Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What I'm Reading: Town, City & Nation: England, 1850-1914

Working on my newest novel (it's going well, thank you!) has taken its toll on my posting frequency lately, that and that my most recent book doesn't lend itself to much light discussion. Town, City & Nation: England, 1850-1914 is a real academic book. But I enjoyed it--lots of good stuff about historical city development.

I think my favorite part was the section on English seaside resorts and their development. The first were upper-class getaways like Brighton in the early 1800s, but steamboats, and later railroads, made seaside towns increasingly accessible to the middle and then lower classes as the 19th century went on. The most famous of these more middle-class seaside town was Blackpool, which remained a favored vacation destination until the 1970s. This was a subject I was simply not familiar with before reading this book.

It's quite a thorough book, covering or at least touching on pretty much any urban history or economic topic concerning English cities in its time period. I found sections on different types of work in London and class relations in the great industrial cities to be worthwhile, and a section on crime in small market towns unexpectedly fascinating. On the other hand, I was hoping for more on transportation in cities during this time period, but that's probably well-covered elsewhere.

I can't claim that Town, City & Nation would be of widespread interest, but for those with into urban history, especially how cities develop, this is well-written and well-organized, and packed full of great information.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Scary Movies: Witch

I have previously ranked horror movies herehereherehereherehere and here. Yesterday my wife and I got a babysitter because we both wanted to see the new movie, Witch.

Hey, this is the first horror movie for this feature I've rated after seeing it in the theater! Seeing scary movies in the theater is fun because other people gasp at the same time and it enhances the scary experience. The only movie I've seen in the theater where people actually screamed out loud was The Ring, which maybe I'll discuss sometime.

The reason we wanted to see the Witch is that we had heard it went to some lengths to be an authentic period movie. Set in the mid-17th century in New England, it follows a Puritan family after they're banished from their village and make their own homestead in a remote wooded area. The actors speak in true 17th-century English, which makes them difficult to understand in some parts. Details of their farmhouse, clothing, religious observance, and lifestyle are meticulously observed. I'm no expert, but it all seemed well-done to me.

When we catch up to the family after their banishment, Catherine the mother, has recently given birth to a baby. The eldest daughter, Thomasin, perhaps 14, is charged with baby-sitting the infant one day when it is only a few weeks old. She plays a game of peek-a-boo, only the baby vanishes when she covers her eyes. Although she does not know what happened, the audience sees a red-cloaked figure hurrying through the forest with the stolen child. Later that evening, we see the red-cloaked figure as a haggard, bent-over old woman. She kills the baby and mashes it up, spreading the "baby lotion" over her body.

The family is devastated at the baby's disappearance, but I'll leave off what happens next so as not to spoil things. I have read that though this movie has gotten good critical reviews, many horror fans don't like it. I assume that's because most of the horror in this movie is psychological, rather than things jumping out of the closet scary. Personally, I found it fascinating for its faithful recreation of the time period, and rewarding in horror terms. Although there is not a lot of gore overall, there are at least a couple brief scenes that are pretty gut-churning, so I don't think I can recommend this generally. This is for those who might appreciate a more cerebral, but still pretty intense, horror movie.

Story/Plot/Characters--Acting is quite good, the story is interesting and coherent. Characters have believable motivations, although they were still two-dimensional. Still, I'm going to mark this category down a bit for lack of ambition. With just a little more background on the family this could have been a true psychological portrait, but the movie was content to settle for less. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--The special effects here were more in the costumes and sets, which carefully maintained historical accuracy. Some of the "witchy" scenes were done in near-total darkness, which I think was at least partly to obscure the lack of budget. (1 point)
Scariness--Some scary scenes. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Only moderately scary, but on the other hand, this movie is freaky as hell. The witch rituals, the feeling of complete isolation on this farm a day's ride from the nearest village, the crushing psychological pressure the family suffers. Complete success with atmosphere.  (2 points)
Total=6.5 points

Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Gremlins (1984)=4 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points