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The Chickening (USA, 2016)

the_chickening_still_2__largeThis danceable, poultry-themed remake of Kubrick’s The Shining isn’t so much scary as it is debasing and weird, unless you are terrified of chickens, which I could probably understand. On the upside, the short makes a ton more sense than any full season of American Horror Story, but is just as bizarre, and features better special effects. They’re all totally pointless—directors Nick DenBoer and Davy Force are just showing off—which is delightful because they’re really damn good. It does mean the 5 minute and 13 second run time doesn’t build to anything but more silliness. There’s no redemption, no gore, and the body horror isn’t played for terror: it’s just dropped in to bolster the title’s conceit. But the five-plus minutes of bonkers special effects, chicken jokes, and shockingly smooth digital manipulation are sheer joy, horror fan or no.

Lizzie (USA, 2013)

Author’s Note: I don’t remember watching this film, and can’t actually figure out which one it is based on IMDB listings. Nonetheless, I came across this review, which was written almost exactly a year ago using voice-recognition software on my phone, and I liked it. I decided to print it, as is. I will add that, although the film obviously stunk, it was the only film I’ve seen on the Bordens that connected Lizzie’s supposed lesbianism and potential labor advocacy to her father’s ownership of a garment factory and documented legacy of worker abuses. So there is that.

The shitty 2013 filmed Lizzie not rated 1 hour 26 minutes long revision3 brutal 1892 hatchet murders of the infamous Lizzie Borden acquittal as A incident of social justice when present day Lizzie Allen lose back into her childhood home she’s the siege with nightmares. Her doctor with whom she jokes about being crazy, who is a psychiatrist, asked if she is taking her medication. Her previous foray into this medication have her choking her beefy boyfriend: he’s worried what will happen to the relationship if she takes it again but she persists because she cant take the nightmares.

A large part of the drama focuses on present-day Lizzie Allen inability to recall her own childhood quote where are your memories of her psychiatrist told her after jokingly giving her a high five when she demands that he not charge her for the treatment in which he has asked her to provide her own answers. Where are those memories indeed?

Her boyfriend is an idiot. Quotation mark I’m going to dip my WIC in your candy bowl and quotation mark, he writes in a note misspelling wick.

definitely a horrible movie absolutely no moment terror which is odd because the Borden clan was up to some serious no good.

What defines an ugly doll well she’s on packing in her bedroom. Two places on the bed and is a mediately beseech with memories of her own childhood playing with the same doll. Are they in Fall River Massachusetts we don’t know yet probably.

Basically when weird stuff happens steam fills the room. When the doll is down on the bed in her memory Stevensville in the room so Lizzie smartly wakes up again and put the dog back in the closet like an idiot. Strange things begin to happen not genuinely strange though movies strange. Lizzie start sucking back wine like a metaphor

There are a lot of drunk cause it’s unclear if this is supposed to indicate lost time I’m with his part city filmmaking or the passage of time within the narrative of the film.

When did already lol that he used to torture his little brother well they’re watching a horror movie together drama ensued.

A lot of the films is an excuse to watch kind of a homely little child do girly things. This is aggravating.

That being said the best character in the history of horror films does exist in this phone. He is a cable guy he acts like Cheech or Chong em dash I have no idea which one I was never able to watch anything that ever did and ash and he pretty much fulfills every Warfield rope about sex and gender an old guys and cable repairman you could want in about 20 seconds of dialogue. This is a guy who hasn’t learned his lines what is definitely memory memorized description: out quotation mark just be a lech.

I’m not terribly passionate sex scene follows: BC boyfriend wearing a hockey mask kind of snowman having just a sharp in his ass gears Lizzy. Her doctor changes her prescription switching her to something that requires you to drink no alcohol she has had at least 4 bottles of wine in the 28 minutes since this movie started it’s totally clear that that’s going to fail. After another fight the boyfriend put the dog on the bed this is apparently in triggering episode. Also she’s drinking month type of wine called manifesto which is the stupidest name for a wine I can imagine.

Middle of the film there’s a totally flexible Rock n Roll boyfriend make coffee scene immediately following is retrieval of a gun from his Jeep what the hell is going on and why should I care. For some reason everyone seems intent I’m showing up in Liz’s house with a big ax.

After the tap mysteriously closed door 3 times with the tip of an axe they decide it’s ready for prying open its the least 10 seen in any war movies that is ever been filmed . Its attention supposedly alleviated by a fun and games moments with Lizzy grab the axe in attempts to chase after the dark haired girl Maggie next door. Everyone giggles.

In the same square Lizzie a ghost return to threaten people in the film a chopping them up with an axe she is presented as something of a haggard older woman.

Around halfway through the everyone start carrying around an axe as if it were explicable. Online that happens.

A dream sequence / Hallucinations/ haunting informs us that Lizzie the original is a lesbian and Andrew Borden a conniving philanderer and maid-rapist.

In this retelling Andrew Borden is only raping the maid because he wants a son to inherit his riches when the wife intervenes asking Bridget to sleep with Lizzy she steps in with a knitting needle he grabs an axe and waxer another of times probably 40 it was too boring for me to count. Lizzie borden comes in realize your mother has been off split probably turns in 2 are ghosts figure changing her clothes to bed red gold things and getting white -0 lover face with recessed eye socket then grab the axe and bashes her father said in a series of time. Lizzie allen thanks when she wakes up hours later she is covered in blood probably her friend and her boyfriend have been stabbed oh yes here it is she’s just covering their bodies now. What does has been Rihanna and as for killing a neighbor and her boyfriend instead of parental figures is unknown. Luckily she finds a gun at her most depressed moment and eat st. Then we get the flashback that allows us to see her as a child again the homely one. Turns out when she was little her mom psychotic children dad with an ass right before she did her face changed na clever special effects makeup way and she said I am Lizzie Borden society will pay before she continued dropping him to bits the end definitely a horrible movie absolutely no moment terror which is odd because the Borden clan was up to some serious no good.

 

The Bad Seed (USA, 1956)

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So much innocence! It is a glory to behold.

A complicated, ethically ambiguous thing that is easy to overlook today, The Bad Seed is my favorite horror film, no question. The movie poster and the cover of the paperback—I imagine the playbill did the same—give away the whodunit straightaway, so the mystery of The Bad Seed is more complicated than the one portrayed in, Who Has Been Behind All The Murdering In Town?, which is a fake movie I just made up, but you get the point. The real shockers hidden within this film are: How can a young blonde girl have gotten up to such acts? And more abiding: how can a storyline exist, in a culture in which young blonde girls are always symbols of purity, where one isn’t? Wouldn’t it destroy an entire cultural mythology to punish her as the horror genre dictates we do to serial killers?

Good genre films steal their strongest moments from other genres entirely—even other forms of entertainment. A sci-fi adventure often works best in moments recast as romance; a throwaway chicklit paperback will catch my eye if it is about a murderer. Originally a book, then a play, then filmed for this production (the cast even takes a bow at the end), The Bad Seed is Mervyn LeRoy’s story of the perfect 1950’s family: A renowned intellectual grandfather, largely absent military father, devoted mother, loving if batty matronly neighbor, and charmingly oversweet daughter. This last is so beloved no one wants to believe the worst of her, that darling tow-headed Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a bloodthirsty scamp, a selfish murdering shitheel lacking remorse and decency. She is, of course, the Bad Seed, a metaphor that not only titles the film but offers its central, if scientifically disproven metaphor: that nature cannot be amended by nurture. Those born of a bad caste will inflict bad upon the world, is the thrust of the film, which heralded the conjecture as “psychological” and sparked a debate that, if nothing else, rankled censors and titillated fans.

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Original poster art.

The logical and truly horrible extension of this theory, that all offspring of all criminals should be put to death, without trial, is gleefully ignored once the plot comes to its surprisingly adept conclusion. In this delightful manner, the film mirrors the whimsical joy of Rhoda herself, roaming the earth in selfish fashion, only flitting momentarily on the sparkly things befitting the attention span of an 8-year-old girl, still beholden to princess ballerina fantasies. And murdering.

In addition to Rhoda’s overwhelming charm, terror, creepiness, and shock are all on offer in The Bad Seed, although not at all where you expect to find them. And shouldn’t that be how we experience horror? In spaces we’re not looking for it? The film’s failure appear on lists of great horror films, therefore, should be punishable by lightning bolt from above. The terror the narrative provides is somewhat predictable, within the genre: a red herring is thrown up, an unseemly antagonist, and we fear his actions. The creepiness we experience relies on feeling deeply unsettled by a cute-girl serial killer. (Indeed, the vast potential for this narrative goes largely unexplored in the rest of the horror genre: another crime.) Yet it is the shock that awaits the patient viewer that earns this film its legendary status. No further spoiler alerts here, but I’ve never sat through a screening with new viewers of this film when they haven’t left the theater, open-mouthed gaping at its astounding conclusion.

NOTE: Old fans will be sad to learn (if they don’t already know) that the film formed the basis of a 1985 made-for-TV movie featuring a dark-haired lead named Rachel, of all things, but may be more excited about this still-pending Lifetime version.

American Mary (Canada 2012)

There’s likely an explanation for why American Mary, a Canadian film about a woman named Mary set in Canada who, at one point, does talk about taking a trip to the United States but ultimately (spoiler alert) does not, is named that, but such does not unfold in the narrative of the Soska Sisters charmingly gory film. One imagines the explanation ran something along the lines of “to disambiguate it from whatever,” and it seems misplaced to blame the Soska Sisters for it, but it does stick out a bit, the name, and distresses mildly.

I bring this up because American Mary is otherwise a great little movie. It’s quirky, and everyone has a character they are portraying but not overacting to do it (at least not within the boundaries of the horror genre), and more than that, the thing defies predictability. At several points throughout the film I said, aloud, to myself: I have no idea what is going to happen. And that’s rare. In a genre in which pretty much the next thing that will happen is that someone is going to die.

Two things happen in the film’s narrative that set it off course of standard horror fare. One is that sexual assault is not casualized. It is not dragged out to contribute to viewer trauma, as in, say, V/H/S, and therefore merely considered an aspect of a larger evil. It is trauma, fully and completely, onscreen, in all its glory. I don’t mean to imply it’s overdramatized. It’s not. It’s actually so uncharacteristically underdramatized you may be confused. No need to accept rape as a given to get to the events of story: it is fully horrific, on its own. Event, not consequence.

The other is slightly more complicated. Titular character Mary leaves school to focus on her own studies, a quirk made plot by virtue of the fact that she’s studying surgery. She does not discontinue her quest to be the best surgeon she can be. When it is clear that price of entry to the aboveground world of surgery—both in tuition fees and in emotional distress—is too high, she leaves it, sense of self intact. She has no intention of giving up her goal, of being a world-class surgeon. In fact, accomplishes it, almost overnight. And when, throughout the film, she questions her abilities, talent, or value to the world, she receives no small amount of positive affirmation for being who she wants to be in the world.

Now, she is killing people, or mutilating them, or in the rare case merely threatening them. Don’t get me wrong. But she’s doing it for the right reasons. She’s a complicated, strange, thoughtful woman, this Mary, whose innate sense of justice—however much it may not fit into the rest of the world, which is that it does not at all, BTW—never wavers. She’s defines strong female character, uncompromised by the complications of either genre or gender. Indeed, following the sexual assault, the storyline turns a second time on a late-coming attempt to thwart further feminine bodily autonomy. But feminine bodily autonomy wins out, and it’s still gory.

There are little flaws in the film, glitches of plot and ill-explained motivations, but the set-pieces are dead-on (ha ha), acting solid and unpandering, costuming exquisite. (The leather surgical masks are a particularly nice touch.) We can’t call American Mary a rape-revenge fantasy, because the drama is too calculated to be vengeful. It’s a serial killer story—just about a smart, strong lady.

Video

The Host (USA, 2001)

Somewhere between Nick Tomnay’s short The Host and his big-name Hollywood expansion of it, The Perfect Host, exists the perfect psycho-killer protagonist: A control-freak so delusional that he fails to cause real harm.

David Hyde Pierce plays him well in the 2011 version of the story, and the role gives him a broad range of comic scenes through which to express his plethoric range of tics and obsessions, but the film is awkwardly elongated by the addition of two subplots to the original, that are matched in uninterestingness only by  incomprehensibility. Graeme Rhodes, Pierce’s black-and-white predecessor from 2001, offers just as much without the constant, branded reminder that YOU ARE NOW WATCHING A MOVIE. He’s a giddy, neurotic delight, the perfect foil to the initial connivance and subsequent confusion of his crime-doin’ victim “John” (played by Craig Elliott).

That real horror can be found in delusion is nearly unmined territory. The 25-minute version here ends abruptly, and viewers are left wanting more. You’ll find far too much of it in the full color re-do, but you’ll probably watch it anyway.

The Ring (Japan, 1998)

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about just how important The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) – and that’s it’s name, “Ringu” was devised by DreamWorks to differentiate it from the 2002 remake – is to contemporary horror. You can see its influence in all sorts of recent releases; Mama (Andreas Maschietti, 2013) is particularly steeped in J-horror tropes, The Ring especially. Everything spooky and uncanny about 2000s horror seems to come from Nakata and his fellow J-horror filmmakers. But it was also a huge shift in how people thought about horror. Non-American films have always played a pivotal role in the horror genre as a whole, but, a number of English and Italian horror classics were co-produced by American studios or distributors, and were, of course, in English. The gialli of Bava and Argento were marginal, even within the genre; drive-in and grindhouse fare in the 1970s when horror was moving into the mainstream of public consciousness, and into the multiplexes. Although Bava’s 1971 film Twitch of the Death Nerve (known under several other titles, including Bay of Blood) or Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) seem to directly prefigure the slasher films, for example, John Carpenter, Sean Cunningham, and co. have never, to my knowledge, acknowledged an influence. (And, indeed, I spoke with one critic who had interviewed them extensively, and his report is that the Americans claim to have never seen any of the Italian films.)

The Ring  marked the first time that the center of gravity of the horror genre really moved outside of the United States, although the US took a couple years to catch on: The Ring‘s appearance coincides with the release of two of the most profitable horror movies of the last few decades, The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999), along with an influx of studio money into horror and horror-ish projects like House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting, The Mummy, Stir of Echoes, Stigmata, etc. Motivated, I can only guess, by the great success of the Scream franchise, the end of the decade saw the studios throwing a bunch of expensive, unconvincing CGI effects at big movie stars, and providing big-budget marketing campaigns to back them up. The Sixth Sense featured a big movie star, Bruce Willis, and was backed by indiewood studio Miramax. It would make an obscene amount of money. The Blair Witch seemed to open up another possible path, a horror cinema that returned to the no-budget independence that produced the now-canonized masterpieces of the genre in the 1970s. Of course, Hollywood learned from Blair Witch not that it should seek out innovative independent projects, but that it should focus more on internet marketing. Shyamalan, meanwhile, continued to make “event” movies that hang on a gimmicky premise and, although he still has his champions among critics, he is no longer the bankable name he once was. More important than that, however, is that Hollywood never figured out how to replicate The Sixth Sense‘s success. Even with such excellent Shyamalan-esque films as The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001) and The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001), Hollywood seemed to move on quickly, growing preoccupied with importing monsters and other tropes of horror into action movies and teen-oriented movies (including supernatural romances, obviously).

The Ring provided a path away from the morass that plagued horror at the turn of the millennium, and not just because of its aesthetic value – though it is, of course, incredibly effective and quite beautiful at times. Its worldwide success was not the singular, unrepeatable event that Blair Witch was, nor was its appeal focused on the celebrity auteurship of director Hideo Nakata, as The Sixth Sense was. The Ring introduced a style, a way of conveying creepy atmospherics, that could be built on by other films from Japan. But it also made room, somehow, for films that have almost nothing to do with its style. Without Ring, Kenji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale or Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Happiness of the Katakuris probably wouldn’t have received the international attention they did. Similarly, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s surrealist horror films might have been consigned to the art house if The Ring didn’t help to create an audience for J-horror around the world.

ith the arrival of VCDs and DVDs, The Ring and other J-horror films were able to reach a broad global audience. The success of these films would help to create an audience – and a brand – for international horror in America, Britain, and elsewhere in the west (i.e. not the only places with money, but places that have a lot of money), and that would pave the way not just for other Japanese films, but also for films from Thailand, South Korea, even France. A demand and for non-English language horror films emerged and became, at least among modestly budgeted productions, commercially viable. If J-horror established a creative center for the genre outside of the US (and proved that there was an audience for non-English language horror in the English-speaking world), the idea/brand of the “Asia Extreme” film[1] helped to establish horror as a fully international genre in the 2000s. That is to say that the horror fan – and the horror filmmaker – would be just as enthusiastic and informed (if not more so) about current productions from across the globe as in his or her own country, and that the exchange between films that defines the genre freely crosses boundaries. The viewing habits of horror fans in the digital age ensures that the genre maintains a fully international character without neglecting the specificities of national cinemas. [2] There is really no way of the “torture porn” genre as being the product of any one nation: its DNA is equal parts Miike, Park Chan-wook, Lucio Fulci, and Wes Craven, and its initial offerings come from South Korea, France, and America (where two Australians expanded a short film into Saw in 2004). Similarly, the “found footage” films, seemingly a delayed attempt to follow up The Blair Witch Project, is both studio (Cloverfield) and independent (Diary of the Dead), and if the style’s signature franchise (Paranormal Activity – the first film was directed and produced by an Israeli, btw), the brilliant [REC] films are produced in Spain, and in Spanish. I don’t want to go overboard here, but so much of this could happen because The Ring helped to establish an audience for kinda weird “foreign” movies, sometimes even very arty ones. Distribution outlets for smaller, non-American horror films encouraged and funded further genre productions, etc etc.The Ring is also a singular phenomenon, however. It’s been remade in several different countries, has had four (now five?) sequels/prequels in Japan, and one in the US, and the image of its ghost, Sadako, face covered in wet, stringy hair, has become as iconic as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Something about both the concept, gimmicky though it is (it slams together several urban legend-type stories, though it never quite feels incoherent), and the image of that ghost, is powerful enough to have really dug itself into the genre’s foundation.

Why did Ring burrow so deeply into the genre’s collective imaginary? I’ve been thinking through the technological aspect recently. For one thing, it was perfectly poised on the precipice of digital technology, dealing primarily with analogue – VHS, celluloid photography, telephones before the transition to cell phones had become ubiquitous – but using it to express concerns more specifically about the digital. The images on the videotape are produced not through indexical photography but are generated spontaneously by the ghost Sado. The rapid proliferation of the video’s curse, spreading like a virus (to quote the title of the South Korean remake of the film[3]), reflects not just anxiety over the digital spread of information but a geographically dispersed digital presence. The film is largely built around a traditional mystery narrative, in which the reporter Reiko attempts to decode the video’s cryptic images in order to find the originating source. Once she has discovered Sado’s identity and linked her with the videotape, the film narrows its mystery to one of location: Reiko frantically attempts to find Sado’s body so that the ghost can be put to rest and, assumedly, the vengeful spirit soothed before she falls victim to the curse. Of course, the discovery of the body does nothing to halt the curse’s deadly progression: there is no physical location to which the curse or the images on the videotape correspond. Furthermore, Reiko and her son are only spared because they participate in the continued spread of the images and the curse they bring with them; they survive because they make a copy and show it to another. Not dissimilar to another late-90s film that was initially successful but became a hit on dvd (although, course, The Matrix franchise saw considerably greater success), The Ring articulated a new set of anxieties associated with the digital age. The ghost and its threats follow a digital logic, plaguing a set of victims stuck in analogue thinking, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that The Ring would become one of the releases that established Tartan’s successful and influential “Asia Extreme” dvd label at the time that the dvd viewing and collecting was becoming widespread.


[1] Joan Hawkins and Chi-Yui Shin have written about the ideological and aesthetic limitations of Tartan’s Asia Extreme DVD label. In general, the company’s film choices do not necessarily reflect the best or even most popular films of their home countries – some of these releases were outright flops at home. In general, as Joan Hawkins has argued, international distribution favors gimmicky premises and exploitation plots, while removing the films from the specific national context in which they originated. This process overlooks certain kinds of filmmakers and give simplified, distorted pictures of diverse national cinemas. See Hawkins (2009) and Shin (2008). Certain kinds of films, and certain filmmakers,

[2] Indeed, the trend has been to identify and celebrate national movements, grouping contemporaneous genre filmmakers together under rubrics like, for example, J-horror or “New French Extremity.”

[3] The Ring Virus (Kim Dong-Bin, 1999)

The Hole (USA, 2009)

Boys love gettin’ into holes!

Sometime during May 2011, while the rest of the Austrian national swim team was off tanning themselves, or splashing water at each other flirtatiously, or whatever else swimmers might get up to at a Florida beach on a bright warm day, 19-year-old Jakub Maly, like any boy a quarter of his age might, began digging a hole. He worked at it really hard and made it super deep and it was totally cool. Lifeguards are quoted as never having seen anything “of this magnitude. Not even close.” Folks were impressed.

In fact, decreed Pompano Beach resident Sandra King, “It was the perfect hole.”

Maly wasn’t satisfied, however, because, like males of most ages, he believed the perfect hole can serve only one purpose: to grant his body physical entry into some sort of unknown bliss, a previously unimaginable pleasure that would make whatever pending risks worthwhile—although, subtext: they could not possibly befall him. He was 19! A professional athlete! The world at his feet! He had dug the perfect hole! A 7-foot deep and 6-foot wide chasm of mysterious delight! Of his own making!

So he got in it.

“Then,” as King told ABC News reporters—she also works with Pompano Beach Fire Rescue—“the walls caved in on him.”

The sand pit covered Maly’s head, and there was a period when he couldn’t breathe. After about an hour of struggling to get out of the actual pit into which he had actually dug himself, he realized he might perish. In the perfect hole.

But the Austrian national swim team called in King and about 59 other rescuers, and together they dug him out of the sand after another hour of panicked efforts. He was sent to hospital, released, and flew back to Austria with the rest of his team.

“It took two hours to dig him out, but it’s still not clear why he dug the hole in the first place, or why he jumped in,” a BBC reporter covering the story intoned, overly seriously.

There’s a lesson there. For moviegoers as well as movie characters: The perfect hole will always be ruined by getting in it.

Joe Dante, who seems like a really nice guy, hasn’t learned this lesson. Clearly, he’s got a wide-ranging approach to comedy and horror (glimpsed in Piranha and Gremlins, but all over the brilliant Matinee), which is utterly joyful. It’s equally clear he’s not so much engaged in gender or racial politics, which is why a lot of scenes involve white young ladies in bikinis, which is fine, as I’ve got nothing against bikinis, but maybe sometimes women in swimwear can also talk. Or perhaps the fully clothed slightly older lead males could refrain from same for like five seconds. There are options. Whatever. (Now, Dante also did some uncredited work on Rock’n’Roll High School and created the kind of awesome Movie Orgy, so credit where credit is due, but fully one quarter of Piranha is boob so I couldn’t exactly let it go without saying something.)

Dante’s approach and its drawbacks combine in the kind of uninteresting 2009 release The Hole (tagline: “It knows your deepest fears”) which is, OK, a thinly veiled acknowledgement that Joe Dante doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, woman-wise, but still. The plot is this: Two brothers, DIVORCE VICTIMS, are forced to move to a new house by their mother. While exploring, they find a hole in the deepest recesses of their basement and so they get in it? And it knows everything about them? And conjures all their fears which are actually really boring 1980s movie tropes like laughing clown dolls and evil fathers coming back to life and giant floating tile floors? That it’ in 3D sort of just proves my point.

Sample dialogue:
Younger brother: “Hey, do you want to come look at our hole?”
Female love interest with no other personality traits besides adolescent jugs and hair: “What is it?”
Boy of slightly younger than 19 but still you get the point: “We got this hole, it’s no big deal.”

I am pretty sure our female foil then—literally offering nothing onscreen besides a reflection of what these dudes are up to—then jokes, “Oh, is this what guys do in whatever town you two are from? Sit around all day playing with your holes which are clear stand-ins for sex parts in this movie? My sex parts?” Well, she said something like that, for sure.

Point being: Holes are amazing, there’s no denying it. But when even the half-assed lead teen girl character that’s clearly a stand-in for confused adolescent desire in your underwritten hole-exploring narrative can see through it as a sexual metaphor, the best plan is to declare the hole perfect, and then walk away.

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