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Welcome back to DEAD Time! Just in time for spooky season, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej, also known as the Ghoul Boys. Ryan and Shane started out on Buzzfeed Unsolved: Supernatural and Buzzfeed Unsolved: True Crime, where they explored reportedly haunted locations and also shared the history behind some of the most gruesome and terrifying true crime stories.
After leaving Buzzfeed, Ryan and Shane, along with their good friend Steven Lim, created Watcher, a production company and YouTube channel where they tell creepy stories on Are You Scared, along with a variety of other shows that are fun, entertaining, and even educational. Even with all the great content on Watcher, the Ghoul Boys really wanted to get back into ghost hunting. Much to the delight of their devoted fanbase, they premiered their new show Ghost Files on September 23rd. In their first episode, they used advanced technology and covered every inch of the famously haunted Waverly Hills Sanatorium, and it was compelling and hilarious. Ryan and Shane are the perfect ghost hunting team—Nothing scares Shane, and he doesn’t believe in ghosts. Ryan, on the other hand, believes in ghosts and things that go bump in the night, and is determined to find evidence to prove the existence of something paranormal.
Ahead of the premiere of Ghost Files, I had a fun chat with Ryan and Shane about whether or not they believe in ghosts, some of their more chilling ghost hunting experiences, and their new show, which is bigger and better than anything they’ve done before. They may not agree on ghosts, but I did discover they both love horror movies. Read on to find out what we talked about and make sure you check out Ghost Files on Watcher!
Bloody Disgusting: You hosted seven seasons of Buzzfeed Unsolved: Supernatural together and then, along with Steven Lim, you launched the production company Watcher, where you produce shows like Are You Scared, Too Many Spirits, and your new show Ghost Files. How did the two of you first meet and what do you enjoy most about working together all these years later?
Ryan Bergara: We basically were sat next to each other as interns at Buzzfeed and we really didn’t interact very much that first six months. The way it worked back then, we were focused on our work, and I didn’t really see Shane that much, but we would talk movies now and then. About a year later, we did a series called Test Friends, where we tried health and beauty and fitness trends. That was an interesting experience because neither of us are super gung-ho about any of that stuff. We figured out we had a good working rapport and that just developed into a natural friendship. When Buzzfeed Unsolved came around, I hosted it with Brent Bennett first, who was a person I carpooled to work with. Somewhere down the line, Brent decided he didn’t want to do the show anymore because he was not a fan of the spooky topics [laughs] and not a fan of horror, so Shane was just the next natural person I could think of. That’s pretty much it. Did I miss anything, Shane?
Shane Madej: That feels pretty comprehensive. That’s the tale as it is often told. It was all very casual when Ryan asked me to do the series. He just sort of turned in his chair and mentioned that Brent was leaving the show and asked if I wanted to fill in. He said it might be a commitment, but I didn’t realize it would alter the course of my career.
RB: It was very unceremonious how it all happened.
SM: As far as the second part of your question about our favorite things about each other, Ryan is just sort of on my same wavelength when it comes to being an easygoing, very creative person. I didn’t mean to compliment myself [laughs].
RB: [laughter] My favorite thing about Ryan is he’s an easygoing guy [laughs].
SM: He’s a genius, just like myself [laughs]. I’ve seen other people travel with shows and it can be kind of a slog. The hours that we put in for ghost hunting are pretty brutal because you’re going to a location at sundown and then shooting until three or four in the morning. I’m hard pressed to think of any instances where people have lost their cool or gotten cranky. Ryan, and the crew we work with, have always been so upbeat and cheery. It’s really essential to what we do, so it’s good vibes and I appreciate that.
RB: Thank you, man! I would have to echo that as well. I think the one thing I’ve grown to appreciate over time in working with Shane is that he does approach things with an easygoing point of view. I think in the entertainment business it’s easy for people to have a point of view and then kind of use that as an excuse to be a dictator or not a pleasant person to be around. Shane is one of the few that I’ve worked with who has always been able to get his point of view across and communicate that he’s passionate and cares about something and also be just a really nice guy, a nice Midwestern guy.
BD: One of my favorite things about you two is your dynamic and the way you play off each other and some of your differences. I love that Shane basically believes in nothing as far as the paranormal is concerned, and Ryan pretty much believes in everything. Shane, have you experienced anything during the past several years of ghost hunting that really scared you and made you reconsider your beliefs about the supernatural?
SM: People ask me that a lot and the answer is, “No.” [laughs] It’s fun because at this point, I pretty much patently don’t believe in ghosts. I never really have and my experiences in these haunted places has not changed it. There is certainly stuff that has happened that I was like, “Yeah if you believe in ghosts, you might think that’s a ghost and that’s spooky to you. Fine.” Or we might hear a noise where I’m like, “Sure, I don’t have a good explanation for what that noise could be. It could be a number of things. I personally don’t believe it’s a ghost.” But I’m rooting for Ryan to really get something on camera one of these days because we’re friends. I don’t want him to feel like his life has been squandered.
RB: That’s really sweet of you. He really doesn’t believe which honestly is sometimes infuriating just because I personally feel like we have gotten enough evidence, between this show and Buzzfeed Unsolved, to warrant someone believing. I don’t see how you could not believe at this point. He’s a stubborn guy. He walks around and his head is in a different atmosphere, so I get it. I haven’t looked at the data but at this point, maybe tall people just don’t believe in ghosts [laughs].
SM: I want to chime in and say that to Ryan’s credit, he doesn’t believe in everything. He is a little bit discerning when it comes to certain things. Orbs, I think Ryan, you can admit are probably just particles of dust caught in the light.
RB: Yeah, I’ve never seen an orb that convinced me that it was a juicy spirit floating around. I’ve always thought that it’s most likely a bug or dust. That’s just my thing. I am open to pretty much everything, but there is a level of discernment that comes into whether or not it’s paranormal or not. The reason we don’t have a boatload of evidence in our shows is because I don’t want to put anything out there that isn’t worthwhile or possibly a ghost, or possibly paranormal. I don’t want to put iffy evidence up there just for the sake of it. I hope that over time that’s earned some sort of trust with audience and some good faith. But, coming into this Ghost Files season, we did catch a fair amount of stuff that I feel pretty damn good about. I guess we have more tools now and we’re a little bit more seasoned as investigators, but I’m very pleased with what we’ve got so far for this season.
BD: I agree with you about orbs and Ryan, I’m also pulling for you to see something!
RB & SM: [laughter]
BD: Ryan, what is the most frightening experience you’ve had so far ghost hunting, and what is the scariest location you’ve investigated? What would you do if you encountered something like a full body apparition, and what do you think Shane would do in that situation?
RB: The scariest thing I’ve encountered has to be one of the solos I’ve been on. There’s been a couple of the seasons that have really pushed me to the edge. In this show, we’re now doing 20 minutes alone, meaning everyone leaves the building and we’re the only ones left. For every 20 minutes I spend doing them, they’ve got to take off 20 weeks of my life. The anxiety level that I go through walking through some of these places is just awful and they don’t get easier. There are certainly some locations that are worse than others. Waverly Hills by myself was truly a nightmare. There’s another place that I won’t name because you’ll have to wait and see it, but I actually had to kind of retreat within myself to get through it. I knew that if I approached it with a let’s just see what happens kind of attitude, I probably would have had a heart attack and I didn’t want to die on camera. So, I just went into a quiet place inside myself as I was walking around. It felt like I completely disassociated.
As far as a specific experience, in the Sorrel-Weed House, when we were doing Buzzfeed Unsolved, I did see this guy walking in front of us. The crew said it was a security guard or someone who had gotten into the perimeter by going over the gate which was pretty tall. But I saw a guy walk; he walked into a room and the room had no exits, other than the way he walked in. There was a brick wall, and he was just gone. My first inclination was not to be like, “Oh, that’s a ghoul. That’s a certified ghost right there.” My first thought was, “Hey, how did that guy get into our locked set?” Like how did this person get in there? And I walked into the room where he was supposed to be and I was like, “Oh, shit. Did I just see a ghost?” [laughs]That was kind of one of the more thrilling things I’ve seen. In terms of that experience, I was both thrilled and scared as hell. I’ve always wondered what would happen if I saw a ghost, but in that case, it was kind of tough, because it wasn’t like I was seeing it and processing it in real time that I was looking at a ghost. I was like, “Hey, that was just a guy.” I went to go investigate and it wasn’t a guy, so I didn’t feel like it was a ghost just chilling in a jail cell like when I was looking for one. So, I don’t know what I would do. I might freeze; there’s a possibility that I might run; maybe I would pass out; I don’t know. Shane, honestly, I think he would laugh. He’s fully jokerfied at this moment in time. He would laugh.
SM: I do think if I saw an actual ghost, I would be delighted. I don’t know that I would feel in peril at all because these things can barely flick a switch or move a tube of toothpaste. So, I’m not that concerned about them inflicting physical harm. I would probably laugh and be like, “Whoa, this is really going to catch a lot of views on YouTube.
BD: This question is for each of you—What haunted location would you love to investigate that you haven’t been able to go to yet, and why?
RB: Oh yeah, there’s so many. The ones that come to mind are like The Stanley Hotel. I would love to go there. Hotels have always been pretty tough to investigate just because you would have to rent out the entire hotel in order to get rid of the possibility of whatever you’re hearing or seeing might be another hotel guest. So, something like The Stanley Hotel—I can’t even imagine how much it would be to rent out that entire place. I guess there’s a place I would want to investigate, I mean it would be horrible, but those catacombs in Paris would be awful. Some of these places I’m like, “Oh, that would be awful. Let’s go there.” Maybe that Poveglia Island would be pretty rough. That would be awful. The original Exorcist house in St. Louis would be a nightmare. Probably the Conjuring 2 house in London and the house in Connecticut. There’s a bunch of them. We’ll be here all day if I start listing off all the ones I’d like to go to [laughs].
BD: Shane, is there a haunted location that you would like to investigate?
SM: I mean, there’s a ton. One of things that we never got to do much on Buzzfeed Unsolved was explore place outside of the U.S. Even within the U.S., I’m sure there’s a lot of corners of the country that we haven’t been to yet. For me, it’s really just an opportunity to travel and go to places that crumbling and decrepit. So, you do a little light ghost hunting, but the real weird treat for us on these shoots is that because we can only shoot from sunset to 2 or 3 am, we spend an entire day kind of sight-seeing together. Which is maybe another reason why our crew tends to get along so well, because we’re all just sort of travel buddies. I can’t think of anything off hand. We’ve seen some of the most horrifying places in the U.S. and continue to do that on this season of Ghost Files. I never in a million years would have thought that we would be on Alcatraz after hours alone [laughs]. It’s been kind of crazy. We also went to Hull House in Chicago, where Jane Addams did a lot of her work back in the day. I went to Jane Addams Junior High School, and she was sort of revered locally as this historic figure. So, it was really cool to be able to explore that. I’m always in it for the history more than the ghosts. It’s just very neat to sort of observe these locations very privately under the guise of hunting for ghosts, which I do not believe in.
BD: I’m really looking forward to your new show Ghost Files! Can you give me some idea of what we can expect, as far as the investigations and what’s different about this show, and how did the two of you decide you wanted to start ghost hunting again and do this show?
RB: To be honest, as far as ghost hunting, when we ended Buzzfeed Unsolved, we never really thought that was going to be our last go at ghost hunting. We always knew we were going to do another version of it. We did that show for six years and there’s naturally things that you think you can improve upon. I always thought I’d like to do it a little different if we got the chance to do it again. And when we did get the chance to do it again and we made Watcher, I was like, “Oh, great! We can actually make that show that I’ve always had cooking in the back of my mind.” We’re spending more time at the locations and using more of the tech that I’ve always wanted to use in the investigations. Being able to spend time alone completely, like one at a time in each of these locations, I also thought could be something that was really interesting. On Buzzfeed Unsolved, really, we would spend time alone in one room, like the big bad room in that location.
In Ghost Files, it’s the entire place, which is horrifying. Like walking around Alcatraz by myself was crazy. In the moment, I didn’t feel like, “Wow, this such an honor.” I felt like, “Get me out of here! I’m going to piss my pants.” But after being able to digest everything, I was like, “Wow, that was a crazy, cool opportunity!” I just didn’t think that I would ever have that opportunity. Other than that, investigation stuff aside, I just thought it would be really cool to play with a different aesthetic and to bring some cinematic elements to the show that we hadn’t been able to do elsewhere. So, just the style of it is going to be a little bit different as well. And we also just took a different approach into how we break the locations down, so that we could really do our best to just get as much evidence as possible.
SM: There’s also a lot of detail and attention paid to the layout of the places, which we didn’t always get into before. That was one of things we always thought would be better to communicate. Part of the thrill of these shows is putting yourself in there and feeling what it’s like to walk around these places. We kind of go in depth about the layout and show the blueprints of them and where we are and where our static cams are. So, you get a better feel for the places in general.
RB: That’s true because like in Buzzfeed Unsolved, and we do this in Ghost Files as well—a lot of that is history focused and we do breakdown the history of the building, and just the feel of the place. I think in this show, by breaking down the building, like holistically, it kind of feels like we’re talking about the building like a living entity. Like there might be a reason this building had so many horrible things happen inside of it, because we’re talking about the building almost like it’s a character. So, that was really cool, too.
BD: Earlier, Ryan was telling me he just saw Barbarian and how much he loved it. I heard that you’re both big horror fans.
SM: Oh, big time!
BD: If you could each only pick one movie, what would you say is your favorite horror movie, and why?
RB: Oh, that’s so tough! It switches, but gun to my head, I’d probably say the original Halloween by John Carpenter. It’s the perfect horror movie in my opinion. I know it’s a little bit slower if you were to show it to somebody from this generation or a younger person. But I feel like the dread that you feel is pretty unmatched. Shane and I were actually talking about this recently. I think one of the reasons why it scared me so much as a kid was the fact that it was one of the movies to really set the horror film in the environment of just the average suburban neighborhood where things like that aren’t supposed to happen. The fact that this person could just come in and murder people in their homes made you kind of feel like you were unsafe in your own home, which is a really horrifying thing to think about when you’re a kid. You know how people were scared to go into the ocean when they saw Jaws, you can’t not live in your house [laughs]. So, I was thinking that Michael Myers was going knock down my door like the Kool-Aid man and stab me to death. Also, the music in that movie is so goddamn cool. There’s just a vibe to that whole movie.
SM: Outside of ghosts and sports, Ryan and I mostly share the same opinions about stuff. Halloween is also my favorite horror movie. Obviously, I was born after it came out, but it’s one of those movies that I feel like when you’re in grade school, you hear about it. It was a movie that had an aura to it before I ever even saw it. The first time I saw it, I was probably about ten, and I was like, “This is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. This is incredible.” It’s a perfect movie. I will love John Carpenter until I die.
RB: And also, one of the greatest screen moments of all time is at the end when he gets up in the background is pretty amazing. I guess saying that Halloween is your favorite horror movie is kind of like the pumpkin spice latte opinion [laughs].
SM: But who cares? It’s a perfect movie. But if you want something avant-garde, I’ll say I watched Possession recently and I thought that was really good. But that’s weird, freaky stuff. It’s not something that I’m going to watch every year to psych myself up for spooky season like I do with Halloween.
BD: I’m surprised you both picked the same movie!
SM: Yeah, we love it. That’s why we’re friends!
RB: [laughs]. That’s true.
SM: You should always have friends who share your exact same opinions. That’s what friendship is. I’ll hear no other words on the matter.
BD: Maybe some other time we can have a chat just about horror movies.
SM: Oh, we’d love to!
New episodes of “Ghost Files” air Fridays at 12pm PT on Watcher.
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This is not another “Halloween III is good actually” article. After forty years, its reappraisal as a genre classic seems to be more or less complete. It is true that for years the absence of Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, and Dr. Loomis led many fans of the Halloween movies to confusion, rejection, or outright rage against the film, but as time has passed, tempers have cooled, and the film has been assessed on its own terms. Though John Carpenter’s original masterpiece is generally acknowledged as the apex of the franchise, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is, at least for many, the film that captures the essence of the Halloween season better than any other in the series. By looking to the ancient past and combining it with current American celebrations and cultural rituals, it creates a tapestry that reflects the “Season of the Witch” in a way that few horror films had ever attempted before.
Feeling they had stretched the Michael Myers saga as far as it could go, producers Debra Hill and John Carpenter opted to take the franchise in a different direction. The idea was presented to Universal to make a kind of anthology franchise. Each year a different film centered around the Halloween holiday could be released under the Halloween title and each entry could then spin off into any number of sequels that may arise. This kind of idea has become commonplace today and thrives within The Conjuring universe, not to mention the MCU, but was decades ahead of its time in 1982. With only this freedom of concept in mind, Carpenter and Hill approached Joe Dante, fresh off the success of The Howling (1981) to direct the first in this proposed Halloween anthology series. Dante in turn suggested Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale to write the screenplay. Despite openly disliking the first two Halloween films, Kneale accepted. The experience of working with Kneale proved to be difficult for Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace, the director that was brought on board when Dante departed to film a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Wallace had served as production designer and editor on the first Halloween and had been offered the director’s chair on Halloween II, but turned it down after reading, and intensely disliking, the script.
According to the definitive book on the making of the Halloween franchise, Taking Shape by Dustin McNeill and Travis Mullins, “the producers allowed Kneale enormous creative freedom in writing his first draft of Halloween III. His only instruction per Debra Hill was that the film should bring witchcraft into the computer age.” This first draft contains the basic story and structure of the final film but does not contain the “android henchmen, Stonehenge, and children’s heads decomposing into creepy critters,” as McNeill and Mullins put it. Still, Wallace contends that more than half the final script was written by Kneale, including the ideas of the demented mask-maker intent on sacrificing millions of children on Halloween, but was not open to criticisms and departed when Wallace and Carpenter suggested revisions. Carpenter did an uncredited rewrite before Wallace did the third and final version. He has called his sole writing credit on Halloween III, “just about the most inaccurate credit you could ever conceive of.”
There are several elements that make Halloween III a compelling film and a standout in the franchise. The very structure of the film is about as far from a slasher as you can get. It is a mystery-thriller, practically Hitchcockian in nature, in which an ordinary man finds himself in extraordinary circumstances, combined with supernatural and science-fiction elements. Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is drawn into a web of intrigue that slowly reveals itself throughout the course of the film, keeping the viewer enough off-balance to keep them guessing all the way up to its ambiguous ending. Tommy Lee Wallace has called the first film a “knife movie” where Halloween III is a “pod movie,” drawing on the Don Siegel sci-fi/horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) for a great deal of inspiration. Like Body Snatchers, Halloween III is a film about paranoia. From the opening shots, we see Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry) running from mysterious agents. The dark-suited enforcers of villain Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) stand watch in every corner, especially when they reach the town of Santa Mira where the Silver Shamrock mask factory is headquartered. The town, named after the setting of Body Snatchers, has a strict 6pm curfew and is filled with security cameras. There is a constant sense that “Big Brother is Watching You” in the town of Santa Mira and no one, not even the pets of the townspeople, can avoid the all-seeing eye of the Silver Shamrock corporation.
Linked to this is the film’s examination of corporate America, particularly in the ways it deals with the takeover of the town and advertising aimed at children. Santa Mira was once a farming town that has been completely taken over by the Silver Shamrock factory. Because of this, it is as if the soul of the town has been sucked out, leaving behind a mere shell of what the town once was as its inhabitants are plagued by fear and paranoia. Even more biting is the ubiquitous television advertising depicted in the film with its earworm of a jingle (it’s in your head right now, admit it). The early 80’s saw more and more advertising, particularly for toys and fast food, being directed toward children in hopes that they would pester their parents into buying them action figures and taking them to McDonald’s for Happy Meals. Here the advertisements are used for the ultimate purpose of sacrificing children to the pagan god that Cochran worships which will not only destroy the children but their parents as well. It is a dark, satirical stab at corporations, advertising, and television itself that questions if Americans are willingly sacrificing their children to the gods of capitalism on the altar of corporate greed, a theme that has only become more acute in the forty years since the film’s original release.
Still, a great concept is nothing without great characters, and Halloween III features a number of them, but none greater than its hero Dr. Challis. Tom Atkins had become part of the Carpenter/Hill film family with his roles in The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981) and jumped at the chance of a lead role in one of their films. Challis is compelling not because he is a great or even good man, but because he is a flawed hero. His motivations are not altruistic. In fact, he seems to agree to investigate the death of Harry Grimbridge only because he is attracted to his daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), leaving behind his children and ex-wife (Nancy Loomis) with hardly a word and taking nothing but a six-pack of Miller High Life on his adventure with Ellie. But despite, or maybe even because of, his flaws we are on Challis’s side throughout. Of course, this is due in large part to Atkins’s intense likability as an actor but also because of the way Challis is written. He is a relatable hero. He is far from invincible; aging and exhausted by the end, surviving only by his wits and luck. He never seems quite sure if what he tries will work, and in the end, he may not even succeed.
In a direct homage to the original ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Kevin McCarthy pleads with passing cars that the invasion has already started before shouting directly at the screen and to the audience “you’re next!,” Challis pleads for the Silver Shamrock commercial to be stopped. Even here, can we be sure that his motives are pure? Is he really thinking of all those millions of children or is he only thinking of his own, who he last saw in a skull and witch mask dancing in front of the television? Either way, we don’t know for sure if Challis is successful in convincing the final station to interrupt the ad. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the studio felt it was necessary to add a “happy” ending in which the police believe McCarthy’s story. Here, there is no such reassurance. We are left with Atkins looking directly at us, the audience, and shouting “stop it!” This serves the dual purpose of a strong, ambiguous ending, but also implicates the audience in participating in the issues raised by the film and challenging us to take part in changing them.
Of course, a film’s hero is only as good as its villain, and Conal Cochran is one of horror’s true greats. Like Michael Myers, he is an embodiment of pure evil, an immortal force fixated on the destruction of innocents. Played by Dan O’Herlihy with a sophistication and charm that just barely masks his evil nature, Cochran draws others to himself before they even realize they have been caught in his web. O’Herlihy is at his malicious best when delivering his monologue to Challis about the true nature of Halloween. He describes the last great festival of Samhain that happened 3,000 years before when, “the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” And now that the planets have aligned, he plans to make that happen again. Perhaps even the same spirit of evil that inhabits Michael Myers inhabits Conal Cochran, making Halloween III more a piece of the franchise as a whole than usually discussed.
Ultimately, Halloween III is about why the Halloween season itself exists. It calls back to the ancient roots of the season and combines it with the present American rituals. Conal Cochran’s entire scheme is a combination of past and present. His resentment toward the idea of children putting on masks and “begging for candy” is how he plans to sacrifice them all to the gods. It is a delicious irony that makes Cochran all-the-more maniacal and his evil all-the-more pervasive. The icons of the season—the witch, the skull, and the jack-o-lantern—are perfectly placed in a way that evokes the ancient and modern, and the Don Post versions of these have become icons in themselves. The great nationwide montage near the end of the film as dozens of Silver Shamrock-masked children make their way home for the “big giveaway” gives the sense that the modern Halloween celebration has been co-opted into a form of Americana that Cochran and the film itself wishes to subvert. As the years go by and Halloween becomes more and more popular, as thoroughly commercialized as Christmas, we move further away from its roots, for better or worse depending on your point of view. Halloween III captures these ideas and becomes ever more relevant as time goes on.
Watching Halloween III: Season of the Witch forty years later becomes an exercise in “what ifs?” What if this had been the second Halloween film released? Would it have spawned a horror anthology series decades before The Conjuring universe? What if it had been released before the slasher craze had so thoroughly taken hold? Would it have been more successful in its day? What if it had a different title? Would that really have made a difference? Maybe audiences just weren’t ready for this movie back in 1982. On first watch, when I was deeply invested in the Michael Myers saga, I must admit that I found this film to be a disappointment. But taken on its own terms, Halloween III is a great horror thriller that takes big swings and connects on most of them. Above all, it captures an essence of the Halloween season that is to some degree intangible. Because it takes place in California, there is not a lot of fall atmosphere, the decorations and trick-or-treating really only arrive late in the film, but somehow the film as a whole captures the Halloween feeling through and through. Like the character of Conal Cochran, it covers itself with a veneer of charm and affability that just barely hides an acid wit and biting satire. It is a brilliant film that deserves to have finally gotten its long-delayed due.
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