Movie Review: RETRO PUPPET MASTER

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retro puppet master
Full Moon Pictures
1999
PG-13

“Ilsa, this is Cyclops, Blade, Doctor Death, Drill Sergeant, Pinhead, and Six-Shooter.”

  • Andre Toulon’s days before he became the Puppet Master were spent running an avant-garde puppet theater in pre-World War I Paris and loving Ilsa, the beautiful daughter of the Swiss ambassador. When he witnesses the heinous murder of Afzel, an Egyptian sorcerer, who has stolen the “Secret of Life” from an ancient god, Sutekh, he is forced into a life and death struggle with the servants of Sutekh who have kidnapped Ilsa. In a final confrontation, Toulon and his Puppets must make a stand against the deathless power of an ancient god–in order to save the woman he loves.

You may think that, since I’m a well-established fan of cheesy horror movies, that I would be familiar with Full Moon Entertainment’s Puppet Master series. Set your collective faces to “stunned”, because I am not. Oh, I’ve seen the myriad of titles setting on the video shelves, and came close to checking one of them out on more than one occasion. I don’t know why I held off for so long to go down that particular franchise rabbit hole. Maybe due to my traditionalist sensibilities–Freddy, Jason and Pinhead as the unholy trinity, all others pale in comparison. That kind of thing.

We begin things in 1944 in Switzerland (according to Wikipedia, this movie takes place just after Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, in case that matters to continuity geeks), and the titular Puppet Master, Andre’ Toulon, is on the run with his little homicidal puppet friends. He stumbles upon the wooden head of one of his old puppets at an inn close to the Swiss border, and begins to wax nostalgic to his youth, circa 1902. The rest of the movie is a flashback to that time, beginning in Cairo, Egypt, where a really, really old Egyptian sorcerer named Afzel has stolen the secret of life (42, or something like that), and after taking out a couple of mummies dispatched by the Egyptian god Sutekh (Seth to his closest buddies) to steal it back, he sets off for Paris. As you do. Meanwhile, in Paris, a young Toulon is putting on a puppet show version of Dante’s Divine Comedy at a theater. In the attendance happens to be the daughter of an ambassador, who is obviously the forced love interest in this movie. Outside of the theater, Afzel is being beaten by a couple of thugs that were hired by a couple of other mummies dispatched by Sutekh to go after the fugitive, and is rescued by both the ambassador’s daughter and Toulon. Afzel decides to give Toulon the Secret to Life, by making his puppets come to life, resulting in the creation of Pinhead. After being roughed up by the Ambassador himself, Toulon returns to the theater to find the the mummies managed to break in and kill everyone inside, so he begins to put the victims’ souls inside his puppets. After another stand-off with the henchmen, he boards a train to escape, only the henchmen kidnap the ambassador’s daughter, so he takes his living puppets and goes to mount a rescue. A battle of…something ensue, Toulon taunts the henchmen with the sacred scroll containing the secret to life (I still say it has a big 42 scrawled on it), they fend them off, and Toulon and the girl rides away in the train together. Back to 1944, and the puppets re wondering what happened to the OG puppets, and then Toulon sets up some sequel baiting. The end.

Maybe Retro Puppet Master should not have been the one to watch as a first-time sampling of the franchise, but after watching this, I really have no desire to watch any of the other movies. I realize that Full Moon movies are generally cheesy low-budget fair, but most of the time, at least they’re somewhat entertaining. This movie, it was just painful to watch. Dull, uninspired, badly acted, and clunky. I’m going to pass on this franchise for now.

Movie Review: HELL FEST

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hell fest
Lionsgate / CBS Films
2018
R

“Why are we signing a waver?”
“‘Cause liability is…a bitch.”

  • On Halloween night, three young women and their respective boyfriends head to Hell Fest–a ghoulish traveling carnival that features a labyrinth of rides, games and mazes. They soon face a bloody night of terror when a masked serial killer turns the horror theme park into his own personal playground.

So, here we are again, playing catch-up to all the lame-sounding horror movies that I skipped out on seeing in the theater, for whatever reason or another. For Hell Fest, when I first watched the preview trailer of it at another movie I was at (I forget which one it was…possibly 2018’s The Predator? I don’t know, I’m getting old…), I knew it was one that I would be skipping when it was in the theaters. Maybe the second-run, but I wasn’t paying full matinee price for that potential snore-fest teeny-bopper horror movie. But, by the time this was released to theaters in late September (once again, defying logic in not releasing it in October…you know, the Halloween season?), I was already in the middle of being out for the count, bedridden, healing up from my first major surgery, which saw me unable to do much of anything until late in December. Even if Hell Fest turned out to be the Greatest Horror Movie of 2018, I had a plausible excuse not to see it. Fortunately, it wasn’t proclaimed as such; as a matter of fact, it wasn’t even referred to as a good horror movie by those online reviewers I call friends who don’t know I exist (they will, oh they will).

Also, by the time Hell Fest was available to watch both streaming and on DVD, I had completely forgotten this thing ever existed. Probably due to the fact that I had already watched what I considered the superior kick-ass Haunted House Attraction horror movie during that time, Hell House LLC. But, some time after my second surgery in 2019, I remember Hell Fest existed, so I decided to kill some time seeing for myself just how lame this movie could be.

We begin with the tried-and-true flashback sequence, where a college-aged girl is separated from her group at the titular Hell Fest–a horror-themed amusement park that travels the country during the Halloween season. Within one of the mazes, she’s confronted and attacked by someone in a formless mask and a hoodie, that is listed in the credits as “The Other”, stabbing her in the gut and hanging her among the corpse props to blend in to the decor. I always say, if you want that extra touch of authenticity in your Halloween decorations, use actual corpses. Anyway, flash forward about a year (or maybe it’s two, I wasn’t paying that much attention, I’m afraid), and we have three more college-age girls heading out to that year’s Hell Fest with their three college-age guy friends for a night of horrific fun and shenanigans. And, I have to admit, the best thing about this movie is watching them wander around the park, longing for all of the attractions, the rides and horror fun was a real thing to go to. And if it is, can you come to Omaha, Nebraska, please? Anyway, they eventually run afoul of The Other, and he begins stalking them through the park, isolating and picking them off one by one. After going into a ride headed out to an attraction that requires the signing of a waver, it’s discovered that The Other’s getup (which definitely looks like something I would throw together at the very last minute of deciding to actually dress up for Halloween) is one that several of the traveling fun-fest employees use on this particular ride (they have them climb into the empty seat of a two-seater, for balance reasons, I would guess, something that’s lamp-shaded for us idiots). Now they’re in an attraction that allows the players to actually physically touch them, because of the waiver. To which I say, “NOOOOOOPE.” So, at least the movie is making me squirm, but for all the wrong reasons, here. They get separated further, Tony Todd shows up in the most awesome part of the movie (which makes me wonder…why didn’t they use him more? Gads, I loves me some Tony Todd), then everyone freaks out because they noticed actual murdered corpses, the remaining stars of the movie are led on a rather tense (if not cliche’d) cat-and-mouse game in the most awesome haunted house going, they manage to turn the tables on him, and they survive. So does The Other. We end on an eye-rolling sequel baiting, and then credits. Time to replenish my pizza rolls.

So, what we have with Hell Fest is Haunted House Attractions: The Movie! Yeah, yeah, I know it’s been done better with both of the Houses October Built movies, and in the Found Footage-style filming to boot*. The story itself is your standard stock, run-of-the-mill slasher/stalker teeny-bopper horror flick, and not even what you would call an imaginative one. Sure, there’s a Tony Todd cameo, but that’s almost standard for horror movies these past couple of decades now. No, the real attraction here is, ironically enough, the attraction that the cast goes to. It made me pine for the days of just going to one of the numerous haunted house attractions that pop up during the Halloween season. There were times where I was getting annoyed by the plot interrupting my admiration of some of the attractions in this traveling horror fun. Fortunately, the plot was the kind where I could have been not paying attention for the majority of the time, and I would still know what was going on.

Overall, I’ve seen worse horror movies than Hell Fest, but I’ve also been far more entertained with some of the worse ones than I was with Hell Fest. If you happened to like movies like Bye Bye Man, Countdown or Happy Death Day, sure. This one will keep you occupied for 90 minutes.

[*Which reminds me: I need to get about reviewing those two movies some time soon]

Movie Review: FRIDAY THE 13th Pt. 5

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friday the 13th part 5
Paramount
1985
R

“Aw, what’s the matter, Vinnie? You scared of the dark? You all creeped out by that murder at the nuthouse?”

  • Five years after killing the goalie hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees, Tommy Jarvis has grown up in various mental hospitals unable to get over the nightmares about Jason’s return. When Tommy is sent to a rural halfway house in New Jersey for mentally disturbed teenagers, a series of grisly murders begin anew as another hockey-masked killer begins killing off all people at and around the residence. Has Jason returned from the dead to re-start his killing spree? Has Tommy decided to take over the reign of Jason, or has someone else?

Okay, so since the last Friday The 13th movie promised to be “the final chapter”, taking out Jason by way of Corey Feldman and making it all final and stuff…what compelled the suits at Paramount to make another sequel? If I were to wager a guess, I’d say “money” and “cocaine”. This was the mid-80s, after all. But, Jason’s dead. How do we make a Friday The 13th movie without Jason? Simple: make the grown-up character from the previous movie (not played by Corey Feldman, for reasons) think he’s going insane, and [SPOILERS for a 35-year-old movie] take up the hockey mask and machete at the end. Brilliant.

As a movie itself, Friday The 13th: A New Beginning is…watchable. Yes, it’s a low-budget slasher that’s mostly about the cheese and the kills. And my favorite scene involved an 80s Goth/Emo kid mope-dancing to post-punk music. Certainly it was a lot better than the bunch of other no-budget slasher knock-offs that were coming out in this era. Or since, really. It’s the same as a standard Friday The 13th…only, the obvious problem that this movie runs into is, Jason’s dead. He was pronounced living impaired in the last movie. And remember, this was before Jason was given undead status (that would be the next installment).

To have Jason be more of a concept that could be passed on like the Batman mantle…no. Just because you’re donning the hockey mask, doesn’t make you the slasher icon we know and love. To make Tommy suddenly become the killer because psychological reasons just…no, it doesn’t work. And I’m glad they retconned this completely by the next movie (oh, SPOILERS again…but really, by now you should know all this). Otherwise, this one is a good movie in and of itself, but probably won’t be revisited again any time soon.

Movie Review: PRAY 2 The Woods

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pray 2
Cross Shadow Production
2008
NR

  • Still riding high from her #1 Best-selling Book Tour, Laurie Curtis finishes what she thinks is just another Talk Show appearance. As the sun goes down and the shadows deepen, she heads home to enjoy what was supposed to be a quiet, relaxing evening alone…but her night is anything but peaceful! Meanwhile, across town, a Church Youth Group heads into the woods for its annual Fall camping trip…but they are not alone. He’s back! Exactly one year later, the mysterious masked villain is on the loose and striking fear into the hearts of his targets once again! Will the faith and heroism of the intended victims triumph over evil and darkness? Continuing the clean, heart-pounding suspense of “Pray” follow the characters from the original movie, as well as many new ones, as the thrill-ride continues…into the Woods!

Back in the fall of 2018, I watched and reviewed what was hyped as the first Evangelical Christian slasher horror movie: Pray. I was only aware of it because of a review done by YouTube sensation Say Goodnight Kevin. I knew what I was getting into. I have no one else to blame but myself. Still, I was unprepared at how bad this movie was. Then, I noticed that there were two (!) sequels to this made, available on Amazon Prime streaming as well. So, being the masochistic movie watcher that I am, I added them to my que. I figured, even if this was the film-makers’ first attempt at a movie (it was), they should have at least learned from the mistakes and made at least a marginally better sequel, right? Right?

RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT?!?

Okay, look: I of course got the Movie Rundown part up top directly from the Cross Shadow Productions web page, so of course they’re going to be hyping their own movie. But, co’mon. “Clean, heart-pounding suspense”? Were they snickering as they wrote that? And believe me, the blatant lies that the movie description blurb spews forth is the least of this movie’s transgressions. Because somehow, some way, they have made something that simultaneously expands on the story in the first Pray., but made it an even more convoluted mess than before.

Where do I even begin with this? Well, the story seems to be a bunch of different bits smooshed together without care for context or editing or whatnot. It starts off with what is presumably a flashback to the convenience store lady who was abducted at the beginning of the first movie (in case you were wondering where she ended up at), tied up in duct tape and kept in the shoddiest outdoor shed in existence. It looks like one stiff breeze and it’ll come crashing down. She escapes that one easily enough, and the bad guy gives chase in the poorly lit woods. Oh, hey, that’s the subtitle of this flick. They got something right. So, she’s rescued by a passing truck, and we then get a title sequence that clearly used various pictures and .gifs from a Peninterest Halloween sub-thread. Booga booga booga. This is a “horror” movie, after all. Then, a year later (not that the movie tells us this, we had to learn this from the movie blurb description again) a bunch of 20-something youth group teens are packing up to go on a camping trip, with all the lame shenanigans that come along with that. Then, we find ourselves at a taping of a daytime talk show where the lady who escaped in the opening credits is now a famous author, having written about surviving her abduction and peddling DVDs of the first movie, for some reason. Then she goes back home, and has to take her dog to the vet because he seems to be choking on something lodged in his throat. Meanwhile, back at the Camping Retreat, the kids are montage-ing setting up their tents, chasing each other with fake snakes and silly string, and havin’ themselves a good ol’ fashioned wholesome Bible study with the hip, happenin’ director Pastor Dave. Dave ain’t here, man. Anyway, back in the other storyline, the lady gets a frantic call from the vet explaining her doggie was the victim of one of the oldest urban legends in the book, and CALL THE POLICE IMMEDIATELY! Then, back at the camp, the kids and the director Pastor are sitting around the campfire with the Day-For-Night filter going, toasting marshmallows (though you never see anyone eat one of ’em), and the Pastor decides to tell everyone the Oldest Sermon Illustration in the book, and claim it actually happened to him. Yadda yadda yadda, buncha police trying to find the guy, bad guy is riding an ATV into the woods, the kids mistake it for a motorcycle because they’re stupid, then they chase down the guy after he falls off of the ATV–presumably for blood loss–and then the police show up, and he’s taken in and gets a phone call from (GASP!) HIS TWIN BROTHER WHO IS THE REAL STALKER GUY! I mean, you can’t really call him the killer, be cause NOBODY HAD DIED YET. There’s also no bloodshed whatsoever. Cue the end credits and blooper reel.

GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. Pray 2: The Woods sucked so hard that the gravitational pull caused us to hit the singularity where time slowed to a perceivable halt and space is infinitely curved. We saw only blackness and darkness. We were inside of the black hole that was this movie. I want to have a human avatar of this movie, so that I may choke it and watch the life ebb away slowly from its eyes, as it sees the void beyond my face, as I scream “LOOK! LOOK UPON THIS FACE AND DESPAIR! FOWL, WRETCHED MOVIE!!!” Then I shall feed its body to swine, then kill the swine and burn it, then shoot its ashes into the howling silent void of space, where it can never inflict such (ironically) unholy pain on anyone ever again.

I did not like this movie. You would think that, as an advocate for Christians to get involved with the horror genre, I would be all about promoting this. No, you see, I’m an advocate for Christians to make good horror movies. Pray 2: The Woods is a badly written, badly acted, badly shot, badly edited, badly produced piece of evangelical crap that wouldn’t scare a 5-year-old. Actually, scratch that, I did see an actual 5-year-old freak out over one of the camping scenes while sharing the pain watching it with a couple of friends. You take your victories where you can get ’em.

In short, unless you’re as incredibly masochistic as I am when it comes to these kind of movies, pass by this one if you know what’s good for you.

Movie Review: SWEENEY TODD The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

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sweeney todd
Paramount Pictures
2008
R

“There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful. A foolish barber and his wife. She was his reason and his life. And she was beautiful. And she was virtuous. And he was…naive.”

  • In the Victorian London, the barber Benjamin Barker is married to the gorgeous Lucy and they have a lovely child, Johanna. The beauty of Lucy attracts the attention of the corrupt Judge Turpin, who falsely accuses the barber of a crime that he did not commit and abuses Lucy later after gaining custody of her. After fifteen years in exile, Benjamin returns to London under the new identity of Sweeney Todd, seeking revenge against Turpin. He meets the widow Mrs. Lovett who is the owner of a meat pie shop who tells him that Lucy swallowed arsenic many years ago, and Turpin assigned himself tutor of Johanna. He opens a barber shop above her store, initiating a crime rampage against those who made him suffer and lose his beloved family.

New Years Eve, 2017. Five hours to Midnight and the start of the New Year. I had a big plate of BBQ’ed wings and a mess of chips n’ cheesy-dip ready, and I readied myself for my annual New Years Eve Movie Marathon. This year, I began my lone festivities by popping in the Tim Burton-helmed macabre musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.

This was the movie that seemed to have divided fans of Tim Burton upon its release in 2007. Mostly, the negative responses had to do with the fact that this was a musical, and they weren’t expecting a musical…even though it was well known that Burton stated he was adapting the 1979 stage musical adaptation of the penny dreadful that originated the character to begin with. Personally, I knew it was going to be a musical; it just took a while for me to pick the perfect time to take in the movie itself. And ringing in a new year in the cold and darkness of a Midwest winter seemed the right time to me. Ten years after the fact, notwithstanding.

It’s a tale as old as time: Fifteen years after being falsely convicted of a bogus crime and exiled just so a corrupt Judge could get freaky with the man’s wife, barber Benjamin Barker (alliteration!) returned to London with something of a chip on his shoulder. He takes up the identity of Sweeney Todd, gets his old barber shop back (which is located above the shop of the “worst pies in London”), and vows vengeance on the man who took his life, his wife and daughter. But first, gotta makes some money, so he manages to settle on a mutually beneficial business relationship with the owner of the pie shop: he kills anyone foolish enough to come into his shop alone for a shave, and she uses that body to be the main ingredient in her meat pies. Next thing you know, business is thriving for both of them, and Todd is getting closer to realizing his revenge against the Judge. But then, there’s the issue of his young sailor friend falling in love with the daughter of the Judge that might throw his plans into disarray. Oh, that and the Judge’s daughter is really his daughter, and his long-thought dead wife might not be entirely dead as well. And the meat pie lady has a massive crush on Todd. Musical wackiness ensues.

Oh, Sweeney Todd was such a delightfully whimsically morbid romp. Musicals always held a certain charm for me, and when you add to that the dark and gritty Gothic setting of Victorian London and Tim Burton’s signature unflinching gleeful morbid style saturating the entire picture, and I now have another annual tradition to add to my movie list. I absolutely love this movie. There are a couple of points where things get a bit long in the tooth, yes, but overall, Sweeney Todd was a satisfying morbid musical tragedy that is recommended.

Movie Review: RUBY

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ruby
Dimension Pictures
1977
R

  • A woman with a shady past, Ruby Claire is the single mother of Leslie, a teenager who is deaf and mute. Ruby operates a drive-in movie theater and employs a number of ex-criminals, some of who start to die in bizarre ways. Eventually, Ruby discovers that the spirit of her dead mobster husband has possessed Leslie and is seeking revenge through the tormented girl. As Leslie picks off her dad’s former associate, she also begins to target Ruby herself.

If you take a Tennessee Williams play, and slather it with a generous dose of supernatural haunted shenanigans, then you pretty much have the recipe for the 1977 Southern Gothic low-budget exploitation horror flick Ruby.

It always fascinates me, whenever I come across a movie that was released the same year as the original Star Wars was, and it looks like it was made at least a decade prior. Even though Ruby is obviously not a Sci-Fi Fantasy film. I’m talking quality of production, here. Yeah, Star Wars has now become my standard to which I judge movies that were made in the year 1977. I have just become “that guy”. Whatever that means.

Anyway, we begin this flick in a kind of flashback, where a mobster is executed in a backwoods swamp in the 1930s, witnessed by his pregnant mobster girlfriend, and with his dying breath he proclaims a CURSE! while she goes into labor. Flash forward sixteen years later, and that former girlfriend–the titular Ruby–is now the proprietor of a kind-of out-of-the-way backwoods drive-in theater near her home that shows an endless stream of old b-movies, and where she employs ex-mobsters to work the joint. How nice of her. Her daughter, Leslie, has just turned 16, and has been mute since the day she was born. Ominous. Anyway, she is gifted a necklace for said birthday, and that’s about the time when weird poltergeist-y things started happening around the drive-in and the house, resulting in a massive employment turn-around due to a sudden case of not living anymore. Also, Leslie seems to be acting strange…and also talking! With the voice of her dead mobster boyfriend, so that’s not good. Is Leslie possessed by the ghost of a vengeful mobster? Or is there something else going on? Wackiness ensues…

Ruby is one of those mid-70s type of low-budget horror movies that, despite all of its flaws and obvious cheapness and unintentional hilarity, is actually pretty fun to watch. The movie is dripping with old school Gothic atmosphere, and the story has a nice Turn of the Screw by way of William Faulkner. Mileage will vary as far as enjoyment goes; personally, I thought it was fine once I got past the obvious flaws. Nothing I’m going to be rewatching any time in the future, but not a bad way to burn some time.

Movie Review: CHILD’S PLAY (2019)

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child's play 2019
United Artists Releasing
2019
R

“If they don’t let us play, they all go away.”

  • After moving to a new city, young Andy Barclay receives a special present from his mother–a seemingly innocent Buddi doll that becomes his best friend. When the doll suddenly takes on a life of its own, Andy unites with other neighborhood children to stop the sinister toy from wreaking bloody havoc.

I would guess it was inevitable that a movie like Child’s Play was going to get the remake treatment. I mean, everything is getting remade nowadays, amirite? Well, yeah…but the story behind how this movie ended up being remade while the original version of the Child’s Play franchise continues to put out sequels is rather interesting. You should look it up some time.

Anyway, when news of this remake/reboot/whatever of the 1988 supernatural doll slasher classic come about my usual horror nerd feeds, I vowed to never, ever watch it. Especially after I learned that this new version was going to dispense with the doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer angle, and going with a more “grounded” faulty AI programming angle. Yeah, I’ve seen that episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, thankyouverymuch. Another pointless remake to cash in on 80s nostalgia. Thanks, but no thanks.

But, obviously I ended up watching this movie. I don’t do a review of something I haven’t watched. *sigh* Yeah, I was bored one evening during the extended medical leave I was on, and so I figured, “How bad could it be?” Besides, it wouldn’t be the first terrible remake I watched, if it turned out to be as horrible as I feared. So, I talked myself out of my vow of never watching 2019’s Child’s Play, and gave it a watch.

I really, really hate to say this–and it shames me for having to do so–but Child’s Play 2019 is…deep breath…a good movie.

I am conflicted. I mean, I really wanted to at least not like this version. No voodoo black magic, no Brad Dourif, no potty-mouthed wise-cracking serial killer possessed doll. I already knew that going into this, mind you. But, after the first 20 minutes or so, so help me, but I found myself sucked into the story, and completely forgetting that this was a remake I was supposed to hate with every fiber of my gelatinous being.

So, here we essentially have a smartdoll whose AI chip had the safety protocols taken off by a disgruntled programmer, and the doll “learning” how to be a sociopath killer through pop culture and good old-fashioned social awkwardness. The story is nothing new or innovative–I’ve actually seen this premise as an episode of the 90s-era Outer Limits–but at least they tried something besides retreading the original movie. Sure, the doll has a modern tweak to its look, and it’s now spelled as Buddi and functions more as a glorified Alexa device, which is really more of the premise of an early 1990s syndicated sitcom. Somehow, this works as a horror movie.

While he’ll never replace Brad Dourif as the iconic voice of Chucky, Mark Hamill manages to make his take both playful and utterly creepy at the same time. Very effective, there–especially when you get to the full Buddi Song that plays over the end credits. All of the actors keep things interesting, as the actors doing really good jobs with the characters; I especially dug on seeing Aubrey Plaza here as the mother, as I was a fan of her work in the series Legion.

Overall, there was no reason for me to enjoy this new take on Child’s Play as much as I ended up doing. But, here we are, with me actually liking this movie, and recommending you to do so yourself.

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