Horror Double Feature: Triangle and Coherence

Long time no review, horror honchos! Yes, it’s me, returning to finally continue my long-form Horror Double Feature series, which has woefully fallen by the wayside due to countless other demands on the Goddess’s time. In case you haven’t been following me or what I’m doing, allow me a short run-down of all the projects that have been taking up all my nonexistent spare time recently.

Firstly, the second volume of my true crime compilation book The Faceless Villain has dropped, in both print and Kindle form. The audio version will be available shortly; although I’ve recorded the bulk of it, I can’t seem to find sufficient time to finish up the audio editing process. But I will persevere, don’t despair. In the meantime, if you have purchased and read either the print or ebook versions, kindly leave a review; it really does help a lot.

Secondly, I’ve been up to my clavicles in graphic design projects, which pay well but are rather labor-intensive.

Thirdly, the 13 O’Clock Podcast, if you hadn’t noticed, has now expanded to THREE separate shows a week. We still have the main episodes that come out every Tuesday and cover creepy true crime cases as well as paranormal and other unsolved mysteries. But we also have our Movie Retrospective show that comes out every Friday and features beloved horror and scifi movies from our childhoods, and/or cult classics of whatever era; and our new 13 O’Clock Matinee series, which drops on Sundays and consists of us talking about three new movies that we saw in the theater during the previous week, making the most of our recent enrollment in the AMC Stubs A-List program (for about twenty bucks a month, you can see three movies a week in the AMC theater of your choice, and no, I don’t get paid for the plug; I just think it’s a really good deal).

But speaking of enrollment in programs, I should note that I have also recently subscribed to the online horror streaming service Shudder, which has already paid massive dividends for the paltry five bucks a month I lay out for it. Not only does the service feature numerous classic films that I had been wanting to review for the Movie Retrospective shows (such as our recent episodes on Frailty, The Beyond, Re-AnimatorThe Evil Dead, and The Howling), but it also has a wealth of fantastic newer films that I’ve been watching recently with a view to writing about them for this very series. So you see, even when I haven’t been posting reviews on here as often as I’d like, I’m still trying to keep up with movies that I can use as fodder for future posts.

With all that said, let’s get to talking about some movies. This particular double feature consists of two mind-benders that utilize aspects of time displacement and multiverses to fashion some unsettling narratives that effectively creep the viewer out while also exercising the parts of our brains that like to pretend we sort of understand quantum mechanics.

The first movie I want to discuss is the 2009 British-Australian co-production Triangle, written and directed by Christopher Smith. The film starts out as a fairly straightforward “disaster at sea” film that very quickly goes off in some mighty strange directions.

Melissa George plays Jess, a woman with an autistic son named Tommy (Joshua McIvor). She has apparently made plans to go sailing with her friend/potential love interest Greg (Michael Dorman) and some other buddies of his, but when she arrives at the harbor prior to setting sail, Greg finds it strange that Tommy is not with her, and that she seems a little out of it. She explains that Tommy is at school, which strikes everyone as a tad odd, since it’s Saturday, but the weirdness is soon smoothed over and the friends venture forth into the briny.

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Not long into the journey, however, a bizarre distress signal comes over the radio, and then a freak storm causes the sailboat to capsize. One of the friends, Heather (Emma Lung) is seemingly swept away and drowns, but the others manage to climb aboard the overturned hull of the sailboat. Luckily for them, or so it appears, a cruise liner soon happens by, and the survivors rejoice, even though there seems to be no answer to their calls for help, other than a brief glimpse of one shadowy person, far up on the deck. Regardless, rescue is rescue, and the friends pull up alongside the ship and climb aboard.

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Eerily, though, the entire cruise liner appears to be deserted, even though the ballroom contains a table laden down with fresh food. As the confused protagonists search the ship for any sign of human habitation, creepy little details conspire to throw off the viewer. Jess thinks she sees or hears someone walking around, leading her to believe that maybe Heather survived and boarded the ship before them. She also has an intense feeling of déjà vu and seems to know where all the corridors on the ship lead. And most disconcertingly, the gang finds Jess’s keys lying on the ground in a part of the ship which they had not yet explored.

As the investigation continues, not only does the gang discover a message telling them to go to the ballroom, written on a mirror in blood, but later on, the group is set upon by a murderous person in a burlap sack mask who begins picking them off one by one. In a perplexing twist, Greg is shot, but tells the others that Jess was the one who shot him, even though she has no idea what he’s talking about. Incidents continue along this line until the viewer begins to get some handle on what’s happening on this disquietingly abandoned ship.

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In essence, Jess and the others have unwittingly become involved in some sort of time loop from which they seemingly cannot escape. The situation they find themselves in is an interesting mirror of a statement that Jess made early in the film about her son Tommy, whose autism often manifests itself as a rigid adherence to routine from which any deviance causes intense emotional distress. The story of Sisyphus also seems a touchstone, as Jess desperately tries to vary the script each and every go-around in a futile attempt to change the outcome and get herself and her friends out of the loop, which has alarmingly been going on for far longer than the movie first led you to believe, and likely began far before the audience was aware of it.

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I didn’t have any idea where this movie was going when I first started watching it, so as it got weirder and weirder I became more and more invested and intrigued. The scenes of Jess trying to “vary the program” and still getting the same results were particularly wrenching, as they spoke to the hopelessness of her situation, intimating that whatever choices she made would lead to the exact same result, a bleak narrative by any stretch of the imagination, but one that worked brilliantly in the context of the story, particularly in light of the revelations at the end of what had really happened to her son Tommy and why perhaps this existential Möbius strip had ensnared her in its deadly clutches in the first place.

It was a mindfuck for sure, but I would recommend it to fans of stuff like Donnie Darko or Memento. It’s not a standard horror movie, but the implications of it were terrifying, in my opinion, and it kept the intensity up through the entire runtime. Good stuff.

Another recent film that uses a similar concept to even greater effect is the 2013 scifi/horror movie Coherence, the feature film directorial debut of James Ward Byrkit, who was previously best known as the concept artist on the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. This amazing film just goes to show what a talented individual can do with nothing but a stellar concept and a group of equally gifted improv actors.

Shot over five days in Byrkit’s house with a nothing budget, no crew, and essentially no script, Coherence is the tale of a dinner party gone astronomically awry. Eight friends converge at the home of one of the couples, and proceed to drink wine, shoot the shit, and talk over one another in a delightfully naturalistic way. At first, there is little indication that anything is amiss, other than a few brief mentions of a comet that is passing unusually close to Earth that night, and the fact that there might be some anomalies occurring in its wake. There is seemingly one minor incident early on in the party, when the glass on the cell phone belonging to main character Emily (Emily Baldoni) cracks for no reason, as does the phone belonging to one of the other guests, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong), whose brother is a physicist and has given him the heads-up that some weird shit might be happening overnight on account of the comet.

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The get-together is progressing in a normal enough way, with relationship drama and angst seething just under the surface of the pleasant conversation, but then the power winks out. Startled but not particularly alarmed, the friends note that the entire street has gone dark, save for one other house a couple of blocks away, which is still merrily lit up. Thinking that perhaps this other house might still have a working phone or internet connection, a couple of the friends decide to trek over to the lit-up house and see what’s what.

This is where things begin to go wildly off the rails. When the two intrepid explorers return, they not only inform the party that the other house is essentially a mirror image of the one they are in, complete with other versions of themselves, but they further reveal that they have stolen a metal box from the other house, which contains several random items, as well as photographs of all the people at the party, with apparently meaningless numbers written on the back.

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The guests have no idea what to make of all this, but over the course of the story, the protagonists and the viewer come to realize that the comet has caused a sort of rift in the multiverse, and that there is now at least one other house (and perhaps an infinity of other houses) containing alternate-universe versions of all the party guests, and that there is (at first) no way to tell which people were in the house originally and which ones are “imposters” from one of the other (similar but slightly different) universes.

Somewhere in the neighborhood, there has sprung up a “dark zone,” which seems to be a way station between the realities, and as switcheroos occur, paranoia begins to set in: this character had a cloth Band-Aid on his head when he left, but now it’s a plastic one. That character has a red glow stick when all the “original” group had blue ones. Some of the characters begin to panic, either thinking they’ve been dosed by the one woman who brought ketamine to the party, while others start coming up with extreme ideas about what they should do about their counterparts in the other dimensions, and if there is any possible way they could get “stuck” in a reality that they didn’t start out in.

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When I read about how this movie was made, I admit I almost couldn’t believe it. Though director James Ward Byrkit spent more than a year laying out all the plot points and twists and making elaborate charts of how this complicated story was going to play out, in the end he wanted the performances of the actors to be as believable as possible. So he recruited friends and acquaintances of his who didn’t know each other but were known to be accomplished at improvisation. Byrkit deliberately did not tell the actors what the movie was about, but simply gave them each a single page of notes on each day of shooting, which told them what their character was supposed to do that day, but little else. So all of the reactions of the characters you see in the film are completely genuine, as none of them had any idea what notes the others had been given, or indeed what the outcome of the story was ultimately going to be.

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This approach gives the movie a real immediacy and realism, as the characters make a completely natural progression from jokey disbelief to paranoid terror as the bizarre events unfold. I found the whole thing completely enthralling from start to finish, as the creepy incidents began to pile up and the implications of the time rift began to bear fruit. The fact that the entire film is set in a couple of rooms is utterly incredible, given how vast the story seems in its mechanics, and that is a testament to the prodigious talent of its director. A definite winner, and one that has earned many well-deserved awards since its 2013 release.

I would recommend this to fans of “dinner party horror,” particularly a film like The Invitation, which I reviewed here and which bears a superficial resemblance to Coherence, at least in its set-up and the slow building of tension. Also recommended for fans of The Twilight Zone, and the 2004 movie Primer. Check it out; you won’t be disappointed.

That’s all for this long-overdue installment of Horror Double Feature, so I bid you adieu with my standard admonition to keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Horror Double Feature: The Devil’s Candy and Scherzo Diabolico

I’m finally taking a short break from working on the second volume of my true crime series The Faceless Villain (which I’m hoping to have out by the end of June) to catch up on my Horror Double Feature blog series! I have a HUGE list of recent flicks I’ve watched on Netflix and Tubi, but I decided to do these two particular movies today because I’ve watched them very recently, I dug them both a great deal, and they share a very music-centric theme. As in, they’re not musicals, but they both prominently feature music as a central characteristic of the plot. So, onward.

Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy from 2015 is the follow-up to the Australian filmmaker’s debut film, The Loved Ones (which is available on Tubi now and is on my soon-to-watch list). The movie blends horror, heavy metal, and heart in such a satisfying and fantastic way that it immediately shot into my top ten horror flicks that are available on Netflix at the moment. It really is that good.

The story revolves around metal-loving artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), his hairdresser wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their lovable metalhead preteen Zooey (Kiara Glasco). The horned-hand-saluting family unit move out to a cheap but beautiful old house on the remote outskirts of Austin, Texas, mainly because the place has an enormous shed that Jesse plans to use as a studio. The good-ol’-boy realtor tells them that the house is such a bargain because an old couple “accidentally” died in the house shortly beforehand (though the viewer already knows this is not entirely the truth because of the creepy scene that took place prior to the credits rolling). But hey, cheap is cheap, this is the family’s first house, and what could possibly go wrong, anyway?

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Well, plenty, as it turns out. Jesse begins hearing weird, possibly Satanic voices in his head, and takes to painting disturbing pictures without being aware of what he’s doing. A rather diabolical gallery owner who rejected Jesse’s work before now has a renewed interest in his paintings, since they’re looking a mite more nefarious. Worse still, a heavyset man in a tracksuit named Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who we saw being all sinister and murderous at the beginning of the flick, has been lurking around the premises, telling the Hellmans that his parents used to live there. At first, Ray and Zooey bond over their shared love of Flying V guitars, but her parents think he’s a weirdo and shut that shit down.

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And they were definitely correct to do so, because a little bit later, we see Ray kidnapping a little boy from a park, cutting up his body in a hotel room, putting the pieces in a suitcase, then burying the suitcase in a big hole where several older suitcases also reside. Ray, you see, has long been hearing the same voices that Jesse is now hearing, and believes that he must sacrifice children to Satan, since children are (title drop) the devil’s candy, being all sweet and innocent-like.

As the story progresses, Jesse grows more and more convinced that the voices and his paintings are a message of some sort, and as he becomes more entangled in this belief, he also becomes less and less able to protect his daughter from the looming predator, a fact which obviously eats away at him. I won’t spoil too much of what happens, because I don’t want to ruin the experience, but suffice it to say that the entire climax is tense as shit and, in the common parlance, metal as fuck.

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Now, allow me to list all of the things I loved about this movie. One, the characters are immediately relatable, real, and likable. The relationship between the family members, particularly the deeply adoring father-daughter bond portrayed in the film, is spot-on, and gives the film a profound emotional punch. You sympathize with Jesse as he is pulled down by forces he seemingly can’t control, and you also feel for him as he desperately tries to protect his daughter from harm and often fucks up. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to watch him, and even though I’m not a parent myself, I could feel his anguish right down to my very bones.

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Secondly, the character of Zooey is an absolute delight. She is sometimes troubled and gets angry at her father and angry at her situation of having to move to a new school where she evidently gets picked on, but she never comes across as annoying or hateful, as preteens and teens in movies often do. Quite the contrary, I found myself utterly charmed by her head-banging earnestness and her tacit acceptance of her outsider status.

And that’s another thing I loved about this film: you can tell it was made with real affection for metal and the people who love it. It’s actually quite rare for an “alternative culture” family to be portrayed so genuinely and in such a heartfelt manner without making a joke out of them or making them out to be “evil” or sketchy. The Hellmans come across in the movie as a loving, tightly-bonded family who all just happen to share a love for tattoos, black fingernail polish, and riding around in their station wagon blasting Ghost and Pantera at top volume.

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The movie does have its humorous moments, but on the whole, this is a serious occult horror film that brings the terror and tension in spades. Because the protagonists are so likable and you’re so invested in their safety, when that safety is threatened, the suspense is intensely stomach-turning as you root for them to get out of their predicament. Contributing brilliantly to this suspense is Pruitt Taylor Vince as Ray, the villain of the piece, who is terrifying precisely because he is almost sympathetic and clearly a little slow or addled; this makes his character totally unpredictable and all the more compelling.

It probably goes without saying, but the soundtrack and imagery in this thing are also rad as hell. Definitely recommended, particularly if you like doom metal and horror movies that have a real emotional core. A totally engaging, fun, and hair-raising film experience.

Next up on the double feature is another flick with music as a central theme, though this one boasts an almost nonstop classical score and a climax that veers into opera-style grotesqueries.

Adrían García Bogliano’s Scherzo Diabolico, also from 2015, presents us with the seemingly bland and mild-mannered Aram (Francisco Barreiro), an old-style company man at a struggling accounting firm. Always ready to do whatever is asked of him, always willing to go the extra mile, and always keen to work overtime, even when he isn’t getting paid for it. Sure, his family life suffers, with his wife in particular becoming distant because Aram is always working and yet not having any financial stability to show for it, but on the surface, he appears quite placid and eager to please.

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Of course, his milquetoast veneer conceals a myriad of evils, including the fact that he’s constantly making eyes at the new girl at the office, regularly visits a prostitute, and has a dangerous gangster in his debt after he helped the criminal get away with some undisclosed illegality.

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Even more to the point, Aram is clearly planning to do something terrible, though for a while, the viewer isn’t exactly sure what it is. Why is he making what is ostensibly a shopping list including vitamin water, protein bars, and “NO sugars?” Why is he weighing garbage bags full of pots and pans, and carrying his son silently around their apartment? Why is he asking his prostitute consort the best way to restrain someone if you want them immobilized? Why is he practicing a chokehold on his Alzheimer’s-riddled father and then pretending like nothing happened?

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As the movie goes on, we finally see Aram stalking a particular teenage girl, taking note of her movements and timing her routine down to the second over the course of days or weeks. So we now know that he’s planning to kidnap her, hence all the “practice” beforehand, but after he eventually has her in his clutches, things don’t really go the way the viewer (or the protagonist) expects them to.

As I said, the way Aram’s plot unspools and then unravels is almost operatic in its histrionics and over-the-top insanity, nearly playing like a black comedy, but not exactly, because it remains fairly believable, and yet, still really fucked up. Again, I don’t want to spoil the major plot points, but the reveal of who the girl is and how and why Aram chose her was actually rather shocking, as was the aftermath of Aram’s unforgivable crime. Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca plays a huge role in the film as well, adding an effective juxtaposition of beauty to the escalating madness.

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I loved this movie too, but Scherzo Diabolico is not for all tastes. It’s a unique flick for sure, containing lots of gore and nudity and some really nasty set pieces. But as I said, the tone of the climax is sort of melodramatic and bizarre, and the plot twists are crazy and unexpected, though the initial build-up and construction of Aram’s plan is actually quite drawn out and teasing. Plus the classical score almost becomes like a weapon of its own and mirrors the personality of the protagonist: Aram is a precise, seemingly calm and passive individual, but harbors intense resentment against his lot in life, a resentment that hardly ever peeks through his acquiescent facade.

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If you liked Bogliano’s other films (Late Phases and Here Comes the Devil, for instance), I see no reason why you wouldn’t like this one too, but I recommend going into it without knowing much about it, because it veers off in all sorts of nutty directions and definitely rewards your patience, though how you feel about how the third act goes is gonna be entirely up to you.

And with that, I’ll sign off on another Horror Double Feature with a flourish and a keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Horror Double Feature: Christmas Edition!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all you freaks out there! While most normal people at this time of year can probably be found gathering around the TV set in their jammies with their steaming cups of cocoa and their five millionth viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, we horror nerds are carved from an entirely different hunk of bloody flesh. Therefore, to celebrate this most magical and terrifying of holidays, let us unwrap a double dose of horrorific Christmas carnage! (Both of these movies are available on Netflix as of Christmas Day 2017.)

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First up, 2015’s straightforwardly-titled anthology film, A Christmas Horror Story. While most anthology films usually present their stories one after the other with maybe something of an overarching frame story to loosely link everything together, this one actually takes the more original route of weaving all of its stories together into one narrative and shifting back and forth between them, as though they are all happening simultaneously, just in different parts of town and with somewhat interrelated characters. I liked this conceit quite a bit, as it made the film seem more like a single, cohesive whole rather than a disjointed series of unrelated tales.

The film is set in a small town called Bailey Downs, in which a gruesome murder took place on Christmas of the previous year. The framing device of A Christmas Horror Story sees the wonderful William Shatner (aka The Shat) playing a radio DJ named Dangerous Dan, who sits in his festively decorated studio trying to impart some holiday cheer to his listeners while slowly getting drunker and more depressed as the movie goes on.

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Really only one of the “anthology” stories ties directly in with the previous year’s murders, but there is an underlying implication throughout the film that this particular town is perhaps suffering under some kind of curse that makes terrible things happen there every Christmas. In the first tale, a group of three high-schoolers sneaks into their school (formerly a convent where some shifty shit took place) and into the sealed off basement of the building where the grisly killings happened one year previously. They’re working on a documentary project for a class, and want to get some footage of the actual room where the two victims (one of which, we later learn, was Dangerous Dan’s grandson) were brutally hacked to death and where the murderer left a line from a Christmas song written on the wall in blood. This goes about as well as you’d expect.

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Meanwhile, one of the high-schoolers’ friends who was initially supposed to accompany them on the school excursion instead gets dragged along with her dysfunctional family to visit some estranged and decidedly unpleasant relatives. Turns out that dear old Dad is running low on cash but doesn’t want to tell his wife or kids, so he’s essentially going to beg his terrible parents for money. Said parents are of German extraction, and have a little statue of Krampus on a side table that their bratty grandson purposely breaks, so that also goes about as well as you’d expect.

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The third story deals with Scott Peters (Adrian Holmes), one of the cops who investigated the previous year’s murder. He, his wife, and their adorable son are heading into the woods to cut a Christmas tree, and Scott decides he’s up for a little law-breakin’ in order to get the best possible tree for the season. He impishly trespasses onto the land of a dude named Big Earl and finds the perfect tree, but along the way, the son disappears for a time. His frantic parents finally find him stashed into the hollow of another tree, but when they get the child back home, they discover that he ain’t quite the same, and in fact, over the course of the story, it comes to light that the kid has been replaced by a changeling who proceeds to wreak all kinds of holiday havoc.

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In the goriest and most hilarious segment, set at the North Pole, a rugged Santa and a decidedly MILF-y Mrs. Claus are forced to deal with a zombie virus outbreak among their immortal elf workforce. The elves, who all have names like Jingles, Shiny, and Sparkles, have turned from cookie-eating cutie pies into murderous, foul-mouthed little terrors who don’t hesitate to call someone a “reindeer-fucking snow whore” before munching on their intestines. Once Santa has taken care of the elfin menace, though, he realizes that Christmas Eve is almost over and he still has to deliver presents to all the good children of the earth. But just as he’s about to set out, Krampus busts in and the two Christmas heavyweights have to go at it mano a mano in a final battle royale. As batshit as this segment is, it actually ends up tying in nicely (and surprisingly) with the overarching William Shatner bit, so in that sense it’s almost like a secondary frame story.

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As I said, I really liked the interwoven nature of the stories rather than them just happening one after the other; it was cool spotting all the connections between the characters and situations as the story went on. William Shatner was priceless and pitch perfect as he grew more and more despondent, and despite the stories being helmed by different writers and directors, they all hung together astonishingly well. A couple of the stories were slightly more compelling than the others (for example, I thought the changeling story was by far the creepiest and most effective, while the zombie elves were easily the most entertaining), but this is a consistently solid and fun entry into the holiday horror canon.

Next up, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of Christmas movies? If you didn’t say “abortion,” then you and the director of this movie evidently cannot be friends. Red Christmas, a 2016 film by Australian writer-director Craig Anderson, wades right into some fairly controversial territory and ends up with a strange, potentially pretty offensive film that in my opinion was far better than it really had any right to be.

A weird prologue shows protesters on both sides of the abortion issue waving signs and screaming at each other, and then an unseen woman inside a clinic undergoing an abortion that is interrupted by a bombing. The aborted fetus is hastily chucked into a biohazard bucket, but soon a tiny, bloody hand emerges, and the fetus is “rescued” by a priest who was one of the clinic bombers.

Cut to many years later. Matriarch Diane (a fantastic Dee Wallace) is happy to have corralled all of her grown children to her remote homestead to have one last “perfect” Christmas in the family home before she sells it. Her husband has died of cancer, and she plans to use the money from the sale of the house to take a trip to Europe and treat herself for once in her life.

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This isn’t sitting too well with some of her offspring, though, as very pregnant daughter Ginny (Janis McGavin) thinks her mother is being selfish and besmirching her father’s memory by selling off the house she grew up in, and also shirking her responsibilities as a mother, as Diane will have to put her son Jerry (Gerard Odwyer), who has Down syndrome, in an assisted living home. Also causing tension is uptight super Christian daughter Suzy (Sarah Bishop) and her nebbishy priest of a husband Peter (David Collins), who sourly disapprove of the rest of the family’s laid-back, swearin’ and pot-smokin’ ways.

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All of this family awkwardness is soon interrupted by the arrival of a creepy dude in a black cloak whose face and hands are covered with bandages and who talks like the Elephant Man. Although we as the audience have already seen this hooded whosis murdering a guy who picked on him, Diane (if not the rest of the family) is initially sympathetic to this stranger who shows up on their doorstep, as he claims he is simply looking for his mother. She lets him in, gives him some tea, and even wraps an impromptu gift for him after he admits that he doesn’t know what a Christmas present is.

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But as they all sit there uncomfortably, the man (whose name, we learn, is Cletus, which rhymes with fetus, so you know where this is going) insists on reading a letter to his mother that he has brought. In the letter, which starts out “from a place of love,” he eventually mentions the abortion clinic bombing we saw at the beginning of the movie, at which point Diane flips the fuck out and kicks the cloaked weirdo out of the house.

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After that, the killin’ comes thick and fast, as family members are axed, blended, and bear-trapped to death in what essentially becomes a siege-style flick. It will come as a surprise to no one that this hooded killer is actually Diane’s aborted (or so she thought) son who was raised by one of the clinic bombers as a vehicle for vengeance, though he really only starts taking revenge on the family after they reject him. There are also tie-ins with her other son Jerry and his disability, which causes a brief bit of tension between Jerry and Diane later in the film.

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It’s sort of a bizarre premise overall, and because of the opening scenes, you’ll know who the killer is and what his motive is from the start, but I don’t think that detracts from the enjoyment of the movie as a whole. Though the story grows out of a pretty controversial topic, it doesn’t really take a stance on the issue one way or the other, so it’s more of a straight slasher than any kind of political polemic. The setup takes a while, but I didn’t mind that, as I enjoyed all the tense, petty squabbles between the family members before the shit eventually hit the fan and they all had to pull together for survival. The death scenes are also pretty great and gory, especially the “blender to the back of the head” kill, which was also very elegantly shot. The single, brief glimpse of the killer’s real face was also a highlight, and all the more effective for only being shown for a few seconds and then never again.

This is not a film for everyone, obviously, and definitely not for the easily offended. It’s not nearly as fun or as crowd-pleasing a holiday horror flick as the first one on our double bill, being pretty much completely devoid of humor, but if you’re looking for a sort of strange, nasty, Christmas-themed slasher with a somewhat original premise and some pretty great acting performances (particularly from Dee Wallace, who is awesome here), then give Red Christmas a spin.

Happy holidays and keep it creepy into 2018, my friends. Goddess out.

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Horror Double Feature: The Wailing and A Dark Song

Time for another double dose of Netflix-streaming horror, and damn, I got two good ones today, though they’re definitely not for all tastes (but then again, what is?).

The first is 2016’s The Wailing, a massive hit in its native South Korea and an exceptionally reviewed flick on American shores as well. I’d been hearing recommendations for this one almost from the moment it came out, so I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it. Just a heads up, though: it’s unusually long for a genre film (about two and a half hours), so it’ll take a significant time commitment on the part of the viewer. Though the film is kind of epic and rambling and all over the place thematically, I think that was one of its greatest strengths, so I definitely feel like the time spent was worth it, though of course your mileage may vary.

Directed by Na Hong-jin, The Wailing (known in Korean as Gokseong, also the name of the tiny village in which the film is set) begins as a gruesome murder mystery being investigated by the most comically bumbling cops imaginable. Doughy, hapless police officer Jong-gu (Kwak Do-wan) is called to the scene of an unimaginably horrible mass murder: a ginseng farmer has slain his entire family, and now sits, empty-eyed and covered with festering boils, on the porch of the house where the atrocity took place.

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Before long, more similar murders begin turning up; it appears that some sort of disease is causing people in this sleepy little village to erupt into revolting rashes before going completely doolally and killing off their entire families. At first, the cops and the media blame a bad batch of magic mushrooms, but during a poke through one of the crime scenes, Jong-gu meets a mysterious woman in white named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee), who tells him that the culprit is really an evil spirit in the form of a reclusive Japanese man who moved to the village shortly before.

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And indeed, rumors have been circulating about this sketchy fellow, who is never named but is only referred to as “the Jap” (and is played by Jun Kunimura). A friend of Jong-gu’s says he heard the Jap raped a woman down by the river, and a backpacker reported that he had seen the Jap running through the forest clad only in a diaper and chowing down on a dead deer. The guy also supposedly has glowing red eyes.

Jong-gu begins having terrifying dreams about the Japanese man, which only intensify after his beloved daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) begins to develop the telltale rash and starts to exhibit some decidedly Regan McNeil type behavior.

Wanting to get to the bottom of things, Jong-gu and a few of his cop buddies go on a possibly unsanctioned mission to break into the Jap’s secluded cabin to see what’s what. While in there, they find a shrine-like room that contains what appears to be some sort of Satanic altar, plus dozens upon dozens of photographs of people both alive and brutally butchered. After discovering one of Hyo-jin’s shoes among the creepy collection of personal effects in the shrine, Jong-gu finally accepts that the Jap is likely a demon who is possessing his little girl.

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At this point, at the recommendation of his mother-in-law, he brings in a renowned shaman named Il-gwang, who claims he can exorcise the spirit with an intensive ritual. During this long and very screamy interlude, in which animals are sacrificed willy-nilly and drums are beaten to within an inch of their lives, Hyo-jin seems to be in great pain and begs her father to stop the ritual. Jong-gu is reluctant, since Il-gwang had told him beforehand that the exorcism would be unpleasant, but at last he can’t stand it any longer and cuts the rite short, much to Il-gwang’s consternation.

And this is where the movie is at its most interesting. While Hyo-jin is undergoing the exorcism, you see, the viewer has been privy to intercut scenes of the Jap doing his own chicken-killin’ rite, as though trying to protect himself from the shaman’s attempt to expel him from the girl. Il-gwang’s exorcism appeared to be working, because we see the Jap keel over, but then he revived after Jong-gu made the shaman stop. So we’re led to believe that Jong-gu has doomed his daughter by not seeing the exorcism through to the end.

But then The Wailing throws us something of a curve ball. Hyo-jin actually appears to go back to normal for a while, but then reverts back to her possessed ways and eventually becomes so ill that she has to be taken to the hospital. Jong-gu still thinks the Jap is responsible, and ultimately ends up killing the guy (or so he thinks) but shortly afterward, Il-gwang desperately informs him that he was wrong, that the Jap wasn’t the demon at all. The real demon, he says, is Moo-myeong, the woman Jong-gu met at the crime scene. The Jap was actually a good guy who was trying to kill her. This introduced some real intrigue into the film, as it subtly played with the idea that the Jap had been targeted and vilified by the townsfolk because of his nationality.

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There then follows a hair-raising final act in which we have no idea who we can trust, an analogous situation to Jong-gu’s dire predicament. He is simply a clueless schlub trying to save his daughter, and knows nothing of the ways of the spirits. If he makes the wrong choice, his child will die, but how does he know who the real demon is?

As I said, this film is really not thematically one thing or another. The first third of it is like a surprisingly funny police procedural, as the cops stumble ineptly around and make wisecracks at each other. Jong-gu makes a sympathetic but pitiful protagonist, as he is constantly (but hilariously) emasculated by the women in his family, and pretty much fails at everything he tries to do, though you can’t help but root for the guy as everything turns to shit around him.

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The humor of the piece is juxtaposed against the grisly murders from the beginning of the film, but as the story progresses, it just gets darker and darker until no humor remains, and all we’re left with is complete hopelessness by the ending. I’m not sure too many American filmmakers would really have the stones to try and pull off something like this: an overstuffed, kind of insane film packed with hilarity and grim bleakness in almost equal measure. It probably shouldn’t work, but it totally does. The movie’s kind of ramshackle and chaotic, with particularly the exorcism scene going on so long and so loudly that by the end you’ll feel like you’ve banished some demons yourself, but there is definitely an underlying method to all the madness. Not for everyone, but if you like your horror films epic-length, sort of bonkers, and aren’t afraid of intensely downer endings, then The Wailing might be for you.

Next up is an even more recent flick, Liam Gavin’s 2017 debut A Dark Song, which he both wrote and directed. The setup of the piece is pretty straightforward: Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) rents a remote Welsh cottage and hires occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to help her perform a months-long magical ritual, the Abramelin, that will allow her to talk to her murdered son once again. But that simple plot synopsis doesn’t even begin to convey the depth and originality of this creepy slow-burner, which I have to say is easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long, long while.

The movie is essentially a character piece: Sophia and Joseph are really the only two people in the movie, other than a couple minor characters that turn up in a scene or two near the beginning. The horror of A Dark Song, then, sprouts out of the interactions between these two flawed strangers as they hole themselves up in the house away from the world and put themselves through physical and mental torture in order to achieve their goal. The ritual is grueling and exacting, and if it is done incorrectly, the cost could be their very souls.

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There are myriad wonderful things about this movie, but let me just list a few of them. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film that focused so intensely on the actual mechanics of magic; that is to say, the sacrifice involved, the study, the precision, the tedium. The invocation these two are attempting necessitated six months of celibacy and a strict diet before it even started, and then complete commitment to the rite once begun, which meant that Sophia would be unable to leave the house for any reason for anywhere from six months to a year after the ritual commenced. She is forced to write thousands of pages of invocations in multiple languages. She undergoes various water tortures and food purges. She must sit in magic circles for 48 hours at a time without moving, eating or drinking, and pissing and shitting where she sits. And all the while, she is constantly berated by the deeply unpleasant occultist she has hired, who is going to be paid 80,000 pounds for his efforts but never lets Sophia forget that he is completely in control of everything and that she has to do whatever he says in order for the ritual to work.

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But will it work? This is actually the linchpin on which the rising action of the movie turns, and another one of the things I really loved about it. Joseph (referred to as Mr. Solomon) is a brusque, abusive asshole who nonetheless appears to know his stuff. But for a long time as we watch the film, we’re not actually sure if he can do what he says he can, or if he’s just a contemptible con man or psychopath taking advantage of a woman’s grief, who gets his jollies from forcing women to bend to his will. Though there are a few apparently “supernatural” things that happen during the early stages of the rite, they’re small enough that they could be misidentifications, or even hoaxes engineered by Joseph himself to make Sophia think that the rite is working. So there’s a great deal of delicious tension as we question whether Joseph is the real deal or simply full of shit, a dynamic which plays out in some pretty disturbing ways.

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I also liked that writer/director Liam Gavin wasn’t afraid to make both characters fairly unlikable (though they were also relateable and compelling at the same time). Joseph is obviously a raging cockbonnet from the start, but he does have his moments of vulnerability and humor that makes the viewer see him in a different light. And even grieving mother Sophia, who we are primed to empathize with, is sometimes abrasive and dishonest, even lying about her reasons for doing the ritual at first and misleading Joseph about her intentions.

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Another great thing about the film is its slow build, as we watch these two fascinating characters struggling to get results. And when scary shit does begin to happen in earnest, it’s kept low-key and in the shadows, which makes it a hundred times more creepy. There are some fantastic, skin-crawling scenes that needed nothing more than a voice speaking from behind a door, or the glow of a cigarette across a darkened room. The whole claustrophobic atmosphere of it was superb, with the viewer left unsettled by what might be scurrying around just on the edges of the frame.

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The ending was also really beautiful, redemptive and totally earned, if a touch on the bizarre side. I’ve seen a couple reviewers even throwing the word “masterpiece” around in regards to this film, and I’ll tell ya, I ain’t gonna argue with that one bit.

All in all, a highly recommended movie for fans of subtly eerie, character-based horror. I really can’t wait to see what Liam Gavin does as a follow-up; he definitely seems like a dude to watch.

That’s all for now, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Horror Double Feature: Would You Rather and Last Shift

So after many, MANY technical difficulties with the recording and editing of the audio book version of my latest opus, The Faceless Villain, I finally got all the files uploaded and I’m now simply awaiting the quality control go-ahead from ACX. Which means, dear readers, that not only should the audio book be on sale soon, but it also means that a huge project that has been consuming most of my hours lately is finally out of my hair. And that means that I actually got to spend a relaxing Friday night watching a couple of horror movies on Netflix that I can now review for you good folks. Finally!

I’d been hearing a lot about this first one, both from various horror blog recommendations as well as an endorsement from one of my closest friends. As I’ve stated before, I try not to read too much about the movies I watch beforehand, because I don’t like my enjoyment to be polluted by other people’s useless opinions (hahaha), but I’m also old and I don’t have the time nor the patience to watch something that sucks. So I’m always trying to balance the knowledge of knowing a movie is going to at least be watchable on the one hand, with attempting to avoid finding out too much about it on the other.

All that said, I finally got around to watching 2012’s Would You Rather, on the strength of a handful of recommendations. I had never watched it before, incidentally, because the title graphic for it on Netflix made it look like a dumb teen slasher flick, which it really isn’t. And though I found out afterward that reviews of it were generally mixed and leaned heavily toward the negative, I ended up digging it a great deal. I tend to like these sort of parlor-game, one-location flicks, and though this one wasn’t nearly as good as, say, The Invitation (which I loved the shit out of and reviewed here), it was still a load of nasty fun, and was elevated significantly by the presence of the wonderfully understated weirdness of Jeffrey Combs.

The premise of the film is fairly contrived, a bit like Saw, admittedly, but a lot more believable than that. Main character Iris (Brittany Snow) returns to her hometown after the death of her parents to care for her teenage brother Raleigh (Logan Miller), who has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, which of course she can’t afford. She gets word from Raleigh’s oncologist, Dr. Barden (played by Lawrence Gilliard, aka D’Angelo from The Wire and Bob from The Walking Dead) that maybe he has a way to help her out of her depressing financial straits. Said help involves introducing her to hinky one-percenter Shepard Lambrick, who runs a “philanthropic” foundation that seeks to help worthy “unfortunates.” The only catch is that she’ll have to compete in a game at a dinner party the following evening. If she wins, she gets all her bills taken care of forever. And what happens if she doesn’t win, she wants to know? “Then…you don’t win,” sleazes Lambrick. Yeah, we know where this is going.

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At first Iris wisely brushes off the bizarre proposition, but after she fails to get the hostess job she was interviewing for at the beginning of the movie (which wouldn’t even pay the rent, much less the medical bills to treat her brother’s cancer…America!), she reluctantly agrees to attend the game, though she doesn’t tell her brother what she’s up to. She arrives at the spooky mansion and meets the other seven hopefuls, who include a suspicious former alcoholic played by John Heard, a paralyzed old woman in a wheelchair, a conniving quasi-goth chick played by former porn star Sasha Grey, a broke-ass gambler, a genuinely nice dude played by the guy who played the delightful Crabman on My Name Is Earl, and a couple others. Also present is Lambrick’s sketchy vulture of a son, played by the Penguin dude from Gotham, and also a bunch of servants who are apparently all ex-MI5.

Things start out, as they generally do, in a somewhat harmless fashion. A dinner of steak and foie gras commences, prompting Iris to admit that she’s a vegetarian. Lambrick jumps right on this tidbit of information with demented relish, offering her $5,000 if she’ll eat all the meat on her plate. At first she refuses, but after he ups the amount to ten large, she caves in and chows down. Everyone has a price, Lambrick believes, and he’s interested to see how much it will take to get people to compromise their principles. In like fashion, Lambrick also taunts John Heard’s character, a recovering alcoholic who has been off the sauce for sixteen years. The alkie initially refuses to drink a glass of wine for a proffered $10,000, but after Lambrick dangles fifty grand to drink an entire decanter of fine scotch, John Heard also buckles under the pressure and chugs it.

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So far, so fairly inoffensive, but things start to go south pretty quickly. Lambrick lays out the actual rules of the game, a particularly unpleasant version of Would You Rather…? He gives all the guests the opportunity to leave before the game begins, but no one does, a decision they will all be regretting in pretty short order. The main butler, Bevans, wheels what looks like some kind of electroshock machine into the dining room, after which the now-drunk John Heard attempts to bounce the fuck out and is unceremoniously capped.

The other guests are unsurprisingly put out by this sudden turn for the murderous, but Lambrick slickly explains to them that he gave them all a chance to leave before and no one did, so now they have to see the thing through to the end. They are all, he points out, there to ask for a handout from him, with the implication being that he can treat them however he likes, because he did give them some semblance of a choice, and they all chose to participate for a chance at the big jackpot.

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The game proceeds in several rounds. In the first one, the guests have to choose whether they’ll give themselves a powerful electric shock or administer one to the person sitting next to them. They only have fifteen seconds to decide what they’re going to do; if they go over time, they will be shot. About half of the contestants, including Iris, choose to shock themselves, though the others still feel bad about their decision to shock their neighbor, all except for Sasha Grey (whose character is named Amy), who, in true reality-show-villain style, immediately twigs that the game is going to be won by the last person alive, and within one second, shocks the paraplegic old woman with sadistic glee.

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During the break before the second round, one of the guests, a veteran of the Iraq War named Travis, gets into a heated argument with Lambrick’s horrible son Julian, and when the second round starts, the vet gets his comeuppance: each player has to decide whether they will stab their neighbor in the thigh with an icepick, or hit Travis three times in the back with a heavy leather whip. Most people reluctantly choose the whip, since stabbing people in the thigh could easily be fatal, and though war vet is initially stoic about taking the hits, after a while he can’t take it anymore and passes out, after which the next player is forced to stab the old woman (who can’t feel it because she’s paralyzed), after which she bleeds to death. End round two.

In the break, the remaining players begin to foment an insurrection, and all but the sociopathic Amy overpower the servants and attempt to escape. A bunch of them get shot, including Crabman, and the remaining guests are forced back into the game. Julian tries to rape Iris during the escape attempt, but she stabs his creepy ass (unfortunately not fatally), and Lambrick himself apologizes for his wayward son’s terribly gauche behavior (irony!).

In the third round, Lambrick is interested to see if people will choose the devil they know or the devil they don’t, so he gives them the option of choosing to have their heads forced underwater for two minutes, or doing whatever unknown thing is written on a card inside a sealed envelope in front of them. Since holding your breath for two minutes is fucking hard, most people pick the envelope, which results in one guy blowing his own hand off with a quarter stick of dynamite and subsequently dying of a heart attack, and another guy pulling an Un Chien Andalou on his own eyeball. Iris chooses the partial drowning and survives (which is good because if she had picked the card she would have had to pull out all her own teeth), and Amy chooses the envelope, which tells her she has to have her head underwater for four minutes, which of course kills her.

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Iris and the last guy standing, the sliced eyeball guy, face off for the final round, and even though the movie has thus far portrayed Iris as a decent person, viewers will probably not be surprised by how the last round plays out, given the thematic thrust of the movie. Plus there’s a nasty, Twilight-Zone style coda that I also admit I saw coming from a mile away, though I have to say that the predictability didn’t really hamper my overall enjoyment of the film.

Despite all the negative reviews, I had a lot of fun with this flick. Jeffrey Combs was a hoot as the twisted and pitiless billionaire, and the tension really ramped up over the course of the game as you put yourself in the players’ shoes and wondered what you would do in the same situation. As I said, it’s a very contrived scenario, a bit like a low-budget bottle version of Saw but without the copious gore and torture porn elements, but it’s still a sickly entertaining ride. The only complaint I would make is that there was very, very little characterization; even the main protagonist, Iris, wasn’t given a hell of a lot of depth further than “desperately poor chick trying to get money for her sick brother.” Had the players of the game been rounded out a bit more, I think the stakes would have been much higher and the tension would have been greatly increased, as we would be rooting for all the characters and not just Iris. I also would have liked to get a bit more info on why Dr. Barden recommended Iris for the game in the first place and why he changed his mind halfway through, and what it was in Iris’s character that made her do what she did at the end. I also felt like the film’s themes — not only the lengths people will go to for money, but also how the upper class degrades the lower classes by treating them like shit and pitting them against each other to obtain a measly portion of the rich’s “generous” largess — could have been explored a little more deeply, though the message came through pretty clearly without too much heavy-handedness, so maybe it was fine the way it was.

Overall, recommended if you like dinner-party horror, movies like The Game with Michael Douglas, and just generally stuff with a game-style premise that isn’t necessarily all that realistic. Keep in mind that a lot of the really nasty gore in Would You Rather happens offscreen and is left to the imagination, so torture-porn aficionados should probably look elsewhere, but this is an entertaining, locked-room concept movie that’s equal parts horror and psychological thriller.

Next up was another horror-blog recommendation, and coincidentally, another bottle movie, filmed entirely on location at an abandoned police station in my current home town of Sanford, Florida. 2014’s Last Shift stars Juliana Harkavy in what is essentially a one-character piece, though other folks both living and dead pop in and out briefly as the film goes on.

Harkavy plays a rookie cop named Jessica Loren whose first assignment is to stand guard over the old police station until the hazmat team can come and collect all the remaining crap in the evidence room. All the other cops have moved to a new station in another part of town, and all 911 calls have been rerouted there, so Jessica expects that she will have an uneventful evening, but since this is a horror movie, you know that shit ain’t gonna happen.

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Jessica’s dad was also a cop who was killed in the line of duty a year before, though the details of his death only come to light slowly as the film unfolds. Jessica is desperately trying to live up to her father’s memory and wants him to be proud of her, so when weird shit starts going down at the empty station, she is frightened but determined to stick out her first assignment. Said weird shit consists of the lights flashing on and off, strange noises like someone else is in the station, and eventually the arrival of a Hagrid-like homeless man who wanders into the building and pees on the floor before being subdued by Jessica and clapped in a holding cell.

As the night goes on, Jessica begins receiving phone calls from a girl who is ostensibly in dire need of help. She implies that she is being held captive someplace and that there are several dead girls there, but Jessica can’t get much information out of her. Jessica calls the new police station, and is informed that she should not be getting any 911 calls there because the emergency number has been rerouted; if this person exists, they say, then she must be calling the station’s direct line. Jessica insists that this girl needs help, but since she couldn’t get a name or location, the other cops kinda blow it off and simply tell her to tell the caller to dial 911 next time.

The creepy paranormal shit only gets worse the longer Jessica is there. She starts hearing voices and eerie singing, a bunch of chairs rearrange themselves in the blink of an eye, and a kindly officer who turns up to check on her turns out to be a ghost (in an effective, Sixth Sense-style reveal). Meanwhile, the mystery caller keeps phoning and seems to be getting ever more desperate, but as Jessica extracts more information from the girl it comes to light that the caller is also dead, the final victim of a Manson-family-type cult that murdered several girls and two police officers (including Jessica’s dad) the previous year.

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Apparently, police had reported at the time that the cult members were killed during the raid, but Jessica finds out that in actuality, three of the cultists, including leader John Michael Paymon (played by Joshua Mikel, aka Jared from The Walking Dead) were brought to the station alive and placed in the holding cell, after which they did some sort of ritual to their nefarious deity, the pre-Satan King of Hell, and then hanged themselves, presumably to ensure that their spirits would remain on earth to torment humankind. Later on in the movie, a still-living follower of the cult also shows up at the station and shoots herself dead in order to join her dear leader in the demonic afterlife.

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Jessica, during all the chaos, has started to lose her grip on reality, since evidently the cult members are controlling her perceptions and making her see what they want her to see. Her dead father calls her, she sees numerous and terrifying apparitions of the cult members and their victims, and in the end, she has gone so far over the edge that she essentially commits murder because she is seeing her targets as someone else, though the film was left slightly vague on how much of what happened was real and how much was a product of the cult mind control perpetrated on Jessica by the spirits of the cultists.

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This was also a damn good flick, well-paced and tense, with some intensely creepy imagery. Though the film stays tightly focused on Jessica’s character the entire time, Juliana Harkavy is more than up to the task, infusing the role with depth, courage, totally believable fear, and even a touch of wry humor. The choice to set the movie entirely in a single location gives it an enjoyable claustrophobia, and it’s also great that every little detail of Jessica’s harrowing paranormal experience is not overly explained. I really liked the Manson-family angle as well, and the cult members were suitably unsettling. I also liked that the movie kept the premise simple and didn’t really fuck around or get bogged down with too much exposition; in the first scene of the movie, Jessica arrives for her “last shift,” and scary shit starts happening in the station within a few minutes, and doesn’t let up until the very end. The movie is essentially a straight-up horror version of Assault on Precinct 13, but ain’t nothing wrong with that. Although I would usually avoid films that had this much relentless supernatural shit going on, as I tend to prefer subtler, slower-burn fare, this one was exceedingly well-done, and that’s mostly due to the crack editing, the effectively frightening apparitions, and the tour-de-force performance of lead Juliana Harkavy. Definitely recommended.

Well, that’s all for another installment of Double Feature, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Horror Double Feature: The Disappointments Room and Haunter

Welcome back for another random spin of the Netflix horror wheel…round and round she goes, coughing up two spooky flicks for my post-hurricane-Irma viewing pleasure. Well, I don’t know if pleasure is exactly the right word in this particular situation. Viewing adequacy? Something like that.

First up is the ghost story/psychological thriller The Disappointments Room. Directed by D.J. Caruso, this movie was actually finished in 2014, but shelved after its original production company went into bankruptcy. It ended up being purchased by Rogue and released in September of 2016. The film was a dismal failure, both critically and commercially, probably due in some small measure from being shuffled around on the schedule and not promoted to any great degree; I didn’t know that before watching it, so I’m slightly mystified as to why it was so reviled otherwise. No, it’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s perfectly watchable, if eminently unoriginal and forgettable.

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Starring Kate Beckinsale (who I actually thought was a different actress who looked a lot like Kate Beckinsale the entire time I was watching it) and Mel Raido as the stereotypical couple who have just suffered a tragedy and decide to move out to a run-down house in the country to deal with their grief, The Disappointments Room is a pretty bog-standard haunted house story slash psychological thriller where you’re never really sure if the supernatural stuff is real or if the main character is simply losing her marbles. In general I’m a pretty big fan of that subgenre, so I’ll give quite a bit of leeway to a film that fits those parameters; even if it’s nothing I haven’t seen before, if it’s mildly creepy and atmospheric, and isn’t aggressively stupid, then chances are I’ll enjoy it just fine, though it probably won’t leave a lingering impression.

Architect Dana Barrow and her husband David leave Brooklyn after the accidental death of their baby daughter and relocate to an old mansion in North Carolina that they plan to fix up. They have a five-year-old son named Lucas who has the patented Danny-from-The-Shining hair, and also eventually sees a ghost girl in the hallway, in a scene that very much recalls a certain famed set of twins lurking in the corridors of a certain hotel in Colorado. There’s also an apparently ghostly black dog skulking around the yard, much like in The Omen, a mysterious red ball like in The Changeling, a creepy spiral staircase like tons of other haunted house movies throughout the ages, and scores of other genre touchstones borrowed from many other, superior movies. On the plus side, there is an adorable fluffy kitty cat whose presence is not really explained, but who I gathered was a sort of protector of Lucas, but the poor little kitty gets horribly killed later in the movie. Seriously, kill all the people in movies you want, but leave the damn kitties alone!

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Anyway, early in the film, Dana sees a light coming on by itself up in an attic window, and upon investigation discovers a hidden room behind a big armoire. Since she has the blueprints at hand due to her planned renovations, she realizes that the room isn’t on the plans, despite the window of the room being very obviously visible on the front of the house. Yeah. Upon entering the room, Dana begins to see visions of a little girl and a scary old man with the aforementioned black dog on a leash, and she subsequently gets locked in the room for what seems like hours, even though in reality it was only a few minutes. Her sanity seems to crumble from that point forward, she stops taking her medication, and her husband thinks she’s flipping out again.

Amid her heightening psychosis, she learns from the kooky local librarian that the hidden room is actually a “disappointments room,” a sadly real thing that some wealthy families had in their houses back in the day to stash their physically deformed or mentally challenged children away from prying eyes. Therefore it becomes clear that the former patriarch of the house, Mr. Blacker (subtle), kept his deformed daughter up there before finally snapping and battering her to death with a hammer because she was such an embarrassment to his Victorian clenched anus.

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All of this back story is somehow supposed to be related to the death of Dana’s own daughter, who passed away on the same day of the year as the Blacker child (July 5th). But I think here is where the movie really failed to make much of a connection between the two situations that might have elevated the story somewhat. Dana’s baby daughter died after Dana accidentally rolled over on her while sleeping and suffocated her. So, sure, she blames herself for killing her daughter, but her daughter wasn’t a “disappointment” to her in a way which would have tied in with the past story. The best psychological and haunted house stories set up a parallel between the past and the present, having one reflecting on the other, but this didn’t really do that in any meaningful way, so it felt a bit disjointed and not particularly cohesive.

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While the acting was fine and the cinematography was quite nice, I felt like the conceit of the disappointments room was a cool idea that was mostly wasted amid a largely clichéd collection of standard haunted house tropes. As I said, it’s not a terrible movie, but it brings nothing new to the table, being content to simply recycle plot devices and images from other genre films and trying to weave them together into a fairly threadbare narrative.

The second film in the lineup was much more interesting, and while I’m not sure it entirely worked a hundred percent of the time, I appreciated that it was at least trying to do something original with its story. Directed by Vincenzo Natali (best known for Cube and Splice), 2013’s Haunter is a sort of convoluted time-loop ghost story, a bit like a mash-up of Groundhog Day, The Others, and Beetlejuice.

Our main character is a teenager named Lisa (Abigail Breslin) who not only has impeccable musical taste, but also seems to be the only member of her family to realize that they are all reliving the same day in 1985 over and over again. Every morning she is awakened by her little brother calling her over a walkie-talkie, every breakfast is pancakes, every afternoon sees her practicing Peter and the Wolf on her clarinet, Dad is perpetually working on the car in the garage, Mom is always asking her to do the same load of laundry, and every dinnertime features a plate full of meatloaf, followed by sitting in front of the TV to watch Murder, She Wrote. The next day is supposed to be Lisa’s sixteenth birthday, but that day never comes.

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It’s an intriguing set-up which becomes even more compelling when Lisa begins to realize what is happening. As she does, little things about the routine begin to change. She tries to leave the house on her bike, but her dad stops her because the fog is too thick. One morning her brother says something different into the walkie-talkie. On one run-through, her dad smokes a cigarette after dinner, even though he never smoked before. One time when she actually does succeed in cycling out into the fog, she keeps circling back to the house again.

Slowly, Lisa begins to figure out that her entire family is dead and trapped in some sort of limbo, so she begins to use a Ouija board to try to make contact with a living girl named Olivia (Eleanor Zichy) who occupies the house in some future timeline to try to figure out how to get out of the loop.

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Along the way, a creepy dude called Pale Man (Stephen McHattie) keeps calling her on the phone or dropping by the house dressed as a phone repairman in order to warn her to stop meddling with the timelines. He shows her that he can affect her reality if she hates the one she’s in so much (for example, he makes her parents and brother turn into mummified corpses in front of her eyes in a pretty effective scene), but Lisa just can’t let it go, and continues her desperate investigation.

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It turns out that Pale Man is actually the spirit of a serial killer named Edgar Mullins who once lived in the house, and that he collects other spirits the way some people collect dead butterflies (and here the opening credit sequence begins to make sense, as does the ingenious use of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “The Killing Jar” over the end credits). Over the years, Edgar has been possessing the fathers of each family that lived in the house and forcing them to slaughter their wives and children and then themselves so that all their ghosts would be forever stuck in the house’s purgatory. Lisa’s family were all locked in the garage and killed with carbon monoxide on the night before Lisa’s sixteenth birthday, hence the reason why Dad is always working on the car in every iteration of their last day.

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Eventually, Lisa is able to rally her family into realizing what is happening to them and also enlists the help of the other spirits as well as still-living Olivia, who is next on Edgar’s kill list. In the end, Pale Man is defeated, and a new day dawns…Lisa and her family are still in the same house, but it is bathed in golden light, her birthday has finally arrived, and they can leave the premises whenever they like.

Haunter was actually a cool little experiment of a film, a sort of multi-layered, reverse ghost story slash murder mystery. Because of the whole “reliving the same day over and over” trope, the beginning of it got slightly repetitive, but I was so interested in where the story was going that I didn’t really mind, and I liked being able to pick up subtle little differences in the routine every time she lived through it again. The movie wasn’t all that scary, though it did have some eerie imagery, and there was no gore to speak of, so it sort of had the feel of a YA novel, not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. I found the plot slightly overly-complicated, but in the end I enjoyed this flick a lot, and I really appreciate that Vincenzo Natali did something a little different with the genre.

That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.