movies

The Fear of God podcast: Talk to Me + bonus House of Usher content

This week I pay another visit to the always entertaining Fear of God podcast to talk about Talk to Me, the Philippou brothers’ breakout horror film. You can listen to the episode here; for Patreon subscribers, there’s also a bonus segment about Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher.

And next Wednesday, March 13, starting at 6 PM, I will be live and in person at Queen Anne Book Company, reading from The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: Hell House LLC, et. al.

This post is #8 of a series.

The list of found-footage films I’ve enjoyed enough to watch more than once is pretty short: There’s the largely forgotten granddaddy of the subgenre, 84 Charlie MoPic, as well as The Den, The Last Exorcism, Apollo 18, and some of the entries in the V/H/S franchise. And then there’s Hell House LLC and its sequels.

Written and directed by Stephen Cognetti, Hell House LLC concerns a 2009 haunted house attraction staged in the abandoned Abaddon Hotel in Rockland County, New York. On opening night, a mysterious disaster claims the lives of fifteen people. Five years later, a crew making a documentary about Hell House fall victim to the same dark forces that caused the original tragedy. The movie you end up watching is a meta-documentary that combines video from both 2009 and 2014.

This documentary framing helps Hell House avoid the pacing problems that bog down too many found-footage films. And while there are some jump scares, most of the tension comes from the very Lovecraftian sense of mounting dread as you watch these doomed people ignore danger sign after danger sign until it’s too late.

Cognetti followed up Hell House with two direct sequels that expand on the Abaddon Hotel’s mythology and change the scenario just enough that you don’t feel like you’re watching the same movie three times in a row.

Last year brought a spinoff sequel, Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor, which shifts the setting to an isolated mansion in the same county as the Abaddon Hotel. The backstory here is that in 1989, Eleanor Carmichael and her daughter Catherine were brutally murdered in the manor, while her husband, Arthur, and her son, Patrick, went missing; police discovered a single set of footprints in the snow leading away from the house. The mystery of what happened remains unsolved.

Fast forward to 2021. An internet sleuth named Margo Bentley arranges to rent the Carmichael Manor for five days. She brings along her girlfriend, Rebecca, her brother, Chase, and some cameras to record the ghosts who are rumored to haunt the manor.

Like the original Hell House, Carmichael Manor is structured as a documentary, so we know from the outset that none of these three are getting out alive, but even without the upfront spoiler, it wouldn’t be hard to guess the ending. During her initial walkthrough of the property, Margo asks the rental agent what’s behind the locked pair of French doors in the upstairs hallway. “Old storage,” he replies, vaguely. “I don’t even have a key for it anymore.” After he leaves, Margo gets the doors open and finds that the stored items include a pair of life-sized clown mannequins:

This is the point where I’d be speed-dialing the rental office to find out whether it’s too late to get my deposit back, but Margo doesn’t want to leave, even after the clowns start moving around the house. And while Rebecca and Chase have a bit more sense, they wait too long to force the issue. Bad luck for them, but if you like scary movies about terrible decision-making, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The entire Hell House LLC franchise is streaming on Shudder and AMC+, and the first three films are also available free, with ads, on Tubi.

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A short list of things I enjoyed in 2023

A Murder at the End of the World — I’ve written before about how much I appreciate Brit Marling’s work, so I was excited to learn she had a new miniseries coming out, and it didn’t disappointment. Emma Corrin (young Princess Di from The Crown) plays Darby Hart, a hacker/amateur sleuth who gets invited to a tech billionaire’s retreat that quickly turns into an Agatha Christie murder mystery. As with Marling’s previous series, The OA, I’d advise you to avoid spoilers and just dive in; the opening is a masterclass in how to grab an audience’s attention, so you’ll know in the first five minutes whether it’s your kind of story. A Murder is currently streaming on Hulu.

The Fall of the House of Usher — The latest Netflix miniseries from Mike Flanagan (Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House) is a sort of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest hits: Each of its eight episodes is inspired by a different Poe classic, which together tell the tale of the final reckoning of the wicked Usher clan. Great cast, great story.

The critical response to Starfield Starfield is an open-world science-fiction roleplaying video game from Bethesda Game Studios. It debuted in September, three days before my birthday, and as a longtime fan of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, I of course had to check it out. Long story short, I ultimately found Starfield to be mediocre—but as often happens when something I expected to like doesn’t work for me, I then started thinking about why it didn’t work, which led me to YouTube and its many, many videos dissecting Starfield’s flaws. A lot of these are unhinged rants (which can be entertaining), but there are also some really thoughtful critiques that get into the weeds of game design and storytelling, like this one and this one.

No Man’s Sky — Another open-world sci-fi game that clearly inspired some of Starfield’s mechanics. I bought No Man’s Sky on sale back in 2020, but only got around to playing it a few weeks ago after I got tired of Starfield, and despite the similarities, I’m enjoying it a lot more. I’m still mulling over exactly why that is, but to borrow a point from one of the critique videos I linked to above, No Man’s Sky is a more focused game with a much clearer sense of what it wants to be.

Reacher — This Prime Video series, based on Lee Child’s novels, follows the adventures of an itinerant ex-military policeman who wanders America with nothing but the clothes on his back, dispensing justice to bad guys who are unlucky enough to cross paths with him. I decided to check the show out after one of my Twitter follows described Reacher as “an autistic savant in the body of a silverback gorilla.” I’m really digging it, and surprisingly, so is my wife, who ordinarily wouldn’t be into this sort of thing.

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor — And finally… I’ll have more to say about this in a future Lovecraft binge-watch post, but if you want to end the year with something good and creepy, this latest installment in the Hell House LLC series should do nicely.

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In which I cross a very old item off my bucket list

The black comedy Arnold, directed by Georg Fenady, was released in 1973, when I was just eight years old. I still vividly recall the TV commercials for it. They featured a number of the film’s more gruesome murders and put Arnold on the list of ’70s horror flicks whose advertising campaigns made me afraid to close my eyes at night—a list that also included Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Phantasm, and The House That Dripped Blood (whose title alone was enough to inspire nightmares).

Once I’d gotten a little older and become a full-fledged horror fan, I of course made a point of going back and watching all those movies. The sole exception was Arnold. Though it did get a VHS release, I never came it across it in a video store, and it’s one of the many films of that era that didn’t make the leap to streaming. But recently I discovered that someone had uploaded a copy of the full movie to YouTube, and last week I finally crossed it off my bucket list.

The Arnold of the title is Lord Arnold Dwellyn (Norman Stuart), recently deceased. The movie opens not with a funeral, but a wedding. As his lawyer helpfully explains, Arnold’s death has made his wife (Shani Wallis) a widow, thus freeing the dead man to marry his mistress, Karen (Stella Stevens). The ceremony is held in the chapel of the Dwellyn family cemetery, with the minister (Victor Buono) drinking his way through the vows to help cope with his shame at being a part of this.

After the “I do’s,” the members of the wedding party return to Dwellyn manor for the reading of the will. Arnold has left a recording of the text, which is played back on the tape machine installed in the side of his casket. The widow gets to keep her title and her Rolls Royce, but not much else. Arnold’s devoted sister (Elsa Lanchester) gets a small monthly pension, while his ne’er-do-well brother (Roddy McDowall) gets nothing. The bulk of the estate, including “an enormous hoard of cash… the location of which I shall reveal in the near future,” goes to Karen, on condition that she “keep me with you, always, just as you see me now, for as long as you shall live.”

Nobody is happy with this—least of all Karen, who has no intention of spending the rest of her days shacked up with a corpse. But Arnold is (or was) a master at predicting other people’s behavior, and as Karen and the rest of the cast hunt for the aforementioned hoard of cash, they start getting killed off, their deaths accompanied by Arnold’s pre-recorded taunts.

It’s an enjoyably demented mix of comedy and suspense, and while the horror elements are tame by my current standards, I can see how my younger self would have been creeped out. But the real reason I’m glad I waited to see Arnold is that the adult nature of the humor would have gone completely over my head back then.

If you’d like to check out Arnold for yourself, but don’t feel like wading through dozens of Schwarzenegger videos on YouTube to find it, there’s good news: I just found out that a new Blu-ray edition of the film is being released on Halloween. Fingers crossed that a digital release won’t be far behind.

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Talking about Scream on the Fear of God podcast

On the Fear of God podcast, my friends Reed Lackey and Nathan Rouse are continuing their annual Spooky Season tradition of rewatching an iconic horror movie franchise. This year they are revisiting Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, and they invited me on, along with Brandon Grafius, to talk about the very first Scream from 1996.

This sort of nostalgia is catnip for me, especially coming on the heels of my birthday. One of the things about getting older is that you understand more and more how ephemeral culture really is: books, movies, songs, celebrities, and institutions that were once famous either fade into obscurity or, if they do manage to stick around, take on a very different meaning and significance than when they first appeared (hi, Miramax film logo!).

You can listen to our conversation here. And if you sign up for the Fear of God Patreon, you’ll get bonus content and well as early access to new episodes.

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Another MCU? Really?

As you may have heard, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which was released a week ago, has already grossed more than half a billion dollars. Over breakfast, my wife remarked that Hollywood executives should take the hint and start making more smart, original movies aimed at women. But a couple hours later, she sent me a link to this Variety article suggesting the execs are going with a very different takeaway:

In 2018, after a tumultuous period of declining toy sales, Mattel brought in a new CEO, businessman Ynon Kreiz, who had a vision to turn the storied toy company into an IP-driven machine, essentially creating a Mattel cinematic universe. Now, with the immense success of “Barbie,” the path is clear for Mattel to make whatever they want… With dozens of children’s toys on their film slate, 14 Mattel properties are in active development, including “Barney,” “Polly Pocket,” “Thomas and Friends” and “American Girl.”

If you’re familiar with the origin stories of any of my novels, you know I’m a big fan of the creative non sequitur. But even by my standards, “Barbie‘s success means there’s a market for an UNO movie” seems like a stretch.

Lisa and I did have fun going through the list of toy-related projects and speculating about which, if any, might actually make good films. If I were forced to bet, I’d put my money on Polly Pocket, not because it’s another doll movie but because Lena Dunham is attached as both writer and director, and she knows how to tell a story. J.J. Abrams’ Hot Wheels will no doubt look great and have plenty of lens flares, but without knowing the screenwriter’s name I can’t make a better prediction. Magic 8 Ball might work as a Blumhouse microbudget horror flick, but I doubt Mattel would sign off on that. As for the UNO movie, that would be my pick for least promising idea if the list didn’t also include View-Master.

That said, I do love a challenge, and I have a knack for making oddball story concepts work. So once the WGA strike is settled, if Mattel wants to hire me to write a treatment for a Scrabble trilogy, I’d be happy to take the call.

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Talk to Me

One of the lingering perks of having written Lovecraft Country is that I’ve ended up on production company A24’s list of People to Invite to Horror Movie Previews. Last year my wife and I got to attend a test screening of Alex Garland’s Men (Lisa liked it until it unexpectedly turned into a David Cronenberg film; I found the whole thing charmingly weird and laughed out loud at the eleventh-hour body horror). Then, a few weeks ago, I got an invite to an advance showing of Talk to Me, directed by Danny and Michael Philippou. The screening was last night, and I went solo, as it was clear from the trailer that this wouldn’t be Lisa’s cup of tea. But I loved it.

Talk to Me asks the question, “What if, instead of binge-drinking or taking drugs, a bunch of Aussie teens decided to record themselves fucking around with a cursed artifact?” The artifact in question is the mummified hand of a psychic, and the way it works is this: You light a candle, grip the hand firmly, and say “Talk to me,” and a ghost that only you can see appears in front of you. Then you say “I let you in,” and the ghost takes possession of your body while your friends make a Tik-Tok video. Possession is allegedly safe, as long as you limit it to ninety seconds or less—before time runs out, you need to let go of the hand and blow out the candle, or the ghost might decide to stick around.

It’s a goofy-sounding premise that succeeds on the strength of the acting and the storytelling. The cast are all excellent—I particularly liked the two leads, Sophie Wilde and Alexandra Jensen, and Miranda Otto has a great turn as the badass mom who’s not quite badass enough to keep the kids from playing with dead people. Zoe Terakes, the designated Explainer of the Rules who cracks jokes during the possession sequences, is also a standout. As for the storytelling, what impressed me is how much I cared about the characters, even though they spend most of the movie being selfish, stupid assholes. It works because the kids aren’t evil, just believably adolescent.

I think this is one of those horror movies that’s worth seeing in a theater. Watching it with a crowd definitely added to the experience. And the film’s most shocking turn, when the kids finally realize just how dangerous the hand is, is enhanced by a bit of bone-crunching sound design that probably wouldn’t come through as well on typical TV speakers.

Talk to Me releases on July 28.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: Archive 81 (+1)

This post is #7 of a series.

I thought about including Archive 81 in my “cursed media” binge-watch, but like it enough to give it its own post. This eight-episode series is a Netflix production, developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine, based on Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger’s podcast of the same name.

Mamoudou Athie plays Dan Turner, an archivist at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. A corporate executive named Virgil Davenport offers him $100,000 to restore and digitize a set of fire-damaged videotapes. The tapes were recorded by a cultural anthropology student, Melody Pendras, who was compiling an oral history of the Visser Apartments when the building mysteriously went up in flames; Davenport believes that the video archive may provide answers about exactly what happened.

Dan takes the job, but the deal is fishy from the start. Claiming that the tapes are too fragile to be moved, Davenport insists that the restoration work be done at an isolated research compound in the Catskills. The place has no internet access or cellphone service, the landline makes funny clicking sounds whenever Dan uses it, and despite Davenport’s suggestion that he’ll be alone on the property, it soon becomes clear that he isn’t. Dan also learns that Davenport didn’t just hire him for his technical skills: he’s got a personal connection to the story. Dan’s family died in a house fire that occurred around the same time that the Visser burned, and Dan’s late father, a psychiatrist, appears on one of the restored videotapes. It turns out Melody Pendras was his patient.

A lot of folks would cut and run at this point, but like any good horror story protagonist, Dan decides to stick it out. Having found a spot on the property where his cellphone works, he enlists his friend Mark back in New York to act as a remote research assistant and sets to work solving the mystery. The narrative jumps back and forth between Dan and Mark’s investigations in the present day and Melody Pendras’s adventures in the Visser in 1994. One of the series’ many neat touches is the way the videotapes (and later, Dan’s father’s session tapes) serve as a literal medium for moving between the timelines: we’ll see Dan watching the restored footage, and then the perspective will switch to the location where Melody is recording and stay with her even after she lowers the camera. Very late in the game, a film archive recovered by Mark becomes a gateway to the 1920s, where we learn the backstory of a demon-worshiping cult, the Vos Society, whose headquarters once occupied the same site as the Visser.

Archive 81 is not without its flaws. Although the series generally does a great job of maintaining a tense atmosphere, the demon at the heart of the mystery manifests as a laughably bad CGI effect. Another, bigger problem is the series’ conclusion: although we do learn what caused the fire at the Visser, what happened to Melody Pendras, and how Dan’s father was involved, the final episode ends on a twist/cliffhanger that is meant to set up for a second season. Unfortunately, Netflix has canceled the series, leaving poor Dan stranded in limbo. It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the series that I’d still recommend it, but you should know going in that you won’t get a full resolution of the story.

If you’d rather watch something with a definitive ending, let me point you instead to Marc Carreté’s Asmodexia, a Spanish-language horror film set in and around Barcelona in the unseasonably hot December of 2012. As the film opens, exorcist Eloy de Palma and his teenaged grandaughter Alba set out on a cross-country trek to the site of “the Resurrection,” which is due to take place in three days. To say any more would risk spoiling things; just trust me, it’s good. Currently streaming on Shudder and AMC Plus.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: two from India

This post is #6 of a series.

The two stories I want to highlight today aren’t inspired by the official Lovecraft canon, but they do fit thematically into the Lovecraft ethos, and they’re both very good.

Ghoul, a Netflix original three-part miniseries written and directed by Patrick Graham, is set in a near-future India where sectarian violence has led to a military crackdown on civil liberties. Radhika Apte plays Lieutenant Nida Rahim, an intelligence officer in training. Despite being a member of the Muslim minority, she’s a true believer in the system who reports her own father for subversive activity, naively believing he’ll be “reeducated” and released unharmed.

This act earns Nida a surprise posting to a government black site, Meghdoot 31, where she’s told she will assist in the interrogation of a notorious terrorist, Ali Saeed. But the “Ali Saeed” who arrives at the site is something far more dangerousa flesh-eating shapeshifter in human form, summoned from the unseen realm to hold sinners to account.

As the ghoul uses its powers to turn the torturers against each other, Nida becomes a target: Major Das, the second-in-command, is convinced that she’s somehow responsible. Meanwhile Nida, having recognized the monster for what it is, tries to figure out which of the prisoners is responsible for summoning it, even as she fights to stay alive and to protect the one true innocent at the site. It’s a wonderfully creepy cat-and-mouse game.

Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad stars Sohum Shah as Vinayak Rao, whose mother was the mistress of the wealthiest man in Tumbbad village. Fifteen years after his father’s death, Vinayak returns to Tumbbad to seek the fortune in gold rumored to be hidden beneath the decrepit fortress where his father once lived. Vinayak’s paternal grandmothera literal monsteroffers to share the secret of the treasure in exchange for a merciful death. But she warns him: “Not everything you inherit should be claimed.”

The treasure is guarded by a god, Hastar (not to be confused with Hastur of the Cthulhu Mythos), who as punishment for his insatiable greed was cursed by his divine mother to be forgotten by men and never worshiped. Hastar possesses an infinite supply of gold coins, and it’s possible to steal from him, but the method is extraordinarily dangerous and only yields a handful of coins at a time. Vinayak is willing to take the risk; he returns to the fortress again and again, and becomes a wealthy man. But as his grandmother warned, the wealth is a curseit slowly robs him of all happiness, and, in the film’s final act, threatens to do the same to his son.

Here’s an interesting fact about Indian cinema that I learned from watching Tumbbad: under regulations passed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, all depictions of tobacco use must be accompanied by a visible health warning. As Vinayak sinks further into a dissolute lifestyle, the phrase “SMOKING IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH” begins popping up in the corner of the screen. It’s true, but ironic in contextlung cancer is the least of Vinayak’s worries.

Tumbbad is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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