Well, Happy New Year to all of you! I hope you had a great holiday season, and I hope you missed me as much as I missed you! I have made great strides in cleaning up my office, and my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, is very happy! I really should be doing my annual “column round-up” this week, but that takes a while, so I’ll have it either next week or the one after. And tomorrow (Saturday the 9th) is my birthday, too! (I won’t tell you my age—unless you ask specifically—but I will tell you that if nn (pick a number) is the new thirty, I’m well into my late thirties! In a little bit, I’m going to give you a couple of “B”-movie reviews, but first, let’s chat a while, just to get reacquainted. (By the by, Figure 1 is Lynne’s newest “upcycled” sculpture, and it’s already sold.)
It snowed here a couple of nights ago—yeah, I’m sure many of you live in places where it has snowed a lot, but this is Vancouver, and snow’s kinda rare here (we have a white Christmas about every 10 years, according to the news). So when I came back from dropping Lynne off at work this morning, our 80-plus-year-old neighbour was brushing snow off her car. Knowing there was some ice under the snow (I’d already done our car in order to take Lynne to work), I said, “Can I help?” We chatted while I was scraping the windows (I had a scraper in my back pocket) and I noticed she said “cah” instead of “car.” I said I thought she sounded kinda Boston-ish, but she said she was from “T’ronnah” (that’s Toronto, Ontario to you Americans. Generally speaking, Toronto residents think their city is the centre of the universe.) We chatted more as I worked on the rest of the windows, and I learned we had both lived in San Francisco in the ‘sixties. As I finished, I said, “Since you’ve lived so many places, how do you like the West Coast?” She looked at me blankly, and said, “You mean Vancouver? It’s okay, but it’s no T’ronnah!” That was my chuckle for the morning; you might find it funny. Anyway, back to the reviews.
As I may have mentioned once or twice, I’m a sucker for “B” movies. On my off hours I have been known to watch a “B” while reading a book (double your pleasure, double your fun!), but mostly during this mini-staycation, I watched movies from 2015. No really outstanding genre movies, other than The Martian, which has been amply reviewed in these pages… uh, browser tabs?… by other Amazing columnists, but a number of good and bad “B”s. So I’ll do a few (“The Good, the Mediocre and The Ugly”?)—but remember, not only do I shy away from spoilers on good movies, I embrace spoilers often on bad movies. And it’s all purely subjective, born of many years of watching movies, good and bad. And also of reading SF/F, good and bad. (As the late Theodore Sturgeon once reminded us, 90% of everything is crud.)
My “good” B-movie today is called Extinction, although it started out being called “Welcome to Harmony.” Although the retitle is more exciting than the original, it’s not exactly accurate. It’s not a zombie movie (thank goodness!), but more on the order of 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead (the remake); think “fast infection.” The movie has a short preamble showing how quickly the infection spreads, and introducing two of the main characters, plus a pregnant third and an infant. Fadeout/fade-in nine years later, and here we are at the town of Harmony (Welcome to…), though we have no idea where the heck Harmony is. And obviously, besides the infection, there has been a global cooling, because everything is frozen and/or covered with snow.
We find Jack, who’s a single father raising 9-year-old Lu, who was the infant in the first scenes. Jack and Lu live in a wire-fenced-off compound next to another fenced-in house, yet we don’t see whomever lives in that other house, except… We see another man, bearded, in a parka, shooting a horse in a town, then bringing it back on a trailer attached to a snowmobile. We cut to Lu, over a meal of canned beans and rice, complaining that she wishes there was meat. “It’s been so long since I tasted meat,” she says, and the camera cuts to the bearded man’s kitchen, where he’s opening a can of tomato sauce or soup—the first one is full of mold, so he opens another one—and grilling what we can only presume is a horse steak. And giving some to his dog. (We see enough of his life to realize that he’s a total drunk; he even puts whiskey in his dog’s dish.) It is Lu’s 9th birthday, and Patrick, the neighbour, has made her a chocolate cake. He can’t give it to her, though we don’t know why, so he gives it to the dog.
Through scenes of Jack’s homeschooling of Lu we learn a bit of the background. For an unknown reason he does not talk to his next-door neighbour or allow him to talk to Lu—although Jack’s dog has been excavating (away from the door where Jack could see it) under the fence; Lu has been giving him cookies. There is a scene where she sees a shadowy, misshapen figure outside the wire; she screams and tells Jack that she saw a monster. He patiently explains that the cold killed all the monsters years ago. Patrick has been going to town and getting supplies; he also picks up a doll that he thinks Lu will like, from a warehouse. He sees a fox; later in that trip he sees the fox eviscerated, along with other, less identifiable animal carcasses, and realizes that the “monsters” are far from dead; he manages to escape, with his dog, and pulls down a metal door, trapping the monster in the warehouse. After getting up close and personal with the humanoid creature, he realizes that in fact, the cold didn’t kill the infected, it forced them to evolve more swiftly than anything on Earth ever had.
One of the reasons this is a B-movie rather than an A-lister is that there is very little new in it. Zombies, Undead or infectious raging maniacs have been done, redone and overdone. The “lone survivors” trapped in a “last refuge,” with or without snow and ice, has been done (by itself and in combination with the infectious disease) before. Another reason it’s a B-movie is that there are no explanations: no explanation of the disease nor how far it has spread or when it started; we are placed in medias res (Latin for “in the middle of the action,” basically, but you already knew that) at the beginning of the film. There is no explanation for the cold, nor how long it took to cool things down to this extent. (We can only presume it’s global, or at least North America-wide; at one point one of the men seems to indicate it’s been years since he saw a sunrise or sunset.) There is not even the slightest explanation of how the infected managed to cram several million years’ worth of evolution into 9 years or less.
What lifts this out of the general run of B-movies, as far as I’m concerned, is the tension created by the interaction among the two men and the little girl. We do eventually learn the reason Jack and Patrick are on the outs, and there are surprises in store for us as well. I think the writing and acting are extremely vivid—and at one point I found myself cursing Jack for something he did (or in this case, failed to do). I think that’s a sign that the movie was at least somewhat effective. Oh, yeah—the movie was (this is, I think a first) a joint Spanish-Hungarian effort, directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas. It starred Jeffrey Donovan as Jack, Matthew Fox as Patrick and Quinn McColgan as Lu.
My “okay” B-movie is called Crimson Peak. I had somewhat high hopes for this, as the ads on TV seemed to show a very good “active” ghost story, maybe along the lines of the recent remake of 13 Ghosts (with Tony Shalhoub), a movie I enjoyed a lot. And it was written (with help, apparently) and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, a director who, like M. Night Shyamalan, seems to be up and down a lot in the quality of his movies. For example, Pan’s Labyrinth was clever, with good makeup and effects, as were the two Hellboy movies; however, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (he was the producer) was, in my opinion, terrible. (I even liked the 1973 TV-movie of that one better, even though it had Kim Darby in it. And I really don’t care for her as an actress.)
It’s a period piece, set in the early years of the 20th century, about 1905-1910. It stars, as the poster above states, Tom Hiddleston as Thomas Sharpe, Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing and Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe, along with Jim Beaver as Carter Cushing (Edith’s father) and Charlie Hunnam as Dr. Alan McMichael. (Interestingly enough, the ghosts of both Edith’s mother and Lady Sharpe are played by Doug Jones.) Yes, there are ghosts—and they’re well done. But that may be part of the problem. All the acting is good; we’re probably all familiar with Hiddleston’s work as Loki (for example), Wasikowska’s notably been Alice from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (and she and Hiddleston shared a screen with Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive, a very good vampire movie). Chastain’s been in The Martian, Interstellar, Mama and Zero Dark Thirty, while Hunnam’s lately been seen in Pacific Rim; anyone who’s watched Supernatural or Deadwood is probably familiar with Beaver. But the real star of the movie, as far as I’m concerned, is the house, named Allerdale Hall—but called “Crimson Peak” by the locals because of the signature red clay that underlies the ground on which it was built, and which bleeds through and colours snow blood-red! (Of course, part of the movie has to take place in the winter in order to show this effect off.)
We’ll talk more about the house shortly, but first, the story. Edith Cushing is a child of privilege in Buffalo, New York; her father, Carter Cushing, is a prosperous builder. She has ambitions of becoming a novelist, and has an “understanding” with a childhood friend, Alan McMichael, who has become the family doctor. Edith also has some kind of psychic connection with her dead mother. One day a stranger—an English Baronet named Sharpe—appears at her father’s offices and attempts to inveigle him into investing in the Sharpe family business, which is mining red clay for bricks, pipes, etc., though the business has fallen on hard times. The Baronet has an invention—a mining machine run on steam—which will enable them to mine previously inaccessible clay deposits and return a handsome profit which will restore the family fortunes and give a substantial return on investment. Cushing declines the offer, noting that the Baronet has previously tried to obtain financing in Paris, London and various other cities with no success.
Sharpe is taken with Edith, and talks to her about the novel she is writing. She tells him it appears to be a ghost story, but that the ghosts are merely metaphors. Cushing senses something wrong about Sharpe and engages a private detective to find out about this minor nobleman; just as he is delivered a damning report by the detective, a mysterious interloper catches Cushing at the bath in his club and smashes his head into a porcelain sink, breaking both the sink and the head. Sharpe consoles Edith and, in a whirlwind courtship, marries her and carries her off to England to Allerdale Hall.
So let’s talk about the Hall itself. The movie crew built this full-scale house inside a movie set; it has working plumbing, lights and elevator. According to their information, everything in it was built from scratch—an enormous undertaking, and the house shows the effort that went into it. Unfortunately, in order to free up the set, the house was demolished when filming was finished. Too bad they couldn’t have made it in such a way as to take it out intact. ’Twould make a great tourist attraction, at least!
The reason I’m calling this a mediocre film, even with all the effort—and the good acting—that went into it is that it has major problems. There’s a twist in the story, and anyone who has seen more than a few movies will probably be way ahead of the filmmakers. As Lynne and I were; we foresaw the twist. Way ahead of time. Then there’s the fact that for a ghost story, the ghosts in this one play such a small part—like the ones in Edith’s story, the ones here are almost metaphorical. The ghost effects are very good, and the ghosts could have been very frightening, if used to better the story, with more interaction. But the ghosts here are mostly used for effect, and serve very little purpose. There are also big errors, like the leaves that keep falling through the giant hole in Allerdale Hall’s roof. Where are the trees that are bigger than the house? How was the steam engine during the climax activated with no steam? Things like this can really kill a movie. So we’re left with very good actors propping up a not-so-good film. Such a shame, really.
And that leaves us with The Visit. The Visit is a 2015 “found footage” horror film written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It stars Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie and Kathryn Hahn. It was released in September. The ads for this movie were intriguing… they seemed to suggest that Grandma was akin to those storybook witches—you know, the ones with the cottages made from cookies and candy; the ones who are always trying to get kids to crawl into their ovens. The reality was quite a bit different. And kinda boring.
The problem with Shyamalan’s movies is that they’ve become predictable in so many ways. He made a big splash with The Sixth Sense, which was a “twist” movie, well acted by Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, and followed it with such movies as Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, Unbreakable (again with Bruce Willis as well as Samuel L. Jackson), The Happening and, lately, After Earth (Will and Jaden Smith) and the pilot for Whispering Pines with Matt Dillon. Of those movies, about half are “twist”movies, and because of the nature of the twist, pretty much unwatchable once you know the McGuffin. I have copies of Unbreakable and Lady in the Water and will watch those again (Paul Giamatti is excellent, as are Willis and Jackson in their movie); have no desire to ever see Signs or The Village or—especially—After Earth again, and will probably stop watching Whispering Pines, as I feel they’ve “jumped the shark.” (Because of the subject matter, I’m kind of divided on The Happening. Suicide is hardly ever painless, according to that movie.) So his track record just isn’t that good.
Does The Visit depend on a twist? Absolutely! About 20 minutes in both my wife, the B & T LTF, and I had figured it out, and the rest was just waiting… waiting… waiting for the “reveal.” It just wasn’t worth my time, but if you feel you have to see it, I will be nice and not spoil it.
I’d love a comment on this week’s column, if you will. You could comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link. I don’t care if you want to throw bouquets or brickbats… I’m fallible, and maybe you’ve caught me in an error. That’s okay—go ahead and tell me! I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome, really, so don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!