Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!
Talk to Me Danny and Michael Philippou (“Rocka Rocka”) worked on 2014’s great Australian horror film “The Babadook.”
But this year they are directing a horror film, starring Sophie Wilde and Miranda Otto. It premiered at SXSW and is being distributed by A24, beginning July 28th.
The film opens with pounding intense music at a party. A young man wades through the crowd to a room in the back and pounds on the door, insisting that his brother open the door. When the brother does not open the door, he breaks it down. Mayhem involving a large butcher knife ensues. The Philippou brothers have our attention.
The plot involves a hand that supposedly belonged to a psychic who communicated with the dead. Teenagers come into possession of it, and all hell breaks loose.
You must grasp the hand (supposedly the mummified remains of the psychic who owned and used it previously. You must light a candle and snuff it out when done. You must say “Talk to me,” followed by “I let you in” and that’s when the fun and games begin. Did I mention that you, as the subject doing this for “fun” at a party are tied to the chair and that only 90 seconds must elapse before the candle is blown out, or else the spirit that inhabits you might not leave your body? If you go longer than 90 seconds and happen to die during the time the spirits from limbo are inhabiting your body, they will take your corporeal self over and you are theirs, apparently forever with a very long-term habit of terrorizing and torturing other normal idiots who take up the hand and use it as a party trick.
The Philippou brothers at a Buzz showing of “Talk To Me” at SXSW 2023.
If you’ve followed this, so far, be aware that some studios gave the directors notes on their script that said they must get the history of the hand and explore that more fully. One of the two directors, appearing after the screening, said, “When I read that, I said, WTF is this? I don’t want to do that. We’d get notes like ‘You’re fired if you can’t get these in,’ so we went the indie route.”The moderator noted, with only thinly veiled sarcasm, that U.S. studios have entire offices of people who give filmmakers horrible notes, which the successful directors learn to ignore.
The filmmakers, instead, chose to gather friends and people’s whose opinions on the horror genre they trust(ed); they used their feedback, instead. Asked if they would refuse to use any horror technique seen elsewhere, the answer was, “I found it fun to do a spin on certain tropes. We wanted to have the film be both horror and drama. Life isn’t all one emotion.” The director mentioned films he admires: the Russian film “The Return” or “Memories of Murder.”
The Philippous finally went indie because they had heard and read a lot about studios requiring directors to do things a certain way and the director not having final cut. As one said, “We wanted to make a horror story, not become one.”
Newcomer Sophie Wilde carries most of the movie on her slender shoulders, and she does a great job. The
Sophie Wilde, star of “Talk To Me.”
consensus was that we were in the presence of a movie star. When asked how she got into the frame of mind to do the most grueling scenes, she referenced music and said, “I’m a firm believer in music to get into that mood: techno and ambient to get to a dark place.”
This film is quite the dark place. The make-up people did not get the nod they deserve, as the apparitions that haunt those who use “the hand” were horrifyingly grotesque. Sophie, herself, noted that some of the scenes were shot in an extremely hot, small room and, “I thought I was possessed. I was so hot. I felt like I wasn’t a real human being.”
This is an auspicious beginning with A24 for the Philippous. It was much more creative than the bigger budget “Evil Dead Rise.”
Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou
Stephen Kelliher, Sophie Green, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Daniel Negret, Noah Dummett, John Dummett, Jeff Harrison, Ari Harrison, Miranda Otto, Dale Roberts, Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou
Samantha Jennings, Kristina Ceyton
Danny Philippou, Bill Hinzman
Aaron McLisky ACS
Sophie Wilde, Miranda Otto, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio
“Red River Road,” for the Schuyler family, is the answer to the question, “What did you do during the pandemic?”
The talented Schuyler family can honestly say, “We made a movie.” Considering the challenges of being both the stars of the film and the entire crew, it’s quite an impressive movie, at that. Paul wrote, directed, was the cameraman, and helped score (along with Cindy O’Connor) the music for the film.
The plot: “A family of four isolating against a pandemic virus that spreads through the Internet and robs you of your ability to perceive reality—often violently—begins to unravel when they suspect one or all of them might be infected.” One screenplay line: “That’s how it gets in here. It steals reality right out from under you.” Personally, as the parent of teenagers who were very creative at securing their phones after hours, I could relate to the two boys managing to get their phones back and access the Internet (when they were not supposed to do.)
Paul Schuyler (“Wasted,” 1996; “Runner”, 2017) organized his family of four into a cast to film this horror/thriller indie film. The acting is top notch. Wife Jade does a great job of portraying the worried Mom, Anna, of two teen-aged brothers, Quinn and Shaw. Paul is Stephen for the purposes of this fictional story. [His woodworking with a blade saw put me on edge.]
The flashbacks that occur intermittently in the plot are all formed from old home movies of the family, whether they are shots at the beach or the family climbing the Eiffel Tower. This was very effective.
Shot in 10 days on a budget of $225,000 in Harwich, Massachusetts, the trivia as to HOW one both films and acts simultaneously was interesting to me and worth sharing: “Any shots that featured director Paul Schuyler and any other family members had to be blocked and framed prior to action being called. Whichever actor was closest to the camera would ‘roll camera’ then enter the scene to start ‘action’. Only after the scene was shot could they go back and look at the take to make sure everyone was properly in frame. Multiple takes were required to get a usable take, as there was no one there to operate the camera.”
There are multiple dolly shots that include the entire family. With no crew, the only way to achieve this was to connect the dolly to an array of ropes and pulleys that were manipulated by one of the actors in the scene. Usually using another actor to block any “giveaway” movements that would reveal what they were doing.
Brody, the dog, also performed admirably, creating tension at key moments in the generally well-paced one hour and 29 minute film.
The film won a Special Festival Award, the Spirit of Independent Filmmaking, at the Stony Brook Film Festival; it is easy to see why. “Red River Road” is able to be rented ($4.99 and up) on Amazon Prime.
Nice work, Schuyler family. Definitely answers the question “How I spent my pandemic quarantine enforced vacation.”
I watched the films in the streamed package twice. There were 6. At the end, there was a discussion group with 9 films discussed. Not sure what happened to 3 of the films, but they didn’t reach me in Illinois.
Here are capsule summaries of the 6 I saw:
Iranian Director Milad Faraholahi has created a very dark short that is synopsized this way: “A disturbed girl has a horrible nightmare in which two muddy figures ask her to open a mysterious box. To get rid of that, she decides to kill herself in her nightmare just to wake up.” I felt I needed to know more about what, exactly, unhinged the lead. Suicide is a pretty dire solution to a problem. As far as the scary quality of the house in which the young girl finds herself, thanks to excellent sound effects and music from Milad Movahedi and cinematography from Hashem Moradi, all of the tried-and-true things that are guaranteed to scare us are used super effectively. Creepy sounds. Lights that turn on and off. Dripping water. Mysterious footprints. A door handle that turns menacingly. Knives in water. Blood on pages of a book. I think some subtitles during the phone conversation would have helped, as my four years of French did not prepare me to know what was said. I could barely hear it; I did not understand it, as a result, although, at one point, my computer coughed up the directive “Une erreur imprevue d’est produite” so my complete comprehension of the plot was definitely compromised. Apologies. I did think the creepy sets and the unhinged performance of the lead served the piece well and that the director has a real future in making more shorts or longer films. There are many talented Iranian filmmakers and one, in particular, who caught my eye at SXSW and directed “Everything Will Be All Right” came to mind immediately. I hope this young director (and his crew) pursue more creepy, scary films, because this one was one of the most frightening that I saw…and I mean that in a good way!
Would someone’s skull really make a good bowling ball? (Food for thought; it’s hard to say.)
The Winnetka Bowl has a dedicated bowler in Joe Harsley as Henry. I was immediately reminded of the 1986 film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” starring Michael Rooker. This Henry is just as diabolical as that Henry, and his ruse of attempting to return a wallet lost at the bowling alley to a hapless victim leads to a scene that shows Henry overpowering the female victim and then making his victims’ heads into bowling balls (hence the title). Henry definitely comes off as someone who is “not right” and the rest of the plot proves it. (*Note to self: do not go bowling in Winnetka.)
“A Home Invasion”
“A Home Invasion”
Maddie Downes and Evan Marshall collaborated to make this serio-comic “AHome Invasion” short, which, they said, was inspired by the couple in Missouri who were seen brandishing firearms and threatening Black Lives Matter protesters in their front yard. The couple is seen fighting at the beginning of the piece, removing their wedding rings, and arguing about who will get custody of the dog, Cooper ( played by Scoober). Then, a friend (Nathan) finds the runaway dog outside the couple’s home and, while attempting to return the pooch, ends up uniting the bickering mates, who pull out guns and plan to face the assailant, (who is only trying to do them a favor.) Nathan is shot, for his troubles. Travis Prow handles the cinematography (nice shot at the opening, coming into the house through the window from outside) and the music is courtesy of Joshua Rutkowski. The cast of players, in addition to Evan Marshall (who was promoted to lead actor after an older actor dropped out) includes Jessica Bishop, Henry Koly and, of course, Scoober the dog (as Cooper). A sarcastic commentary on America’s fixation on guns (which seems to override all other preoccupations).
“Black Dragon,” filmed on location in Alamanee County, North Carolina, is one of the most polished of the shorts. It was inspired by the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, which wiped out a Vietnamese village but resulted in only a 3 and ½ year prison sentence for those involved in the Ukrainian style war crime of wiping out an entire village. Matthew Del Negro from “City on a Hill” plays Colonel Palmer who has a small son (Eddy, played by Chris Day) about the age of the Vietnamese girl in the short, Chau, who is played by Celia Au. Chau has the power to bring the dead back to life. Eddy, the Colonel’s son, has suggested that his dad “has an angel watching over ” him. The angel is going to make some demands of the Colonel that will result in many deaths. Alex Thompson directed and co wrote the piece with Nathaniel Hendricks and Harper Alexander handled the cinematography while Jeffery Alan Jones was in charge of sound design. It is a very professional and polished short piece. If you click on Matthew DelNegro (see link above) you’ll recognize him from “City on a Hill” and it was a nice touch that his surname (DelNegro) fit the title of this short (“Black Dragon”).
Parker Gayan wrote and directed this short film about what would happen if you cut into a lemon and found a USB drive. He has a conversation with a Black friend (Stephen Guma) about his discovery, and there is an appearance from The Lemon Man. I was particularly taken with the idea that Parker is wearing a neck brace throughout the piece. When asked if the neck brace had anything to do with the lemon theme, he said, “No. It was an unrelated accident.” Parker’s attempts to look up something_something.lemon, which results in nothing, was also amusing. I couldn’t help but think of the simpler days before computers, which someone like me remembers. Not only would we never have imagined cutting into a lemon to find a USB drive, we didn’t have USB drives back in the dim dark ages of my youth. It also reminded me of a skit one of my 7th grade English classes once put on for our Ad Campaigns in the Classroom unit, where the young boys who created a Mole-busters van also came into the classroom to the strains of the famous Ray Parker, Jr., “Ghostbusters” theme song (“Who you gonna’ call? Mole-busters!”) I enjoyed this loopy short way too much considering its lack of gravity and excess of levity. (The director, in an interview that followed the film, said you can get a really inexpensive Lemon Guy costume on Etsy, in case you were wondering.) I apologize for the random mention of the “Mole-buster” unrelated class unit, but it did win a Scholastic Books contest, at the time, naming me “one of the 10 Most Creative teachers in America” (it came with a cash prize). Somehow, this clip summoned such unrelated memories of random merriment, and random happy thoughts are always welcome.
“Lemons” by Parker Gayans.
This one and “Inevitable” were probably the 2 creepiest shorts, although “Black Dragon” is close. Certainly a giant lemon is not creepy and the bickering couple with the guns, while concerning from the standpoint of safety to the community at large, is not “scary” or “creepy.” Both “Inevitable” and “The Unlocking” were. This is a Thomas Brush film and he certainly demonstrates an over-active imagination, as the character even says, “Please fix my brain!” It was interesting to me that the house where this was filmed was actually a childhood haunt, a home where a friend of the director’s lived . The director had always considered the house “creepy.” He got permission to use the house as the setting for the film (cinematography by Joshua Murray). This story of a completely bonkers guy in a tutu who will ultimately attack our hero and do substantial damage to him was frightening in the same way that a strange noise in your own kitchen late at night can be terrifying if you are home alone. First, we see the protagonist walking around in the house in the dark trying to investigate who might have come in when he left the door unlocked ( he was advised byothers to leave the door unlocked; chaos ensues) but the OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) from which the main character suffers is not misplaced over-anxious worrying, but honest-to-God real-life danger,realized at the film’s climax.
“The Unlocking,” by Thomas Brush.
The filmmakers spoke about their films afterwards, often giving contact information and extra details (such as that regarding the house that is the setting for “The Unlocking.”) There were 2 additional shorts discussed at length, but I was not sent either short.
This “thriller/fantasy” film caught my eye, initially, because it was very moody and scripted by Melanie Clarke-Pettiella and Jess Byard. I’m always in favor of letting more females write horror, (as a former active voting member of the Horror Writers’ Association), so I bought into this Amazon Prime movie, filmed on location in Youngstown, Ohio.
Let’s start with the good things: the music (Rolaz) is good—with the possible exception of a song at the end with the lyric “trapped under the ice.” There is no ice in sight; that line made about as much sense as the rest of the plot.
But on with the positive: great settings, although, if the film had answered an early question asked in the script (“What isthis place?”) we would all have been better off.
The synopsis on IMDB says, “Plagued by visions and nightmares, a Catholic priest is ousted from his parish. With nowhere to turn, he follows the sinister visions calling him and discovers a deal he alone must stop.”
That synopsis bore little resemblance to the movie’s plot, [such as it is.]
Father John, played by Alexi Stavros (he has a great voice!) is a priest in a seminary who seems to be locked in a power struggle with the Dean of the seminary, Father Murphy (played by Jack Dimich). There is a second priest named Father McAndrew (Eric Vaughn) and a third named Arthur, who is played by Director Sergio Meyers’ son, Sergio Meyers II.
The film really does establish an appropriately creepy vibe, but almost nothing makes sense from that point on. Father John is not really “ousted from his parish.” He is admittedly in conflict with the head priest (Father Murphy) but he seems to get in a cab of his own volition and asks to be taken to 223 Wick Avenue, which is a building just as creepy as the seminary building he has just exited.
The plot becomes even more incomprehensible once Father John has relocated, starting with much falling and the fact that, for the rest of the film, he will wear a bloody bandage around his head. Why would he agree to spend the night at 223 Wick St. simply because he took a slight fall on the front steps? And, if he did agree to spend the night because he might have sustained a concussion, how does that lead to what seems to be an extended stay? Not likely. And not explained well (or at all).
Visions do plague Father John (migraines), but the vision is pretty much the same one, over and over. It looks a bit like a nuclear explosion. Another character who resides at 223 Wick Ave. (Paul) also seems accident prone. At one point, after Father John has spent the night at 223 Wick (because he fell down on the front steps and hit his head?), Paul asks Father John to bless the building, room by room, before he leaves, because its owner (Kat, played by Dawn Lafferty) thinks the building is haunted.
The dialogue is stilted, along the lines of “Give humanity back to the Ancient Ones” and “Come with me. Rule like a god.” Or, “This place will always call out for the energy it needs to feed.”
Most of the prinicipals in this largely incomprehensible plot do not live happily ever after [or at all.] The Brixtons own 223 Wick Ave. and there is some mumbo-jumbo about “secret societies” and an all male fraternal order that is over 100 years old, but we see little of that. The relationship between Kat and her sister is also shrouded in mystery and will remain a secret throughout the film.
The writers really needed to pick up the writing pace if women in horror are going to gain a better footing in the field than they had back when I dabbled in the horror/thriller genre a decade or so ago.
The setting, music, cinematography: okay. The plot: not okay.
Overall, this was a moody mess with no idea where it was going and no ability to convey a coherent plot to its puzzled audience.
I recently reviewed Pete Mesling’s short story collection “Fool’s Fire.” There are 17 stories.
I have tried very hard not to give away the entire plot of any of the 17 stories that Pete Mesling has included in this collection. He has already warned us that he may be moving on to longer work(s), so this may be his last short story collection for a while. There is nothing more annoying than a reviewer who gives away the whole store (especially the ending) in a review. So that will not happen here.
I had never read anything by (or about) Pete Mesling before I was somewhat apprehensive about whether or not Pete’s command of English would be above that of the average horror writer. Not to worry. Pete has excellent command of his mother tongue and seems to have a great handle on spelling, punctuation and grammar. His descriptive passages are good, (although I always want to cut to the chase and get to the plot, so my bad on not wanting to read a great deal of description.)
Here are the pros and cons of Pete’s stories in this collection.
Title – When I wrote three collections of short stories I was told that a unifying device was necessary. After much thought, I ended up with Dante’s “Inferno” and stories that focused on the crimes and sins punishable at each Circle of Hell with the title(s) “Hellfire & Damnation I, II and III.” I have not completely figured out what the “unifying device” is for this collection, if, indeed, there is one. Certainly the settings range far and wide. For me, those set in the USA were superior to the ones that were set in foreign countries.
Dialogue – The one thing I have learned in my writing career (which now spans 65 years) is that dialogue goes a long way towards making the medicine go down smoothly. Pete gets high marks for knowing this. He uses a lot of dialogue in his best stories. I once wrote an entire short story that was 95% dialogue. It also contained a number of oxymorons. I still like it as well as anything I’ve written. Therefore, I liked the stories that were at least 15 pages long and also utilized a great deal of dialogue.
Originality – Some of the stories seemed too derivative, to me, as with the dragon descriptions in “The Wintrose Chronicles.” It is perhaps unfair to Mesling to say this, as I don’t know if his dragon descriptions predate “Game of Thrones.” The cell phone story (“A Dream Come True”) is definitely more unique and original.
Length – I have estimated the length of each story for you. For me, if a story is only a page long, it needs to be expanded. I do realize that flash fiction (which I have also written) often gives you a very good, if brief, story concept. I still think, for a collection, if it’s only one page long, perhaps expand the story. Many of the stories I would like to see drawn out and expanded, a statement that is true of about half of the short stories. The story about the woman donning the wolf skin was just getting started when it ended.
Overall, I liked Pete Meslingg’s writing style. If you are a horror story afficionado, you will, too. You will be able to buy this book on Amazon, and I hope that you do. I tried to leave a review there, and Amazon would not let me.
Pete Mesling’s 17 short stories, gathered under the title “Fool’s Fire” are briefly described below:
“Impostor Syndrome” – Tries for a “monster takes over human” twist that reminded me of Stephen King’s “Desperation”—(probably because I had just read that large novel.) This one is roughly 20 pages long, so it is more the length that you normally associate with a short story. Giving you any more details would potentially ruin the story.
“The Private Ambitions of Arthur Hemming” – Has a Dr. Frankenstein vibe; is set in Teufelsgarten. It ultimately seems to be more a story about obtaining the belongings of others through nefarious means than of the experiments depicted in “Bride of Frankenstein” or “Frankenstein.” The descriptions do remind of those old James Whale black-and-white movies. The story is approximately 20 pages long.
“A Dream Come True” – This 8-page story is one of my personal favorites. It is not set in a gloomy castle in Germany or a hilltop abbey, but is more modern. It deals with visions on one’s cell phone that seem to have created what is referenced as “a dream plague” for the cell phone’s owner. The method of ridding the cell phone’s owner of disturbing dreams may not seem fair or practical, but the story—set in present-day surroundings—is original.
“His Blade So Keen” – Pain implants, individuals with blades, and blood and gore, all in 8 pages.
“The Thing in the Road” – This story reminded me of a film out now called “The Forgiven” (Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain). It’s a very short 3-page story. It summons the idea of what one would do if, while driving, you hit something or someone in the road.
“The Dragon’s Tooth” – Examines the idea of a film featuring an actor who may (or may not) be dead, even though he is appearing as the lead in a movie. The actor is Emil Jannings appearing in a Fritz Lang film. I’ve been a movie buff forever, reviewing them since 1970, but this Austrian star of yesteryear is too far back, historically, for me to appreciate the references. The concept is good; maybe update it to someone who has been heard of in the last half century.
“The Chance of a Lifetime” – Very short. There’s a hanging victim and an examination of what happens when one shuffles off this mortal coil.
“Caught in a Trap” – Runs on for roughly 40 pages, examining the “special powers” of a girl named Susan Evans who goes for acupuncture but ends up being contacted by another individual with “special powers” who urges her to come meet him in Indianapolis. I liked this one. The ending is very open-ended, making one think that there will be other chapters in the story. Susan Evans is invited to meet a man named Jacob Kettering with powers similar to her own. For me, the more “modern” settings of stories worked better than those set in Austria or Germany or other exotic spots.
“Chandu’s Bargain with the Too-Tall Man” – At the top of the first page (of 9) it says, “The vicinity of Bagdi-Kalera, a Small Fishing Village Near the Southwest Coast of India.” This already spells trouble (for me). What if a plant (called Sweet Bright) could cause a town famous for twin births to, instead, start the women of the town on a trajectory of having (at first) triplets and, later, giving birth to veritable litters of children? Would this be a good thing for the town or a bad thing for the town? Read this story and find out. An original story concept. (It would be fun to see this analyzed in terms of the recent Roe v. Wade reversal in this country and how such a drug might influence U.S. society.)
“The Wintrose Chronicles” – This one also had an exotic setting, Wintrose Abbey. I found it slow going, although I was happy to see it had a lot of dialogue. The imagery of dragons, to me, suggested too much time spent viewing “Game of Thrones” or its prequel, “House of Dragons.” There are monks and an abbey and an attempt to corral the head dragon and imprison it, which, according to the story, will have the effect of driving all the other dragons away. The dragon is caught, but things do not go as planned. This story did not have as much dialogue as some of the others.
This story had much more description, both of the dragons and of the abbey. One of the good things the author has done, in many stories, is to employ a great deal of dialogue to carry the reader along. Having written 3 of these collections, myself, I can attest to the wisdom of that choice. But, unfortunately, in telling the story of the abbey and the dragons, there is not enough dialogue to carry the reader along smoothly. This is not necessarily a failing of the author’s, as I read a Joyce Carol Oates short story that had so much description of a bicycle leaning against a wall that I nearly passed out from boredom before it got to the really good stuff, i.e., the plot.This one ran 43 pages.
“Gypsum and Me” – This story literally ran a page and a half. A dog falls down a well. Its master falls down the well, too. Not much more going on here.
“The Singular Talent of Nisqually Joe”– Tracee, an aspiring artist, has an indefinable “je ne sais quoi” added to her paintings by an earthquake. Her agent wants her to duplicate the improvement that the earthquake has made in her work, so she seeks out a man who has the ability to make things shake (Joe Nisqually). It goes well for a while, but Tracee’s relationship with Joe leads to her downfall. The story runs about 15 pages.
“An Occurrence at Kendrick Outdoors” – This one runs 7 pages. It involves a shooting. Enough said.
“The Night of the Wolf” – If it is true that clothes make the man—or woman—a wolf skin thrown across the female protagonist’s shoulders renders her, in one and one-half pages, a survivor of a wolf attack about to take revenge. Genevieve Ripley has only to put on the stitched pelt and she will become invincible. The spirit of Hobbamock sang to Genevieve in a dream. In Wampanoag and Narragansett traditions, Hobomock was the Manito (spirit) of death– a destructive, often evil being usually in opposition to Kautantowit. That is for those of you who would, otherwise, have no idea of the significance of this “singing” to Genevieve. This story runs 2 pages; it is really only the start of a good story.
“A Mild Recognition of Impermanence” – Barney and Brenda are married. Brenda is a bit of a shrew. Barney is hired to tear down a whipping post that existed out East. When he touches the cursed object, he is transported to the days of old when the whipping post served as the location of beatings administered to Black slaves. By the end of the story, Barney has, apparently, decided he is going to leave Brenda because “life is filled with options.” It would appear that leaving Brenda is a definite option, although he is picking up the McDonald’s meal she requested as he thinks this.
In some ways this story reminded me of one of my own about a hen-pecked husband who, more-or-less Stepford Wives style, tried to make a robot to replace his bitchy wife. I would say that planning to “send her a letter in a few days” does not seem the classiest way to break up a marriage of long standing. It reminded me of Carrie on “Sex and the City” when Ron Livingston broke up with her using a post-it note. Not cool.
“A Pressing Concern” – This one is only a page and a half long, which makes me wonder if it was written for a flash fiction competition. As nearly as I can tell, the protagonist is crushing his own skull in a press, little by little.
“Guardians of the Lazyrinth” – A childless woman knits herself a son. There is also a real boy named Julian DeNeuve, who is bicycling to A Ta Facon on his Red Hornet bicycle to get his father cigarettes and to purchase gum for himself.
Our journey of 1,000 miles (give or take a few miles) has led us back to the Quad Cities, where the bush next to my garage is in full bloom.
Out of 19 phone calls on our answering machine, only 2 were important. One was from Iowa City, moving the time they want to see me up from 3:30 (May 6) to 2:40 (May 6) so that I can be told about some research studies that I might qualify for. This is interesting, because, earlier in the festivities, I wrote directly to the woman who is (ostensibly) in charge of all research studies at that venerable institution, and she told me I did not qualify for any of the studies currently ongoing.
I’ve been a devotee of trying to help other people with the same ailment ever since my mother volunteered for several diabetes studies during her days in Iowa City (ages 82 to 95). In fact, I’m currently in a knee study (control group) charting how arthritis ultimately gets us all and have had frequent MRI and X-rays of my left knee for that one for close to 20 years. I also was recently called from that same list of participants to ask if our joints hurt more or less after having Covid-19.
This time, the ailment is something far more life-threatening: cancer. I don’t know precisely what they want to talk to me about at 2:40 on May 6th, but it is one of the main reasons I am journeying to Iowa City at such a late date, after the barn door has been left open, so to speak, and the horse has gotten out. My treatment began last December. Hopefully, it will conclude on or about June 27th. I go tomorrow to have a CAT scan to set up radiation. On or about May 12th, I begin the radiation treatments that are supposed to kill any remaining cancer cells and, hopefully, prevent any recurrence on the left side of my body. I go every week day, Monday through Friday, for 33 days.
We may meet up with long-time friends Pam and John Rhodes for dinner on Friday night (May 6th) in Iowa City, another doctor appointment I have recently set up, but that part remains tentative. Regardless, we will drive up and listen to the experts give their feedback on everything that has been done (and is being done) so far, and listen to the study they mentioned in a phone conversation on our answering machine that they might like me to participate in. I have read that doctors around the country are trying to develop a vaccine to prevent breast cancer and that would certainly be a boon to mankind—or womankind.
The only other phone call that was important was simply to remind me to show up at 1 p.m. for the “simulation” with radiologist Dr. Stoffel and to have the CAT scan for planning purposes. I also have to stop and pick up one of the adjuvant therapy drugs that I was prescribed back in early February. I will have taken 90 of these Anastrozole pills (1 mg.) on Thursday of this week, so the side effects should have kicked in or be kicking in shortly. So far, taking them at night along with 5 other pills, I’m not aware of any extraordinary “bad” things, although perhaps February 5 to May 5 is not long enough? Don’t know. Can’t tell you, but have been told I have to take this pill for 5 years. Have read many horror stories about bad side effects, but, so far, so good. I have to have my bone density checked, which hasn’t been done since 2017, because that is one of the more serious side effects of this estrogen-blocking drug, and the other is high cholesterol (which I already have and for which I already take medication.) It sounded infinitely preferable to Tamoxifen.
Today, we drove from St. Louis and finished off “Comedy, Comedy, Drama” by Bob Odenkirk. We both agree that both books we selected were good, but the book “All About Me” by Mel Brooks gets the nod because of his much longer career. I started a “drama” book…actually 2 of them. One (“Devil House”) has definitely left me cold. It spent hours describing a trip to the supermarket (alert the media!) and barely used any real “” dialogue. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the book, the author began writing an ersatz version of Olde English.
Look: I was forced to memorize the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales when in high school (“Whom that Aprilluh, when the shoruh sota”), which I learned phonetically. It was pure torture then and putting in some made-up version of Olde English did nothing for the book or its plot—such as it is. It started out with promise: a story about a crime writer who moves into a house that witnessed the brutal murder of a high school teacher by two of her students. The teacher was subsequently thought to be a witch. Perhaps it was the fact that she took the time to hack up both students after dismantling them during their surprise attack and then wheelbarrowed their bodies down to the beach and threw them in the ocean. (Doesn’t sound like normal, ordinary, potential victim behavior).
The book was very sympathetic towards the teacher, but, then, just as we were trying to find a reason why an otherwise rational high school teacher who had successfully defended her life would not simply pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1- for help afterwards, there was a shift in tone and the author protagonist interviewed the mother of one of the high school victims.
I’m no expert, but I like good dialogue and a lot of it in the books I read, and I absolutely loathe lengthy descriptions that serve little to no purpose. On top of that, the Olde English thing lost me and—let’s just say that it is a toss-up whether I will continue residing in “Devil House” any longer, so I moved on over to a second e-book selection, the name of which escapes me.
The second book—as my husband agreed—just seems way too “slick.” It’s like a “Mission Impossible” vehicle for a Tom Cruise character. The not-that-original kernel of the book is that an orphan was raised to be an assassin (Orphan X). I’ve actually reviewed a book that had this same premise, only that book was better. This one has now thrown in talk of Mexican cartels and dialing for a Mr. Nowhere who will help find a beautiful young 18-year-old kidnapped by evil Mexican cartel members, and his apartment has been blown up, so he is re-engineering one of those James Bond-type residences that has all kinds of high tech things like hidden rooms and special glass to deter snipers and I-don’t-know-what-all. Meh. I am not getting into this one, either, even though the author has done a more-than-decent job of writing it. It’s just not my thing, apparently, and not my husband’s either, he says. There was one good sexy scene, which I appreciated since so many thriller writers avoid sex scenes like the plague, but, since I’m gearing up now for good old-fashioned radiation, which is supposed to leave one absolutely wiped out, I can’t want to, as my children used to say when young.
So, it’s “Home again, home again” diggety do. The spouse will have to hit the grocery store tomorrow, because I not only have to spend inordinate amounts of time at the radiologists going through a “simulation” but also have to stop and get more Anastrazole, which I run out of in 4 days.
I’ve unpacked. I’m getting ready to watch “Under the Banner of Heaven” with Andrew Garfield, and all’s right with the world.
Maika Monroe, the blonde star of “It Follows” (2014), has 33 credits, to date. I first became aware of her work in “Hot Summer Nights” at SXSW in 2017. Since then, I have made a point of trying to catch others among her 33 screen credits.
This is a good one to start watching this actress, if you are unaware of her work. She carries this entire film on her slim shoulders and does a great job.
Maika plays lead character Julia, who is married to Francis (Karl Glusman). The couple has recently relocated to Bucharest, Romania for Karl’s job, which makes his fluent command of the native tongue very useful in his marketing position. Julia is studying the language, but is just a beginner.
“Watcher” writer/director Chloe Okuno.
The first scene shows Maika riding in a cab to their apartment and, as the opening proceeds, Writer/Director Chloe Okuno, in collaboration with Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen pulls the camera back to show the young couple on the couch of their living room, panning out to the street to watch the couple through the window as they get cozy on the couch.
This entire film is about watching, but the watching is by a creepy-looking guy who lives across the street from the young couple.—or is it? In the early building sections of the film, as tension is built nicely through appropriately tense pounding music (Nathan Halpern). The city, itself, often rainy and dark, is a character. When you are a non-native speaker who does not speak nor understand the language that surrounds you, you feel isolated and alone. Add to that Francis’ (Karl Glusman’s) heavy work schedule and Julia is left to her own devices for long stretches of time, including late into the night.
Coincidentally, there is a serial killer known as “the Spider” who is on the loose at the time the young couple has relocated to this forbidding old city. “The Spider” has murdered at least four women. He has decapitated at least two of them.
The part of “the watcher” from across the street, reminiscent of “Rear Window’s” plot, is well-played by actor Burn Gorman. For most of the film we are left to decide for ourselves if Julia is panicking unnecessarily or if she has a legitimate concern when she thinks “the Watcher” is following her in a supermarket or when she encounters him, perhaps by accident, on the subway. After all, he lives in the neighborhood; does that make him a bad guy or a misunderstood social isolate who lives with his elderly father?
Maika Monroe in “Watcher” at SXSW.
Another character in the film is Madalina Anea as Irina, the next-door neighbor. Irina is a pole dancer in the area, which makes you wonder about the wisdom of selecting this particular part of the city as your new neighborhood. I could relate to the “watching” out the window at all hours. When on a trip to Europe with a girlfriend, we unwisely spent one night near the train station in Frankfurt, which, as it turned out, was the Red Light district. We watched “the girls” going off to work beginning at 4 p.m. and coming back in the wee hours of the morning. We were too afraid to leave our seedy hotel to even venture out for food. When we tried to take a picture of one of the working girls on the street, she was definitely unhappy with us and gave us short shrift in guttural German. Not a good idea to be a woman, alone, in that part of the city. Julia’s entire neighborhood seems unsafe and the gloomy, rainy weather that often sets in simply adds to the vibe.
Julia’s mate, Francis, (in addition to having a name that hasn’t been popular in the U.S. for men since about 1902), can be an insensitive clod at times. He makes a tasteless joke about “the Spider” keeping his terror-struck wife company because his own work schedule is so crowded and keeping him so busy at a social gathering with his boss and their wives. Julia has learned just enough Romanian by now to understand the joke, and she is not amused. Francis tells his frightened wife, at one point, “So I should just jump to the craziest conclusion, like you?” She is not amused by his growing indifference and lack of belief in her accounts of their neighbor’s voyeuristic stalking.
Imagine if the boy who cried wolf in that well-known story was then attacked by wolves. What would happen? Would he survive? Would he simply be ignored regarding the wolves until wolves appeared and it was too late to help him?
This film from an Abu Dhabi backer, Image films, answers that question in this indie film written by director Chloe Okuno in collaboration with Zack Ford and directed by Okuno. The movie premieres in theaters on June 3, 2022. This is one film at SXSW that did not also stream. It was a good entry in the horror/thriller genre.
I’m (still) here at SXSW in Austin, Texas, covering feature films, television episodics and documentaries, with a few shorts thrown in.
The common denominator linking “To Leslie” with “The Cow” is the presence of Owen Teague in the role of “young son.” (above) Teague is far from the best-known name in the one hour and 59 minute film “To Leslie.” Michael Morris directed. It’s worth mentioning that Morris was the executive producer of the 2016 series “Bloodlines,” in which Owen Teague appeared as Young Danny.
The film is based on the real-life story of a West Texas single mom who won the lottery and lost it all to her addiction to alcohol. Oscar winner Allison Janney (“I, Tonya!”), Stephen Root (the stapler guy in “Office Space”), and Marc Maron (“G.L.O.W.”), who also executive produced, have leads. Royal is portrayed by Andre Royo (“The Wire”), also a fine character actor on stage and screen and a writer.
The film stars Andrea Riseborough, a British actress who has been hailed by the Sunday “Times” as one of Britain’s rising young stars, along with such other luminaries as Hugh Dancy and Eddie Redmayne. She graduated from the London Academy of Royal Arts (RADA) in 2005, but her West Texas accent is completely convincing. The script is courtesy of screenwriter Ryan Binaco; the Cinematographer is Larkin Seiple.
Andrea Riseborough in “To Leslie” at SXSW.
The opening scenes of “To Leslie” show a jubilant young mother celebrating winning $190,000 in the lottery and declaring that drinks are on her. Six years later, she’s broke and the drinks have definitely been plentiful during those years (and mostly in her).
We learn that the young mother of the opening scene abandoned her son (Owen Teague as James) and his step-mother (Allison Janney) was forced, along with Dutch (Stephen Root) to raise him, by default. To say that Allison Janney’s character is angry and resentful is probably an understatement. Andrea’s portrayal of a woman who has gotten by on looks and charm but is now past those halcyon days of her youth is intense and convincing. I was reminded of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” who opines, “I have always depended on the kindness of others” as Leslie’s femme fatale vibe begins to wither on her increasingly mature vine.
The film depicts Leslie hitting rock bottom and trying to claw her way back to at least the middle. She is extended a life-line on that bootstrap journey by Marc Maron’s character of Sweeney, the manager of a seedy motel on the edge of town. Sweeney is running it for Andre Royo’s character of Royal. Royal was left the motel by his family but, because he took too much acid in his younger days, it has left him with mental impairments that make Marc Maron’s participation in running the place essential.
As Leslie gradually swears off booze and gets sober, she and Marc Maron’s character and Royal assist her in renovating an ice cream parlor on the edge of town. The happy ending involves, once again, son James (Owen Teague), to whom Leslie turns when things are at their bleakest. James turns up at the end for a happy ending. All’s well that ends well with this female film equivalent of “Leaving Las Vegas.”
The acting was very good, but the true story has been told many times previously. (Even “A Star Is Born” touches on the old familiar story of alcoholism.)
I did enjoy watching Andre Royo strip nearly naked and race around amongst the cactus and sand of a west Texas prairie, as we are told in the script he is prone to do. Marc Maron’s offer of a job cleaning motel rooms and washing the laundry makes you wonder if he has romantic designs on Leslie and, yes, that seems to be the case as the film winds down.
Owen Teague attended the World Premiere of “The Cow” at SXSW.
The second film where Owen Teague has a major recurring role is “The Cow,” directed by Eli Horowitz. This is Eli Horowitz’s first feature film directing job, although he is the co-creator of “Homecoming,” (both the podcast and the television series.) (I couldn’t help but wonder if Eli is related to its star, Winona Ryder, since Winona’s real last name is Horowitz). Co-writer for the screenplay is Matthew Derby.
Eli Horowitz, writer/director of “The Cow” at SXSW, 2022.
Whether related or not, Winona Ryder is the star of this horror/sci-fi/thriller and Ryder is great in her part. Dermot Mulroney (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), whom I met in Chicago when he appeared as Steve Huberbrecht in “August, Osage County” (2013), is the male lead. John Gallagher, Jr, who plays Kath’s (Winona Ryder’s) former student is recognizable to audiences from his role as Jim Harper in “The News Room” (2012-2014) and his role in “10 Cloverfield Lane” as Emmett (2016).
The tag line for the plot reads: “Upon arriving at a remote cabin in the redwoods, Kath (Winona Ryder) and her younger boyfriend (John Gallagher, Jr.) find a mysterious younger couple already there (Owen Teague and Briane Tju) — the rental has apparently been double-booked. With nowhere else to go, they decide to share the cabin with these strangers until the next morning. When her boyfriend disappears with the young woman overnight, Kath becomes obsessed with finding an explanation for their sudden breakup— but the truth is far stranger than she could have imagined.”
Aging and the inevitability of all of us deteriorating and falling apart seems to be a big theme of this interesting and intriguing film. We all want to avoid falling into ill health or, for that matter, getting old at all. Dermot Mulroney’s character of Nicholas Levi Barlow, who is the renter of the cabin in the woods, has just witnessed his father fall ill and die from a rare degenerative inherited blood disease.
Winona Ryder in “The Cow” at SXSW, 2022.
As someone who sat through “Cow” at the Chicago International Film Festival let me just clear up any confusion that this film named “The Cow” has anything at all to do with cows. It does not. While we followed the plight of a cow, from birth to death, in the film “Cow”, with no dialogue, here we have plenty of surprises and turns and unexpected plot twists that may not be too scientifically viable, but what-the-hell: it’s just a movie.
The best I can offer by way of explaining the title is a line from Greta (Briane Tju’s character), a reference to “Maxie, the blood cow.” If you have a burning desire to determine how that title fits the plot, just as we pondered “The Power of the Dog” as a fitting title, then you’ll simply have to see the film, which, if you’re a sci-fi or horror buff, will be a better investment of your time then watching yet another derivative rehash. (I missed the World Premiere of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” here, which looked very promising, but I was reviewing when David Bowie so brilliantly filled the bill for that part back in 1976.)
The cinematography is by David Bolen and the music is from David Baldwin.
I liked this film and am only sorry that I missed the Red Carpet to get pictures of young Owen and co-star Briane Tju; Getty images wanted $499 to use one that was taken at the World Premiere (identical to the many I’ve shot over the years.)
There are three books in the “Hellfire & Damnation” series, all short stories that illustrate the 9 Circle of Hell in Dante’s “Inferno” and give examples of each.
As New York Times best-selling author Jon Land said of the books: “Hellfire & Damnation‘ is a remarkable collection of somber, noirish, flat-out scary and altogether satisfying stories that seek to find hope in a dark world that defies it. Her subtle irony and penchant for finding terror in the least expected places will generate comparisons to Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, with just a hint of Philip K. Dick thrown in. But don’t be fooled: Wilson has a wondrous voice in her own right, and her tight, twisty tales establish her as a force to be reckoned with.”
Click to buy the paperback and e-book at Amazon.
Click on the link to purchase the 15 stories in “Hellfire & Damnation,” Volume I, or move on to the creepy blue cover of Volume II, with an additional eleven stories, a forward by Jason V Brock, and an informative “From the Author” appendix that tells about the inspiration for each story in that volume. Volume III will provide an additional 10 stories to bring you nearly forty stories that will haunt you right up until Halloween and beyond.
As two former Bram Stoker winners and icons in the genre said: “‘Hellfire & Damnation‘ is an impressive collection, a series of remarkable tales—some based on true stories—organized around a brilliant and unifying theme that echoes Dante’s Inferno. Wilson’s harrowing work will stay with you long after you finish the final page.”
Click to buy the paperback and e-book at Amazon.
And, as William F. Nolan, a Living Legend in Horror and author of “Logan’s Run” said: “Let me start right off by saying that Connie Wilson presents what I call ‘matter-of-fact’ horror…Frankly, and I consider myself well read in the shock genre, I have never encountered a style such as she displays here, in story after story. She writes solid declarative sentences rife with dark undertones…Connie Wilson’s dark talent is unique, and readers will stagger away from her icy tales stunned and groggy. I have a final word for it: WOW!”
And, echoing the more famous writers (above), reviewer Adam Groves of www.Fright.com said, “In horror fiction, as in most any other sort, true originality is an increasingly rare commodity. But it does exist, as proven by ‘Hellfire & Damnation,’ an anthology that is genuinely, blazingly original.“
“The Night House,” a 2020 break-out success at Sundance that Searchlight Pictures bought for $12 million, is playing now at 2,150 theaters for a 45-day run, which is almost over. So far, it has garnered about $8 million worldwide. The studio showed its faith in the film by not releasing it to streaming first and Director David Bruckner admitted in an interview that it could have been a studio film but wasn’t. He’s glad it wasn’t overly supervised by a studio, but became the independent movie success it is. “The Night House” has given me a new name to add to my list of “favorite directors.”
David Bruckner, the 44-year-old director of “The Ritual” and the accident sequence of the “Southbound” film anthology, filmed this completely frightening psychological horror thriller in 24 days in Utica, New York. I realized that I had seen “The Ritual” when I went back to try to find any previous films by Bruckner.
The film starts with a shot of a small rowboat bobbing dockside outside a modernistic lake house. The woman going up the steps of the house-under-construction has obviously just lost a family member, as her female companion is telling her to call her any time in Detroit, if she feels the need. Rebecca Hall (who also executive produced) as Beth Parchin is a no-nonsense teacher. After her friend leaves, she immediately dumps the hot dish (lasagna?) that her well-meaning friend has given her and breaks out the booze.
The film then picks up the story of life after loss, because Beth’s husband, Owen, got in the rowboat, rowed out into the lake outside the modernistic house he is building, and shot himself in the head. It is ironic that it was always Beth, the wife, who was the depressive one with dark dreams, not Owen, because Owen is the one who has succumbed. Why?
We see Beth trying to cope at work during a meeting with a parent who seems to want to complain about her son’s grade. In an interview, Rebecca Hall says it was this scene that sold her on the script, as Beth shows all the earmarks of a woman who is struggling to hold it all together while under terrific stress. All of the acting Ms. Hall does is convincing, but the directorial decisions that Director David Bruckner has made in order to scare us all are brilliant.
In an interview of his own, Bruckner described how the script for “The Night House” had been “laying around for a couple of years” when he was contacted and, he said, “Here’s this crazy movie that nobody will make. Rebecca Hall read it and understood it and we were off.” Noting that he is the kind of director who works fast and decides in a split second (“I’m definitely a filmmaker who likes to lean into a space.”), Bruckner says, “You really have to go with your gut.”
Lead Rebecca Hall, who is onscreen in nearly every scene and has some difficult situations she creates that involve working opposite a mysterious spirit that isn’t really there, said, of Bruckner, “I loved working with David and think he’s brilliant and well on his way to owning the genre.” The “genre” is horror, and Bruckner has been tapped to re-create “Hellraiser.” He said, to “Shockya” magazine that “It’s a dream come true to a horror person like myself.”
The script for “The Night House” was written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. The psychology of the script intrigued both Bruckner and Hall. It asks a question about whether we can ever really “know” the people closest to us. We spend a large part of the film feeling sorry for the recently widowed Beth and thinking that her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) is a good guy. Or was he? He may have been a good guy in the same way that Ted Bundy seemed like a good guy to his live-in girlfriend at the time .
Bruckner called the film “a complex drama” and a character piece. Mirror logic is a recurring motif in the film. The expert use of sound to create terror is handled beautifully. The film was one of the most original approaches to a horror film in some time.
I asked my husband what part or parts scared him the most in the movie. He singled out the spot when a stereo goes off in the dead of night, seemingly for no reason, at maximum volume. For me, it was the sight of several young girls running to a cliff and jumping off. One of the ghost-like figures seems to walk almost through Hall’s character. It happens so quickly that I physically recoiled. But it’s not a gory slasher film, which was welcome, to me.
When Beth’s husband commits suicide, he leaves behind a note that reads: “You were right. There is nothing. Nothing’s after you. You’re safe now.” I immediately wondered if the term “nothing” could be capitalized and represent an evil entity, Nothing. This was long before the film got into the idea of CAERDROIA, which are Welsh turf mazes, or the Louvre doll, which appears to be a metal doll that has had a number of metal rods driven through it in a voodoo “curse” motif. (The original doll is in the Louvre, hence its name).
The premise: if you do things backwards, it will throw off evil spirits. When Beth discovers that her husband was building an exact replica of their new house on the other side of the lake, things take a nasty turn. We suspect that Vondie Curtiss Hall as Mel is somehow involved. Or is he?
Don’t read further if you don’t want to know some important plot points.
After I realized that the various pictures of women who resembled Beth were simply “stand-ins” for Beth, blameless victims whom Owen dispatched in an attempt to lure the evil spirit away from her by using doppelgangers, I wondered why Beth never mentions so much as one word of bodies buried in the basement of the new “backwards” lake house. There are several scenes after her discovery where Beth could have told someone about her grim discovery, but she says nothing, and we are not given a reason for her silence. Is she trying to protect everyone’s image of Owen as “a good guy?” There is no way of telling. I found this to be one of the biggest flaws in the admittedly out-there script. Why? Why wouldn’t a responsible person like Beth, a teacher, not inform the authorities of such a horrible discovery?
Rebecca Hall admitted that she felt that some of her later scenes in a bathroom (mirrors, again) battling the spirit that is trying to lure her back to the underworld may have been a bit wonky. She was right, but I give her high marks for giving it her all.
The quick cuts where we realize, after the fact, that what we have just seen may have all been a dream were expertly handled. Kudos to the director and the music person (Ben Lovett), the cinematographer (Elisa Christain), and the film editor (David Marks). The production design and set and art directors also did a great job in making the night house feel as though Beth is probably never really quite comfortable in it, as it had a decidedly masculine feel. [I kept recommending grabbing her keys and splitting for any other port in a storm, once the weird sounds began, but it would have been a much shorter film if Beth had never stood her ground and battled her demons.]
As we learn during the set up for the plot, Beth already survived a horrible car crash in her youth and was clinically dead for four minutes. That is the set-up for much of what happens and also serves as a bit of a motive for all that is visited upon her.
It’s not as ambitious as “Us” was with its complex backstory, but there are so many things that go bump in the night in this one to truly frighten that it is a movie I’d recommend to anyone who likes psychological thrillers with original themes and lots of horror that isn’t “Saw”-like in emphasizing violence or gore.