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.
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.
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 / 5)
*All photos screenshot from the movie’s YouTube trailer*
Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die
Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.
With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.
So, how was the first episode?
We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.
We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.
The teens end up not being thrilled either.
Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.
While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.
Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.
All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.
For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.
It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.
That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.
More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.
This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.
What didn’t work
All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”
Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.
It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.
But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.
(4 / 5)
If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem
“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.
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!
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.
Dolores Roach, A Fillet of Left Cheek
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.(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.