Viy (1967)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
This film is based on a Nikolai Gogol short story from 1835. I had never previously heard of the story, but it was apparently influential enough to inspire about half a dozen film adaptations, of which it would seem that this 1967 one, from Russia, was the most faithful. It’s also a pretty good example of the folktale sub genre of horror.

It opens in a silly mode, with a Kiev seminary about to let the students out for a holiday break. The students appear to be young men in their 20s – at least physically; mentally, they act a lot like boys in junior high. Lots of pranks and little respect for authority. The local town folk view the students, quite correctly, as an emergency on par with a small army invasion.

As the student mob gets further and further from Kiev, it splits and shrinks at every crossroad. Soon, we are left with a trio, the “philosopher” Khoma Brutus and his two friends. They, not too surprisingly, find themselves lost in the wilderness with night coming on. Coming across a farm, they pound on the gates until an old lady reluctantly agrees to give them shelter for the night, albeit in three separate resting places.

Brutus beds down on some hay in the barn, but doesn’t get to sleep very much. The old woman comes in and approaches him with an extremely suggestively leer. Brutus attempts to put her off from what he assumes our sexual advances. He’s in for a surprise, though. She hypnotizes him, climbs on his shoulders, forces him to run through the countryside – and then to fly above it! Yes, the wizened old crone who looks like a witch actually IS a witch.

After some time of this, the flight is interrupted (I think by a black cat crossing their path) and they fall to earth. Brutus picks up a stick and proceeds to cudgel the witch within an inch of her life. At which, the old crone transforms into a beautiful maiden, who continues to lie on the ground moaning. This is too much for Brutus, and he flees back to the seminary, even though holiday has just begun.

The seminary proves to be no refuge for him. A wealthy landowner (and patron of the seminary) sends word that his beautiful daughter is mysteriously ill and has specifically requested Brutus to say prayers over her for three nights. Brutus does NOT want to go along with this, but no one involved is interested in giving him any choice. So, a bunch of peasants from the farm head back with him, pausing along the way to spend a night in a pub and drink a lot of vodka. There is a LOT of vodka drunk in this movie. (Digression: It reminded me of an old storyteller meeting where one of our number was discussing the lessons she had learned from reading a tome of Russian folk tales. “In a Russian folktale, if you have lost everything you own in the world, the first thing you must do is get blind stinking drunk. Corollary: in Russia, vodka is cheaper than dirt.)

Arriving at the farm, Brutus finds that the aristocrat’s daughter looks suspiciously similar to the transformed which he beat up. Oh, and by the way, before he got here, she died. Not that that lets Brutus off the hook. The nobleman insists that he will pray three nights over her corpse in the nearby church. (As Kestrell says, one of the great things about the horror genre is that you can die early in the story, but still be a major character.) If Brutus complies with this demand, he will receive 1000 gold pieces; if he refuses, 1000 lashes. And to make doubly sure, he will be locked inside the church.

The first night arrives. The church has some beautiful artwork, but on the whole is fairly run down, with lots of cobwebs in the corners. It is also infested with cats, leading to a few well done literal cat-scares. But Brutus gets over his skittishness, lights a bunch of candles, sets up his Bible on the lectern, and begins to pray aloud.

He hasn’t been praying for very long before the lid flies off of the coffin, and the beautiful but pale-as-death woman sits up, in a manner presaging Michael Myers. Brutus is understandably terrified, but it transpires that he has learned a thing or two in the seminary. He very quickly draws a chalk circle about his lectern, and proceeds with his (panicked) prayers. The circle seems to protect him both physically and visually. The witch cannot see him, though she eventually tracks him down by touch – to the extent that she hits the invisible force field of the circle. She pounds upon it with all her might, but to no avail. Brutus prays and prays and prays, and at last the cock crows, the witch returns to her coffin, and the farmhands unlock the church.

Brutus doesn’t actually tell them what happened. Perhaps he’s worried they won’t believe him. Perhaps he’s worried that they’ll blame him for beating the witch in the first place. Probably, though, just doesn’t want them to think he’s scared. After all, he is a Cossack by blood, and Cossacks fear nothing! They DO, however, indulge in a great deal more vodka before going back for night two, as well as hiding a bottle in their robe.

The second night starts in a fairly similar fashion. Only this time, instead of getting out of her coffin, the witch levitates her coffin and rides around it. After a while, she even stands up in it, thus looking a bit like an undead Silver Surfer. She alternates between zooming around the church in dizzying circles, and RAMMING the chalk circle force field with the coffin. Brutus does a lot more gibbering then praying, but manages to hold out until cock-crow. The witch has tried to curse him, with partial success. He does not go blind, but his hair does turn instantly white.

On his way back to the farm, Brutus dons a goofy fur hat, so people don’t immediately realize what’s happened to him. On arrival, he demands music at once! A peasant pulls out a pipe, and Brutus begins to do a goofy Cossack dance, presumably to prove to himself how not-afraid he is. But his hat falls off, and all the peasantry are shocked to see his white hair.

For night three, the witch pulls out ALL the stops. If he can’t beat him alone, she’ll bring help. She summons forth disembodied gray arms that emerge from the walls and the floor. She summons vampires, werewolves, skeletons, ghouls, gargoyles and all manner of unpleasantries. The level of special-effects technology is not very advanced, but the artistry with which that tech is used is pretty great. As are the practical makeup effects; no two of the monsters are identical. This out-in-the-country church is not very big, and now it is FULL of revenants. But they still can’t break the protective circle.

At last, the witch decides to summon… VIY! Even the other monsters are scared when they hear his name! The thumps of his footsteps are audible as he approaches the church door. It opens, and he strides in – an immensely broad humanoid figure, with a huge head but no neck as such. Notably, his huge eyeballs are covered with enormous flaps of skin that reach down to his chin. “I cannot see anything. Lift up my eyebrows.” Two of the vampires do so. Brutus, against his better judgment, looks at Viy. When he sees Viy, Viy sees him, which apparently breaks the power of the circle. Monsters leap upon Brutus from all sides, burying him completely beneath them.

Sadly for them, however, the monsters are having so much fun that they lost track of time. The cock crows. The monsters flee for the windows, but mostly die half out of them. The witch reverts to her crone form, and lies back upon the altar, hopefully never to rise again. Since this is a RUSSIAN story, Brutus also fails to rise, having apparently died of fright.

That’s the main outline, though I’ve certainly left out a bunch of detail. There’s some great scenery, nifty historical costumes and scenes of peasant life. The lead actors are fantastic; even without subtitles I’m sure one could follow the plot from the action and facial expressions. And the final night has some virtuoso (if low-tech) effects work. Recommended.

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Bat Number 4
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
‘Tis the season for young bats to get lost. And find their way into my room. It’s actually over a year since the last time this happened – that was early July. Suppose I’ll see about a rabies booster. Sigh…

On the plus side, I’m getting more skilled at getting rid of them using the Shorts of Bat Entanglement. Although I did think for a while that I had activated the Portal function again, as the bat appeared to have completely vanished in the attic stairwell. However, just as I was coming back upstairs from reopening all the inside doors, I spotted the little bugger resting on the floor in a dim nook behind a couple of Kestrell’s books. With patience, care, and ruthless ignoring of the offended shrieking noises, I managed to fully entangle the bat in the shorts. It was then a relatively straightforward manner to bring it out to the backyard and release it. After a moment to recover, it flew off into the jungle, and I returned to a (hopefully) bat-free house.

In the silver lining department, everyone else seems to have slept through this.

Oh wait -- it just occurred to me. I can blame April for this! Her birthday gift of a (metal) bat to Kestrell yesterday clearly summoned this live bat through sympathetic magic! :-)

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The Witness (2016)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
My current gaming obsession is The Witness. I have not yet discovered all of its secrets, but I have found enough to want to talk about it, and to highly recommend it.

In form, The Witness owes a significant chunk of its DNA to Myst. You find yourself upon an apparently deserted island with some beautiful scenery, some puzzling mechanisms, and a few hints that there is a larger narrative story behind it all. The puzzles, however, are more structured than those in Myst. The first door you come to teaches you to draw a line from an open circle to an endpoint. Every other puzzle is an elaboration upon this. There are the expected variations of size and shape, a variety of symbols which impose constraints on how the line must be drawn, and so on. What I was not expecting, however, was the way in which the… level upon which the puzzle solving happens changes multiple times over the course of the game.

The game encourages, sometimes in audio or video format, but more significantly in terms of the gameplay itself, a mix of scientific and Zen thought. It carefully teaches you how to make and test hypotheses – and also how you must sometimes abandon hypotheses in favor of perceiving the actual world in front of you. Eventually, you will come to expect certain things from the game. Most of them are there, somewhere, or the game will teach you to stop expecting them. Play this game enough, and you will begin to see the world in different ways (and not just through the desire to draw lines on everything!).

I do have to dock a few points for accessibility. There are a few puzzles based on sound; even if you have good hearing, as I do, these may prove quite difficult/impossible if you are not good at identifying pitch. Some other puzzles require fine-grained color differentiation which will cause problems for some varieties of colorblindness. A very few puzzles near the end of the game contain elements of flashing light which might be dangerous for some kinds of epilepsy. And a very few puzzles contain timed elements, requiring not just cleverness, but speed. That said, several of these difficulties can be mitigated by judicious use of Internet spoilers.

I do recommend resisting spoilers. There are only rare situations where a single puzzle is a bottleneck. Most of the time it is quite viable, when apparently stuck, to employ the “go do something else and come back later” strategy without even leaving the game. And, indeed, I frequently had the experience of a seemingly-insoluble puzzle cracking instantly when I came back to it.

There are a mere two achievements on Steam. The first is titled “Endgame”, which is a lie. It does commemorate a significant landmark, and you could stop there if you wanted, but there is much left to discover. Steam tells me I got that achievement at the 24 hour mark; I have now played for 48, and think I may be closing in on “completely done”. I still haven’t gotten that second achievement. There are many puzzles and story elements that I don’t think are actually accessible until after “Endgame”. If you haven’t both “walk through the credits” and spent a goodly time listening to “Hall of the Mountain King”, then you definitely aren’t done yet. The vast majority of that time was racked up in 30 minute chunks, so even as a busy adult, it should be playable.

The Witness is available on multiple platforms. It sometimes comes around on the Humble Bundle (which is how I got it). It is Highly Recommended.

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The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
This is one of the sub genre that Kestrell refers to as “two islands over from Summerisle”. Like The Wicker Man, it’s a 70s British film that was (mis-)marketed as horror for want of any better category, contains some cool folk music, and has an ambiguous relationship with the supernatural.

Ava Gardner, then 47 years old but still glamorous, plays “Mickey”, an aging billionaire who surrounds herself with a court of young hippies in order to keep herself young. (Literally? Metaphorically? Take your pick.) Her current lover, amateur photographer Tom Lynn, is played by Ian McShane, far younger, handsomer, and less craggy than his recent portrayal of Mister Wednesday. (Digression: while this movie contains no bare breasts, McShane’s shapely bum is handsomely displayed on a few occasions.) Tom is perfectly content in this decadent, dissipated existence – until he happens to meet the vicar’s daughter, Janet (Stephanie Beacham). Tom decides to run away with Janet, even after being warned of the way many of Mickey’s ex-lovers have met with fatal accidents. Mickey eventually accepts his departure – if he will play one final game with her…

As you may have noticed, the plot hews well to the well-known ballad. It continues to do so right up until the end, though how it manages to do so without explicit magic, I will not spoil. (Every so often, in the background music, Pentangle will sing a few verses appropriate to the current action.) Despite this hewing to the classic plot, the movie is very much of its time, often in surprising ways. At one point Janet, having “gotten in trouble” pays a visit to the local wise woman who, these days, gives referrals to a London abortionist without passing any moral judgment.

The film is also a visual feast. Beautiful Scottish countryside, beautiful sets and set decorations, beautiful people, and 70s high fashion which ranges from the beautiful to the astounding. I strained my vocabulary to the limit to describe the clothes of the Fairy Queen, leading Kestrell to conclude that she wanted all of it. Also some interesting directorial choices, such as playing the meeting between Tom and Janet largely as a series of still images with no dialogue.

Speaking of directorial choices, the director of this gem was none other than Roddy McDowall (in between Planet of the Apes films). This was his sole stint behind the camera, and was excellent enough I wish there had been more. Sadly, like Charles Laughton, his initial foray bombed and he never did any more.

It’s got some rough edges and I wouldn’t rate it as an all-time fave, but it’s a very good film that deserves more than the obscurity it has received. If you wish to check it out, it is available on YouTube.

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Raccoons!
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
 On my way back from Poke-hunting tonight, at half past midnight, I saw a pack of four or so critters crossing the street about a block ahead of me. Two more stragglers crossed a minute later, by which time I had gotten close enough to positively ID them as raccoons. As much as I love squirrels, it's nice to occasionally spot something bigger in the wild.

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Girl Asleep (2015)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay

Girl Asleep is a delightful recent entry in the sub genre “girl on the cusp of womanhood who is confused by her changing life (and body) and learns to deal with it via a fantasy universe”, like Labyrinth and Mirror Mask. (I’m sure there must be more examples, but I’m having difficulty recalling them. Anyone want to add to the list?)

This particular girl, Greta, is growing up in Australia in the late 1970s. This is, in itself, more than a little fantastical, and the boundaries between the real and the visionary remain porous throughout the film. (I particularly liked the “integrated captions” for the scene changes, such as focusing on a bucket of fried chicken with a logo on the side reading “later that day”.) Her mother means well, but doesn’t understand her introvert daughter. Her father is little better, and over indulges in dad jokes (and an impressively 70s ‘stache). Her older sister is clearly thinking about moving out and has a dangerously sexy boyfriend. The family has moved to a new town, so Greta has to deal with the new school and all that entails. The only kid at school who seems to want to be friends with her is incredibly dorky (and adorbs). But a gang of archetypical “mean girls” also offers her membership – with unclear but intimidating strings attached. And then mom takes it into her head to invite all her little classmates to Greta’s 15th birthday party. The horror, the horror!

The party starts out okay, but piles stress upon stress until either reality or sanity fractures (there’s enough ambiguity that you may have your pick). Greta becomes lost in the woods, which are inhabited by wonders, but also by Big Bad Wolves. (And a friendly huldra. Don’t see too many of them around…) It all comes to a head in a climactic battle that I was quite charmed by, alternating seamlessly between hair pulling and pillow fights on the one hand, and advanced martial arts movie moves on the other.

The story had its genesis as a stage play, but the film fully embraces the possibilities of its new medium. While the film doesn’t seem to have a huge budget, it used that budget to excellent effect, creating many beautiful and memorable images. What I think it brings most from the stage is a “theatrical” sensibility, where the creative staff are willing to trust the audience’s suspension of disbelief, presenting images that work on multiple levels simultaneously, and respecting the audience’s ability to interpret. Both Kestrell and I were reminded of the excellent work of Lifeline Theater in Chicago.

It’s available on DVD and on Amazon video. Highly recommended.

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The end was nearer than I thought...
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
My first pass of annotating Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire is complete. There is more that could/should be done, of course, but that will never cease to be true; "Art is never finished, only abandoned". Not that I'm abandoning this, but I am mostly moving on for the time being, having gotten this project to a point that I am proud of. Additions and corrections still happily accepted, of course!

I'm particularly pleased that the last note was for the phrase "full stop" :-)

[Obligatory Patreon link]
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Alexx’s June Patreon update
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay

It’s been three months, as suspected. The finale of Providence wasn’t as time-consuming as feared, but on the other hand, the last chapter of Voice of the Fire is proving to be quite dense. Plus, gardening season started, and, sadly, weeding still pays better than scholarship. That said, plenty has been annotated.

I’ve also gotten a good start on the final chapter of Voice of the Fire, featuring Moore himself. Next update should feature that, another issue or two of Cinema Purgatorio, and the first few sections of “Round the Bend”. Be seeing you!

[My Patreon]

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The Eternal (1998)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Kestrell and I watched a nifty movie yesterday, an obscure Gothic horror from 1998, written and directed by Michael Almereyda. “The Eternal” is the name we saw it under, but as often seems to be the case with low-budget horror movies, it had several other titles as well: Trance, The Mummy, and Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy – possibly others.

All this mention of a mummy is perhaps deceptive, though not false. Our setting is not Egypt, but Ireland; the body emerging not from a pyramid, but an ancient peat bog. Also featured are Druids, witchcraft, transmigration of souls, terrorists, guns, explosives, whiskey, broken glass, broken hearts, broken promises… Plus most of your traditional Gothic elements: the creepy, isolated old house, the family secrets, the madwoman in the attic, the creepy girl, the thunderstorms. No individual ingredient was anything we hadn’t seen a million times before, but the sheer quantity of volatile moving parts meant that we had NO idea where the plot was going to go next.

The film ended up on our radar because it has Christopher Walken in it. As is often the case, his role was relatively small, though important to the plot. His faltering attempt at an Irish accent was perhaps the weakest element of the film, but that didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment.

So, what’s the basic set up? A loving couple of alcoholics bring their son to Ireland and the ancestral house. Ostensibly, so he can meet his grandmother, but possibly also to try and stop drinking. (The script does acknowledge that going to Ireland to dry out is perhaps not the wisest choice.) Such family as remains alive within the ancestral house mostly accuse each other of having “lost the bucket” (apparently the Irish equivalent of losing one’s marbles – there seems to be a series bucket shortage in their neighborhood). Uncle Bill (Walken) is perhaps most obviously bonkers, since he’s spending a lot of his time hanging out in the basement with a remarkably well preserved 2000 year old corpse that he seems to think might be able to be revived.

One thing that particularly pleased me about this movie was that the script did not depend on anyone holding the idiot ball. At various times, characters are inattentive and miss details that one wishes they had not, and there are no shortage of poor life choices, BUT no one wastes any time denying the evidence of their senses (once they notice the weird shit), and they make reasonable efforts to get out of danger, even if these don’t always work. There is a character who looks for a while as if he will be a traditional Fatal Boy, but he does not fall into that trap, and even makes effective use of his one real life-skill (partying hard) before the end.

Many reviewers panned this on the sadly-traditional basis that it is a horror movie without a huge amount of blood, or even that large a body count. For those (like me) who like their horror with a lot of atmosphere and characterization, it’s an overlooked gem. Recommended.

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Garden Report
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
The strawberries are in bloom, which means it must be weeding season. Progress is happening at a goodly rate. Nonetheless, the project is eternal. Estimating from both my progress and observed growth rates, I should have the spider wort vanquished by approximately 2020. And by “vanquished”, what I actually mean is “cut back to the point where I can keep it away from the strawberries with ONLY constant vigilance”. Slow and steady wins the fruit.

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