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.

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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?).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Horror Double Feature: The Sacrament and The Eyes of My Mother

It’s dual movie reviewin’ time again, folks! Today’s double bill features two films that share something of a ponderous, more art-house aesthetic, and while both have their profoundly disturbing moments, their approach to their respective subjects is miles apart.

First up is Ti West’s 2014 faux documentary, The Sacrament. The conceit of the film is that a young photographer named Patrick (Kentucker Audley) has received a letter from his formerly drug-addicted sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) in which she sings the praises of a new commune she has joined (in some never-mentioned country) that has helped her get clean and get her life back together. Slightly concerned for her welfare, Patrick decides to go visit her, taking along a two-man team from Vice Media, Sam and Jake (played by AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg, respectively), to document this odd-sounding community and perhaps get a juicy story out of the deal.

The guys arrive at the secluded forest village, named Eden Parish, and while they are initially taken aback by the men with guns guarding the gates who seem reluctant to let them inside, once Caroline emerges, everything is sorted out, and the visitors are seemingly given every hospitality. Patrick separates from the others so he can spend some quality time with Caroline, and Sam and Jake are allowed to roam the grounds freely and interview the locals, who all seem quite content in this utopian commune and who have nothing but praise for the group’s leader, an enigmatic Southern preacher simply known as Father.

Sam and Jake are suspicious of all this hippie bullshit, but they do have to admit that everyone seems genuinely happy and well cared-for, and both men are impressed by the pleasant little village these people have carved out of the surrounding wilderness with nothing but their own hands. Nothing much, in fact, seems to be wrong with the place at all, except for a mute girl named Savannah (Talia Dobbins) who seems to be following them around and giving them meaningful glances. Hell, Father even agrees to be interviewed by the Vice guys on camera, provided the interview takes place in front of all the villagers at the small celebration they’re planning that evening to welcome the visitors.

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Now, you know and I know that something is deeply fucked up about the place, despite how idyllic it appears, and after the interview goes down at nightfall, things start falling to shit fairly quickly. Savannah slips the Vice reporters a note asking them to help her, and from there it transpires that the village contains several defectors who are desperate for Sam and Jake to help them escape, but are terrified their treachery will be found out. Caroline is seen wandering around the commune, clearly high as balls, and it’s implied that she’s sleeping with Father, which would seem rather counter to the village’s supposed Christian virtues. The armed guards from out front are a menacing presence in the village as well, and Savannah’s mother Sarah (Kate Lyn Sheil) insists that Savannah and the other children there have been abused, and that any deviance from Father’s agenda could get them killed.

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I will say that as a stand-alone film, this was quite an effective and chilling tale. The found-footage aspect works well with the material, and provides an immediacy to the events that helps to build suspense. The actors are all great and very believable in their roles, the tension builds up at a nicely measured pace before a genuinely frightening and nail-biting climax, and Gene Jones as Father is pitch-perfect as the affably charming and hypnotic cult leader whose aw-shucks personality masks a deep psychosis fueled by intense paranoia.

That said…I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning the J word, but now it’s time to address that gorilla in the room. The only thing about The Sacrament that I found disappointing is that for viewers who know the details of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, this will all seem way too familiar. Some reviews of the film I read claim that The Sacrament is “loosely based” on the events at Jonestown. Loosely, my ass. This is basically a straight-up retelling, just slightly modernized and with a few aspects changed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I will admit that it’s not the movie’s fault that I have seen several documentaries about the real event (which was far more horrific than anything dramatized here), and so wasn’t surprised at all by any plot development taking place in the movie.

While I enjoyed the film a lot, and really appreciated its steady ratcheting up of horror, I found myself hoping more than once that it would deviate somewhat from the Jonestown narrative and show me something new. I even for a second thought that maybe Ti West would build the story up to be just like Jonestown, and then totally subvert the audience’s expectations by, I dunno, making the cult people turn out to be the sympathetic victims of the Vice dudes’ exploitative filmmaking? Something like that. But no such thing occurred. If you know how Jonestown played out, you’ll know how the movie plays out, Kool-Aid (well, technically Flavor-Aid) and all. Spoiler alert? Sorta, but not really.

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I was also kinda let down by the fact that there wasn’t a lot of insight given into why the people in Eden Parish wanted to be there, how much they knew about what was really going on behind the scenes, and why they turned a blind eye to the fucked up things that were happening in the commune. A few mentions were made of them being “brainwashed,” but this wasn’t explored as deeply as I felt like it should have been, which made the turnabout from kumbaya to killing fields feel a little too sudden.

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So while I would recommend this unreservedly to fans of Ti West’s other films (which I loved, particularly The House of the Devil), I feel like viewers who are not at all familiar with what happened at Jonestown will probably enjoy it a lot more, since the subject matter will seem fresh. And even for those people, I would recommend that if you want to see some real horror based on real footage of this shit, watch the 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which has extensive archival footage of the actual cult, interviews with Jim Jones, interviews with people who escaped the massacre, and really unsettling video and audio of everything that went on there. Chilling and grim as fuck, and way scarier than any fictionalization could ever be.

Next up on the double bill is a movie that has pretty much polarized critics at one extreme or the other, which to me generally suggests something that’s definitely worth seeing at least once. 2016’s The Eyes of My Mother was the directorial debut of Nicolas Pesce, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, and while I can see why some reviewers really hated it, I found it mesmerizing, intense, and nightmarish.

Filmed in gorgeous black and white, The Eyes of My Mother tells a tale in three chapters about a girl named Francisca (played as a child by Olivia Bond and as a young woman by Kika Magalhães), who lives on a remote farm with her mother (Diana Agostini) and father (Paul Nazak). Francisca’s mother, a surgeon originally from Portugal, apparently instilled in the child a love of dissection and anatomy; this is a household, after all, where Dad coming home to find Mom and daughter cutting the eyes out of a cow head on the kitchen table ain’t no thing.

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Shortly into the film, a creepy traveling salesman named Charlie (Will Brill) drops by the house and asks to use the bathroom. Mother is reluctant, but he insists, and she finally relents. Unfortunately, this salesman is actually a wandering psychopath, and proceeds to murder Mother in the bathtub while Francisca sits in the kitchen. Father, upon arriving home, discovers Charlie hacking away at his wife, and without much fanfare, knocks Charlie out and chains him up in the barn. He and Francisca then bury Mother in the yard.

To me, this seemed like the eeriest aspect of the film: not only the resolute refusal of the movie to really explain any of the characters’ motivations or reasoning, but also Father and Francisca’s bizarrely stoic acceptance of everything that happens. Neither of them get particularly upset, neither talks much to the other. They just go about their grim tasks in emotionless silence, which I thought was very effective in accentuating the horror that unfolds on screen. Even Charlie, when asked by Francisca why he chose her family to target, simply replies, “You let me in.”

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In the second chapter, we see that Francisca has grown up, and her father has died. We also discover that Charlie is still chained up in the barn after all these years, and that Francisca has been feeding and caring for him, claiming he is her “only friend.” Of course, she has also cut out Charlie’s eyes and vocal cords, so y’know, with friends like those…

Oh, and Francisca is also keeping Dad’s body around, bathing with it, sitting next to it on the couch, crying about how much she misses him. It isn’t really clear how long Dad has been dead or how he died exactly. It’s also implied here that Francisca thinks she is in some kind of communication with her dead mother, who she often asks for advice about what to do next.

To assuage her loneliness, Francisca drives to a bar and picks up a girl, Kimiko (Clara Wong), who she brings home. Everything seems fine at first, if a little awkward, but then the wide-eyed and eerily detached Francisca begins talking about how someone killed her mother, and then goes on to say that she killed her father, though she doesn’t specify when or how. Kimiko is understandably weirded out, and tries to get out of Dodge, but Francisca becomes desperate to prevent her leaving, and presumably murders Kimiko off-screen, since in the following scene we see Francisca placing individually wrapped chunks of meat into the refrigerator.

Later, Francisca even unchains Charlie and brings him up to the house to have sex with him, though after she falls asleep, the weakened and eyeless murderer tries to escape from the house. He doesn’t get very far before Francisca catches up with him in the yard and stabs him repeatedly, obviously getting some kind of erotic charge out of the killing.

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The third chapter relates how the lonely psychopath, upon perceived advice from her dead mother, walks to the side of the road and gets picked up in a car driven by a woman with a baby. Given Francisca’s proclivities, it will not be a surprise to anyone that she kidnaps the baby after stabbing the mother in the back, after which she chains the mother up in the barn just like the dear departed Charlie, and then proceeds to raise the child as her own, naming him Antonio.

The final portion of the film sees Antonio grown to about a six-year-old who eventually discovers the eyeless and voiceless woman chained in the barn. After Francisca will not tell him who the woman is, he decides to free her, after which the poor woman makes her way to the road, where she is helped by a passing trucker. The woman then evidently goes to the cops, because at the end all we see is a bunch of cars coming up the drive of Francisca’s house, and Francisca panicking and locking herself and Antonio in the bathroom. Francisca brandishes a knife, telling her “son” that she will not allow them to take him away from her. She is presumably then killed by the police, though this is not shown.

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The Eyes of My Mother is definitely not a film for everyone. In its execution, it had hints of The Hour of the Wolf, Eraserhead, and Begotten, and not just because it was in black and white. The film is languidly paced, somewhat surreal, and feels quite long even though it’s only a spare 76 minutes. There are extended shots of people walking slowly across a yard, there are long stretches with no dialogue, and much of the violence, while disturbing when imagined, takes place off-screen and is mostly suggested by implication. Nothing is really explained to any great degree, everything is just laid out as it is, for the viewer to take or leave.

While I understand how some people found the film pretentious or slow, I thought it was very well done, and I found the matter-of-fact way its disturbing events were depicted to be quite unsettling. I admit I was quite hypnotized by the narrative, as I was left wondering what intensely messed up thing was going to take place next. The character of Francisca was especially eerie, as the viewer can sympathize with her forlorn isolation even as we are horrified by her actions. Recommended to fans of Ingmar Bergman or those who are into more arty horror; anyone else will probably just find it a frustrating slog.

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

 

Horror Double Feature: The Awakening and The Canal

Quite by accident, today’s double feature happens to consist of two films from the UK: the 2011 classically-structured English mystery/ghost story The Awakening, and the more modern-expressionist Irish murder-demon tale from 2014, The Canal. While neither of them was particularly original plot-wise, there was a great deal to enjoy in both films, and I have few qualms about recommending them to interested parties, as long as you’re not expecting to get blown away. Keep in mind that both have pretty significant plot twists that will be spoiled here, so read no further if you haven’t seen them. This is your final warning!

First up, The Awakening is the kind of movie that will probably appeal to fans of neo-gothic ghost stories like The Others, The Woman In Black, The Devil’s Backbone, and The Orphanage (of which I am definitely one), with all the standard ingredients: creaky old mansions, possible spirit kids, a plucky heroine, a kindly matron, a murder mystery, lots of shifty characters, and a repressed and horrific past. There are two really outstanding things about this film, one of which is the gorgeous cinematography, painting everything in hues of blue and gray and setting a bleak and eerie mood with long shots of empty hallways, vast green lawns, and shadowed rooms.

The other outstanding thing is the performance of lead Rebecca Hall (who I also enjoyed in her roles in The Prestige, The Gift, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and Frost/Nixon), who is electrifying to watch, playing a character who is tough as nails and in complete control of her emotions, all the while seething underneath with a naked fragility that she is loath to show to anyone.

That said, the movie also has some significant problems, which I will get to in a bit.

The Awakening is set in 1921, and Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense spiritualist debunker in the Houdini vein. She has written a well-regarded book on exposing fraudulent mediums, called Seeing Through Ghosts, and has become somewhat famous (as well as reviled by the spiritualist community) for her work with the police in raiding fake séances (as if there are any other kind, but I digress). In fact, the first sequence of the film shows us Florence at work, busting up a deliciously creepy séance with ruthless efficiency, showing everyone the wires and parlor tricks used to make the attendees believe they are talking to their loved ones. Predictably, the people at the séance get righteously pissed off at Florence for exposing the fraud, instead of at the fake mediums who are taking their money and fooling them into thinking they‘re communicating with dead people. Typical.

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It also comes to light that Florence has lost her lover in the war, and that much like Houdini and his mother, Florence maintains her staunch atheism and disbelief in the afterlife both because she feels that fake mediums are taking grieving people like her to the cleaners for a false promise of communication, but also because she still holds out a tiny spark of childish hope that one of these mediums will actually be real and will be able to contact her lost beloved, so that she can apologize for the wrong she did him just before his death.

A short time after the séance raid, Florence is approached by Robert Mallory, who teaches Latin at a boys’ boarding school called Rookford. He explains to Florence that the school is haunted by a boy who might have been murdered there at some point in the past, and that one of the students has recently died, apparently after being frightened to death by the ghost. At first Florence brushes him off, saying she’s too busy and that the “proof” of the haunting he’s brought looks like bullshit, but since there would be no movie if she didn’t go, she eventually agrees to travel to the school and investigate.

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Once she gets to Rookford, she meets matron Maud (Imelda Staunton, who I absolutely loved in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake), who is almost creepily interested in her and effusively praises her book (which she keeps on the shelf right next to the Bible), saying that she doesn’t believe in any of this haunting nonsense either and that she hopes that Florence will be able to get everyone‘s heads on straight. She also meets a few of the other boys, including the angel-faced Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, best known from “Game of Thrones”), some of the other teachers, like the anger-issue-ridden Malcolm McNair (Shaun Dooley), as well as the requisite sketchy groundskeeper Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle).

One aspect of the film I thought was rather nicely done was the undercurrent of war and the influenza outbreak that was going on in England at the time. At the school, everyone seems either sick or wounded in some way, haunted by the horrors going on around them, and groundskeeper Judd is reviled by all the other teachers because he faked an injury to get out of service. An understated touch, but a welcome one that helps place the story in the context of its times.

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Florence wastes little time in setting up all the latest scientific equipment and using her considerable intellect and knowledge of the tricks of the trade to get to the bottom of the mystery. And here’s where I thought the movie was at its best, because Florence is able to easily discover that the “ghost” the dead boy saw was in fact one of the other students playing a prank, and that the deceased child actually died from an asthma attack after Malcolm McNair punished him for his fear by locking him outside, trying to “toughen him up.” When Florence exposes the truth, Malcolm tearfully apologizes, claiming that he was only so harsh on the boys because he was trying to make them tougher than the current generation, since, having seen war, he would know that they would have to be. The other teachers are sympathetic, but Malcolm still gets fired, and rightfully so.

So, problem solved, right? No ghost, no mysterious death. Not so fast. At this point there was still a great deal of the movie to go, so I figured that even though Florence had presumably found out that the ghost was fake, that there would actually be a real one lurking in there somewhere that would melt the black, unfeeling heart of the skeptic. I have to admit, this common plot device always disappoints me somewhat, because it seems as though skeptics are invariably portrayed in horror movies as wrong and damaged in some way, and this film was no exception. While I know that we couldn’t have horror stories without writing about the supernatural, and while I’ve always been a big fan of supernatural-based horror tales myself, I’m always kind of annoyed by the lazy “hardline asshole skeptic finds out there really ARE ghosts, and becomes a better person” trope. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but I just found it an obvious “twist,” and somewhat jarring within the context of the film.

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After the fake ghost is unmasked, the boys all leave the school for the Christmas holiday, save for Tom, who has to stay behind because his parents are ostensibly in India. Although Florence initially plans to leave, she ends up seeing something in the school that leads her to believe that the place really is haunted, and she is determined to stay there until she finds out what it is. Another thing keeping her at the school is her budding romance with Robert Malloy, and her connection to the lonely little Tom, who adores her and seems to know a lot about her, for reasons which will become clear later.

And right here is where most of the major problems with the movie begin. Florence, presented in the film as a thoroughly modern, rational woman, begins to essentially have a nervous breakdown, chasing after ghosts, crying uncontrollably, seeing strange visions, even attempting suicide by throwing herself into the lake and subsequently throwing herself at Robert Malloy. It’s sort of a bizarre character shift, and while it wasn’t too egregious while I was watching it, when I thought about it later on, it bothered me a lot more.

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There is also a minor subplot with groundskeeper Judd, who attacks and attempts to rape Florence in the woods, before being frightened by the ghost, after which Florence kills him in self-defense and Robert covers it up. I’m not really sure why this subplot is here, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with the main story and doesn’t serve any purpose other than showing the audience that all the other war-hero characters were correct in assuming that the malingering Judd was kind of a scumbag.

And the ultimate resolution of the mystery, which I admit came as something of a surprise, was also unnecessarily convoluted and admittedly a tad confusing. It turned out that twenty years ago, when the school was a private residence, Florence had lived there with her parents, her nanny, and her nanny’s son. Florence’s father had flipped out one day, killed her mother in front of her, and then came after her with a shotgun. Florence hid from him in a hole behind the wall, along with her friend Tom (yep), the nanny’s son. Florence’s father shot through the wall, aiming for Florence, but killed Tom instead, then shot himself when he saw what he’d done.

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So basically, Tom has been the terrifying “ghost with the twisted face” all along (which was actually a pretty creepy and arresting visual, though I thought the explanation that most of the time he could control the twisty-faced thing and look like a normal kid was kind of lame), and it turns out that Maud is his mother, as well as Florence’s erstwhile nanny. That’s why Maud and Florence are the only ones who can see Tom (though this isn’t clear until you watch it a second time, just like The Sixth Sense), and that’s why Maud was acting so strangely at first, because she was the one who convinced Robert to summon Florence there; she was looking to see if Florence remembered her or remembered anything about what had happened. So the whole point of Florence being at the school was not so much to debunk the ghost, but to remember and come to terms with the horrible past she had blocked out.

The ending also got a little weird, as Maud decides that she and Florence should look after Tom forever because he’s lonely and he‘s starting to appear to more of the boys at the school, which frightens them. So Maud poisons herself and attempts to poison Florence, though it appears that Tom intervenes and gives her an ipecac. While some viewers thought that Florence really did die and that it was her ghost we saw at the end leaving the school, I’m pretty sure she actually did live, though it could be read either way because of the cryptic way the scenes and the dialogue are shot.

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As I said, there were some rather odd tonal shifts and bizarre character 180s going on, the repressed memory angle was way too complicated and silly to be believable, and I thought there were some unnecessary plot threads that could have been eliminated; but all in all, it was a rather enjoyable mystery that looked great and had some interesting twists, even though some of them were a little WTF. If you have a hankering for an old-school Victorian-style ghost story with some Houdini-type scientific skepticism threaded in, and if you can live with some clumsy plot developments that don’t always work, then you may find your fix somewhat sated here.

The second film in our UK double feature is 2014’s The Canal, written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh. Though this one had far fewer plot issues than The Awakening and hence was probably the better film overall, I think I ended up liking it about the same, just because it suffered a tad from an unoriginal storyline and had a more modern, jump-scare-heavy aesthetic. That said, though, it did have a slightly surreal feel to it which I appreciated, some decent scares and disturbing imagery, and at times it reminded me a bit of Candyman, which is always a good thing.

We begin the tale as main protagonist David (Rupert Evans) moves into an old house in Dublin with his pregnant wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra). Not much happens at first to suggest that anything is amiss, but then we skip ahead five years. David and Alice’s son Billy (Calum Heath) sometimes complains about monsters in the house, as five-year-olds are wont to do. In addition, the love appears to have gone out of David and Alice’s marriage, as he begins to suspect that she is having an affair with one of her clients.

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Worse yet, during the course of his job as a film archivist for the National Archives, he is sent a series of police films from 1902, which show the aftermath of a grisly murder that took place in the very house he lives in with his family. The crime spree involved a man who had brutally butchered his two-timing wife and their two children, then later beheaded their nanny before throwing her body into the canal that still runs alongside the street the house is located on.

Soon enough, David becomes obsessed with these films and begins to investigate other murders that have taken place around the canal, and it’s implied that he is seeing parallels between the family dynamic at work in the 1902 murders and what’s taking place in his own life (since David and Alice also employ a nanny, by the name of Sophie, played by Kelly Byrne). Shortly afterward, he obtains definitive proof of his wife’s dalliances when he follows her one night when she is supposed to be “working late” and sees her banging her hunky work colleague Alex (Carl Shaaban).

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In fact, on the night he sees the two of them together, he has flashes of the 1902 murder films, and picks up a hammer as if he is going to revisit the past with extreme prejudice. But then he thinks better of it and leaves without the lovers seeing him. On his walk back home, he throws the hammer into the canal, and then starts feeling sick about what he almost did. He enters a nearby Trainspotting-level public bathroom, where he vomits all over the place, but also has disturbing visions of someone standing outside the stall and a creepy man whispering something unintelligible into his ear. As he staggers out of the bathroom, he sees what he thinks is his wife struggling with a dark figure on the banks of the canal, and then falling in, screaming. Thinking he is imagining it, he heads back home.

But wouldn’t you know it, his wife has not come home by morning, and after dropping Billy off at school, he goes to the police to report her missing. He doesn’t tell the police that he knows about her affair, and he doesn’t tell them that he thought he saw her fighting with a man by the canal, since he believes (probably with some justification) that the cops will think he killed her if they find out he was following her and actually did momentarily consider busting in her head with a hammer.

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Lead detective McNamara (a wonderful Steve Oram) is still intensely suspicious, since, as he tells David, when wives go missing, it’s ALWAYS the husband. He tries to get David to confess by sticking the knife in about the affair, which apparently everyone knew about but David. David is, however, adamant that he loved his wife and wouldn’t hurt her. And because of David’s visions, the audience is actually not sure either whether he really did kill his wife and then sort of blocked it out by imagining all this trippy stuff with the creepy dudes in the disgusting toilet.

Subsequently, Alice’s body is found in the canal, but in a surprising twist, the coroner finds no evidence that she was murdered, and rules that she was probably walking home, broke her heel, fell into the canal, and drowned. David is heartbroken, but also somewhat relieved, though his grief is tempered somewhat by the revelation that Alice was pregnant with Alex’s child and that she had been planning on leaving David when she died.

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There is a funeral, and David hires Sophie on to stay full time to help take care of Billy, but Detective McNamara is still convinced that David is the killer, and his suspicions prompt him to have David watched, as well as contact child services to see about having Billy taken away from him.

It is at this point that the real mindfuck of the movie begins, because although it would seem that David has been exonerated of his wife’s allegedly accidental death, he starts to become convinced that the man who murdered his family back in 1902 is still in the house, or that there is some evil force operating in the house that makes its residents go murderously insane.

Propping up this belief is the sighting of the man (and Alice) at varying times in the house, as well as on the films he makes around the house and near the canal in order to catch the “ghost.” He attempts to rally his work friend Claire and the nanny Sophie to his cause, trying desperately to convince them that not only is there an evil spirit in his house, but that it killed his wife and is going to kill Billy and Sophie next. Sophie and Claire, however, simply think that the grief over his wife’s death has sent him off the deep end, and urge him to get help, which he refuses. It is never really made clear whether the women can see the “ghosts” that occasionally turn up on his films, making the suspense over David‘s supposedly deteriorating mental state all the more compelling. There also remains the intriguing possibility that Alice’s death was simply an accident, and David is blowing it into this batshit demon scenario in order to assuage his guilt about his murderous thoughts.

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Meanwhile, police recover the hammer that David threw into the canal on the night of Alice’s death, and since David’s fingerprints are on it, McNamara’s suspicions are reignited. David finally admits to the police that he had known about the affair and that he had seen Alice and Alex together that night, but insists that the ghost in the house is responsible for Alice’s death, not him. Not surprisingly, the police are less than impressed by this outlandish story.

The real strength of the film is that the viewer never really does figure out whether David actually killed his wife (and later Claire) and is so crazy he’s attributing it to spirits, or whether the spirits are real and are making him murder people, or whether the spirits are the ones doing it and then are making him think that it was him. Late in the film, David finds a series of creepy old photographs behind a wall that imply that the former residents of the house were Satanists who sacrificed babies and threw them into the canal, so it would seem that there was some evil jiggery-pokery going on in the place, but then near the end of the film, as David is trying to escape from police with Billy in tow, he is shown visions of himself drowning his wife in the canal and strangling Claire, so we don’t really know if this is actually what happened, or if these visions were shown to him by the evil ghosts.

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The ending of this was actually rather dark, which surprised and somewhat delighted me, in a grim way. David dies by drowning in the canal, though Billy is pulled out by Detective McNamara. You’d think that would be the wrapped-up, somewhat happy ending, but there’s a nasty little coda: Billy is back at the house with his grandmother, and he goes into his room to retrieve a few of his toys, since Grandma is selling the house and they are moving away. While inside alone, Billy sees David’s eye peering at him through a crack in the wall, and David tells the child that he is in the house with Mommy, and that Billy can stay with them forever if he wants to. Cut to a solemn little Billy emerging from the house and getting into the car with his grandmother, after which he jumps out of the car while it’s moving and gets crushed under the wheels. The last shot is the real estate agent being startled by Billy’s ghost as it closes the door of an upstairs bedroom.

I’m guessing that this final little twist suggests that the evil ghost (or force or demon or whatever) was manipulating the perceptions of everyone who lived there. So Billy didn’t really see his dad in the wall; that was just the demon persuading him to join the party, as it were. At least that was how I interpreted it.

As I said, this film reminded me pleasingly of Candyman, what with a desperate and sympathetic protagonist trying to convince a skeptical world that a supernatural force was responsible for murders which looked very much like he had committed. The acting was great, the story interesting if nothing new, the cinematography containing nicely surrealistic flourishes. The ghost sightings were also effectively creepy, especially the ones that appeared on old-timey looking film. Another well-above-average recent horror entry in this double-feature series, and one I’d definitely recommend.

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

 

 

Horror Double Feature: Starry Eyes and The Invitation

It’s yet another Double Feature day at Chez Hellfire, and damn, if all the movies I’m going to be watching for this series are as fantastic as these two, then I’m going to be a very happy horror nerd indeed.

Like We Are Still Here, discussed previously, Starry Eyes also premiered at the South by Southwest film festival, albeit a year earlier, in 2014. Written and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign, the film has received tons of positive press, and it’s not hard to see why. Starry Eyes is essentially an homage to classic 60s and 70s Satanic cult flicks (Rosemary’s Baby, To the Devil a Daughter) filtered through the dark-side-of-Hollywood motifs of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, with a giant, sticky dollop of gruesome, Cronenberg-style body horror thrown into the mix. The film is intensely disturbing, gloriously gross and violent, blackly comic, and absolutely riveting from start to finish, not only a fun (if extremely grim), gory ride, but also a startlingly cynical meditation on the lengths people will go to for fame, the soul-sucking nature of the Hollywood system, and the corrosive effects of unfettered ambition.

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Easily the best thing about the film is the astounding breakout performance of lead actress Alex Essoe, who goes to unbelievable lengths for the role and makes her tragically flawed protagonist not only completely grounded and believable, but also simultaneously sympathetic and monstrous. Essoe plays Sarah Walker, one of millions of aspiring young starlets trying to make it in L.A. To pay the bills, she works at a dreary Hooters-type restaurant called Big Taters, but she feels she is destined for bigger things. To this end, she has been constantly going out for auditions and getting rejected, all the while trying to tamp down her extreme insecurity and self-hatred by pulling out her own hair and going into psychotic rages where she feels she must punish herself for her failings.

Not helping matters are the “friends” she surrounds herself with, only a few of which (particularly her roommate Tracy, played by Amanda Fuller, and aspiring indie film director Danny, played by Noah Segan) seem genuinely supportive of her goals. One friend in particular, a rather passive-aggressive bitch named Erin (played with cunty relish as well as surprising depth and humanity by Fabianne Therese) continually chips away at Sarah’s self-esteem with her denigrating comments.

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As unsure of herself and relatively unstable as she is, Sarah does manage to pull off a decent audition for a horror film called The Silver Scream, produced by a long-running production company called Astraeus Films. The only problem is, her performance is really nothing special, just like all the others, and she is summarily dismissed by the intensely creepy casting agents (played by Maria Olsen and Marc Senter). In the bathroom after her audition, she looses her frustration in a torrent of primal screaming and hair pulling, and wouldn’t you know it, the casting agent happens to come into the bathroom and witness the psychotic episode, which piques her interest anew, prompting Sarah to come back to the casting office to re-enact her terrifying tantrum for them, so they can see “the real Sarah.”

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As the story goes on, Sarah is called back for more auditions that get weirder and sketchier until she eventually gets called to meet the producer, a perpetually leering and overly tanned old creep who predictably wants to make a Faustian bargain with Sarah, essentially asking her to give herself up body and soul for the tantalizing reward of fame. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Sarah is not being recruited for a horror movie so much as initiated into a Satanic cult of Hollywood elites, one that will of course require sacrifice in order to achieve Sarah’s final transformation from struggling actress and breastaurant waitress to glamorous Tinseltown screen idol.

Though the plot is, as I mentioned, essentially a retelling of the Faust tale and therefore familiar territory, the real fun of the film is in watching Sarah slowly spiral downward as she siphons off bits of her soul to achieve her dreams. After accepting the cult’s invitation, Sarah begins to physically deteriorate to a horrifying degree, so much so that the viewer is simultaneously revolted and intrigued, not particularly wanting to see whatever disgusting indignity is coming next, but also unable to look away. Again, Essoe is outstanding in the role, laying herself bare in every way imaginable and completely going for it in the gross-out department (there‘s a lot to be said for the dedication of an actress who is willing to fill her mouth with real maggots). Her performance is such that as I watched it, I found myself hating her for her weakness and naivety, empathizing with her outsider status, insecurity, and desire to achieve her dream, and actually rooting for her to go all the way with her horrible deeds to get what she wanted in the end. The fact that I could feel all these emotions at once is a testament to Essoe’s extraordinary talent.

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All the other actors in the film are great too, and I thought it was fantastic how even characters like Erin and Big Taters manager Carl (wonderfully played by Pat Healy) that were supposedly “villains” (at least from Sarah’s perspective) were given dimension and humanity; even though they did and said some shitty things and were seemingly standing in the way of Sarah‘s aims, they did still genuinely care about Sarah’s well-being, which made her act of viciously turning on them near the end all the more devastating.

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The special effects were also top-notch, with Sarah’s bodily disintegration especially grotesque and nauseating. The violence was also wickedly nasty and brutal, portrayed in an unsettlingly matter-of-fact fashion, with one kill in particular (in which the camera barely flinches as someone’s head is pounded into pulp) being almost unwatchably grisly. Topping the film off with a flourish is a fantastic score and terrific sound design that really adds to the atmosphere. Put it all together and you’ve got one skin-crawling, black-hearted blast of a movie that I would not hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend, though definitely NOT to the squeamish.

Another South by Southwest festival alum comprises the second movie in our double bill, and even though it’s a completely different style and experience than Starry Eyes, it is equally stellar, and likewise comes very highly recommended.

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2015’s The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama (of Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body fame) and features a splendid ensemble cast that includes Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), Tammy Blanchard (Into the Woods, Moneyball), and John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Zodiac, “The Walking Dead”). The film is actually far closer to a thriller than a straight horror film, but don’t let that dissuade you, because this thing had me perched on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails the entire time; it is fantastically, unbearably tense.

The setup of the plot is this: Will and his girlfriend Kira have been invited to a dinner party at the home of Will’s ex-wife Eden and her new husband David. No one has really seen Eden and David for two years, so the couple claim they’re having this get-together for all their friends so everyone can catch up. It’s also established early on that Will and Eden divorced shortly after their son was killed in a freak accident (after which Eden also attempted suicide), and Will is not entirely sure he’s ready to see Eden again, as well as return to the house where the tragedy occurred, but with the help of the supportive Kira and all their other friends, he’s hoping he can make a go of it.

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At first, everything seems fairly normal, if a little awkward as everyone feels each other out and gets reacquainted after such a long time apart. The weirdness begins to happen in very small increments: Eden and David introduce Sadie, a woman who is living with them and is obviously their lover. They have also invited a man named Pruitt, who seems polite enough but is also ever so slightly menacing. Eden is putting on a somewhat creepy façade of serene happiness, but early in the evening she has a bit of an episode and slaps one of the other guests, though she recovers her composure fairly quickly. Will notices David locking the doors, and when Will asks about this, David brushes it off by saying that there has been a recent home invasion in the neighborhood and he just wants to keep everyone safe. While Will is snooping around his former home, he comes across a bottle of phenobarbitol in the nightstand of David and Eden’s bedroom.

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There is also the small matter of another guest, Choi, being very late, and of no one being sure where he is since there is no cell phone reception up in the hills where the house is located. As the party goes on, it comes to light that Eden and David have been in Mexico for most of the previous two years, and that while there they joined a sort of spiritual self-help group that has supposedly helped Eden let go of her grief about her son’s death. David, Eden, Pruitt, and Sadie all sing the praises of this group and its enigmatic leader, Dr. Joseph, though the rest of the party guests make jokes about them joining a cult and seem uncomfortable when it appears that David is trying to convert everyone at the party by showing them an unsettling video of Dr. Joseph and two other group members presiding over the death of a terminally ill woman.

The party grows ever stranger, becoming equal parts overtly sexual and intensely disquieting (especially after Pruitt makes a disturbing confession about what happened to his wife), and at one point, another guest, Claire, decides she’s had enough and wants to leave. David tries to prevent her, but Will, who has been getting increasingly suspicious that something sinister is going on, confronts David, and Claire is allowed to go out to her car, though Pruitt follows behind her because he has parked her in. Will goes to the window to watch Claire leave, as he believes Pruitt is going to do something to her, but he is called away before he can see anything.

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The bulk of the narrative goes on in this way, as Will begins to see even the most innocuous actions of the party’s hosts as evidence that something terrible is about to go down. This was the best aspect of the movie by far, because the viewer is left to wonder if there really is something weird going on with David and Eden, or if Will is just having a breakdown because he hasn’t yet come to terms with his son’s death and Eden’s remarriage. Adding to the tension is the fact that none of the other party guests seem to think anything odd is going on at all, and several of them try to reason with Will at various points, leading the audience to think that Will is simply isolating himself from the group, acting like a paranoid weirdo, and letting his imagination run away with him. The film also plays with our expectations by making some of Will’s suspicions come to nothing. As I’ve stated many times before, I really like movies that are ambiguous like this, where you’re not sure if the protagonist is really perceiving things as they are or if their emotions are ultimately clouding their judgment.

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I won’t spoil the conclusion, because it’s really terrific, and the very last scene actually made my jaw drop, due to its devastating implications. In short, this is a tightly directed, beautifully acted thriller that maintained a palpable sense of tension throughout and culminated in a terrifying and satisfying climax. Good stuff.

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

Horror Double Feature: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and We Are Still Here

As regular readers will recall, I had a series on this blog titled Hulu Horror Double Feature. You may have noticed I haven’t written any of those in a while, and you may have also deduced that I stopped doing them right around the time that Hulu went to an entirely subscription-based format and got rid of all its free content. Since our household already pays for a Netflix subscription, I wasn’t gonna pay for Hulu as well, especially since I unfortunately don’t have loads of time to watch stuff. So from this point forward, whenever I do more recent double feature posts, the reviews will be of horror films that are featured on Netflix (or, for older ones, on YouTube‘s or Amazon‘s pay-per-film service). I do realize that this limits my options somewhat, as Netflix isn’t actually known for having a vast horror movie library (though they have improved somewhat this year, and hell, I may pony up for a Shudder subscription one of these days), they have enough decent-looking recent flicks that I can probably squeeze at least a few long-form posts out of ‘em. So consider my Hulu Horror Double Feature category to now be a more generic Horror Double Features. And that’s all I have to say about that.

With that requisite housekeeping out of the way, let’s settle in for our opening salvo in the new improved Double Feature category. The first movie I’m discussing is one I’d been hearing a great deal about since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and although reviews were somewhat mixed, most of the negative reviews I read complained only that the movie was too slow, spare, and minimalist. Well, to me, that’s like an open invitation. Because if there’s one thing I love and can’t stop harping about on this very blog (see my reviews on The Haunting, Soulmate, House of Last Things, Yellowbrickroad, and pretty much any ambiguously creepy ghost story), it’s eerie, slow-burn, vaguely surrealist ghost stories that show very little but leave a lingering impression on the patient viewer.

By now you may have guessed that I’m going to be talking about 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Directed by Oz Perkins (son of the legendary Anthony), and starring Ruth Wilson (best known in the US for her work on the Showtime series The Affair) and Paula Prentiss (best known, at least to me, for starring in the dynamite 1975 movie adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives), the movie is a master class in using subtle cinematography and sound design to engender a cloying atmosphere of dread that pervades every frame of the film, even though nothing particularly terrifying appears to be happening. One review I read stated that the film was what it would look like if David Lynch decided to adapt a Shirley Jackson novel, and to me that seems to hit it right on the head.

The rather simple plot involves a neurotic hospice nurse named Lily Saylor who is sent to a remote old house to care for Iris Blum, a retired author of pulp thrillers, who suffers from dementia. During Lily’s eleven-month tenure, it comes to light that the house may or may not be haunted by a spirit named Polly Parsons, the subject of Iris’s most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls, whose ghost supposedly told the story of her tragic murder to Iris some years before.

Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that right in the first few minutes of the film, Lily herself breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience straight out that she is going to die, and the fact that Iris insists on calling Lily by Polly’s name, as well as the fact that the theme of ghosts forgetting how they died comes up several times, suggests that something more ambiguous than a simple haunting is taking place, and that perhaps our protagonist Lily is not exactly what she seems.

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The movie is essentially a story inside a story inside a story. Was Polly a real person who was murdered in the house and whose ghost still remains there? Or did Iris just make her up, and is Lily conjuring the spirit out of her nervous imagination? Is Lily, in fact, dead the whole time and acting as the ghost herself throughout the entire film? I Am the Pretty Thing could be read in myriad ways, which is one of the aspects contributing to the creeping unease infusing its entire run-time.

The plot of the film, though, such as it is, is really not the star of the show. That would be the almost unbearable buildup of uncanny dread which makes the viewer feel unmoored in a waking nightmare. The gorgeous cinematography (by Julie Kirkwood) focuses on the house’s stark, neutral interiors to great effect, wringing eerieness out of every unsettling, off-center shot of white walls juxtaposed against blackened doorways beyond, of a stubbornly folded corner of carpet, of an empty chair pushed against a wooden table. The movie’s portentous framing of ordinary objects as sinister is quite Lynchian and very, very effective in building up tension, as the viewer is never sure what they’re going to see. Even though standard “jump scares” are almost non-existent, we are kept constantly on edge waiting for something awful to happen, just because of the way the cinematographer plays with our expectations.

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Also contributing to the film’s sense of free-floating anxiety is the fact that its time frame is never firmly established (though judging by the clothes Lily wears, the phone in the house, and the presence of cassette tapes, I’m guessing it’s the early to mid eighties), and that Lily herself is an almost painfully awkward character, a prissy, repressed throwback to an earlier era. Her uncomfortable interactions with estate manager Mr. Waxcap (played with an almost undetectable straight humor by Bob Balaban) ramp up our anxiety on her behalf, a very intriguing way of making us relate to her situation. In this way, Lily is very much like the character of Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s brilliant Haunting of Hill House. And similar to that novel, the “haunting” in the Blum house seems to be analogous to the slow unraveling of Lily’s mental state, or alternately her slow-dawning realization that she herself is a ghost, either literally or metaphorically. The fact that most of her early voice-overs are later revealed to be paraphrases from Iris’s novel about Polly Parsons drives this point home rather succinctly, as do the recurring images of rot and fragmented reflections.

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While I will admit that for those who enjoy more straightforward, plot-driven horror, I Am the Pretty Thing might seem like a boring, overly-indulgent slog to nowhere with few big scares, no huge payoff, and long, lingering shots of furniture and faces with very little dialogue or action. But for those like me, who enjoy more cerebral horror that is more interested in building a mood and getting underneath the viewer’s skin with its nebulous oddities, there is much to recommend here, though I would add that it is best watched alone, at night, with no distractions, so that you can get entirely lost in its world and lulled into its creepy spell. It’s definitely a movie that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it, and that in itself is a wonderful thing for any horror film to do.

Next up on the double feature is a far less experimental film that had its premiere at another recent film festival (in this case South by Southwest back in 2015), and although the movie was highly lauded, favorably compared to the splendid It Follows, and ended up on a lot of critics’ “ten best horror films of the year” lists (including Rolling Stone’s), I honestly wasn’t all that crazy about it, though it did have some entertaining moments.

Directed by Ted Geoghegan and packed with horror movie all-stars (Barbara Crampton from Body Double and Re-Animator; Lisa Marie from Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, and Lords of Salem; writer/actor/director Larry Fessenden from Session 9 and much, MUCH more), We Are Still Here has a fairly standard horror movie set-up. The main characters are a middle-aged married couple, Paul and Annie Sacchetti, who move out to a remote house somewhere in New England following the death of their college-age son Bobby in a car accident. Shortly after they move in, a few little things happen around the house that suggest maybe Bobby’s ghost has come along for the ride, but it doesn’t take long at all before the audience realizes that something far more infernal is going on than a harmless lingering spirit.

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It is in fact this nearly immediate blowing of the entire horror wad, as it were, that I think is one of the film’s main weaknesses. It gets off to a promising, low-key start, with some effectively eerie shots of the roads and the isolated house all covered with a blanket of snow, with very spare dialogue that nonetheless conveys the deep grief the couple is feeling, and with very understated hints that something in the house might not be quite right: a picture falling over, a strange noise in the cellar, a ball rolling down the stairs.

The choice to set the film in 1979 was also a decision I’m on board with, as not only does it help to evoke a golden era in horror cinema (also evidenced by a few subtle references to classic horror films of the period, such as The Changeling and The Shining), but it also gives it an otherworldly feel and more of a sense of dread, since the problems that arise can’t be solved by Googling stuff or calling for help on a cell phone.

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But really, as soon as the couple’s obviously not-to-be-trusted neighbors show up about ten minutes in and start going on about the house having been a mortuary and the family living there supposedly being run out of town for stealing corpses back in 1859, and making reference to the house needing “fresh souls,“ it all just gets a bit too on the nose and seems to move along too quickly with no regard for subtlety or restraint. And then once the electrician comes and the audience is pretty much shown exactly what happens to him, all sense of anticipatory dread is lost, for we have already seen everything there is to see. From that point on, it’s just more of the same, only bloodier.

Clocking in at only an hour and twenty-three minutes (and a not insignificant chunk of that is the long end-credit sequence), I think the movie might have actually benefited from being a bit longer, so that the characters and story had more room to breathe before everything went all demonic and wacky.

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That said, I think the film also would have REALLY benefited from taking everything down a notch or ten. While I generally don’t have a problem with copious gore or jump scares per se, there is a point at which you’re going so far over the top that the story is just not scary anymore and veers over into unintentional comedy. The burned-looking ghosts were cool, for example, but I didn’t need to see them in my face every few minutes, which significantly lessened their impact. The gore was fairly well-done, but I didn’t need everyone to die in enormous, ridiculous sprays of blood and chunks like the second coming of Dead Alive.

In fact, I think the entire reason that this movie didn’t really click with me was because its tone seemed all over the place: on the one hand, it seemed to want to be a serious horror film, but then on the other hand you had these kinda goofy, over-acting characters who shamelessly chewed the scenery and dropped boatloads of exposition at pretty much every opportunity when the audience could have figured out the story just fine without all the over-explaining. Either do a serious horror film or do a horror comedy; it takes a very deft hand to make a decent film balancing elements of both, and I just felt like this wasn’t really getting there.

 

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I admit I did like the séance scene with Paul and stoner dude Jacob, and I sort of liked the overall premise of the movie, which was marginally in the vein of a 70s-style, small-town folk horror type deal, and I sort of liked the creepy weirdness of all the townsfolk being in on this big secret, but other than that, I kinda found my attention wandering during the movie, since I pretty much knew where it was going, and when I was paying attention, I was cracking jokes about it, which I can assure you did NOT happen while I was watching I Am the Pretty Thing. While I can see why a lot of horror fans dug it, it was just way too obvious and over-the-top for my tastes, trying to smack you in the face with HORROR, and it seemed like it was trying to be too many things at once at far too frenetic a pace. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

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

 

Apples Come In Chocolate Brown, Apples Come in Taffy Gold: It’s a 1970s Haunted House Double Feature!

Long time no review, Goddess fans! As usual, I’m having to open this post by apologizing for my woeful lack of recent long-form film reviews on this blog. But as most of you will have surmised, I’ve been up to my forked tail in other projects, including promoting my latest book The Unseen Hand, working on my upcoming true crime book The Faceless Villain, and recording and promoting the 13 O’Clock Podcast, as well as trying to establish a new offshoot channel called 13 O’Clock In Minutes, which will, when it goes online, serve as a more bite-sized version of the show as well as a promotional vehicle for the main podcast.

So as you can imagine, I unfortunately haven’t had much time to sit down to watch and analyze some of the underrated horror flicks I adore so much. But today, a Saturday, fate intervened: the God of Hellfire and I had actually planned a small party this afternoon, but as it happened, when we awoke this fine morning, we discovered that our air conditioning had crapped out yet again (we just had it fixed two weeks ago, but Florida is nothing if not murder on air conditioning units), so we had to call off the get-together so our friends wouldn’t have to spend their Saturday sweating their asses off in our eighty-degree foyer.

Therefore, left at sixes and sevens with no plans, and confined to the bedroom where the emergency window unit is at least keeping the small area around the bed comfortable until the repair guy can come out several days from now, I decided I might as well put my sudden free time to use by watching some horror flicks and writing about ‘em. So after that enormous and probably unnecessary introduction (but hey, I’m the queen of too much information), let’s get to the actual movies!

I decided to return not only to my favorite decade for horror movies, but also to my favorite horror subgenre for this post. In short, I’m reviewing two haunted house films from the 1970s, both of which have made numerous appearances on various “underrated” lists around the internet, and both of which happen to have been made for television.

 

First up is 1972’s Something Evil, a TV movie directed by none other than Steven Spielberg (and airing not long after his much-better-known, classic made-for-television film Duel) and starring a bunch of familiar 1970s faces, such as Darren McGavin (of Kolchak fame, among many other things), Sandy Dennis (who was also in God Told Me To, which I wrote about here), and famously ginger-haired “Family Affair” kid Johnny Whitaker.

The story is a fairly standard haunted-house-slash-possession yarn, concerning a city slicker ad exec, his hippie-esque artist wife, and their two children moving from New York City out to a “charming” rural house in Pennsylvania Dutch country which turns out to be infested with demons.

While Something Evil, due to its subject matter, bears some superficial resemblance to other devil-possession films of the period, such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, I found myself comparing it more to other rural or folk horror stories from the 60s and 70s, such as The Other, The Wicker Man, Burnt Offerings, or Harvest Home.

After a cold open which sees an old man (presumably the home’s former owner) being pursued through a hex-symbol-adorned barn by an invisible force and then falling to his death from the hayloft, the Worden family purchases the property after wife Marjorie falls in love with the place while they’re on vacation. Not long afterward, things start to go south, though it isn’t clear at first whether something is wrong with the house itself or with the flaky and seemingly unstable Marjorie.

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Despite the movie’s short runtime, clocking in at only 73 minutes, it’s still a pretty effective slow burn, and does a lot with its simple story. At first, there are just minor hints that something is amiss; for example, locals tell the family that something is odd about the place, and the townsfolk all seem to sincerely believe that devils are real. Additionally, the Wordens’ neighbor seems to make a point of ritualistically killing chickens in the yard and flinging their blood around, which disturbs Marjorie greatly, as it would.

As if that isn’t unsettling enough, Marjorie thinks she hears a baby crying out in the barn, but nothing is there when she goes to check. She also begins to grow increasingly interested in the occult and with the hex symbology prevalent in the area. Early on in the film, a couple attending the Wordens’ housewarming party is killed in a mysterious car accident on the way home, adding to Marjorie’s increasing paranoia that something evil has been unleashed in the house through her actions.

Naturally, Marjorie’s husband Paul thinks she is losing her mind, as he is often away at work and doesn’t see any of the phenomena that Marjorie claims is taking place. And indeed it does seem as though Marjorie herself is essentially the problem, as she grows depressed, suicidal, and even violent toward her children. It gets to the point where she paints a hex symbol on the floor as protection and keeps her children locked away from her, as she no longer trusts herself around them, sincerely believing that she has become possessed by demons. In a final twist, though, it comes to light that Marjorie is not the target of the demons’ evil at all, and in fact the only possessed person in the farmhouse is the couple’s son Stevie, whose demon-hosting status is revealed at the end in a well-staged scene complete with levitation and scary voices.

While the plot of Something Evil will be extremely familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of horror films from the era, Spielberg’s direction really elevates what could have been just a forgettable, throwaway 70s TV movie into something quite intriguing, using its presumably tiny budget to great effect. Everything is kept very understated, but slightly off-kilter, giving the film a pleasing sense of dread-laden believability. The ambiguity is also very well-done, and adds to the unnerving atmosphere. The movie additionally boasts some eerie, surreal touches, such as the creepy discovery of a mason jar full of red goo from which the ghostly baby crying apparently emanates, and the unexpected appearance of a pair of glowing red eyes in a photograph at Paul’s advertising agency. No rotating heads or pea soup vomit, sure, but the low-key effects work well within the movie’s framework.

I would unreservedly recommend Something Evil, not only to Spielberg fans curious about his early work, but also to connoisseurs of 70s horror in general. The film certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it’s still an enjoyable little occult thriller with some effectively haunting imagery. It’s just a shame it isn’t better known and more widely available.

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Next on our double feature is a British teleplay from 1973 called The Stone Tape. Written by Nigel Kneale (probably most famous for writing the Quatermass series), the movie was broadcast on BBC 2 as a Christmas ghost story, though it’s actually more of a mashup between old-school Victorian ghost story and tech-driven sci-fi, somewhat similar in concept to The Legend of Hell House.

The tale concerns a gaggle of laddish, wisecracking scientists who are in the process of moving into their new research facility in a partially renovated and reputedly haunted mansion called Taskerlands. The scientists are apparently trying to develop a new recording medium to wrest the cutting edge away from their Japanese competitors. But the only female member of the team, a computer programmer named Jill who is also evidently somewhat psychic, almost immediately sees a ghost in the unrenovated portion of the mansion, and shortly afterward, the male members of the team all hear bloodcurdling screams emanating from the same area. It comes to light that the ghost is very likely that of a maid named Louisa who died by falling down the stairs many years before, and that the part of the house that’s home to the ghost is also exceedingly old, perhaps dating back to the era of the Saxons.

While the entire team is disturbed by the haunting, they’re also quite curious and keen to use their state-of-the-art research equipment to record and study the mysterious phenomena. After much theorizing and jiggery-pokery, they figure out that the stone walls of the old room are acting as some sort of crude recording device that takes impressions of extreme emotions that occurred in the room, but that instead of just recording like one of those newfangled magnetic tapes, the mechanism is actually dependent upon the sensitivities and emotional states of the living people present, i.e. that the humans witnessing the haunting are analogous to amplifiers for the titular “stone tape.”

 

The scientists are quite intrigued by this hypothesis, hoping that it might be a scientific breakthrough that can put them ahead of their technological rivals. But the more they try to get the phenomena to perform for their tests, the more frustrated they get, until at last it seems that they have accidentally erased the recording of Louisa’s death, and most of the team decide to abandon the project, since they believe the “haunting” is gone.

Jill, though, isn’t having it. Being more sensitive than the men, she feels there may be something deeper lurking at Taskerlands, hypothesizing that Louisa’s ghost might have been only the top layer of the recording, and that older recordings might have been overlaid by the most recent one. Bolstering her theory is a local priest, who informs her that an unsuccessful exorcism was performed on the land in 1760, before the house was even built, suggesting that the land has been haunted for far longer than anyone thought. She also has a frightening episode in which she hears and feels a malevolent presence, but no one else hears it.

Jill tries to tell the remainder of the team about her discovery, but no one wants to listen, and her friend and director of the project Peter Brock tells her to take a two-month leave because he thinks she’s losing her marbles. Before she leaves, though, she goes in the room one last time, and is summarily killed by the entity. The men find her later, her eyes frozen open in terror.

In a final little “fuck you,” Brock informs the authorities that Jill was emotionally unstable, and he shreds all the research she was doing that showed that the evil presence might have been there for seven thousand years. But Jill gets some small measure of revenge from beyond the grave when Brock goes into the haunted room at the end and is subjected to the most recent recording: Jill’s voice screaming his name before her death and begging for him to help her.

I have to admit, I didn’t like this one quite as much as Something Evil, but it was still an entertaining sci-fi ghost story that was a bit heavier on the sci-fi than the ghosts. The acting was a tad stagy, and the beginning of the film almost felt like a Vaudevillian routine, but that’s to be expected for a British teleplay of this era, and once it moved past that, it was a fairy effective scare-fest, though also like a lot of films of the time, it takes a while to get where it’s going, and the full impact of the story doesn’t come to fruition until the final couple of minutes.

If you liked The Legend of Hell House but thought it needed more focus on the haunting machine, then you’ll probably love this, as it’s a pretty similar concept, and in fact, the hypothesis that ghosts are simply recordings of past events that have somehow been captured by surrounding materials is still known in paranormal circles as the “stone tape theory.” I’d also recommend it if you liked the Quatermass movies or other 70s British sci-fi horrors, such as The Asphyx (which I wrote about here) or The Projected Man (which made a fantastic MST3K episode).

That’s all for now, minions! Keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Hulu Horror Double Feature: Megan Is Missing and Playdate

Well, last time it was devil-babies, and this time it’s hellish teens and pre-teens of a more prosaic sort. You know the drill by now, so let’s get on with the kid-killin’.

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First up, a movie I had heard quite a bit about, but had never got around to seeing until it popped up during my indecisive Hulu scrolling. Megan Is Missing (2011) caused quite a stir when it was released a few years back, with some critics hailing it as a realistically horrifying cautionary tale about today’s teens and their cavalier attitudes toward living their entire lives online, and many other critics calling the film an exploitative piece of trash with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I’m still not really sure where I fall on the spectrum, but I will say that I wasn’t really crazy about this one, and not for the reasons you might think.

If you somehow missed all the foofaraw, Megan Is Missing was directed by Michael Goi and was another found-footage faux-documentary that was supposed to be based on a real case. The actual truth of the matter is that the film was loosely based upon the kidnapping and murder of two young Oregon girls, though aspects of other cases were also added into the mix. Director Goi is on record as saying that he made the film as a sort of public service announcement to warn parents about the dangers their children face on the internet (even though the case it was supposedly based on didn’t have anything to do with internet predators). I’m not so sure I buy that, but I’m not really going to wade too much into the larger implications of this film and what messages it might be sending; I’m just going to concentrate on whether the movie was any good.

Annnnnd…it was not. Briefly, the movie uses a mishmash of ostensibly real camcorder footage, video chats, and TV news reports to tell the story of 14-year-old Megan, a slutty and shallow “popular” teen with a terrible home life, and her best friend, the socially awkward and virginal Amy. Megan, who does drugs and whores around because Mama doesn’t love her, naively begins flirting with some rando online by the name of Josh, and because you know what the title of this movie is, I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that Josh ends up not being who he says he is. Megan disappears, all her equally horrible popular-girl friends at school pretend like they give a shit, and the local news exploits the tragedy with all of the classlessness they can muster, which is quite a lot.

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Good-girl Amy, who seems to be the only person in the movie who actually cared about Megan at all, goes to the police and tells them about “Josh.” And because this movie is kind of retarded and doesn’t know how news or police investigations work, Amy’s face is plastered all over the TV along with the revelation that she told the cops about this Josh person. Which naturally means that Josh is going to target Amy next, and yes, that is exactly what happens. Josh kidnaps Amy, and we get to see, in rather disturbing detail, what ultimately happened to Megan.

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Some observations. Firstly, the acting in this was pretty atrocious. Save for Amber Perkins, who played Amy and was actually somewhat relatable, every other “teen” in this movie was annoying as shit. Yes, teenagers in general are annoying as shit; I will concede that point, but really, the portrayals here are just extremely forced, over the top, and unrealistic. None of the characters’ emotions feel genuine, none of their conversations flow naturally. Everyone just sounds like they’re reciting their lines off of cue cards. The “news” footage that’s interspersed throughout is also ridiculously overblown, but I’m pretty sure that the director was deliberately doing that to make a point about how the media exploits tragedies of this type, especially when they involve pretty teenage white girls. So I’ll give half a point for some obvious, but depressingly accurate, media satire.

Secondly, if you’re going to make a movie with the conceit that it’s entirely composed of real footage, at least try to make it believable and technologically correct. The story is supposed to be taking place in 2007, but all the teenagers casually communicate via crystal-clear video calls on their old Motorola Razrs, which was totally not a thing that those phones did in 2007. Who the fuck video calls on their phones anyway? Everyone texts, director bro. Also, a lot of the footage that was recorded by the characters was not something that anyone in their right mind would record in real life, and it’s just really obvious how some of this stuff was ham-handedly shoehorned in to forward the plot. Probably the most egregious example of this was the notorious final 22 minutes of the movie, which — SPOILER ALERT — was recorded by Josh, on Amy’s camcorder. For some unfathomable reason, Josh records himself imprisoning, debasing, raping, and burying Amy alive, AND THEN THROWS THE CAMERA CASUALLY INTO A GARBAGE CAN NEAR WHERE HE KIDNAPPED HER FROM. The police find it, obviously, which is purportedly how the footage ended up in this movie. No, Josh never appears on camera, but how stupid is this guy? He’s not disguising his voice, we can see his shoes, and there are very clear shots of the underground dungeon where he keeps his victims. Any decent police detective would be able to track this asshole down immediately, especially since he probably left his goddamn fingerprints all over Amy’s camera. And that’s setting aside the fact that they probably would have already found the dude anyway, simply by tracking the IP address he was using to contact the girls.

Now, let’s talk about that last 22 minutes for a bit. This part of the movie was what got everyone into a lather about how “sick” this film was, and yeah, in a way I can see what people were bothered about. The footage doesn’t really show anything super graphic – this is no A Serbian Film, in other words – but it can be fairly uncomfortable to watch a girl who is supposed to be 14 standing there in her underwear pleading for her life and being forced to eat out of a bowl like a dog. And the rape scene is probably more affecting than a really graphic sequence would be, since we only see a close-up of Amy’s hopeless face as Josh pounds at her, then a brief shot of his bloody fingers, indicating that she was a virgin. This scene was actually the only effective one in the film, and was all the better for demonstrating a restraint that was notably absent in the rest of this thing. And the scene where Josh opens the barrel and we see Megan’s decomposing corpse briefly was also pretty well done. The thing is, though, had the entire movie leading up to this point made us care anything about these characters at all, then this final 22 minutes would have been DEVASTATING. As it was, it was just mildly disturbing and went on for so long that it just started to get boring, which I’m sure is definitely not what the director intended.

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Thirdly, I question the decision to make the kids talk and act so frankly sexual for most of the first part of the movie. I’m not arguing whether or not real 14-year-olds talk and act like this; I know some of them do, and I know that the director was deliberately trying to be shocking and edgy by portraying them this way. But in the context of the movie, I think it made the characters less sympathetic to the audience. And the one scene in particular where Megan was describing the first time she gave a blow job when she was ten years old (in what was actually an oral rape) was supposed to make the viewer feel bad for her, but it went on so long and was so unnecessary to the story that it instead came across like the director was getting off on it, or was trying to appeal to the kind of people who would get off on it. So that was pretty icky.

All in all, I didn’t hate the movie enough to set it on fire or anything, or call for it to be banned like it was in New Zealand, but I feel like it could have been done so much better by someone with more of an idea what actual teenagers are like and a lot less tendency toward sensationalistic and pedophilic sleaze. Your mileage may vary, but I would suggest skipping it; it’s not really worth the time, and it’s not nearly as shocking as it thinks it is.

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The second movie in our kid-centric double feature was far more innocuous than its controversial precursor, but it ended up not really being any better, simply because it was dull and forgettable as shit. As I was watching Playdate (2012), I caught the distinct whiff of Lifetime movie emanating off the screen like stink lines off of Pigpen, and when I Googled the movie, I saw that my hunch was correct. This movie wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t really a horror movie either; it was more like an estrogen-heavy suspense thriller featuring a series of improbable events that finally culminated in the obligatory happy ending, where the ludicrously normal suburban family who had to go through some shit come out the other end not much worse for wear.

Playdate is the story of the preciously-named Valentines (Emily and Brian), who live on a nice cul-de-sac with their adorable daughter Olive and their adorable dog Hunter. At the beginning of the movie, their adorable existence is slightly disrupted by the arrival of a new family next door, consisting of single mom Tamara and her two sons, roughhousing Billy and obviously mentally disturbed Titus. Olive and Billy hit it off, and in an attempt to be neighborly, the Valentines bring dinner over for their new neighbors, but while they are there, a strange man busts into the house. As the man is taken away by police, he tells the Valentines that “they” took his kid and that “they” would take the Valentines’ kid too. The next day, Tamara apologizes to the Valentines, saying that the man is her ex-husband, that he was abusive, and that she had been trying to get the boys away from him. Emily, of course, is sympathetic, and the Valentines offer to help their new neighbor as best they can.

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Soon enough, though, Emily begins to suspect that something isn’t quite kosher over at the other end of the cul-de-sac. She discovers that the man Tamara claimed was her ex-husband had actually never been married to her at all, and in fact turned up dead in a hotel room of an apparent suicide two days after he broke into her house. What’s more, the man had a son who had died in a supposed accident two years before that he had always believed was a murder.

Other sketchy things start to happen: the dog ends up dead, Billy pushes Olive off a slide and breaks her arm, and Tamara makes vague not-quite threats toward Emily. Emily becomes convinced that Tamara is beating her kids, killed her supposed ex-husband, and poisoned their dog. Lackadaisical Lifetime-movie-dad Brian thinks Emily is overreacting to everything and poking her nose in where it doesn’t belong, but Emily is convinced that there is something exceptionally shifty about Tamara and is gonna find out what it is, goddammit.

As the movie progresses in its harmlessly dumb, PG-rated way, we find out that – SPOILER ALERT, but not really because it’s obvious from the first five minutes who the real troublemaker is – Titus was the killer all along, after he attempts to crush Brian under the vintage Mustang he’s been working on, in what is surely the most avoidable attempted murder in movie history. Tamara was only acting so sinister because she was trying to protect her whackjob son, dontcha know. So yeah, the dog is dead, and Titus gets arrested, but Brian ends up fine even though it looked like his head was squished when the car fell on him, and Emily is fine and Olive is fine, and Tamara and Billy are fine, and Emily pays to have Brian’s Mustang completely restored while he’s recovering from the head-crushing, and it’s all back to blissful normalcy in Lifetime Movie Land.

This one…meh. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great. It just kind of sat there, not harming anyone, not upsetting anybody. There was obviously no gore, no real intrigue or mystery, no interesting character developments or plot twists. The acting was fine, but also just kind of there. Lifetime is nowhere to go for horror, or even for plots that aren’t formulaic and characters that aren’t bland stereotypes. As far as movies go, you could do a lot worse, but you could also do a hell of a lot better, so why bother, really?

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