THE ABCS OF DEATH (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

ABCsDeath poster

Directed by, Written by, and Starring: Too many to list

When ABCS OF DEATH was announced, anticipation was through the roof in the horror community. This sounded like an epic undertaking. 26 different directors (most of which had already carved out a well deserved reputation in the genre) were given a letter of the alphabet and $5,000 to make whatever they wanted. There were two rules: it had to involve death in some way and the death had to be related to a word starting with that letter of the alphabet. Can you see why many (including myself) were absolutely stoked to see this opus of violence, gore, and death run for two hours? Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it turned out. Free reign on creativity made for a film that’s very hit-or-miss. Some shorts are funny, some are creepy, a couple are downright nightmarish, and a lot range from bad to awful. The positive is that if you don’t like one then another is coming in a matter of minutes. However, there are only a handful I’d say are really worth watching. So I’m going short-by-short and awarding a grade for each. The final grade is the average for the entire film…

ABC A

A is for APOCALYPSE: A woman tries to kill her husband in a variety of ways and he doesn’t quite go down as easily as expected. This short shows off really awesome practical effects, but that’s about all it had to offer. The ending feels convoluted. Not exactly the stellar opening that one would hope for in a massive anthology about 26 ways to die. C

B is for BIGFOOT: A young couple are trying to get a little girl to go to sleep so they can have sex without being interrupted. Their solution is to tell her a scary story, but things don’t exactly work out in their favor. This segment was just alright. Had a good idea behind it, but it doesn’t exactly come off as well-done. The incorporation of the word “Bigfoot” also feels forced. It’s slightly better than A, but doesn’t exactly offer a whole lot either. C+

C is for CYCLE: A guy is hosing off his sidewalk and spots a puddle of blood. Trying to figure out where it came from, the guy finds himself in a waking nightmare. Though the ending sort of gives up before diving into anything mind-blowing or cool, the main idea is kind of neat. B-

ABC D

D is for DOGFIGHT: Shot in slow motion and lacking dialogue, DOGFIGHT is an awesome five-minute horror tale that delivers! A boxer is forced to fight a vicious canine in an underground fight club. Director Marcel Sarmiento makes the most of his limited budget and every single shot looks beautiful. Between this short and DEADGIRL, it seems like Marcel Sarmiento is a master storyteller of complex horror that is more than meets eye on surface level. This is the best segment of the entire film! A+

E is for EXTERMINATE: A guy encounters a fake-looking CGI spider on his wall and bad things happen. It’s a quick, predictable take on a well-known urban legend. This one is nothing special, new or fun. C-

ABC F

F is for FART: Many will argue that this is the absolute worst short of the bunch. While I can’t debate that it’s one of the worst short films I’ve ever seen, the crappiest segment is yet to come. This tale concerns a teacher and schoolgirl who love flatulence and things enter truly WTF territory about midway through. F

ABC G

G is for GRAVITY: Seriously, what was that?!? There’s nothing I can really say about this one because this segment doesn’t give me much to work with. D-

ABC H

H is for HYDRO-ELECTRIC DIFFUSION: Definitely one of the more creative letters of the bunch. Thomas Malling has an awesome imagination as seen in this live-action cartoon that incorporates stop motion, CGI, and absurd costumes. A WWII pilot dog is drinking at a bar only to be wooed by a dancing Fox who may have some dark ties to the enemy. This is as over-the-top as over-the-top can get, but it’s really frickin’ fun. B+

ABC I

I is for INGROWN: An underwhelming segment about a guy and a woman in a bathroom with a syringe. It’s pretentious, overly artsy, and tries to signify deeper meaning with an inner monologue. I just wasn’t digging the vibe this one was throwing my way. I wasn’t scared, creeped out or disturbed. This was just plain mediocre and annoying. D

J is for JIDAI-GEKI: Some of the Asian shorts in this anthology are terrible due to either not focusing on a horror vibe at all or just veering off completely in stupid WTF territory. This is actually one that I liked for the sheer absurdity of it. A samurai is executing one of his own, but keeps getting distracted by the silly faces his victim is making. It’s bound to be weird fun for some and awful for others. I found it to be fun. B

K is for KLUTZ: One of two animated segments, this one relies on childish potty humor. A woman takes a dump at a party and finds that her poo won’t flush. That’s the short and it’s just as terrible as it sounds. D-

ABC L

L is for LIBIDO: One of the best letters in the film and definitely the scariest (at least, for me). This demented little ditty comes from the sick mind of Timo Tjahjanto (of the best segment in V/H/S/2 and the upcoming KILLERS). A man wakes up half-naked and bound to a chair. Turns out he’s being subjected to a grotesque masturbation contest where losing means a horrible death. The kicker is that it becomes even more difficult and depraved with each passing round. This one goes into SERBIAN FILM territory at one point and is absolutely nightmarish. A graphic mini-masterpiece that’s sure to turn more than a few stomachs! A+

M is for MISCARRIAGE: Insulting in its pure laziness. Ti West is probably sitting somewhere with $4,999 dollars in his pocket, because it looks like this was shot on a cell phone and used noodles as a special effect. Godawful! F

N is for NUPTIALS: Short, sweet and to the point. This Thai segment focuses on a guy who buys a talking parrot for his girlfriend, but this backfires in a darkly hilarious way. You can probably guess how this one plays out from that one sentence description alone and you’re not far off. However, it’s still pretty entertaining. B

O is for ORGASM: Arthouse to its core, but haunting and beautiful. The gist of this segment isn’t fully given until the last few seconds. It’s an incredibly designed series of close-ups, quick shots and colors that winds up being one of the best segments of the film. A

P is for PRESSURE: A woman finds herself in a rough patch of life when her boyfriend doesn’t turn out to be the kind of person she thought he was. Told without any dialogue at all, this segment is headache inducing in the shaky camera work and quick editing. Simon Rumley crafted one of the best human horror stories in the last few years with RED, WHITE & BLUE, but this plot is also far from that level of quality. D+

Q is for QUACK: A super meta-segment about Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett trying to figure out how to make their short centered around the letter Q. It may not work for certain crowds, but I found Q to be very witty and an especially good use of the letter that everyone was probably hoping they wouldn’t get. B

ABC R

R is for REMOVED: The guy who made the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen (A SERBIAN FILM), which is quite a feat I’ll have you know, disappoints in this utterly underwhelming piece of body horror. Surgeons are mutilating a guy and making film strips out of his flesh. I’m sure there was some deeper meaning aimed for here, but the entire segment is just plain middle-of-the-road at best. C-

S is for SPEED: From the guy who made DOGHOUSE, this short was just all around awful. Shaky camera work, a forced Grindhouse-ish feel to it and a bad twist that was a bit silly to say the least. A woman tries to outrun a hooded figure with a captive in the trunk of her car. It’s just plain bad. D-

ABC T

T is for TOILET: When his project was announced, there was a contest put into place for fans to submit their own short films for a chance to be featured in the final cut. The letter given to those entering the contest was T and these videos were all placed up on a website for viewers to vote on. It’s easy to see why Lee Hardcastle’s morbid claymation tale about a child’s fear of potty training was the winner. A lot of love, effort, and creativity was put into this darkly hilarious segment. I love it and it’s one of the absolute best letters! A+

ABC U

U is for UNEARTHED: A monster tale told from the point of the monster, this segment is downright awesome! It’s shot through the POV of a certain well-known beast of folklore and we never see a concrete view of this ghoul. Instead, Ben Whealey (KILL LIST) shows the viewer everything through the monster’s eyes. The effects used are impressive and there’s a heavy atmosphere hovering over the whole thing. The last perfect letter of the film! A+

V is for VAGITUS: In a technologically advanced future, a police officer is tasked with taking down unusual criminals. This segment almost seemed like a short film that was pitched to producers for a feature. The effects were so-so and the story itself is silly. This might have actually worked better as a feature rather than trying to compress all of these ideas into the span of five minutes. C-

W is for WTF!: It’s like a lame version of the letter Q. A group of filmmakers struggle over what the topic of their short for the letter W should be. Completely stupid and an utter failure. It literally seems like the filmmakers filmed themselves pitching ideas for W, added a few effects and called it a short. F

ABC X

X is for XXL: Goriest of the bunch, this segment is downright hard to watch at points for its sheer brutality. An overweight woman finds herself mocked wherever she goes, so she uses some home remedies to lose weight (namely a few sharp kitchen utensils). It’s purely torture porn, but succeeds in being beyond disturbing and very well-made! It almost feels like a really solid short story committed to film in a haunting way. A-

ABC Y

Y is for YOUNGBUCK: A boy goes on a hunting trip with a creepy old janitor. It doesn’t end well for either one of them. Stretching the name of good taste in this short for truly uncomfortable material at the center, it’s almost like Jason Eisener is playing a genuinely disturbing topic for laughs in a Grindhouse style (complete with synthesizer score). It’s not only offensively bad, but it’s also downright insensitive. D-

ABC Z

Z is for ZETSUMETSU: Without a doubt, ABCS OF DEATH goes out on the worst note imaginable. Incomprehensible and beyond stupid, I don’t think words can properly portray my hatred for this final segment. F

ABC Overall

As a whole, ABCS OF DEATH takes about 15 minutes to get going and then shows off it’s best short first (DOGFIGHT). From there on, it sporadically gains and loses momentum only to go out on two pretty awful final shorts. The only A-grade shorts I’d recommend checking out are: D, L, O, T, U, and X. Definitely avoid: F, G, K, M, S, W, Y and Z. The others range from solid to disappointing (as you can see in the paragraphs above). Overall, ABCS OF DEATH is a severe mixed bag. Just watch it on Netflix or Amazon Video and skip to the worthwhile shorts while avoiding the garbage.

Grade: C

THE SACRAMENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content including Bloody Images, Language and brief Drug Use

Sacrament poster

Directed by: Ti West

Written by: Ti West

Starring: Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg & Gene Jones

Ti West has only directed one thing that I’ve enjoyed. That was his segment in V/H/S. That single 25-minute short film delivered more scares/tension than he’s been able to put in all of his movies combined. HOUSE OF THE DEVIL seemed like a fanboy retreading 70’s horror territory in a self-indulgent way. THE INNKEEPERS was just godawful. THE SACRAMENT sounded like a movie that I could get excited about. Perhaps Ti West finally found a feature that would be pretty darn creepy? The film is basically Jonestown done with a found footage lens. That set-up alone drips with potential, but West fails to deliver yet again.

Sacrament 1

Patrick, Sam, and Jake are reporters for the popular program Vice. After Patrick receives a foreboding letter from his sister at Eden Parish, an undisclosed rehabilitation community, Sam and Jake accompany him on the mysterious trip to the unconventional safe haven. Run by a cheerful, charismatic man (nicknamed Father), Eden Parish is a self-built community that seems to offer something for everyone. Of course, not all is as it seems. Small details reveal themselves as the night wears on and shows that the would-be paradise has a hidden, darker side. It becomes apparent that the trio of friends have arrived just as things are about to head for the worst.

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Anybody familiar with Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre will automatically know how things play out. Ti West doesn’t hide the ties from the true horrific event that inspired this film. For the first third, it seems as if things are building for a potentially creepy flick that has the power to disturb long after it’s over. This quiet suspense is maintained for a solid amount of time right up to the film’s stand out scene. This being an interview delivered by Father (Gene Jones) who comes close to reaching the insane heights of Michael Parks in RED STATE. After this awesome scene, the film has reached its peak and it’s a rough downhill slide for the remainder of the running time. This is such a shame too, because there’s a lot of untapped potential lying just an arm’s length away. Ti West seems content to trek along the predictable territory and even falls victim to some purely idiotic writing on his part.

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To maintain the eerie nature of a solid found footage horror film, the viewer must never be able to doubt what they are seeing is real. Clearly, we all know that this isn’t actual recovered footage. The difficult trick is to get the audience to forget that they’re watching a fabricated heavily edited piece of filmmaking and make them believe that they’re watching real footage from a horrific event. It is here that THE SACRAMENT seems conflicted with its own nature. The film is edited to look like a documentary, but the music score added to it (along with some unbelievably capable angles that manage to capture every convenient shot) negates the fear that a found footage horror flick should strike into the heart of the viewer. When it’s convenient for the story though, the film keeps those well-worn clichés. This includes some severe shaky camera work and a character talking to said camera in the face of danger. I wish people would stop doing their last little sign-offs in films of this kind (it was also recently seen in AFFLICTED, which was a far better handheld horror story).

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Also destroying the illusion of this being found footage is some pretty bad acting. AJ Bowen (THE SIGNAL) and Joe Swanberg (YOU’RE NEXT) are usually capable of delivering solid performances. Here they come off as wooden. Bowen may not be used to the found footage perspective, but Swanberg was in V/H/S and did a good job in that film. As a supposed reporter, Bowen doesn’t seem to exude any real charisma. This is completely unlike Gene Jones though (who most may recognize as the gas station owner in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). He’s downright riveting for his introduction as Father, but soon turns into an over-the-top monologue-spouting villain for every other scene he shows up in.

Sacrament 5

Besides the unbelievable acting, a terrible script (that began with such promise) also tanks this film. There are stupid horror movie character traits thrown in that had me rolling my eyes and talking to the screen in frustration. These included talking as loud as you possibly can when encountering some potentially dangerous secret information or running right into an open field when bad guys are looking for you. There are also a few laughable plot holes. One of these (seen multiple times) includes the question of why would you commit suicide in a far more painful grisly way, instead of drinking that perfectly acceptable cup of cyanide-laced juice that’s only a few feet away? The answer is for shock value. Ti West seems to abandon all ideas of scares or a disturbing undertone of less is more. Instead, he swings for the fences by throwing out unnecessary moments of bloody violence that had no logical place in this film.

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The true irony is that people complain about Ti West taking forever to build-up to the payoff in his movies. He’s a self-attested fan of slow-burn horror films and that’s what he’s been making. THE INNKEEPERS (the worst film that actually sports his name) builds up to a two-minute jump scare scene. With HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, West spent nearly the entire movie following a babysitter around in an empty house for a 10 minute sequence at the end. In SACRAMENT, Ti West doesn’t necessarily go the full slow-burn route. He’s got almost 40 minutes of payoff and none of it pays off properly. Instead this all turns in entire film into a mess that didn’t thrill, chill or disturb. Instead, I was checking my watch to see how much more I had to sit through. THE SACRAMENT is a disappointment any way you slice it.

Sacrament 7

I won’t say the film is outright terrible, but drinking tainted Kool-Aid seems like a much more exciting endeavor than sitting through THE SACRAMENT. For a less dangerous option, you could always just watch a documentary about Jonestown. It’s sure to be more scary and well put together than this!

Grade: C-

V/H/S (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, Strong Sexuality, Graphic Nudity, Pervasive Language and some Drug Use

VHS poster

Directed by: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg & Radio Silence

Written by: Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid & Radio Silence

Starring: Calvin Reeder, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Drew Sawyer, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Norma C. Quinones, Helen Rogers, Daniel Kaufman & Radio Silence

V/H/S is one of the many anthologies that has hit in recent years, but this one is different for one key reason. It’s an anthology where the stories are told through found footage. For those who complain that found footage has run its course and that nothing ever happens until the last 15 minutes, I have good news! V/H/S boils down to the key ideas of each segment while scaring up some legitimate frights. The stories themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, much like any anthology. As a whole, the film winds up being a great thrill ride that delivers the scares and some really cool stories told in the found footage format.

VHS 1

TAPE 56 (Wraparound): The wraparound segment follows a group of criminals that film their crimes. When one of the cohorts tells his buddies that he’s got a way to make a ton of money in a single night, they are interested. All they have to do is break into an isolated house and steal one rare VHS tape. Upon arriving at the house, they find a dead body situated in front of a multitude of flickering TV screens and VHS tapes scattered everywhere. They begin watching the tapes (the five segments) and weird things begin to happen.

This wraparound segment is intense and thrives off the subtle differences that change in surroundings of the characters as they watch the VHS tapes. At one point, something disappears that was there before. A shadow moves across the basement and the criminals begin to vanish one-by-one with each consecutive tape. This makes for an intense watch, especially when one of the scarier segments has ended. A very well-done wraparound segment! A-

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AMATEUR NIGHT: The second-best story of the entire movie is the first segment to start off the film. A trio of douchebags implement a pair of spy-glasses equipped with a camera hidden in them to record a porno. They go to clubs to pick up chicks and wind up with two girls in tow. One of which is drunk beyond reason and the other is a bug-eyed weird woman who keeps uttering “I like you.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one is going to be more than meets the eye.

Directed by one of the people behind THE SIGNAL, this segment builds up slowly and then becomes absolutely terrifying when the shit hits the fan. It’s a freaky bit of found footage that winds up being the second-best of the bunch and a great way to kick things off. A

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SECOND HONEYMOON: Ti West (a filmmaker that I’ve never really been a fan of) gives us a segment where his slow-burn style of storytelling actually pays off nicely. A couple is on a road trip and doing little mundane things, but there seems to be someone stalking them in the background. This someone actually breaks into their motel room one night and things get progressively worse from there. This story is based around tension that is non-existent at first and comes to a fever-pitch in the final minutes. Good stuff. B

TUESDAY THE 17TH: The third segment is without a doubt, the worst of the bunch. It follows a group of four young adults on a camping trip. A female member of the group knows more about the secluded area than she’s letting on. This segment basically plays out like a slasher movie done in 15 minutes with a killer that can’t be captured on video. Cheesy effects and some bad acting nearly ruin this one completely, but it still winds up having some enjoyable merits. C

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THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER: Picking up from that so-so story, this fourth segment winds up being great! Told through a series of Skype conversations between a long-distance couple, it details the accounts of a possible haunted apartment that leads to something far more strange and original. Revel in the sheer weirdness and some effective jump-out-of-your-seat scares! This one is a winner! B+

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10/31/98: Primarily known for their online comedy, Radio Silence sends V/H/S out on the highest note possible. Set on Halloween 1998 and recorded from a camera attached to a nanny-cam costume, four friends head out to a Halloween party at a spooky old house. They wind up at the wrong house and things go horribly wrong in supernatural style! Featuring some awesome effects and hilarious moments, this is the definitely the best of the six stories showcased here! Fantastic segment and I can’t wait to see what Radio Silence does with a found footage horror feature (which they’ve been slated to write and direct). A+

VHS 6

Like any anthology, V/H/S has its ups and downs. There is only one really iffy segment as far as I’m concerned and none of them are outright terrible. The best ones hands-down go to Amateur Night (the opener) and 10/31/98 (the finale)! The wraparound also connects all the segments together in a creepy satisfying way. While it was initially overhyped upon release (I was one of many who went nuts after seeing the premiere at Sundance 2012), V/H/S is a solid anthology told in a really fun way!

Grade: B+

YOU’RE NEXT (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

Youre Next poster

Directed by: Adam Wingard

Written by: Simon Barrett

Starring: Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Rob Moran & Barbara Crampton

Why does it always seem to take so long for legitimately good horror movies to be released? CABIN IN THE WOODS was a three year wait, while TRICK ‘R TREAT was two years and dumped straight-to-DVD, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sits on a shelf for three years before becoming the monster franchise it is today. It’s a pity, but good things come to those who wait and horror fans have been waiting two full years for YOU’RE NEXT. This independent home-invasion flick made huge waves at both Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest. So big were these waves, that there was a bidding war between distributors for the rights to release this movie to the masses. Lionsgate won and on the shelf it’s sat for the past two years.

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With a long wait, comes a lot of hype. It’s a pity when films seem to collapse under the weight of their own reputations. Some reviews I read of YOU’RE NEXT called it downright original and a reinvention of the genre, awarding perfect scores and the highest of grades. To be blunt, YOU’RE NEXT isn’t perfect. It’s got a few problems that I will address in this review, but it’s so entertaining and a lot of fun. I jumped a total of two times during the film, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself through the entirety of the film.

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The Davison family are gathering at their enormous vacation home to celebrate their parents 35th anniversary. Some of the siblings haven’t seen each other in years and a few old grudges die hard. As rivalries begin to flare, an all-out attack is waged on the home from three masked psychopaths whose only interest is to kill them all. One of the guests of the family is Erin, a girlfriend to one of the siblings. Erin has a bit of an unusual background, one that makes her a survivor. She isn’t going down without a fight. So as the tension rises, so does the body count and the violence. This one is a blood-soaked blast of twisted entertainment and pitch-black humor.

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From what I’ve seen in message boards and podcasts, director Adam Wingard doesn’t have a whole lot of devoted fans, but instead a bunch of detractors. There are reasons for this, but I consider myself to be a bit of a fan. I thought his serial killer tale A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE was solid, I enjoyed his wraparound segment in V/H/S and his story in V/H/S/2, also his ABC’S OF DEATH short was one of the good ones. However, I found both HOME SICK and POP SKULL (his first efforts) to both be damn near unwatchable. This all being said, YOU’RE NEXT is Wingard’s most mature and professional work yet. Relishing in the sheer brutality of things in one scene and then milking every bit of possible quiet suspense from the next, Wingard is clearly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the independent horror world.

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Bonus points also are awarded to Wingard for finding a way to shoot Ti West (the pretentious hack whose only good thing came in the form of his segment in V/H/S, though I am holding out hope for SACRAMENT) in the head with an arrow. I felt like cheering, but those are my personal feelings against an overrated mumblecore hipster being hailed as a horror champion. AJ Bowen (from THE SIGNAL and A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE) also has a bit of a key role here, while Joe Swanberg (V/H/S) is a standout as well. This (and THE LORDS OF SALEM) is also Barbara Crampton’s return to acting in the genre she did so well in, horror films. It is odd to see the attractive young thing from RE-ANIMATOR playing a middle-aged mother, but she did the job well. However, some of the other cast members have a couple of shaky moments.

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Speaking of shaky moments, Adam Wingard still hasn’t quite kicked the habit of shaking the camera every now and then. It was annoying in A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, actually fit the concept in V/H/S and V/H/S/2. In YOU’RE NEXT, it’s not unbearable but it detracts a bit from a couple of scenes. If the camera is shaking so noticeably that it takes me out of the scene, that is a serious detriment to the film.

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These issues addressed, the movie is stellar in nearly every other area. From a creepy opening (featuring an even creepier Larry Fessenden), the film opens with an eerie feeling that never quite drops. That is until the home invasion begins and then things just become a non-stop barrage of insanity. Violence is frequent, gore even more so, and even a few laughs work their way in. It’s not a comedy, but it does have some sick bits of dark humor. There are a couple of cool twists thrown in for good measure and it all concludes in a final 30 minutes that are simply incredible. This also includes one of the most original kills I’ve ever seen in a movie. You’ll definitely know it when you see it.

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Some shaky acting and moments of even shakier camera work aside, YOU’RE NEXT is so damn solid that I didn’t care about its flaws to a high degree in the end. Instead, I had a blast. I can easily see YOU’RE NEXT, SINISTER, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, and TRICK ‘R TREAT being considered as horror classics in the future. This is a solid scarefest that proves you don’t need a giant budget or mega-effects to be frightening or engaging. This is a horror movie made by people who love horror movies and they deliver! This is highly recommended!

Grade: A-

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