Horror Double Feature: The Devil’s Candy and Scherzo Diabolico

I’m finally taking a short break from working on the second volume of my true crime series The Faceless Villain (which I’m hoping to have out by the end of June) to catch up on my Horror Double Feature blog series! I have a HUGE list of recent flicks I’ve watched on Netflix and Tubi, but I decided to do these two particular movies today because I’ve watched them very recently, I dug them both a great deal, and they share a very music-centric theme. As in, they’re not musicals, but they both prominently feature music as a central characteristic of the plot. So, onward.

Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy from 2015 is the follow-up to the Australian filmmaker’s debut film, The Loved Ones (which is available on Tubi now and is on my soon-to-watch list). The movie blends horror, heavy metal, and heart in such a satisfying and fantastic way that it immediately shot into my top ten horror flicks that are available on Netflix at the moment. It really is that good.

The story revolves around metal-loving artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), his hairdresser wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their lovable metalhead preteen Zooey (Kiara Glasco). The horned-hand-saluting family unit move out to a cheap but beautiful old house on the remote outskirts of Austin, Texas, mainly because the place has an enormous shed that Jesse plans to use as a studio. The good-ol’-boy realtor tells them that the house is such a bargain because an old couple “accidentally” died in the house shortly beforehand (though the viewer already knows this is not entirely the truth because of the creepy scene that took place prior to the credits rolling). But hey, cheap is cheap, this is the family’s first house, and what could possibly go wrong, anyway?

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Well, plenty, as it turns out. Jesse begins hearing weird, possibly Satanic voices in his head, and takes to painting disturbing pictures without being aware of what he’s doing. A rather diabolical gallery owner who rejected Jesse’s work before now has a renewed interest in his paintings, since they’re looking a mite more nefarious. Worse still, a heavyset man in a tracksuit named Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who we saw being all sinister and murderous at the beginning of the flick, has been lurking around the premises, telling the Hellmans that his parents used to live there. At first, Ray and Zooey bond over their shared love of Flying V guitars, but her parents think he’s a weirdo and shut that shit down.

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And they were definitely correct to do so, because a little bit later, we see Ray kidnapping a little boy from a park, cutting up his body in a hotel room, putting the pieces in a suitcase, then burying the suitcase in a big hole where several older suitcases also reside. Ray, you see, has long been hearing the same voices that Jesse is now hearing, and believes that he must sacrifice children to Satan, since children are (title drop) the devil’s candy, being all sweet and innocent-like.

As the story progresses, Jesse grows more and more convinced that the voices and his paintings are a message of some sort, and as he becomes more entangled in this belief, he also becomes less and less able to protect his daughter from the looming predator, a fact which obviously eats away at him. I won’t spoil too much of what happens, because I don’t want to ruin the experience, but suffice it to say that the entire climax is tense as shit and, in the common parlance, metal as fuck.

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Now, allow me to list all of the things I loved about this movie. One, the characters are immediately relatable, real, and likable. The relationship between the family members, particularly the deeply adoring father-daughter bond portrayed in the film, is spot-on, and gives the film a profound emotional punch. You sympathize with Jesse as he is pulled down by forces he seemingly can’t control, and you also feel for him as he desperately tries to protect his daughter from harm and often fucks up. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to watch him, and even though I’m not a parent myself, I could feel his anguish right down to my very bones.

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Secondly, the character of Zooey is an absolute delight. She is sometimes troubled and gets angry at her father and angry at her situation of having to move to a new school where she evidently gets picked on, but she never comes across as annoying or hateful, as preteens and teens in movies often do. Quite the contrary, I found myself utterly charmed by her head-banging earnestness and her tacit acceptance of her outsider status.

And that’s another thing I loved about this film: you can tell it was made with real affection for metal and the people who love it. It’s actually quite rare for an “alternative culture” family to be portrayed so genuinely and in such a heartfelt manner without making a joke out of them or making them out to be “evil” or sketchy. The Hellmans come across in the movie as a loving, tightly-bonded family who all just happen to share a love for tattoos, black fingernail polish, and riding around in their station wagon blasting Ghost and Pantera at top volume.

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The movie does have its humorous moments, but on the whole, this is a serious occult horror film that brings the terror and tension in spades. Because the protagonists are so likable and you’re so invested in their safety, when that safety is threatened, the suspense is intensely stomach-turning as you root for them to get out of their predicament. Contributing brilliantly to this suspense is Pruitt Taylor Vince as Ray, the villain of the piece, who is terrifying precisely because he is almost sympathetic and clearly a little slow or addled; this makes his character totally unpredictable and all the more compelling.

It probably goes without saying, but the soundtrack and imagery in this thing are also rad as hell. Definitely recommended, particularly if you like doom metal and horror movies that have a real emotional core. A totally engaging, fun, and hair-raising film experience.

Next up on the double feature is another flick with music as a central theme, though this one boasts an almost nonstop classical score and a climax that veers into opera-style grotesqueries.

Adrían García Bogliano’s Scherzo Diabolico, also from 2015, presents us with the seemingly bland and mild-mannered Aram (Francisco Barreiro), an old-style company man at a struggling accounting firm. Always ready to do whatever is asked of him, always willing to go the extra mile, and always keen to work overtime, even when he isn’t getting paid for it. Sure, his family life suffers, with his wife in particular becoming distant because Aram is always working and yet not having any financial stability to show for it, but on the surface, he appears quite placid and eager to please.

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Of course, his milquetoast veneer conceals a myriad of evils, including the fact that he’s constantly making eyes at the new girl at the office, regularly visits a prostitute, and has a dangerous gangster in his debt after he helped the criminal get away with some undisclosed illegality.

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Even more to the point, Aram is clearly planning to do something terrible, though for a while, the viewer isn’t exactly sure what it is. Why is he making what is ostensibly a shopping list including vitamin water, protein bars, and “NO sugars?” Why is he weighing garbage bags full of pots and pans, and carrying his son silently around their apartment? Why is he asking his prostitute consort the best way to restrain someone if you want them immobilized? Why is he practicing a chokehold on his Alzheimer’s-riddled father and then pretending like nothing happened?

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As the movie goes on, we finally see Aram stalking a particular teenage girl, taking note of her movements and timing her routine down to the second over the course of days or weeks. So we now know that he’s planning to kidnap her, hence all the “practice” beforehand, but after he eventually has her in his clutches, things don’t really go the way the viewer (or the protagonist) expects them to.

As I said, the way Aram’s plot unspools and then unravels is almost operatic in its histrionics and over-the-top insanity, nearly playing like a black comedy, but not exactly, because it remains fairly believable, and yet, still really fucked up. Again, I don’t want to spoil the major plot points, but the reveal of who the girl is and how and why Aram chose her was actually rather shocking, as was the aftermath of Aram’s unforgivable crime. Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca plays a huge role in the film as well, adding an effective juxtaposition of beauty to the escalating madness.

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I loved this movie too, but Scherzo Diabolico is not for all tastes. It’s a unique flick for sure, containing lots of gore and nudity and some really nasty set pieces. But as I said, the tone of the climax is sort of melodramatic and bizarre, and the plot twists are crazy and unexpected, though the initial build-up and construction of Aram’s plan is actually quite drawn out and teasing. Plus the classical score almost becomes like a weapon of its own and mirrors the personality of the protagonist: Aram is a precise, seemingly calm and passive individual, but harbors intense resentment against his lot in life, a resentment that hardly ever peeks through his acquiescent facade.

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If you liked Bogliano’s other films (Late Phases and Here Comes the Devil, for instance), I see no reason why you wouldn’t like this one too, but I recommend going into it without knowing much about it, because it veers off in all sorts of nutty directions and definitely rewards your patience, though how you feel about how the third act goes is gonna be entirely up to you.

And with that, I’ll sign off on another Horror Double Feature with a flourish and a keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

 

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The Devil Went Down to Oxfordshire: An Appreciation of “The Blood on Satan’s Claw”

The small film subgenre of British folk horror is easily overlooked, with most casual fans only being able to point to a single example, the excellent and well-regarded cult classic The Wicker Man. But there were a few other sterling examples that deserve their place in the earthwork circle, as it were, such as The Devil Rides Out (based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley) and the terrific Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General. There is also the rather underrated gem we’re discussing today.

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1970’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (known alternately as Satan’s Skin or The Devil’s Touch) was the follow-up to Tigon British Film Productions’ hit Witchfinder General, and though it’s not quite as great or iconic as that earlier film, it still has much to recommend it. Tigon, incidentally, was a smaller horror production company that got somewhat overshadowed by film behemoths Hammer Films (who were famous for their Dracula films and their pioneering formula of gore and heaving boobies), and Amicus Productions (who were famous for their rad anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood and Vault of Horror).

The Blood on Satan’s Claw is set in a tiny English village somewhere around the end of the 17th century. Affable farmer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is plowing some fields one day and happens to unearth a janky-looking skull with one staring eyeball and what appear to be tufts of fur. Alarmed, Ralph summons the local judge to come check out his find, but of course, once the judge arrives, the skull is no longer there. The judge (played with great sardonic relish by Patrick Wymark) pooh-poohs all these insufferable rubes and their silly superstitions, and goes about his judgely way.

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Meanwhile, lanky local Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams), who looks like a Bee Gee doing Renaissance cosplay, brings his betrothed Rosalind (Tamara Ustinov) home to meet the family. His aunt is a stone-cold bitch to the girl, and forces her to sleep up in the stinky, unused attic. Peter tries to make the best of things, and promises he’ll be up for some farm-fresh lovin’ after his disapproving relatives have gone to bed.

But later that night, Rosalind apparently sees something horrifying in her room and starts screaming her hussy head off, prompting Aunt Twatface and the other old guy living there to do the only rational thing, which is to board her up in the attic until the men with the butterfly nets can get there to cart her off to the nuthouse. As she’s carried away, she shoots her fiancé a wicked grin, and we see that one of her hands has morphed into a claw. Peter, understandably, is bereft, but his relatives are all insensitive and shit, essentially telling him that he dodged a bullet and he should be happy that he didn’t end up married to some wanton demonic harlot. Peter, obviously, seems less than convinced.

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Soon afterwards, all hell literally breaks loose in the village. All the young’uns start hanging out together and playing creepy “games” out in the woods, and some of them develop icky patches of crepe werewolf hair on various parts of their anatomy. They stop turning up to their Sunday school classes, and act defiant and contemptuous toward village priest Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley).

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Incidents begin to escalate. Peter has a vision that his hand has also become a claw, and slices it off in a frenzy. The children lure friendly young Simon le Bon lookalike Mark Vespers (Robin Davies) into the woods and murder him, bragging to his mother that they have done so. It soon comes to light that all of the town’s youngsters have fallen under the spell of nubile hottie Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), who apparently got in on the ground floor of the Satan worship and is now running the show. Angel attempts to seduce the Reverend and then accuses him of raping her; orders her followers to hack off their own limbs or forcibly take limbs from others to apparently reconstruct her coming Master out of the severed parts; and perhaps worst of all, paints on crazy Wolfman Jack eyebrows just a touch too high over her natural ones, making her look like some pagan blonde version of Frida Kahlo.

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After Ralph’s intended, the adorable Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury), is brutally raped and sacrificed by the child cult (in what is actually a fairly disturbing scene, due to the frighteningly realistic terror on Cathy’s face), the judge is persuaded to come back to the village to deal with all the devilry that his rational ass was initially so dismissive of. The end of the film is actually a bit of a letdown, as it’s somewhat abrupt and anticlimactic, and I’m not too sure how I feel about the final reveal of the Supreme Evil Overlord, who looks a bit too much like a short dude wearing a gorilla suit and a papier-mache Halloween mask, but hey, it was 1970, and I can forgive a touch of cheesiness in costuming, especially since the camera doesn’t really linger on the monster before he is summarily dispatched.

If you’re a fan of this type of pagan British horror, you probably owe it to yourself to see this one, even though it’s not quite at the same level as the other folk horrors I mentioned. Despite the cast looking oh-so-painfully seventies, and despite the over-the-top accents and regionalisms, and despite the pacing being slightly off, this is actually quite an enjoyable little horror flick with some genuinely tense scenes, a bit of decent gore (such as one character having her fur patch sliced off by a doctor, and later getting her leg caught in a bear trap), and some pretty fantastic cinematography of the English countryside.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends, and if you suddenly develop an unexplained area of coarse black hair somewhere on your person, consult your local witchfinder immediately.

Goddess out.

Our Podcast is Now on the Project iRadio Network!

Our brand spanking new podcast is now going to be a regular weekly show on the Project iRadio network of podcasts, thanks to Armand Rosamilia and Jess Roberts. Please check out our first episode over there and listen to some of their other awesome shows too! Also, don’t forget to check us out on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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We Started a Podcast, As You Do

If you ever wanted to listen to the God of Hellfire and I blathering away about various topics of interest to weirdos everywhere, you, my friends, are in luck. We have started a podcast called 13 O’Clock, which will feature subjects ranging from supposedly real paranormal cases to unsolved historical mysteries to bizarre religious cults to creepy serial killers to horror movies and everything in between. Some of the episodes will be just us, some of them will have awesome guests like parapsychologists, writers, musicians of a darker nature, and so forth.

On our inaugural episode, we discuss the tragic case of Doris Bither, whose alleged poltergeist attacks were the basis of the 1982 film The Entity; and on the second half, we delve into one of our favorite topics, conspiracy theories and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.

Listen to the audio-only version right here, and if you want some relevant visuals to go along with our musings, then I also made a pretty YouTube video version, which you may watch right here.

Also, subscribe to our 13 O’Clock channel on YouTube, like the Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter. Thank you, and Goddess out.

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Hulu Horror Double Feature: Megan Is Missing and Playdate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hulu Horror Double Feature: Delivery: The Beast Within and 666: The Devil’s Child

So, quite by accident, I ended up having kind of a Satan-baby theme to my Hulu watching experience today. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I like a good demon-infant tale as much as the next girl, and this afternoon I got two for the price of one (well, the movies were free, and one of them sucked, but y’know). Oh, also, both movies had parenthetical titles, so there’s that.

By the way, speaking of demons, my new book House of Fire and Whispers: Investigating the Seattle Demon House is out in both print and ebook, in case you hadn’t heard. Pick up a copy, won’t you? And if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon; it really does help. Thank you. And now, on with the show.

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First up, Delivery: The Beast Within (2013) was directed by Brian Netto and fuses two overplayed horror tropes—the aforementioned “devil’s child” angle with the ubiquitous found-footage platform—into something that turned out quite creepy, compelling, and far, far better than I expected.

In brief, the movie is a sort of mockumentary about the filming of a reality show that went tragically, and perhaps demonically, awry. Rachel (Laurel Vail) and Kyle (Danny Barclay) are a perky young married couple who have been trying to conceive for quite some time. Rachel suffered a miscarriage at some point in the recent past, but now she’s pregnant again and everything seems to be going well this time, at least at first. Rachel and Kyle have agreed to be the subject of a reality show called “Delivery,” that documents the lives of couples who are expecting their first child. And in fact, this is something the movie gets spot-on: the parts of the film that are supposed to be edited episodes of the series that never aired look exactly like a real reality show, complete with title credits, happy theme song, and even the little rating thingie in the upper left corner of the screen.

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Intercut with this sunny and sanitized footage are interview snippets with show producer Rick (Rob Cobuzio), who explains how the show had to be scrapped after Rachel’s death, and that what we are going to be seeing is footage the crew took over the course of Rachel’s pregnancy that hadn’t yet seen the light of day. This juxtaposition between the almost impossibly treacly reality-show bits and the steadily darkening tone of the other footage is really well-done, and gives the viewer a really intense feeling of being on edge, wondering what exactly is going to go wrong, and when. The fact that you know from the beginning that Rachel is going to die gives the film an unsettling patina of dread throughout.

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The thing I liked best about this movie, and I say this kind of thing a lot, is how restrained it was. All of the eerie shit that begins to happen to the couple is kept very, very subtle, and the realism of it is what makes it so frightening. We really don’t see much of anything, special-effects-wise; the haunting, if that’s what it is, consists of things like knocks on the front door when nobody is there, Kyle’s dog suddenly acting aggressively toward Rachel, doors slamming shut by themselves, and weird noises and interference turning up on the camera whenever the crew is filming Rachel. There is also palpable tension growing between the couple, as lapsed Catholic Rachel starts becoming convinced that a demon named Alastor is in the house and wants her baby, and the increasingly frustrated Kyle refuses to believe her, thinking she is losing her mind and that the film crew are encouraging her fancies by letting her listen to the audio anomalies they’re capturing. The escalating arguments they have about the supposed phenomena and Kyle’s cynicism and lack of emotional support are well-acted and uncomfortably realistic.

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From here on out, this might get very spoilery, so don’t read further if you’re planning on watching. As the pregnancy and the movie progress, Rachel seems to get crazier and crazier: walking and talking in her sleep, eating raw meat, wandering around the house at all hours. Her artwork is getting increasingly disturbing, and at one point later in the film, she stabs and kills Kyle’s dog, saying that it attacked her, though this alleged attack is not captured on the film crew’s footage, so there is no way of knowing if this is true. In fact, I loved this ambiguity in the movie, because even after it’s over, we have no idea whether something paranormal was actually going on, or whether Rachel was simply going insane and doing all the stuff herself. It hinted toward the former, but everything that happened could also have been explained in the context of the latter, and there were some hints in that direction as well (for example, in one of the “documentary” interstitials, Rachel’s former psychiatrist says that Rachel had once been on medication for manic depression). And the end, while not exactly a surprise, was still an effective and affecting shock.

All in all, a pretty great little film, and one that shows that you can still do something terrific with seemingly overdone themes. Recommended.

The second film on Hulu’s demonic agenda actually utilized similar tropes to Delivery, but was much, much less successful in its execution. 666: The Devil’s Child (2014) was also done in found-footage style, but despite its title, had pretty much zero to do with the devil, and was probably just given that name and cover art to lure in people looking for something along the lines of Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen. (Note: it was also released under the even more baffling alternate title, Millennium.) Don’t be fooled, though: there is no devil and no child, and just so you know, this movie was lame as hell and a total waste of time, so y’know, caveat emptor.

Directed by Manzie Jones, 666 stars famed “Octomom” Nadya Suleman as Vanessa, a plain jane film student who is doing a school project on some vague paranormal something or other. Supposedly helping her in this endeavor is her douchebro womanizer of a friend, Brad (Jeff Kongs). Brad had already made plans with a fresh new ho on the same weekend he was supposed to be helping Vanessa with her project, but when he contacts said ho Jessica (Chanon Finley) in order to cancel their tryst, she says it’s all good, because her house is built over the site of an infamous Native American massacre and is haunted as shit, so why don’t they both come and do the film project out there? So that’s what they do; Brad expects to spend the entire weekend banging the sultry and obvious-wig-wearing Jessica (who he had only just met over the internet), while third-wheel Vanessa will ostensibly film some paranormal shit for her project. Everybody wins, except for the viewers.

Once Brad and Vanessa get to Jessica’s isolated showplace of a house, the movie starts to get even more boring than it was before. Vanessa films around the house, she films the three of them endlessly playing stupid drinking games, she films Brad and Jessica making out while her voice can be heard on the camera tsking and sighing at their shameless PDA. Nothing much happens to suggest that the house is haunted, except for there’s a weird portrait of Jessica’s great-great grandmother in which the woman appears to be kissing a baby really intensely on the mouth. Also, a camera left on the pool table records a martini glass moving across the bar by itself. Oh, and there’s a little gold statue of a woman on the mantel that suddenly develops a pregger belly with unexplained blood on it. Vanessa herself has started to notice some weird sores on her stomach that kinda look like bug bites. Amid all of this, the three leads drink a lot and film themselves doing dumb shit, and roughly every five minutes, Jessica and Brad go into the bedroom to fuck, very loudly.

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Finally, after eighty hours or so of this, Vanessa starts rewatching footage she’s been taking of herself sleeping to find out where the sores on her abdomen are coming from. And there on the video, she very clearly sees a cheesy-looking ghost hag floating above her bed. She seems much less disturbed by this than you’d think, apparently not even thinking of getting the fuck out of the house until much later in the movie. Her relative lack of alarm at seeing what is very obviously a demonic apparition is quite puzzling to say the least, but it could just be that the Octomom isn’t that great of an actress.

Anyway, Brad and Jessica fuck some more, Brad starts to look ill and exhausted, and finally Vanessa figures out that Jessica is a succubus and is draining his life energy or stealing his sperm or something; it’s never really explained sufficiently. Vanessa tries to get him to leave, but he doesn’t want to, and then she can’t even find the car keys, and apparently nobody has a phone to call for help, and the whole situation just seemed like it could have been resolved pretty easily if Brad and Vanessa weren’t such idiots. If I was Vanessa, I would have just left Brad’s useless ass there and split, but I guess the movie is trying to imply that maybe Vanessa is secretly in love with him, because she sure as hell seems to care a lot more about him than he really deserves, even bodily dragging him out of the house and into the car at one point.

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So, spoiler alert, Jessica is finally done draining all of Brad’s virile man-juices, and she kills him by tearing out his intestines or something, and then she tells Vanessa that her role in all this is just beginning, and then in the next scene, we see Vanessa crying at Brad’s grave and apologizing to him for not trying harder to get him out of the house. And then she turns to the side, and we see that, surprise, she’s super pregnant. So what exactly happened here? Jessica succubused all over Brad and then transferred his sperm into Vanessa, for some reason? Is the baby a demon? What was Jessica’s endgame? Why did Jessica tell Vanessa that she would see her again, but not in this lifetime? Is Vanessa’s child going to be the next succubus, because there can be only one, like a Highlander? And since Vanessa did figure out what Jessica was and probably twigged to the fact that Jessica had somehow inserted a devil-baby in her womb, why on earth didn’t she get an abortion? And do I even care? No. No, I do not.

So yeah, in case you’re wondering, I really wouldn’t recommend this one, unless you’re a masochist. It wasn’t even “so bad it’s good,” it was just dull and repetitive and kind of stupid and pointless, and as I mentioned before, the fact that its title and cover art were completely misleading really pissed me off. Weaksauce.

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

Karen Black at the Black House with the Black Fence: An Appreciation of “The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver”

You know how sometimes when you’re bored and kinda hung over on a Sunday, and you go poking around YouTube looking for some comforting 1970s horror to watch while you inhale your hearty lunch of homemade Swedish meatballs? And you know how every now and then, you fortuitously stumble across a made-for-TV movie from 1977 that you hadn’t heard of, and how sometimes that movie was written by Richard Matheson and starred Karen Black? Isn’t that fucking rad when that happens? I’m here to tell you that it is quite rad.

The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is evidently something of a forgotten gem from the late 1970s, and despite its pedigree, hasn’t really gotten a great deal of attention; hell, I don’t think it’s ever even been released on DVD, at least in the U.S. The version I saw on YouTube had been transferred from a battered old VHS tape of the original telecast. It’s kind of a shame, because although this isn’t Matheson’s or Black’s best work, obviously, it’s still a really eerie mystery with a twist ending that totally blindsided me, which is not an easy thing for an ending to do.

Karen Black plays Miriam Oliver, an unhappy housewife straining under the controlling behavior of her buttplug husband Greg (George Hamilton), a hotshot lawyer who apparently wants nothing more than a wife who will dress like a Mormon schoolmarm, pump out babies at his command, and never leave the house or question his authority for any reason whatsoever.

As you might expect, Miriam is getting pretty resentful of the fact that she’s not allowed to work or go to college, and that Greg is pressuring her to have a child before she’s really ready (side note: Miriam’s character in the movie is supposed to be 26 years old, though Ms. Black was at least ten years older than that when this was filmed). She starts to rebel in little ways, like continuing to take her birth control pills on the sly; most significantly, she goes to the mall one day and is drawn to purchase a tight, low-cut red blouse, a blonde wig, some red lipstick, and some snazzy hoop earrings. She puts all the stuff on and is both enthralled and terrified by the fact that she looks like a completely different person. She even starts to act differently when she has her “costume” on, though of course Greg doesn’t really get it and thinks Miriam is losing her marbles. He does kinda try to be understanding, but it soon becomes apparent that Miriam is having a true identity crisis, and may in fact be “possessed,” just as the title of the movie suggests.

See, I neglected to mention that at the beginning of the film (and one other time subsequently), Miriam has been having these really creepy nightmares of attending a funeral and looking into the coffin, only to see herself lying there. She also has recurrent visions of fire, a small bouquet of dark purple or black flowers, and the sounds of a dog barking and a woman screaming. She also keeps seeing a dude with a gray sweatshirt and a sweet pornstache who drives a red pickup truck that inexplicably says “gasoline” on the side. Hmmmm.

On a whim, Miriam rents a cottage on the beach without asking her husband’s permission. He’s pissed, but after he sees how upset she is and how badly she wants it, he agrees that maybe they should rent a beach house so she can get away for a while, but of course he’s going to be the one to pick it out, because he can’t let her have one single thing. He also makes her an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and she seems relieved and compliant, though she tells him she wants to go to the appointment by herself, since he has to go out of town for a trial anyway.

Of course she skips out on the appointment, and instead puts on her slutted-up garb and heads for the beach house. A dog starts following her around, and seems to know her. She ducks into a bar in town, and as she does, she decides that because she has a new identity, she should have a new name. She sees a sign with the word “sandy” on it, and decides to call herself Sandy.

But oddly, as soon as she sits down at the bar, the surprised bartender addresses her as Sandy and asks where she’s been. Freaked out, she says her name is really not Sandy, but the bartender says she looks just like Sandy, a girl who always used to come in there. Even the drink she orders is the same one Sandy drank all the time. The bartender asks the two other shadowed figures at the bar whatever happened to Sandy, and one of them says that she moved away.

Then Miriam sits at a table near the dance floor to enjoy her drink, and who should sleaze up to her but Mr. Sweatshirt von Pornstache, the guy from her dream. She’s afraid of him, as well she should be, because he is crawling all up in her space, insisting she really is Sandy and she needs to stop lying about it. He won’t fuck off when she tells him to, but luckily Miriam is rescued by an extra from Saturday Night Fever, who asks her to dance. She tells him she can’t really dance, and indeed, at first she’s all awkward and shit, but then she finds her groove and starts disco-ing like a champ, just like those chicks on “Solid Gold.” Naturally, this makes Pornstache even more suspicious, because of course the way she dances is exactly the same way that Sandy used to.

So Miriam is getting more and more wigged out (pun very much intended) because Pornstache keeps stalking her around town, and she has the funeral dream again while she’s at the beach house, only this time the dream ends in a huge conflagration, through which Pornstache leers menacingly at her.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same thing, but I can assure you that what you are thinking is not actually what’s going on. And if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you might want to stop reading at this point. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So, you are thinking, as I was, that Pornstache killed Sandy by burning her house down, and that Sandy’s ghost is possessing Miriam, right? I mean, the word “possession” is right there in the title.

This is not what is happening. Kinda close, but much weirder.

So Miriam gets back into her regular Mormon drag, realizing that hubby Greg is gonna be home from his trip soon and she’d better skedaddle back to the unhappy homestead. But the dog that’s been following her won’t get out of her car, and finally she gets exasperated and asks a neighbor who the dog belongs to. He says it’s Mrs. Dempsey’s dog, and that Mrs. Dempsey lives a couple blocks away in “a black house with a black fence.”

Again, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a black house because it’s all burned, right? And Mrs. Dempsey is Sandy, and Sandy’s dead, right? WRONG. We really need to quit trying to guess how this is going to end, you guys. When Miriam finds the house, it’s just a regular un-arsoned house that for some reason is entirely painted black.

An old woman answers the door and says that yeah, the dog belongs to Mrs. Dempsey, who is away until later that evening. This woman is just house-sitting, apparently. The old woman calls the dog Henry, which freaks Miriam out for some reason, and then she’s freaked out even more when she sees one of those pots of black flowers on the windowsill. Then, as she’s leaving, she glances through a window of the house and sees a painting of a girl who looks very much like her, with blonde hair, a tight red blouse, and hoop earrings. Miriam loses her shit and asks the housesitter woman who the girl in the painting is, but the old woman doesn’t know. She says that Miriam should come back after seven and talk to Mrs Dempsey, so Miriam resolves to do just that. By the way, Pornstache has been lurking around this whole time, so there’s also that.

Miriam then passes another neighbor, and asks if Mrs. Dempsey had a daughter. The guy doesn’t really remember at first, but then he says that he thinks he recalls someone mentioning that Mrs. Dempsey indeed had a daughter who died five years before. AHA!!! See, Sandy IS dead!!! WRONG AGAIN. I TOLD YOU TO STOP TRYING TO GUESS.

Meanwhile, back at the Greg Oliver Prison for Matronly Breeder Wives, hubby has returned from his business trip and is calling around to try to find out where his errant wife has gotten off to. He finds out that she skipped her shrink appointment, and surmises, correctly, that she probably went to her beach house. So he heads on over there in order to give her a good talking-to.

Miriam, still being tailed by Pornstache, returns to the Dempsey house, and here’s where the big bombshell finally comes to light. Mrs. Dempsey answers the door and sees Miriam there, her face partially in shadow. She seems REALLY cheesed off, accusing Miriam of playing a sick joke on her. Mrs. Dempsey asks who she is, and when Miriam says her name, Mrs. Dempsey is all FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOU. Then Mrs. Dempsey turns on the porch light, sees Miriam’s face properly, and calls Miriam Sandy. Miriam protests, and asks about Mrs. Dempsey’s dead daughter in the painting. Mrs. Dempsey says that the painting isn’t of her daughter, but is a portrait that her daughter painted of her best friend Sandy. “THIS IS MY DAUGHTER,” Mrs. Dempsey shrieks, thrusting a framed photograph at Miriam. “THIS WAS MY DAUGHTER MIRIAM.” And right there in the photo is matronly Miriam, complete with librarian bun and giant seventies glasses.

What in the Samuel Langhorne HELL is going on here, you may wonder? Okay, pay attention. Five years before, Pornstache (whose real name is Mark) was supposed to marry Sandy, but she broke up with his ass and he didn’t take it too well. One night when Sandy and Miriam were at Sandy’s house, Pornstache showed up and set Sandy’s car on fire. The fire spread to the house. Sandy got away, but Miriam and Sandy’s parents died in the blaze.

So basically, the Miriam we’ve been following through this whole movie really WAS Sandy the whole time. She just felt so guilty that Miriam had died because of her that she dissociated and took over Miriam’s identity. As Miriam, she met and married Greg, and only after several years did fragments of her actual identity start filtering back to her. That was why, at the beginning of the movie, that “Miriam” kept telling Greg that she felt suffocated and that she wanted to be her “real self,” though she couldn’t articulate to him who that was. Deep down she knew she was really party-girl Sandy, but Greg had only ever known her as staid, conservative Miriam. So there you have it. No possession, no ghosts, nothing supernatural at all.

At the very end, Pornstache tries to kill Miriam/Sandy, but she is saved when Greg arrives just in the nick of time. She tells him who she really is, and he seems surprisingly okay with it, unless he’s simply planning on calling the men with the butterfly nets after the credits roll. That seems like the kind of dick move he would pull.

Gotta say, I really enjoyed this quite a lot, and I don’t think that was just the remnants of last night’s alcohol talking. The funeral scenes in particular were eerily surreal and creepy as hell, and the whole thing, while rather slow-moving, was intriguingly spooky and mysterious. Karen Black was absolutely great as the unstable Miriam, and George Hamilton was appropriately assholish, without seeming like a cartoon villain. And as I said, the ending, when Mrs. Dempsey handed Miriam the picture of herself, literally made my jaw drop. I didn’t even care that the whole “possession” title was a misnomer; I was just so pleasantly shocked by this bizarre twist that I did not see coming in any way, shape, or form.

Fans of Karen Black, Richard Matheson, and eerie 70s mysteries would do well to give this a chance, and hopefully someday it will get a proper high-quality release, because it really is quite a good example of made-for-TV horror from that golden decade. It was a total accident that I came across it, but as Bob Ross would have said, sometimes there are happy accidents. 🙂

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