Monday, April 4, 2022

The scenic route to Oblivion

NOTE: For those wondering why I posted an end-of-year list in April, that's because this was supposed to be posted in January, but I had issues with the intro, which I felt was too dark. Normally, I don't care about such things, but I didn't want to start off the New Year with such a bad vibe. I prefer to save such gloom for June. So I ended up editing it down by 2/3, leaving it a relatively tame shadow of its former self -- and it still seemed too bleak. So I shelved it. Well, cut to a few months later, 2022 is shaping up to be yet another mother, I stopped caring, and so here it is. I've since deleted the longer version, but I'm sure those thoughts will pop up here and there in future posts, that is, if there is a future. See, there you go, my mind is always good at brewing up awfully negative things like that. I'm optimistic like that.

It wasn't always like this.

For the longest time I used to stay away from the kind of real death videos that kids can easily view on various Reddit forums. Meanwhile, god forbid your child wants to check out a graphic novel about the Holocaust at the school library. But yeah, I found them ghoulish and depressing, so I avoided them. But  during the first couple weeks of 2022, I discovered that they really help at stabilizing my mood.

And the less anxiety I have, the easier it is to accept that everything will not be all right, and that's OK, because that's just how it goes.

You see, I don't get enjoyment out of them, I get...well, I get constant reminders as to why I shouldn't just (REDACTED, FOR REAL, YOU'D NEED TO BUY ME A FEW DRINKS IF YOU EXPECT ME TO REALLY SPILL TEA ON MYSELF). I am reminded to appreciate the precious time I have conscious and above ground. I am reminded to search out and appreciate the beauty I can find in this ugly, ugly world, even in the mundane. I am reminded -- as I watch a faceless man have his arms chopped off by cartel members, or watch a woman drown in an icy river to the screams of her young children -- that things can always be worse.

And so, I'll keep on truckin'; I'll continue treating others as I wish to be treated, and in return, I'll continue to be left wanting. But that's OK, because one, it makes me feel better than everybody else, and two, I'll be too busy being grateful for remaining a mere background extra in the scariest, most disturbing horror film ever made: Life on Planet Earth. 

And should I find myself upgraded to being a star or featured player in this horror film, let's say I catch a brick in the face during my morning commute due to some little kid tossing one from the freeway overpass, and footage of my hollowed out face and sprawled out corpse makes it onto the Interwebs, where it will accompanied by humorous comments from the anonymous living, well, c'est la vie. It was nice while it lasted -- up until that moment, of course. Cut to black. Roll credits. 

Moving on from the real horror show we're living in to the fake ones we watch for entertainment, there's a movie podcast I listen to, and it's called Trick or Treat Radio and they mostly cover horror, but they also will do other genres like sci-fi or fantasy, to name a couple. They focus mostly on independent and lower-budgeted films, as they like to champion the little guy, but they'll also review bigger movies here and there. They are also not held to current releases, and so they'll occasionally cover films from the past; sometimes they can be a year old, sometimes they can be from decades ago. The show is currently hosted by three gentlemen who go by the monikers Johnny Wolfenstein, Ares God of War, and Michael Ravenshadow, and episodes usually run from two-and-a-half to three hours.

The show is broken into three parts; the first part is not unlike an old-school Howard Stern Show episode, with the hosts mostly bullshitting about their everyday lives while busting balls. The middle part is the bulk of the show, where they discuss that week's film (or films), with each rating the film a Trick (which is bad) or a Treat (which is good). And then the last part has them winding down while reading emails and listening to voicemails. At the end of the year, they have a special episode where they each list their Top 13 films from all the movies they covered during the last 12 months. 

I really enjoy the show, and have even appeared a couple times as part of their Patreon takeover episodes where they invite patrons to program an episode and co-host. For 2021, I thought it would be fun to participate by watching along with the show. So week-by-week, I'd watch what they watched, write up my thoughts on each film, and post my thoughts on social media. Then I would listen to the episode and find out how my thoughts compared with theirs. I really enjoyed the experience; it was not unlike, say, being part of a book club -- only they didn't even know they were even in a book club.

I also compiled my own Top 13 list, and I certainly wasn't going to keep it to myself, so I'm sharing it here with the rest of you. My criteria for the choices on my list were simple: If it was reviewed between January and December during that year, and it was new to me, it was eligible. I disqualified the Patreon takeover films, and the Monsterpiece Theatre viewings where Patreon listeners would get together with the hosts to do a special episode to discuss a particular movie. Anyway, here's my Top 13 list of movies that were covered on the Trick or Treat Radio podcast in 2021:

13. THE MAID (2020, dir. Lee Thongkham): This Thai film is about a young woman named Joy, who starts a new job as a maid for a wealthy family, you know, the kind with a miserable husband, a miserable wife, and a little daughter who gets little to no attention. Along the way, Joy realizes that the previous maid might've quit for *very* understandable -- and frightening -- reasons.

During the first half, I found this movie to be OK, and I thought I knew where it was going, but then I was emotionally suckerpunched by a revelation at the midpoint. From that moment on, what started as a decent haunted house flick, turned into a different kind of genre -- and it became a better and more entertaining experience for it, leading up to a 30-minute-long climax that got me so worked up, I actually started yelling at one of the characters just as my DoorDash order arrived. the poor girl thought I was calling *her* a fucking cunt, can you believe it?

12. BLOODY HELL (2020, dir. Alister Grierson): A dude named Rex decides to escape his terrible life in Boise, Idaho by taking a sudden random trip to Helsinki, Finland, only to find that he's succeeded in jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. To say more would be spoiling the fun in discovering what happens to the poor schmuck.

The style of the film is very chaotic and frantic, but not in some annoying wannabe-kewl xxxtreme sort of way. It comes off very methodical and it works. The tone reminded me of something like READY OR NOT with Samara Weaving, in that it's a dark comedy with plenty of laughs and blood. Also, I think lead actor Ben O'Toole is like Samara Weaving in that they're both secret Australians. Actually, I think this entire movie is secretly Australian. It's like they know we still haven't forgiven them for Crocodile Dundee and so they feel they have to be sneaky about it.

11. SYNCHRONIC (2019, dir. Aaron Moorehead, Justin Benson): Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play paramedics in New Orleans, and they're both trying to make heads or tails out of the rash of junkie overdoses on a new drug called -- wait for it -- Synchronic, the kind of narcotic that would feel right at home alongside cine-drugs like Nuke and Slo-Mo. 

This moody and stylish sci-fi flick is very intriguing and features great chemistry between the two leads. The film also pulls a neat trick in starting off as very serious, then turning into something more fun and at about the halfway point. It also ends at the perfect moment, a skill that even seasoned filmmakers often lack, so kudos to the relative newcomers behind this joint. I'd wish the two directors luck in the future endeavors, except they're working on Marvel stuff for Disney Plus now, so fuck 'em.

10. THE NIGHT HOUSE (2020, dir. David Bruckner): Rebecca Hall plays Beth, a teacher grieving over the suicide of her husband. Soon, she begins to hear strange sounds and see odd sights, and they all are connected to his death. 

On the surface, this is an above-average mystery/ghost story that suffers from an overreliance on jump scares, but below the surface, this is an excellent drama about loss, the grief that follows, and the inability to deal with either. This is made even stronger by Hall's excellent performance as Beth, a woman who puts up a tough sardonic front while trying to mask the pain she's going through. Hall definitely deserved an Oscar nomination for her work here, which is why she didn't get one. 

9. MALIGNANT (2021, dir. James Wan): A woman begins to have strange visions of people being brutally murdered, and soon finds out that not only are these murders real, but that she and the killer are somehow connected. Director James Wan gives in to his inner overly caffeinated 14-year-old self with this very entertaining mix of Dario Argento, Stephen King, 80s Italian horror flicks, and 90s American slasher movies.

Some might be put off by its gleeful, unapologetic wackiness, but yours truly was in Good Times City, population: Me. But c'mon Wan -- why did you have to cast your wife in a supporting role?

Crikey! No mate, my Sheila's very talented, mate, she co-produced the movie with me and, uh, koalas and Outback Steakhouse and shr--

Sure, Jimmy, I don't know why you're wasting your time jawing at me, when I know you're already late for your weekly meeting at the Good Hollywood Husbands Club. Yeah, that's right, I've seen you guys hanging out together: you, Rob Zombie, Judd Apatow, and David Mamet, all holding your wives' purses. 

8. THE VIGIL (2019, dir. Keith Thomas): Yakov, a former member of the Orthodox Jewish religion, has been convinced by his mentor to be the Shomer for a recently deceased man. What that means is that he's to sit vigil overnight, praying for the dearly departed, protecting him from evil. What follows is a long night full of evil spirits who don't take No for an answer. 

Mostly set in one darkly lit room, this slow-burn old-school creeper can be at times borderline monotonous, but it's done with purpose -- and when those scares hit, they hit hard. It helps that I genuinely cared about the main character, so big props to Dave Davis as Yakov, who really does get run through the wringer -- both physically and emotionally. This was originally placed at #10, but I was able to Jew it down to #8.

7. THE MEDIUM (2021, dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun): This one's a fake documentary that follows a local shaman in Thailand; her name is Nim and when she was a young woman, she was possessed by a goddess, granting her the supernatural ability to heal people. But during a family visit, Nim begins to notice strange behavior from her niece that echoes the behavior she had pre-possession. Could this mean that the niece is next in line in the shaman business?

A canny riff on The ExorcistThe Blair Witch ProjectPoltergeist, and Paranormal Activity, this movie is not unlike what my ex-girlfriends have said about spending the night with me: Long, slow, increasingly disturbing, and when it was over I didn't want to go through it again. 

6. CENSOR (2021, dir. Prano Bailey-Bond): Set in the United Kingdom during the 1980s "video nasty" period, this film focuses on Enid, whose government job is to watch horror films and then tell the filmmakers what parts to cut out in order to make their work safe for the general public. Her flavorless life gets an unwelcome spicing up when the news comes out that a man murdered his family, after watching a film that she had approved for release.

This very effective mix of mystery and psychological horror not only convincingly recreates the 1980s in its settings, but in its representations of the kind of lower-tiered horror films that were often censored or outright banned in the UK during that time. I think this would sit nicely alongside David Cronenberg's Videodrome in that very narrow video store shelf labeled "mind-fucking flicks about about mind-fucking VHS tapes".

5. SAINT MAUD (2019, dir. Rose Glass): Maud, a hyper-religious hospice nurse, takes the assignment of caring for Amanda, a terminally ill dance choreographer. As this short, sad, and scary character study continues, we find that Maud's beliefs are less about faith and more of a fanatical certainty. 

The way this portrays the character of Maud, I'd place this in the sub-genre of "God's Lonely Man", although in this case it would be "God's Lonely Woman", as it puts to mind similarly-structured films like Taxi Driver and First Reformed. This was an A24 release, but I like to imagine an alternate universe where Troma got a hold of it, and changed the title to Jesus Freak Nurse or something. Anyway, it's a great film and Morfydd Clark is stellar in the title role.

4. THE EMPTY MAN (2020, dir. David Prior): A widowed ex-cop named James is on the search for the missing daughter of a family friend. Along the way, he learns of the legend of "The Empty Man"; if you blow into an empty bottle on a bridge, he is summoned, and three days later, you are irreversibly and permanently fucked. Figuratively fucked, I mean, not literally. Anyway, guess what the fuck James ends up blowing?

This is a deliberately paced work of detective fiction with a strong supernatural bent and plenty of creepy atmosphere, reminiscent of something like the 1987 film Angel Heart or even 1973's The Wicker Man (the non-bee, non-Cage one). It features a strong lead performance by James Badge Dale, and I was surprised to see Nietzsche-an and Schopenhauer-esque concepts and beliefs being thrown about. I did kind of groan upon seeing a high school named "Jacques Derrida High School", but hey, I still appreciated the effort. 

3. VICIOUS FUN (2020, dir. Cory Calahan) 


WEREWOLVES WITHIN (2021, dir. Josh Ruben): I'm cheating here and putting two movies in the same spot, but that's because I feel they were both equally fun viewings and they'd make a cool horror-comedy double feature. 

Vicious Fun takes place in the 80s and follows Joel, a horror magazine writer, who accidentally ends up sitting in at a support group meeting for serial killers. This one is a borderline cartoon with just the right amount of blood and goofiness. It's very funny, and it's one of the few films I've watched during the pandemic that I wish I could've seen in a packed theater, because I think this would play great with an audience.

Werewolves Within is about the new forest ranger in town, Finn, and his attempts to keep everybody safe and sane during a rash of attacks that appear to be the work of a werewolf. Populated by wacky characters, who I found all so entertaining, this light-hearted movie could've forgotten about the werewolf and I still would've found this to be a very good time. It also features a very 90s-tastic bar that I wish existed in my neighborhood; I would've become a alcoholic for sure, but man, what better way to pickle your liver than to have Ace of Base blaring in your ears while you're doing so. 

2. COME TRUE (2020, dir. Anthony Scott Burns): Teenage runaway Sarah takes part in a sleep study where her dreams will be recorded and studied. Sleep paralysis and visions of dark figures with glowing eyes ensue. 

This is less of a horror film and more of a mood piece, but man, what mood! It's an incredibly stylish film with arresting use of sound and visuals; I loved the way this film looked with its very sharp angles, precise framing, and colored lighting, and the music by Electric Youth and Pilotpriest is retro synth heaven. There's even great use of a song from the soundtrack to Michael Mann's Manhunter, I mean, that's the kind of movie we're talking about.

This is also one of the few films I've seen that comes close to capturing the feel of a dream, specifically the kind of bad intangible dreams I've had, where I'm not sure what I had just slept through, but it left me feeling unsettled upon waking up -- that's how Come True felt to me. 

And now, for my number one Trick or Treat Radio film of 2021...

1. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021, dir. Edgar Wright): Small town girl Eloise moves to big city London to study fashion design; she rents an old room that has clearly not been changed since the 1960s, which is fine with her because she's obsessed with the 60s. Soon, she begins to have way too lucid dreams about a girl from that decade named Sandie, and so Eloise begins to experience Sandie's life as she makes her way in the city as a nightclub singer. This all sounds pretty cool, except for the fact that Eloise's late mother suffered from mental illness, and so there's the possibility that these nocturnal visions she's having are doing her some similar damage.

I'll be honest, this one took a little while to grow on me, but once the plot kicked in, I was absolutely  committed to this excellent psychological thriller. Even though he's best known for comic riffs on genre movies, Last Night in Soho is Edgar Wright's most serious film to date, putting the screws to both the main character and the viewer, with only the occasional moment of humor to break the tension. 

Considering the director and this premise, I expected a visually exciting movie with plenty of cool 60s Britpop tunes on the soundtrack, and that's what I got. But what surprised me was how much I cared for the characters of Eloise and Sandie; as written by Wright and Kristy Wilson-Cairns, and performed by Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, I found them painfully sympathetic and wanted them to come out OK at the end of their journeys. I plan to watch this again soon, but I feel this one ties with Hot Fuzz as my absolute favorite film from this director. 

Now, the Trick or Treat Radio boys also gave out their honorable mentions, so I'll go ahead and give you my two honorable mentions. The first, just barely missed the list at #14: the 2021 film Titane by Julia Ducournau, and it's an incredibly strange and original tale about a very odd duck who models at car shows (she's a chick, not a duck, though). It starts out as one kind of movie and then turns into another, and my interest throughout was never less than 110-percent. It's certainly not for everyone, with off-putting audaciousness involving body horror and the intentionally unlikable lead character, mixed in with dark comedy and genuinely emotional moments. But it definitely worked for me.

The second honorable mention wasn't covered on the show, but it was recommended by former co-host Monster Zero, and that's the 1981 film Evilspeak, directed by Eric Weston and starring Clint Howard in what is basically a male version of Carrie -- except I think I prefer the climax of this film to Carrie's. We watch Howard's put-upon nerd get the full bully treatment by his classmates, but thankfully, he's able to get back at them with the power of the dark lord Satan, and when he does, it is b-e-a-utiful. During this particular time, it seems more and more that the real world is lacking in justice, as the assholes in society keep getting away with things scot-free. And so, if it takes an otherwise cheesy movie to feed my justice demon, so be it. 

Well, that covers my Top 13 of Trick or Treat Radio movies of 2021. And because one bad turn deserves another, here are the rest of the films covered that year on their podcast, placed in order from best to worst: 

14. Titane (2021)

15. The Last Broadcast (1998)

16. Spare Parts (2020)

17. Caveat (2020)

18. Willy's Wonderland (2021)

19. Promising Young Woman (2020)

20. The Green Knight (2021)

21. Wolf Guy (1975)

22. Sons of Steel (1989)

23. Kandisha (2020)

24. The Advent Calendar (2021)

25. Army of the Dead (2021)

26. Hunted (2020)

27. The Boy Behind the Door (2020)

28. V/H/S/94 (2021)

29. The Deep House (2021)

30. Martyrs Lane (2021)

31. In the Earth (2021)

32. The Tunnel (2011)

33. Knocking (2021)

34. Sator (2019)

35. Antlers (2021)

36. The Banishing (2020)

37. Two Heads Creek (2019)

38. Raw Force (1982)

39. The Stylist (2020)

40. Jakob's Wife (2021)

41. Koko-di Koko-da (2019)

42. Lucky (2020)

43. Son (2021)

44. The Queen of Black Magic (2019)

45. Fried Barry (2020)

46. Primal Rage (2017)

47. The Spine of Night (2021)

48. The Last Matinee (2020)

49. Black Friday (2021)

50. Sound of Violence (2021)

51. The Dark and the Wicked (2020)

52. Psycho Goreman (2020)

53. Demonic (2021)

54. Clapboard Jungle (2020)

55. Dachra (2018)

56. Skull: The Mask (2020)

57. Honeydew (2020) 

Well, there you have it. Here's to another year of movies; I intend to watch along with Trick or Treat Radio during 2022 as well, but who knows what awaits all of us. And in that spirit, here's to another year of uncertainty, and here's to the foolish but sincere hope in the high unlikeliness that when we make it to the end of this horror movie, there will be a post-credits stinger. You know, something like The Avengers eating shawarma, but forever.