V: Vanishing on 7th St. (2010)

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Here’s a story that may seem familiar to you: see a title that looks interesting, tag it on Netflix… and then proceed to ignore it for a few years.

Until you need a movie that starts with a “V”, anyway. (I may have lost some of you there)

We’re first going to meet Paul (John Leguizamo)a projectionist at an AMC theater in Detroit, puttering around his domain, headlight ablaze, making sure the latest Adam Sandler movie runs smoothly (all we hear is some really improbable music and the audience’s laughter). There is a sudden blackout, and when the lights come back on, everybody is gone. Literally. All that remains in the theater and lobby is spilled popcorn and empty clothing, still in shapes that suggest the people once wearing them. There are screams in the distance.

Then the lights go back off again.

We are introduced to Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a physical therapist at a hospital, and Luke (Hayden Christensen), a TV reporter who managed to sleep through the whole thing. Like Paul and his headlight, Rosemary was holding a lit match, and Luke’s girlfriend had some candles burning on a bedside table. In the 72 hours that follow, they wander around Detroit, scavenging flashlight batteries and glowsticks, finally winding up at a bar on 7th Street that has a backup generator, its lights keeping the hungry darkness at bay. There they meet a fourth survivor: James (Jacob Latimore), the 12 year-old son of the bartender. They will try to figure out what happened, and how they can get out of Detroit – or if they should even try.

The first 15-20 minutes of Vanishing are absolutely perfect and nightmarish, leaving me wondering why this movie wasn’t better known. Then we settle down in the bar and it becomes a different movie; a kind of a spam-in-a-cabin flick with all the bickering and psychological drama you’ve come to expect. That was a bit disappointing, but it has to be admitted that director Brad Anderson and a quartet of talented actors sell it and keep it moving, breaking up the submarine movie with flashbacks from Rosemary and Luke  – Luke in particular receiving a satellite broadcast, during a momentary resumption of power in his TV station, from Chicago – implying that whatever it is, it’s worldwide, and laying out the rules: Stay in the light, don’t listen to the voices, and only trust the light that is in your hands.

I may have checked the time remaining, but I never once was tempted to press the fast-forward button.

There are going to be those among who will look askance at my describing Hayden Christensen as a “talented actor”, but really, separated from George Lucas’ ham-fisted direction (the man is a brilliant technician but considers actors mere props – and let’s not talk about his dialogue) Christensen is fine. We already knew about Newton and Leguizamo’s talent, and Jacob Latimore has had a good career since. Honestly, the fact that there are two kids giving great performances in this movie is amazing (the other is Taylor Groothuis).

You may have noticed that a couple of paragraphs above, I dropped the name of the director, Brad Anderson; you should recognize that name, as he is the director of, among others, Session 9 and The Machinist, both off-kilter, unusual horror movies. Vanishing on 7th Street was his first, and as far as I know, only apocalypse film, and I’d love to see what he could do with a larger budget on the same subject. He seems to be concentrating on TV more in the last eight or so years, with only the occasional movie, seemingly leaving overt horror behind. Let’s hope not, though.

U: The Uncanny (1977)

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Another anthology already?

The first thing you’re going to ask is, “Is this an Amicus Film?” Which is fair, since the name Milton Subotsky is right there in the credits. But no, at this point Amicus’ grave wasn’t even cold yet, after The People That Time Forgot. Subotsky relocated to Canada, and tried to get the ol’ anthology (“portmanteau”, if you want to get fancy) mojo workin’ again with this and The Monster Club. That didn’t work out so well, alas.

Our two big stars for the framing device are Ray Milland (yay!) and Peter Cushing (double yay!). Cushing is a very high-strung writer (his previous books were on flying saucers and ESP), who has made his way to Milland’s house with a thick binder. He’s Cushing’s publisher, you see, and he’s doubtful about the new book. Cushing responds that he has proof going back years that cats are horrible monsters that actually control the world.

Most of us who live with cats will shrug “well, duh”, but we already bought the ticket so let’s see what Peter has to say.

In 1912 London, a rich old matron (Joan Greenwood, rather wasted here but still managing to steal the show) dictates her new will, cutting out her wastrel nephew (Simon Williams) and leaving her vast estate to her multiple cats. Our snoopy maid (Susan Penhaligon) however, is also the lover of that nephew, and they hatch a plan to steal the old lady’s copy of the will. When she surprises the maid during the theft, there’s an employer murder, bringing down the wrath of all those kitties. I liked this story better when it was called Eye of the Cat and starred Michael Sarrazin, but that movie didn’t have the murderer trapped in a pantry for days, living on cat food, or the gruesome discovery that the hungry cats figured out the old lady was made of meat (Joan Greenwood, ladies and gentlemen – even dead, still upstaging everybody).

Oh, that’s never a good sign.

Then, in 1975 Quebec, the Blakes (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) take in their young niece Lucy (Katrina Holden Bronson) when her parents die in a car wreck. She brings with her dead mommy’s black cat, Wellington. Mrs. Blake doesn’t particularly like this, and she definitely hates the cat. Their daughter, Angela (Chloe Franks) is a nasty little shit who proceeds to make Lucy’s life hell. Mom finally steals Wellington away to have it euthanized, and burns Lucy’s mother’s book on black magic. Not all of them, though, and the euthanasia doesn’t take, and Angela is about to be in a lot of trouble.

Lastly, in 1936 Hollywood, a tragedy happens on the set of Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance)’s latest horror movie, when somehow the Poe-inspired pendulum over his co-star – his wife Madeliene (Catherine Bégin) – turns out to be quite real. Luckily for the desperate producer (John Vernon sporting a really weird accent), Madeliene’s stand-in Edina (Samantha Eggar) is willing to step into the role. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, Edina is Valentine’s mistress, the accident was murder, and Madeliene’s cat is going to be tossed out as soon as possible. Just to make sure you know Valentine is a cad, the cat has kittens and he drowns them. Well, that doesn’t go over well at all, and not only does the wily cat evade every trap Valentine sets out for it, it starts engineering on-set accidents to avenge its mistress.

Back at the framing device, I’m sure you can figure out how things shake out. Cushing is murdered by a mob of cats on his way home, and Milland burns his book while giving his cat nice dish of milk. The end.

Most of Subotsky’s anthology movies had four or even five stories, and cutting them down to three isn’t justified by the stories, which get so padded out that your wristwatch arm will get lots of exercise as you check how much time is left. The only story that doesn’t have this problem is the third one, where everybody – especially Donald Pleasance – seems to be having a lot of fun. Sure, Bram Stoker should have gotten a writer’s credit because it rather shamelessly rips off “The Squaw”, but, we take our entertainment where we may. I pondered if my reaction to The Uncanny was due to its close proximity to the more feral and kinetic Tears of Kali, but no… this one creaks in the wrong places. Oh, it’s a fair use of 90 minutes, the actors and game and uniformly good, but some patience will definitely be called for.

T: Tears of Kali (2004)

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Oh, hello again, Germany.

I stumbled across this movie while searching off the beaten path for Hubrisween. I fancy myself fairly well-read in the realm of horror, and searching somewhere other than the US and the UK offer strange delights. For me, there is nothing quite like coming across a movie I’ve never heard of. Even better is finding out it doesn’t suck.

We begin in a compound in what we are told is Poona, India in 1983. People on mats, all appearing to be in various stages of suffering as an older man (Pietro Martellanza) walks among them, comforting them. One in particular is Kim (Anja Gebel), quite striking because she is naked. The man asks her where she’s looking. “Inside.” “What do you see?” “Darkness.”

He walks her to a window and asks her to open her eyes. She does, only for a second. He asks her to look outside, “For there is everything. Life. Do it for me.” And he leaves her.

And she walks slowly out of the room, returns to the window, and cuts off her eyelids with a pair of scissors.

From this we go to our first story (yes, this is an anthology) “Shakti”. A writer (Celik Nuran) visits a mental hospital to interview a patient, Elizabeth (Irena-Heliana Jandis), due to be discharged in a week. Years before, Elizabeth had belonged to a cult headed by Samarfan (Joey Bazatt), where she was known as “Shakti”. Samarfan, we will find, belonged to the infamous and experimental Taylor-Eriksson Group, who we saw in that opening. What Samarfan brought from his stay in Poona was a system of meditation and primal scream therapy, first contacting what Jung called “the shadow” in each person and casting it out with the scream. One night, Samarfan was torn messily to pieces, and Shakti confessed to the crime – even though witnesses claimed she was with them all night.

It turns out that the cast-out shadows didn’t simply go away, in Elizabeth’s case becoming a tulpa composed entirely of her rage. The writer has her own agenda, and wants Elizabeth to once more summon her tulpa so a hidden video camera in her purse can capture the proof.

This is a bad idea.

The second story, “Devi”, concerns young skinhead thug Robin (Marcel Trunsch) who has been convicted of beating a Polish tourist nearly to death while hopped up on speed. To avoid jail, he must get 15 hours of therapy, and is referred to the office of Dr. Steiner (Michael Balaun). Robin puts on what he thinks is a good contrite act, only to be countered by Steiner at every turn, until the doctor puts a Vulcan nerve pinch on him. When Robin awakes, everything in the office has been covered in plastic sheets. Dr. Steiner, you see, was in the Taylor-Eriksson Group, where he learned some interesting things about therapy. Here’s a hint: Watch out what you say in your first sentence to your therapist.

As you might guess from that plastic sheeting, this story has the goriest ending of the three.

Speaking of third stories, “Kali” introduces us to Edgar (Mathieu Carrière) a faith healer who is losing his faith. Though not spelled out, the story skillfully implies that his gift left him when he was unable to save his daughter from some disease. He’s drinking a lot more these days.

One of the people who come to him is Mira (Cora Chilcott), who is bent over with the burden of something from her past. Edgar can sense whatever it is, and it is powerful; after a tense bout of thrashing and screaming, it leaves her, and we see a shadowy form slither into the old church building Edgar has rented. Mira was in, you guessed it, the Taylor-Eriksson Group in its final days, when they were experimenting with “the Kali Process”, venturing inward, into “the cellars of the soul, where there is no separation between the living and the dead.” There are things down there that should stay there, but Mira brought one back. And now, free of her, it’s in the dark building. And it’s hungry.

Tears of Kali was originally three short films (each story starts with its own credits) and, indeed, writer-director Andreas Marschall has made quite a few short films, and I’m trying to figure out how to find more of them to watch. You can usually trust that in any given anthology film, you’ll find one great story, one lousy story, and the rest various shades of mediocre; Tears of Kali puts the lie to that by presenting three very good stories – though I will admit “Devi” is my particular favorite. All that work he did on shorts shows in a good, solid movie obviously done with not that much money but a whole lot of skill, commitment and artistry.

It’s probably not a big surprise that Marschall is also known as an artist for heavy metal album covers.

S: Slither (2006)

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This is going to be a tough one to write. There’s a number of reasons for that. The most pragmatic is that my keyboard is screwing up (I do indeed pound the hell out of my keyboards).

Less pragmatic is that writer/director James Gunn was fired off Marvel movies for tweets he made in his youth (Too bad you weren’t running for a Supreme Court slot, huh, James). And dammit, I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. That does put some of the things in this movie in a unfavorable light.

Downright personal is the fact that I’m really tired of this subgenre. Watching Cute Little Buggers on basically a dare was a big mistake.

So.

A meteor falls near a sleepy little deer season-lovin’ town. In short order we will meet local policeman Bill (Nathan Fillion), competent but easy-going, and his longtime crush Starla (Elizabeth Banks), who is unfortunately married to the possessive Grant (Michael Rooker). After Starla’s not in the mood that night, Grant heads out in a huff to get drunk and runs into Brenda (Brenda James), an old acquaintance who professes her hots for him. They head out to the woods, but Grant gets cold feet and breaks off with Brenda – just in time to find that meteor, and a trail of slime leading from it, to a sluglike creature that wastes no time in infecting Grant.

Movies like this live and die on bringing something new to the party, and in this case it’s that the slugs inhabiting Grant (and later a lot more of the cast) burrow up to the brain and are capable of acting like their host for a time. So Infected Grant has Starla thinking he’s become a nicer guy, giving him enough time to meet back up with Brenda and turn her into a human slug incubator. By this time Grant is starting to exhibit some physical changes, murderous tendencies, and it’s not long before Bill is leading an armed posse to find this creature that used to be Grant and the missing Brenda. Too late, as it turns out, as she explodes in a shower of slugs and suddenly actual uninfected humans in the town are outnumbered.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with me.”

The slugs also have a hive mind – now thoroughly entangled with Grant’s mind, so every slug-zombie in town is hunting for Starla, because Grant wants her back. Add to this mix a teenage girl, Kylie (Tanya Saulnier), who got a slug halfway down her throat and half a Vulcan mindmeld before she managed to pull it out and killed it with a curling iron, so there’s someone on the team who knows how the slugs operate. After that, you just need a halfway novel way to kill the main creature and stop the invasion, and Slither does that.

Nathan Fillion could do stuff like this in his sleep, but thankfully the man’s always awake and giving 110%. Elizabeth Banks has an odd role to play here, and I’m not sure the script did her any real favors, but by God she’s game. And anybody who watched this movie that didn’t realize that Michael Rooker is a far more versatile actor than folks had credited, they were not paying attention.

So why didn’t I like the flick? We’ve been here before, back when I watched I Married a Witch. Is it fatigue? Just in a bad mood that night? Is it because – just to bring back that Supreme Court reference – there’s a scene where Gregg Henry (playing the worst mayor ever) has a temper tantrum after most of the cast is turned into zombies because there is no Mr. Pibb and I watched this the day after Kavanaugh’s famous meltdown?

Most likely the fatigue – as I said, I’ve seen a lot of these movies. But this one is well-made, and aims to be an alien-invasion movie for fans of alien-invasion movies, with plentiful easter eggs in the background and an eye toward entertaining. You can still feel Gunn’s days with Troma hanging on here and there, the source of those troubling Tweets (which were really kinda expected when he was working for Edgelord Central), but overall, it’s a good, entertaining flick with a solid fanbase. It doesn’t require my appreciation, and that’s fine.

Except for that “oh no the monster’s not quite dead yet” post-credit scene. That can go straight to hell.

R: [REC]3 – Genesis (2012)

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Last year we watched the really good sequel [REC] 2 (and had previously watched the original [REC] back in 2012 before these alphabetized marathons were invented. So it’s quite natural to bring in the third chapter here, and doubtless to ride this train until next year, content to not have to rack my brain or Google for a horror movie starting with R for one more year. As I pointed out yesterday: Yes, I am that lazy.

[Rec]³ begins true to its roots, though with a welcome twist: the opening apes the beginning of a cheesy wedding video, with a song and childhood pictures of the bride and groom. Thankfully we cut from that to the raw footage of the wedding, from two different video cameras – an amateur with his tiny camera and a pro with a steadicam. You’ll be meeting with most of the characters during this segment, but since this is a [Rec] movie, don’t get too attached to any of them. You’re probably safe with the Groom, Koldo (Diego Martin) and the bride, Clara (Leticia Dolera, who is kind of the platonic ideal of the beautiful bride. I mean, wow), though. For the moment.

See? I told you.

So we go through the wedding and the sumptuous reception. One of the uncles isn’t feeling well, The video camera picks up a police car and a couple of guys wearing hazmat suits. Odd. Then that sick uncle gets all bitey and things go straight to hell. Koldo and Clara are separated in the carnage, and the panicking groom demands of the photographer, “Why are you still filming?”, grabs the camera and smashes it to the floor.

There, at 22 minutes, we finally get our opening title. And with the camera smashed, [Rec]³ abandons the found footage format for the rest of the movie.

I’m of two minds about that. First – yeah, okay, it does feel like director Paco Plaza (one of the two co-directors of the preceding flicks) breathes an audible sigh of relief as he starts setting up shots without having to deal with the Rules of the Found Footage Film. The bizarreness of the subgenre is that making a good found footage flick is actually harder than making a regular film. Action and effects sequences have to be laid out and planned with long takes in mind, and if one thing goes wrong… well, movie making is an exercise in Things Going Wrong. This is why there are so many bad found footage movies – people think they’re easy to make. And the first two [Rec] movies are good found footage movies.

From that last sentence, you might think I didn’t like [Rec]³, and up to a point, you’re right. Oh, it’s a good zombie flick – plenty of gore and suspense, the mythology of the series advances somewhat – the attending priest has a theory about fallen angels and finds out the afflicted can be paralyzed by saying Bible verses to them (at least if you’re a clergyman) – but absent the sort of berserk creativity necessary to following the aforementioned Rules of the Found Footage Film, it becomes exactly that: another zombie movie. The trials of Clara and Koldo trying to get back together without dying is compelling, but toward the end of the flick viewing simply became an exercise in yelling things at the screen (these people have a lot invested in dropping weapons).

I swore off zombie movies for a decade, and after only a few years of cautiously watching them, I find myself succumbing to Zombie Fatigue once more. To anybody bitching about being tired of superhero movies, I say unto you, try being tired of zombie movies. There are lots more of those.

But it’s the care that went into [Rec]³ that makes me hold off that particular kill switch for a while (that and the fact that I have at least one more zombie flick to review this Hubrisween). Plaza makes some clever connections to the first movie, letting us know how [Rec]³ fits in with the first two: that sick uncle is a veterinarian, bitten by a dog that was thought to be dead. That’s a bit from the first movie that I had almost forgotten. In a TV in the background of one scene, we see news footage of the police and army outside the building from [Rec] 2. The Marvel fan in me appreciates that sort of callback.

Plaza and Jaume Balagueró co-directed the first two movies, then split up the duties between [Rec]³ and [Rec] 4. So I’ve also got to hold off abandoning zombies movies until I can see what Balagueró pulls off on his own. At least I have a year to build up my resistance again.

 

Q: The Quatermass Conclusion (1979)

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I said I was going to ride this Quatermass train as long as I could, and seeing as how this one is called The Quatermass Conclusion, it’s looks like I may have to actually put some effort into finding an entry for Q next year.

In the intervening years since Quatermass and the Pit, the British Rocket Program has shut down, and Bernard Quatermass (John Mills, this time) has retired. He journeys from his home in Scotland to London on a twofold mission: to appear as a guest on a talk show, and to look for his granddaughter, who ran away from Scotland in a fit of rebellious boredom. London, Quatermass finds, has gone right downhill; street gangs have turned the city into a combination of Mad Max and Clockwork Orange. He’s only saved from a savage beating by the arrival of radio astronomer Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale) in his armored vehicle, complete with guard dog.

The TV show is celebrating the linking of American and Soviet spacecraft in a precursor to the International Space Station. Quatermass’ bitter dismissal of it is rather undercut by the station’s sudden destruction, though. Quatermass accompanies Kapp to his home/radio telescope base to find some answers, only to discover another bit of weirdness in play: lines of young people trooping across the countryside, following leaders with plumb bobs and apparently walking along Ley Lines to rings of standing stones. These are “the Planet People”, claiming they are going to be taken to another world. One such gathering is obliterated by a colossal beam of energy from the sky. Quatermass and Kapp find a girl that was on the very edge of the blast area, burned and delirious. They carry her away to treat her wounds, much over the violent protestations of the Planet People who didn’t get reduced to ash (or “transported”, as they insist).

A visit from the local commissioner (Margaret Tyzack) causes Kapp to use his radio telescopes to bounce off some satellites to receive a video call from America, because there have been more energy beams, killing thousands, and they need to get Quatermass’ opinion (I do love the fact that, no matter how much crap Quatermass has been through, if something weird comes from space, he’s the go-to guy). Quatermass and the Commissioner manage to get the girl (who looks eerily like Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord) to a hospital; her burned tissues are turning into crystal. Well, they are until she levitates and explodes, anyway.

Quatermass theorizes that something ahead of the energy beams – some advance waves, or similar – has been feeding into the youthful members of society, causing the upset of gang warfare, and the mass migrations to the ancient sites, standing stones erected by bygone societies as a warning. As the beams continue to rain down, he recruits a group of literally senior scientists, immune from the alien influence, to attempt to forge a solution before mankind is virtually exterminated.

Writer Nigel Kneale was approaching 60 at this time, and I’m amused that his cause for youthful sullenness and rebellion is alien intervention. It is no coincidence that Kneale fan John Carpenter took a similar tack in They Live: the only possible explanation for the callousness and cruelty of the Reagan Revolution was an alien invasion, right? People wouldn’t do that normally, right? Right?

The budget on Conclusion is quite low, and the story somewhat drawn out at times – as traditional, this was a TV series first. Kneale wrote a separate script for the feature film version, but the seams are still somewhat apparent. Director Piers Haggard moves it all along quite amiably and well. The Quatermass Conclusion – simply Quatermass in its native land – is the most lo-fi of the Quatermass stories. There’s no giant monster shambling around, no conspiracies; the enemy and its motive is, as Quatermass concludes, ultimately unknowable, and the best humanity can manage is to bite them so hard they don’t come back – but at a terrible price. There’s a quite good BBC series called Invasion: Earth that owes a lot to Quatermass. That’s worth seeking out, too, if you haven’t had enough bleak science fiction pitting man against unimaginable forces.

P: Pieces (1982)

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If you know me at all, you know that I hate slasher movies. Hate them with the heat of a thousand suns. Hate them with a passion I usually reserve for licorice candy and overlong meetings. I hate hate hate them. Yet here I am watching Pieces, which is the platonic ideal of everything I hate about them. Not for nothing is its tag line “It’s exactly what you think it is!”

Why am I doing this? Because it’s Hubrisween.

The opening is, I admit, pretty effective. “Thirty years ago” a boy is putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a nude woman when he’s discovered by his abusive mother. She starts screeching at him that she’s going to burn all his things, resulting in an axe to her head and the boy sawing her body apart. When the cops finally come, he hides in a closet and says the bad man did it.

If you need any early indicators as to attention to detail in Pieces – though this prologue takes place circa 1952, the mother is yelling at her homicidal child to get a “plastic bag” to burn his porn stash in, and they have a touch tone phone.

In the present of 1982, on your typical fake college campus, a girl riding a skateboard crashes through a huge mirror, and this all it takes for our now grown axe-wielding kid to start putting together his blood-stained jigsaw puzzle and assembling a woman of his own from the chainsawed-off body parts of nubile young co-eds in various stages of undress (that this is the trigger is never expressly alluded to in the movie).

Director Juan Piquer Simón delivers a movie that is almost more giallo than slasher – the preponderance of red herrings (you just know Paul Smith is not the killer, no matter how ham-handedly the movie tries to make you think he is), the utter uselessness of the cops (Christopher George and Lynda Day George), and because of that uselessness, the solution to the killings lies with an outside investigator, in this case student Kendall (Ian Sera). The only thing that keeps it from being a giallo is it lacks that genre’s devotion to artistry, to finding beauty in the worst places. What it does have is nothing that will quell accusations of misogyny in either genre – the murder scenes are drawn out, graphic, and exclusively female. Possibly the most remarkable thing about Pieces is the ending, when Simón reasons that most slasher movies have a shock ending that comes out of left field… “but what if mine came all the way from the parking lot?” It’s that outre.

“I’m not THAT worthless!”

How bad are the cops? The decision is made to keep the murders quiet to avoid a panic, which allows the killer to act with impunity, multiplying his potential number of unguarded, unaware victims. How you manage to cover up a girl getting decapitated with a chainsaw in broad daylight is quite beyond me, though. The fact that Christopher George is the detective in charge caused me to assume this movie was Italian, not Spanish, for many years.

As Joe Bob Briggs pointed out in his Last Drive-In marathon, Pieces is a picture of what Simón thinks college in America is like: non-stop sex, right down to a water bed in the training room (was this ever a thing? I mean, just look at me, I’ve never seen the inside of a training room). Well, at least it gives Lynda a chance to really go for that Oscar nom:

And, oh please, let’s not forget this (and somebody owes Goblin some money):

But, alas, one bit of glorious over-acting and a surprise cameo by Bruce Le does not move me to suddenly overcome my hatred of these things. The best I can say is that it’s undeniably trash, but at least it’s fairly well-made trash.

It was exactly what I thought it was.