Horror Double Feature: The Damned and The Pact

Well, as the God of Hellfire and I batten down the hatches in central Florida in preparation for a possible smackdown by Hurricane Irma, I thought I’d take the opportunity before the power goes out to run through a couple of horror movies on Netflix for yet another installment of my Double Feature series. So off we go.

First up, the 2013 Columbian/American co-production The Damned (aka Gallows Hill), directed by Victor García. I just kind of picked this one on a whim because I was tired of scrolling through the offerings, and though sometimes when that happens, I stumble across a hidden gem, unfortunately this was not one of those times. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but it’s not particularly notable either.

Briefly, the story follows American dad David (Peter Facinelli) and his British fiancée Lauren (Sophia Myles) as they go to Columbia to bring David’s daughter Jill (Nathalia Ramos) back to the U.S. so she can attend their upcoming nuptials. Jill rebelled against her dad after the death of her mother/David’s first wife Marcela (Tatiana Renteria), she hates David’s girlfriend for no real reason, and she has been living in Columbia with her aunt, TV journalist Gina (Carolina Guerra), and her boyfriend/Gina’s cameraman Ramón (Sebastiàn Martinez) ever since.

Jill is resisting being taken home to the wedding, and gets all passive aggressive about it, saying she can’t go back yet because her passport is back in her apartment in Medellín. So the five of them pile into an SUV in a torrential downpour and head out there. Along the way, they are stopped by Captain Morales (Juan Pablo Gamboa), a cop who warns them that the road ahead is flooded out, but of course Gina knows everything and convinces them to press on because she’s really familiar with these roads (not much use in being familiar with roads that have been washed away, but whatever). Predictably, moments later, the car gets stuck in the mud and then tumbled off the road by a flash flood. Most of the gang escape with minor injuries, but Lauren has two broken ribs, so they are forced to wade out into the jungle to look for help.

IMG_2557.CR2

They soon come across an inn, and a standard-issue creepy old guy named Felipe (Gustavo Angarita) tells them the inn is closed and they need to hit the (nonexistent) pavement. But they eventually talk their way into the inn (heh) and Felipe grudgingly gives them some water and then takes David outside to cut some wood for the fireplace, but not before warning all the remaining interlopers to not leave the front room and go wandering about the house.

After less than five minutes, our heroes discover that all the phone lines have been cut and that no one has signed the guest register since 1978. Shortly after this revelation, Jill and Ramòn decide to do precisely what the old man told them not to, which is to go wandering about the place looking for a bathroom. In the grungy, roach-infested shitter, Jill hears a little girl’s voice coming through the pipes and calling for help. After a bit of investigating, they find out that the little girl is locked in a big wooden box down in the cellar, and decide that they need to rescue her.

In short order, Felipe is knocked out and tied up, and his filthy, obviously creepy daughter Ana Maria (Julieta Salazar) is released. Almost from the moment the kid starts interacting with her supposed liberators, you know something sketchy is up, but our gang refuse to see it until they stumble across the skeleton of Felipe’s wife in the wooden prison box (which is also completely covered in what appear to be written invocations) and a decades-old photograph of Felipe and his family that nonetheless shows Ana Maria the same age as she is now.

IMG_5101.JPG

So, surprise, Ana Maria is possessed by a demon, or more specifically by a bruja who was hanged as a witch on that patch of land years ago (hence the film’s alternate title of Gallows Hill) and has vowed to kill all the descendants of the people who executed her. Once Ana Maria is released from the box, the bruja begins to search for a better host among the assembled chuckleheads, but the true nature of the bruja’s endgame doesn’t really become clear until the cop from earlier, Morales, appears and tells the gang that if you kill the person the bruja is possessing, then the bruja will simply inhabit your body instead; thus there is really no way to destroy her.

IMG_2223.CR2

Damned1

This was actually the best aspect of the film, I thought, the idea that you were in a sort of Catch-22 in regards to the bruja: If you killed the person the witch was using, she would just move on to you, and then you would go on to kill everyone else. There was really no way to beat her, which gave the movie a nicely bleak undertone. And I also appreciated the pessimism of the ending, where (spoiler alert), everyone gets killed except for David and his daughter Jill. David is trying not to kill Lauren, who is now housing the bruja, but then Jill kills Lauren to save her dad, thus passing the bruja on to Jill, who pleads with her father to confine her before the bruja takes over and kills him. David ends up being forced to lock Jill into the box that Ana Maria was released from, with just a weary voiceover implying that he’s going to take the boxed-up Jill back home to try to figure out a way of expelling the witch.

As I said, all in all, not a great movie; not awful, but mostly meh. The acting was all right, though most of the dialogue was kind of lame and obvious, and though I did like the conceit of the bruja being passed from person to person, on the whole I found I didn’t care enough about the characters for the hopelessness of their situation to have any emotional impact. And honestly, right from the outset, I found most of the characters fairly unlikable. Ramón and Lauren were all right, but the others ranged from bland and useless to actively obnoxious, especially Jill and Gina. They made stupid decisions at pretty much every turn, willfully disobeyed reasonable requests just because they thought they knew better, and generally ended up bringing all this shit down upon themselves. On the plus side, the movie looked pretty nice and had some decent gore, but that was about all it had going for it; it didn’t even have much in the way of scary scenes or memorably creepy visuals.

The second film on the Double Feature tip was actually much, much better, a far more restrained supernatural/murder mystery called The Pact. Released in 2012 and written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, this movie used atmosphere and subtlety to great effect, mostly keeping the jump scares to a minimum and relying on eerie set-pieces and the quiet building of suspense.

The movie opens with a woman named Nicole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) arriving at her old family home to put affairs in order after her mother’s death. As Nicole has a strained phone conversation with her sister Annie (Caity Lotz), much back story is revealed with very little in the way of exposition. Annie is refusing to come back for their mother’s funeral because their mother was abusive. Nicole was a former drug addict who was known for shirking her responsibilities, but is trying to make amends with her family and herself by dealing with her mother’s estate and trying to do right by her own young daughter Eva (Dakota Bright). The family dynamic is set up efficiently, and almost at once, we move on to the scary paranormal stuff.

Pact5

While Nicole is in the house alone, she starts to hear odd noises and feel some kind of presence. Nervous, she gets on her laptop to talk with her daughter Eva, who is staying with cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). The lights keep flickering on and off, and Nicole keeps losing her wifi signal, barely being able to see or hear her daughter. Eva asks her mother who that is behind her, and then the signal cuts out entirely. A terrified Nicole whips around, but sees no one. However, a closet door is open that wasn’t open before. Nicole goes to investigate, and the screen fades to black.

The next scene shows Annie arriving at their mother’s house on her motorcycle. Over the next few minutes, it’s established that Nicole hasn’t been heard from for three days, and that even though Annie initially didn’t want anything to do with her mother’s death, she decided to return to the homestead to find out what happened to Nicole. At first, she doesn’t suspect anything particularly nefarious; she simply assumes that Nicole reverted to her old junkie days, found herself unable to deal with the stress of the funeral, and took off to hang in some drug den someplace.

But then, she makes another attempt to call Nicole, and hears Nicole’s phone ringing from inside the hall closet. Annie finds Nicole’s phone lying on the floor of the closet, but doesn’t find Nicole. Troubled, she heads down to the church for her mother’s funeral, and speaks with Liz and Eva, convincing them to come back to the house with her because she thinks something weird might be going on.

That night, all hell breaks loose as Annie has horrible nightmares about a crying shirtless man in the house, then awakens to see an actual dark figure in the hallway. She grabs a knife and starts giving chase, but is thwarted by an unseen force that starts throwing her against the walls, and as she runs through the place, she discovers that Liz has also disappeared. Terrified, she scoops up the screaming Eva and flees to the police station.

The cops obviously don’t believe her story, though an officer named Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) seems at least partially sympathetic, since he knew Nicole back in the day. He still thinks that Annie might have something to do with the disappearances, though, and warns her not to leave town.

Pact4

Annie refuses to return to her mother’s house, understandably, but while she’s holing up in a seedy motel, she has more of the horrible dreams, and then notices that her phone keeps pinging with an unknown address. Clicking on the map brings up a photo of a park-like area with a bench which also happens to feature a blurry, ghostly female figure in a flowered dress, who seems to be pointing to something.

Eventually, after many clues, she and Bill Creek discover a room hidden behind a wall in her family home. It contains nothing but a mattress spring and a bunch of tiny holes in the walls that give a view of every other room in the house. Annie insists that the house is haunted by a ghost who isn’t her mother and is trying to urgently tell her something. After Bill Creek refuses to buy into this idea, Annie goes to an old druggie friend and psychic named Stevie (the intensely spooky Haley Hudson), who is able to tell Annie that there is someone in the closet, and that the ghost in the house wants to tell her something that her mother didn’t want anyone to know about. She also tells Annie that she can see all the abuse that Annie and Nicole suffered at the hands of their mother in the closet in question. Stevie also goes into a kind of fit in the hidden room, where she repeatedly screams the name “Judas,” and everyone sees the eerie specter of the woman in the flowered dress floating up near the ceiling.

Pact2

Annie is able to discover that there was an uncaught serial killer in the area years earlier called the Judas Killer, and by putting two and two together, she determines not only that the ghost haunting the family home is one of the serial killer’s victims, Jennifer Glick, but also that the serial killer was named Charles Barlow and was her mother’s brother, a relative she previously did not know existed.

While Annie is finding all this stuff out at the Hall of Records, Bill Creek has been going through some photos he took at the house and is beginning to get on board with the whole ghost scenario. He goes back to the house to check on his hunch, but abruptly gets stabbed in the neck and killed by an unseen individual.

Annie returns to the house later and sets up an ersatz Ouija board in the hidden room where she communicates with Jennifer Glick, who confirms Annie’s suspicions about the Judas Killer. But just as Jennifer spells out the word “below,” a scrawny bald dude emerges from a trap door in the floor beneath the mattress spring. Annie hides and watches the creepy fellow, quickly coming to the conclusion that this is Charles Barlow (Mark Steger), her uncle the serial killer, that he is still alive, and that he has been living behind the walls of the house the entire time, protected by Annie‘s mother.

Pact3

After Judas goes out to the kitchen for food, Annie peers down into his basement hovel and sees the bodies of Bill Creek and her sister Nicole (I don’t think Liz is shown, but she’s presumably down there too). She wisely swipes Bill’s gun and there is a tense sequence where she and Judas struggle, Annie is knocked out and tied up in the closet, but manages to free herself, stab Judas with a coat hanger, then eventually shoot him right in the forehead.

In the coda, it is shown that Annie sold the house and adopted Nicole’s daughter Eva, and the implication is that she has now completely turned her life around and left her unhappy past behind her. But at the very end, there is a brief shot through one of the holes in the wall of the secret room, which shows one blinking blue eye. I don’t know if that is meant to say that Judas somehow survived, or if it was just a dream sequence to freak us out, but it was pretty creepy, regardless.

Now, there is another implication here that isn’t really made super obvious, but there were a couple shots of the film that showed that Annie, like David Bowie, had one green eye and one blue eye. After Judas is killed, there is a close-up of his face that shows him to have the same thing. So I’m pretty sure they were suggesting that Judas was actually Annie and Nicole’s father, and that he and their mother had an incestuous relationship. Like I said, they didn’t spell this out, but Annie did make an offhand comment early in the film that she didn’t know who their father was, so I’m guessing that was what that was all about. And to be honest, one of the things I liked most about this film was how it didn’t feel the need to over-explain itself; it just laid out the clues and tendrils and let the audience figure them out.

I also loved the slow build of the tension, the skin-crawling long shots of the hallways and doorways of the house, and the really unsettling glimpses of the ghosts (particularly when Annie briefly sees the ghost of Jennifer Glick with her top half and her bottom half weirdly out of alignment). I also enjoyed that the house was not only haunted by a ghost, but also housed a real person who had been hiding out there all along. The implications of all this family drama left a lot to the imagination, which made it much creepier, in my opinion. There were no flashbacks to Annie and Nicole’s abusive childhood, or to Judas’s former crimes. Everything was kept mostly subtle and limited to one or two mentions, so that the viewer could fill in her own blanks.

Pact1

Many times while watching this movie, matter of fact, I was pleasantly reminded of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, one of my favorite horror films of the past several years. The Pact had that same looming atmosphere of dread, that same framing of mundane household details as sinister, that same ambiguity about where the haunting ended and the terror of the living killer began. It had some fantastically disturbing visuals without going over the top, and even though the story itself wasn’t wildly original, it really sucked you into its mystery and moody ambiance from the moment it began. It’s an impressive debut from director Nicholas McCarthy, and I’ll definitely be seeking out his future work.

Well, from the storm-lashed streets of central Florida, this is the Goddess signing out and urging you to keep it creepy, my friends. And stay safe, all you folks in the path of wrathful nature.

 

Advertisements

Horror Double Feature: The Shrine and The Dead Room

Well, it’s that time again: time for me to browse Netflix for a couple decent-looking horror movies, watch ’em, and tell you guys what I thought about ’em. Today’s twofer features a Canadian demon-possession flick and a Kiwi haunted house tale, so let’s get right into it.

2010’s The Shrine was the second feature from writer/director Jon Knautz, a follow-up to his well-received horror comedy Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. The Shrine completely dispenses with the comedy, though, and goes in a far more serious and demonic direction, and while it’s not a great film by any stretch, it’s fairly entertaining and has a decent switcheroo ending that I admit I didn’t see coming.

Shrine2

In the cold open, we see a standard sacrificial setup, as a bunch of robed men strap a man dressed in a white gown to a table, then proceed to nail a metal mask to his face, Black Sunday style. After the title drop, we’re whisked away to the apartment of a squabbling couple: she is go-getting journalist Carmen (Cindy Sampson), he is photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore). Marcus is complaining that Carmen is so lost in her work that she doesn’t have time for him, Carmen gets defensive, Marcus gets pissed off and leaves.

In the meanwhile, Carmen has been following an intriguing lead on a story she wants to pursue. A backpacker named Eric Taylor (Ben Lewis) has gone missing while traveling in rural Poland, and Carmen’s research turns up the fact that several other tourists have disappeared from the same area over the past fifty years. She goes to her editor all jacked up about the story, but he thinks it sounds lame and wants her to go to Omaha to do a story about something far less lame: bee farming. True to her go-getting (and frankly irresponsible) nature, Carmen tells the editor that she’s totally going to Omaha to work on that bee thing, but instead she conspires with her intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) to go to Poland to look for the missing backpacker.

I have to say, I got kinda hung up at this point in the plot, because if Carmen was using an expense account from the company to pay for her travel (which I would assume she would be; what journalist can afford to drop a few grand of their own money on three tickets to Poland at a moment’s notice?), then wouldn’t she get caught immediately for buying flights to Poland instead of Nebraska? And wouldn’t she have to check in with the editor while she was working on the story? And wouldn’t the farmer in Omaha who she was supposed to interview be calling the magazine to ask where Carmen was if she didn’t show up? Like, I know a lot of movies have journalists basically just running around willy-nilly working on stories with seemingly no policing of where they’re going or what they’re spending the company’s money on, but for some reason it seemed particularly egregious here.

Anyway, Carmen is somehow able to convince Marcus to come along on the trip to act as photographer, and she says that it will be good for their relationship, even though Marcus’s main complaint about their relationship was that her head was always in her work and she couldn’t ever turn it off. So why he’d want to go along with her on yet another work assignment which frankly sounds pretty dangerous is also kinda beyond me. But whatever.

Carmen and Sara visit the mother of Eric Taylor, who tells them that neither the American nor the Polish police give a single whiff of a fuck about finding her son, and she’s just glad that a journalist is actually willing to go over there to find out what happened to him. Mrs. Taylor gives Carmen Eric’s travel journal, which was in the luggage she was sent after it was found in some airport far away from where Eric disappeared. Carmen says this was also the case in the other disappearances; that the vanished people’s luggage would randomly turn up at various airports around Europe.

Before they leave on their trip, Carmen has a fairly creepy nightmare about Eric’s ghost turning up in her room with his eyes gouged out, screaming at her to “leave me alone.” Naturally, she does not heed this advice at all, much to her ultimate detriment.

The last entries in Eric’s journal reveal that he was in a small town in Poland called Alvania. He wrote that the people there were unfriendly and suspicious, and that there was a weird fog bank that never seemed to dissipate hovering over the trees. The final entry detailed Eric’s decision to go see what the mysterious fog was all about.

Shrine6

So Carmen, Marcus, and Sara arrive in Alvania, and find the locals just as mistrustful and potentially-murdery as advertised. They speak to a little girl called Lidia (Julia Debowska), who seems to recognize the photo of Eric they show her, but the trio are then run off by a burly blond farmer named Henryk (Trevor Matthews), who waves his butcherin’ knife at them and tells them to beat cheeks, which they wisely do, at least temporarily. On their way out of town, they notice the strange fog that Eric talked about in his journal.

Marcus thinks it’s about time to call the whole thing a wash, but of course Carmen can’t let it go. It comes to light that she lied to Marcus and told him that the magazine had sent her on this story, rather than it just being Carmen going all rogue reporter, and then he gets doubly pissed when he finds out that Sara was in on the deception too. Carmen begs him to follow the story through, because she says if she goes back to the U.S. with no story at all then her career is basically over, even though I’m pretty sure it would be over anyway after her editor finds out that she misappropriated company funds to go off on a little adventure that he specifically told her not to go on, but again, whatever. Marcus, shockingly, does not laugh in her face and turn the car right around, but is all like, fine, we’ll drive back to that fog bank and see what that’s all about.

The fog in the woods is super dense and doesn’t move, even though it’s a windy day. The three of them debate about whether they should go in it or not, but then Sara, seemingly under some kind of trance, wanders off into it. She’s gone for a really long time, and finally Carmen says she’ll go in after her, admitting that since she (Carmen) is the one who got them into this situation, then she should be the one to go poking through the spooky mist.

Sara makes her way out of the fog after Carmen has gone in, and she seems disoriented and has a scratch on one cheek, but she won’t tell Marcus what she saw in there. Meanwhile, Carmen is wandering around in the fog for a time before coming across a statue of a demon that sort of looks like Pazuzu just hanging out in the smoke. She takes a couple pictures of it, but then sees that its head changed position while she wasn’t looking, and then it starts to bleed from its eyes and mouth, and the stone heart in its hand begins to beat. She runs the hell out of the fog and shares a meaningful glance with Sara, who tells Carmen that she saw the statue too.

Shrine5

Shortly afterward, Lidia finds them in the woods and tells them that she knows where Eric is. She leads them to a sort of basement-like structure where the trio discover a whole bunch of coffins containing shriveled corpses wearing white gowns and having metal masks nailed onto their faces. One of the bodies is obviously Eric, identified by a distinctive tattoo on the back of his hand. As they’re checking out the dead people, Lidia unsurprisingly locks the three of them in the basement, but they manage to escape.

The unfriendly locals find them and give chase; Sara is hit in the calf with a crossbow bolt, and eventually all three are knocked out with chloroform and tied up. At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that this was gonna go in a Hostel-like direction, as I did, but I’m glad to say that it actually takes something of an unexpected turn.

Shrine3

Shrine1

The women are separated from Marcus, and are taken to the titular shrine where they are stripped and put into the telltale white gowns. Marcus is hauled off and held at gunpoint, forced to dig what is presumably a grave. Back at the shrine, Carmen is put in a cage while Sara gets strapped to the table from the beginning of the movie. The robed dudes around her make big cuts in her arms and slice her Achilles tendons, then out comes the Black Sunday mask. Before Sara dies, we see the robed guys from her point of view and they all look like demons.

Back at the grave, Marcus manages to whack his captor with a shovel and grab his gun. He runs to the shrine, just in time to see the dead Sara being put in a wooden coffin. He sees that Carmen is still alive and is able to bust her out. The two of them run to a house near the edge of the village, where Marcus trains the gun on the family within and tells them that he just needs the keys to their truck so they can escape. The family seems terrified at the sight of Carmen in her white gown, and we soon find out why: the little boy in the house, Dariusz (Connor Stanhope), can speak a little English, and tells Marcus that Carmen is now evil because she has seen the statue in the fog.

Sure enough, Carmen begins acting all possess-y, seeing the family as demons, seeing objects moving around on their own. Before you can say Regan MacNeil, Carmen has gone full-on red-eyed murder-devil, and brutally slaughters the poor family, even the kid, tearing all their intestines out for good measure.

Shrine7

The robed guys turn up at the house and try to exorcise her, but Carmen uses her new demon powers to kill a bunch of them too, including the main priest, Arkadiusz (Vieslav Krystyan). Henryk, taking over the mantle from the dead priest, manages to force Carmen down to the floor and get a metal mask poised over her face. Marcus, finally understanding why these sacrifices are necessary (and maybe glad to get rid of his bitch-ass girlfriend whose reckless ambition got them into this mess in the first place), helps out by holding Carmen’s head still so Henryk can hammer the mask in place and kill the demon.

Shrine8

Afterwards, Marcus is allowed to leave, since he did not go into the fog and hence did not contract the demon cooties. Henryk tells Marcus that the village has been under this curse for ages and that there’s nothing they can do about it, save for warning people away. So even though the villagers were portrayed as the bad guys at first, it turned out they didn’t have a choice; if people didn’t heed their warnings and went into the fog anyway, demons would possess them and they would have to be dealt with before shit got out of hand.

I really liked that the movie played with the audience’s expectations, reversing the common “murdery small-town foreigners” trope, and I really did like the scene where Marcus finally understands the whole deal and steps in to help the villagers kill his possessed girlfriend. The gore in this was also pretty fun, particularly the slaying of the family near the end, and the demon faces were fairly creepy. The special effects were mostly good, though the green-screened fog bank sequence looked a little hokey, and the way the shots were lit seemed flat and not all that visually interesting.

But besides that, I think the movie suffered quite a bit from its main characters making such boneheaded decisions and being so generally unlikable. You could argue that since the investigating Americans were sort of ultimately the bad guys, then making them unlikable was a deliberate directorial choice, but honestly, I think the ending when Carmen gets sacrificed would have had a lot more emotional impact if you had liked her or Marcus at all, if you had any sympathy for their situation, or if you believed that they loved (or even liked) each other. As it was, I didn’t buy them as a couple because all they did was snipe contemptuously at each other, so when Marcus was obliged to help sacrifice Carmen I was like, “Eh, good riddance.” It was really her monumental stupidity that got Sara killed anyway (Sara being pretty much the only sympathetic character, even though she wasn’t given much to do other than looking young and vulnerable), and the fact that Carmen wouldn’t back off of the story even when it was clearly getting dangerous suggested that she gave way more of a shit about her career than she did her boyfriend or her intern, so fuck her, basically. She pretty much got what she deserved for not leaving well enough alone.

So all in all, not a bad movie, but sort of a frustrating one. Watch it for the decent gore, the relatively brisk pace, and the interesting plot inversion, and just try to ignore the rest.

The second film in the double feature was much better in my opinion, though it seems to have gotten some mixed reviews. 2015’s The Dead Room was directed by Jason Stutter and was apparently based on an urban legend about a haunted farmhouse in New Zealand. Though the movie has a pretty standard plot about a group of ghost hunters investigating a supposedly haunted property, I really liked the slow build-up of the tension, and the fact that it was creepy without really showing very much or explaining anything until the end.

In many ways, The Dead Room is similar in setup to the classic 1973 flick The Legend of Hell House (which the GoH and I did a funny retrospective about here). You have the young psychic, Holly (Laura Petersen), who is very intuitive and truly believes in the persistence of personality after death. You have the crotchety old parapsychologist Scott (Jeffrey Thomas), who believes in the paranormal but is intensely skeptical, and thinks it’s all caused by energy that can be dispersed with a machine of his own invention. You have the petty sniping between the two of them as they struggle to find some common ground with their differing approaches to the supernatural. Stuck in between the two is the third member of the team, friendly tech guy Liam (Jed Brophy), who just wants to capture some evidence and move on to the next case.

DeadRoom1

The ghost busters are hired by an insurance company to determine if there is actual paranormal activity at the property, since the family who had been living there suddenly fled, leaving all of their stuff behind, including half-eaten plates of food on the table, all their baby supplies, and their three parakeets. The team settle in for their several-day stakeout, setting up their equipment and investigating the house. Psychic Holly makes her way through the rooms, but finds it strange that she doesn’t feel anything of a paranormal nature at all. Scott thinks the family who took off are trying to scam their insurance company, and doesn’t really think they’re going to find anything of note.

At first, it would seem that Scott is correct, because nothing really happens the entire first day the team is there. But late that night, at 3:00 a.m., the front door opens by itself, some footsteps are heard in the hallway, and a light fixture swings a bit. The team actually sleep through this first manifestation, but the following morning, they notice that the motion camera caught the door opening, and then seemed to follow some unseen thing through the hall. Scott brushes it off, thinking it was just a draft, but Liam and Holly aren’t so sure.

DeadRoom4

The following night, again at 3:00 a.m., a loud bang awakens everyone in the house, and this time they all see the door opening, hear footsteps, and see the light swinging. Holly claims she sees a figure walking toward them and standing in front of her, a giant of a man, she says, but neither of the men see him, and though Liam believes that she sees the ghost, Scott doesn’t really buy it, though he can’t deny that there is some pretty inexplicable activity going on.

The next day, they go from room to room trying to make contact with the spirit, but at first they aren’t really getting anything. Scott is disappointed, because even though they captured a few things on film, it was nothing all that impressive, and he’s still half-believing that there could be a rational explanation. Holly begins to feel a drastic temperature drop, but again, the men do not experience it, and their instruments don’t read any change. She also claims that the air feels different, and Scott gets exasperated because her feelings are subjective and he wants something concrete.

DeadRoom2

At last, Scott determines that the battery in his EMF meter is dead, and when he replaces it, he gets a reading through the roof, bolstering Holly’s intuition that something is present. Curiously, the reading is ridiculously strong everywhere in the house except for one room at the end of the hallway (which I’m guessing is the titular “dead room”).

That night, the 3:00 a.m. manifestation occurs again, but this time the spirit is far more aggressive and threatens Holly, busting holes in the wall just behind her head. She and Liam want to leave, but Scott tells them that ghosts have never harmed anyone, that all the spirit can do is scare them. He wants to stay and gather more evidence, and hopefully be able to test the machine he built, which is supposed to disperse ghosts using infrasound. Liam and Holly are frightened, but agree to stay a little longer.

Unfortunately, it seems the ghost really doesn’t want them there, because it starts breaking windows and showering the team with glass, chucking furniture at them, and generally being a supernatural dick. The only thing the team can do to get away from the onslaught is hide in the dead room, which the ghost cannot enter for some reason.

At last, Scott decides it’s time to try out his infrasound ghost-be-gone machine, and just like in The Legend of Hell House, it actually seems to work. Holly creeps through the house after the machine has done its job, and she’s surprised that the mean male ghost seems to have dissipated. The smug Scott calls up the insurance company, tells them that not only do they have evidence that the haunting was real, but they also completely took care of the problem, making the house livable for the exiled family once again.

But this is a horror movie, so you know things aren’t going to be resolved quite so easily. While they are packing up their equipment, Liam notices a strange, freezing cold spot on one of the walls in the dead room. Wanting to be thorough, they bust a hole in the wall and discover a ladder leading down to a secret room. In said room, they find the mummified remains of a woman chained to a chair, again harking back to the secret chamber that contained the preserved body of Emeric Belasco in The Legend of Hell House.

DeadRoom3

The team calls the police to deal with the body, but when the cops descend to the secret chamber, they don’t find the corpse. Uh-oh. Sure enough, moments later, Holly’s eyes go white as though she is possessed, the cops get flung against the walls and presumably killed, and chaos ensues. Holly informs the team that the belligerent male ghost that Scott’s machine got rid of was only trying to scare them out of the house to protect them from the other really mean ghost, the woman in the secret room, who ends up killing every damn person in the movie.

There were actually a lot of things I really liked about The Dead Room. I loved that it took its time, leaving everything kind of low-key and ambiguous throughout the first half, lulling you into a sort of trance as you just watched this paranormal team doing a routine investigation, catching a few minor things, but nothing really crazy. The film showed a lot of restraint, but left just enough tension that you weren’t really sure if or when something bad was going to happen or what it would be.

The characters were all really likable right from the start, and had a good rapport with one another that made you instantly believe that they had done a bunch of these investigations together. Their characters were given personalities organically, without really giving much back story, which kept things simple enough that the plot wasn’t bogged down with exposition, but kept the characters appealing enough that you cared what happened to them.

I also really liked that a lot of stuff wasn’t shown, which I think made the movie creepier. When they find the mummified woman in the basement, for example, the viewer is not shown her face; we only see the characters react to seeing it. Likewise, the male ghost is never shown except for one brief shot where he’s merely a vague shadow coming down the hallway. While a lot of reviews I read complained that the movie was too slow and derivative and not scary enough, I thought the fact that it stayed fairly simple and grounded helped a lot with making it eerie and more intriguing. I could have done without the final Paranormal Activity-style shot of the scary female ghost rushing at the camera, but all in all, I found it a nicely atmospheric and pleasantly tense addition to the haunted house subgenre, despite it being nothing terribly original.

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

 

 

Horror Double Feature: Baskin and Under the Shadow

I decided to do something of a Middle Eastern theme for today’s double feature, consisting of two films I had heard a great deal of positive press about and had been wanting to see for ages. The first is a surreal torture-fest from Turkey, the second a more traditional metaphorical ghost story with an Iranian-born director and an international production team hailing from Qatar, Jordan, and the UK. So let’s get started.

Imagine, if you will, a bizarre, hyper-gory, Turkish-flavored version of Hellraiser, but filtered through the surrealist sensibilities of a hypothetical love child of Dario Argento and David Lynch, and you might come close to getting an idea of the vibe of the 2015 flick Baskin (whose title loosely translates to “raid” or “descent,” either of which fits in with the theme of the story, at least as I was able to puzzle it out).

While I admit I didn’t have much of an idea what in the hell was going on most of the time, there was something queasily alluring in its dreamlike narrative that just kind of sucked me in and kept me watching as the thing got weirder and weirder and sicker and sicker. Since I deliberately refrained from reading any reviews before I watched it, I really had no idea what it was about or where it was going, and I think that definitely made me intensely curious about what weird shit was gonna happen next.

Heavily symbolic and very deliberately paced, I can see this movie just pissing some people off for taking a while to get where it’s going and for “making no sense,” and while I do respect that as a valid complaint, I don’t think a pat, open and shut plot was really what first-time feature-film director Can Evrenol (who expanded Baskin from his own 2013 short film) was shooting for, which is a good thing, because this is one strange-ass movie, to put it mildly.

The film opens with a creepy, unexplained sequence in which a little boy is awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a woman (his mother?) in the next room having sex (or perhaps being brutalized; this isn’t clear). The noise stops, abruptly, after which the boy goes out to the living room and sees that the TV is on, showing nothing but static. He then looks back down the hall into his room, seeing that the light has turned red. He looks terrified, and starts banging at his mother’s bedroom door, but there is no answer, and in the next moment, an arm emerges from the darkness and snatches him.

After this intriguing setup, we are introduced to the movie’s main characters; they are five cops, sitting in a run-down old restaurant in the middle of the night and out in the middle of nowhere. They’re all shooting the shit, betting on soccer games and joking with each other about their sexual encounters with both animals and hookers. They are Boss Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu), Yavuz (Muharrem Bayrak), Apo (Fatih Dokgöz), young rookie cop Arda (Gorkem Kasal), who we later learn is the grown-up version of the boy at the beginning of the movie, and Seyfi (Sabahattin Yakut), who seems to be feeling unwell and refrains from participating in all the banter.

Baskin1

Throughout this entire scene, strange little details put the viewer on edge. An unidentified person in a hooded robe carries a bucket that appears to have some bits of bloody meat in it to the back of the diner, and the cook puts the (human?) meat on the grill. Seyfi runs to the bathroom to throw up, and sees a frog in the soap dish, after which the hooded figure is briefly seen behind him. He screams, but after a few minutes he’s fine, telling his fellow cops that he just thought he was losing his mind for a second. The loudmouthed and bravado-packed Yavuz tries to start a fight with the waiter for implying that he’s gay, even though moments before he told the story of going to a hotel with a prostitute who looked like a Victoria’s Secret model, finding out it was a dude, then having sex with him anyway.

Eventually, the cops, who are working the night shift and clearly bored as hell, pile into their cop van and start driving down the desolate rural road, singing along to a pop song on the stereo and generally having a grand old time. Then a garbled message comes over the radio, calling for backup at a place called Inceagac (the crime code is given as a 4455, but I don’t know what that signifies in Turkey, and Googling it gave me bupkis). Seyfi, who is driving, says he’s heard of the place and it isn’t far away, but he also makes some vague pronouncements that he’s heard a lot of bad shit about it, though he notes that there are three shrines there.

Even though Seyfi insists he knows where Inceagac is, they keep driving and he can’t find the turn-off, even though they should have passed it by now, and then he sees a naked man dart in front of the van and disappear into the woods. They stop the van and pile out to find the guy, but can’t, and then they notice all these weird scratches that kinda look like symbols etched into the side of the van. They also see a whole shit-ton of frogs on the side of the road, a rather unsettling sight. Eventually they get back on the road, but they haven’t gone very far before they actually hit what appears to be a bloody figure who looms in front of them, and the van crashes into a stream.

It’s here where the movie really begins to fuck with reality. Just after the wreck, we’re suddenly back in the restaurant again. Boss Remzi and Arda are at the table, while the other guys quietly watch TV across the room. It comes to light that Arda’s parents died when he was young, and that Boss Remzi essentially adopted Arda at the request of Arda’s uncle.

Arda then tells a story about a recurring nightmare he has, which relates back to the sequence at the beginning of the film. He says that when he was a child, he and his friend promised each other that whichever of them died first would appear to the other, but without scaring them. Arda then tells Boss Remzi about the dream at the beginning of the movie, and specifies that when he looked back into his room and saw the red light, he knew that his friend was in there and he didn’t want to see him. He then says he woke up, but was still in a dream, and then he says that the next day he found out that his friend really had died the night he first had the nightmare.

The restaurant then starts to fill up with some black fluid that comes out from beneath Arda’s hands and drips down from the ceiling. This was actually my favorite scene in the film; it reminded me strongly of the infamous Winkie’s Diner sequence from Mulholland Drive, and had the same sort of eerie, unmoored-from-reality quality. In parts, the whole film also reminded me a bit of Adobe James’s short story “The Road to Mictlantecutli,” which was in an anthology I wrote about here.

Baskin5

But then we’re back in the wrecked van, and everyone has gotten out of the crash just fine, but then they come across an encampment of gypsy-type folk who have a bucket of frogs (like you do) and are sitting around a fire kinda laughing at the cops, sarcastically taunting them about the accident. A little girl bangs a spoon on a pot and says something to them, but I don’t know what it was because there were, cleverly, no subtitles at that point. The cops ask if these people know where Inceagac is, and they say it’s just through the woods, so the cops set out on foot, with one of the guys from the encampment leading the way.

Once they reach their destination, which is a huge abandoned building that the gypsy guy says used to be a police station and then a stable, they see another police car with its lights flashing out front, though there is no sign of the cops who called for backup and the radio isn’t working. The five cops troop into the building, and end up walking straight into Hell; in other words, this is where the Hellraiser/torture-porn part of the movie begins, though it still retains its surrealist, dreamlike, overlapping timeline deal throughout.

In short, the building appears to be home to a sort of sadomasochistic and cannibalistic cult that seems to worship the man in the hooded robe from earlier. When this particular individual finally reveals himself, he is SUPER freaky looking. He’s essentially what it would look like if Michael Berryman and Rondo Hatton somehow had a baby who was also a roided-out little person doing partial Yoda cosplay. This person is known as Baba, is festooned with padlock jewelry, has a tattoo of a keyhole in the middle of his forehead, and proceeds to do all kinds of nasty things to our “heroes,” under the guise of shepherding them into Hell, or enlightenment, or something. Eyes are gouged out and then the empty sockets are tongue-kissed, intestines are yanked out, Yavuz is forced to have sex with a woman with a goat head, after which she squats and gives birth to what appears to be a stone fetus. It gets weird, and gross, and fairly WTF.

Baskin2

Throughout all this, Arda is somehow still going back and forth between the situation they’re in and the diner scene with him and Boss Remzi, and I’m not really sure if everything in this sequence is a collective hallucination, if they all died at some earlier point, if this is all happening in Arda’s dreams, or what. A whole “caught in a time loop” angle is suggested by what happens at the very end (when — very late spoiler alert — it’s revealed that Arda was actually the bloody person that the cop van hit before crashing into the stream), but it isn’t really explained why these particular men were singled out in this way, if they were being punished for something (and really only Yavuz was a mouthy, abusive asshole; the others were mostly inoffensive, and Arda and Boss Remzi were actually pretty nice guys), or if it was something they all imagined. I’m operating under the assumption that the restaurant at the beginning was supposed to be purgatory, and the choices the characters made along the way eventually led them into Hell, but I could be wrong about that.

Baskin3

There is also Arda’s character, who is obviously “special” in some way, as much is made of his psychic dreams, and Boss Remzi makes several references to him having known about all this stuff (i.e. Hell and the Devil) since he was a child. It’s also Arda who ultimately ends up defeating Baba, by inserting a key (which he pulls out of the slashed throat of the dying Boss Remzi) into the keyhole tattoo on Baba’s forehead.

After I watched the movie, I was intrigued enough to do a bit of research about it to see if I could figure out some of the symbolism, and I came across a theory that seemed pretty spot-on: that the entire thing was based on Zoroastrian myth about the crossing of the Bridge of Judgment into the realm of the dead, with the arm at the beginning belonging to a child-snatching nightmare demon named Taram Baba, the abandoned building being a type of Hell called the House of Lies, and Arda representing a savior figure who ultimately frees the souls of the other cops from the purgatorial loop they all found themselves caught in.

It was a nightmarish experience, to say the least, and while I’m not going to pretend I knew exactly what the meaning of it was, I got enough of the gist to enjoy the ride, and it’s definitely a movie that I think will get better with multiple viewings, since it’s so threaded with metaphor and significant imagery. Though it borrows generously from a bunch of other films, notably Hellraiser, Hostel, Suspiria and Inferno (particularly in the color palette), The BeyondCarnival of SoulsLost Highway, Martyrs, and A Serbian Film, it’s still a pretty original take on the genre, and it was really cool to see a horror film from a country that doesn’t make a lot of them (or at least doesn’t make many that get U.S. releases). Recommended if you like surrealistic gore flicks with something of an eerie, slow-burn vibe and if you can handle not having everything explained.

Next up is 2016’s Under the Shadow, the directorial debut of Iranian-born Brit Babak Anvari. It’s a far more low-key piece than Baskin, playing something like a Middle Eastern version of The Babadook cross-bred with The Devil’s Backbone and Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, but it’s a fantastic, spooky tale laden with subtext and peppered with unsettling images.

UndertheShadow1

The film is set in Tehran in 1988 during the long-running Iran-Iraq War. Main protagonist Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a thoroughly modern, Westernized woman who, at the beginning of the movie, gets kicked out of medical school for her involvement in leftist politics during the Cultural Revolution. Her dreams of becoming a doctor dashed, she also has to deal with her physician husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) thinking that maybe it’s all for the best, telling her that maybe now she can focus more on caring for their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh bristles with resentment at being forced into a more traditional female role that she never wanted, and although she clearly loves her family, she begins to take her frustrations out on them, as well as pouring her energies into endless aerobics undertaken in front of an illegal, bootlegged Jane Fonda workout video.

As the war drags on, Iraj is forced to the front lines to tend to the wounded; if he doesn’t go, he will lose his license to practice. Shideh is doubly irritated that she is now obligated to care for Dorsa all on her own, but she stubbornly refuses to go to Iraj’s parents house for support and relative safety from air raids, insisting that she and Dorsa will be just fine staying in their own home.

UnderTheShadow2

But shortly after Iraj leaves, Dorsa begins to complain about hearing noises in the house, and she later tells her mother that a mute neighbor kid, Mehdi (Karam Rashayda) has told her that there is an evil djinn haunting the building. Shideh has no patience with fairy tales, and angrily tells Mehdi’s caretakers (who took him in after his parents were killed in the war) to have the child stop telling her daughter scary stories. The neighbors, though, are traditional Muslims, and believe that djinn are real.

The creep factor really begins to ramp up after their apartment building is hit by a missile, which fails to explode but causes some significant damage. Shideh is called to help one of the neighbors who has had a heart attack, but he dies anyway, and the guilt begins to get to her. During all the hubbub, Dorsa loses her beloved doll, Kimia, which was ostensibly protecting her from the djinn, and then Dorsa starts getting ill, contracting a fever that won’t go away, losing her appetite, and having trouble sleeping.

As the film goes on, the child becomes convinced that the djinn took Kimia and she needs to go up to the fourth floor to save her. The building begins to empty out, as neighbors flee the war-torn city for safer locales, until eventually only Shideh and Dorsa remain. Meanwhile, Shideh starts seeing glimpses of creepy shit too, but for a long time she refuses to believe that the haunting is really happening. The cracks in the walls and ceilings of the apartment, much like in Dark Water, reflect the cracks appearing in Shideh’s belief system as well as her relationship with her daughter.

The great thing about Under the Shadow is that, like The Babadook, the story can be enjoyed simply as an eerie supernatural horror flick, or as a multilayered metaphor. Clearly, the character of Shideh is having a hard time accepting that the (traditional, fairy-tale) haunting is real in much the same way that she does not want to accept that the war and the creeping sharia law taking over her country is real, and as I said, she fights against the suffocating forces of traditionalism by lashing out at her husband and, particularly, her child, both of whom represent a female’s hated traditional role. Shideh is trying to hang on to all the rights and privileges of the normal life she previously enjoyed, even as they are slipping away from her. This is amply illustrated by a great scene near the end of the film where Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees from the apartment after seeing the djinn, only to be caught by police out in the street and arrested because she failed to cover her head. She is then berated by the morality police because, according to them, a woman should be more afraid of being exposed in public than anything else, even, the unspoken subtext implies, murderous djinn.

UnderTheShadow6

Thematically, it is also significant that the djinn in the story is portrayed as a ghostlike figure wearing a chador, which not only almost succeeds in convincing Dorsa that it would be a better mother than Shideh is, but ultimately tries to smother Shideh and Dorsa at the end before they finally escape, suggesting that not only will the pall of conservatism envelop Shideh, but also girls of the upcoming generation. And at the end of the film, when it is revealed that, although Shideh and Dorsa managed to drive out of Tehran, the doll Kimia’s head and one of Shideh’s medical books was left behind, it is implied that the oppressive forces of the djinn/sharia law will follow them wherever they go.

Despite all the heavy symbolism, as I mentioned earlier, this is still also a creepy ghost story and can be enjoyed simply on those terms. It’s more subtle and character-based, with only a couple of jump scares, but it does have some wonderfully uncanny imagery, including a chilling scene where Shideh is pulling a figure she thinks is Dorsa out from under the bed. Recommended for fans of interesting metaphorical ghost stories; if you liked The Babadook (or Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, which explores many of the same themes), this should be right up your alley. My only complaint about the movie is that the version currently on Netflix is dubbed (UGH), when subtitles would have obviously been much better. The dubbing is a bit wooden, which mars the experience somewhat, but I got used to it after a while and it didn’t bother me so much. Still, though, I hate dubbing; it’s too distracting knowing that I’m not hearing the actors’ real voices.

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

 

Horror Double Feature: Clown and Mercy

Today’s double slice of Netflix horror goodness runs the gamut from scary killer clowns to…well, scary killer grandmas. I never said it was a particularly wide gamut, did I? On we go.

So, back in 2010, cheeky monkey movie-writing-and-directing dudes Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford made a fake trailer for a fake horror movie called Clown, which to the surprise of no one, was a poignant, tasteful, and poetic tribute to the grim determination of the men and women who survived the Great Depression.

Just kidding, it was about a child-eating clown demon.

Anyway, these two scamps had the large brass cojones to put, “From the Master of Horror, Eli Roth” right there in the credits of their trailer, even though Eli Roth had absolutely never heard of these miscreants in his entire life. But there is a lesson here, folks: Namely, that sometimes if you’re ballsy and sneaky enough, you can sometimes get what you want, whether you really deserve to or not. Point being, this little stunt they pulled got back to the actual Eli Roth, who was amused by their brazenness and intrigued by the concept of the fake movie, so when Watts and Ford decided to make Clown for real, Eli Roth agreed to be one of the producers.

The 2014 film has a fairly straightforward premise: Main character Kent McCoy (Andy Powers) is a realtor as well as a lovable husband and dad, and he has booked a clown for his clown-loving son Jack’s (Christian Destefano) birthday party. Unfortunately, there is a mix-up at the clown-renting establishment, and the party clown can’t come. Kent (very fortuitously) stumbles across a clown suit in the property he’s been fixing up for sale, and he slaps that bitch on and entertains all the kids at his son’s party, Dadding like a boss. His wife Meg (Laura Allen) is so pleased with him that she even gives him a little clown lovin’ later that evening, which is frankly a sentence I thought I’d never type, but here we are.

Clown2

The problem arises on the following morning, as Kent slowly begins to discover that the clown costume refuses to come off. The rainbow wig has grown into actual hair, the clown white cannot be scrubbed away, and the bulbous red nose takes most of his actual nose with it when Meg yanks it off with one of her dental tools. Kent has also developed an unbelievable appetite, and his stomach makes disgusting gurgling noises as if he’s still hungry even after he’s eaten everything in the house (and left a giant mess in the kitchen for his poor wife to clean up, I might add. MEN, amirite?).

Clown3

 

Clown5

Kent’s condition begins to deteriorate rapidly, and when he eventually tracks down the brother of the previous (deceased) owner of the suit, a man named Herbert Karlsson (Peter Stormare), he discovers that, obviously, the suit is not a costume at all, but the skin and hair of an ancient child-eating demon called a clöyne. Herbert has a scary hand-drawn book about the critter, as you would, and he informs Kent that the only way to get rid of the demon is to behead the person wearing the suit, which in this case would be Kent. Kent is shockingly not down with the beheading, and fights his way out of Herbert’s shop, but he soon begins to realize that the demon is quickly taking over and that he suddenly has an insatiable desire to eat children. Don’t we all? (No.)

In order to protect his family, he goes into hiding at one of his more down-market properties, but the hunger is beginning to gnaw away at him (heh), and at some stage he decides he’s going to have to kill himself. As grim as that sounds, it’s actually pretty hilarious watching clown-Kent trying unsuccessfully to blow his brains out with a pistol and getting nothing but a gaudy spray of rainbow-colored blood on the wall for his efforts, and then rigging up a super-elaborate rotating-saw contraption to try to lop his own head off (which unfortunately only succeeds in breaking the saw blade, which flies off and kills a nearby child, which Kent then eats).

Oh, and I forgot to mention that apparently, the clown curse can be broken if Kent eats five kids. Meg figures this out by discovering that Herbert had once worn the suit and turned into the demon himself, but had reverted back to normal after his cancer-doctor brother fed him five terminally ill kiddoes. The Make-A-Wish Foundation, this ain’t.

Clown1

At the climax of the film, clown-Kent goes on a bloody child-munching spree in a Chuck E. Cheese’s, of all places, and his devoted wife Meg, who still believes that Kent can be saved, actually kidnaps a young girl she sort of knows with the intent of her being the fifth sacrifice that will bring Kent back to normal. But Kent has other plans, and wants his own son Jack to be the fifth kid, which of course Meg is not on board with, leading to the final showdown between mallet-wielding Meg and kiddie-snacking clown-Kent.

Clown4

As a movie, Clown is obviously not a grand artistic statement or anything, and yeah, killer clowns are kinda played, but I actually thought this flick was a lot of fun. The premise is amusingly ridiculous, the clown transformation is well-handled and delightfully squicky, and you have to give props to a movie with the stones to kill and mutilate children with such wicked glee. As body horror goes, I’ve seen way grosser, but the gore here is nicely done and should satisfy fans of blood and guts.

The humor is also rather subdued, which I liked a lot, as I think it made the movie funnier than it would have been if they’d gone over the top with it (I swear, I laughed for five minutes at that rainbow blood when Kent shot himself in the head, and also at that framed black and white photo of the kid that had been picking on Jack…as the God of Hellfire pointed out, “Look, it’s his bully portrait”). Besides all that, the main character of Kent remained believable and even sympathetic up until the end. Like I said, not a deep metaphorical horror story or anything, just a big, dumb, fun flick to watch with your friends while cramming popcorn, peanuts, cotton candy, and delicious children into your mouth-hole.

Next up, a movie from Blumhouse that somehow kinda flew under everyone’s radar, even though its pedigree would have suggested a much wider release and much more hoopla. Mercy, which was dumped straight to VOD in 2014, is based on Stephen King’s short story “Gramma” (from 1985’s Skeleton Crew collection) and stars Chandler “Carl Grimes” Riggs from The Walking Dead.

Mercy1

Obviously, the movie takes some liberties with the source material, as “Gramma” was a fairly compact, simple tale about an eleven-year-old boy who gets left alone to look after his terrifying grandmother, and after she “dies,” discovers that she might be housing a demon. While Mercy keeps this general outline for the final portion of the film, a whole bunch of characters and plot intricacies are added in to flesh out the story, and not all of these additions were completely necessary, in my opinion.

One thing I did like about Mercy was that the titular grandmother (Shirley Knight) was actually portrayed at first as a sympathetic character, if somewhat witchy, and that her grandson George (Chandler Riggs) was shown as being best friends with her. It is only as the movie progresses, as Mercy gets older and has to go to a home after having a stroke, that Mercy’s demon possession becomes more pronounced and she turns into a monster.

Mercy

In brief, George, his mom Rebecca (Frances O’Connor) and older brother Buddy (Joel Courtney) have to move back to Gramma’s house in the country to take care of her after she becomes bedridden and the nursing home can’t handle her bizarre outbursts anymore. George is excited to see his beloved Gramma, since he hasn’t seen her in a year, but he is disappointed to find out that his Gramma is a lot different than he remembered.

Over the course of the film, we discover that Gramma Mercy actually sold her soul to a demon named Hastur when she was young, because she was infertile and desperately wanted children. Indeed, she soon got the children she wanted, but the cost was that her goodness slowly began to erode away, and it got to the point where her husband couldn’t take it anymore and committed suicide (by splitting his own face in half with an ax, no less, which is quite a feat if you’ve never tried it).

George (and his mom, to a lesser extent) wants to believe that the good Gramma is still in there somewhere, but the local priest and George’s drunken uncle Lanning (Mark Duplass of the previously-discussed Creep, in easily the film’s most entertaining performance) believe that the evil has completely taken over, and maybe even that Mercy was always evil. After George is convinced to water down Gramma’s meds with saline solution, thinking the meds are what is making her batshit, she starts acting up in all kinds of crazy ways, doing creepy Satanic chants and killing Lanning (and a few others) stone dead.

The final act of the film follows Stephen King’s story pretty closely, as George’s brother Buddy gets wounded and Mom has to take him to the hospital, leaving George alone with his now completely possessed Gramma, who dies on his watch before various other demonic shenanigans ensue. Much like the original story, we’re not entirely sure whether the demon actually succeeds in getting passed on to George, or whether he ultimately defeats it, though it’s suggested that the latter scenario is the case.

Mercy

This movie…I admit I’m kind of ambivalent about it. It looked fantastic, and I love witch/demon stories, especially ones with a bit of a Lovecraftian flair like this one has. The general cinematography was gorgeous and evocative, the “weeping book” imagery was cool and a rad addition to the story, the performances were pretty strong throughout (except Chandler Riggs, who is not bad, but just Chandler Riggs-y, y’know, and hey, don’t hate, I love The Walking Dead). I just thought that the story could have been simplified and streamlined more, which I guess is a pretty weird thing to say about a movie that was only 78 minutes long, but in a way, the fact that it was so short meant that maybe they should have expanded more on a few ideas instead of just giving short shrift to all the extra concepts and unnecessary characters they had rattling around in there.

Like, for instance, as much as I love Dylan McDermott, who was his character exactly in relation to the main family, and why did he need to be in this, and what was the point of the flirtation between him and George’s mom that never came to anything? What was with his character’s apparently Satan-worshipping wife with the scary demonic paintings? What was with the creepy black dog/hellhound deal? Why the crazy aunt escaping from the asylum only to get killed instantly? And was she the one who sent the verbena? And why was it necessary that George have a ghost/imaginary friend? (I mean, I guess I understand that the girl was supposed to be his Gramma’s pure soul before she got possessed or whatever, it just seemed a strange way to get that across).

See what I’m saying? A lot goes on in this thing, and because there are so many characters and plot threads in what is essentially a pretty straightforward demon-possession story, a lot of the tendrils are just kinda left hanging and underdeveloped. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie…it’s definitely not. Hell, it’s not even a bad Stephen King adaptation, and Lord knows there are shit-tons of those. It’s enjoyable enough, and creepy and entertaining as this type of thing goes, but I didn’t feel like it was anything particularly special. Just fair-to-middlin’, as my own (non-evil) Gramma used to say.

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

Horror Double Feature: Beyond the Gates and Dead Silence

It’s another lazy weekend, which means it’s time once again for another horror two-hitter, courtesy of Netflix. Today’s pairing was really nothing to write home about, but enjoyable enough to write a blog post about, so let’s get right to it.

First up, 2016’s Beyond the Gates, directed by Jackson Stewart, and winner of the midnight-movie audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film, like many indie horrors of the past few years, is a throwback to a golden era of horror cinema (the 1980s; not that I’m complaining about that), and overall I found it a fairly charming effort, though I admit the pacing and tone seemed a shade uneven. Though the movie wasn’t really scary, had a somewhat slow first half, and was obviously a bit hamstrung by its nothing budget, I gotta say I’m looking forward to what this director comes up with in the future, as this was a pretty solid and generally entertaining horror-comedy.

The movie deals with two estranged and polar opposite brothers, uptight and nerdy recovering alcoholic Gordon (Graham Skipper) and shiftless bum John (Chase Williamson), who reunite in their home town in order to pack up their Luddite dad’s old-school video rental store. Seems that dear old dad, also an alkie, has been prone to binges and disappearances for some time, but since his most recent vanishing act has lasted more than seven months, the guys are assuming that this time, their father is never coming back.

Gordon decides to stay at his parents’ empty house while he’s in town, and he’s soon joined by his sweet and supportive girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant), who we later learn was the reason for Gordon giving up drinking, since he hurt her once when he was drunk. Before too long, John also asks to stay there, since apparently the couch he had been surfing on ejected him back into the streets for failure to cough up any rent money.

As the brothers are sorting through the vast and shadowy store, they discover in the locked back office the last thing their father had been watching before he vanished: one of those interactive VHS games that were fairly popular back in the 80s and early 90s, called, naturally, “Beyond the Gates.” The guys watch part of the tape (which features the wonderful Barbara Crampton of Re-Animator fame as the “host” of the game; she is easily the best part of the movie, peering creepily out of the TV screen with her kohl-rimmed eyes), and eventually come to believe that the game had something to do with their father’s disappearance, and finally they figure out that they’re going to have to play the game to the end to find out what happened to him and help him escape from whatever hell-dimension he got sucked into.

This movie did have quite a lot to recommend it, especially if you love cheapie 80s horror flicks and the more recent movies that pay homage to them. Barbara Crampton, as I said, was fantastic; some of the funniest/creepiest parts of the movie involved Gordon, John, and Margot hemming and hawing about the game, and Barbara Crampton (ostensibly on an old black and white VHS tape) just staring intently at them, waiting for them to make their next move. I also really liked the whole retro feel of the opening credits and the movie as a whole, including the Goblin-like opening theme and the predominance of neon pinks and blues. The look of the video store also brought back some pleasant memories, and the tone of the film was overall very similar to a movie of this type from the era. I also loved the design of the board game itself, which had a wonderful homemade gothic aesthetic going on.

I also liked that the movie took its time establishing the relationships between the characters, though I’m not sure it was entirely successful on that score, as I never felt fully engaged with them. And honestly, I felt like the plot could have been sped up a tad, as the first half of the movie seemed to drag somewhat before we got to the actual gameplay. And once the game actually started, there seemed to be a lot of scenes of the characters arguing about whether they should continue playing or not, which got a little repetitive.

I should also say that I felt like the balance between the horror and the comedy was a bit strange; much of the humor was fairly low-key, which is fine, but then there were a couple scenes of over-the-top gore that were clearly supposed to be funny (and they were, for the most part), and a brief comic turn by Jesse Merlin as a ghoulish antique shop proprietor, but the funny stuff didn’t really seem to fit in with the mostly serious relationship drama going on between the brothers and between Gordon and his girlfriend. So as I said, the tone of it was a bit off.

It was also painfully clear that budgetary constraints forced the filmmakers into a box; the journey “beyond the gates” and into the evil dimension was simply facilitated by an ordinary iron gate sitting in the house’s basement, and the evil dimension was just the basement shot with creepier lighting and a smoke machine, but I’m not gonna fault the movie too much for that, because making an indie movie and having to squeeze every penny is hard enough without assholes like me dinging you for having more ambition than cash. And it could be that they shot it like that on purpose, in order to give it that legit 1980s low-budget schlock touch.

So all in all, a decent 80s throwback that should please fans of the same, though it could have done with a bit more cohesion and a slightly quicker pace.

Next up, a film I only just got around to seeing, even though it came out way the hell back in 2007. James Wan and Leigh Wannell, obviously best known at the time for the Saw series, made Dead Silence three years after their breakout debut, and though it’s a completely different kind of film than any in the Saw franchise, I came away feeling sort of meh about the whole thing. I should note here that while I can see why James Wan became such a horror behemoth, most of his movies (The Conjuring, Insidious, even Saw) never struck me as anything particularly special. I realize that’s just me; for some reason his movies, while I enjoy them for the most part, don’t resonate with me, and I tend to forget them shortly after seeing them. I can’t really articulate why that is, but maybe in the course of writing out my thoughts on Dead Silence, I can clarify what I mean.

DeadSilence

The premise, for the three of you who haven’t seen it, is that main character Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) receive an unmarked package that contains a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy. Even though Jamie (and maybe Lisa too, this wasn’t clear) come from a small town where there’s a scary urban legend about a ghostly ventriloquist and a perception that ventriloquist’s dummies are portents of death, Jamie doesn’t immediately chuck the thing out of the nearest window or set it on fire, but instead leaves it in the apartment with his wife while he goes to grab some takeout. Predictably, the doll murders Lisa, ripping out her tongue and leaving her with her mouth wrenched open like a vent figure’s. This prompts Jamie to return to his hometown of Ravens Fair to try to figure out who sent the doll and why it killed his wife, and on the journey, he is pursued by the endlessly shaving and wisecracking Detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), who is convinced that Jamie is responsible for the murder.

First of all, I have to say that this movie looks terrific. Very gothic and atmospheric, which is always a plus in my book. I also dug the whole ventriloquist aesthetic, with the old-school theater and all the trappings of 1940s showbiz, and I gotta admit that the dolls were effectively eerie, as vent figures in movies tend to be. Ghost ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) was also cool-looking and easily the scariest part of a not-very-scary movie; overall, the visuals and the sound design of Dead Silence were admittedly pretty rad.

Where the movie failed, I felt, was in the plotting and the characterization. The characters were not engaging or charismatic, made dumb decisions (by gum, I think I’ll drive to a cemetery in the middle of the night with a haunted doll sitting right beside me in the passenger seat!), and spouted lame, cliched dialogue. The acting performances were not all that great, with Donnie Wahlberg’s detective seeming like a weird parody of a character and the guy who played Jamie just kind of bland.

The way the story moved along also felt too pat and obvious: for example, Jamie is all, I’m gonna go ask my estranged dad what’s going on with all this murderous doll ghost business, and then he goes to his dad’s house, and his dad’s like, I don’t want to tell you, and Jamie’s like, no dude, tell me, and dad’s like, okay, then, we all killed Mary Shaw back in the day and now she’s killing all our descendants in revenge, sorry I never laid all that exposition on you before, my bad. You get my drift? I just felt like everything was over-explained, like the movie didn’t trust the audience to figure anything out and had to make double-dog sure we were all on the same page, even though viewers were not only on the same page, but had finished the book a long time before the movie did.

DeadSilence3

The “twist” at the end of the movie was sort of neat, but not entirely unexpected. I don’t know, the whole gestalt of the movie reminded me of some of the lamer, PG-13 horror flicks of the era, like Darkness Falls, except a bit gorier; it seemed as though it wasn’t really made for adults. I watched the whole thing through and didn’t get too annoyed, but overall I thought it was just kind of there. But then again, I feel that way about a lot of James Wan’s movies. I think I would have liked this flick a lot more if I had watched it with the volume down and played some music to it instead, because it would make a gorgeous long-form goth-rock video, but as a movie…eh, not so much.

That’s all for now, and until next time, steer clear of retro VHS games and tongue-stealing vent puppets, and keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

 

Horror Double Feature: Honeymoon and Uncle John

Relationships…they can be rough. Whether your significant other is slowly changing into someone else, or your budding office romance is in danger of being sabotaged by a small-town murder committed by an affable family member, there’s always something that can (and will) go wrong. And if there is a theme to today’s Netflix Double Feature, then I can’t really think of a better one than “you can never really know the people you love.” So let’s do this.

A hit at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, director Leigh Janiak’s impressive debut Honeymoon is, I think, best enjoyed going into it cold, as I did, because I really had no idea what was going on until near the end, which made the film a reliably harrowing experience (I‘m gonna spoil it here, though, so caveat emptor). It’s not quite up there with some other recent indies I’ve reviewed (They Look Like People, Starry Eyes, The Invitation), but it’s a solid slice of micro-budget horror/sci-fi that actually left a lingering impression on me for several days afterwards.

Starring two British actors playing hipster Brooklynites (Rose Leslie from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, and Harry Treadaway from Penny Dreadful and Cockneys vs. Zombies), Honeymoon draws great emotional power from the isolated setting and the all-in performances of its main characters. Essentially a two-hander (there are also two peripheral characters, but they’re only in a couple of scenes), the movie wrings ample tension from the idea that the person you know and love the most is not the person that you thought, mining that same vein of paranoia that infuses classic horror films like Rosemary‘s Baby, and most relevantly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Honeymoon1

Bea and Paul are sickeningly adorable newlyweds, and we meet them first through the precious conceit of their wedding video, where they talk about their first date and lament that some people weren’t happy that they had cinnamon buns instead of cake at their wedding. The lovebirds are next shown arriving at a remote cabin in the woods for their honeymoon, said cabin having belonged to Bea’s family for many years, though Bea has apparently not been there since she was a teenager. Interestingly, I didn’t notice any mention being made of where her parents were now, though I’ll save my speculations about that for later.

Bea and Paul waste no time getting into honeymoon mode, having sex, cooking pancakes, fishing out on the lake, and generally being their darling, ridiculously in-love selves. This buildup of their relationship is important, because it makes the horrible things that happen later all that much more gut-wrenching.

Honeymoon2

The first little thing that seems off occurs when Bea and Paul take a break from their constant shagging to walk down to a local restaurant. It looks deserted, but when they go inside, they run into Will (Ben Huber), who initially seems super aggro until he recognizes Bea as the girl he used to hang out with when they were both thirteen and their families both summered on the lake. They have an awkward catch-up, but something seems not-right about Will, and Paul can’t help but notice the weird way the guy is checking out his wife. Weirder still is the subsequent appearance of Will’s wife Annie (Hanna Brown), who looks ill and frightened, and tells Bea and Paul they need to get out of there. Bea also makes note of how Will grips Annie’s arm as though he wants to hurt her.

Later, in bed, Bea explains to Paul who Will is, and she seems unable to stop thinking about how strange the whole situation was. She makes a few playfully disparaging comments about Paul not being as “alpha” as Will, but then she seems to get down to the bottom of what troubled her about the exchange when she says, “You’re not like him. We’re not like them.” Foreshadowing, yo.

Only a day or two into the wedded bliss, Paul wakes up in the middle of the night to find that Bea is gone. After searching the house, he runs out into the woods yelling for her, clearly terrified that something dreadful has happened. He eventually finds her, standing out in the woods, naked and disoriented. He brings her back to the house and she insists that she’s fine, that she must have just been sleepwalking. Paul seems a tad skeptical of this explanation, but is mostly just relieved that he found Bea in one piece.

From that point forward, though, Paul notices that Bea is starting to change. She becomes a little distant and forgetful. When making breakfast, she forgets to batter the French toast and just leaves nude bread to burn on the grill, and she forgets to grind the beans in the coffee maker. She starts forgetting things about their wedding, which only occurred four days before. She starts writing things about her life, like her name, her address, and her birthday, in a notebook that she tries to hide from Paul. She starts using strange phrases (“I’m going to take a sleep,” for example, or referring to a suitcase as a “clothes box”). She starts losing interest in sex, even though she was previously all about it. Paul observes her standing in front of a mirror “practicing” things she’s going to say to him later. He even notices bizarre sores on her inner thighs that Bea insists are just mosquito bites. He tries to talk to her, but she just attributes it to being tired, of the stress from the wedding catching up with her.

Honeymoon3

Paul isn’t buying it, and thinks it has something to do with that night out in the woods. To this end, he goes out in the daylight to the spot where he found her, and discovers not only her torn “special honeymoon nightgown” out there covered with some kind of suspicious slime, but also what appears to be a large footprint. From this, he deduces that Bea and Will had some sort of tryst out in the woods, and that she’s been acting so odd because she feels guilty and is trying to keep it from him.

Paul confronts her about the nightgown, though he tells her that even if she did sleep with Will that night, that he still loves her and that he just wants to know, because otherwise he has no idea what is going on with her. Bea gets angry and defensive, and accuses him of ruining everything. Paul, terrified and confused about what is happening to this woman that he previously adored, decides to get some answers from Will.

But when he goes to the restaurant, he doesn’t find Will, though he does find Annie, who looks even more fucked up than before. She tells him Will is “hiding,” and that Paul should leave because, “We’ll hurt you.” Paul notices that Annie has the same sores on her inner thighs as Bea does, but of course Annie won’t tell him what’s going on either. After she takes off, Paul finds Will’s bloody hat floating in the lake near the dock. He also finds sheets of paper with writing on it, showing that Annie has also taken to writing down simple details about her identity over and over, just like Bea has. Hmmmmm.

From this point forward, things take a more body-horror type turn, as various fluids such as blood, slime, and weird webbing begin coming out of Bea’s vagina and other orifices. Paul is beginning to twig to the fact that Bea is not really Bea anymore, but she insists she still is. When he grills her on various aspects of their life and her identity, she has a hard time remembering them correctly, though she seems frightened by this and begs him to help her. Honestly, I thought this was really the best part of the movie, because Harry Treadaway did a fantastic job conveying how it would feel to see a woman you loved clearly changing into someone else while still looking like the person you married, and Rose Leslie was equally great at getting across the terror of knowing that you were changing but being unable to convince your loved one that deep down you were still you in there somewhere.

Honeymoon4

So, at last, after Paul reaches into his wife’s vag and pulls out an alarming item that looks something like a giant animate root, the explanation is forthcoming. That night in the woods, Bea finally admits, there was a bright light that came to her and put something inside her. She knows what it is and she knows what she’s supposed to do, and she knows that “they” are going to be taking her, and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. She says she just wanted to have these last few days with Paul be perfect before she got taken away.

So yeah…aliens. I mean, they didn’t come out and say it was aliens, but it was obviously something like that, some type of body-snatching extraterrestrial beings that didn’t want the men, but only the women, because of course Annie got taken over and impregnated too. At the end, Bea decides that she doesn’t want the aliens to kill Paul, so she decides to “hide” him from them (just like Annie did to Will). Unfortunately, her idea of hiding him entails knocking him out, then tying him to an anchor and dropping him to the bottom of the lake, since she has apparently forgotten that humans can’t breathe underwater. There was actually a nice piece of foreshadowing of this sequence earlier in the film, when Bea and Paul are out fishing, and Bea mentions while fastening a worm to a hook that worms can breathe underwater for five minutes, implying that the aliens who have overtaken her see humans as no different than earthworms.

In the final scene, we see Bea looking all gross, with yellow eyes and weird webby skin, and then a bright light comes and she goes to meet the aliens.

Honeymoon5

I really enjoyed this movie a lot, though I will admit that it’s always something of a letdown when the explanation is “aliens.” I realize that’s just me, though; for some reason I’m generally not a fan of movies where aliens are the baddies, with only a few obvious exceptions. And to Honeymoon’s credit, it must be said that it didn’t really smack you in the face with aliens, as it didn’t really show them as anything other than bright lights and a few vague silhouettes, and the word itself was never mentioned.

That said, the suspense in this was terrific, and I really was intrigued by the story, trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Bea. Additionally, both Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie really sold the terror and confusion that would arise from such a scenario, and the movie works just as well as a straight horror/sci-fi flick as it does a sly metaphor about relationship breakdown, about that horrible feeling when you slowly start to realize that you have married a stranger.

I have to say that I think I would have liked a little more explanation about the nature of the body-snatching, though. Why did the aliens target the women in this particular remote location, or was this happening all over the world and we were just seeing it affect this one area? Did Bea know about the body-snatchers from before, when she used to spend summers there as a kid? Was she, in fact, an alien pretending to be a human all along? (I admit I don’t really buy this, since it’s suggested that she and Paul had been together for a long time before they married, but it’s still a possibility, I guess.) Where were her parents all this time, and were they also taken over by the aliens at some earlier date? I don’t know if the movie would have benefited from more explanation or if it was better left ambiguous the way it was, but I have to admit that I was left kinda curious. Which I suppose is the mark of a good movie, that I wanted to know more about it. So there’s that.

I would definitely recommend this for fans of body-snatching movies, horror/sci-fi crossovers, and general body horror (though it’s not nearly as disgusting as Starry Eyes was, I have to say), as well as fans of intimate relationship dramas gone monstrously wrong.

Speaking of relationship dramas (sort of), the second film in the line-up is actually not a horror film per se, but more like a Coen-Brothers-style crime thriller interwoven with a sweet and understated romantic comedy/drama. The end result is not quite as strange as that sounds, and even though the juxtaposition of the two genres is an audacious one, particularly for a first-time director, it somehow really works, producing a gripping film whose seemingly disparate plot lines nicely complement one another. And if you’re looking for some nail-biting suspense on top of that, this flick’s got that in spades.

UncleJohn1

2015’s Uncle John, directed by Steven Piet, starts out by introducing us to the title character, a stoic but friendly Wisconsin carpenter (played by veteran actor John Ashton) who happens to be right in the middle of murdering a dude and meticulously covering up the crime. Right away, the movie sucks you in, especially since nothing is really explained right off the bat, and additionally since after disposing of the body in a bonfire in broad daylight, Uncle John is seen bein’ a neighborly and well-respected member of the small farming community, sitting with his oldster buddies at the local cafe. So the viewer is like, what was that murder all about? Is this guy a serial killer or what?

UncleJohn5

Before we really get any definitive answers, though, the movie seemingly barrels off in another direction. Now we’re in a hip Chicago advertising firm filled with scruffy millennials. Graphic designer Ben (Alex Moffat) is being introduced to his new manager, a lovely young woman named Kate (Jenna Lyng), who he is instantly attracted to. They have some sweet and genuine banter, and there are hints that some romance may be developing between these two appealing characters in the very near future.

UncleJohn3

UncleJohn4

Then we’re back to the murder in Lodi, Wisconsin, where we learn that the man Uncle John murdered was named Dutch and that he wasn’t a particularly popular person in town. Evidently he had fucked a bunch of people over, but had just recently had a vision in which he had seen hell, and had subsequently given his life over to Jesus. He had spent the previous few weeks going to all the townsfolk he had wronged and trying to make amends, though obviously the wrong he did Uncle John was too big for forgiveness. No one seems terribly put out by Dutch’s disappearance, and the police are operating on the assumption that he just got drunk and drowned in the lake, but Dutch’s shady brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins) has a hunch that Dutch was murdered, and is bound and determined to find out whodunnit.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Ben and Kate are having some will-they-won’t-they type interactions, and even though it sounds dismissive when I say it like that, these two characters really are adorable and funny and a pleasure to watch. Kate has just left a long relationship with a co-worker and has decided she won’t be dating any more co-workers in the future (sad trombone), but Ben decides to be her friend anyway, hoping that she’ll eventually see the light. Somewhere around this stage, we finally figure out the relationship between the two parallel plots: Uncle John is Ben’s uncle, and John raised him after Ben’s mother was killed in an “accident” and after he was abandoned by his father. Ben has nothing but praise for Uncle John, who he clearly loves and admires a great deal.

UncleJohn2

Back in Lodi, the search for Dutch continues, and Danny is growing ever more suspicious, particularly of John, though John keeps his Midwestern affability intact. I gotta say, I’ve seen John Ashton in a lot of movies, but I think this is my favorite role of his I’ve seen; he’s just so good as the quiet, friendly, small-town guy who decides to take care of business and is the last person anyone would suspect of doing such a thing. In fact, that’s kinda the great thing about this movie, is that despite Uncle John being a murderer, you can’t help but love the guy and defend his actions, especially when we learn that John killed Dutch because Dutch had been having an affair with his sister (Ben’s mother) and had treated her horribly, and that him leaving her prompted her to commit suicide.

In Chicago, Ben and Kate are working some weekend overtime together at the office when they decide they want to break for coffee and doughnuts. They initially plan to go somewhere nearby, but Ben mentions that he’s never had any doughnuts as good as the ones in his hometown, so on a whim, Kate suggests they finish up their work and then take the two-and-a-half-hour drive out to Lodi to visit the place where Ben grew up, and possibly spend the rest of the weekend visiting with Uncle John. And hence, the two plots finally converge.

When Ben and Kate arrive in Lodi, John is surprised to see them, especially since Danny has been sniffing around and making veiled threats, but everyone puts on friendly faces. Danny even stays over at John’s house while Ben and Kate proceed to grill some steaks, though after trying to needle John about his sister’s death, John takes him aside and has some words with him, after which Danny storms off. Ben and Kate, clueless as to what’s been going on, wonder what got up his butt, but John covers for him, saying he just had to go to work.

As the evening goes on, the tension starts to mount. You know that Danny is going to come back and do something bad, and because you’ve spent so much time getting to know Ben, Kate, and John, you really, really don’t want anything bad to happen to them. You especially don’t want Ben and Kate to get caught in the crossfire of all this intrigue, especially since they have no idea what has been going on in Lodi, and no idea that John is actually a murderer.

So then two things start to happen. Ben and Kate, who are still playing the “just friends” game, are sleeping in different rooms, but both of them come downstairs around the same time, ostensibly to see if the other one is up. So yeah, they end up sharing a sweet kiss, and we’re like YAY because honestly, these two are cute and we’ve been rooting for them.

But then, outside, Danny has indeed returned. He has a can of gasoline, and a gun in his waistband. What he doesn’t know, though, is that Uncle John has already assumed that Danny would be coming back, and is hiding in the barn with a rifle.

There then comes an absolutely stomach-churning sequence where Danny is looking at the house, fiddling with his gun, and we can clearly see Ben and Kate through the windows as they finally act on their attraction after all this time. And maybe it’s dumb, but I was like, oh man, please don’t let this end the way it looks like it’s gonna, I really liked those two, and they didn’t even do anything. It looks bad for them, and I admit I didn’t really want to keep watching.

But luckily — spoiler alert — John emerges from the barn and whacks Danny (quietly) upside the head with the rifle butt, then slowly and silently squeezes the life out of him, thereby saving his nephew and his nephew’s new love without them even knowing they were ever in danger. It’s actually a really touching scene, as it shows how the salt-of-the-earth small town old guy is willing to murder and go to jail to save his adopted son, even though by his facial expression, you can tell that John really didn’t want to have to do it.

Uncle John2

Ben and Kate head back to Chicago the next morning, neither of them the wiser, and as they have a discussion in the car about Kate’s “crazy” relatives and Ben’s “normal” Uncle John, John himself is shown burning Danny’s body in a bonfire in the quarry. A cop car pulls up behind him, and you’re like, uh oh, jig’s up, but really the cop is just there to tell John that now Danny is missing and he might want to watch out for himself, since Danny was going around town thinking everyone murdered his brother Dutch and that he might be dangerous. Irony! So John skates, but for how long?

This sounds like a film that shouldn’t really work, but it does, beautifully. The two plots, while completely different on their surfaces, actually complement and comment on one another in myriad ways. Amid the film’s themes are how little you actually know about the “dark sides” of those you love, and how parents, biological or otherwise, will sacrifice everything to keep their children from harm, even if that means covering up a murder or two.

As I said, not really a horror movie, but a fantastic suspense thriller with some absolutely stellar performances and a third act that had me perched on the edge of my chair. Recommended to Coen Brothers fans as well as more general lovers of crime movies and odd mashups.

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

 

 

Horror Double Feature: Creep and They Look Like People

Well, it’s another rainy summer Saturday, I am sick as hell, and in order to alleviate the symptoms of my unknown malady, I decided to cheer myself up with a couple horror movies on Netflix (hey, you cheer yourself up in your own way; horror just makes me feel better, okay?).

It so happened that I had something of a “strange bromance” theme with today’s picks, which is odd because even though I generally choose movies I’ve heard positive things about through the grapevine, I mostly pick the movies at random, and I deliberately try not to read too much about the movies before I watch them, because I like to come to them with as few preconceptions as possible. So today’s pairing was something of a happy accident, and I will say that even though the two films are starkly different in their methods of attack, both had some surprisingly insightful things to say about friendship, trust, and mental illness, aside from both being scary as fuck. They were also, I should note, both directorial debuts of their respective helmers, something I found quite extraordinary as each film unfolded, so confident did both the movies come across. As you can probably tell, I would highly recommend both of them, with absolutely no caveats or reservations whatsoever. Onward.

First up, 2014’s Creep, co-written by and starring Patrick Brice (who also directed) and Mark Duplass. The film utilizes the found-footage platform and is a partially improvised piece, but it’s quite unlike any other found footage movie I’ve seen, and its oddity and focus on the interplay between the only two characters gives it a palpable tension throughout.

Creep3

Aaron (Patrick Brice) is a videographer who answers a mysterious Craigslist ad offering him $1000 for a day’s work, the only requirement being that his discretion would be appreciated. When he arrives at the remote cabin, he meets the goofy and personal-space-invading Josef (Mark Duplass), who we immediately suspect is up to some sketchy business, though quite what that is, we’re not entirely sure.

Josef tells Aaron that he had cancer a couple of years before that went into remission, but that recently the cancer returned in the form of a baseball-sized, inoperable tumor in his brain. He says that doctors have only given him a couple of months to live, and also that his wife Angela is pregnant with their first child. Josef says that, just like in the tearjerker Michael Keaton movie My Life, he wants to document a day in his life so that his unborn son will someday be able to watch it and know something about what his father was like.

Aaron is sympathetic, but still businesslike, and proceeds to document the weirdness that is Josef, just as he was paid to do. Right off the bat, Josef tests the boundaries of Aaron’s discomfort by stripping down and getting into the bathtub, saying that he wants to simulate giving his baby son “Buddy” a bath, just like his father did when he was little. Aaron is a little disturbed, especially when Josef pretends to drown himself in the tub and then brushes it off as his “weird sense of humor,” but he carries on, not only because he was hired to do so, but also, it’s implied, because he’s beginning to feel sorry for Josef, who is ostensibly dying and clearly needs a friend.

Creep4

As the day goes on, the oversharing, overly friendly, and overly optimistic Josef takes Aaron on a hike to find a healing spring in the woods that’s shaped like a heart, jumps out from behind trees to frighten Aaron and then comments approvingly on Aaron’s “murderous” expressions, and puts on a wolf mask and dances around, claiming the mask was his father’s and that it represented a friendly wolf character named Peachfuzz (which was the original title of the movie, by the way). The viewer is left unsettled and nervous by Josef’s goofball antics, which aren’t really threatening per se, but which are so strange that you just know something is up with the guy; the tension comes from not knowing exactly what his endgame is.

Creep1

Creep2

At the end of the day, Aaron has had just about enough of Josef and prepares to leave, but Josef convinces him to have one last drink so they can film the end of “Buddy’s” video. They have the drink, Josef confesses some decidedly un-kosher things about his wife, and then Aaron decides now is the time to get the fuck out of Dodge. Only, uh oh, where are his car keys? Thinking fast, Aaron invites Josef to have one more drink, which he spikes with Benadryl. After Josef falls asleep, Aaron begins poking around for his keys. During the search, Josef’s phone rings, and it’s Angela, who confirms Aaron’s suspicions that something is amiss by saying that she’s actually Josef’s sister, not his wife, that Josef has “some problems,” and that he (Aaron) would do well to just walk out of the house and never come back.

As Aaron tries to escape, it comes to pass that Josef has woken up, and is now wearing the wolf mask and blocking the door. The two men have a scuffle, during which the camera winks off, and in the next scene, we are shown footage of Josef walking in the woods near the cabin, carrying three garbage bags and then digging what appears to be a grave. For a moment, we presume that the movie has gone the direction we expected it would, but Creep has some twists up its sleeve.

As it turns out, Aaron got away from the house just fine. The footage of the “grave” we’re seeing was actually sent to him by Josef, presumably as a threat. From then on, the movie becomes more of a bizarrely hilarious/horrifying stalker tale, with Josef sending him strange videos and then sending him other videos apologizing for those, sending him weird gifts (like a silver locket with both their pictures in it, engraved with “J + A Forever”), and turning up at his apartment without Aaron’s knowledge. This part of the movie is actually even creepier than the first, if that’s possible, because even though we’re now sure that something is really not right with Josef, we still kinda feel sorry for him, as it really seems that he’s just lonely and emotionally unstable. Aaron too is drawn in by the man and can’t stop thinking about him, confessing to the camera that he’s been having strange nightmares about Josef, and that he still wants to believe that Josef is a good guy who just needs some help.

Creep5

It is in this spirit that he receives Josef’s final video, in which Josef tells Aaron that he simply can’t stop lying and that he has no friends, and he seems entirely aware that what he’s been doing is creepy and off-putting, but that he’s just desperate for some human connection. He asks Aaron to meet him one last time, in a wide open public place, so that he can confess everything to Aaron and have some closure before moving on with his life.

Aaron, perhaps naively, agrees, though he takes the precaution of filming the encounter surreptitiously and keeping his finger poised over 911 on his cell phone. However — spoiler alert — neither of these precautions help him one little bit. In the end, in fact, Aaron’s kindness and empathy with the unhinged Josef lead to a somewhat predictable but expertly executed ending, made all the more powerful by the detachment of the act and the disturbing reveal of the coda.

Gotta say, I really loved this one; the back-and-forth between the two characters was entertaining, genuine, and organic, and the movie deftly balanced comedy with horror to a spectacular degree, where one was greatly enhanced by the other. Josef’s strange personality was compelling and produced tons of tension throughout the whole movie, as you weren’t really sure whether the guy was just a socially awkward eccentric or a full blown nutjob. Aaron was also an immensely relatable character, and it was easy to place myself in his shoes as the situation he found himself in grew ever more bizarre. Definitely an original take on the found-footage genre, and a movie that leaves a lasting impression.

Next up, another tale of two bros, but one with a much more uplifting and heartfelt conclusion. 2015’s They Look Like People, written and directed by Perry Blackshear, is psychological horror at its very finest, mining the depths of the human mind to stunning effect, crafting a film that is simultaneously terrifying and deeply moving.

They-Look-Like-People-2

In the film, Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Dumouchel) are old school buddies who reconnect in New York City after having been separated for many years. Both were bullied geeks at school, with the implication being that they became such close friends as kids because they were all one another had. In the ensuing years, Christian, once a 98-pound-weakling, has tried to reinvent himself by bulking up at the gym and trying to “dominate” at his hip media-type job, helped out by listening to daily affirmations on his headphones, read to him by his ex-fiancee. He’s also trying to put the moves on his boss Mara, played with great spunk and sensitivity by Margaret Ying Drake. Despite his insistence that this is the “new,” more confidant Christian, however, his insecurities are still painfully evident.

They-Look-Like-People-4

Wyatt, on the other hand, has taken a different path, working manual labor. He has also recently broken up with a fiancee, but his biggest problems far outweigh that; it seems, in fact, that Wyatt has been receiving calls on his broken cell phone from someone who is telling him that the people around him are being infected and taken over by demons, and that he must be prepared for battle because he is one of the chosen, the “blessed,” who can see the demons and help rid the world of them.

It is in the character of Wyatt that the movie really shines, and in fact this is easily one of the best and most sensitive portrayals of mental illness I think I have ever seen on film. Wyatt, despite his obvious schizophrenia and the possible danger he may pose to others, is always sympathetic and is never portrayed as a crazy person, but rather as someone who is most of the time able to fake being normal for the benefit of those around him, who is aware that something is wrong with him but unable to tell what is real and what isn’t, and at the same time is greatly disturbed and frustrated by this inability.

They-Look-Like-People-1

The most frightening scenes in the film come from Wyatt’s warped perceptions of friends and strangers alike, as he seeks to discover who has been taken over by the demons and who hasn’t. Though the movie doesn’t have many traditional “jump scares,” most of the scenes with Wyatt are just straight-up skin-crawling, because you’re never sure what his twisted brain is going to show him, and the fact that you like him and feel for him so much as a character gives that added little flourish of dread. As his mental state deteriorates to the point where he is building up an arsenal of axes and sulfuric acid to deal with the upcoming monster takeover, the audience finds itself frightened on his behalf as well as for the fates of his friends, all the while railing against the tragic injustice of his duplicitous mind.

They-Look-Like-People-5

Another fantastic thing about They Look Like People is the way the deep friendship between the two male leads is explored; here are two men who feel lost and inadequate in their own ways, but are able to bond with and love one another unreservedly. Their relationship, I would argue, is the only thing that keeps each of them hanging in there long after they normally would have given up, and the scenes of them goofing around in Christian’s apartment like they did when they were kids really gave the movie a lot of genuine heart, and made the final act all that much more affecting.

They-Look-Like-People-3

The conclusion of They Look Like People is just absolutely perfect, a thing of beauty, really. It’s tense and terrifying, sure, but also so touching that I legitimately teared up. In the end, it is Christian’s unwavering trust in Wyatt and his willingness to put his own life on the line for his friend that ultimately saves Wyatt from his madness. So while the film is undoubtedly scary and gave me the heebie-jeebies in much the same way a David Lynch movie does, it is also indescribably human in a way a lot of horror movies just aren’t. Its naturalism, deep sympathy for its characters, and overarching pall of impending doom make it easily one of the best recent horror films I’ve seen, no doubt about it. A great, chilling, and gripping watch from beginning to end. Definite winner.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.