye to my youth group last night.

It was known that this was Shelli’s last year of doing the youth group, as she had been faithfully doing so in the Student Venture capacity for 25 years. Not counting the few years before when it was just a weekly Bible study in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While she had said she was retiring every two years or so, this time she meant it.

It just so happened that I had gotten involved with Student Venture when it was started back in February of 1992, and have been involved in some capacity for approximately 17 out of the 25 years. There was that wilderness period between 2000 and 2009 that I’m not going to go into right now. Sufficed to say, I needed that time. When the Lord saw fit, He drop-kicked me back with the youth group to serve the leaders. Then I moved up to one of the co-leaders. We kept the name Student Venture long after Campus Crusade decided to change their organization name to CRU, and then the last year it was decided to break off entirely with being associated with CRU, more because we were affiliated in name only. The break was very amicable, really. That was also the last year we would exist as a youth group as we know it.

The original plan was to pass on responsibility of the group to myself and another friend–Darla–who were helping co-lead (for lack of a better word, this early in the mourning as I write this). Then, a few weeks into the new season, Darla left to to focus on her family (I swear I didn’t mean to evoke Dr. James Dobson’s old ministry, sorry); I realized that I would be the one taking over the lessons and teaching the group after Shelli was gone. And, after the initial period of anxiety, I  fell back to what I knew best to do: leave it up to God to do what He does, and let the Holy Spirit guide me as I merely serve to the best of my ability. Remain faithful in presenting the Truth of the Bible and Who Jesus is, and let God do the heavy work in the kids’ hearts and minds.

You know, what I’ve always been doing. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, and all that.

Then, without getting bogged with the details, a chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes was started at the High School, and Shelli decided that the torch should be passed to those starting up FCA and dissolving Student Venture entirely. It’s logical, really, as there are so many more opportunities for the kids to grow and mature in their faith and interact with peers from other FCA groups, and it’s headed up by a couple of instructors from the high school. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little bit upset at the sudden shift. Then again, the group wasn’t mine to begin with.

So, last night I said goodbye to probably the best bunch of kids I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with. To watch the Holy Spirit work in their lives, seeing them want to dive into what the Bible says, reading it chapter-by-chapter, and most importantly getting to introduce them to Jesus. It was the one day out of the week I looked forward to. It was…difficult, to understate the situation. Hugs and tears and laughter all around.

So, the torch has been passed for the kids in Hooper, Nebraska. And various surrounding communities. It’s difficult to imagine not being a part of their lives in the future, but I believe they’re in good hands. As for me, I foresee a bit more Wilderness Wandering. Or to put it another way: While it’s true that when God closes one door, He will open another, no one wants to talk about the period where you’re wandering around the hallway waiting for Him to open up the other door.

Can I praise Him in the hallway? Do I have a choice? Am I really going to end this with rhetorical questions? Sure, why not? Cheers, all…


Movie Review: The VVITCH

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“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

A devout Puritan family in 1630s New England are exiled from their village, and struggle to survive in their new home situated at the edge of a mysterious forest. The sinister, witching forces in the wilderness emerge silently to terrorize them, first by kidnapping the youngest of their five children. As their life-sustaining crops fail, the clan fall victim to paranoia and fear as they begin to turn on one another, eventually suspecting teenage daughter Thomasiin of witchcraft.

I’m afraid that everything I know about the Puritan society in America’s past comes from Nathanial Hawthorne novels, and of course the Salem Witch Trials. In other words, it’s not a very flattering image that’s been presented of these sectarian Christian settlers in this country of ours. Of course, a lot of our country’s early folklore and proto-horror tales come from the fables and myths created by these seemingly uptight yet hale-and-hearty shoe buckle enthusiasts in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Some very good American Gothic yarns have sprung from this era’s imagination, to be certain.

Which brings us to The VVitch. Yes, I’m using the double-“V” usage on what is normally a “W”, mainly to keep in time with the period setting that has been meticulously researched by writer/director Robert Eggers. Meaning, he made a greater effort than just spending a couple of hours on Google, like I normally do. Puritanical beliefs and behaviors, folklore, witches, vocabulary and grammar, all brought together to make the movie feel as real and authentic as possible, and it works greatly to that effect. I have to credit the actors, who all really made the archaic language and mannerisms come across as genuine and effortless. I can imagine how tempting it could have been to make things needlessly campy; these guys pulled it off.

I am going to go ahead and point out, like so many others have, that The VVitch doesn’t fall neatly into the general area of “horror” as we know it. While there are supernatural elements in the movie, they aren’t so much seen as felt; even then, it’s left wide open as to whether what’s happening to the family is, in fact, the result of supernatural shenanigans, or if it’s the natural mental breakdown due to their circumstances, buffeted by the strong religious superstitions that come with their sect of their faith.

The VVitch is a great, Ye Olde Fashioned Gothic tale, both in the time setting and the atmosphere of the story, building up the tension and the natural paranoia slowly, filling you with a sense of dread to the point where a scene featuring a static shot of a bunny feels darkly off-putting.

Make no mistake: The VVitch is a horror movie, but it’s an unassuming one that will find its way burrowed deep underneath your skin, delighting in the way you will squirm until the end, and even then will stay with you long after the end credits have stopped rolling. Greatly recommended.

Music Review: ACOUSTIC TORMENT – My Hope Is In You

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music-review_-acoustic-torment-my-hope-is-in-youACOUSTIC TORMENT
My Hope Is In You

Acoustic Torment is (or perhaps “was”; their status is listed as “unknown” at the Metal Archives, and one of the members runs Whirlwind Records, so they may just be on indefinite hiatus for all I know) a death metal band from Germany that released two full-length album thus far. I’ve already reviewed their second album Schwarzwald, and now I’m finally getting around to reviewing their first release, My Hope Is In You. Life is wacky like that.

Anyway, I first discovered the existence of Acoustic Torment by way of one of those compilation CDs that was put out by the late and lamented Blastbeats Records, of which I picked up at their merch table back at Cornerstone 1999. The cut “Environmental Disaster” was one here, and I was…not too overly impressed at the time. It was straight-forward thrashy death metal, in the same vein as early Morbid Angel, with what seemed to be an environmental bent to the song, which was definitely unique, but nothing that really grabbed me by the throat with just that cut.

Flash forward a few years (okay, a bit more than just a “few years”), and I finally get around to snagging a copy of My Hope Is In You. It couldn’t hurt to give the entire thing a spin; the cut on the compilation couldn’t have been the best representation of the band’s output, right? I mean, I did enjoy their second album, so getting this off of their Bandcamp page seemed like the thing to do.

Having finally given My Hope Is In You a thorough spin or three, I can attest that it is a decent enough collection of straight-forward classic death metal, in the vein of the old school masters like the aforementioned Morbid Angel, Obituary and early Mortification. Much of it has a doom flavor to it, with a couple of cuts going for the thrashy death metal style on “Environmental Disaster”, “Indifferent Humanity”, and album ender “Praise The Lord”. The title track is Paramaecium-inspired doom death metal, slow and gut-churning. The band isn’t afraid to incorporate the Grandfather’s Guitars and troubadour style singing on the opening parts of “Sick World” and “Atomic Threat”. The big epic on this one is “Total Global Annihilation And The Return Of Jesus Christ”, a ten-minute-plus death metal track that’s pretty straight-forward in its execution.

I have to say, the production on My Hope Is In You is a bit thin, but it’s nothing that detracts completely from the listening. Some would say it imbues the death metal contained on here with a certain rawness that can’t be achieved with top-notch production. Regardless, My Hope Is In You was a decent listen, and just as I suspected, the one cut I listened to all those years ago wasn’t the best representation of the music. It’s worth a look see, and it’s available on Bandcamp for the purchasable download, after being long out of print in physical form.

Movie Review: OUIJA

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movie-review-ouijaUniversal Pictures

How are you even supposed to talk to someone using a board game? I mean, yo, can you hear me? Signal’s real bad. I only got, like, one bar in here.

In Ouija, a group of friends must confront their most terrifying fears when they awaken the dark powers of an ancient spirit board.

I remember over two years ago, sitting in the theater, awaiting the start of the movie Annabelle, and halfheartedly watching the previews that were playing leading up to it. One of those previews was for Ouija, which to me looked exactly like the kind of upcoming horror movie that I was going to pretty much skip when it was in the theaters, and maybe watch on DVD or streaming or something in the future. Maybe not the near future. But some time. I promise. Then it was released, and the general consensus confirmed my predictions that Ouija was a movie I could skip, and watch when I have nothing better to do. Or when I feel like doing my weekend Bad Horror/Sci-Fi-A-Thon. Which I did recently, along with the sequel. Because of course they made a sequel to this mediocre snore-fest.

Yeah, Ouija is one of those “horror” movies that is (not surprisingly) lacking in personality from both the cast and the execution of the scary bits. But, I’m getting ahead of myself, here.

The story of Ouija plays out like the classic commercial for the board game (because this is technically a movie based on a board game, like Battleship), wherein we start with a couple of girls playing with an old version of the Ouija board, constantly asking, “It’s just a game, right?” like the commercials always did. Yeah, I remember those. I’m old, remember? Here they read off the rule sheet and proceed to summon the unholy minions of the Dark Lord. No, kidding, that would have made this a good movie. Actually, they play with the board, which causes time to fast forward to when the girls are now teenagers, one of which is clearly finishing up a solo play with the Ouija board, followed by tossing it into the fireplace to burn. Of course, this doesn’t destroy the thing, as it reappears a few minutes later, after causing a bit of boo-scare wackiness in the kitchen. The girl hangs herself, cut to opening credits, and then we’re treated to a ninety-minute barely scary horror movie that plays more like a badly made young adult evening soap opera on the CW, with a plot that lifted from pretty much every supernatural-based prime time show that’s several times better than this movie.

I’d describe the rest of the story, but it’s not something that hasn’t been done before: Besties to dead girl decide it wasn’t suicide, makes the leap that it involves the Ouija board, uses said Ouija board to make contact with girl, instead gets in touch with another spirit with malevolent intent, there’s an insane Older Sister that does a bit of subterfuge in the guise of “helping”, then the Magic Wise Grandma who only appears a grand total of three times, for a couple of minutes each, to dispense the real method of defeating the malevolent spirit (hint: in involves a method that made me expect the Winchester brothers to show up at any minute), and the whole thing ends with what a friend of mine pointed out while I was live commenting on FaceBook should have been a “The End…OR IS IT?!?” Well, clearly not the end, seeing as how they did a prequel sequel, but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Overall, I would say that Ouija is neither a good nor a bad movie, just a “meh” kind of forgettable movie that has some good ideas going, but the execution is uninspired and relies too heavily on the same old formula with the same old non-scares, which leads to the audience being as bored as the actors’ collective performance.

Movie Review: 13 GHOSTS (1960)

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movie-review_-13-ghosts-1960Columbia Pictures

“Emilio! He killed his wife, his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law with a meat cleaver. Whack! Whack! Whack! You’d better stand over there.”

When Cyrus Zorba and his poverty-stricken family inherit an old mansion, they can’t believe their good luck. However, not long after they movie in they realize that the house is haunted by 12 ghosts and run by a housekeeper who works in the dark arts. Though the ghosts are intent on killing a member of the family, the Zorbas insist on staying in the house because they have learned that a large fortune is hidden somewhere inside it.

Having, up to this point, only seen the Dark Castle remake of the B-Movie horror classic 13 Ghosts (which was titled Thir13en Ghosts, and was a rollicking cheesy fun time), I tried to make it a point to sit through the original William Castle flick. Which I finally did. And I have to say, this original has a fun kind of charm to it, overall.

One thing I’ll give William Castle, he did know how to sell gimmicks to make his otherwise ho-hum B-Movie horrors far more fun than they really are. For instance, for 13 Ghosts, it’s hard not to talk about the movie without bringing up the method that was used to have the ghosts only visible on the screen by way of the audience wearing special glasses. The process used a red and blue filter on the standard black-and-white film, resulting in allowing the audience to individually choose to see the ghosts, or, in the case of the easily spooked types, not have to see the ghosts at all. It wasn’t what you would call a very effective science (you could still see the ghosts with the naked eye if you happened to not use either pair of the glasses), but the hype behind it made it a classic. So much so, the concept of using special glasses to see into the spectral realm was utilized in the remake, to really good effect.

As far as the story behind 13 Ghosts, it’s your standard Scooby Doo plot, where a family inherits an old spooky mansion from an uncle, which might have spirits wandering about due to a journal found, then it turns out the lawyer of said uncle is trying to use the superstitious nature of the family to scare them away so he could find the secret hidden treasure left by the uncle, only to be found out and there may or may not be actual ghosts by the time the credits roll. It’s a standard classic Gothic formula tale, and like I said, if it wasn’t for the Illusion-O gimmick, it may have been regulated to unremarkable status.

Overall, though, as I mentioned, I did find 13 Ghosts to have a certain charm that I enjoyed. It was a fun and slightly cheesy mystery chiller that also featured the late, great Elaine Zacharides as the housekeeper that everyone thinks is a witch. Which, I don’t know if that was a tribute to her more famous roll as the Wicked Witch on The Wizard Of Oz, but she was clearly the standout in this movie. The ghost effects were quite hokey, but added to the charm (I was cracking myself up by using the Swedish Chef from the Muppets when the ghost of the jealous chef appeared in the kitchen). Connoisseurs of old horror flicks need to check this one out, if in fact you haven’t.


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book-review_-dark-tower-vStephen King

It was the possibility of darkness that made the day seem so bright.

Roland Deschain and his ka-tet are bearing southeast through the forests of Mid-World on their quest for the Dark Tower. Their path takes them to the outskirts of Calla Bryn Sturgis. But beyond the tranquil farm town, the ground rises to the hulking darkness of Thunderclap, the source of a terrible affliction that is stealing the town’s soul. The wolves of Thunderclap and their unspeakable depredation are coming. To resist them is to risk all, but these are odds the gunslingers are used to. Their guns, however, will not be enough….

After Wizard & Glass was published in 1997, there was a stretch where it seemed a possibility that we may never see (or read) of Roland finally arriving at his long-traveled destination of The Dark Tower. Or, if you wanted to be optimistic, there would be a conclusion to the epic, but it might not be Stephen King that would pen the last few stories. This was something that King himself actually mused about back in the 1980s, around the time when The Drawing of the Three was published. It makes sense, really, as The Dark Tower series was never really his main focus as a writer. But still, continuing a story is a thing us geeks tend to get antsy about.

Also, there was the little issue with King almost getting killed after being hit by a minivan while on one of his daily walks in 1999. It took him a while to recover, and during his readjusting period said he was going to retire from writing all together in 2002. Fortunately, whether he found a way to work through the discomfort, or if he just discovered that retirement sucks, he continued to write, and managed to get the fifth volume of The Dark Tower series out, Wolves of the Calla.

After leaving Topeka from the previous story, Roland and the gang find themselves enlisted in protecting a small farming village called Calla Bryn Sturgis from the Wolves of Thunderclap (again, great band name, there). Seems these Wolves come around every generation to take one child from each pair of twins from the village, and after a few months of being away, the child returns mentally handicapped and destined to grow really big and die young. Meanwhile, one of the citizens of Calla is one Father Callahan, who used originally used to be from a little town in Maine called ‘Salem’s Lot. You may have heard of it; bit of a vampire infestation and all. Turns out, things got all sorts of wacky for Father Callahan after he left ‘Salem’s Lot, and after dying in that reality wound up here in Roland’s world at the Way Station shortly after Roland met up with Jake there in The Gunslinger (gads, we’re starting to need a flow chart, aren’t we?), yadda yadda yadda, there’s a black scrying orb in a cave that can allow traveling via dream doorways. Or something like that. Eddie uses said object to travel back to New York circa 1977 to ensure a rose in an empty lot that is the manifestation of the Dark Tower in this dimension is not destroyed. Meanwhile, in the Calla, the Wolves show up, who turn out to be robots that look more like Doctor Doom that wield Star Wars-style light sabers and throw grenades designed to look like the snitches from the Harry Potter books. I am so not making that up. A battle ensues, the Wolves are defeated, and then Susanna gets possessed by the baby she got impregnated with by a demon back in The Waste Lands, and runs off back to New York Prime and closes the door behind her. The End.

Clearly, Wolves of the Calla is the Seven Samurai edition of the story arc. Or, if you will, The Magnificent Seven. Wherein our ragtag group of vagrant cowboys are called upon to help defend a village from a dark force that preys upon it because evil. Throw in some time-and-dimension hopping shenanigans, a crossover from another Stephen King book, some other blatant cribbing from other modern pop culture touchstones and a callback to one of the previous novels in the series, and boy howdy was this a wonderful and glorious mess. I don’t mean that in a bad way, either; the story had so many twists and turns, not to mention so many wacky surprises that it was just all kinds of fun to read. I mean, who wouldn’t want to make light sabers part of your fantasy play when you were a kid?

Overall, after sloshing through Wizard & Glass, I’m glad I kept going with Wolves of the Calla, as I was rewarded with a much more imaginative and kinetic continuation of the overall arc, as well as some geek moments that left me with a bit of a grin at times.

Music Review: DEMON HUNTER – The World Is A Thorn

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music-review_-demon-hunter-the-world-is-a-thornDEMON HUNTER
The World Is A Thorn
Solid State Records

Back in 2010, when buzz was building about the new Demon Hunter album that was to be released, the words “Heaviest one yet!” and “Most melodic to date!” were pretty much interchangeable, depending on which periodical or blog site you were seeing this at. Also bandied about was that The World Is A Thorn was set to be the bestest release for the band evah! Like, for realsies, and stuff.

Please don’t mistake my sarcasm for hatred or bile. It’s due to mild disappointment, really. Because, while Demon Hunter have traversed down that road before, here the melodic elements seem to be more of the focus. Because, while the songs on The World Is A Thorn do get heavy, it’s more of the kind that you would find on most modern metal radio formats. That’s neither good nor bad, just…different than what was expected with Demon Hunter.

The opening cut, “Descending Upon Us”, has a majestic sounding opening, then settles into a heavy and solid cut with a melodic chorus. Then next cut, “LifeWar” is a simple, straight-ahead plod-along that does get a bit monotonous. Not bad, but a bit more Nu Metal than expected. “Collapsing” start off with an electronic keyboard riff, then veers once again into Modern Heavy Rock/Nu Metal territory. It’s catchy and melodic, yes; like I said earlier, it sounds like something that can be heard on the radio, easily. This same kind of pattern can be heard on cuts like “This Is The Line”, “Shallow Water” and “Feel As Though You Could”, while there are a couple of ballads with “Diving Nails” and the album closer “Blood In The Tears”.

Before you think that there’s really nothing remarkable about The World Is A Thorn, there are three standout gems in this: the title track, which is thrash metal in execution, which makes me wonder why they didn’t just stay with that. It’s awesome. “Tie This Around Your Neck” is nice and heavy, and “Just Breathe” is another example of the band utilizing electronics, but here it’s lending a darker hue to something already heavy and anthemic.

Overall, with only three cuts that I found to be worth repeating, buried in a bunch of more formulaic fare (I shuddered writing that), I’m going to have to say that The World Is A Thorn was more than a bit disappointing. It’s far from terrible; it’s just something of a departure of what I dig about Demon Hunter.

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