The Others

The Others (2001)

A Movie Review

 

I like horror films that make you think, films that have you dreading what’s to come and when it does, it turns out to be completely different than what you expected. Films like that are hard to come by. I give The Others high marks. That’s not to say it is without flaws and I’ll get to them but first I’ll discuss what I love about the film and bear with me because I am going to try to do it without any spoilers.

Nicole Kidman does a wonderful job as the lead character in this gothic tale of a widowed mother and her two children (who unfortunately suffer from a severe allergic reaction to sunlight) in a large home on an island off the coast of Britain. Being that isolated and alone, would drive a lot of women crazy, and a big old house is bound to make for some paranoia, especially if spending much of the time in the dark. The children, of course, have such great imaginations they add to the suspense of “is there something here with us?”

When the three strangers who seem to be answering an ad for help arrive. Things get even stranger. Kidman’s mother is both vulnerable and threatening at the same time, the children both love and fear her, her daughter challenges her and scoffs at her all the while the hired help behave suspiciously. Who is evil, who is doing what in that house?

We rarely get to see anything, either. The film takes a Lovecraftian approach with the idea that what we fear most is the unknown. Of course, we get hints and red herrings along the way that keep our heads spinning. Oh, it’s the hired help that are up to something…..No, wait, its Ann, the girl, is she possessed? There is something really creepy about their mother. Is that man really their long-lost father? Is he a ghost?

My absolute favorite creep out, and I will say this without guilt because I remember it being used in the previews, is when Ann is playing with a marionette while wearing her communion dress, her mother approaches to tell her to take it off and when the girl turns around, it’s not Ann but a creepy old woman! This is the first time we see anything that can’t be blamed on a character we know. And suddenly, we know something more than trickery is at play.

I don’t think anyone who watched this movie would not try to compare it to The Sixth Sense. I did and that’s where I found it wanting. The first time I saw The Sixth Sense, (maybe I was really naïve) I missed all the subtle clues and was shocked at the end. When I rewatch it, I am in awe of the way Shyamalan gave these brilliant hints away that you never even caught. Unfortunately, in The Others, the clues are almost thrust in our faces. “Ann told me what you did to her” and the old tombstone sticking out of the leaves. Much of the dialog was heavy with innuendos such that you could start guessing that someone in that house was not what/who they appeared to be. When the end came, I was like “yep, I figured, now just give the details of how exactly it happened and end it”.

Going back to The Sixth Sense for a minute, the other problem I had with The Others were all the loose ends and plot holes. When The Sixth Sense ends, everything makes sense, all the answers are so obvious. When The Others ended, I had questions—lots of them. Where were the servants before showing up at the house? Why weren’t there any others living there? Where did the husband come from and where did he go? I’d love to discuss Heaven and Hell and Purgatory but then I would even have more questions, like why the children are with their mother and not their father? Why is the mother allowed to stay in her house? The story itself is good, the brooding feel, the anticipatory fright is all there right along with the O’Henry twist at the end. But once I know that, there isn’t much going back and rewatching it that makes sense. Much like this review. I said I really liked this movie and ended my review by trashing it. So there, my ending doesn’t make sense either and therefore it’s a perfect place to end.

 

 

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Hope is a Bezoar (A poem not class related)

Hope is a Bezoar

 

My strange addiction—swallowing words

With no substance

“I promise” sits undigested, unabsorbed

In my stomach

“I’m sorry” wraps tangled around other things

You’ve said with only your mouth

Your eyes empty of nourishment

But still I swallow and allow it to grow larger

In my gut

Never reaching my blood stream

Or feeding the tissues of my heart

“It’s not good for you,” they say

“You should stop.”

Probably, I tell them

As I turn back to you

Awaiting another morsel of trash

Thrown haphazardly at me

Like bread to the ducks

Please Don’t Feed Them

There is No Nutritional Value

And They Come to Rely on It

But they are just stupid ducks

I know better.

“I love you,” you say

With your cock buried deep inside me

Do you mean it? I ask

Even as I feel it add to the weight of the stone in my middle

Which has become so big that it blocks everything else

I am thin, emaciated, starved

And your words weigh me down, keeping me anchored in place

My heart is weak

I no longer have the strength to carry myself away

“It will have to be cut out or it will kill you,”

The doctor says.

But maybe it won’t, I say

Maybe this stone will take the place of my heart.

And maybe then, like you,

I will be free.

The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining

No, not the movie

By Stephen King

I’ve read The Shining before, but I had the privilege of reading it for the first time before I saw the Kubrick film. That, of course, was a long time ago and since then, I have watched the movie so many times since that the two were irrevocably mixed in my head. Thus, when I came back to the book this time as a critical reader, I often found myself comparing the two. I’m going to try to stick to my critique of the book, but I warn you, there is bound to be some cross referencing.

Stephen King makes no secret that he modeled much of the character Jack Torrance after himself. A struggling alcoholic writer who often resents the weight of his family responsibilities which adds to his stress creating a vicious cycle that has left him on the verge of ruin.

It’s no surprise then, that King lets us spend a long time inside the head of Jack. He’s not a bad guy; he just has a small problem with alcohol that tends to cause him crushing defeats just when he is about to succeed. I would argue that although the title of the book is The Shining (alluding to Danny’s psychic powers), it is Jack’s assimilation into the darkness of the Overlook which is the real horror of the story.

King is a master of story-telling, and yes, he is long winded at times, and yes, the scrapbook was probably a failed attempt to avoid the dreaded info dump, still his use of symbolism and mirroring in this book is excellent.

Let’s start with The Overlook Hotel in general. A massive structure that has survived many a near catastrophe, much like Jack. Both have dark pasts and ‘skeletons” in their closets and those evils can easily be released under the perfect storm of circumstances. The Overlook in winter is the epitome of isolation, much as Jack’s alcoholism has isolated his own family.

Jack is overall, a good man. He loves his wife and son, but just beneath the surface there is something waiting to be released. Something not quite right. I think of the blue plush carpet with its jungle-like vine pattern. Why would there be vines on a blue carpet. Danny noted it for its oddity and felt unease. Jack too is not quite put together right, likely a result of his own skewed upbringing, and in the Overlook, he too seems menacing. Jack, the loving father is like the empty wasp nest that he gives to Danny, assuring both Wendy and his son that it is harmless. Just an empty shell. Like he, himself, and The Overlook, we discover it is not at all harmless and oh yes, there are still dangers lurking within, ready to attack.

Deep inside himself, Jack Torrance has a boiler that must be kept in check at all times, if left unattended, it could blow. The Overlook knows this, senses it, just as it does Danny’s powers and like a Venus flytrap it waits. Jack and the hotel are speeding along together, catalyzed by his son’s extraordinary powers to a climax that will surely leave some victims in its wake. We the reader are along for the ride, wondering who will walk away still in the flesh. That is King’s mastery. We follow along because we are in this now, and we are feeling both Jack’s inner turmoil and his family’s fear at the same time.

And now, I told you I would mention the movie. Kubrick’s film, which professes to be not paranormal but psychological shows more horror and terror then it hides, while King uses minimal imagery and allows us to imagine the horror thus creating a feeling of dread. Both are successful in their own, unique ways and although King has never been a fan of the Kubrick film, I think it’s fair to say that they are their own entity and both are worth exploring. Just don’t expect to find any of the iconic images/quotes that everyone associates with The Shining in the book. No maze, no twins, no ax, no tricycle rides, no Brady Bunch inspired color scheme, No Jack and Tub lady make out session in room 217/237, no Tony the talking finger, no “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, No “Here’s Johnny”, No “come play with us”. Sorry to burst your bubble….or blow up your hotel as the case may be.

 

The Ghosting Ghost of Ghost Story

Ghost Story

By Peter Straub

 

While I beg to differ with the title of the novel, I enjoyed this story. That is not to say that there weren’t weaknesses with it. There is no doubt that Straub attempts to emulate Stephen King by trying to tell a tale with such a large cast of characters all within a single town. Where SK excels at this, Straub often left me confused in the who’s who of Milburn. So much of the first half of the book centered on the Chowder Society and its members’ lives that when the rest of the town gets pulled into the story, it’s too late to get to know them all well enough to follow it. And that is where it loses the ghost story aspect of it.

It’s a great idea to use the idea of “the ghost of your past” is coming back to haunt you in the present. The vengeful spirit of a girl accidently drowned would have worked and could have saved about a hundred pages of novel. But that is not the route Straub took and while those are my complaints, I did enjoy the idea of a shapeshifter popping up in the lives of so many interconnected individuals.

The problem is, this story is more a monster story than a ghost story. So, when it is set up as a ghost story and you send your time trying to understand the big secret of the Chowder Society only to discover that this monster has been around for centuries feeding off humans, you’ve lost the personal revenge motive. The shapeshifter is just using memories to gain access to its victims. In that way, none of the rest of the story matters. The ghost stories the Chowder Society told or their individual experiences. While I was trying to put the puzzle together, Straub began throwing more and more into the mix. I still don’t understand the cattle/sheep killings. What is the point if they can so easily manipulate humans and kill them? Were Sears and Ricky seriously supposed to connect those killings to their own paranormal goings on?

The bookended beginning and end also felt unnecessary to me. After all, if Don knew what the girl was and she knew that he knew (which is obvious at the end that she did) then how long is the girl going to let it go on? Where are the others of her kind to step in like the Bate brothers?

What I am saying here is that this book entertained me but it’s no work of great literary accomplishment. Straub had some good material here, a lot of it. I loved the stories within the story, but I think he just wanted to write something complex and it got the best of him.

My current thesis novel weaves the past and present of several characters together so when I see a book that does the same, I get excited. When he focused on his main characters, Straub gave them depth, great backstories, and enough personality, you could easily sympathize with them. I enjoyed spending time in their pasts and their shared nightmares. I liked “reading” Wanderley’s journal entries and “hearing” Sears’ ghost tale of Fenny Bate and his sister. But why couldn’t that ghost have been the cause of this. Eva Galli’s ghost spreading out among them all and their loved ones? Maybe taking down the town that didn’t even bother to search for her or solve her murder. Maybe she was evil, maybe she was somehow possessed but did she have to be a shapeshifter?

Maybe I am just being nit-picky because the book didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I liked his writing style, I liked the stories within a story. I think we could have gotten a little more one on one with some of the secondary characters so I could tell them apart or even remember who they were. I struggled a little with the idea that these shapeshifters who lived so long, could be taken down so easily in the end. But again, I guess I can’t always have a book go exactly the way I want it to (I’m looking at you J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin), but it was a good, easy read even if the title was misleading.

Hell is for Women: A Review of Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House

Richard Matheson

hell house warner books

 

Oh, Richard…

I have read two Matheson books. This one was the first one I read a year or so ago, then I am Legend. I’ve seen pretty much every movie based on his books as well, but we’ll leave those to the screenwriters. In planning my critique of this book, I found myself comparing both the story and the writing style to The Haunting of Hill House and my distaste for Matheson’s need to explain the unexplainable with pseudoscientific nonsense that does nothing for the plot but distract.

I would like to first focus on Matheson’s writing style. As a graduate student writing my first novel, the “do’s and don’ts” of novel writing are frequently drilled into our heads. Matheson, presumably a successful and prolific novelist, breaks enough of them, that I can’t help but be annoyed. Maybe it’s a case of sour grapes or in this case little man syndrome, but I found myself frequently distracted by his head-hopping often occurring without warning in the middle of a chapter/subchapter. I highlighted the subchapter 2:19pm from the December 22,1970 chapter. In these seven pages, and without any warning we jump into and out of every character’s thoughts and emotions. It was bad enough to completely draw me out of the story. It happened a few times again, but by then, I was more frustrated with the telling of a story and not showing.

Compared to Jackson’s Hill House, there is a lot more action—making this novel a quicker read, no doubt, but the dread, the fear isn’t there. Why? Because we are told everything that happens. Jackson weaves elements into her writing that run like ghostly fingers up your spine, while Matheson throws a ball at you and says, “think fast”. Did anyone else notice how everything “seemed to” be happening? I wish I had counted the times someone seemed to see or seemed to feel or something seemed to move. Ugh. Not to mention the Edith saw, Edith felt, Fischer sat, Barrett ordered nonsense. I frequently felt as if Matheson wanted to take Jackson’s novel and “improve” it with more blatant sexuality/lesbianism, more evil action, and perhaps more depth to the characters? In my humble opinion, all he managed was a novelized and adult version of an episode of Scooby Doo.

And with that, let’s discuss the story itself. Filled with four characters emotionally strong enough to enter Hell House and live there for a week: The patriarch and impotent know-it-all of the group, Dr. Barrett, his lovely, sexually frustrated young wife Edith (yes…Edith…twenty years younger, supposedly attractive and her name is Edith), Florence Tanner—the also maybe young but if nothing else buxom former actress now medium, and the brooding but best in the world medium Ben Fischer. Wait, did I say emotionally strong? The thing is, Matheson, in his 1970’s male brain obviously felt that both women were there to be the victims of the house’s sexual depravity, to need constant saving and reassurance and the men, who actually did very little in the story were the heroes and at times victims of the women’s naivety.

Matheson played with these women like a cat with a mouse throughout the entire story. Sexualizing them in every way, writing them to be weakened by their ability to love and sympathize while the men could block that off and see everything clearly. Those poor closet lesbians/sexually frustrated, love starved women—always getting into trouble. I really hate that. As it is, Edith and Florence were the only two characters who actually did anything, the only two who braved the hell of the Belasco House. And they managed to do it with plump breasts and curvy hips. Now, that is something to talk about.

Alas, as pretty and sexy as they were, neither one could figure out the secret of Hell House or defeat it. Nope. It took the good doctor’s fancy science to weaken it a little and the world renowned medium to put it all together a la Fred from Scooby Doo and unmask the one and only culprit—old man Belasco! In his lead-lined room and his sawed-off shorty legs, he sat dead and waiting. And hey, you think Fischer was an amazing medium? How about a man who knew exactly how the afterlife works, who knew all about the scientific theories to come and how to thwart them. He knew how to kill himself in such a way that he would for sure come back to own that place as a ghost. It’s really too bad Belasco and Deutsch hadn’t met before their death’s, they could have hung out together and saved everyone the trouble.

I tried to overlook the sexism, I told myself the book is a product of its time. It was certainly fast paced with so much action, but I certainly never felt the dread I did in Jackson’s novel. This for me read more like a screenplay than a novel. But what really ruined it for me was the end. Just as in I Am Legend, Matheson feels the need to try to explain everything with some crazy pseudoscience. It’s the wrap up by Fischer with the tidy explanation that is truly so far-fetched it was hard to finish. I won’t give the ending away but honestly, I find it better to end a paranormal story by leaving it paranormal, leaving it open to the possibility that something is still lurking there, ready to get you. But, if you love wrapping it all up in a less than believable way and closing the book knowing that the evil has been vanquished, then by all means, enjoy.

I’ll just be over here, doing my girl thing, trying not to ruin it with my boobs and my need for romancing the ghost.

The Haunting of Hill House

A Review of The Haunting of Hill House

By: Shirley Jackson

 

I read this book before, in college (which was actually a really long time ago but who’s counting) in a class on horror literature. What I remembered about it, I think was the opening line—which is still one the best openers in any novel I have ever read and the rest came from that horrible movie with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. So, I was excited to revisit it for this class.

My first impression, was “this seems a lot like Hell House” and I tried not to compare the two as I read. Instead, I focused on Eleanor and her strange connection to the house. Given that the entire book is written from her POV, it’s hard not to. And given that Eleanor is the only character who is written three dimensional, it’s easy to get inside her head (as frightening as that may be).

Often times, I found myself thinking about Jackson’s choice of title. The Haunting OF Hill House rather than Haunted Hill House or something similar. And I began to wonder if we were dealing with a ghost story at all. Here is what we know of Hill House: it was built by a lunatic named Hugh Crain and built deliberately off balance. Bad things happened to Hugh and his family. We know his daughters turned out similar to their father (and after finding his homemade book, one can’t be too surprised) and we know that the people of Hillsdale shun the place. But what we don’t know is what happened to anyone else who tried to live there. There is no proof of a haunting from within.

So, along comes Dr. Montague and his handpicked assistants to investigate. We know why he is there, we know that Luke was forced upon him. We are told that Theo has shown telekinetic abilities (but we never see any evidence of such during her stay at Hill House). We also meet Mrs. Montague who insists upon her own telekinetic abilities but again see no proof during her time at Hill House. The “hauntings” we do experience—and for a novel length piece, they are few and far between—all seem to be centered on or around Eleanor.

Eleanor, the child-like, sheltered, naïve woman who was invited to Hill House because as a child she was involved in poltergeist type activity. Eleanor, who looks to Hill House as her salvation, her escape from a world and family that held her back. Is Hill house haunting her or is she haunting it? I raise the theory of the latter. The house is a deformed creation doomed to suffer from the madness of its creator and in its monstrous form, draws those whose minds are as broken as its edges and angles. Eleanor falls in love with it and it, her. The two become one and it calls her home.

Eleanor, the perpetual child, finds a mother in Hill House and it, in turn, finds its soul mate. They are both the products of their creators and both slightly off.

Is there a ghost or ghosts haunting Hill house? I don’t think there is. I think it has an energy, I think most houses do. Hill House is haunted by those who are drawn to its unnatural energy. Those who are off-kilter enough to find comfort in its carnival fun-house mystery. The haunting is therefore done by the humans who inhabit it. Their energies working in a symbiotic relationship to cause horror.

The Haunting of Hill House was titled, I think, deliberately by Jackson because like many of her other works, this story is NOT a ghost story at all but a character study of the madness and power of the human mind. There is no need for the supernatural when we can do so much damage to each other. I think that is the message Shirley Jackson most frequently tried to convey in her works and manages to do so with a genius-level subtlety in this novel.

“What’s in the box, Poe?” A review of three short stories by Poe

 

Three Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

 

We were assigned a set of three shorts by Poe. These three represent some of his most famous stories and all have a theme: A crazy, unreliable narrator uses the story as a confession of sorts, a reasoning for his outrageous acts. All three of the narrators hide their murders behind a wall or in the case of the Tell-Tale Heart, the floor boards.

The Tell-Tale Heart: In this, arguably Poe’s most well-known short story, the unnamed narrator seems more interested in convincing us of his sanity than he does his innocence. Which is something we will see in the other stories, and seems to be a theme in much of Poe’s work. I tend to think that many of his tales have an autobiographical bent. Poe, like his characters was considered odd, unhinged, or straight up insane and his character’s protests often come off desperate, as Poe himself was to prove his talent and mental stability. This particular narrator admits to his wrong doing but states it was the old man’s clouded eye that drove him to murder. The constant look of it. But what I find interesting in this story compared to the others is that while nonchalantly telling his tale, if read carefully, we realize that he tortured the old man for days. I wonder if perhaps he was hoping to cause a heart attack and when it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, he went to extreme. Evidence of that is the complete unpreparedness of the narrator regarding disposal of the body and I believe it was that more than anything else that lead to him cracking. It was the dismembering and hiding the body parts that really unhinged him.

 

The Black Cat: Alcoholism drove this narrator to his evil deeds we are told over and over. He, again a nameless narrator, assures us that prior to succumbing to this disease, he was a mild, peaceful being who loved people and animals. In this story, I felt like Poe, who also was described as quiet and polite when sober but completely out of control the minute a glass of liquor passed his lips, wrote this from a familiar place inside himself. This narrator, like the previous one, shows no remorse for his actions but instead spends his time explaining his reasoning for what he did and how he was driven to it. For me, the theme here is alcoholism in general. He first cuts out the eye of his favorite cat (this time not a cloudy eye, more just a knowing one) in a drunken rage and from there, it’s as if he kills anything and everything that reminds him of his problem with temperance. While he acknowledges that he loses control when he drinks, he refuses to stop and rather than attack the cause, he attacks the reminders of it. His paranoia grows until he turns these reminders into almost paranormal forces that have to be stopped.

 

The Cask of Amontillado: This tale of pride, revenge and murder is also told in the first person point of view but we do get a name for our narrator. Montressor has suffered a thousand times over at the hands (or lips) of Fortunato but a recent insult is the last straw and he plans revenge. Montressor tells this tale from a date far removed from the incident and like his predecessors (at least on my blog), he too shows no remorse. Now, for me, this was the most interesting of the three. In this story, unlike the other two, we get to know the victim as well as the perpetrator. And Fortunato sounds like the rich asshole we all love to hate. The guy who thinks he is a big deal and that everyone loves him. (Use your imagination and see if anyone comes to mind…someone with a huge ego but little hands). I mean all Montressor had to do was feed the guy’s ego and string him a long with a cask of rare booze instead of a carrot. The whole time Fortunato is obnoxious. He makes a secret Mason’s sign and when Montressor misses it, he makes fun telling him he is no Mason. Monstressor shows him a trowel and disagrees. This was funny. In fact, Montressor makes many little quips and puns alluding to his plan for the loud mouth narcissist. This story was more amusing and more intellectual than the other two.

Unlike the other two tales, this killer had a reason I think many could relate to or at least understand a bit more. I also think there are autobiographical elements. Poe struggled with his contemporaries and critics. He bore their insults as best he could. I am sure there is some of his own unspoken desires in this story. Which I think is why he gave so much more personality to Montressor. Montressor was intelligent, funny and witty but most importantly sympathetic. Also, we don’t know what happened to Monstressor but we are not told he is in jail or has been arrested. For all we know, he got away with it.

 

I love Poe. His style is described as American gothic which unlike the paranormal elements of the European gothic, studies the darkness within humanity—the horrors of reality. These three stories are not my favorites of all his works and The Tell-Tale Heart has just been overdone. I’ve read it for every English class I have ever taken. But they were good choices for the psycho class (William Wilson would have been a fun tale to look at as well in this category). I think he was misunderstood in his time and I think he struggled with his own inner demons and that gave a life to his characters that many couldn’t appreciate until much later.