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!
I’m watching the Channel 5 news from Chicago here in Austin and beginning a week of supervision of our twin granddaughters. (age 13). We won’t starve, but I am definitely going to have to learn how to turn the thermostat up from 70. [I can take 70 if I’m in bed sleeping, but I’m going to have to have it warmer when I’m just sitting around, and I have on 3 layers of clothing right now!]
There is talk of watching a movie tonight, although the Crawdads movie is in competition with the “Everything Everywhere” film. We watched two movies last night that were among the weirdest I’ve seen in a long time.
One was called “The Wave” and starred Justin Long. Very weird.
The other one was even weirder, “Vivarium.” Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots are a couple seeking a new house. They tour a new development with a realtor. All the houses are green and identical. The only problem is that they are not able to leave. They also are saddled with an annoying automoton/robot child that grows throughout the time they are imprisoned in this not-that-ideal community.
The film was directed (and co-written) by Lorcan Finnegan, and it is easy to infer that the “trapped-in-daily-life” vibe from Vivarium is meant to emulate the dull, boring and hum-drum lives that most of us live. Nevertheless, point taken, it was a strange and weird movie. I could relate to the housing development’s completely uniform appearance and the ways in which the couple try to escape are interesting, but the character portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg begins digging in the front yard for reasons that are not very clear. It reminded me of the old saw about how you might dig your way through the Earth and wind up in China if you dug deep enough, and it certainly might have occurred to Eisenberg’s character, since he and Imogen had tried about everything else including climbing up on the roof and writing “Fuk You” in large letters in attempts to escape. A very weird commentary on how life just tends to go on in a routine that you can’t escape, no matter how hard you true.
On other news fronts, I am learning to play Mah Jong (m joined Newcomers Club and this is how desperate I a to try to make friends in a community when we (a) don’t have jobs (b) don’t have kids in school and (c) aren’t particularly “church-y.” I resumed my playing of “Hand-and-foot-canasta” that I learned pre-pandemic. I like the latter, but the vote is out on the former.
In watching the evening news from Chicago we are seeing projected temperatures of 11 degrees It was 84 here 2 days ago, although it has dropped off into the fifties since that record-setting day.
The two films I mention (above) are both Amazon films and free, so that earns them a Gold Star, but be prepared for a couple of weird sci-fi flicks if you try out either of them.
“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.
I liked “Nope” and I’ve tried to explain it more for those who aren’t interested in researching all of the allusions and references to other films. Therefore, proceed at your own peril. I have tried not to reveal all of the mysteries of the plot, but there may be spoilers.
We journeyed out to the theater to see “Nope,” Jordan Peele’s latest film, starring Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya from “Get Out” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Peele is more political than M. Night Shymalan, whose films and themes Peele’s works most resemble (of directors working today). As such, much of the film is commentary on the film industry (spectacle), including the role of Blacks through the years. There is also commentary on the American emphasis on commercialism. (The coin in the plastic evidence bag is a subtle dig). It’s a veritable homage to alien encounter films throughout history, with horror/thriller films, especially Spielberg’s, entering in, as well. There is dialogue regarding possible proof of the existence of aliens and the value of such proof to anyone securing it: “People are gonna’ come and do what they always do. Try to take it for themselves.”
Thus begins the plan to capture pictures and video of the aliens, who seemingly are lurking behind a cloud that never moves above a remote far west ranch. Is that a spaceship in the night, or is it a marauding creature? Therein hangs the tale. The central plan to capture video of aliens that dominates “Nope” will be quite an adventure; the audience gets to go along for the ride. I enjoyed it more than my puzzled spouse, but I admit to having spent way more time watching the movies this film honors. It struck me as not unlike the the way that Mel Brooks satirized genre after genre with his humorous films. Only this movie is a cross between thriller/horror/science fiction, saluting those genres. (There are plenty of alien encounter movies to draw from.)
Special kudos go to the sound engineers overseeing the sound effects, the score by Michael Abels, and the cinematographer shooting what appears to be a silver disc in the sky, Hoyt van Hoytema. A prophetic quote from the Book of Nahum (3.6) starts us off: “It will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” Literally.
The characters who lead us on the adventure are a brother and sister (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) who have inherited a horse farm that provides trained horses for Hollywood productions. Haywood’s Hollywood Horses was founded by Otis Haywood, Sr. When Otis, Sr., dies in a strange fashion—seemingly shot by objects that fall from the sky without warning—Otis, Jr., known as O.J. dedicates himself to carrying on the Haywood tradition. Young O.J. wants to continue training horses as an animal wrangler and also wants to buy back some of the horses the ranch has had to sell to a neighboring circus-like attraction, Jupiter’s Claim, to stay financially afloat.
O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) is the son who understands animal behavior and tries to warn others about not looking an animal in the eye and remaining calm, etc.; his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) is O.J.’s somewhat unreliable sidekick. Emerald does not see the horse farm as her future. She constantly inserts personal promos for her many other skills, which range from motorcycle riding to acting. Emerald is more extroverted, but O.J. is the one who negotiates with Jupe (Steven Yeun) to provide horses for his attraction, Jupiter’s Claim. It is also Emerald who, upon agreeing that aliens might be visiting the nearby remote landscape, wants to secure definitive proof via photographs and video as a money-maker.
Emerald contacts Cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a crack videotographer,who lugs what appears to be an old IMAX camera out to the remote western site, to assist the young video salesman Angel Torres who originally hooked up photographic equipment the duo bought. The video sales guy is played by Brandon Perea as Angel Torres and he contribute much in the area of comic relief. While I enjoyed Angel’s contribution, we had difficulty understanding TV “Password” hostess Keke Palmer’s dialogue.
O.J. feels it important to keep alive the tradition and history of the (fictitious) relative Emerald says was the Black Bahamian jockey shown in a few minutes of film thought to be the very first moving picture image ever captured. The short piece of film was captured by 19th century inventor and adventurer Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. Muybridge had been commissioned to study the movement of a galloping horse; the name of the Black Bahamian jockey was lost to history, but, for purposes of this film, Jordan Peele has created a fictitious identity for the rider—Alistair Haywood, the family’s horse ranch founder. O.J. Sr,—presumably Alistair’s son and heir— is played by veteran horror actor Keith David, who appeared in “Armageddon” (1998) and “Dante’s Peak” (1997) over his long career.
Here are some of the homages to other cinematic moments:
.When Keke Palmer slides on the motorcycle, it is a reference to a classic anime film, “Akira.” It’s been referenced in dozens of movie for the last 30 years.
.When a character says, “They’re here,” it’s an homage to “Poltergeist.” Easter egg references (“Spielbergian,” said one critic) abound, but the “Nope” plot is definitely original.
.There is the opening reference to a chimp attack during the filming of a TV show called “Gordy’s Home” in 1996. A real chimp attack was featured on Oprah’s syndicated TV show. Charla Nash, a woman who was mauled and disfigured by her chimp Travis appeared on Oprah. When Jupe’s former co-star Mary Jo (Sophia Coto) from “Gordy’s Home” visits Jupiter’s Claim, she is wearing a hat and veil to hide her scars from the chimpanzee attack. Both the scars and the outfit resemble Nash during her real-life interview with Oprah.
.OJ and Emerald visit a Fry’s Electronics store to purchase the surveillance equipment they hope to use in their efforts to capture the alien on film, where they meet employee and alien enthusiast Angel (Brandon Perea). Each Fry’s location featured a unique theme before the family-owned chain when out of business in 2021. Burbank’s Fry’s Electronics store had an alien theme.
.”The Wizard of Oz” has been named as a big influence by Peele. The way in which the alien uploads “food” via dust tornadoes reflects that, as well as the name Emerald and her repetitive wearing of the color green.
.O.J. wears orange, in tribute to his name. The hooded orange sweatshirt that says “Crew” is identical to those worn on the set of the Rock’s film “The Scorpion King.” There is also a poster of the 1972 film “Buck and the Preacher,” Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut, seen in the film.
.Every famous movie about alien encounters that you can think of is referenced, directly or indirectly. The fist bump between child and chimp reminds a bit of the E.T./Elliot finger connection. Even the film’s title of “Nope” is similar to “E.T.,” since E.T. meant extra terrestrial and some have said that “Nope” means “Not of This Planet.” On the other hand, the phrase is spoken throughout the movie. There is one point where our hero (Daniel Kaluuya) opens the truck door, looks out, murmurs “Nope” and re-enters the vehicle. Every major alien encounter film—“E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “War of the Worlds,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Arrival” receives attention. This isn’t even throwing in the “B” movie efforts like 1998’s “The Faculty” or films like “Alien Autopsy” (2006), “The Mothman Prophecies” (2002); “Ancient Aliens” (2009); “The Blob” (1958); “The Thing”; “District 9” (2009); “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008) or any number of lesser movies.
.Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) reminds of other key characters in Spielberg films, like Quinn in Spielberg’s “Jaws” or Bob Peck’s Muldoon from “Jurassic Park.” I found his grizzled presence reminiscent of Lance Henriksen, a veteran presence in numerous horror films. Wincott’s decision to venture out and film the creature in a climactic scene seems to be his desire to get “the impossible shot.” As Antlers told Emerald when she approached him to help them film the encounter, “Horse Girl, this is a dream you’re chasing. The one where you end up at the top of the mountain—all eyes on you. It’s the dream you never wake up from.”
I found the movie to be quite original and unique. Like Peele’s other films, you can peel the plot layers back like an onion. Most fun I’ve had at the movies this summer, because English majors always want to explore symbolism and themes that are buried beneath the surface, and that is what Peele incorporates in his films, which I enjoy. You can still enjoy it on the surface as a thriller, without the deep dive, however.
We checked out two new films recently, I’ll give you an idea about them to save you the time.
After checking out the trailers on my Guide movie-for rent list, I narrowed the choices to “The Forgiven” or “Abandoned.”
“The Forgiven” starred Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, a big plus. It was on Amazon Prime and the price of each was $7.95 to rent. The rating by the audience on IMDB was only 5.8 out of 10, but these two are Oscar caliber actors. Plus, I liked another co-star, Christopher Abbott, who dallies with the married Jo Henninger in the film while her husband is away.
“Abandoned” is a horror thriller starring Emma Roberts, John Gallagher, Jr. (“Network News”) and one of my all-time favorites, Michael Shannon.
We watched “The Forgiven” first, and that ended up being the better choice. It is a well-crafted film with a plot set in Morocco and examining what happens when a couple on their way to a wedding accidentally hits and kills a young man on the dark highway who is selling fossils. (Apparently, selling fossils is a big industry for the locals. Who knew?) It also had an appearance by Christopher Abbott, who I knew from “James White,” where he played Cynthia Nixon’s son, and “It Comes At Night” in 2017—a horror movie that never quite delivered on the successful atmospheric brooding cinematography of Director Trey Edward Shults.
IMDB describes the plot this way: “The Forgiven takes place over a weekend in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, and explores the reverberations of a random accident on the lives of both the local Muslims, and Western visitors to a house party in a grand villa.: Director James Michael McDonagh filmed on location; we get an inside look at the Arabic culture in what appears to be one of those countries that our former president described as “a s***ole country,” The folks flocking to the villa in the middle of nowhere appear to be either Euro-trash or, as one is identified, the style editor from a famous women’s magazine, which shall be nameless for the intention of this review.
Jessica (Chastain) and Ralph (Fiennes) are an unhappily married couple, Jo and David Henninger, on the verge of divorce. After David hits and kills the young native boy, the authorities are contacted. The boy’s father comes to the villa and demands that Ralph accompany him back to the desolate village from whence he came. We learn that the young man (Driss) might have been planning to rob some of the rich party-goers with another youth.
Should Ralph Fiennes’ character of David Henninger accompany the dead boy’s father back to Driss’ village? If he does, what will happen? Fiennes does accompany Driss’ dad, but what happens after that, while a satisfactory surprise ending, is still one that I am processing.
“Abandoned,” on the other hand, held the promise of a young woman (Emma Roberts) suffering from post-partum depression who has recently given birth and moves, with her husband (John Gallagher, Jr.) to a remote haunted house (which, the end-of-film credits tell us, was located in Smithfield, North Carolina.)
The house had a history, but the price was right. The previous family had a psychotic father who impregnated his underage daughter three times; it is hinted that he had a way with an axe. An old wardrobe in the house seems to be the entryway to a portion of the house where some of the offspring of the underage daughter of the house live on as ghosts, [as in “American Horror Story.”]
Most of the film consists of the vulnerable Emma (Roberts) trying to work through her depression and deal with her infant son, who has a bad case of colic. Michael Shannon enters for roughly 20 minutes of film time, which is a crime in and of itself. Shannon plays the brother of the poor underage sister and he shares the couch with Emma Roberts discussing his life in the house before its occupants met untimely ends.
The movie is a total waste of the talents of an actor as talented as Michael Shannon. For that matter, the script did no favors to the young couple, both of whom are good actors.
I am glad we began our viewing with “The Forgiven,” which at least had a structure that merited sticking with it to the end, but I cannot give a thumbs-up to “Abandoned.” The films rented for $7.95. In one case it was money well spent. In the other it was a waste of time and money.
I was cleaning out an old purse (from 2006) and found, scrawled there, some poetry.
I think I wrote this poetry to advance the plot of “Out of Time,” my first novel, published by Lachesis. The sentiment seems eerily prescient of today’s Ukraine situation, however, while the second was about the suicide of one of the twin daughters of the President, part of the plot.
Poem #1, “Ukraine”
Hate breeds hate
And love yields love.
This a message
We must love
Or we shall die
A cosmic order
From on high
When will all the killing stop?
Save them from the bombs we drop!
Forgive us all our crimes, our deeds,
Show the path to where peace leads.
We are but a cosmic speck
Of ash and dust
Of finite dreck..
Yet our crimes, our sins abound
As we destroy this planet found.
When will all the killing stop?
When will tears no longer drop?
Can this tired world be saved, at last?
Or must we all repeat the past?
That was the first poem in this small notebook within my old purse, with this second one being part of the plot of “Out of Time:”
Death began to call her name,
In dulcet tones that sounded sane.
“Lift the glass. Take but a sip,
It will speed you on your trip.
Taste this fatal glass of doom.
Let me show you to your room.
Please don’t worry. Please don’t fret.
This is your best adventure yet.”
We just watched the fictional account of the young girl, played by Chloe Moritz, who encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide (“The Girl from Plainville”). She asked for a bench trial, was found guilty, and was given 15 months in jail. The incident led to the passage of “Conrad’s Law” which makes anyone who preys upon a mentally fragile person, urging them to commit self harm, [as happened in the plot of “The Girl from Plainville,”] eligible for a 5-year prison term.
In the case of the character played by Chloe Grace Moritz, she went to jail for the 15 months, but was released early for good behavior. And the problem of teenage suicides continues to be a big one, especially since the pandemic.
This third poem was one I wrote to advance the “time travel” plot of another. Never again will I work for months, slaving away to make somebody else’s plot idea into a novel, only to have them give away the book signing that he was supposed to arrange at our local bookstore (then Border’s) to a different book he worked on with another “collaborator” (who probably did all of the writing of that one). The plot of “Out of Time” involved a time-traveling rock star, which should have been my first clue that this was a bad idea.
Not unlike “The Graduate,” the rock star hero of the novel falls in love with the mother of his girlfriend. Then, there is travel through time and a decision on which of the women to “save” and a lot of other unlikely stuff. I guess you do learn by doing, however, as I’ve written 3 novels since then in “The Color of Evil” series, and the readers and I believe that writing my own plot was an improvement.
So, here is the last poem that I found, (from something like 2006), on an old notebook in an old purse. You’d have to read the book (available on Amazon) to find out how the poem fits in the plot. I was encouraged to read about the discovery of the black hole predicted by Einstein just today, which makes the idea of traveling through time somewhat more plausible.
From “Out of Time”:
When daisies last in our garden grew,
You were me and I was you.
List closely now; I’ll tell the tale
Before night falls and our world fails.
Time’s winged chariot hurries near
I gather strength
To fight my fear
If I should die, before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
The scalpel lay there, cold and bright,
Reflecting the fluorescent light.
It screamed of fear and pain and crime.
Was there a chance? Would there be time?
The world lay shattered at his feet.
Was its fate sealed? Would time repeat?
Our past will not our future be.
If eyes are not too blind to see.
I know that I shall never see
A love so real as you to me
I’ve tried to purge you from my mind.
But caring’s not my choice, I find.
It always ends, as end it must
Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.
Life to death and death to life.
Stay with me and be my wife.
And, with that bit of ancient history, I prove why I seldom write poetry. Or doggerel. Or whatever you want to call it. A wise decision.
I have not written any since 2006 (the date on this old notebook.)
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.