horror

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: 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: Werewolves Within (2021)

After a snowstorm traps a group of eccentric townspeople in the local, secluded inn, new ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) tries to keep everyone calm as he looks for the mysterious creature threatening the community

Werewolves Within is based on a videogame but it’s not a game I’ve played, or had even heard of before I heard about this film, so I can’t comment on how well it works as video game/movie adaptation though historically they’ve been kind of hit and miss (and mostly miss). Werewolves Within as film though, is definitely a hit.

Finn is the new guy to town and with postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) acting as his guide to the town and its people, he soon learns that everyone has their own quirks and there’s bubbling tension as developer Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall) wants to knock down homes and businesses to put down a gas pipeline and the town is divided between those who want to sell their homes to make it happen, and those who don’t. So naturally, when something appears to be stalking the town the people are quick to point fingers and tempers fray.

Werewolves Within is a horror/comedy but it mostly feels like a really fun whodunit! There are some scares, including some pretty funny ones, but it’s the mystery and the characters that made Werewolves Within really work for me. There’s a lot of interesting characters and the script is great as a lot of the time, things that are mentioned in passing at the beginning have an alternate meaning as the film progresses. It’s fun to try and figure things out alongside Finn as he’s the perfect person to take on this case as an outsider – however, being an outsider can also be to his detriment as these people have known each other for a lot longer.

Werewolves Within is just a lot of fun. It has a great script along with great performances – the whole cast are perfect for their roles but it’s Richardson who is a solid lead performance, grounding any and all of the absurdity that ensues – and with a 90-minute runtime, Werewolves Within is an entertaining horror/comedy/mystery hybrid. 4/5.

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: Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) tells his life story to reporter Malloy (Christian Slater). A story of love, betrayal, loneliness, and hunger.

Interview with the Vampire is one of those “classic “films of the genre that I’ve naturally been aware of for years but have never watched it. With a new TV show adaptation being released and it being spooky season I thought it was about time to see what all the fuss is about.

Overall, I did like Interview with the Vampire quite a bit, especially the whole gothic vibes it has going on. Plot-wise it felt kind of lacking at times and that tended to be when Tom Cruise’s Lestat was off screen for extended periods of time.

Lestat is a great character and Cruise looks like he’s having a great time being an almost campy vampire who loves killing and who is often exasperated with Louis, the guy he turned. There’s a scene where Lestat dances with a corpse and it’s just great. Feels kind of weird and out of place but also then again it doesn’t as Lestat is such a larger-than-life character you just kind of roll with it.

Louis is kind of a woe is me, kind of character so it’s a bit of a shame that he is the lead character and focal point for Interview with the Vampire. His sulkiness does make sense as part of him hates what he has become and how he has to kill in order to survive but it’s also made clear that vampires can be killed so if he was really craving death and freedom from this life, he was now stuck in then he could’ve done something about it ages ago.

Kirsten Dunst plays Claudia, a young child who is turned into an immortal vampire, and she gives a really impressive performance. How she appears to be an adult at such a young age is amazing and she outshines Pitt in nearly every scene they’re in together.

So really, the cast and vibes are what made Interview with the Vampire for me. When Lestat is off screen for a while it does start to feel like a bit of a slog as Louis just isn’t as charming or as interesting as the other two vampires that make up their odd little family. Because while Louis is lamenting about being a vampire, Interview with the Vampire is pretty gay and features Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise adopting a little vampire girl. It’s a strange family but it works for the most part – until Lestat and Louis start yelling at each other again.

Interview with the Vampire is kind of a strange film as it mostly tries to be super sombre but then you have Cruise’s Lestat camping up the place. It’s a drama, it’s a romance, it’s horror but it’s also comedy. Amazingly all those things work together for the most part and give you a film that somehow has stood the test of time. 4/5.

REVIEW: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)

Directed by Wes Craven, Caribbean vampire Maximillian (Eddie Murphy) arrives in Brooklyn looking for a specific woman who is the key to his survival – a half-human, half-vampire. NYPD detective Rita Veder (Angela Bassett) is that woman and she and her partner Detective Justice (Allen Payne) are investigating the many killings that have suddenly started in Brooklyn.

Tonally, Vampire in Brooklyn is all over the place. It’s billed as a horror comedy but it’s also pretty heavy on the gothic and the romance once Maximillian and Rita start circling one another. The jokes don’t always land though Silas Green (John Witherspoon) and his nephew Julius (Kadeem Hardison) were the ones who could consistently get a smile out of me. Personally, was a big fan of how Witherspoon said the word “wolf”. Considering Eddie Murphy is the star of Vampire in Brooklyn and played a couple of characters in this (the hair and makeup work for one in particular was excellent) it’s a shame I didn’t find his performance particularly amusing.

Angela Bassett though was brilliant as always – and stunningly beautiful too. Rita has nightmares she doesn’t understand, and sees things she can’t explain, but she’s also headstrong and capable. Her relationship with Justice is great as the chemistry is there and there’s a real will-they-won’t-they vibe to it all, especially when Maximillian arrives and starts messing with both of them.

The aesthetics of Vampire in Brooklyn was also pretty great. Some of the makeup work on Julius as he slowly starts to decompose is suitably disgusting, and the scenes where Maximillian is trying to enchant Rita with how the camera spins around them adds to the drama of it all.

Really Vampire in Brooklyn isn’t the worst Eddie Murphy film but it isn’t the best. It tries to bring his style of humour into a Wes Craven horror movie and they don’t really mesh that well. It’s never very funny or very scary but with its 90-minute runtime, it’s a film that’s never grating and it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. 2/5.

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.

REVIEW: Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021)

Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) returns to her hometown to reconnect with her brother Chris (Robbie Amell) and to try and prove that the pharmaceutical giant Umbrella Corporation have been poisoning the people of Raccoon City for years.

I have never played any of the Resident Evil games and I watched all the Milla Jovovich Resident Evil films for the first time back in 2017 (I was going to say it was a few years ago but then it turned out to be five! What is time? etc) so going into Welcome to Raccoon City I didn’t really have any preconceptions of what this film and its characters should be.

I think that was perhaps a blessing and a curse. A blessing as I can’t get mad at any changes the film may have made from the games but also a curse as I feel like I learnt so little about these characters, their personalities or the various relationship dynamics, that I couldn’t really care about them. The way character names were dropped it felt like the filmmakers were relying on viewers to already have knowledge of the characters and story from the games and didn’t really do any proper world or character-building to make you care if you were someone going into this film blind.

Everything about Welcome to Raccoon City is pretty generic but there are a few moments that are generally stylistically interesting. Most of them come from when Chris is under attack by these diseased and zombie-like people. Often the only light source is the flash from his gun or from a flickering lighter and then it becomes a point of view shot with his lighter held out in front of him and the creatures getting closer every time the flame goes out.

The dialogue is kind of awful and the cast does the best with what they’re given. Kaya Scodelario’s Claire is a highlight but that does mean that whenever the film is away from her it starts to drag again. The middle chunk of the film when the action gets going is pretty decent but it feels like it takes too much time to get to that point and then the ending is very rushed.

Overall Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City manages to be a frustrating endeavour. There’s few scares and what level of threat is there is diminished when you realise you don’t care about any of the characters chances of survival. 2/5.

REVIEW: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Shortly before Halloween, twelve-year-old Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.

I haven’t read a middle grade or children’s book since I was the intended demographic for such a book, but when I heard about Ghost Squad, I knew I had to check it out and I’m very pleased I did. Yes, the humour is naturally more juvenile than my kind of thing as an adult but there’s still some moments that made me smile to myself and Syd especially had some witty observational one-liners.

I read Ghost Squad in two sittings and it was a great way to spend some time. I got pulled into the story almost immediately and Lucely and Syd’s friendship was so great. I liked both girls a lot and they have a proper ride or die friendship and there’s pretty much nothing they can’t say to one another. I liked that a lot actually, that they weren’t afraid to ask each other tough or potentially personal and uncomfortable questions and the other never getting upset with those questions. Instead, it was a sign of how deep their friendship was as they could be so open with one another even when it was about something that could hurt them.

I really liked how present the adults in Lucely and Syd’s life were. Yes the girls go on a lot of adventures on their own and figure things out together, but it’s nice that when adults are made aware of what’s happening, namely Syd’s grandmother Babette and Lucely’s dad Simon, they’re supportive and help the girls solve the problem. As I said, I haven’t read much middle grade but with YA there’s often a lot of dead, abusive, or emotionally or physically absent parental figures in the main characters lives. This tends to be so the main characters can have their adventure and story without worrying about the pesky adults getting in the way but Ghost Squad shows how your child hero characters can be the heroes of their story but still have love and support from the adults in their lives when they need it.

The ghosts themselves and the monsters they can create were excellent and suitably spooky. The action sequences and the magical items the girls and Babette use to capture and fight the ghosts were fun too. Ghost Squad really captured the sort of childlike wonder of a situation full of ghosts, like the items used to fight ghosts could only be found in a children’s book and it was great.

I found how Ghost Squad delt with death and family really interesting and effective. Lucely can still see pretty much all of her dead family members thanks to their spirits being connected to her home while her dad has lost that power and can only see them as fireflies. So, for Lucely no one is truly dead and gone so when something threatens them, and her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins start to get almost sick even though they’re already ghosts, it’s a really scary time for her. On the flipside to that, her mother left Lucely and her father and that grief and sadness is there unlike the grief of losing a loved one to death. It’s a really interesting parallel and shows the difference between losing someone due to something out of their control, and losing someone due to their own choices.

I’m really pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Ghost Squad considering middle grade isn’t something I read. I liked the characters, the adventure, the spooky vibes, and that there was a fat cat called Chunk that was more than meets the eye. It’s a fast-paced and fun story that has some depth to it. It’s definitely a book well-suited to Halloween season. 5/5.