Mini Monster Movie Review + Sketch: “The Vast of Night” (2019)

I didn’t know anything about this indie film when I sat down to watch it on Amazon Prime; someone recommended it to me on Twitter when I asked about monster movies I might have missed. It turns out, there aren’t really any monsters in this movie, at least not like you’d expect, but it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. When it was over, we just let the tv be… silent. Nothing we could put on next would have topped the feeling created by the end of The Vast of Night anyway.

Today’s sketch: switchboard operator headset

It’s set in the 1950s, in Cayuga, New Mexico, which isn’t a real town but is a nod to Rod Serling, who spent a lot of his life here on Cayuga Lake (where I live, too). There are a few more overt gestures to establish this as an original-series Twilight Zone episode, but I think they actually detract from the movie. If you go in thinking it’s 90 minutes of old-school TZ, you’ll be expecting something less subtle, more neatly wrapped up. The Vast of NIght is more serious than that. Maybe it’s the effect I’d have gotten if I had seen TZ as it originally aired, unsullied by decades of all the knock-offs and commentary that enveloped Serling’s show over the years. Maybe, if I saw a TZ episode in the 1959, late at night, in the dark, in a world where I didn’t have the internet or cable tv or even regular access to a vast library of science fiction.

But The Vast of NIght manages to take a small town, a tiny cast, and tiny budget, and turn them into something deeply affecting. Mysterious things happen in small towns, in the middle of nowhere, at night, when everybody’s off at a party or a sporting event… sometimes you get questions that’ll never be answered. Do yourself a favor: don’t try to solve this one before you watch it.

Mini Monster Movie Review + Sketches: “Goosebumps” (2015) vs “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” (2018)

FX played both movies last night, so I watched them both and sketched my favorite creatures from both. I’m reviewing them together because I’d seen the first Goosebumps before but not the sequel, which means only Haunted Halloween is new to me. And looking at the movies together, it’s easy to see a distinct difference between them…

I’m a sucker for gnomes

Both movies have similar budgets/number of monsters (lots), and design; in that way, they’re pretty similar. If you only have time to watch one, you’re left to choose entirely based on the plot. In each one, author R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black) has to face his own demons when the monsters he created in his novels come to life. Each movie has individual kid vs monster fight scenes, each has parents/adults who don’t believe something is wrong in their little town until it’s too late, and each has awkward teens standing up to the monsters to help Stine save the day. It’s how the characters interact that makes the first Goosebumps the superior movie.

In Goosebumps, Stine is present from the very beginning, as the reclusive neighbor raising his teenage daughter in a small town, when a new boy moves in next door. In Haunted Halloween he only shows up at the very end to quip a few one-liners after the kids already solved their own problems. You might think that’s growth; probably, it was meant to be a “passing the torch” sort of thing, but Jack Black is such a presence that putting him in for just a few minutes means you miss him the rest of the movie, especially if you’re watching Haunted Halloween right after Goosebumps ends. But it’s more than that. In HH, the kids are siblings and though they end up sort of working as a team by the end, mostly the older sister treats her younger brother the same way their mom treats them both: she’s dismissive of the supernatural problem until she’s forced to believe in it, then takes over and orders everyone around for the next 90 minutes.

In G1, the kids are a team from the very beginning. New kid meets Stine’s daughter right away, and she’s the one who takes him out of his comfort zone to see the town he’s just moved to. He makes a new friend at school right away too, and the three of them work together to fight the first major monster. The moms in both movies are single moms, but in G1 she’s a widow trying to move on while taking a job as the school’s vice principal, supportive and loving her son even when she doesn’t know why weird things are happening around her… vs HH, where the mom is an overworked caregiver at a nursing home, expecting her teenage daughter to take on a lot of parenting, and blithely dismissing pretty much everything her kids try to tell her. In G1, Mom sees her son for who he is – a good kid who’s grieving the loss of his father but has a good heart – whereas in HH, Mom sees her kids as problems she has to deal with. Sure, she loves them – she even compliments her daughter once, right before telling her to watch the younger kids for the weekend – but it’s clear from the dialog that HH’s Mom just wishes they’d stop requiring so much of her time and attention.

Haunted Halloween isn’t the worst movie I’ll see this month. It just isn’t much fun to watch. Spend those two hours watching the first Goosebumps instead.

Probably the best moment from Haunted Halloween

Mini Monster Movie Review + Sketch: “Love and Monsters” (2020)

I’ve been doing this thing lately where I watch a movie and do a little sketch of something that stood out to me from the movie. Since it’s October, I thought I’d share some of the monster-related ones I’ve seen (and drawn) lately. First up is last year’s adorable post apocalyptic adventure, Love and Monsters.

Boulder Snail, from Love and Monsters (2020)

Seriously, this movie is adorable. If you’re looking for a Halloween/monster movie that’s cute and fun with gorgeously rendered monsters, this is the one. There’s a small amount of violence, with non-gory deaths at the very beginning and very end, but mostly it’s the story of a guy (played by Dylan O’Brien) who really needed to get out of his shell, then found some friends to help him do that. The creature effects are wonderful — you know they’re not real because they’re wildly mutated animals that don’t exist in our world, but they look real. They fit the world they’re in. Our hero is a little insecure, but he’s open to learning new things. His friends are a little sarcastic (the movie has Micheal Rooker in it, y’all) but kind. You can care about the people in this movie because deep down, they’re all decent. With the exception of some obvious villains toward the end, they’re all trying to do their best. It’s the story about folks coming together at the end of the world. Don’t we need more of those stories?

I missed Love and Monsters when it came out but rediscovered it this week, and I’ve already watched it twice. I’ll probably watch it again before the month is over. It’s the kind of movie that feels much quicker than 1hr 48 minutes because the plot is straight-forward, there are quiet moments to breath between each of the monster encounters, and the hero is focused on a single goal. You could put it on in the background while you do other things, but I’d suggest that you turn everything else off and just enjoy this movie for a few hours. Life’s hard enough. You deserve some fun.

  • Spoilers/Warnings: The dog does not die. In fact, no one you really care about dies. You can watch this movie confident that you won’t be too scared or too sad when it’s over.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer Wednesday: Stark Holborn

Stark Holborn is the author of Nunslinger – the first ever digital serial published by Hodder & Stoughton – as well as the Triggernometry series and new space opera, Ten Low. As well as writing about westerns for Pornokitsch and Screen Queens, Stark works as a games writer and is currently a lead writer on the SF-noir detective game Shadows of Doubt.

Stark Holborn. Photo courtesy of the author.

I was lucky enough to have Holborn stop by the site today for a chat about Ten Low, that new space opera (I love space operas!) recently published by Titan Books.

First, the blurb…

Ten Low (her name is her sentence) is an ex-army medic, one of many convicts eking out a living at the universe’s edge. She’s desperate to escape her memories of the interstellar war, and the crimes she committed. Trouble, however, seems to follow wherever she goes. One night, attempting to atone for her sins, she pulls a teenage girl – the sole survivor – from the wreck of a spaceship. But Gabriella Ortiz is no ordinary girl. The result of a military genetics programme, she is a decorated Army General from the opposing side of the war to Ten. Worse, Ten realises the crash was an assassination attempt, and that someone wants Ortiz dead…

Although at odds in every way, the pair strike an uneasy deal to smuggle the General offworld. Their road won’t be easy: they must cross the moon’s lawless wastes, facing military hit squads, bandits and the one-eyed leader of an all-female road gang, in a frantic race to get the General to safety. But something else waits in the darkness at the universe’s edge. Something that threatens to reveal Ten’s worst nightmare: the truth of who she really is and what she is running from.

Cover art by Julia Lloyd at Titan.

And now, the questions…

I love to know about the places in a story, the ways that setting isn’t just a location but a character in its own right, influencing the rest of the story. Tell me about the world of Ten Low?

Ten Low is in many ways a space-western, and so includes a mash-up of high and low tech. The book is set on the desert moon of Factus at the very edge of a star system. Factus is a wind-swept, hardscrabble place neglected by the system’s authorities, and so the objects, foods and vehicles had to reflect that. For example, it made sense that people would try to grow things that thrive in arid climates – like agave – and so forms of mescal are popular. Wildlife, too: instead of cattle, people farm snakes and use vultures and buzzards as work animals. Insects are prized as both entertainment and food; in a place where there’s little amusement, a beetle fight can be an exciting thing.

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Writer Wednesday: A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise is one of my first writer buddies here on the East Coast, and I’m delighted to have her here to talk for a quick chat about her debut novel, Wendy, Darling! Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, and several Year’s Best anthologies, among other places. Her work has won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, as well as twice more being a finalist for the Sunburst Award, twice being a finalist for the Nebula Award, and being a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella published with Broken Eye Books. Her debut novel, Wendy, Darling, was published by Titan Books in June 2021, and a new collection, The Ghost Sequences, will be published by Undertow Books in Fall 2021.

A.C. Wise, holding a book
A.C. Wise, photo courtesy of the author

First, the blurb…

Wendy, Darling is a feminist take on Peter Pan, following a grown-up Wendy Darling as she returns to Neverland after Peter kidnaps her daughter, forcing her to confront her past, the traumas she endured, the broken relationships, and the hidden darkness at the heart of her childhood paradise.

cover for "Wendy, Darling" novel
Wendy, Darling, by A.C. Wise. Cover design by Julia Lloyd.

So, A.C., tell me a little more about your world…

The novel moves between London in the early 1900s and Neverland. For the most part, I tried to stick relatively close to actual London, whereas with Neverland, I took a fair number of liberties. At the same time, I tried to capture the spirit of Neverland. There are elements that fans of the original Peter Pan, and subsequent adaptations, may recognize and hopefully appreciate, but I also took it as a setting I could shape to suit the whims of my story. Time, geography, and physical features are tricksy and subject to shifting around. Sometimes the sun doesn’t set for days. Sometimes mountains and streams pop up where there were none before. It’s a world designed to be one particular boy’s ideal, and tends to shape itself to his will, whatever that may be at the moment. If Peter wants the perfect tree for climbing, it will appear. If he wants a band of inexperienced children to be able to regularly go up against a pirate ship full of seasoned, grown men, and never lose a fight, then so be it! If he says a thing is so, whether or not it comports at all with our understanding of reality, that’s the way it is and there’s no arguing it.

Continue reading “Writer Wednesday: A.C. Wise”