3 stars

REVIEW: John Dies at the End by David Wong

Normally I’d give a general overview of the book I’m reviewing, whether that’s what’s on the blurb of the book or my own synopsis, but with John Dies at the End I’m not really sure I can. The blurb is weird and vague and gives now real information except warnings not to read the book, but now that you’ve picked it up bad things are going to happen and you can’t unlearn the fact there’s an “otherwordly invasion currently threatening to enslave humanity”. So needless to say, going into John Dies at the End I really did not know what to expect. I will say it’s about two friends, John and David (the book is from his perspective and parts of it has him recounting events of the book to a reporter), and how they can see things that aren’t there and go on adventures as they try and figure out what’s going on.

Even though I’ve now read John Dies at the End, I still can’t describe it. It’s a weird, creepy horror story with paranormal elements and drug-induced psychoses and a dog that’s perhaps immortal. At this point I’m not even sure I really liked it but there was something about it that was super compelling and kept me reading. Perhaps it’s because so much strange and/or unsettling things were happening all the time so I ended up feeling like I was just going along for the ride and was waiting to see what on Earth was going to happen next – and if anything was ever really explained.

There were some answers but not enough for me and the answers we did get often led to more questions. There’s so many moments when characters aren’t sure they can believe what they’re seeing and as this is being told from David’s point of view, you end up doubting things too. It’s really quite the strange reading experience.

I think I preferred the first third of John Dies at the End, mainly because that really set the scene in terms of the creepiness with horrifying creatures and the general unnerving feeling of something not being right. While I knew John Dies at the End was classed as a horror story, the kind of weirdness and horror it had was so unexpected that it was more shocking and interesting to begin with. There’s also a time skip about a third of the way though and I’m generally not a fan of time skips so that didn’t really do much for me, especially as the first third was so action-packed and interesting. As John Dies at the End is a 460-page book, variations of the same weirdness did get a bit repetitive over time and I did find the last 100 pages or so a bit more of a drag even though more and more things were being revealed.

Character-wise David seems to be a bit of a spectator to his own life and gets dragged into this situation by John and though he’s pretty resourceful, a lot of it comes down to dumb luck. The same can be said for John but pretty much everything that came out of John’s mouth was cringe-inducing as it often revolved around his penis or making himself seem more strong/smart/skilled than he was. These two guys are just average twenty-somethings and so there is the internet-related, kinda gross boys’ humour that you might expect which at times I did find myself skimming over.

John Dies at the End was an interesting reading experience. As I said, I preferred the beginning when it was all new and unexpected (one of the first sequences inside a supposedly haunted house was genuinely suspenseful and surprising) and as the plot progresses it gets more and more wild which some may love while others may find ridiculous – I was on the fence about it. I didn’t like John but being in David’s head wasn’t so bad and his sense of imagination really did paint a vivid picture when it came to some of the creatures they encountered or horrifying (and sometimes really gross) situations they found themselves in. 3/5.

REVIEW: Violent Night (2022)

When a team of mercenaries, led by a man with the codename Scrooge (John Leguizamo), take a wealthy family hostage with plans to steal the fortune from their vault, they encounter unexpected resistance from Santa Claus (David Harbour) who was making his rounds when the family mansion came under attack.

Violent Night is kind of exactly what you’d expect and it does what it sets out to do and does it well. A Santa who’s disillusioned by Christmas and how children just seem to want money or video games, gets caught up in a home invasion and fights to take down the bad guys and save the family – some members of which you wouldn’t necessarily mind if they didn’t make it out of this situation alive.

Violent Night does the feuding/dysfunctional family thing really well. The majority of the family members are self-absorbed and bordering on narcissistic and the saving grace is young Trudy (Leah Brady) and her mother Linda (Alexis Louder). It’s Trudy’s connection to Santa that brings a surprisingly emotional heart to the film as she’s the only one who still believes in him and her being so nice and caring starts to make him believe in the good of others again.

The Father Christmas lore in Violent Night is pretty cool. His naughty or nice list and his sack full of presents are both inventive and how he gets up and down a chimney is especially cool. While Violent Night is obviously a Santa takes down bad guys film, it’s nice to see that the charm or magic of Father Christmas isn’t lost.

David Harbour is great as a jaded Santa who starts taking down bad guys almost by accident. The fight sequences are well-shot, innovative and fun, and the violence is pretty bloody and gory at times too. Definitely the kind of stuff that makes you grimace even when you’re also laughing at the mercenaries misfortunes. The action and comedy balance well and there’s some wonderfully dark Christmas-related puns.

With brutal fights, some fun booby traps, and the fact that throughout all the carnage Violent Night still manages to retain the general spirit of Christmas, it could well go on to become a Christmas cult classic as it executes its simple premise well. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness. Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born. If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most – Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares – each other?

I really enjoyed the setting and world-building of The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy. The fantastical land where “drudges” (basically zombies) roam and how the mythology and religion of these people does have some bearing on their lives today. How Mercy cared about the dead and how the burial rituals are different to what we tend to know about them was really interesting and how the dead are honoured and cared for isn’t something you see in books that often. Especially in a romance where the heroine is an undertaking – it’s not the most pretty or girly of jobs but Mercy’s love for it shined through.

It’s easy to compare The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy to the film You’ve Got Mail as it’s the story of two people who don’t like each other but find they a connection when they don’t know it’s their worst enemy that they’re writing to. The letters were a great way for the reader to get to know more about Hart and Mercy and see beneath their hostile exteriors. While it’s easy to say Hart is the grumpy one, Mercy can be pretty harsh and cruel too as she tends to think she’s right a lot of the time. Seeing how they both soften overtime when it comes to each other as well as with family or co-workers was nice.

The problem I had with The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, and the reason I put it down for a while and took so long to finish it is because around the half way point something happened that just made me feel uncomfortable. To go back to the You’ve Got Mail analogy, what happened was like if Tom Hanks had walked into the coffee shop to meet Meg Ryan, knowing she was his anonymous pen pal but she didn’t and then started a relationship with her without telling her that he knew so much about her because they’d been writing to each other for months. It was a power imbalance to the relationship that just made me feel weird and as naturally the truth would come out eventually, that made me more stressed waiting for it to happen especially as it took a lot longer than I thought it would.

I know in romance stories there’s often miscommunication or that one final hurdle before the couple have their happily ever after, but the way this one played out made me more uncomfortable than interested. I don’t read a lot of romance so if you’re more used to that trope then maybe The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy would be absolutely fine for you. I think knowing it would happen and then reading this long drawn-out process was a different thing.

I wanted the “lies” to come out a lot quicker than they did and it took me longer to read this book than it should’ve as I’d be apprehensive waiting for the big reveal and I found it hard to root for Hart and Mercy’s relationship when one of them was keeping such a big secret from the other.

Overall I did like this mixture of cutesy romance and fantasy. It wasn’t something I’d read before and was surprised how well the elements came together and when there wasn’t big secrets I found The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy to be very quick and easy to read. 3/5.

REVIEW: Black Adam (2022)

Nearly 5,000 years after he was given the powers of the gods Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) is freed from his earthly tomb, to find his home country of Kahndaq is now besieged by mercenaries, so he sets about unleashing his unique form of justice on the modern world.

The best thing Black Adam has going for it is Dwayne Johnson. He does make an imposing villain/anti-hero and it is kind of fun seeing him be so ruthless with a bunch of bad guys without then second guessing it. It’s clear from the outset that the people who have invaded this country are not good people and deserve anything that is coming to them.

Naturally Black Adam needs some superpowered good guys to go up against and that’s where the Justice Society of America (JSA) comes in. Like all the superpowered characters in this film, I knew nothing about the JSA and I still know little about them and how the Justice Society works as this film gives very little backstory or characterisation to any of them. Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) is the new guy, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) has pretty cool and colourful wind powers, Hawkman’s (Aldis Hodge) main thing is saying “heroes don’t kill people” over and over again, and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) is just the best and steals just about every scene he’s in – even when he’s going toe to toe with Black Adam.

Everyone gives fine to good performances and the JSA team are all generally likeable and have decent charisma but it was hard to really care about them all. Also naturally, as Black Adam couldn’t be an out and out villain, there was always going to be something that would unite him and the JSA as they fight some other big bad. It’s a superhero movie cliché and unfortunately in this instance, the random new baddie wasn’t particularly interesting either.

Something that the film treats as a Big Reveal and a plot twist, is diminished as it’s in the trailer and it’s not even a subtle thing. If you’ve seen the first trailer, the trailer below in fact, you may be like me watching this film, just waiting for something seemingly obvious to be spelt out, but that thing is only so obvious when you’ve seen the trailer. It’s poor marketing on the studios part as any dramatic heft is lost.

I did like what Black Adam had to say about Western (super) powers not being interesting in the strife of a Middle Eastern country such as Kahndaq, until they have their own powerful guardian and then they are seen as a threat. That kind of on the nose but different (for a superhero movie) political commentary was unexpected but welcome.

Black Adam is neither particularly good nor particularly bad. If I was a kid, I’d probably have a great time with this as it reminded me a bit of those “middle tier” superhero movies like Fantastic Four (2005), it has a lot action set pieces and bombastic fights while also not being very memorable. Some of the CGI is a bit dodgy and trying to stuff so many new and somewhat obscure characters into a two-hour movie means that characterisation is left by the wayside. 3/5.

REVIEW: Deep Rising (1998)

John Finnegan (Treat Williams) is the captain of a speedy little boat who’s been hired by armed mercenaries to take them to a luxury cruise liner in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean where they can loot it and hold the passengers to ransom. Things don’t go to plan however as when they arrive the ship is almost deserted and it’s clear that someone, or something, has already ransacked the place.

Deep Rising is written and directed by Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) – two of my favourite films – and Odd Thomas (2013) which I also have a soft spot for. So, while I am a self-confessed wuss, I thought I could handle this film and while it certainly has a higher rating than the other films mentioned, and utilises that with the blood and guts spurting everywhere, Deep Rising is also a really fun and satisfying action/disaster/horror movie.

Deep Rising is one of those fun 90s moves where you can go “It’s them!” a lot. The mercenaries are led by Wes Studi and also feature Jason Flemyng, Djimon Hounsou, Cliff Curtis, Trevor Goddard and Clifton Powell. Famke Janssen’s thief Trillian is the sole female character in this small group of survivors and she’s pretty great. Easily likeable and Trillian has her own illegal skills which helps her when she’s in a jam.

Deep Rising does a great job of building tension, especially as what’s attacked the ship isn’t seen fully until over halfway through the film. Being economical with the special effects means you instead have something pulling characters off screen, banging on doors and walls, and the sense that something is in the water, stalking everyone. It plays with expectations too as there’s a number of times when you’re waiting for the jump scare and the film makes you wait longer than you think it will, still managing to make the seemingly obvious scare a surprise.

Overall Deep Rising is a decent creature feature and has some very satisfying kills of some horrible characters. Look, we all enjoy it when the bastard gets their comeuppance. Also, there should be more films with jet ski chase sequences. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Haunted Mansion (2003)

When workaholic realtor Jim (Eddie Murphy) and his wife/business partner Sara (Marsha Thomason) get a call to view a mansion, they and their kids soon find things aren’t what they seem when they get stranded in the old mansion overnight.

The Haunted Mansion is one of those Disney movies I missed as a child. I definitely went through a phase of considering myself too old for Disney movies – even the live-action ones – but as it’s Spooky Season I thought I’d watch a family friendly horror film because I didn’t want to get too scared or have to pay too much attention. Considering that was where my mind was at when I chose to watch this film, I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed The Haunted Mansion.

The scariness and laughs are well balanced and the atmosphere is perfection. The mansion itself is gorgeous and suitably creepy with its creaky lifts, secret passage ways, and a huge graveyard with a fair amount of ghosts. The set design is just fantastic and the mansion becomes its own character – as it should be. The way lighting is used throughout, whether that’s candlelight or flashes of lightning, adds to the atmosphere and tension and provides some good scares too.

Eddie Murphy is pretty great here and his brand of sometimes over the top comedy works well to lighten things up when things are getting a little too serious or scary. Because that’s something The Haunted Mansion does really well, it balances the comedy and the horror to make scary stuff that walks that fine line of fun and terrifying for kids.

Terence Stamp as the creepy butler Ramsley is perfect. He’s unnerving and intimidating in equal measure while being delightfully polite. Potential vague spoiler alert but this needs to be said; perhaps it’s how I watched this as an adult but the real villain of The Haunted Mansion is racism, it may be implied but I’m pretty sure that’s where they were going with Stamp’s character and I find that surprisingly interesting for a Disney horror film. Though, all horror films have layers and are often about other things.

The Haunted Mansion is a good, fun, spooky, family horror film. A lot of the special effects still hold up which is always a nice surprise and the sequence with the skeletons was a real highlight. 3/5.

REVIEW: Inventory (2021)

After someone tries to shoot at Boris (Radoš Bolčina), a middle aged and very normal man, he tries to figure out who could’ve done it as he takes note of all his friends and acquaintances that may have felt wronged by him.

I’m pretty sure this is the first Slovenian film I’ve seen and it was an interesting, tense and sometimes darkly funny introduction to that part of the filmmaking world. Inventory is a slow-burn drama and it’s the central performance from Bolčina that keeps things compelling.

From the start you’re introduced to Boris and his perfectly normal life. He has a wife, an adult son, a job in a university, and isn’t particularly interesting nor does he do anything to make him stand out from a crowd and everyone says he’s perfectly pleasant. Him being shot at in his own home is the most unexpected thing to happen to him and when the police start questioning whether he has any enemies, he can’t remember the last time he had a disagreement with anyone.

The shooting shatters the banality of Boris’ world and while over time his family and friends move on from the incident and can forget about it, he can’t. As the police investigation comes to a standstill, Boris’ paranoia grows – especially after the lead detective (Dejan Spasič) helpfully states that it’s the victim’s loved ones are most often the perpetrators of such a crime. The small gestures Bolčina makes as he studies his wife, friends, or son, trying to figure out what (if anything) they had to gain from his death are brilliant and show his inner turmoil. While the police also say it could’ve been a totally random accident and anyone could’ve been shot at and Boris wasn’t necessarily a target, Boris can’t seem to deal with having no definitive answer and calls into question his relationships and his own personality.

Inventory is a sometimes tense, sometimes funny, sometimes awkward kind of film as Boris goes through all the emotions as his life has been turned up on its head. The score from Matija Krecic adds to the uneasiness, especially when Boris starts conducting his own investigations as you wonder how far he’d go to get to the truth. 3/5.

REVIEW: Jennifer’s Body (2009)

High school cheerleader Jennifer (Megan Fox) starts killing and eating her male classmates after she’s possessed by a hungry demon and her best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is the only one that can see something’s not right.

Jennifer’s Body is one of those films that seem to have gained cult status over the years and while it wasn’t particularly well received upon release, it’s now often used in feminist analysis and is deemed ahead of its time. For a film nearly 15 years old it hasn’t aged too badly and only has the odd inappropriate gay joke and the use of the word “retard” semi-frequently isn’t great.

Considering Needy and Jennifer’s friendship is at the core of this film, it never really feels truly fleshed out and believable. There’s the usual trope of the popular, pretty cheerleader having a best friend who is just pretty average and while there’s flashbacks to the two of them as little kids to try and show how and why they’ve been friends for so long it doesn’t feel like enough. You don’t get to see them as friends when they’re teens before everything goes weird for them both. Plus, the moments you do see, Jennifer is pushy and kind of mean towards Needy’s boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons), not making it that easy to like her or her friendship with Needy.

There are a few stylistic moments in Jennifer’s Body and one that really sticks out is when Needy is running through the woods in her prom dress to stop Jennifer. The imagery is perfectly gothic and is something that feels familiar in how often it’s used in horror films but it still works really well in the moment.

I have to say the music in Jennifer’s Body is great. As the film progresses the music and choice of bands and songs – both real and fictional – add to the tone of the film and makes it feel of its time in a good way.

I think Jennifer’s Body is never quite as funny or as scary as it tries to be so it’s not a truly excellent horror-comedy. Needy is a pretty good hero and the bookends of the film surprised me, giving me the answer to “what happens after the horror madness stops” that I often wonder about when I do watch a horror movie. I liked that aspect a lot. Overall, I’m pleased I’ve finally watched Jennifer’s Body and I can see why it’s so loved by certain audiences but there wasn’t enough in it to make it a personal favourite. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Craft: Legacy (2020)

When Lily (Cailee Spaeny) moves into a new town with her mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan), she surprises them both by quickly making friends. They are outsiders Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Lourdes (Zoey Luna), and Tabby (Lovie Simone) who invite Lily to join their coven and together the four of them explore their powers and witchcraft.

I watched and reviewed the original The Craft last time I did blogtober so thought this was the perfect time to get around to watching the (very loose) sequel. It is definitely the kind of sequel where you don’t have to have seen the original to understand it.

While they’re not the focus of the film, I did really like Lily and her mum’s relationship. They were a very believable mother/daughter duo and I liked how Helen stuck up for Lily against her new partner Adam (David Duchovny) and his stricter parenting style. The young cast have great chemistry and every scene the four girls are together is good fun. Lily is definitely the protagonist of the film and it is a shame that the other three girls only get the most superficial of character descriptions and each fit a kind of archetype to make them recognisable. Perhaps unfortunately one of the most compelling characters is Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine), a boy in their class who goes from stupid jock to a sensitive guy when magic gets involved. For a film that’s big on feminist messages, to mixed results, it’s simultaneously interesting and regrettable that a male character and their arc almost has the most to say.

The Craft: Legacy does have some things to say about feminism and toxic masculinity which I wasn’t expecting. It sure is heavy-handed at times but it’s still an interesting inclusion. In the latter half of the film especially there’s stuff like when teen girls embrace witchcraft aka their power and agency, men want to control or take away that power as they feel women shouldn’t have it and shouldn’t be more powerful than men.

The Craft: Legacy is a 90-minute film which is so often a great thing as it’s always nice to watch a film in less than two hours, but in this instance, I think The Craft: Legacy could’ve used at least 10 minutes more. The final act/big reveal seems very rushed and I’d have liked to have learnt more about the potential repercussions for the girls’ actions.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Craft: Legacy. It’s probably not technically the greatest film, but it’s fun and seeing the power of female friendship on screen is always a good time. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – North Macedonia: A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska

Translated by Christina E. Kramer.

Zlata and Srebra are 12-year-old twins conjoined at the head. It is 1984 and they live in Skopje, which will one day be the capital of Macedonia but is currently a part of Yugoslavia. A Spare Life tells the story of their childhood, from their only friend Roza to their neighbour Bogdan, so poor that he one day must eat his pet rabbit. Treated as freaks and outcasts, even by their own family, the twins just want to be normal girls. But after an incident that almost destroys their bond as sisters, they fly to London, determined to be surgically separated. Will this be their liberation, or only more tightly ensnare them?

A Spare Life begins in 1984 but the story crosses decades into the new millennium as Zlata and Srebra grow together and have to make choices about high school, university, and relationships. Lots of people in their lives, including their parents, presume they are mentally deficient because of their situation but both girls are smart and capable. It’s clear from the outset that if they weren’t conjoined twins they could’ve had their own interests, friends and lives if they weren’t attached to one another by a small bit of skin and a vein.

People naturally don’t get on all the time, no matter how close they are, and for Zlata and Srebra to never be able to have their own personal space from one another it’s clear to see the frustrations both girls have. However, A Spare Life is solely told from Zlata’s point of view and personally I would’ve liked it if there were chapters from Srebra’s point of view to see what she thought of her sister and to see if their ideas of one another aligned. Though naturally the girls go through every experience physically together, it’s clear that they’re attitudes and feelings towards things are different and they have different interests and passions too. A Spare Life covers every problem the conjoined twins could have, from the mundane – how to use the toilet – to the more adult – what to do when one of them wants to have sex.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the various conflicts different nations had during that time is like background noise to Zlata and Srebra’s childhood and adolescence. As they make plans to go to university, Srebra is the one who is most interesting in what’s happening to their home and the people around them, constantly reading newspapers and watching the news. Naturally Zlata also hears about these things but she rarely pays attention. It is interesting to see how different prejudices play out from a Macedonian point of view and how some of the conflicts I’ve read about during my Read the World Project play out in the background.

I found A Spare Life tough going at times because it’s a truly bleak story and Zlata goes through so much heartbreak that it’s depressing but then there’s so much of it you become desensitised to it all. There’s the hardship of being a conjoined twin and how that impacts every part of their lives but then there’s a lot of death surrounding the two of them. Childhood friends, family, loved ones, so many people in their lives die! Honestly it gets kind of much and sure, some people go through a lot of personal tragedy but reading about it here almost became tedious especially as the ones dying were often the ones who actually treated Zlata and Srebra well and like they were their own people.

Perhaps intentionally I found A Spare Life a book of two halves. The first being their childhood to early adulthood in Macedonia and the second half being when they decide to go to London and try and have the operation that would separate the two of them. I did prefer the first half as there was often the sort of childlike naivety to big situations and while they experience on traumatic event when they’re young, it’s not until they’re adults that so much of the death and depressing things happen to them. 3/5.