Movie Review: The HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

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The House With A Clock In Its Walls movie posterUniversal Pictures
2018
PG

“Be a dear. Fetch a knife and stab me in the ears.”

Ten-year-old Lewis goes to live with his oddball uncle in a creaky old house that contains a mysterious `tick tock’ noise. He soon learns that Uncle Jonathan and his feisty neighbor, Mrs Zimmerman, are powerful practitioners of the magic arts. When Lewis accidentally awakens the dead, the town’s sleepy facade suddenly springs to life, revealing a secret and dangerous world of witches, warlocks and deadly curses.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls was a young adult Gothic mystery that was written by John Bellairs and published in 1973. I’ve never read anything by John Bellairs. I even went through his bibliography to make sure I didn’t inadvertently read one of his novels in grade school and just didn’t remember doing so. I was a voracious reader, even back then, and gravitated towards mysteries with a solid spooky supernatural feel to them. Weird as a kid, weird as an adult. But, no, I hadn’t read any of his fiction, which is odd, as they would have been right up my alley.

Anyway, The House with a Clock in Its Walls was the first in a series of books staring protagonist character Lewis Barnavelt, and proved to be a hit with the readers. It was adapted once before as one of three segments in the television anthology Once Upon A Midnight Scary, which was hosted by none other than Vincent Price back in 1979. Then, it was adapted into a full-length feature film in 2018 staring Jack Black.

The first thing I want to point out about this adaptation is that, this is directed by Eli Roth. Yes, that same Eli Roth who gave us the movies Cabin Fever and the Hostel series. He also did the cannibal horror film The Green Inferno, helmed the Death Wish remake, and stared in Inglorious Basterds. I’m not criticizing his movie choices; I’m merely pointing out that Eli Roth’s name isn’t exactly in the Top Five of names that pop up when we’re discussing family friendly fantasy films.

Also, I didn’t mean to use alliteration like that. Totally unintentional.

Second, did we really need to use the lettering style in the title to be a rip-off of the Harry Potter film series titles? Derivative, smacks of desperation, shows a lack of confidence on the studio’s part for letting this movie stand on its own. Ultimately, a pointless gripe. Moving on…

As a movie, I believe that Eli Roth has a bright future with young adult family dark fantasy films, if The House With A Clock In Its Walls is any indication. This movie is right up there with personal favorites like the Addams Family movies and the classic Tim Burton flicks. Jack Black is his usual fantastic self here, playing the roll as the eccentric warlock uncle Jonathan Barnavelt kind of subdued to his normal manic style. He plays off well with Cate Blanchett’s Florence Zimmerman character, the longtime neighbor and friend who is constantly trading barbs with Jonathan. Owen Vaccaro is also rather good as the child character of Lewis Barnavelt, the nephew that is brought into the world of magic, starts to learn magic himself, and then resurrects the dead to impress his friends. As you do.

It’s dark, it’s whimsical, it has some great visuals as well as a good Gothic atmosphere, and it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the story. The House With A Clock In Its Walls is a great movie, thumbs up all the way. Check it out if you haven’t done so already. Recommended.

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Book Review: SHADOW WITCH: Horror of the Dark Forest

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shadow witchJ. Thorn / Dan Padavona
Amazon Digital Services LLC
2015

Thom Meeks lives with his family in Droman Meadows under the protection of the Kingdom of Mylan. An unusually long winter creates anxiety in the village and some believe it to be the return of an ominous force known as the Shadow. When a pack of dread wolves lays ruin to Droman Meadows, Thom escapes with his wife and four daughters. They set out on the Mylan Road in hopes of finding refuge in the capital, but dark forces emerging from the primeval forest will challenge them for their eternal souls.

Slowly going through the entire list of free-ish titles that I downloaded to my Kindle when I received my very first not very long ago. It came in handy during those daily IV sessions I went through back in the winter of 2018. One of the free books available to me was this one right here: Shadow Witch: Horror of the Dark Forest.

I know nothing of the two authors that collaborated on this novella: J. Thorn and Dan Padavona. Neither do I feel like doing any basic research on their bibliography just to pad things up for this review. But, I do have aplenty to say of Shadow Witch, after slogging through the book.

I do wish to explain, though, that since getting my first Kindle, after years of resisting doing so due to being an old-fashioned bibliophile, that I seem to be able to read faster than I normally do, simply because of the lack of strain and adjustable font size available. It’s rather a nice benefit. That said, it still took me three months to from start to finish to read this 189-page novella. This is mainly due to not being a big fan of the fantasy type stories that are set in Yo Olden Times, or some reasonable facsimile therein. Especially with stories that involve a lot of walking. And there’s a lot of walking in this book.

Oh my sweet Lemmy, I have never been so annoyed with a hero and his family like I was with Thom and his whiny little daughters. This is Thom: “Oh, no’s, I haz a secret that could make my family and friends not like me, boo hoo”. Spoilers: he’s actually a warrior with magic powers, and not a shepherd! And his twin middle daughters, for some reason, are always mocking and bullying their older sister for…reasons. That’s their one personality trait, and it’s just bloody annoying as all get out. Of course, the most interesting character in this story is the innkeeper, but unfortunately he isn’t the focus, which would have made for a much more interesting read. No, we get to see a guy with a bunch of werewolf monsters called “Dread Wolves” (which is a great name for a metal band) who are in the service of the evil Shadow Witch, they lay waste to the town Thom and his family live near, which causes Thom to lead his family to the Norther Kingdom for safety. After a couple of days of walking, the twin sisters manage to get themselves and their older sister lost inside the nearby dark and mystical forest, and then the whole thing becomes The Blair Witch Project by way of Game of Thrones for the second half of the book. There’s a lot of wandering and walking around, a lot of whining from Thom and the daughters (I’m surprised his wife never backhands him at any time), the titular Shadow Witch keeps popping up and demanding to know everyone’s names (so she can steal their life essence, or something), only it always turns out like this:
SHADOW WITCH: “Tell me your name!”
CHARACTER: “No!”
SHADOW WITCH: “You win this round!”
Of course, after enough time wandering around and getting lost and hallucinating stuff, the daughters give out their names, there’s a final showdown between Thom and the Shadow Witch, Thom embraces his dark past to defeat the Witch, and the whole thing ends with the older three daughters dead and the youngest daughter possessed by the Shadow Witch.

I’m sure this sets up a whole series of stories. Only, it took me so long to get through because I found the story dull. There’s a lot. Of. Walking. Even at less than 200 pages, I found myself unable to get past just a couple of chapters before putting this down to read something far more interesting. I do like how the book decided to end on a dower note, though.

Anyway, I haven’t checked to see if there’s any more of these written, nor will I continue on if there are. Pass.

Movie Review: RARE EXPORTS

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rare exportsOscilloscope
2010
R

“The real Santa was totally different. The Coca-Cola Santa is just a hoax.”

Truth be told, I actually have something of a soft spot for Christmas. There is a good underlying Gothic aesthetic to this holiday, a kind of beautiful darkness mixed in with the whimsy and wonder that the season brings. There used to be a grand tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, a tradition that lives on in the plethora of Christmas-themed horror movies to choose from.

Which brings us to Rare Exports. This is a movie that I was told I needed to watch since it was put out in 2010. What kept me from getting around to doing so until now was because this was a foreign subtitled movie. Yeah, yeah, lame excuse, I know. I’m not a big fan of reading along in movies, is all. Unless it’s a silent movie. But, I digress.

Of course, like a lot of the movies I’ve been watching recently, Rare Eports was available on the streaming service I utilize, and since t’was the season and all that, I figured it was time to settle in and give Rare Exports a look-see and find out what the hype is all about.

A young boy named Pietari and his friend Juuso think a secret mountain drilling project near their home in northern Finland has uncovered the tomb of Santa Claus. However, this is a monstrous, evil Santa, much unlike the cheery St. Nick of legend. hen Pietari’s father captures a feral old man in his wolf trap, the an may hold the key to why reindeer are being slaughtered and children are disappearing.

Rare Exports isn’t so much a Christmas horror movie as it is a dark fantasy based on folk tales. Okay scratch that–Rare Exports is really a coming-of-age tale of a young boy that happens to utilize a folk tale setting to tell the story. It’s the interaction between Pietari and his father that drives the story, with Pietari coming to terms with his situation and stepping up into being a man. Or whatever.

Of course, the nutmeg in the eggnog here is the way the story plays off of the concept of an ancient, more malevolent Santa, one that–by description and visual design–sounds more like Krampus. However, we never really see the (literally) big buy–only his horns sticking out of a gigantic block of ice. Which is enough to drive the sense of dread and tension. No, where the filmmakers succeeded in making Rare Exports a dark folk tale was the depiction of Santa’s elves–which looked like feral old men, not at all twisted and scary looking at first…but then the eyes and body language transmit otherwise. It’s subtle yet powerful.

There’s some very good use of shadow and keeping things in the darkness, along with the setting lending to a sense of isolation and palpable cold you can feel yourself while watching this. But, that’s not to say that everything is all grim and dark; there is a sense of humor here, especially when we get to the explosive climax and see what happens with all of Santa’s elves. It’s…not what you would expect, but it makes sense, really.

So, overall, I’m sorry it took me eight years to check out Rare Exports. It’s a well-made and greatly engaging dark Christmas folk tale, something that, if you haven’t seen this yet, you should do yourself a favor and do so. Recommended.

Book Review: WIZARD AND GLASS

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book-review_-dark-tower-ivStephen King
Grant
1997

“Not all is silent in the halls of the dead and the rooms of ruin. Even now some of the stuff the Old Ones left behind still works. And that’s really the horror of it, wouldn’t you say? Yes. The exact horror of it.”

Roland and his band of followers have narrowly escaped one world and slipped into the next. There Roland tells them a tale of long-ago love and adventure involving a beautiful and quixotic woman named Susan Delgado. And there they will be drawn into an ancient mystery of spellbinding magic and supreme menace!

The fourth book in the Dark Tower series pretty much picks up right where the previous novel left off, with Roland and the gang stuck inside a psychotic monorail speeding off West, destination: DEATH BY SMASHY-SMASHY! To kill the time (no pun intended), Blaine (because that’s the name of said Monorail) engages everyone in a game of riddles. This goes on for a few hours, when Eddie decides to go full-on Spock from the episode “I, Mudd” and manages to short-circuit Blaine by telling childish jokes. They get off at Topeka, Kansas, but it’s the one from the 1980s after having been depopulated due to the superbug from the book The Stand (the original 1980 version, not the 1990 recut edition…just, try not to think too hard about that). They camp out next to a tear in reality (because…reasons, I guess), where Roland regales his ka-tet with a lengthy tale of when he first became a Gunslinger and came across another tear in reality, which came in handy when an entire army he was fighting fell into it. I’d go into detail, but let’s just say that things escalated when Roland fell in love with a betrothed maiden (as it does), and came across a pink scrying orb that showed him a rather bleak future. Pretty heavy stuff for a 14-year-old. The next morning in Kansas, Roland and the Ka-Tet (which sounds like a band name), come across Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz, and run into The Man in Black from the first novel, aka Marten Broadcloak from Roland’s story, aka Randall Flagg from The Stand/Tears of the Dragon/pretty much every baddie across the King-o-verse.

I’ll just come out and say it: Wizard & Glass is pretty much a filler episode in the overall Dark Tower series. There was a good six year gap between the previous novel and this one, and one gets the sense that King was not really all that enthusiastic about continuing on with the Dark Tower saga. But, that’s just speculation on my part.

As it stands, Wizard & Glass doesn’t really advance the story arc forward, and is mostly made up of a flashback story from Roland’s youth, something that was adapted into the Gunslinger Born comic miniseries. I did geek a bit from the cross-pollination with King’s other books, specifically The Stand and the revelation that the series’ main antagonist has been seen before in previous stories under different guises. Regardless, while not being a bad one, Wizard & Glass stands as my least favorite book in the Dark Tower series.

Movie Review: GREMLINS

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movie-review_-gremlinsWarner Bros.
1984
PG

“You say you hate Washington’s Birthday or Thanksgiving and nobody cares, but you say you hate Christmas and people treat you like you’re a leper.”

Don’t ever get it wet. Keep it away from bright light. And no matter how much it cries, no matter how much it begs…never, ever feed it after midnight. With these instructions, young Billy Peltzer takes possession of his cuddly new pet. Billy will get a whole lot more than he bargained for.

Say what you will about the 1980s. I realize that there are many out there that weren’t even born in the era that gave us many a pop culture item that kids nowadays wear “ironically”, or however they’re doing things nowadays. I pity those who have never known the magical whimsy that came with such imaginative tales that sprung from the era that gave us Steven Spielberg’s peek work in the fantastic, inspiring others to release such classics as…well, this movie right here: Gremlins.

Yeah, I know. The dismount and nailing the landing could have uses a bit of work, but I’m old. No shame whatsoever. Anyway…

I would think that, at this point, pretty much everybody knows about Gremlins. In that “I haven’t seen it, but I know about it” kind of way, I would think. If you haven’t seen it, well…again, I pity you. Because, in my not-so-humble opinion, Gremlins seemed to capture that bit of lightning in a bottle, mixing the whimsical family comedy with dark fantasy horror elements in a way that just inexplicably worked.

In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t able to get around to watching Gremlins until much later. This was due to my parents being rather strict as to what I could and could not watch as a mere grade-schooler. And since Gremlins had that verboten-until-viewed-first-by-the-parental-units PG rating, they deemed it too scary for my 10-year-old self to watch. Of course, this necessitated me to rely not only on my school chums who were able to watch it before me to experience the movie vicariously, but also with the special promotion that the local Hardee’s did, with individual book-and-record movie adaptation that came at a special price when you ordered some kind of combo, I can’t remember exactly. The problem was, since we went into the town that had said Hardee’s rather infrequently, we only got one of the multi-part set that was in the middle of the story. We didn’t get any more of those. I have no idea why.

Regardless, I finally was able to watch the movie a couple of years later, when we bought it on VHS, and despite all of the hype that my over-imagination built up, after watching it for the first time, IT WAS THE MOST AWESOME THING EVER. Yes, even after only having the plushy dolls and various other promotional brick-a-brack for visual references, and taking what I could piece together from second-hand descriptions and filling in the blanks with my imagination, Gremlins stil managed to exceed my fairly high expectations, and then some. Which is kind of a rare thing.

I think that the major part of what makes Gremlins such a classic was the juxtaposition of what is essentially a Christmas comedy injected with a healthy dose of dark fantasy and horror. And like a peanut butter, jelly and bolognia sandwich with cheese, it seems like an unholy combination, but it works and is delicious, I swear (stop making that face).

The story should be very familiar by now: Small town young adult receives a gift of a completely adorable furry creature of myth that comes with three specific rules of care (the last of which is the topic of many a pedantic discussion), the rules are broken pretty much immediately, and wackiness ensues.

Look, I can go on and on about how amazing this movie is. I could also go into specifics as to my favorite scenes and quotes. No, I’m not going to. If you have seen this, you understand what I’m saying. If you haven’t, for whatever reason you’re using to not watch it (and I hope it’s not that “It was from before I was born” non-argument crap), get over it and watch Gremlins. Multiple times. I implore you. Do so now.

Book Review: NEEDFUL THINGS

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book-review_-needful-thingsStephen King
Viking Press
1991

Everyone loves something for nothing…even if it costs everything.

Leland Gaunt is a stranger — and he calls his shop Needful Things. Eleven-year-old Brain Rusk is his first customer, and Brian finds just what he wants most in all the world; a ’56 Sandy Koufax baseball card. By the end of the week, Mr. Gaunt’s business is fairly booming, and why not? At Needful Things, there’s something for everyone. And, of course, there is always a price. For Leland Gaunt, the pleasure of doing business lies chiefly in seeing how much people will pay for their most secret dreams and desires. And as Leland Gaunt always points out, at Needful Things, the prices are high indeed. Does that stop people from buying? Has it ever? For Alan and Polly, this one week in autumn will be an awful test — a test of will, desire, and pain. Above all, it will be a test of their ability to grasp the true nature of their enemy. They may have a chance . . . But maybe not, because, as Mr. Gaunt knows, almost everything is for sale: love, hope, even the human soul.

While I list The Dark Half as my favorite Stephen King novel, coming in at a very close second would be this fantastic story here, contained in Needful Things. This is the first book that I bought right when it was published, in hardback form*. I actually hawked my electric guitar to get the money to buy it. I was 17 at the time. I have no regrets. None, I say. Okay, maybe a little bit of regret. But that’s neither here nor there.

You would think that, since I let go of one rather precious item to use the monies to pick up the book for full price ($25, I think…? It was the fall of 1991, keep in mind), that I would have at least read this slower than usual, to get my money’s worth. Nope. Not a chance. A couple of days, tops, including the times where I had to not read while doing the obligatory interactions with reality (school, chores, eating and sleeping, the usual). I couldn’t help myself, the story was that engrossing.

Needful Things is a modern take on the classic Faustian tale, selling your soul for the Item Of Great Importance. In this case, it involves a mysterious curio and antique dealer that shows up in the town of Castle Rock (that familiar of all fictional towns to spring from King’s head) literally overnight, opening up the titular shop featuring items that the townsfolk really, really want, at prices that are a steal. Of course, it doesn’t take long before we realize the price paid for said items is far more than just the money exchanged. So now the local Sheriff has to expose the curator of Castle Rock’s latest business venture before the townsfolk manage to destroy Castle Rock in the process. And, um…not to spoil things, but this is listed as “The Last Castle Rock Story”, so make of that what you will.

Anyway, Needful Things was a great bit of modern dark fantasy that sucked me in immediately and kept me glued until the ashes-in-your-mouth type conclusion. This is Stephen King back at peak form, and comes recommended. The movie version isn’t too bad, but I’m afraid that this is another instance where the book is far better than the movie.

[*=I should clarify that, while I did own the 1990 re-edited re-release of The Stand in hardback form, I wasn’t the one who bought it; it was a gift from my parents. Needful Things was the first Stephen King hardback I bought myself. End of pedantic notation – Uncle NecRo]

Movie Review: BEFORE I WAKE

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movie-review-before-i-wakeRelativity Media
2015
PG-13

“No one ever really goes away. Not completely. Because they live in our minds, and in our hearts.”

Foster parents Mark and Jessie welcome 8-year-old Cody into their home. The boy tells Jessie that he’s terrified to fall asleep, but she assumes it’s just a natural fear for any young child. The couple becomes startled when their dead biological son suddenly appears in their living room. To their surprise, Cody’s dreams can magically become real but so can his nightmares. Mark and Jessie must now uncover the truth behind Cody’s mysterious ability before his imagination harms them all.

I heard about Before I Wake from a co-worker, who told me it was a very scary movie and I should check it out. Considering that I have very different ideas of what constitutes a “scary movie” than most Normals, I did the standard smile-and-nod and filed the suggestion into the darker back-regions of my brain for possible future reference. Which didn’t take too long, because I then got ahold of a viewing copy to watch, and popped it in one Sunday evening.

Doing a bit of research on this movie, it appears that Before I Wake was plagued by a some studio issues, causing it to be delayed in its official release. It was finished and ready in 2014, and was originally supposed to be out in May of 2015, but was then delayed due to Relativity Media–the US distributor of the flick–going into bankruptcy. It happens. Also, apparently the movie was originally titled Somnia, but was changed to its current title over director Mike Flanagan’s objections.

Speaking of Mike Flanagan, he also directed previously a certain little favorite in mind-bending horror of mine called Oculus back in 2013. Here in Before I Wake, his atmospheric style is very apparent, with a palpapal sense of underlying dread and dark foreboding spread on like peanut butter. Although, I would really classify Before I Wake as more of a dark urban fantasy rather than straight horror; the story itself seem more in the vein of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, incorporating kind of a dark whimsy along with the horrific coloring.

The movie starts off with a clearly disturbed father about to shoot his young foster son while the lad is sleeping, but gets distracted by…something. So at least we’re spared a potential child snuff film. Some time later, we see the young boy being placed with another foster couple, who take in the boy to help not only him, but also in hopes to heal from the unfortunate death of their own son. While they’re settling in, the couple discover that their ward is able to manifest his dreams in reality…which also includes a recurring nightmare.

I have to give this movie props: in lesser hands, Before I Wake could have easily become a run-of-the-mill creepy child with creepy powers flick. Fortunately, the cast is a good one, who manage to get the majority of the unease and dread atmosphere from the more natural sense of mourning due to the loss of the characters’ son and trying to move on with their lives. This helps to magnify the supernatural events that start happening, compounding the nightmares that result due to the child’s powers. The characters are flawed, lending to a depth that’s more than just archetype.

The effects here are very effective, especially with the fantastical nightmare elements that were very, very creepy visually speaking. I do have to say, though, that the ending was a bit weak; while I understand the explanation as to the why behind the nightmare that manifests itself, how it was ultimately defeated caused me to groan out loud.

Overall, while it didn’t necessarily blow my mind, I did find Before I Wake to be a better-than-average slow burning dark urban fantasty that doesn’t tie things up as easily as it could have. It will definitely have you thinking a bit more about it by the time the end credits roll. Worth a look-see.

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