Saturday, September 16, 2017

mother! ~ Review


It’s impossible to review mother! without divulging some of its greater mysteries, so here is the short review: a mind-numbing head trip that will prove frustrating to most audiences. For those few brave enough to endure the unrelenting terror and anxiety of an experience with an undetermined destination this film will be unique, absorbing, and utterly riveting feast for the senses and brain.





mother! is a riveting fever dream with no end or beginning that you cannot escape. It is obtuse, undecipherable and often vile but exhilarating and terrifying. Movies this unique follow no formula, give you no clues where they are going, and force you to experience them rather than understand them. This means most audiences will disregard this as fanciful, excessive artistry over substance, and write it off as nonsensical (“Stupid!” as one audience member shouted.) Quite the contrary.

The movie is so opened ended to interpretation that you can pick up any one of its allegorical threads whether an examination of God, religion, and extreme zealots, the act of inspiration and creation which is also destructive and consuming, or the decimation of our mother earth – and run with it. It's masterful what director Darren Aronofsky (director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream) has done in creating a film that can speak whisper on so many levels. It's also his least pessimistic film to date.

Both Jennifer Lawrence’s character, simply called “mother”, and the audience are abruptly shaken as incidents mount one by one in a remote house as people flood into and out of an idyllic country mansion to see the poet (played by Javier Bardem). Eventually the quiet home succumbs to madness once she is on the brink of giving birth to their child, crescendoing in a loud, clashing final act of violence and chaos. It’s horrific and harrowing, and the audience never gets a moment to reflect on the proceedings. The camera never leaves Lawrence for a single moment and we are forced to bear witness to every single act of cruelty from the beginning to the bitter end.

But while the events we see elicit strong emotions and revulsion but this is not the point. It’s the meanings behind them. Looking at the other characters names gives the clues needed to decipher the broader story: Him, Man, Woman (played by the sublime Michelle Pfeiffer), Younger Brother, Oldest Son, Cupbearer, Damsel, Fool, Idler, Defiler, Herald. These are not people, but rather symbols of the allegory. Is Him, capital “H”, supposed to be God? Is this a biblical allegory about mother as Mary (who at two points in the film is called a whore)? Or is she the mother Earth being pillaged by mankind after the creator is distracted? As soon as you discover the key, most of the story falls in place. And even if some mysteries remain, the overall experience is incredibly satisfying.

It’s perplexing that mother! is being marketed to a mainstream audience. They will hate it for not being a simple, straight-forward horror movie. This is arthouse horror at its best, a sub-genre that's admittedly pretentious but also challenging, enigmatic and artfully made. For fans, this will be an engrossing, terrifying and thoughtful journey. It resonates deeply and profoundly, and begs to be discussed and ultimately admired.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Halloween Village Preview

My Halloween village this year is shockingly small but potent this year. It's based entirely on the Department 56's Nightmare Before Christmas pieces released this year. Here's a sneak peak for Mandy and all Halloween villagemakers.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

IT (2017) ~ First Impressions

#ITMovie is the best and truest Stephen King movie adaptation ever. Yes, including The Shining, Misery, Carrie, and The Mist. Seriously outstanding. If you loved the book, you will love this emotionally resonant, often funny coming of age story, that keeps it's vicious underbelly and unsettling frightening sequences. This may be the first chance for a horror film to score an Oscar nomination since Silence of the Lambs, and easily the best horror film of 2017.

Look for the free, limited edition poster available at theaters this weekend! (Photo coming soon.)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Snap Judgement ~ American Horror Story CULT

American Horror Story: Cult is an extremely unsavory, cynical and pointless political satire rehash – and the first time in the history of the series that I’ve completely checked out 20 minutes in. The wonderful Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters where both made incredibly unlikeable caricatures, the clown thing was so uninspired considering a true scary clown (Stephen King's IT) is coming to theaters in the same week, Twisty's appearance was the ultimate bait-and-switch, and of course, we got to relive the 2016 election night. Again. America is rich with actual horror stories and even "cult" stories that seem more compelling for a horror series that this political posturing and absolute nihilism. Don't we get enough of that? Is it too much to ask to escape the terrible realities of every day life for one hour, be entertained and maybe even scared? Like every single other Ryan Murphy project (Nip/Tuck, Glee, Scream Queens), well into the run of the series (now in it's seventh year) the show has completely lost it's way. If anyone out there loved the premiere, why?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Spirit Halloween 20% Off

SPIRIT HALLOWEEN is throwing open the doors this Labor Day with it's annual 20% off your entire purchase coupon, good on Monday September 4 and Tuesday September 5.

Click here for the coupon.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Death Note ~ Review

Having only cursory knowledge about DEATH NOTE, I missed the outcry of the white washing of the Manga-inspired film. To me many Asian properties (The Ring, The Grudge, The Eye) have been reinterpreted, transplanting their Asian roots and resetting them in America with white actors. Cultural insensitivity aside, this particular story was much more beloved and carries a deeper resonance with Japanese audiences and beyond. And who can blame them. The story is a multi-layered and sensational exploration of right, wrong, God-complex, cults, and one malevolent trickster spirit.

The Netflix original film directed by Adam Wingard (who also directed the notable films You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch) stands as it’s own creation, albeit on very wobbly legs. It leans much more towards the horror genre and was surprisingly gory. Unfortunately, there is entirely too much story for one movie and it becomes a burden trying to cram so much narrative into 1 hour and 40 minutes – like the ridiculous montage of how a teenager launches a global cult! The more fantastical elements hit viewers right from the start with little explanation. There is no option other than to go with it and accept this talking, wise-cracking demon and the special powers he brings.

The cast is capable enough to bring some grounding with the standout being Lakeith Stanfield as the brilliantly affected “L” (who has a tiny but mesmerizing role in Get Out). But, of course, we wanted to know more about two things: the notebook that brings death to whoever’s name is written within it’s pages (How did this book come to be? How does it truly work?) and the chatty, enigmatic demon behind it (who would likely be happy to share all secrets if asked). The rules of the game remain murky, especially towards the second half when all rules seem to go out the window.

The action is fleeting (literally) and terribly edited and we are often lost in the spectacle, especially towards the end. I paused and rewound much too often to figure out what was happening. All this points to a slapdash process that was likely caused by an accelerated production schedule. By contrast, Wingard’s other films let you settle into the horror of the situation, savoring every beat and nuance like a piece of arsenic-tinged hard candy.

Death Note still somehow manages to be entertaining in that middle-of-the-week kind of way, but with so many missed opportunities, some downright weird tonal shifts, and a perplexing overstuffed plot that is also completely unsatisfying I'm not sure it warrants even a borderline recommendation. If nothing else, it did pique my interest in exploring the original Death Note manga.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Misty Keasler's Book Will HAUNT You

Who doesn't love a good scare? Photographer Misty Keasler spent a long time in the country's darkest haunted attractions and chronicled her adventures in a new book called HAUNT. This beautifully produced 212-page full-color book arrives at booksellers on September 1 from Archon Projects and is available for pre-order today. I interviewed Ms. Keasler about how this book came to be, her artistic process, and what things scared her.

My Scary Blog: What drew you to the topic of haunted attractions? Why document this?
Misty Keasler: Haunted houses weren't a part of my youth but I married someone who went to one every year from the time he was young and absolutely loved them. Once we started dating he'd drag me to one every year and we started taking friends. I loved going with him - he screamed louder than anyone else and was so scared he'd refuse to go first. I was never really impressed with the places until we went to Thrillvania in Terrell, Texas. Verdin Manor is their mansion and the place was unlike anything I'd seen. It was dripping with details, corners of rooms that piqued my interest and space full of implied scenarios. As soon as I went through there I knew I wanted to return to photograph it.

Proprietors closely guard their trade secrets. Was it easy to convince them to let you photograph the interiors?
I first gained access to Thrillvania by convincing our city magazine to commission me to photograph it for a feature in October. I was intrigued with that place and how intricate the tableaux were, so much so that I'd obsessed on how to get in. The magazine piece ran and after that I was even more curious. I made a sort of wish list and started reaching out. Fortunately I had one under my belt so I could show them what I was doing and I was in touch with the editor of my previous book. He was interested (though I went a different direction) so I knew the images would be a book. And some key proprietors got behind the project and helped open some doors for me. I found everyone pretty fantastic to work with.

These places are built to scare you on a deeper level. Did you personally feel scared at any point?
Of course! So first off let me say that I'm incredibly thankful that no one in any of the haunts took the opportunity to scare me out of my skin! There were many opportunities and I was pretty easy to scare, particularly in the beginning. But everyone acted with total professionalism.

There were several points I got pretty spooked. I made the photographs by shooting very long time exposures in the dark, with show lights on and sometimes full sound for hours at a time. Most of the time I could listen to headphones but when I was at Netherworld I was so unnerved. I just couldn't calm down while working. On my second day there I asked if I could have a pair of ear plugs I'd seen in the costume shop and they mentioned that the fear frequencies may have been getting to me. And at Reindeer Manor I got so scared I cut one of my evenings short. That haunt is sitting on a fairly big piece of land and the attractions are in different buildings. Alex, the proprietor, was working at one end of the property and I was shooting on the opposite end. Keep in mind this was very late at night. I was already on edge - dark, creepy place where I'm completely alone. I heard a woman screaming in the distance and then a huge door creaking. I just knew they were messing with me. I kept hearing those sounds and the more it happened the more I figured I just had to leave. I packed up my cameras, found Alex and tried to play it cool (but was really anxious to get to the safety of my car). I mentioned the screaming woman (who turned out to be coyotes) and the creaking door (actually screws in new wood). Alex is a kind, open guy and he explained the sounds but I figured I'd have to come back another time when I wasn't so scared!

Looking at your photographs, you’ve beautifully captured the rich, dark atmosphere as well as some stunning character portraits. Is there beauty to the mayhem?
I think all artists are drawn to beauty and I think some of the most compelling photographs in this work have both beauty and horror.

Many people dismiss these kinds of attractions as a trifle, but they can be highly theatrical and brilliantly orchestrated installations. What would you say to someone who might see these as low-brow?
I can only speak to the haunts in the book but they're huge productions who employ hundreds during season and keep a smaller crew that works year round. There are incredibly creative folks always working on new story lines, sets, and costumes. I've been surprised by how many people have told me they've never been to a haunted house. I think most of them would be shocked to know how much year round work goes into the short seasons they're open to the public.

Unfortunately the photographs don't even get close to portraying an immersive environment as rich as the places in the book - any documentation of a haunted house (photos, video, audio) won't do the subject justice. The visual is simply one element of the experience but to your point, these are indeed ornate, theatrical and orchestrated installations. Some of them feel like you've fallen into a film set only without the unfinished area for the camera. They're completely immersive in a way that can only be experienced and often involve light effects (like the entire storyline at 13th Gate lit almost entirely by lightning), extreme darkness, meticulous soundtracks, smells, and of course actors waiting to startle you. Photography actually operates in a different way and as I got deeper into this work I realized the most interesting images were pregnant with expectation. Often I found myself photographing what was on the edges of a scene as opposed to the focus of what might scare you as a customer.

Long projects often start one way and end another. Did you go into this project with certain expectations? Were they met, or did the outcome change two years later?
I am drawn to this idea of making bodies of work that act as a portrait of culture. I did this in Japan with Love Hotels and again with my family in East Texas. I wanted to make a portrait of American culture through haunted houses and looking at the intersection of fear and entertainment and I'm pretty happy with the book serving as that portrait. But as I progressed on the project and began to focus more on this idea about the edges of scenes I also began to edit images differently and cut photographs that were originally included in the final series. The portraits went through some big changes. Originally the idea was to do side by side portraits of actors in their street clothes and then in their costumes and makeup but in the exact same pose. I stole this idea from the photographer Timothy Greenfeld Sanders and his work about porn actors. But it didn't work - they just ended up looking really corny. So I started thinking about how to treat the actors in the same way I was treating the spaces and wound up with the fairly serious portraits in the book. I'd ask actors to think about the very still portraits made at the beginning of photography when they stood for me and I think these images ended up better representing what is frightening about their characters.

Every project adds to the tapestry of an artist’s perspective. What is the most surprising thing you learned throughout this project?
I did not realize the extent of the work that goes into these absolutely incredible places. And yet most people never get to really even see how rich the spaces are because they're literally running scared. Much of my work is about looking at what most people would never see.

Low-light photography is incredibly tricky. Were there any unexpected challenges in this particular environment?
All the square images were shot on film. I needed the negatives to contain detail in the darkest parts of an image and that required me to make extremely long exposures. No light meter would give me reading in a place as dark as a haunted house. It took a fair amount of experimentation but most of the exposures were half an hour long. But those types of exposures do strange things to colors, often making them too vibrant. I worked with Laura Steele, a pretty incredible photographer on her own, on extensive retouch. I was really attempting to get the images closer to my memory of the spaces as opposed to what the film recorded.

What do you hope an audience will get from this book?
There's something really fantastic about the spectacle of these places. This is a portrait of our culture and I think the more you spend time looking the more you get out of the body as a whole.

Without having access to a crystal ball, do think this is a topic that you might want to revisit in the future? 
I don't know. There's a tremendous amount of work and resources that go into the book creation and normally that signals the culmination of the work. But I did have an adventure of a lifetime visiting all the places and getting to spend as much time as I needed just looking. I wouldn't mind making more photographs but I guess we'll see how things go with the book.

Photo credit: All images courtesy of the artist and Archon Projects.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Mist ~ Review

The crap heap that was Spike TV’s adaption of The Mist has ended and now I am free. Like many diehard Stephen King fans, I tuned in week after week hoping that something – anything – would happen that would redeem this series or at least steer it back the master work of dread and mystery. King’s story unveiled monstrous possibilities of what a rip in our dimension would be like as other worlds seeped into ours. It also showed that the worst monsters are greedy, crazy humans.

The TV show sidestepped most of this in favor of soapy storylines (he’s not your father!) and big ideas with no real substance (rape, homophobia, religion, police, parents, nature are, like, all super BAD and stuff!). Then they sort of played up the secret government conspiracy angle, dropped it for most of the season, picking it up in the last hour with no reveal. Interesting ideas of a “black spring” and Mrs. Raven’s communion with nature were also dropped in the last hour (Frances Conroy deserves much better than this). Everything that we had seen was rendered pointless and like much of LOST’s run, the writers thought the allure of intrigue was far superior to actual good storytelling.

It didn’t help that characters were all annoying and unlikable with charisma and depth of week-old honeydew melon chunks. The poor actors were left to fend for themselves with awkward lines, no motivation, and burdened with the writers’ deep commitment nonsensical leaps of logic (they’re feeding the mist!). With no one to root for and a shapeless mist, the viewer just waited around for an action sequences which were few and entirely unsatisfying.

The biggest blunder, of course, was having no monsters. Did the writers really think they could improve this part of the original story? Instead we get an apparently sentient mist that judges you (but in the end, it doesn’t really), makes dead loves ones appear to torture you psychologically (but really just wants to suck out your juices), and may have a central giant figure (but that was never developed after the first sighting). Seriously, WTF!?! The writers manage to brilliantly frustrate viewers and alienate all King fans. Do yourself a favor and read the story or watch the brilliant movie adaptation. Avoid this altogether.

(Note: The show deserves an "F" but I just can't do that to Frances Conroy who was the single compelling aspect about this show.)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

RIP Tobe Hooper

RIP to Tobe Hooper, the man who made us fear chainsaws, and skin masks, and Texas. He always knew what scared us.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Yankee Candle Halloween 2017

Another Yankee Candle Halloween Preview Sale come and gone. The stores always make it a fun experience although I'm finding their Boney Bunch line, now celebrating it's 10 Year Scare-iversary, a little less interesting every year. Usually sold out within a couple hours, most of the line is still available with only one decidedly sinister piece (Head Chef) nearing "low stock". Perhaps its time to take this successful line in more sinister Halloween direction rather than their increasingly cutesy road? Their other offerings including their continued raven and steampunk lines offering much more interesting things. If you are shopping online use their promo code "FBLIVE" for free shipping. Here are some of my favorites: