Dark/Web (Amazon)

An experiment that combines the mixed bag of a "strange tales" anthology show, featuring various stories of varying theme, and a show with the more novelistic properties of a serialized story that carries characters and themes through a single, yet more extended and complex arc, the Amazon original Dark/Web succeeds in more ways than I had expected it would, but it partially fails for the very reasons one would expect,

At first encounter, the premise seems intriguing and scary - and likely to be entertaining. Each chapter tells a story within the overarching storyline of missing computer researcher Molly Solis, who works for the government. Through her job, she comes too close to learning that a valuable AI tool is being abused. She disappears; but in each episode she is able to bring another of her friends into her campaign against the evildoers. The individual episodes are uneven, but were sufficient to sustain my interest. I hope that Amazon may yet decide to proceed with a second season.


Us (HBO)

Get Out is a difficult film to discuss without spoiling, which is why I’ve yet to review it here. Us, however, is a film that is so rich in themes and symbols that you can directly address such things without addressing the particulars of plot. Take, for instance, its title. 

Since we know it’s a horror film, you don’t need to know that it concerns a family confronted by a crew of sinister doppelgangers to know that the film will pit “us” against “not-us” on its way to resolution. I can also tell you that there is some doubt and confusion raised about who “us” actually is, though telling you how that confusion is raised would certainly put us in spoiler territory.

The film opens with a series of titles that tell us of the existence of miles and miles of abandoned underground tunnels that span across the United States (aka the US), followed by a vintage TV “public service” ad promoting the 1986 charity drive “Hands Across America,” and the film begins its narrative in the year 1986, with a young girl named Adelaide enjoying a holiday with her family on a beach-side boardwalk and amusement park in Santa Cruz, CA. When her mother visits the ladies’ room, and her father is preoccupied with a game of Whack-A-Mole, Adelaide slips away, winding up in a hall of mirrors attraction, where she has a terrifying encounter with her duplicate self, though what actually occurs during this incident is concealed from the audience; this is followed by the credits, superimposed on a wall of rabbits in cages.

The film resumes in present day, with Adelaide on vacation with her husband and two children, at her family’s traditional vacation spot in Santa Cruz. Her husband is especially looking forward to visiting the boardwalk and amusement park, while Adelaide clearly dreads the outing, which is reasonable given what we have seen. When she is unable to avoid the trip, the roller coaster ride that follows takes us to places no one could guess, yet, when all is said and done, seem fated in retrospect.

Us is a puzzle-box of a film, where every moving part is locked into place by its other parts. If any part seems untethered, one only need look a little closer for the connecting thread. I’m looking forward to re-watching this one many times in years to come. 


Undertow (Amazon Prime)

Teenaged Chris is getting to be known as a troublemaker, and his younger brother, Tim, is a little strange, the sort who will eat mud and paint when he isn't watched. Their father John still mourns his dead wife, and keeps himself and his boys isolated; on his birthday Chris complains, "We can't even have friends. What kind of a birthday party is it with just the three of us?"

Their isolation is abruptly broken by the arrival of Deel, John's brother, just released from prison, with a score to settle: John's father had a horde of Mexican gold coins, and Deel feels entitled to half. At one point, he tells Chris a tale about the coins, and how they came to be cursed.

Eventually Deel confronts John about the coins, and kills him. The boys flee into the woods with the coins, with Deel in pursuit.

Undertow was called by critics a “Southern Gothic” thriller comparable to Night of the Hunter. Today’s fans may find it a little slow-going, but it will be of interest to Halloween fans who want to guess where writer-director David Gordon Green may be planning to take Michael Myers in the two Halloween sequels he’s been assigned.

 Mom and Dad (Hulu)

Ever since his bug-munching, eye-bugging, Nosferatu-possessed turn in Vampire’s Kiss (1988), I have refused to let any critic make up my mind for me when it comes to Nicolas Cage. So, thirty years later, when critics chose to come down hard on several films of Cage’s made in the course of recent years, it wasn’t until recently, when I caught up with a few of these movies, that I arrived at an opinion of the current state of Cage.

It’s no secret that Cage has been in deep difficulties with the US Internal Revenue Service for more than a decade, and as a result, he turns down fewer roles than he has in the past. But these rough years haven’t lessened his popularity; there is as much demand for him on screen as ever. Among my favorite Cage efforts in recent years was Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the team behind Crank and Crank: High Voltage. In 2017, a semi-reunion of these talents occurred when Cage was cast to appear with Selma Blair as the title characters in Mom And Dad, directed by Brian Taylor, one-half of the Crank team. Cage and Blair pair play Brent and Kendall Ryan, parents who fall victim to a contagion of non-specific origin (though it seems to have something to do with broadcast signals) that turns once-loving parents into filicidal maniacs. Lance Henriksen makes an appearance as Brent’s father, and after witnessing his performance, one can only wonder if Cage shared some “shamanic” acting tips with his fellow thespian.

Adding further detail will inevitably push us into spoiler territory, so I will simply recommend Mom and Dad for anyone seeking a hit of grim fun, and/or Cagean madness.


Between Worlds (Netflix)

If you are one of the Nicolas Cage fans waiting with bated breath for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (the deal is in negotiation, but if it goes through, Nicolas Cage will play Nicolas Cage), you can, in the meantime, enjoy a similar bit of meta in Between Worlds, in which sweaty, truck drivin’ Joe (Cage) is asked by the daughter (Penelope Mitchell) of his lover Julie (Franka Potente) to read to her during sex. He then proceeds to read over-ripe prose from a book with a cover that reads: “Memories by Nicolas Cage.” Did I mention his lover’s daughter is possessed by his dead wife? 

Despite a weird-ass plot (Julie has a psychic gift that has inadvertently allowed Joe’s dead wife to return from beyond, intent on using Billie’s body to get back with Joe), I found it difficult at times to stick with the story – the same problem I had with Mandy (2018) in which Cage plays a similarly seedy working man, this time a logger. Mandy’s plot is even stranger, pitting Cage against a small army of bikers and satanists – but I couldn’t find my way into the story, though I plan to try again at least once more before I file a Mandy review.

Despite my difficulties with the story, I can recommend Between Worlds, based on the performances of its lead actors, which do eventually draw you in.

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In the 1970s, while working in the distribution department of a major book publisher, Robert Martin enrolled in a writer’s workshop conducted by Henry Beard, one of the founders of National Lampoon magazine, and Anthony Hiss, an editor at The New Yorker.

With their training, and a resume that (falsely) claimed a Liberal Arts degree from Brown University, along with some freelance writing samples from newspapers and “men’s entertainment” magazines, he gained the assignment from the publishers of STARLOG magazine to edit their new sister magazine, FANGORIA. By emulating the horror film magazines that he loved, The Monster Times and Castle of Frankenstein in particular, he was able to make FANGORIA the most successful magazine of its kind in publishing history. After leaving the editor’s chair in 1986, he began working with his most admired filmmaker, Frank Henenlotter, first adapting Henenlotter's screenplay Brain Damage into a short novel, then co-writing the screenplays for the films Frankenhooker and Basket Case 3. He now lives in semi-retirement in Las Vegas, Nevada.