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A Doll’s Place is in the Home: The Sly, Semi-Subversive Domestic Politics of “Annabelle Comes Home”…

Annabelle Comes Home is an intriguing film. It’s arguably more intriguing than it is successful.

A large part of that is down to the way in which it very much basks in its position as an unlikely lynch pin of a horror shared universe populated by a variety of ghosts and ghouls that seem to be clamouring for their own spin-off movies like Annabelle or The Nun as the eponymous demonic doll just sits back and watches. It’s a surreal spectacle, particularly for a horror movie. Annabelle herself often feels like something of a passenger in her own movie, instead a tether for a variety of episodic horror adventures.

However, there is something more subversive and intriguing happening beneath the surface of the film. As the title implies Annabelle Comes Home is a story centred on the domestic environment, on a suburban family home menaced by a sinister supernatural threat. This is a standard horror movie set-up. A lot of horror movies focus on the idea of evil within the family environment, whether coming from within or without. Annabelle Comes Home borrows a number of cues from The Shining, including the bass on the soundtrack and a possessed typewriter, but it runs much deeper than that.

A lot of horror films focus on the nuclear family placed under siege, often as a metaphor for the pressures at work in the real world. Stephen King has pointed to movies like The Amityville Horror as examples as “economic horror”, reflecting the anxieties of families sinking into debt in their family homes during the seventies. (As if to underscore the point, the real life case that inspire the film was a fraud to help the family get out of debt.) Similarly, the liberal single-parent household in The Exorcist turns back to the Church, perhaps expressing deep-seated anxieties about liberalisation or shifting cultural norms.

There is often a strongly reactionary subtext to these sorts of horror stories. It is not always a conscious choice on the part of the production team, but it is rooted in the fact that change is scary and that subversions of conventional conservative dynamics are unsettling in large part because those conventional conservative dynamics are so ubiquitous. In short, audiences tend to see conventional family units as the default, so anything that attacks or erodes that is potentially uncanny and unsettling, and so many horror movies play on that instinctive reaction.

There are any number of obvious examples of how this approach can lead to very uncomfortable and unsettling implications. The Curse of La Llorona is perhaps an obvious (and easy) contemporary example. The basic set up of the movie finds a single (widowed) mother struggling to provide for her children; she has to leave them for extended periods to work at her job, but is also held back at that job because she is a single mother. Meanwhile, a Mexican spirit invades the family home and attaches itself to her children. The result is a film that seems to be about a single mother who leaves her children open to a foreign threat.

Part of what makes Annabelle Comes Home so interesting is the way in which it seems to play with this central dynamic, how it teases out and subverts some of the central subtext of the larger horror genre to which it belongs. Annabelle Comes Home is not so much a story about outside forces menacing a conventional family within the seeming comfort of their home, but is instead a story about two young women who end up trapped inside a suburban home and attacked by the monstrous forces that the family have consciously placed there and even folded built into the structure.

Annabelle Comes Home offers a slyly feminist twist on the familiar domestic horror.

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Non-Review Review: I Feel Pretty

I Feel Pretty has a very bold premise for an aspirational comedy.

Renee is a young woman wrestling with her insecurities, who dreams of being more beautiful. Inspired by a late-night viewing of Big, she is inspired to transform that dream into a wish, and pleads with some external power to physically transform her. Following an awkward accident (and a brain injury) at her “Soul Cycle” class, Renee wakes up and does not recognise her own body. The only catch is that the transformation is strictly internal. Renee is delusional. Her physical appearance has not changed, but the way that she sees herself has.

Reflective anxiety.

That is an ambitious premise, but also a loaded one. There are any number of potential misfires and miscalculations that could sabotage that premise, the skillful execution of the movie relying upon a pitch-perfect management of tone, a key understanding what the movie is trying to say at any given moment, and the sense that all of the production team are working from the same template towards the same goal.

Unfortunately, I Feel Pretty lacks that sense of cohesion, resulting in a mismatched tonal disaster, a film never entirely sure whether it is laughing with its protagonist or at her.

A tough premise to stomach.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Valiant (Review)

Valiant is a very bitter and mean-spirited little episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and all the more effective for that fact.

Some of that bitterness is baked into the basic premise. Valiant is an episode about a bunch of plucky young cadets who get brutally murdered for daring to believe in themselves. The final act of Valiant is a brutal piece of television, the camera lingering over the death and destruction on familiar sets, panning across the dead bodies of these promising young recruits. No matter how arrogant or inexperienced Red Squad might be, no matter how eager their participation in an attempted fascist coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost, it is still an unsettling image.

A legend in his own mind.

However, there is something even nastier lurking beneath the surface of this episode. On a superficial level, Valiant suggests that the guest characters fail in their daring mission because they lack the self-awareness to recognise the folly of their plan, but this is disingenuous. Countless Star Trek episodes have been built around far more reckless and audacious schemes, generally paying off the heroes. Valiant does not punish these young cadets for doing something that the main characters would never have attempted, it punishes them for not being the main characters.

Valiant is in some ways a brutal deconstruction of the typical Star Trek storytelling framework, an episode built around a selection of guest characters whose biggest mistake is assuming that they are the stars of the show rather than simply bit players. Valiant comes down hard on these would-be heroes, a reminder that life does not always operate according to familiar storytelling structures.

Hard to pin it on just one person.

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The Lone Gunmen – The “Cap’n Toby” Show (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

In its own way, The “Cap’n Toby” Show feels like an appropriate farewell to The Lone Gunmen.

The “Cap’n Toby” Show was not the last episode of The Lone Gunmen to be produced, but it was the last episode to air. It was broadcast three weeks after All About Yves closed out the first season of the show and more than a fortnight after news of the cancellation first broke. It aired with very little fan fare, avoiding even the modicum of publicity that FX earned as it burnt off the last six episodes of Harsh Realm only a year earlier. Just in case there had been any doubt, or any hope held out, The Lone Gunmen was definitely dead.

No need to get crabby...

No need to get crabby…

There is a melancholy to The “Cap’n Toby” Show that fits quite comfortably with The Lone Gunmen. The episode had clearly been held back in the hops of airing it during a hypothetical second season. Ideally, it would have given the production team a little lee-way at the start of the next season, perhaps even allowing the three title characters to pop over to The X-Files. The ninth season of The X-Files would be launching without Mulder, so some friendly faces would not be amiss. Airing The “Cap’n Toby” Show in mid-June puts paid to that optimism.

However, even allowing for all these issues, there is an endearing pluckiness and romance to The “Cap’n Toby” Show that feels at once entirely in keeping with the show and the characters. What better way to make a cancellation than with a forty-five minute ode to the nostalgic joys of television?

"Bye bye."

“Bye bye.”

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Jessica Jones – AKA Sin Bin (Review)

Kilgrave lies.

To be fair, that much should be obvious. Kilgrave is a character whose power hinges upon his ability to manipulate people using words. Of course he lies. Even his name is a lie. He lied to Jessica about the effectiveness of his powers, revealing that his decision not to control Jessica against her will wasn’t really a decision. He lies to everyone about his past, painting his concerned parents as cliché monsters. He lies to himself about his motivations, genuinely believing he is a victim in all of this.

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He also lies to the audience about his character, as AKA Sin Bin reveals Kilgrave is not a tragic and sympathetic antagonist with an explanatory childhood trauma after all. He is not the archetypal sympathetic bad guy whose actions can be explained away as the result of the horrible things that happened to him when he was a child. He is not the version of Wilson Fisk presented in Shadows in the Glass, a man who might have been a hero under other circumstances. Kilgrave is an unrepentant self-serving sociopath.

One of the joys of Jessica Jones is that the revelation that Kilgrave is unquestioning evil does not in any way make him a less complicated or compelling character.

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Jessica Jones – AKA You’re a Winner! (Review)

AKA You’re a Winner! is certainly a much better standalone episode than AKA 99 Friends.

Of course, the episode is tied more tightly into the arc of the season around. Although AKA You’re a Winner! does little to advance Jessica’ on-going pursuit of Kilgrave, it does allow the show to advance many of its individual character plots. In particular, it allows Jessica and Luke a bit of space to advance their own plot while Hope Slottman deals with the consequences of her trauma and while Kilgrave begins to enact his own endgame. There is a sense of pieces moving around a chessboard, but moving with purpose.

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Despite the fact that AKA You’re a Winner! is less literally tied to the hunt for Kilgrave than AKA Crush Syndrome or AKA It’s Called Whiskey, it feels like it adds substantial more momentum to the on-going plot. The middle stretch of Jessica Jones represents the point at which the show has the clearest sense of drive and identity, the point at which the show is most comfortable in its own skin. AKA You’re a Winner! is a relatively light character-driven piece than the episodes around it, but it retains a firm grasp of the characters involved.

AKA You’re a Winner! feels like the kind of episode that Jessica Jones should have employed earlier in the season.

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The X-Files – Dreamland II (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.

Morris Fletcher is (and remains) one of the more interesting aspects of the Dreamland two-parter.

Fletcher would go on to become perhaps the most unlikely recurring character in the history of The X-Files. Michael McKean would reprise the role for a brief cameo in Three of a Kind at the end of the season. As with Kersh, he would disappear from the show’s world for the troubled seventh season, but would return the following year. He made a guest appearance in All About Yves, the finalé of The Lone Gunmen. Fletcher would then follow the Lone Gunmen back to The X-Files, appearing in Jump the Shark during the final season.

And the shippers went wild...

And the shippers went wild…

A large part of what makes Fletcher work is the wonderful guest performance of Michael McKean. McKean is a veteran actor with a long history of great work, dating back to his breakout role as Lenny (and Squiggy) on the sitcom Laverne and Shirley. Along with the move to Los Angeles, the sixth season of The X-Files began to drift away from Chris Carter’s initial reluctance to cast recognisable actors in significant roles. The X-Files: Fight the Future had featured guest appearances from Martin Landau, Blythe Danner, Armin Muller-Stahl and Glenne Headly.

The two-parter built around Michael McKean paves the way for appearances from Ed Asner, Lily Tomlin and Bruce Campbell. These are all superb guest performances, and consciously play into the idea that the sixth season of The X-Files has taken on a more playful or vaudevillian style. It is too much to describe these guest roles as “stunt casting” in the same way that putting Jerry Springer in The Post-Modern Prometheus or Burt Reynolds in Improbable was stunt casting, but the casting decisions are part of a broader change in the show.

Our man Morris...

Our man Morris…

On paper, Morris Fletcher could easily come off as a one-note creep. After all, he is a character who thinks nothing of using his body swap with Fox Mulder to cheat on his wife of twenty years. There is a creepy and pervy banality to his evil, one that mirrors that of Eddie Van Blundht in Small Potatoes. However, while Small Potatoes felt a little too sympathetic to pathetic Eddie Van Blundht, Dreamland strikes a better balance in its portrayal of Morris Fletcher. McKean plays Fletcher as a very human character, but one who is no less creepy for his well-practiced charm.

It goes almost without saying that Michael McKean’s guest performance is a major reason why Dreamland (mostly) works.

Not particularly reflective...

Not particularly reflective…

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