Finding A Totem To Oblivion: A Review of Black Mountain Side

Writer and director Nick Szostakiwskyj plays the long game in his horror film Black Mountain Side.

It begins, and ends, in the northern most part of the Taiga Cordillera: a place situated on the border between the Yukon and the North West Territories. Only a few hundred people live in the area, its summers are short and cool, and its winters are quite long. In the film itself, there is a lot of wilderness, the considerable presence of forests, mountains, and silence. Certainly the trope of Canada being a large and wide open icy terrain is not lost in this film.

Black Mountain Side‘s story focuses on a team of archaeologists at a site in the Cordillera. The snow and wide expanse of their surroundings always seems to threaten swallowing them up along with their small outpost. Nature is not their friend. It is a patient Other: an enemy that slowly whittles away any warmth, or light that they can get. Even so, there are marks of human inhabitation that even the territory can’t completely erase.

This is the puzzle that Szostakiwskyj initially poses: how can an ancient and long established structure with what seem to be very southern Mesoamerican symbols exist buried in the earth and snow of the far north? How can architecture dating from the Ice Age even exist? These are academic questions that become tinged with anxiety, paranoia, then outright fear, and blood.

This structure, which the team never succeeds in unearthing completely, is far from home if it is Mesoamerican. Even the local workers that the team utilize seem to be the aboriginal Dogrib: from the Dene First Nations. Yet this is only a supposition, however, as one of the archaeologists points out that these workers, employed from an arrangement with their band council, speak the language of Dogrib. Certainly, it may be this people, or their ancestors, that created the marker stones around that area to keep it in memory: though the fact that it may indicate a hunting ground for deer speaks volumes later on in the film.

In fact, the ground is a space that screams isolation so loudly that there is almost absolute quiet. As the site’s communications with other outposts ceases, as sickness spreads, and tensions crystallize into infighting and fracture into a voice that isn’t there and murder there is no soundtrack. Black Mountain Side, for a film that coincidentally shares a title with an instrumental piece, has no music. Instead, it is a movie that eats chronology, the days and months that the archaeological team degenerates from playing cards together into fear and horror, and the sounds of their deaths and the ending of their selves.

There have been a few other reviews on this film. Some compare it to John Carpenter’s The Thing or even H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. I would even say that the film is mildly reminiscent of a 2010 movie called The Corridor: where a group of friends go up to a cabin and become exposed to some force that changes them and drives them murderously insane. Certainly, the scenes in Black Mountain Side with one of the archaeologists have something squirming in his skin, the revelation of a structure that may have existed before human civilization, and even the team doctor’s diagnosis that some of the crew has been infected with a cephalopod-like organism definitely leans towards Carpenter and Lovecraft before him.

In fact, the gruesome apparition of the deer god that the latter survivors of the team keep seeing and hearing — what with his comments on the cosmos and actually looking at reality — definitely harken back to a kind of Lovecraftian cosmicism: in which the universe is inherently meaningless and filled only with malignant and indifferent entities of considerable power in which human beings are but small insects by comparison.

But it’s also possible that Black Mountain Side is another kind of story: and it is in what it doesn’t say, or say entirely, that might determine just what kind of horror film this really is. For example, the viewer never really knows if anything the archaeological crew is seeing is actually empirically true. Perhaps the structure they are excavating released an ancient disease. Maybe it is a larger and more complex version of the stone markers warning others in the area of malevolent spirits or forces. The structure might even be a tomb containing a vast evil. Or maybe there are technological problems and the crew are truly mass-hallucinating from a possible lack of sustenance and extreme isolation.

Yet there are other elements at play here that is hard to put a finger on. It’s notable that everyone in the archaeological team is male. It kind of makes me, as a viewer, wonder just why that is the case. Certainly older films and stories often had an all-male cast (such as At The Mountains Of Madness), though sometimes this works against the characters in this movie: as they are a little harder to relate to beyond basic empathy and it’s easy to lose track of who they are. It’s also notable that there is only one non-Caucasian member of the crew as well — a Black man — who ends up going on a shooting spree towards the end of the film (though, granted, two other team members go berserk long before he does). As paranoia takes him, he doesn’t trust the leader of the group and says he has seen his “sociopathic kind” before. This could be seen as him distrusting a certain personality-type under duress, but it is worth further thought. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that the team makes a point of stating that their aboriginal workers are “superstitious” and immediately come to the conclusion that they ran away from the site due to those beliefs.

There is something really compelling about looking at what happens to the protagonists of Black Mountain Side as a distorted view of their own innate, or unconscious, cultural assumptions: from a possible post-colonial perspective. Certainly, it’s no new idea that the niceties of social morality and behaviour fall away from isolation and a real fear of starvation, a lack of shelter and safety, and imminent sickness to reveal the unspoken human ugliness underneath. And this is where the blatantly Lovecraftian branches out into something deeper in the darkness of the human psyche.

It’s the figure of the deer god that really gets me. When I first saw it, I had to know if there was some kind of basis for it in aboriginal, or First Nations, mythology. I looked into any Dogrib and Dene stories on hand but there was nothing on a deer god. However, deer do have some mythological significances that span beyond North America. For instance, some deer are seen as guardians of the earth while others represent learning and wisdom. Certainly with regards to a Native American connotation, the way that the film’s protagonists encounter the deer god –with its voice sounding like a Nazgul or Sauron himself — is reminiscent of a waking vision or spirit quest gone horribly wrong.

The deer god seems to offer wisdom, but only encourages maiming and murder: senseless trauma without enlightenment. It derides its victims’ expectations of it offering them knowledge or understanding. It seems to hint upon the fact that it is older than humankind and everywhere. It challenges and ruthlessly takes apart what they think they know about other cultures, their empirical subject matter and, indeed, their own perceptions of the world. It’s a subversion of what others might think a spirit animal or totem should be, or indeed the idea of some Great Spirit that is inherently benevolent. If anything, the deer god seems to be a human understanding of the land and how it is killing the protagonists. This deer hunts humans.

And even then, the film follows the tradition of not completely revealing or explaining the nature of the monster in that it is ambiguous as to whether or not this entity really exists, if it’s being hallucinated, or if — indeed — it is the real horror of this situation. Certainly, you could argue that the real terror is Black Mountain Side‘s possible critique of Western cultural values, concepts of race, science, and even a sense of reality.

In any case, when the last survivor gets caught by a 1930s bear-trap while fleeing for help, the atmosphere comes full circle. The environment, which is slowly eroding away their senses of self, wins as the last man realizes he’s trapped and lies in the snow, in silence, giving into oblivion. The lack of music, when the credits start rolling, is poignant. At the beginning of this review, I said that this film was a long game, but perhaps it is more of a slow burn or the slow encroachment of frost bite: of a terror and pain that ultimately turns into numbness and falls off into the darkness. Sometimes that is a limb, or piece of one’s sanity, or even one’s own soul. Snow covers all traces of human traps and tracks.

And in Black Mountain Side, only the silence is left to claim anything.

A Review Of My So-Called Secret Identity Volume One

It’s been a few months since My So-Called Secret Identity‘s Kickstarter got funded and while the shipping of the physical Volume One has been delayed, backers have already received their digital copy. Now having my own copy and finally getting to read Issue #5 that resolves the story arc’s cliffhanger, I am going to review My So-Called Secret Identity.

My So-Called Secret Identity, a comic written by Will Brooker and drawn by Sarah Zaidan and Susan Shore,  is a story that requires some attention to detail. It utilizes the aesthetics and tropes of the superhero genre and even possesses some characters that, on the surface, appear to be DC comics analogues.

The comic’s storyline takes place in Gloria City, perhaps an alternate version of New York City, where the Major and the seemingly super-powered Fleet fight to maintain order and security, while the black-garbed Urbanite and his side-kick Misper combat the twisted designs of Carnival. Meanwhile the feline Sekhmet steals items and Doll’s Eyes preys upon the hapless citizens of Gloria: leaving her signature flora calling cards.

But, as the protagonist Cat Abigail Daniels observes, it is all a front: all part of “the theater.”

Cat's Trauma MSCSI

The Major, who is also the Mayor of Gloria City — seemingly a combination of Superman and Captain America — maintains his power by fighting against the chaos of villainy with empty political slogans and promises. Urbanite is more extreme in some ways. As a parody of Batman’s vigilante justice, he terrorizes both citizens and criminals alike with contradictory rhetoric and ham-fisted violence: never understanding or never wanting to understand that he is just a tool in maintaining the political status quo set in Gloria between the Major and Carnival: the latter of whom seeming to be a wannabe worn-down Joker game show host. Kyla Flyte is a stereotypical blonde, beautiful, and sparkling superhero who seems to spend more time preening, conducting family business, and signing photographs than doing anything to help anyone.

And what’s truly awful is that in the midst of all the combat these heroes, villains, and anti-heroes it’s innocent civilians and properties that truly get caught in the crossfire. In the world that Will Brooker sets up for us, it seems as though both super-heroism and villainy are past times that belong to the rich and popular while very few ever care about the lives of those who they ruin in their play.

Of course, even this layer of “the theater” is not what it seems. Certainly it would be all too easy for Brooker to follow the examples of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Garth Ennis’ The Boys: in showing us how superheroes would realistically not work.

Enter Cat.

My So-Called Secret Identity Cat

Through Cat, a young literature and philosophy student who is tired of watching her city suffer, we see the fulfilment and promise of a different perspective. This is a woman who values her friendships, who calls people on their bullshit but who is perfectly capable of seeing the good and forgiving the bad. She isn’t particularly athletic, or rich, or possess any superhuman capabilities. But as Brooker and his team like to state:

Smart is a superpower.

It isn’t so much that Cat even has an eidetic memory. She actually does have to use memory aids to help her piece together names, events, backgrounds, and places in order to attempt to solve a crime. Even though it’s derived from the profiling that her policeman father might have passed on, along with the art of scrap-booking, Cat creates mnemonic devices known as MindMaps: collages that help her process information and reflect how her mind makes connections. Did I also mention that Cat is an excellent multitasker and can solve some problems as she is processing others?

My So-Called Secret Identity Mind Map

Cat has also faced discrimination because she is a young woman and she is, in her own words, “Goddamned smart.” She has been mistaken for being a secretary, an academic cheater, and “just a young girl.” Just a girl. It’s at this point that she decides to enter “the theater” and definitely shake some things up.

Book One of My So-Called Secret Identity is divided into five parts. The first part, or issue, sets the scene of present-day Gloria City and Cat attempting to navigate through it. We get introduced to her friends and some of the main heroes. In Issue #2 “Love Lives!” Cat examines the “open secrets” of secret identities, gets a costume made for her by her friends Kit and Kat, encounters the brutality and cluelessness of Urbanite and infiltrates the latter’s mansion while in Issue #3 “Nine Lives!” Cat tries to talk to Sekhmet and by Issue #4 she, unfortunately, encounters the “Big Bad” Carnival. Finally, in Issue #5 “Second Life!” Cat deals with the aftermath of her decisions and sees a multitude of possibilities.

There were so many ways that Brooker could have taken this story: so many tropes into which it might have accidentally fallen. The setting keeps you on your toes. It makes you read and observe closely. If you are good enough, you can actually find “Easter eggs” and predict some revelations in the story. Also, if you are a veteran comics reader you might recognize not only the obvious heroes and villains, but also some of the influences behind Cat and her friends. The fact is, like Alan Moore and what he did with his Charlton Comics analogues in Watchmen, Brooker has some DC analogues as well: and like Moore’s, his become their own people while — unlike Moore — they deal with issues in an entirely different way.

For instance, just as Cat was a Barbara Gordon analogue she confronts her own casual mistreatment as a woman in a patriarchal society over-focusing on class by entering into “the theater” on her terms: to actually create change as opposed to feeding into the system. Her entrance into “the theater” is a dangerous one: and not just because of the very real threat of physical harm. Certainly, the hearkening back to Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators trope — of the death and crippling of female characters as targeted loved ones triggering the plot in general — is all too present: and it is more of a danger that Brooker himself, as the writer of this series, luckily manages to avoid on at least two counts. He does mention it being a very real possibility in the comics universe of Gloria City.

Also, it’s usually unfortunate to be a side-kick in this world as well.

Dahlia Talks to Cat MSCSI

But there are two other factors to consider as well. First, the trope of gaslighting. On at least one occasion Urbanite threatens to “silence” Cat and Enrique even warns her that Urbanite would put her in Bedlam, that world’s Arkham Asylum, just to be rid of her. Not only does Brooker deal with the concept of women’s freedom being curtailed by the symbol of an authoritarian regime, but in putting Cat in a mental institution he is labelling her behaviour — her need as a woman and as  human being to help others — as “crazy” and it has the potential to make her question herself. Certainly, much to my disappointment with regards to good villainy and relief on Cat’s behalf, it is a good thing that Carnival didn’t see the uses of gaslighting: as that may be Cat’s few potential weaknesses.

Hopefully we will not see a villain named Gaslight in the near-future: though hopefully Cat should have a good support base at this point to deal with that and keep her from going at this alone.

Of course, there is the other problem: of perpetuating the system. Cat is attempting to play in the same “theater” as all those other heroes. Certainly her falling into the Refrigerator could be part of maintaining this flawed system of control and death, but celebrity status — the bane of all the heroes and villains involved — could be the subversive force that might undermine Cat’s own resolve in a different way. Just look at Kyla Flyte for instance, or even Connie Carmichael — Sekhmet — to a somewhat lesser extent. In a way this is also Brooker’s challenge as well as Cat’s: to make sure she doesn’t become merely a symbol, a rebellious force co-opted into another old guard, or a seemingly “exoticized” element that only props up the system.

Additional Text: Kat Poole and Tracey Ramsden
Additional Text: Kat Poole and Tracey Ramsden

However, at the moment Cat seems to bring something else into all of this: namely the Do It Yourself indie attitudes, with some influence of geek cosplaying love, of creating your own costumes and trading favours — interacting through a gift economy associated by some scholars with female fandom — with friends to support herself. Perhaps this will catch on in later Books and, certainly, even Issue #5 mentions that there are already lower income heroes. Maybe this will be an impetus for change.

This same subversive mentality is used to examine other issues in My So-Called Secret Identity as well. For instance, we see that even Cat cannot speak for all experiences: and she is honest about this. Her look at the racism that Connie Carmichael has to deal with as a person of colour in addition to being a woman potentially in contention with other women — that motivated her in a large to become Sekhmet — is very intersectional and it shows that even though she might be aware of it, she even knows it is outside of her personal experience.

Cat Meets Sekhmet MSCSI

There is also the fact that The Major and Urbanite, as well as Carnival are two sides of the same coin. The Major and Urbanite police the citizens of Gloria City into accepting their patriarchal rule, even if they do have good intentions. Urbanite himself violates Cat’s personal space, rough-handles her and threatens her even while downplaying her concerns and actions:  making her vulnerable to the violent misogyny of Carnival. And somehow, it’s even worse that someone like Urbanite believes — or wants to believe — that he is doing the right thing. You have here an authoritative system that punishes but also perpetuates with violence. When what happens to Cat seems to become public, this might force the citizens of Gloria to truly look at this issue and I wonder if this will indeed play a role in the next Book.

My So-Called Secret Identity attempts to place homosexuality as part of a norm in this world — through perhaps Kit and Kay’s relationship — and even seems to have an alternate version of Cat who is transgender. Dahlia Forrester, who is actually a superhero in hiding named Ultra Violet and an analogue of Black Orchid, even tells Cat that she tried to “pass” and it only perpetuated the system. I like that there is a Black Orchid analogue: as Neil Gaiman’s iteration of her deconstructed superhero expectations of violence in a very clever and meaningful way.

And Will Brooker manages to combine all of these elements with the premise of a world that had superheroes since 1945: not unlike the superhero comics history timeline of our world. I do wonder, though, if it might not have happened as early as 1938.

My So-Called Secret Identity Issue 4 Part Four

Quips aside, I do think that some sequences were fast-forwarded a little too quickly. I would have liked to see the evolution of Cat’s relationship with her friends and perhaps more about the world. Certainly, I would have liked to see an actual conversation between Connie and Cat take place during Issue # 5: because obviously they came to some kind of agreement after Cat’s horrific experience. But this one criticism is minor considering how all five issues of Book One fit incredibly well together.

I especially like how Will Brooker presented the alternate timelines in Issue #5, how he so casually introduces real superpower into the world without being as blatant as making a Superman or a Doctor Manhattan (the Deleted Scene included in the Book, however, would have revealed this aspect earlier on through more than just talk and it’s just as well it got excised), and how, despite the fact that I strongly suspect Carnival did more to Cat than leave that scar on her face, he didn’t give into the spectacle of violence or turn her into another Oracle while, at the same time, Brooker narrowly escapes making Cat a Mary Sue for which little bad can occur: exposing her to the realities of her world and its physical and emotional consequences. He lets her play out the role she sought and, upon risk of making light of went through which is not my intention, Cat wears her scar and her newer costume well.

There are some questions I’m left with however. Is Cat’s father still alive at the end or was it just part of a mess of truths and hallucinations? What happened between them seven years ago? How did Enrique initially join Urbanite? And is there importance to the Wallace Twins newspaper clipping in this entire story?

I really want to find out what happens next and, perhaps if I further train my superpower, I might be able to get more details from the comics issues that I have. Be on the look out for My So-Called Secret Identity, my friends. It is clever, poignant, it has some subtle social commentary intermixed with a fascinating plot, and it’s like looking at old friends in an entirely new way. Some of them might be a little more uncomfortable to be around, or more pitiable, in other cases a whole lot more bad-ass.

And some, in another persona, another guise, may well finally get to be themselves.

Cat Masked MSCSI

Building On Speculation: Eric Heisserer and The Door That Isn’t There

There are many kinds of doors. Some close, some remain open, some never exist, and some … remain unseen. Until it is too late.

It is the season for horror. But, for online horror, the season started early. Just three months ago My dead girlfriend keeps messaging me on Facebook was a story spread like a trail of goosebumps from the subreddit r/nosleep to creep out and outright terrify readers on the Internet.

I am very interested in these kinds of stories. They are often called creepypastas: essentially online urban myths and, for lack of a better word, folktales with elements of the uncanny copy-and-pasted across many forums and message boards. Some of these stories have no authors, or none have disclosed themselves while other writers proclaim themselves and their stories as works of fiction and horror after they have become viral. Jeff the Killer is a haphazard example of a creepypasta without named authors that’s circulated for some time, while Candle Cove is the creation of Kris Straub which got circulated and promoted as true on other sites.

But then there are the others: the ones that write their narratives as though they are true and they leave it open as to whether or not you, as the reader, should believe them. They create a door out of the corner of your perception to let your imagination inform you of what you will see if you dare to step through.

Enter Eric Heisserer and his … door.

Eric Heisserer himself is a horror writer and director but, before that, he created an online epistolary horror story called The Dionaea House: a narrative made up of a series of correspondence outlining the investigation and disappearance of friends in a particular house.  You see, I thought I knew Heisserer from his directing work but I actually remembered coming across this story in my research for creepypastas. Eric Heisserer created this work in 2004 — a piece that actually gave him the opportunity to get into screenwriting and directing — and, as such, is no stranger to the kind of writing and mentality in creating a creepypasta. So that might “solve” some questions with regards to the truth behind his current story.

Cautionary message: do not read past this point if you don’t want spoilers. You have been warned or if you’d like, I’d turn back if I were you.

His account begins as Information I’m dumping here for safe keeping on reddit. You might want to view Dread Central‘s version of the story in their article Eric Heisserer Details a Truly Horrific Account as well: not only does it seamlessly incorporate the hyperlinked images directly into the text,  it is also easier to follow.

With regards to this story, there is already some suspension of disbelief needed by that title alone, but r/nosleep has a policy for interacting with any story in its jurisdiction as true. Basically a friend of a friend named Kevin is searching for his sister who went missing in her house some time ago. You then find out that Kevin’s sister Gwen and her estranged husband Robert lost their child Dash: who simply vanished from his room in that same house.

Dash's Room Heisserer

Robert moves back into the house after Gwen’s disappearance and starts to impede any investigation on Heisserer or Kevin’s part. So we already have a few horror tropes and devices happening here: the series of derivative horror stories sent to Heisserer and the one exception, the “friend of a friend,”  a suspicious husband, and of course people going missing in a house. You can also see the similarities between this situation and the disappearances within Heisserer’s The Dionaea House along with some of the epistolary format — what with the first-person perspective and the addition of journal entries — but there are some differences.

For instance, Eric Heisserer is the primary narrator of this story as opposed to his persona and the other fictional narratives that made up The Dionaea House. And there is the nature of the epistolary format. While it’s true that in The Dionaea House Heisserer creates constant additions and updates to Mark’s investigation with links to other characters’ blogs, chat logs, text messages and the like, his subreddit account has something else.

This is in the form of Gwen’s hobby, created to deal with the obsessive compulsive disorder she apparently developed after Dash went missing, and it’s the element that expands the scope of the story and makes it both truly creepy and utterly fascinating.

Essentially, Gwen began researching and practising an obscure form of photography: branching from her fascination with its infra-red variant. This leads to the inclusion of some interesting graphic evidence and the addition of a journal written in the Philippines from 1954 by a photographer’s assistant named Salazar.

Salazar Journal Heisserer

In the initial thread of the story, we see that the scans of the journal entries are all in a dialect of Filipino which Eric Heisserer and Kevin can’t read. Instead there are some disturbing images there to entertain us in the meantime.

And then we get updates and some translations. It also gets better due to the fact that while The Dionaea House adds to its narrative through hyperlinks and blog comments, commentaries in the subreddit actually expand on what could be going on in the latter narrative. The story seems to be participatory: like an improvised collaboration around a camp fire of digital information and helpful hyperlinks. People seem to be helping Eric Heisserer build a nightmare. They are building a nightmare together. This is how viral creepypastas happen

I honestly hope that this story will continue or lead into another project despite “Robert” filing a “cease and desist order” against Eric Heisserer. But in any case, there is a very intriguing comment with which I’d like to end this article.

Salazar Ink Heisserer

In the special form of photography that Salazar creates and Gwen adopts from his journal, one of the chemical developing agents is derived from the leaves of balete or banyan trees. According to an excerpt from a Wikipedia article the commenter StudiousIdiot, among other spiritual connotations “A number of these [balate trees] are known as strangler figs wherein they start upon other trees, later entrapping them entirely and finally killing the host tree,” to which the commenter adds “That other photo we haven’t seen yet – the one with the unseen house? It chills me to read that while thinking of what might be growing there.”

The Jungian image of a new home connected to an old and decrepit old larger house that you can only see when something else points it out to you is precisely just what a creepypasta can become: a story that is linked to an ordinary reality that can turn into a viral meme, an ever-evolving horror mythos, and even a dionaea — a venus flytrap — that can capture your fascination, your fear, and swing shut behind your soul forever. And I hope I and others will get to see the process of its expansion and entrapment over the imaginations of many more.

Pleasant dreams everyone.

eric heisserer door

The Town That Dreaded Sundown At TADFF 2014

I’ll admit it: when I first came to this film I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know about the 1946 Texarkana Moonlight Murders or the first 1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown film. I learned a lot about the Phantom serial killer from the Toronto After Dark introductions and Question and Answer period with the 2014 film’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

It was made clear by Gomez-Rejon himself that The Town That Dreaded Sundown was not strictly a sequel to Charles B. Pierce’s film of the same name. And while I might go as far as to say it is something of a spiritual successor, perhaps the best way to look at it is something of a meta-sequel: not only to Pierce’s film, but the literature of rumours bordering on legend that has surrounded the Moonlight Murders ever since.

The Phantom liked to attack and kill couples.
The Phantom liked to attack and kill couples.

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for elements of history to become something of a legend, or form even the core of a myth: especially when many of the facts still pose a mystery. Jami Lerner, the protagonist of the 2014 film, said something to the effect that this is a story about two towns: or two cities. Texarkana is a town created between the American states of Texas and Arkansas. But then you have the Texarkana that exists in reality and the one depicted in Pierce’s film. And that isn’t even taking into account the Texarkana of small town daylight and morality coexisting next to the Texarkana of moonlight murder, guilt, and collective fear.

You could make a case that Texarkana, as portrayed in Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is at least four towns if not more: the one from our present reality, the one from the past when the murders happened, the one from Pierce’s movie, and the one being depicted in its latest film narrative. I already knew that there was a mythos being built in this film, but what I didn’t realize was that it was created from reality: crafting from it something of a multifaceted nightmare.

This is a film that, on the surface, appears to be a slasher movie — where sex equals death — with urban legend leanings but underneath the gore and violence it is a psychological thriller steeped in the social and cultural effects that a series of murders had on a town’s collective consciousness and that age-old sense of unsolved mystery. It doesn’t attempt to solve or resolve any of the facts from the Moonlight Murders or even the identity of the Phantom from Pierce’s film. It is not a continuation to the latter’s film and it doesn’t pretend to reveal the truth of the past.

In this 2014 film, the Phantom was compared to the Bogeyman.
In this 2014 film, the Phantom was compared to the Bogeyman.

What this film does do, in my opinion, is that it taps into that place where a murderer becomes a myth — and a masked icon on the level of Guy Fawkes — and that myth is less the story of a man who was never found, but rather that of an entire town. As far as Gomez-Rejon’s Phantom is concerned and in the words of another character, everyone in that town “has blood on their hands” and it all has to do with a person named Mary. You get to watch Lerner as she is charged by the Phantom himself to “make everyone remember” what really happened and experience her journalistic journey into old newspaper clippings, hearsay, and meta-narrative: with the threat of the Phantom continuing his killings and terrorism of her as impetus.

Gomez-Rejon is a master of illustrating the resonances of history and fear through the eerie re-enactments of the murders that the Phantom perpetrated both in real life and in the first movie created about him: including one final murder that didn’t make it into the mainstream arts and media coverage. You can see that he has done his research and, like every good storyteller, understands that sometimes the best story is that which has a grain of truth in it while understanding that he has to say something new in order to maintain that balance.

A film's re-enactment of a murder scene taken from an older movie and inspired by real life murders.
A film’s re-enactment of a murder scene taken from an older movie and inspired by real life murders.

I have to say that this is actually one of my favourite films from the entire festival. It was a nice counterpoint to The Drownsman in that while the latter film attempts to create a new mythos, The Town That Dreaded Sundown not only taps into an older mythos but adds to it and says something very intelligent about fear while maintaining the emotional depth of actual human characters. In addition to having characters that can you relate to with very human reactions that you can sympathize with, this isn’t a film about spectacle and novelty. It reminds you that people actually suffered and died through senseless murders: and while there are those who will exploit this legacy for their own purposes, there are others will continue to seek its truth out. It may well be similar to the reason why Texarkana still shows the first Town That Dreaded Sundown to this very day: out of a sense of respect for the trauma that made a part of history.

In all honesty, for someone who generally doesn’t like horror without supernatural elements I couldn’t recommend this film any higher: a movie about two towns … and more than one form of ghost.

Remember The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Remember The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

From The Darkness Of The 2014 TADFF: Why Horror?

It’s only fitting that the last film I viewed for the 2014 Toronto After Dark dealt with the first question that exists in every horror movie viewer’s mind in some way or form: why horror?

This documentary’s debut at the festival was an event in and of itself. It got an introduction from Rue Morgue managing editor David Alexander along with the team of writer, journalist, actor and film-maker Tal Zimerman and directors Rob Lindsay and Nicolas Kleiman. Why Horror? itself focused on Tal Zimerman, an utter horror fanatic and his interviews with many prominent figures in the horror film genre along with psychological experts and scholars examining the nature of horror in human life and how that translates over into why people like horror films.

This man really likes his horror.
This man really likes his horror.

Why Horror? spans a lot of territory and cultural background in Toronto, Tokyo, Mexico City, Xochimilco, London, New York, Vancouver, and Waterloo. We got some fascinating insights into Zimerman’s childhood, with his very understanding family (and long suffering but good sport of a mother), as he experimented with makeup effects creation on his brothers along with seeing his young son play with gruesome action figures while watching Godzilla films.

We got to see if people’s brains functioned differently through immersing themselves in horror movies through some tests that Zimerman (and at one point his mother who generally avoids horror movies) underwent and we got some history lessons as to how humans in different places used art and folktales to deal with themes of horror before the creation of film. And yes, the beautifully grisly paintings of the artist Goya is definitely used as an example of the former.

Some familiar interview subjects indeed.
Some familiar interview subjects indeed.

But there were a few things in particular that caught my eye in the midst of conversations with George A. Romero, John Carpenter, and witnessing events like the Mexican Day of the Dead.

For instance, there was a discussion with some interview subjects about gender in horror. It was something of a mixed balance. On one hand you had actual dialogue with female participants in the horror genre such as the actress Barbara Crampton and directors Jen and Sylvia Soska. These conversations, if nothing else, cement the fact that women not only watch and enjoy horror, but they are definitely a part of it: and they have been a part of the horror film genre for quite some time. Indeed, there was even a fascinating segment of the documentary where women in Japanese horror are discussed: particularly in how female ghosts can embody the resentment and hatred of a life of, at least traditionally, enforced passivity bleeding into a need for vengeance even beyond the grave.

Yet on the other hand, much of the documentary was very male-centric in scope. In some ways perhaps it can’t be helped considering that the main interviewer, instigator and focus of the Why Horror? documentary is Tal Zimerman and, as such, there is a definite emphasis on how horror affected his developing years as a young male and, by extension, those of other men in the field. Perhaps that’s what led to discussions with subjects about how horror film supposedly elicits fear and sexual arousal in women. There is even a study of sorts in the film focusing on how women, again supposedly, are either impressed with a man’s stoicism in watching such a movie with them or seeking comfort in them as a protector-figure out of fear. There are definitely some gender stereotypes in some of these segments, though it does tend to highlight the presence of the ultimate assumption: that horror is a male-dominated field.

It also brings home the fact that even if horror is a universal human feeling, both perspectives of fear and lived experiences are determined by one’s cultural standards.

Indeed, I think that these segments bring up a lot of questions and thought in the viewer and they lead to other places. After all, there is the title of the documentary to consider here. Why does horror as a film genre or as any kind of genre even exist?

Each interview subject had a fascinating insight into the matter: ranging from horror films functioning as initiation rituals that we no longer have in modern society, to a mode that facilitates the safe catharsis of fear and potentially latent sadism, all the way to being a place that allows us to engage with the inevitability of our own mortality and death: of knowing and coming to terms with the trauma of death that is ultimately inherent in our lives as human beings. Really, fear itself is a force that makes us feel more alive and depictions of danger and death make us more aware of what we are not: and perhaps providing a little more closure from that truth.

One other thing that really got to me personally was another question that got posed throughout the film: what was your first horror movie? I actually had to think about this quite a bit myself based on everything I’d seen in the documentary. My first horror film was actually Gremlins. I remember being very fascinated with the story behind them, the different personalities that developed and multiplied, and being immersed into that campy 1980s night world of very specific world-building rules while wondering how Gizmo got to a point where he never tried to eat after midnight.

I wonder what happens when you review movies after midnight.
I wonder what happens when you review movies after midnight.

But I also know that some don’t consider Gremlins, or its strange sequel, to be a proper horror film: whatever that is. I think, in terms of the “coming of age” discussions that spanned throughout Why Horror? my first ever film was actually Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight. It was at that point in my youth that I actually first witnessed sex, questionable morality, and profanity combined with the monstrous, the supernatural, and the gory. I remember almost having a panic attack over seeing it: but in retrospect it was more from my own father’s negative reaction to the swearing and graphic themes than it was to the film itself. I think that it was at that point, in my life, that I “awoke” in a fashion: and it’s apparently commonplace for that to happen with adolescents and horror movies.

I suppose Why Horror? is on to something when it seems to hint on the fact that your first horror films say something about you. I’ve always been fascinated with horror from a very early age. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all human story and myth ultimately comes from trauma — from the basic trauma of realizing your own vulnerability and mortality — and that this realization will alter your consciousness and help you integrate with the rest of this strange, uncertain, arbitrary world of why. Perhaps horror is the original darkness from where we got all of our stories out sheer necessity.

Even though I’d be hard pressed at this time to attempt to describe the narrative organization of Why Horror? I would say that Zimerman begins a fascinating journey into the origin of horror as stories. In the Question and Answer period after the documentary, someone from the audience asked Zimerman if he predict horror’s future. This actually prompted Zimerman to bring up the presence of horror stories online in the form of creepypastas: how they seem to have gone back to a new kind of oral storytelling (which the scholar Walter Ong might see as products of “secondary orality”) or an online urban mythical structure. I believe he expressed an interest in perhaps making a documentary on creepypastas one day.

If so, I definitely look forward to it.

Extract That And Fuel Us: A TADFF 2014 Review of Wyrmwood

Even though the Toronto After Dark’s Zombie Appreciation Night had passed well, let’s face, since when does a zombie ever pass away short of a bullet to the head? It’s only fitting that there was one undead straggler, one more zombie film that survived the culling and threatened to spread the infection anew at the Toronto After Dark 2014’s Post-Apocalyptic Night in the form of Wyrmwood.

This is the first full-length feature of director Kiah Roache-Turner and his brother, the film’s writer, Tristan Roache-Turner and they have characterized it as something of a mix between Dawn of the Dead and Mad Max. Furthermore, Kiah Roache-Turner refers to Wyrmwood‘s genre as zombie post-apocalyptic science fiction.

It’s an apt description for the most part, but I’d like to take it even further. Imagine a zombie film drunk on a pint or more of absinthe, the traditional green fairy drink made with — fittingly enough — some wormwood, having read one part of Revelations before bed, and possessing a distorted sense of physics and ludicrously sublime perspective of time, narrative, and shots of black comedy: with a literally murderous hangover at the end when it realizes that it’s missing some body parts from its mayhem of fun.

For me, that’s Wyrmwood in a shotgun shell. If the film narrative sensibility of Wyrmwood were a zombie infection, you could trace its spiritual points of origin from the early film shorts directed by Kiah Roache-Turner: Roadrunner and Wargames. Roadrunner contains technology that doesn’t work at the worst time and seemingly arbitrary yet fitting plot developments while Wargames has the element of a protagonist dealing with renegade soldiers. Both of these shorts have violence for punchlines and the same actor playing both protagonists and one of the central characters in Wyrmwood: Jay Gallagher.

The premise of Wyrmwood is that there is a meteor shower and people begin to get infected by a disease that, well, reanimates them. The film actually starts with the main characters killing a mass of zombies while decked out in customized makeshift armour and toting guns. It really caught my eye as I generally watch movies and read books where the military can’t handle zombies or civilians have to survive them.

Then we got into something that was almost an interview section between two characters that describe something of their lives before the outbreak and what happened. I was expecting big things from this: wondering if this movie was going to be a goofy version of what World War Z should have been: if only as something of a parody of an “oral history” from Max Brooks’ novel more than the Hollywood version of it. But even though that did not happen, there is something both banally comic and horribly tragic about these accounts: especially from the perspective of Gallagher’s character Barry.

And somehow the physics of the world changed as well: and it never gets elaborated on except for how the characters actually deal with it. I’ll tell you now: it has to do with the Roache-Turner breed of zombies. Think of some bright-eyed revenants that supposedly move more slowly in the day and lightning fast at night that contain methane that can be used as fuel sources. That’s right: in a world where electricity and gasoline no longer seem to work, you can always fuel your transportation technology by hooking it up to some zombies. But this only works during the day as, apparently, it’s the only time they breathe methane. You can thank Tristan Roache-Turner’s screenwriting idea for that one.

I will mention that sometimes the rules for these new zombies are a little inconsistent, as they slow down or speed up depending on the plot, but I definitely appreciated the fact that this was a film where zombies weren’t just a threat, but they could also be used as weapons and obstacles against rival and enemy humans. We never know if the soldier antagonists the band run into are collecting people to experiment on in order to find a zombie cure, or to harness the natural energy sources of the zombie, to even somehow gain control over the mass of undead or, really, because they are just plain dicks.

But I have to admit: there is an element of Re-Animator developing throughout the film and especially towards the end that, as someone who liked to play as necromancers in D&D when I was younger, I found entertaining to watch. And if that isn’t enough for you: you do get to see an asshole of a soldier become a warm-cooked meal for the hungrily living impaired.

So there you go. Wyrmwood is some dark slapstick slaughter that veers from the ridiculous to the dead fucking serious and its zombies and characters are, if nothing else, some good entertainment fuel.

TADFF 2014: Late Phases

I guess it’s only fitting that I should write this review past five in the morning given the title of the movie. Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases was the second film shown at the Toronto After Dark’s Werewolf Night and the third and last film of the day.

What can I tell you about it? Imagine the following situation, if you will: you are a blind elderly man. You find yourself in a retirement residence surrounded by people who just want to go through a nice and steady rhythm of life. You deal with younger people patronizing: wanting to help you, but not really spend time or actually listen to you. Your only friend is your seeing-eye dog Shadow. Most of the residential people you meet generally keep to themselves, but a few are friendly.

Then one night some creature, some giant beast, comes in and starts killing. And no one knows what it is or does anything about it.

Your name is Ambrose  and you are also a former soldier: an American veteran of Vietnam. And while you did some terrible things during that war, while you might have failed to protect life and, indeed, took many lives, you just can’t sit back and do nothing. This is the premise of Late Phases. Do not expect Bubba-hotep here: aside from occasionally laughing at Ambrose’s curmudgeonly smart-ass remarks, there neither fame nor comedy in this story, though the heroism is definitely real.

The first part of the film establishes Ambrose, played by Nick Damici, along with his son Will and some of the other retirees. The werewolf is introduced relatively quickly, though never fully revealed until later. There is heartbreak almost immediately. The second part of the film, roughly, covers a month in which Ambrose finds out about the full moon the night of the attack and without any hesitation believes in and knows exactly what he is dealing with. This is a refreshing element in a werewolf or supernatural film: where it takes the protagonist a while to accept that the supernatural even exists. But Ambrose, if nothing else, is no-nonsense and right to the point.

He mostly knows his enemy. And what he doesn’t know, he slowly and circumspectly, begins to find out. It is so tempting to compare Late Phases with David Hayter’s Wolves: especially as the latter was shown right after the former. Whereas Wolves takes the trope of the werewolf movie and teenage life and subverts their forms into something else, Bogliano fits into the trope of werewolf horror and adds dramatic elements of human relationships and humanity into the mix. Ambrose is an aging man who has lost his sight but retains enough of his senses and military training to fight this werewolf. And the werewolf in this film is not something misunderstood. It is an angry, hungry, twisted thing that rips off its human flesh at a full moon. And it’s human form is not that much better. In fact, I’d say that if there is one thing Wolves and Late Phases has in common it’s the idea that sometimes the human element can be even worse than the animal element in a werewolf.

It takes a far amount time to play the who-done-it and who-is-it werewolf part of the film but after Ambrose gets some silver bullets made and figures out that someone else requested some before him, Bogliano gets right into who that werewolf is. At same time, for all of Ambrose’s careful planning he is still blind and can’t perceive everything going on around him. While his lack of sight is supplemented by improved other senses, he doesn’t always know when someone is looking at him, or if they can see something he doesn’t.

Again, what I think really brings this movie into the fore is, like Wolves, another reference to The Lone Ranger. This time Ambrose talks with a gunsmith about the character and his silver bullets. They also talk about how the ranger doesn’t shoot to kill. Ambrose is unromantic and while he might want to save lives like the Ranger he is not hesitant over doing what he’s spent his whole life doing.

The film ends much like Ambrose has lived a good portion of his life. There is gore, and blood, and ubiquitous evil and animal rage, hypocrisy, and ultimately honour. You get to see a widower put on his ring, a man honouring his dog, and a soldier shooting some motherfucking werewolf monsters with silver bullets, and a rare and heartfelt message left on an answering machine for his son.

Perhaps Ambrose becomes a hero late in his life. But he does his best to save his fellow retired neighbours from a fate worse than death, and he does what he has to do. I couldn’t recommend this movie highly enough. The full moon always rises, but it won’t always be night.

The Beginnings of a Mythology: The Drownsman At The Toronto After Dark 2014

Before the Toronto After Dark’s Werewolf Night, we got to see the emergence of a myth. A myth is less a lie and more of a creation story: a narrative that tells us why things are the way they are. Folktales and urban legends are also made to explain the mysteries and dangers of the world and, sometimes, they come with rhymes and rituals in which the listeners participate. To some cultures, myths are why they have their current reality just as specific individual make their own stories to cope with, or control their environment.

In some ways, horror stories and films — and works similar to such — are extensions of myth-making and ritual. They create the monster or the danger that operates on its own laws: showing you how they can be defeated, or how they are essentially unkillable. This is definitely clear in Chad Archibald’s The Drownsman.

Serial killers can also have their own rituals. They do so in order either justify their murders or out of some kind of warped longing to possess an object. The Drownsman starts off with a story that is pretty much ending. A serial killer drowns his victims in warm water as he embraces them. However, Sebastian Donner — the aforementioned Drownsman — is deceived and drowned himself by his erstwhile victim Isabella.

So here we have the story of a serial killer which, in itself, can be something of a fictional urban myth or legend. But then Archibald does something else. He starts off the story many years after this event. A group of stereotypically depicted young girls in horror, with the feel of being a sorority, are having a party until one of them, a girl named Madison falls, hits her head, falls off a pier and nearly drowns. She begins to have visions of a twisted, green, rot and sea-weed covered man always stalking her. Eventually, she sees him even when she is awake and always in the presence of water.

So now the serial killer becomes a murderous ghost or a monster. This is no new thing. In the Q & A period after the film, Archibald even explains that movies such as Friday The 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street inspired elements of The Drownsman. I mean, you can see the myth of a ghost or a monster coming from someone that was once human in many horror films and stories. I mean, look at The Candyman. Or Bloody Mary.

The Drownsman
Reach for me three times.

But the idea of linking the figure of The Drownsman to water has two elements involved.

First, there is the fear factor. Archibald himself stated that he utilized his fear of swimming or, perhaps more accurately, drowning in tandem with the creation of a monster coming for you in the water to create the twisted, green, pale mouldering heart of The Drownsman. Aquaphobia itself is terrifying enough as a debilitating mental illness. Unfortunately, Madison’s close group of friends tend to take neither mental illness or the possibility of the supernatural seriously. It’s actually very frustrating to watch especially when you consider that most of her friends are genuinely concerned for her and their solution is to stage a fake seance and use ultimatums to get her to obey them: for her “own good” of course.

How many awful things throughout history have happened because people have wanted to do something, supposedly, for someone else’s “own good?”

I mean, this film could be horrifying for that in and of itself. You could, if you’d like, even look at it as a metaphor for mental illness and people’s attitudes towards it. Certainly, sufferers can form rituals and patterns from it. But then we have the supernatural element.

Water is a natural medium in some traditional interpretations of magical practise. It can be seen as an intermediary between worlds: between the mundane and the supernatural. Water is life. Some cultures even use it in baptisms to symbolically rebirth their members. Most of the world is made of it and we also come from it. So what happens when someone drowns people, over and again in the same place, the same bath tub, for the same reason time and again. What happens when that person is seeking essentially the origin of life — seeking to reunite himself with his mother’s heartbeat in the womb or, barring that, some other woman’s — and gets drowned in his own ritual tub?

And that others cannot see?
And then only his victims can see him.

Now consider the age-old phrase from Star Trek in which we, as humans, are described as “ugly bags of mostly water.” We evolved from it, we come from wombs, and we need a lot of it to survive because we are made of it. So what happens if a spirit made from the above process is tied by blood to someone else who has a traumatic experience: a shamanic nearly dying and crossing over (or in this case experiencing your last breath) experience? Doesn’t that give them a tie back to the world somehow? Doesn’t also prove that they can play the long-game to get what they truly want?

This spirit knows that patience and persistence pay off.
This spirit knows that patience and persistence pay off.

It’s funny how one of my gripes with this film is also something that fascinates me. Someone at the After Dark asked how Madison cleans herself if she is afraid of water for attracting The Drownsman. Yet I have two questions. First, wouldn’t someone who gets their water intravenously for a year have some serious medical issues and look a lot rougher as a result? And second: if The Drownsman can manifest through water: why can’t he simply manifest through their bodily fluids? I suppose I’m being rather pedantic at this point and maybe he needs pure uncontained water to do so: or this might have been a whole other kind of horror movie.

I also have to admit that The Drownsman going after Madison’s friends after their failed seance really didn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me was the fact that I didn’t feel the satisfaction of watching, essentially, some gaslighting shallow people die by the very thing they were mocking. There was an even a neo-pagan, Wiccan, or New Age “Fluffy Bunny” stereotype in the form of Cathryn: whose attempt at a seance and a naive overestimation of her supernatural knowledge leads to an inevitable conclusion.

A crystal on a necklace verses the grand medium of water. I mean, what did you think was going to happen?

Yes, for the most part the girls come across as stereotypical but their love and care for each other is unquestioned. And Madison’s friend Hannah, the one whose marriage Madison misses due to her phobia, actually begins to go along with Madison in her own investigation of The Drownsman’s origins. I even enjoyed watching Madison’s character (played by the actress Michelle Mylett) transform from carefree girl to traumatized victim and all the way to reluctant bad-ass.

Water can also show you your own reflection.
Water can also show you your own reflection.

This was an excellent beginning to a new horror mythology. The problem is: can there be any stories after this one based on how it ends? I am curious to see if anything can be done and I really admire the story that Chad Archibald and his team took the time to craft.

Welcome To The World of Wolves: At The 2014 Toronto After Dark

What are wolves? Are they solitary predators that attack the weak and helpless? Are they a pack of monsters? Or are they a family that merely tries to survive their environment? David Hayter’s Wolves explores these ideas well and, dare I say, quite subversively.

Of course werewolves are subversive in themselves. I mean, think about it: historically they are generally portrayed as human beings with animals inside of them, or at least as something Other that only comes out under a full moon. They are the hunger, the passion, and the violence that are parts of us and the natural world that we keep at bay until such a time as they have to be unleashed. But that, of course, is not the whole story and I will get back to that thought soon, I promise.

Wolves starts off not unlike the 1985 comedy film Teen Wolf. You have a popular student named Cayden, who seems to be a fine specimen of a young man in all ways — a good student and football player — who finds out that there is a beast inside of him. However, there are no kindly secret werewolf parents to guide him or girls attracted to his occasional hairiness. There is fear though: and blood, and horror. The first part of the film is like watching the wolf take off his human skin, his bland human life, or — if you’d like — stepping out of the sheep’s clothing and leaving a great sense of bloodstained shame, and a fear of one’s self.

It’s like watching teenage angst: only with the trappings of tropes shed and murder.

Naturally, Cayden wants to know where he comes from and what he actually is. And then we are introduced to the small town of Lupine Ridge. And David Hayter continues to play with your expectations. He presents you with the first-person narrative voice-over and perspective of an otherwise decent young man who seems to have committed horrible atrocities when he isn’t himself, and then a town of seemingly hostile people in a bar who, well, you expect to act in a certain way.

Frankly, I was surprised that Cayden didn’t get into a physical fight right away in that setting and leave battered and bleeding at the onset. And I haven’t gotten to the character of Connor yet. Connor, for all intents and purposes, pretty much rules Lupine Ridge as something of an Alpha Male. Jason Momoa certainly, in terms of physicality, fits into that role but even he is subversive.

For instance, you might expect Connor to be a thug or a beast that pummels and rips apart anyone in his way off the bat. But you would be wrong. Instead, Connor watches. He watches. He waits and he extends all of his senses out and tries to reason things through his mind even as he subtly intimidates. And for an obvious antagonist who could easily fit the thug mold, Connor has, if you will pardon the pun, a rather biting wit and a sense of honour and personal rules not unlike someone of the Lawful Evil variety. You can see a little bit of Khal Drogo in Momoa’s mien in addition to some StarGate Atlantis Ronen with his sarcasm. He does terrible things but, as you watch the film, you will begin to figure out why. Momoa’s performance as Connor is impressive and entertaining.

Just don't make him angry. You won't like him when he's angry.
Just don’t make him angry. You won’t like him when he’s angry.

I also like the addition of Stephen McHattie as the farmer John Tollerman. I admit when I first saw him in the bar I didn’t know whether he was a friend or foe. He was once Gabriel: an antagonist in the Beauty and Beast television series. So in a way it’s fitting that he would be dealing with a beast of a different kind in this story and he really grows on you. And you know, you definitely know when you see the enigmatic one-eyed, metal-braced Wild Joe that there is going to be some craziness and there is something strange about that man.

Some dogs don't like to follow orders. Sometimes they just like to do what they want.
Some dogs don’t like to follow orders. Sometimes they just like to do what they want.

I think I would have liked to see more character development with the female character and interest Angelina and some of the other characters. Certainly, at first she does seem very resigned to being “mated with” by Connor as only other “Pureborn” werewolf in town, though — granted — she is only doing so to make sure he doesn’t kill her loved ones, and somehow ends up liking Cayden for some reason: as what seems to be a stereotypical love interest. And while she starts off as far more advanced than Cayden is in knowing who she is, she ends up falling a bit into the powerful female assisting the protagonist trope. Still, I do appreciate the fact that Angelina sets a lot of facts straight for Cayden. She has roamed these woods, metaphorically or otherwise, before and her insights make you begin to doubt some of Cayden’s own perceptions of things: particularly about himself.

I suppose sometimes someone just knows you.
I suppose sometimes someone just knows you.

But I think what really strikes me about this film is how Hayter handles werewolves. He starts us off making us think they are monsters because of their bestial nature. We find out about the differences between Mutts (who are humans affected by the lycanthropic bites of werewolves and are always weaker than real werewolves) and Pureborns (who are born werewolves). You can also observe that even in their human forms there are tells: such as the occasional luminescent glint in their eyes, demonstrations of acute senses as well as extraordinary reflexes and strength. In addition you begin to realize that there is a difference between werewolves that stay as wolves and those that have stayed in their human forms for quite some time.

In addition, Dave and Lou Elsey are masters of makeup. They manage to combine the grace and elegance of a wolf and the symmetry and proportions of the human form.

In other words, Dave and Lou Elsey make these film werewolves  distinct and beautiful.
In other words, Dave and Lou Elsey make these film werewolves distinct and beautiful.

And David Hayter plays with film expectations of the werewolf trope. I like how werewolves apparently come from “back east”:  seemingly a reference to their origins in Eastern European folklore for this film’s purposes. Yet I think my truly favourite scene was when John, his wife, and Cayden are watching television and The Lone Ranger is playing. If you didn’t think Hayter was winking at you before, he definitely does so at that point.

And just wait until you see what comes from that.

This is actually a good point to get into one other aspect of Hayter’s werewolves: mainly their nature. One expectation of the werewolf is that it is their wolf nature that ultimately makes them into monsters. Time and again we horror film watchers see this primal instinct destroy humanity and cause nothing but suffering in its wake.

But what if it isn’t the animal — the wolf — that is the monster?

If you look at ancient werewolf folklore, werewolves were often depicted as humans — sometimes witches and sorcerers —  that took on wolf skins and committed horrible acts of cannibalism and murder. Human minds, twisted by their greed, lust, and madness do horrific things. Wolves are generally more straightforward and attack humans when they are attacked, sick, or starving. Humans kill for power and revenge.

He will make you wish that he just ripped you apart.
He will make you wish that he just ripped you apart.

Think about that when you see the end of the film. Think about what you actually see in the film. And then remember something else. Remember that Wolves, like its lycanthropes, has more than one skin and it doesn’t always show you its entire story … until something goads it into raw and bloody revelation.

Doctor Who: Gone In Sixty-Six Seconds

How much can a mystery cost you?

In the case of Doctor Who‘s “Mummy On the Orient Express”: five lives and sixty-six seconds each.

And now: beware spoilers.

From the beginning of the episode, on a futuristic space vessel bearing the name Orient Express, when you see that mummy lurching towards the old woman, a horrible spectre that only she can see and you look at the timer at the corner of the screen you think that you know what you’re going to be dealing with. It’s a monster: a rotting and dessicated creature of the horror film genre in a futuristic Agatha Christie murder mystery novel.

Of course, given the nature of Doctor Who, it is never that simple. In fact nothing is simple in The Doctor’s universe. I mean, there are mysteries, and then there are non-surprises. I suppose I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised to see Clara coming with The Doctor on this cruise: for what is supposedly going to be their last trip before she stops being his Companion… or so the plan goes.

You know that sexual tension we were told about? The one that wasn’t going to be happening between Clara and The Doctor? Well, it’s true: you can take their initial time together on the cruise as something of a father and daughter arrangement but it just doesn’t ring true. Perhaps sexual tension is the wrong term. Perhaps it is a tension of an uncertain relationship: of not really knowing where they stand after everything that happened in “Kill the Moon.” But there is just a way that, when Clara tells The Doctor she thought she hated him but realized she didn’t and never could while nestling herself on his arm that made, at least me, wonder what is going on here? Is this the final moment before a breakup as two people go their separate ways?

Doctor and Clara Orient Express

I admit I really did like the interplay between them: though I personally think Clara came back far too quickly. In my last review I totally thought they would be separate for at least one episode. That said, I’m glad there wasn’t a scene where he had to apologize to her or vice-versa. We got thrown right back into them being together. But I suppose it’s something we all should have seen coming: that this is not over yet and that this “last voyage” is not as it seems.

Just like everything else in this episode.

Here is what I’ve noticed about Doctor Who episodes should I ever want to write one. Basically, you start off with a weird premise of two ideas that ordinarily wouldn’t go together, but eventually blend well and do. You focus on interpersonal relationships and working dynamics as the characters realize something is strange and try to navigate their way through the situation. The Doctor, in the immortal words of the musician Voltaire “makes some shit up” after a while or throughout the episode while making weird references and banter, the situation becomes inverted and you discover what is really going on. The Doctor tries to reason with “the monster” who becomes relatable as a selfish, pitiable, or misunderstood being, whom he either saves that being or lets it destroy itself, while sometimes he is confronting with his dark side in the process. He ends up resolving some crisis through taking a major risk, there is some wrap up with regards to the other characters, and he and his Companion go off to a new place like “Barcelona” or he leaves alone to deal with his demons: all of which to emphasize just how important a Companion is to getting him to relate to existence. And this doesn’t even include the strange moments of workable paradox that you get by including time or time travel in some of these scenarios.

Does this sound about right to you? I suppose that transdimensional “mummy” only comes for you in sixty minutes instead of sixty-six seconds, but “Mummy on the Orient Express” pretty much follows that strange, weird, and wonderful formula: the invisible mummy on the space liner, the relations between Clara and himself, Clara and Danny on the phone, Clara and Maisie, the suspicion that he and Clara both come to as they sense something is wrong, the reveal that the liner is actually a hidden laboratory to gather scientists (who have been gathered there as guests) to seemingly replicate the effects of the mummy for war-like purposes, the sarcophagus that Clara finds is supposed to be where they put the mummy after successfully capturing it for their kidnapper and jailer, the horror and cruelty of the fact that the mummy attacks those who are sick or have psychological trauma, The Doctor brushing with his dark side in letting all those people die just to find out how to stop the mummy, finding out that the mummy is very pitiable (what is with this theme of soldiers fighting eternal and horrific wars?), and then The Doctor risks his life to deal with the situation.

I will leave the rest to your imagination if you haven’t watched the episode. But let me just add this bit. There is a reversal from “Kill the Moon.” This time, after almost putting Clara in another difficult place and making her think he is using her, while revealing some information that may have been pertinent for Clara to know beforehand, he decides to take it all on himself and put himself on the line. The episode ends where The Doctor is genuinely expressing regret for his seemingly callous actions. And for all he criticizes Clara for displaying two emotions at the same time at the beginning of the episode, he does the same through displaying both clear self-doubt and grim certainty over how he would have attempted to save as many lives as he could: even if some had to die for him to do so.

Doctor Talks To Clara

As for Clara: she still needs to find a healthy medium between her relationships and work on her honesty. A lot. In addition, we are left with more questions as to who arranged this entire situation: especially considering that he seems to have received a call about it at least once on the TARDIS when he was with Rory and Amy as The Eleventh Doctor. Is it Missy and her servant that arranged this? Or someone or something else entirely?

And I wonder if every climax and moment of crisis in Doctor Who has resolved itself in at least sixty-six seconds? Well, look at it this way: at least I didn’t make the obligatory mummy joke.

Are you my Mummy

Until next week, fellow travellers.