66 Things to Do in Salem, MA (Updated July 2015)

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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!):

Continue reading

On not being Fitzgerald

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So as a pretentious yet lifelong amateur writer (i.e., possessing a George McFly-like fear of editorial rejection), I guess I fancied myself as a bit of a female, Asian, British F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve spent my youth mingling among the moderately privileged, simultaneously curious about about but also snobbishly vexed by them.

It might have been that I started my private schooling 9 years after most of my 14-strong classmates, or that I was the token brown kid (though the latter was true even in serf school), but I’d always felt like a bit of an outsider. I observed rather than participated. And because of that, I always felt in the way – taking up someone else’s time when they could be doing something else or seeing someone else – and so in my head I consigned my social interactions to deserve only standing outside of a group looking wistful, knowing I don’t belong, yet still wanting to participate.

I never met my Zelda, and I don’t intend to. When I threw parties they were Hallowe’en shindigs for my friends, in a boring village in South England that just didn’t Hallowe’en – not for some shallow, self-absorbed, common weed flower-namesaked twunt who I hoped would wander in one day.

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But I’m probably not like Fitzgerald, even though I adore Paris, and I even made a friend in the Left Bank. I like bourbon. I’m partial to owning cats through various people with whom I’ve shared homes. I have no time for bullshitters.

And I like the Wharf here in Salem.

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The stone benches are comfortable enough for even my shard-like butt bones to rest on, and the middle set of those on left side (as you’re walking down) are far enough out from the street that the tourists are too lazy to choose them (so they will take the first set), but not far our enough for the beer can-litterers and blunt-smokers (so they will take the set at either of the far ends). Thus, like an Asian, British, brunette Goldilocks, this middle-left set has been and always will be my perfect Wharf thinking throne, and there’s nothing quite like the sea air, here – how it smells, how it flutters past your face, how you can’t quite tell whether it’s going to be humid, mouldy breezes, or dry, hair-in-the-face-whipping gusts or just oppressively back-punching sunshine with its shit-eating grin, busting through a dead-air sky like a celestial Kool-Aid man.

And because of all of those aforementioned likes – especially my tedious description of the above – I’ve realised I’m actually goddamn fucking Hemingway. The Young Woman and the Sea.

But I could never shoot my own cat.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 31: Le Manoir du diable (1896)

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Yeah,  you read that date right. Widely-cited as the world’s first horror movie, this dinky little three-minute short was actually intended more as a light-hearted bit of fun, rather than a proper chiller. Director and producer Georges Méliès filmed the movie on his own property, and it looks pretty cavernous.

First, we see a giant bat (honestly, it’s fucking huge, like the size of a small horse), who transforms into some demon, who then start a messing with two young soldiers.There’s some cat-and-mouse chase going on, but the action is confined to one corridor. There’s transformations aplenty, using a tsart-stop technique in which one actor stands still and the other runs off-camera and waits for the horse bat to show up.

I saw this on YouTube, and even though the picture quality is extremely blurry, I’m amazed it’s lasted this long. It’s a cute way to spend three minutes,  just so you can say you watched the first ever horror movie.

Happy Hallowe’en!!

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 30: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

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Sweeney ToddMuch like Coraline, I can’t believe I never got around to seeing this. It’s Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall (aren’t they always so good together?). Colleen Atwood bringing her usual magic to the costumes. And it’s based on a Stephen Sondheim musical (hence why I wanted the damn soundtrack immediately – and I’m usually of of “meh” about musicals).sweeney todd

Depp plays Todd, a former barber seeking to fall back into his former trade as a cover for murderous revenge against those responsible for locking him up in prison. Rickman plays the judge who abused his power to imprison Todd, having done so out if jealousy of unrequited love for Todd’s wife. Worse still, he’s only gone and adopted Todd’s only child, a daughter who Todd never knew before. Now, 15 years later, she’s all (relatively) grown up.

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Todd rents a room from pie-peddler Mrs. Lovett (Bonham-Carter) who, by her own admission, serves up the ghastliest meat pastries in the world. Given Todd’s newfound,  Taxi Driver-esque hatred of society and murderous intentions, and Mrs Lovett’s piss-poor pasties, the two cook up the clearly obvious solution to use Todd’s necky-slashy cadavers to make meat pies because something about it being a man-eat-man world. And…waste not, want not, Sort of like Jamie Oliver’s recipes where he tells you to use the bones from your leftover chicken drumsticks.

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All goes cannibal-tastic until Todd’s bloodlust starts getting out of hand, and the makeshift couple’s new ward (Edward Sanders) begins to have an icky feeling about all this.sweeney todd

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I’ve never seen the musical, so I can’t compare. This is probably not true for most viewers but I always find the first few songs in a movie musical to be a bit jarring, because they feel like pointless interludes from the real plot. I know it’s a musical,  but it’s different to live musical theatre. But I loved the songs.

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Though the tricky thing about movie musical adaptations is that you need someone who can both sing and act, as well as carry off the character’s accent. Depp can sing better than I thought,  and he can certainly act, and his London accent is leaps and bounds ahead of those dreadful Cockney mouthfarts he did in From Hell.sweeney todd

Bonham-Carter is the same, but her singing attempts are marred by the nasal way she alters her speech patterns for her accent, and it makes the high notes a thing of terror. Sacha Baron Cohen is a way better singer than I thought he was, but the star of the show is Sanders.sweeney todd

His accent makes him sound like a typical wee little imp from Oliver!, and his singing is just spectacular. The song he shares with Mrs Lovett is oddly abs refreshingly poignant. Just…damn.

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Because it’s Burton, is safe to say the visuals are suitably eye-popping. Sets are grimy and bare and cavernous and dripping with doom. Also: blood, which literally spurts everywhere like somebody made Campari, cherry, strawberry and blood smoothies but didn’t put the lid on the blender all the way. You’ve got to push it firmly until you hear the little click.

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The aforementioned costumes are instantly-cosplayable works of art. Every other scene feels like it needs to be screencapped, they’re that well- blocked. It all adds up to a ghoulish concoction of a film that is fun to watch, but never once celebrates or glamorises the literal bloodbaths on display. Now excuse me while I go sing “Pretty women” to nobody.sweeney todd

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 29: Coraline (2009)

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A little ashamed to admit I never got around to seeing this one. Even though it’s by Creator of My Awesome Childhood Nightmares director Henry Selick, and based on a book by Brilliant Nightmares scribe Neil Gaiman, I’d assumed that this was a film aimed at kids.

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Wrong! Coraline is a whimsical, dark fantasy tale about a lonely young girl (Dakota Fanning) who discovers a portal to another dimension in her new home. The “Other” World is bright, colourful, cheerful and has counterparts of people she knows in real life, and they’re all much happier and successful. She even has an Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) and an Other Father (John Hodgman), both of whom are confident, warm people, and lavish her with the attention and family activities and scrumptious dinners that her harried parents don’t have time for.

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She quickly gets over the fact that they have black buttons for eyes.

Feeling ignored by her mum and dad and alienated in her new surroundings, she starts to spend more and more time in the Other World, ignoring the rather sensible warnings of a series of jumping mice belonging to her new blue-coloured Russian neighbour  Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane).

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As soon as Coraline enters the Other World, I very much got an Alice in Wonderland vibe, only more macabre and at times very psychedelic. While the main point is that the Other World is the complete opposite in every way to Coraline’s real world (it’s more fun and more Coraline-centric, and even her chatty neighbour is “silenced”), it’s also wildly-designed, such a deliberately OTT contrast from the dreary grayscale clutter and barren walls of her real home. This makes for some utterly stunning character designs and sequences, such a ride through a live, flowering garden on a horse-like mantis that turns into a helicopter, or a fat lady/thin lady cabaret that literally swings Coraline to new heights. After such eye-popping, reality-bending spectacles (and: breakfast food for dinner), it’s not hard to see why Coraline would want to stay.

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And that’s where the creep factor comes in. Teri Hatcher plays both Coraline’s real mum, and the button-eyed Other Mother. The latter is a Hansel and Gretel-type demon who preys on lonely children and lures them into what she thinks their perfect family life would look like, only to literally eat their souls to keep from looking like a disjointed, overly-tall metallic spider lady. Her characterisation is terrifying – the ease with which she can be so manipulative, so passive-aggressive, so insidiously-abusive – gave me a bit of a fright.

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There’s so much dread built up that the chilling atmosphere is a wee bit wafted off when the plot settles into a quest-based third act that feels plucked from a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Which might have been OK if the film didn’t keep trying to put cling film over its own plot holes.

From a technical standpoint, the stop-motion is so seamlessly well-executed that I forgot I wasn’t watching a live-action film. Every character’s movement, even swishes of hair, is so accurate and natural that I honestly feel so grateful for all the ridiculous detail and expertise on display. As much as Selick is ScareKing of Hallowe’en cinematic magic, I’d love to see him tackle a (fully) Christmas flick.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 28: Peur(s) du noir (Fears(s) of the Dark) (2007)

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source: horror.wikia.com

Ooh, those menacingly plucking strings of music over the opening credits got my attention (as did the monster screams in the background), though the repeatedly strobe-like flashes of the credit text probably isn’t best if your eyes are a bit tired. Peur(s) du noir (or, Fear(s) of the Dark), is a black-and-white animated anthology horror. Each directed by one artist (or graphic artist), the stories tell singular stories about snippets of fear.

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There are six segments in total; four are standalone stories – one about a boy who studies insects; another about a young girl and a Samurai spirit; the third is about a boy who crosses paths with a monster, and the fourth about a man who takes refuge from a blizzard in an abandoned cabin. The other two creep in alongside the other stories as segment bookends – one is about a man who sics his vicious dogs on people, and the other is a series of graphics with a woman narrating her personal fears.

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The first segment (about a boy who’s fascinated with bugs) is compelling and relatable, but the animation and story on the other two were a little too dull. The bookend piece about the man and his dogs was quite ghoulish (particularly the ending), maybe more owing to the Lon Chaney-like gargoyle appearance of the man, and the sequences were short and sinister enough. What let it down a fair bit for me was the narrated segment. I get that it set the tone that this wasn’t going to be some animated French version of V/H/S or The ABCs of Death, but the designs were too dull when paired with the narration, which came off as suffocatingly pretentious.

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Anthologies can be a bit of a broken beast. People often judge them as a complete, Love Actually-esque film, as if they’re supposed to intersect and provide a neatly-connected story. But the “bookend” segments make it clear that this is a series of parts that aren’t necessarily meant to fit together other than drumming up a fairly unified tone. It does make for some disjointed viewing, especially as the stories are so different; they start out Creepypasta-ish with shock over substance, but then shift towards more traditional chills.

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Which is why, for me, the final segment (the man in the cabin, by Richard McGuire), is my personal favourite. It makes effective use of the advertised black-and-white (the Samurai segment was more grayscale); the colours are stark and the animation is clean and simple. McGuire mucks about brilliantly with light and dark – because the cabin is deserted and the man only has a gaslight lamp, all we see is what’s in the light; maybe a bit of shadow. If it had been a live-action film, we would have seen everything in that house – even in the dark. Outlines of the floor, fireplace, chairs, doors, etc. But we only ever see what’s illuminated by that tiny circle of light. There’s also no dialogue, and the music is used sparingly. I was a bit disappointed with how abruptly it ended, and when I found out that my reading of the story was wrong – I thought the man was returning to an old home, rather than happening upon a stranger’s – but even on its own, it’s a strikingly innovative segment. Absolutely worth watching for that one alone.

I watched this one on Netflix UK, and the running time of 80-odd minutes is a tad misleading, as there are over 6 minutes of credits. I didn’t see anything afterwards, but just more of the flashy-flashy Men in Black-type design they inflicted on us for the opening titles.

 

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 27: Dark Skies (2013)

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“Two possibilities exist:

Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not.

Both are equally terrifying.”

And so our movie opens with a rather chilling quote from Arthur C. Clarke. In comes the dramatic irony with a pleasant family barbecue hosted by Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton) Bennett. Everything seems rosy, but the adults are distracted by their strained relationships, money woes and piling bills. They’re too busy to be honest or intimate with each other, and definitely too busy to watch their young boys, who are either reading scary stories in the dark or watching the tamest, lamest porn ever with neighbour kids in the dark. It’s a nice house though. Big. Spacious enough for an unknown entity to poltergeist its way around, destroy every item in the fridge (“what kind of animal eats all the lettuce but leaves all the bacon?”) and spook the dog.

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Daniel chalks it up to a stray animal (“a giant rabbit with opposable thumbs”), but when Lacy wakes up in the middle of the night to find a surreal tin can sculpture in the kitchen, she’s not so convinced. And after every family photo is replaced with a sheet of white paper in the frame, and when their youngest son starts to have random terror episodes, the already-fractured family dynamics begin to fall apart.

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After hundreds of birds inexplicably slam against every window in their house, Lacy suffers a near stroke-like episode. She then uses her enforced downtime from work to…Google the occurrences. Well, that’s probably what most people would have done, and we get to see her deteriorating state of mind when we see her click on a link that literally says “conspiracy theories”. So on the surface of things, it comes across as a very tense drama about the pitfalls of middle-class pride and a broken family struggling through a very, very contemporary financial setback. And as petty as some of the arguments Lacy and Daniel have (a massive blowout when she discovers he lied about how well an interview went – that’s really it), their story is relatable.

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But it’s not enough to hold one’s attention during what should be a tense horror movie. Netflix UK’s synopsis states the movie is about a family who discover that aliens have been abducting young children and that one of theirs might be next. This plot point isn’t even revealed until almost the final act!

 

The interminably slow build-up relies on a series of “are you fucking kidding me with this tropes”: disturbing children’s drawings, mass bird suicide omen, circumstantial, real-world hindrances (the boys develop some truly horrific marks on their body that prompt neighbours to think that the Barretts are abusing them). Jump scares are a thing of the past, but this movie uses them as if they’re the next big thing. Much of this works well as an insidiously-paced psychological horror, but the filmmakers just can’t restrain themselves when they reveal said aliens and destroy the ambiguity (are they really abusing their kids?) that was the sole cause of any tension the movie had going for it.

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While the film does draw you in by painting a portrait of an estranged family in danger of becoming dysfunctional (especially with a disaffected pubert [yes, I am making this a word]), if we’re going to stay with this family, I would have preferred to see them make more realistic choices, even if each of their mental states are questionable. Given the official synopsis, I think it would have worked better to see a variety of families experiencing the same situation, rather than the singular journey of some self-absorbed, privileged couple who waste over half the movie not quite understanding what they’re facing. It could even have been a TV series, allowing the supernatural/sci-fi events to unfold while learning each family’s story.

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The movie starts out around typical, strained relationships but then the lazy formula starts to creep in with the arrival of The Donor, a character type that Provides Information so that the rest of the movie has more structure now than the slow-burning Strange Things Are Happening of the first two acts. It’s an insulting bit of cop-out, as we’re told that there’s no reason why the aliens do what they do. So they just seem to torment everybody by causing strokes and meddling with Social Services just to troll their test subjects? What lazy writing. There is a rather sweet scene in which the family realise they must physically and mentally stick together to overcome, and they sit down to watch the 4th of July fireworks on the TV while having dinner. It’s the only time we see them together as a family.

But by the end, it’s Stupid Decisions A-Plenty, and a third act that feels nicked from an episode of The X-Files is hastily tacked on. At this point, I don’t know what sort of movie this is trying to be, and the maudlin imagery and dreamworld fake-outs aren’t going to provide an appropriate distraction from it. It was honestly all so…boring. Isn’t that the worst thing a horror movie can be?

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 26: Grabbers (2012)

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source: filmjamblog.com

A bunch of drunks evading aliens directed by a guy whose surname is Wright. It might look like a very quick-timed ripoff of The World’s End, but this is just as fun, only it knows it’s holding its own on a much smaller scale. It’s just someone else having a go at a similar (but honestly not identical) concept. As soon as I heard the very obvious Wilhelm Scream(s?) 3 minutes in, I knew this was going to be a cheeky bit of naff.

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First off, there’s some damn fine scenery; the film’s set on a small Irish island. Think sweeping coastlines, medieval walls, cobblestones, and yes, lots of alcoholics.  Of which our main character, Garda (Policeman) Ciarán O’Shea (Andy Serkis lookalike Richard Coyle) is one. And he’s paired up with typically strait-laced former gritty city cop Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). The two are called to look at some mangled, beached-up whales, but  when a fisherman is “grabbed” into the ocean (by a monster so invisible that the film’s budget sighed with relief), they soon discover that there’s a greater, inhuman threat, and the mismatched pair are tasked with saving humanity in between their probably sexual bickering.

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Possibly owing to my patronising xenophilia (yes, philia), I already think that the Irish have very distinct personalities that translate enormously well onto screen. So they could have gotten a bunch of nobodies for some of the bit parts and I wouldn’t have known – everybody just acts so natural. Even for a rural couple who are trying to figure out if their neighbour Clooney is dancing or being used as bait one rainy night. And it’s probably because of this instant cinematic familiarity that we feel bad for each and every day player that meets a rather nasty fate.

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Because of the nature of the “Grabbers”, they’re not seen much – at first. They come from out of nowhere to snatch their victims, so a situation like this would appear all but hopeless when the shit starts grabbing at the fan. Especially when our drunken Garda is at the forefront of the action and looks like our best shot for salvation. Hopeless! Or! Maybe not! Turns out that, after some scienceing, it’s determined that being drunk wards off these monsters, like some kind of paralytic, piss-your-pants alien repellent.

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And so we see yet another excellent excuse for an entire cast to be completely pissed out of sheer necessity. It’s a fresher student’s dream. I’m afraid this is my guilty comedy pleasure. Some people love toilet humour; I have a soft spot for when characters get drunk or high and stumble about daftly making poor verbal and physical decisions. Pissed-up pratfalls.

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It’s a surprisingly well-made film; it doesn’t have terribly witty lines (who needs ’em when you have hilariously merry drunks?), but it’s got some pretty impressive SFX (though the baby grabbers look like jelly in ladies’ tights on puppet strings), and some warm performances, including a deliciously sharp, deadpan turn from Being Human and Sherlock marvel Russel Tovey, poshing it up as the local Scientist Who Helps Figure Things Out. Meanwhile, Bradley’s screams are truly the worst thing you’ll hear. Ever. It’s not really a flick that requests repeat viewings. It’s the sort of movie you’d happily enjoy watching a group as utterly sloshed as the characters. There’s even a drinking game for it. Though there’s probably a drinking game for everything.