Friday, November 24, 2017

Are You Afraid of the Dark: The Tale of the Phantom Cab

I was a little worried going into Are You Afraid of the Dark.  I’d been disappointed by the first season of Goosebumps, and was afraid this show would prove equally disappointing.  I’d re-watched a few episodes sporadically in the last few years, however, and was hopeful.  Still, I wasn’t completely convinced that I hadn’t simply caught the better ones.

That said, I was quite happy with what I got in this first episode.  While there are still issues with the child actors, there’s plenty else to make up for it.  The story, unlike most Goosebumps episodes, was clearly written to be easy to tell in a 30-minute children’s show with a limited budget, with only the most basic special effects.  The music is awesome, and the story seems like something kids would tell scare each other, if dragged out a bit longer than the scary stories other kids told me as a child.

The premise, for anyone who wasn’t a 90s kid, is that a group of kids called “The Midnight Society” hold meetings out in the woods where they tell scary stories.  This first episode shows the initiation of a new member, Frank (Jason Alisharan), who must tell a story good enough to earn a unanimous vote, before he will be allowed to join.
Even in the frame story, this is one of those shows that pretends kids have some great freedom of movement.  Frank was brought to the middle of the woods blindfolded, because he can’t be allowed to know where they meet until he’s a member.  If they’re far enough out to be hidden, I seriously doubt any of these kids are old enough to get there without being driven by parents.

I don’t say this as a negative.  I know one of the major appeals of this show to lonely kids was the idea of a group of friends, who spend time together consistently, and who I had a secret place to meet.  You could probably explain away Frank’s situation by saying that his sponsor’s Mom drove them together, rolling her eyes at the blindfold the whole way, but that’s not the point.  This show is fantasies within a fantasy.

Appropriately for Frank’s initiation, he tells story about proving yourself.  The story we get is about two brothers named Buzz and Denny (Sean Ryan and Jason Tremblay) who go for a hike.  Buzz is hoping to use the trip as a chance to impress his older brother.  The two actors are both the weakest part of this episode, and I get the distinct feeling the people who did the casting decided to keep the kids who were able to avoid telegraphing every line for the ongoing frame-story, and stick whoever else they could find in as the one-off characters.

The two brother send up lost in the woods because Buzz was trusted with the compass, and repeatedly held it too close to his metal belt-buckle.  I’m not sure if a random piece of unmagnetized metal would affect a compass that easily, but it does seem like the kind of “lost in the woods” idea a kid excited to apply the knowledge he gained studying for his Science test to story-telling would come up with.

As it starts to get dark and cold the two meet a friendly man named Flynn (Brian Dooley).  The man gives evasive answers to every question they ask, refusing to directly say if he’s lost, why he’s in the woods, or if he’ll help them.  Instead he says only that he’ll take them to “someone who can help them” who he refers to as “the Good Doctor.”

The Doctor is Doctor Vink (Aron Tager), a recurring character featured in Frank’s later stories.  In this story, he lives in a small cottage in the middle of the woods, and upon their arrival Flynn mysteriously disappears, giving the brothers no choice but to approach the house, and the Doctor emerges to seduce them inside.

There’s a good reason Vink kept appearing in this show: he’s an awesome character.  He’s theoretically a scientist, but much of what he does seems outright magical.  Personally, I’m inclined to put him into the category of an alchemist, mixed with a good portion of a classic trickster.  He’s an old man, but constantly full of energy and spirit.  I feel almost like I should justify not calling him a pedophile, when he lures kids into a cabin and offers them tea while getting up close and personal, but I almost feel like Vink is too insane for such desires to even register for him.  He seems far more interested in gaining “specimens” for his experiments.

Also, he doesn’t like being called a “nutbag.”

Being on cable had the added advantage of letting the show get away with far more than Goosebumps ever could, and Vink happily shows the kids the brain of a boar (which is obviously just raw chicken, but let’s pretend), and a human hand preserved in formaldehyde.   Denny, as the practical brother, is absolutely repelled by the Doctor, while Buzz seems to be at least somewhat fascinated.

Vink, seemingly disinterested in their problems, starts a game of riddles with Buzz in exchange for access to his phone (which he’s prepared to disable with a pair of hedge clippers).  The riddles are old, but this was the 90s, before a quick Google search would have given the writers all the brain-busters they could ever want.

The riddle that stumps Buzz is “What is it that has no weight, can be seen by the naked eye, and if you put it in a barrel it will make the barrel lighter?”  (I’m sure all the kids at home who got it were proud when we cut back to the Midnight Society debating if the riddle was solvable.)  Losing the game, the two must leave.  However, the Doctor helpfully informs them that a cab drives through the woods every night, and will be by shortly.  The brothers are incredulous, but decide to wait anyway, having no other options.

Naturally, the cab shows up, old and worn and driven by Flynn.   At this point the episode goes from simply being creepy to being downright terrifying, as we go into the territory of urban horror stories.  Once inside the cab the boys find that Flynn is no longer as evasive as he had been.  Forty years ago, Vink offered Flynn a big tip if he could solve a riddle, and Flynn failed.  After losing, Flynn died in a crash (not stated, but implied to be caused by Vink), and is not forced to relive the crash over and over again with those who can’t answer Vink’s riddles.  Before the crash, Flynn gives them one more chance to answer the riddle.

I’m not quite sure how to interpret Flynn.  Despite telling them that he wants them to succeed and break his curse, he remains chipper throughout, even talking about the car exploding like it’s a fascinating event they need to see.  Perhaps as a ghost he maintains the happy demeanor of a cab driver providing a service, perhaps Vink forces him to act in such a manner, or maybe he’s just jaded after forty years and trying to stay positive.

Naturally, Buzz figures it out in the nick of time, the cab disappears, and the two are picked up by a park ranger (Tedd Dillon).  We’re told in voice-over that all that could be found of the cabin was a stone foundation, planting that hint that some time travel was involved.  Frank is voted in, and the credits roll.

This episode gives you pretty much exactly what you’d want: a ghost story about kids, tailor made for its format, and with a memorable villain.  Honestly, going through this show, I can only hope this quality is maintained.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Lights Out (short)

I was curious how a plot as complex as the movie Lights Out could be based on a short.  As it turns out, it  wasn’t.  The concept of a monster that only appears in the dark is here, but the themes and characters of that movie are completely absent.  Even the rules are fundamentally different.
That’s not to say that either version is bad.  In the right hands the same general concept can be used to produce two wildly different products of good quality.  That’s exactly what happened here.  This is a short that makes my skin crawl.

The idea here is something we can all relate to: You turn out a light, and see something you can’t recognize in the dark, so you turn the light back on to see what it is.  Our main character (Lotta Losten) turns out the lights in her hall, and sees a human shape.  However, when she turns the lights back on, there’s no object there to explain what it might have been.  After several rounds of this, the figure moves closer.

The woman decides to simply tape the light switch open, and go to bed.  However, after a few moments in bed the lights in the hall go off again, and footsteps run into the room.  The woman’s bed lamp is flickering, and she hides under her covers as she reaches for plug to try to keep the protective light on her.  Finally, she’s able to get the lamp working again, and sticks her head out, relaxed.
…and the Monster’s there.  There’s no credit for the monster, and it doesn’t move, so I assume it’s just a model.  It’s a thing with a basically human face, but white eyes, and a huge mouth.  The reveal is terrifying, but not simply for the monster.  It’s frightening because it shows us the established rules were wrong.

It’s hard to say why this flouting of usual movie conventions is so effective here.  It may only work because it’s a short.  However, it’s sometimes spoken like a mantra, “have consistent rules or you’ll break suspension of disbelief.”  Here, however, we realize that the rules were wrong, and the creature had failed to appear in the light prior to this moment by choice, not requirement.  The rug is pulled out from under us.

For a three-minute short, there’s only so much I can write, but check it out.  I mean, after all, it is just three minutes.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Moth Diaries

I didn’t care for this film, but it made me very interested to read the book at some point.  This is a movie that’s clearly intended to give us a sense of ambiguity.  Either there’s a vampire, or our narrator is crazy.  That works when you’re reading from a diary, but it’s quite another thing when we watch a girl walk through solid glass.  You can say that the film was only showing us what was in the head of our protagonist, but it’s harder to accept when we were shown a visual image.

Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is a student at a boarding school.  She was sent there after her father committed suicide a few years earlier, and she continues to struggle with the loss.  However, she’s begun to find solace in her friends, most of all her roommate Lucy (Sarah Gadon).  Into this mix, however, comes Ernessa (Lily Cole), a mysterious girl who seems to quickly ingratiate herself to Rebecca’s friend group, and grows especially close to Lucy.

Coincidentally, Rebecca’s literature class is reading Carmilla that semester (in fact, the short book seems to be the only thing they study in the entire semester), and she starts to suspect that Ernessa may be a vampire.  She doesn’t speak this out loud, but the idea of “Lucy” being targeted makes the concern obvious for any horror fan long before Rebecca even vocalizes it.

I complained earlier about the film showing us Ernessa walking through glass.  To its credit, the film is successful in making many of the other scenes ambiguous.  One or two could be written off as dreams, if not outright hallucinations.  Also, the only time we witness an “attack” on Lucy could be viewed as a shadowed sex scene.

Aside from Lucy drawing further and further away from her, Rebecca finds herself isolated from her other friends as well.  One (Valerie Tian) is expelled for throwing a chair out of her bedroom window while high.  Another (Melissa Farman) either committed suicide, fell out her bedroom window by accident, or was killed by Ernessa.  As Lucy grows sick, Rebecca finds herself completely alone.

As for Ernessa, at minimum she is peculiar.  She seems to hate water, like looking through windows, never eats, and walks around the school grounds barefoot in the middle of the night.  She claims that her father killed himself as well, but she “inherited everything from him.”  A major portion of the vampire mythology, or at least the version that Rebecca comes to accept, is that vampires are created by committing suicide while alone, and thus she believes Ernessa attempted to end her own life like her father.

Obviously, this could be interpreted as projection.  Rebecca keeps the razor her father killed himself with in her diary, and contemplates ending her own life.  The idea that she’d become a powerful immortal seems to make this idea somewhat easier for her to tolerate.

Lucy’s illness begins with her isolation from her other friends.  First, she shows the same lack of appetite as Ernessa.  One night, after Rebecca witnesses what appears to be the attack, Lucy is suddenly sent to a hospital and isolated from everyone except Ernessa, who Lucy asks to see, further angering Rebecca.  After she takes a turn for the worst even Ernessa is cut off from her, and Lucy makes a sudden recovery.

With that point in the film, either the supernatural becomes even more overt, or Rebecca completely snaps.  Reunited, Rebecca witnesses Lucy and Ernessa disappear into a cloud of moths on the school grounds one night, but moments later Lucy’s dead body reappears.  After mourning her friend, Rebecca sneaks into the school basement, and discovers a journal in which Ernessa confesses how she became a vampire a century earlier.  On her second trip to the basement she finds Ernessa sleeping in a coffin, and lights her on fire.

We end the film with Rebecca being taken by the police to explain why she set her school’s basement on fire.  However, she is now content that Ernessa is at peace.  I think I would prefer the interpretation of madness, honestly, but as I said before it’s harder to accept that when my brain has witnessed the supernatural events directly.  So, the film is a bit harder for me to stomach.

I don’t really dislike this movie, though.  It has plenty of good points.  It also succeeds in creating a somber atmosphere, without creating soulless or uninteresting characters.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend the book if I have yet to read it, so I’ll simply say that I suspect I would recommend the book if I had read it.