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In 1972, Roger Watkins filmed this macabre picture about a disgruntled
ex-con named Terry Hawkins who decides to kidnap four people and, with
the help of his "crew" of movie makers, film their murders inside an
abandoned building-turned makeshift studio. Originally running at
almost three hours long, the film was re-titled numerous times and the
original cut became a lost film, leaving us with the 78 minute "Last
House on Dead End Street" as we know it today.
Quite frankly, this is maybe the most nihilistic film I have ever seen. It parallels works like Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" in both title and grisliness, but it's about ten shades darker because, unlike in that movie, there is no subtle humor here to provide even the slightest relief; there is no safety in this film.
Like many have said, the entire film plays out like a bad dream, and even worse than that, it's a bad dream that looks like a Manson family home movie. The narrative is basic, almost skeletal, but that's not really the point of the film what we have here ultimately is a stylish exercise in unease and demoralization. The film was made, literally, on less than a thousand dollars (Watkins admitted he used a great deal of the film's budget to buy drugs), and amazingly is not brought down by its budgetary shortcomings.
The photography in the film is apt and sometimes borders on surreal, with the camera following Hawkins and his group of hippie auxiliaries; armed with hand-held cameras, they don sinister translucent doll faces and oversized Zardoz masks as they gallivant through the abandoned building, torturing and killing their abductees. The self-reflexive murder scenes are indisputably the hallmark of the picture, and they are grotesque; drills, amateur surgeries, and branding sticks need I say more? It is horrendous and shockingly realistic even today, so it's no wonder that it was rumored to be real thirty years ago.
If the trippy visuals and macabre murder sequences aren't enough to perturb, the nightmarish sound design is. According to the director, the soundtrack and sound design was comprised of stock music and soundbites which were purchased for less than a hundred bucks from a New York sound company. Had I not been made aware of this, I would have never had a clue, because the sonic makeup of the film is actually quite sophisticated. Granted, the dubbing is not great (yes, the film was dubbed), but the haunting choral score and orchestral musical accompaniment add a whole other layer to the film. The expansive, ethereal ambiance that is evoked from the score is in sharp contrast with the claustrophobic world of grit, grime, and grisliness on screen, and the film packs even more of a wallop because of it; the eerie score is punctuated by borderline-Socratic voice overs from Hawkins as he audaciously affirms his convictions.
Given the resources used to make this film, it truly is an incredible achievement. In spite of the dirt around the edges, it is well-made and almost spiritually disturbing, but above all else, it is an unusually insightful film that has more substance than one would expect or demand from an exploitation flick. "The Last House on Dead End Street" is perhaps the most unnerving and haunting film I have ever seen, bar none. It is a living, breathing nightmare; a meditation on death and power, and an exposition of depravity. 10/10.
Based on Stephen King's novel, "Christine" has a high school nerd,
Arnie (Keith Gordon) buying a rundown 1958 Plymouth Fury with a morbid
past. His friend, the popular Dennis (John Stockwell) begins to notice
personality changes in Arnie, mainly centered around his obsession with
his new car, which is called Christine. The new girl in town, Leigh
(Alexandra Paul) begins dating Arnie, and also notices the changes.
After some local bullies trash the refurbished Fury, it's not long
before Christine takes revenge.
What is an ostensibly ridiculous story (a killer car, yeah, I know how it sounds) works for two reasons here: first, the source novel by King is very well-written; and second, because we have John Carpenter at the helm of the film, steering corner after corner with remarkable finesse. What could have been utter tripe is actually one of the most timeless and well-done horror films of the eighties.
I would go so far as to say that "Christine" may be a technically perfect film, or at least close to it. The film sets itself up as a sort of throwback to the fifties doo-wop culture of early rock'n'roll, drive-ins, and vintage cars, all in spite of the fact that the film is set in 1978. The novel and the film have an equal nostalgia for Americana, something that seems to translate more effectively on screen than it does in literature. Carpenter captures suburbia as effectively as he did in "Halloween," though atmospherically, "Christine" has more in common with a film like "Fright Night" than it does with the former. The thematic center of the film lies in the car itself, which acts as not just an emblem of American culture, but also as a metaphor as well as an object for projection of Gordon's tortured protagonist.
Shots of the small town streets and the ruby-red Fury are aesthetically perfect, and the action scenes are very nicely done. Another element of the film that contributes to its timelessness is the high-brow special effects which still hold up astoundingly well after nearly thirty years. Solid, likable performances from Keith Gordon and John Stockwell up the ante as well, with a young Alexandra Paul supplying the teenage high school crush/eventual comrade. Character performances from Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky, and Roberts Blossom elevate the film even further. A young Kelly Preston also appears in the film as one of the kids' cheerleader classmates. A pleasant mixture of fifties rock all the way to the Rolling Stones and George Thorogood round out the soundtrack, which acts as a nice varnish on the film.
Overall, "Christine" is a somewhat unsung genre classic. No matter how absurd the story may sound, the execution here makes the film impossible to dismiss; it is highly entertaining, quirky, at times thrilling, and beautifully shot. Sophisticated special effects and the alternate-fifties-high-school universe in which the film takes place maintain the film's timelessness. Fans of small-town American horror and car films alike should find the film to be a real treat. 10/10.
Mentally fragile Peggy (Judy Geeson) is attacked by a one-armed man the
night before she is to move with her new husband Robert (Ralph Bates)
to the remote boys' boarding school where he now works. At the
mysteriously empty school, Peggy meets the headmaster Michael (Peter
Cushing) and is ill-received by his uncongenial wife (Joan Collins). It
is not long before Peggy finds herself again pursued by her attacker,
who seems to have followed her there.
Probably the most little-seen Hammer film of its era, "Fear in the Night" is, dare I say, quite underrated. Perhaps this is because it's one of the company's more obscure pictures and very few people have seen it, but regardless, this is a solid and surprisingly eerie film that has all the trappings and twists of a modernist suspense film, supplemented with an English Gothic-lite atmosphere and shades of giallo.
Director, producer, and co-writer (and Hammer head honcho) Jimmy Sangster handles the material here with an understated flair and does a fantastic job at establishing the film's ominous mood; atmosphere is what this film does best, and atmosphere, to me, is one of the most important components of any effective horror film. The photography of the autumnal boarding school campus and the chalet-style buildings weaves a languid and chilly disposition, and there are some truly nightmarish sequences with Geeson running through the empty halls of the school in the middle of the night.
The mentally-unstable woman motif is used to its full extent here, and while it's not exactly original, it is well done in this case. Unusual editing choices really put the viewer in the midst of Peggy's struggle and work to disorient our perception of what is happening around the old boarding school; in many ways, the film reminded of a more restrained version of Robert Altman's "Images," which was released the same year. Both films boast similar plots, jarring and manipulative editing choices, unnerving scores, and both feature a blonde, mentally fragile woman tormented in the ghostly English countryside.
Judy Geeson is fantastic as the doe-eyed and innocent Peggy, while Ralph Bates plays her new beau with an appropriate mysteriousness. Peter Cushing takes the cake here as the towering and bizarre headmaster, with Joan Collins effectively playing his icy and cunning wife oddly enough, Collins and Cushing have no scenes together, but this works to form an almost necessary disconnect between the characters. The film's twist finale, as tense as it may be, is still somewhat predictable but so stylishly handled that I can't knock it a bit. There is phenomenal use of intercom omniscience at the end, and the final scene is sickly satisfying.
Overall, "Fear in the Night" is a stellar, understated thriller that boasts a great cast, solid plot twists, and truly unnerving sequences set against the backdrop of a rundown boarding school hidden away in the depths of English back country. The setting is phenomenal and Sangster makes full use of it, recalling "Diabolique" and later giallo thrillers which, in 1972, were in vogue. Some have said the film is too slow, but I found it rather infectious in its exposition; the further you are into it, the stranger things become. Definitely one of my favorite British horrors of this era. Recommended viewing in a similar vein is the Agatha Christie adaptation "Endless Night," also made the same year. 9/10.
"Last Year at Marienbad" features an arithmetic roster of characters
all of whom we only come to know as A, X, and M who are in an opulent,
seemingly deserted European château. A, a female, is pursued by X, a
man whom insists he met her the year before; she cannot remember him.
The entirety of the film is essentially a mediation on this conflict
that I frankly find near impossible to put into words.
The straight truth about this film is that there is really nothing straight at all, and audiences who expect linear and clean-cut narrative structures should probably stay away. "Last Year at Marienbad" is a film that demands its audience to accept what it's offering at face value and allow themselves to be taken along for the journey, no matter how meandering, bizarre, or at times utterly incomprehensible it may be. I would liken it to the filmic equivalent of a hedge maze, though I'm not sure that really does it justice.
There is not much in the way of plot here, but rather a meditative, repetitious engagement with vague themes and settings. The camera floats throughout the ornate château, moving through crowds of actors that at times stand still as if portraiture, or ghosts; dialogue fades in and out under the throttling score of a pipe organ, dispensing some portions information and leaving others inaccessible. Phrases, scenes, and images are repeated almost as incantationswe have a context, roughly speaking, but the puzzle still remains unfinished by the end.
Aesthetically, I need not say more than that this film is beautiful, and contains some of the most stunning cinematography in film history. Though inarguably gorgeous and visually arresting, I do feel that many people fail to take note of just how unsettling this film really is. It defies categorization so I won't attempt that feat, but there is a sinister unease that pervades the entire film, largely intimated and unspoken; I would not call it a horror film, although I think there is a darker, more dangerous core than most people seem to be aware of. There are shades of Gothicism present, particularly in the way the film strives at capturing an atmosphere in favor of teleology.
I won't divulge my thoughts or interpretations on the film here as I feel it's the wrong place for it, but I will say that this is without a doubt one of the most haunting movies I've ever seen, and its influence is wide-ranging; I believe we can see bits of it in everything from 1962's "Carnival of Souls" to Ingmar Bergman to contemporary filmmakers. You will know from the reverberant opening scene whether or not this is a film you want to engage with; for some, it will do little more than frustrate, but for others, it will spellbind, unnerve, and utterly absorb you. 10/10.
Joan Mitchell is a bored Pennsylvania housewife with a hippie college
student daughter and a disinterested husband, Jack. Dissatisfied with
the ennui of suburbia, she finds herself drawn to a neighborhood woman
who practices witchcraft; naturally, bad things ensue.
This wonky feminist thriller comes from genre legend George Romero, and is certainly one of his most unexpected and unusual offerings; the film had a troubled release history, coming out under various titles such as "Jack's Wife" and "Hungry Wives," only to be later known as "Season of the Witch," which I'd argue is the most fitting title. It became something of a lost film until it was unearthed in 2006 by Anchor Bay Entertainment.
"Season of the Witch" is a strange one; like Romero's earliest pictures, it is very apparently low budget, bathed in grain and not nearly as slick as "Night of the Living Dead," though I think it's unfair to compare the two. They are incredibly different films. "Season of the Witch" is part horror, but more so a grindhouse thriller of major feminist proportions. The film is surprisingly cerebral in spite of its production's shortcomings, and has the effect of disorienting the viewer in a world of kitschy '70s decorating and an array of heavily-characterized housewives. Virtually all of the film takes place indoors, primarily in the protagonist's house, which is likely due to budget issues but nonetheless lends the film the claustrophobic sensation of being trapped inside a suburban '70s hell.
Joan's bizarre relationships with both her husband and daughter are highlighted throughout the film, though the primary focus becomes her paranoia and apparent hallucinations, which entail a masked intruder breaking into her home again and again; these scenes are actually rather effective and startling. Shades of "Rosemary's Baby" come into play as the subject of witchcraft pervades the plot, and the film boasts a killer montage featuring Donovan's "Season of the Witch" that only could exist in a certain time and place. The conclusion of the film is surprisingly grim, and is the singular moment in which Romero really lets loose on what remains overall a subdued psychological thriller.
Overall, "Season of the Witch" is one of George Romero's strangest offerings, and is a fantastic time capsule of an era in which "The Brady Bunch," mod patterns, and women's lib were all major cultural forces. It is very much dated in its fashions and set pieces, but that is part of what is so charming about it. The gritty, low-budget production values show through the film, but never really prevent it from effectively getting its theme across. And while it's not traditionally scary, there is something weirdly nightmarish about the way Romero captures the interior setspart of it is indubitably the gaudy '70s decor, but part of it is also the skill of Romero at boxing his audience into an enclosed worldin this case one where hausfraus are prone to coffee table witchery. 8/10.
"Kuroneko," or "Black Cat" begins with a mother and daughter in a
remote Japanese forest being raped and murdered in their home by a
group of samurai. Their home burns to the ground, and their black cat
arrives on the scene, after which the women's spirits apparently become
infused in those of the feline. Samurai in the area begin to go missing
one by one, found at the site of the house with their throats torn
open, prompting the leaders to send a samurai to investigate, but his
relationship to the vampiric entities is far more complex than
A truly beautiful film in every aesthetic sense of the word, "Kuronkeo" is the kind of picture that sort of washes over the viewer in rolling waves, never quite spelling out a rigid plot but still maintaining the framework of one. Director Kaneto Shindô uses editing and cinematography to make suggestions to the audience, which are subtle but nonetheless clear, in order to communicate. This mode of storytelling is effective and at times ambiguous, but it doesn't take a genius to understand what is happening here.
The most engaging aspect of "Kuroneko" is without a doubt the cinematography; Shindô makes ample use of the ink-black forest, where the ghostly daughter leads doomed samurai soldiers to her spectral house for a meal and a murder. Vengeance is the central theme of the film, and there is a feminist bent infused with the folkloric basis of the movie which gives it and additional point of interest. The visuals are dreamlike and at times surreal, with virtually the entire filming taking place at night. There are some surprisingly visceral scenes here, and as dreamy and psychological as it is, the scenes of violence are effectively shocking.
Though some elements of the film may err on being dated (the women flying through the forest comes to mind), the special effects are overall very tasteful and still hold up fairly well today. Fans of classic ghost stories and other sorts of cerebral horror will no doubt appreciate the film, as it operates as both a visual piece of art as well as a bonafide old world horror story. 9/10.
David Cronenberg's "The Brood" parallels the stories of Frank (Art
Handle), a man attempting to assimilate his young daughter back into
daily life after she was taken in by a cult her mother has joined; and
the mentally ill mother, Nola (Samantha Eggar)'s time spent with a new
age psychologist (Oliver Reed) who is treating her at his remote
I will be the first to admit that I am not typically fond of science fiction, so I had reservations going into the his film, but I'd heard so many great things about it over the years and purchased the DVD on a blind buy several years ago. I was absolutely blown away by this film, and re-experienced it when I watched it again on its recent Blu-ray release. This is one of those films that has such a cerebral, multi-layered core to it that it could supply an array of PhD theses on everything from cinema violence to child abuse, to feminism and motherhood.
The film is set against the backdrop of a Toronto winter landscape, and Cronenberg captures the sombre chill of the winter with extreme effectiveness; the entire film is bathed in winter light, desaturated grey, and eerie nighttime photography. The chilling establishment of locale is merely the underpinning of the imaginative, cerebral script, and has a steady level of suspense that becomes more and more oppressive as the film drives toward its disturbing conclusion. Cronenberg uses parallel editing to tell the story, setting the father and daughter's lives against the isolation of Nola and her mysterious doctor.
While the film is inarguably earns its category of science fiction, I believe the reason I found it so appealing was because the first two acts are set up almost like a slasher picture-meets-psycho thriller, albeit with bizarre monster kids wielding the weapons. The "whodunit?" element keeps the audience vested in the film, and the real psychological core comes to light in the phenomenal quasi-Shakespearean conclusion. The last fifteen minutes of the film are expertly done and truly cement the film as one worthy of the "classic" title. Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed are fantastic here; Art Hindle is probably the weakest link, but his performance is still enough to keep interest maintained.
Overall, "The Brood" is one of the most unique and intelligent sci-fi horror films I've seen. The material is expertly handled and the film ratchets suspense like clockwork. The cold, wintry backdrop gives the film an extra chill, and Samantha Eggar's performance alone is reason enough to watch. Highlights: the break-in through grandma's milk delivery door, and the utterly macabre conclusion featuring one of cinema's most disturbed mothers (Faye Dunaway, step aside). 10/10.
I had the pleasure of being able to see "#Horror" at the New York City
Horror Film Festival with director Tara Subkoff and the young cast in
attendance. I'm a fan of Subkoff's art, and also of many of the cast
members, so I've been waiting to see the film since I first heard it
had been announced. The plot focuses on one night in a chic, secluded
mansion where a group of privileged Connecticut adolescents are having
a sleepover. Internal bullying and cyber- obsession amongst the girls
drives the evening into increasingly dark territory, culminating in
bloodshed and murder.
As much as "#Horror" is a genre picture, it is also vital to note that the film is in more ways a satire on cyberculture and 21st century youth, which is reiterated time and time again with chaotic montages of digital media graphics, uploads, and live streams at the hands of the girls in the film. The subject matter in and of itself is Subkoff's thematic core, while the genre fixings are merely her method of employing the story.
The film is exceptionally shot beautiful, atmospheric photography of rural Connecticut winter landscapes establish the setting for the night's antics to unfold. Snow, dead trees, and barren forests give the film an unsettling wintry feel. The sleek and chic cubic mansion is nearly a character in and of itself with metaphorical significance, boxing the girls and the adult figure (Chloë Sevigny, in this case) in their own respective worlds. The house is a beacon of wealth and luxury, designed and furnished more as a multi-million dollar art gallery than a home; while this does provide for flashy aesthetics which may come across as ostentatious, the setting is vital to what is being conveyed here; it isn't arbitrary, and correlates with the very world that is being examined. The sterilized environment of affluence serves the film well, and I'd imagine Subkoff wrote the script with it in mind, or at the very least, a house much like it.
I've read some comments across the internet questioning the film's worth as a "scary" piece of cinemaafter all, it is twelve year old girls who lead the audience through this macabre odyssey, right? As a hardened genre fan, I did not find the film "scary," but there are some great, disturbing images that are throttled at the audience in the final act, and the atmospheric tension is what really took me into the film and kept me compelled. There are visual nods to Dario Argento, and I also couldn't help but wonder if Subkoff's choice of masks were riffs on the "Last House on Dead End Street" or "Alice, Sweet Alice" regardless, they are appropriately sinister.
The cast here is fantastic. The adult figures in the film are mostly Subkoff's own friends, including minor performances from Natasha Lyonne, Stella Schnabel, and Taryn Manning; Chloë Sevigny takes on the primary matron of the film. Sevigny is very much at home in the role, and gives the boozy socialite mother an unexpected depth that at times reminded me of Joan Crawfordher performance is understated and skilled, which is typical of Sevigny. Timothy Hutton plays the hysterical millionaire doctor whose troubled daughter finds herself at the center of the girls' fighting, and is both funny and intimidating in equal measure. The young actresses in the film are the real heart of the picture though; as much as the film is a meditation on plutocratic parenting (or lack thereof), the world of these girls is ultimately what is being analyzed. The casting of young actors can make or break a film, and Subkoff had a great eye for who she chose to take on these rolesthey are not flawless performances, but each of the girls are commendably talented and capably handle the material.
There were moments where I did feel the film was spinning in on itself with the repetitive montages of the girls frolicking around the house and playing endless dress-up games, though I cannot negate the reality or non-reality of this I'm a 25-year-old male who came of age in a considerably different world, when the internet and social media was still a nascent cultural force. While these scenes do grow slightly monotonous around the hour mark, the film then begins edging into genre conventions that have their own digital twist. There is an unusual and striking score present at key moments, and the film concludes with a somber violin piece that accentuates the downbeat and surprisingly disturbing ending.
Overall, "#Horror" is solid film, and a nice debut for Subkoff. Employing the horror genre in the way she does provides a clever mode for storytelling, especially given the contemporary thematic center of the film, and chilling visuals and cinematography carry it along elegantly. It is not a film that can or should be approached as a slice-and-dice picture, because that's not what it is there is slashing, no doubt, but it is secondary to what is really being dissected in the script. "#Horror" is a far cry from the territory of last year's "Unfriended," and is frankly all the more interesting for it. It may be the most interesting film about cyberculture and youth cruelty that we've seen yet. 8/10.
"Kristy" has a young university student, Justine, staying on campus for
the Thanksgiving break and forgoing returning home until Christmas. Her
rich roommate Nicole, who had originally planned on staying with her,
goes to see her family last-minute in Aspen, leaving Justine and the
campus security guards alone for the Thanksgiving holiday. After taking
a trip to a rural convenience store, Justine runs into a group of young
people who seem to want trouble, and upon returning to her empty dorm,
finds herself in for one hell of a night.
Maybe it's because I love a good college campus slasher, or maybe it's because I'm a grad student who's about to spend his first Thanksgiving alone (albeit in New York City, not in the backwoods in which this film is situated), but I was completely taken in by this film from the beginning. The premise from the get-go is very straightforward: girl alone on a sprawling rural college campus. What could go wrong?
The film establishes its villains from the beginning in an internet montage which features video and cryptic text from secret message forums, implicating some sort of new age cult committing ritual killings across the country which are then posted on the internet. While this is admittedly disturbing, I honestly found some of the most interesting the scenes to be within the following exposition of the film, in which Justine finds herself at her own wits, entertaining herself and wandering around the empty college campus. The director, Oliver Blackburn, has a stylish way of illustrating her solitude, and there is something relatable and quietly eerie in this first thirty or so minutes of the film; in spite of the fact that nothing ostensibly scary is happening on screen, there is a very ominous and unnerving mood that gets established; this is what really absorbed me most and got me invested.
By the time Justine leaves the campus late in the evening to run to the local convenience store, the audience knows intuitively that her languid Thanksgiving is about to take a wild turn for the absolute worst, and the suspense of it is taut and subtle up to that point. Unfortunately, from there the film begins to temporarily devolve. For having such an understated and ominous exposition, the film is too quick to take the route of a hyperactive thriller, and spends a good thirty minutes devoting itself to flashy cat-and-mouse chase scenes. While some of these are inarguably effective, it is routine and gets old fast. It is not until the last twenty minutes that the film redeems this devolution with an entertaining (albeit also routine) retribution. While all of this is nicely shot and at times startling, I kept thinking to myself how much I missed the subtlety that pervaded the beginning, and in reflection, that was honestly when I was most unnerved.
The acting here is surprisingly above standard, with Haley Bennett as the competent lead. Ashley Greene plays the counterpoint female cultist, with Mathew St. Patrick as the likable security guard and James Ransone making an unexpected minor appearance. The production values are high and I'm honestly surprised this film wound up slipping under the radar as it did. Granted, it's not entirely original (comparisons to "The Strangers" and "Them" are almost unavoidable), but it is a technically well-made film and is far more interesting than any horror film to hit theaters this past fall.
Overall, "Kristy" is a solid film. I especially commend it for building such a stylish and taut expositionI honestly can say that the first thirty minutes of the film were among the most inexplicably unnerving I've seen in a long time; quietly creepy even though nothing creepy is happening. As I pointed out, the film does take the cat-and-mouse action a bit too far in my opinion and perhaps is too fast to launch into it, but the final act is satisfying and I was able to overlook this because I found the first act so absorbing and enigmatically spooky. 7/10.
"Circus of Horrors" follows an ethically questionable plastic surgeon
who manipulates his way into performing an operation on the scarred
daughter of a circus owner, only to gerrymander his way into taking
over the traveling big top. What follows is a decades-long practice of
transforming disfigured and corrupted women whom are recruited into the
circus but if they decide to leave, they die.
An effective riff on "Eyes Without a Face" as well as elements of "Freaks," "Circus of Horrors" is surprising in that it manages to walk a line between inhabiting the space of big top circus entertainment and the realm of true horror; that is to say that its cheery scenes of circus performance are shot with a colorful, family-friendly flair that is dazzling to behold, and yet there is a sinister and macabre subtext that underpins the entire film, leaving the picturesque, Technicolor-y (almost even Disneyesque) circus scenes feeling unsettling and even perverse.
The film makes a point to toy with its audience's notions of aesthetics in this way, and in some sense acts as an almost exposé on the dark undercurrent of the big top (because, let's face it there is something inherently weird about the circus). The power of the film hinges entirely on this interplay, and the dynamic is weird and unnerving enough to never really lose its steam. It's beautifully shot, and the performances are at times dated but overall still effective (we also get a younger Donald Pleasance as the circus's original owner). Anton Diffring has the appropriate look that screams "sadist" and "potentially psychotic," and he works this to the hilt. The conclusion to the film is shocking and fantastically presented.
Overall, "Circus of Horrors" is an underrated offering from the crop of '60s British horror films. It is a visually dazzling film that is rich in visuals and colors, an element which is completely off-set by the twisted content and subtext of the plot. Sweet and sour, beautiful and ugly; all great things seem to be a bit of both, don't they? 8/10.
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