Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Since the very first trailer, I’ve been excited for this film. I mean, a horror film led by the phenomenal Octavia Spencer? That should be amazing! And even though I was enjoying myself this past weekend in various locales associated with spirits (more on that in other posts), Ma was never far from my mind. And since I’m still on vacation, I thought I’d go see an afternoon matinee.

Ma follows a group of teens, including new girl Maggie, as they wrangle a veterinary technician named Sue Ann Ellington (aka Ma), into buying them booze. Sue Ann later entices them into partying with her in her basement, and soon her place becomes the place to be. However, Sue Ann starts to exhibit some strange behavior, and it becomes clear that she has a history, one involving the parents of some of the kids. And she’s still upset about it.

There are two things about this film that stand out to me. The first is Octavia Spencer’s performance. She does crazy so well, it’s terrifying. I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure the character of Sue Ann displayed traits of both borderline personality disorder and Munchausen’s by proxy, and it’s convincing. The second is the storytelling, a slow-burn of a story showing a woman twisted by her past out for revenge after several years of keeping most of that anger under wraps. It’s not done with big scares or a tense atmosphere, but small things that eventually grow into a freaky finale.

The one gripe I have–and this is a gripe shared by other critics of the film–is that it could’ve gone farther. Tate Taylor, the director, feels like he’s not willing to lean into the concept and portray more violent or disturbing acts on the part of Sue Ann. I mean, there are definitely some things she does that are chilling, no doubt, but a few more would’ve only helped the film. Certainly the low kill count will trouble some horror fans.

Still, I can see some sequel or prequel potential in Ma. The film sprinkled enough things into it and had an ending that might be conducive for further films. And if done right, Sue Ann Ellington–aka Ma–might join the ranks of great horror villains like Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, and my boy Jason Voorhees.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Ma an even 4. If you prefer subtle horror with a focus on storytelling and a compelling villain, this may be the horror film for you. Grab a drink, and check it out.

And while I have your attention, this is another reminder that you have till Friday to sign up to be an advanced reader for Rose, my upcoming fantasy-horror novel from Castrum Press. The story follows a young woman who starts turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). Anyone interested should send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com. All I ask is you read the book and consider posting a review after the release. Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.

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What if the Superman origin story had a dark, horror-movie style twist? That’s the conceit of Brightburn, a movie produced by the director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films and the upcoming Suicide Squad film, written by his brothers Mark and Brian, and directed by David Yarovesky, who directed the pretty-good horror film The Hive. And from the trailers, it looked like it could be really good, or just plain bad. Either way, I put my butt in the seat and waited to see how it would go.

Brightburn follows the Breyers family, consisting of farmer Kyle, wife and artist Tori, and adopted son Brandon. Around his twelfth birthday, Brandon starts exhibiting supernatural powers and psychopathic behaviors. When he starts to hurt classmates and people around town start dying or going missing, Tori and Kyle reveal to their son his extraterrestrial origins, and he reveals to them his dark purpose in coming to Earth.

*sigh* You know, I can forgive them for copying Superman’s basic power-set in this film. I can also forgive them for not mentioning him at all (probably did that out of legal reasons). But I can’t forgive them for making a bad film that puts all its best bits in the trailers!

I kid you not, everything that was supposed to make this film exciting and scary was revealed in the trailer. The woman who got glass in her eye, the guy in the car seeing Brandon flying on the road, the girl’s hand getting broken, the plane crash. Those should’ve been surprises, but we all saw them in the trailers, and that takes out all of the suspense and horror of the actual movie. Except for a few moments, I watched the film thinking to myself, “That’s predictable. That’s predictable. Oh, how could I have not seen that coming? Oh wait, I did! In the previews!”

What do you have left when you take all those elements out? Just your below-average evil child horror film, like Prodigy from earlier this year (which I didn’t review because it was so much like every other evil child film out there). Parents get a kid, usually not their own. Kid grows up mostly fine, but then starts exhibiting scary behavior. Kid turns out to be evil, either because they were born seriously messed up or because of some supernatural reason, one parent ends up dead, the other either successfully kills the kid or is killed while trying because a bystander was nearby and didn’t know the truth.

Seen it. Done it. Took it to dinner. Had a good time afterwards. Ordered them an Uber. Point is, done to death.

There were only two things I liked about Brightburn. One was the mask the kid Brandon wore, which looks like a crocheted cross between an insect head and Cthulhu’s face. The other is Elizabeth Banks as mother Tori. You really see her love for this strange boy, and how much she tries to hold onto that little boy despite all he’s done.

But other than that, Brightburn is sadly unoriginal despite marketing itself as original. And I’m convinced the filmmakers knew that, and that’s why they put all the highlights in the trailers, to get butts in seats. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving this one a 1.5. Avoid, unless you like wasting two hours of your time. I hope to God I never write anything as unoriginal as this.

Speaking of which, I’m still looking for advanced readers for my upcoming fantasy-horror novel from Castrum Press, Rose. The story follows a young woman who turns into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). Anyone who’s interested should send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com before June 7th. All I ask is that you read the book and then consider posting a review after release. Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Until next time, my Followers of Fear, pleasant nightmares!

I’ve been meaning to write this post for over a week. But as you know from my last post, this past week has been predictably crazy for me.

I heard about Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five and was immediately interested. The book retraces the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly and proposes to shed a new light on them. I’m no Ripperologist (someone who studies the Ripper murders), not even an amateur one, but I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the subject and am always interested if someone has discovered something new about the case. And the lives of the five women who made the Ripper famous finally being told? I’m in.

I dove in as soon as I got my copy from the library…and the resulting read blew my mind. You see, for over a hundred and thirty years, the consensus–the one thing that every Ripperologist agrees on–is that the victims were confirmed prostitutes. But is that really the case? Diving into historical records and her understanding of the nineteenth century’s social beliefs around women and barely mentioning the Ripper at all, Ms. Rubenhold provides a convincing case to support that we may have been looking at the “Canonical Five”–and thus the Ripper–all wrong.  In fact, only the final victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was confirmed to make a living through prostitution, and there’s evidence she may have been trafficked at some point.

In fact, Polly Nichols was a wife and mother whose family gained lodging in public housing reserved for families with high moral standing; Annie Chapman was upper-middle class with an upwardly-mobile husband; Elisabeth Stride was a Swedish immigrant from a religious background who ran a coffeehouse with her husband; and Catherine Eddowes was educated for most of her younger life and often made life choices on what would allow her the most freedom. Mary Jane Kelly, we don’t know, as many of the details she gave of her life were contradictory and possibly fabricated, but she could’ve come from a respectable background, as she started out as a high-end courtesan, and they don’t let just anyone into those circles.

How did these women end up as prostitutes in the popular mind?

Well, in the eyes of nineteenth-century society, any woman who wasn’t, by all appearances anyway, a successful wife and mother with the temperance of the saint, a clean and happy household, and only had a sexual side when her husband desired sex, she was a failure as a woman. She was “broken.” Which often was equated as a “fallen woman,” which was often equated with prostitution. Often, women in these positions had to take up with men who were either not their husbands or had common-law marriages, which was also considered a sort of prostitution.

And for a number of these women, circumstances in their lives forced them to leave families and husbands and often take lives on the streets, without husbands or homes, which meant in society’s eyes they were fallen, and therefore likely prostitutes. The newspapers at the time, more concerned with selling than telling the truth, did little or nothing to dissuade that notion, even when friends and acquaintances for the victims came forward and swore in inquests the victims did not resort to prostitution. Thus a belief, and the theory shaped around it, was formed.

This is significant for a number of reasons. From the perspective of history and Ripperology, it totally changes everything we know. Ms. Rubenhold presents a good case that the Canonical Five were actually incapacitated or sleeping and not in any state of mind to fend off an attacker, rather than attacked while soliciting. This changes the entire MO of the Ripper, the field of study around the murders, and over a century’s worth of media on the subject (though some of the latter we can still find entertaining, as long as we remind ourselves how much of it is fiction).

But more importantly, this is a feminist triumph in history. For a hundred and thirty years, The Five have been dismissed and looked over except in the context of their deaths and whoever killed them. Even my copy of The Complete Jack the Ripper doesn’t go into much detail on their lives. But this book and its author, through hard work and looking over every scrap of documentation available out there, reminds us these women were just women, more often at mercy to forces beyond their control and the double-standard Victorian women faced than willful participants in the world’s oldest profession. At least three suffered from alcoholism. One got pregnant out of wedlock and developed syphilis, and was demonized for it. They did everything they could to stay out of the workhouses, which could forever ruin someone who was forced to enter them. They tried to find love and happiness. They tried to get by in an age and place where women on their own had it very hard.

Imagine if AA had been available to the Five and sobriety was understood to be not a choice but hard work. Imagine if, instead of being demonized for leaving their husbands or getting pregnant/diseases out of wedlock, the authorities looked at the men in their lives. Imagine if they were allowed to pursue lives they wanted, rather than what was expected of them, and not shamed for not fulfilling expectations.

This is especially relevant in today’s age. Despite a lot of progress, women still have their sexuality used against them socially and legally. Since I finished reading The Five, I’ve seen several articles and tweets about men getting little or no jail time for rape, simply because there was only one victim and they were unlikely to reoffend. Here in my home state of Ohio, a minor who was raped and impregnated can’t get an abortion because of a new restrictive abortion law. Clearly, on some level, society still feels women should be punished for being anything other than the ideal wife and mother, and it’s their own fault if they’re not.

This is why you should be reading Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: not only does it present convincing new evidence on a century-old case and force us to reevaluate everything we knew, but it’s a call to remind us just how much has stayed the same since 1888, and what we can do to improve that in the future. And in the future, if I ever write my own Ripper-themed story, I’ll call back to The Five as I write the story, and keep in mind the lives of these women.

So please, check out The Five‘s page on Amazon, and consider reading it. You’ll find it a revelation as much as I did.

I listened to The Stranger Beside Me by true crime writer Ann Rule, who actually knew Ted Bundy, on audio book to prepare for this movie (and that’s the extent to my knowledge of Bundy). In the days leading up to this film’s release on Netflix, I was excited to see this adaptation. Nearly thirty years after the man’s death, would this film, along with the Netflix documentary (I know, I need to watch it, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet), introduce a new generation to the shocking murders of Ted Bundy?

Well, I went in expecting a different kind of movie, but I came out satisfied with what I got.

Based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by his real-life girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (known as Liz Kendall in the film and Meg Anders in The Stranger Beside Me), Extremely Wicked follows the romance of Bundy and Kloepfer, how they got together, how Bundy’s arrest in Utah, his two escape attempts in Colorado, his final trial in Florida, during which he marries one of his groupies but (seemingly) still has feelings for Liz, and finally his execution in Florida.

I think what I like the most about this film is its star-studded cast. Everyone embodies their characters so well. Zac Efron as Bundy comes across as a sympathetic, lovestruck man who finds his life falling to pieces around him and the one good thing in it drifting away, while Lily Collins as Liz Kendall does a great job as a woman who put so much into her relationship with this seemingly-perfect man, only to grapple with his crimes. John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart did the man an honor, combining the judge’s Southern gentility with his own deadpan acting method (finally, a film from this year that doesn’t waste the guy’s talent). And Jim Parsons made me forget at certain moments that I was watching Sheldon Cooper. I actually had to watch the scene where he delivers his opening remarks as prosecutor Larry Simpson twice, it was so chilling. Parsons could lead a legal drama now that The Big Bang Theory is done.

I also like how the film balances a romantic storyline with what is mostly a courtroom drama. Unlike other films, Extremely Wicked doesn’t go to great lengths to show Bundy’s depravity or murders, but instead hints and flits around it until the final scene of the film. Its focus is showing how the ongoing legal saga affects Bundy and Kloepfer’s relationship and vice versa, as well as the psychological toll on Bundy. The director knew what they were going for with this film, and in that aspect it succeeded.

If I have one gripe with this film, it’s that romanticizes Bundy a little too much. Bundy’s always had a number of female fans who find him attractive despite what he’s done.* Even actors portraying him have awakened the wrong kind of fascination in teenage and young women (Ann Rule relates some of the phone calls she got after The Deliberate Stranger with Mark Harmon aired in 1986 in her book). Zac Efron is a very handsome actor, no doubt of that, and in the interest of focusing on his romance and courtroom battles, Extremely Wicked glosses over the evil in its title and makes Bundy out to be more of a sweet, hurt man than a calculating serial killer. And I’m not sure that was the best decision.

I also would’ve liked to see Ann Rule make an appearance in the film, but I think I can live without that.

On the whole, I give Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile a score of 4 out of 5. While its POV Is slightly skewed, its an entrancing thriller that draws you into the story and the bloodless battle occurring on screen. Take a look, and prepare yourself for a ride.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I hope to have one or two more posts out before the weekend is done.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for advanced readers for my upcoming fantasy-horror novel, Rose, about a young woman who starts turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). In exchange for an early electronic copy, all I ask is you read it and consider posting a review after the release. Anyone interested should send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

*The scientific name for attraction to dangerous partners, by the way, is called hybristophilia. Theories to how it arises range from evolutionary desires for strong and capable partners to romantic notions of wanting to change/help a damaged partner to wanting fame or even just knowing the partner is stuck in a jail cell and won’t go anywhere. The more you know.

I’ve known of the legend of La Llorona, aka The Woman in White or The Weeping Woman, for a while before I heard of this film. A woman drowned her children after her lover was unfaithful to her. Horrified by what she’d done, she either dies of grief or commits suicide, her spirit returning to search for errant children in the vain hope of trading them for her own lost darlings. So when I heard the upcoming film about her would be part of The Conjuring universe, I had to wonder, how would they treat the story? Would she be rewritten as a demon? Or would the filmmakers learn some new tricks and add a bit more to The Conjuring universe as more and more people started to find it formulaic and over-reliant on the jumpscares? I went in today to see it myself.

The Curse of La Llorona follows Anna Garcia, a single mom and social worker whose children become the target of the titular spirit after it takes the lives of two children whose mother she previously worked with. With the church’s process to approve exorcisms taking too long, Anna turns to a local faith healer and former priest. But will it be enough to stop a being driven by an unending grief and obsession?

And I’m sorry to say, this film didn’t really do anything for me. Oh yeah, it had some effective jumpscares and moments of atmosphere. There were quite a few moments where I jumped in my seat. There’s a reverence for the source material here, and you can tell they’re really trying to make this tragic ghostly figure intimidating.

Unfortunately, the formula The Conjuring set up has gotten stale almost five years later. We’ve gotten used to someone experiencing a haunting in their home, calling in an expert, and then a final battle where there’s either triumph or someone loses their soul. And predictability, along with jumpscares that we know to look for, just doesn’t do it anymore. And while the film does flirt with the idea of adding something new–La Llorona herself is not a demon, as past antagonists in the series have been, but a ghost whose obsession has turned her into a dark spirit, and there’s a twist during the climax that I was surprised by–but not enough to add new life to the franchise.

As of the writing of this review, The Conjuring universe has the third (and probably final) Annabelle film, Annabelle Comes Home, coming out in June. After that, everything else is in various stages of development (The Conjuring 3 has a release date but so far hasn’t begun filming yet). If Warner Bros and New Line Cinema want this franchise to continue past Annabelle Comes Home, they’ll have to come up with some new tricks to keep audiences coming back (and no, I don’t mean going to space. Sorry Jason X, you’re a lot of fun, but there’s a silliness about you that can’t be denied. At least you’re not the Friday the 13th remake, though. Beyond Jared Padalecki and the guy playing Jason Voorhees, there’s nothing redeemable about that film. Yeah, I took another shot at that film, and I’m glad I did!).

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving The Curse of La Llorona a dismal 2. Has ideas, but needed to buck the formula more in order to be anything other than below average.

But you know what (probably) won’t disappoint? My upcoming fantasy-horror novel Rose, being released later this year by Castrum Press. And at the moment, I’m looking for advanced readers for the book, which follows a young woman as she starts turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). In exchange for an early electronic copy, all I ask is that you read the book and consider posting a review on or after the release date. If you’re interested, please send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Remember when we were all skeptical of a new Hellboy film without Ron Perlman? And then we saw early shots of David Harbour of Stranger Things as the titular character and were like, “This could go somewhere”?

Well, I just got back from the theater, and this was a fun little romp. And from the sound of things, I may be the only person saying that, but whatever. This is my blog, so you’re getting my opinion today.

Hellboy follows…Hellboy, a demon creature who was raised by a monster hunter to fight all the creepy-crawlies that go bump in the night. On a mission to England though, he finds himself discovering rather uncomfortable truths about his past and lineage, as well as struggling with whether he is as good a creature as his father wants him to be. All while a powerful witch named Nimue is resurrected with plans to spread a plague across the world and bring on the Apocalypse. Possibly with Hellboy at her side.

I have to say, this feels like a comic book movie. By which I mean, the plot feels lifted right from a comic book. There are tangents and flashbacks galore for exposition. And for the most part that works. It’s fun, fast-paced, and has some great action scenes with lots of movement and kicking of ass. And unlike Us, the sprinkling of jokes throughout the film works here, possibly because it’s a comic book movie (though Us is still a phenomenal film).

I also liked the characters. David Harbour as Hellboy and Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan, a girl Hellboy once helped and who now works as a medium/apprentice ass-kicker are among my favorites from the film for their chemistry and humor. And for those who were worried about David Harbour as Hellboy, don’t be. Yeah, Ron Perlman will always be great, but Harbour’s essentially playing a different version of the character, one who’s still getting to know himself and figure things out. Thus he’s a lot rougher and has more issues than previous film versions. He also drinks a lot and doesn’t have a million cats throughout his home, so there’s that.

I also enjoyed Milla Jovovich’s performance as Nimue. The character is kind of one-dimensional, but the actress brings angry and on a mission to the role very well. And my God, she does not look a day past 28, and I’m falling in love with her just writing this.

That said, the many flashbacks, some of which are pretty long, can be kind of distracting and are used mainly for lots of info-dumping. I would’ve liked it if maybe some of the flashbacks were shortened so we could get more on Ben Daimio, who I felt needed a more fleshed-out emotional arc. It would make sense to do that rather than have a lengthy flashback about Hellboy’s “birth” with a superhero character named Lobster Johnson who doesn’t really contribute that much to the story. Actually, more than a few characters were in this film with no purpose. There was a witch character who I could not see the point of. She interacts with Nimue, talks to Hellboy, and then leaves. I mean, what the hey?

I get a feeling a lot of creative decisions were made in order to jumpstart a film series or even a cinematic universe, and thankfully there was less groundwork-laying for future films than there was in Batman vs. Superman or 2017’s The Mummy, neither of which I care for, but it could’ve been handled a lot more delicately in my opinion.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’ll give Hellboy a 3.2. It’s nothing that amazing, but it is a fun two hours of monsters, action and mayhem. If you’re just looking for a mindless comic book action film, you could do worse. As it is, this is good enough for me, and sometimes, that’s all I ask for.

 

And while I still have your attention, I’m still looking for advanced readers for Rose. The novel is a fantasy-horror story following a young woman who turns into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). In exchange for an early electronic copy, all I ask is that you read it and consider posting a review online somewhere on or after the release date. If interested, please send an email to ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com.

Pet Semetary is considered one of His Royal Scariness Stephen King’s most terrifying novels, and one King has said he’d take back if he could due to the subject matter of child death in the book. Both it and its 1989 movie adaptation are classics, so people were both intrigued and a little wary when it was announced that the movie would be getting a remake. Then we got trailers that intrigued us and then made our heads scratch. I don’t need to state spoilers here that the little girl dies instead of the little boy this time, right? Well, too bad. But King was okay with the change, so we had to wait and wonder what the movie would be like when it came out.

Based on King’s novel, Pet Semetary revolves around the Creed family, who move into a house in the Maine countryside when father Louis Creed gets a job at a university clinic. He soon finds out that there’s a cemetery for animals on his property, and beyond it another burial ground that has to bring back anything buried in it, including his daughter’s cat. However, sometimes they come back very wrong. When the Creeds are affected by a terrible tragedy, Louis uses the burial ground to reverse the tragedy. But it only leads to an even bigger, more terrifying disaster.

Um…I wasn’t scared.

There’s plenty to like about this movie. It looks the part of a modern Stephen King movie, and they manage to bring the spirit of the novel, especially the feeling of a domino effect at work with the characters, into it. And for once, Jason Clarke, who plays Louis Creed, actually connects with me as an actor. Normally I don’t like him when I see him in something, but this time I really felt it. Every bit of grief, relief, or horror, resonated with my core. And most of the other principal cast members are great in their roles. Jete Laurence (who’s name, by the way, is a dance move in ballet, which I find fitting given her character’s love of ballet in the film) makes a sympathetic protagonist in particular, and later makes a welcome addition to the pantheon of evil kids out to get us.

However, there’s much about this film that left me feeling less than impressed. For one thing, many of the scares were jump scares. And as I’ve become fond of saying lately, jump scares are the cheapest form of terror in horror films. Once they’re done, the fear seeps out of you and you’re okay again. Even after one really effective jump scare, I was okay a minute later.

And then there’s the change from the original story: Ellie Creed, the elder Creed child, dies instead of toddler Gage, and ends up being the one resurrected. Hey, I’m cool with it. If there are no surprises, why bother remaking a film? But that’s the only real change that’s worthy of talking about. Afterwards, the film adheres rather closely to the novel, and even where it doesn’t, it’s pretty predictable. I would’ve preferred it if after this change, they decided to make more changes to the story and send it in different directions. I mean, if you’re going to have an older child, rather than a toddler, the source of terror, why not take advantage of that (especially since older children are much better at planning and being devious)? Go where we won’t expect it and give us the terror of not knowing what will happen next!

That look, like a raised eyebrow. It says my whole opinion of the film and the decisions made with it in one look.

I mean, I had to rewrite two-thirds of my novel to make it publishable, and I went in some different directions to make it work. The result was a much better and far more unpredictable thrill ride. So I know what I’m talking about.*

Finally, I felt Jon Lithgow as neighbor Jud Krendall was underused. The character in this film only existed for exposition. In the original novel and the 1989 film, his friendship with Louis feels real. Here, it’s forced in so the character can explain stuff (sans flashbacks too, by the way. I liked the use of those in the original film, why couldn’t they be in this film?). Between this film and Velvet Buzzsaw, I feel sorry for the guy. He’s been in bad roles in two films this year, and neither of them make great horror films.

Oh, one more thing: you can tell that cat is a puppet at certain points! It’s painfully obvious! Makes me miss Goose the Cat, who I couldn’t tell was a puppet at several points in Captain Marvel.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving 2019’s Pet Semetary a 2 out of 5. Perhaps it’s trying to keep the film under two hours and not alienate Stephen King purists, but in all honesty, I would’ve preferred another twenty minutes or more and some new directions for the story. As it is, the film is going to serve a reminder that not all the adaptations in the current Stephen King renaissance will be gems.

*Speaking of which, I’m still looking for advanced readers for my upcoming novel Rose. The story, a fantasy-horror novel, follows a young woman who starts turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). In exchange for an early electronic copy, all I ask is that you consider posting a review on or after the novel’s release date. If you or somebody you know is interested, just send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com.