Get Out / *****

get-out-new-posterThere’s a lot that I love about horror, but one of my favorite aspects of the genre is the way that it so often reflects the fears and worries of a society. From the way that Vietnam influences so many horror films of the sixties and seventies to the way that technology becomes a source of influence into itself in modern times, horror is often a response to our worries, and a way of making clear fears that we’re already suffering. That’s led to a burst of great horror novels as of late that grapple with racial fears in the guise of horror novels, from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom to Matt Huff’s Lovecraft Country.

And now, you can add to that mix Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a superb, taut piece of horror filmmaking that’s not always as scary as the best horror, but manages to wring astonishing tension and unease out of its premise, beautifully satirizes and makes explicit its commentary and worries about race relations, and does it all while telling a fantastic story and delivering a brilliant, tight script that only floors me more and more as I pick it apart.

In its early going, Get Out is only a horror film in terms of the discomfort and awkwardness it raises, as it follows an interracial couple home to meet the (white) girl’s family. Once they arrive, things get uncomfortable quickly, although not in the way you might expect. There’s no overt racism here; indeed, the girl’s parents are liberal, and go out of their way to make her African-American boyfriend feel comfortable. They praise Obama, they talk about Tiger Woods, they bring up NBA…in other words, they end up being every bit as racist, condescending, and uncomfortable as more overt racism might be, and the discomfort and awkwardness is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And in the able hands of Jordan Peele, who’s making his feature debut here, we’re immersed in the perspective of Daniel Kaluuya’s calm, exasperated male lead, giving even (and maybe especially) well-meaning white audiences a taste of what it’s like to put up with this sort of garbage. It’s a bravura piece of directorial work, and does a bang-up job of making its points clearly and carefully, and using its unease to maximum effect.

Because there’s more to Get Out than just this racial discomfort. There’s also the few other African-Americans Kaluuya sees in his time with the family, all of whom are unfailingly kind, and servile…and strange. There’s an awkwardness to them, an unnaturalness that’s hard to pin down. But it adds to the discomfort, as we, like Kaluuya, are forced to wonder, is this just a truly awkward, really bizarre, ultra-white family get together? Or is there something else going on here?

Peele has been vocal about the way he’s using The Stepford Wives as a tonal inspiration for the film, and it shows here, giving us a weirdly placid society that seems like it would be utopia for some people, but truly unnatural for others. And like Stepford Wives, much of the film’s unease comes from that careful balancing act, where we’re never quite sure if the film is going to become a true horror film, or if the horror is more personal and less actual, if that makes sense. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Peele does a masterful job here, foregrounding his character’s unease, answering questions satisfyingly but leaving doubt, and turning the screws carefully but unrelentingly.

Because, yes, Get Out isn’t ever quite truly scary, but it’s monstrously tense and unsettling, with some true knockout scenes that work like gangbusters (my favorite is the bizarre image of one of the servants doing his running at night, although Peele’s visualization of the therapy session with his girlfriend’s mother is a beautiful, spectacular image). More than that, Peele has a gift for pacing, letting our discomfort and unease with the racial tensions build, then pushing into more and more upsetting moments before finally giving us some elements that feel beyond what could easily be explainable.

I don’t want to get into what is or isn’t going on; suffice to say, though, that Get Out ends up being a thematically rich film, one where there’s so much metaphorical and thematic depth that you could unpack it for days. Even beyond the satire of well-meaning liberalism, there’s material here about cultural appropriation that’s pretty stunning, to say nothing of the way the film engages with historical and contemporary racial flashpoints. That the film does all that is spectacular; that it does so while never forgetting that it’s telling a story, and a thriller, is even better. The film holds its metaphor together tightly, trusting the audience to pick up on the themes it’s laying down without ever feeling the need to hold our hands. That goes doubly for some of the film’s rich, complex foreshadowing, which delivers payoff after payoff, often so subtly that you won’t realize them until afterward.

(At this point, I’d like to pause and say how much I recommend The Next Picture Show podcast’s episode about Get Out, which features not only some incredible analysis and discussion of the film, but unpacks much of the script’s cleverness, and left me sitting with my jaw agape half the time at the brilliance of it all. And as I read more and more about the film, I realized not just that every single moment is weighted with meaning, but that it’s the rare film that never hammers home its points, trusting its audience to unpack its secrets and be rewarded.)

Yes, Get Out is ultimately a little more successful as a dark satire than it is a horror film. But given how rich that satire is, how thoughtfully complex it is, and best of all, how well executed it is – from the directorial choices to the great acting, from the brilliant script to the tight pacing – it’s hard to complain too much. I loved it when I finished watching it, but as I’ve gotten further and further from it, and thought about it more, I’m all the more swept up by it, and just want to see it again to take it all in a second time. And the fact that Peele says he has several more horror films to come – as well as a TV series based off of Lovecraft Country? Even better.

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The Killbug Eulogies, by Will Madden / ****

34596837There’s something great about a book that embraces a constricting, careful conceit and finds a way to make it work, telling a story that couldn’t be told any other way. (For a great example of this, see Joe Hill’s superb short story “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”.) What’s even better is when the conceit is instantly appealing, and Will Madden’s The Killbug Eulogies manages to do both. The idea here is simple: in a war initially reminiscent of that in Starship Troopers, soldiers are asked to deliver eulogies for the fallen, and the book consists solely of those eulogies, with no outside context. That’s a great idea from the get-go, but Madden really runs with it, creating, in effect, a series of short stories that collectively make up a larger arc, story, and novel.

Even better, though, the disconnected nature of the novel allows Madden to take on a wide variety of modes, tones, and ideas, ranging from hilarious to darkly satirical, from reverent to melancholy, from profane to sacred, and sometimes all of them at once. Within pages of the first eulogy beginning, we’re introduced to a soldier½ named Oogo (whose name was supposed to be Hugo, but the letter H was under strict rationing for the war) whose addiction for video game achievements leads to his death as he strives to cap the leaderboard for harvesting the left hand of the bugs. The result is gloriously silly and funny, making digs at so many social trends while still building its world, but it doesn’t prepare you for the next one, or the one after that, or the one after that, each of which finds their own voice, their own themes, and their own sensibility.

Sometimes, that can be a problem. Madden occasionally lets his eulogies turn into exposition, and it feels like he loses track of the thread, particularly in a late eulogy which gets into a long story thread about a captured bug who serves as a poet of sorts. It’s a great story, but gets away from the book’s conceit, and feels like it’s information he wanted to convey but couldn’t quite do organically. Similarly, those disconnected stories can lead to confusion – it’s not clear for some time that each of these eulogies is actually done by the same soldier, even when the tone and verbiage changes drastically in some of them.

And yet, those are both forgivable flaws, given how engaging, how funny, how rich these stories all are. Taken as a whole, Madden’s creating a complicated world, one that only slowly reveals its nuances and unreliability as it goes along. What seems like a cut and dry military conflict reveals itself to be something messier and more savage; the bugs rapidly become more than just cannon fodder; and our heroes…well, there may be a reason there’s so much depravity in these stories. And all of that doesn’t even get into the final chapter of the book, where Madden changes our perception of the whole book with some great – but completely fair – revelations that pull together all sorts of loose threads into a coherent whole, all without ever dodging the dark and silly humor that the book does so well.

The Killbug Eulogies isn’t just great science-fiction, though it’s undeniably that; Madden may seem like he’s just making jokes at first, but by the time you reach the end, you’ll realize just how sprawling, how complex his world building has been, even if it’s only carefully revealed. No, it’s also fantastic – and genuinely funny – satire with a dark bent, a thoughtful take on war, and a great piece of writing, one where form and function are intertwined in a way that leads you to realize that this book couldn’t have been done in any other way – at least, not without being this good, this fun, and this rich.

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Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.

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Pastoralia, by George Saunders / *****

europastoraliaThere may be no short story writer alive than George Saunders, and that’s no small praise; indeed, you could even argue that with his talent, he ranks among the great writers of the day, full stop. (How his talent will hold up in novel form, I look forward to discovering when his first novel is released next week.) Veering between social commentary and dark satire, between biting comedy and empathetic character studies, Saunders brings his bizarre, off-kilter worlds to life with his rich, fascinating prose and compelling dialogue. His second short story collection, Pastoralia, is no exception, making me laugh out loud frequently while never shirking from his craft.

As always, Saunders love of bizarre, excessive amusement/theme parks is evident, whether it’s the recreated Stone Age cave of the title story (where the actors are expected to stay in character even when no one else is around, and the corporate management communicates through bizarre, rambling memos) or the intricately structured strip club of “Sea Oak.” But he also loves his misfits, whether it’s the bullied young man of “The End of FIRPO in the World,” the harried title character in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” or the motivational speaker attendee of “Winky”, who just wants to work up the nerve to kick his sister out. Indeed, pretty much every character has their struggles, their neuroses, their fears, and all of them fear that life has passed them by – and in most cases, it has.

In lesser hands, that would depressing, bleak fare. But Saunders’ prose and observational style make his stories uproariously funny at times, as characters lose themselves in imagining how others will treat them, engage in long dialogues with themselves, or the situations just get increasingly bizarre. From actors playing cavemen trying to ignore faxes to ghosts that do little more than angrily yell at everyone, from unlikely heroes to fantasy lives that far surpass anything in waking lives, Saunders infuses all of it with a sense of wry wit, but also affection for his characters that keeps the stories from being bleak. Instead, they become universal, clinging to big feelings and emotions that we all have, satirizing human (and corporate) foibles beautifully, and just generally entertaining with their absurdity, heart, and soul.

In other words, it’s more typical greatness from Saunders, who seems incapable of doing anything less than creating rich worlds and complex characters, all without missing a beat with his offbeat prose and rich descriptions. And if you can’t empathize with his flawed, failing, but still human characters, then I can’t imagine that you’ve lived any kind of life at all, because these are universal tales. Off the wall, funny, and satirical, and yet universal in the best way.

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Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett / *****


“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—

Death waved a hand.

AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

– Terry Pratchett, Hogfather


34532There may never again be another author like Terry Pratchett, and that’s a true, crushing loss for us, not only as readers, but just as human beings. Because, you see, if you’ve never read Terry Pratchett – well, first of all, you’re missing out. But if you’ve never read Pratchett, you may think you know what you’re missing out on. You may hear how funny he is – and he is undeniably that – or how wonderful Discworld is as a blending of the issues of our world and Pratchett’s wondrous fantasy creation, and you think, okay, I get it.

But what you don’t understand until you read Pratchett was how profound and humane he could be, and how astonishingly complex his seemingly “silly” stories could be. After all, who else could take the concept of Hogfather – in which Death takes over for Discworld’s version of Santa Claus – and turn it into a profound, complex exploration of the importance of faith, belief, and fairy tales as a fundamental aspect of humanity? No one, I’d argue…and even if someone tried, it’s hard to imagine them doing it as effortlessly, comically, and brilliantly as Pratchett manages.

Because, rest assured, this is a laugh-out-loud, embarrass yourself by giggling as you read kind of book. It’s not just Pratchett’s prose, which is always hilarious, and packed with incredible lines that most authors would give their whole careers to write (take this gem: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”). It’s his incredible storytelling, which follows any number of plotlines, juggles them effortlessly, and keeps them all moving at the same time, whether it be the story of demented Assassin Mr. Teatime (pronounced Tee-ah-tim-eh, thank you very much) and his quest to kill the Hogfather (Discworld’s Santa Claus), Susan Sto-Helit’s efforts to figure out what’s going on with her grandfather Death, or – and best of all – Death’s increasingly absurd efforts to take the place of the Hogfather, which culminates in a long set of scenes at a local mall that rank among the funniest scenes ever written, full stop.

And if that were all there was to Hogfather, that would be great. But it’s not. Instead, Pratchett uses his gleefully madcap plot – which incorporates a slew of local criminals, the secret life of tooth fairies, the god of hangovers, and so much more – to begin discussing the nature of belief, the importance of fairy tales to human existence, the nature of folk tales, and so much more. And if that’s not enough, he still manages to get in his jabs at human existence – at the cruelties of tragedies in the holiday season, the hypocrisy of charity, and so much more. It’s a book whose satirical edge is sharp and takes no prisoners, and yet never passes the chance to make you laugh, and laugh hard…but it will hit you in the gut right after it.

Which brings me back to that quote I opened the review with, and the sheer power and beauty of the ideas it’s expressing. Because Pratchett was the kind of author who could give you a scene with Death as Santa handing out swords to children as his animal escort causes havoc in the background, and have you laughing…and then leave you pondering the bewildering nature of human belief in ideals and morality. And any author who can do either of those things is worth reading…but someone who could do both really can’t ever be replaced, and reading Hogfather again for the holiday season only underlines what a genius he was and how much we lost when he left us. More than that, though, it’s a cynical, snarky, satirical look at the world – and it also has a way of making you feel better about the world, and people, than you might ever expect it to. And that’s a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday season.

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Books of Blood (Volume 1-3), by Clive Barker / *****

51x1c2yf4zl-_sx329_bo1204203200_For a long time, every Clive Barker book came stamped with Stephen King’s approval, in the form of a pretty stellar endorsement: “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” But over the years, that stamp came to mean less and less; Barker mellowed with age, and seemed less interested in the horrors of his early books and instead focused on visually astonishing fantasy worlds (Imajica and Abarat being the obvious go-tos here). Beyond that, Barker’s health has kept him from being as prolific as he once was; as a result, his once iconic presence in the genre has faded over the years, to the point where many these days haven’t even read a Barker work at all.

And yet, when you go back to Books of Blood, the short story collection that put Barker on the map, what you’ll find is that they’re every bit as horrifying, as groundbreaking, as unclassifiable, as astonishing – in other words, every bit as great – today as they were when they first burst onto the scene. And even now, nearly thirty years after they were first published, the tales in Books of Blood have lost none of their punch – they’re still terrifying; they’re still surreal and nightmarish; they still feel like nothing written before them, and almost nothing written after them.

Books of Blood is often hailed as the starting point for the “splatterpunk” movement, and that holds true; it’s hard to think of another short story collection, much less a debut, that’s this bloody, violent, and relentlessly disturbing. But more than simply collecting violence, Barker’s astonishing imagination pushes you into places you can’t imagine, and creates worlds that succeed from the way they push reality to its breaking point. The murderer stalking the subways in “The Midnight Meat Train,” for instance, is undeniably terrifying and brutal, but he pales in comparison to the horrors waiting at the end of the train line. The deceptively simple ghost story “Sex, Death, and Starshine” gives way to a ghoulish, horrific tableau by the end; similarly, the uneasy prison horrors of “Pig Blood Blues” are just an appetizer to the bizarre visions waiting at the end.

Indeed, the biggest takeaway from Books of Blood is the awe that Barker’s imagination inspires. In some ways, it’s clear that Barker works in the tradition of Lovecraft – there’s a healthy dose of fantasy and surrealism in his horror – but even that comparison falls short from the fantastical, surreal visions he brings to bear in his stories. The disturbing parade of “The Skins of the Fathers,” the title monster of “Rawhead Rex,” and maybe best of all, the truly nightmarish battle of “In the Hills, the Cities” – all of these defy any sort of description or classification. They’re undeniably horrific visions, but these aren’t easily categorized into zombies or vampires or even Lovecraftian nightmares. No, in Barker’s mind, we mix religious imagery, deeply sexual notions, astonishing theatricality of the Guignol tradition, and so much more, all into something wholly new. And Barker’s incredible, breathtaking prose brings it all to life, putting to lie Lovecraft’s idea that certain things simply aren’t describable. No, Barker describes it all, and even seeing some of these things through prose is enough to bring the reader to the edge of madness.

But even beyond the (horrific) violence and nightmarish, boundary-pushing visions, much of what makes Books of Blood so incredible is the thematic richness of each of the stories. It’s not enough for Barker to settle for simply scaring you. No, his stories illuminate real-world ideas, using his gory theater as a way of exploring bigger ideas. From allegories for societal conflict (“In the Hills, the Cities”) or the sacrifices of civilization (“The Midnight Meat Train”), from feminists seizing power (“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”) or communities of outcasts bonding together (“The Skins of the Fathers”), from the appeal of film and escapism (“Son of Celluloid”) or the fear of primal religions (“Rawhead Rex”), Barker’s stories work on levels beyond the visceral terror and horror they bring to bear. Indeed, with Barker’s outspoken sexual politics (I can’t imagine what reading something this outspokenly gay was like in the early 80’s), fascinating views of society, and rich political ideas, Books of Blood works as much as social commentary as horror.

That being said, make no mistake: this is a horror collection, period. And to put it very simply, I think it’s one of the best – if not the best – short story horror collections ever written. These stories defy your expectations, your rules, your boundaries; they are written with a visual richness that cannot be overstated; they have imagination and sights unlike anything I’ve ever read; they are genuinely terrifying, wholly disturbing, darkly comic, surprisingly heartfelt, and nightmarishly gory. They will terrify you, they will break your brain, and they will expand what you thought horror could contain. They are every bit as good now as they ever were, and an absolute essential for any serious fan of horror fiction, period.

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Maps to the Stars / **

maps-to-the-stars-poster1I really love David Cronenberg’s films. (I’ve seen every feature he’s made except for Cosmopolis, which is on my list; just haven’t gotten a chance to see it.) I think, at his best, that no one makes films quite like he does. With his marriage of body horror, unsettling themes, go-for-broke premises, and a willingness to push the boundaries of good taste and sanity, his works of horror and suspense are unlike anything else out there. But in recent years, Cronenberg has…well, mellowed may not be the right word, but it’s close. Starting with A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg has started to try to marry his sensibilities with drama and dark satire, and the results have been mixed, to put it mildly. But rarely has “mixed” been a more appropriate word than it is with Maps to the Stars, in which Cronenberg tries to make his own take on The Player and creates something incredibly odd, off-kilter, and very, very uneven. And yet, there’s no denying that it’s a Cronenberg film – it’s just that it’s a remarkably strange one for him, and not entirely successful.

In fact, let’s go a step farther, and admit that Maps to the Stars is pretty much a mess, on many, many levels. A Hollywood satire in the vein of The PlayerMaps follows a group of various Hollywood luminaries – an actress on the downslope of her career, a young newcomer hoping to find a way into the industry, a limousine driver who’s also writing scripts, a young star and his parents – as they cross paths and go about their lives. And, as you’d expect from a Hollywood satire, we see them at their worst, whether it’s taking advantage of a child’s death to get a role, using their own traumas as a way to become more famous, or abusing people for their own shortcomings. It’s pretty pitch black material, and Cronenberg walks a fascinating line, letting the characters be far worse and more horrible than Altman ever attempted in The Player, and yet also letting them be more human, revelling in their guilt, shame, and broken consciences.

It’s an interesting approach to the film, and at times, Maps to the Stars works as a way of exploring the damaged characters who make up its world. This is a world where abuse is passed down through generations, where guilt embodies itself in spectral visions, where fire cleanses and purifies. And all of that is interesting material…when it works.

But the problem is, by and large, it doesn’t work. Maps is far, far too complicated for its own good, throwing in too many characters, muddling their motivations, and generally lacking enough of a throughline for any one plot thread to have a real impact. Is this a ghost story about an actress coming to terms with the abuse she suffered as a child? Is it the story of how adults corrupt their children? Is it about the moral bankruptcy of Hollywood, or the way no one in the film cares about anything other than themselves? Any of those are interesting ideas, and a lot of them could work well together, but Cronenberg seems to insist almost perversely on keeping the film from holding a focus long enough to make a single clear point.

Maps to the Stars is still well-shot, as you’d expect, and the cast is solid – no surprise, with the names you’ve got. But it’s a frustrating mess, no matter how many interesting scenes or haunting moments it manages to deliver, and you’ll finish the whole thing wondering what on earth any of it meant. And that’s something Cronenberg usually doesn’t suffer from, which makes this a pretty big letdown.

IMDb