13 O’Clock Movie Retrospective: Phantasm

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The Healing Power of Pop-Star Demons: An Appreciation of “Brimstone and Treacle”

As you all know, I really do like to write my long-form movie appreciations on this here blog, but also as you know, I sometimes get so busy with all my other projects that my long posts kinda fall by the wayside. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working my ass off recording all my works in audio book form (there are two for sale so far, here and here), and also slaving away at the 13 O’Clock Podcast. But I’ve got a couple hours to kill at the moment, and I saw a pretty damn good movie the other day, so let’s do this.

How I ended up watching it was something like kismet. The God of Hellfire woke up on Sunday morning, and immediately (and inexplicably) started describing scenes from a movie he’d seen a long time ago, asking if I knew what movie it was. It didn’t sound familiar, but then he suddenly remembered that Sting had been in it, which narrowed the possibilities down quite a bit. After a few minutes of sleuthing, we discovered that the film was Brimstone and Treacle, from 1982. It seemed strange to me that I had never seen it, because it was written by influential British playwright Dennis Potter, whose The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven I had quite enjoyed. I read the synopsis of Brimstone and Treacle and thought it sounded intriguing, and the GoH told me it was right up my alley, so we immediately tracked the movie down so I could remedy this grave oversight in my British movie watching expertise.

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Brimstone and Treacle was originally written and produced in 1976 for the UK’s much-beloved Play For Today series, but upon seeing the finished product, the BBC balked at its disturbing content and refused to air it. Potter rewrote it for the stage, and it was produced there in 1977. The original Play For Today version was finally shown on British television in 1987, but the version I want to talk about was the delightfully dark and bizarre 1982 version. There are spoilers ahead for both the film and the TV versions, so reader beware.

Sting, doing a pretty entertaining take on Malcolm McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange, plays a mysterious young con man named Martin Taylor. His game entails running into random dudes on the street, pretending to know them, and then trying to wangle his way into their lives for purposes unknown. He fails at his first attempt, but then sets his sights on the harrumphing, uptight Tom Bates. Tom is leery of this rather pushy young fella, who claims to be a friend of his daughter Patricia, and he grows even more suspicious when Martin doesn’t even know that Patricia was in a terrible car accident a few years previously which left her brain damaged and completely dependent upon her parents. Sensing his skepticism, Martin fakes an illness, and it would seem that Tom has been hooked, because he agrees to bring his car around and take Martin back to his house to recover. But the wary Tom instead ditches the young man and heads home without him. The sly Martin, however, has lifted Tom’s wallet during his “fainting spell,” so now he not only knows where Tom lives, but has an excuse to pay the Bates family a visit.

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Martin arrives at the Bates home later that evening, and immediately turns on his considerable charm. He claims that Tom must have dropped his wallet in all the confusion, and Martin, being a good samaritan, immediately came to return it. Martin begins buttering up Tom’s wife Norma (who was named Amy in the original TV version), praising her saintliness and patience in taking care of Patricia, and sympathizing with her about how hard her life has become after her daughter’s accident. Tom is not having any of it and tries to get rid of the guy, being outright rude to him and shouting at his poor wife like an asshole, but Norma sees only a genuinely delightful young man who is advocating for her and siding with her against her condescending husband. Norma is even further entranced by Martin’s professed piety (Norma is a simple woman and very religious, while Tom is a bitter, hateful atheist who nonetheless makes his living publishing religious texts for the bereaved. It should also be noted that in the TV version, he was a member of the National Front and a raging xenophobe, though this was not explicitly mentioned in this film version).

When Martin claims that not only had he been friends with Patricia, but that he had also asked her to marry him while they were at college together, Norma sees no problem at all with allowing Martin to stay in the house for a little while to care for Patricia so that Norma can have a much-needed break. Tom seems like he’s going to bust a vein as all this is going on, and a few blazing arguments ensue, but eventually, Martin’s excellent cooking and apparent conscientiousness make Tom soften his hatred somewhat. Martin does appear to be taking good care of Patricia, cleans the house for the family while they are out, and seems to behave impeccably. Norma is blissfully happy, as she can now leave the house to go get her hair done and do some window shopping, which she hasn’t been able to do at all in the years since Patricia’s accident.

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But as it turns out, Tom was right to be suspicious of the too-good-to-be-true Martin, though it’s never made explicitly clear what Martin’s true endgame is, or what exactly he intended to do once he had won his way into the Bates family’s confidences. For no sooner has Norma toddled off to the salon than Martin begins sexually assaulting the bedridden Patricia, who is so brain damaged that she cannot speak to tell anyone about his attacks. This is creepy enough, but the strangest thing about Brimstone and Treacle is that even though molesting a disabled girl is obviously a horrible thing for Martin to be doing, the outcome of the entire episode turns out to be almost entirely positive, in a really bizarre and sort of disturbing way (hence why the film’s subject matter so bothered the BBC).

Now, in the TV version, it’s pretty clearly implied that Martin is a demon; his character is even portrayed with hairy feet. In the film version, this is merely hinted at; Martin looks completely normal, but there are some offhand remarks he makes (“I could be the Devil himself!”) that hint toward a possible demonic (or dark angelic) nature. At one point in the film, while Martin and Norma are praying by Patricia’s bedside, lights start flashing and the curtains start blowing around in what seems to be a supernatural storm of some kind, but it’s implied that this may be only from Martin’s point of view, as Norma does not seem to notice it. Tom also dreams of the young man acting as an agent of chaos, which he does end up being in the end, though whether this is a good or bad thing is left to the viewer to decide.

During the course of the film, it comes to light that Tom was fucking around on his wife with one of Patricia’s young friends (and it’s further implied that he is one of those skeevy über-conservative dudes who is all into underage girls, and perhaps even had sexual feelings for his own daughter). Patricia caught him in flagrante delicto two years before, and ran out into the street, whereby she was hit by a truck and put into her pitiable state. So it’s partially Tom’s guilt that makes him almost reluctant to even entertain the idea that Patricia will ever get any better, even while Norma is constantly praying for her recovery and insisting that the girl’s condition is improving. But Tom doesn’t WANT his daughter to get better, because he will be exposed, so he constantly denigrates Norma’s hopefulness and generally acts like a raging piece of shit.

But Martin’s awful actions toward the disabled Patricia have a (perhaps unintended) side effect. During his final and most blatant rape of her, she begins to scream, waking her parents, who run downstairs and find her naked. Martin has broken a window and escaped, but then the Bates discover that Patricia has completely recovered from her brain damage, and the first thing she does is point a finger at Daddy for fucking around on Mom and causing the accident that left her a vegetable for two long years (and could it be that dear old Daddy was also molesting her as well? This is left ambiguous, as all Patricia says to her father is, “How could you?”).

So here is the conundrum, as I mentioned, and what makes this movie so deliciously distressing. Martin was clearly up to no good from the beginning, sliming his way into the family and taking advantage of their hospitality, not to mention their poor daughter. But in the end, he also did them a great deal of good. He worked diligently for them for no pay, and he lifted a tremendous burden off Norma, allowing her to regain some semblance of a life for herself, as well as the confidence to stand up to her horrid husband. He also exposed Tom’s hidden, evil nature, as well as answered Norma’s prayers by apparently healing her daughter.

But was this his intention all along? Was he actually a demon, or perhaps a dark angel, doing God’s bidding, but in the ickiest way imaginable? Or was he just a dreadful person who inadvertently did the family some good? Would Patricia have gotten better anyway, even without Martin’s “ministrations”? It’s all left to the viewer’s imagination whether the chaos Martin caused was deliberate and meant to help them. At the very end of the movie, Martin is seen again walking the streets later that night, trying to pull his patented scam on yet another seemingly random man. But this man seems to know him, and as they walk off down the road, the man says that the bishop is waiting to see him, “with his one good eye.” Now what on earth could that possibly mean? (One-eyed bishop? That’s a dick joke, right?)

The GoH pointed out to me that perhaps Martin wasn’t “raping” Patricia as such, but was doing a sort of Biblical, Elisha-lays-on-dead-boy-and-brings-him-back-to-life deal. This sounds plausible, and perhaps it was what Potter had in mind, though I haven’t found any other reviews that make this connection, so who knows. GoH also remembered that Odin was often portrayed as one-eyed, so that might be another reference there (with Martin being a sort of trickster god figure), but again, it might be something else entirely.

That’s what makes this movie so great, though; it’s pretty uncomfortable to watch, what with all the disabled-girl-raping and the possible good that comes out of it, which leaves the viewer in a strange moral quandary, but it’s ultimately left up to us to decide how we feel about all of it. If you like Dennis Potter’s stuff, which tends toward the weird and misanthropic anyway, then I can’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy this one too; the performances are fantastic all around, and the whole atmosphere of it is just so pleasingly off-putting that I found myself quite enchanted by it, despite its grim and somewhat unsettling subject matter. There’s also a fairly twisted vein of particularly British black humor folded into the mix; another point in its favor. It also must be said that the soundtrack (consisting of mostly Police tunes, with some Go-Go’s and other stuff thrown in there) is also pretty rad.

Thanks for reading, as always, and until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

The Devil Went Down to Oxfordshire: An Appreciation of “The Blood on Satan’s Claw”

The small film subgenre of British folk horror is easily overlooked, with most casual fans only being able to point to a single example, the excellent and well-regarded cult classic The Wicker Man. But there were a few other sterling examples that deserve their place in the earthwork circle, as it were, such as The Devil Rides Out (based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley) and the terrific Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General. There is also the rather underrated gem we’re discussing today.

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1970’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (known alternately as Satan’s Skin or The Devil’s Touch) was the follow-up to Tigon British Film Productions’ hit Witchfinder General, and though it’s not quite as great or iconic as that earlier film, it still has much to recommend it. Tigon, incidentally, was a smaller horror production company that got somewhat overshadowed by film behemoths Hammer Films (who were famous for their Dracula films and their pioneering formula of gore and heaving boobies), and Amicus Productions (who were famous for their rad anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood and Vault of Horror).

The Blood on Satan’s Claw is set in a tiny English village somewhere around the end of the 17th century. Affable farmer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is plowing some fields one day and happens to unearth a janky-looking skull with one staring eyeball and what appear to be tufts of fur. Alarmed, Ralph summons the local judge to come check out his find, but of course, once the judge arrives, the skull is no longer there. The judge (played with great sardonic relish by Patrick Wymark) pooh-poohs all these insufferable rubes and their silly superstitions, and goes about his judgely way.

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Meanwhile, lanky local Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams), who looks like a Bee Gee doing Renaissance cosplay, brings his betrothed Rosalind (Tamara Ustinov) home to meet the family. His aunt is a stone-cold bitch to the girl, and forces her to sleep up in the stinky, unused attic. Peter tries to make the best of things, and promises he’ll be up for some farm-fresh lovin’ after his disapproving relatives have gone to bed.

But later that night, Rosalind apparently sees something horrifying in her room and starts screaming her hussy head off, prompting Aunt Twatface and the other old guy living there to do the only rational thing, which is to board her up in the attic until the men with the butterfly nets can get there to cart her off to the nuthouse. As she’s carried away, she shoots her fiancé a wicked grin, and we see that one of her hands has morphed into a claw. Peter, understandably, is bereft, but his relatives are all insensitive and shit, essentially telling him that he dodged a bullet and he should be happy that he didn’t end up married to some wanton demonic harlot. Peter, obviously, seems less than convinced.

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Soon afterwards, all hell literally breaks loose in the village. All the young’uns start hanging out together and playing creepy “games” out in the woods, and some of them develop icky patches of crepe werewolf hair on various parts of their anatomy. They stop turning up to their Sunday school classes, and act defiant and contemptuous toward village priest Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley).

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Incidents begin to escalate. Peter has a vision that his hand has also become a claw, and slices it off in a frenzy. The children lure friendly young Simon le Bon lookalike Mark Vespers (Robin Davies) into the woods and murder him, bragging to his mother that they have done so. It soon comes to light that all of the town’s youngsters have fallen under the spell of nubile hottie Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), who apparently got in on the ground floor of the Satan worship and is now running the show. Angel attempts to seduce the Reverend and then accuses him of raping her; orders her followers to hack off their own limbs or forcibly take limbs from others to apparently reconstruct her coming Master out of the severed parts; and perhaps worst of all, paints on crazy Wolfman Jack eyebrows just a touch too high over her natural ones, making her look like some pagan blonde version of Frida Kahlo.

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After Ralph’s intended, the adorable Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury), is brutally raped and sacrificed by the child cult (in what is actually a fairly disturbing scene, due to the frighteningly realistic terror on Cathy’s face), the judge is persuaded to come back to the village to deal with all the devilry that his rational ass was initially so dismissive of. The end of the film is actually a bit of a letdown, as it’s somewhat abrupt and anticlimactic, and I’m not too sure how I feel about the final reveal of the Supreme Evil Overlord, who looks a bit too much like a short dude wearing a gorilla suit and a papier-mache Halloween mask, but hey, it was 1970, and I can forgive a touch of cheesiness in costuming, especially since the camera doesn’t really linger on the monster before he is summarily dispatched.

If you’re a fan of this type of pagan British horror, you probably owe it to yourself to see this one, even though it’s not quite at the same level as the other folk horrors I mentioned. Despite the cast looking oh-so-painfully seventies, and despite the over-the-top accents and regionalisms, and despite the pacing being slightly off, this is actually quite an enjoyable little horror flick with some genuinely tense scenes, a bit of decent gore (such as one character having her fur patch sliced off by a doctor, and later getting her leg caught in a bear trap), and some pretty fantastic cinematography of the English countryside.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends, and if you suddenly develop an unexplained area of coarse black hair somewhere on your person, consult your local witchfinder immediately.

Goddess out.

Our Podcast is Now on the Project iRadio Network!

Our brand spanking new podcast is now going to be a regular weekly show on the Project iRadio network of podcasts, thanks to Armand Rosamilia and Jess Roberts. Please check out our first episode over there and listen to some of their other awesome shows too! Also, don’t forget to check us out on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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Hulu Horror Double Feature: Megan Is Missing and Playdate

Well, last time it was devil-babies, and this time it’s hellish teens and pre-teens of a more prosaic sort. You know the drill by now, so let’s get on with the kid-killin’.

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First up, a movie I had heard quite a bit about, but had never got around to seeing until it popped up during my indecisive Hulu scrolling. Megan Is Missing (2011) caused quite a stir when it was released a few years back, with some critics hailing it as a realistically horrifying cautionary tale about today’s teens and their cavalier attitudes toward living their entire lives online, and many other critics calling the film an exploitative piece of trash with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I’m still not really sure where I fall on the spectrum, but I will say that I wasn’t really crazy about this one, and not for the reasons you might think.

If you somehow missed all the foofaraw, Megan Is Missing was directed by Michael Goi and was another found-footage faux-documentary that was supposed to be based on a real case. The actual truth of the matter is that the film was loosely based upon the kidnapping and murder of two young Oregon girls, though aspects of other cases were also added into the mix. Director Goi is on record as saying that he made the film as a sort of public service announcement to warn parents about the dangers their children face on the internet (even though the case it was supposedly based on didn’t have anything to do with internet predators). I’m not so sure I buy that, but I’m not really going to wade too much into the larger implications of this film and what messages it might be sending; I’m just going to concentrate on whether the movie was any good.

Annnnnd…it was not. Briefly, the movie uses a mishmash of ostensibly real camcorder footage, video chats, and TV news reports to tell the story of 14-year-old Megan, a slutty and shallow “popular” teen with a terrible home life, and her best friend, the socially awkward and virginal Amy. Megan, who does drugs and whores around because Mama doesn’t love her, naively begins flirting with some rando online by the name of Josh, and because you know what the title of this movie is, I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that Josh ends up not being who he says he is. Megan disappears, all her equally horrible popular-girl friends at school pretend like they give a shit, and the local news exploits the tragedy with all of the classlessness they can muster, which is quite a lot.

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Good-girl Amy, who seems to be the only person in the movie who actually cared about Megan at all, goes to the police and tells them about “Josh.” And because this movie is kind of retarded and doesn’t know how news or police investigations work, Amy’s face is plastered all over the TV along with the revelation that she told the cops about this Josh person. Which naturally means that Josh is going to target Amy next, and yes, that is exactly what happens. Josh kidnaps Amy, and we get to see, in rather disturbing detail, what ultimately happened to Megan.

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Some observations. Firstly, the acting in this was pretty atrocious. Save for Amber Perkins, who played Amy and was actually somewhat relatable, every other “teen” in this movie was annoying as shit. Yes, teenagers in general are annoying as shit; I will concede that point, but really, the portrayals here are just extremely forced, over the top, and unrealistic. None of the characters’ emotions feel genuine, none of their conversations flow naturally. Everyone just sounds like they’re reciting their lines off of cue cards. The “news” footage that’s interspersed throughout is also ridiculously overblown, but I’m pretty sure that the director was deliberately doing that to make a point about how the media exploits tragedies of this type, especially when they involve pretty teenage white girls. So I’ll give half a point for some obvious, but depressingly accurate, media satire.

Secondly, if you’re going to make a movie with the conceit that it’s entirely composed of real footage, at least try to make it believable and technologically correct. The story is supposed to be taking place in 2007, but all the teenagers casually communicate via crystal-clear video calls on their old Motorola Razrs, which was totally not a thing that those phones did in 2007. Who the fuck video calls on their phones anyway? Everyone texts, director bro. Also, a lot of the footage that was recorded by the characters was not something that anyone in their right mind would record in real life, and it’s just really obvious how some of this stuff was ham-handedly shoehorned in to forward the plot. Probably the most egregious example of this was the notorious final 22 minutes of the movie, which — SPOILER ALERT — was recorded by Josh, on Amy’s camcorder. For some unfathomable reason, Josh records himself imprisoning, debasing, raping, and burying Amy alive, AND THEN THROWS THE CAMERA CASUALLY INTO A GARBAGE CAN NEAR WHERE HE KIDNAPPED HER FROM. The police find it, obviously, which is purportedly how the footage ended up in this movie. No, Josh never appears on camera, but how stupid is this guy? He’s not disguising his voice, we can see his shoes, and there are very clear shots of the underground dungeon where he keeps his victims. Any decent police detective would be able to track this asshole down immediately, especially since he probably left his goddamn fingerprints all over Amy’s camera. And that’s setting aside the fact that they probably would have already found the dude anyway, simply by tracking the IP address he was using to contact the girls.

Now, let’s talk about that last 22 minutes for a bit. This part of the movie was what got everyone into a lather about how “sick” this film was, and yeah, in a way I can see what people were bothered about. The footage doesn’t really show anything super graphic – this is no A Serbian Film, in other words – but it can be fairly uncomfortable to watch a girl who is supposed to be 14 standing there in her underwear pleading for her life and being forced to eat out of a bowl like a dog. And the rape scene is probably more affecting than a really graphic sequence would be, since we only see a close-up of Amy’s hopeless face as Josh pounds at her, then a brief shot of his bloody fingers, indicating that she was a virgin. This scene was actually the only effective one in the film, and was all the better for demonstrating a restraint that was notably absent in the rest of this thing. And the scene where Josh opens the barrel and we see Megan’s decomposing corpse briefly was also pretty well done. The thing is, though, had the entire movie leading up to this point made us care anything about these characters at all, then this final 22 minutes would have been DEVASTATING. As it was, it was just mildly disturbing and went on for so long that it just started to get boring, which I’m sure is definitely not what the director intended.

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Thirdly, I question the decision to make the kids talk and act so frankly sexual for most of the first part of the movie. I’m not arguing whether or not real 14-year-olds talk and act like this; I know some of them do, and I know that the director was deliberately trying to be shocking and edgy by portraying them this way. But in the context of the movie, I think it made the characters less sympathetic to the audience. And the one scene in particular where Megan was describing the first time she gave a blow job when she was ten years old (in what was actually an oral rape) was supposed to make the viewer feel bad for her, but it went on so long and was so unnecessary to the story that it instead came across like the director was getting off on it, or was trying to appeal to the kind of people who would get off on it. So that was pretty icky.

All in all, I didn’t hate the movie enough to set it on fire or anything, or call for it to be banned like it was in New Zealand, but I feel like it could have been done so much better by someone with more of an idea what actual teenagers are like and a lot less tendency toward sensationalistic and pedophilic sleaze. Your mileage may vary, but I would suggest skipping it; it’s not really worth the time, and it’s not nearly as shocking as it thinks it is.

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The second movie in our kid-centric double feature was far more innocuous than its controversial precursor, but it ended up not really being any better, simply because it was dull and forgettable as shit. As I was watching Playdate (2012), I caught the distinct whiff of Lifetime movie emanating off the screen like stink lines off of Pigpen, and when I Googled the movie, I saw that my hunch was correct. This movie wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t really a horror movie either; it was more like an estrogen-heavy suspense thriller featuring a series of improbable events that finally culminated in the obligatory happy ending, where the ludicrously normal suburban family who had to go through some shit come out the other end not much worse for wear.

Playdate is the story of the preciously-named Valentines (Emily and Brian), who live on a nice cul-de-sac with their adorable daughter Olive and their adorable dog Hunter. At the beginning of the movie, their adorable existence is slightly disrupted by the arrival of a new family next door, consisting of single mom Tamara and her two sons, roughhousing Billy and obviously mentally disturbed Titus. Olive and Billy hit it off, and in an attempt to be neighborly, the Valentines bring dinner over for their new neighbors, but while they are there, a strange man busts into the house. As the man is taken away by police, he tells the Valentines that “they” took his kid and that “they” would take the Valentines’ kid too. The next day, Tamara apologizes to the Valentines, saying that the man is her ex-husband, that he was abusive, and that she had been trying to get the boys away from him. Emily, of course, is sympathetic, and the Valentines offer to help their new neighbor as best they can.

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Soon enough, though, Emily begins to suspect that something isn’t quite kosher over at the other end of the cul-de-sac. She discovers that the man Tamara claimed was her ex-husband had actually never been married to her at all, and in fact turned up dead in a hotel room of an apparent suicide two days after he broke into her house. What’s more, the man had a son who had died in a supposed accident two years before that he had always believed was a murder.

Other sketchy things start to happen: the dog ends up dead, Billy pushes Olive off a slide and breaks her arm, and Tamara makes vague not-quite threats toward Emily. Emily becomes convinced that Tamara is beating her kids, killed her supposed ex-husband, and poisoned their dog. Lackadaisical Lifetime-movie-dad Brian thinks Emily is overreacting to everything and poking her nose in where it doesn’t belong, but Emily is convinced that there is something exceptionally shifty about Tamara and is gonna find out what it is, goddammit.

As the movie progresses in its harmlessly dumb, PG-rated way, we find out that – SPOILER ALERT, but not really because it’s obvious from the first five minutes who the real troublemaker is – Titus was the killer all along, after he attempts to crush Brian under the vintage Mustang he’s been working on, in what is surely the most avoidable attempted murder in movie history. Tamara was only acting so sinister because she was trying to protect her whackjob son, dontcha know. So yeah, the dog is dead, and Titus gets arrested, but Brian ends up fine even though it looked like his head was squished when the car fell on him, and Emily is fine and Olive is fine, and Tamara and Billy are fine, and Emily pays to have Brian’s Mustang completely restored while he’s recovering from the head-crushing, and it’s all back to blissful normalcy in Lifetime Movie Land.

This one…meh. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great. It just kind of sat there, not harming anyone, not upsetting anybody. There was obviously no gore, no real intrigue or mystery, no interesting character developments or plot twists. The acting was fine, but also just kind of there. Lifetime is nowhere to go for horror, or even for plots that aren’t formulaic and characters that aren’t bland stereotypes. As far as movies go, you could do a lot worse, but you could also do a hell of a lot better, so why bother, really?

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.