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AKA: I will live vicariously through you one way or another

Warm up your cold open with some fire

Witch starts off with some heavy emotional labor.  Buffy and Giles are helping Willow and Xander move through the grieving process for their good pal Jesse.

JUST KIDDING.  We’re only on episode three, baby.  There’ll be plenty of time for that feelings nonsense later (I’m looking at you, seasons 5 and 6). No, today we’re going to listen to Giles liken cheerleading to a cult.  He attempts to forbid it, but Buffy forbids his forbiddance.  She says she just needs something safe and normal in her life.  The quick cut to a bubbling cauldron clues us into the irony.

Willow and Xander accompany Buffy to tryouts, where the latter gives her a bracelet.  It says “Yours Always,” which Xander insists was pre-engraved on all of them.  Yuck.  Cordelia tries talking shit to Willow and Buffy, but Willow is more interested in catching up with Amy.  Amy and Willow used to have brownie-eating sleepovers, but more recently Amy lost a bunch of weight training several hours a day with her mom.  That’s enough backstory for the cold open, though, because would-be cheerleader Amber is on fire and Buffy has to put it out.

Dreams

The gang reconvenes in the library to speculate about spontaneous combustion, which is often tied to rage. Willow offers to hack school records to see if Amber has a history of outbursts while Xander asks around.  Buffy says they don’t need to help, but they’ve decided they’re the Slayerettes. These leads end up going nowhere.

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Back at the Summers house Joyce is muttering dismissively as Buffy describes her day.  She doesn’t actually know what Buffy was auditioning for.  Buffy not-so-subtly remarks that Amy and her mom train together, but Joyce points out that she has a gallery to run.  Single-parenting in SoCal ain’t cheap.

At the next day of tryouts, Amy runs into Cordelia.  Literally – she knocks her over.  Cordy gives Amy this long spiel about her dreams of being a cheerleader and what that would entail.  She makes vague threats about what will happen if she didn’t make the team.

To make the team you need to be a) peppy, and b) a witch
“You’ll tell me about more of your dreams?” Image: IMDb

Amy is unsurprisingly bummed, and because you can’t spell “Buffy Summers” without “Bummer” our favorite Slayer is here to commiserate.  It turns out they each find themselves living with single mothers as the result of divorce.  Amy feels like she needs to live up to her mom’s cheerleading legacy and the pressure has been mounting since her parents’ split.

Meanwhile Xander is going on and on about Buffy to Willow and I am already so sick of this subplot.  He is asking Willow for advice on how to ask Buffy out and calling her “one of the guys” all in one breath.

If you’re not first…

The results have been posted:  Cordelia is on the team, Buffy is first alternate, and Amy is third alternate.  Despite the term “alternate” Xander assumes this means they made it-made it and is a bit too cheery when delivering the news.

We see the bubbling cauldron again, this time with a voice cursing Cordelia.  (Amazon’s closed captions completely ruined the mystery of who the titular witch is.)

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Joyce has been briefed on this episode’s theme, so upon hearing Buffy didn’t make the squad she encourages her daughter to join Yearbook like she did in high school.  Joyce just wants Buffy to stay out of trouble, and Buffy just wants her mom’s support.

Xander tries to ask Buffy out, but THANK GOD Cordy is acting weird enough for Buffy to need to cut him off and follow her.  At her driver’s ed course, the instructor insists Cordelia drive – even though Cordelia says she isn’t feeling well and has apparently failed three times.  Seriously, dude, you’re going to have her drive you and two other students when she is vocally expressing her inability to drive safely?

We get a blurry PoV shot and, shock of shocks, Cordelia crashes the car.  She winds up standing in the street, completely blind.  She is only saved from being hit by an oncoming truck (whose driver was all too willing to hit a pedestrian) by Buffy.

Witchunt

Back in the library Giles theorizes witchcraft is the source of the trouble.  The Scoobies deduce it must be Amy since the prior two victims – and Amy’s mom –  were cheerleaders.  Buffy doesn’t blame her since she knows the pressure Amy’s mom is putting on her.  This is especially nice of her considering she is no longer an alternate due to Cordelia’s untimely blinding. Buffy is officially in the target pool.

Giles explains how they can determine if Amy recently cast a spell.  The ingredients will all be conveniently located in their combo chemistry-biology class.  Buffy spills the potion on Amy during a chaotic sequence where another cheerleader is also being cursed (her mouth just disappears.  It’s just gone.  I’d say this is one of the more disturbing shots of the episode.).  The potion turns blue, which means Amy is the witch.  Unfortunately, Amy realizes what is happening and steals Buffy’s bracelet for her next concoction.  Back at her house, she takes out a lot of her pent up aggression on her mom and makes her mom do her homework.

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The next morning Buffy is beyond peppy.  She breaks her alarm, half apologizes/half argues with Joyce, says something about being the Slayer to Joyce, and sings “Macho Man” a lot.  This translates to her literally throwing another cheerleader across the gym during pre-game practice.  Of course, this means her stint as leader of Sunnydale cheers is over before it really began.

Willow and Xander carry Buffy to the library, and she’s basically the drunk friend on the precipice between very happy and very sad.  In a nice callback to Xander and Willow’s earlier conversation, Buffy says Xander is like one of the girls.

Giles diagnoses Buffy with a nasty case of Bloodstone Vengeance.  They’ve got about 3 hours to either reverse the spell or cut off Amy’s head.  Buffy votes for the former, because she still doesn’t blame Amy for all of this.

Which witch is which?

Buffy and Giles go to Amy’s house.  They find Amy’s mom.  Giles gives her this really intense dressing down before Buffy sees… a plate of half-eaten brownies?!!  That’s right:  the single characteristic we know about Amy is how we know she and her mom have swapped bodies.  Amy’s mom told her she was wasting her youth which is just sad.  I’m sad that all we know about Amy is that she likes brownies and her mom doesn’t like her.

They grab her mom’s spellbooks and head back to the school.  Willow and Xander are at the game keeping an eye on who they still think is Amy.  We get some more PoV shots from her perspective: flashes of Giles, Buffy, and the real Amy in the chemistry lab attempting to reverse the spells.  She runs out of the game to stop them, and Willow and Xander follow her.  There is a brief fight in the hall, which includes Amy(‘s mom) doing a Darth Vader choke out to Xander and a Jack Torrence to the chem lab door.

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Giles has finished reversing the spell in time, but Amy’s mom is still crazed.  She and Buffy throw each other around a bit. It’s witch versus slayer. Buffy deflects a spell meant for her with the reflective surface of a dissection plate.  Amy’s mom is magicked away to live in her old cheerleading trophy forever.  Amy gets to live with her dad now.  And guess what:  they’re making brownies this Saturday.  Buffy and Joyce get a nice reconciliation as well.

Trav’s single sentence review of Witch:  No wonder Amy’s dad left.

I really like this episode.  It’s our first true monster of the week, but we also get some real-world storylines to parallel the supernatural ones.  It also introduced us to Amy, the first of several recurring minor characters.  (Don’t worry, we won’t talk about brownies anymore.) We also get a better sense of Buffy’s moral compass and how she differentiates good and evil at this point in time. 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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[USR 4.2]

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Movies n TV

Dolores Roach, A Fillet of Left Cheek

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The second season of Dolores Roach started with a bang. The first episode was dark, gristly and in a strange way whimsical. It certainly brought to light new elements of the character.

The story

We begin our story with Dolores somewhere, talking to someone. I’d like to be more specific, but that’s all we know right now.

She tells this unknown person about her flight from Empanadas Loco. How Jeremiah killed Luis. How she, whether she meant to or not, killed Jeremiah. How she then set the building on fire by blowing up the fryer in the kitchen.

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Scared and alone, Dolores then ran for the underground. Dragging her purple massage table she runs into a hole in a subway track and finds herself in a whole different world.

Almost at once, she finds a place where someone is living. There’s a hot plate, a kettle and several packets of ramen. Even better, everything has Jeremiah’s name on it, literally written on it. Exhausted and alone, Dolores makes herself a cup of ramen and goes to sleep on her massage table.

She’s woken sometime later by a small man named Donald. He knows her because he knew Jeremiah. Dolores proceeds to tell him an abridged version of events that led up to Jeremiah’s death. And by abridged, I mean she blamed Luis for everything, throwing him under the bus so hard I’m surprised she didn’t pull something.

Donald seems inclined to help Dolores. He tells her that if anyone messes with her she should go further down, down a stairwell that he points out for her.

Dolores thanks him, then tries to go back to sleep. She’s soon woken again by a young woman collecting Jeremiah’s things.

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While Dolores has an issue with this, she’s willing to let it go. Until that is, this woman tries to take her table. Then, Dolores does what she does best. Because one thing is for sure. Dolores is going to take care of herself.

What worked

One thing I love about this series so far is that our main character, Dolores, is crazy. And hearing her rationalize her crazy is both terrifying and fascinating. I hate/love how sweet and soothing she can be. Even with the rat that she killed in this episode. She cooed at it, encouraging it to come to her, even calling it a subway raccoon.

Then she killed it and started crying.

I also love the underground community. It’s both horrific and whimsical. It reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which is full of worlds most people don’t see but are all around us. It’s also horrific because there are so many people that our society has failed, that they’ve gathered underground and made their own little society. That’s not great. There just shouldn’t be that many people who need homes.

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What didn’t work

Unfortunately, this episode did have two major flaws. And the first one is a personal pet peeve of mine.

In the last episode of season one, certain things were established. Dolores said she was carefully rationing her weed. She said she didn’t have anything to eat since coming down to the tunnels. She still had her massage table. This episode rewrote a lot of that.

Frankly, I hate when stories do that. It may or not make a difference to the story. It just strikes me as poor planning and lazy writing. This show has proven it’s capable of doing better.

All things considered, I thought this was a great start to the season. I’m invested in the story, curious about the new characters, and worried about the well-being of everyone Dolores comes in contact with. And that’s all as it should be.

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3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

By the way, if you like my writing, you might want to check out my latest sci-fi horror story, Nova. It’ll be released episodically on my site, Paper Beats World, starting February 5th.

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Movies n TV

The Golem (2019), a Film Review

The Golem (2019) is a folk horror film directed by Doron and Yoav Paz, starring Hani Furstenberg and Ishai Golan.

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The Golem (2019) is a folk horror film directed by Doron and Yoav Paz. The cast includes Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Kirill Cernyakov, and Brynie Furstenberg. As of this review, the film remains available to Amazon Prime and fuboTV subscribers with additional purchase options on other platforms.

Set in 1673, a small Jewish community faces hardships from others as the Black Plague spreads. When these hardships reach a boiling point, Hanna takes matters into her own hands. Having secretly learned to read, she seeks to perform a ritual that would create a protector for her people. Yet, this act brings about a steep cost.

a redheaded woman walks through a village.
Hani Furstenberg as Hanna

What I Like about The Golem

The film received three nominations in 2019. These nominations include Best Actress, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography from the Award of the Israeli Film Academy. While The Golem wouldn’t win these awards, the nominations indicate a strong film.

I won’t claim to know the accuracy and intricacies of the golem in relation to its religious origin, but the film certainly brings to life its concept. The effort to create such a creature and the toll it takes from the summoner create an emotional throughline for viewers to follow.

Hani Furstenberg’s Hanna and Ishai Golan’s Benjamin bring a complicated but realistic relationship to the film. Viewers see the love between them, even as their own society attempts to cast them from each other. They feel like a couple who understand the other’s wants and needs. However, we begin to witness the decaying of this relationship.

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Hanna, specifically, provides a complex character that incentivizes the viewers to root for and against her at different points in the movie. Though she navigates blatant sexism and discrimination, she remains far from flawless. These flaws and ambitions establish Hanna as an interesting character.

The Golem can be brutal. This film provides a period-accurate look into antisemitism and systemic oppression, which certainly evokes a different form of horror. However, the golem itself brings brutality through its smiting.

White background, rubber stamp with disclaimer pressed against the white background.
Disclaimer Kimberley Web Design

Tired Tropes and Triggers

As the film deals directly with systemic issues of 1673, understand that antisemitism, sexism, and hate crimes remain important elements within the film.

An assault leads to a miscarriage, which seems a point worth mentioning for potential viewers who are sensitive to such points. Fertility and bodily autonomy, generally, also play roles within the provided film.

If any of these are potential issues for your viewing experience, perhaps skip The Golem.

An obscured woman looks at a boy covered in mud. The setting is a forest.
The Golem takes Shape

What I Dislike about The Golem

Aleksey Tritenko delivers a wonderful performance for an interesting antagonist, but the role of Vladimir serves limited purposes. In many ways, he’s the representation of his societal antisemitism. While this remains perfectly valid, he somewhat disappears from the narrative until he becomes relevant. His marauders should be an oppressive threat within the society, looming over it with malice.

I can’t deny the lack of intimidation the golem’s aesthetic brings. While some films evoke an eeriness through silent children to horrific effect, this didn’t sit well with me. It should be eerie, but something was missing in execution.

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The Golem focuses on a more human horror than the supernatural elements might suggest. While not a direct critique, prepare your viewing expectations accordingly. The Golem remains a folk horror film, using the folk story to represent human evil and flaws. It won’t particularly haunt you with the gore.

Final Thoughts

The Golem brings the old legend of the golem folk story to life. If you thirst for a human horror that shines a light on the flaws of the people within, The Golem might satisfy you. However, it’s not a particularly frightening film, choosing instead to tell a story of loss and overcoming suffering. 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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