Torn Hearts (2022)

You know, for all the times I haven’t liked a Blumhouse movie, their direct to streaming films end up being enormously entertaining and remind me of the reasons why I love the made for TV movies of the past. For some reason, they feel more focused despite — or perhaps because of — their reduced budgets.

Torn Hearts is a great example of that.

Leigh (Alexxis Lemire) and Jordan (Abby Quinn) are the Torn Hearts, a Nashville duo working hard every day and every night to make it in the country music business. Of the two, Jordan is the one who might be less comfortable on stage and more a music lifer, someone whose closest shot at fame may be someone else singing her song. Leigh is the mover, sweet on the outside but smart enough to get sleep before the studio (and hooking up with the band’s manager played by Joshua Leonard from The Blair Witch Project). As for Jordan? She’s hooking up with country megastar Caleb (Shiloh Fernandez, Evil Dead) and already learning that most men in the business are all out for themselves.

So while their fling doesn’t lead to any opportunities, it does open one door. Caleb had been working with the mysterious Harper Dutch, one half of a country duo that the Torn Hearts idolize. Katey Segal owns this movie, emitting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? vibes while maintaining old country rock and roll edge. She’s pure danger, ready to confess to past sins, drink hard liquor before 9 AM and put the girls through some brutal encounter exercises for the chance to record with her.

Directed by Brea Grant (who was Mya Rockwell in Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2) and written by Rachel Koller Croft (who also wrote the lyrics for the strong songs within the film), Torn Hearts is a real surprise. A country music based horror movie about lost fame, regret and trying to instill lessons in someone who is in your old shoes but not having the language or sanity to achieve your aims. Or maybe Harper just likes tearing things up?

Yaron Levy, who was the cinematographer for Scream: The TV SeriesThe Purge series and the upcoming Maniac Cop revival makes this film look dark and sinister when needed and sugar sweet when that’s the mood. Editor Hunter M. Via (The MistThe Walking Dead) really makes the end tense and adds some true surprise with the way shots are revealed.

This film made me reflect on the sadness of country. One needs only look at the recent tragedy of the Judds to see that achieving fame is just part of the story. Life doesn’t get easier when you’re famous. And when family is part of the story, things can be hard. I’ve been thinking through this movie and how it comes together — and it’s dark as it gets coda — since I’ve watched it. You’ll be doing the same when you do.

Torn Hearts is available for digital purchase grom Paramount Home Entertainment.

Trip (2022)

Following her daughter Samantha’s (Jill Young) suicide by gouging her eyes out, Ally (Akasha Villalobos) hasn’t left the house, trapped by agoraphobia. Help may be here, as she meets Jan (Peggy Schott), a therapist who uses a hallucinogenic tea that allows her patients to speak with the dead, which will allow her to see Samantha one more time.

There’s a catch.

Now Ally can see so much more, like a masked man outside, a child with no mouth and a rage-filled Samantha who wants her to suffer the same eye damage — Fulci would love her! — that she died from.

It gets stranger.

Now her husband Michael (Major Dodge) is seeing the same things, yet they’re even more dangerous for him, thanks to The Abuso, an African eye-stealing demon who his daughter had been drawing before her death.

Directed and written by Neil McCay, Trip is a movie that realizes that if your budget is low, your ideas must go high. It’s the first full-length movie that he’s made and it really points to a strong future for his work.

Trip is available on Terror Films AVOD Channel now and will be released on digital May 20.

Occhiali Neri (2022)

Dark Glasses is Dario Argento’s first film in a decade, since Dracula 3D, and much ink and pixels have been spilled discussing just as much when Argento peaked as the peaks themselves.

To those who don’t have a watchlist of giallo films in the hundreds, a quick reminder that while the genre didn’t start with the Italian director — you can look at them as an Italian mashup of Hitchcock films, the books of Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie, filtered through the 60s and 70s and indebted to two Mario Bava films, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace — but his landmark The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was a worldwide success and created a two-year deluge of long-named and often-animal referencing films. Even from his second giallo, The Cat o’ Nine Tails (which he amazingly made a year later, the very same twelve-month period that he also made Four Flies on Grey Velvet) there was talk that Bird was a fluke. Following an attempt at leaving the form with The Five Days of Milan, Argento created Deep Red, which is an upper-tier giallo with story beats that have been endlessly repeated by lesser hands.

Two years later, he followed that with the supernatural Suspiria, a film that took the colors and tones of Snow White and applied them to a story by Argento’s then-wife Dario Nicolodi and achieved immortality. While the sequel Inferno was not as well-received and was a personally troubled production for an ailing Argento, it features perhaps the wildest visual flourishes and moments of his resume.

The debate comes in as to when Argento lost his way.

Tenebre is, to me, an unassailable film that is the final word on the giallo form. By that, I mean that I will certainly watch any new yellow-poster referencing movie ever made, but it feels like everything that Argento wanted to say to critics and fans. Everything after that was non-supernatural just didn’t seem like it worked as well.

That’s why Phenomena works for me. Sure, it seems like it’s referencing Suspiria at times, but it also has some of the creator’s most personal revelations. I’d probably say that Opera is his last blast at relevance, as it contains some incredible visuals even if the story doesn’t always add up. Then again, if we can all admit it, the story wasn’t always what brought us to Argento’s films. Often, it was the tone, the look, the movements, the strange other worlds he built and plot holes that could be forgiven.

Since then, each film — I’m not counting Two Evil Eyes — has been touted and hoped as a return to form, from the American-sot Trauma and the art malady thriller The Stendhal Syndrome to The Phantom of the OperaSleepless (which starts great and then, well), The Card PlayerMother of Tears (which attempted to close off the cycle of Suspiria and Inferno), the poorly regarded Giallo and the even worse received Dracula 3D.

If you’re an Argento fan, you may think this is an oversimplification of his career (yeah, what about the films he helped guide like Dawn of the DeadDemonsThe Sect, The Church and The Wax Mask?!?) and if you’re not, you probably want me to get to the film, right?

Dark Glasses was originally going to be made years ago, back when Vittorio Cecchi Gori was going to produce it. He went out of business and Argento put the story away until his daughter Asia found it while writing her 2021 autobiography Anatomy of a Wild Heart.

What emerges is a film that is equally a giallo, a rumination on past films and perhaps a final stamp if this is where things end, seeing as how Argento turns 82 in September.

It begins with an eclipse and as we watch everyone protect their eyes from the glare, Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli, They Call Me Jeeg) looks up and slightly damages her eyes, giving the script a moment to quote Francois de La Rochefoucauld, the French moralist who wrote: “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.”

She seems not from our world, but of the night. Intriguingly, while she’s a sex worker, Argento never treats her with anything less than dignity as we see her go through her work. One of her clients even tells her that the reason he hires her is because of her strength and independence. She also handily deals with another by telling him that she doesn’t want the orgasm that he claims that he could give her or even his money. She does this explicitly for herself and for her own reasons.

However, there is violence in her life. A man named Matteo (Andrea Gherpelli) who met her in a chat room comes to her house — her maid continually looks at her with disdain and even claims what happens next is a punishment from God — smelling of the dogs he trains and she asks him to shower, which is met with a series of belittling epithets. And the very same client who promised her all those orgasms attempts to attack her at which point she sprays his eyes with mace (Fulci would have loved all the ocular violence in this movie) and runs into the night.

That’s when Diana comes into conflict with perhaps the most important character in any giallo, the killer. We’ve already seen him garrotte another call girl and leave her bloody body outside the apartment of her last client. And in this moment, we’re reminded of the fact that this is fifty years after Bird as everyone that walks near the crime scene has a phone that instantly connects them to another world. The police now use forensics and science in addition to their deductive skills. And at once, everything feels safer yet perhaps more frightening when it all falls apart.

As Diana calms herself inside her car, a man rushes as her, leading her to wildly drive into the night. It’s that very same killer we saw at the beginning and his white van pursues her past the same plazas and streets we may remember from past giallo films but now covered with scaffolds as Rome strives to rebuild and keep itself together. This pursuit pushes Diana’s car into the path of another car, instantly killing the driver, putting his wife in a coma and effectively orphaning their son Chin (Xinyu Zhang).

When Diana awakes, her life has changed. The accident damaged her Brodmann area — specifically area 17 — the part of the brain that contains the primary visual cortex. This has rendered our heroine blind. She attempts to salvage her life — one client remarks that he always found himself so ugly that her being blind was the only way that he could get up the nerve to even hire her — and is helped by Rita (Asia Argento), who introduces her to the organization, tools and methods of how to survive as a blind person. Whereas Diana was once blissfully not of our world, an independent woman who could even forget there was an eclipse, now her life has become one of dependence on a cane, on Rita and on her new dog Nerea (which means mine and you can see the dog as part of Diana reclaiming her life). She is no longer of our world yet struggles to return to normalcy, focusing on the sounds of traffic to even do something as simple as cross the street.

Meanwhile, she attempts to assuage her guilt over the deaths of Chin’s parents by meeting him. Her gift of a video game means nothing to him yet when she stops him from being bullied, they connect. Obviously, their relationship is one that looks back to Cookie and Lori from The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Despite how simplistic some of the relationships appear, Argento does succeed in not only having strong female characters but also ones that you come to care for. That means that their loss is more deeply felt, something the giallo and its inelegant American cousin the slasher have always struggled with.

The killer hasn’t forgotten Diana and his white van continues to follow her. However, she now lives in a world of darkness, so she can’t even see him coming. Her strength has returned, as she easily rids herself of two cops seeking Chin, cops who live up to the giallo standard of always featuring the most ineffective and stupid of all law enforcement officers (seriously, Chief Inspector Aleard (Mario Pirrello) is more upset about the death of the killer than how he’d endangered Diana and Chin).

As Diana retreats from the killer, losing a friend, possibly her dog and perhaps even Chin, she finds herself alone in the unfamiliar countryside facing a killer who has been planning her death since the film began.

I read a great quote about Argento from Adrian on Letterboxd: “Argento’s movies always have been ridiculous. It’s just more prevalent now that the budgets got lower.” That’s very true of this movie, as at times I felt I was watching a TV movie instead of a film by the auteur who made Suspiria. Then, out of nowhere, a water snake attack makes everything feel just right again, a wild moment in the midst of normalcy.

I kind of love that the film closes with an inversion of the opening of Suspiria as well as a dog attack that reminds one of that movie as much as it does Dickie in Fulci’s The Beyond. And there’s a lot to enjoy here. I totally loved the soundtrack by Arnaud Rebotini as it’s intense, driving and actually does what the music in a giallo should: it makes the movie even better. The kill scenes are perhaps more realistic than past Argento films and less fantastic — no one’s head goes out a window — and are filled with gore.

Yet this is a giallo if only because Argento made it. There’s no mystery who the killer is. That’s not the story. The story is about how Diana survives this ordeal and her tragedy, if only she is left all alone with only a single friend left by the end. This doesn’t have the black hands of the killer in point of view nor the surprising reveal that marked the genius of all of Argento’s best thrillers yet it improves upon his past works, shows reference for the past and hopefully gives him the opportunity to continue to make films.

I liked it — and not in that way that I feel indebted to Argento and have to say things like Sleepless is great up to the train scene — and appreciate that I cared more about its characters than any of his in some time — again recalling my love for the relationships between Cookie and Lori in Cat and Marcus and Gianni in Deep Red. So while I may miss the wild zooms and dizzying colors, I can appreciate that growth and dream of one more chance from the master.

Teardrop (2022)

That Tubi exclusive banner on movies is like a must be 18 years to rent sticker for my ancient brain because I keep watching these movies. Teardrop has two teachers — Chris (Jeff Branson, who was in the 2010 remake of I Spit On Your Grave) and Rebecca (Murray Gray) — who have brought three of their students — Josie (Rachael Thundat), Teala (Megan Lee) and Ross (Michael MacLane) — to the ghost town of Teardrop.

From the first meeting with hotel owner Denver (Bradley Fisher), you can tell that things aren’t going to end well. The whole town is infused with evil due to some hangings in its past and Chris just keeps coming back, again and again, probably dying over and over while dooming everyone who comes with him.

Sadly, none of the characters demonstrate a single unique angle: Josie uses her looks to get whatever she wants, Teala is an Asian hard working professional student and Ross is a white rapper who alternatively tries to connect and push away women. Chris is a writer whose failures have pushed him to teaching and then this town that he’s always felt drawn to, kind of like the Branson version of Jack Torrance while Rebecca starts to fall for him for no reason whatsoever. Also: edibles instead of smoking weed because it’s 2022.

Ah, it all makes sense to me now. Director Steven R. Monroe made those I Spit On Your Grave remakes as well as the film Complacent and, as most horror directors do these days, plenty of holiday streaming offerings. It was written by Spyder Dobrofsky who also alternates between horror and holidays.

Of all things, I liked the local girl — well, she can shapeshift, so I don’t want to be misgendering someone with that ability — who basically keeps telling the rapping kid that she’s dead and that he’s going to die too and even after she makes him puke all over the place — and lose his chain — he still considers going back to hook up. I grew up in a small town too, even if we weren’t all ghosts that had been lynched a century and change ago and I often wanted to tell anyone new to get out and go anywhere else.

Nobody ever listened.

Night Caller (2022)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This movie first appeared on this site as part of the Midwest Weirdfest coverage on February 28, 2022.

Director-writer Chad Ferrin’s (The Deep OnesExorcism at 60,000 FeetNight Caller pulls from so many films, feeling like a modern U.S. version of a late in the game giallo, which is not a bad thing.

It gets the genre names to get you into the movie part down, including Steve Railsback, Lew Temple, Bai Ling and Kelli Maroney in the lineup. And it really lays on the color switches, the gore and the weirdness throughout.

Clementine (Susan Priver) is a phone psychic for Jade (Bai Ling), except that both of them have some level of psychic ability for real. When James Smith calls in, Clementine knows right away that he’s a killer and she can see his murders inside her mind, a talent her mother had and her father (Robert Miano) has worried about enough that he makes her carry a gun. Yet when the cops try to help, they end up dead and now the danger really begins.

With references to Maniac and literally showing Dementia 13 and Patrick, this feels like a straight to video VHS movie and again, that’s a good thing. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite willing to go absolutely for it, getting scalping, necrophilia and violent murder — not to mention misogynistic dialogue out of an 80s movie — into it.

The best part? Bai Ling is absolutely berserk. She should be in a real giallo, because I would pay money for that now. Let’s try to make that happen.

Night Caller is available on a number of digital and cable platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, iNDemand and DISH from 123 Go Films.

Breath (2022)

Lara Winslet (Rachel Daigh) may be an expert geologist in volcanology, but when an accident at work leads to her falling inside a hole where no one can neither see nor hear her, she’ll need more than her intelligence to survive.

This movie proves to me why I never leave our movie basement because nature is frightening. Then again, you would think that a geologist would know better. Maybe she was obsessing on the affair she’s having with Adam (Neb Chupin) or how her father Nick (James Cosmo, BraveheartHighlanderGame of Thrones) has been the one really raising her daughter. But really, she needs to get out of that hole and away from that snake.

If you enjoy human against nature movies, this is for you. Daigh is pretty much the only actor on screen for long stretches and handles herself quite well.

Director John Real (The Beginning: Feel the DeadObsessio), who co-wrote this with his sister and usual writing partner Adriana Marzagalli, has set up a challenge for himself shooting nearly all in one location with one actor, something many more experienced creatives would shy away from.

Breath is now available from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Sewer Gators (2022)

Killer alligator have emerged from the sewers — the title does not lie — to attack a small Louisiana town that only has their sheriff, an alligator expert and an old gator hunter to protect them from the vilest of scaly critters.

The synopsis of this movie claims that alligators “are coming out of the sewers, they are coming for you, they are coming for your children, they are coming for your grandmother.” You have to appreciate that level of honesty.

Director and writer Paul Dale, who has also made the movies ChosenSilent but Deadly (a mime slasher) and Fast Food & Cigarettes, has about an hour to tell this story, as well as appear in the cast. Perhaps the best known actor in this is Manon Pages, who has been in The Purge TV series, Puragtory Road and several of Dale’s other films.

This film certainly doesn’t take itself seriously and boasts not only CGI gators, but a gator autopsy that’s a small scale version of the scene in Jaws. It’s not the best gator movie you’ve ever seen, but it might be the best one I’ve seen in 2022.

Sewer Gators is available on VOD, DVD, Blu-Ray and collectible VHS on June 3 from the official BY THE HORNS site.

Stu’s Show (2022)

TV historian and archivist Stu Shostak, the subject of this doc, started in Hollywood by handing out tickets to Norman Lear sitcom tapings to people in Hollywood and then started doing the audience warm-ups for All In The FamilySilver Spoons and One Day At A Time.

After learning that entertainment legend Lucille Ball was hosting question and answer classes at a college nearby, Stu transformed his encyclopedic knowledge of her career into becoming an essential part of her small inner circle, acting as her archivist and as an assistant to her husband Gary Morton.

After Ball passed away, Shostak pioneered what we know now as podcasting. His internet shows — all about the classic years of TV — became a success, as did a series of I Love Lucy conventions. It was at one of these conventions that Stu would meet the love of his life, Jeanine Kasun, a music teacher and fellow Lucy super-fan.

That’s where the story of Stu’s life takes a turn, as he must navigate the health care system to keep Jeanine alive after she suffers a brain aneurysm.

With appearances by Tony Dow (Leave it to Beaver), Michael Cole (The Mod Squad), Ed Asner (Lou Grant), Butch Patrick (The Munsters), Margaret O’Brien, Geri Jewell, Beverly Washburn, Wink Martindale and many more stars of television, this movie invites you into Stu’s life, in good times and bad, to give you a full picture of what it’s like to be someone that has gone from fan to friend of so many Hollywood stars.

Director C.J. Wallis also made another TV culture doc, Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much, and does a great job of layering footage, interviews and real life moments to create an intriguing narrative.

Stu’s Show is available on all major media platforms from Upstream Flix.

Fresh (2022)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emily Fear is a librarian in Western PA. You can hear her weekly on the women’s wrestling podcast Grit & Glitter, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all major platforms.

A lonely twenty-something in the Pacific Northwest is exhausted with modern dating when she meets a promising man the old fashioned way – in the produce section of her local grocery store. He’s cute, charmingly awkward and forward in that polite, self-deprecating way that puts others at ease. Their meet cute turns into a date turns into sex turns into something more, then he suggests a weekend away. That’s when things go… awry.

Fresh isn’t the first film to tackle the horrors of modern dating in a literal sense, but it comes at the idea from a novel worst case scenario: What if the too-good-to-be-true romantic interest was, in fact, a cannibal surgeon who makes a fortune off a slow, meticulous harvesting of female flesh? Instead of shacked up on a weekend away, you’re shackled in the barebones basement of his mid-century abode, left communicating through the wall with his other supply sources, the women he has previously lured into this trap. 

Remarkably assured for a debut film, Mimi Cave pulls a fun trick on her audience, playing up the fizzy, fun romance in the film’s first half hour. Only when Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) goes face first onto the carpet after being drugged by “Steve” (Sebastian Stan) does the title of the film appear, an ominous echo of the produce section where these two met cute only twenty minutes earlier. 

But instead of a complete tonal shift, Fresh finds an interesting mid-space between romantic-comedy and captive horror, releasing tension through dryly funny conversations between Noa and her fellow captive, Penny, the occasional needle-drop montage of Steve preparing his human meats, even the investigations of Mollie, who suspects something is amiss when her best friend disappears. Then one quick twist and the tension is mounting all over again.

The film is anchored by strong performances by Edgar-Jones and Stan, both of whom add tremendous layers to their characters. Stan especially seems right at home in his portrayal of an amoral murderer who is also a hopeless romantic and supreme nerd. He’s almost charismatic enough to remain so even in light of his odious nature. Almost.

Fresh is smart enough not to veer too far in humanizing its villain, preferring instead to emphasize the wit and wiles of its hero and her fellow women in peril. While this film has a lot of sardonic points to make about modern dating, its most earnest note is the bond between the women at the mercy of powerful, violent forces beyond their control. Maybe you can’t trust the guy you met in the grocery store, but your best friend is going to be there for you, come hell or high water or a cannibalistic conspiracy of the rich.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to do my best to be as spoiler-free as possible, but I also want people going to see this movie to be, you know, surprised.

It seems like the majority of people posting negatively about this movie hit the Venn Diagram just right of those that enjoy negatively posting on holidays as well. Now, I may be one of the most cynical people you’ll ever meet, but it turns out that I actually want movies to entertain me. And when they entertain people other than me, I can accept their audience, move on and enjoy the movies that entertain me without dwelling.

So yes: this is a superhero movie. It’s a blockbuster. It’s the 28th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You also have had to have some cursory knowledge of Wandavision — there’s this great thing called YouTube that has these things called recaps, you know — and What If? yet you can enjoy this without that. And yes, this has Sam Raimi coming back to direct a superhero movie.

Even more importantly, this is the return of Sam Raimi to movies about cursed books.

Doctor Strange director and co-writer Scott Derrickson left over creative differences — his movie The Black Phone is coming out someday, right? — and that left Raimi and Michael Waldron (HeelsLoki) to start over.

From the original trailers, I was worried that this would cover the same ground as Loki, with Strange being called on the carpet for his abuse of the multiverse. Yet the movie does an early rug pull and places — there’s that spoiler reminder one more time — Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch — into the role of big bad.

Some backstory: Wanda was born in Eastern Europe, where her parents were killed by a Stark Industries missile, and she and her brother Pietro (Quicksilver) survived and were augmented by Hydra’s Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Working with Ultron, she tried to destroy Stark and the Avengers before learning that the robot’s real goal was destroying the human race. This led to her, the Vision (a clone of Ultron turned to the side of good) and the Avengers stopping Ultron and then her joining the team. She and Vision become a couple, join Steve Rogers’ side during the Civil War event and then she must destroy Vision to protect the Mind Stone from Thanos, which means nothing, as he uses the Time Stone to undo her and Vision’s sacrifice. After a five year-plus battle with Thanos, she and the Avengers win, but her grief at losing Vision causes her to basically abduct the entire town of Westview and create her own sitcom reality — she learned English as a child from watching American TV — and raising sons Tommy and Billy with the Vision before her illusion is shattered by Agatha Harkness. The truth is that she’s destined to be the Scarlet Witch — the MCU version of Dark Phoenix, the Harbinger of Chaos more powerful than the Sorcerer Supreme — at which point Wanda traps Harkness in the town and leaves to study a book called the Darkhold, the Book of the Damned,  created by the Elder God Chthon, written in blood on flesh pages (hey Sam Raimi) and bound into book form by Morgan Le Faye, not so coincidentally the villain of the first Dr. Strange movie on TV in 1978, long before the MCU was even a thing.

Yet Wanda’s quest isn’t predicated on evil. She learns that there is more than one reality and that in each of these — you can glimpse these realities in your dreams — her children still exist and haven’t gone away when the spells she cast at Westview were negated. All she wants is her children, but to get them, she’ll destroy entire realities.

Meanwhile…take a breath…there’s America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who was born outside the multiverse and has the power to open doors between worlds. The first use of her powers pushed her parents into another reality and sent her running from the Scarlet Witch, who wants to absorb her power — killing her — so that she can find a world with her children and be a mother again.

We return to the central MCU reality — Earth-616 also the same number as the comic universe — where Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is attending the wedding of the love of his life, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) when a giant monster — which can’t legally be called Shuma-Gorath and is called Gargantos — attempts to take America, who is saved by Strange and Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong). Of course, our hero has no idea that Wanda is the Scarlet Witch, but soon figures it out. The entire magical training world of Kamar-Taj attempts to protect America, who must escape with Strange through the multiverse.

And that’s where I really feel like the spoilers would be too much, right?

So let’s just discuss the merits of the film.

I can’t lie. I walked out of the movie with a huge smile on my face, but any film that combines the bull alien Rintrah and a cameo of the Living Tribunal with the look and feel of a Raimi film — multiple dissolves of faces and objects like a comic book panel, wild POV shots, heroes getting slapped repeatedly and comedy mixed in with horror. Now, it’s not full-on Evil Dead, despite the idea that this is the scariest MCU movie ever. I’ve seen a lot of folks upset about that, but what did you expect? Did Raimi make the Spider-Man films gore-filled epics?

I also do like the idea that Dr. Strange continues to evolve from the self-possessed braggart he started as and the man who said to Spider-Man “In the grand calculus of the multiverse, their sacrifice means far more than their deaths.” Whereas in Spider-Man: No Way Home, that line showed that Strange would do anything to protect the multiverse, when Defender Stranger says it in the beginning, it’s to prove that Strange believes that he alone can save the say, when by the end, he realizes that he’s not the only hero. When he said to Starlord in Avengers: Infinity War that there was only one way to win, now he realizes that just as there are so many realities, there can also be so many solutions. He’s also learned from each different version of himself — Defender Strange, Earth-838 Strange and Sinister Strange — the same one from What If? — that he must make personal growth in addition to protecting the Earth. I loved the scene where he fixed his watch and bowed to Wong, showing that he understands his place.

That’s some pretty astounding character growth for a character in a blockbuster.

Also, for Raimi fans, the 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 shows up. Bruce Campbell shows up — twice. Even a Grindhouse Releasing logo shows up. Throughout, I didn’t feel like he was compromised. The music fight alone is incredibly inventive, as is how Strange makes his way back to Earth despite being trapped on a ruined world.

Perhaps most moving is a line that a certain wheelchair-bound hero says in the film: “Just because someone stumbles and loses their way, doesn’t mean they are lost forever.” That’s an important message to understand. So is the fact that America has two mothers, a fact directly from the comic book and presented as such: it’s just an ordinary way of life. As for America, her look and powers have emerged directly from the comics and work perfectly within the film, as she shows by the end that she may be smarter than any of the adults locked in this battle.

I’d hope that even non-comic fans give this a chance. It’s a visual-filled odyssey through worlds of magic and I had so much fun throughout. It did what all good films should: it made me forget life for a fleeting moment — something needed more than ever — and gave me joy.

You can’t ask for more than that, even if you rarely get it.