13 O’Clock Matinee Episode 41: Rim of the World, I Am Mother, The Perfection

This week, Tom and Jenny expanded their movie review possibilities from the theater to direct-to-VOD flicks from 2019. To that end, we reviewed three new Netflix films: the fun, scifi throwback adventure Rim of the World; the more serious and harrowing scifi thriller I Am Mother; and the bizarre, twist-filled horror thriller The Perfection.

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THANK YOU TO ALL OUR SUPPORTERS! The show is made possible by: Amanda, Anthony, Antonio, Arif, Ashley, Ben, Brandon, Christopher, Cody, Corinthian, creepy crepes, Damian, Dan, daninreddy, Dean, Denise, Duncan, Dwayne, Ed, Elizabeth, Eric, Feeky, Ginger, Greg, Ima Shrew, Jake A., Jake S., James, Jamin, Jana & Scott, Jason, Jeanette, Jen, Joanie, John H., John M., Jonathan, Joseph, Justin, Katrina, Kieron, Knothead Studios, Kool Kitty, Lana, Lars, Liam, Lin & Tod, Lindsey, Mary Ellen, Matt, Matthew, Maximillian, Melanie, Michael, Mike, Mother of Beasts, Natalia, Nathalie, Oli, Paul, Richard J., Richard & Sheena, Rik, Rob, Robina, Samantha, Sandra, Scarlett, Sean, Sophie, Tabitha, Tara, Thomm, Tina, Travon, Valtrina, Veronica, Via, Victor, Victoria, and Weaponsandstuff93.

13 O’Clock is hosted by Jenny Ashford & Tom Ross.

Channel art and audio & video editing by Jenny Ashford. Music & sound effects courtesy of freesound.org users jamespotterboy, corsica-s, enjoypa, capturedlv, luffy, kiddpark, and justkiddink. Video clips courtesy of Videezy & Videvo.

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

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 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: The Shrine and The Dead Room

Well, it’s that time again: time for me to browse Netflix for a couple decent-looking horror movies, watch ’em, and tell you guys what I thought about ’em. Today’s twofer features a Canadian demon-possession flick and a Kiwi haunted house tale, so let’s get right into it.

2010’s The Shrine was the second feature from writer/director Jon Knautz, a follow-up to his well-received horror comedy Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. The Shrine completely dispenses with the comedy, though, and goes in a far more serious and demonic direction, and while it’s not a great film by any stretch, it’s fairly entertaining and has a decent switcheroo ending that I admit I didn’t see coming.

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In the cold open, we see a standard sacrificial setup, as a bunch of robed men strap a man dressed in a white gown to a table, then proceed to nail a metal mask to his face, Black Sunday style. After the title drop, we’re whisked away to the apartment of a squabbling couple: she is go-getting journalist Carmen (Cindy Sampson), he is photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore). Marcus is complaining that Carmen is so lost in her work that she doesn’t have time for him, Carmen gets defensive, Marcus gets pissed off and leaves.

In the meanwhile, Carmen has been following an intriguing lead on a story she wants to pursue. A backpacker named Eric Taylor (Ben Lewis) has gone missing while traveling in rural Poland, and Carmen’s research turns up the fact that several other tourists have disappeared from the same area over the past fifty years. She goes to her editor all jacked up about the story, but he thinks it sounds lame and wants her to go to Omaha to do a story about something far less lame: bee farming. True to her go-getting (and frankly irresponsible) nature, Carmen tells the editor that she’s totally going to Omaha to work on that bee thing, but instead she conspires with her intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) to go to Poland to look for the missing backpacker.

I have to say, I got kinda hung up at this point in the plot, because if Carmen was using an expense account from the company to pay for her travel (which I would assume she would be; what journalist can afford to drop a few grand of their own money on three tickets to Poland at a moment’s notice?), then wouldn’t she get caught immediately for buying flights to Poland instead of Nebraska? And wouldn’t she have to check in with the editor while she was working on the story? And wouldn’t the farmer in Omaha who she was supposed to interview be calling the magazine to ask where Carmen was if she didn’t show up? Like, I know a lot of movies have journalists basically just running around willy-nilly working on stories with seemingly no policing of where they’re going or what they’re spending the company’s money on, but for some reason it seemed particularly egregious here.

Anyway, Carmen is somehow able to convince Marcus to come along on the trip to act as photographer, and she says that it will be good for their relationship, even though Marcus’s main complaint about their relationship was that her head was always in her work and she couldn’t ever turn it off. So why he’d want to go along with her on yet another work assignment which frankly sounds pretty dangerous is also kinda beyond me. But whatever.

Carmen and Sara visit the mother of Eric Taylor, who tells them that neither the American nor the Polish police give a single whiff of a fuck about finding her son, and she’s just glad that a journalist is actually willing to go over there to find out what happened to him. Mrs. Taylor gives Carmen Eric’s travel journal, which was in the luggage she was sent after it was found in some airport far away from where Eric disappeared. Carmen says this was also the case in the other disappearances; that the vanished people’s luggage would randomly turn up at various airports around Europe.

Before they leave on their trip, Carmen has a fairly creepy nightmare about Eric’s ghost turning up in her room with his eyes gouged out, screaming at her to “leave me alone.” Naturally, she does not heed this advice at all, much to her ultimate detriment.

The last entries in Eric’s journal reveal that he was in a small town in Poland called Alvania. He wrote that the people there were unfriendly and suspicious, and that there was a weird fog bank that never seemed to dissipate hovering over the trees. The final entry detailed Eric’s decision to go see what the mysterious fog was all about.

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So Carmen, Marcus, and Sara arrive in Alvania, and find the locals just as mistrustful and potentially-murdery as advertised. They speak to a little girl called Lidia (Julia Debowska), who seems to recognize the photo of Eric they show her, but the trio are then run off by a burly blond farmer named Henryk (Trevor Matthews), who waves his butcherin’ knife at them and tells them to beat cheeks, which they wisely do, at least temporarily. On their way out of town, they notice the strange fog that Eric talked about in his journal.

Marcus thinks it’s about time to call the whole thing a wash, but of course Carmen can’t let it go. It comes to light that she lied to Marcus and told him that the magazine had sent her on this story, rather than it just being Carmen going all rogue reporter, and then he gets doubly pissed when he finds out that Sara was in on the deception too. Carmen begs him to follow the story through, because she says if she goes back to the U.S. with no story at all then her career is basically over, even though I’m pretty sure it would be over anyway after her editor finds out that she misappropriated company funds to go off on a little adventure that he specifically told her not to go on, but again, whatever. Marcus, shockingly, does not laugh in her face and turn the car right around, but is all like, fine, we’ll drive back to that fog bank and see what that’s all about.

The fog in the woods is super dense and doesn’t move, even though it’s a windy day. The three of them debate about whether they should go in it or not, but then Sara, seemingly under some kind of trance, wanders off into it. She’s gone for a really long time, and finally Carmen says she’ll go in after her, admitting that since she (Carmen) is the one who got them into this situation, then she should be the one to go poking through the spooky mist.

Sara makes her way out of the fog after Carmen has gone in, and she seems disoriented and has a scratch on one cheek, but she won’t tell Marcus what she saw in there. Meanwhile, Carmen is wandering around in the fog for a time before coming across a statue of a demon that sort of looks like Pazuzu just hanging out in the smoke. She takes a couple pictures of it, but then sees that its head changed position while she wasn’t looking, and then it starts to bleed from its eyes and mouth, and the stone heart in its hand begins to beat. She runs the hell out of the fog and shares a meaningful glance with Sara, who tells Carmen that she saw the statue too.

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Shortly afterward, Lidia finds them in the woods and tells them that she knows where Eric is. She leads them to a sort of basement-like structure where the trio discover a whole bunch of coffins containing shriveled corpses wearing white gowns and having metal masks nailed onto their faces. One of the bodies is obviously Eric, identified by a distinctive tattoo on the back of his hand. As they’re checking out the dead people, Lidia unsurprisingly locks the three of them in the basement, but they manage to escape.

The unfriendly locals find them and give chase; Sara is hit in the calf with a crossbow bolt, and eventually all three are knocked out with chloroform and tied up. At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that this was gonna go in a Hostel-like direction, as I did, but I’m glad to say that it actually takes something of an unexpected turn.

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The women are separated from Marcus, and are taken to the titular shrine where they are stripped and put into the telltale white gowns. Marcus is hauled off and held at gunpoint, forced to dig what is presumably a grave. Back at the shrine, Carmen is put in a cage while Sara gets strapped to the table from the beginning of the movie. The robed dudes around her make big cuts in her arms and slice her Achilles tendons, then out comes the Black Sunday mask. Before Sara dies, we see the robed guys from her point of view and they all look like demons.

Back at the grave, Marcus manages to whack his captor with a shovel and grab his gun. He runs to the shrine, just in time to see the dead Sara being put in a wooden coffin. He sees that Carmen is still alive and is able to bust her out. The two of them run to a house near the edge of the village, where Marcus trains the gun on the family within and tells them that he just needs the keys to their truck so they can escape. The family seems terrified at the sight of Carmen in her white gown, and we soon find out why: the little boy in the house, Dariusz (Connor Stanhope), can speak a little English, and tells Marcus that Carmen is now evil because she has seen the statue in the fog.

Sure enough, Carmen begins acting all possess-y, seeing the family as demons, seeing objects moving around on their own. Before you can say Regan MacNeil, Carmen has gone full-on red-eyed murder-devil, and brutally slaughters the poor family, even the kid, tearing all their intestines out for good measure.

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The robed guys turn up at the house and try to exorcise her, but Carmen uses her new demon powers to kill a bunch of them too, including the main priest, Arkadiusz (Vieslav Krystyan). Henryk, taking over the mantle from the dead priest, manages to force Carmen down to the floor and get a metal mask poised over her face. Marcus, finally understanding why these sacrifices are necessary (and maybe glad to get rid of his bitch-ass girlfriend whose reckless ambition got them into this mess in the first place), helps out by holding Carmen’s head still so Henryk can hammer the mask in place and kill the demon.

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Afterwards, Marcus is allowed to leave, since he did not go into the fog and hence did not contract the demon cooties. Henryk tells Marcus that the village has been under this curse for ages and that there’s nothing they can do about it, save for warning people away. So even though the villagers were portrayed as the bad guys at first, it turned out they didn’t have a choice; if people didn’t heed their warnings and went into the fog anyway, demons would possess them and they would have to be dealt with before shit got out of hand.

I really liked that the movie played with the audience’s expectations, reversing the common “murdery small-town foreigners” trope, and I really did like the scene where Marcus finally understands the whole deal and steps in to help the villagers kill his possessed girlfriend. The gore in this was also pretty fun, particularly the slaying of the family near the end, and the demon faces were fairly creepy. The special effects were mostly good, though the green-screened fog bank sequence looked a little hokey, and the way the shots were lit seemed flat and not all that visually interesting.

But besides that, I think the movie suffered quite a bit from its main characters making such boneheaded decisions and being so generally unlikable. You could argue that since the investigating Americans were sort of ultimately the bad guys, then making them unlikable was a deliberate directorial choice, but honestly, I think the ending when Carmen gets sacrificed would have had a lot more emotional impact if you had liked her or Marcus at all, if you had any sympathy for their situation, or if you believed that they loved (or even liked) each other. As it was, I didn’t buy them as a couple because all they did was snipe contemptuously at each other, so when Marcus was obliged to help sacrifice Carmen I was like, “Eh, good riddance.” It was really her monumental stupidity that got Sara killed anyway (Sara being pretty much the only sympathetic character, even though she wasn’t given much to do other than looking young and vulnerable), and the fact that Carmen wouldn’t back off of the story even when it was clearly getting dangerous suggested that she gave way more of a shit about her career than she did her boyfriend or her intern, so fuck her, basically. She pretty much got what she deserved for not leaving well enough alone.

So all in all, not a bad movie, but sort of a frustrating one. Watch it for the decent gore, the relatively brisk pace, and the interesting plot inversion, and just try to ignore the rest.

The second film in the double feature was much better in my opinion, though it seems to have gotten some mixed reviews. 2015’s The Dead Room was directed by Jason Stutter and was apparently based on an urban legend about a haunted farmhouse in New Zealand. Though the movie has a pretty standard plot about a group of ghost hunters investigating a supposedly haunted property, I really liked the slow build-up of the tension, and the fact that it was creepy without really showing very much or explaining anything until the end.

In many ways, The Dead Room is similar in setup to the classic 1973 flick The Legend of Hell House (which the GoH and I did a funny retrospective about here). You have the young psychic, Holly (Laura Petersen), who is very intuitive and truly believes in the persistence of personality after death. You have the crotchety old parapsychologist Scott (Jeffrey Thomas), who believes in the paranormal but is intensely skeptical, and thinks it’s all caused by energy that can be dispersed with a machine of his own invention. You have the petty sniping between the two of them as they struggle to find some common ground with their differing approaches to the supernatural. Stuck in between the two is the third member of the team, friendly tech guy Liam (Jed Brophy), who just wants to capture some evidence and move on to the next case.

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The ghost busters are hired by an insurance company to determine if there is actual paranormal activity at the property, since the family who had been living there suddenly fled, leaving all of their stuff behind, including half-eaten plates of food on the table, all their baby supplies, and their three parakeets. The team settle in for their several-day stakeout, setting up their equipment and investigating the house. Psychic Holly makes her way through the rooms, but finds it strange that she doesn’t feel anything of a paranormal nature at all. Scott thinks the family who took off are trying to scam their insurance company, and doesn’t really think they’re going to find anything of note.

At first, it would seem that Scott is correct, because nothing really happens the entire first day the team is there. But late that night, at 3:00 a.m., the front door opens by itself, some footsteps are heard in the hallway, and a light fixture swings a bit. The team actually sleep through this first manifestation, but the following morning, they notice that the motion camera caught the door opening, and then seemed to follow some unseen thing through the hall. Scott brushes it off, thinking it was just a draft, but Liam and Holly aren’t so sure.

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The following night, again at 3:00 a.m., a loud bang awakens everyone in the house, and this time they all see the door opening, hear footsteps, and see the light swinging. Holly claims she sees a figure walking toward them and standing in front of her, a giant of a man, she says, but neither of the men see him, and though Liam believes that she sees the ghost, Scott doesn’t really buy it, though he can’t deny that there is some pretty inexplicable activity going on.

The next day, they go from room to room trying to make contact with the spirit, but at first they aren’t really getting anything. Scott is disappointed, because even though they captured a few things on film, it was nothing all that impressive, and he’s still half-believing that there could be a rational explanation. Holly begins to feel a drastic temperature drop, but again, the men do not experience it, and their instruments don’t read any change. She also claims that the air feels different, and Scott gets exasperated because her feelings are subjective and he wants something concrete.

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At last, Scott determines that the battery in his EMF meter is dead, and when he replaces it, he gets a reading through the roof, bolstering Holly’s intuition that something is present. Curiously, the reading is ridiculously strong everywhere in the house except for one room at the end of the hallway (which I’m guessing is the titular “dead room”).

That night, the 3:00 a.m. manifestation occurs again, but this time the spirit is far more aggressive and threatens Holly, busting holes in the wall just behind her head. She and Liam want to leave, but Scott tells them that ghosts have never harmed anyone, that all the spirit can do is scare them. He wants to stay and gather more evidence, and hopefully be able to test the machine he built, which is supposed to disperse ghosts using infrasound. Liam and Holly are frightened, but agree to stay a little longer.

Unfortunately, it seems the ghost really doesn’t want them there, because it starts breaking windows and showering the team with glass, chucking furniture at them, and generally being a supernatural dick. The only thing the team can do to get away from the onslaught is hide in the dead room, which the ghost cannot enter for some reason.

At last, Scott decides it’s time to try out his infrasound ghost-be-gone machine, and just like in The Legend of Hell House, it actually seems to work. Holly creeps through the house after the machine has done its job, and she’s surprised that the mean male ghost seems to have dissipated. The smug Scott calls up the insurance company, tells them that not only do they have evidence that the haunting was real, but they also completely took care of the problem, making the house livable for the exiled family once again.

But this is a horror movie, so you know things aren’t going to be resolved quite so easily. While they are packing up their equipment, Liam notices a strange, freezing cold spot on one of the walls in the dead room. Wanting to be thorough, they bust a hole in the wall and discover a ladder leading down to a secret room. In said room, they find the mummified remains of a woman chained to a chair, again harking back to the secret chamber that contained the preserved body of Emeric Belasco in The Legend of Hell House.

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The team calls the police to deal with the body, but when the cops descend to the secret chamber, they don’t find the corpse. Uh-oh. Sure enough, moments later, Holly’s eyes go white as though she is possessed, the cops get flung against the walls and presumably killed, and chaos ensues. Holly informs the team that the belligerent male ghost that Scott’s machine got rid of was only trying to scare them out of the house to protect them from the other really mean ghost, the woman in the secret room, who ends up killing every damn person in the movie.

There were actually a lot of things I really liked about The Dead Room. I loved that it took its time, leaving everything kind of low-key and ambiguous throughout the first half, lulling you into a sort of trance as you just watched this paranormal team doing a routine investigation, catching a few minor things, but nothing really crazy. The film showed a lot of restraint, but left just enough tension that you weren’t really sure if or when something bad was going to happen or what it would be.

The characters were all really likable right from the start, and had a good rapport with one another that made you instantly believe that they had done a bunch of these investigations together. Their characters were given personalities organically, without really giving much back story, which kept things simple enough that the plot wasn’t bogged down with exposition, but kept the characters appealing enough that you cared what happened to them.

I also really liked that a lot of stuff wasn’t shown, which I think made the movie creepier. When they find the mummified woman in the basement, for example, the viewer is not shown her face; we only see the characters react to seeing it. Likewise, the male ghost is never shown except for one brief shot where he’s merely a vague shadow coming down the hallway. While a lot of reviews I read complained that the movie was too slow and derivative and not scary enough, I thought the fact that it stayed fairly simple and grounded helped a lot with making it eerie and more intriguing. I could have done without the final Paranormal Activity-style shot of the scary female ghost rushing at the camera, but all in all, I found it a nicely atmospheric and pleasantly tense addition to the haunted house subgenre, despite it being nothing terribly original.

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