REVIEW: As Above, So Below

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As_Above,_So_Below_Poster[Here there be spoilers]

Because AS ABOVE, SO BELOW showed up unexpectedly on Netflix, I had the pleasure of watching it again to make sure it was as good as I remembered.

The closest analog I can think of is THE DESCENT, which is a tight, conventionally made horror film and one of my favorites, so the fact that AS ABOVE, SO BELOW shares some beats with it in a few conspicuous ways docks a few points, even if the similarities were unintentional and/or unconscious. But THE DESCENT is so good at ramping up the conflict and the obstacles; the similarities between the movies may just have to do with storytelling leading in the same directions. Even so, if I notice, I dock, and THE DESCENT came first.

Other than that, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW is one of the best found-footage horror movies I’ve seen, and other filmmakers should take note. The found-footage subgenre suffers from a few common foibles—too much shaky cam, bad special effects, an improvisational script that sometimes leads to ridiculousness and repetition, and the usual horror problem of an unsatisfying ending. Like most subgenres, once you start watching a whole bunch at once, they start to seem increasingly similar.

For instance, most found-footage depends on the unseen monster, which allows for a lot of simpler practical tricks (see PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) that are nonetheless effective…for a time. The longer the monster remains unseen, the more tension you generally have, but you eventually have to show something (I’m looking at you, BLAIR WITCH, wonderful though you are). It’s a delicate balance, because you eventually need to see something, at which point horror tension tends to plummet. Or the budget limitations mean that the monster isn’t believable. That shifting face effect and blobby eyes and mouth effect are fooling no one.

In the realm of found-footage, even more so than in traditional film, practical effects are king. Found-footage works within a very narrow suspension of disbelief, because the images seem more realistic than traditional film—but it’s totally worth it, because if you operate within that narrow suspension of disbelief, you can create entirely believable magic, and found-footage horror works by capitalizing on that believability and realism. But cameras that make things look more real are completely unforgiving, and so is your audience if they don’t believe what they’re seeing in a medium that looks spontaneously filmed. We’re more programmed to see fake in something that looks more real. Fortunately, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW depends almost entirely upon practical effects. Considering how ambitious they were, the fact they did the almost the entire movie old-school (makeup, set design, prosthetics, and good old-fashioned unsettlement) deserves mad props.

And then there’s the issue that every found-footage film needs to address, and most of them do so poorly: Why are people still filming? The blood and shit has hit the fucking fan. Why are you still lugging around a camera and not running like hell? There’s a point where almost everyone in the audience says, This is where I’d jump ship. I’m out. Even when the horror would have continued, there’s just a point where you’d put down the camera. One of the found-footage movies that addresses the unrealistic tendency of camera people to continue filming well is THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN.

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW does one better, because it never has to address the continued filming. There’s one camera person and three cams attached to headlamps. The main camera is discarded at one point, but when the protagonist picks it up again, her reasons for doing it at the time make sense without threatening the suspension of disbelief, especially since she doesn’t actually end up using it—keeping it for posterity, but without bogging down a scene. Three personal cameras and a main camera make for all the angles an audience could ask for, and you don’t lose any of the intimacy and immediacy that found-footage is so damn good at.

I love good found-footage because of that intimacy and immediacy, and I’m not the biggest fan of CGI. I don’t think we’re at a place yet where CGI is indistinguishable from reality, at least in my eyes. In animation films when everything moves in the same animated way, I’m fine, but when they’re used for special effects in live-action films, it works much better as an accessory to practical effects than the entirety of the effect itself. The minute I see too much CGI moving the way reality doesn’t and lit the way reality isn’t, I notice, and it takes me out of the immersive moment. I don’t believe it, and that’s the cardinal sin of film-making.

Found-footage is more than old-school. If done right, it feels real, like something that could really happen. You may not open your closet door tonight and see a wriggling tentacle monster, but some of my most unsettling moments at night are when I turn off my bedroom light and the closet light is on…and I don’t remember turning it on. Until I open my closet door and confirm no one’s waiting inside, the tension is incredible. (Despite my thanatophobia and sometimes intrusive thoughts, I’m actually pretty grounded and skeptical in real life, so supernatural forces are not my go-to explanation for things. Makes watching horror at night a little more doable.)

Like I said, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW was ambitious in what it wanted you to believe. It was a bit of INDIANA JONES meets THE DESCENT, with searching for Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter fans will thrill at that) in the delightfully macabre Paris catacombs, scenes inside the (implied) Notre Dame clock tower, the elaborate caves beneath the catacombs. I’m reminded also of MR. JONES, another ambitious found-footage film that didn’t quite land with the same conviction but still earned my serious respect for what it was attempting to do. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW makes you question your reality, but you never question the reality of what you’re watching, and that’s not an easy line to walk.

The main characters, played by Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman aren’t complete unknowns, and that throws off some people’s suspension of disbelief within found-footage, but they weren’t familiar to me. I found them engaging, intelligent, just enough reckless without being totally foolish, and if the rest of the characters don’t feel as fleshed out, they nevertheless feel real. The movie benefits from being more thoroughly scripted, so although you get pockets of improv, you don’t feel like you’re losing time to it. In reality, the brain processes out all the extraneous bits in conversation, but in fiction, written and watched, you don’t, and the repetition and doubling back can become extremely annoying.

I’m a big fan of religious elements in my horror, elements that make you question your own understanding of religion. They tend to leave me shaken in the best kind of way, and they’re usually better than the kind of grandiose efforts you get in action/thriller films (see THE DA VINCI CODE). Nothing’s ever hard-confirmed, but AS ABOVE, SO BELOW takes a decidedly Danteian turn, and I find hell scarier when it feels real. Not overblown or overdone or lots of fire, not a Dore drawing, but real. Like a physical place I could be. And AS ABOVE, SO BELOW disquieted me. Not quite as much as THE DARK SONG, but it also had a different intention than that film.

Fans of alchemical history and INFERNO will probably enjoy AS ABOVE, SO BELOW and recognize all the little references that they don’t make too obvious. I like a film that trusts its audience and doesn’t have to explain everything along the way.

In general, I really like AS ABOVE, SO BELOW as found-footage and a bit of horror-slash-supernatural-slash-adventure. Genre mashups usually do pretty well, because they don’t feel as beholden to trope standards, and there’s more room to be surprised. Based off of the trailer, I found AS ABOVE, SO BELOW entirely unexpected. I was transfixed during the first viewing, and it held up just as well after the second.

City on the Hill

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blue and yellow flame painting

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I’ve debated whether to share this song. I’ve shared a few other socially conscious pieces (Vultures, Fools), but this is the one I always come back to when I’m really, really angry, and that’s usually the shit that people jump on as something that needs to be extinguished immediately before someone actually expresses a negative, opposing thought or feeling.

I love you, but I’m really angry all the time. I look back at what this country came from, what it created, everything we’ve done, where we are now, and just get so frustrated how little the big things change. How progress isn’t forward but sideways. How human nature screws us over and no one listens and no one learns, and it’s always been there. It’s our entire industrious, ignominious history. It’s what we’re made of, what we built our foundation on, and I hate seeing that washed away or reframed or dismissed as though guilt and shame are somehow an irrational – or treasonous – response.

I carry with me pockets of history that seem like reflection – from the Salem Witch Trials to the Civil War to the suffragettes to the civil rights movement, from the first wave of colonists and all subsequent immigrants that all previous immigrants lamented. To everything going on now as though nothing has fucking changed at all. To a clock approaching midnight and all the gears and springs falling out, but we still keep polishing and winding the damn thing like it’s working the way it’s supposed to.

I’m mad. So I bring in the history, and I bring in the metaphors. Please don’t crucify me. (Part of sharing these songs is to take risks, and one of those risks is that people won’t like me. I don’t handle that well or sometimes at all, but I’ll probably survive. So you don’t have to like me or what I say.)

CITY ON THE HILL

Ivory-skinned pilgrims in sober black clothes
Sailed to a new world, fleeing inadequate souls
Built their city on a hill upon fields of stone
In anger and hunger, virtue took its own toll.

From scaffold and stones to chains and bones
The city rose west, boots on blood and on tears
With a vow that what came was worth all the cost
Because all of the world would rejoice we were here.

Chorus:
The city on the hill, now the city on fire
Every year’s ashes build its flames higher
From the last lighthouse another funeral pyre
Lives left in ruins by silver-tongued liars
If the city on the hill refuses to learn
Maybe it’s time to let it all burn.

We carve our casualties into weeping walls
Lock our strangers in prisons till memories fade
We draw and drown witches of all of our fears
While they float for the lies that every judge made.

We raise our own monuments, sing our own songs
Until skulls crack from all the deafening sounds
From deplorable vices cloaked in virtuous days
Burying beauty and history in unhallowed grounds.

Chorus

Bridge:
We build walls to keep out the ones we invade
And towers to rise from the bodies we laid
O new ‘Salem, O suspicion and pain
Paranoia in your heart and blood on your name.

Chorus

 

Writing Through the Apocalypse

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aerial photography of pine trees

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The year 2012 was a rough one for me. If I remember correctly, I was taking online courses and no longer working at the time, which was amazing, and going forward, I will ever pursue a similar state. But I was also dealing with a level of anxiety and fear that has only been matched post-2016 election, and for much the same reason.

I’m what’s called a thanatophobe. Roughly translated, it means afraid of death. Now, that would describe most people, right? Fear of death is normal and part of the survival instinct. There’s something fundamentally disturbing about being snuffed out, of the world continuing on without you, even though you accept perfectly well that the world got along fine before you were born, too. Your consciousness just can’t comprehend not being a consciousness. That’s why you wake up from dreams when you die–or that’s the theory, anyway. It’s all very mirror-in-a-mirror.

I do have what I consider a higher level of normal death anxiety. Hypochondria is a side effect of that, as is the mysophobia that’s been slowly but steadily increasing for a while. Uncertainty and control freakishness play a big part.

But I also have an occasionally paralyzing fear of apocalypse. All kinds of apocalypses. If there’s been a disaster movie about it, I’m afraid of it–although, strangely, I love disaster movies. Natural apocalypses. Alien apocalypses. Supernatural apocalypses. The Rapture. The Yellowstone caldera eruption. Asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Nuclear war. Rapid climate change. Epidemic. (Honestly, every time I read THE STAND, I get a cold. I think the publisher puts something in the pages.)

And yes, the 2012 Mayan calendar ending that marked the end of the world as we know it.

Did I know that, while natural and nuclear apocalypses are quite possible (as my brain reminds me all the time), this one was complete bunk, and nothing was going to happen in 2012 just because it was 2012, and the world was definitely not going to end on exactly December 21, 2012? Absolutely. I knew this for a fact. Just like I knew that the Rapture wasn’t going to happen according to Harold Camping’s predictions. Did that stop me from being afraid of it? No. That’s why they call it a phobia, Carl. It’s utterly irrational. And it was the entire freaking year. December 21 was at the end of it, after all.

So to distract myself, I wrote THORNS, which ended up about 195K words in its first draft. (I write long, then cut. That’s my very frustrating process.)

Of course, it helped that I was pretty much the only one freaking out and everyone was else was basically chill, so there were a lot of ports in the storm. Post-2016, not so much, which is why creativity has been such a hard thing for a lot of artists of late, although I’m noticing an upswing. Fear fatigue, maybe?

THORNS actually arose from a short story I’d wanted to write during college four years earlier. The opportunity came up in my fairy tales class–yes, I had a literature class on fairy tales. Envy me. Among a few other options, our final assignment could be a retold fairy tale, so I sat down and put to paper the idea I’d had for this BEAUTY AND THE BEAST retelling I was dying to write.

First thing I realized upon writing it was that it was too long for a short story–around 11K. The second thing I realized was that the story was still much too short and didn’t work at all as it was. It needed to become a novel to do the concept justice, so I shelved it until I thought I could handle a more elaborate plot. I wrote a much shorter BEAUTY AND THE BEAST retelling for the purpose of the assignment and moved on with my life, working on other projects. Most of which I also shelved, because that was the period in my life that I was really Learning How to Write by writing well-conceived crap. I’ll probably rework some of it someday.

Enter the apocalypse.

I’d say I just needed some escapist fiction, but THORNS isn’t really escapist. What it offered me, however, was a full, rich, detailed world in which I could hide among plot complexities (I’m a logistics person, so the problem-solving aspect of plotting is my wheelhouse) as well as hang out with people who were much more interesting to be around than my anxiety-ridden head. As long as my mind was racing, I thought I might as well put it to better use.

About halfway through this monster of a novel, I realized one book wasn’t going to cut it. Because of course.

But that’s the beauty of it (seriously, I’m not trying to be fairy tale puntastic). I can always come back to the THORNS series. When I do, I know it’s going to take up time and brainpower and spoons. But it’s going to do so in a way that I very much need, so it’s a good thing I’ve planned at least seven books in advance, and in my spare moments at work, I try to think beyond that. I told myself I couldn’t publish the second book, ROSE RED, until I’d written the fourth, PUPPETEER. Now that I’ve more or less figured out a work/writing balance, I’m thrilled next year will finally see me tackle it. (If we’re still here. Just saying.)

Haven’t figured out a work/writing/life balance, but you can’t have everything. And if you can’t have everything and the world is going to hell in a sound bite, I plan to do it writing.

The line in HAMILTON that sticks with me daily is “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

Because I fucking am. And I’ve got shit to finish before then. I guess death is a great motivator.

Would rather not work in a constant state of low-level panic, but I’ll take what I can get.

P.S. Editing through the apocalypse works, too.

Without You

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man in black long sleeved shirt and woman in black dress

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This is not one of my favorites. Sweet romance doesn’t seem to be my style, because my hopelessly pragmatic side tends to push through the mushiness. Maybe some people find pragmatic romance sweet, too. You just don’t hear it a lot.

However, I’m going to share it just for fun. It’s a simple little acoustic thing, meant to just be a quiet song to some guitar or piano chords.

WITHOUT YOU

I can breathe without you
Fears all flee without you
Still sleep deep without you
Dreams will keep without you.

I’m still me without you
Heart still beats without you
Life’s not hell without you
I’ve done damn well without you.

Chorus:
You could run the other way
Say you can’t stand another day
I wouldn’t stop my life for you
My future would look fine
If you weren’t by my side
But I’d rather not be without you.

Bridge:
I can imagine my life without you in it
Don’t need you for me to go on
But I chose you to have me a long time ago
To have and to hold, my whole life long

Chorus

I don’t need you, my love
I just want to be with you, my love.

DOUBLE REVIEW: Contracted & Starry Eyes

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This is going to be a double feature. Don’t you feel special? [Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD]

Part of the reason I’m doing a simultaneous review of CONTRACTED and STARRY EYES is because both were put out on Netflix around the same time and both have somewhat similar progression of pretty girls deteriorating. So they kind of feel like the same kind of movie, although they each stand out in different ways.

contractedI’ll start with CONTRACTED, because it’s the weaker movie of the two, although not for lack of talent by the main actress, Najarra Townsend. With her delicate brunette features and prominent cheekbones, she reminds me a lot of Rooney Mara, but she’s less introspective and more emotionally available to the audience (no dig against Mara, who I actually love in movies, just different acting style).

Townsend is easily the best part of an otherwise meh cast, and she makes the best of what seems like a somewhat amateur film. She and the gross-out effects make CONTRACTED worth a watch if you get the opportunity. Neflix pulled the film from its line-up, and I miss it already.

If AFFLICTED was a found-footage, up-close-and-personal look at developing vampirism, CONTRACTED is a standard film with an up-close-and-personal look at being infected by a zombie virus – in this case, a necrotic STD. The sequel made an attempt to explain the context of the virus, but the more horror is explained, sometimes the less you care. All that really matters is that a seriously unethical coroner appeared to have had sex with a dead person, then roofied Townsend’s already drunk character to have sex with her, and through that, she contracted the virus. Then everything already fraying in her life begins to completely fall apart in disgusting, spectacular fashion.

CONTRACTED went through a bit of controversy with the Netflix description of the night Samantha contracted the virus as a “one-night stand,” when the fact she was staggering drunk and then given a date-rape drug makes it pretty clear she’s raped. I mean, just look at the tagline on the poster image – implies the description was deliberate on the part of the studio, not a Neflix writer’s error. It doesn’t matter one bit that she gained a little consciousness in the middle of the act and seems to derive some pleasure from the sex, even as she’s telling him they should stop – although it seems like everyone seems to think that makes it okay, and her fault?

The sequel brings up the fact it was rape almost as an apology for the fact no one in the first movie seemed to realize that it was, including Sam, who never framed it as assault even when her lesbian lover accused her of having sex with a man. It’s tone-deaf, for sure, but a hell of a representation of why rape culture still needs to be discussed. (And CONTRACTED wasn’t the only one that seemed to miss the tonal mark with sexual assault.) It would have been one thing if it was clear either from the directorial perspective or someone’s perspective in the movie that what happened was rape, while everyone else didn’t get it, but I never got any impression that anyone was aware it was rape and not a one-night stand mistake.

Let’s move forward from that, though, to the post-contracted phase, which is when the movie and Townsend really start to shine, even though it’s kind of also where what little logic the movie has dissolves into so much goo.

The movie does amazing with the slow burn of the gross-out. It evolves little by little, although the movie takes place in less than three days. The early symptoms are relatively minor, but troubling enough to go to a clinic to test for an STD. She won’t get results back for a while, which is no help to her whatsoever. She’s given some cream for her genital rash and told the massive gout of blood out of her vagina is her period, even though it looks more like a miscarriage. At this point, I can see her wanting to hold her fragile life together and insist nothing’s wrong. I understand denial.

But when she vomits blood, I think that’s about time to go to the hospital, don’t you? She tries, but then somehow her boss ropes her into taking a shift, and instead of saying “No, dude, I’m vomiting blood,” she agrees and shows up looking thoroughly sick, with something that looks at least like raging pink eye, with another eye that’s jaundiced. And somehow, upon looking at her, her boss thinks, “That’s the kind of person I want serving people food.” He really only has himself to blame with that one.

And I know that when my daughter starts looking like an extra in a contagion film, my first thought is “Guess she’s gone back to drugs.” Sam’s bleeding, pussing, and rotting all over the place, and her mother brings a psychiatrist home to talk to her. Townsend’s so ugly-beautiful at this point, but everyone’s still completely clueless, and there’s a point at which it becomes ridiculous.

It’s hard to describe how perfect the gross-out effects are in this movie, though, how carefully spaced out they are, because the rest of the shit going on isn’t doing much to help – kind of like her friends and her indifferent lover, who’s clearly been looking to get off the train for a while, yet latches on to Sam having sex with a man as the final straw. Her body falling apart and her life in ruins, Sam officially jumps onto the crazy-train.

The best montage happens at this point – a pre-zombie girl dolling herself up for comfort sex that sounds like an extremely bad idea and may or may not be a symptom. And much blood and yuck was had.

It’s a silly and disgustingly beautiful movie, worth it for the effects and Townsend alone if you can stomach a wince-worthy script and uneven acting from the rest.

starry eyesWhich brings us to STARRY EYES. At its core, a completely different story – lovely but insecure young woman struggles to make it as an actress in LA, longing for her big break…oh, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before.

The movie opens on her pinching and prodding at her stomach, checking her butt, agonizing over how thin her hair has become. She works at a breastaurant to make ends meet, but she considers it beneath her. She has a supportive friend in her roommate (Amanda Fuller, one of my favorites), but her roommate has other starving artist friends who Sarah clearly thinks are insufferable – especially Erin, who appears to enjoy a touch more success and suffer less neurosis than Sarah, but who’s passive-aggressive in her superiority and played by the wonderful Fabianne Therese. Already, even though STARRY EYES feels like just as much of an indie film, the cast surpasses that of CONTRACTED. There are some undeveloped characters, but no bad actors.

And because there are no bad actors, Alex Essoe doesn’t have to carry the movie on her own shoulders the whole time. But she could. She brings layers to Sarah that most middle-of-the-road horror movies don’t even think about, and it shows. Every time I watch this movie, I read something a little different from her.

It would have been too easy to just make us hate Sarah or just make us love her, but Essoe does a really good job of making us empathize, even when we think she’s being as much of a bitch as Erin under the facade of the nice girl. She has a drive, a yearning for success and fame, and on that level we understand her – but there’s an ugliness underneath it, a desperation, an emptiness, that seems to be kept from the surface by the thinnest of paper. Ambition can be an amazing impetus, but there’s a fine line between good ambition and ambition gone bad. When you don’t have a solid acceptance of who you are as a foundation, ambition that doesn’t reach constant fruition risks turning back on its host, punishing internally as well as externally.

Ultimately, just like Astraeus Pictures’ film SILVER SCREAM, for which Sarah auditions, is supposed to be about the dark side of the ambition for fame, STARRY EYES brings that ugly underbelly up for everyone to see, and it does so with a great deal of self-awareness. It’s not quite meta-horror, because it’s a horror movie about movies rather than a horror movie about horror movies, but it flirts with that subgenre here and there.

We get a glimpse behind Sarah’s facade at the opening of the movie, but the magic really happens at the first audition for SILVER SCREAM, where the bland, creepy casting directors make their move to find something special in one of the girls trying out for their movies in the hopes of that big break. Sarah does a decent but indistinguishable audition. When the casting directors don’t seem all that interested, she reacts in a disproportionately frustrated way, with all of her anger directed at herself, throwing what amounts to a self-hating tantrum in the girls’ bathroom.

It’s a cumulative frustration, I know, but it’s still just one audition, and she puts so much pressure on herself to achieve, then blames herself entirely for being inadequate. She’s a miserable person, with that ugliness under her surface that’s more self-hating than she knows. Everything she hates about her roommate’s friends are things she’s afraid of in herself, a hallmark of narcissism – mediocre, talentless, invisible, poor, and she doesn’t even see how they’re so much happier than her because it’s more about the art for them than the fame. She’s afraid she’s just another one, and she’s desperate for some kind of external validation that she’s got something to offer, that she’s the talented one, that she’s the star. Whenever she doesn’t get that validation, she feels she has to punish herself. (It’s so common in perfectionism to motivate by punishment, but it doesn’t actually work.)

And here’s where it really connects with me, even though I’m not sure whether it’s the same thing. The reason why Sarah’s hair is so thin is because when she’s upset with herself, she pulls it and whole chunks get pulled out and drape between her fingers. I have trichotillomania myself, but I’m not certain whether what Sarah’s doing is supposed to be trich, or whether it’s self-harm punishment. There’s a certain drama to seeing full chunks of hair in a woman’s hand, but most trichsters pull one or a few hairs at a time. The bald spots we get add up over time. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little bit of both? Like, maybe they read about pulling out hair as a symptom of anxiety and depression and thought it meant chunks rather than one by one? Maybe they just wanted hers to be so extreme in comparison with the fastidiousness of most trichsters. Sometimes I watch depictions of hair-pulling disorders in the media (CSI:NY, Criminal Minds, and The Blacklist had other notable depictions), I wonder if that’s really how the world sees people like me, if that’s what I look like to other people when I’m pulling. It’s weird.

Anyway, right after Sarah’s through throwing her tantrum, she leaves the bathroom stall and walks straight into one of the casting directors, the incredibly disturbing Maria Olsen, who tells Sarah she finally has their interest. Thus begins a short series of auditions that go from red flags to fire alarms, designed to weed out only the most desperate and hungry of the bunch. It’s not exactly talent they’re looking for, which is good, because talent is in abundant supply, and talent isn’t even what Sarah wants – she wants acclaim for her talent, which is what Astraeus Pictures wants to give her…if she gives a little of herself in return.

Like CONTRACTED, there’s a tonal problem in the way the movie addresses the most controversial part of the movie, which I saw in a completely new light after the Weinstein scandal. This isn’t the first time the sleazy, boys’-club mentality of the Hollywood movers and shakers has been depicted in a horror movie – Scream 3 brought it up first. It’s no surprise that men in power use that power to get what they want, and I don’t doubt it’s still happening today, even with Weinstein disgraced. Women talk about it years later, if ever, which means what’s happening now won’t even come up until long after the fact. There’s still a few hurdles women have to go through to get somewhere, and the men making the rules and calling the shots are more than willing to take advantage of women’s desperation, to pluck the fruits of women’s ambition in a way that women (mostly) can’t achieve in the same positions.

So while characters in the film are stunned and derisive when they discover Sarah blew a producer for a “break-out” role in a horror film from a struggling production studio, their condemnation is almost completely on Sarah, and the audience is clearly supposed to agree. Extorting sexual favors for roles simply isn’t done anymore, and any self-respecting woman won’t hold for that, right? Well, reality is a tad more complicated. Sure, Sarah could have just walked away, and yes, she has a massively inflated, narcissistic ego to make up for her crippling insecurities, but the entertainment business is often one in which women do have to walk away if they don’t play ball, and that’s not right, either. Because male ambition is expected and encouraged, but female ambition is unseemly and seedy and suspect, and women need to do more to be seen as equally competent. It’s a troubling, tangled issue, this implicit condemnation more for Sarah than for the shady relic producer.

Astraeus Pictures are more than just shady, bringing on a bit of the ROSEMARY’S BABY vibe, and with the sacrifice placed upon the woman yet again. Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, the price for fame. You just have to die slowly and horribly and destroy everything around you. Sarah’s desire for fame and fortune is placed in the context of many early film starlets of the black-and-white era, for good reason. Once you learn some of their stories, you find that’s not much of an exaggeration. And if the SILVER SCREAM is a condemnation of naked ambition, I’m not sure whether STARRY EYES ever quite reaches a critique of the exploitation of that naked ambition so much as adds its voice into condemning the ambition itself.

This is point where STARRY EYES most closely parallels CONTRACTED, making use of Essoe’s thin frame and willingness to put maggots in her mouth (can’t fault a girl for her commitment to the role). Sarah gradually sheds her masks to expose the ugliness within, all inhibitions released, and her true feelings towards her roommate (with a tinge of envy and sexual attraction, am I reading that right?) and her roommates’ friends coming out of the woodwork. The process is faster than in CONTRACTED because it takes up less of the film, but it still follows the ‘pretty girl gone dead’ arc that’s truly fascinating to watch, culminating in a much less logic-twisted, blood-soaked ending.

It’s a more complete, complex, thoughtful film than CONTRACTED, but both are definitely worth the watch for fans of nitty-gritty, intimate body horror.

Tattoo

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grayscale photo of person applying tattoo

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Inspired in part by the death of Zombie Boy. It got me thinking in the direction of The Illustrated Man and some of my tattooed characters and what tattoos mean to them.

There’s no real style to the song. I don’t hear music to it yet.

TATTOO

Oh, what a tangled web he weaves
When first he practices to deceive
An open book, come enter in
Wears a skeleton on his skin
And his heart out on his sleeve
Inside out, outside in

Ink spills in the air he breathes
What he says, what he believes
Creates the world he’s living in
Wears his people on his skin
Gives away what he receives
Inside out, outside in

What you see, what you perceive
Everyone you love always leaves
When one ends, another begins
Skulls and roses on his skin
Why keep a heart when it can grieve?
Inside out, outside in

Doesn’t care what lies beneath
Colors’ pain is always brief
Hounds of hell, where have you been?
Illustrations on his skin
Showing claws, showing teeth
Inside out, outside in

Oh, what a tangled web he weaves
When first he practices to deceive
An open book, come enter in
Wears a skeleton on his skin
And his heart out on his sleeve
Inside out, outside in

REVIEW: The Awakening

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The Awakening

I think ghost stories are particularly difficult to make scary. They’re generally filed under the umbrella of horror monsters, but they’re more often tragic than frightening. That’s why there are so many ghost horror movies that depend on the jump scare—because that’s sometimes the only kinds of scares they offer. Let’s face it – the more you get to know them, the more lost spirits seem sad rather than scary (SIXTH SENSE kind of covers this phenomenon, and I’d consider SIXTH SENSE one of the better ghost horror movies). I think this is the reason a lot of movie hauntings have transitioned from the human spirits to the demonic. Ghost stories are extremely difficult to do well, especially when trying to find the right balance of tragedy and horror.

THE AWAKENING is one of my favorite ghost stories, but it is, without question, a better tragedy than it is a horror movie. I would say the closest comparison to the movie in tone, palette, and time period is THE OTHERS, which is also one of the better ghost horror movies. However, while THE AWAKENING has a few jump scares, it’s really shot as a drama rather than a horror movie most of the way through, which is good, because aside from some good tension here and there, it functions much better as a supernatural period drama.

I love the opening to THE AWAKENING. It begins with a quote from the main character’s book challenging the spiritualism movement prevalent at the beginning of the 20th by placing it in historical context. Between the Spanish flu and World War I, so many had lost people close to them under terrible circumstances. In the midst of survivor’s guilt, lack of closure, and an excess of grief. Florence Cathcart rightly points out, “This is a time for ghosts.”

The opening transitions into a classic seance, with the supernatural element rising higher and higher…only for Florence to interrupt the proceedings by exposing the spiritualist charlatans for what they are. Instead of being outraged at being taken advantage of, a woman who lost her young daughter – presumably to influenza – slaps Florence and asks whether she has any children. “No, of course you haven’t,” she replies with disdain, because a woman with children would know why a false dream was better than nothing. She questions whether Florence’s grief for the young soldier whose photograph she brought to the seance was even real. But as the mother leaves, we see Florence—played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall with arch strength and vulnerability—deflate. Her commanding, energetic presence dissipates. She appears weighed down, barely able to take another step.

In her own words, “This is a time for ghosts.” And it’s clear within the first fifteen minutes that, though Florence devotes herself to disproving hauntings and exposing frauds, she’s desperately seeking ghosts of her own. It gives her no pleasure at all to debunk the supernatural. Quite the contrary.

This entire movie offers some of the best depictions of depression and grief from a number of the characters that I think I’ve ever seen in a movie. The way it weighs you down and you sometimes don’t even want to move. The way it makes people lash out. The way you have to put on a mask, the way you lie to others and yourself, the way it takes over your life and cycles through your thoughts, the guilt, hopelessness, and self-destruction it can cause.

From the wonderful opening, AWAKENING moves into the main plot, with Robert Mallory—played by Dominic West as an attractive but caustic ex-soldier—an instructor from a boy’s boarding school, visiting Cathcart and requesting her help to put to rest rumors of a ghost boy haunting the school, after the death of one of the students. Usually the man would be the skeptic and the woman the believer, but like Mulder and Scully, AWAKENING switches that expectation on its head. Mallory believes in ghosts, but he’s also a firm realist, and he only wants the truth and to keep the kids safe, and the prim but earnest school matron, Maud, is a devotee of Cathcart’s work and recommended her.

At first, Cathcart is reluctant to engage in another investigation, weary as she is with her depression and needing a break, but Mallory throws her own words from her book back into her face, about how she was a fearful child and cannot abide children being made to live in fear – another point that resonates through the movie.

The boys’ school to which Mallory brings Florence is appropriately gothic, a looming, gray structure in the middle of nowhere, gloomy and forbidding, with energetic but somewhat melancholy students and a severe administration. With her, Florence brings the various accoutrements of her trade—a delightful look into the early twentieth century versions of our modern ghost-hunting gizmos, with all the scientific rigor of pre-WWII CSI. The dark manor at night provides some decent spookiness, but it’s pretty clear with the first tripped bell wire and footprints on the floor that the ghost boy traversing through the halls at that late hour is not so dead, and the tension dissipates…until something’s there that shouldn’t be.

And thus begins the slow unraveling of Ms. Cathcart. The most held-together characters of the movie lose their masks, exposing not ghosts but shells, broken survivors of any number of tragedies who must learn how to live with the ghosts of the people who passed on without them, and beyond the fear of mortality so keenly felt at a time that wrought the need for ghosts.

To be honest, the supernatural elements are sometimes the worst parts of the movie – the swirly face ghost is actually the worst effect, which is a shame, because that’s one of the few things you’re supposed to be afraid of.

The human elements – shattering perceptions and confronting fears – are by far the most interesting parts. I feel like I see something new every time I watch it. It’s a beautiful film and a beautiful, tragic story, and I do encourage you to give it a try on that merit rather than the horror.

Red

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hand full of blood

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Here’s that fairy tale rock song that I wrote a couple weeks ago, even though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use it. My voice has no natural roughness. Also, I can’t do sexy to save my life.

I recently introduced myself to Halestorm and Lzzy Hale’s amazing voice, and I guess I was inspired. So just imagine her singing it instead. If I were ever to use this song, I’d have to strip it down a lot.

RED

If you think I’m a pretty young thing
You don’t know what I’ve seen
You know what I mean
Look at my red leather, supple and lean,
Time for me to come clean
You know what I mean

Chorus:
I’m not a good girl
I’m a girl who’s gone bad
The baddest you’ve had
A little bit mad
And though I’m here walking
Alone in the woods
You’d escape if you could
From the pretty sharp teeth of
Red Riding Hood

I used to be innocent, proper and sweet
Not a girl on the street
You don’t want to meet
But a good girl knows just when she’s been beat
I need something to eat
And you’re my kind of meat.

Chorus

Look at me
Dressed in the skin
Of the wolf that I’m in
Can’t you see
You don’t know where I’ve been
But if you let me in…

[Spoken] What big eyes you have…

Don’t go away
Come in and play
If you come this way
I’ll put this knife away
And let you blow me away…

[Spoken] Why, sir, what stunning skin you have.
It would be a shame to waste it on a wolf like you.
Can you see now what little girls can do?

Chorus

Sleepwalker

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black and white gray grey smooth

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I wrote this on the same day as “Music Box” and was strongly influenced by Anthony Bourdain’s death for both.

“Sleepwalker” feels closer to the soft alt sound of Svrcina and Fleurie to me, but harsh it a little and you get Christina Perri, I think.

SLEEPWALKER

Give you all my time.
Give you heart and soul
My attention on the line
Every part and every whole

My last stitch of spirit
Until tapestry unwinds
Threads fringe and split
Wrap into the ties that bind

Chorus:
Running in place, sinking under high tide
Masks on my face, I’m living inside
Making up stories and worlds in my head
Because the world’s running wild and hard
And I’d rather be in my world instead
I’m never present, always away
Go where I’m sent, do whatever they say
They call me sleepwalker, the day’s living dead
Because the world’s running wild and hard
And I’d rather be in my world instead.

Go to bed, sleep awake
Mornings wake up weary
I offer the devil my soul to take
But pay the piper too dearly.

Waiting between work
Life’s a series of lines
Living dark to dark
Time’s slow but life flies.

Chorus

Bridge:
We fill ourselves empty, health ourselves sick
Tear out foundations, brick by dead brick
Swear on our tomes we’ve not even read
Unable to speak until we have bled.
We give up our freedom, small sacrifice
We give up our virtues for taste of a vice
Running around without any heads
We lie on the train tracks, making our beds.

Chorus

The Valley of the Shadow

agriculture animal baby sheep blur

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If you’ll permit me a moment of what is probably blasphemy, my mind went a weird way while thinking about the valley of the shadow of death (Psalms), conflating it with the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel) and Gehenna (valley of Hinnom, also the word used for hell in the New Testament). And then with a little Silence of the Lambs memory mixed in. Because why not?

As song styles go, it probably bears resemblance to Sarah McLachlan in her Possession period.

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW

The shepherd leads me into the valley
Warm green pastures and clear cold streams
Sparrows of the air, lilies of the field
Land of plenty, land of peace and of dreams.

Yea
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
I will fear no, I will fear no

And as I watch the emerald fields
Turn black as coal ash all around
The shepherd leads flock to a slaughtering barn
Until blood of the lambs seeps into the ground.

Yea
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
I will fear no, I will fear no

The life-giving stream beds crackle and dry
Bones pile to the sides well over my head
The shepherd, he waits at the end of the valley
Leading me to where all the others were led.

They call it the valley
Of the shadow of death
The shadow of life
Cast by every last breath.

Yea
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
I will fear no, I will fear…

No, I will fear.