13 O’Clock Movie Retrospective: Mulholland Drive

It’s a Jenny-only movie review (Tom will hopefully be back for the next one), discussing one of her favorite movies EVER, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive from 2001. There are MASSIVE spoilers herein, and I would recommend watching the movie before listening to this show, because otherwise you won’t have the faintest clue what the hell I’m rambling on about. Enjoy, and if you’d like even more obsessive theorizing about Mulholland Drive, please go to this page here and waste several happy hours, just as I did.

Things I meant to mention and forgot, because this was already too long:
1. The monstrous bum behind the diner, even though referred to as a man in the scene with Dan and Herb, is actually played by a woman, which is significant in light of the fact that she is supposed to represent the darkest part of Diane’s psyche. The bum’s face and Diane/Betty’s face are even partially overlaid near the end of the movie.

2. The reason for the “bumbling hit man” scene in the fantasy portion of the film is simply Diane trying to hold out hope that the hit man she hired to kill Camilla was so incompetent that he possibly could have botched the job, meaning Camilla might still be alive.

3. I totally failed to mention the creepy old people who come out of the box at the end. I agree with Alan Shaw’s essay in that these people probably represent her grandparents, and that there is an implication that Diane was molested by her grandfather (or other father figure; hence the audition scene with Woody) as a child. Also note that when these creepy old people leave the airport after parting with Betty, the car they are in is directly behind a square blue van, which is an analogue for the blue box that they come out of later in the movie.

4. There is a further implication about Diane working as a prostitute during the “phone chain” scene early in the film, and also in regards to the black book. I also think at least one of the mobsters from the dream was not a mobster at all, but one of her “clients.” Note she sees one of the Castigliane brothers at the party in the reality portion of the movie, and he’s staring at her significantly.

5. There are more Wizard of Oz references with Mr. Roque and also with the bum behind the diner, both acting as “the man behind the curtain.” Same kind of thing with the Club Silencio scene.

6. The reason Diane recasts herself as “Betty” in her fantasy is because she saw the name tag of the waitress that read Betty right before the hit man showed her the blue key; therefore, “Betty” represents a time of innocence, before she set the murder into motion. Diane is trying to recast herself as an innocent, and trying to return to a time when she was full of hope and promise, when she first got to LA, before everything went to shit.

7. Likewise, the reason she casts Dan as the person who died from seeing the bum is because he was a random guy she saw in the diner in real life right AFTER the hit man had showed her the key. So Dan is an analogue for the knowledge of the evil she has done, a stand-in for the “point of no return.”

8. It’s also significant that “Rita” takes her name from the poster of the noir film Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth. The actress playing Rita/Camilla, Laura Elena Harring, is Mexican, and in the movie is “pretending to be someone else,” and at one point wears a blonde wig to look like Betty. Likewise, Rita Hayworth was of Spanish ancestry, but dyed her hair red and changed her name after she was told she looked “too Mediterranean.” In fact, in her earliest roles, she acted under the name Rita Cansino and usually portrayed an “exotic foreigner.”

Told you I was a dork about this movie. 🙂

Horror Double Feature: Baskin and Under the Shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Horror Double Feature: 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.

The Limit Has Finally Been Transgressed: An Appreciation of “Hour of the Wolf”

Hälsningar, minions! Today we’re delving into the surreal and arty waters of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre, and even though I’m gonna try REALLY hard to not make any Swedish Chef jokes, I’m not going to promise anything, because y’all know how I roll.

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Hour of the Wolf (or Vargtimmen in Swedish) was released in 1968, and is probably the closest thing to a straight horror movie that Bergman ever did. That said, it’s still miles away from a traditional horror flick of the era, being more like an intensely eerie, psychological mindfuck with some really, really disturbing imagery; essentially, it’s film as wide-awake nightmare. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of ambiguity and surrealism in horror, and here is one of the best examples I have yet seen; in execution and implication, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. It’s also fairly obvious that this film was a pretty big influence on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and in its themes of spiraling madness it also bears something of a resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

The story concerns an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who is vacationing at a remote island cottage with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman). At the beginning of the movie, Alma is talking directly to the camera about the disappearance of her husband, as if she is being interviewed for a documentary. The remainder of the film is told in flashback; we see the bizarre disintegration of Johan’s mental state, and wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.

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What makes this film so unsettling is its resolute refusal to explain itself. Johan interacts with strange people as he walks around the island, and he seems to think that they are demons, even though Alma can see them too; and for most of the movie, they seem like real people, albeit really skeevy ones. Johan has drawn all of them in his sketchbook, though the viewer never sees the drawings, but only Alma’s horrified reactions to them. He also has names for them, like the Bird-Man, the Schoolmaster, and The Lady with a Hat (about whom Johan once tells Alma that you don’t want to be around when the lady takes the hat off, because the whole face comes off with it. NOPE).

At one stage, a man named Baron von Merkans invites Johan and Alma to his nearby castle for a party, and when they attend, it’s the trippiest get-together ever, as all the guests laugh bizarrely, yammer on about meaningless topics, and overpraise Johan’s art to a really uncomfortable degree. Everyone seems hostile and cruel, as though they’re mocking him, but no reason for this is apparent. One of the women at the party shows Johan and Alma her bedroom, in which hangs a huge portrait of a woman named Veronica Vogler, who was apparently Johan’s ex-lover, though it is never clarified if she was a real person, or another figment of Johan’s crumbling imagination.

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Johan suffers terribly from insomnia, and Alma often stays awake with him in support. During the long nights, they have some extremely disturbing discussions. In one very eerie scene, Johan tells Alma about a trauma from his childhood in which he was locked up in a closet with what he thought was a small person who wanted to gnaw his toes off. He also confesses to a possibly fictitious incident some time before whereby he murdered a little boy while out fishing. During this conversation, he clarifies the meaning of the phrase “hour of the wolf,” which according to folklore is the hour in the middle of the night when most deaths and births take place. Much of the horror in the movie is conveyed in these weird conversations, though there are plenty of uncanny visuals to highlight the nightmarish narrative, like a man suddenly walking up a wall and across a ceiling, or a woman pulling off her face and popping her eyeballs into a wine glass.

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If you’re getting the sense that this is a really bizarre, disjointed film, then you’re entirely correct, but its inexplicable strangeness is very, VERY effective in making this one of the most haunting and genuinely unnerving films I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot). The underlying themes of the film seem to tie in with the fine line between artistic genius and madness, with the power of deep-seated fears and shameful desires to unhinge the mind, and with the possibility that insanity may be contagious, as Alma wonders at the end whether her love for Johan caused her to share in his delusions. There is also a repeating motif of eating or biting—the demonic people that Johan sees are portrayed as something akin to vampires or birds of prey, and during the flashback scene where Johan is recounting his murder of the boy at the seashore, the boy bites him several times during the struggle. Indeed, the working title of the manuscript was “The Maneaters,” so perhaps there is some reference here to the way that fears and traumas, whether real or imagined, can eat away at one’s sanity.

All in all, not a film for everyone, obviously, but I found it an intense experience, so disquieting and ominous that it was sort of distressing to watch. Its slow pace and stark cinematography only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere. If you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of Bergman’s other films, or just like surrealistic horror in general, I would definitely recommend it, even though it legit creeped me the fuck out. In fact, I know I said I was gonna try not to, but I need a laugh after watching it, so here we go.

Sorry, Sweden.

Goddess out.

Hulu Horror Double Feature: House of Last Things and Reverb

‘Sup, minions! I’m back once again for the third installment of my Hulu Horror Double Feature series, which if you haven’t been following it began here and continued here. This’ll probably be the last time I link to the older installments in the current installment, though, because you guys know how the internet works and can probably find previous installments on your own from now on. You don’t need me to hold your hand, now, do you? Thought not. Anyway, off we go.

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First up on this particular double bill is House of Last Things from 2013, which was written and directed by Michael Bartlett. I can see this movie being the kind of thing that inspires either adoration or contemptuous eye-rolling in the horror community, with fans of more traditional horror maybe thinking it’s too pretentious for its own good, or weird for weirdness’s sake, but I have to tell you, I thought it was dynamite. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into it, but it honestly just sucked me in, and even though I’m not entirely certain what it all meant, I remained fascinated from start to finish.

The setup of the film is rather mundane: Classical music writer Alan Dunne and his wife Sarah—who has just been released from a mental hospital after an undisclosed tragedy—take off for Italy, ostensibly to try to put their lives back together. Alan has hired trailer-trash hottie Kelly to house-sit while they are gone, and predictably, no sooner have the Dunnes toddled off to the airport than Kelly has allowed her mentally challenged brother Tim and her dirtbag boyfriend Jesse to move into the urbane couple’s home to keep her company.

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It’s here, though, where the movie begins to get interesting. The way it’s shot is very dreamlike, seemingly going back and forth in time and location, drawing parallels between the Dunnes’ marital breakdown in Italy and the bizarre dynamics of the three people occupying the home in their absence. Things get even weirder when Jesse impulsively kidnaps a boy he finds abandoned in front of a grocery store; although he initially tells Kelly he took the boy to get a ransom from his parents, it soon becomes clear that the boy doesn’t seem in any hurry to leave the house, and further, that no one appears to be looking for him. The mystery gets deeper and deeper, reality becomes murkier and murkier. Who is the boy? What happened to send Sarah to the mental hospital? Is the house haunted, and if so, by what? Why do the identities of the Dunnes and the house-sitters appear to be melding and switching? There are really no clear answers, and while some viewers may find this frustrating, I found myself utterly intrigued, since as most of my previous reviews on this blog have detailed, I do love unsettling, ambiguous films like this.

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In fact, House of Last Things, with its off-kilter suburban surrealism, reminded me very strongly of a David Lynch film, with perhaps hints of Roman Polanski thrown in. The whole film is just so alluringly strange, with beautifully nightmarish imagery, overlapping identities and timelines, and copious symbolism, threaded through with Verdi’s Rigoletto and the Biblical Garden of Eden. As with a few other movies I’ve done in this series, I hesitate to call this a horror film; I suppose it’s a ghost story of a sort, but on the whole it’s rather hard to classify. Recommended if your tastes run to more surreal, mysterious, or art-house fare, this movie leaves an eerie impression that lingers long after the end credits roll.


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Structured far more like a standard horror film, but also far less interesting, the second film in the lineup was a British one, Reverb, from 2009. It deals with a churlish musician named Alex who has lost his musical mojo after the breakup of his band and his relationship. His friend and co-worker Maddy pulls some strings and gets him a couple overnights at a nearby studio so he can work on a new track that he hopes will restart his flagging career. As the night wears on, Maddy begins hearing weird noises around the studio and on the recordings they’re making, and after doing some research into a mysterious song that Alex wants to sample, becomes convinced that some creepy occult shit happened in the studio back in the 1970s and that Alex is in danger. Things go fairly predictably from there.

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Honestly, this one wasn’t terrible, but I can’t say there was much to it either, and my patience with it was tested several times. It seemed like a huge chunk of its running time consisted of Maddy creeping around the darkened studio listening to distorted screams and growls, or Alex staring at his reflection in the bathroom and getting flashes of blood and lyrics written on his skin, set to jarring musical stings. The movie was mediocre, and the plot paper thin, but the director was clearly trying to make it seem scarier and more “edgy” by doing these annoying flashing edits of disturbing imagery. There was so much of it that it really just got boring and silly after a while.

It wasn’t a total waste of time; the actors were fine, though there wasn’t really enough characterization or back story to really make me care about what happened to them. The use of sound was fairly effective, though it would have worked better if it had been reined in some. Even the premise of occult forces summoned through music could have been pretty cool if it had been given more substance and scope. But so much of the movie was set in one location with just a couple of characters, and it just got repetitive; on top of that, the ending brought absolutely no surprises. Like I said, not awful, but not that good either. Just a big ol’ meh. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

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

We’re Off To See the Bald Douche: The Goddess Reviews “Yellowbrickroad”

Like the endlessly resurrected Jason Voorhees, I return once again after a short break with apologies for another absence and an itchin’ for some more horror. The reasons for my brief hiatus this time were more cookbook emergencies (which now seem to have been ironed out), and a final push to get my next book, The Rochdale Poltergeist (co-authored with parapsychologist Steve Mera), ready for publication. Keep an eye out for it in the next couple of weeks!

Casting about for today’s blog subject, I was perusing the “best horror films” of particular years on IMDB, and since I’ve done a lot of old films and have gotten woefully behind on newer horror, I thought I’d look for recommendations about some decent, underappreciated flicks from the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty much an old-school horror chick all the way, but I also don’t want to turn into one of those crotchety old farts who thinks that everything new is automatically a shit burrito topped with a hot vomit salsa, you feel me? So right there on someone-or-other’s “Best Horror Movies of 2010” list was a little movie called Yellowbrickroad, which I watched on Hulu but is also available on Netflix, I believe. And hot damn, did I get lucky when I stumbled across this one, because it’s really something of an undiscovered gem that really got under my skin in a way that few movies do.

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Even though it won best film at the New York City Horror Film Festival the year it was released, and even though it has gotten some really great and in-depth analysis (such as this review right here), it mystifyingly boasts only a two-star rating on IMDB, and some of the reviewers there REALLY seemed to hate it, with the main complaints being that the ending didn’t make any sense and that it wasn’t gory/violent/scary enough. That’s a fair charge, I suppose, and I will admit that if you’re more into big scares and splashy blood and guts, then yeah, you probably won’t find much to like here. Yellowbrickroad is a very cerebral, almost abstract, film, more concerned with exploring its psychological themes and unsettling the viewer with atmosphere than with traditional horror set-pieces. Though some reviews I read compared it to The Blair Witch Project, I think a far better comparison would be to a David Lynch film, what with its surrealist bent, its copious symbolism, its stubborn ambiguity about reality, its masterful use of sound as a definitive plot element, and its utilization of The Wizard of Oz as a constant referent (as Lynch did, of course, in Wild At Heart).

In brief, the plot centers around a mysterious happening in the town of Friar, New Hampshire in 1940. Almost all of the residents of this quaint little burg, after their zillionth viewing of The Wizard of Oz in the town’s dinky little movie theater, put on their best formal duds, gathered up their record albums, and wandered off into the woods, never to be seen alive again. Some of the bodies were recovered, having died of either exposure, apparent suicide, or murder, but some were never found. Cut to the present day, where husband-and-wife writers Teddy and Melissa Barnes are setting up a small expedition to hike the same trail as the townsfolk did in order to write a book about what might have happened to them. As you might imagine, shit starts to get weird pretty quickly.

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For a fan of smart, subtle horror, there is a great deal to admire in Yellowbrickroad. It is beautifully shot and edited, and is able to generate a palpable sense of dread and tension during its entire running time, even though the bulk of it takes place in broad daylight. I love the fact that the filmmakers chose not to use the easy out of filming most of it in the dark to make it “scarier.” Further, the way the film plays with expectations and reality is really well-done; it keeps the viewer off-kilter the entire time so that the viewer’s experience mirrors that of the increasingly lost and disoriented characters. I loved the sense of displacement that escalated as the story progressed, the sense that time and space was breaking down in parallel with the characters’ mental states.

In addition, all the characters are likable and real, and we get to know them in brief strokes, with very little bullshit; most of the character development is subtle and streamlined to a line or two of dialogue. There are some funny moments (for instance, when the team’s GPS first starts to go tits-up), but these feel spontaneous and believable, and not shoehorned in as “relief” from the horror. Lastly, there is comparatively little violence and gore shown onscreen, making the few times when violence does occur intensely shocking and affecting, particularly one scene (those of you who have seen it will know what I’m talking about) that comes almost completely out of the blue and shakes the viewer as much as it does the characters.

In my opinion, the best thing about Yellowbrickroad, and the thing that seems to have caused the most contention among those who have seen it, is its ambiguity. How much of this journey is real? How much of it is imagined? Is it a dream, or a mass hallucination? Is there some supernatural force leading these characters to their destinies, or something dark inside themselves that results in their destruction? It is here where the Wizard of Oz touchstones become all the more relevant, particularly its theme of journeys ending where they began, though with perhaps a greater understanding of oneself picked up along the way. In this sense, it is significant that the trailhead in Yellowbrickroad ostensibly starts at the movie theater, and also ends there, as the entire movie seems to be a road constantly spiraling inward, toward…what? Insight? Madness? Chaos? Death? It could be read in a myriad of ways, which is an attribute many of the best films share. This theme of spiraling inward is also hinted at in the mention of the 1940 townsfolk carrying their records into the woods, a single line of dialogue by mapmaker Daryl explaining that the coordinates he’s getting seem to be spiraling inward toward an unknown center, and most obviously, by the soundtrack of spooky, 1940’s-era music and ear-piercing record scratches that almost become an antagonist of their own as they assault the characters with contextless noise that grows louder as the journey progresses toward an inevitable end.

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The most criticized aspect of the film by a mile was the ending, which many reviewers felt was inexplicable, but honestly, I thought the ending was perfect, and really the only ending it could have had, given its thematic thrust. The journey was always going to end where it began, just like in The Wizard of Oz, but in Yellowbrickroad, the insight gained by the sole survivor of the trek was far darker, almost nihilistic. This is no case of “everything I desired was right here all along,” but rather, “all of the worst things I dreaded about myself and the world are inside me, and everywhere, and inescapable.” Marry that to a profound disconnect between reality and fantasy, and a realization that to transcend one’s humdrum existence might just be equivalent to following an endlessly spiraling descent into a hell of one’s own making, and you’re left with quite a bleak filmgoing experience, and one that will stick with you and taunt you with its riddles for many days to come. Highly recommended.

Until next time, Goddess out.