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The A24 film Men (2022) is Alex Garland’s newest and third directorial project. His previous works include Ex Machina and Annihaliation. It is evident that weird, cosmic horror is Garland’s forte and Men is certainly no exception. It is a folk, body horror tale in which the protagonist, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), is staying at an isolated farmhouse in the remote village Cotson. It is a charming place, with expansive furnished rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, a elegant garden with an exquisite apple tree. The perfect getaway for a woman who needs time to grieve after witnessing her husband kill himself.

Loneliness is a sin for women in horror

Men is an artistic piece in every sense of the word. After getting her things settled, Harper wonders on her own to explore a nearby forest. She follows a path with flourishing green vegetation and laughs to herself when small rain drops start to fall. The imagery is gentle, even if it is exhaustively comparing womanhood to nature.

When Harper wanders to a tunnel, she plays with the acoustics and sings as loud as she can. She is at peace, hope and comfort beaming in her eyes. But of course, this is ruined when a mysterious, shadowy figure at the end of the tunnel stands up and starts running at her. It is a reminder to Harper that, whether she stays or leaves home, women cannot be left alone.

Harper wants, and has the right, to be alone and she is going to fight for it.

Any time a woman is alone in a horror movie – hell, in any movie – it is evident that she will succumb to danger one way or another. When the strange man from the tunnel appears at Harper’s rental home and threatens to break in, Harper calls the police, who tell her the man must be harmless but arrest him nonetheless. Harper later facetimes her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), who immediately offers to do the four hour drive and stay with Harper. Harper refuses the company, to which many of us in the theater (myself included) immediately shouted “no!” How can she be alone when she is obviously in danger?

However, I thought about it more and I read Heather O’Neill’s essay on the movie, who pointed out that, “[Harper] has come to be by herself, and she is going to work through the terror of it.” Harper wants, and has the right, to be alone. And she is going to fight for it.

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There are other small moments in the movie that I was grateful for. In the beginning, the man who owns the house, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), gives her a tour. In one scene there is a room with a baby grand piano and Geoffrey asked if she plays, to which she responds “no.” The host admits he also doesn’t, and they continue with the rest of the tour. But later on, it turns out that Harper knows how to play rather well.

I loved this little detail and the strength it carries. Personally, when I have admitted to a man that I can do something, more often than not he immediately needs visual proof. In this case, it’s evident that Harper did not have the emotional space or energy to prove to the host that she has the ability to do something he cannot. I can see it in my head: if she said “yes,” he would pester her to play the piano until she finally gives in just to shut him up. He would make some comment, it would be a whole thing that didn’t need to happen. Sometimes it’s just easier to not admit to men when you can do something.

A little goes a long way.

Where Men has its strengths also lie its weaknesses. The entire movie is dipped, and eventually drowns, in visual metaphors. While folk horrors rely heavily on visual metaphors, there needs to be substance to the plot and this is where Men lacks. For example, the consistent focal point is a church tabernacle whose clay artwork consists of a leaf-man on one side, and a woman with a spread-open vagina on the other. Garland goes back to this scene often, holding the viewer’s hand in case we didn’t get the reference that historically, specifically in colonial Christian societies, womanhood is defined by biology.

Another example: unless it is in fear, women historically do not scream a lot in movies. Men scream and shout as loud as they want, whether it is in anger or joy or sorrow, because in a patriarchal world men can and need to be heard. There is a moment in Men when Harper visits a church and, after exploring its artifacts, sits in a pew and screams as loud as she can. She is overcome by grief and mental reruns of her husband falling to his death. And sometimes screaming is just what a person needs to do to let it all out.

I want to see women scream more, and not just because she is running for her life. But then a priest walks up to her and points out how he noticed her scream and how she must be tormented, an immediate shutdown of her emotions. Later in the movie, we see that famous visual trope of Harper dunking her head underwater in a bathtub and screaming. This is so no one, not even in a remote house in a meagerly populated town, can hear. And it is certainly no coincidence that her mouth looks an awful lot like Men’s visual depiction of a human vagina.

Blood blood blood

Let’s not forget the bloody climactic birth scene. It is set off by the visual of apples falling from a tree, an old metaphor for fertility. Soon, all the men in the movie who either terrorized or threatened Harper’s safety give birth to each other in a tumultuous depiction of the female human life cycle. Garland’s imagery is trying very hard to prove that gender is fluid and not simply biological, but that gets lost in the bloody sauce. There is also plenty of phallus symbolism, specifically with a bloody knife, Harper’s only weapon. Symbolism meager at best.

When the movie ends after the seemingly endless birth cycle, Riley finally meets Harper at Cotson and the audience learns Riley is pregnant. At this point of the movie, that little detail is thrown in there for no reason. There is fundamentally no purpose for this detail, which maybe is the whole point. Who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m putting more thought into it than the movie’s creators.

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The Verdict

Men, in short, is an all too real story of the danger women face when being alone. It is about female isolation and men’s interference with that personal space. It is not nuanced in it’s message of what happens when women are alone. Horror movies have been telling us that for as long as they’ve existed.

Don’t get me wrong, Men is well made and well written. The acting is incredible and bring this character-driven story to life. The smallest details and simplicity are where it shines best. But the cumbersome plot sadly outweighs that.

At the end of the day, Men is another movie written by a man trying to understand the female experience as simplistically, binarized, and white as possible. Its goal in not reducing our bodies to our parts fails. And, frankly, I am tired.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

*All photos screenshot from the movie’s YouTube trailer*

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Movies n TV

Suburban Screams, Kelly

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Launched in October of 2023, Suburban Screams is the latest project by acclaimed horror master John Carpenter. It’s a true crime/unsolved mystery series covering events that have terrified people living in, you guessed it, the suburbs.

The story

Our first episode, titled Kelly, is the story of two roommates named Dan and Joey. The actual Dan and Joey tell the story from their own perspective, interspersed with dramatic reenactments. This did feel very much like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

One night when Dan and Joey have their girlfriends over, they decide to play with an Ouija board. Since they don’t have one, Dan makes one on a pizza box, complete with a planchette. This is, of course, when things go terribly wrong.

Still from Suburban Screams, Kelly.

Honestly, I have never heard anyone say, “I had a great time with that Ouija board, I’m really glad we did that.”

The couples make contact with a spirit named Kelly. This is very upsetting to Dan’s girlfriend May, as she had a cousin named Kelly who went missing and is presumed dead.

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Dan then finds himself haunted by Kelly. He throws up water, finds his kitchen chairs stacked on the table, and is followed around by a haunting song. Dan feels like he won’t find peace until he helps Kelly find peace.

What worked

There was a lot to enjoy in this first episode. Specifically, I loved the horror visuals. Dan’s vision was very creepy, as an example. And I loved the shots of the body floating down the river. These images were eerie and upsetting.

The storytelling from Dan and Joey was also well done. While I have my doubts about the validity of this story, these two men believe wholeheartedly in what they’re saying. I certainly believe that they experienced something disturbing. Either that or they are some fantastic actors.

What didn’t work

That being said, some things rubbed me the wrong way in this episode.

I’d like to start with the herbs Joey burned during the Ouija session. It looked like sage, or maybe sweetgrass.

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As some of you might know, I am a practicing witch. So I do feel the need to point out that if you want to open a door and invite spirits in, you probably don’t want to be burning sage or sweetgrass as those are going to negate any spiritual activity. This was for sure the action of someone who does not know what the hell they are doing. It just irritated me.

Also, maybe don’t throw open a door indiscriminately to the spirit world. Just saying.

I also didn’t love the acting by Ben Walton-Jones, who played Dan. While it wasn’t a terrible job, the character felt overacted. I don’t know how he had room for that pizza, since he was chewing the scenery most of the episode.

Honestly, this episode felt a little underproduced. When I saw John Carpenter’s name, I was expecting something with some real production value. Great acting, great effects, great music. None of those were in effect here. I’m not sure where their budget went, because it didn’t go to any of the things it should have.

Is it true?

So that brings us to the big question. Do I think this story is true?

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Well, it is verifiable that Kelly Lynn Fitzpatrick was a young woman who unfortunately was found dead in 1999 in Quebec. The rest of the story, so far as I can find, is up to speculation.

Do I believe someone could contact the dead on an Ouija board they made out of a pizza box? Yes, I do. Because Dan made it with his own hands it might have worked better than a store-bought board. But do I think he was haunted to this extent by the spirit of Kelly?

Well, I would say that I believe this about as much as I believe the story of the Amityville house. Something certainly happened here, but I am sure that the details shared in this episode of Suburban Screams are highly overblown.

In the end, while I did have fun watching this episode, this fun was tainted. I would have enjoyed it more if it was presented as a fictional story loosely based on real-life events. Because that is almost certainly what it was.

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3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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Movies n TV

Fallout, The Beginning

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We’ve now reached the end of Fallout, season one. As I mentioned during the last review, I was heartily concerned that this show, like so many others, was going to drop the ball at the finale and ruin an entire season.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. This episode was everything it needed to be and more.

Let’s discuss.

The story

We begin our story with Maximus returning to the Brotherhood of Steel compound. He has a head, which he is claiming is the real head of Wilzig.

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I don’t know why he thought that was going to work.

Of course, it doesn’t. The elder cleric is about to kill Maximus until Dane says that they hurt their foot.

Because of this, the Brotherhood is sent out to get the head. Or rather, what’s inside of it. They head to the city run by Moldaver. This happens to be the same place Lucy and The Ghoul are headed.

Still from Amazon Prime's Fallout.

There, Lucy does manage to find her father. What she ends up finding is so much more than she wanted to find.

What worked

The first thing I have to discuss is how seamlessly the storylines of the series combined.

Each of our four main characters has been on their own journey. Lucy is trying to save her father. Maximus wants to become a knight. The Ghoul wants to find his family. Norm wants to know what’s going on in Vault 31.

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I sure wasn’t expecting all of these stories to come together in the way that they did. And to preserve the ending, I don’t dare say more. I will only say that yes, all four stories tie in perfectly with one another. By the end, two characters end up having the very same goal.

As I hinted before, I did not see the twist ending coming.

Ella Purnell in Fallout.

Yes, we might have guessed some things from the last episode. We of course guessed that Lucy’s dad was involved in some nefarious and probably sci-fi way. But the way this story twists at the end is nothing short of serpent-like. Which is why I cannot go into too much detail here. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to experience it blind.

Finally, I can give the Fallout season finale the most important praise I can ever give a finale. It did its number one job, getting us excited for season two. We have answers, but now we have new and more exciting questions. And even better, we have a desire to see vengeance done.

What didn’t work

Now that the season is done, though, I can bring up something that bothered me through all eight episodes.

I don’t buy Lucy and Maximus’s relationship.

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Maybe because it’s rushed. Maybe because the two actors don’t have a lot of chemistry. Maybe it’s because I’m not sure even now either character could tell you a single thing about the other. There is just no spark between the two. So their love story feels tacked on. I honestly feel like their love story could have been removed from the show entirely and it would have no negative impact.

I also didn’t buy Dane’s confession. This is a minor spoiler, but it comes up early in the episode. Dane confesses that they hurt their foot so that they wouldn’t have to go into the wastelands.

And at first, I kept expecting Maximus to thank them later. I honestly thought that they were just lying to save Maximus’s life. But no, as it turns out, they were not.

But it just doesn’t make sense. The motivations don’t jive. I honestly think it would have been better for the story if they had lied to save Maximus’s life.

At least then there’d be one other Brother of Steel who had some nobility.

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In the end, this first season of Fallout was everything I could ask for. So far as I can tell, it was everything fans of the Fallout franchise could ask for. There wasn’t a bad episode in the bunch. Honestly, the only real complaint I had was that the season was so short.

I’ll be counting down the days to season two, and I hope you’ll be joining me then. Because war, war never changes.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

If you like my work, you can check out my latest science fiction/horror novel, Nova, launching on May 17th. Pre-orders are available now on Amazon.

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Movies n TV

Fallout, The Radio

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Episode seven of Amazon’s Fallout is the penultimate episode. This is often when a series goes off the rails and starts to mess things up. After being burned so often recently, I was apprehensive when this episode began.

Thankfully, this was a fear that did not come to pass. And so far, Fallout’s finale is doing just fine.

Lana the dog in Fallout.

The story

A lot happened in this episode, so we’re just going to skim over some of the more important storylines. We’ll start with Lucy and Maximus, in Vault 4. Lucy has discovered what she believes is a secret collection of monsters. But of course, it turns out that it’s simply people that the vault dwellers discovered and are trying to help heal. But her meddling around was enough for them to kick her out of the vault. With two weeks’ worth of food and water, of course.

But Maximus assumes they’re going to do something much worse. And so he steals their power coil to fight through the perfectly innocent people and save Lucy.

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Meanwhile, we dive further into The Ghoul’s past, when he was still Western star Cooper.

After attending a Communist meeting, he’s approached by Lee Moldaver. She suggests that Vault Tech is hiding something, something terrible. And she tells Cooper that his wife Barbara knows more about this than she’s letting on. Moldaver gets Cooper to bug Barbara’s Pip Boy, and listen in on an important meeting.

Poor Cooper hears far more than he wants to.

War, war never changes.

What worked

I would like to first point out that this was one of the funniest episodes so far. I mean, it got incredibly tragic and sad by the end. But it also had some great laugh-out-loud moments. This should be a surprise to no one, with such an array of comedians guest starring. Chris Parnell was in the last episode as well but is now joined by the incredibly funny Fred Armisen as DJ Carl. This is of course not his first foray into the funny and spooky world, as he also played Uncle Fester in Wednesday.

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Most of what makes this episode funny is the character’s understated and deadpan responses to wild situations. When Maximus returns the energy coil and is greeted by a simple thank you. When Thaddeus gets an arrow through his neck, and slowly realizes that hey, he might be a ghoul. These were hilarious because they could have been truly dark moments. But because this world is so dark, and the characters have already been through so much, they’re simply done. They take all of this in stride because of course that’s what’s happening. It’s par for the course for them.

Aaron Moten and Ella Purnell in Fallout.

On the other hand, we’ve finally seen the full extent of The Ghoul/Cooper’s past. And it’s so much worse than we could have imagined. I assumed that he’d lost his beloved wife and daughter in the atomic blasts two hundred years ago, somehow not dying with them and instead turning into a literal and figurative monster. The truth is so much worse. I’ll do my best not to spoil the ending. But I will say this. There is nothing more painful than mourning someone and hating them at the same time. And it’s easy to see how Cooper turned into The Ghoul. That sort of pain could drive anyone mad.

This balance between comedy and tragedy is one of the reasons why this episode worked so well. It’s one of the reasons why the series is working so well. It manages to combine the core tenets of theater in a way that never compromises the strengths of either. The eventual downfall of Thaddeus is a great example of this because it’s both tragic and funny. We’ve seen what happens to ghouls, and it’s a horrible end. But as he’s hardly been a sympathetic character, we can all get a good laugh at his predicament as well.

The sheer amount of good old-fashioned gore doesn’t hurt either, of course.

What didn’t work

All that being said, there was one thing that bothered me about this episode. And it was the reveal of Vault 4’s big secret.

Honestly, I was expecting the Vault 4 storyline to go way darker. I wanted it to go way darker. While I’ve never played these games myself, I know enough about the story to say that these vaults are not the bastions of safety and morality that they have so far been portrayed as. And while that has certainly been alluded to, we haven’t seen it.

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We haven’t seen the depravity in these vaults. And it’s there. But maybe we just haven’t gotten to it yet.

In the end, The Radio did exactly what it needed to do. It set us up to have most of our questions answered in the season finale. And I can’t wait to see how it all ends.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you like my work, you can check out my latest science fiction/horror novel, Nova, launching on May 17th. Pre-orders are available now on Amazon.

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