Book Review: The HOUSE NEXT DOOR

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house next door
Darcy Coats
Black Owl Books PTY LTD
2017

  • I live next to a haunted house. I began to suspect something was wrong with the gothic building when its family fled in the middle of the night, the children screaming, the mother crying. They never came back to pack up their furniture. No family stays long. Animals avoid the place. Once, I thought I saw a woman’s silhouette pacing through the upstairs room… but that seems impossible; no one was living there at the time. A new occupant, Anna, has just moved in. I paid her a visit to warn her about the building. I didn’t expect us to become friends, but we did. And now that Marwick House is waking up, she’s asked me to stay with her. I never intended to become involved with the building or its vengeful, dead inhabitant. But now I have to save Anna… before it’s too late for the both of us.

Okay, so, here’s what happened: I had the majority of this damned review all typed out and put together and saved as a draft on this here blog of mine, so I can access it on pretty much anything that I can get access to the internet on (especially when I’m editing and writing during the down-time at work, when I do a lot of my non-journal specific writing). I had a pretty good opening paragraph on how I came across this particular book during my initial book purchasing frenzy on my then newly-acquired Kindle for only $99, and gave it a shot despite having never heard of the author before. I even did the whole research thing and included stuff from her website and her publishing history.

But then, for whatever reason, WordPress decided to wipe out my entire draft of the post, leaving an empty void where once was brilliant (in my mind) brain droppings on a thing. I was livid. I was fuming. I put on The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails and screamed in the darkness. Then my boss asked me to stop freaking out my co-workers and get over myself. So I did, and this is now what you’re getting in this review of The House Next Door by Darcy Coats.

What we got with The House Next Door is a nice, darkly atmospheric Gothic ghost story, involving a haunted house with a ghost that is definitely not very happy when warm bodies try to occupy and share the place. Living next door to the house is longtime resident Jo, who has, through the years, witnessed many families movie into the house, only to move out almost immediately, sometimes without even packing their things up, and in the dead of night. She has witnessed and heard things going on at the house when it stands empty: Lights turn on and off, doors open and bang shut, birds tend to fly into the outside walls of the house and kill themselves. Standard haunted house stuff. Then, one day, a woman named Anna moves in, someone Jo feels is a bit delicate to be moving into a house with an angry spirit, and so she bakes a cake and goes over to meet the new neighbor. They bond, and it turns out that, not only does Anna know about the ghost of the house, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She has a small home business restoring old dolls and selling them. Oh, and also she’s on the run and hiding from her very violently abusive ex, so there’s that. Things start coming to a head, though, and soon Jo needs to decide whether she cares about Anna enough to get her out and to safety from everything, or to mind her own business and not get involved like with the other former residents. The ghost of the house would prefer the later.

Overall, The House Next Door was a pretty decent and straight-forward Gothic-style ghost story, something that really does pack a lot of atmosphere and tension in its short 282-page run time (give or take the usual Kindle end promotional stuff to scroll through). This is definitely has tones of Shirley Jackson and M. R. James in the mix. I’m not disappointed by checking this one out, and at the price it was about right. I’m told that The House Next Door isn’t her best novel, but from what I read, this was a pretty good introduction to Darcy Coats’ work. Recommended.

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: COUNTDOWN

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countdown
STX Entertainment
2019
PG-13

“If this is a curse, since they come from the devil and his demons, then curses can be broken. All you have to do is prove the devil is a liar.”

  • When a nurse downloads an app that claims to predict exactly when a person is going to die, it tells her she only has three days to live. With time ticking away and a figure haunting her, she must find a way to save her life before time runs out.

Countdown was another one of those stylish, modern-tech based horror movies that came out in the later part of 2019 that, after witnessing the trailer for it at the theater, I sort of knew it was a kind of movie where I was not going to be catching in its original theatrical run. Probably not even checking out immediately after it hit DVD and/or streaming. The gimmick was far too cheesy: A smart phone app that counts down to the very minute when you die. It seemed like a movie tailor-made to rely too much on jump scares and arbitrary manufactured tension over nothing. As the reviews for this flick started pouring in from the sites I usually rely on to gauge whether a movie is worth my time or not, it was rather unanimous that Countdown was another horror flick big on gimmick and not much substance to go on.

I of course, just watched the rental a couple of months after it came out. I didn’t say I would never watch Countdown. Just, not immediately. No, I definitely watch my fare share of mediocre ho-hum type horror movies, so one afternoon I threw it on to watch as I got some other stuff in the general vicinity done.

Turns out, Countdown is definitely one of those types of movies where you don’t have to pay too much attention to and still maintain a solid idea of everything that’s going on. The movie opens with a bunch of teenagers at a party, playing inane drinking games. One of the group stumbles across the Countdown app and downloads it, and so all of them decide to download the app, and whoever has the least time to live has to drink up all the beer on the table. Of course, one of them has only a few hours to live, and despite logical objections from her boyfriend, she dies mysteriously as the clock on the app runs out. Fast forward to a few days later, when an LPN has just been upgraded to RN, and is taking care of the boyfriend of the dead girl, who is due for a surgery to fix his mangled leg he sustained the night of her death due to drunk driving (trust me, the two incidents are not related), but he too downloaded the app, and his time is apparently up right when he’s scheduled to get the surgery. Everyone else thinks he’s jumpy, but of course, the kid dies mysteriously in the stairwell. So the RN decides to download the app herself and see what’s up. Turns out, she has a bit less than a couple of days to go herself. As it turns out, the closer you get to the end time, you start seeing visions of dead people and start freaking out about stuff. She tries to get a new phone, but the app just re-downloads itself to it; she tries to get it hacked and changed, which seems to work at first, but then it reverts back to its original time; finally, she seeks down a priest who has some tricks up his sleeve to deal with what he believes to be the true entity behind the app: the DEVIL! It’s then postulated that, if anyone either manages to live beyond the countdown’s end, or dies before the countdown is supposed to end, then the app’s curse will be lifted, and the Devil gets squat. So they try that first part out by hiding out in a salt circle (right out of the Hollywood exorcism book, there), but the Devil is a bit more clever than expected. I mean, he’s been doing this for a long, long time; about the only two times in recorded history where he’s been beaten by his own game was by Jesus, and some redneck in Georgia who was really good at playing the fiddle. So that first attempt backfires badly. So then our main protagonist decides to go with the second option, but do so in a way that will make you shake your head and go, “whatever, sure.” But then we get an ending setup for a sequel that I hope and pray will never, ever get made, for the love of all that is good and holy.

Overall, while I really don’t think that Countdown was the utter piece of ka-ka that everyone was declaring it to be–you just had to wait for the 2019 Black Christmas remake to top that list in a handful of months–it is still a very derivative, predictable and boring exercise into making a ubiquitous pop culture thing into a scary horror movie. I will admit that the premise itself is interesting; however, they stumbled mightily by making this a straight horror movie. Instead, they should have went the smart British dark comedy route, with the Devil trying to get backers for his startup app, and letting the wackiness ensue from there. And I’m just some stupid middle-aged American.

The cinematography is fine, and actually gets some good spooky atmospheric touches going. And I will admit that the supernatural expert priest was the highlight of the movie, and wouldn’t mind to see a movie staring just him. The design of “the Devil” in his appearance was pretty decent looking, if not something that came out of later seasons of Stargate: SG1. Otherwise, the acting is serviceable–borderline annoying with the teenage kid sister character, but that’s par for the course really–and there were more than one instance where my intelligence felt insulted. Meaning, Countdown isn’t necessarily horrible, but is maybe geared more for 12-year-olds looking to watch something “scary” at their sleepover to feel “edgy” and stuff.

Movie Review: The CURSE OF LA LLORONA

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curse of la llorona
New Line Cinema
2019
R

“You used him as bait?”
“No. I used you all as bait.”

  • Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker and her own small kids are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm. Their only hope to survive La Llorona’s deadly wrath may be a disillusioned priest and the mysticism he practices to keep evil at bay, on the fringes where fear and faith collide.

As a long-time fan of folk tales and urban legends from around the world, I have been aware of the “Weeping Woman” legend from Latin America since middle school. There are regional variations, and various movies and television episodes based on the legend (my favorite being the pilot episode of Supernatural). So, obviously there had to be an entry in The Conjuring series of horror movies made, titled The Curse Of La Llorona.

Released a handful of months before the release of another movie in The Conjuring-verse–Annabelle Comes Home–The Curse Of La Llorona has its tie-in to that series by way of the character Father Perez, who was the priest who encountered the evil of the Annabelle doll first-hand in the first Annabelle movie. He pops in for a few minutes, does the obligatory flashback with clips from the Annabelle movie, then recommends a rogue priest to help with the protagonist’s ghost problem. There. That’s the full extent of the tie-in to the series of movies built upon the oft-debunked “real-life” paranormal cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Which makes me wonder if The Curse Of La Llorona may have started out as a stand-alone movie with nothing to do with The Conjuring movies, but was done so because of James Wan being one of the producers. But, that’s all conjecture at this point. The question is, does the movie hold up?

So then, after a flashback of sorts that reenacts from a certain point of view the origin of the La Llorona legend (alliteration!), we meet widow and single mom Anna (played by the actor who was Velma in the 2002 and 2004 Scoobie-Doo movies…and apparently Hawkeye’s wife in the Avengers movies), a caseworker in 1973 Los Angeles investigating a client who hasn’t checked in for a while. She discovers the woman keeping her two boys locked in a closet, where they look to have been terribly abused physically, and they beg to be left in the closet for their own safety. Instead, they are taken into custody at a child-services shelter, but then wind up drowned in a river one night. Because Anna brought along her two children while investigating at the scene of the drowning (as you do), the bored older son runs into La Llorona, and next thing you know, the two kids are next on the ghost’s list of drowning victims. Standard Malevolent Haunting shenanigans ensue, resulting in marks on the kids that the Child Services people think is the result of Anna suddenly becoming abusive; Anna is told by a priest that the Catholic Church would take months to launch an official investigation into the matter, so she goes to a rogue priest who holds a very unorthodox exorcism that results in La Llorona being rather cheesed off and attacking, first trying to drown Anna’s daughter, then things getting complicated by the mother of the two drowned boys showing up to exact revenge on Anna, then the ghost becoming corporeal because of an old necklace, then stabbed to death with a wooden cross. The end.

The Curse Of La Llorona isn’t bad, at least by how I evaluate what a bad movie is. It is, however, your standard formulaic boo-scare horror flick that relies a bit heavily on the regular cliche’s and tropes afforded movies like this. I don’t know if the movie was set in 1973 for a reason (it was a good year, no doubt), other than maybe to be able to shoehorn in Father Perez plausibly. I do believe the character of Rafael Olvera was underutilized, as there were a handful of scenes where he was absolutely amusing. The child actors weren’t too bad, as they didn’t annoy me when they were on screen.

Overall, I would say that I’m glad I waited until The Curse Of La Llorona was available for rent to watch it. It’s a perfectly serviceable supernatural horror movie that hits all the markers. In the end, I found myself just shrugging and going, “Eh, it was all right.” I wasn’t expecting much, and by golly, I got just that.

Movie Review: QUEEN OF SPADES The Dark Rite

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queen of spades the dark rite
SSS Entertainment
2016
NR

“There are some words you mustn’t say in front of a mirror.”

  • There is an ancient ritual known to humankind for more than a hundred years… According to the legend, an ominous entity known as the Queen of Spades can be summoned┬áby drawing a door and staircase on a mirror in the darkness, and by saying her name three times. The Queen of Spades gets her energy from reflective objects: she cuts locks of hair from those asleep, and those that see her go mad or die. Four teenagers decide to call the Queen of Spades as a joke. But when one of them dies of a sudden heart attack, the group realizes they are up against something inexplicable and deadly dangerous.

Queen Of Spades: The Dark Rite is another one of those direct-to-video movies that I probably wouldn’t know about, had it not been for being bed-ridden for a number of months and cruising through the Horror section on the Amazon Prime account for something to watch. Although I know better than to judge a movie by the cover art itself, I was rather impressed with the one used with Queen Of Spades (although it is a bit more on the cliche’ side of things), so I added it to the watch list.

Normally, it’s a case where the movie’s cover art is much more impressive than the movie itself. It happens a lot. Here, though, I have to say that this is a rare instance of the movie being just as good as the cover art implied. Maybe not better, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Queen Of Spades: The Dark Rite is a Russian-language film, as it is set in Russia (duh). The basis of the story is your standard Bloody Mary-style urban legend, with the entity in question going by a different name than what we ‘Muricans call it. Of course, it involves a bunch of teenagers hanging out one night and, after the requisite exposition of the legend of the Queen of Spades, decide to try and summon her as a larf, because teenagers being stupid knows no national boundaries. Of course, this leads to the standard discovering the hard way that the legend is for realsies, and the evil entity is gunning for them. Well, one girl from the group especially. So now they need to figure out what’s going on and how to fight off the Queen of Spades, and somehow also convince their parents of what’s going on.

Overall, I found Queen Of Spades: The Dark Rite to be better than what I was expecting. Mind you, I usually set the bar kind of low on the direct-to-video movies I come across on streaming sites. And while it has its flaws, the movie did really well with the low budget it had, really saturating the film with the right kind of atmosphere. You could really feel the cold permeating, causing a chill to the bone. Yeah, the CGI is kind of noticeably lacking, but it’s not terribly distracting and isn’t used all the time. What really makes this work is the stylized cinematography, the rather good acting, and the fact that the script subverts the tired Adults Don’t Believe The Kids trope that is in all of the American movies like this. I recommend searching this out and giving it a watch some night, preferably in the dead of winter. And keep your mirrors covered.

Movie Review: MALEVOLENT

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malevolent
Netflix
2018
TV-MA

“I’m coming over. You can’t be alone now, Angela.”
“I’m not alone.”

  • Siblings Jackson and Angela run a profitable ghostbusting racket; swindling the bereaved with fake detection equipment and Angela’s paranormal ‘visions’. Hired to investigate a haunted old foster home, the team uncover its terrifying past: young girls brutally slaughtered, mouths stitched shut; silenced by a sadistic killer. And Angela’s on the edge – sleepless, strung out and losing her mind, no longer certain what’s actually real; convinced she hears the girls crying out to her from the darkness… But supernatural terrors are the least of their problems when they discover the very real evil lurking in the isolated house.

By now, we should all be very much familiar with the shtick with these paranormal investigation-based horror movies. It’s a tried-and-true formula, one that lends itself to both the standard style of horror movie, and the found footage movies. Like zombie movies, it’s getting to the point where if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But once in a while, I come across a hidden gem that, while it doesn’t reinvent the sub-genre, gives the wheel a good spin with something a bit different thrown in with the standard formula, just to making things interesting. Such is the case with the movie Malevolent.

The story itself is a well-trodden one: A couple of con artists run a ghostbusting outfit that targets those that believe their houses are haunted, and “exorcise” them from the “spirits”. They’re pretty elaborate about the ruse, too, utilizing various convincing props, scripts, recordings and whatnot to make things seem authentic and real. Of course, one day they get a call from an old lady who lives at a former foster home, complaining that the ghosts of the children won’t leave her alone, so they show up for a big payout, only to discover that *gasp* the GHOSTS ARE REAL, SCOOB!, and they both begin to loose their grip on reality as they know it. It doesn’t help that the old lady who hired them may have a big secret as to why the ghost children are so nasty and all.

The first thing I want to point out is that this movie doesn’t rely heavily on jump scares. Bravo, good job movie. That isn’t to say there isn’t jump scares in this–there’s a scene where it’s quiet, and then a teapot begins whistling a bit louder than it needed to–but for the most part, the movie relies on a good solid cast, some great atmosphere and gritty realism, along with some passable effects for the ghosts and such. The last part of the movie does seem to delve into more of an Eli Roth-style slasher for some reason, which really hurt the strong psychological tension of an otherwise fantastic first hour or so. Regardless, though, I found myself rather satisfied with obscure little supernatural horror movie. You may have to do a bit of searching, but since it’s available on Netflix (which is how I watched it), it’s worth checking out. 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.

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