Tag Archives: movies

“The Witch” is not What They Say It Is

[WARNING: This review contains spoilers!]

Director Robert Eggers debut film The Witch is getting a fair amount of attention.  It appears to be #4 in the box office and rave reviews are flooding in from many critics.

Everyday mortal viewers like myself, on the other hand, have been somewhat unforgiving.  Why?  Because although The Witch is creepy, weird, and unsettling, its problems are myriad.  The visuals are nice and its well acted.  It has several nice shocks and some genuinely disturbing scenes.  But the dialogue is period accurate for the 1600s, which means you can understand only two thirds of what’s said.  And the ending is incredibly dark, the darkest in recent memory.

The film is billed as a “New England fairy tale” and as everyone knows, fairy tales are lessons for children.  Little Red Riding Hood warns little girls about the dangers straying off the path of abstinence.  The Three Little Pigs encourages kids not to be lazy and to do things right the first time.  The Pancake warns kids that if you get sassy and run away from home before you’re ready, you might fall prey to greedy pigs.

What is the lesson taught by The Witch?  Some say it empowers women.

According to Vice Magazine, “The Witch is a kick in the balls of patriarchy.”  Jex Blackmore and her Satanic Temple have embraced the film saying,

“[I]t features a declaration of feminine independence that both provokes puritanical America and inspires a tradition of spiritual transgression. We are empowered by the narrative of The Witch: a story of pathological pride, old-world religious paradigms, and an outsider who grabs persecution by the horns. Efforts to oppress and demonize the heretic prove to be a path to destruction. The witch does not burn but rises up in the night.”

Really?  Did we watch the same movie?

Sure, it’s true that it accurately portrays  the patriarchal nightmare of puritanical early America.  Poor Thomasin, the movie’s young heroine, is trapped by her worthless father and mother in a horrid, dark, and oppressive home environment in which, although innocent of wrongdoing, she is continually blamed.  The evil witches abduct and kill her little brother Sam.  They lure away her other brother Caleb, whom they seduce, poison and kill.  These witches love to kill and mutilate stuff — dogs, goats, you name it.  Eventually they get around to slaughtering her two remaining siblings as well.

The film may kick patriarchy in the scrotum, but there’s no way out for our heroine.   In the end, after being forced to kill her own deluded mother in self-defense, Thomasin has no choice: in order to survive, she must sign her name in the book of another male authority figure.  Sure, this one can take the form of the goat and get you high in the woods, but it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.  It’s not freedom.

Cheering at the ending of this movie is like cheering about a girl escaping from her oppressive parents into the arms of a gang of meth heads.  The Witch, with utter realism, says the same thing that every real life gangster, pusher, pimp and low-life scum has said since time began.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

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There are films and there are movies. When you imagine the possibility that a cinematic production might deeply touch or even change someone’s life, you probably think of a great film, a self-important, artsy-fartsy kind of film.

But in this case it was an action flick.

I hate to hear the term “serious art.”  It implies that some art is not serious, that it is inherently lesser.  We don’t know what is in the artist’s heart, and even if we did, what difference does that make? 

Art is art.  That black light Jimi Hendrix poster you got on eBay and tacked to your ceiling may be your personal Sistine Chapel. 

I’m not saying that all art is equal in terms of the depth of symbolism, the skill required, the time investment, and the various metrics.  All I’m saying is that I/we shouldn’t be so ready to look down our noses at stuff.

They Live! The Counter-Culture Must-See Holiday Movie


A Christmas present from my coworkers…

A few months ago some folks at work overheard me talking about how much I love the movie They Live.  Bless their little souls, yesterday they gave me the DVD as a Christmas present.  I watched it as soon as I got home last night.

Let me now explain to you why you must see it, and why the holiday season is the perfect time to do so.

The movie is based on a story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O-clock in the Morning.”  Ray is now 83 years old and is remembered primarily as the inventor of the airplane propeller beanie.  But he could just as well be famous for teaming up with Michael Moorcock to smuggle banned books out of Paris, for teaming up with Philip Dick to write The Ganymede Takeover, or for being friends with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.  If you know anything about the wacko, counter-culture, Beat Generation friends that Ray cultivated, you now have an idea what to expect from this tale.

Carpenter’s version of the story isn’t perfect.  The tone is mixed, switching from comedic to creepy at the drop of a hat, and the effects are rather uneven (some of them are quite good by 1988 standards, others are just plain awful).  It’s a low budget production for sure, and there are times when you cringe at the sets.  The movie starts off a little slow.

But when the hero, played by pro wrestler Roddy Piper, puts on the sunglasses and utters one of the best movie lines in movie history, you better hold on to your seats.  “I am here to chew bubble gum and kick ass,” Piper says.  “And I am all out of bubble gum.”

They Live is a scathing critique of commercialism, advertising, greed, and our entire society, but it manages to get it done without preachiness or pretense.  Is it perfect?  No.  But watching this movie is like finding a diamond ring in your Velveeta, and when you’re done you may not look at your TV, your boss, or your congressman the same way again.  You may even feel pretty stupid about the credit card bills you racked up to put presents under the Christmas tree.

A surprisingly good performance from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and a great job by journeyman actor Keith David.  Directed by John Carpenter, the genius behind Halloween, Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China. Dozens of memorable lines of dialogue.  One of the best fight scenes in the history of cinema.  Great premise.

It all comes together to make pure, B-movie magic.

Putting the Heart in Horror

Spanish Moss on a Cypress tree

Spanish Moss on a Cypress tree, taken during a bayou tour the wife and I took. Classic horror stuff!

I don’t understand why there isn’t more heart in our horror books and movies.  You can’t spit at anything in the genre without hitting tension, fear, dread, adrenaline, and gore.  But finding more than a dash of real heart is pretty difficult.

That’s surprising to me when I think about how many of my favorite horror works have a gut-wrenching ribcage-smashing load of agonizing heart  in them.  By “heart” what I mean is fully developed relationships, feelings, caring, and love.  You know, the stuff that’s such a nice counter-balance to tension, fear, dread, adrenaline, and gore?  I wouldn’t give you a nickel for Saw, Hostel, or any of those heartless splatter flicks (see there, I didn’t even link their titles to IMDb).

As a kid I watched the original Frankenstein.  The scene I can’t get out of my head is the one in which Karloff’s monster is playing with a little girl beside a pond.  Here we have an innocent child, the one person in the entire village who is able to see beyond the monster’s appearance and give him a chance to prove himself harmless, sitting with the monster and taking turns tossing flower petals into the water.  Thinking she’ll float too, when the petals run out the monster tosses her in.   His reaction when she drowns is one of the most painful in my movie watching history.

I hope I don’t have to explain the dump truck load of heart that’s in The Exorcist.  Love shines out of every character, which is why the movie pains the viewer at every turn.  Then there’s Night of the Living Dead.  When the little girl gets zombiefied, what really gets me is the mother’s unwillingness to admit that her child can’t be saved.  And when the hero gets picked off at the end, it hurts because for the previous 90 minutes he’s been caring about everyone else.

The movie Pet Sematary pulls all the right heart strings.  What father wouldn’t do everything possible to save his son?  And how about Let the Right One In?  A lonely, bullied boy’s childish crush grows into so much more, all against the backdrop of ever-growing  tension and horror.   Or 28 Days Later?  This movie spends an hour making you love Frank (the brave and caring father masterfully played by Brendan Gleeson) only to have a raven’s single carnivorous peck take him away from us forever.

I guess my preference for heart with my horror explains why I’ve been very hard to please when it comes to horror books.  I have enjoyed  some Stephen King and Richard Matheson (Stir of Echoes, both book and movie, are out of this world), but most modern authors leave me cold.  Give me Orwell and Kafka.  McTeague by Frank Norris isn’t a tragedy, it’s horror.  And one of my favorites.

Horror without heart is a whole lotta nothin’.  That’s why, when I set out to write my slipstream horror books, I put in as much heart as the stories could bear.  After all, you don’t want to go overboard when adding heart to your horror.   You might end up with a love story or drama with a pale and sickly horror backdrop (and we all know a few examples of that).