Horror Double Feature: Welcome to Willits and Ava’s Possessions
Horror comedies are a genre I have something of an uneasy relationship with. On the one hand, when done well, the humor of the film in question can enhance the fright factor immensely, making the movie greater than the sum of its parts. I’m talking here about fun, smart, and over-the-top grisly films like Shaun of the Dead or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Unfortunately, though, when horror comedies fail, as most of them do, they tend to fail in a much more spectacular fashion than a “straight” horror flick would, just by virtue of being painful to watch and/or insultingly stupid, somehow shitting on both genres in a kind of giant turd casserole of suckage.
Thankfully, both of the horror comedies I’m discussing today seem to have got the balance of scary and hilarious just right. Although neither one of them are of the more zany, relentless style of the two movies I mentioned above, both of them take a tired, overdone horror premise and do something original with it, weaving clever, creepy, and entertaining stories out of subverting horror cliches and providing heaps of amusing gags along the way.
The first of these is 2017’s Welcome To Willits, the debut feature from the Ryan brothers (Tim the writer and Trevor the director). Like the aforementioned Tucker and Dale, this movie is also something of a take on the cabin-in-the-woods/redneck-slasher genre, but much less cheerful and sunny than Tucker and Dale, and with more of an ironic/stoner/conspiracy-theory type vibe.
The movie concerns the requisite gang of unlikable college-age fuckbaskets who are heading out to the remote woods to camp near a hot spring. At a convenience store before the fun begins, said fuckbaskets meet another main character named Courtney (Anastasia Baranova), who is back in Willits visiting her aunt and uncle, as well as a perpetually stoned wanderer named Possum (Rory Culkin), who they end up giving a ride to.
Now, the small town of Willits happens to lie in the northern California “Emerald Triangle,” infamous for the growing of marijuana and for several strange disappearances and creature sightings, as related to the protagonists by Possum. And it just so happens that the hot spring where the twatpockets are headed is right near the property of pot grower and meth-head Brock (Bill Sage) and his wife Peggy (Sabina Gadecki). Brock and Peggy are the uncle and aunt of the level-headed Courtney, but unfortunately for everyone involved, Brock and Peggy are also addicted to a mind-expanding meth hybrid Brock has created called “Emerald Ice,” which has deteriorated their brains to such a degree that they both wholeheartedly believe that they are being monitored and occasionally attacked by extraterrestrials.
Part of the beauty of Welcome to Willits is that it divides its time almost equally between Possum and the pool of other potential victims at the camp, and the escalating situation involving the increasingly paranoid and murderous Brock and Peggy at the cabin. The conflict between the obviously insane Brock and his rational niece Courtney, who clearly loves him and wants to help but isn’t sure how to get past his delusions, is particularly good, played somewhat for laughs but also quite emotionally wrenching. For instance, Brock at one point decides that he is going to have to lock Courtney in the closet because he is afraid she is conspiring with the aliens, but it’s obvious nonetheless that he adores Courtney and believes that her so-called betrayal of him is not her fault. The fact that he slaps a tinfoil hat on her head to protect her brains from further alien interference is certainly funny, but it’s also touching in a bizarre way, because Brock truly believes he is helping her and plays the whole thing completely seriously.
There’s also a great sort-of subplot/meta-narrative involving a cheesy cop show that stars Dolph Lundgren and that Brock eventually comes to believe is really happening and is giving him messages through the TV about the alien invaders. A very nice comedic touch.
As I said, this is definitely a hilarious film, but its humor is rather dark and not really all that wacky, despite the outlandishness of the premise. Though it absolutely revels in gore, and makes the most of Brock’s killing-college-kids-because-he-sees-them-as-aliens gag, the fact that the viewer has spent so much time with Brock and Peggy and actually kind of feels sorry for them gives this an added emotional punch that a lot of horror comedies don’t really have. And the character of Courtney is intensely relatable as a go-between, torn between her love for her family, her frustration with their wingnut ideas, and her need to protect the campers from the havoc her uncle’s insanity has wrought.
Welcome To Willits is definitely a balanced, entertaining film; funny, bloody, and fast-paced, but with a surprising depth and some interesting social commentary about drug addiction, mental illness, and the way that delusions can become very real and very dangerous, even for people who don’t hold them.
Next on the double bill is a movie that takes the dime-a-dozen possession genre and barrels it off in a new, delightful direction. 2015’s Ava’s Possessions, written and directed by Jordan Galland, examines not the demon possession itself, but its aftermath, an angle not very commonly explored in the genre.
To wit, Ava’s Possessions begins where most of these types of movies end: with an exorcism that expels the demon from our main protagonist, Ava (played by Louisa Krause). We learn after Ava is “cured” that she has been possessed by a demon named Naphula for the past 28 days and has no recollection of what went on during all that time. Some of the best scenes in the film, as a matter of fact, involve Ava trying to figure out what exactly she did while she was possessed, and trying to make amends to those she unwittingly harmed. I actually really liked how the film largely steered clear of showing any flashbacks of her demonic shenanigans, which left the viewer, like the main character, to piece together what happened from scant clues and subtle suggestions, such as evasive comments by friends, mysteriously unsavory connections to people she doesn’t remember, and sinister evidence such as an engraved watch found in her couch cushions and disturbing blood stains hidden beneath a rug in her apartment.
Since Ava committed several serious crimes while the demon occupied her body, she is told by the family lawyer that she will have to either face trial for all the charges, or allow herself to be sent to a sort of possession-specific version of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fact that demon possession is treated in the film as something akin to a drug addiction and is never questioned as to its veracity is another aspect of the film that I found intensely humorous; the existence of demons is treated as a foregone conclusion and approached very matter-of-factly, which I thought was hysterical.
Also very funny was the subtle way that Ava was treated by friends and family after she recovered from the possession. Even though everyone made sympathetic noises at her about how the demon possession wasn’t really her fault and she therefore could not be held responsible for what she had said and done during her “illness,” it’s painfully apparent that her entire social circle absolutely does blame her for what happened and further feel that she was somehow “asking for it” by being a bad person. This rather sly skewering of the “blame the victim” mentality was also another of the film’s highlights.
As the story goes on, Ava befriends another young woman from the self-help group who actually enjoyed her demon possession and wants Ava’s help to get the demon back. She also meets a potential love interest when she tries to find the owner of the mysterious watch she found in her apartment. All along the way, though, Ava is also running into all kinds of skeevy characters who know her and want revenge on her, even though she can’t remember how she knows them or what they want revenge for; and worst of all, it appears as though her family, who seemed supportive and stayed with her throughout her possession, know far more about what’s going on than they’re willing to tell.
All in all, a super fun and funny film with a fantastic premise, a sympathetic protagonist, a cool, colorful look, and a cameo by the always-wonderful Carol Kane. The humor is less madcap and more cunning and nuanced, and the main strength of the movie lies in its reliance on suggestion rather than blatant sight gags. Two worthy horror comedies in one day…things are looking up, people.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.