Ouija (movie review)

Laine (Olivia Cooke) has just lost her friend Debbie, who has seemingly killed herself. She longs to find out what happened, and decides that she, her sister Sarah, their friend Isabelle, her boyfriend Trevor, and Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) should try to reach her with Debbie’s Ouija board. This is of course not a good idea; an evil spirit reaches out to them instead.

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This never ends well

I first saw Ouija when it was new, and I remember scoffing at it. This time around I have a new respect for it. The performances are great, particularly Olivia Cooke and Lin Shaye as the crazy lady with all the answers. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the direction is top-notch.The twist and concept are pretty cool, and there are some legitimately creepy moments. The whole flossing scene is just brutal.

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Someone’s not flossing the way her dentist recommended

There a couple of scenes that stretch credibility. Like when Debbie is chillin in her house and a door opens by itself and the oven turns on with no one nearby, and she just closes and locks the door and turns the oven off. Then she proceeds to head up to her room, mildly disconcerted. And of course there’s more than one instance of a character hearing a strange noise, calling hello, and then going to investigate the situation as slowly as possible. And my favorite, the convenient superstitious Latina (or possibly Italian?) maid who knows all about how to defeat evil Ouija board spirits.

Overall, I like it. The second one is far better, but this one’s not without its charms. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something without sex, gore, swearing, or comic relief.

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A Side Trip into Neuroticism: Some Thoughts on The Belko Experiment and Surviving

*No spoilers*

Sometimes I struggle with what is called existential depression, when I ruminate on whether anything truly has a point. I recently did not get a job that I interviewed for and really really wanted. One of my coworkers was angry for me, but she went back to her daily routine, as did the rest of them. I thought about how it doesn’t really affect them. One person’s crushing disappointment is a mild annoyance for another person. The job I hold there now is a “sub,” a part-time person who covers the front desk and can be replaced at a moment’s notice. By nature the job makes the sub disposable; if I call in, another sub can be procured to do the job instead. The important thing is that the desk gets covered. So naturally, I feel like a disposable person rather than, as my counselor has stressed to me, a person with a flexible job. I think about how if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, maybe I’d be missed briefly, but life would go on as usual for the full-timers and other subs. The desk would be covered, and that’s what matters.

At times I think about how transient life is, how people come and go and when they leave us, we adjust. I guess that’s life. My father died three years ago, and I couldn’t live if I didn’t accept it. I miss him, I miss the chance to speak to him and for his grandchildren to remember having met him. I miss his dry, sarcastic humor. I share a lot of his features, like loving to read, having blue eyes, and bottling up my emotions until I crack. But there are so many people, and in the grand scheme of things, so few of us will be remembered except by the people we interact with personally. Sometimes it feels like nothing matters. But obviously I believe something matters, or I wouldn’t get out of bed and I wouldn’t be writing this. Hey, I’m working this stuff out as I go.

The Belko Experiment is about a large group of office workers of varied races and social positions who are ordered by an anonymous voice to begin killing each other. The command is that if 30 of the 87 employees present aren’t dead in 2 hours, then 60 will die. Most of them keep their cool at first. The main character stands up and refuses to kill, saying all human life has value. But once heads start blowing up (the company has implanted a device in the employees’ heads, which can be exploded at will), people start taking orders. In one scene, the COO starts singling out potential people to kill first. He begins with people who have kids under 18 to save then moves to people over 60 to start with. The scene, and the movie in general, makes us ponder who would “deserve” to die first. One man who’s chosen to die takes out his wallet and tries to show pictures of his young children, which are dropped on the floor. The camera lingers on them, letting us consider the implications of the man not going home to his kids. I had an “ah ha” moment in the theater then, thinking of how you can’t put a price on someone. Everyone does have value; every person there had people who would miss them if his or her head exploded. The way the characters cling to survival reminds us that life is worth living. It’s hard, but as I know, it’s hard stuff that’s the most rewarding.

The Belko workers are at a faceless corporation. (John C. McGinley’s presence in the cast really evokes Office Space, another movie about the devaluation of the average office worker.) At one point a character muses about how they worked there for a year and didn’t really seem to be doing anything. We work and we work for leisure time and then we’re so tired from work we don’t enjoy leisure. We retire and we’re too tired to enjoy it. I have a problem with not being present, so everything feels like a race to get it over with. Even stuff I enjoy like reading or watching a movie I have a keen eye on how many pages or minutes are left until it’s over. I have trouble enjoying the present. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be a theme in the movie, but something to remember is that life isn’t guaranteed–at any moment you can be crushed in an elevator or have your head bashed in with a tape dispenser. So enjoy it.

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These collared shirts are so itchy!

Get Out (movie review)

Chris is a young black man who’s meeting his white girlfriend Rose’s family for the first time. Her parents seem friendly–at first. However, Chris is in over his head as a gathering takes place with a sinister purpose for him.

The movie is written and directed by Jordan Peele, who’s most famous for being a comedian. (He’s also married to a white woman, which has caused some speculation about his motivation for writing this movie.) So it seems a little out of left field for a funnyman to be making a Blumhouse-produced horror movie. Well, it does have plenty of comic relief in the form of Chris’s friend Rod, who warns him not to go, and supplies fairly amusing one-liners throughout. He’s kind of annoying, but he’s definitely the voice of reason.

However, the movie does have its creepy moments. Rose’s family exudes a sense of something being off, from Rose’s mother Missy, who is cold behind her smile, to the African American maid Georgina, who constantly smiles. 000getoutThe music also helps set the mood; the score includes gospelly spiritual songs, which along with the rural Alabama scenery brings to mind slavery. Or there’s the more traditional for the genre screechy violin when something unsettling happens. There are a few effective jump scares, mostly when Georgina appears suddenly.

Most of the horror is psychological. As a white person, I felt a lot of guilt, because it’s not every day I’m reminded of my privilege, and challenged to consider what life is like for someone without it. There’s a scene when Rose hits a deer with her car, and she gets mouthy with the responding police officer who asks to see Chris’s ID for seemingly no reason. Chris treats it as no big deal, while Rose protests because she can—there are no repercussions for her. Not only is she white, she’s majorly rich. In the course of the movie Chris is treated not only like a criminal, but also like an object. Speaking of the deer, greed and possessiveness are big themes. Deer are seen repeatedly in juxtaposition with Chris, and I think they represent the need to take for no reason. 001getoutPeople shoot deer and mount their heads because they can. Because they want them. One of the scariest moments in the movie is when right after Chris and Rose go into the woods for a walk, Dean auctions Chris off. It’s filmed with no discernible dialogue, just blank-faced white folks bidding on a person with bingo cards

The film defies conventions. There are so few horror movies that directly examine issues of class and race. The People Under the Stairs comes to mind, but that was written and directed by a white dude. Overall, it’s an eerie, well-made movie. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something extraordinary. (And that’s not white guilt talking.)

A Side Trip into Neuroticism: Some Thoughts on ‘Lights Out’ and Depression

Warning: *Spoilers*

In Lights Out, Sophie is a woman with a history of depression, for which she had to be hospitalized as a teenager. While there, she met another teenager, Diana. Diana had a skin condition that precluded her from being in light of any kind (though she seems to do fine in the sun with a parasol). She is also jealous and dangerous, admitting to hurting Sophie because “She was getting better.”

The movie revolves around Sophie as an adult, with an adult daughter named Becca and a young son named Martin. Both of the childrens’ fathers have secretly been killed by Diana, because in Sophie’s words, they “made me feel strong.” Becca has commitment issues and is bitter toward Sophie for being so wrapped up in her depression that she was an incompetent mother. Sophie in turn insists that Becca abandoned her. Martin, who still lives with Sophie, is caught up in Sophie and Diana’s relationship. Sophie treats Diana as a friend and spends a lot of time talking to her (despite the fact that no one else can see her). Becca takes Martin to her apartment on the grounds that Sophie is a “nutjob” and “unstable.” At one point, Martin  asks Becca, “If Mom’s crazy, does it mean we’re crazy, too?”

As a mother with depression, Becca and Martin’s struggle to understand their mother is poignant. Once I was upset and weepy, and my husband was trying to shoo our toddler Orion out of the room so he wouldn’t see. Orion protested, “No Daddy, Mama cry.” The first time I saw Lights Out I was disgusted how Sophie is portrayed as a selfish trainwreck of a woman. At the end of the film she shoots herself in the head to get rid of Diana, telling Becca she is “saving your lives.” However, after a second viewing, I think that while Sophie is overdone in her helplessness, the message seems to be that depression can’t be cured alone. What Sophie really needs is supportive relationships, like with her children, who encourage her to do potentially helpful things like take her antidepressants and see a therapist (both of which Sophie refuses to do).

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A note Sophie secretly passes to Becca

Becca and Martin are contrasted by Martin’s refusal to leave his mother the way Becca did. Towards the end of the movie, Becca admits her love for her boyfriend and declares, “No more running away.” A major issue in dealing with depression is that it isolates people. The person suffering from it feels damaged and liable to be better off dead, as Sophie does.

I’ve struggled with depression since I was fourteen. I suffered for four years in silence before asking my mother to take me to get professional help because I didn’t think my problems were important. At times I hate myself. To be honest with you, I’m writing this while railing at myself for a mistake I made at work last week. I feel inferior to everyone else because I can’t function like most people. I have painful social anxiety, and actually feel general anxiety 24/7. Sometimes it feels easier to just be dead. Or asleep. Sleep is good. So why not stop? Why not goddamn just think positive? It’s not that easy.

Diana is such an apt metaphor for depression because she’s jealous of Sophie’s occasional ability to live and feel good about herself. Depression whispers, you’re too tired to write. So I pick up a book. Depression whispers, you’re not accomplishing anything. I go to work, where I’m generally competent. Depression lets me feel good about my performance until I make a mistake. You’re going to be fired, depression whispers. No one likes you here. Maybe you’re good, but you’re not good enough. You’re part time, you’re disposable, you’re stupid, you’re worthless, you’re complacent. You’ve been here for two years, why do you still make so many fucking mistakes?

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Yeah, this is pretty much how it looks in there except with more cursing

I go to the gym. Depression says, look how fit those other people are, why do you even try? Fat bitch walking on the treadmill while everybody else is running. Is twenty pounds seriously all you can lift?  I hang out with friends or family, and afterwards I ruminate about mistakes I made. I live in terror of offending people and being rejected. In between writing this, I called my supervisor and confessed to the aforementioned mistake, which I have blown out of all proportion and actually wasn’t even a mistake. After hanging up, I realized that even if it had been a grievous error, nothing she said to me could be worse than that voice in my head. Nothing is ever good enough. Hey my counselor was right, writing this stuff out does help. It’s hard to pinpoint how fucked up the whole thing is when it’s just running a hamster wheel in my head. Whoever ends up reading this, I’m not fishing for compliments (I always think people think the worst of me, natch). Thank you for reading, I so needed to say this.

A Side Trip into Neuroticism: Some Extra Thoughts on the Movie ‘Feed’

Feed is a movie about a detective (Phillip) tracking a serial killer (Michael) who kills women by overfeeding them until they die. He takes bets on when they’ll die and exploits them sexually. I wrote a review about the technical aspects of the movie, but I had a more personal reaction to the film than I typically do. It resonated with me because I can identify with Deidre, Michael’s victim, in some ways; the themes also struck a chord with me because of my struggle to accept my body.

My first boyfriend, when I was eighteen, was a broken twenty-four-year-old multiple amputee named Ryan who had already lost his mother to cancer. He didn’t want to hear about my depression. I told him I loved him and he responded in kind, but he didn’t  know how to love me. He was wrapped up in his trauma and his two young kids (who had two different mothers, both of whom hated him). I can understand the kind of mindset that would make a woman destroy herself for a paltry gain like Michael’s affection. When Ryan told me he loved me, I put up with his silences and refusal to see me. When Deirdre tells Michael “You make me so happy,” I cringed inside because I’m pretty sure I said those exact words to Ryan. How that must have scared him.

I understand self-destruction. I too am morbidly obese (but thankfully mobile). I exercise, my job requires me to stand for long periods of time, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, but I sometimes binge eat junk food at night because I have major issues with anxiety and low self esteem. I see food as either a reward for putting up with a job that stresses me out or as a punishment, depending on my mood. Either way, I deserve to destroy myself. It’s safe. It doesn’t judge like people do. Food is all mixed up with love. Food is a reward. Begging for food is a continuous occurrence in Feed. Even Phillip’s traditionally attractive girlfriend Abbey comes up to him trying to seduce him, saying “Feed me.” Food as religion is touched upon; Phillip goes to a church and when offered communion, he replies, “I’m not hungry.” Hunger and desire is a constant image system.

The movie touches on cultural aspects of beauty. Or as Michael puts it, “I enable my women to be free of the social pressure to conform to a body norm which is based on abstract.” I’ve spent many a year trying to free myself of that same social pressure. It’s something I live with, knowing that men don’t look at me and only slender women are seen as beautiful and worthy in most of western culture. In one scene, Phillip’s boss, exasperated by Phillip’s drive to investigate Michael, exclaims “If these women are as fat as you say they are, they’re going to die of a stroke or a heart attack or downright fucking ugliness anyway!” One character in Feed who provokes thought about conventions of beauty is Michael’s adoptive sister Jesse, who when being pumped by Phillip for information in the guise of flirtation, expresses doubt that he could be attracted to her. As she says, “I’m a big girl. I’ve been stared at and sneered at my whole life.” *Spoiler* Phillip ends up living with her at the end of the movie, and seems quite happy.

There does seem to be more of a movement these days toward acceptance of all kinds of body types, or at least Facebook would have me believe with all its positive body image pages and such. I’ve done well for myself as far as relationships go; I had a couple awesome girlfriends and ended up marrying a decent guy who loves me for who I am. We live in as close to domestic bliss as people get. And I’m writing this instead of eating ice cream, so I have that going for me. Cheers.

Fragments of Horror (book review)

Junji Ito, to a J-horror fan, is probably best known for the film adaptations of his mangas Tomie, Uzumaki, and Marronnier. I recently discovered the joys of horror manga with a Grudge comic, but Ito’s artwork leaves it in the dust. His illustrations are wondrously eerie, and his stories are both disturbing (in a good way) and highly original. If you’re bored with J-horror movies featuring silent, crawling dames with their hair hanging in their faces (wonderful though they may be), look no further.

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Stories include “Dissection-chan,” about a girl obsessed  with dissecting and being dissected, “Magami Nanakuse,” an eccentric author with a dark secret, and “Futon,” the story of a man who refuses to leave his bed because of the nightmares in his waking world. It’s hard to pick a favorite of the eight stories. “Tomio—Red Turtleneck” has a lot of flesh-crawling imagery, like a woman putting a cockroach in an open wound. “Blackbird” probably has the creepiest villain, a harpy who force-feeds her victims rotten meat of questionable origin.

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Occasionally the dialogue comes across as a bit stilted, like in “Wooden Spirit” when main character Megumi’s father asks whether their prized house is really wonderful after all. She exclaims, “That’s out of the blue! What are you talking about? It’s a tangible cultural asset, and more than that, it’s the house we grew up in.” Also, this is the villain’s typical evil laugh: “Ho ho ho!” There are some occasional WTF moments, like what the heck is going on with Ruriko in “Dissection-chan”? She complains of pain in her stomach, which is attributed to…nothing that makes a whole lotta sense. But overall, the eight stories are solidly written and exquisite. A quick warning: if you’ve never read manga, be prepared to learn to read right to left. Also, this book’s artwork is nowhere near safe for work; don’t make the same mistake I did. Ho ho ho, enjoy!

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Why yes, that is a woman doing a house

My Root (an essay)

When I am asked why horror movies are appealing to me, I think of the (non-horror) movie But I’m a Cheerleader. It’s about a group of gay teenagers sent to a conversion camp. Part of their “therapy” is wracking their brains to find their root—the trauma that made them gay. Their answers are  ridiculous—for example, one reports being a lesbian because her mother got married while wearing pants. I feel similarly subversive for my passion for the horror genre; I must have a root somewhere.

I’ve struggled with writing this piece for over a  year, and I ultimately decided the best way to approach it is to blatantly steal my structure from David Sedaris’s essay “12 Moments in the Life of the Artist.” You could call this “12 Moments in the Life of a Horror Fan.”

One: When I was small, I was watching MTV with my mother’s boyfriend. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video was on, and I was freaked out. I was looking out the window, and asked him to tell me when I could look. He told me I could look before the video was over, to purposely scare me. It worked. As I got a little older, my parents would watch Indiana Jones and I would be horrified but interested when a man’s heart is ripped out. I had gone from afraid to fascinated.

Two: My mother worked a lot when I was a kid, and often my sister Leslie and I were left in the care of our uncle, Earl. It was a relationship I treasured; he was fun and interesting and funny, and I definitely inherited my love of trivia and pop culture from him. He was one of the few stable adults—men in particular—in my life at the time. He introduced us to many things, including our first horror movies. We watched a variety of genres, but I’ll always remember the glorious afternoon he brought over all three Poltergeist movies. I don’t remember being scared—I felt safe.

Three: My oldest sister, Suzy (a half-sister who mainly lived with her own mother), became a bigger part of Leslie’s and my life, and often she would babysit. We had a regular rotation of kids’ movies (one memorable day we watched Fern Gully three times in a row), but we also got curious about the many drawers of VHS tapes containing movies my mother and oldest brother Jeremy had recorded off of HBO. Jeremy was a fan of martial arts movies, and one such was called Ninja III; it involved a woman possessed by the ghost of a ninja taking revenge on the police squad who killed him. We also discovered an ’80s gem called Witchboard, which I still enjoy to this day.

Four: My sisters and I were best friends with our neighbors, also three sisters, named Hope, Jillian, and Amanda. We used to gather together and read from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. The terrifying stories were accompanied by terrific gory, goopy-looking pictures. We also used to make up our own scary stories, Jillian being the best at this. She could tell an epic scary story that stayed with me. It was disturbing but fun.

Five: Another of our favorite activities was to record ourselves. We made haunted house tapes similar to Halloween sound effects tapes, and we also acted out skits. As teenagers, Hope and I made new recordings, lampooning our earlier efforts to hilarious effect. We also recorded original songs, such as our Poltergeist song. I don’t remember the whole thing, but the chorus went, “You son of a bitch, you only moved the headstones!” And the last line was, “Damn ghost followed me home.” We thought we were so funny. And you know what? We totally were.

Six: As our sisters paired off, Suzy with Jillian and Leslie with Amanda, Hope and I, the youngest, were thrust together and became closer friends. We spent less time playing outside and became movie buddies. Hope acquired a copy of The Silence of the Lambs and brought it over. We tried to watch it, but we were so bored that we turned it off before Starling even leaves Quantico. We had a similar experience with The Exorcist, only we fell asleep. Carrie we liked. To this day, we don’t get together often, but we keep each other updated on which horror movies are good and which ones should be stayed away from.

Seven: I’ve been a voracious reader since I learned how. One day Leslie was going to the library, and I asked her to get me some R.L. Stine books. She instead brought me Stephen King’s Christine. What’s a ten-year-old to do? I needed something to read! After getting over the shock of the salty language, I settled in and enjoyed it. And then I devoured everything else he’d ever written. The last time an adult read to me was when I had a migraine and I asked my father to read The Tommyknockers. He was uncomfortable, but complied. Love ya, Dad.

Eight: Our father, who was in and out of our life, used to take Leslie and I and sometimes Suzy to the movies. We generally insisted on horror movies. I remember regaling my mother with the tale of how in Leprechaun II the titular character made a pot of gold fly out of a guy’s stomach. My father has since passed away, but I have fond memories of seeing movies like Wolf with him, and as an adult the re-release of The Exorcist.

Nine: When I was in sixth grade, I was given an assignment to write a story, bind it into a book, and decorate the book. I wrote my first piece of horror fiction, a gory tale of a Howdy Doody style ventriloquist who ate children for some reason. The booklets were meant to be showcased for our parents and read to kids from younger grades. Mine did not make it to the display. I went on to write many more books and even a couple of novels before I hit puberty. They were terrible, but I got a lot of encouragement from Leslie, Suzy, and Hope.

Ten: As teenagers, my sisters, Hope, and Amanda fell in with an older crowd of friends. I often stayed home while they went to the park. While they were drinking wine coolers and trading shirts (somehow Suzy and Hope began a tradition of trading t-shirts every Friday), I was reading Clive Barker and finally appreciating The Silence of the Lambs. I never did try cigarettes or drugs or underage drinking. The Books of Blood and dyeing my hair blue was inflammatory enough for me.

Eleven: In college, I had a cool professor who let me write term papers about horror movies as long as she had seen the movie in question. I wrote a paper on the absent presence in The Shining and a psychoanalysis of Carrie. I had another professor, not nearly as liberal, whom I shocked by writing a poem about the link between sex and death in slasher movies.

Twelve: I made the acquaintance of Matt Molgaard, editor of both Addicted to Horror Movies and Horror Novel Reviews. I began receiving praise and attention for my writing that I haven’t seen since college. I have a wise mentor and a direction and reason to write.

I can wax nostalgic about how fun and wonderful those times described were, I can go all Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes about how when I was telling stories with my sisters and friends, the golden, endless summer days seemed infinite and the future was full of anticipation of good times. It’s true, I look back on those times as an integral part of my youth. So my short answer is that my root lies in nostalgia. That and parents who stopped censoring what I read, listened to, and watched at a young age. But I don’t need to explain my love of horror movies. At the end of But I’m a Cheerleader, the main characters learn that time spent with people who don’t love and accept them for who they are is time wasted. Yes I love horror movies. I’m married to a gaming nerd who tolerates the genre and loves me. I don’t need a root. Sometimes you just like shit.