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Non-Review Review: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger could do with being a little stranger.

Gothic horror stories about haunted houses are often about more than just the building or the estate itself. They often serve as something at once larger and smaller; a prism through which the storyteller might examine both the society around the haunted house and the family unit trapped within. This is true of most haunted house stories, no matter where or when they are set. The Amityville Horror is about much broader familial anxieties than a mere spectre.

Stranger Things…

At the same time, it feels particularly true when applied to the more traditional and old-fashioned gothic haunted house stories, the kind of tales about old family estates in the middle of nowhere, that had once served to anchor political and economic power in a particular area, but had since watched modernity pass them by. These are the sorts of creepy houses frequently glimpsed in period pieces or older stories, whether in tales set in the England of Wuthering Heights or the New England of Edgar Allan Poe.

The Little Stranger belongs to this particularly strain of haunted house horror, unfolding on a once grand estate that is slowly surrendering itself to a rapidly-changing world. It is the story of a house in decay and decline, falling apart as it struggles to find its place in a world that might slowly shed the trappings of class hierarchies and where power might no longer be anchored exclusively in those families wealthy enough to own and maintain these grand estates.

A sorry estate of affairs…

The Little Stranger works better as a mood than as a story, a slowly unravelling portrait of a household coming face-to-face with its own obsolescence, unsure both of whether it can do anything to arrest this collapse or even whether it wants to. The tale maintains a steady sense of unease across its runtime, largely down to a tremendous performance from Domhnall Gleeson as a character who remains ambiguous and unsettling even as he positions himself at the centre of the narrative.

The Little Stranger suffers from a fairly conventional and predictable plot, with little novel or insightful to say, relying on a series of revelations that are quite clear even fifteen minutes into the two-hour runtime. The Little Stranger is a little too familiar for its own good, a little too comfortable and sedate to really pack the necessary punch.

Farraday is far away.
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Star Trek – The Lights of Zetar (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The Lights of Zetar is another third season ghost story.

The third season of Star Trek is populated with these weird stories about long-dead souls refusing to pass on. There is Kirk’s haunting of the Enterprise in The Tholian Web, the dead world of Scalos in Wink of an Eye, the replicas of the long-dead Losira in That Which Survives, the title character in Requiem for Methuselah, the escapes into the past in All Our Yesterdays. It is almost as though the third season is working through its anxieties, a season television trapped between two cancellations.

Flash of inspiration.

Flash of inspiration.

The Light of Zetar features yet more death and destruction. The mangled bodies inside the Memory Alpha facility, contorted over the furniture. The lone survivor, screaming in agony. The eponymous spectral apparition that “cannot be a phenomenon of nature.” The inhabitants of Zetar, rendered non-corporeal through the destruction of their world, refusing to acknowledge that they have truly been dead for thousands upon thousands years. The argument that Mira Romaine must sacrifice herself so that the Zetar might live.

More than a ghost story, The Lights of Zetar is an exorcism story.

More like Memory Omega.

More like Memory Omega.

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Star Trek – That Which Survives (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Even the title feels morbid.

That Which Survives is sad and mournful. It is a story about returning, but wrong. It is the story of a dead world that by all accounts should not be, haunted by the image of a woman who has been dead for millennia. This spectre both is the original woman and is not; it is mechanical guardian that retains just enough of its subjects personality to be horrified by what it is doing. It is an unsettling premise, particularly for an episode that features Lee Meriwether menacing the crew with her arm outstretched while repeating “I am for you.”

The more, the Meriwether.

The more, the Meriwether.

However, Losira is not the only character who “comes back wrong” over the course of the episode. Over the course of That Which Survives, the crew of the Enterprise are thrown throw space and find themselves racing to rescue Captain Kirk. However, mysterious malfunctions begin to affect the script. Eventually, Spock deduces the cause. “The Enterprise was put through a molecular transporter and reassembled slightly out of phase.” In other words, the Enterprise was taken apart and put back together wrong.

This seems like as an apt a metaphor for the third season as any. Star Trek had been killed at the end of its second season, cancelled by NBC. The show was resurrected for a third season, although it did not return at full strength. Vital members of the production team departed the show. The budget was cut. An outside producer with no previous experience of working on the show was drafted. For many watching at home, there was a sense that the third season had changed. In some ways, Star Trek had come back wrong.

"At least we got in before the purple rain."

“At least we got in before the purple rain.”

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The X-Files – Trevor (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Trevor is a perfectly solid monster of the week episode of The X-Files.

In many respects, it feels like the episode that Alpha desperately wanted to be. It is very much a traditional story in a season that has been relatively untraditional in its structure and format. Mulder and Scully are assigned to a case that is explicitly paranormal and set about investigating it to the best of their ability. Along the way, Mulder and Scully become passengers in a story that involves the guest cast. Trevor is not as sly or self-aware as something like Monday, Arcadia or Milagro. It is a straightforward case of the week.

"I wanna take his face... off..."

“I wanna take his face… off…”

There are other similarities between Trevor and Alpha. Alpha was an episode that really wanted to tackle a very traditional monster in a very traditional way – it was a very disappointing attempt at a werewolf episode, following on from Shapes in the first season. In a way, Trevor alludes to a more classical monster story than most X-files. Wilson “Pinker” Rawls is effectively a wraith avenging himself upon those who did him wrong, the embodiment of past mistakes returned to haunt the living. He is a ghost, even beyond his ability to walk through walls.

Of course, Trevor provides a suitably pseudo-scientific explanation for what Rawls does, and the climax builds to an intimate family tragedy. However, Trevor feels very much like a classic ghost story about a man returned from the dead to visit retribution upon the living.

Diehl it back...

Diehl it back…

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Millennium – The Pest House (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Millennium is largely a show about the nature of evil.

It feels a little redundant to point that out more than halfway through the second of three seasons, but it is worth repeating. When Chris Carter created Millennium, he designed the show to explore the many faces of evil in a variety of ways. It could be argued that Millennium was largely spawned from episodes of The X-Files like Irresistible or Grotesque, stories fascinated by very human forms of evil that almost become supernatural. Carter and his writers played with that idea over the course of the first season, particularly in episodes like The Pilot and Lamentation.

A pointed commentary?

A pointed commentary?

However, Carter was not the guiding visionary for all of Millennium‘s run. He remained involved in the production of the show, but the day-to-day running of the series was handed over to Glen Morgan and James Wong, who immediately reinvented it from the ground up. One of the more interesting aspects of this transition is watching the differences in how the two creative teams approach various aspects of Millennium. In many ways, The Pest House would be read as an exploration and critique of Carter’s approach towards the concept of evil by Morgan and Wong.

Carter’s work seems to suggest that evil is an external and infectious force – a contagion or pathogen that can be passed from one person (or generation) to another. In contrast, Morgan and Wong seem to argue that evil must be rooted in a person, that it must come from inside rather than outside. The Pest House contrasts these two different visions of evil, finding Morgan and Wong playing with the recurring Ten Thirteen trope of evil as a transferable quantity that can be moved and reallocated. And The Pest House seems horrified by such a concept.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

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The X-Files – Shadows (Review)

Shadows feels a tad generic, but that’s by design. Written by the duo of Glenn Morgan and James Wong, Shadows was apparently intended to appease the network by offering something in the mold of a traditional ghost story – indeed, The Entity is often cited as an influence on the episode. Shadows runs off a rather conventional premise – a woman is haunted by a strange force capable of manipulating and moving objects, out to avenge some grave wrong.

In many respects, following The Jersey Devil, it almost seems like the first season of The X-Files is trying to knock off various items on a paranormal checklist. UFOs? Got ’em. A popular cryptozoology monster? Yep. Ghosts or poltergeists? We got a story here. The result is hardly inspiring. The X-Files tends to work a bit better when it’s venturing off the beaten track, taking something that isn’t mainstream and running with it.

Author John Kenneth Muir argued that watching The X-Files was like “watching a movie every week.” If that’s the case, Shadows feels more like a movie of the week.

The pen is mightier than the sword!

The pen is mightier than the sword!

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