Boarding School is a Boring Mess [Review]

People who don’t like modern horror movies frequently point to the jump scares. I’ve defended them in other reviews (herehere, and here), because they’re not the problem. Jumpscares are like cheese. They can add quite a bit of flavor to a film. The problem, which people are rightly perceiving, comes when the cheese is put onto a hockey puck instead of a burger. In bad modern horror movies, jump scares are thrown in to spice up a boring screenplay. Instead of tightening the dialogue or shooting in interesting ways or cutting dead weight scenes, lazy filmmakers throw in nonsensical jump scares and call it a day. The moldy lettuce doesn’t taste any better with some Parmesan cheese grated over it, but the audience is jolted. Boaz Yakin tries to substitute jump scares for substance in the first twenty minutes of his film Boarding School, and trust me, those are minutes that you can’t get back.

Jacob (Luke Prael) is a young man who dresses up in the clothes of the dead-grandmother-he-never-met and dances while his parents away. His mother screams that she wants to kill him after the first jump scare before the movie descends into painfully boring minutiae (Here’s Jacob making a sandwich! Here he is reading comic books! Now he’s watching Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, a better movie than this one!) before Jacob finally meets with Dr. Sherman (Will Patton) and his parents agree to send him to boarding school.

Read more at Wicked Horror!

A Murder of Storyteller Podcasts

I’ve joined A Murder of Storytellers as an editor, and we’ve been recording podcasts! It’s been a lot of fun.

So far we’ve talked about “What We’re Looking For” and “Etiquette.” They were a lot of fun to record, and will hopefully be as much fun to listen to. Best of all, they’re fifteen minutes each, perfect sound snacks for writers on the run.

Comic Review: Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men #1 is a Good Entry in a Great Series

It’s been two years since Evan Dorkin published the last Beasts BurdenWhat the Cat Dragged In. Two years is a long time to wait between installments in the episodic series. The premise shouldn’t work: all of the dogs and cats in the town of Burden Hill can talk to one another and defend their world from the supernatural. It’s like the cast of Buffy was replaced with pets. With Dorkin writing and Jill Thompson painting, it’s absolutely amazing. Funny. Scary. Heart-wrenching. And somehow, not at all appropriate for children despite the talking animals. Through one issue, Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men #1 lives up to the rest of the series.

The issue focuses Lundy, who you may remember from the Beasts of Burden/Hellboy crossover. He’s in “The Pocono Mountains, four days out from Burden Hill” (3), and Dorkin drops him right into a confrontation with a fire elemental. It’s an exciting start, and from there Dorkin and new artist Benjamin Dewey set out to introduce a new cast of Wise Dogs with a familiar face or two thrown in.

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!

S1, E7 “The Lonely”

When people talk about The Twilight Zone, they talk about the show’s incredible endings. Episodes like “Where is Everybody,” “Time Enough at Last” and “The Eye of the Beholder” have remarkable closing beats. The ending of the seventh, “The Lonely,” isn’t as earth shattering, which makes it a little bit easier to breakdown.

The episode starts with James Corry (Jack Warden) alone, “On an asteroid nine-million miles from the earth.” He was sent there three years ago after committing a murder that he argues was in self-defense. Allenby (John Dehner) is responsible for bringing Corry supplies, and early on he brings Corry a robot woman to keep him company. At first, Corry is hostile toward Alicia (Jean Marsh), but when he makes her cry he realizes that she has feelings to. The story climaxes with Allenby coming back, telling Corry that everyone being held on asteroids is being released, but there’s only room for “15 pounds of stuff.” Corry decides he would rather stay with Alicia than go back to the earth, but Allenby shoots her.

Rod Serling recites the monologue he wrote, “On a microscopic piece of sand that floats through space is a fragment of a man’s life left to rust as a place he lived in and the machines he’s used.” It’s a tragic ending. It forces the viewer, who is meant to see Alicia as human now, to see her reduced to a machine.

If Serling wanted it to be happy, all he would have needed to do was end the story earlier or later. He could’ve ended it in the moment that Corry and Alicia found happiness with one another. He could’ve had a happy ending if he decided to end the story later too. Imagine a scene where Corry reunites with his family. He’d still be sad that Alicia died, but his story could’ve been a happy one.

With the exception of the invincible (we are here to talk about speculative fiction after all), everyone dies. Because most stories don’t end with death, they can be made artificially happy, sad, ambiguous, or anything else. A happy ending is a high point, maybe the highest that the protagonist has ever experienced. The things that are happening around it don’t matter as much. For example, The Avengers ends with a post-credit scene of Cap and the gang assembled in a shawarma shop. They won the battle, but New York is in shambles—a happy ending in a sad situation. Titanic ends with Rose heartbroken over a man who died fifty years earlier but surrounded by the family she built since—a sad ending in a happy situation. Any story can illicit any emotion with its ending. You don’t need to manipulate what happens, only when you stop telling the story.

Backstory is Earned

Jerald Walker taught me to think of opening any piece of writing as striking up a conversation with a stranger on a bus. When you’re starting a conversation with a stranger you need to grab their interest quickly, or else the other passengers move away, slowly, not taking their eyes off you.

On a Greyhound bus from New Haven to Boston, the only empty seat was next to an older gentlemen. I’m normally not the most talkative on public transit, but when he saw me eying his Budweiser, he offered me one. I have no way of verifying anything any of the things he told me, but he introduced himself as Rooster, a nickname he got from his time as a trainer for a Bridgeport cockfighting ring. He said the birds were naturally aggressive toward each other, so his job was to hold the rooster down between his legs until it tired of flapping.

Continue reading at A Murder of Storytellers!

S1, E6 “Escape Clause”

“Escape Clause” is the second “deal with the devil” episode of The Twilight Zone, the first being “One for the Angels.” In this one Walter Bedeker (David Wayne), “a hypochondriac,” sells his soul to a devil called Cadwallader (Thomas Gomez) in exchange for indestructibility and a few thousand extra years to live. It’s a mediocre but fun episode, in part because of those names. Try saying them aloud. Bedeker. Cadwallader. A linguist could talk about how the stresses, how hard sounds follow soft ones to please the ear. I’m going to talk about how Rod Serling establishes a sense of wonder though.

It’s an underused technique in speculative fiction. More often, audiences are thrown in headfirst. But great movies—Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Black Panther—and books—Harry Potter, The Power, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac—make sure to give readers time to appreciate the new worlds in front of them. It can be beautiful or terrifying, but seeing the expansion of reality in a character’s sense of possibility stirs the same emotions in an audience.

In “Escape Clause,” Serling and director Mitchell Leisen start establishing a tone with the names. They’re fun to say, rhythmic. Cadwallader relishes words, stringing together phrases like “In fact, something less than minor. Insignificant. Infinitesimal. Microscopic. Teensy weensy” to describe a soul. Cadwallader is having fun with words, and the audience is being trained to have fun with him.

It continues after Bedeker has signed the contract. He immediately grab the steaming hot radiator. As the steam shoots up, he yells, “Behold the new Walter Bedecker!”

Later on, as he jumps in front of a train as though he’s diving into a pool. All of this is establishing a sense of wonder. He’s experimenting with his new powers, enjoying them, as audiences are learning the range of them.

The deals with cosmic entities always implode. It doesn’t work out so well for Bedeker. He quickly becomes bored being indestructible and decides to jump from the roof of his building. His wife Ethel (Virginia Christine) follows him up to stop him. She falls instead, and Bedeker decides it’s a good opportunity to, “give the electric chair a little whirlie.”

Ethel’s death isn’t particularly funny, and kills the tone of the episode. The wonder is gone as Bedeker flippantly tries to be executed in court, but his lawyer is good enough to get him life in prison instead. With everything fun about the episode gone, it’s a mercy to Walter and the viewer when Cadwallader allows him to exercise his escape clause. So died Walter Bedeker, “Beaten by the devil, his own boredom, and by the scheme of things.”

Review: Along Came the Devil Has a Good Title, Not Much Else

If you took The Exorcist and surgically removed every hint of personality, you would wind up with a movie very similar to Along Came the Devil. It’s not hard to understand why so many filmmakers try to do their own take on The Exorcist. It’s a great film with an easy to copy premise: a child (usually a girl who’s beginning puberty or a young woman who is becoming sexually active) unknowingly invites in a demon. There is havoc and a medical search for answers. Ultimately, only a faith based exorcism can save the possessed and it does at a cost. So many films following that siren song crash on the rocks of complexity.

The Exorcist is good because it has well-rounded, complex characters. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a movie star who doesn’t believe in God (a bigger deal in 1973 than now). She’s remaking Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and going through a messy divorce while trying to raise her daughter. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is an ex-boxer with a Psychiatry MD who blames himself for his mother’s death. He’s struggling with his belief in God. They’re conflicted and they have lives outside of that conflict.

Continue reading at Wicked Horror!