Horror Double Feature: Creep and They Look Like People

Well, it’s another rainy summer Saturday, I am sick as hell, and in order to alleviate the symptoms of my unknown malady, I decided to cheer myself up with a couple horror movies on Netflix (hey, you cheer yourself up in your own way; horror just makes me feel better, okay?).

It so happened that I had something of a “strange bromance” theme with today’s picks, which is odd because even though I generally choose movies I’ve heard positive things about through the grapevine, I mostly pick the movies at random, and I deliberately try not to read too much about the movies before I watch them, because I like to come to them with as few preconceptions as possible. So today’s pairing was something of a happy accident, and I will say that even though the two films are starkly different in their methods of attack, both had some surprisingly insightful things to say about friendship, trust, and mental illness, aside from both being scary as fuck. They were also, I should note, both directorial debuts of their respective helmers, something I found quite extraordinary as each film unfolded, so confident did both the movies come across. As you can probably tell, I would highly recommend both of them, with absolutely no caveats or reservations whatsoever. Onward.

First up, 2014’s Creep, co-written by and starring Patrick Brice (who also directed) and Mark Duplass. The film utilizes the found-footage platform and is a partially improvised piece, but it’s quite unlike any other found footage movie I’ve seen, and its oddity and focus on the interplay between the only two characters gives it a palpable tension throughout.

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Aaron (Patrick Brice) is a videographer who answers a mysterious Craigslist ad offering him $1000 for a day’s work, the only requirement being that his discretion would be appreciated. When he arrives at the remote cabin, he meets the goofy and personal-space-invading Josef (Mark Duplass), who we immediately suspect is up to some sketchy business, though quite what that is, we’re not entirely sure.

Josef tells Aaron that he had cancer a couple of years before that went into remission, but that recently the cancer returned in the form of a baseball-sized, inoperable tumor in his brain. He says that doctors have only given him a couple of months to live, and also that his wife Angela is pregnant with their first child. Josef says that, just like in the tearjerker Michael Keaton movie My Life, he wants to document a day in his life so that his unborn son will someday be able to watch it and know something about what his father was like.

Aaron is sympathetic, but still businesslike, and proceeds to document the weirdness that is Josef, just as he was paid to do. Right off the bat, Josef tests the boundaries of Aaron’s discomfort by stripping down and getting into the bathtub, saying that he wants to simulate giving his baby son “Buddy” a bath, just like his father did when he was little. Aaron is a little disturbed, especially when Josef pretends to drown himself in the tub and then brushes it off as his “weird sense of humor,” but he carries on, not only because he was hired to do so, but also, it’s implied, because he’s beginning to feel sorry for Josef, who is ostensibly dying and clearly needs a friend.

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As the day goes on, the oversharing, overly friendly, and overly optimistic Josef takes Aaron on a hike to find a healing spring in the woods that’s shaped like a heart, jumps out from behind trees to frighten Aaron and then comments approvingly on Aaron’s “murderous” expressions, and puts on a wolf mask and dances around, claiming the mask was his father’s and that it represented a friendly wolf character named Peachfuzz (which was the original title of the movie, by the way). The viewer is left unsettled and nervous by Josef’s goofball antics, which aren’t really threatening per se, but which are so strange that you just know something is up with the guy; the tension comes from not knowing exactly what his endgame is.

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At the end of the day, Aaron has had just about enough of Josef and prepares to leave, but Josef convinces him to have one last drink so they can film the end of “Buddy’s” video. They have the drink, Josef confesses some decidedly un-kosher things about his wife, and then Aaron decides now is the time to get the fuck out of Dodge. Only, uh oh, where are his car keys? Thinking fast, Aaron invites Josef to have one more drink, which he spikes with Benadryl. After Josef falls asleep, Aaron begins poking around for his keys. During the search, Josef’s phone rings, and it’s Angela, who confirms Aaron’s suspicions that something is amiss by saying that she’s actually Josef’s sister, not his wife, that Josef has “some problems,” and that he (Aaron) would do well to just walk out of the house and never come back.

As Aaron tries to escape, it comes to pass that Josef has woken up, and is now wearing the wolf mask and blocking the door. The two men have a scuffle, during which the camera winks off, and in the next scene, we are shown footage of Josef walking in the woods near the cabin, carrying three garbage bags and then digging what appears to be a grave. For a moment, we presume that the movie has gone the direction we expected it would, but Creep has some twists up its sleeve.

As it turns out, Aaron got away from the house just fine. The footage of the “grave” we’re seeing was actually sent to him by Josef, presumably as a threat. From then on, the movie becomes more of a bizarrely hilarious/horrifying stalker tale, with Josef sending him strange videos and then sending him other videos apologizing for those, sending him weird gifts (like a silver locket with both their pictures in it, engraved with “J + A Forever”), and turning up at his apartment without Aaron’s knowledge. This part of the movie is actually even creepier than the first, if that’s possible, because even though we’re now sure that something is really not right with Josef, we still kinda feel sorry for him, as it really seems that he’s just lonely and emotionally unstable. Aaron too is drawn in by the man and can’t stop thinking about him, confessing to the camera that he’s been having strange nightmares about Josef, and that he still wants to believe that Josef is a good guy who just needs some help.

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It is in this spirit that he receives Josef’s final video, in which Josef tells Aaron that he simply can’t stop lying and that he has no friends, and he seems entirely aware that what he’s been doing is creepy and off-putting, but that he’s just desperate for some human connection. He asks Aaron to meet him one last time, in a wide open public place, so that he can confess everything to Aaron and have some closure before moving on with his life.

Aaron, perhaps naively, agrees, though he takes the precaution of filming the encounter surreptitiously and keeping his finger poised over 911 on his cell phone. However — spoiler alert — neither of these precautions help him one little bit. In the end, in fact, Aaron’s kindness and empathy with the unhinged Josef lead to a somewhat predictable but expertly executed ending, made all the more powerful by the detachment of the act and the disturbing reveal of the coda.

Gotta say, I really loved this one; the back-and-forth between the two characters was entertaining, genuine, and organic, and the movie deftly balanced comedy with horror to a spectacular degree, where one was greatly enhanced by the other. Josef’s strange personality was compelling and produced tons of tension throughout the whole movie, as you weren’t really sure whether the guy was just a socially awkward eccentric or a full blown nutjob. Aaron was also an immensely relatable character, and it was easy to place myself in his shoes as the situation he found himself in grew ever more bizarre. Definitely an original take on the found-footage genre, and a movie that leaves a lasting impression.

Next up, another tale of two bros, but one with a much more uplifting and heartfelt conclusion. 2015’s They Look Like People, written and directed by Perry Blackshear, is psychological horror at its very finest, mining the depths of the human mind to stunning effect, crafting a film that is simultaneously terrifying and deeply moving.

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In the film, Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Dumouchel) are old school buddies who reconnect in New York City after having been separated for many years. Both were bullied geeks at school, with the implication being that they became such close friends as kids because they were all one another had. In the ensuing years, Christian, once a 98-pound-weakling, has tried to reinvent himself by bulking up at the gym and trying to “dominate” at his hip media-type job, helped out by listening to daily affirmations on his headphones, read to him by his ex-fiancee. He’s also trying to put the moves on his boss Mara, played with great spunk and sensitivity by Margaret Ying Drake. Despite his insistence that this is the “new,” more confidant Christian, however, his insecurities are still painfully evident.

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Wyatt, on the other hand, has taken a different path, working manual labor. He has also recently broken up with a fiancee, but his biggest problems far outweigh that; it seems, in fact, that Wyatt has been receiving calls on his broken cell phone from someone who is telling him that the people around him are being infected and taken over by demons, and that he must be prepared for battle because he is one of the chosen, the “blessed,” who can see the demons and help rid the world of them.

It is in the character of Wyatt that the movie really shines, and in fact this is easily one of the best and most sensitive portrayals of mental illness I think I have ever seen on film. Wyatt, despite his obvious schizophrenia and the possible danger he may pose to others, is always sympathetic and is never portrayed as a crazy person, but rather as someone who is most of the time able to fake being normal for the benefit of those around him, who is aware that something is wrong with him but unable to tell what is real and what isn’t, and at the same time is greatly disturbed and frustrated by this inability.

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The most frightening scenes in the film come from Wyatt’s warped perceptions of friends and strangers alike, as he seeks to discover who has been taken over by the demons and who hasn’t. Though the movie doesn’t have many traditional “jump scares,” most of the scenes with Wyatt are just straight-up skin-crawling, because you’re never sure what his twisted brain is going to show him, and the fact that you like him and feel for him so much as a character gives that added little flourish of dread. As his mental state deteriorates to the point where he is building up an arsenal of axes and sulfuric acid to deal with the upcoming monster takeover, the audience finds itself frightened on his behalf as well as for the fates of his friends, all the while railing against the tragic injustice of his duplicitous mind.

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Another fantastic thing about They Look Like People is the way the deep friendship between the two male leads is explored; here are two men who feel lost and inadequate in their own ways, but are able to bond with and love one another unreservedly. Their relationship, I would argue, is the only thing that keeps each of them hanging in there long after they normally would have given up, and the scenes of them goofing around in Christian’s apartment like they did when they were kids really gave the movie a lot of genuine heart, and made the final act all that much more affecting.

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The conclusion of They Look Like People is just absolutely perfect, a thing of beauty, really. It’s tense and terrifying, sure, but also so touching that I legitimately teared up. In the end, it is Christian’s unwavering trust in Wyatt and his willingness to put his own life on the line for his friend that ultimately saves Wyatt from his madness. So while the film is undoubtedly scary and gave me the heebie-jeebies in much the same way a David Lynch movie does, it is also indescribably human in a way a lot of horror movies just aren’t. Its naturalism, deep sympathy for its characters, and overarching pall of impending doom make it easily one of the best recent horror films I’ve seen, no doubt about it. A great, chilling, and gripping watch from beginning to end. Definite winner.

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

 

 

Hulu Horror Double Feature: The Butterfly Room and The House of Good and Evil

Welcome back to the Hulu Horror Double Feature series, and hey, I’m actually getting to do another one of these way before I thought I’d be able to, so go me! If you want to read the first installment and get your bearings, it’s right here, don’t fret.

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First up, The Butterfly Room from 2014. I actually picked this one at random because the cover and blurb looked promising, but only after I started watching it did I realize that it starred Barbara Steele! BARBARA STEELE! Have I mentioned on this blog how much I love Barbara Steele? Because I fucking love Barbara Steele. And besides that, this movie is a veritable overflowing cauldron of well-known horror-type ladies, seeing as how it also features Heather Langenkamp (from A Nightmare on Elm Street, obviously), Erica Leerhsen (Blair Witch 2, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake), and Camille Keaton (I Spit On Your Grave, What Have You Done To Solange). There is also a cameo from PJ Soles (Halloween), and who is that turning up in a brief walk-on as a cab driver? Why, it’s Joe Dante! Even if the movie wasn’t any good, you could still turn it into a pretty rad spot-the-horror-legend drinking game, if you were so inclined.

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So, IS the movie any good? That depends. It’s a weird one, that’s for sure, and mamma mia, is it Italian. This is actually not surprising, since it was directed by Jonathan Zarantonello from his own novel, Alice dalle 4 alle 5 (Alice from 4 to 5). If you approach The Butterfly Room with this in mind, and get into a sort of early-Dario-Argento-slash-Mommie-Dearest kinda headspace, then I think you’ll probably love it. It’s gorgeously shot, Barbara Steele is CREEPY AS HELL as the butterfly-collectin’ Ann, and there are some pretty fucked-up family dynamics going on all around. On the downside, the acting is a bit stilted and over-the-top, so much so that it seems like a deliberate directorial choice (again: Italian). And while the plot is mysterious enough to keep you watching, it’s pretty easy to guess where we’re going to end up. The timeline jumps back and forth a lot, which sometimes makes it hard to follow, but I don’t think the non-linear narrative was really necessary to what the movie was trying to say. I also wish they had gone with a different soundtrack, maybe classical, since the vaguely heavy-metalish score is pretty jarring and doesn’t seem to match up with the film’s aesthetic. All that said, though, I enjoyed the hell out of Barbara Steele evilling all over the screen like the witch in Snow White, and I kinda loved the “like mother, like daughter” theme that pervaded the entire enterprise. I would recommend the film to fans of Barbara Steele (BARBARA STEELE!!!) and anyone who’s into the early films of Argento and Bava, or giallos in general (although this isn’t a giallo, I hasten to add).


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Next on Hulu’s movie-pickin’ agenda was House of Good and Evil (2013). This was another film on the slow-burn psychological horror tip, and as such I found myself digging it a great deal. It’s marginally a haunted house story, but it’s ambiguous enough to keep you guessing right up until the end. Briefly, it deals with a married couple who are trying to start over out in the sticks after abusive hubby Chris beats his wife Maggie into an eighth-month miscarriage. He seems contrite, and she’s willing to give him another chance, though obviously tempers are short between them. They buy a duplex with no phone service and no electricity, thinking that being forced to live with just one another will solve their problems, but it isn’t long before shit starts to go south, both in their marriage and with the house they’ve purchased.

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As with the previously-discussed Soulmate, this one might be a drag for fans of more action-packed horror, but I thought its restraint and subtlety gave it great, creepy power. The manifestations of the “haunting” were so simple and understated — the frequent ringing of an old-fashioned telephone, the mysterious nature of the mostly-unseen elderly neighbors — that I was compelled to pay close attention as the eerieness ramped up. The fact that there was palpable tension between the husband and wife at the center of the story just added to the atmosphere, and I liked that the movie played with elements of paranoia (as it seems like people are conspiring against main character Maggie), á la Rosemary’s Baby. Plus the way the Andersons next door were folded into the tale reminded me pleasingly of the Allardyces in Burnt Offerings. It had touches of The Amityville Horror too, now that I think of it. I would definitely recommend this to fans of any of the three films I just mentioned, as well as to anyone who would enjoy a low-key haunted house movie with a psychological bent. Keep in mind, though, that it does have a sort of “twist” ending, and though I thought it worked, I can see how some viewers might be pissed off by it, so your mileage may vary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, Goddess out.