Movie Review: DEAD WEST

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dead westRLJ Entertainment
2017
NR

A charismatic serial killer embarks on a murderous cross-country road trip in search of true love. Along the way he meets and kills several women whom he deems unworthy, eluding capture from the authorities by moving from one town to the next. When the brother of one of his victims decides to track the killer down to get vigilante justice, a revenge-fueled chase ensues. Along the way, the killer finally meets the girl of his dreams; but will they live happily ever after?

This is the third movie that I picked out going strictly by the cover art itself (the others being Abattoir and Candiland, in case you’ve clicked on this one first), and the one of the three I completely regret renting. I mean, judging solely by the cover art above, you can understand why I was expecting something in line with a horror western hybrid. Look at it. The skull on the cowboy hat. The fact that the movie is titled Dead West. I was hoping for some fun undead wild west wackiness. Instead, not only did I discover that the cover itself is several shades of misleading, but the title itself is as big of a lie as is the promise of cake.

So, apparently Dead West originally had the working title of Lady Killer, but was changed to Dead West because reasons. It would have been logical to leave it with the title that would have made more sense to the plot, but whatever. My grievances run deeper than the title and DVD artwork, though (I do wish to get the fact that, at no time during the movie, does the main character wear a hat, let alone one with a skull on the front, out of the way before proceeding).

What we have here is a kind of low-budget neo-grindhouse flick about a serial killer who favors the classic 50s look of leather jacket, white t-shirt and blue jeans, slicked back hair and traveling around this great country of ours in a muscle car with rock n’ roll cranking out of the stereo. He’s on a road trip to find the perfect girl. And he figures he’ll find ’em in the seedy bars in the small towns in the American south. And every time he discovers the perfect girl in fact has a flaw he deems unworthy (usually smoking, or having a less than virtuous reputation, or something he’s surprised to find at a roadhouse bar, those bastions of family values and all that) he kills them with his pocket knife and dumps the bodies. Somehow, he’s able to not get a drop of blood or anything onto himself–let along that pristine white t-shirt of his–in the process. He’s being pursued by the brother of one of his victims, each stop they make bringing him closer to confronting the slayer to get his revenge…which happens around the middle of the film, to which the Serial Killer wins and spends the rest of the movie’s running time meeting and talking a lot with a former call girl, to which he falls in love with, takes out her former pimp that goes by the name Sug White (gads), where they then get married by an Elvis impersonator…and he kills her on their wedding night. The end.

As you can probably imagine, Dead West was quite the slog to sit through. The setup is decent enough…only that’s pretty much dashed when you get around to the acting itself. Yes, it’s what you would expect for an ultra-low budget movie of this sort. The biggest insult is when you realize that this movie is attempting to be a much deeper movie than what it is, and is failing miserably.

Dead West sucks. It’s forgetable, and a complete waste of your time. Pass on this one.

Movie Review: A CURE FOR WELLNESS

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a cure for wellness20th Century Fox
2017
R

“Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because that’s the only way one could hope for a cure.”

A Wall Street stockbroker travels to a remote location in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s CEO from an idyllic but mysterious wellness center. He soon suspects that the miraculous treatments are not what they seem. His sanity is tested when he unravels the spa’s terrifying secrets and finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all of the guests there longing for a cure.

I have to say, so far the year that is 2017 seems to be a good one for horror movies of the psychological thriller type. It was kicked off in January with Split, now we have A Cure For Wellness in February to give us a good, refreshing psychological horror flick that will play with our minds gleefully like a drunken kitten.

While the reviews for A Cure For Wellness were mixed (to say the least), I went to see it on the opening weekend (caught a late Saturday morning showing), and personally, I found A Cure For Wellness to be a very satisfying, if not uneven, horror flick that really got under my skin, traveled upwards and burrowed its way into my brain, nesting there since.

The story of A Cure For Wellness has a young and upwardly-mobile business shark that gets the attention of the Senior Partners when one of his techniques nearly jeopardizes their long-term goals. So, they send the whippersnapper to the Swiss Alps to a retreat that specializes in hydration health restoration techniques, with the mission to bring back one of the Senior Partners who has been there relaxing, so that he may take the fall if things go south. Pretty simple, really. Except, of course, things seem a bit…off at the sanitarium high up in the hills, as the Senior Partner doesn’t want to leave, and the hospital staff seems to have a serious creepy vibe, as if they were pulled from an Ira Levin novel. Soon, though, something happens that lands the young shark boy as one of the patients in the sanitarium, which is when he discovers that everything that’s happening at the place might not be what it seems, and as he’s given a string of therapy session, his perception of reality gets even more wonky as he struggles to find the truth behind the sanitarium. Wackiness ensues.

A Cure For Wellness manages to stick with you long after the end credits roll and you stagger back out into the world, causing you to chew over and process things, resulting in putting off hammering out a review to post in a timely manner. Sorry about that. This is definitely a Gore Verbinski movie, and as a psychological horror it’s rather effective…for the most part. It works best as in Ira Levin novel as filtered through Alfred Hitchcock. The last reel, though, turns suddenly into a William Castle flick, with a twist that made me rather squicky. But, fortunately, it doesn’t cause the movie to fall flat, and we’re left with a rather satisfying sense of paranoia and dread that will resonate for hours.

Overall, for a horror movie that was released so early in the year, A Cure For Wellness surprised me with a high-quality romp through mind-bending psychological horror. It’s subtle and slow-burning, and comes recommended if you’re burned out on all the recent paste-by-numbers horror flicks of late.

Book Review: The NIGHT CLASS

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book-review-the-night-classTom Piccirilli
Leisure Books
2002

The college winter break is over, and Caleb Prentiss faces yet another semester of higher education. Struggling with alcoholism and frustrated by his irrelevant classes, Cal seeks solace in the arms of his scholastic-conscious girlfriend and in somnambulistic conversation with a mystifying college radio DJ. But Cal’s ennui is shattered when he discovers evidence of a murder which occurred in his room over the Christmas recess. Obsessed with unearthing the particulars of this gruesome and haunting event, Cal wanders down the grotesque hallowed halls of a university gone mad. Run-ins with the two hard-nosed campus security guards, relationship hurdles with both friends and lovers, and enigmatic signals from the Dean’s icily eminent wife force Caleb to question his place in the bizarre night classes of higher education. Even as he gets ever closer to the truth, Caleb is plagued by the supernatural occurrence known as stigmata: his hands bleed in imitation of the wounds of Christ whenever someone close to him dies. And Cal’s hands are bleeding a lot these days.

Thomas Piccirilli was not an author I was familiar with back when I ran into the paperback edition of the book The Night Class while perusing the pittance that is the book section of the local Wal Mart back in 2002. It was the cover of this just-released mass market edition of the book that caught my eye, and the blurb on the back deepened my interest, so I bought it and gave this a shot.

As it turns out, The Night Class happens to be the only novel I’ve read of his. Out of respect for the dead (Piccirilli died of cancer at the age of 50 back in July of 2015), I’m not going to rag on him too much; and really, only reading one novel out of the rather prolific output he’s managed since 1990 isn’t the best way to judge likability. The Night Class, however, was his eighth published novel, so it’s not like I picked up his first attempt at writing to go off of.

The style of the story in The Night Class can be best described as “Noir Horror”. At its core is a murder mystery that has a dark surreal psychological underpinning that lends itself to some bending of reality, so to speak. When it works, it works, as the tone and atmosphere is nicely dark and dreadful. The first part of the novel builds up pretty well; it’s when we hit the mid-part is when things get a bit sluggish, especially when all the flashbacks start happening. At some points, I had to start over a section just to remember if I was reading the present or if we were once again in a flashback. The behavior of the characters, and some of the dialog spoken is supposed to invoke some surrealistic dread, but it was executed rather poorly, in that it instead invoked more than a few “huh?” moments. By the time I got to the end wrap-up, I’m afraid I didn’t react very strongly to the big twist.

I read The Night Class, and that was it. I haven’t looked up any further titles from the late Tom Piccirilli since then (I have run into a couple of his short stories in a couple of horror fiction anthologies). It’s not entirely bad, but not something I would recommend outright.

Movie Review: SPLIT

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splitUniversal Pictures
2017

“I just had a hot dog.”

Though Kevin has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all of the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey, Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him–as the walls between his compartments shatter.

You know, I’ve bee racking my brain, trying to remember if there ever was a time when I willingly went to see a movie, horror or otherwise, in January. I’m sure there was, but I can’t for the life of me find the memory, if it does indeed exist. And if I did, maybe I blocked it out for a reason. I wouldn’t be surprised, as the general rule of movie releases is that January is the dumping ground for the movies that Hollywood couldn’t give a flying whatever about. Kind of like how a Star Destroyer always dumps its trash before it blasts off into hyperspace, the studios like to dump their mostly undesirables at the beginning of the year before they blast off to the Summer Blockbuster period.

Split is the first movie I’ve seen in the theaters for this year of 2017. It is a January movie. It is also an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Kind of a two-strike for me, as it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Shyamalan movie in the theaters as well, let alone had a reaction to watching one beyond “meh”. Of course, my first reaction was to skip it entirely, and maybe catch it when it came out on DVD or VOD or whatever format we The Future Is Now types will be utilizing when it does (I, for one, await the day when video content will be beamed directly into your heads). But then, I began to notice the various movie reviewers giving surprisingly positive reviews about Split, which caused me to rethink my position on not watching it when it was officially released into theaters.

And so I’ve watched Split. And here’s my official assessment of this movie: WOW, this movie was great. I’d use an exclamation point, but I happen to be one of those writers who abhor the over-usage of said punctuation mark, and hardly if ever use it. But, if I did, there would have been at least two of them after that statement. I’m totes super serial, guys.

Split is a slow-burning and effective psychological horror thriller that will get deep under your skin and offers no easy way out. The story involves three high school girls who are abducted one weekend afternoon by a man who has 23 different personalities percolating within his noggin. It seems that three of the 23 have taken over things, with aims to bring about a 24th personality they refer to only as “the Beast”. To expedite this, they/he’s kidnapped these three girls to use as an offering to The Beast to feed upon, to make stronger. Whether they’re talking metaphorically or literally, well…the girls don’t want to stick around to find out. The problem being, they have no idea where they’re at, there are no windows, and everything is locked. But, one of the girls there has a secret of her own that no one else knows about.

I gotta say, Split was a really, really good psychological thriller, in the same level as Silence Of The Lambs and Psycho. It’s tense, things build up slowly (but not so much that I got distracted), and the film is shot fantastically, giving a sense of claustrophobic anxiety throughout the movie’s run time. The main treat in this, though, is the performances from the main characters, specifically James McAvoy as the man with split personalities, and Anya Taylor-Joy as one of the three girls he abducts. McAvoy continues to prove himself above and beyond a capable actor in everything I’ve seen him in; here, he manages to act out several distinct personalities, at one point switching around several every other minute. Though, I have to admit, I was hoping some time a mention of one of his personalities to be a Faun in some snowy fictional land. Or a mutant with mind control powers. And Anya Taylor-Joy…well, what can I say? Having just recently watched The VVitch, and being massively impressed with her acting talent, here she continues to be able to go with intense emotional portrayal in a very believable manner. She’s a young talent to watch out for in future movies.

So, overall, I guess the joke would be the twist in this Shyamalan movie is that, as it turns out, Split is a January movie that doesn’t suck. It’s definitely unexpected in how good this was, and how effective it turned out. As I mentioned, this is a taut psychological horror thriller that’s slightly unconventional but well worth the time.

Book Review: The DARK HALF

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book-review_-dark-halfStephen King
Viking Press
1989

“You’re dead, George. You just don’t have the sense to lie down.”

When Thad Beaumont wakes to the nightmare of George Stark, he hears birds, thousands of them, all cheeping and twittering at the same time, and with the sound comes a presentiment full of memory and foreboding: The sparrows are flying again. Thad Beaumont is a writer, and for a dozen years he secretly published novels under the name of “George Stark” because he was no longer able to write under his own name. He even invented a slightly sinister author biography to satisfy the many fans of Stark’s violent bestsellers. But Thad is a healthier and happier man now, the father of infant twins, and starting to write as himself again. He no longer needs George Stark, and in fact has a good reason to lay Stark to rest. So, with nationwide publicity, a bit of guilt, and a good deal of relief, the pseudonym is retired. In the small town of Castle Rock, Maine, where Thad and Liz keep a summer home, Sheriff Alan Pangborn ponders the brutal roadside murder of a man named Homer Gamache. When Homer’s pick-up truck is found, the bloody fingerprints of the perpetrator are all over it. They match Thad Beaumont’s exactly. Armed with evidence, Pangborn pays the Beaumonts a visit, and suddenly he too is thrust into a dream so bizarre that neither criminal science nor his own sharp mind can make sense of it. At the center of the nightmare is the devastating figure of George Stark, Thad Beaumont’s dark half–impossibly alive and relentlessly on the loose–a killing machine that destroys everyone on the path that leads to the man who created him. As Stark approaches, as Thad and Liz contend with the escalating horror and implacable threat of his existence and Thad reaches deep inside his own mind to mount a defense, forces gather in the air above Castle Lake, outriders of the dead to the land of the living….To whom do they belong?

After a two-year hiatus in which he was dealing with his addictions and getting his personal life back in order, Stephen King wrote and released one of my all-time favorite novels of his career in late 1989. I remember reading the synopsis and review of this book in the Omaha World Herald that year, and my persistent requesting of the book for either a birthday or Christmas present (both fell in the same month, a couple of weeks apart). Instead of the book, however, I received a Smith-Corona electronic typewriter, and the 1989-1990 Publishers Guide. Eh, at least my parents were aware of my writing aspirations. If that doesn’t establish my writing geek cred, I don’t know what does.

Anyway, it wasn’t until the next year, when The Dark Half was released in the far more affordable Mass Market Paperback edition when I was able to get around to finally reading it. The general concept of an alter ego coming to life and wreaking havoc was heady enough to resonate with me up to finally cracking open the book and reading the story within. And when I did, it only took me a good five or six collective hours to consume this thing.

Seriously, I began reading it before calling it a night one evening, and then suddenly I discovered it was well past the midnight hour, and I had to get up to go to school later that morning. I took it to school with me, where I pretty much finished it up in the study hall period. I wasn’t planning on doing that; it just so happened that the story itself flowed so naturally and was engaging to the point of where I seriously got lost in it, having to pull away just to interact with the real world.

On its own, The Dark Half is a hard-boiled supernatural noir thriller that grabs you by the no-nos and yanks hard and relentlessly. Having found more success at writing paperback thrillers under a pseudonym rather than his more serious literary output under his real name, an author decides to symbolically put to death this alter ego of his after word gets out that he was the man behind all those potboilers. But, it seems you can’t keep a good pen name down, as the more-than-slightly-miffed dark half (see what I did there?) crawls out of his grave, and begins killing everyone associated with the writer in rather grizzly ways.

Really, though, the metaphorical concept of putting to rest your past and moving on, hoping it won’t try and come back from the dead and wreak havoc in your life is a strong one. Considering The Dark Half was written after a two-year hiatus wherein Stephen King was kicking his drug habit and getting sober before starting to write again, the underlying message is rather evident. Not that I’m trying to read into this, but it has been postulated by the author himself.

Compared to what was released a few years prior, The Dark Half is much more focused, much like a laser honed to cut through the skin, thus proving that sober and focused Stephen King is much, much better than fueled by cocaine Stephen King. The story is dark, streamlined, and doesn’t take the easy way out with the ending. The Dark Half is, without a doubt, my favorite Stephen King novel to date.

Book Review: The TOMMYKNOCKERS

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book-review-the-tommyknockersStephen King
Putnam
1987

The trouble with living alone, she had discovered-and the reason why most people she knew didn’t like to be alone even for a little while-was that the longer you lived alone, the louder the voices on the right side of your brain got.

It begins with nothing more frightening than a nursery rhyme; yet in Stephen King’s hands it becomes an unforgettable parable of dread, a threat from an unimaginable darkness that drags the practical inhabitants of a New England village into a hell worse than their own most horrible nightmares . . . and yours. It begins with a writer named Roberta Anderson, looking for firewood in the forest that stretches behind her house. Bobbi stumbles over three inches of metal, which unusually heavy spring runoff has left sticking out of the soil. A logger’s beer can, she thinks at first, but “the metal was as solid as mother-rock.” It begins with Bobbi’s discovery of the ship in the earth, a ship buried for millions of years, but still vibrating faintly, still humming with some sort of life . . .faint . . . weak . . . but still better left alone. Bobbi then begins to dig–tentatively at first, then compulsively–and is joined by her old friend (and onetime lover) Jim Gardener. Aided by a weirdly advanced technology, their excavation proceeds apace. And as they uncover more and more of an artifact both familiar and so unbelievable it is almost beyond comprehension, the inhabitants of Haven start to change. There is the new hot-water heater in Bobbi’s basement–a hot-water heater that apparently runs on flashlight batteries. The vengeful housewife who learns of her husband’s affair . . . from a picture of Jesus on top of her TV, a picture that begins to talk. Not to mention the ten-year-old magician who makes his little brother disappear . . . for real. The townspeople of Haven are “becoming”–being welded into one organic, homicidal, and fearsomely brilliant entity in fatal thrall to the Tommyknockers.

I’ve read somewhere that The Tommyknockers is not so much a novel but a cry for help. That wasn’t meant as a slam against the quality of the book (though, sad to say, it is probably one of, if not the worst of his novels); the book itself was written and published at a time when Stephen King’s addiction was at its zenith, written while in a haze of cocaine and cough syrup. After it was published (along with three other books of his that same year), his wife Tabitha staged an intervention to get him to break his addictions and save his family.

Of course, I was blisfully ignorant of that fact back when I got around to reading The Tommyknockers when I was 15. As was everyone else who weren’t close to the author, I would assume. All I know is that The Tommyknockers was a long, rambling story about a woman who stumbles upon an alien space craft burried in the woods behind her house, which activates (awakens?) as she begins to dig the thing up, and causes changes to her and the local townspeople. They all start getting odd powers, including super-genius, telepathy, telekinesis, developing a hive mind, those kind of things. All except for her alcoholic poet friend, who turns out to be unaffected because of a metal plate in his head. So it’s up to him to try and save everyone from the alien influence this space ship is having on them, before it’s too late.

As a story itself, The Tommyknockers is a pretty straight-forward science fiction story that had been fattened up with hundreds of pages of disposition padding that, really, could have done well with a good editing. That’s not to say that it was bereft of some genuine chilling imagery here: the magic trick that made a boy’s younger brother disappear permanently especially stuck with me all this time. Regardless, though, you have to admit that The Tommyknockers was basically Quatermass And The Pit set in Maine and sponsored by cocaine. And back when I read this, having just finished up with the equally meandering and long-winded It, The Tommyknockers almost got me to swear off of Stephen King’s output, if not for good, then for an extended period at least.

That said, I do think that you should read The Tommyknockers at least once, if just out of morbid curiosity. And it’s at least not as horrible as the made-for-TV adaptation.

Book Review: CUJO

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book-review-cujoStephen King
Viking Press
1981

The monster nevers dies.

Cujo is a two-hundred-pound Saint Bernard, the beloved family pet of the Joe Cambers of Castle Rock, Maine, and the best friend ten-year-old Brett Camber has ever had. One day Cujo pursues a rabbit into a bolt-hole–a cave inhabited by some very sick bats. What happens to Cujo, and to those unlucky enough to be near him, makes for the most heart-squeezing novel Stephen King has yet written. Vic Trenton, New York adman obsessed by the struggle to hand on to his one big account, his restive and not entirely faithful wife, Donna, and their four-year-old son, Tad, moved to Castle Rock seeking the peace of rural Maine. But life in this small town–evoked as vividly as a Winesburg or a Spoon River–is not what it seems. As Tad tries bravely to fend off the terror that comes to him at night from his bedroom closet, and as Vic and Donna face their own nightmare of a marriage suddenly on the rocks, there is no way they can know that a monster, infinitely sinister, waits in the daylight, and that the fateful currents of their lives will eddy closer and faster to the horrifying vortex that is Cujo.

This was the very first Stephen King novel I ever read. This was back in the Spring of 1988, when I was in 8th grade; I had to pick a book to read for a book report in my English class. Having been recently intrigued about this “Stephen King” person by my English teacher (who would regal us about the books plots), then fortuitously stumbling upon my mother’s old hidden stash of mass paperback in the basement of my home which featured three Stephen King books. I chose the one that didn’t seem as long as the others: Cujo.

Having been made curious about the author at a young age by the descriptions of his supernatural horror books, it’s rather…I don’t think “ironic” would be the proper word, but considering it was one of his non-supernatural based horror thrillers that was my first book to read is at least amusing. Regardless, at the age of 14, I found myself sucked in to the story of two distinct families from different backgrounds suddenly finding themselves terrorized by a Saint Bernard with rabies. One of the families, the couple are having marital troubles and have just moved to Castle Rock, Maine from New York to try and pick up the pieces. The other family just happen to be the owners of the titular Cujo; the dog itself is a sweet, gentle giant of a dog that only gets violent after contracting rabies from a bat after chasing a bunny. Cujo manages to kill his owner and traps a mother and her son inside their Ford Pinto, where they spend the later half of the book trying to figure out how to escape with their lives. It doesn’t end well, let’s just say.

What struck me as I read the book, as it does now, that there was no real stark and clean contrast of Good vs. Evil. There really is no “evil”, per say; just a good dog that had the unfortunate circumstance of contracting a virus that caused him to fear and lash out of everything and everything. This was a very tense novel, and while it didn’t make me a complete Stephen King addict at the time, it did make me want to explore more of his work from there.

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