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I think that one of the reasons that people find the zombie genre is so popular is because it’s so relatable. In every point of history, there has been a very legitimate fear of infection, and of becoming part of a huge mass of the unidentified/unnamed/unclaimed waste left in its aftermath. It’s a terrifying thought to have to watch your body rot and decay into something inhuman before your own eyed.  Just as there’s a complex horror of being swallowed into an unmarked mass grave, full of other rotting husks of unknown strangers.

And of course, the more bureaucratic nightmare of quarantine – the loss of control over one’s freedom, autonomy and body. The isolation of being a number in a system, a statistic to be glossed over in news reports, or worse, totally neglected by the system built to serve and protect you as a citizen.

At the time of this review, the world is rocked by the Corona virus. Clips of videos and pictures on the internet show people being removed in hazmat protection, portions of cities blocked off for quarantine, and countless people reacting to fake or real bouts of public sickness. Borders have been closed. PPE has been sold out completely online. 

Before that was Ebola, H1N1, SARS, Bird Flu, Hantavirus, The Spanish Flu, Tuberculosis, Rabies, Leprosy, The Black Death… 

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And, something more akin to this movie – the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But before we get into all that…

The Plot:

Maggie, played by Abigail Breslin, has just been given a death sentence – she’s been bitten by an infected person and is now positive for a disease that’s been ravaging the entire US. After trying to run away, she is picked up by her father and taken back to their house in the quiet countryside to await her fate. She’s given only a few weeks to spend with her family before being forced to suffer her final days isolated in quarantine. 

During her time at home, she must come to accept her mother’s past death, learn to forgive, and face her mortality while losing her agency and body in the process as she becomes sicker. She experiences the fear and ignorance of even her closest loved ones as she becomes less and less of Maggie and more of something else entirely…

The non-spoiler reveal:

There’s no way around this: Arnold Schwarzenegger plays her dad. 

Yeah.

It’s…unfortunate and, frankly, jarring to see older Arnold play a Midwestern farmer and father to a young twenty-something (and father to even younger children). And it’s not to say that he doesn’t try in this film, because he does.

And he does a good job at acting, but what probably drew a lot of people to watch this movie (me included) was what ended up hurting it – it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie at the end of the day. No matter how it’s packaged, that’s what’s going to stick in people’s minds and when this slow-burn drama starts unfolding, it’s…well…

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(snob glasses affixed) In “Genre And The Invention Of The Writer”, especially when examining Foucault’s “author-function”, Anis S. Bawarshi said:

“The author-function does not refer to the ‘real’ writer, the individual with the proper name who precedes and exists independently of the work. Instead, it refers to the author’s name, which, in addition to being a proper name, is also a literary name, a name that exists only in relation to the work associated with it. The author-function, then, endows a work with a certain cultural status and value. At the same time, the author-function also endows the idea of ‘author’ with a certain cultural status and value.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nxp6.5

“The author-function delimits what works we recognize as valuable and how we interpret them at the same time as it accords the status of author to certain writers” https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nxp6.5

I know, you’re thinking, ‘But Brannyk, doesn’t that work in favor of the movie? The reason that we’re talking about the movie right now is because of Arnold “Put That Cookie Down” Schwarzenegger? And also, what happened with the HIV/AIDS talk?

We’ll get to HIV/AIDS in a minute. First, yes, Arnold and Abigail Breslin’s (but we know it’s Arnold) capital is what drew people in. In fact, that reliance on his capital was incredibly faulty direction that the marketing took – relying on (and exaggerating) the scarce action scenes of the movie. They even went as far as to hype the movie with the most ridiculous tagline: “Don’t Get Bitten” as a way to sell Action-Arnold, and not Midwestern old-dad Arnold.

So beautifully dumb

It’s no wonder that, while it fared well with critics, it bombed hard, not even making back its budget (which probably mostly went to the salaries for the actors, as there was limited effects and locations).

And it’s a shame because “Maggie” is a fresh take on an old trope. And so, patient reader, we get to HIV/AIDS.

Just put it on the back of the toilet with the rest.

Brain Roll Juice:

“Maggie” is not the total chaos and calamity of most zombie outbreak movies. It’s an epidemic, yes, but as we see government-issued brochures given to Maggie, as we hear NPR news reports, and boring, routine doctor visits – this is not a collapsing society situation. Yet, there’s fear and prejudice against those infected. There’s ignorance. Some of it is rational – they are living in the country, where everyone knows everyone and resources are reserved for the larger cities. Maggie is seen as a victim, a carrier, a ticking time-bomb, a troublemaker, and an innocent child.

During her own time of accepting her virus and fate, friends and loved ones try understand how this change will affect them – some say goodbye, some turn away, and some give into prejudice and ignorance.

Throughout the movie (whether intentional or not) the interactions with the community, the government’s awkward involvements, and the sickness itself (not the cannibalistic part, though, duh) is reminiscent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80’s-90’s. Maggie as a “carrier” of a deadly and mysteriously disease that is clumsily handled by government officials and little understood by the general public pulls a lot from history. We see Maggie losing agency, little by little, with her choices and her own body as she is slowly succumbing to the virus. We see more government intervention by way of law enforcement and medical staff, even when trying to help her. We see her own friends misunderstand her and the community at the brink of hysteria.

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Just cross out AIDS and add zombie virus

In fact, when questioned about the school re-opening and asked whether he would send his child to school with a child with the disease, the mayor of the town had this to say,

“I’m glad I’m not faced with that problem today, and I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it. I also have compassion, as I think we all do, for the child that has this and doesn’t know and can’t have it explained to him why somehow he is now an outcast and can no longer associate with his playmates and schoolmates. On the other hand, I can understand the problem of the parents. It is true that some medical sources had said that this cannot be communicated in any way other than the ones we already know and which would not involve a child being in the school. And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, ‘This we know for a fact, that it is safe.’ And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem. I can understand both sides of it.”

Just kidding. That was Reagan in ’85. A full two years before forming the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic in ’87. And that was after AIDS was named in ’82 and HIV identified in ’82.

Any who, what I’m getting at is that there are similarities that make this a familiar ride in an old trope that I found refreshing, surprisingly rewarding and genuine. While I hope this nod was deliberate, the zombie virus itself pays homage to very real and very deadly diseases in our world as I stated before and while the scary zombie move is fun, this was a good stroll into what other facets the zombie genre could tell. Familiar stories. Heartbreaking stories. Vulnerable stories of communities trying to recover and survive; families learning how to deal with loss and say goodbye; and victims finding agency (in small or big ways) within their suffering and their final moments.

Too much capital – pull back!!!

Bottom-line:

A slow drama with Arnold Schwarzenegger and zombies. If you feel like you’re up to that, give it a go. 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

When not ravaging through the wilds of Detroit with Jellybeans the Cat, J.M. Brannyk (a.k.a. Boxhuman) reviews mostly supernatural and slasher films from the 70's-90's and is dubiously HauntedMTL's Voice of Reason. Aside from writing, Brannyk dips into the podcasts, and is the composer of many of HauntedMTL's podcast themes.

Movies n TV

Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die

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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.

For nostalgia.

Cover for Say Cheese and Die, Goosebumps number 4.

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?

The story

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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.

Zack Morris in Goosebumps

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.

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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.

What worked

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.

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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.

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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 out of 5 stars (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.

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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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