Review: “IT: Chapter One” (2017)

Warning: to avoid spoiling the plot for you, I have changed the font colour of any spoilers so that you won’t immediately see it. Spoilers are contained in yellow parentheses like [this] – if you would like to read the spoiler, simply highlight it with your cursor.

“And now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown!”

I saw the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It yesterday. I’ll confess: I haven’t read the book nor seen the original mini-series (a heinous crime for a horror fan), but in a way, I’m glad that I went in without any expectations. Misery by Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite books, but when I finally got around to watching the film adaptation, I found myself nitpicking at tiny changes to the material. I’m grateful that this wasn’t the case with It.

Stephen King's It Trailer screen grab

I was incredibly impressed with this film. It struck a beautiful balance between subtle psychological horror – it wasn’t afraid to leave the scares implied or ambiguous – and balls-to-the-wall gore. [Six-year-old Georgie having his arm bitten right TF off within the first 10 minutes springs to mind.] I’m not particularly a fan of blood and guts; it’s why slasher films have never appealed to me. Nothing in the film felt gratuitous to me. Even Pennywise, who could have been taken way over the top and way too far, was a perfect match for the tone. With his ruff and pantaloons, Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is more like an antique doll than Tim Curry’s grease-painted nightmare. He’s more childlike, which makes it even more horrifying when he reveals his true form [and his jaws gape with sharklike teeth]. I’m also not a fan of horror films that lack the money shot, if you’ll pardon the phrasing – the moment when the monster is finally revealed, after snippets and glimpses throughout. It’s why I never found Freddy Krueger particularly unsettling. I knew what he looked like before I’d even watched the film; there was no suspense. I want some build-up. We see Pennywise a lot in this film and, if I’m honest, my principles got blown out of the water and I didn’t care. Dude was terrifying.

It also managed to be endearing in a way I didn’t expect. The child actors are all excellent – I sometimes find films in which children are the protagonists a little bit cringeworthy. Such a lot can go wrong, but every single one of the Losers (as they call themselves) are sincere and believable. It’s as much a coming-of-age film as it is a horror flick. It’s about bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, the awkward inbetween that is adolescence. [Pennywise, or It, is a tainted, twisted version of the far more innocent clown and it seems to be the loss of innocence made manifest.] The Losers are all overcoming unique challenges, but they share a profound sense of uncertainty. I appreciated the depth to which we got to see their lives and empathise with them. My only criticism would perhaps lie with Richie, the wisecracking wannabe-Casanova of the group. Don’t get me wrong, he’s hysterical and the young actor playing him (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame) has impeccable comedic timing which would rival that of an adult comic. I just felt as though I’d seen very little of his home life [in comparison to the trauma we see affecting the others], although perhaps that was intentional – maybe he hadn’t got much of one to speak of. More Richie, please!

Movie-Cast-2017

The film also captured a great 80s vibe. It was giving me a hint of The Goonies, and seeing the kids cycling along the roads strongly reminded me of the holy water scene from The Lost Boys too. It had that same kind of dark humour – frightened, foulmouthed adolescents, what’s funnier than that? I love films with a throwback aesthetic: if it’s done properly, it can be transcendent. And It absolutely was.

A sequel has been neatly set up. This film takes place during the protagonists’ childhood, and the second film will return to them as adults [when the creature reappears after the requisite 27 years and they are forced to fight Pennywise again], splitting the plot of the book and mini-series into two separate halves. I’m very much looking forward to it.

 

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The Hidden Files #2: Bigfoot

This is the second installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

Bigfoot is, undoubtedly, the most famous cryptid in Western culture. It is an iconic and instantly recognisable legendary figure – a primate measuring more than 7 feet and making its home in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest.

But how did Bigfoot make its way into the popular imagination? Why do we pore over every blurry photograph and shaky piece of footage?

In the 1920s, the accounts of J.W. Burns were compiled and published. These detailed his interviews with the indigenous people of Chehalis, British Columbia, and recorded their belief in giant “wild men”. Burns used the term sásq’ets to describe this race of hairy hominids, a word he borrowed from the Halkomelem language. Sásq’ets would later be Anglicised and become Sasquatch, a synonym of Bigfoot still used today. For many white Canadians and Americans, Burns’ compilation was their first brush with Bigfoot.* “Wild men” commonly feature in Native American and First Nations mythology,  and the white settlers who liaised with indigenous North Americans often found that the tribes had very clear ideas of where “Bigfoot territory” was – whether that was in the mountains or in a certain section of the forest.

According to Doubtful News, there were 3,313 sightings of Bigfoot between 1921 and 2013. This data was compiled by Josh Stevens, a PhD candidate, into an infographic which you can see here. The sightings span America, with a particular density of sightings along the West coast. However, the most famous piece of Bigfoot evidence is probably the Patterson-Gimlin film. Even if you don’t recognise the names, you’ll likely recognise this iconic still from the footage:

Patterson–Gimlin_film_frame_352

Frame 352, Patterson-Gimlin film (1967)

For many people, this is the image that springs to mind when you think of Bigfoot. Filmed in 1967 in Humboldt County, California, by Roger Patterson and his friend Bob Gimlin, the footage is alleged to show a female Bigfoot. Since it was released to the public, the film has been stabilised and analysed. Despite extensive investigation, the Patterson-Gimlin film has never been definitively proven to be a hoax, unlike other Bigfoot “evidence”.

Although no Bigfoot specimens, living or dead, have ever been found, sightings persist and the numbers keep growing. The towns and counties said to harbour Bigfoot populations encourage this. In Skamania County, Washington, it has been illegal to kill a Bigfoot since 1984. To do so would incur a $1,000 fine or a prison sentence of up to a year. Although the Skamania authorities neither confirm nor deny the existence of the creature, they believe the law promotes other types of conservation via public awareness. Furthermore, the town of Willow Creek in Humboldt County – on the border of the Six Rivers Forest, where the Patterson-Gimlin footage was filmed – has built a roaring tourist trade with more than a little help from Bigfoot. The town is known as “the Bigfoot capital of the world” – it is home to a Bigfoot museum and even a Bigfoot restaurant. If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue that this is obviously big (pun fully intended) business, but it’s also a testament to Bigfoot’s legacy. The creature has become part of the fabric of American society. Bigfoot is as All-American as any cryptid could be.

On a personal level, I think Bigfoot is the most likely of all recorded cryptids to exist. Maybe that’s the result of growing up in the UK rather than within the culture that fostered the Bigfoot mythos. However, the standard Bigfoot description – that of a large primate – seems plausible to me, a layman (or laywoman, as it happens).

*Note: we could have a much longer discussion about how Native and indigenous mythology is appropriated, misinterpreted and downright falsified by some cryptid enthusiasts, but I’ll save that for another article. The current Bigfoot “mythos” (for want of a better word) owes a lot to indigenous tribes who are rarely credited for much of the information.

Further reading:

World of Weird: Amelia Earhart survived?

For 80 years, the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific Ocean has persisted in the popular imagination. It was thought that we would never know what happened to the aviation pioneer, her navigator Fred Noonan and their Lockheed monoplane. The general assumption was that the pair crashed near Howland Island in the Pacific due to poor visibility.

But the emergence of a blurry photograph, believed to have been taken in 1937, might shed some light on this mystery. In the image, a man and woman – possibly Noonan and Earhart – stand amid a crowd on a dock in the Marshall Islands; a Japanese Koshu ship appears to be towing Earhart’s plane in the background.

amelia earhart photo

Noonan stands on the far left, Earhart sits on the dock in the centre of the group wearing a white shirt. On the far right, the Koshu ship and the plane can be seen. (Les Kinney/U.S. National Archives)

The photograph was sourced from a mislabeled case file in the US National Archives by retired treasury agent Les Kinney, who began looking into Earhart’s disappearance after his retirement. This fresh evidence is to feature in an upcoming documentary on the History Channel (US broadcast: 9th July), which will propose a new theory – Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese and were essentially the first casualties of the conflict between the US and Japan during the Second World War. Potentially, both died in Japanese custody as a result of the international dispute.

The following footage was shot shortly before she began her circumnavigation of the globe.

One day, hopefully we’ll know the true story of how Amelia Earhart’s final flight ended. Until then, we can only wait for more evidence to be discovered.

For more:

Review: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, Caitlin Doughty

ATTENTION: SPOOKY BOOK RECOMMENDATION!

“Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

– Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

I’ve been watching Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube series Ask A Mortician for a couple of months and I love her work with Order of the Good Death, so I decided to order her (bestselling) book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From The Crematorium. I had to wait until my exams finished last week to start it, but that meant I was looking forward to reading it even more.

I’m going to start by saying this book is fascinating – I learned so much about the funeral industry and about crematoriums (crematoria?) and it answered questions I didn’t even know I had about the cremation process. In particular, I didn’t realise how different funeral traditions and norms are in the USA (I’m from England). I honestly devoured it; I haven’t read a book so quickly in years.

However, I think it’s also important to note that you need to keep an open mind for this particular read. This book is a passionate manifesto for death positivity, encouraging people to embrace the more hands-on mourning traditions of the past and to rethink the way we talk about death. If you’re not ready to even consider getting on board with it, it might be worth reading up on Caitlin’s ideas a little bit more so you can read the book in context. Nothing in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is disrespectful or sensationalised, but Caitlin is pretty frank about what happens to the human body (and inside it) in the period between death and cremation. I didn’t personally find the things she discussed uncomfortable; however, that’s a matter of attitude. I find mausoleums and cemeteries to be interesting places and I think the differences between death rituals around the world are intriguing too, so I’m not too squeamish. If you’re squeamish, I don’t think that would make the book less enjoyable, provided you’re interested in the subject.

I’ve dropped some links below if you want to give this book a go – I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in ages. It was funny and tragic and a bit gross in places (one anecdote about molten human fat getting all over her dress springs to mind); I would highly recommend it.

Links

Official site: Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Amazon: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From The Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty

Waterstones: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Ask A Mortician YouTube channel

 

 

Haunted Files #1: The Bell Witch

This is the first installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.

It was during a blistering Tennessee summer in 1817 that John Bell first witnessed the unusual phenomena which would plague his household for the next four years. Outside his home, an apparition of a dog with a rabbit’s head materialised. Bell took his shotgun and fired at the creature, but it disappeared.

bell farm

The Bell homestead, Authenticated History of the Bell witch (1894)

So begins the legend of the Bell Witch, a folktale native to the town of Adams in Robertson County, TN. First told in its entirety in the book Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (1894) by Martin Van Buren Ingram, it is the strange tale of how the Bell family fell victim to a powerful entity which invaded their home and farm. It bore many characteristics of a poltergeist – the witch allegedly knocked on walls and pulled sheets off beds, even going so far as to pull hair, scratch skin and stick pins in its human cohabitants. There was particular emphasis on John’s daughter Betsy. The witch taunted her and her fiance so relentlessly that Betsy eventually broke off her engagement. According to some accounts, the entity was especially violent towards her; in others, the witch seemed to be fond of the young woman and wanted to protect her. The witch’s behaviour was at the extreme ends of the spectrum. She could be kind, calling John Bell’s wife Lucy “the most perfect woman to walk the earth”, but she also expressed a desire to kill John, who she referred to as “Old Jack”. In 1820, she succeeded. John Bell passed into a coma, having consumed an unidentified liquid which the family found in a vial beneath his bed. His son fed a little to the cat, which died instantly, and then threw it onto the fire where it burst into bright blue flames. The witch declared that she had given John “a big dose” of it and “fixed him”.

In Ingram’s account, the poltergeist claims to be “Old Kate Batts” and Kate seems to be the title that stuck, as the entity appeared to respond positively to being referred to by that name. According to the Guidebook for Tennessee (1933), Kate Batts was a deceased neighbour of John Bell who felt he had cheated her out of land. The witch would converse articulately and often included details only the person asking would have known. One visitor, John Johnston, asked the ghost to tell him what his Dutch grandmother would say to her slaves if she thought they had done something wrong. The witch replied in his grandmother’s accent: “Hut tut, what has happened here?”, then went on to imitate his mother and father in England. She is also reported to have once recited verbatim a sermon being delivered thirteen miles away.

In 1821, Kate left the Bell homestead, but vowed to return in seven years’ time. As promised, she did resurface briefly in 1828, but, after the family ignored her, she appeared to vanish entirely.

The Bell witch has inspired many adaptations, most notably The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although not a direct retelling of the legend, The Blair Witch Project features its own fictional myth which was explored in a mockumentary Curse of the Blair Witch. Many academics have questioned whether the tale of the Bell witch, as recounted by Ingram, truly reflected the beliefs of Robertson County’s residents in the nineteenth century or whether it too was largely historical fiction. Fiction or not, the legend continues to evoke fear today.

In 1934, Charles Bailey Bell, John’s grandson, published an account of his family’s experiences. He reported a prophecy given by the witch that she would return in 1935. In 1937, the new owner of the Bell farm began to hear something rubbing against the walls of the house and faint music. Speaking in 1977, Bonnie Haneline stated that she used to explore the caves on the property as a child, with the permission of the owners. She recalled one occasion in 1944 when she went down alone with a lantern. The lantern was blown out, so she lit it again. After she crawled further, the lantern was extinguished once more and, terrified, she fled. Police later found two fugitives concealed in the cave, and Haneline credited the witch with saving her life by keeping her away from the criminals.

bell_witch_cave_1

The entrance to the cave, (c) The Historic Bell Witch Cave Incorporated, 2010

The strangest tale by far was first reported in The Clarion-Ledger, a Mississippi newspaper, in 1987. The owner of a nearby gas station, H.C. Sanders, ran out of petrol at night, not far from the entrance to the Bell witch cave. As he started walking back to town, he saw a rabbit emerge from the forest. He walked faster, but the rabbit managed to keep pace. After a mile, he sat down on a log and the rabbit seated itself beside him, saying: “Hell of a race we had there, wasn’t it?”

Regardless of the truth behind the unexplained phenomena, the Bell witch legend is widely held to be “America’s Greatest Ghost Story”, and for good reason.

candle gif

For more on the Bell witch:

Lunar Files #1: The Michigan Dogman

This is the first installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of reported werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Wexford County in Northern Michigan has a population of around 35,000 people, but it seems that one inhabitant – the focus of a legend which dates back at least 130 years – is more sinister than you might expect. Said to tower at seven feet tall, the creature is a terrifying combination of man and canine. It has the head and claws of a canid but the torso of a man. It gazes upon its prey through amber eyes and howls a piercing human scream. According to the myth, which is said by some to date back to early Odawa settlements in the Manistee area, the Dogman is a creature of habit that hunts in ten year cycles.

The first recorded Dogman sighting took place in 1887, when lumberjacks working in rural Wexford County caught sight of a bizarre creature with the body of a man and the head of a dog. In the following decades, more and more witnesses reported seeing something unnatural out in the woods along the Manistee River. In 1938, in the township of Paris, a young man called Robert Fortney was attacked by five wild dogs while fishing. The horrific part of his testimony was that one of the dogs stood up on two legs to maul him. The creature – or creatures – was seen by witnesses throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with these sinister sightings, but it’s worth noting that much of the publicity and continued media interest the Dogman receives today should be attributed to The Legend, a song recorded by local DJ Steve Cook of WTCM Radio in 1987 – the centenary of that first account. It was intended as an April Fools’ prank, a treat for his loyal listeners, and he has stated that the beast in the song “was kind of an amalgamation of all these creatures I’d heard as a kid and heard stories about.” However, what began as a joke became a sensation. The radio station received dozens of calls from people claiming to have encountered a creature like the one described in the song. It was then that Cook decided to investigate further and realised just how far back into history the stories went.

In 2007, a film, widely referred to as The Gable Film, surfaced. Upon first viewing, it appears to be a home movie, featuring clips of a man chopping wood, a dog running in the woods and a child playing. However, the final 20 seconds show a strange lumbering creature on all fours approach the cameraman. The beast appears to collide with the cameraman and a flash of teeth is shown, then the video cuts out.

The film was eventually discovered to be a hoax. On a TV series called Monster Quest, Steve Cook explained how the film was made, adding that the supposed creature was actually an actor in a Ghillie suit.

In a way, the popular image of the Michigan Dogman as it exists today belongs to Steve Cook. Those reports and accounts, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, might never have been connected without him. He considers himself a sceptic, because he’s seen the legend evolve – people have taken the tale inherent in the song and, perhaps, blown it out of proportion. Maybe the fame of the song has caused some bias among alleged witnesses.

Then again, Cook accepts that the legend is “an avenue” for people to explain sightings that they might not otherwise understand. There is still a lingering sense of fear in interviews with witnesses, as seen on documentaries like Monsters and Mysteries in America. The terror that people felt – whether or not they truly faced the Dogman – makes the final line of The Legend especially eerie. What if there is some truth behind Steve Cook’s simple tune about a local myth?

And somewhere in the northwoods darkness a creature walks upright
And the best advice you may ever get …
Is don’t go out at night.

 

For more about the Dogman: