Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"Under the Blade: Horror Author Matt Serafini Dissects Vinegar Syndrome, Streaming Services, and Doctor Sleep" By Joshua Jabcuga


Under the Blade and Microscope: Wherein author-screenwriter Matt Serafini dissects physical media, standouts of streaming services, and Mike Flanagan’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, with comics writer Josh Jabcuga.

(Note: The following interview was conducted via email, beginning in early November 2019, and wrapping up February 7th, 2020.)

JOSH JABCUGA:

Over on your Twitter account (@MattFini) you encouraged your readers to support Mike Flanagan's film adaptation of the Stephen King novel Doctor Sleep when it had just been released theatrically. One of those tweets struck a chord. Your comments went viral, even catching the attention of Stephen King himself, who then quote-tweeted you. This film had so much going for it, if nothing else than being a sequel to, in my opinion, a classic King novel and a classic horror film. As if the sheer potential wasn't enough, you said: "Flanagan stages an incredible adaptation that somehow bridges TWO legacies from separate mediums. A sprawling, empathic, miracle."

Audiences love King, they love horror in general, and yet this film was criminally overlooked. Do you have any theories as to why?

MATT SERAFINI:

I'm not a box office analyst by any means, but I will say I was genuinely stunned by the performance of Doctor Sleep. It *is* a great film in my eyes. One of my favorites of the year (and I've already got the Best Buy steelbook preordered). As to why it failed to draw an audience? I think marketing probably overestimated the general public's awareness of The Shining. I mean, that movie is nearly 40 years old at this point. And if you're a cineaste or a devoted horror fan, you probably know about it. But if you're not in that scene? Well, Doctor Sleep’s marketing really didn't give you a whole heck of a lot to work with. It didn't tell the audience what the story was about (a middle-aged man protecting a young girl from psychic vampires) and instead depended solely on the original film's iconography. I personally loved the marketing, but I realize now they were preaching to the choir with me and probably should've worried more about the rest of the ticket-buying world.

JOSH JABCUGA:

I agree with you. Or maybe this is Kubrick's ghost getting his revenge on King after all those years of King bashing the original film. I love Kubrick's film, but I completely understand where Uncle Stevie is coming from.

And I'm glad you mentioned the Best Buy steelbook. I know you're a collector of physical media, like most people visiting this site or the Cereal at Midnight YouTube channel. Turning to something more positive, let's talk about the banner year that Vinegar Syndrome has had. Last year around this time, they basically called their shot and said, "Hey, if you dig what we're doing now, wait until 2019 when we really knock it out of the park." And man, they sure did! From the WTF selection of flicks, to the overall presentations and the packaging, Vinegar Syndrome takes the cake. You have the annual membership, right? What were some of the highlights that the label released for you this year? What were some of the biggest surprises or revelations?

MATT SERAFINI:

Yeah, The Shining book and movie are two very different animals. I love them both. But that just gets back to my original tweet and why I was so impressed with Doctor Sleep. It manages to feel like a sequel to both the movie and the book and that's just a really impressive feat. 

Regarding Vinegar Syndrome, man, I love them! You know, they're a cool bunch of guys. I run into them a lot throughout the year at various conventions and they're always fun to talk to. And I just love the way they target the hardcore collector. There are a lot of cool cult video labels out there, but Vinegar Syndrome's approach kind of stands apart. The slipcovers feel like a piece of art, more akin to a really fancy vinyl reissue or something. I dig that. And their library of films gets better and better with each year. I *am* a yearly subscriber. I scrimp and save for it because I love the feeling of getting a package of discs on my doorstep every month. Sometimes I don't even really keep up with the announcements because I know I'm getting them anyway and I'd rather be surprised. Some folks don't understand why you'd buy something when you don't know what you're actually getting and to that I'll say: I trust VS' curation. Very rarely am I disappointed with their titles and when I don't like something, well I chalk it up to supporting them and supporting physical media. That's very important to me in this age of streaming.  
As for 2019 standouts or revelations? This was a really great year for Vinegar Syndrome (from my perspective). Let's talk about their October package for a second because the whole thing was a dream come true! First, the Amityville "Cursed Collection" box set. I love one of the movies in that set (Amityville 1992: It’s About Time) and was so glad to get a nice collection out of the deal. The rest of the moves in that series range in quality (A New Generation is really cool, but Dollhouse far less so). I'm a completist so I'm glad to have them all. The obscure slasher flick Berserker is a real trip and worth a look for those who feel like they've seen all the slasher genre has to offer—because this is a real bonkers one. As is Unmasked Part 25 (a British-made parody of slasher movies that follows "Jason" year round). Last but not least is Beyond The Door III, a really odd movie about college students being stalked by Satanists while on a train through Yugoslavia. The movie was shot there and just has a terrific flavor because of that. The VS Blu-ray is absolutely glorious. I never imagined getting this on Blu-ray at all, let alone in such a pristine edition. And it's the kind of movie that'd probably be impossible to make today so I'm just ecstatic about it. 

That was just one month of movies and I couldn't have been happier!

JOSH JABCUGA:

I’m 100% behind everything you said about VS. The comparison to creating something...more, for true enthusiasts of physical media is on point. In fact, I’ve even purchased merch from them like the hoodies, and one of their exclusive posters for Blood Harvest. And that was absolutely perfect. I’ve spent less and less on Code Red titles this year—maybe for several reasons—I’m not entirely sure. And less on Scream Factory, but I tend to grab those when there’s a price drop. But VS titles—yeah, I enjoy the monthly packages in the mail. Moving away from physical media for a moment, which I prefer head and shoulders above streaming, but let’s face it—some streaming services offer cool exclusives—I just wish they’d get released down the line in physical media form with bonus supplements. I’d double-dip. 

We’ve gotten the new Star Wars series on Disney Plus; Joe Bob and Creepshow on Shudder; Stranger Things and Bird Box and Glow on Netflix, Cobra Kai on YouTube. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t dig the new Star Wars series. What are your thoughts on streaming and what have been some of the standouts for you?

MATT SERAFINI:

My thoughts on streaming? Can I just say "it's complicated" and move on? No? Well, I tried. 

I actually think streaming's really cool. But to me I think of it as a supplement and never the primary method for consumption. So if I like a film, I'm still going to buy a copy of it. That's just how I roll.

But there are so many streaming services now that there's no way you can't find something that's up your alley. Standouts for me? Well, I love The Mandalorian since you mention that. I don't want to be melodramatic and say that it's saved Star Wars for me, because I still kinda like most Star Wars that's out there, but it's definitely brought the franchise back to a place I feel like it hasn't been in a long time. That is to say, it feels spiritually closest to George Lucas' original 1977 film with its East meets West synergy. Aside from that, I've only recently started watching Nicolas Windig Refn's Too Old To Die Young on Amazon, an obtuse and deliberately paced cop thriller that entrances from the first frame. It's not for everyone, but it's right up my alley and I give nothing but props to Amazon for producing something so polarizing. I love it when it's challenging.
I also like Shudder and their continued experimentation with the format. Bringing back Joe Bob's The Last Drive-In was such a clutch decision, and it's been a blast watching it have such a domineering presence on social media. But Shudder is doing other cool stuff, too. A couple of months back they had a phone line you could call and get personalized recommendations. In a mercilessly competitive streaming world, I'm amazed at the ways in which they're standing out.     

JOSH JABCUGA:

I saw Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise Of Skywalker this past weekend. I'm not sure what this means but I feel like if I give my thoughts on the movie, positive or negative, it's suddenly akin to bringing up politics or religion at dinner. I worry I'll get trolled by those who disagree with my opinion. Clearly it's a passionate fan base, but at times it feels, dare I say, angry. See, this is where it starts to sound like I'm talking about Hillary, Bernie, and Trump. Don't get me wrong, I can see where people are coming from, on both sides, because many of us grew up with Star Wars. In a weird way I feel like we're all now just finding out that Santa Claus isn't the same person we thought he was when we were children. But before I put my foot in my mouth, let me stop and just say that I believe you nailed it on the head with The Mandalorian. And I'll add one other thing: fans missed a good popcorn film with Solo. I recently watched it for the second time and it's a fun movie that was crapped on unfairly, in my opinion.

Staying on the same topic, sort of...it's related to toxic fandom, or maybe it's a stretch and I'm trying to draw parallels between two unrelated things and you can help me sort it out: I noticed when there was the Ghostbusters reboot, with the all-female version of the 'busters, there was that massive wave of online negativity. It was ugly, unfortunate and undeniable, to say the least. I witnessed similar outrage with Captain Marvel, and later with The Joker and now with Star Wars, although with the last two films I bring up, it was a bit more civilized in comparison. There seems to be a trend. Has social media blurred the lines too much and given a vocal minority too much of a platform? Are fans becoming too possessive of the characters and stories they grew up with? Do they have a right to feel betrayed if some major corporation decides to keep cashing in on a property without first checking to make sure the public is okay with where the studio wants to take things? Fan-service is a double-edged sword, and I believe Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker speaks to that.


MATT SERAFINI:

I try not to focus too much on that kind of negativity, to be honest. I think the Internet has really connected the entire world for better or worse, and while sometimes it seems like the negativity is a force to be reckoned with, I try and take a step back and remember that these fantasies are so huge that it's impossible to believe that *any majority* of people out there are responsible for what us online types see on a regular basis. Most of us are just living our lives. I'm a massive Star Wars fan, for example, and I don't think I've ever engaged with strangers online about it (beyond my Twitter feed). I just think the most disruptive voices are often the loudest. Not necessarily a majority. And I think that perspective is worth remembering when it seems like all is lost. I will add that I loved The Rise of Skywalker... for what it's worth.

__________

For more on Matt Serafini, visit www.MattSerafini.com. His recent release, Rites of Extinction, made the Bram Stoker Awards preliminary ballot in the category of Superior Achievement in Long Fiction and can be purchased here.

In addition to his contributions to Cereal At Midnight, Joshua Jabcuga adapted Joe R. Lansdale's novel Bubba Ho-Tep and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers for IDW Comics, which was released in 2019. It is his third series for the publisher.

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