Hugo

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 5 Stars - No Beef, Comedy, Drama | Posted on 03-12-2011

I’m a sentimentalist. I cry at adverts, reality TV shows (a rising string gets me every time) and the worst kinds of romantic comedy. I even cried while waiting in an airport arrivals longue recently, watching some random small children reunited with their grandparents. More often than not, I cry in spite of myself. My cynical side well aware that I am being manipulated and I kind of hate myself for being such a sucker. Around Christmas, this amplifies. Something about the fairy lights and mulled wine I think. I cried through the entirety of a animated version of The Gruffalo one Christmas Day. For the uninitiated, The Gruffalo is NOT The Snowman, nothing sad happens, nothing at all. I couldn’t tell you what the hell I was crying about. I was just overridden by cuteness and booze.  This sort of hollow sentimentality has to hit me in the right mood to get the tears flowing though. A friend and I went to see Love, Actually a few days before Christmas once and spent a large portion of the film wondering what would happen if we started throwing things at the screen (embarrassingly, even that abysmal piece of film-making sucked a couple of tears out of me before I realised what a piece of shit it was).

Occasionally though, a film comes along that works on a whole separate plain. A film that reminds me what it was to be a child and to feel joy and wonder and sadness, all at the same time, of how beautiful the world can be. Hugo is one of those films.

Set in 1930’s Paris, Hugo tells the tale of a young orphan boy who lives inside, and maintains, the mechanical clocks of a train station. The station is a busy and vibrant setting, though as the film opens Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is as alone as anyone has ever been. He doesn’t have any friends or family, and rests his hopes of company on an automaton that his father found at a musuem and that they had been repairing together before the accident that left Hugo alone.

Even though Hugo is alone, he uses his clocks to hide in and observe the other people whose lives revolve around the station and, as the film progresses, their lives begin to interweave. There is Georges (Ben Kingsley), a gruff old man who runs a station toyshop and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who accompanies him. The unnamed Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) is Hugo’s nemesis, desperate to catch young orphans, and hopefully the eye of Lisette (Emily Mortimer), a florist. Isabelle is a voracious reader and, through her, we meet Monsieur Labisse (Christoper Lee). Monsieur Labisse runs a book shop and, curiously, for a film set in Paris, is the only character with even a hint of a French accent.

I went into Hugo knowing very little of what the story entailed and, one of the things I loved about it was watching the way the story unfolds. With that in mind, I won’t go into any specifics about where Hugo leads. However, portions of the film (including the opening segment) have a very old school silent film mentality to them. Large swathes of the film contain no dialogue whatsoever, and the physical comedy is as good as any seen in the silent films of the early 20th Century. Sasha Baron Cohen borders on parody with his strange voice, war injury and inability to smile naturally, but he fits like a glove into this landscape. His role could easlily have been a horrible mis-step, but, to my mind, he pitches it perfectly. There is also a ongoing romantic subplot between Madame Emile (Francis de la Tour) and Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths), which involves very little dialouge, and would have played out in a very similar way had this film been made 100 years ago.

Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s first “children’s” movie, though I think calling it that does it a great disservice. This is a film for anyone with a heart beating in their chest, a film to savour and adore, whatever age you are. The direction is, as one would expect, fantastic… and the 3D is the best I have seen. My favourite 3D sequence has long been Lionsgate’s mechanical cog introduction (Lionsgate make a lot of horror films, and I love horror films in 3D, so I’ve seen it often). There is something about the cogs in motion that just works wonders in 3D, and Hugo is basically mechanical porn. Mechanics are front and centre here, whether in Hugo’s clocks, Georges’ toys or the automoton that Hugo so desperately wants to work again…. And Scorsese knows how to make them sing, they jump right out the screen at times.

As I say, this isn’t really a children’s film. It’s a film for anyone who knows about loss, and the wonder of experiencing the new. It’s about the pain of war, finding magic in the world around us, and connecting with others, fixing them, so they can help fix us too. I cried and cried and cried, but these weren’t the sort of tears that make me frustrated with how pathetic I am. These were tears of joy, of remembering how a film can remind you of all the wonder and beauty in life.

I went to see Hugo with my Mum, who has the attention span of a gnat when it comes to films. It’s rare that she manages to stay awake through even the shortest and fastest moving of stories. Hugo is over two hours long and takes its sweet time with its story at every single turn, yet she stayed awake through the whole thing, and professed to loving it when it finished. Though her first reaction, open the rolling of the credits was to look at me with a rather surprised expression and say ‘Steph! Nobody even walked out!’…. Frankly, if THAT isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.

Our Idiot Brother

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 3 Stars - Some Beef, Comedy, Drama | Posted on 28-11-2011

My name is Stephanie and I am a Ruddaholic. Sure, Paul Rudd has been in some horrible films (I’m looking at you, How Do You Know) but I’ve never seen him be anything less than wonderful. He even helped Friends limp through its final two seasons, while the rest of the cast sleepwalked through their, by that point, rather hackneyed roles. He just makes me happy, with his baby blue eyes and his head that is slightly too big for his body. I tend to seek out his films, and, if they showcase the Rudd as he deserves, I’ll watch them again and again. I’ve seen Role Models at least five times. Paul Rudd + Jane Lynch = 1000x amazing (I’m well good at maths).

In Our Idiot Brother, my blue eyed hero plays Ned. Ned is a hippy, and I guess what some would call a loser (or an idiot, obv). Though at the start of the film he appears to be living the dream to this fellow loser. He works at a farmers market, has the best dog ever, looks happy and content, and sells a bit of the good stuff on the side. Sadly, a stupid mistake means that Ned is wrenched from this life rather abruptly and forced to rely on the kindness of his family to help him back on his feet.

This is where the film really comes into its own. Everyone here is amazing, it’s like the casting director put together a list of people I love and put them all in a big lovely film, just for me. Almost without exception, like Rudd, they are playing to their own stereotype, which is fine by me. Regardez –

Elizabeth Banks – Shrill, selfish, workaholic
Zooey Deschanel – Freespirited, sexually ambiguous, kooky
Emily Mortimer – English, uptight, repressed (she isn’t actually playing English, but she might as well be)
Steve Coogan – Pretentious prick
Adam Scott – Lovely, lovely but slightly lacking in masculinity
Rashida Jones – Massive lesbian who wears terrible shorts and glasses throughout the film, just in case we forget at any point that she likes the poontang
Hugh Dancy – Pretentious prick #2

Actually, i’ve never seen Rashida Jones play a tough lesbian, or Hugh Dancy play anything but lovely. I just wanted to mention that they’re involved, as they are both super cool (Also, I actually kinda like the terrible glasses/shorts combo… and Dancy makes a surprisingly good pretentious prick).

The film follows the route of a thousand gentle comedies before it. It doesn’t shock and it doesn’t surprise. It did, however, manage to make my boyfriend (who had been threatening to go for a nap) stay with me for the entire duration. We both laughed a lot, though most of the jokes didn’t stick with me past the closing credits.

In the end, Our Idiot Brother is rather like a lovely big bag of Haribo. It’s sweet, goes down easily, tastes delicious and might even make you giddy for a while… but it contains no substance whatsoever, and might make you a little sick if you lack the tooth for this kind of thing.

Our Idiot Brother was released in the USA in August. It’s still awaiting release dates elsewhere. When it does finally get a release, I recommend watching on a rainy Sunday afternoon with an enormous bag of sweets, and letting the sugar wash all over you.

Sidenote – I’ve included the picture at the top because me and my friend Gemma sat in those EXACT seats at Cafe Gitane in New York. Yes, I have shared bum space with the Rudd. I am awesome.

Shiver

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 4 Stars - A Little Beef, Horror | Posted on 11-11-2011

I tend to have a strange positive prejudice when it comes to films made in languages other than English. It’s actually a lot more sensible than most of my other prejudices (of which I have many, don’t we all?). The films that reach beyond the borders of the country that spawned them are generally of a fairly high quality, which is why they’re receiving international interest. However, when it comes to horror films, this prejudice isn’t just about expecting a film to be better shot, or to have better acting than its US counterparts. It’s about the inherent lack of familiarity with the environment, or the way the society that they are set in operates. That lack of comfort and knowledge often adds an extra frisson of tension for me. It also helps to cover up holes in characters motivations or plot points, as I can’t so easily rip something apart as unrealistic if I don’t really know the workings of the place it’s set.

My experience of Asian horror films started with Ringu in 1998 (13 years ago. Fuck, I am decrepitly old), and I went through a stage of watching as many as I could lay my hands on. It took me a fair old while to work out that it wasn’t that every single person in these films couldn’t act, or that characters didn’t give a shit about each other. It was about differences in the way people react to each other in other cultures. The Japanese simply aren’t as effusive as Americans, Koreans seem to have a strange sense of humour, the Chinese, well, Communism, you know?

Similarly, Spanish horror films seem to feature more than their fair share of women or young children in peril at the hands of a misogynistic, uncaring society. I’ve never lived in Spain, but given a lot of the films I’ve seen, I probably wouldn’t choose to go and retire alone in the countryside there. Although, realistically I doubt my, by then even more decrepit, self would hold much appeal to red blooded Spaniard men.

Shiver (Eskalofrio) was released in 2008 and centres on a young boy, Santi, who suffers from a condition that means he cannot be directly exposed to sunlight, the implications of which are beautifully captured in an opening dream sequence. He and his mother, Julia, live alone in a city in Spain and things don’t seem to be going well for them. Santi is isolated with few friends, and his condition is worsening. Julia doesn’t know what to do to make things better. So, at the behest of a Doctor, they decide to up sticks and move to a shadowy mountain village, where the sun rarely shines and Santi can run freely about the woods.

Sadly, he probably shouldn’t, for these woods are not safe. I thought that this film was going to be a body horror type affair, like last years Julia’s Eyes (another Spanish film about a woman in peril, at the hands of not-to-be-trusted men). The idea of being unable to escape the prison of one’s body is perhaps the most terrifying of all, and ripe for horror-exploitation. However, Santi’s condition becomes a backdrop, rather than a driving force in the story that unfolds.

The ‘big bad’ is revealed fairly early on, but I won’t spoil it for you here. There is nothing worse than a spoilt horror film, nothing perhaps apart from a ruined punchline. Both have the potential to destroy anything of worth and I think Shiver deserves more than that. For that same reason, I chose a screenshot, rather than the poster for the top there, as even that set off my spoiler-senses. I can say that the film doesn’t disappoint in terms of reinforcing the Spanish horror staple of women and children in peril at the hands of a male dominated community that accuses, rather than supports. Only one adult man here is of any use, and even he manages to make things worse before he attempts to make them better.

Fortunately, Santi isn’t an idiot, for the most part he realises that splitting up from friends, in the middle of nowhere, is not a good idea (it seems that, despite Scream, most idiots who populate this genre haven’t learned that yet), and he doesn’t keep things from his mother for no good reason. Their relationship is really rather sweet, and the fact that I cared about them helped me ignore some of the larger plot holes…. For there are certainly plot holes, although a late twist, and my aforementioned unfamiliarity with the Spanish system, helps to dispel some of these. I also appreciated Santi’s reaction to fear, which is exactly how I imagine I would react under similar circumstances. A true rarity in a horror film.

I wouldn’t call Shiver a classic, it certainly won’t stick with me for long and the final shot made me want to laugh more than scream. However, the characters and their actions are largely believable, it is beautifully shot and the levels of tension are high throughout, so i’d definitely recommend you seek it out if you fancy a bit of that in your life.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 1 Star - So. Much. Beef, Horror | Posted on 27-10-2011



Crime rates are dropping all over the Western world , yet the fear of crime has been steadily on the increase for years. Some of the blame for this certainly rests with the media, especially in the UK. A survey back in 2003 showed that readers of tabloid newspapers were almost twice as likely to be worried about crime as those who favoured broadsheets. A child abducted by a stranger is almost guaranteed to be front page news (especially if that child is white, and their parents are well spoken), and the murder of a young, attractive woman also tends to get a lot of publicity. When I was a young ‘un, growing up in central London, I walked myself home from school from an early age, went to the park unsupervised and played outside with friends with no question from any of our parents. All this is changing now, the distance our kids stray from home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 70s and 43% of adults think a child shouldn’t play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14. The real risk to children and to women actually tends to come from their own families/friends. Over the past decade, more than 20,000 American children have been killed their own family members – that is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, these stories don’t get on the front pages and often don’t get reported at all. The issues behind them are simply too complicated, and it’s easier to sell papers with a picture of an ‘innocent young angel’ whose life has been ‘snatched’ by an ‘evil monster’. Bearing all this in mind, I find it hard to appreciate a film which opens with the random abduction, rape, and murder of a young girl from her own front garden.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a faux-documentary about a series of tapes showing brutal torture, rape and murder committed by a serial killer, found in an abandoned house. The film largely concerns itself with interviewing those involved with the investigation. We meet FBI agents, profilers, psychiatrists, ‘dismemberment experts’ and various other talking heads who discuss their various levels of disgust/interest/admiration for the ‘work’ of the killer, and the investigation to catch him. The film is clearly extremely low budget and, considering this, the acting is generally of a pretty high standard (with a couple of notable exceptions). The film is presented as if it were real and, if I didn’t know different (mainly because if it were real, it would have been an enormous news story), I could be convinced into thinking it was. I’ve never been particularly interested in the anatomy of crime, but the proliferation of the CSI franchise and those like it suggest there is a market for this kind of film. One of the characters is a retired criminal profiler, who we see using the tapes to teach a class. He talks of the effect of the work on his mental health and his story and investigation of the tapes, for me, would have been a far more interesting route to take. The only film of this ilk I’ve ever really admired was The Silence of the Lambs, and that’s because it’s about Agent Starling, with Hannibal Lector as a supporting character. We see his actions (and the actions of Buffalo Bill) through her eyes, and the film becomes so much more than a tale of a sick man because of that.

The emphasis is very much on the analysis of the murders and the man who committed them and, unsurprisingly, the other half of the film centres around the tapes themselves. As I’ve said before, I am not interested in torture porn, it holds no excitement for me. I suppose that the tapes were supposed to scare me, but all they did was made me angry that I was being asked to watch the behaviour of such a pathetic little man. There is one particular shot of a murder which is clearly supposed to freak the viewer out, but I just ended up scoffing. I watched another faux-documentary a couple of weeks ago called Lake Mungo. It had a very different feel and subject matter, but similarly didn’t scare me at all while I was watching it. However, for the next few nights I was haunted by one image, which got right under my skin. I saved reviewing The Poughkeepsie Tapes until the day after I watched it, just to check whether the same thing would happen here. It didn’t, in fact, I can feel the details of the film slipping from my mind even as I write this.

The only way I can take anything positive from films like this is if I feel like there is a larger point being made. At one point in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a news story is kept from receiving any attention by the events of September 11th, 2001. I was hopeful that this thread would be continued and the role of the media, and what is and isn’t classed as ‘news’ would be put into the spotlight, but it wasn’t. One of the talking heads actually says toward the end that the killer would be delighted to have a documentary released about him, after all, the whole purpose of the tapes is for them to be watched (and admired?!). Despite the fact that the events in the film are entirely fictional, the feeling that the film is aggrandising the actions of the killer strikes me as irresponsible. I remain impressed at how well made the film was on a tiny budget. Sadly, I wasn’t scared once, and the only effect I can see this film having is to increase the fear in the viewer of a terrible fate befalling them or their families, increasing the disproportionate fear or crime even further. I wonder if I would have felt differently about the film if the violence wasn’t so squarely directed at women and children, but, as it is, I found it unpleasant and pointless… even if you are a fan of torture porn, the tapes are such poor quality it’s often hard to see or hear what’s happening. Despite being released in 2007, I don’t think The Poughkeepsie Tapes is available on DVD. What a shame.

The Woman

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 3 Stars - Some Beef, Horror | Posted on 18-10-2011

The first I heard about The Woman, it was via a Youtube video of a man who was thrown out of a screening at The Sundance Film Festival as he was so incensed by it. It’s quite an interesting watch, the official from Sundance displays a masterclass in how to deal with irate customers, and the guy actually comes across as a bit of an arse. However, his arguments did nothing to make me want to watch the film. I’ve always loved horror films but the recent trend for ‘torture porn’ does not float my boat one little bit. I watch horror films because I love the feeling of being scared, adrenaline pumping, wondering when the killer is going to strike. I don’t want to see people chained up with no chance of escape while various imaginative cruelties are performed upon them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I just don’t see the fun in it, it’s just nasty for the sake of it.

The only reason I finally decided to watch The Woman was because I thought it would be interesting to write about. It’s directed and written by Lucky McKee, who was also responsible for 2002’s May. May is a rare creature indeed, a film about loneliness seen through the prism of horror. I liked it a lot, and recommend you hunt it down if it sounds like your bag. It helped to give me some faith that his new film must be about more than the angry Sundance man said it would be… and it is.

Just as May was really a film about loneliness, The Woman is really a film about domestic violence and a certain type of man who needs to feel power over women. The film centres on a family, The Cleek’s, who although initially picture postcard perfect looking, clearly have something going on under the surface. The smiles are a little too tight, the wife a little too timid, the father a little too cordial, the daughter depressed, the son disconnected… Things aren’t right, and just to drive that home, Daddy’s decided to trap a feral woman he found in the forest, so that they can “civilise” her.

The origins of the titular woman (she’s never given a name, which seems a strange omission if the goal IS to civilise her, which clearly it isn’t) are unknown to us, although it’s suggested that she was raised by wolves. Sadly Mogwli she is not, she can’t speak, she’s filthy and she eats live animals. She HAS managed to fashion quite a sexy rag ensemble for herself though, so that’s nice.

She’s locked in a cellar, and introduced to the family…. who take it well enough that we know those tight smiles hide abuse. The scenes between the female members of the family and the woman are beautifully done, the actors manage to convey a huge amount with no verbal communication. The wife (Belle) is played by Angela Bettis, who also starred in May, and she’s just as good here. The rest of the cast are excellent too, excepting the daughter, Peggy’s, teacher, who is rotten. If I tried to act, that’s what I’d look like, she’s THAT bad.

The violence is kept to a minimum early on, and, despite fears to the contrary, this isn’t torture porn. The father, Chris, seems less interested in cruelty for the sake of it, and more in power. He is as violent as he feels he needs to be, unlike the son, who seems more of an unformed psychopath, trying to emulate his father, without any of his power. Chris Cleek wants his women under his control and the hold he has over his family is terrifying. We see just enough to know how far he goes to hold onto this power, and until towards the end, it’s mostly shot (relatively) tastefully. Even the scenes of sexual violence (which are normally the one thing I can’t deal with) didn’t feel exploitative to me. The perpetrators are the pathetic ones here, not the victims.

I honestly thought I would hate The Woman, but I didn’t. It’s a film about the darkness that can lurk under a perfect surface, and has the same air of the surreal that pervaded May. Sadly, It all falls apart a bit at the end, with a slightly ‘throw enough shit at the wall, and some of it will stick’ air to it. All together though, The Woman is a tale about misogyny, rather than one that glorifies it. The women are the heroes here, and I think Lucky McKee is a man who really likes women. Sadly, there is something about the horror genre that seems to attract men that really don’t. So, it’s nice to finally see a horror film that has that air to it, and I really hope Lucky McKee (awesome name BTW) , and others like him, get to continue to make films…. Saying all that, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it as a film experience. I’m never going to enjoy watching women be tied up and subjugated, no matter how tastefully it is shot. However, I respected it and think its heart is in the right place, and that’s just as important sometimes.

The Beaver

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 3 Stars - Some Beef, Drama | Posted on 17-10-2011

Mel Gibson was a movie star. Not just an actor, but an honest to goodness movie star. I was made to watch Mad Max: Road Warrior recently and the man exuded charisma out of every pore. He was one of those rare people I just couldn’t keep my eyes off when he was on screen, he seemed mysterious and sexy and interesting. All the things I want when I’m sitting down to be entertained (take note those who keep casting Gerard Butler, who is none of these things, and less. Wonky, sweaty and grubby looking does not get this ladies biscuits tingling). He was box office gold too, What Women Want made over $182 Million, despite being poorly received by critics. The man was a charm machine, dropping knickers at fifty paces with one of his megawatt smiles and a flash of his baby blues.

Saying all this, I’ve always felt like there was something slightly ‘off’ about him, something behind the eyes when he’s being interviewed. He was married to the same woman for a long time and they sired many, many children. He’s a Catholic, and while I am loath to criticise anyone’s beliefs, he has publicly denounced the use of birth control and of abortion. This just doesn’t sit right with my personal beliefs, especially coming from a very wealthy man, who has little of the worries that plague us normo’s. He has proven himself to be rather a talented film director, though his projects are somewhat, erm, ‘specialist’… but things started to go badly wrong for Mel a couple of years ago. There were various reports of anti-semitism (Winona Ryder recently told a story of him referring to her as an ‘oven dodger’ at a party. He’s also claimed that ‘Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world’. How lovely!) homophobia and racism. The thing that really sealed it for him though was a relationship which ended badly, amid reports of physical and emotional abuse. I won’t go into the details here, all this is making me feel grubbier than Gerard Butler, but, suffice to say, his career was knocked sideways. I find it really difficult to look at him now without picturing his depiction on Southpark, which doesn’t bode well for suspending disbelief and actually enjoying his performance in a film.

Given all this, I wasn’t expecting much from The Beaver. I have a lot of love for Jodie Foster, but I’ve never been bowled over by her Directorial efforts, and I was confused as to why she wanted to taint her film with the stench of controversy and hatred that Mel brought. We open with Walter (Mel Gibson), displaying all the signs of full blown depression, overlaid with a voiceover telling us exactly that. This guy is at rock bottom, he’s sleepwalking through life, and dragging his family down with him. The voiceover is Mel, channeling a strange mixture of Ray Winstone and Michael Caine. Turns out this voice belongs to the titular Beaver, a puppet that Walter finds in a bin, and promptly begins to use as a tool to communicate with the world around him. It’s a bizarre plot device, and it could have fallen flat on its face, if the puppet wasn’t so damn CHARMING. Whatever has happened in his personal life, Mr. Gibson is still a bloody movie star. It’s heartbreaking watching the absence of light in his eyes, while the puppet jokes and cuddles and reconnects with his family.Jodie Foster plays Walter’s wife, and is, as ever, pretty fantastic. His youngest son manages to stay just the right side of annoying (I am not a huge fan of cute kids in films. I blame Jonathan Lipnicki from Jerry Maguire) and I thought the effect of his fathers condition on him was well portrayed. This isn’t just a film about one mans breakdown, it’s about the effect this has on those around him. It’s essentially a film about depression/dysfunction and the way it can be passed down through generations; Mel’s eldest son desperately wants to shed his associations with his father, to avoid meeting the same fate.

It’s an independent movie staple to try to depict mental illness through the prism of an audience friendly story, and The Beaver hits all of the beats you would expect. The soundtrack is pure whimsy and the puppet serves as a comical device which helps to make rather a tragic tale a little more bearable. In the end, I found it a little too fluffy to truly connect with, and I suspect the memory of it won’t linger with me for long. The fluff does ease as it moves along, but I didn’t ever feel moved or like I was watching something truly genuine. One thing is does prove though, for me at least, no matter what disgusting things he says/does in his personal life, Mel Gibson is a movie star. Though one we won’t get to see shining much anymore. Do I care? Not really, there are other actors out there with the same skills who don’t set my teeth on edge so much, but damn, this man owns the screen. If only he’d just keep his mouth shut (and his fists to himself) when he’s off it.

The Ward

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 2 Stars - Tons O'Beef, Horror | Posted on 17-10-2011