31 by 31 Challenge #5: TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (2017)


One of the buzziest releases of the year, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a haunting, dark fairy tale that uses striking cinematography and dynamite special effects to explore childhood trauma through the lens of magical realism. It’s a film unafraid to go to dark places and dig in deep, showcasing a kind of horror that is at once all too real and the stuff of our worst collective nightmares: the violent death of children.

Estrella (Paola Larsa) is a young girl living with her mother in a city gutted and devastated by the Mexican Drug War. When her school is shot up during a gang skirmish, Estrella is gifted three pieces of magical chalk by her teacher. Each piece will grant her one wish. After her mother vanishes, Estrella uses her first wish bring her back, unaware of what she has awoken. Estrella’s mother does indeed return, only as a terrifying specter of her former self, causing Estrella to take to the streets and join up with a coterie of homeless boys led by cynical, traumatized Shine (Juan Ramon López). In them, Estrella finds friendship, protection, and a chance to uncover what really happened to her mother.

Tigers is stuffed to the gills with talent, from the lovable and believable child actors to the smooth, succinct script that not only blends the fantastical with gritty reality, but also balances full-body terror with moments of heart and humor. The production design is also breathtaking, and the special effects used to create the wraith-like ghosts and Shine’s graffiti tigers blend seamlessly into the real, an impressive fear given the film’s relatively modest budget.

You’d never know that Tigers was made on the cheap, so rich and well crafted is the atmosphere and the techniques used to bring the story to life, often to chilling effect. The makeup of the undead ghouls that shadow Estrella, and the swerving, seemingly sentient trail of blood that slithers and snakes behind her after her first wish unnerve and unsettle, leaving us squirming with visions of horrific deaths and a pervading sense of wrongness. Combine all this with an excellent cast perfectly attuned to their roles and the result is one of the year’s most essential films.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a magical, momentous film that uses its supernatural elements not for cheap jump scares, but to heighten the human drama at the center of the story and the question of how desperate children survive in a dangerous and violent world when stripped of their support networks. As such, it is a tale of resilience and defiance in the face of destruction–as the film’s ominous and menacing tone make clear–but it is also about the power of hope that can be sparked in a shared human experience, and the transcendent magic that can arise if that spark is fueled properly. See this film at your earliest convenience. Find your chalk. Don’t be afraid.

Tigers Are Not Afraid

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #4: THE PERISHED (2019)


For decades, unmarried women who got pregnant in Ireland were sent to “mother and child homes” sponsored and run by the Catholic Church where they were kept out of sight of “polite” society and, presumably, made to atone for their most grievous of sins. The reports surrounding the conditions and practices of these homes are sickening at best and appalling at worst, including hundreds of bodies of children found in a mass, unmarked grave. This is the backdrop against which writer and director Paddy Murphy sets this personal and piercing, if somewhat muddled, film.

Sarah Dekker’s (Courtney McKeon) life is upended when she discovers that she’s pregnant. Before she can tell either her boyfriend Shane (Fiach Kunz) or her parents (Conor Lambert & Noelle Clarke), however, Shane breaks up with her and her strict Catholic mother finds the positive pregnancy test and promptly kicks her daughter out of the house. Unable to face life as a single mother, Sarah goes to England for an abortion, then returns and recuperates in the country home of her friend Davet (Paul Fitzgerald). What neither of them know, however, is that the house is actually the site of a mass infant grave, and Sarah’s presence has awoken the unsettled spirits of the lost children, desperate for a mother.

The Perished is meant to be a slow-burn, so much so that the first quarter of the film feels more like a social drama. It’s great set-up, though, as when the moments of horror start creeping in, the viewer feels their unease all the more. As Sarah is coping with her choice, the remains of her life, and the loss of her most important relationships, something sinister is building around her. Something marked by tiny cries that only she can hear, and visions of a ghoulish monster that would make Clive Barker proud.

As the tension builds, those potent beats that provide insight into character and motive give way to monster moments and body horror. As we push towards the climax, that oh-so-specific kind of guilt that hangs over Sarah, and blankets the film itself, transforms into a a more straightforward type of horror as Sarah’s body begins to show signs of a second, more advanced pregnancy, and the monstrous avatar of the murdered babies comes out in full force. It’s an interesting choice as while the creature effects are phenomenal and truly would heighten any latter Hellraiser film, the viewer doesn’t feel the same sense of palpable dread that we felt early on when Sarah was cast out by her own family and the resulting trauma.

There’s a question of scope and scale when it comes to this film, I think. It’s an enormous and heavy subject matter to tackle, and I applaud the filmmakers for being unafraid to journey into the dark, but I found myself confused by the ultimate message of the film in the end. By all accounts, the film is championing choice, tolerance, and self-care. The heartbreaking title cards that bookend the film drive home the real-world horrors surrounding these issues in Ireland, and the discrimination faced by women who have made the choice to have an abortion. It’s also clear that church and state alike have contributed to and supported these actions and stigmas, and I would have liked to have seen a stronger critique of those institutions for allowing these crimes to occur. As it stands, the events that unfold at the house seem to be punishing Sarah rather than the true culprits, which skews the message a bit. Sarah has chosen not to be a mother at this particular moment in her life, but in the end is forced to become one by the perished. Is this her penance? It’s unclear.

The Perished is a brave, honest movie that takes on taboo subjects and weighty, real life topics. A solid start and creepy middle lose steam in the final act, where characterization and historical importance take a backseat for some admittedly excellent gore and creature effects. It’s clear that Murphy is a talented filmmaker to watch, however. The film shows his skill at navigating depth, tone, and tension. He clearly knows what’s horrifying. It may just be that he’s taken on something too terrifying, or too grand, here, but you can feel the effort behind his storytelling. And with that kind of passion driving him, I’ll be first in line to see what comes next.

Many thanks to Celtic Badger Media for a screener in exchange for an honest review.

The Perished

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

Carrie: A Horror Novel Unburdened by Ego

By Miss @MelMoy

Since I kind of fell right off my wagon last year when it came to keeping up with the promised blog about my fall reading list, I’m going to actually make an effort this year to talk about the books I read during the spooky season. I kicked things off on September 9th with my first ever reading of Carrie. I picked this one up on a trip to Maine over Labor Day weekend because…obviously.

For anyone unfamiliar, Carrie is a novel about a 17-year-old girl who finds she has latent telekinetic powers after a traumatic incident in the girls’ locker room involving her period. She takes revenge on the peers who bullied her and the mother who raised her in a strict, Christian fundamentalist home. It was Stephen King’s first novel, published when King was about 25 years old and working as a teacher in Hampden high school. Technically, it was his fourth novel but the first one he got published.

Going in, I was highly aware this was one of the earliest works by an author who would go on to put out over 60 novels, 10 short story collections, and 5 nonfiction books. It’s sort of like a time capsule of the most prolific American writer in the later 20th century.  And I was surprised when I came to the end of the story and found the whole thing to be, honestly, a nearly perfect novel. 

The characterization is incredibly well done, the cast doesn’t feel like anyone was short-changed. Characters are full and realized, something King still does expertly, but here it’s done with minimal scenes, low amounts of exposition, and mainly in-scene choices that build the inner world of the cast of characters.  The dialogue lacks King’s self-indulgent style that began to crop up in The Stand and there is no excessive scene building as he trusts the reader to be present without 3 pages worth of introduction. Possibly the best part, this novel is completely devoid of King’s customary self-insert character of a white male writer and occasional school teacher with a substance abuse problem (Jack Torrance, Bill Denbrough, Ben Mears). This is a story probably farthest away from King’s personal experience: a teenage girl’s first period and mercilessly bullying from her fellow women in the school. 

I think what this proves, if anything, is that this novel is the product of honesty at a different time in King’s life. While I think there is real honesty in his later stories that deal with much more internally complex characters with a different set of problems to work through, this novel feels unweighted by the trappings of success, by an author who is invisible in the story. There’s no contamination of ego or expectation. It’s a novel written by a man who was living out of a trailer, with a story to tell. 

As a horror novel? It’s more weird fiction and speculative than it is actual horror. That being said, this novel is a great example of the true differences between horror and terror, as outlined by Shirley Jackson (a known influence on King’s work). In that regard, the last third of the novel is nothing but horror at Carrie’s rampage and King’s use of secondary texts throughout to hint at what’s to come is a great employment of terror as well. 

Ultimately, there’s a lot to be learned about writing and about the author himself from a glimpse at his first work of full fiction that graced shelves. Keep an eye as I work through more spooky books this fall.

31 by 31 Challenge #3: FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984)

Originally intended to be the concluding installment in the saga of one Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is certainly one of the more refined entries in the blockbuster franchise, and without question the last serious outing before the bonkers weirdness takes hold for parts five through ten. While the story is cut from the slasher cloth, the script itself is good, the cast is game and likable, and the gore effects–courtesy of Tom Savini, returning to the franchise for the first time since the original–are top notch.

The day after the events of Friday the 13th Part III (1982), Jason’s body is taken to the morgue where, much to the horror of the hospital staff, it turns out he’s not dead. As Jason (Ted White) dispatches nurses and hitchhikers, a new group of rowdy teenagers make their way to Crystal Lake, unaware of the horrors that have recently gripped the community. The teens shack up in a rented cabin next to the home of the Jarvis family. Trish (Kimberly Beck) and brother Tommy (Corey Feldman) make nice with their new neighbors before meeting lone camper Rob (Erich Anderson), who is on a secret mission to finish Jason once and for all. But there will buckets of blood before the night is out, leading us to a chilling, satisfying finale.

Final Chapter is interesting a number of ways. It’s the first film in the series without any real sense of mystery. Jason is firmly ensconced as the killer now, he’s completed his visage, we know what to expect. It’s a very settled film. Aside from the next installment, Part 5, the mystery departs Friday the 13th for good at this point, and so Final Chapter really becomes the model for all the remaining sequels.

For all that it does to set the standard framework, Final Chapter still takes time to let its characters breathe, a choice that the following films would make to lesser and lesser degree. All the subplots and minor threads close successfully before their the slicing and dicing kicks into high gear, and there’s arguably more memorable characters here than in any other Friday film. And when the characters are dispatched, you feel it. The kills are mean and brutal, heightened by some of Savini’s best work on the effects.

As the conclusion for what we might think of as the first “cycle” of Friday the 13th, The Final Chapter is a strong film. It knows what sort of beast it is, and it takes itself seriously just enough. The result is a well-rounded production any self-respecting slasher fan will cherish, bumps and all.

For more on Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, check out Episode 69 of the podcast, available here.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #2: INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND (2018)

Those familiar with director Pascal Laugier’s most infamous work, the savage and extreme Martyrs (2008), won’t be surprised that his latest exploration of human suffering is equally as bleak and cruel, if directionless and without the artistic verve attached to his earlier work.

Pauline (Mylene Farmer) and her daughters, Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) are moving into a large, strange house in the country that Pauline has inherited from her recluse aunt. The dusty house is riddled with dolls, odd antiques, secret doors, and broken junk. It’s worst case scenario for angsty Vera, but a haven of inspiration for aspiring horror writer Beth. Within hours of moving in, the family is brutally attacked by a sadistic pair of intruders who won’t be satisfied with quick kills, but rather seek prolonged torture as a means to fulfill their twisted fantasies.

This film has a few things going for it, namely the atmosphere, achieved by a detailed production value and expert camerawork. There’s a great sense of disorientation inside the house, a tactic that subconsciously unsettles the viewer even before the home invaders arrive. Because the film is so visceral in technique, the violence hits on a shocking, deep level. But where that violence is necessary for effect in Martyrs, it’s cheap and untoward here, bordering on schlock.

These characters endure a great deal of violence, but there’s no real point to it other than to remind the viewer that vicious, cruel acts occur to innocents everyday, and that physical trauma often begets psychological damage. This is not a particularly new or intriguing angle, and since the film isn’t working towards a broader meditation on senseless violence, the ferocity isn’t earned. The story feels hollow, the nastiness occurring just for the sake of nastiness, and that by consequence raises the question of misogyny.

Unfortunately, there’s also a problematic dash of transphobia involved in Ghostland that can’t be ignored either. One of the attackers, the Candy Truck Woman (Kevin Powers) is presented to us as being terrifying simply for how she looks, which is quite stereotypical for a trans woman. There’s no inherent problem in having a trans woman be one of your villains, but the villainy and scare factor should come from something more than their trans identity. It’s an old, tired trope in horror and by this point filmmakers should be beyond relying on such an outdated gimmick to elicit fear.

Flaws aside–if you’re able to put them there, of course–Incident in a Ghostland is still a technically polished film, perfect for fans of shock horror and realistic violence. It’s not quite that French New Wave extreme horror that Laugier first trafficked in, but it’s a close, diluted cousin, with more than enough to make you squirm. The problem is that it’s not the fun kind of squirming. Nor even the reflective kind. It’s just exploitative.

Shhhh…ould we really take such a lazy route for our villain?

Incident in a Ghostland

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #1: IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

No one will be able to deny that It: Chapter Two is the perfect popcorn movie to kick off the fall, and perhaps even to close out the decade, but it’s not quite the well-balanced scarefest the first film turned out to be. There’s some decent scares and fun moments, yet it’s lacking the emotional depth of part one. Nevertheless, it’s a wild ride that leads to a bonkers finale even the Master of Horror himself would have to agree is a bit more fitting than the one he penned.

  • It: Chapter Two
  • Released: September 6, 2019
  • Director: Andy Muschietti
  • Screenplay: Gary Dauberman (based on the novel It by Stephen King)
  • Tagline: “It Ends”
  • Cast:
  • James McAvoy as Bill Denbrough
  • Jessica Chastain as Beverly Marsh
  • Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom
  • Bill Hader as Richie Tozier
  • Isaiah Mustafa as Mike Hanlon
  • James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak
  • Andy Bean as Stanley Uris
  • Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Dancing Clown

27 years after the self-proclaimed Losers’ Club cast the menacing, shape-shifting Pennywise the Dancing Clown down into the depths of his lair beneath Derry, the Lucky Seven have grown up and grown out, with only Mike remaining behind as the town librarian. The rest have forgotten their home and their trauma, finding success in their various fields. But when Mike summons them all back to Derry after Pennywise reawakens, the Losers are faced with a choice and a challenge to reconcile their pasts with their presents lest they be destroyed by Fear itself.

Now, for some reason I haven’t quit been able to riddle out, the film posits that in order to rise to this challenge, the Losers must confront the ghosts of their pasts one-on-one in order to collect tokens needed for an arbitrary ritual to lock Pennywise away forever. The middle chunk of the film thus becomes an episodic tour around Derry as each Loser dwells on memories of That Summer–portrayed as gauzy, ethereal flashbacks featuring the child actors from part one–before grabbing some trinket or toy that means something to them, even though half of them weren’t even introduced in the first film.

There’s not a lot of character development here, which is somewhat problematic given that we see so little of the Losers in their accomplished, adult lives before they’re thrust back into repressed trauma and childhood terror. The Losers aren’t really together a whole lot, and when they are they’re just rehashing plot points or standing by for extended flashback sequences. It’s a shame because the adult ensemble, much like their younger counterparts, are perfectly cast and absolutely ace their characters, each of them more impressive than the last, with Bill Hader being the noticeable standout.

Is Pennywise a Pierrot clown? He’s using his tongue, after all…

Though there’s a struggle to resurrect that atmosphere of a summer’s nightmare from the first film, Chapter Two does provide some intense, isolated scares while hitting the beats of horror-comedy that charmed audiences in 2017. The humor is a bit more self-aware this time around, which keeps the viewer at a distance somewhat, and there’s some moments near the end that feel off-kilter and out of place, but that’s partially a fault of the source material, so we won’t necessarily place blame for that.

We also won’t knock the film for having to live up to the near-perfect chapter one. Very few sequels can. And it should be made clear that Chapter Two is still loads of fun. For all the flashback sequences and disjointed writing, there’s no actual slow scenes or boring moments. The film moves and grooves in a digestible rhythm. You’ll be hard pressed to find a moment to look away, as everything demands your attention here. And you’re happy to give it, because it’s all just so over-the-top in the best way. The big stars, the CGI, the splatter and gore, even the jokes.

This film will always be easy to watch. It will always be an enjoyable, reliable party-pleaser when background mood needs to be established but not wallowed in. But it won’t be as beloved as Muschietti’s first outing with Pennywise and the Losers. It’s just not as serious or as scary. Beforehand we were getting into the nitty gritty of childhood trauma and terror. This time, there’s a bit more clowning around, as it were.

It: Chapter Two

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror