I finally signed up for Shudder, the niche streaming horror service, when they ran a crazy promotion on Halloween. The platform has quickly become one of my favorite streamers, with a wide selection of films broadly classed as horror that range from the mainstream, to the iconic, to the rare. I thought I’d round up a few of the favorites I’ve found on the service in the last few weeks. All together these are definitely worth a one month subscription and binge.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
This was actually a rewatch for me, but in the decade-plus since its release it has not lost a bit of brilliance. Behind the Mask is a smart deconstruction/subversion of the slasher genre with lots of subtle comedy. Set in a world where classic movie slashers actually exist, a documentary film crew follows Leslie Vernon on his quest to become the next Jason. What preparation must someone go through to achieve this goal? According to Leslie its lots of reading Gray’s Anatomy, studying psychology, and doing a lot of cardio. So much cardio. Highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a fun and smart horror flick. There are plenty of smarts to outweigh the violence and diffuse the tension, so the squeamish can have fun with this one.
Blood Vessel (Shudder Exclusive)
Shudder was pushing this one hard around Halloween as it was a new exclusive film to the service. A Nazi battleship infested with vampires? Yes, please! The addition of an international cast of Allies helps heat up the interpersonal tension to a nice temperature before throwing us head first into a family of Nosferatu-style vampires. Fun and just creepy enough to qualify as a solid B-Movie. Recommended if you like good-bad movies. Also, mad props to the double meaning of the title.
A Tale of Two Sisters
I admit I didn’t actually watch this one on Shudder, but I was pleased to discover it was on there. I watched this on DVD in early October at a friend’s mad insistence after I showed him Crimson Peak (which he loved). A Tale of Two Sisters is a slow burn Korean gem that leaves you confused until the climax, then leaves you with a few satisfying questions. Highly recommended if you’re interested in a cerebral WTF-fest.
The Monster Club
I’ve been trying to get ahold of a copy of this film for over a year, so I was overjoyed when I found it on Shudder. Released in 1981 but with the definite feel of a late 1970s horror comedy, this surreal beauty tells three short stories tied together by a framing sequence staring the incomparable Vincent Price. Between each vignette a different band performs a different – but very 1970s – rock song about monsters. This one has to be seen to be believed. Recommended if you love non-sequitur comedy and 1970s horror (that’s a double yes for me).
Host (Shudder Exclusive)
I’ve got to close out this list with Host, which was one of the main reasons I wanted Shudder in the first place. This film exploded in the press in August, and the accolades are well deserved. Filmed over 12 weeks and entirely on Zoom, this 60 minute film follows a group of friends on a seance conducted over Zoom. Based on reviews I was expecting a good ride, but holy shit is this a masterwork! Everything is on point from the dialog, to the interpersonal dynamics, to the perfect foreshadowing, to Easter eggs for horror aficionados. One high point was when the wife and I were staring at the screen looking for classic paranormal stuff and she exclaimed, “I can’t tell if that’s a ghost or Zoom pixelation!” I’m convinced that was 100% intended; that’s how well this film mastered its medium. A film that could not have existed a year ago, Host is a horror story for our time, based on our shared trauma. For an added freakout effect, watch it on a laptop. Be warned though, this one goes to eleven really fast.
That’s it for now, but I expect I’ll return with more niche movie recs as unending quarantine stretches into the dark winter.
The Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region is one of the greatest ongoing atrocities in the world. Over one million ethnic Uyghurs have been imprisoned, relocated, and sent to forced labor camps where they make, among other things, Covid-19 masks. The treatment of Uyghurs is an unironic talking point for many Republican senators under the “China Bad” banner. So desperate are they to point at the liberal entertainment industry (under the unending “Liberals Bad” banner), that now Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is a Republican talking point.
The conflict centers around comments Liu made in an expansive and outstanding New Yorker interview from 2019 authored by Jiayang Fan. Normally careful to avoid politics, a few beers (mixed with Southern Comfort) were enough to get him to comment when asked about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Fan reports that
he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”
This quote was enough to make some Republican senators – specifically Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Rick Scott (Florida), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), and Martha McSally (Arizona) – foam at the mouth. Hence an angry letter to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was written to demand that the CCO explain how Netflix could possibly produce a series adaptation of the international Hugo award winning bestseller. “Does Netflix agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s interment of 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs in internment or labor camps based on their ethnicity is unacceptable?” the letter asks. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Netflix if they think the thousands of children held at the US-Mexico border under appalling conditions by the US Republican Party is unacceptable?
Fortunately, I’m not the CCO of Netflix, who responded by saying “We do not agree with his comments, which are entirely unrelated to his book or this Netflix show.”
The thing is, Liu’s comments aren’t entirely unrelated to his book. It’s hard to understate Liu’s notoriety in China. The New Yorker interview was conducted while Liu was in Washington D.C. to receive the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Award for Imagination in Service to Society, which could not have been more fitting as Liu is very much China’s Arthur C. Clarke. Liu has received countless honors both in China and abroad, and his international reputation is a source of pride for the Chinese government. He is credited with bringing science fiction into the mainstream in China, with his novella The Wondering Earth adapted into China’s first science fiction blockbuster, becoming the third highest grossing Chinese film in history. In the western world, Clarke was one of the writers that brought science fiction into the mainstream. He was a scientist, inventor, and television host. His most well known books include 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Rendezvous with Rama. The latter contains this gem:
Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of a well-upholstered lady officer through the control cabin.
Now you might dismiss that by saying that it was written in the 1950s. Except it wasn’t written in the 1950s, it was written in 1973 in the middle of Second-wave Feminism, two years after Helen Reddy released “I Am Woman.” I can not, and will not, defend the above quote, but that does not say anything about the quality of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a phenomenally trippy ride. Despite what Star Trek fans will tell you, science fiction is not the best source of material to build a moral belief system. Science fiction authors hold a funhouse mirror to their society and show us glory or absurdity. Having a black woman on the bridge of the starship Enterprise was a strong vision of equality in 1966, but it is equally interesting to me that the vision the studio was comfortable with was one where that bridge officer’s sole job was to answer the telephone. Notably, the original Star Trek pilot had a white woman (Gene Roddenberry’s future wife) as first officer, but the studio nixed that idea in part because test audiences found her to be “too bossy.”
If you only accept art from people you agree with morally then you will rapidly find yourself robbed of some great art. Lovecraft was a racist. Asimov was a sexual predator. J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. These facts stand next to their literary careers, but don’t – and shouldn’t – overshadow them. Nor should their accomplishments hide these deplorable opinions. Art that you love was created by imperfect human beings. Since nobody is perfect that should not come as a shock to anyone. Art speaks to us each on an individual level, which the authors have little control over. The magic of fiction is that authors place something before us, but what we take away can be much greater than the material given. Words on a page can turn into self realizations of life changing magnitude. The simple existence of a black lady on a spaceship three hundred years in the future became a sign of hope to African American children living through segregation, inspiring them to pursue careers in science. As a young girl, Whoopi Goldberg famously ran to her mother after seeing an episode of Star Trek and exclaimed “Momma! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!” Whoopi has since been a lifelong fan of all things Trek, which led her to request – and receive – a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Liu’s stories are fascinating, and he is undeniably a great writer. I’ve read The Three-Body Problem and one of his short stories titled Taking Care of God. In the latter, white bearded aliens come to Earth, having created all life as a means to establish an old-folks home for themselves. We are told that this is the normal course of societal evolution, and the “God” civilization is in its twilight. I interpreted the story as a metaphor for the difficulty and sacrifice in having to care for elderly family members, something that is a major aspect of Chinese culture. This cultural need is a great financial burden, as discussed in the story, but it also offers a great opportunity for knowledge and growth – if it is not squandered. Like all great science fiction, Liu’s work is full of cultural metaphor and reflection, but any reflection must come through the eyes of the author. Just as we see Clarke’s opinion of women in the above passage, we see Liu’s interpretation of his own society throughout his works. Fan describes a scene from Liu’s writing which is often marked by unconscionable moral choices.
An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”
Is this a criticism or an endorsement of the cold logic of survival? It’s unclear, but it doesn’t have to be clearly one way or another. Put another way, do you read it as a criticism? Maybe you read it as a reflection of the idea that in the face of complete destruction our compassion will evaporate, leaving only cold logic. Liu’s original intention is irrelevant outside of an academic discussion.
Liu has stated that his work is not political. “The whole point is to escape the real world!” he says. Many authors have used that refrain when they face criticism or censorship for their work. I can’t blame Liu for echoing that claim. Maybe he doesn’t think his work is political, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. His writing has elevated him through a system where elevation is fraught with challenges of being born in the right place and to the right people (not unlike the USA). He is living a good life – a dream life – and he wants to keep it that way. Maybe he believes what he said and maybe he doesn’t, but we don’t have to live in the system he lives in.
In a way, maybe he’s right. Like I mentioned, we have camps in the USA that house people our society identifies as Others. Maybe “ordinary folks” don’t really care about that type of thing. Maybe, in the end, neither do Republican senators.
My two favorite Star Trek movies (one from the original cast and one from the reboot) are thematically linked. It’s sort of a subtle link if you’re not well acquainted with the soul of science fiction, but they are undoubtedly connected.
At its height science fiction presents a reflection of some aspect of our world through the fantastical looking glass of a future existence. Simply put, we’re talking about metaphor. Once I became old enough to appreciate the historical context of a science fiction film I fell in love with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. At the start of the film an environmental catastrophe all but cripples the Klingon economy. Left unaided, Klingon society will undergo a complete collapse within decades. With no other option the Klingon government asks the United Federation of Planets for peace negotiations. They can no longer afford a state of constant war. When Star Trek first aired during the Cold War, the Klingon and Romulan species both represented different aspects of the Soviet Union. Star Trek VI premiered in 1991 and at the time the Soviet Union had been in a state of decline for a few years. Ironically, its complete collapse would occur within weeks of the film’s theatrical release!
Star Trek VI is all about change amid great political upheaval. When the Starfleet admiralty is discussing options going forward one member asks if they’re “talking about mothballing the Starfleet,” to which an admiral responds that Starfleet’s exploration mission will remain. This line always struck me because the Original Series made it clear that the primary purpose of Starfleet was exploration (an idea that we’ll come back to when we discuss the other Star Trek movie). This short exchange is pure metaphor. Without the Soviet Union what is the need for the military industrial complex? Well, there are still peacekeeping needs.
The Enterprise is ordered to personally escort the Chancellor of the Klingon government to the peace accords, when the Chancellor is assassinated aboard his own ship with Kirk and McCoy framed for the crime. Though not guilty, Kirk is not entirely innocent in all this. Kirk privately tells Spock that the smart move is to “let them die” because he carries racial hate against the Klingons for killing his son (Star Trek III). He’s not the only one. We learn that a lot of the crew hate the Klingons, in particular Scotty who is apparently a racist bastard. In the end, the Enterprise crew save the day and peace is made with the Klingon Empire, Kirk having been inspired by the words of the Klingon Chancellor who desired peace even with his dying breath.
The Chancellor quoted Shakespeare when referring to “the undiscovered country,” which in the film is little more than a code word for “the future.” What does the future hold after centuries of fighting the Klingons (or decades of hostilities with the Soviet Union)? What does such a world even look like? There are those that are entirely unprepared and unwilling to face it. Kirk has every reason to hate the Klingons, and through the events of the film comes to realize that he can no longer carry the hate he has inside him. He comes to this conclusion after seeing the hate of those like him reflected in a massive conspiracy that he was a partial victim of. The idea is that if Kirk can accept this change then most should be able to, though it won’t be easy.
Thematically this is similar to Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of the rebooted franchise staring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. Rejoining the crew of the Enterprise three years into their iconic five year mission we find a listless Kirk struggling to find meaning in the “episodic” exploration of space. One day bleeds into another as stability gives the impression of a lack of adventure. Kirk has applied for command of a massive star base, looking to leave behind the life of a starship captain. Fundamentally, he struggles to see his place in the Universe.
Unexpectedly the Enterprise comes into conflict with a powerful army led by a man named Krall who seeks to destroy the Federation in order to return the galaxy to a period of chaos, ideologically believing that only chaos breads strength. Through fortuitous circumstances the crew discovers that Krall is actually a hundred plus year old human Starfleet captain mutated by the ancient alien technology that has kept him alive. Krall (formerly Captain Edison) was made a captain and given one of the first ships after the Federation was formed. Before that he was a highly decorated MACO, a member of a tactical response unit in Earth’s military (first introduced in Star Trek Enterprise). He fought in both the Xindi and Romulan wars and felt he was discarded by the Federation and asked to “break bread with the enemy.”
Star Trek VI was a film of its time, reflecting a fear of the future that was very real to those living through it. Star Trek Beyond is the same, working through a fear of globalization.
Globalization has brought about an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in our world, but at the same time that stability has resulted in a loss of identity for some. For those of us that have grown up in this period of stability it is easy to forget the old warhorses that helped make it possible. Institutions like NATO and the EU have brought about the longest periods of sustained peace in human history, and as a direct consequence we now question what use they are because for us they seem to do nothing but rob each nation of its sovereignty. While globalization ensures peace by bringing all peoples closer to one another it simultaneously blurs cultural lines. Societies mix and blend into new flavors. Depending on ones perspective this blending can appear to be contamination, infiltration, or corruption.
When Krall launches his terrorist attack on the star base Yorktown we see Federations citizens running in fear. We see many races but a single people. The United Federation of Planets is the utopian vision of liberalism, its society a homogeneous blend of all cultures of the member worlds; an interstellar melting pot. Krall sees humans and aliens working side-by-side and can’t stand what that does to his vision of humanity, but more importantly he can’t reconcile what that means for his understanding of himself.
Krall is a veteran, having fought to protect the human race. He feels he was discarded and disrespected by the Federation. Out of “respect” they made him a Starfleet captain, dressing up a soldier as an explorer. Kirk tries to explain that the wars were won and the prize is peace, but Krall will hear none of it. He can’t let go of his hate for the alien.
Just like Star Trek VI, Beyond is about change in our world. Both films are about those that can’t move beyond the ways of the past. They would rather prevent forward motion and drag society backwards to what they consider “the good old days.” The only good thing about those days is that they felt they understood the world order. Where we are now, and where we are going, is confusing to them. When a personal value system is based on superiority and opposition, understanding and acceptance are hostile concepts.
Great science fiction is steeped in metaphor, and these two films explore important aspects of our culture in entertaining ways. Plus that Beastie Boys number is solid.
Fahrenheit 451 is, perhaps sadly, a timeless tale. In the 65 years since its publication, the original novel by Ray Bradbury continues to haunt us in times of ignorance and fear. HBO’s latest film adaptation staring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon updates the basic concepts of the book into a story that triggers our latest fears.
Jordan and Shannon are riding high right now from their successes in Black Panther and The Shape of Water, respectively, so their presence draws more eyes to this movie than may have otherwise pointed its way. Poetically, this fact suits the movie because though the book may be timeless, this adaptation isn’t. The source material is pureed and poured into a mold shaped by today’s headlines and fears of where we may be heading tomorrow. The world of the firemen who burn books is not brought about by a government trying to control our thoughts, but by Americans sick of the complicated nature of life. By political correctness disgusted by the word “nigger” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By too many opinions on the Internet confusing us as to what is right and wrong. The Second American Civil War outlawed literature, philosophy, and any form of media that exists outside the sanctioned “9” – the new tightly controlled Internet. (An Internet seemingly free of any Net Neutrality regulation.) The movie plainly states that “The government didn’t do this to us. We did this to ourselves.” We chose this life, just like we’ve elected horrible leaders.
While idly sorting through a large cache of books before lighting them on fire, the firemen find great works of literature clearly worth saving, yet also among the piles is Mein Kampf. In this scene political correctness is brought up, and by ending the scene with Hitler’s infamous book we are reminded that the freedom to read comes with no strings attached – it must. Even in this future world three classics of literature are allowed: The Bible, To the Lighthouse, and Moby Dick. The inclusion of The Bible is clearly meant to poke at America’s de-facto Christianity, but all three of these books are objectively literary classics. Anyone can read these without punishment, but all other books have “problems” and contain only madness.
This is America. An America that censors books for any and every reason. An America where Texas conservatives call for the banning of books because they feature LGBT characters. An America where California liberals ban fifty year old books for racial slurs. To ban even one book is to risk walking confidently into Bradbury’s nightmare.
It is not hard to turn today’s American headlines into tomorrow’s dystopian America. It is comically easy to turn Homeland Security’s trademarked slogan “If You See Something, Say Something” into the catchphrase of any oppressive government run by fear, and Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t pass on the opportunity. I’ve always been a fan of modern film adaptations of classic novels because they can bring the cultural influences of today to bear on the iconic stories of yesterday. Streaming video and a thinly veiled mockery of the Twitter feed pervade the society of Fahrenheit 451, keeping everyone occupied and entertained without wanting to part the pages of a paperback.
Fahrenheit 451 is a novel for people who love books, and this latest adaptation is a film for people who love books. The passages read from outlawed books all “coincidentally” fit the mood of the film at that point in the story, thus the character’s actions are contextualized through other works of literature. The movie strives to remind us what we lose when we turn away from books that make us feel flawed and small, towards the instant gratification of our social media feeds. It is not a perfect effort, but it is worthy of praise as being a film for the current mood in America.
4 out of 5 stars.
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Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.