Horror Double Feature: Honeymoon and Uncle John

Relationships…they can be rough. Whether your significant other is slowly changing into someone else, or your budding office romance is in danger of being sabotaged by a small-town murder committed by an affable family member, there’s always something that can (and will) go wrong. And if there is a theme to today’s Netflix Double Feature, then I can’t really think of a better one than “you can never really know the people you love.” So let’s do this.

A hit at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, director Leigh Janiak’s impressive debut Honeymoon is, I think, best enjoyed going into it cold, as I did, because I really had no idea what was going on until near the end, which made the film a reliably harrowing experience (I‘m gonna spoil it here, though, so caveat emptor). It’s not quite up there with some other recent indies I’ve reviewed (They Look Like People, Starry Eyes, The Invitation), but it’s a solid slice of micro-budget horror/sci-fi that actually left a lingering impression on me for several days afterwards.

Starring two British actors playing hipster Brooklynites (Rose Leslie from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, and Harry Treadaway from Penny Dreadful and Cockneys vs. Zombies), Honeymoon draws great emotional power from the isolated setting and the all-in performances of its main characters. Essentially a two-hander (there are also two peripheral characters, but they’re only in a couple of scenes), the movie wrings ample tension from the idea that the person you know and love the most is not the person that you thought, mining that same vein of paranoia that infuses classic horror films like Rosemary‘s Baby, and most relevantly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Honeymoon1

Bea and Paul are sickeningly adorable newlyweds, and we meet them first through the precious conceit of their wedding video, where they talk about their first date and lament that some people weren’t happy that they had cinnamon buns instead of cake at their wedding. The lovebirds are next shown arriving at a remote cabin in the woods for their honeymoon, said cabin having belonged to Bea’s family for many years, though Bea has apparently not been there since she was a teenager. Interestingly, I didn’t notice any mention being made of where her parents were now, though I’ll save my speculations about that for later.

Bea and Paul waste no time getting into honeymoon mode, having sex, cooking pancakes, fishing out on the lake, and generally being their darling, ridiculously in-love selves. This buildup of their relationship is important, because it makes the horrible things that happen later all that much more gut-wrenching.

Honeymoon2

The first little thing that seems off occurs when Bea and Paul take a break from their constant shagging to walk down to a local restaurant. It looks deserted, but when they go inside, they run into Will (Ben Huber), who initially seems super aggro until he recognizes Bea as the girl he used to hang out with when they were both thirteen and their families both summered on the lake. They have an awkward catch-up, but something seems not-right about Will, and Paul can’t help but notice the weird way the guy is checking out his wife. Weirder still is the subsequent appearance of Will’s wife Annie (Hanna Brown), who looks ill and frightened, and tells Bea and Paul they need to get out of there. Bea also makes note of how Will grips Annie’s arm as though he wants to hurt her.

Later, in bed, Bea explains to Paul who Will is, and she seems unable to stop thinking about how strange the whole situation was. She makes a few playfully disparaging comments about Paul not being as “alpha” as Will, but then she seems to get down to the bottom of what troubled her about the exchange when she says, “You’re not like him. We’re not like them.” Foreshadowing, yo.

Only a day or two into the wedded bliss, Paul wakes up in the middle of the night to find that Bea is gone. After searching the house, he runs out into the woods yelling for her, clearly terrified that something dreadful has happened. He eventually finds her, standing out in the woods, naked and disoriented. He brings her back to the house and she insists that she’s fine, that she must have just been sleepwalking. Paul seems a tad skeptical of this explanation, but is mostly just relieved that he found Bea in one piece.

From that point forward, though, Paul notices that Bea is starting to change. She becomes a little distant and forgetful. When making breakfast, she forgets to batter the French toast and just leaves nude bread to burn on the grill, and she forgets to grind the beans in the coffee maker. She starts forgetting things about their wedding, which only occurred four days before. She starts writing things about her life, like her name, her address, and her birthday, in a notebook that she tries to hide from Paul. She starts using strange phrases (“I’m going to take a sleep,” for example, or referring to a suitcase as a “clothes box”). She starts losing interest in sex, even though she was previously all about it. Paul observes her standing in front of a mirror “practicing” things she’s going to say to him later. He even notices bizarre sores on her inner thighs that Bea insists are just mosquito bites. He tries to talk to her, but she just attributes it to being tired, of the stress from the wedding catching up with her.

Honeymoon3

Paul isn’t buying it, and thinks it has something to do with that night out in the woods. To this end, he goes out in the daylight to the spot where he found her, and discovers not only her torn “special honeymoon nightgown” out there covered with some kind of suspicious slime, but also what appears to be a large footprint. From this, he deduces that Bea and Will had some sort of tryst out in the woods, and that she’s been acting so odd because she feels guilty and is trying to keep it from him.

Paul confronts her about the nightgown, though he tells her that even if she did sleep with Will that night, that he still loves her and that he just wants to know, because otherwise he has no idea what is going on with her. Bea gets angry and defensive, and accuses him of ruining everything. Paul, terrified and confused about what is happening to this woman that he previously adored, decides to get some answers from Will.

But when he goes to the restaurant, he doesn’t find Will, though he does find Annie, who looks even more fucked up than before. She tells him Will is “hiding,” and that Paul should leave because, “We’ll hurt you.” Paul notices that Annie has the same sores on her inner thighs as Bea does, but of course Annie won’t tell him what’s going on either. After she takes off, Paul finds Will’s bloody hat floating in the lake near the dock. He also finds sheets of paper with writing on it, showing that Annie has also taken to writing down simple details about her identity over and over, just like Bea has. Hmmmmm.

From this point forward, things take a more body-horror type turn, as various fluids such as blood, slime, and weird webbing begin coming out of Bea’s vagina and other orifices. Paul is beginning to twig to the fact that Bea is not really Bea anymore, but she insists she still is. When he grills her on various aspects of their life and her identity, she has a hard time remembering them correctly, though she seems frightened by this and begs him to help her. Honestly, I thought this was really the best part of the movie, because Harry Treadaway did a fantastic job conveying how it would feel to see a woman you loved clearly changing into someone else while still looking like the person you married, and Rose Leslie was equally great at getting across the terror of knowing that you were changing but being unable to convince your loved one that deep down you were still you in there somewhere.

Honeymoon4

So, at last, after Paul reaches into his wife’s vag and pulls out an alarming item that looks something like a giant animate root, the explanation is forthcoming. That night in the woods, Bea finally admits, there was a bright light that came to her and put something inside her. She knows what it is and she knows what she’s supposed to do, and she knows that “they” are going to be taking her, and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. She says she just wanted to have these last few days with Paul be perfect before she got taken away.

So yeah…aliens. I mean, they didn’t come out and say it was aliens, but it was obviously something like that, some type of body-snatching extraterrestrial beings that didn’t want the men, but only the women, because of course Annie got taken over and impregnated too. At the end, Bea decides that she doesn’t want the aliens to kill Paul, so she decides to “hide” him from them (just like Annie did to Will). Unfortunately, her idea of hiding him entails knocking him out, then tying him to an anchor and dropping him to the bottom of the lake, since she has apparently forgotten that humans can’t breathe underwater. There was actually a nice piece of foreshadowing of this sequence earlier in the film, when Bea and Paul are out fishing, and Bea mentions while fastening a worm to a hook that worms can breathe underwater for five minutes, implying that the aliens who have overtaken her see humans as no different than earthworms.

In the final scene, we see Bea looking all gross, with yellow eyes and weird webby skin, and then a bright light comes and she goes to meet the aliens.

Honeymoon5

I really enjoyed this movie a lot, though I will admit that it’s always something of a letdown when the explanation is “aliens.” I realize that’s just me, though; for some reason I’m generally not a fan of movies where aliens are the baddies, with only a few obvious exceptions. And to Honeymoon’s credit, it must be said that it didn’t really smack you in the face with aliens, as it didn’t really show them as anything other than bright lights and a few vague silhouettes, and the word itself was never mentioned.

That said, the suspense in this was terrific, and I really was intrigued by the story, trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Bea. Additionally, both Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie really sold the terror and confusion that would arise from such a scenario, and the movie works just as well as a straight horror/sci-fi flick as it does a sly metaphor about relationship breakdown, about that horrible feeling when you slowly start to realize that you have married a stranger.

I have to say that I think I would have liked a little more explanation about the nature of the body-snatching, though. Why did the aliens target the women in this particular remote location, or was this happening all over the world and we were just seeing it affect this one area? Did Bea know about the body-snatchers from before, when she used to spend summers there as a kid? Was she, in fact, an alien pretending to be a human all along? (I admit I don’t really buy this, since it’s suggested that she and Paul had been together for a long time before they married, but it’s still a possibility, I guess.) Where were her parents all this time, and were they also taken over by the aliens at some earlier date? I don’t know if the movie would have benefited from more explanation or if it was better left ambiguous the way it was, but I have to admit that I was left kinda curious. Which I suppose is the mark of a good movie, that I wanted to know more about it. So there’s that.

I would definitely recommend this for fans of body-snatching movies, horror/sci-fi crossovers, and general body horror (though it’s not nearly as disgusting as Starry Eyes was, I have to say), as well as fans of intimate relationship dramas gone monstrously wrong.

Speaking of relationship dramas (sort of), the second film in the line-up is actually not a horror film per se, but more like a Coen-Brothers-style crime thriller interwoven with a sweet and understated romantic comedy/drama. The end result is not quite as strange as that sounds, and even though the juxtaposition of the two genres is an audacious one, particularly for a first-time director, it somehow really works, producing a gripping film whose seemingly disparate plot lines nicely complement one another. And if you’re looking for some nail-biting suspense on top of that, this flick’s got that in spades.

UncleJohn1

2015’s Uncle John, directed by Steven Piet, starts out by introducing us to the title character, a stoic but friendly Wisconsin carpenter (played by veteran actor John Ashton) who happens to be right in the middle of murdering a dude and meticulously covering up the crime. Right away, the movie sucks you in, especially since nothing is really explained right off the bat, and additionally since after disposing of the body in a bonfire in broad daylight, Uncle John is seen bein’ a neighborly and well-respected member of the small farming community, sitting with his oldster buddies at the local cafe. So the viewer is like, what was that murder all about? Is this guy a serial killer or what?

UncleJohn5

Before we really get any definitive answers, though, the movie seemingly barrels off in another direction. Now we’re in a hip Chicago advertising firm filled with scruffy millennials. Graphic designer Ben (Alex Moffat) is being introduced to his new manager, a lovely young woman named Kate (Jenna Lyng), who he is instantly attracted to. They have some sweet and genuine banter, and there are hints that some romance may be developing between these two appealing characters in the very near future.

UncleJohn3

UncleJohn4

Then we’re back to the murder in Lodi, Wisconsin, where we learn that the man Uncle John murdered was named Dutch and that he wasn’t a particularly popular person in town. Evidently he had fucked a bunch of people over, but had just recently had a vision in which he had seen hell, and had subsequently given his life over to Jesus. He had spent the previous few weeks going to all the townsfolk he had wronged and trying to make amends, though obviously the wrong he did Uncle John was too big for forgiveness. No one seems terribly put out by Dutch’s disappearance, and the police are operating on the assumption that he just got drunk and drowned in the lake, but Dutch’s shady brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins) has a hunch that Dutch was murdered, and is bound and determined to find out whodunnit.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Ben and Kate are having some will-they-won’t-they type interactions, and even though it sounds dismissive when I say it like that, these two characters really are adorable and funny and a pleasure to watch. Kate has just left a long relationship with a co-worker and has decided she won’t be dating any more co-workers in the future (sad trombone), but Ben decides to be her friend anyway, hoping that she’ll eventually see the light. Somewhere around this stage, we finally figure out the relationship between the two parallel plots: Uncle John is Ben’s uncle, and John raised him after Ben’s mother was killed in an “accident” and after he was abandoned by his father. Ben has nothing but praise for Uncle John, who he clearly loves and admires a great deal.

UncleJohn2

Back in Lodi, the search for Dutch continues, and Danny is growing ever more suspicious, particularly of John, though John keeps his Midwestern affability intact. I gotta say, I’ve seen John Ashton in a lot of movies, but I think this is my favorite role of his I’ve seen; he’s just so good as the quiet, friendly, small-town guy who decides to take care of business and is the last person anyone would suspect of doing such a thing. In fact, that’s kinda the great thing about this movie, is that despite Uncle John being a murderer, you can’t help but love the guy and defend his actions, especially when we learn that John killed Dutch because Dutch had been having an affair with his sister (Ben’s mother) and had treated her horribly, and that him leaving her prompted her to commit suicide.

In Chicago, Ben and Kate are working some weekend overtime together at the office when they decide they want to break for coffee and doughnuts. They initially plan to go somewhere nearby, but Ben mentions that he’s never had any doughnuts as good as the ones in his hometown, so on a whim, Kate suggests they finish up their work and then take the two-and-a-half-hour drive out to Lodi to visit the place where Ben grew up, and possibly spend the rest of the weekend visiting with Uncle John. And hence, the two plots finally converge.

When Ben and Kate arrive in Lodi, John is surprised to see them, especially since Danny has been sniffing around and making veiled threats, but everyone puts on friendly faces. Danny even stays over at John’s house while Ben and Kate proceed to grill some steaks, though after trying to needle John about his sister’s death, John takes him aside and has some words with him, after which Danny storms off. Ben and Kate, clueless as to what’s been going on, wonder what got up his butt, but John covers for him, saying he just had to go to work.

As the evening goes on, the tension starts to mount. You know that Danny is going to come back and do something bad, and because you’ve spent so much time getting to know Ben, Kate, and John, you really, really don’t want anything bad to happen to them. You especially don’t want Ben and Kate to get caught in the crossfire of all this intrigue, especially since they have no idea what has been going on in Lodi, and no idea that John is actually a murderer.

So then two things start to happen. Ben and Kate, who are still playing the “just friends” game, are sleeping in different rooms, but both of them come downstairs around the same time, ostensibly to see if the other one is up. So yeah, they end up sharing a sweet kiss, and we’re like YAY because honestly, these two are cute and we’ve been rooting for them.

But then, outside, Danny has indeed returned. He has a can of gasoline, and a gun in his waistband. What he doesn’t know, though, is that Uncle John has already assumed that Danny would be coming back, and is hiding in the barn with a rifle.

There then comes an absolutely stomach-churning sequence where Danny is looking at the house, fiddling with his gun, and we can clearly see Ben and Kate through the windows as they finally act on their attraction after all this time. And maybe it’s dumb, but I was like, oh man, please don’t let this end the way it looks like it’s gonna, I really liked those two, and they didn’t even do anything. It looks bad for them, and I admit I didn’t really want to keep watching.

But luckily — spoiler alert — John emerges from the barn and whacks Danny (quietly) upside the head with the rifle butt, then slowly and silently squeezes the life out of him, thereby saving his nephew and his nephew’s new love without them even knowing they were ever in danger. It’s actually a really touching scene, as it shows how the salt-of-the-earth small town old guy is willing to murder and go to jail to save his adopted son, even though by his facial expression, you can tell that John really didn’t want to have to do it.

Uncle John2

Ben and Kate head back to Chicago the next morning, neither of them the wiser, and as they have a discussion in the car about Kate’s “crazy” relatives and Ben’s “normal” Uncle John, John himself is shown burning Danny’s body in a bonfire in the quarry. A cop car pulls up behind him, and you’re like, uh oh, jig’s up, but really the cop is just there to tell John that now Danny is missing and he might want to watch out for himself, since Danny was going around town thinking everyone murdered his brother Dutch and that he might be dangerous. Irony! So John skates, but for how long?

This sounds like a film that shouldn’t really work, but it does, beautifully. The two plots, while completely different on their surfaces, actually complement and comment on one another in myriad ways. Amid the film’s themes are how little you actually know about the “dark sides” of those you love, and how parents, biological or otherwise, will sacrifice everything to keep their children from harm, even if that means covering up a murder or two.

As I said, not really a horror movie, but a fantastic suspense thriller with some absolutely stellar performances and a third act that had me perched on the edge of my chair. Recommended to Coen Brothers fans as well as more general lovers of crime movies and odd mashups.

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

 

 

Horror Double Feature: Starry Eyes and The Invitation

It’s yet another Double Feature day at Chez Hellfire, and damn, if all the movies I’m going to be watching for this series are as fantastic as these two, then I’m going to be a very happy horror nerd indeed.

Like We Are Still Here, discussed previously, Starry Eyes also premiered at the South by Southwest film festival, albeit a year earlier, in 2014. Written and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign, the film has received tons of positive press, and it’s not hard to see why. Starry Eyes is essentially an homage to classic 60s and 70s Satanic cult flicks (Rosemary’s Baby, To the Devil a Daughter) filtered through the dark-side-of-Hollywood motifs of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, with a giant, sticky dollop of gruesome, Cronenberg-style body horror thrown into the mix. The film is intensely disturbing, gloriously gross and violent, blackly comic, and absolutely riveting from start to finish, not only a fun (if extremely grim), gory ride, but also a startlingly cynical meditation on the lengths people will go to for fame, the soul-sucking nature of the Hollywood system, and the corrosive effects of unfettered ambition.

STARRY_EYES_Cover_Preview

Easily the best thing about the film is the astounding breakout performance of lead actress Alex Essoe, who goes to unbelievable lengths for the role and makes her tragically flawed protagonist not only completely grounded and believable, but also simultaneously sympathetic and monstrous. Essoe plays Sarah Walker, one of millions of aspiring young starlets trying to make it in L.A. To pay the bills, she works at a dreary Hooters-type restaurant called Big Taters, but she feels she is destined for bigger things. To this end, she has been constantly going out for auditions and getting rejected, all the while trying to tamp down her extreme insecurity and self-hatred by pulling out her own hair and going into psychotic rages where she feels she must punish herself for her failings.

Not helping matters are the “friends” she surrounds herself with, only a few of which (particularly her roommate Tracy, played by Amanda Fuller, and aspiring indie film director Danny, played by Noah Segan) seem genuinely supportive of her goals. One friend in particular, a rather passive-aggressive bitch named Erin (played with cunty relish as well as surprising depth and humanity by Fabianne Therese) continually chips away at Sarah’s self-esteem with her denigrating comments.

Starry-Eyes-Alex-Essoe1

As unsure of herself and relatively unstable as she is, Sarah does manage to pull off a decent audition for a horror film called The Silver Scream, produced by a long-running production company called Astraeus Films. The only problem is, her performance is really nothing special, just like all the others, and she is summarily dismissed by the intensely creepy casting agents (played by Maria Olsen and Marc Senter). In the bathroom after her audition, she looses her frustration in a torrent of primal screaming and hair pulling, and wouldn’t you know it, the casting agent happens to come into the bathroom and witness the psychotic episode, which piques her interest anew, prompting Sarah to come back to the casting office to re-enact her terrifying tantrum for them, so they can see “the real Sarah.”

starry-eyes-promo-shot-bed_1

As the story goes on, Sarah is called back for more auditions that get weirder and sketchier until she eventually gets called to meet the producer, a perpetually leering and overly tanned old creep who predictably wants to make a Faustian bargain with Sarah, essentially asking her to give herself up body and soul for the tantalizing reward of fame. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Sarah is not being recruited for a horror movie so much as initiated into a Satanic cult of Hollywood elites, one that will of course require sacrifice in order to achieve Sarah’s final transformation from struggling actress and breastaurant waitress to glamorous Tinseltown screen idol.

Though the plot is, as I mentioned, essentially a retelling of the Faust tale and therefore familiar territory, the real fun of the film is in watching Sarah slowly spiral downward as she siphons off bits of her soul to achieve her dreams. After accepting the cult’s invitation, Sarah begins to physically deteriorate to a horrifying degree, so much so that the viewer is simultaneously revolted and intrigued, not particularly wanting to see whatever disgusting indignity is coming next, but also unable to look away. Again, Essoe is outstanding in the role, laying herself bare in every way imaginable and completely going for it in the gross-out department (there‘s a lot to be said for the dedication of an actress who is willing to fill her mouth with real maggots). Her performance is such that as I watched it, I found myself hating her for her weakness and naivety, empathizing with her outsider status, insecurity, and desire to achieve her dream, and actually rooting for her to go all the way with her horrible deeds to get what she wanted in the end. The fact that I could feel all these emotions at once is a testament to Essoe’s extraordinary talent.

starry-eyes

All the other actors in the film are great too, and I thought it was fantastic how even characters like Erin and Big Taters manager Carl (wonderfully played by Pat Healy) that were supposedly “villains” (at least from Sarah’s perspective) were given dimension and humanity; even though they did and said some shitty things and were seemingly standing in the way of Sarah‘s aims, they did still genuinely care about Sarah’s well-being, which made her act of viciously turning on them near the end all the more devastating.

starryeyes

The special effects were also top-notch, with Sarah’s bodily disintegration especially grotesque and nauseating. The violence was also wickedly nasty and brutal, portrayed in an unsettlingly matter-of-fact fashion, with one kill in particular (in which the camera barely flinches as someone’s head is pounded into pulp) being almost unwatchably grisly. Topping the film off with a flourish is a fantastic score and terrific sound design that really adds to the atmosphere. Put it all together and you’ve got one skin-crawling, black-hearted blast of a movie that I would not hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend, though definitely NOT to the squeamish.

Another South by Southwest festival alum comprises the second movie in our double bill, and even though it’s a completely different style and experience than Starry Eyes, it is equally stellar, and likewise comes very highly recommended.

invitationcover

2015’s The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama (of Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body fame) and features a splendid ensemble cast that includes Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), Tammy Blanchard (Into the Woods, Moneyball), and John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Zodiac, “The Walking Dead”). The film is actually far closer to a thriller than a straight horror film, but don’t let that dissuade you, because this thing had me perched on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails the entire time; it is fantastically, unbearably tense.

The setup of the plot is this: Will and his girlfriend Kira have been invited to a dinner party at the home of Will’s ex-wife Eden and her new husband David. No one has really seen Eden and David for two years, so the couple claim they’re having this get-together for all their friends so everyone can catch up. It’s also established early on that Will and Eden divorced shortly after their son was killed in a freak accident (after which Eden also attempted suicide), and Will is not entirely sure he’s ready to see Eden again, as well as return to the house where the tragedy occurred, but with the help of the supportive Kira and all their other friends, he’s hoping he can make a go of it.

invitation3

At first, everything seems fairly normal, if a little awkward as everyone feels each other out and gets reacquainted after such a long time apart. The weirdness begins to happen in very small increments: Eden and David introduce Sadie, a woman who is living with them and is obviously their lover. They have also invited a man named Pruitt, who seems polite enough but is also ever so slightly menacing. Eden is putting on a somewhat creepy façade of serene happiness, but early in the evening she has a bit of an episode and slaps one of the other guests, though she recovers her composure fairly quickly. Will notices David locking the doors, and when Will asks about this, David brushes it off by saying that there has been a recent home invasion in the neighborhood and he just wants to keep everyone safe. While Will is snooping around his former home, he comes across a bottle of phenobarbitol in the nightstand of David and Eden’s bedroom.

invitation2

There is also the small matter of another guest, Choi, being very late, and of no one being sure where he is since there is no cell phone reception up in the hills where the house is located. As the party goes on, it comes to light that Eden and David have been in Mexico for most of the previous two years, and that while there they joined a sort of spiritual self-help group that has supposedly helped Eden let go of her grief about her son’s death. David, Eden, Pruitt, and Sadie all sing the praises of this group and its enigmatic leader, Dr. Joseph, though the rest of the party guests make jokes about them joining a cult and seem uncomfortable when it appears that David is trying to convert everyone at the party by showing them an unsettling video of Dr. Joseph and two other group members presiding over the death of a terminally ill woman.

The party grows ever stranger, becoming equal parts overtly sexual and intensely disquieting (especially after Pruitt makes a disturbing confession about what happened to his wife), and at one point, another guest, Claire, decides she’s had enough and wants to leave. David tries to prevent her, but Will, who has been getting increasingly suspicious that something sinister is going on, confronts David, and Claire is allowed to go out to her car, though Pruitt follows behind her because he has parked her in. Will goes to the window to watch Claire leave, as he believes Pruitt is going to do something to her, but he is called away before he can see anything.

invitation1

The bulk of the narrative goes on in this way, as Will begins to see even the most innocuous actions of the party’s hosts as evidence that something terrible is about to go down. This was the best aspect of the movie by far, because the viewer is left to wonder if there really is something weird going on with David and Eden, or if Will is just having a breakdown because he hasn’t yet come to terms with his son’s death and Eden’s remarriage. Adding to the tension is the fact that none of the other party guests seem to think anything odd is going on at all, and several of them try to reason with Will at various points, leading the audience to think that Will is simply isolating himself from the group, acting like a paranoid weirdo, and letting his imagination run away with him. The film also plays with our expectations by making some of Will’s suspicions come to nothing. As I’ve stated many times before, I really like movies that are ambiguous like this, where you’re not sure if the protagonist is really perceiving things as they are or if their emotions are ultimately clouding their judgment.

invitation4

I won’t spoil the conclusion, because it’s really terrific, and the very last scene actually made my jaw drop, due to its devastating implications. In short, this is a tightly directed, beautifully acted thriller that maintained a palpable sense of tension throughout and culminated in a terrifying and satisfying climax. Good stuff.

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

Horror Double Feature: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and We Are Still Here

As regular readers will recall, I had a series on this blog titled Hulu Horror Double Feature. You may have noticed I haven’t written any of those in a while, and you may have also deduced that I stopped doing them right around the time that Hulu went to an entirely subscription-based format and got rid of all its free content. Since our household already pays for a Netflix subscription, I wasn’t gonna pay for Hulu as well, especially since I unfortunately don’t have loads of time to watch stuff. So from this point forward, whenever I do more recent double feature posts, the reviews will be of horror films that are featured on Netflix (or, for older ones, on YouTube‘s or Amazon‘s pay-per-film service). I do realize that this limits my options somewhat, as Netflix isn’t actually known for having a vast horror movie library (though they have improved somewhat this year, and hell, I may pony up for a Shudder subscription one of these days), they have enough decent-looking recent flicks that I can probably squeeze at least a few long-form posts out of ‘em. So consider my Hulu Horror Double Feature category to now be a more generic Horror Double Features. And that’s all I have to say about that.

With that requisite housekeeping out of the way, let’s settle in for our opening salvo in the new improved Double Feature category. The first movie I’m discussing is one I’d been hearing a great deal about since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and although reviews were somewhat mixed, most of the negative reviews I read complained only that the movie was too slow, spare, and minimalist. Well, to me, that’s like an open invitation. Because if there’s one thing I love and can’t stop harping about on this very blog (see my reviews on The Haunting, Soulmate, House of Last Things, Yellowbrickroad, and pretty much any ambiguously creepy ghost story), it’s eerie, slow-burn, vaguely surrealist ghost stories that show very little but leave a lingering impression on the patient viewer.

By now you may have guessed that I’m going to be talking about 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Directed by Oz Perkins (son of the legendary Anthony), and starring Ruth Wilson (best known in the US for her work on the Showtime series The Affair) and Paula Prentiss (best known, at least to me, for starring in the dynamite 1975 movie adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives), the movie is a master class in using subtle cinematography and sound design to engender a cloying atmosphere of dread that pervades every frame of the film, even though nothing particularly terrifying appears to be happening. One review I read stated that the film was what it would look like if David Lynch decided to adapt a Shirley Jackson novel, and to me that seems to hit it right on the head.

The rather simple plot involves a neurotic hospice nurse named Lily Saylor who is sent to a remote old house to care for Iris Blum, a retired author of pulp thrillers, who suffers from dementia. During Lily’s eleven-month tenure, it comes to light that the house may or may not be haunted by a spirit named Polly Parsons, the subject of Iris’s most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls, whose ghost supposedly told the story of her tragic murder to Iris some years before.

Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that right in the first few minutes of the film, Lily herself breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience straight out that she is going to die, and the fact that Iris insists on calling Lily by Polly’s name, as well as the fact that the theme of ghosts forgetting how they died comes up several times, suggests that something more ambiguous than a simple haunting is taking place, and that perhaps our protagonist Lily is not exactly what she seems.

PrettyThing1

The movie is essentially a story inside a story inside a story. Was Polly a real person who was murdered in the house and whose ghost still remains there? Or did Iris just make her up, and is Lily conjuring the spirit out of her nervous imagination? Is Lily, in fact, dead the whole time and acting as the ghost herself throughout the entire film? I Am the Pretty Thing could be read in myriad ways, which is one of the aspects contributing to the creeping unease infusing its entire run-time.

The plot of the film, though, such as it is, is really not the star of the show. That would be the almost unbearable buildup of uncanny dread which makes the viewer feel unmoored in a waking nightmare. The gorgeous cinematography (by Julie Kirkwood) focuses on the house’s stark, neutral interiors to great effect, wringing eerieness out of every unsettling, off-center shot of white walls juxtaposed against blackened doorways beyond, of a stubbornly folded corner of carpet, of an empty chair pushed against a wooden table. The movie’s portentous framing of ordinary objects as sinister is quite Lynchian and very, very effective in building up tension, as the viewer is never sure what they’re going to see. Even though standard “jump scares” are almost non-existent, we are kept constantly on edge waiting for something awful to happen, just because of the way the cinematographer plays with our expectations.

PrettyThing5

PrettyThing4

Also contributing to the film’s sense of free-floating anxiety is the fact that its time frame is never firmly established (though judging by the clothes Lily wears, the phone in the house, and the presence of cassette tapes, I’m guessing it’s the early to mid eighties), and that Lily herself is an almost painfully awkward character, a prissy, repressed throwback to an earlier era. Her uncomfortable interactions with estate manager Mr. Waxcap (played with an almost undetectable straight humor by Bob Balaban) ramp up our anxiety on her behalf, a very intriguing way of making us relate to her situation. In this way, Lily is very much like the character of Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s brilliant Haunting of Hill House. And similar to that novel, the “haunting” in the Blum house seems to be analogous to the slow unraveling of Lily’s mental state, or alternately her slow-dawning realization that she herself is a ghost, either literally or metaphorically. The fact that most of her early voice-overs are later revealed to be paraphrases from Iris’s novel about Polly Parsons drives this point home rather succinctly, as do the recurring images of rot and fragmented reflections.

PrettyThing3

While I will admit that for those who enjoy more straightforward, plot-driven horror, I Am the Pretty Thing might seem like a boring, overly-indulgent slog to nowhere with few big scares, no huge payoff, and long, lingering shots of furniture and faces with very little dialogue or action. But for those like me, who enjoy more cerebral horror that is more interested in building a mood and getting underneath the viewer’s skin with its nebulous oddities, there is much to recommend here, though I would add that it is best watched alone, at night, with no distractions, so that you can get entirely lost in its world and lulled into its creepy spell. It’s definitely a movie that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it, and that in itself is a wonderful thing for any horror film to do.

Next up on the double feature is a far less experimental film that had its premiere at another recent film festival (in this case South by Southwest back in 2015), and although the movie was highly lauded, favorably compared to the splendid It Follows, and ended up on a lot of critics’ “ten best horror films of the year” lists (including Rolling Stone’s), I honestly wasn’t all that crazy about it, though it did have some entertaining moments.

Directed by Ted Geoghegan and packed with horror movie all-stars (Barbara Crampton from Body Double and Re-Animator; Lisa Marie from Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, and Lords of Salem; writer/actor/director Larry Fessenden from Session 9 and much, MUCH more), We Are Still Here has a fairly standard horror movie set-up. The main characters are a middle-aged married couple, Paul and Annie Sacchetti, who move out to a remote house somewhere in New England following the death of their college-age son Bobby in a car accident. Shortly after they move in, a few little things happen around the house that suggest maybe Bobby’s ghost has come along for the ride, but it doesn’t take long at all before the audience realizes that something far more infernal is going on than a harmless lingering spirit.

WeAreStillHere4

It is in fact this nearly immediate blowing of the entire horror wad, as it were, that I think is one of the film’s main weaknesses. It gets off to a promising, low-key start, with some effectively eerie shots of the roads and the isolated house all covered with a blanket of snow, with very spare dialogue that nonetheless conveys the deep grief the couple is feeling, and with very understated hints that something in the house might not be quite right: a picture falling over, a strange noise in the cellar, a ball rolling down the stairs.

The choice to set the film in 1979 was also a decision I’m on board with, as not only does it help to evoke a golden era in horror cinema (also evidenced by a few subtle references to classic horror films of the period, such as The Changeling and The Shining), but it also gives it an otherworldly feel and more of a sense of dread, since the problems that arise can’t be solved by Googling stuff or calling for help on a cell phone.

WeAreStillHere3

But really, as soon as the couple’s obviously not-to-be-trusted neighbors show up about ten minutes in and start going on about the house having been a mortuary and the family living there supposedly being run out of town for stealing corpses back in 1859, and making reference to the house needing “fresh souls,“ it all just gets a bit too on the nose and seems to move along too quickly with no regard for subtlety or restraint. And then once the electrician comes and the audience is pretty much shown exactly what happens to him, all sense of anticipatory dread is lost, for we have already seen everything there is to see. From that point on, it’s just more of the same, only bloodier.

Clocking in at only an hour and twenty-three minutes (and a not insignificant chunk of that is the long end-credit sequence), I think the movie might have actually benefited from being a bit longer, so that the characters and story had more room to breathe before everything went all demonic and wacky.

WeAreStillHere5

 

That said, I think the film also would have REALLY benefited from taking everything down a notch or ten. While I generally don’t have a problem with copious gore or jump scares per se, there is a point at which you’re going so far over the top that the story is just not scary anymore and veers over into unintentional comedy. The burned-looking ghosts were cool, for example, but I didn’t need to see them in my face every few minutes, which significantly lessened their impact. The gore was fairly well-done, but I didn’t need everyone to die in enormous, ridiculous sprays of blood and chunks like the second coming of Dead Alive.

In fact, I think the entire reason that this movie didn’t really click with me was because its tone seemed all over the place: on the one hand, it seemed to want to be a serious horror film, but then on the other hand you had these kinda goofy, over-acting characters who shamelessly chewed the scenery and dropped boatloads of exposition at pretty much every opportunity when the audience could have figured out the story just fine without all the over-explaining. Either do a serious horror film or do a horror comedy; it takes a very deft hand to make a decent film balancing elements of both, and I just felt like this wasn’t really getting there.

 

WeAreStillHere2

WE-ARE-STILL-HERE_Dagmar

I admit I did like the séance scene with Paul and stoner dude Jacob, and I sort of liked the overall premise of the movie, which was marginally in the vein of a 70s-style, small-town folk horror type deal, and I sort of liked the creepy weirdness of all the townsfolk being in on this big secret, but other than that, I kinda found my attention wandering during the movie, since I pretty much knew where it was going, and when I was paying attention, I was cracking jokes about it, which I can assure you did NOT happen while I was watching I Am the Pretty Thing. While I can see why a lot of horror fans dug it, it was just way too obvious and over-the-top for my tastes, trying to smack you in the face with HORROR, and it seemed like it was trying to be too many things at once at far too frenetic a pace. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

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