Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Quantum Leap: One Night in Koreatown

Riots do not just damage cities physically. They leave emotional trauma that never fully heals. The riots the burned Los Angeles’s Koreatown neighborhood were a case in point. Unfortunately, Dr. Ben Song must re-learn that lesson through the eyes of an 18-year-old Korean American teen in “One Night in Koreatown,” this week’s episode of Quantum Leap, which premieres tomorrow on NBC.

As soon as he realizes what day it is, Song understands the catastrophe heading towards Jin Park’s shoe store. At least his Korean fluency will come in handy. He wants to close early and get out while the getting is good, but the old man is too stubborn. Consequently, they will have to dig-in and barricade the store as best they can. This will be a real baptism of fire for Magic Williams, who takes over from Addison Augustine as Song’s holographic guide, because it brings back painful memories. In fact, it might just re-awaken some of Williams’ old demons.

This will be a tough leap for everyone, including the writers who labor like pack-mules to put the “right” spin on the looting of Koreatown. The episode mentions Reginald Denny in passing, but, not surprisingly, the police are portraying as more villainous than his attackers or other rioters.

Yet, perhaps in spite of intentions, we feel acutely Park’s fear of losing everything he had worked so hard to build for his family. C.S. Lee is terrific as the Park family patriarch, even when his character is poorly served by some stilted writing.

SEAL Team: Trust, But Verify Pt. 1 & 2

Considering how hard it is for SEAL Team Bravo to smuggle a defector out of North Korea, just imagine how difficult it must be for Pastor Kim Seungeun, the real-life protagonist of Beyond Utopia. Granted, the SEALs stand out more in the DPRK. They are also trying to rescue a scientist who is integral to the regime’s advanced weapons research. Initially, only the first four episodes of SEAL Team’ s fifth season were supposed to air on CBS (including this two-part season premiere), before the franchise transferred to Paramount+, but then the strikes happened. Now, the entire fifth season is part of their new Fall schedule. It is refreshing to see actual bad guys cast as TV bad guys, including the North Koreans in “Trust, but Verify,” which returns to free TV this Thursday.

The team has their own stuff to deal with at the start of the season. Chief Warrant Officer Ray Perry has been away, getting treatment for his PTSD, which only Master Chief Jason Hayes knows, at least so far. Hayes is still trying to shrug off the lingering effects of a serious head injury that might be more severe than he wants to admit. Special Operator Clay Spenser is finally planning his long-deferred honeymoon, while Special Operator Sonny Quinn is spending time with his newborn. Unfortunately, they must put everything on hold for a “training mission” with the South Koreans.

Of course, it turns out the “training” is just a cover. Instead, they will infiltrate North Korea and exfiltrate Dr. Jin, a high-ranking scientist, whiose wife already defected. Their contact is Kwan Jon-wi, a rescuer, who is much closer to Pastor Kim than the dodgy broker-traffickers he is forced to work with.

Although the two-parter does not reflect the full extent of the DPRK’s extreme dystopian oppression, it still acknowledges the prison-like conditions and constant paranoia of life in the North. Most of the action comes in part 2, which is nicely executed, especially by network TV standards. Keong Sim also has a memorable guest-appearance as the somewhat traumatized Jin.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Hell House LLC, Origins: The Carmichael Manor, on Shudder

Different house, same hell. All the scary stuff happening at the Abaddon Hotel was apparently related to the tragedy that occurred in this Rockland County mansion. Of course, a true crime podcaster decides it would be fun to stay there during her investigation. We can guess the results in screenwriter-director Stephen Cognetti’s not-exactly-a-prequel Hell House LLC, Origins: The Carmichael Manor, which premieres today on Shudder.

Margot Bentley is psyched to be staying in the Carmichael Manor, the scene of a notorious family killing in the late 1980s. Rebecca Vickers, her more responsible partner in life and true-crime, is less excited. Vickers also has her trepidations regarding Bentley’s fresh-out-of-rehab brother Chase, who will be her cameraman, but she will find him to be much reasonably cautious than his gung-ho sister, especially when things get weird, which they will.

Of course, Bentley immediately opens the storeroom the management agent told them should always remained locked, where they find two spectacularly creepy life-size clown mannequins—or were there three of them? Then they visit the local antique shop, where they discover some sinister memorabilia and documents that on closer inspection link the Carmichael Manor to the Abaddon Hotel, the site of the infamous mass murder and subsequent mysterious deaths, before it finally burned to the ground in the previous
Hell House LLC.

The connection between the Carmichaels and Abaddon is new to this film. However, what really freaks out some of the talking heads offering commentary in the “documentary” framing the “found footage” is the previously unknown connection between objects at the Carmichael Manor and the late Margot Bentley.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Chamber of Horrors, on TCM

Typically, proprietors of wax museums are a murderous lot in horror movies, but not Anthony Draco and Harold Blount. They happen to be amateur criminologists, who immortalize in wax all the sinister psychopaths they help capture. Jason Cravette was supposed to be their first case. Conceived as the pilot for a television series, but deemed too “intense” for network TV, their pursuit of Cravette (who would have been TV’s first “one-armed” killer) morphed into a reasonably success theatrical feature. Fans of William Castle-ish gimmicks will appreciate the “Fear Flasher” and the “Horror Horn” the proceed the genre bits in Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors, which airs tomorrow on TCM, as part of their Terror-Thon.

William Conrad’s opening narration warns the faint of heart to look away when the Fear Flasher and Horror Horn kick in, but the most macabre part of the film is the prologue, when Cravette forces a priest at gun-point to marry him to the corpse of his dead lover. After the ceremony, Cravette becomes a fugitive from justice, whom the Baltimore police apprehend with the help of Draco and Blount. Like Jesse L. Martin in
Irrational, they have a knack for predicting debauched, anti-social behavior.

Of course, it does not end there. Although presumed dead, Cravette successfully escapes police custody, after chopping off his manacled hand. It is just as well, because he replaces it with an array of custom-designed hooks and slicing-and-dicing implements. Like any good super-villain, he goes on a killing spree targeting those who did him wrong, starting with the judge who passed sentence.

Obviously, the Fear Flasher and Horror Horn are corny distractions from what should be the film’s real business, but they are still kind of amusing, in a campy way. However, the sets and art design are remarkably lush and detailed, especially given the genre standards of the time. It would be incredibly cool to walk through a recreation of Draco and Blount’s House of Wax (an intentional echo of the Vincent Price classic).

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Stay Out, on BET+

It is getting harder to make old fashioned voodoo-themed horror movies, but on paper, this one would sound like it found the key to unlock that subgenre for hyper-sensitive viewers. For Donovan Jones’s Uncle Rufus, voodoo was a means to protect himself from mid-Twentieth Century racism in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Unfortunately, his uncanny powers claim several innocent victims in Jared Safier’s Stay Out, which is now streaming on BET Plus.

Much to his surprise, Jones is informed he is the sole heir of his long-deceased uncle and aunt’s estate, primarily consisting of the family home that has languished for decades (hence the tape across the door, cautioning: “stay out”). Apparently, the incompetence of the firm handling the probate reached levels requiring state bar intervention. Be that as it may, Jones reluctantly agrees to travel to Blue Ridge, which apparently still has quite a backwards reputation. In fact, the only other black family living in town are William and Lauren, with their rebellious, Blue Ridge-hating teen daughter Raveen. However, for most of the film, they really will not have anything to do with Donovan Jones.

Instead, Uncle Rufus periodically possesses his nephew’s body, using it to murder the descendants of the men who murdered him. It is always deeply traumatizing for Jones, who tries to fight it, but without success. Of course, he usually gets stuck with the clean-up. He probably should have listened to the spooky homeless man who warned him to leave while he still could.

Stay Out
is presumably intended as horror, but it is hard to tell from the poky execution. Safier has a momentum-killing habit of repeating expositional dialogue in multiple scenes. The first act is so slow and flabby, most streamers will probably bail before the first murder.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Curses!, on Apple TV+

The "restricted wing" of the Vanderhouven family mansion is sort of like the antique vault in Friday the 13th: The Series (unrelated to the movies) or the sinister collection of demonic objects (like Annabelle) assembled by the Warrens in the Conjuring films. The difference is the Vanderhouvens want to deaccession their collection, returning the objects to where they came from. They have their reasons in creators Jim Cooper & Jeff Dixon’s ten-part animated series Curses!, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Twelve-year-old Pandora spends most of her time skateboarding through the halls of their stately, but eccentric mansion and devising new ways to act irresponsibly, while her older brother Russ concentrates on being a whiny introvert. Unbeknownst to them and their poor mother Sky, their father Alex is desperately researching occult means to reverse the curse afflicting the Vanderhouven family. Unfortunately, his time is up, which means he has been turned to stone.

When searching for their petrified father, the family discovers the restricted wing and meets his enchanted helpers: Larry, an eye-patch-sporting pirate skull and the more fastidious Stanley, a wooden totem or fetish. As they blunder around, the Vanderhouvens reawaken the powers of the collection amassed by Great-Grandfather Cornelius Vanderhouven, who was not unlike Uncle Louis Vendredi in
Friday the 13th. After corralling a wild baboon mask, the family deduces they might be able to reverse the curse, if they return all the antiquities Cornelius plundered to where they belong.

has been billed as gateway horror for kids, but maybe fifty percent of the time, the series is more like tomb-raiding (or rather restoring) adventure. They even jet-set around in a Grumman Albatross piloted by their tough-talking no-questions-asked family pal, Margie. Probably the coolest and most truly horror-like episode takes the family into a rare Japanese painting inhabited by demons, but there is also an excursion to the Himalayas that adds clever mind- and time-bending dimensions.

Regardless, there is a good deal of intriguing magic and cosmic mayhem. Fittingly, the legendary Robert Englund supplies the voice of nasty old Cornelius, who will have a role to play in this nefarious business. The kids need to be grounded, but Larry and Stanley are guaranteed to charm eight- to twelve-year-olds. They also look very cool.

Annika: The Jekyll & Hyde Episode

Ironically, DI Annika Strandhed has an easier time talking to viewers than her teen daughter Morgan or her DS, Michael McAndrews, with whom she shares some awkward personal history. Breaking the fourth wall is her thing. She often dishes to viewers regarding each episode’s case and her own personal issues. Strandhed (you can see why they simply called the series “Annika”) also has healthy interest in literature, which she demonstrates with her musings on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is not exactly a Halloween episode, but it is the closest PBS has to offer when the latest episode (S2E3) of Annika premieres Sunday.

Fabian Hyde, a green-sustainable energy tycoon has been murdered and it is clear the locals did not agree with his environmental do-gooder PR image. That starts Annika’s reflections on Stevenson and his fascination with duality—the idea that someone can be two very distinct personas simultaneously. She fears McAndrews might also see her as a Jekyll and Hyde, after revealing a very personal secret during the previous episode.

To really drive the point home, Strandhed gets deep-faked by a Scottish defund-the-police-style activist, making her sound like a crass opportunist. It is certainly a topical subplot and Strandhed’s Stevenson monologues add some welcomed color (he was Scottish after all). However, the mystery itself is overly simplistic and obvious even by 1970s Quinn Martin standards (which has been a longstanding critical knock on the series).

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Five Nights at Freddy’s, from Blumhouse and the Henson Creature Shop

Gen X fondly remembers video arcade pizzerias like Chuck E. Cheese (still in business) and Showbix Pizza (sadly not), so of course we now enjoy packaging our nostalgia in horror movies. Logically, it is not the pizza or the video games that will kill you. It is the animatronic rock & roll stage show animals. Based on Scott Cawthon’s popular horror survival video game (that predates the similarly themed Nic Cage movie), Emma Tammi’s Blumhouse-produced Five Nights at Freddy’s opens this Friday in theaters.

Poor Mike has trouble holding a job, because he has emotional and sleep-related issues. Currently, he is the sole support of his kid sister Abby, but their nasty Aunt Jane is filing motions to assume custody (presumably for the welfare support checks that would follow her). He needs a job, but unfortunately the only one his employment counselor, the very odd Steve Raglan, can hook him up with is the night watchman gig at the long-shuttered Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza family arcade. The position has high turnover, as viewers can tell from the prologue.

Rather negligently, Mike does not bother to google the property’s notorious history. It was popular in the 1980s, but a rash of child disappearances led to its closure. This information would have meant something to Mike, because he remains traumatized by the childhood kidnapping of their middle brother, Garrett, who was never recovered.

For years, Mike has revisited his abduction through directed-dreaming, hoping to finally notice a clue identifying the kidnapper. Weirdly, those dreams have become much more vivid when he sleeps in front of the monitors at Freddy Fazbear’s. There are also new children in the dream, who seem to know something. He has yet to notice the animatronic animals moving around on their own, but it is only a matter of time.

In case you were worried, the story of
Five Nights is considerably different from Willy’s Wonderland. Mike’s tragic backstory and obsession with Garrett’s abductor add very different and compelling dimensions. Cawthon (who was canceled and doxxed on Twitter for having the “wrong” politics) and co-screenwriters Tammi and Seth Cuddeback marry that underlying storyline with the animatronic madness surprisingly well.

John Hutcherson carries the directed-dreaming scenes quite well. In fact, the exhausted grief and everyman decency he brings as Mike gives the film a solid anchor. However, there is no doubt the real stars are the four life-sized lethal animatronics, designed by the Henson Shop: Freddie Fazbear; Bonnie, a deranged rabbit; Chica, a frighteningly gluttonous chicken; and Foxy, an eye-patch-sporting pirate fox. They are often accompanied by Mr. Cupcake, a killer birthday-special pastry, who shares a kinship with the sentinel-orb from

Inspector Sun, Spider Detective

In the early 1930s, Shanghai was a swinging city, but it was also wild and woolly, often to a dangerous extent. Apparently, the same was true for the bug world. Inspector Sun was supposed to battle the crime and corruption, but he is a bit of an idiot—maybe more than a bit. However, he is lucky, which often compensated for his lack of intelligence. His luck might hold when he stumbles across a case that could restore his career while vacationing in Julio Soto Gurpide’s animated feature Inspector Sun (a.k.a. Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow), which opens tomorrow in theaters.

Sun is a “nepo baby,” but even his police chief uncle has had enough of the chaos he stirs up. At least he still collars his nemesis, the Red Locust (even though it would have been easier if he had just left it to his more professional colleagues). Sent packing, Sun leaves on vacation, but he misses his flight thanks to Janey, a hero-worshipping jumping spider, who wants to be Sun’s protégé. Instead, his old friend Scarab, a rhinoceros beetle working as the director of security on a flight to San Francisco, ushers him aboard his luxurious flying boat.

That night, in the tradition of Agatha Christie, Dr. Bugsy Spindlethorp is murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on his new wife, the black widow Arabella Killtop, who also happens to be a real black widow. However, Sun is too attracted to her to believe she could be the murderer. Naturally, he tries to solve the case and clear her name, reluctantly accepting Janey’s help, since she stowed-away, risking mid-air ejection.

Inspector Sun (a product of Spain) was not produced in China, because this 1930s tale features no exploitative capitalists, crooked government officials protecting them, or Communist revolutionaries fighting to bring them their just deserts. There are no politics and no woke ideology in Inspector Sun. It is just an appealingly old-fashioned murder mystery with bugs that gets slightly too fantastical in the third act.

What works best in
Inspector Sun is the attention to vintage 1930s details, evoking the glamor of the mid-Chinese Republican era. The music definitely emulates the style of big band jazz, especially the swinging closing credits. The clothes, the Art Deco décor, and even the flying boat itself summon all kinds of elegant nostalgia.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Enfield Poltergeist, on Apple TV+

If you have tapes of anything sinister sitting around in storage, hold onto them, because they could be documentary gold. Audio recordings of Ed Gein’s original police interviews became the basis for the four-part Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein, capitalizing on his notoriety as the inspiration for Norman Bates. Rather fortuitously, Maurice Grosse, a keen new member of the Society for Psychical Research, recorded hours of audio tape while investigating England’s most widely reported haunting of the 1970s. Those tapes provide the audio track of the four-part The Enfield Haunting, directed by Jerry Rothwell, which premieres this Friday on Apple TV+.

In a way,
Enfield Poltergeist is bit like what an episode of In Search of… might look like, if it were directed by Clio Barnard, employing the techniques she used for The Arbor. Every spoken word, frightened shriek, and bump in the night was recorded by Grosse or Guy Lyon Playfair, a spiritualist who soon teamed up with him. Cast-members lip-synch along with the tapes within a soundstage that faithfully recreates the fateful working-class row house. Yet, periodically, Rothwell pulls back, to expose the studio backdrops, for a postmodern effect.

Grosse is definitely the hero of this story, which the surviving Hodgson sisters confirm in their traditional talking head style interviews. He clearly wanted to help to help the struggling family, devoting years to their case.

The tapes he recorded are indeed creepy.
Enfield Poltergeist might not necessarily convince skeptical viewers of the supernatural, but it is clearly the family was stuck in a terrible situation outside their own control.

The haunting itself will already be familiar to horror fans, since it was the subject of
The Conjuring 2. The real-life Ed and Lorainne Warren only make a relatively brief appearance in Enfield Poltergeist, but from the narrative Rothwell and company shape from the tapes, fans can see how well the film expanded the Warrens’ role into the story, so far as Grosse and the Hodgsons knew it.

Ironically, the imperfect 1970s audio fidelity of the tapes makes the recreated hauntings sound even eerier. The lighting is appropriately spooky, even though it sometimes gives the series a paranormal “reality tv” look. The fourth episode is a bit padded and somewhat loses the momentum, but for the most part, it highly atmospheric and surprisingly intense.

Boudica: Queen of War

Boudica was the Druidic Joan of Arc, except she wasn’t done in by her own people. The Romans wanted to do that themselves, but it was much harder than they expected. The Britons rise up behind their war-goddess in director-screenwriter Jesse V. Johnson’s Boudica: Queen of War, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Initially, Boudica was content as a mother and the wife of Prasutagus, the king of the Celtic Iceni and a loyal, but unenthusiastic vassal of Rome. Unfortunately, the king will be fatally betrayed and his kingdom divided up by the Roman governor. He assumes flogging Boudica and executing her daughters will leave her broken. Instead, her native druid people adopt her as the mythical liberator foretold by legend.

Thanks to her semi-enchanted enchanted bronze sword and some personal tutoring from the true-believing Cartimanda, Boudica quickly develops into a fierce warrior. She even convinces the cynical mercenary Wolfgar to put his troops under his command. Frankly, Boudica is not a great strategist or tactician, but she maximizes the element of surprise. Building on their momentum, they start razing Roman strongholds throughout Celtic Briton.

Queen of War
starts out slow as molasses, which is odd, considering Johnson is such a pro when it comes to directing action. It is pretty clear he loved the Boudica legend so much, he gets bogged down with sentimentality, instead of cutting to the hacking and slashing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Quantum Leap: Lonely Hearts Club

Neither Dr. Ben Song or Sam Beckett before him really got to take advantage of time travel. For instance, they never get a chance to hear John Coltrane or Lee Morgan in a jazz club. Finally, Song gets a cool leap, when he finds himself in the body of his favorite actor’s new assistant. It turns out Neal Russell is even more fun than he hoped. Unfortunately, he is about to become the late Neal Russell in “Lonely Hearts Club,” this week’s episode of Quantum Leap, which premieres tomorrow on NBC.

As Song tells his holographic guide (and his ex, rather suddenly so, from his perspective), Addison Augustine, Russell’s stories are hilarious. He should tell them to the Chin on
The Tonight Show that evening, but for some reason, Russell bails, perishing in a freak sailing accident. Augustine keeps telling Song to get Russell to the studio on time, but instead, he agrees to help the actor win back his ex-wife.

No, Song and Augustine are not communicating well in this episode, but of course, the super-cool Magic Williams always is. He has the team “reading between the lines” of Russell’s memoir to glean insights into its author, which is a cool bit of business. Also, Ian Wright might have really messed up again, but as usual, Jenn Chou lets him off easy.

David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count, at Paley

When this production aired late last year on British television, anti-Semitic hate crimes were on the rise in Western nations. This week, they have been exploding. It was timely then and it is urgently needed now. David Baddiel adapted his own book and serves as the presenter/host, exposing hypocrisy and prejudice in David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count (directed by James Routh), which screens tomorrow at the Paley Center, as part of presentation on combating anti-Semitism [UPDATE: this event has just been postponed].

As British comedy writer David Baddiel increasingly embraced his Jewish heritage in his work, his Twitter/X feed steadily turned ugly. Obviously, white supremacists were not helping anything, but much of the subtler forms of hate and discrimination were coming from the progressive left. Weirdly, Baddiel lets Jeremy Corbyn off the hook, but he uses Labour MP Dawn Butler as text book example of progressives marginalizing Jewish citizens, by excluding them (accidentally or intentionally) from an long, drawn-out laundry list of social and demographic identity groups she vowed to represent.

However, Whoopi Goldberg’s ignorant comments on the Holocaust get the withering critique they deserve. Baddiel and his biracial niece directly challenge the notion Jewish Americans or Europeans can just “pass for white,” likening it to gays and lesbians told to stay in the closet.

In many ways,
Jews Don’t Count is even more relevant now than when it was originally produced. However, viewers might wonder if Baddiel’s segment on Israel might look considerably different if he could revise it today. At the time, Baddiel professed to have little affinity for Israel, as a secular Jewish citizen of the UK. In comparison, he asks if it would be fair to demand Muslims citizens to take personal responsibility for the policies of Saudi Arabia.

Everyone Else Burns, on CW

Judge not, lest you be judged—unless you’re judging Evangelicals, in which case, go ahead and judge away. That could be the unofficial motto of the CW’s latest British sitcom import. The Lewis family belongs to a very strict church, so boy, do they ever get mocked for it in creators Dillon Mapletoft & Oliver Taylor’s Everyone Else Burns, which premieres Thursday on the CW.

David Lewis belongs to the Order of the Holy Rod, so his family does too, whether they like it or not. The strict church expels members for drinking coffee, but even they think he is a total pill. Their teen daughter Rachel is a brilliant student, but her parents are dead-set against her attending university, because they believe it will be a cesspool of evil, an opinion that probably sounded ludicrously deranged to the writers two weeks ago, before campus started protesting in solidarity with terrorism. Now, maybe somewhat less so.

Regardless, his wife Fiona yearns for some kind of life outside the house and more to the point, away from him. She is not close to the neighbor Melissa, but the recent divorcee is still willing to help her, out of disdain for her David. Their young son Joshua is a true believer, to a psychotic degree, who gleefully envisions his father suffering the torments of Hell. Like everyone else in the congregation, the young brat prefers the company of Lewis’s rival in the upcoming Elder selection, Andrew, who is the likable, caring exception to the generally venomous portrayal of Evangelicals throughout the first two episodes.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Suitable Flesh, from Barbara Crampton & Team Stuart Gordon

Appropriately, this Lovecraft film starts in a padded cell. It then flashes back a few weeks to Miskatonic University, which is ominous but also quite fitting. Originally written with the late, great Lovecraftian filmmaker Stuart Gordon in mind, Dennis Paoli’s screenplay is the perfect vehicle to get the old gang back together, including executive producer Brian Yuzna and producer Barbara Crampton, who also co-stars in Joe Lynch’s Suitable Flesh, releasing this Friday in theaters and wherever you rent movies.

Dr. Elizabeth Derby is in an agitated state. She insists her friend and colleague, Dr. Danielle Upton must destroy “the brain” before it is too late. That definitely sounds crazy, but Dr. Upton will be seeing some crazy stuff during the course of this film. So will Dr. Derby when Asa Waite walks into her office, very much like Lester Billings in
The Boogeyman, but worse. Waite clearly needs help for his schizophrenic behavior and what Derby assumes is an acute multiple personality disorder. She also feels a reckless sexual attraction to him, which makes her even more vulnerable to what will happen.

Soon, Derby discovers Waite was plagued by a body-swapping entity that becomes a full-blown body-snatcher after the third transference. She will need the help of her friend, Dr. Derby, to avoid such a fate, but convincing her without sounding crazy will be tricky. She also worries what the elder god-worshipping body-hijacker might do to her husband, Edward.

Paoli, who previously wrote
Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon, and “Dreams in the Witch House,” certainly knows his way around a Lovecraft adaptation. Despite some Cthulhu imagery, Suitable Flesh does not feel as Lovecraftian as other Lovecraft films, but it very identifiably (and somewhat kind of faithfully) based on his story, “The Thing on the Door Step.” Regardless, it is a charmingly unhinged movie, featuring spectacular freakouts from its stars, Heather Graham and Crampton, who are absolutely amazing as Dr. Derby and Dr. Upton, respectively.

Judah Lewis and the great character actor Bruce Davison (who is also becoming a horror star in his own right, thanks to work in
Creepshow, The Manor, From the Shadows, and the like) are similarly freaky and sinister as Waite and his father, Ephraim. You can also look for Graham Skipper playing a horrible morgue attendant.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House

The attrition rate at H.P. Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University must be staggeringly high. However, a diligent student like Walter Gilman is sure to make it through to graduation, right? Good luck kid. He just rented a cheap, decrepit boarding house to stretch his budget, but he will not find it to be a restful living environment in director Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story, “Dreams in the Witch House,” a particularly Lovecraftian episode of Masters of Horror, which screens during the Lovecraftian horror series at Anthology Film Archives.

The late great Gordon was the definitive interpreter of Lovecraft, having helmed
Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon, and “Dreams in the Witch House.” Originally, his frequent star and collaborator Jeffrey Combs was supposed to have a role, but it was not to be. His fans will still recognize Ezra Godden from Dagon (especially since he wears Miskatonic sweatshirts in both).

Godden plays Gilman, whose new digs are so cheap, there must be something wrong with them. Unfortunately, he cannot afford anything better. The same is true for Frances Elwood, a young single mother living across the hall with her infant son. On his first night in the building, he helps her with a rat problem. Then he starts having nightmares of rats. Rather disconcertingly, Masurewicz, the weird man on the ground floor, asks if he has seen the one with the human face yet.

The physics student has noticed how the corner of his studio resembles a theoretical portal between dimensions. He later finds similar geometrical figures in the
Necronomicon, which mysteriously finds its way to Gilman in the Miskatonic library, even though it is supposed to be under lock and key. The increasingly agitated grad student deduces his room is the gateway for the shadowy figures that terrorize him at night.

Once again, Gordon shows a keen affinity for Lovecraft’s work. It would be hard to get more Lovecraftian than “Dreams in the Witch House,” which combines science and the supernatural. It is indeed a cosmic encounter that culminates in madness.

Yet, Gordon keeps it all relatively grounded. He had a keen eye for teasing fears out of a creepily lit corner. Again, Godden made a solid Lovecraftian everyman/fall-guy, while Campbell Lane is terrific as the tormented Masurewicz.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

Supposedly, watching this film drives its audience into fits of insanity and death, so, of course, collectors want it. The fictional film La Fin Absolue du Monde predates mockumentaries like Fury of the Demon and Antrum that supposedly documented similarly deadly movies. Yet, what will really interest horror fans is the chance to see John Carpenter direct Udo Kier. “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns,” an episode of the Mick Garris-created anthology series Masters of Horror, is not hugely Lovecraftian, but it is probably his best work of the 21st Century thus far, so nobody will object to it screening during the Lovecraftian horror series at Anthology Film Archives.

Kirby Sweetman would prefer to concentrate on programming his struggling repertory cinema, but to pay the bills, he often works as a cinema sleuth, tracking down rare prints for clients. Hans Backovic’s “La Fin Absolue de Monde (The Absolute End of the World)” is the rarest of the rare. Honestly, Sweetman did not believe it still existed, but Bellinger, his mysterious new client, assures him it does. Supposedly, it only screened once at Sitges, resulting in bloody, stomach-churning riots. Bellinger went to see Vincent Price introduce
Dr. Phibes instead, which sounds like a great choice, but he has regretted it ever since.

To pay off his debts, Sweetman starts following the film’s trail, starting with the only critic who filed a review. Since then, he has obsessively re-written his review, filling thousands and thousands of pages. Ominously, Sweetman also starts showing symptoms of the madness associated with the film, after listening to tapes of the critic’s interview with
Backovic. Much to his alarm, the circular Ringu-like flashes of light he sees, referred  to as “cigarette burns” by those in-the-know, usually herald a descent into madness.

Even though “Cigarette Burns” was produced for television, it has a dark elegance that feels very much like classic Carpenter. It was also scored by his son, Cody Carpenter, who collaborated on the
Firestarter and David Gordon Greene Halloween trilogy soundtracks, so “Cigarette Burns” also sounds very Carpenter-esque.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Beyond Utopia, in The Epoch Times

There were absolutely no dramatic recreations in BEYOND UTOPIA, but it is still the tensest thriller of the year, thanks to its real-life footage of an escape from North Korea. Even if you think you already know a lot about DPKR human rights abuses, this documentary will blow your mind. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Victor Ginzburg’s Empire V

Even before Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia was a metaphorical nation of blood-suckers. It has no manufacturing base and an anemic service economy. All the money comes from natural resources and goes straight to the oligarchs and the corrupt politicians and gangsters, who serve their interests. Those elites turn out to be very real vampires in Victor Ginzburg’s Empire V, which had its American premiere at this year’s Screamfest.

Just so viewers feel safe watching
Empire V without implying support the Putin regime, keep in mind the film has been banned in Russia and co-star rapper Miron Fedorov (a.k.a. Oxxxymiron) has been branded a “foreign agent” for his opposition to Putin’s war against Ukraine. Maybe it’s highly class-conscious analogies could apply elsewhere too, but Putin (or his flunkies) clearly thought it reflected the reality in Russia, only too faithfully.

Technically, the vamps are not really vamps. They are the (mostly) willing hosts of a parasite known as “The Tongue.” A tiny drop of blood (the vampires insist on calling it “red liquid”) is enough to sustain the Tongue, but a Theranos-sized drop can give the vampires the memories and knowledge of the blood-donors.

It is a lot for the new Rama to take in. He succeeded the old Rama, whose Tongue chose him, after his predecessor lost a duel to the sleazy Mithra, who is perversely supposed to be Rama II’s mentor, in accordance with the traditions of Empire V (so named to distinguish it from the Third Reich and the Fourth Roman Empire). Mithra is much more interested in his other mentee, the waifish Hera—and so is Rama. Their rivalry for Hera (you wouldn’t really call it “romantic” for these vampires) reignites Mithra’s rivalry with the Rama line.

Like his last film,
Generation P, Ginzburg adapted Empire V from a novel written by Victor Pelevin. This time around, he focuses far more on the sociological world-building than on the undead sucking and swooning. It is fascinating, but after about seventy minutes, you start to realize how little has actually happened.

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra: A Fungus Story

Nothing scares a new home-owner like mold. Fungi is also becoming a growing preoccupation of world health authorities. With that in mind, since we have already had the Blob, so why not a killer fungus? However, screenwriter-director-cinematographer Park Sye-young takes a more experimental approach in The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra, which premieres today on IndiePix Unlimited.

It first formed in the ratty mattress of an unhappy couple. He was rather irresponsible and lazy, so maybe it is fitting he becomes the first victim of the fungus. Despite the conspicuous black rot-like fungus, their former mattress gets passed around. At one point, it even ends up at a love hotel, where it attacks another unhappy couple. Ironically, it forms an affectionate bond with one of his victims, who remains bed-ridden on the offending mattress, presumably to prevent further contamination.

Since the film unfolds from the POV of the fungus, it is necessarily fragmented. As a result, it very definitely has an avant-garde vibe, but there are still vividly disgusting elements of body horror. Perhaps this is more interesting as a concept than an executed film. Even at an economical 65 minutes, it is a bit of a challenge to sit through a film dedicated to a toxic fungus.

Park deliberately frames the film from off-kilter and oblique perspectives, in a hazy, gauzy style. Yet, somehow, the performances of Park Ji-hyeon and Moon Hye-in are strangely, perhaps shockingly, emotionally resonant as two of the women most directly affected by the noxious, semi-sentient fungus.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Pigeon Tunnel, on Apple TV+

It is not so hard to figure out where David Cornwell, the spy novelist known as “John le Carre,” got his ideas. British intelligence posted him to West Berlin during the time the Berlin Wall was built and Kim Philby fled to the Soviet Union. He was also the son of a conman. Before his death in 2020, le Carre sat down for several long, relentlessly candid interviews that Errol Morris shaped into The Pigeon Tunnel, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

Many times, le Carre used “The Pigeon Tunnel” as a working title for his novels, but it finally stuck for his memoirs (which Morris sort of adapted). It refers to the pigeons used as live skeet targets at a Monte Carlo casino the young Cornwell visited with his degenerate father. Morris is just as obsessed with the pigeon imagery as le Carre was, if not more so judging from how often it appears in the doc.

Pigeon Tunnel
is definitely a very Morris-ish doc, but it stylistically and thematically suits his subject, who wrote about deceit after experiencing it first-hand. Le Carre/Cornwell clearly expresses his expectation that the film would serve as a final testament or summation, so his answers are always brutally honest, even when things are still a bit ambiguous in his own mind.

For le Carre fans and critics,
Pigeon Tunnel will be a terrific resource. He confirms Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor is largely inspired by Philby, which everybody always largely assumed. However, it deepens our understanding of the morality of his novels and worldview. Terms like le Carre-esque have been used to suggest a moral equivalence between the NATO-West and the Soviets, but that now seems like an inaccurate, or at least incomplete assessment of his ideology.

He remains blisteringly critical of his former employers at MI5 and MI6, but that is understandable, considering he lived through the Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess debacles. However, he openly expresses anger and contempt for Philby, for his betrayal, even at his advanced age. It is complicated for le Carre, who acknowledges he would have been a prime candidate for Soviet recruitment. Yet, the atrocities of Stalin, whom the Cambridge spies initially served, represents a point of moral clarity for the writer, or so we can interpret from his sit-downs with Morris. He was similarly appalled by the Berlin Wall.


In slasher movies, camping trips and bachelorette parties have very high mortality rates. Eddie will combine them both her friend Mattie. That works out about as well as you would expect in Robyn August’s Killher, which releases tomorrow on VOD and in theaters.

Eddie is a lot, but she is determined to throw a wild party for Mattie, filled with many surprises. The first surprise is that they will meet up with her fiancé Jagger, once they reach the campsite. Yet, it strangely turns out they did not pitch their tent next his. Instead, it is the grumpy “Mr. Rogers,” who seems almost too conveniently misanthropic.

He definitely gives bad vibes to Mattie’s other friends, Jess and Rae, who were not so crazy about this plan to begin with. They do not exactly adore Eddie either, especially since she constantly pulls girl-who-cried-wolf-style horror movie practical jokes. Regardless, someone will start stalking the women later that night.

is a pretty simple, straightforward slasher comedy, but it works surprisingly well, thanks to the energy and attitude of M.C. Huff, as the trying-too-hard Eddie, and Tom Kiesche (who also wrote the screenplay), as the anti-social Mr. Rogers. They get most of the funny lines and they have the timing to land them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Butcher’s Crossing, Starring a Bald Nic Cage

For the American Buffalo, Miller was a one-man extinction event. Somehow, the species survived him, but it was not for a lack of bloodlust. Not surprisingly, he finds the Great Western Plains increasingly sparse of prey, so he sets off on an ambitious hunting expedition. His party encounters some serious karma in Gabe Polsky’s Butcher’s Crossing, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Will Andrews is taking a break from his Harvard studies to find adventure on the Frontier. He has a particular bee in his bonnet spurring him to find a genuine buffalo hunt. This is a really bad idea, as J.D. McDonald, a crusty pelt dealer who once knew Andrews’ preacher father, emphasizes in no uncertain terms. Nevertheless, he has his heart set on it, so he unwisely funds the mysterious Miller’s proposed expedition to a hidden Colorado valley, where the you-know-what supposedly roam.

Miller is visibly erratic and he becomes borderline psychotic when discussing buffalo. Yet, Andrews is perversely drawn to him, partly because the dynamics of their party are so dysfunctional. Charley Hodge, Miller’s cook and wagon master is devout in a way that emphasizes divine retribution, which puts him at odds with the crude pelt-skinner, Fred Schneider, who goes out of his way to push and prod Andrews and Hodge. When the weather turns bitter, the tensions within the expedition steadily rise.

Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy’s adaptation of the novel written by the late John Edward Williams (a longtime professor at the University of Denver, go Pioneers!), lacks the kind of incisive bite viewers will hope for. As a director, Polsky is not fully capable of corralling all the tension Nic Cage’s crazy behavior generates. However, if you have always wondered what it would be like to see Cage portray Col. Kurtz or Captain Ahab, this film will give viewers a pretty good idea.

Shape Island: Creepy Cave Crawl, on Apple TV+

If you do not enjoy Halloween, you’re a square. That is literally true in this very young-skewing Apple TV+ series. In a Three Bears-like distribution, Square is miserable during Halloween, Triangle loves the holiday, especially the tricks, while Circle enjoys celebrating in responsible moderation. Circle will most likely have the right approach in Shape Island’s holiday special, “Creepy Cave Crawl,” which premieres this Friday on Apple TV+.

Basically, this is a late bonus episode for season one of
Shape Island, but it is still nice to see Apple semi-revive the tradition of the animated holiday special (remember the B.C. Easter special?). The scares are all very gentle, but Triangle is still cruising for a Halloween bruising. Circle is usually more indulgent of his monster-themed pranks, but he is really pushing it this year. In fact, when he repurposes all the holiday jam she and Square just finished making for his haunted cave tour, they both storm out in a huff. That leaves Triangle alone with all the cave’s spooky inhabitants, who had been quietly watching them.

Of course, there is no gore or serious peril in “Creepy Cave Crawl.” At least this special is also refreshingly free of woke messaging and virtue signaling (I can’t vouch for the rest of the series). There is also enough pumpkin spice and innocent Halloween cos play to satisfy young viewers’ seasonal expectations.

The character designs (adapted from Jon Klassen’s illustrations for Barnett’s books) are obviously very simple, but they have distinct personalities. For older viewers, just seeing a Halloween special is sort of nostalgic. It makes you hungry for Dolly Madison Zingers. Nice and age-appropriate, “Creepy Cave Crawl” is recommended for kids when it starts streaming Friday (10/20) on Apple TV+.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

The Canterville Ghost, with the Voice of Stephen Fry

Not all ghosts are scary. Some are rather sad, because they mark the passage of time. Sir Simon de Canterville is definitely like that, but he also shares a kinship with Captain Gregg, Mrs. Muir’s ghost. He was once a holy terror, but he meets his match in a thoroughly modern American family in Kim Burdon’s animated adaptation of The Canterville Ghost, co-directed by Robert Chandler, which opens Friday in theaters.

For three hundred years, Sir Simon scared the willies out of everyone who tried to inhabit Canterville Chase. Unfortunately, Yanks like the Otis family are far too materialistic for ghosts. Virginia’s father Hiram considers himself a man of science, whose electric lights frazzle the ghost’s nerves. Her bratty twin brother torment poor Sir Simon with practical jokes. Of course, she is not scared of him either, but as the late 19
th Century equivalent of a moody goth teen, she is drawn to Sir Simon’s tragic romanticism.

Alas, the ghost would much prefer to be dead, so he can finally be reunited with his beloved wife. Death played a mean trick on him, which made him onery. Otis would like to break his curse, but that will be a complicated and dangerous proposition.

Screenwriters Cory Edwards, Giles New, and Keiron Self collectively did a nice job adapting Oscar Wilde’s novella, retaining his major themes, while punching up some of the dark and stormy bits, for Halloween. Wilde scholars might take issue with Hugh Laurie’s Angel of Death character, but he helps stir the pot and raise the stakes. There is plenty of animated mayhem, but deep down, this film is sadder and wiser than
Casper or Topper.

Canterville is indeed a tragic figure, given Shakespearean dimensions (and references) by Stephen Fry’s hammy voice. Emily Carey makes Virginia Otis appealingly smart and sensitive, despite her teen angst. Freddie Highmore sounds appropriately young and befuddled as the Duke of Cheshire, but his voice works surprisingly well in conversation with Carey’s.

Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls

Don't pay attention to people who dis on the Eighties. The truth is, the Satanic should always make you panic. Marcus J. Trillbury will have to learn that the hard way, because he is a moron. He wants to escape his dead-end life through the occult. Unfortunately, that just might happen in Andrew Bowser’s Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls, which screens nationwide this Thursday, via Fathom Events.

Trillbury wants everyone to call him Onyx the Fortuitous, but that is obviously ridiculous. It also is not very accurate, since he lives in his mother Nancy’s basement, constantly bickers with her second husband, and works at a cut-rate fast-food joint. He has applied to participate in a mysterious ritual hosted by his heavy metal icon, Bartok the Great, believing it will change his life. However, Bartok has a much different role in mind for the five lucky “sacrifices” he selects, including Trillbury.

The five are a strange group, including an academic (Mr. Duke), a grieving housewife (Shelley), a tattoo-artist-groupie (Jesminder), and a non-binary witchcraft experimenter (Mack). With the help of the resentful Farrah, a minor demon in human form, Bartok intends to raise the grand demon Abaddon and assume his powers on Earth. To do so, he must consign his sacrifices’ souls to eternity in the Talisman of Souls. However, Duke and Mack are smart enough to recognize Bartok and Farrah are not being straight with them.

Apparently, Bowser’s Trillbury character is the star of a popular series of viral videos. That kind of makes sense, because after three minutes, he becomes excruciatingly annoying.
Onyx the Fortuitous happens to be over one hour and forty-five minutes. If Bowser had turned his persona down three or four clicks, it would have been much easier to spend all that time with him.

It is a shame, because
Onyx the Fortuitous reunites Reanimator co-stars Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs as Nancy and Bartok. In many ways, this is an appealing satanic panic horror yarn, somewhat in the tradition of Chemical Wedding, featuring a number of colorful characters. Unfortunately, the Trillbury shtick simply does not wear well over time.

Quantum Leap: Closure Encounters

When you are a time-traveler, it is a little harder to automatically dismiss UFO reports. Suddenly, Dr. Ben Song finds himself investigating those claims, as a Special Agent attached to Project Blue Book’s predecessor program. Frankly, Dr. Song would rather chase flying saucers than deal with his ex-fiancée and designated holographic guide Addison Augustine in “Closure Encounters,” this week’s episode of Quantum Leap, which premieres tomorrow night on NBC.

For Song, no time passed since his season one finale jump. For Augustine and the rest of the team, it has been three years. During that elapsed time, Augustine grieved, had a funeral for Song, and started seeing Tom Westfall, from DOD, who is now jointly overseeing the Quantum Leap project with “Magic” Williams (who is still totally cool). Song has not met Westfall yet, but he quickly deduced Augustine had moved on.

Normally, he would be more Scully than Mulder, but Song rather recklessly charges into this leap. He sympathizes with Carrie Baker, who claims her car was driven off the road by a UFO. Unfortunately, she will be railroaded for the mysterious injuries that rendered her friend and passenger, Melanie Hunt, comatose. He also likes her grandfather, Sheriff Woodrow Morgan, whose hands are largely tied by Hunt’s wealthy land-owning father.

Raymond Lee and Caitlin Bassett always had solid chemistry throughout the first season, so it is sad to see Song and Augustine on the outs, but their drama is very believable, given the extraordinary circumstances. Frankly, it is nice to see the goody-two-shoes Song start to develop a few cowboy tendencies. Louis Hertham is also a terrific guest-star, appealingly balancing sensitivity and manliness as Sheriff Morgan.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Sri Asih: A New Indonesian Superhero Rises

She is like Wonder Woman, except she has a red scarf instead of a golden lasso—and her latest film doesn’t stink. Tired of the MCU and DCU movies? Who isn’t? The CGI is terrible, the writing is too woke, and everybody who isn’t a super-fan has to google all the meaningless character cameos. Indonesia is doing a much better job of superhero movies—and they too have two shared universes going. The Legend of Gatotkaca launched the Satria Dewa. Now we get the second film of the Bumilangit universe. However, you do not need to know anything about the first film to enjoy UPI (Avianto)’s Sri Asih: The Warrior, which releases tomorrow on DVD and VOD.

Alana always had a lot of fight in her, even in the orphanage, following her parents rather spectacular volcano-related deaths. Fortuitously, her mother happens to be the wealthy proprietor of an MMA gym. That was a convenient happenstance, but obviously, not really.

As a young woman, Alana is a contender. Unfortunately, that means she attracts the attention of crimelord Prayogo Adinegara’s wastrel son Mateo, who fancies himself a cage-fighter. He pressures Alana to take a dive, to stroke his ego. Reluctantly, she agrees for the sake of the gym, but his jerky behavior ignites her anger.

It turns out Alana has anger issues, straight from the goddess of anger, herself. That is because the sinister deity knows the goddess Asih has invested Alana with her own powers of righteousness. There are people who can help her master her powers, so she can defeat the rival goddess’s earthly host and foil a gruesome sacrifice.

There is a lot going on in
Sri Asih, but it all boils down to G vs. E, good versus evil. That is why it works better than any recent American superhero movie. If you were cool with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, you will be just as happy with Pevita Pearce as Alana/Sri Asih, if not slightly more so.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

The Lake: a Thai Kaiju Rises

Remember kids, kaiju eggs are not keepsakes. When a village girl steals on of its eggs, of course the alpha kaiju will come looking for it. Ditto for when the big city cops capture a junior kaiju. The resulting carnage might even satisfy the bloodlust of Ivy League student “activists.” Death comes wet and muddy in Lee Thongkham’s The Lake, which screens at the Spectacle in Brooklyn.

When torrential rains wash a batch of kaiju eggs to the shore, you better expect one of the beasts will come to retrieve them. The next morning little May luckily stumbles across the last one left and she refuses to give it up when her family asks: “what the heck.” Arguably, this will all be her fault.

When the first kaiju attacks the village, Keng and Lin barely escape, but his wound gives him brief, disorienting moments of kaiju vision. Unfortunately, the creature follows them to the bigger city, where he is receiving treatment. Soon, Suwat, the police chief, summons all officers to handle the attacking kaiju. That would include James, an inspector, who leaves his truant teen daughter Pam in the backseat of his cruiser, because what is the worst that could happen under the circumstances? Remember, they haven’t even seen the big one yet.

The kaiju effects are cool, which is, by far, the most important thing about
The Lake. The junior kaiju sort of looks like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Xenomorph from Alien. For some shots, there is still a dude in the suit—and he acts incredibly pissed off. It was augmented with CGI, but the mix looks terrific on-screen. The senior kaiju clearly owes a debt of gratitude to the king himself, Godzilla. It has a big set-piece scene that clearly rips off Jurassic Park, but they do it well.

There is no question the biggest stars of the film are the kaiju, designed by Jordu Schell, whose sculptural effects have been seen in films like
Starship Troopers, Cloverfield, and Hellboy. The people, on the other hand, are somewhat hit-or-miss. However, the great Vithaya Pansringarm brings a lot grounded maturity to the film as Chief Suwat (who also must worry about his own daughter Fon, a junior officer on the force).

Theerapat Sajakul is also impressively hard-boiled as Inspector James, but his character is not a good decision-maker or strategic thinker. Frustratingly, the younger the character, the less patience viewers will have for them.