How (not) to survive the holidays with family: A critical review of “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003)

Not to toot my own horn, but you, tonstant weader, who so well know the nature of my soul, probably recognize that I’ve seen a couple of thrillers in my time. So when a film that I have seen more than once gets me to beg the characters on screen not to look under that cabinet – that nothing good can come from doing so – it is entirely possible one might have an effectively scary movie on their hands.

I said I was going to try and end the year on a high note.

Enter “A Tale of Two Sisters,” a psychological horror/haunted house movie that is one of the best of them. It has something for every fan of the genre. You like slow burning and atmospheric? We got you covered. You like jump scares and loud noises? We got you covered too. You like movies that appear to have made the mainstream without ever having actually made it? Keep reading.

The film opens with – go figure – two sisters, long-haired Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and short-haired Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), who have returned to their family’s summer house for some rest and relaxation, neatly fitting into this blog’s “home for the holidays” theme. However, between the distance of their father (a solid performance from Kim Kap-soo) and some passive aggression from their stepmother (a layered performance from Yum Jung-ah), they’ll have a hard time settling in. Not to mention the fact that the house seems haunted by some frightful and disturbing past. The more Su-mi plays detective and defense for her sister, the more it seems that little is as it seems.

That’s admittedly vague regarding the story (the script was by the director Kim Jee-woon), but the film is honestly something that must be reckoned with in its viewing. Much of the experience is in the atmosphere. Right off the bat, viewers are greeted with the dulled images of a TV movie, but take heart. From the first scene set in a sterile hospital, the muted colors only emphasize that nothing in this film is ever going to be friendly.

Everything is carried by mood and subtext. Character interaction and body language, rather than monologues and exposition dumps, guide the narrative. This is a deep and subtle film, and that’s apparent in the visuals. The shot composition, blocking and set decoration are where one should be paying attention (the cinematography was by frequent Kim collaborator Lee Mo-gae). A clock, a television set, a pair of mirrors, a faucet, everything is photographed with frightening intention and meaning. The editing and pacing are intelligent, purposeful and reward careful observation.

A good test of a psychological thriller is whether or not you can comprehend–even feel sorry for–every main character, and this film passes with flying colors. The sisters have their own thing going, with Su-mi wanting answers and Su-yeon wanting to be left alone, and it would be easy enough to stop there. However, Kim’s script bothers with dad and stepmom as well, who are desperate to understand and desperate to fit in respectively, and both believably so. That’s also thanks to the solid, sometimes painfully so, performances of everyone in the cast.

The film is thoughtful, but that’s not to say it lacks thrills. For example, there is a scene in which a character raids a refrigerator for a late night snack. You would think it’s the kind of scene where they’ll close the refrigerator door, and a jump scare will be suddenly standing next to them. It isn’t, but you might wish it would have been that easy when the scene actually unfolds.

Some quibbles: The use of sound is not particularly creative, although it is appropriate and effective. The score is serviceable, if not memorable. The lighting is never the best. It’s usually passable, but sometimes it seems obviously shot day for night. Of course, that arguably enhances the overall uneasy feeling the film creates.

“Sisters” is as moody and Gothic as get out. Old houses, family secrets, hints of incest and necromancy, the gang’s all here. Stepmom keeps saying the house is a character, but she’s wrong. It’s the family dynamic – not the house – that is the real “hidden” character of the work. The family is twisted and self-swallowing, like an ouroboros, and its true nexus is not revealed until the end of the film, or maybe not until a second (or third) viewing.

This is not a thriller to watch if you want to see sexy, brainless teens being slaughtered in creative ways. This is a thriller to watch if you want to see atmosphere on a sensible budget, a complex and nuanced story about flawed people, and a restrained mind screw in artful fashion.

“What in hell’s name made us get to this point?” a character asks toward the end of the film. “Don’t you get it yet?” I’ve seen it twice, and the answer is still: I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. Happy New Year.

Holiday horror on a budget: Critical reviews of “Santa Jaws” (2018) and “ThanksKilling” (2008)

What’s a holiday feast without a second helping? As promised, this blog has two more holiday flavored horror flicks, each one made on a modest budget. If yesterday’s films were the attempts at serious entree, then consider the following a comedic dessert. The films I ended up watching were each mixes of comedy and horror, albeit with the yuletide decorations still in tact. Arguably we’re still considering films that look to home for the holidays–it’s just that home is now occupied by supernatural fish and vengeful birds.

First up is “Santa Jaws,” which starts out strong with credits in front of glass ornaments falling through sea water. It’s a simple image, but, like the title, it says everything it needs to.

Cody (Reid Miller), comic book artist and juvenile delinquent, wishes he wasn’t home for the holidays when he gets in trouble for making a rude cartoon at school. However, he lucks out when one of his stocking stuffers turns out to be a magic pen that projects whatever he draws into the waking world. So the first thing he draws is a killer shark with a Santa hat. Of course it is. The beast comes to life in a local lake and starts targeting his family members, because what would Christmas be without family?

Jake Kiernan’s script reads like a solid, clever-if-not-intelligent pulp thriller. It has a premise that’s through the roof, some goofy and well-paced murders, cheesy dialogue, and an overall sense of fun. As a whole, the plot isn’t much more than it’s 20-foot title, but it moves fast enough that everything takes a while to wear thin. Surprisingly, the uncle who is an arrogant corporate type is not a heartless, artless asshole, so kudos to the script for bucking that expectation. There’s still a moral about family togetherness and shades of a romantic subplot, so don’t think you’re getting away from any of that.

The script and performances are workmanlike (I like Scott Allen Perry and Haviland Stillwell in supporting roles); the camerawork and editing are likewise clean, and there’s at least a sense of purpose to them (the film was directed and co-edited by Misty Talley, and photographed by Matt Bell; both worked on 2016’s “Ozark Sharks”). In the end, “Santa Jaws” is probably not going to crack your holiday top 10, but it is an entertaining, Syfy Channel-level monster movie.

All right, the last three holiday horrors have grown increasingly passable, but this blog wants something more, something truly distinct. What can satiate this yuletide thirst? Maybe Thanksgiving.

I’m sorry Tonstant Weader. I screwed up. The last budget holiday horror this blog watched was turkey day instead of jingle bells, but the end result was definitely unique. “ThanksKilling” was another supernatural creature feature/comedy-horror mashup. It’s stupid and surreal, but it fills some vacuum within me. I’m not entirely sure what that vacuum is, or if I even knew I had it before I watched the movie.

As best as I can summarize it, the plot of “ThanksKilling” is this: A squad of airhead college students–a jock, a slut, a hillbilly, a nerd and an obvious final girl–are heading to someone or other’s house for “Thanksgiving break.” Unbeknownst to them, a killer turkey hand puppet, the reawakened product of an old Indian curse, is stalking them. Will they be plucked off one by one? Or will they manage to beat the stuffing out of their foe?

At first glance, “ThanksKilling” does not look like a keeper. Its video and audio are clearly subpar, the special effects are budget at best, the script doesn’t care about believability, and it sounds like the actors are making up the dialogue half the time.

That’s what I would say if it were the exclusively case. As it stands, the first scene is both presented in a hyperreal style and sports a pilgrim woman who is fully clothed except for her generous bust. So right away, whether you’re looking for stylization or titillation, this movie seems to have you covered.

What follows is, again, pure pulp, but it has a clever script and smart photography. There is some sort of vision at play here, starting with the stylization of the opening scene and leading to the snappy dialogue and bucolic editing of the turkey-basted murders.

Those murders are relatively tame compared to genuine slashers, but at the same time, the film recognizes its meager budget and doesn’t try to overplay its hand—unless there’s some comedic purpose. For example, the killer turkey murders a victim off-screen, but he wears said victim’s face as a grotesquely stitched mask for a few scenes. Do we care? No. It’s a turkey puppet wearing a skin mask. It’s funny.

All right, so a movie about a centuries old mutant turkey puppet gone stir crazy isn’t necessarily going to advance the genre. But it can still entertain, and do it all in a little more than an hour. In fact, that might be the greatest strength of this film. Like a good dinner guest, it knows not to overstay its welcome. Horror fans with a sense of humor should be satisfied. “ThanksKilling” is like a perfect holiday meal–not necessarily nutritious, but fun, filling and not a bite too much.

Holiday horror on a budget: Critical reviews of “Unholy Night” (2019) and “Mrs. Claus” (2018)

Happy holidays, Tonstand Weader. We all can use a gift-me-up this year, and what’s more gifty than a double feature of holiday horror? A double-double feature of holiday horror. If we play our cards right, there’ll be two reviews of twin films this weekend. This blog is notorious for delivering…most of what it promises, so let’s see if we let everyone down this Christmas.

I mean, of course, keep our Christmas promise.

First up is the holiday horror anthology “Unholy Night.” Not the 1929 murder mystery “Unholy Night,” although that might have been more interesting. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The “Unholy Night” we’re talking about today concerns Lilly (co-writer and co-producer Jennifer Allanson), a put-upon nurse working the red-eye shift at a hospital one Christmas Eve. Although she’s trying to get to her mother’s place for a holiday dinner, she finds herself paired with an old man for the evening. Her charge carries a scrapbook that holds mementos from weird crimes of Christmases past, and he gradually shares them with her. The hour grows late, and Lily is torn between leaving the hospital and hearing the next story from the old man’s book.

That sounds like an interesting premise, and it is. There are hints of psychological horror, cannibalism and slasher setups to come. The problem is “Unholy Night” fails to grasp what it means to be a good horror anthology.

For example, the movie doesn’t have the right amount of stories. I admit that sounds pretentious, but ask yourself: How many stories is the “right” number to have within a horror anthology? Four seems pretty solid, right? Maybe three? In this film, there are two stories that come out of the old man’s book. Two-and-a-half at best, since there is an intro story, but any thriller fan knows it’s going to be tied to one of the other stories. That connection is so forced into the narrative that it can’t even be called a twist, which is another failing at how to construct this sort of story.

The writing is pretty bad, although the cast looks like they’re having fun. Everyone on set with some media experience seems to be a horror fan, so this was probably a labor of love, but perhaps they adored the spirit rather than the psychology of the genre. For example, there’s ample gore, but it’s both overdone and poorly done. Look, I don’t want to tell anyone how to make their movie, but if you can comfortably fit your budget in a tube sock, you might want to drop the fake body parts. If I can tell they came from a Halloween store, so can everyone else.

This blog is frequently a champion of bad thrillers, so it probably says something when even I admit this film is bad. I’ll say some nice things for a while. I like the lighting, but I’m a sucker for sets that use a particular color–green, red, yellow–as an anchoring element. The shot composition is a mixed bag. The directors and/or cinematographers (Randy Smith is sometimes both) favor extreme closeups, which can either be uncomfortably effective or just uncomfortable.

The writing sort of gets a little better as the film marches on, but it’s ain’t ever exactly Charles Dickens. The flashes of psychological dread and unease in Lily’s wraparound story are intriguing, not to mention the elf mannequin is nicely weird. Unfortunately, the more of those elements I saw, the more of them I wished there were–more build, more atmosphere, more clever punchlines, and less reality TV spoofs and fake severed fingers. If you’re itching for a recent holiday horror anthology flick, I’d suggest “Holiday Hell” instead.

Let’s pivot and go with something a bit more stable, like the yuletide slasher “Mrs. Claus.” Danielle (Hailey Strader) is not going home for the holidays–she’s going homecoming, which is a clumsy way to say she’s joined the sorority where her sister was violently murdered 10 years ago at a Christmas party by a disgruntled pledge who later hanged herself. But the past is the past. Danielle isn’t going to let anonymous emails threatening her life, nighttime visits by the campus police and a growing body count damper her holiday spirit.

“Mrs. Claus” is a sorority slasher centered on the relative of a hazing victim, no doubt a familiar plot for anyone who pays mild attention to this blog. The identity of the killer is not that hard to figure out, and a subsequent, campy twist is unsurprising. There’s some character actresses with horror cred (Brinkie Stevens and Helene Udy) for the nostalgia viewers. There are a few other familiar character types in the cast too, including the loose ‘n’ busty student, the campus radio host fascinated by true crime, and the “oh so smooth” frat boy. Thank goodness for those frat boys, actually. Since they’re supposed to look and behave like asses, when they overact, it brings a touch of levity to an otherwise stiff production.

If you can put up with low budget, “Mrs. Claus” hits the marks in the most passable way possible. The killer has a funny rubber mask and does holiday themed murders–strings of Christmas lights and prop candy canes are utilized nefariously–but all that’s countered with poor pacing. There are, I kid you not, pages of dialogue dedicated to wondering if Santa smokes weed, which abruptly transitions to a moment of tender emotional intimacy. Mark D’Errico’s score sounds like it would be at home in a slightly atmospheric first person shooter. The gore is still overdone, but it comes across as a little smarter than “Unholy Night.”

The most positive thing this blog can say is that Daiane Azura, as a don’t-get-too-attached-to-her college girl, comes off OK, or at least she inhabits her role like there’s some concern about her own agency. The character actresses do the best they can with what they have, as do the less experienced members of the cast. I feel comfortable blaming Troy Escamilla (writer, director and producer) and Derek Huey (cinematographer, editor and other producer) for most of the shortcomings film. It’s harmless horror, but you’ll likely be reaching for the eggnog halfway through.

Between the two films, if you had less than 90 minutes of your life to burn away forever and couldn’t watch both, which would I recommend? “Mrs. Claus” would offend you less as a consumer of media, but this blog would probably say “Unholy Night.” It is the worse film, but it has more heart, if that makes sense.

What’s that? If I were to recommend a not-so-recent holiday horror anthology instead? Well, 1972’s “Tales From the Crypt” of course. Ho-ho-ho.

Light classical: A critical review of “The Vision of Escaflowne” (1996)

I remember when the anime “The Vision of Escaflowne” (“Visions of Escaflowne?” whatever) was going to air on Fox Kids. Its blend of high fantasy and giant robots appealed to my middle school mind. Or maybe it was just the name–what the heck is an escaflowne? Either way, I missed the first episode. Luckily, I had a playground friend who watched even more cartoons than me and could fill me in. Thus informed, I watched a few episodes of the show before being distracted by whatever also came out that year.

When the show popped into my adult mind the other day, I started researching it out of curiosity and learned a couple of things. First, I hadn’t technically missed the first episode. Fox Kids cut that out of the lineup due to violent content. Second, the show was sometimes described as “dark fantasy.” All this put together sounded pretty awesome, so I spent some time with the show.

“Escaflowne” follows a pretty standard pattern. A girl named Hitomi is accidentally transported to a steampunk/fantasy land where everyone conveniently speaks Japanese (or English if you’re watching the dub). The land is in a state of constant and increasingly nightmarish war, so naturally she gets mixed up in the affairs of a brash young king, a rogue knight, a delightfully villainous and scenery chewing mad man-child pilot, and some old guy strapped to an H. R. Giger-style throne. Also, Atlantis for some reason.

The uncut first episode starts out surprisingly tame. It’s about a girl who runs high school track and occasionally glimpses flashes of a more fantastic reality. This was too much for Fox Kids? Then, in the second half of the same episode, a swordsman tumbles onto the running track and fights a dragon. And by “a dragon,” I mean “a squat grotesque that resembles a dying lizard or toad.” And by “fights,” I mean “pops its eyeball like a pus-laden zit.”

Ah. I think I get it now.

“Escaflowne” is not a constant parade of violence, blood, attempted assault, collateral damage and torture, but it does not shy away from any of those elements either. In the first couple of episodes, a number of good characters you’d expect to hang around are systematically killed. Later in the show, a lesser villain is introduced who feels like he might hang around for a couple of episodes. Nope. Instead, the good guys shove him off a cliff, and the camera hovers over his body for a minute to make sure he’s dead.

As much fun as dark fantasy violence is, it’s just one part of the narrative. It gets a little more stage time than space opera-esque political intrigue–sanctions are mentioned at one point–but neither element is as prominent as the romance. As the show evolves, that’s what it really ends up being about, which is fine I guess. Things are told from the POV of a high school girl, and the cast includes gallant knights, so it might be weird if it weren’t romantic. The show tries to treat relationships seriously, so it works for the most part. Besides, every time this blog started to get bored of the raging hormones, something violent or trippy would pop out (I swear, one episode toward the middle reminded me of the head spinning Russian sci fi flick “Solaris”).

Despite her inability to make up her mind, I like Hitomi as a protagonist. She starts off kind of a mess, but she’s just been plucked by a cosmic claw machine off Earth and plopped onto a planet where dragons and robots coexist in constant combat, so I think it’s fair to cut her some slack. Her love triangle is a harmless enough hoop for her to jump through–although I do wonder how she keeps her school uniform so clean on a planet that clearly lacks washing machines.

As a protagonist, Hitomi is probably more realistic than interesting. In fact, “Escaflowne” does not offer much in the way of originality. It does a little philosophizing about luck, destiny and gravity, and a little psychoanalyzing about relationships, trauma and childhood, but much of that inexplicably falls away for an ultimate message of “war is gross.” Not to sound crass, but that’s hardly an innovation. Everyone from the Greeks to Gundam has hit that beat. The philosophizing and psychoanalyzing from earlier were stronger, but they hardly delved as deep as “Evangelion” did the year before.

Nossir, if one were going to watch “Escaflowne,” it would be for the presentation rather than the content. The look and feel of the show is largely unlike anything before or since. I don’t mean the animation, which varies in quality from episode to episode. Sometimes it’s pretty fluid. What I mean is the design.

The environments and character designs are a delightful mashup of all sorts of sources, and the result genuinely feels timeless. Where else or when else are you going to find steampunk mechs, corpulent dragons, Renaissance Italian architecture, World War I helmets, Blade Runner pyramids, ruined jungle temples, eerie doppelgangers and twin sister cat girl assassins who almost make out, all side by side? The soundtrack is likewise eclectic and eccentric, mixing stark atmospheric pieces and driving rhythms with sweeping orchestral movements. It’s good, but Yoko Kanno worked on it, so that’s probably a given.

Everything is helped by the repeated images and breakneck pace–apparently the show was trimmed by a few episodes from its original intended run, but the trimming was done in such a way that nothing narrative was lost. It can feel like you’ll be lost if you miss an episode–if you miss two minutes you can feel lost–but the trade off is it feels like there’s something new every second. This is definitely a point in the show’s favor, since everything looks so intricate and there’s hardly time to notice any flaws, particularly in the first half of the series. The second half, when things start to slow down, is when the show feels less interesting. Or maybe it’s just weepier. At least most of the conveniences that drive the plot are contextualized and the violence returns for the last episode, although the show definitely animates one-on-one duels better than sprawling battles.

“The Vision of Escaflowne” is everything you’ve heard it is, perhaps even a little less, but it’s still pretty to look at. Everything about it seems familiar but different, and while this blog knows its copying something, it can’t quite figure out what (the show was a flop in Japan, so maybe it left everyone scratching their heads a little). Between the steampunk airships, the fantasy swashbuckling, the high romance and bloody low blows, the closest I can think of is the John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (if John Carter were a high school girl). It’s weird, tonstant weader, but good old anime weird, where the characters had thick outlines, the images were needlessly violent just to succeed on television, and everyone had a nose. It’s not a classic, but it is light classical.

Black Friday Blues: News December 2020

I think we can all agree that 2020 kind of sucked. It wrecked havoc with the health and finances of people across the country and the globe. Being a professional writer means working from home is always an option, but even freelance work has been spotty. The lack of paid writing meant I had more time to focus on my literary writing, and I ended up with something to show for it. Accordingly, as weird as it is to compose some shameless self-promotion right now, I definitely have the opportunity to do so. I hope I am sufficiently grateful for it.

If you haven’t found an oversized stocking stuffer for everyone yet, this blog has some recommendations for all your thriller fans who can read. You can probably guess they’re all anthologies featuring stories written by me: the time travel collection “On Time” for the sci fi fan; the murder anthology “Hookman and Friends” for the slasher reader; or the retro styled “Scary Stuff” for the pulp horror connoisseur.

On the other hand, if you just want some fast and free Yuletide entertainment, you can read a couple of my pieces online. My slightly surreal psychological thriller “Worse Than Wolves” can be read at The Fabulist Words & Art. It is technically a Christmas story–admittedly one that may or may not involve werewolves–so this is the most appropriate time of year to read it. Likewise, introspective sci fi-flavored short “Life After Roswell” can be found in PDF form in the September 2020 issue of Red Planet Magazine’s archive.

Also, a guest post I wrote about unconventional time machines in fiction just ran at the Transmundane Press blog. Somehow, I managed to name-drop H. P. Lovecraft in it, although one of this blog’s specialties is getting Lovecraft name-dropped into everything. Feel free to give that a read.

All right, farewell to all that. What’s on the schedule for the next couple of weeks? This blog has a gift bag of Christmas horror movies to review when we get closer to the holiday itself, not to mention a firecracker of a haunted house flick to send out the year, all keeping up the purposefully-poorly-sketched-out theme of “homecoming.” But before we get into those, there might be one more anime series review post. Dark fantasy instead of murder thriller and decidedly retro instead of contemporary. Unless I decide to do something completely different. Either way, thanks for sticking with me, tonstant weader. Read you next year.