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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.