Horror Double Feature: Welcome to Willits and Ava’s Possessions

Horror comedies are a genre I have something of an uneasy relationship with. On the one hand, when done well, the humor of the film in question can enhance the fright factor immensely, making the movie greater than the sum of its parts. I’m talking here about fun, smart, and over-the-top grisly films like Shaun of the Dead or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Unfortunately, though, when horror comedies fail, as most of them do, they tend to fail in a much more spectacular fashion than a “straight” horror flick would, just by virtue of being painful to watch and/or insultingly stupid, somehow shitting on both genres in a kind of giant turd casserole of suckage.

Thankfully, both of the horror comedies I’m discussing today seem to have got the balance of scary and hilarious just right. Although neither one of them are of the more zany, relentless style of the two movies I mentioned above, both of them take a tired, overdone horror premise and do something original with it, weaving clever, creepy, and entertaining stories out of subverting horror cliches and providing heaps of amusing gags along the way.

The first of these is 2017’s Welcome To Willits, the debut feature from the Ryan brothers (Tim the writer and Trevor the director). Like the aforementioned Tucker and Dale, this movie is also something of a take on the cabin-in-the-woods/redneck-slasher genre, but much less cheerful and sunny than Tucker and Dale, and with more of an ironic/stoner/conspiracy-theory type vibe.

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The movie concerns the requisite gang of unlikable college-age fuckbaskets who are heading out to the remote woods to camp near a hot spring. At a convenience store before the fun begins, said fuckbaskets meet another main character named Courtney (Anastasia Baranova), who is back in Willits visiting her aunt and uncle, as well as a perpetually stoned wanderer named Possum (Rory Culkin), who they end up giving a ride to.

Now, the small town of Willits happens to lie in the northern California “Emerald Triangle,” infamous for the growing of marijuana and for several strange disappearances and creature sightings, as related to the protagonists by Possum. And it just so happens that the hot spring where the twatpockets are headed is right near the property of pot grower and meth-head Brock (Bill Sage) and his wife Peggy (Sabina Gadecki). Brock and Peggy are the uncle and aunt of the level-headed Courtney, but unfortunately for everyone involved, Brock and Peggy are also addicted to a mind-expanding meth hybrid Brock has created called “Emerald Ice,” which has deteriorated their brains to such a degree that they both wholeheartedly believe that they are being monitored and occasionally attacked by extraterrestrials.

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Part of the beauty of Welcome to Willits is that it divides its time almost equally between Possum and the pool of other potential victims at the camp, and the escalating situation involving the increasingly paranoid and murderous Brock and Peggy at the cabin. The conflict between the obviously insane Brock and his rational niece Courtney, who clearly loves him and wants to help but isn’t sure how to get past his delusions, is particularly good, played somewhat for laughs but also quite emotionally wrenching. For instance, Brock at one point decides that he is going to have to lock Courtney in the closet because he is afraid she is conspiring with the aliens, but it’s obvious nonetheless that he adores Courtney and believes that her so-called betrayal of him is not her fault. The fact that he slaps a tinfoil hat on her head to protect her brains from further alien interference is certainly funny, but it’s also touching in a bizarre way, because Brock truly believes he is helping her and plays the whole thing completely seriously.

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There’s also a great sort-of subplot/meta-narrative involving a cheesy cop show that stars Dolph Lundgren and that Brock eventually comes to believe is really happening and is giving him messages through the TV about the alien invaders. A very nice comedic touch.

As I said, this is definitely a hilarious film, but its humor is rather dark and not really all that wacky, despite the outlandishness of the premise. Though it absolutely revels in gore, and makes the most of Brock’s killing-college-kids-because-he-sees-them-as-aliens gag, the fact that the viewer has spent so much time with Brock and Peggy and actually kind of feels sorry for them gives this an added emotional punch that a lot of horror comedies don’t really have. And the character of Courtney is intensely relatable as a go-between, torn between her love for her family, her frustration with their wingnut ideas, and her need to protect the campers from the havoc her uncle’s insanity has wrought.

Welcome To Willits is definitely a balanced, entertaining film; funny, bloody, and fast-paced, but with a surprising depth and some interesting social commentary about drug addiction, mental illness, and the way that delusions can become very real and very dangerous, even for people who don’t hold them.

Next on the double bill is a movie that takes the dime-a-dozen possession genre and barrels it off in a new, delightful direction. 2015’s Ava’s Possessions, written and directed by Jordan Galland, examines not the demon possession itself, but its aftermath, an angle not very commonly explored in the genre.

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To wit, Ava’s Possessions begins where most of these types of movies end: with an exorcism that expels the demon from our main protagonist, Ava (played by Louisa Krause). We learn after Ava is “cured” that she has been possessed by a demon named Naphula for the past 28 days and has no recollection of what went on during all that time. Some of the best scenes in the film, as a matter of fact, involve Ava trying to figure out what exactly she did while she was possessed, and trying to make amends to those she unwittingly harmed. I actually really liked how the film largely steered clear of showing any flashbacks of her demonic shenanigans, which left the viewer, like the main character, to piece together what happened from scant clues and subtle suggestions, such as evasive comments by friends, mysteriously unsavory connections to people she doesn’t remember, and sinister evidence such as an engraved watch found in her couch cushions and disturbing blood stains hidden beneath a rug in her apartment.

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Since Ava committed several serious crimes while the demon occupied her body, she is told by the family lawyer that she will have to either face trial for all the charges, or allow herself to be sent to a sort of possession-specific version of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fact that demon possession is treated in the film as something akin to a drug addiction and is never questioned as to its veracity is another aspect of the film that I found intensely humorous; the existence of demons is treated as a foregone conclusion and approached very matter-of-factly, which I thought was hysterical.

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Also very funny was the subtle way that Ava was treated by friends and family after she recovered from the possession. Even though everyone made sympathetic noises at her about how the demon possession wasn’t really her fault and she therefore could not be held responsible for what she had said and done during her “illness,” it’s painfully apparent that her entire social circle absolutely does blame her for what happened and further feel that she was somehow “asking for it” by being a bad person. This rather sly skewering of the “blame the victim” mentality was also another of the film’s highlights.

As the story goes on, Ava befriends another young woman from the self-help group who actually enjoyed her demon possession and wants Ava’s help to get the demon back. She also meets a potential love interest when she tries to find the owner of the mysterious watch she found in her apartment. All along the way, though, Ava is also running into all kinds of skeevy characters who know her and want revenge on her, even though she can’t remember how she knows them or what they want revenge for; and worst of all, it appears as though her family, who seemed supportive and stayed with her throughout her possession, know far more about what’s going on than they’re willing to tell.

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All in all, a super fun and funny film with a fantastic premise, a sympathetic protagonist, a cool, colorful look, and a cameo by the always-wonderful Carol Kane. The humor is less madcap and more cunning and nuanced, and the main strength of the movie lies in its reliance on suggestion rather than blatant sight gags. Two worthy horror comedies in one day…things are looking up, people.

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

 

 

 

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Horror Double Feature: Christmas Edition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Horror Double Feature: The Wailing and A Dark Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horror Double Feature: Would You Rather and Last Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horror Double Feature: The Disappointments Room and Haunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horror Double Feature: The Damned and The Pact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.