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Winter 2024 – Week 4 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I’ve got a distinct pep in my step, as my D&D party convened for our first adventure since goddamn November, and exciting adventures were had in my fantastical riff on an SCP containment center. Though things have more or less settled since the apartment fire, having our party split across three apartments instead of one has certainly complicated D&D logistics, so this return to relative normalcy was greatly appreciated. As it turns out, life comes at you fast, and though my plan for a “final month” of sessions has now ballooned into the majority of a year, it seems like we might just conclude my Dalelands campaign after all. That in turn has got me thinking about returning to fiction of my own, and perhaps dusting off those short story-writing muscles and trying to get something published. I’ll attempt to institute some dedicated weekly writing time and get back to you all on that, but for now, let’s run down the week in film!

Our first viewing of the week was The Omen, that famous and dubiously canonical work of ‘70s proto-horror. The film stars Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn, an American diplomat who we first meet being urged to take on an unknown infant as his son, his own son having just died during childbirth. Five years on, Thorn is now serving as Ambassador to England, living happily with his wife Kathy and young son Damien. However, strange and horrible occurrences always seem to follow in his son’s wake, and Thorn soon suspects Damien carries a violent and terrible destiny.

The Omen remains one of the archetypal “shit, my child is the antichrist” works of film horror, and contains a variety of scenes that have been parodied or otherwise referenced in many later works, but its place in history and quality as a film are unfortunately quite distinct. The film is ham-handed in its scripting and lacking in its scares, hewing close to film horror’s roots as a divergent path from mystery-thrillers, but failing to offer a compelling mystery in the bargain. Damien’s demonic nature is always obvious, and in its reliance on warmed-over scares and overwrought musical cues, the film generally trips straight up menace and onwards into unintentional camp. 

When skillfully executed, the malevolent atmosphere and visual restraint of ‘70s horror can result in some truly majestic, genuinely frightening works: Messiah of Evil, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, etcetera. Unfortunately, The Omen seems caught halfway between a lukewarm thriller and a clumsy horror spectacle, unable to commit to either thread, and with only Gregory Peck’s committed performance gesturing towards the sense of gravitas it clearly desires. Perhaps worth a watch if only due to its enduring cultural cachet, but not a film I’d recommend on its own merits.

Next up was The Prodigal Son, an ‘81 Sammo Hung martial arts comedy starring Yuen Biao as a young noble who believes he’s a great martial artist, not knowing that his father has been ensuring his fights are fixed. When Biao’s character discovers the truth, he becomes determined to study under a true master, choosing the stage performer Leung Yee-tai (Lam Ching-ying) as his would-be sensei. Yee-tai has no interest in taking a student, but Biao chases after him anyways, leading into a series of rambling adventures, betrayals, and hard-earned training sequences.

The Prodigal Son is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t really have an antagonist. There is indeed a great master of martial arts for our heroes to fight, but that master is only really interested in a fair fight to prove his strength, and most of the film’s drama is more concerned with Biao’s quest for true training. This quest itself features a variety of odd turns; after Yee-tai’s performance troop are killed in a mysterious ninja attack, he and Biao end up escaping to the home of Yee-tai’s brother (played by Sammo himself), and the film suddenly shifts to a bunch of odd couple bickering, as Yee-tai and Sammo argue over who gets to train Biao.

The film’s lack of direction felt a little awkward at first, but I ultimately felt it served its purpose in keeping the focus on the character relationships, and also emphasizing how martial arts are intended more as a practice of self-discipline than a weapon of war. Regular Jackie Chan collaborators Biao and Sammo are of course excellent as both comedians and martial artists, but it was Lam Ching-ying’s performance that impressed me the most. I was worried his character’s playing of female opera characters would be used for laughs, but Ching-ying actually spent his early life performing such roles in the Beijing Opera, and pairs that mastery with even more spectacular Wing Chun skills. He’s a sharp-edged but loveable curmudgeon, and his eventual passing of the torch, paired with this film’s general emphasis on the senselessness of violence, made for an unexpectedly moving final act. I’ll have to check out more of his roles!

Our next viewing was Ginger Snaps, a turn-of-millennium werewolf feature about Ginger and Brigitte, two sisters lounging at the sullen intersection of ‘90s grunge and ‘00s emo. The pair hate the mundanity of their suburban town, have vowed to either get out or die trying by sixteen, and spend most of their time staging fake suicide photos or leering at normies. But when Ginger gets bitten by the neighborhood’s mysterious dog killer, she begins to grow away from her sister, developing some odd new features and a problematic taste for the flesh.

Ginger Snaps is basically “An American Werewolf in London meets Heathers,” though it lacks the tongue-in-cheek humor of either of those films. Instead, Ginger Snaps commits fully to the mindset of its heroines, offering a convincing snapshot of adolescent loners staring down the barrel of puberty at the end of the century. From the sisters’ unique shared language to their taste in clothes and general end-of-history antipathy for the world around them, every element of this film evokes that specific era of ennui, the dissatisfaction at the core of stuff like Daria or Ghost World.

To be honest, Ginger Snaps evokes that era so well that it’s actually difficult to like either Ginger or Brigitte, as the two have no real problems, a supportive family, and their whole lives ahead of them, yet still spend all their time moping about nothing. But my flagging patience for sad teens aside, Ginger Snaps also succeeds well enough as a werewolf feature, offering plenty of gooey practical effects and an effective ramping of intensity throughout. The clear “lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty” thread doesn’t entirely pay off, but it does lend some relatable subtext to the sequences of Brigitte losing touch with her sister, and of Ginger no longer recognizing herself. If you’re nostalgic for Dariaworld it’s a must-see, and it also lands among the admittedly slim pickings of superior werewolf films.

Last up for the week was Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s indulgent ode to gothic romance. The film stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, the daughter of a wealthy Buffalo businessman who is seduced by English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and swept away to his familial estate alongside Sharpe’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). There, she discovers their home is a creaking ruin haunted by drafts and ghosts – and that’s the good news. For as ardor turns to avarice, Edith soon realizes that her new husband and his adoring sister are hiding a terrible, violent secret.

It is a damn good thing that Guillermo del Toro keeps swooping up Oscars, as I can’t imagine any other reason producers would continue to offer him millions of dollars to shoot vanity projects in dead genres. So it goes for Crimson Peak, which embraces the larger-than-life archetypes and tragic ghosts of gothic drama so completely that modern audiences must be forgiven for seeing it as neither romance or horror. It is instead a study in atmosphere, and good lord is its atmosphere lush. The Sharpe’s crumbling estate is undoubtedly the film’s most captivating character – full of richly appointed retiring chambers and constructed around a pillar of perpetually falling leaves, the manor’s panoply of details and secrets ensures that even at its most predictable, Crimson Peak is never boring.

The rest of Crimson Peak’s characters have a little more trouble rising above their doomed archetypes, though Hiddleston at least is perfectly cast as the troubled heir of a rightfully decaying lineage. And the film’s ghosts are certainly alluring in their distinctive angular atrophy, even if del Toro’s apparent disinterest in modern scares prevents them from ever feeling genuinely frightening. But between the film’s simplistic narrative and largely one-note characters, it is hard to escape the sense that Crimson Peak is more pastiche than vital narrative, more homage than living reinvention. Beautiful to look at, but unlikely to make you feel much of anything.

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