Tag Archives: Horror

Echoes of the Past: A Review of The Little Stranger

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, and Winchester

This is a spoiler-free review. 

The Little Stranger is the 2018 film adaptation of a book by the same name written by Sarah Waters, one of my favourite authors. This story was set in 1948, and it followed about a year in the life of Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged man who was one of only two doctors in his rural community. He grew up in a low-income family at a time when the vast majority of children did not move into higher social classes as adults than the ones they were born into, so he was still adjusting to the changes that higher education had brought to his life when this mystery began.

In one of the earliest scenes in the plot, Faraday revisited Hundreds Hall, a mansion that his mother once worked in, after one of the servants who worked at that estate came down with a mysterious illness. The last time he’d visited it had been nearly 30 years ago when he was a young boy and his mother brought him to a public celebration there after the end of World War I.

Hundreds Hall was crumbling by 1948, and the family who lived in it had isolated themselves from the surrounding community to an alarming degree. It was nothing at all like the glamorous, well-kept home that Faraday recalled from his childhood, and the Ayers themselves didn’t seem to be doing well either. After a brief encounter with Roderick, Faraday asked to come back again to see if he can treat some of the pain and muscle stiffness that Roderick had been dealing with since he was wounded in the war. (I’ll give you more details about these characters in a moment).

While he knew that the Ayers have lost much of their wealth over the past few decades, Faraday was still shocked by how much the property has deteriorated since he last saw it. Could their inability to pay for necessary repairs explain what is going on, or was there something else afoot in this once-stunning mansion?

 

The Characters

Domhnall Gleeson as Dr. Faraday

Dr. Faraday, the protagonist, was a middle-aged bachelor whose days are generally spent holding office hours at his clinic and doing home visits for patients who were too contagious, sick, or frail to come see him. Most of his patients were poor, so he didn’t make a great deal of money for someone in his position despite his prestigious title and the long hours he worked.

Charlotte Rampling as Mrs. Ayres

Mrs. Ayers was the matriarch of the Ayers family. Her life had changed dramatically since Dr. Faraday first met her in 1919, from the births of Caroline and Roderick to the steep decline in her fortunes and social standing. She had once hosted grand parties in her home, but she now hid away from the community she’d once embraced. Even her own children didn’t seem to spend a great deal of time with her despite the fact that they all lived in the same home.

Ruth Wilson as Caroline Ayres (right)

Caroline Ayers was Mrs. Ayers daughter. She was by far the most intelligent and resourceful member of the Ayers family, and there were several intriguing references to the things she’d accomplished before her brother’s terrible injuries happened in the war.

Will Poulter as Roderick Ayres

Roderick was Mrs. Ayers son. He was badly injured during World War II. When the events of this book began, he was still dealing with both the physical and psychological effects of his wartime experiences in a time when mental health issues were not well understood and when doctors had far fewer treatments for the serious burns and other injuries he’d survived.

My Review

One of the things I’ve always loved about Sarah Waters’ writing style is how adept she is at giving evidence that can support multiple interpretations of a scene or plot. Most of her books don’t have the strong mystery elements in them that this one does, so the fact that she was able to pull this off while writing in a genre I haven’t seen her spend much time in before was impressive.

Dr. Faraday was a character I had mixed feelings about from the beginning. In one of the earliest scenes, the audience saw him visiting Hundreds Hall in its heyday and purposefully breaking off an ornamental acorns from one of the walls in this home. The reasons why he did that were explored later in the storyline, but they didn’t give me a good first impression of this character.

Getting to know him as the adult he was a few decades later softened my opinion of him. As I mentioned earlier, he’d grown up in a time and place where it was nearly impossible to escape the social class one was born into. The fact that his family had scrounged up enough money to get him through medical school was amazing, and I did admire the determination and grit he must have needed to get through such an experience when his family had so little money to spare.

As intrigued as I was about the Ayers, I didn’t feel like I got to know them quite as well as I could have. I appreciated the fact that Faraday was given so much time to shine, but I would have liked to know a few more details about who Roderick, Caroline, and Mrs. Ayers were as individuals before they began experiencing so much misfortune. The little pieces of their pasts that were shared were well done. I simply needed a few extra scenes describing how and when things had gone so terribly wrong for them.

With that being said, this was something I also noticed in the novel. Explaining why these characters weren’t quite as open with Faraday or the audience as I would have preferred them to be would be wandering dangerously close to spoiler territory, and I do understand why they were written that way even though I wish they could have been a little more forthcoming in the film.

What I did love about the storyline was the way it encouraged the audience to ask questions. It wasn’t immediately clear what was really going on at Hundreds Hall. The servant that Faraday was called to treat was quite spooked by living in there, but she refused to tell him who or what had frightened her. This pattern of dancing around the question of whether what was happening in this mansion was supernatural in origin or had a purely rational explanation occurred over and over again.

Just like when I read the book, I formed my opinion about what was going on pretty early on. I won’t tell you what it was, but I will say that I really enjoyed the process of weighing the evidence and coming up with the most likely explanation for all of the strange, and sometimes violent, occurrences at Hundreds Hall before the final scene was revealed.

This is something I’d strongly recommend checking out to anyone who likes any of the themes or genres I mentioned in this review. I liked this adaptation and thought it complemented the original story nicely.

Speaking of Violence, Is It Gory?

I definitely wouldn’t call this a gory film, but there were a few scenes in it that involved a little blood. If anyone would like more information about this, know that I’ll have to share some mild spoilers in order to go into detail about it. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t bothered by these scenes even though I strongly dislike gore in general. They were brief and fit the tone of the storyline well.

The Little Stranger is available on iTunes.

I Love the Fuzzy Edges of Science Fiction

The other day I was having a conversation with someone about the types of science fiction we both like. After explaining to them the novels and TV shows from this genre that I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, they made a comment about how interested I seem to be in hard science fiction.

Well, yes. I do love hard science fiction.

There’s something inside of me that comes alive when an author or screenwriter takes a problem that scientists are currently attempting to solve and tries to guess where they’ll be on that issue twenty, a hundred, or five hundred years from how.

However, that isn’t where my love of this genre ends.

I love the fuzzy edges of science fiction, too.

The line between sci-fi and fantasy exists, but often it’s so wispy that I barely feel the difference at all when I move between them. Neither one of these genres would be the same if it hadn’t been so heavily influenced by the other over the years. While I do tend to stick closer to the sci-fi side of the fence in general, I’m often pleasantly surprised when fantasy tropes wander over to say hello or when I notice a common science fiction plot twist in something I thought was going to be pure fantasy.

I’m pleased with how this cross-pollination works in other genres, too.  While I still don’t believe that every sci-fi story should have a romantic subplot, I appreciate the fact that authors are introducing audiences to things they might have not otherwise thought they’d enjoy. Mysteries aren’t my favourite genre, but I have started reading them on occasion thanks to repeated exposures to these types of storylines in science fiction and fantasy books that I otherwise found to be a perfect fit.

This is also a technique I’ve been using on friends and relatives in a straightforward sort of way. I’d never trick or push anyone into reading something that they’d find objectionable, but I have recommended stories to people that included elements of genres they don’t normally read if I thought they’d enjoy the plot in general.

For example, earlier this year I was discussing Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with someone who has no interest at all in the romance genre. There were so many other things going on in that tale that I thought they’d really love it. In the end, they read it and thought it was well-worth their time.

The beautiful thing about science fiction is how difficult it can be to draw the line between where this genre ends and another one begins. There is sc-fi that politically motivated, apolitical, humorous, serious, hopeful, dystopian, barely there, the sole reason any of the characters bother to stumble out of their sleeping pods in whatever counts for morning on a planet with three suns, and so much more. It has crossed over with everything from romance to horror to mysteries to stories that are loosely based on real historical events.

It is this wide range of possibilities that keeps me coming back for more. Sometimes I wander into one corner of the genre and set up camp for a few months or years. Right now I have almost no interest at all in the dark, violent, or dystopian sections, for example, but there are so many other places to explore that I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of seeking out new stories that somehow have sci-fi elements in them no matter how far they roam from home.

What’s your favourite kind of science fiction to read? How do you feel about stories that mix two or more genres together in general?

 

The Unforgiving Dead: A Review of Winchester

Winchester was originally mentioned in my to-watch list in this post. So far, I’ve also reviewed Into the Forest, Annihilation, and Coco from that list. A content warning for anyone who is sensitive to this topic: this film does contain a few brief references to the death of a child, but I will not be discussing that part of the plot in this post. This will otherwise be a spoiler-free review. 

The real-life Sarah Winchester lived from about 1840 to 1922. (The exact year she was born is unknown, but it is generally thought to have been between 1835 and 1845). She was the heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. I’ve long been interested in the story of why she began adding so many rooms to a mansion that eventually had seven floors and a couple of hundred rooms.

Some people have speculated that she was expressing an interest in architecture in the only way she could at a time when such a career was forbidden to women. Others have passed around legends about Mrs. Winchester believing she was haunted by the ghosts of people who were killed by Winchester rifles. They’ve wondered if Sarah’s mansion had so many staircases that lead to nowhere, hidden rooms, and other architectural oddities in order to confuse the spirits and prevent them from harming her.

We’ll never know for sure why she spent so many years building and tearing down sections of the Winchester mansion, so this film took these nuggets of truth and spun them into a full-fledged ghost story that is only somewhat related to the actual events of this woman’s life. I only knew a few details of the original legend when I first heard that this movie was being made, but it was more than enough to convince me to watch it.

If you’re interested in learning more about the real Sarah Winchester, the links above will give you factual information about her life. There are a few plot points from the film that ended up mirroring the truth, though, so be cautious about clicking on those links if you’re a stickler for avoiding all spoilers ahead of time.

The Characters

 


Jason Clarke (left) as Dr. Eric Price

Eric Price, the protagonist and a medical doctor who lived at at time when psychiatry as a distinct type of medicine was still in its infancy, was hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to determine whether or not Mrs. Winchester was mentally fit to continue running the company she’d inherited.

Some of the other stills featuring this character reveal huge plot twists, so be cautious about googling him before you watch Winchester.

Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester

Sarah Winchester owned half of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This character lived with an overwhelming sense of guilt over the deaths of all of the people who had been fatally shot by Winchester rifles. She used some of the profits she earned from her successful business to add, renovate, and remove rooms from her massive mansion twenty-four hours a day in an attempt to help those restless spirits find peace.

Sarah Snook as Marian Marriott and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey as Henry Marriott

Marion Marriott was Sarah Winchester’s loving, protective niece. Marion had been recently widowed, and her son, Henry, was still grieving from the loss of his father when the events of this film began.

My Review

Originally, I was quite excited to watch Winchester. There’s something about knowing that a film was inspired by the lives of real people that makes it even more appealing to me than it might otherwise be. (I should warn you again that the screenwriters took a lot of liberties with the original story, though! This wasn’t a biography by any means, but given how many contradictory facts there are about Sarah Winchester’s life and unusual hobby that ended up being a good thing).

The Winchester Mansion

With that being said, there were some pacing problems. The Winchester mansion filled with restless, angry spirits, but there weren’t quite as many scenes about them as I was hoping to see. Yes, the setting itself was incredibly spooky. There were multiple times when the Dr. Price took a wrong turn and suddenly realized that the architecture of the house lead to quite a few dead ends. I was creeped out at the thought of trying to open a door that wasn’t actually meant to open or climb a staircase that didn’t go anywhere after all. It would have been nice if such a scary setting had been matched by ghosts who were a little more active in the beginning and middle of the plot.

It was nice to have hauntings that weren’t gory, however. It’s been my experience that many modern ghost movies assume the audience want to be frightened by dumping a lot of gory scenes into the plot regardless of whether or not such a thing actually makes sense for the characters or storyline. This is appealing to some viewers, of course, but I prefer a less bloody approach to the horror genre in general. The fact that Winchester relied on building a deliciously creepy atmosphere and asking the audience to silently dread what might happen to the characters next without showing anything gruesome was refreshing.

I would have liked to see the characters behave a little more intelligently once they realized they were in danger. Yes, horror movies do depend on their characters making terrible decisions in the beginning for the sake of giving the plot an adequate amount of time to put them in mortal danger and frighten the audience, but I kept shaking my head at the silly choices Dr. Price and the other members of the household made after they realized just how much they’d underestimated their foe.

There were several subplots dealing with grief and regret that I thought were handled nicely. While I can’t go into much detail about them without giving away spoilers, I will say that every single main character in this film was dealing with a loss of some kind. Most of them had not processed that grief, and the weight of those unexamined emotions was heavy. Watching for the gradual exposure of their backstories was rewarding. It was these subplots that kept me watching until the end. While I was curious to see if the ghosts would become more active, I was honestly far more interested in finding out how or if the characters would resolve their complicated feelings about their pasts.

Should You Watch It?

If you love paranormal movies that are loosely inspired by the lives of real people, go for it. This may not be so intriguing for anyone who isn’t already a huge fan of this sub-genre, however.

Winchester is available on Netflix and iTunes.

How I’m Expanding My SFF Watchlist for 2019

Has anyone else noticed that the time between September and January flies by every year? There’s something about the short and often rainy days in the autumn that makes this season pass quickly for me. (If only winter behaved the same way! Every winter I feel like the cold and snow are going to last forever).
My watchlist for science fiction and fantasy films has dwindled over the course of 2018. The list below contains all of the movies in these genres that I’m currently hoping to watch in the future.  Some of the entries on it aren’t even available in the theatre yet, and others were released so recently that I’m still waiting for them to become legally available to watch online.
  • A Dog’s Purpose
  • Christopher Robin
  • Devil
  • Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindleward
  • Get Out
  • Gremlins
  • Goodbye Christoper Robin
  • The Good Dinosaur
  • Hereditary
  • The House with a Clock in Its Walls
  • Lights Out
  • The Little Stranger
  • The Lottery (based on Shirley Jackson’s short story)
  • A Monster Calls
  • Monsters University
  • Peter Rabbit
  • A Wrinkle in Time

Before I watch a film, I always check the reviews of it to see what others thought of it and if it includes certain topics that I’m sensitive to. I ended up deleting some of the titles I’ve previously mentioned on this blog due to multiple negative reviews that referenced stuff I try to avoid in the entertainment I consume. 2018 has also been a year when I’ve slowly begun losing interest in the non-paranormal horror genre in general, so that cut way down on my to-watch list as well.

Now that winter is just around the corner, I’ve decided that it would be a good idea to build up my watchlist again. Sometimes it can take a while for a film to show up on Netflix or become available to rent on iTunes. The more options I have, the better. Not only will it be a nice distraction for me during my least favourite season, I’ll be able to continue writing more reviews for all of you as I find stuff that I like and/or have strong opinions about.

My Criteria

  1. It will preferably have been released in the last 20 years, and ideally within the last decade. While I do occasionally enjoy older films and am open to hearing about faster-paced recommendations from back then that have stood the test of time, I generally find the pacing of anything released before the mid-1990s to be too slow for this millennial’s tastes.
  2. There is little to no gore. I can handle a few briefly violent scenes if necessary, but I have no interest in bloodbaths or slasher flicks.
  3. It ideally includes stuff like: the paranormal; cryptozoology; aliens; an exploration of planets, caves, or other remote places where communication devices mysteriously stop working for the sake of a better plot; space ships; the distant past or future; characters who are at least somewhat self-aware and intelligent when something really weird happens in the first scene.
  4. There are clever plot twists in it. I do watch more predictable shows as well, but it always makes me happy to find something whose ending can’t be predicted five minutes into it.
  5.  Also, I’ve watched countless movies about straight, white men having science fiction and fantasy adventures together. If the stories are equally intriguing and I’m given the choice between them and a more diverse cast, though, I’m going to go with the latter every time.

Where I’m Looking for New Films

  1. Netflix. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but I’ve found so many interesting films there over the years. It’s always the first place I try when I’m looking for something new.
  2. iTunes. I’ve combed through everything Netflix has to offer, but I’ve yet to do the same thing for iTunes. Here’s hoping I’ll find hidden treasures there.
  3. Top 10 Lists. While I’ve seen many of the science fiction and fantasy films that were released over the past two decades, I definitely haven’t seen all of them. This is especially true for foreign and indie films that only showed in select theatres.
  4. You! If you have any suggestions for me, please leave a comment on this post or tell me about it on Twitter.

A Dangerous Shortcut: A Review of The Ritual

Arsher Ali as Phil, Sam Troughton as Dom, Rafe Spall as Luke and Robert-James Collier as Hutch.

The Ritual is a British horror film based on Adam Nevill’s book by the same name. It was released on October 12, 2017 by Netflix.

This review is spoiler-free. As always, the only time I share spoilers about a movie or tv show on my site would be if I needed to warn my readers about potentially triggering material in it. There was nothing like that in this film.

The premise of The Ritual is a simple one. After losing an old university friend to a random act of violence, Phil, Dom, Luke, and Hutch went hiking and camping in a remote corner of Sweden to spend time together and honour the memory of their deceased friend.

About a day into their trip, Dom tripped and accidentally injured his knee. The group still had many kilometres to go through the mountains on their hike, and none of their cellphones could get a signal in such a remote location. The four characters decided to take a shortcut through the woods so that he could rest and get proper medical attention as soon as possible due to these factors.

A violent thunderstorm began soon after they entered the woods, so the characters sought refuge in an abandoned cabin for the night despite their deeply uneasy feelings about the property. They broke up a piece of the house to start a fire, and then settled down for a good night’s rest before hopefully continuing their journey in the morning.

As they were about to discover, they should have listened to those feelings. The cabin wasn’t abandoned after all, and the person/entity/thing who lived there wasn’t pleased by their trespassing at all. (I must be purposefully vague on this point in order to avoid giving you too many hints about who or what these characters angered).

The Characters

My main criticism of this film has to do with how similar all four of the characters were. Phil, Dom, Luke, and Hutch all had fairly outgoing, sarcastic, and jovial personalities that tended to blend into one another.

There also wasn’t a lot of information given about their backstories.  What were their occupations? Were they married or otherwise in longterm relationships? If they weren’t single, were their partners men or women? Did they have kids? The references to their adult lives were so sparse that I still don’t know the answers to these questions for all four of the main characters in this storyline. As nice as it was to have some of these questions answered for some of them, I thought it was odd that such basic information wasn’t provided for everyone.

I had a difficult time thinking of them as individuals because of this. While I’d certainly expect such a tight-knit group of old friends to share many common interests, it would have been nice to have more character development before the plot picked up so that I could remember who was who when they did make rare references to their personal lives. Sharing details about who they shared their lives with and what occupations they had would have gone a long way to separating these characters in my mind.

There’s nothing wrong with a plot-driven storyline, but I do think this one would have been even better if it had taken more time to show who the characters were before putting them into terrible danger.

The Antagonist

There isn’t much I can say about the antagonist without giving away major spoilers, but I was much happier with how this portion of the plot was handled.

The backstory was well-developed and fit into the storyline nicely. I especially liked the fact that it took the characters as long as they did to learn anything at all about what was lurking in the woods. This wasn’t a case of characters knowing in advance that a particular spot had a bad reputation and deciding to explore it anyway.

They had no idea what they were about to stumble into after the thunderstorm began, and that made the later events of the plot even more exciting than they would have otherwise been. It also provided plausible deniability for why they didn’t immediately leave the cabin they were staying in the first time something frightening happened in it.

In my opinion, horror movies are most enjoyable when the characters genuinely had no idea what they were getting into before the first bizarre things happens to them.

The Horror

One of the things I always want to know before I watch something from this genre is what sort of horror we’re talking about.

Is the plot gory? Does the fear the characters and audience feel mostly come from anticipation, or will we actually see whatever it is that seems to be roaming around in the woods and hunting them down? Do the characters react sensibly the first time they sense something is horribly wrong?

Once again, I’m dancing around spoilers here, so bear with me if I don’t fully answer all of your questions.

The first thing I’d say about the plot is that it is firmly planted in the horror genre. If you love being scared, there are plenty of spine-chilling scenes to come when you begin watching The Ritual. I had to watch a couple of scenes from the corner of my eye because of how scared I was for the characters in them.

As far as the gore goes, it definitely existed. This isn’t something I’d recommend to people who have a phobia of blood or gore even though the scenes that included those things were only a small part of the storyline overall.

I don’t like slasher movies, and this wasn’t one of them. The build up to the moment the characters realize the cabin they’ve broken into had never been abandoned at all was handled nicely. Honestly, the storyline was just as much about that moment as it was about everything that happened afterwards.

This isn’t the sort of tale that has any sort of profound messages about death, grief, or friendship woven into it. I’m not criticizing it by saying that, either. Not everything in life needs to be deep in order to be enjoyable. This is a classic horror film in every way, and the characters fit into that genre beautifully.

Should You Watch It?

If you love the horror genre and are in the mood for a satisfying scare, I would recommend this film.

Saturday Seven: Characters Who Need a Date

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews. Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, so today I’m thinking about characters who could really have benefited from going on a date. None of the characters I’m about to discuss had romantic storylines. They were far too busy looking after a disabled friend, exploring a… Read More

How to Survive a Paranormal Storyline

  Congratulations on your new home, job, vacation spot, construction project, antique gift, or other plot device that has invited a restless spirit into your formerly-peaceftul storyline! While most of the characters who take the time to look up what to expect in a haunting are the protagonists, I’d like to give a special shout-out… Read More

5 Classic Science Fiction Books That Everyone Should Read

There’s something about the snowy days of January that makes me want to curl up with a classic science fiction novel and not lift my head up again until April. I’m not entirely sure why I have this urge. Maybe it’s because burying my nose in something that was old and often assigned in English… Read More

10 Fantasy Books I’d Recommend to New Readers of This Genre

Last August I blogged about science fiction and fantasy books I’d recommend for elementary, middle school, and high school students.  Last week I blogged about science fiction books I’d recommend to adults who are unfamiliar with that genre. Today let’s talk about books that are a wonderful introduction to fantasy in general for anyone who… Read More