GERALD’S GAME (2017)

Mild spoilers ahead…

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The hype machine has gone into overdrive for a certain Mr Stephen King in recent months. First ‘It’ opened to record numbers and became the highest grossing horror movie ever, then over on Netflix an altogether darker, more cerebral piece of work from the maestro of the macabre slipped in quietly to give us nightmares into the wee small hours. That would be ‘Gerald’s Game’, and what a game it is.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood star as Jessie and Gerald, who after eleven years of a slowly dying marriage, decide to head out to their lake house in the middle of nowhere to spice things up. What begins as an innocent sex game involving handcuffs and Viagra soon spirals into a rape fantasy and death. You only have to watch the trailer to know Gerald bites it pretty early on, keeling over from a heart attack and leaving Jessie chained to the bed with nothing but her personal demons and a very hungry rabid dog for company…

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I must admit, whilst looking forward to seeing Gerald’s Game I did wonder how they could spin out 1 hour 47 minutes of a woman chained to a bed. For the most part my worries were unfounded. Once Gerald drops dead things spiral pretty quickly. We go full throttle into Jessie’s psyche and no disturbing stone is left unturned.

One thing Stephen King has always excelled at is taking our primal childhood fears and making them a very real, terrifying reality. Fear of the dark. Monsters. The hand reaching out from under the bed. The nightmare flipside of the nuclear family. The horror of parents turning a blind eye when they should be protecting us. The desperate loneliness of insomnia where everything is at its blackest and most hopeless. All of these take centre stage.

But the true horror of this piece – and of Jessie’s life – is (mild spoiler) child abuse. With more than an echo of the wonderful film adaptation of Dolores Claiborne, we’re treated to a red-tinged flashback to a solar eclipse that heralded the end of Jessie’s childhood at the hands of her father. The nuanced performances and writing around this portion of the movie bring out the manipulative depths a child abuser will go to to keep his secret safe, and in a truly heartbreaking scene we see the trauma a young Jessie goes through as she’s emotionally blackmailed into keeping shtum. This is a rare thing indeed in any movie let alone a horror movie, to see writing and characterisation of such depth.

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Which is why it’s almost inexplicable that in the last fifteen minutes of the movie we’re treated to a script that suddenly is so schmaltzy and on the nose you start to wonder if it’s flipped into a parody of what we’ve been enjoying for the previous 90 minutes. Being a connoisseur of the camp, the trashy and the bad, I could appreciate some of the humdinger lines and wrap-it-up-in-a-pink-bow resolution in a tongue in cheek way. But seriously, having gone through the traumas we see Jessie endure for the majority of the movie, my jaw was on the floor at what the movie then became.

This in no way detracts from the film experience so don’t let that put you off. There were two moments during Gerald’s Game where I screamed and shouted in horror – you’ll know the moments when you see them. One that will put you off that burgeoning foot fetish for life, and the other that will make you wince in agony along with Jessie. The film GOES there with the horror. If you saw ‘It’ and, like me and the other Screaming Queenz, thought whilst it was a good movie it lacked the depths of horror that only Stephen King can bring? Well this movie has that in spades.

Of the two much-hyped King adaptations (I’m not even going there with Dark Tower), this one brings the pure horror that ‘It’ lacked.

Gerald’s Game is one worth playing. Just keep an eye out for The Moonlight Man…

JL

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IT (2017) Review: the threequel 

Stephen Moore gives his pennyworth on Pennywise…

IT was the most highly anticipated horror of the year. IT failed to deliver on its promise of a truly scary version of the classic Stephen King novel. IT was still one of the most enjoyable films so far this year. IT was IT… you get IT.

In the lead up to the release of this film I was swept away down the storm drain by an effective trailer, a plot that is still as scary as when it when it was conceived and a heavy sense of nostalgia. This will no doubt lead to massive profits for the film and guarantee it receives it sequel but may also lead to one major criticism at least by seasoned horror fans. IT just isn’t scary.

I was really excited to be genuinely terrified and creeped out by the film but it never really got there and I think there are three major factors that contributed to the lack of scares.

The film’s premise means we tap into those early childish irrational fears such as clowns, creepy paintings and errrrr germs apparently? For the most part though people largely grow out of these early fears as they enter adulthood and unless you happen to have a phobia of one of these things many of the scares are unlikely to do more than gross or weird you out.

The film also has a heavy reliance on GI effects instead of practical, and some moments that are meant to be scary look a bit plastic and silly. Many a time I was left unsure if I was meant to be scared or supposed to laugh at ‘creepy picture woman’ chasing the children. Finally we have a reliance on jump scares over tension. I’ve come to accept jump scares are inevitable in mainstream horror now and can often let out a shrill shriek when one is particularly effective but in order to be scary I need to be put in a tense state… Something that really never happens. Every time the film starts to build up tension or scare it either pulls its punches like when it refuses to delve further into the horrific racially motivated arson attack on the Black Spot and with Beverly’s sexually abusive Dad… or it breaks the tension with a witty one liner or hilariously childish and perfectly crude dick joke.

Now I’ve got my main complaint out of the way let’s discuss what makes this one of the most enjoyable films of the year. In the previously definitive TV version of the novel the main star was undoubtedly the incredibly enigmatic performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise the dancing clown.

Bill Skarsgards incarnation is a perfectly respectable performance that separates itself enough from Curry’s version to keep me happy but he is not the shining star of the show in this version. Instead the main stars of the show are the extremely talented and funny cast of children. I don’t say that sentence lightly as my usual feelings toward child actors are less complimentary and more homicidal.

All of “The Losers Clubs” managed to impress me at different times and in their own way but the two leads Bill and Bev are both fantastic. Bill’s loss of his little brother Georgie both propels the story forward and grounds it at its most insane times. He is an engaging and believable hero and leader of the group with his endearing stutter just adding to the likability of his character. Bev the female of the group delicately balances her Tom Boy thrill seeking ways with her sensitivity and caring for others. One of my favourite character moments is when Bev discovers Ben’s (aka Tits) love for New Kids on the Block and she simultaneously mocks him and keeps his secret from the others.

I started this review by discussing how IT fails to be an effective horror film but what I didn’t explain is that this isn’t really a bad thing… it’s just not what I anticipated. Instead of a straight up horror film we have a fantastic summer adventure with friends, a coming of age story that just so happens to have a supernatural undertone in the form of a dancing murderous clown and to be honest I’m not that mad about that.

As the group bond and form stronger friendships you enjoy being with them for the summer and seeing all these relatable and sweet first moments of adulthood unfold. Although one particularly well played scene of the boys watching Bev sunbathe was a little different in my life.

There are lots of beautifully played child-becoming-adult moments like this, from first crushes to a funny and endearing scene where Bev tries to hide the fact she’s buying her first tampon from the boys. Saying that when coupled with a later scene involving a whole lot of blood in the bathroom It was perhaps a little too much of a menstrual cycle analogy than I was prepared for.

There are a few other flaws, such as the underuse of certain characters and a massively shortened research of the towns history that I would have like to have seen more of but overall the film is as fun as a good old rock fight. I’m overall impressed by the film, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the summer with our pint sized heroes and look forward to a rewatch. I am, however, skeptical of how the adult based sequel will capture my attention. It either needs to turn up the horror which I doubt it will or choose another genre to be based on with the horror once again being more incidental than the main attraction but I say bring IT on!

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SM

IT (2017) A Second Opinion!

Jonathan Butler chimes in with his thoughts on the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It…

It’s finally here, probably the most anticipated horror film of 2017. The expectations were high, the Tim Curry-starring mini-series being a childhood favourite of many horror fans, and Stephen King adaptations seemingly pretty hot at the minute. Now that it’s arrived what do we think?

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My feelings are mixed if I’m honest. It is a good film, but not really a good horror film if that makes sense. The greatest strengths of the film lie in the performances of the talented young cast and their interactions with each other. The performances are all superb across the board, and these genuine portrayals give a strong emotional backbone to the film.

I felt more like this film was taking its cues from the likes of The Goonies, Stand By Me and the films of Joe Dante than from anything closer to a horror film. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Stand By Me is a favourite of mine and I’ve spoken of my fondness for Dante’s work before so I don’t mention these as distinctly negative points, just more that I feel the horror suffered for the sake of the relationship side of the story.

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My real gripes come when we look at the horror elements. It’s just not scary, like, at all. There was a distinct lack of tension built during the film’s “scary” scenes, it all comes in short little bursts of a minute and invariably ending in a massively telegraphed jump-scare. This is something of a bug-bear of mine, it’s a shortcut to scares that is hideously over-used nowadays. Although they were at least used correctly in IT, in that the jump-scares do actually come from things the characters on screen and the audience are supposed to be scared of.

This brings me to another issue of the film. For me it all feels a bit safe and rather tame for a horror film. Perhaps that’s my fault though, my tastes do tend to run a little more on the extreme side. I was disappointed to hear the news that the film’s original director Cary Fukunaga had exited the project over the dreaded “creative differences”. I was a huge fan of his work on the recent series ‘True Detective’, the bleakness and grimness of it gave me hope that we could be getting something genuinely dark and disturbing from his version of IT. The outcome ended up being that Fukunaga did want to include many of the darker elements from the novel and this was evidently too rich for the suits at New Line / Warner who balked at the idea of filming a sewer based gang-bang. Interestingly though, Fukunaga does receive a writing credit so some elements of his script do presumably make it into the finished product.

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The directing of Muschietti is competent but never really breaks any new ground and he seems to rely on the same trick to get scares. He reuses the same speed-ramping, fake stop-motion effect quite a few times. You’ve probably seen it in the trailer. I think he used the same effect in ‘Mama’ in fact, which I wasn’t a huge fan of.

While I do mention the negatives don’t let that put you off from seeing it as it is a good film, just not the film I had expected. I was hoping for a darker, nastier vision of IT and what we got instead wasn’t that, it was a bit safer and more mainstream than I had anticipated. The finished product is still good, I just feel the director did a better job of getting the “80’s childhood adventure film” elements right than he did getting the actual horror elements right, which to be fair to him is probably exactly what the studio wanted.

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Nostalgia for the 80’s is hot at the minute – making challenging films, not so much.

JB

 

IT (2017) Review

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Vague spoilers ahead…

I’ll tell you this straight off the bat. I think the original TV mini-series of It (1990) gets away with murder thanks to nostalgia. We saw it at just the right time, and hit the TV airwaves at just the right moment, for it to somehow become iconic and deemed terrifying. Same goes with Salem’s Lot. But watch it now and you might have a different opinion.

So when it was announced that Pennywise would be returning for a new outing on the big screen I, for one, welcomed the idea. Having read the tome of a novel, which needs a damn good edit but is utterly enthralling and almost unbearably dark in parts, I thought that maybe the new film would honour it better than the TV version. I had high hopes. And for the most part I was not disappointed. I really hoped it wouldn’t be a shot-by-shot rehash of the ‘original’ as people call it. And evidently, the team behind ‘It’ (2017) felt the same way.

The movie goes out of its way not to look or sound or feel anything like the 1990 effort. From the very start, whilst Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) helps his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) build that paper boat, there’s a notable absence of ‘Fur Elise’ being played by mom on the piano, obviously an iconic moment from the mini series. The action is moved from the barrens to the sewers and the old house on Neibolt, with no mention of dam-building, and the updating of the action to the 80s are all obvious – and successful – attempts to distance the film from it’s 1990 counterpart. Whilst obvious similarities will be drawn when Georgie is chasing said boat down the street in torrential rain, all fears of a remake vibe are set aside when we’re introduced to Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise. Nobody is ever going to touch Tim Curry’s performance but what we have here is a whole different ballgame. As Pennywise toys with Georgie and offers him fun and frolics in a subterranean big-top, Skarsgård is clearly pulling out every trick in the book to separate himself from the shadow of Curry – and for the most part it works. It’s no massive spoiler to say Georgie meets his fate early on – but this is a more ferocious, fiendish death scene that doesn’t quite go where you’re expecting it to…

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Speaking of unexpected, in It we get that rare thing in a mainstream horror movie. The emotional gutpunch. Director Andrés Muschietti draws out performances from his young cast that are loaded with authenticity and heart. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard makes Richie Tozier loveable, annoying and hilarious in equal measure. He does a roaring trade in ‘your mom’ insults and swears like a trucker – you know, like real kids do. Jack Dylan Grazer is old before his time and riddled with anxiety as hypochondriac Eddie, and poor Ben Hanscom, awkward secret poet and christened ‘tits’ because of his chunky frame, is sweetly played by Jeremy Ray Taylor. But the standouts here are Lieberher as Bill – throwing aside the shadow of tragic Jonathan Brandis to give us a new hero we totally believe, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, who at fifteen looks about ten years older than some of the boys. Wasn’t that always the way in school? Whilst some of the boys seemed to actively recoil from puberty, the girls towered above them and strode into early adulthood ahead of the pack. And that’s Beverly, dealing with buying her first Tampax, taking on bullies at school, and absolutely flooring the boys with her sophistication and beauty… whilst dealing with the hideous reality of life at home with her abusive single father…

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And so comes the gutpunch. The reality of Beverly’s abuse, Bill’s grief at losing his little brother, not to mention Ben’s bullying and unrequited love, actually prevail over the horror of Pennywise. At its core the novel delved into the absolute trauma it can be to just grow up, make it into adolescence and come out the other side intact. And that is where this film flies high. The 80s nostalgia isn’t particularly overdone, but the truthful portrayal of the adventure – and the real life horror – of just being a kid, of that last summer you spent with your group of friends before everything changed, before shit got real – that’s what resonates in this movie.

So much so, the actual horror tropes suffer as a result. We get jump-scares, we get creaking floorboards and clowns hiding under dust sheets. The set-pieces evoke elements of Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, even more recent horror hits like The Conjuring and Insidious, and whilst some of the jumps are efficient and jolting, the horror element never quite matches the teen drama. With a lesser script, poor direction and a weaker cast, that could result in a muddled overblown mess of a film. But because you care so much for the characters and the overall package is so well done you forgive it. You go along for the ride – an epic one at two hours fifteen. But it never feels too long, nothing drags.

And yet in parts I felt like cuts had been made. After the George intro we’re introduced to Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), with a story tweaked from the novel where he lives with an overbearing Grampa (Steven Williams looking mighty fine in his old age). But after his opening scene he vanishes for over half an hour. Similarly Stan (Wyatt Olef) is given hints of a story that then vanish and he’s ignored for most of the film. Also Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) slices and dices his way on to the screen but feels underused. You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a three hour version out there somewhere, but given that I got through over two hours and could have watched more, I’d welcome that director’s cut.

Maybe it’ll have the darker elements only hinted at in this release? Pennywise offering Eddie a BJ, the real death of Patrick Hockstetter, the racially-motivated mass murder at the Black Spot? All were absent here. I also found it interesting that Henry Bowers was clearly an evil racist but never once used hate speech when attacking Mike – although ‘faggot’ was thrown around with (cough) gay abandon. So whilst I easily forgot the mini series I couldn’t quite let go of what was STILL missing from the novel…

So a flawed film but mainly brilliant. Go in with an open mind. Forget Tim Curry (I know, sacrilege), put your preconceptions to one side and revel in a film that for the most part is beautifully made and a luminous cast who will make you laugh and – if you’re a sap like me – cry too. Yes the frights are nothing we haven’t seen before, and it’s not quite as terrifying as it wants to be… but for a mainstream horror it delivers much more than you’d expect.

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That said, with a film that makes it through the gate mainly because of it’s young cast, I think for It, Chapter 2, they’ll have their work cut out to make anything as good as this. Bring it on, Pennywise…

JL

You are now leaving Twin Peaks

Warning: SPOILERS!

I’ve been in a fog all day, not quite present in my situations, with a distinct feeling of looking in on real life from the outside. Not depressed so much as just not quite there. Deflated. Downbeat. Dare I say melancholy. And I think I know why.

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That pretty much sums it up. You see at 8am this morning Special Agent Dale Cooper actually knocked on a door marked 1516 and it was opened by none other than Laura frickin’ Palmer. You know. The beautiful dead body found wrapped in plastic in the opening episode of Twin Peaks back in 1992. The doorway from our dull domestic lives into a world of infinite darkness and light that changed the face of television forever. Ever present like a beautiful shadow always there whether onscreen or not, watching over the many interwoven tales of small town life amidst the shifting realities of supernatural and extra terrestrial interference coming from deep within the surrounding woods in Washington State…But always considered lost. Dead and gone whether we or her alcoholic mother or her square-jawed, motorcycle-riding beau liked it or not.

Until 8am this morning. For the uninitiated the new series of Twin Peaks has been more hardboiled crime thriller-cum-supernatural mindfuck than the quirky original. And in the wrap-up final episode Cooper, played by the supremely talented Kyle McLachlan in one of three roles this season, followed orders from the celestial Fireman and the tormented soul of Leland Palmer to ‘find Laura’. This involved driving across the state line from one reality to another, finding himself in an alternate dimension, or years in the future, or an amalgam of both, where Laura took the form of a white-trash waitress who’d just murdered her scumbag boyfriend and needed to, as she put it, ‘get out of dodge’.

But getting out of dodge meant going back to Twin Peaks, a darker, colder version of the town we know and love, where the residents of the Palmer house were NOT family, and hadn’t the slightest idea who Laura was. Had Cooper and Laura got off in the wrong time zone? Had Cooper driven into a different reality and simply forgot to drive back out, destined to roam side by side with our universe trying to find ‘one chance out between two worlds’ to get back in and bring Laura home?

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So much going on, and all before 9am on a Monday morning. You can understand why I feel a tad vague about life right now. But more than anything I feel a deep sadness. For the last 12 weeks or so my morning routine, lucky as I am to be able to choose what I do on a Monday morning, has involved waking up at the crack of dawn, brewing a pot of coffee and immersing myself into the new series of Twin Peaks all on my own. I chose this for myself. I decided to go it alone. But save for internet groups it’s a lonely life being a Peaker these days. No longer the water-cooler show that the original series was, it exists somewhere outside of reality just like the tulpas, the Woodsmen and a disembodied David Bowie in the show. It’s not gonna draw the big audiences it once did because, quite frankly, it is unlike anything that’s been on TV.

Putting aside comparisons with American Detective, Breaking Bad and the later films in Lynch’s canon, the slow burn beauty of this new trawl through dark Americana is literally peerless. Much was made of Episode 8 which took a step back from the slowly unfolding narratives to give us a history lesson in the creation of the evil that haunts Twin Peaks, transporting us to the atom bomb test in White Sands, New Mexico in 1945.

But for me it’s hard to single out one specific moment in this 18-episode journey that blew my mind the most. Was it the return of Audrey Horne, stuck in an endless loop of demented hysteria, a tragic shadow of the femme fatale beauty she once was? Was it Ike the Spike, the sharpy-wielding dwarf who rampaged across Las Vegas in pursuit of Dougie Jones? Maybe it was the return of Dale Cooper through a plug socket (no, really), and his long, drawn out return to form as he stumbled through life like a baby deer after spending 25 years trapped in another dimension. Or the trio of Candie, Mandie and Sandie, the Vegas showgirls who never changed outfit and liked to show up at the most inopportune moments just to look fabulous and bring sandwiches…

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You could literally go on forever at the wonders and horrors that Lynch and Frost bestowed on us over this last few months. It’ll take time for me to process and be coherent. But then Lynch revelled so much in being incoherent at times I hardly feel any guilt for rambling on. What I gave us was the gift of breathing space. So often now TV shows are obsessed with keeping us hooked – every scene has to end on a gasp moment, every ad break has to promise us another flashy surprise otherwise we may just turn over or get lost in social media. But with Twin Peaks: The Return we had long scenes that kept us watching simply because they were imbued with such heart, such artistry, and steeped in the mythology of a world and an artist who we know we just have to trust. Just go with it. It’ll be worth it.

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And wasn’t it? Who else sat slack-jawed at the audacity of revisiting the 1994 movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with Coop now watching the scenes we’re so familiar with, and then actually stepping into that world to ‘save’ Laura? Only he fucked with time and I’ll argue paid the price in episode 18. But the theories are endless. In those final moments I got the impression that we were being taught a harsh lesson, one that it took 18 episodes to come to terms with. And that is this. 25 years have gone by since we were last in Twin Peaks. It could never stay the same. And that’s tough to deal with, but accept it and the rewards are rich and bountiful. I could be totally wrong of course. But that doesn’t matter. Lynch doesn’t want to explain, he doesn’t need to. With any decent or great work of art, what you bring to it informs what you take away.

With Twin Peaks: The Return I brought expectations of existential horror, soap opera melodrama and that dark heart Americana – simple images like a gas station at night or a motel in the middle of nowhere that are painted over with such dread in a way that only David Lynch can achieve.

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As you can see it delivered in spades – and golden shovels. I’ll write more as I process it. It’s gonna take a while.

But having thought on this, my mood today, sombre, out-of-time, spaced out – I think it could be grief. Like Coop with Laura in that final episode, I got back what I thought was gone only for it to slip away again. The last image was Laura being reminded of the life she’d left – or the life that had left her – and she screamed in horror and anguish and confusion. Whatever that was, that town, that familiarity, it was now out of her grasp. And now it’s out of mine. Well, until I just start from the beginning again.

Then I can start drawing up favourite moments, favourite characters (Diane all the way), biggest head-fucks, all that fun stuff. In the meantime I’ll just nurse the void with coffee and cherry pie – the original Norma Jennings recipe thank you, not the shit they sell outside of town!

I’m gonna need a bigger percolator. Fish-free.

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JL