Lifetime Theater: Below the Surface

I don’t even know with this one. I can’t even think of a nicely vague statement about writing, or the Lifetime Network, or even maritime disasters that can come close to my opinions on this movie. Because I don’t even know what this movie thinks about this movie. I suppose that was inevitable, considering it was apparently written by hurling magnetic poetry across the room and filming the results. That’s seriously the only way I can hope to justify this madness. Or this could have been a Lifetime writer begging for help in the most roundabout way possible.

Only that’s not it, because this is somehow the product of an auteur. Well, as close as you’re going to get on the Lifetime Network anyway. Damián Romay, an Argentine filmmaker, is responsible for this thing, so I have to assume that he meant it. It’s hard to direct a movie when you’re being held against your will. Unless it’s a North Korea situation, and I really don’t think Lifetime has that kind of juice.

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Tracy was played really well for this.

Besides, if they really were holding Romay, it would be in that Vancouver suburb where most of Lifetime’s movies are shot. You know, Lifetimesburg. This one, in defiance of budget, is shot in Miami. This is a shame, mostly because I would have loved them trying to pass off Canada as Florida. To be fair, the only reason I recognize it so readily is that I watched seven seasons of Burn Notice. And before you ask, yes, this would have been a thousand times better, and made a thousand times more sense, if Michael Westen and crew got involved.

You’re probably wondering what the hell is going on here. I watched this thing and I am too. Romay, I think, wanted to craft a deeper experience than most Lifetime movies end up with. He wanted characters to move in and out of the narrative organically, and for people to have backstories that didn’t directly impact the plot. This is realistic. It’s also narrative death for an 84 minute movie, and really not part of the Lifetime brand. I’m going to do the best I can at summarizing this thing.

Cameron (Jenny Wade) is a… diving instructor I guess? She explores shipwrecks with students and teaches them how to fight sharks. None of that is made up. You’re probably thinking that her diving or skill in the water or knowledge of how to fight sharks is going to come back in the third act and save her. You’d be wrong. Oh, she executes a short swim away from a sniper, but it’s a tossed off little scene and I would lay even money that it was added at the insistence of the network.

She’s getting married to Shane, the manager at a freight company. Shane “gets called away for work” which is Lifetime code for “going to Pound Town.” Only this time, the pound part gets taken too literally, and he runs down the head accountant at his company. And this is just after she discovered an irregularity that he’s responsible for.

Oh yeah, and she is an ex-fiancee of his. They only broke up because he caught her sleeping with her assistant(?) Maria, who goes to work in black cocktail dresses because I don’t even know what’s happening anymore. Also, Maria ends up dead a little while later, but it takes at least one commercial break before anyone identifies the body. Shane promptly goes on the run, because even an alcoholic living in his car could connect those dots.

Cameron goes to the cops, and they put Detective Ortega on the case. Ortega, who for some reason has a marriage on the rocks, a possible gambling addiction or maybe alcoholism, and he lives in his car. There’s a lot of backstory on Ortega. Don’t worry, literally none of it comes to anything.

There’s also a news reporter that Shane has some kind of weird connection to? Look, I don’t know. I’m going to skip to the end because I’ve already got a headache. It turns out that the reporter is the daughter (I think) of a high-ranking cop. He’s working through the cargo company to smuggle in drugs, maybe. And Shane can make containers disappear, which he’s only doing because a friend of his at work needed money to help a sick child. Yeah, it’s a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top! And the only one who can unravel it is a woman with steely determination to save her hapless man!

Only not really. Sure, Cameron does help out. There’s that sniper scene, but it helped that the guy is the worst shot in the history of gunmen. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was the only working sniper with cataracts. After he kills the man Cameron was going to meet, she sort of wobbles uncertainly (they have poor Jenny Wade in a variety of skintight outfits and ridiculous heels) toward the water while the sniper fires ineffectually at her.

Eventually, with the aid of a thumb drive — because that’s the modern MacGuffin — Cameron is able to bring the conspiracy down. Shane has to go to jail, but hey. at least he’s not a murderer. I’m wondering if he didn’t get a deal because that thumb drive basically made the entire case against the evil conspiracy.

I had no idea what to make of this movie as it was unfolding. None of it seemed quite right, and certainly not like the Lifetime brand I’ve come to know better than nearly anything else in my life. After all this, I think I’ve figured it out. This is a Lifetime movie written and directed by a man. Of course he got weird stuff wrong. From the casting of very attractive women, to their body-hugging costumes, to the shoehorned in depth of the minor male characters, this is a man trying to work in the confines of a female-led aesthetic. I can’t help but think this is the same thing women butt up against in mainstream productions.

So what did we learn? Shit, I don’t know. How to fight a shark, I guess.

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Tread Perilously — Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned

tp1400-1Tread Perilously begins the Christmas season with a return visit to the TARDIS for “Voyage of the Damned.”

After leaving Martha behind on Earth and getting a brief visit from his fifth incarnation, the Doctor crashes into the prow of the Titanic. After fixing that error, he discovers the ship is an alien vessel in Earth orbit loaded with humanoid aliens on a Christmastime cruise. But wicked business dealings lead to the ship getting hit by meteors (or is it meteoroids?). In the ensuing chaos, the Doctor must help a handful of tourists escape certain doom. He also must save Buckingham Palace from a Christmas Day calamity.

Erik and Justin get confused over the definitions of meteoroid, meteorite and meteor. Erik discovers the true source of his sour feelings toward Kylie Minogue and Justin decries the notion of “timey-wimey.” Both stumble when saying name “Bannakaffalatta” while a discussion of the May-December romance tendency in film leads to a consideration of the Marylin Monroe mystique. They also discover space corporations are culpable for the deaths they cause.

But will “Voyage of the Damned” prove to be Justin’s favorite Tennant-Era Doctor Who story?

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Now Fear This: All Cheerleaders Die

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Pictured: Truth in advertising.

Satire is a tightrope. Go too far in one direction, and all subtlety, and more importantly the teeth, is gone. Go too far in the other, and you’re just parroting the point of view of whatever it is you’re poking fun at. Hell, even good satire gets mistaken for what it’s parodying. See how many conservatives honestly believed Stephen Colbert was one of them, or the number of people who think Starship Troopers is a stone-faced action film. Yeah, that’s how hard satire his: Paul Verhoeven was once too subtle.

It gets even more difficult when you’re lampooning a piece of the culture to which you belong. While men can and should poke holes in male privilege and the like, it’s definitely fraught. Men are never going to understand it the way women do. We’re going to miss at least some of the details. Hell, we could set out to make an empowering action flick that ruthlessly deconstructs the male gaze, and end up with Sucker Punch. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again.

This week’s selection, All Cheerleaders Die, is pretty far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without merit. On the contrary; it’s a damn good time and it does have a few things to say. Sure, a pair of heterosexual men are going to leer a bit when they’re making fun of the objectification of women in horror films, but on the whole, the movie stays on point and most importantly, never wears out its welcome.

The two men behind this flick are Lucky McKee, a presence on the indie horror scene who specializes in creepy weirdos on the periphery of polite society. He made past Now Fear This feature May (a better film which I heartily recommend), as well as the witch-themed The Woods, and the Masters of Horror episode “Sick Girl.” McKee’s co-writer and co-director is Chris Sivertson who made… yeesh… I Know Who Killed Me. As terrible as that movie is, that feels like a no-win situation for a young director, so try not to judge him too harshly. After all, Paul Schrader couldn’t corral Lindsay Lohan, and that was during her alleged recovery.

The movie introduces us to Lexi, who basically seems like Regina George (not to make another reference to a Lohan movie) minus the few isolated moments of tact and taste. She’s being profiled by her friend Maddy, a Hollywood bookworm whose idea of being dowdy is not wearing all that much makeup. The scene Maddy catches on her camera is so heightened that it’s impossible to take seriously: cheerleaders in midriff-baring costumes with leather (or possibly pleather) skirts, proudly calling themselves “bitches,” and ruling the school in the way only seen in teen movies and military juntas. On the other side are the football players, a bunch of dead-eyed alpha males who look like they should be running Oz, not the school itself.

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The star quarterback.

Lexi’s profile looks like the set-up for the villain of the piece, the person Maddy is going to have to humble in order to win. Or murder, considering the title. The video ends with Lexi accidentally getting killed in a freak cheerleading accident. Don’t laugh: cheerleading is dangerous as fuck. It’s basically gymnastics minus the safety equipment and the respect. Flash forward a few months, and Maddy is, for reasons held until a third-act reveal, itching for revenge against Lexi’s ex-boyfriend, Terry, the leader of the jocks.

While the title would lead one to believe that Maddy’s revenge would be centered around murdering cheerleaders, that’s not the case. Instead, she joins the squad in one of those identity makeovers we were all so fond of in our formative years. Only Maddy’s ex-girlfriend (it’s a McKee joint, which means lesbians), the gothy Leena thinks anything is wrong with what’s going on.

Maddy’s plan pretty much instantly goes awry when she pushes Terry too far (in her defense, he’s a monster), and he runs her car off the road, killing her, the other two major cheerleaders, and the little sister who serves as the school’s mascot. Leena, who’s also a witch, manages to bring all four girls back to life. And that’s when things get a little weird. Now the ladies are mentally-linked cannibal succubi, and oh yeah, the two sisters have switched bodies. It’s enough conceits to hang three or four movies on, and McKee and Sivertson just breeze past them with barely a look back.

While the girls have become murderers, and in fact kill at least one innocent person, the film never wavers in its sympathy for them. It is firmly in Maddy’s corner throughout, even before the reveal that justifies what she’s going to do to Terry. Terry is an awful person from the beginning, first framed as a serial cheater who hooked up with his ex-girlfriend’s closest friend just after her death, then into an outright monster whose attacks on the girls are shot and treated like rape scenes. The one troubling part is that Terry is the only black guy in the movie, although in the movie’s defense, he’s not treated as any different from the others. Sill, you know, bad optics. The villain, though, is the culture that spawned someone like Terry, who’s given carte blanche to do whatever he likes with zero consequences, so long as he can throw and catch a leather ball. Terry is a symptom, and the entire poisonous culture is the disease.

It’s appropriate then, that the most wholesome character is the biggest outsider. Leena’s romance with Maddy initially has a few obsessive overtones, but she’s never a threatening figure. While the film waffles slightly over who the One True Pairing is, lingering a bit on Maddy and Terry’s new girlfriend Tracy, it ultimately sides with Maddy and Leena. Leena raised Maddy from the dead after the shattering grief of losing her, and only brings the others back as a side effect. She was most insulated from the “dogs and bitches” culture of the school, and thus had a purity of spirit none of the others have. She also gets the best line in the movie.

All Cheerleaders Die is an example of reach exceeding grasp. There’s something noble in the reach, though, and that helps make this a worthy little film. Besides, it’s a good time and, at only ninety minutes, zips right by.

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Tread Perilously — Family Ties Vacation

tp1400-1Quality Time with Family Ties‘ Paul Pakler joins Tread Perilously for a visit with Family Ties as they head for the United Kingdom in the TV movie Family Ties Vacation.

Steven, Elyse, Mallory and Jennifer join Alex as he spends fourteen days (or is it months?) studying at Oxford during the summer session. But Latverian agents select Elyse to smuggle microfilm out of the US. Alex’s dorm mate, Lord Bullington-Covingwick Zabka, falls in love with Mallory while Steven and Elyse join a bumbling New Scotland Yard detective to foil the Latverians. Alex joins a crew team and the Keatons cause an incident at the House of Lords.

Meanwhile, Jennifer feeds some cows.

Paul reveals the secret reason why the movie exists at all while Erik explains Cold War espionage and Justin assumes England is filled with eldritch horrors. Justin gets confused about the difference between a batman and The Batman. He also decries the Family Ties‘ tendency to air clipshows. The group considers the fact that the vacation is apparently never referenced in the show proper and imagine a world in which Harrison Ford starred in Three Men and a Baby.

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Yakmala: Warrior of the Lost World

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Based on the poster, it doesn’t look half bad.

Thanks to the runaway success of George Miller’s The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2, if you’re Australian), for a brief, shining moment back in the early ‘80s, every hack with a camera was heading out to some dusty backwater to shoot a post-apocalyptic murder-chase and call it a film. Italy never saw a movie they couldn’t make a terrible version of, and turned in 1983’s Warrior of the Lost World.

Tagline: Only one rider can destroy the Omega Force

More Accurate Tagline: Only one rider can destroy the Omega Force… and this isn’t him.

Guilty Party: While it would be tempting to blame hack director David Worth for this (after all, his biggest movie is Van Damme vehicle Kickboxer), he really is blameless. Supposedly, he was expected to start filming without a script, and only a poster to go by. The producers were like, “Here, make this.” And he shrugged and went out and made cinematic infamy. Instead, I’m blaming the entire country of Italy. Your obsession with schlock went too far, Italy! You made this! You own this!

Synopsis: The movie starts with an opening crawl that jams a book’s worth of worldbuilding into your eyes with all the grace and gentleness of a nearsighted proctologist with crippling vertigo. I’ve seen this movie three times (yes, I’ve wasted my life), and I still don’t know all the ins and outs of the Dark Age of Tyranny, the Radiation Wars, the Outsiders, and the Butt Warriors. I only made one of those up.

The Rider (Robert Ginty, the jowliest hero you’ll ever see onscreen) zooms through a post-apocalyptic California that looks like a lush section of a Mediterranean peninsula, because it’s Italy. Also, these roads are really well maintained, considering the entire world was engulfed in nuclear fire and mutants roam willy-nilly. But anyway. He blasts his way through the Omega Force Highway Patrol (yep, the evil empire’s best use of time is spent on speed traps), and a gang of New Wavers, because this was the early ‘80s and we all hoped that civilization would collapse, but somehow leave a bunch of hairspray, Manic Panic, and checkered clothing.

Wounded, the Rider crashes into the wall of a canyon, where he’s nursed back to health by a bunch of creeps in togas with magic flashlights. Fred “the Hammer” Williamson is also there, in a paramilitary uniform, but he’s never named so I’m assuming he’s playing himself. Frankly, the idea that Fred “the Hammer” Williamson could survive a nuclear holocaust qualifies as the film’s most realistic flourish.

This group wants the Rider to rescue their leader McWayne from Prossor (Donald Pleasance), the leader of Omega Force. The Rider whines a little about getting drafted, but eventually infiltrates the Omega Force compound with McWayne’s daughter, Nastasia (Persis Khambatta). Incidentally, thus far the Rider’s only superpowers appear to be annoyed muttering and crashing his motorcycle into walls. They rescue McWayne, but because the Rider is a useless asshole, he leaves Nastasia behind. Seriously, if he had waited one second longer, she could have gone with them. Anyway.

McWayne has the Rider stop by an impromptu brawl in the middle of a quarry where an eclectic array of gangs have decided to hang out and punch each other. There’s the Amazons, the Hillbillies, the New Wavers, the Kung Fu Fighters, and the Asians. Yeah, that’s as much character as the Asians get. The Rider joins the brawl and after defeating them, he’s their leader. That’s the law of the wasteland.

Then they all join up and attack the Omega Force. After blasting through the road defenses, the Rider and McWayne encounter Prossor, who has brainwashed Nastasia. He orders her to shoot the Rider, which she does, because fuck that guy, but when she’s ordered to kill McWayne, she turns the gun on Prossor. She blows his brains out, and the world is saved.

Except not. Turns out he was a robot clone, and Fred “the Hammer” Williamson was on his side the whole time somehow. The movie is setting up a sequel and hoping we’ve been hit in the head recently so we forget what just happened. Which, since we sat through Warrior of the Lost World, it’s not a bad guess.

Life-Changing Subtext: Need a hero? Find the whiniest guy you can.

Defining Quote: “Be quiet and watch for mutants!” The Rider hisses this at Nastasia when they’re sneaking through the underground entrance into Omega Force and wouldn’t you know it? Mutants instantly attack. It’s like they were waiting for the warning just to make it extra ironic. No idea why Omega Force lets mutants live in its crawlspaces. You’d think they’d clear that out.

Standout Performance: The closest thing the movie has to an iconic character is Einstein, the Rider’s “intelligent” motorcycle. And this thing is iconic the way anything you’d want to burn in effigy is technically an icon. Designed to appeal to a nonexistent kid fanbase, Einstein has a habit of chirping its lines three times, because once doesn’t yet make you want to jam a screwdriver into your eyesocket. Its warnings to the Rider about bad mothers, geeks, dorks, dickheads, veg outs, and of course, very bad mothers, sound like a Speak N’ Spell built for people who habitually eat cleaning products.

What’s Wrong: It’s a ripoff of The Road Warrior, minus all the stuff that made that movie great. Did Max’s interceptor talk to him? No. No, it did not.

Flash of Competence: Donald Pleasance is entirely too good to be in this movie. I’m grateful to whatever gambling addiction that compelled him to be in schlock, but he’s consistently the best thing in any terrible movie he finds himself.

Best Scenes: When the Rider and Nastasia sneak into Omega Force (this is just after the mutants), they happen on what can only be described as a performance art piece by an offbrand version of leather-enthusiasts Kiss. For what’s supposed to be a fascist state with constant propaganda blaring over a PA system, it’s a weird detail. Weirdest part? There’s no audience. These people are just sort of posing in the middle of an otherwise empty warehouse. Maybe this is some kind of bizarre work detail? Like, instead of splitting rocks, you have to cram your ass into a leather Borat bathing suit and strut around for a couple days.

During the final chase sequence, the good guy van rams the bad guy van off the road. The film then switches to a far shot, showing the bad guy van leisurely rolling into a stack of barrels. And they’re not stacked for storage. They’re stacked like a a bunch of cans at a carnival, just hanging out by the side of the road, waiting for something to roll into them. And when the van does, everything explodes. It’s like a scene from Naked Gun, but funnier.

Transcendent Moment: Einstein might be second-most memorable character in this thing. The most is Omega Force’s version of the Death Star. That’s right, it’s the imaginatively named Megaweapon. That’s the kind of name that you have as a placeholder, but when you get the device back from the evil superweapon manufacturer, you’re like, well, shit. Guess we’re stuck with it. What is Megaweapon? It’s a giant dumptruck with a black paint job. That’s… that’s pretty much it. Its only weapon is a flamethrower that shoots about fifteen feet. You could outrun this thing on a segway.

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It’s the final countdown… for Omega Force.

Warrior of the Lost World is terrible, but it’s also short. If you have any affection for Italian ripoffs, give it a shot.

 

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Tread Perilously — Mad Men: Dark Shadows

tp1400-1Tread Perilously sits down to Thanksgiving dinner with Sally Draper and several members of the cast of Mad Men.

While Roger and Don plot to nab new accounts, Betty plants doubts in Sally’s mind about Don and Megan’s willingness to be truthful around her. Betty also deals with her Weight Watchers goals as Don reasserts his creative bona fides in the office. Peggy drink and works at the same time and Megan deals with the fallout from Betty’s plot. Roger disregards Jane’s wishes for his own ends. Sally clowns Betty and Don unleashes some sick burns. Meanwhile, Pete Campbell dreams of a naked Rory Gilmore.

Erik reveals his hatred of puffy-lettered logos and his love for the Draper apartment. Justin discusses his unconditional love of Mad Men. Megan is declared a decent person. The pair recall the old furniture in their respective childhood homes and Erik’s failed attempts to experience snow. Corn subsidies are declared a white privilege and angry steak makes another appearance as Doctor What (Roger Sterling) gets his mellow harshed by the Social Justice Daleks.

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Lifetime Theater: Honeymoon From Hell

The point I keep returning to in this series is that the Lifetime network produces horror movies. While some of this is that those are the ones that sound most interesting to me, and are thus the ones I watch for review, it’s undeniable that horror is at least a plurality of what’s available on the network. The thing is, most of the horror offerings are reality-based. Some of them are direct adaptations of true crime, while others are fictionalized versions of real cases, and still others are just stuff that could conceivably happen in an upscale suburb of Vancouver.

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The most dangerous city in the world.

What is notably absent, is the supernatural. The horror on the Lifetime network is solidly rooted in the real, or at least the could-maybe-possibly be real. The only movie with a supernatural element was a Henson-produced Thanksgiving movie, which featured a group of syphilitic weasels that formed a Voltron. For their horror offerings, the villains were decidedly grounded: murderous husbands, unhinged stalkers, and entitled gender-warriors.

The reasoning here, I think, comes down to who these horror movies are made for. Horror is intended to scare its audience, and most horror is made for young, predominantly white men. This demographic doesn’t really have anything real to be scared of, so you have to throw demons, ghosts, aliens, and killer dolls at them. Lifetime, is made for middle-aged women, a demographic that knows exactly what’s really dangerous in this world. So the supernatural never has much place. In the few offerings with ostensible paranormal elements, these inevitably get revealed, Scooby-Doo style, to be the cheating husband all along. Until now. Maybe.

Honeymoon From Hell is a profoundly weird entry in the Lifetime Extended Universe (which I will continue to believe is a thing), because it introduces supernatural elements, explains them away, then, at the end shrugs and goes, “Hey, maybe there was a ghost all along?” I have my own hypothesis about what they were going for, but really, I’m as clueless as I suspect the writers were.

Newlyweds Julia and Rivers (ugh) are honeymooning in Virginia. Their first stop, for some reason, is the grave of local legend Alice Flagg. Side note, that is an incredible name. Alice Flagg sounds like a pulp heroine who rides a dinosaur in George Washington’s army. Anyway, she was a rich girl who fell in love with a poor kid and was disowned and eventually killed herself. This story speaks to Julia, because she’s also from a rich family and was kind of disowned when she married poor kid Rivers. They say if you run around Alice’s grave thirteen times, you wake her up. Rivers, of course, teases Julia and runs around the grave twelve times before relenting.

They’re spending the bulk of their honeymoon at a bed and breakfast run by Mary Ellen Trainor. Okay, it’s actually a character named Hazel and played by Catherine Hicks. If you want to get that joke, listen to one of the 7th Heaven episodes on the podcast. There’s quite a cast of characters at this B&B. Hazel is charming and folksy, but there’s something not right about her from the beginning. Hicks really tears into the role with her eyeteeth, so she’s telegraphing the inevitable third act twist. There’s also her special needs foster son Bear, the handyman Walter, and the only other guest, a perpetually bikini-clad shit-stirrer named Janelle. There’s another couple there initially, but they leave pretty quickly after an inexplicable scene where Walter semi-accidentally peeps on the topless wife.

Meanwhile, Julia and occasionally others see an apparition of Alice Flagg lurking around. Julia also has a couple of possibly prophetic dreams pointing to sinister happenings around the B&B. While all this is happening, a ticking clock in the form of an incoming hurricane, promising to trap everyone indoors with a ghost and possibly a whole cadre of murderers.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, Rivers is Hazel’s son, and them, plus Bear (who isn’t special needs at all), have decided they’re going to get their hands on Julia’s trust fund. If they can provoke her to suicide, Rivers gets it all. To that end, they’ve been relentlessly gaslighting her since she showed up, spiking her drinks with low-grade hallucinogens, and generally pushing her subtly in the direction they want. Most damning though, is the “apparition” turns out to be Rivers’s girlfriend, and she’s not too happy about how he’s kind of falling for the mark.

Long story short, they all have it out. Janelle (who has a halfhearted turn to good, or at least self-preservation and is on Julia’s side) is hilariously killed with a tiny dart in the temple — you know, the ones whose points aren’t long enough to get through a skull. Julia burns the whole place down, and Rivers sacrifices himself to save her. He’s been having second thoughts since he knocked Julia up, and this sort of makes up for the abuse, I guess? Who knows.

The thing is, when Julia wakes up in a hospital bed in the end, there’s a white rose there with her. This was established as Alice Flagg’s favorite flower. Additionally, one of the dreams Julia gets specifically shows her her daughter, and in the movie’s coda, that exact girl is with Julia. So the implication seems to be that the supernatural is real, but while it’s weird and frightening, it’s ultimately benevolent. Alice Flagg saw herself in Julia, and decided to get off her undead ass and lend a hand. Or else Rivers accidentally half-woke her up. In any case, while this wasn’t what I’d call a good movie, this depiction of the supernatural is one of my favorites and can be found in at least two movies I’ve reviewed for Now Fear This.

While not particularly good, Honeymoon From Hell is weirdly relevant. Gaslighting has become a vital part in the national conversation about sexism, and we can see it rearing its ugly head whenever a bigot is dismissed as a “firebrand” or “outsider.” How does Julia solve her problem? By burning the whole house down. Gas is, after all, quite flammable.

So what did we learn? Ghosts aren’t necessarily evil. Make sure your murder or suicide doesn’t benefit anyone else financially. And if the lady from 7th Heaven is too friendly, she’s trying to kill you.

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