Cast List Power Rankings: A Room with a View (1985)

It’s not something you’ll detect as quickly as my love for horror or sci-fi, but I’m an easy sucker for costume dramas.  Other genre fans are organized & mobilized enough to throw their own conventions where oceans of nerds line up to have Elvira sign their bald spots, but there isn’t really an equivalent for the costume drama (unless there are Ren Faire booths I don’t know about; please report back, if so).  And yet, if you’ve ever found yourself sipping Pinot Grigio at an opening-weekend screening of a Downton Abbey movie, you know the fandom for costume dramas can be just as electric. One buffoonish misstep from Mr. Molelsey at a stuffy dinner party and the crowd goes wild.  In that insular, quietly fired-up subculture, the names Merchant Ivory invoke rock star adulation the same way names like Romero, Carpenter, and Cronenberg get horror nerds’ brains whirring.  Somehow, I had never seen an Merchant-produed, Ivory-directed movie myself, though, despite the phrase “Merchant Ivory” being a recognizable adjective for a type of buttoned-up, award winning costume drama that I very much enjoy.  I recently filled in that knowledge gap with the producer-director duo’s breakout hit A Room with a View, which earned them three Oscars, four BAFTAs, and decades’ worth of household name recognition. 

Predictably, I had a wonderful time with it.  For all its Awards Circuit prestige, A Room with a View is a small, sweet romcom of manners that recalls the heightened social-maneuvers humor I love in Jane Austen comedies (please do not lecture me about the century’s difference between the Regency & Edwardian eras; I assure you I do not care).  What really floored me is how stacked the cast is with genre giants of the costume drama, all working in delicious harmony like spoonfuls of honey stirred into afternoon tea.  And since there would be no practical use for fully reviewing this genre-standard award magnet that hit American shores the year I was born, I’d mostly just like to discuss each member of the main cast individually.  Here’s a quick listing of the central players in A Room with a View, ranked from most to least essential.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse – DDL plays the ultimate dipshit fop, an uptight misogynist dandy whose wealth & status make him look like great marriage material on paper . . . until you spend ten seconds in his slimy presence.  It’s incredible how easily he steals the show, considering that he doesn’t appear on-screen for at least the first third of the runtime.  Once he crashes the party, though, he delivers a sublimely hateworthy comedic performance that the movie would be hollow without.

2. Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch – HBC is even more of a costume drama heavy-hitter than DDL, and I have to assume this early role was what landed her all that steady work in the unsteady past (unless there’s a huge Lady Jane fan club out there that I’m unaware of).  She’s a perfectly furious, frustrated teen as the film’s lead, stuck between the rich idiot she should want (DDL) and the hot idiot she does want (TBA).  Her furrowed brow while concentrating on complex piano pieces conveys a rich inner life in contrast to the sheltered social one she’s allowed to live outside her head, which makes her a great audience surrogate for young costume drama nerds who can’t wait to move out of their parents’ house.  She’s also got gloriously thick, extravagant curls of hair that are enviable at any age.

3. Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett – Speaking of Downton, Dame Margaret Natalie Smith brings long-established stage & screen prestige to the proceedings, even if she’s not allowed to cut as loose as she does with her withering quips as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham.  She’s in the same uptight chaperone role here as she plays in The Secret Garden, except her stiffness makes her the butt of her sister’s jokes instead of inspiring fear & good behavior in the teen she’s supposed to be keeping in check (HBC).  I’m sure it’s just a stock character Smith plucked out of her 60+ years & 80+ IMDb credits worth of experience acting on camera, but she does it well, and the punchlines at her expense are always solid (often to the refrain of “Poor, poor Charlotte”).

4. Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson – More of a That Guy character actor than the legendary Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott is nonetheless equally matched as her doddering comic foil.  He’s cast as a sweetheart eccentric, one whose “tactless”, “indelicate” boisterousness constantly pulls the rug out from under the rules-obsessed chaperone.  He also gets to ramble at length about the inane gender politics of who should get to have “a room with a view” at the opening hotel setting, a scene that feels like a contemporary SNL sketch written by a comedian who’s only seen the trailer, not the movie proper.

5. Fabia Drake & Joan Henley as the Misses Alan – The perpetually traveling spinster “sisters” are the closest thing the movie offers as aspirational objects of envy, especially if you read them as covert lesbians in a Boston marriage that everyone else just has to tolerate.

6. Judi Dench as Eleanor Lavish – You’d think Dame Judith Olivia Dench would rank as worthier competition to Dame Maggie Smith here, but her trash-novelist side character isn’t afforded much momentum to make a dent on-screen.  She does push Smith’s uptight nerd into her biggest fuck-ups, though (including spilling the beans on her young cousin/ward’s scandalous, unchaperoned kiss, published for all to read under a half-hearted pseudonym), which makes for some great comedy at her expense.  Poor, poor Charlotte.

7. Simon Callow as The Reverend Mr. Beebe – There are plenty of misbehaving vicars out there in cinemaland, but not many get to hang dong while roughhousing with their flock in the local swimming pond.  You’d expect it to be the bigger shock that HBC runs into her naked crush or her naked brother when she stumbles across said roughhousing on an afternoon stroll, but the naked vicar earns the biggest laugh.

8. Rupert Graves as Freddy Honeychurch – HBC’s younger, rowdier brother is exactly who you’d expect to stumble across in the throes of flagrant public nudity.  He doesn’t have much effect on the film’s tone or plot, but he is a playful, delightful source of chaos that makes HBC reluctant to graduate from childish japes to sincere adult emotions & romance.

9. Rosemary Leach as Mrs. Honeychurch – The siblings’ mother might get in a few great laughs with her passive aggressive jabs at “Poor, poor Charlotte,” but she doesn’t make much impact outside that mockery of her sister.  I also couldn’t tell if the actor looked at all familiar, or if she just had a vague resemblance to Kathy Bates.

10. Julian Sands as George Emerson – Has Julian Sands ever delivered a good performance in anything?  He’s at least laughably bad in films like Boxing Helena & Argento’s Phantom of the Opera.  I foolishly assumed he landed those jobs because he was impressive in the Merchant Ivory costume dramas that predate them, but holy shit, his overly mannered performances don’t even feel at home in the overly mannered past.  It’s a testament to DDL’s movie-making performance as the ridiculous cad Cecil Vyse that George Emerson comes across as HBC’s best option for love & marriage.  You could replace Sands with a cardboard cutout of a romance-novel cover model and the movie would be exactly the same.  He’s reliably useless.

-Brandon Ledet

Into the Dark: A Nasty Piece of Work (2019)

Although the Hulu/Blumhouse collaboration Into the Dark has come to an end, I was still holding out on catching up on the episodes I hadn’t seen yet, since it was a tradition between me and Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer to watch them together, and although we have seen each other in person several times this year, as things start to open back up, catching up on movies from an anthology series wasn’t really at the forefront of anyone’s agenda. The series was never very far from my mind, however, as I still managed to mention it several times, whether I was saying that The Unholy or Black Box felt better suited for the series, or including one of its installments at number 13 in my Top Films of 2019 list. However, after getting my little family unit to buy in on the delightful Deadly Games, I didn’t want to push things by nominating another subtitled Christmas horror flick, and there was much objecting to the Creepshow holiday special (you still have one fan in this house, Anna Camp), so we switched from Shudder to Hulu and checked out the 2019 December/Christmas release, A Nasty Piece of Work. Some spoilers! Big ones! But not of everything! 

Ted (Kyle Howard) just can’t seem to get into the good graces of his unpleasant and unpleasable boss, Steven (Julian Sands, star of the worst Phantom of the Opera), especially in comparison to and competition with perennially brown-nosing Gavin (Dustin Milligan). After a particularly embarrassing incident in which he put himself in harm’s way to retrieve and deliver Steven’s golf clubs in an ass-kissing attempt, only to be dressed down by Steven for doing so and shown up by Gavin, who mocks him for picking up Steven’s [dumb rich people bullshit] clubs instead of his [also dumb rich people bullshit] ones, Ted destroys the mirror in an executive bathroom with said implements. He’s got impulse issues! Later, following the announcement at the annual office holiday party that there will be no Christmas bonuses that year, Ted sees Steven alone on the office balcony and at first seems to be planning to push the older man to his demise, but instead delivers a clipped corporate platitude of gratitude about what an honor it is to work there, etc. Steven takes this opportunity to invite Ted out to his home for a special Christmas celebration, implying that he plans to share more information about a promotion for Ted then. 

When Ted and his wife Tatum (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at the party, they barely have any time to bask in the opulence of the exterior of Steven’s home before they’re nearly run down by Gavin in his Porsche; he and his wife Missy (Natalie Hall) have also been invited. Although Ted spots someone in an upstairs window, Steven’s wife Kiwi (Molly Hagan) insists that the three couples are alone in the house. What follows is an evening of increasing mind games, some of which work and some of which are purely fantastical. Kiwi and Steven go full Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with her withering remarks about his priorital elevation of his business over starting a family as well as his present impotence, while he bons mot about her drinking and other indulgences. Paul Soter of Broken Lizard fame is the credited writer here, but there may as well be a “based upon characters created by Edward Albee” thrown in there for good measure, since we even get a staged shooting, just as in Woolf, although this time when Steven splatters Kiwi’s “brains” all over the marble walls, he immediately turns to Gavin and Ted for recommendations for plans of action to ensure none of them see jail time. It bears mentioning here that, like their husbands, Tatum and Missy are also fundamentally different. Tatum is a down-to-earth woman who works as an insurance mediator and is excited about her snowflake earrings. Missy, for her part, is an astrology-espousing unemployed trophy* wife who shares her husband’s drive for sucking up, although she’s less successful at it; when she tells Kiwi that the older couple’s home has excellent feng shui, Kiwi playfully says that at least designers don’t charge extra for that, but her contemptuous scowl doesn’t disguise just how little she thinks of this input. Missy’s not a complete slouch, however, as when Steven prompts his employees for a solution for what to do about Kiwi’s “corpse,” Gavin is speechless, while Missy manages to kick him into gear, and when Ted reluctantly joins in, Tatum is justifiably horrified. 

Things only get stranger from there, and although the film never really got quite as weird in the way that I wanted, it exceeded my expectations in other areas. Kiwi jokes that they got a great deal on the house due to a series of murders that were performed by people living in the walls, which, in combination with Ted’s aformentioned spotting of masked people in an upstairs window and a sequence in which Missy is watched by someone peeping from a hidden room, makes you think that this little Mike Nichols LARP is bound to take a Bad Ronaldian twist any second, but the actual resolution of that particular plot thread is an underwhelming revelation that will have you saying “You’ve got to be Eyes Wide Shitting me!”, which sort of makes sense in context and which I thought was very funny, although no one else laughed. Instead, things take a turn for the even more bizarre. For instance, we learn that Ted’s been lying to Tatum about his Friday night activities, which everyone initially infers to mean that he’s an adulterer. Instead, he’s actually visiting a boy, Daniel, whom Ted paralyzed as the result of a traffic accident that Ted catalyzed by driving in while in an infuriated state following a previous work outburst, years before he and Tatum met. This twists further when Kiwi and Steven reveal that they have Daniel (Nico Greetham) in the house with them and plan to adopt him, and that if Ted doesn’t fulfill Steven’s latest demented command, Daniel will be intentionally subjected to a life of neglect and abuse, but that scene alone contains at least two more additional revelations that push the absurdity to the extreme, but I couldn’t help loving every minute of it. 

Essentially, this is a movie in which we get not only such genre-standard classics as: 

  • Rich old creep creeps on his employee’s wife. 
  • Drunk rich lady creeps on husband’s employee in front of her husband.  
  • Chekhov’s guns!
  • Rich old creep creeps on his other employee’s wife. 
  • Intramural voyeurism. 

We also get such strange new heights as: 

  • Bros wearing a suit of armor. 
  • Angrily smashing delicate face masks.
  • Drunk rich lady threatens to kill herself by tying her scarf to a life-sized poolside statue and pushing it in. 
  • Schrödinger’s ammunition!  
  • A truly outstanding amount of gaslighting and preparation.

Contemporary criticism of the movie from closer to its release largely focused on the film’s lack of discussion of class friction. While that’s a valid critique, I suppose, most of them cite that there’s little discussion of the vast differences in wealth between Steven and his employees, and I’m not really sure that I agree, especially because my biggest problem with the film’s economic commentary lies in what it doesn’t talk about, rather than what it does. Essentially, I have the same complaint that I’ve had about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation for years: the money problems that Clark Griswold faces are not relatable to me, as he has a large and lovely home, no trouble providing for his family, and doesn’t seem to be in any danger of losing his job if he takes a truly staggering amount of vacation time.  Clark just wants a Christmas bonus so that he can get a swimming pool, and because he assumed he would be getting it, he made plans for it without making sure funding was secure; Christmas Vacation requires Cousin Eddy to show up and good-naturedly antagonize Clark because otherwise the only conflict is the result of Clark’s bad decision. Likewise, we never really get a very good explanation of why Ted and Tatum need this bonus so much. Ted’s so angry about being shown up by Gavin in one scene that he destroys a very expensive bathroom, but the fact that he, like Clark Griswold, has so much riding in a bonus, makes him feel like an artifact from a different era. 

Clark Griswold is unrelatable because, in the 1980s, a middle class chucklenut was living the American Dream. In a 2021 where everything is worse, Ted’s desperation for a bonus, when he seems to be doing better than a lot of people, is a premise that is alienating in just how out of touch it is. One of the strengths of Into the Dark is the way that it streamlines its storytelling, and this installment (like most) takes place almost entirely in one location (Steven and Kiwi’s house), other than a couple of bookend office sequences and an interior dialogue scene in Ted and Tatum’s car. They don’t openly talk about their financial straits on that drive; they just talk about the long hours that Ted has been putting in, and because of the budget constraints that force these smooth-running narratives we see nothing of their home and the life they lead therein. There’s no sense that Ted feels distant from his wife or that she feels a particularly sharp loneliness because of their long hours apart. Of the two, it’s Gavin who’s having money problems because he’s leveraged his credit to create a facade of wealth to impress Steven, while Tatum and Ted seem to be… fine. Only 12% of employers provided bonuses in 2020, with that number up to 23% in 2021, and while that’s self-reporting from businesses, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics data from 2019 backs this up, with year-end/holiday bonuses ranging from 6-15% depending on the industry and type of bonus. I happen to be fortunate enough to work a day job where I usually get a bonus at the end of the year, but it’s not every year and I know better than to count on getting it in order to maintain financial stability (and all of them added together for the past 6 years still wouldn’t get me a swimming pool), and most people don’t at all. I certainly never got one from working in the public sector as a teacher or in academic support, and the only bonus I ever got while working retail was a frozen turkey. Hell, if we’re going to crib from Albee and Harold Ramis, why not bring old Dickens into this and give Ted and Tatum a son who needs an expensive treatment, or maybe one of them has an ill parent who needs full time care. Even being behind on a mortgage payment because of a surprise short term medical emergency would add a little bit more urgency to the proceedings. 

That same need for an aerodynamic production process and quick and easy cash returns on investment that are a hallmark of even the best Blumhouse releases is great, because they’re the only company giving any real money to small-scale productions, but those pursestrings are tight when it comes to locations. Usually where Dark succeeds or fails is in the performance and the style. Director Charles Hood made only two features prior to this, and if you don’t recognize the names of the TV shows he’s directed episodes of, I don’t either. Cinematographer James Kniest, however, is a frequent Mike Flanagan collaborator, and that shows in the shot choices and composition here, elevating this episode of the anthology above some of its less ambitious peers. Milligan is known more for his comedy roles, and while he’s good at playing dim-witted here as he did on Dirk Gently, there’s a talent in the way that he can deliver a serious scene, as he does here as Gavin while Steven plays back unkind things that Gavin said about Missy in front of her, then effortlessly and seamlessly transition right back to childlike wonder. Molly Hagan is the real MVP here, however. Hagan’s an actress who has made a single appearance in virtually every television show produced between 1992 and 2015. Scarecrow and Mrs. King? Yes! NCIS: New Orleans? Of course! The Golden Girls? You bet! Chicago Hope? Uh- huh. Six Feet Under? Well, obviously! Numb3rs, Monk, JAG, and Friends? Yes, yes, yes, and duh. But here she really gets to be Elizabeth Taylor, and she does it with style and aplomb. 

So yes,  A Nasty Piece of Work is more than the sum of its parts. If you happen to have Hulu and want to have a little fun with a horror-adjacent Christmas special, take another journey into the dark. 

* The film does seem to pretend that Sarafyan isn’t a beautiful woman, and later in the narrative Missy calls her “podunk,” but the rest of the movie doesn’t really sell that, other than a moment wherein Kiwi compliments her boots and Tatum talks about getting them on sale, to which Kiwi gently chastises her that rich people don’t brag about that sort of thing. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #2 of The Swampflix Podcast: Evil Doll Movies & Boxing Helena (1993)

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Welcome to Episode #2 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our much-delayed second episode, James & Brandon discuss movies about evil dolls with fellow contributor Britnee. Also, James makes Brandon watch Jennifer Lynch’s body horror melodrama Boxing Helena (1994) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The guitar riff musical “bumps” between segments were also provided by James.

-James Cohn, Brandon Ledet, and Britnee Lombas

Il fantasma dell’opera (aka The Phantom of the Opera, 1998)

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“When you hear my thoughts, you’ll know where to go.”

Oh. Oh my.

I was looking forward to Dario Argento’s 1998 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera with something like macabre excitement. After all, it was identified by TV Tropes, among others, as being widely regarded as the worst adaptation of that source material, in any media form, ever. Still, I expected that there would be something noteworthy or praiseworthy about it. After all, Phantom is a work with a huge body of reimaginings and revisions; Wikipedia lists twenty-eight different film adaptations (although some of these are homages rather than direct translations of the source), thirty stage versions, forty-six literary retellings, and an additional fourteen literary versions made for children. That doesn’t even include the radio plays, television shows, and comic books that retell or revisit the story. That’s no small feat, considering that the original novel was published barely over a century ago. Personally, I don’t quite understand the story’s enduring appeal, although that may simply be because I’ve never read the original novel, although I know the plot largely as the result of cultural osmosis through the various homages to the narrative that show up in other media from time to time. Such a large body of adaptations bespeaks a kind of fanaticism that made me question whether or not the “worst adaptation” moniker applied to Argento’s version was accurate or should be interpreted as a criticism on par with one made by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. I expected that this might be the case, but I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.

Il fantasma dell’opera may very well be the worst Phantom adaptation of all time; I have not seen or read enough versions to say this definitively. I can say, however, it is the worst film of Argento’s that I have seen as part of this project, and is without question one of the worst movies I have ever seen, if not one of the worst movies of all time. I would dare venture to say it is one of the worst adaptations with regards to conceptualization as well, foregoing some of the most basic elements of the narrative for no identifiable reason (the Phantom isn’t even disfigured!). The acting is atrocious across the board, the overwrought dialogue is like something written by an overzealous student with delusions of grandeur (“Your perfume, your female smell–it pulses through me like the rolling ocean!”), and the direction so uninspired that I was shocked to learn that the stagey sets on which the film was shot weren’t sets at all, but the interiors of a real Victorian opera house in Budapest. It took me four attempts to make it through this movie without either falling asleep or losing interest completely. I have stared deep into the abyss of bad movies, and it gazed deeply into me also. Hell is this movie, and this movie is hell.

The film opens as a baby is placed in a basket and floats down the river, like a late-Nineteenth Century Moses. The basket washes up in some catacombs, where the infant is rescued by rats before the bassinet is able to flow over a waterfall. Some years later, three construction workers are dabbling in a well (I think?) when one smashes through the wall and accidentally discovers the series of catacombs. Christine Daaé (Asia Argento, in her third collaboration with her father) is a young ingénue opera performer who sneaks onto the deserted stage one night and sings; her impromptu performance is overheard by the Phantom (Julian Sands), who is immediately smitten with her, and she with him. Meanwhile, a character known only as The Rat Catcher (István Bubik) continues his crusade to rid the Opéra de Paris of all the rats hiding under its foundations. The Phantom, who was raised by the rats that saved him (and who taught him perfect English diction, apparently), takes offense at this and psychically forces the man to shove his hand into one of his own traps. A police inspector begins to investigate the strange occurrences that are credited to the Phantom, and is told that the specter is often accompanied by a cold wind and that he can compel people to perform actions against their will. (This features an interaction in which the investigator is informed of the temperature phenomenon by a seamstress, and then both of them rub their folded arms in the stagiest way possible while he asks “Did you just feel a sudden chill in the air?”)

Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano), the brother of a minor duke of some kind, is also infatuated with Christine, who has begun to fall in love with the Phantom. Their communiques take the form of telepathic conversations, meaning that most of this romance consists of Asia Argento staring into space and verbally responding to unheard directives, which somehow still sounds more engaging than it actually is. She is torn between her two unremarkable suitors, however, wondering if “Knowing nothing of love, [she has] fallen in love with both men at once.” Various minor characters make their way into the catacombs only to be dispatched by the Phantom, and there is meant to be some symmetry between the people who go below the opera house and the rats who ascend into it and how both are killed, but it’s not very important, considering that this would make the Phantom and the Rat Catcher mirrors of each other, and that’s not relevant in any other sense. There’s also a subplot about Degas and his fondness for underage dancing girls who take classes at the opera house; another man who is also obsessed with the young girls is killed by the Phantom when he chases a girl (who looks about ten) into the catacombs in an attempt to molest her. This, too, is completely irrelevant to the plot save that it shows one of the Phantom’s victims is deserving of his fate.

Christine eventually accompanies the Phantom to his lair, where the two sleep together. It’s not sexy; the tableaux in the scene where the Phantom bends over Christine with his long, greasy hair calls to mind the Peter Paul Rubens painting of Cronus devouring one of his children more than anything else. Despite her reasonable wishes not to be left alone in his rat-infested cave while he returns to the opera house, he leaves her so that he can frighten and injure the diva Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) so that Christine can take her place. Throughout these scenes, a subplot involving the Rat Catcher building a small vehicle (it looks like a steampunk Wacky Racer) that will increase his rat killing productivity. He and his heretofore unseen little person assistant take the rat-killer into the catacombs and do significant damage to the rat population before crashing accidentally; the Rat Catcher then climbs his way out of the catacombs, but not before witnessing Christine and the Phantom together. The Phantom returns to Christine, who wants nothing more to do with him, so he rapes her; while he thinks she is sleeping, she spies him cuddling with his rat buddies and escapes back to the opera house, where she takes the stage in Carlotta’s place. During the performance, the Rat Catcher finally reappears and makes his way onstage, where he interrupts the performance to accuse Christine of cavorting with the monster. Amidst the ensuing chaos, the Phantom abducts/rescues her, before he is mortally wounded by Raoul. The police arrive as he is dying, and he tells Raoul and Christine to abscond, fearing that Christine will also be killed. Looking back as he dies, she begs him not to leave her and… roll credits.

This movie is awful. Just terrible. The Phantom story is, in its way, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, filtered through some Beauty and the Beast archetypes and updated to what was a contemporary setting at the time of the novel’s composition. More than either of those, however, the narrative turns the heroine into a Bella Swann, eternally enraptured by a man who is creepy and possessive in addition to being a beast. At least in the novel and in other adaptations, the relationship between the two is founded on the Phantom’s instruction in the musical arts from which Christine benefits; here, he’s just a stalker who can communicate with her telepathically. There’s no reason for Christine to find him so appealing, even if this version foregoes the very important plot element that the Phantom is disfigured; here, he’s just Julian Sands with gross hair, psychic powers, and an affinity for rats. In the original novel, the affection between Christine and the Phantom never transcends to become physical; here, the two have consensual sex and then he rapes her (which makes her later declaration of love for him all the more disgusting). And the unnecessary subplots about Degas et al. and the Rat Catcher serve only to distract. There’s some decent gore, but there’s also some very bad CGI work (the scene where the Phantom sits on the rooftop and daydreams about a rat trap full of humans in particular) and much of the violence is irrelevant to the plot. There is nothing here to redeem this movie. Nothing. Avoid at all costs.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond