66 Things to Do in Salem, MA (Updated February 2014)

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Essex St Pedestrian Mall, Salem, MA.

Because I like lists, and sympathise with the tourist dilemma of “Bollocks! We only have 5 hours to spend here – what do we do first??”, I’ve decided to compile a big fat list of awesome things to do in Salem. Yes, this list could have been shorter, but the number 66 is cool, so shut your face (and click “Continue reading” to read more!):

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31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 31: Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

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source: drespacial.com

Reading the summary of this movie on Wikipedia (intended as a refresher), I’m now ashamed to be reviewing this movie. I’d thought I’d been paying attention, but there were a couple of things I’d missed, mostly about how the stories in this anthology-type film intersect.

Based on the imagery and setting alone, this movie was the perfect pick for Hallowe’en day. Jack-o-lanterns everywhere (I did this makeup today as a botched headless horseman costume idea), tons of people in costume, and almost every horror staple in the book – vampires, witches, werewolves, ghosts/demons, urban legends, er, serial killers…and boobs. Lots of boobs. But the whole movie is so self-aware and so tongue-in-cheek that it’s kind of easy to ignore this (no spoilers, but there’s one brilliant scene involving nudity that couldn’t be done any other way). Said scene even includes a classic Marilyn Manson  track.

source: zombiehamster.com

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This movie comprises four loosely-connected stories, all set during Hallowe’en in a busy town in Ohio, famed for its spooky festivities. Each story has its own set of characters and sometimes a bit of a twist, but they’re all directed and written by X2 (i.e. X-Men: The Best One) scribe Michael Dougherty; this is his directorial debut. The great thing that I’m just learning about horror anthology movies is that because the individual segments are so short, they’re mostly plot-driven, (and therefore well-paced), and  there’s not too much time for character development or much beyond superficial character-role establishment. This in turn makes it difficult to predict which characters will live or die.

What ties the movie together, other than the bits and pieces that intersect, is a seemingly adorable, child-sized spirit called Sam. He wears a mini burlap  sack on his head and shuffles about in a onesie. Yet he wields pumpkin lollipop-shaped daggers, superhuman strength, and a distinct lack of patience for those who do not abide by Hallowe’en traditions (including shunning trick-or-treaters). Sometimes he sits in the background of a scene, others he’s one of the central characters.

source: drafthouse.com

I still can’t get over the imagery. I wish Salem was that good. But I’ve noticed that a lot of stuff got dropped from the Haunted Happenings calendar this year (the “Bootiful Pets”/”Furry Friends Fright Fest” pet costume contest is no longer around), or things have got outsourced to other cities like Lynn. Whatever activities are left are things that haven’t changed in years (how many more times do I want to hear the same monologues over and over again at The House of the Seven Gables?). I know the movie was, er, a movie set, but I wish the city could have even decorated better; the movie had more than just wilted hay bales strapped sloppily to lamp posts. Also, I noticed there were no “Christian” street preachers screaming hate speech through megaphones (yep, screaming through megaphones or mics attached to standing speakers. Salem’s phoning in Hallowe’en now. The only thing worth it is people-watching for costumes.

Sorry; I digress. The movie was great – just the right amount of spooky, funny, engaging, gruesome, and terrifying. Most of the violence and gore in this film are very much offset by the blackly comic tone, or the deliberately campy SFX, which I’m a bit of a wuss to admit I need when I see that almost all of the people in danger are vulnerable in some way (especially children – how often do you see that on film?). I hate to use the term “instant classic” but I feel that that term can be occasionally valid, and it is here – I just watched it, and I can see myself watching it again next year, though maybe with the sick parts edited out (like the distant sounds of dismemberment, or pretty much everything in the final, not-as-funny-as-the-others segment). I hear there’s going to be a sequel

. Can’t wait!

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 30: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)

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source: magnetreleasing.com

At the time of writing, it’s past midnight, so it’s technically Hallowe’en. Also, the Boston Red Sox just won the World Series (in 6 games). Double yay (though, er, I don’t quite understand baseball yet). There’s a heckload of merriment and whooping and car-horn-smashing outside (well, for midnight on a Wednesday), so I am proper in the mood to be doing a write-up of such a raucously fun horror-romp.

This is probably the best horror movie I’ve seen this month, and probably the most surprising since, well, You’re Next or The Cabin in the Woods. And similar to those movies, the plot twist is revealed early on in the film, making it more of a storytelling twist. The eponymous Tucker and Dale (the brilliant Alan Tudyk, for whom I’ve always had a comic soft spot, and Tyler Labine, who I’m now in love with) are on their way to fix up Tucker’s newly-purchased vacation home. Things go awry, though, when a series of misunderstandings (and the pair’s scruffy hillbilly look) lead a group of college kids to believe that they’re serial killers.

source: mutantville.com

I watched this with the Hippie who had no idea what the storytelling twist was (and maybe it’s better that way, so go back and delete your memory), so he watched the “found-footage-hidden-killer-in-cabin” cold open, followed by the introduction of the dumb college kids (each varying levels of annoying), as they yell frat chants and bicker flirtingly and marvel over the amazing fact that one person brought along one joint (I’d like to see how that went: “one weed, please”). They cross paths with the guys on the road, then again in a shop, where Dale’s attempt at friendly conversation is misconstrued as a murder attempt (might have helped if he lost the scythe). The POV immediately shifts to Tucker and Dale, discussing the former’s recent acquisition of a vacation home, realizing a lifelong dream, and the latter’s challenge at bolstering his self-confidence.

The events that follow are simultaneously farcical, touching, tense, cringeworthy (in the good way) and gruesome. They’re even surprising, despite the fact that some plot developments are predictable, and the entire movie is a bloody good exercise in dramatic irony (of which I wished we saw more in films). There are some logic leaps to help drive those story elements along, but believable acting (both the leads are absolute gems), sincere, moving character development, and cracking chemistry between Tudyk and Labine is worth the price I paid for Netfilx.  The tonal shifts are near-seamless – we’re hearing a pep talk from Tucker to Dale one minute, then hearing a joke about shitholes the next.

Special effects are more than decent (especially when a bit more than spray blood is called for). Direction is tight, and dialogue is hilarious;  I can’t believe that this was director’s Eli Craig’s first film as a writer and director. I can’t quite recall ever seeing a horror movie like this one.

 

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 29: A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012)

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source: dionwynhughes.wordpress.com

The horror-a-thon is almost over. Whenever there’s a long list of things I have to do, I usually tire of it by around halfway through, after which a bizarre second wind careens me through the rest of the list and I’m finished wishing there had been more of it. I get attached. To lists.

Tonight’s movie, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, feels like a film that’s made up of a list of other films – really good films, adding up to a sort of quite very good full film. It’s listed in most places as a horror comedy, and, despite Simon Pegg’s painful expression of terror on the poster, I’d expected it to have dark humour more in line with Pegg’s other acting roles (I’m aware he didn’t write or direct this). I’d also assumed that Pegg would be spending the entirety of the film in his flat, looking terrified at things, and, judging from a review mentioning the word “psychedelic”, that he would be tripping balls or wildly hallucinating at some point. Well, none of that (or not much of it) actually happens.

We open with some animated credits, some Hammer Horror-style font, and some Evil Dead-style super-dramatic, unsettling, horn-heavy music. Pegg’s character Jack awakens to tell us that because a waiter looked at him in a funny, murder-y way, he’s convinced that someone’s trying to kill him, and so he keeps a knife on him at all times. The first few scenes of him alone, in his dingy, shadowy, health-and-safety-nightmare of a flat, build up such a sheer amount of relatable terror that I completely accidentally forgot to turn the light and/or TV off. It may feel like a cheap tension trick, but musing about possible killers in the hallway (hiding in the shadows), or lurking behind a shower curtain (where you’re at your most Janet Leigh-ish vulnerable) are easily spookable triggers, especially for paranoid British writers who have morbid creative curiosities. Ahem.

source: bloody-disgusting.com

Not that Jack was always this way – he’s famous for being a children’s book writer, but after a failed marriage and some money troubles, he’s moved on to crime writing, and clearly it’s taking its toll. His laid-back agent tells him to get ready for an interview with a Hollywood mogul who’s interested in his crime script, but after a series of mishaps, he realizes he must trek (sorry) (that actually wasn’t intentional) to the local laundrette, of which he has a crippling, lifelong fear.

It’s here where the movie starts to shift gears, and not for the last time. It’s a bit trite to blame the director for the slightly unfocused storytelling styles (is it because he’s a musician who’s a first-time director?), as it’s actually based on a story written by Withnail & I scribe Bruce Robinson (which fucking explains a lot). I do think this works to the film’s credit, because it makes everything unpredictable – no situation is off-limits for this pathetic, harried, mess of a collection of skin and other molecules. And because most of the film is so uncomfortable and awkward and second-hand-stressful to watch, one particular funny mini-gag involving a police van had me in absolute stitches for a good ten minutes (I’m still laughing about it now).

source: bloody-disgusting.com

The film’s increasingly bizarre plot leaps aren’t all that out of place, thanks to its already surreal (and yes, a wee bit psychedelic) tone. And while it’s Pegg’s show of his own on-screen brilliance, most of the supporting characters are also played to perfection, especially Jack’s agent Clair (Clare Higgins). With each leap, though, it does shift tone a fair bit, and that kind of lessens any horror-based tension that a more coherent film would have had. I do wish it had stuck a bit more to its underlying theme of “everyone’s trying to kill me; everyone’s watching me” fear, or even its title, which suggests multiple neuroses that the script didn’t really deliver. While it has been described as a “low-budget semicomedy”, it seems like if the budget had been bigger, it might have sold out to some pointlessly over-trippy hallucinations. But maybe the sound would have been better (dialogue was ridiculously quiet; effects and musical cues – the latter of which provided the majority of jump scares). I’d watch it again, probably while folding my laundry.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 28: V/H/S (2012)

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source: impawards.com

The thing I wonder about “found-footage” films is, “Who’s filming them – and why?” The protagonists in V/H/S are a trio of utter cunts – they grab and molest women (I’ve somehow managed to go my entire life without ever seeing any kind of on-screen sexual assault), they smash up people’s homes, they break in and draw crude graffiti on people’s possessions (and with super-squeaky Sharpies), and within the film’s first four minutes, they’re actually planning how to target victims for their next rapey antics (“next year we ought to do skirts and dresses”). So already, amid the movie’s shaky-cam jump-cuts, we are being presented with a group of characters that we do not care about.

They’re on their way to steal a VHS tape, and they’re being paid to do it. This doesn’t make us despise them any less – they’re not down-on-their-luck college students, single-mom strippers, threatened, lonely drug addicts or recovering alcoholics or ex-cons. They’re petty thieves, and they’re arseholes. And they have absolutely foul, unkempt pornstaches, of which we get multiple extreme close-ups. Why should I care if they die immediately? Already, for me, there’s no tension, no conflict, no fear for me – they’re going to get what’s coming to them (hopefully), which makes me think it’s going to be some kind of torture-porn movie.

source: theguardian.com

Happening upon a corpse (which they remark smells), they find a pile of video tapes and pop in the first one to see if it’s…correct? We see a POV shot of a guy and his “video glasses”, surrounded by bro-mates talking about asses and tiitties and going to a club and drinking and swearing and stumbling into a dive bar and chatting up birds and drinking more. Maybe they’ll date-rape them with drugs. Yep! They totally are. What gentlemen. And one of them is driving drunk (and probably high).

So this is another set of characters that are designed not to elicit any sympathy. So what’s the entertainment value to be gained from this movie? We’re not going to give a shit what happens to them (I can’t identify with date-rapists or drunk drivers or sex offenders), So are we going to enjoy watching them getting mercilessly, brutally torn to shreds? One of the guys remarks how much easier it is to fuck a chick when “she’s passed out” and “totally unresponsive”.

 

Oh, I guess there’s some restraint, because he chooses instead to fuck the conscious chick – in front of his giggling friends and the somewhat uncomfortable video-glasses-guy friend, who…almost…engages in a foursome with her and the giggling guy, but stops (becoming the sort of moral, sympathetic one of the trio). In typical fashion, we get extreme close-ups of tits and pussy, but when the giggling friend runs into the bathroom screaming “she bit me!” and “she killed him! she killed him! What do we do, man? What do we do?!” I guess the guys get to keep their modesty intact.

source: cinema.indiana.edu

The other two shorts in this sort-of-anthology are directed by different people, allowing the mish-mash of styles to avoid an episodic feel (much like The Signal, though that was a linear story about the same characters told in parts). It also avoids any clashing that’s to be had from contrasting tones (from frat boys trying to rape a girl to a cute couple on vacation).

One instance common among all the VHS footage is pointing the camera at a female character and making them feel sexually uncomfortable, whether it’s grabbing a complete stranger and groping their breast (something that’s actually repeated in a glitch over 20 times during the end credits), date-raping an unconscious chick you just met or perving on your own girlfriend with a camera and asking her not to put her clothes back on, zooming in on tits and crotch, etc, etc. Regardless of the killer, knives or sharp instruments seem to be weapons of choice in each segment.

source: electricsheepmagazine.co.uk

The segments get incrementally better. Segment 3 (“Friday the 17th” [i c wut u did there]) has entity that hides in VHS glitches; it’s interesting enough of a style to shirk off its probable primary function as a plot device that allows the “character filming while running frantically for her life” trope of the found-footage horror genre. Segment 4 (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”, arguably the best of the bunch) makes inventive (and more plausible, everyday) use of webcam calling to keep the filming format steady, well-lit and having two characters’ video thumbnails on-screen at once.

On a budget of a little over $700,000, with several cast and crew members, and apparently just the one knife to use among them, it’s not surprising that the visual effects are very, very cheap and the acting quality varying so wildly. Its short-story format keeps pacing fairly sharp, and allows plot development rules/twists to be chucked out the window. It’s a decent anthology set, and I’ll probably check out the next one, but maybe not too soon – 2 hours of glitches, wavy lines, shaky-cam and FPS-style screaming is enough for one day.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 27: Dracula’s Guest

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source: hauntedhappenings.org

Today I played the tourist – wandered around town in makeup (an adaptation of this and with this costume), ate gross carnival food, took a decent spooky tour on the Salem Trolley and took a ton of photos of people in costume (it was so busy in the afternoon, but the crowds thinned out quickly as the sun disappeared). Earlier on in the day, I took in a 45-minute play at the Salem Theatre Company. The show was Dracula’s Guest, and for $15, I was expecting good quality (especially as I had just missed on on a free ticket given by another patron by minutes).

The show, in its original literary form, was written by Bram Stoker himself, but is considered to be a rejected draft of Dracula‘s first chapter. This particular play adaption names the protagonist (the “Englishman”) as Jonathan Harker, even though his name is not revealed in the book, but that’s not where the differences end: in fact, once Harker reaches Dracula’s castle, the play seems to veer off to pick up the entire plot of the actual, final, Dracula book (complete with Dracula yelling, “Get back!” to the succubi, and the book’s ending), so I’m not quite sure if we’re all really supposed to be calling this play “Dracula’s Guest”.

source: youtube.com

Regardless of this, for such a teensy tiny theatre (in budget and staff as well as size – its 100-odd capacity stage area is separated from the hallway/lobby/entrance by a curtain), they put on a lively and engaging performance, widely side-stepping the “stilted period acting/dialogue” issues faced by monologue actors in performances in The House of the Seven Gables or Witch House. There are some wavered line deliveries here and there, but performances are crisp; Harker (Conor Burke) is capable enough, able to sympathetically portray Harker’s growing confusion and descent into near-madness. Dann Anthony Murno (Dracula) cuts a menacing yet charismatic figure on stage, and wouldn’t look out of place in a more serious Hammer Horror flick. Greg Mancusi-Ungaro’s resourceful lighting compliments and makes good use of highlighting the actors, and the Fogles (John and Jean) provide some decent set design and costumes to set the mood (particularly in the absence of almost any props).

So while this isn’t technically Dracula’s Guest, it’s well-acted enough that I can excuse that. The monologues are evenly spaced in between actual back-and-forth dialogue; direction/blocking, sound effects and items on a projection screen (e.g. the castle skyline) keeps the show moving quickly, despite its minimalist design. The show runs nightly until October 31.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 26: The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon (2008)

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source: mamapop.com

“Can you endure twenty thousand spoonfuls of terror?”

I may be cheating a little on this list, more so now that (after seeing the film) that this short film isn’t actually a complete film, but rather a mock-trailer for a movie that I actually really would like to see (and there is going to be one!).

This ten-minute journey into terror concerns Jack (Paul Clemens) who is suddenly targeted by a pale-faced, perma-grimacing, black-eyed demon who cannot be killed. And our hero tries everything – guns, bazookas, tanks, even insane amounts of simultaneously-deployed explosives. Nothing works. The killer is relentless, can materialise out of nowhere, and doesn’t even blink while he carries out his attacks….with a spoon.

Not even the edge of the spoon (though he does use it to cut some wire) – just the back of it. His aim is simply to murder, but to murder slowly, and he will follow you everywhere you go. With his spoon.

All of this does admittedly sound ridiculous on paper, and there are some properly-guffawable laughs (particularly the fake production company listed as Chaotic Rampage American Pictures), and the flamboyant way in which the murderer deploys his weapon (just imagine a goth dancing). But the trailer does have moments when it takes itself seriously (though it chooses those moments wisely and sparingly). We gradually see  Jack go from mild-mannered, clean-shaven, happily-married detective to bloated, bruised (seriously, some of those bruises are nasty), sweaty, hairy, dishevelled, unemployed, terrorized, lonely mess. So I feel a little bit bad for laughing at the Psycho homage in which we get a close-up of Jack’s hand clutching the shower tile, followed by the murderer spooning it almost out of frame.

I can only judge this as I would judge a trailer, but it is a full ten minutes and can’t quite adhered to the typical 2-2.5-minute preview. Even though it doesn’t give away the ending of the “film” like a complete film would (and not a trailer), it does entertain, there are sequels, and the music is nice and chilling.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 25: John Dies at the End (2012)

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source: ondvdreleases.com

I didn’t feel terribly drunk last night. but this morning, I was awfully hungover –  not the kind of hangover where you’re just super-thirsty with a massive headache and dry mouth, but the kind of hangover that’s the one I just described + acid and nausea, resulting in the kind of crippling tummy/general-trunk-area pain that leaves you doubling over and groaning for hours. Waking at 10am-ish, it wasn’t until about 2pm before I even felt like moving. I watched John Dies at the End last night before leaving for a bit of Salem October nightlife (a party for which I successfully attempted this makeup). I was worried I hadn’t been paying attention, so I tried to watch it when I stumbled in drunk last night, trying to remember the conversation I had with a lady in a mask (holding a fake owl) about gender-bending male peacocks. I realized the next morning that I still didn’t fully process this movie, so I attempted to watch it for a third time this morning, while groaning in the foetal position on the bed I’d just made. I think I got it this time.

source: nytimes.com

Despite being distracted, drunk and hungover (in that order), I think the reason I didn’t properly digest this movie was because the pace is insanely fast, and much of how the movie develops is propelled by dialogue (the old telling, not showing bit) that leaves very little breathing room. Characters are introduced and their development is revved up at breakneck speed; the filmmakers throw us emotional character twists, expecting the emotional payoff without any screentime devoted to character development. I know that can be possible (Doctor Who frequently does this with bit parts), but the contrast is too strong here – notably, a police officer is introduced to us as no-nonsense, by-the-book copper, but in the next scene, he’s asking for help to burn down a crime scene while threatening to shoot the protagonist (who’s not John, by the way), giving a long, emotional speech that should feel dramatic, but just looks like it came out of nowhere. The plot (two losers try a street drug that gives them psychic powers, but there’s also some sort of apocalypse coming) also makes similar leaps to the increasingly ridiculous, which makes it feel rushed. I know it was based on a nearly 500-page novel, which I imagine gives it more time to ease us into that sort of thing. But the movie’s frenetic jump from surreal scene to even more surreal scene results in an episodic feel, making me wonder if this would have been better off as a TV show (especially given the bromantic chemistry between the two leads). Chase Williamson (David Wong)’s deadpan narration starts off brilliantly, setting the unsettling tone, but his voiceover soon gives away the movie’s source material as a book, and just adds another layer of “telling”.

source: aceshowbiz.com

I do feel like the opening 5 minutes misled me a bit. It seemed very stylized, with quick editing and a voiceover that felt functional. The sharp-stringed musical cues (if Psycho’s theme got awesomely drunk) made me feel like I was watching a pretty surreal horror movie. That feeling was fortified by the unkillable zombie that just walks into David’s house, but we never hear more about this (or the demon made out of bits of meat). The movie goes all over the shop to lead to a bit of a cop-out ending that seems like it’s borne out of writing yourself out of a corner. I’d imagine that’s how the book ended, but apparently not – a complete game-changer of an ending is in that book (spoiler), and it was omitted from the film.

It’s still fun to watch (especially for that cracking opening scene), but so much is rushed or edited out that it becomes a mish-mash of styles that don’t really add up to anything substantial. Instead, the movie kept trying so hard to be so self-aware that it felt as though it was trying to trick the audience at the end of every scene. And that just makes things murkier if you already have an unreliable narrator for a movie that’s essentially a quest to figure out what’s going on – and that’s also being relayed to us via flashbacks. There are some moments of humour, such as when a doorhandle transforms into a flaccid penis (“that door cannot be opened!”), but it soon just becomes weird for the sake of weird before finally collapsing under the weight of its trolling, trailing plot threads.