Search This Blog


Thursday, October 8, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 3: Cooties (2014)

Story by Ian Brennan & Leigh Whannell & Josh C. Waller; Screenplay by Leigh Whannell & Ian Brennan
Directed by Jonathan Millot & Cary Murnion

Elijah Wood:  Clint
Rainn Wilson:  Wade
Alison Pill:  Lucy
Nasim Pedrad:  Rebekkah
Jack McBrayer:  Tracy
Leigh Whannel:  Doug
Jorge Garcia:  Rick

Some time ago there was an internet quiz that asked you how many five-year-olds you could take in a fight. I have the feeling that a conversation between the writers sparked from that quiz led to the creation of this film, possibly after watching 28 Days Later or any of the newer crop of "running zombie" movies. The people who made this one also set themselves up with a very difficult task; horror comedies are a very, very tough mix of genres.

The opening credits give you a look at how chicken nuggets are made (which should be enough to put you off eating them for a good long while), where one REALLY OBVIOUSLY NASTY one on the conveyor belt doesn't get pulled by quality control. Upton Sinclair would be proud. The nugget goes through meat processing, breading, freezing, shipping, deep-frying and visual inspection by the lunch worker at Fort Chicken Elementary School without anyone noticing the giant black pockmarks on the chicken nugget. It gets served to a blonde pigtailed moppet (that we find out is named Shelly about forty minutes into the film), who doesn't notice the grotesque green ooze that pops out of the nugget when she sinks her teeth into it. But we never learn who she is at this point; all that we need to know is that she's Patient Zero for whatever's going to go down later. Some of this footage is processed to look like it's taken with a hidden night-vision camera, I think, but it's unclear why until about the last five minutes of the movie.

After that (and the word COOTIES filling the screen) we skip to Clint, an twentysomething dude living in his mother's attic (in a bedroom full of symbols of his arrested adolescence). He's been working on a book of some kind, and his mom just loved the manuscript--although, when pressed for actual criticism she delivers a laundry list of things that Clint didn't manage particularly well (including the plot, characters, dialogue, setting, and descriptions of time and place). On his drive to teaching summer school, Clint starts dictating a new draft of the book into a micro-cassette recorder, getting stuck on the words immediately after "The boat was evil". (I believe this to be a shout-out to Robert McCammon's The Night Boat, a novel I remember as being pretty good, and about a haunted Nazi submarine attacking the Caribbean). I hope Clint's a better teacher than he is an author.

Clint pulls up to the Fort Chicken Elementary School, where he apparently attended classes back when he was a wee sprat. The crossing guard greets him cheerfully, notes that Clint is not his dope dealer, and then asks if he's got any hallucinogenic mushrooms to sell. Clint parks his scabrous beater and the testosterone-poisoned PE teacher parks his cock-extension pickup right next to him, requiring Clint to exit via the car's hatchback. The kids attending summer grade school look to be a pretty terrible bunch, including one who shouts "Fuck you, Mom!" as he gets dropped off; his mother retorts with a "Fuck you too!" just in case we didn't know where the kid got his charm from.

In the admin office, Clint gets introduced to Acting Principal Simms (played by cowriter Ian Brennan), who drops some necessary exposition (the school is a cell-phone-free zone, which certainly won't come in to play later when the teachers are trying to contact the outside world for help--also, he wants all the kids outside for recess and is willing to lock the schoolhouse doors to keep them on the playground). His one-sided conversation with Clint then demonstrates that he shouldn't be put in charge of a one-car funeral, let alone a school full of children.

In the teachers' lounge we get a quick introduction to the Expendable Meat; I'm as big a fan of double entendres as the next B movie blogger, but the "I love playing with my partner's big fuzzy balls" / "I am talking about tennis, not the gayness, you silly person" dialogue from a male character named Tracy is significantly less than stellar. Next up is Rebekkah, who can't tell Clint which coffee cups in the break room are already claimed, but can tell him that she has a piercingly loud rape alarm clipped to her jacket that automatically radios the police and that Illinois' wimpy gun laws mean she can't carry a pistol for her own protection. So:  No phones, no guns, one really loud it. The gameboard is now set.

After getting completely blanked by Wade the gym coach when trying to make conversation, the next person Clint runs in to is an old girlfriend, Lucy (who seems genuinely surprised and delighted to see him). He was living in Brooklyn but did the Broke Walk of Shame to come back to the suburbs of Chicago to live with his mom (while talking with Lucy, Clint gets observed by science teacher Doug, who is reading a book called How to Have a Normal Conversation and possibly taking mental notes about the way real people talk to each other). He interjects with a quick comment on the day's heat, even though neither Lucy nor Clint were going on about that at all. Awkwardness is increased when Lucy introduces Wade to Clint, who says "Pleased to meet you with meat to please you", and things go a bit downhill from there. Wade's repeated attempts to say "dual rear wheel" when describing the truck look like an outtake that snuck into the main film somehow.

Wade turns out to have read a book once or twice, because he immediately says that Clint's possessed-evil-boat novel is similar to the best-selling Christine, but the first bell rings before any further embarrassment can ensue. Lucy walks Clint to his classroom and the day begins (but not after Clint calls Wade a dick and Lucy tells him she's dating the guy--one last slap in the face from life and then things can get started).

The various teachers are doing Teacher Stuff in a series of cuts to their classes (Doug's using an apron with velcro-attached organs to teach his class about anatomy; Rebekkah is teaching the controversy (by telling all the kids to blame one student whose parents won't let her throw Jesus power at everyone) and Clint gets called a pretty low-hanging-fruit slur when he writes his name on the chalkboard but the L and I are too close together for the kids in the back to see they're two separate letters. He wants to be the cool teacher that kids like, but it ain't happening. Oh, and that horrible kid from the start of the film? He's named Patriot, his parents think his birth on September 11, 2001 was a divine sign that he was destined to kill terrorists, and he's utterly insufferable.

Clint has one of the students read the first chapter of his novel to the class (I'm betting he wants notes from an audience that doesn't know anything about fiction after his mom let him have it with both barrels); while his eyes are closed in rapt contemplation of his own genius Patriot yanks on his preferred target's pigtail, tearing it off her body and triggering what the audience recognizes as a rage zombie attack. She bites him and scratches Clint's arm, then runs down the hall. The school nurse looks at the truly foul-looking bite wound on Patriot's cheek and says there's nothing she can do for him on site--he needs stitches. And judging from the whistling, labored breathing that sounds exactly like the one-pigtailed girl from before, probably an autopsy in about ten minutes or so.

But the day is proceeding, and it's recess time. Patriot's jerk friend (who doesn't get a name as far as I can tell--a common failing in this movie) goes up to Li'l Patient Zero and gets scratched when he confronts her; soon enough he's rampaging in slow motion on the playground attacking the other children. This is witnessed only by that crossing guard, who ate some mushrooms after his dealer decided to show and probably isn't quite sure if what he's really seeing is really what he's seeing. It is. Poor bastard. The virus spreads really fast; seconds after one of the kids is scratched he attacks a teacher (is the film poking fun at a cliche by having a black guy die without getting a single line of dialogue, or just lazy?) and soon enough there's pack of little rage zombies eating his entrails. Wade's out shooting (and missing) baskets on the playground and doesn't notice any of this while it happens.

A second teacher shows up to help the first (a Hispanic woman who screams, but doesn't get any lines either, when the kids with The Cooties take her down). Wade misses that as well, but the crossing guard summons Acting Principal Simms away from his office. He lasts about fifteen seconds once the kids notice him outside and Patriot makes his way into the principal's office to attack the secretary. In the break room, Doug is the first one to notice shit has gone horribly wrong outside and tips everyone else off with a cheery "Oh, look! Carnage!". Everyone inside notices that Wade's out alone surrounded by heavy-breathing zombie kids just as he realizes what's going down (which is a great way to increase the suspense--a surrogate audience realizes Wade's in deep shit just as he does as well and the viewing audience gets to watch the reactions from both). He tries reasoning with the kids, which doesn't take, and then runs for the schoolhouse door. He makes it inside just in time, with a pack of screaming kid zombies mobbing the door.

Meanwhile, Tracy is calling the police and the call gets cut off when Patriot goes crazy in the office, tearing up a bunch of important-looking wiring. But the police do show up (it's probably a priority call when a school asks for help but there's only one guy in the patrol car). Unfortunately that means Officer Appetizer doesn't have any backup when he gets a couple fingers bitten off and then attacked in his cop car. Wade plans to go out and do something but when he opens the lounge door Patriot's right outside and attacks him. Clint winds up on the floor with Patriot trying to kill and eat him, and a series of comic mishaps (including pepper spray right in Clint's eyes, the poor bastard) ends up with Patriot and a nameless victim inside a locked supply cabinet. Everyone gives up on rescuing the poor woman when it turns out nobody has the key.

The core cast escapes to the school library, where Calvin the nerdy black student was avoiding getting beat up on the playground during recess. He's not infected because he missed the triggering incident. He and the teachers make a run for the top floor of the school building and barricade themselves inside the music room and try to figure out what the heck is going on. Calvin knows the word on the playground street, and we finally learn that Patient Zero's name is Shelly when he says she's got cooties. Doug notices the massive eruption of scabs and blisters around Shelly's mouth while she's pressed against a shatterproof window trying to get in to them and starts to put things together about what's going on. While he's being smart, Wade and Clint are in the standard "it's the survivors who screw everything up" argument trying to figure out how to live through the emergency. Wade favors picking up instruments and beating the kids down, then running for their cars and getting out of dodge. Clint thinks getting the basket of cell phones out of the principal's office and calling the CDC is a better plan.

A cutaway to the office shows Patriot smashing all the cell phones after one rings, so it might actually be that Wade has a better idea (not that the characters realize this). Lucy uses the vocabulary of a well-meaning grade school educator to praise Clint for trying while also saying his idea isn't any good and won't help. She also thinks Wade's idea is just going to get everyone killed, and suggests waiting until 3 that afternoon when the kids' parents will come to pick them up. They signal for help, parents call the CDC, everyone lives happily ever after. Clint likes this idea better than his "try not to get killed going for the phones" plan and things are fine until he reveals the nasty scratch on his arm. Wade demands that they throw Clint in quarantine (which is a pretty good idea--the characters in the movie don't know the incubation period for The Virus, and come to think of it, the viewers don't know if it just affects adults more slowly than kids or if all the grownups are immune).

Oh, and we get another bit where the stoned crossing guard is freaking out in his van.

Doug decides to go into the quarantine room with Clint to figure out what's going on. Clint's got the virus but it's treating him like he's got the flu. Doug examined his vomit and other expelled fluids to see what was going on (but without putting gloves on, the genius) and gives Clint a "probably not going to turn into a zombie" bill of health. Everyone settles in to wait and see what's going to happen (though Clint is still locked in the quarantine room). At three o'clock a soccer mom pulls up in her minivan and one of the genuinely ghastly scenes in the movie takes place. I didn't think they'd have the nerve to play the card they did, but they went for it (although the blow gets softened a little bit, it's still "Italian cannibal movie" levels of nastiness).

The teachers and Calvin can't get the soccer mom's attention (she's on the phone), so they wind up standing on the school roof making lots of noise, which the kids down on the ground notice. One uninfected girl joins their group and they all beat feet back inside where the question "Who can kill a child?" gets answered authoritatively. Wade takes a fire extinguisher to Patriot's jerk friend and beats him to death while reaction shots from all the surviving teachers show up instead of a ten-year-old getting his head pounded into chunky salsa. This saved Doug's life from a cootie-monster attack and he proposes a quick dissection to figure out what exactly the virus is doing to the kids (and possibly, since it's a B movie, determining whether or not there's a quick cure--salt, for example, was useful against a kaiju rock garden back in the Fifties).

The uninfected girl turns out to have a wound on her back; either the disease is moving very slowly through her system or she got scratched very recently. She goes into the girls' room to wash her injury with soap and water (which might help, and a slim chance is better than none). At the same time, Doug has the dead kid on the boys' room floor and is pulling the brain out with his bare hands. That's interesting and relevant to the main plot, so it's time to go back to the crossing guard freaking out in his van again.

Back in the school, Wade's griping to Lucy that Clint was hitting on her and reveals that he was planning to propose to her on the first day of summer school, but realized that the brief conversation she had with Clint showed a side of her that he never saw, and wishes he could. He's much too much the testosterone-saturated dickhead to let her "get away" with liking somebody else that she hasn't seen in a decade and a half, and the conversation ends badly. It's also tonally quite at odds with the rest of the film. A hack wannabe writer and screaming zombie kids don't really fit well with sudden emotional truth.

Now that that's out of the way, Doug can explain that the grey matter in an infected kid is mostly dead--they have enough of their marbles left to run, jump, bite, and scream but not much else. He says they're essentially dead but still moving (which means it's a proper zombie movie after all). A quick conference with the girl who got scratched but hasn't changed yet helps him confirm a hypothesis--the virus only goes Full Romero on people who haven't been through puberty. That's why Clint, who was also scratched, hasn't turned into a blistered-faced corpse trying to attack everyone else in the group. Right after this revelation gets dropped the lights go out (Patriot is screwing around in the room with all the big power switches). And it turns out that Calvin is diabetic, so he needs to boost his blood sugars, like, now, or he could drop into a coma.

Then, of course, a mob of zombie kids attack. The sudden arrival of a janitor who turns out to live at the school in a little room in the basement. He doesn't have anything with carbohydrates for Calvin to eat, but he does have a radio that gives an emergency warning for the greater Fort Chicken metro area. The virus is spreading and things are going quite badly indeed out there. It would cost way, way, way too much money to actually show that, though, so we're just gonna watch these teachers get scared in the basement. Clint figures out that there's a vending machine in the teachers' lounge that has delicious carby snacks for Calvin; it's also got Wade's jacket complete with car keys in the pocket. Someone can go to the lounge via the air ducts, get the keys and something for Calvin to eat, return to the basement storage room and everyone can get into Wade's oversized truck and go somewhere less horrifically dangerous.

Of course, the smallest person in the group is Clint (who was described as a Hobbit by Wade back in the first act). Clint protests that he doesn't do brave things, but it looks like it's him or nobody. He sets off into the air vents and the pep talk over the walkie-talkie to boost his spirits goes incredibly awry within seconds. Lucy has a meltdown and tells everyone off, then gets in the air vents herself (if she's going to die anyway, she reasons, it might as well be trying to do something good for Calvin). She doesn't warn Clint that she's in the vents so when she grabs his foot to tell him she's there he flips out a bit. They crawl further and wind up doing the "try not to make noise or breathe" thing when a zombie kid sees them in the floor grate in an otherwise-empty room.

The pair of protagonists gets to the break room without further incident and get the truck keys. The vending machine doesn't want to accept the dollar that Clint has; he's stuck in the break room when a tricycle-riding child monster gets there. Lucy's gone off to retrieve everyone's cell phones (because it is imperative to split up in a horror movie and this is the first real chance they've had to do it). She gets a phone but when Rebekkah's incredibly loud alarm thing goes off in the break room it attracts the notice of Patriot and the girl on the tricycle. They get the candy bar and zip into the air ducts, with Patriot and a few other kid monsters in hot pursuit. The walkie-talkies get some use when Clint warns everyone that the zombie kids are mobile in the air ducts and Wade improvises a barricade that probably will work to keep the larger group of hiding victims for a while, at least.

Back with Clint and Lucy, our hero says that he missed a friend from earlier and happier days and returned to Fort Chicken because he knew she was teaching there; when he was in New York pursuing his dreams of literary glory he was actually a schoolteacher there, not a writer. He was hoping to get back to the novel in his free time, but it turns out that "free time" is a luxury first-grade teachers do not get much of. He doesn't wrap up his True Confession by insulting Lucy, and they share a bitter laugh and then a kiss in the face of near-certain doom. There's a similar "hey we are communicating with each other" moment with the B-squad teachers, but it's played more for laughs. And Clint tells Wade the truth about his writing abilities and says he'll get out of the way if Lucy and he wind up together (via walkie-talkie, and with plenty of profane outbursts from Wade).

Clint goes through students' backpacks and finds a treasure trove of ADD medication. He scatters pills out so the kids will potentially overdose on them and get knocked out, or at least wind up giving the adults a little more of an edge. Wade, back in his section of the building, tells everyone to suit up with whatever they can find to improve their chances against the zombie kids. They quickly improvise a bunch of battle armor and weaponry out of random things in boxes, but when the walkie-talkie signal that it's go time gets sent, Patriot overhears it. Wade tries to psyche everyone up for the beatdown and they sneak through the hallways festooned with various things. The first zombie kid gets walloped by a fastball from Wade's shoulder-mounted pitching machine (that probably sounded funnier in the writers' room than it actually is on the screen). Everyone advances slowly through the dark school halls and goes outside for the big rumble (it's dozens of students on the playground versus six teachers and two currently uninfected kids; the janitor stayed inside to go into Beast Mode while nobody was watching and doesn't wind up in any of the sequences outside).

The fight outside is more of an action sequence than either a horror or comedy one (which doesn't really mesh well with either of the film's major tones so far), and at this point the sun's gone down so everything happening is much less distinct. Wade throws the keys to his cock-extension pickup truck to Clint and prepares to do a one-man reenactment of the Battle of Thermopylae. He gets swarmed pretty much instantly and everyone else gets away, though the truck turns out to be almost out of gas and Patriot's on top of it reaching down through the sunroof to attack Clint (who is driving). Patriot gets written out of the movie in an impressively vicious callback to his repellent personality from before he got his brain reamed out by the virus.

But it's a zombie movie, so everyone goes to the next town over from Fort Chicken and the streets are deserted save the occasional corpse of a grownup. The truck runs out of gas completely and everyone piles out to see what fresh hell they've stumbled into. The time-honored electronics store full of display TVs serves as a quick exposition bomb--the nugget that set things off at Fort Chicken Elementary was one of many tainted food products shipped out to various schools; Indiana, Illinois and Ohio are all listed as locations for the pandemic (and, if you even remember me mentioning the nightvision footage of the chicken factory, it comes up here again as the news stations report that tainted chicken nugget meat is the cause of the outbreak). A mob of infected kids find the survivors and chase them into a building that turns out to be a pizza-party restaurant. Apparently a birthday party went critical there, and the infected kids are all laughing and screaming as they see the adults down in the center of Playland. But Wade and Hitachi the janitor found the crossing guard and his van, drove to Danville to save everyone and smashed their way into the restaurant to accomplish that. Turns out that a Super Soaker full of kerosene is a great distraction, but a lit match in the pool of spilled fuel is even better. They drive off into an uncertain future, their path lit by the radiance of a burning child zombie.

Appropriately enough for a film where educational-grade meat paste brings on the zombie apocalypse, this movie is neither fish nor fowl--it's not horrific enough to succeed on the scary-movie half of the bill or funny enough to work as a full-on comedy (though there are moments of brilliance on both sides, to be fair). I do like that the film had the guts to go for the Seventies-style bummer ending, and special credit needs to be given to Leigh Whannell, the cowriter. His portrayal of the obviously batshit insane Doug is the kind of loopy genius the movie needed more often; there's way too much standard-issue zombie stuff and teacher-comedy stuff in the film and a little more crazypants would have served it well. Also, other than needing a way to get Wade and Mr. Hatachi into the story again at the end, there was no reason for the shroom-eating crossing guard to even be in the film. I remember reading that the ending was reshot and lots of changes were made after festival screenings, but I think they probably just ran out of time and money before the filmmakers could make something truly loopy and wonderful. If "good enough" is good enough for you some night, you could do much worse, but don't expect greatness from this one.

But look at that teaser poster. It looks exactly like the kind of hack writer horror paperback you'd get at a drugstore in 1981 or so, and everyone involved in the movie's production at least knew what they were shooting for (and since People Like Us are the only ones that would see a movie based on that poster, they tried a couple other directions for their ad campaign--probably wisely, but I still love the hell out of the skeleton-hand-with-lollipop picture). I think I can bump their final grade up to a B- for effort, with a little extra credit for making the writer character a hack instead of a genius. However, they get points taken off for not actually killing off any of its main characters (it's hard to raise the stakes when everyone gets out of every situation) and for not being nearly as transgressive as a horror movie about killing children should have been. Anyone that would go see this movie would be expecting a much higher body count, of both the protagonists and the horde of infected kids.

This is the third review for HubrisWeen 2015. Click the banner to see what other four reviews of movies starting with C are available for your bemused interest.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 2: The Babadook (2014)

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent

Essie Davis:  Amelia Vanek
Noah Wiseman:  Samuel Vanek
Barbara West:  Mrs. Roach

It's a good time to be a fan of monster movies. It Follows was wonderfully creepy, establishing a brand new horror to stalk the unwary (who, if they want to live, better become wary really fast) and revealing the pleasures of the genre. Monsters have rules. The enjoyable part of watching a monster movie, for me,  is seeing how the rules are revealed to the audience and to the characters. Enjoyable shivers ensue when the viewer knows something that a character doesn't, and the tension ratchets up when someone in the film has absolutely no idea how much danger they're in but the audience does.

And superior even to the ever-changing menace in It Follows is a jolly old fellow from Australia named Mister Babadook. I was lucky enough to see this one in the theater and I really feel bad for people who only get to catch it at home with all the myriad distractions of trying to watch a movie for two uninterrupted hours. But it's still a great flick, and promises to get under the viewer's skin for a good long while. Because--as I said earlier--monsters have rules, and while acting within the restrictions those rules impose they can cause a nearly incalculable amount of trauma and pain to innocent people. And just because there might a way for one protagonist to beat the monster, that doesn't mean anyone ever can.

Now, before I get into the meat of the review, I should point out that here at Checkpoint Telstar we go to the end credits and beyond when picking apart movies. This is a recent enough movie that my readers--both of them--might not have seen it yet, and finding out the ending could ruin their enjoyment of the film. It's a near-masterpiece of stress, tension and relentlessly increasing stakes, so you should know ahead of time that seeing the movie first might be your best option. TL; DR version:  HERE BE SPOILERS.

Second thing before I start the review (and give spoilerphobes one more chance to run away):  This is the debut feature from Jennifer Kent.(she directed a short film and one episode of an Australian anthology television series before making this). And whatever she directs next, I'm in line for it. I don't care if it's a movie about how I, personally, am a giant loser with a shitty movie review blog named for a dumb satellite, I'll see it. Well, if I don't see that hypothetical film it won't be out of thin skinned aversion to being insulted.  It'll be because nobody puts Telstar I in the corner. The use of space, lighting, camera work, editing and practical effects in this film are so assured and so spot-on that I would have thought this was someone's fifth or sixth movie, not their first and only one. I don't want to oversell the film (it isn't the single best thing in the history of things), but it's an amazingly confident work, and one that plays brilliantly with the audience. Put the disc in, shut your phone off, turn out the lights and enjoy clutching the arm of your seat (or your significant other) for a while.

The first images that the audience sees don't really make sense yet--we're dropped in to the middle of something happening; a woman in the final stages of pregnancy is doing her Lamaze breathing in a car when something goes horribly, horribly awry (this sequence recalls the inside-the-car chase scene in Let Me In, but with the camera pointed the other direction from the windshield). Pieces of broken automotive glass sparkle as gravity goes all wrong and the soundtrack floods with the noises metal things make when they shatter or fall apart--apparently the car's rolling or tumbling after whatever happened. The woman turns to look at the man driving and blinding white light floods the screen.

And all the while, faintly at first, a little boy calls out for his mom. The woman, Amelia, drops down out of the dream and into her bed in a shot that reveals Jennifer Kent liked Trainspotting. Amelia's son, Samuel, tells her he had "the dream" again. Even though Amelia is exhausted and just had one hell of a nightmare herself, she goes and checks everywhere in his bedroom (the closet, under the bed, etc.) to show Samuel that there aren't any monsters lurking in the house. Then it's time for Amelia to read an illustrated book about the big bad wolf and the three little pigs (notably, we see the drawing of the wolf, because Samuel is concerned about monsters). Samuel says he'll kill the monster when it inevitably shows up by caving its skull in. Kid's got issues. After at least one more reading of the storybook Samuel's ready to go to sleep, but he grinds his teeth and he's so clingy that his mother doesn't get any rest that night.

The next morning the alarm clock goes off but Amelia sleeps through it for a while Samuel is working on some kind of project in the basement workshop (one assumes that Amelia's husband was the home handyman). Where the alarm clock didn't work to rouse Amelia, the sound of breaking glass does--she's got Mom radar. Samuel has built a backpack-mounted catapult that fires croquet balls. Honestly, it's a pretty impressive rig, but Amelia would probably like it a lot better if 1) her son wasn't firing it in the house, and 2) especially not through any windows. Samuel's probably somewhere on the autism spectrum--it's not just monster-fighting weapons that he's obsessed with, but stage magic. And, to be fair, he's pretty decent with the conjuring. And he does dearly love his mother, who gets the bouquet of flowers that Samuel produces from thin air. Although it's probably far from the first time that he's done that for her. And he's also prone to hugging his mom chokingly tight, possibly out of separation anxiety.

Samuel gets dropped off at school while his mother works at a rest home as a caregiver (and also pushing the tea trolley around for anyone who's thirsty). She knows her charges by name and what they like in their afternoon tea, which shows that even though it's not the most high-powered career in the world she's dedicated to it. She's got a handsome young coworker, Robbie, who exchanges a little banter with her while she's preparing to go to the dementia ward for another day's labor. But she gets a call from Samuel's school while helping one of her charges, and has to go for an emergency parent-faculty meeting. Turns out Samuel made himself a crossbow that fires dartboard darts--the big, heavy brass ones with sharp points. The school administrators are understandably nonplussed about this. The school has already tried multiple methods of controlling Samuel and they're going to pull him out of class to be instructed one-on-one by a teacher they call a "monitor", but sounds more like "jailer" to me. And, probably, to Samuel (who feels like quite enough of a freakish outsider already, thank you, according to his mother). Amelia decides that finding a school that won't refer to her son as "the boy" rather than his name during a meeting would probably help things out.

On the drive home from school, Amelia tries to cheer her son up, saying they'll be seeing her sister and her sister's kid at the park and Samuel can use his favorite swing for as long as he likes; Samuel responds that his teacher hates him. Amelia says Samuel just needs a break from school (and not to mention to Auntie Claire what happened). And later, at a supermarket, we learn one gigantic piece of the puzzle for why Amelia and Samuel have the relationship they do--when a random woman mentions having to go meet her husband, Samuel tells her "My dad's in the cemetery" with a completely guileless expression. Then he adds that his father was killed driving his mother to the hospital to have him; the other woman doesn't know how to respond to that but Amelia tries to shut the discussion down as soon as she can. Her grief is a continually bleeding wound and she hates being reminded of it at random--and every time she looks at her son she gets reminded of her husband's death. It just gets worse when Samuel mentions it. And worst of all is when the well-meaning bystander says that Amelia must be lucky to have Samuel. As we've already seen, "lucky" probably isn't the word anybody in the viewing audience would use for having to look after Samuel without any help.

Then it's time to go to the park; Amelia's half-listening to her sister Claire talk about an embarrassing spectacle that an artist made at his gallery opening (she's in a completely different world, dressed stylishly while Amelia is wearing her nursing-home pink uniform). And Samuel's jumping off of playground equipment yelling about how he's going to smash "its" head, referring to monsters (not that Amelia's sister would know that). Amelia wants to know if she should pick up the two birthday cakes for Ruby (her niece) and Samuel's birthday party, and her sister lets her down sharply--Ruby doesn't want to have a dual birthday party with Amelia's son any more. Apparently celebrating her son's birthday on the actual day is too raw a wound for Amelia to even contemplate, hence the joint celebration with Ruby. Amelia tries to put a brave face on it, but she's really stung by it (even as we the audience realize how trying it must have been for Ruby to always share her birthday with her weird, loud cousin for several years). It's adding a little bit of insult to the injury for Claire to tell Amelia that Samuel's still invited to the party, but Ruby wants a princess party and it's her day, after all.

Samuel climbs up to the top of a swingset and stands there, scaring the snot out of Amelia and Claire (and there's a jump cut to Amelia driving home with Samuel screaming in the back seat while a low rumble starts on the soundtrack). Back at home, the next door neighbor, the aged Mrs. Roach, expresses sympathy that both Samuel and Amelia look worn out and tired. She's got some kind of neurological tremor so Amelia offers to put the rubbish out to be collected; even exhausted and stunned by a series of metaphorical body blows she's nice enough to help her neighbor. Amelia then makes a point of locking the basement door and serving dinner (and look at the physical distance between her and Samuel in this shot--it's a four-person kitchen table and they're as far away from each other as it is possible to get, showing that Amelia just wants to have some space to herself).

That night after the routine of the monster check and when it's time to go to bed, Sam pulls a book off the shelf that Amelia doesn't recognize. There's no author credited and there doesn't seem to be a publisher's trademark on the spine from what I could see, but it's a professionally made children's book called Mister Babadook. And it turns out to be a book with big pictures and simple rhymes about someone--or something--called the Babadook. The first rhyme sets up everything to come:

If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.

It's a pop-up book, which both Amelia and Samuel take in stride; the first illustration of the Babadook is a pitch-black moving shadow waving from behind a barely opened door and peeking out at the reader. The second rhyme says that there's going to be a rumbling sound and three sharp knocks, and then Mister Babadook is nearby. After he announces his presence he'll be visible. The illustration for this double-page spread is a nervous pajamas-wearing kid looking at a wardrobe where Mister Babadook appears to be manifesting. And damn, man, whoever made the creepy thick paper black-and-white illustrations for the book must have hated children, or at least figured out a way to monetize nightmares. Because anyone with a single-digit age who read this thing would sleep with the lights on until they were ready to collect Social Security.

Amelia realizes that wherever the book came from, it's unsuitable for "younger and more sensitive viewers", as the local PBS station used to say about Monty Python reruns. Samuel is quietly insistent that he gets to choose the storybook for that night, so his mother goes ahead and turns the page. The rhymes are about the Babadook--notable for his top hat and pitch-black clothing--coming into a child's bedroom at night and casting off his disguise to show his true form, which is a sanity-blasting evil that makes its beholder wish they were dead. Wow. And I thought the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series would screw up a kid's life. Samuel gets one look at the pictures--never mind the text--and wants to know if the Babadook lives under his bed. He spends the rest of the story time with his head in his mother's lap, screaming, while she reads a much gentler book to him over and over. Then it's time for another barely-adequate night's sleep.

Later, Amelia takes a look at that mysterious book that popped up out of nowhere and realizes that only the first third or so of it has anything on the pages--the final sixty percent of the pages are completely blank after the warning that if you see the Babadook without his disguise, you'll wish you were dead. She stashes the book in the top of her wardrobe and settles down to channel surf, eat chocolates and pet her dog before retiring to her bedroom where Samuel interrupts her attempt to gain some measure of satisfaction with a vibrator. She just can't catch a break (and if she's as messed up over the death of her husband as she looks, that toy is the only thing she's taken to bed for more than half a decade). After she puts Sam back to bed she stays up reading, and a slowly creeping POV camera makes its way towards her. The director makes this sequence extremely ominous, because the camera stops every time Amelia looks up from her book, and resumes moving toward her every time she returns to her reading. Whatever it is, she can't see it but it's there. (And if it's Mister Babadook, since we haven't heard a rumbling sound and three sharp knocks, it won't be visible to anyone at that point.) She goes back to sleep with the covers over her head and the night passes far too quickly for her to get any rest. She oversleeps and uses a nonexistent illness of Samuel's to explain why she's going to be late for work and then goes to another exciting day of reading bingo numbers to a room of nearly catatonic pensioners.

In the break room, Robbie stops by to ask how Amelia's doing, out of what certainly looks to be genuine concern. He lets her know that she doesn't have to keep up a brave front and that he'll cover for her if she skips out in the afternoon (after management has left for the day). You see, he thinks she's got a sick son at home and needs to take care of him. When he drops by with flowers for Amelia and a model kit for Samuel (because he always got one when he was sick), Sam is honest to a fault and says he wasn't sick. Robbie disappears from the narrative shortly after that, which knocks one other support away from Amelia right when she needs it the most.

Speaking of supports going away from Amelia, all she does with her free afternoon is go to the mall and have an ice cream--the most modest and simple pleasure imaginable, but a blessed few hours of alone time where she can finally decompress. Until she gets home and finds that her sister was trying to call her at work (where she was not to be found, and that's going to be tough to explain) because Samuel was talking either about the Babadook or to it, depending on how much Claire understood about what was going on and whether or not she's communicating to Amelia clearly. Ruby is utterly terrified and even Claire is upset about it. It's incredibly hard not to blame them, because if your sister's creepy kid spends hours talking to thin air it's going to give you a case of the raging fantods.

Claire says it's time for Samuel to see a therapist because he's demonstrating more and more divergent behaviors, although she phrases it as "talking rubbish" and Samuel--who was there all along--says that he wasn't telling lies; rather, the Babadook is real and he can perceive it. Amelia, furious, turns on Samuel and demands that he stop talking to his aunt like that. He responds by throwing down some kind of flash-bang firecracker at his mother's feet (which it turns out she had gotten for him on the internet as a gimmick to go along with his conjuring stuff). Amelia and her son have a tense conversation about the Babadook in the car--where Samuel says she can't see it yet because it wants to scare her before becoming visible--as she drives them home, which ends with her saying Samuel isn't having a birthday party with Ruby that week (turning her sister's banishment into a punishment from her). Sam winds up in the (locked) basement performing his magic act for an audience of stuffed animals, a picture of his parents taken in happier days (before he was born) and the family dog. The dog bolts when the firecrackers go off, which lets Amelia know that the door to the basement has been unlocked. It turns out that she doesn't want anyone going down in the basement because all her late husband's belongings are there. That's when Robbie shows up with a model plane kit and flowers, and then immediately writes Amelia off when he talks to her son for about fifteen seconds (and witnesses a shouting match between the two of them, both of whom have valid points about how difficult life is due to the other). Down in the basement, Amelia starts putting away the scattered possessions (music, records, the photo) before something can happen to them and starts when she sees her husband's hat and suit hanging from a peg. I've never hung clothes up like that before, and it's too high up for Samuel to get to; it wouldn't have surprised Amelia if she'd done it so something odd is going on. Something humanoid in shape but currently empty.

At dinner, there's pieces of broken glass in the singularly unappetizing soup that Amelia's made. Samuel says the Babadook put it in there. It's only in Amelia's bowl, and Sam did have some time when he was unobserved to do something like that, but I don't think he did. For one thing, Amelia would have served the food from the cooking pot. For another, as we just saw with the disastrous episode with Robbie, Samuel does not lie. If he's currently able to see the Babadook and his mother isn't, then he's experiencing that particular horror of childhood:  Telling the truth about something vitally important and being disbelieved out of hand. It gets worse when Amelia finds that photo of her and her husband defaced with marker on her bed--she confronts Samuel about it, furious, and he tries to get his croquet-ball catapult. Again, obviously, even for a weird kid acting out I don't think he'd vandalize something that was so important to his mother.

That night the weirdness dial gets turned up a bit more. The wardrobe in Samuel's room falls down to the floor (face down, which is a direction he probably couldn't push it); he's cowering under his bed and yelling "Don't let it in!" over and over when his mother finds him. And the book is in his room, even though he didn't know where Amelia hid it. Amelia decides stronger measures need to be taken and tears the book to pieces, then throws it in the trash.

The next morning is Ruby's birthday party and Samuel doesn't want to let go of his mother long enough to go out and play. The quintet of more successful women looking at her with varying levels of pity, exasperation, contempt and dismissal are salt on Amelia's wounds, and she winds up snapping at them about how little they understand about her life. Which is justified, but also winds up pushing still more people away from her. They still might have found some room for sympathy in their hearts if Samuel didn't wind up pushing Ruby out of a treehouse after she says some brutally cruel things during a kid argument (that gets cross-cut with Claire and Amelia having a row about how little Claire can stand being around Samuel). One more bridge burned. One fewer source of help when things get worse.

And they get worse immediately thereafter--in the car driving home from Claire's, Samuel is throwing a fit about how badly things went (and how Ruby wouldn't listen to him about the Babadook); when his mother says the Babadook doesn't exist he goes dead silent in an instant, then yells "Get out!" over and over, before screaming and collapsing in a seizure. The doctor that sees Samuel thinks the poor kid just had a high body temperature-driven convulsion. Amelia winds up breaking down in tears in the doctor's office and getting a prescription for child-level sedatives (though he manages to be just a little judgmental when writing out the scrip). And that night before taking his pill, Samuel asks his mother why people don't like him. Which is an awful, awful question for a seven-year-old to have to ask. Yes, it's pretty obvious that Samuel's not neurotypical, and being raised in the environment he's in didn't help matters at all, but everyone wants to belong and getting shut out from that before you're old enough to get to the Advanced Readers shelf at the library is like an acid bath for your soul.

Samuel takes his pill, because he is genuinely trying to be a good kid. He even says he won't talk about the Babadook again as long as his mother promises to protect him. Amelia stays by his side until the drugs kick in and he goes to sleep, and for the first time in weeks--at least--Amelia gets a full, restful night's sleep. She doesn't even get under the covers before she conks out and has a lazy half-smile when she wakes up. Then there's a knock at the door but nobody's there, followed by three loud knocks (and again, nobody at the front door when she opens it) and that copy of Mister Babadook is back on the doormat, taped together and with words and art on the formerly blank pages.

I'll make you a wager, I'll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get.

Well, that's fantastic news, isn't it? Especially considering that Amelia doesn't want to talk about the Babadook and won't let her son talk about it either. The new artwork doesn't have the child terrified of the Babadook, either. Now it's a blonde-haired woman lying above the covers of her bed looking at the monster as it bellows to her to let him in. And the text says that once the Babadook is inside, it can have all the jolly fun it wants with the woman he's possessed. The pop-up pictures of the woman killing her dog, her son, and herself (screaming for the first two deaths, grinning happily for the third) bothered me for weeks after I saw the movie; especially with the pitch-black Babadook standing behind her as her shadow in the book. So Amelia takes the book out to the barbecue grill, soaks it with petrol and sets it alight. Which is undoubtedly the right thing to do (no way does Samuel need to see those pictures) and the wrong one (because it's another step into denial). And the odd and distressing noises on the soundtrack end as soon as the flames take hold--also, Samuel turns out to see her doing it, which is bad news if he already knows about the way the Babadook gains power through denial.

One "I know you can't help me but I needed someone to talk to" phone call to her sister that goes nowhere ensues. Seconds after that call ends Amelia's phone rings and she hears a gravelly voice intone "Baaaaa baaaaa dook dook dook; understandably, she hangs up and goes to the police. The desk sergeant goes for the proper paperwork and tries to help (while an officer in the background scoffs when he hears that Amelia's afraid of a children's book until she mentions what was in it). Unfortunately the first thing the police want to do after hearing that is look at the book. There's no way for them to do a forensic analysis of the ashes in Amelia's Weber grill, though, so the official response goes from concern to "this crazy woman is saying impossible things). Amelia catches sight of a coat and hat hanging on a hook near one of the back offices in the police station, and there's no reason whatsoever for a top hat to be there. She nopes out and flees without continuing her report.

Mrs. Roach was looking after Samuel while Amelia went to the police; they had a talk about the Parkinson's Disease that gives the older woman her tremors (and Amelia, inches closer to the end of her rope, tries to get Samuel to not say everything he ever thinks--especially around other people). In keeping with her role as perceptive bystander in a horror film, Mrs. Roach tells Amelia that her son "sees things as they are", and that he got it from Oskar, Amelia's late husband. Just hearing her husband's name gets Amelia ready to snap and she drags her son back home. There she sees a bug infestation--some kind of roach-looking bugs swarming out of a hole in the wall by the dozens that lead to a frazzled Amelia cleaning her kitchen, just in time to look and feel her absolute worst when a pair of Community Services investigators show up to interview Samuel. Things start with Samuel saying "I'm a bit tired from the drugs Mum gave me" and go downhill from there. And that hole that the bugs were crawling out of is now patched up. The investigators make a brief moment of eye contact with each other, leave a card and say they'll be back in a week to talk over what's going to happen with Amelia and Samuel. Apparently they didn't take very long to reach a verdict.

That night, when Amelia's washing some dishes in a long-overdue effort to impose a little order on the household, she looks next door and sees Mrs. Roach watching TV but when she looks a second time there's a hulking figure in a bulky overcoat with a chalk-white face standing to the older woman's side. The third time she looks the figure's not there any more, which either is or is not really good news. If it wasn't there at all before, that's great. If it's still around but not in Amelia's line of sight, that's not nearly as good. Samuel wants to go to sleep (even though it's barely evening) and his mother tells him to keep awake so the tranquilizers will work properly. They settle in to watch the iconic Australian series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo while the night deepens. Samuel doesn't stay up long enough for Amelia to finish her storybook and Amelia finds that she's having an insomnia fit while trying to sleep. Then she hears scraping noises, like something heavy being dragged over the hardwood floors in the house, her bedroom door opens itself and it's exit Sandman for the foreseeable future. When she hears the Babadook speak its name again she hides under the covers like a child, but when she looks to see if it's gone a living shadow skitters over her ceiling and jumps down to enter her open mouth while she gapes in disbelieving terror. She thinks it was a nightmare but wants to go downstairs with every light in the house on just as a precaution. Samuel goes back to sleep under the influence of the sedatives but Amelia stays awake all night (and I discover that Australian late night television shows old George Melies shorts instead of infomercials--if it wasn't for every animal on the continent wanting to kill people it'd be tempting to move there). During the silent films from a century ago the Babadook makes his appearance more than once (he's superimposed into the existing film, but Melies had enough capering and glowering devils in the unaltered footage to look creepy and menacing on its own.

After a completely sleepless night, Amelia doesn't need to fake it too much to sound horribly sick when she calls in to work. She's just laid down to try and get some rest, if not sleep, when Samuel comes in saying that he's taken his trank dose but needs to eat some breakfast if he wants to avoid getting sick again. It's heartbreaking because he's so subdued here, and he is genuinely trying to be a good boy and take his pills. But he's also not quite seven years old and there isn't anything he can eat in the fridge. Amelia's response is one that ensures the viewer realizes that the Babdook is in her psyche, starting to corrupt her. She snaps at Samuel and then tries to go to sleep, but belatedly tries to apologize. Samuel's terrified of her at this point, but he's also true to his word and doesn't bring up the Babadook again.

Amelia decides to take her son to Wally's, which I take to be an Australian restaurant chain (Any Australian readers of the Checkpoint want to enlighten me on this one?) and for once Samuel is the best-behaved child in a given building. On the drive home, Amelia sees more roaches skittering around on her legs in the car, and then gets a glimpse of the Babadook flying in her rear-view mirror. She flips out, understandably, and winds up driving into a brand-new expensive sedan driven by an angry shaven-headed businessman who is startled when she flees the scene of the accident. When she returns home she just sits in the bathtub, fully clothed, and has a serene half-smile on her face while thinking about not much of anything at all. She pulls Samuel into the tub with her and assures her son that she's not going anywhere.

Which sets up the final act--Amelia has got the Babadook taking over and guiding her into giving free reign to her absolute worst impulses. Samuel understands at least some of the nature of the threat and sees his mother deteriorating, but he's only seven, barely knows how to communicate with anyone other than his next-door neighbor, his aunt (who doesn't want anything to do with him or Amelia) or his cousin (who wants him as far away as possible for the foreseeable future). And while Amelia knows what's right and what's wrong, she's also either having hallucinations or the edges of reality are starting to wear thin in the Babadook's presence. And there's yet another full suit of clothes hanging from a wall peg in her own bedroom, which means that she keeps seeing the figure of the supernatural menace that's taking root in her mind, coincidentally or not.

And when Samuel tries to call Mrs. Roach and see if he and his mother can sleep there overnight (and at least be out of the house), Amelia takes the phone away from him and puts on a terrifyingly transparent front of normality and tolerance before turning her full attention to Samuel and verbally putting him through the wringer. She also cuts the phone lines as a way to keep her son from calling anyone else and embarrassing her in front of them and starts waving a huge kitchen knife around while screaming at her son. Incidentally, these scenes were all filmed without Noah Wiseman on the set; all his reaction shots were done separately because Jennifer Kent didn't want to ruin a year of the young actor's life just to make a horror movie. All of the scenes where Amelia is threatening her son were blocked and shot so that Essie Davis was nowhere near her young co-star. I didn't know that when I saw the movie in the theater, but I did when I caught it this second time and I'm hugely impressed with how seamless the editing is for this sequence.

Amelia shuts all the windows and  locks every door to the house to prevent anything from getting in (she has mastered that parental trick of scaring the living shit out of her son while telling them she's doing exactly what he wants her to do). She also watches as Samuel takes his trank that night and checks his mouth to make sure he's swallowed it, but he's an amateur conjurer, and it never made it past his hand--which Amelia doesn't think to check. She watches more late night creepy cartoons on TV, with her shadow on the wall looking more than a little like the Babadook's silhouette. She also hallucinates Samuel, stabbed to death on the couch, and almost really hurts him when she jumps up in a panic still holding that massive kitchen knife.

Amelia has a brief moment of clarity and retreats to a chair, where her dog Bugsy snarls and barks at her and finally flees. She stays up still later watching a succession of television programs, finally seeing a news report of a mother who murdered her son and then committed suicide by cop. During the news shot of the dead woman's body being carted out of the apartment building on a gurney Amelia sees her own face looking out of a window and smiling at herself sitting on the couch. Then the lights go out. Somewhere around this time (I'm not sure what point it was that she actually fell asleep) Amelia has a dream where she goes into the basement and sees her late husband. They embrace, and the dream-husband says Amelia can be with him again if he brings her "the boy"--which is the same term the school administrator used way the hell back in the first act. It's all that the image repeats as it retreats into shadow. "You can bring me the boy.", over and over again. The voice becomes less and less human each time, and then the thing wearing Oskar's face says "I think it's going to rain," which leads Amelia to flee in panic and run up to the main floor, where the Babadook is waiting for her. She knows what that it meant to hear that, even if the audience doesn't quite yet. And as she flees from the Babadook, which starts to slither out of the fireplace chimney, I realize that I don't quite know when she woke up and came out of her dream. Amelia repeats to herself that the Babadook isn't real, which (as we all know from our reading) makes it stronger. It takes another shot at taking Amelia over just as she wakes up in front of the television. Her dog, Bugsy, yaps at her defensively while she's watching the Mario Bava film Black Sabbath on TV and the Babadook crosses enough wires inside her skull that she quiets the dog permanently.

Which, as the pop-up book she destroyed listed, is the first death of three that the Babadook wants to cause. Normally I'm not one to enjoy animal deaths in movies, and this one is not played for laughs in the least. It's the first step on the road to Amelia's damnation and she barely looks human after she commits that act. And the next thing she sees is Samuel running away from her upstairs. He locks himself in his bedroom and she winds up using her concerned-mommy voice to try and lure him out of the room before going into Terror Mode. The noise that comes out of her mouth when she makes it into the bedroom could not have come from anything human, and it's enough to make Samuel lose control of his bladder. He briefly outwits his mother and makes a run for it; his scratch-built weaponry isn't enough to stop his mother but it is enough to slow her down. Mrs. Roach knocks on the front door and offers a small scrap of moral support, but it's not remotely enough to overcome the influence of the Babadook.

Which would be horrible news for Samuel if he believed the thing inhabiting his mother's skin when it makes her say she feels terrible and wants to keep him safe. Thankfully he doesn't, stabs her in the leg with the kitchen knife and makes a run for the basement. Where he can't escape, but where he's arranged things so he can fight the Babadook on as even terms as possible. Of course, Samuel spent the entire first part of the movie saying that he's smash a monster's head in if it came into the house. He just ties his mother down like she's Gulliver, and tells her she won't leave her side. He reminds Amelia of their promise to protect each other but he makes the mistake of getting within arm's reach and winds up with his mother's hands wrapped around his throat in the darkness of the basement. It's a gentle touch from Samuel on his mother's cheek that gives her the strength of will to fight back and she expels the Babadook in a gout of horrible black goop that lies there on the floor.

But--remember what that storybook told her from the very start. You can't get rid of the Babadook.

Samuel winds up getting attacked by an unseen force and the real battle starts between Amelia and the Babadook. It decides to soften her up by appearing as Oskar again, repeating the mundane observations that were the last words he ever spoke to her. Then we get a look at what happened to Oskar and the audience suddenly realizes that Amelia has the inner strength of a demigod just to have lasted seven years after witnessing it. And that's just the opening gambit--the Babadook decides to show its real form to Amelia as a later move (and the minimal-budget way that the movie shows us what Amelia sees makes it an extraordinarily effective Lovecraftian revelation). There's only so far Amelia can be pushed before she snaps, but this time all her frustrated anger is pointed in the right direction, straight at the demon that's been trying to control her. It retreats to the basement, to the dark, to the underworld, leaving Samuel .

Which leads to the final revelation at the end--the Community Services people are there to have tea and wish Samuel a happy birthday; apparently there's a new school that he'll be going to, and things are looking good on that front. And when Samuel explains to the investigators exactly why his mother was so skittish about celebrating his birthday on the anniversary of his father's death the two actors manage to communicate a couple paragraphs worth of "no wonder Amelia was so oddball the last time we were over here" without even looking at each other. But it does look like Amelia and Samuel will be together for the foreseeable future. When they're outside together (Amelia's gardening, Sam's practicing with his crossbow and there's a beautifully sick joke in the pan up to them that I wouldn't dream of revealing here), they're happy in each other's company but they're also digging up worms from the garden and putting them in a bowl. Amelia takes the bugs downstairs into the cellar, with Sam sent outside (and trusted on his own!) until whatever is going on down there gets finished.

Because you can't get rid of the Babadook. But you can tame it, you can master it, and you have to feed it if you don't want it attacking you again.

I've read analyses of this movie that say it's all in Amelia's mind, that the Babadook is a hideously realized infection of her soul based on her grief. And there's some parts of the film that support this view more than others; the bugs in the kitchen go away without leaving bodies behind, for example, and Amelia mentions that she used to write "kids' stuff" while talking about her former career to the women at Ruby's birthday party (presumably she made the Mister Babadook book, then put it on the bookshelf and just waited for Samuel to stumble over it). But come on, it's a monster movie. And no matter what kind of hallucinations Amelia was having, they can't pick her up off the ground or drag a bowl full of mealworms into the darkness in the basement. This is a monster movie--and monsters have rules. Monsters can be beaten. The point of a story about monsters is that they are overcome. From Polyphemus on up to the Babadook himself, the stories are told in order to show people triumphing over adversity and beating massively stacked odds. If the movie ends with the protagonists in a good place, it's a monster movie. If it ends with the beast trumphant, it's a horror film. There is a difference. And with none of the human characters dying in this one (only poor Bugsy), it's a story about reconciliation and acceptance.

Not bad for a monster flick. I can't wait to see what Jennifer Kent does next.

This is my selection for Day Two of the third HubrisWeen blogathon. Click on the banner above to go to HubrisWeen central and check out the other four movies that four other bloggers are reviewing today, all of which will be literal B movies.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 1: Arachnia (2003)

Written and directed by Brett Piper

Rob Monkiewicz:  Sean Pachowski
Irene Joseph:  Chandra Weaver (yes, there's a character named Weaver in a giant spider movie)
David Bunce:  Professor Mugford
James Aspden:  Moses Cobb

It's HubrisWeen time again, which means I'm going to be publishing two dozen and change reviews in the month of October, from A to Z. It's hard to avoid zombies when you get to the end of that list--especially if you're using Halloween appropriate movies, but I'm a little surprised that it took me three years of this marathon to get to a spider movie for the first one out. Special thanks to Sean Frost of "Web of the Big Damn Spider" for loaning me his copy of this film, which I quite enjoyed.

If I'd known this one was written and directed by the auteur responsible for A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, I never would have watched it. Thankfully, it's a vast improvement in every conceivable way over that long-titled movie (having watched it at a B movie night with an old gaming group, my review of it was "Every word in the title other than 'A' was a goddamned lie"). But filmmaking is a craft, and it is possible to improve one's proficiency at a craft through practice, and Brett Piper certainly did that. This one's a perfectly serviceable monster movie with some genuinely well-thought out bits in the script, and charmingly retro monsters realized via cheap stop-motion rather than cheap CGI. That means a lot to a guy like me--it's nice when I can tell the people making the movie are fans of the genre rather than just people trying to cash in (contemplate the 1998 American Godzilla on the Tree of Woe for an example of paycheck-priotizing in genre filmmaking).

The film introduces its main cast admirably quickly:  Six people in a small airplane flying through a meteor shower. There's the comic-relief stoner Deke, ditzes Trina and Kelly, and then the characters who get last names:  laptop-toting grumpy authority figure Professor Mugford, sensible and intelligent (and black, somewhat of a novelty for horror flicks) Chandra Weaver and Sean Pachowski, the pilot of the cramped twin-engine aircraft. Chandra goes to the cockpit to ask the pilot to dodge the meteorites--and get away from the irritatingly dim Trina and Kelly--and provide a little exposition. The prof is going on a dig in a remote location in Arizona, so he needs a plane ride. Chandra is his personal assistant, Deke is a grad student going along on the dig and Trina and Kelly are sleeping with Mugford in exchange for grades good enough to get them a diploma.

In the cockpit (which means they could shoot two actors that day instead of five), Chandra and Sean chitchat about the fossil of a previously unknown dinosaur that Mugford's colleague has found and engage in a little bit of preliminary flirting. Also, Sean reveals that he knows what "theropod" means and I like that the eventual monsters that show up will be completely unrelated to the opening chitchat. If I ever write a killer bug screenplay, the opening scientific lecture will be about shark cartilage. Anyway, Chandra wants assurance that a meteorite isn't going to hit their plane. Sean assures her that it's an amazingly remote possibility. There's a disaster right after he says that, of course, but it isn't the cheap irony that viewers are almost certainly expecting. Instead of one of the engines immediately getting holed by a space rock, a close impact results in a shockwave (and possibly an EMP as well) that forces the plane down. And there's some nice CG work done mixed in with the model of the plane breaking apart. The filmmakers had a small budget but they spent it quite wisely; it's a better plane crash than the Atlas Shrugged films managed to provide, and undoubtedly for much less money.

Deke managed to sleep through the entire crash (possibly aided by Better Ignoring Imminent Disaster Through Chemistry). He wakes up first, sees Mugford and the ditzes out cold, smells spilled aviation fuel and bugs out through a window. He runs away and dives to the ground, expecting a fireball (which does not arrive, even though the viewer's primed to expect one from the way the shot's set up). He gets back up in order to panic-flail his way behind a tree, still not doing anything to help the other survivors. Chandra and Pachowski wake up next, take command of the situation and get everyone out of the crashed plane before it bursts into flames (but doesn't explode, possibly for budgetary reasons). Trina and Kelly assume that the stoner's still in the burning plane and he realizes that everyone's going to think he's a panicky asshole once they find him. He fakes an injured ankle from being "thrown from the wreckage" and takes the opportunity to grope Kelly and Trina while they support him while walking away. Looks like we have our Odious Comic Relief for the film. Hooray?

Mugford ups his Jerk Rating to about seven or so when he criticizes Pachowski for crashing after the shockwave knocked the plane out of the sky ("It was my first meteor, all right? Give me a break."). They're fifty miles or so from civilization with no supplies, so it's time to get moving towards civilization and hopefully find something on the way to take care of food and water. Mugford blows his stack at Kelly and Trina's constant complaining right before a red-tinted POV camera stalks the group. Before either the professor's anger or the POV creature can be further developed, the group finds an abandoned cabin equipped with a wood-burning stove and a pump in the kitchen, so at least they won't be freezing or dying of thirst. The discovery of some fine aged moonshine in a two-gallon jug means there's something other than water to drink as well. There's also a zinc bathtub, which means that one of the obligatory bimbos wants to take a bath; congratulations, filmmakers! You've figured out how to provide gratuitous nudity before the eighteen minute mark (although Pachowski makes sure none of the male characters are going to leer at the women; he's got good intentions but when the door panel falls down everyone in the cast gets a good luck at the brunette in the tub). And I have to say I'm not as conversant with Sleaze History as I should be for all the B movies I watch, but I'm guessing the girl-on-girl shoulder rubbing and splash fight while Trina takes a bath marks it as relatively recent prurient content rather than something from the 70s, or even the 80s.

Meanwhile, the POV creature returns to menace some cattle penned up near the cabin (and the red-tinted POV sequences show a giant spider's face, which means there's either more than one of them running around or the director didn't realize that the MonsterCam shots shouldn't be able to show the monster). Deke decides he can't take listening to the pair of nubile women splashing and giggling in the next room any more and stomps outside, leaving the three grownups to get on each others' nerves in the living room. He's not looking for arrowheads; he's peeking in on the woman in the tub. The movie kinda wants to have its cake and eat it too in this scene, showing an asshole character grooving on the nudity while still showing plenty of it for the discerning monster flick viewer who knows what he wants. His reverie is interrupted by a cranky old farmer putting a shotgun to the back of his head, but it's way too early to even think about offing the Odious Comic Relief.

The cranky old farmer is Moses Cobb, and he's not thrilled to find half a dozen squatters in his rundown cabin ("Who'd live in a shithole like this? But I own it just the same.") and threatens to shoot Sean twice in the first minute he shows up. Judging from the way he resorts to "I have a gun so I make the rules" so frequently, I'm guessing his cattle are grazing on Federal land but he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in grazing fees. Cobb and the viewer get a long, leering look at the bathing bimbo (complete with sleazy sax music on the score) when he looks into the other room and his stance on trespassers changes considerably.

The film's Expository Casualty shows up next; an unnamed dude in a pickup truck has one line of dialogue ("I hate spiders!") before a massive stop-motion arachnid climbs over his ride, and I'm presuming he's out of the movie now. It warms my heart to see the use of stop-motion effects rather than cheap CGI at this point. It's not any more convincing than a CGI Big Damn Spider would be, but it means the director's heart is in the right place. Lots of old creature features used stop-motion to realize their otherworldly creatures, and by using that outmoded technique for this film Brett Piper is claiming kinship with the people who brought King Kong, Gwangi, and the ED-209 to life. That's a good crowd to be in.

Back at the cabin, Moses is considerably less of an asshole with some of that moonshine in his system (he thinks it's decades old; either his father or grandfather originally brewed it). He says he's seen the meteor storm that downed their plane and considers them all incredibly lucky to be alive and unharmed after the crash. When he finds out that Mugford was going to an archaeological dig he tells the group that he's got a really cool thing for experts in weird creatures to gawk at (resorting to the gun again when Mugford tries to blow him off). In a barn, Cobb's got some bales of hay and a banner touting "The Amazing Hell Spider", as well as a tarp covering a big lumpy shape in the middle of the floor. Once he collects the rather reasonable viewing fee of ten cents per (male) gawker, he reveals the body of a Big Damn Spider and explains that his grandfather used to take it to county fairs and charge rubes a dime to stare at it. Cobb says he never found out what exactly the beast was, and hopes that Mugford knows something about it since he's a college type. Mugford declares that it's nothing more than an arachnoid Feejee Mermaid after only a glance at the thing.

Cobb, more than a little miffed at Mugford's dickishness, returns to his story and says that the Hell Spider was too dangerous to exhibit, especially because it almost escaped from its cage a few times. And the prof isn't completely wrong--he notes peeling paint on the "spider" and Cobb admits to some cosmetic alterations to the creature's body after it died. The farmer had the modest dream of getting a museum to pay him for the specimen, but Mugford points out several reasons why a Big Damn Spider the size of a giant tortoise wouldn't be able to live--and he's right. Any arachnid that size wouldn't be able to move under its own power or breathe; the square-cube law means that prehistoric giant dragonflies are about as big as That Sort of Thing is ever likely to get. I'm heartily grateful for that, since I don't like spiders.

The talks break down between Cobb and Mugford completely, but the farmer does promise to drive everyone into town the next morning. As a last bit of understandable pettiness, Cobb tells the professor that he's sleeping in the barn with the "fake" Hell Spider. Deke turns out to snore like a chainsaw, irritating the hell out of Sean; in another bedroom, Chandra can't sleep because of the Bimbo Giggle-Fest(tm) going on in the neighboring room. The application of the Pissed-Off Mom Voice quells the idiocy for about twenty seconds, but we do get the obligatory "underwear pillow fight" scene followed by some saxophone heavy but otherwise non-explicit sex between the bimbos interrupted by a gigantic spider crawling down the wall; it turns out there's more than one Hell Spider in the region, though Cobb thinks it's his state fair prop returned to life.

Back indoors, it turns out that Sean didn't catch sight of the monster, and tries to tell everyone that nothing unusual is happening (Chandra:  "There's nothing out there and you saw it?"); inside the barn, Mugford takes a closer look at the Hell Spider after Cobb shoots in and realizes that if it's a fake, it's one with a complete set of internal organs. In the morning, Farmer Cobb treats himself to biscuits and whiskey, the breakfast of alcoholic champions. He asks Sean if the pilot can use a gun, and drops a little exposition about his grandfather finding the old Hell Spider a century past after an earthquake. After the meteor storm, another one showed up. It's the crazy old gun-toting drunkard's theory that anything that shakes up the underground spider lair gets them all riled up and drives them to the surface. Sounds legit. Cobb plans to check out the meteor crash site and see if there really are gigantic spiders from beneath the Earth's surface, using Sean as backup and Chandra volunteers herself as additional backup over Cobb's jackassed protestations. The farmer drives off before Chandra can hop in his standard issue battered pickup truck, because he is a dick.

At a pretty cool sloping sandy crater in the middle of the forest, Cobb and Sean make their way into a cave tunnel looking for spider monsters; Sean points out that the cave looks like it was dug the day before, which is either proof of giant spider beasts or a knock on the film's budget. During the thirty seconds it takes Sean to get a flashlight from the truck, Cobb vanishes (which is only to be expected). He staggers out of the darkness, wounded in a budget-conscious way, and gets killed by a stop-motion Big Damn Spider while Sean finds out that the beast is immune to shotgun rounds. He drives back to Cobb's house and calls a general meeting to tell everyone that there are spider-beasts around and they need to leave (but doesn't tell anyone what's actually going on so there's plenty of idiotic banter before the seriousness of the emergency can be explained.

Oh, and Mugford's in the barn doing a rough examination of the Hell Spider, because he's a scientist and can believe what's in front of his eyes when he sees it. He sends Deke to get the pickup truck so they can haul the dead spider away to a lab or museum; Deke, being the comic relief stoner, locks himself in the car so Sean can't haul him out for the escape. There's a nice "see that Sean is freaking out about something else that Deke isn't looking at" shot before the stop-motion Big Damn Spider lands on the truck's roof. The film earns my gratitude by killing the Odious Comic Relief off in the most painful and horrifying manner it could afford. Thanks, movie!

Sean and the other survivors (minus the professor, who is still in the barn) run back inside Cobb's house and Sean locks the front door in a charmingly optimistic view of how safe it's going to be in there. Turns out spider beast creatures don't like being stabbed in the eye, so Chandra saves the bimbos' lives when one tries to bust in through a window. And Chandra even sympathizes with Deke, because getting ripped to pieces by giant spiders is a horrible, horrible way to check out (no matter how much the audience might have been rooting for it). The truck's been wrecked (a pair of quarter-ton arachnids beating it up will do that) and Mugford returns to the farmhouse to be a useless panicky academic, his assigned role by the Council of Monster Flicks.

Once he's back in the farmhouse, Mugford points out that the spiders might need living beings to serve as hosts for big bundles of spider eggs (with a paralyzed human providing a tasty and nutritious snack for the little hatchlings when they wake up). I don't know about any spider species that do that (though there is a wasp that lays eggs in tarantulas), but my degree's in film studies. And if the spiders yanked Farmer Cobb off into the darkness without killing him, they might well have him webbed up in a corner as a convenient meal for the future next generation of spider spawn.

Sean wants to bury all the parts of Deke he can find as a way to show decency to the horrible little shit; Mugford refuses to go outside and cover him with the shotgun but Chandra signs up (and also points out that the gun is empty, which Sean didn't even notice). I like that the Ash in this film is a black woman; ordinarily woman or nonwhites don't get to be the hero. Back in the barn, Sean discovers a shovel, the federally required survival horror  emergency chainsaw and a crate of dynamite (apparently Cobb was a resourceful old coot). The pilot digs a hole and drops the Glad-bagged remains of the movie's Jar Jar in there but doesn't fill in the hole; then he and Chandra return to the house just in time for one of the bimbos to whack Sean in the head with a frying pan when he walks through an interior door (their conception of an effective defense strategy is a little bit terrible).

Everyone assembled, Sean starts trying to plan a way to live through the giant spider invasion. It's sixty miles to the nearest town and the truck is damaged beyond usability. And they're cut off, because Cobb doesn't have a phone (cue every cast member but Sean hauling out their cell phones, which makes this film extremely forward-looking, plus it startled a genuine bark of laughter out of me). One Bob Newhart phone call to 911 later, the emergency dispatch service hangs up on Sean because he's raving about giant spiders and meteor strikes. Chandra tries something a bit less doomed to fail and calls her dad, who she refers to as "Colonel Weaver". She affects a panicky voice when she gets in touch with him and says that Mugford tried to assault her after the plane crash and hangs up, claiming a low battery, after giving her approximate location. Turns out her father is in the Air Force and will move heaven and earth to rescue his daughter, but he won't believe her reports of spider monsters. Now it's time to fortify the house and try to avoid dying.

Mugford figures out that the spiders are social animals (unlike most species in the real world, I think, but spiders creep me out so I couldn't tell you for sure). That means that the two spiders that killed Deke (hooray!) will be able to tell the rest of the spider colony that there are some free-range incubators in the farmhouse waiting to get ensnared and dragged back to the nest. That's definitely something to be worried about, but Sean doesn't want a drag on the morale from a drunken pessimist and threatens a hellacious beating if he won't stop screwing with everyone. The goofy piano tinkling score during that scene distracted me pretty badly; I'm betting it was royalty-free library music that was the best bad option. The survivors devote their time and energy to boarding up the farmhouse after Mugford says the spiders are probably going to hibernate since it's cold out (better safe than sorry, and better productive than sitting around worrying). Sean gets stuck digging a trench out front that they're planning to fill with gasoline and use the Leiningen Technique if the spiders come back (they might be bulletproof but hopefully they're still flammable). There's also enough empty glass bottles around that Molotov cocktails are on the evening's menu.

Sean and Chandra wind up on top of the farmhouse's roof at night, watching for giant spiders and drinking coffee. Sean's actually got a really good plan for standing off the monsters--constant vigilance and then three stages of defense involving the shotgun, fire trench, and gasoline bombs if they show up. The rescue flights are certainly on their way, so as far as Chandra and Sean can figure, they just have to live through the night and wait for superior firepower in the morning. Sean also sends Chandra down to the house because he trusts her to behave sensibly and not set the entire place on goddamned fire if things get bad. For all the broad acting and stereotypical secondary characters, the two leads have a nice and relaxed chemistry together and it's nice to watch them in the quieter moments. Usually I'm just counting down the minutes until the next beast attack but not in this film.

Mugford is drunk as a lord and mumbling about how little use the guns are going to do against spider monsters (and hey, he's not wrong) while Chandra believes that keeping people occupied and giving them a false sense of security is more productive than freaking them out and having them be useless in a crisis. Speaking of relative competence, Sean tosses a stick of dynamite at a strange noise in the night, and that turns out to just be the farm's windmill (which is now on fire). He sheepishly tells Chandra that it's a false alarm. The talks break down (Chandra is considerably unamused by this "throwing lit dynamite all over the damn place" plan of Sean's). Time passes and the music gets ominous. Sean can apparently hear this, because he starts looking around for the spiders but doesn't see any of them. Screams, shots and the fire trench getting lit show him that he is the worst sentry of ever. One of the monsters makes it to the roof of the farmhouse and then it's CHAINSAW TIME!; as Anton Chekhov said about drama, if you have a chainsaw on the wall in the first act, you have to attack a giant spider with it in the third.

Again, I have to praise the use of stop-motion for the spiders; the scene where Sean fights one on the roof appears to have a few quick insert shots of a puppet, but for the most part it's the sofa-change budget equivalent of the Jason and the Argonauts skeleton fight. I'm extremely well-disposed towards the movie just for trying, but they carry it off remarkably well. The spider knocks the chainsaw out of Pachowski's hands but decides to snack on a lit stick of dynamite that Sean uses as his Plan B; exit one monster. But there's at least four more on the ground closing in, so someone's going to have to think of something. Some not-particularly-well-matted-in flames from the Molotov cocktails corral the beasts towards a certain point (sorta like using the caltrops in City of Villains to herd enemies where you wanted them) and Sean blows a couple more up. But he's got the problem any movie character has when there's finite ammo--thirty bullets are only good news if there aren't thirty-one zombies coming after you.

The survivors manage to take out about a dozen spiders through various methods, and the remaining monsters scuttle off to fight another day. They aren't suicidally dumb, which is pretty good news. The bad news is one of them knows enough to burrow under the floorboards and snag one of the bimbos (it grabs Kelly, the brunette one, who had the nude scene earlier. That's because in movies like this the woman who shows the most skin is the one who gets attacked first--which all of my readers undoubtedly already knew). When everyone regroups outside of the house Trina delivers the news that Kelly has been spider-napped. Trina accuses Mugford of throwing Kelly at the spider to save himself (which doesn't look like it happened from the footage, but maybe it did--and Mugford sounds disingenuous and cowardly when ordering breakfast). Sean declares that the next step is saving Kelly from the spider colony. Brave and noble, but...well, I'm not sure I would be up for it, myself.

Sean, Trina and Chandra set off for the cave and Mugford stays up top to signal the air force if and when they show up ("Can I trust you not to run out on us?" "Where would I run to?"). The trio goes into the cave and Trina winds up with two sticks of dynamite and a lighter in lieu of a gun. While those three are going farther into the cave, Mugford is up topside waving his arms and yelling to attract the attention of an incredibly dire effect of a search plane. He sneaks off into the woods to leave the others to their own devices and, as a direct consequence of his cowardice and general assholery, has a freakout, falls down the sandy pit (with the actor appearing to do his own stunts here, and good on him for going the extra mile) and is immediately SPIDERED, because THAT IS WHAT YOU GET.

Back in the cave, Chandra sees an empty molted skin from one of the spiders and wastes a shell on it (humorously enough, Trina is the one who identifies it because she paid attention during at least some of Mugford's lectures). It's also a lot of fun to watch the actors clump right up together on the tiny set and walk through the same ten or fifteen feet of cave multiple times; you can change the camera setup all you want, but you're not fooling anyone. You only have ten or fifteen feet of cave. It couldn't be any more faithful a recreation of a 1950s creature feature without being filmed in Bronson Canyon.

Deeper into the cave, the trio finds a rock formation full of spider beast eggs; as they watch, a gigantic maggot or grub hatches out of one of them. When it tries to snuggle up to Chandra's boot she understandably freaks out and beats it to death with the butt of her gun; everyone flees the chamber as Sean tosses a stick of dynamite at the egg pit and wipes out the next generation of spider creatures. Immediately after everyone says they're all right, the floor beneath them caves in and they fall dozens or possibly hundreds of feet down a dirt slope. The gigantic cavern they stumble into after they plummet looks like it should have a Godzilla skeleton and two MUTO spores in it; instead, there's a puppet of the spider-monster brood queen and several spiders attending to it. Off in a corner, Kelly and Farmer Cobb are webbed up and waiting for something terrible to happen to them.

Sean and Chandra creep over to free them from the web coccoon (that looks more than a little like Halloween decoration webbing or pillow stuffing). Cobb wakes up just long enough to die from a three-spider-hatchling chest burst (...but didn't the other chamber have eggs and grubs hatching? Oh, hell, I don't know enough about real spider life cycles to say what they're getting wrong in this movie.) Chandra fires a random shot that wakes up the various inert Big Damn Spiders in the cave and prompts them to attack. Trina blows up two of them and Sean finds out that their underbellies are vulnerable to chainsaw attack (covering him in spider goop) and everyone runs out of the chamber without having to climb 200 feet back up the slope they fell down. Sean buys time for the three women to leave by chainsawing an attacking spider in the mouth before running like hell from the trio of spiders that follow after him. He's just barely outside into the cave pit when stock footage of helicopters launch a military attack and a dozen or so soldiers show up to blow the rest of the CG budget and kill the dozen or so spiders that crawled out of the cave.

Colonel Weaver turns out to be a middle-aged white dude (Chandra: "I'm adopted!"); I wonder if the original actor wasn't available or if Brett Piper was always planning to have this happen. Either way, it's neat and at least somewhat inclusive to have multiracial families in the film. Soldiers in hazmat suits that make their arms look tiny and stumpy charge into the cave and the same "exploding spider" effects shot is used about half a dozen times in a row as they make their way down to the queen's chamber and set demolition charges. Things wrap up incredibly fast (with the stock footage of helicopters used rather well in the montage of Stuff Going Boom) and Colonel Weaver says the monsters are all defeated, and if they aren't they'll just shoot and grenade them to death. Everyone still alive walks off to the waiting matted-in helicopter and the obligatory scuttling baby spiders burst out of the ground, unseen, for an actual THE END ? title on the screen.

Much like Grabbers, this is one of those movies made by people who know and love the old creature features; it's not reaching for the stars but it does everything that the filmmakers set out to do. A dash of nudity, some slimy monsters, a couple of jerks to get eaten and a military rescue in the eleventh hour. What's not to dig? And hey, of the three female characters in the film they all make it to the end credits while killing the dudebro stoner. Thanks, Brett Piper!

Unfortunately the DVD I was using for this review had artifacts and display glitches through its entire running time; I just consoled myself by thinking that I borrowed the disc from a friend so I didn't have to pay for it, and that the squares of digital noise were the equivalent of watching an old beat-up TV print of the movie on Svengoolie or something. That's really the way this kind of movie should be experienced if you don't have a cooperative drive-in close by.

This is the first review (of 26) for this year's HubrisWeen blog marathon. Four other reviewers are joining the fun, for a given value of "fun", and by clicking the banner right above this message you can go check out their stuff this year as well. See you at the end of the alphabet.