STICKY POST

Midnight Voss: Writer, Reader, Teacher, Professional Malcontent

I have been writing stories since I was eight years old.  More recently, my resume has expanded.  Find out what I can do for you...        ...

Friday, January 10, 2020

POETRY REVIEWS: Captive


Captive by Madeline Dyer is a volume of poetry produced from her therapy writings as she worked through OCD and psychosis induced by Autoimmune Basal Ganglia Encephalitis. As the title suggests, this disorder causes brain inflammation, and this book circles on her feelings and experiences during this time.

Thematically, we see several clear messages regarding disability and mental/physical disorders arise. Often, frustration and helplessness come not only from Dyer’s illness, but also as a response to the way she is treated by various individuals in the medical profession, as her condition forces her to go to the, repeatedly for help. Instead of getting help, she is dismissed, refused tests, and made to feel that she is just seeking attention. In that way, this volume of poetry is very timely, as there have been a number of studies coming out on how women are not believed by doctors in their pain.

Although her experiences are specific to her life and having a disorder that is very rare, people who struggle with chronic conditions will be able to relate to a lot of elements exhibited here. As Dyer crafts her poems, she blurs the lines between metaphor, hallucination, and literal occurrence, taking the reader with her as she relies on natural imagery, but then describes actual hallucinations. As she discusses her illness, the ever-shifting relationship between her and it unfolds: at once a monster, a captor, a tormentor, a friend, and sometimes, an object that she diminishes into a humorous image (a dancing beetle) to take control over it. She describes it as the one that whispers to her how to be safe, will never let her to be free, and lies to her that it is her only friend.

There is also a sense of claustrophobia created by the poems when read together. Dealing with mental illness, whether induced by a physical cause or not, can be incredibly isolating. Whether it is due to your loved ones growing tired of your needing help, or you pushing others away, doesn’t really matter. In the end, part and parcel with all of this is feeling very alone with your illness.

It’s easier to process this volume as a whole rather than a selection of poems, but I’ll mention a few that particularly resonated with me.

“Things People Say/Things I Want to Say”
Again, I think it helps to read this volume in one go, but if you have to take a break, make sure to read these two together. They reflect how people talk to those with mental illness and things Dyer is struggling to communicate.

“but my tears feed it [the monster]
and my breaths
are the beat of its wings”

“Men in White Coats”
One of several poem detailing her complex relationship with doctors and the fear that’s been inspired by hospitals.

“I’ll run away,
don’t make me go
to a prison too white
with screams as loud as silence
and whispers that cut.”

“There’s Nothing Wrong with You”
In this poem, I recognized the feeling of going to a doctor, and having that doctor shocked when I cried that my results showed nothing. Anyone with chronic problems knows that a negative test is good for what they tested for, but you are still sick and still in pain, and something is wrong. They just haven’t found it. And when you spend a huge amount of money for tests that find nothing? Hello. I’m gonna cry.

“I see my soul, pink, inflamed, fleshy,
reduced to a watery, flat nothing
in the doctor’s hands.
Hands that are supposed to care
but his hands are callous because his mind
is set and he’s not willing to believe me
and research my symptoms to save me.”

“The Beetle from My Mind”
“Little legs and little arms.
A briefcase, glossy shoes, and a top hat.
A monocle, because he thinks it looks so cool.”

Personifying her psychosis as this little beetle that she dresses up and tells to dance, owning the space of her mind. It’s just such a great concept, and I think others who deal with mental illness and disorders can definitely relate to visualizations that help them cope with the bullshit their brains are trying to pull.

“My Hands”
There’s an element of body horror to not recognizing parts of yourself and feeling vulnerable and unable to be an actor in your own life. That’s what struck me about this one. When the monster is most in control “a parasite, reaching with long, sweet limbs.. he pulls the levers and my fingers obey.” This really pulls the reader into the terrifying feeling of losing of control.

“Psycho”
Losing connection with your friends through the process of trying to keep your head above water during an illness like this… It’s just crushing. It emphasizes the sense of isolation because it isn’t all at once. The longer it’s dragged out, the more painful it is.

“But the wasp thrives after leaving its poison,
and I am wasteland, watching friends evaporate,
lost in the grid.”


Honorable mention: I just like “An Apology to the Ponies.” Dyer has Shetland ponies. I liked this one.

I will say, in the beginning, I had some difficulty parsing the meaning of the poems as they were.  I think that this could’ve been resolved for the reader by putting “Sometimes, I Get Really Good Days“ first to make it easier to ease into the volume and follow Dyer’s poems. At the same time, I sort of value the struggle to find meaning in an experience that is so different from my own. For me, with anxiety and depression and chronic pain, a lot of my issues don’t even come close to Dyer’s, and cognitively putting in the work to understand her words is very important. By the end, I thought, “Oh no, it’s over.”

And you know that makes a powerful volume of poetry. I definitely recommend giving it a try.



I received a copy of this ebook for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, December 13, 2019

HOW NOT TO WRITE: Pooka!

Human-sized furry creature sitting at a diner table.


Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?

In the third installment of Blumhouse’s monthly horror movie installments on Hulu, Pooka! is the story of a struggling actor who gets a little too into his part as the titular Pooka, and begins to spiral, as he loses track of who he is outside of Pooka.

This definitely isn’t the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, and therein lies the problem. I felt like this one had more potential, but it does need more work. Problematically, I’m more on the narrative side, and I wouldn’t know how to balance the cinematography and other elements that were good with editing the script as a whole.  

Pooka! has its optimum potential as a story about an abuser realizing the logical outcome of his behavior, but as a coherent film, it is hindered by several major issues: 1) It is trying too hard to hide the reveal with confusion despite having given it away, and 2) it is trying to do and be so many things that the abuser angle becomes a secondary note to the wackiness.  It’s about commercialism, but also a bad father/husband who ended up killing his wife and child. It’s an homage to both A Christmas Carol and “An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge.”

Below, are tons of spoilers, but since this has been out for a year, we’ll deal with it.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

HOW NOT TO WRITE: Falling INN Love

Gilbert the Goat



Falling INN Love. Get it? There’s an INN, and the protagonists are falling IN love while they fix up the INN. It’s an INN they’re falling IN love IN. Get it?

Okay. Goofy pun aside (and apart from repeatedly explaining to my girlfriend why Gabriela should be a softball/Home Depot lesbian caught in a warring BnB plot with Charlotte and end up with Shelley), this is actually a decent movie. I had low expectations based on the title as well as Netflix’s general ridiculousness in picking up terrible romcoms and limited series that are maybe the worst written nonsense in existence.

Falling INN Love (get it?) is about Gabriella Diaz, whose life falls entirely apart in the span of a day. She loses her job due to the company collapsing, and then she realizes her boyfriend has no intention of committing to her at all (doesn’t hurt that he’s also bossy and annoying). So she enters a contest to win an inn in New Zealand. She wins! And she goes to New Zealand to check it out. Apparently, it needs a lot of work, and she’s as stubborn as the goat that lives on the property, so she decides to stay and fix the place up to sell.

Unlike The Princess Switch and The Xmas Prince (and sequels), the male lead isn’t a vaguely symmetrical piece of cardboard. Jake is kind of cute. He has a life, as a contractor who keeps bees (I assume as a hobby?). He’s funny, not aggressive or arrogant, and while he butts heads with our protagonist Gabriella at times, he isn’t negging her on purpose. Ye gods, if I have to see one more dumbass male lead being written as “edgy” when he’s really just a dick.

Anyway, moving on, I really enjoyed the side characters. The setting of a small town in New Zealand doesn’t sound like much on the outset, but everyone is so nice, and they all have their own thing going on. Way better than the endless string of fake European countries that seem to have ten residents. I even ended up liking the Bitch character Charlotte, because she has really clear motivations, and she was never really that mean. Her goals just conflicted with our protagonist’s goals, and she made some poor choices.

Furthermore, and this part struck me, I don’t remember the last time I watched a romcom and was genuinely laughing, not AT the film, but in response to JOKES. I suppose that reveals me to be the black-hearted creature I truly am, but most romcoms in movie style are not that funny. They rely on cringe humor and half-assed “sassiness” in their characters. For Falling INN Love (get it?), the characters have their quirks, but not in a way that feels stereotypical or forced, and Gilbert? He’s the real star.

All and all, Falling INN Love (get it? Okay, I’ll stop, I swear.) is sweet, actually romantic, funny, and very rewatchable. Honestly, for improvement, I have only a few suggestions on what might make it better.


TL;DR- HOW NOT TO WRITE

Unlike most of the movies in this genre, the heroine actually has a pretty good reason to leave her home, boyfriend, and job (although technically her company collapsed). Thus, the audience is not being asked to suspend their disbelief too far on this point. At most, the stretch comes from the amount of money it would cost to renovate this house. So, plot-wise we’re only looking at certain tension and pacing improvements.

By the middle of the movie, when Gabriella and Jake are actively working on the inn and we get numerous moments of them arguing about how much of the old structure to keep vs how much modernization is needed, their chemistry and the fun of the movie really hits its stride. Unfortunately, it takes us a bit to get there, and their relationship before this point felt a bit off.

  • Don’t skimp on setting up plot beats.


The only actual flaw I see in the movie itself is that from Gabriella’s first “meet cute” with Jake, she is inexplicably antagonistic with him. We don’t see her being antagonistic with her dick coworkers, or with her boyfriend. She’s actually very appeasing in nature, and it works to her benefit with the townspeople of Beachwood Downs.

It really seems as though she and Jake are at odds in this part because they are supposed to be at this part of the story. The structure of this romance doesn’t follow early heat slam-bam plot, but the romcom overcoming differences. This means that, while we probably expect them to have a problem with each other at first, it does need to be set up properly.

I would argue that the first part of the movie, during which we set up Gabriella’s character, she should be more formidable with her coworkers rather than letting them walk over her and during the fight with her boyfriend, he call her a stubborn control freak. Either he should in irritation, or her friend should in a loving way. We need some grounding for this layer of her character. Otherwise, it seems like her personality flips the minute she sees Jake.

Again, Jake is a pretty nice guy. Not a Nice Guy. He’s just helpful and only teases her a little when she knocks things over and makes a mess. We need more of a reason for her to be so combative every time she sees him, since (refreshingly) he hasn’t done anything to make her angry. He does run into her suitcase with his car, but that was as much her fault as his.  A little work in setting up their early dynamic would iron out this kink.

  • Don’t forget to let the narrative breathe.


As Sherry Thomas (Author of The Lady Sherlock series, The Magnolia Sword, etc.) pointed out during her 2019 RWA panel on pacing, it really only has to be “good enough.” The opening needs to be good enough to get us to the rising action, the middle has to move us to the, and the ending has to bring things together. (I’m paraphrasing a lot. Go see her talk.) A lot of authors obsess over their openings because they know that editors are going to toss their manuscript out of the pile for arbitrary reasons and conflicting advice. So it makes sense to fret about the pacing.

Falling INN Love’s pacing is good enough. It works as a movie. However, to make this story optimal, I would have advised that Netflix invest in this project as a limited series. Unlike some of Neflix’s other limited series, Falling INN Love  has a well-established cast of characters, running jokes, a clear through-line for its main arc, as well as subplots that could be explored throughout a series of maybe 6-8 episodes. You have our main couple, a side couple with Shelley and her admirer, Charlotte’s shenanigans, the gay couple that run the cafĂ©, and of course, Gilbert.

I can easily see this running for a season and being rather popular. I don’t know that they had the money, but with such a well done setting and cast, Netflix could EVEN have done one of its favorite things: Had a two season show. Except, you know, planned it from the start so people don’t attack them on Twitter.

The main reason to expand a narrative like this, even though I think the movie did a good enough job for its format, is a principle that sometimes gets overlooked in fiction: Letting the narrative breathe. If After failed becausse it is almost nothing but interstitial moments, Falling INN Love thrives because it uses them to build cause and effect style on one another until we reach our conclusion. Drawing from that strength, it could easily shift from a movie to a short series allow for that narrative breathing, that careful building of character interactions. 

Even if you aren't writing something that has a lot of connective tissue, the scenes still need to have a sense of cause and effect. Don't let things happen just because they have to happen at this point in your script/manuscript.

But that's just my take. Anyway, mostly enjoyed this one. As always, if you have suggestions something you'd like me to try to "fix" with my overly opinionated ranting, drop me a line. See you next time, cuttlefishes. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

POETRY REVIEWS: You Can't Kill Me Twice


 
Charlyne Yi: Dark haired woman with winged eyeliner
and silver fish pinning her black cloak together.

Every time I see Charlyne Yi in something, I’m always surprised and then delighted. I’m pretty sure I saw her for the first time in Knocked Up, which I didn’t particularly enjoy despite a general good job all around by the actors, but I knew her best for Ruby in Steven Universe. Then, later, she voiced the lead in Next Gen (so cute) and played Lucifer’s nerdy little sister Death/Azrael (seen above, with Death’s fishies). And that’s just the acting side of things, because she’s also a comedian (which I knew) and a composer/musician/artist/writer/director (which I did not know). And then I saw her book come up on Netgalley.

I wouldn’t call this your standard book of poems, although as a musician, Yi can wield a metaphor adeptly. I might rate the book lower, if compared side to side with some of my absolute favorite poets who have left me gasping. You Can’t Kill Me Twice (so please treat me right) isn’t just another chapbook, though. It’s a set of musings, art, and stories. And like the best of all of these, it grows deeply personal.

One thing that Yi does that I’ve not actually seen other poets really do is integrate her illustrations into the meaning of the expression on the page. Yes, you’ll see some interesting pictures here and there in Rupi Kaur and others, but they aren’t critical to the poetry. You can just read the poem and get it. “The Study of Types of Love of Friendship, Family, and Romance” lists types like “The Black Hole” and “The Projectionist” and “The Disassemblist.”

Figure with body parts spread before them, saying
"You're so facinating. How do you work?"

Just making a list without the illustrations wouldn’t give us same effect. Later in the book, in between a few lines of a short poem, Yi deploys her illustrations as well as the space of different pages to have a couple dancing and pulling each other back and forth. One of my favorites is the of image those enormous glasses the optometrist gives you, to look between lenses for which one looks right, and Yi punctuates each with a little circular lens with a drawing: Repression, Depression, and Reality. (I like the little ghost, okay.)

Apart from that, there are volumes of poetry that make me laugh, but reading this, there were a lot of little moments of saying “YES!” and outright snorting in laughter. Yi’s ability to move fluidly between roles makes for volume of poetry and art that is ever changing and doesn’t let you settle. It was a quick read, yes, but very enjoyable.  Her humor is also a moving target. Sometimes it’s a bitter laugh, and sometimes it’s about an egg going up someone’s butt.

Thematically, Yi does address romantic relationships to a degree, but this is by far not the only focus. It’s hard to pin it all down, but You Can’t Kill Me Twice addresses love, loneliness, mental illness, suicide, identity, racism, political violence and scapegoating, building society on empathy rather than aggression, and the cyclical nature of abuse.

It’s a lot, ya’ll.

At the same time, it’s nice to see books of poetry that don’t just revolve around the rise and fall of a person’s relationships. It’s there, definitely, and I appreciate the themes of needing to be a whole person without your significant other, but that isn’t the beginning and end of what you’ll see here. The book is an interesting ride.





I was given a free copy in exchange for an honest review by Netgalley.

(I also wasn't going to do another poetry review so soon, but the pdf goes boom on the 19th when Yi's book goes on sale, so I had to hurry while I had the time.)

Saturday, November 16, 2019

POETRY REVIEWS: Swallowtail

Image of a butterfly with a clipped wing.
Text: "Swallowtail: Poems, Brenna Twohy"

Swallowtail is a short, potent volume of poetry by Brenna Twohy, who comes out of the scene in Portland, Oregon and is finishing law school. An overall strong debut, Twohy's poetry is like a bracing, but refreshing, step into the first winter air. I wasn't expecting it, but god, does it feel good.

Twohy's spoken poetry influences are apparent in her work. The utilization of humor, the pop culture to broach difficult topics, the boldness of those topics. You can hear the lyricism and rhythm as you read through. Twohy also employs some familiar forms to slam poetry, for example, numbered lists and prompts with descending word count. This influence proves a strength for Twohy, who is capable of balancing strikig prose and meaning with the style/gimmicks employed. Furthermore, in her few shorter poems, she is able to deliver the depth of a single thought via a thought provokig extended metaphor.

Swallowtail starts strong. Rather than following the current trends, and parcelling out development in a 3-4 part "journey" (a conceit that usually leaves the front rather weak), Twohy comes out swinging with several poems about rape and abuse. One poem even calls out the complaint that there are too many poems about rape, without recognizing why this is such a common experience.

"Another Rape Poem"
You are staring out at a world on fire complaining about how ugly you think the ashes are.


By placing these poems upfront, Twohy captures our attention and signals to the reader the kind of poet she aspires to be: willing to take risks and very much having something to say. While this volume doesn't have a central theme, the content circles rather closely on relationships and violence, grief and loss, and perception of self/others' perceptions of that self. Whether by intention or by the natural organization, the volume ends with the consequences of the poems before, which include anxiety, depression, and the examination of personal failures as a result of previous emotional abuse.


"In Which I Do Not Fear Harvey Dent"
If you think I am brave, it is because you have never seenme out of costume.

Possibly, Twohy's lawyerly aspirations are what add the extra force to her poetry. Perhaps, it is just the overlap between her experience and her writerly voice. Whatever it is, Swallowtail is a strong, refreshing debut that will leave lyricism singing in your blood, the way it does when you go to a good open mic night.

Twohy's Tumblr
Twohy's Twitter
Twohy's Website


I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

How Not to Write: After (Part Two)

They continue to be two boring white kids on a dock.


Hello, Darkness, my old friend…

Welcome back for part two of How Not to Write: After Edition. In the first post, I spoke about the problems of trying to convert fanfiction conventions into books and movies, and the problems with After’s narrative action to begin with. To this point, I’ve spoken strictly about basic narrative elements that the movie fails to achieve. Today, we’re gonna cover issues of character and theme. Gods help us.

  • Don't pass red flags off as romantic rather than alarming. 


This movie is thematically confused. It doesn’t know whether it is a coming of age story, the first act of a Lifetime original, or half a horror movie before Hardin evolves enough to join Joe of Netflix’s You. It’s supposed to be a romance, but misses most of the important beats in building the relationship between the two main characters.

Substituting red flags for romance doesn’t cut it in 2019. (#sorrynotsorry) You can’t just vaguely hand wave over creepy behavior like this and then claim it’s “just fiction” so it “doesn’t matter.” It’s bad fiction. You need to have a point to a story and something behind your relationships. Hardin needs to either dial back the entitled, possessive, sociopathic dickery… OR RAMP. IT. UP.

A lot of people have spoken about how Hardin as a character is basically an assemblage of red flags glued together with toxic masculinity and spray painted with acting so bad that we question whether the British actor is faking his accent. He negs Tessa the moment he meets her, has rage problems (beating the shit out of someone who isn’t even taking to him and trashing the house), isolating her, and using her as his personal therapist. And that’s before dealing with the raw fact that he pulls a She’s All That to try to get her to fall in love with him and keeps the game going so long his friends even seem to be surprised he’s still doing it.

It doesn’t help that the guy playing Hardin, whether by choice or directing, has less emotional range than Bella Swan. He has two emotions throughout the two movie: Soggy cardboard and sulking ten-year-old. Thus, unless they replace the actor, you’re dealing with a situation in which you have to write around his utter unlikeability. I wanted to wring his neck in the first scene, I swear, and I have discovered that I am not the only one. Get out of her room. Leave her alone. Get a job.

As I mentioned in the first part, the screenwriters also cut out an entire subplot/tension, and therefore, to replace that tension, we need to change a lot of elements. We have plenty of room to actually develop character and theme, but that means the scenes need to escalate via cause and effect. Here are some options:

Lovers of the book might choose to make Hardin more of a challenge for Tessa intellectually. This would require actually writing both of the characters as smart. Rather than creating tension from Hardin when he’s a dick to her, keep the tension going back and forth as they actually engage the other one, proving each other wrong, making each other think harder. The Legally Blonde musical does this with Emmett and Elle, and it’s absolutely adorable when they go back and forth at different times in the story with “Why do you always have to be right?” (Because they are both smart and stubborn and push each other to be more.) However, this writing choice would elevate the movie to be more of what the author wanted by connecting more to the literary references that are integral to their relationship and character. With this choice, Hardin cannot be raising all of these red flags and beating the shit out of people for no reason. As is, Hardin comes off more Mr. Wickham and much less Mr. Darcy.

(Then at the end, he’s quoting Wuthering Heights, for some reason. Like, my dude, that book does not have a happy ending. There are other books. You’re nerds. Read some.)

But that’s a direction to take if you wanted to make the story actually more romantic. If it were my choice, I would probably just embrace how terrible he is. Keep the red flags we have and push it further to more current and relatable examples. Instead of the bloody sheets of the original story, have him record them having sex to win his bet. (Welcome to the Gen Z world. They don’t just text.) Have secondary characters confront the problematic way he treats her for added tension. Instead of having the bet revealed after so many boring things have wasted our lives for 2/3rds of the movie, reveal it halfway in, having built up Tessa’s relationships with Landon and Steph. Tessa has loads more chemistry with both of these characters. Tessa describes her life as changed after him. Show us how that is after she’s been with someone so emotionally abusive and unstable.

You could still have Tessa pressured to get back with the dick in the second movie. Just use the toxic elements appropriately, or don’t use them at all. There’s no point in normalizing gross behavior as romantic, and while I wouldn’t deny a fanfic writer the right to write EDGY whumpfic, when you spend about 14 million making a movie, you’re obligated to tighten up the script and make a decision on how to portray this toxic mess of a relationship. This first movie isn’t even a romance. It’s just a mess.

  • Don't try to use basic interests as a character's entire personality. 


As a more minor gripe, a lot of YA books that get picked up by moviemakers don’t put in enough effort to make realistic characters. But since they don’t seem to get this: Reading in itself doesn’t pass for a personality.

Please put down the torches.

Look, here’s the difference. People who love to read have specific things they like. They don’t ONLY like the books that their teachers made them read in English class. They have favorite GENRES. If Jane Austen is their favorite author, they probably have read more than just Pride and Prejudice. Moreover, they have other interests, opinions, motivations, and conflicts. They DO THINGS. (I mean, sometimes we do.) Anyway, the issue is that the movie writers make no effort to flesh out the characters. The only reason Tessa is so likable is the actress’s effort. I don’t even know how this movie cost so much to make when they couldn’t be bothered to have give her a coherent wardrobe. She shifts from cult dresses to a orchestra concert dress, to Bohemian girl. Even Glee enhanced characterization via their wardrobe selections. Figure her out, style her, and use all the dialogue, and visual imagery to strengthen our sense of who she is.

Hardin is even worse. Apparently, he kind of reads (but clearly hasn’t gotten all the way through Pride and Prejudice), but otherwise, he has NO INTERESTS outside of Tessa. His spiritual predecessor Christian Grey played the piano and enjoyed whips. Give the lump of hairgel a hobby.

Character development. Not just for everyone else.

  • Don't isolate your main couple from outside interaction.


Finally, and this will help with the former two issues: These types of stories—since they are essentially fanfics that have Pokevolved—tend to fixate almost entirely on the main couple. This works in fanfiction because your readers come to the story looking to read about how these characters they already know get together under these circumstances. It does not work as well in books and movies based off of them because you need secondary characters to forward the plot and support your characters as they grow. Male and female lead acting like the last two people on Earth doesn’t cut it.

It’s so much easier to move your lead through their journey if they have support, if they engage with the other characters. Cause and effect. Characters drive the narrative. The movie started this with Tessa and her interactions with her mother, and Tessa’s relationship with Steph is touching and entertaining. Landon’s role could have been expanded, as could Steph’s as Tessa gets used to the new world of college. However, these characters disappear entirely for large swaths of the film because After’s creators aren’t telling a coherent story. They aren’t even trying.

Supporting characters can move the action, diffuse situations, make your characters look better or worse. Whatever you want. But if you don’t have them, the world feels empty and false. Again, what works in fanfic doesn’t always work in original fiction. Sorry.



Look, I don’t know how much money this movie series will make in the long run, or if the writers will handle the second and (ugh) third better than they did the first. But they really fucked the dog on this. They made their money back, but I really think they could have done better than to become the latest of this fanfic-to-book-to-deadly-boring-movie trend.

Monday, October 28, 2019

HOW NOT TO WRITE: The House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Five people overlook a coffin filled with dry ice and tiny coffin party favors.


House on Haunted Hill (1999) is like being at a dinner party with friends, and the hosts hate each other’s guts. It’s that awkward and unpleasant, and not in an enjoyable horror movie kind of way. Part of the brilliant turn of the 21st century horror remake offerings (and the second that year, released in October), HOHH ends up trailing the pack for a number of reasons: trying too hard to be SPOOKY-EDGY, poor characterization, overreliance on dating CGI, and shitty pacing and plot development. IT Chapter Two can get away with having a series of unfortunate events happening to its protagonists because the evil clown/spider/ancient evil is pointedly targeting each of them personally. That’s not the case with the haunted asylum. It just wants them DEAD.

Since there are so many issues with the dramaturgy of the piece, you can’t fix all of the issues with this movie just from writing, but you could do things to make it more of a guilty pleasure movie. For me, it always comes down to characterization, but it isn’t the easiest fix. Editing could’ve helped a lot with making the movie better. No editing tweak could really make this movie really great. Unlike Thirteen Ghosts or The Haunting (1999), the fear isn’t related to anything that might truly unnerve or touch you. Just… flashing images and characters the audience has no connection to running around a haunted house. Granted, there are enough twists to make it somewhat interesting post the 52 minute mark, but the movie is pretty boring before that. And the twists are basically the same as the ones in the original, apart for the third act CGI Darkness Blob.

Short Summary: A bunch of people are invited to spend the night in a haunted asylum. If they make it through the night, they get a million dollars each. Ghostly shenanigans, booga booga.

Unfortunately, along with this, we have Mr. and Mrs. Price sniping at each other over who is trying to kill who, Chris Kattan playing the Drunk Expositionist, Taye Diggs getting stereotyped by the others as the only black character, and Ali Larter as the final girl. HOHH leans too heavily on jerky jump scares and overblown musical cues and doesn’t connect enough to its setting or characters.

TL;DR—How Not to Write

Given what a cash grab this movie was, it isn’t really worth the effort to totally rewrite it, but there are a few edits that would help. I’ll throw out three.

  • Don’t blow your wad.


I don’t know what it is about movies at this particular point in time, but it’s never a good idea to lay out all the twists at the beginning of a story. Your viewers/readers aren’t stupid. You can keep them guessing a bit. My suggestion would be to simply do a little more hide/reveal with the plot, allowing the viewers to think that Price is behind most everything at first before things start to ramp up. This would be a perfect addition, since in the 1959 version, you can never really tell if there was anything supernatural happening, or if it was just the couple trying to get at each other.

52 minutes in, Stephen Price rushes into the room where his imagineer is watching all the guests on monitors, and when Price turns him around, HIS ENTIRE FACE IS GONE. It’s literally a gaping hole, with blood oozing out the sides and a row of bottom teeth. THIS IS GLORIOUS, and it should be the turning point in the movie when we finally realize for certain that Price isn’t behind things.

Honestly, by having the viewer know definitively that something spooky is happening right from the beginning ruins things. Yes, we suspect that it would be ghosts because of the history of the house. But you shouldn’t know all the things right away. That kills all the tension. Letting us know that Price doesn’t know who locked down the house was a big mistake.

My edit: Instead of rolling the opening credits over random edgelord creepiness, roll it over pictures and news reports of things happening in the house. The cut to Price at his “amusement” park, where we set up the themes of misdirection. Over the background of terrorizing Lisa Loeb and James Marsters on the rollercoaster, do the conversation with his wife in the bathtub, talking about her party. Cut the scene with her just watching the show about it. Use the saved time to give the characters time to talk at the beginning of the party so we get to know them a bit before we shake things up. Hence, actually caring about them when they die and when they reach out as ghosts to get Ali Larter’s character to come to them. For the first half of the movie, keep us wondering if we’re really seeing something happening or if Price is setting it up for his amusement and to terrify the wife he hates. Then, turn it around and terrify the man with the missing face of his employee and proceed with the rest of the twists.

This is literally the fastest way to make this movie better.

  • Don’t be haphazard with your exposition.


This is literally the entire purpose of Chris Kattan’s characters Pritchard, and all he does is drink and blurt out nonsensical bits and pieces, like “THE HOUSE IS ALIVE” and “IT’S THE DARKNESS.” What darkness? “THE DARKNESS! THE DARKNESS IN THIS HOUSE!” Okay, thanks for that.

In the end, it looks like the darkness is essentially a CGI blob of ghosts trapped in the house. Pritchard’s rantings don’t help us understand this, if you haven’t encountered this concept before. It would be better to lay out the exposition in pieces. Why would Pritchard even know about the Darkness? He could know part of it, about the fire, the people who died. That’s enough for one character to know. Let the protagonists find the rest. One of the characters is a journalist after all. Make them work!

There’s also a scene earlier on that would’ve been perfect for the Blake Snyder technique “Pope in the Pool,” as I mentioned before. The idea is essentially that something wild is happening in the background (killer rollercoaster), and meanwhile, you drop exposition on the viewer. But they don’t do that. Price has a fairly bland phone call with his wife while this is happening. Missed opportunity. They could’ve laid some groundwork here for Kattan’s character to build on.

Balancing exposition (meant to pique our interest) and action (to keep our hearts racing) would do this movie a lot of good.

  • Don’t treat your setting as a cardboard backdrop.


HOHH completely fails to use its setting in a significant way. That’s disappointing because people really enjoy the asylum as a site of terror, largely because asylums were places where people were terrorized. Experimented on, electrocuted “for their own good,” and the like. And nothing was done about it for a long time. That welling rage on the part of the undead would be perfect as motivation for the spirits in the house.

(If Ryan Murphy does a better job of this in the Asylum season of American Horror Story, you are failing. Murph is a mess.)

Eventually, after things get really going, you have some flashes of the evil asylum staff, but it isn’t as connected to the plot as it ought to be. The setting really feels incidental, in spite of the magical crazy room or ghosts wandering around with surgical saws. It could’ve been any house that happens to have a locking mechanism and former inhabitants that tortured each other. (The original had someone throw their spouse in a pit of acid.) A lot of stories center on an evil house. If you’re going to go with the evil house trope, you need to make the setting a character in itself, and I would argue, there just isn’t enough menace because the true horror of what happened isn’t ever fully realized.

It would be best to either LEAN IN to the asylum setting or set it in some other house and focus on the back and forth between the feuding spouses.

The House on Haunted Hill has a lot of work to do. It’s somewhat acceptable to be a bad horror movie, but less acceptable to be flat out boring. The most engaging part of this movie is honestly Famke Janssen chewing the scenery. Maybe I’m asking too much of them, but they did make money off of this. They could put in the effort to make it genuinely scary.