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Hey-yo, kids. Recently I “went to” the Trans Steller Film Festival (Nov 26-Dec 3, 2023). And by went to, I mean I sat in my home like a grump, eating kettlecorn popcorn and a lukewarm diet soda.

It was heaven.

So, of course, being a horror critic (or something like that), I bought tickets to the Horror section of their short films, which included three shorts – THE SHACK – An Atmos-Fearic Thriller; THEYSUCK; and MICHAEL AND THE DRAGON.

Backstory, I didn’t read the small print and only watched the first one. Then the next day went to watch the other ones but my ticket expired so I had to pay again. So, that’s the REAL LGBTQ agenda…making me read the small print when I buy shit!

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It's a meme that says, "watch all the films or you'll pay again" and Brannyk says, "that sign won't stop me because I can't read."

THE SHACK – An Atmos-Fearic Thriller

The Shack is about is a guy who has very loud music in his head, probably from drinking all the Cthulhu beer. He has a buddy come up into his hunting blind and then bonks the buddy on the head and drags him away. You think in some kind of caveman courtship, but no, it’s for a demon dressed in a raincoat to feed upon the friend.

Next he brings his son (who looks about the same age as he is) to the blind- er, shack? It’s not really a shack. It’s a hunting blind. And it’s really not all that creepy. And it does NOT look like it’s 100 years old like the son says. It looks like it was from the 70’s. It needs more centerfolds in it, like, of 70’s demons or something…

Anyway, spooky things happen and tentacle monsters. Things go downhill.

The issue I took (besides the music, because turn down that racket!) is that the ‘son’ is too old. If he were a twelve or thirteen year old, it would have been more emotionally impactful. The story would have been more interesting. Instead, the son looks old enough to drink Cthulhu beer with dad and it lowers the stakes. Especially as this hunting trip is meant to be a rite of passage.

The high points come from the demon itself – the tentacles and the actor. The makeup for the demon was good and the actor’s presence was appropriately creepy. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the woods and the mystery it was unfolding (although it’s been played out before). Otherwise, it was…good. Mostly. It was fine.

It's a pic of a guy holding another guy with headphones, yelling, "MAH SON". A demon doesn't give a fuck and shrugs.
2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

THEYSUCK

Man, I wanted to like this one so much. UK NB vampires. Sounds incredible, right?

And some parts were incredible. The editing (while sometimes off, like the clothes washing scene) was stylized and crisp, as well as the cinematography. The music, when not rattling in my ears, was well-paced and energetic. Some of the scenes were clever and the locations were interesting.

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The problem that bugged me the most was the writing, actually. It just…was bland. For a short about trans vampires. Like, how is that possible?

Truth be told, I think the largest reason for this was that the story didn’t really focus. It tried to be too many things all at once – friends falling out, falling in love, sexual identity, gender identity, uh…vampire identity? Looking for an apartment. Killing humans. Dancing. Dressing up like ghosts. Washing clothes dramatically.

I guess now’s the time to talk about the actual plot. Vampire Toy and their vampire roommate/romantic partner/friend (?), Novah, have a bit of a falling out. Toy is falling in love with a human! Hiss! A human realtor. Double hiss!! A human realtor cis-woman!!! Eternity amount of hisses!!!

As Toy gets more enraptured with this human, Adele, Novah figures enough is enough. Something drastic must be done. Is love enough to win the day? Or at least can Toy find their dream apartment?

Okay, so first – the names of ‘Toy’ and ‘Novah’…are so on point. I was chuckling. I mean, these are the stuff of Reddit NB memes.

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It's a meme where there are two buttons - one says "have a normal name" and the other says "have the name of an inanimate object". The next scene is an NB sweating because they can't choose.

And there was a love of spit and love put into THEYSUCK, don’t get me wrong. I think the reason why I’m picking on this one so much is because of its potential. With a few tweaks and re-writes, this could have been a much stronger narrative and short film (possibly even as part of an anthology).

And I like Toy, but with the time and space we’re allotted with them, they usually end up looking sleazy with Adele or manic-pixie-dream-vamp literally dancing to their own tune. I was so looking for more vulnerability from them like in the first scene with Novah. I wanted to see that side of them. In fact, the parts with Novah and Toy were the strongest. They had good chemistry and were natural together.

The love angle with Adele and the chemistry there just felt flat and honestly…was unnecessary to Toy’s journey in their search for independence and perhaps sexual rediscovery.

All in all, I hope Lisbon Mombellet continues to make films. As I’ve said, the editing and cinematography were fun and stylish, with infectious energy. I was never bored while watching THEYSUCK and I enjoyed the parts of the whole. I think if Mombellet tightens up the writing, we’re in for some real treats in the future.

It's Toy with Adele, saying, "Hubba Hubba Happy Halloween" like a creep. And Adele is blushing and saying, "Oh! Oh! My! You're so quirky!"
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Michael and the Dragon

Oh…

My God…

Interpretive dance…horror!

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Interpretivedancehorror!!! OMG!

It's a picture of Brannyk being in love and saying Yesssss

I love it.

Micky Waickman plays both Michael and the Dragon – both equally masculine and feminine in the most beautiful ways. Cait Rowe, cinematographer, pulled an utterly impressive job and took my breath away with the shots. MICHAEL AND THE DRAGON is the proof of how much an experimental piece horror with very little cast and crew can achieve with clever camerawork, ingenuity, and talent.

Shooting in black-and-white was the correct choice and I’m not just saying that because it’d probably be on the now-defunct High Art Camp, but because it added to the horror and distortion of the film. Dreamlike and nightmarish, the dance and bodywork of Waickman was itself a juxtaposition of the story it wove.

And yes, I’m showing my bias of experimental horror, but THERE IS A FINE LINE between pretentious weirdness and actual art. This one was the latter and Director/Writer Ella Price should be incredibly proud. I sincerely hope to see more of her work in the future. 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Bottomline for the Trans Steller Film Festival:

Was spending twice the amount really worth it?…

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Of course! These small indie film-makers are the lifeblood of solid horror, and bigger and better things to come. I’ve said it before and I’ll say again, indie movies are precious and need to be supported. They are the babies of creators. And whether they fully hit the mark or not is irrelevant. The point is that there is creation, bridled only by lack of funds and resources. And it’s incredible to see what happens when there’s a dream that refuses to be deferred, especially by the minority of creators.

Horror is for minorities. For misfits. For the underfunded and underprivileged. Because that’s when it’s real and authentic. And horror, to be GOOD, desperately requires for it to be authentic. Maybe these won’t blow the door off anything yet. But maybe in a few years. Or maybe they’ll inspire someone else. Or maybe these directors and actors will move on to bigger things.

Yeah, yeah, I’m making it a fireside chat, but it’s true. These film festivals are the lifeblood of our community and we need to support them. I’m glad I’m an idiot and paid twice. They deserve it.

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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

The Beach House, a Film Review

The Beach House (2019) is a body horror film directed and written by Jeffrey A. Brown starring Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, and Jake Weber.

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The Beach House (2020) is a body horror film directed and written by Jeffrey A. Brown. This film stars Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, and Maryann Nagel. As of this review, this film is only available on Shudder.

Desperate to rekindle their strained love, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) escape to a beach getaway. They soon learn to find that family friends of Randall’s father, Mitch (Jake Weber), and Jane (Maryann Nagel), also had a similar idea. After getting used to each other, a mysterious fog engulfs the town. Unfortunately, they realize too late the danger they find themselves in.

A woman with her mouth agape. Behind her is a dark background. Next to her reads, "The Beach House." Below is a scenic beach with a mountain in the distance.
The Beach House Alternative Cover Art

What I Like

Body horror gets under my skin, and The Beach House certainly lives up to the standard. There’s something magical about creatures terraforming your body to their preferred environment, turning humans into nothing more than conscious prisoners in their own flesh. While I wouldn’t consider this film the most traumatic or unsettling example, it utilizes wonderfully grotesque scenes.

Aside from the body horror, the film drops a few Cosmic Horror–or Lovecraftian–vibes that go together perfectly. Another favored genre of mine, this combination ensures the odds are overwhelmingly against our human leads.

Beyond the grotesque, visuals might not overwhelm but certainly succeed in their goal. Several scenes provide an intentionally tranquil experience that contrasts with the grotesques and improves their effectiveness.

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In terms of performance, each actor hits their mark. While some roles require less effort, each contributes to the plot as intended. The standout performance goes to Liana Liberato’s Emily, who acts as co-lead. She simply has the most to work with and lives up to the part.

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

Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings

As “body horror” should indicate, this film will hit hard for the more squeamish viewer. While horror by nature has some amount of grotesque, body horror brings that grotesque to the next level. While I don’t particularly find The Beach House hitting harder than its competition, it certainly respects its chosen genre.

Woman looks shocked or horrified. Bushes or trees make up the background.
Liana Liberato as Emily

What I Dislike or Considerations

A few scenic montages may hit or miss depending on your interpretation. While I have my own theories, that speculation goes beyond the scope of this review. Many of these scenes overlap more philosophical conversations and musings that may annoy or add layers. This strategy seems a common practice in Cosmic Horror, which forces characters to rationalize the irrational.

It’s hard for me to understand how secretive or known this event is supposed to be in the film’s world. Individuals know something outside of the town, with evidence implying governmental knowledge. This information creates a contrivance–perhaps, even a plot hole–because the characters had to reach this isolated town without any opposition.

One of the visuals didn’t exactly grab me. While I won’t go into too much detail, an effect looked too visually similar to a common animal that barely survives rain. It’s hard to be threatened by that. It also doesn’t exactly match up with some of the other visuals. Even the creatures that look similar to it still look different enough to provide a more alien assumption.

There are moments when the infected chase our main characters by crawling at them. While the context works, with injured characters helping to sell them, I can’t help but find these scenes amusing as opposed to frightening. Yes, it’s certainly visually different from the plethora of zombies out there, but it’s also less frightening than zombies that leisurely walk to their targets.

Final Thoughts

The Beach House combines cosmic and body horror to create an uncomfortable film that tests its characters. For those who enjoy these genres, it will certainly entertain you, but I doubt it will frighten you. I imagine the mood to watch it again might strike me, but I’m not entirely certain it will stand the test of time. 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

If this movie suits your fancy and you want more, Honeymoon seems an appropriate recommendation.

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Movies n TV

Every Secret Thing, a Film Review

Every Secret Thing (2014) is a crime thriller directed by Amy J. Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener, based on Laura Lippman’s novel.

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Every Secret Thing (2014) is a crime thriller directed by Amy J. Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener. This R-rated film stars Diane Lane, Danielle Macdonald, Dakota Fanning, and Elizabeth Banks. Based on Laura Lippman’s novel of the same name, the film adaptation is accessible through MAX and DirecTV.

When a little girl goes missing, Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) spirals into an all too familiar tale. As pressure mounts, Alice Manning (Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie Fuller (Dakota Fanning) become the leading suspects. The strained frenemies unravel under the attention and reminders of their shared past.

Laura Lippman stands out at the top of the cover, over a black background. Every Secret Thing appearing over a pool
Every Secret Thing Book Cover

What I Like

The film unravels in a non-chronological structure but makes it easy for the viewer to follow. It helps that the age difference clearly divides the younger actors, who change actors. One casting choice resembles their older counterpart, and the acting reflects a strong direction for their shared role.

Unreliable narration remains expertly communicated with scenes that change perspectives depending on whose perspective we view them from. This choice adds a reason to view the film twice, providing extra ambiguity for some of these events.

The camera gets up close and personal to an uncomfortable degree, which almost certainly presses the actors’ performances. This choice places the viewer in the character’s perspective and limits us from others’ perspectives to add extra credence to these biases.

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Every Secret Thing provides a spiraling mystery that unravels with several twists and turns. Assuming the novel provided the outline, this film executes these points and keeps a consistently engaging experience throughout the runtime.

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

Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings

Child abuse and neglect remain the central plot points of Every Secret Thing. Little of this abuse appears in scenes, but there is no escaping the danger children are in throughout the film.

Self-harm and suicide are shown throughout the film (once in the case of suicide) through one specific character. It isn’t glorified or romanticized nor addressed with particular sensitivity. For those sensitive to these subjects, it might be triggering.

Racism, the assumed motive for the bi-racial victims, plays a small role in the film’s narrative. However, character motives remain more complex, but going further spoils some elements. This film decision does create the reality that bi-racial children are the victims of child neglect and abuse in the film with little additional context. It does invite uncomfortable speculation, but speculation it would be.

Sexual assault is another concern for viewers, specifically statutory rape. This issue seems particularly mismanaged, considering the survivor remains an antagonist. One can be both survivor of assault and an antagonist of a film without needing to discredit the assault. While little appears of this issue, and the manipulation angle can indicate a perspective shift, it’s hard to refute how the film wants to represent this attack.

Daughter resting on her mother's shoulder. Both are in the back of a car.
Diane Lane as Helen and Danielle Macdonald as Alice

What I Dislike

Loosely tied to the above point, one character seems mentally off and purposely so. This point doesn’t inherently create an issue, but there seems to be a choice to make this character a mastermind. Perhaps this is better addressed in the book, but the execution is far from perfect here.

A newspaper montage reveals essential information which feels oddly misplaced. Practically the entire setup for the film appears through this montage, which creates the necessity to read these headlines in the minimal time given.

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As a horror, nothing but the events are haunting. Children being abused or kidnapped always haunts, but the terror of this remains secondary to the mystery. While the mystery is nice, this film won’t particularly scare the seasoned horror fan.

Final Thoughts

Every Secret Thing unravels a mystery of opportunism, selfishness, and deception. While the movie won’t haunt the viewer, it certainly unravels a mystery that shocks them. The nuanced and deceptive characters add a layer of engagement that creates a unique experience, but I doubt this movie will linger in my mind.
2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

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Movies n TV

Quid Pro Woe

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We’ve now reached episode six of Tim Burton’s Wednesday. And after the last episode, this one did not disappoint.

We start with Wednesday attempting to contact Goody Addams. Last episode, if you’ll recall, Morticia explained the difference between a psychic dove and a raven. Since Goody Addams was the last raven psychic in the family line, it’s got to be her that trains Wednesday. 

But her seance is a failure, and Wednesday is interrupted by a magazine note shoved under the door. It says to meet someone at a crypt for answers. 

When she gets there, it turns out that her friends have put together a surprise birthday party for her. Before she can cut the cake, however, she has a vision.

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Jenna Ortega in Wednesday

Goody Addams tells her that she must find a specific gate. After some investigation, Wednesday discovers it’s the gate to the old Gates house. 

Wednesday goes to investigate, but she isn’t the only one. She is nearly discovered by Mayor Walker. He is also investigating the Gates family, even though they’re all reported to be dead. He leaves a message for Sheriff Galpin and is almost immediately run over by a car.

This incident is enough to get Wednesday’s town villages revoked. Though this seems like an empty punishment since the whole school is on lockdown. Someone burned Fire Will Rain on their front lawn. 

Wednesday isn’t one for believing the rules apply to her. She has it in her head that she’s meant to save Nevermore Academy, probably from whatever descendent of Crackstone who’s still around. So she has no problem lying to Enid and Tyler and convincing them to help her sneak off campus and explore the Gates house further.

This, of course, is an incredibly informative trip. The kids find a hidden altar to Crackstone, as well as the missing body parts from the monster’s victims. They also find evidence that someone’s been staying in the house. Someone who’s staying in what looks like a little girl’s room.

Before they can find anything more, the monster finds them. They barely escape, and go to the sheriff with what they find. 

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Of course, the house has been cleared out by the time Sheriff Galpin arrives. Furious that his son was almost killed, he tells Wednesday to stay away from him.

Because that always works, right?

Galpin isn’t the only one angry. Enid is fed up with the way Wednesday has been treating her. And so she leaves their room to bunk with someone else, leaving Wednesday alone. 

This episode was well done. The discoveries at the house were exciting, and I’m almost sure I know who’s behind the murders at this point. Overall, this was a good ramp-up to the season finale. 

Jenna Ortega in Wednesday.

Finally, this episode did something I was worried just wasn’t going to happen. And for that alone, it deserves praise.

Wednesday has been incredibly selfish and inconsiderate since the first episode. She’s been rude and demanding towards Thing. She’s ignored her friends’ needs and emotions while insisting they put themselves in danger for her investigation. She has respected no one’s boundaries, even while other people have at least tried to respect hers.

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And now, it’s finally come back to bite her. All of the people who have been doing their best to show her kindness and support are finally done with her bullshit.

Yes, this is a good thing! Characters are best when they’re allowed to learn and grow. When they don’t come to us flawless. When they mess up and learn from it. Especially for a show aimed at kids, this is essential.

If you’d asked me at the beginning of the season if this character was going to experience honest character growth, I’d have assured you it would never happen. Much to my surprise, it’s happening. I hope that Wednesday is going to come out of this a better person. With two episodes left in the season, there’s plenty of time for that.  4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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