High Tension [2003]

This one was quite the roller coaster ride, for reasons both good and bad.

I remember hearing mostly good things about Alexandre Aja’s French thriller/horror movie High Tension when it was released in the US in 2005. I didn’t know much about it, but the title and the image on the poster of a young woman with a power saw always stuck in my brain, so when I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, I decided to jump in.

The movie starts innocently enough, as almost all slasher type movies do, with a pair of friends, Alex and Marie, driving to the French countryside to visit Alex’s family for a long weekend. Once they’re almost to their destination, we’re introduced to the film’s antagonist. We can tell he’s a bad guy because we see him fellating himself with a severed head, which he disposes of when he’s finished by tossing out the window of his dilapidated truck. Still with me? If you are, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy at least 90% of this movie.

As the title suggests, there is plenty of tension to go around, with nail-biting scene after scene. The bad man follows the girls to Alex’s house and kills her parents and little brother, and kidnaps Alex. Marie avoids detection, but ends up in the killer’s truck with Marie, determined to save her. I enjoyed this part of the movie thoroughly, until…the twist ending ruined it.

Doing a little research before writing this, I found out that High Tension largely plagiarizes the Dean Koontz novel (which was also adapted into a TV movie) Intensity—a point director Aja practically admitted in an interview around the time of the film’s release. For Koontz’s part, he put out a statement advising he was aware of the comparison but would not sue “because he found the film so puerile, so disgusting, and so intellectually bankrupt that he didn’t want the association with it that would inevitably come if he pursued an action against the filmmaker.”

As you can tell from the above quote, the level of violence (and graphic violence at that) is quite high. I would assume most people would not be phased by that if they’re wanting to watch a slasher-style movie, but just in case, take that info and do with it what you will.

Now, back to that twist ending. Jesus, what a way to crap all over the largely good film you’ve put down up to that point. In reading on the internet, I did encounter a few people who actually liked and appreciated the twist, but I (and the majority of people, apparently) found it utterly ridiculous. It was completely unnecessary, and part of me wonders if they did it just to avoid having the film be even more similar to Koontz’s novel.

Is it so bad that it makes the movie not worth watching? That depends on you. If you’re a slasher fan, I would probably still recommend checking it out, if you don’t mind a bit of a let down at the end. Still, with some of the duds I’ve watched so far this month, this is in the top two or three, although I suppose that’s not really saying much.

Await Further Instructions [2018]

While I’ve never claimed to be a huge fan of Sci-Fi, there are always exceptions, especially when it crosses genres and blends with one of my favorites, horror.

I knew virtually nothing about Await Further Instructions when I stumbled across it on Netflix. The description seemed vaguely ominous—it sounded like some sort of low budget take on the Saw franchise. It turned out to be something much different altogether. As with all movies (and horror movies in particular), your mileage may vary, so once you’ve read my write up be sure to set your standards accordingly.

Await Further Instructions begins with British Nick and his Indian girlfriend Annji coming to Nick’s family home to visit over the Christmas holiday. We get to meet, in quick succession, Nick’s somewhat racist and quite pregnant sister Kate and her doofus baby daddy Scott, his downright batty mother Beth, lifelong military man and ultra-authoritarian dad Tony, and not-as-senile-as-he-appears, very racist grandpa.

None of the characters are fully developed—they seem more like caricatures than actual characters. Luckily, the plot moves along quickly enough that we don’t spend too much time on their thinly veiled racist comments to Annji, or the bad blood between Tony and Nick that led to Nick not coming home to visit for a few years. Soon enough, we are treated to the meat of the story, which to my surprise turned out to be more Twilight Zone (or, perhaps more accurately, weak Black Mirror) than Saw.

Nick and Annji decide to go back home early one morning, and discover they can’t. The front door—and as they soon discover, the entire house—is covered with…well, something, that is blocking anyone from getting into or out of the house. Not long after their discovery, the television goes black and displays the following message:

This is where the fun, and best part of the movie, begins. The family argue and hypothesize about who could be sending the message, then argue more as the messages change and become more and more outlandish as time goes on. The pacing is good, keeping things moving before it gets too redundant, and despite the lack of depth of the characters, some of the scenarios that play out seem painfully realistic.

That is, until, the final act.

I won’t spoil anything, other than to say the climax is when things go full bore Sci-Fi, and the actual premise behind it is not bad—the real problem is that the ideas behind it exceed the movie’s apparent special effects budget. What could’ve worked with a bigger budget instead comes off as cartoony and lame. The climax isn’t totally ruined, and I kind of liked the closing shots, but my enjoyment definitely dipped during the film’s last 15-20 minutes.

Like some of my other picks so far this month, you could do worse than Await Further Instructions, but you could also do better.

The Basement [2018]

‘A serial killer with multiple personalities kidnaps and tortures a poor hapless soul’ sounds like a decent premise for a horror movie, doesn’t it? You’d think so, if you haven’t seen The Basement, now on Netflix.

This poster and all the promotional material is misleading. Mischa Barton is not one of the leads in this movie.

The less said about this one the better, honestly. I finished it without skipping ahead, which is more than I can say for In the Tall Grass, but that’s not a very high bar.

The story is derivative, the acting is weak, the plot twist at the end is kind of lame, and the writing is borderline awful. Most of the serial killer/victim interactions feel like a second rate episode of Criminal Minds.

There are a couple scenes of cringey gore if you’re into that, and the actor who plays The Gemini Killer gives a decent performance(s), considering how ridiculous some of the scenarios are. My guess is that this movie may have gotten made solely because they landed a name actress (Mischa Barton) for one of the roles.

You could do worse than The Basement, but lord knows you could do better. This will be the last horror movie I watch for a few days, here’s hoping my picks for next week fare a little better.

Hell House LLC. [2015]

As I did last October, I’m trying to immerse myself in as many horror movies as humanly possible before Halloween. Last year, I condensed all my mini-reviews into one post around the 31st, but that seemed counter intuitive since it would leave less time for anyone wanting to check the movies out before All Hallow’s Eve to actually see them. So now, I’m going to shoot out an individual review for each movie I watch—that way if I gush about something or you’re curious about one, you can check it out with plenty of time to get in the spooky spirit!

Kicking things off for me this month is Hell House LLC, currently on Amazon Prime.

To say I was skeptical about this one is putting it mildly, because a) it’s a ‘found footage’ horror movie in the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, and b) that cornball title. Luckily, this turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

A group of (mostly) friends who have been running a haunted house for the past few years move locations, finding an abandoned hotel for the new year. Of course, the hotel has some secrets…

As the friends go about setting up the haunted house, odd things start to happen—things being moved, strange noises, etc. The friends begin blaming each other, one goes missing, one refuses to call it all off, and on opening night disaster ensues.

The story is told as a documentary after the fact. A film crew goes through YouTube videos and interviews people who were there the night of the disaster, trying to figure out exactly what happened. Then, as luck would have it, a member of the crew shows up and provides them with film that had been hidden so as not to be confiscated by police.

The film does an excellent job of getting creative to provide scares and a big creep factor despite it’s obviously low budget. They use pretty much the standard haunted house fare (masks, creepy clowns and the like) to escalate the tension, and the acting, while not great, is just good enough to sell it.

While definitely not a masterpiece, Hell House LLC is way better than I expected, and better than it really has any right to be. A perfect movie to get you in the mood for Halloween.

October Horror Roundup

Some years it seems October passes me by before I realize it, and I find myself staring November 1st in the face with the startling realization that I neglected to watch any horror to get myself into the Halloween spirit. Granted, horror can (and should) be enjoyed all year long, but taking in some spooky stuff while the decorations are out is extra special.

This year I made it a point to not let one of my favorite holidays (shout out to Christmas) pass me by. I’ve been able to check out a handful of horror I hadn’t seen before, and it’s been wonderful. I tried to cover as much of the horror spectrum as I could, from over-the-top-bonkers gore spectaculars to more traditional creepfests. I lucked out in that none of it was especially bad, and some of it was incredibly good. So if you need a kick in the pants to rev up your Halloween spirit or want something scary to watch in the dark on All Hallow’s Eve, here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve seen so far this month. (All available on Netflix)

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Terrifier (2017) 

Terrifier is all about expectations. If you’re looking for subtle, nuanced fright, look elsewhere—subtlety is not to be found in this throwback to 80’s slasher flicks. Some have criticized the film for its derivative, paper-thin plot, but honestly, this film lets you know what you’re in for within the first five minutes. When you see a character’s eyeballs popped in their sockets, you should adjust your expectations accordingly.

Featuring a sadistic killer clown out on the town for a maniacal killing spree, the kills in Terrifier are straight up gnarly: decapitations, dismemberments, and one scene so shocking (featuring the world’s sharpest hacksaw) that it even got raised eyebrows from this gourmet of gore. There’s a degree of detachment to most of the violence thanks to its less-than-realistic effects work, which only serves to add to the campiness and pitch black comedy.

Bottom Line: If you’re into crazy, over the top gore and not looking to set the bar too high, this will be right up your alley.

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The Ritual (2017)

Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, The Ritual is very Blair Witch-esque, featuring some lost hikers in the hills of Scandinavia and a (seemingly) supernatural entity haunting them at their every turn. The film does a great job of mixing physical scares with psychological terror, and there’s a nice element of surrealism to keep you wondering exactly what the hell you’re watching.

Without getting into spoilers, once the men see the thing in the forest they have been running from, it’s one of the best reveals I can remember in a long time. A truly WTF climax, with about as satisfying an ending as a movie of this type can deliver. This one definitely surpassed my expectations.

Bottom Line: A nice take on a familiar story, well written and well executed.

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The Haunting of Hill House (2018) 

There’s not a lot about this 10-part series that hasn’t already been said. It’s probably the most buzzed-about thing Netflix has had since diving into original programming, and if you haven’t already seen it you might be wondering how something so critically lauded can possibly live up to the hype. All I can tell you is that it does, in spades.

Nearly every frame of Hill House’s ten hours is filled with a palpable sense of dread. You never know what’s going to happen at any given moment, and just when you think you’re safe something will catch you off guard. All of this done with very few jump scares (and excellent timing of the ones they do use), and practically no blood or gore.

The ending has been roundly criticized, but that is truly a nit being picked by people who should appreciate being given a piece of work this exceptional. When the worst thing people can say about a ten-part saga is that it’s not absolutely perfect, you know you’ve got something special.

Bottom Line: Believe the hype. A definite must watch.

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Oculus (2014)

In what turned out to be a double shot from director Mike Flanagan, Oculus has a few things in common with The Haunting of Hill House—namely how ghosts haunt and ultimately screw up an otherwise happy family, and some reverse storytelling to gradually reveal what really unfolded. Initially revealing a young boy killing his father after a dastardly bout of domestic violence, the film makes use of flashbacks to fill in the missing details, and show us how the adults were manipulated by a haunted mirror that had come into the family’s possession. (That sounds corny as I type it out, but it actually works in the movie, trust me.)

Now grown, the children are determined to document exactly what powers the mirror possesses before ultimately destroying it—but of course the mirror won’t go down that easily. The ending is quite satisfying, although a major part of the climax will be obvious to anyone who’s got even a basic knack for spotting foreshadowing.

Bottom Line: Not great but by no means bad, Oculus proves Hill House was no fluke for Flanagan.

***NOTE: Oculus is only available on Netflix until Nov. 1st, hurry if you want to see it.

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Tales of Halloween (2015)

In the mood for a string of campy mini B movies with gore galore and enough cheese to make fondue? Friend, meet Tales of Halloween. Made up of ten horror comedy shorts from various writers and directors, Adrienne Barbeau of Creepshow fame plays a local DJ who serves to string the tales together in a style reminiscent of old HBO favorite Tales From the Crypt.

The shorts run the gamut from amusing to decent to bad; a couple of them border on good, and some stink outright. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—the stories are so short that the next one is on before you can complain about the last one. Gallows humor and corny comedic violence abound, making the fact that the content is not exactly top notch easier to swallow. Another reason to sit through it is the plethora of cameos, including horror directors John Landis and Mick Garris, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Barry Bostwick, Greg Grunberg of TV’s Alias and Heroes fame, and one of my all-time favorite comedians (and former writer on The Simpsons), Dana Gould.

Bottom Line: Worth watching if you are in the mood for total silliness but still want gore and violence. Willing to bet it would be 100% better with alcohol.

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Apostle (2018)

Quite different than the other ones I’ve mentioned, Apostle is a period piece set on a remote Welsh island in 1905. Our protagonist Thomas Richardson’s sister has been kidnapped by a religious cult, and is demanding ransom for her release. Traveling to the island amid followers and infiltrating the cult, Thomas sets out to find his sister and rescue her from the clutches of the madman ‘prophet’ and his disciples. Of course, there is much more to the story which it’s better not to know going in. Suffice to say, belonging to the cult involves bloodletting, and there’s a wicked bit of medieval torture involving a device called The Heathen’s Stand.

Apostle is a slow burn compared to much of the contemporary horror put out nowadays—it’s almost like a mashup of The Wicker Man and The VVitch. The dialogue and many of the finer points of the script are a bit slow, but the chills and violence more than make up for it.

Bottom Line: Could be better, could’ve been a lot worse. It’s easily good enough to stick with it until the very cool ending.

Well, there you have it! Let me know f you end up watching something I mentioned above, and don’t hesitate to let me know of any good horror you’ve seen recently that you’d recommend to close out October!

Happy Halloween, people!

 

Hi, I’m a self-indulgent hypocrite

There might be a little bit of hyperbole in that title, but not much.

I’ve been busier so far this year with creative/artsy stuff than I have been in my whole life up until now, and I have to say it’s been pretty cool. So get comfortable while I talk about myself and clumsily humblebrag about things I’m not very good at for a few minutes, because well…*points at title*.

Self Indulgence # 1: My filmmaking partner and I finished shooting the principal scenes for our horror short, which consisted of a late night at a cafe we were given unlimited access to after hours thanks to the place’s very cool owner. It took several hours to shoot, with me spending much of it holding the boom mic over the actors’ heads (and out of the shot!) and trying to keep things moving along so we didn’t have the cast and crew out too late. There were about 10-12 of us, and when no one is getting paid for their time you want to try and keep everybody happy.

We did a fairly good job of it, I think, until the wind and rain kicked up right before we shot our final scene, which (naturally) was outside. Watching our lead actor and actress shivering between takes and trying to keep the feeling in their hands was humbling and definitely surreal. They were out there freezing their asses off at 1:00am, doing take after take until we got it right and they were reciting lines I wrote. Me. And to top it all off, I will be (with a little help, of course) shooting a scene for the film myself, which is territory I didn’t see myself delving into so soon and that really excites the hell out of me.

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The paparazzi wouldn’t leave us alone

 

Self Indulgence #2: I always liked photography but never really thought about doing anything with it—cameras are freakin’ expensive, you know? But since meeting my new directing buddy and being back in touch with an old friend who’s also a kick ass photographer, it got me thinking about how much I always wanted to get into it. Then it hit me: I have a pretty decent quality camera in my pocket (via my cell phone) all day long, but I also have an okay point and shoot digital camera, so why wasn’t I getting out there and taking pictures?

So that’s what I did. I started going anywhere with decent scenery, trying to figure out how to take pictures that weren’t complete yawns. I also now typically spend my lunch hour (usually between 2:00 and 3:00 am) driving along the empty streets of the small town where I work looking for cool stuff to shoot. Another thing dawned on me, too (pun intended)—working the night shift has me driving home right as the sun is coming up. Now I’m always pulling off the road on my way home wherever the light looks right and snapping pictures of anything and everything that seems remotely interesting, with admittedly mixed results. (side note: I’m also now using Instagram on a regular basis, if you want to see what else I’m shooting click here)

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Is it better now…

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or now?

Self Indulgence #3: The other artsy-type thing I did recently was decide to try my very shaky hand at yet another hobby: drawing. The thing to emphasize here is that I’ve never had any kind of talent for it whatsoever. Absolutely none. People who have a knack for painting or drawing frustrate the shit out of me. It’s one of the only things I’ve ever been interested in that I could just never get the hang of (also on the list: skateboarding and getting dates). But now, armed with a sketch pad and a bunch of pencils, I aim to change that. One thing is for sure—I won’t be sharing any drawings on here (or anywhere else for that matter) for quite some time. While I’ve managed to go from completely awful to pretty terrible rather quickly, it’s still a whole boatload of suck.

Which brings us to hypocrisy. I realized what a hypocrite I was just today. I have a friend who I think could have a very successful blog, if he chose to pursue it. He expressed interest but never quite took the bait when I urged him to do it a while back, so I got an idea the other night and went ahead and registered a domain name for him here on WordPress. Now the ball is in his court, and I’m curious to see if that gives him a nudge or not.

Either way, it got me looking at my own precious blog. The last time I wrote anything here was over two months ago. What kind of arrogant fuckwhistle preaches at someone else to do something they aren’t doing themselves? So I’m resolving to try and keep this a little more up to date, a post or two a month seems reasonable. Also, I’m done trying to stick to any certain topic or theme. In other words, this is no longer a “writing” or “pop culture” blog (if it ever was one to begin with). I’m sure I’ll still touch on those things here and there, but from now on it’s more of an “I-no-longer-give-a-shit” blog. I have no idea what I’ll post about and I have no idea if any of it will be of any interest to you—I’d like to think so—but I guess if you’re willing to indulge me a little longer we’ll find out the answers to both of those questions together.

 

 

 

Demon House

A change in my schedule has landed me temporarily on the night shift and allowed me a relatively large amount of free time during the hours when most people are dead to the world. I’m trying to use that time to get back on the proverbial horse in regard to my writing (of which I’ve done woefully little this year), and started with this relatively simple story. Anyone who knows what I’ve been dealing with the past few months—and the last week in particular—should have no trouble spotting the metaphor.

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The foundation had cracks. The floorboards were warped and swollen from moisture. Shingles were missing from the roof and there was a hole over the kitchen where a hailstone the size of a baseball had broken through during  a storm the previous spring.

None of that phased Doug. Nor did the termite damage, the poor insulation, or the rusted old pipes that jetted brown water out of the faucets before clearing up. The first time he looked at the house, the realtor’s apologetic tone fell on deaf ears as Doug gazed at the small patch of blue sky visible through the hail-born skylight.

“It’s perfect, he said. “I’ll take it.”

The realtor’s jaw hung open momentarily. He blinked. “You’ll take it? You want to make an offer?”

“I want the house.” Doug found it difficult to put what he was feeling into words. He looked at the scuffed up wall where an old refrigerator had presumably stood for decades, crying for a fresh coat of paint and gestured around the room. “It’s got character. This is the house for me.”

The realtor was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and get Doug back to the office to start the paperwork before he changed his mind. Fourteen days later, Doug had the keys.

It went smoothly enough, to start. Doug patched up the hole over the kitchen and replaced the missing shingles on the roof, then began slowly replacing floorboards and installing new plumbing. He adored the house in spite of its imperfections. Possibly even because of them. It was about a month after he moved in that the real problems started.

At first it was little things—a faint puff of air that sounded like a whisper but was probably just the wind, things falling off of shelves that he must’ve left too close to the edge—Doug didn’t think much of it. Soon doors started slamming behind him and the faint whispers became moans and groans. Doug got less and less sleep, spending much of the night picking up broken knickknacks, the rest of the time forcing himself to keep his eyes shut while he lay in bed and ignore what was happening around him.

He soldiered on, fixing what he could and picking up the pieces as more broke, never asking himself what he should do about it. Things were just the way they were. He dealt with the issues as they arose and carried on, slowly realizing he was absolutely exhausted. Months went by until one day he mentioned his woes to a coworker who asked him a question profound in its simplicity.

“Why do you still live there?”

Doug frowned. “What do you mean? It’s my house.”

“There are houses everywhere. Literally, everywhere. You can find another. It sounds to me like the one you’re living in has some ghosts—demons.”

The notion hung in Doug’s mind. Was that really all there was to it? Could it be a matter of just finding another place? Something about it seemed to him like cheating, like he was taking the easy way out. Was it really that simple?

Over the next few weeks Doug began to seriously consider moving—usually when he was somewhere else, lest the  house know what he was thinking—and the idea started taking hold, putting down roots in his brain. His co-worker was right, his house was haunted, and he’d gotten so used to dealing with the moans and groans, the slamming doors and breaking knickknacks, that it had become commonplace. The thought of living in a house where those things didn’t happen seemed almost too good to be true.

Doug began mentally taking stock of what he would pack up first and and browsing through the real estate section of the newspaper. Excitement and anticipation grew in his belly as moving out of the ghost-riddled pit that had been his home became closer to being reality.

As if it knew, things began to escalate at the house. One night as Doug was padding into the kitchen for a glass of water, the cabinet door opened and slammed shut hard enough to rattle the windows and the chef’s knife that had been siting on the counter teetered and fell point down, stabbing the top of his foot. Doug shouted a wave of profanities, knowing it was no accident. It wasn’t a coincidence. The house was actively trying to hurt him.

After his second time tripping over and stepping on things in the night that hadn’t been there when he went to bed, Doug slept with all the lights on. He started parking in the driveway after waking one morning to find his car running in the garage and the house filling with exhaust. The house wanted to keep him there, all to itself.

With a lot of searching and a little luck, Doug found a new place. It wasn’t as big or nice as the house he’d be moving out of, but he could feel the different energy in the new place. No ghosts. No demons. Nothing but walls and a roof and a floor.

On each subsequent trip back to the house to pick up the last of his things it got a little harder for Doug to leave. Not necessarily for sentimental reasons but because the house made it physically difficult for him to get out. A bookshelf falling over, blocking the door; his car battery somehow going dead despite being brand new; the couch sliding in front of him when he had his arms full in an attempt to trip him.

The last time Doug was in the house, he was having a look around seeing what was left to be taken out. There were still some things he wanted to grab, but most of the essentials had already been taken to the new place. As he was walking down the hall, Doug noticed a chunk of drywall that had fallen away at some point since he’d been there last, exposing a stud full of rot and mold. Frayed electrical wiring hung haphazardly along the the board. Doug stared wide-eyed at the potential disaster, wondering how he’d lived there as long as he had relatively unscathed.

He reached up instinctively with a pointed index finger to touch the frayed wire then hesitated and took a step back, something telling him to use caution. As if on cue, the wire sparked and Doug recoiled. A second spark shot out and the wire began to smolder upwards. A chunk of the stud crumbled away and a puff of dust floated down from the ceiling, surrounding Doug’s head, and the ominous feeling grew inside him. Something bad was about to happen. Something worse than bad. Another piece of the beam crumbled and the ceiling above him buckled. Doug took a step back and a piece of tile crashed down, landing where he’d been standing five seconds earlier. A faint rumble carried through the house and the rotted, exposed stud gave way. The ceiling fell in a domino effect through the room and Doug took off in a sprint. The house collapsed behind him as he ran. At first he thought it was chasing him out, then he realized he was wrong—he was outrunning it as it tried to trap him inside.

Doug burst through the front door to the driveway, the house quaking on its foundation. He made it to his car before turning back to look, just in time to see the place he had called home collapsing in on itself like it were being consumed by a black hole. A small mushroom cloud of dust plumed up from the rubble, and for a moment Doug considered trying to go back and sift through the debris for anything left that could be salvaged, before wisps of smoke wafted up from the heap. The stuff went up like tinder; flames licked at the dry, brittle wood that had made up its frame, engulfing it all in under a minute. Doug leaned against his car and watched it burn as he called the fire department. He could hear the sirens but there would be nothing they could do. It would be little more than ash by the time they got there.

When he thought back, he had mixed feelings about the time he spent in the house. Although it ended in a flaming pile of rubble he would still always have fond memories of those early days—gazing through the hole in the roof over the kitchen, thinking about all the potential, how much could be done to turn it into the house of his dreams. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. As far from it as you could get, actually. But in the end one thing went through his mind like a gunshot in an echo chamber:

At least he got the fuck out of that godforsaken house before it collapsed and trapped him inside forever.